Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Interview with author Sally Wiener Grotta

Q ~ Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

A- I could answer this kind of open-ended question in so many different ways, and they’d all be the truth.

First and foremost, I’m a wife, daughter, sister, friend… and the people who share those relationships with me define the most important aspects of who I am and what I dream of becoming.

Professionally, I’m a writer and photographer, and I’ve been privileged to be able to make a living doing what I enjoy most: creating verbal and visual stories that others enjoy. I’ve traveled on assignment for various magazines, newspapers and journals to all seven continents (including three times in Antarctica) and numerous exotic islands (such as Papua New Guinea and Madagascar). And the more I’ve seen of this world, the more people and cultures I’ve encountered, the richer my life – and my imagination – has become.

Q ~ What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?

A. The relationships I’ve developed over the years, both personal and professional. For me, the whole purpose of life (and of writing) is to make connections with others, and to learn/grow through those connections. That includes not only my family and friends, but my editors and readers, too.

I suppose that isn’t really what you were looking for with that question. Yes, I am proud of the many hundreds of essays, articles and columns, as well as the various books I’ve written and had published. Both of my novels -- Jo Joe and The Winter Boy -- required that I put a great deal of myself on the line, working long hours writing, rewriting, and crafting the tales that my characters told me. Of course, I consider them important accomplishments.

However, I hope that my “biggest accomplishment” is yet to come, something I can work and strive for over the years of my life. In the meantime, I’ll continue to create new stories and hope that each one will be stronger than the last.

Q ~ If you could have lunch with one person, dead, alive, or imaginary, who would it be and why?

A. Only one person? That’s an impossible choice. As soon as I think of one – such as Vincent van Gogh – another – Albert Einstein, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jorge Luis Borges, etc. -- pops into my head. I have so many questions and ache to simply be a fly on the wall listening to conversations between, say, Leonardo da Vinci and Carl Sagan. (Can you imagine what ideas Leonardo and Carl might have come up with if they had known each other?) Scores of intellectual heroes have inspired me and helped shape how I see things. It’s not really possible for me to choose among them.

I often lunch with imaginary characters, because so many live in my head, sharing all my waking hours, even invading my dreams, telling me the stories that I’m compelled to write.

As a journalist, I’ve been fortunate to meet, get to know and write about a wide range of fascinating individuals. But that has made me hunger for more of the same -- to understand, to learn and discover, and to see the world from a different perspectives.

One person? I guess if it must come down to that choice, I’d say I wish I could have just a few more hours with my father’s mother. She died when I was too young to take advantage of that special relationship. I’d love to hear her stories about the people of her youth, her thoughts on how the world has changed over the past century, to understand who she was as a girl, a woman, a wife, a mother, to discover that part of me that is her though I may not realize how much of her I carry within myself.

Q ~ Why did you choose to write literary fiction as your primary genre?

A. I’ve combined the two questions, because the answer to both is the same. I tend to write the same kind of stories I enjoy reading.

Regardless of the genre, I love being swept up in a good story filled with fully-textured characters who live within a well developed tale that has depth and meaning. I especially favor stories that will linger long after I finish the last page, making me wonder and question.

Similarly, I don’t really think of genre when I write. I simply give myself fully to creating a story, sculpting the moments, layering on the flesh and memories of the people, rewriting and fine-tuning the prose and dialog over and over again, until it becomes alive for me.

It’s my emphasis on character-driven plots and lyrical writing style that define my fiction as literary. However, many of my stories have elements of other genres as well, sometimes including touches of science fiction, thrillers, women’s lit, etc. I am honored that my novel The Winter Boy (which was recently published) is being compared to fiction by Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin, for (among other reasons) its genre-crossing style of storytelling that has relevance to real-world concerns and crises.

Q ~ Do you have a favourite author? Do they influence your writing?

A. My range of favourite authors spans quite a spectrum: Jorge Luis Borges, Margaret Atwood, Viktor Frankl, Jean-Paul Sartre, Tennessee Williams, Ursula K. LeGuin, William Shakespeare, Charles Kuralt, Charles Dickens, Robert Heinlein. All my life I’ve been an omnivorous reader, and I love discovering new (or new to me) writers who open my eyes and mind to alternative viewpoints and different styles. I ache to read great prose that transports me, and I have little patience for pabulum writing that follows tired templates put down by others and used over and over again.

Q ~ What are your biggest influences in life? Who are your biggest supporters?

A. Life is my biggest influence. The world around me, the people I meet, stories in the news, tales from the past, dreams for the future.

I write to try to understand what may be unfathomable about our world. I create characters whom I learn to love and then put them into difficult, if not impossible situations to try to tease out some answers to the many questions I have. Such as: Why do we hate? Is humanity capable of creating and maintaining a culture of peace? How can we connect with people from other societies who seem so alien to us as to appear incomprehensible? Why is it that on a one-to-one basis, individuals can get along, but when we form into groups (or tribes or nations) we want to kill each other? Through my stories, I explore these kinds of questions, on a very personal level.

My biggest supporters are my husband – the author and editor Daniel Grotta – and my Dad, followed by my sister, and then my readers. I can’t tell you how much it means to me when readers contact me to ask questions about my books, to give me feedback and to tell me how deeply my stories affected them. When I write, I don’t think about anyone who might read the book under construction, but only about the characters who are creating the story within me. However, after I’ve finished, and my book has been published, reviewers and readers take it over and make it their own. I’m inspired by how they absorb and interpret my stories.

Q ~ When you write, do you lay out a solid outline before beginning, or start writing and iron out the kinks later? Do you try to reach a specific word count or simply write until you are done?

I have tried to outline stories, but it has never worked for me.

The genesis of every story I’ve written (or am in the process of creating) is always quite similar. I’ll be walking along the stream with my dog Watson, or driving somewhere, or lying in bed in that twilight moment just before I fall asleep, and suddenly a new character pops into my mind. He/she arrives at the same time as the first line of a story, and at that moment I know with great clarity four things: his/her name, a problem he/she has, how the story begins (that first line) and how I believe it will end. From that point all I can do is write to find out what the story really is. Along the way, I’ll do innumerable rewrites, which can take me years. That’s why I usually have several stories in various stages of development at any one time.

I try to write every day, but life often intervenes. An ideal day involves several hours devoted to writing my fiction. I don’t pay attention to word counts, any more than I use outlines. I simply try to focus a certain period of time within the day during which I can get lost in my stories, seeking the paths and words to best capture and share them.

Q ~ Can you tell us a little bit about your latest release The Winter Boy and what inspired you to write it?

The Winter Boy is set in an imaginary world in which a cloistered society of widows (the Alleshi) has forged a centuries-long peace by using storytelling, reason and sexual intimacy to train young men destined to be leaders. But a new Allesha’s first season with a “problem” boy erupts into conflict, anger and danger, when she uncovers a web of conspiracies that threaten his life and could destroy their entire society. (

The Winter Boy started with the birth (in my mind) of Rishana, a woman who has lived a sheltered life which has allowed her to idealistically believe in all that she had been taught. But with the violent death of her husband and her initiation into the Alleshi, she begins to doubt that her world is truly the gentle, kind place she always had believed.

At the moment that Rishana first appeared in my mind, I also heard the first line of the book: “The Valley of the Alleshi stretches wide and green.”

But where did the inspiration for Rishana, the Alleshi and the boy Ryl come from? In part (and perhaps to a large extent), my own reluctant disillusionment contributed to the genesis of The Winter Boy. Recognizing that all the societies and nations of our world have been built to foment and support war, I wondered if it were possible to create a society built for peace instead. Or is humanity by nature aggressive and violent? And if the latter, how can we work to mold that nature to create a better, more equable world? What’s more, would it make a difference if the society were established by women?

However, that would have been entirely subconscious. The characters and the story they told me came first. Now that The Winter Boy is written and published, I have the freedom to investigate and analyze what motivated me to create this world of the Alleshi. While I was writing, all I cared about was telling a good story that pulled at my heart and demanded that I give my all to it.

Find out more about The Winter Boy on Goodreads or Amazon.

Q ~ What is your process for choosing character names?

A. Names are very important to me.

For many cultures, naming a person or thing gives you power over and/or creates a special connection with that person or thing. When characters first come to me, they usually already have names, which in turn help me understand who they are. Would I be the same person if I were named Virginia or Eleanor instead of Sally? I don’t believe so. However, I also believe that I have grown into my name, as I have become the woman I feel I was meant to be. Did being named Sally at my birth predetermine to a certain measure who I would become?

Then again, there is the issue of how our names can be dependent on the relationships we have, which is a trope I’ve used in The Winter Boy. As I have said elsewhere, “The society of The Winter Boy is built on the interlocking circles of highly personal relationships. Given how important the bonds created within these relationships are to the very foundation of the Alleshine civilization, it is natural that they would use the power and intimacy of naming to solidify them.” As the Storyteller from Ryl/Dov’s village in The Winter Boy taught him, “Relationships define us. Important bonds and pacts change us. And the names we share within the privacy of those relationships represent this, sealing us to the ‘other.’”

If I believed in magic, I would remind you how a person’s “true” name is often hidden in many cultures, because invoking a name can make an incantation or curse much more effective against that person. But I’m not superstitious. I simply love the idea that we are all different people in different situations, and that freedom of self involves being able to express all those individuals within ourselves. Just as I once had childhood nicknames known only by best friends, I can respond to my husband, my father, my sister in various voices, and they are all me.

The same is true about my fictional characters’ names and personalities.

Q ~ You’ve written works outside of this series as well. For you, do they compare to one another? Do you have a favourite or do they all stand out in their own way?

A. Asking who my most beloved characters are or which of my books is my favorite is like asking a mother who her favorite child is. In other words, depending on my mood, I may privately lean more favorably to one over the other, but I would never want to wound a child by acknowledging that. Besides, my mood eventually shifts, and another becomes the best loved.

On the surface, my books may appear quite different from each other. Yet they all come from the same core within me.

For instance, my novel Jo Joe is set in the very real, contemporary world of the Pennsylvania Pocono Mountains. ( It’s the story of Judith Ormand, who was the only Black – and the only Jew – in the village where she was raised by her white Christian grandparents. As an adult, she reluctantly returns to the town for one week to bury her grandmother and get rid of the family estate. During that eight-day visit, she has a run-in with the white boy who broke her heart and a confrontation with the childhood bully who threatens worse. But with her discovery of a long-hidden secret, she begins to question the nature of the prejudice that scarred her childhood.

On the one hand, it sounds quite different from The Winter Boy. Yet, if you read both novels, you’ll recognize very similarly textured character development and highly visual narrative. What’s more, they both come from my need to try to understand hate and misunderstandings, though from different kinds of viewpoints. And that’s the key to understanding my fiction. Every story is my attempt to pose another perspective from which to study and understand our human condition and the people who fill our lives.

Q ~ Do you have anything in the works at the moment? Care to give us a hint about it?

Currently, I have about six novels in various stages of development. Dream A Little World is a young adult speculative novel, which I hope will be finished (at least the first draft) by this spring. It’s about a girl who is convinced she can create entire worlds by imagining them into being, though only men are supposed to have that talent.

Another is Woof. A Love Story, a literary novel set in the same Pennsylvania mountain village as my novel Jo Joe. Woof is about a recent widow who must deal with the unruly puppy her husband (now deceased) adopted against her wishes.

Sex Witch will carry the story of The Winter Boy further, though I plan to make it a stand alone book, so that readers can delve into each novel without having to read the other first. Sex Witch will include another side of the story from the point of view of the Mwertik Zalogs (the murdering raiders who are intent on destroying the Alleshine society), plus others who were just touched on in The Winter Boy, such as Ryl’s girlfriend Lilla. Of course, both Rishana and Ryl (the lead characters in The Winter Boy) will also be featured in Sex Witch.

Other stories are simmering. I’m often awakened in the middle of the night by yet another new character clamoring for me to write his or her tale. My fictional friends plan to keep me busy for years to come.

Q ~ If you could give aspiring authors one piece of advice, what would it be?

A. Read everything. Not just specific genres that you find you like, but all kinds of books, both fiction and non-fiction. Learn from what other authors have done well, what you like and don’t like about their work. Then read some more to understand what makes a great book, an entertaining book, and one that sticks with you long after you’ve moved onto others. Everything you read will become grist for your mill.

And write. Don’t stop writing. Only by doing can you really learn who you are as a writer.

Find constructive critics and professional editors who are willing to give you honest feedback. Don’t swallow whole what they say about your work, but look at their comments carefully. They will help you pinpoint those areas of your story that most need work.

Then rewrite and rewrite, until the story is so polished that it shines.

Writing is hard work, requiring many hours, even years of stubborn determination while you hone your craft. But it can also be so very rewarding when you are able to touch a reader and make that unique human connection that can come only from a story well told.

Okay, that’s more than one piece of advice. Ask a writer a question about writing, and well, we can’t help but have a smorgasbord of answers.

I invite your readers to connect with me on my blog (, Facebook ( and Twitter (@SallyWGrotta).

About the author:

Sally Wiener Grotta is a consummate storyteller, reflecting her deep humanism and appreciation for the poignancy of life. As an award-winning journalist, she has authored hundreds of articles, columns, essays and reviews for scores of glossy magazines, newspapers, journals and online publications. She has also authored numerous non-fiction books. A member of the American Society of Journalists & Authors, Sally Wiener Grotta is a frequent speaker at conferences. schools and other organizations on storytelling, creativity, the business of writing, as well as on photography and the traditional tradespeople of her American Hands narrative portrait project. She welcomes invitations to participate in discussions with book clubs (occasionally in person, more often via Skype, Google Hangout, or phone), and to do occasional readings. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and/or her blog.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, Jonel. I enjoyed chatting with you.

    I hope the new year is a happy, healthy, creative one for you and all your readers. Best, Sally