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Julia Smith: The Curtain Opens

The talent, originality, determination and downright awesomeness of the people in Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada, my local chapter of RWA, are amazing. Seriously. I leave every meeting awed by the energy and intelligence that crackles in the air. Not to mention the fact that the restaurants where we lunch have learned to put us in a room by ourselves. This group just can’t contain its enthusiasm for the craft and business of writing.

One of those passionate writers is Julia Phillips Smith. Julia is a filmmaker, author and blogger extraordinaire, and today, she’s celebrating the triumphant conclusion of an eight-year creative journey. At the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2011 (cue dramatic music), I’m delighted to help her launch her debut novel, SAINT SANGUINUS.

This book is a prime example of why indie publishing is a boon for authors and readers. It’s a dark, richly layered story with complex, tormented characters that are worth the reader’s time to explore, but it doesn’t fit the mainstream publishing mold. Intrigued? Read on.

WARNING: Must love vampires.

1. Julia, tell us a little bit about St. Sanguinus. Who are the main characters? Where does the plot take them?

SAINT SANGUINUS tells the story of Peredur, a Welsh Dark Ages warrior on his last raid against the Irish who attack their settlements in the absence of the Romans. Peredur wants to gather as much battlefield spoils as he can before approaching Tanwen’s father, intending to ask for her hand in marriage. But a spear to his chest puts an end to his dreams, and as he curses God with his dying breath, his curse calls forth a member of the Brethren to gather him to their work.

Tanwen refuses to believe her beloved is truly gone. Under pressure from her family to wed another from their village, Tanwen retreats to the solace of Cavan, the wise woman’s son. His unrequited love for her sparks Cavan to reveal what has really become of Peredur—he is now a vampire.

Cavan has kept his sorcerer’s powers a secret from their village, but now he promises Tanwen that if she truly wants to reunite with her beloved, he can summon a vampire to turn her. What he doesn’t tell her is that Peredur is not like other vampires. As a member of the Brotherhood, it is his task to stand between humans and vampires, ensuring one side doesn’t completely annihilate the other.

2. Where did you get your inspiration for this story?

My first NaNoWriMo gave me this story.

Being a long-time fan of Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s historical vampire series following the Count Saint-Germain–which always focuses on the less glamorous problems of being an immortal who needs to live among humans–for my first NaNo, I let myself follow the similar problems of all the baby steps of becoming a vampire, from the very first moment of transformation.

I followed Peredur’s story almost exclusively. During another NaNo, I switched POVs and followed Tanwen. The sleep-deprived dream state of NaNo made all the difference for this story, as I went to places I never normally would have gone.

3. What’s your take on the pros and cons of self-publishing in today’s ever-changing market?

I’m quite enamoured with the whole indie self-publish thing, so I can only see the pros. I always knew I had a story that didn’t fit in the parameters being purchased by traditional publishers. To be honest, I never really tried to force my story to fit that market. When I wrote it, I had no idea that there would be an explosion in e-books or a renaissance for under-used story settings and time periods.
But now – voila! The e-reader market is insatiable, and publishing has embraced niche markets, including the smaller traditional print houses. Writers can actually write the book-of-the-heart. It’s the equivalent of being able to do an art house film rather than trying to turn it into a Hollywood blockbuster.

4. You have a background in film. How do you think your training influences your writing?

Well, it makes me reference art house films rather than publishing, for a start. Also, when I was having huge challenges merging those two separate NaNo novels into one book, the only thing that made sense to me was Blake Snyder’s screenwriting how-to, SAVE THE CAT and its sequel SAVE THE CAT GOES TO THE MOVIES. I have no idea why. It’s just the way my brain works, I guess.

It also makes it easier to write and direct my own book trailers:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2Dcv_qhXjM

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pY8gACi2aaY

To be honest, my screenwriting training made learning to write novels a rather hit-and-miss affair at first. To quote early critique reader Kelly Boyce: “Take it out of here (gesturing toward my head) and put it on here (gesturing toward the paper).”
That’s because screenplays only contain brief descriptions of action, minimal indications of setting, and dialogue. Period. There are no qualifiers as to how the dialogue is delivered—that’s the job of the actor and director. No details as to the tone of the scene—that’s the domain of the cinematographer and art department, and later the editor.

In writing the novel, I can’t just say:

PEREDUR takes a sword from VELLOCATUS. He swings it to get the feel of it.
VELLOCATUS
A little sparring.
PEREDUR and VELLOCATUS fight.

But if I were writing a screenplay, this would be how the scene would be laid out.
In the novel, I have to add Peredur’s emotional reaction to being reunited with a blade. I have to include the detailed specifics of the sword fight, remembering to add in the sounds of blades clashing, vampires growling, etc.

5. If you were casting St. Sanguinus, what actors would you choose to play the main characters and why?

I always cast my main characters. I find it easier that way. I generally collect screenshots of the actor in scenes with a similar emotional tone to my story, and make a character file on my computer or often a 3-D collage. It’s my film thing—I’m extremely visual.

Peredur looks and sounds and moves a lot like Gerard Butler, especially the Attila/Beowulf/300 version. Why? He’s got an exceptional warrior body type and the fighting skills to match, he’s got that crazy maniac energy running under the surface that personifies Peredur’s attachment to life, and he’s got the all-important lurking melancholy that Peredur needs.

Tanwen is very Eve Myles-like. She’s in Torchwood. She’s got that lovely Welsh face, a ferocity that Tanwen needs, and she tends to exude more of a woman vibe than a girl vibe. Tanwen can’t be girly.

Cavan most resembles retired National Ballet of Canada principal dancer Rex Harrington, but a fairer, blond version. He carries himself like a prince, which Cavan would do. He’s extremely mesmerizing in person, which is very Cavan-like. And he portrays the most haunting expressions of despair.

6. I’ve known you long enough to know you love dark, tragic stories. What is their appeal for you?

I just love my heroes to go through a lot of passionate emotion. The darker, the more tormented the better. If they’re too stoic, too shiny, their emotional journey doesn’t mean as much to me. If my hero gets pushed right to the very brink of sanity or physical endurance—or both—then where he goes from there, how he picks up the pieces and prevails really stirs my heart.

As for my heroines—I give my female characters enough edge that I don’t really refer to them as heroines. Either they carry extreme emotional baggage that they ultimately find the courage to leave by the wayside, or they behave in decidedly un-feminine ways.

If you give me a choice between Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark/Iron Man character and Christopher Reeve’s Superman, for example, there’s no choice as to which one I’m most attracted. Don’t make me say which one.

As for female characters—Anne Elliot from PERSUASION is my favourite Jane Austen heroine, hands down. I much prefer her zigzaggy path to happiness, with much of the blame on her own shoulders, than even Elizabeth Bennett’s self-possessed and independent road to enlightenment.

7. What authors have influenced you as a writer?

Well, of course Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s magnificent Count Saint-Germain, as well as her female vampire character Atta Olivia Clemens, who has her own three-book series, definitely made me think about the missing scenes in most vampire tales—and made me want to fill those in.

Jo Beverley’s historical romances—especially her Georgian period Malloren family series and the late Regency Company of Rogues series—are my auto-buy books in that genre. Again, she sets up stories that never follow the road most taken. A twice-jilted heroine who has a club foot? Not appearing in most historical romances, but the heroine of HAZARD not only has one, but is paired up with a sketchy gentleman serving as a secretary to a viscount. Social class issues—my favourite!

I also have to say Catherine Cookson, although to tell you the truth, I haven’t read even one of her books. Hmm? How does that work? Well, a whole series of adaptations of her books were made by British producers ITV, many of which have become some of my favourite British historical dramas. The writing in all of them is so layered, and I never saw the character arc reveals coming. Favorites from those: The Girl (with Jonathan Cake), The Gambling Man (with Robson Greene) and The Fifteen Streets (with Sean Bean.)

8. Tell us about what you’re working on now.

I’m working on my dark fantasy story featuring Scorpius, the former falconer’s apprentice who keeps one step ahead of deadly political games—until he and his master are captured and held for ransom by a rival noble house. Will his freedom be worth the price he must pay to the lady for whom he now owes a life debt? Especially when her chief interest lies in learning to summon the dragons which plague their land?

9. Will you share an excerpt with us?

With pleasure:

Peredur hung forward, his arms stretched awkwardly behind him, bound behind a large tree. Now fully awake, he tried to stand upright and surge forward, but the bonds held.

His brethren gathered all around the tree. Melnak who stood farthest away in the shadows, pulled his amulet from where it hid in his robes then lifted it over his head. As he approached, Melnak said, “God our Father, our brother now descends into the trial you have given him.”

The brethren intoned, “Our Father, hear us,” just as Peredur’s body began to jerk away from the amulet as though compelled to do so. Melnak brought the shining polished bone to rest against the bottom rib of Peredur’s left side.

For a moment Peredur couldn’t see. All before him was blinding white light.

When he came to, Peredur sensed he was somewhere else entirely, no longer bound to the tree.

In the distance, a figure waited for him, a miserable bent man barely clothed in rags. Peredur tried to join him, but at the hint of motion his legs shot through with fiery tendrils. The figure turned his face to see who approached.

Such a man. His face held the expression of one who had endured a torturous vigil, rather like the one from which Peredur could not free himself. But the face also held a beauty that hurt to see. Peredur wanted to turn his face away, but the gaze of those tormented eyes held him and despite the pain, he forced a step or two forward.

I’m coming, Peredur tried to tell him, but the bent figure lowered his head as if overcome by agony after all. Peredur grit his teeth and pushed forward with all his might.

His feet finally moved, but suddenly it seemed the saint was miles from where Peredur could reach him. Peredur’s heart sank.

He remembered in his boyhood, how heavy the sword had been at first, when the sword master made him swing it again and again. His legs just now were the same. They rebelled against his commands.
_
Move! he shouted at them. Move!

Anger at the injustice of it coursed through him. As the anger rose, the binding stiffness released his legs and his steps grew easier.

Peredur wanted to race to the saint’s side, but what use would there be in that? Now that he could move, he walked with dread toward the fallen bundle of rags and limbs. Kneeling there, he took the saint in his arms and brushed the matted hair from the bruised face.

Saint Cittinus’ eyes fluttered open.

Peredur looked down at the youthful saint in his arms, made old before his time by the captivity and mistreatment he’d endured. As if for the first time, Peredur saw the clear white line of a scar across the saint’s neck, as if a rope had choked him there.

Saint Cittinus looked into Peredur’s eyes. Those cracked lips moved. Instead of ‘I thirst,’ the saint spoke clearly, if softly. “We have no one else to fear,” he said, “but our Lord God. Who is in Heaven.”

Peredur nodded. He stayed as he was and watched the saint expire before his eyes. All the while his angel never took his hand from Peredur’s shoulder.

Saint Cittinus faded from Peredur’s grip, though he still felt the weight of him in his arms. No sooner than he’d seen it, but Peredur came to.

He found himself still straining in his bonds against the tree. With breathtaking intensity, the pain in his rib returned. Melnak held the amulet to him still, with unyielding grimness.

He thought of the scar upon the saint’s neck. Instead of struggling and cursing as Peredur had done on the battlefield against the spear, Cittinus had accepted the wound that had given him the scar.

It was time to stop fighting.

Don’t miss Julia’s blog, A Piece of My Mind or her website, Julia Phillips Smith .

St. Sanguinus will be available from Amazon with the next few days.

7 Comments

  1. Tara MacQueen
    November 11, 2011 at 4:01 pm

    Great interview! Love the reference to Catherine Cookson lol


  2. Julia Phillips Smith
    November 11, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    I don't let the fact that I've never read her books stop me, mo sir. I do own quite a few of her books – just haven't read them yet. But the TV film versions are perfection.


  3. Annette Gallant
    November 11, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Great interview and excerpt! Congratulations on your debut, Julia!


  4. Stella MacLean
    December 18, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Great website, and so easy to get around. Congratulations!
    Stella


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  6. Teresia Ayoub
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