“Life is what you make it, where you are with what you’ve got. So get busy and make it something good, then share it with somebody.” – J.T. Austin
I interviewed my fellow Outcast J.T. Austin about her new book release, the life of a writer, and the virtues of time spent literally in the jungle (the Amazon, as in the real place) for getting to know those strangers in your head.
Me: Jayne, I know Circles and Echoes has been a true labor of love for you. When did you begin working on this novel?
Austin: Many years ago, after being in a small plane with a sputtering engine over open water in the Bahamas. That became the inciting incident of the novel, in every way.
I wanted to push the “stranded on an island with a stranger” cliché to its limit and use it to ask basic, real-life questions, like ‘who do you trust?’ and ‘how do you know?’ With nothing to go by, no references, no internet, no other person to compare notes with, how do you know what to believe about a stranger? Do you judge by words or actions? What if your life depends on it? And what if you’re wrong? Circles and Echoes is my way of exploring those questions.
I actually finished a version of the novel ‘way back then, but put it aside and moved on to other things. A few years ago, while looking for something else, I ran across the original typescript, read it with fresh eyes and thought it worthwhile to try to bring it up to date. That turned out to be a little more involved than I hoped, but, several major revisions and a few spirited discussions later, I had something I really liked. I thought other people might like it too.
Stephen and Kate are very memorable characters. Tell us a little about them.
Stephen is such a strong character that he hasn’t changed much from my first vision of the book. He has always been a troubled veteran of a foreign war, a Southern gentleman from North Carolina, and a man with a mysterious past. He’s intriguing because none of the pieces seem to fit with him. He can be talkative and social, yet he reveals little of himself. He’s polite and considerate, but has a temper that can turn violent. Kate senses he could be dangerous, yet she feels totally safe with him and instinctively trusts him. Which could be a mistake, if the reader believes what Stephen says to himself and reveals in flashbacks.
Kate is almost the emotional opposite of Stephen. With her, what you see is what you get. She doesn’t have any hidden depths that she knows about, and part of the fun of the novel is watching her find in herself the strength that Stephen suspects early on. Kate is smart, funny, feisty, wide open to life, and tougher than she knows. Yet she sees herself as just a boring soccer mom, hurt and bewildered by failure of her marriage, which she believes is her fault. She’s fascinated by Stephen, but cannot believe he could really care for her. Especially since they’re stuck on an island with no personal hygiene or beauty aids.
I know you have spent some time in the jungles of South America for field research as an anthropologist. How did this experience help inform Circles and Echoes?
The most important things I learned from the Amazon jungle are how hard real, ground-level survival is, and how little it takes to be truly happy. People there have almost nothing that we would consider essential, yet they live full lives, with a lot of laughing, mostly at our silliness, I suspect. As Stephen and Kate remark in one of my favorite scenes from the book — all they have is shelter, fire, water, some food and each other, and that’s more than enough.
That sense of being thankful for what you have, instead of dwelling on what you don’t, is something else I wanted to get across with Circles and Echoes. Life is what you make it, where you are with what you’ve got. So get busy and make it something good, then share it with somebody.
Tea or Coffee?
Coffee. Lots of it. Unless you have some champagne over there. . .
Do you plot out where the book is going before you write? Formal outline or notes? Or do you just write?
I usually have a general idea of what is going to happen in the book, and how it’s going to end. In another series of novels I’m working on, I wrote the last scene in the last volume first, then sat down and tried to decide how to get from here to there in an interesting way using ‘real’ people.
My books are too character-driven for me to be able to do formal outlines. My characters are always doing something that surprises me; then I have to stop and figure out why they did that, and how that’s going to change everything else. It’s very frustrating, sometimes. But the characters are always right. They may mess up all my careful plans and force me to rethink the whole plot, but they’re always right.
How did you make the decision to self-publish?
I wanted to go the traditional route, at first, but the more people I talked to and the more I read about the current publishing trends, the more obvious it became that the whole business is in transition. No one is quite sure how things are going to shake out, especially given the increasingly diverse and numerous outlets for self-expression. If you can dream it, you can do it and put it out there in cyberspace for billions to see. If they can find it. But that’s a whole different issue. . .
The main reason for doing it yourself is that you can do it your way. You don’t have to throw out your favorite scene because the book is too long, or change the way your characters talk to make them acceptable to wider audiences. The downside is that in pleasing yourself, you may piss off everybody else and no one will buy your book. . . Or you may find an undiscovered niche of like-minded people, and end up rich and famous. I don’t think anyone realized how many niches were out there until self-publishing via the internet came along.
Now that you’ve been through the self-publishing process once, what will you do differently the second time around?
Well, I certainly won’t waffle around about beginning the process as I did with this book. It’s not that difficult. Just do it. I’ve worked with CreateSpace twice and it’s been painless both times.
Other than that, I used a lot of different fonts in Circles and Echoes, to emphasize different points of view. I may try to find a simpler way to do that in later books, knowing that what looks great in the paperback version may not convert well in the e-book versions.
Tell us a little about how it feels to have your book “out there” for the world to read.
There is a lot of satisfaction in seeing a project through to the end, in seeing what began as a few lines in #2 pencil on a yellow pad become a real book, a finished thing, solid in your hands, and know that you made it out of nothing but what you found in your head and your heart. And then a total stranger pays money for it! And likes it! WOW! You can’t beat that.
Of course it’s scary too. You work so hard to get it right and get it out there. The nightmare is that no one will notice it at all.
I know you’re hard at work on the sequel, Ripples and Waves (not to mention the other projects you have in the works). Do you find the writing process is easier now that you’ve finished your first novel?
I have learned so much from my cohorts in the Outcasts, and from events sponsored by TWA, that everything goes much faster now. Basically, I’ve learned to think it through first and try to stay mentally ahead of where I am “on paper”. I’ve also learned to work out the time, place and back story details before I start the writing, so I don’t trip myself up with inconsistencies.
Since in my books, it’s all about the people, I’ve learned the fastest way to get something written is to start with the dialogue, to write as if it’s a scene with actors on a bare stage. Then I go back to decorate the set and determine the logical actions to go with the words and emotions. To put it another way, you could say I see the dialogue as the bones of the book, so I put the skeleton together first, then add the muscles and skin and hair and the pretty parts.
What else do you want the world to know about YOU?
Not much. Left to my own preferences, I’d make J. D. Salinger look like a Kardashian. But that doesn’t seem to be possible in these days of instant intimacy, does it?
Okay. All my heroes are explorers or crusaders. And I’m a motor-mouth. Is that enough?