Author Anne Merino officially started writing one Christmas holiday a long time ago as if it were foreordained that her tryst with writing ought to commence about the time of Christmas. In fact, her mother, who was ‘undoubtedly going bonkers with children at home from school’, decided to create an in-family writing competition for the best short story. ‘She handed out new notebooks and pens to me and my sister with instructions to find a quiet corner to write something substantial,’ begins the American author, speaking to The Literary Juggernaut in an exclusive interaction. ‘Promises were made of candy prizes and probably also repurposed stocking supplies. So, we got right to work after negotiating an advance of several Lifesavers,’ the Northern Carolina-based writer shares.
Elaborating further, Anne, who also teaches ballet at private ballet schools besides a university theatre department, tells us, ‘A day or so later, we solemnly handed in our notebooks and awaited the judging. My sister, who was roughly six or seven at the time, had written a two-page thriller entitled That Strange Animal featuring a lab experiment gone wrong. In the thriller, a mysterious man drinks a glowing green elixir and turns promptly into a murdering werewolf. The scientist’s name was Dr. Simpson, and the mysterious man was Mr. Sears. I kid you not.’
Letting on that she was about eight years old then, Anne says she had written an adventure story in the style of Julie Campbell Tatham’s Trixie Belden. ‘Oh, if only Julie Campbell Tatham was eight and hadn’t thought of a great title character like Trixie or any riveting plots that might keep the reader interested!’ she guffaws. ‘My mother – bless her – read it with high seriousness and pronounced that there was some talent, but she said I needed to learn how to craft a fantastic opening sentence – a real hook. She fetched a couple of Nancy Drews and Trixie Beldens and pointed out how these crafty writers grabbed the readers’ attention right from the start. To this day, a nifty opening and closing sentence remains something I work very hard to get right. Thanks to my mum,’ she adds.
Nonetheless, the big Best of Show award went to That Strange Animal. ‘Still stings,’ Anne pronounces with utmost seriousness.
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Murder, Mystery, and All That Jazz
Speaking about her debut novel Hawkesmoor that came out in May 2020 from the traditional publisher Rivercliff Books, the author says it’s a very British vampire story, quite different from traditional tales in the genre. The novel follows NYU history professor, Robin Dashwood, as he returns to the haunted Hawkesmoor Castle in Yorkshire, the place of his 18th-century birth, to search for answers to a brutal murder from his human past.
Anne, who almost always starts with characters that she is interested in writing about and who has a pretty solid idea of what these characters will do and encounter plot-wise, points out that it took a while to get Hawkesmoor to the public. ‘Rivercliff Books has a history of producing great audiobooks and very much wanted to produce one for Hawkesmoor. It’s a substantial book, and as a trained actress, I was very much hoping to narrate it myself since I knew exactly how I wanted the characters to sound,’ Anne explains, adding that she did six auditions to get the thumbs up as Rivercliff wanted the sound clarity to be just right. ‘Also, they wanted to be absolutely sure we could deliver the technical standard required of 21st-century audiobooks. Finally, we nailed down the technicals and got the go-ahead,’ she shares with a beatific smile.
‘2020 Was Quite a Year’
Soon after, the author’s filmmaker husband directed the voice and recorded the audio in daily sessions, which seemed like a millennium to Anne. ‘One serious bout of flu or cold could knock us off the skids for days. A shirt sleeve moving across a knee could wipe out a day’s work when a scratching sound was revealed in the post. But eventually, we got it done – all 13 hours of finished audio – and Hawkesmoor could, at last, make it out in all three formats to the proverbial bookstores. I had cherished visions of myself signing books at my favorite local bookshops and speaking to area book clubs as Rivercliff set a publishing date in May. Then the pandemic hit, and everything went into lockdown, especially, it seemed, bookstores and libraries. Thank heavens for Lisa Duff at Rivercliff who rejiggered immediately, and we did an online launch party followed by virtual book tours. 2020 was quite a year!’
Be that as it may, does Anne, who always has a notebook lurking about with ideas, plot points, and the odd handwritten paragraph or two, favor any authors? She states, ‘As with most keen readers, I have lots of favorite writers.’ She thereafter adds with a laugh, ‘Occasionally, when I take a gander at the family’s gasping on-life-support budget, I wish I didn’t!’
Her absolute favorite, we learn, is the beloved British author, PG Wodehouse. ‘I can have the worst sort of day, and his hilarious tales of pre-World War II upper-class folly will completely lift me,’ avers Anne, who also feels universities ought to offer full scholarships for every student worthy of admission. She adds, ‘He wrote with such wit and charm about a bucolic, uniquely English fantasy world. I often wish I could step into his pages and live there forever, aiding the intrepid Jeeves in pulling Bertie Wooster back from the ledge of social doom.’
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PG Wodehouse wrote with such wit and charm about a bucolic, uniquely English fantasy world. I often wish I could step into his pages and live there forever, aiding the intrepid Jeeves in pulling Bertie Wooster back from the ledge of social doom.ANNE MERINO
‘An Alien Heat Is One of the Best Novels Ever Written’
A genuine, gobsmacked fan girl of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, the writer says it is one of those brilliant novels she fervently wishes she had thought of and written. ‘It’s so clever and yet such a simple concept beautifully realized,’ she declares with all earnestness.
A professional ballerina whose father is a classical philosopher, military historian, and writer and mother a teacher, dancer, and choreographer, Anne, we learn, also loves the high romanticism of Baroness Orczy and her Scarlet Pimpernel series. She tells us that ‘romances’ in the old-fashioned literary definition, the tales of nobility, loyalty, daring exploits, and the great love match between the hero and his wife make for stirring reading. ‘However, I plowed through them feverishly as a child; and I still re-read them today when the mood strikes,’ she lets on.
Nevertheless, Anne, who writes whenever she can, thanks to her busy narrating and acting schedules, lets us know that she is mad about the British science-fiction author, Michael Moorcock. ‘His novels are rich, witty, and gorgeously written. I think Moorcock’s An Alien Heat is one of the best novels ever written,’ she states.
Inspired by Mum
Of the more up-to-date authors, we learn Anne very much enjoys the Aloysius Pendergast mysteries by the writing team of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. ‘Although the novels can be uneven – I feel The Diogenes Trilogy and The Helen Trilogy strained credulity even for the eccentric Pendergast universe – they are terrific fun!’ she declares, adding, ‘Still Life with Crows should not be missed by any lover of mysteries and thrills. I also love curling up with an Alec Delaware mystery by Jonathan Kellerman and the fabulous neo-noir Lincoln Lawyer series by Michael Connelly.’
Anne also goes on to stress that an indie author not to be missed if one loves a great science-fiction story is Loren Blowers. ‘Her novel, The Stingwisher, is action-packed and often laugh-out-loud funny. She has built an intricate and fascinating universe well worth dipping into, and her attention to detail is both inspiring and intimidating!’
From the discourse, we understand that Anne’s primary inspiration is her mother, who has won many an accolade in The Birmingham Arts Festival with her Egyptian-inspired work. ‘I like to think that around the family dinner table I acquired quite a varied and interesting education – Please pass the green beans and tell us your opinion of Richard II, wildly inept or just wildly misunderstood?’ says Anne, adding, ‘As for my age – sigh. I did have a very young dancer stop me in the hallway of a dance school the other day and ask me if I was dancing when Lincoln was president. “Yes,” I replied as her apologetic mother darted up, “1865 saw my debut at the Ford Theatre.” I am contentedly settling into what I call the Margaret Rutherford Phase.’
‘Don’t Know How I Juggle Writing and Other Tasks’
Notwithstanding, how does Anne, whose fondest wish had always been to see a book of hers on a library or bookshop shelf, juggle writing and other tasks? She answers, ‘I have to imagine that virtually everyone in the 21st century feels over-scheduled and pushed for time. Admittedly, the COVID lockdown gave us all a bit of an enforced break for a while but that little breather in which many turned to baking, meditation, and folk art seems to be evaporating more and more with the vaccine up and running. The easy answer is I don’t know how I juggle writing and other tasks. It’s important to do the work so somehow it sort of happens despite ballet classes and laundry. I know it always involves something giving way such as watching a film with my husband or having a gleaming kitchen.’
Fascinatingly, we also get to know over the course of the interview that the author grew up riding hunters and jumpers for her father, who always kept a side business in horse training. ‘So, being around horses is something I love and consider almost essential to old mental health. The days of riding fire-breathing open jumpers in the competition are, of course, past; but I do love a great cross-country hack on a good hunter. One of life’s real pleasures,’ she smiles.
I have to imagine that virtually everyone in the 21st century feels over-scheduled and pushed for time. Admittedly, the COVID lockdown gave us all a bit of an enforced break for a while but that little breather in which many turned to baking, meditation, and folk art seems to be evaporating more and more with the vaccine up and running.ANNE MERINO
An Armchair Adventurer
Other than that, Anne asserts she tends to enjoy all aspects of folklore and paranormal from ghosts to Bigfoot. ‘With my schedule, I am pretty much an armchair adventurer; but one day, I hope I’d be able to travel to a few conferences every year and listen to the experts in person. What fun!’
And does the author have any works-in-progress? ‘I am very fortunate that my publisher, Rivercliff Books, after working on Hawkesmoor, decided to acquire four more novels from me,’ Anne divulges. ‘Two of the four are already written as stand-alone novels: A Season for Wolves – an 18th-century suspense story set around events of the French Revolution and Spider Hall – a modern-day novel about brutal killings and a haunted house on the southern English coast. Both are good fun, I think,’ she tells us and adds, ‘The other two are sequels to Hawkesmoor that will form an eventual trilogy about the adventures of Robin Dashwood, a very British vampire. I’m happy to say that I just turned in the first draft of Hawkesmoor 2 to my wonderful editor, Carol Stanley, and I now am nervously chewing my fingers over what the list of revisions will contain when it finally turns up in my email letterbox. And yes, I do look forward to the day when I can formally retire from teaching and write full time!’
As the discourse draws to a close, we ask if there is anything she would like to tell budding authors, and Anne says that to achieve anything real and worthwhile one must be consistent. ‘Nothing is ever really the proverbial overnight phenomenon,’ she pronounces. ‘I am also reminded of my friends, Charles and Philip Fuller, who were brilliant classical dancers and teachers and who had, before they finally retired, one of the best ballet schools in the nation. In all their printed materials for parents was the plea – Please give us time to teach! Dancers are not made overnight,’ she says, stressing that this applies quite neatly to writers as well. ‘We need time to learn the craft, time to make mistakes, and time to write the terrible novel – that painful but invaluable schoolmaster. We need time to write that brilliant novel and time to sell that brilliant novel to the right publishing house or to bring it out independently with genuine success.’
She affirms that the final result is worth every difficult step. ‘I can think of no better feeling than when I opened the shipping box from the publisher and pulled out a copy of my first novel. Admittedly, it’s an old saw but true – all that aforementioned time with its steep learning curve complete with hearty shares of missteps and hard work? It just made the moment that much better,’ she says, thereby signing off on an insightful note.
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We need time to learn the craft, time to make mistakes, and time to write the terrible novel – that painful but invaluable schoolmaster. We need time to write that brilliant novel and time to sell that brilliant novel to the right publishing house or to bring it out independently with genuine success.ANNE MERINO
PS: Author Anne Merino let us know that questions we put forth to her reminded her of the opening chapter of William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice in which the narrator, Stingo, relates his experiences as a junior editor. ‘He describes a query letter from a plumber’s wife who has written a memoir of her life entitled Flush Times and included in her note is the plaintive plea Please Buy My Book! I feel as if I now completely understand the plumber’s wife,’ she told us, adding, ‘Thank you so much, The Literary Juggernaut, for including me in your terrific site. Very grateful for the opportunity to talk about being an author and Hawkesmoor! I wish your readers heaps of happy hours escaping into books!’