Hello one and all! How are you today? I'm back and hope everyone is doing well and happy! It’s so great to be with all of you again. Welcome back to my writing blog page where I try to share whatever I think may interest you. Today I interview another fellow author. I love promoting other authors. With me this time is Heather Neff, as she discusses writing and her current book Leila II: The Moods of the Sea.
Heather Neff was educated at the University of Michigan and the Sorbonne before earning her Ph.D. at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. Having lived and traveled widely in Europe and the Caribbean, Neff fuses her writing with her work as a translator, corporate trainer and international educator. Neff is the author of the novels Blackgammon, Wisdom - designated an Honor Book by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association, Accident of Birth, Haarlem, and the 2014 Leila II: The Moods of the Sea. A Professor of English Literature at Eastern Michigan University, Neff was named a 2007 Michigan Distinguished Professor by the President’s Council of the State Universities of Michigan.
Photo of Heather Neff.
Welcome Heather and thanks so much for joining us here. You’ve lead such a well-traveled life. Shall we begin to learn more about you and your writing?
SJ: From Professor to author. What made you become an author? Did you always have an interest becoming an author, or was it something you fell into?
Heather: I knew from the time I was a small child that I’d write, and I’ve kept journals since elementary school. Despite my parents’ expectations that I’d study music, I majored in English Literature as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. It’s incredibly important for writers to read, read, read, in every period and every genre of literature-and my first job out of college was with a major publisher. I wrote fiction and poetry throughout my graduate studies in Paris and at the University of Zuerich in Switzerland, where I earned my doctoral degree. While studying I lived in the literary world by working as a film and book translator, editor and language teacher, and continued to write for pleasure when I had a free moment.
I sought to publish my first novel, “Blackgammon,” after gaining tenure at Eastern Michigan University. I had published scholarly articles on a number of topics, including the recovery of lost historical texts by African Americans, the representation of African Americans in children’s films, and the poetry of Audre Lorde.
Heather's 1st novel & still my personal favorite.
I was honored and delighted to work with Cheryl Woodruff at One World / Ballantine books, an imprint of Random House, in preparing “Blackgammon” for publication. My experience with her taught me a great deal about writing, editing fiction, and the publishing world. I went on to publish three additional novels at Random House- “Wisdom,” “Accident of Birth” and “Haarlem.”
Along the way I’ve published poetry and short stories, created and facilitated writers’ groups, worked with literary festivals and served as a juror on fiction competitions, including the national NAACP Image Awards. I have self-published two additional novels, “Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory,” and “Leila II: The Moods of the Sea.” Writing is, in short, one of the most important aspects of my life.
Heather's 2nd novel, another favorite of mine.
SJ: I discovered your writing when I read your first book Black gammon and found myself searching for the rest of your books. Though, I’ve read and enjoyed all of them, your first is still my favorite. I loved the characters and the locale. Of all you’ve written, which one was your favorite to write and why? Which one stands out most in your mind?
Heather: Not surprisingly, I love each of the novels and the characters. I probably think most often of Chloe and Michael (“Blackgammon”), Maia and Severin (“Wisdom”) and Abel Crofton (“Haarlem). I am currently deeply in love with the three young people in my newest novel, “Gideon Seventeen,” which will be published in the spring of 2016. I find these characters strikingly funny, sad, but extremely courageous.
Once conceived, characters take on a life of their own, and behave in a manner consistent with their own individual personalities. Even the cruel and misguided characters are interesting to me, because I can only see them through the subjective perspectives of the other characters. Life is similar to this, of course, and we often have to simply accept things in other people that we’d like to change. For that reason, I’ve continued to care deeply about all of my characters-even those who are deeply flawed-because in the end, everyone has both strengths and weaknesses.
SJ: How extensive was your research for each one?
Heather: I’ve written books that take place in England, France, the Netherlands, Liberia, the Virgin Islands and Morocco. It was critically important, but also very enjoyable, to research the traditions, speech, and cultural practices of those nations when writing about them. I use libraries, research articles and actual people to learn about life in other cultures, but I also tend to write about places I’ve actually visited.
I love to travel, and I find new cultures extremely fascinating. I’ve lived long enough to see real change occur in cities such as Paris and London, which have become incredibly diverse. I’m also captivated by castles and historical sites, and can spend entire days in museums. I think Greece is one of the most beautiful places on earth, and hope to write about it one day. Given a choice, I’d eat Mediterranean or North African food every day-I hope readers enjoy the food descriptions I included in the “Leila” novels.
4th Novel Heather released.
SJ: If you could turn one of your books into a film, which one would you choose and why?
Heather: I think that “Haarlem” would make a terrific film, and because Abel Crofton, the main character, loves John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Carlos Jobim, the film would have a marvelous score. I strongly believe that the theme-overcoming alcohol and drug addiction-is critical in the lives of many people and their families, so Abel’s story is important. There are unusually strong roles in the book for Black actors and actresses, as well. The book is about learning to love others through learning to love yourself, and many readers have found it truly uplifting. Finally, Amsterdam is a beautiful, haunting city, and Haarlem, a smaller city located just a few miles away, is a magical and unforgettable place.
SJ: Where do your get your inspiration and ideas from?
Heather: The world is endlessly inspiring. I make a habit of carrying a small notebook with me at all times, and write down any ideas that come into my head. I can find inspiration in a piece of music, a flower, a cloud, a memory, or a snatch of conversation. Museums are, for me, a wonderland of ideas, and traveling to a new place excites my imagination almost beyond bearing!
For me, writing a book is like a garden-I plant the seeds (my ideas) on a sheet of paper and wait to see what grows. Some quickly sprout into poems, short stories or novels, while others develop more slowly. Sometimes I have to grow into the stories I’ve started, too. I don’t believe in “writer’s block;” I have come to understand that some stories have to be put “on hold” until they’re ready to be told. That’s okay, however: the stories will wait until the time is right to complete them.
SJ: What do you love most about being a writer? Least?
Heather: The best part of writing is that it’s a perfect way to escape from the present and live, as James Baldwin put it, in “another country.” When I’m working on a novel, a part of me lives in that other place. Even when the novel addresses a difficult topic, this fictional world feels enormously “safe.” This sense of safety is quite possibly what all writers seek-the ability to create a world that we control (or controls us) completely.
The most difficult part of writing is the guilt that comes when I don’t have time to work on a text, particularly when the writing is going well. I become so close to my characters that I miss them, and sometimes feel I’ve been “unfaithful” to them if I don’t continue their stories. Once I start a novel, I feel an obligation to see the characters through to the end. This is the primary reason why I found it necessary to write a sequel to “Leila.” There were too many unanswered questions at the end of “The Weighted Silence of Memory.” Though it was difficult to return to their world, I cared deeply about Leila, Selina and Walid, and wanted to discover what became of them-hence, “Leila II: The Moods of the Sea.”
“The Moods of the Sea” was particularly difficult to write, however: I had to rediscover the inner-thoughts of the characters I’d created seven years earlier, and so much had changed in my life that I came to them a completely different person. Worse, I wasn’t sure how to write a sequel that honored the challenges faced by the characters in the first novel, but allowed them to grow in strength and wisdom in the second. After thinking about it for several years, I realized that “Moods” was a novel about physical, spiritual and emotional healing. Once I had an anchor, the novel wrote itself.
Heather's recent release.
SJ: What writer inspired you most and how?
Heather: I’ve been deeply inspired by writers throughout my life, so no single author is responsible for my writing. As a child I loved Ludwig Bemelman’s “Madeline” books, and Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” I remain astounded by Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre,” which I think about on a daily basis, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” and Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die.” I also love Keri Hulme’s “The Bone People,” Anita Shreve’s “Fortune’s Rocks,” Hermann Hesse’s “Damian,” the Harry Potter series, and everything written by James Baldwin.
These works are breathtakingly written and so complex that they deserve repeated readings throughout one’s life. A great novel should be read many times, and should offer something new and challenging each time it’s read.
SJ: If you could give just one piece of important writing advice to an aspiring writer, what would it be?
Heather: Write your book. Don’t worry about what other people think. Write for yourself. Write daily, even if you only have time for a paragraph or a few lines. If you keep working at it, you’ll finish your book sooner than you can imagine. Enjoy this wonderful, unique, highly personal experience.
SJ: What is a favorite book you enjoyed reading and would recommend without hesitation? Why?
Heather: For those who love history and science fiction, read Octavia Butler’s “Kindred,” which is a fascinating blend of a slave narrative and a womanist time-travel novel. I also feel that Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” is a very fine and moving book, with cross-cultural messages that have gained importance over the past two decades. I am a great fan of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi’s “Purple Hibiscus,” a riveting family drama about the cultural clashes between postcolonial Nigeria and traditionalist tribal practices.
SJ: In closing, and without giving too much away, do you have any more projects in the immediate future? We’d love to hear about it.
Heather: My next novel, “Gideon Seventeen,” tells the story of Bethany Celeste Castle, a woman raised from infancy in a home of brutal, ongoing domestic violence. Seeking to protect her, Bethany’s mother sends her from Ohio to Canaan, North Carolina to live with her grandmother, Corinthia Bibb Castle. “Miss Corinne,” as her grandmother is known in the community, offers Bethany the safest, kindest home she has ever known, and Bethany slowly learns both to understand and control the violence she has internalized since childhood.
When Bethany meets Gideon and Nina Price, a brother and sister who are outcasts in the tiny southern town, everything changes in her world. Knowing friendship for the first time, Bethany experiences trust, genuine happiness, and deep, unquestioning love. In the months that follow, and as her attachment to Gideon deepens, Bethany begins to plan a future in Canaan. All is well until Bethany’s loyalty to her friends is put to a terrible test, and a single act of reckless bravery causes Bethany’s grandmother to send her back to Ohio-and into the hands of her vicious, raging father.
Bethany faces years of struggle before she finds her way back to Canaan-to begin the search for the only people she ever loved.
I hope you enjoy it!
Thank you so much, Heather, for allowing use to take some time out of your busy schedule and interview you about your writing. Keep writing. Readers, take note you may purchase a copy of any of Heather’s books at on-line book stores: Amazon and Barnes and Nobles and from all major and Indie US book stores.
But before we go, it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t share the synopsis for Leila: The Weighted Silence of Memory:
Twelve year old Leila knows little more of the world than the view from her family’s mud-brick hut on the steep slopes of the Atlas Mountains. Her greatest hope is to marry the son of the village shopkeeper and to live like all the women who came before her. Leila’s dreams are destroyed in one night when three strangers take her in payment for her father’s debts. Thus begins her long journey into silence: the silence of a child sold to a brothel in a distant city. The silence of a young woman passed on to a judge who exploits her as his servant. The silence of a barely literate woman who suffers years of rape, beatings and hunger. Leila survives by clinging to memories of her mountain village and the love of her mother. When she meets two sisters determined to improve women’s lives she gains her first glimmering of hope ⎯ and the courage to take her freedom. After a harrowing escape she slowly reclaims her life through the love of a family facing their own search for healing.
And while we’re at it, here’s the synopsis for the sequel, Leila II, The Moods of the Sea:
Leila, the twelve-year-old daughter of illiterate parents, spent her childhood in a mud hut in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Given to three strangers in payment for her father’s debts, she is forced to work in a brothel before being sold to a wealthy, prominent man. "Leila: the Weighted Silence of Memory" recounts Leila’s years of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse at the hands of her captors. After managing to escape, she seeks to rebuild her life with a family suffering from tragic losses of their own. "Leila II, The Moods of the Sea" finds Leila three years later, still a fugitive from the man who held her captive. Though deeply haunted by her past and her fear of recapture, her hard work has brought fortune to the family that shelters her. As they try to better their lives with a new business venture, Leila takes her first steps toward healing. Her world gains new meaning when she is drawn toward a powerful, unexpected love. After a terrible coincidence delivers her again into the hands of her tormenters, Leila suffers a vicious assault that leaves her body broken. Now she must fight for herself, her future, and for everyone and everything she has come to care for. A tale of human trafficking, Leila’s story illuminates the plight of more than twelve million victims held in modern-day slavery throughout the world.
Fascinated like I was? Want to read more? Here’s the purchase links for your convenience:
For more about Heather and her writing, remember to check out his website at:
Thank you all for visiting with us. Until next month...every one please stay safe. Smile. Be happy. Show compassion. Be nice to others. Put a little love into your heart. Please speak up for those without a voice, whether it be a dog, cat, elephant or monkey. One person, one voice can make a difference.
S. J. Francis
Advocate for the underdog, and cat, et al.
In Shattered Lies: "It's All About Family." Coming October 24th from Black Opal Books.
"Some secrets should remain that way...."