Monday, January 27, 2014

Interview with Ellen Larson, author of 'In Retrospect' - Win an ARC of her book!

In Retrospect

Former elite operative Merit Rafi suffered during her imprisonment at the end of a devastating war, but the ultimate torment is being forced to investigate a murder she would gladly have committed herself. The year is 3324. In the region once known as Turkey, the Rasakans have attacked the technologically superior Oku. The war is a stalemate until the Oku commander, General Zane, abruptly surrenders. Merit, a staunch member of the Oku resistance, fights on, but she and her comrades are soon captured. An uneasy peace ensues, but the Rasakans work secretly to gain control of the prized Oku time-travel technology. When Zane is murdered, the Rasakans exert their control over Merit, the last person on Earth capable of Forensic Retrospection. Merit, though reinstated to her old job by the despised Rasakans, knows she is only a puppet. If she refuses to travel back in time to identify Zane’s killer, her family and colleagues will pay the price. But giving in to Rasakan coercion means giving them unimaginable power. She has only three days to make this morally wrenching choice; three days to change history. As the preliminary investigation progresses, Merit uncovers evidence of a wider plot. How did the Rasakans defeat the technologically superior Oku? Why did the Oku surrender prematurely? How did the Rasakans discover her true identity? Merit realizes she will only find the answers by learning who killed the traitor, General Zane. In Retrospect is a good old-fashioned whodunit set in a compelling post-apocalyptic future.

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What are you most proud of accomplishing so far in your life? 

I’ve done a number of things in my sixty years that I am personally proud of having done; things that are important to me. But I am not someone who people point at as having done anything major. Nonetheless I have an answer to this question! A hands down winner. During the fifteen years I lived in Egypt, I organized a fund to send the two daughters of my housekeeper to college. The cost was not great (the equivalent of about a thousand dollars a year), but it was the difference between night and day for those two girls.

How has your upbringing influenced your writing? When and why did you begin writing? 

I started writing my first book when I was nine years old (I haven’t finished it yet, but I still have it, so I haven’t given up, either). But if writing can be said to begin long before the words hit the page, I started writing even earlier than that. I was a dreamer, and what I wrote in that black and white composition book at nine was a story that I had imagined to myself many times. Since you left out “what” I’ll spare you those details, but I can tell you that it was 1962 and I was in my hometown of Haworth, NJ. The idea of writing a book seemed to me an obvious thing to want to do, along with riding a bicycle and playing the piano. I don’t recall telling anyone what I was doing. I don’t recall the first time I imagined a story in my head. It has just always been there, a part of me—frequently discouraged by my betters (“you’re wasting your time daydreaming” “you can’t make a living as a writer”), but never regretted.

Do you recall how your interest in writing originated? 

From the stories I heard and the books that I read as a child, of course. I am sure we all remember how wholly absorbing stories were when we were children. I had a list of books I had read in my head (I’m sure we all remember how good our memories once were), and that list was like a travelogue of where I had been in my imagination. Amazingly, I loved every book I read.  Fortunately, I read a lot of classic children’s books, so this is not all that surprising. Words fascinated me--their shape, their hidden meanings, and the magical way they came together to make me laugh or cry. By the time I was six, reading was like entering an altered state, where I could be anyone, experience heroic adventures and fight for good (always for good). As noted above, the switch from reading to writing was subconscious, just another way to enter that altered state.

When did you first know you could be a writer? - What inspires you to write and why? - What genre are you most comfortable writing? 

All of them. Preferably all at once. No, seriously: In 2002, a reviewer (Laura Blackwell) wrote “Bookstore workers will hate trying to figure out where to shelve Ellen Larson’s The Measure of the Universe, which cleverly weaves mystery, romance, and wordplay into a twenty-first century tale….” Not much seems to have changed, because categorizing In Retrospect, my current book, has always been an issue. I submitted it to every science fiction publisher I could before switching over to mystery publishers (where it finally found a home). It fits more genres that is probably good for it: science fiction, mystery, dystopian (my publisher refers to it as a dystopian murder mystery), literary, whodunit, psychological mystery, post-apocalyptic, (obviously the fine art of marketing is not my first concern) and female sleuth. Honestly, to me it’s just a book--the characters are what is important, and a satisfying plot. The rest is window dressing.

What inspired you to write your first book? - Who or what influenced your writing once you began? 

For most writers, growing as a professional is a long, hard slog that never seems to end. If you’re satisfied, you don’t really know what writing is all about. Writing is a fractal occupation: you can increase the magnification under which you examine your own work for flaws again and again and again, and there will always be nuances to tinker with. The trick is not to feel inadequate because of this, but to be able to draw a line and stop. I happen to have made a living as a substantive (or content) editor for the past twenty years, so I see what goes on when a piece of writing is put together, and I know how writers think. But that is another issue, which I only bring up to say that what has influenced me most as a writer is being the editor of other writers, and having the opportunity to see, with maximum perspective, what mistakes everybody else is repeatedly making. There is something galvanizing about being annoyed by some simple and obviously avoidable flaw in someone else’s writing—and then finding it staring up at you from the pages of your own. I recommend it.

 Or did you mean, what author or other writings have influence me over the years? Hmm. Ursula K. Le Guin is at the top of the list. Not her style, but what she wrote about. It resonates. No, wait; Shakespeare has to be at the top of the list, because, well…Shakespeare. I read all the plays in my twenties, struggling through the annotated Pelican Shakespeare and watching the BBC Shakespeare plays as I read, because otherwise it was literally like reading a language I did not understand. Zero insight, zero comprehension. But man, it drew me, because the rhythms were sooooo beautiful and the words were so chock-full of imagery and meaning. Connecting my own language with the language of Elizabethan England taught me that anything goes; there are no universal meanings, and grammar is a tool of meaning, not its creator.

What do you consider the most challenging about writing a novel, or about writing in general? 

Finding the time to do it.

Did writing this book teach you anything and what was it? 

In Retrospect tells the story of Merit Rafi; the book stands or falls with her. At the start of the book, Merit is at the lowest point in her life: depressed, drugged, and more or less the prisoner of the enemies of her state. I wrote the book to explore her decision-making process; to take away the colleagues, friends, family, and other groups she had always depended on and then see what she would do when confronted with a no-win situation. Merit is valuable to her enemies because she is attuned for time travel; the question is, will she allow herself to time travel for her enemies, even in an apparently good cause, or will she stand by what she believes in? I wanted it to be an important decision; I wanted the stakes to be huge for her on a personal level. What I learned was how to portray slightly larger-than-life characters; how to make sure that the reader would care about Merit; how to get a reader to admire a character, even when the character herself is filled with shame.

Do you intend to make writing a career? 

Fiction writing? I’d have to be crazy to do that, since one does want to eat. Happily I have a nice career as an editor, and if I can sell a story or two now and then, I will be happy.

Have you developed a specific writing style? 

Style issues are funny old things. If you’re in the third grade, you are told that good style means you must write clearly and avoid repetition; that your paragraphs should be neither too long nor too short, and should begin with a topic-setting sentence. When you get older, and decide you want to be a professional writer, these turn out to be more issues of technique than style, though it might be generally accepted that long paragraphing (think Faulkner) is a style choice. Among readers, a writer’s style is assumed to be the way she writes, and is described by (of all things) adverbs and adjectives. A style can be called flowery, literary, objective, gushing, elaborate, plain, wordy, beautiful, rigid, or even mellifluous or old-fashioned. These terms work pretty well to convey a reader’s thoughts. If you talk to the academics, you quickly find yourself talking about style in terms of literary mode and point of view and narrative voice. You might mention that the journalist’s style is different from the narrative storyteller’s; you might mention epistolary mode, or that writing can be casual, formal, legal, or colloquial. You might even hear “saga style.” These terms carry quite a lot of meaning if you’re a student of the arts. If you’re an editor, you might cast a thought toward The Elements of Style, Strunk’s prescription for excellence in writing, written a hundred ago and still as potent as castor oil. For editors, “good style” is an issue of proper usage and consistency. But it’s hard to argue with such sage advise as “Make every word tell” and “omit needless words.” Good man, Strunk.

 So asking whether or not I’ve developed a writing style is a tricky question. But I’ll assume you are suggesting a general understanding of style. Though even then, most of what makes up a writer’s style is the result of the time in which the writer lives and the task of writing at hand. My essay writing style has been called didactic. In my youth, you might have said my fiction style was wordy, florid, prolix, overly complex, and flowery. Full of adverbs and adjectives. You know the type. I have worked for decades to simplify both my syntax and my language use, digging down to the core of what I wanted to say for its meaning. Even now, my rough drafts are non-stop purple prose. I do a lot of self-editing.

 I can say that I have no preference between first and third person; that I am probably more fond of the use of an omniscient narrator than most of my generation; that I have a tough time writing short stories (my natural length for a short story is 15,000 to 20,000 words); that in general I prefer a female protagonist. Though curiously, I am currently writing a book (Wildcraft) from the male POV with a strong female c0-protagonist. Hmm. This question is tough. My final answer is, yes, I have developed a specific writing style.

 What is your greatest strength as a writer? 

I have done a lot of different types of writing in my life, plus I’ve done a tremendous amount of editing (copy editing and substantive editing and language editing). This has equipped me with a nice set of tools with which to approach each new writing task. I think I am aware of what the building blocks of writing are and how they are best used. I do not expect a rough draft to be beautifully or consistently written; I understand that narrative storytelling is not something that streams forth from the writer, but is built up like a painting in many layers. I’m also forgiving of my fallibility.

What is your favorite quality about yourself?

I don’t think I’m any more important than anyone else who has ever lived. And I don't think anyone else is more important than me. So, whatever you call that.

What is your least favorite quality about yourself? 

I talk too much.


Ellen Larson’s first story appeared in Yankee Magazine in 1971. She has sold stories to AHMM (Barry Award finalist) and Big Pulp and is the author of the NJ Mysteries, The Hatch and Brood of Time and Unfold the Evil, featuring a sleuthing reporter. Her current book is In Retrospect, a dystopian mystery (Carefully crafted whodunit -PW starred). Larson lived for seventeen years in Egypt, where she developed a love of different cultures. She is editor of the Poisoned Pencil, the YA mystery imprint. These days she lives in an off-grid cabin in upstate New York, enjoying the solitude. Visit her at

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Pump Up Your Book and Ellen are teaming up to give you a chance to win 1 of 5 ARC's of In Retrospect!

Terms & Conditions:
  • By entering the giveaway, you are confirming you are at least 18 years old.
  • Five winners will be chosen via Rafflecopter to receive one of five ARC copies of In Retrospect
  • This giveaway begins January 14 and ends on January 31.
  • Winners will be contacted via email on February 1, 2014.
  • Winner has 48 hours to reply.
Good luck everyone!


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