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What? Distractible? Me?
I wouldn't forget why we're here. It's Monday, right? Yeah, Monday.
That means we're doing another author interview! Today's guest is H.C. Helfand. H.C. Helfand is a native Marylander who has been a lawyer for more than 40 years, a judge for almost half of that, and a writer longer than she can remember. Her legal career immersed her in many areas of the law and took her to prisons, psychiatric hospitals, impoverished urban and rural communities, dusty land record offices, and courtrooms filled with desperate litigants seeking justice. She is inspired to write the stories of those for whom no books have been written, so they may not be forgotten. She published a children’s book with an artist friend, And There Was Evening And There Was Morning, but found her true calling in writing adult fiction that portrays the lives of ordinary people who have led extraordinary lives. Her novels Fee Simple Conditional and Clear and Convincing Evidence reflect that call.
Links and Social Media
Facebook: H.C. Helfand Writer
A book that pleasantly surprised you?
I was pleasantly surprised by how much I have grown to love Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, which reflects the thoughts and experiences of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to King Henry VIII. It was not a book I would ordinarily pick up, but someone I highly respected recommended it. It took me a while to get into the book, but once I started, I couldn’t stop. The writing is inventive and spectacular and the main character compelling. Mantel followed it with two related books, Bring Up the Bodies and The Mirror & the Light. All utterly brilliant!
Coffee, tea, or cacao?
Coffee, always, sweetened with lots of cream. (I know, barely coffee.) And maybe tea at night.
Where do you get your information or ideas for your books?
So much of it came from my work, which encompassed various areas of the law, including property law, estate law, mental health law, and some criminal law. Unpredictable situations and the memorable characters I encountered remained embedded in my mind. Of course, I’ve fictionalized much of it to protect the innocent! And, what I haven’t directly experienced, I’ve researched (or made up, if it’s not necessary to be factual). I’ve been fortunate to have met a lot of interesting and quirky individuals throughout my career and many appear, albeit somewhat disguised, in my work.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I’m not sure whether this is a writing quirk or a personal quirk, but I often dialogue with my characters in my mind. When I can, I make notes, even grasping for pen and paper during a middle-of-the-night inspiration. At the oddest times, words come to me that relate to disparate parts of a story and I have to focus and remember what they were and where they go. I’m always writing in my head.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Like most writers, I read a lot. In the past, it’s been mostly non-fiction, but since I started writing fiction, I try to choose other novels. It’s not only pleasurable, but I absorb tons of writing tips and inspiration through them. I enjoy leisurely walks and photographing the landscape along the way. My favorites are close-up shots of flowers and leafy plants. They send me a Georgia O’Keeffe vibe. I wish I were an artist, though. That’s next on my list to learn.
What does your family think of your writing?
Luckily, they seem to like it. They have all been very supportive of my writing and have assisted with reading and proofing drafts. I respect their judgment, even when they do things like write “cringe” in the margin! Yes, I changed that part!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
Primarily, that I could do it! My first novel, Fee Simple Conditional, was totally DIY; I wrote, formatted, and published it on my own, mostly because I knew no other way to do it. The photo on the cover is one I took with my iPhone! And, even more surprising, it has received great reviews, for which I am extremely grateful. It wasn’t easy but the confidence I built along the way was invaluable. Since then, I have learned more about the industry and have adapted my practices to my advantage, I hope.
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
I’ve written three, so far. The first was a children’s book, And There Was Evening And There Was Morning, written with an artist friend whose beautiful work sold the book. It was the hardest writing I’ve ever done. My adult work, which comprises The Arcadia Chronicles, consists of two volumes, Fee Simple Conditional and Clear and Convincing Evidence, so far. My favorite? So hard . . . Fee Simple Conditional was my first and germinated in my brain for the longest time, but I believe Clear and Convincing Evidence is the better work. Sorry, I can’t really choose. Maybe the next volume (in progress) will take the lead.
Do you have any suggestions to help someone become a better writer? If so, what are they?
Sure—read a lot in your chosen genre(s) and other types of books. If you haven’t officially studied writing (I haven’t), read recommended books on writing and practice the tips that work for you. Willingly seek and accept constructive criticism and suggestions about your work. Edit like mad; it makes your work better every time. Read it out loud, or use a program that reads it aloud for you. You’d be surprised what a difference it makes. I believe sound and syntax are essential. Create realistic dialogue and give characters distinctive voices. You want your readers to believe in them. And write and write and write.
What do you think makes a good story?
Fully developed, believable characters who speak like real people and display truly human traits. And, placing those characters in situations, whether plausible or fantastical, and allowing them to rise to challenges or fail. Beautiful words and intricate descriptions can impress, but without characters that compel an emotional investment and a tale that entices a reader to read page after page, fiction is bare language. Not every story has to be a thriller, but all good stories must touch the heart, offer a tear or a smile, and create a memory of a tale told well.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
I wanted to be a writer, of course! And now I am. How great is that? I am so fortunate to be able to do what I love. Although I produced scores of legal writing in my judicial career, now I’m able to exercise my passion. And I am infinitely grateful for it.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing energizes me. If I’m feeling overwhelmed or discouraged, my antidote is to return to the page. Just being with my characters lifts my spirits. Even if it’s a few lines or edits, it brightens my day.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Doubt, the dreaded “imposter syndrome,” and forgetting that one does not need to be traditionally published to be a writer. There are myriad ways to put your writing out into the world. Writers create blogs, poems, letters, stories long and short, memoirs, and any written vehicle that expresses their thoughts. Don’t let criticism wear you down. Learn from suggestions that are meaningful and sincere and ignore those that are hurtful or not given in good faith. Don’t give up. You are meant to write—it is your legacy.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
For a writer, more important than personally feeling strong emotions is the ability to impel emotion in your readers through your characters and stories. Many writers are quiet observers of human foibles and traits and sometimes writing emotional scenes requires objective detachment to get the right balance of literary technique and expressions of passion.
Are you traditionally or self published? Or both? Do you feel there are advantages to one over the other?
My first book (the children’s book) was traditionally published. For me, it was not a difficult experience, since the art (not by me) primarily sold the book. An advantage to traditional publishing is that (presumably) the publisher helps to market the book. I understand from others that there is a very wide range of assistance in this regard, and many traditionally published authors have to spend a great deal of time and effort marketing themselves. Traditional publishing likely affords a better distribution range, though, and would take the work of finding editors, cover artists, and formatting out of the writer’s responsibility.
Self-publishing allows an author greater control, which I highly value at this point in my career. Weighed against the challenge of marketing, the ability of the self (or independently) published author to make all of the decisions regarding their work is more appealing to me. I may never write a best-seller, but my work will always remain recognizable to me. If I were at the beginning of my career, I might feel differently, but now I treasure the independence despite the added responsibility and diminished likelihood of financial success.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters, if anything?
I owe them respect and kindness for allowing me to absorb their personas into my characters. The real people may never know that they’ve inspired my creations, but they still deserve my gratitude and consideration. Sometimes they’re recognized, and sometimes not, but the traits they’ve displayed live on, even if only in words.
What does literary success look like to you?
Success to me is not necessarily monetary. While I wouldn’t turn any remuneration down, my real goal is for people to read and enjoy my work. Words of praise are more valuable to me than all the gold in the world. If you like my writing, I will love you forever.
What do you have coming next?
Next up for me is Book Three of The Arcadia Chronicles, The Right of Redemption. This book continues the story of the main characters in the first two volumes of the series. Some of the other characters remain and new ones are added. This book follows the main characters, Abby and David, in their careers, their relationships, and their examination of past events that influenced their lives, and brings them into new and challenging situations. I’ve completed the first draft and am now in the editing stage. I plan on another two personal edits before sending it to others for editing, beta reading, and proofing.
I’m also putting some time into a stand-alone novel. It’s mostly in the development stage now, but I hope to expand it. I’m playing with some new techniques and points of view to see how they work. It’s all an experiment and a source of joy.
Excerpt from Fee Simple Conditional
Right now, I’m perched on a slanted gravestone so old and worn, I can barely discern who is buried beneath this stalk of granite. It’s June and at midday, I can feel the small streaks of sweat snaking down my calves from behind my knees. A drop of perspiration stings my eye. All around me lay acres and acres of vacant land, quiet, ghostly, serene. The dead who rest below this small portion of the whole, almost within arm span, will remain undisturbed. I want to believe they are grateful their eternal peace will not be shattered by bulldozers and backhoes cutting the trail of unremitting development.