While being of romantic mind and heart, Celeste Bradley also has a clear grasp on reality. She married her beloved at the tender age of 19, and lives in California where they are raising two delightful daughters. Her wonderfully warm sense of humor and unassuming personality has me captivated and following closely with the desire to know her better. What are her secrets to success and happiness as a writer, as a woman, as a person?
Celeste is full of intrigue and has lived a varied and interesting life. She is well versed in the indulgences of the imaginative heart, and she works hard at her craft. The road to her most recent reality has been flavored by a variety of experiences. She filled all sorts of roles, from drugstore cashier to birthday clown, before realizing that she wanted to be a writer. And despite her great success as a historical romance author, Celeste remains down-to-earth, humble, and easy to relate to.
While reading Ray Bradbury’s collection of essays on writing, “Zen in the Art of Writing,” Celeste discovered that Bradbury is “an unapologetic genre writer who shamelessly pulls from his childhood favorites . . . and makes no pretensions to literary heights.” This is how Celeste describes herself too. She loves her books, her genre, and the adventure of life. This passion is unmistakable throughout the content of her website and the interview she so kindly gave us.
IN: How did you originally become a full-time, professional author?
Celeste Bradley: There are two versions of this story. One is that I wrote a book on a whim and sent it to New York just to see what would happen. The second is that I first tried and stalled at several creative careers. I tried to be a classical alto, an actress, and an artist. Hard work will only get you so far without natural talent!
Although I worshiped books, I had never written anything (other than some bad teenage poetry). I simply never considered writing, thinking that writers must be very special people – touched by the gods – for how else could they transport me to another world the way they do? It didn’t occur to me that I could be one of those people, so it never entered my mind that I might try.
I was in a romance-reading phase, having worked my way through all the autobiographies, science fiction, and mysteries in the local library. I read a story where a promising beginning led to something ridiculous, so I decided to write what I thought should have really happened. The only reason I wrote the entire book was that my friends begged to find out what happened next.
That book I wrote for my friends became my first published novel, “Fallen,” which I sold in less than a year. It was nominated for Best First Book of 2001 by the Romance Writers of America. I have since published ten more books in five years. After searching so long, I am happy to say that I have finally found my creative place in the world.
IN: What ways do you find prove most effective when promoting a new novel?
CB: My website and email newsletter are the only promotion I do, other than a few fun local book signings.
IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career and why?
CB: My husband, who is a sports journalist, is very inspirational – primarily because he does all the laundry and grocery shopping, but also because as a writer he is disciplined, creative, and always, always professional.
My anthropologist friend taught me the secret of the universe, which she discovered while completing her master’s thesis. “Forward motion only.” It means, “write the whole thing before you start to polish and craft.” It also means, “don’t sweat the success or failure of a book already finished. Move on and write another, and another, and another.” It is a very important thing. Learn it, know it, use it.
Other writers inspire me. Joss Whedon, who created “Buffy” and “Firefly” for television, for being a dreamer and a doer. Ray Bradbury, for being completely unapologetic about being a commercial genre fiction writer. Lois McMaster Bujold, a science fiction writer who is my characterization guru. Jennifer Weiner, who is not afraid to hit where it hurts, but makes you laugh through it. I also derive inspiration from Elizabethan poetry, movies about high school, and manga.
IN: What approach or methods do you use when researching and writing?
CB: I first plunge right into the story on the wave of early inspiration. My muse Edna, a chain-smoking barfly with ADD and a preference for shaven-headed bikers, never hangs around long. If I don’t get my characters down immediately, I might not find them again until nearly the end of the book. This can be, as you might imagine, a bad thing.
Early inspiration usually runs out on about page 150. Then it starts to be hard work. Around page 250, my complicated plots usually start to swing out of control. I then back away and think. I make index cards of each existing scene and any possible future scenes and then lay them out on the floor, shuffling and rearranging, adding and discarding until I am satisfied with the bones of the story. This takes at least one day without interference from husband or children or dog.
I use Christopher Vogler’s version of the Hero’s Journey at this point, making sure that I have established a full three-act story circle.
Then, I use the cards to make a ten-to-fifteen foot flowchart which I accordion-fold and keep next to the computer. The thing that makes that worthwhile is that I can make notes on the flowchart without ever going back into what was already written. “Forward motion only!”
I don’t research until I hit the point of using a fact I haven’t used before. Then I research for added depth and to make sure that I’m not being an idiot. I am not wedded to the historical research, because most of the historians I’ve met can’t agree on anything anyway. I write romantic fantasies—brain chocolate!—and I take no responsibility for anyone’s historical education. The truth is where my story starts, not where it ends.
For me, the entire process of writing, plotting, researching and editing a 100,000-word manuscript takes about four months. It is all I do, all day long. I don’t have a “day job” and I don’t scrub my own toilets. I write hard.
IN: How important is it for writers to have a website presence in this day and age?
CB: Website. Website. Website. And don’t just sell your books. Sell yourself. Be a person, have a life, and blog about it. Find a way to make what you offer on the Web really special. For instance, I use my art background to create drawings of all my characters and the locations of the events in the books. I also offer behind-the-scenes on what inspired me to write each book and what I liked best about it. The next step will be to provide discussion group questions for each book.
IN: How do you categorize your writing? Would you consider your writing as chick-lit, suspense/romance, intrigue/espionage, or some other category of writing?
CB: If I had to name it, I’d call it “historical romantic comedy/intrigue.” “Like Moonlighting” in long dresses. With sex.
IN: What is the intention of dividing your books into categories such as The Liars Club and The Royal Four, and then having an online quiz associated with The Liars Club?
CB: The Liar’s Club is a series about a ring of spies that disguise themselves as a ring of thieves operating out of a gambling hell. They are a mix of real thieves and gentlemen, recruited as needed to battle the evil Emperor Napoleon. The Royal Four are their bosses, the upper class gents who secretly pull the political strings of England, the Star Chamber sort.
The quiz is just for fun, because I received so many letters from wistful readers, asking how to become a Liar. If the Liars operated in this day and age, those are the criterion they might use. As for the Royal Four, you don’t get to apply. You are selected by the current Lion, Falcon, Fox, or Cobra and the appointment is for life.
IN: When dealing with agents and publicists, what suggestions and warnings can you pass along to “about-to-be authors”?
CB: No agent is better than a bad agent. If your relationship with your agent is not one of trust and mutual respect—and if your agent isn’t just nuts about your work—then you need to politely exit and be on the lookout for new representation. Also, I know people whose agents aren’t located in New York, but I think there is advantage to an agent who regularly lunches with your publisher and editor. A lot of excellent business gets done that way.
As for publicists—I don’t have one. I suppose I’ll need one eventually, but right now I’m concentrating on writing good books and serving up a fun website.
IN: What are the greatest challenges facing new writers on the path to becoming successful authors?
CB: Your primary obstacle will probably always be yourself. It is also the only thing in the publishing world that you have any real control over. You can spend a lot of time trying to work the market, whatever that means to you, but it will always do what it wants anyway, so you might as well spend your energy on your books. Write your story, your way. Write another one. And another one. Make each one the very best you can do at that moment, then move on. Trying to control the uncontrollable seems to me to be a sort of crutch, as if people don’t trust their own abilities enough to believe that they will make it without the illusion of knowing the market.
Now that is not to say that you cannot be commercial—although I prefer the term “universal appeal,” because there are some things in human nature that appeal to everyone—but you have to believe in it first. I happen to like commercial fiction. I happen to find value in funny, sexy, escapist stories for women. Our lives can occasionally suck, and we deserve a treat. I take pride in delivering the fantasy. I think that my esteem for my genre comes through in my books. I think my readers feel respected and not condescended to. It is something you can’t fake.
IN: One of your novels you co-authored with Leslie LaFoy. Agatha Christie has been quoted as saying, “I’ve always believed in writing without a collaborator, because where two people are writing the same book, each believes he gets all the worry and only half the royalties.” How do you feel about writing partners and the pros and cons associated with a collaboration?
CB: Personally, I hate the idea. I can’t even let anyone read my work until it’s completed. Luckily, since “My Scandalous Bride” was an anthology, not a collaboration, I didn’t have to let any more cooks into my kitchen. Leslie and I wrote different novellas, variations on a theme, not a single novel.
IN: Any final writing advice to our readers?
CB: Entertain yourself. If you are amused, or saddened, or thrilled by your story there’s a good chance your readers will be too. And don’t forget to open a vein now and then. Go to the dangerous, raw places inside yourself. If nothing else, you’ll make someone else out there feel less alone. It won’t be easy, but good writing shouldn’t be easy. If it was easy, everyone could do it.
IN: What’s next on your writing agenda?
CB: I just turned in the first book of my new trilogy, which will be released back-to-back in early 2008. Tomorrow I start Book Two. Three cousins must vie to marry a duke in order to win the enormous inheritance left in their social-climbing grandfather’s will. Each story rewrites a favorite fairy-tale—“Sleeping Beauty,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Cinderella”—but without magic, it must all be accomplished by love!
Bibliography as of October, 2006:
“To Wed a Scandalous Spy,” St. Martin’s Press
“Surrender to a Wicked Spy,” St. Martin’s Press
“One Night with A Spy,” St. Martin’s Press
“Seducing the Spy,” St. Martin’s Press
“The Pretender,” St. Martin’s Press
“The Impostor,” St. Martin’s Press
“The Spy,” St. Martin’s Press
“The Charmer,” St. Martin’s Press
“The Rogue,” St. Martin’s Press
“Fallen,” Dorchester Publishing
First published by Inkwell Newswatch (IN)
Under the nom de plume Penelope Jensen
© Julie Pierce and Julie’s Writing Portfolio, 2005-2011.