This interview of Ellen Ekstrom, acclaimed author of historical literary novels THE LEGACY and ARMOR OF LIGHT, is the first of our author interviews. Our authors will be interviewed by other authors and by doing so, gain better insight into the psyche and process behind the writing experience.
Did we achieve our goal with this? We welcome your comments or questions for Ellen, Jay or ourselves.
Jay B. Gaskill is a well-known California trial and appellate lawyer who served as a Public Defender until 1999, but left his “life of crime” to devote more time to his writing projects. He loves humor and philosophy equally; science and science fiction interchangeably; Manhattan and the western wilderness irresistibly. His fiction works are peopled with likeable heroes and recognizable villains whose struggles are disturbed by dichotomous themes. He has completed two thrillers and is working on a number of other fiction works. For more about Jay, please visit: http://www.jaygaskill.com/Profile.pdf
Jay: As a writer, you have three “day” jobs: You work in a law firm, you are a deacon in your Berkeley church and you are a mom. Yet you have written two well researched, engaging novels, both recently published. How in the world did you pull this off?
Ellen: First, let’s rearrange my personalities as they are: I’m a mother first, clergy, then legal secretary, and the writer is a chief element in each of these lives I lead. Like my faith, it holds me together. I’m still trying to figure out how I did it – I think that will be my epitaph, “How did she do it????” Seriously, it came of years of discipline. I try to write a few pages a day – first thing in the morning and the last thing at night. It was something I wanted and I pursued it. The writing part of me has always been strong, vital, sustaining. The hardest three years of my life was when I was in seminary for the diaconate and I put the creative writing aside. During that time, however, I was writing – sermons and theological reflections.
Jay: Both of your novels are set in places and times far from modern sensibilities: Medieval England (Armor of Light) and Italy (The Legacy). What was it about these settings that attracted you, and – for your new readers – what explains their attraction for a 21st century audience?
Ellen: The middle ages were a period of turmoil, advancement, superstition, political upheaval and discovery – sounds like 21st century life to me! My only criticism of the medieval period is what it did to the Christian church – it took the body of Christ out of the church and made it a private club for a select few, used it to subjugate people. I think some of that comes out in Legacy and in Armor, don’t you think? Okay, climbing down out of the pulpit now!
Jay: In the Armor of Light, the courtship between George and Joanna is more gentle, more serious and much more perilous than the hyped up, text-twitter infatuated ‘hookups’ of the current culture. Is romance dead in the 21st century? Or was it an exceptional event, even in the setting of your novel?
Ellen: Romance will never die, how we go about finding it changes. People long for companionship, for a soul-mate, and some are fortunate enough to find their perfect match, some never will. Some people have enduring loves that last forever in the heart and mind, even though the physical aspect of that love was only for a year, a month, or however long it might have been.
George and Joanna are two misfits who recognize that they ‘fit.’ Neither expect anything from one another. They discover how much they actually need the other – not just in the physical sense, but spiritually, emotionally. Both dislike one another when they meet – perhaps it is because they see so much of themselves in each other? Or perhaps it is because they sense the other needs love and acceptance and they are willing to offer it unconditionally.
Jay: How long have you been writing fiction, and when did your imagination first light up with these characters and settings?
Ellen: I’ve been writing fiction since I was a small child. “Big Red” tablets with number two pencils were my instruments of choice. A short story was one page, a full-length novel was five to ten pages. I used to spend my summer days and weekends writing stories and designing the book covers. A high school English teacher, Robert Beck, told me I should consider writing as a career.
I’ve always been fascinated by the medieval period – I think Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” was an inspiration, but so was Ingrid Berman’s “Joan of Arc.” Many of the early Italian Renaissance painters were an inspiration, too. I’d look at the paintings and just want to leap in and be a part of the triptych or fresco. I wanted to write about people who, despite their social standing were really ‘ordinary’ people – people with warts, problems, less than heroic or smart when dealing with their lives, but doing heroic things.
Francesco came of a dream I had about a young man at a flea market trying to sell art work! I think I was 18 – Francesco been with me that long. Strange. His look, demeanor, just stuck with me. The comment I hear and read the most is, “I luvvvvvv Francesco!” from men and women alike.
George’s character came from a dark period of my life. The struggle of good versus evil was going on, I was wandering about in a spiritual desert and I thought of the story of a young man who does what everyone expects of him and fails miserably until he starts seeking for God, wanting God back in his life, and surrenders himself to the overwhelming, unconditional love of God through Christ. My daughter says that Joanna is me. I take that as a compliment. These are people I would hang out with in places I’d want to live.
Jay: Writers often report that at a certain critical point in the story-creation, one or more of the characters begin the shape the story, as if they had minds of their own? Did this happen to you? What does that mean?
Ellen: Yes, it happened in that certain characters came from nothing and became quite wonderful, like Serafina Giustini in Legacy and George and Joanna in Armor. George and Joanna developed quite naturally – I didn’t even think about what I wrote – it just appeared on the computer screen and I needed very little editing. Serafina grew up as the story progressed, a dutiful nobleman’s daughter doing what is expected of her and expecting that if she makes a deal, people better honor it no matter what. Italian women of that period had a bit more freedom than their French and English sisters. With Francesco, he became the elephant in the room – he was someone larger than life, impossibly good looking, flawed, but you rooted for him (as I’ve been told) so I started rooting for him, too. He softened, I think, with Serafina’s trust and love, and Gian Maria’s friendship, but a darkness permeated his being and he tried desperately to move out of it. I don’t know what it means, that the characters hand minds of their own, but I do know that characters do shape the story. Certain events cannot happen without people to move them along. I suppose one could write about a thunder storm, but it would only be description, wouldn’t it? It would be a real story, in my mind, if it happened that two people get caught in the storm and seek shelter. You want to know why they’re out in the storm in the first place, and what happens when they seek shelter. When I invent characters, I want them to be real. I want them to speak as I would, behave as I would.
Jay: It seems that fiction marketers are obsessed with genre classifications. But a good read is a good read. Are these books “crossover” works in the sense that they can’t (or shouldn’t) be pigeon holed into a genre category?
Ellen: Well, they are in category – historical fiction. I was pleased, however, when Legacy was first published in trade paperback by Trivium, that Barnes & Noble categorized it as literature and copies of the book were shelved next to George Eliot. Someone took the time to read the book and find out what exactly it was. Bravo! Genre categories help bookstores decide where to put their books. My books are a little of several categories, including literary.
Jay: These two books have the ring of authenticity. How did you achieve that?
Ellen: I did a tremendous amount of research for both stories, including a stay in Italy, a jousting class, wearing armor, holding weapons, riding a horse. I learned to weave. And by the way, when you get hit in the head with a shield while wearing a helmet, you get a wonderful bell-like ring that stays with you for days. Key of D, I think! I was told by my high school English teacher that you need to know about what you write, and write about what you know – so I did everything I could to find out about fourteenth century Italy, including visiting the actual places I wrote about. Francesco’s house in Florence is modeled after the Palazzo Davanzati – a social museum. It’s a fourteenth century townhouse restored to look as it did in the period. I also visited La Casa Giulietta in Verona for research (and sentimental reasons!) and used that wonderful 13-14th century townhouse for a model, too. Italy has wonderful castles, and the Guidi family owned several hundred, so I toured castle ruins in the Casentino, including the Castello di Romena and Poppi. I haven’t been to England or Yorkshire, but with the help of the Internet, I was able to see the area where most of the action in Armor of Light takes place. I wanted a beautiful, haunting, yet desolate place, so I took out a map of Yorkshire and found a place called Arkengarthdale – just the name hooked me. And then I found Eskeleth. I downloaded free photos from Webshots (okay, free promotion for one of my favorite websites) of Cumbria and the Lake District, Yorkshire and made a slide show that I would just click through, studying, meditating. My imagination went wild – I wanted to show a landscape or room as it would look to George and Francesco, and have the characters do and say things that I would do or say. How would it sound to an audience in a theatre? Is this a place that is real? Do these people behave in a way that would seem normal for the time? I did my best to stay away from modern people dressed up in medieval garb.
Jay: Your readers will be wondering whether they will see any of their favorite characters again. Are you working on anything that you can reveal? What’s next from the mind of Ellen Ekstrom?
Ellen: I’m actually working on prequels to both stories – both dealing with how Francesco and George and Joanna became who they were. Truth be told, I wanted to kill off Francesco, but I have a feeling that villagers with torches and pitchforks would come after me. I never realized how loyal my readers are to this one character! I have a modern story that continues my “St. George” theme that will be finished soon. It’s a bit more personal than anything I’ve done before and it’s part comedy, part drama – what happens when a burned-out, pissed off woman tells the world to bugger off and does what she wants to do, rather than what everyone expects of her? It will shock some people, but my friends and family will say, “That’s Ellen!” I actually wrote the first draft in 1995 when I was going through some personal turmoil – strange, how writers get their A game on when they’re being tortured by something! I’m always writing something, whether it be about knights on horseback, or breaking down scripture for a sermon.