Chrystyna, I’ve been looking forward to this for ages, because I’m fascinated by the inspiration for your work, your courage in throwing away thousands of words while you’re editing, and how you juggle two essentially full-time jobs. I know you’re here to talk about your latest release, Two Fatherlands, but first, I’d love to hear more about your writing craft. Let me ask right away, does writing energize or exhaust you and how do you wind down / recharge?
I do two very different jobs. My “outdoor” job—the one that sends me out of the house—is also my business. I run a communications training company, meaning I train employees’ soft skills, cross cultural communication, negotiation techniques, business writing, and clear communication techniques. Then, my “indoor” job is writing and marketing my novels. They’re not different so much in content and creativity as they are in how I do those jobs. As a trainer, I am consistently nurturing real people. As an author, it’s my imaginary characters. I have a very outgoing, social dynamic vs a very hermit-like existence when I’m writing.
Both are incredibly fulfilling jobs. Both require different energy sources from me. But, I’ll tell you one thing: when I talk about my writing, everyone says I light up like a lamp. My eyes are aflame, my skin glows, I smile the whole time. I’m like that during and after a really good course, but then I drop dead. I never drop dead when I’ve been writing. My mind might feel like it’s just mushed peas but I never feel utterly drained after a week of intensive writing like I do when I’ve been training all week. On the contrary, I might pick up my manuscript and read it again until 4 a.m. which is always a good sign—me not being tired of it. However, the training job is vital to my writing. So much of what I do in my training job crosses over into the conflicts, interactions and relationships I build in my novels.
My “outdoor” job might also be what keeps me from becoming a total degenerate in my mountain hut existence. Yup, my clients and my husband. Though, since COVID lockdowns, I have taken to wearing no bottoms. I have lots of scarves though. Lots of pretty, pretty scarves for those online meetings and courses.
If you could go anywhere for a year to be inspired for your next book, what setting would you choose and what would you write?
Well, my husband would like nothing else than to spend a year in Burgundy, France and have me write historical novels about wine, cooking, and culture (frankly, he’d miss the vegetables; Burgundy’s answer to veg is potato or cheese).
But me? It would be Turkey, especially Istanbul. Turkey is amazing in itself (I used to live in Izmir for a short stint) but I have a 16th-century series burning a hole in my head. It was inspired by a trip to Istanbul about 8 years ago. My husband and I went with all the kids and had a private tour of the Hagia Sofia. Right there, I knew I wanted to research the story but I kind of got “stuck” writing interwar and WW2 era books.
Istanbul is absolutely amazing. It’s like walking around a layer cake of history, and you sink deeper and deeper in with every step. But this story—which actually would send me back to my Ukrainian roots once again—is something I really want to share with the world. I’m keeping a tight lid on it for the time being. It’s roughly outlined and will require three to five books, and I can’t wait to submerse myself in the history. I have a lot of research to do for what would be new to me, and a year in Turkey would be very fitting (plus their veg dishes are scrumptious).
How important is working with your editor or beta readers, and how would you describe your relationship?
Beta readers rock. Editors are pros, they know exactly what they’re looking for in structure, in language, in style, etc (not always the same person). But readers, they tell you all those nuances that don’t come with the terminology. They give you the feelings, their emotions when readings. And are honest about what confuses them.
I have about four groups of authors and readers that I consistently turned to before my books were released, and now I rely on a regular group of super fans who volunteer to read my drafts for content. Are they getting the story? Is there something that’s confusing? Sometimes they get confused and feel they need to correct grammar and what not, but that’s not the case.
Authors are so deeply immersed in the story that they can’t see the wood for all the trees any longer, so both beta readers and editors are integral to the process. I have my Bookouture editor, Cara Chimirri, who runs through the manuscript with me four times, always looking at different things. My other editor is Dori Harrell, and Dori has worked on all the Reschen Valley books with me. Cara is great with structural edits, and really points out where we can unpack more emotion, restructure a scene and tune up the plot, and Dori is fantastic with language, consistency and the ever-elusive rules for commas (!). I learn from both of them. Just like I learn from my beta readers.
But reviewers! That’s a key relationship that most readers are not really aware of. People who actually review my books and say what they liked and didn’t like are presenting me with the key elements that make a story saleable. I urge all readers to share their reading experiences—we don’t ask for a book report. Nobody needs to know the whole plot or story; it’s not a test about whether you’ve read the book (though, when I read some of my reviews I do wonder whether they haven’t landed on my page by accident). No, what we’re interested in are the elements you enjoyed and didn’t enjoy so that we know what to keep and what to change in future stories. I keep joking that this is one of those rare times when people are begging for you to share your opinion. And your opinion does count. As long as you’re being constructive. If you’re just being a jerk, that rule about “If you can’t say something nice…” Yeah, that applies.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
Absolutely not any longer. My current WIP has been written under sheer duress. I’m under contract. If I hadn’t been, first of all, I’d never have written that book and certainly not as the next book. It began when I sent both The Girl from the Mountains and Souvenirs from Kiev, which is a collection of 6 stories inspired by my relatives’ experiences in WW2 Ukraine. My editor loved both but couldn’t accept a collection and wanted to know if I could write it into a novel. I cringed. I literally felt sick to my stomach. The thing was, those stories were taken out of my first-ever attempt to write a novel. Back then, I was a short-story writer. I had no idea what I was doing when I set out to write that debut. And the last thing I wanted to do was tackle that monster (it took me over a decade to write and consumed my consciousness all that time). So, I’m throwing her stuff that I do want to write and she says, “Yeah, but I need something Eastern European, WW2 to match up with The Girl from the Mountain. The rest of the pitch went something like this:
Me: Well, my father told me that my great-aunt was a spy in Ukraine—
Editor: Yes. That one.
And she signed me up for it!
That’s not a lot to go on. I mean really, it’s not at all! But now I had less than a year to go from a remote idea to a full manuscript. They say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Everyone knows what this year has been like. Challenging and stressful are the biggest understatements. I was on my head, as many people are. I felt like I was in one of those snow globes. God came and shook up my idyllic and bubbled world, and then left that thing sitting upside down. Under a cabinet. In a dark corner. And I’ve been fighting my way back to my top shelf life. But… I wrote a book. It started with this mantra: “This might not be the best book I’ve ever written or ever will write, but it will be the best book I can write right now.” And that reduced a lot of the pressure. But I’m ambitious. Once I got that first draft down, I looked at it and said, “What a red hot mess!” Which is why my working title is Red Hot Borscht (yeah, WW2 Ukraine) but now I’m absolutely driving myself insane in making sure I get this baby to be something I’m really, really proud of.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
Nope. Nothing. Everything I do, every mistake I make, already helps enrich my writing.
Tell us more about your latest book, Two Fatherlands:
What did you edit out of this book?”
Everything. I started all over when I already had about 90K words down. It was just not working. I did four outlines before I figured it out. I tried everything—from Mind Maps to Post-It notes, to notecards, to a binder with every single bit of evidence and research printed out (I will pay some day for all the paper I waste). But when I scratched the second to last attempt and let my readers know that I was going to be delayed by a year, I did it because I knew the book would be better for it. See, this was not the first time I’ve deleted a lot of words. I’m kind of a masochist like that but I know that every time I do, the book ends up getting stronger. It’s almost cleansing and healing to do it now.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I have two rows of German names—first and last, then two rows of Italian names, first and last. I ask myself what is the purpose of the character, I roll it out on the tongue, I say it aloud, I find photos and images from the era of people, find one that inspires me, try out the name and voila. The names come from graveyards I visit on my trips to the settings of my books. Names are important. For example, Angelo Grimani was Pietro Grimani when I first started. When it came time to write the first chapters from his point-of-view, unlike my other two main characters, I heard nothing. I’d written him in from the other characters’ POVs and that had gone well. But I could not get into his head. At all. I took a long walk, happened to be on a writing retreat at the time with 12 other authors, returned from my walk and told them the problem. One asked me for the name of the character, and he said, “Peter means ‘rock’. Is he a rock?” I said, “No. He’s flighty. He’s uncertain. He’s trying hard to do the right thing but there is nothing solid about him. On the contrary.” And my colleague said, “Well, there you go. You’ve got the wrong name.” The name “Angelo” chimed down from the heavens, and suddenly the first lines of the chapter spilled out of my head in something like 1.3 seconds.
What was your hardest scene to write?
The ending. I knew exactly what I was going for. I always do. But the ending does not flow until it hits critical time pressure. Then it will come. I don’t know what it is, but my entire body resists writing endings. The ending takes me the longest, too.
Are any of your characters in this book based on real people you know?
Yes, a little bit of everyone I have ever met and know. Lots of me. Especially the dark stuff… it’s the side of me I don’t dare share in public but if you ever think, “Ooooh! That’s just bad!” That’s me. I’m a Scorpio. I keep myself on a short leash, but Lord, do I love writing revenge scenes. And pranks. Lots of pranks.
And then some characters are based on people I know more so than others. But I’m not telling…
What was the most difficult part of your artistic process for this book?
Wrapping up all the teeny tiny plot threads and correcting all the amateur pitfalls I had when I started out this series. In 2010, I had very little idea about what I was doing. A standalone, sure. But a series? Nope. I had so many complexities written in that trying to bring it all together into Two Fatherlands was driving me insane. I was a pantser when I started writing—writing by the seat of my pants. Now I’m a plotter. I will never go back to pantsing. Nope, nope. (That might be why I resist wearing bottoms now??).
I hear you! Once a plotter, always a plotter (pants or no pants)! Loved our chat, Chrystyna! Two Fatherlands is on sale now.
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Angus & Robertson
Chrystyna Lucyk-Berger is an American author living in Austria. Her focus is on historical fiction. She has been a managing editor for a magazine publishing house, has worked as an editor, and has won several awards for her travel narrative, flash fiction and short stories. She lives with her husband in a “Grizzly Adams” hut in the Alps, just as she’d always dreamt she would when she was a child.
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