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Interview w/ Debut Novelist Heather Gilbert

Today I’ll be chatting with Heather Gilbert, author of the forthcoming God’s Daughter, a Viking Historical. Being that I know so little about Vikings, and even less about why a homemaker from West Virginia would write about them, I figured I’d visit with Heather and dig a little deeper.

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MIKE: Hi, Heather! Thanks for visiting. I’ve always been fascinated by West Virginia. Especially for its ghost heather-gilbert-1stories. Native Americans believed West Virginia’s hills and hollows were haunted. Are they?

HEATHER: In a word, yes. But we might debate what ghosts really are. I have pretty strong views on such things…in fact, my first novel, Otherworld, was a ghost story set in WV. Since that novel probably won’t break into the CBA anytime soon, I’m lining it up on my to-edit list for self-publishing. Anyway, back to the ghosts. The house I’m living in now was haunted, but it’s not anymore. Why? When my Christian grandma moved in and started praying, those ghosts moved out. Let’s just say I’m keeping that prayer tradition alive.

MIKE: “God’s Daughter” is a Viking historical. Not something your typical West Virginian homemaker would write about. Why Vikings?

HEATHER: Well, I do tend to crave violence…but seriously, why write something that’s been written a thousand times before? I’m interested in Vikings since I’m supposedly related to Eirik the Red. When I bought my own copy of The Sagas of Icelanders, I was fascinated with stories of Gudrid, a Viking Christian woman who took stands for God in the midst of her pagan culture. The more I read, the more I realized the sagas were solid bones of a story that needed to be fleshed out. I hope I did it justice.

MIKE: What are some of the myths about Vikings that you think need dispelled?

HEATHER: People assume they lived like filthy animals. Archaeologically, we see the opposite: they had tweezers, ear cleaners, hair combs…humans are humans, no matter what time period. I imagine they were aware when they started stinking. My Vikings do clean themselves.

Gods-Daughter-CoverAlso, the idea they had no understanding of the human body. Again, Vikings weren’t stupid–I don’t think humans ever have been, much as evolutionists would have us believe. In my novel, Gudrid was a healer, so she understood herbs and observed what affected people’s health. She even stitches a wound, which I didn’t feel was far-fetched given my research.

One of the major myths I wanted to dispel was that Vikings fought all the time at the drop of the hat. Yes, some Vikings had shorter fuses than others (Eirik the Red was always getting himself exiled), but most of the time they were fighting to protect their families or honor. In God’s Daughter, there’s a battle scene with the Native Americans (“Skraelings“), but we see the Vikings were outnumbered and felt backed against the wall.

MIKE: I’ve often pondered why historical fiction is so popular among Christian readers. Do you have a theory?

HEATHER: It depends on how you define historical fiction. To me, it’s not the same as historical romance, which has dominated Christian fiction for years. Like Amish fiction, I think the trend is about escaping to a different way of life. Maybe we think those past times were more important somehow, or more glamorous. Might explain why none of the Christian publishers wanted to market a Christian Medieval–not the most glam time period out there, when you get down to it. But I felt it was an important time to talk about–I mean, these Viking Christians had no Bibles. BUT they were documented Christians. What was life like for them? And since Medieval is popular outside Christian circles, why shouldn’t Christians be addressing it?

Back to the escapism theory–maybe the escape also has to do with the romance, which is generally entwined in most historical Christian novels. Though I’ve discovered some excellent CBA historical and suspense romance authors, romance isn’t the genre I tend to pick up first. I don’t really write historical romance either, since my main characters are married–and by industry standards, that makes them immune to romance (grin). That might launch me into another impassioned discussion….

I guess I was trying to model my Viking historical along the lines of a typical ABA historical–focusing on the historical characters and not on the romance. Delving into character, motivations, and setting, while tackling family/marriage dynamics. Sort of like Mists of Avalon, only in reverse–mine wasn’t pro-paganism.

MIKE: Can you tell us a little about the “journey” of “God’s Daughter”? When did you begin writing it? Did you seek an agent? Where was it shopped? What was the response like? Things like that.

HEATHER: I wrote God’s Daughter after Otherworld got shot down (around 2010-11), because I thought a historical would be easy to place in the CBA. I quickly realized Vikings were outside the “box” when authors/agents began telling me Medieval was a hard time period to sell, not to mention that most CBA historicals needed to be set in America. Half my book was set in NORTH America, but not the USA proper. (Thank goodness the Regency boom has changed that perspective a bit, and now you can find CBA histfic set in other countries.)

I found an agent who loved my story (and also had mad editorial skills). We shopped it to the major Christian publishing houses–maybe twelve or so? The book was out on submission over a year and a half–yes, you read that right. Adding to the frustration was the fact that none of the houses criticized the writing or story, but in the end, the response was always, “We can’t market this time period.”

MIKE: So why did you decide to self-publish “God’s Daughter”?

HEATHER: I had felt a pull that direction, but didn’t want to take that burden on myself, so I sort of stalled. In the interim, I wrote a contemporary mystery and signed with yet another agent (I’ve had three total), so I tried to focus on that. While agent-hunting, I entered God’s Daughter in Genesis and got responses all over the board. What one judge loved, the other judge hated. After a good editorial review at Writer’s Edge service, I paid to have the blurb out with all the publishing houses for a couple of months.

But at some point, I realized God’s Daughter was not your typical CBA fare. I had married main characters. I had characters who died. I had some grittier, realistic scenes. I remember one particular week when I had to admit to myself that I’d knocked on doors long enough, and that God was pushing me to take the leap and self-pub. That same week, I finally heard back from the last publisher who’d been sitting on the MS. Their glowing review, coupled with the “We can’t market this time period,” seemed ironic, but at the same time, liberating. They weren’t going to take a chance on Vikings, but I knew I could. It brought a sense of freedom. No longer did I have to convince anyone that Vikings were a viable topic for a novel. I could take my book to the readers and let them decide.

MIKE: This is your first self-published novel. I’m always fascinated by the process authors take. How much of the formatting, cover design, and editing have you farmed out and/or done yourself? What’s been the most difficult part of the process?

HEATHER: Part of why I was loathe to self-pub at first was because I knew I couldn’t afford much. And quite honestly, most of this novel has been an inside job, so to speak.

Edits went smoothly–my agent had done content edits, and early in the game I’d paid to have 55 pages edited. I’d also been part of an online ABA histfic crit group, which helped me nail down the historical details. When that started consuming too much time, I moved on to beta readers and crit partners. I have one crit partner…if she says “Jump,” I say, “How high?” Literally, she has strengths where I’m weak and has an innate sense of where I’m going with my stories. You have to be very discerning with crit partners–some have voices that will overpower your own, or they want to chop and take your story in a direction that’s not true to your intent.

Cover art–I was blessed to have a techie brother, and he took my stock art photo and turned it into something that still makes me catch my breath. I wanted something that looked professional and didn’t shout “self-published!”

My crit partner also knows how to format (what a blessing!). I’ve tried to do all I can with it, but I always get her eyes on it first. I’m a bit nervous about hitting “Publish” on Amazon, but I know it will be as ready as it’ll ever be. My crit partner has also self-pubbed so she knows what she’s doing (shout-out to Becky Doughty, author of Elderberry Croft).

I guess the most difficult part has been coming up with marketing techniques. I have a stellar core group of followers. But at this point, I definitely spend more time marketing than writing, which kind of breaks my little writer heart. I can’t go all Emily Dickinson and cloister myself in the house. I’ve had to take my courage in both hands, asking well-established authors to be early readers. I constantly run the risk of ticking people off with too much “Look at my book!” But I’d rather be out there a bit too much than be invisible. As a self-pubber, I’m the biggest advocate for my book, so I’m going to market the snot out of it. Pardon the expression.

MIKE: You’ve mentioned before that this story is not typical CBA fare. In what ways? With a title like “God’s Daughter,” it seems aimed at a Christian reader. Is it? Do you think this story will also appeal to general market readers?

HEATHER: With married main characters, I can’t label my book romance. The ending of God’s Daughter isn’t tied up with a bow, with all issues resolved (though I feel the major ones are). I would also say that in the CBA, a married main character who struggles with her feelings toward other men isn’t typical (though Julie Cantrell’s recent When Mountains Move handles this topic well). Unlike many male romance leads, my men don’t always know the right things to say and do. I prefer male characters who are as complex as the women–characters who can’t always explain what they’re feeling, but it resonates with us as readers because we’re peering into their worlds.

Honestly, one of the best compliments I ever got was from an ABA reader/author who said she didn’t know whether to love or hate the husband (Finn) in God’s Daughter. That’s when I knew I was doing something right. Because sometimes our spouses drive us crazy…yet we still love them.

When I write, I always deal with topics I see the church body struggling with, so yes, a large part of my target audience is Christians. However, I always have non-Christian characters in my novels, and I try to keep the storyline non-preachy. I’m a firm believer my Christian worldview is going to show up in my books, just like a non-Christian’s would. No book is immune to espousing some sort of worldview. I make no bones about the fact that I’m a Christian and I made very clear in my Amazon blurb that my book deals with paganism versus Christianity.

The title just worked on so many levels for me, one of which was that Gudrid used to be a pagan seeress (volva) and turned her back on that life. So she knew about the gods (plural), but became a Christian and daughter of the one true God. I also have some father issues going on in the book that I won’t elaborate on here.

As far as alienating readers, I don’t think so–I’ve already gotten a great response from the ABA community. People want an accurate view of Viking history. They might not like my take on pagan versus Christian Vikings, but they can’t deny it’s based on the sagas and on historical facts. Even the TV series Vikings skews the facts to their worldview. Mostly I just want people to see through Vikings’ eyes and realize their core motivations weren’t so far removed from ours.

MIKE: Tell us about your upcoming projects. Will you be following-up on this Viking series? Are you currently shopping some other projects?

HEATHER: Yes on both counts. I have a contemporary mystery, Miranda Warning, out on proposal with CBA publishers right now. I’m trying to remain hopeful, but again, I have a married MC (a gun-toting pregnant housewife, to be specific!) and my topic matter isn’t typical. Some people think I’m putting the cart before the horse, self-publishing before I’m traditionally published. But I’ve been trying to get traditionally published for 5 1/2 years. I truly believe what Dan Balow (agent at Steve Laube) said recently–something along the lines of, “The readers are the new gatekeepers.” That gives me hope…I’ve actually had readers since I blogged the first thirteen chapters of Otherworld, five years ago.

My second Viking novel will be titled Forest Child and the main character, Freydis, was a side character in God’s Daughter (she’s Gudrid’s sister-in-law and Eirik the Red’s illegitimate daughter). According to the sagas, Freydis did some crazy things and I’m still trying to understand what would push her to do them. I’ve started that novel, but it’s still in the early stages. I guess it depends on if the mystery gets picked up as to which book I’ll be working on next.

Thank you so much for having me visit, Mike. You know I’ve been following deCompose for a long time, and I love that we can talk issues over here in an open forum. I’m pleased as punch to chat Vikings with you today.

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Great stuff, Heather! Thanks for visiting. Readers, you can find out more about Heather at her website. Look for her Viking novel, God’s Daughter, coming to Amazon November 1, 2013.

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{ 26 comments… add one }
  • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2013, 5:59 AM

    Thanks so much for having me visit, Mike. I totally enjoyed these questions–sorry if my answers ran a bit long!

  • Jen Cudmore October 17, 2013, 7:37 AM

    I’m so excited about this book! I believe there is a market for this type of content. Congrats, Heather!

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2013, 7:45 AM

      Thank you, Jen! I’m hoping this will open some new doors for writers to write their passion with confidence–esp. if you passion is Medieval…grin.

  • Jessica E. Thomas October 17, 2013, 8:18 AM

    I think you are doing very well with your marketing. I feel the building excitement around your book. Well done! Looking forward to taking a look.

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2013, 8:22 AM

      Thanks so much, Jessica. Trying to start a buzz and keep it going is kind of tricky, and I have surely had some marketing fails along the way. But I haven’t spent any money yet, so I can afford to fail at this point in the game! Thanks for your interest.

  • Eileen Rife October 17, 2013, 8:44 AM

    God’s best to you with God’s Daughter, Heather! Enjoyed your interview!

  • Connie Almony October 17, 2013, 10:55 AM

    Heather, I can’t wait to read this book. Yes, I tend to like a little romance in my stories, but I’m going to read this one anyway ;o). I hope your enormous sales will show CBA they need to open up to new ideas. I love the real and flawed characters myself. Gives us all hope that in the end, even we flawed real-people can have happy endings of a sort too :o).

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2013, 11:17 AM

      Connie, thanks so much for your encouragement. I think there’s quite a bit of romance in the novel, but it’s married romance…not sure if you’ve read WHEN MOUNTAINS MOVE, but I feel it’s a lot like that in terms of married romance. And as for enormous sales–thanks for those wishes! I hope so too! Flawed/real characters are the ones that always stick w/me the longest, too. I love characters that remind me of people I know OR myself!

  • Becky Doughty October 17, 2013, 12:10 PM

    Well, of course I had to chime in today. Heather – I’m so thrilled about this book, and one of the things that really resonates with me is that you DO incorporate the romantic and sexual tension of a woman who aches for a man’s heart (am I allowed to say “sexual” here? Oh wait. We’re on Mike Duran’s site. Of COURSE I’m allowed to say it!), but it’s on such a visceral level, because the lines have already been drawn by the laws of marriage. Does that make sense without giving away too much?

    I wanted to point out something else that I feel is really, really, REALLY important as Heather’s critique partner. Heather did not shuck the responsibility of any part of this process. Her editorial skills are phenomenal, her eye for details, her vision even for the cover. She mentioned my formatting “skillz” and self-publishing experience, but Heather NEVER tried to unload anything on me that she could figure out how to do herself. She took it on her own shoulders to learn things by doing, by researching, by rolling up her sleeves and getting her hands dirty. My point in saying this is that choosing a critique partner goes both ways – we need to be discerning about those we take close to our hearts (and the hearts of our book babies), but we also have to BE the right critique partner, too. The moment a relationship like this gets “lopsided” is the moment it no longer works. Heather and I have worked hard to find this balance, and she has become just as invaluable to me as she claims I am to her.

    And Heather – BURN, BABY, BURN!

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2013, 12:21 PM

      I just have no words, Becky! You ARE invaluable to me! Thanks soooo much for all your kind words. Iron sharpening iron!

      Yes, that is a great descrip of Gudrid’s feelings through the book…she’s definitely a woman with “altogether too many men in her life,” as she says at one point. Hoping it’ll resonate with many. And I would not have reached this point w/out your encouragement, selflessness w/your time, and prayers, Becky!

  • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2013, 12:27 PM

    And Mike, I read your intro sentence like 3 times and every time I read it I chuckle: “Being that I know so little about Vikings, and even less about why a homemaker from West Virginia would write about them…”

  • Gwendolyn Gage October 17, 2013, 1:18 PM

    Love this interview, Mike and Heather, and I’m so excited for the release of “God’s Daughter”. I find Viking history fascinating, and its about time a Christian author started tackling issues on the side of “married”. It’s so needed in today’s world. Bless you!

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2013, 1:22 PM

      Thanks so much, Gwen! I know, with so many marriages teetering, it seems important to reach that demographic, with stories they can relate to.

  • Jill October 17, 2013, 4:05 PM

    Great interview! I read historicals occasionally, so I’ll take a gander on yours once it’s out.

  • Erin Unger October 17, 2013, 5:06 PM

    I second Connie Almony’s comment. I also hope this will open up the market to this time period. Blessings on your release date, Heather.

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 17, 2013, 5:56 PM

      I agree, Erin…I feel there are whole time periods and locales in history that have been ignored for too long in Christian fiction. I’d love to see more Asian novels, for example.

  • Heather Sunseri October 18, 2013, 4:45 AM

    Congratulations, Heather. I am so excited for you!

    I love how you point out that it’s 100% normal to self-publish and work on building an audience, while simultaneously pursuing other publishing avenues at the same time. It’s a wonderful time to make publishing decisions based on what’s best for the particular writer and what he/she has written. Just because one publisher or a group of publishers can’t figure out how to market a particular novel, doesn’t mean there’s not a market for it. So, YOU GO GIRL!

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 18, 2013, 7:18 AM

      Thanks so much, Heather–you know your decision to self-pub has inspired SO many of us! You always knew your goals, your target audience, and your timetable, and you went for your dreams, 100%–learning all you needed to in the process to produce a great finished product. And yes, I love the idea that those who will love my writing will be able to find me now, just like your audience has found you! Thanks, gal!

  • Karen Peters October 18, 2013, 8:06 PM

    Hi Mike,
    I have lurked on your site for some time but never posted before. I met you in person at ACFW conference last year (I tried not to act like a groupie). I really enjoyed “The Telling” – are you going to write a sequel? Thanks much for a great interview and site. Always informative and thought-provoking.
    And to Heather – I wish you all the best. I also write medieval and I relate completely to your critique results as mine were the same! And I heard so often that “medieval is a hard sell” which makes no sense to me as it thrives in the secular world. I too have reluctantly decided to self-pub but I threw in the towel much quicker than you did. Honestly, the process was just robbing me of the passion to keep writing. Thanks much, you inspire me and I look forward to reading your book!

  • Heather Day Gilbert October 19, 2013, 11:48 AM

    Karen, so lovely to meet a fellow “Medievalist!” And I loved THE TELLING too (still ticked it hasn’t won any awards as it SHOULD HAVE). Thanks so much for commenting today! I agree–waiting too long can definitely rob you of writing your “passion”–especially when you know there’s already a readership out there who loves that time period.

  • tcavey October 28, 2013, 4:42 PM

    Excellent interview! I can’t wait to read God’s Daughter. I don’t usually read much Christian Fic but I’m really looking forward to your story, Heather.

    Great Questions Mike.

    • Heather Day Gilbert October 28, 2013, 8:03 PM

      Thanks so much for swinging by and reading this interview, TC! I can’t wait to get the book out there, either! I’m so thankful for all your support along the way, girl.

      • tcavey October 28, 2013, 8:46 PM

        You’re an inspiration to so many! Thank you for your kindness, generosity, cheerfulness and friendship. I’m blessed to know you.

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