Interview with Hannah Sternberg

What are you working on next?
I'm taking a darker turn with my next novel, which will be the first in a trilogy. I'm sticking with fantasy but exploring some more mature themes. I can't escape the quirky humor of Bulfinch, though! As with my earlier books, I'm still trying to weave deeply emotional moments in life with humor and magic.
Who are your favorite authors?
Neil Gaiman is a big influence. He's the author you can most obviously tell I like by reading my books. I also love Charlotte Bronte's works, and E. M. Forster. Forster especially was a big influence in my approach to emotion and restraint; his ability to capture dream-like, indefinable moments of emotion in his books has haunted me ever since I read "A Room with a View" at the age of 14. Back to contemporary fiction, I love Julie Kagawa's whimsical, dark, and funny fantasy worlds, and I think it would be difficult for any kid of my generation to escape a deep love for J.K. Rowling!
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
Sunshine, a strong cup of coffee, a light kiss, and the possibility that I could write today.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I collect hobbies. Lately, I've been sewing, making my own unique clothes from fun prints of sugar skulls, Dr. Who graphics, and more. I occasionally play guitar and bass (and more rarely these days, my high school cello). I love to garden and grow my own herbs in the backyard. But lately, the passion that has really started to rival writing in my heart is teaching. I teach creative writing (and occasionally book marketing) at local arts centers and libraries. I love to encourage and support other beginning writers as they tentatively explore their creative side. And it gives me the opportunity to spread the word about my personal approach to writing: that writing, regardless of your career aspirations, is for everyone, and can even make the world a better place, because writing can increase our observation and sensitivity to the world around us, which can in turn increase empathy.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
The first one I remember is a story about a time-traveler who had to visit all these different periods of history to find and recover his special talent, which was contained in some kind of vessel. I don't remember much of it, but I think I still have the notebook somewhere. I wrote it in middle school, and passed it around to my friends each time I finished a chapter. That was really fun.
What is your writing process?
So, one of the classes I teach is called "Finish Your Novel Already," and the first day is about discipline: how to set a writing schedule, how to cultivate good writing habits, how to set up a system of rewards and create a network for accountability. One of the biggest lessons I hope students take away from that first class is, there's no such thing as a good day for writing. Every day will look like a "bad" day to write, until you force yourself to write that day. Rather than come up with what an ideal writing day looks like for them, we should be focusing on ways to work around all the inevitable distractions and obstacles we face to writing instead, and develop concrete techniques for working through them. So that said, my writing process in terms of what an average writing day looks like varies wildly. My process, on a day-to-day basis, is: write. Write however I can find a way to write. If I have my computer, I prefer to write on that, in a quiet house without interruptions, and a song or two on repeat for hours. But I have written on tiny purse-sized scratch pads, scrap paper, the backs of programs, and my phone's note app, in bars, airports, a car in the middle of the American prairie, a hostel in Barcelona, and more. When I started meditating, I found the two were similar; you can also meditate anywhere, because it's an internal mastery, not an external arrangement.

In terms of my process for inventing and developing stories, what often happens is I have an idea that gestates in my mind for years. At the beginning, it's often a really fun and compelling concept, but I have no plot details. Maybe I have a central character, and/or a core cast, and a setting, but there's a big, big difference between a neat idea and a fully-formed book plot with major incidents, turning points, dark moments, a rise and fall, and all the little things that happen in between. Usually this idea will kick around in my head for anywhere from two to eight years (or more, I haven't really tested that yet), accumulating depth as a song inspires me, a trip gives me an idea for the setting, or an incident in life brings up an emotion I'd like to explore. Then, when it's accumulated enough detail, I sit down and write the first draft in about a month. After that, I can take another year or two to fully revise it. Revision is a big part of my creative process; I think of the first draft as the raw material I'm working with, and in revision I cut and stitch it into the best possible shape. The long gestation period of stories in my head doesn't really prevent me from writing, because it seems like I always have a few cooking at a time, so while I work on one, another one is in there, quietly growing.
How do you approach cover design?
I'm a fan of simple, emblematic cover designs. Especially in an era where most readers are going to see the cover as a thumbnail online, and not on a shelf, it's important to me that it reads well when it's scaled down, and still conveys something about the tone and content of the book. I hired my childhood friend Elizabeth Goss to design the cover of Bulfinch, and I've had a lot of positive feedback on that. I highly recommend her to anyone who needs illustration work. The best part is, I can remember the days when we were ten years old and Liz would be doodling extraordinarily complex pictures of dragons, while I scribbled stories that we would act out together. I love that we both grew up to keep doing what we loved as kids.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
I think community is what sells books. Building a community, being part of one, and supporting your community -- not just asking for support -- isn't just about selling your books, it's about building something together that might make the world a little better. As a kid, I wanted to write because it was my way of escaping into the fantasy worlds that I desperately wished I could be a part of. As as adult, I write because I understand how closely fiction can touch a person's soul, and how writing and communication can free people, banish fear, give them strength, and encourage compassion, kindness, and acceptance. That doesn't mean my writing is free from violence, darkness, anger, and unfairness; but even in those dark moments, I hope that my books tell people that they aren't alone when they experience those things in their lives. So when I thought about how to market my books, it seemed like the marketing itself could be an extension of my books' mission. By teaching, offering free events on reading and writing, organizing artists and creators for special collaborations, and encouraging every artist I meet to explore their own ideas, I built a community around myself and my books.
Describe your desk
On top of the hutch, I have a Buddha statue, a few family pictures and sentimental memorabilia: a paper fan from a childhood trip to San Francisco, a tiny porcelain box from Williamsburg, a pocket knife from a late family friend, and a Japanese vase from my Dad's childhood home. I have copies of my two books propped up there to encourage me, too. On the actual workspace, it's utter chaos. I'm one of those people who's constantly saying, "Next week I'm going to get organized for real!" A constant is the notebook I keep next to my computer, so I can jot down notes and an outline as I work. I like being able to write on the computer but refer to handwritten notes; it just helps my flow.
What do your fans mean to you?
I am always, always awed and grateful when someone takes the time to read one of my books, even close friends and family. I still can't quite wrap my head around it when people tell me they love my books, especially people who didn't know me before they started reading, or only met me recently through a book or teaching event; the closest I can come to describing it is how a stage magician who always secretly wanted to be a real wizard might feel one day if he actually managed to make the lady vanish for real, surprising even himself.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Vermont, but my family is from the Baltimore region, and has since returned there. I think both these things had a profound influence on me. In Vermont (and most of New England), there's this passively hostile attitude toward outsiders, and you're an "out-of-towner" if your family has lived there for less than three generations. I also remember distinctly how nearly all of my friends seemed to be of Irish or Italian descent, and I felt like the odd one out of the heritage pride parade with my German-Jewish and Polish ancestry. I lived in a small town -- a real American small town -- and the closest big city was Boston, three and a half hours away. (Boston was where we'd take our big school trips once a year, and once on the drive back, the brakes on the school bus froze in the cold weather. The driver serenely glided us down a two-lane mountain road with no brakes, because that's how you do in Vermont.) Because there wasn't a lot to do, you really had to make your own fun. A lot of kids I knew got into drugs, but my friends and I got into fantasy; we read voraciously, talked endlessly about our favorite stories, and created a fan fiction ring of pass-the-pen stories and epics that went on for years. So the three biggest things Vermont gave me and my writing life were a sense of being an outsider, the power to entertain myself anywhere using my imagination, and a deep love of nature, especially dappled mysterious forests. There's another part of this story that makes its way into all of my stories: because my family moved away from Vermont when I was in college, I don't have many ties to my childhood home anymore. I still keep up with a few high school friends very sporadically, but they've moved on with their lives and closed the gap where I used to be. The chapter of my childhood is closed, but my childhood is also a geographic place. I can go there, but I can never BE there again.
Published 2015-07-16.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

Bulfinch
Price: $7.99 USD. Words: 63,380. Language: English. Published: July 15, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Adventure » General, Fiction » Fantasy » Contemporary
Named a Notable Teen Book for 2014 by Shelf Unbound Magazine! When a knight and a monk spring from the pages of Rosie’s book, the only people more astonished than the reclusive PhD student are her time-traveling visitors. Rosie tries to figure out how to return the errant duo to their home in history, but her eccentric Uncle Alvin threatens to stand in her way.