Writing gothic historical fiction, with Anna Mazzola
26 July, 2023
In this episode, hosts Theo and Julia are joined by Anna Mazzola, the award-winning and bestselling author known for her captivating gothic historical novels. With a background in law as a human rights and criminal justice solicitor, Anna brings a unique perspective to her storytelling, exploring the impact of crime and injustice in her works. Her latest novel, The House of Whispers, is a ghost story set in Fascist Italy and is a Sunday Times Historical Fiction pick for 2023.
Throughout the conversation, Theo, Julia, and Anna discuss writing across different genres, the importance of confidence in one’s own writing, and how to balance a successful writing career with another profession.
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[00:00:00] Julia Kelly: Hello, and welcome to The History Quill Podcast. I am historical novelist Julia Kelly, and I am joined by my co-host Theo Brun. How are you today?
[00:00:21] Theodore Brun: I’m very good, Julia, nice to see you again. How are you?
[00:00:24] Julia Kelly: I’m doing well. I’m doing well. I am still on deadline. I am always on deadline when we have this conversation, it feels like. But I am quickly approaching the end of writing my second historical mystery novel with a title yet to be determined. But I’m really excited about this. I feel like I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I’m nearly, nearly to the end of this book.
I think I figured out the solution to the mystery, which is always, always funny. When I’m writing these books I get to a point where I think I really had this when I pitched this to my editor and now I have no idea what I’m doing. And now I feel like I’m coming out of not knowing how the mystery is going to end.
And, so I’m in that sweet spot, which is a nice place to be. But how about you? What’s keeping you busy these days?
[00:01:09] Theodore Brun: Funnily enough, I was about to launch into my historical mystery. You know, cylinders were firing. I was getting ideas for this and the other, and I thought, right. My goal is basically to write the first three chapters of this book, just to sense check it with my agent and check. It’s not just a completely farfetched and and unworkable idea.
So I came back from half term, I think it was, and was intending to like do some research, but also do the writing, which I think is, you know, a theme for, for today may be the, the idea of like procrastination and research. But then instead, what I was welcomed with when I walked in the door was an absolute deluge of books because, and I’ll tell you why.
Other people’s books because I volunteered myself to be a judge in the Historical Writers’ Association Gold Crown Award, which is an event that within our little world is quite a sort of high profile award that gets given at the end of this year in November, and I’m one of, I think seven or eight judges.
It was a bit like the beginning of the first Harry Potter when all the, all the letters just start pouring into that. And certainly my wife was shouting, stop and I was shouting, stop. So I found a lot of my time has been taken up without actually having to read, other historical fiction as well as progress the things that I’m working on.
I’ve got the final type set read through of the novel that I’ve been writing as well, that’s coming out in October. So I’m desperate to get into the story and, and don’t want to be falling foul of that. Big bug bear procrastination. So I haven’t made things easy for myself, but it’s, it’s actually a theme that comes up in these talks of like, what do you say yes to and why?
And other, you know, I definitely think there are good reasons to be written. And actually just reading all this other historical fiction is, is an eyeopener and a value as well. So quite a lot going on.
[00:02:59] Julia Kelly: I have to say, I saw you, you put something on Instagram showing all of these parcels that had shown up, and I had this pang of simultaneous jealousy and sympathy at the same time. Because I know what it feels like to just receive all of these books for a judging panel all at the same time. And you think, how on earth am I ever going to get through these?
But it’s, it’s one of the joys. Of being a historical fiction author is, is being able to also read within the genre. So hopefully, hopefully it goes smoothly.
[00:03:28] Theodore Brun: Yeah, and so much variety within that genre as well. I mean, just some brilliant sort of concepts and worlds that I never would’ve taken myself into, but actually it proved to be really, really quite fun. Or when engaging and speaking of different, World’s different timelines. Our guest today is a friend of mine, but I think you’ve, you’ve been following her as well, Anna Mazola, who’s a historical author of gothic historical fiction, and she’s had some bestselling novels and we’re looking forward to getting into speak with her soon. Well here we are. Welcome to Anna Mat Sola, our guest for today. And I am personally so excited to have you here today, Anna. I’ve been looking forward to this episode for such a long time.
[00:04:22] Anna Mazzola: Oh, it’s lovely to be here. Thanks so much for inviting me on.
[00:04:25] Theodore Brun: No, it’s really, it’s really good to see you and I, I’ll give you a little intro before we can sort of dive further into to what else you might have to say about your yourself. But, so Anna is award-winning and bestselling author of historical fiction, particularly with a kind of gothic bent to it. And I’ve personally followed her career over the span of the four books that she’s got out there.
And they are. Fantastically engaging. I, I’m in the middle of reading one now. The third one actually The Clockwork Girl, so I haven’t read them in order, but they really are astonishingly good and very varied in terms of where they’re sort of the context and the time period and the subject matter. So, and Anna and I also share a legal background, if you take me going further way, way back.
So Anna has been a human rights lawyer, and I think you continue to work in that area, don’t you?
[00:05:17] Anna Mazzola: Well, yeah, a little bit. A little bit, but I’ve mainly run away as well.
[00:05:20] Theodore Brun: Yeah, so we would love to explore that. I think that’s probably a good place to, to start off, because you were kind of having running these two, well, your passion of writing, which of course now is your career, but for a little while anyway, you were running those two things alongside, weren’t you? And still having massive success in terms of your writing.
So, and particularly for our listeners, a lot of people would be in that. Early stage of your career now in terms of trying to manage their own career, interested and passionate about writing, trying to get that off the ground if it were to take off. So how did it work for you? How did you strike that balance?
And then how did it kind of develop as you got more success in the, in the publishing world?
[00:06:01] Anna Mazzola: Well, firstly, thank you for your very kind words. That’s very sweet of you. I mean, we’ll talk about this later, but you know, often one doesn’t feel like a success, and that’s actually part of the reason why it can be important to carry on doing something else as well as writing, because although I love writing and.
You know, I’m delighted to have met so many other writers and be part of that community. It is a funny old business. It is quite arbitrary. And you know, you and I, I’m sure have discussed the issues with law and you know, the problems of working within a law firm, but. There are at least reliable things about that, including the salary, which mean that it might be a good idea to at least carry on with that for a time.
So when I, yes, you’re right. When I started writing, I was working pretty much full-time, as a lawyer within a human rights firm. And in fact, I think I was on maternity leave when I actually got my agent. I was, that’s right. I got I, so I completed this book mainly while I was working and partly on maternity leave, and then I set to editing the book.
Whilst I was on maternity leave and I actually had more time on maternity leave, despite the fact my daughter didn’t sleep than I did when I was working as litigator. I’m sure you remember those halian days. so it was a battle. It was tricky carrying on. So I wrote, certainly, I edited my first book and I wrote most of my second book while I was working.
Not full time by then cuz I had two small children by that stage. But I was doing it, you know, largely in the evenings, weekends, as I’m sure you know, lots of your listeners are, most people write at least their first novel when they’re working. And it is, it is a really tricky balance and I still don’t, you know, I’m writing my fifth of my sixth books now and I still don’t feel like I’ve got the balance right.
I think it’s a really, really tricky one and I think unless you make a huge amount of money from writing and are also extremely mentally, Able and, you know, have a lot of backup. Then just writing can be, can be a slightly frightening undertaking, I think. And it’s why I’ve carried on doing some law, mainly throughout.
In fact, this is the, the first time in my whole writing career that I’ve not been doing anything else. I was also tutoring for a while, because I’m writing two novels at the same time. Never do that. realized I just can’t, I couldn’t do it. So, For the first time. In fact, you’ve got me, I think on my second week of being a writer and nothing else.
Well, and a mum, but
[00:08:34] Theodore Brun: Oh wow.
[00:08:35] Anna Mazzola: Yeah.
[00:08:36] Theodore Brun: that’s very current news, isn’t it?
[00:08:37] Anna Mazzola: It is very current news, but it does slightly frighten me because as I say, you never know what’s gonna happen in publishing. And you know, I’ve been lucky that my last two books have done pretty well, but you never know. You never know what the publishing landscape is gonna want or do.
So I guess my advice would be to always have a few irons in the fire. Always have a few things on the go so that. If writing a particular book doesn’t work out, then you don’t feel a very pressurized to make money in some other way, or B, like a failure. I think it’s important to have to have a balance, and as I say, many years on, I’m still struggling to get it right.
[00:09:16] Julia Kelly: Can I ask about your writing routine when you were working full-time or when you were on maternity leave and caring for a young child compared to your routine? Now, you know the things that have. Changed and what you’ve taken with you as I’m assuming that that teaches you a lot of discipline, trying to balance all these different things and juggle all the different demands on your life.
[00:09:36] Anna Mazzola: It does in a way, and I wish I could say I was much more productive. Now, I’m not doing lots of other things. I’m not entirely sure that I am because you know, when you’re looking after small kids and working, you just have to cram things in whenever you can and with all writers. I desperately wanted to write.
That was what I wanted to do and therefore I found the energy and I found the time to do it. And I, I remember editing my first book when my daughter was tiny and she didn’t sleep lying down. She would only sleep attached to me, so I’d have to write standing up with her in a sling, which. It was sort of a nightmare, but also meant I just had to, you know, there’s no really room at that stage for any self-doubt or any, or I dunno if what, what I’m doing or how to do this because you don’t have time, because you know they’re gonna wake up in an hour and that will be it.
That’ll be your writing time gone. So I guess in a way it was good for getting me into the routine of just writing, even if I thought it was nonsense, which as I’m sure you both know, not that either of you write none. But you know, you just have to get through that first draft, don’t you? You just have to write it even, even though you will almost certainly think at the time that you are writing rubbish.
So yes, it did get me into that sort of mindset of, of just writing and getting through the first draft. But when I went down to sort of. Doing some law and some writing and some tutoring. What I would do is, my supposed routine was that I would drop the kids off at school and then I would write nine till 12.
That would be my writing time, and I would try not to let anything else in chewed on it. And then the afternoon when my brain had started to flag. Would be for the other things. Of course, it never really works out quite like that because certainly when I was still doing some law, you know, something urgent will come in and you’ll have to deal with that.
Or you know that you’ll get a call from the school and there’s a sick child or whatever. So it doesn’t always work out like that. But that’s still what I’m trying to do now is nine to 12 is my writing no messing about on Twitter, and then the afternoon is for all the admin and research and all the other stuff.
[00:11:36] Theodore Brun: Yeah, it’s very hard, isn’t it, cuz there are new kinds and new sort of species of procrastination appear and like evolve in terms of what can suck you away from your, your desk. I mean, let alone a paid job.
[00:11:51] Anna Mazzola: Yeah, exactly. Yeah.
[00:11:52] Theodore Brun: I remember, gosh, it was some years ago now, wasn’t it? Your first one was called the Unseeing. Is that, is that the name of it?
Yeah. And that was very sort of, it felt like it came very much out of crime, the crime world and maybe some of your background as in the legal world. And a lot of the re I remember the research was sort of something that you’d stumbled across in, in some sort of archaic case, wasn’t it? And it feels like having watched your novels kind of develop.
Yeah, there’s. There’s that element of sort of theme of justice and crime, but also they’ve got a bit creepier as well. Kinda like the supernatural, the gothic, which is right. Which is basically what I try and do and I’m never quite sure whether it’s, it’s a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe just unpack like what, what are the things that you feel are really fun and like you’re sort of naturally drawn to in terms of the stories that you want to tell?
[00:12:40] Anna Mazzola: Yeah, I mean that’s also to do with confidence as well, isn’t it? I mean, I, I sort of, absolutely. You are right. The, my novel, the Unseeing came from a real case that I did stumble across. It was mentioned in the suspicions of Mr. Witcher, and it was a case of a woman who was convicted of aiding and vetting a murder in Camberwell, which is where I live.
In 1837. So I became sort of slightly obsessed with that case and read a huge amount about it, wrote a short story about it, which won a competition, which sort of gave me the courage to write the novel about it. But I think I was very much at that stage feeling my way, as we all are when we are writing off.
First novel, I really wasn’t quite sure what genre I was writing in. Wasn’t really sure what I should be writing. Wasn’t sure how to write or novel, and I’m still not really sure how to write a novel, but at that stage I certainly didn’t know. Whereas by the time I’d got onto my second one, I was thinking more about what I really wanted to write and.
The authors that had really inspired me throughout my life, which are unsurprisingly, if you’ve read my novels, Daphne Damier and Shirley Jackson, and the creepy people basically, which I think is why I’ve become creeper and creeper, or it just could, just, could be something that’s happened as a part of the natural aging process.
I’m not sure. Or maybe it’s to do with having small kids. I don’t know. The darkness has definitely come to the fore anyway, but I don’t, I don’t think I have an entirely rational explanation for it, but I think you do have to, I mean, obviously I would say do watch what the market is doing. I don’t think it’s right to, you know, write in a vacuum, do watch what the trends are and what the best sellers are and what’s doing well.
But you also do have to write something that. Interest you and that you’re passionate about because you know, as I said, you don’t really know what’s gonna happen within the publishing world. You might end up not getting published or you might get published, but not very well. So you’ve got to write something that you really love and it turns out I like dark, weird stuff. So there you go.
[00:14:38] Julia Kelly: So you talk about dark, weird stuff, and of course, immediately I think of gothic. And I know that a, a few of your books, and we’ll talk a little bit later about maybe transitioning into a, into another area of fiction, but your books are gothic historical novels, as you mentioned on your website and as they’re sort of pitched to the market.
What is it that you think makes Gothic novel stand out from other types of historical novels for people who are sort of becoming more familiar with differentiation in the genres?
[00:15:07] Anna Mazzola: Yeah, I mean, that’s an interesting question because I think actually what the publishing industry sometimes pitches as, a gothic novel is not necessarily what. I would think of as gothic often in publishing terms seems to mean set in a dark, creepy house and has a certain kind of cover that people can identify as slightly gothic in Waterstones.
For me, gothic fiction sort of means characterized by an environment of fear and unease, the possibility of the supernatural. The intrusion of the past upon the present. And yes, that might be through the dark creepy house or a haunted landscape, but it might be, and for me it’s more important than it’s through the psychology of the characters as it is in Rebecca, for example.
But my very talented friend, Catrone Ward, has a very good description of the Gothic. She says that it’s not really a genre in itself, but it behaves like a virus attaching itself. To other kind of text. So that’s why you can have historical gothic cuz it’s a historical novel, but it’s got that, those elements of the gothic within it and, and you know, mine are sort of historical gothic crime, but that doesn’t seem to matter.
It doesn’t seem to matter that I’ve mashed up the genres because the gothic I think can attach to anything that, so that’s how I see it. As I say, the publishing industry, it’s, I think it’s more to do with the creepy houses and the cover.
[00:16:25] Theodore Brun: Hmm. But I really get the sense for each one that I’ve read, as well as that sort of, I suppose, the background context of the genre that you’re writing in this incredible passion for the place. So, you know, you’ve got, Is it the Highlands in the second book? I mean, it’s London. London. It’s sort of Victorian England in, in the first book, and then the Highlands and then Paris, which I’ve absolutely loved The Clockwork Girl. And then of course I read the one about Rome with the sort of, well, it is fascist Italy, the kind of pre-war Rome. And I just could, so imagine you walking the streets of Rome going, I’m gonna tell this story. Do you know what I mean? Like, is is there something about falling in love with. A location as it were for your novels, that also then you think, oh no, I want to tell this I, I need, I want to inhabit this place myself in my imagination, and then tell an amazing story out of it. How much does that sort of inform the stories?
[00:17:22] Anna Mazzola: Yeah, it’s funny you should say that about Rome actually, cuz I wrote that novel during lockdown. So actually my cunning plans to go to Rome and spend a lot of time walking the streets were thwarted and most of the, I mean, I did get to go to Rome in the end, but a lot of the initial research I had to do was.
You know, in books and YouTube videos and maps and, but yes, I mean, setting is a very important part of the novel for me, and it’s kind of integral to the atmosphere. And of course, atmosphere is an essential part of gothic fiction. You’ve got to have the, the setting that. Immerses your reader within it and you know, creates a world in which they think anything might be able to happen.
So yes, I’ve chosen locations and then I’ve made them. Then I found something within them that really speaks to me. So the Paris of the 18th century, I mean, we often think of Paris at that time. We think of Versailles, we think of opulence and beauty and art. But in fact, it was. You know, a, a city that, I mean, there was beauty and there was incredible art, but there was also desperate poverty and filth and there were no pavements.
Versailles itself, in fact, stank. And it was, you know, the, the people looked beautiful, but they didn’t bath. There were no toilets. So I sort of grew my own Paris out of that. That is, you know, true to the historical era, but is also emphasizing. The parts of Paris that I wanted to have as part of my novel, and that is the Paris of the rich and poor and the valueless and the valued and the dark and the light.
So yes, I guess setting is very important to me and, and when I wrote. The House of Whispers, I wasn’t, when I originally had the idea for that novel, I wasn’t sure whether I was gonna set it in fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. And I decided on Fascist Italy. Partly cuz I speak Italian and I don’t speak German.
So it made the research easier. But partly because, well we feel like we’ve read a lot about Nazi Germany, we’ve read, we’ve seen a lot of. Movies, we’ve read a lot of books about it, whereas Fascist Italy is, is less known, even to be honest, to Italians. I had an entertaining time researching things and telling my dad and him then outright denying those those things happened.
[00:19:34] Theodore Brun: So is it a mother tongue or a father tongue?
[00:19:37] Anna Mazzola: It’s my father. He didn’t teach me unfortunately when I was young, but I sort of taught myself to an extent when I was older. So at least I can speak enough of it to be able to do some research. But yeah, that, so then Rome, my research on Rome, I guess I found things within my research that. A fascinated but, but B, helped me create the world that was going to become a very frightening place for even my protagonist.
So it’s a world in which, yes, fascism is rising and it’s the ear in which the race laws are being brought in. Mussolini’s cozying up with Hit Hitler and trying to emulate what’s going on in Germany. So for anyone who’s not considered an Italian, it’s an increasingly frightening place, and it’s not just.
You know, not just things that are appearing in the news, but there are banners everywhere. There’s, you know, the black shirts walking the streets, there’s the music, which is very much nationalistic. So yes, I guess in each novel I’m trying to build up an atmosphere in which the reader can be immersed as we are in all historical fiction, really.
I mean, we’re all, you know, that is the point, isn’t it? We want the reader to. Feel like they’re there and feel like they’re experiencing the story with our characters. But of course, when you are writing something that’s sort of supposed to be creepy and gothic tinged, then the atmosphere is even more important.
[00:20:52] Julia Kelly: So going along with the question about setting, can you talk a little bit about moving around the timeline? Because it sounds like, you know, you’ve, you found inspiration in a lot of different time periods, but I imagine that also comes with it the requirement of sort of learning. Or relearning what it is that you need in order to write those books. What does the research look like for, for these different novels?
[00:21:13] Anna Mazzola: I mean, it’s huge. I mean, I’m an idiot. Basically. Never do this. You should just write a series. I remember Ben, I think, did an interview with Ben Kane when he was like, why don’t, why didn’t you just write a series? But actually for me, I mean, I’m not saying that I would not write a series. I’d love to, but for me, I just, I kind of see it as a project.
So each era that I begin investigating. Each case I begin investigating is just so exciting to me. I want to learn everything about that era and that country. So yes, I have jumped about, as you say, my first two were 19th century, but the second in the Highlands. Then 18th century Paris, then 19th, thirties, Italy, now 17th century Italy.
So I stayed in Rome, but I. Changed centuries, which does lead to, yeah, a huge amount of research. And I have to be, because I’m now on quite tight deadlines, I’m having to really curtail my research because as with most historical writers, perhaps all historical writers, I love the research. I just find it fascinating and it is, of course, far easier than writing the book.
So it’s tempting to spend forever researching the novel and previously. The way I got around that was by setting myself deadlines. If you have to start the first draft now, you can’t carry on down this rabbit hole. Whereas now I’ve got a very clear, like, you have to get this book in so you really can’t be spending more time reading about the curtains.
So yeah, I kind of set myself. Word targets and deadlines. And I tend to do a lot, a lot of broad research at the outsets that I understand the area in which I’m writing to a certain extent and feel confident enough to write the novel. And then as I’m plotting and doing the terrible first draft, I’m working out the other things that I need to know in order to write the second draft.
And that’s, and sort of, I try not to do too much research during the first draft stage because otherwise I will just, Not finished the first draft. I’ll be too busy researching and vacuuming and tidying the shelves and really doing anything to put off doing the first draft. But yes, there is a huge amount of research involved and I think you kind of have to accept that if you’re writing historical fiction, then you are going to need to do quite a lot of research.
And I think if you hate doing research, then historical fiction possibly is not your genre. But yes, I, I love the research and you know, as discussed, I think it’s really important. In order to establish the setting and in order to sort of understand how your characters would’ve thought and interacted with one another.
But then of course the tricky bit is making sure that you don’t then shoehorn everything that you’ve researched into the novel. You have to wear it quite lightly and sort of keep it all in a cupboard and only draw out the bits that are necessary. So that’s, that could be a tricky bit, and that usually that’s something that will take me a couple of drafts to get right.
[00:23:55] Theodore Brun: Yeah, I have to say I was, I was playing around on your website earlier, just having it look and found your article about your research or the research process and actually I would just encourage our listeners for sure to go to, is it annamazzola.com.
[00:24:10] Anna Mazzola: It is. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:24:12] Theodore Brun: Find that page cuz I mean, I’m, at literally at that stage where it’s like, when do I actually start writing this thing? Because, you know, I’m getting quite a lot of research. I’m not helping with all these books I’ve gotta read as well. but it, but it was, I I feel like your, you know, your legal mind actually helps, has, is serving you in terms of how the way you go about your research, it feels very sort of methodical in terms of zeroing down it, I dunno whether you are conscious of that or that’s just how you would do things anyway.
[00:24:40] Anna Mazzola: No, I think that’s something, yeah, I think that’s, thank you. I think it is something that I’ve sort of learned over the course of writing the novels and I think, you know, we all learn about ourselves, don’t we? When we write, and I think when I was writing my first novel, I. I really, I, I did so much research, I mean a huge, unnecessary amounts about criminal justice and women in the 19th century, and I felt that I needed to know everything in order to write the book.
And in fact, only a fraction of that research effort went into the book. And I think, you know, when I was tutoring that was often what people would ask me. You know, when do I know if I’m ready to write the book and my own view? And you know, some people feel that they have to do, you know, tremendous amounts.
My own view is, as I say that, I just have to feel that. Confident enough to be able to write the first job confident enough that I know how I’m going to tell the story. I don’t feel that I need to know everything about that world because I can’t, you know, I can’t do a PhD in what the era I’m writing about before I write it.
There just isn’t time, and I think it took me three and a half years to write The Unseeing by the time I went to an agent and I just. I can’t do that anymore. So I, I’ve had to become rather more systematic about it and maybe more, yeah, as I say, On my first novel, I was really learning the ropes and I had to work that out, which is why I have, yes, done this series of articles on my website about writing historical fiction because I kind of think there are various things that I wish someone had told me when I was starting out that would’ve cut a lot of time, and one of them was, you do not need to know everything about the era.
You do not need to know what kind of potato they were eating at this particular time in order to to write this book. You know,
[00:26:23] Theodore Brun: Well, you had that, you had that quote on your, on the page from some other author. I forget. It was a bit comparing it to contemporary. You’ll probably remember it better than me. Who was that?
[00:26:32] Anna Mazzola: That was Val McDermot. I’m just trying to see if I can find it. She says something along the lines of, if you wouldn’t describe it in a modern novel, why are you describing it in historical novel? You know, why are you describing this carriage? Would you be describing the car in a and, and I think that’s a useful way of.
Thinking about it because you know, you might be very tempted to shoehorn in a bit of research you’ve read about this particular funeral chariot or whatever, but if it’s not actually something that. Your character would notice or your reader really needs to know in order to to be within the novel, then then cut it.
I remember there was my first novel. I remember my editor had written in the margins of my draft she’d written. Yes, thank you Anna. I think we know enough about the streets of Victorian London now. Because I clearly just, I know, but she was right. She was absolutely right. You know, I, I read so much about Victorian London that I wanted the reader to know it, but they didn’t need to know it in order to be immersed in the story.
And that’s, but that’s something I don’t think you get right on the first draft. I think that’s stuff that you work out in the editing, the bits that can be cut and the bits you actually need.
[00:27:38] Julia Kelly: No, I completely agree. I, I’m curious, you’ve mentioned confidence a couple of times, and, you know, confidence in, in knowing when to pull back on research and confidence in terms of, you know, the books that you’re writing and moving around, you know, different settings and, Time periods, was that a conscious effort, something that you really tried to develop, or does it come with experience for you?
[00:27:57] Anna Mazzola: I mean, I don’t think even think it comes with experience, to be honest. I still don’t feel, I mean, Theo was very kindly talking about my success at the beginning, but I don’t, I think we all, we’re all sort of judged on our last book and our last book sales, and it’s difficult in that environment. It’s certainly in an environment of.
Social media where we’re all watching what everyone else is doing and people are only talking about the good stuff. It’s difficult in that environment to feel like you are doing well and, and, and feel like you are a good writer. And I think most people, most writers come to it without a huge amount of confidence.
And I think that’s often the biggest stumbling block. And that’s why I say, That habit I got into of just making myself write even when I thought it was nonsense, was so important because I think if I waited until I felt confident to write, then I might never write, or I’d only write for maybe one hour every few weeks.
I think you have to accept that you are not necessarily going to feel confident about what you are writing. You just have to do it anyway because you want to write. I don’t feel hugely confident in my work now, but I mean, I, I guess I’m more confident than I was when I. Began cuz I really had no idea what I was doing then.
But I don’t feel a particular confidence in my work now. I don’t come out thinking, oh, I’ve just written a brilliant novel and everyone thinks it’s great. I don’t, I don’t ever feel that, and I don’t think most writers ever feel that. If you speak to people that you know really are huge bestsellers and have won lots of awards, I think even they don’t feel like they’re brilliant writers.
I mean, maybe there are a few and they’re probably drunk. But I don’t think, I don’t think most of us feel confident most of the time, but it’s just about finding a way to temporarily silence the inner critic so that you can at least get that first draft done, which I find is the most challenging bit in terms of the confidence because it occasionally I’ll think, what earth am I writing and why am I writing this?
No one wants to read that, which I think most writers feel at least part of the time, and it’s just finding a way to get beyond that and realizing that. You know, the people who do become writers are the ones who carry on writing despite feeling that they’re rubbish and despite not having confidence.
They’re the ones who just carry on. We are all being rejected at various points. You just have to somehow carry on. It’s a very odd business. I don’t think we’re all full of confidence and resilience and yet somehow we manage to do it.
[00:30:13] Theodore Brun: Somehow finding that freedom to just say, it’s okay to write a big steaming pile of poo today. That’s okay. And look, let you see I set out to do that. It’s okay. And look, that’s what I’ve done. and then like, let’s, let’s, let’s spend our days polishing poos. That’s what it feels like sometimes
[00:30:30] Anna Mazzola: Exactly yeah.
[00:30:32] Theodore Brun: But I think you’re quite modest about. Well, certainly my impression watching you on social media, I’ve, I’ve followed you for quite a few years. I think you are one of the authors who I’d say, does that really, really well. And my instinct may be wrong, but my instinct is you quite enjoy it. You, you’re, you feel like a very sort of extrovert person who just sort of likes connecting with people and likes being out there.
And also you’re very, very funny on social media. I encourage, again, listeners to go and go and sort of follow Anna. Is that something that you felt pressure to grow into or you’ve just thought, oh look, this is all happening. You know, it is kind of happening. In an organic way, and you’ve enjoyed it, so you kept, you run with it.
And then of course it seems to, you know, next time you have a best seller, you’ve got, let’s say 10,000 followers instead of 3000 or whatever. And so,
[00:31:21] Anna Mazzola: Yeah, I mean I think it helps in terms of sales and sort of, it definitely helps in, it’s helped me in terms of meeting people and getting invited to things and being part of the community, and I think. The community aspect and knowing other writers is what it’s been most important for the social media stuff.
But I mean, I would say I’ve only done it because I like it. I mean, I, I say I like Twitter. It’s getting worse and worse, isn’t it? But it certainly, in the olden days, it was great fun and I’m now spent a lot of time on Instagram when I should be writing. But I mean, I do it because. I like it and I like interacting with people and I love speaking to re I mean, don’t say always cuz obviously sometimes people are mean, but generally readers are really lovely.
And it’s just really nice to talk to people and as you know, writing can be a bit of an isolating or business, you’re on your own a lot of the day, apart from my cat who’s just come in. But he has got much to say. So I do. I do it because I enjoy it. And I would say I don’t. I don’t think people should feel under pressure to do social media if they really don’t like it.
In fact, a friend of mine, he told his publisher he wasn’t gonna do it. He hates it. He really doesn’t find, it comes naturally to him. He’s just not something he wants to do at all. He’d rather be writing the books and I think, you know, if that’s how you feel, then so be it. I mean, I think social media, as I say, helps to a certain extent, but it doesn’t really replace marketing by a traditional publisher.
It doesn’t replace. Publicity by a traditional publisher, for example. So I think if you are trad published, then. You’ll certainly be encouraged to do social media, but I don’t, to be honest, think it makes a tremendous amount of difference. And yes, I do have like, I can’t remember, 20 something thousand followers on Twitter now, but not that number of people bought my last book, let me tell you.
So you know, there might be a few hundred on there who will have bought my book cuz they’ve engaged with me on Twitter or whatever. But to be honest, I, the, the variety of people who follow me, a lot of them are not book people. A lot of them are just there to have a chat with me, which is great. And I’ve met, you know, all sorts of.
Fascinating people, but I don’t, you know, it’s difficult to quantify because I dunno how many copies I would’ve sold without social media following, but I don’t feel like it’s made a huge difference. So I would say if you like it, then do it. And yes, do come and follow me and talk to me on social media.
So if I don’t have to write my books. Yeah, don’t do. And it’s funny you say that. I’m an extrovert. I mean, I’m not an extrovert at all, actually. I do. Like, I’m sort of, I can be extroverted for a few hours, then I’m tired and I have to go and be an introvert for a while.
[00:33:49] Julia Kelly: that feels familiar.
[00:33:51] Anna Mazzola: I think it’s true of a lot of writers.
Actually, it was funny, when I joined the novelty, I did the, what’s it called, that personality test you did, and it turns out I’m an architect, which means apparently I’m an introvert for most of the time, but sometimes I’m a, and it turned out most of the people that I was working with are the same. So I think writers, yeah, we do like to spend a lot of time on our own writing or.
You know, we wouldn’t be doing that job, but we might also want to go out occasionally and be, and be sociable. But if you are not one of those people and you don’t wanna do the festivals and you don’t wanna do the social media, then I don’t think you have to. I think the book is the most important bit.
[00:34:27] Julia Kelly: I asked this in part because unfortunately, after when this, when this airs, this will already have happened. But I am actually going to one of your events, that’s coming up, this week, the week that’s recording. I, we have a, a mutual friend or a. A mutual acquaintance in, in Jill Paul who’s hosting an event,
[00:34:44] Anna Mazzola: Jill. Yes. Oh, great. I look forward to meeting you.
[00:34:47] Julia Kelly: Yes. Yeah, I’m very excited about it. But I’m always curious for authors who are out there and who are doing events and you know, I know there’s also the social media and marketing and writing. How do you get the mix right? And how do you try to, how do you try to maintain the sort of appearances and events while also trying to make sure that you’re hitting your deadlines, you’re making sure that books are getting edited, all the things that need to happen in order to actually have that book to go talk about.
[00:35:13] Anna Mazzola: Yeah. I mean it’s, it’s, I think it’s partly to do with loyally scheduling. In fact, I’ve been emailing my editor today to work out when my edits are due back, because I do need, you do need to get it right. You’re absolutely right. You can’t. Agree to do everything if you are also on a tight deadline, cuz it just won’t happen.
So I’m doing a lot of events this week actually, but then I haven’t got much on in July, which is, admittedly my children are on holiday, but I’m also planning to sort of put my head down a bit more. So, and, but to be honest, I tend to do most events of the evenings so, I wouldn’t realistically be doing my first draft then, in any event, cuz my brain has stopped working some hours before.
Sorry. So this doesn’t bode well for my event on Thursday, does it? But, you know, it’s, it’s one thing to go out and, and have a good chat with other writers and readers, but it’s another to be sort of head down in your writing. So it’s partly a matter of scheduling and it’s partly a matter of just working out when I’m gonna be best placed to write.
But yeah, I do have two deadlines this summer. So, but I still have to, because I had a book come out in April. We’re still within the, sort of four months after. So in the few months, you know, for the, for the, the, the listeners who are not, published yet. For those you, you are sort of expected, although as I say, you can say no, but publishers will probably want you to do events in the few, certainly in note.
A couple of weeks after your book comes out, but maybe in the few months following publication. So I kind of do see that as, as part of my role. And yeah, I do like talking about writing with other writers. It’s one of the joys of doing events. So, yeah.
[00:36:53] Theodore Brun: No, that’s great. Gosh, we can listen to you all, all day. Anna, I’ve got about a million other questions, but I think we’re gonna have to have to draw it to close. I just want to give you the opportunity to say what’s coming up next for you? So, So I know you’ve got another historical fiction book out next year, is it?
And then maybe a couple of other things going on. Do you wanna, oh, and also as well as saying you are in the running for various awards. short, are you shortlisted for the CWA.
[00:37:21] Anna Mazzola: I’m shortlisted for two Dagger awards, but I haven’t actually been invited to the ceremony, which doesn’t really bode very well for my chances of winning. But yes, it’s still nice to be recognized in any way. And yes, I’ve got, so my next historical novel, which is in 18th, sorry, 17th Century Rome. You can see how well that’s going.
It’s coming out. early next year, we’re still confirming the publication title. That’s The Book of Secrets, and it has a lovely cover, which I’m looking forward to showing everyone. The contents are still to be confirmed, but the cover looks good. So that’s the important thing. And then I’ve also started writing legal thrillers as Anna Sharp is apparently my name.
That’s what I’ve been told. So the first one of those will come out next year. Again, content still to be finished. but yeah, so that’s, that’s fun as cuz as I say, I do think it’s important to have a, a few irons in the fire. And although historical it’s my, my true love, I thought it would be good to try something else as well.
[00:38:15] Julia Kelly: Wonderful. And if people do want to follow you on social media, find events, find out more about the books, where would they, where would they. Look for you.
[00:38:23] Anna Mazzola: I guess the easiest way is to head to my website, which is easily my name, and I’m annamazzola.com, and there you can find all my, you know, contact details and the various articles I’ve written about writing historical fiction. But yeah, I’m @anna_mazz on Twitter and @annamazzolawriter on Instagram, Facebook and I’m there too.
So come and out with me. But it’s been so lovely speaking to both of you. Thanks so much for having me.
[00:38:47] Julia Kelly: Thank you for coming on. This has been really fun.
[00:38:50] Theodore Brun: Yeah. Thanks Anna. Good luck for everything coming up for you.
[00:38:54] Anna Mazzola: Thank you. And to you both.
[00:39:02] Theodore Brun: Well, that was fantastic, wasn’t it? I love Anna. I love hanging out with Anna and she delivered, gave her so much and, I’m looking forward to getting into many of the things that she talked about. What did you think, Julia?
[00:39:13] Julia Kelly: she’s just fantastic and like you said, you know, I, I have a million questions for her and could have talked to her for much longer. But before we go into, chatting a little bit about what we just learned from Anna, we wanted to remind you all that you should visit thehistoryquill.com/5 where you can access a range of resources.
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[00:39:43] Theodore Brun: That’s right, and you’ll find all the tools you need to help put what you’ve just heard into action there. So after that housekeeping, Julia, what do you think? Where do you wanna start?
[00:39:54] Julia Kelly: Well, I, you know, I love talking to authors who’ve gone through lots of changes and transitions throughout their career, and they have a lot of perspective and I think the thing that kept coming up for me with her, Was this kind of idea of confidence and how much you, you learn about yourself, you learn about your writing process, and you learn about publishing in general as you go along the way, and how it’s not necessarily something you can necessarily actively build.
You don’t come out and say one day, you know, I’m gonna really work on my confidence as an author. But you can see it as people’s, you know, writing styles evolve as their handling of the business side of writing changes as they’re just sort of, Ability to understand what’s going on for them throughout the process changes.
I know one of the things that I experienced when I was first a newly published author was I just didn’t, almost didn’t know what to ask, whether it was the editorial side or the marketing side of publishing, I didn’t understand how book launches were supposed to go. So there’s just a. A big learning curve with this whole business, and I think that one of the things that has come up over and over again through our conversations, not just this one today, is the fact that every author is continuing to learn and can discover different things about the business, but also about themselves and their writing.
[00:41:10] Theodore Brun: I mean, there’s a massive space for imposter syndrome isn’t there? I mean this will, I suppose in any world really, but particularly in writing. Cuz I find when, you know, I can read over something I’ve written even quite recently in the novel, I’ve been editing recently, and you’re like, that’s amazing.
Wow. Oh, just jaw droppingly good. And then you come back to it, that very scene and like the copy editing stage, you’re like, this is awful. Do you know what I mean? So there’s something, there’s something objective out there. You are writing and then. Almost any, every time you look at it, you are bringing your own subjectivity to the thing, both when you first write it and then when you look at it again, and then when you’re trying to edit it and then when someone else is, is reading it.
So I think one other sort of skills almost you learn as, as an author, is that kind of stepping out of the. Judging your own work mode or just literally just being able to throw that away almost and just saying, being more in the kind of Octavia Randolf thing, like these characters exist in my head and like I’m gonna try and do justice to translating what’s going on in them onto a page and let’s see if it works, kind of thing.
And so that, that would be the actual writing of it. But I think more generally, there’s also the sense of like, oh, you go from. Getting a foot in the door to, you know, being very grateful that someone will read your work, and then they’ll actually take you on as, as your agent and then as a publisher, if that’s the way you’re going.
And, and there’s, and then eventually the, the pendulum swings and you’re like, this is what I’m trying to do. I, I want it to go well. I’m not just here to be grateful. I actually wanna see stuff happen. I want to, I want the marketing to go, well, I wanna do what I can for that. I wanna try and sort of guide people or lead people in terms of, Supporting what it is I’m trying to do, as well as, again, Octavia was talking about like really engaging with the readers and valuing the readers as well.
So, and, and maybe in that process confidence or what other people might see in you as confidence appears to rise. But I think it’s in, in a way, it’s almost just thinking less about like, am I the best writer ever? And just like, this is what I’m doing, so what have I gotta do next in order to, to kind of make it happen.
And it gives you a little bit of relief from that I reckon.
[00:43:28] Julia Kelly: I think so. I think the other big thing that really struck me, cuz both of us. Have you and I have, have left, day jobs and are doing this writing thing, and I really liked the fact that she talked about how success can be kind of a, a funny thing. And it can be, you know, it can be nice to have your foot in something else in order to take some of the pressure off of writing and allow your career to develop a little bit.
But also there’s real challenge with that too, if you’re, you know, when I was, I was. Originally a journalist, and then I had moved into the corporate world and I was writing, and I did that for 10 years. And at some point I hate to make a decision because the balance just wasn’t balancing anymore. I’m not sure that it ever did completely, but, you know, nights and weekends were not enough for, for my writing career, and I wanted to really move and dedicate more time towards that.
But it’s a really scary jump to make and it’s, it’s one that I think people don’t, don’t take lightly. certainly, I don’t know if that was your experience as well, but.
[00:44:27] Theodore Brun: Yeah, I think I was possibly a bit naive. I don’t think I had huge expectations that it was all gonna suddenly take off, but I thought it would take off a little bit more than it did. And so I found myself having to kind of create other revenue channels, but also within. Being a, not necessarily an also, but a writer, which is why I do the ghost writing stuff.
And I wonder for your side, I know you do different genre. I mean, you’ve got your historical mystery as well as your historical fiction. Is there other stuff that you do behind the scenes that we haven’t really talked about that kind of offset some of the, just, just being a, a novelist kind of stream?
[00:45:06] Julia Kelly: Not really. Not anymore. I used to do bits and pieces of things and I decided at some point that. I was well, okay, so I’ll tell, tell the story. I. Was working a day job. I knew I was leaving. My boss knew I was leaving. I had given him about five months heads up that this was going to happen as a courtesy, and he was very kind about working with me to figure out sort of an exit plan when I was ready to finally say.
You know, I’m leaving. I think he was hoping that there would be this miraculous moment where I’d say, you know, I can, I can do both jobs for a while longer. It’s totally fine. But I was on this really tight deadline. It was at the very end of the third lockdown for here in the uk and I was living by myself and I was writing all the time.
I was working all the time. And to be honest, I sent out the developmental edits on the book that I was working on, which was the last Dance of the Debutante and. I kind of shut my laptop and I, I had reached such a point of burnout that I didn’t feel like I could do anything more than sort of show up for my day job, feed myself, and sleep.
And in that time, I don’t know how. I had gone on a dating app and I had matched with the man who is now my fiance, who I’m going to marry. But I did that and then I closed my laptop and I had that week of sort of burnout and almost completely missed each other because I had, was so overworked that I just kind of couldn’t handle even messaging with somebody.
Kind of had this moment of, oh my God, I never, I never messaged that guy back. We had our first date and the rest is history. And I think of that sometimes as a reminder. Yeah, it was, it was, it is a happy, happy ending to the story. That almost didn’t happen. And so I, I, I remind myself of that. Whenever I feel the pull of, like, I could do this, I could, I could write three books a year.
I could do, you know, and sometimes I think it’s important to understand what your capacity is to take on work in a healthy way. And that applies whether you are, you know, just starting out writing your first draft and you’re balancing it with childcare or working, or whatever’s going on in your life or whether you are.
A multi self-published, full-time author. I think there’s always that tension of how much is too much, what do I do, and how do I make sure that this is a really healthy thing that I can continue on with my career in a way that feels good to me. So yeah, that’s my, that’s my cautionary tale, but it ends happily. So there you go.
[00:47:36] Theodore Brun: What else did you think? From what she said, I was kind of led towards the social media stuff, but I don’t know if you wanna, if there’s something else you wanna talk about.
[00:47:45] Julia Kelly: I’m glad you mentioned the social media stuff, cuz it did. Every time we have this conversation with people who are really good at this stuff, I sit there and I think to myself, you’re really good at it until you get on deadline and then you’re really bad at it, Julia, and you need to figure out a way to, to balance these things out.
I will admit it’s sort of the first thing that. That goes for me in a day when I’m, I’m writing all day because there’s a type deadline. And unfortunately that’s been what this year has been like for me. So I’m, it made me think a lot about some of the value of that and how to maybe split up the hours a little bit the way that she does and kind of really focus on the writing time during, during the time that I’m, that I’m freshest in the morning, makes a lot of sense to me.
And then put some more time and effort and energy into, into, the social side.
[00:48:34] Theodore Brun: I think it’s who, who you’re engaging with, whether you enjoy that as well on social media. But I, I was interested by what she said, cuz again, it’s that projection thing of looking at someone who looks like, oh, she said she had 20,000 followers. I mean, that’s way more than I do. And thinking. That must be so great in terms of helping her visibility, you know, her sales and marketing and what have you.
And she was saying she’s not sure how much value that actually translates real value in terms of actual sales and that she relied much more on traditional means of marketing and what the publisher can do, which, which was interesting to hear, but also, You sort of think, well, in a way, the way you, the way you enter these contractual arrangements, particularly on the traditional publishing footing is almost sort of sets whether there’s gonna be a load of marketing budget thrown at your book or not.
So I found that quite tricky to hear cuz I’m like, hmm. In my world, anyway, there’s it. It’s supposed to be all about the organic growth on social media. So I don’t know. I think there, I’ve heard other ways. In which people have success engaging with their readership, which is through mailing lists more.
And I noticed actually on your, your websites a wonderfully sort of put together website and we talked about your, your friend who’s sort of helping you. Assess what you’ve got and make it better than, than it was before, which I didn’t see how it was before. It’s certainly very effective now and and whether that more direct connection through mailing lists, certainly heard other authors say this.
That’s a much more real translation into actual revenue rather than just like I’m putting stuff out on social media.
[00:50:18] Julia Kelly: You know, if somebody’s active enough that they’re signing up for a newsletter, you sort of already have an in with them, but then translating that into, they have a relationship with you, they want to. They want you to do well. They want your books to do well. They want to buy into those books. That’s.
Really, really valuable. I think for me, the social media side, that’s more of sort of casting a broad net and trying to find new readers and trying to find new people who are paying attention to what you’re doing in your writing career. That I think is where I am weaker and certainly again, after these conversations, I always think to myself, I really need to have a think about that and figure out how to, how to make this a bit more sustainable and, and, and quite frankly, enjoyable when I’m on deadline.
[00:51:01] Theodore Brun: But do you have, do you have a lot of interaction with your. Or with people who you’ve sent a mail shot out to do, they kind of come back to you and you have correspondence.
[00:51:10] Julia Kelly: Yes, and I, I’ve found that there are certain people who are sort of super fans, for lack of a better term. You know, people who you see come up again and again, either in replies or on Facebook comments or sort of feedback coming back through. And it’s, it’s really wonderful to see those relationships kind of grow from book to book.
I don’t know, just to develop as people follow along with your career. But you know, in the same way that you followed Anna’s career, she’s somebody you enjoyed speaking to, you enjoyed. You know, engaging with, you read one of her books, you thought it was good, so you read another, and it sort of, you build this whole relationship with an author and it doesn’t necessarily need to be in person.
So I, I think that’s definitely, that’s been the thing I’ve been focused on most recently. But again, I, there’s always, always ways to, to grow and people to learn from. I think that there is just so much to talk about there, but that’s probably the perfect place to end and go away and have a think a little bit about what it was that we, that we learned.
[00:52:07] Theodore Brun: I know, I think we could go on, couldn’t we? But we do have to, we have to bring these conversations to an end at some point. But, yeah, it was fantastic today. I really, really enjoyed our chat both together and also with. Anna earlier. So thanks to Anna Mazzola for that brilliant conversation. And that concludes this episode of The History Quill podcast.
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