Interview: Margaret George

I’m a fan of historical fiction, and for me there is none better than Margaret George. The amount of research she does for her books is simply amazing. I was delighted to find out she was a Wisconsin author, and even more pleased when she agreed to this interview! I love her answer about writing very long novels even when she was a kid. Can’t you just see her madly scribbling away? She has some wonderful advice for writers as well. Enjoy this interview.

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Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

My family origin is southern but my father was in the State Department so I lived overseas as a child. As a teenager I lived in Washington DC and graduated from high school there. I went to college in Nashville, Boston, and San Francisco—so you can see I was sampling different areas of the country. I’ve lived in Wisconsin since 1975.

Like many writers, I started writing quite young. I was around 8 and from the beginning I wrote novels—long ones, too. I guess that is how my brain works.

What’s the best thing about writing?

The best thing about writing is what F. Scott Fitzgerald said he was looking for—an excuse to preach in a socially acceptable manner. All writers are preachers in a way, trying to convert others to our way of thinking. Some of us are more subtle than others but it’s always there.

One of the nice benefits of writing is that you are always learning. Writers are great observers of the world and of people. Those of us who need to do research as well get to take courses and interview people as well as travel.

And another good thing is that your work doesn’t come undone in the middle of the night and have to be done all over (unless your computer crashes). So many jobs have to be done over and over, but a book, once written, stays written.

And ultimately, there’s the consolation (more a hope, actually) that after you’re gone your book will live on.

Share some of your writing goals.

My ultimate writing goal is that the characters I write about be pleased with what I have done. I’d like to think Cleopatra would say, “Good job! You captured me!” or Helen of Troy would say, “Nobody has understood me until now.” I know you are supposed to have an imaginary reader in mind but other than my characters, I don’t.

Next to that is the wish that I’ll bring some new information or insight to a reader on a subject.

And, of course, provide some enjoyment and respite from the dullness of tasks and routines.

Is there a specific time of day you like to write?

I prefer to write late morning and into the afternoon. It takes me awhile to wake up so I can’t start too early. But this makes it impossible for me to do anything midday, like have lunch. A pity.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

The most interesting book I’ve ever read—I hate to be corny, but it’s the Bible. It’s inexhaustible, and every time I read a section it means something different to me. The human psychology it depicts is always dead accurate. Cain and Abel…Sarah and Hagar…Joseph and his brothers…David and Saul…all portraits of jealousy as good as “Othello”. Just about every other emotion—anger, greed, love, grief—is covered equally well in other stories.

Next to that, Shakespeare, for the same reasons.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

As I said above, I was about 8. I wrote a novel called “Indian Red” about a horse. I wrote a number of other horse novels before turning to human beings at about age 13. My grand finale horse novel, “Fury” was sent to Grosset & Dunlap in hopes of getting it published.

Favorite authors?

I like Poe, Fitzgerald, Ruth Rendell. I don’t get to read as much as I’d like. I also like Tony Horowitz and Simon Winchester for nonfiction, Michael Grant and W.W. Tarn and Lacey Baldwin Smith among historians.

Book you’re currently reading.

Books being read right now: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama, and Clint: The Life and Legend by Patrick McGilligan, proving that diehard readers have eclectic tastes!

Any type of writing ritual you have?

My main ‘ritual’ is to get myself in the mood and blot out the rest of the world. I can’t do this is anyone else is around or if I have someone waiting at a fixed time a bit later. That tends to keep me from really letting go and immersing myself as there’s already an end point lurking.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

Writer’s block—I’m not sure what it is, if it’s a real entity or various other, different, roadblocks. There are lots of things that can keep you from writing. The biggest one is lack of interest or desire or personal passion for the subject. Commissioned works fall into this category—although Verdi did OK with “Aida”. Another can be perfectionism. I saw a book titled “The Eleventh Draft” that opined you needed that many before you sent something in. That sort of thinking can just paralyze you. Then there’s the fear of failure—or more commonly, fear of foolishness. There can also be competing demands or not enough time, or lack of encouragement from people you respect. All of these would hinder the ability to write wholeheartedly.

The best method for me to get past all that is what I call ‘skating on thin ice.’ Picturing the work as a pond with a thin sheet of ice, I try to skate across it as quickly as possible and reach the other side, before the ice cracks. That means I don’t have time to agonize over phrasing or polish drafts, just forge ahead. I also like to do this far enough ahead of the deadline I know I can go back and fix it up. I do not do well writing under pressure because it makes me too nervous.

What’s the measure of a successful writer?

A successful writer is one who has met his or her own goals. For some people that means merely getting published. For others, writing a classic that stays in print many years and may outlive you. For others, it’s influencing or starting a trend. (Pioneering the ‘nonfiction novel’ or the feminist Bible novel.) For me, it’s meeting people at parties and when they ask what I do, they’ve actually heard of my work!

Advice for other writers?

My advice for other writers is the same advice as for actors—there are many more people who want to do this than society can support. So do it for the love of it and hope you are one of those who can continue to do it. But I’ve never met a writer who didn’t want to write…unlike accountants and lawyers. (No one ever says, “My family expected me to become a writer and insisted I go into the business.”)

Where can we learn more about you?

I have a lot of information about myself and my work on my website, www.margaretgeorge.com

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