Listening In is a series of author interviews, featuring authors whose works have been transformed into audiobooks! This time, we spoke with Pamela Binnings Ewen, author of Émilienne, a historical fiction novel set in Paris during the years before the start of World War I. This title was narrated by Grammy-nominated and Audie Award-winning producer Gabrielle de Cuir.

Listening In #6

Pamela Binnings Ewen

Pamela Binnings Ewen is the author of one nonfiction book, Faith on Trial, and seven novels, including The Moon in the Mango Tree, awarded the 2012 Eudora Welty Memorial Award, and The Queen of Paris, which has sold over sixty-five thousand copies. After practicing law for many years, she retired to write. She is a founder of the Northshore Literary Society in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, in the greater New Orleans area. She’s also served on the boards of the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and Tennessee Williams Festival.

Author photo by Heidi Bowers.

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Please tell us more about Émilienne. Why should we listen to the audiobook?

A good narrator brings his/her emotion and sense of life to a story, as if you are with him/her in the moment. It’s magical. By emphasizing certain words and phrases, or by raising or lowering the voice, by changing tone—the scene comes to life as if she or he is walking through it with you. Listening to a narrator’s voice is a very different experience from looking at the words. As in a movie, a good narrator shows you more through his or her voice, more about the characters, place, and the entire scene as a whole, all at once instead of line by line. And, of course, through different eyes.

Could you please tell us about your career as an author. What first drew you to writing?

I wrote my first book, non-fiction, while still practicing law in my spare time—thus, it took fifteen years to write and find an agent and publisher. The title, Faith on Trial, began my search for answers to questions about faith. I not only found the answers I sought, but also realized two things: I loved everything about writing, but I wanted to write my own stories.

Thus I moved to fiction. That was in 1999. My latest book, Émilienne, releasing April 11, is my eighth, and I hope to be writing many more. I don’t know if there is such a thing as a writing gene, but in my enormous family, including aunts, uncles, cousins, etc., we have five published writers. Check out my website and you will recognize some.

Prior to your career as an author, you practiced law for many years. Have you found there to be any similarities in writing novels and practicing law? Are there major differences that you enjoy?

There are definitely differences that I enjoy! As a corporate finance lawyer we drafted numerous long documents, but there is no real similarity between those and writing novels. The legal documents I worked with were all about transactions for clients—documenting the details of transactions according to specific requirements set by your client, determining what happens if a problem arises.  From beginning to end you are working toward someone else’s goals.

On the other hand, the wonderful thing about writing a novel is that you create your own world and characters, your own beginnings and your own endings, and everything in-between. When I am writing, or thinking about a plot or character or story, I usually become so involved that I am ‘in’ that world. The characters seem to come alive, as well as the place…regardless of the time period.

I suppose focusing on and crafting factual details—as with legal documents—might be one thing I most enjoyed while practicing law, and that experience carried over to historical fiction. The research is really fun. When I first began writing for publication I had to go to a library to dig up details and usually ended up sitting in dark rooms reading old micro-fische. The internet, of course, has changed all that. It’s amazing what you can find on-line today with a good search. For example, did you know that in many, maybe most, cities in this country fire stations keep maps of the area they cover as far back as far back as the opening of the station? Extremely helpful for describing a location.

We’d love to hear about your writing process. Please elaborate!

I usually start with an idea or particular person who interests me, and begin the research. I may not have the plot set in my mind at that time, but as I flesh out the character’s life through research and begin to really know him/her, then the story/plot usually comes. Sometimes I’ll find something very interesting in a news article or magazine, and it will pique my curiosity, triggering more research.

But the first important thing for me in writing is this extensive research. After the character comes, more is required for the place—the setting—and historical events.  While I am in this stage of the process, I force myself to forgo fiction, using all free time for the research. Sometimes this takes as long as a year, or more.  Then when I have finished writing the story, I usually add an author’s note after the ending, explaining what was true and what was not true in the book.

I write in my office, usually between three and six hours a day. Writing is intense for me because I get caught up in it, and the emotions. It’s like creating and living in a whole new world. I use the remainder of the day correcting copy, doing more research as things come up in the story.

What drew you to Biographical and Historical Fiction? When did you know that it was the genre you wanted to write?

I have always loved and preferred reading historical fiction. Also, I love finding out how people lived in different times and places. Probably all but one of my books (The Secret of the Shroud) is considered historical fiction. So, it was probably natural for me to end up in that category.

Where is your favourite place to write?

I write on a desk-top computer in my office at home.  I haven’t always had a room for an office though, but with a little imagination and bookshelves you can make any corner into an office. I also find that music that suits the mood of the story is soothing, and helps me concentrate. It keeps sway stray thoughts while I’m writing. It seems to shut out all the noise of life.

Describe your writing style in five words or less.

Characters, location, research, color, emotion.

Any advice for emerging writers?

I apologize for this long answer, but I realize how difficult getting published by a publishing house can be for emerging writers. So…

First, write for yourself. Take the time to do through research. Pick your time period,–whether current or in the past. Then pick the place, the initial setting of your story, concentrating on the overall layout of the place, but also details which connect your character to the place he or she will live. Look at maps if the location is not a fictional place. You must dig deep with the research. You must understand the layout and ‘color’ of the place and the community’s thoughts and emotions, as well as your character’s cares and goals. What do the people in that place want and need, what’s in style or fashion, what do they dislike, how do they dress, what do they love and what do they hate?  You must even dig into the recent history of the place—wars, revolutions, any events that could affect your characters. 

I believe that deep research is most important for any story. It is crucial and will often lead you right to an idea for a story if you are looking for one. That has happened to me several times. In historical fiction you usually have a time or place or event, or particular person in mind. But outside of historical fiction, it is still important to research the time period and place you have chosen for your book.

Second, the problem of getting published today. As most of you already know many of the big houses have merged, leaving less and less traditional publishers, thus less time for their editors to read submitted manuscripts. Ini the long-gone past, editors like Maxwell Perkins would edit a book which had potential. Perkins edited Hemingway, Wolfe, Fitzgerald, and spent much of his time restructuring and revising their manuscripts.  But not today. Today, as most agents advise, a submitted manuscript must be finished, polished to shine, before an agent or an editor will even hand it to an assistant to read. Also, reflect on this. Today, agents plow their way through large numbers of manuscripts late at night after a full days work.

A new writer must have patience. Replies can take a long time.

So my second piece of advice is to make certain your book is complete, with all errors corrected before you mail it to a publisher, or an agent. Also, book conventions often include slots of time for new writers to talk to agents. Generally the time is limited, so be sure to put your name on the list as soon as you register for the convention or other such gathering. If you are on the list, you will have a little time to talk about the book with the agent, so prepare what you will say before that day.  Without a referral to an agent, this is the next best way that I know to interest an agent in your book.

Third, consider publishing the book yourself. You will find groups on-line to help your every step. And these books are just as visible as those from publishers when a reader is looking on-line. In fact, I know several writers who have published many books, who now choose to self-publish. They set their own rules, deadlines, and receive most of the money paid for the book by automatic transfers to their bank accounts. You will have to do your own marketing, but the fact is that you must do much of your own marketing on a publisher’s book anyway.

And my last tip—I find that bookmarks are a great point-of-sale tool for marketing, and bookstores are usually happy to let you leave them on counters and tables. Coffee shops will usually allow this too. People seem to love them. Be sure to put your website address on the bookmarks.

What do you do when you experience writer’s block or reader’s block?

Writers block, aaagh! I have experienced it and it is a truly horrible feeling  when it happens. I have found two things which usually get me back on track. Poetry opens our minds to new situations and emotions which you can use in stories. Reading poetry expands your thoughts to new ideas which can grow into a story. 

The second (and probably more effective) is to pick a period in time which has interested you in the past, then begin research, mining for a story idea. If you already have a character in mind, research his or her life and those of the people around and about. Keep your mind and eyes open for that particularly interesting event in the character’s life, something that might seem to drive him forward in a story. And, once you find that interesting thing or event, keep looking—why did it happen, how did the character deal with it, what was the result?

What has been the most exciting part of having your novels transformed into audiobooks?

The Queen of Paris was my first audiobook after having had six other books published, so that was really exciting. I think listening to an audio version of the book is an entirely different experience than reading the words, hearing them in your imagination. As an author writing the words on the page, it is just amazing to hear the story moving ahead  without looking at words. Very exciting! 

A good narrator really can bring a story to life. But I have a caveat to this: I don’t enjoy narrations with several people acting out the characters in the story. (I do’t know why, but I don’t.) The subtle changes in voice and manner by a good narrator is really a delight. A good narrator can transport you to another place as you listen.

For years I listened to audio books while commuting to work. As with most big cities, the commute was long and boring, but, never boring when listening to a good book. There is something cozy about listening to a good narrator while you are driving. But there is one draw-back: you can never give the story your entire attention, as you must give most of your attention to driving.
But a story well told by a good can capture your mind. Sometimes when commuting, I would drive around the block before parking the car, to catch the end of a chapter or to find out ‘who done it’.

Gabrielle de Cuir, a Grammy-nominated, Audie Award-winning producer, and the narrator of your previous novel The Queen of Paris has been cast again to narrate Émilienne. Did you have any say in who was casted? Was having the same narrator for both book important to you? What made de Cuir right for the job?

I have to say listening to Gabrielle de Cuir narrating The Queen of Paris just stunned me. My husband was listening with the speaker on when I happened to walk into the room. Her voice is mesmerizing  and I sat down and listened to the whole thing! My publisher, Blackstone, did involve me in their choice and sent me a sample. I agreed at once. I am also thrilled to have her narrating Émilienne, especially since she already knows the characters from The Queen of Paris.

Besides having a captivating voice, Gabrielle speaks five languages, and The Queen of Paris involved four—French, English, German, and a little Spanish. Foreign words occasionally appear in the book to emphasize a character or set a scene. She explained to her readers that in The Queen of Paris she uses a heavy inflection when she speaks for a minor character, but that she steps back a little and uses a lesser inflection for major characters. I thought that was fascinating.

Please recommend an audiobook you absolutely adored!

Sadly, I haven’t been able to continue listening to audio books for many years, since I began writing for publication. With publishing deadlines, I have had very little time for reading outside of research.  However, one book I loved in the days when I had more time, an old one, is the audio of The Moonstone, a mystery story by Wilke Collins. I love writers from a long time ago—Collins, Dickins, Trollop (he has a wicked, dry sense of humor), Fitzgerald, and one of my favorites, Edith Wharton.

In The Moonstone, again, the lone narrator was amazing. His voice was low, sometimes ominous… but he never drew the listener’s attention away from the story. Sometimes I would drive around the block a few times before parking, because I just could not leave in the middle of a chapter.

What are you reading (or listening to) right now?

My favorite book at the moment is Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens. The writing is really beautiful. Owens pulls you into each scene, as if you are there. I just absolutely loved that story. The book was also made into a movie, and I really have to say I think the movie was (almost) as good as reading the book. If anyone in your audience as not read it, I recommend it with my whole heart!

But, most of my reading is in the nature of research when I’m writing. I let myself read good books that aren’t related to my own story only once in a while late at night, until I finish my own book. Otherwise I would probably sit in a corner with all the stories and writers I want to read and never do another thing!