For better or for worse, this is my heritage. My ancestors were slave-holders and I knew that all along. I always saw my mother as a direct extension of them; a racist who stubbornly refused to live past what I assumed was a purely Southern-bred prejudice. I swore I would never be like her, but I had no clue that her bigotry was influenced by something else . . . can I forgive her now?
The above is a highlight from Teresa Robison’s first completed novel, The Secrets of Heavenly. As a successfully self-published author, Teresa is the ideal author for my first featured author interview. Although she is a busy new grandmother and works full time as an instructor, she was gracious enough to let me interview her and share her excellent writing and marketing advice to my followers.
The Secrets of Heavenly tells two stories. The first story centers around a young woman named Olivia who has recently discovered a journal that contains the secrets to her family’s past and explains her mother’s deep-seeded bigotry. The journal reveals how a young Marianne Witherell befriended a slave girl named Willa who arrived at Heavenly Plantation during the era of slavery. In spite of her servitude, Willa secretly learns to read, wears her mistress’s cast-off gowns, and forms an unlikely bond with the children of the wealthy plantation family. As the children near adulthood, they soon learn that friendship between the races is difficult, even limited, and their friendships are tested. The stories are connected by themes of racism, love, and by parallel events of tragedy that continue to haunt the present. The Secrets of Heavenly weaves a dramatic tapestry of love and friendship along with tragedy and hate.
Teresa Robison’s novel is a wonderful read for lovers of historical fiction and historical romance alike, although it certainly does not read like a love novel. The story is fictional, but the characters are as real as though recorded in a real journal from that era. The story is full of sorrow and joy, is horrifying, yet uplifting, a must-read for anyone seeking a work with heart.
Considering this is the author’s first completed work of fiction, I had some very specific questions I wanted to ask about her novel.
Lit Chic: What inspired you to write your first book?
Teresa: I happened to be reading To Be a Slave by Julius Lester, which was a book of true slavery tales that I’d purchased from Scholastic when I was teaching middle school. One story in particular seemed to gnaw at me well after I read it and somehow I knew that I needed to share it with others in a way that would bring it to life. It had to be told because it illustrates the horror of slavery in such an unforgettable way. I won’t give it away here, but I’ll just say that I had to create an entire book to lead up to that scene!
Lit Chic: How did you come up with the title?
Teresa: As I was writing the book, I realized that there was a recurring theme of secrecy. There were deep secrets between mother and daughter in the present-day epilogue; there were secrets in the past between spouses and siblings, between friends, and among the slaves. The name of my fictional plantation was originally Palm Haven, but later I decided to name it “Heavenly” in juxtaposition to what plantations were actually like to their slaves (i.e. Hell).
Lit Chic: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Teresa: Yes! Hypocrisy, intolerance, and racism are evil. We were a nation founded on individual freedom and yet we enslaved other human beings. How did that even make sense? I know there is no simple answer to that, but if we don’t think about it now and again, we are subject to repeating our national mistakes.
Lit Chic: How much of the book is realistic? How much is made up?
Teresa: Aside from the scene I mentioned earlier in To Be a Slave, it is all fiction. However, it is set in well-researched historical context. Everything in the book could well have happened in antebellum South Carolina. My husband and I went to South Carolina this past summer so I could further my research. We toured the city of Charleston, three plantations, and a few places featured in “Heavenly.” Walking in the footsteps of history, so to speak, gave me a better emotional appreciation for my characters and provided insights that will serve me in my next projects.
Lit Chic: What are your current projects?
Teresa: Currently my major project is enjoying my new grandson, Luke. He was born October 2nd and is the center of my world right now. I’ve been obsessed with him!
Lit Chic: The Secrets of Heavenly is the first of two novels. Would you like to include a short excerpt of your published work or a tease for the sequel?
Teresa: Well…in the sequel I promise to put to rest the wicked overseer Duke Henry. How will he meet his demise? Let’s just say that I’m taking notes when I watch movies or read stories about gruesome murderous acts. Poor, poor Duke!
Lit Chic: Do you have any advice for other writers?
Teresa: Absolutely. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t think that the only way to publish is the traditional route. I read too many writers’ horror stories about dealing with rejection letters, the impossibility of securing an agent, attracting a publisher. It scared me out of finishing my book. After I began to read about publishing on Amazon, I experienced a huge paradigm shift.
Lit Chic: On the subject of self-publishing. What made you decide to self-publish?
Teresa: That’s easy. I sent out a half dozen query letters to agents, got turned down by one and ignored by five. That is a tiny effort compared to what you read about most writers, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make query-writing my career. Nor did I see myself taking out a second mortgage to hire an editor or pay for a professional service to publish with companies like AuthorHouse, etc. I’d been reading e-books on the subject of self-publishing and thought, “I can handle this!”
Lit Chic: What are the pros and cons of self-publishing?
Teresa: The pros include having total control over the finished product, not having imposed deadlines, having the ability to set pricing, and having the incredible feeling of accomplishment in the end. You control your launch calendar, your promotions, and your book’s destiny. On the cons side of self-pub, the worst part is that you are working-without-a-net. You don’t have a publisher’s expertise and advise. You are never 100% sure that you are doing the right things and you have to do all the legwork on the book marketing. That means lots of time and a constant effort on the author’s part.
Lit Chic: Who designed the covers?
Teresa: Believe it or not, I paid $5 for the original book cover from a graphic designer on Fiverr.com. I took her concept and put my own stamp on it. I highly recommend checking out Firerr.com.
Lit Chic: Back to the subject of writing. What was the hardest part of writing your book?
Teresa: Finding the time to sit down and get in author mode was difficult. Working fulltime and having family responsibilities made it hard to write on a consistent basis. Another obstacle was my tendency to over-think, over-research, and over-doubt myself.
Lit Chic: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Teresa: Aside from what I discovered about antebellum life and slavery, I learned some things about myself. I realized that I could accomplish something I never dreamed possible. A story was marinating in my head and I was able to coax it out into a form that could speak to people all over the world.
Lit Chic: Who was your support group? How did they support you?
Teresa: My family supported me during the three years of writing by giving me the space and time I needed to work. I created this book without a lot of fanfare, working on weekends while everyone else was occupied with other activities. My daughters are now nineteen and twenty-five, so they have their own lives. My husband was pretty amazed when I actually published the book and remarked to me, “When did you have time to write a book?”
Teresa is all about sharing advice and resources with other aspiring authors. Below, Teresa has provided a list of helpful websites for other authors:
- Books and e-books by Shelley Hitz; her website: http://www.self-publishing-coach.com/
- Laura Pepper Wu’s blog: http://www.30daybooks.com/blog/
- The Kindle Publishing Bible: How To Sell More Kindle Ebooks on Amazon by Tom Corson Knowles: http://amzn.com/B00A86QV9A
- http://fiverr.com/ for people to help with cover designs, book marketing, social networking
- http://www.skillshare.com for reasonably-priced online courses on writing, publishing
The Secrets of Heavenly has been in the top ten of its e-book category since shortly after it was published in February of 2013. This summer it stayed in the top five and hit number one for a period, ahead of one of Oprah’s Book Club novels! The e-book is currently at #7, ahead of Twelve Years a Slave and The Secret Life of Bees, both of which have been made into movies. Over 7,000 copies have been sold world-wide.
Teresa Robison’s books is available for purchase (hardcopy & eBook) on http://amzn.com/B00B40B0LI
I hope you enjoyed this month’s featured author and be on the lookout for a new author featured each month.