A native of Alamogordo, NM, Florence Byham Weinberg traveled extensively with her military family during World War II. Travels continued after marriage to scholar-critic Kurt Weinberg in Canada, France, Spain and Germany. After earning her PhD, she taught for twenty-two years at St. John Fisher College, Rochester, NY, and ten at Trinity University, San Antonio.
Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I was born in the small high desert town of Alamogordo and lived on a ranch when I became conscious of the world around me. As an only child, the ranch animals were my close companions, and I fell in love with horses. My father went into the military and my mother and I followed him from post to post, so I saw many different parts of the country and went to school there. We settled on a farm in northern Arkansas and I graduated from Viola High School, then received my BA from Park College, MO (now Park University), followed by graduate work in philosophy at The University of Iowa. I finished course-work for the MA, then married and accompanied my husband, Kurt Weinberg, to Vancouver, British Columbia, where I took another MA in Spanish literature and history. We travelled in Western Europe a good deal, mainly in Spain, France and Germany with short stays in Switzerland and Portugal. Kurt was appointed to a professorship in Rochester, NY, where we lived for 28 years. I took my PhD from the University there, and taught for 22 years at St. John Fisher College. We moved to San Antonio, TX, in 1989, and I taught there for 10 years, retiring in 1999. I retired early in order to write fiction, and have written 10 novels since then, 8 of which are now published.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
I knew it as soon as I learned to read at age four and wrote a poem, published in a children’s magazine. Two or three years later, I wrote a “novel” called “Ywain, King of All Cats,” which I illustrated. I published my doctoral dissertation in 1972, followed by three more scholarly books, then, after retirement, began writing what I’d always longed to do: fiction.
Do you have another job besides writing?
I’m now retired, but I do editing and translating to earn a little money on the side.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
I was an omnivorous reader. One of the first books I read was H. G. Wells’ Outline of History. I probably read it when I was five. I fell in love with Napoleon because he was so cute. (Wells included many illustrations in his book.) I read children’s adventure novels, mysteries, and quickly graduated to Ellery Queen and Rex Stout, etc., read Robert Lewis Stevenson very early, Edgar Allan Poe, Hawthorne, and other classics. Also Victor Hugo (Les Misérables and The Laughing Man) in translation. Read most of Shakespeare on my own during high school, adored Sherlock Holmes. I also read poetry, including the Victorian-era poets both English and American. Oh, yes, I forgot to add Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. This brings me up to the age 16, when I went off to college.
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
It began as a dream about a body-swap that didn’t turn out too well. I realized that it would make a great short story. This was in 1965, when I was preparing to write my doctoral dissertation. I wrote and wrote, and the “short story” grew to 50 pages, and was nowhere near complete. I realized that I was obsessed with the story, and so hid those pages under the drawer lining in the bottom drawer of the dresser and managed to forget about the story until we moved to San Antonio in 1989, when I rediscovered it. I found it fascinating once again and finished it as a novella. I tried a few times to publish, but was rejected, so threw it in a drawer again and forgot it until last January, when I hauled it out and completed it. What made it such a gripping story? I think the archetypal, universal nature of the fantasy: the desire most people have had at least once, to be someone else. Bring that fantasy into reality. See what major problems would result if one actually DID become someone else, while retaining one’s own mind and memory. Another reason for writing the novel was the universal question of the mind (or soul)/body split. Most major religions believe in the survival of the soul. Science poo-poos the idea, calling it an illusion, despite the many recorded near-death experiences. I decided to take the split seriously and to work out the consequences if mind and body were actually separated during one lifetime.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
It is a combination. I always know in a general way who my characters are and what the overall shape of a novel will be. No outlines, though—I find them too restrictive. I let my characters “tell” me what they will do next within the world I have created for them.
Did your book require a lot of research?
My books often do, but this one required some medical research and some geographical (Switzerland). I lived in Sils Maria in the Swiss Upper Engadin for a summer in the Nietzsche House, since my husband, Kurt Weinberg, had written a brilliant article about the philosopher. That was in 1968, though, and I needed to check to see if my memories were accurate. The final confrontation in the book, the struggle on Piz Corvatsch, is not true-to-life—at least not geographically—since that mountain, though close to Sils Maria, could not be reached in the short time I give in writing the pursuit.
What was your goal when writing this book?
First of all, to tell a gripping tale. Secondly, to explore and spoof the mind/body split as seen by the philosopher René Descartes. Thirdly, to call attention to that unsolved problem. Are the mind and body really separable? If so, life after bodily death is possible. If not, as science (since at least the late 18th century) has steadfastly maintained, then all religions are foolish fantasy.
The educated reader, although anyone who likes a thumping good tale will enjoy the book.
What will the reader learn after reading your book?
If she or he doesn’t skip the more contemplative parts, a good deal about theology and philosophy regarding mind, body, and moral choices. If she or he does skip all that, the lesson that even under the most adverse circumstances, courage and perseverance can bring about positive things.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
I’ve done a good deal of both. My books don’t take place in a vacuum, so my settings are always places where I’ve lived or traveled. My characters are built on human characteristics and foibles I’ve observed in others. This is true of Anselm, although the body-swap was inspired by a dream and its consequences sometimes fantastic. By the way, I imagined the monastery, but checked it out with two monks, who told me I was right on. One, a Swiss Capuchin, did say that he never heard of monks drinking milk, only wine. The other, an American Trappist, said they drank milk or water with their meals, rarely wine. But the politics and other circumstances were realistic.
Agatha Christie got her best ideas while eating green apples in the bathtub. Steven Spielberg says he gets his best ideas while driving on the highway. When do you get your best ideas and why do you think this is?
Great ideas have come to me while swimming laps, while hiking, and while driving on the highway. In all cases, I was isolated and so was not distracted by conversation. Serotonin was high, especially during strenuous physical activity, which might have to do with enhanced brain activity.
Do you get along with your muse? What do you do to placate her when she refuses to inspire you?
I scold her and tell her to get back to work. Right now, I’m desperately looking for a theme that will interest me enough to write my next book about. Now hear this, Muse! Get busy!
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
As I’ve said before, from 1965 to 2013—48 years! But in actual time devoted to composition, probably four or five months all told. The rest of the time, the manuscript was moldering in a drawer.
Describe your working environment.
I work out of a home office: a 15’X20’ former bedroom, surrounded by reference books, an old PC, a new laptop, an HP printer and other electronic equipment, plenty of lamps and overhead light, good windows with views of huge live oak trees and surrounding suburban homes. Lots of greenery and flowers.
What types of scenes give you the most trouble to write?
Once I’m on a roll, no scene is difficult to write. I have had the experience of choosing a historical figure and having difficulty making that person likeable even when he or she is making the wrong decision, making terrible mistakes that hurt other people. I’m having trouble with that right now in the book I’m writing about a 16th-century writer and publisher, Etienne Dolet. He had a difficult personality and alienated many friends. Yet, he was a courageous erudite, and in many ways loveable human being. How to portray that realistically without alienating the reader, too?
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
I edit each morning what I have written the day before. The editing process itself is like a springboard, catapulting me into the next scene in the book. This works very well for me.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
I don’t know how “immensely fragile” my ego is by comparison with others’. I have had negative reviews, and they bother me in two ways: if the criticism is justified, I am bothered because I didn’t do better. If unjustified—as when one reviewer condemned my book and in describing it made it clear she hadn’t read it–I get angry. Such reviews don’t deter me from continuing my work, however.
As a writer, what scares you the most?
Losing my inspiration. That would kill me.
When writing, what themes do you feel passionate about?
Basically, living a moral life, discovering what that is for the individual and living it. This entails justice and treating others well.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I do keep a schedule: editing and writing in the morning, chores and food, then writing in the evening. There are exceptions for other activities, such as church, lunch or dinner with friends, exercise either at the gym or walking, and Toastmasters’ meetings.
How do you divide your time between taking care of a home and children, and writing? Do you plan your writing sessions in advance?
I’m a widow with no children so am free to write when I want to.
When it comes to writing, are you an early bird, or a night owl?
My best writing always comes at night, so I edit in the morning, perhaps advancing a little in writing as well, but that usually has be rewritten that night.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
No, I have no agent; Twilight Times Books has been my publisher since Gerald W. Mills, who edited three of my books, pitched one of my books to them. My experience when I was searching for an agent and sending out material was dismal.
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
Perhaps writing until 2:00 AM might be considered an unusual quirk? Otherwise none.
What is your opinion about critique groups? What words of advice would you offer a novice writer who is joining one? Do you think the wrong critique group can ‘crush’ a fledgling writer?
My experience has been extremely positive. I now belong to two, one of them very new. One that I have been in for ten years is the Daedalus Critique Group, which has been an enormous help. We critique each other’s work, always civilly, constructively, with an eye to plot, transitions, character development, “showing, not telling,” point of view, etc. This group has always been up-beat. I have heard, though, that a hyper-critical member can do much harm to a fledgling writer by harsh criticism. We have successfully guarded against that.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block? What seems to work for unleashing your creativity?
Yes, I’m having a block right now. When I find a theme that intrigues me, my muse will be back.
Technically speaking, what do you have to struggle the most with when writing? How do you tackle it?
I compose on the computer. I recently crushed the middle joint on my left middle finger, resulting in three operations and 92 days in casts and splints and 19 therapy sessions thereafter. That cramped my style just a bit. Normally, though, I work rapidly with little impediment until the computer crashes. Two years ago, my computer was stolen during a trip, though thank God, I had most of my novels on my laptop that I had with me. Last February, my Dell laptop crashed, but I was able to save the hard drive. The crash did bring all writing to a stop for a week or so. Otherwise no technical problems.
How was your experience in looking for a publisher? What words of advice would you offer those novice authors who are in search of one?
Before Twilight Times Books, I was rejected over 200 times by agents and publishers. This is typical, I fear. The New York biggies look with scorn on any author, agent, or publisher west of the Hudson, unless they write creative non-fiction, well-documented non-fiction, or school-age or young adult fiction. Straight historical fiction, such as I normally write is extremely hard to get published. Advice: Keep trying, else publish with a POD firm or self-publish. This is easily done through Amazon. The drawback is that there is too little chance to get properly edited and vetted before the book comes out. Critique groups can help in editing and making suggestions. Also, so much is in whom you know. A personal contact in a publishing house in NYC can work wonders….
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
Personal appearances where I lecture, answer questions, then sell books. I do have a website, am on Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, and other on-line book sites. Still, the personal appearance works best. I also find that having an open house to present a new book works well, also if the book has a special aspect, such as native wild foods and an appendix with recipes using those foods (as in Sonora Moonlight) the book will sell well at conferences or meetings featuring organic foods and gardening.
Any favorite books?
That’s a difficult question! I enjoy the classics of England, France, Spain and Germany. In French, Stendhal stands out as brilliant, witty, ironic, and a great portrayer of human nature. In Spanish, some of Pérez Galdós, such as Doña Perfecta, or a modern like Camilo José Cela. Among more contemporary authors, I enjoy British women mystery writers like P. D James, Ruth Rundell, and Ann Perry. Other contemporaries: A. S. Byatt, Jane Smiley, Toni Morrison… I could go on. I’m still an eclectic reader and go for books like Seven Sisters of Eve. Mainly, I enjoy readers who portray “lies truer than truth,” that are, like Stendhal, witty, ironic, and great portrayers of human nature.
What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received?
Build your characters so we know them better than our best friend, and give them three-dimensional settings that involve all five senses.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Yes: www.florenceweinberg.com, where my Events button keeps up within a month or so of my doings.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
The books is about Etienne Dolet, a 16th-century writer and publisher who was burned at the stake in 1546 for heresy. Actually he was burned for publishing the Bible in French (verboten by the Roman and Gallican Churches of the time) and for publishing material critical of the inquisitorial practices of the Church. The book is purely historical with my usual imagined episodes to fill in gaps, but based on solid research. The title will simply be Dolet, which, in Latin, means “He suffers.”
As an author, what is your greatest reward?
The joy of writing, itself. After that, to be read, understood and appreciated as widely as possible.
Anything else you’d like to say about yourself or your work?
When a person writes a book, the characters become very dear and very real. I found myself talking to Eric Behrens/Anselm Farnese at times. None of your questions has centered on the plot of the novel, which is a tale of a body-swap. Since Christians (and many other world religions) believe that the mind or soul exists as a separate entity from the body, and philosophers such as René Descartes tried to prove it, I decided—no, I was compelled— to explore that idea. What if, through some ancient ritual, one person could exchange bodies with another? How would that work? What would they feel? The result was Anselm, a Metamorphosis. Hmm. Maybe I’ll write a series of body-swap novels!
Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!