Monday, February 01, 2010

Author Interview with Cerella Sechrist

Cerella Sechrist is the author of nonfiction devotionals, several full-length dramas, and a historical short story. This is her first novel. Cerella makes her home in York, Pennsylvania.

Welcome to Novel Journey, how long did it take you to get published?

Thirteen years. (Unlikely as it sounds, I suppose thirteen is a lucky number for me!) I first realized I wanted to be a writer at the age of ten, when I watched a movie in which the main character was a novelist. At that young age, books were my life. When it finally dawned on me that one day I could tell stories like the ones I’d been reading, it was as if a whole new world of opportunity and possibility was before me.

Of course, having a dream and seeing it come true are two vastly different things. I spent my teens and twenties studying as much of the publishing industry as I could, honing technique and craft and reading a variety of genres to round myself out as a writer. I wrote my first novel at 16 and started submitting to publishers at 17. It took another thirteen years from that time to this to see my debut novel in print.

When I was finally able to tell my family I had received a publishing contract, the first words out of my brother’s mouth were, “Congratulations. I know it’s been a long time coming.”

I cried.

Do you think an author is born or made?

A little bit born but mostly made. I think we’re all born with an appreciation of stories – the value and lessons in them, but it takes more than that to make an author. It requires the pursuit of those stories and what makes them special: the craft, the moral elements, the diversity, the human element.

You have to learn to love words – the coupling of them, the power of what one single word can define. A picture is worth a thousand words, but the right word is worth a million bucks. Lacing words together to create a story – that takes a lot of practice. You have to get it wrong before you can get it right.

What is the first book you remember reading?

I attribute a lot of my love of reading to my mom, who read to me nightly when I was a child. She’s a theater lover, so she acted out every story: villains literally snarled, wind whistled ominously, the hero’s voice would quake or stammer as the story called for. You can’t help falling in love with the magic of storytelling when someone reads it to you like that.

The earliest books I remember her reading were Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears a Who, Yertle the Turtle and the Berenstain Bear books. Some of the first chapter books I remember reading on my own were Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.

What common qualities do you find in the personalities of published authors?

An overwhelming love of good stories. It’s a pleasure to connect with other authors who are so eager to share their favorite reads. It continues to introduce me to stories I might not otherwise have encountered.

How do you know if you have a seemingly “stupid” book premise that is doomed to fail versus one that will fly high?

For me, the most telling thing about a book I want to write is whether I would read it myself. But it can be very, very hard to step away from a premise you love long enough to be objective – it helps to have an honest sounding board of friends who will be completely ruthless in telling you the truth. I’m fortunate that I have a couple of those people in my life who love me enough to tell me, “No, this just won’t work” or “Yes, absolutely, go for it!”

At the end of the day, however, the final decision needs to rest with you, as the writer, and your instinct. If you know this is a story you would want someone to tell, then give it a shot. That way, even if it ‘fails’ in everyone else’s eyes – maybe it just needed to be told for you.

What is the theme of your latest book?

Chocolate. LOL! That’s the obvious theme – it takes place in Hershey, and it revolves around desserts, so there’s certainly a foodie element there.

However, the more important theme is the struggle with wanting to be something more than you are – finding that line where you know yourself and what you’re good at so you can stop beating yourself up by trying to be more than who you are.

My main character, Sadie, is a very talented chef when it comes to food, but she lacks one, crucial ability: she cannot create truly tantalizing desserts. She spends quite a lot of time wreaking havoc on herself and her relationships as she tries to attain this one thing she wasn’t meant to have. It’s how she defines herself – if she can do this, then she’ll feel her self-worth is solidified.

Writing her story forced me to work through this issue in my own life – accepting my limitations and recognizing that what I can do doesn’t define who I am.

Of course, Sadie experiences quite a few hilarious and heartbreaking adventures in order to realize this lesson.

At what point did you stop juggling suggestions and critiques and trust yourself (as a writer)?

I’m not sure there was ever a conscious decision for me to stop listening to everyone else and just trust my instincts. It sort of evolved into that very early on for me. I value what other people have to say – stories mean different things to different people, and what one person eschews, another might embrace. I always appreciate someone’s input – I often tell my proofreaders, “I can’t fix what I don’t know is broken.”

On the other hand, I also make it clear that just because you dislike something in the story, it doesn’t mean I will make a change. More than anyone else, the writer is the one who has the ‘big picture’ in mind. It’s a very fine balance of being open to valid suggestion and criticism while trusting yourself, objectively, to make the right decision regardless.

I try very hard to analyze every suggestion and criticism in order to judge whether it has merit, and ultimately, I always do what I feel is best for the story. I value feedback, but I also trust my instincts.

Are takeaway messages (in your book) important to you?

Absolutely, but I never want them to be heavy-handed. We tell stories because stories matter. At the end of the day, our stories are all we leave behind us – our tragedies and triumphs, our lessons and loves. If we cannot learn from them, what’s their purpose?

However, stories are meant to entertain as well as teach. A good story interests you FIRST and then teaches you something LATER. Not many people want a sermon, but everyone loves a story.

When do you know you’ve got the finished product and it’s your best effort?
I always know if I’ve done it right when I walk away from the project for awhile, and then, upon returning, find myself reading it as if it was someone else’s writing. With my current novel, Love Finds you in Hershey, I knew I had done the best I could do when I found myself laughing out loud at my own jokes and crying at all the right spots. I’d step away and find myself wanting to go back and read more of my own book.

That resonated with me. I realized that was the very most I could ask of myself – to be entertained by my own story.

Any anecdotes about the research or writing of your books?

Word of advice: One can never have too much chocolate when researching a book set in the sweetest place on earth: Hershey, Pennsylvania. =)

How would you pitch this book to your intended audience?

If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you’re babbling incoherently and mentally telling yourself to ‘just walk away’, you can probably relate to the main character of Sadie. If you’ve ever beat yourself up because you wanted to be better than you are and would do just about anything to prove something to yourself and everyone else, welcome to the club. And if you like chocolate, even just a little bit, Love Finds You in Hershey will probably hit you right in the sweet spot. =D


Rebecca said...

I have fond memories of an evening spent in Hershey World. I remember the overwhelming smell of chocolate as we drive up. Great idea for a novel setting.


Cerella D. Sechrist said...

Thanks, Rebecca! I LOVE visiting Hershey - it's less than an hour from where I live in southern PA. It truly is a 'sweet' place. :)