Author of Between Earth and Sky, The Second Life of Mirielle West, and more!
* Click here to read my book review on The Second Life of Mirielle West
As a lifelong reader, I’m usually the person in the room who has read the most books, has the biggest bookshelf, and finds myself saying, “The book was better than the movie.” However, as I’m interviewing more and more authors, I realize I’ve boxed myself in when it comes to reading. I love certain genres, and it is that pool I fish in most often. So, when I decided to branch out and expand my literary palate, the first genre I wanted to try out was historical fiction.
The idea of reading historical fiction has always scared me because I never gravitated towards history in school. I wasn’t interested in anything war-related, or anything political. Art history might be the only exception, as I am very interested in learning about certain artist. But, there again, only a small sliver of art interests me, with the rest being left on the table like untouched lima beans.
I thought about reaching out to a historical fiction author. I figured, I’ll pick the one that interests me most, and if she replies to my email, it’s meant to be. Otherwise, I’ll move on. Nothing like setting myself up to fail, right? But, as fate would have it, the one author I reached out to, Amanda Skenandore, author of The Second Life of Mirielle West, actually answered me! Thus, I decided to interview her, and then read the book and write a review on my first-ever foray into historical fiction! *You can read it here, but check out my interview with Amanda below!
You’ll find that she’s a down-to-earth nurse, who loves the outdoors, and has a seemingly endless well of perseverance (read her reply to the question “Have you ever had a manuscript that didn’t translate to a finished novel?”) that can inspire all of us! She’s about to drop her third book, The Nurse’s Secret, on June 28, 2022.
Here is a short description of The Nurse’s Secret, taken from Amazon:
Based on the little-known story of America’s first nursing school, a young female grifter in 1880s New York evades the police by conning her way into Bellevue Hospital’s training school for nurses, while a spate of murders continues to follow her as she tries to leave the gritty streets of the city behind…
And now, please enjoy my delightful interview with Amanda Skenandore…
L.A. Can you introduce yourself to my subscribers? (Where you’re from, how long you’ve been writing, what you like to do in your free time).
A.S. Hi! I’m Amanda Skenandore, a historical fiction author living in Las Vegas. I’ve been writing for eleven years. I also work as a nurse. When I’m not typing away on my computer or at the hospital, I like to be outdoors—gardening, swimming, picnicking, sitting in the shade reading.
L.A. You’ve published three books, with another due to be released later this month (June 2022), but you also work as a nurse. Can you discuss the challenges of trying to meet deadlines while working and maintaining your personal life?
A.S. One of the great things about nursing is its flexibility—you can work full time, part-time, overtime, per diem. I work about twenty hours a week, which usually leaves me plenty of time to write and squeeze in a dinner date with friends. But sometimes things happen. (Hello COVID!) In early 2020, I was scrambling to finish my third novel after a deadline extension from my publisher. (My agent correctly thought the book needed a substantial overhaul before I handed it in to my editor, hence the extension.) My new deadline was May 1st. Then the pandemic hit, and I found myself working at the hospital five or six days a week. By the end of the day I was beat, but I’d fix myself a snack and make myself write/edit for at least half an hour. Usually that half-hour would bleed into an hour or two. If not, I didn’t beat myself up about it. Six weeks of that, and I met my deadline! That experience taught me two things: I’m capable of more than I think, and I can’t forget to cut myself a little slack when things happen outside of my control.
L.A. In writing historical fiction, do you feel pressure to “get things right” or do you allow yourself creative liberty, letting the story take you where it leads?
A.S. For me, getting things right is really important. Historical fiction authors make an implicit contract with their readers—the story might be fiction, but it’s rooted in fact. The reader needs to be able to trust you in order to lose themselves in the story. If you’re sloppy with the details, you break that trust. That’s not to say there’s no room for creative liberty. The mix of fact and fiction is different from author to author and book to book. Some works of historical fiction have only a cornerstone of truth. The rest is the author’s imaginings. And so long as the reader understands the terms of the contract, that’s fine. But that’s not the type of historical fiction I write. I try not to veer significantly from the historical record, and when I do, I mention it in my author’s note.
L.A. Have you ever written a manuscript that didn’t translate into a finished novel?
A.S. Yes! The first book I ever wrote never made it beyond the second revision. It was a great learning experience, though. I queried a few dozen agents with the manuscript, but after hearing their feedback (or lack thereof), I realized the story needed a lot more work. By then, I’d already fallen in love with the idea for my next novel. So I put that first manuscript away and started on my next (which would eventually become Between Earth and Sky, my first published book). Years later, when I was querying the new manuscript (initially without success), people told me I should put it away too, and work on another. But I couldn’t. The story meant too much to me. Unlike that first book, which had been easy to let go of, this book demanded I keep trying.
L.A. Can you talk a little about your writing process? (Do you write at the same time each day? Where do you do your writing? How long does it take you to complete a book? Do you write with music or quiet?).
A.S. I write best in the morning. Usually at home. Preferably within sight of a window. But I’m trying to train myself to be more flexible. It’s easy to say, well, I don’t have enough time to get into it, or it’s too loud in here, or I’m not in the mood. And then the words don’t get written. If I’m being really disciplined, I can finish a first draft in four months. But that’s after I’ve done several months’ worth of research. And, of course, I need time on the backend for editing, ideally 3-6 months, but my deadlines don’t always allow for that.
L.A. Historical fiction is a specific niche. Were you always interested in history? Can you talk about what led you to not only writing, but specifically, writing historical fiction?
A.S. I’ve always loved history. When I was a kid playing make-believe, I didn’t imagine myself on another planet or in some fairytale kingdom. In my imaginings, I was a mountaineer, a homesteader, a flapper, a gold miner. My favorite books were historical fiction adventure stories (Naya Nuki, Little House in the Big Woods, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). As an adult, I’ve gained a more nuanced understanding of history. But the fascination remains. As does my belief that history matters to our lives today. It’s still influencing us, in good ways and in bad, sometimes without our knowing it. That’s the power of historical fiction. By shining a light on the past, you can illuminate the present. And unlike a dry textbook or boring history class, historical fiction is about people and their experiences—not names and dates. It’s personal, intimate. That’s what helps readers see themselves in the pages and, hopefully, take away something of value.
L.A. Can you tell us about your experience getting a novel published for the first time? (My subscribers are unpublished writers looking to break into authorship, so any details of how you found an agent, what it felt like learning you’d be published for the first time, and so forth would be really inspiring to them).
A.S. After writing the first draft of Between Earth and Sky, it took me six years to find an agent. Much of that time was spent revising. I submitted the manuscript in the 2013 Pitch Wars competition. Although I didn’t snag an agent, I did gain a mentor (historical fiction author Heather Webb) and received a lot of good feedback that helped make the novel stronger. A year later, an agent I met at a conference requested and read the full manuscript. She sent me a seven-page editorial letter along with the offer to resubmit after revision. Even though her comments were spot-on, it took me almost a year to fully tackle them. And in the end, she passed on the revised manuscript. I was heartbroken! But, after licking my wounds for a little while, I started querying and pitching again. A few months later, I met another agent at a conference who finally said yes. We went on submission that summer and six weeks later found a home at Kensington. I’ve been happily writing for them ever since.
L.A. How do you handle negative reviews and general criticism of your writing?
A.S. For the most part, I don’t read my Amazon or Goodreads reviews. I’m very grateful to those who write them, but, ultimately, they’re meant for other readers, not me. And I know myself. The words of one negative review can depress me for days. I do read every comment that comes in through my website, and, good or bad, I always respond. When someone writes to tell me they loved the book or tags me on social media with a glowing review, I save that message and reread it later when I’m feeling disheartened.
As for criticism, that depends on who’s giving it. There are people whose feedback I solicit and trust. If they don’t like something, I listen. Sometimes even constructive criticism is hard to hear. But I want to be a better writer, and this is part of the process. I don’t take every suggestion (not even from my editor), but I always consider and try to learn from it.
L.A. What advice would you give to someone who has writing ability, but is stuck in fear and can’t go the distance with a full-length manuscript?
A.S. I love Anne Lamott’s advice: write a shitty first draft. I remind myself that all the time. Because I’m still afraid. Every time I start a new novel. But if I acknowledge, yeah that’s a terrible sentence (or paragraph or chapter) and then remind myself I can always fix it later, the fear lessens. I also really like that saying: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. Obviously, we shouldn’t be eating elephants, but I like this idea of taking a project one bite at a time. A full-length novel is daunting! Even a short story can feel that way. But when you break it down chapter by chapter, scene by scene, word by word, it feels more manageable.
L.A. What is the one thing that surprised you regarding becoming a published novelist? (This can be anything from weird experiences to getting recognized to hearing how your stories affected your readers).
A.S. One thing that surprised me was how much uncertainty exists in publishing, especially in terms of book sales. Sure, some things, like getting selected for Oprah’s book club, will invariably make you a bestseller. But otherwise, there’s a hefty dose of luck and guesswork. A publisher can put all their resources behind a novel, and it can still flop. Or put very little into marketing a book and suddenly it soars. I think I expected someone to be able to tell me: do a, b, c, and d, and then you’ll be a success. But I’ve come to learn that it’s important for writers to have their own definition of success. Yes, I’d love to blow through my first print run and land on the bestseller list, but that’s no longer my definition of success. I want to write a novel I’m proud of, one that touches readers and helps me grow as a writer.
L.A. Who are your favorite authors? (This can include who inspired you in the early days, all the way up to what you’re currently reading).
A.S. My favorite authors are Jesmyn Ward, Jane Austen, Hilary Mantel, Zora Neale Hurston, Adam Johnson, Geraldine Brooks, and Louise Erdrich. (I could keep going…lol.) Right now, I’m reading Pride, Prejudice, and Other Flavors by Sonali Dev and listening to The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. So far, I’m loving both!
L.A. What are you currently working on?
A.S. Most of my time is tied up with the launch of The Nurse’s Secret on June 28th. (Eek!) But I’ve also begun working on my next novel about a wily medicine show woman and her band of misfit performers who find themselves in Galveston, Texas during the most devastating hurricane ever to strike the U.S.
Thank you so much to Amanda Skenandore for taking time out of your schedule so close to your new book release! We wish you the best with this book, and the many more to come! Personally, I am honored (and very impressed) to speak with the author of my very first historical fiction novel. You, and The Second Life of Mirielle West, will always hold a special place in my heart, as all firsts usually do.