Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Lisl's Bits and Bobs: Of Pies, Books and Other Essentials, an Interview with Anna Belfrage

Of Pies, Books and Other Essentials

By now, Anna and I know each other surprisingly well for two people who've only met over the Internet. I'm definitely mindful that she's a chocolate addict; she's aware I'm not. What more does one need to know? Oh, right: that we both love books, magical stories and northern summers. 

And it was magical indeed that we were recently able to sit down together for a little chat.

(Remember to see below for information re: the giveaway!)


Hello, Anna, so good to see you again! It’s been awhile since we’ve sat down for a chat together! Thanks so much for joining me here today. I got a little ambitious this time. (gestures to plate)

What, you’ve made me chocolate torte – and you don’t even like chocolate? How lucky I brought a lemon meringue pie! (whips out pie)

Wow, just as you promised! That was super sweet! Although… (peers at pie)…it’s a bit, umm, droopy?

I know, the meringue looks sort of weird, the heat in my oven is a bit uneven, but I can assure you it tastes great.

I’m all for testing that theory! (picks up cutter) Well, first of all I’d like to congratulate you on winning The Review’s Book of the Month award! I found myself becoming more and more excited as reveal day drew closer, that’s how much I wanted people to know about A Rip in the Veil.

I think I’m as excited as you are – and very, very honoured. To be quite honest, I’ve been considering to relearn how to cartwheel just to celebrate, but that little effort resulted in a sprained wrist – and three sons who were falling over laughing. Huh: as if they can cartwheel!

(chuckles) You spoke briefly last time about Alex, who travels in time back to 17th century Scotland and meets up with Matthew Graham, and indicated she was not modeled on any person you knew. What about other characters or events? Do any of them have roots in past memories? I suppose I’m fascinated when I learn of the way writers bring some of their memories to life in association with those who populate their stories. If they're all new from your imagination, how did they all develop—many at once or did they come as you went along? Do you have full backgrounds laid out for them?

The more I write, the more I realise that characters spring into life through different channels. Quite often, I see someone doing something – like the auditor who had this habit of always fiddling with her long hair. In my books, it is Matthew doing the fiddling with Alex’s hair, but the gesture comes from a PWC [Price Waterhouse Cooper] partner.

Some characters do have a real life model. Mrs Gordon in A Rip in the Veil owes a lot to Elsa, my mother-in-law. It was Elsa who taught me to knit, it was Elsa who laughed her head off the first time we met and the first thing that happened was that my pants split all along the inside seam. (What can I say? I wanted to impress, so I wore my best pants, unfortunately a tad too tight.)

In general, no, my characters do not appear as fully-fledged Athenas, springing out to meet the world. Some are reticent – Matthew did not want to share the humiliating experiences at the hands of his wife and brother – some are too unformed. Usually, they come to me as voices first, I hear snippets of conversations, words that allow me to grasp how they think and why they think that way. From the voices, I progress to visual impressions – but I am not interested in detailed descriptions of what they might look like, I want my readers to fill in the blanks for themselves. I think that as a writer, one must decide which characters need a full background and which don’t – but even the secondary personages must be brought to life, become relevant to the protagonists. Otherwise, they serve no purpose.
What is important when writing historical fiction is to ensure your characters fit the period. This requires a lot of research – very varied research covering religious views, reading matters, dress, diet, etc. What I want to achieve is a sense of immersion that will allow me to paint the period for my readers, without coming across as a heavy-handed know-all. A fine balancing act, let me tell you.

What does your writing day look like? What are some of your consistent habits that pave the way through your writing sessions? Do you set a certain word count goal for each day?

My writing day is very much built round my professional persona. I work an average 55-60 hour week, and per definition, writing is something I do in my spare time. I write something every day. Every day. When I’m doing first drafts, I average 1,500 - 2,000 words a day, while also writing blog posts and stuff like that.  My books tend to be somewhere around 120,000 words, give or take, so that means I finish a draft in 60 – 90 days, after which I am totally wiped out for a week or so, my mind numb.
When I’m not in first draft mode, I probably write half as much a day, mostly rewrites or little jottings that will, over time, become a new book.

Did you have the book (or series) idea and map it out or outline it before you started? Or did you write events out as they happened? What are some difficulties you came up against when writing the novel? What was the easiest part of writing this book?

I had a beginning, I had a couple of scenes, and I had four different endings, one so horribly sad I still can’t read it without crying. 

The major challenge occurs when you realise that the pivotal scene you’d spent so much time developing isn’t going to work because the characters have become very different from what you originally envisioned, and they would NEVER act that way.

Not so sure there was an easy part, but it sure helped that Alex and Matthew were immediately attracted to each other.

How often did you re-write passages from or edit A Rip in the Veil? This question comes specifically from my second reading of the book when I saw a lot of techniques that created links I’m not sure I caught onto the first time.

(Laughs out loud) I have 78 drafts of A Rip in the Veil


—and I am very flattered to hear that you noticed the effort I’ve put into linking between times and characters. With the exception of two scenes – one at the end of chapter 11, the other at the end of chapter 25 – everything has been rewritten, multiple times. Quite often, it is just a couple of words that have been changed, but I tend to say that for every word that ends up in the final version, I’ve written five more.

Sooo…from a storyline perspective, does the final version resemble the first? Are they the same?

I think the Alex and Matthew relationship in the final version is very much in line with the first version. Intermediate events, however, differ, and I had to swap a couple of scenes around right at the end. Plus I deleted some of the more mushy parts and had the pleasure of allowing Hector Olivares to develop into quite the sinister character, however legitimate some of his anger may be.

Are certain types of scenes more difficult for you to write than others? Are you more challenged by dialogue or narration?

I don’t like writing scenes in which my characters go through pain – or loss. But these scenes are often fundamental to a book, so as a writer, there is no way around it. When writing Alex’s and Matthew’s story, for example, I couldn’t shy away from the fact that most parents in the 17th century experienced losing a child. I definitely didn’t enjoy having to draw that insight to its conclusion, but there was no choice, not really.

As to dialogue contra narrative, I believe dialogue is more difficult to get right – pitch is important.

As book one in the series, was A Rip in the Veil more difficult to write than the others? Did you worry more, or less, about your characters—for example, their well-being, how you responded to them, how readers might perceive them?

I was terrified when I published it – but that was more from my perspective than my characters’ perspective. There’s a famous Swedish author who once wrote a poem along the lines that seeing your book displayed in a bookshop was the equivalent of seeing your heart dangling on a meat-hook.

Oh my gosh, yes.

He definitely had a point…

And yes, of course I worried about my characters, which is why I went on to write a further seven books about them!

What is one of your favorite scenes in A Rip in the Veil?

There are so many, but a particular favourite is that scene in chapter 25 that has remained unchanged since I first wrote it.

A weak December sun filtered through the bare branches of the rowan, long extended fingers of shadow thrown across the faded grass. Their breath came in soft puffs, and Matthew slid to sit closer, pressing his thigh against hers. He could feel her relax, a slow softening of muscles that for weeks had been rigid with fear and grief. He didn’t push, he just sat beside her, every now and then sweeping his thumb in a caressing movement over the back of her hand.

“I can’t stand it,” he finally said in view of her continued silence. “I can’t … I see these pictures in my head of you with him, and I can’t wipe them away, and I want to ... Alex, I’m so sorry!”

“Of me with him?” Her confusion was apparent, and he turned to look at her. Her eyes widened. “Oh my God; you think he raped me?”

“Didn’t he?”

Alex made a slow negating movement with her head, and Matthew’s shoulders dropped several inches.

“He... well, he just lost it, you know? He punched me and hit me, he swore at me, hit me some more, and I begged for him to stop, but he just went on and on about you and Margaret, and how would you like it now, when he did to your wife what you’d done to her, and —” She threw him a look and came to an abrupt stop. “It isn’t your fault.”

“Aye it is, I should have been there to protect you.”

“Well, he made sure you weren’t, didn’t he? And had you come back, what could you have done alone against six men?” She shivered when the sun disappeared behind fast moving clouds. “I don’t think he was fully aware of what he was doing – besides, he was drunk.”

“That’s no excuse.”

“No; it definitely isn’t.” Her hand drifted down to knead at her abdomen. “Our baby.”
Matthew took both her hands in his and knelt before her. “We’ll have other babies, lass.”

“But not like this one,” she replied, tears hanging off her eyelashes.

“No, not like this one.”

“He would have had your eyes,” she breathed.

“She would have had your mouth,” he whispered.

Slowly she toppled towards him, and he released her hands to wrap his arms round her, hold her safe against him, while a flurry of wet snow danced around them.

Oh yes, that passage is so very poignant—and a pivotal moment in their relationship. Alex’s clear communication—though delivered in anger—right before this scene leads to Matthew seeking her out, and them opening up a wound together in order to heal it occurs. In the end there is no easy comfort, and the damage is done to more than their physical selves, but it has made them stronger. Contrasted against that strength is the snow, not just snowflakes but wet snow, which to me speaks also of the fragility of the moment, and in turn the dual nature of life and relationships.

What is your favourite scene, Lisl?

Well, the way the opening was set up absolutely fascinated me, and I’ve read the first few chapters repeatedly, scouring for answers I might have missed—answers to all those But how? questions. I especially appreciated the phone situation; it really brings home a better understanding of the insane speed with which a person, or object in this case, would have to proceed through space in order to reach a different time, and for the changes to occur to it as we see in that segment. I also loved the scene when Alex “chats” with another character who reveals a greater understanding of Alex’s situation than Alex realizes she has.

But I also marvel at certain techniques and their results, and one in particular laid out in this scene absolutely gripped me:

“Yes. The British have a thing about their kings; you’re stuck with them.” She spread the djeens to dry, and wound her shawl round her bare legs before coming over to join him by the fire. She leaned her head against his shoulder.

Now this passage, while not told precisely from Alex’s point of view, nevertheless focuses on her actions, her being, what she is doing. Within all that, however, is this metacognitive reference to an assumption held by Matthew, whose mind has absorbed the label of jeans as djeens, which wouldn’t necessarily be readily apparent to Alex, as he has only verbalised this understanding by repeating the word he thought he heard—which sounds almost identical to what Alex actually said. It is through her we observe Matthew and are drawn closer not only his perceptions of the world, but also how he receives them, his thought processes and how these are informed by his culture and how language is used within it. Alex’s lack of response to his alternate understanding of what she said directly points to how the vehicle by which we receive information affects our understanding of it: she heard him say the word, we also “saw” what he said. How the brain operates fascinates me, and this passage was like a jaunt through some of its passages.

Hey, lady; that was deep stuff. :)  But the djeens was something I did on purpose, precisely to visualise their differences regarding vocabulary and concepts in general. Not so sure I actively was thinking about the metacognitive aspects, though…

Well… (laughs, coughs, licks fingers) If given the opportunity, would Matthew Graham be interested in visiting Alex’s era of origin? Would he enjoy or at least appreciate some of the methods of navigating the world (washing machines, cars, telephones, etc.)? If any other character could be trusted with Alex’s secret, would they be interested in a visit?

Matthew is skeptical to the idea of time travel. Very skeptical, as he considers it borderline black magic. Besides, he’s not sure he’d feel comfortable living in a time as secular as ours – for a man as devout as he is, it is difficult to imagine a day and age where people don’t care about God, don’t even talk about God. But he’d do great driving an Aston Martin – and he’d love it.

What would Alex or Matthew say to us if we met? What would either or both of them want us to know? What would they want to know from or about us?

Mainly, I think they’d be very surprised. Well, not at meeting me, obviously, as we hobnob on a daily basis. There’s very little about me those two don’t know – and vice-versa. But should they meet you, I think Matthew would be intrigued by the concept of a woman who’d been in the military, and his immediate questions would be why would a woman want to be a soldier, and why didn’t someone stop you, seeing as he is of the firm opinion women should be shielded from the horrors of war. So, what would you reply, to explain this to my 17th century male hunk?

Oh wow. Honestly speaking, I’m not sure I could explain it to Matthew, partly because I can understand some of his objections —some. Perhaps a core motivation for serving really isn’t so different for women as for men: love of country, a free people ruling themselves, as his sister Joan mentions, and the ability to pass on what we’ve worked for (and been given)—all ideals Matthew and I share.

Although smaller in numbers than today, women have throughout history been exposed to the horrors of war, as combatants and not. Yes, as soldiers they face some challenges different to those men face, but this in itself does not mean they cannot contribute to our fighting forces. Some, like a woman who served in a frighteningly perilous position as one of six spies engaged by General Washington, were instrumental in the positive outcome of their countries’ war experiences. Not all women are capable of this or other sorts of military tasks, but this is true of men as well.

I suspect what makes Matthew most squeamish isn’t just being witness to the horrors of the battlefield, for even many men are haunted by what they saw there; Matthew himself was terribly affected. He might think of the one consequence only women can face when abused as POWs, and I admit, there is no easy answer. 

I guess I’ll have to set up a meeting between you and Matthew to further discuss, but from the way he is nodding, he seems to agree with what you’re saying, somewhat ruefully admitting that you’re right, the horrors of war mark a man too – for life.

What was the most difficult part of researching A Rip in the Veil? What was the most rewarding? What did you learn in the course of researching and writing the book?

The religious background fascinated me – not only for 17th century Scotland, but also for 15th century Spain. Thing is, I get derailed, so I ended up knowing much more than I needed to know about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, and let’s not get me started on the political complexities of the Thirty Years’ War, what with Catholic France bankrolling Protestant Sweden when it went after the (also Catholic) Hapsburg Empire.

Can you share a story about people you met while researching?

I met some very interesting people in Cumnock, who were more amused than awed by the fact that anyone would set a book in their nondescript corner of the world. But the scones were fantastic, and they did point me in the right direction when it came to researching Sandy Peden, a prominent character in the third book of The Graham Saga.

What else would you like to investigate through writing? What is something you could or would never write about? Is there a central message in the book you’d like readers to know about? What cultural values do you think readers could take away from the book—from either time period?

Wow, that was a bombardment of questions! 

Things I would never write about – I can’t answer that, as it depends on what the story requires me to write. Having said that, I’d prefer not to write about gruesome dismemberments and stuff like that, but it is my firm belief that a writer must confront human life in all its glory and sordidness. 

I believe the central message is one of love – and of the importance to adapt to your surroundings rather than yearn for what you can’t have. 

I can’t answer for my readers, but for me personally, writing the books about Alex and Matthew has forced me to confront and explore the very personal issues of faith. After all, Alex is jettisoned into an environment where God is a fact, an undeniable truth, and I think if you live surrounded by people who believe, it rubs off on you – to some extent. Does this qualify as a cultural value, do you think?

Entirely! Your covers are absolutely gorgeous—the font as well as the images completely invite exploration. I remember thinking how appropriate it is that on the cover for A Rip in the Veil Alex has her back to and is walking away from us—for a couple of reasons. Did you have any hand in the cover’s design, either in the actual drawing or conception?

Thank you! I’ve designed all the covers conceptually, that is to say I’ve told marvelous Olly Bennett at MoreVisual what I want, and he has created it for me. I suspect he’s chuckled at some of my sketches, but in general he gets what I want just from my verbal description (phew!). Of course Alex is walking away from us – she is entering a new and unfamiliar world.

Do you believe covers affect the buying process? Do you think that even covers that visualize messages or symbolism within the books can still speak to potential readers given that they haven’t yet experienced those techniques?

Thank you, Lisl! And yes, I believe covers are important. I think they need to be aesthetically pleasing and not be too cluttered. As to symbolism, I fear what is apparent to the writer is not necessarily apparent to the reader – at least not prior to reading the book.

What are your thoughts on the current trend towards selling books wrapped in brown paper bags?—the titles and authors are written on the front, but that’s all anyone sees until they tear the paper off.

Silly. What, some sort of attempt at having people buy a pig in the poke? I buy books, I want to see them, read the blurb, feel the texture and – at times – read the end. (I know, I’m awful like that.)

I want to see them for all the same reasons plus one: to smell them.

Smell them? Is it the type ink that gets to you, or the scent of paper?

(Laughs) Good question—I’m guessing the paper? The scents often remind me of the excitement of receiving our book orders in school, or receiving books as gifts. Believe it or not, one publisher in particular retains that distinct smell I remember from school. Other books just smell like…promise.

(Pats Lisl’s arm) I love that! “Smell like promise.” 

What do you make of the ideal that no literary work is ever completely taken in?—that subsequent to the initial read, cultural and other experiences (including even current events) bringing new understanding or awareness, results in the re-reading of what is actually a completely different book?

I’d say this is a truism. Every reader brings his/her experiences and values to bear when they read a book. A great example is Fifty Shades of Grey, where the literary establishment has scoffed and laughed at this “badly written book” that promotes unhealthy dependency between a young woman and her dominant lover. Except, of course, that they’ve only read the book expecting to be irritated, assuming their preconceived notions will be verified. The over 100 million buyers who’ve devoured the books probably don’t agree – to them, the story of Ana and Christian is one of love and redemption, and most of us are suckers for an HEA (Happily Ever After) story. This doesn’t mean those readers can’t see that the literary quality at times is deficient (it is). It’s just that they don’t care…

Do you get fan mail? What kinds of things do people say or ask?

Presently, the recurring message is “please, please don’t stop writing about Alex and Matthew.” Very flattering – but also a tad stressful. One of the more interesting mails I got was from a woman who was SO mad at Matthew (due to events in later books involving a red bodice) and she just couldn’t understand how Alex could forgive him. “Because she loves him,” I replied, “and because she knows he adores her.” The reader was very satisfied with this reply.

Do you ever highlight in books you read, or make notes in the margins? If you object to the practice, why?

In novels, no. In non-fiction, always. Actually, if I’m reading a novel in let’s say French, I will underline words I need to look up, a habit I’ve picked up from my linguist of a mother, who is as voracious a word collector as I am.

When you attended school, was time travel a popular or at least well-known genre? Did you write stories at that age? Did others see you as a future author?

Did I write stories at that age…Yes, of course I did! Some are very strange, some are very inspired by Lord of the Rings, some are quite good – and none of them will ever escape from the box where I keep them.

Time travel has always been popular, don’t you think? At least conceptually, and I recall enjoying a book called Stig in the Dump about a modern child meeting this person from an ancient, primitive world.

As to me as a future author, I always knew that at some point I would write and publish.

What do you see as the difference(s) between time travel and time slip? Is there really a distinction or do you see the newer term more an evolutionary change, sort of adapting the newer or further developed perceptions and understandings?

Time travel is a conscious act, time slip simply happens to the unfortunate person who gets sucked into the past (or the future). Dr Who, therefore, time travels in his Tardis, while Alex slips into the past.

Ah, of course!

Do you enjoy poetry? If so, who/what are some of your favorite poets/poems?

I am a major fan of poetry, having grown up with a mother who would read out loud to us – in Spanish, Swedish and English. My absolute favourite is actually from a play by Calderón de la Barca – La Vida es Sueño:

¿Qué es la vida? Un frenesí.
¿Qué es la vida? Una ilusión,
una sombra, una ficción,
y el mayor bien es pequeño;
que toda la vida es sueño,
y los sueños, sueños son.

Runner up is that delightful little poem “Glory be to God for dappled things,” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.

It’s interesting: I write prose almost exclusively in English, but my poetry is either in Spanish or Swedish.

What question do you wish someone would ask about your book but hasn’t yet?

Well, sweet pea, after this extensive battery of questions, I can’t come up with a one ;)

(chuckles) I was going to playfully title this “Twenty Questions” but there actually came out to be more!

Thank you so much for joining me here and allowing me to probe into your world! I enjoyed A Rip in the Veil so much and I really appreciate the opportunity for all of us to see into it a little bit more. (reaches for more pie)

Dip your fingers into that!

You can have your cake (or pie) and eat it, too! We've got TWO FREE COPIES of A Rip in the Veil to gift to two lucky winners of our upcoming draw. To enter, simply comment at the novel's review located here or at our dedicated Facebook thread right here!


  1. Oh Lisl and Anna, what an absolutely entertaining interview. So many of my questions answered, too. I chuckled with you both; nodded in agreement, and was sorry when the interview was over. Congratulations to you both. I've had such an enjoyable time listening to you, even if I had to bring my own cake!

  2. Louise, we could have shared...all that cake has been playing havoc with my system. And Lisl, thank you for an interesting set of questions!

  3. I hope there's still a piece left for me Anna darling!