Interview with Helaine Mario
What genre do you write and why?
The one word answer is ‘Suspense,’ although the broader genre is ‘Thriller/Mystery/International Intrigue/Romantic Suspense.’ But at its heart, I believe that The Lost Concerto is a story about bravery and love, masquerading as a suspense/thriller.
I wrote the book that I wanted to read. My favorite reading choice always will be to escape with a suspenseful, beautifully written story with evocative settings and fully-realized characters. I grew up during the Cold War and read every book by the ‘Queens of Espionage and Romantic Suspense’ – Helen MacInnes and Mary Stewart. Their books had it all – edge of the seat political intrigue, spies, war, secrets, international settings, romance… and always, innocent women characters caught up in extraordinary circumstances. For me, the suspense and heart of the story is about what these women will do when their courage is tested.
Tell us about your latest book.
Music tells our stories. The Lost Concerto is about Boston classical pianist Maggie O’Shea, a widow mourning the loss of her husband, her missing godson, and her music. But then a CD of unforgettable music and a grainy photograph connect her vanished godson to a long-lost first love. Maggie is drawn into a search that will take her to Paris and Provence, setting her on a collision course with her godson’s criminal father and leading her to a decades-old secret involving stolen art, rare music, and a terrorist’s vengeance. It is music that tells Maggie’s story.
What advice do you have for other writers?
* Write what you care about, the story you want to read.
* Make time to write every day. Not just time, but 2-3 hours of concentrated time if possible.
* Learn the tools – point of view, transitions, flashbacks, limiting the dreaded adverbs.
* When in doubt, deepen your characters. (Best advice ever given to me.)
* Rewrite, Edit, Rewrite, Edit. Then do it again. Even when you think you are done. You are not.
* Have a thick skin and a sense of humor.
* Don’t give up.
* Don’t apologize. Just tell the best story you can and be true to yourself.
What's the best thing about being a writer?
For me, I love the freedom to create the stories I would enjoy reading, and characters that have dimension and depth. I can live vicariously through my novels - go to the places I want to visit, explore motives, fall in love, live a totally different life. I am passionate about my stories and my characters and cannot imagine not writing. I want to tell stories forever.
I also cannot tell you how much pleasure I get from hearing readers whom I admire say that they could not put my novel down, that they did not want the book to end, that the characters continue to resonate with them. Being able to share these stories with others, to make people feel, is a gift to me.
Who is you favorite character in your book and why?
This is difficult because I really do care about all my characters, and feel as if they are a part of me. Maggie O’Shea, the concert pianist, is the woman I want to be – strong, intelligent, funny, accomplished, compassionate, brave. She is the kind of woman who will do the right thing no matter what, who will run toward rather than away. At the same time, she is flawed, and, as a grieving character, she has helped me to explore feelings of grief and loss, and the strength needed to move on and take your life back. Maggie is the character who carries my theme: that while there are many moments in life that we cannot change or control, it is how we deal with what happens to us that matters. This is when we learn who we truly are. This always will be a theme in my novels.
I also adore Colonel Beckett, who is lonely, cynical and broken in many ways but funny and noble as hell. He has a darkness in him that is fascinating to explore and a foil to Maggie’s light.
My villain Victor is not the typical ‘one-dimensional bad guy.’ He scares me, but it was a huge and rewarding challenge to try to explain his past, his guilt, and why he is the way he is.
Finally, many readers adore the (also) cynical 3-legged Golden Retriever, Shiloh, who is a damaged soul like Beckett but in the end, a ‘kick-ass’ hero and a great expressive character in his own right.
Why do you think readers are going to enjoy your book?
I know from talking and listening to my readers that they especially love three aspects of The Lost Concerto: well-drawn and complex characters that they can invest in, care about and root for, (or, at the very least, understand) - characters that make them feel; the atmospheric sense of place, in scenes set in Boston, Paris and Provence; and, the Music. Music is what sets this story apart, makes it special. It is music that tells Maggie’s story.
Did you learn anything from writing your book that was unexpected?
Yes. I learned that my characters can have minds of their own. It surprised me that the characters and story became so real to me. I now know that, for me, well drawn characters will direct the plot and the outcome of the story. And I learned that I can make myself cry in a scene, no matter how many times I read it.
How do you research your books?
Carefully. I write about history, politics, current events and the arts, so I have many overflowing files with clippings from newspapers, magazine articles, books and movies. Of course I use the internet as well – the trick is to jump to the 4th page/section where you will find the more interesting and unusual articles. I have learned two important things about research. That one article can suddenly take you in a totally unexpected and surprising direction, and if you ‘go with it’ you will find a whole new world of inspiration. And that, for every 20 pages of research, I only will use one page in my novel.
What is your work in progress? Tell us about it.
I now am writing my third novel of suspense. My first two novels, Firebird and The Lost Concerto, are ‘stand-alone’ novels with their own individual storylines and characters. I want this third novel to be a sequel for sure. My problem is that I still love both stories and characters from each of the previous novels. So, whose story do I continue? Both of my main women characters, Alexandra from Firebird and Maggie from The Lost Concerto, absolutely deserve their own stories and sequels.
For now, my work in progress is titled Woman in Shadows. It continues the missing art storyline from The Lost Concerto, and includes my Lost Concerto characters Simon Sugarman and Zachary Law. My main characters, however, will be my art curator Alexandra, Agent Garcia and the Russian Yuri Belankov, all from Firebird. I’ve learned that I want to have music in my novels, so I have a new character - the cellist Hannah. And, because I believe several generations of characters make the relationships more interesting, I’ve been surprised by a young Russian teen with a secret. To be continued…
What are your thoughts on self-publishing verses traditional publishing?
I self published my first novel, Firebird, in 2012 (as an e-book and Amazon trade paperback.) In 2014, I signed a contract with Oceanview Publishing of Sarasota, FL, for The Lost Concerto. So, I’ve been on both sides of the aisle.
The good news about self publishing:
It’s much faster. You will be published on Amazon in 3 months instead of 12 – 18 months for a contracted book.
You don’t have to find a publisher, and then wait months for decisions or rejections from that publisher to get your novel ‘out there.’
You do not need an agent, so you have total control over your creative and business decisions.
The cost is reasonable, I believe less than $1000, but this may have changed.
The bad news about self publishing, at least for me:
There is no formal editing process, you are on your own. And, trust me, you really should have good editing.
Word documents must be specially formatted for e-books. I could not begin to convert or format my word manuscript on my own, so I had to find someone to hire and do the work for me.
I was lucky, but I often read that many ‘formatters’ or self-publishing help organizations are not professional and may let you down.
You HAVE to market. Amazon will NOT do it for you. Once your family, friends and colleagues have placed their orders, you will sink or swim with marketing.
There is NO PERSON available for contact to help you with your Direct Publishing questions, so you really are on your own.
You have to handle your own accounts (which, of course, you may prefer.)
The good news about a publishing contract:
For me, the validation. In Hardcover.
The Advance, and all major production costs absorbed by the publisher.
Working with a professional team who will Edit (!) your work and take you through the process of choosing a cover, your headshot, the book jacket, whatever.
(I cannot speak to the pros/cons of having an agent since I parted ways with my agent in 2012 and found Oceanview on my own.)
All distribution handled by the publisher.
Professional marketing of your book – (but you’d better know your way around social media.)
The downside to a publishing contract:
You have to wait a looooooong time to see your royalties and for an unknown author the advance most likely will be small.
You have to commit to help market your book and may have to absorb some early costs (bookmarks, launch parties, etc).
You have to be prepared to work very hard with marketing and social media, and if this is a new experience for you there is MUCH to learn and do - and it will take time away from working on your next book.
Many decisions are no longer yours – you no longer own your book – and this occasionally can be frustrating.
(But for me, I love Oceanview and seeing my book in hardcover on bookstore shelves, so it is all worh it. I wouldn’t change a thing.)
Who or what inspired you to become a writer?
Two women I never met inspired me to write – Helen MacInnes and Mary Stewart. Not teachers, but writers - queens of espionage novels and romantic suspense from 1941 through the 80’s. They taught me about suspense, courage and love, and they inspired me with their heroic women characters. I never took a writing class, but because of these writers, I learned about building page-turning suspense, finding a voice, dialogue that is natural, creating romance. My stories involve international and atmospheric settings, political intrigue, timely plots and complex characters, The women in my novels are strong, intelligent, funny, accomplished and brave. Women who somehow find the courage to do the right thing no matter what.
When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?
* Family first. My husband and I have been married 46 years and have 2 grown children and 4 beautiful grands. I spend as much time with my young ‘darlings’ as I can, they fill my world with magic.
* Friends. Laughing matters.
* Travel. I love to travel with my husband. We enjoy NYC, New England, Sarasota, FL, Cape May NJ, and exploring the West. We travel frequently overseas as well, and especially love France, Italy and the UK.
* The performing arts – dance, theater, music – and art galleries.
* Giving back. I have been an outreach activist for decades and always have worked ‘hands on’ with my non-profit boards in the DC area. In 1998 I established my own foundation, the SunDial Foundation, which supports women, children and families. This is work that is near and dear to my heart and I hope to fund it with my book royalties in the future.
* Walking, and going out to dinner. Hopefully one balances the other.
* Last but not least, reading. I just wish there were more hours in the day.
Where can a reader purchase your book?
On Amazon; Barnes & Noble, Books A Million, Independent Bookstores
Where can people find out more about you and your writing?
What's your favourite quote about writing/for writers?
“Always go to bed with a good book or someone who has written one.” (by ‘Writer’s Write’ )