About the book:Can we learn from our ancestral past? Do our relatives behaviors help mold our own? In Unexpected Gifts, that is precisely what happens to Sonia, a confused college student, forever choosing the wrong man. Searching for answers, she begins to read her family’s diaries and journals from America’s past: the Vietnam War, Woodstock, and Timothy Leary era; Tupperware parties, McCarthyism, and Black Power; the Great Depression, dance marathons, and Eleanor Roosevelt; the immigrant experience and the Suffragists. Back and forth the book journeys, weaving yesteryear with modern life until finally, she gains enough clarity to make the right choices.
Praise for Unexpected Gifts:“…a rich and involving book, the author has written a gem.” (Dorothy Salisbury Davis, author); “…an impressive, wonderfully thought out and well-told first novel.” (Carla Davidson, former Sr. Editor, American Heritage); “…In S. R. Mallery’s fine first novel, a dozen vibrant, real characters leap out…as the author adroitly rewinds and replays the greatest hits of American history…” (Dan Vining, author)
Interview with Sarah Mallery:How long have you been writing, and how did you start?
I didn’t become a writer early like a lot of authors. At the time ‘It Happened’(about ten years ago), I was already a matured wife and mother. I remember hoping two very significant people in my life would become professional writers––basically, so I could stand back and live vicariously through them. But neither one of them complied, so before I knew it, I had sat myself down one day and taken a stab at it. It was like a drug and I have never stopped since.
What do you like best about writing?
I love having the ability to get lost in a separate world and to say to myself that it’s okay to read a book for research or enjoyment in the middle of the day because this is a part of my profession. I also enjoy the editing process a lot. It’s my way of getting a second, third, fourth, or even firth chance to make it better.
What’s your least favorite thing?
My least favorite thing is waiting for that special click in my head, when I know it’s an Ah-Ha moment, and when that doesn’t come readily, being tempted to eat out of frustration or futz with something that doesn’t need futzing. Also, getting too swept up in the social media game and ignoring my writing and my historical research.
Oh my, is that easy to do, or what?! Do you have another job outside of writing?
Yes. I am an adult English As a Second Language Teacher and an essay-writing teacher. And I have to say, they are the most wonderful students in the world!
How did you create the plot for this book?
Many moons ago, while I was lying in bed with my daughter who was three at the time, I was reading a short story my mother had written years before that. As I looked down at my sleeping child, I suddenly thought, ‘There are three generations in this bed tonight.’ That thought stuck with me somehow and years later, when I decided to write a book, I thought about that special night and how powerful it had been for me. I also realized it could be a great vehicle for getting different U.S. time periods in.
Your book sounds fascinating. Do you outline, write by the seat of your pants, or let your characters tell you what to write?
Probably from being a quilter for so many years, when I started preparing for my novel, I put any ideas, character developments, traits, etc onto little slips of paper then tossed them in a large folder. I also read a LOT of historical books, underlining, and notating in them like crazy, then jotting down specific pages numbers on little paper pieces as well before placing them in The Folder. Once I had a lot of slips piling up, I took them all out, and started sorting them––some for basic historic events, some for characters, some for objects that the characters left behind. I started little envelopes with each character’s name, and for historical events. The more I did this method, the more the basic plot was developing in my head.
From there I made a very, very broad outline. Then, as I divvied everything up into chapters, I would outline each chapter, based on those little slips of papers, with scene ideas, where to get authentic details, etc.
Did you have any say in your covert art?
The cover art person is Jamie Johnson. She is a vital part of Mockingbird Lane Press and is a joy to work with. She read the book to get the flavor of its various components, and after listening to me suggest that maybe it should involve an attic and a trunk, came up with the basic artwork. We went back and forth for quite a while ironing everything out, with her trying to please me at every step of the way. I consider myself very fortunate because I had read how some publishers really don’t give the author much choice in the matter.
What is your favorite line from a book?
The opening line from Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Which character did you most enjoy writing?
I really enjoyed writing the chapter involving my heroine’s great grandmother, Daria from Ireland. I enjoyed reading all about Ireland (those DK Eye Witness travel books are fantastic!), and learning the Irish grammar. In fact, as I invented her and her experiences, I was constantly saying the words out loud with an Irish lilt, and I believe because of that, the character really stayed in me.
I’m constantly on the lookout for new names. How do you name your characters?
I have a couple of ways: 1) I mostly use Google to look up names from whatever time period I’m working on. I get a lot of good sites on that. 2) I picked up a little book at CVS called, Baby Names by Bruce Lansky. It has 15,000 names with their origins.
How do you handle criticism of your work?
The truth? Inwardly, not well. Outwardly, much better. I ruminate about it for a while, then as I gradually calm down, I start to sort out what is probably true and what is their opinion only. It is a process.
Do you have a routine for writing? Do you work better at night, in the afternoon, or in the morning?
I notice I tend to be more alert in the early morning, but sometimes I do write at night. Basically, whenever I can fit it in.
Is there anything in particular that you do to help the writing flow? Music? Acting out the scene? Long showers?
Definitely music! When I worked on Unexpected Gifts, I compiled CD’s of the various time periods. That helped me so much. As I listened, I would jot down ideas about scenes, character motivations, traits, plots.
And funny you should mention the shower. That seems to be a place where as I lather up, I suddenly think of something that happens to one of my characters, or the fact that a character wouldn’t say this or that. I guess I’m in good company––I remember reading that Agatha Christie claimed she got her best ideas while doing the dishes...
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I like to teach ESL, but I also love watching films on Netflix and TV––classics, new films, Indie films, BBC series, American series, you name it! I get a lot of ideas for my books by watching the plots and character development.
If you could take a trip anywhere in the world, where would you
go? (Don’t worry about the money. Your publisher is paying).
I would love to spend a long summer in the British Isles with my husband, going from one cottage to another in England, Scotland, and Ireland.
Sounds wonderful. Can I go too? What are you working on now?
I am slowly doing historical research for a Civil War mystery.
I'm looking forward to hearing more about it!
Excerpt from Unexpected Gifts:
Chapter 1: Discoveries
“….[at her parents’ house] Sonia stood over her father. Once her hero, she looked down at him now, thinking how old and fragile he seemed. Just a mass of angry words….She glanced past him to his hospital bedside table and saw what he must have been reading earlier, before the outrage and drink overtook him. The Agent Orange Aftermath was about two and a half inches thick, bloated from dog-eared and alcohol-stained pages….”
“….Sonia stirred her tea. “Here’s the thing. I think I’m––I’m lost.”
“…She watched her mom scrunch up her face….“Maybe you should…explore other things… There are quite a lot of old family diaries and objects up in the attic...Who knows? They might even give you some answers…..”
“…there was an old steamer trunk at the far end of the room, rusty, threadbare, and artistically draped with a cobweb or two over its corner edges.….”
“…when Sam’s [Sonia’s father] box was exposed, Sonia gasped. A cornucopia of the Vietnam experience flooded her senses and…left a slight dread. Did she really want to unleash all their secrets?”
From the author:I have worn various hats in my life. Starting out as a classical/pop singer/composer, I worked in small clubs/churches and composed for educational filmstrips. From there, I moved on to having my own calligraphy company, a twenty-year quilting and craft business, and teaching ESL/Reading. Finally, I tried my hand at fiction writing and it was like an all-consuming drug. I’ve been happily writing ever since.
I have had eleven short fiction pieces published in descant 2008, Snowy Egret, Transcendent Visions, The Storyteller, and Down In The Dirt. Several of my stories have appeared in different anthologies through Scars Publications. Before that, I had articles published in Traditional Quiltworks by Chitra Publications, and Quilt World by House of White Birches when I was a professional quilt designer/quilt teacher.
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