Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Featured Author: Colleen Oakes

I'm happy to have Colleen Oakes stop here today on her book tour with CLP Blog Tours. In addition to talking with Colleen, she's also treating us with an excerpt from her book, Elly In Bloom.

About Elly In Bloom:

Surrounded by lush flowers and neurotic brides, chubby thirty-two-year-old Elly Jordan has carved out a sweet little life for herself as the owner of Posies, a boutique wedding florist in St. Louis. It’s not bad for a woman who drove away from her entire life just two years ago when she found her husband entwined with a red-headed artist.

Sure, Elly has an embarrassingly beautiful best friend, a terribly behaved sheepdog and a sarcastic assistant who she simply calls “Snarky Teenager”, but overall her days are pleasantly uneventful. As a bonus, her new next door neighbor just happens to be an unnervingly handsome musician who has an eye for curvy Elly.

Just when she feels that she is finally moving on from her past, she discovers that an extravagant wedding contract, one that could change her financial future, is more than she bargained for. With the help of her friends, staff and the occasional well-made sandwich, Elly bravely agrees to take on the event that threatens to merge her painful history with her bright new life, and finds herself blooming in a direction she never imagined. Elly’s voice, both charming and hilarious, will appeal to those readers who have been looking for a new voice in chick-lit, and will give women of all sizes the realistic heroine they’ve been waiting for.

Interview with Colleen

How long have you been writing, and how did you start?

I always wanted to be a writer – in fact, in 4th grade I declared to my parents that I was going to write books. Though I’d been blogging for about seven years prior, it wasn’t until 2010 that I really put my passion into practice. It was New Year’s Eve - post wild bunco party - and over a glass of wine I confided to one of my best friends that I had started a book called Elly in Bloom in 2007, and that the first chapter was in a drawer somewhere. She looked at me and said “I want to write a book too!” From there on, we met once or twice a week to work on our respective novels. A year later, Elly in Bloom was finished. Her book, Serenade, will be arriving in about two months. Writing is what I should have always been doing, but like any true writer, I dragged my feet – and my pen – for years.

How did you create the plot for this book? 

When I lived in St. Louis, I worked at an insanely busy florist. One night, after working late, I was driving home and listening to Missy Higgins. An idea came to me as I drove and sang, the wind unattractively tossing my hair in the spring breeze. The idea was simple: What if someone was hired to design their lover’s wedding? How would they express that frustration in floral design? Would they do it? What if the wedding was extremely profitable? Would they turn it down? The idea was intriguing, and as soon as I got home, I sat down at my computer and wrote the opening scene to Elly in Bloom. As per the question above, Elly sadly sat in a drawer for a few years after that. But that was how the plot originally came together. It almost wrote itself.

I love your cover. Did you have any say in it?

I absolutely LOVE my cover. I’m almost obsessed with it in a completely unhealthy way. It is so close to my original idea that it’s scary! My designer’s name is Ian Gao, and I found him through 99Designs. I knew I wanted a bright and simple cover, something that would stand out as a thumbnail and would convey immediately that this was a book about flowers. As a former florist, I was very picky about the type of flower that was on the cover – as in, I told them “It MUST be a peony.” Not only are they one of my favorite flowers, but to me, the peony is a perfect representation of Elly, my lead character.  She’s big, she’s beautiful, and she’s slowly unfolding. I honestly couldn’t be more happy with my cover.

Which character did you most enjoy writing? 

Elly, of course, is absolutely my favorite character to write because she is an embodiment of my own heart, my own insecurities, and the combined personalities of several extraordinary women in my life. Aside from my main character, my favorite character to write was definitely Snarky Teenager. She was so unlike anyone I know, but at the same time a chance to indulge in some truly bratty and sharply edged behavior.

Tell us about your favorite scene in the book. 

It’s hard to do that without spoilers, so I’ll tread carefully here. My favorite scenes in the book would either be the large wedding towards the end, or the flashback scene, where we return to the events we shortly witnessed in the prologue. Both scenes are turning points in Elly’s life, where she experiences revelations that will change her life forever.

What song would you pick to go with your book? 

There’s not a song, but there is an album! Kelly Clarkson’s My December was such an underrated album, and from “Sober” to “Never Again” and “Haunted”, this was absolutely the soundtrack of this novel.

Who are your favorite authors?

Far and away, the author that has influenced my writing the most would be Jennifer Weiner. Her books have made me laugh, cry and showed me that there could be enjoyable women’s literature that pulsed with a deeper current. Other authors that inspire me as a writer and engage me as a reader include: Ann Patchett, Barbara Kingsolver, Trisha Ashely, Audrey Niffennegger, George R.R Martin, J.K Rowling, and Leif Enger.

How do you handle criticism of your work?

Not well! Well, not at first anyways. I was warned by other authors about how terrible your first negative review would feel, and yet it still seemed like a boulder had been dropped on my chest. However, after that first terrible one, I was able to take any negative reviews or handle constructive criticism with a certain begrudging grace. While I might not take each suggestion to my book, I do take and consider each one in my heart.  It’s never easy to hear, but criticism ultimately can make you a better writer, and a more introspective reader.

Do you have a routine for writing? Do you work better at night, in the afternoon, or in the morning? 

I absolutely work better in the morning hours. My brain is rested and sharp, and my fingers seem to fly over the keys. The unfortunate thing about this is that I HATE mornings, and am totally a night owl. I love writing at night – but my writing at night tends to be sloppier, and I can skip words if I’m not careful. Therefore, a compromise must be made. I get up, shower and sit down to write. I don’t aim for a certain amount of time – I aim for half a chapter a day. Sometimes, that takes two hours. Sometimes, it takes six. I save my evening work period for my blog, emails and social media. Actual writing must be done in the mornings, and usually with a Starbucks at my side.

What three books have you read recently and would recommend? 

This has been a great year for books! The three books that were my best read in 2012 would be: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett and the entire Song of Fire and Ice series by George R.R Martin. Reading those took about three blissful months.  I am convinced that Martin might be the smartest person in the entire world.

What are you working on now?  

Fans of Elly in Bloom will be glad to know that I have returned to Wydown Street, and that Elly in Love is about three-fourths finished. Besides debuting Elly in Bloom, I spent most of my year finishing my first venture into the fantasy genre with an epic book called Queen of Hearts. The book is a fresh twist on the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. It’s big, it’s whimsical, and it’s a bloody dark fairy tale.

Colleen, you definitely have to come back when those two books are published!

Excerpt from Elly In Bloom


Georgia, two years ago, daybreak.

Early morning nauseated Elly.

That was normal, at least.

Her steering wheel smelled like spoiled milk and rotten freesia.

Gross. That was not normal.

Through the dirty windshield, she watched the creeping fingers of
dawn overtaking the horizon. Bright rays approached her car slowly, blasted
through the muddy glass, and turned her dark leather seats into blinding
mirrors of light that hurt her swollen eyes.

Elly hated the dawn; the insects chirping, the hazy mist. It turned her
stomach. And for once, the thought of food was unappealing to her. She
pressed her forehead against the pungent wheel and whimpered. It had
only been one day, one crappy stinking day, since her whole life had melted
down, and now she was in her car having a nervous breakdown. It was getting
unbearably hot. The blazing Georgia sun peeked over the hackberry
trees that held steady as a slight breeze tossed their leaves. Her eyes, stinging
from the sun and from the hysterical tears she’d indulged in the night
before, welcomed the moisture. She had cried for twelve hours straight,
drunk an entire bottle of wine, trashed a painting, and now she was here.

Sweating in her car.

She was filled with something stronger than anger, something more
pathetic than sadness. Elly exhaled, feeling the breath stutter out of her
lungs, stretched thin after hours of grieving. She hated her sad little life,
hated what she had become in this last day, hated the man who was her
husband. Who WAS her husband. She gave a whimper. Hated she’d been
forced to see everything she’d believed about her life was a lie.
More than that, at the moment, she hated being hot. She was hot so

With a sigh, she turned the key and the toy-sized engine of her Toyota
Tercel roared to life. After a blast of scorching heat, crisp air puffed her
face and dried the mixture of tears and sweat on her cheeks. With the heat
retreating, she could think a little more clearly. She glanced at the bags
in the backseat: one giant suitcase with orange and blue ribbons dangling
from the handle, a couple of plastic bags stuffed with hair and make-up
supplies, a cooler filled with apples and sandwiches – a stupid decision,
now that she thought about it and her lace wedding dress that lay crumpled
in the corner. Elly pursed her lips and whipped around. She couldn’t think
about that. Not now. She would find a therapist later to tell about the dress.
Elly glanced nervously at the clock. She knew what she should do. She
should drive to her job. She should talk to her boss Jeff, who constantly
picked at his shirt near his stomach. She should call her best friend, Cassie,
and talk her into skipping work. They would cry – no, she would cry – and
talk about that moment, that horrible moment again and again. The creak
of stairs. A hand clutching white sheets. The moment when she’d found
her husband staring enamored at another woman. They would eat ice cream
until she was too exhausted from emotion and dairy to move.

Cassie would pretend to be amazed that he would cheat. She would
insist that Elly storm back into the house – she muffled a sob –and demand
that he be the one who leave. Demand the house. Demand faithfulness.
Demand love and bury what happened in a cemetery at the back of her
mind, never speaking of it again.

Yes, that sounded great...but that confrontation would require removing
her head from the steering wheel, and her neck seemed unable to do so
at the moment. She couldn’t move from this moment. Not now, not ever.
She heard a slam and jerked her head up. Her next-door neighbor Jen
was taking her son to school. Jen, looking confused as to why Elly was sitting
in her car, unmoving, waved enthusiastically. Elly rolled her eyes back
in her head and lifted her hand weakly. Filled with self-pity, she loathed
Jen, who was actually a nice person. Yes, act like nothing is wrong. Act like you
didn’t hear me screaming and wailing like a banshee until the sun came up. Act like
this is totally normal, sitting in my car at six in the morning, with a cooler full of
roast beef and suicidal thoughts. Jen’s tow-headed little boy climbed into the
backseat, and she lovingly buckled him in.

The tears Elly didn’t think she had left inside her snuck up so suddenly that she didn’t even have time to prepare. A wail, an unwomanly, unattractive wail escaped from her lips and she wept with liberal abandon.

Grief spread before her. Her perfect future, her imaginary child, a little boy
who climbed happily into his car seat was not here. That future was not in
this house, the one she had built for that purpose. It was not with the man
she had trusted to see her dreams through. It was not in the office where
she’d worked for years, where she’d happily gossiped with friends about the
love of her life. It wasn’t in the park where she’d envisioned pushing a baby
stroller, her artistic husband at her side. Her life as she’d dreamed it would
be had imploded yesterday. The shards had gone flying inward, into her
body, the moment she had seen them together. That life had fallen out of
her fingers before she understood what was happening to her.

How was it that a love story so beautifully constructed, so perfectly executed,
could be so flawed, so breakable? How, with a single act, could two
years of marriage burn to the ground, leaving only flecks of ash behind?
Her future as she’d imagined it was gone forever. It could not be fixed.

He had not chosen her.

She would later exaggerate, telling people it was inner strength, or her
great faith that propelled her forward into the unknown. She had no such
strength, no such faith. What she had was the desperation of having nothing
ahead of her and the total decimation of a dream behind her. Elly closed
her eyes and banged her skull against the headrest. She saw them again, his
face elated with joy, his green eyes flashing up at the woman on top of him,
a bead of sweat running down her naked spine. The mane of red hair.
Tears threatened to fall again.

Push it down.

With that thought, she made the decision, turned the key, her heart
still shattering into sharp, jagged pieces. Elly shifted the now-trembling
car into first gear and turned around on her cul-de-sac. She propelled the
car onto the road that led out of her perfect neighborhood, turned northwest,
and headed for the freeway. She cranked up the radio, found her favorite
station. And then she drove, and drove, and drove. With the sounds of
NPR mingling with her wrenching sobs, Elly drove until the sun set in
front of her.

She refused to look back.

About the author:

Colleen Oakes is a passionate Colorado native who really enjoys living in other places. She attended college in Bronxville, New York where she received her degree in Creative Writing. After college, she opened up a successful wedding florist before the writing urge came knocking. Now she is a night owl who does most of her writing in pajamas. When not drowsily hitting the keys, Colleen enjoys swimming, reading, and immersing herself in nerdy pop culture. Elly in Bloom debuted in September, 2012 via Amazon Publishing. She now lives with her husband in North Denver, where they are awaiting their first child through adoption. Colleen blogs about life (good, bad, and awkward) pretty frequently over at The Ranunculus Adventures. She is currently at work on the sequel to Elly in Bloom.

Connect with Colleen:
Website / Blog / Facebook / Goodreads / Twitter / Amazon