An Interview with Heather Webb (Guest Contributor)
Heather Webb: I’ve carried books around with me since I was five years old. I journaled most days by age eight, and dabbled in a short story or two by age thirteen. I won a few essay contests in high school and was copy editor of my college newspaper and yet, I still never considered being a writer. It didn’t seem like a plausible thing to do—few jobs, little money, no guarantees. So I worked toward a degree in French. Now there’s a great career move! I adored it, but there’s not exactly a ton of money and stability in French either. High school teaching was a blast though, and I still miss the kids. They made me laugh every day.
It wasn’t until I gave up teaching to raise children that I realized how much I truly adored books—reading them, critiquing them, and finally, writing them. The first days I put the proverbial pen to paper, I felt as if I had stepped into a new, yet strangely familiar skin. As if it had been waiting for me all along. Writing had always been a part of my identity though I wasn’t conscious of it. I’ll never ignore that little voice again.
As for writing a historical novel, it chose me. After years of teaching high school, I was very drawn to young adult fiction, and I even started a novel, but quickly abandoned it. Josephine Bonaparte came to me in a dream (my first novel’s subject) and her voice pestered me weekly. I couldn’t let her go. Now I’m hooked. I’ve always been a bit of a history buff anyway.
W&M: Your newest novel, Rodin’s Lover, is based on the life of French artist Camille Claudel. How do you use historical sources to enrich your writing?
Heather Webb: Travel, artifacts, letters, biographies, cultural and political studies, linguistics, foods—these are all aspects of an era I delve into to enrich the base of my novels.
For Rodin’s Lover, I studied the artists’ pieces visually and read about the inspiration behind them before I began writing. Once I had plotted the novel, I looked for ways to emphasize themes in the book with individual works. It was a bit like fitting pieces of a puzzle together.
W&M: What is the most challenging part about writing a fictional tale based on a real historical figure?
Heather Webb: Balancing a historical figure’s negative traits with those that are sympathetic. There are times you really don’t like something about a person/character, but in order to accurately portray them, you have to “go there”. In both of my novels I faced this challenge. Yet, don’t we also love a fallible character? What is so endearing to us as readers is the character’s struggle to be better, not necessarily their perfections.
W&M: What advice do you have for writers who are writing fiction for the first time?
Heather Webb: Read as often as possible with a studious eye, especially in your genre, but also widely. It’s the single most helpful tool a writer can use to expand their understanding of fiction. Respect and trust your process. You may write quickly or slowly—this doesn’t matter. What matters is practice and growth. And finally, take the time to connect with other writers. They can not only become part of your support network, they become critique partners and guides in an ever-shifting and difficult industry.