Interview with Shelby Hiatt

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Shelby Hiatt is the author of PANAMA, set in the early 1900s, and charting an American girl's life in Panama during the building of the canal. I described it in my review as having 'very evocatively written descriptions of Panama and the jungle, as well as a lot of interesting dialogue about class and society in America, Panama and Spain in the early 1900s, Panama will certainly appeal to readers of historical romance of all ages.'

1. What was the inspiration behind PANAMA?

I went there with a friend a few years ago – there’s a page about that on and I was impressed with the locks and the canal and with the people--I knew there was a book in all that. But it had to be fiction, the non-fiction history has been written and very well by others. There’s plenty of first-hand information since the Americans in the Zone during construction knew it was important and wrote memoirs, letters, diaries and journals, and many of those are available. So using those I went to work.

2. What made you decide to leave the central character of PANAMA nameless?

It wasn’t conscious. I was three quarters of the way through the book and wanted her mother to call her by name when they were hurrying to leave for Dayton then realized if I hadn’t used it by then it would seem strange to start at that point. So I just didn’t use it at all. That never happened before and I’ve written several books.

3. What's your writing process like? Do you write in the morning, at night, in bed, outside, in short bursts or steadily?

Steady and daily. Every morning I write at the desk beside my bed on a computer using Screenwriter 2000 software. I write screenplays too and that software has a good novel format. I work four hours every morning, nine to one. I’ve done it for years. Don’t know what I’d do in the morning if I didn’t write. It’s not so much a discipline as something I really love to do.

4. Can you tell us a bit about your road to publication?

I wrote screenplays between run-throughs on the General Hospital set and when those didn’t sell I wrote a novel. That first novel sold to Oliver Stone for film. It was called HECTOR’S TAPES but it didn’t get made and was never published so I kept writing. I used to find suitable agents and my query letter for PANAMA went to over 130 agents before the book was picked up. Then it was sold in a couple of weeks.

5. What inspires and drives your writing?

I think my interest in history inspires me most, especially first hand accounts. Everything I write is set against some historical event. I dig up personal accounts and if those don’t exist I research the researchers and get as close to how the people acted and felt at the time as I can. All that’s very interesting to me. I’ve just finished a novel set in Biblical Judea – not much first hand stuff on that but plenty of scholarly research. What a place that was with the Romans running things. Very interesting.

6. Complete this sentence: My teenage years were...

…a mix of small town life in Winchester Indiana and suddenly at 16 (and at my request) a year in a boarding school in Switzerland because I was so interested in languages—culture clash. My parents let me go to Brillantmont in Lausanne, Switzerland and I loved it. Very strict but I learned French and did well. Then on to College and I graduated two weeks after my 20th birthday--end of the teen years. Very studious. No serious boyfriend yet.

7. Complete this sentence: My life outside of writing is...

…a lot of reading. Life goes like this: Get up at 9. Write. Go to the gym (beautiful Wooden Center at UCLA) or take a long walk. Run any errands. Stop at Starbucks and read and drink tea. Evenings are more reading and watching TV if there’s something interesting on. BBC America has some good stuff. I’m liking Robin Hood and a couple of the popular talk shows and Top Gear, a car show but so entertaining. Last month I went to New York and Boston for the book and I visit a son in Seattle regularly. My friends and I often go to movies. I have to say I loved District Nine.

8. Are you working on anything new at the moment? Can you tell us a little bit about it?

The newest is a story taken from a strange true event: in the 1930s there was a Nazi survivalist camp in Santa Monica Canyon. Amazing, I know. It was there all right, I’ve climbed through the concrete and steel ruins. The protagonist is a 17 year old boy and there’s flood and a fire. It’s a big adventure and true and really amazing.
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