I know Martha Engber through the California Writers Club–our paths have crossed a few times over recent years. Martha’s novel The Wind Thief was just released, and Martha sent me an ARC of the book, so I could read it before interviewing her for my blog. The Wind Thief is the story of two heroes, Ajay and Madina. Ajay, a thief, is on his way to America—via some wrong turns in the Sahara Desert. He is saved, and caught, when he sees Madina climbing down a perilous cliff face, from the top of which she has been talking with a wind. The story blends the grim reality of the desert and Medina and Ajay’s difficult lives with a fairy-tale quality, as long as you’re thinking the Grimm/grim version.
Read through the interview about how Martha wrote the book and, in these not-so-easy times, got it published. Then, leave a comment, and I’ll enter you in a contest for the ARC, read just once, by me, with much pleasure! I’ll draw the winner’s name next Wednesday, November 11th.
BL: The Wind Thief is set in several countries, all over the world. The feel of the settings is very realistic, yet with a lightness of detail that’s nicely evocative. Are these places you’ve visited yourself?
ME: Writing is a freedom I don’t find anywhere else. No matter how constrained I am in daily life — either due to time, schedules or expected behavior — I can run without barriers when I write. In other words, I go where I want, whenever I want, in whatever manner I want, and good luck to anyone who says I can’t. When I was writing The Wind Thief, my task was to formulate the inner life of a woman who sees wind not as a scientific singularity–an element of nature like fire and water–but as a world of winds, each with its own personality and purpose.
I needed a place from which this woman could arise: a place where wind rules; a place that’s isolating, where a person could be reared in ignorance and poverty that rules out technology (GPS, email, satellite television showing images of the world). This place had to be one steeped in a culture of ancient, magical stories while lacking the opportunity for an easy escape. That’s how I came to decide on the Sahara Desert. I have never been there, nor to the other locales, so now you have your answer.
BL: So what would you respond to people who say to write what we know?
ME: If by write what we know means to write about the landscapes where we’ve been and the people we’ve met and the specific circumstances we’ve experienced, I’m all for it. But beyond that, I reserve the right to go where my mind wanders or where the story and characters take me.
BL: I love the premise of the book–these winds that speak (or maybe don’t) to Madina, one of the two main characters. I also love how they weave their way (or maybe don’t!) into the life/mindset of the other main character, Ajay. Where did this idea about the winds come from, for you as the writer?
ME: I love wind. It can be unspeakably gentle, or it can kill you. That power, along with a vague notion that winds can be so different, converged one night during a spring windstorm that woke me up. Rather than be a windstorm, what was going on seemed like a storm of many winds. One that punched the house. Another that skimmed the top. A wind that boomeranged, racing in one direction, then in the opposite. The experience was very scary, yet fascinating! That’s when I began to think, what if wind is not singular, but plural? What if they’re sentient? What’s their individual purposes? What if those purposes cross? What if the winds warred?
BL: Today, it seems as though it may be harder than ever to get one’s novel published, perhaps especially a more literary novel like yours. Can you tell us a bit about your path to publication?
ME: The Wind Thief was snapped up by a well-known San Francisco agent within six query attempts. Within two weeks of active submission on her part, she found an interested editor at a big publishing house. Though the editor loved the story, she ultimately passed because she wasn’t sure how to market the book. After 15 or so more failed submissions to big publishers and their various imprints, the agent said I was on my own. Over the next six years, I kept working on the manuscript, which got better as my skills increased, while submitting to small publishers.
My current editor, Armando Benitez of Alondra Press in Houston, said he liked my story, but would pass, but would look at the manuscript again if I ever decided to rewrite it. I was mentally done with this book and so set it aside. He emailed four months later and said, “So where’s the rewrite?” to which I said, “Um, if you can give me a few days…”
BL: Do you participate in a critique group or work with any critique partners? How do you think that process affected the writing and revising of your book?
ME: I moved to California in 1993, at which time I took a break from journalism to raise my kids and embark on fiction in a disciplined way. I joined a critique group that broke up after a year or two, at which point the remaining members and I started a critique group that’s still going, though most of the members change out after a while.
I could not have gotten The Wind Thief published without a critique group. I’d like to say I’ve grown smart enough to see every problem within my own manuscript, but I haven’t yet reached that level of wisdom, nor do I think I ever will.
BL: Can you tell us a bit about any projects you’re working on now?
ME: The next book coming down the pike is titled Spirit Rising, the story of two Native American women warriors from opposing tribes in pre-colonial New England. The novel I’m currently working on is Winter Light, the story of a 15-year-old at-risk girl from suburban Chicago who must literally and figuratively survive the blizzard winter of 1979.