Marty Ambrose has been a writer most of her life, consumed with the world of literature whether teaching English at Florida Southwestern State College or creating her own historical fiction. Her writing career has spanned almost fifteen years, with eight published novels for Avalon Books, Kensington Books, Thomas & Mercer—and, now, Severn House.
Two years ago, Marty had the opportunity to apply for a grant that took her to Geneva and Florence to research a new creative direction that builds on her interest in the Romantic poets: historical fiction. Her new book, Claire’s Last Secret, combines memoir and mystery in a genre-bending narrative of the Byron/Shelley “haunted summer,” with Claire Clairmont, as the protagonist/sleuth—the “almost famous” member of the group. The novel spans two eras played out against the backdrop of nineteenth-century Italy and is the first of a trilogy.
Marty lives on an island in Southwest Florida with her husband, former news-anchor, Jim McLaughlin. They are planning a three-week trip to Italy this fall to attend a book festival and research the second book, A Shadowed Fate. Luckily, Jim is fluent in Italian and shares her love of history and literature. Their German shepherd, Mango, has to stay home.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, Claire’s Last Secret. When did you start writing and what got you into historical fiction?
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t writing, but I became serious about publishing about fifteen years ago. I wrote a five-book mystery series for about a decade but found myself gravitating to historical fiction a few years ago. I had read The Paris Wife and fell in love with this kind of revisionist memoir that included a famous literary figure. Writing this type of fiction is a perfect fit for me with its combination of history, mystery, and memoir.
What is your book about?
It’s a re-telling of the Byron/Shelley “haunted summer” of 1816, but from the perspective of Claire Clairmont—Mary Shelley’s stepsister—when she is much older, living in Italy. I liked have the “dual narrators” linking the past and the present, with a bit of a mystery twist, so it’s genre-bending . . . from the voice of the “almost-famous” member of the literary group. I felt like Claire’s story had never really been told.
What was your inspiration for it?
I’ve always been very interested in the Byron/Shelley circle but, for some reason, I never paid much attention to Claire Clairmont. Then I read The Young Romantics, which included a fragment from Claire’s journal where she noted that “summer of love” had not turned out so well for her. I also realized that she lived to the age of 82 in Florence, Italy; it struck me that outliving everyone who had been a part of the greatest years of her life had to be challenging. I started there . . .
What type of challenges did you face while writing this book?
The biggest challenge for me is finding the right balance between historical facts and fictional story. I could’ve researched forever. But the book is fiction, so the story must take precedence. I tried to keep every detail as accurate as possible, though.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Yes! I had researched the Romantics for many years, but knowing scholarly details is very different from deciding which details to include in a work of fiction. I had to check and re-check everything. Also, I traveled to Geneva and Florence for background details (that was most fun)!
What do you do when your muse refuses to collaborate?
If I can’t write, I do something physical like sailing or biking. If that happens to me, I need to let my mind just relax, and the muse will generally return.
Many writers experience a vague anxiety before they sit down to right. Can you relate to this?
I don’t feel anxious—more like reluctant. I never feel quite ready to write until I’m at the keyboard typing away. Then, I’m fine.
Do you have a writing schedule? Are you disciplined?
I’m a very disciplined writer because I had to write for many years “between the cracks” at work. I knew I had a very finite time to write and I had to make it count. Now that I write full-time, I’ve kept the same disciplined approach (though I do occasionally sneak into Amazon for a quick book buy!).
What was your publishing process like?
It took me about a year to research, write, and edit the book; then, my agent sold it in about six months. After that, my editor and I did about six months of editing and the book was published about six months after that. It takes about two years to go from finished book to published book.
How do you celebrate the completion of a book?
This one was unusual in that it was the true “book of my heart” and, when my husband and I were in Geneva, we bought a Byron wine that was a special vintage for the bicentennial of the Byron/Shelley summer. We hauled that wine all over Europe and then home to Florida. When I completed the book, I opened the wine. It tasted magnificent!
How do you define success?
I’m more and more conscious about leaving something behind that will last beyond my own life. I feel that success is writing the best book and knowing it will be read for many years to come. Sweet.
What do you love most about the writer’s life?
I love the realm of imagination. It is such a fascinating place to live and work. I’m happy to be in my everyday life but living with fictional characters in my mind is just a blast.
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
My advice that I give to new writers is to attend conferences that cover the type of writing that you want to do. I always learn something new, and I have met some amazing people who later became friends and/or part of my publishing journey. I attend Sleuthfest every year, and I’m a member of several organizations, such as The Historical Novel Society, that provide such helpful resources. Attend every workshop that you can!
George Orwell once wrote: “Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Thoughts?
I don’t know that I’m driven by a demon but it’s certainly a creative obsession. I often feel compelled to write, even when I don’t feel like it, but it’s as if the words on already on the page waiting for me to move away the white space.
What’s on the horizon for you?
Claire’s Last Secret is the first book in a trilogy, so I’m about half-way through the second book, A Shadowed Fate. I’ll be traveling to Italy for three weeks in October to research setting details for this book and attending the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, Italy. Then, I’ll be back to the U.S. for book release events in late fall. It’s truly a dream come true for me.
Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?
First of all, a writer has to simply write; you just have to sit down and work at the keyboard! Secondly, a writer has to understand that publishing is a business and you must use every tool that you would use as an employee in a contemporary workplace: Be professional, disciplined, and digitally-savvy. Lastly, you must learn to accept criticism from editors, critics, and readers. You work in a creative field and it has a strong subjective element; some people will like your work, others not so much. Just enjoy the magic. . .