Today, I’m delighted to welcome Cynthia D. Toliver to Virtual Book Club, an interview series in which I put questions to authors about the books they’d like to persuade your club to read. If you want to pose a question of your own, you’ll have the opportunity to do so at the end.
A native Texan, Cynthia D. Toliver has enjoyed a varied career as a chemical engineer, environmental consultant, educator and author. Writing is a talent she developed early and technical writing has been integral to all of her careers.
Her creative writing has evolved from short forms to novel writing. From the germination of an idea, to writing the first draft, to revising and editing, Ms. Toliver loves the creative process.
Sedahlia, a post-Civil War saga of family and race is her latest release. She has two previously published works, Crown’s Jewel, a novel, and Come See a Man, an inspirational book.
Q: Firstly, welcome to my blog. All writers are readers first, so I’d like to kick off by asking when your own love affair with reading began?
My late mother was an English major and teacher; my godmother is a retired school librarian. They nurtured my love for reading early on. As a child I frequented the public library, walking to my neighbourhood Eastside Branch Public Library on weekends and striving during the summer to read the most books for that coveted library certificate. Dr. Seuss and Highlights are cherished parts of my childhood. My favourite gifts were a glittery hardbound copy of The Ugly Duckling, a book of tongue twisters that helped me overcome stuttering and a set of Childcraft Encyclopedias. I read and reread those books as well as my sister’s Nancy Drew novels. My brother and I had our first and only fight when he caught me reading his comic book.
Q: If you discover a new author, do you tend to devour everything they’ve written?
Absolutely. As a teen I loved Ernest Hemingway. After reading Ellen Foster, I started looking for anything written by Kaye Gibbons. Terry McMillan’s books speak directly to my experience as a single Black woman navigating work, relationships and family through the decades. Most recently I became enamored with George Martin’s Game of Thrones. I abandoned the fifth book in the series after almost everyone I cared about met a vicious end, but I’m sorely tempted to pick it up again. I am currently reading a series of westerns by Terry C. Johnston. I also like Jane Kirkpatrick’s novels. The Memory Weaver and A Light in the Wilderness come to mind.
Q: And how you did you move from avid reader to writer?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t write. From the moment I learned to read and write, I loved books and story. Reading was my favourite pass-time. Whenever I had a chance to write anything, an essay, a report, or a poem, I would. When an idea came to mind, I had to write it down. Imagine jotting down a poem in the middle of solving an engineering design problem.
Though I initially wrote poetry, stories were always swimming in my head. I dreamed of becoming a novelist and remember telling my best friend that was what I wanted to be. My writing evolved over time from poems and songs, to short stories, until I started drafting my first novel.
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Q: If you were trying to describe your writing to someone who hasn’t read anything by you before, what would you say?
I write what I like to read. I like to be entertained, to become emotionally invested, and to think about my own way of thinking. Consequently, my writing is very character and relationship driven. Whether I’m writing a historical novel like Sedahlia, or a contemporary novel like my current manuscript, I want my reader to get into the heart and mind of the protagonist. I write about life, events and issues that resonate regardless of the period or setting. If I’ve done my job well, readers will feel what my characters feel. They will fall in love with the characters and will hate to see their stories end.
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Q: What is it about Sedahlia that you feel makes it particularly suitable for book clubs?
Sedahlia explores family dynamics, societal convention, and the dichotomy of race all which combine for introspection and rich discussion.
Q: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote of Half of a Yellow Sun: “If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally keen to be true to the spirit of the time as well as my artistic vision of it.” Does that resonate with you? (Or, if not, how would you describe your relationship with history and fiction?)
I recently watched the movie Free State of Jones. I might never have heard of Newton Knight and the rebellion of these Mississippians against the Confederacy during the Civil War if not for this dramatic interpretation of actual events. The movie made me re-examine what I know about that period in history. Fiction can be just as important and effective in depicting history especially as it portrays the roles of individuals and institutions in and upon society. Novels like Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, and Leon Uris’ Exodus serve history in an engrossing and palatable dish, while still giving readers something essential to chew on.
Q: The 18th Century seems ripe for picking, but what is it that fascinates you about that era?
I am fascinated by both the 18th and 19th Centuries, particularly as land expansion, industrialisation, civil rights and social justice unfolded and transformed the lives of the majority, minorities, women, and children in the United States. I grew up in the sixties and seventies so this is my history too. In the seventies, I became part of the social upheaval of busing and integration. One side of my family emphasised education as a means of achieving success; the other side lived joyous and content in whatever state they were in. The former made sure we said sir and ma’am, please and thank you. The latter elicited laughter while recounting their past experiences picking cotton. I wish I had asked more questions. I wish I could recall more of their stories. I wish they had talked more about the things they tried to shield me from as a child. One of the most valuable resources for me in getting a flavour for the past has been The Federal Writer’s Project. This collection of interviews preserves history in the voices of the people who lived it. Researching and writing about the era gives me a glimpse into their daily lives, the challenges they likely faced and how they might have met them. They are all survivors.
Q: What is the central conflict in your novel?
Miscegenation is the central conflict in Sedahlia. Many times miscegenation is portrayed as a cold, lustful and brutal act. Rapes and abuse frequently occurred, but I wanted to explore a deeper scenario. When you put two humans together, they cannot help but react in some ways because of their mutual humanity. What happens when people blur established racial lines? The truth is these stories happened despite legal ramifications and societal conventions. Many of the stories are untold, but it is common for an African American family to have its own lore, evidenced in the range of melanin in our family portraits. My father’s grandfather was a Native American. My mother’s grandfather was reportedly either white or passing for white. Those who know the truth of his secret are long dead. Sedahlia is fiction, but could very well be one family’s story.
Q: Julian Barnes says that one of the things he has learned as he grew older is how to manage time in a novel. Have you found an effective technique for this?
I write a timeline to keep track of events in the lives of my characters. Not all of these events are covered in the novel, but the timeline helps me to recall background, motivation and what happens when. As a family saga, Sedahlia covers a cast of characters and multiple locations over three generations. Smooth transitioning between character perspective and location was crucial in portraying the passage of time and advancing the story.
Q: What were the key factors that influenced your decision to become an indie author?
My first novel, Crown’s Jewel was accepted by an agent who was unable to place it after shopping it around for two years. Later the book was accepted by a small press, but became a casualty as the company had to trim its initial offerings.
Although disillusioned with traditional avenues, I maintain a firm belief in my ability and the work I have produced. Whether traditionally or independently published, it is largely up to the author to find an audience and promote his or her own work. The rise of print on demand platforms and the freedom to write the books that I was driven to write made independent publishing an easy choice for me.
Q: How important do you think using Social Media is to becoming a success as a self-published author?
It is difficult to get noticed, but because I must write, I must keep chipping away at the market to reach the body of readers who will embrace my work.
I can’t be everywhere. I do have a day job and limited resources. Social media allows me to interact with more people in more venues than I ever could face to face.
Q: Do you feel there is more of a sense of community with self-publishing than there is with traditional publishing?
There’s a lot of camaraderie among indie authors. We’re trying to navigate the same terrain, publication and marketing, and so far most writers seem to be willing to share lessons learned and to come together to maximise efforts.
Want to find out more about Cynthia and her writing?
She also hosts a Christian blog, Back to Eden.
Remember, if you enjoyed this post please share it. If there’s anything else you’d like to ask Cynthia please leave a comment.
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