In Conversation with Heather Webb

Today’s long-form interview of long-time contributor Heather Webb was conducted by our newest contributor here at Writer Unboxed: Emilie-Noelle Provost. Emilie-Noelle’s own debut novel, The River is Everywhere, released just this past week! Thank you, Emilie-Noelle and Heather!

We’re excited to share this interview today with Heather Webb, the bestselling author of nine historical novels. Her latest book, Strangers in the Night, a fictional retelling of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s famous love story, will be released on March 21.

“Heather Webb has set a new standard in historical fiction by writing a story that was so engaging that I forgot I was reading a book and not actually embodying the characters. Legendary stars Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner come alive under her deft handling of their tumultuous and passionate relationship and will leave readers feeling like they’ve leapt from the page into living, breathing people that they know. A lifelong fan of the famous crooner, my own music listening will forever be quite impacted by Webb’s captivating book.”
— Camille di Maio, bestselling author of The Memory of Us

Heather is an adjunct instructor at Drexel University’s MFA in creative writing program, and for the last fifteen years has also worked as a freelance editor. Her next novel, Queens of London, the story of the city’s first all-female crime syndicate, will be released in 2024. Heather lives in New England with her family, a mischievous kitten, and one feisty rabbit. You can see what she’s up to on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and BookBub.

Emilie-Noelle Provost: Your newest novel, Strangers in the Night, will be released on March 21. The book is a fictional retelling of Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner’s legendary romance. Can you talk about some of the reasons you were drawn to this story? What is it about old Hollywood that people find so captivating?

Heather Webb: I was approached by my publisher to write this book, actually. Of course, I was in as soon as I heard “Frank Sinatra.” I grew up listening to him at dinner parties and at my grandparents’ house, and I feel a bit of fond nostalgia every time one of his songs is playing in the background somewhere. He was a fascinating person with a very big life, so it was a lot fun digging into his story.

Ava Gardner, on the other hand, I knew nothing about, so I had a great time getting to know her, her films, and her life story.

I’m speaking for myself here in terms of the appeal of Hollywood, but just about everyone loves behind-the-scenes details about a famous person or event. It feels gossipy and secretive and a little fun.

The other aspect of Hollywood that’s appealing is filmmaking: acting, directing, producing, cinematography, music. It’s an enormous undertaking to put out a film, reliant upon many people. A lot of people find it really interesting. Plus, the weather there is beautiful; the people are beautiful, and the setting is beautiful (if you’re not stuck on the PCH or some other miserable interstate).

ENP: Why you chose to write Strangers in the Night in the first person? 

HW: I wrote the novel in first person because [the story] is very intimate and relies heavily on voice. I knew I had to really nail the voice in this book for both characters since it’s told in dual first person perspective, otherwise the story wouldn’t quite land. I did start out writing it in third person but I couldn’t hear the characters in my head the same way.

ENP: You primarily write historical fiction, including books set during the First World War, The French Revolution, and in New York City in the early 1900s. What do you find compelling about writing stories that are set in the past? How do you decide which stories you want to tell?

HW: Researching and writing about the past gives me a much greater understanding of why things are the way they are today. Laws, social mores, fashion, various professions, technology, inventions … It’s a bit like piecing together a puzzle, and as the pieces fall into place you gain a clear view of the fabric of society. It helps me to understand who I am, too.

Most often, the story chooses me. There will be signs, for lack of a better term, that appear over and over again surrounding a particular topic and I’ll feel a certain energy there. I’ll dig in a bit and see how the idea feels as I research. My first book, I dreamed about Josephine Bonaparte every day for almost two weeks, out of nowhere. My second, I kept running into renditions of Rodin’s The Thinker just about everywhere I went.

It’s worth saying, too, that I gravitate toward events and people and locations that interest me: Paris and London and NYC. For my collaborations, however, I sit down and brainstorm topic ideas with my writing partner, Hazel Gaynor.

ENP: Writing historical fiction often requires a significant amount of research. Can you talk a little about what your research and writing process is like?

HW: I front-load my research before I begin writing. In other words, I research for four to eight weeks using all my work-day hours to read, take notes, and create a historical outline. At some point I decide I have enough and I’ll start working on the story.

ENP: Several of your novels are set in France. What is it about that country and its culture that has led you to invest so much of your time and talent in it?

HW: I taught high school French for a decade, so there’s that! It was a good place to start, having known quite a bit about the language and culture already. I love France and the differences between our two cultures.

ENP: A few of your books were co-written with author Hazel Gaynor. How did you and Hazel decide to collaborate?

HW: Hazel and I share an agent, so we ended up working on an anthology together set on the first Armistice Day at the end of the Great War. We got along like peas and carrots, so we started brainstorming ideas for a co-novel and Last Christmas in Paris (a novel of the Great War) was born. It was a blast, so here we are five years later working on our fourth collaboration, which will be published next fall.

ENP: You are working on a new novel, Queens of London, that will be released in 2024. Can you give readers a sneak peek at what this book will be about?

HW: I can! Here’s my current tagline mash-up that’s still a work-in-progress:

A tale of dark glamour and sisterhood, when an all-female gang ruled the streets of Roaring Twenties London. From elegant roadsters to rowdy gin houses, from knives to pearls, Queens of London is a look at Britain’s first all-female crime syndicate, the ever-shifting meaning of justice, and the way women claimed their power by any means necessary.

ENP: You have a large social media presence and appear at live events frequently. Can you talk a bit about how you manage the business and marketing side of being an author? Are there any tips you can share with other writers?

HW: Originally, I joined social media because it was being pushed pretty hard at writers. Most of the data now show social media from an author’s account rarely equates to book sales. (It can equal book sales but very often doesn’t.) So, I’ve been spending less and less time on it. But when it’s been a while, I start to miss my colleagues and friends that I only interact with online. So, I’m hooked!

As for tips, authors should consider doing good news roundups rather than posting every single article or mention of their book that comes their way. Unfortunately, your social media accounts reach the same circle of people over and over again. Followers, even friends, can become fatigued by the constant loop of self-promotion. I’ve watched both big authors and aspiring authors do this. The fact is, people who follow you on social media do want your book content, but more than anything they want the social interaction. They want to get to know you. So, just be sure you know what your boundaries are in terms of posts.

ENP: If you could give one piece of advice to new and aspiring authors, what would it be?

HW: It will destroy your love for writing if you don’t learn how to nourish your creative self during the ups and downs of this very difficult and competitive business. Work at accepting that the business of publishing is separate from the joy of creating and telling stories. It’s very easy to be crushed by rejections, flat sales, and books that don’t go off as well as hoped with readers. It’s easy to compare your writing career/life to another author’s who has had more success and feel slighted.

I’m a work in progress with this myself. I often handle it well, but sometimes I don’t. When I’m struggling, I work on my gratitude list and talk things through with my BFFs, and it helps me put things in perspective.