Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Interview with K. Hollan Van Zandt

Last week I read the so-epic-you-could-chew-it historical drama Written in the Ashes by K. Hollan Van Zandt. That meaty novel was a wonderful armchair escape to a very vivid Alexandria, and I'm thrilled to share my interview with the author. Read on to learn more about Van Zandt, her writing, and what she does when she's not working. There's also a chance to win her book!

What was the plot of your very first piece of fiction?

Well, I wrote my first novel in the second grade; it was all of six pages and three chapters, but I recall it took me a week of work. It was a mystery wherein the main character, a young girl, went missing in the forest when she was chased by a witch. She turned up at the last page to discover the witch she had encountered was really her school teacher and that her class had thrown her a surprise birthday party. I watched a lot of the cartoon “Scooby Doo” in those days- I think this was some inspiration. Heck, I was only six.

Do you have any writing rituals or routines?

As far as I can tell, extensive writing rituals and routines – like writing at a certain time every day- are for the very lucky few novelists (stats show 1%) who do it for a living. The rest of us work any time and any where we can. I would prefer the dishes in my sink be clean, but I have discovered I can work with them piled up when necessary if I have an hour to write. But listen, rituals and routines help a lot to get over the intimidation of creativity. Any creative act is like leaping into a freezing cold lake. There is exhilaration and there is terror. The ego knows it will be annihilated in service of the muse. The best way to get around your procrastination is to stare the fear in the face and make a habit of writing- much in the way you brush your teeth every morning. When I was working on Written in the Ashes I wrote three hours every day. I loved those to be consecutive hours, but they usually weren’t due to my work schedule. So you learn to grab the time and use it whenever you can. There is never a moment that diving into that freezing cold lake is easy. The routines can pad it a bit- a muffin, a cup of coffee, a cigarette for some, but for me, a single mom working full time, it was five breaths in downward dog on my yoga mat behind my desk and then I was off and writing whether I felt inspired or exhausted.

Was Written In the Ashes the original title of your book?

No, it was called The Tides of Alexandria, but I never really felt that title to be original enough to suite the work. When I thought of titles, I wanted a title to last the ages -something that could compete with Gone with the Wind- which I consider to be the best title of all time. The inspiration came from a poem called “The Journey” by Irish poet David Whyte. In short, it is a poem about enduring great loss. He writes at the end of the poem, “Someone will write something new in the ashes of your life./You are not leaving./You are arriving.”

As you were writing Written in the Ashes, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you?

Absolutely. Gideon, one of Hannah’s love interests, was in the original draft of the novel when I wrote it longhand in pen twelve years ago, but only as a visitor at a party. I had to write him out because his appearance, as much as I liked him, was really a distraction to the plot. Thirty something drafts later, I wrote out a character named Balthazar, whom I loved, realizing I needed to reserve him for the next novel in the series. Gideon returned with great aplomb and snaked all of Balthazar’s scenes and proceeded to woo my heroine. I have never had so much fun writing before. I missed him intensely once the novel was completed.

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I run. I practice yoga. I spend time playing with my infant son. I take walks in nature. Mostly, I just hang out and do nothing, which is completely underrated in our culture, and absolutely necessary if you plan to be a writer.

Read any good books recently?

Before my son was born I read Graham Greene’s The Power and Glory (President Obama’s favorite novel, also). I read Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. And I read a book called Waiting for the Barbarians by Cooetze that gave me a deep understanding of the shadow side of any empire. Each of these important novels made an impact on my thinking. Novels have the ability to change you. These are books that really make you think differently. But the book I couldn’t put down was Rain of Gold by Villasenor. I recommend them all whole-heartedly.

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My thanks to Ms. Van Zandt for her time and answers.


I'm thrilled to offer a copy of Written in the Ashes. To enter, fill out this brief form. Open to US and international readers. US readers can pick a paperback or e-book; international readers receive an e-book. Ends 6/1.


  1. Great interview, and it sounds like a great read!

  2. I also think rituals and routine are important when you are a creative type. They really help to get past blocks and plunge in as the author so eloquently states. Very nice interview today!

  3. I love this interview and her exhortation to do nothing! I do nothing all the time, so I guess I'm on my way, LOL :-)

  4. What a great interview--I love her description of the creative act!