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Contact: Elena Hartwell - elenahartwell@gmail.com and visit me on the web at www.elenahartwell.com

The Interview - Part I

Your book essentially goes back and forth between two “stories,” that of the photographer and her family, and the photographer and Gusto, how did that process work?
I first wrote the story of Ophelia and Gusto, their conversations and interaction on the island together. At the time, I had no intention of writing any part of the backstory, how Ophelia got to that point in her life when she was on the floor in the kitchen, among the pieces of broken glass, hearing Gusto’s faraway voice. When I completed those chapters detailing Ophelia and Gusto’s journey, I sat with it for a while—ready to celebrate the completion of the manuscript. I think it was a week or so. Something kept bothering me though, and finally I said to my husband, “I think the book is only halfway done.” Oh, the clarity that came from admitting that to myself—and then someone else. The more I thought about it, it was starting to feel like the manuscript needed something to balance the weight of the Gusto chapters and a backstory to anchor the book. Once I said it out loud, I knew I needed to do it; it resonated so strongly with me there was no turning back.

So began the writing about the six months that led up to Ophelia’s arrival on the island with Gusto. I knew Ophelia’s character well, but I didn’t know what exactly had led to the unraveling of her life and how much of it she had done purposely. I spent a lot of time dialoguing with the character of Ophelia before beginning those chapters, writing down questions to her and then “hearing” her answers. I felt like I saw a whole new side of Ophelia, and everything that happened on the island made that much more sense. I went ahead and wrote all the backstory chapters, in a row, not checking along the way to see how they would mix—timing and subject wise—with the island chapters. I immersed myself in Ophelia’s life before she went to the island … and wrote and wrote. When I finished and then intertwined the chapters, one after the other, it was such an exciting feeling … because it worked. It felt whole, and I loved the play of the chapters, the back-and-forth movement and the building, and how it all came full circle in the end. There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that the book was complete.

Tell us about your website and how that relates to your novel.
For the last six years, I’ve been writing postcards to myself, to you, to anyone and everyone, from the perspective of Gusto, and then I post them on the site, PostcardsFromGusto.com, each day. The idea for the book came from having created this character of Gusto and then getting into his head so often for so long …until he was constantly on my mind. Writing the postcards forces me to tap into that part of me that I believe each of us has—the passionate, ridiculously wise, unabashedly optimistic part that’s spilling over with a zest for life.

I started to think about what it would be like if we could separate that part of us out enough to almost create two people, the one who lives our everyday life, going through the routines, taking care of what needs our attention, and then the part of us that sees and exists in a much more expansive picture and recognizes our role in that larger space. I imagined what it would be like if we could sit and have an uninhibited, as long as necessary conversation with our gusto (the person of Gusto) about the dreams and kind of life we feel called to but don’t know if we’re worthy of, the mistakes we don’t know what to do with, the fears holding us back. I wondered what it would be like if we could step out of our lives for a moment and pause everything, using that bending of time to speak more honestly with ourselves than we ever have, to ask the questions that tend to get swept under the rug, to examine if we’re living our life according to our own rules or someone else’s. I imagined talking to that incredibly compassionate part of us that understands the power of forgiveness, that has wisdom that’s much greater than just the sum of our experiences, and that insists on the importance of fun and laughter and letting go. Living with Gusto was born from those wonderings and imaginings. When Ophelia goes to the island with Gusto (the personification of her gusto), she does all of those things that I imagined being able to do as I was writing the postcards for my website every day.

From people who have been getting the postcard for years (you can sign up to receive an email from Gusto that lets you know when a new postcard has been posted on the site), I’ve been told that the book takes the postcards to a whole new level. And on the flip side, readers of Living with Gusto, who then for the first time went to PostcardsFromGusto.com and started receiving the postcards, have said that they love how it keeps the spirit of Gusto and the book alive in their life on a daily basis. So, in a sense, the website and novel feed off of and build on each other.

What was your process for publication?
Years ago, I co-founded and ran a boutique publishing company, and I loved every aspect of it—from combing through potential manuscripts, to choosing which ones were in line with what we were publishing, to editing those, working one-one-one with the authors, and then going through the design phase with the author and everything that was necessary to get their book out into the world, into the hands of readers. I’m prefacing my answer with that because I have a lot of respect for traditional publishing. With that said, after closing the publishing company, my focus for the next ten years became editing (BlueRootEditing.com). There’s nothing like coming across a gem, that surge of energy and excitement when I’m working on someone’s manuscript, and I know—I just know this person was born to write, to express themselves on paper, to create characters and stories and places, to combine words in a way that no one else has, to make language dance and to create art with it. After years of seeing incredibly talented authors wait (and still waiting) to get an affirmative response from an agent—in the meantime, putting their writing career on hold—I decided that traditional publishing wasn’t a path I wanted to take.

Actually, the truth is, I was almost sure of that. When an esteemed author read Living with Gusto and suggested I send it to her agent, I did. But then I put a three-month limit on how long I would wait for a response from the agent. In those three months after sending my manuscript to the agent, I took every step necessary so I could feel proactive, so I would be ready to self-publish my book if I didn’t hear anything back. I set the deadline as October 1.

During that time, I hired a designer suggested to me by Amanda Turner, author of The Tales of Imperfection Series. I loved all the covers of her books, and Amanda had nothing but glowing compliments about working with Sarah Tregay at Pete Wilson Design Works, Inc. What a blast it was working with Sarah, and the final results—the interior design of the book and the cover—still make me smile every time I look at them. While Sarah was finalizing the cover and interior files, I signed up with CreateSpace (Amazon’s self-publishing branch) so I could offer a softcover version of the book, and Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) so that it would be available on Kindle. It was a simple process with easy-to-follow instructions for getting an ISBN, setting the price for the book, etc. When I finished the setup (easily doable in one day), I gave the green light to Sarah, my designer, to load the files to Amazon and KDP. The next and final step was clicking the button that would “accept” the loaded files, thereby publishing the book on Amazon.


October 1 arrived. Having had fun with every step of the process, I had almost forgotten that I had set the date as the deadline for the agent response, not just the pub date. With no word back, I simply clicked “accept” on Amazon and then celebrated on the beach that inspired the island in the book, with a bottle of champagne.


Check Back Jan 15 for Part II

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