Lisa T. Bergren has been in the publishing industry for many years, first as an editor and later as a novelist of both historical and contemporary fiction. A well-traveled author, Lisa's heart has been won by the romance of Italy, the setting of the River of Time series.
This series, written for teens, has captured the imaginations of many adult readers, as well. Lisa's latest project is Bourne, an addition to the River of Time series and her first self-published e-novella. I recently sat down with Lisa to discuss this new publishing venture, as well as those hunky — but unfortunately fictional — Italian knights who take up so much space in her readers' hearts.
Serena: You're quite the versatile author, having dipped your quill in historical, contemporary and speculative fiction for adults — and now you've tackled time-traveling historical fantasy for teens. Are there any subgenres out there that you are dying to try?
Lisa: Not really. (Laughing) I've been really blessed to be able to write whatever is on my heart and mind. The next thing on my docket? More time travel and … a dystopian series! So there's yet another genre …
Serena: I love a good dystopian, so I can't wait to read that! So … teens and time travel. Why go there after writing adult fiction with such success?
Lisa: Time travel is a long-held fantasy. It's part of what drives me to write straight historical fiction. I'd love to pop back to a certain time and see, feel, hear, smell what it's like.
Then there was the fact that I really set out to write this series for my girls — both reluctant readers. The only book that had caught my eldest's attention at the time was Twilight, so I dissected what made that book work, and one thing I identified was the huge romantic obstacle (human-vampire romance). Since I wanted my love story to be between humans (rather than human-vampire, werewolf, angel, demon, name-your-paranormal), I thought a 700-year distance would serve nicely.
Serena: What was the most surprising thing about switching from writing adult fiction (not that you've given it up!) to YA?
Lisa: Having to think about words kids know. My teens are constantly asking me what words mean that I use in everyday conversation. Since I wanted this series to be super-accessible — especially for the reluctant readers in my own household — I was cautious about vocabulary usage for Gabi. And since Waterfall, Cascade and Torrent were all written in her point of view … that was a challenge. Now Lia is stretching those limits a tad in Bourne, because she has a bigger vocabulary — just one of the nuances of point of view.
Serena: What struck me when I first read Waterfall (River of Time, book 1) was how very "teen" Gabi came across on the page. It didn't sound like an adult writing to sound like a teen, but the honest and true voice of a 17-year-old girl. After being immersed in her voice for so long, do you find your own vernacular at all changed by Gabi's (or Lia's) generational linguistic quirks?
Lisa: I do use the word "freaking" a lot more, much to my mother's dismay. But that's about it. And there's a word a teen would never use — "dismay."
Serena: Bourne begins with the voice of Gabriella (Gabi), the familiar narrator of the first three books, but switches back and forth between Gabi and her younger sister, Evangelia (Lia) for the remainder of the novella (and Lia gets a lot of page time!). As a writer, was it difficult to get into Lia's head after spending so much time in Gabi's?
Lisa: Definitely. I felt like I knew Gabi, like I'd become her in the first three books. I wanted Lia to be similar, but have her own voice, too. So she's as funny as Gabi — just not as often. She's more of a reader and speaks with a larger vocabulary. She's discovering her inner She-Wolf, but … she's not as apt to charge out on her own without thinking about it — she's more of a follower. Not that she's a wimp. Lia's willing to go wherever, do whatever … but somebody else usually leads. In Bourne, she's forced to make her own decisions.
Serena: One of the things I found so entertaining about the craft of this series is how, when Gabi and Lia speak to each other (or to themselves through the first-person narration), they speak as typical American teens, thrown into a totally crazy situation. Yet, when they talk with their medieval castmates, they slip into the vernacular of the culture. Is it difficult to keep their voices uniquely "Gabi" and "Lia" while straddling the fence of time travel and modern colloquialism?
Lisa: Yes, definitely yes. And some people find that jarring. But the time tunnel enabled them to speak in the medieval Italian; it made no sense to me to have them speak medieval English to each other, in private. And I think it made it more fun, more real, to have them slip into their normal vernacular when it's just them, whispering.
Serena: The girls are very "modern teen" — and pretty darn entertaining, too, especially when their inner monologues stray toward hunky Italian knights! Speaking of those guys … the River of Time series features three particular medieval Italian knights, each utterly masculine (in his own way) and each with a different style of romancing the lady who captures his attention. If you were a single, modern teen traveling through the medieval Italian countryside, which one would catch your eye —and why?
Lisa: Well, good grief! How could you ignore any of them? I think they all intrigue me for different reasons: Marcello's strong leadership, unfailing dedication, and loyalty; Luca's adorable sense of humor and flirtation; Greco's intensity and passion. But like Gabi, I'd choose Marcello.
Serena: My teen daughter and I regularly debate the romantic merits of Marcello, Luca, and Greco. She's a solid Team Luca, while I vacillate between Siena's tender warrior, Marcello — and Lord Greco, the sultry bad boy of Firenze. As you interact with readers in the many River of Time fan arenas, do you hear more gushing over your Italian knights from teens — or their moms?
Lisa: People love these guys! I just got an e-mail from a 65-year-old grandmother, begging me for more of their story! I think it's the knights' chivalrous nature, the willingness to do anything for the women they love — including laying down their very lives — that has to make just about every girl swoon. And it doesn't hurt that they're hunky. And speak with a delicious Italian accent …
Serena: (fanning self) The chivalry, the accent, the shoulders, the abs … ahhhh. Truly, I love them all: Marcello, Luca … and that delectable Lord Rodolfo Greco … yowzer. My knees go a little weak just thinking about Mr. Master of the Brooding Eyes. Have you been surprised by the response that he — who started off as a villain — has gotten from readers?
Lisa: He kind of took on a life of his own. I didn't set out to write a love triangle — I set out to write a great villain who wasn't all bad. He surprised me as much as the readers, I think. So it's been fun to hear their reactions. However, some readers hate him — and hate what he tries to do. But I don't mind that either. It means they're reacting viscerally — really reacting to the characters like they would another human being.
Serena: When you initially created this character (Lord Greco), did you know how complicated, how tortured … and how utterly romantic he would turn out to be?
Lisa: I think giving him valid reasons for his suffering really deepened his character. I identify with him a bit, feeling torn between the thing he knows he ought to do and the thing he has to do. He's definitely one of my favorites. And he just started out as a handsome lord of Firenze hunting the famed She-Wolves!
Serena: There's no denying you've created some fairly delicious romantic leading men. If Marcello Forelli could be described as a food, he would be …? How about Luca? Lord Greco?
Lisa: (Laughing) Marcello would be Bistecca, a straight-forward, wood-grilled, massive steak — the specialty of Firenze. (Sorry, Marcello — he's hating that.) Luca is an artisan gelato — a delightful surprise. (Oh, he's not liking that either. Luca says he's more like minestrone: hearty, simple but satisfying.) Lord Greco is Chianti: dark, full-bodied, peppery, and complex (At last! Rodolfo approves of this … but now the other men are glowering at me.).
Serena: Move over! Let them glower at me! (Laughs.) So … poor Rodolfo. My heart hurts for him. Is it wrong of me to hope Gabi and Lia have a cute cousin or long-lost sister somewhere who's going to find her way through an Etruscan tomb and into Lord Greco's heart?
Lisa: Nope. Rodolfo's love is preparing to ride her way into his heart.
Serena: Ach! Stop! Aww … you're killing me here! (Laughs) Was there ever a scene that surprised you while you were writing? — an action or event that took the story down a road you had not planned on taking?
Lisa: Hmm. Lots of them do. But when Gabi's led to Firenze as a prisoner, I really had no idea what they were going to do to her. Her punishment, and really facing her own mortality, was a surprise to me. And one of the most gut-wrenching, painful scenes I've ever written.
Serena: When you realized your fans wanted more after Torrent, book three of the series, did the Bourne novella immediately come to mind, or did you dive into (what you assumed would be) a fourth novel?
Lisa: I started Tributary, picking up the story six months after we left our characters, in a full-length book. It's really Greco's story, and his journey toward peace. But when I realized we'd have to wait six to 12 months to find out if the publisher was ready to move forward, I knew I had to move out on my own.
And there was a ton that was ripe to tell, right after Torrent ends. People we loved were injured, the battle was just wrapping up, a brotherhood was exposed, and two characters were just beginning a very important chapter of their lives. With that much material, I decided to go back and begin there, with Bourne. If this Bourne publication goes well, Tributary might be the second e-novella ...
Serena: The first three books in the River of Time series were published traditionally. What sorts of things factored into your decision to electronically self-publish the Bourne novella?
Lisa: My publisher released all three books in one year (2011) — which is pretty rare. I loved that they signed on for that! But we recognized this kind of read was an "I want the next one NOW!" series — and that rapid releases might work in our favor. I think it did. We created an ongoing "buzz" that really helped launch it.
So we created this monster, right? A pocket of rabid fans — I call them my River Tribe — who are begging me for more — but the publisher wasn't ready to commit to more.
Serena: Ahh, I see. Like many romantic heroes, your publisher has commitment issues.
Lisa: Exactly. Traditional publishers like to wait and see how things roll in — get a good year of sales data before investing further or committing to more. I get that. I spent years as an in-house editor, so I understand their pressure points. And, although sales have been solid on River of Time, I haven't hit the USA TODAY best-sellers list yet. So my solution (to satisfy the fans) was e-publishing. Happily, David C. Cook (my publisher) blessed the idea — but asked to be kept in the loop. They might partner with me again on this in the future.
Serena: And how's the experience working out so far?
Lisa: I love to see a project through from beginning to end and this gives me the opportunity to experiment with e-publishing. So … we'll see! Right now, I'm thinking about e-pubbing three novellas and, at the end of the year, putting them together in one omnibus and printing that in paper.
Serena: Definitely one I'll add to my shelf! What are some of the differences/pros & cons you've noted between the two publishing options?
Lisa: No. 1: Speed. I decided to write the novella in November, wrote it in December, edited it in January … and it went live the very end of February. Traditional publishing takes a year to process, from delivery to publication.
No. 2: The Moola. With a traditional publisher, I get 18% to 22% of net. So, on a $10 book (sold at 50% off to a bookstore) I get 18% of $5 -- or about 90 cents per copy. But with e-publishing on my own, selling a $10 book on Amazon earns me $7 per copy. (That's just an example, of course. Ten dollars would be expensive for e-pub, but even if I price it at $4.99, I still earn $3 per copy.)
No. 3: The Speed of the Moola. I'll also see my earnings faster — three months down the line, rather than nine-plus months.
That said, there's a downside, too. There are no advances from a self-publishing endeavor, which is a painful thing for an established author to give up. And editorial, cover design and marketing expenses come out of your own pocket. And paper readers are still 70% to 75% of the market. And there is no publishing team supporting you, helping you field administration, sales and marketing calls. So there are definitely trade-offs to consider.
Serena: In addition to being a prolific author of fiction novels, you're also a travel writer with a well-stamped passport. How many times have you been to Italy?
Lisa: Five times.
Serena: What keeps drawing you back?
Lisa: It's hard to explain, but Italy just gets under your skin. I love the landscape, the food — the FOOD! — the people, the pace of life (everyone takes a nap midafternoon and stays up late). *sigh* I can't wait to return and explore more of her. Next time: Cinque Terre and the Amalfi Coast.
Serena: Sounds lovely! You could have put your heroes on either side of the Firenze/Siena conflict. Why did you choose Siena?
Lisa: Because I liked it better when I visited. Siena is magical — still fabulously preserved as a medieval city. Firenze (Florence) is massive, noisy, and crowded. There are things there you want to see for sure, particularly the Uffizi and the Accademia, a trattoria where I celebrated my 40th birthday. ... But Siena is the kind of place that just feels good. Manageable and yet magical. At least for me.
Serena: Gabi and Lia have swordsmanship and archery skills, respectively. Do you possess skills in either arena?
Lisa: Nope. My wrists are given to carpal tunnel, so I wouldn't dare. But I'd dearly love to.
Serena: In Bourne there is a scene when Lia bemoans the lack of modern hygiene products like toilet paper and even, yes, tampons. If you got a shot at traveling (with your family, of course!) back in time and hanging out with the Forelli and Bettarini families, would it be worth the inconvenience and risk? What would you make sure you had in your pockets?
Lisa: The risk of discovery (of pocketed modern items) would only make antibiotics vital to me. The rest …well, I'd just have to deal like Gabi and Lia have!
Serena: What are you most looking forward to as you continue along the River of Time?
Lisa: Discovering some resolution for these poor, beleaguered, dear, stalwart, fabulous characters! And some new adventures, as well.
Serena: I'm sure we'll all be looking forward to more of that, as well! Thanks so much for visiting with us.
(This interview was originally posted at USA Today's romance fiction blog, Happy Ever After.)