For today’s post, I chatted with one of the top writers on the writing community Describli about her writing style, changes in perspective, and how to use travel to inform and inspire your writing. Siena Milia is a mother of three pursuing publication of her first novel while living with her family in Saudi Arabia.
Laura: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? What do you like to write, and where are you in your journey?
Siena: My passion has always been for literary fiction and, for the last few years, my work-in-progress, a novel set amid Iran’s Islamic revolution. I began the project while backpacking in Iran and Afghanistan as a Farsi-language student. I set out to create a deeply personal story that pries into the religious enigmas, social complexities, and revolutionary psychology that brought about and solidified the tumultuous rise of Islamic theocracy in Iran. To date, there is very little fiction written about Iran, particularly in English, and I have always believed that fiction has a unique ability to humanize and reveal a foreign place and society. I greatly admire Pulitzer prize winner Adam Johnson for his ability to fictionalize life in North Korea in The Orphan Master’s Son in a way that makes the reader feel they have experienced an otherwise elusive reality. This is what I am doing for revolutionary Iran in my novel and what I plan to do in a series of short-stories set in many of the sixty countries my family and I have experienced over the past eight years.
There have been many stops and starts on this literary journey, however, including adding a diplomat husband and a trio of children while moving half a dozen times in the past few years, including to Tajikistan, Israel, Dubai, Armenia, Washington DC, and our current home–Saudi Arabia.
Laura: Wow, that’s a lot of countries! It seems like you have used travel to inform and inspire your writing. How do you think your experience with travel and the diplomatic life has changed you as a writer?
Siena: We do love to travel, and what we love most is what we take away from the places we visit. One of the most profound inspirational experiences I’ve had was in visiting Iran. I was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my experience with Iran and the Middle East was limited to what I read in the news. It wasn’t until jumping head-first into a Farsi language program and traveling to Iran that I fell in love with its beauty, its people, and its poetic language. But what struck me the most was the dichotomy of vibrant beauty and social tension–a people almost at war with themselves and the way they live in the Islamic Republic. My time there, and elsewhere in the Middle East, was formative in my decision to write my current novel, and in my ability to do so credibly.
Laura: You seem to draw inspiration from a lot of different places. What tools or techniques do you use when you can’t seem to get the words flowing?
Siena: I always try to ground my writing in human experience, and often times within personal experience. I find it easier to write organically when the inspiration is rooted in something familiar–and I think that is what many readers are unknowingly looking for in fiction–something universal that hits home. Shaping a work around something common like an emotion, a relationship, a transition, or change, allows me to reach out and pull in the world around me, and relate it to that one fundamental, universal idea.
When the words fail me, as they often do, there are a few techniques I’ve come to rely on for dredging up inspiration. A poem for me most often originates with a single line or phrase that nags to be added on. However, one great line doesn’t always beget another. This is where I turn to my trusted thesaurus. I follow a trail of words and similes until they create a new image or idea to build on. Even just one new or enigmatic word can jump start a whole new journey. I also often reach into my own life experience when struggling with a description, with dialogue, or with trying to understand how a particular character might react in a situation. I also take a visual approach to writing. I imagine the prose as a narration to a film, and I sit back and watch to see where it takes me.
Laura: What do you see next for yourself in your writing career?
Siena: Well, like any aspiring novelist, I hope to complete my book within the coming year and then land a ridiculously lucrative signing deal with a major publisher and make millions! Wouldn’t that be great? In all seriousness though, I do hope to begin pitching my book to agents and publishers soon. I will also continue to write short fiction and poetry and submit pieces to online magazines, journals, and competitions. This is a great outlet for building a name and publishing credentials.
I also have a backlog of ideas for future novels that are begging to be written. The one that will likely come next is a coming of age story about the conflicts of growing up Italian in San Francisco’s early 1930’s. This is very personal story inspired by my own Italian-American family history. Both my Grandmother and Grandfather’s families arrived in San Francisco from Sicily just months after the 1906 earthquake and my father grew up in the bay area where the family had a restaurant on the El Camino Real.
Laura: It sounds like you have a lot on your plate, and big plans for the future! Any final words of advice for authors like yourself who are working towards getting published?
Siena: I realize that it might sound cliché, but the best thing to do is to just keep writing. Even when what you’re writing is rubbish at the time, take a day, and then come back to it. You will see the diamonds in the rough, and be able to dump the rest. In writing, revision is my closest friend. My second closest companion, and partner in crime, is my husband, who reads my work and gives me some of the most critical and useful feedback I have received. If possible, seek outlets for friends or strangers to read your work and ask for their feedback. I have even asked local book clubs to read my opening chapters and review them as they would a monthly novel.
For aspiring authors, particularly those with complete or near-complete manuscripts, I would suggest attending a local writer’s conference where you can make connections with other established authors, meet agents, and even receive a critique of your manuscript. When I return to the States this summer I will be attending the Jackson Hole Writers Conference and the Utah Writers Conference.
I would also advise fellow writers to seek out online and print journals, magazines, anthologies, or even blogs that hold competitions or have open reading periods when you can submit your work for consideration. In November I entered a short story contest put on by @womenonwriting and just found out I’ve been shortlisted. I am still waiting to hear the final result, but I’m excited to be recognized and have a guarantee that it will be published. A small step to be sure, but I believe great accomplishments come from small and simple things achieved consistently. Make sure to cater your choice of publications to your particular genre or style and then throw caution to the wind!
What about you – how do you use your travels to inspire and motivate your writing work? Let us know in the comments!