Published Podcast Ep. 10 | Interview with S. Alexander O'Keefe, author of The Return of Sir Percival
Today's episode features another author interview, this time with S. Alexander O'Keefe, author of two novels: The Return of Sir Percival and Helius Legacy. We're excited to welcome Sean, as we'll refer to him in the episode, to the show!
Q: Welcome to Published, Sean! You’ve had a very successful career as a lawyer, and in the meantime you’ve tackled writing a couple of works of fiction. What was your goal when you decided to write a book?
A: I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller from a very young age. I was an avid reader. A week never goes by when there isn’t a new story that I’m consumed by, one that sort of walks its way through my head, and I wish I had the time to translate it into a novel. This was something that I’ve wanted to do for a long period of time, in fact, I wish I had done it twenty or thirty years ago. My objective was to translate what I saw in my head into the medium of text. It’s a difficult process, as any writer will know, because words are a limited medium. You don’t have Harry Potter’s wand and you can’t translate what you see into a movie. But my objective was to bring those stories to readers, and my hope was that they would enjoy them.
Q: And do you feel you’ve accomplished that objective?
A: I think I have. You know, there are two levels to analyze. One is with your reviewers, both professional and associational, and thankfully those reviews have been good. The second level is connection with readers. Are you taking up their leisure time (and there’s very little of that today) with something that will be memorable? When I wrote my first book, the website designer for my law firm read it and said, “You know, I was so enthralled by the book that I had to put it down and go into the next room and take a rest.” If you read some of the reviews of The Return of Sir Percival on Amazon and Goodreads, you can see the connection with the readers and that characters are resonating with them.
Q: In working through the publishing process for those two books, what was your favorite part of that process? Did you do anything differently with the second book based on what you learned from the first?
A: Finishing the process was the ultimate achievement. It’s sort of like climbing a mountain. When you get to the top, the benefit of all your work is there before you. The entirety of the process was challenging and educational. You can see what you want to present, and when you translate that into words the question is, have you arrived at what you want? And the editor gives you an independent perspective. The marketing and brand development was educational and challenging because it’s not what I normally do. If we sat down and had to do a commercial transaction or file a major lawsuit, anything to do with financial or commercial law, that’s what I can do. I’ve done that for thirty years. But having someone explain to me, “This is how you’re going to reach your market audience and this is who you’re market audience is,” that’s a new universe for me.
Q: Let’s talk about that a bit, because that is something that you did a little differently with the second book, going into it with the brand strategy in mind. Can you talk a bit about that experience and how your strategist helped you to understand your audience?
A: Absolutely, although I’ll take a minute on the editing process. There were three editing phases, and the first one was the most challenging. That was with Tess Mallory, and she did an excellent job. A part of what she did was to explain to me, “I don’t see this particular scene. I know what you’re trying to get to, but you haven’t arrived there yet.” There were days when I would spend five hours a day doing revisions, trying to capture what I wanted to present. Then, the brand folks I worked with were Sam Alexander and Chelsea Richards, and they were both exceptional. They know their space, and they could concisely and effectively guide me where I needed to go. As you know, the media world, and in particular publishing, is a difficult universe. There are all sorts of forces in play, and there’s a velocity of change. You’re almost running full speed to stay in the equation as a writer and as a publisher. It was an eye-opening process, and I felt they did an excellent job defining who would read this book and how I would reach them in a media-saturated world.
Q: Did that impact the approach you took in writing the book, or more so your marketing approach?
A: When the book came to me, I’d actually had a retina operation, the third one, and I had to stay in the same place for seventy-two hours and not move. And during that window of time, it came to me like a bolt of lightning, almost from beginning to end. The marketing universe didn’t drive it. That being said, when you write a book you want someone to be taken with your character. You want them to walk through that door completely with you. In that respect, there was a marketing orientation. Otherwise I didn’t really think about it, I was just writing.
Q: You talked a little bit about having this vision, and your job as a writer is to get that down into this limited format in text. The cover design also has to tell the story that captures the reader. In Greenleaf’s model that’s a very collaborative process. How did you go about working with your designer to convey what the vision was? Or did you go in with less of a vision and trusted them to come up with something?
A: Neil Gonzalez was my cover designer. He’s very bright, creative, and did an exceptional job. I gave him some ideas as to what I thought would capture the surface of the story in a way that would at least entice people to read the cover jacket. He brought me six or seven covers, and I felt that two of them were perfect. I had focus groups of people who looked at them all, and they all came to the same conclusion. Sometimes my wife has around thirty friends over, so one night I showed them the covers, and they unanimously selected the current cover. The adage “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover” may be true, but the reality is, when someone’s walking through a bookstore or flipping through a thousand choices, or ten thousand choices, on Amazon, that may be all you have to connect for the instant in time that will get you to the next step.
Q: Totally agreed, and just because you shouldn’t do it doesn’t mean everyone doesn’t. What were you hoping that readers would pick up on in the few split seconds their eyes landed on your cover? What were you hoping to convey?
A: That’s a difficult question. The book can be read at different levels. A ten-year-old who reads that book would really enjoy it, and I know a number of ten-year-olds who have read it. A grandfather could also read the book. Depending on where they are in the social, educational universe, they would see different things. It was difficult to infuse the cover with adventure, romance, and the complexity of the plot, as well as the iconic nature of the topic. The Arthurian legend is the ennead of the British people. It’s possibly the most well known legend in the world, and when you speak of those people it’s a thing of significance. Trivializing them is something I didn’t want to do. I wanted to convey the adventure aspect, a measure of the intrigue, and also, obviously, the space. This was a medieval, Arthurian, 6th or 7th century universe.
Q: And we accomplished all of that! Now that you’ve got two books under your belt, what advice would you give to our listeners who are just starting out writing their first book, or perhaps just thinking about writing a book?
A: The first thing I would say is that a book, in some measure, is a piece of magic. Whether it resonates with ten million people or five, this is your vision. No one else can see it your way but you, and in putting it down on paper, you are creating something unique and magical. I believe that if you desire to do it, you should do it.
The second thing you have to recognize is that the world doesn’t accommodate the writer, or for that matter, anybody else. You will face a challenging environment. In the last days of his life, F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote The Great Gatsby, thought he was a failure. His books had fallen out of favor, and I think his last royalty check was forty dollars. But obviously we know that he wasn’t. He was writing magnificent books. So if, for a period of time, or an instant in time, or maybe for the entirety of your life, your book doesn’t get to the level that you think it should be, you’re still creating something that’s unique and that people will connect with.
The third thing I would say is that the publishing industry is not one-dimensional. You could send out ten thousand letters to literary agents, but truth of the matter is that most of them don’t even read the letters. You’re going to have to look at the publishing universe as one where you may have to go in through the window instead of the door. Your route to publication may be more circuitous than you expect. I generally represent distressed debtors, and on the other side is insurance companies or banks. When you come from that type of universe you realize that you’re going to have to do way more than the other side. They’re always going to have more money and more resources, but you can find a way to prevail. You just have to learn to get yourself up off the floor as many times as is necessary to accomplish your objective. In some measure, that’s the most important skill you can learn.
About S. Alexander O'Keefe
S. Alexander O’Keefe was born in Providence, Rhode Island. He is a graduate of Dartmouth College and Fordham University School of Law, and he practices law in Orange County, California. Mr. O’Keefe and his wife, Cathy, who live in Irvine, California, have three children. Mr. O’Keefe is the author of two novels, “The Return of Sir Percival: Book I - Guinevere’s Prayer” and the “Helius Legacy”. He is currently working on the sequel to the “The Return of Sir Percival”, and he is also working on a modern-day thriller.