Author Avanti Centrae: “I want my readers to learn to develop emotional intelligence; to overcome fears by not resisting the feelings, but by simply sitting with them”
My characters overcome fears by being with their emotions, not resisting the feelings, but simply sitting with them. Our culture is full of ways to avoid emotions, from drugs and alcohol use, to social media addiction. Maddy and Will’s life depends on their inner journey, and to some extent all of our lives do as well. There’s plenty of research about the harmful effects of stress and other negative emotions. If the twins can learn a few things about emotional intelligence, the readers can too!
As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing Avanti Centrae, a former Silicon Valley IT executive turned thriller author. Avanti took home a Genre Grand Prize blue ribbon at the Chanticleer International Book Awards and an honorable mention at last year’s Hollywood Book Festival for her debut novel, VANOPS: THE LOST POWER. Her unique blend of intrigue, history, science, and mystery has been getting rave reviews.
Thank you so much for joining us Avanti! Can you share a story about what brought you to this particular career path?
When I was a kid, I’d sit in my mom’s lap and she would read to me. I was transported to other worlds, other times, other places. The silver bookmobile would park at the end of the street and I’d go get a stack of books that was nearly as tall as I was. The stack would last me a week. Authors were my heroes and I wanted to be just like them. A storyteller.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
One of my favorite sayings when I was an executive was, “Start with the end in mind.” As I transitioned to my new writing career, I used that lesson and thought about the blurbs that I wanted to have to help people understand what my book was all about. Since my work is in the vein of books by James Rollins, Robin Burcell (who co-writes with Clive Cussler), and Steve Berry, I wanted quotes from all three of them. They’re New York Times bestselling authors and quite busy. All of them told me “no” the first time I asked, so I got creative. With James Rollins, I attended one of his local book signings. Steve Berry hosted a career class and I attended it. Robin Burcell was a friend of my aunt’s, but extremely busy. Persistence paid off and all three eventually gave me fantastic quotes. Here’s what James Rollins said:
“Avanti Centrae’s VanOps: The Lost Power opens a tantalizing new series that combines historical mystery and cutting-edge science into a masterwork of international intrigue.”
— James Rollins, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Crucible
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Sure, I remember when I was first outlining THE LOST POWER and wanted another set of eyes on the story structure before I really dug into the writing. I reached out to Chuck Sambuchino, a former Writer’s Digest editor who had become a freelance editor and authority on getting published. He reviewed my synopsis and pointed out that the ending I’d originally envisioned was quite similar to the finale of KUNG FU PANDA, which cracked me up, as that wasn’t at all the direction I was visualizing. He was right, and I reworked the ending to be appropriate for the thriller genre. It was an excellent lesson in getting advice from the experts.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I’m still over the moon with excitement that my dream of writing is coming true. My debut, first in the VanOps series, was recently released by my publisher on November 9th. The second book in the series is with my agent, and I’m outlining the third book. The thirty-year-old protagonist, Maddy Marshall, is an independent truth-seeker with special martial arts abilities.
THE LOST POWER begins with a double homicide on a foggy Napa morning. To avoid becoming the next victims, Maddy and her twin brother, Will, must go on a tense, pulse-pounding adventure to find Alexander the Great’s mysterious Egyptian weapon. The dangerous artifact was hidden by the twins’ royal ancestor nearly a thousand years ago and the Russians will stop at nothing to acquire it. Mere steps ahead of the deadly sniper who killed their loved ones, they are joined by a broad-shouldered covert agent, and race from the California winery to a medieval Spanish castle. They run between shadows, from a lost warren under the streets of Jerusalem to a mountaintop monastery, and ultimately into the heart of their family’s darkest secrets.
The primary theme of the story is overcoming fear.
What is the one habit you believe contributed the most to you becoming a great writer? (i.e. perseverance, discipline, play, craft study) Can you share a story or example?
Great question. All those habits have played a part in my success, including being open to constructive criticism. And for years I studied story structure, and still do. But I think perseverance, to the point of downright stubbornness, has been my most helpful habit. There have been many disappointing moments over the last few years when I was tempted to give up. I queried over eighty-seven agents, and once I found an agent, she queried sixty-one publishers. That’s a lot of “No’s,” before the elusive “Yes.” However, I learned when I was young to keep at it. Mom always said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Some days it’s a mantra.
Can you share the most interesting story that you shared in your book?
In Chapter 54, there is a story within the story. The heroes are in Vilnius, Lithuania, searching for the next clue that will lead them on their quest. They are eating lunch at a local café, discussing dreams and all the iron wolves they’ve seen around town.
Maddy looked at Bear. “I don’t remember reading about the dream part. Can you fill me in?” She sat back and took another bite.
“Sure. It’s a cool little story. One day, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, whose name was Gediminas, was on a hunting trip in the valley around the mouth of the river Vilnia. It was a successful hunt and Gediminas killed a bison. When night fell, the party decided to set up camp and spend the night there. While he was asleep, the Duke had an unusual dream in which he saw an iron wolf at the top of the mountain where he had killed the bison. The wolf was standing with its head raised toward the moon, howling as loud as a hundred wolves. When he woke up, the Duke remembered his strange dream and consulted one of his pagan priests about it.”
Will took a bite of sandwich. “What did the priest say?”
“The priest told the Duke that the dream was a direction to establish a city there. The howling of the wolf represented the fame of the future city. That city’s reputation would spread far and wide, as far as the howling of the mysterious wolf. So, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, obeying the will of the gods, immediately started to build his future capital and took its name — Vilnius — from the Vilnia river. Which is why we’re here and why we see those iron wolves everywhere.”
What is the main empowering lesson you want your readers to take away after finishing your book?
Hopefully, my readers will enjoy the journey with Maddy, Will, and Bear, and will experience the same empowering catharsis that the heroes do. The trio learn to overcome fears by being with their emotions, not resisting the feelings, but simply sitting with them. Our culture is full of ways to avoid emotions, from drugs and alcohol use, to social media addiction. Maddy and Will’s life depends on their inner journey, and to some extent all of our lives do as well. There’s plenty of research about the harmful effects of stress and other negative emotions. If the twins can learn a few things about emotional intelligence, the readers can too!
What was the biggest challenge you faced in your journey to becoming an author? How did you overcome it? Can you share a story about that that other aspiring writers can learn from?
My biggest challenge was believing that I could do an excellent job, that I had talent. Although I had a lifelong dream of becoming a bestselling fiction author, I wasn’t confident I’d be any good. In between corporate jobs, I tried my hand at being a reporter for a Sacramento weekly paper and the staff writer who sat next to me was a talented wordsmith. I compared my work to hers and didn’t like what I saw, so I didn’t write for a long, long time. When I hit fifty, I decided I had to try, and eventually realized that her talent and mine were completely different. She’d be a wonderful poet, but I’m really good at creating the gut-wrenching feeling of suspense that makes readers turn the page. I’ve learned that comparing myself to others is not at all useful. It’s far better to focus on what I can do well.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
My inspiration comes from a host of literature, from the Narnia Chronicles and Tolkien tales of my youth, to the Bible and Bhagavad Gita. I’ve enjoyed and pulled ideas from most genres, including Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series, Star Wars sci-fi, mystery from PD James, and a myriad of fellow thriller authors.
For example, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s atmospheric four-book suspense series THE CEMETERY OF FORGOTTEN BOOKS spurs my imagination. He’s a master at using location as another character and I love the brilliant way he intertwined the plots and characters from each book. The final volume pulled all the threads together into an impressive, colorful weave that will haunt my dreams for years to come.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
The primary purpose of my writing is to entertain — take readers to another world where they can live an exciting alter-life through the eyes of the heroes. Reading, in general, helps people gain empathy, and my novels, with multiple points-of-view, give readers a window into the world of others, good guys and those with less pure motives. I also throw in more thought-provoking themes. As I mentioned before, overcoming fear is the primary theme of THE LOST POWER. Maddy, the heroine, has to overcome some deep-seated fears to proceed along her quest. The role of violence in our culture is the secondary theme. Maddy loves aikido, a martial art that uses an enemy’s energy against themselves with the aim of a peaceful resolution. Suddenly, she’s thrust into a dangerous world where her non-violent martial arts skills aren’t enough to save herself or her country.
So readers can learn a little bit about history, science, and emotional acumen while they’re sitting on the edge of their seats and holding their breath.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Awards help — Breaking into this career is tough, and one thing that really helps is winning awards. A blue ribbon says that an independent set of judges thought your work was better than thousands of other entries. There are a few contests that allow pre-publication manuscripts, and I entered THE LOST POWER into the Chanticleer International Book Awards back in 2017. I’ll always remember the feeling of shortlisting, attending the awards banquet with authors from all over the world, and having my book announced as the winner of the Adventures and Thrillers category, and announced again as a winner for an entire genre. I practically flew up to the podium to grab those blue ribbons. My smile was as wide as Texas for at least a month. That award translated into my first blurb, from Ann Charles, who had won the same genre the year before. I’m sure her blurb and the award played a large role in obtaining the blurbs I got later.
Build a team — This advice is geared toward authors who want to make a large mark by selling a truckload of books. You need a team — besides your agent and publisher/editor, you need a publicist and marketing agency. Marketing especially is essential, unless you’re already famous. For those who go the self-publishing route, you need two world-class editors, because none of them are perfect, an excellent cover designer, a formatter, and someone to write your back-cover blurb. For the parts you want to do yourself, get a mentor, or honest feedback from an expert.
You need deep pockets — if you want to sell books, you need to think about your work as a business. You can write the best book in the world but if nobody knows about it, they can’t buy it and read it. Even traditional Big Five publishers are wanting their authors to help out with marketing. And it’s all expensive. I heard that James Patterson took out a one-page ad in the NYT for $150K. Billboards in New York City can run $10–40K — a week! Many authors spend $1000/month on ads after the launch, and it’s considered common to spend $30K -50K to launch the book. The trick is to find good ROI. To complicate matters, most authors get a small advance against future royalties, or none at all. That surprised me, as I used to think a book deal came with big bucks. If you’re an ex-president, it does. Debut novelists, don’t count on it. Be prepared to spend, and spend large, to get your name out there.
Use both halves of your brain — Writing is a creative endeavor, no doubt. But in addition to all that right brain work, you need to have enough of a left, organized brain to perform all the other writing related tasks: querying agents, making a plan, hiring experts, deciding what marketing and PR agencies, or tasks, to pursue. I studied the business landscape for a year after getting a book deal, and ended up with a twelve-page plan of attack, and some of those items exploded into spreadsheets full of other tasks. If you don’t have a business bone in your body, it’s probably not the career for you. Have fun writing the book, but keep the day job.
The publishing industry is slow as molasses. I came from Silicon Valley and a career as an IT executive, where time was precious. Yes, we even gave out “Every Minute Matters” awards. The publishing world has its own pace, and it usually has all the speed of a turtle race. Agents take weeks or months to read query letters and manuscripts fall into black holes. I had several agents request manuscripts from a writing conference and it took almost a year for them to all reply. Even once you ink a book deal, it’s usually at least a year, if not two, before your book’s pub day. I signed a book deal in the spring of 2018. Sixteen months later, in the fall of 2019, my book is finally out. The flip side of the delay is it gave me time to study the industry and line up my team for a successful launch.
One last comment. Nobody told me that seeing your world come to life would cause the fun-meter to max out. It’s a blast!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
“Listen, and feel The Power,” is the theme related refrain of THE LOST POWER, and could become a movement.
I’m hoping that the book will inspire readers to learn about emotional intelligence. When you listen with your whole being to every sound around you — the traffic, the birds, the wind — your mind becomes quiet, and the tide of emotions recede. Fear and anger are dream-killers, and one of the biggest underlying problems in our culture. Wars are fought, murders committed, and lives lost, because passions flare. We teach kids reading and writing, but not how to deal with negative emotions. We all have troubled feelings at times, and how well we deal with them is a strong indicator of how happy we’ll be with our lives. There are so many resources out there, from yoga to therapy to books, retreats, and self-help weekends. There’s an avenue for everyone. I’d like to encourage people to take the time to find their own path to increase joy and happiness.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Readers can check out the first six chapters of THE LOST POWER for free on my website at VanOps.net.
For more insight into the adventures of the VanOps heroes, readers can follow me on any of these platforms: