Berta Platas is a Cuban-born author of fantasy novels as well as contemporary romance and romantic comedy, often with a Spanish twist. As half of Gillian Summers, she writes Young Adult contemporary fantasy. Her hobbies include costuming, painting, music, quilting, embroidery, and crocheting. Platas sat down with The Daily Dragon to discuss her writing path.
Daily Dragon (DD): What was your first published book, and how did the publication come about?
Berta Platas (BP): Glad you asked! My first publication was Miami Heat, published by Kensington’s Encanto line, a short-lived experiment in bilingual romances. Half of the book was in Spanish, half in English. Bookstore clerks didn’t know where to shelve them. Sometimes they were in romance, sometimes in Spanish Studies. How I came to be published by them is a study in the power of literary networking. Some of my African American friends had been published by Kensington as “multicultural,” and I asked an editor at a conference that “multi” didn’t seem to include Latina or Asian authors. She replied that she had seen no manuscripts like that. A year later, she emailed me to say that they were starting the Encanto line and would I care to submit a manuscript.
I pulled together one based on the requirements for Arabesque, the multicultural line. These were bigger books, with strong secondary plotlines. Before I could turn it in, another editor reached out to me to say that the books were going to be only 50,000 words, in other words, short contemporary, which is a very pared down book! I didn’t know then that it was to allow the Spanish version to be sandwiched on. My good friend Nancy Knight took my book outline and using a fat red marker, slashed off everything that was my rather excellent (I thought) murder mystery subplot. What was left was the story of a girl who needs a date for a wedding and ends up with the worst choice ever.
Three days after I submitted the manuscript, I got a call at work from the line’s new editor. She said, “You write a heck of a story. We want to make an offer.” I hung up, so thrilled, and ran up and down the halls of the building to tell somebody, anybody! The place was empty at lunchtime. So I ran next door to the firehouse and told the firefighters that I’d sold a book. They cheered for me and gave me a Coca Cola and bowl of chili.
DD: That’s a coup! Firefighter chili is legendary.
Your website bio says you were born in Cuba. How has your Hispanic heritage influenced your work in general?
BP: In so many ways. Partly because of the rich culture and partly because as a family of refugees, my parents moved several times for opportunities that would get them to the economic level they had before the revolution of 1959. We lived in Miami briefly, then in a Polish/Irish neighborhood in Pittsburgh, then in a building full of Hungarian Jews in New York City, then in a diverse blue-collar neighborhood in Charlotte, North Carolina, and finally in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ve befriended so many people with widely different backgrounds, but at the same time, we all had much the same story. The struggle to overcome adversity and to make things better for our children. In Atlanta, where I was in an all-white school with middle class kids whose families had lived in the area for generations, I was fascinated. My favorite stories are fish-out-of-water tales and Cinderella stories.
DD: What is The Hoyden, and what is your role in it?
BP: My first romance ever was a Regency that I wrote and sent for publication. I got back a rejection letter that kindly told me that a 30,000-word story was not a novel. What did I know? I had not even heard of writer’s groups then. That I got a letter was pretty amazing, though I was crushed at the time. My husband, Thomas E. Fuller, was the head writer for the Atlanta Radio Theater, which performs here at Dragon Con every year. He suggested that it might be a good radio script, so I wrote the script, and he helped clean it up, and the group performed it and then recorded it. I played a minor role, and totally regret my one line. I am so not an actress! When I hear my voice I cringe. It was a lot of fun to see it performed, though, and I encourage other writers to give scripts a try.
DD: How did you and Michele Roper decide to become Gillian Summers, and what was the inspiration for those stories?
BP: I had an idea for a story about a girl who lives at a Ren Faire, but I was under contract to St. Martin’s Press and had some big deadlines looming. Michele was part of a longtime critique group I was in (over 10 years!) and I knew our writing styles would mesh, so I asked if she’d be interested in writing it with me. She was, and I must say, that was the most fun ever. Michele is an idea tornado and comes up with the most hilarious scenarios. When the first book was done, we sent the manuscript to my agent and he got us a three-book deal fairly quickly. We then sold a second trilogy and started a third one.
DD: You recently released Cursed, a the first in a new fantasy series co-written with Nancy Knight. What’s that series about?
BP: Cursed is the first of a duology about a peasant girl who finds that she has an astonishing legacy. It’s straightforward fantasy, and the world is so fun to write in that after the second book comes out August 2022, we’ve got more books planned in that world, and featuring some of the characters from the first two books. We were excited to learn that Cursed is a finalist for the Maggie Awards!
DD: Congratulations! What do you think is the key to a successful collaboration?
BP: Open communication, and the ability to say things nicely and leave your ego at the door.
DD: You’ve also written short stories. What are some of the differences between the long and short formats?
BP: Short stories are such fun to write. I have to re-educate myself to write short after writing novels for a while. I keep wanting to add subplots and stuff it full of characters. There is an art to writing short, and I admire a well-crafted short story. I’d say that I edit my short stories and rewrite them more than I do my long-form works.
DD: Please tell us about your involvement with costuming.
BP: I love dressing up and I love research. Until 1980, I only had Halloween as an outlet, but then I discovered the SCA! The Society for Creative Anachronism fueled my thirst for costuming and let me wear them every day when I went to events. Since it also involved a lot of historical research, it was perfection.
Many years later, when I began to write, I no longer had time to participate, but by then I’d done some theatrical costuming, and found that historical costume didn’t have to be limited to the Middle Ages, which was great news, since I’m a big fan of Georgian and Regency costume. Some of my friends were competing in costume contests and science fiction and fantasy conventions, too, but I only made hall costumes. Today that’s called cosplay and its such fun to see what creative and talented folks are out there. I’ve made Star Wars Imperial uniforms for my son, pirate outfits for my daughter, and now my granddaughter has some fun cosplay ideas. She cosplays anime and video game characters, so I have to do a fair amount of research for those.
DD: Didn’t you enter some international competitions for historical costumers?
BP: I did! My friends and I won a group Best in Show for a tongue-in-cheek presentation of Regency dress called Jane Austin City Limits. It was a hoot. I wrote a research paper on my costume, as did the others, and the judges came into our rooms before the show and examined every seam of our costumes, which were spread out on the hotel room beds. They read our papers and asked us questions. Then we had fun flouncing around onstage, and were giddy when we found we’d won!
DD: Congrats again! That’s so cool. Can you recommend resources for those interested in trying their hand at costuming and for writers who have characters to clothe?
BP: There are so many great online options now. For Georgian costume for instance, I love the American Duchess site, and she now has shopping options for things like period shoes. I follow lots of makers who I admire. I started costuming before the internet was such a rich resource, and so I have a big library of books, both overview of costume history and others that go deep into a particular time period. For historical costume, I strongly urge primary sources, such as photos of the inside of garments that still exist. On the other hand, if you’re just trying your hand at it, YouTube is full of great tutorials. Some of them are fascinating and have nothing to do with anything I want to ever build, but I can’t stop watching.
DD: What draws you to painting and needlework?
BP: Art was my college major, although the number of literature classes should have given me a hint about what I’d someday do. I love to paint in oils and watercolors and started drawing in fifth grade. My favorite subject is portraiture. I love people’s faces.
Needlework became a love starting with little projects that my mother showed me to do to learn patience. It worked. Later, my love of historical costume included the amazing embroidery and ribbon work done on costumes and I taught myself the techniques. I also love Hungarian color work, which I saw on the skirt of a folk costume of one my New York City neighbors.
DD: At one time, you made dollhouse miniatures. Do you see those or your artistic hobbies as connected to your writing in any way?
BP: I’ve always loved tiny things. My favorite book as a child was The Borrowers, about tiny people that lived under the floorboards. I built my first doll house from a kit when my first son was born and I had several weeks at home with him before returning to work. I still love them, and it may be that I liked little rooms as way to control my crazy chaotic life.
DD: What’s next for you?
BP: More books! So many ideas, so little time. I’m writing more books with Nancy, Michele Roper and I are going to get The Faire Folk books into publication again with new covers and maybe audio, and a new book there as well. I’m working on some solo projects as well, including a postapocalyptic tale.
DD: Thanks for your time.
BP: Thanks for inviting me to participate!
For more information about Berta Platas and her work, check out her website.