Thursday, September 30, 2010

Whose head is this anyway?

By Julie

I thought it might be fun to explore a few craft issues here at What Women Write.

If you’re new to writing, you might not be familiar with the term “craft.” When we study writing, we focus on different pieces of the whole – the emotional and inspirational part, the publicity and marketing part, and the nuts and bolts part, just to name a few.

Craft is the nuts and bolts part of writing. It’s the “how to.” It’s the “What the FRACK am I doing with this here piece of writing?” part.

After a while, some of these things may begin to feel like second nature, but when you’re starting out, all those trees can look like one big forest, so to speak.

Some writing terms are fairly easy. We learned about them as early as grade school.

Setting. Characters. Prologue.The ever-exciting denouement.

But I remember the first few times I heard unfamiliar writing terms after venturing into writing as a “serious vocation.” The words alone weren’t unfamiliar, but in the context of writing fiction, they suddenly seemed quite complicated, and sometimes even elusive.

Voice. Arc. Flat. Episodic. Flashback.

One particular item I thought I had down pat.

Point of view.

It turns out there is more to point of view than I ever imagined. And that brings us to today’s topic and what I hope is a simple primer in point of view. At least from my point of view, or as you might call it, too, narrator.

Typically, a story is written in one of the following types of point of view, though some talented authors are able to use a finely balanced mix of two or more. Generally, it’s a good idea for new writers to choose one and stick with it for their first few manuscripts until they have the mechanics down.

First person
This is the most easily recognizable. If you open a book and the narrator is obviously the narrator because he or she uses “I” or “me” or “my,” well, that’s a pretty good sign it’s first person. A fun and excellent example of first person writing can be found in a novel I just finished last week, Whistlin’ Dixie in a Nor’easter, by Lisa Patton.

And because I like to go in order …

Second person
This is probably the least used point of view, most likely because it’s really tricky to pull off. This is where the narrator addresses YOU as if you are the main character. For example, you might see a sentence that starts, “You walk into the room and see …” The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber shows a limited use of second person, though it mainly morphs into a more traditional point of view. Lorrie Moore’s short story collection, Self Help, includes many stories told in second person.

Third person
This is probably the most commonly used point of view, generally recognizable by the use of the point-of-view character’s (or characters’) name and third-person pronouns, such as “he” and “she.” Third person can get confusing because you can also have “close” third person and “distant” third person, though other terms might be interchanged for those to mean the same thing. Distant third person can even morph into another type of point of view altogether called …

Ah, what a slippery thing to define. Many words have been spent trying to describe this one. I like how the fiction writing expert at describes it: Third person omniscient is a method of storytelling in which the narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of all of the characters in the story, as opposed to third person limited, which adheres closely to one character's perspective.

But you can see there how complicated it can get. I used the “close” while describing third person, whereas Ginny said, “limited.”

One reason omniscient versus third person can be confusing is because many authors morph between the two. Some well, others dismally. Thus, it’s difficult to find great examples of novels that strictly use one or the other. I found John Irving’s A Widow for One Year to be a good example of omniscient point of view. But I guarantee if you got a group of writers together, we could probably argue the point all day given a stack of books to label.

I’m going to dare to name one more point of view, though not necessarily in a positive light.

Generally labeled the cardinal sin of fiction writing, headhopping is when an author changes third-person viewpoint more often than is strictly reasonable. It’s okay change point of view from one character to another by chapter, and often even by scene, but when the point-of-view character changes from paragraph to paragraph, or even from sentence to sentence, it can be a bit unsettling.

It can lead to reader whiplash.

I’m honestly not sure I ever even noticed this phenomenon until I started studying craft. But it’s possible I just didn’t come across it because I managed to avoid books that employed it. Or perhaps I had the sense that something was off, but couldn’t put a finger on why.

Now it glares at me. It stops me in my tracks.

But what bothers me more than head hopping itself is not being entirely sure if the author intended to headhop … or not. I finished a book last night where there was head hopping galore. Or I think it was headhopping anyway.Though I really enjoyed the book, I found myself asking the question, “Dude, is this third-person head hopping out the kazoo, or is this some really daring form of omniscient?” It was that puzzling. Yes, we really do begin to ask ourselves these kinds of questions after studying craft for a while. It can be kind of annoying.

At any rate, those are the basic categories of point of view, though as you can see, even in this part of writing fiction, there are many variations.

Next time, I’ll talk a little about how or why I choose or have chosen to write in a certain point of view.

Any thoughts or additions? Arguments or disagreements? I’m not claiming to be an expert here, just a facilitator. Any favorite books that have used challenging or groundbreaking points of view you’d like to share with us?

Photo credit: MrGiles Flickr photostream, by Creative Commons License.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

An Interview with Cathy Marie Buchanan

By Kim

Those of you who have been following What Women Write for awhile know that I'm a huge fan of Cathy Marie Buchanan, whose debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still recently came out in paperback. Julie also mentioned the book in a recent post, calling it “mesmerizing.” It is indeed. While savoring both the prose and the historical photos scattered throughout, I ached for Tom and Bess, and heard the thundering crash of a river I’ve never seen but feel I know. A year later I read it again and enjoyed it just as much.

Cathy has appeared on many blogs since her book launched and has answered everything imaginable about the novel itself. When she agreed to be interviewed for What Women Write I wanted to ask her something new, questions geared towards process than product. In case you have not seen her other interviews, Cathy answers the most frequently asked questions here.

About The Day the Falls Stood Still (from the author’s website):

1915. Niagara Falls. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath, who has led a sheltered existence as the younger daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company, meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform, and finds herself inexplicably drawn to him—against her family’s strong objections. Tom is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny knack for reading the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the power of the falls for themselves. As the paths of Bess and Tom become entwined, she must make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future.

About Cathy Marie Buchanan (from the author’s website):

Cathy Marie Buchanan’s debut novel, The Day the Falls Stood Still, is a Barnes & Noble Recommends Selection, a Barnes & Noble Best of 2009 book, an American Booksellers Association Indie Next pick, and a New York Times bestseller. Her stories have appeared in many of Canada’s most respected literary journals. She holds a BSc (Honours Biochemistry) and an MBA from the University of Western Ontario and is a founding member of conservation organization Friends of Niagara Falls. Born and raised in Niagara Falls, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto

Kim: Welcome to What Women Write today, Cathy. An element that touched me profoundly in The Day the Falls Stood Still was your theme about spiritual connections between individuals and having complete faith in things you can not see. I often found myself nodding and weeping because you explained the unexplainable. These sections came across as very personal. Was there an inspiration behind Tom’s connection with his grandfather?

Cathy: My much-loved father died as I approached the end of the first draft of The Day the Falls Stood Still. The depth of my grief was astounding to me, as was my inability to grasp the concept of mortality. Where was my father? Was he really gone? Why was he gone? Why had he spent seventy-four years on this earth? Was he still with me? Did I need concrete proof? I will not pretend for a moment that I figured any of this out. What did happen, though, was that my grief-ridden struggle with what I believed found expression in The Day the Falls Stood Still. As I wrote, I was seeking for myself the same unshakable connection that Tom had with his long departed grandfather.

Kim: I was stunned to learn that you have a degree in biochemistry and an MBA. Most writers I know, myself included, cringe at the idea of anything involving math. What made you turn to writing?

Cathy: I’m often asked if I grew up wanting to be a writer, and the answer is a definitive no. I spent my teenage years disgracing myself in high school English, often getting upwards of twenty percent deducted for spelling mistakes on exams. When it came time to head off to university, one of the criteria I used for selecting courses was not having to write—that is, spell—a single thing. I did manage to finish undergrad without writing a single essay! I spent the bulk of my non-writing work life at IBM, at first in finance and then in technical sales.

Despite much evidence to the contrary, my creative leanings were evident throughout my teenage years, in both my serious pursuit of classical ballet and my burgeoning abilities as a seamstress. Once I began working, I attempted, I think, to satisfy my creative yearnings by enrolling in string of continuing education courses, always something with an artistic bent. Finally I hit upon creative writing, and right from the very first class, I was smitten. I was home.

Kim: Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you do all your research up front, or is it an ongoing venture? Do you outline or make character sketches? Do you whip out a first draft in a few months and then edit, or re-write compulsively as you go?

Cathy: Before putting pen to paper, I spent four months researching The Day the Falls Stood Still, a task that was purely pleasurable. Even so, while I was writing, I was constantly turning back to the history books. I did not make an outline and had only the vaguest idea where I was heading with the book. I finished the first draft in a year and a half and then spent the next two and a half (!) rewriting it. I think the degree of rewriting the book required was at least in part due to my lack of an outline. I am working on another work of historical fiction, and, this time around, I spent time plotting the book up front. Fingers crossed that I’ve avoided some of the pitfalls that kept me rewriting for so, so long.

Kim: I’ve read you have three children. How do you balance writing and family time?

Cathy: While I was writing The Day the Falls Stood Still finding balance was reasonably easy. I wrote while my boys were at school and my husband at work, finishing up at 3:29, in time to run across the park and pick my boys up from school. I rarely wrote on weekends, other than jotting down the odd note when something I wanted to incorporate into the book occurred to me. Now that my book is out there in the wide world, I give readings and talks and interviews. I post on blogs, tweet, update my facebook fan page, and attend book clubs, in person or via skype. I am working on a second book and, out of necessity, have made a rule that I must get four hours of writing under my belt before I can turn to the other million things I should be doing. With much of the publicity happening in the evening, my own reading for pleasure has suffered and my family sometimes gets the short end of the stick. My boys are 12, 14 and 16-years-old now and getting more independent every day. (Sigh.) I think, even two years ago, I could not have managed what I do now in terms of publicity.

Kim: I’m struck by how beautifully that landscape becomes a character in itself within many books by Canadian authors – such as Niagara Falls in your novel, or Lake Superior in Jane Urquhart’s The Underpainter, or Newfoundland in Donna Morrissey’s books. Canada has produced some great literature, yet many Americans aren’t familiar with writers from north of the border other than L.M. Montgomery, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro. Our readers are always up for reading a good book – do you have any recommendations?

Cathy: I adore every writer you mentioned. Other Canadian favourites include Elizabeth Hay (A Student of Weather, Late Nights on Air), Carol Shields (The Stone Diaries, Republic of Love), Emma Donoghue (The Sealed Letter, Room) and Helen Humphreys (The Lost Garden, Coventry).

Kim: Can you tell us about your involvement with the Friends of Niagara Falls?

Cathy: With the arrival of the casinos in Niagara Falls, Ontario came myriad new high-rise hotels, most within a stone’s throw of the falls. The result–an expanse of concrete and glass extending downriver from the Horseshoe Falls. That wall is slated to infiltrate the seven acres of green space surrounding Loretto Academy, the stately, 148-year-old convent school that sits atop the bluff at the Horseshoe Falls, and from where Bess Heath, in The Day the Falls Stood Still, glimpses prayers drifting heavenward in the mist above the falls. Loretto was sold to a hotelier, who plans to replace the treed grounds of the property that today frame the falls in nature with three towering buildings, one a whopping 57-storeys, more than three times the height of the falls. The idea of high-rises forming the backdrop to a natural wonder of the world does not sit well with me. The sanctity of the place, I feel, must be preserved. I’ve become a founding member of conservation organization Friends of Niagara Falls. Our first task: stopping the high-rise development planned for the grounds of Loretto Academy.

Thank you for stopping by today, Cathy. The Day the Falls Stood Still is available at bookstores everywhere.

Photo credits: Cover art for both the hardback and paperback versions of the novel were taken from the author's website. Author photograph taken by Marion Roes. Niagara sketches were done in 1900-01 by Katie C. Niles, my great aunt. I own the originals.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Blessings of a Story

Sometimes you search for a book. Other times a book finds you.

I was in literary limbo last week. Having just finished Andre Agassi’s great memoir, Open, nothing on my to-be-read stack beckoned to me. Then I got a text from my sister Amy. She’d just read a great book by “that author from Dayton” she had told me about. Amy had emailed the author, telling her how much her story had meant to her and “she wrote me back!” (Since Amy also lives in Dayton and chose the book for her book club next month, the author is popping into book club!)

I admitted in a return text that I had no idea what she was talking about, so she forwarded me the email. Amy said the book was wonderful and I needed to read it. But then I got lost in an assignment before I had a chance to look up the title. The next thing I knew, Amy had forwarded me another email, this one with a confirmation from Amazon. She’d bought me the book. (Yes, she’s that kind of sister.)

A few days later, The Blessings of the Animals by Katrina Kittle showed up in my mailbox. Amy was right—I couldn’t put it down. And fortunately for me, Katrina has a bit of a backlist, so now I can plow through a few more of her books.

Here's more about the book from the publisher:

Veterinarian Cami Anderson has hit a rough patch. Stymied by her recent divorce, she wonders if there are secret ingredients to a happy, long-lasting marriage or if the entire institution is outdated and obsolete. Couples all around her are approaching important milestones. Her parents are preparing to celebrate their fiftieth anniversary. Her brother and his partner find their marriage dreams legally blocked. Her former sister-in-law—still her best friend—is newly engaged. The youthfully exuberant romance of her teenage daughter is developing complications. And three separate men—including her ex-husband—are becoming entangled in Cami's messy post-marital love life.

But as she struggles to come to terms with her own doubts amid this chaotic circus of relationships, Cami finds strange comfort in an unexpected confidant: an angry, unpredictable horse in her care. With the help of her equine soul mate, she begins to make sense of marriage's great mysteries—and its disconnects.

Not only has The Blessings of the Animals propelled me back into my women’s fiction reading mode, I’m also reinvigorated about the story I’m writing. I’d stepped away from it for a few months (or more) as “paying assignments” had taken priority. But now I feel I need to make time for this project. I sensed Katrina’s story played very close to her heart while she wrote it, as does the one I’m writing.

So, thank you, Amy, for sending me the book. And thank you, Katrina, for getting me motivated to write women’s fiction again. I dream of a day when someone’s sister mails her my book after a passionate recommendation.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Susan talks with Elizabeth in part of our Get to Know the Women of WWW

By Susan (but mostly by Elizabeth)

In our series of interviewing each other, I was lucky enough to draw Elizabeth, who is by far the funniest one of the bunch (the rest of us are pretty serious. Well, at least compared to E).

Here is our interview! Enjoy!

Tell our readers a little about your background and upbringing that brought you to this place of being a writer.


I’m one of six kids, and the other five would all tell you I’m “the weird one.” With a family background like that, what else can you possibly do but write?

I also have a terrific memory. Not necessarily for names, but events and images and tiny details about people and things. For instance, I recall precisely the flavor of the carrots I ate at my friend Valentina’s house one day in first grade, and the fact that she had a Shirley Temple doll still in the box that she wasn’t allowed to touch. The exact orange of the sky as my best friend and I watched the sunset as we realized our friendship had run its course, and the blue black it became as we sat unwilling to stand up and walk out into the night of our painful new reality. The hollow feeling replaced by euphoria when my college speech coaches teased me before revealing that I’d “broken” into finals rounds in every event one year at Nationals. The flowery scent of my daughter’s breath when she was nursing. These, and maybe a million more memories, I really think feed both the emotional and episodic requirements of at least this writer.

I feel like my life has been spent in preparation, and now my job is to distill it into words that will entertain and hopefully enlighten others.


What is your primary genre? What in particular drew you to that?


I read a lot of women’s fiction, and those stories are primarily what occur to me. Write what you know, I guess, and what I know at this place in my life now is kids and family and spouses and friendships. Not necessarily in that order. But I’m also drawn to YA, since I never really got over high school, I suppose. (Did I ever tell you I went to high school with my husband? Not that I would have been caught dead dating him then, mind you. Our reunions are always interesting, though.) And maybe because my kids are middle-grade age, or maybe because I still haven’t gotten over elementary school either, I have some middle grade ideas as well. I guess, depending on how things go, I might have to employ a pen name or two!


What led you to devote yourself to being a writer?


I’ve thought of myself as “a writer” and planned to write for years, but never really did until a few years ago. I did start a novel when I turned 29, thinking, “I can still do it before I’m thirty!” but I stopped before I got very far in. (Which is really too bad as it was during the height of chick-lit, and “Diary of a Woman Turning Thirty,” while not terribly original, was certainly genre-friendly.)

When my daughter started preschool in earnest, more than just enough hours to race to the supermarket kid-free, then I thought, well, no more excuses. I began hitting up the Einstein’s across the street from her school at least three mornings a week, refusing to leave until I’d pumped out a section. I was very secretive, too, very cagey. I found out later the other regulars called me “the writer,” so I guess I wasn’t as covert as I thought. It was great training, though it did give me the pesky habit of writing longhand, but I managed to write the bulk of the first draft of my first novel over dollar cups of coffee while working hard to avoid cream cheese consumption.


When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I planned to be an actress, actually. (See my bio for the props from Mrs. Campbell regarding this aspiration.)

In third grade, I rocked the stage at my school in the role of the cobbler (that’s right, I got the lead role even though it was a male part!), and in fourth grade, after being mocked for having the nerve to audition for one of the narrator roles in Let George Do It, our bicentennial program, the kidding stopped when I got the role along with three sixth graders. (One was my sister, who probably wasn’t thrilled to share the stage with pesky me.)

And then in sixth, I became a playwright-performer with my stand-out role in the very original world premiere of Snow Cool and the Seven Twerps. I played Dum Dum. To this day, I’m not sure there’s ever been a greater cacophony of laughter in that multi-purpose room than the day Dum Dum gasped upon discovering the apparently dead body of Snow Cool. We’re talking elementary school Oscar-caliber stuff. (In the interest of full disclosure, I must inform our readers that I had three co-writers, so I can’t take sole credit for that outstanding script, though I’m pretty sure I was responsible for the very hilarious Twerp names of Bratty and Lazy. Not to mention King Kool, the fabulous hero of the story, who was played by the most popular boy in sixth grade, whose name I do in fact remember but will not disclose as it’s the age of Google and I don’t want to get sued. He was totally cool though. Back in second grade, no one rocked those sweat bands on the wrists the way he did. Plus, he was a super fast runner. Totally cool.)

I also had an imaginary correspondence with one of the stars of Eight Is Enough; my friend and I suggested a story line in which Susan turned out to be adopted, and we (my friend had flaming red hair, and I was sort of white-skinned and round-cheeked) were her biological little sisters. Sadly, our letter must have been lost in the mail, or I would no doubt be married to (and divorced from) Willie Ames by now.


What are your dreams for you writing, or rather, where do you see yourself and your work in 5 and 10 years?


Obviously I hope to be published by 2015, hopefully on deadline for my fourth or fifth book. While I don’t count on J.K. Rowling success (duh), I would like to emulate the career of someone like Elizabeth Berg or Anne Tyler by the time we roll into the third decade of the century. By which I don’t necessarily mean their acclaim, as both are such gifted storytellers and word crafters, but their softly building a great backlist of wonderful novels, one after another after another. That would be fantastic.


Tell us about your current work in progress.


I’ve got about fifty thousand words or so into a story about two sisters whose lives sort of fall apart just as they receive news of the tragic death of their childhood babysitter. The event—and the woman’s selfless heroism—galvanize them both to examine their lives and choices and take new responsibility for their happiness.


What drew you to choose this particular topic?

You know, I’ve been working on this story for a while (kind of too long, but don’t tell anyone that), and I really don’t remember what spurred me. I have some memories from my own childhood about some babysitters, and I’ve lifted a few famous family stories for the book, but none of the characters are based on anyone real in my life, past or present. I guess it’s based more on the memories of emotion, and my wondering how I would react if I were to get the kind of news my characters do.


What do you think it takes for a "regular" writer to become a "successful" writer?


It’s both my hope and my fear that it’s tenacity and diligence. Both of which are not my strongest suits, but both of which I have worked mightily to improve.


If you could change one thing about your writing habits, what would it be?


Did you not just hear what I said about tenacity and diligence?


What writer do you admire most, or desire to emulate?


In addition to the novelists I mentioned a little earlier, I would love to have a career trajectory like Barbara Kingsolver. Her masterpiece—and I mean that absolutely, in its true sense—The Poisonwood Bible, was my introduction to her, and it absolutely blew me away. As soon as I finished, I rushed off to find more of her work, and when I read The Bean Trees and some of her other earlier books, I was so impressed with her growth as a writer. The early stuff was really good, too, but what was really wonderful and hopeful to me was that, good as it was, there wasn’t necessarily any particular indication that she’d go on to produce something so incredible as The Poisonwood Bible. That is how I’d like my writing career to go, I thought then (this was just a couple of years ago). Publish some good stuff, keep learning, and then one day, bring out the biggest gun. I actually already have an idea of a book I really want to write that is a huge idea, but I don’t quite feel ready to write it yet. And I don’t want to mess it up before I’m ready, so I’m keeping it on the back burner for now.


Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers about you?


I really like ice cream entirely too much. Also, I think about food in general a disproportionate amount of time. That’s probably not what you meant, though.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Body of Work

by Elizabeth

Thus far, I've completed two manuscripts plus about fifty thousand words of another. I've also written some ten thousand words of a fourth--though I'd be surprised if more than a couple thousand of those survive to the second draft.

Not bad. Certainly more than the world would have us believe most people accomplish. "I'd love to write someday," nearly half the country seems to say. Yet few ever do.

So good for me on those two polished manuscripts, even if they weren't quite shiny enough to cause an agent to pluck them from the fat and tempting pile. Good work, I say, and to anyone who has finished an entire novel. It's a feat, an accomplishment unto itself. Kudos to us all.

And yet those four ideas, assuming I complete the two underway, are only a percentage of what I hope to accomplish in the span of my writing career. I just made a list, in fact, my own personal canon. Eleven titles make up the list, the four already mentioned plus seven other semi-fleshed ideas of books I hope to one day see in print. Written on lined notebook paper in fine black ink, it's not such a stretch of imagination to visualize those same words in a crisp font on an early page of a proper bound novel. You know the page: 'Also by Elizabeth Lynd.'

I love that page for both its inspiration and usefulness. Lap up a new-to-you writer's work and if you're like me, you'll flip fast to that page to add titles to your must-read list. Hate the boor, and feel your jaw sag and head shake when you see this hack somehow has managed a dozen books on the shelves. Or feel ambivalent, then turn to see if there's only one other title to the author's credit, and make a note to find that one and see if this is sophomore slump or really the best the writer can do.

Looking at my titles (ahem--working titles in some cases, as Joan and Pamela can attest after a long vinegar-laced dialogue trying to do better for my YA one Starbucky morning), I can see them together, a body of work that spans from fun and light to a Dolly Parton-like "laughter through tears" to what might just be weighty literary fiction.

I don't see it so much as genre-hopping as I do writerly progression. For one thing, I'm nowhere near brave enough to tackle one idea that came to me on a trip to Israel in 2007. The day will come, but I'm not there yet. And that's okay; the title looks at home at the bottom of the list.

And for another, I can't seem to escape myself no matter what I write, so I suspect there's a stronger thread knitting my catalogue together than the stories and plots suggest. I think Amy Tan once said she was surprised that people thought her books were similar, but I'd be a member of that chorus. Tan's alchemy, of course, is her ability to wring fresh tears and laughter from the mother-daughter-sister relationships, to help women see themselves across generations and cultures, and maybe help men recognize a bit of estrogen when they look in a mirror. That's something to shoot for, the comfort of well-loved themes revisited in a manner that always reads fresh.

There are a number of writers whose work I've read much of, if not all. The usual suspects, many of them, but my list is growing. This month I've been on an Elizabeth Berg-a-thon, another writer whose take on the female condition keeps pulling me in. She dips from girlhood to widowhood, from Elvis to Weight Watchers, all of it clean as an autumn morning, but still of a piece.

So sure, while my titles and ideas are all over the place, I'm not worried. They are part of a whole. I don't know if these exact ideas are the ones my pen will find. I assume others will fatten the list as I grow and learn and experience life. All of it leading to the day I savor a long list of titles stacked inside the lovely hard cover of the title I have yet to imagine at all.

Monday, September 20, 2010

What Women Write - Waiting to Launch

We’re six writers, currently tethered in the not-yet-published phase. We’re all unique, with varied strengths and quirks and styles. We realize that we won’t all publish at the same time, but when it happens to one or another of us, we’ll root for each other to soar.

On Saturday at dawn, my husband and I went to the Plano Balloon Festival. An early patrol of three balloons was scheduled to take off, followed by the main launch at 7am.

Armed with coffee, pack chairs, a blanket and camera, we scouted out a spot on the still-dewy grass. Above us in the clear dawn sky, patterns of stars glittered, all different, all beautiful.

A field of roughly ten acres spread in front of us, where the real action was set to begin. Sipping our coffee, we watched as three trucks creeped across the field and scouted their spots. Once parked, a few passengers exited each truck and began the well-practiced dance of off-loading baskets, balloons and equipment.

And the dance was mesmerizing. First the crews placed the baskets on the ground and attached frames. Then they tipped the baskets on their sides, secured the deflated balloons and unrolled them into a long train. Cool air expanded the fabric into half-domes on the ground. Then torches of hot air filled the balloons to capacity and the globes were raised to standing. But even with all this preparation, the dawn patrol was grounded. The wind was not ready for them.

Soon, a parade of trucks fed in from the side of the field, claiming spots on the field for their launch. Each off-loaded their showpieces, readying for their part in the display. One by one the balloons were filled, until the acreage bubbled over with thirty or so spheres of color, all bursting with enough strength to take off. A snowflake assortment, each one fashioned into its own pattern and shape. Its own personality.

One boasted a background of yellow, Texas flags circling the bottom curve. Another smaller balloon sported a red background, striped with blue and yellow insets. Still others inflated, rainbow-colored checks, sunset oranges and reds, swirls of purple and gray. A clown face, a ladybug, teardrops and egg shapes. They tugged fiercely, trying to leap from the ground, while the crews kept them pinned in place, until they were in perfect form. Until the time was right.

And one by one they launched, some higher than others, some slower. But they all got off the ground.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Meet Susan Poulos - Interview 1 of 6 with the Contributors for What Women Write

By Kim

What Women Write is over a year old and our readers now consist of far more than our collective family and friends. After some discussion, we decided that the time had come to re-introduce ourselves by interviewing each other. This is the first in a six-part series of Q & A sessions, though the posts will not necessarily run back to back. Keep checking back at What Women Write so you don’t miss any glimpses into the lives of our contributors.

At our last lunch, we drew names and I was thrilled to pick Susan Poulos. I've only spent a short time with Susan at last year’s retreat and a few sporadic lunches, but I can honestly say she is one of the people I admire most. Read on, and you'll see why.

Susan, tell us a little about your background – where you grew up, went to school, etc.

I grew up in Mt. Sterling, Kentucky and lived there until I was 17 years old and left for college. The town itself had a population of about 6,000 when I lived there, and the county totaled maybe 20,000 people. My parents--who are retired school teachers--and the majority of my extended family still live there. It was a safe and beautiful place to grow up. I had a childhood surrounded by a lot of love.

I went to Western Kentucky University on a journalism scholarship but bounced around a little--including a stint in England--but came back to Kentucky and graduated from WKU with a history degree.

What was your favorite book as a child and why?

I read everything as a child and, to tell you the truth, I cannot remember one favorite book. I do remember reading encyclopedias late at night. I lived in a 100-year-old house and my bed was next to a big bay window that overlooked Sycamore Street. I could read there with the windows open and the beam from the street light or the moon would give me just enough light to read late into the night without getting caught. In one summer I made it through the entire alphabet of the 1975 (or so) World Book. For some reason I remember that the letter “M” was the thickest volume and the biggest challenge.

What was your first job and what did it teach you?

The first time I was ever paid for anything (besides babysitting) was writing sports recaps without a byline for The Mt. Sterling Advocate, our weekly paper, when I was 15 or 16 years old. From there they allowed me to write fill-in sports columns (with a byline and a headshot). I also life-guarded in the summers at the local city pool.

The job at The Advocate taught me that people will actually give you money to put words on paper, which seemed to me to be the easiest thing in the world. Life-guarding was fun--and working in a bathing suit was great for my tan. Yet my first paycheck for a full week of work at the pool was less than $100 after taxes, and I realized that fun work wasn’t necessarily a good job! Writing, alas, did not pay much better.

When did you first discover you enjoyed writing?

I don’t remember ever not enjoying writing. I was on the newspaper staff from 4th grade forward. I loved reporting. It was a great excuse to ask a lot of questions, and I was always amazed that people would answer whatever silly or intrusive question I threw at them. You are given a certain freedom and authority by saying that you are with “the press.” By high school I was sure I would be a journalist, and was the editor of my school paper--a job I took very seriously.

I must also mention that my high school journalism teacher, Kenn Johnson, was a great mentor for me. When I graduated he gave me an AP Stylebook as a gift, and I still have it today. He always encouraged me to keep writing and to keep thinking.

Tell us a little about your current work-in-progress?

Susan in Kentucky
I haven’t lived in Kentucky for over a decade, which gives it a certain mythical quality in my memories…so when I started writing fiction, it seemed natural to base my stories there. My current work follows the paths of three Kentucky families as they navigate the last century--including prohibition and legal bourbon-making, the civil rights movement, and religion. Not many people know that in Kentucky a Trappist monastery called The Abbey of Gethsemani sits quietly (in fact, silently) right in the middle of The Bourbon Trail. In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful places in the world. Thomas Merton (the well-known writer and monk) lived there for the majority of his life until his death in Thailand in 1968.

As I was researching this era, I couldn’t avoid telling the story of the racial strife of 1968 and the integration of schools during that time. It all started clicking together for me and became a novel instead a series of short stories.

The manuscript is called The Angel’s Share, which is a term in bourbon-making that refers to the evaporation of bourbon as it ages in barrels. One-third of every barrel is empty after full maturation, and the theory is that it’s so wonderful that the angels take their portion. It was an “ah-ha moment” for me when I realized that people are like this too--either sacrifice your portion or the angels will take it anyway--you cannot hide the things you want to keep from the gods! The theme of the book centers on sacrifice and loss, and the amount of effort families put into keeping secrets. It is 80% complete, and I hope to do some major editing and revisions by the end of the year and start submitting it to agents in 2011.

Of all the places you have gone to, which place feels most like home?

The obvious answer is Kentucky, although I don’t think I will ever live there again. I’m also a big fan of Italy – my first trip there felt instantly like home, in a nice and comforting déjà vu type of experience for me.

What book most changed your life?

When one talks about a book changing a life, usually people refer to something that sparked a new interest, or changed the way one thinks or views the world. Yet the book that truly changed my life was Jantsen’s Gift: A True Story of Grief, Rescue and Grace, by Pam Cope and Aimee Molloy. Pam Cope is the founder of Touch A Life Foundation, and I interviewed Aimee on this blog about a year ago on the process of co-writing this memoir.

The amazing thing about this book is that it is the most hopeful and uplifting example of one person changing the lives of others that I have ever seen. I highly encourage everyone to read it--no matter where you are in your life. It’s inspiring.

Tell us a little about the Touch A Life Foundation and your involvement with it.

Pam Cope, the co-author of Jantsen’s Gift, and her husband, Randy, founded Touch A Life Foundation after the unexpected death of their 15-year-old son, Jantsen Cope. Since then, they channeled their grief and resources into the rescue of several hundred at-risk children in Southeast Asia. In 2006 they began working in Ghana, West Africa, in combating child-trafficking: modern-day slavery, if you will, and there is no other phrase for it. The Foundation currently provides the long-term care, education and medical treatment for almost 100 former child slaves in Ghana.

I met Pam after I read Jantsen’s Gift. From there I did some pro-bono marketing work for the foundation for a few months, and now serve as their Director of International Operations. I leave for Ghana September 17 for my third trip there this year. I’ve been on the waters of Lake Volta and have spoken with these children who are currently in slavery. And I have watched them shrink into the horizon as my boat pulled away from them. At the same time, I love the rescued boys and girls in our long-term care. I consider myself extremely blessed to be able to serve these children as my life’s work. I just wish we could rescue all 7,000 estimated children who still work on the lake in one fell swoop. It’s not that easy, but there is hope. And it’s that hopefulness for the future that keeps me going.

Do you see ever writing a book that builds on your experiences with TAL?

Truthfully, no. Jantsen’s Gift is the book that represents Touch A Life Foundation--although I have had many life-changing and amazing experiences with my work thus far...I believe that my story is my own, at least for right now. My life is definitely a work-in-progress!

You’re a wife and the proud mother of two girls. How are they adjusting to this new life of yours? Have you noticed changes in the way they view life due to the things you’ve experienced?

Susan in Ghana
Although I have always considered myself a writer, I was stunned to wake up one day and realized that my entire 15-year career had been spent climbing the corporate ladder and knocking on that glass ceiling. Who I thought I was on the inside was not reflected on the outside, and it was time for a swift adjustment. The best thing about reading Jantsen’s Gift in 2009 and my career change that came with it was the impact it had on my family. Although I am not writing full time, which I always thought to be my dream job, I am still writing. I am instead working a dream job that I never envisioned for myself that is truly changing the lives of some amazing kids in Ghana--kids like Gideon and Comfort and Teiko and Ezekiel.

My daughters now know the names of these children too. The rewarding part is that my daughters are proud of me for my work--which is an amazing feeling. When I was working 70 hour weeks as a vice president of a corporation they weren’t necessarily proud; they just missed their mommy. Now, when I travel, they tell all their friends and teachers about what I am doing. Both of my girls talk about what they are going to do when they grow up now--and it’s not to work their way up to middle management in an American corporation. It’s to change the world.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Writers, Writing Everywhere

by Elizabeth

A few weeks ago, the WWW gang (minus Julie, plus Kim's mom) got together for one or our too-infrequent lunches. As we munched on pasta and sandwiches at Grapevine's Main Street Bakery*, we talked about our lives and our kids, about travel past and travel future, about ideas big and small. Oh, and about writing, of course.

I'd had an airport run earlier that morning, and thus a convenient excuse to hit the bakery early and settle in for a luxurious hour with my book. (The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which I later waved in everyone's faces as a must-read), half listening to the women at the next table as they hunched together over a laptop, working out the language for what seemed to be an invite for some sort of professional gala. "Maybe capitalize wonderful," the one in the skirt suggested, and the other woman's tendon twitched as her finger reached for the shift key.

It was all I could do to keep myself from intervening. "They need a writer," I thought with wonder, keeping my giggle inside. Six of us would soon fill a table, every one gifted in wordsmithery (and hopefully masters of avoiding inappropriate caps). Not everyone is a writer, it would seem.

Yet writers are everywhere.

Earlier that same week, I greeted a friend at our sons' Boy Scout meeting. We've talked books often in the six years since Kindergarten, so asking what she was reading was a given. "My friend's book just came out!" she gushed. (This woman is a big gusher, and I don't promise I'll never base a character on her.) I'd forgotten she'd mentioned her friend's contract maybe a year ago, so asked for a refresher. Her friend? None other than Amy Bourret, who Pamela interviewed here just a few weeks ago. Small world.

Then Kay Thomas walked in. Talk about small world: At camp earlier this summer her husband had mentioned a guy from Ohio, a guy they befriended after seeing him perform at The Eisemann Center, and it turned out to be someone I'd dated briefly and hilariously almost twenty years ago. That "oh, wow" moment led to other coincidences, finally landing on this: She's a writer, too.

Across the cafeteria, another mom caught my eye and we waved: another writer, a sci-fi/fantasy aspirant, involved with a critique group and conferences and learning the query dance.

Those writers, man. They are everywhere. And yet those poor women with their misplaced capitals and effusive exclamation points (I peeked, shh) either didn't have the budget to hire one or didn't know they needed one or maybe just lacked the writer-dar that I've developed over the past few years.

Another thing about those writers: Boy, do they write! At lunch, as we reminisced about our retreat last November and plotted the one upcoming, I recalled Susan curled into a chair on the bricked patio of our rental house, fingers tapping a snappy tattoo on her laptop. Recalled Kim's cramped workspace in her living room, a corner stolen from the buzz of family life but still at times a momento-laced haven where she steals chunks of time and translates hours into words. Pamela, somehow weaving between her day job of making root canals sound interesting and spinning aching hilarity into her fiction. Joan, who I always imagine writing in navy silk man-style pajamas, her hair bound with a pencil like a Katherine Hepburn character, writing her way through the morning until hunger driven to the kitchen for a late lunch. And Julie, absent that day, but someone who, when I wake in the night and glance at the clock to see 1:11 glowing on my clock, I think of and suspect of pounding the keyboard, the productive night owl.

And there are others. One critique group friend, the lawyer-dad of three young sons, once told me he wrote the bulk of his (hilarious! excellent! I hate him, of course) novel in ten minute snatches. Another guy's day job is at night, a hotel security guard, and as he monitors security cameras he strikes out pages and pages of fresh fantasy. My conference pal Sharon takes to her mountain cabin whenever possible, and settles in for fourteen hour writing marathons as the New Mexico sun rises and sets in the thin air outside. And me? Cafes, restaurants, the occasional grocery store. (Very glamorous, I know.) Today, in my car outside my kids' school as the rain hammers the roof.

These writers. They're everywhere. All over the place, hanging out, working hard, and writing, writing, writing.

*Are there any readers who have somehow failed to note my obsession with food?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Envy as a Motivator

By Pamela

Sherry, Daphne, Debbie, Lori, Dana, Robin
When I was in seventh grade, I desperately wanted to be popular. I figured out the best strategy was to become a cheerleader. The fact that I could barely execute a cartwheel did nothing to deter me. I had my brother’s girlfriend teach me a cheer and practiced it continually until time for tryouts. Ready…okay! Clap, clap…

In fact, given a moment to meditate on it, I could probably perform that sucker today—if my life depended on it. Thank goodness it doesn’t.

That dream never came true…even having one of my favorite teachers on the judges’ panel didn’t help me. I was that bad. Instead, I ran track and played volleyball, my middle-school status never really reaching the cheerleading pinnacle of popularity. Aren’t we all surprised I survived?

Envy is a strange emotion and honestly, it’s not really a good look on anyone. The Bible tells us it’s not a likable trait in Proverbs 14:30: A tranquil spirit revives the body, but envy is rottenness to the bones.
Now, I’ve never let envy dig so deeply into my spirit that I felt rottenness to my bones, but I have felt its queasy crawl take over my gut. Thankfully, years of maturity later, I have a better handle on what I’m capable of.

Still…yesterday’s cheer-leading obsession is today’s publishing goal.

Last week, in the middle of typical midday distractedness, I looked at a writer’s website and felt a strange thump hit my lap. It was my jaw. Her publishing credits would reach up my stairs and back down again. Twice. Wow. That’s a lot of stuff of hers…out there…that people are reading…

I shook my head briskly a few times and commanded the green-eyed monster to crawl safely under my desk. I reminded myself that I, too, have publishing credits.  
Yeah, but she has more!
In fact, you now edit her stuff in your job.  
Yeah, but wow…look at how many times she’s been Chicken Souped.
Have you ever submitted to them?  
I think once, maybe, a really long time ago.
So, why not try again?
I do have that one piece I've been thinking about…

So I opened that file and decided it wasn’t necessarily Soup-worthy just yet. But I did write up a query to a national magazine to pitch an idea I’d been milling over. Then I made a list of other ideas and places that might be worth pursuing. After that, I opened up the book proposal I have due this week and got busy getting it polished up and ready to submit.

I took a deep breath and put my publishing goals in perspective. Ready…okay! Tap, tap...

Saturday, September 11, 2010


By Susan

retreat: noun. Departure. A place one goes for peace. To pull back; go away.
and my favorite:
to treat again.

It's that time of year.

We at whatwomenwrite are planning our annual fall retreat for November, and like schoolgirls we are looking forward to it with gleeful anticipation. Three days at some secluded woodsy cabin. Three days without children and spouses pulling on our hems needing... well, needing everything. Three days, most importantly, to write.

Pamela got a lot of grief over wearing red.
Last year, on our inaugural retreat, we piled into cars and headed to Glen Rose, Texas. We brought books to swap, we put dibs on roommates, and we cooked. Some of us drank wine, some of us told stories. We spent one evening devoting ourselves to the photo op you see at the header of this blog page (which was way more complicated than it looks). We shared our lives, we shared our works-in-progress, and then, as quickly as we could come together, we split up to separate spaces on the porch and in the house to do what we went for: to write.
In the evenings, we came back together over food and low light to read to each other from our glowing screens. I wrote a scene about memory--and how we shape truth by creating our own pasts. Joan wrote about a road trip through New Mexico between a great-aunt and her niece, who bear the same name. Pamela wrote a painful scene about loss and uncertainty, and Elizabeth and Julie, both in the middle of NaNo-- National Novel Writing Month--won the prize for the most words in the weekend. Kim, even through suffering from incapacitating allergies to western cedar, wrote a great verbal fight scene between her protagonist and his naysayers.

Watch your toes. Cows crossing!
This year, we are planning for a western cedar-free location. Elizabeth found a place in Oklahoma ("Do you have western cedar there? Uh, Ok. Thank you, never mind.") Then perhaps a place in east Texas. I threw my own suggestion in, the Greek Isles and a full Mediterranean tour, and everyone shouted an enthusiastic "YES", yet somehow the full economic implications set in, leaving us despondent and not mentioning Greece again.
Julie hits the porch

The best thing about retreats, however, is not only the location, but the ability to change your setting to produce different results. The chance to pull back. To go away. A place to go for peace.
And of course, my favorite aspect of retreat: to treat again.
So here's to you, my girlfriends of whatwomenwrite--let's treat ourselves again! What about you? How do you retreat? Share with us!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The accidental life of a book reviewer

By Julie

When the six of us started What Women Write, we had no idea what new directions the blog might take us at times.

Little did I know that when I jumped on the chance to interview Quinn Cummings for our first author interview and subsequently, several other authors, whose publicists then kindly sent me copies of books to read before interviews or offer as prizes for drawings that I'd end up on the mystery list.

Now, as a member of that mysterious list, it's not unusual for my doorbell to ring, and when I answer it or send one of the kids, there's nobody there. But it's not a neighborhood trickster playing Devil on the Doorstep, or as my kids call it, Ding Dong Ditch. No, it usually means a package has been dropped by the door by the friendly UPS, FedEx, or U.S. Postal Service delivery person.

"Did you order anything?" my husband asks, a semi-worried look on his face due to my mostly-in-control book-buying habit.

"No, did you?" I respond, more thrilled than worried about the book-buying habit he's recently acquired.

We look at the kids, and of course, they have no money, so they didn't order anything either. I search my brain, trying to remember if anybody's publicist promised me an advance review copy to read before I do an author interview. Nope.

"Must be one of your mystery books," my husband says. And it usually is.

Sometimes I eagerly rip into the package to see what the book fairies sent me. Sometimes I'm busy and set it aside, only to discover it a few days later waiting patiently to be noticed on the kitchen counter. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised to find a book that looks interesting and engaging. Sometimes I'm completely baffled at why such a book might have been sent my direction.

But in general, I've enjoyed reading several books that might not otherwise have registered on my radar. Even a few of those baffling ones.

I don't usually have time to read every one, much less review them or interview the author, but I thought I'd give a shout out today about several I've enjoyed recently.

I've seen Laura Moriarty's name many times over the last few years, thinking how compelling her covers are, reminding myself I should grab a copy of one of her novels and give her a try. A few months ago, the newly released paperback of While I'm Falling showed up on my doorstep.

The upside-down girl on the cover caught my eye. I read the book fairly soon. I ended up really liking this story that was a bit reminiscent of Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs, alternately loving and being downright annoyed with Moriarty's characters, usually because I saw myself in them one way or the other. I'll definitely read more by Moriarty.

Nearly a year ago, I received a copy of The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan. Coincidentally, a few days later, Kim was drawn in by the cover at the bookstore and raved about it after she read it. I'm not sure why it took a year for me to pick it up and read it, but I took it along on my vacation to Colorado in August. I was fairly mesmerized in the reading moments I was able to steal by this sad, yet hopeful story. If you're interested in historical fiction set in the last century or so, you'll probably enjoy Buchanan's novel about a family whose life centers around the history of man's attempts to harness the power of Niagara Falls.

Now, if you know me well at all you would have laughed, too, when the book fairies dropped off a copy of Make it Fast, Make it Slow. Yes, it's a cook book. I'm not completely opposed to cooking, but I'd be a lot happier about cooking if it came complete with a staff to shop ahead of time and clean up for me after I make a big mess. But it's also true I have to cook for my family on a regular basis.

We've ended up using quite a few of Stephanie O'Dea's slow cooker recipes, and the majority of them have been pretty tasty and usually quite simple. I have to hand it to the author. There are only so many ways to stack ingredients in a crock pot, and she's done a nice job of coming up with some new and interesting recipes that pleased my family's adventurous palates. Check out O'Dea's blog, A Year of Slow Cooking, to get an idea of how things work, and her website for more recent news. Looks like she has her eye on my clutter habit now. Uh oh.

Most recently, I picked up Open Country, the second installment in Kaki Warner's Blood Rose Trilogy. Now here's an interesting tale. I rarely read series books. And on the rare occasion I do, I NEVER, EVER, NO NEVER read them out of order. So I wasn't thrilled to receive book two of a series.

And if that hadn't sealed the complimentary copy's fate of being forever consigned to the very bottom of my TBR (to-be-read, in reader/writer jargon) pile, the fact that it's western romance should have. I have nothing against this genre at all, it's just not my usual thing unless I have a really good reason to read it. Like my BFF just had her first western romance novel published. Or, as actually happened to me a few years back at my very first writer's conference, Linda Lael Miller made a lasting personal impression on me with her generous encouragement of a rookie aspiring writer, and I rushed to get an autographed copy of one of her novels at the conference's book signing event.

Sometimes, though, timing highjacks us and turns us in new directions. In the midst of my recent illness, I needed to read something besides my ordinary fare, which tends to the darker exploration of families caught in circumstances beyond their control. I plucked Warner's book from the bottom of the pile a few nights ago. I've been pleased to discover I was able to jump right into book two though I'd never seen or heard of book one.

Warner does an excellent job of bringing the reader up to date quickly without spoiling the first book. I'll likely keep an eye out for Pieces of Sky. And though Open Country follows the unbreakable rule of good fiction – get your characters into trouble fast and lots of it – it's written with humor and spunk. I'm finding it to be a relaxing and enjoyable read. Just what the doctor ordered.

A few duds have made their way onto my doorstep. We won't talk about those. Dear book fairies, let my silence speak volumes about a: my utter and complete disdain for the product, or b: my lack of time to even crack open the cover. You choose.

And as long as the benefits of being on this mystery list outweigh the negatives (for example, I start getting so many books, I can't see the forest for the trees, as I learned sometimes happens to those us on this mystery list), I'll get a little twitter in my heart when the doorbell rings and I find a little surprise on the front porch and hope for the best.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received copies of these book from the publishers in the hope that I would review them on What Women Write. I was under no obligation to review them, let alone give a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 225: "Guidelines Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Monday, September 6, 2010

Q&A with Sarah Blake

A few weeks ago I posted a review of The Postmistress by Sarah Blake. Now it's my honor to introduce Sarah Blake to our What Women Write friends.

From Publisher's Weekly: Weaving together the stories of three very different women loosely tied to each other, debut novelist Blake takes readers back and forth between small town America and war-torn Europe in 1940. Single, 40-year-old postmistress Iris James and young newlywed Emma Trask are both new arrivals to Franklin, Mass., on Cape Cod. While Iris and Emma go about their daily lives, they follow American reporter Frankie Bard on the radio as she delivers powerful and personal accounts from the London Blitz and elsewhere in Europe. While Trask waits for the return of her husband—a volunteer doctor stationed in England—James comes across a letter with valuable information that she chooses to hide. Blake captures two different worlds—a naïve nation in denial and, across the ocean, a continent wracked with terror—with a deft sense of character and plot, and a perfect willingness to take on big, complex questions, such as the merits of truth and truth-telling in wartime.

Joan: You mentioned it took ten years to craft the story of The Postmistress. As writers looking to be published, we often hear that we should not spend years rewriting a story, but to move on to something new. Thank goodness you didn’t leave this one behind! What do you think of this advice? Does the answer lie in the difference between crafting a literary vs. commercial novel (even though your novel is both)?

Sarah: Well, it’s a great question and one that I think probably has as many answers as there are stories! Honestly, I tried to move on to something new--especially as one year folded into the next. And the next. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep from returning to Franklin and to these three women, and to trying to get at how their three lives intertwined. It was a puzzle I was too enmeshed in to leave. So I stayed, often to my despair. I think that’s the thing always to pay attention to when it comes to the question of when to move on: if the story is still urgent for you, even inchoately, then it’s probably worth staying with.

Joan: Good advice, thank you! Readers who are also writers can learn so much about character development from reading The Postmistress. Without giving anything away, I was struck by the choices Iris and Frankie had to make, how those choices challenged their belief systems. At the climax of their plot lines, it became apparent what it means for a character to grow and change and, most of all, learn what they are capable of. How did you pull that off?

Sarah: Oh, thank you! That means a great deal since character movement is so difficult, I think. The novel’s interest really began for me with Iris’s completely uncharacteristic gesture. I had the picture of her doing what she does on page 230 as the very first thing in my head. It started the novel for me. Everything lodged in the question, why would this woman who believes so firmly in doing things by the book do what she does? And it was that question that led me deeper into thinking about war and its effects on ordinary life--war, that is, off the battlefield. Frankie’s gesture is an extension of that same question. So, in some ways these characters develop, to the extent that they do, as I was drawn deeper into the question of responsibility in a time of war.

Joan: You did a tremendous amount of research for this book, yet it never feels dumped into the narrative. As readers, we are next to your characters—in shelters hiding from bombs, on the train with Frankie as she records the voices of the war, on top of the lighthouse as Harry searches for U-boats. What’s the secret of weaving research into narrative?

Sarah: The novelist, Susannah Moore, passed on this gem of advice that Joan Didion had given her: when you look up from your computer, or your desk, stay in the eyes of your character and what does she/he see? This is deceptively simple, but it asks the writer to be inside the world that she is trying to create in a very fundamental way. For me, all research has to work that way, too. It has to disappear. The time I spent researching was time I spent trying to get at the world in which Frankie and Iris and Emma were living from the inside out so that when I lifted my eyes up, I saw the color and tint of the 1940s, and heard the sounds they would (I hoped). And then this way, I could imagine what they felt, or what they might say.

Joan: What a great explanation--thank you. The cover is stunning! What did you think when you first saw it?

Sarah: I wanted to take a bite out of it! It really is so incredibly luscious.

Joan: It certainly is! Now that I’ve found you, I want to read more of your work! I just noticed Grange House: A Novel, and can’t wait to read it. Victorian era, coast of Maine, ghosts—a perfect combination! When can we expect your next novel? Selfishly, I hope it’s not ten years from now!

Sarah: My next novel returns to Maine, but centers in a summer house owned by an old money family whose money, but not whose sense of itself, has run out. It goes back and forth between the summer of 1959 and the summer of 2009, between the stories of two sisters and then their daughters, and the ways in which their lives repeat and echo each other’s without their knowing. And there’s a big secret at the center of the house, of course, since I am always drawn to the stories about characters who don’t see, or don’t know, how their lives intertwine. This is where I’ll always be a Victorian.

Joan: Me too! I am struck by how generous authors are with their time—just look at our list of interviewees (yourself included!). Who were your mentors along the way and did anyone in particular inspire you?

Sarah: I never went through an MFA program, and I’m old enough so that there weren’t creative writing courses in my undergraduate curriculum, so I have to say that my mentors were mostly those on the page: the writers I would turn to to generate ideas or sentences, the writers I wanted to imitate. As a growing writer, it was Virginia Woolf, first and foremost, and then the Brontes--all of them, and George Eliot. But then, too--I learned so much from going to readings, lots and lots of readings by poets and fiction writers and listening to them talk about how they wrote. How they thought of what they had written was tremendously inspiring. I love hearing artists--painters, sculptors and photographers--give artist’s talks for this reason as well. Often, listening to someone else describe their process is pivotal as I try and work out some knot in my own work.

Joan: Your book trailer incorporates some very moving pictures from the WWII era. How far things have changed since letter writing days! Do you still send hand-written letters?

Sarah: I do. And I love getting them, for just the reason that Emma loves Will’s letters. The personality of the letter-writer is captured twice: both in their words and in their hand-writing. I love that.

Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your time with us today. And thank you, readers, so much for stopping by! If you’ve read this one, let me know if you loved it as much as I did. If you haven’t, head to the bookstore!

Friday, September 3, 2010

I Don't Need the Notoriety - My Protagonist Does

By Kim

Carl Ahrens website
Some of you know from an earlier post that I originally wrote my current work-in-progress, The Oak Lovers, as narrative non-fiction. An agent assured me that format would make for an easier sell and I took her advice, understanding that ‘easier sell’ is a relative term. While my protagonist, Carl Ahrens, was internationally known and respected in the art world during his lifetime, his fame ended with his death in 1936. In order to have any hope of convincing a publisher he deserved resurrecting, I required an outstanding platform. I spent two years doing intensive research, writing and polishing my proposal, helping organize two exhibitions of my great-grandfather’s work, giving speeches and, most importantly, building a website.

Now that The Oak Lovers is a novel, the proposal collects dust in a drawer and I know that my two published articles on Carl are unlikely to count for much to a prospective agent. I continue to expand and maintain the website, however. Other writers occasionally hint that my time would be better spent finishing the novel I’m promoting and that building a web presence now is a bit premature. I won’t be offended if you agree.
Carl as a young man

My justification is simple: I don’t need the notoriety, but Carl Ahrens does. An artist once dubbed the greatest tree painter who ever lived is now a footnote in art history books. Most merely refer to him as a ‘friend and contemporary of Homer Watson.’ (Unless you live in Waterloo County, Ontario, or have studied Canadian art history, you won’t have a clue who Homer Watson is.)

As Carl’s great-grandchild, my claim that he’s a brilliant and unfairly neglected artist means nothing. Yet I can and have created a virtual art gallery with over a hundred examples of his work, allowing visitors to judge the quality for themselves. They may also learn about his life, see candid photographs of his adventures, or contact me.

Oak lovers
Maintaining the website, while time consuming, is well worth the effort. I’ve located and documented over 300 works of art without having to leave my home. Art dealers and auction houses in three countries consult me to authenticate work or answer questions from potential buyers. Respected art historians ask me to speculate about Carl’s reasoning behind his public press war with the Group of Seven, something that continues to haunt his image today. Archives and galleries shower me with hundreds of pages of correspondence written by my great-grandparents (usually free of charge). Artists offer to answer technical questions. A curator even approached me to help arrange the first exhibition of Carl’s paintings since 1937. I spoke at the opening and saw the gaping expressions of patrons touring the room.

“Why have we never heard of him before?” many asked me.

Why, indeed. That’s a very interesting story, and thanks to my website I have many more people waiting to hear it.

What about you? At what point would you consider building a website? If you already have one, have you found it to be a useful tool?

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Making Connections

by Elizabeth

I'm writing this over the remnants of my lunch, a cheap and tasty first foray into Fuzzy's Tacos, a new-to-my-area, new-to-me, yet apparently passionately beloved fast food on real plates kind of joint. Well, sort of real: My veggie and fish tacos were served on heavy stoneware, the potatoes stuffed into the remaining space, but the black beans came on the side in a Styrofoam bowl. Styrofoam cup, too, but metal flatware. Light, to be sure, but mined from the earth.

Sitting here alone, it occurs to me that some might suspect me of being a reviewer. I think my green school-style notebook should give me away as just another hungry diner, but still: I'm eating, glancing around, furiously scribbling what might be notes about the quality of the lettuce. My face surely betrayed curiosity as I tried to determine what the heck they put in those black beans to make them so distinctively delicious. I mean, I guess I could be a reviewer. But I'm not.

Or a travel writer! The Writer's Guild of Texas hosted the fascinating Kay Winzenried a few weeks ago, and as I love to travel, she held me rapt as she got down and dirty with some facts. She even talked money in concrete, non-euphemistic terms. Anyone involved in the early stages of a writing career will likely appreciate how rare hard facts about money are. So very refreshing.

So that got me thinking about travel writers in fiction, bringing me fast to the protagonist in The Accidental Tourist, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite writers. (If you've somehow missed Anne Tyler, many delightful hours of reading await you.) Got me thinking of the movie adaptation, too, and how long Bill Pullman's been around. Reminded me he played the romantic lead opposite Ellen DeGeneres back in the day. My how times change: Now she's the real life romantic lead to Portia Di Rossi, whom I associate most with Ally McBeal, who is now married to Han Solo! Han, for whom I stood in the first movie line I'd ever seen one hot summer day when I was ten years old. I don't think I knew why I was forced to wait in the sun along with two sisters and my brother, and I'm pretty sure I still didn't after the movie was over and the station wagon picked us all up. (My husband, quite possibly in the same theater that day, recognized immediately that Star Wars was a game changer. Meh. I still don't really get it.) To me, Harrison Ford is far more appealing in the remake of Sabrina., which I like better than the original, which is a risky thing to admit, like it means I'm dissing Audrey Hepburn. But I'm not; she was delightful in Roman Holiday--O! Italy! Now there's a place I'd love to go!

And so we find ourselves back to travel. You can ask Joan; it almost always comes back to travel with me. That, or food. Usually both.

All this to say, this is a very brief example of how my brain hops. It took me maybe ten minutes to scribble this, probably ten seconds to think it. That's the relentless hum in my mind, and though it can be exhausting at times--and by the way, Mr. Elizabeth, that's one reason that NO, I don't remember your mentioning in passing once three weeks ago that you wouldn't need lunch on Thursday. Hello? Did you not catch that my mind was a bit occupied?--I'm grateful for it. I'm pretty sure my thoughts, my connections, are what make me a writer as much as my voice. Certainly, without my leapfrog brain, I'd never have gone from a cabin in Northern Virginia to the choppy waters of a murderous sea during World War II, the locales that begin and end the novel I'm querying.

Choppy waters--I did mention one of my tacos was tempura fish, didn't I? Dang it was good. Those beans, too. Bet they have some amazing cannelini beans in Italy. And what a great place that would be to knock off all my Christmas shopping! Which reminds me, I need to clear out the garage and find a better home for the decorations I picked up at a yard sale last spring.

And so it goes.
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