Late July, 2014

Isn’t summer supposed to be lazy? Slow, relaxing, full of lemonade and good books and camping?

Apparently not.

This summer offers up driving and not sleeping enough and everything breaking–holy carp, everything I lay a hand on or live beneath or even think about breaks this summer. The plus side to it: I secretly enjoy broken things that prevent me from being able to use my computer to connect with the outside world from home. Only that lack of connections puts a damper on things like, oh, blog posts, for example.

How am I managing this post? The library, of course. I’ve been touring local libraries, depending on where life takes me. This one has plugs built in to the tables, which is brilliant if you have a sad little netbook battery that no longer wants to hold a charge (see–everything breaks). It has very high ceilings, and portraits of dour white people, and never as many patrons as I think it should. This morning, it is quiet, and in a moment I’ll be getting back to work.

The other thing about this summer? The wilds have come to call on us. Moose in the pond. Bear trying to strike up a conversation during dog walks. A lone hummingbird diligently milking the flowers outside the bedroom window. I suspect they have meetings in the early morning where they discuss the situation on our road. “Truth is,” the moose might say, “There’s a lot of breakage going on there. I can see it through the windows. I think it’s safe to move in closer.”

Another thing? My thyroid is not trying to kill me. That’s always a good thing.

The last thing? Throughout the spring and summer I agonize over turtles. They cross the highway everywhere around here, and they are killed in catastrophic numbers. I was driving a few weeks ago with too many fast cars behind me, and a very big truck coming toward me, and a turtle making a break for the other side of the road. I couldn’t stop to get it; I never would have made it in front of the truck. I was heartbroken about it, and dreaded turning back and finding the aftermath.

There was none. The turtle made it. The truck must have stopped, and the stopped truck must have made others stop, and this one time the turtle made it. I felt like the Doctor in the episode where he jumps wildly about after managing to save everyone from a medical accident and shouts “Everyone lives! Just this once, everyone lives!”

I hope your summer is going well.


Talking about writing: A.M. Bostwick

Today I present A.M. Bostwick. What can be said about her? She loves chocolate and hates writing bios about herself! But seriously, Abigail writes Middle Grade and Young Adult novels in her Northwoods of Wisconsin home. An early draft of her young adult novel, Break the Spell, was a finalist in the 2013 Wisconsin Romance Writers of America Fab 5 contest. Her first novel, The Great Cat Nap, was published in 2013 and recently earned the Tofte/Wright Children’s Literature Award. It also was a first-round finalist in the Chicken House Open Coop contest. She has been a guest author for National Library Week at her local library this year, and is a new volunteer with the Council for Wisconsin Writers. While now dedicated to her life as a neurotic, reclusive writer, Abigail spent most of her career in journalism. She has degrees in art and geography/geology. She loves her husband, Chihuahua, thrill-seeking cat as well as reading and running.

Thank you, Abigail, for accepting my offer of interrogation!

You have a book! A real book, one that even has an award! Perhaps more importantly, you have a children’s book that is both noir AND involves cats. How exactly did that come about?

Thanks for having me! Ah, a loaded question – my favorite! The simple answer is: I wanted to write to amuse myself, and my readers. I wanted it to be fun. As a child, I loved reading about animals (while surrounded by my cats, dogs, hamsters, rabbits and various wildlife rescues…). I also was known for sneaking peaks at my dad’s extensive Raymond Chandler novel collection. Some of my first grade school stories were, ironically (or maybe not), about cats who went on wild adventures. In The Great Cat Nap, I had envisioned a feline detective solving animal and human crimes alike. Yet, there wasn’t quite enough conflict. I decided to put my main character, Ace, in the hands of a newspaper editor. He’s then pulled into the detective world, quite a bit against his better judgment, but draws on his knowledge of playing reporter at the newspaper. I spent about 10 years reporting, so I had fun incorporating that aspect. There’s so much of reporting that’s like detective work – investigating, interviewing, putting all the pieces together, knocking on doors of people who yell at you…. Ace as this noir detective in a dark downtown full of seedy characters was the final product – and I found it fitting that a cat played this role. A cat can be so secretive, so sleek and smooth. Yet they rarely hesitate to take a risk or get their whiskers where they shouldn’t be.

It’s always so hard for me to stay focused when doing these interviews. So many cool ideas, so much interesting personal history.

What drew you to writing for children? I have children, and I wish I would write for them, but my mind insists on going elsewhere. It sounds as though you feel a clear connection with who you were as a child and where you go as a writer now. is that true?

I feel like childhood was/is such a pivotal time. I don’t know who I’d be today if I wasn’t such an avid reader and writer as a child. My parents really fostered my love of reading – they were both big readers, too. And when I handed them story after story after story, they always encouraged me to keep writing (even when I unearthed an ancient typewriter and banged away at the kitchen table so my stories would look more “professional”). I love the notion that my writing may do for a child – even one child – what books did for me at that age. Inspire me. They gave me another world. Childhood is such a time of open doors. There are so many that children can take, and reading is just one of them. I hope that my writing can foster a love of reading among children, because it’s truly a passion that stays with you for a lifetime.

What doors does writing open for you now? Once upon a time, back when I wasn’t writing, I assumed it was all about what happened once someone’s work was in the hands of readers. It wasn’t until I finished my first novel that I realized how much writing changed things for me and how I functioned in the world. It was like having lived in a ancient castle for my whole life, and never having explored anywhere but a few rooms. Writing made me start to look in all of them.

So, given the fact that we don’t start out with any promise of publication, I’m interested in what makes other writers write.

For me, writing and publication are two different things. I think as writers aspiring to be authors, we all start out the same: With nothing but a blank page, and a dream. For many years, I was writing but nothing book-length. I was a bit afraid to even try. I never thought I could do it, more less find my way to publication. At one point, I remember walking into my favorite indie bookstore, and I thought, if they made it, maybe I can, too. I sat down and wrote my first novel. And it was terrible. Poor Ace, his adventure was dreadful. I tried again. And again. I wrote middle grade. I wrote young adult. I knew my books may never get published. I felt, and still do, that if I spend every day of my life writing, and never again see publication, that’s not a bad way to live. Of course, I want to be published again, but that’s not wholly why I write. Like you so eloquently said, writing changes how you function in the world. It’s an entirely different world than what it was before. A writer notices things that were not there before. They eavesdrop. They make poor conversation. They take notes at inappropriate times during family functions. They daydream. They read books differently. I like who I am when I’m writing. I have never been so wholly myself as when I began devoting myself to writing – and there’s still a whole lot for me to discover.

Ah, yes, the poor conversations of writers. My best example of that involves asking my husband at an inopportune moment how long it would take for a body to decay in the woods. It was logically sound to me, but may have left him fearing for his life.

You clearly had the fiction bug from a very early age. How did working in journalism…hmm…relate? Did it satisfy that writing itch in some way, or was it too different? Do you draw from technique learned there in your current work? Tell the truth, are you better at deadlines than the rest of us?

Haha! Yes, I’ve been there. As well as my poor husband. He often just shakes his head at me and comments that I am clearly disturbed or a writer. I can hardly disagree.

It’s funny, when I went into journalism, I thought I’d love it for the writing. But reporting is so much beyond the writing. I was naïve. For a girl as shy as me, it was a real shock. But I liked the challenge of pushing myself. I had to talk to people I didn’t know, I had to show up at places I wouldn’t normally be in, and I had to get used to people not liking me or what I wrote about. (I covered a lot of crime and politics). I think I drove home crying a lot of my first year. It’s a tough thing to get over. Yet, I did. I think I’m better for it. It never really did satisfy that writing itch you mention – I had the chance to be creative, but at the same time, it wasn’t MY story. I was always writing someone else’s story. While fulfilling, it wasn’t what I was seeking, either. When I turned to writing books, it was difficult to break out of the mold of “…only (so many) words in (so many) inches!” In the newspaper world, it’s all about saying as much as you can, in as little space as you can. So broaching a fiction-length novel was intimidating and I found it hard not to edit everything down to a few pages. I will admit, I’m good at deadlines. I’m a bit of a control junkie, and if there’s something hanging over my head, I chase it!

I would think a solid background of covering crime and politics would be ideal training for readings and awards ceremonies. No matter what you do, people are bound to be nicer to you and it will all be a relief. As a fellow shy person, I have to tip my hat to you for being able to stick with it.

So, are there more cats in your future? What are you working on now? What would you work on, if you could work on absolutely anything? (Okay, that’s three things, not one, but they’re kind of related.)

I appreciate that. I had great co-workers, and I worked for great publishers. That helped.

I would like to write more about Ace, a sequel perhaps, and a prequel. Some of my young readers have asked me for a sequel, and I’m encouraged and humbled by that. Currently, I’m revising a young adult/new adult manuscript I wrote last summer. I’ve revised it many times, and I’m finally liking how it’s shaping up. I think. Don’t ask me tomorrow, I’m liable to hate it again by then. I’m not sure what I would write if I could write anything! I cross the line between middle grade to young adult and new adult and it feels like I never really have a say in it. But that’s okay. I tend to write what inspires me the most at the moment, though when I start a project, I always finish it before moving to the next. I know I love writing for children and young people – I hope to always write for these impressionable age sets!

Interested in learning more about The Great Cat Nap? Visit Abigail’s website for an excerpt and info on where to purchase.


The perfect day

The perfect day doesn’t start at dawn. Not even at breakfast. It’s only in our heads that time is regimented so.

No, the perfect day begins much later. You’ve already walked for an hour or so, and the sand has heated up along the water. The sun’s risen high enough that you can feel your skin crisping beneath it. You stopped to eat–peanut butter and jelly–and to drink water, all of you sharing water bottles, no one caring. The tide has turned, and it comes in a foot or so while you sit, the shore so flat that the water travels quickly.

This is the place that you found a alien one year. Probably not, but it looked like one–a leathery oval that pulsed when you set it in the saltwater. This is the place that your brother cut his foot open one year on an oyster shell, and where you come every year. This year, already on the walk, you’ve seen an osprey carrying a fish high above the water.

You finish lunch and continue on. You walk in the water with your daughter, while the others go on ahead. Last night you thought, over and over, like a chant, like a prayer, show me something tomorrow, let the magic be there. As the two of you talk about something else–the feel of the waves on your legs, maybe–you see a horseshoe crab moving with the water. The beach is littered with the shells of them; you’ve seen them every year. This one, though, this one you pause for, and realize it’s not moving with the water, it’s moving on it’s own.

You shout. This is what mothers do, the need to share becoming so constant that you do it even when alone, even with strangers who wonder why you must point out a train to them. You shout, and everyone turns, and you jump up and down in the waves and point, and they come running.

You lift the crab out of the water, because you want to feel it, and its legs scuttle against your fingertips, and it points its long tail straight up from its shell. It’s alive, you say, as if it’s not obvious, as if everything about it doesn’t scream life.

Then, suddenly, there are more. They are scurrying across the sand like carapaced bumper cars, hurrying along, between legs, over feet, up to the water’s edge and back out again. Here and there are mating pairs, the female half buried in sand, more like a rock than a crab.

First full moon in June, your husband says, and he’s right. You hadn’t thought of it, had spent the full moon inside your tent listening to the rain fall. The rain wouldn’t have bother these crabs, these prehistoric remnants intent on survival.

You swim. Not at first. You watch your children go in first, then your husband, and you stand in the water, which seemed so warm when it came to your ankles, and so much colder when it reaches your waist. Come in, they coax, come in. You explain how it is cold, and they promise it really isn’t, and another crab, not a horseshoe, no, one with claws, scrambles on your foot, and you jump in.

It isn’t warm. It’s okay, because you’re swimming, all four of you, and it’s just you and the crabs and a school of little fish, and a few kayakers far down the beach. The water is clear, straight down to the bottom, and it’s coming in fast, chasing after the clothes left on the beach.

When you’ve all finished, and gotten out of wet suits and into dry clothes, suddenly you’re hot again, as if you’d never swum, but it’s time to move on. More horseshoe crabs, some with tags from a research project, and you dutifully call them in in exchange for the promise of data about their lives.

Then you’re off the beach, for a bit, and into the marsh. No one else, just the four of you, and the tide now starting to go out, and everything smelling of salt and mud. You’re walking trails you’ve walked every year, only they are different, because the water changes everything, and you are different, all of you, because time changes you too. How many more times will you walk these trails before your kids move on? How much bigger the footprints they leave, some of them dwarfing your own.

The plovers are nesting on the other side. There are fences and signs with arrows, and you follow them out to another point, another familiar spot. Here, the seals pop up to stare at you, and you all take turns inventing their conversations, as mundane as your own. Look, another just popped up. What do you think they’re thinking. The gulls claim this point as well, and, buried amongst them, a pair of eiders, black and white also, but with their own distinct waddle.

The sun’s finally lower on the horizon, and it’s back through the sand and up among the pine trees, headed home. You stop to show your daughter the ant lions, their terrible jaws leaping up when you dislodge a few grains of sand. Back, back, along the edge where the tide fills an area that was mud when you first came out. Along fiddler crab holes, along the grasses the shorebirds hide within. To a bend in the trail where a diamondback terrapin mama stomps along, hissing as you approach. Her shell is notched and cracked, a battle-scarred veteran of roads and cars. No time to stop, she hisses, I must be on my way.

She is. You are. The tide, the sun, the moon and stars. All hurrying on their way. But for a moment, an afternoon, you believe there is no time, just the change and the not-change, and being alive.


Talking about writing–Raymond Thibeault

The best thing about interviews, I’m finding, is listening to the voices and stories of other writers. I’m so appreciative of everyone who volunteers for a stint.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Raymond Thibeault. Ray has an MA in Creative Writing from MSU. He’s had work published in Thema, the Mississippi Review, Rosebud, SIPS, and the PrePress Awards: An Anthology of Emerging Michigan Writers. Another story was a finalist for a University of Illinois Press anthology of Midwestern fiction. He’s also taught creative writing in MSU’s College of Life Long Learning and led a writing workshop for former students.

To begin, I’d like to talk about the fact that you didn’t start writing seriously until you were in your early forties. This mirrors my own experience with writing, give or take a few years, and it’s interesting to me because culturally we place such a premium on youth and being a prodigy. My experience was that I simply wasn’t ready to write earlier, at least not in the way I am now. What moved you to start when you did, and what strengths do you feel you have in place now that you might not have had when you were younger?

I think that, just as you said about yourself, I was not ready to write in my earlier years. I was busy with so many other things–marriage, graduate school, then a child, and later a divorce, from which my recovery was a long and bumpy road. What finally got me going had a lot to do with my English teacher’s response to the metaphors (“almost professional”) that I wrote in high school. That bit of encouragement was always roaming around in the back of my mind–and it was ultimately the long-glowing spark that set me to writing. Once my first short story was published, I remember trying to contact him and pass on my thanks–only to learn that he had died at a fairly young age. That news saddened me a great deal, because of his too short life, of course, but also because I wanted him to tell him how much his one, supportive comment some twenty-five years earlier had meant to me.

As for what strengths I have now that I didn’t have earlier, I suppose it’s mostly a more finely tuned ability to reflect on my experiences, as well as those of others, and to see, not just their immediate impact, but their longtime significance.

You’ve been on the teaching end of creative writing as well. How was that experience? Did it affect aspects of your work, and did being a writer shape your approach to teaching?

Being a writer made me want to provide my students with the basic skills of successful writing–use of the active voice, strong verbs, the rule of three, etc. because I know how important those skills are. Many of them wanted class to be just a workshop, where they would have their writing critiqued. The problem with that approach in an introductory class is that it ends up with the uninformed critiquing the uninformed. So I used tons of handouts and assigned short writing tasks based on those handouts–with class critiquing limited to the skill the writer was trying to develop in that particular assignment. I did, however, also ask them to be working on a short story, in which they would try to incorporate all the skills they were learning as the course progressed. We then work-shopped these stories during the last two weeks of class. I also make it clear to them that, once they had acquired the basic toolbox of writers skills, they could then experiment with breaking those rules, and I would quote Faulkner (I think he was the one) who said there is only one rule in writing, which is that there are no rules. But that is only after you have mastered them, I would always add.

Teaching the course helped me improve my own writers’ toolbox. The old saying that “The best way to learn something is to have to teach it” is very accurate.

It’s easy to find opinions about writing; it’s more rare to find reasoning behind why a piece of writing did or did not achieve its purpose. I think the basic toolbox you mention aids writers not only in their writing, but in being able to synthesize criticism, to separate that which is useful and that which is destructive, something crucial for anyone looking to share their work publicly.

How has the experience of publishing short stories been for you? I admit to always approaching the release of a new story with a touch more terror than glee. It fascinates me that writing is such a solitary pursuit, but that the outcome is one we’re so often driven to offer to the world. I’m always curious how other writers respond to act of publication.

When I began sending out my short stories, I was both eager and anxious to hear back–then, of course, disappointed when the answer was no, which was most often the case. These rejections were especially hard to take at the beginning because the first short story I sent out was actually accepted by Thema (the story had to be about a train wreck involving a circus). Unfortunately, this made me think getting published was quite easy–but the next one hundred rejections (I exaggerate, of course) produced only “Thanks, but no thanks” responses, disabusing me of that assumption. Just as use dulls the edge of an axe, rejections dulls the edge of expectation, so now my response to rejections is quite ho-hum. Sometimes I don’t even remember that I had submitted a story to such-and-such a magazine until I check my submissions list. It’s still a disappointment, but one that is fleetingly, as opposed to my three-month depressions. (Again, I exaggerate, but it was much harder to swallow back at the beginning.)

Yes, the act of writing is solitary, and, yes, we writers are driven to share. That’s why I don’t believe writers who say, “Oh, I really don’t care if my work gets published. I just write for my own pleasure.” I agree that writing is pleasurable, though hard, work, but if that statement were entirely true, why would such a writer submit? We all, I think, do want to share by having our work published. But, your question is, what is behind that desire to share. I think there is a Mulligan’s stew of answers: 1) ego gratification (Look what I did!) 2) having a sense of completion (a story, poem, essay, novel seems to me to need publication to be complete, begs to have as many readers as possible 3) a sense of accomplishment, which is first cousin to numbers one and two 4) the desire to connect with other human beings by moving them to feel something: sadness, empathy, joy, fear, longing–or simply entertained, nothing wrong with a beach read. 5) the hope that reading our words will somehow make someone else’s life a little easier, enjoyable, or better understood.

I think that with the first novel I wrote–I had quit all writing from when I was in my early twenties until just shy of forty–I really did believe that the act of writing was the only important thing. I had no intention of sharing it, told almost no one I was writing it, and I changed my mind mainly because of one very persistent friend. That experience, the intensity of connecting with someone over a story that I’d woven so much of myself into, changed everything. As you said, sharing becomes the final, necessary step.

At one point you mentioned to me that you spent a lot of time alone as a child, time you filled with exploring and with reading. I, too, spent a lot of time alone, and there’s a thread that runs through my life, from my childhood to now, that is storytelling. Not written, necessarily, but the sorts of stories children tell themselves. I’m curious whether you feel something of the same. Just as publication may be the completion of writing, perhaps writing is sometimes the completion of daydreaming as a child.

As for the connection between childhood solitary wandering and daydreaming and adult writing, you raise an interesting point. I never thought of that before, but, upon reflection, I think that’s true–at least for me and, as you said, for you.

Being by oneself a lot as a child results in the need to create friends inside your head, to create events, in general to live inside oneself much more than would a child who is most often surrounded by siblings or neighborhood friends. It’s a life that, by necessity, is more a life of imagining. So, in a way, solitary children are “interior writers.” Their stories just aren’t written on paper. But what training! Even today, I often find myself living inside my head, explaining something to someone, creating a scene for something I wish would happen, or wondering what life in winter is like for Paul, a possum who lives and hibernates (I guess) under our deck.

Exactly–”interior writers” is a perfect description. My shift from not writing to writing was as simple as realizing that the stories I told myself when I was alone could be transferred to paper (or pixel), as long as I could find the time and stamina.

I sometimes think that there is just one true story that I’m trying to write, and everything I do, every single story I complete, is practice toward that end. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a Kurt Vonnegut quote regarding the writing of Slaughterhouse Five. It’s rather lengthy, but I’m going to stick it in here nonetheless:

“I felt after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn’t have to write at all anymore if I didn’t want to. It was the end of some sort of career. I don’t know why, exactly. I suppose that flowers, when they’re through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served…At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, I had the feeling that I had produced this blossom. So I had a shutting-off feeling, you know, that I had done what I was supposed to do and everything was OK. And that was the end of it. I could figure out my missions for myself after that.”

Do you have that sense, in your own writing, of something you’re trying to reach? Not good reviews, or bestseller status, or any of those external trappings of success. Instead, I’m thinking of that daydreaming child, of the arc begun early in life and translated by the adult mind. What elements would be part of your Vonnegut-esque bloom, be it genre, or theme, or setting, or any other aspect?

I think for me the bloom is in the ending. If I have a sense that the ending is just right, then the flower of the writing is in full bloom, and I enjoy the sense of a satisfying completion. Why? Maybe it’s because so many things I experienced while growing up did not have satisfying endings–or an ending at all.

Certainly, my brother’s death was not a “rose in full bloom” kind of ending. Nor my mother’s death from cancer when I was thirteen (I don’t think I mentioned this before.) My father chose not to tell me–and warned others not to–that she was dying, thinking, of course, that it was best for me to keep thinking she would get better (which I did) and not to be constantly upset during the course of her illness. So that ending was quite a shock. To keep the flower analogy, it was as if the rose of that experience was clipped without having had the chance to follow nature’s course, namely, allowing me to deal with my mother’s terminal illness as it wound its way toward her demise.

As well, there were just so many other things not talked about–career choices, books read, friendships, my brother’s alcoholism. Such a non-verbal environment does not make for a good garden, meaning many important events were not fertilized or watered so that they could come to their natural ending, whatever than might be–understanding, resignation, hope.

So maybe that’s why it’s so important for me to have a sense of completion with my short story and novel endings. Unlike Vonnegut, however, I quickly want to start something new and bring that to the right, for me, ending. Maybe it’s as the old Quaker (or Shaker?) hymn would have it–the one about turning, turning, and turning so that things will “come out right.” If I keep writing, writing, writing, things (life) will come our right.


A few truths

There are times I get very quiet here, and it’s because I’m busy, or uninspired, or not home. After all, if the only thing I have to say bores me, then I really have no desire to inflict it on you. Today I drove to buy groceries. Today I took a child for a physical. Today… You get the picture.

Sometimes, though, I don’t write because this is an odd space. The seductive thing about writing a blog post is that it can feel as though you are writing to yourself, or to a specific loved one. The truth is that a blog like this is open. It is a newspaper on a library shelf, one for the obscure country of Jenniferland, read by a few natives living elsewhere, and others–the curious, those interested in foreign policy, those dreaming of trips they’ll never take.

The question becomes, who do the editors of the Jenniferland Gazette seek to reach. To appeal to a potential tourist, one glosses over the matters of poverty, and hunger, and distress. One writes about sunny beaches and elusive birds and shrimp-mango surprise.

The trouble is, I’m really not that kind of writer. The act of writing begs honesty for me. Crossroads has been an exhausting book to work on because it wants to sit at that intersection of magic and reality, where deals sealed with a kiss can steal a voice, and ghosts can pilot a bus, but that magic walks alongside the fact that there are people–men, women, families, children on their own–living without homes in this country. Many of them. It’s hard to write a story and know how much you want to get it right, and also know you won’t. Not all of it.

That’s something of an aside. I came here to say that I haven’t been writing because writing has been hard because I don’t have those warm sunny travelogues to share at the moment.

A few truths. I’ve been waiting, a lot. I waited to see a specialist, and then I waited to get a biopsy, and now I’m waiting to hear that my thyroid doesn’t want to kill me. It’s highly unlikely that it does, but until I hear, I’m waiting. For now, I’ve traded my visible lump for a few tiny holes, the sort of thing a feeble vampire toddler might leave.

My aunt died. This was not unexpected. She had a terrible disease, and it took everything from her. She was warm and funny and loved to talk, and to sing, and to eat, and she stayed that way, even though she’d lost a husband young, even though she lost a daughter. Those things about her were eaten up by her disease, cruelly, because even though diseases have no intent of their own, their actions can feel as cruel, crueler sometimes, than the things humans choose to do.

I had not spent much time with her in years. But…there’s always a but, and in this case, it’s a selfish one, she was part of my childhood, as were my grandparents, with whom she lived, and her daughter. They are all gone now. One headstone, four names, and I miss them all. I miss the dairy my grandfather owned when I was a child, I miss the cows, with their big eyes and long tongues and curiosity, I miss my cousin’s dog, Daisy, and walking her, and I miss being young and having a place that felt as though magic sat everywhere. That was the way my grandfather’s farm felt to me.

It’s all vanished from my life. There are memories that are mine alone now–a wood duck perched in a tree, a flat slab of rock warmed in the sun–mine and the land’s, because I do believe there are echoes of everything–footsteps, water, sun, shadow–held by the earth.

Things happen, and while they do, the rest of life doesn’t pause. There are points in parenting when things continue relatively unchanged, and there are others when you cannot catch your breath, when it feels your children are growing into themselves so quickly, so…there really are not words to describe the combination of grace and awkwardness and need and capability, or to explain what it does to your heart to watch. And that growth can be happening in the midst of grief and fear and all the things life passes along.

Enough truth?

I’ll try to write more often. I have a backlog of wonderful interviews with very patient people to post, so you’ll being seeing those as well.

Peace.


Talking about writing–S.S.Evans

Ta da! Another interview! It’s almost like I’m organized or something.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing S.S. Evans, an author, nerd, foodie, and country girl trapped in Washington, DC. She can often be found hanging out longingly at the dog park without a pet. When not writing fiction, she is a producer for an international news network and dabbles in the occasional freelance article. She spent two years working in Agriculture for Peace Corps Ecuador and came out of it with great stories and physical scars. She has a BA in Writing and Spanish from the University of Pittsburgh.

Thanks, Sarah, for volunteering your brain to science…er, for showing up for an interview!

You started out writing fanfiction. I didn’t, but reading it was one of the things that started me writing again. I’m not even sure I can articulate what it sparked, other than a sense of…liberation, maybe. A thrill from the energy of the writers there?

In any case, I just got Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, out of the library, and I read the acknowledgments first, as I usually do, and she says this: “Also: I decided to write this book after reading a lot (I mean, a lot) of fanfiction. Reading fic was a transformative experience for me–it changed the way I think about writing and
storytelling, and helped me more deeply understand my own intense relationships with fictional words and characters.”

So, tell me, what has fanfiction done for you as a writer? Technique, content, anything that feels of importance to you–I want to hear it all.

I love talking about fanfiction. I consider it the best tool for an aspiring writer, for multiple reasons. First, you get a reader base. That is a huge plus for a first time writer, knowing that hundreds of people from around the world are reading your words. You get reviews, and followers – there is nothing like the jump you feel getting a new review in your inbox. You have a community of people cheering you on, reading every chapter, giving advice. It makes you want to write more, it makes you feel connected in a way that writing solo doesn’t. Plus, the readers are strangers – I know personally I’m fine with strangers reading my writing but I cringe when a friend wants to read it. There’s no inherent judgement because all those people don’t know you, your face or past or personality. All they know are the words you write. It’s freeing.

And if you’re reading fanfiction – leave reviews. Some authors will respond and get to know you and you can start a dialogue. Same with when you receive reviews – write back, thank them, let them know you care. You can foster a real community and make friends and personally connect with people who are passionate about your writing. It might even help you find a great beta reader.

And that leads to a tip: Get a beta reader. You can find them on all fanfiction websites (Fanfiction.net, Archive of Our Own, etc). It’s someone who, for free, will edit your stories. Pick someone whose writing you admire, if you can, and who is part of the fandom you’re writing for. And listen to them. It’s hugely helpful to have that gentle voice critiquing your spelling and prose and even plot, especially if you’re just starting out.

Also: Write a lot, then update slowly, maybe about once every week or two. Leave people wanting more!

But here’s why it’s really helpful: Practice. So many hours of writing practice. You already have a world and characters set up for you. Want to see something happen in the show that didn’t? Want to add a new character into the mix and see how that changes existing dynamics? Want characters to hook up? Want to write them all in high school? Write it! Have fun! Go crazy! But whether they’re all now gay/werewolves/teens/gay werewolf teens, focus on still making it feel like the show/movie/book you love.

Focus on the cadence of the characters’ speech and make sure your writing reflects it. Make it match – how they move, how they express themselves. Is the character gruff? Don’t make them too effusive. Is the character relationship-adverse? Don’t make them fall in love immediately and become super lovey-dovey. Work within the framework to make something new. I’m not often a slash fan, but some of the best fic I ever read was slash that took the time to make me believe that these two seemingly straight characters would fall in love. It felt real, and it worked.

Also, pet peeve time, if you want a write a story where you want the villain to win and the good guy to lose, don’t make the canonically good guy a mustache-twirling, drunken rapist villain and the bad guy a misunderstood passionate lover. Just don’t. You can make it work while still keeping their basic personalities intact. I promise. (I’m looking at you, Phantom of the Opera fandom).

At the end of the day it’s just practice, practice, practice. The world is already set up for you. The characters are already fully fleshed out. All you have to do is play with them, so by the time you’re ready to write your own story, you’ll have pesky things like voice, dialogue, movement, and story structure all figured out.

Another thing that interests me is authorial reaction to fanfiction. To me, one of the fundamental lessons of writing for publication is that your world, your characters, cease to be yours, at least in the way they are when you hide away and write for yourself. My assumption is that choosing to write as a fan in someone else’s world is an expression of love for someone’s creation. Do you think that’s true? What drew you to the worlds you wrote (write?) in?

It drives me crazy when authors don’t like fanfiction, or even worse when they won’t allow it. I loved The Dragonriders of Pern growing up but I never liked that Anne McCaffrey had problems with people writing fanfiction. Fanfiction is a labor of love, and fandom fosters interest in your world and characters that would otherwise dull with time. When people can write and talk about their fandom, they buy more books, they make cosplay and attend conventions, they want products and signatures and photos – they’re making you money! They are putting money directly into your pocket and you deny that because of some idea of purity of story.

Here’s the thing: Once you put your story out into the world, it ceases to be yours. It will never be yours again. Every single person who reads it will take something different away, and it won’t be what you intended. Authors who go on record saying people are interpreting their books wrong don’t get it. What the author meant to say doesn’t matter all. It’s all in the interpretation, and you can’t tell someone they’re doing it wrong.

So let people play! Why wouldn’t you get joy out of seeing people love your work? My greatest dream would be to have a panel at a con and see people dressed as my characters. There is so much love out there and people are bursting to share it. It’s the best thing about the internet.

A good example is Supernatural, a show I’ve written copious amounts of fanfiction for: It should have ended years ago. It’s pretty much dead on its feet now (sorry, SPN fans, you know it’s true). It was just a little show about two dudes in an old car fighting monsters with often-cheesy dialogue, but the fandom took hold of it and now it won’t die. It’s been on ten years! Fans will not let it go and they’re so, so passionate that the show keeps getting renewed. Those actors and writers are kind and interact and cater to their fans, and it puts money in their pockets.

I write fanfiction for different reasons. I wrote Supernatural fanfiction because I wanted to add a female into a completely male cast and play with how that would affect the world, and also because I wanted to try my hand at writing dialogue in very specific character voices, a realistic relationship, action, and end-of-the-world stakes. I wrote my biggest Phantom of the Opera fic because I wanted to write something gritty and dark and awful to counteract all the “abduction is love” fanfics that dominate the fandom. I wrote a quick Thor fanfic because I felt that his time on earth was too short to make any sort of realistic difference to his personality, so I juxtaposed a long period of time with a very short story. I got something different out of each of my fics, but they all helped to make me a better writer.

Ah, too many things to talk about and too little time! That’s the trouble with these interviews–I want the chance to discuss much more than time allows.

So, what was the point at which you decided that you wanted to work on your own world and characters? Was the story something you’d carried with you for a while, or something completely new?

I started writing fanfic when I was 14, a long time ago. I’d been writing short little stories of my own since I was a kid, but my first real attempt at a book came when I was about 19 or so. That book was inspired by a dream. It never saw the light of day, but it’s dear to my heart and gave me the gumption and the knowledge that I could write a whole book and actually finish it. During and after that I wrote a lot of fanfiction, especially when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and had little to do. It helped me shape some ideas and improve my writing so I could start on something real.

My latest book, Left of West (represented by the wonderful Alice Speilburg of Speilburg Literary), came out of that time period. I’d actually played with ideas before I left for Peace Corps – it was a very different book then, fantasy but very political. Over about two years things shifted in my mind and I dropped the politics and settled into urban fantasy. I always wanted to write a story with group dynamics, something I wasn’t good at – fanfiction helped with that. Writing a team of already existing characters in fandom allowed me to figure out how to write my own group of disparate people thrown together. I also figured out, after I wrote pure escapist fanfiction with a smartass, asskicking heroine, that that wasn’t what I wanted to convey in my books. I didn’t want my books to be straight wish fulfillment.

I wanted to write something that usually wasn’t seen – I didn’t want to follow the status quo. I knew from the beginning that I wanted characters that were not idealized – no sexy, asskicking heroine, no super hot mysterious dude, no love triangle. That shaped a lot of my ideas. I wanted a weak, average heroine who felt real, who makes terrible mistakes, and who could really grow and change without romance, so she could focus on her own wants and needs. I wanted the mysterious dude to be flawed, often wrong, and an asshole. The person would have been the third wheel in the love triangle, the upbeat best friend boy, is still an upbeat best friend – but the frivolity is a mask and he’s struggling with his own inner cowardice. The adorable child character is a rotting corpse. Another main character is a sickly doppelganger of the heroine. The final battle is less about fighting external enemies and more about defeating that terrible voice in your head that tells you’re worthless.

It’s everything I practiced – gritty writing, fleshed out characters, group interaction, worldbuilding, everything. It came together into a book that I’m really proud of, and I don’t think I could have done any of it without fanfiction.

I understand the desire to leave the ass-kicking heroine trope behind for something more real. There’s a different alphabet of understanding used when we write characters who stumble and struggle, who aren’t irresistible to everyone they meet and who lack the perfect comeback to every line they hear.

It sounds as though you had a sense of what you wanted from your characters from the beginning. Is that true, or was it a messier process to reach that point? I ask that because I tend to overwrite, to document all those steps that get my main character from point A to point B before I reach a point where I understand them and am ready to pare the excess away.

I had a sense of what I wanted from the characters at the beginning but like everything they evolved. Actually, originally June, my main character, was going to be a lot darker, to the point where I worried she would be hard to empathize with. Smoothing out her character also forced a slight change of motivation and personality. My biggest desire for her was to be unwanted and unable to see her own strength – ignored, alone, unloved, unattractive, often how people feel as a teenager or at any age. It’s why I didn’t want romance in the story, because it’s her story, how she comes to be (and feel) strong and brave and worth something, internally. To triumph over self hate.

The other characters went through their own changes as well, especially that of Chess, the super smart mad scientist nerd extraordinaire. He’s every smart nerd that is just dying for the zombie apocalypse. He thrives on a sense of purpose. But as I wrote him, this culmination of every dorky dude I know and love, I found an unexpected thread of cowardice in him. He’s trying so hard to be brave and live up to his dreams, but inside is the kid who played D&D and got beat up by football players, his own inner anxieties he wants to suppress, and his own prejudices he has to come to terms with. And so much of his journey became shaking off that show of bravado to become actually brave.

It’s amazing how much changes when you start to write and characters take on their own personalities – the realer they feel, the more the plot has to shape itself around them, and not vice versa.

There is something incredible about the moment characters step off the page and start dictating their own actions. It’s possibly my favorite part of writing.

Which brings me to my last question: what do you enjoy about writing? What is the thing that makes you get up and continue writing, despite the low points of it, or of work, or of life? Why write?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember – don’t all writers say that? I taught myself to read at a very young age, and my first “book” was written when I was about six, rose-bordered pages stapled together into a soap-opera story of love, where everyone ended up dead at the end.

Writing keeps me grounded. I’m very caught up in my head, always daydreaming, and when I don’t write all of those thoughts get stuck there. It gets to the point where it’s difficult to pay attention, to interact with people and enjoy my daily life, if I can’t get those thoughts on the page and out of my head. Once I write it down, I can enjoy my life in the moment.

Writing is never a low point for me. I don’t love editing, and the process to get published sucks, but the writing part is always magical. I totally tune out the world, crank up my inner TV, and transcribe what I see playing in front of my eyes. I walk around and enact the scenes out loud, speaking for different characters, to figure out how their dialogue should flow. I’ve written death scenes and sobbed while writing. It’s the closest to magic that I can get. There is this overwhelming joy to putting words on the page and seeing these people that live in my head jump out and become tangible.

It’s awful thinking that your book will never see the light of day. It’s painful to keep editing something that might end up stashed in a drawer. It can feel pointless. You have to really love the act of writing, not just the finished product, to be able to keep going despite all the disappointment.


Thoughts while washing the floor

A brief thought on this lovely sunny day. I am grateful, endlessly so, to the writers who have poured themselves into the stories I have loved. Those who helped me understand what mattered to me, whose characters remind me to be braver than I think I am, or kinder, or truer. Those who have showed me something unexpected about the world, or who have shown me that I’m not alone in what I think or feel or experience, or made me happy for the time I was lost in their world. Those who make me think I’ve set my own writing bar way too low and challenge me to be more as a writer.

Writers, please write. I’m counting on you.


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