Welcome to my guest Kate Brandes, author of THE PROMISE OF PIERSON ORCHARD

 

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Kate goddessBrandes lives in the small river town of Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two sons.  She’s worked as a geologist and environmental scientist for twenty years.  Currently, she’s focused on improving local ecology using native plants in small public and residential gardens. Kate is also a fiction writer and artist and has recently published her debut novel The Promise of Pierson Orchard. Kate is visiting my blog today as part of an extended blog tour. If you’re interested in following Kate, you can find dates of future stops here: http://goddessfishpromotions.blogspot.com/2017/02/vbt-promise-of-pierson-orchard-by-kate.html

Kate has taken time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions about writing and the writing life:

Who are your literary influences or inspiration?

I tend to prefer spare writing and I love stories about small towns. I also like nature themes. Kent Haruf, Richard Russo and Barbara Kingsolver are all writers I admire and hope to learn from by reading their work.

Why do you write?

I write primarily as a way to figure things out. Whenever I’ve been faced with a problem, I’ve journaled all my life. So writing is a way for me to naturally sort through things. Writing fiction has proved to be very interesting in that regard. With journaling, I know what I’m wrestling with—it’s a conscious effort to resolve a problem. But with fiction, it’s a more subconscious process. My conscious intention is to tell a story that seems completely independent of any anything personal, but I was surprised to find after years of writing my first novel that I was also trying to work things out in the story subconsciously.

As a result of publishing your book, what have you learned about yourself and/or the writing process?

Writing is a great big spiraling process, at least for me. I start out with one thing and after more drafts than I can count, I get to the final version, but only by wrapping back to the beginning and traveling to the end many, many times over. goddess 2

Tell an anecdote about an interaction between you and one of your more articulate fans.

I’ve spent my career, not as a writer, but as an environmental scientist. Sometime in my mid-thirties I decided to try writing fiction. I’ve always loved reading and felt I had stories I wanted to tell, but I had a lot to learn. I wrote my first short story and had it published in a tiny literary journal. The whole process took two years. I have a friend from high school that I haven’t seen since in more than twenty years who read that first story and wrote me and said she wanted to read more. I wrote her back and mentioned that I was thinking about writing a novel, but it would probably take a long time since I didn’t know what I was doing. She said she couldn’t wait to read it when it was finished. Another seven years went by as I wrote that novel and then went through the process of getting it published. My friend kept cheering me along the whole time, believing in me for whatever reason. And that really meant a lot to me. Her enthusiasm and belief in my abilities surpassed my own for a long time. I’m truly grateful to her.

At what moment did you decide you were a writer?

It took a long time. Probably longer than it should have. I think because I’ve had this long-held identity as an environmental scientist, it was hard for me to start calling myself a writer too. It really wasn’t until I signed a publishing contract a year ago that I started to believe that I could call myself a writer.

What does your writing space look like? Like do you have a crazy mess of a desk full of notes and post-its? Or is it a quaint chair at a coffee shop?

My writing space serves multiple roles. It functions as my office for my environmental science work, my writing space, and also an art space (I like to dabble in painting and textile arts). It’s a relatively small room so I keep it pretty organized, so I can function. I love lists and have many post its.

What’s the hardest part of writing or publishing?

Learning to tell a story. Many people can write beautiful sentences, but learning to tell a story as a novel is an art form unto itself.

Who is your favorite character from your book(s)?

I’m drawn to my protagonist, Jack Pierson. He’s a broken person who has to face his greatest fears in order to find love and happiness.

Do you neglect personal hygiene or housekeeping to write? Or vice versa?

Um…yes. Life is very full. So priorities are a must. The time I have for writing is much less than I would like. So sometimes I do put off a shower or the dishes until after I have words on the page.

What writing mistakes do you find yourself making most often?

I use passive language too much in my first drafts. I’m forever editing that out.

If a movie was made of your book, who would the stars be?

This is a fun question!
Jack – Patrick Dempsey, Wade – James Norton, LeeAnn – Angelina Jolie, and Stella – Meryl Streep

No, Virginia, There Is No Santa Claus

Before I committed myself to writing and became part of that world, I had no idea what was involved in constructing a novel. I assumed the narrative flowed easily from the writer’s pen to paper (and in those days, a lot of writing was done with a pen or pencil, though typewriters also were used). The finished product looked so pristine that I couldn’t imagine it ever being anything but perfect. Not only did narratives read as if they had come fully formed from Zeus himself, but they also were error free.

Ha Ha Ha!

Now that I have another novel almost ready to find its place on bookshelves everywhere, I have a more realistic picture of what’s involved, and it’s a great illustration of publishing sleight of hand. What appears easy to a reader is anything but for the writer and her editors.

santa-31665_1280If you are the kind of person who continued believing in Santa Claus after your parents said he didn’t exist, you may not want to read on. I hate to disillusion anyone! But the only thing magical about creating fiction is what takes place between pen and paper—the imagination. Without it, our work would languish. Otherwise, the process is messy and, largely, trial and error.

For Curva Peligrosa, my novel that will be published this summer, I spent many years learning about my characters as they revealed themselves to me and discovering their stories. I’m not the kind of writer who outlines a plot in advance and then proceeds to write. Some can do this successfully, and maybe it’s not as chaotic. I can’t. I like surprises as a reader and as a writer. Planning in advance would eliminate much of the fun for me of inventing the novel’s world.

Once I discovered Curva’s center of gravity, I was able to get close enough to its finished form that I could ask fellow writers to read and comment on its chapters, giving me a sense of what was working and what wasn’t. When I felt I had a complete draft, I asked a trusted published colleague to critique it. Her feedback started me off on numerous rounds of revisions (we’re talking about over 300 double-spaced pages!) that included two professional editors I hired before I submitted the manuscript to Regal House Publishing and the publisher sent me a contract.

But that was only the beginning of several more rounds of content revising and close line editing. I’ve recently gone through yet another proofreading of the text, and I’ll need to go through it again after my publisher has also reviewed the manuscript.

I don’t mean to discourage any beginning writers, but you should have a realistic picture of what’s involved in giving birth to a novel, especially if you have literary ambitions and aren’t just writing pot-boilers. No, Virginia, there isn’t a Santa Claus, but writing a well-constructed novel can be even better.

The Art of Book Reviewing

As an author, I eagerly await each new review of my novel Fling!, even ones that are less enthusiastic. Today I received my 42nd review of Fling! and I love how the reader framed her observations. She not only briefly summarized what happens in the novel, but she also explained why the narrative is important. In other words, she looked at the work both on its entertainment level as well as exploring what’s happening under the surface, showing the book’s depth as well, a valuable perspective not just for prospective readers but also for me the author.

books copyMost writers will admit that they are learning all the time from their readers, who actually are co-authors of any work. It takes an attentive reader’s perspective to help us to see more clearly the various levels in our fictions. While I know that family relationships are a central component of Fling!, my latest reviewer helped me to see another aspect to these associations. She said, “…the part of the novel that has stuck with me most is its message about the endurance of family relationships. Are we ever really alone?”

It’s a great question, and an important one. It didn’t propel me when I first started writing about Feather, Bubbles, and their family. But as I delved deeper into these connections, I learned how complex our ties are to current and previous generations. We are constantly being visited, either in dreams or in memory, by mothers, fathers, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc. And these contacts aren’t just happening in a vacuum. To answer my reviewers question “are we ever really alone?” I would have to say no. We’re surrounded by family, whether we acknowledge it or not, in so many ways, including gestures, habits, thoughts. My husband regularly tells me that I look just like my mother or sister when I say certain things.

So thanks to all of those readers out there who help us writers to understand what we’re attempting in our narratives. There really is an art to reviewing, and that’s to enter fully into these stories and show the impact they are having on you. And that’s one reason why your reviews on Amazon, Goodreads, and other sites have so much value. Each is another window into our work.

 

 

Uncoding the Self

When I was 13, I began keeping a diary. But since I feared someone might read it, I invented a coded language to record whatever I needed to write about at that time. I don’t know what happened to the diary. But I like to think that whoever found it thought s/he had stumbled on a relic from a space ship or another country because of the unfamiliar words.

journalThe impulse to send myself messages took hold of me again in my early twenties. Thus began a life-long practice of carrying on this conversation in multiple forms. Each morning, the first thing I do after I get up is record my dreams. At different points during the day, I’ll jot down comments about whatever is happening in my world. I also use this form to explore ideas or work out inner tensions. I would be lost without this method of being in touch with myself.

But for writers, keeping a journal has ramifications beyond self-understanding. In order to write insightfully about characters we’re developing, we need some self-knowledge. Otherwise, it’s difficult to imagine our way into another psyche. Since I’ve been practicing this way of deepening my insights into myself for so long, it’s much easier for me to tease out whatever dynamics might be impacting a character.

I’m thinking of 57 year-old Feather, one of the major characters in my novel Fling! She’s a visual artist (sculptor mainly) and leftover hippie from the ‘60s who travels to Mexico with her 90 year-old mother Bubbles. Both are as different as night from day (pardon the cliché). And both also are very unlike me, their creator. But I still managed to imbue them with the essential qualities that make them stand out as individuals.

Dream content is another way journaling shapes me as a writer. Almost every morning, I have at least one—and often more—narratives to record. Dreams usually unfold as a story does, building towards a climax as well as a resolution. Therefore, I am constantly tuned into the creative source in myself that likes to tell stories. Recording my dreams also puts me in touch with the great maker of dreams (whomever s/he may be!), a rich source of material for us all.

Promoting Literacy in Dangerous Times

Writing is such a major part of my life that I rarely ask myself why I do it. I write because it’s as necessary to me as eating or sleeping. But I also write for other reasons. The very act of writing forces me to examine what I’m thinking about people and events, and it causes me to read with greater attention to language’s many nuances, from the way metaphor expands our vision and creates relationships between unlike things to the connotations certain words and phrases have. In other words, it causes me to more closely pay attention to the written word.

letters-67046_1920With a new president who can’t seem to create a coherent sentence or thought, promoting literacy seems more important than ever. The ability to read and write is essential to a healthy democratic society. If we can’t research the various problems we face today, looking at them from multiple angles with the help of dedicated investigative journalists, then we are living in a vacuum, a non-life. We also are easily fooled by slogans and superficial thinking—fake news.

When I taught freshmen composition, during the first class, I said that Rhetoric would be the most important class they took that semester. Most didn’t believe me. I always asked how many would have signed up for the class if it weren’t a requirement. Sometimes one or two held up their hand. Sometimes no one did. But by the end of the semester, nearly all agreed that their critical thinking skills had deepened. They also were more adept at reading for nuance—for subtext. For discerning what was being conveyed between the lines. Equally important was their perception that they could express themselves more clearly, thereby actually communicating. We can’t convey our thoughts and feelings if we’re unable to write coherent sentences!

Every day I’m grateful for those writers who devote their lives to this craft. Reading allows me to enter others’ reality and simultaneously enlarge my own. I recently wrote a blog post about Per Pettersen’s novel I Refuse. While reading the book, I felt what it was like to be a working class Norwegian man. I inhabited his psyche and experienced the bareness of his words. He didn’t say much, but what he did say resonated, having an impact on others and on me.

I feel privileged to be part of this endeavor to create other worlds from my experiences and my imagination, and I appreciate those who join me on this journey. Reading, deeply and widely—not just twitter posts or Facebook messages—expands our knowledge of the universe and of ourselves.

 

 

 

 

Per Petterson, the writer’s writer

I’ve gone bonkers over Per Petterson’s writing. Born in Norway in 1952, Petterson was a librarian and a bookseller before he published his first work in 1987, a volume of short stories. His third novel, Out Stealing Horses, became an international best seller. Since then, he has published three other novels, which have established his reputation as one of Norway’s best fiction writers.

Document38 copyI’ve now read all of his books, and, as a writer, I’ve learned a great deal from him about technique, especially point of view and his use of time. I Refuse, Pettersen’s most recent novel, captures the main characters’ lifetime in a compressed space.

September 2006 reunites Tommy and Jim, devoted friends in their youth, after they’ve been separated for 35 years. Fragments from their earlier time together, threaded together by a master weaver, are woven into the 2006 “present” narrative, the books anchor. Petterson slips effortlessly backward and forward in time, adding layers to these characters’ lives, even though his language often is as spare as the Norwegian landscape. He also doesn’t feel enslaved by first or third person point of view but enters each as easily as he moves in time.

While I Refuse evokes Tommy and Jim’s inner and outer lives, limning not only how different these men are but also how their pasts made it inevitable that they would meet again under vastly different circumstances, it also captures their dysfunctional childhood. The present dilemma each man faces seems an inevitable outcome of those early years and their particular destiny. It’s as if they were goldfish is placed in too small of a fishbowl and therefore can only grow within that circumference. Their past determines their present.

Petterson’s spare but poetic prose never fails to draw me in. His ability to gracefully evoke character and setting is so accomplished that, without realizing it, I enter the world he creates and feel I have always lived there.

 

 

Robbie Robertson’s TESTIMONY portrays behind-the-scenes musicians’ lives on or off the road

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We sometimes forget that music plays an essential part in our lives. We listen to CDs or stream songs, often unaware of what goes into producing these tracks that give us such pleasure. For those of us who came of age during the rock and roll era, and for others who are interested in its music, Robbie Robertson’s Testimony takes the reader inside that world, showing its highs and lows.

In the late ‘50s, I moved from Calgary to Toronto for a couple of years with three girlfriends. Elvis was already on the scene, and we quickly got swept up in the rock scene that was invading the planet. At the Le Coq D’or, a popular lounge on Yonge Street, we discovered Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks. Ronnie and his drummer Levon Helm were originally from Fayetteville, Arkansas, but they had discovered a receptive audience in Canada as well as talented musicians. Robbie Robertson was one of them.

I sometimes hung out with the group after hours. Robbie was just fifteen then and finding his way as a musician. He seemed shy and reserved, intent on mastering the guitar, he and Levon practicing various licks well into the night, trying to imitate the masters. But Ronnie had an ear for talent, and he quickly saw that Robbie had lots of it. Hence my interest in reading (via audiobook) Robbie’s accounts of those days.

Robbie describes a fascinating odyssey from his half Mohawk, half Jewish roots to Malibu, where he eventually ended up in the early ‘70s. After the Hawks made their mark with Ronnie, they decided to go out on their own, booking gigs and making records. They were consummate musicians, constantly expanding their repertoire and improving their techniques. Eventually they connected with Bob Dylan, and that relationship helped them to find their own identity as a group, later becoming The Band.

Testimony, then, is a declaration, a confirmation of tumultuous years, focusing mainly between the late ‘50s and 1976 when The Band gave its last concert with Robbie as part of the group. During this time, the group hung out with many famous artists, including the Beatles, Van Morrison, Neil Young, and so many more. Apparently this memoir wasn’t ghostwritten, and I was impressed with Robbie’s strong writing skills. He vividly captures people, places, dialogue, the works, making this period come alive for the reader.

These pages show the behind-the-scenes life the musicians lived and temptations they faced on or off the road, including on-going struggles with drugs of all kinds. It’s a reminder that the great pleasure these talented performers give us often comes at an equally great price—their mental and physical well being. Robbie has managed to prevail. Many others don’t.