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


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.

How Readers Give Birth to Novels

These past weeks have reminded me of when I was eight months pregnant and bursting at the seams. I anticipated the child I was carrying whose gender I didn’t know yet. I also didn’t know the impact he (yes, a son) would have on my life. But friends and family were overloading me with anecdotes from their own lives, either from giving birth themselves and the various dimensions of that process, or with recommendations on planning for the child’s wellbeing and future. So young, I didn’t have a clue about what goes into raising a child to adulthood.

What has taken me back so many years to that amazing time? My novel Curva Peligrosa will be released this summer, and I’ve been working intensely with the publisher on revisions, back-cover copy, and front-cover images. As with any collaboration, there are highs and lows. I’m the one who has spent years (at least ten) giving life to this work, from its initial inception triggered by a news story I had read to the final chapter. I know the characters as well as anyone can since they are products of my imagination. I’ve given birth to them!

mexican womanYet the novel’s future once it is released remains beyond my knowledge. I can send out advance review copies to major publications. I can schedule radio and TV interviews. I can book readings at bookstores, libraries, and other venues. I can offer the novel to book clubs and arrange to visit them in person or via Skype. I can do Goodreads and Amazon giveaways and participate in numerous blog tours. But once the book launches, I have no control over how it’s received.

I can only hope that Curva, the novel’s main character, finds her way into readers’ hearts, and they will help her progress on whatever path lies ahead. Writers carry part of the burden, but readers are just as important in helping a work to flourish.


Check out this inspirational interview with Linda Strader, author of Summers of Fire, a memoir

  • lindaMs. Strader is a landscape architect in southern Arizona, the very same area where she became one of the first women on a Forest Service fire crew in 1976.

Summers of Fire is a memoir based on her experiences not only working on fire crews, but how she had to find inner strength and courage to reinvent her life not just once, but several times. 

Her publishing history includes many web articles on her expertise of landscaping with desert plants. A local newspaper, the Green Valley News, printed an article about her firefighting adventures, which led the magazine, Wildfire Today, to publish an excerpt. The article generated interest in her speaking on this topic to several clubs, including the American Association of University Women. Summers of Fire is her first book, which is scheduled for publication in 2018. She also does fabulous water colors and blogs at

  • Who are your literary influences or inspiration?
  • Cheryl Strayed. If it hadn’t been for her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I’d probably still be floundering for direction!
  • Why do you write?
  • It helps me cope with day to day life, which has been challenging after many losses over the past 8 years.
  • As a result of publishing your book, what have you learned about yourself and/or the writing process?
  • I’m not published yet, but will be in 2018. This just flat-out amazes me. When I wrote my memoir, I never dreamed I would publish some day. At the time, it was a way to cope with depression over losing my job, my mom, and my marriage.
  • What genres do you work in?
  • So far, I’ve only written nonfiction/memoir. I just finished a prequel to my book Summers of Fire.
  • How do you start a novel/story?
  • I just jump in and start writing.
  • What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?
  • I need silence. I write a number of times throughout the day, whenever I can squeeze it in between my real work (landscape design). I’d say my most creative time is about 90 minutes in late afternoon with a glass of wine at hand. Morning is my best time to edit.
  • How much time do you spend writing each day?
  • I write anywhere from 2 to 3 hours per day.
  • What’s the hardest part of writing or publishing?
  • The hardest part about writing is thinking you’ve written something quite witty and special, only to look at the next day and realize it’s garbage! Publishing…for me it was the longest and most challenging thing I’ve ever done because I chose the traditional route. Despite all those who say I should have self-published, I am glad I stuck with what I wanted, the traditional route, and so glad it all worked out.
  • Who is your favorite character from your book(s)?
  • One of my coworkers. He was a chauvinist, egotist, and obnoxious, but I found him fun to write about because he was so colorful.
  • Why should people want to read your books?
  • Summers of Fire is an adventure story, a love story, a story of strong friendships, a story of heartbreak—and a story of loss, inner strength, courage and rebuilding. I think just about anyone would relate to my story in some significant way.
  • If a movie was made of your book, who would the stars be?
  • I would love to have Reece Witherspoon play me!


Writing the Dream Onward

If you’ve followed my blog posts at all, you know that dreams have been a passion of mine for many years. Each morning, I gather them into my journal as I once gathered eggs on my stepfather’s farm. And for me, they function in a similar way that eggs do, cracking open and providing nourishment. But eggs also suggest something in embryo, something coming into being, as do dreams. They are so multi-layered and while some seem nothing more than flotsam and jetsam, remnants from the previous day’s activities, others illuminate something valuable for the dreamer.

In a recent night visit, a former husband told me in a dream something he’d noticed about me—I need lots of change. While on one level, I’m pretty conventional and constant in my relationships, I also hunger for new things, whether it be through reading or traveling or cultural stimulation. Having my ex tell me this in a dream focused something for me that I hadn’t thought about before.

writing-the-dream-onward-copyDreams also seem indispensable for writers. What a rich source of narratives they are, spinning out stories night after night that are populated by individual, known and unknown in our conscious lives. They also provide a treasure house of images that we can call on in our fictions or poetry, suggesting worlds that otherwise wouldn’t be available to us, and stimulate our imaginations.

I recall another dream where houses were being resurrected from the seashore. It was such a surreal moment to witness this transformation, but the images made me realize that words are houses. Each one contains many rooms/meanings that we assemble into complex units, constructing plays, novels, short stories, essays, poetry, and so much more.

When I enter my dream world each night, I’m reminded of how inventive our psyches are, spinning out millions of narratives over a lifetime. How can we not embrace these gifts from our depths and write the dream onward?




How a Ronnie Hawkins’ groupie grew up and became a university professor and a “famous” writer!

Anyone who followed the early ‘60s rock scene knows of Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, though he’s slightly more famous in his adopted country, Canada, than in the U.S. Originally from Fayetteville, Arkansas, Hawkins, a vocalist and bandleader, had an ear for promising musicians and an eye for good-looking women. His group “The Hawks” gave birth to many celebrated instrumentalists, including Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Rick Danko, and Robbie Robertson, all of “The Band” fame.

I met Ronnie and his group soon after I moved to Toronto with three girlfriends and my son. I was a high school dropout, a single mum, and I typed fast. Infatuated from the moment I first saw Ronnie, I’d found someone who encapsulated everything America then represented to me (I later immigrated to California and became a U.S. citizen myself): potent extroverted energy, lack of inhibition, incessant motion, humor, boldness, and power—all that Canada (and I) seemed to lack at that time.

For the next year or so, my friends and I became regulars wherever Ronnie and The Hawks were appearing.groupie Some nights I got lucky (at least at that time I thought I was lucky), and Ronnie invited me to go home with him. As I spent more time with Ronnie and the other band members, my feelings for him only intensified, though not because he showed me any special attention. I was just one of many young women who threw themselves at Ronnie and “the boys,” as he called them.

Ronnie attracted me because he never lacked something to say, onstage or off, and what he said was usually original: a true Southerner, he was an oral poet, making metaphors as easily as some people sleep. Nor was he afraid to speak his mind. No wonder he fascinated me. I coveted his charisma and ability to transfix a room full of people. But most of all, I wanted his body, still muscular and fit from the boxing he did when he was younger. Ronnie embodied the unrestrained world of rock and roll, and sex was the only way to get closer to him and that world. I wanted to rock and roll with Ronnie; so did every other woman in the vicinity. And he knew it. He also tried to accommodate as many of us as possible.

Groupies have been around forever. The charioteers must have attracted female followers because of their feats. So, too, the knights doing battle for their sovereign. Sinatra and Presley’s female fans didn’t have only handholding in mind. While the word groupie seems to have been born in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, ardent camp followers were not new.

Ronnie’s energy infected me in ways I didn’t understand at the time. While I’m anything but a roaring extrovert, in my teaching and writing I’ve become a kind of performer. In the classroom, I’ve learned to project in a way that keeps students engaged. I wander up and down the aisles, eyes meeting theirs, hoping my enthusiasm about writing clear, compelling essays will penetrate. And as a writer, much of what I do on the page also happens through eye contact: the readers’ connection to my words. My hope is to grab their intellects, imaginations, feelings, and whatever else is available in that moment through the written word.

Thank you, dear reader, for letting me into your world!



Sally Whitney gives valuable insights into her writing process in this interview!

Meet Sally Whitney, who has spent most of her adult life in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kansas, and New Jersey, thought her imagination lives in the South, the homeland of her childhood. The stories Sally writes have been published in literary magazines and anthologies, including Grow Old Along With Me—The Best Is Yet To Be, the audio version of which was a Grammy Award finalist in the Spoken Word or Nonmusical Album category. Her stories have also been recognized by the Syndicated Fiction Project, the Salem College National Literary Awards competition, the Black Lawrence Press Black River Chapbook Competition, The Ledge Fiction Awards Competition, and the Shenango River Books Prose Chapbook Contest.

She currently lives in Maryland with her cat, Ivy Rowe, and is delighted to be once again residing below the Mason-Dixon Line. When she isn’t writing, reading, watching movies, or attending plays, she likes to poke around in antique shops looking for treasures. “The best things in life are the ones that have been loved, whether by you or somebody else,” she says.

Surface and Shadow is her first novel.

How do you start a novel/story?

My stories usually start as an idea, an observation, or a question. Surface and Shadow started with observations of small mill towns and an idea about an outsider who wants to learn a mill town’s secrets. Like most of my story beginnings, those elements gestated in my imagination for months while I finished other works in progress. By the time my schedule was clear, the story had grown to include more characters, a particular setting, and a few plot points. I’m a planner by nature, so the next thing I had to do was figure out more plot points and put them into a rough outline of how the story would proceed. The outline changed many times as I wrote the novel, but it gave me a guiding light when I started.

sally-whitney-color-photo-for-webWhere do your characters come from?

Most of my characters are mixtures of different people I’ve known, but I also like to throw in quirks and personality traits to create people I wish I’d known.

What feeds your process? Can you listen to music and write or not… can you write late at night or are you a morning person… when the spark happens, do you run for the pen or the screen or do you just hope it is still there tomorrow?

Writing is an occupation (obsession, maybe) you never get away from. Ideas strike all the time, especially in the shower, and then I start composing in my head. I’ve found that if I don’t write down at least a few sentences as soon as possible, the ideas can flitter away into nothingness. Mid-morning to mid-afternoon is my favorite time to write, but I’m getting better at writing later in the afternoon. When I write I need silence so that I’m totally absorbed by the world I’m creating. Almost any sound is distracting.

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

I neglect housework to do anything, especially writing. It’s like the poem about babies: “Quiet down cobwebs/Dust go to sleep/I’m rocking my baby/And babies don’t keep.” Writing doesn’t keep either. You have to strike when the muse is with you and sometimes when it’s not.

How do you come up with book titles?

Titles are really hard to write. A good title should capture the spirit of the noss-final-cover-for-webvel and intrigue a prospective reader, all in a maximum of about five words. It’s a tall order. My favorite titles come from the text of the novel. For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is a perfect title. It comes from the text; it conveys one of the main themes of the book, but you don’t know that until you read the book, so it’s intriguing, and it’s only four words. Surface and Shadow isn’t lifted directly from the text, but the words are mentioned in the context that the title is meant to convey. I’ve been pleased to see from some of the Amazon reviews that readers picked up on that context.

As people learned about your book, what unexpected things happened along the way?

Largely through Facebook, I received nice notes from people I hadn’t talked to in decades. It was a real blessing because now I’ve reconnected with some of those people.

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

The most surprising question I’ve gotten at a reading or book signing for Surface and Shadow came from a woman who’s originally from Argentina. She wanted to know why the character Stella talks the way she does. I explained that Stella speaks in a dialect common among some black people in the southern United States at the time. The woman understood, but the question made me realize that I can’t assume readers come to my novels with the same knowledge and experiences.

How would you like to be similar to your protagonist(s)?

My favorite characters in stories I read or write are strong women who, despite adversaries or obstacles, are able to make a difference in their lives or the life of someone else. When readers ask if Lydia in Surface and Shadow is based on me, I tell them I’m not sure I could ever be that brave. When I create a character, I can make her as brave or strong or compassionate as I want to. In real life, developing those characteristics is harder.

If you didn’t write, what would you do with that time? Do you feel compelled to write or choose to?

I often ask myself that question, especially when I get frustrated with the writing process. Having given the subject so much consideration, I can tell you that at this point in my life I would volunteer with a children’s literacy organization. But it never happens because I can’t stay away from the keyboard for very long.

How would you like your books to change the world?

I think a novel has succeeded if it makes readers think about the world in ways they haven’t before. If my novels can encourage readers to see people they know and situations they experience in a more open-minded way, then I’ll be happy. I hope readers of Surface and Shadow will think more carefully about the roles society often forces on people because of their gender, race, occupation, or economic status. I want readers not to be afraid to question the status quo. Surface and Shadow takes place more than 40 years ago, but often it’s easier to talk about harmful attitudes if we view them from a safe distance. I always thought that was the case of To Kill a Mockingbird. The novel was released in 1960, but the events take place in the early 1930s.