The Writer as Detective

I’ve been thinking recently how writers are like detectives. They need to be constantly observant, picking up clues from what people are wearing, how they gesture, the words they speak, the way they interact with others. They study others’ facial expressions and what they suggest, storing away the data in their memory banks or taking notes in a writer’s journal that they’ll refer to later.

Detectives need to ask questions, the right questions, without arousing the suspect’s suspi5d9cf373-e31c-400e-9fe0-1655625ab9b2cions. Writers are also usually operating undercover in this way, querying their family members, friends, and acquaintances on unfamiliar subjects, building up their store of knowledge.

A good detective, like an amateur psychologist, also is skilled at looking beyond surfaces, trying to discover the hidden meanings in words, expressions, gestures, aware that most things have multiple meanings. Beneath each innocent remark a slumbering reality can lurk, a subtext to the surface narrative.

Conflict is something that draws both detectives and writers. They know it leads to drama and clues that can help resolve questions about the people involved and the dynamics between them. They’re skilled, then, in piecing together a narrative from a series of events, paying attention to details most people miss: the silver skull & bones cufflink on the surgeon’s dress shirt; slight variations in a person’s story that offers clues to his/her motives.

Detectives and writers love ferreting out the truth and revealing lies. They’re constantly discovering new things in their surroundings, training all their senses to be alert to nuances. But in their quest, they also need to be subtle and try to blend in. It’s their subjects that they shed the spotlight on, not themselves.

 

 


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An interview with Jeanette Watts, author of JANE AUSTEN LIED TO ME: HOW COULD MY HERO BE SO WRONG?

 

Jane Austen Lied To me Cover

 

GENRE: Humor

BLURB:

What college girl doesn’t dream of meeting Mr. Darcy? Lizzie was certainly no exception. But when Darcy Fitzwilliam comes into her life, he turns out to be every bit as aggravating as Elizabeth Bennett’s Fitzwilliam Darcy. So what’s a modern girl to do?

Jeanette Watts’ satire pokes loving fun at Jane and all of us who worship the characters who shall forever be our romantic ideals.

JEANETTE WATTS WILL BE GIVING AWAY a doll dressed in Regency clothing, handcrafted by the author (International Giveaway) to a randomly drawn winner via rafflecopter during the tour: http://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/28e4345f2418/.

For a better chance at winning this doll, be sure to follow the tour and comment. The more you comment, the better your chances of winning. The tour dates can be found here:  http://goddessfishpromotions.blogspot.com/2017/08/vbt-jane-austen-lied-to-me-by-jeanette.html

 

INTERVIEW WITH JEANETTE WATTS:

  • How do you come up with book titles?PrizePhoto

It’s a fairly logical process for me. My first book, Wealth and Privilege, the title is inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I like the title, it just flows off the tongue. As to why I picked wealth and privilege? It’s two things that people want, right? The story itself is about how having both wealth and privilege does not necessarily guarantee happiness. So my second book, Brains and Beauty, is a sequel to my first novel. The title had to reflect the first one. As for my new novel, Jane Austen Lied to Me, I think the title came first. I was thinking about how much fun it is to be a Janeite, but what would happen if it didn’t go right?

  • What have people most liked or found most meaningful/funny/creative/ challenging about your book?

Well, Jane Austen Lied to Me is brand-new, the only feedback I have is from editors who were giving me their recommendations. The heroine has gone through a lot of changes over the many, many rewrites. The first readers I showed it to loved the concept, and were amused by the ending, but because it was a satire, the heroine could be a little too difficult to like. I had to soften her, and show people more of her redeeming features. It amused me quite a bit, since I know that Jane Austen herself, when writing Emma, had said she wanted to write a heroine that only she could love. Hopefully my heroine succeeds in being equally lovable.

  • Why do you write?

I am a storyteller. I have no choice in the matter. When I write pamphlets, I find a way to tell a story. I am a dance choreographer, I prefer choreographing for groups because it’s easier to tell stories. And my choreographies almost always tell a story.

When my brain spawns another character, or another story, that character or story gives me no peace until it is out on paper. I’ve heard so many people say they don’t like writing, writing is hard. Writing for me is a joy. I love words. But more immediately, it feels good to get the characters and stories written down. Once I do, I get to sleep at night. Until the next character or story starts banging at the inside of my brain…AuthorPhoto_JaneAustinLiedToMe

  • Where do your characters come from?

They are all me. Every single character, even bit players, even the villains, are all part of me. The villains tend to reflect the things that irritate me. I do not like whining or complaining, my villains tend to be whiners and complainers, like Josie. (You’ll see, she’s awful!) A peripheral character, like the girl in the coffee shop with the blue and purple hair, or Michael’s friend Matt, are portraits of my friends. Most of the characters in Jane Austen Lied to Me are members of my dance troupes. Sometimes I scramble the names and the characteristics – Jen isn’t really bossy like that. The real-life Ken’s last name is not Garvin. But I have another friend (also a dancer) whose last name is Garvin…

  • 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?

I can write almost anywhere. Most of it is done at my desk, surrounded by post-it notes. There’s a portrait of Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke watching over me. She was essentially a writing teacher in Queen Elizabeth I’s day. I like going on writing retreats in pretty places – a week at a cottage in Canada, or a cabin in a national forest, or a little BnB on the beach does wonders for my ability to get in some quality time with my current project. I’ve written while sitting at my sewing machine; I will write until I need to think, then I sew and think, then go back to writing.

  • What genres do you work in?

Thank you for asking that question in the plural! There is all kinds of advice for writers out there saying we should only write in one genre, to build a brand, and a loyal readership. But my brain doesn’t work that way. I admire Philippa Gregory’s ability to concentrate on only one narrow time period in history. But I can’t do that. My first historic fiction novels are set in the Industrial Revolution in America. I have a half-finished novel set 200 years earlier in England. The next book I want to do is set just after the turn of the 20th century. Meanwhile, I have published a textbook on waltzing, and I have a couple of children’s books I’d like to write.

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

Like I said earlier, I have no choice. I have to be a writer, or those stories would be pounding around inside my brain with no way out. I still manage to be a dance instructor, and a costumer, and a Renaissance Festival actress, and a museum theatre assistant at the local history museum, and run several dance companies. It’s just a matter of making sure everything gets a turn. Sometimes I have to dictate chapters in the car while I’m driving, but things do get done.

  • What’s the hardest part of writing or publishing?

The marketing! Once the story is written, and polished over and over until it shines and it’s ready for readers to see it, now the real work begins. You can have the most engaging story in the world, but readers have to find out that it’s there. Marketing needs to be constant. I have had more face to face encounters with people who bought my book because we had a conversation in a grocery store line, and it turned out we were both from Pittsburgh. I will be on a spree where I’m very good about my webpage, and Twitter, and Facebook, and then I stop posting for months at a time. Which is NOT a good thing. Getting momentum when you start from zero is hard.

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

Lon the Floor Nerd. There really was one, by the way. Freshman year in the dorms. The real life one wasn’t as sweet as the character in my book, but if I recall correctly he had very nice shoulders. My fictional Lon is the cognate of Captain Wentworth from Persuasion; he is one of my favorite Jane Austen characters. So I can’t help but love him.

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

Absolutely! A writer has a choice. Either the writing gets done, or the laundry. For years, I was making the wrong choice. The laundry was getting done, and the writing wasn’t. I made a New Year’s pact with a good friend of mine, and she helped me adjust my priorities. She would call me up EVERY single day, with one question: “Have you worked on your book yet?” If I answered no, I had to listen to myself explain WHY I hadn’t done any writing in the 24 hours since she called me with that same question. It helped me focus – if it was 2:00 in the afternoon and I hadn’t done any writing, I would let the lawn mowing go for another day, so that when she called and asked her question, I could say yes, instead of no.

  • What’s the underlying message of your writing? The non-fiction description.

Something along the lines of Shakespeare’s “What a piece of work is man” speech. I love people. I know people, and I can be a cynical observer of human nature, but at the end of the day, I adore people.

  • What writing mistakes do you find yourself making most often?

It’s the word “just.” It’s a great little modifier that says almost nothing…and I use it to death in my first drafts. “She just picked up the book and…” “I’m just looking…” “Don’t beat around the bush, just tell me the truth.” I will find it multiple times in a single paragraph, much less on a single page. It irritates the hell out of me. I don’t edit while I write: I learned from my college professors to simply write everything down, and go back to edit later, after it’s all on paper. Rewriting is easier than writing. So I don’t even try to be aware of the 22 “justs” on a single page. It’s absolutely horrifying. Fortunately, they’re easy to delete when I start the editing process.

  • Do you travel to research your book(s)?

Whenever I can! I love to travel. Sadly, Jane Austen Lied to Me could be set on any college campus in America, so I didn’t have to do any traveling. I should really think about setting my next book someplace exotic. I’ve always wanted to go to Machu Picchu.

Excerpt from Jane Austen Lied to Me by Jeanette Watts

I’ve been thinking about my conversation with Professor Jacobson over and over. The thing about formulas and people. It makes a certain kind of sense, but does it lack a romantic sensibility?

Ha! Sense and Sensibility!

This is the second time that Professor Jacobson has me thinking about S&S. Well, if I’m no Lizzie Bennett, there are worse things in life than being a Marianne Dashwood. She had youth and beauty and high spirits. She wasn’t good at the dating thing, either, and overlooked the better man at first. Why was that? Did Colonel Brandon seem unromantic at first impression?

Even though I’ve got an assignment due in Spanish, as well as the inevitable calc and chem homework, I grabbed Sense and Sensibility to take with me to read while I went to dinner. I wanted to read everything in the book about Colonel Brandon.

Anne spotted me in the dining hall while I was halfway through a tuna sandwich and a really big pile of potato chips. “Hey, Roomie.” She slid her cafeteria tray onto the table across from me and plopped her book bag down beside it. “You having a really bad day?”

“Um, no I don’t think so, why?” I asked.

“Usually, if you’re having a bad day, you pick up Jane Austen and read a little something before you start to study. Since instead of sitting here doing your homework, you’re sitting here reading Jane Austen, I take it you had an exceptionally bad day today.”

AUTHOR Bio and Links:

Jeanette Watts had been writing historic fiction when the inspiration for Jane Austen Lied to Me hit her on the drive home from the Jane Austen Festival. The idea was simply irresistible, and she put aside other writing projects in order to focus on writing a satire, thinking it would be a “mental vacation.” It turned out to take every bit as much research to write a modern story as it does to write a historical one.

She has written television commercials, marketing newspapers, stage melodramas, four screenplays, three novels, and a textbook on waltzing. When she isn’t writing, she teaches social ballroom dances, refinishes various parts of her house, and sews historical costumes and dance costumes for her Cancan troupe.

Links:

Webpage: http://www.JeanetteWatts.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jeanette.watts.94

https://www.facebook.com/Jane-Austen-Lied-to-Me-342613389485243/

Twitter: @JeanetteAWatts

 

 

 

Finding Strength in One’s Opposite

My recently released novel, Curva Peligrosa, is very much on my mind these days. I’m doing readings, radio and blog interviews, blog tours, and other events, finding ways to introduce Curva to the wider world. While she is the central figure in this novel, there are a number of peripheral characters that have a big role. One is Billie One Eye, a member of Alberta’s Blackfoot tribe who becomes the tribal chief.

One of Curva’s major characteristics is her adventuresome spirit and willingness to try new things. In the narrative, she spends 20 years on The Old North Trail. Malcolm Campbell, a recent reviewer of the novel, points out that Curva travels “America’s first ‘superhighway,’patagonia-1581878_1920 the Old North Trail, that has seen many hooves, bare feet and moccasins traveling between Southern Mexico and Canada over the past 12,500 years.”

These early travelers were largely indigenous people, following a passageway that extends from the Canadian Arctic down to the deserts of Mexico and beyond. It runs along the base of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide, following a kind of shoreline between the mountains and the plains for over three thousand miles. The Blackfoot call the trail “The Backbone of the World.”

In contrast, though at fifteen Billie leaves the reservation where he grew up and spends another fifteen years learning carpentry and native art from a mentor, a member of a West Coast Squamish tribe, Billie does return to his roots on the Alberta Blackfoot reservations and plants them even deeper. He also is very much a one-woman man, so when he and Curva eventually begin a relationship, it’s Curva that has the wandering eye and desire to bed other men, not Billie. He’s a foil for her in the sense that he’s much more grounded and practical. Don Quixote has a role in this novel as a character that Curva emulates and admires. There’s a parallel between Curva/Billie and Don Quixote/Sancho. Both perspectives are necessary.

Billie starts out feeling overwhelmed by Curva and the energy she projects. But over time, he gains his own individual strength. By the novel’s conclusion, they are pretty much equals. And both share an outsider’s perspective: Curva’s Mexican origins parallel Billie’s indigenous ones. Not being part of the dominant culture frees them in certain ways to be even more themselves, turning the more negative aspect of being an outsider on its head.

Writers as Travelers

My husband and I like to travel when we have the time and money. We’ve managed to visit St. Petersburg, Moscow, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, Marrakech, Fes, Rabat, Istanbul, the entire Aegean/Mediterranean coast off Turkey, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and many other countries.

I enjoy these excursions because they take me into physical and psychic territories I otherwise would not experience. It’s very different looking at pictures of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg or of Moscow’s Red Square. The photos give viewers a sense of these places. But actually being there offers a whole other perspective. I never could have appreciated how large the Hermitage is or the size of its collection of art and artifacts if I hadn’t actually made my way through the many rooms overflowing with the massive, breathtaking collection. I wouldn’t have understood what an undertaking it was to save all these treasures during WWII (and those who worked at the museum then did manage to do so). These are only a few of the surprises that those of us who love to travel experience during our journeys.

Writers face something similar when they enter the worlds they create in their fictions, whether long or short. Each story offers settings, characters, objects, and interactions that they never would have known about if they hadn’t set forth on this voyage of discovery. While I had visited Mexico before I started writing my novel Fling!, it was only through capturing my imagined Mexico in the narrative that I felt a deeper connection emotionally to the land and its people. Somehow, by exploring Mexican settings and traditions, such as Day of the Dead, I knew more intimately the place and its inhabitants.

curva final cover

In Curva Peligrosa, Curva, the main character, comes from Southern Mexico, causing me to deepen my connection to that country and its people. But Curva is not an ordinary woman, and she took me on many an adventure I otherwise would not have experienced. Sections of the narrative are letters she writes from The Old North Trail, a passageway that extends from the Canadian Arctic down to the deserts of Mexico and beyond. It runs along the base of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide, following a kind of shoreline between the mountains and the plains for over three thousand miles. The Blackfoot call the trail “The Backbone of the World.”

Here is what I learned about it from the following website: from https://crownofthecontinent.natgeotourism.com/content/old-north-trail/cot2c9cf024742cf4713

For 10,000 years aboriginal people of North America used The Old North Trail (from the Yukon Territory in Canada to New Mexico), first on foot, then with dogs pulling cargo-laden travois, and finally with horses.

Today, you can still see traces of the trail in certain locations.

Though I’ve never actually seen or traveled this trail, the fictional Curva did as she made her way from Mexico to Canada with her two horses, two parrots, one dog, and one goat. Joining her as she made her way north, I not only read Walter McClintock’s The Old North Trail, an account of the four years he spent with a Blackfoot tribe in Southern Alberta that helped me to flesh out the details I needed, but I also experienced the trail through Curva’s eyes. Though an invention, and totally imagined, it took me into a world I otherwise would not have inhabited. I’ve never been much of a camper or a backpacker, so I had to dig deep to visualize what her days must have been like in the wilds.

Just as travel in the external world enlightens us and gives us deeper experiences of foreign surroundings, so, too, does writing provide something similar. When the story begins to establish itself, I feel a similar excitement and curiosity as when I’m traveling. I’m always amazed at what I learn through these characters that take shape on the computer under my fingertips. They open up new vistas and possibilities not only for me but, hopefully, for my readers. And that’s one of the reasons why I write: to be surprised and edified.

Welcome today’s featured author, Julie Christine Johnson, author of The Crows of Beara!

crows banner

The Crows of Beara by Julie Christine Johnson

Genre: Fiction, Climate Fiction, Eco-Lit, Women’s Fiction

Along the windswept coast of Ireland, a woman discovers the landscape of her own heart

When Annie Crowe travels from Seattle to a small Irish village to promote a new copper mine, her public relations career is hanging in the balance. Struggling to overcome her troubled past and a failing marriage, Annie is eager for a chance to rebuild her life.

Yet when she arrives on the remote Beara Peninsula, Annie learns that the mine would encroach on the nesting ground of an endangered bird, the Red-billed Chough, and many in the community are fiercely protective of this wild place. Among them is Daniel Savage, a local artist battling demons of his own, who has been recruited to help block the mine.

Despite their differences, Annie and Daniel find themselves drawn toward each other, and, inexplicably, they begin to hear the same voice–a strange, distant whisper of Gaelic, like sorrow blowing in the wind.

Guided by ancient mythology and challenged by modern problems, Annie must confront the half-truths she has been sent to spread and the lies she has been telling herself. Most of all, she must open her heart to the healing power of this rugged land and its people.

Beautifully crafted with environmental themes, a lyrical Irish setting, and a touch of magical realism, The Crows of Beara is a breathtaking novel of how the nature of place encompasses everything that we are.

About the Author

Julie’s short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, including Emerge Literary Journal; Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt; River Poets Journal, in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss; and featured on the flash fiction podcast No Extra Words. She holds undergraduate Headshot1degrees in French and Psychology and a Master’s in International Affairs. Julie leads writing workshops and seminars and offers story/developmental editing and writer coaching services.

Named a “standout debut” by the Library Journal, “Very highly recommended” by Historical Novels Review and declared “Delicate and haunting, romantic and mystical” by bestselling author Greer Macallister, Julie’s debut novel In Another Life went into a second printing three days after its February 2, 2016 release.

A finalist for The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by PEN/Faulkner author and Man Booker Award nominee Karen Joy Fowler, Julie’s second novel The Crows of Beara was acquired by Ashland Creek Press and will take flight on September 15, 2017.

A hiker, yogi, and wine geek, Julie makes her home on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state. 

 

EXCERPT:

It took him longer than he anticipated to find a space near the gallery’s back loading door and to bring the last of his pieces inside, but when Daniel walked into the gallery, Annie was standing transfixed in front of the sculpture he’d titled Grian/Gealach—Sunrise/Sunset—her hand reaching for the delicate spheres of metal. She withdrew her hand before touching the piece, though her body leaned in still.

“Go on. It’s all right,” he said over her shoulder, removing a pair of stained and torn leather work gloves.

She seemed not to register him. Then she turned and nodded at the gloves he clutched in one hand. “Do you work here?”CROWSCOVER

“I’m delivering pieces for the installation.” He waved around the exhibit space. “We’ve set up just a few so far, but they give you an idea.”

“Is the artist a friend of yours?”

“Some days, yes. Some days I really can’t stand the sight of the bastard. But mostly we get along.” He winked and motioned her toward the sculpture. “Really, it’s meant for all the senses, not just visual. Go on.”

She drew the tip of her finger down one large round of metal. It blazed like firelight, catching the dipping sun, but the metal was cool. “It’s beautiful.”

“I like for people to handle these pieces—I want them to feel the texture and temperature of the materials.” Annie turned in surprise, but Daniel pretended not to notice. “Fingerprints leave marks and oil—that’s a good thing, at least for my work. People change my art as much as I hope it changes them.”

“I didn’t know you were an artist.”

“I do the guiding to keep a steady income coming in, but this is meant to be my day job.”

Giant parcels wrapped in quilted moving blankets leaned against the walls; only one other piece had been unwrapped, a protective cover draped over the corners. It was a tall, narrow triptych of patinated metal with a background of aquamarine. Gracing the foreground was a long hawthorn stem of leaves and berries that shimmered and waved in a silhouette of red and gold.

“This is copper,” she said in wonder. “You work with copper.”

“Copper mostly. Some bronze, chrome. I’m just starting in with glass—studying with an artist out of a cooperative here in Kenmare.”

“But, Daniel. Copper.”

“Recycled copper. I use discarded materials, from building sites mostly. Ironic, right? I don’t want the mine in my backyard, but I’m willing to exploit it nonetheless—is that what you’re thinking? I’m not so naive as to think we shouldn’t have mining.”

He pulled the cover away from the sculpture’s sharp edges and let it drop to the floor. The hawthorn was in a cow pasture where he often sat, watching for the Red-billed Chough that foraged for seeds in the manure. “But in my own way, maybe I can show that the earth’s resources aren’t ours for the taking wherever, whenever we want. Art is a way to connect people with their environment without polarizing, without politicizing. It can be used to that purpose, but it belongs to everyone. I want my art to show nature as a cultural artifact. I made a very deliberate decision to use what’s already been taken from the earth—what had been stripped from Beara’s earth more than a century ago. Maybe that is my political statement.”

At that moment, hearing the words in his own voice, speaking his heart out loud, Daniel made his decision. But it was something he needed to sit with, to form more fully on his own. And he couldn’t forget, no matter how enchanting this woman was, who she was, why their paths had crossed.

Interview with Julie:

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

JCJ: This is something that happened after my first novel launched in early 2016. My tenth grade boyfriend, who broke my heart in the most Molly Ringwald way possible, heard about my novel, read it, and then found me on Facebook. I hadn’t seen him since he graduated from high school in 1985. We talked one night for hours. I was dismayed and delighted to learn that I’d broken his heart, too. We had a great laugh recalling the same set of circumstances and events in completely different ways. And we remain friends.

 Who are your literary influences or inspiration?

JCJ: As a child, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh lit the fire of my determination to be a writer, and C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia filled me with the wonder and joy of storytelling. As an adult, every word written by Jane Austen, for her sense of humor, the sheer beauty of her sentences, the way she can tell the most delicious and satisfying of stories; Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, for its strong, sensual women and breathtaking world-building; and Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety. This novel made me crave to put words on paper. I read it years before I began writing, but it nudged open the door of my writer’s heart.

Why do you write?

JCJ: It feeds my soul. It’s a necessary to me as breathing. I’d go mad if I couldn’t.

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

JCJ: My entire life fell apart after the publication of my first novel. I don’t know how else to say it. My husband and I divorced after twenty-five years of marriage; I fell into a series of deep depressions. Writing changed ME, publishing changed the course of my life.

Last October, I returned to a full-time job after four years of writing full-time; the need for a stable income and health insurance compelled me back into punching a timecard. I’m grateful to have found something I love (I work in the wine industry), but it’s meant putting the brakes on publishing goals.

And yet. My second novel has launched. I have a third on submission and I am working on a fourth project. I spent two blissful weeks at a writers’ retreat in France last September. The writing I did on retreat has been the thing that I’ve held onto this past year as proof that my writing fire still burns deeply inside and I will return to those embers when I am able. I’ve kept up my physical health through yoga, swimming and hiking, as I know this is the key to strong mental health. I’ve also recently fallen in love and embarked upon a new relationship with a visual artist who is so supportive of what I do and gets it. Gets the calling to create that is impossible to ignore if the soul is to survive. It’s so beautiful, this crazy life. And yes, I’m still writing. The stories are piling up in my heart and I believe that the space and time to release them will come my way again.

Where do your characters come from?

JCJ: I just went through the Rolodex of my characters and I can think of only one short story—a work-in-progress—in which the characters are based on real people. Very present in my writing, however, are deeply personal themes. For example, Lia in IN ANOTHER LIFE is acutely claustrophobic. So is this author! I haven’t been in an elevator in years. The character in my third novel, UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL, is coping with child loss and has immigrated to New Zealand, both of which I have experienced. And I often write about how place changes and shapes us. My characters undergo major life upheavals and sortings-out once they leave the United States, when they are forced to confront themselves away from familiar social and cultural norms.

Annie, the protagonist in THE CROWS OF BEARA, and I don’t seem to share many similarities, but I adore her. By the novel’s end she’s just starting to come into her own, to realize her own emotional and artistic strength. I’m a few years older than Annie—forty-eight to her late thirties—but I see in her the same sense of purpose, a reinvigoration of character and self and determination that arrives with turning forty. You look around and say, “Right. This is who I am at this moment. I am beautiful, strong, I have so much yet to give, to discover. Let’s do this. Let’s live.”

What genres do you work in?

JCJ: Truly, I have no genre in mind when I begin writing a new novel; I just want to tell a good story. Authors like Deborah Harkness, Mary Doria Russell, and David Mitchell, who take genre conventions and toss them out the window, are my inspiration!

Interesting, and beautifully encouraging, are the reactions from industry professionals, including my agents, editors and booksellers. They love that my work can’t be pigeonholed in any category or genre, that it sprawls its limbs across the multitude!

I consider myself a storyteller. Genre doesn’t factor in when I think about my characters or themes. The joy is in challenging myself to do things I didn’t know I had in me, like historical fiction for my first novel IN ANOTHER LIFE; to play with convention, as I did with the paranormal element IN ANOTHER LIFE and magical realism in THE CROWS OF BEARA; to look for the best stories in my soul.

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?

JCJ: I write on the sofa, at the dining room table, in bed, in favorite cafes, on the beach, in the library… wherever, whenever I can.

Early morning is the best time for me- my head and heart are clearest- but when I’m in the groove with a project, setting word count goals and writing during scheduled times are my strongest tools. I need a bit of noise- ambient music, café chatter. I also do a lot of problem-solving and planning while hiking, swimming, riding my bike. Moving my body in active meditation helps me fill in plot holes and find inspiration. Journaling helps me get out the personal gunk so I’m free to pay attention to my characters.

What’s the underlying message of your writing? The non-fiction description.

JCJ: There’s a scene about midway through The Crows of Beara when Annie sees Daniel’s art for the first time. And in observing his own work through her eyes, he realizes the power of what he does, how his art can change minds, perspectives, lives. It’s very much how I feel about what I do as an artist. Words are my voice, my sword, my hand out to the universe. Art, whether it’s visual, literary, musical, or of the body, is what connects us to ourselves, to each other, to the greater world. It’s what keeps us all truly alive. This is one of the major themes of the book, and I love showing Daniel coming alive through the power of art. I love feeling connected to the world, to creation, by what I bring to the page.

When did you first write a story? What was it about?

JCJ: I wrote my first short story in January 2011 and it was published in the anthology STORIES FOR SENDAI in June 2011; all sales of the book were donated to an agency providing relief to the Sendai area after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in March 2011. The story was set at a temple just outside Tokyo, where there is shrine that honors unborn children: fetuses who died in utero as miscarriages or abortions or stillborn children. My protagonist was recovering from a miscarriage.


I’ve been writing and publishing steadily since. My first novel, IN ANOTHER LIFE, was published by Sourcebooks in February 2016. I have a third novel currently on submission, and a fourth project underway. In between I’ve published short stories, essays, poems, blog posts, book reviews.

On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/juliechristinejohnson/

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Website: juliechristinejohnson.com

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Novelists as Tornadoes!

Whenever I read another writer’s novel, I’m curious about what that person’s process was in composing the book. Writer’s approaches to their work are as individual as the various themes they write about. No two methods are the same.

For me, Curva Peligrosa first took hold of me back in 2000. Here is what I wrote in my writer’s journal on 7/16/00:

cyclone-2102397_1920Was taken with the image of the tornado that swept into Pine Lake, a resort near Red Deer, Alberta, yesterday, and has killed several people, flattening trailers etc. It isn’t the destruction that interests me. It’s devastating and unimaginable. It’s the image of the tornado, so innocent in itself, flattening a community, bringing with it so much sorrow. The tornado has a magical, mythical quality, reminding me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And it’s an image I can imagine using to start a book/story. There’s something in it for me, the way it gathers up so much in one swoop and then sets everything down in a new place, reconfigured. This is what interests me, and I don’t know quite what to do with it, but it has a compelling quality for me. It’s gripped my imagination. It’s odd how these things happen. The force they have. Novelists/writers are like tornados themselves in how they rearrange lives, facts, places.

I know that tornadoes and hurricanes are natural disasters that we shouldn’t take lightly. Yet they also have a symbolic resonance, and that’s what I was connecting with. I needed to imagine my way into this narrative by picturing what might happen in a fictional Alberta town that experienced such an upheaval. I wasn’t interested in focusing on the negative aspects of such a storm. I was more entranced with the storytelling possibilities of such an event. To illustrate, here is Curva Peligrosa’s opening:

They didn’t think much about it when the wind picked up without warning late one summer afternoon and a dark cloud hurtled towards them over the prairies. Alberta residents are used to nature’s unpredictability: snowstorms in summer; spring thaws during severe cold snaps; hail or thunderstorms appearing out of nowhere on a perfect summer day. At times, hot dry winds roar through like Satan’s breath, churning up the soil and sucking it into the air, turning the sky dark as ink. Months later, some people are still digging out from under the spewed dirt.

But this wasn’t just a windstorm. A tornado aimed directly at the town of Weed, it whipped itself into a frenzy. To the Weedites, it sounded like a freight train bearing down on them, giving off a high-pitched shriek the closer it got, like a stuck whistle. The noise drowned out everything else. Right before the tornado hit, a wall of silence descended, as if the cyclone and every living thing in the area had been struck dumb.

That scene provides the foundation, then, for the novel’s main character, Curva Peligrosa, to appear. And she does so in the most unusual way. She turns up when “a completely intact purple outhouse dropped into the center of town, a crescent-shaped moon carved into its door. It landed right next to the Odd Fellows Hall and behind the schoolhouse. Most people thought the privy had been spared because its owner—Curva Peligrosa, a mystery since her arrival two years earlier—had been using it at the time.”

The novels beginning immediately let me know that this work would be permeated by magical realism. When I did additional research on that genre, I came across the following (I neglected to record where this info came from): “In the New World, where the climate is often less temperate and the landscapes more dramatic than in Britain, magic realism does indeed often display a deep connectedness between character and place.…The interpenetration of the magic and the real is no longer metaphorical but literal; the landscape is no longer passive but active—invading, trapping, dragging away….”

This explanation made me realize how important the landscape would be (and is) in Curva. It became a character in itself. That idea was confirmed when I read Michael Ondaatje’s notes in an afterward to Howard O’Hagan’s Tay John. Ondaatje points out that in this and other prairie novels, “the landscape…is not a landscape that just sits back and damns the characters with droughts. It is quicksilver, changeable, human—and we are no longer part of the realistic novel, and no longer part of the European tradition.” These observations gave me the permission I needed to follow a similar path, and I wrote the following in my journal: “I want to build on this and use the tornado to start a novel.” And that’s how Curva was born.

In future posts, I’ll give more insight into my process for writing Curva and other novels. Stay tuned!

 

 

The Magic of Community in Narratives

In the latest issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, I read “The (Magical) Voice of Community in Mark Twain’s The Mysterious Stranger” by Jordan Dotson. Since much of my fiction falls into the magical realism category, I was interested in what Dotson had to say about Twain’s final novella and how I could apply what I read to my own work, especially my latest novel Curva Peligrosa.

Dotson reminds his readers that Gabriel Garcia Marquez defined magical realism in a Paris Review interview by saying, “If you say that there are elephants flying in the sky, people are not going to believe you. But if you say that there are four hundred and twenty-five elephants flying in the sky, people will probably believe you.”

elephant copyAccording to Dotson, Marquez is not just calling our attention to the specificity of 425 elephants but to the key word “people.” Readers need to believe that elephants can fly, and one way a reader will accept that possibility is if “people,” (i.e., characters) in the novel believe it. As this applies to Twain’s narrative, Dotson claims that Twain’s town of Eseldorf “is an uneducated and irrational audience in a world of fabulist stories. In this world, people are wholly willing to believe in wondrous, supernatural tales (whether angels and witches or flying elephants), as long as the story contains that tiny bit of odd and mundane proof that Garcia Marquez defined.”

In Curva Peligrosa, the fictional town of Weed is comprised of characters (people) that believe Curva might have mysterious powers. When time either stops or slows in her presence, they don’t question it. Nor does it seem unreasonable when a fountain suddenly surges in the center of Curva’s greenhouse, a possible connection to the former inland sea that once inundated the area. They also think Curva has healing abilities and go to her for folk remedies because they believe she can cure them and protect their children with her gobbledygook.

Given that the Weedites don’t seem surprised by any unusual circumstances surrounding Curva, including flying through the sky in her rainbow-colored outhouse that landed in the center of town during a tornado or giving birth to a girl of three, it makes it easier for readers to buy into the magical events. In other words, Curva and those around her assume that such supernatural occurrences are normal. Since they become our barometers for the story that’s unfolding, why shouldn’t we?