Category: The writing life


An interview with CROWS OF BEARA author Julie Christine Johnson

By Midge Raymond,

We are thrilled to announce the publication of Julie Christine Johnson’s novel The Crows of Beara, which was a finalist for the 2014 Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature. In this Q&A Julie talks about her inspiration for the novel, her first book, and what’s new in her writing life. 

 

Q: What inspired you to write The Crows of Beara?

A: I first traveled to Ireland in 2002 to hike the Beara Way. The peninsula, and the experience, turned my soul inside out. Never have I been more homesick for a place I couldn’t actually call home. Many hikes in Ireland later and I knew I’d be writing about it someday.

When I began sketching out characters and ideas for a novel in January 2014, I knew it would be set in Ireland and have an Irish legend or some element of magical realism woven through it. I just didn’t know where in Ireland or which legend.

I happened upon the poetry of Leanne O’Sullivan, who was raised on the Beara Peninsula and teaches poetry at University College Cork. Her collections, An Chailleach Bheara, which tells the story of the legend of the Hag of Beara, and The Mining Road, which was inspired by the late 18th century copper mining industry and the miners who toiled there, brought me, almost overnight, to my novel.

I knew before I began that my central character, Annie, would be an addict trying to put her life back together. Once I had my themes of environment vs. economic growth, an Irish legend based on the strength and resiliency of women, and of the Irish culture, and the healing power of art, the words poured out of me. I wrote the first draft in ten weeks.

Q: When did you decide you wanted to be a writer? How did that lead to where you are today?

A: I read Louise Fitzhugh’s classic Harriet the Spy when I was six years old and that was it: I knew I’d be a writer someday. That someday took another thirty-five years to come around. I took my first writing workshop in October 2010 and the floodgates opened. After all the years of dreaming about writing, I finally found the courage to set my words free.

Q: Where do you find inspiration for your plots and characters?  Are you inspired initially by the plot or do the characters come to you first?

A: I believe that story comes from character. Characters are why we read, why we are changed by what we read. Plot is a means to move them through their lives, to tell their story.

Each of my novels and short stories has a different genesis. In Another Life came from an image of Lia and Raoul that rose in my mind during a stay in Languedoc; researching the history of the region opened the door to their story.

I wanted to set my second novel, The Crows of Beara, in Ireland, but when I began sketching out characters, that’s all I knew. The characters led me to themes of addiction and the healing power of art. A chance encounter with a book of poetry gave me the exact location in Ireland, and that led me to construct a plot around copper mining and animal conservation, with a thread of magical realism woven through. Last summer I studied with that poet—Leanne O’Sullivan—in the very spot where my novel is set (Beara Peninsula). A dream come true!

Two characters led the way into my third novel, UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL: an American woman dealing with child loss and a little girl in New Zealand who is living on the edge of society. The plot is how those two souls come together.

Q: What is your writing process like? Do you write an outline and do you write every day?

A: When I began my first novel, In Another Life, I had a beginning, a handful of characters, but I had no middle or end; I wrote scenes out of order. About two-thirds into a first draft, I had 140,000 words and no sense of where I was going or how it would ever end. I stopped in my tracks, started from the beginning, cleaning up as I went along, putting things in order.

I’m still a pantser at heart. I don’t start with an outline, I don’t edit as I draft, I let it all pour out. But I began The Crows of Beara, as I do all my novels since the first, with character sketches. Characters bring me to my themes, my story and eventually, the plt.

Once I’ve got a solid first draft in hand, I use Michael Hague’s brilliant Six Stage Plot structure to discover and refine my character arcs. And I keep a process notebook for each novel, working out plot holes, asking myself questions, tracking key details. I draft in Scrivener, but I have to solve problems and plug plot holes in longhand.

I do write every day, but I have several projects going on at once. What I work on any given day is a matter of balancing writing with non-writing life, my energy level, scheduled commitments, and deadlines!

Q: Do you have a particular method or approach to research and writing?  Generally how long does the process take per book?

A: There’s usually an idea whispering away at me—an image, snippet of overheard conversation, something I read in the paper, a place I’ve visited. Holding that idea loosely in my mind, I begin to work on character sketches and follow where those lead. Whom am I writing about and how do they relate to the idea I can’t seem to let go of? I’ll research enough to get a sense of the place, issues, and time as it relates to the plot, but research for me is an ongoing process as the story develops. I try not to set things out too far in advance, preferring to layer in details as I discover where the story is taking me.

The amount of time has varied wildly. It took me eighteen months to finish a first draft of In Another Life; ten weeks for The Crows of Beara; nine months for UPSIDE-DOWN GIRL. I revised and edited the first two novels while writing the third!

Q: What is the hardest or the least favorite part of the writing process for you?

A: The hardest part is coming to the end of the first draft. It’s a very emotional experience for me. The characters and story are so raw, so open and beautiful in their natural state. Although I can’t wait to shape and mold the story in subsequent revisions, there is something pure and deeply personal about the first draft that I hate to let go.

Q: What are some of your favorite books or authors to read? Which books or authors have influenced your writing?

A: Hilary Mantel, Kate Mosse, Colm Tóibín, Anne Enright, Mary Doria Russell, Elizabeth Gilbert, Lily King, Dani Shapiro, Tim Winton, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Jess Walter. I tend to binge on authors. Last year it was Elena Ferrante and Francesca Marciano. This year I’ve joined an online group reading a Virginia Woolf work each month. I’m not a writer of historical fiction per se, so my influences cross a broad spectrum of styles. Many of my favorite historical novels are written by authors whose work spans categories and genres. Hilary Mantel blows my mind. In Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, set in 16th-century England, she opens up her world, sets a tone, and gets on with it. The “historical fiction” aspect of her work never dominates the characters and their stories. David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars showed me how creating a sense of place can be poetic, and how to connect readers viscerally with an era through the emotional power of character. Mary Doria Russell. Shoot. There’s nothing she can’t do. Ditto Margaret Atwood!

Reading is not only my escape, I consider it an essential part of my job description as a writer. I have at least two books going at any one time, a novel, a volume of poetry, and some sort of writing guide as inspiration and motivation.

Q: What one piece of advice would you share with aspiring authors?

A: It takes a village to publish a book. No matter which path to publishing you take, traditional or independent, you cannot do it alone. Find mentors—writers at different stages of their careers—and listen, watch, learn. Ask questions, be humble, and don’t wait—reach out now. Writers’ blogs, Facebook groups, Twitter chats are all great resources for connecting with writers and finding your tribe. Reach out in both directions—up and back. Always be willing to help someone right behind you.

And always, always be working on your next story. Don’t sit hitting refresh on your e-mail when you begin sending out queries or your novel is on submission with editors. The process can take months, a couple of years, even. Always be writing the next book. The first thing my now-agent asked me after reading and expressing enthusiasm for In Another Life was, “What else do you have?” I sent her a draft of my second novel and I had an offer of representation by the end of the week.

The Crows of Beara is “a captivating tale of our yearning to belong and the importance of following this ancient call” (award-winning author Kathryn Craft), and “like Ireland itself, The Crows of Beara pulls at something deep inside the reader and won’t let go” (USA Today bestselling author Kelli Estes).

Learn more about Julie and The Crows of Beara here

Our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe

By Midge Raymond,

We are thrilled to announce that our 2017 Siskiyou Prize judge is Jonathan Balcombe.

Jonathan’s most recent book is the New York Times bestseller What a Fish Knows: The Inner Lives of our Underwater Cousins, an extraordinary journey underwater that reveals the vast capabilities of fishes. He is also the author of the books The Exultant Ark, Second Nature, Pleasurable Kingdom, and The Use of Animals in Higher Education.

Jonathan has three biology degrees, including a PhD in ethology (the study of animal behavior) from the University of Tennessee, and has published more than 50 scientific papers on animal behavior and animal protection. Formerly department chair for Animal Studies with the Humane Society University and senior research scientist with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Jonathan is currently Director of Animal Sentience with the Humane Society Institute for Science and Policy in Washington, DC. Learn more at jonathan-balcombe.com.

This year marks our fourth annual Siskiyou Prize, and we are delighted to be offering a $1,000 prize and a four-week writing residency thanks to the generosity of our amazing prize partner PLAYA. All manuscripts submitted for the prize will be considered for publication by Ashland Creek Press.

Please visit the Siskiyou Prize website for complete details about the prize — submissions open September 1, 2017. We look forward to reading your work!

Cat editors: ACP authors Mindy Mejia & Jean Ryan

By Midge Raymond,

After realizing how many authors seem to find inspiration (or, at least, avoid procrastination) thanks to the felines who keep them in the chair, I began a blog series called Cat Editors. The series began with my own cat editor, Theo, who is also General Manager of Ashland Creek Press and basically keeps us both in our chairs.

Several Ashland Creek Press authors have shared their cat editors’ stories with me, and I’m delighted to share two of them here, especially since we have brand-new reasons to celebrate these two authors: Mindy Mejia and Jean Ryan both have new books out in the world!

Mindy Mejia‘s novel, Everything You Want Me to Be, is a page-turning mystery that we guarantee you won’t be able to put down. If you’ve read The Dragon Keeper, you know what we mean — but don’t just take our word for it: Mindy’s new novel is also a People magazine Best New Books Pick, one of The Wall Street Journal’s Best New Mysteries, recipient of a starred Booklist review, and so much more! Visit Mindy’s website to learn more.

Author Mindy Mejia lives and writes with a cat named Dusty.

Mindy's cat

On working with Dusty, Mindy says:

Dusty’s main editorial talents lie in encouragement and prioritization. He usually lounges on the table or in my lap, purring his approval at whatever scene I’m working on, and if I start daydreaming he’ll jump directly on top of the computer or manuscript (see picture) as if to say, “Oh, you’ve got better things to do than write? I guess I’ll just make this my new bed.” It never fails to refocus my energy, which I’m sure is his intent.

 

 

Jean Ryan is the author of Survival Skills: Stories and a novel, Lost Sister. Those of you who are familiar with Jean’s gorgeous short stories will love her newest book, Strange Company, a collection of essays featuring the same exquisite prose and astute observations on nature and life. Strange Company is available from MadeMark Publishing in paperback and will be available as an audiobook on March 31. Visit Jean’s website to learn more.

Author Jean Ryan writes with Tango.

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Of working with Tango, Jean says:

Tango does not want me to get too comfortable with my writing. She urges me to stay on the edge, to persevere through difficulty, to remember that the deepest truths are found outside my comfort zone.

 

Thanks to Mindy and Jean for sharing their writing processes with us, and thanks to the cats for making it possible! We look forward to reading much more of Jean and Mindy’s work.

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Claire Ibarra

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Claire Ibarra about her story “Vivarium”

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: I was living in South Florida at the time, and as common as cockroaches are there, I could never get used to them. I couldn’t help my reaction. I’d scream, dash across the room, climb onto furniture. The palmetto bug is especially hideous because it flies, and getting hit in the face by one is completely unnerving. In the spirit of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” I began to wonder about what humans might share in common with these bugs. In the story of Gregor Samsa, he wakes up a bug and becomes completely alienated, whereas Eva begins to connect with others and gain confidence through her solidarity with Chico.

Q: What was your writing/research process?

A: Once an idea for a story comes to me, I tend to dive in and try to get as much as I can down on paper, but of course, I get stuck with lots of questions. I didn’t know anything about cockroaches, and since Wikipedia was such a helpful, quick source, I decided to incorporate it into the story. Eva needed to do her own research, as well. That doesn’t mean that I normally recommend Wikipedia for research. Luckily it’s easy nowadays to access information – Google is such a gift to writers.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: That’s always a hard question to answer. There are so many inspirational works and authors. As I mentioned, Kafka inspired this story. But I just read My Antonia by Willa Cather for the first time, and I immediately wanted to visit Nebraska. I never thought I’d be inspired to visit Nebraska! Now it seems like to most magical and interesting place in the world.

Q: Why did you choose a cockroach as the animal that allows Eva to step beyond her fears?

A: I guess I was thinking about the most ugly creature imaginable, especially for a person struggling like Eva, juxtaposed with empowerment and transformation. I think I may have encountered a cockroach in my house that day, and it got me thinking about our human struggles, from the most profound to the mundane. What might be the outcome when we face our fears up close, and so intimately?

Q: Where do you see Eva in the weeks and years past the story’s ending?

A: I see Eva in a position to help people. She is on her way to becoming a clinical counselor or therapist. Her family’s dysfunction was her first classroom. She just needs to gain confidence, and maybe she’ll always struggle with OCD, but she’ll make a great therapist. I imagine that she’ll start having more fun!

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?

A: I am continually struck by the intelligence of animals, and their ability to display compassion. Interspecies friendship – the actual affection and love between animals – is one of the most beautiful things to witness. I would like readers to consider the possibility that all living creatures are capable of such affection. Also, we must nurture that kind of compassion and caring within ourselves to make the world more tolerable.

 Q: What do you imagine will be Chico’s fate?

A: I think once Eva decides she doesn’t need his companionship anymore, she finds a creative way to set him free into the wilderness of the Miami streets, where more adventures are in store for him.

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An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Carmen Marcus

By Midge Raymond,

An interview with Among Animals 2 contributor Carmen Marcus about her story “Bight, Tomcat, and the Moon”

Q: What inspired you to write this story?

A: The story was inspired by a prompt by a British writers’ organization called “Word Factory.” They’d asked Neil Gaiman for a story starter for a modern fable that went, “Long ago, in the days when there were still fish in the oceans and cars on the road, there lived a woman who was not afraid of governments…” So I treated the starter as a puzzle – what if the oceans were gone and the roads were the only place left for the fish, and what kind of woman could survive there? Never underestimate the power of a good story starter to invite you beyond your comfort zone.

Q: This story, set in a future world, contains language and settings that are exotic in their novelty. What was your writing process like?

A: This story involved a wondrous research phase, my favorite part of story creation. First, I researched the form and scope of fable to understand the conventions I was about to play with. Fables often involve animals as characters, and this opened up opportunities for me to create the Purrman and creatures with personality. The language for Bight and her world came from free-writing exercises which were prompted by questions about her world and her desires. For me, detail is everything, so I researched sailing and nautical language, Bight didn’t have a name until I was researching knot making – then I discovered the word bight. It means the loop before the knot is made – it is pure potential, just like her. Finding the right name informed her character, her trajectory, and her world.

Q: Which writers inspire you the most?

A: So many, but for this piece I read and re-read Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles. Wood took Cornish myths and made them into contemporary stories, perfect for modelling modern fables. I read Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves – Russell effortlessly weaves the real and fantastical, disorientating her readers. Orkney by Amy Sackville is an intense story set in the wilds of Orkney, a brilliantly and darkly narrated tale of obsession. Finally, I turned back to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando to understand more about nascent identities and sumptuous sentences. Each of these writers consciously creates a voice within their stories for the environment to speak; it’s that luscious breathing world that draws me.

Q: What relationship do you envision in the future among humans and animals?

A: As a fisherman’s daughter, my relationship with animals has always been complex. The sea provided food, but the pursuit of that food became a sacred act in its own right, with rules which restricted excesses and exploitation. My father told me a story when I was a child – that my great grandfather pulled up a sea god in his nets and, realizing what it was, cut the net and lost the catch to set it free. From that moment our family was protected at sea – so the story goes. This relationship of mutual protection is founded upon wonder at something unknown, and because it was unknown it was possible for a deeper form of communication than spoken language to emerge – a sacred connection. We seem to live in a world that abounds with “knowledge” about animals, but little wonder. The more knowledge we have of animals, the more potential for exploitation. But wonder is the foundation of respect and that sacred connection which invites compassion. It is my hope that we allow for a greater sense of wonder about those we share the planet with and that we learn that knowledge isn’t the boundary at which true understanding lies.

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Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: I would like readers to experience how hard it is to protect what is precious to us, even when it seems futile and without hope but to still want to endeavour to do so.