July 24, 2014

Emotions of the Past

Julia Stephen, VW's mother (via)

"I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past." ~ Virginia Stephen Woolf

July 23, 2014

Much to My Mom's Chagrin

The Wabash Band

I am not a musician, but music moves me.  I can be in a rotten mood, but if I put on headphones with a bit of jazz, it immediately calms me.  I like writing to music, and what it is depends on my mood. If I’m writing professional work stuff, I like something without words ~ classical or nature sounds or jazz ~ and if I’m writing fiction it tends to be something that has the feeling of what I’m writing, not necessarily acoustic. And I love all kinds of music ~ rock to rap, jazz to classical, country to opera.

Much to my mom’s chagrin. She is an excellent violin and viola player, and her family lived and breathed music.  My grandpa Joe Fisher had his own orchestra in Iowa, which my uncles played in, and he played with John Philip Souza in Chicago. My mom has been in orchestras throughout her life. Even for all those years out on the ranch, she was able to drive 45 miles to a nearby community college to play in the orchestra there. I have lovely memories of after the yearly concert going to the restaurant Hansels & Gretals in Powell, Wyoming, and eating huge plates of French fries. 

Mom tried her best to get me to like music.  Also art, and that stuck, but not music.  We were required to take band when I was a kid.  Mom wanted me to take the bass, and Dad the clarinet like Benny Goodman, and the clarinet won.  A good choice, really, as I’d have had to lug that bass on and off the bus and everywhere.  And my backpack was already stuffed to the gills with books! 

But even the neophyte like me appreciates music.  I am moved by music.  It takes me out of myself to another calmer place.  And in all the arts I love seeing someone who’s really good at it.  One of my favorite things in the world is to come across someone who throws their whole body and self into their art, and that’s why every once in a while I binge on America’s Got Talent and Britain’s Got Talent, though I don’t hardly watch TV otherwise (only because I’m too busy).

And so I wanted to share this with you.  I LOVE the artistry of these guys, and the effect of the grain bin is eerily amazing.  This is Wabash Band, Brandon McDuffee on vocals and Quinn Bible on guitar.  See how they throw their whole bodies into it, how you can feel the yearning and the mastery.  

July 22, 2014

The Story of a Cover

Today I thought I’d go through the process that was the design of the cover of Deep Down Things.  The bloody and complicated process of arriving at something remotely passing.

I designed the cover myself ~ with help.  Now let me say: I wouldn’t encourage people to try this unless they have an art and design background. Just as you wouldn’t build your own house but instead hire a carpenter, you should at least have professional input on a cover. There are so many clichés and things that will mark you as an amateur. That said, I do have an art and design background, but even then I called in the big guns ~ the lovely people I work with who are designers. (Thank you, beautiful people who helped me!!)

The first thing I did was scour the internet for covers that I loved that also might work for Deep Down Things.  Here are a few.  I gathered many more besides this.  You can see a pattern here.  I liked simpler covers with interesting fonts, and I seemed to be drawn to blue and green.

One of the challenges of this cover is it could not be representational.  I couldn’t have a picture of a group of three siblings, say.  I thought it would distract from the reader’s experience. And so I knew I wanted it to be more of a mood piece.  Hence the off-kilter-ness and the fonts and the blues and greens.

So since I knew I wanted to have interesting fonts, I downloaded a bunch and played with them.  This is what I ended up with at first.  It is a sort of a western theme, plus it’s fading into focus. I thought it also sort of represented differing points of view. Plus it’s dark, and after all Deep Down Things is a tragedy.

I did try to be a bit more representational and set the mood by showing setting (northern Colorado).  Did not work.  It has all the hallmarks of an amateur cover.

There is a theme running throughout Deep Down Things of the life of Jesus, very subtle but not religious per se.  And so I tried this cover.  Plus the star is important in the very last scene. I almost went with this cover, but I didn’t like how it gave the connotations of a nonfiction inspirational book. Mine was fiction and a tragedy.

Then I did a long search on iStock to find some backgrounds I liked.  I downloaded a bunch and played with them. You’ll see the iStock mark in the background because I wasn’t going to purchase the image until I was sure I wanted it.  Here are a few examples. I like the mood on this one.

I really liked this one, but all the friends I sent it out to nixed it.

This one, everyone said, was a bit too airy and the font didn’t really work.

I kept searching the internet for images I might use, and then I came across the work of this amazing artist Andrea Pramuk from Texas.  I immediately loved her mixed media painting that have exactly the type of mood I wanted to convey.  I chose her Tree of Life No. 3 and started playing with it.  Here was my first attempt.  I thought I’d match the colors in the lettering with the colors in the background. DID NOT WORK.  It’s too light and has the signs of an amateur.

But I was really sure I wanted to use this background.  I contacted Andrea and she was so great!  We reached an agreement so I could use the image.  I altered it (with Andrea’s permission) a bit to pull out the deep blues to give it more of a mood. But I still wasn’t happy with the lettering.  So I pulled in the big guns. I asked my designer friends for feedback.  They said with such a busy background, you need simpler lettering, and just white for heaven’s sake.  Plus I decided to simplify by taking off the reference to my other book.  Finally, I put my name up top more boldly.  I felt like I was claiming “writer” in a way I hadn’t before.

So there it is ~ the story of the cover.  Let me assure you, it took months and there was much anguish involved.  But I already have the cover of my next book in mind, which is a relief. Not going in blind, like I did with this one.

I hope you enjoyed this peek into my tortured creative process!

July 21, 2014

Camping’s So Good for Kids ~ And Moms

Me, Steve, Eli, and Elizabeth

Don’t you just love the fresh mountain air first thing in the morning? The birds urgently tweeting from the trees, the lazy hum of the bugs starting to rise and the swish of the branches as the breeze picks up? The sun through the trees makes everything a vivid living green ~ it always makes me think of “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.”

We went camping this past weekend and had a blast! We got a new-to-us fifth wheel camper recently and it’s perfect. Much better put together and more spacious than our last Airstream. We drove up on Friday to the mountains west of Laramie and drove around till we found a good spot ~ fairly flat, by a creek, with not anybody around us. We spent the weekend tending the campfire, roasting hot dogs and s’mores, fishing, reading Harry Potter, and generally lazing about. Came home Sunday morning.

What it brought home to me yet again was the value of camping for kids. They learn to shake off bumps and bruises. They’re not in an environment where everything has cushioned rounded corners. They’re out of their comfort zone so they try things they wouldn’t normally. They have boredom time, too, which is very important. And maybe most importantly, they gain confidence in their bodies. This weekend, my eight-year-olds practiced keeping a fire going, walking on logs, and chopping wood with an ax.

It’s easy as a mom to try and protect your kids all the time, but camping is a convenient and safe way to put you out of your comfort zone and let your kids explore a bit.

And then there’s always that WONDERFUL shower you take when you get home!


July 18, 2014

What's Next?

Frank and Ellen Strong, on whom
Earth's Imagined Corners Is Based

So, maybe you read the short story collection How to Be a Man and liked it. Or maybe it's on your bedside table in the stack that tips over whenever you extract a book. But then you've seen the press for the novel Deep Down Things and you're intrigued.  You think, this author is weird and wonderful! Or at least weird.  What else is she doing?

I'm here to answer that question.

I have a historical novel coming out in January!  It's called Earth's Imagined Corners, and it's the first in a trilogy called the Round Earth Series.   Here's what it's about:
In 1885 Anamosa, Iowa, Sara Moore is a dutiful daughter, but when her father tries to force her to marry his younger partner, she must choose between the partner—a man who treats her like property—and James Youngblood—a kind man she hardly knows who has a secret. When she confronts her father, he beats her and turns her out of the house, breaking all ties, so she decides to elope with James to Kansas City with hardly a penny to their names.
I'm particularly excited about this one ~ oh, let's face it, I'm particularly excited about all my books! ~ because it's the first novel I wrote and it's based on the lives of my great grandparents Frank and Ellen Strong.  This one follows them as they make their way from Iowa to Kansas City, and the next two in the series follow them as they work their way across Nebraska, their brush with the Battle of Wounded Knee, and then settlement in northern Wyoming and the influx of the Mormon community.

I'm also working on a young adult series called the Wyoming Chronicles.  They are re-imaginings of classics set in contemporary Wyoming.  The first is a rewrite of Pride and Prejudice, called Pride, set in Jackson Hole.  It's about sisters Elizabeth and Jenna and their flirtations with some well-off summer people named Charlie and D'Arcy. Can they catch their eye?  Will it be just a summer fling?

This is the girls' half of the series. There will also be a boys' half, and the first book I think I'll tackle for that is The Island of Dr. Moreau, and it'll be named Moreau. It's about a young man who gets lost in a winter storm and is rescued by a mysterious man and taken to Hole in the Wall, where there's a mad scientist and a bunch of mysterious creatures.

Anyway, that's what's up for me! Now I need to get cracking!

July 17, 2014

Letter to the Reader of 'Deep Down Things'

Claude Monet, The Reader

Dear Reader,

Oh, what I wouldn’t have given to be able to give Maggie a happy ending, to have Jes grow into a happy and healthy young man whose only scars are those left by his troubled father. It wasn’t to be, however. The logic of the story inexorably pulled me to where it ended.

That’s not entirely true. The first ending actually had Jackdaw successfully shooting Jes and then killing himself. So maybe I did pull back a little—at the behest of an editor friend. The conversation went something like this. “The ending is too unremittingly dark.” “But Jes has to die. Otherwise no one will buy it.” “Yes, but does his father have to kill him? AND THEN commit suicide?” Point taken. That same friend said she bawled in public in NYC at least four times while reading it. Now THAT is a compliment. I think.

The inspiration for this story is a friend and coworker who is one of those ideal mothers. If I could have chosen to have any mother in the world, she would have been at the top of my list. She had two boys, and then her third boy was born with severe spina bifida. Watching what she went through was heart-wrenching. When I decided to write this book, a few years after the darling boy had died at age six, we sat and talked through what had happened. She said that most people act as if it never happened and so it was good to talk about it. I hope so, and I hope I’ve in some small way been able to honor what she went through.

Another inspiration for this story is my history of infertility. My mother had seven kids including me, and one of my sisters had seven, and so I never considered that I would have problems having children. Then, my husband and I had five miscarriages, the first at six months. Medical rigmarole ensued. I’m so glad for it, though, because we were able to have our happy ending. A wonderful amazing woman—whom I’d trust almost more than I’d trust myself—acted as gestational carrier for us, and our twins were born. Our son was also born with a severe cleft lip and palate, and so more medical procedures. As much as we’ve been through, though, I can’t express how thankful I am to medical science and the wonderful doctors who made it all possible.

The first scene of Deep Down Things that I wrote, I was actually staying in a residential hotel in Denver undergoing IVF procedure for the twins. All those shots. That was August 2005. The first scene I wrote was where Maggie walks into the room and Jes just lights up. He makes her feel wonderful, despite everything, just by the way he beams at her. I finished a first draft by June 2009. I remember because I completed it for a Tin House writers conference mentorship with the legendary Little, Brown editor Judy Clain. The manuscript was an unqualified mess—four points of view with two timelines going concurrently. Bless Judy’s heart for first of all agreeing to do the mentorship and second of all giving me such great advice. Help your reader out. Chronological, chronological! More reflection to let the reader know what to take away from a scene. Her talking with me was simply the best encouragement I could have had.

So I went back and majorly rewrote it. Because of how I’d written it—two timelines—the beginning and the end were basically written and I had to write through the middle. An odd experience, to say the least, but a good one. It shaped up nicely, although I distinctly remember having writer’s block and thinking, this is the most horrible thing I’ve ever read. I do that when I write—I go through periods of loving the work and then hating it. Especially when I’m not writing, I think about all the flaws.

Having four points of view presented its own challenges. If you have a point of view, you must have a character arc. Something has to happen to that person. They have to change. And therefore all the stories have to be coherent in their own right, yet they have to meld together into this unified whole. “Ambitious,” someone called it, and at the time I don’t think they meant it as a compliment. My initial inspiration for form was the movie Love Actually. I was fascinated with how that movie was able to have all those different story lines yet work. I still love that movie. It strayed pretty far from that, though, didn’t it? Another big inspiration was William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, one of my favorite books. All those points of view tied together in a country setting. Believe it or not, I didn’t actually read Kent Haruf’s Plainsong till late in the writing process. Without knowing it, I had mirrored a lot of that wonderful book, and so when I did finally read it I was a bit thunderstruck.

I deliberately try to have all kinds of people in my books. I regret that I don’t have more diversity in this one, but I am glad I was able to have CJ work through her sexuality. Race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality are not binaries—they exist much more on a spectrum—and I find myself continually fascinated with the complexities of these subjects.

Finally, I often have an extended metaphor or theme that I’m thinking of when I write a story or a novel. In the case of Deep Down Things, it’s the story of Jesus. Many readers would not pick up on it, I think, but Jes’s story riffs on it with details large and small. I’m a spiritual person—though I’m not a religious one—and the ideas underlying the story of Jesus are complicated and compelling and timeless. Self-sacrifice, family relationships, being a good person—these all are just as relevant today as they ever were. And I find by using something like this as a framework, an extended metaphor, I can explore these subjects more deeply. I don’t think of this as a religious book or a Christian book, but I am very invested in the ideas that Christianity presents to us. I am happy, however, if this book helps someone affirm his or her faith or think more deeply about the issues presented. We all need help sometimes in being good people.

My final confession is that the ending still makes me bawl like a baby. I don’t think writers are supposed to admit that.

Tomorrow I'll wrap it up by giving you a teaser about what’s coming down the pike in the future. 

July 16, 2014

Excerpt from 'Deep Down Things'

Today, an excerpt from my new novel Deep Down Things. I hope it hooks you!

Via Sheila Addleman Photography


Jackdaw isn’t going to make it. I can tell by the way the first jump unseats him. The big white bull lands and then tucks and gathers underneath. Jackdaw curls forward and whips the air with his left hand, but his butt slides off-center. Thirty yards away on the metal bleachers, I involuntarily scoot sideways—as if it would do any good. The bull springs out from under Jackdaw and then arches its back, flipping its hind end.
Jackdaw is tossed wide off the bull’s back. In the air he is all red-satin arms and shaggy-chapped legs but then somehow he grabs his black felt hat. He lands squarely on both feet, knees bent to catch his weight. Then he straightens with a grand sweep of his hat. Even from here you can see his smile burst out. There’s something about the way he opens his body to the crowd, like a dog rolling over to show its belly, that makes me feel sorry for him but drawn to him too. With him standing there, holding himself halfway between a relaxed slouch and head-high pride, I can see why my brother Tibs admires him.
I haven’t actually met Jackdaw before, but he and Tibs hang out together a lot, and they have some English classes together. I haven’t run across him on campus.
The crowd on the bleachers goes wild. It doesn’t matter that Jackdaw didn’t stay on the full eight seconds. They holler and wolf-whistle and shake their programs. Their metallic stomping vibrates my body and brings up dust and the smell of old manure.
With Jackdaw off its back, the bull leaps into the air. It gyrates its hips and flips its head, a long ribbon of snot curling off its nostril and arcing over its back. Then it stops and turns and looks at Jackdaw. It hangs its head low. It shifts its weight onto its front hooves, butt in the air, and pauses. The clown with the black face paint and the big white circles around his eyes runs in front of the bull to distract it, but it shakes its head like it’s saying no to dessert.
The crowd hushes.
Then, I can’t believe it, Jackdaw takes a step toward the bull. The crowd yells, but not like a crowd, like a bunch of kids on a playground. Some holler encouragement. Others laugh. Some try to warn him. Some egg him on. My heart beats wild in my chest like when my sister CJ and I watch those slasher movies and Freddy’s coming after the guy and you know because he’s the best friend that he’s going to get killed and you want to warn him. “Bastard deserved it,” CJ always says, “for being stupid.”
It’s like Jackdaw doesn’t know the bull’s right there. He starts walking, not directly to the fence but at a slant toward the loudest of the cheers, which takes him right past the bull.
I turn to Tibs. “What’s he doing?”
“He knows his stuff,” Tibs says, his voice lower than normal. The look on his face makes me want to give him a hug, but we’re not a hugging family, so I nod, even though Tibs isn’t looking at me.
Tibs is leaning forward, his eyes focused on Jackdaw, his elbows on his knees, and his shoulders hunched. Tibs is tall and thin, and he always looks a little fragile, a couple of sticks propped together. His face is our dad’s, big eyes and not much of a chin, sort of like an alien or an overgrown boy. He has the habit of playing with his fingers, which he’s doing now. It’s like he wants to reach out and grab something but he can’t quite bring himself to. It’s the same when he talks—he’ll cover his mouth with his hand like he’s holding back his words.
Tibs is the tallest of us three kids—CJ, he, and I. CJ’s the oldest. I’m the youngest and the shortest. Grandma Rose, Dad’s mom, always said I got left with the leftovers. Growing up, it seemed like CJ and Tibs got things and were told things that I was too young to have or to know. It was good though, too, because when Dad and Mom got killed when I was sixteen, I didn’t know enough to worry much about money or things. They had saved up some so we could get by. But poor CJ. She in particular had to be the parent, but she was used to babysitting us and she was older anyway—twenty-two, I think.
Like that time when we were kids when CJ was babysitting and I got so sick. Turned out to be pneumonia. I don’t know where our parents were. Most likely, they were away on business, but it could have been something else. Grandma Rose had cracked her hip—I remember that—so she couldn’t take care of us, but it was only for a couple of days and CJ was thirteen at the time. In general, CJ had started ignoring us, claiming she was a teenager now and didn’t want to play with babies any more, like kids do, which really got Tibs, though he didn’t do much besides sulk about it. But that day she was playing with us like she was a little kid too.
We had been playing in an irrigation ditch making a dam. I pretended to be a beaver, and Tibs pretended to be an engineer on the Hoover Dam. I don’t remember CJ pretending to be anything, just helping us arrange sticks and slop mud and then flopping in the water to cool down. I started feeling pretty bad. Over the course of the day, I had a cough that got worse and then I got really hot and then really cold and my body ached. My lungs started wheezing when I breathed. I remember thinking someone had punched a hole in me, like a balloon, and all my air was leaking out. CJ felt my head and then felt it again and then grabbed my arm and dragged me to the house, Tibs trailing behind. All I wanted to do was lie down, but she bundled me in a blanket and put me in a wagon, and between them she and Tibs pulled me down the driveway and out onto the highway. We lived twelve miles from town, in the house where I live now. I don’t know why CJ didn’t just call 911. But here we were, rattling down the middle of the highway. A woman in a truck stopped and gave us a ride to the hospital here in Loveland. Can you imagine it? A skinny muddy thirteen-year-old girl in her brown bikini and her skinny nine-year-old brother, taller than her but no bigger around than a stick and wearing red, white, and blue swim trunks, hauling their six-year-old sister through the sliding doors of the emergency room in a little red wagon. What those nurses must’ve thought.
On the bleachers, I glance from Tibs back out to Jackdaw. The bull doesn’t know what’s going on either. It shakes its lowered head and snorts, blowing up dust from the ground. Jackdaw bows his head and slips on his hat. Then the bull decides and launches itself at Jackdaw. Just as the bull charges down on Jackdaw, the white-eyed clown runs between him and the bull and slaps the bull’s nose. Jackdaw turns toward them just as the bull plants its front feet, turns, and charges after the running clown.
Pure foolishness and bravery. My hands are shaking. I want to go down and take Jackdaw’s hand and lead him out of the arena. A thought like a little alarm bell—who’d want to care about somebody who’d walk a nose-length from an angry bull? But something about the awkward hang of his arms and the flip of his chaps and the way his hat sets cockeyed on his head makes me want to be with him.
The clown runs toward a padded barrel in the center of the arena, his white-stockinged calves flipping the split legs of his suspendered oversized jeans. He jumps into the barrel feet-first and ducks his head below the rim. The crowd gasps and murmurs as the charging bull hooks the barrel over onto its side and bats it this way and that for twenty yards. The bull stops and turns and faces the crowd, head high, tail cocked and twitching. He tips his snout up once, twice, and snorts.
While the bull chases the clown, Jackdaw walks to the fence and climbs the boards.
The clown pops his head out of the sideways barrel where he can see the bull from the rear. He pushes himself out and then scrambles crabwise around behind. He turns to face the bull, his hands braced on the barrel. The bull’s anger still bubbling, it turns back toward the clown and charges. As the bull hooks at the barrel and butts it forward, the clown scoots backwards, keeping the barrel between him and the bull, something I’m sure he’s done many times. He keeps scooting as the bull bats at the barrel. But then something happens—the clown trips and falls over backwards. The barrel rolls half over him as he turns sideways and tries to push himself up. The bull stops for a split second, as if to gloat, and then stomps on the clown’s franticly scrambling body and hooks the horns on its tilted head into the clown’s side, flipping the clown over onto his back.
Why do rodeo clowns do it? Put their lives on the line for other people? I don’t understand it.
The pickup men on the horses are there, but a second too late. They charge the bull, their horses shouldering into it. They yell and whip with quirts and kick with stirrupped boots. Tail still cocked, the reluctant bull is hazed away and into the gathering pen at the end of the arena. The metal gate clangs shut behind it.
Head thrown back and arms splayed, the clown isn’t moving. Men jump off the rails and run toward him, and the huge doors at the end of the arena open and an ambulance comes in. It stops beside the clown. The EMTs jump out, pull out a gurney, and then huddle around the prone body. One goes back to the vehicle and brings some equipment. There’s frantic activity, and with the help of the other men, they place him on the gurney and slide him into the ambulance. It pulls out the doors and disappears, and the siren wails and recedes.
Tibs stands up, looks at me, and jerks his head, saying come on, let’s go. I stand and follow him.

Here's what's up next. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how it was written, and Friday I’ll give you a teaser about what’s coming down the pike in the future.