Today I was invited to participate in an event for The Friends of Edmonds Library, as an author interview. Below are the questions and answers.
What kinds of stories do you tell?
I like to tell stories that challenge the reader. For example, a short story I wrote, which won an international flash fiction contest. In the story I portrayed a devoted mother of a severely mentally challenged son. He was 20 years old, 6-feet tall, strong as an ox, but with the mind of a 4-year-old. It was the 1960s, so the unfortunate word for her beloved boy was ‘Retard’. After receiving the news that she had cancer and only 6 months to live, she was left with what to do with her son. With her gone, what would happen to him? They had no other family, and no one could handle his outbursts. The state mental hospital would lock him in a room and toss out the key, or worse yet, brutalize him. So, she was faced with this conundrum. The ending of the story––her decision born of hopelessness and love––shocked a lot of people. It leaves the reader to decide, was she right or wrong.
My novel, Return to Sender (RTS) I explored a lot of things, among them was collusion. Collusion has fascinated me since a month-long writer’s residence I did two decades ago, in a small village in Ireland. There, collusion was king—the people in that close knit society covered for one another like a tribal clan protecting sacred stones. I love stories about small groups of people who’ve got each other’s backs no matter what.
In RTS, my colluders were the Rounders––people who lived year-round in Manzanita Oregon in the 1940s & 50s. These folks were very protective of one another, to the point of covering up a crime. RTS also about a war hero turned reluctant priest, Theo, who is not particularly religious, and whose heart was not in the job, it was elsewhere. But when faced with a religious fanatic serial killer who twists his own bitter religion to serve his murderous intentions, Theo is forced make some decisions. This is where plot and character intersect; without the religious fanatic villain, Genghis Hansel, who one reviewer wrote, “made Hannibal Lector look like a chair boy” ––without him, there would be no personal stakes/crisis or conflict sturdy enough to carry the storyline. The ensuing story pushes the boundaries of who Theo thinks he should be because of an obligation, and a resurrection of who he really is––he’s a warrior who wants to be reunited with the woman he loves, because beneath it all, RTS is a love story. Would you cover up a crime to protect someone you love? Return to Sender is in the library, or available on Amazon, or the Edmonds Bookshop.
My current WIP (work in progress) a novel, and a companion series of short stories are about resilient young women surviving in a 1970s man’s world. These are straight up character driven heroine’s journeys. Set in Portland OR, when PDX was known as the porn capital of the west coast (true story). I’m drawn to that city and that time because it was my home and my coming-of-age era: the music, the clothes, and attitudes about sex and drugs that permeated the post-Vietnam age. It was a time when many young women felt doomed to marriage, crying babies and no career. Or they were ‘turned out’ forced into prostitution, or simply forgotten, ‘the lost girls,’ I call them in my up-coming book––young women often trapped in violence. In these stories I explore some unique ways these women find help and survive, escape, and thrive after being entangled with brutal men. They reclaim their minds, bodies, and souls by saving themselves, no prince charming needed.
Those are the kinds of stories I like to tell, stories about the resurrection of the human spirit.
Why do you tell those kinds of stories? Darker stories draw me in. I’m dark. I’m serious. Fluff has no appeal to me. You’ll never find me on the beach with chick-lit, or romance novels. They are wonderful for people who love them. Just not my thing. I prefer literary style of writing, character exploration and themes that are universal like redemption, survival, and grief. Themes that resonate with the human spirit. RTS was called an existential thriller, which made me so happy. And Kirkus reviews said it was “A thinking person’s novel.” If I got people to think, with my first flawed novel, then I’ve done my job as a storyteller.
Where/how do you get your inspiration? EVERYWHERE! Because I experience the world through writing, I find inspiration and therefore, write everywhere. I love our Seattle area coffee shops. But I most enjoy escaping to a boutique hotel in PDX where they take great care of me. I write in the mornings in my room, no interruptions, no dog, no husband. Great coffee. Then I do some yoga, and head out to revisit my past life in PDX. The differences from my 1950s-70s life to the 2020s, are remarkable. But the vestiges of history remain. I take pictures and notes, then end up at the Portland Art Museum. There I luxuriate in front of great art, lounging on benches, writing in my notebook. Lots of ideas brew when in the presence of art. I do this in Paris, Australia, Italy, Scotland, Hawaii––anywhere were there’s an art museum. I believe that written, spoken or painted art all bleed from the same vein, and I’m greatly inspired by all forms of expression. Also, old cathedrals draw my creative soul, like Roslyn Chapel, where they allowed me to sit and work while touring DaVinci Code fans circled, gawked, and awed at the holy site. I also love to write in graveyards wherever I travel, I’m inspired by the feeling of old souls gathered in one place, dead or alive. Ireland was that kind of place. Sacred ground for writers. During a one-month writer’s residence there I spent a lot of time exploring graveyards, taking notes, drafting stories.
Where do you write and how? Mostly in my home office at my desk on my computer, and I need silence, so no music or tv in the background. Otherwise, wherever I am will do, on my laptop, phone or pen and paper. While waiting for doctors’ appointments, or ferry boats, I may stop in the middle of a grocery store and text myself a long passage that suddenly leapt to mind, or when my husband and I are out for dinner, he’s used to it. Live music, especially opera, moves me. And church, thought I don’t go much anymore, a good preacher can certainly arouse my muse.
How do you come up with your plot and characters? In a short interview, we don’t have enough time to fully explore that one. But the short answer is, I get an image of a character––a young girl walking down the street with torn fishnet stockings, carrying a paper bag of clothes, or a man sitting in a rowboat in the middle of a lake, shoulders hunched, hat in hand, sobbing. Both those real-life images have been used in my stories. I ask myself, what is that character doing and why? Then, based on the why answer, if it tugs my imagination, I jot down a three paragraph, three act structure outline and start writing. Characters are added as needed but only as a reflection of, or in exploration of the primary character. The man in the boat is in RTS, the girl with the fishnet stockings is one the lost girls in my current WIP.
But before I get to that amazing morning, the night before the breakfast the foundation arranged for a local restaurant, The Red Cork Bistro to close for a private Author hosting party with me, the donors and other local school supporters. The Red Cork was gracious, and provided a lovely place for a private event with great food, wine, ambiance and lively conversations. What a way to kick off the week. Thank you Mukilteo Chamber of Commerce, especially Emma Leedy who initially suggested me to the board.
The next morning was the main event at the museum. Talented student chefs made a delicious breakfast akin to what you would be served at any 5 star restaurant, and the school jazz band harkened in the event, filling the (closed to the public) museum with enticing smells and invigorating music.
When Senator Marco Liias introduced “Mukilteo’s literary treasure” I actually looked around the room wondering what other author would be speaking. Then my friend Judy Gratton tapped my leg and said, “That’s you.” So I got up and went on stage. It was a surreal moment. NEVER in all the public speaking I have done has there been a plane hanging over my head and a fuselage to the right of the stage. I couldn’t help myself, the first words out of my mouth were not from my planned speech, but instead, “WOW! What a venue. Is that a fuselage?” Of course I said that because ‘fuselage’ was the only word I knew for an immense airplane part.
Anyway, I quickly pulled myself together and spoke to the crowd about the importance, no, the life- saving magic that books are to children. In my troubled childhood of which I spoke about my soldier father’s PTSD and ultimate alcoholism, books gave me refuge, inspired me to be brave, be kind, be curious.
Here’s a short excerpt from my speech titled, Literacy is a Superpower;
“Ernest Hemingway said, ‘There is no friend as loyal as a book’. And that certainly has always been true for me. I can honestly say Books saved my life. Well, books and a neighbor, a retired school teacher, Mrs. Gordon, who recognized a traumatized child when she saw one. I was about 6 years old when she invited me into her kitchen to learn to read. I recall on the pages of those books was another world, a world of raccoon mothers who fiercely protected their young and even carried their babies in their mouths on incredible adventures, and dogs and cats who loved one another despite their obvious differences.
In every story there was peril, but Mrs. Gordon assured me everything would soon be alright if I could hang in there and remember that soon I would turn the page.
And when she said, maybe you’ll grow up to write a book someday, she altered the potential trajectory of my life. Because she knew then that I may have challenges, obstacles to overcome, and that I would need a quest, hope, something to aspire to, as do all protagonist on all long journeys, and she knew that for a child, literacy was a superpower. And it was.
Those books she gifted me became my companions, my loyal friends, as Hemmingway said.
Because to read, at any age opens a window into other worlds previously unimagined….”
Anyway, I went on about how books saved me from a troubled childhood and how literacy truly is a superpower. I got into why I wrote Return To Sender and how my dad’s PTSD inspired my protagonist, Theo Riley and his Korean War nightmares after he returned home. And how books and writing guided me through 3 tours in cancerland. “Just keep turning the page, everything will be alright.” Mrs. Gordon said. We always return to our childhood lessons, and that one has saved me time and time again.
But I circled back around to the literacy issue which is the Mukilteo Schools Organization’s mission, and I ended on this note,
“In today’s world what is more important than planting those seeds in the hearts and minds of our children? Valuing their education, their welfare and so importantly their imaginations is vital to our humanity in this otherwise chaotic and often uncaring world that can be turned topsy-turvy by a simple 140 character tweet. Well, now 280….
The Mukilteo Schools foundation literacy mission and getting books into the hands of children is one I believe in wholeheartedly. That retired teacher who put a book in my hands showed me there was a big world out there, she planted a seed of hope inside me and taught me to turn the page, everything would be alright. Books guided my future, literacy was the superpower that saved my life.”
It was a wonderful event. I hope I rose to the occasion. During the book signing SO many people came up to me and shared their stories of being the child of a soldier who struggled with PTSD or other war time traumas brought home to the families. I honor the private things they shared with me.
Teachers, and people like Mr. and Mrs. Klein who support literacy organizations earn a special place in heaven in this once a little girl, now grown reader and writer’s mind. In a time of shrinking school budgets, cutting arts programs and an overall disrespect for literacy in America, these organizations and the people who support them are vital to our survival as a literate, competitive country. I was so happy and honored to take part in this event.
ALL photographs provided by Mary Wastman photography