Tuesday, July 19, 2016

An engaging look at the past

Mary Volmer's Reliance, Illinois, is a book I've been enjoying in slow sips, like a glass of very old sherry. It rewards slow reading, for Mary's prose is unlike any other writer's. I first got to know Mary through her novel Crown of Dust, which for a Gold Rush novel is unusually dark, somber, laden with ochre. This isn't the ebullient "Westward, ho!" novel...it's about the people who didn't strike it rich and got stuck in a part of the west not well traveled. Its quiet beauty is memorable. But I digress...I'm talking about Reliance now!

Again set in the 1800s, Reliance is about a small town and its secrets, and one girl at the center of it all. Look at this gorgeous cover.

I asked Mary to do an interview on my blog and she agreed to answer these three questions. Mary's doing a reading at Face in a Book bookstore in El Dorado Hills, California, this Friday the 22nd at 6:30 p.m. I'll be there, and I hope I'll see you there too! Mary's a great presenter, and it's sure to be a fun and witty night!

1       1. Why are you so drawn to the 1800s?
Mom always had biographies and historical novels lying around the house.  When I was a girl, she read me books such as Johnny Tremain (a revolutionary war novel), and 19th and early 20th century authors like Laura Ingalls Wilder and Louisa May Alcott. I suppose it’s no surprise my imagination turned to the past when I started making up my own stories. I guess another reason is that when I started writing seriously I was living abroad in Wales, a country with a rich history, physically apparent in the castle ruins and standing stones that graced the landscape of my university town, Aberystwyth. Living there, I felt oddly compelled to look back on the history of my own town and country, and also to question the national narratives, those simplified (often sanitized) origin stories, I learned in school. I discovered the relatively short history of the United States was full of vibrant and volatile landscapes, contradictory accounts and fabulous characters. It seemed natural to write about them. And the disconcerting fact of the matter is, we’re dealing today with many of the same issues and fears that consumed us generations ago. 

2. Your characters are often downtrodden, powerless. Can you address that?
I’m drawn to survivor stories and tales of resilience, and I’m equally drawn to stories about women, who in the 19th century were largely downtrodden. Until the latter half of the century, women possessed few economic or political freedoms and had little access to education. While they were not universally powerless, any authority they wielded had social consequences far more serious than the many layered stigmas powerful women endure today. I’m fascinated by the lives of these women and the communities they loved and struggled within. If history is written by the victors, I think an argument can be made that fiction (a great deal of it, at any rate) is written for the downtrodden, the forgotten, the novel and unnamed.    

3. What are you working on now?
I’ve been working on three projects, but will need to settle into one of them in the next month or two (or none will get finished!). The first is a contemporary novel set in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, the second is a detective novel set in two time periods: contemporary and colonial Virginia. The third is set in Boston, Northern England and South America after WWI. That’s a vague answer, I know, but I don’t want to give too much away! And, of course, the stories will change as I write them. 

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Beautiful Montpelier

I grew up in the capitol of Vermont, and it is the most beautiful place in the world. I hadn't been back in literally decades before we went two years ago, and this year we returned to see the lovely Fourth of July bunting.

This is the City Hall, which used to contain the police department, but I noted that has moved to a standalone building in its back parking lot.

This is the fire station.

This is a magnificent indie bookstore. There are actually two downtown--amazing for a city with a population of less than 8,000!

And this is a sign in a storefront that cracked me up. Yes: this is Montpelier. Thanks for being a great place to grow up!

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Monday, June 06, 2016

Summerwords Creative Writing Festival 2016

I think this festival gets more fun each year. Our keynote speaker was Luis Alberto Urrea, who simply couldn't be a funnier, more witty, more poignant speaker and reader. I heard many "lightbulb ah" gasps from the crowd when his short story (which he had memorized and delivered as a performance) concluded.

I presented on writing series fiction and had a full room with lots of great energy and laughter--love it when group dynamics make this kind of thing an outright pleasure. Thank you all who attended my session!

A brief writing activity in my session on writing series fiction.

I also attended many presentations myself and of course the magnificent barbecue that crowns Saturday night at the festival. People may be amazed to realize that their ticket, very reasonably priced for a four-day conference, also includes a stellar barbecue with free-flowing beer and wine. Just saying, mark it on your calendar for 2017!

We've had amazing keynote speakers in the past: Carolyn Forche, T.C. Boyle and now Urrea (I've only attended the last three years), but the conference really revolves around the daily sessions, usually four to pick from each hour. American River College faculty teach these, as well as visiting writers. It's the kind of literary event you would imagine a major university pulling off, but American River College is a small community college in Sacramento with a passionate creative writing faculty that designs and implements this large-scale conference. ARC's literary magazine also consistently wins national awards, beating out schools like Harvard...

The video for this year's Summerwords somehow features me as the freezeframe, which I found preposterous and fun:

I wish I'd done more pre-Summerwords social media but a) we sold out anyway and b) I was in the throes of a move...yes, we moved house two days after the conference which took place May 26-29 . That was...let's see...less than a week ago. I'm still looking at boxes as I type this. May I mention for purposes of eliciting deep sympathy that it was 100 degrees the day of our move?

Next I'll have to blog about the wonderful Gold Rush Writers Conference. In the meantime, a writer friend is part of Barnes and Noble's new Teen Book event, B-Fest. Lynn Carthage (winkety wink) will be appearing at the Natomas B&N in support of Betrayed and Haunted this Friday, June 10, at 7 p.m.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

That time I had to go write in a field

I'm so pleased with this article in the Sacramento News & Reviews, written by Rachel Leibrock and photographed by Darin Bradford. I think Rachel did a great job of encapsulating my work thus far and highlighting my love of strong women protagonists.

Darin's photo was very fun...I'm actually just in an overgrown vacant lot with my desk that I threw in the back of my car. There's a chain link fence and a freeway ramp behind me, but he did some magic to make it look like the ideal writer's spot. I've always fantasized about a bed in a field (I think based on some perfume ad from the 1980s!) so this was pretty darn close. It's subtle, but there are also some tombstones in the field there with me. Fitting!

The link to the article is here.

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Saturday, March 19, 2016

5th annual Chin Up for Writers Day

Yes, March 19 is upon us again...after the Ides and after the Irishness...it's Chin Up for Writers Day!

Because we writers are a special breed of self-doubting and turmoiled creatures, we need a day on which we examine our chins, winch them up and attempt to keep them up. Because our nature is to explore the very essence of why we're human, we become sensitive when our soul-baring (what is writing if not taking off your brain's clothes?) doesn't bring the attention, acclaim or financial rewards it might. We are turning on tiny lights in far-off forests and sometimes no one sees but the tin-foil fox. I think I ripped off Mandelstam in that sentence.

I had another book in the Y.A. series release and tomorrow is the big launch party at a wonderful independent bookstore.
C'est mon roman.

My chin should be firmly horizontal. It is. I've worked hard for this day and I think the book is pretty kick-ass and fun and should make any visit to Paris or Versailles way more interesting (mental note: get Versailles gift shop to carry it). And yet... the chin drifts. It drifts because I'm introspective and writerly and while I usually get along well in the world (and I think I even successfully carry off an attitude of general optimism and glass-half-fullism), there are days where I belong in a garrett cursing the few stars I can see from its window.

Let me make a quick phone call to the plastic surgeon about this drifting chin issue.

Back! They were of no help.

I've found the best tactic is to move forward. I recently reached up above my desk to check off a major project on my to-do list taped to the wall, and I'm happy that now I can hit the next project. Chin up, head down, always moving.

Until next year, fellow writers! I will know you by the proudly erect jawlines.

If you'd like to read the previous years' posts on Keep Your Chin Up Day:
First year
Second year
Third year
Fourth year

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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Little Unperturbed Women

I've spent the last 20 minutes with my heart in my throat. My daughter has been reading an adaptation of Little Women and as we departed, she told me that Beth had been holding the Hummel baby as it died of scarlet fever, and that now Beth was showing signs of the sickness.

I sat and fretted. When I heard her come down the hallway, I turned to her with open arms. But she wasn't crying. She was grinning. "I finished the whole book!"

"And...Beth?" I asked shakily.

"Beth got better!"

"Beth got better?!"


I gave her a hug and passed a tremulous hand over her hair. It has been averted for now. But someday I want her to read the real book.

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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Witch boy

Child witch of Nigeria, starving and pushed out of his home. Image: Anja Ringgren Lovén

With a heavy heart, I see child witches are in the news again. It was wretched when the vulnerable elderly or mentally ill were accused in medieval times, but there is a particular evil associated with accusing children of witchcraft.

(They were accused in the medieval period as well, but not to the degree that we find today in African nations.)

How my heart mourns for these children who need protection. Thank goodness the world has responded to these photographs and donated the equivalent of $150,000, thanks to the efforts of Danish aid worker Anja Ringgren Lovén.

Read the news report here.

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