Her Amazon page tells us that as a child, Suzanne was prone to prevaricate to save herself from embarrassment. This story-telling talent led her to writing her first book, The Story of Grace. Her parents divorced when she was barely out of nursery school. Three stepfathers later, she came of age in a small country town while working in the hay fields and driving a tractor. She still loves the smell of freshly cut alfalfa and doesn’t mind getting her hands dirty. She lives with her husband in Salem, Oregon.
Will: Suzanne, when did you first realize you were a writer, and what drew you into the field?
Suzanne: I still don’t consider myself a writer. I see myself more as a storyteller. When I think of writers, I imagine someone that readers are drawn to. Someone who creates excitement for each upcoming book. I think of readers who quote their favorite writers. I’m not there—not by a long shot. But I love to weave a story of overcoming pain or tragedy. I like to bring to life events in my characters’ lives that inspire readers.
I had never written anything until I retired, six years ago. I decided I had a story of my own to tell. I started there and found that I enjoyed bringing to life memories. I enjoyed embellishing my story with color. Then, I decided I could live multiple lives through the characters I created in my fiction.
Will: Can you tell us a bit about your process? Do you have a dedicated place and time for writing? Do you work from an outline?
Suzanne: I am constantly thinking about my story and future stories I might tell. I walk with my characters throughout the week and attempt to capture their feelings and mentally outline what they are doing in the book. I take notes on my thoughts and fine-tune at a later time. Occasionally, another potential book will pop into my consciousness and that’s very distracting.
However, when it’s time to write, I have a dedicated place and time. I review what I’ve written up to the current point in the book. I look at my notes. Then I have a conversation with my characters and allow them to drive the plot forward. Along the way, they may be angry, hurt, confused, or sometimes lost and need my help to resolve their issues.
I do the necessary research as I am writing. I search for accurate settings and props. Generally, it’s like watching a play while sitting at my keyboard. I type what I’m seeing.
Will: In your debut literary novel, The Story of Grace, you’ve created a female protagonist we can love and hate at the same time. What was your inspiration for her?
Suzanne: Grace was a very complicated character and I borrowed from strong women in my past. Originally, I had sympathy for Grace because she was alone in her final years. She had been so lovely, strong, and independent. Now she felt sorry for herself, and that was not an attractive quality. I took parts of myself, my mother, and other women I’ve known who made many bad choices in their lives and paid the price for it. They hurt people along the way. But, as I wrote the book, I realized I cared for Grace and, in the end, it was necessary for someone else to love her and respect her, no matter what mistakes she had made.
Will: Is it accurate to describe the arc of that story as “a tragedy with a promise of redemption?”
Suzanne: Yes, that would be accurate. Grace could never correct the damage she had done not only to herself but to others. She may have felt bad for what she’d done, but given the opportunity, she would no doubt have made the same decisions. When her grandniece became her companion and friend, she found someone who didn’t judge her for her mistakes. Grace despised being judged by others. She criticized herself, she didn’t need criticism from others. She needed unconditional love. Because in the end, love does conquer all.
Will: Your second novel, Legacy, is an epic western about several generations of a family tending the Lazy M Ranch in southern Oregon. On its Amazon page you say, “If you like Yellowstone, Bonanza, or The Big Valley, you’ll love Legacy.” Tell us about it.
Suzanne: I chose these three television sagas because they have a central theme of family ranches and overcoming difficulties.
The Big Valley had a strong matriarch (Barbara Stanwyck) and was loosely based on an actual ranch in California. The ranch was built around the shared family goals. The family was fighting to keep their ranch. They fought to keep the railroad from crossing their land.
Bonanza did not have a strong female character, but again, the ranch was a family ranch, and in each episode, they faced moral dilemmas. They stuck together and fought for what was right for their ranch.
Finally, I added Yellowstone because it’s a current television hit. Again, it involves a family ranch and the obstacles that face the family as they strive to keep their land. It has a strong female character in Beth Dutton. She’s far more obnoxious and crass than my characters in Legacy, but her desire to protect the family ranch at all costs is admirable.
I think that people tend to romanticize the lives of ranchers. In Legacy, I wanted my readers to see that it’s more than just riding horses and wrangling steers. It’s hard work that takes the cooperation and dedication of everyone in the family. Hardship happens, and often no one understands but family.
Will: Can you share with us some of what you’ve learned as an indie writer? What works and what doesn’t work? Do you have any advice for new authors aspiring to publish independently?
Suzanne: I’ve published only two books, and I don’t think that I’m in a position to be giving any advice. However, I feel very strongly that you need to surround yourself with other good writers—writers who will offer support and criticism. I participate in two writing groups and without their support, I would flounder and certainly lose focus.
The best thing that I could say is to keep writing. Keep your inspiration fresh. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Work hard and stay focused on the goal. Do your research. Your readers will know if you screw up and put a cell phone in the hand ofa character before cell phones were invented. Make it authentic. That means, giving your characters true emotions. Your readers like conflict, anger, love, and loss. They are reading your book because they want to feel something. I think readers want something out of your book that they are curious about or that is missing in their life.
There are several options for self-publishing. I chose KDP because it has good support to market your book, and the customer service is very responsive.
Will: Would you be willing to give us a peek at your current project? Do you have another novel in the works?
Suzanne: Of course. I’m working on a follow-up to The Story of Grace. It’s called The Forgotten Daughter. In this story, we get to peek inside the life of the daughter Grace gave away (in my first book). Although Grace found redemption in the end, she didn’t find it from her daughter. The damage was too great for Agness to get over. Now Agness has a daughter of her own and a granddaughter. She blames herself for her daughter’s troubles and wallows in her own regret of things she should have done differently. Her granddaughter, Beth, is coming to live with her. Agness is discovering that she is more like her mother, Grace, than she wants to admit.
Will: Suzanne, thank you so much for sharing some of your writer’s journey with us. I wish you every success with your new project.
Ron Miner graduated from the University of Rhode Island over 45 years ago with a BA in English. He spent thirty-five of those years as a landscape designer and contractor in Oregon. Continuing to write behind the scenes, he began to assemble a collection of short stories and family history pieces.
In 2011, his father passed away, and the family made some unusual discoveries. A magical trove of artwork, writing, photos, and memorabilia of all shapes and sizes lay dormant among his father’s belongings, giving him a rare insight into what the Second World War in the Pacific theater was really like.
Will: Ron, did you always know you were a writer, or is that something that happened later in your life? What prompted your becoming an author?
Ron: Thanks, Will, for inviting me in for a chat.
In a way, it’s a funny question. I wouldn’t say I excelled at anything in the high school classroom, but science held my interest, and I was told I was pretty good at math. When the dreaded SATs were unleashed my junior year, I scored well in math and miserably in English, enough so, that I was persuaded to take the test a second time as a senior and improved slightly.
In college, I bombed out as a physics major, overwhelmed by organic science, labs, and that abominable calculus with its weird mathematical vocabulary. I dropped most of it before midterm and survived on the remaining three courses that were going much better, one of which was English Literature. So much for SATs.
But an actual writer? No, that wasn’t on my radar then. Yet, using words as I used to use numbers was a pleasant option for meaningful expression, and I kind of took to it. I also found I far preferred writing creatively to slogging through term papers or assignments.
Eventually, I became a landscape designer by trade (one of the other two college courses), and creative writing got away from me for most of the next forty years, other than website development or business-related correspondence. For a while, I considered fashioning a landscape design and construction book with extensive photography and illustrations. Coffee table landscape books were trendy during the 80s and 90s, and our company put together some pretty artistic projects over the years. I just never seemed to find the time to get beyond collecting ideas and project photos and packing them away into various files. The book idea sat on the back burner and the birthdays flew by.
Then something unexpected happened.
I received word that my father had passed away, and it opened my eyes and heart to writing about a subject I had never considered. I was beginning to scale back my landscape operation anyway and started my first book as we headed into the fall and winter of 2011. It was something I’d never experienced before: a convergence of available time, an engaging subject, and extraordinary motivation.
Will: Can you share your writing process with us—how you get from “idea in your head” to “words on a page?”
Ron: It varies. Sometimes an inspiration simply happens. It could come from a book or a movie, perhaps an encounter of some kind on a train or on a hike. A concept jumps out and the juice starts to flow. We’ve all seen a film and said to ourselves, “I wish I’d thought of that.” There are so many storylines that have gone through countless mutations and are unrecognizable as a new piece of fiction. I mean, how many snobs have inherited an old Tuscan winery and then thought they wanted to sell it? However, I think I get the most satisfaction when an arbitrary thought dances through my head, unanticipated and original, and then it hits me! If I’m lucky, I grab a notepad and hammer out a few sentences describing the “it” before it gets away.
I am not a spontaneous writer, blessed with the ability to sit down and effortlessly rattle off prose by the page. It’s more of an exercise for me. Often, I need to move around as I work on the rough draft to explore where certain aspects might be going. In my novel, for instance, I began with the general idea for the ending first.
Once I can pull together enough coherent pages, it takes multiple rewrites before I’d dare let anyone see it. Edit, edit, and so on. Like I say, slow as molasses. In landscape work, I used to tell my crew to stand back and look at what they were doing from a short distance. It’s easy to get too close to your work. In writing, I find that a chapter or essay works far better if I can set it aside for a week or more. Get some distance from it. The next time I have a look, it’s with new eyes. It also helps to have a terrible memory.
Will: Your first book, Sketches of a Black Cat, is a direct result of your finding “a magical trove of artwork, writing, photos, and memorabilia of all shapes and sizes” left by your father after his passing. That sounds like something from a movie. Can you tell us about the discovery and then how you wove all that material into such a compelling book?
Ron: The Discovery is actually a chapter title because that’s exactly the way it unfolded. My father was typical of many World War II veterans in that he didn’t talk about the war very often with the family. He sometimes shared a funny anecdote or mentioned an old “buddy” who had gotten in touch, but most of the post-war energy for returning servicemen like my father was focused on reentering society, meeting the right girl, raising a family, and starting a career. It was the 50s and the economy was booming due to war-time levels of production. So it was common to put the war stories behind them and move on.
Consequently, I didn’t know much about his World War II experiences. However, I did know my dad was an artistic fellow in a whole host of ways. When I was a young boy, he surprised me one day by showing me the contents of a manilla folder in a file cabinet in our basement. In it were sketches of planes, jungles, and soldiers—wonderful stuff for a kid. He had done them all during the war, much of it in Guadalcanal. I secretly took friends to visit the folder for, I don’t know, a year or so, when I suddenly found the cabinet locked. My dad was on to me. I didn’t see them again as a young man.
When he passed away early in 2011 at 93, we endured several months of confusion and disorder involving his actual status. His second wife was in declining health, difficult to communicate with, and they lived 3000 miles away. It took six months before we could even arrange a service and visit the house.
When we finally made the trip to New England, the house had been empty for years. It would be an understatement to say going through his effects was unpleasant. Rodents of all kinds had been there first. I worried about the condition of his artwork and if it was even there at all. I was thrilled to find it intact, and our search also uncovered another several boxes of notebooks, photos, and keepsakes that I had never seen before. It was a moment filled with electricity, and I suspected his entire wartime story was scattered within these boxes––if I could only piece the puzzle together.
It began with the artwork. I decided on a creative design for the book, using a sketch or painting to begin each chapter. My landscape office became the bunker, with writing, photos, graphics, maps, and research materials stacked about like a 1940s police detective’s room. I read his writing, journals, logbooks, and official Navy War Diary. There was a collection of magazine articles, letters written home, and hundreds of black and white photos, many with descriptions on the back. I decided to use the outstanding graphics throughout the book as part of the narrative.
I connected with a talented artist and book designer, Anneli Anderson (StudioAnneli), who took my rough layout, text, and assorted materials to heart and gave the book an inventive, scrapbook appearance. Our collaboration has continued now for two books and second editions. Initially, Sketches of a Black Cat was only available in full color, but the cost for self-publishing in color was somewhat prohibitive. We decided to release a black and white and later, an ebook, along with the collector’s edition in full color.
Will: Is it fair to say that your second book, The Last Word, is the result of the reception BlackCat got? I know that although The Last Word is a novel, it is based on actual events and anecdotes you compiled by interviewing ten World War II veterans and painstakingly recording their stories. Can you tell us about that fascinating process?
Ron: Imagine, for a moment, that you’re a journalist with an assignment in the year 2038. It’s an interview with an old man––a very old man. And he fought in World War II.
The Last Word is the unquestionable by-product of Sketches of a Black Cat. My initial opportunity for a real interview with a World War II veteran came in 2013. As luck would have it, he had read a brief snippet in the paper about my initial book launch at a small, local college. He walked up forty stairs using a cane, waited in line with a newly minted book under his arm, and promptly handed me a photo of my father, picturing the two of them at a squadron reunion together. I still get goose bumps when I recall his words: “I knew and flew with your father.”
His was the first of nearly a dozen videotaped interactions with men who were members of a night flying Navy squadron that also included my father. Dad, indeed, had left behind a trove of writing, memorabilia, and documentation about his adventures as a part of this little-known group of flyers, but I had published the book after his death, and there were many unanswered questions. With the opportunity to speak to his colleagues came a reprieve, a second chance to ask them about the things I could never ask him. As the book caught on, I continued to film interviews with veterans up and down the West Coast. I developed friendships and accumulated priceless narratives. They told me stories with humor, sincerity, and tears––stories that begged for an audience. By 2018, I knew it was time for a new book.
There was another influence. A big one. This wonderful group of ninety-somethings who had so graciously invited me into their homes were passing away. I was attending funerals and losing friends. I found myself wondering, How long will it be before they are all gone?And beyond that,someday in the not-so-distant future, this process will play itself out until the last veteran in all of World War II surrenders to time.
It suddenly occurred to me that I should create that individual now.
I again put pencil to paper (OK, fingers to keyboard), and started developing a novel, my first attempt at historical fiction. I was a reasonably experienced interviewer by then, had a wonderful assortment of compelling tales to draw from, and a pretty good notion of what my last World War II veteran might like to say on behalf of his comrades, given the chance. His personality grew into a composite of all the gentlemen that I’d interviewed, his mind filled with memories of skies above vast, unexplored regions, expansive seas between tiny specks of Pacific coral, and the nostalgia borne from well over a hundred years of living. While my fictitious character recounts his story in 2038, it becomes a way of emphasizing how fragile––how finite––the World War II generation and their in-person accounts are today.
Will: Your works are a glowing tribute to “The Greatest Generation,” and I understand that you are still involved with these heroes. What are some of your ongoing projects on behalf of Black Cats and World War II veterans?
Ron: I’ve had numerous meetings with museum curators and staff trying to develop exhibits that would showcase the Black Cat squadron, whose legacy is still one of the least known to come out of World War II. I then began to develop a documentary using the footage from interviews and the collection of photos and video from my library. I got as far as an eleven-minute trailer available on Youtube, which I’ve also given to museums and use for presentations. Movie making is a lot of work!
I’ve reeled in some of the more ambitious projects, and now try to promote the books and use Facebook as a forum, blog, and communication tool of sorts. Some of my ads continue to cast the net for squadron members, hoping to connect with a few more on the West Coast, but time is not on our side. I’ve launched a new post called “Help Me Tell Their Stories” that I hope will be a platform for families of World War II veterans who might wish to furnish accounts that may never find their way into print, so that I can compose and share them with readers of my posts.
Will: Can you tell us what the self-publishing process has been like for you? Unlike novels which are plain text, your books have photographs, maps, drawings, all of which make them exponentially more difficult to manage. How did you do it? Do you have advice for other indie authors who may be daunted by all that?
Ron: Self-publishing has been a mixed bag. I enrolled in a self-publishing seminar as I was working on my first manuscript. I ended up showing a few chapters to the instructor over lunch, using the complication of artwork and graphics as a ruse to get him to look at it. I was shocked when he smiled and started passing chapters around the table. This instructor became a wonderful advocate and encouraged me to self-publish, describing it as the wave of the future. So, I tried it.
The print book was high-resolution and the file was huge. Reducing resolution very much made some of the images on the Kindle file blurred or otherwise garbled. The file size added a lot to Amazon’s delivery cost, and to the selling price of the ebook. The layout, including fonts, drop caps, and the images in both booksis pretty complicated, especially Sketches. Things can also move around depending on the device and often escape from where they were intended. I think some of this might have been avoided with a conventional publisher.
Overall, I am very pleased with the quality of the print books and the publishing-on-demand aspect works for me. I was relieved not to be saddled with a garage full of books.
I seriously considered conventional publishing with The Last Word, and at times, still wish I had gone that route. I felt this was a truly unusual storyline and wanted it to have the widest possible audience. However, it was somewhat time-sensitive, in that it presupposes a date in the near future and was inspired by interviews with elderly people who I hoped to share it with. I was afraid to wait the two years it might take to get through the publishing process. Of course, now, we are beyond that anyway.
I depended on a pro to help with the formatting and setup. I would have had no idea how to create a master file like the ones for Sketches or The Last Word. In fact, it was tricky for Anneli at times, but I like to say that she not only pulled it off, she added the sparkle.
This process definitely adds a layer of cost and carries some risk if you find the book doesn’t sell. In my case, I was determined to tell my father’s story. I looked at it as an expenditure I might make for a vacation or favorite pastime, as something that I wanted to do and not as an investment. The fact that the book has been relatively successful for a self-published book is both unexpected and gratifying.
You never know.
Will: What can we expect from your next project? Can you share a behind-the-scenes peek with us?
Ron: I’m currently working on a local history project about a small Oregon community founded in the mid-1800s. The early pioneers are fascinating individuals, and to dig into the lives of folks whose names adorn street signs and creeks today is quite an experience.
For me, non-fiction is tough. Sometimes I find I’ve been working all morning and have a single, tangled up paragraph to show for it. Research is time-consuming and distracting, partly because it’s interesting. I find I now prefer fiction, and especially historical fiction. That way, if you really get stuck, you can just make it up.
I enjoy short story writing and will probably bundle together a collection at some point. I also think I’m old enough to be thinking about that memoir. If not now, when? If you wait too long, you might lose the ability to do it, and if you do it too soon, you might miss the best thing you ever did.
I think you should relive your life in prose while you can and see if you can determine what that gleam in your parents’ eyes amounted to. Hey, at least someday they’ll have something to use for your obit.
Will: Ron, thank you so much for sharing your fascinating “writer’s journey” with us. This has been a real joy.
Katherine Girsch holds an MA in Spanish Literature from the University of Oregon. In 2018 she self-published Coming to Terms: A Novel under the name K.D. Girsch, and she completed TransAtlantic Ties, a collection of interconnected short stories, in 2021. She is currently at work on My Own Heart’s Song. She lives and writes in a renovated nineteenth-century cottage in Oregon.
Will: Kathy, words like “luminous,” “elegant,” “transcendent,” come to mind when I try to describe your prose. Can you give us a glimpse into your writing process? How do you do it?
Kathy: Thank you. I appreciate your lovely description of my prose. Writing is a delight for me, an opportunity to express who I am in a voice that doesn’t always make itself heard in my day-to-day conversations. I imagine people and let their experiences, thoughts, and voices take up residence in my mind. They evolve, and a substantial part of each character’s life is waiting for me when I start to write. Individual personalities continue to develop and deepen as they respond to events and interactions on the page. The characters I create teach me something and inspire the words I choose to tell their stories.
Will: When and how did you discover you were a writer?
Kathy: I never thought of myself as a writer of fiction until I’d finished the first pages of my first bookin the fall of 2016. Nonetheless, the characters of the story I started writing that September day had lived with me for months. Throughout my life, characters as diverse as Heidi, Peter Pan, Anne Frank, Hamlet, Jude of Jude the Obscure, Scout of To Kill a Mockingbird, and Thomas Cromwell of Wolf Hall have brought literature to life for me, and they inspired me as I envisioned characters of a story that eventually became Coming to Terms: A Novel.I shared the story I was imagining with my husband, who encouraged me to actually write it down. The first few hours of that process did not go well. I hadn’t expected my characters to shine like those written by literary greats, but my total lack of success at transporting the beauty in my head to the written page was demoralizing. Not about to abandon the characters I loved, I persevered. Before the day was up, I was a writer.
Will: What about “nuts and bolts?” Do you have dedicated time and space for writing? Do you develop an outline before you begin?
Kathy: When I was writing my first book, I wrote any place I could carry a laptop—the coffee shop, airplane seats, my bed—but I control myself these days and, depending on the season, confine my writing to a spare room next to my bedroom or the garden room at the back of the house. I start writing while I drink my first cup of coffee. The session might last as little as forty-five minutes, but most often goes on for three or more hours. I write for a couple of hours in the evening, and if I awake with an idea in the middle of the night, I slip out of bed and head for my laptop. I don’t use a written outline, but I do have a loose plan in my head. I start out by writing spontaneously, letting the thoughts that have accumulated in my subconscious flow freely. I’m not at all organized in those first moments. Later I carefully re-read passages I’ve written and begin making nuanced changes. I follow up with another spontaneous burst of writing. And so it goes. I write, refine, and move on. Although I have a plan, I tend to write sections out of order. That makes for a lot of revision as chapters fall into place, but I don’t mind. It’s a joy.
Will: You write primarily about relationships, and you’re gifted with articulating very deep emotions—grief, despair, joy, love. If it’s not too personal, may I ask the source of your inspiration?
Kathy: Thank you for asking. My dad, who grew up in a rough and tumble Chicago neighborhood and, along with my mom, raised six kids in a small Iowa town, was an extrovert who could talk to anyone. A fountain of stories and songs, he laughed at jokes—including his own—until tears ran down his cheeks. He swam with a mighty crawl stroke, hunted, fished, and took up power-walking before the term had come into being. This vigorous man was stricken with multiple sclerosis at forty-five years of age. He found it impossible to conceive of happiness without the physical activity he loved and succumbed to a deep despair that lasted for a number of years. Ultimately, his exuberant way of being triumphed, and he reimagined himself. Bought a CB radio, chose the handle “Seagull,” and began to soar. He talked to truckers he’d never met, invited new friends into his life, and told stories from his wheelchair. Unable to hold a pencil, he learned to type, and transformed a lifetime of memories into poetry. He made me laugh each time I saw him. When he died at age sixty, I cried for a year, and I’ll grieve him for the rest of my life. On painful occasions and joyous ones, my siblings and I still sing his songs, read his poems, laugh through our tears as we repeat the jokes of the resilient man who’ll always inspire us.
Will: What has the process of indie publishing been like for you?
Kathy: I loved every aspect of writing my first book, Coming to Terms: A Novel—the free flowing, off the top of my head bursts of energy, the creative revision and sentence crafting, the nit-picky proofreading. But the rigors of formatting for print were beyond what I wanted to take on. I hired BookBaby, a company whose staff members were always ready to answer my questions and receive my input. They executed the formatting process and made my book available for sale to a network of booksellers. Every aspect of publishing proceeded flawlessly, but when I used the same company for self-publishing my second book, TransAtlantic Ties, there was a glitch in connecting with Amazon that stalled production of print books. If I use BookBaby again, I’ll opt for a newly available hybrid between that company and Kindle Direct Publishing.
Will: Would you be willing to tease us with a behind-the-scenes look at your current project?
Kathy: I’ve completed a draft of My Own Heart’s Song, and I’mpresently following the advice of various renowned authors: “Kill your darlings.” (It’s painful.) I remove sentences and passages, then rethink and rewrite. I’ll carry out the process again after completing the second draft. For the most part, I’m having fun as I reread and revise this novel in which Laura Weber, an unconventional twenty-six-year-old New Yorker, shares her coming of age story in a voice that sparkles with passion. Her frank, tender first-person observations alternate with narratives presented from the points of view of her friends, lovers, and family members. Optimistic and big-hearted, Laura carries readers along on an emotional, intellectual, and physical journey that began as a search for the romantic love she believed her parents had lost.
Will: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors who may be daunted by the tasks before them?
Kathy: Firstly, begin by writing what you love, exactly the way you want to write it. You can—and will—make changes later, but don’t cheat yourself out of the fun of watching your words flow together in a unique way, of learning about yourself when you read what you’ve written. Secondly, make time for reading, the kind of works you’ve always loved, as well as new authors and genres. Carry your newfound writer’s outlook to everything you read; enjoy and employ the viewpoints you take away.
Will: Kathy, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. To my readers–here are links to Kathy’s books.
I’m going out on a limb here, testing the waters to see if issues like this can be talked about rationally without starting a fight. I wish to offend no one, just to start a different sort of conversation about this—a clinical discussion.
I’m talking about the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law in Florida. Do I think promulgating this law was politically motivated? Absolutely, shamefully so. But—and this is a big but—there is some truth to the law. Please let me explain.
I worked for 37 years as a clinical social worker. During that time, I worked with thousands of children and their families. In my training, we were taught that all human beings go through psychological “stages” as they mature. Those stages have different names depending on which authority you consult, but they all look at the developmental tasks children must complete in their growth. Children from Kindergarten through grade 3 are focusing on relationships—learning to share, building empathy—and also learning foundational skills in reading, writing, mathematics, etc.
One school of thought refers to this period as “latency,” a time when sexuality takes a back seat to these other skills. Of course, children are “sexual beings” from the beginning of their lives, but sex isn’t the focus at this time. Certainly, they may occasionally “play doctor” or ask “where babies come from,” but good parents give brief, child-friendly answers and direct them back to other activities.
Sexual abuse at this time of life is particularly harmful because it pushes the child out of “latency” and “sexualizes” them—sex becomes the focus of their thoughts and behaviors. They may abuse other children as they were abused. Interpersonal relationships suffer. Academic skills falter.
Please understand: I’m not claiming that teaching these very young children in school about LGBTQ matters is abusive, only that it’s too early for them to process it, and it poses a risk of making sex a focus of their lives when there are other issues that need their attention.
I don’t mean to offend my gay, lesbian, transgender brothers and sisters. And I wholeheartedly celebrate diversity in our society and equality under the law. I just have doubts that teaching Kindergartners in school about these things is the way to go. I would love to hear back from some child psychologists and psychiatrists to fact-check whether I’m making any sense or not.
This month, I am interviewing USA Today Best-Selling Author April Aasheim. Her Amazon page describes her as an avid reader and researcher, an amateur ghost hunter, an author of witchy things, and a believer in all things magick. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family and her familiar, Boots the Cat.
Will: April, you are arguably one of the most successful indie authors on the West Coast, if not in the country. If I’ve counted correctly, you have five series out there, with more on the way, I presume. The first book of your juggernaut series, The Daughters of DarkRoot, has 1123 reviews on Amazon the last time I looked. What’s the secret to your success?
April: Thank you for that kind introduction.
As for my success, I used to think it was just marketing, and then nurturing your readership. Get eyes on your book and it will be read. But I now know that’s not entirely true. That’s only a few pieces of the puzzle. My Dark Root series do sell well. But when I wrote my Alchemy of a Witch series, which took place in another time with different characters, my readers didn’t all follow. (Even though I love this series).
So, I think the real secret to success is to just write. Write from the heart. Connect with people. Bring them into your world. My first book took 18 months to write, and I put my heart and soul in it. People responded. I still get emails and messages telling me how much my books meant to them. If you can get a reader to feel something, they’re going to remember you. The marketing only works if you have a product people want to buy.
Will: When did you first realize you were a writer? Can you give us a glimpse of your process?
April: I knew in first grade. I just knew. The teachers would always ask what we wanted to be and I’d always say, a novelist.
As for my process, the first thing is to sit down and write. I dedicate most every day, 9-11:30, Monday through Friday, to writing, rain or shine. This has taken a toll on my personal relationships at times, but it was important to me, and if something is important you find a way to do it. I also write most nights for an hour. One thing I am working on in 2022 is more balance. I’ve written 18 books now, and I think I’m ready to try other things too.
When I sit down to write, I first close my eyes and decide what must come in the scene. Then I just let my imagination go and it usually comes to me. Once you shut your brain off, your imagination can run wild. As soon as I’ve ‘seen’ the scene, I open my laptop and write it out as quick as I can, then fix it later. I notice when I don’t meditate first, it’s much harder to work out the scene.
Will: Not long after I started to read The Daughters of Dark Root, it occurred to me that although there’s plenty of paranormal stuff going on, that just serves as the backdrop or context for a saga of family relationships—mother/daughter, sister/sister—as well as a story of the growing independence and empowerment of a young woman. What was your inspiration for that series?
April: I had moved from Arizona to Portland, and was missing my siblings at the time, and I was nostalgic for our childhood. When you have siblings, especially as many as I have (5!) there is going to be drama. But through everything, love. So, a lot of the characters were drawn from my own sisters—at least pieces of them. And of course, a lot of the main character, Maggie, was drawn from my own tempestuous youth.
Miss Sasha, the matriarch and coven leader of the council, was based on my own mom. I’ve always had a complex relationship with my mother—who was a free-spirited, witchy woman who read tarot cards and removed curses. She was mostly ‘love and light,’ but had a dark side, too. One of the scenes in The Witches of Dark Root finds Maggie trapped in a dark room with a spirit, and Maggie is terrified. That came directly from childhood. I was afraid of ghosts and my mom thought the best way to get me over it was to put me in a dark room until I wasn’t afraid. It backfired. And to this day, I sleep with a nightlight. Writers often put their trauma into stories. That’s how we cope. Still, I loved and admired my mother until the day she died last fall. And she gave me plenty of writing material.
Will: Can you tell us about some of your other books? Do you have any favorites?
April: I absolutely love the Alchemy of a Witch series. I decided spontaneously to write a medieval witchy series set during the plague and witch hunts. As luck, or misfortune would have it, a few weeks after I started writing the first book, COVID hit. And so, I was experiencing the world of fear and suspicion, right along with my main character.
The story is an epic tale of a woman fleeing her village when the Witch Hunter General accuses her and her mother of starting the plague. During her travels, she meets an alchemist, who teaches her the ways of magick and transmutation. Later, she meets a priestess, a hedge witch, and a shapeshifter. And through these encounters learns more about magick and herself.
The research for this series was intense. I learned that alchemists were not only real, but there were many of them, including Paracelsus and Isaac Newton. Some even worked for kings. They worked to turn lead into gold, and to find eternal life. Most had to labor in secret, and write their recipes in code, for fear of being labeled a heretic or a sorcerer, and hung.
The book became bigger as the research grew, and one book turned into four. I love how the story turned out, and I adore the characters. Now, I’m obsessed with alchemy.
Will: You’ve told us you recently lost your mother. If it’s not too personal, can you share how that has impacted your creativity?
April: Thank you for that thoughtful question.
Well, my mom did provide me lots of writing material. She took me on adventures as a kid not many others got to experience. We were on the carnival circuit for several years, lived in a ghost town, and even a taco truck. And now that she’s gone the world seems a bit less colorful.
Luckily, I take my pain and write through it, and that’s where some of my best scenes come. And also understanding. I miss her every day, but she was my biggest fan, and I know she’d want me to keep writing. As a final gift to me, she left a review on my book The Good Girl’s Guide to Being a Demon, just a few weeks before she passed. And I didn’t find out until afterwards.
I believe my mom is here with me, and though I would give anything to have one more day with her, her presence is too big to be doused by her death. And now I feel freer to write my memoire, which I’ve always wanted to do, but wasn’t sure I could without hurting her.
Will: Marketing books well requires a whole different set of skills from writing good books, and for an indie author, that can be quite daunting. What methods of promoting your works have you found to be the most successful?
April: It changes yearly, if not weekly, haha.
Social media of course. I’m trying TikTok now, but it’s a challenge for me to keep up. Facebook worked for a while, and Twitter does sometime. There are also places you can promote your books for a fee, but I recommend waiting until you have a few books before you pay for that.
Network with other authors in similar genres. Do projects with them, like anthologies or signings. Do newsletter swaps and giveaways with them. Other writers are not your rivals. A book may take a week to read but a year to write, so your readers will need something else to keep them occupied until your next book comes out.
Will: Do you have any advice you would like to share with other indie writers?
April: Write from your heart. Invest in nice covers. Network with fellow writers. Develop a thick skin. Take feedback from bad reviews, but don’t let them cripple you. Savor the good reviews. This is a world of ups and downs. Some days you sell, others you may not. Love your books, whether others do or not. They are a piece of yourself.
Will: April, thank you so much for taking the time to share your experiences with us. You’ve given us a lot to think about!
For my readers who would like to know more about April and her books, click here to go to her website.
Ginger Bensman was awarded a Ph.D. in Human Development from the University of Maine in Orono in 1993 and spent 25 years directing programs for at-risk children and their struggling families. But she was always a writer, too, and now she writes whenever she’s not reading or gardening or watching her grandsons grow. She lives with her husband here in Salem.
Will: Ginger, tell me how you discovered that you were a writer?
Ginger: Every night at bedtime, my father read fairytales, or would make up adventure stories about my brother and me. I loved those stories! But mostly, as far as written materials and books were concerned, my family would rather be physically active outdoors than reading. We hiked, and camped, and fished. My father hunted and my mother loved gardening, canning, picnics and huge extended family get togethers. In our house, we had children’s books, our local newspaper, a subscription to Readers Digest Condensed Books, and a set of encyclopedias my parents bought for my brother and me. Otherwise, there weren’t a lot of books. I didn’t discover the public library until my sophomore year in high school, during a stretch when I was moody and sad, and having a tough time. The library was a place I could go to be alone, sequestered among the stacks. Books became my refuge. Through them, I could venture out of myself. I discovered David Copperfield, Jane Eyre, Silas Marner, The Count of Monte Cristo, Green Mansions, Gone with the Wind, the novels of John Steinbeck, D.H. Lawrence, Jane Austen. It seemed to me then, and still does, that those writers achieved an almost impossible kind of magic—and I wanted to do it too.
Will: Can you give us a glimpse into your writing process? Do you have a special time and place for writing? Do you write every day?
Ginger: Before Covid, I would take a notebook or my laptop to a coffee shop or restaurant mid-morning or after the lunch rush when there were lots of empty tables and the waitstaff was happy to bring me a cup of tea or a latte and leave me to my work. It was an environment where I could slip into a sense of space and detachment, and escape into my own head with the characters on the page and the rhythm of words. I miss those times, and that open sense of possibility.
Now, most days, I spend a couple hours writing in my study. I know how lucky I am to have such a pleasant place to work, but I’m anxious to get back to my table at the coffee shop.
Will: Do you work from an outline?
Ginger: I don’t use an outline, but I do have a plan when I begin a writing project. I start with a character, the rough arc of a story, and an image of how the story will end. And then I sit, and walk, think, and put in time staring at the page. Sometimes, listening to music that evokes the mood of a scene helps. I am a painstaking writer. I ponder each sentence, and I don’t do rough drafts. For me, writing is like laying brick, one solid, intentional layer at a time.
Will: When I read your novel, To Swim Beneath the Earth, I was struck by how poetic your prose is, by your uncanny ability to find precisely the right word for your descriptions, elevating the ordinary to the sublime. It seems magical. How do you do that?
Ginger: What a kind thing to say! Thank you. Finding the perfect word, or phrase, or cadence, is the thing I love most about writing. I do a lot of research with a special focus on elemental things, those experiences encountered so often they tend to happen below awareness. I use Google images and YouTube videos to help me be more present with the thing I plan to write about. I like to visualize actions in slow-motion, to notice the nuances. When it’s possible, I duplicate an experience myself. And, of course, I’m a huge fan of the thesaurus. If I can render something mundane in a way that makes it sensory and vivid, I’m happy.
Will: I see you’ve used some professional review services to promote your novel, including Kirkus Reviews and The San Francisco Book Review. Is that something you’d recommend to other indie authors?
Ginger: Recommend—that depends. Getting a professional review is certainly something for an indie author to consider. I did it for two reasons: First, because I wanted an objective professional assessment of my novel from a recognized source—a sort of “seal of approval” (or disapproval) before going public as an indie author. Second, if the reviews were positive, I could use quotable excerpts on my novel’s back cover and in promotional materials. The downside is that getting a professional review is expensive, and an indie author would have to sell a lot of copies to recoup the cost. Would I do it again? Yes, those “esteemed” encouraging words gave me the confidence to self-publish.
Will: Please tell us about your short story, “When the Heat’s Off.” What was the inspiration for that?
Ginger: “When the Heat’s Off” is about Ella, an elderly widowed, shut-in, and the two young punks who break into her house with a plan to take her for all she’s worth. Trouble is, Ella may not be as docile as she seems.
This story was so much fun to write! The character of Ella is a tip-of-the-hat to the beautiful silver-haired Ella MacHolland who lived next door to my family when I was growing up. She was a feisty widow who told stories about how Confederate Soldiers commandeered the animals from her family’s farm and stole the clothes right off the clothesline.
Will: What are your thoughts about “novel versus short story?”
Ginger: A short story needs to be tightly organized, there’s less room for digression. A novel, on the other hand, gives the author broad latitude, and that can be daunting. A short story is like a close-up photograph of a single flower, while a novel is more akin to a landscape. I love them both.
Will: I understand you have a new project in the works. Would you open the curtain a bit and tell us about it?
Ginger: My current project is a novel titled Minor Insults about two sisters in the second half of their lives confronting past differences and the pitfalls of aging. In our Western culture, aging often comes with a loss of autonomy and a host of social and institutional indignities. Many of the most egregious indignities are heaped on the aging with, what amounts to, a scolding finger and a “for your own good” kind of parental arrogance. If we live long enough, age comes for all of us. In the end, it’s how we respond.
Will: Do you have any advice you would share with other new authors, especially those who may be on the fence about whether to pursue traditional publishing or go independent?
Ginger: Traditional publishing is not always a choice. I wanted an agent and a traditional publishing contract for To Swim. I spent several years submitting to agents via conferences and mail-in submissions before I decided to self-publish. These days, a whole industry has evolved to guide and support independent authors, but promoting an independent book takes resources, persistence, and an astonishing set of skills (many that don’t come easily if you are an introverted author like me). Most indie authors I know do it for love, not money. But, make no mistake, seeing your book in print is a heady beautiful thing.
Will: Ginger, thank you so much for your time and your insights. I am anxiously awaiting your new novel!
For more about Ginger and her writing, click here to be taken to her website.
Had not my daughter insisted, I would have gone to my grave never having eaten a raw oyster, and I would have been much the poorer for that. During a trip to San Diego last year, she introduced me to them. On our trip last week, I knew she had changed my life.
I’m sure ambience is important, and there are volumes to be written about the atmosphere in Little Italy, a suburb rich in culture and glorious food. Our go-to destination has never disappointed us. Although no visit is complete without a classic Italian dinner at Buon Appetito on India Street, (this trip, it was the superlative Osso Buco on a bed of risotto), our seafood target is Ironside Fish and Oyster across the street. In fact, it was so good, we had dinner there one evening and went back when it opened for lunch the next day!
The restaurant itself is rather playful, with a giant octopus hanging over the diners and ship figureheads high in the corners. The entry on Yelp says that Michelin star chef Jason McLeod is in charge.
There were four of us eating, and my daughter ordered 24 oysters. There were half a dozen varieties of oysters to choose from, and she chose the two smallest kinds, which she considers to be the sweetest. The oysters were arranged in a circle on a bed of ice on a round plate with fresh lemon wedges and little metal cups of champagne vinaigrette and horseradish. My preferred method of eating them was with only a few drops of the vinaigrette.
Sipping an oyster from its shell is a wonder like no other—the fresh breath of the sea, the delicate taste of the oyster, the bright taste of the chilled Chardonnay afterward. Truly, it elevates a culinary experience to a spiritual one. The simplicity and the elegance evoke images of fine art and music. It is cuisine as poetry.
The master of letters, Ernest Hemingway, said it best in A Moveable Feast, when he wrote:
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
From her Author Central Page on Amazon: ” Samantha Henthorn was born in1970something in Bury, England. She used to be a nurse, now she is a disabled author… After a diagnosis of MS in 2005, Samantha eventually accepted early retirement in 2014. Looking for an occupation where she can work at her own pace, Samantha drew on her observation skills and imagination to start writing. Samantha often feels as though she is living in a sitcom and this is reflected in her style.
Will: When did you first realize you were a writer? Do you have a particular schedule for writing, a special place for doing it, some kind of routine?
Samantha: I have to think about this one! I have a memory of owning a Matchbox Doll; I called her Maude and wrote the word ‘AUTHOR’ on her cardboard bed-slash-coffin. I was about five or six years old, and already searching for a pseudonym to deflect responsibility from myself (the doll was the author, not me). Many years later, the final post of my nursing career was community-based. We would train student nurses regularly. I would tell them that I was a bestselling author but gave it all up to pursue a nursing career, and my colleague would tell them he used to be in a band (also not true). It wasn’t until I eventually accepted early retirement for health reasons in 2014 that I started writing full time. I enrolled for a non-accredited creative writing course at the local library. Eight years later, I’m in the final year of my creative writing degree and have published twelve books.
Yes, I do have a routine, physiotherapy first thing in the morning, then I have a rest, then I write (getting dressed, looking on social media, eating and drinking are included in that time).
I have a few different places I like to write in my house but I do have an ambition to be ‘one of those writers’ who turns up at a pub and spends the day writing and possibly drinking – I know I wouldn’t get anything done though.
Will: The humor of your Curmudgeon Avenue series has really helped me get through this seemingly unending pandemic. Please tell us about the series. What was your original inspiration for it?
Samantha: Nice one Will! Curmudgeon Avenue actually started out as a short story. The tutor of the library course mentioned above tasked us with writing a five-hundred-word piece titled ‘Winter’. It was October at the time and as I drove home, not only was I greeted by falling leaves and autumn sun, I was reminded of the four-storey Victorian houses on the main road in Whitefield (North Manchester). I used to get stuck in traffic here on my way home from work and would often see lights on in the front rooms of those houses; people already at home enjoying their evenings. I wondered what was going on in their lives, and so I wrote the fictional version. The reason I used the word ‘Curmudgeon’ was that during the week, Mr Henthorn and I went to the supermarket. I hadn’t regained confidence in walking and was still using rollator wheelchair. A man pulled up beside us in the car park and started waving his fist at us – we had parked in the last disabled bay but he wanted the space. ‘What a curmudgeon’ I thought – and there was my title.
Will: In the throes of the pandemic, you participated with some other authors in a charity project, What We Did During Lockdown. Can you share with us what that experience was like for you?
Samantha: The pamphlet? What We Did During Lockdown is just four stories and one poem. How it came about was my response to suggestions of ‘what you should write is…’ During the pandemic, there were several charity endeavours here in the UK; 100-year-old Captain Tom Moore walking up and down his garden and so on. I posted to Facebook ‘now is your chance to put all those ideas to good use’. The friends who came forward weren’t the busybodies who had tried to tell me what to write. It was great fun, and everyone we collectively knew bought a copy. The money raised was (not much) donated to Bury Hospice. I still donate monthly, just in case anyone orders a copy. The next collaboration I have planned is with the multi-talented voice actor Lindsay McKinnon (more of this later).
Will: You’ve recently published a new novel, My Half-Sister’s Half-Sister. Can you give us an inside look at it?
Samantha: I wanted to write a story about witches for as long as I can remember (I am named after one!) My Half-Sister’s Half-Sister is set mostly in a pub near Pendle (notorious for the 1612 witch trials). Protagonist Epiphany hates her name and everything about herself. She is struggling to cope after the lockdown ends and just as she reaches her lowest point she is visited by Sadie, her half-sister’s half-sister. Sadie becomes the supporter that Epiphany (Pippa for short) never had; she eases all her woes and convinces her that her mother and sister are witches (and therefore left her out of the coven).
Things don’t add up with Sadie, for a start, Pippa is the only person to have seen her and soon, secrets are revealed and twists are turned. Pippa is shown to be immature for her age, and making little progress in life. Without giving anything away, one Goodreads reviewer wrote: ‘We are left to guess at what is real and what is not real.’
Pippa struggles with her mental health throughout the book, but it turns out to be more serious than first thought with scenes of heavy drinking and hospital admission. Pippa has a positive outcome from seeking help, which is the real reason I wrote this book. I am a retired RMN and I know how difficult it is for people to take the first step to recovery.
Will: What do you think about the writing of short stories? Your two collections, QuirkyTales to Make Your Day and The Queen’s Speech come to mind. Can you tell us about them?
Samantha: I think short stories are a great way to convey a seed that would be better suited to a quick read than a full-length novel. When I wrote Quirky Tales to Make Your Day, I had entered a few writing competitions, and eventually was longlisted a few times in the now defunct 1000 Word Challenge. Those stories ended up in the collection. The Queen’s Speech arose from the research I did for my 2017 novel 1962: (An uplifting tale of 1960s Lancashire). Not only did I read information, I spoke to my parents. Mum could not remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, but Dad told me he was petrified. They also spoke to their counterparts and fed any information about that year back to me. I also met a former school dinner lady who told me she had been trained to cut deep into the meat (in the event of nuclear fallout) to prevent poisoning children with radiation. ‘What difference will it make?’ she told me.
I have another short story collection planned with my talented colleague and wonderful friend Lindsay McKinnon. We met almost three years ago when Lindsay started narrating Curmudgeon Avenue.
Will: In your newsletter, you’ve spoken about the process of making your novels into audiobooks and the narrator with whom you’ve been working. What’s that been like for you?
Samantha: Audiobooks are a game changer. When I received the email from ACX to let me know that someone had auditioned to narrate Curmudgeon Avenue, I was overwhelmed. More so when I heard Lindsay’s voice. Lindsay McKinnon is multi talented, she can do any accent and she is hilarious. When I heard the first few sentences of Curmudgeon Avenue I nearly cried – the only thing that prevented me exploding with tears of joy was that I tried to place the voice. She sounded FAMOUS. She sounded like Joanna Lumley doing the Galaxy Chocolate advert (I hope that translates to the US – basically, the most gorgeous voice you’ll ever hear). Lindsay came to meet me, and I was even more astounded – she could have been from anywhere in the world, but Lindsay lives just up the road from me! We have become firm friends and as already mentioned plan to write a short story collection together. Lindsay has shared a few of her stories with me already. The world is in for a treat. This woman can make getting her gas boiler fixed into a hilarious and thought-provoking three-part drama. I’ll be adding my story about a woman who thinks Gene Simmons is her daddy and a few more. We did our first author event two years ago at Radcliffe Library just before the lockdown started, and the librarian commented in all her years in the book business she had never met a narrator and an author who got along so well. Obviously, Lindsay and I are meant to be the next big writing team to hail from the UK… and if you need any proof of that listen to the audiobook of My Half-Sister’s Half-Sister when it is published soon. It is the most delightful thing I have exposed my ears to in a long time. I have invited Lindsay along to help me answer this question by sharing her bio:
Lindsay McKinnon wrote performed and staged her first performances in the backyard of her Liverpool home at the age of seven. Following three years at Drama College, her career has included work as an actor, singer, writer and stand-up comedian. Lindsay continued to perform as a singer after returning from ten years living in Canada. In recent years, Lindsay has built a small studio and followed a long-held dream of being a voice artist/ narrator. This is how Lindsay first made contact with the brilliantly funny author, Samantha Henthorn. Lindsay and Samantha are a match made in heaven (or at the very least, North West England).
Will: Are you working on a new project that you might give us a glimpse into?
Samantha: Of course! I’m always having story ideas. At the moment I have a few poems on the go for the MS society and am in the final year of my degree meaning I will produce three pieces of fiction before May this year. After the course, I plan to write these narratives as novels. They will all be quirky contemporary fiction, two of which will be psychological thrillers.
Will: Do you have any advice you’d like to give to other indie authors?
Samantha: Yes I do. GO FOR IT, and KEEP AT IT. Remember to take your own advice before the overwhelming amount of instruction you’ll find on the internet. If you are looking for books on the craft (and I’m sure you’ve heard this), Stephen King’s On Writing and Joanne Harris’s Ten Things About Writing are superb books. The only other thing I’ll say is that reading, reviewing and networking with other indie authors is worth its weight in gold.
Thank you, William.
Will: Thank you so much, Samantha. I really appreciate your taking the time to share highlights from your author’s journey.
To learn more about Samantha and her books, click here.
I’d like to introduce you to a favorite indie author of mine. From the bio on his website: “L. Wade Powers is the pen name for fiction written by Lawrence Wade Powers, a retired academic dean and professor emeritus of natural sciences. He’s the author of a textbook and several papers on hematology, monographs and papers on marine biology and animal behavior, and articles on the history of the Pacific Northwest, especially the Klamath Basin of eastern Oregon. Larry lives in Eastern Oregon with a beautiful wife, a very strange cat, and surrounded by four seasons of glorious nature, except for the damned midges.”
Will: Tell us about your craft. How do you approach writing? Do you write every day? Do you develop an outline or are you what some call a “pantser?” How long have you been at it?
Larry: I write when I feel like it, which means on some days, or weeks, not at all. It might be morning after coffee and breakfast, late afternoon, or late at night when I get strange looks from our cat. I don’t use time or word quotas for measures of productivity. It’s not that these approaches are wrong, but I just have too much fun being sporadic and lazy. Some novels may start with an outline, subject to extensive revision, but most short stories start with an idea or an opening paragraph, what I call the “Ray Bradbury approach.” I fooled around with some ideas and put them away about fifteen years ago, but didn’t start writing fiction until I retired in 2013. It is only since 2017, however, that it has been a truly active pastime.
Will: Your first novel, The Home: One Year in a Children’s Institution, is a different take on the coming-of-age story. What was your inspiration for it?
Larry: Like many beginning writers, I began with what I know best, a hybrid of my real life experiences combined with flights of fancy. I spent six months in the Sacramento Children’s Home in 1956–57. Many of the characters are based on real people (most but not all of the names are changed). About half of the incidents happened (social doings at the junior high, the snake men, the rec hall parties, the flirtations and sexual encounters). Other events are figments of an overindulged imagination.
Will: You have two amazing volumes of short stories, Falling in Love and Other Misadventures, and Confronting the Boundaries: short stories real and unreal. Unlike many “post-modern” stories, yours have plot, as well as a beginning, a middle, and an end, not to mention a cast of extraordinary characters. Tell us about them. What are your thoughts on the “genre” of the short story?
Larry: Some of the stories follow real life occurrences faithfully (e.g., “The Trove”), others are mostly real (“Lawnmower Ted”), others completely off of my inner wall (“The Shroud”). Diverse characters have always fascinated me, in addition to the growing and learning scenarios we all experience. I was a nature nerd and slow to arrive at the threshold of sexual awareness. I also didn’t get a driver’s license until I was twenty, an unforgiveable crime in California. The awkwardness of confronting maturity and its myriad obligations and expectations runs through a number of my musings (“Odometer Moments,” “The Omaha Two-Step,” “Fig Newton”).
I believe that depicting character is a challenge in short stories because the need for brevity restricts the development of back story. The best short story writers get right to it, bang, and you’re immersed in the tale. Choose words carefully, waste no space. Some of my favorite writers are Edgar Allan Poe, Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, Karen Russell, and Joyce Carol Oates.
Will: I think I’m still chuckling after reading The Party House: Texas Gulf Coast Schemes and Dreams. How autobiographical is the tale of a graduate student studying fiddler crabs for his doctoral dissertation?
Larry: The Party House is based on my time as a graduate student at the University of Texas Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas. The setting, including the community bar and social club were real, as were some of the characters, but as with The Home, I added fictional elements. I did study fiddler crabs (thus, the cover with a crab and a glass of beer), received my doctorate, and took my first jobs in New York City as a professor at City College and a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History. The craziest events depicted in the novel actually happened.
Will: You’ve recently ventured into historical fiction with your book, New Albion Sunset: Drake’s Lost English Outpost in North America, 1579. While it is a novel, I understand you did extensive research and present an interesting hypothesis about Drake and the Golden Hinde. Give us the juicy details!
Larry: The reason for placing Drake in the Pacific Northwest, specifically British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon, rests on the studies and publications of several people: Bob Ward of Newport, Oregon, Garry Gitzen of Wheeler, Oregon, and Melissa Darby (Thunder Go North). They and many others have recently presented evidence that Drake’s long lost Novo Albion occurred well north of California, despite commercial interests during the twentieth century to place his anchorage in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am convinced the current scholars and investigators are correct and the appendix to the novel includes supporting materials: maps, references, and historical chronologies that support the theme of a northern landing, a missing ship, a fortune in silver, and the fates of about two dozen men left behind as the Golden Hinde returned to England. I now have an extensive library on Drake and the Elizabethan times, but we won’t know the truth of these competing claims until hard archeological evidence is uncovered. The location of that evidence is described in the appendix.
Will: Your latest novel, The Sagebrush Hotel Tontine: A Tale of Treasure and Treachery, is a character study of a group of poker players who come upon a trove of gold they can’t dispose of right away. They make a survivors’ agreement—a tontine—that later morphs into a “dead pool”—last one standing takes it all. Where did that story come from?
Larry: I play poker, small stakes, live, not online. My dad taught me the game when I was twelve and I like the action, the fun, the mystery of the competition around the table. There are a lot of metaphors for real life situations, and I trotted out a few of those for the novel. The novel started as the story of a drifter returning to a small town to reclaim a shared treasure. I focused on the old hotel and the memories it invoked in Johnny, my male protagonist. I set it aside for over two years before creating the prologue about the gold bullion. The idea of a tontine has always fascinated me. As explained in the author notes following the novel, tontines started as insurance and investment mechanisms in Europe a few hundred years ago. Relating a tontine to a dead pool provides the mystery for a group of characters, not all of whom have good intentions. The woman pictured on the cover represents Brandy, my female protagonist, so there is a bit of romantic intrigue also thrown into the pot.
Will: Can you give us a sneak peek at your current project?
Larry: I am currently working on a novel with the manuscript name of SurrogaCity. It stands for Surrogate City, a future community (former San Francisco) in a world-wide gynocracy, a global cooperative governed by women. Most men (98%) thirty years from now are sterile and the ones who aren’t are maintained in reverse harems to protect them and the future of the human race. Conflicts abound as women try to decide whether to rely on artificial insemination and long-term sperm storage. There are rebels, men and women, outside of the domed cities who oppose the new order, but climate change is being addressed and there hasn’t been a war since women have assumed command.
Will: Wow! Sounds fascinating! Do you have any more comments about your craft or your road to publishing? Is there any advice you’d like to give to new indie writers?
Larry: Writing as an indie author is challenging in many ways, but the advantages of control and full royalty payment, in my opinion, compensate for the loss of commercial marketing associated with a traditional publisher. I can still receive full and competent design and editing services, which I pay for, but have the book out in stores and on the Internet in four months, instead of a couple of years. My advice? Explore the possibilities, compare costs (financial and labor effort), and believe that in this publishing era, you can be successful. There is a tremendous community of indie authors to help, offer advice, and provide encouragement. Of course, the best advice for any would-be writer is always, READ!
Will: Larry, thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights with us. It’s such fun to get a glimpse of how a writer creates the books we come to enjoy so much. To my readers, click hereto zip over to Larry’s website and check out his whole bibliography. I wouldn’t be surprised if you find your next favorite book there!
Michael Gardner, whom I interviewed for my December newsletter, is an indie author from New Zealand. I’d like to introduce him to you by reprinting the bio he’s posted on Goodreads.
1.Why do I write? I write because I have an obsession with writing which borders on a mental disorder. I’ve often wondered if I can get medicated for this condition, but it’s much cheaper and easier to spend time at a keyboard.
2. How long have I been at it? I’d love to tell you I had some magical writing awakening, but the truth is I’ve been writing since I could combine a noun and a verb to form a sentence. Not sure when that was or what I used. Probably the red crayon on the kitchen wall incident. It was a good story, but not well-received.
3. What is my inspiration? I’m inspired to write so I don’t have to find another pastime. I’ve tried stamp collecting, golf and other forms of self-harm, and writing seems to be the least destructive to my mental well-being and the environment. I also have an allergy to churning out books in a specific genre, which makes me a difficult author to follow. Sorry about that.
4. Do I have a pet, is it cute and what’s its name? I do have a pet. My wife thinks it’s cute. It’s actually the embodiment of evil with a soft coat. Amongst other names, I call it the Anti-Bob. If you’d like to know why, read The End and Other Stories.
Will: As a fan, I was delighted when you gathered eight of your separately published stories into one volume, Outside Inside. Do you have some “back story” about that process and those stories in particular that you can share with us? What do you believe are the elements of a good short story?
Michael: They all come from completely different places, which sounds contradictory considering they all came out of me. For example, Henry & Isa started as a dream. Goddammit, Larry! was inspired by a glitch in a video game I love to play. And Alexander Rollins Must Die came to me fully formed as I was going to the supermarket. Don’t ask me what grocery shopping has to do with a black comedy metafiction story.
I guess the point is that inspiration strikes us in unusual and unexpected ways. We have to tune in to those moments and embrace them. Or find a really good therapist. Short stories are an interesting beast. For years, I had the ridiculous notion that a short story was what people wrote if they weren’t good enough to craft a novel. It’s absolute nonsense. In many ways short stories are easier than novels, but in many ways they’re much harder.
With a novel, you have time to explore the story in depth, chase various ghosts, sidetrack down mysterious pathways. With a short story, you have to leap into the deep end of the pool and hope you can swim, or that the pool isn’t filled with hydrochloric acid. It demands finding the protagonist’s voice, conflict and goals as quickly as possible, then chasing them relentlessly to a conclusion in the most compressed form of storytelling you can muster.
Will: Your novel Rescue One is a page-turning thrill ride. Please tell us about how you created that.
Michael: I always wanted to be a writer. But for many years, I had a bee in my bonnet about it. Writers felt like mystical, elusive creatures, and I couldn’t quite see myself in that role. The early moral of the story is: follow your dreams, don’t listen to that voice.
Anyway, cutting a long story short, I spent five of my best working years (before becoming a self-employed writer) at my local rescue helicopter service. I flew a desk, not the chopper. But the rescue crew were an inspiring group of men and women who have left a mark on me for life.
One year, I was asked to run the strategy meeting. I never take a conventional approach to anything, so as a warm-up, I made everyone play a party game called ‘And the consequence was…’ You give each person a sheet of paper and a pen. Each person writes a line from a predetermined set of story ideas. You fold the paper over so each line is hidden and pass it to the next person in the circle. I changed the story ideas to imagining what the rescue helicopter service would be like one hundred years into the future. At the end of the session, you unravel the paper and read the story. Everyone was weeping with laughter.
And so I decided to ignore that voice and start writing a book, which became Rescue One.
Will: Your droll sense of humor is practically a trademark of your writing. Does that humor come easily for you? Does it have roots in your family?
Michael: My family are a very sensible bunch of people. I’m the one with the droll sense of humour. I like to laugh and give other people a good laugh too. From a writing perspective, you can create very powerful moments if you write funny scenes and deliver them deadpan. It’s simple juxtaposition really, layering contrasting ideas into scenes to give the story different nuances.
Will: You are a master at developing quirky characters to inhabit your stories. Are there some “tricks of the trade” you might share with us about how you do that?
Michael: I’m a big fan of the antihero. All my protagonists are antiheroes, even the high-achieving ones. For me, flawed characters are more human, relatable and interesting to write. I think it’s important to love all your characters, including the villains. If you enjoy writing them, that enthusiasm comes through on the page for the reader.
Will: Do you have any advice for other indie authors, things you’ve learned along your own creative journey?
Michael: Write because you want to tell other people your story. Do it for no other reason than that. If you write with pure determination to produce a good book, with no expectation of getting anything in return, you’ll do your best work.
And, as above, don’t listen to the voice.
Will: Thank you, Michael. My readers and I appreciate your taking the time to speak with us. Catch up with Michael and all his books by clicking on his picture above.