Interview with Luanne Castle, Author of Doll God

Although today is technically the end of National Poetry Month, my poetry reviews for #NPM15 will continue into May because I read way more books than I thought for the month, thanks to the Dewey 24-hour read-a-thon!

To wrap up this year’s National Poetry Month tour, I’ve got a great interview with Luanne Castle, author of Doll God (my review).

“This emotional collection will take a toll on its readers, but the journey will leave them changed in terms of perspective and renewed in that they will want to live more fully and enjoy each moment in the moment.” — Savvy Verse & Wit

Please give her a warm welcome.

1.  Re-examining our childhood and our pasts is something that echoes throughout your collection, Doll God, and there is a deep sense of anxiety and loss tied to those reflections.  When did you first start examining your own childhood and past and how does anxiety and loss tie into that self-examination?

My childhood has always loomed over me, both for its anxieties and its imaginative qualities.  I also write and have published prose based on my childhood experiences. When I was a little girl my father built a bomb shelter in our basement. We were in the middle of the Cold War, and there was fear and tension in our lives because we thought “The Bomb” could drop at any moment.  So childhood has always crept into my poetry, although I didn’t start to examine it with purpose until about 6 or 7 years ago, which is when I began to spend more time writing.

2.  Dolls are prevalent throughout the collection.  Do you think dolls still play a pivotal role in young girl’s lives? And how do you think their role has changes with the evolution of technology?

Dolls are still important to society–and to many young girls. When I was a kid not all girls preferred dolls to other toys, and that is still true. Even I had as much fun with my cement mixer and “army men” as I did with my dolls at certain periods in my life. Actually, army men are really dolls, now that I think about it! But dolls have stayed close to the essence of my childhood. Boys also were given dolls when I was a kid. We were probably the first generation where boys like my brother were given G.I. Joe dolls. My brother had Chatty Cathy’s baby brother with a sweater and cap knitted by my grandmother. Since then, so many different dolls and doll-like figurines have been created for both boys and girls.

Technology has slightly altered the doll-scape in two ways. We have many “throwaway dolls.” By that I mean that the discretionary income and low-cost overseas production has created an abundance of dolls found on the shelves of Target, Wal-Mart, and Toys R Us. Dolls are often $5-10 birthday presents for girls. Too many Barbies? Lose one at the grocery store, pull off the head of another. For many fortunate children, there will always be another Barbie. The other way technology has affected the doll industry is that dolls are produced to capitalize on the popularity of movies, television shows, and computer games. While this trend started 100 years ago, it has grown as technology has grown. Now a huge portion of dolls at the major store chains are related to these technologies.

3.  How much of your poetry is autobiographical?  How far does it stray from your own life?  In other words, where is the line between fact and fiction?

Sometimes a poem starts out autobiographical and strays into the fictional without me even realizing it. Other times a poem might begin as fiction, but by the time it’s completed, it has incorporated a lot of elements from my own life experiences.  A reader would be hard pressed to find the “line” between the two in my work. And I think that is as it should be–to read poetry as confessional is dangerous and limits the reader, the poem, and the poet.

4.  Do you still collect dolls?  How many are or were in your collection?

I didn’t begin an actual doll collection until my daughter grew out of her dolls. When she was no longer interested in them, I became fascinated and still have all of hers. As a child I had baby dolls, but that was because once I was given a doll I didn’t lose it or abuse it, so over time I had a fair number. But never a collection. We didn’t have the money for that. I didn’t  even own a real Barbie. My Barbie was a Miss Suzette by Uneeda. But I did have a Ken doll and a beautiful toddler-sized walking doll who may or may not have ended up in Doll God. My husband and I love antiquing and in the past ten years I’ve accumulated quite a few dolls. I have a decent collection of Asian dolls, including Japanese hakatas. I also collect Magic Attic Club, Madame Alexander, cowboy and cowgirl, Red Riding Hood, literary, and Broadway musicals.

5.  Writing is a solitary endeavor for many authors.  How do you maintain contact with the outside, and how does that differ from the experience of reading your work aloud for an audience?

I maintain contact by connecting with my writing peeps, both in person and through email and phone calls. Then blogging and social media are other ways I feel a part of the outside world. These are important for social reasons, but also for educational purposes. I learn a lot from my fellow writers.

I am not fond of being in large groups of people, but I do enjoy the act of reading my poetry, which is a performative experience. I recently was interviewed on a morning television show and was asked to read one of my poems. That was fun. I have also been known to read to rescue kitties at the shelter once a week. In the past I’ve read my poetry at various events, but since Doll God was published, I haven’t been able to read publicly. I hope to change that in the near future.

6.  Doll God is your first collection.  How long have you been writing poetry, and how long did it take you to create your first collection?  Are you planning a second?

I first wrote poetry when I was in about 5th grade. My first poem rhymed and was about an old woman in a rocking chair. Chair is a good rhyming word.  I took up writing poetry again in high school and wrote very melancholy poems. I turned in a poem for an English class assignment and received a B+ on it–my lowest English grade. That’s when I decided that teachers shouldn’t really be putting letter grades on students’ creative writing attempts. I have a whole philosophy about the teaching of poetry.

When I started college I was encouraged to look ahead to getting a job, so I set poetry aside until my husband and I adopted our first child from Korea. I wrote a poem about picking him up at the airport and the floodgates opened. Soon after, I applied to the MFA in creative writing program at our local university and began studying writing in earnest.

My current project involves “genealogy poems” based on research I’ve done on female ancestors. I’d like to create a chapbook from these poems.

Thank you so much for hosting me, Serena. I loved that Doll God could be part of your book tour.  These questions were great fun and really made me think in ways I haven’t before.

Interview with Stephen G. Eoannou, Author of Muscle Cars

Please welcome Stephen G. Eoannou, author of the short story collection Muscle Cars, to the blog today. He and his book have been on a blog tour with Poetic Book Tours this month, and what a great way to cap off the tour with an interview.

In Muscle Cars is there one short story that you ever thought could be turned into a novel on its own? If so, which one and why?

Actually, “Slip Kid”, which really is the centerpiece of the collection, started out as a failed novel attempt. I had shoved the manuscript in a drawer, but I didn’t forget about it. I was certain there was a story there. I just had to dig through all the bad writing to get to it. I pulled the manuscript out as I was completing the collection to see if I could distill a part of it into a short story, and I did; I think “Slip Kid” was the second last story I wrote for the Muscle Cars. The mistake I made in the novel was twofold. First, there wasn’t enough at stake for the protagonist. I needed more conflict. I needed to make the situation more difficult for him with real consequences. Second, I wasn’t pleased with the novel’s language. It needed to be tougher, harder, full of more slang and vulgarity.

This was an easy fix. I just had to write the dialogue more the way my friends and I spoke in high school. I was pleased with the short story version of “Slip Kid”, but the story kept calling me back so I developed it into a short screenplay, which ended up winning the Best Short Screenplay Award at the 36th Starz Denver Film Festival. I thought I was finally done with it, but then I started thinking about developing it into feature-length screenplay. After I try that, who knows? I may go full circle and take another shot at expanding back it into another, better novel.

Could you explain a little bit about the process of entering the SFWP Literary Awards and what other contests you considered for your collection? Why enter a contest of this kind at all?

Writing contests are tricky things. There’s so many of them now and the entry fees can add up, so I was very selective of which ones I entered. I only entered contests where the awards were well-established and the judges were well known and well respected. That was certainly the case with SFWP, which is offering the awards for the fifteenth year now and have had past judges such as Chris Offutt, Robert Olen Butler, and David Morrell, who judged last year’s contest.

But I had another connection with SFWP that made me want to enter. At one time I shared an office and taught with Ken Cook at The College of Charleston, and he won the SFWP Awards back in 2002. I remember him telling me what a great experience it was and how it really jump-started his writing career. After I had finished Muscle Cars, I knew that SFWP was one of the contests I wanted to enter based on what he’d told me. Of course, I didn’t really think I would be named one of the winners. That was a wonderful surprise. I was very proud to have Kenny write a blurb for my book.  It brought things full circle for us: we both met as unpublished and hopeful writers in Charleston and we both had our first books published by SFWP as award winners.

If you had never gone to Queens University for an MFA, do you think you would have continued writing fiction or produced a collection of short stories? What did the experience do for your writing practice?

I had been writing for years in a vacuum with little success. I viewed applying to an MFA program as my last chance, my last swing at being a writer. I was more than a little surprised when I was accepted at Queens, to be honest with you. During my first residency, I went to the graduate readings and all the MFA graduates said that the program had been life changing. I remember sitting in the back of the auditorium and thinking no way is this program going to change my life, but it did. If I hadn’t gone to Queens, I still would’ve been writing but probably writing poorly. I would have been still stuck in that vacuum without a network of fellow writers to share work like I have now with my Queens alumni.

Would I have written a collection without going to Queens?

Maybe, but I suspect it wouldn’t have been as good as Muscle Cars. The collection contains two Pushcart-nominated stories, a winner of an Honor Certificate from The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and the collection is a Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Award winner. I couldn’t have done it without the MFA program at Queens; half the stories were written there and the other half was critiqued by Queens alumni after I graduated.

Many writers have been writing since a young age. What was your first piece about and what was the title? Do you still have it?

I vaguely remember being home sick from school and typing with two fingers a story about a doctor. This was maybe in the second or third grade. I don’t remember the title, but I had named my main character Dr. Weinstein after a local newscaster whose trademark was alliteration: Buffalo blaze busters battle a big one on Broadway.

I wrote a lot in the fifth and sixth grade and I gave those stories to my Aunt Helen. When she passed away, I found three of them: “The Falcon”, about a boy growing up on an Indian reservation; “What’s A Few Months More?” about a teenager in a juvenile detention center; and “The Summer of Riches” about a boy who spends the summer with his grandparents in Connecticut. Of course, I knew nothing in the fifth grade about life on a reservation, or in a juvenile detention center, or in Connecticut, but that didn’t stop me. Kids are fearless with their imaginations. By the way, I still type with two fingers. That typing class I took at Kenmore Junior High School didn’t stick.

Who are some of your influences that have informed your writing over the years? And who, if any, are your favorite poets?

When I finished reading The Hotel New Hampshire by John Irving, I remember wishing that I had written it. This was back in high school and it was the first time I remember feeling that way about a book. I loved how Irving was able to make me laugh out loud until I realized how sad it was and then my laughter stopped, like I had been slapped and slapped hard. I wanted to have that emotional swing in my writing, and was conscious of attempting that while writing stories for the collection like “Swimming Naked” and “Stealing Ted Williams’ Head”.  Soon after discovering Irving, I started reading William Kennedy. I loved his sense of place and how he made Albany come alive as a mythical place. I definitely wanted that in my writing. It was that same sense of place that drew me to Pete Hamill’s work.

When I started writing Muscle Cars, it was in the back of my mind that I wanted to do for Buffalo what those guys did for Albany and New York. Buffalo was my turf and I wanted to mine it for stories and characters. Even in stories where the city is never identified, I was thinking about my home town. People from around here will recognize the settings of “Ohio Street” and “The Wolf Boy of Forest Lawn” as Buffalo locations although I don’t think I named them as such. The city was definitely my muse for Muscle Cars.

The poetry question is interesting. I think reading poetry and becoming sensitive to rhythms, the music of words and conciseness always helps in prose writing, but I doubt the converse is true. I’ve always enjoyed Yusef Komunyakaa’s work. What’s interesting is that I heard him read his poetry before I read it.

This was in the late-eighties at a writing conference at Indiana University, I think. He is such a passionate, dramatic reader it was as if I was hearing poetry for the first time and I had to buy his books. I was mesmerized by his voice and the images he was creating in my mind. And even though I had no talent in writing poetry, I wanted my readers to “hear” and “see” my stories just as strongly as when they read and heard Komunyakaa’s poems. I tried to accomplish that by relying heavily on sensory detail. I want my readers to see “The Girl In The Window” and hear the engines in “Muscle Cars”, “Ohio Street”, and “Slip Kid”.  I want them to feel the cold and whipping wind in “Winter Night, 1994” and “Auld Lang Syne”.  If I accomplish that, I’ll have done my job.

Thanks, Stephen, for sharing your writing inspirations and influences with us today!

To check out the rest of the tour, click the image below:

Interview with Jeannine Hall Gailey, author of The Robot Scientist’s Daughter

2015PoetryMonthIn conjunction with Poetic Book Tours and the 2015 National Poetry Month Blog Tour, Jeannine Hall Gailey agreed to be interviewed about her poetry, including her new collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter.

I’ve read her poetry for several years, and I just cannot get enough.  I hope that you’ll not only check out her interview below, but also her April book tour.

A few of your collections — Becoming the Villainess and Unexplained Fevers — have reinvented and breathed new life into beloved heroines, myths, and fairy tales.  How do these stories inspire you to create the vivid and unusual narratives in your poems?  Which are some of your favorites?

At the time I was writing Becoming the Villainess, I was particularly interested in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the story of Procne and Philomel, and more unusual fairy tales, such as the story of the French fairy Melusine, which I fell in love with after researching it after reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession, and the story of “the coat of thousand furs,” or Allerleirauh. I was not interested in the Disney versions of the fairy tales, as I knew even as a kid how much they differed from their Grimms’ origins, but I did enjoy sort of tweaking the clichés of those films.

Then of course I got really interested in Japanese folk tales a few years ago, when I was writing She Returns to the Floating World, and researched and found as many of them translated into English as I could. I loved the ones that focused on older sisters rescuing younger brothers, which is quite a common trope in Japanese folk tales, and of course the tales of transformations of women into foxes, cranes, peonies, etc. There are so many interesting tales out there. I also love Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” – it’s a fascinating, complicated, and unexpectedly feminist piece of work. I love re-working those characters.

Unexplained Fevers actually centers on the fairy tale characters I neglected in my first book, because I felt that they were too passive. But after reading the Snow White/Rose Red references in Haruki Murakami’s After Dark and the Rapunzel narratives in Osamu Dazai’s Blue Bamboo, I started thinking about how I could re-write characters like Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, and Snow White – and that’s how I started writing that book.

robotIn your new collection, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, your subject matter is a little more concrete, including but not limited to the history of nuclear development, family, and nature. How did this collection come to be and did you find the process easier or more difficult compared to previous collections?

I think a seed for this collection was planted when I was working with Dorianne Laux at the Pacific University MFA program some years ago, and she encouraged me to write more about my own life. I considered my life too boring to write about. And Ilya Kaminsky, I remember, told me after reading my first couple of books that “now is the time for you to create your own fairy tale.” I held on to both of those things, but it took me a while to figure out how to incorporate my own experience into poetry.

The Robot Scientist’s Daughter was born in the series of “elemental” poems in the book—poems like “Cesium Burns Blue,” “Radon Daughters,” and “Elemental,” —and then I started thinking about ways to create a character that was like me but was not—and I came up with the Robot Scientist’s Daughter character. Those are more fantasy and sci-fi-based poems, and therefore more familiar to me and fun to write. The straight-up history/autobiography poems were probably the hardest to write—Oak Ridge’s history is fascinating—even the Wikipedia entry can sound like a weird prose poem—but making that history sound poetic was something I struggled with. I did include a series of poems about my childhood that were not as fun to write, but I wanted something that would give the reader sort of a child’s-eye view of the beautiful, mysterious nature of growing up on a farm in Tennessee, not just the “atomic history down the street” part.

Nuclear research, energy, and bombs are dangerous but yet humanity continues to engage in these activities despite the lasting risks. In “They Do Not Need Rescue”, the poem discusses the silence surrounding the consequences of these activities — that the people living nearby Oak Ridge National Laboratory signed away their family’s lives for a meager paycheck and a house — and it raises questions about why they would remain silent even years later and not speak out. Is it a question of fear vs. bravery, or something more?

I can’t really speak for the people who made those decisions, which are individual to each of them. But I do know that the contracts for people that work/worked at ORNL – a huge source of lucrative jobs in a region that even now doesn’t have a ton of great jobs – were pretty prohibitive and threatening, and people in that area signed a contract and stuck with that agreement. If they don’t feel comfortable speaking out today, it’s probably because of the wording of the contracts they signed. I don’t want anyone to get the impression that the people of Oak Ridge are victims – they certainly don’t think of themselves that way – and there’s a culture in Eastern Tennessee of individualism, hard work, patriotism, and a tendency towards the taciturn rather than the loquacious.

Also, the dangers of radiation were not really well known early on in the work of ORNL – as reading some of the memoir of one of Oak Ridge’s early “Safety Physicists”, The Angry Genie, would indicate. In the beginning, they were focused on winning World War II, getting the bomb before the Nazis, and not as worried about pollution and those kinds of “down the road” problems. There was a little bit about how they taped uranium to the wrists of some of the nurses there, to see the effect; I mean, they were very naive back then. The Chernobyl and Fukushima disasters, for instance, indicate that even today, how little prepared most companies and countries are for the kinds of problems that can happen with nuclear disaster, how little they understand the magnitude of something like nuclear pollution, how it stays around for multiple human lifetimes. It’s something to keep in mind as our nuclear power plants age here in the United States.

JeannineHighResHeadshotmediumWriting is a solitary endeavor for many authors. How do you maintain contact with the outside, and how does that differ from the experience of reading your work aloud for an audience?

I’ve belonged to a writing group for thirteen years, and that really helps. Also, Seattle and the surrounding cities have great writing communities. I volunteered with several terrific local journals for many years, which is also a great way to stay connected with the writing community—currently I’m on the Board at Crab Creek Review. Writing itself is work that must be done alone, but sharing it, getting it published, dealing with rejection, applying for grants or residencies—all those parts of the writing life really benefit from the help/encouragement of other writers. I also enjoying teaching, editing manuscripts, and a new venture—helping poets with PR for their books! I absolutely root for every single student and editing client to succeed!

I also think social media – Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, what have you – can really help you feel connected to the larger writing world in a way that just wasn’t possible when I was a younger writer. A lot of people hate them, but I absolutely think they are a gift (even if I haven’t exactly figured out how to be the greatest Twitter-er or anything yet.) You can see when different magazines have a call for submissions, or congratulate a friend on good publishing news, or follow writers you admire. I mean, you can’t spend all day on that stuff, but it’s great on a rainy Sunday to go to the Twitter #poetparty, for instance, and say hi to some writing friends and feel encouraged.

What poets you’ve read are making a difference with their poetry, either trying to influence societal, environmental, or political change? What other poets should we be reading?

For the first question: There are really so many! I think probably Carolyn Forché, Alicia Ostriker, Margaret Atwood, Pattiann Rogers, Sandra Alcosser, and llya Kaminsky have all been particularly influential in terms of the way they write their activism. But I am so excited about reading the younger generation’s take (do I sound super-old there? But it’s true!) on issues like racism, feminism, the environment, immigration—I feel that younger writers right now are unafraid of taking on big ambitious subjects than my generation was/is. Another few poets that I think tackle difficult and thought-provoking political subject matter with imagination and empathy: Jericho Brown, Eduardo C. Corral, Saeed Jones.

For the second question: There are so many good poets here in the Northwest that I think don’t get enough attention – in particular, I’d like to champion the first books by poets Annette Spaulding-Convy and Natasha K. Moni, which are both exceptional. And we have a wonderful group of female poets up here, people like Kelli Russell Agodon, Kathleen Flenniken, Kelly Davio, Elizabeth Austen, Martha Silano, Jenifer Lawrence, Marjorie Manwaring. They’re not just great poets, they’re great people who put time and energy into their poetry community. I love the work that my friends at local press Two Sylvias Press are putting out, too – definitely worth taking a look at. I discover great poets out here all the time, people I’ve never met that I’ll happen to hear at a reading. I try to highlight books I love in my reviews for places like The Rumpus, too. Reviewing is still something I try to do on a regular basis, especially for books that might otherwise get overlooked. Anything to bring more love to poetry!

Thanks, Jeannine, for sharing your thoughts with us and your poet recommendations.

Interview with Mingmei Yip, Author of Secret of a Thousand Beauties

Secret of a Thousand Beauties by Mingmei Yip is set to be published Nov. 25, 2014, and is the latest release from Yip.  I’ve reviewed Skeleton Women and The Nine Fold Heaven, which I enjoyed.

Here’s a bit about the book:

Spring Swallow was promised in marriage while still in her mother’s belly. When the groom dies before a wedding can take place, seventeen-year-old Spring Swallow is ordered to become a ghost bride to appease his spirit. Under her in-laws’ protection, she will be little more than a servant, unable to know real love or bear children. Refusing to accept her fate as a “bad-luck woman,” Spring Swallow flees on her wedding day.

In the city of Soochow, Spring Swallow joins a community of renowned embroiderers. The women work for Aunty Peony, whose exquisite stitching once earned her the Emperor’s love. But when Aunty Peony agrees to replicate a famous painting–a lucrative assignment that will take a year to complete–betrayal and jealousy emerges within the group. Spring Swallow becomes entangled in each woman’s story of heartbreak, even while she embarks on a dangerous affair with a young revolutionary. On a journey that leads from the remote hillsides around Soochow to cosmopolitan Peking, Spring Swallow draws on the secret techniques learned from Aunty Peony and her own indomitable strength, determined to forge a life that is truly her own.

MingmeiToday, Mingmei Yip has agreed to join us and answer some questions about her novel and her work.  Please give her a warm welcome.

Where do your story ideas come from?

Story ideas usually pop up in my mind, mostly triggered when I am reading, watching a movie, looking at art works in a museum, or just day dreaming. Not long ago I saw a book on embroidery in a bookstore and was inspired to write a novel about embroiderers and the painstaking efforts they apply to create their beautiful works. That novel is my newest, Secret of a Thousand Beauties.

The idea for my third novel, Song of the Silk Road – a romantic adventure on China’s fabled route with a promised reward of three million dollars — came to me in a dream.

The heroine of your latest book, Secret of a Thousand Beauties, is a strong and independent woman like the women in your other novels. Why do you choose to write about these women who live in cultures that tend to curtail their independence?

All my protagonists are brave and strong women who relentlessly overcome hardship and tragedy to live life on their own terms and achieve happiness. It is hard now even to try to imagine the miseries women had to endure in traditional China such as marriage to a dead fiancé, making them the slaves of the dead man’s parents, or being forced into prostitution, yet not being allowed to marry or keep their babies.

Some of my characters are inspired by the lives of actual women, including Camilla the singer-spy in my novels Skeleton Women and The Nine Fold Heaven, and the teenage prostitute Xiang Xiang in my debut novel Peach Blossom Pavilion (now in its 5th printing!) I feel honored to be able to give these once-silenced women their voices. Also, by writing about them, they have become my teachers of determination, courage, and compassion.

What are your first loves as a reader about novels? Do you prefer plot or characterization?

Both. But if I have to choose, insightful description of human nature are more satisfying to me than plots filled with twists and turns.

Do you prefer to write historical fiction and would you consider writing something more contemporary?

Among my seven novels (the 7th one will come out in 2015), four are historical – Secret of a Thousand Beauties; The Nine Fold Heaven; Skeleton Women; Peach Blossom Pavilion and two are contemporary – Song of the Silk Road; Petals from the Sky. I also wrote and illustrated two children’s books: Chinese Children Favorite Stories and Grandma Panda’s China Storybook, both published by Tuttle Publishing.

Who are some of your favorite authors/poets?

My favorite authors are Eileen Cheung and Echo, unfortunately both deceased. In the West, I read almost everything by Lisa See, Amy Tan, and Anchee Min.


What current projects are you working on? Care to share any details?

My next novel, which will be my seventh is The Witches Market, about a young woman who has suddenly acquired supernatural talents. After this realization, she travels to the Canary Islands, seeking witches against whom to test her own powers and calling.

MusicalMingmeiBesides writing, I perform on the guqin, a very ancient Chinese instrument which I’ve been playing for over thirty years. I also teach calligraphy workshops for both adult and children at many venues including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center, CUNY and others. All these activities help provide material for my novels.

Thank you, Yip, for joining us today.  Check her out on Facebook, Twitter, and GoodReads.

Check out the book trailer:

Interview with Syrie James, Author of Jane Austen’s First Love

Syrie James is a quintessential Austenite and her Jane Austen-related fiction is never a disappointment.  Her latest release, Jane Austen’s First Love, is a contender for the Savvy Verse & Wit Best of 2014 list.

Here’s a snippet from my review:

“James cannot be praised enough for her ingenuity and dedication to the spirit of Austen and her novels.  She pays tribute to a young Jane in the best way possible.  Jane Austen’s First Love by Syrie James is the author’s best novel yet, and a must read for anyone who loves historical fiction, Jane Austen, or coming of age stories.”

Other James’ books you should consider reading include:


Today, I have a special treat … an interview with Syrie James! Please give her a warm welcome.

As a writer of Austenesque fiction, you must have a favorite Jane Austen book and character, or at least a few.  What and who are they and why?

Like many readers, my favorite Austen novel is Pride and Prejudice. It’s brilliantly constructed, beautifully written, and the characters are unique, fun, and recognizable. Best of all, Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s character arcs as they go from intense dislike to admiration to love are so wonderfully drawn and so satisfying that the story has been endlessly imitated. Pride and Prejudice, unlike Austen’s other novels, also begins with a lively conversation that grabs your attention right off the bat. I am a huge fan of Persuasion as well, with its theme about second chances. It was written later in Jane Austen’s life, and her maturity as writer really shines through.

As for favorite characters, I have so many! I adore Elizabeth Bennet, with her bright eyes and feisty nature, and Anne Elliot, who is goodness personified. I think I fell in love with Mr. Darcy (along with the rest of the female world) when Colin Firth turned him into an icon. I am also mad about Captain Wentworth and Mr. Knightley, truly divine Austen heroes who feel very real to me on the page! And this may be heresy—but my two other favorite characters are Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who I love to hate, and the foolish Mr. Collins, who, with every re-reading and in every film version, always makes me laugh.

Syrie James headshot 2012 x 250Did you always love Jane Austen’s books and when did you first fall in love with them (how did you find out about them)?

I was first introduced to Jane Austen in a British literature course in college, when we read Pride and Prejudice and Emma. I don’t remember my first reaction to the books, and Jane Austen didn’t resurface on my radar again until the mid 1990s, when four Jane Austen films came out that quickly became my favorites: SENSE AND SENSIBILITY (Emma Thompson and Hugh Grant), PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle), PERSUASION (Amanda Root and Ciarán Hinds), and EMMA (Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeremy Northam.) Yes, it’s true—I fell in love with Austen because of the movies!

I immediately read or re-read all her novels, then devoured the juvenilia, biographies, and her preserved correspondence. I was desperate to learn more about the woman who wove such incredible stories and showed such a deep understanding of human nature—and the obsession has never stopped. Because there were no Austen memoirs to discover, I wrote one myself: The Lost Memoirs of Jane Austen. Because there were no more new Austen novels to read, I decided to write one: The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen. And because I was intensely curious to read about Jane as a teenager while experiencing her first romance, I researched and wrote Jane Austen’s First Love.

As a fan of Austen, you must have visited the various sites in which she lived and visited. Which of these places is your favorite, where is it located, and why? What advice would you give someone interested in touring Austen’s places?

I’ve taken two Jane Austen tours of England—one of them self-guided, the other as part of a formal tour group—and I’ve had the opportunity to visit nearly all the famous Austen sites, some of them twice. It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I guess it’d have to be Chawton Cottage, now known as Jane Austen’s House Museum. It was like a pilgrimage to walk through the rooms and gardens of the house where Jane lived during the nine year period when she wrote or rewrote all her masterpieces. And to see the little table where she sat by the window and wrote, was too thrilling for words!

The Austen tour that I took with my husband was absolutely wonderful, but took many months to research and plan. To see all the iconic Austen sites I’d recommend a guided bus tour, where you will enjoy the company of like-minded people, as well as guest speakers and other Austen-related events that you won’t get on your own. JASNA has such a tour every year; they’re run by Pathfinders, the same tour company I traveled with, and they’re fabulous.

For Jane Austen’s First Love, you did quite a bit of research into her mentions of Edward Taylor, who was the heir to a home in Kent. When did you know that you should stop researching and start writing? What part of the research did not make it into the book that you wish had made it in?

I continued researching the entire time I was writing the novel! Re-reading books by Jane Austen and biographies about Jane Austen while I was writing gave me an infusion of details to use here and there, and helped me to keep her voice in my head. Continuous research proved to be even more important where Edward Taylor was concerned. When I first began the novel, I hadn’t found much information about him, and had created an imaginary back story for him—but it never felt right. So I kept looking. And looking.

By a stroke of luck, I came upon Edward Taylor’s brother’s memoirs, which filled in so many details about the Taylor family and the unusual way in which all eight children were raised abroad. What I learned was far much more fascinating and remarkable than anything I could have made up! I put all that was pertinent into my novel. There were a few great scenes however that didn’t make the final cut. I had to delete one scene, for example, where Edward is telling Jane about a family excursion off the southern coast of Italy that ended in disaster. It was a great tale, but unfortunately it didn’t move forward the action of my novel, so it had to go.

A much bigger disappointment was when I felt obliged to delete a scene from Chapter One, in which Jane inscribes her name and the names of three imaginary suitors in the register at her father’s church at Steventon. I loved the scene I’d written, but once again, it didn’t move the plot forward, and the first chapter was too long. (The deleted scene may have a new life, however, as a short story.)

As the market becomes even more saturated with works about Jane Austen and her books, do you think readers will ever tire of these spinoffs, retellings, and fictionalized accounts of her life and work?

I hope not!

What keeps you returning to Jane Austen and her world?

I love Austen for so many reasons. I love immersing myself in the way the gentry class lived and loved during the Regency era, where we rarely see anyone working (other than the servants.) Austen’s characters lived in grand manor homes, were waited on hand and foot, drove around in elegant carriages, hunted on horseback, played cards and music, sang and read, sewed and drew, took walks on impeccable grounds, and danced at balls. What’s not to like? Not to mention the way they dressed! Tight breeches, tailcoats, and cravats! Gossamer, empire-waisted gowns! Hair pinned up like the ancient Greeks! It’s like something out of a fairy tale.

What I love most about Austen, though, is not the fairy tale setting—but the brilliant way her stories are plotted and the familiarity of her characters. We all know an overbearing woman like Lady Catherine de Bourgh, who believes she knows best and must be catered to. We’ve all met a sweet, kindly blabbermouth like Miss Bates. And while we laugh at Austen’s fools and love to hate the villains, we can’t help but fall in love with her heroes and heroines, who are all flawed—just as we are—and who must earn their happy endings by recognizing their missteps and working to correct them. That’s the real reason I keep returning to Jane and her world—because her tales of courtship and romance are perfectly structured morality tales, and the lessons resonate today.

Finally, do you read poetry, why or why not? And if you do, what are some of your favorite poems and who are some of your favorite poets? Also do you read contemporary poets or classic poets, why or why not?

I’ve been so busy reading novels over the last twenty years that I haven’t read much poetry—which I truly regret (I enjoy poetry.) While researching my three Austen novels and The Secret Diaries of Charlotte Brontë, however, I read all the poetry written by Austen and the Brontës. Jane and Charlotte wrote rather good poetry, but Charlotte’s sisters Emily and Anne outshone them. I’ve posted a selection of the Brontës’ poetry on my website, which were published together in one volume in 1846. Emily’s work is as darkly compelling as her novel Wuthering Heights. One of my favorites of this collection was written by Anne Brontë (under the pseudonym Acton Bell), when she was miserable and homesick while working as a governess for a wealthy family:

by Acton Bell

How brightly glistening in the sun,
The woodland ivy plays!
While yonder beeches from their barks
Reflect his silver rays.
That sun surveys a lovely scene
From softly smiling skies;
And wildly through unnumbered trees
The wind of winter sighs. . .

But give me back my barren hills
Where colder breezes rise;
Where scarce the scattered, stunted trees
Can yield an answering swell,
But where a wilderness of heath
Returns the sound as well. . .

Restore me to that little spot,
With gray walls compassed round,
Where knotted grass neglected lies,
And weeds usurp the ground.

Though all around this mansion high
Invites the foot to roam,
And though its halls are fair within-
Oh, give me back my HOME!

Many thanks for having me here, Serena, at Savvy Verse and Wit. I’m happy to answer any other questions you or your visitors might have, so feel free to leave a comment and ask away!

JAFL Banner v6Please check out the other stops on the tour.




Win One of Five Fabulous Jane Austen-inspired Prize Packages

To celebrate the holidays and the release of Jane Austen’s First Love, Syrie is giving away five prize packages filled with an amazing selection of Jane Austen-inspired gifts and books!

To enter the giveaway contest, simply leave a comment on any of the blog stops on the Jane Austen’s First Love Holiday Blog Tour.

Increase your chances of winning by visiting multiple stops along the tour! Syrie’s unique guest posts will be featured on a variety of subjects, along with fun interviews, spotlights, excerpts, and reviews of the novel. Contest closes at 11:59pm PT, December 21, 2014.

Five lucky winners will be drawn at random from all of the comments on the tour, and announced on Syrie’s website on December 22, 2014. The giveaway contest is open to everyone, including international residents. Good luck to all!

JAFL Grand Prize x 420

Click the image for more details

Interview with Khanh Ha, author of The Demon Who Peddled Longing

You might remember my review of Khanh Ha’s Flesh in 2012.  Ha’s prose is highly stylistic and transports readers into a dark world full of mythology, and I called Flesh a “stunning debut.”

He’s got a second novel coming out called The Demon Who Peddled Longing, which is likely to look at the dark side of humanity as well, and I’ll be reviewing that in December.

Today, I’ve got an interview treat for you.  Khanh Ha has agreed to answer some questions about his writing and his books.

Please give him a warm welcome.

What myths/legends of the Vietnamese culture appeal to you most and which do make you apprehensive?

As a child growing up in Vietnam, I had an indelible belief in animism. An unseen presence dwelling in an odd-looking rock by the roadside where people placed a bowl of rice grains and a stick of incense long gone cold. Those anthropomorphic images sown in a child’s mind began with the legendary origin of Vietnam when a teacher read a textbook story to the class: “The Dragon and the Immortal,” or Tiên Rồng, from whom the Vietnamese claim their lineage.

As a child, I lived in Huế, the former ancient capital of Vietnam, living in its mysterious atmosphere, half real, half magic. I used to walk home under the shade of the Indian almond trees, the poon trees. At the base of these ancient trees I would pass a shrine. If I went with my grandmother, she would push my head down. “Don’t stare at it,” grandmother said. “That’s disrespect to the genies.” Yet the one practice I deem mindless is the spirit medium-ship when a trance-induced medium lets herself be possessed by a spirit who claims himself a demigod, a deity, a medieval lord marshal; and the audience then make offerings to such spirit, asking for blessings, for their fortune foretold.

Your novels, Flesh and The Demon Who Peddled Longing, bring forth the darker sides of the humanity. What about those desires and dark secrets fascinates you as a writer?

I write dark fiction because of the dystopian world around me. But I want to come out of it alive and atoned for. My main character is like that. He is impetuous, single-minded and yet tender-hearted and loyal.

He hides his dark secrets of the love he has for his cousin, of his longing for the untouchable girl who is married to the overlord triple her age and sexually impotent. Writers are those who know how to fictionalize their dark secrets and desires, and allow readers to experience them secondhand.

If you were to offer one seed of advice to novice writers looking to get published, what would it be?

Find your own writerly voice! When you do, write as the only writer that exists, none before you, none after you. But write something, even if it’s just a suicide note. Somewhere I remember Toni Morrison once said, “I wrote my first novel because I wanted to read it.”

What was the best piece of advice you ever received as a writer?

None. Like every self-made man, I worship my creator. Because I taught myself how to write, I found it dreadful to sit and listen to someone trying to teach techniques in fiction writing. I always consider writing a private business, like lovemaking—you don’t learn how to do it, do you?

Do you read poetry?  Why or why not?  And if you do, who are some of your favorite poets or some of your favorite poems?

I love poetry. It’s the cadence and imagery in poetry that live in me when I write. I must have them to induce moods. I love poetry that’s down-to-earth, simple and sincere, crisp and elegant. For that, I love Charles Bukowski’s You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense, and Maya Angelou’s Passing Time, which was used as the epigraph of my novel The Demon Who Peddled Longing.

Thank you, Khahn Ha, for answering my questions.  I look forward to reading your next novel.

Interview with Janel Gradowski, Author of Pies & Peril

Pies & Peril, a Culinary Competition Mystery by Janel Gradowski is a fun cozy that will have readers laughing out loud, but this heroine, Amy Ridley, is no dumb blonde.  She’s got a good head on her shoulders, but she’s also focused to win every culinary baking contest she enters.  Here’s the description from GoodReads:

When Amy Ridley decided to compete in the Kellerton Summer Festival Pie Contest, the last thing she expected was to find the reigning pie queen, Mandy Jo, dead—a raspberry pie smashed on her face! Mandy Jo made fantastic pies, but she accumulated more enemies than baking trophies. But when Amy receives a note threatening her own life, she decides to do some investigating herself.

Today, I’ve got a great interview from Janel, whom I met through book blogging, and now as an author of full-length and flash fiction, she’s here to share with us her writing and publishing experiences. Please give her a warm welcome:

1. What are your first loves as a reader about novels? Do you prefer plot or characterization? Do you love mystery or literary fiction better?

I love characters with interesting backgrounds and traits. Plot is the undercurrent that keeps all good books flowing, but I want to fall in love with the characters first and really care about them. I also love richly detailed books where the author describes the literary world they’ve created with their own, unique lens.

I will read just about anything. Different genres for different moods. I love a cozy mystery when I’m hanging out at our cabin or just want something light to read in the evening. If I really want to sink my teeth into a book I often turn to women’s fiction by authors like Barbara O’Neal and Erica Bauermeister.

2. When deciding to carve out time for your own writing, what was the catalyst for you, especially being a mother and having little time to yourself?

To be honest, my commitment to writing fiction over the last several years was a bit of a mid­life crisis. I designed and published beadwork patterns when my kids were little, so I knew I could juggle being a mom and a writer. While I loved seeing my patterns in magazines, I still wanted to be a published author in my first writing love ­ fiction. Over the past four or five years I have transitioned from writing patterns to writing fiction and I couldn’t be happier with the change.

3. What are some tips you’d provide to mothers looking to continue creatively writing if they have young children, school-­age children, and older kids?

The younger children are the less time mothers have for themselves. You need to learn to write in bits and pieces in whatever time you can grab. Just make sure to also rest when you have the chance. Exhaustion is never a good thing for moms or writers. I find that it helps to tailor the length of your stories to the time that you have available. When my children were younger I wrote flash fiction, ultra­short stories that usually have less than 1,000 words. As my kids got older I moved up to short stories, novelettes and novellas. Now my kids are pretty independent at 15 and 13­ years old. I was easily able to write Pies & Peril, my first novel, last fall.

If you are having problems “turning on” your creativity in the time you do have, I would suggest trying prompts. There are countless books and websites dedicated to writing prompts. Give yourself permission to play and get messy with your writing. Don’t worry about making it perfect, a common creativity killer, and have fun. You may be surprised at what ends up on the page.

4. Pies & Peril is your latest, full­-length published work, how long did the process take from the initial idea to finish? And how did this process differ from your previous experience with the Bartonville Series of books?

It took me about a month and a half to write the first draft of Pies & Peril. I started with a 2,000 word short story then expanded it, using subplots, into a novel. I did much more planning with this than any of the stories I’ve written for my Bartonville Series. It’s roughly twice as long as the longest Bartonville story, a novella.

I write using a program called Scrivener. It is made specifically for writers and has a virtual corkboard with wonderful virtual index cards. Each scene can be an index card in the program. For the Bartonville series I just plotted the stories using those virtual index cards. For Pies & Peril I broke out a real corkboard and index cards. I took a few weeks to jot down scene ideas on cards. Then I sat down, color­coded the cards by subplot and arranged them on the board, filling in gaps as needed. I am definitely what is called a “plotter” in the world of writing. There’s no way I would try writing a novel without plotting it out first, although I have written many flash fiction stories off the top of my head from just a tiny seed of an idea. Longer word counts take more planning. A lot more planning.

5. How happy are you about your publishing career so far, and what do you hope will happen in the future? Any new books in the planning or near completion stages and will they be food-­related too?

A year ago I never thought I would have a publisher or be writing a culinary mystery series! I wrote a short story for a contest. It turns out my publisher, Gemma Halliday, was running the contest to look for authors for the boutique publishing company she was starting. I didn’t win the contest, but I did get a publishing contract and I am thrilled! The publishing world is kind of like a gold rush right now. Everybody is scrambling to find readers and fans. Having a publisher and the other authors at Gemma Halliday Publishing help promote the book has made a huge difference in the success of Pies & Peril compared to my other self-­published books.

I am currently writing the second book in the Culinary Competition Series. It will definitely be food­-related with lots of food described in the book and recipes for some of the treats at the end. I am also working on a short story from the series that will be in a holiday anthology. I plan on adding more volumes to both of my self­published series, 6:1 and Bartonville, but those are on the backburner for the moment. There are only so many hours in the day!

Thanks, Janel, for talking with us today, and you know I love your writing and your books.  Stay tuned for my review of Pies & Peril tomorrow!

JanelGAbout the Author:

Janel Gradowski lives in a land that looks like a cold weather fashion accessory, the mitten­-shaped state of Michigan. She is a wife and mom to two kids and one Golden Retriever. Her journey to becoming an author is littered with odd jobs like renting apartments to college students and programming commercials for an AM radio station. Somewhere along the way she also became a beadwork designer and teacher. She enjoys cooking recipes found in her formidable cookbook and culinary fiction collection. Searching for unique treasures at art fairs, flea markets and thrift stores is also a favorite pastime. Coffee is an essential part of her life. She writes the Culinary Competition Mystery Series, along with The Bartonville Series (women’s fiction) and the 6:1 Series (flash fiction). She has also had many short stories published in both online and print publications.  Check her Website, on Facebook, and on Twitter.  Check out her books.

Interview with Beth Hoffman, Author of Looking for Me

LookingForMePaperbackLooking for Me by Beth Hoffman, which made my Best of 2013 list, is due out in paperback this month.  Her second novel weaves “a story that will enchant readers with not only its southern charm and hospitality, but also the mysteries of family connections and miscommunications.”

Today, Beth will regale us with her wit and charm in a short interview.

Thank you so much for inviting me to chat with you, Serena.

1. In Looking for Me (on Kobo), Teddi Overman has a gift for restoring old furniture, but she seems unable to cope with the past. How do you think her ability to restore furniture reflects her inability to address her own past or the life she leads after high school?

Teddi adores her brother, and her hope for his survival is a tangled mess of guilt, unbearable grief, and even anger. These feelings translate into how she believes even the most severely damaged piece of furniture can be resurrected. By immersing herself in her craft, each repair represents how she’s trying to mend herself and her past.

2. Have you ever restored furniture or found a piece that just spoke to you?

Though I’ve restored a few pieces, I don’t have the patience to do what Teddi did. She was a master. Yes, certain pieces speak to me, and when they do it’s like being reunited with an old friend. Years ago I walked by an antiques shop and saw a circa 1908 Herschell-Spillman carousel horse in the window. My reaction was so powerful that nothing could have stopped me from having him. He was far outside my budget, but I found ways to scrape together enough to finally bring him home. I named him Ziggy.

3. When we leave home, we often leave behind who we were or were expected to be, how is this true of Teddi and do you think those pieces we leave behind can ever be recaptured?

The best way I can sum up my feelings is to quote Teddi: “I thought about that old saying, how we can never go home again. But I think it’s more like a piece of us stays behind when we leave—a piece we can never reclaim. One that awaits our next visit and demands that we remember.”

4. Between Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and Looking for Me, could you describe your experience in publishing and editing the books? How were they the same and how were they different?

CeeCee’s story was my debut, and I had no idea what to expect once it was acquired.

I had edited the manuscript with a ruthless hand, so the re-pub editing was minimal and easy. But when the book published I felt like I’d been shot out of a cannon! I’m an introvert, so having a big spotlight shined on my face was frightening. Plus, I didn’t know how grueling a book tour could be. But it was an amazing experience that I wouldn’t trade.

When Looking for Me published I knew the ropes and had my feet beneath me, so I was better prepared.

5. What current projects are you working on? Care to share any details?

I recently started a new novel, and so far I’m enthralled with the characters. The story takes place in two historic districts that sit back-to-back in Northern Kentucky (Newport and Covington). The two female main characters (one in her early 30s and one in her silver years) are both hiding something. It’s through their unusual friendship that their mysteries unfold.

Thanks, Beth, for sharing a little bit about your books with us and about your new work. I know I cannot wait to read it!

****Enter to win a copy of Looking for Me by Beth Hoffman by leaving a comment here.  You must live in the continental U.S. to enter.  Deadline to enter is May 9, 2014, by 11:59 PM EST.***

Emma Eden Ramos Interviews Poet Brooke Elise Axtell

Emma Eden Ramos is a poet, middle-grade, and young adult novelist, and I’ve featured her a few times on the blog.  We’re Internet buddies who have a “poking” war from time to time, and we talk poetry and books all the time.  Check out my reviews of Still, At Your Door, The Realm of the Lost, and Three Women: A Poetic Triptych and Selected Poems.  Check out the interviews, and her guest interview.

BRK2Emma will be interviewing poet Brooke Elise Axtell, and we’ll share one of her poems.  Please give them a warm welcome.

be careful with a woman like me 
by Brooke Elise Axtell

be careful with a woman like me
who lives like a drunkard 
for the grey honey of the sea
who sends her singing voice to distant coves
like a hurricane trapped in a green bottle just to see 
if shrouds can be ripped & the dead raised.

be careful with a woman like me
who sharpens her heart like an ivory dagger
& howls her monsoon music to the moon
who wraps her secrets in silver cloths
to hide beneath deck & makes no promises
who is a cloud no hammer can nail to the bed
who will keep you restless & well fed on blackberries.

be careful with a woman like me
who dances in with a brass band
then slips away like a line in the sand
when the slightest wind moves.
it is not that i can't be true.
it is not that you are a red lacquered door
to open & quickly pass through.

but what appears to be 
a delicate locket hanging
from a gold chain at my neck
holds a private tempest & the shipwreck
of every storm-torn night my skin eats.

be careful of a woman like me.
i am true the way rain is true.
i am pure & vanishing. 
when the thirst of brittle leaves is quenched
when the land is a screaming emerald
it is clear. i am no longer here.

i am as restless as a sloop at bay, 
swaying with the seducing wave & her dark granite gaze.

i secretly flunked the school of manners
though i held my spoon at such a graceful angle.
i disguised my dissent behind the careful lifting 
of the teacup & memorized the map of their make believe.

i breathed heavy in the bed of my enemy
so i could overturn the twist of the sordid fist. 
i oiled the gears of my mind like a pleasing machine.
you should be careful with a woman like me.

all the while i trained in guerilla warfare 
chewed rabbit stew, sank my teeth 
into the neck of a god who does not topple 
at the earthquake of the shrine.

i crossed seven purple mountains on my knees.
i sucked on stones until they turned to bread.
i gave my heart to a hungry harlot to eat for breakfast

& you will find only the grey honey of the sea 
rocking, rocking 
in a woman like me.

Emma: The ability to write isn’t always all inclusive. Someone who composes beautiful prose may find that they’re completely hopeless when it comes to writing verse. You, however, are an award winning poet and short story writer. What, for you, is the link that makes both mediums accessible?

Brooke: I start with an initial instinct, a visceral energy that inevitably gives way to a particular form. When I begin writing I know that there is an underlying architecture that will reveal itself, but the line between verse and story in not absolute. Hybrid forms fascinate me. The intersection of text, song, performance and story yields such a rich alchemy. Lately, I’ve been intrigued by journalism as a site of beautiful protest.When you watch the boundaries between genres breed and dissolve, you begin to feel that every form is open to you.

Emma: You are also a very well-established singer/songwriter. You’ve worked with artists such as Terry Bozzio (of Missing Persons and Frank Zappa), Charlie Sexton (guitarist for Bob Dylan), Mitch Watkins (guitarist for Leonard Cohen), and a number of other great musicians. How do you find the collaborative process?

Brooke: It is an incredible honor to collaborate with such powerful musicians. I grew up dancing with a professional ballet company, so I approach the songwriting process as both a poet and a dancer. Music connects language and movement in a way that is completely transformative for me.

Emma: Which do you prefer, collaborating with other artists on a project or creating on your own?

Brooke: I appreciate both modalities. I crave solitude and connection. I am most alive as an artist when I create space for each side of the process. Collaboration challenges me to expand and grow. Solitude renews me and helps me reconnect with my courage. In a media-saturated climate I am vulnerable to distraction. I need to set aside moments to honor the interior life as well as cultivate authentic community.

Emma: Some time back, you won first place in the Young Texas Writer’s Awards for your short story “Maya’s Mirror.” Have you been writing since you were a young girl?

Brooke: Yes. As soon as I could write I started inventing stories about aliens, ghosts and unknown planets. I also wrote mystical poems about nature with themes of isolation. In retrospect, I see that I was working with creative codes to process the trauma I experienced.

Emma: Are there a few poets, fiction writers or lyricists who have deeply influenced you?

Brooke: I am nourished by many sources. As far as poets, I am reading the work of Akilah Oliver, Alice Notley, Bhanu Kapil and countless others. As far as songwriting, I am drawn to the work of Tori Amos, Bjork, Ani Di Franco, PJ Harvey, Billy Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. Fierce, imaginative women who tap into multiple states of consciousness. I am also grateful for the rich legacy of feminist writer/activists such as Audre Lorde and Adrienne Rich.

Emma: What would you say is your greatest inspiration?

Brooke: Mending the aftershocks of violence, honoring the body, healing ruptures through creative alchemy, a fierce hunger for social justice, my love of women, blues and jazz.

Emma: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Brooke: Set aside time to write consistently. It has to become your way of life. This is a core decision, a sacred space you create, a ritual. You write because it is who you are and silence feels like a form of erasure.

I keep a hand-written journal to collect all the fragments: streams of consciousness, postcards of films, research, drawings, poetry. Recently, I found a gorgeous photograph of an anatomical heart and taped it inside. It is important to have private places as a writer, where there is no pressure to perform.

Immerse yourself in writers who speak to you. Join some form of creative community with writers who are more experienced than you. Ultimately, trust the value of you own voice, honor your instincts and stay open to wise counsel.

If you do not connect to someone else’s work they may not be an ideal mentor for you. Teachers and professors can be helpful, but take a look at their body of work before you invest too much in their critiques.

Going to open mics and public readings is a powerful way to come into your voice. For my poetry collections, I engage with performance as part of the editing process. I listen to what resonates and what feels like excess. It brings me back to the original energy of a piece.

Keep writing and refining your process. You deserve to be heard.

Thanks to both Emma and Brooke for this great interview today, as we wind down the April National Poetry Month celebration.

Description from GoodReads:

Brooke Axtell’s mesmerizing poetry explores the thirst for solace in desolate spaces. It is a thirst for cleansing, healing and rejuvenation. In her third collection of poems, she plunges the body of pain, the “remembering body,” into the renewing element of water. With fierce elegance, she reveals the core thirst of life: to experience all as sacred. Her gift of striking imagery and stunning, musical language has the power to haunt and heal. She transmutes pain into incantation. This is the alchemy of the artist.Just as Kore of Greek myth was forced into the underworld and initiated into a cycle of ascension, Axtell investigates a realm of ruin and rises to share a new vision of life. Her poems confront the ravages of violence with the relentless hope of the creative process. She explores the archetype of the wild woman, the sacred marriage of the soul, the cost of injustice, the modern sex industry, the Divine Feminine and the gift of intimacy that honors the emergence of the true untamed nature. Here is the map of one woman’s spiritual journey. You will find solace in these waters, “the healing waterfall behind the ancient wall.”

For today’s 2014 National Poetry Month: Reach for the Horizon tour stop, click the image below:

Interview With Emma Eden Ramos

As I say on the back of Emma Eden Ramos’ Still, At Your Door: A Fictional Memoir:

Still, At Your Door: A Fictional Memoir is a powerhouse of emotion from the moment you begin.  Sabrina Gibbons’ story is upended from the moment her mother drags them out of their abusive home in Butler, Penn, and drops them off with their grandparents in the Big Apple.  Like New York City, this novella precariously teeters between nightmares and dreams, exploring mutual dependence where one wrong step over the threshold can lead to disaster.”

Today, Emma has agreed to answer a few questions about her latest work.  Please give her a warm welcome, and check out my review.

1. You now have 2 full length young readers works completed and published. What inspires you to write for that audience? Is there a message you are looking to get across?

Adolescence, while it only takes up a short chapter in our lives, is a time many of us look back on with relief. “Thank God that’s over,” we say. It’s easy to leave those eight years behind and pretend they are that section in a book we’d rather not underline and revisit. In divorcing ourselves from our own painful experiences, however, we can do a great injustice to young adults who want understanding and reassurance. Yes, being a teenager can feel torturous. Yes, it seems to go on for eternity. No, it doesn’t actually last forever. It’s been ten years since I was sixteen. I attempted suicide twice, engaged in dangerous and impulsive behaviors, and assumed my daily unhappiness would never dissipate. When I look back, I wish there’d been someone there to tell me my life would get better.

The demand for YA fiction is enormous. Authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Laurie Halse Anderson and Ellen Hopkins have helped teens make sense of their experiences and, most importantly, validate their feelings. I’d like to follow in the footsteps of these writers. I want to write stories that resonate with young readers. I want to let teens know that they are resilient and there is hope.

2. Sabrina’s life is far from the nuclear family most people envision. Was there a particular real life experience or inspiration for her and her situation?

The idea for Still, At Your Door: A Fictional Memoir came to me after an unpleasant conversation I had with someone I am happy to say no longer has a leading role in my life. “People like you,” she said, “should never have children.” The comment lingered with me for a few days. I’d recently read Linda Gray Sexton’s memoir titled Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back to My Mother, Anne Sexton, so exploring the mother-daughter relationship was something I already wanted to do. While reading Searching for Mercy Street, I found myself identifying with both Linda Gray and Anne Sexton. Linda Gray was the first daughter of a woman who suffered from a debilitating mental illness.

She, like many children of a parent who has a psychiatric disorder, was forced to grow up quickly and learn to fend for herself. While I empathized with Linda Gray’s struggle, I caught myself wondering if I would be the kind of mother Anne Sexton was. Would the stresses of motherhood be too difficult for me, too?

One evening I was brushing my teeth and, as I caught my reflection in the mirror, I asked myself (these are the exact words), “who is the mother I don’t want to be?” Sheila, Sabrina’s mother, was the answer to my question. That was the first line on the blueprint for Still, At Your Door.

3. You’ve studied psychology and that comes through in the Still, At Your Door. What particular behavioral conditions and knowledge did you use and why?

Sheila, Sabrina’s mother, suffers from Bipolar disorder. While she is an eccentric person between episodes, Sheila, when she cycles, is at the mercy of her illness. Bipolar disorder, like other psychiatric illnesses, varies in severity from person to person. Sheila is on the higher end of the spectrum.

There are psychiatric disorders that seem to be associated with creativity. Many famous artists, while they went undiagnosed because psychiatry was in its early stages of development, showed signs of particular disorders. Virginia Woolf, for example, seemed to be Bipolar. Like many sufferers, Woolf experienced severe depression, hypomania and mania. The hypomanic phase is the phase in which people tend to feel most creative. In Sheila’s case, it is in the hypomanic phase of her cycle that she is the fun-loving, creative woman her children adore. Sheila will learn all the lines to a play in just one evening, take her children on exciting outings and still have energy to entertain a crowded restaurant with Marlene Dietrich impressions. When she is experiencing depression or full-blown mania, however, Sheila is frightening and even dangerous.

I have been interested in mental illness and its effects on creativity for some time now. Two disorders that seem to be linked directly to creativity, Bipolar disorder and Borderline personality disorder, are especially interesting to me. I am not, however, merely curious in clinical sense. For me, it’s personal. That’s another story, though.

4. How would you describe your writing process?

I tend to begin plotting a story a month or so in advance. I do most of my plotting in my head because I have a habit of losing things. I once wrote out an idea for a piece on a pamphlet I received from the Hare Krishnas in Union Square Park.

I, at some point between discussing Krishna consciousness with a lovely woman named Gopi and riding the subway, lost the outline. I’m not sure which I missed more, the pamphlet or the story idea.

It generally takes me nine months to write a book. There have been times when I’ve started a story, abandoned it, then revisited it later on. Still, At Your Door was one of those stories.

5. What projects do you have coming up next?

I’m in the process of writing another YA book. Please stay tuned!

Thanks, Emma, for taking the time to chat with us!

The Rebel Pirate by Donna Thorland

Source: Berkley/NAL, Penguin Group USA
Paperback, 416 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

The Rebel Pirate by Donna Thorland, the second book in the Renegades of the Revolution series, set during the Revolutionary War uncovers the double-dealing spying that occurred on both sides of the war, as well as the privateering that local businessmen resorted to when the British cut the colonies off from trade and banned them from trading with other countries, while levying extraordinary taxes.  Sarah Ward finds her ship, the Sally, boarded by the British crew of the Wasp, and she has little recourse but to dress as a boy to protect her younger brother Ned from being pressed into military service.  Despite being loyalists, she takes the only action she can in expelling the threat and taking the Wasp’s Captain James Sparhawk prisoner.

“Boston’s North Shore had been the haunt of pirates for a hundred years, almost every inlet and harbor a supposed hiding place for their loot.  Blackbeard’s silver was rumored to be buried somewhere in the Isles of Shoals; the hoard of Quelch in a cave at Marblehead; that of Veal in the Lynn Woods.  The American Main was the stuff of pirate legend.” (page 201)

Readers will be captivated by the headstrong and stubborn Sarah Ward as she navigates the town of Salem, which considers her the jilted lover of Micah Wild, a savvy businessman looking out for himself, and her loyalties to her family.  Her father, a pardoned pirate, is captive in his own body, while Mr. Cheap is a loyal shipman who is protective of the family and its interests.  Enter Sparhawk and his reputation as a rake, who is charmed beyond reason by Sarah.  He cannot think straight around her, and against his better principles and naval code, agrees to follow along in her scheme to keep her safe from Wild’s wrath regarding the demolished Sally and the lost French gold.

Thorland’s series is detailed in its history, is trussed up in mystery and romance, and unfolds like a spy thriller as all of the characters become embroiled with one another’s affairs.  These are the kinds of Revolutionary War books readers will love because they are rich in history and imagination.  The Rebel Pirate by Donna Thorland is a captivating book that will have readers up late at night rushing through the pages to finish.  The midnight candles will be burning with this sexy read.

Thorland answered a few questions for the blog tour today:

Q: Sarah and James have such intense chemistry. Is that easy to write? How do you make two characters seem so attracted to each other?

A: I’m interested in love stories where two people meet who have the potential to become true partners in life, and who will challenge one another to become their best selves. That begins with the ability of the hero and heroine to see through the masks they’re both wearing. And I think that’s where chemistry comes from—the process of the hero and heroine stripping each other down to their essential selves. Seeing and accepting each other, as Rainer Maria Rilke put, “whole against the sky.”

Q: What is your favorite thing about writing historical romance?

A: There’s so much to love in this category. But let’s boil it down to its essentials: my favorite thing is going on an adventure with a heroine—a heroine who will be rewarded with love at the end of the story.

About the Author:

Graduating from Yale with a degree in Classics and Art History, Donna Thorland managed architecture and interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for several years. She then earned an MFA in film production from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. She has been a Disney/ABC Television Writing Fellow and a WGA Writer’s Access Project Honoree, and has written for the TV shows Cupid and Tron: Uprising. The director of several award-winning short films, her most recent project aired on WNET Channel 13. Her fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. Donna is married with one cat and splits her time between Salem and Los Angeles.

Check out my other reviews for this series:

The Turncoat by Donna Thorland

7th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.





ENTER TO WIN — The Rebel Pirate by Donna Thorland

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Interview with John P. Davidson, author of The Obedient Assassin

Welcome to the tour stop for John P. Davidson’s The Obedient Assassin.  I’m really looking forward to this novel about an assassin assigned to murder Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Red army who joined the Bolsheviks before the revolution in 1917 and became a major player in the Soviet Union.  I love a good thriller, and this sounds like one of those books that’s sure to deliver.

About the book from GoodReads:

Ramón Mercader was plucked from the front of the Spanish Civil War by the Soviets and conscripted to murder the great in­tellectual Leon Trotsky, a leader of the Bolshevik Revolution who was exiled in the 1920s for opposing Joseph Stalin.

As Ramón is trained for the task and assumes a new identity, he lives a lush life in Paris, befriending Frida Kahlo and other artists of the time. He falls in love with a left-leaning Jewish woman whom he is ordered to seduce as a means of getting at Trotsky.

Today, Davidson is joining us for a little question-and-answer fun; please give him a warm welcome:

1.     What was the most surprising thing you learned from your 10 years of research for the book?

One of the many surprising things I learned was that Trotsky had almost absolute faith in the power of the written word. Knowing that Joseph Stalin was attempting to have him killed, Trotsky was attempting to defend himself by writing a biography of Stalin. This had to set some kind of record for a problematic author-subject relationship.

2.     What drew you to Trotsky that made you decide to center a book around him?

Trotsky was a classical tragic character. He was known as one of the “great minds” of his time, was considered the greatest orator of the Russian language, and was a brilliant writer who, coming from nowhere, rose to the greatest heights only to have everything ripped away because he had slighted Stalin.

3.     The Obedient Assassin is a story full of personal relationships. Which relationship is most interesting to you?

The relationship between Ramon and Sylvia and Ramon was intriguing in that it developed slowly into a genuine romance, but what was perhaps more fascinating and certainly more unusual was what occurred between Ramon and Trotsky toward the end of the book. With little direct contact, from opposite sides of the wall,  they became intensely aware of each other and it seemed that Trotsky all but collaborated with Ramon in his execution. As Sylvia says at the end of the book about panic attacks, he certainly stopped looking.
4.     How difficult is it to write fictional dialogue and actions for characters that really existed in history?

Because so many of the characters were speaking a second or third language, they needed to sound a bit foreign and that was fairly easy because I’ve studied German, French, Italian and am fluent in Spanish. The scene in the hospital room at the end of the book when there were so many languages being spoken and simultaneously translated was tricky but the power of the drama was worth the effort.

5.     What draws you to this particular period in history?

The late 1930s were a romantic, dramatic and mysterious time when the world powers were on a collision course, alliances were shifting, and one could cast the story in terms of good and evil.

6.     If you could go back to one period in history in any part of the world, what would you choose?

Paris in the years after the first World War.

7.     Why do you think that few have written about Trotsky’s story?

The Kremlin’s propaganda machine destroyed Trotsky reputation and wrote him out of Soviet history.  There are famous photographs from the Revolution that were airbrushed to remove Trotsky from the picture. Many Russians today don’t know that Trotsky was a revolutionary hero.

8.     If Trotsky had not been assassinated, how do you think the world would be different?

Trotsky provided a voice of reason and a humane face for socialism, but the forces against him were so great, I doubt the world would be any different.
9.     How did growing up in a small ranching community in Texas impact your imagination as a child and your desire to write?

We were newcomers and outsiders in a deeply rooted and tightly knit German community. We didn’t speak the language or know all that much about the culture, so that understanding relationships required attention and curiosity.
10.  After studying economics and history in college, what inspired you to leave Texas and serve in the Peace Corps?

I wanted to have exotic adventures, speak a foreign, and help less fortunate people.

11.  How did your time in Peru impact your storytelling?

I was the only foreigner and English speaker living in a small desert village. At night, I read Henry James by candle light after the town’s generator was turned off.

What questions would you like answered?