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dianagordonThe following interview was conducted by Joan Axelrod-Contrada, moderator of the Are You Ready? Submitting to Literary Journals panel at this year’s WriteAngles conference.

 

Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?

I wrote as an early teenager. I remember a long extended poem, “Black Jack,” in rhymed couplets about the riderless horse that followed JFK’s caisson, empty boots turned backwards in the stirrups to indicate a fallen leader. Freshman year in college I took my first creative writing class and was the only student ready with material. I’d never had any work critiqued before, and the professor used my sonnet to prove that the sonnet was dead. I’d also written a quirky short story about a date where the boy confessed he was Jesus, and the professor said the author was psychotic – at least that’s what I heard. I knew that wasn’t true and only thought, alarmed, I’m going to flunk creative writing. So I dropped the course, and went on to have a music career that took all my time and artistic energies. Years later, when I returned to writing, I finally honored the fact I’d been creating sonnets and short stories on my own when I was so young, and finally affirmed the sonnet is not dead!

What is the most rewarding part of being a writer?

Re-reading and revision. That’s where a writer gets to marvel at what’s been created where nothing existed before, to enjoy what is, and then make it shine and bring it to its true self.

The most frustrating?

How hard it is to face the everydayness of the blank page.

Can you tell us about your latest release?

I’d like to tell you about what is poised, making the rounds in the hands of a wonderful agent at top publishing houses. Though no one has bitten yet, there has been a lot of praise. It’s a novel called GEOGRAPHY, about a family-less boy struggling to find home in the far northern islands of British Columbia in the 1960’s.

What inspired it?

The stories of men I’ve known who had difficult upbringings, foster care or abuse, and rather than blame their past, grew up to create the world as it should be. I started writing a composite account of their fictional childhoods, intending to write about heroes, but GEOGRAPHY became its own story.

You’re sitting on the Submitting to Literary Journals panel at this year’s conference. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning?

Submission is either daunting, if you haven’t done much of it, or odious, if you’ve done a lot. I know that as moderator it’s your hope that we give folks a leg up on the process. With special dispensation from the conference, I’m also sitting in on the afternoon panel called How To Stop Warding Off Poems and Learn to Love Them. Patricia Lee Lewis, Doug Anderson, and I will be talking about the difficult, obscure poems, how we’ve learned to enter them; we’ll be leading the group in a what we hope will be a revelatory experience with a short, difficult poem.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently juggling. Poems. 30 poems in November for The Center for New Americans. And the prequel to GEOGRAPHY set in Seattle 1925-1946, about the life of a prostitute – but whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably not like that. And a short story about a boy trying to get in between his mother and their neighbor as the adults are on the brink of an affair.

Where can we find you online?

I have a website for my editorial services. Or Google D M Gordon and Diana Gordon, (though there’s a Canadian Diana Gordon who writes poetry and paints).

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Sally Bellerose is the author of the award-winning novel THE GIRLS CLUB. She was awarded an NEA fellowship based upon an excerpt from this book, and the first chapter won first place in fiction from Writers at Work. She will participate in the Shaping the Story panel. She was interviewed by Cheryl Malandrinos.

Why did you become a writer?
I had a fire in my belly to tell stories with working class characters in settings, neighborhoods, schools, workplaces, that were familiar to me. I also wanted to explore the ways illness, class, and sexuality interact in peoples’ lives and how they influence the choices people make.

How have your life experiences influenced your writing?
I am a working class, small town, New Englander, raised Catholic, with strong friendships and family ties, a product of the public school system, former factory worker, mother, nurse, and lover. These experiences informed the writing of THE GIRLS CLUB. Also, the books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, music I’ve listen to instruct what and how I write. In fact, I can’t think of any life experience that doesn’t influence my writing.

Can you tell us about your latest release?
THE GIRLS CLUB, set in Chicopee, Massachusetts, follows three sisters as they love, argue, and struggle their way through adolescence to womanhood, taking in religion, illness, parenting, sexuality, drugs, and rock ‘n roll on the way. The novel is a coming of age and coming out story that takes place in the 1970’s, a decade of opening doors.

What inspired it?
The piece of writing that I still consider the seed of this book was a very poorly written piece about what it felt like to have body-altering major surgery. The piece was written at Lahey Clinic over thirty years ago, after I had a total colectomy (surgical removal of the large bowel), and, believe me, as a piece of writing, it was awful. I was an RN with a young child and did not write much, if anything, for years after I wrote that short story which included the phrase “clapping thunder of pain.” I remember sitting on the cranked up hospital bed, with a pen and legal pad on my lap, understanding that anything can be written about and that writing a story in an engaging way would take skills I would need to learn. I knew the writing was bad, but I began to think that maybe, maybe someday I would learn.

In your book you created a character dealing with topics that were controversial back in the 1970’s, when Cora Rose is growing up. Some would say those topics remain controversial today. Was this a challenge for you?
I think you refer to homosexuality and speaking openly about illness. The illness in Cora Rose’s case was ulcerative colitis, or as she and her sisters would say The Dreaded Bowel Disease. Yes, as a lesbian who suffered with the disease as a child and young adult, writing about a character coming out about her sexuality and her illness in the 1970’s was challenging and incredibly gratifying.

If there was one thing you could change for Cora Rose during those years, what would be?
Great question. I would give her access to books, movies, magazines, art, ideas, and people who could help her see the wider world, to show her that the possibilities were broader than those that her immediate environment presented.

What are you planning for the Shaping Your Story panel at this year’s conference?
I am interested in craft – theme, point of view, setting, character, dialogue, scene, plot — all aspects of how to write a satisfying narrative. I am most interested in how to craft a satisfying ending, such a hard and elusive task. Also, how personal experience helps shape the story interests me, how the artist and the artist’s work are related. And, how to stay interested in the story you are telling, how to keep up the energy of the writer and the story.

What are you working on now?
A series of linked short stories. The title story Fishwives is about impoverished eighty year old lesbians. Also, Common Terrors, a novel about a RN working with developmentally delayed residents and caring for her frail elderly parents.

Can you tell our readers where they can find you online?
They can read more about my book on the website of my publisher Bywater Books. It is available on Amazon.

Is there anything you would like to add?
Thank you!

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Andrea Hairston, who will be on the Shaping the Story panel, is the award-winning author of REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE and MINDSCAPE. She teaches playwriting and screenwriting at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. She was interviewed by Cheryl Malandrinos.

When did you decide to embark upon a career in writing? Did someone or some event influence your choice in any way?
I come from a family of tall tale spinners. My grandfather was a Baptist minister and held forth from the pulpit every Sunday. My mother talked up a storm every day and captivated everyone with her stories, with her wit and wisdom and flashes of insight. As a child in grade school I was always talking too much and preventing other kids from hearing what the teacher had to say. My mother told me if I knew what the teacher was trying to teach us and felt bored or restless, rather than bother the kid next to me, I should write her a story. So I did. Every day I wrote stories that happened to me, stories that just fell into my mind. So I can’t remember myself before I was writing stories. Writing has always been part of my life, a way of being in the world.

So why not have it be your career?
I decided to write plays in college. Stories that happen in front of an audience with live actors and music and scenery and amazing costumes and lights, that was a real thrill. I decided to write novels when I was a guest professor at the University of Hamburg in Germany. I became another person when I spoke German and, despite being fluent in German, I felt like I had landed on another planet! I met women from Sudan, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Central America, and Sri Lanka who had found asylum in Germany and were working to reinvent themselves. They told me their stories and demanded a place on the world stage. I wanted to write about the experience of crossing cultures and discovering who else you might be. I wanted to tell an epic story with a cast of thousands. I wanted to explore how language shapes the landscapes of our minds. I have always been interested in stories that haven’t been told; in characters who have been left out of the official narratives; in lives that don’t get written down. So I have been inspired by the people whose stories might get thrown away. They are the stars of my novels.

What do you enjoy about writing speculative fiction?
German playwright Berthold Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” I like world building and conjuring reality. Science Fiction and Fantasy writers shake our minds loose from the iron grip of the indicative case. By substituting might be or would be for is, SF & F writers allow us a thrilling flight of fancy that changes our reality.

Can you tell us about your latest release?
REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE is an historical fantasy novel about two dreamers, an Irish-Seminole bluesman and an African American conjure woman, who leave their backwoods Georgia home for the bright lights of Chicago at the beginning of the 20th century. The book is about love, making movies, murder, and the transformative magic of music and storytelling.

What inspired it?
Actually, I never intended to write an historical novel. I was writing a contemporary piece and Redwood and Wildfire were the grandparents of the main character Cinnamon, a young girl growing up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I wrote backstory – getting to know the elders was just to understand Cinnamon and her contemporary life and choices. I kept thinking: “Me, write about 1899, 1910 – are you kidding?” The past is like a foreign country, an alien world, and, despite my love of travel and adventure, I didn’t want to offer myself as tour guide to the turn of the 20th century, as chronicler of what was. So I tried to get out of it. I tried to hide the history in the subtext. I tried to have “history stuff” be backstory for the contemporary novel; I would allude to this story but not explore or fully develop it. This worked like dancing in cement shoes. Not just Redwood and Wildfire, other characters from the supposed backstory haunted me; tantalizing scenes turned up in my journal and appeared on my laptop; the backstory stopped the contemporary action cold. Finally, after much kicking and screaming (and five hundred pages), I admitted the “history stuff” was too compelling to delete or ignore or fit around or behind some other story.

REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE is dedicated to my grandfather and great aunt. I wanted to write about the people who imagined the world I now lived in, who made me possible, when they were young and all around them brutal “reality” denied their hopes and dreams. I wanted to explore their struggle and joy. I am the dream they had. REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE insisted on being written. So I wrote it.

How is novel writing different from playwriting and/or screenwriting? How are they similar?
I write dramatic stories. Playwrights and screenwriters sing in a chorus. They create blueprints for action. They leave space for others’ creativity in the midst of their own. This is wonderfully rewarding and very tricky. Novelists are responsible for the whole shebang. This is a lot of heady power and also very lonely. Thus novel writing is a lot less egos to negotiate than playwriting or screenwriting, but also a lot to come up with without an inspiring chorus of feedback. Luckily, to help me craft a full complex world, I can imagine directors, costumers, set designers, lighting designers, and actors. At heart I’m a dramatist. Sometimes, it’s a solo gig – then I have to play all the roles!

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning for the Shaping the Story panel?
I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative – what I have read, written, seen, and heard in the last half century. I’ve been pondering what works for me and why. I want to share the dramatist perspective on narrative structure, on character and action. Additionally I want to improvise – with the panelists and the people in the audience. The great thing about theatre is the community of meaning we make when we bounce our thoughts and creativity off of one another. I am glad WriteAngles puts us all in a room together because magic and miracles are bound to happen!

What are you working on now?
I am working on a new novel about Redwood’s and Wildfire’s granddaughter, Cinnamon — WILL DO MAGIC FOR SMALL CHANGE. Now that I’ve told her grandparents’ story, I can tell hers.

Where can readers find you online?
I have a REDWOOD AND WILDFIRE page on Facebook.

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