Early Out

Early Out cover

In the early 19th century, a young Spanish scout named Rafael Rivera wandered off from Antonio Armijo’s trading expedition – en route to Los Angeles – and came back to report he had just discovered a breathtaking oasis in the middle of nowhere. Though long traversed by Southern Paiutes, the Patayan and even the Anasazi, “The Meadows” (as it would be named by European adventurers) would soon become a happenin’ hot spot and refueling venue in more ways than one. We simply know it as Las Vegas – the backdrop for debut author Jesse Kaellis’ gritty collection of real-life stories about the gambling capital of the world.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: What prompted you to write a book about the twilight glitz that is the casino subculture of Las Vegas?

A: I wasn’t really planning on writing a book. I started writing stories that I was posting on an online writers forum that was connected to a free dating site. I developed a following. When I had a body of work together my girlfriend helped me proof it and I started making submissions mostly to Canadian publishers. My girlfriend found out about a contest, the Simon Fraser University/Anvil Press 1st Book Contest. This was under the auspices of the SFU Creative Writing Department and the winner got a contract with Anvil Press, a mid-level lower mainland publisher. I shortlisted and I came in third place. The head of the department, John Mavin, kindly sent me comments from the reviews. I realized that I had a lot of raw talent and a strong voice. My style was unique; that was the feedback that I received.

Q: You’ve indicated that the book is a memoir about Vegas, boxing, violence, sex, love, grief, narcotics, the death industry, irony, despair, surfacing, humor, black humor, arcane jobs and subcultures, and the alchemy of transforming pain into empathy. Traditionally, autobiographies about people who aren’t well known to the general public are a tough sell in the publishing industry. What was the thought process that made you pursue it anyway rather than opting for a straight work of fiction?

A: Because some stories are stranger than fiction? People of notoriety have stories but can they write? Those stories are usually ghost written. I don’t read fiction and I only ever wrote one piece of fiction which was transparently my alter ego. My stories were earned the hard way, I lived them. But I have a voice; I have a style, a style that is not contrived in anyway. I wrote a story, it’s in my book, and it’s called ‘A story about nothing happened’ and, of course, the point being that there is always something happening if I have eyes to see and a voice to describe my perceptions. To sum it up, I wrote about what I know; if nobody wants to read it, then that’s just my hard luck.

Q: How much creative license did you take in relating real-life events?

A: Zero; no embellishment and I didn’t spare myself at all. People call my book painfully honest. It didn’t pain me, or I should say the pain was already there. The surcease for me was in writing about it. For instance, giving up in a fight, a boxing match, that’s never going to be okay. I made a decision at a moment in time; I took the back door because I wanted out of there and I did it in front of friends and strangers, and I didn’t have to do that and it was not remotely worth it. I learned the hard way.

Q: What do you feel distinguishes your book from the competition?

A: I do believe that I have a unique style, one reviewer, an online magazine I did an interview with years ago; she said I have a gift for literary simplicity. The first thing I do is figure out what I want to say, then I want to get there fairly directly. At the same time, I’m writing and remembering and getting insights as I write. The story is pulling me along. I’m also looking for that payoff, and it could be a sentence or even just a single word.

Q: Tell us about your choice of title and what it means to you.

A: “Early Out” is a term that any casino dealer is familiar with. All it means is that you get to go home early. Let’s say you have a dead dice game, no action, and there is another game with a little bit of action. So let’s say it’s a six pm to two am shift. Around midnight you are on a dead game and, “Who wants to go home?”

I always did because I wanted to get home and party, a party at which I was the only guest. They count the bank, get a fill, if they need it, bring up the lid and lock it and then the crew goes home. We maybe stop at the back bar to get a drink. See the casinos pay dealers minimum wage. Most of your income comes from tokes, tips. Casinos have a rock hard bottom line. Why pay dealers to stand around, even if it’s just at minimum wage? These joints count every penny.

As well, “Early Out” has a more sinister connotation, given how hard I pushed it over the nine years that I lived in Vegas. “I got so high this time that I never came down, never came back.”

Q: Is Early Out your first published work? If so, how difficult was it for you to construct?

A: It is my first published work; no—wait, I had three pieces published in SubTerrain Magazine, a quarterly literary magazine, published by Anvil Press. That was a couple of years ago. Writing it was not difficult. I wrote it one story at a time. I didn’t have a plan, I didn’t have to develop characters, I mean all I did was remember and write. I started with the Vegas stuff and after a while I felt I should provide motivation for the protagonist, I mean, why was I such a lowlife? I didn’t alibi, but I did delineate a bereft childhood. I figured that was fair enough. Everybody comes from somewhere. Nobody is born a monster, or perhaps they are, I don’t know. Maybe I was concerned with being a sympathetic character. One of the reviewers from the SFU Creative Writing Department wrote that in many ways I was not likable but he did like me and he had empathy for me.

I wept when I read that because I knew I was doing my job. This is what I’m saying, honesty is not just in the facts but it is in the tone, the “feel” of my narrative. My character came through as authentic. And I may be a sympathetic character because of my flaws and deformities, because we all fall short.

Q: Did you start with a working outline or simply let the creative juices flow from one day to the next?

A: I just wrote it one story at a time. The more I wrote, the more I remembered.

Q: How long did it take you to write Early Out?

A: About ten months.

Q: Were you editing throughout the process or did you wait until the whole thing was done?

A: I was proofing it. I have little formal education. I didn’t complete grade school. I was an undiagnosed dyslexic as a child. I didn’t read until I was eight years old. I have taken no creative writing classes. Just the same, I’m articulate and I write the way I talk. I wrote on instinct and I improved as I went along. I believe that my book gets stronger and ends strongly.

Q: Tell us about the audience you’re hoping to attract and what the book’s takeaway will be?

A: I have no idea—how about anybody under the sun? Naturally I’m hoping that I can touch everybody, anybody. I wrote a story, or dozens of stories and I stitched them into some kind of intuitively non linear order. I didn’t write it to an audience, how could I know, and I still don’t. What’s the takeaway? That the book is interesting? Many people read it in one or two sittings. There is nothing that I could ever write that would fundamentally change this world, and how about this? The world doesn’t need changing. Be careful how you hear that. This is a perfect world. Careful.

Q: How did you go about choosing a publisher for your book?

A: I took whoever wanted me and I was grateful for it. I was resigned to dying in complete obscurity. There were more than a few people that knew I would find a publisher, “You’re too good.” They believed in me more than I ever did my own self, particularly my ex girlfriend. I got Mountain Springs House, got a contract that I signed last March, and I was happy for it. At one point, at what seems like a lifetime ago, I thought I was going to get one of the Big 6 publishers. That story is partially told in my book.

Q: What do you know about the publishing industry now that you didn’t know when you started?

A: This has been about three plus years now. I was warned about how tough it can be but it takes going through it yourself to really know the vagaries of this business. The publishing industry is in upheaval at this time in particular. It really hasn’t shaken out yet, if ever. It has been painful at times and difficult, it has also been exhilarating and moving for me. My book has touched people. I wanted to be known, that’s why I wrote it. That’s why guys fight, as well, by the way. Fight in the ring. They are making a statement: I am. There is no higher expression of individuality in my perception. And women also fight as well, especially now a days.

Q: What would you have done differently in your journey to publication?

A: I wouldn’t have alienated one publisher in particular. I didn’t need to do it. There was nothing but a loss in it for me, I had a bi-winning moment and I burnt this guy down and maybe every other publisher on the lower mainland, but live and learn; and I got a second chance with another publisher.

Q: What are you doing to promote the book?

A: Not enough really. You can always do more—I’m doing online stuff, using my blog, interviews…

I found a service that places books in Nevada and Northern California for a nominal fee. They put paperbacks in casino gift shops and at the airport, convenience stores. They are based in Reno and Las Vegas and I expect to move books through this venue.

I am at number 3 on the Smashwords bestseller list in my genre. I broke the Amazon top one hundred about ten days ago; I had some really low numbers.

Q: Were you a voracious reader growing up? If so, what are some of the books and who are some of the authors that most influenced your style of storytelling?

A: Once I was able to read, yes, was an avid reader. My reading wasn’t restricted and my parents were left wing types, so: Mailer, Baldwin, Claude Brown, Alex Haley, George Orwell, Upton Sinclair, Jerzey Koszinski, Primo Levy, Joyce Carol Oates, Nick Touches, many more.

Q: What are you currently reading?

A: I’m not currently reading a book.

Q: What would your fans be the most surprised to learn about you?

A: I don’t leave much room for speculation in my book. I’m not sure. My left eye is smaller than my right eye – noticeably. Seriously, I don’t know. I’m standing naked in my book, pretty much, but I don’t tell everything and I never will. God knows all, nobody else.

Q: If Early Out were turned into a movie, who would be in your dream cast for it?

A: I would like Daniel Day Lewis to play me, just because he’s a great actor. I don’t think you could turn my story into a movie—the scope of it. It could be a cast of thousands. However, any one story could be turned into a screenplay.

Q: What’s your best advice to aspiring writers who want to get published?

A: I am probably the worst person that could give advice. When publishers that allow unsolicited submissions give you submission guidelines then you better obey. But I didn’t and I don’t. I mean if you follow their guidelines it can be very time consuming. I’ll advise this; make multiple submissions. Tell the publisher that you have multiple submissions out there and you don’t have to list them by name. It’s an industry practice no matter what they say. You can’t wait on each single submission. You have an average six week turnaround. Be careful with contests, they can get costly. They generally charge an entry fee. Use your instincts if you have any.

I’m not organized, I’m not patient, I have thin skin, and the whole process has been inordinately painful for me, so, take heart. If I can do it, you can do it. Just don’t give up.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: My biggest problem with this business is that it is a business. I wanted the deal where I would be discovered and be transformed into an overnight star, something like what happened to James Frey. I know and I have known that I need to publish more material, and I do have a good deal of stuff that I can use, I think I have a book’s worth already. Now I just have to light a fire under my rear end and do it.

 

 

 

 

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Four Letters

Four Letters

“Family quarrels are bitter things,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. “They don’t go by any rules. They’re not like aches or wounds; they’re more like splits in the skin that won’t heal because there’s not enough material.” In her recently released family saga, Four Letters, author Diane Kasulis makes her publishing debut with a bittersweet story certain to resonate with anyone who has ever experienced estrangement with parents, siblings or their own children.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Your journey to become a published author undertook quite a circuitous route, starting with a college major in pharmacy and followed by stints in photography, sign painting, milking goats, and driving semi-tractor trailers from one coast to the other. Which of these pursuits do you feel was the biggest influence on your vision as a storyteller and the discipline it takes to stay with a project from start to finish?

A: Everything I have done has had some impact on me as a storyteller. I have always tucked away experiences and emotions that might fit into a story one day. The biggest influence, however, has been from any job involving driving either over the road in a big truck or school bus driving. The reason for this choice is because when you are driving for hours, it gives you a lot of time to think, and construct a story. When writing Four Letters, I was able to visualize the chapter I was writing that day, in my mind as if I was watching a movie. Once I had the scene perfected, I went home and just wrote it down. As the story progressed in my mind, it became easier to record it from chapter to chapter and scene to scene. The hardest thing was just beginning.

Q: Were you an avid reader when you were growing up?

A: I remember doing a fair amount of reading growing up, mostly the classics such as Charles Dickens. I was too preoccupied with art, drawing and painting, however, and that  took precedence.

Q: What are you reading now?

A: I am currently reading The Storyteller by Jodi Picoult. She is my favorite author and truly a master at what she does. I am learning from reading her. For example I have learned that I need to up my game and provide more plot twists and turns.

Q: What was the inspiration to write Four Letters?

A: Unfortunately, the inspiration for Four Letters was a wedding in my own family, where my youngest daughter got left out. I have five children, and after that wedding, two of my children didn’t speak to me for a while.  I was driving school bus at the time with too much time to think. I started a journal but that didn’t help. Then I concocted this storyline, took it to extremes, and started writing this story. By writing a story about other characters, it kept my mind off of my own issues, and gave me something to focus on. Fortunately, after a short time, my family did come around, and everything worked itself out. But I decided to tell this tale to the extreme that I did as I wanted to get my message across about the importance of family. I suppose this message was one that I wanted to impress upon my own children at first. Needless to say, they are proud that I published a book, and for now, wish to avoid reading it like the plague needless to say!

Q: Did you start with a detailed outline or simply make things up as you went along?

A: I had an outline of sorts in my head. I knew the beginning and the ending of the story. I knew just what I needed to tell of Ella’s story. The rest was made up as I went along.:

Q: Your choice of narrator for this story – Ella’s caregiver, Janis, rather than Ella herself – was an interesting one. What governed this particular decision?

A: From the beginning I pictured the opening scene where Janis is writing the letters for Ella. If I just told Ella’s story, it would not only make for a sad story, but a short one as well. Because Ella was the age she was, I felt I needed some young characters to weave a story around, as well as to lend some lighter moments to the story. So at times, it was very much like writing two stories in one. Perhaps, because of my own experiences, I needed to just get Ella’s story and feelings out in the open; however, I found that by telling Janis’s story and her up-and-down relationship with her only sister, my message about the importance of family would get across.

In my own life, I felt that this message wasn’t received by my own family, so I was in a position to put that in a book and maybe influence others, just as Ella’s message wasn’t received by two of her own children, yet she was able to influence another family, namely Janis’. I felt that narrating this story from Ella herself would be too limiting, too sad and too concentrated upon the family rift. At the same time I wanted to get a message across. I felt that by having a secondary character, Janis, through her eyes, the reader would, like Janis, learn a lesson, one taught by an older, wiser generation.

Q: How might this story have been different if told from the perspective of Ella or, for that matter, her offspring?

A: This story would probably not take place in today’s world, but instead it would a story centered around the family rift as it happened in the seventies. There would be no other family to advise, however it would concentrate more on Ella herself as well as her children directly. Being told through Janis, the message of family is clear. Being told through Ella, the message of family would be too intense, like beating a dead horse, perhaps. This is a tragic story that I lightened by telling it through a stranger’s eyes.

Q: What were some of the challenges of interweaving the two women’s respective family issues?

A: Presenting two different families and their issues was complicated. In a sense there were two protagonists, with the emphasis on Janis vs. Ella. I had to be able to relate to a younger, twenty-something and thirty-something generation, with the issues that they would face today. I had to do this side by side with Ella, who grew up in a different world, and portray her values from that time period, which differs from today’s.

Q: How much of the plot and characterizations in Four Letters are drawn from your own life or those of people you know?

A: There is probably more plot and characterizations drawn from my own life and people that I know than I would care to admit to. The wedding scenario was based on my own experiences, the rest is fiction. I did, however, draw on some experiences in my own life. For example, the ice cream run was something that my father would sometimes do when I was little. I remember past summers, being young, going to bed, and being woken up to be taken out for ice cream in my pj’s. As far as drawing from people I know for some of my characters, I did picture someone for the role of Charlie, as the fishing buddy of Janis’ dad. It brought this character to life. The fishing stories he tells, however, are pure fiction…then again, aren’t fishing stories always fiction?

Q: The premise of Ella’s story – the estrangement from her children and her desire to reunite with them – seems awfully sad. Won’t readers think that this is too much of a downer tragedy to add to their book list?

A: Ella’s story of estrangement is really sad, which is another reason why I chose to narrate it from Janis’s perspective – a younger woman with her own family, including all the happiness, love and laughter one would expect to see, along with some hilarious situations at work, to balance the tragedy.

Q: What are some of the lighter moments of the story?

A: The break room scene in chapter three is a hoot. It is a lively discussion about bridezillas. You just have to read it. The antics of some of the residents where Janis works will make you chuckle.

Q: What, ultimately, is the takeaway value you want readers to have by the final chapter?

A: Bottom line, the message that I have been trying to impart is that all you really have in this world is family. It seems that in today’s society, everything is fast-paced, and based on instant, Internet communication, losing the personal touch, and family bonds seem to become more strained.

Q: If Hollywood came calling to make a movie adaptation of Four Letters, who would comprise your dream cast for it?

A: If this book were to be made into a Hollywood production, then I would love to see it directed by Clint Eastwood. I think it would be right down his alley as they say. I would trust him to come up with a killer cast. There was a movie called In Her Shoes, about two sisters. That casting would work here. And Betty White could be Ella! And by the way, my oldest daughter, Krystal, who is also on the cover, would most likely love to do some acting as well. She majored in theater in college.

Q: Despite the popularity of e-publishing and the artistic control it affords today’s authors, why did you opt to go the traditional route?

A: I did my homework regarding the publishing field. The general consensus was that there was more credibility publishing traditionally through a publisher as opposed to self-publishing. Here someone, in this case North Star Press, was willing to take a chance on this book, as opposed to my paying someone just to print it.

Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?

A: I found North Star Press by taking a couple of publishing and writing courses that were offered through them. Each publisher seems to have something that they are looking for. North Star likes to publish new authors that have written about Minnesota, or the upper mid-west, which is why I set my story locally.

Q: What surprised you the most about the publishing process that you didn’t know before?

A: I expected to receive a little more advice and guidance from my publisher. I was surprised at how much editing and such that I was able to do.

Q:  What’s next on your plate?

A: I had an idea in mind, and then I decided to use Janis and Joyce in this story. Originally, I wrote Four Letters as a stand-alone book. However, I am taking the story further (Ella’s is done) and concentrating on Joyce. This story is narrated by Joyce, and follows her through her shaky college experience, as well as her bitter, almost violent relationship with her ex-boyfriend Ty from the first book.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Yes, I wish that the original synopsis for the back cover was what got placed there. It is on my website http://www.authordianek.com and went into the relationship between Ella and Janis. I was asked to also provide something short and snappy. This short paragraph only focuses on Ella. By reading this, one would assume this story may be a bit different than what it actually is. I think this also sells the story a bit short. There is a lot more to this story than what the back cover portrays, and is worth an extra look, or checking out my webpage.

 

 

Make Film History: Rewrite, Recut, and Reshoot the World’s Greatest Films

Make Film History

On September 16, 1890, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince boarded a Paris-bound train, his first stop en route to New York to present an amazing invention that would radically change the way people saw the world. Not only did Le Prince never reach his destination but his body (which seemingly vanished overnight) was also never found despite exhaustive inquiries by the police. Fortuitously, his legacy – a camera that recorded the first motion picture – seized the imagination of kindred spirits who saw the device’s enormous potential as a medium for mainstream entertainment.

In his remarkable new book, Make Film History, author and film expert Robert Gerst, PhD. invites aspiring moviemakers of all ages to learn from the techniques of 25 cinematic game-changers over the past century and recognize how to apply the innovative lessons of sound, color, texture, music and editing to the development of their own projects.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: What ignited your passion for movies and what’s the first one you ever remember seeing? In what way(s) did that first movie “speak” to you?

A: High Noon! (1952) is the first film I remember seeing. My mother took me. What she thought a little kid would get out of an adult-oriented revisionist cowboy movie I don’t know, but my mother was someone who ignored what most people conventionally thought. She was willing to go anywhere and try anything. She gave me, I suppose, the capacity to see things my own way.

The film came on the screen.  “Do-Not-Forsake-Me-O-My-Darling” thumped along in the sound track.  I was enthralled. For years, I dreamed about that movie.  At school, when the teacher said, “Draw something,” I drew again and again my version of the landscape of High Noon. The movie, of course, is set in the American southwest, but I imagined it as a New England style foursquare house at the end of a sinuous road. Cactuses and mountains surrounded the house.  Above it, a bright sun with rays pointing to the cardinal points on the compass hung in the sky. (I now live in a house in Massachusetts that could double for the house I saw as the house of High Noon.)

When I viewed the film again a few years ago, it seemed a bit hokey. But when I saw it with my mother, it spoke to me. I remember High Noon, and remembering that movie inspires me to thank my mother for standing by me as I slowly became who I am. I only wish I had told her so while still she was among us.

Q: Are there some particular movies that speak to you today?

A: I like films that affirm, movies in which every element beats with the rhythm of a living heart.  Affirmative movies don’t necessarily talk happy talk. Lives of Others, for instance, is a very sad film. But the movie affirms that you liberate yourself when you liberate others. Writer and director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck
infuses that theme into the tiniest features of the music, the camera angles, the costumes.

In Lives of Others, a surveillance man in East Germany begins as a high-ranking officer and ends up, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, a lowly postman. The film ends when he enters a bookstore and reads the dedication in the novel written by the artist he surveilled.  The bookstore clerk asks if he should gift-wrap the book. “No, it’s for me,” man replies. Freeze frame. It’s a poignant ending, an ending as affirmative as the final shot of Bicycle Thieves, where the man and his son walk off into the crowd together.

Q: You’ve come a long way from the days when you first cut movies standing at a Moviola. What are three high points along the journey that you feel most strongly shaped your approach to inspiring the next generation of filmmakers to go forth and be creative?

A: At college, Richard Wilbur, America’s first poet laureate, taught me what I know about poetry, and writing poems and stories and novels—all safely tucked away now in a drawer—taught me how to write prose.  Students I taught in a classroom at Mass Art taught me that people learn by doing.  Fatherhood invested me in the next generation.

Q: What would prospective film students be the most surprised to learn about you?

A:  I never went to film school. My film school was bird watching. When you watch birds, you wait and listen. You never know beforehand what you’re going to encounter, so you attend to whatever moves or twitters. That’s the state of mind in which to watch a movie and make one. I recommend bird watching to film students.  And I spent a couple of years learning to cut and shoot film. As it turned out, I didn’t become a professional filmmaker. I earned a Ph.D. in literature instead. But hands-on work making movies taught me how the most miniscule change in a line, a shot, and a soundtrack moves a film in a new direction.

Q: Make Film History: Rewrite, Recut, and Reshoot the World’s Greatest Films isn’t the first book to be written about film history but it may be among the most distinctive. Tell us why – and how – you went about developing and researching this project.

A:  I wrote the book to help you unleash your inner filmmaker. “You” probably started with me. The digital revolution reawakened me. When I had practiced filmmaking years before, movie making felt as esoteric as alchemy. But suddenly a filmmaking studio was opening in everyone’s computer. In my computer, I had this second chance to fiddle with movies. The tug I feel, I realized, others also feel. People who once would express themselves in poetry and dance now crank out You Tube videos. Some of them might want to learn about how actors act, how editors mix sounds, how filmmakers in general gestate movies.

I proposed an early version of the book and interactive website to Ken Lee and Michael Wiese of Michael Wiese Productions.  Michael suggested that I recast the book/webpage introduction to film that I first proposed into a historically oriented introduction to film history and filmmaking.

I blurted, “Twenty-five moments that transformed film history!”

Michael blurted, “Zelig does film history!”

Zelig is that 1983 movie where, with optical printing, Woody Allen, chameleon-like, slips into historic footage from the past. I spent about two years researching and writing.  I spent some time in the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles and visited the film archives and the restoration school at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.  I thought about the films I was screening for my film history students.  I read printed and digital sources, many contradictory. I tried to distill all this lucidly and accurately.

Once I submitted the manuscript, I worked for roughly another half year getting the web site to a state where Make Film History readers would find it engaging. On the site, reader’s access historic film clips, view film history photographs, and read related documents. The site features film clips that readers can download to solve or re-solve the question a chapter’s exercise poses. To enable even novices to experience the joy of building a movie moment, the site provides step-by-step editing instructions written for the entry-level software already installed in most computers.

Make Film History is a glimpse at twenty-five moments when movies changed. But it’s not an encyclopedia. It’s a love note.

Q: I love your interactive website (http://makefilmhistory.com). How did you come up with this and what was the most challenging aspect of developing it as a complement to the book?

A:  A long ago Mac Plus HyperCard computer game—Cosmic Osmo—inspired the website. Cosmic Osmo was an early attempt by Rand and Robyn Miller to enable people to slosh through a humorous, joyful universe.  Later they created Myst, which became so popular newspapers took to printing daily tips to help wanderers in Mystland progress from location to location. I myself never advanced past the Mystland dentist chair, but in my foursquare New England house my wife and son went everywhere.

Cosmic Osmo was my game, though. It was pure play—a cage operating according to rules that, once you discovered the bars, seemed to disappear and set you free.  Playing Cosmic Osmo felt like dreaming.  There were rooms to click around and planets to visit. The magus of this imaginary universe was one Cosmic Osmo himself, who pervaded the place.  The voice of Osmo, or one of his avatars, would sometimes and chant, “You’ve traveled through spaces, through all kinds of places, now please don’t disgrace, please play with our faces…”

If this sounds like Prospero’s cell, it was. In drawers and under objects you came across what you felt was Osmo’s presence. If there was a higher purpose to this game I never discovered it, but just playing this game unleashed my imagination.

I wanted the website for Make Film History to inspire similar feelings. The sequential chapters constitute a path.  Clicks take you to outlooks. You interact with film clips in the exercises. I developed the site in stages, first creating the navigation bar, then roughing out the master page for each chapter of the book, then adding content as I thought of it. Beyond the chapter structure, I certainly followed no outline. The pages just grew. They continue to grow. The site runs about 350 html pages today, probably about double what it was when I first put it up. Yesterday I put up a couple of pages about the Brox Sisters of the 1920s and maybe tomorrow I’ll add another page about video on the Internet.  I don’t know. Subsidiary pages begin with an image that mesmerizes me. Then I open a blank file and explain what I see in the image. Then I add sound or video for users to activate. I wake up in the morning and rarely know what glen of this forest I’ll be entering. But I know I’ll go somewhere. I use Dreamweaver.  I’m bird watching.

Q: Okay, here’s something I’ve always wondered about silent movies. We can read on the title cards what the characters are saying but they’re obviously speaking to each other during scenes for which there are no cards. Were silent movies fully scripted or would the director instruct them from the sidelines to “act like you’re upset,” “explain that you’ve lost something,” “convey suspicion,” etc.?

A: Silent movies traded in feelings, as music does. But no one feels a comma in an emotion. So no one wrote out scripts for silent films. If you think of a silent movie as a dance, you immediately sense the uselessness of a script. Directors would shout or whisper directions—“Move towards her slowly… Tell her you love her.” Beside the camera, violinists and other musicians often played to summon feelings out of actors. (Garbo favored a violin and cello duet). Directors made very long silent films without consulting a word of script. D.W. Griffith used no script to create The Birth of a Nation. Sometimes, one of his camera assistants asserted, Griffith would step onto the set to dance with Lillian Gish—“Miss Geesh” he called her— and then start shooting. Silent movies are dance or maybe semaphore. Motion makes them.

Though they weren’t scripted, most silent films were certainly written. There were two kinds of silent movie writers. One sort created what they called scenarios—story summaries for directors to chop and frame into bits of story played out in scenes. The other sort wrote intertitles. An intertitle was, in essence, a silent movie tweet. You said it fast and you said it first. The first shot of Sadie Thompson is words on a plain black background, “In Pago Pago—in the sultry South Seas—where there is no need for bed clothes—yet the rain comes down in sheets…” That’s title writing.

What actors said to each other in silent films they pretty much made up in the moment. Sometimes they said unprintable things. Profusely and obviously, characters cursed each other in What Price Glory?, and lip readers supposedly complained. Usually silent film actors tried to say what they felt their characters would say. Improv actors now work that very way.

Q: A recurring theme throughout your book is to “learn by doing” but even more so is the message to “learn by imitating.” Doesn’t this just perpetuate the cycle of reinventing the wheel through remakes, prequels and sequels and, accordingly, becoming predictable?

A: You can never predict where an exercise in imitation will take you because, however obvious the destination, the road keeps changing as you travel it: your own hand is always on the wheel. You start out imitating Fritz Lang and, if you’re made that way, Adam Sandler arrives. Michelangelo leaned to sculpt by copying statues from ancient Greece. Imitating teaches technique and it unshackles you.

Q: How does today’s movie business compare to what it was like in the past?

A: We’ve returned to the earliest years of movie making. It’s as if we’ve stopped the movie history feature mid-reel, rewound it, and George Méliès and the Lumiere Brothers have taken over where Edison left off.  The king is dead and the little guy is king. To me, this moment is unbelievably exciting. The twentieth century factory studio has vanished. Studios mainly market films now, not make them. Today, the studio name preceding a film is a Cheshire cat smiling into thin air. An ad-hoc production company of agents, producers, directors, and mother-in-laws actually made the film.

In today’s film world, you can shoot a major motion picture with a digital camera. Danny Boyle and his cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle shot much of Slum Dog Millionaire on Silicon Imaging SI-2K digital cameras. The camera head weighs 1.2 pounds. You can rent one for a day or week at your local video equipment vendor. Used ones sell on eBay. You can edit your movie on your lap top computer using Final Cut Pro.

There’s a dark fringe to this brightness. The film business, like the book business, has no clear view of where the industry is going. So people can’t make long-term commitments. In its heyday and even afterward, the studio system was more stable. In a documentary about film editing, film editor Paul Hirsch says that he walked into the editing room and when he looked up, thirty years years had passed. People just entering the film business now won’t experience that.

Q: If someone came to you and said, “I want to break into this business,” what would be your three best pieces of advice?

A:

1. “Only connect…” reads the epigraph to E.M. Foster’s novel, Howard’s End. If someone offers you a job, take it. Grip. Sub-titler. Assistant caterer. Whatever. Get yourself an offer. Then take it.

2. Don’t call yourself —don’t think of yourself—as an ARTIST. That’s for someone else to judge. Think of yourself as someone who cuts shots or applies makeup.

3. Live with compassion. May I reblog wisdom Anthony Burgess evidently offered in Inside Mr. Enderby?  Laugh and the world laughs with you. Snore and you sleep alone.

Q: Technology was quite a bit different even as recently as 50 years ago. What are some of the things that today’s moviemakers – who now have access to an impressive array of high-tech tools – learn from past approaches to lighting, sound and cinematography?

A: Watching the light, sound and cinematography in old movies teaches you that there really isn’t any such thing as “progress” in movies. Movies get easier to make and simpler to distribute, but they don’t necessarily get better. Contemporary film making tools are fantastically empowering. Even in software like iMovie, you can transition between shots in about twenty different ways. The great montagist of the 1930s, Slavko Vorkapich, couldn’t achieve more than one or two of those effects because optical printers then were unable to create most of them. But Vorkapich’s montages were diamonds. They express his sensibility, so they continue to communicate, regardless of how dated his films may be. Hearing César express his love for his son in Fanny is affecting, even if the sound track crackles in that early talkie. Watching the early filmmakers teaches you humility. Humility is the great teacher.

Q:  Have all the advances in eye-popping CGI and 3D come at the expense of weaker plots, poorly developed characters, and contrived dialogue?

A: Filmmakers may be de-emphasizing plot, character, and dialogue because movie viewers enjoy all kinds of things that CGI and 3D do well. Filmmakers seeking markets abroad find that memorable dialogue doesn’t translate well. Other elements of a movie—like action— travel better. In a comic book adaption I viewed this spring, the hero kept endlessly slipping in and out of his CGI skin. I struggled just following the story, but millions of people love this film.   The plot conforms, I’m sure, to the three-act structure paradigm that everybody quotes: Something bad happens. Something even worse happens. You deal with it. This movie almost certainly underwent an exhaustive plot point analysis to guarantee that, on page twenty, action required by the three-act formula happens. Good story bones must be there. But when I left the theater, I couldn’t remember what the movie was all about.

That movie is earning prodigiously. In two months, people in America and elsewhere have coughed up four hundred million dollars to view this film. That’s a pretty compelling reason to keep making movies like that. Save us, please, from the culture police. But I confess, my heart isn’t there.

May I float a possibly heretical thought? Plot may not be the be all and end all of movies. People have all kinds of reasons for enjoying performances. Spectacle can often be enough. Masques had minimal plots in the seventeenth century. Movies of the future may not be stories at all. In Brave New World, Aldus Huxley looked into the future and, instead of movies, he saw “feelies.” CGI spectacle movies may be moving the mainstream business closer to the non-narrative poetry of the avant-garde. CGI and 3D do not portend the end of movies. Martin Scorsese’s 3D Hugo, for instance, was beautiful.

Q: Many a black-and-white film has been colorized in an attempt to give it less of an “old” feel. What’s your reaction to this practice and what, if anything, do you feel gets lost in the transition?

A:  The actual number of movies colorized is miniscule. Of the thousands of films made by professional filmmakers since 1895, about two hundred seventy black and white movies—roughly one hundred sixty of them from the 1930s—have been digitally colorized since the early 1980s. For me, even one is too many. I understand why people who own rights to old black and whites consider colorizing them:  many people today say they’d never watch a black and white movie.  Maybe the 2012 Best Picture Academy Award for The Artist converted some of those people.

Black and white movies intrigue me as poetry sometimes does. Myth is universally understandable. Poetry isn’t. Poetry exists in a particular language and doesn’t survive translation. “Fuzzy-Wuzzy was a bear…. Fuzzy Wuzzy had no hair. Fuzzy Wuzzy wasn’t fuzzy, was he?” is untranslatable. John Ford’s The Fugitive would be just as untranslatable. Black and white infuses the worldview of that film. When a director uses black and white effectively, colorizing harms his movie. Maybe movies made by visually uninventive directors don’t suffer much from colorizing. But could you imagine Citizen Kane in color? I gather that Jean Luc Godard once toyed with the idea of colorizing Breathless. Thankfully, he didn’t.

Q:  Your book sets forth the premise that there are 25 pivotal points in the timeline of movie history. What do you predict will be the 26th?

A: The book stops at twenty-five points on a continuum. I think of them as freeze frames in a very long take. I’d love a chance to write about others. The Paramount Pictures School of 1925.  The last days of 35 mm projection in 2012. It’s endless. As the twenty-sixth, however, I foresee smaller, more modular and haiku-like movies. We’ll return to the ten-minute one reeler standard. Nine-hour movies are over. Twitter already circulates films that run six seconds.

Q: Your book contains lots of nifty exercises at the end of each chapter. I’m curious, though, whether a reader has to have extensive experience with digital filmmaking software in order to get the most benefit from the lesson.

A: You need to spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with basic features of the digital editing software installed in your computer if you’ve never done that before.  Beyond that, you’re good to go. The exercise instructions are written for iMovie and Windows Movie Maker, and I’ll be putting up Adobe Premier instructions shortly. The exercises work fine in more advanced digital editing software, too.  The goal is to unleash the filmmaker in everybody.

Q: Some people think that digitizing movie editing, shooting, and projection portends the end of movies as we know them. What do you think?

A:  I am excited about the future. Ending “movies as we know them” might be a good thing, if what supplants “movies as we know them” is movies we never thought of. Giving more people more ways to experience the joy of making, viewing, and loving movies is an absolute good.

Q: Hypothetically, you’re having a small dinner party and can invite any three of the visionary filmmakers referenced in your book. Which three would they be and what question would you put to each one that has never before been addressed in interviews or biographies?

A: To David O. Selznick: How did you feel about your father? To Dziga Vertov: Did you really believe that movies can make a new humanity?  To Georges Méliès: What do you think truth is?

Q: Can learning about movies help ordinary readers— who aren’t going to be movie professionals—live more imaginative and fulfilling lives?

A: There is an artist in everyone. We enter dreamland every night. Artists are just people who, when they wake, continue dreaming. Learning about movies induces in you the feeling, as love does, that you are not alone. That is, of course, an illusion. You are alone. But we live by that illusion. Movies are the meeting place of souls.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A Striped bass and blue fish, I hope. I’m going fishing.

When I finish with that, I’d like to write about husbands and wives who made movies together. Martin and Osa Johnson. Federico Fellini and Giulietta Masina. Phillips Smalley and Lois Weber, for instance, were once the most esteemed movie couple in Hollywood. Now nobody’s ever heard of them.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: Like me on Facebook. Put in a word on my blog. I love to talk movies.

 

 

Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time

Driving with Cats Cover_Driving with Cats

“I believe cats to be spirits come to earth,” wrote Jules Verne. “A cat, I am sure, could walk on a cloud without coming through.” In her recently released memoir, Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, author Catherine Holm offers a lovely and poignant collection of stories and lessons about journeying through life with feline companions. As any lover of cats might be inclined to agree, nine lives will never be quite enough to fully get acquainted.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: For a sneak peek teaser, what is Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time all about?

A: Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time is a memoir of life, love, and the human/animal-companion bond. There are three things going on in this book. The overall book is framed by the story of my 21-year-old cat Jamie’s amazing last two months of life. Other chapters tell the story of milestones in my own life and the lives of the unique cats who have joined me on the journey. Also, interspersed through the book are short essays, both thoughtful, humorous, and informational. (Several of these essays were expanded and adapted at catster.com, where I blog.)

Driving with Cats is about the amazing things our companion animals teach us and bring to our lives. It is also a story about learning to move through the letting go process, and appreciating the gifts that this transition brings.

Q: What was your inspiration to write this book?

A: I wanted to write a memoir, but obviously, just focusing on “my life” seemed a bit huge, and not real compelling. I love cats and feel strongly about the human/animal-companion bond. When it occurred to me that I could write a memoir slanted through the bond I share with my cats, I got excited.

Q: Did you start with a formal outline or did you make things up as you went along? Why did your chosen process work well for you?

A: I tend not to outline. I wrote as I went, having no idea how it would turn out. Strangely, that seems to work best for me.

Q: As a long-time dog lover, I’m curious: what is your personal connection to cats?

A: I think this is a result, for me, of spending lots of time around cats. I love dogs too, but feel I understand cats better. I spend a lot of time observing my cats. We’ve always had more cats than dogs in my adult life, due to space and the layout of our household.

I did start out as a dog lover when I was a child. I knew all the breeds, devoured dog fiction, and visited every dog I could on the way home from school. I still love dogs, and there are a few references to and mention of dogs in Driving with Cats.

Q: Besides the obvious physical differences, what do you think differentiates cats from other animals insofar as being companions to humans?

A: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I have an answer, or if there is an answer. I’ll just say that I think cats’ personalities are uncovered differently than dogs’. A cat may reveal herself more slowly, and more subtly, than a dog. It’s just the difference between the two animals. I don’t know enough about all other animals to compare them to cats.

Q: What’s so special and significant about the death/dying/grieving process that you go through with your pets?

A: For me, death has often been a tender and profound process. (This goes for the people in my life that have passed on, as well.) I think that if there’s time to say goodbye (such as in a hospice situation, or an instance where you know an animal will be terminal, but you’re providing palliative care and trying to make them as comfortable as possible), that some really deep and tender bonds can grow and become stronger. The goodbye experience, in these cases, has been as wonderful as it has been sad. The animals, it seems, have really gone above and beyond to say goodbye in the best way possible.

Q: What can companion animals teach us about how to become better human beings?

A: I think any of us who share a household with a companion animal will have an answer for this! To me, they teach us how to be better people. They teach us to love unconditionally, and to receive unconditional love. They teach us to live in the moment, because their lives are usually shorter than ours. They teach us responsibility. Learning that I could love completely and unconditionally was a big realization for me.

Q: What do you believe is the strongest takeaway value from Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time?

A: We only have the present (not the past, not the future), so get good at truly appreciating the present moment. This applies to loving your companion animal, or loving anyone. Also, there’s opportunity for love, and loving behavior, everywhere.

Q: A former friend of mine once had no less than 22 cats in her household, many of whom were living long past their expiration dates. No matter their age or state of decline, she felt it would be too hard on her to ever have them put to sleep. Given that we are the stewards to domesticated animals, what is your response to a situation like this?

A: I try not to judge without knowing all the variables. Of course, there are many cases where animals may live too long because the person can’t let go. There are also many cases where an animal may be put down too soon — for many reasons. I know of a woman who has (I think) 19 cats, but she has the resources to care for them well. I don’t. I’m stretched at five or six at most.

Putting an animal to sleep can be a very difficult decision. On the other hand, it may be the better solution than a painful death. On the other hand, I have had animals die peacefully, on their own, at home. Every situation is going to be a little different. When I’ve had to take an animal in to be put down, the anticipation and dread has been worse than the actual experience. The actual experience, in my case, has been positive and peaceful.

Q: Describe your work space…and are cats involved?

A: Sometimes I work in the house, but I usually end up distracted by the cats, who love to lay over whatever I’m doing. I do have a separate small office building next to our house, that we put up ourselves. It provides distraction-free space. Sometimes I will bring a cat out, but haven’t done this for a while. Jamie (the 21-year-old who frames the story in Driving with Cats) absolutely loved being taken to the office and spending time with me there. It was one of his favorite pleasures.

Q: How do you shape your life to facilitate writing?

A: What works best for me is to write first thing in the morning. My mind seems more amenable to creative writing at this time. I try to not let other life factors press in until I do the writing (such as promotion, social media promotion, and the freelancing I do from home). I try to make my life as flexible as possible so that the writing gets done.

Q: Tell us about the decision process that went into finding a publisher.

A: It was really pretty simple and fairly fast. I approached my first publisher, but they were not interested in a cat-themed memoir. Then, I sent it to a bunch of agents, got rejections, and some encouragement. I sent it to a midsized press, who also rejected it with some encouragement. I sent it to a regional small press, who asked me to contribute funds to publish it (I didn’t want to go that route). Then, I sent it to North Star Press, another regional small press. They got back to me very quickly, saying that they wanted to publish Driving with Cats.

Q: What did you learn about publishing that you didn’t know when you first started?

A: This is my second book. I tend to really throw myself into things. My first book taught me what hard work promotion is. It is continuous. My second book, hopefully, is helping me refine the process more and make better decisions about which opportunities to go after, and which to not pursue. I’m learning that a published writer must work hard at promotion, but also not let the promotion consume the creation of new writing. It’s a tricky balance.

Q: You also write cat fantasy fiction under the name of Ann Catanzaro. What prompted you to go with a pseudonym and how did you go about choosing this particular one?

A: The cat fantasy fiction is self published and I wanted to distinguish between these self-published chapbooks and my traditionally published work. Both names are family names and names I like — of course, I also like the “Cat” in Catanzaro!

Q: What’s your best advice to someone who comes to you and says, “I want to become an author”?

A: Develop a sustained practice of writing and reading. Think long term. Getting better as a writer takes time. Be prepared for the difference between “writer” and “author,” though it may not really be possible to understand this until you step into the author role. (I blog about this here.) Read Stephen King’s On Writing — I found it really inspired and resonated with me.

Q: What would fans be most surprised to learn about you?

A: I’m not sure…I have done a lot of different things. I taught voice and piano, I teach yoga now. I love to travel, I love wilderness camping. I’m generally pretty calm, or I try to be. I’m pretty passionate, but that’s probably not a surprise. I think what may surprise people most about me is an inner strength that is not immediately apparent. I’m pretty quiet unless I need not to be.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: I’m in the middle of a novel about a mother/daughter relationship. I have also outlined and am ready to write another cat-themed memoir.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: My website is http://www.catherineholm.com and it also links to my facebook page and my LinkedIn page. I blog occasionally on my website (mostly announcements and that type of thing). I blog quite a bit at http://www.catster.com— one of my freelance jobs. Read any of my writing — I’m really pretty transparent!

 

 

 

The Prince Charming Hoax

Prince Charming Hoax

Once upon a time…[blah, blah, blah]…and they lived happily ever. For many a young girl who grew up reading fairy tales, that blah, blah, blah in the middle was always incidental. Who really cared if the heroine of these childhood stories was smart, clever, brave or had useful skill sets like spinning straw into gold? If she couldn’t attract a handsome guy on a white horse by the final chapter and give up her day-job to go be his missus, she was doomed to spinsterhood and may as well just spend the rest of her days luring lost children into an edible house of gingerbread. In the real world, waiting for a prince to come and rescue you is no guarantee of a blissful ending, much less a rewarding day-to-day in which the genuine you can go forth and sparkle with gusto.

In her spicy new novel, The Prince Charming Hoax, author Shelley Lieber (aka Elyse Grant) puts the spotlight on two boomer women who break free of the “happily ever after” myth and decide to rewrite their life stories in a sexy, thoughtful tale.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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 Q: Your bio describes you as “an author with a split personality.” Tell us more!

A: The “split personality” is how I explain the contrasting aspects of my life and career. Shelley Lieber, The Wordy Woman, is a nonfiction author and publishing consultant. In that persona I wrote 4Ps to Publishing Success and Publishing Made Easy & Profitable; created the VIP Authors writers community; and founded Visual Impressions Publishing, a publishing vehicle for independent authors. My wilder side writes erotic fiction under the nom de plume Elyse Grant. The Prince Charming Hoax, my debut novel, introduces two boomer women with strong and sometimes conflicting personalities that reflect this dichotomy: smart, creative, and nurturing vs. sassy, ambitious, and daring.

Q: How did you decide on your pen name?

A: Elyse Grant is a combination of my two children’s middle names. It seemed appropriate to use a pen name for fiction, since my inspiration for storytelling seems to spring from a unique source within myself previously unknown to me.

Q: Were you a voracious reader growing up?

A: Yes, definitely! I particularly loved stories with strong female characters. I read fiction and biographies. I remember reading the stories of Madame Curie and Elizabeth Taylor back to back, and changing my answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” from “scientist” to “actress” in a week’s time.

Q: Who were some of the authors – and titles – that may have influenced your storytelling style?

A: Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand; The Women’s Room by Marilyn French; and Fear of Flying  and How to Save Your Own Life by Erica Jong. I don’t know that these authors influenced my writing style, but they influenced me as a young woman—which probably had a significant effect on the subject of my writing and the type of protagonist I found interesting.

Q: Which one of those authors would you most like to have lunch with, and what question would you most like to ask him or her?

A: I’d have to say Erica Jong. The question I’d ask her today is very different than the one I would have asked years ago. Back when her groundbreaking novels came out, I would have questioned her about the source of her courage, and if she had ever been tempted (or advised) to “tone it down.” Today, I’d ask her if she’d bump it up a notch if she were writing for the current market.

Q: Tell us about your inspiration to write The Prince Charming Hoax.

A: The novel began as a nonfiction book about dating after divorce. The book was inspired by my own experiences and other women’s stories shared with me. One day as I struggled with the format and organization of the book, the characters of Leah Gold and Roxanne Stein popped out on the page and Elyse took over the keyboard. Once that happened, the writing flowed and the story was told.

Q: Was there any research involved in the creation of this fictional work?

A: The research began with the nonfiction version. I held Sunday brunches and invited the divorced and separated women I knew and encouraged them to bring their friends. Each brunch had a theme—such as dating a man ten years your junior or senior—and the women shared dating stories on the selected topic. Once the book turned to fiction, the “true” stories were combined and some were completely invented. I’ve never been to a “swinging” club like the one where D.J. took Roxie in The Prince Charming Hoax, so I interviewed someone who has had that kind of experience in order that the scene I created would be an accurate account of what could happen.

Q: Do your characters ever surprise you by taking over the story and moving it in a different direction than you originally envisioned?

A: Absolutely! I used to roll my eyes when I heard authors make that statement, but I found it’s true. The characters take over once they get on the page. I had to fight Roxie the entire time I was writing. She’s such a strong personality and could have easily overshadowed the story. I finally promised her the lead in another book, and she behaved better after that.

Q: Who is your intended audience for The Prince Charming Hoax and what do you think is its strongest takeaway value?

A: As a genre, contemporary women’s fiction confronts issues of modern-day women and their relationships with men, other women, careers, and children. My intention was to explore some of these issues. I’d say my ideal reader is a boomer-age woman who appreciates that the pursuit of purpose, passion, and fulfillment can be a bumpy, but enjoyable ride. I think the strongest takeaway a novel can provide is reading enjoyment. So, my goal with this book was to explore the issues in an entertaining and engaging way.

Q: Do you believe in love at first sight?

A: I do because I experienced it—twice. Years ago I saw my first husband standing on the steps in front of the Student Union at Ohio University. There was something in his posture that told me I’d marry this man. Years later, after my divorce, I met my second husband in an arranged meeting. We spent about an hour standing and talking in a parking lot, and I knew that night I’d found my soul mate and he would be my forever husband.

Q: The book title and its premise suggest that happily-ever-after’s are just a myth. Do you personally think this is true?

A: I absolutely believe in the possibility of a “happily ever after.” Without creating too much of a spoiler here, I’ll say that the myth (or hoax) is not the viability of a happily-ever-after ending. Rather, it’s about discovering the true source of a woman’s happiness as opposed to what fairy-tale endings suggest will make us live happily ever after.

Q: Tell us a little about your publishing background and why you became a publishing consultant.

A: I’ve been in the publishing industry since I got out of college (more than just a few years ago ;-). My first job in the industry was assistant editor at a New York publishing house. After eight years and several promotions, I moved to Florida with my new baby. Book publishing barely existed as an industry there at that time, and for many years I worked as a freelance writer and editor for national and regional magazines. I spent much of my working time alone in my home office. When I began to write my novel in 2002, I sought out writers groups. Once other group members found out that I knew about publishing, that’s all anyone ever wanted to talk about! But I was there to get feedback on my writing, so I began offering publishing workshops and helping other writers finish their work and prepare submissions to agents and publishers. In 2008, when self-publishing became a more frequent choice for my clients. I started a publishing company because I wasn’t happy with the available options at the time, and I knew I could offer better service at a better price.

Q: What do you know now about the publishing industry that you didn’t know when you first started?

A: I had no idea that the industry could change so radically. Publishing today barely resembles the world I entered as a recent college graduate. In fact, publishing has changed more in the last five years than in the previous fifty! As a creative industry, publishing lagged far behind film and music when it came to adapting to new technology. The big houses and established literary agencies resisted indie authors and digital publishing, and as a result, lost their advantage. Since things never go backward, only forward, I can safely assert that publishing will never be the same!

Q: Any wishes for do-overs?

A: Yes. I wish I had started writing fiction earlier in my life.

Q: Do you belong to any forums, organizations or critique groups that have helped your career as a writer? In what ways have these been beneficial?

A: I’m a strong advocate for critique groups, both local and online. Getting constructive feedback on your writing is essential, especially in the beginning. The hardest part is to find the right group of good writers who can offer qualified constructive criticism. I was very fortunate to find two groups right away. Sometimes it can take longer, but the support and valuable feedback a writer gets is well worth the effort.

I’ve already explained how being in a writers group helped launch a new career for me as a publishing consultant. But, even more important, was the feedback and emotional support I received from other group members. My first group was held at the local Barnes & Noble and writers from all genres were welcome. From that group, several of us who were writing novels banded together to meet separately once a week. We did in-depth readings and critiques of each other’s work. I think the accountability to have a new chapter ready for review is what kept me going when I wanted to quit. I don’t know if I would have ever finished the first draft of The Prince Charming Hoax if it weren’t for that group.

Q: What’s your best advice to aspiring writers?

A: Write every day. Be open to the feedback of others, but follow your own instincts about what and how to write. Learn everything you can about writing and publishing. Don’t make excuses for anything.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Well, I always keep my plate full. I’m writing the follow up to The Prince Charming Hoax, mixing genres, bringing parallel time travel into my erotic, contemporary fiction, allowing Leah Gold to examine a “what if” scenario—along the lines of the movie, Sliding Doors. I’m exploring a metaphysical twist for the third book of this series. Roxie, the character who fought me for the lead in The Prince Charming Hoax, exchanges “consciousness” with another character when they are trapped in a car that has plunged into a canal. She wakes up in the other woman’s body.

In addition to writing these books, I’m writing a series of erotica titles with two writing partners that will be published under a new pen name.

I’m also working with another author to create a new publishing platform that will distribute and promote boomer lit books and authors of all genres.

Q: Where can readers learn more about you?

A: Here are the links to my blogs and social media:

Links:

Shelley Lieber: http://shelleylieber.blogspot.com

Elyse Grant: http://elysegrant.blogspot.com

Amazon: http://amzn.to/Y5YRaC 

Facebook: http://facebook.com/shelleylieber

Twitter: http://twitter.com/wordywoman

Goodreads: http://goodreads.com/shelleylieber

Writing the Science Fiction Film

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IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE! IT CAME FROM BENEATH THE SEA! IT CAME FROM THE PRIMEVAL WORLD! IT CAME FROM THE LABORATORY OF A MAD SCIENTIST!

Whatever its origins, there’s nothing quite like a good Sci-Fi flick to get us wondering, “Could this really happen?” In his new book, Writing the Science Fiction Film, Robert Grant not only dissects what makes this genre so popular with audiences of all ages but also provides aspiring screenwriters with the tools, insights and allegorical viewpoints they need to create their own plots that are out-of-this-world.

In addition to his accomplished background as a filmmaker, screenwriter, critic and script consultant, Grant is Literary Editor for SCI-FI-LONDON and serves on the jury for the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Science Fiction Literature, the UK’s most prestigious award. If you’re going to be warding off alien invasions, disabling evil robots, battling mutant crab monsters or tweaking around with time-travel, this is the go-to guy you’re going to want in your corner.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Were you a fan of science fiction flicks when you were growing up? If so, what are some of the movies that have stuck with you to this day?

A: Absolutely, I watched lots of Sci-Fi, some early favourites being Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Time Machine, Day of the Triffids, Sleeper, Dark Star, Planet of the Apes, Logan’s Run… I could go on forever! And it wasn’t just films because, of course, there was lots of Sci-Fi on TV – Land of the Giants, Time Tunnel, Lost in Space, Space 1999, Thunderbirds, Star Trek and even The Jetsons!

I do think that I started to take it more seriously as I reached my mid-teens. Films like Fahrenheit 451, It Happened Here and A Clockwork Orange started to resonate more as I understood the subtext and what the stories were actually trying to tell me.

Q: Let’s talk a bit about the influence that the Cold War had on Sci-Fi movies during the 1950s; specifically, using aliens from other planets as a metaphor for Communist invasion.

A: Well the influence of the Cold War on science fiction is undeniably huge. It was the time when the military-industrial complex came of age. Rockets and rocket power became more and more important on the battlefield and at the same time the proliferation of nuclear weapons brought the possibility of horrors like Hiroshima and Nagasaki to everyone’s doorstep along with the dangers of exposure to nuclear fallout. Science fiction used all kinds of horrors from shape-shifting aliens to giant ants to represent foreign invaders taking over the US and destroying everything that Americans hold dear and audiences were happy to take it all in.

Q: Flash forward to the 21st century. Who’s the enemy that the themes of current Sci-Fi films want to keep us paranoid about?

A: I think right now we are our own worst enemy. If you look at the current crop of science fiction films there’s a huge tendency to depict apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic scenarios, usually triggered by our own wanton hubris. Films like Children of Men, Splice, Contagion, 28 Days Later, The Road, I Am Legend and so on explore what happens when technological advance goes on unchecked and unmonitored, and how much of a knife edge we’re on when it comes to the difference between success and disaster.

Q: Sci-Fi and Fantasy are two genres in which plots unfold in alternative universes/realms and with characters that possess non-mortal looks/abilities. What elements and distinctions should a writer consider in deciding which category his plot best fits?

A: Well science fiction and fantasy are two entirely different and separate genres and the clue is in the name. A good science fiction story will rely on the ‘science’ part of that moniker in order to work, and the closer to present day your Sci-Fi is set, the more your science has to make sense. Ultimately if the science isn’t coherent, cohesive, and at the very least feasible then your story will very quickly fall apart. Very crudely – and there are exceptions to the rule on both sides – fantasy doesn’t need an explanation for why something is the way it is or how something happens, it’s just ‘magic’, but science fiction demands explanation.

Q: What do you feel Sci-Fi offers to both writers and audiences that other genres do not?

A: Science fiction is known as “the genre of ideas” and that really does sum it up. Sci-Fi lets us examine big issues and pose difficult questions, putting a spotlight on them and saying “Look at this! Look what’s going on!” in order to get people to start talking about it, but importantly, it can do this without pointing fingers directly at any individual or group.

Think about what currently keeps people up at night. Global warming? Environmental damage? Terrorist threat? Erosion of civil liberties? CCTV and the lack of privacy? Rampant corporatisation? The poverty gap? GM crops? More than any other genre, science fiction deals directly with these kinds of changes and the effects they have on society. It flips us out of our own cosy existence and forces us to think about society in different ways, showing us that the usual way of doing things might not be the only way, that there may be a better way, but – and it’s a very important but – science fiction rarely gives us the answers or preaches any kind of solution, it just gets the conversation started. Solutions are up to all of us to work out.

In the end it comes down to this; if you want to write about the nature of humanity and its relationship to the world around it, you pretty much have to write science fiction.

Q: What are some of the most common mistakes that beginning Sci-Fi writers make (and how can they fix them)?

A: Unlike any other, science fiction is both a genre and a setting and unlike other genres it comes in all shapes and sizes. Romantic Comedies are romantic and funny, horror films are horrifying, dramas are dramatic and thrillers are thrilling. But science fiction can be all of those things and be science-fictional. For example:

Star Man (1984) is a romance and a science fiction film
Alien (1979) is a horror movie and a science fiction film
ET (1982) is a family movie and a science fiction film
The Terminator (1984) is an action movie and a science fiction film
Never Let Me Go (2010) is a drama and a science fiction film
Logan’s Run (1976) is a thriller and a science fiction film
Sleeper (1973) is a comedy and a science fiction film

You can see the dilemma straight away. What exactly are you writing? Are you writing a western set in space (Firefly) or a noir detective story set in the far future (Blade Runner) and, as you might suspect, the truth actually lies somewhere between the two.

All genres have their particular story beats, a romantic comedy has to have the “cute meet”, action movies have their “hamlet moment”, thrillers generally have a compressed time frame and those things must be observed. When figuring out your story, you will save yourself a whole lot of time and trouble if you figure out your primary genre and then write to the beats of that genre to start with. If you’re writing a science fiction revenge thriller then I would suggest that you actually plot a decent revenge thriller first and then as you re-write – and assuming the science is crucial to the story – build up the science fiction elements slowly, revealing your world through action and character rather than trying to build a Sci-Fi world and shoehorning a revenge thriller plot into it. You’ll be rewarded with a far better screenplay if you do it that way, believe me.

Q: Give us some examples of Sci-Fi movies that embrace similar themes but are totally different from each other.

A: Good question! The easiest examples of this are how we typically represent ‘the alien’ in Sci-Fi and the two polar opposite approaches here. One way is the simple alien people, living their lives in peace and of no threat to anyone until we show up – usually to colonise their lands and exploit their resources – in films like Avatar (2009), Planet 51 (2009) or Terra (2007). The flip side of that are the films where we are attacked or invaded by aliens that are bent on wiping out humankind, which we see in everything from The Blob (1958) to Independence Day (1996) to Mars Attacks (1996). The themes are the same in both versions, the taking away of liberty and of freedom, loss of identity, the destruction of a way of life in pursuit of advancement, the loss of control to a dominant power, the ‘win at all costs’ mentality. These kinds of films rose to prominence during the paranoia of the Cold War but they crop up time again, regardless of whether we are being invaded or doing the invading, with the same warnings. They point to suspect foreign policies, global corporatisation, erosion of civil liberties and just basic greed whether the method is stealthy and insidious (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) or brash and uncaring (War of the Worlds).

Q: There’s no question that technology (and especially 3D) has given Sci-Fi movies a completely different look and sense of realism that didn’t exist decades ago. Has all of this high-tech eye-candy, though, come at the expense of weaker stories, poor dialogue, and characters that aren’t fully developed?

A: That’s a complex question and a difficult one to answer, in some ways yes and in some ways no. Around the world a lot of smart, challenging well-written, engaging, science fiction films come out every year but don’t make it to the local multiplex and that’s where festivals like SCI-FI-LONDON do a lot to showcase Sci-Fi you won’t see anywhere else on the big screen. In a number of cases the money to make those smaller films has come from studio funds raised on the success of some blockbuster hit – the one paying for the other – and so we need those big films to help prop-up the industry at all levels. A director of photography, gaffer or post house will often look more favourably at working for basic fees on small projects coming off the back of a big project that was a success.

I think people forget that this is the film ‘business’ – with ‘business’ being the operative word. Box office earnings are up – mostly due to the escalating cost of seeing a film, especially one in 3D – but audience numbers aren’t growing as much so the big studios have to find different ways to maximise the revenue streams they can get from a property in order to make the most profit they can. This is why adaptations these days come from everywhere, not just novels but toys, comic books, video games and even theme park rides, because any way of leveraging profit from a film has to be explored. The downside of this is that if the decision makers don’t understand the audience properly, their ‘films for teenage boys’ get dumbed-down by sacrificing character, plot, dialogue and so on in favour of pretty girls and explosions, films that are expensive to make but are filled with eye-candy. Great if they’re a hit, very costly if they are not. But it doesn’t have to be that way, love him or loathe him Christopher Nolan has shown that if you treat the property with respect and credit the audience with some intelligence then science fiction films can be well written, complex, nuanced and challenging while still being filled with eye-candy and turning a big profit.

Q: A common cliché in movies of this genre is that as soon as the supreme bad guy is killed off, his minions always scatter. A wounded – or even dead – good guy, however, has loyal followers who will continue to fight. Is it that evil minions aren’t all that vested in the cause/outcome or that they just can’t function without a leader?

A: I’m not sure that it’s a common cliché of Sci-Fi movies or just a common cliché of movies in general, you could equally be talking about a James Bond film or Lord of the Rings. The practicality of writing is that minions don’t get any more screen time than they need and films are generally about the good guy vs. the bad guy so they stop once that story has been told. There are probably exceptions to the rule but….

Q: How much do you have to know about science, math and physics to write a plausible Sci-Fi plot?

A: In reality, nothing, but if you want your film to stand up to scrutiny then it at least has to be plausible and that’s where research comes in. Start online and Google the relevant science that relates to your story, then find a scientist and ask them if they’ll answer questions for you. Use Twitter or Facebook to track them down – they’re out there, they’re usually nice as pie and love to chat about their work. The trick for the writer is to figure out how much of the science the audience needs to know or understand for the story to work. If the answer is ‘absolutely nothing’ then great, don’t get bogged down in it, but if the story depends on the science to work – which is true for a lot of things that centre around contagion, genetics, environmental change, space flight and so on, things close to home – then you owe it to your audience to make sure you understand the basic mechanics and get it right. The mantra though is “only as much as is necessary”, you don’t want to be boring, but it’s worth pointing out that quite often you’ll find that the research conveniently helps with plotting, turning up things you might not otherwise have thought about.

Q: Aren’t Sci-Fi movies awfully expensive to make these days? What if someone is passionate about making an indie Sci-Fi film but has a really small budget?

A: Go ahead and make it! The world has changed and it’s never been easier or cheaper to get the technology at your fingertips to make any film, not just a science fiction film. But the best Sci-Fi is not always the big budget extravaganza. Primer famously cost just $7000 to make but other notable low-budget Sci-Fi films include Mad Max, Cypher, Pi and more recently, Moon, Attack the Block and Monsters. If you have a great story and a great script, then good costumes, interesting locations and great acting will take you a long way before you have to think about special effects, and these days there are a plethora of crowd-funding/crowd-sourcing sites to showcase your project and get help or raise extra funds. Be brave, be bold and go for it.

Q: In a Sci-Fi tableau, which villain would you personally rather do battle with – a mortal without any conscience or a computer that is sentient?

A: I think that a mortal villain would be easier and more predictable. We are creatures of habit and if your villain has no conscience they can always be relied on to do the wrong thing. This makes them emotional, vulnerable to manipulation and thus defeat. Additionally physical strength and mental agility would play a part and I would take my chances on both counts. An AI on the other hand would not be susceptible to tricks or manipulation and physical strength doesn’t apply. An AI would only ever examine the data and take the most advantageous course of action regardless, making it almost impossible to beat in terms of mental agility. All in all I think I’d rather take on the mortal.

Q: How do you find ideas for out-of-this-world Sci-Fi plots? Hasn’t everything already been done?

A: We will never be all done with telling stories! Whatever idea you can think of can always be told in more than one way with more than one outcome. As most writers will tell you, ideas are all around us; you just have to start looking for them and you’ll be amazed at how often you’re turning them away rather than struggling to find them. I use news channels online or RSS feeds to track the types of stories that I’m interested in and then file them away with a clipping tool to re-use later. I also read a lot, watch documentaries and find new people to chat with – all of these are fuel for story ideas. Once I have my basic ideas I use several of the techniques that I outline in the book to flesh those out into outlines and eventually complete stories. I’m never short of ideas!

Q: In your view, would it be harder for a Sci-Fi time-traveler to go back in time or to go forward?

A: I think forward. Projecting yourself back in time means you are placing yourself into a physical space that did exist so you know the size, shape, conditions etc. and your biggest issue would be not displacing any of that and changing anything. Going forward in time means trying to predict the shape, size, condition and location of the physical space and hoping you get it right. Like trying to fire a bullet at a moving target while blindfolded and with no idea what direction the target is, how far away it is or how big.

Q: What’s the best Sci-Fi film you’ve ever seen?

A: Couldn’t possibly say, I like so many. There are perennial favourites, films I’ll watch whenever they’re on but even then it depends on my mood and whether or not I want action, adventure and derring-do or quiet, introspective contemplation. I’m probably far more likely to reach for something new to watch though than go back to something I’ve seen.

Q: And the absolute worst?

A: There are many, many candidates, and I’m not that cruel…

Q: What films do you recommend aspiring Sci-Fi filmmakers watch in order to understand the craft?

A: I would start by watching the AFI’s top 50 science-fiction films, first to see what you’re up against and to learn the themes and tropes that crop up time and again. But I’d also watch the top films of the type you want to write be it thriller, action, drama, comedy, romance etc. because as I said before, if you start by writing a terrific thriller and then work on the SF aspects, you’ll get a better thriller than if you build a Sci-Fi world and then try to shoehorn a thriller into it.

Q: So what’s next on your plate?

A: I have two feature scripts I’m working on currently and I’m just about to start on a very exciting web series with a Director/Producer team here in the UK.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know about you?

A: I’m a big fan of cake.

Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon: A Memoir of China

Dancing Dragon

“Twenty years from now,” wrote Mark Twain, “you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Ramona McKean, author of Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon: A Memoir of China, did exactly that when she heeded the message of an inner voice that suggested her life’s calling might be found thousands of miles from her Canadian home. It’s a must-read for women over 40 who want to be inspired, to find their purpose and, ultimately, to make a difference.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: In 2004, you fulfilled a longstanding dream of living and working abroad. Why did you happen to choose China?

A: In the midst of despair in early 2004, I knew I needed to do something radically different with my life but didn’t know what. That changed the day I heard an inner voice tell me straight out I was going to China. That’s how I happened to choose China. I trusted the voice and had a feeling China would play a very significant role in my life.

Q: How much did you know about your destination prior to going there?

I was moderately up-to-date with current events and moderately knowledgeable with the basics of 20th Century Chinese history. Before leaving Canada I made a point of researching Harbin, the northern city where I’d be teaching. I also talked to many people who’d been to China. Of course, no amount of book learning and conversing could adequately measure up to my experiencing China first hand.

Q: What were your initial impressions of the country in 2004 and of its people when you first arrived?

A: Fascinating and exciting! The energy was different; I could almost hear the crackling of aliveness combined with a sense of urgency. Demolition and construction seemed simultaneous, they happened so quickly. A colleague quipped: “What’s the national bird of China?” Answer: “The crane.” Cranes outlined the skyline whichever way I looked.

The people I encountered were usually reserved until I smiled. I often got huge smiles back. Sometimes people were curious about my nationality. Occasionally, when they learned “Canadian,” they’d bow and say “Bai Qiu En” (sounds a bit like bye-chee’yo-enn). It means Bethune. I felt deeply touched. Dr. Norman Bethune was a Canadian doctor who helped the Chinese during war time. All middle school students read the essay Mao wrote about the “selfless Canadian hero.”

I worked at the Harbin University of Science and Technology, teaching English to first year students. I quickly discovered they were far less sophisticated than my senior high school students in Canada. Their prompt cleaning of the blackboards at the end of class took me off guard. It was something they just did. Right from the start, I also noticed respect, appreciation and good-naturedness. They were a lot of fun.

Too many smokers! At my university, smoke billowed from offices into the hallway, taking me back to previous times in Canada. Too many drivers were bold and audacious, and almost nobody used seatbelts. (Often there were no seatbelts.) As a pedestrian, I had to be extra mindful.

The Chinese food was amazing and inexpensive. Western fast food joints—MacDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC—charged much higher prices. I went into those establishments for one reason only: their Western toilets, hot water and soap. I still needed my own tissue. In restaurants and everywhere else in China, tipping was illegal.

These are just a few initial impressions. My prequel will be full of my impressions and experiences. Please bear in mind that China is a rapidly developing country. What I’ve said above may be different now.

Q: What was the hardest – and, conversely, the easiest – thing to adjust to in your conscious decision to make a major lifestyle change?

A: The hardest thing before leaving Canada was managing my emotions. I felt thoroughly overwhelmed and also extremely excited with such a radical choice. The easiest part was my complete and utter knowing that going to China was singularly the right thing for me to do.

Once in China, the hardest part of my adjustment was missing my grown-up kids intensely. And Christmas? I could not have predicted how desolate I’d feel being so far from home. The easiest thing was falling in love with China. It happened so naturally that it took about two months for me to clue in. Like the experience of falling in love with a person, my feelings were so deep they often hurt. Being in a serious car accident and having to leave only added to the depth and complexity of my feelings. John Fraser in The Chinese, Portrait of a People expressed exactly how I felt with leaving: “Like many foreigners who went to China and have known the Chinese, a part of me feels in permanent exile.”

Q: You indicate in the opening pages that sometimes an invisible hand directs the course of one’s life.  Do you believe the major events in our personal journeys are predestined or are we still mostly creatures of free will?

A: I lay many long hours in a Canadian hospital bed contemplating that difficult question. I asked myself: “Was falling in love with China and almost dying there a matter of fate, predestination or free will?” My thoughts are not easy to express but I’ll try my best.

First I’ll mention my way of defining the terms. As you can see, I’m throwing fate into the mix. Fate is neutral and impersonal and implies events that are meant to happen. Predestination is used synonymously by some people. To me it differs in that it suggests a plan, not neutral, that’s devised by another, greater power. (That awesome, mysterious force is not male, but I shall call it God.)  Humans have no control with either fate or predestination.

Free will is the opposite, allowing humans the ability to make conscious choices. The key word to note is “conscious.” People can only exercise free will to the extent that they’re conscious. For instance, in my life I’ve too often made choices dictated by unconscious dynamics; that is, by unhealed emotional wounds and habitual responses. To be truly “free,” my will must involve intelligent self-reflection. For the major events, my will must also be accompanied by courage and strength. I’ve found that the more courageous I can be, the stronger I become. Strength I never knew possible comes to me from God.

You asked me if I thought predestination or free will characterized the lives of humans. I have a hard time with the idea of predestination. Maybe the issue is one of consciousness, i.e., the conscious awareness that we are all part of the greater power, God; that in essence, we’re all one. I believe the more we each heal our personal pasts (including what’s been passed down through our families), the freer we are to determine our own direction. I believe that when God sees us constructively use whatever awful stuff life throws our way, “it” says: “Here is one to enter into co-creative partnership with me. Hooray!” When we maintain an open and humble attitude, mindfully attuned with God, a new direction is created together. It’s like a delicate, dynamic dance with the Divine to co-create a destiny.

Especially after the accident, I had an uncanny feeling that China was part of my destiny.  Do you remember I said a voice took me to China? When I was trapped in wreckage I heard the voice again. It used the first person and in a calm, matter of fact way said: “I don’t know what this is all about but I do know it’s part of a bigger picture and it’s a good picture and it involves me and China.” I’m grateful that I somehow had the presence of mind to notice and remember.

Q: According to Amy Tan in Opposite of Fate, a Book of Musings, the best stories often come from the worst experiences. As a stranger in a strange land, you certainly endured one of the worst experiences imaginable – a head-on-collision that nearly proved fatal. Tell us about this nightmare experience and what gave you the strength to survive it.

A: It was Spring Festival time (aka Chinese New Year). A bilingual Chinese friend and I were travelling in a poor rural area in the south, far from where I taught in the north. I realized our driver was sleepy when I saw a bus headed straight at us. We were on the wrong side of the road. The drivers’ trying to avoid each other didn’t work. We collided head-on at a slight angle. In no time I found myself pinned between the crushed front of the van and the right passenger door. Given I had no seatbelt, it’s miraculous I didn’t go through the windshield. My friend, seated behind me, was injured too. We helplessly watched our driver die. It took quite a while for rescuers (private citizens) to show up. The events that followed were unusual and some downright bizarre; I have included them all in my book. My friend’s father, cousin and sister slept on a hospital floor for three nights to take care of me until a 26 year old colleague flew 2200 km from Harbin. He got me released from the hospital and saw me safely back to Canada.

In Canada, I found out the true extent of my injuries: 7 ribs broken, both legs broken and right knee crushed. How I survived crude rescue, two questionable Chinese hospitals and two flights home is beyond me, especially considering my right lung lining was punctured too.

What gave me the strength to survive? Shock in the form of denial helped. I was calm, trusting and present; it didn’t occur to me I might die. The voice helped. It told me goodness was in the works and I’d be able to derive purpose from awfulness. Most of all, it was the love of my Chinese friends and students who with all their hearts told me: Da nan bu si, bi you hou fu, “If a big bad event doesn’t kill you, then you are guaranteed happiness and extraordinary good fortune.” Their love and faith sustained me.

Q. It sounds like the voice provided you with an epiphany. Tell us about how you derived “purpose from awfulness” and in what ways you feel you’re making a difference.

A: “I don’t know what this is all about but I do know it’s part of a bigger picture and it’s a good picture and it involves me and China.”

The voice did not explicitly tell me what my purpose was. Rather, it opened me up to a new world of possibility. I knew it would involve writing. China had made a profound impression on me, both the culture and the people. I wanted to build a narrative bridge of understanding between us and China. That bridge is now built, Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon.

Something that really concerns me is how our Western media deliberately creates fear and misperception about China. As far as I’m concerned, an “us vs. them” mentality is plain bad news. China’s a big country developing fast. What wisdom is there in our casting them as the “enemy”?  The Chinese are people, just like us. Why not choose to get to know them better? The mutual benefits would be enormous!

It’s time for a more balanced and fair picture to be painted. Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon does this and also gives readers plenty to self-reflect upon. It’s a story told honestly from my heart to readers’ hearts.

Just imagine all our children and grandchildren inheriting a more friendship based world! That’s what I stand for, and that’s how I am making a difference.

Q: You mention using your story as a bridge between cultures. Is the bridge on your cover meant to be symbolic of this? Tell us about your book’s striking cover and how you chose your title.

A: Yes, I intend the bridge as a symbol linking East and West. The dragon, which happens to be the most important creature in Chinese folklore, is the national symbol of China. The phoenix is a creature thought to bring goodness. In most Chinese legends the phoenix does not burn like its Western counterpart. In my cover design, the phoenix represents me, finally able to rise from the flames of physical and emotional trauma. In terms of the physical, I required three surgeries and well over a year of rehab to walk normally. As for emotional trauma, I was not able to experience release until the day I launched this book, February 10, 2013, eight years to the day after the accident.

As regards the title, I did not choose it. It’s more apt to say it chose me. I wanted something “perfect” that included the words “dragon” and “dancing.” Try as I might, I couldn’t think of it. Then one afternoon the words “Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon” flashed into my head. I almost fell over in awe. A little later that same day while shopping, I pulled a red top from a clothes rack and was amazed to see its front sequined with a Chinese dragon. It was like God saying: “My dear, I am so with you.”  I leave it to readers to experience how perfectly Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon fits my story.

Q: If the chance presented itself to go back to the country that nearly killed you, would you take it?

A: The chance did not “present itself”; I actually made it happen. I returned to China in 2008 to study Mandarin at a university. I had to overcome a lot of fear to do that. I expect I’ll return yet again when my book is available in China.

Q: Tell us about the development of Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China and the takeaway value you believe it holds for your readership.

A: The dream to write about China started to germinate the day a voice told me I was going to China (early 2004 in Canada). I knew I was in for dramatic change and wanted to capture it. I made a point of writing emails and journals full to the brim with details. That writing provided the treasure trove I drew from later.

For a long time after the accident I wanted to write for publication but couldn’t. Doing so would mean facing trauma. It wasn’t until joining a writers group in early 2010 that I was able to start. I wrote more than half a book, none of which deals with the time period covered in Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon. (That material shall be in my prequel.)

In 2012 I took coaching sessions with the woman who was to become my publisher, Julie Salisbury (Influence Publishing). She told me I had to start all over again, with the accident. (Gulp, now or never!) I decided to use actual journal entries, conversations, email correspondence, photographs, songs and dream work. I also decided to move back and forth in time and tell my story from a hospital bed. In that way it’s like The English Patient.

Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon is an engaging story. I know because I’ve been accused of keeping people up all night. The writing has a quality of immediacy, such that readers feel they’re right there with me—whether it’s lying on the sub-tropical sands of the “Island of Pianos” or being freed from wreckage with crowbars and carried up and down flights of stairs on a narrow board.

And of course, there is learning about the real China, in a book written by a Westerner who loves and respects the people of China.

Q: How did you go about finding a publisher?

A: I did not try to find a publisher. I saw Julie for coaching before she even owned a publishing company. She was moved and inspired by my story. From there everything flowed, just like it was meant to be.

Q: What do you know now about the publishing business that you didn’t know when you started?

A: The industry is in a process of redefining itself. I knew this when I started but didn’t know just how rapid the changes were. Writers must work diligently on their own promotion. Utilizing the Internet is critical, a task daunting for many. It can also be daunting to know just who to hire. Money plus much time, energy and ingenuity seem to be necessary to meet with success.

Q: Have you been influenced by Chinese literature you have read? If so, in what ways?

A: My sensibilities have been influenced the most by the I Ching, an ancient book woven together with Taoist and Confucian teachings. It has helped me enormously, ever since I encountered it in the late 1980’s.

Twentieth century writers particularly influencing me include: Anchee Min (Red Azalea), Jung Chang (Wild Swans), Xin Ran (The Good Women of China), Amy Tan (Kitchen God’s Wife), Adeline Yen Mah (Watching the Tree), Lisa See (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), Han Suyin (A Mortal Flower) and Jan Wong (Red China Blues). These writers have all provided me with much insight into the lives of Chinese people, especially their own and other women’s. They’ve educated my mind and heart and helped me to understand China’s culture and way of viewing the world.

Q: In light of current global tensions, do you believe a true understanding between Chinese and Westerners will ever come about? If so, what concessions and compromises would be necessary from both sides? 

A: A true understanding between Chinese and Westerners will take effort. I can’t know if it will come about but it’s my dream. I’m willing to do what I can to promote that possibility. For one, we need to recognize that we’re fed a lot of propaganda about China as they are about us. It’s important not to believe everything we hear and read, especially from politicians and mainstream media. They have their agendas which include nothing about heart-level understanding.

Westerners have to stop finger pointing. It does no one any good. China has a lot of problems. Any country with such a huge population developing so fast would have problems. Let’s develop compassion and a desire to build rather than destroy with our attitudes.

We ALL, everywhere, need to get over ourselves and get educated about each other—each other’s culture and different ways of perceiving the world. We need to see our common ground. This education does not have to be unpleasant at all. In fact, it can be fun.  In the West, a great way to start experiencing Chinese culture is through literature, movies, music and food. Have conversations with Chinese people we meet. People in China: Don’t be shy to have conversations with the foreigners in your midst. If language is an issue, smile, be friendly and courteous. Chances are others will respond similarly. Curiosity can be a wonderful attribute. Travel is also awesome. Regular people, perhaps more than politicians, need to lead the way in understanding.  And everyone, please remember: People are not their governments and people everywhere are individually unique. No one is a stereotype.

Q: As of this writing, your book is being considered by three book awards committees. Whether you are short-listed or not, how might being nominated help promote your purpose? 

A: Award nominations and actual awards draw much attention to a book and increase the credibility of the writer. Many readers have already told me how moved and inspired they felt by Dancing in the Heart of the Dragon, a Memoir of China. When people feel moved and inspired, their hearts and minds open up at least a little more than before. True understanding is then more possible.

Q: What’s next on your plate?

A: Within a year I’d like to have my book translated into Chinese and on the market in Asia. I also want to write my prequel.

Q: Anything else you’d like readers to know?

A: The Dalai Lama said that Western women will save the world—women because of their ability to nurture and respond with their hearts; Western because of their many hard won victories that women elsewhere have yet to experience. I believe it’s not only women who’ll serve as the world’s capable and compassionate “rescuers,” but also men who are not ashamed to own and honour their own gentler qualities.

Though my story may not “save the world,” I recognize its unique potential to promote understanding between us in the West and people in China. It’s a human heart to human heart understanding, the kind that leads to friendliness and good-will. My story reveals how communicating and opening to each other’s goodness can benefit us all.

In closing, I would like to invite people to visit my website, read the first few pages of my book (“Preview”) and listen to some of the music (“Soundtrack”) that helped me fall in love with a nation. http://ramonamckean.com Until then, “Xin xiang shi cheng”: May the dreams of your heart come true.