Porcelain Keys

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Over the course of the last year and a half, I have read more books than I had read in my previous years combined, and among those stories, I have my favorites. Sarah Beard’s debut novel, Porcelain Keys, is one of them.

Sarah put a lot of her own heart into her words, and though it took her five years to get the story to where she wanted it to be, the perseverance seems worth it. I was captured from the first sentence and the rhythm swept me up to the last page. Visit Sarah at http://sarahbeard.com.

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste

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Q: Porcelain Keys centers around Aria, a gifted pianist. As a music aficionado, was the process of writing fiction much like that of composing?

A: Since music is mostly a hobby for me, I generally don’t put too much thought into my piano compositions—I just sort of let my heart lead the way. Whatever I’m feeling or thinking about comes out as music. Once I get a melody down, I’ll usually add some depth to the piece, but for the most part they’re just simple, heartfelt compositions.

I guess the first drafts of my books are that way, too. I just write what I feel without thinking too much about whether or not it’s going to work. Then once I have the story down, I go back and analyze it to death. I tear it apart and rework it over and over until I get everything just right—plot, characterization, pacing, setting, dialog, conflict, tension, etc. Each element has to be considered separately, then together as a whole.

A book could be compared to a symphony or concerto. You have all the different instruments playing different parts, serving different purposes, and when all put together you have something grand and beautiful. I don’t compose musical concertos, just little solo piano pieces, so it’s simple and easy. My books, on the other hand, are literary concertos. If one instrument (pacing, plot, etc.) is out of tune, it sours the entire work. Only when all the instruments work together and complement each other can a literary concerto become a moving masterpiece.

Q: Yes, it’s an intense process with editing being the primary focus. Throughout thefiveyear journey of writing your novel, what are some key moments or pieces of advice that strengthened you to keep moving forward?

A: There were countless times I wanted to give up during the writing of this book. Like when my critique partners would point out plot problems that seemed too big to fix, or when I couldn’t pin down a character’s motivations. I would go home feeling discouraged and would want to scrap the whole thing. But a woman in my writers group, Shauna Dansie, once gave me a great tip. She suggested that when I come across a story problem that seems impossible to fix, that I should write it down on a little piece of paper and set it aside somewhere safe, then continue working on other parts of the story. The theory is that you know in the back of your mind that there is that big problem that needs to be fixed, but you don’t have to worry about it because you have it written down somewhere. So your subconscious does all the work. And one day as you’re folding laundry, the solution just pops into your head. Or you wake up in the middle of the night, and you know why your character did that stupid thing. It worked every time.

Another piece of advice that stuck with me was one I received at a writing conference. I was sitting across the table from a literary agent at dinner (great opportunity—or so you would think) and I told her a little about my book and asked her which genre it would be—YA or women’s fiction—since the story begins when my character is 17 and ends when she is 19. New Adult was not yet an official category, so she basically told me that no publisher would ever pick up my book because there wasn’t a market for it. My shoulders must have visibly slumped because author Stephanie Fowers, who was sitting next to me, leaned over and said something like, “Don’t worry, Sarah. Just write the story you want to tell and don’t try to fit into anyone’s definition of what makes a marketable book.” I took her advice to heart and stopped worrying about trends and categories, and just wrote what I wanted to.

Q: That’s brilliant advice, since we can’t really help but write the story that is there to be told. Without being outwardly religious, there is a certain quiet weave of spirituality in your writing. Life seems to hold its own essential divinity, as you would have experienced in giving birth, surviving cancer, and living in general – but did you seek to share a particular message, or was the writing organic?

A: When I first started writing Porcelain Keys, I didn’t set out to share a specific message or lesson, I just wanted to write a great love story. But I think on an unconscious level some of the lessons I’ve learned in my own life seeped into the story. I’ve learned from experience that it’s possible for people to change and overcome character flaws, and that damaged relationships can be repaired. I also know that grief can cause people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. So as I wrote the story and my characters did certain things, I used my own life lessons as a reference to help me decide whether or not their actions were realistic and believable. It wasn’t until after I finished writing the story and had to start describing it in query letters that I really thought about what messages it contained.

Q: That’s awesome. On your blog you shared the inspiration of Porcelain Keys but we didn’t read the particulars of the scene that germinated your book. If you remember, please share it with us.

A: Yes, I remember the exact details of the scene. In fact, I still have it saved in a first draft (it’s horribly written, by the way). I didn’t share it on my blog because my story changed over time and the scene ended up having no relevance to the story. But it was a scene where Aria comes home from college for summer break, and she is going through a box of memorabilia when she discovers a necklace that Thomas gave her before he left town. She is surprised to see it because she thought she had gotten rid of it, and it brings back all the memories of their time together and the painful events surrounding his disappearance. This is the scene that sparked all of the questions that led me to my story. I had to know who these people were, why Thomas had left, and why he hadn’t returned as promised. For me, it was like an intriguing mystery that needed to be solved. And as I discovered the answers to these questions, I fell in love with the characters and knew that I had to tell their story.

Q: Thank you for sharing that. This is perhaps like asking you to name your favorite child, but do you have a favorite scene from your book? One that, no matter how many times you read it, resonates with you?

A: This is a tough one to answer without giving away too much of the story, but one of my favorite scenes is in chapter nineteen when an unexpected visitor walks into the parlor. My heart swells every time I read it, even though I’ve read it five million times. I also love the scene where Thomas gives Aria a painting—it always brings tears to my eyes because I know how much it means to her. The hardest scene to write was in chapter twenty-two where Aria and Thomas have a long talk—I must have rewritten it at least a dozen times—but it turned out to be one of my favorites.

Q: I loved those scenes, too. That seems to be the hardest part of being a writer, or any artist—knowing when to step away from the story and let it out into the world. Porcelain Keys is published by Sweet Water, an imprint of Cedar Fort. You mentioned that they have been wonderful to work with – what have been some of your adventures in publishing?

A: I haven’t had too many adventures in publishing since this is my first novel, but I did spend about seven months querying literary agents before being accepted for publication by Cedar Fort. During that time I sent out a total of 45 query letters, and got a few bites, including a 2000-word email from an agent listing all the things she loved about my manuscript—and all the things she wanted me to change. I was on an airplane when I got her email, ready for takeoff, and I only got the gist of it before I had to turn off my phone. I spent the four-hour flight wanting to die, and then give up writing, and then die again. It’s the worst feeling, spending hundreds or even thousands of hours on a manuscript, only to have someone tear it apart and tell you all the things you should change.

But when I got home and got a good night’s rest, I opened the email and read it more thoroughly. I realized that she actually really liked my book and had a lot of great suggestions—which was a good sign. Literary agents don’t usually give that much feedback unless they’re really interested in your manuscript. So I took most of her suggestions and implemented them. But there was one big change that I didn’t agree with and felt would make my entire story collapse. Because of this, I didn’t feel she was the right agent for me. So I kept sending out query letters to other agents. Around this time, a friend lent me a book that was published by Cedar Fort, and I really loved it, so I decided to send my manuscript to Cedar Fort. And two months later I got an email from their acquisitions editor saying they wanted to publish it—just the way it was.

Q: Congratulations! You also mentioned that you look forward to a long working relationship with Sweet Water. Do you have a second book planned?

A: I’m working on another young adult romance right now. I don’t want to say too much about it, but it’s set on a California beach and involves chocolate, surfing, and supernatural elements. I also have detailed outlines for two more after that, both young adult romances.

Q: That is wonderful! What will you take from this launch, to utilize in your next release?

A: I’ve learned that when it comes to getting the initial word out about a book, bloggers and book reviewers are a writer’s best friends! Also, it’s pointless to stress about things that aren’t in your control, like which bookstores will pick up your book, or whether or not reviewers like your book. Stress kills creativity, so I’m learning to stop hovering and instead get back to what I can control: writing more books!

Q: Good plan! What, if any, is/are your life motto(s)?

A: I don’t really have a life motto, but there are things I try to remember everyday: That life is short and that I should make the most of each moment. That worldly success is enjoyable, but can’t bring lasting happiness. Only my relationship with God and my family can do that. They are the constant in the ups and downs of life. They will be there when fans and literary agents and publishers are not. So God and family always come first, because to lose my relationship with them would be to lose everything.

 

Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played

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It’s one of those rare cosmic occurrences when I cross paths with someone who wrote in my high school yearbook, “Someday I can say I knew you when.” That the junior who penned those words grew up to be a veteran sports writer and political cartoonist for the Kansas City Star is matched only in awe-worthiness by the fact that he still has great hair. Some of us even remember Lee Judge as an aspiring young writer whose first book made from construction paper was a DIY epic held together with staples. Although we shouldn’t have had to wait decades for his next book, fans of baseball will proclaim that good things like Throwback: A Big League Catcher Tells How the Game Is Really Played (which he coauthored with MLB’s Jason Kendall) was well worth that wait.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s time-travel back a moment to the day after graduation in 1971. With the future awaiting your first bold step into it, did you know at the time what you wanted to do for a living?

A: I thought I did. At the time I wanted to be a commercial artist.

Q: What was your very first job and what did you learn from it?

A: I worked at Roos-Atkins clothing store. I learned that I didn’t want to work at Roos-Atkins clothing store.

Q: Tell us about your passion for America’s favorite sport and your earliest recollection of going to a game.

A: I’ve always loved baseball, probably because my father loved it as well. My first ballgames were Little League games in Rocklin, CA. It seemed like the whole town turned out for those. My first big league game was seeing Willie Mays and the San Francisco Giants.

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

A: I hang out with all kinds of people—including Republicans.

Q: When and where did you first meet Jason Kendall?

A: At Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium, 2010.

Q: What prompted the two of you to team up and write a book about baseball together?

A: Jason is not a fan of the media in general—few pro ballplayers are—but he liked what I was trying to do: write about the game from the ballplayer’s point of view. Most of us are interested in the results, but I also wanted to know about the process that led to the results: if a batter hits a home run, there’s a reason he hit that home run. How and why did it happen?

Q: There’s no shortage of baseball books on today’s market. What do you feel best distinguishes this one from the competition?

A: Jason Kendall is one of five catchers in the history of baseball to catch 2,000 games. Catchers know the game like no one else and Jason gives fans a look at what’s really going on out there: conversations, customs, strategy, how someone can break the unwritten rules and the penalties they pay for doing so. It’s a look inside the game from the ultimate insider.

Q: Tell us about the creative process of coauthoring the book. For instance, did you work from an outline or just brainstorm topics as you went along?

A: We decided to go position by position to give us some kind of guideline. I’d ask questions and he’d answer, but it was really more of a conversation than anything else. The book is not verbatim, but I did use Jason’s words—I just organized his thoughts.

Beer was involved.

Q: The book is obviously targeted to diehard fans of the game but are there any elements that might appeal to those of us who aren’t as baseball-savvy?

A: People who have read the book are finding it works for all types of fans. The game is much more entertaining when you pay attention and know what to look for. For instance: If you see the umpire walk out in front of home plate and bend over to clean it for no apparent reason, he’s probably having an argument with the catcher. The unwritten rule requires both umpire and catcher to stare straight ahead so no one will know they’re arguing. If the argument becomes too heated, the umpire will clean home plate so he can disguise the fact that he wanted to get into the catcher’s face and tell him to shut up, he’s heard enough.

See? Isn’t that neat to know?

Q: Why do baseball players speak in clichés?

A: Tim Bogar—bench coach for the Texas Rangers—once told me that if ballplayers don’t know you or like you, all you get are clichés. No ball player ever got in trouble for being boring; they’re boring on purpose. If they like and trust you they’ll tell the truth, but never in one of those media scrums you see after games—too many people around.

Here’s a clue: if you see a post-game interview and the player never looks in the reporters’ eyes, they probably don’t like that reporter. Eye contact is reserved for reporters they like or at least respect.

Q: Umpires always seem to be the guys that everyone loves to argue with at vitriolic levels. As baseball insiders, is there a “correct” way to do this?

A: As I mentioned earlier, at the plate everyone stares straight ahead—including the hitter. If the hitter suddenly feels the need to smooth out the dirt in the batter’s box with his feet, watch his lips: he’s probably taking the opportunity to tell the umpire what he thought of that last call. But smoothing out the dirt hides what he’s doing.

In the book Jason talks about using hitter-umpire disagreements to his advantage. If the hitter is complaining, the catcher can set up outside the strike zone and give the umpire a chance to retaliate. Jason would egg the umpire on with a “are you going to let him get away with that?” question, then set up outside the strike zone.

Q: How do baseball players say hello during a game?

A: If the hitter and catcher are friendly, in his first trip to the plate the hitter will tap the catcher’s shin guards with his bat—it’s how they say hello. Same thing on the bases: if the first baseman taps a runner with his mitt, they’re probably buddies.

On the other hand, if the hitter taps a catcher’s shin guards and he’s not buddies with the catcher, that can start something. There’s a story in the book about what happened the first time Albert Pujols came to the plate and tapped Jason’s shin guards—it didn’t go well.

Q: How do you spot a true tough guy versus a poser?

A: If a tough guy gets hit by a pitch and is mad about it, he’s gone; he’ll charge the mound. A poser will stand at home plate, point the bat and yell at the pitcher and wait for his teammates to come out and break things up—they don’t really want to fight anybody, they just want to look tough.

Tough guys aren’t afraid of the wall; they’ll go full-speed and try to climb the fence to bring back a home run. Guys who are softer slow up when they hit the warning track; they don’t want to bang into the wall.

Same thing with breaking up double plays: hard-nosed players will hustle down and try to knock down the middle infielder attempting to turn the double play at second base. Guys who aren’t so tough will peel out of the base path and give the pivot man a clear throwing lane to first base—they don’t want to have a collision with an infielder or get hit by a thrown baseball.

The tough guys get in front of bad hops and knock them down with their bodies if they miss the catch; other guys play the ball off to the side because they don’t like getting hit with the ball.

The list goes on, but you get the drift.It’s right there for us to see if we know what to look for—that’s why we wrote the book; we tell you what to look for.

Q: Is it possible during a game to predict what the next pitch will be?

A: 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, 3-1 and sometimes 3-2 are known as “fastball” counts. In those counts pitchers need to throw a strike and a fastball is their best chance of doing so. So hitters load up in those counts and try to crush the ball. So pitchers either need to throw something other than a fastball—curve, slider, change, etc.—or throw a really well-located fastball. If fans pay attention they can predict the next pitch fairly accurately. Watch the between innings warm-up throws; if the pitcher can’t throw anything other than a fastball for a strike then, he’ll probably have to throw a fastball to a hitter during the inning. We tell fans how to spot fastballs and off-speed pitches.

Q: How do you identify a dirty slide?

A: Watch the runner’s feet: if his spikes are angled down, it’s a clean slide. If he comes in spikes up; he’s looking to do damage. Sometimes infielders invite this: they’ll receive a throw and “drop a knee.” That means they put their knee on the ground in the base path and block the runner off the base. Runners retaliate by coming in “spikes up” and cutting the infielder’s leg.

Q: If no one has cheated, how can a pitcher end up with a scuffed baseball?

A: The catcher throws the ball down to second base between innings and sometimes—kinda, sorta by accident—the catcher bounces the throw. That puts a scuff on the baseball. They infielders throw it around and give the scuffed baseball to the pitcher. If the umpire didn’t notice the throw bounced, the pitcher gets to pitch with it.

There is no rule that says catchers must not bounce throws between innings. The pitcher has a scuffed baseball, but no one cheated.

The players think all this worrying about scuffs is stupid because they play with a scuffed ball every time someone hits a grounder to an infielder or bounces a ball off the warning track—they keep those balls in play. They throw out pitches in the dirt, but let other scuffed balls remain in the game.

It drives Jason crazy to see a young pitcher get a ball with a nice, useful scuff on it and then ask the umpire for a shiny new one.

Q: What’s your favorite baseball movie and why?

A: “Bull Durham” because Ron Shelton played minor league ball and got it right.

Q: If you could have attended any baseball game in history, which game would you most want to have watched?

A: Probably the World Series game where Carlton Fisk hit the extra-inning home run and waved it fair. I watched that one in a bar. But I did get to attend the seventh game of the Royals-Cardinals World series; I’ve got no complaints.

Q: Greatest baseball player of all time?

A: Hard to say, but I’ll go with Hank Aaron.

Q: Where can readers learn more about the book and about the signings that you and Jason are doing?

A: After every Royals game I post a story on “Judging the Royals” a web site that’s part of the Kansas City Star’s on-line offerings. Go to kansascity.com, click on sports and you’ll find my website. It’s inside baseball about the Royals, but the information applies to any team you watch. I’ll list new events there.

Q: What’s next on your (home)plate?

A: We’ll have to see how this book does: do fans really want this kind of information? If so, the publisher is interested in another book that takes baseball fans inside the game.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: Thanks for the opportunity—and the compliment about my hair.

 

 

At Gloaming

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“Poetry,” wrote Dylan Thomas, “is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” In this month’s feature interview, award-winning published poet Larry Schug invites us inside his world and introduces us to the elements that inspire him to be creative.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Let’s start with a brief overview of your journey as a writer. For instance, did you come from a literary background when you were growing up or did the desire to write not take root until adulthood?

A: My mother and father were both readers. My dad read westerns, Louis L’Amour, etc. and my mother read romance novels; not exactly classic literature, but a story is a story. Though my father only finished eighth grade and my mother just high school, they somehow set me on the reading path. My mom’s sister, who was a school teacher, taught me to read before I started school and I’ve been an avid reader my whole life. I’ve always been fascinated with words, their power to paint pictures in my brain, to make my heart beat fast, to stir emotions inside me, the sounds they make coming out of my mouth. I think I was a decent writer in school, at least academically, if not creatively. It did not cause me pain to write book reports, term papers or essays for class, in fact, I enjoyed doing so. I do remember getting positive feedback from a teacher for a poem I wrote in third grade and, for some reason, that stuck with me as something I could do well. But really, my ambition as a child was to be a baseball player or a cowboy, not a writer. I continued writing poems while growing up, but never showing them to anyone or even keeping any of them. I actually wrote quite a bit while in the army, a way to achieve catharsis, more than anything, but again, not keeping them or sharing them with anyone. After my parents died while I was in my thirties, I wrote poems to express my grief and I finally shared them with other people, some of who told me I had a gift and should try to publish them. I finally listened. To this day, I think my best poems come from dealing with grief, having survived my parents, a brother and good friends who have passed on. I guess you might say I have broadened my horizons to include writing about everything I’ve encountered in life.

Q: What part did/does poetry play in your life and in shaping your particular outlook about the world and about your relationships with others?

A: At this point, I think I see life as a poem constantly being written, the way I imagine a musician sees the world as song or the way a painter perhaps views the world as images to be painted. My wife and I are fortunate to be able to live on a beautiful piece of property we share with deer, coyotes, otters, sand hill cranes and a wide variety of bird life. I am enamored and influenced by the natural world, its beauty, its grace and the way it has shaped us. I’m a dedicated “tree hugger” and very concerned by what seems like our planet’s slow but certain degradation. I sincerely hope I’m wrong about that and I hope that my poetry in some way can influence others to do better by our little planet. Earth is the only place we can live and what makes it such a magnificent place is its beauty and all the other creatures that share our planet with us. A goal for my poetry is to inspire others with the beauty, variety, and magnificence of our world and I do see signs of hope in the upcoming generations.

I feel a need to write my life and my observations down and poetry is the form it most frequently takes. Poetry helps me figure out this state of being we call life in all its twists and turns. Being a fairly shy person, I’ve found poetry is a way for me to communicate. I also like to read poetry. I read poetry every day as a learning tool, but also I love the music inside words. Poetry enlightens me, shows me life in new and unexpected ways and from different viewpoints. Poetry teaches me how to be a human being.

Q: Your biography reflects that you’ve spent a lot of time at physical labor. How does this come out in your poems?

A: Writing is a physical task. I think performing most kinds of physical work is doing “one thing at a time”. I’ve worked as a paperboy, groundskeeper, farm worker, forest firefighter, forestry technician, grave digger, dish washer, factory worker and recycler, all of which are physical and repetitive. I find my make-up is well suited to these kinds of tasks and I see them as Zen-like in their performance in that a person must be aware of what their body is doing in order to work safely and efficiently, focused in the here and now. I’ve also been heating my house with firewood for at least half my life and cutting, splitting, carrying and stacking firewood must be done with this same Zen-like outlook. I would probably make a good ant or honey bee (perhaps I was in a past lifetime!) as that is how it seems they go about their work, picking up pollen at a flower and returning to the hive or gathering leaves and returning to the anthill repeatedly. Writing poetry is no different, especially when it comes to re-writing or finding the right word to accomplish the work of a poem. Poetry requires intense attention to the job at hand, not a multi-tasking approach. I write all my poems with a pen on paper, including all re-writes. I like the physicality of doing it this way; for me, writing is as much physical as mental. Only after a poem is “finished” does it go to the computer.

Q: Which of your poems do you believe best captures who Larry Schug really is? (feel free to insert it in the interview along with your explanation of why you chose it)

A:

Mending Mittens

Mending my leather mittens

for the third time this winter,

I sew them with waxed string

made to repair fishing nets,

hoping they’ll last

until the splitting maul rests

against the shrunken woodpile

and the hoe and spade come out of the shed.

I find myself praying.

Blessed be those who have laced together

the splits at the seams of this world,

repair its threads of twisted waters.

Blessed be those who stitch together

the animals and the land,

repair the rends in the fabric

of wolf and forest,

of whale and ocean,

of condor and sky.

Blessed be those who are forever fixing

the tear between people and the rest of life.

May we all have enough thread,

may our needles be sharp,

may our fingers not throb or go numb.

May each of us find an apprentice,

someone who will take the needle from our hands,

continue all the mending that needs to be done.

 

Mending Mittens is the real Larry Schug. It reflects my relationship with physical work and also brings out my spiritual side. It captures me as a “dreamer”, yet, I think portrays me as being realistic. This poem captures my love of the natural world and all of its inhabitants and my fears and sorrow at the injuries we are inflicting on what gives us our very life.

Q: Has retirement – and the change of lifestyle this has introduced – impacted your writing and creative processes?

A: It has, in that while I was working I had to “schedule” my writing to early morning or evening times. Now I’m free to stop what I’m doing and write if I feel the need. What I may have lost in concentrated discipline, I have gained back in time. Yet, I feel I have maintained the proper discipline needed to be productive. I now spend more time away from people, but when I am with others it is not solely in a work environment, which was rather limiting. I am not a hermit. I volunteer as a writing tutor with college students and also volunteer as a naturalist, both of which provide an avenue of contact with people in a more open way.   I think my creativity has expanded with an increase in time devoted to different pursuits. Another change is that I have more time to read, which is important to writing, opening up new avenues of thinking.

Q: Share with us how a new poem is conceived in your imagination and how long it takes to actually be “born” for a publishable debut.

A: Poems come from paying attention to being alive and all that entails. Again, this a Zen-like outlook and just as meditation requires that a person be mindful of their breathing, poetry requires that I must be aware of what is going inside as well of outside of me. With practice, I’ve been able to develop a sense of poetry in everything. I can’t think of anything not fit for a poem. Along with that, my internal dialogue seems to have a visual component; in that I see things that happen as poetry and I see my thoughts as poems if I pay attention to them with a poetic outlook. A poem often begins with an image in my head. Having said that, I write down my thoughts and observations and then transform them into poems with the use of language, metaphor, sound and all the other tools in a poet’s toolbox. If lucky, the poem may just happen, but most likely, I’ll have to go to work and make these thoughts or images into a poem, shaping them in a poetic form. All this can happen quickly, but more often it’s like trying to put a puzzle together, which takes time. Rewriting is crucial. Each poem has a life of its own and its own time frame. I think I’ve learned to listen to the poem and let it tell me how it needs to be written. Like a lot of endeavors, the journey is as important as the destination. I’ve also learned to let a poem tell me when to stop, when it is done, when enough is enough.

Q: What governs your decision on how to physically format a poem? The New Yorker, for example, has a gimmicky fondness for displaying a lot of poems as inverted pyramids, antlers, skinny columns and PacMan circular motifs – none of which really adds to a greater appreciation of the content. I’d be curious as to how you approach the presentation question.

A: How a poem appears on paper is important. Line breaks are crucial in finding the correct form and so, in that way, the poem forms itself. I write in complete sentences, not fragments, but that does not mean a line of a poem can’t be just one word if that words needs to be emphasized. This can lead to a poem assuming an unconventional shape. I’ve only written one “picture poem” in which the poem formed an image, in this case a stalk of wheat, in the poem “The Roots Know”, published in my first book, Scales Out of Balance.

Q: When and where are you at your most creative?

A: I have always been a “morning person”, probably because I got up with my dad who was an early riser. My first real job was as a paperboy, delivering the morning Minneapolis Tribune. This does not necessarily apply to my writing schedule, though I do feel a certain receptivity early in the day. I try to keep myself open and receptive at all times. I always make sure I have paper and pen with me as I go through the day, so location is not much of a factor either, though I do most of my writing in a notebook on a small wooden typewriter table in “my corner” of the upper floor of our small house.

Q: You devote a section of At Gloaming to New Mexico and Ghost Ranch.  Explain the connection.

A: Ghost Ranch is a retreat/educational/conference center near Abiquiu, New Mexico. It is a place of peace and creativity, perfect for contemplation. I have been going there for the past nineteen years with a group of college students as part of a service program called Alternative Break Experience sponsored by Campus Ministry at the College of St. Benedict. We work for Ghost Ranch, helping them to fulfill their mission and also work in the community doing various kinds of work from cleaning acequias (irrigation ditches), working at a local animal shelter, planting trees with an environmental organization and helping the elderly or working in local schools. Ghost Ranch has a long history, going back to the Spanish incursion into New Mexico and the native cultures that inhabited the area before that and finally to the Anglo-American culture, but the history of the land goes back to the dinosaurs. Georgia O’Keefe had a house at Ghost Ranch and did much of her painting there and, somewhat ironically, the people who developed the atomic bomb at Los Alamos went to Ghost Ranch for R and R. The focus of our experience is environmental justice, but we also learn much about local history, geology and about the mix of Anglo, Hispanic and Native cultures. It is a place of great beauty in the high desert, a land of mesas, buttes, arroyos and mountains. All this, plus the people I’ve met and worked with, is very inspiring to me to me as a poet. The culture and landscape is vastly different than the culture I grew up in here in Minnesota and I have fallen completely in love with it. I think the difference is something I needed to experience and explore and, for me, what better way than poetry? This difference has opened new doors to my way of thinking and seeing things that I need to translate to poetry.

Q: Who are some of the poets whose work you admire and who may have had an influence on your own writing style?

A: Duluth, Minnesota poet Barton Sutter, a former Creative Writing teacher of mine, is a big influence. Lucille Clifton, Ted Kooser, Jimmy Santiago Baca and John Caddy are just a few of many poets who have influenced me and taught me through their poems. John Caddy in particular, showed me that it was ok to write about growing up in an alcoholic family situation and that good poetry can come from that experience. I almost hate to list anyone, because it seems an insult to leave so many great poets off this list. When I speak to students I tell them that it’s imperative to read good poetry in order to write good poetry. All of the poets I’ve mentioned write in a clear and understandable yet lyrical voice. I do like to stretch my brain, but I really don’t like poetry that I can’t understand and leaves me scratching my head in befuddlement.

Q: If you could go to lunch with any of these poets, who would it be, where would you go, and what question would you most like to ask?

A: Tough question. Today I would choose Jimmy Santiago Baca because I’d like to know more about him and also because he lives in New Mexico and we could go to my favorite restaurant, El Farolito, in El Rito, New Mexico and eat the world’s best sopapillas. His background is intriguing and I think he’d be a great person to know. I would love to hear his thoughts on writing poetry, how he goes about it, its purpose, etc. I’d ask him all the questions you’re asking me in this interview.

Q: Your poetry has been recognized with a number of awards. Congratulations! Tell us about them.

A: I have won a number of local grants from the Central Minnesota Arts Board and had a couple poems nominated for the Pushcart Prize, but the award I am most proud of is winning a Loft McKnight Fellowship in 2008. My second book, Caution: Thin Ice was a Minnesota Book Awards finalist and Arrogant Bones was a Midwest Book Award finalist. I certainly don’t think any award means that a person is a “good” writer. Awards are pretty subjective and, really, luck plays a part. I think an award means that something I wrote touched a certain human being or group of them at a certain time. It is a validation of what I do, of course, but my ego is not so big as to put a lot of self-congratulatory stock in any award. They serve as a source of motivation to push myself farther.

Q: Poetry is often labeled as a writing venue that doesn’t pay very well. Sadly – and at least in California – the study of poets and poetry composition in classrooms has been steadily diminishing. What’s your response to this?

A: I suppose I get rather cynical, sometimes, about this, but it is what it is. As Guy Clark once sang, “Ain’t no money in poetry, that’s what sets the poet free”. I certainly don’t write poetry for any monetary reward or compensation, but, I’m afraid the fact that our society doesn’t place much monetary value on poetry somehow reflects its cultural value in America in 2014. I recently had a poem chosen to be the subject of a painting, a poet/artist collaboration, which was a great honor. The painting will sell for $1200.00; the poem will sell for $0.00.

As far as poetry in the classroom, I find that it is valued by many teachers and students, but apparently not by administrators or those who set up curriculums. Again, this reflects an educational system training students to be cogs in our economic machine rather than being fully developed human beings who are thoughtful and in fact, even able to think critically. Our children are being taught to be sheep. I am saddened by this and I think it could have dire consequences for our society in so many ways such as understanding cultural diversity, the environment and how people relate to each other and to themselves. Poetry leads to an open mind, which seems to be the enemy, especially in the world of politics. I apologize for the rant! (Not really.)

Q: Your best advice to an aspiring poet?

A: I would tell them to read good poetry, study it and figure out what makes it appeal to you. This is imperative. I learn more from reading the poems of others critically, than I’ve ever learned in a classroom. I’d also tell them to read more of everything else they can get their hands on—fiction, non-fiction, newspapers, cereal boxes, street signs; anyplace they can find a written word . I would advise them to pay attention to life. Put down the electronic devices and use all your senses—sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch and use your brain. Think your own thoughts. Explore your emotions honestly. Don’t be afraid to go places inside or outside of yourself that may not be pleasant places to visit. Be honest with yourself. And, of course, there is the best advice on how to get better at anything– practice, practice, practice.

Q: If you were asked to write a job description for the occupation of “poet,” what would it say?

A: Pay attention to being alive and pass that on in your writing. A poet must keep in mind that he or she is not writing only for himself or herself, though that may be a part of what we do. Hopefully, other human beings will read our work; therefore it is part of our job to put into words what others may not be able to express. We should be able to enable others to achieve catharsis and healing, help them think and spark their curiosity. We must write as documenters of the past and the present. Particularly we must honor the “now”, for it is the only time we have. We are the story tellers and the “rememberers” of the tribe. We are artists in the same sense as any other artist-painter, sculptor, musician or dancer. We must also be entertainers, not so much as in the Hollywood sense of the word, but in a more thoughtful way.  J. F. Powers, a famous American fiction writer of the last century, once told me a writer is nothing but an entertainer. We all need to be entertained and when we are, it can lead to a more meaningful existence. It is a blessing to entertain and to be entertained. If we are not entertaining, who is going to read or listen to our words?

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

A: I think many people are surprised that I, as a poet, am not an academic, which, I think, is the stereotypical view of a poet. As I’ve stated above, I have made a life of doing menial, physical labor. I worked in the maintenance department at the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph, Minnesota for 34 years and when my first book came out, it was greeted somewhat with surprise by the faculty that a person who mows the grass or sorts other people’s garbage (the fancy name for this is Recycling Coordinator) had an interest in or talent for poetry. Having said that, I must say I was very well accepted by the faculty and administration for my literary efforts. I received a lot of support, often being asked to speak in classes and having my books used as texts in various classes as well as official publications of the college.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: Right now, I’m just writing poems with no real goal for them as far as a new book. That will happen when it happens. I do like to explore a subject in detail. I have been writing lately about what goes on in Kay’s Kitchen, a small town café in St. Joseph, Minnesota that I have frequented for 40 years or more. I’m currently working on another poem that takes place there, though it is purely fictional as far as the characters and what they do, but at the same time, realistic.

Q: Where can readers discover more about you and your work?

A: My web site is www.larryschugpoet.com. Readers can also google me and find some poems and newspaper and magazine articles. Send me an e-mail; I love to converse with readers.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A: I would just like to thank you for this opportunity. I have learned much about myself as I answer the questions and see my writing in a clearer light. I would ask the casual reader to explore poetry. Contrary to popular opinion, poetry is not dead. It’s a vibrant art form that in some way relates to everyone.

 

 

In the Spirit of Love

Debbie McClure

Can a sensibly modern young woman on holiday find everlasting love an ocean away with a dashingly handsome aristocrat who may or may not be a murderer and, oh by the way, has been dead for 150 years?

In her debut paranormal romance, In the Spirit of Love, author Debbie A. McClure not only channels those feelings of déjà vu that so mystify even the most grounded among us but also demonstrates just how hard it is to “give up the ghost” when Fate is determined to fuel the fires of passionate reunion.

Interviewer: Christina Hamlett

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Q: Tell us about your personal journey as a writer and the mentors who encouraged you along the way.

A: Well, I gotta tell you, this has been a looong journey. Although I didn’t start writing until I was nearing fifty years of age, writing had been a life-long dream of mine. But as with so many people, life gets in the way. Years struggling with poverty as a single parent post-divorce, re-marriage, blending a family of five teenagers (yes, five!), and assorted jobs to pay the bills, had me holding back on the dream. Finally, I decided to do what I wanted to do, not just what I could do. Along the way I was encouraged by my parents, who always saw the potential and encouraged me to follow my heart. My mother has always been an avid reader, a pioneer in business, and a tremendous source of encouragement and mentoring for me throughout my life. When it comes to my writing, she, my father, and my husband have never faltered in their unwavering support. I’m one lucky woman!

Q: What books would we have found on your nightstand when you were 10? 20? Today?

A: At ten I was reading Nancy Drew and other youth-focused mysteries. I’ve always been intrigued as much by what I didn’t know, as what I did. In my twenties I had started reading Danielle Steele, and later, Nora Roberts, and J.R. Ward. Today, I still love the same authors, and have added a new favorite I discovered two new favorites via my middle sister; Kristin Hannah and Tatiana De Rosnay. In addition, I love to read Clive Custler adventure books, and have read lots of Stephen King and Dean Koontz. I have pretty eclectic tastes when it comes to reading.

Q: If you could have lunch with your three favorite authors of all time, who would they be, where would you go, and what questions would you most like to ask?

A: I’d love to lunch and learn with Kristin Hannah, Nora Roberts, and Clive Custler. My preferred lunch spot would be at a restaurant on a beach. I’m the biggest beach fan, and I love seafood! The questions I’d most love to ask each of these esteemed writers is; how do they see each book before they start to write, in progress, and at the end. Each one of these writers creates characters so full of real personality and intricate relationships, that I wonder how they keep it all straight. I’m not an outliner, but I do keep notes as I go to help me keep characters, places, and events in line. I’d love to know how they approach their writing, and whether they’ve ever been surprised by an ending or character.

Q: What was the moment when you first decided, “Aha! I’m going to sit down and write my first novel!”

A: People often ask me this when I’m doing a speaking presentation or book signing/reading. I actually remember it very clearly. It was during a Christmas break when I was working in real estate sales. I’d booked two weeks off, and had really been struggling with what I wanted to do with my life. I was nearing fifty years old, and even though the thought of taking on such a massive project scared the living heck out of me, I was determined to at least give it a shot. So, one day I told my husband I was going up to my office to “write”. He just nodded and said, “Go for it.”. That’s all I needed. I wrote that entire day, and by the time I pulled away from my computer, I knew I was hooked. I had no real plan, no outline for characters or plot. I just let my imagination go with the germ of an idea I had. From that day to this, I sit down every day and write for as much as 5-7 hours. In the beginning, I was still working a full time job in sales, so set my alarm 1-1/2 hrs early. Now, I write full time, having given up my job in sales.

Q: What attracted you to the genre of paranormal romance for your debut as a novelist?

A: Ah, good question. I guess I’d read a lot of paranormal romance over the years, and had always been intrigued with the idea of the paranormal. To me, as a writer, it allows me to explore situations and adventures not available to us mere mortals. In particular, I love pairing the “normal” with the paranormal characters. Of course my paranormal character, the ghost of a grand English country estate, has to embody all the elements of a traditional romantic protagonist, with a little dash of something extra. He has also had the advantage, or curse, of having witnessed a century and a half of history, people, and as a result, has developed a unique outlook on life. Because of the strong mystery aspect to this book, I was pleased to learn that several men had also really enjoyed it, and claimed they hadn’t been able to figure out “who done it” before the end. The leads are all there, but I’m glad readers of both genders have enjoyed this first book.

Q: Tell us how you came up with your title.

A: Because of my background in sales and marketing, I knew I wanted my title to indicate the genre, by including the word “love”. Because this story involves a ghost as the male lead, I chose to include the word “spirit”. In The Spirit Of Love just seemed to pull together all the elements I wanted in one tidy phrase.

Q: Would you say your work tends to have a running theme or message, and if so, what would that be?

A: Most definitely. I’d have to say that the running themes, or message, through my work is that life is full of mystery, we need to value each of life’s experiences, and love is worth fighting for. I also try to remind readers that friendship and family are the most valuable assets we have, and aren’t to be taken lightly.

Q: Who was your favorite character to write?

A: The ghost of Kent Estate, Sir Richard Abbottsford. As a result of his spectral existence, he’s had to learn a lot of very difficult lessons the hard way, and he continues to evolve as he begins to connect with the people, places, and events of the present.

Q: If Hollywood came calling, who’s your dream cast?

A: Oh, easy one! I’ve always envisioned Sir Richard, the ghost, as either Hugh Jackman (tall, dark, and handsome), or possibly Leonardo Di Caprio (suave and debonaire). I’ve envisioned Claire as fellow Ontario Canadian, the multi-talented Rachel McAdams. As for supporting cast characters, I’m much more flexible, and haven’t nailed down exact Hollywood representations for them. I’d like to be surprised on that one.

Q: Aspiring authors often assume that once they have written (and sold) their first book, they are automatically on Easy Street. Speaking from your own experience, what have been some of the challenges of sustaining a writing career once you embark on one?

A: I guess due to my background in commissioned sales, I knew it was going to be a looong haul, and my writing wasn’t a get-rich-quick thing. Still, I’ve learned that writing has a learning curve the size of a tsunami, and it’s really easy to get swamped and overwhelmed. The biggest challenges new writers face is getting the word out about who we are, our work, and our brand. I’m also amazed at the number of new writers who don’t realize that writing (and publishing) is a business, and consequently, they must be the CEO of their new venture. Learning to market and promote yourself and your work is a massive daily undertaking, and can be wearing, to say the least. Because the money doesn’t just flow in, writers also have to juggle the dream against the realities of life, and making a living. This means looking at either maintaining a day job in addition to writing, or turning your writing into part of a platform for additional revenue streams, such as paid public speaking gigs, workshops, freelance writing, etc. Someone recently posted on Facebook that many people say they could write a book, if only they had the time. I replied that if time were all it took, more people would walk this walk. There’s just so much more to it than that, talent and perseverance included.

Q: When and where do you get your best writing done?

A: Oh, I’m a morning writer. I’ve tried other times, but for me, I write best in the mornings, in my office. It’s then that my brain is clearest, I’ve had my morning coffee, I’m dressed (yes, dressed in proper day clothes), and ready to get to work for the day. If it’s a gorgeous, sunny summer day, I’ll take my laptop outside and sit in the gazebo at the patio table and write from there. It gives me the illusion of having gotten outside and away from my office.

Q: The publishing industry is undergoing a massive shift as new technologies are being developed and perfected. What do you see as the future of publishing and writing?

A: As those in the business will attest, this is a remarkable time to be a writer. So much is changing, and so quickly. I see writers, publishers, and agents, having to step up to working collaboratively to capture the benefits of current and upcoming technologies. The “gate-keeper” mentality of publishing just isn’t working for many of today’s writers, and as more writers move into the realm of self-publishing, and very successfully in some cases, each party is going to have to come to the table with open hands and a willingness to create the best product together, with the writer being treated as a valuable player. Fair compensation and contract terms for a writer’s work are becoming more of a hot topic, which is why I think we’re seeing more “hybrid” writers evolve. Technology isn’t going anywhere. In fact, I think the future is going to see a greater shift towards technology, as our next generations come to expect and rely on it for a number of reasons (that’s another topic entirely). I believe print books will always be available, perhaps more via POD, but I also see a shift in favour of new technologies in the future. Bricks and mortar stores are going to have to adapt to accommodate the coming changes, or risk failing completely.

Q: Do you believe it’s harder or easier for new writers to get published today than it was a generation ago?

A: Without a doubt, easier. With the advent of digital publishing, more and more writers are choosing to go the route of self-publishing. After all, they can hire the same professional editors, cover artists, and upload their work to the very same e-venues as the big publishers do. As a result, getting published isn’t as difficult to achieve today. But make no mistake, self-publishing carries a ton of work, and it all rests on the shoulders of the writer.

On the other hand, I think traditional publishers are even more careful about the writers they choose to work with. With limited distribution channels, overhead costs, etc., I believe publishers are looking for writers who are willing, and able, to approach their writing in a professional, serious manner. Creativity is certainly necessary, as is talent, but so is a business mind-set to persevere over the long haul.

Q: What’s your best advice to a writer who is just starting out, insofar as preparing for the challenges that await them?

A: In the beginning, just have fun! Explore the limits of your imagination. Don’t worry about the outcome. But in the meantime, start learning everything you can about the business of writing and publishing. Because if you decide to persevere in this crazy business, you’re going to have to be prepared to really dig in and learn. Also, connect with other writers, at all levels of their career. Build relationships, and help others build their own careers while building your own. Especially in these changing times, learn and share with each other. I’ve met some amazing people along the way, including you, Christina, and I hope they’ve learned as much from me as I have from them. Oh, and with regards to social networking, never post something unprofessional, derogatory, or something that labels you as less than professional. This means pictures, expletives, political, and religious view points. Set up an author fan page, and keep business and personal pages separate. People are watching and forming opinions on who you are and your message, whether you like it or not.

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

A: I failed both Grade 7, and typing! I’ve learned that failure doesn’t mean stop. Sometimes it just means pay attention, and try again. I now type as fast as I think, and that’s a real advantage when writing for hours at a time.

Q: What’s next on your plate? Give us the inside scoop!

A: After the success of In The Spirit Of Love, I decided to write the sequel, In The Spirit Of Forgiveness, which is slated for release later this month, May, 2014. Continuing the story of Claire and the ghost of Sir Richard, Forgiveness follows the two protagonists as they solve yet another mystery of Kent Estate. Magic, mystery, and love are all part of the spell woven throughout this exciting new story. I’m really excited about this next release, and hope readers enjoy this next book as much as the first. Who knows, I may even begin penning a series based on the first two books.

I’m also extremely excited to share that I’ve started a new novel in an entirely different genre; a fact-based historical fiction. The King’s Consort-The Louise Rasmussen Story is the story of a woman who rose from obscure poverty as an illegitimate child of a seamstress, to marry the King of Denmark. It is a true love story set in the mid-1800’s amid immense political intrigue and change. Despite severe opposition and open hostility from the aristocracy, Louise and her king are determined to be together, and as a result, change the course of a nation forever. I’m hoping to have this next project released sometime in 2015/16, but haven’t decided the publishing route for it yet. Time will tell.

Q: Where can readers discover more about you, your books, and ongoing public speaking or workshop events?

A: Website: www.damcclure.com

Blog: http://the-write-stuff.me/

Twitter: @debbiemcclure59

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/#!/DebbieA.McClure59

 

Thank you so much for your invitation to chat today, Christina. I’ve really enjoyed the thoughtful questions you’ve posed.