The Girl in the Photo, A Novel (September 2013 NEW BOOK Recommendation)

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A few years ago, I did an interview with Wally Wood, author of Getting Oriented: A Novel About Japan. I’m pleased to announce that Mr. Wood has a second novel out now, called The Girl in the Photo. I’m pleased for two reasons. One, he’s a good friend, and it’s always such fun to have a friend be successful in publishing.  And the the second reason is that it is a damn good book. I wish I could write like him.

The subject matter is one close to my heart, having lost a mother some years ago and recently losing a mother-in-law, both of whom I adored. The book asks the question: do we really know our parents? They had lives before us and also after we move away to live on our own. Mr. Wood explores this in depth when a sister and brother discover after their father’s death a photo of an unknown Japanese woman.  Mourning for their father, they are surprised by the depths of their emotions when they begin uncovering his secrets from decades before they were even born.  While they are making this unexpected journey together, their already shaky relationship is stretched to the limit.

I’ll admit it, I teared up at the end of reading The Girl in the Photo. It’s one of those intimate reads that leaves you sad, happy and satisfied.  Which is why I’m giving it my September 2013 NEW BOOK Recommendation.

Check it out for the paperback at Barnes and Noble website or Amazon.Com ( for paperback and Kindle version)

A Writing Primate’s Interview with Wally Wood – 2011

The Simplicity of Elmore Leonard

We all have styles of writing that we favor, or wish to emulate.  I, myself, have never been a fan of the elaborate, fancy writing of say an author like Anne Rice.  I don’t want to get caught up in the writing itself, but in the story. A good story should stand on its own with a simplicity of strong writing. Which brings me to one of my favorite authors who has recently died: Elmore Leonard, author of such books as Get Shorty, Fifty-Two Pickup and many, many other novels in the crime genre.

Good writers live on, even when they die, as evidenced by Hemingway or Fitzgerald. They’re still read widely today, despite the many years since their deaths.  I think that Elmore Leonard will follow in their footsteps. One of the reasons for this is because of hia spare writing style. His characters live in our imagination because he gives just enough information to fertilize our mind’s eye image of them.

Leonard gave good advice in a New York Times article, titled WRITERS ON WRITING; Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points and Especially Hooptedoodle. He talked about 10 rules for writing. I suggest you click on this LINK to read it.

The first rule is my favorite because it’s light-hearted. It says, never start with the weather. Ah, shades of Snoopy and his novel : It was a dark and stormy night.

There are others that stick in my mind.

Never stick an adverb on to the word, said.  Your character warns of impending doom, but let his words do it.  “Watch out,” he said. That’s enough, and adding …he said sternly, or he said loudly, or whatever…it’s just not needed. I believe that avoiding adverbs (in general) is what kept Leonard’s dialog natural to the reader.

Although it’s not in the New York Times article, Leonard  elaborated on this advice elsewhere.

  • “You have to listen to your characters.”
  • “Don’t worry about what your mother thinks of your language.”
  • “Try to get a rhythm.”

Elmore Leonard was 87 years old when he died on August 20, 2013. He started off writing Westerns, than after a five year break from writing fiction, he published his first non-Western novel: The Big Bounce. From there he wrote many novels, and we’ve enjoyed reading them, or seeing them on the big screen. Elmore Leonard lived in Bloomfield Village, Michigan.  He had five children, twelve grandchildren and five great grandchildren.

I’ve saved the best Leonard writing tip for last, and it’s one  most aspiring writers should heed:

“If it sounds like writing,” Elmore Leonard said,  “I rewrite it.”

A thank you to Mr. Leonard for his writing advice, and for giving us the pleasure of reading his books and short stories.

Elmore Leonard Website

Elmore Leonard Novels

 

 

 

Joshilyn Jackson, Author

Joshilyn Jackson, Novelist

Titles and Book Covers. They go together like bearded ladies and clowns at a crowded circus. It’s what catches your eye when you’re browsing through the library and Barnes & Noble or scrolling on Amazon and Kobo. It’s what first caught my eye when I came across gods of Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson. Don’t you just love that title (with the small g for gods), and the cover, which showed a retro photo of a woman driving down the road in a convertible.

But, the writing in-between the covers is what made me a fan of this author. It soon becomes obvious to the reader that this is a writer who enjoys her own stories!

Joshilyn Jackson is a New York Times bestselling novelist of five books, and gods of Alabama was her first. According to the Library Journal in their starred review of her first book: “Forget steel magnolias—meet titanium blossoms in Jackson’s debut novel, a potent mix of humor, murder, and a dysfunctional Southern family.”

But, she didn’t stop there, and she has kept on producing novels that exhibit wit, warmth, stories of love and betrayal. Everything you want in a book. Her latest is A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty (pub. 2012), which has recently come out in paperback.  The Atlanta Magazine  calls it… “her latest Southern Gothic joyride, Joshilyn Jackson creates an unforgettable story…brilliant.”

Her books have been translated into a dozen languages, won SIBA’s novel of the year, twice been a #1 Book Sense Pick, and twice been shortlisted for the Townsend prize.

Below is the interview.

1) You were on the February 2011 cover of Vanity Fair with other Southern authors such as Kathryn Stockett (The Help), Susan Rebecca White (Bound South), Karin Slaughter (Best selling Crime writer), and Natasha Trethewey, the 2007 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, as well as others. What do you believe sets this group apart as a literary group? Do you feel there is an influence from previous Southern writers like Katherine Porter, Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty, Alice Walker?

I’m not sure we are a literary group. I mean, you’re looking at the Poet Laureate of the United Freakin’ States right there. And, you know, me. So. That’s quite a spectrum already when you look at just TWO of us.

I think it’s a hugely diverse group, and the ONLY thing that makes us a group is location. We all have our own IT we need to say, and we are trying to say our it in exactly our own ways. But, yeah, Atlanta is chock full of talented women doing a vast array of fascinating things with words right now. That’s  true in music and visual arts, too—-Atlanta has a pulsing, living, visceral female art scene. I don’t say this to discount major talents like David Bottoms or Joseph Skibell just because they have outies instead of innies. But Atlanta is FAT AND GLORIOUS with women  writers who are blowing my mind in a variety of ways—I think the point of the Vanity Fair piece was to show a small selection of us that represented the broadness of female interests, styles, themes, and voices happening right here, right now.

As for the history of Southern women writers—well that’s a rich, loamy patch of earth to come of age in, for all of us.


2) Do your books come out the way you intended them?  Or do they get away from you during the creative process the character goes one way when you thought they should have gone the other way?

They never come out as I intend. That illusion happens, yes, where I feel the book has its own life and is now haring off in new direction without bothering to inform me first so I could pack the proper footwear for the climate… I’m a straight up organic writer, and it is an inefficient and ridiculous way to try and make a book. It’s also the only that works for me.



3) You’ve indicated your first novel is still under your bed, and never to be published. How do you think working your way through that unpublished work led you to your first published book, gods in Alabama?

Two of ‘em, actually. I may at some point make them available for DL on my website, if people are interested. I don’t want to take a year or two to revise them into something more like what I write now—I have too many books I want to write to go backwards and try to re-care about these. They are what they are. They are not perfect, but I love them, and I am grateful to them. Writing them let me learn how to write a book. The only way to learn to write a book is to read a million of them and then sit down and write one. But the learning curve is big. It takes years. Some people write and rewrite the same book for five or ten years and at the end of that time, they know how. I chose to write one book after another, and it took the same amount of time.


4) Writing dialogue is hard enough for writers, but you manage to get that “Southern” voice into your characters so well. Do you have suggestions to others on how to do this in their writing (whether Southern, Northern or Japanese, Cuban, etc) ?


Read aloud! I read everything aloud multiple times. If you want to catch your own regional voice, listen to yourself reading it. Some people can’t hear themselves, so if it doesn’t work for you,  get someone ELSE to read it to you. If you are writing in your native tongue, you can hear where it goes wrong much more quickly than you can see it.



5) Your characters are quirky, likable, intelligent and usually go against the norm of society. When you are starting out on an idea for a book, do you come up with a character first, or the idea of a plot?   For instance,  the character, Ro Grandee in Backseat Saints was a minor character in gods in Alabama so how did Ro come about as a fully developed person hightailing it out of Texas with her trusty dog, Fat Gretel? (Loved that cover btw!)

Oh thank you — That’s so kind. Rose was a pushy little object from the very beginning. When I was first writing gods in Alabama, I planned her as “Jim’s Girlfriend” and felt she would be a very minor character. She did not appear in the draft until chapter 6, but as I wrote what I thought would be her single scene, it kept streeeeetching until the whole chapter was riddled with her. She is such an instigator! Big Trouble loves Rose and Rose loves Big Trouble right back. I realized I needed her energy and drive to start off the action in chapter 1; I went back and revised to make Rose Mae be the push that sends Arlene careening home to Alabama.
 
By the time I finished gods, Rose had insinuated herself all through the book, and I suspected even then that I wasn’t finished with her—or perhaps she wasn’t finished with me. About two years before I wrote BACKSEAT SAINTS, I woke up in the middle of the night. I had been dreaming about her. I shook my sleeping husband and said, “Honey! I just realized, everything Rose Mae Lolley says in gods in Alabama is a lie, and now I know why she is really looking for Jim Beverly.” He said, “Hi! It is 3 AM!” He passed out again, but I stayed up the rest of the night writing little snatches of what would become this book, trying to catch her voice.

6) Do you think your background in theater was an influence on your writing style, and if so, how?

I think my acting background has had a huge effect on my writing. The only thing that has influenced my writing more was becoming a mother. I think the most important tool actors and novelists share is a facility for empathy. Some people are born with a huge facility for empathy, but I was not. I learned it, working as an actor, and I learned it more deeply when I had babies.



7) Your most recent book, A Grown Up Kind Of Pretty, is a mystery with the discovery of a backyard burial and involves the complex relationship of a family of women, the Slocumbs. How do see yourself as evolving as a writer with this fifth book? Does writing get any easier for you?

No, never. It gets harder, in fact, as I want to make sure I am not obsessing and worry warting my same tropes into nubs. Of course, as a writer, I have areas that continue to interest me thematically—redemption, motherhood, brokenness, the mechanics of grace…These are the things I explore, but I want to make sure it is progressive. The questions I try to explore with story have to be the ones driving me now, not the ones that drove me five years ago.

I tell you what, I am more interested in MEN all of a sudden. I have been writing about women, mostly female characters, female relationships, for 5 books now. The last male narrator I wrote was in one of my “under the bed” books.

But in A GROWN UP KIND OF PRETTY there is a male/female best friendship between a weedy little big-headed kid named Roger and the youngest Slocumb, Mosey. I got so obsessed with them. I LOVE all their scenes together, all their dialogue and their interplay makes me SO happy. They crack me up and they break my heart. I think I wrote the whole book, in some ways, for a scene near the end involving Roger and Mosey’s left booby. If you read the book, you know the line I mean. I wrote more than 94 thousand words to get to write that line, writing toward it, waiting for it, hoping it would happen. I still shamelessly adore it.

8: What are you working on now?

The book I am writing now has two narrators who meet when they are caught in a hostage situation. Both are inside a Circle K when a man comes in to rob it. One is a 21 year old college student raising a three year old son; she has experienced a Virgin birth. The other is 30 something geneticist who recently lost his family. He emphatically does not believe in miracles. The girl, Shandi, begins their story, by saying, “I fell in love with William Ashe at gunpoint, in a Circle K.”

Now, each of them has a close friend. Shandi’s is a poet named Walcott. William’s is a divorce attorney named Paula. In a lot of ways, the Shandi/ Walcott, and William/ Paula relationships grew OUT of Mosey and Roger, because I was not finished exploring the mechanics of this kind of friendship. They are possible versions of Mosey and Roger, one pair in their twenties, one pair in their thirties. So this book came out of that book, but A GROWN UP KIND OF PRETTY is really about the search for identity, which is something I have not really looked at since BETWEEN. Meanwhile, this new book, SOMEONE ELSE’S LOVE STORY is about the nature of faith. But the relationships definitely came out of PRETTY, in a “next step” way.




9) What was the best advice you ever got on your writing?  The worst advice?

BICHOC is the best advice. Butt in Chair, Hands on keyboard. This is how books happen. By writing them.

The worst advice I ever heard, and I have heard it MULTIPLE times! “Oh, writers should not READ! If I READ I could have VOICE LEAK and be INFLUENCED!” My answer: Go read Flannery O’Connor and PRAY TO GOD that she influences you. You should BE so lucky.

Every writer I know who is producing interesting things, they are all huge huge huge readers. Addicts. Real writers read. The end.




10) Please give us an Eight Word Description of Your Life.

YARRRRRRRG This is nearly impossible. Everything I write sounds flippant or pretentious or both. I think this is the kind of question only a poet can answer. Lord, but I SUCK at poetry. BUT OKAY! Here we go:
God, kids, husband, dogs, write, yoga, eat. Repeat.

Check out Joshilyn Jackson’s website HERE.   

Her funny blog, Faster Than Kudzu.  and Facebook Page

gods in Alabama

Between Georgia

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming

Backseat Saints

A Grown-up Kind Of Pretty

A Good Author is Never Hard to Find

I have a gift for you.  One of Flannery O’Connor’s more famous short stories was A Good Man is Hard to Find, written in 1953. It’s about a selfish woman – a grandmother – who finds redemption at the hands of a killer, known at The Misfit, just at the point where he shoots her in the chest. Like most of O’Connor’s writings, there is a moral magnitude to the message, somewhere within the violence. It’s a vivid read.

My favorite line in the story was of course, this one:
“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Oh yes, that gift I mentioned earlier? It’s a 1959 audio mp3 of Flannery O’Connor herself reading  A Good Man is Hard to Find.  Click on this LINK to go to the site.

In April of 1959–five years before her death at the age of 39 from lupus–O’Connor ventured away from her secluded family farm in Milledgeville, Georgia, to give a reading at Vanderbilt University. It gave me goosebumps to hear her voice telling the story of a family’s trip that ends in disaster and redemption.

Thank you to the OPEN CULTURE website, where I found this nugget. I suggest you check them out, because they have such interesting stuff, like William Faulkner reading his Nobel Prize speech,  or a video clip of Louis Armstrong on The Johnny Cash Show (yes, Johnny Cash hosted a musical variety show from 1969 to 1971!)

And to close out, here are some quotes from Flannery O’Connor:

  • I am a writer because writing is the thing I do best.
  • All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.
  • I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.
  • When a book leaves your hands, it belongs to God. He may use it to save a few souls or to try a few others, but I think that for the writer to worry is to take over God’s business
  • The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses, and the fiction writer begins where human perception begins. He appeals through the senses, and you cannot appeal to the senses with abstractions.

Making the Reader Drunk on Words

“My arms ached, my back was cramped and I was trembling with the prolonged terror of a fall. Besides this, the unbroken darkness had had a distressing effect upon my eyes. The air was full of the throb and hum of machinery pumping air down the shaft.”
THE TIME MACHINE – H.G. Wells

In March, 2012, there was an article in The New York Times – Sunday Review by Anne Murphy Paul, titled, Your Brain on Fiction.  Now, isn’t that a great suggestive title? Fiction as a mind-enhancing drug, one that evokes images of the brain drunk on words. So, what does it mean? Well, I recommend you read the whole article, because it is not only fascinating information (and Knowledge is Power), but to a writer, it can also be used as a guide to improving your own writing. (Click Here for Link to Article)

The excerpt above of The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (which I recently re-read and was delighted to see it still held my interest) gives us a example of how to stimulate the reader’s brain with its emotional “actions.”

There is a feeling of movement to the words, texture and emotions of terror.

Ms. Paul’s article talks about research by a team out of Emory University about how the reader’s brain actively reacts to descriptions with textures, touch, a sense of movement and smells. We can truly live vicariously through fictional characters and their longings, frustrations and trials and tribulations. As writers, we need to remember to be conscious of this fact when we are “moving” our characters through the interweaving fabric of our stories.

According to the Ms. Paul’s article, a team of Emory University researchers also reports that …metaphors like “The singer had a velvet voice” and “He had leathery hands” roused the sensory cortex while phrases matched for meaning, like “The singer had a pleasing voice” and “He had strong hands,” did not.

Which brings me to one of my favorite use of a metaphor by an author. It comes from a John Irving’s book, Prayers for Owen Meany. Read it and weep all you writers, for this has to send your sensory cortex into overdrive!

“You’ve seen the mice caught in the mousetraps?” she asked me. “I mean caught – their little necks broken – I mean absolutely dead,” Grandmother said. “Well, that boy’s voice,“ my grandmother told me, “that boy’s voice could bring those mice back to life!”

Obviously, there is only one H.G. Wells, and one John Irving, but we can tear a page from their fiction on how it should be done. I will leave you with an excerpt of a story I’m working on currently. I can only hope it tickles your brain, too.

Big Doofus is usually right, since his coon dog’s snout knows what curdled fear smells like, and surely those escapees stink from it as they push through the brambles, crawl over rocks, twist an ankle in shallow holes and get bitch-slapped by low-slung tree limbs. They always lose their sense of direction, all the time going deeper and deeper into Catalysta Woods. Wheezing hard and bloodied from their efforts, the prey arrives at the Clearing. There is no getting out of the woods.

If you want, please use the comment section to give me a brief example of your own efforts to engage the reader’s imagination.

Writing Advice from Stephen King and Oscar Wilde

Imagine being in a writing class with Stephen King and Oscar Wilde. What a class that would be….  To get the unique flavor of this unprecedented class, here are some quotes from these authors.


“Fiction is the truth inside the lie.”
― Stephen King

“The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
― Oscar Wilde

_____________________________

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
― Stephen King, On Writing

“This morning, I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.”
― Oscar Wilde

_____________________________

“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
― Stephen King

“If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.”
― Oscar Wilde

_____________________________

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
― Stephen King

“I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”
― Oscar Wilde

_____________________________

“His style is chaos illumined by flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything except language.”
― Oscar Wilde

“I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.”
― Stephen King

_____________________________

“If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”
― Stephen King

“One must have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing.”
― Oscar Wilde

Prototypes and Tributes

Prototypes for fictional characters come to a writer in many ways. The man who became the basis for Sherlock Holmes was Dr. Joseph Bell, a distinguished Scotch surgeon. Sir Arthur Doyle was a student of Dr. Bell’s at the Edinburgh University school. It was there that he became impressed by Dr. Bell’s remarkable powers of observation and deduction, through which he could diagnose illness almost on sight. Sir Arthur transferred these same abilities to Sherlock Holmes when it came to solving crimes.

We bring all this up because back in December, we did an interview with Naomi Hirahara, author of the Mas Arai series. (click Here for interview

The character, Mas was based on her father, who was a gardener, like Mas, (and in fact, his name is her father’s spelled backwards).  Isamu (“Sam”) Hirahara sounds like a remarkable man. He was born in California, but taken to Hiroshima, Japan as an infant. He was only miles away from the epicenter of the atomic-bombing in 1945, yet survived. Shortly after the end of WWII, her father returned to the States, where he went into the gardening and landscaping business in Los Angeles area.

Sam Hirahara knew his daughter had based a character on him. Recently, he passed away peacefully on January 18, 2012 after an prolonged illness at the age of eighty-two in his home.  But thanks to his daughter, he will live on through his daughter’s tribute to him, in Mas Arai, a character who exhibits quiet strength and grace.

Be sure to check out the Mas Arai Facebook page, as we extend our sympathy to Naomi and her family on their loss.