Joint Interview with Gemma and Aud

Writers Aud and Gemma have two things in common: they attend the same critique group and both have short stories in Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Volume 3. (Available at independent bookstores, through Bookshop.org, and from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.)  They are also good friends who, during the pandemic, came together via Zoom to talk about writing and to share their creative plans for the future.

Gemma and Aud across space!

Gemma: So, Aud, it tickled me that our short stories were next to each other. And you have a story in Running Wild’s third Novella Anthology, too!

Aud: First, me too! I’m excited that we’re not only both in the short story anthology, but my story comes directly after yours!

G: So tell a little bit about both of your stories.

A: My short story in Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Volume 3, “Monkey in the Middle” is about a marriage falling apart as seen through the eyes of the couple’s young daughter, who has no clue what’s going on. My novella in the Novella Anthology volume 3, book 1 is called “Broken Soul to Broken Soul,” about two characters, suffering from separate traumas, who come together to form an unorthodox friendship that might lead toward healing.

Home of Broken Soul to Broken Soul

G: I love both of those stories – in different ways because they’re so different. My piece in the Anthology of Stories, “The One that Got Away,” catches a group of fishermen in the middle of swapping tall tales. The one my story’s about is the tallest one of all!

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3
Our Shared Anthology

A: I reread your short story and liked it even more this time around. It is so well done and with such a short number of words!

G: Thanks, Aud!

A: I don’t know if I ever told you this, but your blog inspired me to start one. I had one years ago, but not about writing. Can you talk a little about your blog?

G: Wow, I didn’t know my blog inspired you to start yours – I’m glad you did. My blog’s focus is reading and writing, and also my love of words. That’s why I subtitled it “Writer and Word Explorer” – also ’cause it’s a fun sorta-pun. I love words. I haven’t explored that facet as much as I want to on my blog, things like word origins.

A: You’ve done some of those. I remember some of those, yeah.

G. It’s one of the things I love. And highlighting other authors, giving them one more opportunity to be out there. It’s a nice way of networking and I get exposed to new things that way, too. And I can’t wait to start posting character interviews. Including one of yours! How about you, Aud? What’s your blog’s focus?

A: The writing process and how to get there, namely through living, reading and writing, which is what it’s called, “Live, Read, Write.” That’s my process; have experiences, read early and often and after that’s all done, digest it, and spit it out in the form of fiction.

G: [Laughter] So what are you currently reading?

A: I am currently reading a travel memoir by an English guy named Tony James Slater and it’s called Kamikaze Kangaroos! It’s about his year traveling through Australia with his sister and his sister’s Australian girlfriend. I’m almost finished that one, so on deck is a cozy mystery that takes place on a Caribbean cruise ship. I never heard of the author, but I like cozy mysteries, I like Caribbean cruises and I like 99¢ for eBooks on Kindle.

G: [Laughter]

A: And, there’s a reason that I like 99¢ eBooks – they’re not always good. I learn more from the bad stuff than the classics.

G: That is an excellent point. I think you have a lot of patience because I want to get lost in the books I read. I don’t want to be critiquing them.

A: Well, I’m not really critiquing them either, but I’ll read something and think, “Aww! I wish that person had a critiquing group because they wouldn’t have done that!” But it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the story. And I read so fast, that I just zip right through them. [Editor’s note: Aud has already read 12 more books since this joint interview. She is currently rereading Judy Blume’s classic middle grade novel, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret. ]

G: You’re a fast reader. I know there have been some books I’ve read where I thought, “Oh man! My critique group wouldn’t let that fly!”

A: That’s exactly it, yeah! I know you’re also a big reader, Gemma. What book is on your nightstand right now?

G: I’m not nearly as fast as you, though! Right now I’m savoring Circe, by Madeline Miller. It’s the story of the nymph Circe from The Odyssey. She welcomed Odysseus and his crew to her island and gave them a feast. Because the men acted like pigs, they were turned into pigs. That’s the myth, and we’re seeing her from her birth. She’s just a minor nymph at the beginning and she’s not loved by her parents. The gods and Titans are very human in some sense – they squabble – but they’re also bigger than life. I’m really enjoying it. It’s an interesting view of mythological things. It’s well written, detailed but not too detailed. She captures the scene with just a few words and I love that. I’m trying to learn from that. [Editor’s note: since this interview, Gemma has finished Circe, still loves it, and is now reading The World of Odysseus by M. Finley.] So, tell us a little bit about what you’re writing.

A: I am editing the never-ending upper middle grade novel, This Way/That Way about a girl drummer who learns about love and acceptance after befriending a schoolmate whose father is suffering from cancer. I might change the title because during this latest edit, it seems to be heading toward the spiritual. I’m wondering if I can make a cross-over story. I don’t want it to be 100% Christian, but God will have a cameo. What are you currently working on?

G: I am working on a novel that the idea for came to me decades ago. It’s about a girl who finds out, when she’s a teenager, that there’s a prophesy that she will become so beautiful that people will wage war, there will be battle and bloodshed and death over her. And she’s horrified. She thinks, “No! I’m not going to be responsible for the ruin of my people. I’m going to do everything I can to prevent that.” To do that, she has to become a warrior. That’s where I am in the story right now. I have the general course of the story planned out. And I know how it’s going to end, but between here and there a lot will happen.

A: Do you know, This Way/That Way is over 80,000 words long right now?

G: Wow.

A: I can’t have that for middle grade or upper middle grade. No way. I’ve gotta cut some of that back. There’s a question they ask in the Quaker Sunday school after they tell a Bible story: “What can we take away from this story and still have everything we need?” That’s a really good question that I want to answer while editing.

G: Yes. I’m telling myself that now as I’m writing a scene. “Do I need that?” Nope. It can go. That’s the challenging thing. But you’re the one who told me this — you don’t know what you need until you get to the end.

A: That segues us to the benefits of a critique group. I’m impressed that you’re able to be in two critique groups. You read everybody’s pieces, comment on the pieces, write your own piece, plus do your blog! I don’t know how the heck you find time to do all of that!

G:  It’s challenging sometimes. I used to take people’s pieces out to Starbucks or the library or a bookstore and enjoy reading them over a coffee. I miss that.

A: Do you think there’s a time when a critique group gets too comfortable since we’ve known each other so long? I wonder if we ever let each other sort of get away with stuff because we know the story. Like if we’ll read one of the pieces and fill in blanks that aren’t technically there.

G: That can be a good thing, because you’re supposed to trust your reader and let them fill in the blanks. But it can also be a troublesome thing. In our own group I think we do cut each other some slack. We have faith in each other. But on the other hand, we don’t necessarily let each other get away with stuff. Like you guys will call me on things. It’s not just typos, it’s like, “Wait. Don’t you remember this?” or “Would somebody really say that?” or “Wouldn’t somebody ask this?” So, I think we can get too comfortable sometimes, but we can remind ourselves, “Okay, I’m coming to this as a reader.”

A: The bottom line is, you as the author, have to decide what’s right for the story. Sometimes our group says majority rules but maybe not. It might be the one person is correct and the other two are not quite right.

G: Once it was told to me by a wise person, “A tie goes to the author,” so if you’ve got opposing opinions, go with yours. There can be times where someone makes a really valid point, or somebody comes up with a cool idea. And I think, “Yeah, that would be cool, but that’s not the story I’m telling.”

A: Sometimes when a critiquer asks, “What’s the person thinking here?” There isn’t really an answer. Sometimes, the character doesn’t have time to think, she’s just acting.

G: And that’s tricky to bring the reader along with that. There was a PennWriters session once where an author was saying, “Don’t overuse emotional words, but in the first draft use them all you want.” Then, when you’re rewriting it, try to bring the reader with you so the reader doesn’t need to be told the character is heartbroken, the reader is heartbroken with the character. But not in the first draft, because that’ll just paralyze you.

A: Right. Make it authentic. For me, the first draft is the hardest thing to write. My work around is I’ll use present tense. I’ll write, “Nickie looks up and asks if classrooms are up there.” When my inner editor sees that it thinks, “Oh, we’re not serious because we’re not in past tense.” That’s how I get past the inner critic.

G: That is so tough.

A: How do you handle your first draft? Your blank page as it were.

G: I guess I try to write when the inner editor’s not looking. [Laughter] “You go do something else. Your turn will come when I revise.” Sometimes I hear – I’m not proud of this – but I’ll hear the voice, “Well, Aud would catch this,” and “Steve would catch that, and Laura would say this.”

A: That’s what I do! Yup, I’m doing the same thing. [Laughter]

G: And I have to say, “They don’t always. I may be wrong.” I find first drafts easiest if I’m not thinking about all the revisions I’m going to have to make. [Laughter]

A: That makes me feel better, knowing I can fix it if it’s not quite right. [Laughter]

G: There’s that too, there really is. What does your writing schedule look like right now?

A: I’m out of school for the summer, so I take early morning walks. I keep a pen and little notepad in my pocket. As I walk, I think about the story. Whenever I hear dialog or description in my head, I’ll stop cold and start writing. Sometimes I don’t even stop. I walk and write.

G: Cool!

A: I try to type my notes as soon as I get back because writing while walking isn’t always legible. Then I try to work on my computer outside until it gets too hot. I try to work until lunch and then I read in the afternoon. Sometimes when I’m just not feeling it, I don’t write at all. Which I know isn’t good. You have to make yourself sit in front of the computer. It’s been said before: Just put your butt in the chair and work. One thing I love is my laptop can read to me. When I hear back what I wrote the day before, it gets me in the mood to write. But even with that, I don’t think I’m as productive as I should be.

G: It goes both ways. Sometimes you have to sit down and do it. I’ve told myself, “Oh, I never got anything written today, but I don’t write after dinner.” I remember one day I just sat down after dinner and wrote. “What do you know? I can do it.” But generally I’m kind of a morning person. It often works well if I get up early and go for a walk and think about what I want to write next. I’ll often rehearse scenes in my head. On a good day, once I’m home I’ll sit down and write it. Revising usually happens after my second group has met. I’ll go through and think, “these are the little things I can do right now.” But for big things, I have a file of notes to revise –  “Think about this in the future.” If I can’t decide if I want to go this way or that way – no pun intended – I will make notes about it, or if it’s too big of a change and I can’t face it right now – “Let’s not and pretend I did.” [Laughter] So, it’s a lengthy process but that’s sort of what mine is like right now.

A: Have you ever gotten inspiration in the middle of the night?

G: Not so much in the middle of the night, but sometimes when I’m getting ready for bed, or reading before bedtime. I do have a pen and a pad of paper next to me so I can scribble it down. More than one time, I looked at it the next morning and thought, “Oh what the heck was that?”

A: [Laughter]

G: I must have been half asleep when I wrote that.

A: I’ve got a clipboard and a pen on the floor beside the bed. In the middle of the night I’ll write it down but can’t always read what I wrote. For some reason, when I get a magnifying glass and look through it, sometimes I can figure out what the letters are and then it’ll click. “Oh, right, that’s what I meant!” Or I’ll get inspiration in the night and some of the times you’re thinking, “This is genius!” Then the next morning go, “This isn’t genius at all. This is stupid.”

G: [Laughter]

A: I’ll write it down any way, just in case.

G: You never know. It might be good.

A: So here we are, stuck at home. How has covid19 affected your writing?

G: It’s been hard sometimes, admittedly. It’s just because it’s so overwhelming. On the other hand, sometimes writing’s been a real welcome release. I can make happen in a fictional world whatever I want – I can tell myself that it doesn’t even have to be good. I can see that justice prevails in my story. Things will be done right in my story. And that’s helped. But sometimes I’ll have to go off and read something totally unrelated to world events and to my own writing. How about you?

A: I would say Covid gave me some writer’s block. What saved me from that was when a local theater group, the People’s Light, offered prompts for people to write about what they were experiencing. Later, the actors acted them out on Zoom. The prompts they suggested were things that I never in a million years would have thought to write about. I really liked that it got me writing again.

G: That was wonderful, and I’m so glad it helped with your writer’s block. What would you like to do differently in your writing life going forward? For me, I want to get back to taking morning walks and writing. I want to get more into the part of the story that matters. And to have a sense of urgency about it so it doesn’t take me another twenty-five years to finish it! How about you?

A: I want to be more productive than I am right now. When I start school in the fall, I’m going to look back and think, “Look at all these full days I had where I could have spent all this time writing and didn’t.”  I have a tablet with sound effects. So, I’ll sit outside under my umbrella with my ice tea and my laptop with ocean waves playing in the background while I write. Boy oh boy, that’s fun! It got a little hot yesterday. I had some water and I doused my head and pretended I went swimming. [Laughter]

G: [Laughter] That’s cool. I used to go to Starbucks, especially when I was writing Green Midnight, I had earphones and I would play forest soundscape while I was writing. It put me in the mood.

A: Yeah. That’s cool. Anything that can get the creative juices flowing. Speaking of that, we better stop and get back to work! Happy writing!

G: Thanks for this chance to chat together, Aud! Happy writing to you, too!

P.S. from Gemma: check out this interview on Aud’s blog – she’s got fun audio snippets! And you can read a transcript of Aud’s piece, and the others, on People’s Light here.

Interview with Ed Burke

 

Ed Burke reading Maia’s Call at Write Action gathering, 2019

I’m very pleased to continue my interviews of Running Wild Anthology of Stories 3 colleagues, this time with author and poet Ed Burke. His story, “Maia’s Call,” truly moved me.

Welcome, Ed! Please give us a taste of what your story is about.

Ed: “Maia’s Call” begins with a phone call to the protagonist, Tom from his former lover, Maia, who asks him to come see her because she is dying. Tom travels from San Francisco to Maia’s home in a remote corner of Vermont. There they spend a night sharing the story of their lives over the intervening years and what has brought them to this point.

Gemma: How did you find out about this anthology?

Ed: I was searching for a small independent publisher for my novel, Christine, Released and came across Running Wild Press in Poets & Writers Magazine’s list of publishers. I liked what I read, researched further and appreciated many of the novels, and the short story and novella anthologies because they contained excellent cutting edge work.

Gemma: They truly do – it’s a real strength of Running Wild Press.

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3
Our New Anthology

Gemma: Do you remember when and why you started writing?

Ed: I’ve been creating stories since forever but didn’t start writing until high school as best as I can remember. I’ve always had movies running in my head and I put some of those fictions down on paper. Poetry is a different matter; channeling lyric reality is a gorgeous passion that I am compelled to express.

Gemma: That’s a wonderful description of poetry. And I love the image of movies running in your head! What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?

Ed: It’s hard to say. There is a lot of poetry that I am very proud of that date back a ways. Written fiction was a latecomer. I got a kick out of my school days pieces but barely remember them. When I began the novel Christine, Released I knew immediately I was writing something excellent. That is the first piece of fiction I was and am truly proud of.

Gemma: Tell us a bit of what that novel is about.

Ed: Here’s a short synopsis.
Sixteen year old Christine Bancroft is desperate to escape her depressed Vermont hometown. She runs off with a small-time cocaine dealer and quickly descends into a harsh world with punishing consequences. Taken into state custody, Christine is placed at a foster home in a remote corner of Vermont where she searches for answers that may explain her suffering and her need to return to her imperfect mother. Opposing her return to her mother are the state child protection services and her estranged father who is determined to “save” his daughter. It is during the climactic custody hearing that Christine grasps her past which enables her to seize control of her fate.

Gemma: That really sounds like a gripping novel, especially knowing your skill and your voice in “Maia’s Call.” Do you remember what the seed for Christine, Released was?

Ed: I do. I had a case where the state had taken a 16 year old girl into custody because she was “unmanageable”. Her mother was a single, working mother. The girl’s estranged father hired me. In his mind the whole case was about him. I wondered how difficult it must have been for the mother to deal with a narcissist jerk like my client. The novel came into creation with the sound of a cigarette butt being dropped into a near-empty beer can, the resulting hiss. The camera in my mind’s eye drew back, and there was Christine huddled against the cold in a dank living room in a winter morning’s first light.

Gemma: Wow, that’s is an amazing story behind the story.

Cover art to Christine, Released
Christine, Released

Gemma: I’d like to hear more about your writing history.

Ed: I’ve written a lot of poetry over the years. Some has been published in journals, most recently Ginosko Literary Journal in 2018. By the way, Ginosko is an amazing publication that I encourage folks to submit to.

Winter 2018 Cover Canyon Water by Noelle Phares

Ed: I’ve written a fair number of decent short stories over the past fifteen years. Running Wild Press published my first short story, “Maia’s Call,” in Anthology #3 in September, 2019; my first novel, Christine, Released, in October, 2019, and will be publishing my first novella, Allure, in the novella anthology coming out in the fall of 2020.

Gemma: That’s a very nice run of publications! What are you working on now?

Ed: I am in the throes of writing a novel that is blowing me away, about a remarkable young woman, a nurse, during World War I. And I’m always writing poetry.


Gemma: I must ask you about that photo. Where is that street?

Ed: ee cummings Blvd. is in Old Orchard Beach, ME. I’ve been going there nearly every year for the past 20 years. It makes me smile. I love his poetry!

Gemma: I love ee cummings’ poetry, too! My older sister introduced me to him.

At Old Orchard Beach

Gemm: I’d like to hear a bit about how your writing has changed over time.

Ed: My fiction now rolls out along a clearer narrative arc now, almost effortlessly. That’s how it happens with anything that is good. My poetry is constantly shifting in theme, temperament, form, lyricism.

Gemma: I admire your ease with narrative arc – mine always seem to have some potholes and blind turns in the first draft. And I admire the poetry of yours that I’ve read, too. What’s the biggest challenge for you to write?

Ed: I have a hard time with memoir, with the demand to get the details properly remembered. When I have allowed details to come forward of their own accord, bearing their own significance, I have written much better memoir.

Gemma: What do you like best to write?

Ed: I love poetry, fiction, memoir for its own reasons. Each is rewarding in very different ways.

Gemma: When you get an idea for a story, what comes to mind first, the plot or the characters? Or does it vary from story to story?

Ed: It always starts with an image, then my minds-eye camera pulls back to reveal a scene, a character, and I follow the camera as the character is depicted in more detail, through his or her actions and the reactions of those s/he encounters, and the set of interactions and reflections coalesce into a plot, subplots and divergences.

Gemma: Just like the movie running in your mind that you described. What authors did you love most growing up? What authors have influenced your writing most?

Ed: Growing up? Fiction, I have madly loved James Joyce (Dubliners! Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man!), Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, Edna O’Brien, Ken Kesey, Alice Munro, Arundhati Roy, Baron Wormser (Tom O’Vietnam!), Robin MacArthur. They must have influenced my writing without my intending them to, as I deeply cherish them all (and plenty others).

Gemma: Is there a place that you’ve lived that most influences your writing?

Ed: Vermont, where I have lived, studied, raised a family and practiced law the past forty years.

Gemma: Tell me more about what you’re working on now.

Ed: I am writing the first draft of a novel featuring a nurse during World War I with astounding healing power (a saint?) amidst the carnage. It’s been wild writing this, the reveals.

Gemma: It sounds amazing. What do you plan to work on next?

Ed: Either a crime thriller set in the collapsing world of 2037. Or return to a novel that I broke from to write Christine, about three lives that intersect through one event during the Vietnam War, changing the remainder of each of their lives.

Gemma: Those are very intriguing projects! How can readers connect with you and keep up with your news?

Ed: I have a facebook page Ea/ Ed Burke, focused on literary posts.

Gemma: Thank you so much for joining me on my blog, Ed! I look forward to your future novels.

Interview with VT Dorchester

VT Dorchester Portrait by Scarlet Frost

It’s my great pleasure to continue my series of Running Wild Anthology of Stories  author interviews with VT Dorchester. VT’s story, “Under the Eye of the Crow,” is an unusual and rather haunting Western that left me eager to read more.

Gemma: Welcome, VT! Can you tell us a bit of what your story is about?

VT: “Under the Eye of the Crow” is a historic fiction in part about an outlaw (Gar Weeks) who is robbed and left on the lone prairie to die. He decides he won’t, despite his circumstance and his regrets, and we follow him as he tries to reach…well, I suppose we could call it a kind of salvation.

Gemma: Do you remember what the seed for this story was?

VT: I had written a first draft of a literary western novella in which Gar Weeks plays a significant role a few years before writing this short. When, as part of a local flash fiction group, I was assigned the prompt “torture your character,” I immediately thought of torturing Weeks! Much of his character was already established, including that he had taken part in a disaster of some kind during his service as a Union soldier.

I wrote a first few drafts of what became “Under the Eyes…” with almost the entire focus on this character dying of thirst. The story didn’t feel complete, and it sat rather unsatisfactorily for a while. After a time, I thought to specify the event during the U.S. Civil War which haunted the character and story. Doing a little research, I discovered the tragic historic incident at Ebenezer Creek, Georgia. I encourage anyone interested to search for information about The Abandonment at Ebenezer Creek. I knew immediately that I wanted to refer to that incident in this fiction.

It took several more revisions to get my story “right” enough for sending it out for possible publication, and then, when Running Wild accepted the story, I wrangled a bit, I hope politely, with the editor (Cecile Sarruf) until we finally agreed on the story as it now stands! I am glad it worked out eventually.

Gemma: And it worked out very well. Readers who want to know more about The Abandonment at Ebenezer Creek could start with Wikipedia. How did you find out about this anthology?

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3
Our New Anthology

VT: I don’t remember. It is quite difficult to find venues which actively seek western stories, and as a result I tend to cast out my western short stories rather wildly. I’ll send them out to pretty much any publication which doesn’t specifically say “no westerns.” (I write and have published other literary and different genre stories under another name.)

Gemma: Westerns have such a long, venerable history I hadn’t thought how hard it might be to find places to publish them. I’m glad you found Running Wild Press! Do you remember when and why you started writing?

VT: The first story I remember writing “seriously” was a story about a stray cat. It was grey. I was in elementary school. I’ve played around a bit with writing ever since, but it is only in the past five years or so that I have become “serious” about writing fiction again. I don’t remember why, exactly, I decided to start writing about a cat, except that I must have felt I had an entertaining story to tell. I still feel that I have entertaining stories to tell, although I understand others may not agree.

Gemma: I most definitely do agree! (And I think one of my first stories featured a cat, too; apparently a good genre for budding writers.) What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?

VT: While I have one other western short story published, “Under the Eye of the Crow” is definitely the one with greater depth. The other also includes (a far more laid back) Gar Weeks in its cast, but focuses on a different character. It’s a Christmas story about a bank robbery. Plus hot cocoa. No one dies.

Gemma: That sounds intriguing! Can you tell me a bit more about it?

VT: It was “The Story of Willow Henry Mcglone,” published in the 2018 “Rise” edition of Havikthe Las Positas College Journal of Arts and Literature.

Havik 2018 Cover by Lori Stoneman ed. by Kayla Sabella Weaver

Gemma: How has your writing changed over time?

VT: The first stories I wrote when I returned to fiction five years ago were pretty rough and I had trouble incorporating ideas or themes. I feel I still struggle to translate what I ‘see’ or ‘hear’ in my mind on to the page, but I’m getting better at it. I feel that my ability to edit my work has also increased greatly, as has my confidence in my work.

Gemma: For what it’s worth, I struggle with those same issues, and I know we’re not alone. But getting more proficient at editing is an excellent thing, as it can overcome a lot of those problems. What’s the biggest challenge for you to write?

VT: The End. I have trouble completing writing projects. My best example is the novella I mentioned earlier. I would like to revise, edit and work towards having it published, but instead it’s been sitting for half a decade now as I work on shorter, easier to finish projects.

Gemma: I sympathize – I have a stack of unfinished projects, too. But working on finishable projects is a very worthwhile thing. Still, I hope you finish that novella, because I really want to read it some day! What do you like best to write?

VT: While it is not evident from “Under the Eye,” I am quite happy when a reader smiles or even laughs at something intentionally funny in my stories. I also like incorporating some science, history, or a sense of location.

Gemma: “Under the Eye” did an admirable job with its sense of place and history. I can still feel the grit and thirst from reading it. When you get an idea for a story, what comes to mind first, setting, plot or character? Or does it vary from story to story?

VT: It’s often a “scene” – a particular image or series of images I can see in my mind, usually with a character present. Other times, I can “hear” a character talking to me or with another character. I have lengthy, animated conversations, sometimes in public, with my characters.

Gemma: Oh, that’s excellent! I’ve had some conversations with characters while out on walks, and been kind of mortified when someone comes up from behind me and I wonder if they’ve overheard. On another subject, what authors have influenced your writing most?

VT: My western genre writing is most influenced by classic Hollywood western films. These were generally less concerned with historical truth and more concerned with characters, place and moral codes. And horses, songs, weird shirts and big hats.

Gemma: So true! I sense “Under the Eye” has more historical truth in it than some of those classic western movies, though it shares with them a strong sense of place.

VT: Thank you. While I do not pretend to have a great deal of historical knowledge, I did conduct more research for this story than I have for many others.

I believe there will always be room for new quasi-mythic western stories in the tradition of classic westerns, but there is also a demand from modern audiences for a greater incorporation of historical truth. Westerns have always, to a greater or lesser degree, reflected the concerns and demands of society contemporary to their creation. Today, a certain degree of “realism” is in demand. It is easier than ever for writers to research, and it’s easier than ever for readers to research, too. In the case of ‘Under the Eye’ I felt a particular need to take care and research due to it’s incorporation of historical tragedy. But first and foremost, when I write, I’m trying to tell a story. A fiction story. If I get some facts right along the way, I’m glad, but the facts aren’t the most important thing to a fiction story, if they were, the story would be creative non-fiction, or a non-fiction essay, instead.

Gemma: Good points and well put, VT. Is there a place that you’ve lived or visited that especially influences your writing?

VT: I live in a small valley town in British Columbia where I am mere minutes away from hiking trails. I am also lucky enough to travel with some regularity. I regularly feel inspired by new scenery or walks in closer-to-natural settings, and my stories often involve weather events and nature.

Gemma: What stories are you working on now?

VT: While I’m not working on writing a western story right now, I am seeking publication for a short story I completed earlier this year, about a modern state trooper in eastern Oregon who has an encounter with super-natural beings during a blizzard.

Gemma: That sounds enticing! I hope that gets published because you’ve hooked me with that description.

VT: I am also looking forward to the publication of a western flavoured re-telling of the stone soup folk tale late this year with Frontier Tales.

Gemma: I can’t wait to read that – I love folk tales, and that’s actually a childhood favorite of mine. How can I and other readers keep up to date on when that comes out, and otherwise connect with you?

VT: I have a Twitter account @VTDorch, and a wordpress blog, vtdorch.wordpress.com. Thank you for the interview!

Gemma: My pleasure, VT. I look forward to reading more of your stories!

Readers, VT’s blog includes reviews of movies and books and other interesting things like a feature about Old Time Radio Shows. I hope you’ll give it a look!

Interview with Jenn Powers

photo of Jenn Powers
Jenn Powers, Writer and Visual Artist

I’m very pleased to continue my series of Running Wild Anthology of Stories author interviews with Jenn Powers. Her story, “A Friend’s Text,” captured my senses with its vivid imagery and my emotions with the plight of the main character.

Welcome, Jenn!

Gemma: Please give us a taste of what your story is about.
Jenn: My short story, “A Friend’s Text,” is about a woman who has an epiphany that helps lead her out of an unhealthy love affair with a married millionaire.

Gemma: Do you remember what the seed for this story was?
Jenn: Yes, I do. I fictionalized a similar relationship I had fallen into myself. During that relationship, I always felt like I was betraying my true self—the core of who I am. Once I decided to do the right thing and end the relationship, it was completely life-altering and empowering, even though the pain was immense. I think this scenario is, unfortunately, too common. I hope my story will inspire others to find it within themselves to do the right thing if they’re in an unhealthy relationship, which comes in many forms.

Gemma: That is truly a powerful mission, and I can see your story being a positive catalyst. Can you tell us a little about your writing history?
Jenn: I started journaling when I was 15 years old. It was a way for me to soothe my emotions since I was quite lonely and I didn’t have many people I could trust or open up to. Journaling turned into a survival mechanism. Being able to spill out my troubles onto the blank page became (and still is) very therapeutic.

Gemma: Writing can be such a healing process, and to be able to share that is a gift.  I found out from your website that you’re an artist as well as a writer. Does art have a therapeutic effect for you like writing does?

Jenn: Absolutely. Whenever I’m being creative or out in nature, I lose myself. It’s very in-the-moment mindfulness. I’ve always struggled with anxiety, even as a child, and so, early on I found ways to tend to that. I figured out how to self-soothe with art and nature. I journaled throughout my teens and the writing sort of bloomed in different directions from there. I can say the same thing regarding art. Painting, drawing, photography. One feeds the other. And both feed me. It’s symbiotic.

Eventually, I played around with creative writing, such as flash fiction and short stories. By my 30s, I started to pursue it seriously and I got my first short story publication in 2012.

Gemma: I’d like to hear more about that.
Jenn: My first publication was in The MacGuffin in 2012, a short story about domestic violence. It’s titled “Some of Us.” I’m proud of this piece because it’s important to keep violence against women (and men) at the forefront.

Gemma: That’s truly something to be proud of, and a vital message. Can you tell a little more about your writing history?

Jenn: I kept at the craft, sporadically, while living life and working a multitude of jobs. Around 30 to 33 years old, I took writing more seriously. I wrote several days per week, and now, about eight years later, I have around 70 publications in literary journals. (Half art, half writing.)

Stonecoast Review Winter 2017 - Cover by Jenn Powers
Stonecoast Review Winter 2017 -Cover by Jenn Powers

Jenn: I earned an MFA in 2014 and I plan on applying to PhD programs this year.

Gemma: That’s impressive and exciting! What are some of your recent publications?

Jenn: My most recently published short stories are available online. “Pinned Butterflies” was published in Lunch Ticket, Winter/Spring 2020.

“1975” Charcoal, pencil, and pen by Famous Unobuarie

Image Courtesy of Lunch Ticket Literary & Art Journal Issue 16

“December, 1993” was published in Witness Magazine, Dark Holidays Zine 2019. And, in March/April 2020, my story “Window Light” will be published in Gemini.

Witness cover photo by Rob Allen
Witness Dark Holidays photo by Rob Allen

Gemma: Very cool to have so many stories published in so short a period! How has your writing changed over time?

Jenn: I’m continuously growing as a writer. It’s a constant learning process, and, for me, there’s no end point. I improve every year. And, like anything, the more you work at something, the better you get at it.

Gemma: What do you like best to write?

Jenn: Drama, thriller, mystery.

Gemma: What’s the biggest challenge for you to write?

Jenn: I tried writing in other genres, like romance. But it doesn’t work for me. I write about the dark stuff. I’ve experienced some crazy situations. I’ve been a victim many times over, but I’d rather call myself a survivor. As a survivor, I empower myself through writing, and I believe my past experiences have molded my style and preferences.

Gemma: And good stories, like “A Friend’s Text,” can empower readers in turn. When you get an idea for a story, what comes to mind first, the plot or the characters? Or does it vary from story to story?

Jenn: It varies from story to story. It might even be a feeling, a song, a landscape or place that makes me feel something. When I sense that dip of inspiration, I stop to explore where it’s coming from. Does it remind me of something or someone? Does it reconnect me with a lost emotion? My ideas come from the strangest places and my inspiration is super-fickle. I’ll sit there frustrated for hours, take a break and go for a walk or run, and an idea will hit me. Boom! Just like that. Easy-peasy. Taking the pressure off can stimulate creativity. And creativity needs to be organic, natural, flowing.

Gemma: I often get some of my best ideas walking, too. If nothing else, it can open up the channel and let the creativity flow, as you say. I read on your website that you have a fondness for botany and geology as well as music. I have a love of biology and botany that’s stuck with me since junior high, so that resonates with me! Do you have stories that particularly reflect botany, geology, or music?

Jenn: A driving force in my life is exploring nature, whether that comes in the form of hiking up Mt. Washington, driving solo cross country, or studying a birch tree throughout the seasons. Inevitably, this passion and interest has infused my life and work as a writer and visual artist.

Jenn climbing Mt Washington
Jenn Climbing Mt Washington

Jenn: Growing up as an only child without too many close friends, I always found solace in nature. Early on, I’d collect pinecones and chips of Mica and bluets. I’d explore the forests and swamps near my neighborhood. I’d be outdoors as much as possible. I’d also draw, paint, and write since I was alone a lot. In school, ecology and biology classes felt very natural to study. It came easy, even though I majored in English and creative writing in college.

About seven years ago, I started studying botany. I love exploring the woods with a field guide to identify the plants, flowers, and trees. Mostly the New England area, and specifically, Connecticut. I like to observe how nature changes throughout the seasons. It’s like getting to know a friend. I focus on the anatomy, ecology, and taxonomy. It’s fun to nail down genus and species. It’s this entire plant kingdom that’s keeping us alive, and vice versa. A true symbiotic relationship. It amazes me how every little thing is connected. I just started getting into geology too—rocks and minerals of a particular location and the geological history of that location. For example, the plethora of rock walls crisscrossing New England.

So, as you see, this passion I have for the outdoors has formed a large part of who I am today as an adult, and, inevitably, it shows up in my work. I’ve used nature (or setting) as a character itself in many of my short stories. It’s a tool used to set the tone or mood. It can be used symbolically, metaphorically. It can literally be an extension of the protagonist or antagonist, or even a minor character. Mix that up with being a fan of nature writers, like Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, Dillard, Ackerman, and certain literary periods and movements, like the Romantics, Gothic, the Transcendentalists, the Beat Poets, and contemporary mysteries and thrillers, and that’s my writer-artist brain on fire. It’s nostalgia, melancholy, and the darker side of nature rolled into one.

Since I started writing a mystery-thriller in 2016, I’ve infused my novel with a lot of botany, and I believe it adds something truly special. I believe people want to feel that connection to earth, which is so easily lost in today’s fast-paced, superficial, materialistic society. They want real. They want to feel something that’s good for their soul. I also believe the more you know about a specific region, the better. You may not use all of that collected information but knowledge is never a waste.

Gemma: I totally agree – knowledge has worth for its own sake, and you never know what connections that will spark in your brain. You mentioned several authors before – what authors did you love most growing up? And what other authors have influenced your writing?

Jenn: Ironically, I didn’t read a lot as a kid. I loved being read to in school. I remember falling in love with the work by Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. I liked the Sweet Valley High series too. I liked The Catcher in the Rye, The Outsiders, and Poe and Bram Stoker. But it wasn’t until college that my obsession with books began. As an adult, I’ve been most influenced by legends like Joyce Carol Oates, Flannery O’Connor, Truman Capote, John Cheever, Joan Didion, and Mark Twain. As for more recent authors, I read Gillian Flynn, Shari Lapena, Jennifer McMahon, Delia Owens, Janet Fitch, Karin Slaughter, A.J. Finn. I could go on and on.

Gemma: It’s a wonderful thing to have so many authors to love, and it makes it hard to name just a few! What are you reading right now?
Jenn: I’m reading several books right now. For fiction, I’m reading Burntown by Jennifer McMahon and Paint It Black by Janet Fitch. For nonfiction, I’m reading Kaufman’s Field Guide to Nature of New England, and, National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers (Eastern).

Gemma: I love reading field guides, too, and I actually use them sometimes even though I write fantasy! They really can help ground you in a place by learning about the other living things around you. Is there a place that you’ve lived that most influences your writing?

Jenn: Old New England. The snowy, gray winters. The green hills and rock walls. The homesteads and chimney smoke.

Gemma: Where I live in Pennsylvania has a lot in common, and the green hills, rock walls and centuries-old buildings are inspiring to me, too. Tell us a bit about what you are working on now.

Jenn: I’m writing a mystery thriller around 80-90K words. I’m in the rewriting phase. I should be done by spring and will be searching for agent representation. I’m also working on a collection of paintings/drawings based on the hometown in my novel. Here’s an example of where my passions overlap each other. Science meets art. Left brain meets right. I’m in love with nature, but I’m also in love with art. The fictional hometown in my novel is named Rockwall Springs, which is loosely based off Tolland, Connecticut, my own hometown.

Gemma: That is so cool! Will your artwork about the town be viewable by your readers?

Jenn: Yes, these photos and paintings will be available for anyone interested. I’ve had several photos of Rockwall Springs published in various literary journals. For example, three photographs were published in The Sandy River Review (September 2018) and one photo was published in Blue Mesa Review (Issue 39, 2019).

Gemma: What do you plan to work in next?

Jenn: As soon as I begin the querying process for this book, I will begin another mystery thriller. I would like to write them in succession. I’m also working on short prose, poetry, and art.
Gemma: It’s very impressive that you work on multiple projects at once. Will the next mystery-thriller be a sequel to the one you’re working on now, or are they stand-alones?
Jenn: That’s a good question. I’m open to either option. As of right now, it’s a stand-alone novel. But, I could definitely create more novels using the same characters and settings. If not, I’d like to write a mystery-thriller every two years or so. Once I find an agent and get a book deal, that’s my goal. I want to stay productive.

Gemma: How did you find out about this anthology?

Jenn: Honestly, I don’t remember. I am a subscriber to several outlets offering opportunities for creative writers. It might’ve been via Submittable. I am thrilled to have found this west coast press.

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3
Our New Anthology

Gemma: How can readers connect with you and find out more about your work?

Jenn: I have a professional website at www.jennpowers.com . You can use the contact form to reach me. You can also follow me on Facebook @CTwriter and Twitter @livinglife1107.

Gemma: Thanks so much for joining me on my blog, Jenn! Readers, I hope you will follow the links and check out her online stories.

Check back in a couple of weeks for a special guest blog.

Of Horses, Horns, Wings, and Tails

Feb. 26th was National Tell a Fairy Tale Day, so this seems a fine time for an adventure into the wilds of words and mythical beasts.

What do you call a unicorn with wings? The Oxford English Dictionary blog once posed that question. As a word nerd with a passion for mythical beasts, that fired my interest! The blog, sadly, was taken down, but it gave several possible answers. Since that venerable and wide-reaching source gave no one definitive answer, I have to conclude there isn’t one.

A search of the web similarly brings up lots of possibilities, including pegacorn, unipeg, unisus and other portmanteau combinations of unicorn and pegasus. I have to say to my eye and ear these seem rather inelegant and clunky, conjuring up images of flying pigs and peg-legged unicorns. Cerapter is a clever alternative, from the ancient Greek keras for horn and pteros for wing.* To me it has a sort of dinosaurian flavor, though.

And then there is Alicorn. This is a lovely and historic old word I first encountered in my copy of The Lore of the Unicorn by Odell Shepherd.

Cover of the Lore of the Unicorn

He traces Alicorn back to 14th century Italian and later Arabic; he uses the term to mean the horn of a unicorn,** a most precious, almost sacred object. It was the sovereign antidote to all poison, and it could heal the sick, even of the dreaded Plague.

In the dark corner of a museum, I once had the privilege of seeing an Alicorn. Well, at least its mortal cousin.

Narwhal skull and tusk
A Mortal Alicorn

This is the skull of a narwhal, found in a whaling museum. I’d never seen one before, though I’d read about them. It gave me a shiver of pleased recognition to lay eyes on it.

Alicorn is a word of both elegance and substance to my mind. But since it already refers to something other than a winged unicorn (or horned pegasus), I’d suggest a slight variation. My proposal: alacorn, from the Latin āla for wing and cornū for horn. (Like cerapter, only without connotations of velociraptors and pterodactyls.)

Now for a somewhat related question: what do you call a sea-going unicorn?

For example, this magnificent beast:

Hipporn by Sarah Minkiewicz
Hippicorn by Sarah Minkiewicz

This incredible creature is the work of the artist Sarah Minkiewicz (bought for me as a gift from her Zazzle store).

It is called a Hippicorn, and since that name was given by its creator, there can be no more fitting title. Hippicorn is a doubly hybrid word, a portmanteau of hippocampus (from Greek roots) and unicorn (from Latin). More on that later.

Some might wonder what a hippocampus is.*** I’m so glad you asked! (Pretend you did, even if you didn’t.)

A hippocampus is a mythic seahorse, the equine equivalent of a mermaid. Sometimes it has a dolphin-like tail, sometimes a fishy one. Here’s a fine one found on Cape Cod. It seems to have a fondness for jewelry and scarves.

carved hippocampus in shop window
An Elegant Hippocampus

The name is from ancient Greek, hippos for horse, kampos for sea monster. It is, I think, a close cousin to the campchurch, which is another kind of sea-going unicorn, but rather different from Sarah Minkiewicz’s wild hippicorn. It has no tail, but webbed hind feet. Here it is where I first encountered it in one of my favorite childhood books.

illustration of campchurch
from Georgess McHargue’s Beasts of Never

Here the marine cousins are together:

illustration of campchurch and hippocampus
Cavorting Together

And here is another close relative, found in the same whaling museum as the alicorn, carved out of whale ivory.

whale ivory hippocampus pie crimper
Bicorn Hippocampus?

Because I am a word nerd, I wondered where the “church” in campchurch came from. Webster’s Unabridged dictionary was, alas, no help. Even the massive Oxford English Dictionary was silent on the matter. Liddell and Scott’s Lexicon of Ancient Greek vouched for the antiquity of hippocampus, but had no trace of campchurch.

An online search brings up a lot of opportunities for worship while camping, but very little about sea-unicorns. I found one woodcut image of a campchurch from 1575 – walking flat-footed on dry land!

Could the “church” of campchurch have come from the modern meaning of house of worship? It seemed unlikely, but Webster’s and the OED do agree that “church” is derived from the ancient Greek kyriakon, and ultimately kyrios, lord and kyros, supreme power. Could campchurch mean something like the lord of sea monsters? I’m left to wonder…But Sarah’s hippicorn is certainly a lordly beast!

I also wonder what else might one call a horned hippocampus or marine unicorn? What about mericorn? (I think I kind of like that).

The truth is, if I should ever be so fortunate as to see any of these mythical beasts, I’m certain I’d be unable to call them anything at all, being struck dumb with awe and wonder!

If you, too, like mythical beasts – one of these creatures lurks in the pages of Running Wild Anthology of Stories V. 3! I won’t tell you which one, but the title gives a clue. Why not go explore? You’ll find several supernatural creatures hiding among those excellent stories.

Cover of Running Wild Anthology of Stories Vol. 3
Our New Anthology

Check back in a couple of weeks for another interview with one of my anthology colleagues!

 

*I encountered this term here: https://mythicalmagicalbeastsandbeings.com/alicorn.html (2020-02-17). The other terms showed up several places, including Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winged_unicorn (2020-02-17).

** Lexico, the online dictionary authored by Oxford University Press, agrees with the usage if not entirely with the derivation.  https://www.lexico.com/definition/alicorn (2020-02.17)

***This post is about supernatural creatures, so we’ll leave aside the area of the brain, which got its name from the beast, anyway.

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