Five Questions with Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown

Married novelists Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown have spent their working lives writing and teaching side by side in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains at Sweet Briar College, where John is the Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English and directs the College’s Creative Writing program. Carrie now serves as Distinguished Visiting Professor at nearby Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. Carrie and John have published ten books between them and raised three children on the campus at Sweet Briar. 

James River Writers recently spoke with Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown, who will discuss “using what you know and where you’re from in fiction” at JRW’s Writing Show on Thursday, April 24. The couple also will teach Learning to See: A Master Class for Writers in the Art and Practice of Looking on Friday, April 25.

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Five Questions with Carrie Brown and John Gregory Brown

Question One:

K: John, you wrote in the voice of a young girl (Meredith Eagen), a woman (Meredith’s stepmother Catherine), and a black man (Murphy Warrington) in your first novel, Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery, and you earned praise for creating authentic voices for these three characters. Writing in the voice of a person of another race can be risky, and you did not attempt to write Murphy’s dialogue the way a black New Orleans man of his time and class would have spoken. (more…)

Beth Phelan, Literary Agent

PHELAN-photoGetting to know the agents you pitch gives you an advantage, whether you’re adding a query to the slush pile with fingers crossed or pitching face to face at a conference like JRWC. We’re excited to announce that literary agent Beth Phelan from the Bent Agency will be joining us at this year’s James River Writer’s Conference. For those who want to know more about this agent eagerly looking for new writers, read on to see her interview with JRW Board member Kris Spisak. (more…)

Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

dawnsearlylight by steampunk authors Tee Morris and Pip BallantineKathleen Sams Flippen, Writer/Owner of Spaces by KSF, interviews Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, Steampunk proponents and authors of Phoenix Rising, The Janus Affair, and Dawn’s Early Light. Featured speakers at the James River Writers 2013 Annual Conference, the husband and wife team talk goggles and airships, social media and networking, how to juggle creation and marketing, and how to rise and stay afloat in the ever-changing world of the written word.

 

 

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Lydia Netzer

Lydia NetzerAn astronaut lost in space, his pregnant wife who has been bald since birth, their autistic son and a street of seemingly perfect neighbors.

Author Lydia Netzer has peopled her debut novel — Shine Shine Shine — with a cast of offbeat characters whose differences illuminate the universal need to connect with others while remaining true to one’s self. Netzer uses math creatively to explain relationships and she sets part of her story in space, but Shine Shine Shine is not science fiction. It is a tale of love, motherhood and what it means to be human.

Shine Shine Shine was a New York Times Notable Book for 2012 and an Amazon Spotlight Book of the Month. It was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in Fiction. Netzer will participate in JRW Annual Conference in October 2013 and was interviewed in April 2013 by Kathleen Sams Flippen, a design blogger who can be found at A Flippen Life.

QUESTION 1: You have stated in other interviews that you conceived the idea for Shine Shine Shine when you were pregnant with your first child and worried that you were too “weird” to be a mother. You wanted to explore the idea of transitioning from woman to wife and wife to mother and the need many people feel to hide their oddities and present themselves as “normal.” Was there any specific incident that made you realize none of us is perfect and it’s okay to stop pretending and “rip your wig off”, as your character Sunny does?

I definitely survived many moments of trying to cram the wig on my head although it didn’t properly fit! The casseroles I tried to make from scratch because that’s what the “good” wife does; the lunch party I tried to host using all my mother’s china for the other moms on the block who showed up in capris and t-shirts wondering why they were drinking soda out of crystal; the many outfits I have tried to put together where my shoes and my sweater have a working relationship; the quilts I tried to make. It was a little scary there for a while. (more…)

Rosemary Rawlins

Rosemary Rawlins is the author of Learning By Accident, published in July 2011. The memoir grew out of a journal she kept after her husband, Hugh, sustained a traumatic brain injury. The couple now live in Richmond, Va., where she works as an inspirational speaker on topics of caregiving and personal leadership.

Rosemary shared how she published the book herself at The Writing Show on June 28, 2012. She was interviewed by Elizabeth Rabin, a freelance writer and  JRW website contributor, in May 2012. (more…)

Andrew Jay Fox

Andrew Fox photo by Ellen DatlowAndrew Jay Fox is author of Fat White Vampire Blues, published in 2003, Bride of Fat White Vampire, published in 2005, and The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, published in, 2009. The Good Humor Man, or, Calorie 3501, was selected by Booklist as one of the Ten Best SF/Fantasy Novels of the Year. Andrew was recently a panelist at The Writing Show on February 23, discussing “Sweet Indulgences: Writing Food, Drink, and Romance.” He was interviewed by V. Mark Covington, a novelist and JRW website contributor, in March 2012.

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Silas House

Silas House

The Southern Literary community took notice when Silas House was named as one of the South’s “Ten Emerging Writers” by the Millennial Gathering of Writers at Vanderbilt University in 2000, but so many more than just Southern readers and writers have fallen for the poetic prose of his writing.

The Atlanta Daily Journal called Silas, “A writer of startling abilities,” and others heartily agree. Awards he has garnered include the Appalachian Writer of the Year, the Chaffin Prize for Literature, the Award for Special Achievement from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, and many other honors including the Helen M. Lewis Community Service Award in 2008 from the Appalachian Studies Association for his environmental activism.

A writer of short stories, literary fiction, young adult fiction, and creative non-fiction, Silas discussed “Writing the South,” “Writing in Multiple Genres,” “Literary Journals,” and more at the 2010 JRW Conference. (Liz Humes of WRIR’s Wordy Birds talked to Silas at the conference.) He was interviewed by Kris Spisak, conference chair, in September 2010.


 

QUESTION 1: Do you have any advice on transporting readers into a story?

When I am composing a scene in my head, I’m seeing it like a movie, so I think that I use those same cinematic techniques to help the reader to see what I’m seeing. I like to use a lot of motion because that creates a visual in a reader’s mind in an easier way. If you begin a story or novel with a face being slapped, the hand being drawn back in the air, the palm hitting the cheek, the intake of air as the slapped person realizes the pain, the rage on the face of the person doing the slapping, etc. — a reader is able to see all of that, and feel it. The main thing is to use as many of the senses as possible, and to describe them in the more economical and powerful way.

QUESTION 2:  The natural world has a presence in your novels. Whether it’s Vine’s native home in Redbud Camp or Eli’s favorite tree, the reader feels spirits soar when they’re surrounded by green leaves overhead and tree roots under their feet. Is this connection with nature a character trait of yours bleeding onto the pages?

I tend to find the most important lessons in nature, so that does show up often in my writing. I go to nature to think, to be still, to rest, even to worship. I don’t mean that I’m a tree worshipper, but being out in the woods is the best kind of church, to my mind.

That’s usually the most autobiographical element of my novels, that my characters and I both love trees. And I think it’s something that we need very much right now. We need literature to preserve the power of nature because it’s an idea that has so much less importance in our consumer-minded culture than it used to. I think often the most important thing literature can do is to preserve.

QUESTION 3: In your opinion, what are the differences between writing for adults and writing for young adults? Do you have a preference?

I don’t really think there is a difference. The key is to just write the story you want to tell and sometimes, for me, it turns out that that story is more suitable for an adult audience and sometimes it works better for a younger audience. Even my first three books, which are decidedly “adult” books in theme, are written in such a way that a YA audience can read them, too. The only time I’ve ever thought of an audience at all was with the novel I just finished, SAME SUN HERE, which I wrote with Neela Vaswani. We knew from the get-go that it was a YA book because we knew the themes in advance. And I think that’s what ultimately decides if a book is YA or not, the themes.

QUESTION 4: Writing about the South and Appalachia specifically, you avoid commonly used stereotypes to create characters that are vivid and alive. Are there any stereotypes that you feel you have to actively combat about the area, or is this something that you don’t think about?

I try very hard to not think about that. When I am writing, my first responsibility to my characters is to present them as human beings, so I always think they are people who happen to live in the South or Appalachia. If a character of mine likes to go barefoot, and I know that that is a defining characteristic of the character, I can’t cut it just because being barefoot is a stereotype of being Appalachian. For instance, in my second novel, the lead character is a Cherokee woman. Part of her essence is that she is very in touch with nature. That’s a huge stereotype about Native Americans, that they all have some magic connection with the natural world. So that was a real danger, to write her that way, but all of my lead characters are that way — I didn’t do it because she was Native American. I think readers are smart enough to know when a stereotype is being perpetuated and when a character is just being themselves.

QUESTION 5: There is so much to admire your imagery and poetic language. Who are your inspirations? What specifically did you take away from them?

Two of the most important things I ever learned about writing is that we must operate in images and rhythm. This is advice that is usually driven into the heads of poets but not taught to prose-writers. So I try to make all writers aware of the importance of imagery and rhythm. I draw a lot of inspiration from poetry, and from the beauty of any perfect sentence, and, as I said, images of nature. But my favorite writers are Willa Cather, Thomas Hardy, Louise Erdrich, Zora Neale Hurston, Mary Oliver, D.H. Lawrence, Alice Walker, Lee Smith, Marilynne Robinson … I could go on and on.

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Jeff VanderMeer

Jeff VanderMeerIf anyone ever had the idea of a writer as a hermit-like artist, closed off to the world and alone with his thoughts, intensely working on that singular project until he dares to call it finished, then meet his real life opposite: Jeff VanderMeer.

Jeff has had novels published in 15 languages, won multiple awards, and made the best-of-year lists in Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, LA Weekly, and many others. His award-winning short fiction has graced many anthologies and magazines; he has edited or co-edited more than a dozen influential fiction anthologies for, among others, Bantam Books and Pan Macmillan; with his wife Ann, he has lectured, conducted master classes, and given workshops all over the world; and his literary achievements hardly stop there.

Amidst his travels, speaking engagements, multiple projects and deadlines, Jeff somehow found a moment to share his thoughts with us. At the 2010 JRW Conference, he spoke about “Mastering the Short Story,” “Changes in Publishing,” “Fantasy,” and more. He was interviewed by Kris Spisak, conference chair, in August 2010.


 

QUESTION 1: Your fantasy writing has won the World Fantasy Award and been a Year’s Best Selection from Publishers Weekly, Amazon.com, and the San Francisco Chronicle, among many other distinctions. Your novels are published in multiple translations and are well sold internationally. What secrets or lessons have you learned that you think all fantasy writers should know?

There’s only one secret: write from your heart and what you feel most deeply. The rest will take care of itself. Personally, I find no difference between writing fantasy and writing mainstream realism (which I’ve also done, at the short-story length). Following trends, trying to think of certain kinds of fiction as separate or apart from others tends to marginalize certain things, makes it less likely that cross-pollination will occur, etc.

QUESTION 2: What compels you to write fantasy and to bring your readers into a world with a willing suspension of disbelief? Was there a book or an author that highly influenced you?

It’s really not a choice. It’s more that I have an absurdist-surreal worldview that comes out in my fiction as fantasy, horror, SF, magic realism, what have you. My three primary original influences were Angela Carter, Edward Whittemore, and Vladimir Nabokov.

QUESTION 3: Do you approach writing a novel and writing a short story differently?

A novel allows for a certain number of digressions, tends to have more characters, and allows for a more complex structure in terms of breadth. A story can be quite deep but not have the same breadth. When an idea reaches critical mass in my head, I usually have a good idea of whether it will be a story or a novel because of the number of characters, the length of time involved, and the number of scenes. Novels tend to seem like a long hall of mirrors. Short stories are like one mirror, or window, I’m staring into.

QUESTION 4: How important should blogging be to a writer, in your opinion?

It has to support the main writing, it can’t replace it. Some writers start rapaciously blogging before they’ve even sold a book, as a way of building an audience for the book. I don’t think this is a good strategy. Get the important work done first. Blog if it’s fun, but don’t do targeted blogging like that. Once you do have a book sold, then, yeah, you can weave in some posts about the book. But the blogging should be fun, and secondary. Not just PR for the book and a slog.

QUESTION 5: You write a lot about “sustainable creativity.” Tell me more about what you mean by this phrase and what writers should take away from it.

It’s knowing both your limits and how far you can go, in the context of protecting your private book life — your writing — while also building a career. These two things need a firewall between them, and anything that erodes the wall, including Internet addiction, means your life and your writing life will suffer. Finding balance is a necessary thing in our modern world. You have to engage the world, but you also need that time to have ideas gestate and the time to write, without being fragmented.

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Michele Young-Stone

Michelle Young StoneMichele Young-Stone is full of surprises. From being a lightening strike survivor herself to publishing an exquisite debut novel, nothing can stop this self-proclaimed ‘glass half-full kind of gal.’

An MFA graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University, Michele has been writing creatively since she could scribble words with her crayons. Even after earning an ‘Unsatisfactory’ in First Grade for her messy handwriting, the author within prevailed.

In a starred review, Booklist called Michele’s The Handbook for Lightening Strike Survivors, “Luminescent.” Publishers Weekly added “[she] has created a host of endearing losers—young, old, literate, and simple, all full of longing. What she does best is portray the incredulousness of the unlucky.”

At the 2010 JRW Conference, Young-Stone participated in several panel discussions. She was interviewed by Kris Spisak, conference chair, in July 2010.


 

QUESTION 1:  How have your own life experiences guided your writing?

In major ways — My childhood and teen years weren’t “typical.” As a kid, I was a bit of an outcast. I had frizzy hair, buckteeth, and I was overweight. As a teenager, I “took a walk on the wild side.” I feel fortunate to have survived. All my experiences have really added to my writing. I’ve met a lot of unusual characters, and having been an outsider at different phases of my life, helped me to create the characters Publisher’s Weekly dubbed “endearing losers.” Like me, my “endearing losers” turn out pretty good in the end.

QUESTION 2: So many people struggle with writing believable, multi-dimensional characters. In The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, there is not a simple soul that enters your pages. Your characters are tragic and lovable, complicated but natural. What advice would you give writers about creating strong characters?

Let the characters come alive on the page. Don’t dictate to them. Rather, see where they take you. You’d be surprised at the places you’ll go. For instance, I didn’t intend for many of the characters in my book to come onto the page. They just did. I ran with it. Some of them were cut, and some (like Buckley) were essential to the story. I love all of my characters so much. I say that they come from my “monkey mind” — a term borrowed from writer Bill Tester. When the Monkey Mind is at work, it’s like a Zen state. I try not to worry about the final product. I try and enjoy the moment. I’m learning about the characters as they play out on the page.

QUESTION 3: In The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors, your characters move across the country from New York to Texas to Arkansas to North Carolina. How important is it to you to personally know the locations you write about?

It is important. I did a lot of research on Chapel Hill, including interviewing residents and spending time there. I LOVE New York and have visited many times. As far as Texas and Arkansas go, I did a lot of research, but I had these images already implanted in my mind from stories I’d heard here and there over the years. There were seeds from my childhood in those places.

QUESTION 4: You earned your Masters of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University. How important was your MFA to your writing career? Would you recommend an MFA to other writers?

It was tremendously important. I went to the MFA program having previously been rejected by the same program and other programs, so by the time I got in, I took it very seriously. I knew that I had a natural ability and drive, but I didn’t know a lot of technique. I didn’t understand the importance of revision that they really drill into you in MFA school. The experience also taught me to crave constructive criticism. Anything that makes my writing better is great. I am especially grateful to Bill Tester and Tom De Haven for their support and feedback.

I would only recommend an MFA to writers who are committed to the craft. You should only go to an MFA program if you’re determined to “learn technique,” not to show off what you already know. It’s definitely about growing and trying new things.

QUESTION 5: What has your debut novel taught you about the publishing process?

More than I ever wanted to know! It’s crazy. I knew that screenwriting was a collaborative art form, but I had no idea how many people — from the agent, editor, assistant to the editor, proofreader, publicist, marketing director — were involved in publishing one novel … and there’s more. There’s a whole team of people that decide when your book should go on sale, what the cover should look like, etc. If you have time, check out the story on my book’s cover. You wouldn’t believe how many incarnations the cover had.

All that said, the thing that I carry with me wherever I am, as regards my novel’s publication, is “Yippee! Yippee! Publishing a novel has been my dream since second grade. How many people have their dreams come to fruition? Yippee!” I hope everyone will read the book and spread the word! Thanks.

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Meg Daley Olmert

Meg OlmertIf you’ve ever wondered why stroking your cat calms you down, Meg Daley Olmert can explain the brain chemistry behind it.

Her book, Made For Each Other: The Biology of the Human-Animal Bond, translates the science into the kind of explanation nonscientists can understand and appreciate.

In addition to her book, Meg has created and produced documentaries for National Geographic, The Discovery Channel and PBS. She also writes a neuroscience blog for Psychology Today.

Meg and husband, Emmy-award winning writer Mike Olmert, spoke at the 2010 JRW conference. They live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, exploring the region’s many creeks by kayak with their two cats as passengers. Really. Pictures don’t lie.

Meg was interviewed by Jann Malone, former JRW board member, in June 2010.


 

QUESTION 1: What advice do you have for people who want to write about nature?

In one respect, writing about nature is no different than writing about anything else. It’s the quality of attention you bring to your subject that will decide what you will discover about it and have to tell others. But those of us who write about nature do catch a break, because we humans are hardwired to pay attention to the world around us.

The great philosopher Paul Shepard says that our ancient ancestors grew their big brains while devoting “tireless scrutiny” to the natural world. We inherited that brain, and the urge and capacity to focus on living things.

Sometimes, if you are very lucky, a pattern will be revealed so clearly, you will have to write about it. Then it isn’t work. Then it just pours out your finger tips.

QUESTION 2: Since you write about the natural world, do you do anything special to keep your awareness sharp? I’m guessing living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore makes it easier than living, say, in New York City.

To survive New York, you must master the art of tuning out, but even as a child I could not take my eyes off nature. I longed to be surrounded by nature and surrender my attention to it. I am so lucky to have fetched up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and I never take it for granted.

Kayaking gives me a duck’s point of view, and I can’t imagine a more valid way to see this world. It’s also one of the most ancient methods of exploration. Its quiet, repetitive, rhythmic action is meditative and appeals to the primal attention systems that best comprehend the natural world.

QUESTION 3: As a reader, I think it’s a good thing that you aren’t a trained neuroscientist. What is your background?

My background is pure liberal arts. I was not trained and paid to think narrowly about one tiny brain part or kind of behavior. I was free to read widely, and that’s where I found connections the scientists were unaware of. Also, I had experienced profound connections to animals.

QUESTION 4: What’s the key to translating the language of scientists into the language of nonscientist readers?

Of course it also meant I had to teach myself neuroscience so I could understand the reams of primary research I would have to read and to be able to ask the next probing question. Learning the terminology, jargon and neurophysiology was only the first part of the challenge. Scientific writing is not just technical, it’s dismal! I would say the thing that ended up mattering most was storytelling pure and simple.

I may not be a scientist, but I am an Irishman. For us, there is nothing more important than knowing how to tell a good story. And I grew up in New York City, surrounded by Jewish wit as well. So I know better than to tell a joke with no punch line.

QUESTION 5: How did Made for Each Other happen?

Made for Each Other grew out of a television series I was developing in 1993 on the history of humans and animals. I was interviewing a psychiatrist who created a small petting zoo at a residential treatment facility for boys with severe ADHD and behavior disorders. He told me how the boys who volunteered for the program became far less anxious and violent, more focused and relaxed, got better grades and developed strong bonds with the animals they cared for. He also told me about other studies that showed that when people were with dogs, their heart rate and blood pressure came down.

It was all very impressive, so I asked him how animals were able to calm the hearts and minds of humans. He theorized that it had something to do with the animal’s ability to grab and redirect our attention away from ourselves and that the “unconditional love” they show us had a strong palliative effect.

But, I was not convinced. The cardiac effect was biological, and I wanted to understand the biological mechanism animals were somehow triggering in humans.  That, however, was a question, no one had asked. The next day, the New York Times had an article on the discovery that oxytocin — an ancient hormone made in the brain that causes labor contractions and breast-milk release – also creates lifelong mating bonds in rodents and promotes maternal attachment in humans. Nursing women, it explained, who have high levels of oxytocin are calmer, less aggressive and highly focused on their babies and bonded to them.

I immediately recognized how similar those effects were to the ones created in the petting zoo and called the scientists mentioned in the article to ask if oxytocin might also help to create the human-animal bond and the therapeutic effects of contact with animals.

Dr. Sue Carter, then at the University of Maryland, said yes. She also said she wanted to meet me and invited me to her lab. It seems — even though I had no scientific background — I asked a very original and important question. She and her colleagues liked the way I thought and appreciated that I could write about their work better than they could.

These were the pioneering days of research into oxytocin, and over the next 17 years studies would show just how good my hunch was. Oxytocin appears to be a key ingredient in a newly discovered brain network of anti-stress that promotes social engagement and mental and physical well being.

In 2003, South African researchers showed that friendly contact with dogs releases oxytocin and other calming and reward agents in our brains as well as in the dogs.  With that piece of the puzzle in place, I began my book and six years later saw it published.

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