Nancy Burke is a writer, musician, and psychoanalyst who recently published her first novel, Undergrowth. In my mind, though, she remains a young girl who I saw annually at a mutual friend’s childhood birthday parties–so clearly I have a lot of catching up to do. In this interview, I had a chance to get the process started, at least it terms of Nancy’s writing life
That writing life has been prolific and diverse. In the years since those birthday parties, Nancy has received numerous writing awards and grants, and, as a psychoanalyst, has published non-fiction articles and edited the nonfiction book Gender and Envy. Also a songwriter, she has recorded two albums of her original songs: American Goodbye and a second scheduled for release later this year.
Let’s start with the Associated Writing Programs Conference, since that’s the one most US writers are familiar with. It’s the biggest, the glitziest, with superstars like Margaret Atwood and Karen Russell giving keynotes, and–so one is told–it’s a great place to ‘network’, which actually means, as far as I can gather, to behave like a salesperson, using sycophancy, your natural oodles of charm (it’s well known that fiction writers are captivating extroverts, isn’t it?) to sell–well, yourself. Hmm… isn’t that a teeny bit like, well (am I still allowed to pronounce this word?) prostitution? Not that there’s anything wrong with prostitution, of course! But in fact, for most writers, AWP is an utter waste of money (especially) and time. It is, to use a British expression, rubbish.
Do writers read differently than non-writers, and if so, what do they do that is different, and can non-writers benefit from the difference? The answers to those questions is ‘yes,’ ‘I’ll explain shortly,’ and ‘yes’ again.
To put it simply, writers observe how a novel is put together as they read the story. What writers observe and how that can add to one’s reading pleasure is what I’m about to explain using a novel by Jeffrey Deaver as my model example.
Deaver, who keynoted at two
Washington/Maryland writers’ conferences in recent years, is a meticulous
plotter. He spends as much time researching and plotting each of his novels as
he spends in the writing. One reason is that he writes thrillers.
My brother, Larry Haavik, is a fine musician who defines music as an “adventure for the ear.” I recently attended his two lectures on the history of jazz. He talked about how from the earliest times, people have used sticks, animal skins and other materials to make music, gradually expanding and transforming their repertoire as they sought new sounds and new adventures for the ear. Exploring Longer scales, more beats per measure, unusual instruments, different rhythms, and other variations all contribute.
The same, of course, applies to art as painters seek new ways to paint the world and people around them. We can easily see how photography made realistic interpretations boring. The artist seeking new adventures in paint moved on to impressionism, expressionism, and so on to explore new ways of presenting the world around them.
I’ve been a fan of the writing of Tayari Jones since I read her novel Silver Sparrow several years ago, so I approached her new novel, An American Marriage, with a great deal of happy anticipation. I was not disappointed. But then numerous awards organizations can’t be wrong. Among the many honors An American Marriage has won since its publication in 2018 are Oprah’s Book Club selection, nomination by the American Booksellers Association for the 2019 Indies Choice Book of the Year Award, selection for the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist, and selection as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times book prize.
All of these groups had various reasons for honoring An American Marriage, but for me the joy of reading the novel sprang from two main sources: Jones’s fresh approach to what could have been a hackneyed story and the beautiful simplicity of her writing.
Bill Woods, author of the new novel Orient Beach, has been a published writer 57 years–sort of. He first published a story at age 15 in the Sunday Edition of The Memphis Commercial Appeal after winning a short story contest.
But then life got in the way.
“I had a little business meeting with myself when I finished high school,” Bill recalls. “On the one hand, I really, really wanted to be a writer. However, I grew up poor. Becoming a starving artist did not seem romantic to me. So now, a retired engineer, I’m back where I started. I still want to be the writer I wanted to be at 15. “
A lifetime later, Woods has become that writer.
Roz Morris: We’re both writers. We’ve both taught and mentored authors as well. I find it’s a double-edged sword. Getting involved in another person’s creative process can be draining because you want to do your best for them.
Garry Craig Powell: It’s incredibly hard not to be drained by it—and that’s one of the best arguments I can think of not to become a creative writing teacher.
RM: Do you find it’s a struggle to protect your own creative mojo?
GCP: It’s a constant struggle, and most teachers fail to do so. During term-time, my own creative and intellectual energies were almost entirely absorbed by my students’ work. Sometimes, especially when working with highly-motivated, talented graduate students, that was worthwhile.
P.D. James, The Black Tower (1975)
I hadn’t read a P.D. James novel in some years, but came across this one and I’m glad I read it. For those who are not familiar with her, James’ reputation was stellar. (Her dates are 1920-2014.) On the front cover Time Magazine is quoted as calling her “The reigning mistress of murder.” Two British papers are quoted on the back describing The Black Tower “a masterpiece” and James is labelled the “greatest contemporary writer of classic crime.”
James wrote a series of fourteen crime novels featuring a
reserved male detective by the name of Adam Dalgliesh. He’s the opposite of
James Bond. He uses deduction, perseverance and a dedication to an often
thankless job to ferret out the criminal.
Serendipity and Writers’ Conferences
The annual conference of the Maryland Writers’ Association was held two weeks ago. For a writer like me, this and other writers’ conferences offer a slew of opportunities and the serendipity of meeting new people and old friends–all at a relatively low cost.
The keynote speakers alone were worth the price at the MWA conference. Chuck Sambuchino, freelance editor, bestselling book author, and former longtime staffer for Writer’s Digest Books, opened the conference with a half-day session on how to query an agent. For many years he edited the Guide to Literary Agents and the Children’s Writer’s & Illustrators Market.
Keynote speaker Crystal Wilkinson, feminist poet and author, talked about character development and agreed to a quickly arranged and informal “fireside chat” on poetry.
I’ve been thinking recently how writers are like detectives. They need to be constantly observant, picking up clues from what people are wearing, how they gesture, the words they speak, the way they interact with others. They study people’s facial expressions and what they suggest, storing away the data in their memory banks or taking notes in a writer’s journal that they’ll refer to later.
Detectives need to ask questions, the right questions, without arousing the suspect’s suspicions. Writers are also usually operating undercover in this way, querying their family members, friends, and acquaintances on unfamiliar subjects, building up their store of knowledge.
A good detective, like an amateur psychologist, also is skilled at looking beyond surfaces, trying to discover the hidden meanings in words, expressions, gestures, aware that most things have multiple meanings.
Writing these things is pretty much like sending out a message in a bottle. If I’m lucky–and often I’m not–a handful of family and friends might glance at my blogs. I often feel like giving up.
Why should anyone read what I have to say here? Everyone’s busy. I get that. Heck, I don’t read most of what my friends write, so why should they read my stuff?
And why should they read my book review of a book that has already been reviewed countless times?
Honestly, the last thing the world needs is another blog by an obscure writer. But obscure writers with newly published books need blogs about them desperately.
That’s why this month–instead of my usual solipsistic musings on reading, writing, and literature–I’m going to make an offer.
Many great stories start with the author asking themselves, “What if x then y?” And a new story is born. “What if there was a boy who lived in a cupboard who was actually a wizard?” These two simple words have incredible powers in a writer’s mind.
One of the tutors for my Masters programs preaches the power of “what if.” If you’re stuck for a story idea, just start writing out a bunch of what if possibilities. -What if aliens came to the universe on a motorcycle? -What if the earth stopped spinning, and a 10 year old girl was the only person who could set it right again? Just think of as many what ifs as you can, until your brain hurts, and then go back through your list and start writing the one that sticks out in your mind the most.
Roz Morris: The publishing business, like all arts businesses, has been through many upheavals in recent years. Has this affected creative writing courses? Do some students come to a course because they think a qualification will give them an extra foothold for a publishing deal?
Garry Craig Powell: I don’t think it’s affected creative writing courses enough. They have a responsibility to be absolutely honest with students, who often do begin their courses thinking that the degree will give them an excellent chance of getting a publishing deal—which as you know, is far from the case. In fact no one in the publishing world cares what your academic background is, as far as I can tell.
One of the reasons I keep traveling out to Tucson each March is to attend the Tucson Festival of Books, which has become one of the country’s top book festivals by attendance and by the quality of authors it attracts. This year 140,000 patrons were exposed to books and authors––fiction and non-fiction, geared to readers of all ages. I prefer sessions where I can hear fiction authors talk about their books and writing careers. Here’s a sample of authors readers might look for in their librarys and bookstores.
Rachel Kadish. Kadish is the author of The Weight of Ink, a complex historical novel that took her 12 years to write. The story takes place in London in two time periods—the year 2000 and the mid-17th century and traces the lives of two women––a history professor nearing the end of her career and an orphan who becomes the scribe to a blind rabbi.
In my review of The Bookshop of Yesterdays in January, I talked about the novel’s complex interweaving of different types of stories, including a mystery, an adventure story, a love story, and a tribute to literature. This month I’m pleased to have Bookshop’s author, Amy Meyerson, tell us some of how she created this bestselling novel, which will be translated into nine languages. Amy teaches in the writing department at the University of Southern California, where she completed her graduate work in creative writing. She’s been published in numerous literary magazines and currently lives in Los Angeles.
SW. I really enjoyed the clues in the story’s scavenger hunts. How did you approach writing the ones that weren’t direct quotes?
AM. There are three different scavenger hunts in the novel, two from Miranda’s childhood and the one her uncle sends her on in the present day of the book.
Can merging two personal book collections break up a marriage? I asked this question last month and got some excellent tips on how to deal with domestic disputes that arise when “marrying” two systems of organization (or lack thereof).
Merging and Arranging Book Collections
Some people grappled directly with the issue at hand. Others responded with ways they organized their personal book collections. Some simply said, or implied, that the best system is to donate books once you’re done with them.
Beth Dietricks’ first response to my question was that she doesn’t have many books anymore because she’s “tired of accumulating things” and tries to “pass them on to get rid of them.” After trying to organize her remaining books by size, though, she discovered that she still had books in every room of her house.
In my day job, I am a project manager. I can’t help but notice some parallels between getting projects done and what we go through as writers. For example, in the continuum between the “Pantsers” and the “Planners,” I have late in life embraced the Planner philosophy. Map out your direction and then write to that plan. As someone who struggles with procrastination and closure-phobia, I value Plannerism as a way to actual complete something rather than draw it out into eternity. In project management, we would call pure plannerism the “Waterfall” methodology.
Construction or aerospace engineering projects have always benefitted from extensive planning with the final product design in mind. By all means, Boeing, keep covering every little safety detail, please!