Q&A: Authors Unleashed
H. Tell the audience a little about yourself.
N. I was born in Washington DC, lived in Vietnam two years, Paris France three (through high school), went to Swarthmore College in PA, lived in Chicago area four years including getting a Master’s at Northwestern, lived four years in Boston, then moved to New Mexico in 1972. Lived in Lamy and Galisteo and worked in Santa Fe until 1990 when I moved to Sapello. I am working now to develop contracting/consulting income to help meet my living expenses. Love living rural, waking as today (2/20/13) to the uniquely absolute quiet of snow on the ground, fog in the air, even the birds silent around the feeder.
H. You’ve done quite a bit of writing over the years. Talk about that and how your work influences what you write.
N. Most of the nonfiction articles are just things that catch my interest, or pieces I was asked to do by editors (Sharon, in particular). Not particularly related to my work – almost done despite my work, which was very demanding of both time and mind. I have drawn from people I knew as clients of the home health agency for some characters, or story ideas, as in Angelita’s Fire, which began with the true tale of a woman who was told that her new baby would not survive and she should take him home to die. She created an incubator for him out of her wood stove, and he lived.
H. Your writing is primarily in the nonfiction arena. Talk about your desire to delve into fiction and what genre do you find most appealing?
N. I never thought of myself as a story teller, and couldn’t get hold of the instructions regarding building a plot, so I did not expect to write fiction. Then I went to a Southwest Writer’s meeting and heard the phrase “character-driven plot,” and suddenly fiction made sense. Put a few characters into a situation, and let them tell me the story! The first short stories I wrote in that way came out quite dark, surprising me. I didn’t think I had such twisted or deviant people inside me. I don’t choose a genre; that seems to emerge from the characters also. I read a lot of mysteries, but haven’t finished writing one yet. I do have the beginnings of one, set in the Vietnam that was vanishing in the mid-fifties when my father was assigned to the embassy in Saigon.
H. You’re working on a couple of novel ideas. How do you describe the book you’re working on now? What is its basic premise?
N. Dust Devils Through a Card House is the story of the relationships of a grandmother, mother and daughter. When I began it I thought I’d have their accounts running parallel through the book, but was told by readers of an early draft that I still needed to pick one as the lead character. What emerged was the story of the one I liked least – Sylvie, the mother. It took me awhile to accept that she needed to be the focus. She’s one of those people who use anger to cover hurt, anger as defense even when she has not been attacked, anger to keep people at a distance so she won’t be hurt again.
H.What genre does it fit in?
N. I’m not good at determining genres – the book is women’s fiction, but several of my current beta readers are male and they have enjoyed it too. I’ve been told that a defining mark of western/southwestern stories is the role and presence of the environment, of nature, in the story. Drought is almost a character in mine, drought leading to wildfire. So I guess it’s a southwestern women’s book…?
H. As a writer, what are the elements of the story you want to nail down first?
N. I have to know the characters – not with back story and a lot of detail, but what their core personality characteristics are, and consequently how they would respond to different situations.
H. In character development what do you find most challenging?
N. Visual details are the most challenging. Everyone relates to the world primarily through one of the senses. Most people are visual, another large group – and I’m one – are tactile. We sense what places feel like, rather than see them. I can write an entire story as dialogue – then I have to go back and put myself in the place of each character and try to see what that person might see, adding it in as the frame for the dialogue. Getting myself to notice someone twisting a curl of hair around a finger, rather than merely sensing that the person is nervous, and taking that knowledge from the gesture.
H. What did you learn about yourself in the course of writing this book you didn’t know before?
N. I learned that I am truly free of the anger I had for my own mother, from the abuse of my childhood. Sylvie feels justified in her anger, though her situation was not – compared to my personal experience – abusive. I drew on my feelings to write Sylvie but also recognized that those feelings are all in the past. That was a good realization.
H. What do you find most helpful as a member of a writing group?
N. There are many values to a writer’s group, especially the different viewpoints, different perspectives on life, different ways of expressing those experiences. If one wants a book to appeal to a wide audience, it needs to be reviewed by people from different backgrounds, and that happens in a good writer’s group like ours.
H. What writers do you admire and why?
N. I don’t have personal favorites, but rather any writer who can transport me into a world different from my own. As I mentioned, I mostly read mysteries, or historical fiction. Recently I’ve enjoyed Lisa See, and Robert Van Gulik, for China modern and very ancient. Also Elizabeth George, who writes complex character novels that just happen to involve murder and police investigation. I care about good writing defined as elegant language, correct grammar, creative use of imagery – elements I try to bring to my own work.
H. Who has been most influential in your writing?
N. My maternal grandfather, who used to come down from Baltimore every Sunday when I was small, to DC where we lived. He would take me out to the zoo, or a park, or just for a walk around our neighborhood, and ask me about my week and listen to my problems and help me feel better about myself. He was a founder of the Labor Zionist party in the US, friends with Golda Meier and Chaim Weitzman and that group, but he stayed in the US, didn’t move to Israel when it was established, as the others did. He was a Hebrew poet, and he’d talk to me about his poems, how he would search for just the right word in just the right place, to convey all the nuances he wanted for the poem. He taught me the value of listening, of reflecting, and of language.
H. In addition to the novel, you are also working on a book having to do with Parkinson’s. Talk about that and whom you’re writing the book for.
N. The book on Parkinson’s developed out of the interest of a dear friend of mine who is living with the disease. He is a very creative person, who through trial and error has come up with “inventions of movement,” to get his body to do what it tends to freeze up over. For example, when his right leg starts to drag, he hits it with his left hand to bring it back into the movement of walking. He said one day that it would be helpful to have a sort of encyclopedia of ideas like that, to go to when his body throws some new restriction at him – to get ideas from what other people have discovered. I’m interested in neuroscience and creativity as well, and am using research in that field as a backdrop for interviews with people living with Parkinson’s, from which I can extract the elements for an encyclopedia of interventions.
H. What is your biggest challenge in writing?
N. Giving myself permission to spend time on writing. Not just the finding time, but with the emphasis on giving myself permission. I’ve realized recently that my choices in life have been guided by an expectation that I must compromise between what I want and my obligations to others – compromise even before the circumstances require that I do so. I’m at an advanced enough age now, that finally, I am beginning to believe I have a right to go for what I want first, and only think about compromise if it is absolutely necessary.
H. Talk about your work with men who are incarcerated.
N. I worked as a psychology instructor for the College of Santa Fe, teaching inside the New Mexico Penitentiary, back before the 1980 prison riot – finishing up at the end of that spring semester. After the National Guard retook control of the facility, I went inside to the school unit, to get personal items and books from my office. The entire prison was trashed, except the school wing. Men I saw later, when I found them where they’d been transferred to Arizona and Oklahoma, told me the school was the only place they were treated with respect, so they respected it and didn’t destroy it. I took them books and gave them assignments, allowing them to finish the semester and get the credits they’d earned.
Now, I work in the Level 2 facility at Santa Fe with men, and sometimes also at the women’s facility in Grants, as a facilitator of the Alternatives to Violence Program. It’s a series of three intensive, 20 hour weekend workshops providing experiences learning tools to respond non-violently. The program is based on a core concept that we all have within us a transforming power that allows us to change patterns or habits. The workshop offers tools for accessing that power and using it to respond in new, less violent, ways.
H. What brought you to New Mexico?
N. I was living in Boston, headed for Maine as my next – and final – destination, when I came to a point in my life that required a step back and some reflection about choices. I was doing watercolor painting then, and remembered the desert colors from my train trip across the U.S. on the way to Vietnam. I thought to go out to Phoenix where my father had cousins I’d never met. Instead I came to Santa Fe because my college friend (the one who now has Parkinson’s) and his wife had just arrived there and were starting up a theater. They said I’d like Santa Fe better than Phoenix, and they were right. I spent a month, including driving out on the Navajo reservation, and then went back to Boston to move forward with my life there. When that effort fell apart, I packed up and drove out here to the desert, which takes me out of myself in the same way the ocean did, in Maine.
H. What inspires you?
N. Communication, in all its forms – verbal, non-verbal, movement, connection, experience – the myriad ways people perceive and think and respond and share with one another. Not just people, animals too. And between people and animals. I appreciate and need solitude, but I also value and need a sense of connectedness. At one stressful time when I was living alone, I had a horse who would give me hugs. If I walked up from the front, and stood close in to Valentine’s neck, she’d put her head over my shoulder, then tuck her chin down and hug me with her head. It was just want I needed. Pure communication of affection.