I’d been trying for weeks to write this blog post. On a recent trip to Paris, I was lucky to visit the Hemingway Bar and was charmed all round. But my memory of the place felt like a troubling dream. The details of the bar itself were clear in my mind, but I kept trying to recall something more visceral – a feeling, something out of joint with the rest of my experience. It remained just out of reach. I stared and stared at the photographs, trying to rediscover what troubled me.

“Why do you look like that?” my husband asked while I scowled at the photo. He was annoyed that I was obsessing. “It was just a bar. A good drink. Expensive,” he said. He didn’t remember anything out of the ordinary. “What do you think? It was haunted?” he teased.

And that’s when I realized, I hadn’t been looking for a detail in the photograph. I’d been looking for a person.

She was sitting at a table in front of the bar, smack in the center of the room, the first thing you’d see when you walked in the door. But I didn’t see her, not at first. I was too busy looking at the memorabilia, the bust of Hemingway, the old typewriters in alcoves, the framed postcards from his world travels, caught up in the nostalgia and half expecting to hear Papa himself whisper a dirty joke in my ear.

It was dark and so was she, her hair, her clothes, her skin, all black. She was thin, with long arms and long legs, impossibly languorous. She must have been there when we came in but we’d been sitting at our table – and I was facing her, mind you – long enough to order our drinks and take in the atmosphere, before she uncrossed her legs. That small movement drew my eye and it seemed like she appeared out of nothing. I swear, she was like one of those pictures you look at once and see an old man and then blink and see the hidden image of a horse and cart.

I waited on my drink, but I wasn’t talking to my husband or imagining Paris being liberated. I was watching the woman, how still she could be, how she occupied space without disturbing it. Except for the occasional sip from her drink or a nod of her sleek head, she never moved. An older gentleman approached her table, asked if he could take a seat. She was gracious, but not interested. She was young. She was not anxious.

But I was. I started straightening my clothes, worrying about my jet-lagged complexion and my fuzzy hair. I took a drink from my gorgeous, rose-adorned glass and swallowed wrong, coughed. I smiled for a couple of silly photographs with my husband and then we paid the bill. And all the while I kept watching the other woman. I was an American tourist, out of place, giddy and too friendly. She could have been anyone. Or no one. If I blinked, she could disappear altogether. How did she do that?

It was a secret she wasn’t sharing. Still isn’t.

Look. Right there she is, in the photograph I took of the bar. I hadn’t even noticed her yet, and maybe that’s why I’d forgotten her when I went back to look at these images. Do you see her? A dark outline? Will you wonder about her the way I do? Is she a ghost? Is she waiting for someone? Is she lonely?Most probably at some point in her life, she will be all of those things. But for me, every time I look at this photograph, I search her out. Mesmerized by never knowing.

Wouldn’t Hemingway love that? He’d have bought her a drink, I bet. He’d have given her a thousand names.

My guest interview today is with another woman who inspires me: author Lisa Turner, an indomitable personality and new talent whose soulful mystery, A LITTLE DEATH IN DIXIE, released June of 2010 by Bell Bridge Books, impressed me as powerfully as the author herself.

Here’s a nice quote on this debut novel:

“Memphis, the Mississippi River, and the underbelly of human nature they’re all exposed in the dark brew of this fast-paced Southern Gothic suspense. Page-turning and atmospheric, this tightly-plotted novel turns the screws and sends readers racing to its surprise conclusion.” ~Michael Finger, Senior Editor, Memphis Magazine

Born in Memphis, Lisa Turner spent her childhood either on the back of a horse or reading fiction. At times she did them simultaneously. Flannery O’Connor and James Lee Burke were her literary heroes long before she knew the term  “Southern Gothic.”

From the experience of managing her family’s interior design firm, she earned a PhD in the peculiarities of human nature . . . talk about Southern Gothic!

More recently, she and her husband bought a home in Nova Scotia, where the landscape changed from cotton fields to lobster boats. She currently shuttles between the Deep South of her childhood and the wildly beautiful coast of Nova Scotia.

I know you’ll enjoy getting to know her through these thoughtful and provocative responses and I’m so thankful she took the time to share today.

Welcome, Lisa!

 

Q. What are your favorite characteristics in a person?

A. Dependability, humility, and a touch of fire.  Melded, those qualities produce a person of honor without arrogance, and yet with a spark that drives them to accomplish great things.

I enjoy watching Charlie Rose interview the “brightest and best” in science, film, politics, architecture, literature—every field imaginable. Charlie regularly asks the question, “How did you achieve this breakthrough; how did you create this masterpiece?”  The really great ones look a little puzzled. They answer, “I just worked hard.”

 

Q. What are your least favorite characteristics?

A. That would be “envy,” defined as the unhappy feeling of wanting someone else’s success or possessions for oneself.

What motivates envy? What does one person’s achievement have to do with another person’s success or lack of it? Of course, I’m not referring to a hungry person watching someone else eat a quarter-pound cheeseburger.  That kind of imbalance and lack of opportunity starts wars.

Pursue your passion to the best of your ability and pay no attention to what someone else has on their plate.

 

Q. As a child, did you dream of becoming a writer?

A. Reading was a big part of my childhood, and I enjoyed writing, but I never said to myself, “One day I’ll be a writer.”

However, I was always fascinated by words. Even as a child, combinations of words were like music for me. I still overwrite sentences because I’m hunting for the music. The next day I’ll have to rewrite the whole thing, because I’ve missed the point.  A scene has to be more about the story and the character’s voice and emotion than the lyricism of the words.

 

Q. Who/what influenced your dreams?

 A. I love, love, love old movies. They’ve influenced every area of my life.  The best of them provide great storytelling, dialogue, wonderful sets, and costume design.  When I write a scene, I like to use strong visual details along with a lot of texture. If I can infuse a bit of Southern culture into the mix, I’m happy.

I’m also influenced by writers who open with killer first paragraphs. After a couple of pages, you can tell if they have the talent and the authority to build on their beginning. Any writer who starts strong and is able to carry that momentum through to the end is impressive. No one knows what an accomplishment that is until they try it.

 

Q. What is your greatest fear about writing?

A. That’s easy. I’m afraid I’ll write something trite or obvious without realizing it. It helps to have astute critics and great editors looking over your shoulder. But it’s important to choose those readers carefully. Be sure they don’t have a hidden emotional agenda, like envy, that would lead to distorted advice.  Fortunately, I’ve had supportive people helping me all the way.

 

Q. If you could give a bit of sage advice to novice writers, what would it be?

A. Read everything. Stay current with your genre. Talk to other writers. Study the craft by reading books about writing and attend professional conferences. Mastering the basic tenets of storytelling will save you the misery of wondering why your beloved manuscript, after hundreds of hours of hard work, just doesn’t cut it.

Pay attention to the details of life and make notes. Be aware of the subtext that goes on in everyday conversation.  Hunt for fresh story ideas until one grabs your imagination and you can’t stop thinking about its possibilities.

I have a note card in the bookcase to the left of my desk.  It says: “Never, never, never give up.”  Do that, do the work and you’ll have a manuscript that will make you proud.

Lucky me, one of the most satisfying parts of my experience as a writer has been the other writers I’ve met along the way. Their stories – both personal and professional – are compelling and inspiring. Their love of their craft is individual and passionate. Their insight and sage advice, invaluable and almost always offered with an open hand. And so I’ve chosen to feature a writer who exemplifies all of these qualities as my first Writer Who Inspires interview. I know she’ll inspire you, too.
Hope is editor of FundsforWriters.com, chosen by Writer’s Digest for its 101 Best Websites for Writers for 2001 through 2011. She’s published in The Writer
Magazine, Writers Digest, numerous Chicken Soups and multiple trade
magazines. Her newsletters reach 40,000 readers.
What is your favorite quality in a person?
Respect for others, which means a strong sense of honesty. I’m adamant about
this quality in a person. If I can trust you, I can let down my guard. I don’t know if that comes from being a shy person growing up, fearful of showing my feelings, but if someone crosses me, I have a serious problem with being able to let them in my circle again. But be loyal and trustworthy, and I’m as strong a friend as anyone could have. A person who respects is a person who can love deeply as well.
What is your least?
Without a doubt, someone who lies. Not accidental distortions, but true cons
who know the truth. My friends and family know that lying to me is about as bad
a mistake anyone could make in my eyes.
A close second in terms of my least favorite quality is someone who cannot listen. I was taught to never interrupt, and therefore, learned how to listen hard to others and their opinions. Someone who runs over my conversation loses my respect in a snap. It’s a sign of them thinking of how to dominate a conversation instead of participating as an equal.This habit probably falls in the lack-of-respect category.
As a child, did you dream of becoming a writer?
Funny, but while I loved writing, I never dreamed of becoming a writer. I was an honor student, with a strong emphasis in math and science.Sure, I was in honors English and wrote well. I was copy editor then editor for the high school yearbook. But I saw writing as a talent, not a profession.
You have to realize that in my high school and college days (in the 70s), women lived under plate glass, double-paned ceilings. Raised by parents who both worked during a time that the mom stayed home, I was taught to go for the gold. I interpreted that as being strong enough to go for a man’s career – business, math, science. I entered pre-veterinary school, shifted to zoology, then to agronomy (soil science). But writing for a living wasn’t an option, even though I was offered a scholarship to journalism school. Looking back, I may have missed an opportunity, but I’m not one to look back for long. I move forward. Regret is a waste of energy and creative juices.Besides, my novel was founded upon experiences at my day job.
Fate is a marvelous thing.
But…I was an avid reader. I tried to write a novel at age nine. I wrote fabulous
term papers that made the teachers marvel. But I never saw myself as a
future writer. I felt writing was a gift I’d use at whatever I became professionally.
Who/what influenced you to pursue your dreams?
Let’s start with WHAT. I’d reached upper management in a small federal agency.
I was second in command for the state of South Carolina in that agency. Writing
had played a major role in that advancement. I wrote for Congressmen, political appointees, program directors, and agency administrators. I headed task forces, managed employees, and prepared briefs, strategic plans and technical documents that wielded influence. I was known for my writing ability. I even laughed at being able to write “government fiction.” A director could tell me the side he wanted to take on a matter, and I could spin it in writing. But the stress was intense. A peer once asked me over lunch, “When are you going to write for yourself?”
His words hit me like a brick. So I went home, told my family that I had fifteen minutes each night to myself behind a closed door to write. They were not to interrupt me unless:
1. they were bleeding; 2. a bone was broken; 3. the house was on fire. I maintained a 10-12 hour workday with three teenagers, but I kept my private appointment each night. It evolved into a habit, building more and more until it was an hour a day and many hours on the weekend. Once I’d spent three years writing part-time and proved I could earn wages as a writer, and reached the minimum age to negotiate an early retirement (25 years service; I was 46 years old), I left the rat-race. But only after setting my family down and asking if they minded. My husband said he’d be thrilled to see me working at something I obviously loved so much. My children said much the same. Once I took the leap, they actually said I was a much more fun person to live with. Okay, a back-handed compliment, but I gladly accepted it. Because I was indeed happy.
The WHO influence ranges over several people. How do you ever choose one or two? My tenth-grade English teacher, Mrs. Janet  Hilton, convinced me I had writing talent. She dragged me as a shy teenager onto the yearbook staff and made me write copy. My husband cheered me on as I wrote into the night attempting fiction, poetry, essays, anything other than technical government work. I still have the first icky draft of my novel coming out February 2012, a 12-15-year old document, that has his A+ on it in red pen. It stunk but he knew I spent two years writing after work just to see if I had a novel in me.Apparently I did, just not then.
A journalist, KD McIntosh, once asked me for help in finding funds/income since she was ill and still trying to work from home – back in the 90s when that was not the trend. In return, she showed me how to compose and produce a newsletter. She told me I had a niche – grants – that I could teach to writers. I cringed at the thought because it ran too close to being the day job. Reluctantly I started the newsletter, hoping to combine editorial writing with providing grant resources to writers. The newsletter took off. I sent a long, heartfelt thank-you note to her three months after I started FundsforWriters, crediting her for being so wise. I sent it to the hospital where she’d been admitted. I had no idea for what ailment, but I didn’t want to wait until she was home. It was returned unopened. She’d died from ovarian cancer.
That twist of fate slammed me hard. So I took up FundsforWriters with a passion
after that. She obviously knew what she was talking about. That was in early 2000. I had 1000 readers. Today I have 40,000.
I think people shift in and out of your life, influencing as they go. I could name
Pari Noskin Taichert, a mystery author out of New Mexico I chauffeured to a book signing in Scottsdale, Arizona, to the Poisoned Pen bookstore. Over dinner she asked if I did more than FundsforWriters. I mentioned my old novel on the shelf. She told me to take it down and rewrite it. She said I was more mature in my writing now. She told me I’d regret not doing so. I pulled it out the next day. Again, it’s the novel coming out in February.
I could go on and on about people who influenced me. That’s why I try to
influence others, give them a hand along their journey. It’s my way of
passing it forward.
What is your greatest love?
In terms of people, of course my husband and sons. In terms of the universe, I’m enamored with nature. I’m addicted to dirty fingernails, seedlings, weeds, the smell of grass, the stain of garden tomatoes on my shirt, the odor of mulch in summer. I deal with stress in the outdoors, whether seated by the lake watching fish and listening to tree frogs, or weeding and pruning my landscape. Throw in my chickens, and you probably get it. I love the seclusion of the country. It empowers me. I spend Easter relaxed outdoors instead of at church. It’s closer to God. Green. Give me green. My absolute favorite color because of what it symbolizes. Natural. Honesty. Purity. Growth.
What is your greatest fear?
Loss of husband and children. I can cope with absolutely anything else. While I grew up shy, I also grew up strong. People don’t realize that shyness isn’t a weakness. In many cases, it’s an introspective strength that powers us through life.
What is your favorite place?
I grew up as a military brat, so I learned to enjoy wherever I was at the time. However, after having touched 42 states and lived in seven, I gravitate back to the Southeastern US each and every time. My Southern roots date back to the 17th century. I’ve spent most of my life in South Carolina. Even though I was born in Mississippi, I consider SC home. I live on the banks of Lake Murray, and it’s hard to tear me away from the water, woods and wildlife. I’ve never had a desire to apply for a retreat or fellowship, because my muse parks her backside here, in a study facing the lake.
If you could give a bit of sage advice to novice writers, what would it be?
Find a reason to get hungry about writing. Then fight that hunger with a diligence that can’t die. Become known for your diligence. When people ask you what you do, have them walk away stunned at your passion. Write daily.
I speak to writers every day. When I hear comments like they don’t have time right now, or they have children, or they work a day job and need a grant to have time to write, I know better. A sincere writer doesn’t make excuses for not
writing. He beats himself up for missing an opportunity to write and makes up
for it the next day by writing more. A sincere writer fights to improve. A sincere
writer edits to the extreme, deeply driven to perform well. It isn’t about publishing ten ebooks in two years because the industry has shifted to embrace new media. It’s about being the best at what you do, and investing the time, study and research to make it happen. Whether it takes two years or twenty.
Be diligent. That’s what I have to say. Be diligent to write well.
The first book in Hope Clark’s Carolina Slade Suspense
Series will be released by Bell Bridge Books in February 2012.
You can find Hope at:
Editor, FundsforWriters, www.fundsforwriters.com
Writer’s Digest 101 Best Web Sites for Writers – 2001-2011
Over a decade of recognized excellence
Blog – www.hopeclark.blogspot.com
Twitter – www.twitter.com/hopeclark
Facebook – www.facebook.com/chopeclark

About.mehttp://about.me/hopeclark

It’s a hundred degrees here in north Georgia and too hot to do much of anything except remember summers in my Granny’s kitchen. Usually, she had a pressure cooker going full steam, putting up vegetables from the garden. I’m sweating in my house and I have air conditioning and steam-in-a-bag veggies from Publix.

For some reason, that makes me want to get out my cookbook. It’s a binder full of recipes she put together over the years and slid into plastic sleeves so I’d be able to feed my husband and children right one day when she wasn’t around to tell me how to do it anymore. Every time I pull out these recipes, I think of her. And today, she’s telling me I need to quit worrying about the – forgive me, Lord – bikini I’ll be squeezing into in a few weeks when I travel to Europe, and sustain my soul with a lemon pound cake.

So, here you go. I’ve copied the recipe as she wrote it, word for word. If you don’t understand, shoot me a comment. It’ll heat up your house like a sweat lodge and rid you of all impurities.

Old Fashioned Pound Cake

2 cups plain flour

1 cup Crisco

2 cups sugar

5 tbsp Sweet Milk

5 eggs

2 tbsp Lemon Flavoring

Cream sugar and Crisco. Beat one egg at a time into mixture, alternately adding bits of flour and tbsps of milk. (Add part flour, mix, add 2 tbsp milk, mix. Add rest of flour, mix. Then add rest of milk and flavoring.)

Grease bunt pan and pour in batter. Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour, or until brown on top.

You might want to put a cookie sheet on the lower rack in the oven to catch anything that drips out.

Serve with vanilla ice cream.

On a clear October night in 1847, a young woman stood alone on a Nantucket rooftop while her family and friends remained unaware in the house below. She peered into the night sky through a telescope and discovered a discrepancy that would change science forever and win her awards, catapulting her to fame. Maria Mitchell saw a new comet. She set eyes on something that had never been seen before, because Maria was the girl who was looking.

I love her story for so many reasons. If you read about Maria Mitchell you’ll learn that she grew up a Quaker, well-educated for a female of her time, a teacher and a librarian with a sharp and eager mind. After her discovery of the comet, she led an influential life. She was the first American female professional astronomer, first professor of Astronomy at Vassar College, an activist for women’s rights, and a renowned educator. She traveled to the south and spoke against slavery, then traveled to Europe where she hoped to view the sky through the Vatican’s observatory, but because she was a woman, was only allowed to tour it during the day.

On this, she commented, “I did not know that my heretic feet must not enter the sanctuary, that my woman’s robe must not brush the seats of learning.”

Later, she encouraged her students at Vassar, saying, “First, no woman should say, ‘I am but a woman.’ But a woman! What more can you ask to be? Born a woman, born with the average brain of humanity, born with more than the average heart, if you are mortal what higher destiny could you have? No matter where you are nor what you are, you are a power. Your influence is incalculable.”

Maria Mitchell died July 28, 1887, but she was right, because here I am all these years later, remembering her. I close my eyes and see that deliberate, optimistic girl gazing into the firmament, uncompromising, and she asks me to inspect myself.

How often do I go about my writing with the attitude that I am but a woman?

Do I select the truths and stories I think are more valuable or powerful through a filter that keeps me inside the house, where family and friends are most pleased with me? And what would happen if I dared to be the girl who is looking, unafraid, unapologetic, up on that wide open rooftop, alone? Would I discover the ugly truths that hold us apart, or learn the virtues that might bring us together?

I wonder, if we dared to fearlessly write the comets that are our stories, would they change our lives forever?

Maria believed. Incalculable. As the stars. Imagine.

I’m Not Meryl Streep

June 22, 2011

Married fifteen years today, and here’s the thing I believe has made my long-suffering husband’s marriage to a writer a happy one.

Do you know the scene in the film OUT OF AFRICA, where Robert Redford dares Meryl Streep to concoct a story from random bits of information, then he sits and gazes at her in wonder as she weaves a tale of intrigue with the grace and confidence of Scheherazade? Well. My sweet husband looks at me like that. Believe me, that’s love. Because I’m not Meryl.

I’m a writer. I spend all my time in front of a glaring computer, not bathed in candlelight. Some days I forget to run a brush through my hair; typically, I have a foggy expression or a scowl on my face, lost in my struggle to pin down a metaphor. My plots come in starts and stops and my dialogue runs in circles. My characters are stubborn, dull, contradictory and evasive. All of this makes me a crazy person, not a gracious or confident one. When he asks me what I’m writing, more often than not I rattle on about incoherent threads of  some dead end idea, or I snap at him that I can’t talk about it. I’m frustrated. I’m afraid. I don’t know if I can take the dare to find the story inside myself.

But he knows. And he looks at me like Robert looked at Meryl.

And then I remember, the story is us.

Lucky girl.

She Began to Sing to Me

June 17, 2011

The wisdom of a mother’s song remains a mystery, until her daughter makes it her own.

In writing The River Witch, I wanted to explore the timelessness of that core feminine wisdom, passed down through the experiences, memories and traditions of several very different communities of women. What made them the same? What made them different?

Music is very prevalent in my own memories and specifically the hymns I recall from my childhood. One of the most poignant and quietly influential musical traditions in America is the Sacred Harp. Singing and dinner on the grounds still take place in many communities all across the United States, and in other places in the world.

The main character, Roslyn Byrne began to reveal herself to me by reflecting on the music of her childhood as part of a congregation that sang from the Sacred Harp songbook. In the prologue, she is haunted by the loss of her southern Appalachian heritage as part of her identity. As the novel progresses the music becomes a guiding voice, the wisdom of her grandmother.

“These were the first things I heard, the sounds of women and water on a cool, November morning just south of the Cumberland River. My grandmother and two ladies from the Glenmary Baptist church sat in the living room and sang number 159 from the Sacred Harp as my mama labored. Later, the midwife who was also a Keller cousin, told the story of how there’d been a storm that flooded the hollow and the rising water threatened to come in the door all night. Stranded in that little house for three days, they swaddled me in a flour sack quilt, decided what to name me, and predicted all the days of my life. Granny Byrne always said they’d never ate as well, fellowshipped as sweetly, or sang with hearts that full of the Spirit.

I was a grown woman, lost and stranded by my choices, before I realized I’d forgotten that story. And then I heard my Granny Byrne. Day and night, she began to sing to me again, an old song, a lesson of water and time. 

Listen.”

Does music play a part in your own sense of place and identity?

This photo of a solemn little woman was sent to me by a cousin. “This is Granny Hyde,” she said. I sit and look at this face and it just bothers me to death because I keep expecting her to say something to me. And I regret that I can only imagine her secret. Because knowing the Hyde’s, I bet it’s a doozy. The kind of thing I’d write about. Probably why she keeps her mouth shut.

In my family, if you sit around long enough, the women will start to talk. Stay at the table after the eating is done and the men will wander off to stand in the back yard. There’s a familiar repertoire that we stick to, beginning with what our kids are up to, running on to the health of our parents, then ourselves, a few jokes at the expense of our husbands and brothers, but nothing we haven’t heard before. If you’re visiting, we’ll make sure to laugh a little louder.

Clean up the dishes and by then we’re telling our childbirth horror stories like we’re comparing war wounds. Wander out into the flower beds and you’ll get news of the community. Gossip makes a garden grow, didn’t you know?

By then, the sweat will start to tickle the back of your neck and if you’re lucky, you’ll settle on a porch some place with a rocking chair or a glider and a glass of something cold and sweet.

And this is where you get your money’s worth. Where you want to be more than any other place on earth, if you’re like me. You won’t believe what will happen.

No apologies. No censoring. You’ll hear girlhood dreams. Settle back for yarns of young love, heartbreak, sorrow – and maybe where she buried him if she’s got something good in her tea. You’ll get ghost stories, the good kind about babies that still cry or soldiers that are still trying to find home or old dogs that come running across fields years after they’ve gone to the happy hunting grounds. You’ll hear about midnight moonshine runs and gypsies and Cherokee Indian gold buried on a creek bank and never found again.

And trust me, you will believe every word of it. Later, you’ll go and look at yourself in the mirror and it will be the stories that stare back at you, because without even knowing it, somehow they’ve always been your own.

I wonder, did you ever listen? What stories do you hear? What stories will you tell?

Hello!

June 11, 2011

Welcome to the blog!

I hope you’ll visit often to learn more about my writing life and my journey toward May 2012, the publication date for The River Witch.

%d bloggers like this: