interview, part two at writer unboxed

Kathleen Bolton has posted the second half of the interview she did with me for Writer Unboxed. But before you go read it, I have to clarify something.

I’m not superwoman. I have the same doubts and fears everbody else has every morning when I look at what I have to get done. I obsess about a whole list of things– just like everybody else. It’s true that I’ve done a wide variety of things in my life thus far, but that can be put down to boredom or irritation.

A short confessional:

My study is a mess.

The library alcove in the house? I had to hire somebody else to organize it because it was so nutsy out of hand.

I lose paperwork, on a regular basis. Not ads or flyers, but bills to be paid and forms my agent needs me to fill out. I once lost a check for $5,000 and had to ask for it to be reissued.
I stare at a blank screen every day and panic. I was reading a biography of Norman Rockwell lately and I laughed out loud when I read his summary of his work process: 1. Hey, this is looking like it’ll turn out pretty good 2. My God, I’ve ruined it. Look at this mess! 3. Wait. Maybe I could –.

How many paintings and illustrations did the man do? Hundreds and hundreds, and every time he stood in front of his easel, it was the same thing, the same set of doubts and worries and beatijng himself up.

So read the interview, if you are curious. But remember I do not own a red cape nor do I look even slightly wonderwomanish.

But it is a wonderful interview. If I had a presskit, I’d make sure to put a copy of this interview in it.

Philip Schuyler

A couple days ago I posted the old illustration that was supposedly Philip Schuyler’s mansion. That originated from Loessing’s Pictoral History of the Revolution.

I managed to dig out some images of the Schuylers’ two homes in upstate New York, and I posted them on the relevant wilderness wiki page.

There is still a lot of data to be filled in for Schuyler, but you might find the photos interesting as they give you some sense of what I was working with as I wrote some crucial scenes — such as Elizabeth’s and Nathaniel’s wedding.

a project to make my crafty little heart beat faster

Pam had a suggestion:

Publish Hannah’s medical journals. Or fragments of the same. A partial even. Sort of a Sabine and Griffin-ish publication in appearance. You’d have to collaborate with your favourite artists and font designers, but isn’t that interesting regardless? Include side notes where Hannah, in her old age, goes back over the journal and adds reflections in a Curiosity-like manner. And Hannah hopefully will not age cynically.

I’d include recipes, character portraits of her notable patients, and a list of symptoms and diagnoses. Bonus – sketches Lily had done and given to Hannah could be clipped in or inserted (imagine on tracing paper weight paper, they fall out of the book when you unseal it from its vacuum packed plastic wrapping – hey, other things might fall out too. Hm, what budget am I imagining here? Craziness.). And, Neat-o. Likely a bugger to publish. And expensive. Us fans would simply drool and wonder what was in the plastic wrap until our birthdays or Christmas, eh?

I think I once mentioned that a not-so-secret desire of mine was to include letters in the novels. Not transcriptions of the letters, but folded letters, in handwriting. Yellowed paper, the whole thing. So you’d have the sense of holding the actual letter Nathaniel wrote to Elizabeth while he was in New Orleans. Also, newspaper clippings. All these bits could be in an old fashioned (miniature) letter portfolio in the back of the novel. And if we’re going there, the story itself could be illustrated. Not in the traditional sense — a glossy page with a formal painting showing a cabin in the woods — but small illustrations on various pages. The pine tree with the crooked top. Elizabeth’s writing table.

So I love Pam’s idea. Given the realities of the way publishing works, it’s unlikely to ever happen — unless suddenly all five books in the series jumped to the top ten NYT bestseller list. Ha!


edited to add the mp3 of John Doe #24; please let me know if it doesn’t work, as this is the first time I’ve tried to embed an audio link.

I don’t think it’s any secret that I’m agnostic, and that I prefer science to religion when it comes to trying to sort out the big mysteries. Also, it’s probably clear that I don’t pray to any god or gods, and that I don’t believe in life after death. Now, the idea of life after death is appealing, but I can’t find a way to make myself believe in it. I love the whole world view that goes along with reincarnation, but in the same way I love the idea of Oz. A wonderful story, but no more than that.

On the other hand, I am cautious enough and maybe intellectually curious enough to admit that many things in the universe are beyond human understanding. Which is akin to saying: maybe there is some kind of greater intelligence out there, steering things. But if so, it’s happening in a way that’s completely beyond the confines of my brain.

And on the topic of the brain: it’s a big mystery. So much we don’t understand. So I’d have to say that I am open to the possibility of extra sensory perception, but to be really convinced I’d need some hard data.

What’s all this about, you’re wondering. I do have a point.

I don’t believe in life after death, which means, logically, that I don’t believe in ghosts. And I don’t. Not in the sense of the spirits of the dead hanging around on earth, sometimes making themselves known. Waiting to move off to another level of being. Nope, none of that works for me. It strikes me as both sad and fitting that a human being lives out a life, gathering information and sensation and experience, and then all that dies with him or her and soaks back into the earth. I don’t believe my father’s ghost is still on this earth, though I would like it if it were. If he were nearby watching, and commenting, that would make me feel protected in the same way a small child feels safe, lying in bed at night hearing adults talking in the other room.

So I don’t believe in ghosts, but here’s the thing: my characters often do. Ghosts pop into my stories on a fairly regular basis. They are as talkative dead as they were alive. Hannah has experienced this. In Homestead there was one particularly stubborn ghost, he just couldn’t stay out of things. He was absolutely real, in that story, for those characters and within that context, he was and is real to me too. He surprised me and made me oddly happy. As if a wild animal approached without warning to offer a paw in friendship.

The point is, in telling stories characters take on life, and the things they believe and know take on a kind of life as well. It’s vaguely schizophrenic, believing/not believing self/other all in one, but that’s part of the draw of writing. That ability to experience things through your characters that are less available to you in the mundane day-to-day.

Write this whole odd post off to (1) weariness; (2) general worries; (3) way too much Mary Chapin Carpenter. John Doe No. 24 always puts me in one of these moods. I think about him often. From the book about his life, this summary:

Police found John Doe No. 24 in the early morning hours of October 11, 1945, in Jacksonville, Illinois. Unable to communicate, the deaf and mute teenager was labeled “feeble minded” and sentenced by a judge to the nightmarish jumble of the Lincoln State School and Colony in Jacksonville. He remained in the Illinois mental health care system for over thirty years and died at the Sharon Oaks Nursing Home in Peoria on November 28, 1993.

Deaf, mute, and later blind, the young black man survived institutionalized hell: beatings, hunger, overcrowding, and the dehumanizing treatment that characterized state institutions through the 1950s. In spite of his environment, he made friends, took on responsibilities, and developed a sense of humor. People who knew him found him remarkable.

Award-winning journalist Dave Bakke reconstructs the life of John Doe No. 24 through research into a half-century of the state mental health system, personal interviews with people who knew him at various points during his life, and sixteen black-and-white illustrations. After reading a story about John Doe in the New York Times, acclaimed singer-songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote and recorded “John Doe No. 24”
and purchased a headstone for his unmarked grave. She contributes a foreword to this book.

As death approached for the man known only as John Doe No. 24, his one-time nurse Donna Romine reflected sadly on his mystery. “Ah, well,” she said, “God knows his name.”