Author Interview – Valerie J. Brooks

What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book?
I had no idea that I would write noir. I loved film noir and had taken a college course to study the form. But on a 2015 trip to Paris with my husband, during Christmas and New Years, the area around the 15th arrondissement caught my imagination. It was a month after the Bataclan terrorist attacks, and ten thousand soldiers were on Paris streets. Some of the soldiers were so young, they had pimples. Homeless Muslim women prostrated themselves on the cold cement of the Champs-Elysées, holding out begging bowls, while the avenue’s trees twinkled with tiny clear lights. The juxtapositions were everywhere. As I do on most of trips, I kept receipts, brochures, menus. I took photos of every place I went, especially of small details. I wrote in a journal. Back home in Oregon, I dug up a story I’d written many years before about an anniversary weekend Dan and I spent in Portland, Oregon. I’d fictionalized it a bit to create a noir story for a travel magazine that was never published. I guess in my personal zeitgeist, I was drawn to the dark. Hell, I’d grown up in New England with ghosts, the gothic, and secrets. Everyone hid behind a veil of perception.

What obstacles did you encounter while writing the book?
I don’t remember encountering any obstacles. I’m sure I did, but I loved writing the stories. Maybe that was my obstacle—writing a novel as three separate stories that were linked. After publishing them in succession as e-books, I had to market them individually, too, and that was so much work! I don’t regret doing it this way. When the three were complete, I laced them together, and voila! A noir novel.

How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
I found my voice. Noir comes naturally to me. Noir also reflects the dark times we live in, and I was able to slip in some of my politics. In fact, I’ve renamed this generation of noir. In the 40-50s it was called simply noir. In the 60s-90s, neo-noir. This new noir I call femmes noir. In the older noir, women were either hungry, man-eating females or needy victims. I turned that trope on its head—without making the woman psychotic or sociopathic. I want my women to be like the women I know—strong, gutsy, intelligent, and playing on the right side, although they have lots of baggage caused from bad choices and societal influences. That sends them down the noir sink hole. The women also do things I’d never do. Like murder. It’s fiction. What can I say? They are badasses, and I cheer for them.

Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? What was that process like?
I’ve been the traditional publishing route for over twenty years. Three literary novels, three fabulous, hard-working NYC agents. Nada. I came damn close, one time being told they already had a novel like mine, which of course they didn’t. I know the one they were comparing my novel to, and I laughed. But after that long time of schlepping the manuscript, sometimes not even getting the decency of a form letter, I said, “Not this time.” So I researched the indie publishing route. It’s not easy. Steep learning curves, lots of time spent comparing, making mistakes, begging for help. But I knew I could do it. Now for the first time, I have a paperback novel, and I’m so proud of it.

Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
Oh, gads, yes! I can’t tell you how many of my friends are writers—or artists, musicians, creative folk. I’m totally in my element. My best friend, Jan Eliot, is a cartoonist. I’ve been on the board of Eugene Ballet and Oregon Writers Colony. I co-founded the Willamette Writers Speakers Series. I was an advisor for Artists in Schools. I market a poet. I’ve taught workshops on writing and the writing life. I have a writing group that’s met for almost twenty years. I’ve been to five artists residencies where I’ve made writer friends. Other writers are the only people who truly understand us, and we raise each other up. I’m rich with writer friends.

Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like?
No. It’s the most irregular thing I do. I’ve tried, but sometimes, I’m just floating around, taking in the world, listening to radio, like a squirrel stashing nuts; it’s all there for consuming when I need it. When I do write, I write like crazy.

How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
I have the second femmes-noir in the Angeline Porter Series in the works, tentatively titled Tainted 2 Times, plus I’ve been working on a memoir about my early years in the wild rural west of Oregon titled Vida Flats.

Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
Both writing and dancing are spiritual practices for me. I can’t explain it, but I find both for me are like meditation. When I write at Colonyhouse in Rockaway Beach for a week (Oregon Writers Colony’s members’ residency), I dance on the beach, I immerse in my writing, each a way to reach a different plane, a higher level of awareness and soul-searching.

What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
I have no idea. I can’t imagine my life without writing or creating art or finding a passion in some creative outlet. My mom kept a scrap of paper of when I was four or five where I did a crayon drawing of the neighbor’s house. When I was ten or eleven, I set up my brother’s plastic cowboys and Indians in the backyard with teepees I made. I had a story in my head then got down on the ground and took photographs of the tableau. In high school, I sold paintings in a gallery show, performed in the school’s theater productions, was art editor of the yearbook, and wrote for the school newspaper. In college I was art editor then editor of the literary arts magazine. After I arrived in Oregon, I sold work at the Saturday Market and did art for the local newspaper. I can’t imagine my life without some form of creativity. It just wouldn’t happen.

Why do you write?
Because I have to.


You can read more about Val’s new novel Revenge in 3 Parts and her blog at http://www.valeriejbrooks.com. Order it on all platforms and buy in indie stores. 

Read this recent article about Val in the Register-Guard.

 

Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday – October 19

Here’s your Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday* opening sentence.


_________________ heard the front door groan open and hid the _________________ with a flourish.


The “Rules”

  • Fill in the blanks.
  • Finish the story in 1,000 words.
  • Post your story in the comments section below by the next Friday.

I’ll post the winner** on my social media sites AND

you could wind up in the Fill-in-the-Blank Flash Fiction Friday book
I just might maybe publish at the end of the year

Sending you mad writing mojo….

Johnnie
XXXX


*Writing is serious business, but sometimes it’s fun to have fun.

**Selection of the winner is arbitrary and depends on my mood, what I’ve eaten or haven’t eaten, how much sleep I’ve had, and my constantly shifting tastes…

Writer as Shaman: 7 Ways Stories Will Change Your Life and Heal the World

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro from Pexels

Twenty-five years ago, I started writing a novel, and the process of developing the main character and her story world created a crack in my psyche and changed my life forever. I was taken through my own dark night of the soul, which led – gratefully – to my spiritual transformation. Since then, I have been on a spiritual path, have viewed my creative writing practice as a spiritual practice, and have devoted myself and my life to embracing the power of story.

While writers have probably always had an innate sense that stories heal, science has proven the benefits of story in our lives – in both the writing and reading of fiction and non-fiction. Stories are a human need. We crave them. We tell them. Every day. Stories are not only healing to the writer. They carry the power to heal readers and the world at large, as well.

For the Writer

1 – Evoking your imagination while writing a story can lead to improved brain capacity and ease of being in the world.

  • Using your imagination can improve your problem-solving skills. By troubleshooting a character’s obstacles as she attempts to attain her primary desire, you can become more creative in troubleshooting and solving your own.
  • Using your imagination can improve your memory. Engaging your imagination creates more neurons in your brain, which leads to better brain function and retaining information.
  • Using your imagination can improve your relationships and social interactions. By empathizing with your characters’ problems, you’ll become more aware of the day-to-day struggles of your fellow humans, thus allowing you to be more empathetic in general.

2 – Using the process of amalgamation, which is the act of consciously or unconsciously blending real-life people and events with imaginary people and events for the sake of storytelling, allows us to resolve events from the past.

  • Recounting stories from our personal past can help us make meaning of what was. By remembering a past event from an older, more experienced – or simply different – perspective can give us a sense of personal power.
  • Creating a re-telling of a past event and imagining what could have been can also give us a sense of personal power. This is not about denying reality or naively wishing a situation had been different, but more about reframing the story to achieve a sense of redemption or inner harmony.
  • Using creative license to write about anything from a past personal event to a current cultural phenomenon and creating a fictional story with a positive outcome can give us hope. There is something immensely powerful in being able to imagine a world where change and growth are possible. Believing in a better world and doing what we can to create it helps us find peace in the moment while continuing to put one foot in front of the other with a sense of personal agency toward the project of human evolution.

3 – Through the process of deep character development, we come to understand ourselves on a much deeper level. By creating characters who come off the page and behave like real people rather than flat, cardboard caricatures or stereotypes and getting beneath their skins to examine their true motivations, pains, and fears, we can’t help but do this better for ourselves. Thus, writing stories leads to greater self-awareness and advances us along our paths of personal evolution.

For the Reader

4 – Reading stories gives us a healthy escape from everyday life. Whether we read a memoir about someone’s experience growing up in a small rural community or a fantasy novel about a young woman with superpowers, the descriptions that build the story world evoke our imaginations and bring us the same benefits realized by the writer mentioned above. As Stephen King once wrote, “Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.” Reading stories quiets our minds, much the same way meditation does.

5 – Reading stories – in particular, literature – leads to greater levels of empathy. By riding along beside a character through the ups and downs of his quest to achieve his goal and through the mistakes he makes along the way, we become softened to the struggle of what it means to be human, which allows us to more readily accept and embrace struggle and imperfection in others.

6 – Reading stories can lead to greater human connection. When a reader witnesses an experience like their own, they know they’re not alone in the world, that their life isn’t as taboo as they may think or feel, and through this, they can experience validation, and ultimately, a feeling of connection.

For the World

7 – When writers and readers experience the benefits of story, it up-levels their positive presence in the world. Writing and reading both bring numerous benefits, probably the most far-reaching of which is a greater understanding of the human condition. This understanding can elicit more compassion, more empathy, and ultimately, more peace in the world.

English writer, Alan Moore, known for Watchmen and V for Vendetta, among many others, believes writers are modern day shamans. He describes the magic they work as the alchemical process of manipulating symbols, words, or images, to create story worlds into which readers can enter and experience changes in consciousness.

This journey into story worlds – ours and others’ – allow us to clear our minds. It serves as a salve to our hearts and an elixir to our spirits and souls. If you’re looking for creative ways to further your evolution as a human on earth in this lifetime, embrace the power of story. Write your stories. Share them. And read the stories of others.

We all have stories to tell. What’s yours?

The reason you aren’t writing #4

image from honeybeehaven.com

Imagine a bunch of bumble bees in a jar. The lid’s closed tight, and they want OUT. Frenzied, ricocheting, banging off the sides of the glass, slamming into each other. Getting more and more agitated.

This is your brain when you have TOO MANY ideas and thoughts. This is what happens when you hang on to those thoughts and ideas, thinking you can write it out in your mind, thinking you can figure it all out and have it all in order when you “have time” to get it all on the page.

The truth is, you won’t figure it out UNTIL you get what’s in there onto the page. So set the angry bees free, and do a word dump.

This may very well be my favorite phase of writing. It’s when I get to take all those crazy, frenzied, non-stop, LOUD thoughts in my head and purge them. Word dumping is similar to freewriting, but word dumping is more conscious.

Unload onto the page or screen (keyboard is a-okay for this process) every thought that comes to you about your character, story, scene, or plot without worrying that it makes sense, connects in any meaningful way, or has anything to do with your current plot or character trajectory.

Just get it all out. You can shape it later, much like a potter or a sculptor would. (I know, I’m mixing my metaphors… But you get what I’m getting at. Set the bees free, then throw the clay. All right?!) When a potter sits down at her wheel to start a new piece, she knows that a bowl or a vase or a cup won’t magically appear. She must first throw the clay to have something to work with.

Likewise, Taoists believe that a sculpture already exists in a block of marble and it’s the sculptor’s job to remove what isn’t needed. Get your thoughts outside yourself; then and only then will you be able to know what you’re working with and what you don’t need.

Set the timer for 10 minutes, and go.

Begin your writing exercise with the following phrase.

The thing I love most about my main character is _________________.

Let me know how it goes in the comments!

Sending you mad writing mojo…

Amalgamation – or How to respond when someone asks, “Is this about you?”

According to Merriam-Webster, amalgamation is “the action or process of uniting or merging two or more things.” This can show up in the merging of businesses, the fusion of two different music styles, and the blending of two cultures.

In the world of writing, amalgamation happens consciously and unconsciously. Some writers intentionally draw from their personal lives, use real situations but change names to protect the innocent (and themselves from being sued), use their home town or state as the milieu for a story, and much more.

For other writers, like me, amalgamation happens unconsciously. It wasn’t until I was partway through the second draft of my in-progress novel, Miranda’s Garden, that I realized Crystal, Miranda’s (my main character’s) neighbor, is an amalgamation of both of my grandmothers. And I realized Miranda’s husband, Len, was an amalgamation of my first and second husbands and my cousin, Keith. I also consciously use Illinois and Colorado as settings for the story because I’ve lived in both areas long enough to be able to write about the terrain and because cornfields and mountains play an important part in the story, as metaphor.

An excellent example of a current author who uses amalgamation – and acknowledges it (although I’ve never read that he’s used this word to describe it) – is James Frey. Frey was in Portland recently talking about his newest book, Katerina. While at Powell’s City of Books, he indicated that he did, in fact, go to Paris in his early 20s to write and he did, in fact, date a model named Katerina, just like the character in the book. He said he also made up stuff.

You may recall Frey from the 2006 debacle when he and his book, A Million Little Pieces, rose to fame as a beacon of recovery after landing on Oprah’s Book Club list and was then knocked off her pedestal after it was discovered parts of the book were fictionalized. This unfortunate turn of events came about for a few reasons: Frey had used real-life events and embellished, Frey’s publisher thought it best to position the book as a memoir, and Oprah – to spare her precious ego and because she was clueless about how literary genres function – came out like God on the Day of Reckoning to publicly castigate and shame Frey.

This cluelessness is common, and I’ve seen it a lot after sharing my work and while attending public readings and exhibitions of others. Some readers/listeners/viewers feel the need to pry into the “truthfulness” of a story – even when that story is deemed fictional. Many will assume that the use of the first person “I” indicates a story about the writer. Or if the story is presented in third person point of view, there’s often the sly, “This is really about you, isn’t it?”

When I screened my feature film, Found Objects, some people commented on the similarities between the main character in the story and me. Yes, she was a creative soul who had lost herself in the domestic sphere of the nuclear family consisting of a husband and three kids. Yes, I drew from a couple of incidents – like the day my son, Spencer, came home from school and said he’d learned that physical touch can help us live longer (which from then on, for a long, long time, led to him saying, “Hey, mom, I wanna live longer” whenever he wanted a hug). And yes, the husband had wanted to be an architect, just like mine had, which I chose to use only because it aligned well with my use of houses and spaces as metaphors for our Selves. The rest was a story about a character that grew in my mind, became her own person, and had her own story to tell.

One of my professors from grad school had the perfect comeback for the is-this-about-you question: “Will knowing this allow you to take in the work differently?” In my experience, the answer has always been ‘no’.

Those who understand how the creative process works understand that whether we’re writing about ourselves or not is immaterial. It’s the story – the work – and its emotional impact that matter. In a world so fraught with accusations about what’s fake and what’s real, we must remember that, in many (most?) cases, truthfulness is subjective. If you and I live an event, we’ll both have different truths about it and what it means. As Albert Camus said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

Whether we’re writing fiction or memoir, you can bet there’s a complex blend of “lies” and truths. Memoirists often condense events and timelines, and they conflate characters. These decisions are usually done for the sake of economy of language among other reasons. Does it matter if a memoir isn’t completely factual? I don’t think so. Of course, there are ways to let readers know when we’ve made adjustments to “reality” (a note at the front of the book will suffice) if that’s important to you. But this is for every writer to decide.

When deciding whether or not I deem a book “good,” I don’t care much about the conventions of formatting or doing things “by the book,” and I won’t take the time to sleuth about to find out if the author did her/his research (for fiction) or lived through an event in the book (for memoir).  For me, what matters most is the emotional truthfulness of a story. If I read a book – fiction or memoir – and it touches me, resonates with me, and stays with me for days, I’m satisfied.

So… put the heart of your story first. Tell it with all the emotional truthfulness you and your main character can gather. Then decide how much you want or need to stick to the “facts.” It’s yours to tell.