Saturday, October 18, 2008
I recently visited with author Leanna Ellis about her latest release LOOKIN' BACK, TEXAS and I'm posting our discussion here! A few years back, I spent a weekend at Leanna's house with some other writer friends. Leanna is a wonderful hostess. We ate great food and brainstormed ideas. That was my first glimpse into her idea for LOOKIN' BACK, TEXAS. I loved it from the start, and I'm so thrilled to see in in book form and on the shelves for readers to buy. I want everyone to meet her quirky, heartwarming characters. You can link to the book trailer for this novel here. In the meantime, sit back and say hello to Leanna.
Jennifer: Hi Leanna. Thanks for allowing me to pick your brain on my blog! Here we go...People who don’t write fiction are always asking me where I get my ideas. I’m sure readers would like to know the origin of the idea for your latest novel LOOKIN’ BACK, TEXAS. Can you tell us?
Leanna: Hi,Jennifer! It’s great to be here. Well, I will admit that Lookin’ Back, Texas is a pretty crazy idea. Who would ever tell their whole town their husband died when he didn’t? But that’s how the idea came to me. And I started imagining why this woman would do that and what kind of a mother she’d be … and how my heroine would have to deal with her mother and fight the tendency to be like her mother. A lot of my ideas start with a question. Ruby’s Slippers, my book that comes out in April 2009, started when I was watching The Wizard of Oz with my children a couple of years ago. I thought, “What would happen if Dorothy lost her somewhere over the rainbow?”
Jennifer: I love all the characters in the book, but Suzanne’s mom Betty Lynn had me laughing out loud numerous times. Is she based on someone you know, even a little bit? Or simply a product of your imagination? Or are you pleading the 5th on this question!?
Leanna: LOL! I should definitely plead the 5th! Thanks for the out! Mostly Betty Lynn (whom I adored because I never knew what she would do – what a surprise to me when she started rearranging flowers at the florist!) is a figment of my imagination. Let me just say, she in no way reflects my own mother. Honestly, there’s probably a little bit of Betty Lynn inside me. Yep! You heard that right. And I’m embarrassed to admit it. But I think many women can relate to Betty Lynn in some ways because so many of us struggle with perfectionism.
Jennifer: You come up with the greatest titles! I love the pop culture connections—LOOKIN’ BACK, TEXAS and the country song LUCKENBACH, TEXAS. And then there’s ELVIS TAKES A BACKSEAT and your upcoming RUBY’s SLIPPERS with the WIZARD OF OZ connection. Do you typically come up with the story idea first, then the title? Or vice versa?
Leanna: For all of those you mentioned, the story came first. The story for Elvis came long before Elvis ever entered the story. Then my critique group hounded me to put Elvis in the title. It took a while but finally I landed on a title that truly fit the book. With Lookin’ Back, Texas, it was originally titled Fault Lines which actually fits pretty well too because of the fault line in the book and the cracks in so many relationships. But one of my critique partners suggested I move the setting of the book to Luckenbach. And when I started researching I discovered it really did fit well. Lookin’ Back, Texas was a nice play on words which reflects my heroine looking back on her own mistakes. My editor really liked it when I suggested the change. Thankfully, Ruby’s Slippers came as I was figuring out the idea of the book. I had another original title which I can’t remember, but one day Ruby’s Slippers just came to me and then it was after that in researching the book that I learned a pair of ruby slippers had actually been stolen from the Judy Garland Museum that the story started to take shape. I try to be flexible with my titles but also I really need a title that is catchy but also really reflects the theme of the book, so sometimes that can take a while.
Jennifer: The metaphors in your novels are so on target—for instance in this book, the unstable foundation of Suzanne’s marriage and the drought-ravaged, earthquake riddled Texas landscape really stand out. Yet you don’t beat the reader over the head with the comparisons, but present them subtly. As a writer, do you strive to send your readers a “message” or simply to entertain? Or both?
Leanna: My first job is to entertain. In inspirational fiction, there isn’t necessarily a message but a spiritual issue. Some authors tend to preach. I think of the spiritual issue more as theme and the character arc of the story. I try really hard not to be preachy. That is not my goal. I’ve learned a lot about motifs and metaphors and symbolism in writing bigger books and really think it makes a stronger, more powerful book when those are utilized.
Jennifer: Suzanne returns home and is forced to confront her past mistakes before she can move forward happily into her future. Do you feel this is a situation most people confront at some point in their lives?
Leanna: Good question. You know, I think we all have things in our past. Some deal with their mistakes head on. Suzanne didn’t. She tried to cover hers up, much as her mother does, but in a subtler way. Betty Lynn is really a reflection of her daughter. She appears to be more flamboyant in her decisions, but Suzanne’s own cover up has the potential to be much more devastating. So for Suzanne, in trying to block out the past or deny it happened, she did need a moment in her life where she confronted it rather than letting it haunt her. Some of us can accept forgiveness easier than others, and that was the character change Suzanne needed to secure a happy ever after. Even though, there will be consequences in her future.
Jennifer: A real strength in your writing is the way in which you so effectively combine humor with serious issues. Does this come easily to you, or is it a difficult balancing act?
Leanna: It is the hardest thing I do. Wish I could just be serious or just funny. Because I think it takes me much longer to write because of the combination. It’s very tough to find the balance. And some situations are so serious and difficult to face that it takes me a while to find humor. But I’ve learned in my writing and reading experiences that I need a breather from the heavy issues which I love. I need to laugh. So I guess I’m stuck trying to do this.
Jennifer: You have created such a quirky, flawed, yet lovable community of characters in this novel. Was it difficult to tell them goodbye when you finally wrote “The End?”
Leanna: In some ways I did hate to say goodbye, but also by the time I finished Lookin’ Back, Texas I was chomping at the bit to start Ruby’s Slippers. Usually after rewriting so many times and revising so much, I’m ready to move onto something else.
Jennifer: So what’s ahead for your readers? Give us a hint about what to expect in RUBY’S SLIPPERS!
Leanna: Oh, I love Ruby’s Slippers! I can’t wait for it to come out! It was probably the hardest book I’ve ever written. But I am very happy with how it turned out. Basically, Dottie loses her ‘somewhere over the rainbow,’ her dream which was her parents’ farm. And in losing that, she realizes she’s been walking in her mother’s footsteps. She has to find her own path, her own yellow brick road, so to speak. The cover is gorgeous! And the trailer my publishing house did is fabulous! The book is a bit more romantic than my other women fiction titles, so that was fun too! But there are plenty of quirky characters.
Jennifer: Any other news you’d like to share?
Leanna: I’m finishing the rough draft of a book set near Marfa, Texas. Have you heard of the Marfa lights? Right now, the working title is Man in the Moon, but I’m thinking of changing the title to Once in a Blue Moon. See! Working with titles is hard for me.
Jennifer: Thanks for the great interview, Le!
Leanna: Thanks so much, Jenny, for the great questions. And thanks for having me on your blog!
Everybody, I highly recommend Leanna's books. Lookin' Back, Texas is available in bookstores now. Buy yourself a copy!
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Thursday, October 09, 2008
Not so long ago, I often enjoyed a couple of glasses of wine with dinner. I’m not sure what happened, but suddenly if I down more than one I’m likely to wake up at three or four a.m. and never go back to sleep. Bummer. Every time I have a physical complaint of any kind lately, the “experts,” -- i.e. doctor, dentist, ophthalmologist, hairdresser, palm reader, you-name-it -- smile,nod and utter an age-related comment that makes me want to spew my Geritol up their nostrils. (I hate to admit it, but I have a nagging suspicion the wine situation might have something to do with that “issue,” too.)
This couldn’t have happened at a worse moment. With the stock market below 9000, now is not a good time to be a teetotaler. I think the only way to get through this crisis is to drink heavily...stay bombed out of our minds...get so smashed that we find it freaking hilarious that our hard-earned retirement money and our kids’ college fund just paid for a bunch of crooked AIG big-wigs to get hot-stone massages at a fancy, over-priced hotel spa. I’ve decided it’s a waste of time to worry about my financial future. Past experience tells me that no matter how wisely and responsibly I save, in the long run it’s out of my hands. Instead I’m going to worry about finding a non-insomnia-inducing alcoholic beverage. Send me your suggestions. I’m looking forward to trying them all out, and I’m not quitting until I either find one, or my liver gives out.
I’m late posting about last week’s “Do Something New” challenge. Last week, I taught a creative writing class for the first time. (If any of my students are reading this, don’t despair. I’ve taught plenty of creative writing workshops, just never an actual ongoing course in a college setting.) I’ve already posted about the first class metting. I really enjoyed the night and look forward to the rest of the course. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a teacher. It’s interesting that I’m still drawn to the profession. Teaching others makes me think critically about the way I create -- what works for me and what doesn’t. And through interacting with students or workshop participants, I always learn something new, too.
This week, instead of meeting for class, we went to hear Pultizer Prize winning journalist Rick Bragg speak. I thought he was fantastic. He had a question/answer session after his “speech.” A guy in the audience asked a really great question--if Mr. Bragg thought creativity is somehow linked to poverty and/or very difficult or trying times, especially in childhood. Mr. Bragg said he thought there is a definite connection. I believe there might be something to that, too. (Not that I think a person MUST have suffered either of these afflictions in order to be creative, but I tend to believe that more creative types have than haven't.) Rick Bragg said that as a child, creativity helped him to temporarily escape poverty through his imagination. He also talked about the lie of the muse. That it doesn't come and go, sprinkling fairy dust on you at sporadic times so that you can finally write. The muse is always with you, he said. If you want to write, then write. Don’t use the muse as an excuse to be lazy, an explanation for not doing the work.
He also stressed that reading books will make you a better writer. I know this to be true. Sorry to those of you who missed his presentation. Rick Bragg is an extremely down-to-earth, funny, talented, southern guy.
In a couple of days, I’m going to interview my friend and talented writer Leanna Ellis about her new book LOOKIN’ BACK TEXAS. (Available in bookstores now!) It's a great read. Stay tuned!
Have a wonderful rest of the week!
www.jenniferarcher.net (My Fiction Website)
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Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Last night was the first class meeting of the creative writing course I'm teaching at Amarillo College. We had a nice turn-out--23 students! The ice-breaker exercise didn't go as smoothly as I'd planned but we winged it and everyone ended up getting to know one another a bit and had fun with it, anyway -- at least I did!
In class, we talked a little about the need to determine your best writing environment; whether you prefer background noise, quiet, solitude, other warm bodies in the room, etc. I mentioned that your preference can alter from book to book, week to week, and year to year, depending on changes in your life situation. For instance, when I had small children at home, I needed peace and quiet in order to write. I wrote early in the mornings before my family woke up, closed away either in my home office or propped up on pillows and under the covers in bed in my spare bedroom. And I would revise what I'd written during breaks at my part-time law-office job. Now that the kids have grown and moved out of the house, I feel stifled sometimes by the confines and solitude of my home office. I often write at coffee shops now, where there's noise, but not noise that's directed at me--as was the case when I was raising children! But one thing I failed to mention in class is that I also write outside sometimes when weather permits. Long ago, I noticed that ideas and words seem to flow more freely from my mind down into my fingertips and onto the page when water is nearby. Since I live in the landlocked great plains and don't have an ocean, river or stream within easy driving distance, my husband and I have turned our backyard into our very own tropical paradise, complete with palm trees, lush foilage and flowers, and even a waterfall. (That's it in the photo above!) Watching the water trickle over the rocks, listening to the soothing, musical sound of it, somehow frees up my imagination. To read a good discussion on the topic of water and creativity, click here.
Another "tool" I use for coming up with ideas, dislodging writer's block, or solving a plot problem is to take a walk. Get moving outside. Let the fresh air clear your head and let your mind wander. I don't know why walking works, but it does. And you're likely to burn off a few pounds and tone up in the bargain!
Reporting in on my "Do Something New" weekly challenge: Last week I actually managed to do TWO things I've never done before. (1) I trained to become a Volunteer Deputy Registrar--which is a fancy way of saying that I can now register people to vote if they live in my county. Then, on Thursday, I worked the voter registration drive at my alma mater West Texas A&M University. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I was assigned to an outside table on the new campus mall right next to the impressive new buffalo sculpture and down from the new clock tower. I hadn't been on campus in a while and I was amazed at the transformation. What a gorgeous campus it has become! Flowers everywhere and walking areas instead of ugly parking spaces between buildings. Wow.
We had great success in signing up lots of new, young voters, too. (2)The second new thing I did: On Saturday morning I participated in the Walk For The Cure, supporting breast cancer research. One of my sisters, my parents and I walked approximately 3 miles through downtown Amarillo with hundreds of other folks, young and old. It was great seeing all the ladies in their pink t-shirts--the survivors of that terrible disease, my lovely mom being one of them.
What I'm reading and watching: In anticipation of Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Rick Bragg's talk next Tuesday night at the Amarillo Globe News Center, I'm continuing to re-read his memoir ALL OVER BUT THE SHOUTIN'. It's even better and more impressive the second time around! My Netflix envelope arrived in the mail with the movie ATONEMENT. Haven't sat down to watch it yet. As for television, I'm glued to politics -- the campaign and the on-going financial mess. Why watch anything else? It has everything: drama, comedy, farce, horror, intrigue, bad acting!
Happy reading and writing,
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