In the beginning there was the word

I was recently at a writers’ conference where a fellow author said to me, “Oh, I hate writing. I’d quit if I could.” I thought it was a funny statement, but also sad. Why would anyone give their time to a pursuit that they don’t love? Just because a story presents itself to you doesn’t mean you have to tell it. As author Matthew Quick writes in his YA novel, Every Exquisite Thing, “Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you have to do it.”

For me, the word — both written and read — has long been a joy. I’ve lived in books. I believe I’ve loved fictional characters (both of my own creation and others) sometimes more deeply, more completely, than I’ve loved actual people.

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“Woman Reading” by Félix Vallotton, 1906

There was Kip, the Sihk bomb defuser from The English Patient. I’m not ashamed to say I loved him. And I love Michael Ondaatje for writing him. George Emerson from A Room With a View is both one of the great loves of my life and my spirit animal. Continue reading

Namesake: On christening your fictional characters

What’s in a name? If it’s your own — the moniker your parents bestowed before they ever got to know you – it’s either a blessing or a curse. Or you’ve changed it, legally or at least by reputation, to something more suitable. If it’s the title of a project, then a name becomes a brand, a calling card, and an introduction. In the case of band names, they often deserve more thought than they ultimately get — I’m looking at you, Hoobastank and Diarrhea Planet.

1953yearbook_1_largeBut what I’m thinking about, in this case, are the names of characters in works of fiction. In tenth grade, inspired by my parents’ hippy friends, I named a character in a short story Omega. My English teacher wrote, in red pen, “Do you even know what this word means?” When my first novel was published, one reviewer — who was overall kind and enthusiastic — wrote, “I do find myself wishing that Marshall came up with some non-soap-opera names for her fictional musicians.” So names matter. They set the tone for the character and they also serve as a litmus test for the believability and authenticity of a story.

As writers (unlike parents) we know the people we’re tasked with naming, so we need to try our best to do right by them. I say this as someone who sometimes gets it wrong. But I’m not alone. I’m currently reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise and while I like it, I find the name of the protagonist, Amory Blaine, rather pretentious. Plus, it makes me think of Andrew McCarthy’s Blane from Pretty In Pink, of whom Jon Cryer’s Duckie said, “That’s a major appliance, that’s not a name!” And what about Dick Diver from Tender is the Night, also by Fitzgerald? Not to pick on F. Scott — even lovely Nick Hornby is prone to soap-opera names for fictional musicians, e.g. Tucker Crowe in Juliet Naked. Continue reading

Q+A with Lindsay Starck, author of ‘Noah’s Wife’

Originally published at Mountainx.com

author photo_Starck_credit Victoria McHugh Photography (2)

Lindsay Starck, photo by Victoria McHugh Photography

Chapel Hill-based author Lindsay Starck took on epic subject matter for her debut novel: The biblical story of Noah. But rather than the ark, it’s his spouse who captured Starck’s imagination. In Noah’s Wife, the author reframes the characters of the Hebrew narrative in the modern day, as a couple relocated to a new town. Stack’s Noah is a minister sent to lead a congregation in a place where weird weather patterns have brought nonstop rain for years. Noah’s wife, initially just a supporter of her husband’s work, finds her own purpose in creating community where faith and hope have been abandoned.

Alli Marshall: Noah’s wife doesn’t have a name in the novel — she’s just referred to by her relationship to others. I’m guessing you did this because she isn’t named in the Bible, but was it hard to develop a character without knowing her name?

Lindsay Starck: Oddly enough, thinking of her as “Noah’s wife” helped me to write about her because it gave me a clear idea of how she understood her position in the world and her relationship to other people. She’s a minor character in the biblical story, which puts her in a supporting role. I imagined that she was comfortable in this role, that she understood it, and that her struggle over the course of the novel would be to redefine herself as an individual — and as a protagonist.

The premise of the novel is the idea that a person’s status as a “major” or “minor” character is merely a matter of perspective; everyone has his or her own storyline, even if there isn’t any record of it. My job, as I saw it, was to provide a record for Noah’s wife. As I wrote, I wondered: What does it mean to play a supporting role to someone else? How much of our identities are defined by other people? How do we understand ourselves outside of those relationships?

What were some of the challenges with adapting (at least in part) a biblical tale to a modern setting?

Because the original story is so minimalist, I felt I had a great deal of creative freedom. There are no descriptions of anyone, not a lot of backstory, very little setting, and so I could imagine my characters and their town in any way I pleased. I never intended for the book to be a direct allegory or a straight retelling of the biblical tale… Instead, in Noah’s Wife I engage with many of the themes (faith, doubt, destruction, renewal) and imagery (animals, rain, boats, doves) of the original story in order to create something new. It’s a story about human relationships, not divine ones; it’s about faith, yes, but it’s about faith in other people, faith in community.

Have you adapted or drawn inspiration from any other bible stories or fables?

Although I haven’t written anything else directly adapted from another story, I like to think that books are always inspired by other books. One of the most interesting short story collections I’ve read over the past year is Kate Bernheimer’s XO Orpheus, an anthology of fiction written by authors who are reworking ancient myths. I love this concept because I’m very interested in how works of literature speak with and through one another. The best adaptations reveal something new, something we hadn’t seen before in the original.

NOAH'S WIFE coverfinalWhat was the original idea or event that sparked this book?

When I began writing this novel, I was in my mid-20s, and my friends and colleagues were beginning to pair off. As I watched people navigate the tumultuous waters of romance and friendship, I wondered over the nature of “pairings” more generally. What makes a marriage work? Why do some friendships fall apart, while others last for decades? What qualities make a good mother, a good daughter, a good neighbor?

The idea of “pairs,” along with my conviction that the flood story was darker and more complex than it often appears to be in popular culture, led me to Noah — and from there, to his wife. What sort of woman, I wondered, would be willing to abandon her community and follow her husband into a giant floating zoo? What if she were afraid of reptiles or allergic to feathers? How could she continue to believe in Noah, if she could not see the signs that he saw? If she were given a voice, what would she say?

The rain that continues through the story feels oppressive. What was it like, as a writer, to immerse yourself in the idea of that gray and soggy place for so long?

As Noah’s wife would say (in her optimistic way), there’s “a certain beauty” to the rain—and of course water imagery comes with a long tradition of symbolism, which I enjoyed thinking over and reworking. So it wasn’t as depressing as one might think! Still, one reason I included the “Dr. Yu” sections was because I did need to get out of the rain every couple of chapters (and I thought my readers might also appreciate the reprieve). It was refreshing to take a break to write about sun and shadows and wind without worrying about water rushing through gutters or pounding against windowpanes.

I’ll probably avoid writing about rain in my next novel. I’ve exhausted every possible way I can think of to describe it!

Did you do anything (watch rainy movies, run water while you were writing, visit Seattle) to cultivate the mood?

Ha! Great question. I thought a lot about the novel while swimming laps, actually — so perhaps that helped. Above my desk, I tacked newspaper clippings about the zoo floodings in Calgary (2013) and Minot, North Dakota (2011). Articles like this one from The New York Times (I love that its title references the ark) illustrated the terrible destruction of modern-day floods while also managing to include some lighthearted descriptions of the animals. That’s what I wanted my animals, to do, too: provide some moments of levity in an otherwise dark story.

What brought you to North Carolina, and are you inspired by the literary history and/or community of N.C.?

Graduate school! I’m finishing up a degree in comparative literature at UNC-Chapel Hill. And yes, the renowned literary community in the state was a huge draw for me. I admire the strong tradition of storytelling in the region, and I’ve found fellow writers in North Carolina to be generous, warm, and genuinely invested in each other’s work. Daniel Wallace in particular has provided a great deal of encouragement and support. As Georgann Eubanks (author of Literary Trails in the North Carolina Mountains) points out in this interview with UNC Press, the state offers a wonderful fusion of natural beauty, local community, and a commitment to education and the arts.

My favorite anthology of North Carolina writers is Long Story Short, a collection of flash fiction edited by Marianne Gingher. I’ve also had the fantastic opportunity to work as an editor of The Carolina Quarterly, where I’ve been inspired by the talented new voices we publish as well as my fellow editors’ commitment to contemporary literature—for all of us, it’s a labor of love.

Are you teaching writing in Chapel Hill?

Yes. I teach writing (both composition and creative writing) as well as literature and film—and sometimes Italian, which is a lot of fun. What I like about teaching writing is how much I learn about my students’ experiences and perspectives on the world through their fiction. By reading and by writing, I believe, we become more empathetic. We practice getting into others’ minds and we try to see situations through others’ eyes. For me, that’s the whole point of literature.

What are you currently working on?

I’m finishing up a dissertation on modernist literature, social networks, and gossip. After that, it will be on to the next novel!

Fiction and songwriting

Fiction and songwriting

It’s my theory (and probably not mine alone) that whatever you search for, that’s what you’ll find. Teachers are everywhere. Since I’m interested in the craft of fiction, and my day job involves many interviews with musicians, I learn a lot about writing fiction from songwriters.

Creativity is transmutable. (Technique is another issue, but there are probably YouTube videos for that.)

Still, I was surprised by a recent interview between Lord Huron front man Ben Schneider and NPR reporter Melissa Block. Schneider, who got his start as a visual artist and now lives in L.A., approaches his musical project from a very literary point of view. The first Lord Huron album, Lonesome Dreams, is a collection of songs inspired by Schneider’s youth spent near Lake Huron. The characters are all fabled and mist-enshrouded and could have been be culled from folklore.

The new album, Strange Trails — which the singer-songwriter discusses with Block — is a series of post-apocalyptic shorts and ghost stories, each sung from the perspective of the song’s central character. It’s flash fiction at its finest: poignant and palpable, brief yet complete.

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I love this for a couple of reasons. First, many musicians say they don’t want to share their song inspirations for fear of altering the listener’s perception of the song. And that’s valid. I understand the sentiment from the perspective that songs hit on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one (and often the former more than the later). But as a person who loves words and listens to lyrics first, I want to dig into the songwriting process. That Schneider’s is so closely linked to the process of writing fiction is intriguing.

Second, I’ve felt disappointed, in the past, by songwriters who get too invested in creating a fictional world for their songs. Telling a good story: yes. Creating a persona and a fictional voice and a world for those to inhabit: no.

Case in point: Father John Misty. Now, I have friends, whose opinions I respect, who like Father John Misty. I get that the songs, albums and stage shows are the fiction created by Joshua Tillman. But I don’t think the fiction works because the character is pretty much a jerk. And, while he crafts a world of his own, it’s ultimately not one that anyone else can inhabit. It’s a world of flash and catchy hooks, of smug insider jokes and brash dismissals.

But there’s no mystery, no room for the listener to live within the idea, no secret doors left to open or curtains to peer behind.

Lord Huron, on the other hand, is all mystery and doors and curtains.

That’s what I want in the books I read and, apparently, in the songs I listen to.

Author Talk: Fantasy writer Elizabeth Tyree

61hG8DWBQlL._UX250_Oklahoma-based author Elizabeth Tyree is a fantasy writer who pens short stories, picture books and chapter books for children of a wide range of ages. Her characters range from fantastical dragons to real-life lemurs and from Spanish pirates to human kids seeking adventure. Here she talks about developing ideas, getting inspiration from her real-life students, and publishing as a family affair.

What inspired your interest in writing fantasy novels?

I think it was probably a combination of many things from my childhood. I loved to watch those wonderful ’80s cartoons (OK, I still do!) and read fantasy and fairy tales. According to my mother, I first mentioned my “dragon friends” around the age of 2 or 3. I was playing with my toys and when she told me to clean up, I tried to tell her that it was Al and his brothers and sister that had messed up my room so she needed to get on to the dragons. (Didn’t work, she told me they were my guests and a good hostess cleans up after her guests.)

In third grade I read Anne of Avonlea and The Hobbit, both for the first time, and they had a huge impact as well. Happily, my family encouraged my creativity and allowed me to be the nerdy weird kid in the corner!

The-Hobbit-Dust-Jacket-03062015How much time do you spend on research for each of your books, and what are some of your favorite resources for research?

Does the time I spend in the classroom count as research? Haha, but no, seriously? You see, as an author of mainly picture books to upper YA books, the time I spent in my own classroom teaching writing and science, the time I spent tutoring, and the time I spend substituting adds up to about eight years of research for me now! Research that I absolutely love! Students enjoy talking about themselves, their hobbies, their classes — it all adds up to great backstory and understanding for the audience, as well as for some of my new characters. Some of [the students] even enjoy bantering back and forth about histories or alternate sciences, searching for answers on the internet or in books, and helping me by listening to things I’ve written and telling me if it sounds authentic to the generation.

Outside of that, I’ve really been researching mythologies and fantasy my entire life. However, one of my current works in progress relies heavily on the use of a salvage ship and equipment, a mini-yacht, and an ancient Spanish galleon. I did read a few articles on those items, but the most helpful research was done on the internet and the telephone. I was able to contact colleges who have marine archaeology sections, read their articles and descriptions of the ships, equipment, and personnel online, and get a few first-hand details from their wonderful pictures and emails. That was almost two years ago, and I still return to their sites or send minor questions to their emails as I try to finish the novel.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 11.45.11 AMYou’ve written a number of books — are there characters and/or themes that return from one project to the next?

Of the six books currently available, three are part of a continuing series that follows a band of dragons and fairies who have managed to get stuck in our world. The dragon family consists of the only known dragon fairy in either of our worlds, his normal-sized dragon sibling, and Grandmother (still searching for his parents), the kind of the fairies, some fairy guard members, and a few lucky humans who discovered them. Their fight is against the formerly beloved (and now straight mad) Fairy Queen, King Ferdinand’s wife, and Franme the Sorcerer.

As for themes, my children’s books all have a theme (however subverted it may be) of getting out and away from the television/computer (ironic, isn’t it?), helping, learning, and being a good friend. Which also tracks for my older books.

You write both short story collections and full-length novels. Do you know from the beginning if an idea will be one or the other? What’s that process like?

My first novel began as a short story contest entry. I just didn’t want to stop, I had to know more about what happened because it was like rediscovering an old friend! Some of the ideas, like another of my works in progress (Paulonious Punk) are definitely going to be chapter books or novels. On the other hand, some are definitely short stories and some could go either way. So the short answer here is, no I haven’t got a clue!

The process is always the same for me, whether it be short story or full-length I always get a notebook or pad of paper and start jotting down notes and ideas. Typically I get a few lines out about the back story or overall idea, and then it morphs itself into the actual beginning of the story and I write from there. I tend to outline in reverse, writing character and setting outlines after they’ve arrived in my story. This helps me to discover things about my novels and sometimes even helps push me along if I’ve gotten stuck.

gypsy-rose-lee-1941-women-at-typewriterHow do you know an idea is a good one and that it can be sustained for the length of a book?

You write it out. Sometimes you may have an idea you love but no one else thinks will work. You still need to write it out or it will haunt you. You may have an idea everyone loves and you aren’t that sure about — write it anyway! It can be changed, morphed, and tweaked until it works. If you abandon the idea then it will poke at you. Sometimes you have ideas you don’t even tell anyone about — write those out, too. WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE WRITE … am I obnoxious yet? The truth is, there are some amazing novels out there that I would never have believed could be written into a full-length book out of the idea they center around.

How do you publish your work (mainstream press, small press, independently), and what has your experience been with that format?

My father and I both publish with CreateSpace. I enjoy being able to maintain control over my “babies,” but am still struggling to learn the ins and outs of everything else that goes into publishing a book. The advertising, however, kicks my rear! I am still new enough that I’m not making the money to spend the money to make the money — But I’m going to get there someday! We created TyreeTomes as a family-run editing and publishing company for our own works (so still very much an Indie!) and have helped a few others, including my fifth graders last year, edit, format, and publish through CreateSpace and Amazon. That part, I’m pretty good at.

Screen Shot 2015-09-10 at 12.07.20 PMDo you grow attached to your characters? Tell us about one that really sticks with you.

I am very attached to most of my novel characters. Of course, I have “friends” with my dragons for my entire life so I won’t expound on them anymore. One non-dragon character that really sticks with me is Sylvester, a main character from a novel I have set aside at the moment. I dreamed of him before beginning to write the story, and I still do every once in a while. The story itself, a fantasy of magical mirror world proportions, is a new adult adventure: danger-romance-type. Sly is the dark, handsome, and deeply sarcastic hero you would hope appeared. Don’t worry, I haven’t abandoned his story completely! I hope to use what I have as an outline for betterment in the NaNoWriMo events for this year — though it will probably have to wait until NaNo 2016 the way my other works in progress are progressing.

Are you working on anything right now that you can tell us a little bit about?

I am actually working on five things right now, but I’ll just give you the bare bones of a couple:

First, I’m working on book No. 4 in The Stone Dragon Saga. As I mentioned earlier, this one involves a lot of hijinks on the the high seas, including a Spanish pirate ship and a kraken (named Sergio — he has a short story in one of my compilations as well, incidentally).

the-kraken-existence2Then there’s Paulonious Punk and the Search for An Adventure — a children’s chapter book following two 9-year-old boys who, with a lot of help from their families (especially Pauly’s grandpa), attempt to search out an adventure before it’s too late.

The other book I’m really excited about right now is a picture book that my talented mother is illustrating for me (she will illustrate all of my books as well as do the new covers for The Stone Dragon Saga). This will be the first in a series focusing on animals. A picture book meant for K-2: The pictures and stories will appeal to all ages as we follow Leonard the Lemur’s adventures and learn about the animals he meets along the way. Leonard is living at Tanganyika Wildlife Park (in Goddard, KS) a real park, with a real lemur named Leonard, and we are excited that the park has allowed us the honor of including them in our work. Since they are a privately owned and funded institute whose goal is to educate people about animals, this book will not only help children learn interesting facts about animals and habitats, but will help spread the word about an amazing place that needs our help to survive.

Follow Elizabeth on Twitter, YouTube, WordPress, and Amazon.

Going solo

Going solo

It’s the part of winter where winter really should just start thinking about being over. I realize I can’t complain too much — I grew up in Western New York where winter was real and lasted for a solid seven month. This year, from what I hear, people in that area have gotten so much snow they had to literally tunnel out of their houses. In Asheville it’s been two weeks of periodic snow and ice storms, and several days in a row of sub-zero temperatures. Wah.

Still, I’m over it.

But the good thing about winter is it’s an excuse to hunker down and get some work done. Right after Christmas I ambitiously launched into a new project — a first draft of a historical novel. I decided just to write fast and sloppy, get the story on (virtual) paper and fill in with research and artful turns of phrase later. I haven’t gone out much since December. I haven’t seen many movies or bands. I did write 60,000 words in two months.

That kind of productivity is wonderful, but it comes at a price: Social life. Being part of the world. Having a conversation with people other than the fictional characters in my mind. The more traction I get with my writing, the fewer invites I get to parties. The fewer people I have to call just for, you know, whatever.

Books are wonderful. Writing is the best thing. But it’s also lonely.

There is the argument — I know, I’ve made it — that when one writes, one is in the company of all who write. It’s kind of like my Insight Timer app, a clever tool that rings a gong after I’ve meditated for five or ten minutes. (Which I manage to do all of twice a month.) When I set the timer it tells me how many people worldwide are currently meditating with the app. I just checked and right now there are 440. It’s cool to be able to drop into that kind of community, even if I never see or speak to those people. I feel like we’re in this together. And I bet if there are 440 meditating, there are about ten times that many people hunched in front of laptops trying to come up with the next chapter or page or sentence.

It’s cool to be able to drop into the writing community, too, but I bet at least 95 percent of them feel sort of lonely, sort of disconnected and sort of like all those people who aren’t trying to write a novel are having way more fun.

But for me, when I walk away, the character stay with me. That’s optimal. That’s how I know it’s working. I keep hearing the voice. Threads of the story keep unspooling. I watch a movie or go to a show and it’s okay … but I’d rather be home with my computer.

This is a particular type of madness.

I’ve actually thought it would be helpful to start therapy simultaneously with a book project … but the talking about writing would distract from the writing. Except then one finds oneself with 60,000 words in a document and no one to tell.

I guess that’s why there are blogs.

The good loser

The good loser

My greatest fear is looking like an idiot. I’m more afraid of that than getting cancer, being hit by a bus or losing my job. It’s not a worthwhile fear to have, and yet most days are negotiations of whether or not my clothes are okay, whether or not there’s a typo hidden in one of my articles, how to say what I want to say without pissing anyone off and how to wear a hat without making my hair do something stupid.

Most people struggle with insecurity at some point in their lives. I do battle with it often enough to call it a frenemy. I tell myself that it started in third grade when my then-best friend Anna Morales told me, on the playground (that hotbed of pre-teen drama), that she no longer wanted to be best friends. Or any kind of friends. I couldn’t have pulled the word “loser” from a thesaurus lineup at that point, and yet I knew for certain that:
1) I didn’t want to be one, and
2) I probably was one.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that some of us are born with a propensity for insecurity. Some people can cook well, some people can run fast, some people can doubt their every word/thought/move. It’s a talent, really. Just not one that will win any talent competition.

Lately I’ve been wondering why failure is such a bad thing, though. We live in a time of anti-failure sentiment. Teenagers in reality TV shows regularly bellow, “Failure’s not an option!” But of course it is. Because when success is your only option, it’s not, by definition, an option. Failure is what makes success sweet. It’s also what makes success a thing at all. Trial and error without error is just doing stuff. You win some, you lose some without losing some is just playing a game who’s outcome is predetermined — like tic-tac-toe once you know to claim the middle spot. Failure is probably more valuable than success — it’s a better teacher, a better motivator, a better whetstone. Failure teaches us not just how to do something right, but how to be humble, compassionate, interested, focused and hungry. Being human is way more about failing that it is about succeeding: Truly interesting people come with scars, battle stories, broken hearts and a capacity to self-heal and soldier on.

Losers make far better fictional characters than winners.

So what if I actually try to fail? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the last few months. What if I say things that people won’t like, write stuff that won’t get published, wear weird dresses and sing along to Taylor Swift songs? What if I set up challenges that I know I can’t accomplish? What if I’m the only one who wears a Halloween costume to work? What I go our for a drink alone and read a book in a crowded bar? What I take French lessons or dance lessons or singing lessons and suck royally in front of a room full of strangers?

What if, whenever failure is an option, I opt for it?

Last weekend I went to a concert and wrote a review. I’ve done this hundreds of times — this is not the part where I look like an idiot. I took my time with the review, did a little research, added in some quotes, wrote something meaningful. In one of the quotes, the musician said that after his tour he was going to retire that set of songs. I included that because it underscored the rare beauty of the show. That’s important to know because, after I posted it online, it got a zillion hits by fans who were either freaked out about the songs being retired, or eager to point out that the quote was made in jest.

1) By a zillion hits I mean more like two.
2) The comment didn’t sound like jest and it’s my job to report on what I hear.
3) I can only imagine the musician at his next show telling the story of the idiot reviewer who claimed he was retiring his setlist. “The press gets everything wrong,” he’ll say. People say that.
4) I wanted, desperately, to take the post down. To not risk being wrong. To not have strangers on social media make fun of me.
5) Strangers on social media: You are the worst. (Except for when you’re not.)

All of the above. Yes. But I’m going to let this failure play out. If I fail, it was with the best of intentions — with some lovely turns of phrase, with the desire to lift up a musician whose show inspired me. If I look like an idiot for any of those reasons, I think I can live with it.

I know I can live with it. No one has ever died from looking like an idiot. I don’t even have to research that fact, I’m just going to say it right here and now and deal with the consequences.