(1) NPR RADIO “Insight” program: LISTEN NOW to host Beth Ruyak’s interview of the author by clicking this podcast link
(2) TEXT OF AUTHOR INTERVIEW by LuAnn Braley, Back Porchervations:
1. What is the hardest job you’ve had?
My hardest and scariest job was working as a “red-light man” in a cannery in San Jose, CA. When a can of peaches or apricots jammed in the machinery that moved the cans through steam-cookers, the machine shut down and a red light flashed. I had to climb on top of the cooker which was as big as a train car, throw open its top, search through the hissing steam till I found the jam and hack the can out with a pole. Meanwhile a foreman would pace and yell at me to hurry and fix the thing before hundreds of cans of fruit were overcooked and ruined. Some of the old-timers bore scars from burns or had fingers missing, but I escaped with scrapes and singes. I was glad to have this summer job, though – it paid much better than fast-food jobs and helped put me through college.
2. Are fans of the authors about whom you write hyper-vigilant as to the details of your stories?
So far, the fans of the authors have been complimentary, perhaps because I love researching the details of historical characters to get them right. To write Stevenson’s Treasure I located collections of the actual letters they wrote, scrapbooks they kept and clothes they wore. I pored over sketches that Fanny Osbourne had drawn of her children, telegrams she had sent to her husband from France and a letter she had written to a friend about her son’s fatal illness. Seeing her small, neat handwriting on black-edged stationery moved me deeply, and reminded me that the persons on whom I had based my novel had once lived, breathed and had the same basic hopes, dreams and losses that all of us experience. I was especially gratified when a descendant of Fanny’s family came to a reading and said he had enjoyed the book. The story about William Shakespeare I wrote presented a different challenge. After five hundred years, few objects from his personal life survive, except for one remarkable document, his Last Will. The changes he made in bequests to his youngest daughter, scrawled in a very weak hand possibly as the poet lay dying, inspired the first fiction that I sold – a screenplay.
3. Have you ever acted in a play you wrote? Would you?
I have not acted in a play I wrote. I would rather trust a role written by a master playwright. My feeling about this is kind of like Mark Twain, who said he would never belong to the kind of club that would accept him as a member!
4. I was with you on the subjects of Scotland, writing, skiing and theatre; but I’m not a huge fan of golf. Maybe you can explain its popularity? :O)
For some people, golf is belonging to a country club where rich guys hang out and cut business deals. For me, it is an excuse for a long walk along the river at a county park near my house, seeing deer, geese and coyotes while trying to whack a little ball forward. I used to like archery, too, and come to think of it I’ve always liked the way arrows, baseballs, javelins and golf balls arc through a blue sky toward targets. You have to concentrate on the ball, but not try too hard. Very Zen-like.
5. Can you share with us one of your grandmother’s stories?
When I was twelve years old Grandma, who lived to the age of 102, took me to a farmhouse on the Seco River in south-central Texas where she had spent the first six years of her life. She showed me the small windows through which her mother and aunts had taken turns keeping watch on the surrounding hills and trees, all night long for many months while the men were away, fighting in the Civil War. With the nearest neighbor four miles away, the house would have been an easy target for the Comanche raiding parties that had attacked other homesteads in the region with tragic results. By keeping the house dark and propping rifles out of varying windows they pretended that the property was well defended, and thus avoided attack.
6. Why did you settle on the ‘niche’ of fictionalizing the lives of famous authors?
When I first tried writing fiction I found that developing plots was easier than creating believable characters. So I started reading the classics and especially Shakespeare plays to try to learn how the masters wrote memorable characters. That led to reading authors’ biographies and trying to guess which persons in their lives were used as models for the great characters they created on the page. It was a fun way of being an armchair-psychologist. I began writing plotlines that featured these persons in some of the big events involving the authors’ lives. The idea that Shakespeare’s daughter Judith was the model for the comic role of Kate, in Taming of the Shrew as well as the tragic role of Cordelia, in King Lear, seemed to work well in my story about his private life. I extended the method to Robert Louis Stevenson, and now am working on a story about another historical author who led a fascinating personal life.
7. What is the most difficult thing about writing for you?
Rewriting. It is great fun to sit down with a cup of coffee and knock out the first draft of a scene or chapter. Writers like this draft stage when they can move fast, be creative, use the right-brain and not worry too much about details. Usually, though, when others look at these first-inspiration tries they find holes in the plot, unbelievable aspects of the characters and clumsy wording. I used to resent hearing about these flaws, but now I know to take a deep breath, listen to critiques, and then be ready to revise, revise, revise until it is a thing of art!
8. Do any of your kids have the writing bug?
My son is a professional musician, one daughter is a social worker and the other daughter works in evaluating healthcare systems. They all write very well, and from time to time seem like they have caught the bug. One of my daughters when she was nine co-wrote “The Dinosaur Egg” with me, a children’s story that won first prize in a Friends of the Library contest. My son wrote and illustrated comic strips for fun, and my other daughter drafted a picture book to educate the children of clients about adoption. Someday I suspect that at least one of them will write (professionally) again.
9. If you could live during any period in history, which would it be?
Except for not yet having antibiotics and inoculations to protect against deadly diseases, the 1870s through the First World War must have been a wonderful time to be alive, at least for those with adequate means. Judging from the research I did on that era while writing Stevenson’s Treasure, I love the way people read lots of books, wrote long letters to each other, conversed, enjoyed live music, and travelled at a leisurely pace to the ends of the earth in grand style by railroad and steamship. They seemed to savor a connected, civilized kind of life that has mostly vanished today, at least in the urban United States.
10. Care to share a tip or some writing advice?
If you haven’t been published yet, even if you consider yourself a good writer take some high-quality classes and workshops on the craft of writing fiction. Apply yourself seriously to doing the assigned exercises. Join writers’ organizations, make friends with other writers and be open to what they say about your writing. Give generously to other writers – read their stories, buy their books, offer to review them – and when you need help, they will gladly give it back to you. Most of the time, writing is a solitary process, but the further you go in it, the more you will need the friendship, advice and support of others.
Readings at the Face In A Book Bookstore in El Dorado Hills and at the Avid Reader, downtown Sacramento were great fun! Patrons enjoyed wine & cheese, a treasure hunt for a basket of goodies including a free book, Scottish shortbread and tea; and readings from STEVENSON’S TREASURE.
Presentations about the book at two great Stevenson venues were a hoot! First, in Monterey, California on Aug. 3 (with Celtic Music!); second, at the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum in St. Helena, California, Sept. 4!