Interview with Deborah Reed

deborahreedInterview: Deborah Reed
by Sharon Harrigan

Deborah Reed is the author of Carry Yourself Back to Me, published originally by Amazon Encore in September 2011, then reissued by Houghton Mifflin in January 2012. She also writes suspense novels under the pen name Audrey Braun. A Small Fortune was released by Amazon
Encore in July 2011, became an immediate bestseller, and was reissued by Houghton Mifflin in February 2012. Its sequel, Fortune’s Deadly Descent, will appear in September 2012. Carry Yourself Back to Me was a Best Book of 2011 Amazon Editors’ Pick as well as a bestseller, and
Publisher’s Weekly called it “a triumph.” The Library Journal called Reed “a writer to watch,” whose “lovely, lyrical prose” is “as rare as snowfall in Florida.”

Reed and I were graduate students together in Pacific University’s low residence MFA Program in Creative Writing. We have workshopped with literary legends David Long, Mary-Helen Stefaniak, Tayari Jones, Jack Driscoll, Mike Magnuson, Bonnie Jo Campbell, and Ben Percy, learning to give our verbs more muscle, our stories more heart and speed, and to line edit as if our lives depended on it. Reed’s work is distinctive for its lush settings, musical cadences, and tightly woven plots that manage to be credible yet surprising, moving yet unsentimental. Her literary work is suspenseful, fast-paced, and tightly plotted; while her suspense work is literary, with rich characters and complex family relationships. She is a rare hybrid. We discussed her unusual path to publication, her double identity working in two genres, and the journeys her characters take, across Europe, Mexico, and the United States.

Silk Road: Many writers consider publication the ultimate goal of an MFA. Since you already had book contracts while you started your MFA, what was your goal? How did the program help you reach it?

Deborah Reed: I entered Pacific University as a self-taught writer with a lot of discipline and determination but no formal education in creative writing. My undergrad degree was in Anthropology and German, so I came to writing in a patchwork way, which included a smattering of conferences and workshops and a local writing group. I could see my skills improving over the years (slowly), but there were gaps in my understanding of the craft. I couldn’t fully articulate why something did or didn’t work on the page. Gaining a critical voice has not only helped me zero in on my own failings and strengths, but also allowed me to help others. And the solutions come faster. What may have taken months of staring at a passage, knowing instinctively that something was wrong, now happens more quickly.

It’s important to note that the low residency model allowed me to work as a writer while getting my degree, unlike a traditional MFA. With low residency, you learn how to juggle a writing life against the backdrop of work and family. Another difference is working one-on-one with a mentor each semester, which is an intense and focused way to learn.

SR: Your path to publication was a bit unorthodox. I think writers worried about the state of the publishing industry can take heart from your story.

Deborah: I began through the traditional channels with an agent who was shopping around Carry Yourself Back To Me. This was in 2009, when the publishing industry was imploding and no one was willing to take on a new author. We were coming to the end of publishing house submissions after a line of very nice rejections letters and I could see that my novel was about to get put into a drawer and forgotten. I decided to secretly enter it into Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, while at the same time I wrote A Small Fortune in a nervous frenzy, as I waited to hear back from my agent. I then went on to self-publish A Small Fortune and within weeks it became an ebook bestseller on Amazon, climbing as high as #3 in the entire Kindle store. It was madness. At the same time behind the scenes, an editor from the newly developed publishing house owned by Amazon, called simply Amazon Publishing, pulled my manuscript out of the contest slush pile because he liked the title.

He started reading it and things got crazy from there. Amazon Publishing had also noticed A Small Fortune by Audrey Braun was selling like crazy and they were about to get in touch with her for a book deal. The editor finished Carry Yourself Back To Me in two days and called me, Deborah Reed, to offer me a book deal. He had no idea I was also Audrey Braun. Hilarity ensued. By the end of the phone call I was offered a three-book deal, one that included the thriller follow up to A Small Fortune, called Fortune’s Deadly Descent, which will be released in
September 2012. Not long after my first two books were published, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt approached Amazon Publishing and bought the paperback rights to them. I now have two publishers and couldn’t be happier.

SR: Your books take us on intense, sometimes exotic, voyages to landscapes that are so rich they are almost characters. In Carry Yourself Back to Me, you use the lush setting of Florida tangelo groves threatened by freakish snow to heighten emotional landscape. In A Small Fortune, you take us to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with its seductive glassy water and pristine beaches that hide danger below the surface, and then you lead us into jungles no tourist brochure ever warned against. In Fortune’s Deadly Descent, you begin in picture-postcard Switzerland, then lead us to St. Corbenay, France, a quaint Provencal village whose castles and saturated colors inspired the French Impressionists. Why did you choose these settings, and how do they inform your writing?

Deborah: Foreign places exhilarate me. I love the challenge of figuring out how to get around in a country I’ve never been to, maneuvering through a language I don’t speak, meeting people different from myself, and being surrounded by an aesthetic that inspires me. When it comes to writing, it’s a pleasure to infuse my novels with places where I’ve spent time, allowing me to go along for the ride just like the reader. With thriller writing in particular, foreign settings throw my protagonist off balance. She’s already in dire circumstances, so setting her in a place she’s never been, surrounded by a language she doesn’t speak, compromises her capabilities further, which gives the story another layer of tension. It becomes an adventure as well as a mystery.

SR: Both your literary novels (the one that published and the one in progress) are set in Florida, where you lived as a teenager. Do you think of your characters and books as Southern?

Deborah: I definitely think of my literary characters as Southern. My family on both sides comes from the South and they are great oral storytellers and musicians and have impeccable timing, which makes them funny as hell.
There is a rhythm to their speech, a lyrical cadence that I find comforting, and there is also a restraint in the content of what they say, or don’t say, and all of this is so beautiful to me, an art form really.

SR: One thing that distinguishes your suspense novels from your literary novels is setting. The former are in Florida, the latter outside America. Is this one way you keep your writing identities separate?

Deborah: It is. And I’d even go so far as to say that they make up the two sides of me. I lived in Germany for many years and love to travel. This is a large part of who I am and I take a lot of pleasure in bringing that to the page with my thriller novels. The other part of me is deeply rooted in The States, as I mentioned, my family is from the South and have been there for centuries. I grew up mostly in the Midwest but was surrounded by an enclave of Southerners, and they too are very much a part of who I am.

SR: You’ve lived in Michigan, Florida, Germany, and Oregon. How do these distinctly different locales inform your writing?

Deborah: I’ve yet to set a novel in Michigan but I’ve begun planning one in my head, so stay tuned. I feel as if I’ve lived many lives. This makes for good stories.

SR: You’ve said one of your biggest influences is Per Petterson, and especially his novel Out Stealing Horses. What is it about this book that feels so feel so at home, even though it is translated from Norwegian and set in Norway?

Deborah: I’ve read this novel about six times. I finally understood that the rhythms in particular are what I’m drawn to. I read an interview with Per Petterson where he talks about rhythm being the most important quality he is trying to bring to his writing. He felt one should be able to tap a foot to the whole novel. It hit me then that this was the quality I was so drawn to in this novel. A musical cadence close to my heart. The characters are subtle, showing a lot of restraint, especially the men, and I drew the men in Annie’s family in Carry Yourself Back To Me the same way.

SR: The Sun Post Weekly says: “It isn’t very difficult to imagine Patsy Cline or June Carter Cash voicing the sentiments” in Carry Yourself Back to Me. How did music influence the plot of this book and its style? And can you elaborate on the title and epigraph?

Deborah: The Sun Post Weekly’s comments were so flattering, the best compliment I could have hoped for, and yet it’s somehow frightening, too. I idolize those women, so for someone to suggest my writing was in line with something they might sing, left me, well, I guess I felt an awful lot like Annie in the novel when she gets compared to some of the greats: “The comparisons flattered her for the first few minutes but after that and ever since she’s done nothing but worry about measuring up.”

The title of the novel is taken from Bob Dylan’s song, “Boots of Spanish Leather”:
There’s nothing you can send me my own true love, There’s nothing I wish to be ownin’ .
Just carry yourself back to me unspoiled, From across that great big ocean.

After I’d finished the novel and was trying to name it, I happened to hear this song, which I’ve heard hundreds of times over the years, but suddenly I heard it in a way that made me realize the narrative arc of my novel matched that of the song. I immediately looked at the lyrics and the instant I came across the “carry yourself back to me” line, I knew that was it.

SR: Book List magazine calls Carry Yourself Back to Me “Part whodunit, part romance, part family drama, and part childhood remembrance.” I think that’s good way to summarize the ambition and scope of the book. Did you conceive of this book as weaving those four different strands?

Deborah: This is exactly what I did. I can be a pretty melancholy person and I wanted to capture that by writing a novel about yearning, nostalgia, missed opportunities, regrets and mistakes. Romantic love and familial love embody all the categories Book List mentions, and all the themes I was going for. I structured the novel so two story lines are running nearly parallel with one another. The backstory is meant to illuminate what is happening in the present so structurally the novel weaves back and forth between past and present. The past by itself is a coming of age tale of Annie and her brother Calder. The present day follows the two over the course of two weeks. By the end of the novel past meets present and brings everything full circle.

SR: Your work is full of sensory details. What struck me the most is the way it is infused with smells, which are known for evoking emotional memory. I can’t think of any book that does this quite the way you do. Why is smell so important in your work?

Deborah: You hit it exactly: smell evokes emotional memory. This is precisely why I used it. I live in the Northwest now, but when I go back to Florida the first thing I’m struck by are the smells, whether it be from my mother’s cooking or the grass, trees, and flowers, or hot sun on the concrete after a rain. Memories come flooding through me every time.

SR: Dialogue is very tricky, and I admire the way you use it to express the subtext, or what lies below surface and is too difficult for characters to express directly.

Deborah: I find dialogue most interesting when people are saying one thing and meaning another. There is a messiness there that reveals human emotion so much more poignantly than pointing to it. The woman angry with her husband for not paying enough attention to her doesn’t say, “I’m angry at you,” she says “I’m sick of seeing your toothpaste in the sink.” When the reader knows something that perhaps the characters themselves aren’t even quite aware of yet themselves, a connection takes place between the reader and the story, a kind of insider knowledge that pulls the reader closer in.

SR: One of the things I loved about A Small Fortune is the spot-on characterization of a prickly relationship between Celia and her teenage son Oliver. Since I have a teenage son myself, I was sure you were reading my mind. How has your experience as a parent informed your writing?

Deborah: In this particular incidence, greatly. Celia’s struggles with Oliver are not unlike my own with my teenager. Those moments of pulling away are hard on everyone, done under the guise of disdain and humiliation on the teenager’s part, but really it is the natural course of bonds needing to break apart and reconfigure. And what a paradox. They hate us but they need us. I came across a book on raising teenagers called, Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me & Cheryl to the Mall. I didn’t read it but I think I could have written it.

SR: How do you balance working in two genres–literary and suspense? Do you work in only one genre at a time? How do you prep yourself to become your pseudonym?

Deborah: The past couple of years I’ve been switching back and forth between the two genres simultaneously. I prefer not to do that but I was on a deadline and had no choice. I like to focus on one at a time for the pure reason that each genre requires something different of me. When writing literary work, I only read literary novels, and the same goes with thrillers. I’m very sensitive to influence and it’s important for me to feel in line and inspired by the work I’m reading.

I’m also far more meticulous and slow when writing literary fiction. I self-edit, perhaps too much, and I’m far more critical of myself. When I switch to Audrey Braun I write quickly and with more confidence. I discovered this about myself by accident when, as a fluke, I tried my hand at writing a thriller. I never assumed anyone would ever read it so I wrote with complete abandon and the entire first novel flushed out of me in four months, compared to the six years it took to write Carry Yourself Back To Me.

SR: How do you keep your aesthetics and persona separate for each genre? How do you deal with credibility issues for writers who stretch beyond one genre? Are there still people who don’t take “genre” work seriously?

Deborah: This is a great question. While there are still people who question the credibility of genre fiction, the lines between genres have all but disappeared these days. So many articles have been written about this lately. How, for example, does one categorize someone like Dennis Lehane? Is he a crime writer or a literary writer? What about the great Patricia Highsmith? Is The Talented Mr. Ripley a mystery or literary novel? And then there are novels like The Tiger’s Wife or The Night Circus that infuse folklore, fantasy, and magic into what are otherwise categorized as literary novels. A writer friend of mine from Russia once told me how baffled she was by all the categories we Americans put our novels in. She said in Russia they don’t have all of this.

They only good books and bad books. I love that. I can think of so many novels that could potentially fall into so many genres. Ultimately, the decision comes down to the publishers and how they want to market a book. Mystery and thriller sell much better than literary. So there’s that.

SR: Why did you decide to use a pen name?

Deborah: Initially it was because I’d never written a thriller so I decided to self publish A Small Fortune just to see what would happen. I figured if it turned out to be a flop no one would ever know it was me. It succeeded beyond my wildest dreams. I’ve since kept the pen name as a way to distinguish between my literary writing and what has now become my thriller series. The fact that I’m both Deborah Reed and Audrey Braun isn’t a secret. It just helps my readers know what they’re getting when I have a book released.

SR: Who are some other writers, besides John Banville, who write both literary and genre fiction?

Deborah: I think what is more interesting are what are being referred to as the hybrids. Many people are surprised by the fact that Tom Perrotta wrote The Leftovers, a tale of the apocalypse. Colson Whitehead wrote Zone One, a post-apocalyptic novel about zombies. Stephen King, of course, writes everything under the sun, including his most recent historic thriller, 11/22/63. As for history and horror, how about Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahme-Smith? The lines have crossed and there’s no turning back.

SR: Who are some of your biggest influences? For literary fiction and for suspense fiction?

Deborah: For literary: Per Petterson, Raymond Carver, Kent Haruf, Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson, Flannery O’ Connor, William Gay, Tom Franklin, and Barry Hannah. For thrillers: John Banville, Kate Atkinson, Harlan Coben, Lisa Unger, Patricia Highsmith, and Laura Lippman.

SR: Who are some of the literary finds you’re excited about now? Anybody you’re reading at the moment?

Deborah: Books I’ve recently read and loved are Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin, We The Animals by Justin Torres, The Cove by Ron Rash, and Florida by Christine Schutt. All filled with lush original prose and masterful storytelling.

SR: I heard a rumor that your dog helps write your books.

Deborah: It’s true. My Springer Spaniel is a wonder. She lays at my feet while I write and gets emotionally involved by whatever cues I’m somehow emitting to her. When I realize I’ve hit a sweet spot in the writing she gets up and puts her face in my lap. She is so tuned in to me it’s scary.

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Showcased Writer: R.H. Sheldon

Interview by Gina Warren

R.H. Sheldon

R.H. SHELDON is a Northwest writer whose works include the novel Dancing the River Lightly as well as numerous news and feature articles for online and print publications such as Seattle Magazine and E – The Environmental Magazine. He’s also written restaurant reviews, marketing copy, legal summaries, training material, and anything else necessary to keep the creditors at bay. Sometimes it works. Sometimes not. These days he often writes while traveling in his VW camper, which he blogs about at rhsheldon.com. His piece, “Birds of Paradise,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.

Read “Birds of Paradise“.

The Interview

Gina Warren: How did you begin writing Birds of Paradise? Was there an initial catalyst that sparked the idea?

R.H. Sheldon: I’d been traveling around the country for the better part of the year and landed in the South, which is when I started the story. In one town after the next, I saw closed-up business, abandoned buildings, and boarded up windows. The economy had hit these places hard, yet the aftermath had given the towns a timeless, almost fantastical quality, as though they could have belonged to any number of depressed eras. For many who lived in these places, there was no choice but to leave and head to wherever they could find work or a better life. For others, leaving wasn’t that easy. And even in towns that had not been as decimated, at least not apparently, there still seemed a sense of desperation and resignation among many of the people who lived there, feelings no doubt complicated by such issues as obesity, poverty, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy, issues all too common to much of rural America. So my story was born out of the desperation I sensed in these places. And I sensed too, that beneath the desperation, there simmered desires and passions that could never be fully realized, all of which pointed to the complex undercurrents that define much of rural life in this country, including the South, and overturns any simplistic stereotypes of the people in these regions. That said, there was never one inciting incident that prompted the narrative itself. Only the feelings I was left with after having visited there.

GW: There is some ambiguity in this story, questions it raises without fully answering: such as why Tulip left so rapidly for New Orleans, why Fletcher’s daddy told Tulip not to visit the garage anymore, and what started the fire that killed Fletcher’s father. How do you balance the tension between keeping the reader in suspense and telling a good story, especially in a piece this short?

RHS: I’m a big fan of ambiguity in fiction, perhaps because it seems to better approximate real life. The trick, I think, is to provide enough ambiguity to leave readers with something to consider after finishing the story, but not leave them so befuddled they revolt in frustration and anger and want to rip your story to shreds. When used effectively, ambiguity makes readers take a second look at what they’ve just read and challenges them to rethink their conclusions, perhaps to the point they want to reread the story to discover what they might have missed or to figure out a new way to assemble the pieces. At times, however, I think I tend to go too far overboard with the ambiguous. For example, originally, I had not provided any dates in the story because I was going for a certain timeless quality and felt that placing the characters in a particular era might pigeonhole them too much, but persistent editors insisted otherwise, so I succumbed. Balance is the key, I suppose. Without it, you end up with Hollywood-type writing on one end of the scale and a Naked Lunch sort of thing on the other end, in which the pieces never quite fit together. For such a story, you better be damn sure of your audience and what you’re trying to achieve.

GW: The diction of Birds of Paradise conveys a strong sense of the narrator; how did you chose this voice?

RHS: I think this ties to my response to the first question and my travels around the county. I had passed through a lot of new places and was exposed to a lot of different people. During that time, I was experimenting a great deal with different aspects of my writing, particular those aspects related to narrator and voice. In fact, playing around with narrator and voice is one of the best parts of writing fiction, at least for me. However, it can be difficult to do that if I limit myself to a small subset of people and places. I think that one of the most challenging aspects of writing that we, as a writing community, have to face is how to make time to write but not shut ourselves away from the world. So when I have the opportunity to get out there and experience what’s going on, I like to use the things I see and feel and hear and taste and smell in ways that let me occupy other voices and narrators and let me experiment with different perspectives of the world.

GW: Do you begin writing stories with an ending in mind, or do you tend to see where the narrative takes you? What about pieces that are as compact as Birds of Paradise?

RHS: Rarely do I know where a story is going when I start it. Writing works best for me when I share with the reader the process of discovery. If I’m not interested in where a story is heading, chances are, no one else will care. I write, in fact, to find out what’s going to happen. The unfolding of a story is an evolutionary process, one in which the process of writing itself holds the key.

Showcased Writer: John Ashford

Interview by Gina Warren

John Ashford

John Ashford

JOHN ASHFORD volunteered in Botswana with the Peace Corps from 1990-1993. Upon his return, he earned a Certificate in Writing and Literary Fiction from the University of Washington. He has participated in critique groups and edited several nonfiction books. In addition to newspaper pieces, his story “The Boycott” appeared in the anthology, One by One, Thirty-one years of the Peace Corps in Botswana (1997). He has returned to Botswana twice and for several years has been at work on a book about travels in the Kalahari Desert. His nonfiction piece, “Topo,” appeared in Volume 6, Number 2 of Silk Road.

Read “Topo“.
The Interview

Gina Warren: When did you begin writing? Have you always written creative nonfiction?

John Ashford: I really began writing when I was in the Peace Corps. In the village where I lived in Africa, there weren’t many distractions and I had the time and personal space to write.I often used the time to sort out my thoughts. Some of my journal writing began to develop into a structure that felt comfortable. When I came back to the U.S., I enrolled in writing classes and, a few years ago, took a workshop on creative nonfiction led by Lee Gutkind, long time editor of the Creative Nonfiction journal. That was where I learned there was a name for some of the writing I’d done in the Peace Corps.

Before that, in college I’d written short stories, but none of them ever found a publisher. For several years, working as a teacher and librarian, my writing was technical, or for a professional purpose.

GW: Writing creative nonfiction sometimes requires a catalyst for a story, whether it’s an insight, reflection on an experience, prompt, or moment in time. What gave you the idea to write “Topo”?

JA: An excellent question. Much of my identification with Topo was a subjective experience beyond my ability to analyze. I felt a sense of empathy for him, in the recognition that here is a young man living a life with elements of tragedy, but he’s learning how to cope.

I think the catalyst you refer to can be a rather complex experience. As far as writing the story, my interest in Topo began with a mystery. Topo’s name on my class roster was Ketopoyaone, though everyone at the school used the shorter form, Topo. I asked an African teacher to translate the meaning of his name and was told it meant, ‘This is the child I requested from God’. I realized, here is a young boy, at birth he’s given this prayerful name. I asked myself, what happened during those years to create the kind of turmoil he was facing at age fifteen? I was never able to fully answer the question, but it provided a focus, and when Topo’s problems were discussed among the teachers, I paid attention and took notes that later became part of the narrative.

I should make a confession here. I’ve formed a habit over the course of a career working in schools and colleges. When I’m in a meeting, I jot notes on everything that’s being said. The habit comes from the need to keep myself awake during often boring meetings. But in this case, the subject of the meeting in the story shed light on Topo’s background and was helpful to me in understanding his story.

GW: Readers get a clear picture, not only of Topo, but of the narrator in this piece. What do you believe are some important aspects of characterizing yourself as a narrator?

JA: I am, obviously, a Western observer seeing the landscape and some of the events at the school from the point of view of a foreigner. As the observer, I filter information and describe the elements important in the story.

Readers will be aware that, although the story is mainly about Topo, there is this other character who narrates the sequence. Naturally, readers will want to know how this person finds himself wandering down a road in the Kalahari Desert reacting to the arid landscape and the misguided donkey cart. My interactions with the headmaster at the school make it clear that in some ways, I don’t quite fit in here. The ways that I am an outsider provide a certain kind of context for the narrative.

GW: What drew you to Botswana? Did any of your initial motivations, besides teaching, for going to Africa come through in this piece?

JA: Actually, the place was selected by the Peace Corps. They try to match skills and experience of volunteers with the needs of a country. So, that part was accidental from my point of view. But it was a happy accident because I love being in the desert. I live on the wet side of Washington State and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with the arid sections of the Pacific Northwest.

But another motivation was my need for change at the time. I’d worked at an administrative job for twenty years and when I started working with immigrant students, I found the experience very satisfying. Eventually, I made the decision to teach overseas and got the necessary experience and certification for teaching English as a Second Language. As it turned out, I found it very fulfilling to live in another culture with a different language, different reactions, mannerisms, way of life. It really stimulated my ability to observe. I began seeing everything around me in a new way and I’d like to think that quality comes through in the story.

GW: It seems that Topo would not have had the same respect for the teacher had he beaten him, and perhaps that Topo wouldn’t have been supported by his community if he was violent. What is the importance of not being a “whip wielder”?

JA: You’re correct to think that if Topo had been violent he would have been considered an outcast. Despite the problems in his life, I never saw Topo express anger or aggression. Actually, in the context of an African village, very seldom do people resort to violence. Villages are typically very safe in that respect. However, in schools, corporal punishment is used widely. I myself did not feel comfortable with the practice and made a decision not to use physical punishment to deal with student behavior.

In a situation where a school uses caning, one kind of misbehavior is treated the same as any other kind. I’d rather come to an understanding with students verbally. I think students gain maturity with adults in the process of talking about a problem.