I once reluctantly sat in on a presentation about how yoga could help one's writing. About midway through, something clicked; not enough to send me to yoga class, but later the same day, I bought a book off the conference sales table titled, Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice. It seemed in sync without being too touchy-feely for pragmatic me. Since then, I've read and reread it, recommended it to others, used chapters in my teaching, and, to my great delight, struck up an online friendship with the author, Laraine Herring.
Laraine directs the creative writing program at Yavapai College in Prescott, Arizona, and teaches workshop at the Omega Institute (Rhinebeck, NY) and the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health (Lenox, MA). She's also an award winning short story writer, Pushcart nominee, an interesting blogger, and with the publication of Ghost Swamp Blues this week, a novelist. She's stopped by to let us in on her journey to that novel.
Please welcome Laraine Herring.
"As a writer, I am obsessed with secrets. Where there’s a secret, there’s energy, both the energy of the secret trying to escape and the energy of the secret-keeper trying to keep it contained. You can’t help but have tension when you’ve got a secret. All the characters in Ghost Swamp Blues have secrets. I wanted to explore the power hidden in the things we don’t tell each other. I wanted to look at my own family history in the context of a flawed human condition. And, I wanted to tell a ghost story that wasn’t cheesy. I wanted to experiment with time and point of view and I wanted to see if it was possible to dramatize regret.
I also wanted to pull people into the landscape of the book, much like the landscape pulls and ultimately swallows my characters. The first image that came to me was a pink-feathered hat floating on a swamp. That image raised many questions: Whose hat is it? What is it doing in the water? Those questions started to pull me into the setting of the book, Alderman, North Carolina, a fictional town based loosely on Wilmington, North Carolina.
The next influence was my grandmother’s death. She was a Southern matriarch, rich in contradiction. Her racist worldview, dominant in many Southern whites born in the early twentieth century, combined with the come-to-Jesus dunkings of the Southern Baptist Church raised a lot of questions for me. How do these two diametrically opposed viewpoints exist under the same skin-shell? What has to be denied for that to occur?
My desire to try and understand her better provided the fuel needed for the long journey of a novel. Even though the events in the novel are not based on events from my family’s life, the concepts explored are very personal. I think to make it through the ups and downs of a novel’s creation, there has to be a burning personal question as well as the burning question of the text itself. They can be the same or not, but they both need to be there so the author has the stamina to keep going. If the author isn’t invested in the exploration of the book, then the reader surely won’t be.
In the novel, Lillian Green, one of my protagonists, witnesses her older brother Tommy lynch a black man, Gabriel Wilson, in 1949. She remains silent to protect her brother, and the novel is about what happens to her and those around her as a result of her keeping that secret. Her driving question, “How far would you go to protect someone you love?” grew out of my attempt to reconcile the many contradictions of my grandmother. As a Southerner, I couldn’t help but absorb and observe the schizophrenic racism in my community. For example, when our family moved to Arizona from North Carolina in 1981, our former next-door neighbors built an orange fence between our houses when they found out we had sold our home to a black couple. I left the South with the question: Why did they feel so much hatred towards people they’d never met? I think everything I’ve written in my life deals in some way with this question.
This manuscript for this novel landed me my agent in 2003. Since then, we've sold other books together, including Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice (Shambhala), and Lost Fathers: How Women Can Heal from Adolescent Father Loss (Hazelden), but not the novel, which was a hard sell. Too literary for popular fiction. Too contemporary for literary fiction. All sorts of reasons why it didn’t fit anywhere, why it wouldn’t work, but we kept trying. I kept revising. I paid attention to the comments from editors who took the time to write more than the “I just didn’t fall in love with it” standard rejection. It has gone through nine complete rewrites – changing everything from point of view to audience (I wrote one draft as a YA novel) and many more edits.
I honestly did not give up hope though. My characters wouldn’t let me let this book go. They’ve helped me to grow, which is reason enough for writing. I’ve lived with them for a decade. We persevered. We waited. We grew. Now, it’s time to set them free to join the imaginations of others."
Note from Lisa: We are giving away a signed copy of Ghost Swamp Blues. To be entered in the random drawing, leave a comment on this post by midnight Saturday, June 19. There must be a way for me to contact you by email to obtain your U.S. postal address. You may also ask Laraine questions, and she'll stop by periodically until then, to answer (also in comments).