Monday, June 7, 2010

Guest Blogger Laraine Herring on Ghost Swamp Blues: The Journey into a Novel

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).


Andrea said...

Oh this sounds like a breathtaking story! And I love the idea of combining yoga and writing...throw knitting and a quiet beach house in there and I'd be a happy woman!

Uli said...

You had me at "Writing Begins with the Breath" -- I wanted to run out and buy that book right away. But wait -- fiction from the same author? I can't wait to read it . . .

"Too literary for popular fiction. Too contemporary for literary fiction"? Sounds perfect!

Laraine Herring said...

Andrea, I love the quiet beach house! My poor grandmother tried in vain to teach me to knit, crochet, cross-stitch, all the things proper Southern girls did. They didn't take. Now, I get to admire all these cool scarves, cool yarns, cool things that people are making & kind of wish I'd paid more attention when I had the chance. :-) Perhaps for me, "Knitting Begins with the Breath". :-)

Uli, you had me at "sounds perfect!" LOL. If I had a dime for every time I heard the "too contemporary for literary fiction, too literary for popular fiction" line from an editor .. well, I could take knitting lessons from Andrea! And I still don't really know what literary fiction even means. My students joke that it means "unsellable." :-) I just love characters and I love settings and I can't imagine my life not hanging out with such fabulous creatures/creations.

Thanks to you both for your comments!

Peg said...

I've read the book. I loved it! From my lips to God's ears, "Please make the characters in my own book talk to me and live with me the way Laraine's characters in Ghost Swamp Blues lived with her." Writing like hers gives me new breath.

Anonymous said...

Laraine, I love to watch your progress, admire your perseverance, and am joyful for your successes. I'm adding this novel to my reading list. Thanks for reminding me to breathe.

Sharon Skinner

Tom Graef said...

Laraine has such a nice touch in her writing. I often read her blog entries. My copy of "Writing Begins with the Breath" has shuffled around near the top of my reading pile for over a year now. I continually return to the book and enjoy my attempts in working through the exercises as a tool for my own writing. I've brought it with me on vacation this week, and I found Laraine’s words were with me on the beach today as I stared off at the horizon. I’m anxious to read her novel.

Stella said...

I know Laraine professionally but really haven't explored her novels. This book is on my summer reading list! I look forward to getting to know the characters in this novel and being a part of Ghost Swamp Blues...I also plan on reading her earlier works "Lost Fathers" as I too lost my father at the age of 12 and know there is something hidden deep within me.

Patty said...

I am married to a man who LOVES to read and I mostly just read magazines and the newspaper....until last year when I read all 4 twilight books within a month! I have been married for 35 years and I can't remember the last book I read before these 4......sad I know! Seems like I would read a chapter and I would just fall asleep! Anyway, I would really like to read this book! Since my husband has an online used and new bookstore and runs it out of our home, I am surrounded by thousand of books, you would think I spent my days and nights reading, but no! Also, I live in AZ too! So I will read this book and let you know what I think!
Thanks! Patty

Sherri Cornelius said...

I read the first chapter of Ghost Swamp Blues on Laraine's site, and it hooked me from the first paragraph. I worry that the book I just finished will have the same trouble GSB did finding a home, and for the same reasons. I'm really glad Laraine's finally did, and I can't wait to read it.

drew myron said...

Both of her books sound great. Even if I don't win, I'll be reading these!

Thanks Lisa, for pointing out interesting authors. And thanks Laraine for taking the time to 'talk'.

Jen said...

"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."
Wow. I can only imagine what that must have been like, Laraine. Sounds like a fascinating story. Thanks, as always, for the inspiration. I am still going through your "Lost Fathers" book as it is still relevant.

Laraine Herring said...

Thanks for so many comments and kind words. It really means a lot to me.

Tom! (I went to high school with Tom!) I'm so glad Breath is with you on the beach! What a great place to be.

Since the comment has come up several times, I'd really like to mention Lost Father: How Women Can Heal from Adolescent Father Loss. That book came out in 2005, and it came out of my own experience after my dad died in 1987 when I was 19. I couldn't find any literature addressing adolescent girls & father loss unless there were a pathological element. The book came out to very little fanfare, but it has kept plugging along. Of everything I've ever done, Lost Fathers was a gift to the world, to my dad -- and if it helps anyone at all find some ease in their own process, I am beyond ecstatic.

I am very moved and touched that so many of you took the time to respond. Thank you.


Lisa Romeo said...

Congratulations, Sherri. The book is yours! (I've sent you an email - just provide your mailing address please.)

Thanks to everyone else for reading, commenting and participating.

Now make tracks to a book store and pick up Laraine's book!

- Lisa