Saturday, February 28, 2009

Keepsakes

I helped my mom move into a nursing home last week. Big adjustment. Seeing so many helpless old people in one place is mind-boggling. There is such a connection between young and helpless and old and helpless. But there's also a big difference. Us. Or, should I say, me. I loved my babies and I had no trouble looking after all their little physical needs. I can't say the same about the old. I don't want to help with baths and washroom trips. I don't!

But I do want to see the child in their eyes and to hear their stories. That I can do.

Today I get to start the packing process. My mom's apartment has to be emptied. Try and imagine having your kids go through your stuff and decide what's worth keeping and what's for the local charity or even the trash. Yeah. I wonder what my kids would keep. Hopefully, my books.

Question: what would you want your kids to keep to remind them of you?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Interview with Stacy Nyikos, author of Dragon Wishes


Stacy and I (along with Bev Patt (now co-chair of the scrumptious Class of 2k9) Linda Joy Singleton (the Seers series and more) and Lila Guzman (Latino historical fiction) participated in a panel on cultural diversity last April down in Dallas during the TLA (Texas Library Association) conference. We'd met online through our publisher, Blooming Tree Press, and through our online marketing group, The Class of 2k8. (I'm a class dropout due to a change in my release date.)

It was Stacy who'd taken the initiative to propose the panel. I knew she was an energetic, focused and determined individual. I also knew she was fun and kind. But what was she like as a writer? Dragon Wishes came out last October and it's been the first book I finished reading in 2009. Read a great review here.

I, too, thoroughly enjoyed it - especially the humorous interchange between Alex and Maddie - two eleven year old girls who carry the main storyline along. But the book has several layers and I marveled at the ease with which the reader is led back and forth between Alex's inner and outer worlds. The varied details of food and Chinese customs, along with smatterings of German and Chinese dialogue, bring an authentic voice to this multi-cultural work. The tension built up around Alex's coming to terms with her losses is subtle, yet continuous.

Here is my conversation with Stacy.

From Dragon Wishes' beautiful red, black and gold dust jacket, we glean that you're a traveler, a marine-explorer, into Chinese mythology and last, but not least, a family woman with a husband and two young daughters. Such a diverse range of interests and commitments.

1. Could you share a bit about your travels?

My grandfather said the traveling bug hit me early. I've been traveling all my life. When I was a kid, we took a lot of road trips to see family, traveling from Indianapolis, Indiana, twenty-two hours south to Houston, Texas, where my mom's family lives. I read a lot, which probably helped toward becoming an author, but more than anything, I got excited about the trip itself.
Where would we go? What would we see? What adventures waited around the next bend? I became a bona fide travel junkie. I've been going ever since. I love the thrill of the unknown that awaits me on a journey.

2. Okay ... so from road trips we meander over to water. Why the fascination for marine life? (Stacy also has three picture books to her credit: Shelby, Dizzy and Squirt).

That is a great question, and many of my friends have come up with lots of theories about it, one more fantastical than the next -  I was a fish in a previous life (one of my personal favorites).  My astrological sign is Pisces, which are fish, and like them I'm always trying to find my way back to water. Personally, I think is again the thrill of the unknown. The ocean is the last true unknown and hugely unexplored place on our planet. You never know what a trip down below will reveal. That environment gives my imagination plenty of room to play and create.

3. You touchingly write that this book is for your two daughters. Are they of an age to read and appreciate Dragon Wishes?

They are! In fact, my oldest, who is now ten, just finished it. The morning before she did, she came downstairs with dark circles under her eyes. I asked her if she'd had trouble sleeping. Not really. She'd gotten caught up between the pages of Dragon Wishes and lost track of time. Glee. Well, sort of. As a mom, I wanted to tell her not to read so late. As an author, I was tickled pink a reader, my daughter!, had gotten so caught up in my story. I'm not sure it would have made a difference if I told her not to stay up reading. She did it again that night and finished the story. I found out because she came downstairs to wake me up and tell me. Did she like it? Her answer was a huge grin and bear hug. Best compliment ever.

4. In the Acknowledgements you mention that your parents instilled in you a love of storytelling and literature, but that they hoped you'd go into business. Can you expand on this a bit?

I come from a family of numbers people - accountants, engineers, architects, biophysicists, pilots, computer whizzes, you name it. I can do math. I even taught statistics, but it's writing that's my real passion. The numbers people in my family are very supportive, but I am definitely the glitch on the family scattergram.

5. More power to you, Stacy! What about languages? You include both German and Chinese in your book. How familiar are you with these two languages?

I am fluent in German, having studied and lived in German-speaking countries for six years. I wish I could say the same about Chinese. However, my daughters' godmother is from Taiwan, and she was my Chinese go-to-person for all phrases, names, etc. It was a fun process working with her. I learned a lot about China and Taiwan, as well as her personal story. It was fascinating.

6. Your book involves a story within a story. Describe the process in intertwining these stories.

That was probably the hardest part of the book. I didn't want to tell the same story twice, but to have them parallel each other on an emotional level. So I had to think of what would happen in Alex's story and then what would parallel that emotionally in Shin Wa's story. I'd be crazy if I said that was all just me. Alex and Shin Wa came to life for me. They were my guides.

7. It's great when characters let that magic happen for the author. It comes across really well. You appear to be a very disciplined person. (Anyone with a young family knows how distractions can take over.) How do you structure your writing time? Do you have a set time to write? A daily minimum?

I try to write in the morning, every morning. Writing first, everything else second. It's the only way I get it done. And I try for at least three hours a day. I wish it could be more. Some days I hit four or five, but usually not more than that.

8. Do you have a special place to write, or do you, because of your traveling, find you can write anywhere?

I write best in my office. I need the structure of a desk and chair. If I go and sit in my big comfy chair in my bedroom, I get too comfortable. And I find a lot of distractions. I really have to keep them to a minimum. The office setting helps.  I wondered if I was too rigid about that until I read the Maya Angelou goes to a hotel, has them take everything but a desk and bed out of the room and writes there until she is finished. That made me feel a lot better about my "distractions" problem.

Having said that, I'm not great about writing anywhere. Edits, yes. Creating story, no. I need quiet and focus, and it seems like I find that best in my office.

9. How does your family feel about your writing? Do they give you the space you need or must you set firm boundaries?

As my girls have gotten older, it's gotten a lot better. I write when they are at school. If they are home, we work out a game plan for them in the morning so I can write and they aren't bored to death. It usually works pretty well.

10. What advice can you give to other women who want to write, but are busy with family demands?

That's hard. Each family situation is different, but it seems like the one overriding factor I've experienced, and that I've heard from other women juggling career and family, is that you have to carve out time to write. It's not going to form itself. Even if it's only an hour, make it a part of your day. Pretty soon, it becomes routine, and it's not so hard to get that writing time in.

11. Okay, back to the book. Why Chinese mythology? What drew you to that exotic world of dragons?

Major confession: this story started out about unicorns. Go figure. But then I thought maybe unicorns was a theme done one time too many. What else could I do? China came to mind. In part, because I am fascinated with the East. There is so little we hear and read about Asian culture, as compared to European. It was a new adventure for me, a new uncharted territory to discover.

12. Of course, you're an explorer! Do you write using an outline?

(Guilty cough) I don't. I've tried, but outlines don't work for me. For all of the discipline I bring to my writing, creating stories works best for me if I let the story unfold in front of me, let my characters guide me, I go back and put together an outline after I've written the story, to make sure I've been consistent, but I don't start from one. Letting the story unfold and surprise me helps me bring that element of surprise to my storytelling.

13. Again, you're showing your spirit of the adventurer.  Do you develop characters to go with the plot, or vice versa?

They sort of develop in tandem. Sometimes the character comes first, sometimes the setting, sometimes the plot, but once one of those has jelled, the others develop almost simultaneously.

14. Do your book characters resemble any characters from your real life?

I'm such a magpie in that sense. I take a bit from someone's personality here, and a tidbit from another person's personality there, and splice them together, as well as create entirely from scratch. I have no shame! Alex started out as a rough sketch of my oldest daughter, some basic personality characteristics, but as the story developed, Alex became her own person. Today, I can still see a little of my daughter in her, but I see far more of Alex as a character.

15. I love that magpie image! What would you say is your biggest challenge in the writing process?

Oh, gosh, it depends on the day. Sometimes it's creating the story. Other days, edits and revisions seem like they may kill me. Sometimes it's pacing, sometimes plot, sometimes a wayward character, who's off doing her own thing that I need to bring back into the story. I guess that's what I like about writing. I never know where the challenges of the day will lie. But challenges there will be!

16. It's that road trip all over again, eh? What do you enjoy most about the act of writing?

I enjoy sharing ideas. I enjoy learning. And, I really enjoy watching my watching my characters work through their problems and grow. Most of all, I enjoy sharing my books with kids. When a child giggles or bubbles with questions, all the hard work of writing pays off. I'm inspired. That's the best reward for me.

17. Before you become a seasoned pro, is there anything you'd like to share about your experiences during your first year as a published author?

Perseverance. Perseverance turns an unpublished author into a published one. It's the main ingredient in getting from decent writing to amazing writing. Along that road there are a lot of hurdles - learning to write, learning what you write best, finding someone who connects with your work, finding someone who believes in your work, as well as enough people telling a writer her work isn't up to snuff. Perseverance helps to get through those times, glean out whatever tidbits of advice might be in the critique and make the writing shine. It's the one thing I've heard writer after writer after writer tell me. Staying with it even when the going ws tough and there was no light. Staying with it usually led to a path out of the murkiness and into great writing.

19. Any other advice to beginning writers?

Love what you do. Who knows what will happen with the stories. But if you love your work,
the personal journey of writing will bring satisfaction. Plus, if you love what you do, it shows. That passion comes through your words. It turns words into guides, paragraphs into scenes, scenes into pages and pages into stories. It's the secret ingredient in any story, the love of the craft.

20. I'll end this interview with some advice from one of your characters: "Breathe." Interview is over. Thanks, Stacy for a delightfully engaging book about family, loss and dragons! I'm sure you'll continue to have many adventures as you explore the next bend in your journey as a writer.  

Be sure to check out Stacy's website.

No doubt you'll learn more about how Stacy the traveler, the magpie, and the passionate lover of story continues to discover and create. 





Thursday, February 19, 2009

Climbing the Beanstalk

Finally. I get to share some exciting news. Prairie Horizons is ready to accept registrations. What is it?  It's a writing retreat held every two years in beautiful, little Lumsden, Saskatchewan. And yes, small is beautiful. The place is huge in every other way - except size. 

This year's event is September 18th - 20th. CANSCAIP* (the parent of this little event) will have a link up at their website shortly. (www.canscaip.org)

It's been a joy (and a frustration) to be on this year's planning committee. But what good thing comes without some frustration?  It's all about learning and connecting.

Here's the wonderful prairie literary line-up: Hazel Hutchins, Anita Daher, Linda Aksomitis and the songwriting genius, Bob King. (Yes, the same Bob King whose song, Brother for Sale was picked up by the Olsen twins back when they were cute and innocent. )

The tag line for this year's event is: Climbing the Beanstalk to Creative Success. If Jack can do it with only a few beans, we can do it with the magic of words.

Hope to see you there!

 * (Canadian Society of Authors, Illustrators and Performers).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Harry's Done

I've finally finished the last of the Harry Potter books. Oops, that's a lie. I've still got the xmas gift from my son, The Tales of Beedle the Bard, to read. I liked the Deathly Hallows - 'twas a great escape and look, now it's the middle of February already - winter's almost over. Seven HP books - Harry almost feels like a son to me. This Potter reading marathon is something my now 21 year old son and I did together. My two girls wouldn't read him. (The younger one did succumb to the Twilight books, though, but she's not expecting me to read them). 

Dear son and I took turns in the hammock enjoying the wonders of wizardry.  I got behind with the 7th one, but I must admit I did enjoy this last volume. Snape. Yes, he didn't disappoint.

Back to the real world. I'm reading a German memoir now - yes, the Stalin years - again. Which reminds me ... at the hospital yesterday while visiting my mom (we went down to the cafeteria and celebrated Valentine's Day by sharing a bag of Old Dutch chips -  a salty, forbidden pleasure - she once worked in the Old Dutch Potato Chip factory for 80 cents an hour. That paltry wage helped my parents be the first on their block to have a mortgage burning party for their new 60s bungalow.) Anyway, we sat crunching on chips and listening to my mom's favorite old German music when an old woman at a nearby table, started a conversation with us. 

Turned out, she's an Auschwitz survivor. A German. She tells me she loves the music but that she's very bitter. 2 and a half years in Auschwitz. She wouldn't talk about it, said she came to Canada in 1961. She was in her early 20s when she was in Auschwitz. Now she looks like most of the old people in that hospital - neglected. I wanted her to talk more to me, but she said it's too painful. How dare I pick at scars?  Still, I'm itching to.

P.S.  I'm blogging over at the AuthorsNow website tomorrow. Come visit.                

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Milwaukee Adventure

Looks like I'm going to Milwaukee, Wisconsin in July! Super excited. (And terrified.) I get to present at a Germans-from-Russia geneology conference. I'll share more later. 

I had to google a map to figure out exactly where Milwaukee is. There's going to be a big GermanFest happening at the same time. (And it's just a few hours down the road from Minneapolis where my daughter will be playing in a soccer tournament the week before.) That works out nice.

Must get our passports renewed. Must learn to do powerpoint. Must focus! (And, must pray that my book will be out on time.)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Marilyn French

As I mention in my profile, one novel that had a profound effect on me is Marilyn French's Her Mother's Daughter. Unfortunately, I lent my copy to a friend and will probably never see it again since we live far apart. That's okay. I got her favorite book, The Power of Now, by Eckhardt Tolle (okay, I'll admit I haven't read it and probably won't for a long while, considering how high my stack of 'to read' books is and this just doesn't appeal to me at the moment.) (Okay, another truth, I'm finally reading the seventh Harry Potter book and totally enjoying the escape - but it's slow going - my reading time has really been limited, as of late.)

But I've been thinking about the French book lately. With my mom in the hospital, mother/daughter relationships consume me. My novel, that's coming out this year, is about my mom. While it appears to be about a girl in the Soviet Union during collectivization, it's really my attempt to understand my mother's emotional and psychological world. Childhood events shape who we become as adults. As my mom falls deeper and deeper into being a ninety year old child, I become more aware of her emotional damage.

My aunts went through the same external events as my mom. But they were younger. Perhaps, an eleven/twelve year old, on the cusp of puberty, is much more vulnerable than a five year or even a sixteen year old. I don't know. Being alive and becoming a personality is a complex thing. 

Here's a quote from Marilyn French, "We lose, but we replace, we substitute: we go on. This is as profound a truth as that we lose and cannot replace, we die." She's an amazing writer.


Monday, February 2, 2009

fake confidence

Some one at some point said these words, 'fake it, til you make it.' Okay, so that means that you sort of act like who or what you want to be. For example, if you want to be happy, you smile and perhaps just the act of smiling will make you feel better. It actually does work.  But does it work for confidence (or lack thereof) when you do public speaking? That is the question.

I'm attending another one of my evening classes on public speaking. It's my third one. And I'm finding myself getting more nervous rather than less. Not sure if that's normal, or not. But what I want to try tonight, is to fake confidence. This involves looking people in the eye when you talk, not twiddling or clicking (very annoying) pens while you're delivering your speech, and moving around in a casual sort of way, instead of holding tight to the 'box' - sorry the name escapes me at the moment.

Right, I am going to fake my confidence, by smiling into everyone's eyes and showing them I think they are important. I'm not even going to bring my pen up front, and I'm going to stroll around casually, pretending that speaking in front of peers who are ready and willing to evaluate my performance is something I'm comfortable with.

Right. Fake confidence. I'll try.  

I am truly excited about the topic tonight. It's show and tell and the prop I'm bringing is a piece of red granite - I consider it my talisman - straight from my grandfather's field out in Federofka. Maybe there's power in that granite.