A different kind of book each time: Lisa Lutz

By Roz DeKett

Lisa Lutz credit Morgan Dox

Lisa Lutz. Photo: Morgan Dox

“This book is a blueprint for what I would do if I were running from the law,” Lisa Lutz says.

The Passenger is Lisa’s ninth book, a  crime thriller published on March 1, 2016 by Simon & Schuster.

We start with Tanya, stepping over the body of her dead husband whom she assures us she didn’t kill. But we just have to take her word for it.

And before long we realize her name isn’t Tanya, or any other name that she assumes as we get to know her, and we have no idea who she is or what she’s running from.

“I wanted to write a book about identity,” Lisa says. “If you aren’t anyone, if you have no real place in the world, how do you make an identity?

“And if you’re running from your past, what past are you running from? As Tanya, and whatever her subsequent names are, these new identities that she then leaves behind also become problematic.

“So she is a product of all the people she’s been, even the fake ones.”

As Lisa researched the book,  trying to figure out how you acquire a new identity in this day and age, she took the approach of writing it as if she herself were looking for a new identity.

“I don’t know anyone who could give me new papers,” she says.

“I ultimately wrote a book about living off the grid, because it is so impossible to live legally under a fake, an assumed name.

“And that was the most interesting thing about this process.  You can’t become someone new anymore. You just have to hide.”

From comedy to crime
Lisa lived in San Francisco for a number of years and spent some time working for a private investigator. In her New York Times bestselling Spellman Files series, Lisa takes a quirky and comedic approach to crime writing—they are, as she puts it, primarily comedic novels that borrow much from the detective genre.

But as a writer, she pushes the genre boundaries and keeps her readers guessing in more ways than one.

“I think a lot of people tend to stay in a similar genre,” Lisa says. “If they write comedy they stay in comedy, which was never my intention.”

After the Spellman Files series, Lisa wrote How to Start a Fire, a very different novel. She’s also written a children’s book, How to Negotiate Everything, and Heads You Lose with David Hayward.

“I have lived in the world of crime writers for so long and been called a crime writer, even though I hadn’t really written a proper crime novel,” Lisa says.

“I read them abundantly, and always had intended to write something that was very much part of that genre.

“So, arguably The Passenger is the first book I’ve written that can be easily labeled in terms of genre … it’s a crime novel.”

The right way to tell the storyJacket image
Many authors writing in different genres use different names, and that was a consideration for Lisa.

But if you’re shifting genre focus with each new book—Lisa doesn’t plan to write another series, for example, and the book she’s writing now is less a thriller and more a straight crime novel—taking  on a new name each time isn’t practical (despite what Tanya does in The Passenger).

“When I think of a story that I want to tell, I never think in terms of genre,” Lisa says. “I just think, what’s the right way to tell this story?

“The Spellman Files felt like a comedy. And with The Passenger being a crime novel and being about isolation and loneliness, I felt like the writing had to be spare.

“Even though there may be some humorous moments, it’s a much darker novel and it doesn’t make sense to tell it in a comedic way.

“So you have to figure out the right way to tell a story. And it’s always about the story more than it is anything else.”

As readers, we fall in love with certain characters and want to keep reading about them. Or we’re attuned to a certain type of book from an author and we can run through an airport bookstore, see the author’s name, and know what we’re in for.

With The Passenger, Lisa’s Spellman Files readers might be in for a surprise—a good one.

“I know that you disappoint readers who want the same thing,” Lisa says.

“I think you just have to hope that you find the readers who are little bit more flexible with what they like, or open to new things.”

But despite The Passenger being a darker psychological thriller that keeps you guessing until the very end, it still has its moments of humor.

“I couldn’t forsake it completely,” Lisa says, and laughs.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author
Lisa Lutz is the New York Times bestselling author of the Spellman Files series, Heads You Lose (with David Hayward), and How to Start a Fire. Lisa won the Alex Award and has been nominated for the Edgar Award for best novel. She lives in upstate New York.

You can learn more on Lisa’s web site, www.lisalutz.com, and follow her on Twitter.

About the book
THE PASSENGER
Simon & Schuster
Publication date: March 1, 2016
Hardcover price: $25.99
Hardcover ISBN: 9781451686630
E-book ISBN: 9781451686654

Also available on audio

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Posted in Author interviews, crime fiction, Fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s got to be relatable and real: Lucy Holliday

By Roz DeKett

Lucy Hollidayauthorphoto_Credit_LucyHolliday

Lucy Holliday. Photo credit: the author

Lucy Holliday has three books coming out in the space of a year, and they all rest on Hollywood icons.

But far from being biographies of her chosen three (Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Grace Kelly) they form a three-book series about an invented, struggling actress.

Lucy’s heroine is failing actress Libby Lomax, whose romantic life is also in the pits. She finds friendship with and help from one screen goddess per novel, appearing in her life courtesy of an accidentally-acquired old couch.

The first of the books, A Night in with Audrey Hepburn, has just been published by HarperCollins in the US. Next up is A Night in with Marilyn Monroe. Later in 2016, A Night in with Grace Kelly will appear, the three novels tracking a little behind the publication dates in the UK, where the first two are already out.

Hearing voices in her head
As Lucy has progressed through the books, part of the challenge has been in taking Hollywood icons and turning them into somebody who springs off the page … as a fictitious character.

“[I’m] trying to get a balance between making them real but on the other hand not themselves, because otherwise I could just write a biography of Audrey Hepburn, or Marilyn Monroe,” Lucy says.A NIGHT IN WITH AUDREY_COVER (1)

“So they have to be larger than life. I’m putting them into the 21st century which is fun but tricky. And I hope I’ve got the balance right.”

So how do you go about making a person so real in your own mind that you can then create them on the page as characters?

“It’s the voices,” Lucy says, and laughs. “If I can hear the voice in my head, then I know I’ve got it.

Audrey_Hepburn_Wayfarers

Audrey Hepburn. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

“So Audrey, that came very easily, because her voice is so distinctive. I could hear her straight away. Marilyn took a little bit longer, because you’re fighting against the cliché of that Happy Birthday, Mr. President stuff, trying to make her a bit more real.

“And Grace Kelly’s even harder because her actual voice is just much less clear to me.”

Lucy is still working on A Night in with Grace Kelly. It strikes me that differentiating these screen stars from each other (when you’ve seen one icon, perhaps you’ve seen them all) must be quite difficult, no matter how many books about them you read, or how many times you watch their films.

And indeed, it is.

“That’s the problem that I have going from Audrey Hepburn to Marilyn,” Lucy says.

“And even more so doing it the third time. It’s more magnified. Because although, obviously, they’re completely different, they’re all from a similar era, and if you’re not careful, you can get locked into reproducing the same thing with a slightly different twist. And I didn’t want that.

“On the other hand there’s got to be a link, because they’re all helping the heroine move forward in her life. But they’ve all got to sound different.”

Making the fantastical real
Lucy is blending a fantasy element with down-to-earth, present-day romantic fiction. She doesn’t sketch in Audrey, Marilyn, and Grace as “apparitions” but as real people in Libby’s life. For example Audrey, as flesh and blood in Libby’s tiny flat, wrestles with the coffee machine, something she’s never see before.

mm

Marilyn Monroe. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

Believing it herself (“I totally believe that Libby, the heroine, is seeing these people … I’m not completely insane,” Lucy says, possibly trying to convince herself as much as me) is only part of the writing.

For readers to be able to immerse themselves in the magic, the story has to work.

So what makes it work?

“Friendships,” Lucy says. “In this genre I think you need to really crack the female relationships, the heroine and in this case, movie stars. Or the heroine and her friends, best friends, or her mom or her sister.

“They’re the most important ones. And then you have some nice men, or not very nice men. And they can be a little bit less real, those relationships, because you want the fluffy romance and you want the hero who’s sweeping you off your feet.

“So there are layers of reality. And if the relationships with the women are real, then everything else can be fantastical.”MM cover

And like all authors, Lucy wants her readers to keep turning the pages because they want to find out what happens.

“So it’s got to be relatable and real,” she says.

Writing the romance aspects comes easily, and she also thoroughly enjoys the research, which consisted of watching every film and reading all the books she could find on her three chosen stars.

From that, she could let go of much of what she’d learned and write at the tip of the iceberg, creating her characters from depth of knowledge about them without being weighed down by it.

Finish before you start

But writing any novel is astonishingly hard, and a trilogy of novels that bring three of the great screen goddesses to life in the context of the present day seems amazingly difficult.

So Lucy works by, as she puts it, writing backwards.

“By which I mean that even though I set out with a plan, by the time the book’s on the shelf it looks nothing like what that was,” she says.

Grace_Kelly_1955

Grace Kelly. Photo credit: Wikipedia Commons

“I need to get it all out, sometimes even a draft of 200,000 words, massive and embarrassingly poor. That’s not in any way false modesty, it’s just excruciatingly bad; chunks of dialogue, scenes that I think I’m going to write about.

“When I’ve got that, only when I’ve got that, can I write the book. I can then see end. And I write the beginning. So I always call it writing backwards.

“Openings are always hard. So, finish before you start.”

Making up stories
Lucy has the background to ground her heroine Libby’s life as an aspiring actress in reality. At one time, she “toyed with the idea” of a career in musical theatre.

“You see people on stage and you think, I want to do that, and then you realize they actually have to be really, really good,” she says.

But writing goes back even further. Lucy began to write stories for herself when she was around five years old, driven, she says, by boredom.GK cover

“It was the late seventies,” she says. “There wasn’t much to do. I used to make up stories.”

And Lucy is still making up stories; but now you have the chance to read them.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

About the author

Lucy Holliday is married with a daughter and lives in Wimbledon, London. A Night in with Audrey Hepburn, her first novel, is the first in a series of three books following the life and loves of Libby Lomax. You can follow Lucy Holliday on Twitter here.

Photo credits

“Marilyn Monroe” 1952 by RKO. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Audrey Hepburn Wayfarers” from Breakfast at Tiffany’s trailer. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

“Grace Kelly 1955” by Sterling Publications. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Posted in Author interviews, Fiction, Romantic fiction | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

We’ve all got a book in us: Elizabeth Jackson

By Roz DeKett

Elizabeth Jackson

Elizabeth Jackson

Elizabeth Jackson’s second novel, Kicking Over The Traces, takes the reader through a dramatic year in the life of her gypsy heroine, Florence.

When her mother dies, leaving Florence nothing but a red coat, she gives up the gypsy life and settles in a small cottage on the North Yorkshire moors. Set between the two World Wars, the story weaves its way between the gypsies and the “settled” folk.

“My mother was a gypsy,” Elizabeth says. “My father wasn’t. I’m half gypsy.

“So I’m fortunate, it’s all there. I’ve got it in my blood, even though I’ve always been in the settled community. I’ve had family members who called in, not now so much but when I was younger.

“My mother missed it terribly, when she settled down.”

There’s always going to be a culture clash
Elizabeth’s gypsy relatives had property and travelled during the summer with a bow-top wagon and horses, selling linen door to door. Elizabeth’s mother was raised by aunts after her mother died when she was eight years old. She became an outcast when she ran away at the age of twenty-seven to get married, although eventually her gypsy relatives accepted her choice.

painting great grandparents

A painting of Elizabeth’s great-grandparents. Photo from author’s collection.

Perhaps because of the way Elizabeth’s mother left the gypsy life to join the settled people, the differences between the two communities form a permanent theme in her books.

“There’s always going to be the gypsy and the non-gypsy thing,” Elizabeth says. “There’s always going to be a culture clash in my stories.”

A gypsy approach to the story?

Buxtons

The family with their bow-top wagon. Elizabeth’s mother is the girl on the left. Photo from author’s collection.

You could say that Elizabeth’s approach to writing is born of her gypsy blood. She starts with the characters and then writes by travelling through her story, without knowing what’s coming next, much as her ancestors travelled day to day in their bow-top wagon, stopping somewhere new every night.

“I don’t plan a chapter,” Elizabeth says. “I don’t plan anything.

“I write down my characters. I give them a name, a description, traits. I do this with the five main characters of my book. And then I give them a setting.”

The setting is always Elizabeth’s beloved moors of North Yorkshire.

“And then it takes off,” she says. “I just write. I sit down and I think what are you going to do next? Where is it going to take me, this chapter? That’s so liberating.”

The moors are not just the setting for her stories. They provide Elizabeth with inspiration too. On one occasion, she was driving with her husband across them.

“It was a really bleak, awful day,” she says. “It was desolate. I saw this tumbledown building, and I said, I’ve got to go and have a look. And it was magnificent.

“It was so wild, and there was nothing there. I thought, wonderful. This is going to be my scene. This is my setting on the moors.”

The tumbledown shack and its wild and beautiful surroundings became Florence’s home in Kicking Over The Traces.

But writing wasn’t always so easy.

A hundred words a day
From the age of ten or eleven, Elizabeth imagined herself as a novelist. She even picked out a title at that age, Language of Thieves, a phrase she stored away on learning it was one of the meanings of the word “cant.”

languageofthieves

Elizabeth’s first novel

And finally, fifty years after she picked out the title, her first novel was published, and sure enough it’s titled Language of Thieves.

As Elizabeth started on her second novel, she planned her characters and wrote the first chapter. And then life intervened. Her husband became very ill (he has since recovered) and she nursed him for a year; they moved, and for a while lived with their son as they waited for the building of their current home.

After putting her book on hold for more than a year, Elizabeth found it very hard to get back into writing again.

“I didn’t think I’d ever finish the book,” Elizabeth says. “I thought I’d never get into these characters again. I’d forgotten what it was about when I’d left it for a year.”

It was the encouragement of her friend Barbara Bos (who runs the blog Women Writers, Women’s Books) that got Elizabeth going and kept her going.

“I couldn’t have written it without her,” Elizabeth says. “She said, write every day, just a hundred words even. And she did that until I was really back into it. She was absolutely wonderful.”

Back in the saddle
Now, Elizabeth is working on her third novel, a sequel to Kicking Over The Traces.

“I love living my characters, I love living in my head, which is terrifying!” she says, and laughs.

“I would be very happy to never have a book launch, and never talk to anybody about it. I’d be very happy to stay in the background and never promote my book. But to actually see it in print, that was wonderful. And I think, did I actually write that?”

1900

The Buxton family, c. 1900. Photo from author’s collection.

It’s early days yet as she gets going on the sequel, and Elizabeth thinks she may take the story to the next generation. But what matters to her is that she’s writing.

“I was sixty when my first book was published,” she says. “And I think if I can be published at sixty, anybody can.

“Write it, because we’ve all got a book in us. And be true to yourself while you’re doing it. Don’t try and emulate anybody. Just be you.”

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here.

All photos © Elizabeth Jackson.

About the author

traces cover

Kicking Over The Traces

Elizabeth Jackson is a writer and psychotherapist. She is married with two sons and has lived in North Yorkshire, England, all her life. Kicking Over The Traces is her second novel, published by Robert Hale in October 2015. Her first novel, Language of Thieves, was published by Robert Hale in 2011.

You can learn more about Elizabeth on her web site here and follow her on Twitter here.

Both books are available on Amazon.com (in the US) and Amazon.co.uk (in the UK).

Posted in Author interviews, Fiction, Historical fiction, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Writing is about revision: the wisdom of Hallie Ephron

By Roz DeKett

The battle with the draft seems never-ending. There’s nothing quite like taking a preliminary 70,000 words, pulling it apart and throwing out what doesn’t work, and realizing you only have 16,000 words  you can live with. For a full-length novel.

That’s happened to me.

So it was an enormous relief when I heard author Hallie Ephron speak at

Hallie Ephron

Hallie Ephron at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference in New York City, 2015

the 2015 Writers Digest Annual Conference on revision—and learned the draft she felt was fit to be seen for her latest novel, Night Night, Sleep Tight, was draft number 36. And that was before it went to the publisher.

Not only that, draft number 36 landed at 310 pages, while her discarded content (what she calls her “out file”) came in at a mighty 236 pages.

Hallie’s message? “Writing is about revision.”

Hallie Ephron is a best-selling author, an Edgar Award finalist, and a three-time finalist for the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

Everything that follows here is from my notes taken during Hallie Ephron’s talk. It’s her process and her revision structure. I’ve cobbled bits of it into my own novel-writing process, and so far everything I’ve tried has helped. And it may help you.

Revision is an iterative process, a process of working “from large to small.” The process of revision is lengthy, and that’s before it even goes to the agent, the publisher, the editor – and they’ll want more.

So to get through it, you (or at least I) need to know there’s a method in the madness. (That’s Shakespeare, not Hallie. But you get the picture.)

Here’s Hallie’s method.

printed

Printed! Now what?

First, finish your draft. Then print it. Re-read it. Have your scene-by-scene outline and decide what to fix. Take breaks between revisions. Trust your gut. Repeat.

But how do you decide what to fix?

Don’t jump in and re-write: make a list
These are things to look for as you read your printed draft – and not re-write (yet). Instead, make a list.

  • Structure: the opening, turning points, conflict, resolution, stakes
    • If it’s boring to you, it’s going to be boring to readers
    • Read for shape and structure
  • It doesn’t have to be “dramatic” – it could be a really interesting character who has a conflict in her life
  • Look at your main character—what is the goal trajectory?
    • Not the same at the end as at the beginning
  • Is the character’s voice in the scenes? It needs to be
  • Do you have a strong narrative voice? And it’s the character’s – not yours!
  • Credible surprises
  • Not many coincidences

How to make a scene
Not that kind of a scene!

As she reads her printed draft, Hallie makes a scene-by-scene outline. You want a “hook” at the end of every scene, a “grab” at the beginning of the next scene.

A good way to think of it is like a movie. At the end of a scene, a person exits; at the start of the next scene, a person enters. It might be a different person, but it drives the action. Every scene has to deliver something to the novel, and that takes conflict and action.

Ask yourself: does each scene start with establishing narrative? This doesn’t have to be fancy; the establishing narrative opener Hallie gave as an example was “Half an hour later I was in the dentist’s chair.”

Here, Hallie prints her scene outline and cuts it up, so she can re-arrange and see how things are looking. Like many writers, I use large Post-it® notes stuck on my wall—but the result is the same. You can see the flow and what needs to be moved, added, or taken away.

October 19 2015

How my home office looks

Make a list of all the changes you’re going to make. In Hallie’s method, you’re going to sort this list, from big to small.

Working from large to small—flying high
Having reached this point, Hallie returns to writing. She has a system: she calls it flying high, then flying low. Flying high is look at the big things—the structure, the story, the pacing.

  • Read through by characters
    • Read the scenes to see that character’s trajectory
    • Characters don’t have as much life when you start writing; now you can go back and enrich them by layering things in that you know, having finished the draft
  • Read each scene as a stand-alone
    • Does it have a narrative arc?
    • A tipping point in each scene? A change?
  • Read through the sub-plot
    • Make sure it contributes something to the main plot
  • Read for narrative voice
    • The character’s – not yours
    • Pick words only that character uses

Then … print and start over … or if it’s where it needs to be, move on.

Working from large to small—flying low
Flying low, in Hallie’s parlance, involves editing the revised manuscript. And she focuses on specifics here too.

  • Pump up the verbs—the verb is your friend
    • Replace weak verbs like “is” or “was” with verbs that convey action
    • Adverbs must go—editors hate them, agents hate them, they will get you rejected and it’s lazy writing
  • Pump up the dialogue
    • Add attitude, conflict, and humor
    • Stick to “said” or “says” – maybe, “asked” or “asks” – the words themselves and what Hallie calls the “physical business” (brief descriptions of what the speaker is doing) carry the dialogue
  • Strengthen your sentences
    • Readers pounce on beginnings and ends
  • Bridge material and transitions
    • Summary narrative
    • Make it short

And again … print and start over … until you’re satisfied.

That’s all it takes!
Simple, right?

But as Hallie said, “Narrative voice is your single strongest tool as a modern novelist.”

It’s worth the work.

© Roz DeKett

Hallie Ephron is a great speaker; go and see her if you can. You can learn more about her on her web site here and follow her on Twitter here.

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here

Posted in Writing tips | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

You should see yourself: Chad Beckim

By Roz DeKett

Chad Beckim

Chad Beckim

The first piece was a little girl doing her homework night after night in the window of a Chinese restaurant in Spanish Harlem, New York.

A second piece fell into place when his girlfriend at the time, a Chinese woman, told him her family had disowned her after she refused to participate in an arranged marriage, and at nineteen or twenty she was out on her own with her dog.

Then there was his interest in prison culture, in how young men form intense relationships inside that follow them onto the street when they’re trying to find their way back into their former lives.

These things “collided” and Chad Beckim wrote his award-winning play about love, acceptance, and redemption, Lights Rise on Grace. It runs November 7 through November 22  at the Azuka Theatre in Philadelphia, as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere in three cities.

“This play’s really challenging, I think,” Chad says. “It’s going to be challenging to audiences, it’s challenging in how the structure works, it’s challenging with the characters and the subject matter.

“For savvy theatre goers I think it would be a really great adventure. For folks who don’t come to the theatre that much, give it a chance, because I think it will surprise.

“I think it will unfold and land on you in a way that you didn’t expect.”

Following the rules of another family
Chad’s life itself unfolded and landed on him in an unexpected way. He grew up in Maine, “the whitest place in the country” where everybody looked alike, including him. Despite this, or maybe because of it, race and culture fascinated him. He moved to New York City to work, taking a teaching job in Spanish Harlem.

“I had no money,” he says. “I lived with a friend’s family, a Dominican family, for two years, in their apartment. I was basically part of the family. I had curfew. I didn’t have chores, but I had responsibilities. I’d go out and get milk for the mom, or whatever. You don’t bring girls home, you don’t stay out all night, you call and tell them where you are.”

The street Chad lived on in Spanish Harlem at the end of the nineties is still known as one of the leading streets for arrests in New York City, 105th street between First Avenue and FDR Drive. But as long as he stayed on his street, he was fine.

“You don’t go off the street,” he says “his” family would tell him. “You’ll be fine if you stay on 105th street, everybody will know you.”

After two years he moved, still as white as when he left Maine, to a housing project with a black family for two years, living with a former school friend and his family. In those first four years of living in New York, he was the only white person in his circle of friends outside his acting and writing life. That’s one river of experience that flows through his work. Another is his family; Chad’s wife is Asian. They have a son and, on the way, a daughter.

Telling stories about people “not like me”
“I think before I had a child I would have said I’m interested in writing about the people who walk by the theatre instead of those in the theatre,” Chad says.

“Theatre today is white, middle-class. There’s a certain economic background and that’s kind of how it is. When you think about theatre, the theatre-going public, that’s what you think of. Now that I have a child, I’m really committed to having my son on stage.”

In rehearsal (Photo: Azuka Theatre)

In rehearsal (Photo copyright: Johanna Austin, http://www.AustinArt.org)

Chad does not mean he wants his child treading the boards, nor that he wants to write plays for a “white-slash-Chinese person” as he puts it. What drives his writing is exploring the lives of people not like him.

“One way for theatre is to tell stories about people who are not like me, people who might not typically be on the stage,” he says. “You want to see yourself. You should see yourself.”

The girl he saw in the Chinese restaurant window in the largely black and Latin Spanish Harlem—Chad was teaching at a school there, and he passed the restaurant on his way home—stuck with him.

“This girl, I’m assuming, went to school in this neighborhood, and I started wondering, what is it like for this girl to be the only Asian kid, or one of the only Asian kids?” he says. “What is that going to look like as she gets older, how is she going to adapt to the culture and the language and the heritage?”

In rehearsal (Photo: Azuka Theatre)

In rehearsal (Photo copyright: Johanna Austin, http://www.AustinArt.org)

“And at the same time I was also really interested, working as a teaching artist, in prison culture, and reading about these young men who go to prison at a very young age and form these very intense relationships, but don’t consider themselves gay. And then they get out, and they try to resume what they knew, but a lot of times those connections continue after they get out. So those kind of things collided.”

Writing about people who are different from him gives Chad another dimension to explore: the way different people speak.

“I’m really interested in the way language functions, and slang in particular,” he says. “I’m very interested in the way slang looks on the page. Dominican Spanish has a sing-song quality to it. When Dominican-Americans speak English, there’s a sing-song lilt. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s so different from the way a white person speaks.”

“I love listening to people talk. I’ll tell my friends or my wife, whoever’s around me, I might take exactly what you said and use it. My wife tells me I steal her lines.’”

More on the way
Chad has recently finished a commission with the Old Vic Theatre in London, and is now looking for a home for that more “commercially acceptable” play. And he has other plays waiting in the wings.

Meanwhile, he’s excited about the Azuka Theatre production of Lights Rise on Grace.

First day of rehearsal (Photo: Azuka Theatre)

First day of rehearsal (Photo: Azuka Theatre)

“I’ve been getting really fantastic emails and questions from the director [Kevin Glaccum] and the dramaturg [Sally Ollove] and it excites me to think what they’re doing,” Chad says. “They’re asking really smart questions. I spoke to Kevin after the first rehearsal, because there are two monologues that need to work a certain way. If they’re misinterpreted it takes the air out of the scenes, and it seems like they’re on the right track.

“And I think it’s a rare opportunity to go to three cities in one year and see three productions.”

And maybe, see yourself.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Facebook here and on Twitter here

About the playwright

Chad Beckim

Chad Beckim

Chad Beckim is a New York City based playwright whose writing credits include …a matter of choice, `nami (which received its West Coast premiere at the Hayworth Theatre in Los Angeles in October, 2007), Lights Rise on Grace (Winner, Outstanding Play, 2007 NY Inti’l. Fringe Festival; Finalist for the 2007 Princess Grace Award; Finalist for Ojai Playwrights’ Conference), The Main(e) Play (Semi-Finalist, The O’Neill Festival), That Men Do (Member of The Lark’s 2009 “Playwright’s Week” and Naked Angels “Out Loud” Series), Mercy and most recently the critically and audience acclaimed After. He has also authored a number of shorts and one-acts, including The Fluffer and Marvel Super Hero Squad (both produced at Ars Nova), Tha Bess Shit, Alexander Pays a Visit, Blac(c)ident, and Last First Kiss, which was adapted into a Columbia Grad film and produced in July, 2008. Chad holds an MFA in Playwrighting from Mac Wellman’s Brooklyn College’s Program, and in July of 2007 was named one of “50 Playwrights to Watch” by the Dramatists Guild. His work has been published by Samuel French, Playscripts, Smith & Krauss, and in the Plays and Playwrights 2007 collection by NYTE. He is a proud member of Ars Nova’s acclaimed “Play Group,” and is currently finishing an original pilot script entitled “The Fam.” Chad is a co-Founder and co-Artistic Director of Partial Comfort Productions

About Azuka Theatre
Located in Philadelphia, Azuka Theatre was founded in 1999 by a group of young artists participating in the Arden Theatre Company’s nationally recognized Professional Apprentice Program. Azuka has built a reputation for accessible, thought-provoking and socially conscious theater and been hailed as “a company to watch” and a “major player on the Philadelphia alternative theatre scene’” by Philadelphia Weekly. You can learn more and buy tickets at www.azukatheatre.org

Lights Rise on Grace is A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere and runs from November 4-22, 2015 at the The Adrienne Theater, 2030 Sansom Street, Philadelphia. Written by Chad Beckim, directed by Kevin Glaccum. Cast: Ashton Carter (Large), Keith J. Conallen (Riece), and Bi Jean Ngo (Grace). Lights Rise on Grace was first produced in a rolling world premiere by Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company (Washington, DC), Stageworks Theatre (Tampa, FL), and Azuka Theatre (Philadelphia, PA) as part of the National New Play Network’s Continued Life program.

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Enacting in safe spaces the dramas of our lives: Marc Zegans

By Roz DeKett

Marc Zegans. Photo credit: Scott Erb

Marc Zegans. Photo credit: Scott Erb

“You seem to know a lot about humans,”
she whistled, splashing with her hind flippers.
“Perhaps you will write it all down for me.”

These lines, from Marc Zegans’ poem The Underwater Typewriter (in his new collection of the same name, published by Pelekinesis), make me smile, even on several re-readings.

It’s the charm, the surprise, the kaleidoscopic shift of words that brings the seal into focus for the first time; the way it resets what you’re reading and by extension how you might see life.

Why, I asked Marc, did he pick this poem (from among so many evocative poems and titles—inflection, perchance, Unclasped, even the tiny three-line poem Inversion, which creates a tree-sized image, so much bigger than it is on the page) to share its title with his book?

Part of the answer is water: it’s a current (pun intended) that runs throughout his conversation and his poetry.

“I’ve got a very strong relationship with Big Sur and the Northern California and Central California coast,” Marc says.

“Having moved back here after many, many years away, it was a way to root this work in a place that I felt I was returning to; there was something core about that.

One of Marc's favorites: sunset on the Northern California coast. Photo credit: Meri Jenkins

One of Marc’s favorites: sunset on the Northern California coast. Photo credit: Meri Jenkins

“In a deeper sense, it’s a poem that’s about going into very deep and dangerous, yet beautiful, waters. And realizing that you come away from that place and bring things that are important and valuable to the surface.”

In this context, Marc’s poem is a response to Adrienne Rich’s poem, Diving into the Wreck.

“Adrienne Rich spent the last years of her life living in Santa Cruz, California,” he says. “But Rich’s work is about what’s down there that in some sense can be recovered, and mine is what you make of it.

“So, while it’s not a direct answer to her poem, there is a resonance with it, and an appreciation, an awareness of the poem, and also of the place where she chose to spend the last years of her life.”

Which brings us to Marc’s view that poetry is more than communication; it’s conversation. It’s a dialogue, he says, part of a long tradition of conversation between poets themselves and between poets and readers.

“There’s a tradition in rhythm and blues music back in the forties and fifties of making what were called answer records,” he says.

“Someone would put out a single, and then someone would try and one-up them, or would try to engage that single by creating an answer record to that.

“So you’d have R&B bands putting out these strings of singles which started with one thing and then another answered it, or picked up a line from one and carried it forward in another.

“And I love that feeling of conversation, dialogue, competition, and expanding the form. And so I was very conscious of making the answer poem like an answer record.”

Marc at work. Photo credit: Jeff Haynes

Marc at work. Photo credit: Jeff Haynes

Here, he’s talking specifically about his poems P(un)k Poets: Too Fucked to Drink, his answer to Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl, as well as The Underwater Typewriter. Music is on the page too; his poem Woodshed is laid out in such a way that if you turn the book on its side, the words become notes on a score.

For Marc, poetry is multi-dimensional.

Poetry as “ephemeral sculpture”
This is Marc’s second poetry collection; he’s also released two spoken word albums. So is the The Underwater Typewriter a continuation of themes or a move into something new?

“I think the book is a step into new waters,” he says. “It’s an extended performance. If you read it from beginning to end, you can read and perform this entire book out loud.

“It flows together as a sonic performance, and as I was writing it I was very consciously aware of creating a book that would do that.”

In working on the book, Marc thought often of the solos of Carlos Santana, and how despite many variations over the years, the central focus doesn’t change.

“You can hear many examples over many years, but there’s an entry with complete focus into what’s happening,” he says. “Although there’s great variety in the solo itself, there’s a through-line of sound and there’s a through-line of spiritual intention that drives the work forward.”

Poetry is inextricably linked with theatre as well as with sound and vison.

“The way I make and process poems, I hear words, and so I’m always making poetry from an auditory perspective,” he says. “What do words sound like on air? How do they fill a room, how do they decay?

“In shaping poems I often think of them in terms of ephemeral sculpture. The connection between doing spoken word before an audience and theatre is quite close.”

While there’s often a sense that poetry is not for the masses but is something rarefied and inaccessible, the internals musings of the poet, Marc points out that the relationship between poetry and theatre is neither new nor surprising.

It all goes back to the tradition of story.

“Poetry has always been connected to theatre,” he says. “Theatre comes from an oral tradition of telling stories around a camp fire. Poetry’s the same.

“Poetry was our means of transmitting stories and enacting in safe spaces the dramas of our lives.

Marc on his beloved Big Sur coast. Photo credit: Meri Jenkins

Marc on his beloved Big Sur coast. Photo credit: Meri Jenkins

“It was only in relatively more recent times that poetry took a written form and became something very much on the page and something more interior.”

How an accidental poet started opening doors
Marc’s arrival at poetry hit him like a meteor flying in out of the blue. A graduate student at Harvard, he was doing some writing, but poetry wasn’t on his radar. He had no interest in writing it and becoming a poet hadn’t crossed his mind.

“One sleepless night back in about 1987 or 1988, I got up from bed, sat down at my computer, and started writing,” he says.

“And what came out was a poem. I felt this—it was truly a visit by the muse, or at least urge to write—and I didn’t know why and I didn’t know what, and I just wrote without a filter and a poem came out.”

But having started, he hasn’t stopped.

“I think one thing that keeps me writing poetry is the richness and economy of the form,” he says.

“You get to write relatively short lines, every word counts, every line break counts. Words press up against each other and you begin to become aware of their relationship to each other in a way that you can’t in any other form.

“You see how letters repeat themselves, how sounds repeat, you feel juxtapositions in words that are on the page that generate new images for a reader, or take you to different places that are connected but not necessarily entirely linear.”

“As you’re reading a poem, if a poem is well-constructed, it’s kind of like walking down a hall of doors, and each time you come to a new phrase or a new line, you have an opportunity to open your own imaginative door, and I find that fascinating.”

We’re talking again about Marc’s passion for poetry as conversation, for writing something that everyone can explore, that connects across dimensions.

“There are some poems that simply can’t be written that way,” he says. “They’re dealing with abstract ideas, they’re dealing with trying to develop the possibilities of what language can do in an intellectual sense, and there’s certainly space for that, but I think that represents a corner of the field. I’ve written some abstract poems.

“But what I’ve tried to do for the most part is write the human way, that in some sense connects lives, and when I’m able to do that well, I feel fulfilled.”

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and on Facebook here

Lines from The Underwater Typewriter and photos used with permission.

The Underwater Typewriter

The Underwater Typewriter

About the poet
Marc Zegans is the author of the poetry collection Pillow Talk and two spoken word albums, Marker and Parker and Night Work. He comes to The Underwater Typewriter through the bayous and backwaters of American poetry, having been the Narragansett Beer Poet Laureate and a Poetry Whore with the New York Poetry Brothel—which Time Out New York described as “New York’s Sexiest Literary Event.” Marc has performed everywhere from the Bowery Poetry Club to the American Poetry Museum. As an immersive theater producer, he created the Boston Center for the Arts’ CycSpecific “Speak-Easy” and Salon Poetique: A Gathering of the “Tossed Generation.” He also has been MC and co-producer of The No Hipsters Rock ’n Roll Revue and co-producer, with Karen Lee, of Burlesque for Books. Marc lives near the coast in Northern California. You can follow Marc on Twitter here.

About the publisher
Pelekinesis is an independent book publishing company focusing on the development of literary-minded authors and artists by embracing the evolving publishing paradigm and creatively supporting the skills of these talented individuals. You can find the full catalog at www.pelekinesis.com

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Seeing the heart of the story: Melissa DeCarlo

By Roz DeKett

Melissa DeCarlo. Photo credit: Batten Photography

Melissa DeCarlo. Photo credit: Batten Photography

Call it a seven-year itch of sorts. Because seven years after Melissa DeCarlo stopped writing (“I got frustrated … it was almost like I was resentful toward it”) she started again, and the result is her first published novel, The Art of Crash Landing.

Melissa’s feisty protagonist Mattie faces a slew of problems—an unwanted pregnancy, an unwanted inheritance complete with a couple of dogs, a severe lack of funds, a broken-down car—and bubbling beneath it all, a secret her mother carried.

Publishers Weekly calls The Art of Crash Landing “a triumphant first novel” and Kirkus Review describes it as “filled with heart and humor.”

But Melissa took a lot of twists and turns before her novel was published earlier this month.

Putting the fun back in writing
Melissa’s self-imposed seven-year break from writing ended in 2009 when a friend told her about National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo. Although she’s never looked at what she wrote that month—terrible, she says—it re-awoke her love for story telling.

“I’d forgotten about that feeling of being in the shower and getting out and taking a quick note because you just had the best idea,” Melissa says. “Or not being to fall asleep because you think, oh, this person needs to say this.

“I’d forgotten how much fun that was, that weird little piece of your subconscious that comes up with crazy ideas.”

Drawn back in, Melissa took an online course on writing scenes and created a character who was “just a terrible, sarcastic pain in the ass.” And then followed the idea for the book.

“I knew I wanted to write one about kind of a relationship between a mother and a daughter and then that mother and her mother,” she says. “It was so much fun writing that I thought, well, let’s give her a little space and see what she can do.”

Even so, if she hadn’t broken a tooth on a chicken sandwich, Melissa might not have found a home for The Art of Crash Landing.

A short fifteen years later …
In the years before disillusion bit deep and Melissa stopped writing, she was a member of a writer’s group in Dallas, Texas, and worked at their writer’s conferences. One of the agents attending was Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management.

With perfect timing, Melissa broke a cap when biting into a sandwich.

“I had to spend all weekend looking like a hillbilly,” she says, laughing. “But it was memorable.”

At the conference, one of her short stories was included in a reading by local actors. Jeff Kleinman told her that if she ever wrote something she thought he might be interested in, to call him. At the time she was working on a mystery novel (unpublished) and mystery is something he doesn’t represent.

Fifteen years later, with the broken tooth as an aide-mémoire, she had a manuscript that she thought he might like, her story about Mattie. And she queried him.

“I didn’t call him because I figured surely the statute of limitations has run out, but I did email him, and he remembered me,” Melissa says.

“He called me on the phone. He was so nice, and he said, I’m not interested in it.”

At this point, we both laugh, because we know there’s a happy ending.

Jeff Kleinman told her he liked the voice and the writing, but it wasn’t a big enough story. But he offered to look at it again if Melissa decided to rewrite and re-send.

“I was like a dog with a bone,” she says. “I kept fixing it. We went back and forth several times before finally I got it in a shape where he thought he could sell it.”

He never told her what to write; just that the story was lacking something, that she was somehow skipping the heart of the story.

“It was missing that relationship,” Melissa says. “I really didn’t go very deep into Mattie’s past relationship with her mother and it was very ‘a week in the life of a wacky person’. I think his take was, maybe you can sell a book like this but it’s never going to be a big book, because it’s all about solving the mother’s mystery and there was very little pain in it.

“You never really got to see the heart of the story. And once I got into that, I think because everybody’s got crazy people in their family and difficult relationships with someone, I do think it makes it more universal.”

Using snippets from life
Being universal in theme doesn’t mean it’s autobiographical.ArtofCrashLanding pb c

“I think maybe because it’s written in first person, some people are asking if it’s autobiographical in some way,” Melissa says. “The story itself isn’t but you populate stuff. You just pull something out of your life.”

For example, Melissa had a guinea pig as a child and a guinea pig has a cameo role in a scene showing what Mattie’s mother was like; and she has dogs, but they’re greyhounds, not the little French bulldogs that Mattie inherits.

Occasionally, people ask Melissa about the thinking behind some of her anecdotes and motifs.

“It makes me wish I was like one of these people who could say it’s a deeper theme,” she says. “But some of it is you’re kind of amusing yourself because you don’t know if anyone will ever read it. So I think, this’ll be kind of funny, I’ll stick that in there and see where it goes.”

As she wrote and rewrote, she removed scenes, moved things around, and gave the story greater depth than in its first, lighter-hearted manifestation. But after completing her early drafts and looking back over them, she saw patterns emerge, such as the recurring appearance of birds.

“I thought, I can use that better, and so I was a little more intentional with it,” she says.

A second book in the works
Now, Melissa has a two-book contract and a deadline for the second one, which she is in the throes of writing.

“It makes it a little scarier,” she says. “There’s a certain freedom to writing a book when you think, no one is probably ever even going to see this, so I’ll do whatever I want.

“It’s a whole different attitude. I’m enjoying writing it, but there’s a certain level of expectation that was not there at all with the first one.”

And fun is an important element for Melissa; her focus on it helped her crack the writing of The Art of Crash Landing.

“I thought, I’m just going to write what I want to write for fun,” she says. “And try to keep my eyes on the process and not get all caught up in the outcome, because it was making me so miserable before and I’d lost the fun.

“And then, look what happened. You can be fifty-three years old and finally have your novel published.”

More than one, as it turns out. It’s worth the wait.

© Roz DeKett

Follow Roz on Twitter here and Facebook here

About the author
Melissa DeCarlo was born and raised in Oklahoma City. She has worked as an artist, a graphic designer, grant writer, and even (back when computers were the size of refrigerators) a computer programmer. The Art of Crash Landing is her first novel. Melissa lives in East Texas with her husband and a motley crew of rescued animals.

You can follow Melissa on Twitter here and learn more about her and order her book on her website, www.melissadecarlo.com

The Art of Crash Landing was published by Harper on September 8th, 2015.

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