Today I welcome fellow Michigan author Robin Devereaux-Nelson to my blog. Listening to her talk about her life, her process and her life lessons is quite fascinating. Welcome, Robin. Please tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up in an interesting time–the 1960s–with totally apolitical parents who sheltered my sister and I from everything that was going on around us, Vietnam, racism, Cuba. I didn’t learn about any of these things until I was in high school, and didn’t understand much about them until I was an adult. As a result, I grew up in a pastoral setting wearing rose-colored glasses. The world, when I got out into it, came as a big, and sometimes not so pleasant surprise. Conversely, I was extremely fortunate that our family had an extensive library in our farm home – a real library. My maternal grandfather, the son of immigrant Germans, came from a somewhat wealthy, well-educated family. When he bought the farm in Linwood in the 1940s and moved from urban Detroit, it was important to him that culture didn’t go by the wayside. The ten by twelve room, which was lined with shelving he built with his own hands, was filled with all manner of books, fiction and nonfiction, detective novels, westerns, sex manuals, how-to books, Shakespeare – all was fair game. Reading was how I came to know the world. Writers were who I admired. Did I read things at a young age I probably shouldn’t have? I admit, I did. However, early on I was interested in words and how they fit together. I started drafting stories when I was three years old. Since I couldn’t write them down yet, my father set me up with his huge reel-to-reel tape recorder and I spoke my first stories. I’ve been writing ever since.
I am a writer, multi-medium artist, musician and film maker. I’ve been a working writer/artist, by which I mean art/writing is what I do for a living, for approximately five years now. It is challenging and wonderful. It is frustrating and fulfilling. It’s scary. More than anything, it is worth it because I finally feel like I am living as who I was supposed to be all along.
Talk about the books you’ve written. What was the first seed of an idea you had for your books? How did each develop?
I have a few projects under my belt. My first novel, In Violet’s Wake, was a Nano novel (written during National Novel Writing Month – NaNoWriMo- in 2010.) I’d just left an administrative job with the intent to write full time. At that time I was a short story writer and had never attempted a novel. I didn’t think I could do it, really, and discovered that NaNoWriMo is the perfect arena for new writers to challenge themselves. There are no traditional “prizes” – the prize is that at the end of the month, you have completed a significant piece of work. NaNoWriMo is the gift you, as a writer, give to yourself.
In Violet’s Wake is a comedy/on-the-road/buddy novel about five men who have all been married to the same woman for a short time. The charming, quirky Violet crashes through her neuroses and the lives of these men, who have all loved her, been hurt by her and have contributed to her therapy bills. They get together and form an odd sort of support group, and when they find out that Violet has her eye on husband number six, her old high school flame, they set out to find him before she can to warn the poor sucker. The book started as a joke. I was with a group of women having drinks. We were talking about a woman we knew mutually who’d been through several husbands and was working on her next “project”. At one point I remarked, “Wouldn’t it be funny if all the guys she’s been with formed a support group?” Well, the remark turned into an idea that wouldn’t leave me alone and In Violet’s Wake was born.
I am shopping both my second and third novels. Number two, titled You Can Only See Clearly From Here is also a Nano novel (2012), and the third, A Man A Woman A Garden A Snake was written during 2013/14.
You Can Only See Clearly From Here is the story of two sisters, Elena and Roz, who grew up in the shadow of their mother’s bi-polar disorder. Set in the present and the 1970s/80s when diagnoses and treatment of BPD was just coming to the fore, the story follows Roz, the oldest, who becomes the unwilling caretaker and Elena, who cloaks herself in denial and wants nothing more than for her family to be “normal”. Their mother, Lauren, an aspiring (and failing) professional photographer, walks a treacherous tightrope strung between normalcy and mania, intermittently accepting and refusing treatment. After Lauren dies, the walls Elena and Roz have built between themselves threaten to tear them apart. When Roz disappears, leaving everything behind, Elena must step up to the plate to find her sister, as well as face her own past and future.
The third novel, A Man A Woman A Garden A Snake, is a dark comedy about four odd-balls who been thrown together by circumstance. Lana Lang is a 42-year-old mortician’s assistant with a half a foot who pretends to be a 1940s movie starlet. Beau Kowalski is a homeless young woman who is pretending to be a man. The two meet when Lana is brutally mugged after winning the lottery. Add to the mix Walter “The Seal” Seaton an ex-boxer with a secret, and Miriam Bashir, a Lebanese immigrant who blames Lana’s family for her husband’s suicide. All loners who are sheltering secrets and nursing their respective wounds, the four players struggle separately and together, the specters of Fear and Love doing battle within each of them to a final, surprising conclusion.
I am so pleased that NaNoWriMo was so successful for you. I am currently working on the WIP I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2014. How has writing these books changed you?
I would have to say that the biggest change in me as a writer happened after completing the first book, even before I submitted it anywhere. At that time, finishing In Violet’s Wake was my greatest accomplishment as a writer. I’ve always been awesome at starting stories, but had a problem finishing them. In fact, I probably have five or six novels and as many as fifty short stories (and screenplays and poems) lying around that I’ve begun and never finished. Maybe it’s the same for all writers? I don’t know about that.
Prior to entering NaNoWriMo in 2010, I also signed up for Jeff VandeZande’s fiction writing class at Delta College. My goal there was to have deadlines that forced me to finish the short stories that were assigned. That was also my goal with NaNoWriMo. I needed an arena that pushed me to finish the story, and it worked. When I wrote that last page of In Violet’s Wake, I cried. I got up and did a little happy dance. I was just so thrilled that I had finished the book – that phase, in any case. Editing is another animal altogether.
Writing these books has been invaluable to me in that I have, over the course of working on them, been able to come to be and do what I’ve always dreamed of. While I am not making a ton of money, that is not what is important to me. The part that’s important is being a storyteller. Maybe that part of me is branded in my Native American DNA. I have come into myself and am more comfortable with who I have become than I ever have been. I am able to look anyone in the eye and say “I am a writer” with absolutely no qualms. In fact, I say it with pride.
One other way this writing has changed me – I have learned how to be still and listen to what’s inside me, really listen. That’s where the characters come from, and that’s what really drives my stories. All my focus used to be on what was outside me. I would worry, if I write that, what will people think of me? You have to forget all that and go within. Let the stories and characters go where they are going to go. It’s a journey. It’s exciting, fun. I just had to learn how to relax into it and trust that process. It’s made me a better writer.
I agree wholeheartedly with you about what an exciting journey writing is. How would you describe your writing process?
Most all my story ideas evolve from a “what if” question or from an idea I have in my head about a particular character. I guess it usually starts with the character. Lana Lang, for instance. I knew she was an amputee right off the bat, and that she’d lost half a foot in a lawnmower accident as a young child. I knew she was a product of a wealthy family from whom she was estranged – and that as a coping mechanism she used fantasy (movies from the 1940s) and alcohol. So, what if she wins the lottery? What if a street kid with a secret and no winter coat witnesses her winning and decides to mug her?
The step after what if for me is always what happens next? What happens next always propels me forward. It is the question I ask myself and then type madly until I get stuck, at which point I ask myself again, so, WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? This has rarely failed me. I have to say I don’t much believe in “writer’s block”. You have to be committed to going forward in your writing. What happens next is a good way to keep going forward. When I worked in the business field, I spent a lot of time as a project developer. Part of developing projects is brainstorming – that is what the question what happens next? is. It is a way of brainstorming. Sometimes I have one idea about what happens next and sometimes multiple ideas could take me in several different directions. I keep a notebook for each project and write those ideas down, as well as things like family tree sketches for my main characters, timelines, maps of towns or places that exist only in my imagination. I write down directions the plot could take and what might happen if the story heads in a particular direction, ways my characters might change, things they might discover about other characters or themselves. In other words, what if?
I usually write fairly quickly, kamakazi style, if you will. I don’t like to over-think it. I let the characters take over and take me where they want to go. Then, when the story or novel is finished, I take the advice of my imaginary mentor (imaginary only because I imagine he is my mentor) Stephen “Big Steve” King: I put the damn thing away for a few weeks (or months) and forget about it (mostly). Then I can come back and read it with fresh eyes and start the editing/rewriting process. I am pretty brutal, so it’s important to turn that editor off when I am writing. It was a very hard thing to learn to do. Writing is hard work, but it is also instinct. You have to trust your heart and guts and brain and just let them go and do what they do. The Editor can step in later and clean things up. That’s her job. But while the actual writing is happening, there is no space for that opinionated bitch in the room.
Kamakazi is the perfect term for how I write, too. What do you keep in mind as you write?
Let the characters do and say what they are going to do and say and go where they are going to go. Also, there’s that show don’t tell thing. When I look back at my earlier writing I can see that I really hurried through stories telling – and sometimes I still do that when I am writing hot and I need to get down the what happens next and next and next before I lose it. I am a very fast writer. I usually find quite a few places during the editing/rewriting process where I need to slow down, show the reader the slant of sun on the leaves, define a character more with a gesture or what the person is wearing, doing, saying, ground a reader in the location using more detailed descriptions.
Also, while I don’t outline (that freezes the characters up and doesn’t allow them to do what they need and want to do), I usually know pretty much where and how a given story is going to end, so I keep that in the back of my mind as I am writing as well. Sometimes, though, even I get surprised. And that thrills me because it is just magical. If I’m surprised, there’s a good chance the reader is going to be as well.
What kind of response do you get when you tell people you are an author?
It’s mixed. Some people are very excited to meet someone who identifies herself as a writer. Some people are skeptical. Some people look at you as if you have just said you are Napoleon (and have delusions of grandeur.) Most folks seem genuinely interested, though, and ask about what I’ve written or I am currently writing. The thing about telling people you are a writer is that you have to believe it, in your heart of hearts you have to believe it. That took me many years to do as well, to really believe that I am a writer. When I first started saying it, I felt like a poser, a fake – even after I’d won the Fabri Literary Prize for In Violet’s Wake and got the publishing deal. I had to learn to believe in myself as a writer and an artist, to believe that I am a creative being and that creating is what I was doing for a living.
Tell us about the funniest/craziest/most interesting thing that has happened to you as a writer.
This really cracked me up. I have a friend who is an actor. He was working on a production in Grand Rapids shortly after In Violet’s Wake came out. He called me one evening from a nightclub and said “You are never going to believe who I am with!” I figured he was with some really famous actor or something. Not the case. At the nightclub he’d run into these three guys. They were all wearing matching tee shirts and emblazoned on the chest of each was a large “X” and a number. That’s right: X1, X2, X3. They’d all been married to the same woman and had become friends – just like my guys in In Violet’s Wake! They met once a month and went out together in their respective tee shirts. I wanted to talk them into book touring with me, but it just wasn’t to be. Art imitating life? This stuff happens. My friend made three book sales for me that night. True story.
What is the best piece of advice about writing that you ever got or read?
I can’t say, read, hear this enough: if you want to be a writer you have to read a lot and write a lot. I’ve been reading since I was four, taken a myriad of literature classes, and I still don’t consider myself well-read. Read all kinds of things. Pay attention to how writers make their stories unfold. Practice writing. Practice a lot.
One of the things that irks me the most is when I tell someone that I’ve been published and they tell me I’m lucky. While I admit that to a small degree luck has something to do with it, mostly it is due to hard work. Writers who are published work their butts off. It’s not just the writing, it’s editing, submissions, promoting your work. It’s labor intensive with little payback most of the time. You really have to love what you are doing. You have to decide if it is worth it to be in it for the long-haul.
One other thing: have fun. If you’re not enjoying the process, is doing it really worth it? I think that’s true of any career. For me, writing is akin to creating magic- places, people, history. I mean, how great is that?
What are you working on now?
I’m currently in the editing/rewriting process of You Can Only See Clearly From Here. I will be making my first foray into the independent publishing arena with this novel, both in print and e-book. I am hoping it will be out in late spring 2015.
What a fabulous interview, Robin. It’s been such fun hearing about your journey. I wish you all best.
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