AN AUTHOR IN SEARCH OF A VOICE
In my back room I have several novels – unpublished, thank heaven! I call these my ‘training novels.’ I am self-taught and in that process I pounded out hundreds of thousands of words on an old electric typewriter I got at a garage sale for five bucks. There are six or seven completed novels in that back room. Good ideas, great characters, poor execution. All were different genres – an author in search of a voice!
My cowpoke hero in this trilogy of stories was hanging around my mind for years. This was back in the day when I knew I wanted to be a writer, but had no idea what genre best suited my voice. Back then, I didn’t even know what a writer’s ‘voice’ was!
Then I hear this other voice – deep, elderly, a little shaky – sort of like Jimmy Stewart, actually. He whispers in my ear, “Did I ever tell you ‘bout the time I was foreman of the Four Arrows Ranch and inherited me four mentally outa sorts folks in a will?” Well, who can turn that down? The voice was to become the character (and ‘character’ he is!) of Royal R. Leckner, elderly cowpoke relating his life stories -the fiascos he got himself into – to a WPA scribe.
So, after trying my hand in several genres, my first success was humor. The Four Arrows Fe-As-Ko was followed by The Royalscope Fe-As-Ko and The 1898 Base-ball Fe-As-Ko. A fourth, Holy Fe-As-Ko, was in the works when the publishing house, Catbird Press, stopped publishing original American humor. Still found on used book sites, in audio and soon to be in ebook form, these stories still find readers and it’s wonderful hearing back from folks who had as much fun reading these books as I had in writing them!
My emergence as an author of young adult fiction was quite accidental. I sent this book to my then-agent, Don Congdon, thinking it was going to be a great mother/daughter novel about the ‘F’ words – Forgive and Forget. I noticed a lot of my friend’s mothers seem to be in discord with their own mothers – was this generational? Did it have to do with women’s rights or perhaps the Depression or WW2? Well, Don read it and told me it wasn’t this literary tome I thought it was, but rather a young adult novel. And since it took place during WW2 years, it was historical by genre. I actually argued, stupid me! But he sold the book to Random House within a few days! The book went on to win the Keystone State Reading Award. Also in audio and in ebook!
The Likes of Me
I have always been attracted to characters who seem to have been given ‘less’ in life – characters who seem to have huge obstacles to overcome. I wish I could remember how it is (or where it was!) that I came up with the characters of Cordelia Lu Hankins , half-Chinese, half-Caucasian and ALL albino girl who becomes a carnival sensation. I had actually thought I was writing an adult novel about Babe Killingsworth – a giant. In fact, looking at first drafts of this book, I was totally in Babe’s head, instead of the young girl’s. But voices take over these stories we create and before I knew it, another historical YA was born, compliments of Random House. Another award winner, this book is also out and about as an audio book and an ebook.
Before I ever sold a book, I was offered the chance to write the 100-year history of the Tacoma-Pierce County YMCA. The pay was enough to buy my first computer, an Apple II E. (Yes, THAT long ago!) Little did I figure on the project becoming so monumental. From organizing literally 100 years of letters, newsletters, photos, and ledgers to finding and interviewing people who were Y members or campers as kids. But I soldiered on and, although I disliked most of the work. After all, I fancied myself a novelist. How creative could something like this be? Then, while going through an old newsletter from the Y camp in the 1920s, I read a story about a group of boys who couldn’t afford camp so they volunteered to build the chimney and fireplace for the lodge. BINGO! That one small tidbit, along with photos, was all I needed to form the basis for The Cornerstone. The first draft wrote itself in two weeks, long hand! Many years later, it was worthy of publication – also in hardcover and ebook. (For years, it was optioned for feature film by actor/director Tom Skerritt.) Lesson: Do what you say you’re going to do and your rewards might come when you least expect it.
In addition to being a novelist, I am also a self-professed slangaholic and have been compiling an extensive database for years now. I picked up a book, Maggie, A Girl Of The Streets, by Jack London as a reference for the street slang used in the latter half of the 19th century. It got me to thinking – what must life have been like for a girl, uneducated, orphaned, and under the strict control of her hoodlum brother? It was all the ‘what if’ I needed to create Hellie Jondoe, my heroine of this young adult novel. Here’s a twist: I needed to come up with a plot device to get this girl out of New York City fast and cheap. Started my research and damn, I had never heard of orphan trains! So, that quickly became a side plot for Hellie as she makes her way across the country on an orphan train and lands in the middle of nowhere – a cattle ranch outside of Pendleton, Oregon. Hellie Jondoe became my first young adult novel dealing with what I call ‘swept under the carpet’ issues. Social experiments, if you will. The idea of rounding up orphans in the big cities and taking them outside to be adopted might have been borne of good intentions, but the consequences were not always good. This book was honored with the Willa Cather Literary Award and the Will Rogers Medallion.
The ‘what if’ here is what if you are the brightest student in the smallest town and from the poorest family? Liberty has dreams of going to college and studying anything and everything she can get her hands on. But her widowed mother also has dreams – getting her failing Christmas tree plantation out of hock. This second novel in the ‘social experiment” line deals with the issue of the deportation of Mexican-Americans during the Great Depression. Which seems pretty timely today. Since I’m a horse-lover since childhood, I created a character – an aging draft horse, Quiller, to take Liberty Justice Jones on her ride to find help and to, quite literally, save the farm! This book also received both the Willa Cather and the Will Rogers awards, as well as honorable mention for the Washington State Book Award and the PEN USA literary award.
I wanted to continue my ‘swept under the carpet series’, so I looked at my own backyard, the Pacific Northwest and the issue is the internment of Japanese-Americans. This time, my young heroine is Ruby Opal Pearl, but call her Jewels. She lives in a small town on the north Oregon coast. She’s the most bullied girl in town and struggles to prove her worth to just about everyone. But when Pearl Harbor is bombed, things for the entire town, the entire country, changes overnight. Patriotism is a good thing, but when it grows into paranoia, that’s when someone has to step in. Since the town’s richest man and benefactor, and Jewel’s confidant, is a Japanese-American, all eyes land on him as the enemy. And Jewels takes it upon herself to stand up against the town, her friends, and the FBI.
The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die
My working title for this book was The Arab Of Warsaw and when you read it, you’ll understand why I not only chose that title but why we scraped that title. As with previous books, I found my inspiration for this book in an unlikely place – a garage sale. An old, worn paperback had caught my eye in the ‘free box’ which people usually place at the end of the driveway. The book was called The Cigarette Sellers Of Three-Crosses Square. I thought, why not? Can’t beat the price! The book was the non-fiction telling of how some children survived the Nazi occupation of Warsaw by selling cigarettes. That was the germ my novel sprang from! This is what I love! A little known story! I dug in and started my research. That was in 2002. Yes, that’s how long it took me to thoroughly research a time, a place, and the people for this novel. And, and you writers out there? ALWAYS look in the free box at garage sales!