The Practice of Creativity

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I got to know Ashleigh Gauch last year through our connection being published in the ‘UnCommon’ anthologies by Fighting Monkey Press. In the summer, I invited Ashleigh to write a guest post sharing her insights about being an indigenous speculative fiction writer writing across communities. Ashleigh is passionate about writing and we quickly found ourselves having spirited late night conversations about speculative fiction, trends in publishing, our favorite authors, etc. via Facebook Messenger. That’s how I found out about her intriguing new novel, Covenant of the Hollow. [check out her pre-order special at the end of the post!]

Ashleigh Gauch is a Haida author living just south of her hometown of Seattle, Washington. She went to college for nutrition but found her passions lay not in science, but in the genesis of science fiction, fantasy, and horror.

Her aquatic friend Odin and feline companion Luna love to watch her work!

Her work has been featured in the online periodical Bewildering Stories, the Fighting Monkey Press collections UnCommon Minds and UnCommon Lands, the Manawaker Press collections Starward Tales and Starward Tales 2, and the online periodical Teaching Tolerance.

Blurb for Covenant of the Hollow:

Would you give up your ability to fear in exchange for your deepest desire?

Across centuries, the lives of two young women with vastly dissimilar ambitions collide.

Annalise Silva is a 21st-century nineteen-year- old mayoral hopeful in her small city. Between dealing with abusive parents and not being taken seriously as a candidate, she has a lot on her plate. When she investigates mysterious prophetic dreams, she discovers an extradimensional alien who offers her the office in a swap for her fears.

Elizabeth Bathory’s noble birth in 1500s Hungary did not guarantee her happiness. Needing help to catch a husband to secure her family’s position, she accepts the alien creature’s whispered promise of her place in history if she will gift him her inhibitions. She didn’t know she’d be branded as the most prolific serial killer in history.

With lives running in reverse and time running out, will their attempts to stop each other’s descent into madness via shared dreams succeed—before the creature destroys the world?

I’m delighted to welcome Ashleigh Gauch back to The Practice of Creativity!

 

– Tell us about your recent novel, Covenant of the Hollow. What are you hoping readers will connect to in this story? 

Covenant of the Hollow was both a challenge and a joy to write. It follows the twin stories of Annalise Silva, a nineteen-year-old Puerto Rican girl living in the fictional town of Qualicum, WA, and Elizabeth Bathory, the most prolific female serial killer in history. They encounter an extra-dimensional creature who promises them their greatest desires (consequence free) in exchange for their ability to feel fear. Given the constant state of anxiety in which many (dare I say most) women live their lives, such an offer would seem like the easiest decision to make in the world.

One of the things I really tried to capture in both story lines was the omnipresent feeling of powerlessness women feel even as they take steps to seize power over their own lives.

Annalise’s story was based in large part on interviews with a good friend of mine about her uncle and aunt and some of the problems their daughter faced after the family moved from Puerto Rico to the mainland U.S.

Although the cousin in question didn’t run for political office, they did face several of the situations in the book, including pressure from their mother to stay in the household as a caretaker rather than starting a life of their own and having to deal with their father being extradited back to Puerto Rico, leaving the family without a steady income.

Elizabeth’s story was inspired by the article in the collection Rejected Princesses on the historical figure. In it, the author suggested that Elizabeth may have committed atrocities, but not on the scale she was convicted for and not entirely without reason. Sadism or not, she was a widow from the highest-ranking family in all of Hungary who had to hold onto her lands, and the man entrusted with care of her family had his eye on her power. Taking on a familiar horror story from that point of view brought questions to my mind about what that would be like, and what it would be like to be told that the only value you had as a person, from birth, was what you could give to the court.

She has to face many hard choices, including dealing with post-partum depression and vulnerability following an abortion, dealing with her husband’s death and a near-immediate proposal from the man he had assigned their care to, and fears that her barony will fall to Ottoman invaders before she even gets a chance to see if she’s taught her son enough to succeed his father.

That claustrophobic there-is-no-way-out-of-this feeling is one MANY women face on a daily basis, and I’m hoping that my readers find a bit of themselves both protagonists.

-Your story moves back and forth in time between two main characters. Were there any challenges in plotting or characterization that you grappled with as you worked on the book?

Well, I can tell you this book converted me from a pantser to a plotter pretty quickly!

One of the big challenges came from having to change the historical events to fit part of the story I wanted to tell. For example, Elizabeth was 10 years old when she married Ferenc and had her first child at 12, possibly with a lover from the peasantry. Understandably uncomfortable with this, I aged her up to 14 during the opening scenes of the book when she woos Ferenc (a fact contested in various references) and has her abortion (also contested, some sources say she gave a daughter up for adoption).

As far as lining up the story went, I tried to allow the dream sequences they connected with and some of the base events happening in each of their story lines carry similar themes, so the transitions between chapters and points of view felt smooth.

One of the biggest challenges was making Elizabeth relatable. Most people have only encountered her story as the “Blood Countess,” hammed up for horror purposes with her bathing in blood and ripping pieces of flesh off her victims. Although some of those things were alleged in her trial, the historical accuracy was dubious for many of the claims listed. And beyond that, making a sadist relatable at all is a challenge, especially a feminine one.

Trying to showcase her struggles, her reasoning and internal debate for each choice she made, solved some of those issues, but the fact remains that many people struggle to have empathy with flawed female characters. I hope that my book can be another plank on that bridge.

-What was the most interesting tidbit that you came across while researching Hungary in the 1500s for your character, Elizabeth Bathory?

The first was that she and her husband most likely tortured girls together at first, and that he tempered her during his visits home from the war. That was a pretty big shock for me!

The second was that (again, changed in the book for story purposes) he was actually illiterate, while Elizabeth spoke over 4 languages, could read and write, and had a knack for governance. She really was a more educated and prepared ruler than he, and handled much of the court work in his absence. Her son ultimately failed as a successor because she was so afraid of having her power stripped she didn’t adequately prepare him to take over, which ended her bloodline as rulers.

-How did you get bitten by the ‘writing bug’? Did you always wish to become an author?

My first poem was published at 10 years old. It was about 9/11, and my teacher was so concerned about the contents she ended up calling my parents in for a conference. When she determined they hadn’t helped me write it (and didn’t even know about it), she sent it in to a youth writing contest and it ended up in an anthology.

From then on I wrote obsessively growing up, about anything and everything I could get my hands on. I even used the templates in the old version of Word to create a pseudo-newspaper I sent to my grandmother every month. The Storypaper. It had some running stories in parts and some complete ones, and she saved all of them before she died.

I wanted to be an author when I grew up from 10 onward, by my parents were the opposite of supportive. My stepdad thought that I’d be a starving artist if I went to college for creative writing, so I ended up majoring in nutrition when I got to school despite the fact they never ended up helping me pay for it. It wasn’t until some complications happened in school and I ended up bedridden for 2 years following a severe back injury that I picked up the pen again.

I will never put it back down as long as I live.

-What’s on your bookshelf, next to your bed (or in your e-reader)? What are you reading right now? 

J.G. Follansbee gave me an advance release copy of the third book in his Tales of a Warming Planet series, City of Ice and Dreams. I’m reading it for fiction, and a book called Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence by Daniel Goleman for nonfiction. I tend to read one of each at any given time.

– What’s your best writing tip that you’d like to share?

Every project hits a stagnation period. A place where you’re stuck in the mud despite your best planning, where the idea of sitting down to write brings more pain than joy in your mind. Where you no longer know if the idea you’re working on is worth it, if any of it is worth it, and something shinier and prettier looks easier and beckons you away from everything you’ve done up until that point.

For Covenant, it was when a couple of people in my writing group told me that the concept couldn’t work and that I needed to completely change the way I approached the book. That horror readers wouldn’t dig it and it wasn’t sci-fi enough for the science fiction crowd, either.

Don’t listen to any of those voices, human or internal. Because the new shiny pretty thing will have the same swamp waiting for you, and another newer, shinier, prettier thing will beckon, and you’ll leave a stream of unfinished projects in your wake. Give yourself the gift of done, and even after the first draft is finished, the gift of time and perspective. It’s worth it, the work is worth it, and as an author, you’re worth it, too.

No matter what any of the voices say.

Ashleigh Gauch is a writer. Her first novel is Covenant of the Hollow.

Pre-order/Buy Link ($0.99 for the e-book until 2/22): https://www.amazon.com/dp/B079NNYRJZ/

Buy Link for Prequel (Diary of the Hollow): https://www.amazon.com/Diary-Hollow-Chronicles-Drowsy-Book-ebook/dp/B078RFBYW5/

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It was a busy weekend! My first stop was at High Point University. I was invited by the English Club to give a craft talk and also discuss the political and structural interests that led me to speculative fiction and Afrofuturism, in particular.

The thing is, I had never given a ‘craft talk’ before! I’ve given lots of academic talks, of course, and have also done several readings of Reenu-You, but never a craft talk. What goes into a craft talk? I found out that a craft talk is just what it sounds like—a writer talking about techniques and processes of writing.

I knew that the English Club would be marketing my visit for a broad audience, so I needed to keep in mind that not everyone would want to hear specific details about writing craft. I spent the last few weeks working on my craft talk.

In the end, I decided to focus the first half of the talk on the speculative media influences on my childhood and young adult years (e.g. the television show, Lost in Space, the Bionic Woman and the film Star Wars). I then talked about my desire to connect to characters in speculative fiction and media with backgrounds that were similar to mine or connected to African American history and for a LONG time how hard that was. By college I was trying to “write myself” into the text and I spent time talking about how during college I discovered both the African American literary canon and feminist speculative fiction! Toward the end of the talk, I then discussed more ‘crafty’ things like how much I love first person narration and why I chose to use two first person narrators in Reenu-You. The audience was composed of students, faculty and parents (it was family weekend!) and they were warm and asked great questions.

I’m so grateful to the students and faculty that brought me to campus.

Dr. Jenn Brandt and Dr. Jacob Paul, organizers of the events

students

Lauren (on the left) who introduced me at the reading and Molly who is the president of the English Club. They are amazing!

hpu2

On Saturday at Park Road Books, in Charlotte, I was on a fantastic panel put together by writer and publisher Nicole Kurtz. The panel featured Black women speculative fiction authors including Nicole, Alledria Hurt, Marcia Colette and myself.

On such a cold wintry day, we had a spectacular turnout. The audience was engaged and we talked about diversity in publishing, the possible impact of the films, Black Panther and A Wrinkle in Time for young people and pitched our books. We sold out of our books and several panelists and audience members made our way over to a local restaurant for talk and conversation. It was a truly wonderful and uplifting experience! We may try to replicate this panel at future sci-fi conventions.

 

I’m so excited to kick off Black History Month with these upcoming events:

Tomorrow, at Highpoint University, I’ll be giving a craft talk and then later will give a reading from Reenu-You and talk about Afrofuturism. The reading and signing is hosted through their Phoenix Reading Series and will be from 5-6:30.

And on Saturday, Park Road Books, in Charlotte, is hosting a panel of Black women speculative fiction authors. We’ll be talking about our experiences, our work, why representation in publishing matters and also the implications of the film Black Panther.

If you’re local, I’d love to see you there!

Hi folks, Reenu-You soon gets to have its turn in the TV spotlight.

I was so honored to be invited on UNC TV’s show Bookwatch to talk about my novella “Reenu-You”. D.G. Martin is the host and we did the taping during the summer. It was great fun and I learned a ton.

My episode is scheduled to air on Tuesday, October 10th at 8:00pm on the North Carolina Channel & on Sunday, October 15th at Noon on UNC-TV, with an encore broadcast on UNC-TV the following Thursday at 5pm. I hope you can check it out.

In this promo clip, I talk about the creative process and how to stay connected to one’s writing.

http://video.unctv.org/video/3003427932/

At some point, I will write a post about all the things I learned during my first TV appearance!

 

I’m thrilled that my essay about Octavia Butler is now in print in the new collection: Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler.

In celebration of what would have been her 70th birthday and in recognition of Butler’s enormous influence on speculative fiction Twelfth Planet Press has published a selection of letters and essays written by science fiction and fantasy’s writers, editors, critics and fans. There are letters from people who knew Butler and those who didn’t; some who studied under her at the Clarion and Clarion West workshops and others who attended those same workshops because of her; letters that are deeply personal, deeply political, and deeply poetic; and letters that question the place of literature in life and society today.

 

 

I write about Octavia Butler’s use of affirmations to support her writing and how I have viewed her life as a model for creative practice. Those of you who have been reading my blog for some time know how important a tool I think affirmations are for creative people. In 2016, I committed to a daily practice of  writing an original affirmation about creativity and posting it on this blog. This practice provided tremendous nourishment for my creative life.

There are many writers in this collection that are well-known in the science fiction community including Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okrafor, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Steven Barnes, but also you’ll discover newer writers (like myself) in this hefty 405 page book.

A few months ago, Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal, the editors of LT gave a great interview here.

If you’re a Butler fan, you’ll want this work in your library. If you have friends that are OB fans, please pass on info about this book!

 

The first thing you notice in Eden Royce’s short story collection, Spook Lights: Southern Gothic Horror, is the exquisite attention to language and setting. Royce’s storytelling is layered and dense. Spook Lights is billed as dark fiction. The sense of horror, dis-ease and dread are developed in an entertaining and unexpected way in each story.  This collection is a great introduction to Southern gothic horror and is well worth your time.

Themes that recur in the stories include: betrayal, the meaning of death, the price of living, what makes a joyful life, and memory. The challenges of love, especially for women and the price that they are willing to pay for it (whether for a son or lover) is often costly. The characters in these stories yearn, love, desire and act in ways that make for compelling fiction.

This collection is populated by a variety of diverse characters and cultural reference points that include European American, African American, and indigenous histories. And, their experiences are filtered through the landscape of the South, most often Charleston. Indeed, one of the gems of Eden’s storytelling is the way she uses language, dialect, and setting to re-imagine folk traditions, hoodoo, and everyday people seeking spiritual assistance. She upends the traditional Hollywood stereotypes of root workers and conjure women. She is interested in how the magical and mundane intersect, especially for women of color and the paths that they travel to find freedom– both physical and psychological. Indeed, the title of the collection embodies a playfulness about ideas of darkness and light, and personal and official histories.

I truly enjoyed every story in this collection. Some of my favorites include, “Dr. Buzzard’s Coffin”, a fresh take on zombies, including ones that can restore balance. This tale involves an uncle undergoing a metamorphosis in order to cleanse the community of a dangerous threat. In many of the stories, the main character seeks assistance from the spirits and after receiving the assistance, realizes (often too late) that it came with a high spiritual price tag. “Hag Ride” is one of these stories. What is one to do when one loves a philandering husband? We feel for Frieda, the main character when she is warned by ‘Big Mama’, her godmother (who works roots), that sometimes we should let someone go rather than trying to force them to love us.  The troubled young woman doesn’t want to hear this sage advice and proceeds to call on ‘The Hag’ for help. Her philandering husband gets more than he bargains for when he meets a beautiful woman who gives him the “ride” of his life. He is definitely transformed in ways that Freida can’t anticipate. It is a delicious revenge story with a twist at the end.

With the “Turn of a Key” and “Rhythm”, roles are reversed and it is the man that’s been betrayed and seeks help from otherworldly forces.

The stories vary in length and viewpoint, alternating between first and third person. Some like “Hand of Glory” and “Homegoing” are flash fiction driven, leaving us with more tantalizing questions than answers.

My very favorite story, “The Choking Kind”, ends the collection. I love this story because it is a mother and daughter story, a mystery and a story about magical beings all rolled into one. Imaginative and unexpected it deals with ideas of loss, memory, identity, freedom and family.

In this collection, there is a story for every kind of horror and dark fiction aficionado. Compelling short story collections are marvels of pacing, selectivity and wordsmithing. Eden Royce brings all of that and more to this work. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

 

 

 

I’ve made it through a major writerly milestone. Last week, I had my debut book reading and signing for Reenu-You at McIntyre’s Books. It was a blast and went very well.

However, there was still a lot to learn!

I thought I was ready. I thought I knew all there was to know. I thought I was prepared. How long had I been attending book signings? How long had I been visualizing myself conducting a reading and signing books? Longer than I can remember.

But, there was still a lot to learn!

I’m passing on some tips and lessons learned.

-Ask for help. Mobilize your writing peeps!

Doing an author signing and book reading requires some coordination, especially if this is your first time. I decided to serve drinks, food and organize a giveaway. I also had to order books because Book Smugglers distributes their books through IngramSpark and most bookstores will only order a few copies (because of the no return policy). Therefore, authors have to order books and bring them to the store. So, I needed help with lifting books, setting up the food, etc. Mobilize your community and ask writer friends for help on your big day. They’ll be happy to help with moral support, too. I’m glad I flexed my usually underutilized “asking for help” muscles. I had fantastic help and support that day.

-Promote and advertise your event at least a month beforehand. And, don’t just rely on one or two promotional strategies.

I used Twitter, my Author Facebook page, my personal Facebook page and blog to promote the event. I posted a month before, three weeks before, two weeks before and a few days before the event. McIntryre’s Books created a Facebook event page. The only thing that I didn’t do that I will do next time is to also invite people through email. I had a fantastic turnout, but several close friends weren’t there. These are folks that don’t regularly check Facebook. I over-relied on the Facebook event and my personal page for promotion. I also didn’t want to “bother” people by posting too much. Given that it takes several “touches” for people to get something on their calendar, and you never know what people actually see and when they see it, it’s better to post often. Next time, I know that it’s better to cover all the bases one can, including good old email. I also forgot to email my newsletter list!

a lovely audience

a full house!

Practice what you will read and time yourself. Do it over and over until you feel confident.

I received good advice from some writers on Twitter when I asked about tips for doing a reading. Many stressed to pick the highlights and sections of the book that pop. Most of Reenu-You moves between two narrators, Kat and Constancia. I decided to read brief snippets of when we first meet them. They both have distinctive worldviews and use of language that made those snippets very fun to read. I reminded myself that I just needed to provide an appetizer to the audience to entice them to want to read more.

Get rest the night before.

I was restless and didn’t sleep that well the night before the reading. That morning I got up and did some gentle yoga and meditation which was extremely helpful for getting grounded (as they always are).

Eat something beforehand or have an energy bar with you.

You’ll probably already feel jittery, hunger will exacerbate that feeling.

Take cough drops with you.

I know writers who carry cough drops in case their throat gets dry before a reading. I didn’t carry cough drops, but I did use Nasya oil which is a medicated oil that lubricates the nasal passages and promotes concentration. Nasya is a cleansing technique used in Ayurvedic medicine, a holistic science that originates in India. I swear by this technique during fall and winter when the weather is more drying and one becomes susceptible to colds and flus. Doing Nasya is also very grounding.

Food is always appreciated at an author event.

I had a nice spread of snacks, cheeses, fruit, lemonade and sparkling wine. Also a friend made great cupcakes which garnered kudos and became the second star of the day. She tried to match the frosting colors to the colors on Reenu-You’s cover. I think she did a great job.

I loved seeing people connecting and talking about writing while eating delicious food.

I splurged on food and wine as I wanted this to be a celebratory moment. When I do future readings, I will probably keep it simple-just cupcakes and champagne!

Consider offering a door prize or two. People find them fun and it contributes to the festive environment.

I absolutely love receiving door prizes at events! I decided that I wanted to give away some door prizes for my reading. I gave away my book and The Successful Author Mindset by Joanna Penn. I’m a huge fan of Joanna Penn’s work as a podcaster, author champion and writer and I wanted to encourage the writers in the audience with her words of wisdom. I also gave away Nisa Shawl’s novel, Everfair. I met Nisi when I was a graduate student and lived in Ann Arbor. She worked in a used bookstore and somehow I discovered that she also loved speculative fiction and also wanted to be a writer. It was always a joy to visit her as we would talk endlessly about speculative fiction. She was the first person of color I knew that also wanted to write science fiction! When I was telling this story to the audience, I reminded then that although now everyone seems to be talking about Afrofuturism, Octavia Butler, writers of color in speculative fiction and Black Speculative Arts, twenty-five years ago this was not the case! In the early 1990s, I knew of Octavia Butler and Samuel Delaney, but I didn’t have a community of people who looked like me that I could talk about speculative fiction or being a writer in the genre. Nisi was a wonderful informal mentor and friend. I am thrilled for her success with Everfair which is a alternate history novel that re-imagines what might have happened in the Congo, during colonization, if its inhabitants had access to steampunk technology.

My friend Sam won Nisi’s book! A perfect fit as he is a literary and film scholar and is interested in speculative fiction.

Bring a great pen to sign books.

Your first event will probably bring a lot of people that you know. I found myself wanting to write much longer notes in the book which slowed the line. Also, they’ll want to chat a bit which is fun. Remember that energy bar? You might need to take a few bites in case your energy flags some.

Pete, one of the booksellers gave me a Sharpie to sign books with. I had meant to bring a special pen, but that detail totally got lost while preparing for everything else. I was terrified of messing up with that Sharpie, but I didn’t’.

I’ve seen other authors have a slip of paper with them and they ask people to write their names down. This ensures that you don’t spell someone’s name wrong which would be a big bummer.

Savor this feeling—allow yourself to be celebrated.

I am so grateful to folks who were able to make it to McIntyre’s Books. I looked out into the audience and saw former students, academic colleagues, community folk, writer friends and new faces. It was a real delight to experience the fullness of that moment. The writing journey is that much sweeter when you can share some of the peaks with friends.

So much fun seeing friends and holding up my book!

The time really flew by. At moments I found myself saying, “It’s all happening so fast.” I remember hearing from a coach that in order to get our brain to really “take in”, or anchor a positive experience, we have to focus on it for about ten seconds. Otherwise, it just slides by and gets drowned out in the noise of life.

I kept trying to remind myself to let the amazing feelings sink in. And, I whispered to the universe, “Thanks universe, more experiences like this, please! I’m ready!”

 

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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