The Practice of Creativity

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I first met Samantha Bryant online, last November, during the intense worldwide writing challenge known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Novice and veteran writers alike try to complete a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in a month. This was my first NaNoWriMo and I was looking for local writers to connect with, who were also undertaking NaNoWriM0, during what promised to be an exhilarating and caffeine-laden month. By sheer chance, I ran across Samantha’s profile on the NaNoWriMo site and saw that we had a lot in common and that she only lived an hour away. We both like to read and write speculative fiction, are great fans of ‘The Magic Spreadsheet’ (a writing accountability tool), and are bloggers. Samantha’s wonderful blog is called ‘The Balancing Act’ and she routinely writes about being an educator, the craft of writing and being a mom. The other thing that I took notice of right away was that Samantha was coming out with her first novel with a fabulous premise—women who through experiencing menopause develop superhero abilities. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that the speculative fiction field has produced many menopausal superheroes. Menopause is such an important social, biological, cultural and even spiritual transformation for many women, yet it rarely receives prime time attention in fiction. In Samantha’s debut novel, Going Through the Change, four unrelated women experience menopause in a way that triggers superhuman capabilities. They must find out how to use their powers and why they have them. Sounds irresistible, right?

It’s been a blast getting to know Samantha and her writing. During NaNoWriMo, she was a kind and encouraging writing buddy. And, we both completed our NaNoWriMo drafts!

I am delighted to welcome Samantha Bryant to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

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Tell us about your new book Going Through the Change: A Menopausal Superhero Novel. What inspired this book?

I’m a long time comic book reader. My mom used to take Little Me to a bookshop on the avenue in my hometown where I could buy old comic books for a dime each and she could get mystery novels for a quarter. I was allowed to spend a whole dollar, so I’d get a lot of interesting reading that way! So, superheroes have been part of my imaginative landscape from the beginning.

Much more recently, through my library, I met a local writer, James Maxey, who was holding some craft and business of writing workshops. James wrote a superhero novel (Nobody Gets the Girl) and an even more awesome side-quel about the villains (Burn Baby Burn). Up until then, I didn’t know the “superhero novel” was a thing. I was so excited to learn that it’s a thriving subgenre!

I’d been writing a women’s fiction novel (unpublished as of yet: His Other Mother). I feel proud of the book, but finishing it was emotionally difficult. So, I promised myself that, if I finished that book, I could write something “fun” next. The actual idea sprang from a long, rambling conversation with my husband about the relationship between hormones and superpowers.

What is your biggest hope for Going Through the Change as it meets readers?

In my wildest fantasies, the book sells a bajillion copies and wins all the awards and I give up my day job and enable my husband do so, too, and we and our girls travel the world solving crimes and saving people like Nick and Nora Charles, but with less inebriation.

More realistically, I just hope I find some readers and they enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. The thing I’ve always loved about science fiction and fantasy in all its forms is the way you can explore life issues without feeling as though you’re taking them seriously. At its best, it’s fun and thought-provoking at the same time. It’s emotionally true, even when you’re dealing with things that can’t possibly happen in real life, like flying women or women who can throw fire.

Through Linda, I got to explore issues of gender identity, racism, and what makes a strong marriage. Patricia let me find out what it might have been like to choose a single life in a powerhouse career instead of becoming a wife and mother. Writing Jessica taught me about inner strength and reinventing yourself when life throws you curve balls. Helen had a lot to say about regret and bitterness and how they can twist a person.

Writing this novel let me live inside each of these women. I love them all and they are all in me in some way. I hope my readers will come to love my superwomen the way I do.

Please tell us how you came to work with your publisher, Curiosity Quills Press.

This will be my first published novel, but it’s not the first one I wrote. When I finished Change, I had been playing submission tag (mostly I was “not it”) for a year and a half with my other novel. I’d gotten some nibbles, but no bites. In the process, I learned that I didn’t have the patience for large publishers. I’m okay with “no” for an answer, but I just wanted to get an answer sooner, so I could move on and try someone else if my book wasn’t a good fit.

So, for this book, I only looked at small, independent publishers. I started paying more attention in my online life to speculative fiction writers who were working with small presses. Matthew Graybosch, author of Without Bloodshed, and fellow user of Google+, had posted a few times about his publisher, Curiosity Quills.

So, I cyber-stalked them a little. I liked what I saw. They seemed to really love what they were doing. Their website had personality. They were transparent about what kind of deal I could expect from them if they accepted my work. So, I wrote up a query letter and sent some pages.

It was a really pleasant surprise how quickly things moved from there. Within a few days, I had a request for the full manuscript. A contract was in my in-box just a few days after that. Working with them has been lovely so far! All my questions are answered promptly and seriously and the entire community of Literary Marauders has been warm and welcoming.

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How do story ideas usually come to you? Do you start with character, plot or conflict, etc.?

The best ideas seem to come from something that scares me a little or worries or upsets me. My first novel came about from my unreasonable fear that I would be hit by a car in the grocery store parking lot and that my infant daughter would be left alone. Going Through the Change stems from my anxieties surrounding doctors, going through menopause, and getting older. A short story I wrote recently is, in a way, about how much I don’t like gardening.

Usually, I have a vague idea about a scene and a sketchy outline of a character in mind and I sit down and start writing. I’m very much a discovery writer at first–I write to discover what the story is going to be. When it’s going well, it feels more like I’m channeling a story from some external source than like I’m making it up inside my own brain. I’m one of those writers who wants to kvetch about what her characters did to her today.

If you could be any superhero for a day, who would you be? Why?

I’m not very tall or very strong and am always frustrated by my lack of vertical reach, so I would probably love being Helen Parr (Elastigirl from The Incredibles) for a day. She’s also a great mom and manages, in the end, to balance superhero and family life. That’s quite a role model.

It could also be cool to be Buffy Summers of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For one thing, Joss Whedon would write my dialogue. For another, I’d be preternaturally strong and fast and athletic. I wouldn’t want her love life though.

In my child’s heart, though, I’d probably be Red Sonja. She was my first superheroine love, after all-from those ten-cent comics days. Because she’s mostly naked all the time, I was sure I shouldn’t be allowed to read her, which, of course, made her all the more appealing. She’s fierce and unafraid, undeniably female and strong. A truly independent warrior.

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

The one thing that truly made a difference for me was committing to a daily writing habit. For me, I did that with Magic Spreadsheet, a gamification tool for writers created by Tony Pisculli, which awards points for meeting a daily minimum word count.

For many years, I struggled to write while meeting all the rest of my responsibilities as a teacher, wife, mother, dog-mom, sister, daughter, etc., etc., etc. I would get a few hours once a month or so, and spend half of them just trying to get back in the flow.

But, once I committed to writing at least 250 words every day, come hell or high-water, that problem disappeared. It’s not hard to find my way back into the story if I’ve only been away twenty-four hours. It made the time I had more productive. Over time, with practice, I became able to write more words in one hour than I used to write in a four or five hour session. I began to finish things. So there it is: write every day.

 

Samantha Bryant is a middle school Spanish teacher by day and novelist by night. She lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with her husband, daughters and dog. Her secret superpower is finding lost things.

Connect with Samantha in multiple ways:

Her blog: http://samanthabryant.com
Author Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/samanthadunawaybryant
Author’s page on Curiosity Quills: https://curiosityquills.com/authors/samantha-bryant/
Twitter: https://twitter.com/mirymom1
On Google+: https://plus.google.com/u/0/+SamanthaDunawayBryant/posts

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I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Randi Davenport while she was a colleague at UNC-Chapel Hill. She served as the Executive Director of the James M. Johnston Center for Undergraduate Excellence and taught Honors students for Carolina’s Department of English and Comparative Literature. After a couple of meetings, we soon recognized each other as kindred spirits with similar backgrounds in the liberal arts, a deep passion for teaching, and an interest in women’s studies. It was also thrilling to find another academic who was pursuing a creative writing life. Randi has an MA in Creative Writing and a PhD in Literature, both from Syracuse University. Over the years, I have been inspired by Randi’s dedication to writing.

Randi’s first book, a memoir The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes: A Mother’s Story is about her developmentally disabled son Chase’s psychotic breakdown at age 15. She chronicled being a single parent and the challenges of dealing with the medical industry. This blurb by Alice Hoffman is indicative of the high praise the book received: “A heartbreaking, disturbing, and truly courageous story of one mother’s fight to save her son.”

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Randi Davenport is the author of the novel The End of Always (Hachette/Twelve, 2014) and of The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010). In 2011, she received the Great Lakes Colleges Association New Writer’s Award for Creative Non-fiction, and was a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award and nominated for a Ragan Old North State Cup Award for Non-fiction. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Salon, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Ontario Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Women’s History Review, Literature/Film Quarterly, Victorian Literature and Culture, among others.

I have been looking forward to speaking with Randi about her new novel The End of Always that is partly based on her family’s history. And, I am thrilled to announce that the novel has just been nominated for a National Book Award! I am delighted to welcome Randi Davenport to ‘The Practice of Creativity’.

 

The desire for love is a nearly universal human experience, and Marie seeks love throughout the book. But in The End of Always, power and violence seem to thwart her every step of the way. How you do balance these big ideas while telling a tale like this?

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I didn’t start by thinking that I was going to write a novel about power and violence, that’s for sure. I started with Marie. Marie Reehs was my mother’s grandmother, which makes her my great-grandmother. She was born in America but her father, mother, and several older siblings were born in Germany, on the island of Rugen. This is where the family came from when they immigrated to Waukesha, Wisconsin. The only thing I knew about Marie when I started was that her name was connected to a deep family mystery. I set out to solve this. When I did, I discovered the events that inspired The End of Always. And those events eventually led me to the issues of power and violence you mention. But I couldn’t start with those, just as I couldn’t write a novel that was just a literal transcription of my great-grandmother’s life. Either choice would have taken me on a fool’s errand.

It’s important to remember that the novel is a story, first and foremost. It’s about one young woman whose life, I suspect, will feel achingly familiar to many readers. If I’ve done my job, Marie’s experiences cannot help but tell us something about ourselves. Perhaps that’s where the things you call “big ideas” come into play. But I didn’t write the novel trying to nail those concepts. I wanted to get at the heart of Marie’s life. The “big ideas” about power and violence are inescapably central to her world. As they are to women everywhere.

Talk a little about the title The End of Always. What does this phrase mean to you?

In the most obvious sense, the title refers to Marie’s fight to escape the brutality that the women in her family have always endured. For her, at least as far as the world of the novel is concerned, always comes to an end. But the end is hard won. It may not last. We don’t know.

More broadly, the title refers to the always that women in America experience. Even women who insist that they have never experienced violence and perhaps believe that it’s not all that pervasive know what a risk they take when they walk in a parking garage alone at night or on an empty street in an unfamiliar neighborhood. They know what it might mean if they run out of gas on a country road or fail to check the back seat in their car when they get into it at the mall. They have seen the things that men they know do. Deep down inside, we all know where we live, even if we say otherwise.

The title is less hopeful on this score. Could there be an end to that always? I’m forever optimistic, but I’m a realist, too.

What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

Writing this book was the most difficult part of writing this book! I made a number of false starts. I kept re-writing. My agent was endlessly patient with me. I was still revising right up to the day the page proofs were due. I had a hard time letting the book go. I think everyone at Hachette/Twelve could still see my fingernail marks on the pages when they arrived at their office.

Socialist ideas pervade the Wisconsin community of immigrants that populate The End of Always, but the novel makes clear that true equality does not extend to women. Do you consider this a political novel?

The End of Always is a novel. It’s not a polemic. It is, above all else, a story about a girl and the choices she makes or the choices that are thrust upon her, and her discovery of her place in the world. When I started writing, I actually was thinking of Hardy’s  Tess of the D’Urbevilles, which is a story of a girl’s journey in an inhospitable land.

But to the extent that The End of Always shines a light on the hard and absolute fact that some Americans are beaten or killed or abused or otherwise damaged when they try to walk this land free and equal—well. I can understand why readers might find the political in that. And of course, the novel focuses on a girl’s story as a way to talk about America, to give us insight into ourselves. That literary terrain is nearly invariably reserved for male characters so I suppose this book is disruptive in that way as well.

What does your writing practice look like?

I’m a writer so I write. If you come across me during work hours, it might not look like I’m writing. It might look like I’m staring into space. Or like I’m pulling my hair out. When I was more able, I’d go for long walks. I do lots of thinking before I begin but I don’t do outlines of any sort. I often talk to myself. Depending where I am in the process, I might be sobbing. No. Just kidding. It rarely comes to that. I also write every day. In the morning, before I do anything else. I’ve always done it this way. When my kids were little I’d get up two hours before they did to write. Now that they’re grown, the habit of writing first thing in the day stays with me.

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

Let’s see. There are lots of people out there giving advice to writers. Very little of that advice is any good. The best of it is mostly just okay. A good deal of it is truly terrible. Potentially damaging, even. I don’t want to contribute to the problem. However, I’ve been writing my whole life and by this point I do know something about the process. So here’s my advice: If you want to write, write. Forget prompts and tricks and gimmicks. Roll your sleeves up, plant your butt in your chair, and tell your story. Write. And if this isn’t something you can bring yourself to do or if you can imagine any other way to spend your time (Face Book? Twitter? Vacuuming?), it could be that writing is not the thing for you. That’s a hard fact but it’s true. Writers write. And my advice is to get to it.

 

To find out more about Randi Davenport, visit her website.

 


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

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

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