This coming Saturday I'll have the privilege of sitting on a panel with four other authors: Cat Winter (IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS), Susan Hill Long (WHISTLE IN THE DARK), Teri Brown (BORN OF ILLUSION), and my good friend Rosanne Parry (WRITTEN IN STONE). What do these excellent novels have in common with SIRENS? All our books are set in the 1920s. I'm truly looking forward to this event, and if you live in the Portland area, won't you stop by? We'll be at A Children's Place at 2PM, Saturday, September 14.
In anticipation, I've invited Rosanne to the blog today to talk about her novel and the writing life, and I think you'll agree that she is one smart and interesting lady, in addition to being a fabulous author.
Congratulations on the publication of your third novel, Written in Stone. Please give us a brief synopsis.
Pearl had always dreamed of hunting whales, just like her father. Of taking to the sea in their eight-man canoe, standing in the prow with a harpoon, and waiting for the whale to lift his barnacle-speckled head as it offers his life for the tribe.
But now that can never be. Pearl’s father was lost on the last hunt, and the whales hide from the great steam-powered ships carrying harpoon cannons which harvest not one but dozens of whales from the ocean. Pearl’s people, the Makah, struggle to survive as Pearl searches for ways to preserve their stories and skills.
As someone who has written about a very different cultural expression of the 1920’s, I’m curious to know why you chose that era as your time period.
When I decided to write about the tribes of the Olympic Peninsula I initially thought I’d write about the resumption of whale hunting which occurred in 1999. But as I learned more about the history of whaling and what the resumption of the hunt really meant to the Makah it occurred to me that the more interesting story was that they voluntarily gave up whaling in the early 1920s in response to a catastrophic drop in the whale population due to industrial whaling. How do you survive economically, culturally, spiritually, and socially when something that has been at the core of your identity so abruptly disappears? That’s a question that intrigues me, and cultural survival is an issue that I think will resonate with many people beyond the tribes in the story.
Beyond that I think the twenties are fascinating in terms of the shift from rural to urban living that occurred at this time and the changing role of women in the workplace and the fallout from the devastation of the First World War and subsequent influenza epidemic. Written in Stone touches briefly on all three of those issues. I chose 1923 specifically because Native Americans were not granted citizenship in the United States and the right to vote until 1924 long after thousands of them fought and died for their country in World War I. Everyone thinks of the Twenties in terms of women’s suffrage but there were many groups besides women who were still struggling to gain the right to vote for many years after the famous 19th amendment.
What kind of research did you do in order to capture the Makah culture of that period?
I was very fortunate to have the help and support of some of the women I taught with while I lived on the Quinault Reservation. They were great about answering my questions and giving me access to unpublished doctoral research about the tribe. I’ve been to the Makah Cultural Research Center many times and heard the chairman of the Makah Whaling commission speak about the role of whaling in his tribe’s history and their hopes for a whaling future.
Although I read quite a bit and there are many interesting books on the subject of Native American history, my favorite part of research is meeting people and hearing their stories. I love listening to an artist talk about carving in the workshop as the chips of cedar are flying. I loved to see the looks in my students faces as they were doing their traditional dances or watch the grandmother who came in to teach my student’s basket making. She brought in armfuls of sweet grass and raffia. With fewer than three sentences of instruction, but much encouragement to gather close and watch her hands, and a lively running conversation about the merits of various professional wrestlers, she had my students deeply engrossed in a craft in which they had just a few moments before loudly professed their lack of interest. Being fresh out of college myself I have to say her teaching technique was a revelation to me. And I’ll never forget how proud my students were of the baskets they eventually finished.
You write very deep and character-driven novels. Can you share techniques that you use to capture your characters? What about the character of Pearl, in particular?
I’m a great collector of writing tips and techniques and I love to try different things. For Pearl the key to getting at the heart of that girl was not so much a particular technique but a willingness to spill great quantities of ink in getting to know her. I finished the first draft of this story when my oldest girl was in the third grade. That girl graduated from college this year! In many ways Written in Stone is the book that made me a writer. I’ve written more drafts of this one than any other. It was in third person initially. I wrote several drafts in blank verse. I tried giving Pearl a more direct and contemporary voice, and an even more formalized storyteller’s voice than she has now. I think there is much to be gained, from rewriting a story many times from many different angles.
The heart of the matter, for me, came down to voice. I think Sherman Alexie does a great job of capturing a contemporary Native American voice. I think Graham Salisbury does excellent work with contemporary Hawaiian turn of phrase. When trying to write as I heard my Quinault and Makah neighbors speak, I couldn’t quite get the sound of the voice right. I was maybe 90% there but just as a violin a little bit out of tune is worse than one that’s miles out of key, I wasn’t willing to settle for almost right. So I gave the story a contemporary frame of a grandmother sharing her recollections with her granddaughter. This allowed me to use a slightly more formal tone and a storyteller’s turn of phrase, which suits my present talents better.
So that’s not very helpful in terms of concrete technique. How about this: if you love a story, don’t give up until you’re satisfied with it. :)
How do you find the ideas for your stories – which are quite varied?
I was just talking to some students about this. Although my stories are quite different from each other, one thing they have in common is the coming-of-age theme. The thing that’s so exciting and also terrifying about being young is that the whole world is possible and its up to you to make choices that in the end will narrow your life considerably. So how do you know what your talents are and what you ought to do with your life because of those talents? That’s a great question to think about and I hope for families and students and teachers to talk about as they read the books.
I also think one of the great pleasures of fiction is that it takes you to someplace new and different every time. Heart of a Shepherd is set on a contemporary cattle and sheep ranch in Eastern Oregon one of the most starkly beautiful and empty places in the world. Second Fiddle is set in Berlin and Paris in 1990. I lived in Germany at that time, the fascinating and unsettled year when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union, the lifelong enemy of the Unites States, disappeared completely. It was a fascinating time to live abroad and great fun to revisit two of the most interesting and artistically vibrant capitols of Europe. Written in Stone is set in the only temperate rainforest in North America. The Quinaults maintain the only stretch of wilderness beach on the west coast. Yes, it rains about 15 feet a year, but the Twilight books got this setting entirely wrong. It’s not dark or depressing on the Olympic Peninsula. After the morning mists roll away there are as many clear days as cloudy and there is nothing to compare with the abundance of the rainforest. I’ve got some pictures from the Olympic Peninsula over at my Pinterest page. Take a look for yourself. http://pinterest.com/rosanneparry/written-in-stone/
What are you working on now?
I am so excited about my newest project. It’s a series for younger readers and it has magic in it, both of which are new ground for me. The first book is called Jamie and the Dark. It’s a friendship story about a boy who makes friends with the Dark—a kid much like Jamie, but only a foot tall, who lives in the closet and has pockets full of stories. It has been such fun to write something funny and light-hearted that has a really interesting story-within-the-story element.
I also wrote a graphic novel script for the book, which was a fascinating process. I love thinking about a story in new ways and it was fun to think about the pacing of the story in a much more visual way.
I don’t have a publication date for Jamie and the Dark quite yet but I hope to have that all worked out sometime this fall.
Where can readers find out more about you and your books?
My website www.rosanneparry.com is the place to go for information about author visits and lots more goodies like a recipe for each book. I’m also on Goodreads and you can follow me on Twitter @RosanneParry.
If you are lucky enough to live in Portland Oregon, I’ll be at A Children’s Place bookstore with Janet and 3 other MG and YA authors who also have books out this year set in the 1920s. We are going to have a Great Gatsby party and lots of lively conversation about historical fiction. That event will be Saturday September 14th at 2pm. I hope to see you there.
My other project for the fall is Wordstock, Portland’s book festival. I’ll be doing a writer’s workshop on Saturday October 5th at 3pm. My reading and book signing will follow that at 5:30pm, and I’ll be moderating a panel discussion on creating multicultural characters Sunday October 6th at 5pm. All the events are at the Oregon Convention Center.
Thanks Janet for sharing your blog space with me. I’m so looking forward to spending some time with you next month.
So am I!!