Regal House Publishing’s “That’s My Story” initiative continues with our Fitzroy Books author, Molly Elwood, whose road-rollicking MG adventure novel, Spartacus Ryan Zander and the Secrets of the Incredible, which will be released on August 3, 2018.
We’ve all heard the advice that authors should “write what they know.” But fiction emerges from imagination and creation of new worlds. Do you feel a tension between what you’ve experienced and what lives only in your mind?
There’s something to be said for pairing excessive attention to detail in real life with the ridiculousness of imaginary trajectories. Most days, I notice a lot of inconsequential stuff and catalog it away (today, it was a line of ants fighting along the crack in a sidewalk). Writing about them gives me a release of all of these relatively unimportant details that follow me around (strangely, people are willing to read about ants, but no one in real life is really wants to talk about them). These details get dropped into scenes to add a bit of grounding to scenes, both for the reader and in my own mind. As I edit and revise, that’s where my imagination kicks in and adds the details I don’t recall or the things that should have or could have happened. Then later, when I think back on the actual event, I…uh, I sometimes can’t remember what was real and what I made up.
For example, in Spartacus Ryan Zander and the Secrets of the Incredible, I include a scene where there’s a rat stuck in a crack in the cement. I recall in real life, walking to brunch and coming across a rat in a crack. It was horrible. There was nothing we could do. Later, we passed it again and it was gone. A cat? A good Samaritan? I have no clue. But I went home and wrote it into my book and it became one of my favorite scenes. In that scene, the rat is very much alive. However, to this day, neither my husband nor I can agree whether our rat was alive when we passed it the first time. I insist it had to have been still and playing dead—if it were alive, I would have done everything possible to get it out. Even hunt down some reverse lion pliers.
What surprising skills or hobbies do you have?
I’ve got a weird musical brain. I can pick out songs on most instruments I pick up. I was a voice major for a couple years in college, so I can fake some opera, mimic Jewel, Natalie Merchant, and Grace Slick. I can pick out Ode to Joy on any stringed instrument. I play a mean tin whistle to unstick my writer’s block. And yeah, I totally regret having not focused enough on one instrument to be amazing. Right now I’m trying to play the guitar.
One of the strangest way this manifests itself is this weird auditory/location memory, where I can pair something I heard with where I heard it (and vice versa). Right now, on my jogging loop, every time I pass under the walking bridge, lines from the Modern Love podcast I listed to under it echo through my mind. Someday, I will harness this skill and maybe learn Italian—which I’ll only be able to speak in the park where I listened to language tapes.
Do you view your current genre as being your one and only, or are you tempted to try your hand at others? If so or if not, why so or why not?
My current novel is middle grade. I personally love middle grade as it was such an influential time in my own reading life. I read everything I could get my hands on. I read through recess, meals, while riding my bike (definitely not recommended), under the covers (another warning: don’t use an alarm clock as a reading light—you will be blind by the time you’re thirty). It’s the time where you start pulling away from family and building your own identity, and exploring new worlds is a massive part of it. I want to keep creating stories for that kid, the kid who is a voracious reader, who hungers for longer stories and deeper, realistic themes.
However, I’ve also written a heap of personal, travel, and comedic essays. While I have another MG novel in mind, I also have a bevy of other plot lines listed in my Evernote Ideas file, so I wouldn’t count anything off the table yet.
The market for young people’s books has grown phenomenally and has finally garnered the respect it deserves. Even adults are reading books for teens voraciously. Why do you think it has taken so long for YA literature to come into its own? Why has it done so now?
I don’t think this is a unique answer to this, but I think we can connect the increase in YA popularity to the state of world we’re living in. Since the late ‘90s, we’ve seen shortened news cycles with more extreme headlines. Social media has us more connected to each other than ever—sometimes too much. Adults are looking for an escape from the news, from social networks—yet they need that escape to be short and easy to jump out of. In my opinion, YA is easy to pick up and immerse yourself in in moments.
Plus, I think there is also a confidence that comes with being an adult and reading something meant for a younger audience—you’re getting to go back to your own happier times, but with the wisdom of your experience. It’s rewarding to read about a stressful teen experience and think you’d be capable of handling it. ;)
But all of that totally neglects the main fact: YA books are likely better now than they’ve ever been. Increased popularity means publishers set the bar higher when accepting manuscripts and they spend more on editing and making sure the stories are tight and exciting. Which means more readers, and that again boosts the industry. While I may have read every single Baby-Sitters’ Club book back to back (to back), god knows I would have been better off reading almost anything published now.
Is there any reason grown-ups should or should not read these books?
I admit it: finishing reading an adult novel, like something by Haruki Murakami, always stresses me out, because I’m faced with the decision: Do I start another long, onerous novel—or do I pick up a YA book? The former is a three-month workout, and the latter is like two weeks of eating cake. But I think everyone benefits by adults reading YA. They are more connected to kids, they are more connected to who they still are (if we really get down to it, I think we’re all just teens working adult jobs). I think it also helps adults grow, as many [MG] books cover tough, relatable topics that may give the reader a second chance to process. That being said, I hope adults will continue to read more challenging novels. There are so many ways novels can help us grow and expand our world. To limit ourselves to content intended for children and teens may limit our ability to relate to the world we inhabit.
Molly Elwood lives in Portland, Oregon. She works as a copywriter/creative mind and spends her free time watching bad movies, reading good books, and scheming ways to get on a plane to anywhere. She is currently obsessed with the multiple worlds theory and how it affects cat behavior. She recently discovered this mysterious site: https://www.ihatebartholomewscircus.com/
Regal House Publishing’s “That’s My Story” initiative seeks to introduce our writers and poets in a more unconventional way. We have supplied our authors with a significant number of unusual questions that pertain to the writing craft, and to various questions of a literary hue (some humorous, some a little twisted!), and others that we thought might be of interest to our audience. Each author selects and answers five, and of those five, Regal staff select two to three of the most delectable to be featured in our “That’s My Story” narrative. So each installment will feature a new author or poet, answering a unique set of questions that offer intriguing insight into their particular approach to the literary craft. While we had fun coming up with a slew of unorthodox questions, we also invite you, at the bottom of the page, to submit your own. What questions do you have that you would like Regal House authors and poets to answer? Let us know, and we will add them to our questionnaire.
So join us, connect with us, and tell us about your own literary story.
I love to study how languages intermingle and shed parts of themselves into each other as they, and we, evolve. Translations are especially hard and yet exciting as so many concepts have no precise translations. Gemuetlichkeit is translated as “coziness” or some such, but languages are so deep and complex, they contain so much more than literal meanings. This word also is suggestive of a sense of acceptance and comfort one finds in social acceptance, or can be evocative of atmosphere. Rhyming slang contains marvelous nuance, the meaning of which can be difficult to convey concisely within a novel but adds significant depth and texture. One might hear in London: “Don’t step on the pickles,” where the speaker wants you not to step on his newly scrubbed stairs, so he says pickles so you may substitute pears, rhyme it with stairs and get his message. I love language interactions! Poetry and plays and dialogue spring naturally from such word plays.
Everything. Old and gray and full of sleep at seventy-eight, each day is new. Even old stuff is new—an old piece becomes a new piece with any new reading. I always have multiple things in the hopper and work on each as the spirit moves. A sticky poem where the scansion and tropes don’t work, an old play finding a new twist, a new “if, then” experience, a new problem to be worked out, all can be variations for new themes.
False Bottom, a work on which I am currently engaged, deals with lives in the deep scattering layer of the oceans where many midwater animals rise and fall thousands of meters in a daily cycle tied to the sun cycle. I am examining, poetically, how the lives of these folks interact with each other while making their strange ascents and descents.
So an old man’s world is ever full. Each day he works and learns and imagines, and once in a great great while, when the baseball gods agree with all the others, he may send something off for others to see.
The Nudibranch Elegies and Anthropocene’s End made it to Regal House Publishing after trying many places, and may see the light of day come November—if the gods behave; each day is wait and see.
Everything. Math, science, old authors, new authors, history, engineering, especially books and papers from other countries, languages and times. Books filled with ideas such as Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Kawabata’s novels, Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities, and for me especially Ford Maddox Ford’s Parade’s End and the Good Soldier, all help me cope with today’s world.
Ideas come and go. Some stay and grow, and a few become iconic. Ones that remain do so for a reason. Find the reason. In mulling, new ideas come and attach themselves to others over time.
This part of the process can never be forced. What comes is what comes of its own will, often after periods of rest. The newly becoming idea swirls around and grows strange over and over, but parts lose themselves and others stay. Those that stay become catalysts for new pieces.
A character of mine, Moabit Bird, says it thus: “As long as I stay ignorant and don’t judge, I can learn new things when looking out into the world. I don’t know where I’m going, what I’m going to see or meet, so I must open myself. Then I may learn what reality is.”
Be a part of our ongoing “That’s My Story” initiative. Do you have questions you would like featured? Want to share your own literary story? We would love to hear from you!
by Von Wise
The modern world provides us with countless conveniences. Almost anything we could want is available for purchase within seconds, at any moment. Amazon can deliver a package to our house within days for free, and this convenience is exemplified by book deliveries, its flagship service. So why then do we still go to book stores to buy books? This simple answer is that we don’t; we go for the experience. The more complicated answer involves our relationship with books and our emotional responses to seeing them, browsing them, the wholly deliberate de-commodification we enact by treating books as something slightly more sacred than most of the other objects we buy. Bookstores evoke a complex web of interconnected desires, sensations, and visceral satisfactions, all of which can be more or less articulated as the smell of books. As services like Amazon out-supply big-name stores like Borders and Barnes & Noble with its unlimited capacity and as sleek e-readers pose as practical upgrades to thousand-page tomes, an independent bookstore like Flyleaf Books continues to thrive because it is an important member of the community for which simple convenience could never substitute.
While visiting Flyleaf, the store itself immediately engages in dialogue, as, walking through the door, you encounter a table arranged with Notable Books, each with a handwritten card detailing its contents and the thoughts of the staff member who filled out the note. You then begin to notice these penned columns peeking out of various books all over the store, inviting you to take a look and to perhaps share an experience. It’s easy to get distracted with all of the tables pulling you from island to island of books and bookshelves lining the walls drawing your eyes in countless right angles. Even on my most focused visits to go pick up one specific book, I’ll still find myself aimlessly browsing, almost by accident. And that’s exactly the point. Flyleaf Books isn’t simply a location that facilitates transactions; it’s a place to be, to savor, a “third place.” In other words, the books are for browsing as much as for buying.
The interior almost seems designed to facilitate a sense of discovery and opportunity. After meandering through the front area, browsing the newest releases and staff favorites, the staff-curated poetry section and various fiction and non-fiction sections, you are inevitably drawn towards the back of the store to discover the—again, curated—children’s section. The space is semi-contained by half- and full-sized bookshelves and resembles a play area. To the other side, an entrance opens up into a large, spacious room containing the used books section. This space serves as a reflection of the front, with bookshelves lining the walls and tables set up in the middle. This is also the space where the community engages itself in the events hosted by the store.
Community events are undoubtedly an important part of what makes a store like Flyleaf so vital. By hosting readings and similar community-oriented literary engagements, the store becomes a living part of the social process. It becomes a locus for the public engagement with ideas, facilitating and realizing the community’s literary body as a coherent, conscious entity. With its mix—and equal promotion—of local and non-local authors, Flyleaf grows alongside and through the community in more ways than one. Jamie Fiocco, Flyleaf’s owner and general manager, noted that she found herself to be a staunch supporter of free speech through organizing and managing the readings. She noted that there have occasionally been readings which attracted protesters, and that these tend to be opportunities to resolve conflicts. This is exactly what makes a space like Flyleaf so important. It is more than simply a place to buy books; it is a place to come together.
Even from the beginning, Flyleaf has been shaped by necessity. The owner of the building had the space and knew he wanted it to become a bookstore, however, following the financial crisis in 2008, there was trouble finding someone to fill it. The owner knew Jamie through the publishing industry and eventually convinced her to head a new business. By November 2009, Flyleaf was ready to open its doors. Despite the unforgiving economic climate, the store persisted, and after spending some time in it, it’s easy to see why.
Flyleaf is clearly managed by people who care about what they do. Over the course of interviewing her, Jamie stopped several times to personally make sure that people in the store had help if needed. When speaking about the store, she mentioned that, growing up in Chapel Hill, she had always wanted someone to open up the kind of bookstore Flyleaf has become. One can’t help but think of Toni Morrison’s advice to write the book you want to read; the same can be said of the stores that sell them. It certainly isn’t the largest bookstore in the area, but with its carefully managed selection, that hardly matters. Each section is constantly curated, and Jamie joked that five different people touch each book before it makes it to the shelf. When browsing the selections, that level of care is obvious. Jamie worked to find the right mix of people to help her manage the store and noted how happy she is with the staff group and culture.
It’s about more than making a living wage selling books: it’s about creating a positive work environment, about making books available, about enriching the community. Jamie noted how, today, there is a place for independent bookstores like Flyleaf to succeed. That place is located in the space between the publishers and the people who read their books and involves forming relationships with each. It involves filling that bookstore-shaped absence in the community. It’s about serving the community while being part of it. Flyleaf isn’t going anywhere because it provides something that cannot be replaced: a third place for anyone who loves the smell of books.
Von Wise is an assistant editor at Regal House Publishing, and an MFA student at Florida International University, where he studies creative writing. His work has been previously selected for the Donna Grear Memorial Award for poetry. He currently lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where he runs a writing workshop.
by Tim J. Myers
You move into a new house, and of course it’s a hell of a lot of work. We’ve been pulling fourteen-hour days, hauling boxes till our arms and legs ache. And you start setting things up, just so. This goes here—should we put that over there? A seemingly endless number of objects to be placed, to be positioned as the perfect slaves they are, never moving unless we bid them. And you start learning the little peculiarities of the place—the way you have to pull just so to get the shower to work—how the front door sticks a bit. Even the sounds of it, a kind of minor encyclopedia: the kitchen tile you keep stepping on, that makes an odd squelching noise—the way china rattles in the hutch when someone walks past.
But all along you’re engaged in another kind of house-warming too, almost without thinking. You hardly notice it. And it’s more than one’s emotional attachment to a house, as real as that is. It’s something that takes no notice of the elements of “home staging,” like the smell of fresh-baked bread to entice renters or buyers, or general “home-i-ness,” any of that. You’re seeking, feeling for, slipping into, something far deeper.
I worried for days, unaware of it, that there were no mockingbirds here. So many in our old neighborhood—and just three miles away! The world alive with them in May and June, their songs filling me whether I listened or not. Then I heard one, here, from the branches of the Modesto ash in our front yard. Fool, I told myself—you just happened to move in early July, the season shifts, they stop singing then. Mates are already won, sex on hidden branches has filled the world with a different, silent kind of song—eggs are growing in feathered bodies, nests being built. They’re here too. Of course.
We think about shower curtains, where to hang the mirrors, how to pack our plastic Christmas bins in the little shed. I try to remember how to reconnect all the parts of my computer. I go out to the car at night, off to grab some fast food, and notice a gleam of stars through leaf-thick branches above me.
We talk continually about what we need to buy. A new rug for the dining room—what color? Indoor-outdoor is best—they wear better, and easier to clean. At night I fall into bed, my head as weary as my body. But I find myself waking to sunlight crowding at the window, warming my limbs. Ah, the window looks east—it can be for us like it was for those who lived here long ago, homes arranged so their doorways always faced the dawn.
And my neighbor, whose backyard is a botanical version of a middle-class pleasure palace, a Cheesecake Factory of greenery and garden knick-knacks—he tells me off-handedly that he gets hummingbirds all the time. That eases me—eases this part of my self that’s learning the new house, the new street, the new bit of Earth beneath it. Eases the part of me that fears a particular kind of emptiness amid the great but level fruitfulness of a modern American suburb.
The flurry of questions continues: Where’s the closest grocery store? How long will it take us to get to work from here? Oh, you can’t go that way—that’s our old route, it’ll take too long. But under those questions, a quieter one, less pressing in the practical world, far more pressing in the depths of myself:
What capacity does this new place have?
The question keeps rising in wordless form; I realize with only mild surprise that I myself am asking it, again and again. And I know, without thinking, exactly what it means.
Capacity—for Vision. For some strange sudden eruption of spiritual truth into my consciousness. How will I encounter the sacred in the minutiae and particulars of this one small place? What relationship may arise between my spirit and the sidewalks, the front lawn, the feel of the house at midnight? It’s happened before—Vision has come to me, changing everything. Can it happen here?
In the middle of our big moving day, sweating and dirt-smudged, she and I paused at twilight to glimpse the new crescent through vines and trees in the backyard. Nothing made us feel more at home.
I took all the power strips and extension cords, cleaned them up, rolled and rubber-banded them, put them in a drawer so we can find them when we need them. The cable guy came and connected us. There’s an enormous deciduous, huge rounded leaf-heavy crown, off beyond the houses across the street. It must be on the next block, maybe farther. I step out the side door of the garage to finish a drink, find myself peering beyond the top of my new fence to those high branches as they shift in the wind—
Yes, I think. Yes. The way those leaves move, the sway of those branches in wind just after the sun sets. Yes.
It can happen here.
My spirit begins to take its ease. It has its own great animal faith in eventuality, even concerning that which seems, by its very radiance, impossible. And now it feels this place, begins to let itself seep into everything here, the slope of the roof, the dirt of the empty flowerbeds, the worn wood of the back fence, the stuccoed walls, each blade of newly-sodded grass. It greets passing breezes, neighborhood smells, little rainbows in the sprinkler arcs.
I begin to wait.
Tim J. Myers is a writer, storyteller, songwriter, and senior lecturer at Santa Clara University. He writes for all ages. Find him at www.TimMyersStorySong.com or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/TimJMyers1. Regal House is proud to publish Tim J. Myers’ poetry collection, Down in the White of the Tree: Spiritual Poems in the fall of 2018.
Learning a New House,” was originally published in: America: The National Catholic Review. 2017, with the title: “Looking for God while moving into a new house that doesn’t feel like home.”
by Ruth Feiertag
23 April 2018
Today marks the 454th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birthday and the 402nd anniversary of his death. To mark the day, I offer here a few of my favourite bits and pieces from the oeuvre of the Man from Stratford, fragments that remind us how much we can learn from someone who lived and wrote over four hundred years ago.
Issues of friendship (usually complicated) pervade Shakespeare’s work. Hermia and Helena; Hamlet and Horatio; Rosalind and Celia; the Prince, Claudio, and Benedick; Beatrice and Hero; Antony and Enobarbus; Hal and Falstaff; Paulina and Hermione (not Granger) — these friendships have trials and separations, misunderstandings serious and silly, but throughout his plays and poems, Shakespeare recognizes that friendship is essential to humanity. Sonnet 29 describes the way a steady and loyal friend can save us from the depths of despair and self-loathing. (Jaynie: this one’s for you.)
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
While sometimes we need to look to others for support or inspiration, Shakespeare also urges us to examine ourselves to find what qualities lie within that we can, that we mustshare with others. Our awareness of how we depend on others becomes balanced by the realization of what we owe the world:
Thyself and thy belongings
Are not thine own so proper as to waste
Thyself upon thy virtues, they on thee.
Heaven doth with us as we with torches do,
Not light them for themselves; for if our virtues
Did not go forth of us, ‘twere all alike
As if we had them not.
— William Shakespeare, Measure For Measure I.i.29-35
Of course, it’s all fun and games until somebody is looking to be the next king of England. In Henry IV, Part 1, Hal contemplates how his companions use him and how he intends to use them in turn to solidify his claim to the throne that his father usurped (though I will say, I think with good reason) from Henry’s cousin Richard.
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder’d at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish’d for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I’ll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
Henry IV, I. ii
We could pause here to debate whether Hal is a clever politician or a rotten blackguard, if his companions deserve such a reversal, whether Hal is reluctant to do what he knows must be done or gleefully anticipating pulling the rug out from under Poins, Bardo, and especially Falstaff (“No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry’s company, banish not him thy Harry’s company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world”), but if anyone wants to have that discussion, let’s save it for the comments.
Back to the sonnets for a finish. In the thirty-third fourteener (that’s for any mountain climbers who might be reading), Shakespeare employs much of the same imagery he put into the mouth of Hal. The imagery works differently in the sonnet. We could, I suppose, maintain that 33 makes an argument for the benefits of recycling, but besides that important lesson, this poem also provides us with a thought-paradigm that can lead us to being forgiving of others and maybe even of ourselves.
Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain-tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green,
Gilding pale streams with heavenly alchemy;
Anon permit the basest clouds to ride
With ugly rack on his celestial face,
And from the forlorn world his visage hide,
Stealing unseen to west with this disgrace:
Even so my sun one early morn did shine
With all triumphant splendor on my brow;
But out, alack! he was but one hour mine;
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.
Yet him for this my love no whit disdaineth;
Suns of the world may stain when heaven’s sun staineth.
None of us is perfect, but all of us are connected. Shakespeare lived a long time ago, but his works remain to make us think, to question, to push ourselves to become better people with broader minds and more expansive souls.
Happy birthday, Bill, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
P.S. Because Shakespeare and Cervantes share a death-day, here’s a sonnet from Don Quixote, one that touches on many of the same themes as the passages above:
When heavenward, holy Friendship, thou didst go
Soaring to seek thy home beyond the sky,
And take thy seat among the saints on high,
It was thy will to leave on earth below
Thy semblance, and upon it to bestow
Thy veil, wherewith at times hypocrisy,
Parading in thy shape, deceives the eye,
And makes its vileness bright as virtue show.
Friendship, return to us, or force the cheat
That wears it now, thy livery to restore,
By aid whereof sincerity is slain.
If thou wilt not unmask thy counterfeit,
This earth will be the prey of strife once more,
As when primaeval discord held its reign.
Ruth Feiertag is the senior editor of Regal House Publishing. She holds a B.A. from the University of California Santa Cruz and an M.A. from the University of Colorado at Boulder. She finds Medieval and Renaissance literature (mostly poetry and drama) endlessly fascinating, and anyone who wants to be treated to a long monologue should ask her about bastards from the Middle Ages through the Early Modern period. Ruth is the founding editor of PenKnife Editorial Services, and a member of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars.
Like so many others, I had moved to New York City with a dream to write, to be at the center of things and pay attention. But such a reality, even in the service of a great dream, is a hard and often lonely one. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy move to make, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t harder than I guessed it would be. I was out of my element and struggling to find my place. I knew very few people. To say that I was overwhelmed and scared on a daily basis would be an understatement.
I remember, just twenty-four hours before, feeling completely exposed walking through Times Square. Peddlers tried to sell me tickets to comedy shows and shoved CDs in my hands. The rumble of the subway underneath my feet was jolting, the perpetual traffic and honking became its own temperamental rhythm. I felt as if I was on another planet.
But the West Village is, comparatively, quiet. It was an early October afternoon. The sun shined, the blue sky above was soft and cloudless. As I walked, people were few and far between. I could hear my footsteps and birds in the trees. Colorful leaves blew across the cozy streets, drawing my eyes to the red brick buildings as I made my way to Bank Street.
I had an appointment. I was set to interview Carol Hebald, author of the novel A Warsaw Chronicle. We had exchanged e-mails for months, setting up a time and place to meet to discuss her new book. As a young, emerging writer just having arrived in the cultural, literary hub of the world, the chance to sit down with a seasoned writer and lifelong New Yorker struck me as a great professional opportunity.
And I suppose it was. But it was so much more than that.
When I arrived, Carol had food ready and waiting on the table. After a warm welcome, she asked if I’d like coffee, tea, or wine. Having to work later that afternoon, I passed on the wine and opted for coffee. While she got it ready, we talked about New York and my recent year and a half abroad in Ireland where I earned my graduate degree.
“Do you miss it?” she asked me.
She smiled easily and when I spoke her eye contact was unwavering. She was a woman – and writer – who knew how to listen. I felt at home immediately.
“Yes,” I said. “I really do.”
When my coffee was ready, I walked it to the living room where Carol and I both sat down on her couch at opposite ends.
A Warsaw Chronicle follows Karolina Heybald, an American exchange professor teaching at Warsaw University during the inception of martial law in 1981. Always present in the novel is the conflict between the Communist party and the Solidarity movement. Karolina finds herself in the midst of political turmoil as she tries to find a missing cousin. Everywhere she looks, there is danger, real and unavoidable.
Carol and I started the interview by looking back. Amazingly, A Warsaw Chronicle was inspired by very true events. From 1981 to 1982, Carol was the visiting American exchange professor at Warsaw University in Poland. She had just received tenure as an associate professor at the University of Kansas but jumped at the opportunity to go abroad.
She explained that at the time, Poland was behind the Iron Curtain. Politically, it was divisive and violent. Many people asked her why she’d ever want to travel to Warsaw. She was doing well professionally. Didn’t she know the risks? But her reasons were never professional. They were personal and close to the heart.
Her father was born in Krakow and died when Carol was only four. To go to the country where he was born presented her with an opportunity for closure. Not to mention, she saw it as an opportunity to challenge herself.
“I was very naïve in many, many ways,” Carol told me. “Two classes and a handful of students in each. I’d have a world of time to write, I thought, [but] I was in something of a shock when I got there.”
When she arrived in Warsaw, it was sunny and clear. “People looked at me as though I was crazy because they were having such a difficult time,” she said. “It was only two or three months before martial law was declared and I didn’t realize what was happening politically. They kept saying, ‘why did you come here? Why did you come here? Nobody wants to come here.’”
She recalled waiting in long lines for food and how there was never enough to eat. She went hungry herself, a feature common in A Warsaw Chronicle.
Some of the characters in the novel are drawn from life. Karolina’s tutor, for example, is real. When Carol arrived in Warsaw she met him immediately. The two are still in touch today.
Another driving force in A Warsaw Chronicle is Marek, Karolina’s star pupil who dreams of becoming a poet. Their connection entangles Karolina in a high-stakes conflict concerning Marek’s fate. The relationship between the two is fully formed, fully realized. But, Carol told me, Marek is complete fiction.
“I shouldn’t say complete,” she clarified. “There was a meeting somewhere around November right before martial law was declared when a student raised his hand and asked a question I remember having at his age. [He asked] about great work. Does it come from a great idleness or does it come from an enormous amount of work. Which was true? And I just remembered that I had asked that question myself. I looked at him and his face remained in my mind. I never saw him again, but he became Marek.”
Carol went on to say that she felt the closest to Marek, that his character was the most her. He developed organically, as all her characters do. Instead of planning and plotting, Carol allows the moving pieces and voices of her novels to develop naturally, to come to her when the time is right. “[Marek] became a character who was very much alive. And my part was already there. And then I created the father. I don’t know from where. I didn’t consciously sit down and decide to write what I wrote.”
The father, first Lieutenant Maciesz, is a ruthless presence in A Warsaw Chronicle. But, Carol said, he’s a part of her, too. “They come out of me. The father. His cruelty, his bitterness, the fault in his thinking that because he has suffered so much, he knows more.”
The novel developed from old journal entries Carol wrote during her time abroad. Every day, she was chronicling observations about life in Poland. “I simply made diary entries every day and the story took off on its own.”
I told Carol I worked much the same way, going off of notes, feelings, and observations rather than outlining down to the very last detail. I told her I barely ever made a conscious decision in terms of pace or what’s best, practically, for plot. Instead, I go with my gut and allow a certain emotional tug to sway me. I let the ideas grow as I work.
“Yes,” she said. “You have to listen. You have to have the confidence. If someone tells me, for example, in the writer’s group, that they lost interest in a certain moment, I’d be interested in that because there is, in a novel, necessary places where you want to insert certain information and want the reader to be bored. You don’t want to get rid of too much of [the reader’s] energy. You’re writing and listening at the same time and you’re saying ‘I’ve had enough of this and want to get back to the action.’”
And only the writer knows their characters and how they must navigate through life as the story develops. For Carol, it can’t be all gunfights and obsessive love triangles. Writing is about life, and that includes the mundane, the slow, quiet moments of the every day. “Deep down,” she said, “you know when a moment should drag. It lets the reader rest so they have the energy to feel more when the next crisis comes along.”
It was easy to talk about the process of writing with Carol, about the importance of feeling a story and understanding our characters and where they come from. Personal experience always helps, too. For her, A Warsaw Chronicle was always waiting to be told. It formed from isolation and the reality of displacement. “It was the loneliness that I felt,” she said. “There was very little teaching that went on there. It was mostly waiting in line for food. It was mostly waiting for the day to end.”
But she remembered her time in Kansas and knew that her reason to leave was warranted. “It certainly didn’t do me any good professionally, but Kansas was more of a foreign country to me than Warsaw could ever be. I was a lot lonelier in Kansas than I was in Warsaw. I’m from New York City. Born and bred. And Warsaw was another city, at least. And my father was from there; I wanted to explore where he lived. I wanted to forget him – that was the central thing in my life because he was so much a part of me.”
At this point in our conversation, Carol stopped and looked far off. I followed her line of sight. She was looking out the window, at the streams of autumnal light. Whatever she said next would be carefully considered. She took a deep breath.
“This is hard to explain,” she said. “He was on my mind all the time. He died when I was four years old. And I wanted that to end. I thought if I went I could put it all behind me and just get on with my life as a woman, you know? I was nearly 50 at the time.”
I spoke openly about my own readiness to go abroad to Ireland two years prior. Of course, Ireland was much safer and free of any comparable political upheaval, but it was still a drastic move that few people I knew had ever taken. I wanted to get out of Florida and away from the people I never understood. I told Carol that, quite similarly, I felt the need to leave in order to understand something larger. I moved four-thousand miles away and felt immediately more rooted. I felt like a better version of myself.
I spoke of my own mother next. She died of lung cancer when I was ten. Carol’s father had also died of cancer. We both knew the pain of untimely death, of lives cut short. When such a loss disrupts your life, it’s not hard to understand the simple but heartbreaking fact that life doesn’t last forever. We’re not guaranteed long, happy existences. It was clear to both of us, in the quiet way in which we remembered them, that our parents passing away triggered something in us: the need to make our days count.
“My mom is in everything I write,” I told Carol. “It’s interesting, the loss of a parent. There’s so much you don’t know, but it still impacts so much of what you do.”
“Everything,” she said. “When I was three I was alone in the house with him. My mother took over the store, my sister was in school. There was a nurse taking care of me, but we were alone for an entire year. My dad and I. And even though I don’t know remember all the details of that year, it’s a central part of my life. I remember, shortly before he died, I asked my father what I should be when I grow up. He told me to be somebody.”
In 1984, after she returned from Poland, Carol resigned her tenure and moved back to New York City to write full-time. I told her that a lot of people would consider such a move reckless, to give up comfort for a life of instability and uncertainty. But Carol knew what it was like to struggle and scrape by. Poland proved that to her. She wasn’t afraid of being poor or of struggling all over again. As long as she was doing what she wanted to do, it was worth it.
“When I was in Brooklyn I was writing full-time in a little room which was about $275 a month, so you can imagine it was in the middle of nowhere. But that’s all I wanted, that room to write. If I wrote well I felt well.”
She paused and smiled again, remembering. “It was my whole life.”
“And what did you learn from devoting your life to writing?” I asked next.
I expected an answer that is heard quite often. A mixture of “never give up on your dreams” and the value of hard work, the earned freedom of going after what you love and want to do. That worthwhile joy of a life spent seeing, feeling, and experiencing. But Carol’s answer was surprisingly refreshing and true: she learned nothing.
“I’ve learned nothing, except that books make books, not experience, not human relationships. Books. And that’s the same advice I’d give anybody who was just starting out: Read! Read! Don’t stop reading! Read what you hate, read what you love. Decide why you love it, how you can borrow from the structure of a novel. You’re not doing anything but borrowing a way to tell a story. You’re trying to learn to tell a story.”
You’re not doing anything but learning to tell a story. Yes, that’s nothing—but everything all at once. By learning to write, you’re learning about yourself.
A Warsaw Chronicle is available from Regal House Publishing.
PART II, to be posted forthwith.
Nora Shychuk has an M.A. in Creative Writing from University College Cork and a B.A. in Film Screenwriting and English from Jacksonville University. Her writing has appeared in The Lonely Crowd, The Quarryman Literary Journal, The Rose Magazine, and Pact Press’s Speak and Speak Again Anthology. In 2017 she was shortlisted for Cork, Ireland’s From The Well Short Story Competition and was also awarded one of two full Alumni Awards to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR) in April 2018. She lives in New York City.
by Nora Shychuk
Catch up with the first half of Nora Shychuk’s conversation with Carol Hebald, author of A Warsaw Chronicle: ‘Writing in New York: Part I‘
Carol’s young life sounds like a novel in itself. Born and raised in New York City, Carol nurtured a lifelong passion for the arts and performance. Professionally, she started as an actress on and off Broadway, but her need to write was always there from the beginning. She was always a writer; it was the one thing that never wavered. Eventually, she quit acting and went to college.
She was in English 1 when her teacher noticed her gift for writing. “It was poetry that I went after first. I don’t know why. I loved reading, I loved writing. The fact that I could do it was such a great relief because I left acting and I was lost for a while. See, acting was marvelous for me but I couldn’t do it unless I was hired whereas as a writer I could write anytime, anywhere whether it got published or not. And I knew it would eventually.”
Our conversation shifted to New York City as a place, as an inspirational, larger-than-life refuge for writers and musicians and artists. I asked Carol, as a devoted New Yorker, if she had any advice for visitors of the city. If they only had one day to spend here, what should they do?
Without thinking, two places came immediately to her mind. The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The New York City Public Library on 42nd Street, specifically the reading room. “It’s where everybody who has no peace at home goes. Everybody’s quiet in their own world sitting right next to each other, engrossed in writing or reading. It’s something to see.”
I shared my mutual love of The Met, citing it as a mecca for inspiration. The 19th-century European paintings, Rodin’s sculpture hall, and the period rooms knocked me out on my first visit. I told Carol you walk from room to room and it’s just one creative masterpiece after another. It’s inspiration in motion.
“When I go there, my mind churns,” I said. “People surrounded by art… They’re looking for something. To understand, to feel, to be taken away to another time, another place. My writing tends to be incredibly atmospheric and detailed, so being exposed to different eras and cultures really provide a fresh perspective.”
Carol nodded and asked if I’d like more coffee. When I declined, she looked around the room, at her writing desk and high, crowded bookshelves.
“But really I just need a quiet room anywhere to write,” she said. “I never write in public. I watch people who do and wonder how they concentrate.”
Preferring to write in private was yet another similarity we had. Like Carol, I write best at my desk, looking out at the George Washington Bridge and the Hudson River. Across the river sits New Jersey. The view, the cool breeze, even the sporadic beep-beeps from cars below culminate in an almost dreamlike setting to write. New York City: right outside my window.
“Why do you think artists continue to flock here?” I asked next. “What is it about New York?”
Carol’s answer was at first practical. “Well, people think all the publishing houses are here and most of them are,” she said with a laugh. “But people want to go to a place where they’re going to learn the most, where they’re going to find the best theater, the best museums. It’s a great place to observe.”
That’s the thing about New York. It’s wild. Every kind of person is represented, walking to some meeting, some friend, some restaurant. It is a place of variety and stimulating diversity, where there is always a million-and-one things to do at any given time. Sit in Washington Square Park and watch the people go by. You won’t see such range anywhere else. And that energy? That New York City energy? That’s there, too. We have energy in spades.
But one thing Carol doesn’t involve herself in is the New York City literary “scene.” She joined groups and learned from them, but “had enough of them.” At some point, you have to take what you learn and run with it, she explained. She understands the practicality of networking and nurturing creative relationships, but it’s not something she feels she needs anymore. If she seeks out help for a section of writing or a new manuscript, it’s more about a simple assurance that the work is decent, not for any help in the overall project or completing it. The need to finish a project is up to you—the writer—and nobody else.
“I have a couple of writers and we do exchange manuscripts once in a while. It’s good to know that this excerpt works therefore I can submit it as a sample to a publisher, but that’s not helping me write the book. I didn’t show A Warsaw Chronicle to anybody but the editors and they did a fine job.”
And that’s a risk few writers would take, myself included. I have a network of writers and friends I’d feel the need to send work to before I made any type of move to get it published or “out” into the world. But Carol knew her story and what she needed to say.
“The character of Warsaw moved in on me so completely,” she said. “I couldn’t help but record what I saw and felt.” This usually came in the form of the blistering cold weather, the people, and the shops. She was putting in exposition unintentionally by simply describing what was around her while she was on her way somewhere. Anywhere. When martial law had been declared, she went outside and took it all in. She recreated that walk for her story.
And this walking, this paying attention—it became the story she had to tell. “[A Warsaw Chronicle] was about closeness and questions and my absolute ignorance about the importance of politics and who was who. The fact is that most people on a personal level didn’t give a damn as long as they made a living and loved who they loved and could be with them. I was so apolitical. I knew nothing about anybody [in that regard].”
But she knew about the human condition, about loneliness and pain, because she herself had felt it. It had become a cornerstone of her life, this need to understand and overcome. The characters themselves developed from that ache.
“Because I needed them,” she said, “they became real.”
We were alike in that way, too. I told her of my devotion to character. That some characters I had developed became more real to me than flesh-and-blood people in my life. Character-central stories moved us the most. We talked about books, about how a book with an almost complete absence of plot could still work if we cared about the characters. If they were true to us.
Carol opened up then about her favorite writers, about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Gogol, especially.
“And Emily Dickinson,” she said. “I don’t stop reading her.”
When I asked if poetry was her first love, she became wistful, contemplative. She sat back against the couch and sighed.
“At City College there was an opportunity to take both classes, [poetry and prose]. I took poetry and the poetry teacher said, ‘you’re a poet, don’t ever take fiction. You’re going to dilute your gift. Stick with one thing.’ But I was too curious. The idea of making up stories, I was doing it all my life. I was a terrible liar as a child, but people believed me.”
At this we laughed. I told her that I started writing as an escape. The town I grew up in was small and pretty dull. I needed to lie and tell stories to make things interesting. I shared my theory: all writers are liars. We have to be, to some extent. We have to lie to get to the heart of the matter. We have to stretch boundaries and make impossible things possible to learn how to tell the truth.
“That’s right,” she said. “With myself, with Karolina Heybald, I didn’t want to make myself a heroine. I hate when writers do that. I wanted to bring out her faults.”
She wanted to capture the volatile time in Poland and throw the reader into obscenely imperfect situations with imperfect characters.
“If I opened a book about an American exchange professor who came to Poland and had nothing to say but that she was wide-eyed and she was quickly disillusioned, I’d put the book down and say ‘so what?’” she said. “I wanted to start with what I remembered most vividly.”
And what was most vivid, looking back after all those years? The declaration of martial law. The cold, dark mornings. A neighbor knocking on her door, assuming she had loads of money because she was American. Later, that neighbor breaking in. She screamed. He asked her for two cigarettes.
“It was awful. Horrifying. He apologized and asked for forgiveness,” she remembered.
Her students were also hostile. They thought by nature, as an American, Carol was spoiled. But she never had a mother or father the way most of them did. Her relationship with the students in A Warsaw Chronicle and with Marek was a comfort; he was created out of a need. She wasn’t feeling any warmth or affection in Warsaw, out on the streets.
When I asked her how she felt, resoundingly, about Warsaw, she became quiet and looked down at her feet.
“I’ll never go back,” she said. “I’m glad it’s over. But whether I loved or hated it – and I probably felt both ways – it felt like a part of my heritage.”
I ended our interview by asking an expected and stereotypical question: what’s next?
“I’m really searching now because I don’t know. I was exhausted writing A Warsaw Chronicle. I can’t say that I’m still resting because it was published last March. That’s almost six months, isn’t it?” she asked, laughing. “But I’ve been writing poems. Not a book, just individual poems to see where it’ll lead. I am getting older. I don’t know that I’m going to write another book. I may. It may come to me, but right now it’s not there.”
It felt strangely proper to end the interview in such a way. We had shared such an intimate conversation. In retrospect, it functioned not as an interview, but as an easy admission between two friends. We shared stories of our childhood, our mutual love of writing, our pain from losing a parent at a young age. Often when I spoke to Carol, it was hard to stay on track, to follow the outline and order of the questions I had prepared. But that is in no way a criticism of Ms. Heybald, or even myself. I decided to let our chat take its natural course and progress easily and honestly. And I’m glad I did. This interview wasn’t what I expected. It wasn’t a valuable contact for a struggling writer. It was the afternoon when I realized that I wasn’t alone, that in this loud and bustling city there is beauty around every corner—and sometimes it comes in the form of a person sitting across from you on a couch in the West Village.
After the question and answer block, Carol brought out an old photo album. It was full of dated photographs, newspaper write-ups, and playbills from her acting days. As we flipped through the pages, I was aware that I was being shown a whole life—an exciting life—filled with passion and feeling and art, but also one of hardship and struggle, of heartbreak and loneliness, which made all of her accomplishments all the more magical. Her life, as successful as it was, was never easy. There was unrelenting pain. I was sitting next to a woman who really did it all, but I mean that broadly. She was an actress, writer, teacher, and world traveler, but also a lifelong searcher. A woman who grappled with regret and missed opportunities and who, perhaps, was always a little bit lost.
But still, every day, Carol rises and she writes. At her desk, she sits and feels. She puts words on a page with the hope that an idea will rise, or a sentence will scrape away the gunk and mess of life and shine a spotlight on the truth. And that, more than anything else, makes her not only a writer, but a courageous artist.
After a time, she closed the book. We talked about the weather, about the fastest subway route to take to get back to the apartment I shared with my boyfriend.
“How long have the two of you been together?” she asked.
“Five years,” I said.
“Oh,” Carol replied, smiling. “Oh, to be young again.”
And then she asked me once more if I’d like a glass of wine. This time, I said yes.
Nora Shychuk has an M.A. in Creative Writing from University College Cork and a B.A. in Film Screenwriting and English from Jacksonville University. Her writing has appeared in The Lonely Crowd, The Quarryman Literary Journal, The Rose Magazine, and Pact Press’s Speak and Speak Again Anthology. In 2017 she was shortlisted for Cork, Ireland’s From The Well Short Story Competition and was also awarded one of two full Alumni Awards to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR) in April 2018. She lives in New York City.
Photographs by Nora Shychuk.
A Warsaw Chronicle is available now from Regal House Publishing.
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