Category Archives: Paradise Park

The Next Big Thing — Writers Discuss New Work

As part of ‘The Next Big Thing Blog Hop,’ I was tagged by Libby Ware in her post last week.  Check out her blog at http://libbyware.blogspot.com/ to learn about her novel, Overlook. The purpose of this hop is to expose you to writers and their work that perhaps you haven’t heard of, whether a new release or a Work in Progress (WIP). This is week 27.

According to the rules of the hop, I will be answering some questions (the same ones for every other blog hopper) about either my newest release or my WIP and then at the bottom of the post I’ve listed Alysia Angel, who will do the same thing in her blog next Wednesday Jan 2nd, give or take a few days due to the holidays.
The book I’m discussing is a Work in Progress.

What is the working title of your book?  Paradise Park.

Where did the idea come from for the book?   My father comes from a Catholic family of ten and they all worked at an amusement park when he was growing up. His was not, in any way, a sin and salvation themed amusement park, but I thought it was too good of a setting to pass up.  The central conflict of the book explores the relationship between spiritual and sexual ecstasy. I remember being struck in church as a young teenager while singing these responsorial hymns, which are often just lines from Psalms set to music, by the eroticism of some of the language. Here we were in church singing stuff like “As the deer pants after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.” Or better yet: “My flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is.” I thought, ‘this sounds like stuff your write to your girlfriend to get laid, not stuff you think about Jesus.’ But then as I got older, I realized some people really do long for God in that way, and it fascinated me. I wanted to explore the source of spiritual desire and how it can be interrelated with sexual and romantic desires, especially during adolescence.

What genre does your book fall under? It’s literary fiction. It’s southern and it’s queer. I hope it is also interesting to people who are neither of those things.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?  Ha, I don’t know, I don’t ever think about stuff like that. They are all young so I guess I’d want mostly unknown actors to play them. Mrs. Turner would have to be played by a great big powerful, plain looking woman and there just aren’t a lot of them floating around Hollywood that I can think of off the top of my head.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  Paradise Park tells the story of the Turners, an Evangelical Catholic family of six who operate a sin and salvation themed amusement park in Alapaha, GA.

What is the longer synopsis of your book?  Set in a swiftly changing South Georgia in 1974, Paradise Park is the story of the Turner siblings who, having come of age in the shadow of Vietnam and their spiritually troubled father’s suicide, must now help their mother keep the gates of Paradise Park open despite financial obstacles. When the park’s manager thrusts a new “attraction” upon the family in the form of Graciela, a fortune teller meant to drum up interest in the ailing park, Mrs. Turner vehemently objects to Graciela’s sensual presence and its effect on her children, especially on Cass, her butch daughter who, since Mr. Turner’s death, has served as the “man of the house” and has been allowed a pass for her gender/sexuality as long as she is seemingly celibate.  Mrs. Turner also worries over Asa, her smartest and most promising son, and his fascination with Graciela. What Mrs. Turner cannot predict is that delicate, saint-obsessed, 16-year-old Madeline will be the one to capture 28-year-old Graciela’s love and attention; a love which ultimately drives the family apart.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  I’m still writing so I am not at that stage of the game, but my expectation is to seek an agent when the book is complete and go the traditional publishing route.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  I’ll let you know when I am done. I’m a very slow and methodical writer but the plus side is that most of what I write I can keep so I’ve been working on the novel in its current incarnation for about three years.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?  The first voice that spoke to me was Madeline’s in the form of a second person story addressed to Graciela. I envisioned her initially very differently, but I thought about what it would be like to have had your first relationship be with someone who you admired as much as you loved. I thought about the way individuals become Godlike when you are a teenager and I wondered if it would be possible to have a relationship with God that was very intense and then fall into a romantic relationship with a much older woman that contained similar power dynamics. I then began thinking about the Park and who else would be there. The siblings and Cass and Asa as these imperfect twins came into play because I have written other stories about that, about masculinity and relationships/brotherhood between butches and straight men. So everything sort of spun out from there.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  The other primary thread of the book is about the social construction of whiteness at this moment in southern history (1974) which is right when things are beginning to change in small towns like Alapaha. So one of the brothers, Henry, is the only family member who works outside of the Park and he works for the Jenkins’ family auto garage on the black side of town and is best friends with the son in that family and secretly begins a relationship with the daughter in that family. Henry genuinely loves the Jenkins’ and longs to be a part of their family which is warmer and more whole than his own, but he also misses a lot of the nuance about their experiences in the world. He takes many things for granted and some of the book is about his struggle to have a real relationship with the Jenkins family when his privilege continually causes him to make assumptions that cause fissures and pain.

I have read so many books by white southern novelists that portray burgeoning relationships between whites and blacks as this unambiguously positive and downright magical and healing thing and it always makes me mad because anybody with any sense who lives here knows that even in 2012 that’s not the reality. There can be a very real desire for love and affection and deep intimacy, but white supremacy still snakes its way into our most personal friend and family structures. And it’s painful. Southern literature has experienced a long period of post Civil Rights movement wish fulfillment novels on the part of white writers where our sins are unwritten and the deep wounds of our land and our people are healed, and I guess I can see why that was maybe a necessary moment in the literature but it feels downright damning to me now. So a lot of my book is about the Turners trying to have these relationships with Graciela or with the Jenkins family and at times being really awkward or just plain wrong or entitled even when they mean well. Part of my goal as a white southern writer is to illuminate the vast gulf between intention and action and help folks understand that intention is not always enough.

Structurally, because the book is narrated from six different points of view, I am playing with the way we construct our identities in relation to and on top of one another by telling our story and the stories of others. So a lot of the book is about who gets to tell what story, what constitutes “truth,” and whose narrative becomes the master narrative and why. Since those things tend to come down to who has the most power that’s a lot of what the book is about.

Next week please look forward to Alysia Angel who is hard at work on her novel, Flinch. Check her out now: http://www.alysiaangel.com

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A Writer’s Callouses

If you are struggling with the work/life creative balance I highly recommend this book by Matthew Crawford.

Working in a bookstore, I spend the better part of my life surrounded by books. It’s a great job, filled with pleasures you might expect: leisurely conversations with customers about ideas and politics, celebrating with authors on book tours, and getting my hands on the new novels coming down the pipes a season or two before they are released to the general public. When I’m not selling books, I help people edit and market their books as a part-time writing coach. These two jobs satisfy me in innumerable ways as a person and a writer. What they don’t always do is make me want to rush home and work on my own novel. It’s the middle of August and I last worked actively worked on a chapter of my own book in June. I’m telling y’all this not because I feel the need to confess, but because I think it’s something we as writers should not be afraid to discuss. Truth is: sometimes writers don’t write.

For a long time I felt like being a writer who went through long periods of not writing was a shameful secret, one that set me apart from all of my endlessly industrious writer friends who swore up and down that they wrote 5,000 words a day come hell or high water. I felt a bit like a spouse in a sexless marriage, convinced that all the neighbors are happily fornicating like bunnies. After all, if the only thing that makes one a writer is the act of putting words on the page then I was a big old fake, at least until I managed to sit back down at the desk again.

But over the last few years I’ve paid more attention to what I like to do when I’m not writing. I realized that while my life surrounded by letters is a wonderful one, it can be deafening. I find myself seeking the solace of creating things that I don’t have to talk about (or to)–furniture, gardens–and fixing things that are easily fixed–painting walls, laying flooring, pulling weeds. In my loquacious life with my buzzing brain I am so happy in these silences, so relieved by the obvious cause and effect of a project undertaken and completed. These little efforts are so unlike my novel, which is always amorphous, bulging out at the edges of my consciousness, refusing easy definition.

All of this is to say, if you’ve ever suffered shame as a writer because you weren’t writing “enough,” just stop. Think about what you are creating when you aren’t creating in your usual medium and think about why you might need that break. If you are living your life in a full way, you aren’t wasting time. I know that the breathing room I create when I make things with my hands allows me to come back to my writing with a fuller heart. My writing feels fresher, more joyful. I enter into the act of writing without guilt or resentment.

Give yourself writer’s callouses:

  • If you really are one of those people who writes 5,000 words a day come hell or high water, why not try stepping away from the desk one day a week to make something with your hands? Not handy? How about just moving furniture around in your office or living room or hang your art on different walls in your apartment. Plant something, even just a cactus. Invite movement into your physical world and discover what spaces emerge in your writing.

    Use all the tools in your creative toolbox.

  • If you’re a secret “slump” writer like me, forgive yourself, but don’t go too long without working. Make sure that you balance your desire for the instant gratification of physical creation with the longer, more private pleasures of writing. If you have a hard time getting back to your desk after a month or more, don’t think about how you “should” be writing. Think instead about how good writing can feel once you are really dug in and cranking. Promise yourself you will spend at least one day trying to get to that sweet spot and if it doesn’t happen, forgive yourself. Then begin again.
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Writing The Good Fight

Beginning writers often hear that “conflict makes good fiction,” it’s right up there with “show don’t tell” in the pantheon of oldie but goodie writing advice. It’s true that conflict, or more broadly, issues between two or more people that cause tension are the meat and potatoes of good fiction. Lately the issue of how to write more literal conflicts– fights, arguments, brawls–has been popping up again and again in my writing class and with my individual writing clients so I thought it might be valuable to share a little bit about how I think about weaving literal conflict into a narrative.Image

In my experience beginning writers behave in writing as they do in life, meaning if they are nice, reasonably well adjusted people, they often find it difficult to send their protagonists headlong into a painful argument or physical confrontation with another character. Often these well-meaning writers lead their characters right up to the edge of the nasty comment, the thrown punch, the terrible cruelty, and fade to black, leaving the reader to flounder in a vague or unsatisfying dénouement. The exceptions to this rule are the nice, well-adjusted writers who have spent a lot of time for one reason or another thinking about how people fight. These folks have often survived hard things and are ready to dive right in to the heart of darkness and expose the nastiness of life in all its gory details. What this style of writer occasionally neglects is the ambivalence of conflict, the messiness that can dance in the gray areas of right and wrong and good and bad. In either case, one thing is true: writing interesting conflict means truly and finally writing fiction, which means separating the self from the narrator, and the self from characters and their unruly and occasionally delightfully ugly actions. Sorting out one’s own ideas about conflict is not always as easy as it might immediately seem but it is an important step to understanding how your characters might respond to tension in a given situation.

Conflict, like most things, is so deeply culturally defined that we sometimes can’t see its parameters or the way our individual experiences shape our understanding of what constitutes “appropriate” or “inappropriate” behavior. We like to imagine that we share a universal good and bad. We imagine that there are some things for which anyone would fight and some things which would incite even the calmest person to rage, but no emotion is universal in that way; right and wrong are often far more relativistic than any of us would like to admit. We learn first about what constitutes conflict from our parent(s) or the people who raise us. Some people grow up in houses where their parents never raise their voices above a whisper to disagree but the animosity and bitterness is as palpable as a knife blade cutting down the center of the family. Other people come from homes where their parents yell about everything from politics to peas, yet the parents remain a team, a unit, and consider themselves happy. Our race, ethnicity, religion, region, socioeconomic class, education, and any other number of cultural factors may or may not blend into our formulation of what separates say “a disagreement” from “a fight.” I believe it is dangerous to draw broad conclusions about how any single aspect of culture might determine how one defines conflict, especially when you are imagining the inner life of someone completely “other” to you, but I think it can be useful to think about how each aspect of your own experience taught you lessons about conflict, tension, and when it is socially acceptable or unacceptable “to fight.” Once you’ve spent some time making your own subjective values around conflict more visible to yourself you may find that you are better able to enter the world of your fiction with fresh eyes.

Below are some suggestions to get you started and enliven the conflict and tension in your stories:

  1.  Put it all on the body. Far too often I notice that when the hard emotions hit, characters suddenly become strangely disembodied, floating in la la land discoursing on just how darn ticked off they are. This disembodiment is the exact opposite of what generally happens in real life when you are angry, humiliated, uncomfortable, heartbroken, etc. You feel hopelessly embodied. You feel your heartbeat, you feel heat rise on your skin, you feel sweaty, you may not be able to stop moving in a certain way, or you may not be able to move at all. You may be terribly immobile, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t stuck irrevocably in your body, so talk about the prison of your body. Talk about pain and bile. Talk about being scared to throw up or cry or piss your pants or bleed. I know there are many people who do completely disassociate from their bodies in times of violence, stress, trauma or fear, but I would argue that there is a way to write an embodied disassociation. Toni Morrison is great at this, so is Dorothy Allison.  Whatever you do, don’t tell us how mad, sad, or bad your character feels, put us in his body and let us claw our way out with him.
  2. Slow it way down. If you think about the truly traumatic things that have happened to you, you probably remember them with a kind of horrible precision (that or you don’t remember them at all which is a different can of worms). Our brains can remember bad things with alarming clarity, recalling the lines around a mugger’s eyes, or the smell of a violent ex-lover’s breath till the day we die, but good days are as fleeting as sunshine and fluffy clouds. So write the way our brains work. Slow down moments of fear, horror, anger, betrayal and let us feel them with that horrible clarity our brains possess. Wring every detail out of a scene of conflict. You can always cut it later. For now, act like your character’s trauma is your own, and this fight is the one you will always remember.
  3. Don’t let a fight be a “clean win.” Too often I read stories where folks have one terribly unambiguous conflict where the bad guy is so bad and the protagonist is so deserving of the victory that the story quickly becomes so boring. The fact of the matter is that we rarely get clean victories in real life. It’s the Rolling Stones principle of conflict, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” Although, perhaps your character might not even get what she really needs without also sacrificing something else she needs or really, really wants. Put your character in a situation where winning is also losing. Your protagonist finally gets the chance to audition for Alvin Ailey’s dance ensemble but she has to leave the same week her beloved twin brother is shipping out to fight in Afghanistan. Should she stay or should she go? What if instead of her brother shipping out, he’s coming home in a body bag? Does her choice change? What does this do to our notions of “right” and “wrong?”
  4. Overwrite conflicts in first drafts. You know that moment when you have a bad interaction with someone and they totally best you but you are so taken off guard that you can’t properly respond in the moment, so you go home and hours later you think of the perfect comeback to really hit ‘em where it hurts? Well that moment sucks, but the joy of being a writer is getting to change all of that on some micro level by writing your comebacks into your novels. So rather than pulling your punches and fading to black next time your characters need to get into it, really get into it, I mean dig deep, and go nasty. Forget that anyone will ever read this particular draft and go hard. Say the meanest thing that your character could feasibly say in the situation and say it well. Hit below the belt. Shock the other characters with your protagonist’s moxie. Just try it. It might not work. You might feel dumb and throw it all out in a future draft, but best case scenario, you’ve unlocked some fighting spirit that you didn’t know you had and worst case scenario you’ve brainstormed some new witticisms for the next time some entitled business man cuts you off in the supermarket checkout line.
  5. Fights, both physical and emotional, usually occur in fits and starts. It’s not uncommon for a fight to build in dramatic tension over the course of several hours or even several days. Depending on your taste, here are two totally stylistically different movies that illustrate the timing of fights between close characters. The first film is the “The Deer Hunter.” You don’t even need to watch the whole movie. Just watch the first hour as these guys get ready for a wedding and then a hunting trip and then prepare to ship out to Vietnam. The tension in that movie is almost silent for the first third of the film but it is always there and the first dramatic arc culminates in a fight about whether or not one friend can borrow another friend’s hunting boots, when really the viewer understands they are fighting about growing up, and being terrified of growing apart and leaving home and dying. It’s brilliant. Sometimes you fight about shoes because you can’t fight about the things you actually fear. The other film is “Crimes of the Heart” which is about three over the top, kind of crazy Southern sisters whose mother committed suicide when they were girls and who all have secrets of their own as adults. The women love each other desperately and sometimes can’t communicate at all. Their fights, when they do finally have them, are the unleashing of twenty years of pent-up good Southern lady rage. It’s admittedly a little cheesy and rife with Southern stereotypes in places but the dialogue is great because it’s based on a play and the tension is strong throughout. The films couldn’t be more different but they both have much to teach about unspoken feelings and resentments among groups of friends/siblings.
  6. As a final exercise, consider writing a scene in which two characters who are good friends or even close family members interpret a negative interaction with a third character in completely different ways. (For example: a store clerk blatantly follows two young men around her store because she suspects them of shoplifting, how do they each react? Why?) The goal of this exercise is to get at what shapes your character’s understandings of what is “okay” in the world and what is not. This exercise also has the secondary possibility or triangulating the tension between the two close friends who might object to each other’s reactions to the source of the original tension.
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The Things They Carried or Why You Should Quiz Your Characters

I admit it, I’ve never met a quiz or questionnaire I didn’t like. It didn’t matter that I knew I didn’t like boys in middle school, I still took the “Which guy is right for you?” quizzes in my friend’s Seventeen magazines. You know why I still miss Myspace? For the quizzes! Maybe this makes me a narcissist, but I prefer to think that it has something to do with my writer’s brain. I find the cumulative detritus of a person’s life to be endlessly interesting. I don’t really care what you do for a living or whether or not you believe in God, but I do want to see what items you won’t leave home without.

If you haven't read Tim O'Brien's story "The Things They Carried," it is a great example of the way the contents of a person's pockets can add up to a life.

So my approach to my characters is similarly detail focused. I care a lot about what records they listen to (or make fun of others for listening to), what foods they hate, smells they love, clothing brands they wish they could afford to wear, and so on. Admittedly, I am a very slow writer, plodding even, but I have chosen my pace intentionally, choosing to “hang out” with my characters so that I can know them intimately enough by the detritus of their lives that I can know what they will do when I come upon a situation that surprises me.

That’s why I love a good character questionnaire. You may not need to do these for all your characters, but I wholeheartedly believe in doing them for most of your characters ESPECIALLY those to whom you are having difficulty connecting naturally.

Below are two of my favorites, the first was originally created by French author Marcel Proust but you might recognize the questions as those which James Lipton asks movie stars on the television show “Inside The Actor’s Studio.” The second set of questions is from The Gotham Writer’s Workshop Writing Fiction Book.  So what are you waiting for, embrace your inner quiz-taker or talk show host and get to know your characters better. What they have to say might surprise you.

Marcel Proust’s Questionnaire

  • What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  • What is your idea of perfect happiness?
  • What is your current state of mind?
  • What is your favorite occupation?
  • What is your most treasured possession?
  • What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  • What is your favorite journey?
  • What is your most marked characteristic?
  • When and where were you the happiest?
  • What is it that you most dislike?
  • What is your greatest fear?
  • What is your greatest extravagance?
  • Which living person do you most despise?
  • What is your greatest regret?
  • Which talent would you most like to have?
  • Where would you like to live?
  • What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  • What is the quality you most like in a man?
  • What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  • What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  • What do you most value in your friends?
  • Who is your favorite hero of fiction?
  • Whose are your heroes in real life?
  • Which living person do you most admire?
  • What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  • On what occasions do you lie?
  • Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  • What are your favorite names?
  • How would you like to die?
  • If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?
  • What is your motto?

Gotham Writers’ Workshop’s Writing Fiction.

  • What is your character’s name? Does the character have a nickname?
  • What is your character’s hair color? Eye color?
  • What kind of distinguishing facial features does your character have?
  • Does your character have a birthmark? Where is it? What about scars? How did he get them?
  • Who are your character’s friends and family? Who does she surround herself with? Who are the people your character is closest to? Who does he wish he were closest to?
  • Where was your character born? Where has she lived since then? Where does she call home?
  • Where does your character go when he’s angry?
  • What is her biggest fear? Who has she told this to? Who would she never tell this to? Why?
  • Does she have a secret?
  • What makes your character laugh out loud?
  • When has your character been in love? Who was her first crush? Has she ever had a broken heart?
  • What is in your character’s refrigerator right now? On her bedroom floor? On her nightstand? In her garbage can?
  • Look at your character’s feet. Describe what you see there. Does he wear dress shoes, gym shoes, or none at all? Is he in socks that are ratty and full of holes? Or is he wearing a pair of blue and gold slippers knitted by his grandmother?
  • When your character thinks of her childhood kitchen, what smell does she associate with it? Sauerkraut? Oatmeal cookies? Paint? Why is that smell so resonant for her?
  • Your character is doing intense spring cleaning. What is easy for her to throw out? What is difficult for her to part with? Why?
  • It’s Saturday at noon. What is your character doing? Give details. If he’s eating breakfast, what exactly does he eat? If she’s stretching out in her backyard to sun, what kind of blanket or towel does she lie on?
  • What is one strong memory that has stuck with your character from childhood? Why is it so powerful and lasting?
  • Your character is getting ready for a night out. Where is she going? What does she wear? Who will she be with?

What is Paradise Park?

"Vintage Skee Ball" by eleven12design

Paradise Park tells the story of the Turners, an Evangelical Catholic family of six, who operate a sin and salvation themed amusement park, in Alapaha, Georgia. The novel unfolds in three parts; the first, set in 1951, tells the story of 17-year-old Lillian, who will become the matriarch of the Turner family, and her struggle to separate her desire for Christ from her desire for the new parish priest and to reconcile her Charismatic spiritual convictions with her family’s pressure to live a subdued middle-class Catholic life.

The novel’s second section begins in 1977 and follows Lillian Turner’s five children: Cass (22), Asa (21), Henry (18), Madeline (16), and Jesse (10), as they prepare for the coming of Graciela, a fortune-teller, to Paradise Park. Lillian objects to Graciela’s sensual presence and its effect on her children, especially on Cass, her butch daughter who, since Mr. Turner’s death, has served as the “man of the house” and has been allowed a pass for her gender/sexuality as long as she is seemingly celibate.  Lillian also worries over Asa, her smartest and most promising son, and his fascination with Graciela. What Lillian cannot predict is that delicate, saint-obsessed, 16-year-old Madeline will be the one to capture 28-year-old Graciela’s love and attention; a love which ultimately drives the family apart.

The final section, set in North Georgia in 2002, follows Cass who’s raising Julian, the 15-year-old product of a one-night-stand between Graciela and Asa.

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