On Writing: Heidi Durrow and Jamie Ford

Today on the blog, Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky, and Jamie Ford, author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, talk writing methods, Twitter madness, and the things they won’t write about…not yet, anyway.

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Heidi: Jamie, I’m so thrilled to be able to chat with you like this.  I felt a little star-struck and tongue-tied when we first met at PNBA in the Fall.  I love your book and I had so many questions about your process—I get really stuck sometimes with my writing and I confess it’s difficult to write on the road.  You’ve been on a blistering travel schedule yourself since Hotel came out—what are your secrets for writing when you’re on the road?  I have found that I have to make time for journal writing in the morning if nothing else: at least three pages long-hand every day.  Do you use journal writing as a tool to help you with your writing?

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Jamie: Starstruck! You’re killing me. I’m nobody special, I assure you. But I know the feeling. The first time I met Sherman Alexie I gushed, “I have a ginormous man-crush on you.” (And I still do). That’s the great thing about communing with other writers–we learn how human, how normal they really are. Hold on, I’ve got Paris Hilton on the phone…
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Okay, where were we?
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As far as writing on the road, I still struggle with that. I’ve tried unplugging the internet, ordering room-service, wearing earplugs, etc, but what works best of me is some kind of incentive. If I’m in a city with something I really want to see, then I use that as a carrot, dangling in front of my keyboard. If I finish the chapter I can visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, that kind of thing. And I used to be a methodical journal-writer–I wrote in my journal every Sunday night for 10+ years. Sadly, my journals began collecting dust once I started blogging. (Another ill-effect of social media?) How about you, do you blog, Facebook, or tweet?

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Heidi: For real-for real!  I kept thinking: “Pinch me—how did I make it into this awesome posse with you and Garth Stein and Naseem Rakha?  And if I rub their bellies, will the magic of becoming a best-selling author rub off on me?” I don’t know whether I’ll ever shake that feeling of being a start-up writer—perhaps because it took so long for me to find my way into print?  It was actually blogging that really got me going with my writing.  I have a perfectionist streak which isn’t always a good thing for a writer.  I started blogging in 2006 and it kind of gave me permission to be floppy, and it felt good.  So in a way, blogging really enhanced my writing rather than detracting from it.  Facebook and Twitter—those are different animals.  I can’t say that those things help my writing, but they help me as a writer.  It’s so fun to hear from folks who have read the book—and it’s energizing.  Blogging worked that way for me too—I feel like my blog readers are part of this whole journey I’ve been on.  I feel like they share in the book’s success.  Okay, so I guess the real question is: what makes you feel like a writer? And when do you feel least like a writer?

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Jamie: I do like hearing from readers. Most of the time. I had one Facebook connection insist I hook her up with my agent. When I politely declined and explained that my agent receives 40,000 queries each year, she replied, “But you don’t understand–my book is The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo crossed with Dante’s Inferno! It’s going to be HUGE!” Hazard of the job, I suppose.
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I feel like a writer after a good morning at the keyboard, or when I’ve stumbled upon a magical bit of research, or when I get those twinkling emails from readers. But…then I went to Harlan Ellison’s house this weekend and his home is basically an exploded version of his brain, with framed originals of cover art on every wall (back when everything wasn’t done in Photoshop), countless awards, and massive shelves of his work in print and film, covering a 50-year career. All I could think was, “THIS GUY is a writer.” I’m still splashing around in the kiddie pool…
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You probably got that same feeling talking to Barbara Kingsolver. Do you think our generation can achieve that kind of iconic status in a world of tweets, texts, and reality TV? Or is the age of literary giants fading?

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Heidi: I still call Barbara Kingsolver: Barbara Kingsolver.  I’m a puppy writer compared to her!  It’s a strange time though, isn’t it?  I feel like at the same time I’m trying to figure out the role of being a writer, the role of the writer in society is changing.  I spent part of the summer at the Norman Mailer Writer’s Colony which is held in Mailer’s home.  It’s kind of strange to see the photos on the walls and realize this was where all those parties were happening.  He had all these luminaries around this table where I’m talking about commas, and whatever else.  These guys like Mailer, Baldwin, etc., they were superstars but also adding to the cultural conversation about social issues and justice.  I think there’s still that role for the writer in our society, but how to do it?  Tweet?  Of course, that brings me back to the writing: do you write to convey a message or idea, or do you write to convey a story?  I think I know your answer knowing your work – it must be both, right?  But how do you make sure one goal doesn’t hijack the other?  Do you face that difficulty in your work?

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Jamie: You should call her “Babs.” I’d give you $20 to call her Babs.
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That must have been amazing to hang out in Mailer’s home. Is that the same place where he stabbed his wife Adele? (Sorry, morbidly curious minds want to know).
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As far as message vs. story, it’s always story first with me. I’m wary of delivering anything terribly overt, because I get that “oodgy” feeling–like when an old friend tracks you down and calls and somewhere in the conversation you realize they’re trying to sell you Amway. I’m scared of accidentally betraying the reader’s trust, so I stick to story. But when I write, there’s usually something emotional that I’m in denial about anyway, some intrinsic truth. I let that aspect bleed onto the page organically. I guess that brings up the question, how much of yourself do pour into the book?

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Heidi: I guess I pour all of myself onto the page.  And by that I don’t mean that what I write is my life, my autobiography, but it’s all my feelings, and observations, and obsessions and questions about the world.  People ask me all the time about whether my character, Rachel is me.  And of course she is.  But not in the way that everything that happened to Rachel happened to me, but that her struggles are struggles I’m familiar with.  But it’s also true that Brick is me, and Laronne is me, and Nella is me.  Every character has a piece of me in them.  It’s funny though how people I know think that a character is based on them.  Sometimes they are right, but most often they are wrong.  Does this happen to you? And do you have “rules” for yourself about what is off-limits to write about—certain family stuff or something?

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Jamie: Ah, I love that you own up to it. I have a hard time admitting that about my own writing (even though it’s true). I guess that’s a rule I do have. My characters are reflections of my own life, but by ducking the comparisons I’m creating an emotional buffer–a safety zone. I’m literally hiding behind my characters. Though subject-wise, I won’t leave any stone unturned–family matters or otherwise, but my parents are gone, as are my grandparents, so I don’t have anyone starring me down at Thanksgiving either. It might be a different story were my grandmother still alive. How about you? Is there a subject that’s too delicate to address, even in fiction?

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Heidi: Yeah, definitely, but I don’t think they are subjects that will always be off-limits (which is not to say I’m waiting for the folks to die out, but I’m waiting to mature as a writer)—I think that my reticence in writing about certain things is that I know that I can’t do the topics and stories justice yet—in terms of my skill as a writer, and my emotional capacity as a person.  But generally my rule is: sell everyone out!  People in workshops I’ve taught have sometimes balked at that idea—but what I tell them is that they will likely be surprised at how the people in their lives react to a story.  My grandmother who is similar to the character Grandma Doris in the book—a Texas-born African-American woman who moved to the Pacific Northwest in the 1940s and still has a strong accent—always comes to my readings when I’m in Portland, OR where she lives—and without fail tells people: this book (my book) is all about her.  Now, in the book the grandmother begins to change after a hardship and takes to nursing her “contributions” (her sherry) most of every day.  My real grandmother doesn’t touch alcohol—ever!  (Well, except for that moment she toasted President Obama’s inauguration.  She never thought she would live to see the day.)
Anyway, I’ve gone on too long, but wanted to ask before we close this out: what are you working on now?  And how soon can we get our hands on it?  You’ve made us hungry for more of your stories!  Come on Jamie!  Do tell!

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Jamie: The new book is in the hands of my editor. It’s another historical, multi-cultural, love story of sorts. It was tentatively titled Whispers of a Thunder God, but I think that title has now been bludgeoned by the upcoming Thor movie. My new book is set primarily in Japan and has nothing to do with Norse mythology, so I’m working on new titles as we speak, and we’re looking at a release date sometime early in 2012. Is your follow-up underway? No pressure…

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Heidi:Yay for stories of the Mixed experience!  Maybe we can even coax you down to LA to participate in the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival (www.mxroots.org) one year?  We’d love that.  (It’s annual festival I co-founded and co-produce with my friend Fanshen Cox.  We had President Obama’s sister as a headliner last year—it was pretty cool.) The next book is still on the boards – but it’s in the works.  It’s a historical novel too.  Set in the late 1800s in Paris and London and centers on a real figure—a woman who was a half-black/half-white Eastern European and known for her trapeze act and the size of her biceps.  The research has been monstrous.  The writing is surprisingly kind of fun.

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Jamie, thanks so much for chatting with me! It’s been such a pleasure to get to know you a little bit better and learn more about your process.  I look forward to catching you IRL again soon!



2 Comments On This Post:

February 16, 2011
11:00 am
Kristan says...

Love love LOVE this dual interview! I’ve read HOTEL (and Jamie Skyped with my book club!) but I always love hearing him discuss his writing. I had heard a bit about Heidi’s book, but reading about it in her own words (and learning that she’s a fellow halfie, and that that’s a huge element of the book!) got me even more interested. I also love seeing how they are both still awed by other writers, even though they’ve found quite a bit of success themselves. I hope that’s me someday. :)

February 19, 2011
6:52 pm
Collette McIntyre says...

I was so excited to read this dual interview! I have read both of your books, each taught me something new that I could use to better understand the world around me. Thanks to you both! Jamie my book club was there in the front row at a book talk of yours. I will there in the front row, Heidi when you come to town. Your warmth and mutual respect for each other as writers is awesome!

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