BETWEEN THE LINES

Fiction and research: firing the imagination

March 26, 2014

Tags: research, fiction, Michael White, permaculture

Iíve been thinking about doing research for fiction. Partly this has been on my mind since Michael Whiteís craft program a couple of weeks ago, when he talked about how historical research can fire the imagination. Iíve admired Michaelís novels (especially A Brotherís Blood, Soul Catcher, Garden of Martyrs) and loved hearing stories about the ways in which research plus imagination breathed life into his stories and his characters.

My own fiction tends to be contemporary and my experiences with research have been with interviews rather than libraries. And thatís the other reason this topic has been on my mind. My manuscript-in-progress involves a college student, a botany major who is obsessed about disappearing plant species. Writing this novel requires far more scientific background than I have. I needed help.

Last year, about halfway through writing the first draft, I realized that my main character was interested in permaculture. A writing friend referred me to the Franklin Permaculture Garden at UMass. A student garden manager answered my initial email and invited me to visit. Thereís nothing like wandering through the garden, swatting gnats and making notes and taking photos and asking questions to excite the muse.

When the first draft of the manuscript was done, the plot had a hole requiring scientific information to fill. I needed more help. Back to UMASS (letís hear it for public higher education!), first for a meeting with a science librarian for background, and then an interview with a professor of plant pathology, who knew exactly what I needed and shared his excitement for the subject as well as his knowledge. The professorís enthusiasm and his willingness to play the ďwhat ifĒ game with me, brought me full circle to Michael White's comments: in addition to lending credibility to the work, research helped me ground the story, develop the character and fire my imagination.

Iím always amazed Ė and so grateful Ė when people with expertise are generous in sharing their knowledge. Thank you again, Lilly, Macci, and Dan.

Remembering Antonia

March 6, 2014

Tags: Antonia Martinez, University of Puerto Rico student strike

This week I've been thinking about Antonia Martinez, killed on March 4, 1970, during a student strike at the University of Puerto Rico. Many years later on a trip to that campus, my friend Rafael told me about Antonia. While he talked, we looked across the street to the balcony where she was shot. The image of the balcony and the story of her heroism stayed with me, and eventually it inspired a short short story. This story isn't specifically about Antonia's life and death, but it honors her. It was published in The Drum, in 2010 and is reprinted below:

"Watching Her."

Most of our battalion had rotated through guard duty at the palace. We knew her as a rosy girl who escaped her abuela and marched with us, two giant pink steps to each of ours, her thin arms swinging in perfect timing. Under our watchful eyes, she grew into a young woman, enchanting in her fierce concentration.

Those days, the troubles slashed families. Many of us had cousins, brothers even, with the rebels. We had kin who crossed the street to avoid us as we marched two by two on our rounds, wild sunlight flashing off our polished boots. Most of us had daughters or granddaughters her age; we hugged them often those last weeks, as the rebelsí numbers grew and their victories mounted.

One night last month she slipped down the moonlit path to the university, her slippers dancing to the coqui chorus of tree frogs. We suspected a young man and followed her, capturing our smiles behind our hands. She lost us in the narrow streets bordering campus, but by the next morning our informants gave up his name.

We warned her father, through the appropriate channels, of course. We should have known that girl wouldnít back down at her fatherís command or her motherís weeping. Generations of breeding culminated in her staunch person. When she dragged her suitcase down the hill and joined her loverís cell, she twisted the bloodlines of her family to bear arms against itself.

Still, we never dreamed it would go this far. We underestimated her zeal and her fatherís too. When our orders came, we verified them with our commander, then shook our heads. Our assignment was simple, but we carefully planned every detail. That last evening we assembled in our places at the edge of campus facing the building where the rebels hid.

She and her young man stepped out together onto the crumbling third floor balcony. She came forward alone to the iron railing. The crowd packed the streets below, screaming her fatherís name and burning his likeness. When she raised her fist, the crowd quieted. A coqui sang in the moment of stillness, in chorus with the clicks as we released the safeties. As she started speaking, her hair caught the scarlet of sunset.

We never considered how history would judge us. Still, at the last moment, those of us not carrying rifles closed our eyes.

AWP Musings

March 1, 2014

Tags: AWP

It's the last day of AWP (the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs) and I'm exhausted, sick, and totally invigorated. I'm sitting in one of the cafe areas of the Bookfair, sipping hot Earl Grey tea for my sore throat, listening to the melodic drone of a reading just beyond my range of hearing words. If I look past the round cafe tables, I can see the Red Hen Press sign. I'm happy.

Every year, friends ask why I come to AWP, even those years when I'm not on a panel or promoting a book. I'm not an academic writer. No university pays my way. It's hard to explain why I love it so much.

Partly, it's the programs. But honestly, some panels are terrific and some, not so much. This year, I attended panels on writing the other, on eco-fiction, on writing as witness and writing for social justice. I learned some things about the DIY book tour and writing with vulnerable populations. My nasty cough made me leave a few others early; I wished I could have stayed.

Partly, it's the books. I always leave with a few new ones, despite the impossibility of fitting them in my suitcase. I'm particularly thrilled to now own new poetry collections by Lesle Lewis and Kate Gale. I also return home with a list of books I've got to buy and read: Harbor by Lorraine Adams and The Gone Away World by Nick Harkaway are high on the list.

And it's the book fair - it's crowded and noisy and overwhelming. But it's strong evidence that small presses and lit mags and MFA programs and community writing projects are many and varied, alive and well. I love that.

Mostly, it's the people. The planned meetings and the surprises. The writers and teachers who have been critically important in my writing life (Manette Ansay and Lee Hope) and my
publishing life (Mary Bisbee-Beek and Kate Gale and Mark Cull and Billy Goldstein). And then all the friends and acquaintances I love seeing Naomi Benaron and Julie Wu and Christine Byl and Robin Talbot and Candace Nadon and Ruthe Rohle and Pearl Abraham). It's getting to hear and meet my writing heroes, like Ann Pancake.

What it all comes down to is this: I come every year to be part of this writing world. I am so very grateful to be here.