Joel & Jennifer

Sometimes I wonder what Joel would think of me. What might we have said to each other if by some quirk of fate we’d ended up at the same party in college, or run into each other at BookPeople?

We’re not far off in age, just about a year and a half. Joel goes to the University of Texas and I did my undergraduate work at Southwestern University, just north of Austin. In 1990, when Joel’s a freshman, I could get from Georgetown to Austin in less than twenty-five minutes, a feat anyone familiar with current Austin traffic would find shocking. I went to Sixth Street; I hung out at the same bars where Joel talks for hours with James. What if we’d somehow been introduced?

I can’t imagine Joel would have liked me. In 1990, I was quiet and self-conscious. I liked my Gothic Literature class and read The Monk aloud; when I paused, my roommate called “don’t stop” from her bedroom upstairs in the condo we shared. I had a black cocker spaniel with a white goatee. My boyfriend went to Texas A&M.

I was boring as hell and Joel would have thought so, too.

Fast forward seven years. In 1997, Joel’s working his way out of what happened with James. He’s meeting Adam. He has his first art show, his first bad review, his first taste of cocaine. In 1997, I was taking my qualifying exams for my PhD. I was buying my first house, in suburban Fort Worth. I was obsessive about getting to the gym. I have a hard time picturing Joel coming to my pink brick house for a dinner party. I don’t think he would’ve been able to sit still. I think whoever he brought–Jess, most likely–would have put his hand on Joel’s leg under my glass dining room table to stop it from jittering.

Jump with me to 2002. Joel’s actually in a pretty good place: free from his father, living with Adam, painting in his new studio. I, on the other hand, had brain surgery that May, when I was pregnant with my son. I was still thinking about Joel, but for the first time since I’d started writing in his name I couldn’t get in his head. Hormones, probably. I was all MOTHER. Meeting me, Joel would have been polite; he learned small talk from his father. He might even have been nice. After all, living with Adam teaches him a certain amount of patience. I just don’t think he’d want to see how I decorated the nursery.

Let’s look at 2007. I don’t want to spoil what’s coming in Slow Burn, but I can tell you that Joel spends time in Austin, Chicago, Greece and Buenos Aires. Did I leave the city of Austin in 2007? I’m not sure. My son turned five that year. I bought another house, closer to Pearl Street than ever; I’m always trying to get closer. (Ten years and three houses later, I’m a mere 1.6 miles away.) I wrote when I could, mostly during the few hours a week my son was in preschool. I was struggling to find balance between writing, motherhood and a gym membership I wasn’t quite ready to relinquish. Maybe Joel and I could have bonded over yoga; I was just beginning my practice in 2007. Otherwise, we were no kind of match.

I know Joel so intimately, and still I crave more. Sometimes ours feels like such a one-sided relationship. Joel’s a gift I get to unwrap daily: receive, receive, receive.

Of course, I also give him life.

Copyright © 2017 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Closer Than You Think

It’s always a little heartbreaking to finish writing a novel.

For years I feel as if I’m in the middle of something. I can open my laptop, find my place in my draft and instantly be somewhere else. The unfolding is exquisite. I’m a voyeur, on a ride I don’t want to stop. That I don’t write chronologically–meaning that the first scene I write might be one of the last, the last scene one of the first–just adds to the delight. No matter how much I think I know what’s going to happen, my characters still manage to surprise me.

Most of the time I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.

The end always comes fast for me. I’ll think I still have a good month or two of writing, and a week later I’m done. I’ll send out copies to my beta readers, then listen to what they have to say and assume I’ll need a few weeks to incorporate their suggestions. Days later I’m drawing out the editing process just so I can spend a little more time before I have to say goodbye.

I feel unmoored when I’ve finished writing a novel, emotional and off-balance. Joel and James and Adam: they center me like nothing else. When their story ends, I flounder. I need to know how I’m going to get my next breath.

I’m waiting for my last beta reader to give me her feedback. She’s been with me since I wrote The Crossing, and her honesty borders on brutal. She’ll likely have suggestions; fingers crossed. That will give me a chance to play just a little bit more.

Then the time will come to share this story.

I’m going to ensure that as many people as possible can read what happens next. So stay tuned. You’re closer than you think.

Copyright © Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

 

Slow Burn

jenhritz-184I finished writing Slow Burn.

I keep typing that sentence, then erasing the words. I’m thrilled, of course, and so ready to share with you what happens next for Joel, James and Adam. At the same time, I’m mourning the way I feel when I’m in the middle of something good.

Slow Burn isn’t what I expected. I expected to see more from Adam; I expected to write in his voice. I expected to fall in love with James. (I didn’t.) I envisioned this novel ending in November of 2009, not the previous spring. I thought that after reading Slow Burn you’d have the whole story.

Then, four months ago, I realized I was struggling with the end because I’d already written the end. I moved the seventy pages that comprised the beginning of Part Three into a blank document, which will eventually become the fourth novel in this series. Doing so changed the narrative arc, and the focus. Everything I’d written up to that point became the point. I thought I’d just been writing context. I was wrong.

Now I’m ready to read through the novel, from the beginning. I’ll do that more than once. In a couple of weeks, my beta readers will receive copies. I’ll give them a month, then take their comments into consideration (or not). I might revise a bit, though I’m not anticipating any major restructuring. I know these men. I know what happens to them. There isn’t much more to say, not in this novel.

Over the next few months, I’ll be keeping you updated: on this blog, on social media, and with videos I’ll be posting soon. Get excited. What made you crazy in The Crossing and I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden you’ll find amplified in Slow Burn. What felt hot will burn you better. The tears you cried you’ll cry again, because Slow Burn tells a story of circles, and what happens when the labyrinth never ends.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

The Right Words

0a0d5893cf0e40024295dae6ee3463f5For a week I haven’t had words.

Oh, I’ve chatted plenty with my son, who’s out of school for the summer. I’ve dropped by my neighbor’s house for a glass of wine and conversation. I’ve texted with more friends than I can count, checking in or making plans.

As soon as someone mentions Orlando I freeze.

For a week I haven’t been able to find the right words. That’s unusual for me, and uncomfortable. I feel like I’m failing: my LGBT friends, my readers, my community. I scroll through Facebook and see profile pictures superimposed with rainbows. I read posts condemning the shooter, and the society that denigrated his desires to such a devastating end. I’m so grateful for the love and support my straight friends are expressing, but when I read what my gay and lesbian friends have written, or talk to them in person–when I hear their pain and rage and confusion–nothing I could ever say seems like enough.

For a week I’ve had no words.

I do, however, have a wild imagination. I live a good part of every day in the heads of my characters. I see them, hear them, feel them. They’re as real to me as the people who populate my world, maybe even more so. Living them as I have for the past two decades, I’m not sure it’s possible to separate them from me. I wouldn’t want to try. I have an intimacy with these characters so profound and tangible it’s almost impossible to express.

As I embrace Joel, and James, and Adam, I embrace the men they represent.

For a week, I haven’t been able to come up with the words to tell you that I see you and love you and write for you. Not in your stead, but for you, and for who you are in all your beauty and humanity.

So I’ll keep writing.

Words are the most powerful gift I have to give.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

The Second Time Around

Both booksMany authors, once they’ve published their books, never read them again. I understand why. Misspellings and minor discrepancies, especially given the time most writers spend revising and editing before publication, are cringe-worthy. Stumbling across entire paragraphs in need of elaboration–or that should be scrapped entirely–can be downright demoralizing. Better to just focus on the next novel, right?

When that next novel involves the same characters, however, looking back at those previous books becomes a necessity.

In the last couple of weeks, I’ve reread both The Crossing and I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden. I started with The Crossing (chronologically speaking, that novel comes first, but was published second), and finished Garden yesterday. As I expected, I found misspellings and minor discrepancies, as well as the inevitable paragraph in need of elaboration or omission. Those errors weren’t what got to me.

Here’s what did.

Joel has balls. Somehow I missed that in the writing of The Crossing, which took a good twenty years.

James has an agenda. He’s also a coward. (For the record, that last sentence was really, really hard for me to write.)

Loving someone and feeling like you shouldn’t be with them sucks. That just might be the most banal statement I’ve ever made, but James’s angst was profound for me with this reading.

Coming out in the nineties, especially in Texas, was arguably more difficult than coming out in 2016. There’s the second most banal statement I’ve ever made, but I keep thinking of Adam’s rant in Garden about the next generation of gay men:

They have no idea what I’ve gone through, what any of us who came of age in the eighties had to endure […] They’re too busy reaping the benefits of the groundwork we were responsible for laying […] I just can’t stand the sense of entitlement I see, the defiance I find undeserved.

Joel’s father has more nuance than I remembered. His mother, while she has her own story, makes me crazy.

Ashley (James’s sister) and Lindsey (Adam’s niece) are little scene-stealers.

The sections that were once my favorite no longer speak to me in the same way. This makes sense, I suppose; I hadn’t read The Crossing since 2013, and I hadn’t read Garden since 2010. My favorite scene overall? The one in The Crossing where Joel picks up the guy who wears too much hair product. I’d entirely forgotten the wording at the end of that scene, and whoa. I felt such a tremendous sense of foreboding.

Parts of each book made me cry. I knew what was going to happen, but I cried anyway. I don’t know if that’s because I love these men so much, or because the scenes in question (I’m thinking specifically of Joel sitting on the floor of the closet in his old bedroom at the end of The Crossing, and Adam talking to his father over Thanksgiving at the end of Garden) are actually that heartbreaking.

The big revelation? My third book might actually be two. I’ll know soon, because next up on my agenda is reading the 171,000 words I have so far. (For reference, The Crossing is 195,000 words, and Garden is 120,000). Either way, I promise you’ll have something to read soon. (That’s writer-speak for within the year.)

In the meantime, I invite you to reread one or both of the novels I’ve already written. I promise your take will be different the second time around.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

I’ll Take It Any Way I Can

Someone recently asked what inspires me, and I’ve been contemplating the question ever since. My answer is nothing grandiose. I might hear a story of great travail; I might bear witness to a friend’s evolution following a period of trauma and feel amazed. Those aren’t the moments that make me want to write.

InspirationWhen I first saw Katherine Torrini’s Narcissus, I knew I had to have the mixed media piece for myself. Her work inspired my first short story, and introduced me to James’s voice. Every time I see this piece–which hangs on my living room wall, across from my desk–I’m newly enthralled.

But I don’t need something visual to move me. A year ago I was talking to a friend of mine, who told me I didn’t need to get too entrenched in negotiations with the buyers of a property I was then leasing. “They’re just trying to sugar talk you,” my friend said in his perfect southern drawl. I immediately snagged on his words. Sugar talk? I’d heard of sweet talk, but never sugar talk. What a quintessentially Texan phrase, the sort of phrase James would use–and does, in the novel I’m currently writing.

Then there’s scent. Swing & SmokesA year or so ago, out with friends on a Friday night, we sat drinking wine at a local bar where porch swings hang from the trees. Porch swings, like the one that graces Joel’s house on Pearl Street in college. I was already intrigued, and of course my friend Amie, who knows me well, suggested we have a seat. As soon as I caught the scent of a freshly lit cigarette from a table nearby, I borrowed one for myself. I don’t smoke–ever–but the lure in the moment was too tempting. Someone snapped this photo at the perfect time.

I like the details. Jeans torn around the ankles, a smile like a fish hook, a scent so slight it’s almost imagined. I don’t want the story already told, however beautiful or transformative. I want the prompt, the promise of seduction. Make it subtle, so I can play.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Chocolate and Tears

Some of you know that I tutor children in creative writing. I’m very careful about selecting these students, in part because I don’t profess to have a set of rules about how to write well. Honestly, I’m not even sure good writing can be taught. Encouraged, perhaps. But the writing processes of the authors I know don’t add up to any sort of rubric. What I offer the few children I work with on a weekly basis is the freedom to write what they want, without fear. I give guidance, certainly. But mostly what I do is hold space for them to get to know their characters and feel their way forward as writers.

Last week, when I arrived at Isabel’s house for our two-hour session, she had a tea party laid out for us.

tea party

We chatted for a while, and then she told me her news. She’d finished writing her novel.

Isabel is twelve years old, and she’s good. Edge-of-your-seat good. There’s no doubt in my mind that you–or your children, because she writes books for young adults–will read her books at some point. The novel she just finished is her second. She started writing it the first week of November. It’s 91,000 words. If I could write that fast, you would’ve had my third novel years ago.

After Isabel told me her news, she added, “And that’s why I spent Wednesday crying and eating chocolate.”

I knew instantly how she felt. So often, people don’t understand. They think the finished product, the book launch, the reviews, the sales… are the point. They’re important, of course. I love sharing my books with my readers, and those of you who take the time to write to me personally to tell me how these men have affected you have a special place in my heart. But there’s something about what happens between a writer and her characters when the last word has been written but the book hasn’t yet been shared.

I feel a profound connection to my characters, and to the stories I’ve written. I live an alternate reality for years. When the story’s over, the heart breaks.

Isabel’s confession felt especially resonate because the day she finished her novel, I finished writing Part Two of my third novel. I don’t usually write in a linear fashion–as a matter of fact, the last scene of Part Two was the first scene I wrote–but for some reason Parts One and Two appeared first this time around. (Part Three remains to be written.) I finished Part Two, and I cried, and I started a read-through of what I have so far.

The read-through took a week, and I’ve had to take the last few days to recuperate. To cry and eat chocolate. What’s getting me through is knowing I still have Part Three to write. I’ve started, of course, and I know what’s going to happen.

But I have a little time before I’ll need that chocolate again.

Copyright © 2016 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Your Stories

pipeI’m not going to steal your stories.

I said I might, but I lied. I’ll listen to your stories; believe me, I’ll listen. I’m naturally curious and I ask a lot of questions. An hour with me might wear you out. I can’t help myself. I want to understand your motivation. You’re James from Joel’s perspective, a puzzle exquisite in its intricacy. I want to figure you out.

But I’m not interested in appropriating your narrative.

My relationship with my characters might be my most intimate. When I’m writing, I’m experiencing them. As them. The words that come to me aren’t mine. They belong to Joel, to James, to Adam. Whatever they’re seeing, hearing, touching, I’m seeing, hearing, touching. I can smell the smoke from their cigarettes, taste the beer in their mouths. I can feel Joel’s paintbrush between my fingers, grip the steering wheel of Adam’s BMW beneath my hands. I’m not sitting in front of my laptop in Austin, Texas. I’m Joel, watching his father light a cigar. I’m stumbling around a cemetery in Greece, drunk and jealous and pissed, and my name isn’t Jennifer.

If I steal your stories I have to get in your head. And I don’t want to experience you that way.

Your nuance: now that’s what seduces me. A gesture, the inflection of one word. A laugh I’m not expecting from your mouth. That look you gave me when you took your eyes from your cell phone… I don’t think you realize how far that’s going to go. All day every day I’m waiting for the moment that sticks, the one that makes me stop right where I am and pay attention. If you have it, I want it.

I don’t need to steal your stories. I like my own. But I’m taking you in anyway, the way Joel would take a hit from a joint. I want what you do to me. I want you to make me high.

Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Boundaries & Vulnerability

I had lunch with a friend today. He’s an insightful guy, and we tend to have intense conversations. I was telling him about a date I had recently, with a guy who spent most of the three hours we were together telling me about himself. “Didn’t he ask you any questions?” Dan asked, and I kind of shrugged. Well, yes, a few. But they were so general I didn’t know how to respond. “So you’re a writer” leaves me at a loss. I like specifics. I thrive on detail. Ask me about my process. Tell me you want to know something titillating no one else knows about my characters. “So you’re a writer” will just close me right up.

Dan begged to differ. Dan said I’m wide open and curious about other people, but reluctant to let anyone go too deep when it’s my turn to be explored. I tried to tell him he was wrong, but he was having none of it. I’m territorial, he said, and he backed up his assessment with specifics: I don’t always like to answer his (probing) questions. I’m a little crazy about my writing time. I wouldn’t share my curry with him. There might have been a pantomime, with Dan demonstrating the walls I’m apparently erecting left and right.

He also reminded me that I’m interested in boundaries, and explore them voraciously in my writing.

Here’s a snippet of Joel’s voice from my third novel, in progress.

Seven years of therapy and a flicker of faith in some sort of inherent self-worth made me leave Adam when I found out about his affair, and despite the current of pain that runs through pretty much my every waking moment, for the most part I’ve been grateful I didn’t stay. My boundaries suck. If I needed proof all I’d have to do is look at my relationship with James. I let those boundaries bleed all over the place and just when I think we’ve cauterized every last vein we start seeping.

Of course, when those boundaries start seeping… well, that’s where the story gets good. I suppose I have to remind myself of that every so often, because vulnerability doesn’t come naturally to me. My tendency over the years has been along the lines of suck it up. Case in point: the day before yesterday I was boiling a pot of tea and I poured the water directly into a glass pitcher. The glass exploded, and this happened.

Ouch

My first thought? How much writing time am I going to lose.

Thirty minutes, as it turned out, just enough for me to clean up and post a Note to Self about the mishap on Facebook. Adrenaline might have carried me, but I wrote for over two hours and saved the sobbing for the afternoon. I was going to hold that boundary.

Negotiating the space between boundaries and vulnerability… that’s not easy for me. It’s not easy for my characters either.

I suppose the question I have to ask myself–and thank my characters for epitomizing–is, do I want to live a good story?

Copyright © 2015 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

 

 

When Characters Disappoint

Joel can be such a prick.

I love the guy, but there’s no question that his behavior in The Crossing leaves something to be desired. He’s manipulative and passive-aggressive, self-indulgent and self-loathing. I’ve had readers tell me that if they weren’t so sucked into the story they would’ve shut the book. He can be that despicable.

Of course, in I, too, Have Suffered in the Garden Joel comes off as the complete opposite. Maybe that’s why so many of my readers struggle with Adam’s infidelity. Joel’s so nice, and he’s doing everything he can to be there for his partner.

Adam can be such a prick.

Both novels I’ve written in first person, which means as the reader you’re getting a head full of the narrator. You’re seeing everything from one perspective and that perspective is wildly skewed.

On a weekly basis I work with a handful of girls on their creative writing. We meet one-on-one for an hour and chat about what they’ve been thinking over the past week, then read through what they’ve come up with and talk about what’s working (and sometimes what’s not). I love these girls. They’re smart and insightful and so captivated by the stories in their heads. And they’re so keen to share what they’re thinking. It’s a privilege to have a glimpse into their worlds.

About a month ago, one of the girls was freaking out. She’s twelve and she’s writing a novel—and before you say how cute, believe me when I say that this girl has what it takes. A handful of times I’ve wanted to steal her lines. She’s that good. So Kat was freaking out because she’s writing this book about two teenagers who get lost in the Canadian wilderness during a flash food, and she was at the point in her writing where her characters have become separated from each other. The story’s told from the girl’s perspective and for weeks all Kat could talk about was the girl’s boyfriend. What was he doing, what was happening to him, how was he going to find the girl again? I kept telling her to chill out, that she didn’t need to know what the boyfriend was doing. She just needed to concentrate on her narrator and when the boyfriend showed up he’d tell his story.

She didn’t seem to hear me. Every week she’d show up and say the same thing: what’s he doing, what’s happening to him, how’s he going to find her again? Every week I’d tell her to focus on her narrator and when the boyfriend was ready he’d show.

Then she told me she was afraid he wouldn’t. That he’d abandon his girlfriend altogether.

Oh.

As writers, we fall in love with our characters. We really do. We follow them through one ordeal after another and we just want them to be okay.

And we really don’t want them to disappoint us.

Kat had been so preoccupied with the boyfriend because she’d built him up in her mind as the kind of guy who’d do whatever it took to find his girlfriend after she fell into the river. She didn’t want him to be the kind of guy who gave up.

Now, you might be thinking that she’s the author so she gets to decide. But that’s not how it works, not for many writers. These characters have lives of their own. They make their own choices. We just tell their stories.

I’m about halfway through the writing of my third novel, and this one has three narrators. Joel and Adam both have a voice, and this time James does, too. The only time prior to writing this novel that I’ve written in James’s voice was when I wrote “Mixed Media,” which won the Chris O’Malley Fiction Prize a few years ago. If you read that story (subscribe to my blog and I’ll send you a copy), you’ll want to wrap your arms around James. And the way Joel goes on and on about him in The Crossing you can’t help but think he’s a good guy, even though he makes some mistakes along the way.

A few days ago I was at Steeping Room with a beautiful green coconut tea and my laptop, my conversation with Kat fresh in my mind. I was ready to write a scene, one I’d been thinking about for a long time. Told from James’s perspective, this scene takes place on Christmas in 2006 and has a very specific, disturbing end. All I had to do was get to that end.

But nothing was coming. I couldn’t even see the scene I’d envisioned anymore. Instead I was being pulled in a different direction and god, was I fighting it. Because James wouldn’t behave the way the scene wanted to be written. He wouldn’t make the mistake he was about to make. He was better than what he wanted me to write.

I had to squeeze my eyes shut when I touched my keyboard. I’m sure I was cringing as I wrote. Every so often I’d have to stop and catch my breath.

And let go.

James doesn’t belong to me. I’m in his head right now but I don’t get to make his choices. He makes his own.

And he can be such a prick.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Sharing Space

Steeping RoomI used to write alone. I preferred my office, the familiarity of my own desk, the proximity of my electric kettle and a full container of breakfast tea. I’m not someone who gets distracted by laundry and unmade beds, partly because I’m not the type to leave my bed unmade much past the time I wake up in the morning, but also because once I’m working I’m vigilant about blocking out anything else. I don’t answer the phone, I don’t respond to texts, I don’t sift through the bills. I hold my writing space sacred.

A few months ago I started a new writing project that, while fictional in nature, doesn’t revolve around Joel and James and Adam. This is something peripheral, just for fun, and because a friend of mine was starting a similar project I asked her to come over one night so we could work in tandem. We chatted a bit but mostly we wrote and drank wine. I invited her to return.

Somehow that evening opened the door to another friend, then another. After a few weeks, to escape the house for a few hours when my son was in summer camp–he’s a bit of a homebody and as a single parent I often find myself at home in the evenings–I started writing at Steeping Room, a tea house not far from where I live that allowed me to sit outside, drink beautiful coconut tea and disappear into Joel’s voice. (That peripheral writing project still feels very peripheral.) At first I showed up alone, but soon those same friends who’d found their way to my home in the evenings started meeting me at Steeping Room. Austin experienced a mild summer and for a while we were happy sitting outside, but the heat eventually drove us indoors, where some of us switched to hot tea and others indulged an addiction to iced tea and simply brought along a sweater.

I’m there often, often enough to know the wait staff by name and for them to be familiar enough with my preferences that they quietly slip another glass of beautiful coconut tea beside my laptop without having to ask me what I want. A year ago I would’ve insisted that I couldn’t work amidst such chaos, but I would’ve been wrong. As long as I have earbuds with me, I have no problem shutting out the lunch crowd.

Still, I have to stay out of my own way. The friends I meet there are among my very best. I light up when I see them, and I want to talk to them. Every so often I do. But most of the time I resist. The temptation of my fiction feels far greater, and I know that once I’m in that world I’m in deep. Pull me out and I’m probably pissed, because I know what I’m losing when I turn my attention elsewhere: the perfect paragraph, the right turn of phrase, at the very least the train of thought that will get me exactly where I want to go.

Sometimes I think about Joel, about that moment in The Crossing when he’s painting and decides he’s too deep in the process to meet James for a drink. He makes the call to cancel, then finds himself stuck in a loop of justification.

The more time I have to spend explaining myself the harder it’s going to be getting back into the paint. Already I can feel the image I’ve been seeing loosening its hold, fading into the background.

I know from experience that it doesn’t take long to lose that image, and sometimes it’s crushing when I do. So I’m judicious about who I ask to meet me. And though I almost always see someone I know while I’m there–someone who shows up to meet their own friend, for their own reasons–I usually don’t linger.

A week or so ago I was writing with my friend Amie when someone dropped by to see her. Amie has only been writing for about a year and a half but she’s so lost in her first novel it’s breathtaking. Sharing space with her feels magnetic, and though I pulled my earbuds out long enough to say hello when her friend arrived I went right back to my writing. After he left Amie told me that he could feel the energy surrounding us as he approached our table.

I can feel it, too. And I want to hold it close.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

Opening up

frioI spent some time outside of Austin this weekend, and though I shouldn’t be surprised by the inspiration that a little distance can kick up I still found myself reveling in that gift. I don’t think I realized how desperately I was craving space until I hit I-10 on the way from Austin to Leakey, a little town on the Frio River deep in the Texas Hill Country. That’s when I became aware of my breathing, in a way I hadn’t been for months, outside of my yoga practice. Deep breaths and a fresh eye, and I was scouring the countryside for a little historic cemetery because that’s where my head has been for the past few weeks: stuck in a scene–a series of scenes, really–in my third novel.

I didn’t stop at any cemeteries, though I spotted signs for several. But I’m not worried. I’ll make my way back to the Frio, sooner rather than later. I was too taken with the scenery not to return. The sky was too big, the water too clear. Cold, too, cold enough that I almost wished we weren’t experiencing such a mild summer here in Austin, so I could feel the contrast of a hundred degree day and water capable of giving me chills.

I was staying at a friend’s house, but Saturday night my marketing expert and I broke away and went for a walk under stars so perfect we ended up dropping down in a clearing and tilting our heads back right there. She’s been writing lately, too, and we were talking about our books as we stared up at the sky. When we got quiet the silence felt huge. “I think we’re having a moment,” I said, and we ended up laughing so long and hard the trip would’ve been worth it if I’d experienced nothing else.

My friend says a Native American tribe used to hold some kind of ritual on the land where her house now stands. There might be a burial ground. I felt that connection profoundly. One line after another from the novel I’m writing revealed itself to me. I couldn’t get them all down fast enough. I fell asleep that night stuck in one scene and when I opened my eyes the next morning I was stuck in another.

Any break in my routine can shift my creativity, but there was something magical about that place. I wonder if you’ll be able to tell, when you read what I’ve written. I wonder if you’ll be able to pinpoint the scene in question, or if whatever opened up for me while I was there permeates more than just one section.

I’m ready to go back. Maybe I’ll buy a house of my own, or rent one, so I have space to write.

I feel a pull in that direction, and I know better than to ignore anything so magnetic.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

 

 

Raspberries, Wine, and Chocolate

Joel and JamesSomeone asked me recently what it’s like inside my head. I told him what some of you have already heard, that it’s all raspberries and wine and chocolate. I’m all filled up, because I’m always writing, even when I’m not.

Last week I met a friend for wine. He tells a good story, and I grilled him a bit about his fraternity days in Vermont. He was talking about hazing and drinking and I was completely focused on what he was saying until he paused and looked up at me. You’re not filing this away, are you? he asked, For one of your books?

Well. Maybe.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about my fictional world as I was listening to him, but as soon as he asked the question I realized that somewhere in the back of my mind I was all caught up in James. Because James was in a fraternity. Because the experience shaped his college years. Because in my third novel, the one I’m writing now, he still thinks about that year he quit.

So yes, it’s possible that part of my friend’s story will end up in my work. At the very least, I left the bar inspired.

Though I’m always thinking about my work, I’m not always talking about my work. People might ask me about my books, but they’re not asking about my characters. So I’ll hear, “how’s the book?” or “how’s your writing?” But the people who text me a photo of the train tracks at Zilker Park when they’re hanging out there with their kid, just because they know I’m going to immediately go in my head to my photo shoot last May (see that beautiful photo at the top of this post, and view it in dim light so you can really see the nuance) are few and far between. My friend who told me about his fraternity days texted after we met for wine and asked, “What are your characters up to now?” and I swear I felt a pang of something so sweet right in the center of my being. For someone to speak so familiarly about these men who inhabit my waking (and sometimes dream) hours feels incredibly provocative to me.

I have plenty of friends who haven’t read my books. Most of my family members, too. Sometimes it’s the subject matter that makes them procrastinate; sometimes it’s time. Their reasons always sound so strange. I don’t judge them; I get it. I really do. I’m busy, too, and the bottom line is that if one of them were to write a book about a subject that feels foreign to me–baseball, for example–it might take a little prodding to get me to read it. At the same time, I feel like my work is that proverbial window to my soul.

If you know my characters, then you know me.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

An Interview with Ann Weisgarber

The PromiseThis week I’m happy to have the opportunity to bring you an interview with Ann Weisgarber, author of The Promise and The Personal History of Rachel DuPree. I met Ann at a conference a few years ago, read her novel shortly thereafter and was delighted by the project’s inception (you’ll read about that in a moment), and completely curious about her main character. Then I found out the subject of her next novel, The Promise, and waited with great anticipation for its release. Set against the backdrop of the 1900 Galveston Hurricane, this novel absolutely will not let you go. The Promise is a 2014 finalist for the Walter Scott Prize in historical fiction, a Pulpwood Queen book-of-the-month club pick, and a 2014 Spur Award Finalist for Best Historical Fiction. Please visit Ann’s website for more information.

1) Tell us the story of how you came to write The Promise. What made you want to explore these characters–and the 1900 Galveston hurricane–in such depth?

When I finished my first novel, I freelanced for a Galveston magazine, The Islander. My task was to write articles about people who had unusual jobs. For one assignment, I interviewed a brother and sister who owned and managed a small grocery store on the rural end of the island. They’d moved there with their parents in 1963, and their stories about rural island life fascinated me. The tap water was rusty and not safe to drink, electricity went out frequently, and there were more rattlesnakes than people.

If that was life in 1963, what was the rural end of Galveston like during 1900 when a massive hurricane hit the island and killed over 6,000 people? That question drove me to the Galveston library where I found very little information about the people who once lived outside of the city limits. It seemed that Galveston’s dairy farmers, ranchers, and fishermen had been forgotten, and that felt like an injustice. The Promise is my way of remembering those people.

2) How did living (at least part-time) at the scene of the 1900 hurricane inform your writing? What kind of research did you undertake, and what fascinated you most about what you learned?

Spending time in Galveston allowed me to watch the pelicans, listen to the surf, and feel the heat of August. I’ve also been through several hurricanes, although not on the island. That’s the last place I want to be during a storm and when the Galveston mayor issues mandatory evacuations, I don’t have to be asked twice to leave. I’ve seen the aftermath of hurricanes and have witnessed the slow, painful process of rebuilding. These experiences helped me write The Promise.

I also spent hours in The Galveston and Texas History Center at Galveston’s Rosenberg Library. There, I saw a photo of the nuns and orphans who lived at St. Mary’s Home in 1900. Another source described the sand dunes on the rural end of the island but in 1900 they were called sand hills. I also found the names of people who died in the storm.

In addition, I interviewed people who had long ties to the rural end and learned that in 1900 the beach was strewn with washed-ashore trees and debris tossed from ships. Someone mentioned that many Galvestonians drank bottled mineral water because the well water had a bad taste. Others mentioned the ridge road. Many of these details found their way into the story.

3) I still find the end of The Promise shocking. Without spoiling the surprise for those of us who haven’t read the novel yet, can you tell us why you made the choices you made? Or do you feel as if the storyline was actually fairly well out of your control?

Initially, the ending shocked me too but after trying other endings, this was the one that felt right. It’s in keeping with historical accounts of what happened at the time of the hurricane. It also reflects the shock many survivors experienced after the storm.

4) The idea for your previous novel, The Personal History of Rachel DuPree, came to you almost out of nowhere. Can you tell us that story, then talk a bit about why you’re drawn to these specific historical moments or periods? Do you ever have an inclination to write something contemporary?

You’re so right, Jennifer. The first novel did seem to come almost out of nowhere. It was inspired by an old photograph I’d seen while on vacation at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The photo was of an unnamed woman sitting by herself in front of a sod dugout. I couldn’t imagine how anyone would attempt to homestead alone but there she was. I was also surprised she was African American. I hadn’t known there were black settlers and homesteaders in the West.

The woman in the photo haunted me. She was alone in an isolated landscape. After the vacation, I found information about black settlers but the accounts were factual and dry. This woman, I felt sure, had a rich and meaningful story. I felt her pushing me to give her a story, and eventually I did. I felt her with me through the entire writing process.

I felt the same kind of push from the people who were on the rural end of Galveston on September 8, 1900. Like the women in the photo, they had been nearly forgotten. These are the kinds of stories that speak to me.

I didn’t realize I wrote historical fiction until someone gave me that label. I’m happy with that since I can’t imagine writing contemporary fiction. I enjoy leaving my modern life and spending time in a different century.

5) Both of your novels have very distinctive female characters. What calls you to write about women’s experience? How do your female characters negotiate their relationship with the men in their lives?

I admire women whose lives seem uneventful until crises, either internal or external, tear their worlds apart. Somehow, though, they must carry on while looking after children, cooking meals, doing laundry, and holding down their jobs. They may want to fall apart, and maybe some of them do, but most women pick themselves up and find the strength to make difficult choices.

Since my novels take place before the women’s liberation movement, my female characters typically maneuver the men in their lives in subtle ways. Many women had to be cautious since they didn’t have access to money or were unable to support their children if they left their husbands. While writing the first book, I read diaries written by women. Many of them understood they could not make demands of their husbands or ask direct and pointed questions. Instead, they were skilled in applying the light touch and this method often allowed them to get their way.

6) I’m always curious about the process of other writers. Do you outline? Spread notecards around you and create some kind of timeline? Or do you dive right into the story?

I begin with a general idea about the plot and write a one-page summary to give the illusion that I have a plan. Then I make an outline for the first chapter. Once I finish that, I go back and fill in the gaps until the outline begins to read like a story. Then I’m on to the outline for the next chapter.

It usually doesn’t take long before I’ve strayed from the summary, and that’s fine. Nothing is written in stone and research discoveries often change the course of the story.

I’d like to add that I meet every Friday with my writing critique group. We each bring six pages of our projects and the feedback I receive is invaluable. These writers have seen me through both novels, and I hope they’ll see me through the next one.

7) Tell us about your relationship with your novels. Do you prefer one book over the other? Do you have a favorite character? Once the book is published, do you ever reread what you’ve written, or do you close the door on those characters once their stories have been told?

The characters in both novels are dear friends, and I have difficulty parting from them once their stories are finished. Fortunately, I meet with many book clubs for both novels so their stories continue to be part of my life.

Rachel DuPree will probably always be my favorite character. She was inspired by a woman in the photograph that I mentioned in the fourth question. That woman made me become a writer and changed the direction of my life. I will always be grateful to her and for the book she inspired.

8) What can you tell us about your next project?

I’m working on a novel that takes place in Utah’s canyon country during the winter of 1888. The narrator is a 37-year-old woman who helps polygamists hide from U.S. marshals. I’m not all that far along and the plot has deviated far from the original one-page summary so I’m afraid to say anything more.

9) What books are you reading right now? Give us a glimpse of your bedside table!

I’m a fan of your novels and although I finished your latest novel, The Crossing, a while ago, it’s still on my mind. I’ve just started Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. The Promise has been shortlisted along with it for the UK’s Walter Scott Prize in Historical Fiction, and in June I’ll be on a panel with the other finalists. My goal is to read the other five novels.

If I may, I’d like to add that I recently read Juliet West’s Before the Fall which takes place in London’s East End during World War 1. I was spellbound. I was also captivated by Gary Schanbacher’s Crossing Purgatory. Much of the story is set in eastern Colorado before the Civil War. It’s one that I want to reread.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved

A Day in This Writer’s Life

Many days I’ve spent in isolation, save for the company of my characters. Those days are some of my favorites. I like nothing more–as you know, if you’ve spent any time reading my blog posts–than getting lost in my characters’ heads. But I don’t always have the luxury of entire days to myself. I’m a mother, a friend, a reluctant dog owner. I, too, run out of groceries and cave to invitations of wine, even when I have stories in my head clamoring for release.

And still I make it through. I make it through because I’m always thinking of my work. My characters seep in around the edges of my consciousness, and carry me. They really do.

I thought you might want to know how that works. How this writer’s life fills up with images and phrases and moments stolen from others who will never know that their look, their smile, their particular turn of phrase ended up fodder for inspiration.

My alarm goes off. It’s light outside, but barely. I’m not thinking about my characters at all. I’m thinking about fixing beds and packing lunches and cajoling my child. But then, on the way to the bus stop an hour later, an SUV catches my eye. We’re at a stoplight, and the driver isn’t wearing a shirt. I can tell because his window’s open. Large sunglasses hide his eyes. He’s young. I’m already combing through my characters. Would Adam drive anywhere without a shirt? Hell no. Would James? Maybe… Joel?

I can think of six thousand reasons why Joel would end up behind the wheel of his Explorer without a shirt. And those reasons stay with me through drop-off, through a trip to the bank and a fill-up at the gas station down the street.

Then I’m home. I step in my house and take a deep breath; there’s a whiff of something other here, in this seventy-four-year-old house of mine, and I know there are days when Joel walks through his front door and breathes in the same scent.

Connection: that easy.

Breakfast, email, time to tweet. Last night I happened to stumble across a link to a live show of Soulhat’s, from August of ’91. I watched it over and over, and now I play it again as I post the link on Twitter. I might have been at that show; I know Joel and James were.

More email, some copywriting for a friend who’s launching her website later this month, then lunch with author Susan Michalski. We meet at South Austin Trailer Park & Eatery, because we’re obsessing about tacos and Topo Chico. I’m well aware that Torchy’s opened in 2006, after Adam moved to Seattle. I wonder if James has ever been. Sue and I talk about our work and nothing but our work for an hour: what we’re writing, who’s reading what we’re writing, what it’s like to watch a photographer shoot a scene that we’ve written. I envy the fact that she needs only a few hours of sleep a night: how much more could I write if I slept less than six hours?

I know how much. I’ve done it before.

Back home my terrier screams at the neighbor’s dog as I sit down at the table on my back porch. I want to string some colored lights around the railing like James does in The Crossing, but I can’t find an electrical outlet. I post something on my Facebook author page, a question about who would be more likely to see a psychic, Joel, James or Adam. I scroll through my email again, fill out an enrollment application for school for my son, message a friend of a friend who wants me to tutor her daughter in creative writing. I have one hour left to get in my yoga practice before I have to run to the store and then head back to that bus stop. Yoga: today I tie my hair in a ponytail at the nape of my neck, where Joel would tie his.

I wouldn’t say I spend my entire yoga practice in Joel’s body, but I’m there for more than a breath.

I head to the bus stop. I have a convertible of my own and I put the top down on the way. Joel had a convertible, back in ’95. He doesn’t talk much about the wind in his hair in The Crossing, but he does in book three. The music I play as I’m driving has James written all over it, especially “February Stars” by the Foo Fighters.

I pick up my son. He wants an entire meal at 4:30, and a water balloon fight in the backyard. He has way better aim than I do. By the time we’re finished I’m soaking wet and have to leave to tutor another student. I drop my son off at a friend’s house in Hyde Park, not too far from my house, and just blocks away from where James rented that garage apartment in graduate school. I’m tempted to drive up Avenue G, to see if I can spot the place. Instead my eye’s drawn to two men walking along the sidewalk to my left. I notice them just as they reach a place where hedges on either side of the sidewalk grow tall enough, and curve inward enough, to form a tunnel. So cool. I want to know what they’re doing in there, what’s being said. I want to know which of my characters would disappear into that tunnel, but I really don’t have to think for long.

It’s Joel and James. Of course.

I tutor. I pick up my son. He wants more food, and book time, and help falling asleep. I end up answering emails on my phone: I’m trying to get on a panel at the Texas Book Festival, and author Ann Weisgarber wants to update me on the interview questions I sent her. My friend has questions about her copyedits. My marketing expert needs me to write up a description of a special project I’ve undertaken. I feel like I should take advantage of the hour I have before sleep overtakes me to write a bit, but I’m not sure I’m in the right mental space. I spend my time texting with various friends. I like connection.

By midnight I’m done. I fall asleep thinking of that guy in the SUV this morning. I liked his arms. Where can I work that in?

Somewhere. Undoubtedly. At the very least it’s in my head.

Where I’m always writing, even when I’m not.

Copyright © 2014 Jennifer Hritz All Rights Reserved