Thursday 14 July 2011

Interview with Paula Marie Coomer

Today we have a guest, as Paula Marie Coomer stops by to share about her book Dove Creek and to chat about writing.

Interview with Paula Marie Coomer:

1- Why don’t you begin by sharing a little about yourself.

I am originally from Kentucky, the mother of two very handsome and brilliant sons and grandmother to three beautiful and brilliant grandchildren. I have been living in the West for more than 30 years. I teach English at Washington State University and am a program reviewer for Head Start, the federal preschool program. I am also a visiting scholar for the Idaho Commission on Libraries and a presenter at regional writing conferences and workshops.

2- How long have you been writing? Did you always desire to be a writer?

There is not one moment in my conscious life when I did not know I was different from everyone else. My earliest memory is of having pulled myself to stand while my mother, my father, and my father's stepsister talked about something very serious. Even at that very early age--9 months or so--I was aware of being apart, of being the one who was watching and recording.
I constructed my first book when I was 4. I was always telling stories to my sister, so I decided to make one of them into a book. I drew pictures, copied lines of text from the newspaper. Those lines of text did not match the story as it came from my mouth, but still, it LOOKED like a book, and the pages turned like a book. Beyond that, I was in trouble constantly in my early grades for writing stories and drawing pictures instead of my school work. Of course, my teachers couldn't exactly chastise me when they saw that I'd actually finished my assigned work already. Still, in my report cards they wrote, "Paula has difficulty staying on task." A few teachers gave me paper to take home at the end of the school year because we were very poor, and I think they felt sorry for me.
It took me a long time to get around to devoting myself to writing, however (I was in my thirties). Life almost seemed to be working against me taking that path. One misstep after another, mostly in form of abusive men who were determined to keep me from writing. As if they thought I was going to write about them.
Mainly I am interested in writing because I don't know how to paint and am too lazy to learn. Words let me create images, which is what I enjoy doing: saying a lot with a little, blurring the lines of reality and propriety. It's a drug. A means of being here without being here, a means of offering up various forms of salvation to the world without having to have a prophet or a god.

3- Please, tell us about your novel, Dove Creek.

Dove Creek is the story of a woman from the mountains of Kentucky who is cast on the hero's journey by life circumstances. She ends up as a nurse on an Indian reservation in Idaho. She is a mixed blood, as so many Americans from the Appalachian country are, and finds herself intrigued by the culture to the point of trying to fit her life into a myth known as "The Lesson of the Seven Directions" as a way of ferreting out her identity and dealing with the raising of her two children. The story winds its way through her work with both the Nez Perce and the Coeur d'Alene people and gives a close glimpse at the issues those people were facing in the early '90s. Much of the humor in the book is Native American-style humor. Indian people love to laugh. They also love to make you feel uncomfortable. Patricia Faye learns to deal with all that. She also struggles with self-destruction in the form of relationships with men, as well as alcohol. My sister has been a terrible alcoholic for much of her adult life. I have at times worried about the effect of alcohol in my own life, not because of my own consumption, but because I am drawn to alcoholic men. It was a place to work out my own pain over the issue.

4- What inspired you to write this book?

My first career was in public health nursing. I worked for a county public health department in Oregon for a few years and 5 years on 2 Indian reservations in Idaho. I loved those jobs very much and started to write a memoir of that time--in fact I did complete part of a manuscript for my MFA thesis, but it was too boring. Writing about myself was just flat boring, and I've always had such difficulty telling the story of any real event straight. I cannot not embellish. So here I was writing a memoir that was mostly made up stuff. I can't remember what I did yesterday. How on earth am I supposed to relay what happened 10 or 20 years ago? If I ever had to take the witness stand, I'd flunk. I'd be found in contempt. In fact, as a girl, I was whipped for embellishing events. My parents called it "telling stories," which was what they called, "lying," and lying was a mortal sin. You can see where my confusion began.
In truth, Patricia Faye's voice kept overwhelming mine. I robbed from my life to create some of the minutia of hers, but in the end I gave in to her and her story and left my own for another day.
I suppose the Lessons of the Seven Directions were the original inspiration. A native man really did tell me that story. It's one of the few scenes that is lifted directly from my life without much embellishment beyond the dialogue. My young son was not adjusting to life after we moved to Idaho and was quickly becoming a juvenile delinquent. I turned to my native co-workers for advice. I was very drawn to their spiritualism and wisdom. Sadly enough, I did have to take my son to live with his father. It took more than a decade for him to finally forgive me, but it saved him. He is now married, has a son of his own, a good career, serves his community. My sons and I had lived through some pretty difficult stuff. Using it as the basis for fiction was a way to control it. Infiltrating Patricia's life with my own pain and tragedy was a way of unburdening myself. It brought me great release to have the book finally published.

5- Does anything surprise you about the process of writing?

The fact that it's a new process, a new event, each time you sit down to the notebook or the computer. And the fact that it never gets any easier. It's work. It's much easier to dig a hole in the ground or re-plaster a wall or take care of dying patient than it is to write even the smallest poem. With each piece of work you come just a little closer to becoming your truest self. I did not expect, when I set out on this road, that the entire thing would be about becoming a better human, but I believe that has been the case for me. The ego has to dissolve in order for the art to emerge. Who knew?

6- What sort of research do you do for your books?

Lots. Tons. You cannot research enough. I read and read and read. I interview people. I go places. I write in and absorb those places. I watch films. I go out into the world and look for things, items, people, rooms, situations, feelings to incorporate into my stories. It is assemblage art. I let myself be drawn without questioning the feeling. I've learned after all this time that it is creative process--the need of the story--drawing me. It's a little like being in a trance. Things get a bit glowy and dim at the same time. Seriously. When I see something or hear something that belongs in a story, it's like the little girl in Bee Season, there's this aura that appears around the thing.
I have been known to grab my car keys and hit the road, following my instincts, until I observe or witness a piece of a scene or find an item or person to fit into whatever I'm writing. A simple example of this is the section of Dove Creek titled, "My Mother's Eyes Dancing." I took several round-trip bus trips across the country in the span of a year to write that section. I drafted and revised it on the bus, and by hand. I thought I'd die from the lousy food, and my knees have never recovered, but that particular section seems very alive and real, and I think it's because of how and where I wrote it. People want to think that those are my private journal entries, but they are actually the result of using the Greyhound bus as a writing salon.

7- What is your greatest challenge as a writer?

I love being in the writing space, so I don't think in terms of the challenges--although it is challenging to try to make other people understand what it is that I do and why I work an array of part-time jobs instead of a 40-hour-a-week career. Why I'm willing to go without money and material goods. Why I'm willing to carry a mountain of student loan debt. Publication is tough. It took me forever to understand that publication is not the goal. Creativity and living inside art and the effect that has on my day-to-day life, on my soul, and on the kind of human I am is what's important.
Sometimes the aloneness gets to me. There are long, dry spells. I'm not an award-winner. I'm like the woman who's always the bridesmaid. I'm always the award-nominee but never the winner. I've never gotten a grant. Never won a contest. No one really understands what the writing life is like for you--even other writers, so there's no one with whom to commiserate. A lot of writers drink a great deal, do drugs. You start the habit when you are young because it loosens the inhibitions, allows things to flow. Those days are over for me. It's safe to say writing has destroyed my body. In addition, I live in an area where there is virtually no high art or high culture. Yet I need to be here because I write about people who have no relationship to high culture. But I get to feeling starved sometimes, the only cure for which is a trip to a large city and an art museum. I don't have a writing group. My few soul-level friends live in other places. It does teach you to be emotionally self-sufficient. For a long time I was an affirmation junkie. I sought out the approval of others to the point of driving them away. The aloneness of writing teaches you to be a solitary oak. It's not a bad ability to have.

8- What advice would you give beginning writers?

You've likely heard it before, but don't quit your day job. I made that mistake. I left a good career and good pay, not realizing that, even as a single parent, I actually could just write at night and on weekends. Toni Morrison did it. Isabelle Allende did it. It's my Libra nature: all or nothing. That damned scale just wants to tip one way or another. I've lived on so very little money for so long. I made it very difficult on myself and my children and took on a lot of debt. Of course, who knows whether that suffering was necessary for my evolution as a writer and my sons evolution as people, but we'd already suffered enough for 10 people before I ever decided to become a writer.
But that is my advice. Keep your head and your wits about you. Be practical. If you really want to write, write. If you have to force yourself, then look for another goal. I couldn't and still can't stop myself from writing. I have scraps of paper and little notebooks all over the place. Bar napkins, backs of envelopes, you name it. I was shutting my office door and writing poems and stories at work. I had to take the leap. It was killing me not to.
Think twice about an MFA program. I really wish I'd done a PhD in literature instead. And READ! READ! for God's sake. Travel! If you're a college student, spend your time studying philosophy and history and psychology. Take an anatomy and physiology class. Study geology and astronomy. Biology. Literature. Come to know the workings of the earth and how humans work inside and out.
And then write your stuff and send it out. Get rejected. Over and over. That's the way you evolve. Let that anger and disappointment fuel the revision or the next piece of writing. Dove Creek took 15 years to write and went through 46 rejections. I shoved it into the back of the closet after revision number 14. The only reason it ever got published is because an acquaintance who is a local radio producer came to a reading of Summer of Government Cheese, my book of short stories (which Booktrope is getting ready to re-release), and asked me if I had anything of novel length. She wanted serialize a novel and make it the subject of a radio broadcast on the local indie station. What a fabulous exercise that was. Once I started reading into the microphone, I saw all those big holes. We postponed the recording of it, and I went home to roll up my sleeves. That final revision took a year. Then the recording took six months. Twenty-three months later there have been more than 4100 episodes of a somewhat different version of Dove Creek downloaded from their website. The number goes up every day. Word of it has spread mostly by word of mouth. It's what finally led me to Booktrope, my publisher, and the final--number 16--revision. Finally. Somebody understood Patricia Faye's story and was willing to invest in getting it out to the world.
Any way you cut it, it's going to take you at least 15 years to get any good, before you as an artist are fully formed. That's what everyone told me, and it's true. It was exactly 15 years from the time I decided to devote myself to writing full time until my first novel got published. I had dozens and dozens of single publications and two smaller books, but my goal was to write novels, and that's what it took: 15 years.

9- Who inspires you as an author?

Right now it's Lidia Yuknavitch. I've been screaming the title to her new book Chronology of Water every place I can. It's an astonishing memoir, which is a genre many of us who consider ourselves to be serious literary writers abhor. She cracked open the form and made it into a life and soul education in a book. She writes sex like nobody's business. She writes life like nobody's business.
I also love Lance Olsen's work. He was on my MFA committee. He's the Jimi Hendrix of experimental writing. He thinks there is nothing you cannot do with words and that form is for pouring cement. He's now teaching at the University of Utah. If I weren't already fifty-five years old, I'd go do a PhD in experimental writing there.
And Ed McClanahan. He's knows how to play with words. And he is the king of quirky characters. His work makes me laugh out loud. No one else does that.
Others--Carole Maso was an early inspiration. Flannery O'Connor. Kafka. Ray Federman. Rilke. Alice Munro. Kesey. Charles Bukowsi. Hunter S. Thompson. Plath. Anne Sexton. Dorothy Allison. I guess that's a rather eclectic list, but, then, everything about me is eclectic.

10- What’s next for you?

I'm returning to my experimental roots somewhat in a new novel called Jagged Edge of the Sky. It does what you are not supposed to do: it has too many characters, too many points of view, and time is pretty much relative. It may never even see print, but I don't care. I love it. It's been through several processes, including a draft in which I'd decided to try to go mainstream. My experience in having published Dove Creek has shown me that I don’t belong in the mainstream. I'm not sure what kind of writer I am, but it's not mainstream. What is the point in writing in some kind of predictable form? I want to write books that make people go, what the f---? and throw it down. And then pick it up again because they can't help themselves.
Meantime, true to form--I always seem to be working on several things at once--I have a new book of poems, am midway through a new collection of short stories, and am in the thinking and research phase of a third novel, which I've actually been thinking about and researching on the side for three years now. I had hoped to start writing on it this fall, but I don't know if that will be the case. Maybe by winter. I have to wrap up all these other projects first.
And there's this little issue of the room at the top of our staircase I'm turning into a writing studio. I took it down to the bare bones--stripping 100 years of wallpaper--and sculpted plaster in its place, painted the entire thing, walls and ceilings the color of earth. The floor will be the color of sea glass. So it'll be like being in an inverted hole in the earth with the sky at my feet. It feels safe in there. Like nothing can get to me. A writer needs nothing if not to feel safe.

Paula's Website:

1 comment:

Tina-Sue said...

Great interview!
Wishing you much success with Dove Creek, Paula :o)

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