Dyson shooting a black powder rifle at Bannock, a Montana ghost town.
"If everybody loves you, then you probably aren’t that interesting." That's some of the best author advice I've heard. It comes from Sharpie-art wearer, code-lover, Marmalade Sunlover, Alaskan-at-heart Cindy Dyson. On September 21, 2009, we first ran this interview with Dyson, whose novel And She Was sparked lots of lively discussion at our online book club the following week.
Almost a year later, Dyson contacted us to say that she'd be in Anchorage over the holdiays and would love to teach a course for us, with all proceeds donated back to support programs for writers and books through our non-profit. The holidays aren't normally prime time for instruction, but how could we turn down a gift like that? I'm thrilled at the chance to learn her perspective on the fine art of micro-editing, and of course I can't wait to see how she makes good on her intention to "flog everyone toward Whoville, where all the happy authors join hands and sing about their six-figure advances."
We still have openings in Dyson's class, and we'd love to have you join us on Dec. 22 at 6:30 p.m. Give yourself a break from the holiday madness and on this Black Monday of cyber-shopping, do something nice for your writer-self by signing up today for Cindy's "Writer v. Grinch: The Fine Art of Micro-Editing." And remember, your entire course fee ($29 for members; $35 for non-members) goes to support future programs at 49 Writers
And She Was began as most good novels do, with a compelling character who wouldn’t let you rest until you told her story. What challenges did you face in the transition from journalism and non-fiction work-for-hire to writing a novel that demanded to be written?
It was weird switching to fiction. I’d find myself fingering the phone when I’d write, trying to figure out what source to call to find out what happened next. I’d laugh at myself but couldn’t stop. I remember the afternoon when it hit me that I could just make stuff up. I looked out the window at piled snow and felt exhilarated, free but also a little scared.
Of course, I did a great deal of research for the book, so the researcher/reporter side of me had plenty of work to do. I like including a strong nonfiction component in my fiction. If I’m not feeling particularly creative one day, I can use my writing time to research. The best of both worlds.
When did you live in Alaska? How long did you stay? What were your early impressions of the place, and how did those change?
My folks moved to Alaska from Seattle in the dead of winter when I was three. I remember peeing out the door of an old Cadillac. Other than my senior year in high school, when I went to live with my recently widowed grandmother in northern California, I lived in Alaska until I was twenty-two. I went off to finish college in Missouri, got my first reporting job in upstate New York, and then followed my husband to a job in Montana. He’s from Alaska, too, and both our families all live up there. We come up every Christmas and every other summer, and we both think we’ll end up back there for good someday.
I had no idea Alaska was unique until I began living elsewhere. When I moved to Missouri, I remember having this ah-ha moment about mountains. I would get so lost in the flatlands of Missouri, nothing but another water tower to orient me. And the feel. I realized then that living among mountains gave me a sense of being held by the land, cradled. Flatland felt more like I was placed on the land, set down all on my own. I also never knew how much an ocean nearby gave me a sense of security. There’s this little thing in me that gets nervous living inland. I just got back from a trip to Seattle and made a beeline for the harbor to get that feeling of landscape security back — if only for a morning.
And then there’s the people. I’m terribly unaware of myself at times, forgetting that I haven’t put on a bra or shoes or am still sporting some Sharpie-art on my face from my son’s latest artistic phase when I go out. People in the Lower 48 tend to notice this stuff more readily than Alaskans. In Alaska I rarely feel like an oddball. I think Alaskans are odder in general so you just get the sense that the small stuff doesn’t matter. I hate that I know this and that it makes an impact on me.
Oh, and the wrinkles. As I age, I’m more and more thankful I grew up in Alaska where sun damage is tough to achieve. I’ve only got one wrinkle so far!
I love your website almost as much as your book – not just the great effects, but the effort you seem to have taken to show your spirit. How tough was that to accomplish, and does the effort pay off?
Oh, thank you. I love it too, although right now it’s in transition as I gear it toward Novel Two. (Rough draft almost done.) When ASW sold, I was just going to hire a web designer to give me something arty and moody. I found three I liked and asked for presentations. I told each one, “Nobody needs my site so I want you to feel free to play, to do weird things.” Every one of them came back with a design that was not much more than a brochure on the web - pretty brochures, but nothing that took advantage of the difference between paper and electrical pulses.
I was disappointed, and my husband said, “Well why don’t you do it yourself?” I looked at him like he’d asked me to try those icky thong underwear again. “Why don’t you do your own laundry?” I said. But it got me thinking and poking around. I bought a couple thick manuals — few things I love more than a ponderous manual, a full bottle of wine, and a long lonely night — and started through the tutorials. I discovered I loved coding. I made a few play sites hand coding, then moved on to Dreamweaver and Flash. Perhaps even more than manual pounding, I loved the discussions with my husband about technology and psychology and expectations and desires. We had so much fun doing it. Frustrating at times, but the net is full of geeky esoteric discussions of coding minutia so the resources are right there.
My happiest web moment came when HarperCollins called saying they were trying to encourage their authors to have more engaging websites and had picked two of their best author sites. I was one of them. They wanted to know my designer so they could steer other authors to him or her. I jumped up and down and yelled, “It was me! It was me!” until they hung up.
As for the site selling more books, I’m afraid it was a big waste of time. I loved doing it and am excited as I work on the next one. But it’s more a guilty pleasure than a smart business move. Perhaps it has been useful for people who’ve already read the book to find out more. But to tell the truth I rarely get hits on the pages that detail WWII in the Aleutians, or the Elbow Room, or Aleut history. Most of my hits came to the page on which I gave advice on query letters.
For authors thinking of making or upgrading a site, I say do what is fun for you rather than what you think you’re supposed to do.
What’s your response to critics who fault writers for setting their stories in cultures that are not their own?
I think this is a legitimate criticism. And it actually gets to the heart of what I strove to bring out in the novel. I wanted to see what would happen when a lost woman from one culture (my own, at least in part) confronted another culture, particularly the women from another culture. It was the clash that I was interested in. In this case, Brandy’s culture was failing her, or perhaps she was failing it. Her family culture certainly failed her. It’s rare that stuck people get free. Often it takes a tidal, sweeping change, and few changes are as dramatic as being tossed into an unknown culture. If she wasn’t going to get unstuck in the Aleutians among the Aleut women, she was probably doomed. From my white-girl POV, they had what she needed.
I read voraciously about the Aleuts, had lived in the Aleutians a few months, went back for research, interviewed sociologists, Aleuts, archeologists, but my understanding of that culture was necessarily skewed. Especially when it came to writing about the Aleut culture at and just after contact times because so little is known. Aleuts themselves lost too many people too quickly to understand or recapture that way of life.
For me, I made a decision early on that although there may be oodles of stuff I could never understand, there was one thing I understood very well. What it means to be a mother. I was working on an article about Aleutian birds for a birding magazine, and as usual did way more research than necessary. I was obsessed. I kept trying to sell more Aleutian articles but couldn’t find any takers. I began to wonder if the only way to make a buck off my obsession was to write a book.
I was pregnant with my first baby and remember sobbing as I read about the conquest history of the Aleutians. The mothers who saw their babies’ heads bashed against rocks by the invading Russians. The mothers who watched their children starve because the men had been enslaved to hunt seals far away.
I believed then and I believe now that motherhood crosses pretty much every cultural line. I believe I know how those Aleut mothers felt. And the feeling only intensified when Simon was born and I was holding him. So to those critics I would say, “Yes, you’re right. There is so much we can’t understand about the ‘other,’” and then I would quickly add, “And there are a few things that we understand only too well.”
My favorite bad review is from an Aleut woman on amazon. She takes me to task for making all the Aleuts drunks and whores. I refute her criticism by saying, most of the white folks are drunks and whores as well, and pointing to Anna and Ida, stalwart Aleut women whom I certainly looked up to. It’s okay to call a drunk a drunk, and it’s okay to write about them. We are often most critical of what we fear in ourselves.
It is an embarrassment and a shame that so many of America’s indigenous peoples struggle with drugs and liquor. It’s true and it’s awful. I’m not going to be contrite for this bit of truth. The truth is the beginning of freedom, and, yes, it feels awful. In ASW, I was most fascinated by the folks who were willing to go there, to face truth, and to do something about it because once you do, the moral lines get murky and everything gets more interesting.
What advice would you give to writers looking to write a “break-out” novel?
Ummm, that’s a new question for me.
For me, I think it’s been important to decide to trust myself. As I said before, I’m sometimes a little odd, and I have to remind myself that if I’ve grappled with an issue, or respond emotionally to an event or idea, it’s likely lots of other people do too. So I’d say, when you write, trust that your thoughts and feelings will resonate with readers. Be you, to put it succinctly, and don’t coat you with a bunch of explanation. Trust yourself and trust readers to get you. Not everyone will, and you don’t want them to. If everybody loves you, than you probably aren’t that interesting.
My favorite example of this trusting yourself bit is in a scene about Brandy using toilet paper to ascertain the level of her intoxication. If the paper goes all ribbonish on her and she becomes entranced by the flow and wave, she knows she's drunk. This one is straight from my life. I don’t slur or stumble or do anything that would show intoxication, so I’ve used toilet paper as my gauge. I assumed, when I wrote, that I was just weird. But when the book came out, I was amazed by the number of readers who commented on that passage with versions of, “Oh, I do that. I didn’t think anyone else did.” Heartwarming in a dive-bar-sort-of-way, and a great reminder to trust ourselves when we write.
Of course read good books, authors who are way better than you’ll ever be. Love them. Read poetry; write poetry, but don’t let anyone see it.
And maybe most important, get a killer agent. As I was polishing up ASW, I started reading all the how-to books about agents, the publishing process, so I knew my chances of success were 1.5 percent. Dismal. I also knew that if I could get an agent, I’d boost that chance to 50 percent. So I spent months on the agent hunt. I came up with a query writing process that I think is pretty unique. A couple months ago I self published a little booklet about my query ideas with print on demand through amazon. (The Last Query if you’re in the midst of the query process. It’s a very methodical, analytical approach and not for everyone.)
That’s where I went right, taking the time to master that step. I think a good deal of good manuscripts remain in desk drawers because writers didn’t force themselves out of their comfort zone and into mastering this step.
Oh, and my favorite writing book: The Writer’s Journey. It takes Joseph Campbell’s ideas about the hero’s journey and applies it to writing a novel. Of course, Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.
Tell us about your work in progress. Do you agree with the old adage about second books being tougher to write than first books?
Yes, and I would add that they’re often crap. I don’t know how many times I’ve fallen for a first novelist, eagerly snatched up the hardback of the second and been disappointed. Something happens. After the first book, your agent and editor let a polite time go by, then they start asking what you’re working on and when they can see it. This is, of course, while you still have a pile of hand wash and dry clean-only clothes on the bedroom floor from all the spiffy, impractical clothes you bought for your tour and appearances. You’re still trying to remember to buy more Woolite, and they want the outline for your next book.
And then there’s the bit when you sit down to the first blank page of awesome Novel Two, and you think, “Shit, this may actually be read.” You did not have that thought with the first one. You think about “readers” instead of characters and themes, and just when your mindscape enters your story and you’re in the bookworld, you remember there will be readers. Eeek. You have to drink two glasses of wine to get them out of your head. And then you can’t remember where you were going and you just decide to play your guitar or make your husband dance with you in the garage. It is ugly.
So I wrote a whole Novel Two, read the rough draft, and decided it was classic Novel Two and should not escape the office. It lacked heart, too intellectual, too burdened with being a smarty-pants. A couple weeks later, during a misadventure with two girlfriends and a bad band, the idea for Novel Two came. Novel Two. One that had heart from the get-go and now actually has some plot to carry the blood.
Novel Two.One I’m calling something like Cowgirl Gothic or Gothic Cowgirl or Girl Band.
It's a modern western and gothic mixed kind of thing about four college friends who accidentally save an abducted girl, but chicken out on both the girl and their friendship. Twenty years later, they're 40ish, relationships falling apart, lives plugged up by failure and fear. Said rescued girl is on a mission to find and fix the women who saved her. Because of her manic meddling, the women find each other again, start a girl band, save a bunch of hippy vortex worshipers, and confront the baggage they've carried from the night they failed to be true heroes for the girl and for each other.
The research is a hoot. I just got back from a Pink concert in Seattle, and three friends and I have formed a real girl band — Marmalade Superlove (I know). We’re planning our first open mic appearance for October.
I live primarily in my head, and getting into music (I play electric guitar) demands I engage senses I’ve let go dormant. I feel with this book that I’m fulfilling one of my intentions, expressed most aptly from a song (Don’t Forget the Sunscreen), “Do something every day that scares you.” I’m doing that and it feels good, like the feeling you get after the bungee jump is over.