Category Archives: Speakers

Belle Boggs

A Richmond native, author Belle Boggs grew up in King William County. Her first book, Mattaponi Queen, was published in June 2010 by Graywolf Press. Mattaponi Queen won the Bakeless Prize, was short-listed for the 2010 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award, was one of Kirkus Review’s top fiction debuts for 2010, and is a finalist for the 2011 Library of Virginia Literary Awards for Fiction.

JRW Board member, Gigi Amateau, recently posed these questions to the Tidewater author. Belle Boggs will speak at the 2011 James River Writers Conference.

Gigi: Belle, I really loved Mattaponi Queen. Each story is so distinct, yet interconnected with the other stories in the collection and well-rooted its setting – King William County.  Even those that physically take place outside King William are grounded in the place. Did you envision a book of interwoven stories or did the book start with one story idea and grow from there?

Thank you, Gigi—it means a lot to me to have readers who know and appreciate the setting for Mattaponi Queen. The first story I wrote was “Youngest Daughter,” which happens to be the last story in the collection. It grew out of a poem I’d written in Gary Sange’s advanced poetry workshop as an undergraduate at VCU. He took all of us to Walkerton, my hometown, and matched us with a local resident (Gary lives in Walkterton, too). I spent the day with Wilbur White, who used to deliver eggs. When I got to graduate school, in California, Geoffrey Wolff scrawled across a letter of introduction, “Are you lonesome for the Tidewater?” and I felt surprised—it hadn’t occurred to me to miss my home yet.


I didn’t begin the other stories until years later, when I was teaching elementary school in Brooklyn. I think it was after I’d written “Good News for a Hard Time” that I realized I wasn’t done with some of the characters. I began the collection without thinking about publication, but it was comforting to return to some of the same characters in other stories, so the collection grew with my interest in those characters.

Gigi: Are there any stories that you wrote but left out of the book?

Yes—I wrote a few short shorts, which helped me define for myself the themes of the book. Some of them I liked a lot, but they weren’t necessary when I was putting the manuscript together.

Gigi: As a native of a Mississippi county quite similar [ but sans river] to the setting of Mattaponi Queen, I appreciate the respect and affection that you hold for the rural south, which is so evident in how fully and thoughtfully you write your characters. Sometimes, I read characters from the rural south that I feel are flat and one dimensional, not much more than stereotypes. How do you approach characterization, particularly in the short story form?

I love to read. I’m a big fan of Southern short story writers who handle their characters in subtle or unexpected ways—Edward P. Jones, Flannery O’Connor (of course), Jayne Anne Phillips, Bobbie Ann Mason, Tony Earley, Jill McCorkle. The writing I like the best allows some space for humor, and I think that’s key to interesting, rounded characterization.


I also love living in the rural South, the friendliness of the people and the pace of life. I live in rural North Carolina now, but have found pockets of what felt like Southern life in Brooklyn and D.C. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always looked for that—somewhere people will nod their heads and say hello, or tell you some odd story while you wait for the train.


Gigi: The characters who live in Mattaponi Queen are wildly diverse – young, old, male, female, transgender, Indian, black, white, poor, wealthy.  When you feel called to write a character way different from you and your life experiences, how do you approach that from a craft perspective and also from just a personal, human perspective? Is there a character you won’t write? Do you think about these things?

That’s a good question. I try to write about people who are in some ways like people I’ve known in real life, and I tried, with this collection, to represent the community where I grew up. As a teacher of everything from first grade to GED to college, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a lot of different people, and sometimes they find their way—sort of—into my writing. For example, Marcus grew out of worry for some of my former students: would they be let down by the adults in their life? Would they persevere, if they were let down? Could they rise above their circumstances? Lila, from “Opportunity,” grew out of fascination with the principal of my school in Bed-Stuy, a beautiful woman who was so mean and cold we called her Darth Vader behind her back. Internally of course the characters are a lot like me. I relate strongly to Loretta and Ronnie, but also to Melinda, George, and Jeremy.

Gigi: The pacing of Mattaponi Queen made for a fantastic reading experience. For a good ways through the book the stories felt warm and gentle – like a lazy river lapping at my ankles. Other stories most definitely felt like I was shooting through Class IV rapids! How did you design the pacing?

As an avid kayaker, I love this question! I didn’t think about the pacing of the collection very much as I was writing each story, as I mostly worked on each story one at a time. Putting together the collection, though, I had to shift the order of the stories until it felt right—not just revealing the characters in a way that made sense, but also modulating the pacing so that, hopefully, the reader has a sense of place and time and themes.


Gigi: When I think about the common elements of each story, the King William County world is one of them. I definitely feel that I’m reading about a community of people all living, working, loving, trying together. But, I also feel like the idea of ‘leaving’ can be traced through each story – leaving King William or leaving employment, leaving addiction, leaving a limb, leaving gender. What do you see as the common themes or central theme in the collection?

I think leaving is definitely one. When I began the collection, living in New York, I was starting to come to terms with what it meant to be apart from and a part of that place. I think anxiety and helplessness is another: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had started, and people I knew from home were getting called up. I’ve always felt anxiety about the environment, particularly around the Mattaponi River, and so that fear is part of the book, too, along with gratitude for the Mattaponi Indians, who demonstrate that we can live in harmony with the river.


One of the stories is named for the Bob Dylan song, “Buckets of Rain,” and his lines, “Life is sad, life is a bust, all ya can do is do what you must,” apply to so many of my characters. Many of them are really talented people—George, the dreams-deferred custodian and new homeowner, Loretta the nurse, Ronnie the painter, Marcus as a runner and even Skinny as a musician and chef—but things have gotten in the way of the lives they thought they’d lead, and now they’re making the best of what they have. They’re surviving.


Gigi: You teach writing to middle school and high school students. This summer you were in Richmond, teaching with Richmond Young Writers. What do you observe are the biggest challenges that young writers face?  What have you seen work in the classroom that helps students get excited about starting to write or most encourage them to continue to grow in craft?

I think the biggest challenge for my students is finding enough time to read widely, to find literature that sparks a desire to write. I tell my students that my greatest matchmaking pleasure (other than finding someone the perfect dog) is putting just the right book in their hands at just the right time. I can look on my bookshelf today and see books suggested to me by Pat Hoppe at West Point High School, Sally Doud and Marita Golden at VCU, and Michelle Latiolais from UC-Irvine, books I still read for inspiration. I try to do the same thing for my students, introducing them to writers they might not find in a textbook, and this year my goal is to help them make more space for passionate, independent reading.

Gigi: What are you working on right now?

A novel! Two novels? One is set in Richmond in the 1920’s, and the other is contemporary. I also love writing essays and have just finished editing one for Orion magazine.




Filed under Belle Boggs, Speakers

Robert Goolrick: The Only Thing That Really Matters is Goodness

James River Writers is honored to host Robert Goolrick at our upcoming 2011 October Conference. Goolrick is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, The End of the World as We Know It. His first novel, A Reliable Wife, was a #1 New York Times bestseller for many months, and winner of both the NAIBA and Book of the Month Club First Fiction Award. He lives in White Stone, Virginia.

To get a sense of what we can anticipate from him, check out his brief interview below with Virginia Pye, former JRW Chair, novelist and short story writer. Even his interview is a gem of the written and spoken word.


Pye: Robbie, can you tell us what inspired you to write A Reliable Wife—were you interested in exploring a particular voice, setting, or plot idea? And did that impetus help sustain your vision throughout?

 Goolrick: The only thing that really matters is goodness, and I wanted to write a novel about goodness and redemption. It occurred to me that, in order to do so, I had to begin with people who were NOT good, and see if I could try to save them. I began with a vision of a woman in the garden, standing still as the garden came to life around her. I didn’t know who she was, or how she got there, but I knew that’s where I wanted her to be in the end. The difficult progress of the novel was in figuring out who she was and how she got there and how this miracle came to be.

Pye: A Reliable Wife has a complicated plot with remarkable psychological twists. Did these reversals come as a surprise to you as you wrote or did you know before you wrote it how the characters would betray one another?

 Goolrick: All I knew was that the characters would be tortured souls who yearned for goodness and simplicity the way seeds underground grow toward the light. I had the basic structure of the plot in mind when I started, and so I knew there would be reversals and shifts in the currents of the characters’ lives and minds. What they were going to be was a continuing revelation to me. I thought of the myth of Phaedra, who is sent by her husband Theseus to retrieve his son, Hippolytus.  The plot of my novel parallels the structure of that myth.

 Pye: Your remarkably honest and powerful memoir, The End of the World as We Know It: Scenes from a Life, shows periods of your life when you struggled to keep sober and sane. Has the process of writing itself helped you in any way recover from past hurts?

 Goolrick: My life has been a continuing effort simply to speak, to tell some sort of truth about myself and how I see the world. So, in that sense, writing is a very liberating thing to do — to be able to say to a complete stranger things I could never say to my best friend has been a great blessing.

 Pye: The Reliable Wife and The End of the World as We Know It are quite different books and yet both reveal the abuse of power in intimate relationships between people. You and your characters endured suffering as you faced questionable, even dangerous, love. I wonder if you if feel that these two books come from a similar well of experience.

 Goolrick: Both books have in common the theme of abuse. All of the principle characters in WIFE have been abused as children, as was I. The two books simply are an examination of the lives such children live as adults — of how they try again and again to return themselves to a state of childhood innocence they never actually knew.

 Pye: We all carry stories around with us from our experiences and yet perhaps not all stories are worthy of memoir. Can you offer advice to newer writers on how to tell if their stories suit the memoir form? And how can an aspiring writer determine if fiction or non-fiction is the best avenue for their story?

 Goolrick: I think every writer really only has one or two things to say — however, those few things can take innumerable and varied forms. Writing a memoir is like writing a long and honest letter to a close friend. It should have that same immediacy and lack of self-consciousness, and that honesty.  Writing a novel is more like composing a grand opera — you have to make everything up, write the libretto, compose the music, even paint the scenery and sew the costumes. In the end, both forms have the same message — here I am, this is me — but the form it takes depends on how much of yourself you want to insert publicly into your work. I think everybody should write a memoir. Not everybody should write a novel.

 Pye: Will you share with us something about your discipline of writing? Do you write daily? When you are working intensively on a book do you sacrifice other aspects of your life?

 Goolrick: When I begin a novel, I rarely actually sit down at the keyboard. Walker Percy said he wrote because he wanted to find out what happens. I write because I don’t understand why people do the things they do. So, starting a novel, I tell myself the same story over and over and over, listening to the voices, seeing the pictures in my head, until I have a pretty clear idea of who these people are and why they do what they do. Then I sit down to write, a little at a time, and then in larger and larger chucks, until I am, by the end, working sixteen hours a day. I do literally nothing else. The only people I really want to see or talk to are the people in my book. And, when the book is done, I miss them immediately.

 Pye: I gather you’ve finished a new novel.  Congratulations! I and many others are excited to read it: can you give us some hints about this latest work?

Goolrick: The new novel is called HEADING OUT TO WONDERFUL. It’s based on a true story. It’s set in a small Virginia town in 1948. It is also about the struggle for goodness, and it is very complicated. I wrote it because I heard a story years ago about something that happened to a friend of mine as a child, and the story fascinated me, and I just had to understand something about why what happened happened.

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Filed under Robert Goolrick, Speakers

Appelt and Westrick on Writing

Speaking at this year’s conference will be Kathi Appelt, the Newbery Honor Award-winning author of THE UNDERNEATH. In 2010, A. B. Westrick was Appelt’s student in the MFA program in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Appelt guided Westrick through revisions on a young adult novel, and the polished manuscript got picked up by Viking and will be released in 2012. Westrick recently caught up with Appelt via email…


A.B. Westrick: Kathi, how are you doing? With our October conference coming up, I think about you more than you know! I’d like to give our attendees a taste of the wisdom you bring to the writing process. Can we talk about craft a little bit here? Take the language in THE UNDERNEATH, for example. It’s mesmerizing. I assume you read your manuscript out loud while drafting that novel. Can you tell us a little bit about your process there?

Kathi Appelt: Yes, I always read my work out loud, regardless of whether it’s a picture book or a novel. Reading out loud allows me to check for pacing, rhythm, sound. And it’s also a great way to catch mistakes, both grammatical mistakes and things like unnecessary repetition. It really forces you to pay close attention. I usually do this late in the process. Once I’ve read and reread a manuscript a million times, I tend to zone out. Reading it out loud makes me “see” the story again.

ABW: I know you’re the Queen of Revision. We’ll talk about revision during a couple of the conference sessions, but for now — remind me — didn’t you tell me that you rewrote THE UNDERNEATH eleven times before it was ready for publication? Or was it fourteen times? What on earth was going on that it needed that much revision?

KA: Oh, if only it had been only eleven or fourteen times. I actually printed out fifteen drafts, but the real number of revised drafts was closer to 30 when all was said and done. I just kept pecking away at it. What was going on? Where to start? There were the characters that I wrote out of the story, an entire story line that eventually had to go. There was the chronology that kept getting out of whack. There were the extraneous subplots that needed whacking. Whew! And then there was just me who seems rather slow at times.

ABW: I read your post on the Pippin Properties blog. You noted: “where the heart cracks open is where our deepest longings lie, and that is what Story is all about. It’s where our characters ache for something that is missing…. Come on then, let’s follow. Let’s go there.” I love that, and my question is: how do you go there? How do you go about digging into that deep emotional space? Got any good exercises that would help a writer crack open his/her own heart?

KA: I don’t really have exercises per se, but I do know that if I seem to keep dodging something, if my character keeps avoiding facing something really difficult, then it’s likely that there’s something I need to consider at a deep, emotional level. I call it “filling the hole in my heart.” At any given time, we all have something that we’re missing, or someone who we’re missing, and if we listen to what our hearts are saying, then we can see that hole. Mostly, we tend to cover it up, but if we really take a chance and uncover it, then we’ll find a deep well of emotion upon which to draw. I recently heard Patti Gauch give a talk at Chautauqua and she called it “going to the well.” I find that listening to music can sometimes take me there. Then, I consider my character and figure out what it is that he or she is missing too, and go from there.

ABW: Let’s touch on plot structure. Fiction-writers learn to figure out what their characters want, and let the desire line drive the plot. You’ve noted that in addition to desire lines, a writer must know his/her protagonist’s controlling belief. For example, in your novel, KEEPER, young Keeper’s desire is to find her mother, but the plot is driven by Keeper’s controlling belief that her mother is a mermaid. My question is: aren’t there some perfectly good novels in which the protagonist doesn’t have a clear desire or controlling belief? Why are these so important?

KA: It’s likely there are some okay novels out there that don’t have a clear desire line or controlling belief, but story is all about desire and at the same time, facing our deepest beliefs. I can’t think of a “perfectly good” novel that ignores one or both of those. Even perfectly bad novels usually have a character who wants something and goes for it, and is propelled by something that he or she believes in.

ABW: You published THE UNDERNEATH and KEEPER after years of writing picture books. What is different about the process of writing a novel versus writing a picture book? And what are you working on now?

KA: The primary difference is that I can keep the plot and general idea of a picture book pretty much in my head. I can visualize the whole thing. But with a novel, I can’t keep all the various story lines in my head at once, so it requires much more in the way of planning and shaping. I always use some form of an outline with a novel, even though it might be a loosy-goosy sort of outline. It helps me find my way to the end. I’m working on several projects right now — a couple of picture books, a middle grade novel and a YA novel. Not all at once. I share my desk with them one at a time.

ABW: Thanks for considering these questions! Can’t wait for October…

KA: Me too. I’m looking forward to seeing you in just a few short weeks.


NOTE: It’s not too late to see wonderful speakers at the James River Conference! Sign up today!


Filed under A.B. Westrick, Author/Illustrators, Kathi Appelt, Kid Lit, Reasons to attend the conference, Speakers

From Each Side of the Wall: Tayari Jones on Silver Sparrow

Today on the blog, JRW Board member, Gigi Amateau, interviews #JRWC11 author, Tayari Jones about her third novel, Silver Sparrow. Set in a middle-class neighborhood in Atlanta in the 1980s, the novel revolves around James Witherspoon’s families – the public one and the secret one. When the daughters from each family meet and form a friendship, only one of them knows they are sisters. It is a relationship destined to explode when secrets are revealed and illusions shattered. As Jones explores the backstories of her rich and flawed characters, she also reveals the joy, and the destruction, they brought to each other’s lives. Of Silver Sparrow, Kirkus Reviews says, “Jones beautifully evokes Atlanta in the 1980s while creating gritty, imperfect characters whose pain lingers in the reader’s heart.”

I had the great pleasure of meeting Tayari Jones in 2008 at the Key West Literary Seminar. Tayari and I had each been invited to speak and read at this gloriously supportive and celebratory conference for readers and writers. The theme that year was New Voices. I remember thinking: Tayari Jones may be considered a “new voice” today, but soon her work will be celebrated far and wide. Her reading moved me to complete stillness. To me, she writes with such pure intent, thoughtfulness, and clarity. It’s like her heart and her mind and her voice are all perfectly integrated, all working in unison. I am both envious and grateful, wishing I knew the secret to writing with such power and so grateful that her stories are now part of me. They can be part of you, too!

Gigi:  Tayari, I enjoyed every page of Silver Sparrow.  The entire story seems constructed around secrets – secret sisters, secret love, beauty secrets, family secrets, secret stashes, secret promises, mother-daughter secrets – and how, so often, we put our secrets on display despite our best efforts to conceal them.

Tayari: Thank you so much for being such a generous reader. This book took a lot out of me so I am so grateful to hear that it connects with you.  The thing about secrets is that we all have many many secrets and by secrets I mean things that we keep private.  And yes, our secrets are often revealed but sometimes we end up taking our secrets to our graves. I am a little on the fence on the subject.  Deception, of course, is terrible, but aren’t we all entitled to private thoughts and feelings?

G:  Oh yes, I think we are most definitely entitled to our private feelings and thoughts. I imagine Miss Bunny took a few secrets to her grave. Still, I’m astonished at the complexity of the story in relation to every character’s secrets, and how you revealed them over the course of the story. Can you tell me a little about how you layered all of these secrets? Was it sort of organic – occurring as you moved deeper into the story? I’m imagining that some secrets surprised even you, the author.
T: Yes, there was one secret in the book that surprised even me.  When I wrote the chapter in which the secret was revealed, I thought.. Well, look what we have here. That explains a lot!  I am a writer who does not outline.  As a writer, I like to have the same breathless feeling as a reader, eager to see what will happen next.  It’s what keeps me going.  For me, writing the first couple drafts is very organic, but in the revising, I get more deliberate.  I write the third draft with the awareness of knowing all the secrets already, so I can give hints and such.


G:  Early in the book, Dana’s father, James, tells her, “Dana, you are the one that’s a secret.” Dana’s mother, Gwen, tries to reset the encounter by taking Dana to “surveil” on James Witherspoon’s other family, who have no idea about Gwen and Dana. Gwen then tells Dana, “You are an unknown. That little girl there doesn’t even know she has a sister. You know everything.” Gwen draws a distinction between secret and unknown. What is Gwen’s goal in taking Dana to watch the other family?
T: I think Gwen wants to make sure that her own daughter doesn’t start to think of James’s “legitimate” daughter as some larger than life figure.  She needs Dana to see that Chaurisse is not better than she is, just more privileged.  This is the real gift that Gwen gives her daughter.  She wants her to see that it’s just society that says she’s a dirty secret. 

G:   Silver Sparrow is so rich in setting. Its cultural, historical, and social details keep your readers totally engaged. For example, Gwen Yarboro and James Witherspoon meet on the day of Dr. King’s funeral. Mary Woodson, of the 1974 hot-grits assault on Al Green, comes into Laverne’s beauty shop to get her hair done. For me, your characters’ interactions with events of the times really enriched the setting of the book. How did you make those selections?
T: Well, for me history intersects with our real lives all the time.  It’s not a writerly device for me.  My first novel, LEAVING ATLANTA, is about my experiences growing up in Atlanta during the city’s child murders in which thirty children were killed.  This is history, but for me it’s also as simple as memory.  If James and Gwen met in Atlanta in 1968, leaving out the death of Dr. King would be a willful omission.  I teach in an MFA program and I am always urging my students to set a story in a specific year and figure out how the moment in history affects the story.  People think this is only important when you write about the distant past, but it is true for every story.  I love looking in the almanac for the year the story is set to make sure I didn’t leave out anything good.

G: Why did it work best to tell this story in the 80s as compared to the 21st Century?
T: I decided to set the story in the 1980s because I was a teenager in those years. Part of my work as a writer is to leave a fictional history of a world I know to be real.

G: There are so many interesting references in Silver Sparrow: to a Judy Blume book, to Richmond, Virginia, to Opelika, Alabama, Debarge, Smokey Robinson, and so many more. I love that an author from Atlanta would refer to Richmond as a metropolis. Often, these little details are revealed with such affection that they feel to me like tributes. Are some of these references important to you even beyond their usefulness as markers of time or place? [btw – I will always be grateful to Opelika for having a 24-hour Starbucks. On our way to the Final Four in Houston this past March – Go Rams! – Opelika saved me at a crucial driving point.]
T: Opelika has a 24 hour Starbucks? Times they are a changin’.  I always love Opelika because my uncle married not one, but two women from that town. I always imagined it as the place where lovely women are born and raised.  When I mention details in a story it’s because they feel true to me.  I don’t plan them out or check them off on a list.  If they are tributes it’s because these places matter to me as a person, not just as a writer.

G:  My favorite character in the book is Uncle Raleigh. He’s so silent, but so strong. You know his mind is always working overtime. Still waters run deep, deep, deep with him. How did your portrayal of Raleigh change and grow as you drafted, revised, and completed Silver Sparrow?
T: Good old Uncle Raleigh.  He is a character who came in whole cloth from my imagination. He doesn’t remind me of anyone I know in real life.  What really surprised me was when I realized that he is also the uncle of my protagonist in my second novel, The Untelling!  In the opening of that novel, Aria mentions her grandmother, Lula.  Well, Lula is Raleigh’s mother.  But since Raleigh, like Dana, is a silver sparrow, he doesn’t know his extended family.


G: Another secret! Wow, that’s a huge revelation. I read and loved The Untelling several years ago, but you just moved it back to the top of my reading stack.  What is it that makes Raleigh so lovable?
T: I think that people identify with or “like” Raleigh because he has such a big heart.  We learn to love characters by watching them love and he so loves everyone in the novel.

G: You split the book into two halves, giving each sister half the book to tell her story so that the reader may have the complete story of this family. Here’s what happened to me as I read: I loved Dana and Gwen first. I wanted them to get everything they wanted. When the second half started from the perspective of Chaurisse, I didn’t want to like her or her mother. But you started telling me Laverne’s story, through her daughter’s voice and, so, I softened my heart toward Laverne and Chaurisse. As Chaurisse described Dana becoming bolder and bolder, my heart was racing. It would have been so much easier to only tell one side of the story. I think by structuring it this way, you really did give all parties involved a legitimate claim. Did you experiment with other structures?

T: I have received mail from readers who are confused as to who they are “supposed” to like.  To me, this is the biggest compliment.  I really want to tell a whole story.  A point of view switch is the most radical thing you can do in a story and I believe you should only do it if it is entirely necessary.  In this story it was.  There is a 50 foot wall between Dana’s life and Chaurisse’s.  The only way to see the entire world is to get a look from each side of the wall. It just had to happen.

Even though Gwen worked so hard not to make Laverne and Chaurisse mythological creatures, there was no way to avoid it.  So they became like Cinderella’s evil stepmother and stepsister in the minds of the reader.  So I had to show Chaurisse’s world.  Or else it would end up like an afterschool special. You know, the poor outcast kid who is really the most amazing kid ever.  And then there’s the popular privileged kid who is the worst person in the world.  I really hate that dynamic.  The funny thing is that all teenagers feel they are the outcast kid.  They can never see their own privilege, no matter where they are on the ladder.

G:  You used jewelry from Dana’s grandmothers – Flora’s earrings and Miss Bunny’s brooch – as important symbols for Dana.  How did Dana’s possession of this inherited jewelry influence how Dana felt about herself and her family?
T: I pulled from my own experience there. I have no family heirlooms.  As with many African Americans, my family achieved middle class status as a result of the civil rights gains in the 1960s.  So my grandmother didn’t have any jewelry to hand down. When I would read stories about diamond rings or gold bracelets handed down, my heart would break. I have nothing of my grandmothers but a ragged scarf she tied around her head at night.  My sister has a tin ladle that Grandmother used to use to serve punch on Sundays.  I so loved Dana that I wanted her to have this thing I did not.  It was so meaningful to her.

G: Before reading Silver Sparrow, I had heard the social labels “redbone” and “bourgie” but hadn’t understood them.  To me, terms like redbone and bourgie feel like secrets, too. Or, maybe, just unknown to me. I’m not sure I can frame this into a big, important question, so I’ll start with a little question: Was Laverne’s Pink Fox anniversary party bourgie?

T: It’s funny, I don’t really consider the language in my book to be inside baseball, just as I am sure that when white writers talk about their lives they don’t consider themselves to be speaking in a secret code.  When I was a kid, I read books all the time that didn’t use language or reference events that really had anything to do with my life.  Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret was my favorite book although I had no idea what a Bar Mitzvah was.  I think the difference is that I approached books not expecting to see myself on every page and I wasn’t weirded out by that.  I just read, learned, and kept reading.

G: Right, that’s an important point. I don’t feel weirded out, but more like..oh, here’s something new to me. I crave that experience in reading or listening to music or looking at photographs, for example. I think part of why people seek to fill their lives with poetry, literature, art, or music is to learn more about our world and to invite the exterior world to shape our interior world. I think about this idea of a layered understanding or experience of any given work quite often, and with all sorts of art: movies, paintings, music, even gardens. Maybe, what I was trying to get at is identifying the many layers of storytelling at play in Silver Sparrow.

T: When I was in Durango, a very well-meaning gentleman just about broke my heart.  He said, “Is the family you’re writing about black?” I said that it was.  He said, “That’s okay.  I’m going to buy it. I grew up reading science fiction, so I am used to reading about things outside myself.”  I signed his book with a shaky hand.  In his mind being African-American is like being from Mars.  But he did buy the book, so maybe there is a win in there someplace.

On to your little question. “Bourgie” is just a shorthand for bourgeois.  So was Laverne’s party bourgie? Well, Laverne sure hoped so.  Most people use the term pejoratively, but I grew up pretty bourgie, so I am reclaiming it!

G:   Algonquin has sent you on an incredible 30 or 40 city book tour! Silver Sparrow has been highlighted by More, NPR, O, Poets & Writers, and many many more fine media outlets. How are you holding up? Are you sleeping and hydrating? Have you let yourself enjoy this tremendous celebration of your work?
T: The tour has been a blast.  The best thing is that I have reconnected with almost every boyfriend ever had.  Even my third grade sweetheart! (He’s sorry about that whole incident with the maypole.) It’s been fantastic to see hard work pay off in this way.  This book has been a long road in the making.  I feel both blessed and lucky.

G:   I read that you hired your own publicist to help promote Silver Sparrow. How did you select your publicist? What advice do you have for other authors considering this step?
T: I love Lauren Cerand, my independent publicist.  ( She and I have worked together for the last five years.  She is very good at working with the team at my publisher with the goal of maximum exposure for the book.  But also, an independent publicist can help you think about what you want long term, which goes beyond just book sales.  A good indie publicist also serves as a sort of career coach.

For other authors, I recommend that you interview the person before you hire her.  You have to really click. 

G:   As a tribute to the events and music in Silver Sparrow, I made you a playlist:

T: Gigi, were we separated at birth? I made one, too!

Tayari Jones has written for McSweeney’s, the New York Times, and The Believer. Her previous novels are Leaving Atlanta and The Untelling, winner of the Lillian C. Smith Award. Jones holds degrees from Spelman Collge, Arizona State University, and the University of Iowa. She serves on the MFA faculty at Rutgers-Newark and blogs on writing at Silver Sparrow is the third novel from an author deemed “one of the most important writers of her generation” by the Atlanta Journal –Constitution. #JRWC11


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Filed under Speakers, Tayari Jones

Have You Ever Met a Dragon?

Today we drop-in on a recent QA sesh between Author-illustrator Troy Howell and JRW Board member, Gigi Amateau, about Troy’s new book, The Dragon of Cripple Creek. Troy will join us for #JRWC11 this October at the Library of Virginia.


In a recent post ( Mollie, me, & Ye) on his blog, Penchant, Troy describes how Cripple Creek began with this idea: Put a dragon at the bottom of a gold mine in Twenty-first Century America.

KidLit fans, I hear you cheering. Fans of the Wild West, listen up! And Dragon fans? Oh my gracious goodness, dragon fans come out come out wherever you are.

I’ve edited my interview with Troy to remove all spoiler alerts [the big ones anyway], but I’m jonesin for everyone to read Troy’s book, so we can talk about the new mythology of dragons that is The Dragon of Cripple Creek. Trust me, if you love dragons and dragon stories, once you discover the reason that Troy’s dragon, Ye, lives at the bottom of a gold mine in Colorado you will feel that his is the only and most natural explanation.

Go read the book and let Troy’s revelation wash over you. You may feel a momentary emptiness as you recognize the space within you that has been longing for this precise answer. You might put the book down for a minute, as I did, and just hold it to your heart and whisper to yourself, ‘of course, yes, of course, that explains everything.’ Troy’s intimately perfect explanation of why dragons love gold made me certain that Troy must know some dragons personally.

So when we met recently at Hyperion Espresso in downtown Fredericksburg near where Troy lives, I asked him.

Me: Troy, have you ever met a dragon?

Troy: Only this one. Ye kind of grew on me. I’m not a dragon person, but once an idea comes to you, you gotta let it take you where it needs to go. There are no stories of dragons in North America; I wanted to put a good name on dragons. Now, I’d like to ask the same question of you.

Me: I have never met a dragon in person. A few years ago, on a foggy August night in Vermont, I heard one out in the mountains surrounding the inn where I was staying. I waited for it to come out and when I got tired of waiting, and not having anything to lure her into the moonlight, I went into the tavern on the grounds and had a beer. So, that’s the closest I’ve ever come.

Troy: I love your foggy Vermont night encounter. Perhaps she generated the fog so you wouldn’t see her.

Me: Now that you mention it, the fog in Vermont was eerily gold in hue. [Here Troy and I talked for a long time about why dragons love gold, but I’ve cut that out so that readers may enjoy the unfolding just exactly how it should occur… in the story itself. Oh all right, I’ll give you a little whiff. We spoke of greed; we spoke of sacrificial love.]

Troy: [This response has been removed for spoiler alerts. Please see pages 61-68 of The Dragon of Cripple Creek.]

Me: So, how did you do that?

Troy: In the early draft, I had a climax that was just so big that I didn’t know how to end.

 [At this point in our interview, I sipped a mocha made with chocolate milk while Troy, who is an artiste, after all, drew a picture of his so-big climax for me, which I now share with you.]

Me: Wow. A plot mountain, that’s awesome. But then what happened? How did you know to [:-)  sorry 🙂  this portion of the question has been removed due to spoiler alerts. Please see pages 368 -385 of Cripple Creek.]

Troy: I saw how everything just sort of dropped and you know that just can’t happen. It took me a long time, but then I kind of mapped it out like this:

Me: I love how you answered my writing questions by drawing. Which was your first love writing or drawing?

Troy: Yes! Both! Really. I wrote and illustrated my first book when I was seven years old. Adventures in Coodietown…bugs in ten gallon hats.


At the 2011 JRW Conference, Troy will speak on panels related to the challenges and rewards of writing for children, writing believable dialogue, and developing characters who leap off the page and into your heart. #JRWC11


Filed under Author/Illustrators, Kid Lit, Reasons to attend the conference, Speakers, Troy Howell

National Book Award Winner to Speak at 2011 Conference: John Casey

The James River Conference is honored to have National Book Award winner, John Casey, appearing with us this fall.

It’s been more than two decades since Spartina won the National Book Award and was acclaimed by critics as being “possibly the best American novel . . . since The Old Man and the Sea” (The New York Times Book Review), but in this extraordinary follow-up novel barely any time has passed in the magical landscape of salt ponds and marshes in John Casey’s fictional Rhode Island estuary.

John Casey was born in 1939 in Worcester, Massachusetts, and educated at Harvard College, Harvard Law School, and the University of Iowa. Spartina won the 1989 National Book Award for fiction. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, where he is Henry Hoyns Professor in the English Department at the University of Virginia. He is also the literary executor of the estate of Breece D’J Pancake.

You can read a wonderful interview with John here, in which he explores the eight-year journey to write Compass Rose, as well as about writing in the voice of New England women, and his enduring love of the outdoors. You can read one of John’s essays on canoeing here.

We hope you’ll enjoy this wonderful opportunity to hear and interact with one of America’s finest writers at our conference this fall. Sign up at this direct link today.


Filed under John Casey, Speakers

Top 10 Reasons to Come to the 2011 James River Conference

1. The box lunches. Really. They’re delicious!

2. BOOKS! And we’re talking instant gratification. See an author speak at the conference who inspires you and whose book you MUST have, and you can run right over to the book table and buy a copy right then and there. Take that, Kindle and Nook!

3. The speakers. The speakers. The speakers.

4. Just so we’re clear . . . regarding #3, we’re talking about Michelle Bower, April Eberhardt, Hermine Pinson, Belle Boggs, Mike Albo, Tayari Jones, David Henry Sterry, Troy Howell, Derome Scott Smith, Jesmyn Ward, Arielle Eckstut, Michael Park, Eliezer Sobel, Suann Cokal, Lucia St. Clair Robson, Jeff Spyeck, Randy Freisner, Dave Smitherman, David Henry Sterry, John Casey, Karl Marlantes, Julian Smith, Kathi Appelt, Tory Howell, Meg Medina, Leona Wisoker, Robert Goolick, Joe Williams, Kristen Green, Kathleen Graber, Rebecca Schinsky, Zachary Steele, A. B. Westrick, Jason Ashlock, Becca Stumpf, Daniel Custodio, Woody Holton, and more.

5. Moderators. Thoughtful moderators who ask the questions you’re dying to hear answered.

6. Location, location, location. The Library of Virginia is a great space, and it’s convenient in downtown Richmond.

7. Richmond, Virginia, in fall. What can we say? The state of Virginia puts on a fall foliage spectacular. It’s a wonderful time to visit if you’re from out of town.

8. Your fellow conferencees. This is a chance to meet other writers of every genre and experience, to talk writing 24/7 for a couple of days among people “who get you.” Really. We do. We get you.

9. Networking. Meet agents, editors, writers. Pitch your novel!

10. Time for you to fill this one in. Leave a comment and let us know what YOU like about the JRW conference!!!




Filed under Reasons to attend the conference, Speakers