This week, we feature an interview with author Debra Lauman, who will talk with us about some of her trials and triumphs as a writer, as well as her latest project. Welcome, Debra!
This Blog Blank: I like to start each interview by giving the author a chance to discuss their work. What can you tell us about your latest work?
Hi, I’m Debra Lauman, also known as “Ramkitten,” the hiking writer. To date, I’ve written four novels, two of which are published, a few long-distance trail journals, and hundreds of articles and essays, many about some aspect or area of the great outdoors and dozens more about a wide variety of other topics.
Like my earlier novels, I conjured up my latest work of literary fiction while walking trails. That’s when I get most of my inspiration. Or, rather, that’s what I’m usually doing when my ideas bubble to the surface and characters are born.
The idea for my first published novel, I. Joseph Kellerman, came to me while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. I wrote most of the first draft during that six-month adventure, often writing at night while lying in my tent, holding my little flashlight in my mouth (silly me, I didn’t have a headlamp), propping my head up with one hand while scribbling with the other, as other tired thru-hikers slept.
My most recent novel, A Picket Fence in Pawpaw, was conceived while I was on a weeklong backpacking trip in Wyoming’s Wind River Range. The main character, a 12-year-old girl called “Mouse,” came to life as I was hiking up and down mountains, camping near glaciers and mountain lakes, and sliding down scree slopes.
Funny thing is, my books (so far) having nothing at all to do with hiking or the trails I’ve been on when I came up with the ideas and the characters.
TBB: What was your inspiration for writing your bbok?
DEL: Well, the setting — the fictional town of Pawpaw in Pennsylvania’s Sockdolager River Valley — was definitely inspired by the small, very rural town where I lived and worked as a farm caretaker for six years. That part of the answer is easy.
As far as the inspiration for some of the characters and themes, however … that’s more difficult for me to figure out. I’ve honestly not thought about that before. But I suppose, as authors, our stories usually don’t come solely from our imaginations.
So, I’d say this story of childhood innocence giving way to adult wisdom and an understanding of human frailty and forgiveness was inspired, at least in part, by my relationship with my father and some things I learned about him over the years — things that didn’t really jive with the man I knew and loved but that really had nothing to do with me.
Another theme of the story is the idea of carpe diem or “seize the day” — making the most of life and finding a healthy, happy balance between work and play, planning and spontaneity. That’s definitely something always on my mind as time seems to pass so quickly.
TBB: Here’s a hard one, but my favorite question. Can you share a quote, a sentence, or a paragraph that is one of your favorite pieces of writing?
DEL: The first thing that comes to mind is the opening sentence of I. Joseph Kellerman: “Once upon a time, there was a boy named Isaac in a cattle car.”
That sentence popped into my head quite some time after I’d conjured up the main characters and the basic gist of the story. To that point, I’d written many snippets of dialogue and some bits of description, but it wasn’t until I had that first line that I was able to begin weaving those bits and pieces into something more coherent and complete.
TBB: Why did you choose that selection?
DEL: I chose that sentence because it set the tone for the whole novel, bringing forth the idea of a warped fairy tale of sorts, along with the style of prose you might find in such a story. The fairy tale theme, with relevant symbolism, then naturally came up throughout the novel and at the end, without me really concentrating on it. Each time I realized I’d brought that theme back to the forefront, I would smile at how it had felt so effortless. It’s amazing how much impact the first sentence of a novel can have on the whole feel and direction of the story, at least in my experience.
TBB: The publishing industry is in flux now, with distributors like Amazon encouraging writers to publish directly. I find most writers to be on one side of the fence or the other – Indie or Traditional publishing. Where do you see yourself in this debate – “Go Indies,” “Give Me the Book Deal,” or “Who Cares, Just Show Me the Money?”
DEL: I have nothing against self-publishing at all. In fact, I’ve basically self-published A Picket Fence in Pawpaw, releasing it on Kindle before even attempting the traditional route, querying agents and/or publisher. But I do prefer traditional publishing for my work, if possible. I like the idea of having someone else handle the merchandising and a significant part of the marketing.
For my first novel, I. Joseph Kellerman, I went with a small publishing house after meeting the founder and president of the company at a writer’s conference. She read some of my novel during those four days and offered me a contract at the end of the conference.
Being a new author, I jumped at the opportunity despite knowing in my gut that I was taking a chance with this relatively new and very small publishing house. I knew I probably should hold out and collect more rejections in the search for an agent and a larger publisher. But I didn’t. The doubts I had that I’d ever receive another “yes” won out.
Long story short, that small publisher went kaput during the first print run of my book, leaving me and a number of other authors on our own, with boxes of books shipped to our doorsteps. This situation created a problem for me, since my book, which the publisher had already listed on Amazon, was then considered published, making it more difficult to find an agent and new publisher to re-release it.
That was several years ago, though, and, after making some relatively feeble attempts to market the book on my own, including releasing it on Kindle, I recently decided to give traditional publishing another try. I’m happy to report that, despite revealing in my query letter that I. Joseph Kellerman was already published, a major New York City agent is currently reading the full manuscript.
TBB: Do you ever work actual people you know into your characters? Do the people ever know?
DEL: My characters — which is what I usually come up with first as opposed to plot — evolve from … well, anyone, anywhere, be it complete strangers or close friends. Most often, these characters are combinations of many people mixed with a lot of my own imagination.
I’m a people-watcher, and I find human nature and all of our little and not-so-little quirks fascinating. I love to play with and explore those quirks and flaws — some minor and humorous, others quite significant and serious — when I’m writing novels.
So far, I haven’t intentionally created characters from close friends or family. But I find it’s nearly impossible to keep them out completely, particularly certain quirks or character traits that stand out to me, even if they’re minor. The characters may not have their foundations in these friends and family members, but they certainly take on aspects of people I know.
Whether friends or family have noticed anything “familiar” about my characters, I have no idea. Those traits are most likely mixed in with so many aspects of other people I know or have never known at all that no one would say, “Hey, that character is me!”
That’s probably going to change, though, as the novel I’m currently pondering is very much based on a real-life experience and real people, which is why it’s taking me so much longer to begin, let alone settle on just how I want to handle the story, than with any of my previous stories.
TBB: Do you have a specific writing style?
I’m sure my voice seeps through in all of my writing, especially in the narrative as opposed to dialogue. (I think I speak for my characters, in their unique voices, pretty well.) Overall, though, I would say no, I don’t have a specific style. Rather, I like to experiment and get bored with one style. I’ve actually been told that my two published novels may as well have been written by two different people.
I always have enjoyed pretending (though I do it mostly in my head now that I’m a big girl), so I easily slip into different roles and styles when I’m writing. But I can’t force it, and the various styles of my novels and short stories usually aren’t intentional at all.
TBB: What book are you reading now?
DEL: I’m actually between books right now, as I ponder what to read next. What a dilemma!
Do I want to read another Anne Tyler book? (Love her character-driven novels, like Breathing Lessons, A Slipping Down Life and Accidental Tourist.) Or is there a travel-adventure book by Peter Jenkins that I’ve somehow missed? Maybe another wilderness survival story, like one of my favorites: Touching the Void by Joe Simpson. (I’m involved with Search & Rescue, so I enjoy reading that type of genre.) I’d also love to read another good time-travel book. (I was hooked on Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series.”) And I’m interested in reading more books by authors I’ve become acquainted with online, having just finished the most enjoyable Manhasset Stories by Suzanne Rosenwasser. Along those lines, I’ve got Dixie Miller Goode’s young adult novel, Duffy Barkley is Not a Dog, downloaded on the Kindle, so that’s another contender.
There’s so much I want to read that I’m having a hard time settling on which one to begin.
TBB: The idea for my last book (and the next one) came from music videos. What strange places, situations, or people have inspired your stories?
DEL: The idea for I. Joseph Kellerman came to me while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, though the story has nothing at all to do with hiking or the great outdoors. On the contrary, the main character, a very troubled psychiatrist, hasn’t left his row house home and office in more than four years.
One day on the trail, I was in the Shenandoahs, talking with a fellow thru-hiker. Somehow, we got onto the topic of real people who’d make interesting foundations for fictional characters. It was then that she told me about a deceased New York City psychoanalyst a friend of hers had known, both as a patient and a lover. What little she told me about this highly regarded yet controversial man, all of which she’d heard second-hand from her friend, soon morphed into my own Dr. Kellerman as I continued hiking north, alone with my own thoughts for the rest of that day. Over the days that followed, all of the other characters appeared — I really don’t know where THEY came from at all — and I walked with them and their frequent jabbering for many more miles.
TBB: You are granted one wish, and are allowed to choose any writer, living or dead, as your mentor? Whom do you choose?
DEL: That’s a tough one! I guess it’s a toss-up between Pulitzer Prize winner, Anne Tyler, whose books I’ve both enjoyed and studied as I’ve tried to become a better writer. Tyler’s novels are what I’d consider very character-driven with “small” plots. I often find myself nodding as I read her stories, because I not only find I can relate to the characters, even in just some small way, but also because I love the subtle nuances Tyler notices about human nature and behavior. It’s obvious she’s as much of a people-watcher and eavesdropper as I am.
Then there’s Diana Gabaldon, author of the very popular “Outlander” series about a World War II nurse who travels back in time to the 18th century Scottish Highlands, where she meets a very brave, noble … and hot! … man of the kilt. Gabaldon’s books, though many hundreds of pages long in most cases, are what I’d consider riveting. Her plots are complex, with lots of twists and turns, but the stories move along at a pleasant pace. And her characters are … well, I’m not feeling very literary today, so I’ll just say they’re awesome! I’ve met Diana Gabaldon in person, when she came here to her home town of Flagstaff, Arizona, to give a talk, and I found her to be as engaging and fascinating as her writing.
TBB: When I write, I tend to see it in my head, often beforehand, as a movie. It’s either that I’m a visual thinker, or I have a brain tumor. When you write, how does the story unfold for you?
DEL: I’m definitely a visual thinker — visual and auditory — and have been since I was a child, sitting in the chestnut tree outside my bedroom window, watching those mental movies. I could see and hear them so clearly, so much so that the rest of the world would disappear for a while, even the leaves on the branches right in front of my face.
I’m still very much like that, though I can now keep just enough focus on the trail I’m usually hiking or the road I’m walking while watching those mental movies to avoid mishaps. Occasionally, one of those movies draws me in enough to eventually become a novel.
TBB: When did you first consider yourself a writer? What inspired you to start writing?
DEL: I wish I’d realized I was a writer long before I actually did. Perhaps I would have made different choices about my path in life and in college (but no regrets, yadda, yadda).
I wrote my first book-length story — well, a novella more like — when I was eight years old, on that thin, lined yellow paper that would tear if your pencil was too sharp. I have no idea what the story was about, but I do remember writing it (in big, flowing cursive, no less) and proudly reading it to my mom. Such fun that was!
Then there were all those stories, short and long, that followed over the years. But it wasn’t until my third “formal” attempt at novel-writing — that attempt being I. Joseph Kellerman — that I began answering, “I’m a writer,” when people would ask me what I did … as long as they didn’t add “for a living” onto the question. These days, I can happily and truthfully reply, “I’m a writer” even if they do tack on that phrase.
Ah, that notorious “for a living.” I know it well. 🙂
Thank you, Debra for
suffering through answering all of our questions. It’s been great. For more information on her books, check out the links below. If you want to buy her books (and you should), it’s easy: just click on the book cover.
In addition to writing and hiking, another of Debra’s passions is Search & Rescue. She’s been a volunteer member of a busy “SAR” team in northern Arizona since 2007, blogging about her experiences in “Deb’s Search and Rescue Stories.” (http://debssarstories.blogspot.com)
Along with novels and blogs, Debra’s writing credits include several trail journals, hundreds of articles on topics ranging from outdoor skills and travel to how to make great huevos rancheros, ghostwriting articles and portions of a California guidebook for clients, and freelance journalism for American Media Distribution. Her essay, “A Man Called Screamer,” (http://www.squidoo.com/screamer) a true story from the Appalachian Trail, received second prize in the Arizona Literary Contest.
Originally from Rhode Island, Debra now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where she enjoys hiking to the summits of San Francisco Peaks to the bottom of Grand Canyon.
Within the boundaries of a world peopled by the troubled souls who come to 4991 Hopewell Street and by one devoted assistant, a tale of self-discovery and redemption unfolds.
The shingle outside that Boston row house reads, “I. Joseph Kellerman, Psychiatrist,” but inside exists a tormented man. Under the watchful eye peering through a hole hidden by a bizarre painting, Dr. Kellerman listens to the problems of those who sit in the yellow armchair. The same yellow chair beckons the doctor, who struggles there with his own demons, created when he was a child in Nazi occupied Europe. As he comes to terms with his past and attempts to salvage what remains of his future, the psychiatrist and those who know him perform a dance of relationships, both imaginary and real.
Picket fences can enclose not only what seem to be perfect houses and perfect lives, but also small-town thinking. In A Picket Fence in Pawpaw, thirty-six year-old Minnie Mincola takes us to Pawpaw, Pennsylvania, where this tale of the people who were part and parcel of her childhood plays out in her heart and mind. Known then as “Mouse,” she thrived in the warm glow of her extraordinary relationship with her grandfather, Raymond “Pawpaw” Prine.
As Minnie looks back on events that shook her world, a child’s trust becomes the woman’s questions. What she had believed to be the fabric and facts of her life in Pawpaw turn out to be a network of secrets. One day, an exploration by a curious Mouse brings her grandfather, friends and events into sharp focus and sets in motion a harsh flood of reality. Youthful innocence becomes a woman’s wisdom, as picket fences give way to an understanding of human frailty, forgiveness and love.
Debra “Ramkitten” Lauman’s Hiking Writer website: http://www.debralauman.com
I. Joseph Kellerman on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/I-Joseph-Kellerman-ebook/dp/B002C4KKXY/ref=pd_sim_sbs_kstore_1?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2
A Picket Fence in Pawpaw on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/A-Picket-Fence-Pawpaw-ebook/dp/B002BNLTZE/ref=pd_sim_kstore_3?ie=UTF8&m=AG56TWVU5XWC2
Debra Lauman’s Author Page on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/DebraLauman