Interview Series: Interview with author Mary E. Lowd

By Cynthia Ray

The creative process has always fascinated me, and especially how it works for individual artists and writers.  I’ll be delving into this in a series of interviews with authors near and far.   In the first of this series, we meet Mary E. Lowd.  I met Mary in a writing group in Oregon, and I was immediately drawn to her quirky humor, and her warm, insightful stories.   She’s had three novels and more than eighty short stories published so far. Her fiction has won an Ursa Major Award and two Cóyotl Awards. Meanwhile, she’s collected a husband, daughter, son, bevy of cats and dogs, and the occasional fish.

Mary_Lowd_author-pic-sq

Mary, what can you tell us about your work, and yourself as an author?
I write science-fiction and furry fiction.  That means spaceships and talking animals.  I have been known to write the occasional piece of contemporary science-fiction, and some of the animals I write about can’t talk.  But mostly, I like to write stories that have spaceships and talking animals.  So, it should come as no surprise that the novel series I’ve been working on for the last decade is called Otters In Space.

I self-published the first Otters In Space novel in 2010.  Then I discovered the furry fandom, and I spent the next year tirelessly trying to sell my self-published novel to an actual furry publisher.  In 2012, Otters In Space was re-released by FurPlanet, and I could not have been prouder of that swirly emblem with two paw-prints emblazoned on the back cover of my book, pronouncing it a FurPlanet book.  Since then, I’ve had two more novels published by FurPlanet, a collection of short stories, and I’ve become the editor for their annual anthology ROAR.  The third Otters In Space novel is in the final editing phases now and will hopefully come out later this year or early next year.

OiS1-FurPlanet-front-cover

That’s good to hear.  I’ve been waiting for that book to come out.  It’s themes are very relevant to the environment that we find ourselves in today.  So, why do you write?
I write because I have to.  It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.  Even before I could read, my mom encouraged me to tell stories, and she’d write them down for me.  Two of my earliest works were “Sally Cat and the Six Magic Balls” and “Salamander.”  One was a fantasy story about a cat (so, the kind of thing that I still write) and the other was a personal narrative of the day that I caught a salamander.

Once I could actually write the words down myself, writing became my escape.  Why would you spend a day in middle school when you could use the notebook paper in front of you to escape to the Serengeti where a poodle is trying to steal the throne from a blind lion?  (I believe that story was heavily influenced by Gary Larson’s The Far Side.)  I spent most of middle school surrounded by the cheerful woodland creatures of Great Oak Abbey, a place which bore a striking resemblance to Brian Jacques’ Redwall Abbey.  Then after reading C.J. Cherryh’s The Pride of Chanur, I moved to outer space with a crew of tiger-like aliens and spent all of high school on their spaceship with them.

These days, why would I live in a country that failed to elect its first woman president this fall when I could instead hang out in deep space with all kinds of animal-like aliens?  At this point, I’ve spent so much of my life writing that I get twitchy if I go very long without doing it.  Writing is something that I have to do, so I may as well make use of it.

I like your idea of hanging out in deep space.  I’ve heard they have a woman president on Mars.  But seriously, what does Creative Process mean to you?  What is yours?
There are a lot of ways to go about writing, and a strategy that works for you at one time may be a complete dead-end later.  So, I guess I believe that creative processes are always evolving.  As such, I’ll tell you about a strategy that’s worked out really well for me this year.

Last summer, I’d been stuck trying to finish Otters In Space 3 for so long — tying up loose threads and managing continuity with three previously published novels in the same world — that I was sick to death of writing a long work.  I wanted the freedom of writing something much shorter.  So I started playing something I call The Flash Fiction Game.

I got three decks of cards — two story-telling decks from a toy store (one fairy tale themed, the other robot themed) and a deck of animal guide cards.  In the morning, I’d draw a card from each deck, and by the end of the day, I had to finish a complete piece of flash fiction inspired by those three cards.  Animal + robot element + fairy tale element added up to furry space opera for me, so I wrote several dozen pieces of flash fiction set in my Crossroads Station universe by the end of the fall.  Some days, the cards clicked with each other, and it was easy.  Other days, I’d stare at those cards at a complete loss, and every word was a struggle.  But I’d still finish something resembling a complete piece of flash fiction, and finishing a complete story is a huge rush.

So, overall, I ended up with a bunch of stories — some mediocre, but some surprisingly excellent (five of them have been accepted by Daily Science Fiction) — and a huge boost to my confidence.  If you find yourself feeling lost or stuck, it’s a strategy I’d highly recommend giving a try.  Though, it won’t work for everybody.  That’s the thing about creative processes — they’re unique to each person, and even for a single person they’re always evolving.

Yes, the process is unique for each person; thats what makes it so interesting, but there are similarities, aren’t there?   Let me ask you another question.  What is the hardest thing you have worked through?
I nearly died when my daughter was born — if I’d lived in Jane Austen times, I’m sure I would have.  The recovery was brutal — both physically for myself and emotionally for my family, as my husband was deeply scarred by almost losing me.  Human reproduction is a cruel joke.  Of course, I’ve used those feelings to inspire stories.  One of my most successful stories — “Foreknowledge” (http://www.apex-magazine.com/foreknowledge/) — remixed many of my actual feelings into a fictional scenario.  It’s the story I’ve been most often told is my best; it also makes a lot of people cry.  I couldn’t have given it the same immediacy and power without mining my own experiences for kernels of truth.

Thank you for sharing that experience.  What a positive way to work through it.  What is the most revealing thing you have learned about yourself by writing?

I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.  Or an otter.  I actually didn’t realize this directly from my writing; although, it was right there on the page, staring at me.  Even so, it took a fan coming up to me at a furry convention and telling me that he loved my novel because he’s a cat who wishes he were an otter too.  The main character in each of my novels so far is a cat who wishes she were a dog or otter.  If you don’t speak the language of animal archetypes, this means that I’m particular and persnickety, but I aspire to be care-free and fun-loving.  Though, I think it’s much more elegant and carries far greater nuance in the language of furries:  I’m a cat who wishes she were a dog.

And finally, if you were going to tell aspiring authors one thing, what would it be?
It will be hard.  It will get easier.   Write about animals — they’re fun to write, and people like to read about them.

Learn more at www.marylowd.com, or read much of her short fiction at www.deepskyanchor.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Otters-In-Space-Search-Havana/dp/1614500436
https://www.amazon.com/Otters-Space-Jupiter-Deadly-Volume/dp/1614501181
https://www.amazon.com/Dogs-World-Mary-E-Lowd/dp/1614502374
https://www.amazon.com/Necromouser-Other-Magical-Cats/dp/1614502838/

 

 

 

 

 

Representation Matters

By Cynthia Ray

We are immersed in a society that exalts young, good-looking white people with perfect teeth and hair.  As an older woman, I had tired of these (don’t get me wrong, I love Katniss!) and decided to search for positive representations of older people in fiction and movies.  That search got me thinking about the bigger picture of representation and why it matters.

Everyone is looking for a story with someone like them in it, represented in a constructive light, especially when they don’t fit into the “young, good-looking, white person” mold.  As writers, we can and should examine who we represent and how.

When I was a kid, cowboys were the heroes of the day-popular in books, on TV and in the movies.  All of them were men.  I remember how thrilled I was to discover Annie Oakley.  Wow!  A woman who could ride and rope and shoot ‘em up with the best of them.

annie-oakley-1950

I never missed an episode.  Even as a young child, I was aware of how people were represented and looked for messages; what did it mean about being a woman, a man, a child, a person of color?

 

When the Alien movies came out, I had the same ecstatic thrill as I’d had as a five-year old child discovering Annie Oakley.  Hooray!  A strong, brave, powerful woman protagonist who wasn’t “nice”.

ellen-ripley-alien

I mistakenly thought the movie industry had finally “got it”, that this was the beginning of a host of great women protagonists, but  last year we had Jurassic World-a throwback to the 1950’s if there ever was one (you know, the dinosaur movie with the whiny female executive who wore stilettos in the jungle, and while escaping from the T-Rex.)

I couldn’t resist posting this parody, which captures the essence of the ridiculousness of the Jurassic World movie.  The fact that a parody was made shows that we, in fact, have made progress.

 

Rogue One, on the other hand, gets it right, with a whole line-up of wonderful protagonists from many backgrounds.  Recently, I watched an old movie from the 1950’s.  It was so bad, I couldnt stop watching.  It was filled with misogynistic “jokes” about women, ridiculous caricatures of Italians with bad accents, and every black was either a waiter or a servant, portrayed as ludicrously moronic and/or cowardly.

 

I cringed through the whole thing; in fact, it made me sick to my stomach.  As a child, these were the images and ideas that I was immersed in.  As I grew up, I rebelled and rejected these representations and false ideas but many things are subtle and hard to uncover in our attitudes and beliefs and I am always discovering another underlying assumption that needs to go.

So I went out and looked for more current examples of books with different points of view,  and different kinds of protagonists, I found lists of books with protagonists of older people, people of color, autistic and LGBT, etc.  Yes, they are out there, but there are far fewer of them than we need.

As writers, we can help to ensure that everyone’s voice be heard, and everyone’s face to be seen.  We can expose and express ideas that may not be popular or accepted.  We can be courageous.  Think of the many books that were banned, and how new thought, ideas and people cannot truly be suppressed-not for long.  Let’s be the vanguard of a new era of expression, compassion, inclusion and respect.

NOTE:  After writing this blog, someone made me aware of this upcoming workshop by Wordcrafters in Eugene.  Perfect!

writing-to-promote-marginalized-voices

For information about this workshop:  Wordcrafters Workshop

Trust the Path

By Cynthia Ray

trust-the-path4

“As I looked back at the mountains and forest that had just held me in their jaws I realized I’d been given a gift with that phrase, Trust the Path, and I pass it on to you. It means that when you are lost and confused, you can trust the journey that you have chosen, or that has chosen you. It means others have been on the journey before you, the writer’s journey, the storyteller’s journey. You’re not the first; you’re not the last. Your experience of it is unique, your viewpoint has value, but you’re also part of something, a long tradition that stretches back to the very beginnings of our race. The journey has its own wisdom, the story know the way. Trust the journey. Trust the story.   Trust the Path.” Christopher Vogel from the Writers Journey

Vogels story begins with a hike that goes terribly wrong.  He becomes lost and as dusk descends, he panics.  At the point where he was ready to give up, exhausted, hungry and shivering, a voice whispered to him, “Trust the Path.” He looked around, seeking that path, but found nothing. He questioned that voice, but he looked down and noticed a line of ants moving in the grass. He followed the ants path, which eventually led to a narrow deer path, which, in turn, led to another, wider logging trail, which led to a road which led to the highway.

If he had dismissed the voice as foolish, not logical or unrealistic, he would have remained lost in the woods, and possibly died there. How often do we dismiss our own still, small voice of guidance? It whispers, or shouts, or nudges, but we have to be willing to trust ourselves.

The good news is, that no matter how deaf we may have been, or how dismissive in the past, the voice keeps whispering and once we start tuning in to it, it rewards us with even more wisdom. It is a beautiful gift that every single person has access to, if we will only trust it.

Trusting ourselves and listening to that voice, leads to surprising places that we would have never found with our logical, analytic minds. It can be the scariest thing in the world, but it is the only thing that can save us–it leads us out of the mire, or to the heart of our story, or at least to the next step of the journey, one small step at a time.

Trust the Path. Trust YOUR Path.

trust-the-path1

 

Is a Sentence a Story?

Is a Sentence a Story?
By Cynthia Ray

writing-quote

It is said that Hemingway once wrote a story in just six words (“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”) and called it his best work.

There are contests and websites dedicated to the one sentence “story”. Is one sentence a story? A haiku perhaps, an engaging thought or intriguing question, but is it a bona-fide story?

There are anthologies of 55 word stories, and books of 500-word fiction. They are interesting, artistic and sometimes haunting and beautiful, but when I  settle in on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a good book, I turn to longer, in depth, even rambling books, trilogies and Russian novels.

Is the one sentence story a sign that our attention span as readers has shortened, or have we simply added and expanded to the craft, playing with words in new and fun ways?

In my writing group, I got feedback on the length of my stories, and it reminded me of the fable of the three bears. Some were toooo long, some were tooooo short, and a few were just right, and it made me ask, “Is there a perfect length for a story?”

Some short stories were perfect in their 500-word essence. Others required 10,000 words just to get started. It made me think of the creative process; when I start a story, I don’t know how long it will be. I’ve started out to write a novel and ended up with a 3000-word short story, and I’ve started with a short story that turned into a much longer project.

In the end, word count is just another aspect of story telling, to be considered along with tone, theme, conflict, plot, characters and everything else. It is not that important to focus on, except when we don’t get it right. A story that is too long or short can leave your reader feeling bored, or unsatisfied, without knowing why.

As Neil Gaman said:

writing-quote

Lying Fallow, Going Wild and Writing in the Nude

By Cynthia Ray

Last week in her post, Liz talked about her literary compost pile. It is summer, after all, so I was inspired to continue with the gardening theme. The principles of fallowness and wildness can be applied to our creative lives.

fallow quote

Before the advent of chemical fertilizers, farmers would rotate crops to balance the nutrients in the soil, leaving some fields fallow for a season. Leaving fields fallow meant that nothing was planted there for the entire growing season. This allowed the soil to rebuild itself, and rest. This thousands of year old process continues to this day in many parts of the world, because it works.

Just doing nothing can be incredibly valuable. Have you ever tried to do nothing? No TV, no book, no writing, just sitting and doing nothing? It’s an under-utilized non-activity. It is not even trying to be “mindful”. It is just being.   How long can you do nothing? Fallowness, for me also meant taking a break from plowing the same old fields over and over again. I had to give up some non-productive, obsessive habits that depleted my creativity and time.

Giving up my habit of editing my manuscript before I had even got to the end of the first page, stopping at the first paragraph and going back over every word. I forced myself to just leave it be, and keep writing.   Not an easy task but a freeing one. It also meant for me to take more breaks, walk in the woods, dig in the yard and then come back to my project renewed.   Tearing myself away from a computer screen and immersing myself in nature is how I re-charge and give my brain a break.

wildflowers

Another version of this ‘leave it be’ approach requires letting a portion of your yard or garden go to seed, creating a non-domesticated space. This small wild area enables natural ecosystems to develop, attracting butterflies, birds and other creatures to abide there.  It can replenish and rejuvenate the soil/soul.

Letting ourselves be non-domesticated for a while, allows the wild to show its face. How could I be a bit wild? I experimented with writing in the nude. I thought it would be a way to symbollicaly drop pretense, and get to the heart of things. Later, I found out that this is not uncommon. A web search turned up several authors that used the technique:

  • When Victor Hugo, the famous author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, ran into a writer’s block, he concocted a unique scheme to force himself to write: he had his servant take all of his clothes away for the day and leave his own nude self with only pen and paper, so he’d have nothing to do but sit down and write.
  • DH Lawrence [who wrote the controversial (and censored) erotic book Lady Chatterley’s Lover, liked to climb mulberry trees, in the nude, before coming down to write.
  • Ernest Hemingway did not only write A Farewell to Arms, he also said farewell to clothes! Hemingway wrote nude, standing up, with his typewriter about waist level.
  • Benjamin Franklin also liked to take “air baths,” where he sit around naked in a cold room for an hour or so while he wrote.
  • Mystery writer Agatha Christie liked to write anywhere, including in the bathtub!

So drop those habits along with your clothes, sit around and do nothing for awhile and enjoy the rest of the summer!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Space Between

By Cynthia Ray

I’ve been exploring the space between things over the last few months, in my life and in my art. It all began with Viktor Frankl. In Mans Search for Meaning, he says, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

Frankl.jpgWhat he said about the space between stimulus and response fascinated me, because our words and actions seem so automatic, I couldn’t imagine having that much self control, so I spent time observing, trying to find that space. After a while, I was able to slow down enough to feel the space between, but not enough to change or stop my response. I kept at it, and eventually, after much practice, I was able to slow down even further, and could remain poised there, between the catalyst and my reaction, long enough to choose a new and different response than I had automatically followed in the past. It’s an exhilarating and powerful tool, but like anything, requires practice.

But the space between things is much more than the space between stimulus and response. All of art is about the space between. Where things are placed, how far they are from each other in relationship to each other in a painting is more than just perspective. It is balance between what is and what is not. Music is the space between notes. If that is true, then writing is the space between the words.

space between notes

The Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading by Paul Saenger talks about how the spaces between the words were consciously created to move us from oral to a written tradition. We take all of that for granted now, but it was not always so.

He says, “Over the course of the nine centuries following Rome’s fall, the task of separating the words in continuous written text, which for half a millennium had been a function of the individual reader’s mind and voice, became instead a labor of professional readers and scribes. The separation of words (and thus silent reading) originated in manuscripts copied by Irish scribes in the seventh and eighth centuries but spread to the European continent only in the late tenth century.” This resulted in the spread of reading and education among the common people, not just the elite.

Not only does the space between words give order to the story, and make it possible to find the story in the words, but those spaces also carry deep meaning and impact. What is happening in dialogue? What is not said? Sometimes what is not said is far more powerful than what is said and carries a message that can break us apart.  Its not the words that are said, but the ones that are not.  Sometimes the best dialogue is not dialogue.

I started watching what my characters were doing in the space between their actions, in the space between their dialogue, in the space between the catalyst and their response. It is a wonderful place to explore interaction, feeling and nuances.  Looking at what is not, rather than what is, or at what is between what is and what is not.

nebula

If we slow down and take the time to pay attention to that which is hidden right in front of us, we can find those vast in-between spaces in ourselves and the universe we live in to inform our relationships, our lives and our art.

In the space between

the in breath

and the out breath

lie all the worlds

In the place

between heartbeats

all the worlds

tumble to silence

between one thought

and the next

stillness extends out into the universe

                                       C. Ray

Tried and True = Boring?

By Cynthia Ray

I may be preaching to the choir here, but I have an ax to grind about cliché’s so lets take the bull by the horns and make hay while the sun shines, knowing that we can capture some low hanging fruit by thinking outside of the box.   In fact, just thinking about clichés makes me rage like a bull or sick as a dog. When I read boring prose, riddled with cliché’s, I would like to shake the writer like a rag doll, and leave him/her lying limp as a noodle on the cold stone floor.

The French poet Gérard de Nerval once said, “The first man who compared woman to a rose was a poet, the second, an imbecile.”

boring1

Are you tired of reading about blood that tastes like iron or suns that shine brightly? The point is, cliché’s and overly used phrases and descriptions impose a dull, joyless tone to prose, like a warm soda that’s lost its fizz, but it’s easy to fall into patterns, clichés and unoriginal descriptions when writing.

Description is fictions garment. We can drape sensuous, words over the plot, the people and their world to make them vivid and alive.   Or perhaps we carve away everything but the bones, and leave them transparent and stark against the landscape like an Andrew Wyeth painting.

The best fiction jumps up off the page and squeezes you. It makes you laugh, cry, taste and see – the words on the page are alive. Originality sparkles in good writing, and delights us with descriptions that surprise us, enabling us to see and experience something in a different way.

So how do we get that kind of tasty on our page? How do we root out flaccid and listless prose?  Here are some ways that have helped me make my writing better:

  1. Once the story is written, out of my head and on the page, I go back and look for clichés or overly common, unclear, or boring descriptions. Every time I find one, I challenge myself to think of a new or different way to show what I mean. For example, in one of my stories I found the phrase, “It hit her like a ton of bricks.” Oh no! Since it was a futuristic story, I changed it to “it hit her like a chunk of space rubble.” Another time, I found “the sun burned my back”, and changed it to “The sun was the grating edge of a bloody knife on my back.”
  1. When I read, and find descriptions that haunt me, delight me or make me laugh, I write them down. They are instructive. When Dashiell Hammett’s Spade “grinned wolfishly, showing the edges of teeth far back in his jaw,” I am looking down into his mouth, and shivering. Or Albert Camus who spent his days “watching how the dwindling of color turned day into night,” makes see a day drained of color, and in the story gives an ominous tone. I’ve read books that I hated the character, but kept reading, because the writing was so beautiful it took my breath away.
  1. Make a list of common descriptions and clichés, and challenge yourself to come up with new ways to illustrate the concepts. In fact, if you pull the list from your own fiction it can be educational.   Doing this exercise in a writing group is a lot of fun because you get to hear others creative efforts.
  1. Wherever you are, look around and write a description of it, of the furniture, the people, the walls, the floor. Then re-write, looking for new and different ways of describing it, or comparing to things that are not usually associated with the thing, for example, John Gaiman described a character as having the same shape and dimension as a coke machine.   When I read that, I laughed. He could have said short and squat, but that would not have been nearly as interesting.

boring

The goal is really to change how we see things, and to break out of our comfortable pathways of thinking.   What ideas do you have for finding your own special and unique way of looking at the world?