Archive for the ‘Author Interviews’ Category

Mary Montague Sikes’ Passenger to Paradise series harks back to a tradition of travel and adventure that has largely disappeared for many of us. How she manages to combine her loves for travel, for art, and for writing into books proves that the spiriti of adventure isn’t dead. How does she do it? The Magic Dog caught up with her and got her to answer a few questions. If you have more of your own feel free to write them in the comments section below.

Magic Dog: Your blog bio notes that you’ve built a writing career by combining your love for travel and art with writing. Lily in Night Watch is also seeking to build a career that combines the three. Her new career is photojournalism. I hadn’t really thought about that as art, but photography is definitely an art form. Is that just coincidence?

Mary: I feel more comfortable using a career that I know. Since for many years I’ve been a journalist and have illustrated my writing with my photographs, I feel comfortable having Lily work as I would. However, what she is doing—building a career in magazine travel writing—is far more glamorous than the city newspaper work I did as a correspondent for many years. To what degree is her character autobiographical? Probably a little bit. Most authors probably put a little of themselves in the main character. Is Lily you? Much braver and more glamorous. Perhaps she’s more like I would like to be. I am tall and always make my heroines tall!

Magic Dog: Have you been to Trinidad?

Mary: Yes.

Magic Dog: Is there a real-world equivalent for Sundowner Sands?

Mary: Yes.

Magic Dog: How about the other locations in your novels?

Mary: Each of the major places—the caves (Gasparee Caves), Asa Wright Nature Preserve, the Chaconia Inn in Port of Spain, but not the inn in the Grenadines. That inn is based on a small hotel we visited on one of those islands but with many changes.

Magic Dog: Do each of them represent one of your own personal “Stops Along the Way?”

Mary: They do, but with great embellishments. The small island scene near the resort takes place in a completely fictitious location. Isn’t it wonderful to use keyboard magic to create just the right setting? I love having that majestic ability, don’t you?

Magic Dog: Night Watch has elements of suspense, of romance, of adventure, and even a whiff of the paranormal. How do you categorize your books when people ask?

Mary: That’s a tough question. I used to call my books paranormal because most of them have at least one paranormal element. My first novel, Hearts Across Forever, is a reincarnation story. I’ve always loved stories about reincarnation, but when I termed that book as paranormal people thought I meant it had werewolves and shape shifters in it. My books are not at all like that. If I term them romance, a lot of people seem to get turned off. Now I’ve started calling them mystery/romance or mystery/suspense. Because of the dark hero and the sprawling old house in Secrets by the Sea, I consider that book Gothic. Dangerous Hearts, my newest book (actually a novella) is Gothic. I think Night Watch is a mystery with some romance. There’s a paranormal element in Night Watch but some people may want to overlook that. What do you think?

Magic Dog: I liked it. I found myself puzzling over what had led to the twinning of Lily and Katherine’s souls.

Magic Dog: One of the things I like best about Night Watch is the clarity of the plotting. Even though there are–and should be–questions about why things are happening, there is seldom any question about what is happening, and to whom. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process, and how your plots develop?

Mary: I start out with an idea and then things just start to happen. I definitely don’t do much outlining. The characters take over and sometimes the book has its own twists and turns!

Magic Dog: Do you plan, write, plan, edit, or are you more of a write, organize, write, edit gal?

Mary: Organize is not a word in my vocabulary. I wish it were because I suspect my life and writing would be much easier. I need a deadline. Then, I’ll get busy and produce what I need to do. As I work, I do like to go back and edit the pages I wrote earlier. I think that’s a good way to start the day—read over and edit what you wrote the day before.

Magic Dog: You’re an artist. How much do you involve yourself in your book and book cover designs?

Mary: The cover of Hearts Across Forever is one of my paintings. So is the cover of Eagle Rising. The cover of Secrets by the Sea is one of my photographs. However, Night Watch has none of my work on the cover, and I love it. While my publisher, Oak Tree, has used my art (also for the covers of some of her other books) she has a very good book cover designer who puts it all together. For my Red Rose Publishing e-book, Dangerous Hearts, I worked with the cover artist, saying what was needed for the cover. The first cover had a knife on it that I didn’t want. She replaced it with the image of a couple. I like that cover a lot because it portrays the Gothic feel of the book.

I’ll do whatever is necessary to help create a nice looking book that I hope will attract buyers. If the publisher wants my help, I’m glad to offer it. I’m also happy to have my art on some of the covers.

Magic Dog: Are there other Passenger to Paradise books in the offing?

Mary: Jungle Beat, the book I’m working on one now is set in Antigua and Costa Rica. It has the characters from Secrets by the Sea. Another book, Night in Paradise, is set in Nassau and on Paradise Island.

Magic Dog: Care to talk about them a little?

Mary: Both books have bits of adventures that actually occurred but with lots of added embellishments to bring in excitement and adventure.

Night Watch is available in both paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon. If you’d like to follow Mary on her Grand Tour, visit her blog here, or catch up with her tomorrow here.

Thank you so much for having me as your guest, Bodie. It’s interesting to think more about the writing process. That’s something I tend to overlook as I’m working. Maybe I need to stay in the moment and enjoy what I’m doing for the sake of doing it!

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Today, Author Brenda Peterson takes some time to talk about books, seals, nature, and family. She’ll be around September 24; be sure to stop by and say ‘hi.’

You’ve written a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction. How was writing this book different?

I never thought after Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals that I’d write another memoir, but this new one was so insistent – and funny. I wanted to follow it and see where it took me. I mean this to be a bit of a divine comedy of family, faith, and country.

Let’s talk about the list you make in one chapter comparing fundamentalists and environmentalists. What prompted that?

I was on the front line of the environmental wars for so long as author and reporter. I witnessed a lot of true believers and infighting among environmentalists. Sometimes I noticed a self-righteous and blaming tone in the environmental movement; it reminded me of my fundamentalist childhood. This comparison was unsettling, to say the least. I think humor is the highest form of intelligence and goes a long way in changing hearts and minds. Have you ever seen a fundamentalist or environmentalist stand-up-comedian? Why not?

How have the fundamentalists and environmentalists of your acquaintance responded to that list?

I’ve tried to use humor to defuse fundamentalism in both environmental and religious debates. And storytelling. Stories can by-pass dogma by creating an experience that all listeners or readers can share. Empathy. That’s one way to ask people to take other points of view than their own cherished opinions.

The book is full of these stories. And I’ve also learned to laugh at myself more — the comedy of my own survival. Trying not to take myself so seriously. An example is in the chapter “Fire From Heaven” when I’m on a cruise ship with my family and find myself obsessing over maxing out my credit card, instead of arguing about global warming. My credit card, after all, has a photo of a polar bear.

Writing, and particularly writing a memoir, is an act of self-exposure. Writing a memoir about family in a sense lays certain parts of family life open to public view. How do you balance the need to tell your story with the need to preserve your family’s–and your–privacy?

Carefully. Very carefully! Know thyself, is one of the most famous dictums from ancient Greece. Self-knowledge is only achieved by sometimes stepping outside of the collective – one’s family or society. And then looking back from a more detached point of view. I certainly did this in considering how some beliefs I grew up with had shaped my world. Every family tries to find the middle ground between enmeshment and detachment. By choosing the theme “I Want To Be Left Behind,” I narrowed my focus; so that helped me know what stories to tell and what not to bring into the public spotlight. When you read the book, you’ll see that it is not a “tell-all” book. Some critics have even called it a “love letter” to my family – though some in the family do not see it that way.

On the same subject, families often differ in how they remember specific events. As a memoirist, how did you address those differing memories?

I’ve written two memoirs now and taught memoir for over 20 years. One thing I know for sure: everyone in a family has different memories of the same childhood. When I could, I checked my memories with a sibling, parents, relative, or friend. My younger brother read along with me as I worked on this book and we had long conversations about ideas – and memories. He advised and challenged me; and I sometimes left out certain scenes because I completely trusted him.

And though my brother and I are very different in our politics and religion, we have found a spacious and open-hearted middle ground. We can talk about anything – and for that I’m truly grateful.

I was often surprised at how big the gaps were between the memories of my other family members. We were each tracking our lives with vastly different lenses. Some of my family very much disagree with my story and have not hesitated to say so. Those that are the most Far Right are quite angry that I’ve taken a rather humorous look at the Rapture and some of the Religious Right’s beliefs. At some point, I just have to say, “Well, I look forward to your book on the subject.”

Let’s talk about seal-sitting. How did that start? How did it evolve? Can anyone do this? Is there a website or contact number those interested in joining can contact for more information?

About ten years ago a neighbor, George, and I just began informally sitting watch over seal pups resting on our beach. Their mothers were far out fishing and sometimes, at four-to-six weeks, the pups were struggling to survive weaning. The first chapter of this book which focuses on Seal Sitting appeared in Orion Magazine here:

There is also a wonderful website www.sealsitters.org that has more information, fabulous photos, and media coverage. Since 2007, when we had a bumper crop of seal pups on our Alki Beach here in West Seattle, Seal Sitters has grown to an all-volunteer grassroots group of 125 trained “citizen naturalists.” This year they have literally saved seal pups’ lives and also educated people about marine mammal conservation. It’s possible to make a difference right in your own backyard. And Seal Sitting is the subject of my new children’s book, Pups on the Beach, due out from Henry Holt in early 2011.

In some ways, your book can be seen as an examination of the relationship between religion and spirituality. How would you define those concepts? Can the two co-exist?

I discovered early on that I was a lone mystic in a family that preferred organized religion. Dogma holds no appeal for me. So I’m what some teasingly call a “green sheep.” Some people are most moved and inspired by spiritual structure; I am not. Give me an ocean and a forest and another animal soul – and I’ve found my true faith. A “still, small voice,” as the Bible says. A reason to be left behind.

How about the relationship between love of nature and environmentalism?

All that is alive is sacred. E.O. Wilson talks about eco-philia, the love of life as opposed to ecology, the study of life. I think that says it all.

I Want To Be Left Behind is about finding middle ground, and loving the earth. What would you see as ‘the middle ground” in conversations about things like endangered species, global warming, and development of delicate habitats?

Listening goes a long way in any environmental debate. I spent many years as an environmental editor and writer covering such issues as old-growth forests in Living by Water and Singing to the Sound; the Makah whale hunt for National Geographic Books in Sightings with my Native co-author, Linda Hogan; and in my first memoir, Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals, covering the reintroduction of the wild wolves to Yellowstone and the military sonar that has such fatal effects on marine mammals. I discovered that simply listening to the opposite point of view really helped establish some civility, if not trust.

So many peoples’ opinions are formed from fear and that constricts both the conversation and our imaginations. I ask a lot of questions, as a reporter, like “Why do you want to hunt whales in this century?” or “How do you think we can actually solve global warming on a day-to-day or local level?”

Everyone likes to be heard in any debate. And I often find that middle ground is revealed when all sides are given the chance to hear each other out – then turn their minds to problem-solving together, instead of polarizing ideologies.

You talk a lot about writing in this book. Do you keep a diary or journal? How did that play into writing this book?

Writing is the highest learning curve, the most rewarding challenge, and the most mysterious art I’ve ever practiced. As I move into my 17th book – a new YA novel, sequel to Animal Heart – I’m even more awed by the process of making stories.

I don’t keep a journal of my daily life. I’ve kept a dream journal for many decades. Only I can decipher it. There are no exposes! It’s a landscape of my deepest meditations and a fertile ground for all my work. As W. B Yeats says, “In dreams begin responsibilities.” For me, in dreams, begin books.

Have a question for Brenda? Click on the “Comments” link in the paragraph below her bio and ask it there.


Brenda Peterson has taught writing for 27 years, first as a Writer-in-Residence at Arizona State University, then at University of Washington, and since then over two decades of private classes. She works with people from all over the world on bringing their book projects into the world. “It’s my way of giving way and passing on all I have learned — from my first five years as an editorial assistant at The New Yorker magazine in the 1970s to all I’ve figured out in writing and publishing my sixteen books,” Peterson says. She is currently working on a book about writing, as well as the YA sequel to Animal Heart. For more on Brenda Peterson’s books check out her Amazon author page, or visit her website here:

Author photo by Chris Stuvek.

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Marian Allen has been busy on tour with her recently-released e-book, Eel’s Reverence. She managed to squeeze in a few minutes to talk about the Eel,  Aunt Libby, and the forces that shaped them–and their world. She’ll be checking in today, so if you have questions of your own ask them in the “comments” section. I’ll be posting my review of Eel’s Reverence tomorrow, and talking a bit more about it in the coming days. If you’d like to know more about the books check back here, or visit Marian at her online home here.

Can you remember where you first got the germ of the idea for Eel’s Reverence?

I read Matthew Arnold’s poem, “The Forsaken Merman”, in which a merman whose human wife has deserted him goes into her village and sees that she’s made a “normal” life and will never come back. The merman on land was the germ of the book.

What inspired you to plant and water that germ, so to speak?

I had two or three random scenes floating around in my head. A couple of them were of this merman in a desert city with a human friend. Another, disconnected, was of a priest surrounded by wolves, with a background in my mind of true priests and antagonistic ones. For some reason, it suddenly occurred to me that the scenes were all part of one book.

Tell me about the mermayds.

When I decided to make them ambiguously gendered and non-mammalian, I couldn’t call them merMAIDS. But, since that was the look I wanted to conjure–humanoid from the waist up, fish-like from the waist down, long hair, slightly vain–the term, with alternate spelling, seemed appropriate. I used a same-but-different species because I thought it would be fun to work with; the developing story line turned it from just fun into a metaphor for defining people out of humanity.

To what degree were they inspired by real world cultural groups and species?

They were originally inspired by Matthew Arnold’s take on the fantasy creatures, but you’re right: I did research alternate sexual reproductive systems. I also thought about cultural cross-contact in which each side knows only as much about the other as is necessary to trade. In Eel’s Reverence, you see how this affects human attitudes. In “Line of Descent”, the short story I give away on Smashwords, I look at an early contact from the mermayd point of view.

Let’s talk religion. The coalition of reaver priests rule the Eel. They have private armies, levy taxes, and hold court. In fact, they have completely replaced secular rule. Why is that?

From the coalition priests’ point of view, it’s because they want all possible wealth and control. In terms of the narrative imperative, it forms a knot of conflicts opposed to my protagonist from the outset: true priest versus reavers, true believers versus apathetic followers versus militants, competing economic interests, violence from various quarters versus pacifism.

Were you thinking of historic examples when you created the Eel’s religious government?

Not specifically, but pre-Reformation Catholicism must come to mind. There were a GREAT many priests who followed the way of pacifism, inclusiveness and compassion, as well as the cynical indulgence sellers.

One of the central conflicts in Eel’s Reverence is between the “True” priests, who foster private spirituality, and the reaver priests, and in particular the coalition of reaver priests seeking to expand and secure their hold on power by driving out the true priests, and by extension, destroying private spiritual practice. Can you explain a little bit about how you came to devote so much of the book to that issue?

My main character is a priest who comes into the area when she leaves her parish because a fancy reaver temple is pulling her devotees away. So the conflict begins before the book’s action, and is the impetus that puts Aunt Libby where I want her for the story to begin. She doesn’t intend to be part of that conflict. Her intention is to avoid the conflict by leaving. When she lands in the middle of this more intense version, she still intends to pass through and wander on, feeling sorry for herself. I had intended for the story to be about Aunt Libby, Muriel and Loach’s adventures in Batumi, the desert city, but the stew of conflicts in Port Novo was so rich, I had to use it.

The birds and the bees get a bit of a makeover in Eel’s Reverence. The mermayds can shift gender at need, like those African frogs, and both mermayds and “humans” follow the pattern set by seahorses-the females produce the eggs, and the males nurture them in belly pouches. I found the way that seemed to affect the male characters’ relationships to children, and male/female roles in general, fascinating. Can you tell me a little bit about what prompted that?

I’m glad you noticed that! There are a lot of reasons human societies in general stereotype attitudes/duties by gender, and it pleases me to eliminate some of those reasons and see what happens. It’s my contention that, without societal stereotyping, males and females are equally nurturing or not, depending on their particular individual natures.

Where does Eel’s Reverence fit in with the other books you’ve written?

Eel’s Reverence was the first book I completed and the first book I sold. It and the next two books due out from Echelon Press, Force of Habit and Sideshow in the Center Ring, were epublished back in 1994, in the first Rocket eBook era. They did well at first, but languished when ebooks fell into eclipse. When the Kindle revitalized the industry, I requested my rights back and submitted them as reprints to Echelon, which is devoted to maximizing the new technologies with and for its writers. Not that I have a word to say against my previous publisher–Serendipity Systems was and is great, just not right for me. We parted on good terms.

Force of Habit (due out in November of 2010) and Sideshow in the Center Ring (due out in February of 2011) are very different, and each is very different from Eel’s Reverence. FOH is a crazy sf farce, an exploration of the writers’ mantra that each character in a book is the main character in his/her own story. I use multiple points of view and sometimes show the same scene from two or three of those points of view. Each person is convinced he or she knows exactly what’s going on, and they’re all so wrong, but it all works out in the end. SIDESHOW is sf set mostly on a planet on which slavery is legal, giving me a chance to explore some of the ways we give our lives over to other people, some of whom abuse that honor.

One thing all three books have in common is the willingness of some people to take responsibility for the wellbeing of others, even if there’s no obvious requirement or expectation that they do it. I find that amazing and absolutely admirable.

In addition to these three novels, I’ve put together collections of short stories available for Kindle and, on Smashwords, for a variety of formats.

Find out more about Marian Allen and her books here.

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Here at the doghouse we’ve been busy the last few weeks. Two great writers, sci fi author Marian Allen and novelist, nature writer, and memoirist Brenda Peterson, will be stopping by to talk books–primarily their own–with us. This might seem like an unlikely pairing, but the books we’ll be discussing, Eel’s Reverence (Marian Allen), and I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth (Brenda Peterson) both explore some of today’s most controversial issues–the uneasy relationship between private spirituality and organized religion, between religion and humanism, and between a society and the cultural groups it finds alien and threatening. And they do it in the context of some cracking good writing.

September 17–This will be Marian Allen’s last stop on her blog book tour for Eel’s Reverence, so if you’ve got a question you’ve been dying to ask please do plan to stop by.

September 20–Magic Dog weighs in on Aunt Libby, Loach, reaver priests, and the whole idea of the male of any species having to carry babies.

September 22–We’ll review Brenda Peterson’s memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here On Earth. Brenda gives us as look at her remarkable family, and at the challenges growing up in a family both nature-loving and fundamentalist. If you don’t understand the inherent conflict there, Brenda’s book is a must-read. We’ll give you a little taste of it here, though, to whet your appetite.

September 24–We’ll talk to Brenda about her book, her life, how she came to write I Want To Be Life Behind, and baby-sitting seal pups.

September 29–We’ll talk a bit about the issues that Marian and Brenda raise in their books, and consider how those issues play out today. Mostly, I suspect we’ll be asking questions, and giving you a chance to weigh in with your thoughts.
So that’s the rest of September! Stop by often–lots of good stuff here this month.

Please plan to stop by and meet these two great writers.

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