You know how it feels when your child attempts to do something, and you know it’s going to be difficult, but you stand back and watch her struggle anyway? And maybe she’s not so successful? And then she tries again, a few years later, and struggles, and is still not completely successful? You cheer her on no matter what, even though you have the gut feeling that she might not make it?
That’s what it has felt like with my first novel, Tongues of Angels. This novel, TOA for short, was my creative thesis in grad school. My poor thesis advisor read it at least three times, and it was a ghastly 500 pages long at the time. I feel for her, I do. I pitched the novel to agents and to more agents, and got lots of maybes but no yeses. I took chunks of it to writing conferences and got a pat from Jane Smiley and a hug from Michael Cunningham, and I had a long correspondence with Ron Hansen in which he encouraged me to push onward.
I workshopped it and book-doctored it, had alpha readers give it thumbs up – and a librarian at the university took it home to read over Christmas break and showed it to her brother who’s a screenwriter in Hollywood. The novel became a story treatment that went the rounds, including landing on Salma Hayek’s lap. I have a check for $1 that is my movie option. If someone bought it I would have received $40,000.
And then – I got divorced, and putting food on the table for my three girls became priority number one. I struggled for a couple of years as an editor at two different weekly newspapers; at the latter one, the Alameda Sun, the owners decided that we should put out some books, to broaden the reach of the publishing company. Who had a book that was ready for prime time? I did. Scarlet Letter Press launched its first book with Tongues of Angels, but in order to broaden the distribution they decided that iUniverse would be the best bet for getting onto Amazon and around the world.
So we did that. Online selling was not huge yet, and ebooks were just a blip on the radar. The book sold some hundreds of paperback copies but not millions. The reviews were very good. The press was outstanding. I did several readings throughout California and got excellent coverage. But I spent most of my time trying to get independent bookstores to carry it, and when they would carry it, would they please pay me? I am still owed, to this day, hundreds of dollars from indie bookstores that never paid for their books.
Ten years later, in 2013, I was in a coalition of independent writing women and we were all publishing amazing work. The indie movement had taken off, had rocketed into the stratosphere, and I got myself a Kindle and had a revelation. Let’s redo TOA with a new cover and try it as an indie! A fantastic designer, Chelsea Starling, redid the cover for the 21st century, and away we went. Reviews were still excellent, and then I got picked up by Booktrope and they were delighted to republish my older books. They wanted TOA in their stable. So I sent this little baby back through the channels again – same cover, re-edit, proofing, and now, back into the world for a third time.
Is the third time the charm? Maybe.
Here’s the synopsis:
A lifelong vow. A Catholic priest with questions. A penitent woman with a secret past. A jealous friend. The fourth in this lover’s knot? God. A true love story that shocked the Catholic Church, and pulled back the curtain on the priesthood.
Average 4 ½ stars on Amazon.
And here’s what the critics said:
David Baker, Snapshots of A Marriage: “As erotically compelling as the Song of Songs.”
Dan Barnett, Chico Enterprise-Record: “Sexually charged: I was struck by [Park Tracey’s] lush, hothouse, erotic style.”
Christa Martin, Santa Cruz Good Times: “Tongues of Angels swings open the doors to the Catholic Church, lifts up the chasuble and exposes what’s underneath…Her novel talks about all the things [they] hope we won’t talk about.”
Kelly Vance, East Bay Express: “Hot under the collar…A scandalous yarn.”
Jordan Rosenfeld, Forged in Grace: “Julia Park Tracey brings wicked honesty and scathingly hot prose to this soulful novel; with crackling nuance, she seduces readers. Tongues of Angels is both sexy and spiritual.”
Ever feel like a schmuck? I have the cure. In no particular order, here are some exciting or dreary adventures that happened to me whilst on the road or giving local readings. Feel better about yourself immediately upon reading!
The bookstore owner giving the reading got my name wrong, my genre wrong, and said the novel (Tongues of Angels) was self-published when it small-press-pubbed. I may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Read more about this memorable event here.)
The Portland bar that was supposed to premiere the Rebel Girl cocktail for the Doris Diaries debut forgot and did not buy any of the ingredients. Disappointing, after much ado, publicity, hoopla and advertising. Luckily, they had other alcohol. Lots of it.
A second bar later on the same tour also did not buy the ingredients for the drink, and the owner was sick, leaving his right-hand man, a waiter, in charge. The right-hand man was annoyed at having a reader in the restaurant and only grudgingly set up the mic. He then stood in front of me, blocking me from the audience, as I was reading, and later, yelled at me in French from the back of the room. Yes, I was heckled in French in a Mexican restaurant in Arizona.
A city library had zero attendees for my reading. I had bought advertising in the town ahead of time, sent flyers around, PRed like crazy, and so did the library. Two librarians came and listened to my presentation. We all felt like schmucks.
I basically had to change my entire poetry reading at the podium because someone had brought impressionable children, just old enough to ask questions. The selection I had prepared was a romantic/sexy set of poems, and – I just couldn’t do sexy talk in front of the kids. Awkward? Yes.
I pride myself on my vintage costumes when reading from The Doris Diaries. At a local reading for the first volume, I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do, I wore a lovely green ensemble, authentic from underpinnings outward. When I took my seat, I heard seams tear, I felt elastic give, and suddenly I was a sausage bursting its casing. With 50 people watching. #Sexy? You betcha.
At another reading soon after, I wore a different vintage dress, less sausagy, but with some beautiful ribbon scrolls all around the skirt. As I waited for the reading to begin, I sat at a table and signed books. When I rose to go to the platform and read, the ribbonwork caught on the arm of the captain’s chair and tore out the back of the dress. I kept my front to the audience and kept smiling, despite the draft.
I prepared a standard bio for the bookstore host to read in introducing me, but he scrapped that and instead, rewrote it in rhyme form (not his strong suit). I have blanked out most of the words, but what still haunts me is that final jarring line: “She’s always racy – Julia Park Tracey.” #fml
I gave a poetry reading and had brought along my book, Amaryllis, for sale. As I grabbed one of them to sign, the book flipped open and I realized that the innards of the book were wrong. The inside sections were put together incorrectly, and the poems and acknowledgements were mixed up. Obviously a mistake at the printer – five years ago. I wonder in horror how many of those have been sold. #thingsthatkeepmeupatnight
The time I was on tour, taking Amtrack from city to city, and the crew got my suitcase off the train but not my books. That’s right. Book store, no books. Ring this up: No sale.
I’m not done writing books or giving readings, so I expect I’ll have more adventures to add to this list in the next few months. (I’m in the throes of promoting Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop as we speak.)
“Poetry is kind of like Brussels sprouts,” a friend of mine said recently. “Some people love it and most people hate it.”
I find this both funny and, sadly, true; sadly because I consider myself a poet – but it took a long time, a lot of work and even more encouragement by fellow poets and mentors to claim that title.
The woman who made that tasty analogy is Julia Park Tracey, and she was recently named Poet Laureate for the city of Alameda, where she lives in California. In addition to being newly minted as Poet Laureate, Julia is also an accomplished editor and journalist, and has published books in a variety of genres, including novels, the collected diaries of her great aunt (a fabulous Flapper in the Roaring 20s) and, of course, poetry. It’s my distinct pleasure to sit down with Julia and, on behalf of Sweatpants and Coffee, learn more about what makes this pretty poet tick.
Tomi: Julia, how exciting to be named a Poet Laureate! Tell us the story of how you were appointed.
Julia: Alameda had a Poet Laureate named Mary Rudge for a long time – about 10 years. Mary passed away early in 2014 and the position was vacant. I was asked to apply by some folks at the city, and decided I would. I was surprised to be selected – I am known for many other things besides poetry, but poetry is my first literary love. So I’m pretty chuffed about the title.
Tomi: When and how did you start writing poetry?
Julia: My first exposure to real poetry came in 9th grade when I was home sick and my mom brought me some books from the library. On a whim, I asked her for poetry, and she brought me a large engraved picture book of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I fell in love with the cadences. Another of the books had “Kubla Kahn” and I loved that, too. Very old-fashioned stuff, but soon I was reading Plath and Alice Walker and Marge Piercy and writing my own rhymey and not-rhymey verses. “Rhymey” is a technical term, right?
Tomi: Of course it is. Now, who would you say is your favorite poet, and what are a few of your go-to poems when you feel the need to be inspired, comforted or just need a few beautiful, brilliant words?
Julia: Favorites for many years have been Sappho, Rumi, Piercy and Walker – their words always resonate and make me feel larger, somehow. Sylvia Plath is interesting but she is impenetrable sometimes. She needs a hammer and chisel to break open. I am not a fan of McClure and the Beats in general, though there are some that I like. I was Harold Norse’s secretary for a summer in the early 90s. He was a good teacher. TS Eliot, Charles Simic, Sparrow – whoever is getting printed in The Sun – those poets are very good in general.
Tomi: You’ve written and published a lot more than poetry: you worked diligently through your great aunt Doris’s diaries and published them in two volumes. What inspired you to take on that project, and what did you learn from it?
How has the response been to the Diaries?
Julia: The Doris Diaries project has been an homage to my great aunt – she was an amazing writer but never published her best work. She wrote her life story and self-pubbed it at age 96 – but the magic had gone out of her words. The diaries are so vibrant – it was like discovering a trove of Virginia Woolf. Her way of telling stories, of accessing the human heart – lovely. I have been publishing these myself, but BookTrope is going to reissue the two I have done, and will support more volumes to come. All the profits I’ve received from publishing Doris’s words have gone to Reed College in Doris’s name, as scholarship monies.
People love Doris and her stories. I have a good following on Facebook and Twitter (look for The Doris Diaries) and I get comments and feedback every day from people who feel her pain or laugh at or with her. I’ve had nothing but good since I started publishing Doris’s diaries.
Tomi: I love that you’re donating the profits, and I think Doris would have dug it, too. I’m glad her life and stories are being shared and touching people, that’s awesome.
You also have one novel under your belt, and one to be published by BookTrope this fall (a very steamy novel, I will add). Give us a glimpse into those novels and what sparked you to write them.
Julia: My first novel was literary fiction and was my thesis from my MA program. It’s called Tongues of Angelsand is about a Catholic priest and the politics of falling in love when you’re vowed to celibacy. It was inspired by my former husband, who had been a priest before we married. It’s edgy and sensuous but not overtly sexy. It’s really about coming to a fork in the road and deciding what kind of life to lead – fulfilled or thwarted? Living truth or living a lie, and how your choices change your life.
The novel that BookTrope is publishing this fall is a fun, sassy chick-lit suspense novel about a tattooed and pierced reporter who stumbles across a big story and has to race the clock to save an Indian burial ground from real estate developers, and beat the competition, too. Plus she has lots of hot sex. It’s called Veronika Layne Gets the Scoop and is the first in a series of three (or maybe more). I have been a journalist for 30 years; you can count on the newspaper atmosphere to feel very authentic. You’ll have to guess about the sex, though.
Tomi: Oooh, having been a beat reporter myself, I look forward to that.
So, as if all this writing and publishing and poetry isn’t enough, you do a lot of good work in your community, including teaching workshops in journalism, creative writing and marketing for authors.
Julia: I like working with kids, so I teach journalism classes to kids after school. I have taught poetry or creative writing to all ages of classes – mostly through volunteering in my daughters’ classrooms over the years. I have three daughters plus two stepchildren, and so I’ve had kids in school for about 25 straight years. That’s a lot of volunteering. I have also done workshops at writing conferences about marketing and PR for writers – I ran my own boutique publicity firm for three years, specializing in PR for non-profits and artists, most of whom can’t afford a PR person – so I learned how to DIY, and that’s how I teach it.
It’s important to be a part of the community you live in, to make it better. I can’t throw buckets of money at projects like Bill Gates can, and my time is limited by family and work, but when I have a skill to share, and I see a need, I will offer it up. For example, I made my poetry book launch a food drive for our local food bank – to thank them for when I was a single mother and was a food bank client. I have made the “admission fee” to various events a new or used children’s book, and then shared those with local preschools. I have donated books or free consultations to the many silent auctions that our local charities have. Even if you don’t have money or time, there are things you can do. In September, I am reading aloud for an hour at a Banned Books read-a-thon. Anyone who can read can do that. It’s a pay-it-forward kind of thinking.
Tomi: That is a lot of do-gooding. Thank you for that, sister. Anything else you’d like to share before our Poetry Coffee Break is over?
Julia: The biggest help to me in the last few years has been to gather a strong community of other writers around me. Not to work alone – because writing is very lonely. You work in a vacuum and it’s hard to tell if you’re a genius or if you suck. Find other writers who can support you and give feedback, cross-market or go to events with you. I have had a handful of supportive women close at hand for the past three years especially, and they have made a world of difference to my writing, my sense of connectedness, and my outlook. Don’t go it alone – take a buddy!
Elegy for October 1989
After the earthquake, we half-laughed and half-cried
as we picked through our belongings
strewn in sliding piles on the tilted floor.
That night, we blinked for endless hours in the dark,
all of us in one bed, covers pulled to our chins.
Our eyes snapped open like Roman shades
when ceiling creaked or house settled.
The house seemed a trap, yet our only haven.
The earth bumped and shrugged some more,
tore me back under to the dark place, where I remembered the attack,
how I’d screamed and fought my panic, losing;
and I felt some embedded part of me hit open air,
torn from its protective sheath,
burning like a first breath, like pepper in the eye:
I am weak, there is something much stronger than I am.
I was weak then; they outgrew my control:
the faceless one,
the moving ground,
the shudders and hiccups that followed, for weeks, years,
that still send me, adrenaline-crazed, to doorjambs,
while my teacups and windows rattle.
Over Lake Merritt
I come down the steps of the bank building,
invisible in the evening rush,
a check in my hand for the money from the house
that is no longer mine, the life
that is no longer mine,
pinwheeling, careening toward whatever and who the fuck,
from some bliss and pain and secrets,
dead to their world, they dead to mine;
pelicans wheel above,
pterodactyls on the hunt,
their reptile legs tucked under,
their cold yellow eyes,
silent but screaming that aik aik that I hear
when I can’t open my eyes at night, when I am awake and yet asleep,
when I reach for what I had that is gone,
when I wake and am cold.
When I rise and am silent.
*originally published PEN West anthology, April 2007
You can follow Julia Park Tracey on Twitter and Facebook under her own name. Look for the Twitter hashtags #poetlaureate and #whypoetrymatters, and like the new Facebook page, Alameda Poet Laureate, for Julia’s latest poetry and literary happenings.
Tomi L. Wiley is the Poetry and Short Fiction Editor for Sweatpants & Coffee. She has written and edited for mainstream and private media including Southern Living and Oxford American magazines, edited numerous manuscripts and literary anthologies, procured authors and coordinated panels for the Southern Festival of Books and am a past President of the Tennessee Writers Alliance. She studied poetry in France as part of a program with the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is a published author and poet. She digs ice cream, goat cheese, red wine and very loud jazz. She is working on her first novel.
Everyone says, “Oh, I’ve been so busy.” I have, too, but in a low-key way. In January of this year, my brother-in-law Dennis was diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer. I had just made a rigorous plan for my books, writing, and marketing for 2014, and had gathered full momentum already. But I realized that some things are more important than writing blog posts or tweeting about my writing projects. So I put most of my work aside and made myself available to help.
Dennis was a Vietnam veteran, in the 25th Infantry, 1969-71. He was just a kid, but he did his duty, was injured twice, earned two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star. Along the way he was sprayed with Agent Orange. One of the most stunning things the VA man told Dennis earlier this year was that, because of where Dennis was on certain dates with his division, “That was the day you were killed. It’s just taken this long to catch up to you.”
I took Dennis to the doctor when he needed a ride. He wasn’t able to drive with his oxygen tank, and walking was also a challenge, but we sped around the open corridors of Kaiser Santa Rose popping wheelies in a borrowed wheelchair. I sneaked a few Playboys to him. Because of various health reasons, radiation was not an option, and neither was surgery. Chemo was brutal. He suffered multiple strokes that left him incapacitated and in a long-term care facility, was anointed by the monsignor and made a miraculous recovery to almost his former self. He was able to walk, talk and reason again, and soon was home. But there could be no more chemo. It was a matter of enjoying what time he had left.
I was with Dennis on his last day in early June, a scant six months after diagnosis, taking my turn at companionship, preparing food and tracking medicine. It was a very long day. He wasn’t himself, didn’t feel well, and the hours dragged. By the time my sister Carolyn got home from work, I was exhausted but it was clear he wasn’t well, so I stayed. The nurse came late that night, and we had him settled for bed. But when we went to give him his next round of meds, he had stopped breathing. That was it — life and death, just a breath between the two. We held him and said thank you and how much we loved him, and he was gone.
A few days later my sister asked if I would speak at Dennis’s memorial, and while I was honored to do so, I knew I had to figure out what to say, and for me — a lifelong writer — that was an assignment that, for once, kind of sent me into a tizz. I don’t get writer’s block, as a rule. Because I have been a journalist and have written to deadline since high school, on newspapers, in the heat of rushing to press, very little stops me from getting words onto the page. But this was a tough one.
During the springtime and early summer, my husband and I had purchased a fixer-upper, and I found that throwing myself into cleaning house, clearing garbage and weeds, and shoveling dirt — I could think again. So I wrote the short essay of my life, and delivered it at his funeral earlier this month. And after the sound of the gunfire salute, the playing of Taps, and the long memorial barbecue afterward, I found that I still have a writing path, I still have a career that needed my attention, and I kind of wandered back to my desk.
So here I am — and that’s where I’ve been. And I have news. Not fallen from heaven like a meteor, unexpected and surprising, but some things I have worked for over the years, with diligence, endless writing and earning my way up the ladder.
Last week, I signed with BookTrope, a new publishing company that is changing the way books get out into the world. I am very excited to be a BookTrope author, and the first offering will be my new chick-lit novel, formerly called Shell Game, but with a title change in the works. The heroine is Veronika Layne, a tattooed and pierced young reporter who stumbles on a mystery in her town, and has to race against real estate developers to save shell mounds from destruction. Drawn from my days as a weekly news reporter in a small city, this heroine is smart, rebellious, and persistent, has a crush on her rival reporter, and is determined to save the day. Sassy, sexy, smart — Veronika will steal your heart. First in a series, by BookTrope!
BookTrope will also republish both of my Doris Diaries books as well as my novel, Tongues of Angels; watch for that news on social media and links here. The Doris Diaries will become part of the “matriarchal legacy” line at BookTrope, and will be released together in March 2015 as part of Women’s History Month.
And last but not least, I got this letter in the mail yesterday:
It’s true! I will be appointed as Alameda’s Poet Laureate (a two-year term) in September at a City Council meeting. Very exciting! I will be leading poetry readings, visiting the schools and senior center, and judging contests. I will be using the hashtags #PoetLaureate and #whypoetrymatters on social media — look for them!
So I’m back on track, with lots to do. Thanks for hanging in there and know how much your readership means to me, today, and every day.
I spent April in a frenzy of family activities, spring break, out-of-town visitors, and then playing catch-up, but when May 1 rolled around, it was nose-to-grindstone time. I am working a 31-day fast-draft challenge to finish my WIP, a genre chick-lit novel that is sexy romantic suspense. It will be released under the Scarlet Letter Press indie imprint in early summer under my pen name of Jae Bailey. More deets to follow. But trust me. It will be fun.
One of my short stories, from my unpublished collection, Wedlock: A Fictional Memoir, won honorable mention, that is, fourth place nationally in the Women’s National Book Association short fiction contest in late April.
I taught three rounds of kids’ journalism classes in Alameda over the school year, and, in fact, just finished the final class today. Three sessions of four weeks each gave the kids exposure to news-writing, what makes a story, parts of the newspaper, and the difference between hearsay and fact-based news. With students from fourth through seventh grades, the classes were rambunctious, enthusiastic and ultimately dynamic learning environments, as we talked over animal rights, the Olympics, climate change and racism, depending on the prevailing winds. Good times for all, and a real newspaper of their own making in their hands at the end of each 4-week session.
I’m freelancing on some magazine work just now, and will have some stories up in the next few months. I have deadlines next week, and have been interviewing and gathering info along the way. My favorite kinds of assignments are literary, food and beverage, and arts, and that’s just what’s on the agenda for me. I’ll post links when the stories go up.
The other news is that I set aside Volume 3 of The Doris Diaries for now, which I had planned for fall release, and am focusing on Doris in San Francisco. The year is 1938, and I am working hard to get a manuscript together for a July 1 deadline — for a historical book award. The prize is publication, so I am writing hard and fast to make it happen. If that falls through, I will still shop the volume to regional publishers, and I have high expectations of success with Doris’s vivid writing and historical cachet. Go, Doris! I can’t wait for her fame flag to fly.