I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel like a monkey in a cage. (Is this guy holding a banana or giving the thumbs up?) I have so much going on in my life that sometimes I need to run around and scream and throw fruit and all my toys and pound on the glass. Fling poo, perhaps.
And then the opportunity comes up to attend a weekend in peaceful surroundings with other like-minded souls: A writing retreat dedicated to getting ME, the writer, out of my life and into my project for three blissful days. I heard, I signed up, I went.
Two intelligent, articulate women showing the key to successful scenes and plots? Oh. My. A weekend of peaceful writing/plotting/thinking, along with yoga, vegetarian meals and a beautiful temple space for meditation, redwoods and hillsides for hikes, and other writers/authors making progress on their paths, sharing their struggles and triumphs. It was outstanding.
The last writing conference I went to was the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference, in about 2000, before I had published any of my longer works, and I was really struggling with my edge Catholic story, Tongues of Angels. I was able to show the opening chapter to Michael Cunningham and chat with Jane Smiley about my story, and they were both so encouraging that I was able to keep going on my path to publication. It was an excellent experience.
But I don’t often spend the money (these are always pricey — note that it was 15 years ago since the last one) or take the needed time to write unobstructed. As we speak, my living room is awash in boxes and trash bags from moving our belongings out of our vacation cabin because we rented it out long-term. I can’t even see the floor in one room and the dining table is only a memory under a pile of paper. My husband is away on a business trip which means I am single-parenting this week, and I have major deadlines.
How does one create the sense of retreat in the midst of a battle zone? I’m not sure it’s possible. But I won’t let that good momentum, that energy and sense of direction go to waste. I’m getting organized today, right now, to move forward and put these new ideas and skills into practice.
It’s time to get serious about the next step in my work. It’s time to make the leap. Get ready. Here I go.
I know I wrote on this topic about six months ago, but I’m working on new things, so I said yes to the invitation to share my WIP. I was invited by Laurie Baxter (click here to visit her blog post). Thanks, Laurie!
What is your working title of your book (or story)? Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News: #2 in the Hot Off the Press Series
Where did the idea come from for these books?
I wanted Veronika to have some more adventures, of course, but my friend Woody Minor told me a true story about a local Victorian house that possibly had Gold Rush coins hidden in the walls. I took that idea and ran with it.
What genre do your books fall under?
Veronika is a mystery. My Hot Off the Press series is suspenseful and romantic, but closer to NA mystery than anything else. You could also call them chick-lit but NA (New Adult) is the preferred term these days.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Veronika Layne chases a story about a Hollywood real estate house flipper, mysterious gold coins, and why someone is buying up old houses on San Pedro Island.
Will your book(s) be self-published or represented by an agency? Booktrope, a hybrid publisher, is representing my Veronika Layne series, as well as Tongues of Angels.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I wrote this quickly, as a NaNoWriMo project — thirty days! But revisions took quite a bit longer. I revised for several months after that. it’s a short book, just 50,000 words, so it goes fast, both reading and writing.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I think you can compare Veronika Layne Has a Nose for News with anything that Dick Francis wrote — it has the same steeped-in-her-occupation as Francis’s jockeys or other MCs. You could also compare Veronika with Bridget Jones, for getting into sticky situations and feeling like a flop.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
My friend Woody gave me the idea, but I have been nurturing Veronika Layne inside of me for some time. She has the characteristics of my daughters — smart, feminist, fun — with the shrewd journalist I longed to be. She has some of my insecurities but she hasn’t yet attained wisdom. I’m enjoying watching her grow as a woman and as a reporter.
I also included a character named Flo who was a real-life sweet friend and neighbor of ours who painted beautiful florals and still lifes. I have several of her paintings. The story about Flo is mostly true. Here’s some of the real Flo’s work:
I still miss Flo today, and was happy I could include her in this sub-plot about a talented artist who acts as Veronika’s surrogate grandmother. These paintings are in my office and I see and love them every day.
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.