The Courage for Memoirs

By Karen Wills

In her novel, Dreamers of the Day, Mary Doria Russell has her somewhat fictionalized version of T.E. Lawrence a/k/a Lawrence of Arabia  announce his intent to write a memoir. Then he asks, “Have you heard the old joke about Job sitting on his dunghill?” Lawrence goes on, “He tells his friends all his troubles and at the end one of them says, ‘Yes, but you know…there could be a book in it!’”

The book referred to would be a memoir. But what does that mean? According to my Random House Dictionary, it’s “records of facts or events in connection with a particular subject, historical period, etc. as known to the writer or gathered from special sources.”

People send their memoirs out into the world for varied reasons. Montana’s Laura Munson wrote, This is Not the Story You Think It Is, about her decision to refuse to see herself as the victim in the breakup of her marriage.

A friend of mine who worked both as a teacher and school psychologist gained wisdom about American public education both in the South during the Civil Rights Era and on through the days of No Child Left Behind. She is writing a memoir using her varied experiences to explain her philosophy of education. The stories that shaped her views are gripping and credible.

I had a teaching experience of my own that showed me clearly the power of a well-written memoir. A student of mine was flirting with the idea of admiring Hitler.  I assigned him Elie Wiesel’s wrenching Night followed by the same author’s Dawn. These depict the horrors of the Holocaust and its aftermath.  I followed that with parts of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer. By semester’s end, my student had moved 180 degrees from his first leanings. That’s the power of a courageous memoirist.

My son has suggested that I write a memoir as my life has always fit into the forefront of the social movements and trends of my lifetime. Honestly, I don’t have the nerve. My adventures feel private and my wisdom too often the hard-won result of foolishness I’d rather keep to myself.

But here’s to the brave, vulnerable, generous people who share their stories and views in memoirs. Humanity needs them.

river with no bridge

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Collateral Damage in Fiction

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By Karen Wills

We’ve all seen feature photos that show victims of war—collateral damage is the modern term for them—the nonmilitary who suffer. Think of the crying infant by the railroad tracks of post-bombed Hiroshima; the agony of the naked Vietnamese girl’s face as she runs toward us, the beautiful shocked eyes of the Afghan girl.

By chance, I’ve lately come across characters, literary inventions, which are collateral damage in two big novels. I marvel at how the authors made them into what author David Long calls “bright human images.”

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One of the novels is E.L. Doctorow’s, The March. It’s a broad epic depiction of Sherman’s March to the Sea. I hadn’t realized what a cross section of humanity, not just military, joined in the March. They included freed former slaves, nurses, refugees traveling with the very army responsible for their displacement, Southern deserters, and opportunists.

One memorable character is Emily Thomas, genteel daughter of a distinguished Southern judge. When her father dies just as Union Soldiers take over his house, Emily throws her lot in with the Union surgeon who helps her see to his burial. She becomes a nurse, like the doctor blind to blue or grey. She becomes stronger than she could have thought possible.

Pearl is an adolescent “white Negro” who carries a letter she intends to deliver written by  the Union officer who protected Pearl on much of the March. It’s written to his wife in Washington, D.C.

Each homeless person in the book finds a rough shelter and some measure of companionship on the journey. We see them as resilient, desperate, but purposeful, individual survivors.

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundahti Roy has a more modern and terrible take on what countries warring over religion, power, and land can do to their own inhabitants. Written to show historic upheavals between India and Pakistan, and especially the battles over Kashmir, Roy gives us memorable characters of collateral damage. These include transgender people who become more and more marginalized, and those who lose loved ones to torture and murder on the part of police and military, and those who love well, but not wisely ( feminist Tilo and Kashmiri freedom fighter Musa) in dangerous times.

We care about these people and we think about what war has done to them. They become symbols of collateral damage of war. These books, and our own country’s present and historical involvement in war, make me think of the importance of creating characters who remind us of the importance of humanity, even in extreme times. 

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September Book News

 

LESLIE BUDEWITZ: September is a month of mixed feelings in these parts. A signal of a fresh start almost as palpable as January, as the weather begins to change and the kids head back to school (we all feel it, don’t we, no matter what our age), mingled with a sense of loss, as another glorious Rocky Mountain summer slips behind us.

In Book News, Christine Carbo and I will be on a panel together, along with mystery writers Gwen Florio and Mark Stevens, at the Montana Book Festival in Missoula, Sept 29-30. (We don’t know the date or time yet, so check in with the Festival or one of us, if you plan to go.) We’ll be talking about modern mysteries set in the west, how place influences character, and much more. I hope to see you there!

Meanwhile, delighted to say that Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine will publish a short story of mine next year titled “All God’s Sparrows,” featuring the real-life—and larger than life—character, Mary Fields. I’ll share the pub date and ordering info as the date approaches.

Enjoy these last glorious days of summer, and thank you for spending them with us.

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LISE McCLENDON Okay, it’s not quite slippers-by-the-fire weather yet but in case you’re stocking up for chilly weather, my new mystery, The Frenchman, is coming out very soon. This is the fifth installment in the Bennett Sisters Mystery series and we’re back in France this time. Merle Bennett is writing her own novel while taking a leave of absence in the Dordogne, so, yes, this is a story-inside-a-story. When that Frenchman, Pascal, runs into an old nemesis and goes missing, Merle must rally the troops to find him.  After an exclusive run I’m back on all e-book platforms (yay!) Amazon Nook KOBO iBooks  Also available in paperback. Happy autumn reading 🍁

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Book Signing by Karen Wills author of River with No Bridge  Saturday, September 16, 2017, 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at Montana Book and Toy Company, 331 North Last Chance Gulch, Helena, Montana.                  

river with no bridgeThis month’s issue of Cowgirl calls the novel a “compelling and touching story.” Booklist’s review of the novel called it “a gripping, sometimes heartbreaking story of immigrant survival in the West.” The August Historical Novel Society Reviews sums up with,   “I love pioneering stories and gritty women, and Ms. Wills’ engrossing tale provides both.”

Sunday, September 17th at 2:00 p.m. the Lewis and Clark Library at 120 South Last Chance Gulch will present Questions and Answers on Writing a Historical Novel with Karen Wills.

Karen looks forward, as always, to a visit with friends in Helena.

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Move Over, Southern Writers

By  Karen Wills

Since my roomy at the Historical Novel Society 2017 North American Conference, Janice McCaffrey, has written about sessions she attended, I’ll continue the thread.

Libbie Hawker, a young writer I admire both for her talent and prodigious output, was to moderate a panel discussion listed as Historical Fiction through a Pacific Northwest Lens. Emphasis was on the region as our last frontier.  pacific nw

Since NW Montana as part of the Inland Northwest is a sort of cousin to the Pacific Northwest states only without a coastline, I decided to attend. A former member of Kalispell’s Authors of the Flathead, Janet Fisher (A Place of her Own, and The Shifting Winds) presence on the panel became another incentive. Additional speakers were Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky, the Audacity Jones series, and others), and Janet L. Oakley (Tree Soldier, Timber Rose, and Mist-Shi-Mus).

Panelists first addressed how curiosity about their region determines what they write. It also leads to sources chosen for research. These include Metzger maps, documents such as deeds, historical societies, old letters, and professional historians to interview. The list also included early regional newspapers. As an aside, Oakley reminded us when we’re researching online, to look for sites ending in edu or org. Also, in order to save later grief, for every source record its date and where you found it.

Kirby Larson also spoke to the special temptations of using everything you’ve found in research. She once wrote an entire chapter on how to bake bread in a wood stove. As Janet Fisher said, of historical fiction, “The background is the brush strokes. Give a sense of your era without going into great detail.”

When asked about writing about minority populations, such as the Japanese Americans interred during WWII, panelists agreed on very minimal use of offensive racist terms. Writers need to be realistic about the era being covered, while still recognizing twenty-first century sensibilities.

The panel surprised us by expressing a desire to have the vibrant group of Pacific Northwest novelists become as recognizable and distinct by region as the Southern writers, think Truman Capote or Harper Lee. I caught up with Libby later, and suggested us Inland Northwesters be included.

river with no bridge

Now available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle

https://karenwills.com 

Face Book: Karen Wills Author