As secretary of the Writers Foundation of Strathcona County, not only did I help plan, set up and tear down this event, but also attended as an author. It was an early start at 7 am to ensure the volunteers and all the display items were organized and in place prior to the opening at 9 am. As they say many hands make light work and the set up and tear down were completed in record time. The event celebrated it’s 15th year, which is a great milestone and this was the first in-person for 2 years.
It felt good to get my author table set up once again, and have the interaction with readers, and local authors too.
Another part of the day was author readings, and all the local authors delighted us with chapters of their chosen book to read. I read part of The Rython Kingdom – it felt good to reading out loud again after so long.
Of course, as a reader, I couldn’t resist buying a few books! So my TBR is now quite an impressive height! It will be difficult to pick which novel to read, after I finished Fairy Tale by Stephen King. Maybe I can write the titles on slips of paper and pick one out of a hat?
Quite often we snack while we read, our choice of snack varies with our personal taste, but it may also reflect the genre we are reading. Here is a list of suggested comparable foods for several genres.
Romance – Red wine & dark chocolate covered strawberries or cherries. Chocolate or vanilla flavored foods are also popular. Hot chocolate for an alternative to alcohol. Smooth, rich or decandent foods are best.
Thriller – This snack is right up there and is a real mixture – popcorn with cinnamon, olive oil and pesto or mixed with M&M. You can imagine popping each morsel into your mouth in quick succession as the tension grows within the narrative.
Fantasy – Linking back to a childhood fantasy – Snow White, this pick is the ‘bad’ apple choice. Apples covered in cinnamon, honey, or caramel. Red velvet cookies. Hummus and pita chips or french fries with ketchup.
Comedy – Animal Crackers. Tea and biscuits/cookies.
Historical Fiction – Tea and crumpets (or scones or crackers). Charcuterie. Coffee
Were your core beliefs the reason you began writing historical fiction?
In a way, yes. I was an English and History major in college and had a hard time finding information about influential women. I was appalled that even noble and royal women were rarely named while historians wrote tomes about the deeds and misdeeds of their brothers, husbands, and fathers. I initially felt compelled to give voice to women who had been marginalized, let alone completely overlooked. When I came across the African proverb, “Until the lion learns to write, every story will glorify the hunter,” I knew I must write novels about significant women based on strong historical evidence which had been supressed.
Did you grow up in an atmosphere of individual empowerment or did life experiences propel you in that direction?
My childhood was anything but empowering. I was terrified of my psychotic, authoritarian father, and ashamed of my mother, who did not stand up for herself, but instead fell headfirst into a bottle of whiskey to cope with her life. And yet, I always knew my mother and sister loved me unconditionally, something that sustained me through the trauma that was both my youth and the Sixties in general.
Despite her own demons, my mother managed to raise my sister and me to be strong, independent women. I learned from her example and vowed early on to never subjugate myself to another’s will, whether that of a person, a government, or a religion. When I met my husband, I realized he valued my independence. He encouraged me to be empowered and a freethinker. We’ve been married for 44 years and are still equal partners striving to become more self-aware. My husband tells people, “No one yells at Donna … twice.”
Where did the link to Celtic Tradition come from?
My mother was Irish and never felt quite at home with Christian dogma. She raised me in the “old ways,” which she learned from her grandmother. We celebrated the Celtic Wheel of the Year. As I child I loved the freedom to run in the fields and lay under a tree as my form of worship. I was taught that all things have a lifeforce, whether that be rock, tree, river, ocean, animal, or human. The earth-based spirituality practiced by the Celts felt natural and liberating. I gave Christianity a try in my early teens but found the basis of original sin constricting and repressive. As I grew older, I embraced my mother’s tradition and researched the “old ways” through books, retreats, and eventually leading my own quarter day celebrations.
Do you feel women’s wisdom is supressed in modern culture?
There is a resurgence of respect for women’s wisdom in many parts of the world. If we look back 200 years, or even 100 years, women who expressed wisdom were shunned, if not murdered. Even in fairy tales, the wise old woman, the woman who knows herbs and healing and speaks with the forest animals, is always a haggard, old, evil witch, that preys on children and the unwary; someone to be scorned. With women in the forefront, late 19th and early 20th century occult spirituality led by Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society and Annie Horniman’s Order of the Golden Dawn, women began to openly reclaim their personal power.
With the “women’s rights” movement of the early 1970s, and courageous leaders like Gloria Steinem, women began to publicly claim their inner wisdom and outer proficiency.
What we see from a historical perspective, is that anytime women advance in society it is through their own leadership and determination. The #MeToo movement is a great example of women joining together to bring about change. I’m speaking in broad terms of empowerment, but respect for women in all aspects of their lives, including women’s wisdom, cannot be separated from women’s empowerment.
While most of the world still suppresses women’s wisdom, there are pockets of light where women are honored. The Maiden, Mother, Crone aspects of women are certainly making gains, even though the perceived roles of women as Temptress, Whore, Witch, persist.
How did growing up in the 1960s affect your personality?
The Sixties were remarkable. Young people felt anything and everything was possible if we wanted it badly enough. The sixties stereotypical “free-love” culture received most of the press, but it was the larger desire to embrace “free-thinking” that motivated my generation. Definitely me. Conforming, following rules, becoming our parents with their warped sense of patriarchal rule, was anathema. My generation believed that if we united, we could affect change—and we united as had rarely been seen. My mother always encouraged me to think for myself. She encouraged me to question authority, even hers, and when given an answer, question that too!
As I grew older, went to college, started teaching high school English, I found that I could carry my values from the Sixties with me into the “adult” world, use them to help others find their own uniqueness, their own authenticity. The Sixties concepts of freedom of thought, freedom of action, freedom to live as one wanted, were tempered by another guiding star from my mother: Do no harm.
I continue to question authority, laws, regulations, first impressions, and the nature of people who enter and leave my life. I value unique qualities in people and depend on my inner sense to form, and break, my own opinions.
You wear many hats – memoirist, fiction author, journalist, activist, and teacher. Do these roles contribute to your writing?
Everything a writer does, or doesn’t do, influences what they write. I’ve found that even the agonizing writer’s-block is there for a reason: To shine a spotlight on what is blocked or hiding in one’s life at that moment. The many hats I’ve worn lend me varied perspectives about people’s actions and motivations.
I started writing the first book in my historical fiction series, The Last Magdalene, before I wrote House of the Moon: Surviving the Sixties. I realized my fascination with women marginalized throughout history was partially because I too had been marginalized and silenced; that my generation arose to claim our voice, to make certain we were not ignored. Writing my memoir was both traumatic and liberating. When I found I was able to write an unvarnished version of my teen years, it became imperative that I do the same for other women. I went back to square one and wrote The Last Magdalene from a deeper level of comprehension.
I find that the common thread in everything I do is to be authentic and to allow myself to change perspectives as I learn more about “life, the universe, and everything”—to quote one of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams.
From where do you gather your research? (Library, archives, internet etc.)
I use every means available but find physical books and research papers especially gratifying. I also like to travel to locations in order soak up the ambiance, feel the sun or rain, hear the sounds, touch the stones, eat the food, and immerse myself in the history of any given place. I even went back to my childhood home in Covina, California and walked around my high school while writing House of the Moon.
My research for The Last Magdalene includes studying with a Hebraic scholar, Shana Laxx, from Haifa University, to better understand women’s place and participation in ancient Judea. The primary written sources for my series, The Magdalene Chronicles, are from my personal library and include works by several Roman and Egyptian historians, Josephus, Elaine Pagels, and multiple translations of both the Torah and New Testament. I find reading various renditions of history to be illuminating, and helps me to see differences in various editions, and more importantly what one translator left out, or added.
I do refer to the internet but am skeptical about fast and easy searches. I end up going down the rabbit hole for hours on end trying to source information, and often end up back in my personal library, or emailing university professors who are always helpful and eager to aid in my research.
What surprising things did you learn from writing your books?
How much I don’t know!
I’m also continually surprised at how interconnected people are, even when there are no physical ties that bind. But above all other surprises, the reach of the written word is what continues. Books have been a major source of inspiration throughout my life. Maya Angelou, Alan Ginsberg, Hunter Thompson, Marion Zimmer-Bradley, Sharon Kay Penman, and so many other authors and poets have shaped my perspectives, given me both hope and despair. When someone contacts me to say my writing has impacted their lives, I’m hugely surprised and gratified.
Every person can make a difference, but it takes courage and authenticity. Don’t doubt your abilities or your insights. To quote Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself. Everybody else is already taken.”
Donna Conrad is an award-winning author, journalist, activist, and teacher. Her core values revolve around the concept of individual empowerment, a sustaining ideal running through the books she writes. Her writing interests are varied and include articles for fine-art periodicals, memoir/narrative non-fiction, as well as historical, flash, and paranormal fiction. She teaches all of the above at writers’ conferences.
Her first published book “House of the Moon: Surviving the Sixties,” has received rave reviews.
Donna’s life is as varied as her writing. She embraces change as an exciting adventure. She has studied writing with the likes of Alan Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Jack Whyte. She has also been mentored by Donald Maass, whom she worked with privately on her upcoming four-book historical fiction series, “The Magdalene Chronicles.” Book One, The Last Magdalene, is scheduled for publication April 2022.
She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and their five cats. When she’s not writing, you can find Donna cruising the back roads in her black-on-black Miata MX-5, Maya – named for one of her favorite poets, Maya Angelou.
Her memoir, House of the Moon; Surviving the Sixties has received critical acclaim. The first of her four-book historical fiction series, The Last Magdalene, is scheduled for publication April 2022.
That’s a great question and I don’t know if I have a single answer. I love the challenge, the process, I love the chance to connect with readers and other authors. As a reader, I love the feeling of falling into a good book, the kind that makes me forget time and space, forget where I am, and as a writer, the chance to create that type of experience for someone is just too cool an opportunity to pass up.
2. How long how you been writing?
Oh, gosh, on and off through school. I also wrote in university as self-care & a break with the course load. In 2006, I got serious—taking classes, attending workshops, reading books on craft—so I would count that year as THE year I began to write.
3. Why do you write, primarily, with female protagonists?
In every story, an author has to ask themselves, “Who is the best person to tell this story?” Sometimes, the voice that has the most authority is a female voice (as in the case with In the Key of Nira Ghani), sometimes, the voice will be male ( as in the case with Thicker than Water).
Stories should also reflect different experiences, which is why my characters can be BIPOC (Sleight of Hand), sporty (Nothing But Net), and/or come from cultures & families that aren’t based in North America (Maria and the Plague).
4. What messages do you want to convey in your stories?
Hmm, there’s a two-pronged answer to this question. I hope, when it comes to my writing voice, readers know my stories will have themes/messages of positive resolutions (though not necessarily happy ever after endings), optimism, resiliency, and strength in self. However, a story is subjective. We might all read the same book, but we won’t read the same story—our backgrounds, values, and pet peeves will come into play. To that end, my goal is to create a space that allows readers to feel and interpret as they see fit and enjoy the journey as they go along.
5. What is your writing style – planner or panster?
A bit of both! I like to have an outline, but I like to have freedom. To me, it’s like having a map. I’ve marked my route, but that doesn’t mean I can’t stop at Points of Interest or change the route as I go along.
6. Do you have a favorite place to write?
I have an office where I spend my days writing and editing. Final read throughs might happen in the family room.
7. Tell us about your latest book?
Maria & the Plague is part of the Girls Survive series from Capstone Books. Each story focuses on a girl living through an important (and often, a dangerous) time in history and her battle to survive against all odds.
In my book, “years of bad weather and natural disasters have choked Italy’s food supply, and the people of Florence are dying of starvation. Breadlines are battlegrounds, and young Maria has to fight for her family’s every loaf. Adding to the misery, the Black Plague is rapidly spreading through the country, killing everyone in its path. Maria has already lost her mother and sister. Will she be strong enough to save the rest of her family before it’s too late?”
It’s an eerily timely book, given our current pandemic. The similarities and hardships between Maria and today’s readers continue to astonish me. And like today’s circumstances, hope, kindness, and personal strength twine together to help Maria survive.
8. What made you write this particular story?
At the time, it was a chance to go back into history and learn about the Black Plague. And I loved the idea of having a strong, female character who was resourceful and clever, finding her way through one of the scariest times in history.
Looking back, I had no idea I was doing a rehearsal for COVID-19! But from wearing masks, travel restrictions, people choosing selfishness over kindness (and vice-versa) what the people of 1300s Florence went through is very much like what we’re going through, now.
9. Your new book is part of a series, can you tell us more about the series and what to expect?
10. Has your background influenced the subjects you write about?
The short answer is, “yes.” For all of us, how we view the world and how we write about it has deep roots in how (and where) we grew up.
11. How many pets do you have? Are they a help or a hinderance?
Our home has two cats and one dog, and they are of vital help with the writing. They keep me company during the late nights and early mornings, and hang out with me in the office during the day. Without them to remind me to eat (and—cough—share my food), take a walk, take time to cuddle and have fun, where would I be?
Argh, I don’t know yet—I’m flirting with a variety of ideas and “what if” scenarios, and hoping something will stick, soon!
Guyanese-Canadian author NATASHA DEEN writes for kids, teens, and adults, and enjoys visiting libraries and schools to help people to find and tell the stories that live inside of them. Her novel, In the Key of Nira Ghani, was a Most Anticipated Novel for both Barnes & Noble and Chapters-Indigo, nominated for the MYRCA Award, the R. Ross Annett Award, and is a Red Maple Honor Book and a 2020 YALSA Pick for Reluctant Readers. She is also the author of the Lark Ba series and the Guardian trilogy (Moonbeam Award winner, Sunburst Award Nominee, and an Alberta Readers’ Choice Nominee). When she’s not writing, Natasha spends an inordinate amount of time trying to convince her pets that she’s the boss of the house. Visit Natasha on Twitter at @natasha_deen and at http://www.natashadeen.com.
Please welcome Phyllis – as you can see she is a prolific author!
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing energizes me. It’s all I really want to do. Once I sit down and start, I don’t want to stop. It’s what I think about when I’m doing other things. Characters talk to me while I’m moving the clothes from the washer to the dryer or unloading the dishwasher.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
My characters drive me. Once I have their name down on paper, these people and animals lead the way. Sometimes they do things I didn’t anticipate, and they are always right.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I briefly considered a pseudonym, but decided against it. My thoughts were, I wanted readers to know me personally and I didn’t think that would be possible if I didn’t use my name.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I have virtual writer friends and a few mentors. Social media groups are the place I get the most assistance. I have found other writers to be a generous lot, willing to share their failures and expertise.
Do you want each book to stand alone, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
Currently I have a series of books that could stand alone, but they are based on the same coming of age of the main character, Sabine. The four book series follows her from age four, living in severe neglect with her mentally ill, alcoholic mother, to the age of sixteen. These were the first books I wrote. I only intended to write about Sabine as a child, but I couldn’t stop. I have five other stand alone novels, a pair of middle grade books, an anthology of short stories (a little spooky), and a non-fiction book on retirement. I have learned I am a story teller first and my stories are not always related, so I have no desire for my books to be tied to each other.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
First, I would say editing is the best money spent and second is the money I’ve spent on BookBub promotional deals. I say this because the BookBub deals have garnered reviews.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
My paternal grandparents used to tell me stories and read to me. I remember picturing images from their words. I could literally see the fairies and beasts in their stories. I think that was my earliest experience, the knowledge I could see what they spoke.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I like historical fiction, and I think my favorite was Cleopatra, by Stacy Shiff. I could visualize the palaces, her clothing, the ships, everything described. It takes me back to the time and place.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
A dog would be my spirit animal. All of my characters have pets. Many of them communicate with their pets. I think we all do that to a certain extent, but my very first character, Sabine, was psychic. Her dog, Auggie, was her only confidant. When Sabine missed human cues, Auggie could help her. For me, that was a metaphor of what we take for granted with animals every day.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
One book unfinished. I have a rough draft and a few rereads. I hope to get it to the editor in February to publish in late spring. I have a cover and the title is Birdie & Jude.
What does literary success look like to you?
Success for me would be people reading my books and enjoying the story. I hope readers can take away something they can apply to their own lives. I love it when readers say they feel like they know my characters or can identify with a place. When I hear that I know I did a good job.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
Characters inspire my stories, so I get to know them first. If they take me to a time I’m not familiar with, I do some research on what appliances, vehicles, clothing, etc. were common. Often, the book is set in a time I’m familiar with. My novel, And the Day Came, was set in the 1930’s, so I read about the history of some of the families in the story. It is historical fiction based on the childhood of my mother-in-law. There were other books written about the family, so I took some time to read those. That was the most time consuming research I’ve done.
How many hours a day/week do you write?
I write most of the day and sometimes late into the night. I would say I write about 6 to 8 hours/day. Sometimes my time is blurred between writing and promotion. I spend a lot of time on the computer doing blogs, newsletters, submitting short stories, etc.
How do you select the names of your characters?
Selecting names is a challenge. I have to admit I gravitate toward short names, so I don’t have to type so many letters when I’m writing the story. One of my editors criticized a name choice once, but I refused to change it. The young girl’s name was Beatrice. She was a minor character. I live in south Texas. Growing up, I had many Latina friends. Some of my best friends were Veronica, Beatrice, Norma Linda, Mary Helen, etc. The book, The Bright Shawl, begins in San Antonio and ends in Galveston. It would have been perfectly normal for a female to be names Beatrice. However, if she had been the main character, I might have given her the nickname, Bea. I like Pinterest and pin many inspirations there for my books. I have a board for every book. If I’m looking for a name, I do a search on Pinterest. There are wonderful categories, Bohemian, Hollywood, Biblical, etc. Pinterest is a great source for names for humans and animals. I used Pinterest to name the horses in Secrets of Dunn House.
What was your hardest scene to write?
I had to think about this one. I think transition scenes where there is not much emotion or description. It’s hard to come up with a new way to describe the mundane. I don’t do romance, so that would probably be hard for me to write.
Why did you choose to write in your particular field or genre? If you write more than one, how do you balance them?
My experience, my age, and my characters dictate my genre. I wrote first and then decided on the genre. I lean toward southern gothic, but the more I write, the more I think my books are generally Women’s Fiction. I’m aware I’m not the traditionally branded author where all of my books are linked by an atmosphere, font, cover, etc. They reflect me and the issues that concern me at the time. As I learn more, I try to do a better job of branding those things and one of these days I may have a more professional look. I have done some do-overs to tie things together. It does look better on the shelf. I’m a work in progress.
How long have you been writing?
I have been writing all my life, but not stories or books. I didn’t start trying to market what I wrote until about six years ago.
What inspires you?
I like to people watch and I always find things to apply to my characters. This past August, we had a hurricane in Texas, Harvey. Some of the situations I watched on television and read about in the newspaper inspired the story in Birdie & Jude. I started thinking about people who get stranded due to unpredictable circumstances and meet other people they become attached to. It’s not a literal story, but a “what if” that I think about in those types of situations. I have been through a few hurricanes, so the details were easy for me to get in touch with. It’s interesting when I look back at other stories to see how much weather inspires me. My short story, Audrey and the Summer of Storms was inspired by spending summers in the Texas panhandle with my grandparents. They had to deal with tornadoes. There was a summer when I returned from several trips to the storm shelter in Quanah to my home near Corpus Christi to face Hurricane Carla. I can find inspiration in most anything. Houses, food, fabrics, animals, travel, illness. It’s never ending.
How do you find or make time to write?
I’m lucky because I’m old enough to be retired. Because I’m old, I have many life experiences to draw on and lots of time to think about them. My normal routine is to write most of the day after I’ve finished my few chores. During holidays, I get a little resentful that there are other demands on my time. Writing is my priority and I’m lucky to be able to do it most of the time.
What projects are you working on at the present?
My current project is Birdie & Jude. As I said it was inspired by Hurricane Harvey, but it’s also about the relationship that grows between two women from very different backgrounds. They connect because of their differences, but also because they have the same insecurities and desires. One rejects her family and social status, while the other longs for family and a stable home and friends. One is elderly and healthy as a horse and the other is young a medically fragile. However, as in real life, there is a spirit that unites them and it’s not what they might guess.
What do your plans for future projects include?
I would like to begin writing something to release around the holidays, 2018. I love a good holiday story. Opal’s Story, my best-selling novel. Culminates in a Thanksgiving celebration. Josephine’s Journals takes place during preparations for a holiday open house. I like to decorate using the accoutrements in my imagination. They are free, after all, and I can rummage around in someone else’s attic and polish the silver without getting my hands dirty. I can also order someone else to do it if I’m that character. I can be sweet, or a real “you know what”. It’s the most fun, like playing house and mud pies.
Phyllis is a retired social worker and former owner/operator of a small bed and breakfast. She’s lived in the rural areas and cities of south Texas. She currently lives on Galveston Island with her husband, Richard.