Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Heart of the Spring: Interview with author Laura Valenti

[She can also be found on GoodReads
and will put a picture up there as soon as she figures out how.]
Interview with author Laura L. Valenti, author of The Heart of the Spring, as promised! Here's what Laura has to say about the interview: "I hope you aren't sorry you asked for all of us this by the time you see how long the answers are to your questions. Now you know why I write novels and not short stories! Sorry....feel free to edit any way you like. This is also part of the problem with writing features over the years. Editors have told me they'd rather have 'too much' than 'not enough' so I tend to write long and then they can cut it if need be." Please know I didn't edit in any way. Happy Reading!
  1. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?  I’ve been a freelance writer for 30 years and most of my writing has been newspaper features with the occasional magazine feature. These days I write regularly for “Ozarks Farm & Neighbor”, southwest Missouri’s farm newspaper, but I’ve also written for Springfield News-Leader, Lebanon Daily Record, Missouri Life, Ozarks Magazine, and others. I once had a discussion with novelist Barri Bumgarner, also from Lebanon about which was easier to write, fiction or non-fiction. Barri, with three novels under her belt, insisted it was fiction, because if you don’t like the way things are going you can just kill off a character, change him or her, have something good or bad happen to them and so forth. I told her non-fiction had always seemed easiest for me, because essentially I get paid for meeting someone, having a conversation with them, taking notes and then going home and writing up what we talked about and sending it in to an editor. Easiest of all, the check comes fairly quickly, especially when compared to novels!
   As for me personally, I had a conversation recently with some friends who pointed out I’ve not had the ‘average’ life. I grew up in and out of Mexico with a ‘gypsy father’ who just liked to travel. My husband, Warren and I were Peace Corps volunteers in the 70s in El Salvador, where my oldest daughter and my oldest son were born and I still have close ties with friends there who are now basically my family. I’ve lived at Bennett Spring, outside of Lebanon for over 30 years, where we’ve raised 4 children and I now have 5 grandsons in Missouri and Texas.
  1. Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?  Lots of them, including Mark Twain, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Jim Kjelgaard, Walter Farley, Anne Sewell, Alistair Maclean, Harold Bell Wright, Helen MacInnes, Morris West—true storytellers, one and all. Harry Kimmelman wrote a series of books in the 70s and 80s about a suburban rabbi who lived outside of Boston and his best friend was the Catholic police chief. In their discussions, Rabbi David Small used rabbinical logic to help the police chief solve various crimes (which is the stuff of King Solomon’s decision from the Old Testament story of two women who both claimed the same baby. He said cut the baby in half and of course, the true mother instantly relinquished her claim.) I loved those books because while the reader was enjoying a murder or some other mystery, they learned much about Judaism. I’ve always loved stories that were fun and yet the reader walked away with something more--more knowledge, more history, a lighter heart, a better understanding of people. After reading Kimmelman’s books, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to write something like that and that is where the original premise for “Between the Star and the Cross: The Choice” came from.
3.     We talked how most writers have to understand that writing is a part-time job, what do you do when you are not writing?  I worked for over 10 years for the Laclede County Sheriff’s Department, first as an administrative assistant and then as the Jail Administrator for the last 3+ years I was there, which  means, yes, I ran the 106 bed county jail. Since leaving there, I’ve gone back to freelance writing as well as trying to keep up with 5 grandsons, ages 3 to 10, and a husband who just retired after 33 years at the Missouri Department of Conservation, including 21 years at the Bennett Spring Trout Hatchery. I’m also on the Board of the New Life House and on the Laclede County Drug Council, a group that works to promote drug education in schools and work places throughout the area. Both of those are volunteer positions.

  1. When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book? Writing for me began in childhood when I used to write long letters home from camp, to grandparents while we were in Mexico, to anyone and everyone, to family in the US while we were in El Salvador, all before the days of email and cell phones. I was the rare kid in high school and college who LIKED essay tests because even if I didn’t know the answer, I could usually bluff my way through, as opposed to multiple choice where you really did need to have some idea of the correct response!
My first published item was a Letter to the Editor to the local newspaper while I was in college in regards to the Viet Nam war. It stirred up quite a controversy at the time and demonstrated to me the power of the written word, Thomas Payne, notwithstanding. My first book was “The Fifteen Most Asked Questions About Adoption” which I wrote after adopting a child from El Salvador and discovering many other people were hungry to do the same, but didn’t have any idea as to where to begin. The year was 1985, long before the Internet or Oprah and adoption information was not easily available.

  1. What motivates you to write? I heard it best described recently at a writers’ conference when the speaker (I believe it was Bobbi Smith, the romance novelist) said, “we don’t write for the money, although that is very nice and necessary in some regard, but we write because it’s in us and it has to come out.”  And that is so true.  For me, I feel sometimes if I don’t get it out, I’ll explode. My husband, who is, God bless him, a light sleeper, has often had his sleep disturbed by me getting up at midnight or 1 am, to write an essay or an article that has suddenly occurred to me in its entirety and “I have to put it down on paper right now!”  Or for that matter, it may be the perfect ending to a chapter or some episode where I’d written myself into a corner, so to speak, and here was the answer.  I believe it was Alice Walker, author of “The Color Purple” who said once in an interview that when she was ready to write that book, she was “like a woman who was pregnant with eight characters at once and I had to stop what I was doing and write it all down right then!”  That pretty well sums it up. 
  1. How do you choose the topics of your novels and where do you get your ideas? (Especially for The Heart of the Spring)  “The Heart of the Spring” actually grew from the suggestion of two friends who work at Bennett Spring. I was there in January 2010, on a very slow weekend of catch and release trout fishing. When I stopped by the Bennett Spring store, my friends told me someone had been asking about any material they had on the history of Bennett Spring and all they had to offer was a small pamphlet written by the state. “We need a book, a story that tells the history of this place,” one of them said. “You’re a writer. Can’t you do something about that?”  I laughed and told them, “It’s been a slow day at work, girls” and went on a walk in the January cold with my husband. When we were done with the walk, less than an hour later, I looked at him and said, “Oh my gosh, I know the story!”  To which he replied, “What story?”  “The story, the novel I could write about Bennett Spring. I know the whole thing, it’s a trilogy, 3 different stories at 3 different important points of Bennett Spring history!”  He just shook his head and I came home and got to work and “The Heart of the Spring” was available for the first time at Hillbilly Days 2010, less than six months later.
   As for other ideas, they are for me, always suggested by ‘real events’ or something else that I saw, read or experienced and yet, they are transformed, always floating, re-shaping, changing like the white clouds in a blue summer sky, until they become something new and different altogether. (We used to play that game when I was a child, lying on a blanket, watching the puffy clouds and picking out shapes which would change right before our eyes. That is how story ideas often seem to work for me!) For instance, in “Between the Star and the Cross: The Choice”, I can say that everything that happened in that book, did happen in one form or another, in one place or another. Working in the Laclede County Sheriff’s Department, we often heard of things that went on in other counties as well, so sometimes that suggested something, or I combined it with an event in another time and place. More than once, my co-workers and I would look at each and say, “if you wrote this down, people would swear we were lying!”
I’m not into sci fi, fantasy, werewolves, mermaids or vampires (much to my husband’s frustration as far as the bank account is concerned). I’m always about real people, their struggles, their courage, their tragedies and triumphs over whatever challenges they encounter in life. I’ve seen and experienced some incredible triumphs and I enjoy sharing those to encourage others, no matter what it is they are grappling with.

  1. What parts of your book are based on real life experiences and what parts did you make up?
In “The Heart of the Spring”, the main characters--Becky and her family, J.C. and the Senator, J.C.’s mother and sister, are all fictional. The history surrounding Bennett Spring is all factual, research I’d done in the past for various non-fiction articles for area newspapers and magazines.

            Other parts, like Lee Taylor, the gentleman associated with the butter churns actually comes from my own family’s history. My father’s uncles, John, Thomas, Will and Lee ran the Taylor Brothers Manufacturing Company in St. Louis in the early part of the 20th century and they made the butter churns for Dazey and Reliable butter churns so when you see those old butter churns in the antique shops today, they were made by my great-uncles.

            Some characters are part history and a little imagination. Josie Bennett Smith for instance and her brother, William Sherman Bennett were real persons who lived at Brice and Bennett Spring so it gets a bit trickier when writing about them. You have to be careful not to insult anyone and yet there are certain things you can figure out from the facts. Josie Bennett Smith was a divorced woman running a small hotel in 1924 in a very rural backwater sort of place. She had to have some real sand to make that happen and stand up to the inevitable gossip of the time and I’ve never known a successful inn keeper yet who wasn’t essentially a ‘people person’ and so my characterization of Josie was born.
  1. How did you come up with the title? I’ve lived a lot of places over the years and when I look back and think of my favorites, it always has to do with the people there. When we moved to Bennett Spring, it was from a place where people were not open or friendly to outsiders. One older lady there even told me, “your father and grandfather weren’t born in this county, so you’ll never amount to nothing here”. Needless to say, I was not sad to move from there! We found a warm welcome when we moved to Bennett Spring over 30 years ago and so I thought the most important thing was to find a way to recognize that—to make note of the fact that beautiful as a place may be, it is the people who are the true heart of the community, and so I had one of the characters say so!   {Stephanie, remind me to tell you a story sometime of some of the first people I met at Bennett. Not for publication but they instantly made me ‘feel at home’ at Bennett Spring!}
  1. What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write for The Heart of the Spring and why?  Many parts were fun to write, like Miz Josie’s sassy answers to this or that or about the moonshining but my favorite might well be incorporating the information about the orphan trains into the story. Those trains brought children off the streets of New York out to the Midwest for the purpose of adoption, from the end of the Civil War all the way through the 1920s. I’ve seen pictures of the children and their arrival in Lebanon in the early 1900s and the opportunity to fold that history into “The Heart of the Spring” was a special joy, as the mother of three adopted children.

  1. Can you tell us about your upcoming book? “The Heart of the Spring Lives On” is set in 1935, 11 years after the original Bennett Spring book. Benji, Becky’s 11 year old brother, is now 22, and a new deputy with the Laclede County Sheriff’s Department. Meanwhile, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a huge national get-the-boys-back-to-work program that President Roosevelt instituted during the height of the 1930s Depression, had a camp at Bennett Spring from 1933 to 1937. They built the stone and dark wood gauge house and picnic shelter, both near the spring, the Bennett Spring Dining Lodge and laid the stone over the triple-arched bridge. In this new story, a young man named Jesse Newman from Riverton, in rural Oregon County on the Eleven Point River is all set to start work with the CCC and will be assigned to the Bennett Spring camp. The week before he is to leave he breaks his leg in a wagon accident and now obviously cannot join the work force. Like all the families with a son or father in the CCC, his family was desperately in need of the money and Jesse was afraid to go to the authorities and tell them of his new predicament. Instead, he convinces his twin sister, Jessica to allow him to cut her hair,  disguise her as a man and send her in his place for the six to eight weeks until his leg is healed. (There were actually 100-200 documented cases of women disguised as men fighting for both sides during the US Civil War; the CCC was only 70 years later, so….) And of course, the first person to discover that Jess Newman is not a young man is that new deputy, Ben Darling, and that is the beginning of the next installment of The Heart of the Spring.

  1. Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published versus getting books published nowadays? Twenty-six years ago when “The Fifteen Most Asked Questions About Adoption” was published, traditional publishers like Herald Press, were very kind to even their newest authors. I’d worked in adoption for five years when I wrote the book so it was not difficult to convince them I knew what I was talking about. They flew me to Chicago twice, put me on CNN, arranged interviews with KY3, KSPR, a St. Louis Sunday afternoon TV talk show and a worldwide call-in radio talk show through Moody Bible College in Chicago. Today, unless your name is Stephen King or John Grisham, none of the publishers do any real publicity for your book. As the author, you are on your own!  Today, writing the book is about 20% and marketing the book is the other 80%! Likewise, getting an agent is the same crunch as most teens and young adults encounter when looking for their first job—no job without experience but pretty tough to get the experience without first getting a job! Many of us are now using independent publishing (also known as author originated publishing) which involve publishers that charge a set up fee (which can run from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars; new authors need to research carefully BEFORE they sign on the dotted line) and then the author buys the books at the same discount as bookstores and sells them at book signings and other events. With a traditional publisher, the author also has to buy the books at a discounted rate, if he/she wants to sell them. Then like now, non-fiction books are generally easier to get published and easier to sell than novels, but either way, if the author does not actively promote and sell their own books, they are going to sell very few books!
      The world of publishing has changed greatly over the past 25 years and the Internet and eBooks have had a tremendous impact. One of the speakers at a recent writers’ conference who has long been involved in the New York publishing world, said that “the New York publishing world continues to be in free fall, downsizing, firing editors right and left, agents are scrambling. It’s a mess.”  For the time being, authors are doing what we can but we are not spending a lot of time, banking on anything out of the traditional world of publishing and agents. As another presenter at that same conference pointed out, “some people do win the lottery but the chances of anyone here in Missouri, getting a big publishing deal out of New York right now is about the same as winning the lottery.”  And so it goes….

  1. How do you market your work? What avenues have you found to work best for your genre? A small publisher told me years ago, “people buy your book because they want to take a little bit of you home with them”, meaning after they meet you, speak with you or hear you speak somewhere, is when you have the best chance of selling a book. Another author recently put it this way, “forget about marketing your book. You have to market yourself.” And I’d say both of those are true. That means as an author, you have to spend a lot of time seeking opportunities to speak, meet people, share what you know and yet do it in such a way that you don’t come across as a royally self-absorbed jerk. Not always an easy task! The old saw, ‘they will never care how much you know until they know how much you care’ really applies.
     I’ve had good luck using full-color post cards which I literally hand out to anyone I meet and speak to for more than a few moments. My husband sometimes cringes as ‘selling’ is not his strong suit. Not always mine either but a necessary part of this business. (My late father was the original salesman but unfortunately he died just a few weeks before my first novel was published. He knew all about it, however and was tickled that the story of his uncles was included.) The response from the vast majority of people is very positive and they are often very enthused and excited. With that kind of feedback, I keep handing them out. The best marketing situations  continue to be ‘speaking engagements’ of all kinds and since I do not find public speaking the terror that so many do, I do seek out those opportunities whenever I can.

  1. What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?  Working as a newspaper and magazine freelancer, you quickly learn to separate your ego from whatever you write. You can’t approach every piece as if it is your special creation or you’ll never survive as an editor rips it up, insists you change the slant, the lead, cut it in half, or whatever it is that editor needs. Bottom line: If you’re going to sell it, the editor is in the driver’s seat. That being said, you earn a good reputation as a professional if you can deliver the goods on time and deal with it if the editor isn’t instantly in love with what you’ve written. It’s good training too, for writing fiction because I find I’m more likely to consider my fictional characters as ‘my babies’. I’ve been very fortunate that my editors have liked my characters and consider them genuine and believable. Probably the toughest criticism I ever received was from an English professor at the University of Missouri, the late William Peden. It was actually very kind because I’d written a piece about the very painful death of my mother and he said, “you know, sometimes we write for cathartic purposes, not for anyone except ourselves, just to let go of the pain.” And I realized he was absolutely correct in that case. I never showed that piece to anyone else but it was still good to have written it and experience the beginning of the healing process as a result.
The best compliment continues to be when someone I don’t know stops me in town or emails to say not only ‘I loved your book’ but especially when they tell you, “I cried at the end” (which a Springfield editor told me and she also said, “I never cry!”) or “it made me laugh because it made me remember a time when”…. In other words for me, when something I’ve written touches someone’s heart, brings a tear, a chuckle or a tender memory, that’s the very best!
  1. Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers? Never never never give up! It is so tempting to just say, this isn’t worth it. “I’m probably earning $2.75 an hour if I figure out what it actually costs to do a good solid article.”  With every one of my published books, I’ve had a crisis of faith right at the three-quarters point, feeling like “this is such a waste of time! No one is ever going to read this, much less pay money for it. Why am I wasting my time?” And with that said, my first book sold out its first printing in less than a year in the US and Canada and I won a national adoption activist award the next year as a result of that book. It also stayed in print for 10 years, which is a long time for most single subject non-fiction books. It was 20 years between the publication of my first book and my next one in 2006, “Ozark Meth: A Journey of Destruction and Deliverance”. A colleague and I interviewed 30 methamphetamine addicts in sustained recovery throughout southwest Missouri, and they told us how they got on, how they got off and how they stay off meth.
Meanwhile, I didn’t have my first novel published until I was nearly 60. Somehow there just wasn’t time to write fiction while raising four kids and working a full time job!  However, my dear friend, Ellen Gray Massey was about the same age upon the publication of her first novel. She now has over 20 books to her credit, has been publishing novels for nearly 30 years and is still going strong. Like I said, never ever give up!

  1. What are the most important elements of good writing? What tools are must-haves for writers?  For the most part, I feel as if I write like I talk. Good or bad, it’s that ‘what you see is what you get’ thing. The most important element, really, the test of good writing is…would you want to read this? And how can you make it more interesting? What can you do to grab the reader’s attention from the very beginning and that’s my rule for non-fiction or fiction. Now I loved reading some of James Michener’s  great works but as one of my colleagues pointed out recently, I don’t know that he could get published today. The reading public’s attention span is now shorter than ever, due in part, I’m sure to the influence of television, the movies, videos where the action and special effects are constant. We don’t have nearly the patience we once did. (You can see this in a number of older movies or TV series in that they move much slower than the current genres.) And the rule with most editors has become, if you don’t capture the reader’s attention in the first few paragraphs for a novel or the first sentence for an article, they are not interested. That’s a big problem for a great many writers, myself included. It’s the same rule I remember from singing in a state championship choir in high school—strong beginning and a strong ending are absolutely essential. In fiction, I find I start with the ending because you have to know where you’re going, your final destination. I write the end first (at least in my head if not on paper) and then the beginning and the middle is the journey to get from one point to the other.
Meanwhile, for me, my most necessary tools are the old-fashioned ones, a dictionary, to get the exact meaning of the word (what’s the difference between everlasting and forevermore, for instance? I found out recently--not much!) and a thesaurus. Often, I don’t use the words suggested there but it will get me going in the right direction. I do appreciate the ‘word count’ my computer displays and of course some of the other basic features of the computer but I spend way too much time still ‘fighting’ with my computer but that is another whole story! I’m literally from the old school. I wrote most of “The Fifteen Most Asked Questions About Adoption”  on white typing paper with a pencil and then typed it on a manual typewriter, between the hours of 11 pm and 3 am when my children were in bed. I’m getting better but I’m afraid I will always be an immigrant in the world of computers, someone who speaks with an accent and doesn’t understand all the nuances of this new and ever-changing electronic universe, whereas most people under age 40 were born into it. 

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