MEMBERS REVIEW

A WASP IN THE FIG TREE

By Mary Bryan Stafford

Published in 2014 by High River Ranch Press.

 A Wasp in the Fig Tree

Reviewed by Tony Burnett.

Precocious 13-year-old Isabel Martin flees with her mother from an abusive father to the idyllic “Ranch of the Fig Trees” where her expectations meet with harsh reality. She finds both the climate and society of the South Texas ranching community of the 1950s to be less welcoming than she had hoped, though she worships her uncle Atlee Parr, who is both a gentle soul and the patriarch of a wealthy political family.

This finely crafted novel features multiple intricately woven storylines presented with the intimate authenticity of a well written memoir. Foremost, in A Wasp In the Fig Tree, is the questionable workings of the rural political machinery rampant in the middle of the 20th century in Texas. Isabel is thrust by circumstance into facing the possibility her uncles are involved in corrupt election practices. Other storylines include her single mother’s quest for an advanced degree at a time when this was uncommon, the divisive racial restrictions imposed by 1950s society and a budding romantic relationship with a childhood playmate as they reach puberty.

Stafford’s uncompromising prose is both eloquent and colloquial, sometimes bordering on poetic. She crafts her narrative with an economy of words uncommon in literary fiction. The novel is suitable for anyone from middle grade to someone like me who lived through this time in history. It’s a mystery featuring political intrigue, civil rights issues, and an accurate portrait of the politics that boosted Lyndon B. Johnson towards the presidency. Being set in Texas, the novel also features horses, oil wells, cattle, cowboys and corrals, deftly woven into the story like a deep breath of dry desert air. Without giving away any spoilers, I will say the novel ends with a very satisfying twist putting the questions of who is good and who is evil safely to rest.

I would recommend this novel to anyone who would appreciate a spot on analysis of mid-20th-century politics, anyone who loves a good mystery or anyone who can appreciate a coming-of-age story. Stafford’s novel is as big as the West Texas sky and as intense as the lightning in a summer thunderstorm.

Tony Burnett has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since 2010 and currently serves on the Board of Directors. His poetry and short fiction have been published in national literary journals. He resides with his trophy bride, Robin, deep in the heart of Texas.

Instructor Spotlight

Charlotte Gullick is a novelist, essayist, editor, educator and Chair of the Creative Writing Department at Austin Community College. Her first novel, By Way of Water, was chosen by Jayne Anne Phillips as the Grand Prize winner of the Santa Fe Writers Project Literary Awards Program, and a special author’s edition was reissued by the Santa Fe Writers Project in November of 2013. Charlotte’s other awards include a Christopher Isherwood Fellowship for Fiction, a Colorado Council on the Arts Fellowship for Poetry, a MacDowell Colony Residency, Faculty of Year from College of the Redwoods as well as the Evergreen State College 2012 Teacher Excellence Award. To learn more about Charlotte and her work, visit her website.

Next month, Charlotte will be teaching a class for the Writers’ League called “Complex Characters to Drive Your Fiction” as part of our Novel Writing Class Series. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

 gullickcolorScribe: How do you fully embody or get into the mind of a character?

Charlotte Gullick: To get into a character, I think about the five senses and how these senses inform the character’s specific lens on the world. Sometimes, I might walk down the street, thinking about how a given character might see that street, smell that street, feel threatened or at ease while on that street. I believe that it is through the senses and through a thorough thinking about how a character sees and experiences their environment, we come to know their specific experience of the world.

Scribe: Your writing incorporates much from landscape and various regions; do you write outside to get inspiration?

CG: I often do write outside – and I also write to live music – I’m the geek in the corner, scribbling away as the music flows over the crowd. And if it’s music outside! Well, then I’m almost manic with “flow.” One of the reasons I write (or try to) write with a strong sense of landscape is that I’m interested in the intersection of internal and external landscape. Where we have our formative experiences creates an interior landscape that can help us understand the intersection of character and setting.

Scribe: Who’s one author that you consider a favorite? 

CG: Louise Erdrich: I admire so much of her work: story arc, character development/evolution, landscape, the dynamic interplay of Catholicism and Ojibwe mythologies, gender identity, sacred numbers, lyrical prose, and a pulsing sense of how history beats alongside each of her characters. She’s a boss when it comes to storytelling.

Scribe: What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 

CG: It came from a writer’s conference where I presented this fall, and it is attributed to Ron Carlson: “It only takes twenty minutes to write a novel. Twenty minutes of avoiding distractions, of pushing through the difficulties of not knowing what one is doing, of getting yourself to commit to twenty minutes a day.”

–Thanks, Charlotte!

Click here to read about and register for Charlotte’s class or other classes in this series.

MEET THE MEMBERS

Mary Riley has been a member of WLT for 8 years and is registered for one of our upcoming fall classes. She lives in Austin, TX.

 Mary Riley Photo

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Mary Riley: Poetry and Memoir Writing.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

MR: Marcus Borg, liberal theologian. Not much into beer or coffee. I would prefer a wine cooler or screwdriver.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

MR: Bible with concordance, Robert Frost’s poetry, Shakespeare’s Julius Ceasar, Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If” and my father’s memoir. I would go nuts not being able to read or hear the news. Maybe old newspapers.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

MR: I took a poetry class at one point taught by Scott Wiggerman about what venue to submit poetry, as well as Mindy Reed’s  “It’s Not Your Mother’s Grammar”  about grammar and style. These workshops were years ago. I still use some of Scott Wiggerman’s suggestions.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

MR: I want to write on what I am passionate about with a bias for clarity.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

MR: I see myself as a poetic rebel. I view poetry pretty much like Ted Badger-I have a bias for lucidity and clarity so a larger demographic will like poetry. I see myself as writing prose poetry for the most part.

 

MEMBERS REVIEW

TEQUILA SUNSET

By Sam Hawken

Published in 2014 by Serpent’s Tail.

Tequila Sunset

Reviewed by Kirsche Romo.

We’ve all seen the scary stories in the news about horrific violence taking place in towns along the Texas-Mexico border. In Tequila Sunset, Sam Hawken brings these tales to life, convincingly capturing the perils of living at the El Paso, Texas–Juarez Mexico border. Mr. Hawken successfully paints a portrait of fear and danger caused by the Mexican drug cartels in Ciudad Juarez and the Mexican-American gangs in El Paso.

Felipe “Flip” Morales, a young man from El Paso, returns to his hometown after having served a four-year prison sentence. While incarcerated, he’d joined the deadly Azteca gang—a lifetime commitment. However, Flip was also an informant for the prison warden, relaying details of Azteca’s dealings, both inside and outside the prison walls.

Christina Salas and Bob Robinson, detectives in the El Paso PD’s gang unit, are building evidence against the Azteca’s El Paso leader, Jose Martinez, in hopes to secure his conviction, and end his rise in the underworld’s echelon.

On the other side of the Mexican border, in the neighboring town of Juarez, police detective Matias Segura is an expert on Azteca gang activity, and has become numbed to the constant army presence in the city, and the frequent shootings which erupt at any given time on any given street.

After arriving in El Paso, Flip is approached by local Azteca leader Jose Martinez, who gradually lures him into the Azteca fold.  Flip must consistently walk a thin line between honesty and honor, and being an Azteca. But at what price?

Hawken effectively captures Flip’s constant anxiety and fear from trying to keep his family safe while also pacifying the Aztecas.  He entwines each character’s story with their home lives and families, depicting how the threat of harm, both overt and subtle, touches everyone.

Hawken’s straightforward writing style keeps the action moving. Having a very personal knowledge of the Texas Hispanic community, I found the dialogue to be very convincing. I looked forward to opening the book every night to see what would happen next, and how the story would end.

I enjoyed reading Tequila Sunset, and recommend it.

K.L. Romo is a writer who lives with her family in Duncanville, Texas. She is currently querying agents to represent her newly completed novel – FROM GRACE I FALL – about a middle-aged empty-nester who’s suddenly transported back to 1907 Dallas, seeing the world through the eyes of a reformed prostitute.

Instructor Spotlight

Greg Garrett teaches creative writing, literature, film and theology at Baylor University.  He is the author of the novels Free Bird, Cycling, and Shame as well as several books about religion. You can find out more about Greg’s work by visiting his website.

Greg will be teaching “Beginning at the Beginning” and “Ending at the Beginning” as part of WLT’s Novel Writing Class Series next month. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Greg GScribe: What motivated you to be a writer?

Greg Garrett: I don’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t want to tell stories. My grandmother has a file of stories I wrote and illustrated when I was four, all about firemen and clowns. I guess I’ve always wanted to tell stories about people who rescued other people–and who made them laugh.

Scribe: Who is your ideal audience?

GG: I write first and foremost for myself. I feel as though if I don’t delight myself, there’s little or no chance I’ll touch anyone else with the stories I want to tell. But once I’ve delighted myself, I can honestly say that I am writing for every person willing to open her or himself up to the possibility of wonder. I hope that people from various places, people with various beliefs, and people from all classes will find something powerful and universal in the stories I write.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with WLT?

GG: Over the years, I’ve discovered that the desire to tell stories seems to be, if not universal, at least so widespread as to boggle the mind. I’ve taught and interacted with hundreds of writers at WLT events, and their passion to write inspires me. It also reminds me of all the more established writers who saw some spark of ability in me and encouraged me–my favorite thing about working with the WLT is giving something back in honor of all those who helped me.

Scribe: What author would you want to have a beer/ cup of coffee with?

GG: I loved Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris because it felt like I was having a beer with all those folks–Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso. I’ve been lucky enough to actually interact with some great writers, but I think if given the chance, I’d want to sit down with that most reclusive author of all, Cormac McCarthy, and talk with him about life, writing, and everything else. In my fantasy, we’d talk late into the night, and a considerable amount of alcohol would be consumed. And I’d wake the next morning with a pounding hangover from the whiskey, and from the searching intelligence that I imagine Cormac McCarthy must be.

Scribe: What do you prefer to write; Novels or screenplays? Why?

GG: I’ve written some screenplays, and teach screenplay writing, but I learned long ago that I’m most interested in the human heart, and I think that to explore it properly, one must be a novelist. Film shows you exteriors–the novel can take you into a person’s mind, and into her or his past. Maybe some day I’ll produce a screenplay worthy of production, but my heart will always be in novel-writing.

–Thanks, Greg!

You can learn more and register for the Novel Writing Class Series here.

Instructor Spotlight

Shana Burg is an Austin-based writer and author of two novels for young readers, Laugh with the Moon and A Thousand Never Evers. You can find out more about Shana and her work by visiting her website.

Shana will be teaching a class for WLT called “How to Write Compelling Stories for Young Readers” on October 18 at ACC’s Highland Campus. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Shana Burg Author PhotoScribe: Do you dig deep into the memory bank of your own childhood for inspiration?

Shana Burg: Most of my story ideas come from experiences I’ve had with children in my adulthood. For example, my most recent book Laugh with the Moon was inspired by meeting hundreds of young people during a research trip I took to Malawi, Africa when I was a graduate student. I’m currently working on a humorous chapter book that’s inspired by my very funny son. All that said, the feelings that I infuse into my young characters always come from my emotional experiences as a child or teen.

Scribe: What is the greatest challenge of writing content for younger audiences?

SB: I try to delve into important topics in a way that’s appropriate for my audience. This requires the ability to create captivating characters who will lead readers through a compelling adventure. As a writer, I also need to have a sense of how much exploration of a topic like malaria or civil rights is enough to stimulate critical thinking on the part of my readers, and when I’m going over the line and providing too much information for a particular age group.

Scribe: What are some of your favorite childhood stories?

SB: I loved all books by Judy Blume most especially Are You There God? It’s Me, Margeret. I loved From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and books by Paul Zindel, such as Pardon Me, You’re Stepping on My Eyeball!

Scribe: When navigating your career in writing, when and how did you ultimately decide upon writing for young readers?

SB: I was teaching sixth grade, and I got hooked on the literature for that age. In addition to teaching reading, I taught creative writing. I assigned my students to plot out a story they would write, and I did the homework along with them. Many years later, that assignment turned into my first book, A Thousand Never Evers (Random House, 2008).

Scribe: Whats your best piece of advice for aspiring children’s fiction writers? 

SB: You can learn a lot by field testing your work on kids (just not your own kids because they are probably biased). When I was working on A Thousand Never Evers, I had an incredible opportunity. Eight of my former students agreed to read the manuscript for me. We would meet at a coffee shop every two weeks during the summer, and I simply listened as they discussed a section of my manuscript. By listening to their conversation, it was immediately apparent to me which characters resonated, which scenes captivated their attention, and what dialogue I needed to cut. I highly recommend getting reader feedback from your target age group.

–Thanks, Shana!

To read about and register for our fall classes, visit our Classes page.

MEET THE MEMBERS

Kim Robinson has been a member of WLT for four years. She is registered for one of WLT’s upcoming fall classes. She lives in Austin, TX.

Kim main bio pic

Scribe:  In what genre(s) do you write?

Kim Robinson: Chased by Grace is my first fiction work. It is a story of betrayal about a woman whose life goes from normal to never-again, how she and her children survive trauma with its crises aftermath and go on to discover faith and hope. The novel is in final editing stages and I plan to self-publish. My personal blog, Life Scenes, is my freestyle writing outlet.  I have also written a non-fiction handbook for parents.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

KR: I would enjoy having coffee or a beer with Daniel Silva, Jan Karon, Karen Kingsbury, Carol Kent, Steven Arterburn, and Fanny Crosby.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

KR: The book of Psalms from the Bible – it’s the best read there is, especially for keeping one’s sanity.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

KR: WLT offers a wealth of resources for authors, both published and yet to be published.  The caliber of the workshops is excellent.  I always come away with new insights and useful, practical information. The writing conferences are well attended, a great networking venue, and the opportunity to meet with agents and editors has  provided constructive feedback.  The staff at WLT is responsive, friendly and professional.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

KR: I have plans for a series, of which Chased by Grace is the first.  In addition to working on the series I will blog and develop an idea I have for a devotional book.  I hope to have additional opportunities to speak to various groups.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

KR: If writing is your passion don’t let anything keep you from it.  Keep writing, even when editors, agents or writing contest judges give discouraging feedback. You have to work at the craft. As a yet unpublished author, I can tell you that the people who cross your path in your process of writing, editing, and re-writing can offer valuable insight, encouragement and support. I received a personal non-form rejection letter from an agent who presented my unsolicited manuscript to her editing staff. Although the agency chose not to represent the book, I learned that my work was read and considered by professionals in the industry who don’t know me. What an encouragement to know that my writing has the ability to catch an agent’s attention and generate a specific response. I once heard an author say that writing is not a well you dip into but rather a muscle that needs to be exercised each day. I couldn’t agree more.