Sierra Scribes -- Writers Leave Their Marks on the Foothills
Sierra Lodestar 08/14/10

Antoinette May Herndon

Are Writers a Different Breed?

You Decide

Go ahead! Ask any writer, just see if they don’t agree that next to writing, the activity they enjoy most is talking about writing.

Unfortunately, the only people who will put up with that self- indulgence for any period of time are other writers.

Besides, who but a fellow writer can truly comprehend the sudden joy of seeing one’s own words flow fluidly onto the page. A little like automatic writing, isn’t it? Some kind of magic.

Or, for that matter, who can better understand the agony of staring at a blank page that stubbornly refuses to fill. What’s that terrible term . . . writer’s block. Ugh!

Other writers know instinctively the satisfaction of holding a completed manuscript in one’s hands, (an experience only transcended by the marvel of holding your own published book.) It also goes without saying that only other writers can recognize (and sympathize with) the full impact of that awful nine-letter word: rejection.

When I contemplated moving to the foothills eight years ago, I thought it was going to be lonely. Beautiful for certain, inspiring maybe, but definitely lonely. The mountains may loom large but the population—compared to say my former home, the Bay Area—is sparse. To whom would I complain (or occasionally crow) to about the vicissitudes of the writing life? How many word-driven dingbats like myself could there possibly be there?

To my surprise, the answer turned out to be LOTS. You find them on a regular basis at places like Writers Unlimited in Calaveras County, the Amador Fiction Writers Critique Group (AFWCG) and the Sonora Writers Group.

You hear them reading their work at the Mercantile in Angels Camp, Clark’s Corners in Ione or Starbuck’s in Sonora.

Monika Rose of San Andreas is the glue that holds many of them together. A while back Monika, an English prof at Delta College, got the inspired idea of pulling a few writers together to read and critique each other’s work. Twenty-six years later the group is still gathering twice monthly at the Calaveras County Arts Center in San Andreas under the banner of Writers Unlimited.

An offshoot of the meetings is the literary magazine, Manzanita, a collection of prose and poetry inspired by the Mother Lode. Monika has edited six editions of Manzanita besides founding a press—its first book, the newly published Tales Mark Twain Would Have Loved to Steal, by Glenn Wasson.

Thus far, Monika has been so busy showcasing the work of others that her own volume of poetry, River by the Glass, has been placed on temporary hold. Watch for it early in January.

Kathy Fellure of Ione is another literary midwife. Three years ago, she and her daughter, Jenny, founded two writing critique groups which meet Monday and Tuesday evenings every other week at Clark’s Corner in Ione.

This has lead to an annual Mid-Summer’s Night Read at Clark’s and an Autumn Writers & Artists Tea in Kathy’s home. Four writers from Kathy’s group were published this year. Every writer in AFWCG has completed a novel, children's book or screenplay.

“We write, critique, rewrite, critique, rewrite, critique, and then edit,” Kathy says. “Somewhere out of all these endless hours of work, anguish and prayer, a book is born out of a labor of love.”

In June of this year the workshop leader published her own first book, When the Birdies Came to Tea. A second, Mr. Snowman Ate Our Picnic Lunch, will be out in time for the holidays. Kathy and illustrator Donna Plant, also of Ione, look forward to collaborating on at least two more books in the children’s series.

Kathy has also recently completed The Language of the Lake, a character-driven adult novel set on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. The story came together as the culmination of a lifetime of holidays spent in the area. “I think that Tahoe is actually a character in the narrative,” Kathy says. “It speaks for itself.”

While actively marketing the novel, she is busy with a second— this one a mystery. “If you don’t find the story, the story will find you,” Kathy promises.

* * *

On January 1, 2007 Janet Langton of Mountain Ranch started the new year with the resolve to do something to change her life. Less than four years

later her novel, River of Skulls, is garnering rave reviews.

That’s really not too surprising. How’s this for a plot: A young woman sails to California in 1850 expecting to meet her lawyer husband for a second honeymoon in San Francisco. Instead, she finds herself stranded in lawless culture dominated by gold-fever. To reunite with her husband, now a miner, she must journey to El Rio de las Calaveras or the River of Skulls. Scary!

Janet’s inspiration came from the mountains that surround her Dancing Rooster Ranch. “I wanted the gorgeous scenery that surrounds us to be an integral part of the story, almost a character in itself,” she explains.

The bare bones of the novel came to Janet through her work at the Calaveras Historical Society’s Red Barn Museum in San Andreas. “Old timers told me stories that set me to thinking,” she says. “From then on it was research, research, research.”

Janet learned how duels were fought and faro played. She became familiar with muzzleloaders and quartz mining. Her novel covers the critical time in history from 1849 to 1906. Much of it takes place in San Andreas, the facts culled from local archives and oral histories.

Janet’s heroine is a strong woman who must learn to fend for herself. “That’s the way it was in those days,” the author says. “Women were the cement that pulled a turbulent culture together. They were also emancipated to a degree unusual for that day. California women could run their own businesses and control their own money. I like that kind of ‘women’s lib’ aspect to the story.”

Unfortunately women remained incredibly restricted in other ways. Words never used in those days were “sex” and “pregnancy.” Gender made every difference in the lifestyles and expectations of both men and women. The former were expected to duel to the death to defend their honor while women had little choice but to sacrifice their dreams of happiness and fulfillment on the altar of respectability. Keeping the story and the language in which it was told true to the time period remained Janet’s challenge throughout.

The author—already on page 98 of her second novel—no longer has those problems. “This time I can go wild,” Janet smiles. “My new novel is about San Francisco’s Beatniks in the 1950s—a time I remember well. We so-called Beatniks changed the world, but were having too much fun to notice.”

The theme of restraint and convention also comes into play in much of Kathie Isaac-Luke’s work. In “Chrysalides” the title poem in the Sonora poet’s new collection, she writes of coming of age from a feminine point of view.

“Women of a certain age will surely remember the many petticoats of the 1950s,” Kathie points out. “They were very stiff and uncomfortable, but we young girls wore them proudly, thinking ourselves so fashionable.”

“Chrysalides relates to the pupa in the cocoon,” she explains. “The restless, emergent dragonfly parallels a human woman coming of age.”

Kathie’s 68-page book is being published this month, appropriately enough by Dragonfly Press. “The subjects of my poems were all over the map,” she admits. “It was quite a project to organize them into common themes.” She arrived at five sections. The first. Emergence, are poems of childhood.

The second group, Nymph, depicts the dragonfly’s coming of age—the curiosity, energy and potential of youth. “Here,” Kathie explains, “memories become very ingrained because they are so new. After that everything else just blurs together.”

Flight is the third stage or section of the book. This is the part of life when one travels and explores, experiencing the world.

Flame, which follows, is the dark side of life experience dealing with war and danger

Circling Back is the final focus or life phase. This is when the woman—or dragonfly—looks back in later life and reflects. Perhaps she nests.

Kathie’s own life journey began in Baton Rouge, La. She subsequently received a master’s degree in nursing, and during her work in that field visited a number of countries.

She and her husband, Charles Luke, have lived in the foothills for the past five years. “I love the quiet here and the space to write,” she says, adding, “there is too much stimulation in the Bay Area. Here I can just sink into my own space. I appreciate that.”

Poetry reflecting Kathie’s travels and Louisiana origins has been published in a number of journals and anthologies, including The Call: An Anthology of Women’s Writing and Love After Sixty. Kathie was formerly a program coordinator for Poetry Center San Jose where she edited the journal cæsura.

Poetry, Kathie finds, is a highly satisfactory way to express thoughts in a tightly compressed form. “It’s exciting to hone an idea into just a few lines that tell a story,” she says. “I try to preserve an emotion instantly—before it can fly away.” Her own poems never exceed 30 lines.

As a poet, Kathie is excited by the recent changes she perceives in contemporary poetry. “I sense a return to form,” she says. “Sonnets are coming back.”

“Internet publishing is a positive trend too, bringing new stimulation to both writing and writers. It’s easy for poets to get depressed when they’re rejected by establishment magazines that appear to feature the same old names time after time. I like the new egalitarianism of Internet publishing because it offers new poets a vehicle in which to get their work out there, to express themselves and to interact with others.”

Kathie found the details of putting a book together absorbing but possibly too time consuming. A writer since childhood, she’s looking forward to getting back to short stories.

* * *

Coming soon to a book club near you is author-publisher Helen Bonner of Jackson who will be speaking this month to the Mountain Ranch Book Club. The occasion is the publication of Helen’s debut novel, Cry Dance.

A sweeping saga that catapults the reader from the sacred rituals of a Sierra Paiute tribe to the luxurious penthouse of a Hollywood drug lord and finally to the beleaguered sands of Baghdad, “Cry Dance” is packed with both surprises and insights.

“I wrote the book,” Helen says, “because I’m tired of stories where one person is either good or bad and everything is either right or wrong. I wanted something different. I wanted people to know that there’s another way.”

The author is both thrilled and gratified to learn that a literature class at El Paso Community College has chosen to feature Cry Dance. “I hope,” she says, “that reading my book will acquaint them with a way other than war to resolve conflict.”

A former college professor, Helen has published numerous short stories as well as two acclaimed memoirs. She’s particularly excited about First Love, Last Love which was published earlier this year.

Helen’s true story of reconnecting with her ex-husband after 50 years of pain and bitterness has had a heartwarming effect on countless readers. People feel good, they feel bad, they laugh and they cry.

“Discovering whole new aspects of one’s early experience can be life altering,” she says. “The story I told, based on emails and journal entrees, is absolutely accurate. It’s the essential truth that readers respond to. If a healing can take place in my life, it can also happen to them. If the book has any message, it is to re-visit one’s own memories.”

But don’t think that Helen’s life is all about memories. This year she launched an exciting new venture: Starthistle Press. The publishing house is currently gearing up for the printing of Helen’s second novel, Dolphin Papers.

Independent publishing is shaking up the writing world and Helen is part of the vanguard. Currently she is concentrating on publishing her own books—“I need to make my own mistakes first”—but will soon be looking for talented local novelists and memoirists.

“The days when self publishing meant vanity press are long gone,” she says. “Think ‘indie’—as in independent film. This is the wave of the future and writers need to know about it.”

I couldn’t agree more with Helen. My own experiences have taught me that there are as many options out there as there are writers.

And in the Sierra foothills, that’s a lot.

Editor’s Note: Antoinette May Herndon is the author of two novels, “Pilate’s Wife” and “The Sacred Well” both published by HarperCollins. She is the founding director of the annual Gold Rush Writers Conference. The 2011 conference will be held April 29, 30 and May 1 at the Hotel Leger in Mokelumne Hill.