1.Tell us a bit about yourself – something that we will not find in the official author’s bio?
The physical environment where I spend my time—my home, my yard, my study—are extremely important to me. My study, for example, is painted a soothing shade of green and also doubles as my yoga studio and, during the Covid 19 stay-at-home, my workout space. I’m surrounded by artwork on the walls. When I write I like to have music playing and scented candles (eucalyptus is a favorite) burning.
As soon as I could afford it, I started to buy original artwork. At this point, despite owning a large home, it would be hard to find room for more art. It is a privilege to support artists of all types from around the world. We have paintings, prints, baskets, masks, and sculptures. Much of it comes from travels to places such as Peru and the Canadian Maritime Provinces. I love walking through the house, seeing the different pieces, and remembering the trip when I bought it.
2. Do you remember what was your first story (article, essay, or poem) about and when did you write it?
I began to write casually while I was still working as a professor, probably in the late eighties or early nineties, inspired by short stories in The New Yorker, which I read avidly. I remember writing a first story, inspired by a walk around a pond and through some woods on the campus of my university, the State University of New York at Albany. I wrote it longhand, in purple ink, on yellow lined paper, but I don’t remember what it was about. Godawful, no doubt, because I knew nothing about writing fiction, despite having written numerous professional journal articles for my job.
My first published story—flash fiction—is called “When You Lose the Love of Your Life.” It appeared in a literary magazine called Foliate Oak in 2017. It’s me imagining what it would be like to lose a husband after a wonderful, long-term marriage. The mixed emotions, the longing, the loneliness.
Before I had written this story, I had never heard of flash fiction, but I now really enjoy it and have published 20 flash stories.
3. What is the title of your latest book and what inspired it?
My debut novel is called Radical Acceptance. The concept originates in Buddhism. It refers to the fact that in life, pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. Suffering occurs when we refuse to accept pain and fight against it, which makes the pain worse.
I’m very open about my being a recovering alcoholic. This story was inspired by an experience I had sponsoring a woman who had been in and out of recovery and had a lot of trouble staying away from a drink. After a couple of years of sobriety, she disappeared, and I never saw her again. My fervent hope is that she is still alive and sober.
Her disappearance disillusioned me, and I abandoned the novel for about a year and a half. I don’t remember what got me started again. Very little of the resulting novel is based her story, much of which I’ve forgotten. But I’ll be forever grateful to her for getting me launched as a writer.
Later this year, Adelaide will publish my short story collection, No Strangers to Pain. The logline is: Stories of Everyday Struggles and People on Life’s Margins.” The title story is about a young man coming out of foster care who hitchhikes from Riverside, CA, to Silverton, CO, which I had visited in the year before I wrote the story. As my husband and I stood in front of a hostel in tiny Silverton, a former mining town that is now a popular tourist destination, I found myself wondering, who would stay in a place like this. And Boom! I invented Joachin, who’s lost and looking to outrun his past, to find his place in the world.
That story, along with a several others in the collection, was inspired by my background as a social worker, but also by stories run in The New York Times about kids leaving foster care, how little we provide for them and how lost most of them are.
4. How long did it take you to write your latest work and how fast do you write (how many words daily)?
My first novel I wrote in fits and starts over a period of about six years between when I put the first words on paper through a professional edit, and finally sending it out on submission to independent publishers. All the while I was writing short stories and getting them published in literary magazines. It had been suggested to me that having a portfolio of some stories in literary magazines might help me find my first publisher. Then I discovered I enjoyed writing short form fiction as much as I have enjoyed reading it over the years.
Unexpected Turbulence I’ve worked on for two, maybe three, years. I expect it will be ready to send out by the end of the year.
5. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
I think about what I’m going to write while I’m walking or hiking while also listening to music said to unleash creativity (embedded with theta brain waves). And while I’m thinking I dictate using the Notes app on my iPhone. I don’t know if it’s the walk or hike, being out in nature, or it’s the music, but it never fails to get my creative juices flowing. Sometimes I don’t intend to work on something, but while I’m walking I can’t get it out of my head until I get it down. I’ve written entire scenes that way. Of course, they need editing and are just very rough drafts, but it gets the bones of the story down.
6. Is writing the only form of artistic expression that you utilize, or is there more to your creativity than just writing?
I’d say my only other creative pursuit right now besides writing is gardening, which I enjoy immensely. I had to learn a great deal when I moved from Upstate New York to Arizona, with its different climate. It’s so much fun to plan my “combo pots” of flowers, visit several different nurseries, and plant them outside in my backyard and courtyard so there are bright spots of color everywhere I look.
7. Authors and books that have influenced your writings?
Ann Patchett’s novels have been a source of inspiration, as well as the short fiction of Bonnie Jo Campbell. I gravitate mostly toward women writers, although I love Richard Russo’s novels and look forward to taking a workshop with him this fall in Hawaii.
8. What are you working on right now? Anything new cooking in the wordsmith’s kitchen?
I’m revising my second novel, Unexpected Turbulence, getting it ready to send it off my editor. It’s about a retired psychologist, a recent widow, who as a result of a tragedy finds herself responsible for two teenaged step-granddaughters. The girls are not in good shape, having just lost both parents. My protagonist has not been a parent herself and is also in the throes of grieving the loss of her husband, so the situation is tough on all of them.
This book was inspired in part by my own experience as a (step) grandmother with seven grandchildren through my husband’s three adult children. Five teenage girls are sandwiched between a grandson who’s twenty and another who’s ten. The novel is not about any of these children (although I do name the kids in a grief support group attended by my character Lily after the seven of them).
I’ve also been obsessing about a third story about a family in southern Ohio ravaged by the opiate epidemic there. I’ve written four short stories about them, three of which are published. My focus is on the two children, an older sister and a younger brother, who the sister is essentially raising. I’m tentatively calling it Collateral Damage, although Innocent Bystanders is another possible title. I’m experimenting with a structure I’ve never used before, telling it from alternating timelines (also called dual timeline structure). Alternating chapters tell the story from the present and the past, eventually converging. It’s a story about resilience and the strength of family bonds even through incredible dysfunction.
9. Did you ever think about the profile of your readers? What do you think – who reads and who should read your books?
All three of my novels (two are still works in progress) are upmarket women’s fiction, so my target audience is educated women, especially mature women. Radical Acceptance will also appeal to men in recovery, because it is about the process of getting sober and facing a difficult past, in part brought on by drinking. All three are about family, and family dysfunction in particular, and what it does to a person. I’d say all of them should be good reads for book clubs with lots of possible topics for discussion.
10. Do you have any advice for new writers/authors?
Several things helped me when I was getting started. First, although this may sound obvious, it’s important to read widely, especially the kinds of books you intend to write. In my case that is family sagas and women’s fiction.
I read books (and blogs) about writing fiction. There are loads of good ones out there. Some that I have found most helpful include anything by Donald Maass or KM Weiland. I read about plot, and dialogue, character development, scene construction, etc. Writer’s Digest has an affordable series on those topics.
After struggling quite a bit with my novel early on, I discovered writing courses, in person and online, that have been very helpful. For example, I’ve taken courses on writing flash fiction and on how to put a short story collection together. Local writing conferences that are affordable, such as those sponsored by a nearby university, can also be helpful.
Lastly, it’s important to find a critique group (or groups) of writers who can give you feedback on your work while you also provide feedback on their writing. Friends and families can also offer helpful feedback after reading drafts, but there is no substitute for other writers who are looking at your writing through a different lens.
11. What is the best advice (about writing) you have ever heard?
There’s a ton of advice out there, some helpful and some not-so-helpful. For example, many successful, extensively published authors insist you must write every day, no matter what. Although I do write most days, sometimes it’s editing or revising my work rather than putting down new words. And some days it just doesn’t happen.
There are plenty of people trying to be writers out there who just can’t manage writing every single day. People with demanding full-time jobs, or kids, or both! I do think goal setting is important though. So, if you’re not going to write every day, on which days will you write? Try to carve out consistent time for yourself.
A couple of pieces of advice I have found to be helpful have to do with rejection and persistence. Once you start to have other people—whether friends, family, critique group partners, or editors—read your writing, you are going to experience critical feedback and rejection. Lots of it. Over and over again. It can be hard on your ego and self-esteem, especially in the beginning before you’ve had much success. It’s an unavoidable part of the writing experience. It’s how you get better. And if you’re going to submit, whether to magazines or book publishers, you’re going to get rejections.
Once I got onto Twitter and started following other writers and literary magazines, I got to see how even successful, published authors still experience rejection. It’s an inevitable part of the process. Accept it and get used to it. It takes a while. Because most writing, especially fiction, is subjective. What one reader or editor or publisher thinks is terrific another says is junk.
Persistence is essential. I’ve read some successful writers who say it accounts for more about success than just about everything else, except talent, of course. There are so many ways to get distracted and discouraged, but to succeed you have to keep trying, keep putting yourself out there, keep getting feedback, and keep submitting. Unless you are submitting—a lot—you’re not going to get published. Since 2017, on Submittable alone, which doesn’t count submissions via email, I have almost 500 rejections! When I just looked back on it to get the number I got freaked out. But the point is, I keep trying.
12. How many books you read annually and what are you reading now? What is your favorite literary genre?
I probably read thirty to forty books a year, mostly literary or upmarket fiction, the occasional mystery or thriller. I dip into short story collections by writers such as Bonnie Jo Campbell and Viet Thanh Nguyen. I belong to a book group, so we’re reading a book a month together. We struggled through Richard Powers’, The Overstory, which I thought was worth the work in the end. Boy, can he write. The most recent book group selection was Long Bright River by Liz Moore, which we loved. Everyone really enjoyed Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee as well. I thank my book group pals for introducing me to historical fiction which I thought I wouldn’t enjoy but I do.
Other recent books I’ve enjoyed recently include Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng; There There by Tommy Orange; and The Revsioners by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton. I don’t remember how I stumbled onto The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, but I loved that one, and it gave me the idea of using an alternating timeline in my next novel, which Ann Napolitano also used in Dear Edward. Other recent reads I’ve enjoyed include, Such a Fun Age, by Kiley Reid; The Giver of Stars, by Jojo Moyes; and The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett.
Next up is The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai. As a white woman, I’m always looking to expand my perspective and world view by reading stories by writers of color, as you can see from the list above.
13. What do you deem the most relevant about your writing? What is the most important to be remembered by readers?
Hmm, that’s a tough one. I draw heavily on my background as a social worker to explore social issues that I think are complex and not well understood by a lot of people who haven’t experienced them, like addiction, homelessness, and poverty. I want people to look closely at hard things they might rather avoid. I like to tackle social issues and add a human face by developing complex, flawed characters that readers can identify with as a way into these issues [see Jody Picoult]. I strive to show characters struggling with complex issues about which they have a range of feelings that can seem to conflict with one another.
14. What is your opinion about the publishing industry today and about the ways authors can best fit into the new trends?
Being relatively new to the publishing industry, I wouldn’t presume to know what its “new trends” are. From what I’ve read, those trends which are mercurial and predict anyhow. I guess one way to tell is to read a range of literary magazines (which I do) and see what editors are publishing and to look at what’s selling well. Not that the best seller list should dictate what you write, but it’s helpful to understand what’s getting recognition.
15. How do you deal with stress?
If you’re going to be a writer for the long haul, there’s going to be stress, lots of it. Like getting rejection after rejection on a story you have poured your heart into. Like while you’re waiting to hear from agents or editors about a book you’ve submitted. If you’ve gotten that far, you’ve worked really hard over a long period of time; the stakes are very high. It can also be stressful seeing other writers succeed (or fail) and comparing yourself to them, even though you try not to.
So, what’s a writer to do? I find that mindfulness practices like meditation and yoga are extremely valuable. I try to do some mindfulness activity every day, though I don’t always succeed. Like has a way of getting in the way. Or sometimes when I try to practice, my monkey mind is going a mile a minute and I can’t seem to turn it off, or my body won’t stay still. It comes with the territory.
Exercise is also key, especially exercise done outside, in nature, like walking, hiking or bike riding.
The last thing I’d like to say to readers who’d like to know me better is to check out my website (www.bonniecarlsonauthor.com) and blog (www.vibage.blogspot.com ). Although I’m not active on Facebook or Instagram, I do read and post on Twitter daily.