Today’s Featured Author: Tara Ison

Today I am excited to have Tara Ison, author of A Child out of Alcatraz, on my blog.

Interview

About the Author

What or who inspired you to start writing?

I was a huge reader as a kid, completely passionate about books…but what really inspired me to start writing was movies! Actually, the images of writers in movies – I think the first one might have been Julia, with Jane Fonda as Lillian Hellman, but there was also Reds, Dr. Zhivago, The World According to Garp…  I was a sucker for every cinematic “writer cliche” about writers and the writing life: long sunset walks on the beach in front of the charming Cape Cod house, the Parisian garret, all those slugs of Scotch and bottles of wine. Living for weeks in a rumpled flannel bathrobe, plunking away with furrowed brow at an old black Underwood while eating some abstract sandwich. Writers always seemed to have complicated relationships with complicated people, were always dashing off to some glamorous and important writerly event, to acclaim and applause. Fortunately, by the time I realized the hard, lonely, miserable “writing life” is nothing like those images, I’d fallen in love with the process of writing itself, writing for the sake of writing, for the sake of crafting sentences, creating characters and their worlds…

Do you have an all time favorite book?

Tough to answer, but…if I had to select a book I constantly return to – as both a writer and a reader – it would be The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore. A terrible title, but a gorgeous, heartbreaking book, about an spinster in 1950s Ireland. It isn’t a very “fashionable” novel, but it is a master course in the subtleties of 3rd person subjective point of view – I learned so much from that novel, and I love teaching it. And as a reader, I am moved to tears by the main character, every single time I read it.

How much of yourself, your personality or your experiences, is in your books?

Quite a bit – even the characters living in a wholly different time or place, or with significantly different characteristics, or life experiences I’ve never had. There’s that theory that every person who appears in our dreams us actually “us,” an aspect of our own psyche, and that really resonates for me, as a writer; every character is, well, me. (“Madame Bovary, c’est moi!” Flaubert said…) I have to tap in to what he or she is thinking and feeling from the inside out, and personalize it, find the shared intimacy with my own experience – almost like Method acting, I suppose. I realized that was happening with my second novel, The List, a dysfunctional love story between two completely mismatched characters – the novel goes back and forth, between Isabel and Al’s points of view, and the whole novel rests on their untenable, irreconcilable differences as people. But they’re both me, I relate to each of them equally – they  drew out, or drew upon, all my own contradictions and inner-conflicts.

Have you started your next project? If so, can you share a little bit about your next book?

Yes, I have a new novel coming out this June, called Rockaway – it’s about a woman, a one-time painter, who’s wandered into a dead-end life but has a chance to turn everything around if she can create some new work for a big exhibit. So, she exiles herself to a lonely beach house in Rockaway, New York, for a summer (one of those “artist” cliches!), but nothing turns out as she planned. There’s a strange new relationship with a strange guy, a lot of internal demons from her past she’s forced to confront, she finds herself emotionally spiraling out of control…but ultimately comes out the better for it. It’s a coming of age story, in a way, although she’s in her thirties.

Do you write full-time? If so, what is your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?

No, I wish I did – but I’m a binge writer. I might go weeks without writing a word, but then it sneaks up on me, I get totally consumed by an idea, a sentence, an image, a character (or a deadline…) – and I’ll finally sit down, start writing, look up and suddenly it’s three days later. I’m now a creative writing professor, however, so with a full-time job, I’ve had to learn to be more disciplined. But I still work best when I have a chunk of time to focus and escape the world – that’s my live-for-days-in-the-bathrobe and eat-sandwiches writing time.

About her book

Please tell us about your current release.

is a “Mother/daughter on Alcatraz” story – something we aren’t used to seeing in stories about “The Rock.” Between 1933-1963, while Alcatraz Island was a federal penitentiary for the “worst of the worst” criminals in the country, there were also about a hundred women and children living on the island, the families of the prison guards, in this very classic, Ozzie-and-Harriet neighborhood. A Child out of Alcatraz is the fictional story of one such family. It’s the history of Alcatraz from a female POV.

What inspired you to write this book?

I was touring the island (which is now a National Park), and the tour mentioned a sentence or two about the families, and their life on the island, and it stuck; the idea of being woman, or a little girl, living in this most masculine, threatening, foreboding place in the country – how Alcatraz was pitched to the public – absolutely fascinated me.

What kind of research did you do for this book?

A lot – the research took me years, before I wrote a single word. Dozens and dozens of books, films, and documentaries, interviews with former family members and prison guards, multiple visits to the island. I actually moved to San Francisco to write the first draft – and spent months in the libraries and museums and archives, going through old microfiche files, etc. (This was all pre-Internet, very old-fashioned research.) It was a huge project, but I never lost my fascination with it. I wanted to honor the experience, and get the details as authentic and realistic as possible

Did you base any of your characters on real people?

The Wardens and the more “famous” prisoners I refer to were real – but the family in my story is absolutely fictional, because I had a very specific story I wanted to tell.

Did the story turn out the way you planned from the beginning? If not, what change happened that you didn’t expect?

I feel I was lucky this was my first novel, in a way, because in order to be historically accurate, there was already a rough shape of the story in place: the events of the prison itself, every escape attempt, every policy change or new Warden, had to be accurate, and the narrative had to work with and around that, because those events would profoundly affect the family. So I wasn’t starting from scratch; I did have an outline to work from, or several outlines: the “story” of the prison itself, the daughter’s story, the mother’s story, and even the social, political, and cultural events happening in the country, all braided together. But once I had those dramatic markers in place, I could forget all about the outline, and just focus on the moment: the language, the atmosphere, the interiority of the characters and where that might take me. That’s why I find an outline liberating, as a writer – it’s like having a map in the glove compartment. Even if I never look at it, I know it’s there, and so I feel more comfortable to wander and explore in the moment, without worrying I will get too lost.

Book Description

ChildOutOfAlcatrazCoverSet in the ’50s and ’60s, A Child out of Alcatraz paints a searing and compelling portrait of the downward spiral of a mother and young daughter. When the father takes a job as a prison guard, the family moves to The Rock, and soon the isolation and harsh living conditions become a metaphor for the dysfunctional family, forcing each member to escape in their own way.

About the Author

TaraIsonTara Ison is also the author of the novel The List (Scribner, 2007), Rockaway is forthcoming from Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press, and the short story collection Ball to be published by Red Hen Press. Her short fiction, essays, poetry and book reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, Nerve.com, Black Clock, Publisher’s Weekly, The Week magazine, The Mississippi Review, LA Weekly, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, and numerous anthologies. Tara is also the co-writer of the cult movie Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead. She is the recipient of many awards, including a 2008 NEA Creative Writing Fellowship and a 2008 COLA Individual Artist Grant. Ison received her MFA in Fiction & Literature from Bennington College and is currently Assistant Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University.

You can find out more about Tara on her website.

A Child out of Alcatraz is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

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Testing your plot with a one-sentence summary

elevatorEvery story needs a compelling plot. One good test to make sure you have one is if to sum up your story in just one sentence. This is often called a one line hook, a one-sentence pitch or an elevator pitch. Basically, pretend you are in the elevator with someone (editor, agent or potential reader) and you had only one sentence to get them interested in reading your book. What would you say?

I know that one sentence sounds hard but in the age of Twitter with its 140 character limit, we should be used to reducing down our message whether it is what we are doing or a sales pitch. You can even tell a “story” in just 140 characters. I did that for my local newspaper at Halloween when they asked for “spooky” submissions that were just 128 characters (when you excluded the hashtag).

Here are 2 of mine…

Tap, drag, tap, drag. The harried breathing gets louder as it nears. A zombie? A ghoul? What can it be? Oh, it is just Grandpa.

His fangs lock on the zombie’s neck. Growling, he thrashes his head as he saves me. Never walk in a graveyard without your dog.

I loved the challenge of this assignment and the newspaper published I think three out of the four I submitted. Just last month in an interview I was asked to sum up my story Destiny in just 20 words. It took a few tries but I did it. Here is is…

As the instrument of prophecy, Lina strives to save the Lands while battling the woman determined to take her magic.

Not sure I am using that as my hook but it just shows that it can be done. Remember that your one-sentence summary (pitch) is not the theme of your book. An example of a theme is “This book looks at the thin line between right and wrong.” Your pitch is about what happens.

When writing your pitch you should include:

  • A character or two
  • Their choice, conflict or goal
  • What’s at stake
  • Action needed to reach goal
  • Only mention setting if it is important to the story

Remember to keep it short and only focus on the main conflict. You don’t even need to name your characters. Focus on using strong nouns, verbs and adjectives.

Examples

Summoned – A young woman is drawn from her home into a danger-filled journey that forces her to use her innate magic to save herself and her friends.

From Writer’s Digest:

Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone – In order to protect the wizarding world that he has so recently inherited, Harry must prevent the sorcerer’s stone from falling into the wrong hands.

From Rachelle Gardner:

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

In the south in the 1960s, three women cross racial boundaries to begin a movement that will forever change their town and the way women view one another.

Now do all stories have to be able to be boiled down to just one sentence – No. There are pieces of work – epic tales – that cannot be shortened into one sentence because there are too many protagonists and stories to be told. But for most authors, their stories can be shortened and this is certainly a good way to verify that you have a complete, compelling story to tell.

Extra reading help for my first grader

In February, my son excitedly announced that he and two other classmates were taking part in RAP. It turns out RAP is a Reading Acceleration Program for children struggling with reading. I looked at the letter from the school and was confused. In January, Jase had received an 89 in reading on his report card.

Little boy readingI thought his reading was okay. He has a tendency to guess what the words are rather than sounding them out. But as he is my first child and I don’t spend much time with other kids his age, I had no clue how he compared to his classmates. I’m all for extra reading time, but I also wondered what was he missing in class while he attended RAP.

His teacher had penned a comment on the letter that this could help Jase, and we would talk about it at the upcoming parent-teacher conference which was only two weeks away. In the meantime, he attended RAP for thirty minutes each morning and came home with daily homework. The work seemed very simple. He would read to me a book that they had already read in class. Then there are two other short exercises. The whole homework took about 10-15 minutes.

During his parent-teacher conference, his teacher went over the Texas Primary Reading Inventory (TPRI) test results. She said his fluency (the speed in which he reads) was lower than it should be. At his grade level, he should be reading 60 words per minute. Jase was closer to 40. Now he has no problem comprehending what he is reading but she and the principal thought that RAP could help him improve his speed. His teacher said that his level was fine now for first grade, but she didn’t want him behind when he was in second grade where independent reading is expected.

As for what he was missing, she assured me he wasn’t missing anything important. It seems each first-grade teacher helps three students (from a different class) during this thirty-minute period. The rest of the class spends the time writing in their journals, reading or doing a work-sheet. In the case of the work sheet, Jase would have time later in the day to do his. The RAP program started in October so the teachers had the routine down, and the rest of the students were used to doing independent work during this time.

Jase will continue with RAP for the remainder of the year and will be reevaluated next year to see if he needs to continue with it. The best thing is Jase loves going to RAP. He doesn’t see it as something he needs extra help in. He sees it as something special he was chosen to do. And if it helps his reading, I am all for that.

Today’s Featured Author: Al Moe

Today I welcome Al Moe to my site. He is the author of the nonfiction book, The Roots of Reno.

Interview

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I’m married, have four girls, and live a busy life in Arizona where I squeeze as much writing as I can into my daily routine. Usually about two hours.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?

I was playing poker in a casino when an idea for an article that related to poker came to mind. I went home, wrote the article, and submitted it to “Poker Player” magazine and it was accepted. The $50 didn’t make me feel like a writer though. I felt like a writer when The Roots of Reno was published and I started getting calls to do lectures on Reno and the town’s casinos. That was a thrill.

What fuels you as an author to continue to write?

Curiosity. I wanted to know the history of the Nevada gaming industry and who owned the first casinos, since I had started collecting old casino chips. There wasn’t much information out there, so I started collecting stories from magazines, newspaper articles, and interviews I conducted. Eventually I decided to do a book of my own.

Please tell us about your current release.

My book is called The Roots of Reno. It is a nonfiction look at the men who really started the saloons and gaming halls of early Reno and Lake Tahoe. They worked in the mining towns of Tonopah and Goldfield, Nevada before moving to Reno, and they are the ones who truly turned Reno into “The Biggest Little City in the World.”

How did you come up with the title?

I was stumped on the title, and told my friend, Roy Ritner about the book, and what I wanted the title to convey (beginning, growth, maturity of Reno) and he suggested the title.

Do you have a specific snack that you have with you when you write?

Just water. Eating distracts me from my project.

Do you have an all time favorite book?

Stephen King’s “On Writing” has given me hope, criticism, and improved my writing. Plus, it’s a fun autobiography of a very prolific writer.

Random fact: Writing is like therapy for me. If I miss my chance to write during the day I feel out of sorts and can’t wait for my “writer’s high” that comes with any good hour’s work.

Book Description

rootscoverReno was truly Hell on Wheels in the 1920’s. The rest of the nation considered the town Sodom and Gomorra, but that’s only half the truth. Reno offered everything in the way of adult entertainment, from speakeasy’s and houses of ill-repute, to open gaming – legal or not. And it took plenty of sins by the founding fathers to make Reno “The biggest little city in the world.”

When the gold-veins of Tonopah and Goldfield ran out, the casino owners moved to Reno, where even greater riches awaited. Together, a group of four men (Nick Abelman, Bill Graham, Jim McKay, George Wingfield) took over Reno’s casinos and held sway over the town for the next three decades.

Together they administered policy, collected juice, ran politicians, and owned the red-light district and most of the town’s casinos.

When that wasn’t enough they took over the banks and laundered money for crooks like “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Alvin Karpis, and Ma Barker’s boys, and offered safety to “Baby Face” Nelson. It was a good gig.

The Reno Four dictated policy all over Northern Nevada, taking special care of Reno and Lake Tahoe casinos up until the late 1950’s. Their influence made Reno before Bill Harrah or “Pappy” Smith ever arrived, needing an introduction and permission to build their own casinos, Harold’s Club and Harrah’s.

Author Bio

albertmoeAuthor Al W. Moe is a twenty-year veteran of the Nevada Gaming Industry. He writes Casino Gambling articles for magazines and web sites like About.com and Examiner, and plays poker and blackjack in his spare time. He calls Lake Tahoe his first inspirational place to write and would like to retire there someday.

Find out more about him on his blog.

You can purchase The Roots of Reno on Amazon.

Author website or blog: Do you need one, both or neither?

Nowadays authors need to make sure they have a visible internet presence but do you need to have a website or a blog? Do you need both or have the lines between these two blurred enough that only one is required?

First off, why do you need a web presence? Nowadays reader expect to connect and find out more about authors on the internet. Your website is how they can do that. It allows you to promote yourself and your books to them and provides them a way to contact you. 

So which should you have – a blog or a website? (And before anyone says anything – yes, a blog is technically a website. The difference is that a blog is typically update more often than a traditional static website.)

Blog

blogBlog is short for web log and is a frequently updated website consisting of blog posts arranged in reverse chronolgoical order. When readers come to your site they see your most recent post first.

A blog can include static pages in addition to the current posts. (I have 2 static pages on my blog – “About Me” and “My Books.”)

Positives:  Blogs are typically updated regularly (daily or weekly – it is up to you) which give readers a reason to return. Blogs also provide an opportunity to interact with the author by allowing them to comment on posts.

Setting up a blog is easy. You don’t need any computer or programming expertise. You will simply use blogging software such as Blogger or WordPress. If you are on a tight budget, a blog can be established for free.

Negatives: You have to update it regularly (or lose readership of your blog) which can take time away from your writing. I had been posting three times a week and had to drop it down to two in order to focus on my latest novel. You will also need a topic to write about unless you plan to just update readers about your exciting life as an author. (Not something I recommend unless you have a very exciting life or can make it extremely interesting.)

Website

websiteA website is a static group of pages containing text, images and videos accessed from the same domain name.

Positives: Easy if you want to put up one-time information that won’t require updating on a regular basis.

Negatives: Unless you know HTML or have webcoding software, you will have to have someone else design, maintain and update your website. You will have to pay for your domain name as well as a site to host your webpage.

Website offer only one-way communication. While you can inform your readers, they cannot comment which means no reader/author interaction.

Website with a blog

As I said, the lines between a blog and a website are blurring. You can easily design a website that incorporates a blog.  I designed a WordPress-based site for my husband’s law firm that has a static front page as well as three other static pages. It also includes a blog regarding recent court decisions. His website was done through WordPress.org verses WordPress.com where I have my blog. (The difference is .com is hosted on WordPress’s website and includes wordpress in the address while when using WordPress.org you need your own domain name and web hosting site.)

WordPress.org actually offers a comprehensive content management system that allows people to build sites with their software even if they don’t want a blog. Quite a few companies or groups have done their website through WordPress – The Rolling Stones, Carleton University, BBC America, and Best Buy Mobile – to name a few. The benefit of using WordPress is you can publish content such as text, audio and video and have it done in minutes. If you had a traditional static website it could take hours to build a page and hours to update which can cost you time (or money) each time.

So while you can to decide to do a website OR a blog, it might be best (easiest, cheapest and more time efficient) to have one site that does it all. But really the most important thing is that you DO need to have at least one of them so readers can at least learn more about you and your books.