June 29, 2011

Interview with Travis Erwin... and a GIVEAWAY!

Recently I had the opportunity to "hang out" in the ether with author Travis Erwin, a native Texan, humor writer, and fervent "meatatarian". He has published an eBook called Whispers (available for both nook and kindle) which is a collection of two short stories and one memoir vignette. A couple of weekends ago I downloaded the book to my iPhone and spent some enjoyable time reading the stories.

Travis graciously agreed to let me interview him on the blog so could you meet him! Everyone needs a writer buddy who likes meat and has a good sense of humor.  AND, the bonus is if you check him out TWO of you have a chance to win his free eBook Whispers.  It's like a two-for-one-bonus.

So, here's the interview. [tap tap.]  Is this thing on?

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Wendy: What inspired you to become a writer?

Travis:  The first answer here is my mother. She urged, actually more insisted, I constantly be engaged in a book from the time I could read. I suppose like most kids I tried to resist but book and literature won me over and I've been addicted ever since. Of course, being a natural born BS'er from Texas that love of reading soon turned to fanciful ideas that I could write a story worth reading.

Wendy:  Can you tell us anything about current projects you're working on?

Travis:  I have two projects actually. A humorous food book title Lettuce Is The Devil which is about 40% humor essay, 40% memoir, and 20% cookbook. The subtitle for that one is The Culinary Dogma of a Devout Meat Man. The whole thing is rather absurd but for the first time in my writing career I have a literary agent to help guide my carrrer and find it a home so I have high hopes in the project. I also have a fiction project, a story about a rancher's wife who is convinced sex is ruining her life. I have yet to hit upon a title I like but this story has lots of humor elements as well a nympho-maniacal senior citizen, a Texas blowhard that makes his living peddling Bull semen and lots of awkward situations for the characters.

Wendy:  What is your writing schedule like?

Travis:  I write like a vampire, in the dark of the night when normal folks are sleeping. I try to get in several hours a night and when things are going great I get up in the wee hours and also write before work, but eventually my body craters and demands sleep so there are 3 or 4 day stretches when I don't actively sit at the computer and write. However, my stories and their characters are never totally gone from my mind. I spend hours a day pondering, thinking, and yes even whispering snatched of dialogue. If I wasn't a writer I'd just be that crazy dude that talks to himself.

Wendy:  When you tackle a book what is your process like? Do you outline? Write back stories? What do you do before you start typing on page 1?

Travis:  I never start out with an outline but when the mud thickens and the slogging gets rough I often write one out and study it for an easier path. I do write back stories. Lots of them as a matter of fact. I consider myself a character writer as people interest me much more than plots. This has made it harder to define my writing and genre and therefore made it harder to sell. I take every character in a book and write 3 to maybe 15 pages of vignettes from their previous life. I try to choose events that have emotion. First kiss, a fearful moment. A fight physical or even verbal. Once I have written these and discover how a character will emotionally react in both good times and bad I feel like I can start the story.

Wendy:  You mention in some commentary that people have made "assertions [that it's] ridiculous for a man to write women's fiction..." What appeals to you about writing women's fiction?

Travis:  Actually I never meant to write women's fiction, but I do find it easier to write from a female POV and I believe love is what makes the world go around so those two overriding things show up in my writing. And like I said I love characters and women's fiction readers seem to have more patience for a slower developing plot that other genres.

Wendy:  What is your inspiration -- what topics or type of topics do you want to write about?

Travis:  I'm pretty certain my muse is French prostitute turned guardian angel because late at night I sometimes catch the scent of perfume in my writing office despite the fact I am the only one there. So I think the overriding theme to all my work is hope. That no matter how bad things get there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Wow, I slipped into cliche mode for that one. I used to write very dark stories but perhaps because my own life is going so well I now find it easier to write humorous lighthearted fare.

Wendy:  What are some of your favorite books and/or authors?

Travis:  I'm all over the place here. Richard Russo (Nobody's Fool, The Risk Pool, Empire Falls) and Kent Haruf (Plainsong and Eventide) make me jealous for their ability to build entire towns and communities of fictional character I care about. Christopher Moore makes me laugh out loud at his absurdity. I'm in awe of Erica Orloff's versatility to write both middle children's literature (The Magickeeper Series) and a great and funny romance like Freudian Slip. Besides that, she is as nice a person as the world has to offer. I also love Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and I'm not sure a better novel has ever been written than To Kill A Mockingbird.

Wendy:  Writers put things out there on the page for everyone to see. When a writer specializes in fiction, a reader doesn't know how big the kernel of truth is in that story. However, in your eBook Whispers you wrote a personal tale about the birth of your son and got very open with the events and how you reacted to them. Do you ever feel too naked when you put stuff on the page? Is there a price to pay with family or friends when you use your real life as a base for your writing and how to you resolve this?

Travis:  Blogging opened doors for me. Once upon a time I kept everything personal close to my chest, but writing near daily posts for several years and interacting with so many great people little by little I lowered the walls and now I can write fairly freely about myself. I also wrote a coming of age memoir about myself titled The Feedstore Chronicles. It's a fairly raunchy look at my misguided youth and while unpublished thus far writing it was almost therapeutic. I don't have many secrets at this point but if I've learned anything over the years it is we are all basically the same so while I may be "telling" on myself, I feel confident others can relate and have felt the same at some point.

Wendy:  Why do you hate lettuce so much?

Travis:  Actually I dislike all vegetables. Lettuce just happens to be the leader of the evil green empire. It is the gateway vegetation which leads to the unfortunate condition known as "living a healthy lifestyle." A slice of iceberg on your burger today and you'll find yourself munching on a salad a week later. Then comes the day you realize you are standing at a salad bar with a forkful of baby carrots in one hand and a ladle of ranch in the other.

Wendy:  Favorite food?

Travis:  Smoked elk tenderloin. It melts in your mouth and everything tastes a little better if you went out in the field and harvested it yourself.

Wendy:  And finally, in a smalltown smackdown who would win... Sheriff Andy Taylor or Marshal Matt Dillon?

Travis:  I am a gambler and as such I always consider all the angles. On the surface Matt Dillon is the easy choice as he's definitely more physical and the outlaws around Dodge City were meaner than Ernest T Bass and the Mayberry bunch. But, there's always a but in life isn't there, Andy Taylor brings an x factor to the table -- Barney Fife. Sure he's only got one bullet but Barney is reckless and a bit of a hot head so even if Matt won the fight I think Barney would avenge his sheriff and use that last bullet to take down the Marshall.

Many thanks for letting me stop in. I enjoyed the questions and would love to award two of your readers with a digital copy of my latest e-book Whispers, now available for both nook and kindle.

Given the fact that the book sells for a scant 99 cents winning is not exactly on par with hitting the lottery but hey, a free book is a free book. Comment on this post grants you one entry. Liking my Lettuce is the Devil Facebook page gives you another. Becoming a Lettuce is the Devil follower on twitter yet another. And finally you can earn another for becoming a follower of my regular writing blog One Word, One Rung, One Day.

That's four entries and for any of you dedicated to do all four I'll toss one in for free to give you 5 entries into the contest.

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Thank, Travis!  For anyone who is entering the giveaway, please do one comment PER entry (including the fifth one) so I can just do the random number generator thingy.  We will pick a winner on July 4th so get your entries in before NOON CENTRAL TIME ZONE so the winner can have something besides freedom to party about during the fireworks show! And if you don't win, go buy the book.  It's only 99 cents, so don't be cheap, go get it.

June 26, 2011

I'm a Sucker

A block or two from my house is our town cemetery. It's a sprawling strip of grass between the hardware store and the fire station and the old historic June's Cafe that's long-closed. It's encircled by a chain link fence that wobbles in some places with a gate that is wired shut so you can't open it and you have to walk around to the side where the hearses drive in.

The oldest graves are on the south end of the cemetery and over the years they have expanded toward the north end as the citizens of our town die and take their places there.

For my whole life the dominant feature of the cemetery was a tulip tree -- a mammoth tree nearly a century old. Every spring it would bloom into a resplendent display of yellow tulip-shaped flowers. It had been pruned at the bottom so that all the branches arched over the graves like a hovering guardian in a sweeping yellow coat. The tree was like an old friend that you didn't talk to every day but knew was always there for you.

Over the last few years we've had many weather disasters that necessitated our county being declared a disaster area nine times. One of the interludes between "major" disasters was a minor one -- a shearing wind that tore through town, pulled down a few electrical poles and as they tumbled down like dominoes they took our majestic tulip tree with them.

It was the talk of the county. Not only was the town without electricity for half a day, but the more tragic event was that our cemetery tree, our Old Faithful was split in two lying splayed out in an undignified manner right there in the middle of town.

The men came with chainsaws to dispose of the body and spent the day cutting the enormous tree into pieces. It turns out while she was huge and solid-looking, she was rotting from the inside. She was weak and it was just time and circumstance that came together to bring her down on that particular day.

The Wednesday following the tree falling the newspaper displayed, in full page color, the corpse of our tulip tree. It told the story of the tree and how it got there.
Long, long ago a woman died. She was so well-loved by her husband that next to her grave he planted a tulip tree for her so that every spring it would bloom and shower her with flowers. And in the summer it would provide shade to cool her. And in the fall it would blaze with color and make people take notice of her audaciousness. And in the winter, when she was bare, all would see the towering strength and the network of branches that had been looking over the cemetery for the last century. In some way, the tulip tree would make the dear lady immortal because when you drove through that part of town, that's what you could see -- the personification of a husband's eternal love for a wife who had gone before him.
I wonder when he planted the tree if he had any idea how truly huge it would get. It grew so large it split her headstone into pieces as if she were coming to life and breaking through from the other world to ours --  reincarnated as the tree itself. At least that's what I like to think. The notion is romantic and other-worldly and fantastic and I'm a sucker for that sort of thing.

I was there today and the cemetery looks so bare and lifeless without that tree. The rest is just expanse of grass and leaning stones, some of which are not even marked with names. On the stump sits the lady's stone, split into three and out of the stump grows a large pokeweed that is poisonous to mammals, although people in the south do eat it after cooking it to remove the toxins. Supposedly it can cure arthritis and other things if you can get reliable advice on how to cook it without killing yourself.

When I was a little girl I used to pick poke berries from a bush next to a bridge. I liked to smash the berries in my fingers and write on the concrete guard rails. I'd walk the rest of the way home, fingers bright purple-pink, remembering the feel of the rough concrete as my fingers slid across it making the shapes of the words.

I sat by the lady's grave today remembering all this and missing the tree that I've known my whole life.  I took pictures for you, so you can see all that's left.  I wish you could have seen her in all her glory.

George Washington

Tristan came up to me with a wrinkled dollar bill. He held it in two hands and stared at the man in the medallion in the middle.

Finally, he asked, "Who is this man on the dollar?"

I said, "That's George Washington."

He asked, "Was he our first president?"

"Yes, he was."

His lip turned down in a sad face and he continued to stare at the picture.

"Why are you sad," I asked.

"Because he died.  I really miss him."

June 16, 2011

The Archaeology of Motherhood

Children happened to me when I least expected it. This is not to say that my children were unintentional, far from it. They were fully intentional, fought for when the time came. Yearned for, cried for, a cause for sleepless nights when it looked like they might not be ours one day.

My oldest -- big-headed baby, fair-skinned, orange-haired.  Blue eyes.  When I looked into his eyes I thought of my great-grandmother who, I heard, always thought blue eyes and red hair was the most beautiful combination in the world. I remember this because my eyes are green. And not a beautiful green like clover or emeralds, but green like olives. I hate olives.

My youngest -- little angry grunter. My Romeo with his coal black eyes and eyelashes long enough to scrape the underside of the moon. I watch him work his magic with the ladies and see my future... unwilling confidante to broken-hearted girls whose calls he won't take.

When my oldest began to transition from baby to toddler, maybe a bit older, I went into a bit of a funk. I adored this precious baby and he was leaving me, growing into something different, someone different.  I loved the new guy, but missed the old guy, even grieved for him at times.

Suddenly I didn't see the point of motherhood. You have this blessing come upon you, care for him, let him consume you, turn your life upside down and suddenly in 18 years which seems more like 18 hours he is packing his toothbrush, his clothes, his favorite book, his condoms for heaven's sake! And you stand on the porch crying because he's leaving you. He'll head off into his life and you hope he will be a fabulous human being and you hope he will leave the world a better place than it was when he came into it, but the more likely scenario is that he will just be another mediocre human being with a big carbon footprint who forgets to call you on Mother's Day. Or worse.

During this time I was on a phone call with my husband's mother and I asked her. How does she reconcile that her son is all grown up? How can she bear that her little boy doesn't exist anymore?  Does she miss him terribly? Does she grieve for him?

I could tell by the silence on the other end of the phone that she was bewildered by the question. And subsequently I felt stupid and filled with regret that I'd even asked.

So, I put it out of my mind, or tried to, for months, then years. In unguarded moments the thought would peek around the corner like an evil leprechaun and plague me with more visions of crying on the porch. Eventually, my second son arrived and there were so many new challenges. No time to do much but put one foot in front of the other and keep on moving.

In the eighth year of motherhood, I was sitting on a hot concrete bench cooking up a dose of melanoma under my generous helping of freckles. In front of me was a baseball field covered with boys of all shapes and sizes. At my feet my youngest, age four, plowed a fire truck through the dirt. On the field was my oldest boy, heading up to bat.

With a crack, the ball he hit sailed through the air and a cheer went up from all the moms and dads and coaches. He began to run.  First base, second base, then something went wrong. I don't even remember now what it was because what happened next knocked every memory of that moment out of my head except one.

I see the image of him kicking up dirt as he grimly shuffles off the field to the dugout. One of the coaches catches him just as he crosses the baseline but before he can reach the dugout.  He grabs him by the shoulders and squares him up until their noses are about two inches apart.

I scooted to the edge of my seat ready, at the slightest provocation, to fly up on that coach like the most insane soccer-mom banshee from Hell. The coach started in. "Do you know what you did wrong?" My son nodded and looked down at the ground.

With a gentle shake of my son's shoulders he commanded eye contact. In the background I heard another crack of ball against bat and a cheer. It drowned out the conversation that held me, but suddenly the image was transformed for me. This man, talking to my son as he would speak to another man, demanding in a respectful way that he do his best, that he be his best, that he be a good team member, that he rise to meet challenges.

My fair-skinned boy with his delicate dusting of freckles, sun-kissed, set his lips determinedly. He nodded at whatever the coach had to say then stood an inch or two taller.

And then I saw it -- I saw the layers of him -- the baby, the toddler, the pre-schooler, the boy who graduated from kindergarten, the one who learned to read, the one who lost his baby teeth, the one who made it halfway to Home after hours and hours of batting practice. They were all there, transparent, three-dimensional, like nesting dolls.

The reason my question was so ridiculous, so alien is because my mother-in-law knew, but couldn't explain, that you don't have to grieve for your loss because there is no loss. This boy is just layers, like a rich archaeological dig, the sum of those layers of love, of discipline, of fun times, of hard times, of learning and experiences.

I watched the coach slap him on the back and send him into the dugout where he was jostled by his friends, all elbows and nudges. I smiled and drew circles in the dirt with my foot next to the roads my youngest was carving out with his truck.

"Yer messin' up my roads, Mom."

"Sorry, sweetie."

During the next round of batting my oldest was up to bat again. I was awash with a new found serenity. He sidled up to the plate and planted his feet squarely, rocking back and forth to get his perfect balance. Elbows up, a couple test swings. He nodded to the pitcher. Ready.

The ball flew, the bat sped forward, the batter's form poetry as metal met leather and with a loud pop the ball torpedoed between flailing players desperate to catch the ball.

My son began to run and I began to cheer.  I cheered for him, but I think now I might have been cheering more for me, for us, for a future free of looking back with sadness, but now only fondness, at worst -- nostalgia.  I cheered as he veered across second and didn't slow a beat, just like Coach had taught him. On to third, the coaches screamed for him to run. A slight pause rounding third and I slid forward on that hot, rough, blazing bench. Halfway to home, he turned to look back.  The ball was coming, coming straight for him, coming straight for home.

I leaped up and ran to the fence, hooking my fingers through the chain link and screamed, "Run run RUN! AND DON'T LOOK BACK!"

As he crossed home plate, I cheered for him, for us and his hands flew up into the air and he whooped.

And I whooped. Because that was the day I stopped looking back.

June 8, 2011

Fish Head

My oldest son is an old pro when it comes to fish guts. Last year my brother took him fishing and then showed him how to clean and cook the fish.  I was sure it would flip him out, but he did remarkably well and was even thrilled that he knows how to do it now.

I think we picked the right age -- maybe 7 or 8.  He's old enough to understand where food comes from and we've had discussions about hunting and fishing and how, in our family, it's not a "sport".  The rule in our house is if you kill an animal it's a guarantee you'll be eating it.

So, having been through this with one boy, I was a little bit lax on planning for the second. We'd been fishing with our youngest before and somehow in my mind I just assumed he already knew the drill.  He doesn't like fish, doesn't like meat much at all.  We call him "our vegetarian child", although his one big exception is hot dogs which he likes straight out of the fridge and with no bun.

Saturday Rob took the boys fishing with another Scout dad and his son.  They caught a ton of fish, most of which were too small to keep.  They brought home one catfish which Rob filleted outside his workshop on a nifty portable fish cleaning station he'd rigged up.

I was inside working on the computer and little while later the door opened and Tristan slowly walked in and closed the door behind him.  I knew something was up because when he comes in usually the door flies open and he enters the room with gale force and slams it behind him hard enough to shake the windows.

I turned to look at him and he walked slowly across the room, head down. I could see his bottom lip pooching out.

"What's wrong, buddy."  I held out my arms, inviting him in for a hug.

"I'm sad."

"Tell me all about why you're sad."

He pulled away and sat down on a short stepstool at the coffee table where he sits to eat his snacks or draw pictures.

"I'm sad because of the fish. They cut his head off."

Oh dear, I thought, how could I not have planned that out better.  Duh.

He kept looking down at his feet and swinging them up and down. His legs were filthy, no socks, ragged tennis shoes.  He looked like an abandoned, hopeless child.

He continued, "I just feel so bad for that lil guy..."

I reached out again and motioned for him to come to me and wrapped my arms around him. "I feel bad for that little guy, too.  I'm sorry you feel bad, but that's what happens when you eat a fish."

"I don't wanna eat a fish. I want that lil guy to still be swimming in the water!"

I half-smiled grimly and sympathetically.  "I know, I'm sorry.  You don't have to eat fish."

He eyeballed me accusingly.  "YOU eat fish."  That was the first time I'd ever heard him state a personal and deep criticism of who I am and what I do.  His mother, the Fish Eater.  I've gone through the standard, "You're mean!" or "I'm never gonna be your friend anymore!" during those moments when he was mad because I made him eat what was on his plate or made him clean his room or wouldn't let him wear pajamas to school.  But this was something entirely different.

He wasn't going to understand if I said, "I'm a Southernor.  I'm obligated by my culture to have corn-battered catfish at LEAST once a month with liberal amounts of greasy, deep-fried hush puppies on the side. I'm sorry, but I can't help myself."

So, I did all I could -- admitted my faults, that I'm a rampaging fish killer.  "I do eat fish, honey."

"But I don't want you to do it.  I just feel so sad for that lil guy."

I pulled him onto my lap. He smelled like a gamey little boy of summer, a boy who had been out on a boat getting sweaty and wet and now was covered in a film of dirt. He nuzzled his face into my neck and I said, "Hey, how about I draw you up a nice bath? That will be fun."  He nodded against my neck.

Deep, cool bath, lots of bubbles, a big toy boat. He stayed in there for nearly an hour and when he was out there was no further mention of fish or being sad.  I guess we'll cross our fingers and wait for the next time one of the boys wants to go fishing and see what happens.  We may be headed for vegetarianism one of these days.