Writing: Language at its best

I’m pretty comfy as a genre girl. I appreciate the intricacies that go into mysteries, urban fantasy, and romances. But every once in a while, I yearn for the subtleties of a slower pace, the fluidity of language that lingers on the tongue, and then I turn to fiction that’s a bit more on the literary side. My friend, Rachel Roberts, combines literary fiction with a southern voice, and she mesmerizes me, so I invited her to be on my blog today. I sent the questions, and her answers made my knees weak. It’s not often I feel unworthy, but Rachel can do that to me. Without more ado, Rachel:

Thanks for visiting my blog. Your background has helped shape your writing. Would you care to tell us a little about yourself?

Thanks, Judy, for this interview. To answer your question, sometimes I wonder if a person is born to write or whether his/her writing is cultivated. When I was around 12, I longed for a fountain pen! Imagine such a thing! When I got an Esterbrook pen for Christmas, I was ecstatic. I’ve been writing ever since. I was born in interior Brazil, where I went to public school—all in Portuguese– before my parents moved back to the United States. In high school (Dillon, SC), I wrote for the school newspaper and had some writing successes. In college (Furman, SC), I wrote poetry and edited the literary magazine. I earned my MA (U. of Richmond, VA) and began teaching (Radford U) and Haverford HS (PA). While rearing my children, I took up newspaper writing. That led me to do interviews and write articles and features. For 15 years, I wrote a personal opinion column called “View & Review.” I continued teaching (IPFW and Trine) and began writing books. These days, I mostly write short stories and plays. I swim laps regularly at the YMCA, and I’m very much involved in the local arts community. When I get antsy, I pull out my old Latin book and look at it, or I concoct some sort of soup, or if it’s summer, I weed my flowerbed.

1. I’ve read your books and love them. You have a unique, southern voice. What do you consider special about southern writing?

A few years ago, I gave a lecture about southern literature. Based on that research and my experience, the American South is undergoing cultural and social changes, including rapid industrialization and an influx of immigrants to the region. As a result, the definition of what constitutes southern literature also is changing. Some of the main themes in southern literature are: the significance of family, a sense of community, an agrarian outlook, the importance of land, and how it shapes a person’s identity. Other themes are religion, the historical significance of place, the telling of a story, and in some cases the use of southern dialect. Erskine Caldwell said about his writing, All I wanted to do was tell a story, and to tell it to the best of my ability.

2. How would you describe voice?

Voice is the natural style, tone, sentence structure, language, and words expressed by a writer and the cadence (rhythm and sound) of those words and sentences. Whereas one writer’s voice may be formal, another’s may be whimsical or satirical. A writer’s “voice” is something of a personality trait—memorable and indigenous to that one person. It also reflects where a person comes from and how he/she observes and/or accepts life. Les Edgerton’s book, Finding your Voice, explores the subject quite well.

3. I know you’re involved in an annual writing contest to encourage new writers. What do you look for in good writing?

Good writing is direct, clearly expressed, and conveys information appropriately. It displays a writer’s knowledge and respect for grammar and word usage. Good writing has a tone or voice that is memorable. As a dear friend of mine, L. Dorr used to say, “Writing isn’t laying down tiles. The words have to sing.” I am always astonished that some people who have a wonderful story to tell, ignore, don’t know, or don’t make the effort to learn the mechanics of how to express themselves clearly. Other people know all about mechanics and grammar, but they haven’t thought about their story or idea long enough to tell it in a fresh or interesting way. Good writing demands and reflects effort. When I read someone’s work and find myself in awe or thankful to have encountered it, I know I’ve found good writing!

4. Who are your 2 favorite authors? (You can list more) And what are your all-time, favorite books?

My favorite authors? That’s hard to answer. Certainly Eudora Welty and Jesse Stuart for their abilities to capture the essence of southern culture; James Thurber for his wry humor and intellect, and Lawrence Dorr for his determination and stories of courage and luminosity. You’ll note these four are short story writers. I suppose I should include Scott Russell Sanders for his essays and Russell Baker for his down-home style. I can’t limit myself to just two.

My favorite book? No question about it—the Bible, followed by the dictionary, and then the World Book Encyclopedia, but let me explain. I don’t think they publish encyclopedias anymore, but I sure did enjoy reading it as a youngster. Aside from its moral directives, the Bible is a compilation of drama, short stories, romance, poetry, essays, history, letters, and philosophy. But you’re asking about fiction, aren’t you? I honestly cannot say. When I find a good book, I tend to fall in love with the writing and declare it to be my favorite. The first novelist I wanted to read twice was Zane Grey for his Western adventures and Iola Fuller for her The Loon Feather, but one time I went back to Fuller’s book and for the life of me, I could not get “in to it.” You see, at different stages of life, different books appeal or answer a reader’s need. I suppose I needed adventure when I read Zane Grey, but as I matured, I graduated to Chekov, Conrad, and James. Works by Georgia Green Stamper and Ruthann Ingraham are among my latest “favorite” books.

5. Besides writing fiction, you’ve written non-fiction and plays. What attracted you to non-fiction?

I got involved in non-fiction writing as I developed my journalistic career. I did book reviews, features, and personal opinion columns. I had to do research and then express facts in a cogent and interesting way. Non-fiction writing is rewarding, but challenging. No matter how careful the research and after publication, the author inevitably will encounter someone somewhere who offers a startling new “fact” or detail about the subject. It’s a non-fiction writer’s worse nightmare.

6. What appeals to you about plays?

Drama requires movement, dialogue, character development, and conflict. I especially enjoy the back and forth interaction that dialogue demands between actors. I have an ear for dialogue, so writing a play seems natural to me. I love irony and humor in a play, but I’m not good at writing comedy. I admire those who can! A wonderful play is one that entertains me, informs me, makes me think, and allows me to suspend my disbelief for an hour or so.

You can find Rachel’s charming blog at: http://www.rachelsroberts.com/

I love Rachel’s voice. You can find her books on Amazon:

Tacking Forward at http://www.amazon.com/Tacking-Forward-Rachel-Roberts-ebook/dp/B00SZDILB4/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1424544499&sr=1-1&keywords=Tacking+Forward%2C+Rachel+Roberts

This Red Earth @ http://www.amazon.com/This-Red-Earth-Book-ebook/dp/B0078SPDBI/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1424544643&sr=1-1&keywords=This+Red+Earth%2C+rachel+s+roberts

Beyond This Red Earth @ http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-This-Earth-Between-Rivers-ebook/dp/B007W7549Q/ref=sr_1_4?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1424544705&sr=1-4