Thursday, January 31, 2013

Welcome Guest Paulette Alden




 LUCY BURDETTE: One of things I love about the writing community is how I keep making new friends. Last winter in Key West, a friend had a little cocktail party and he introduced me to someone who was teaching the memoir writing class he was taking. He knew we'd enjoy each other's company. Paulette Alden was delightful and funny and sweet and I immediately ordered her memoir, CROSSING THE MOON. And happily loved it. So when I learned that she, an accomplished writer and teacher, was self-publishing her new novel, I knew that you would want to meet her too.

PAULETTE ALDEN: Thank you, Lucy, for inviting me to Jungle Red Writers.  

In thinking about what to say to the readers and writers of JRW, it occurred to me that I ought to say upfront that the title of my novel, The Answer to Your Question, is deceptive, suggesting as it does that the book will actually provide answers.  In fact, it raises a lot more questions than it answers.  I think in this way it differs from mystery or crime novels, which satisfy readers in the end by providing such answers as who-done-it and why. 


I can’t say that I started out to deny readers the answers. Rather, the lack of answers resulted from my own take on the world, my own sense of human nature.  This I discovered as I was writing the novel. One fascinating aspect of writing is that you find out things about yourself that you didn’t know until they come out in a story.  I found out I think that some questions are unanswerable.  

The novel started with a question: what would it be like to be the mother of someone like Ted Bundy?  I was living in Tacoma, Washington, when Bundy was first accused of the murder of young women in the area.  No one who knew him could believe that handsome, bright, personable Ted could be a killer.  The unfolding of his story was riveting, involving jail escapes, more murders, legal defense by Ted himself, constant denials by him and his family, and eventually, his execution.



I had heard that Ted’s mother worked as a librarian near where I was living.  I never met her, but I would often think about her, wondering what it would to have this bright, promising son accused out of the blue of murder.  That became one genesis of the novel.  I would create a character whose son was accused of murder.  This despite the fact that not only had I never been the mother of anyone accused of murder, I had never been the mother of anyone.
 


Another character came into my head.  Jean is seventeen, pregnant, Southern, on her own in Tacoma while her husband is serving in Viet Nam.  A simple-wise naïf.  She “imprints” on Inga at the library where they work, drawing her into an unusual friendship.  The plot element is Ben, the son, who abducts Jean during the novel.  

Though Ben started out based on Bundy, at some point I decided I didn’t want to write about a psychopath.  Too boring, too one-dimensional, really.  I thought of my Ben as a more complex person, with factors which we (or at least I) might not be able to fathom.  Here my view of human nature made itself known.  We can’t always know why people-- even ourselves—do the things we do.  This is true of all the characters in the book.  To me the greatest mystery is the human heart, and it can’t be completely understood.  

I read a piece in The New York Times recently by Andrew Solomon, reflecting on Adam Lanza and the New Town tragedy.  He spent hundreds of hours over eight years interviewing the parents of Dylan Klebold, convinced if he dug deeply enough into their character, he would understand why Columbine happened.  He came to view them as not only inculpable, but as “admirable, moral, intelligent and kind people” whom he would gladly have had as parents himself.  Knowing Tom and Sue Klebold only made Columbine “far more bewildering” and forced Solomon to acknowledge that “people are unknowable.”


When I read that, I understood all the better what was behind my novel, even if I hadn’t always known it when I was writing it. We want answers because they make us feel we’re in control, when so often in life we’re not.  


Do you feel that “people are unknowable”?  Are you looking for questions or answers in the novels you read?  Have you had the experience when reading or writing something in which you understand or discover something about yourself that you hadn’t realized before? 

Lucy: thank you for visiting us Paulette. JR readers--Paulette will be stopping in today to chat with us. Her new book THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION can be found here. And visit her blog on writing, books, and the unexpected journey to self-publishing here.

27 comments:

Joan Emerson said...

I think all people, in large part, are unknowable. Everyone has pieces of themselves that are sacrosanct, that are hidden away, not necessarily because they are consciously choosing to hide their true natures, but simply because people are so complex. That we all have flaws is pretty much a given, but I think the tendency to keep from revealing pieces of ourselves is part and parcel of the human nature. Some pieces are too personal, too private; some are too revealing of traits that, for whatever reason, we wish others would not see. This complexity is what makes people so fascinating . . . and I would think is probably what gives writers so much inspiration for the characters that populate their books.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

That sounds right Joan--it also gives therapists plenty to work with, because sometimes what we are hiding away causes the most pain.

Isn't it amazing that the writer spent all that time with Klebold's parents and still found no answers?

Karen in Ohio said...

Joan, that is so true. People are complex, and not single-dimensional. Which is one of the reasons why there is so much arguing going on around the world at all times: even though we know WE are complex, we often expect that others are single-dimensional, and conform to whatever expectations we have of that particular dimension or attribute.

Which is why good fiction is so compelling; it reaches inside the minds of characters we might otherwise never have a chance to really get to know.

Hallie Ephron said...

We invest so much of ourselves in our children -- their successes give us more pleasure and their failures more pain than our own. I can only imagine what it would be like to have a child who's a killer. Interesting topic to pick at for fiction.

Paulette Alden said...

First, thank you for inviting me to JRW, Lucy. I wish I were still in Key West! Got home to Minneapolis Tuesday night, and stepped out of the taxi into a gutter of icy slush that filled my shoe. Welcome home! Forecast for today: 2 degrees "high," minus 14 low, with windchill of minus 20. Hug a palm tree for me, Lucy!

Paulette Alden said...

Joan, I so agree with you and you say it so well. One of the challenges of writing is to create characters who are humanly complex, without being chaotically inconsistent. One of the fascinations of writing and reading is that in fictional characters we get to "study" character and human nature, getting to see more deeply into people in books in a way that we can't in real life. Thanks for the comment!

Paulette Alden said...

Karen, I typed my note to Joan before I read yours, but I see we're on the same page about why we're drawn to good fiction. And what a good point about how we allow ourselves complexity but want to deny it in others.

Paulette Alden said...

Hallie, I don't have children, so in a way it's peculiar (or maybe not) that I chose to write about motherhood--especially the mother of a son accused of murder. Definitely outside my experience! But fiction is also a great way to explore other lives than those we have. I'm not sure I did as good a job as a real mother would have on the character, but I did get to experience a form of motherhood via Inga, and later, Jean.

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Slushy shoe full of ice and 2 degrees? so sorry Paulette!

Just wanted to stick my two cents in and say you did a wonderful job with those characters. At first I was not sure I would like either one of them, but the intrigue and depth just grew and grew...

Linda Rodriguez said...

Hi, Paulette! I have always wondered the same thing about how the family, especially mothers, of these serial killers must feel. What a nightmare!

So many times I've been surprised by people reacting way out of the normal behavior that I've known for that person. It reminds me of Jody Foster being cross-examined about her friendship with Mel Gibson, who's done and said so many horrific things. She reminds us that people are more than the little bit we can see of them.

Deb said...

So interesting, Paulette. I wrote a novel that had a similar genesis, at least in part--what do parents do when they KNOW their child is a sociopath. I did a lot of reading on sociopathic behavior, and I think my final conclusion was that some people are just wired wrong. Children born into the nicest of families do the most horrible things, and vice versa. And I think people are so fascinated by the violent sociopath--the serial killer, the mass murderer--because we CAN'T understand them. It's just not possible. They are outside the normal range of human experience. We can imagine killing someone out of rage or jealousy or greed, or to protect someone or something we love. But not killing for the sake of killing.

But it's human nature to want answers--that need has given us not only stories, but religion and science--so we keep trying.

Deb said...

PS Paulette, I'm very interested in memoir writing, so would love to read Crossing the Moon. And would love to take your class. Hmmm, maybe there's an excuse to come to Key West...

Paulette Alden said...

hi, Linda, that is so interesting about people acting outside of our expectations of them -- people are definitely more than what we can see of them. I too have been fascinated by the family members of killers. I thought it was fascinating to hear about how the brother of Ted Kaczynski came to realize Ted might be the Unabomber and had to struggle with family loyalty vs. turning him in. It's too bad, for any number of reasons, that both Adam Lanza AND his mother are gone -- we might have learned much from them. Thanks for commenting.

Paulette Alden said...

Deb, I too feel that these people (usually men) who commit violent crimes have something wired wrong in their brains--organically off--which makes them do the things they do. They can't control their impulses, even though we think they should be able to. So in that sense they are often victims as much as their victims--though not everyone will agree with that. And trying to understand them--which I agree is a part of human nature--is an attempt to feel in control, to think that if only we know WHY we can control life, when sometimes we just can't. Your novel sounds fascinating--was it published? Have you read WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN --a brilliant novel (I haven't seen the movie). I'll be teaching an online course for Stanford in Writing the book-length memoir in the spring, and a creative writing workshop on Madeline Island for MISA in August. If you read Crossing, I hope you like it!

Leslie Budewitz said...

Louise Bundy, Ted's mother, died recently. A story in the Seattle Times said she remained very private about the ordeal, although when he began confessing to some crimes shortly before his execution, she shifted from her public denial to some public acknowledgment. It's hard to imagine anything more painful than knowing your child was capable of such things.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Unknowable? What a fascinating question..certainly, unpredictable, no matter what all the profilers say. It's like--one little click of the dial in one direction or the other makes the difference.

What a brilliant idea to choose the mother--and consider--might she be considered a victim? When people succeed, they often thank their nothers--what about when they do something awful?

That "Kevin" title always reminds me of the weird kid who lived next door to us when we were growing up--he burned down our barn, and soon after, the family left town. I've always wondered...

ANd yes, all, I think the Jungle Red Key West Adventure is most definitely called for!

girlygirlhoosier52 said...

If you want to learn about very young people who can be so horribly terrifying.. talk to your school psychologist. I worked in Special Education.. and there are some 5 year olds that I wouldn't turn my back on.. Some people just are born with bad wiring..

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Paulette, if you get a minute, will you tell folks about how you came to self-publish and what that journey has been like?

(Reds, let me say that Paulette is a dream of a writer. As my sister (also a writer) said recently, if Paulette ended up self-publishing, what chance do the rest of us have?)

Paulette Alden said...

Leslie, thank for telling me about the article on Louise Bundy - I will look it up. I believe she stood by Ted most of the way, so I will be eager to hear the end of her story. No doubt family members are also victimized. They must feel responsible, regardless. And we saw in Louise someone torn between wanting not to believe and being confronted with horrific evidence, etc. Painful, and poignant.

Paulette Alden said...

Hank, burning down the barn . . . not a good sign! And YES, JRW come to Key West next January. The Key West literary Seminar (http://www.kwls.org/seminar32/) is on THE DARK SIDE: Mystery, Crime and he Literary Thriller. Some of the biggest names in the genre. Check it out, Jan. 9 - 12, workshops 12 - 16, and second session Jan. 16 - 19. I'll be teaching a workshop dealing with the novel, possibly first chapters. You won't step in icy slush in KW!

Paulette Alden said...

wowsers, girlygirlhoosier, I believe you. I've seen some of those kids on Dr. Phil before I turn away in horror. Can you imagine being the parent of such a child. I keep thinking of Adam Lanza. I wonder if more will come out on him, what he was like, help sought, that kind of thing. Maybe I've missed it, but it seems the media (uncharacteristically)has been pretty mum on the subject. Of course there are mentally ill people who go ballistic, and then the ones you don't expect/suspect, like Bundy, who passed for more than normal -- really attractive, personable, etc -- but the key word I guess is "passed."

Paulette Alden said...

What has the self-publishing journey been like? In a word, HELL! Well, that's a bit overdone, but it was more difficult than I anticipated. I have posted a series of blogs about it all on my website blog, http://paulettealden.com/blog/ called The Reluctant Self-Publisher, which I certainly was. My agent sent the book around in NY, no takers, then after I did a revision she lost her job (no connection I hope!)so I decided the time had come. It was a huge learning curve. I used Rob at www.52novels.com to format the manuscript for eBook and POD, had it copy edited, went through two cover designers, created my own imprint -- all of this is covered in the blog posts. I published with KDP select so I could "market" the book by giving away thousands of them free (I know; talk about counter productive) and used Createspace for the print on demand paperback. But now the real trouble begins -- trying to market the thing. That's where the rubber meets the road. But just because I didn't get a big house/small press publisher doesn't say anything about the rest of you. And now I'm glad I self-published. I didn't know HELL could be so much fun. Satisfying in its own perverted way. I'm sure others of you have had self-publishing experiences to share.

Karen in Ohio said...

Paulette, I self-published a non-fiction book in 1994, also after publisher after publisher turned me down. It was partly because my book didn't "fit" into a neat category, even though there were already two other books available treating that particular area. Mine was different, and would have sold well, and it actually did.

I used to say that self-publishing was like giving birth to an elephant: First, a year of gestation; a long and difficult birth; and then many years of housing, feeding and raising the damn thing. This was before the era of POD, so I had to have a minimum of 1,000 printed. (Which meant 1,100, because the printers ALWAYS overran 10%). That first printing had a massive error, but I couldn't afford to get a reprint until I sold most of the first batch. It also made it impossible to sell through the catalogs, at least at first.

However, risk equals reward, and I ended up most hand-selling over 10,000 of that one book over 15 years. And it got me a contract with a traditional publisher for another, related book. That's a whole other story!

Linda Rodriguez said...

And, Karen, I think I must have one of the corrected copies of that book.
(Karen's too modest to say, but in her field, she became a very big deal.)

Marisha Chamberlain said...

I'm excited to be reading THE ANSWER TO YOUR QUESTION and to follow this conversation about it, at the same time. Are human beings knowable? I'd be a dope to assert that we are. Yet my life journey is in part focused on coming to know myself and I think I've made progress. I can't imagine that I, myself, would ever become a mass murderer. But maybe Paulette will persuade me otherwise...

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Marisha--welcome! Sounds like you are a perfect reader for Paulette's book. Chances are, you won't become a Ted Bundy...:)

And thank you Paulette for being a wonderful guest! May you sell many books...

Paulette Alden said...

Hi, Marisha, thanks for plugging in! I think you, like me, may only WANT to murder someone sometime. . .

And thanks so much, Lucy, for inviting me to JRW and to all the great folks who commented. I enjoyed my visit a lot! best, P