Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Lover of forests, birds, and people - a train fire delayed but didn't derail Deborah Nedelman

HALLIE EPHRON: One of the great things about social media is getting to reach out and touch someone you knew in school but have since lost touch, reconnecting, and finding that you have more than you ever expected to have in common. 


Today I'm welcoming Deborah Nedelman, my high school classmate at Beverly Hills High. She was (she'll correct me if I've got this wrong) nerdy like me. Smart, especially in English. She left Southern California to go to Bryn Mawr when I went to Barnard. And ne'er the twain shall meet... until now when we find ourselves both published writers.

Her path was circuitous. By way of a PhD in psychology and a career in clinical psychology (my PhD was in educational measurement, my career in teaching and educational evaluation.) Now she's published both fiction and non-fiction, including self-help and textbooks, but says "fiction is where I find the deepest truths." And I can believe that. Her first, just published novel, WHAT WE TAKE FOR TRUTH, is one of those stories that burrows in as you read it and stays there. Gives you a lot to think about.

Welcome, Deborah! WHAT WE TAKE FOR TRUTH is set in the Pacific Northwest and the small, dying logging community named (ironically) Prosperity. The landscape, the people, the Hoot Owl Cafe… it all feels so vivid. How did you learn about that place and that life?

DEBORAH NEDELMAN: I lived in Snohomish County, Washington and worked as a psychotherapist in Everett for over 30 years. Towns like Prosperity dot the North Cascade Mountains. As an avid hiker, I spent many hours walking old logging trails that switchback through the mountains. Lots of after-hike meals (and more than a few pieces of pie) at cafes like the Hoot Owl gave me time to soak in the details of these communities.

HALLIE: At the core of the book are the consequences of government regulations that destroyed many logging businesses in order to save the spotted owl. And your main character embodies that conflict. How did you come to that understanding?
Spotted owlBy Hollingsworth, John and Karen; photo by USFS Region 5 (Pacific Southwest) - US Fish and Wildlife 
DEBORAH: The logging industry built the city of Everett and the changes that came about as a result of the environmental regulations of the ‘80’s and 90’s were felt keenly there. It was during that time period that men whose livelihoods were being destroyed by these changes started showing up in my therapy office

These were not typical ‘talk therapy’ clients, but they were desperate, and their stories really touched my heart. I heard how they had always believed that the hard, dangerous, physical work they did as loggers was necessary and wholesome. Many of them had fathers, grandfathers, uncles, brothers who were all loggers. Suddenly they were being reviled; some had kids who were challenging the idea of cutting down the forest, taking the side of the environmental movement. 

Their personal stories weren’t mine to tell, but through fiction I hoped to convey the complexity of the conflict and how it impacted individual lives. It’s a common story in fishing and mining as well as logging communities throughout our country.

HALLIE: Have to ask, are you a birder? As a birder myself, as I read the book I thought I was hearing the voice of someone who was quite tuned into nature.

DEBORAH: Absolutely! I’m not a ‘competitive’ life-lister, but I do love watching birds. The parrot references in this story were stimulated by a couple of amazing birding trips to Central America. Northwest Washington State is a wonderful place for birding. There’s a bald eagle nest just down the street from me, so I hear that wild call overhead often. 

HALLIE: This is your first published novel, and I know you took a circuitous route to get to THE END. (Which is also a new beginning!) Derailed by a train fire? Please, tell us about that.

DEBORAH: I was a writer from a young age. I kept a diary from maybe third grade on. I started with one of those like Grace had, gilded edges and a lock. I’d staple together folded sheets of paper to make “books.” 

My mother diligently kept all of those early creative efforts. In high school I worked on our literary magazine, Avant Guard (do you remember that, Hallie? We were so pretentious.) 

HALLIE: Of course I remember! 

DEBORAH: I wrote poetry and more stories. By the time I left L.A. to go back east to college I had a body of work, you could say. 

Those were the days when you traveled with a big suitcase and shipped your trunk ahead to your destination. My writings didn’t fit in the trunk, so after I’d arrived at Bryn Mawr and settled into the dorm, I asked my mother to send the box to me. She was the consummate package wrapper and packed those journals and diaries and all my writing tightly into a cardboard box, put an address label on it and covered the label with several layers of Scotch Tape and mailed it off. 

A few weeks later I came back to my dorm room and found a box full of wet ashes sitting in front of my door. I learned later that the box had traveled across the country on a train that caught fire somewhere in the Midwest. Firefighters extinguished the blaze with lots of water, of course. The Scotch Tape had preserved my name and address on the label, so the US Postal Service dutifully delivered the stinky, soggy remains of my early writing efforts to my college dorm. 

I took this as a message that perhaps I wasn’t destined to make writing my life’s work and decided to major in psychology instead of English. It took almost 40 years for me to return to fiction writing, but I learned a few things in the meantime. 

HALLIE: I can only imagine how horrifying it must have been to receive that box... your incinerated life's work! EVERYONE OUT THERE: BACK UP YOUR COMPUTER! NOW!!! Because if your house burned down tomorrow...

Catching my breath... 
How does your background as a psychologist affect you has a writer?

DEBORAH: I tend to think a lot about a character’s inner life when I’m writing and I think that comes from the many years I spent exploring that territory with my clients. As a psychologist, I learned about the wide range of individual responses to trauma and tragedy and that definitely informs my writing. You can’t think in black and white terms when you’re a therapist; you’re constantly being presented with the complexities of peoples’ lives and relationships. 

HALLIE: You also teach writing workshop and offer manuscript coaching. What’s the most common issue you encounter with aspiring writers?

DEBORAH: This is an interesting question. I am trained in the Amherst Writers and Artists method, based on the book Writing Alone and With Others by the marvelous teacher and poet, Pat Schneider. One of the tenants of that method is the belief that everyone is a genius when it comes to telling their own story, whether we’re talking memoir or fiction. The challenge is to give yourself permission to write that story and to tell your truth. 

In my workshops I work with writers at all different points in their writing lives. The most consistent issue I encounter regardless of the level of writing experience is confidence. It’s amazing how effective we can be at undermining ourselves and convincing ourselves that we have no business telling our story or that no one will be interested in reading it. 

Writing is hard work, but it can be incredibly fun and rewarding when you can shut out all the negative self talk for a while and let your creative voice to sing on the page. 

HALLIE: That is great advice. I think you have to have confidence... just not so much that you can't hear criticism.

I'm still thinking about all of those diaries and stories Deborah lost, and wondering if any of you can relate to that with a loss of your own? 

What We Take for Truth is the story of a young woman who finds her strength when the world around her crumbles. It is a timely tale about shifting loyalties and the painful choices we are forced to make in order to preserve what we value most.

As this novel opens, it is 1990 and Grace Tillman, who has lived all her life in the tiny logging town of Prosperity, Washington, has just graduated from high school and is facing a very uncertain future. The spotted owl controversy is about to destroy her world before she has had her chance to learn who she is and what it means to be a part of this community.

Grace is an orphan, her mother gone since she was four and her father killed by an erratically cut cedar three years before the story opens. She has set her sights on moving to the city and turning her back on all she’s known when she meets Charlie Roberge, an independent log truck driver willing to break the law to hold on to his way of life. Charlie’s arrival in Prosperity is both a homecoming and a desperate grab at a lifeline. Though the bed of his Peterbilt is empty, he is bringing with him a secret that will challenge both his and Grace’s sense of identity and ultimately teach them about the complexities of loyalty, love, and loss. In the process, Grace will find herself as an artist and an independent woman in a world where neither is welcome.

At its height, the world of logging in the Pacific Northwest was both brutal and beautiful. When the conservation movement sent protestors into the woods and the government began to place the needs of a small, shy bird above those of families who had lived for generations off the harvest of those woods, the conflicts that erupted were fierce and heartbreaking. What We Take for Truth tells a story that both defends a way of life that is dying and celebrates a landscape that is being lost.
ISBN-10: 1-950437-18-3

40 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your book, Deborah . . . “What We Take for Truth” sounds like a compelling story; I’m looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Thank you so much Joan. I'm eager for folks who don't know the Pacific Northwest (3 hours behind you guys!) to get a peek into this landscape.

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  2. What a lovely interview between old friends! I lost my grandmother's quilt to a bag mistakenly put out for the trash in one of my moves (but I have another one, thank goodness), but I haven't lost my own writings. I'm glad you got back to writing fiction, Deborah.

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    1. Your grandmother's quilt? That is horrifying... I can only imagine the moment when you realized.

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    2. Oh no! It's one thing to lose your own stuff, but to lose something as precious as a grandmother's quilt would be devastating. Then there are folks like Hallie's husband who collect all our lost objects and other stuff we discard. There's some reassurance in that.

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    3. Right... My husband and the ocean!

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  3. Welcome Deborah! Love this interview with you and Hallie. I too am a clinical psychologist who came to writing the back way. I instantly thought of Ernest Hemingway reading about your box of ashes. His first wife left his typed manuscripts on a train when she was coming to meet him – no wonder the marriage didn’t last! I sure would like to hear more about what Halie was like in high school LOL! Is this the first novel you wrote? Would love to hear more about what’s coming next and as well.

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    1. I think psychology is a great doorway to writing fiction. All that time spent listening to and observing people, trying to see the world as they see it... isn't that what you do both as a clinician and as an author?

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    2. yup that's it! Makes you think it should be an easy transition LOL!

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    3. Right. People do think, oh you've got so much material it should be simple to write stores. Ha! I've found that I need to be conscientious about NOT writing those stories I heard, but rather capturing the quality of character of the teller and fictionalizing it. I love writing short stories and have a collection brewing, but I'm not completely done with Grace (my protagonist) and Prosperity. . .

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  4. This is so wonderful! And what mysterious ways the world has to bring you back together! High school is so formative, isn’t it? And I also think about your poor mom, finding out what happened. So… Absolutely nothing was readable? That is so hunting. And yes, difficult not to take that as a sign. Look on my works, ye mighty , and despair… Nothing else remains.
    But hooray for coming back from the ashes! Phoenix.

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    1. I've so often wondered about what was lost. We are talking about the stuff I wrote up until I was 18, so probably not my very best work. I have to console myself with that. Those were the days of copy paper and white out. Who made copies of their diaries???

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    2. I remember being given a diary at Christmas, writing in it for two days... Even those two pages it would be fun to have. I tried to save some of what my kids wrote but I'm not sure they appreciate it.

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  5. I was lucky in that I really didn't START writing anything that I'd have wanted to keep until after we had a computer. So my earliest efforts (1990s) have gotten moved from computer to computer since then. One of my early essays about being married to a packrat spouse survives in my new book. Tweaked, of course.

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    1. Yeah. That's what I wonder about the most. Were there any gems in there I could have stolen (from my earlier self) and tweaked? Ah well.

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  6. Deborah, what a powerful summary! This sounds like a book I'll need to spend some time with. My work often dealt with energy companies--we've dealt with documenting old mining towns and towns dying away slowly because of the loss of mining and timber jobs--communities struggling over the issue of renewable energy like wind farms.

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    1. Hi Flora, I'd love to hear your perspective on the book. It's also a coming-of-age story about a young woman who grew up motherless in this town.

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  7. I can't even imagine losing all that material. Ugh!

    Congrats on the book!

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    1. And I just thought of something I lost - my Nancy Drew collection. Seems there was some fuzzy communication. The Girl said she didn't want them in her room any more and The Hubby thought she said she didn't want them, period. He took them to the church flea market. :(

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  8. Welcome Deborah, and congratulations on the book. I wish it were available for Kindle--broad hint.

    This interview is one of the best I've seen lately. Thank you, Hallie, for bringing Deborah here. The story of the box of ashes made me gasp, talk about a book idea!

    Losses? TMTC. At 78 3/4, I think I've lost more things than I can remember, some big and some small and lots in between. But the thing that stands out is a plaster cast of one of my children's hands. I'd give anything to know where that ended up. For a while it hung in the kitchen, but many moves and one divorce later, and it disappeared.

    I also lost the child, to a brain tumor.

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    1. When I read 'plaster cast' I laughed. But now I get it. I'm so sorry.

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    2. There is no loss like that, Ann. I am so sorry.

      My book will be available on Kindle soon, btw.

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  9. I am definitely planning on reading that book, Deborah. Sounds so good. Through two house fires and one garage fire I've lost a lot of stuff, but that's all it was.

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    1. I have a friend whose house burned to the ground when she was in junior high. She said it's the reason why she doesn't save 'things' - Because she can easily imagine life without any of it.

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    2. With all the forest fires raging in the west in recent years I have thought often of the impact of the relatively small loss I experienced.

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  10. Deborah, I wish this was three blog entries, so we could really explore WHAT WE TAKE FOR TRUTH and the loss of all your young writing (I recoiled in sympathetic horror!) AND talk about your writing coaching, which sounds deeply interesting. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. HI Julia, It was such great fun reconnecting with Hallie over this book. I've loved this interview process.
      Manuscript coaching has been incredibly rewarding. It allows me to use a lot of my skills -- both as a therapist and a writer. I find that what most often gets in the way of someone expressing themselves well on paper (once they've honed their writing skills) is similar to what might get in their way in the therapy office.

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  11. I'm very intrigued by this book. The struggle between saving the environment without ruining human lives is one that I don't think people take seriously. They seem to be either on one side or the other. As someone firmly in the middle, it's nice to see someone tackling it that way.

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    1. Hi Mark, Yes! That's exactly what I wanted to show in my novel—that this is a complex and very human conflict and picking one side or the other is way too simple a response. Thank you.

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  12. Great interview, and that train fire image is so powerful. The days before online backup! Devastating.

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  13. Thanks, Rhys, I loved this interview process. (My only problem was being 3 hours behind all you early birds.)

    Now I'm thinking that train fire has got to find it's way into a story soon! That's probably the best way to make something positive out of the experience.

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  14. I kept a diary, one of those with a lock that isn't worth two cents, briefly in 6th or 7th grade. I opened it one day to find my big brother had written his version of events about an incident I was angry about. I told Mom and threw the diary away. Never again!
    It is so difficult to find the balance between protecting our environment and protecting people and their ways of life. We belonged to the Sierra Club in El Paso eons ago. Since I had a newborn my participation was limited to attending one meeting and then I bowed out. There was one guy who was always, always anti-rancher, no matter what. I think he would have let all ranchers go bankrupt and unable to feed their families rather than find solutions to help the ranchers protect their livestock and keep the predators in check without wiping them out. It was obvious this guy was a city boy and didn't have a clue.

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  15. As I completed my dissertation, my then husband was bringing a box with copies of my dissertation from Shreveport, Louisiana, to me in Norman, Oklahoma, where I was teaching. He called to tell me our car had caught fire on the interstate in Dallas and was a total loss. Before I could say anything, he said, "But I got your dissertation out!" Money was in short supply in our household at the time, and I remember his parents wired him money to buy a car so he could get back to Shreveport.

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  16. Congratulations on your return to the world of writing, Deborah. After the box of soggy ashes, I can see how it took you a while. I love the premise of your book. It seems we do not appreciate complexity these days, wanting everything to be simple when it clearly isn't. Bravo.
    Also, I loved this, "One of the tenants of that method is the belief that everyone is a genius when it comes to telling their own story, whether we’re talking memoir or fiction. The challenge is to give yourself permission to write that story and to tell your truth." I once had an author come at me when I said everyone had the ability and talent to write a story. She felt talent was only for the chosen. Pthbtht!

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  17. I was a bored California kid, eight or nine years old at my grandparent's home, stuck in the 100 degree heat and humidity of mid Missouri. It was two days until we went to the lake, Lake of the Ozarks, my cousins would be there and I would then have several playmates plus the distraction of enjoying all the lake had to offer. I am an only child.

    I drew my grandmother, a picture fairly involved and out of character for me. I could and can draw but never have been interested in pursuing that talent. She really enjoyed this particular picture that I drew and framed it. As the years went by the paper became brittle, so she carefully transferred the picture to fabric and then embroidered it. I was impressed at her skill and ingenuity. Anyway my Mom brought the picture to her home after my grandmother died. It was on the wall in my Mom's home for several years. In the parsing of possessions after my Mom and Step-Father were gone the picture was misplaced. I wish I still had it today.

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    1. Deborah, your book sounds interesting and timely. I am in the San Francisco Bay Area, so the themes are familiar.
      I look forward to reading it when it becomes available on kindle. I read while I run, books really don't work while I'm running.

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  18. Hallie, thank you for introducing us to a new author.

    Deborah, congratulations on your new book!

    Diana

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  19. OMG, my brother wrote a book about saving the spotted owl in Oregon. It was called SHOWDOWN AT OPAL CREEK, about the battle between loggers and conservationists. They turned Opal Creek into a recreational nature area and now benefit from tourism v. logging. https://www.oregon.com/recreation/opal-creek

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  20. My husband was an avid birder and spent his working life as a conservationist. These are complex issues and it sounds a fascinating book.

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