More about Crows

Crows of Beara
Julie Christine Johnson
Ashland Creek Press
(1 Sept. 2017)

Nature as Cultural Artifact

A guest post by:

 Julie Christine Johnson 

I didn’t set out to write an eco-lit novel, to make a political statement with my story. I am a writer of landscapes that transport readers from their worlds into those of my imagination and of characters whose conflicts and choices are urgent and relevant to my readers’ souls. I don’t write with a genre in mind; I’m a storyteller who often discovers her themes many drafts later, when the bones of a story have been fleshed out and its heart is beating strongly.

THE CROWS OF BEARA was meant to be my love song to Ireland. A place was all I had in my pocket when I sat down with my notebook to begin sketching characters. I set the place aside and focused on the who, for it is from the characters that my stories are built. WHERE gives me a foundation; WHO is the framework. I discovered a protagonist and a main character linked by the same weakness and the same strength: addiction and art. Bringing them to stand before each other on a dividing line was a third “character” which I met by chance in my research: the Red-billed chough, a species of crow which cycles on and off the endangered list as one nesting ground thrives and another is threatened. It is found along the southwest coast of Ireland, where cliff meets pasture on one end and ocean on the other. In CROWS, a copper mine would bring needed jobs to a struggling community; it would also destroy the habitat of this beloved small black bird with a crimson beak and feet. The chough became the book’s touchstone.

Deep into revisions, months after CROWS had been accepted for publication by Ashland Creek Press, I met an artist-anthropologist using 3-D photography in a breathtaking marriage of art and science to preserve natural artifacts gathered from manned and unmanned space missions. Through her art, she shows that our cultural heritage is alive in these rocks gathered from places so distant, the mind bends in trying to comprehend. In talking with her, I realized I had been dancing around but unable to name the central core of my characters’ artistic drive. Nature is a cultural artifact that we have the power to preserve, and art can be a unifying force when politics threaten to tear us apart.

There’s a scene midway through THE CROWS OF BEARA where Annie sees Daniel’s art for the first time. And in observing his own work through her eyes, he realizes the power of what he does, how his art can change minds, perspectives, lives. Art as an act of resistance and healing is one of the major themes of the book and it’s very much how I feel about what I do as an artist. Words are my voice, my sword, my hand out to the universe. Art, whether it’s visual, literary, musical, or of the body, connects us to ourselves, to each other, to the greater world. It’s what keeps us moving forward toward light in times of greatest darkness.

 

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How to Write about Crows

The Crows of Beara Book Cover The Crows of Beara
Julie Christine Johnson
Fiction
Ashland Creek Press
September 1, 2017
332

Beautifully crafted with environmental themes, a lyrical Irish setting, and a touch of magical realism, The Crows of Beara is a breathtaking novel of how the nature of place encompasses everything that we are.

Questions for Authors: Crows of Beara

 

  1. Can you tell your readers something about why you chose this particular topic to write about? What appealed to you about it? Why do you think it is different and your approach is unique?

JCJ:

I first visited Ireland in 2002, when I spent two weeks hiking the Beara Way. Years passed before I began writing, but my love for Ireland grew with each visit.  Once I began to find my way around the world of writing novels, I knew I’d be telling an Ireland story or two someday. Of course, there are no shortage of novel that use Ireland as a backdrop, but it is the multiple genres that set CROWS apart. It marries women’s fiction with eco-lit, magical realism with the cold truth of substance abuse, the power of art vs. the lure of corporate promises.

  1. How long do you think about a topic before deciding to write about it? Do you have a set of notes or a note book where you write down topics that appeal before making a decision as to which topic this time?

JCJ: How many ideas can my brain turn over at any given time? There are always several I’m toying with, examining, meditating on. And one always filters through to become the story I put my pen to. I keep what I call a “process notebook”. As I begin crafting characters, turning over themes, making research notes, asking myself questions, I use this analog process notebook to record all thoughts. It’s something I return to as I begin drafting on Scrivener (a software program for writers), to sort out plot holes, create and correct timelines, question my themes and progression. It becomes the novel’s journal.

  1. How long does it take to research a topic before you write? And for this book?

JCJ: I try not to get bogged down in research in the early stages. I can write around most things, making notes of what I need to explore and clarify at a later time. There’s a balance between getting your bearings in a time, place, story problem that may require some background reading, and simply getting on the with the writing. For this book, I conducted early research into the habitat and condition of the Red-billed chough, on the history of copper mining on the Beara Peninsula and how copper mining is conducted today, and on substance abuse and recovery. I gathered enough of a foundation to begin, and then continued my research as I progressed. Some things, like the political and corporate corruption at play in the book, came straight from the headlines when I was deep in revision with my publisher, two years after I wrote the novel’s first drafts. Apple, Google, and other corporations which sought tax refuge in Ireland found themselves in hot water just as I was filling in some plot holes in CROWS.

  1. What resources do you use? In general and for the last book that you wrote?

JCJ: Primary sources, interviews, print books, the internet, my own travels and reading. Whatever I need to get deep into the questions and story problems, to see through my characters’ perspectives.

  1. How helpful do you find authority figures such as the police when you say you want to write about them? Is there a good way to approach them in your experience?

JCJ: I haven’t yet had the need to call upon the advice or perspective of law enforcement. Fortunately, I live in a wonderful community where it will be easy for me to reach out and make connections with people from a range of professional experiences when/if the need arises.

  1. How many times have you been rejected before your first novel was accepted or before this book was accepted?

JCJ: Well, hey. Zero. I pitched my first novel at a writers’ conference to several agents and publishing editors before I began sending out query letters. Three weeks after the conference, I signed with my agent and my publisher the same day. Not the usual way of things, and I’m so very grateful that these stars aligned. My agent did send CROWS out on submission after my first novel was signed and in the publication process. It took about five months to find a publishing home for CROWS, which is not long at all, although it felt like an endless, agonizing process at the time. I have another novel on submission now, and it’s a brutal time to be out there. Book sales are very slow and publishers are reluctant to take chances with new projects. I’m just biding my time and working on the next thing. Never give up hope, but let it all go.

  1. Did you need to self-publish on e-books before a publisher took you up?

JCJ:. I was committed to pursuing a traditional path to publishing, but I was researching an independent approach. They both have their high and low lights.

  1. Would you recommend self-publishing and building an audience before approaching a publisher? If so, what benefits do you see that it might have for the aspiring novelist?

JCJ: I don’t have any experience in the self-publishing realm, but there are wonderful blogs and organizations out there that can provide any aspiring novelist with information and options.

  1. Does writing provide sufficient income to live on? And how long did it take before this happened?

JCJ: I know only a handful of writers who support themselves completely with their book sales. It’s extremely rare. Hmm… come to think of it, I don’t know any.  And I mean writers who do not have a partner supplementing their income or providing health insurance, but who rely on book sales as their sole means of support. Nearly all writers, from New York Times bestselling authors, to income-generating self-published authors, need some other means of economic input. Most of us are teaching, freelance writing/editing, or have day jobs. In my case, it’s all three. Book sales generate a pittance. Don’t go into this business thinking you will make any money. Do it because you have stories to tell.

  1. What is the funniest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

JCJ: I haven’t had any true ha-ha moments, but there were so many times my breath was stolen clean away by seeing friends in the audience I hadn’t seen in years. Decades. It’s the most beautiful thing to find support in the most unexpected of places.

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