The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia
11 March 2008
Interview with debut novelist Carleen Brice
In Carleen Brice’s women’s fiction novel Orange Mint and Honey, burned-out grad student Shay does what she had hoped to never do again: live with her mother, Nona, whose alcoholism destroyed Shay’s childhood. Shay and her now-sober mother must forge a new relationship as Shay rebuilds her own life.
Carleen, thank you for visiting my blog, and congratulations on the publication of Orange Mint and Honey.
Thank you very much for having me!
Although this is your fourth book, it’s your first novel. Did you need to change your writing method for fiction?
Not really. This book took research and a great deal of organizing, just like nonfiction. Maybe even more so. Trying to keep the chronology straight was especially challenging. But my method was still pretty much the same: try to sit at the computer and do some work every day. The difference between the two forms that really surprised me is that writing fiction felt more revealing.
Why did you choose singer–pianist Nina Simone to be Shay’s spirit guide?
Ooh, I like that term spirit guide! Nina Simone chose me. I was listening to a lot of female vocalists and I knew Shay would be more responsive to someone from the past rather than the present, and Nina Simone is the one who came alive for me. Her voice and personality have such presence!
I came across an apropos quote from Carrie Fisher: “Resentment is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Shay resents her mother and has every reason to; Nona is now sober, productive, and happy, while Shay still carries the scars of her upbringing and has never learned how to live a normal life. How did you walk the fine line of redeeming Shay while keeping her story realistic?
Thank you for saying I did walk that fine line. It was difficult, and some of the early feedback I got was that Shay was an unlikable character because she was so bitter. (Interestingly, though, friends who had similar issues from their childhood didn’t think she was too bitter at all.) But I did scale her back some so the focus of her anger was more directed toward Nona rather than just being angry at the world. And I was careful to include specific flashbacks from her childhood so the reader could see that her feelings were justified.
Nona’s garden helps her recover from her alcoholism. The garden serves as a friend, surrogate child, a pathway to God, an activity to replace drinking, and a reminder that life can be beautiful. You yourself are an avid gardener. What roles does gardening serve in your own life? And why do you garden in your pajamas?
I sort of became Nona as I wrote about her, so gardening became more important to me as I wrote this book. Gardening is an opportunity to lose myself in a way that is very different from writing. It’s physical and yet demanding of a different part of my brain and heart than walking or bike-riding.
I garden in my pajamas for the same reason I do anything I can get away with in my pajamas: I’m lazy. I totally understand Hugh Hefner (at least the part about the pajamas)! I have a loose definition of pajamas, by the way: Sweatpants and t-shirts also count as jammies. But much to my husband’s dismay, I’ve been out in my fenceless front yard in pajama pants and nightshirt.
You did an amazing job of showing Shay’s pain and how she has been scarred to the very core of her soul by her childhood. What techniques do you recommend for conveying emotion in fiction?
I know the scene I’m writing is working when I’m feeling the emotion my character(s) feels. If I’m laughing during a funny scene or crying during a sad scene, I’ve got it nailed. So, I guess the technique I recommend is really getting in touch with your character. Much as an actor does. Really put yourself in his/her shoes. If you’re writing about a situation that you haven’t directly experienced, try to call up a different memory when you felt a similar way. And most important: Be specific to that character. Try not to just think sad = crying, but think how your character would feel and react to each situation. Would she spit, slap, scream, run, laugh, hide? The more true her reaction is to her character, the more powerful the scene will be.
You use many striking images in the book. Once you compare the bags under someone’s eyes to potstickers. Another time, someone’s heart thumps like the speakers in the car of a teenage boy. Do these images come to you naturally, or do you need to play with them to get them right? Why do so many writers fall back on clichés, do you think?
Thank you. Those two examples came pretty easily, but for the most part I have to play around with metaphors and images. My first drafts are full of clichés! Some of them I scout out, and some are pointed out to me by early readers. My friend Marisol is particularly good at circling overused phrases and writing “You’re a better writer than this” next to it. Sometimes I think “No I’m not!” but I try to rise to the challenge.
I don’t know that many good writers fall back on clichés, but for those of us who do, I imagine it’s because it’s so easy to do. We use clichés in conversations. They’re part of the national vocabulary. Also, when you’re trying to write a book a year, I don’t know how you come up with fresh images every time. I really admire writers who seem to really drop down into the scene and describe things in a way that doesn’t sound generic.
I’d like to point out the opposite problem: I’ve read some books where I’m overwhelmed with metaphors and images that make it seem as if the writer is working overtime, and the book ends up feeling worse (to me) for the effort.
What is your writing regimen? Would you recommend it to aspiring authors?
I try to write every day, and I do recommend that to aspiring authors, especially when the story is new. Writing is pretty scary for most of us, and taking time away from it can allow the idea of it to become even more so in your mind. But sometimes I get tired and need to take a break. Coming back to the story is PAINFUL, and I always regret taking the break.
I think I’m fresher in the morning, but lately (as in the last year or so) I’ve fallen into the habit of doing anything and everything before I write, so I’ve learned to “refresh” and get down to work in the evenings and late at night.
One thing I do is track my word count. After you get some words down, it’s really satisfying to look back to when you didn’t have any. I especially like it when I have about 50,000 words and can look back to when I only had a few thousand.
Do you have any advice for people writing their first novel?
Don’t believe all that you hear about writing and publishing. There are lots of people who will tell you the first novel you write won’t sell or that unless you write about X you won’t sell. But for every rule, there’s an exception.
Now having said that: It is important to know the rules. To be professional. Be nice. Understand grammar. Just don’t let all that “advice” direct you. Write your book and worry about the rest later. Tell a story that’s important to you, and chances are good it will be important to someone else, and even if you don’t sell it, it will still have been worth your time.
Guard and nurture your dream ferociously. Surround yourself with people who will be supportive, and keep your mouth shut about your goals around haters and naysayers.
What is your next book about?
It’s about two half-sisters. One is white, and one is biracial and was adopted and raised by a black family. It’s about race, identity, and what makes a family. The working title is Children of the Waters. It’s scheduled for release from One World/Ballantine sometime next spring.
Thank you again for visiting my blog to talk about your book.
Thank you again for the time and space!
Carleen Brice’s Website is at http://www.carleenbrice.com/ and her blog at http://pajamagardener.blogspot.com/. Her book Orange Mint and Honey is available at all major bookstores and can be ordered online from Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.