Award-winning author
Unusual times, remarkable places

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

The "Standard of Ur" from ancient Mesopotamia

About

For basic facts and formal photographs, see the Press page. 

Keep reading if you want to know more about me as a person and as a writer.


Why I became a writer

Like many writers, I have always loved books. The happiest hours of my childhood were spent with my nose burrowed deep in a book and my mind far away in another place or time. My mother never allowed me to babysit. She believed the house could burn down around me and I would be too absorbed in a book to notice.

I knew early on that writing could be a career, and a fun one at that. My late aunt Janet Louise Roberts (who also wrote as Louisa Bronte, Rebecca Danton, and Janette Radcliffe) reveled in her career as a romance novelist. Inspired by her, I started writing stories in elementary school. Sadly, those early stories revealed no natural talent for plotting or story structure; the animal hero, after a series of unconnected adventures, often came to an unfortunate end such as being devoured by the villain.

Fast forward many years. I left Beavercreek, Ohio, to attend the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. From there I went to Evanston, Illinois, to earn master and doctorate degrees in anthropology, finishing just as Ronald Reagan’s efforts to undermine the American university system were having their most severe effects. With universities starved for money and faculty positions scarce, I needed another career. Because I had just written a dissertation, logical choices seemed editing, writing, or research.

By this time, I was married and living in Iowa, which offered few such jobs. We moved to Washington, D.C., where I worked first at Science magazine as editor of its Guide to Scientific Instruments and writer of its “New Products” column and later at The Journal of NIH Research as a half-time production person, half-time writer focusing on biotech instrumentation and techniques.

Health problems forced me to leave the traditional working world. People started offering me freelance work, so I became a freelance science and medical writer and copyeditor. I loved nearly everything about being a freelancer—the solitude, the control over my schedule, the chorus of birds outside my office windows, the fully stocked refrigerator and pantry a short walk away, and the freedom to turn down boring assignments. During the 20+ years I was a freelancer, I won several awards for medical writing.

When my husband took a job in New Orleans, I took that career along. We lived in that beautiful, magical city from 1991 to 2007, except for three months spent in Texas as refugees after Hurricane Katrina. We now live in Southern California.

Through all those years, I still dreamed of writing fiction. But that dream took a back seat to my career and hobbies. Many authors are driven to write. I instead am driven to create. I knew from my aunt’s experience that I could expect to put in years of hard work before I produced my first salable book. How much easier it was to play music or design a quilt than to start such a monumental project!

Then in 2000, my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer and died six months later. Before that, it seemed I had plenty of time to pursue dreams. But when my mother died at age 70, despite having taken far better care of her health than most people, I felt I had no time to waste. The time had come to stop dreaming and start writing.

I joined both the Romance Writers of America (RWA) and its local New Orleans chapter (SOLA), began squeezing in time between magazine articles to write short stories, and joined a critique group.

Thanks to the tanking of the economy and consequent drying up of many freelance jobs, I had the time in 2009 to attend the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop. It was a life-changing experience with amazing teachers and classmates; my writing moved up to another level. Increasing health problems made being a freelancer more and more difficult. In 2010, I started shedding my remaining freelance jobs in favor of writing fiction.


Where my themes come from

Culture clash. Much of my fiction explores conflicts between cultures. You might think this theme a legacy of my training as an anthropologist or of many years of reading history. Perhaps a stronger source lies in my background as someone neither fully of one culture nor of another.

My mother came from a Pennsylvania Dutch background and was the first in her family to complete high school; my father's mother belonged to the Daughters of the American Revolution and had a college degree, as did her mother, and her mother before her. My hometown of Beavercreek, Ohio, lies smack on the invisible line where Northern culture and Southern culture collide and not far from the edge of the Appalachian cultural area. I've lived in the North, South, East, and West, in small towns and big cities, and belonged nowhere except New Orleans and Asheville, North Carolina (where anyone can fit in).

Finding ways to bridge cultural gaps is essential in today's world. Because of people who think their beliefs and customs are the only correct ones, our civilization teeters on the brink of disintegration or even outright destruction. I hope my fiction encourage readers to take a stand in favor of understanding and tolerance. In Benjamin Franklin's famous words (as cited in Bartlett's), "We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Loss and recovering from loss. It’s probably not surprising that my fiction often deals with loss. As mentioned above, my mother’s death spurred me to pursue fiction writing seriously. Our house was badly damaged in the flood caused by the failure of the federal levees in New Orleans in 2005, and I have since written many stories about New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina, natural disaster, and rebuilding one’s life. But even before these events, the theme of my life was loss and recovery.

I was born with several minor birth defects. My father was a commission-only salesman then, and my family sacrificed to cover my medical expenses.

In college, I started developing the first of many serious chronic illnesses. By the time I finished writing my Ph.D. dissertation, I was debilitated, unable to think clearly, and in severe pain. Lab tests were not as sensitive then; they showed nothing. (Only years later did I get diagnoses of fibromyalgia and systemic lupus erythematosus.)

My doctor told me, “Don’t do anything that hurts.” Worst. Advice. Ever. After an excruciatingly boring month of doing nothing (because everything hurt), I rejected his suggestion and looked for ways to do the things I enjoyed. For example, a pillow on my lap provided enough support that I could hold a book and read again. Encouraged by that simple solution, I kept experimenting until I could do many things again.

Even so, I mourned the loss of the life I had had before and the loss of the future I had expected. I grieved for two years, until I was thoroughly sick of grief. Better half a life than no life, I decided, and began weighing the pain and exhaustion of each activity against the enjoyment I would get out of it. Gradually I rebuilt my life into something worthwhile again.

Then I developed another health problem. Again I mourned. Again I decided to take my life back. Again I found a way to create a new life that was interesting and productive life. How many times did I repeat this cycle? I don’t know; when I got older, it became routine for new health problems to develop before I had finished adjusting to the previous ones.

I don’t consciously choose loss as a theme. It infiltrates my fiction because it so deeply influences my world view and my daily life. I do choose, however, to show in my fiction what loss has taught me: Every problem has a solution. One can rebuild one’s life as many times as it takes. One can’t know the future so there’s no point worrying about it. Life is hard and dark and absurd, and good things rarely happen on their own; one has to make one’s own happiness and success. One should always be on the lookout for moments and things of beauty, of strangeness, of awe, and of humor.

Duty. I’m not sure why I write about duty so often. It may be because I strongly believe that each of us should strive to leave the world a better place for our having been here. It may be because I feel guilty about not carrying my full weight as a citizen of the world: I do mentor and critique other writers as much as I can; however, most of my nonwriting time spent caring for my medical problems at the expense of helping others.

The “other.” My father was born a missionary’s son in The Philippines. My uncle worked in Japan for many years. Religious persecution drove my mother’s Dunker relatives and my father’s father’s Quaker ancestors out of Europe and Great Britain to America. No wonder I grew up fascinated with other cultures and time periods.

My birth defects made me stand out in elementary school, and no one but my aunt understood my intense love of reading. As a result, I got a personal, in-depth education in “otherness” from both sides of the “us” and “them” divide early on.

My interest has only grown as an adult, increasing with each new place I travel to, each new language I study, and each new book I read. Occasionally I write a contemporary story set in generic America, but I prefer to set my stories in interesting cultures, other time periods, and other worlds.