Monday, October 31, 2016

Meet the Luminous and Talented Tonya Blue

I first met author Tonya Blue during a spring trip to When Words Count, one of two visits in 2016 to the luxury retreat center for writers in Vermont. I was instantly impressed by both the writer and the writing. Tonya had penned a fantastic book based upon her experience as a teacher in the inner city schools -- frank, unapologetic, gorgeously written. Adding to that late March visit was the added bonus of enjoying Tonya perform the work during the nightly sharing of writing in the center's Gertrude Stein Salon -- Tonya planned to take I am the Children I Teach to the stage in Baltimore in August of 2016, and blew us away with her excerpts, becoming the book's four lead characters -- teachers Ms. Brown, Ms. Wilson, and students The Boy and Red-haired Girl.

It was my pleasure to sit down and talk craft with the fabulous Tonya.

I loved I am the Children I Teach! In Vermont, you told me the back-story as to why you wrote this book, with this focus (partly through the lens of a teacher who doesn’t exactly live for her students). Can you share that story here?
I believe a lot of people think teaching is easy. It’s not. I thought that too, and that was one of the reason I applied for the job.  I thought it was easy enough to teach and go home with summers and weekends off. Snow days -- yes! Holiday breaks -- awesome! Wrong. Teaching is not easy. You are never told the true experiences you may face in a classroom or the challenges our students (mostly inner city youth) encounter. I am the Children I Teach looks at the side of teaching most don’t like to discuss, the issues that can cause a ripple effect in your classroom climate. We educators are given one of the biggest responsibilities and that is to help mold a child so they can become a successful adult. Many of my students don’t get a chance to just be children at home because of other responsibilities, exposure to adult issues, or due to their environment. The last thing I expected was a battle for control or a fight to show a child you care and to get them to believe you or a child who can’t read and doesn’t want to learn how so they refuse to do the work. We as educators have to fight for the trust of our students before we can teach them the content.  It’s a hard battle and you have to be strong to stay the course. 

(Tonya on stage as "Ms. Brown")
I wrote the book after going to a few professional developments that did not reflect my teaching experiences. No one told me about these challenges, they just told me about lesson planning and grading, but not how to build relationships with children, lay aside my own biases, and embrace them anyway. That’s hard when you are taught to respect your elders and everything else falls into place. Our classrooms can be a place of learning and one of a battle for control at the same time. There is no class or course for building a relationship before you teach your content. That is on the job training and it is what makes some leave the profession. You get tired of fighting just to help and to show you care. I wrote about my experience and of those who I know. I wanted to tell the truth of what is behind the eyes of a child and an adult (our own pain, experience and desires) when we enter the classroom. To shine a light on the real experience of teaching in an inner city school, the baggage we all bring into the classroom, and to make educators reflect on our own childhood and how our childhood manifests through our relationships with certain students.

In August, you did a staged performance of the book. Please tell us about that -- the genesis, the challenges, the results!
I had started writing my series Famine and I just couldn’t ‘get into it. I felt like I am the Children I Teach wasn’t done. I had copies in my basement and I kept wondering why. I realized I wasn’t finished with those characters yet. I always loved theater and did a few shows in college and in my 30s. I have even done stand-up comedy a few times. I live for the stage and I knew I wanted to write a script for the book, but I wasn’t sure of how. I sat at my desk and tried to just cut and paste pages from the book, no go! As soon I let go of what I thought it should be, it became what it was meant to be. I thought ok now what. Do auditions and see if I can rent a space, but in reality I wasn’t sure if anyone would know them like me. Who would evoke the emotion that I carried for five years for each character. So, I thought I can do it. I know them, because I am them. I am each character that I wrote about. So it began. I knew of a young lady, Naelis Erving, who produced and directed For Colored Girls and we had a reading at Panera. Her excitement and belief in me was enough for me to go forward. A two-woman team put on a one-woman show in three weeks. I can truly say I am very proud of our work. She pushed me to new levels and this process became therapeutic for me. I told of my own story of abuse and pain and was released from it as soon as I hit the stage. We sold out our first night and were only seven seats away from selling out our second night. I had finally lived a dream, my characters had come to the stage and I haven’t been the same since.

(Tonya as The Boy)
I loved hearing you read from the book in person -- so powerful! How did that translate on stage to a bigger audience?
There are four main characters in the novel, Ms. Brown, The Boy, Redhead Freckle Faced Girl and Ms. Wilson. I played Ms. Brown, The Boy and Redhead and brought Ms. Wilson to life through audio and pictures. My stage was an actual classroom. My audience sat in student’s chairs and they received a waiver for being a part of a classroom discussion/scene. I made the play interactive so the audience felt like students from the time they entered the school. They had to respond to parts of the play and were held accountable for their “homework.” I believe the classroom was the perfect stage, my audience felt included and the smell, set up and decor of the classroom was the icing on the cake.

Tell us about your creative process -- where you write, how you write, and what subjects call to your creativity.
When I write I like it quiet. I sit down at my desk, pray and then there are a few quotes I have hanging from my desk that I read aloud. I am surrounded by things and smells that make me smile. My vision board is in front of me, my grandmother’s teapot, writing utensils I have collected from my travels, a picture or my husband and parents. I burn scented oils and turn on my small desk light and go. Whenever I hit a roadblock, I do the Cupid shuffle (line dance) or play a spiritual/ uplifting song (Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder, India Erie, Marvin Sapp), dance my heart out and get back to it. If I can’t write at home, Barnes and Noble is a wonderful muse for me or just to sit outside and listen to nature.

(Tonya as the Red-haired Girl)
What are you presently working on?
I am working on a few things. Presently I am tweaking the show to go on tour next year hopefully to hit three-four cities next summer. I am working on a devotional for writers and runners, my Famine novel series and a workbook as a supplement for the novel for a series of professional development for new and veteran teachers that I would hope to do for the 2017-18 school year.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

BEHOLD -- IN A CAT'S EYE!

We love our cats. All were rescues from neglect or abuse. All are, we often say, like a million bucks that nobody else wanted, and we were lucky enough to claim as our own. We presently have two cats, Ozzie and Wheezer. Ozzie came to us circuitously eight years ago from a far-away land, a survivor of an infamous cat hoarding case. Wheezer found her way to Xanadu from just down the road -- her elderly human caretaker had passed away, and she'd gone to live with the woman's sons, who didn't exactly care for her. When she showed up three autumns ago, yowling in her cat carrier as she was walked up our driveway, the sound broke our hearts, and we knew we'd offer her the best home possible. It didn't matter that we were told she was three years old and it turned out she was fourteen; she soon took charge of the house as rightful queen (with Ozzie, ever, as pampered princess) and our home was made complete following the loss of our previous female feline monarch, the famous Chicken, who once saved our entire family from obliteration (it's true -- she woke the house when the Mother's Day Nor'Easter of 2007 filled our basement and flooded our furnace while we slept, and the pipes quaked. Had she not roused the house awake, a bomb crater would have been all that was left, according to our gas company. Chicken won the Feline Hero Pet Award from the MSPCA, where we adopted her, later that autumn).

In May on the morning I readied to fly to Hollywood to attend the star-studded The Roswell Awards (my short story "Mandered" won Honorable Mention in this year's contest), I saw that a neighbor's new cat was perched outside our sun porch door, harassing Ozzie. I've traveled far and wide in 2016, to numerous writing retreats located on islands, mountaintops, and waterfalls. Hollywood was my third of eight adventures, and by the time I landed I missed our little family and the Muse had already turned the incident with the neighbors' cat into a new story. In my hotel room, I sat down and began the tale of a neighbor delivered an ominous warning by his crazy neighbors' cat, and had penned half of it by the time I took to the stage to accept my Roswell Award. Soon after completing "The Neigthbors' Cat", I read about Pole to Pole Publishing's new project, In a Cat's Eye, and hastened through edits on the computer. Soon after, I received a rewrite offer, and made my few changes while a new roof was being put on Xanadu. Sparse days later, the official acceptance arrived. I'm proud to be part of this amazing release, which also features a reprint of "The Brazilian Cat" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Many of my talented co-authors shared the back-stories behind their stories in In a Cat's Eye.

Gail Z. Martin on "Catspaw": "When Vonnie and Kelly [the publishers] asked me for a cat story, I knew I wanted to write it in my Deadly Curiosities dark urban fantasy universe, set in Charleston, SC. My main character, Cassidy Kincaide, is a psychometric. Cassidy runs Trifles and Folly, an antique store that is a front for an Alliance of mortals and immortals who get haunted and cursed objects out of the wrong hands and fight supernatural threats. So I had the ‘where’ and the ‘who’, and now I needed the ‘what’. The gist of the story came to me, and that got me started -- a necromancer’s cat. The title sprang to mind from the Star Trek: TOS episode of the same name. The cat had to play an essential role in the story, and since the piece was short, we had to get to the action quickly. I had decisions to make. Was the cat good or evil? Did the cat itself possess supernatural powers or was it a pawn, a victim, a familiar or a co-conspirator? Read ‘Catspaw’ and find out!"

Oliver Smith on "Grimmun": "Most of the characters are thinly veiled Norse gods, except for Sweet who is a bunch of wild herbs and snails. ‘Grimmun’ conflates the metaphor of the clockwork universe with the physical universe and mixes up human custom with natural law. Cutting across this implausible world of authorial confusion and scientific ignorance strides Ratter the Cat, a tribute to every vicious farm kitten ever adopted into my family. How excited I was as small child to wake in the morning and find a new dissection spread across the lawn by our own ‘Ratter’. The cats procured a fantastic variety of wildlife: frogs, toads, rats, mice, birds, slowworms, and even a bat (rescued alive). I blame these daily scenes of slaughter for my abidingly morbid imagination. Without those cats I would probably write uplifting stories of noble heroes doing whatever thing they do. I would dream of pretty flowers, not the horrors presented in ‘Grimmun’. I would be good. I would be happy.  I now own a house cat who will tackle nothing bigger than a woodlouse -- if you care to, you can read about her in ‘The Sulphur Remedy’ in my collection Basilisk Soup."

Steven R. Southard on "The Cats of Nerio-3": "What? A call for submissions for a cat anthology? I’ll pass; I don’t own a cat, or even like them. (Mysterious voice): Hello, Steve. Who’s that? I’m your muse. You will write a cat story, a story about cats in an abandoned space station who’ve mutated into panther-sized monsters, now adapted to weightlessness. Really? I’m going to write that? Well, I’ll help. A little. In fact, I’ve given you the seed of an idea, so my job here is done. Bye. Wait, Muse, is that all I get? Muse? Sheesh. She does this every stinkin’ time. Leaves the hard part to me. Giant mutant cats in space, huh…"


(Queen Wheezer)
K. I Borrowman on "Kings of the Concrete Jungle": "Baker is a domestic shorthair cat from Al Khor, Qatar. One of his distinctive features is his central heterochromatic eyes. He came from a large family and had six brothers and sisters. An avid adventurer, Baker left home at the young age of nine weeks to pursue a life of banditry. Currently, Baker’s favourite hiding places include: under the sofa, his laundry duckie, and any box or bag, no matter the size. Baker came up with the idea for “Kings of the Concrete Jungle” when he demonstrated to his human, K.I. Borrowman, how his unique feline traits would help ensure his survival during any upcoming zombie apocalypses. To learn more about Baker, please visit his website, www.spotthekitty.com. Be sure to check out his advice column for other cats under the ‘Latest Mews” tab and download his game, Spot the Kitty, for your Android or Apple device."

Christine Lucas on "A Pinch of Chaos": "‘A Pinch of Chaos’ was the first story I wrote after a three-year break from writing. It's a story that opens with gut-wrenching loss, much like the loss I felt often throughout these three years. But in its heart it's also a Hero's Journey, mapping in some level my own journey during that time against seemingly impossible obstacles to regain all that I had lost. In this journey, both in the story and in life, the Wise Sage never came. Only cats came, with all the joy and – sometimes -- heartbreak this entails. Perhaps there's no Wise Sage at all in this Journey we call Life, only a crone with a wicked sense of humor, and her head is a cat's head. As one of my characters often says, ‘Cats are Bast's ongoing prank on mankind.’ He should know -- he's a High Priest. As for the Journey, in fiction as in life, it has closure, but no End. Ithaka will always lie beyond the horizon, and Circles have no ends."

Doug C. Souza on "Tenth Life": "Doug C. Souza began his story ‘Tenth Life when the first line, ‘I found Mr. Gary confessing to the cat one evening, popped into his head. It was a random image that seemed to have the makings of a fun story. He had no idea where the characters would end up, but one thing was certain: the cat would be a gray tabby. A couple years earlier, Doug C. Souza had to say goodbye for the final time to the greatest cat that ever walked the face of the Earth. He’s glad his pal Remy found a home in one of his stories. Recently, Doug won first place in the Writers of the Future Contest, and has a story featured in The Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide due out later this year. His story “Mountain Screamers”--a novelette about cougars--appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. Doug C. Souza hopes you enjoy ‘Tenth Life, a story where a cat gets into (and out of) trouble the way only a cat can."

A. L. Sirois on "Three Wizards and a Cat": "Regarding Three Wizards and a Cat, I wrote an earlier story with the protagonist, Rali Ribhu, in the same far-future setting, using that same Jack Vance type of sardonic voice. This story is a follow-up to that tale, The Comet Doom, but not a direct sequel. I loved writing this, and people have responded well to it. Perhaps Rali will ride again one of these days. It would be fun to put him into a novel-length story."


(The Princess Ozzie, days before our move to Xanadu)
Joanna Hoyt on "Another Man's Cure": "The submissions call for In A Cat’s Eye gave me an excuse to complete an odd little half-story which had been prowling around the back of my mind for a few years. Dr. Marcus Leeds, the world’s foremost -- indeed, the world’s only -- cryptoethnogastronomist, with his pride in his objectivity, his defensiveness around his unusual discipline, his basic decency and his occasional difficulty in treating his research subjects as people, was already clear in my mind. So was the dangerous sweetness of the kopiat and the dangerous otherness of the wicked little cat known as the stiss. I wasn’t quite sure what they were all going to do together, but I enjoyed finding out. Marcus, of course, bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the human-studying experts I have encountered. None whatsoever. Well, not very much… I am grateful that the anthology editors liked him well enough to advocate (successfully) for a somewhat happier ending."

A. L. Kaplan on "Mark of the Goddess": "‘Hi, Maya. Tell me about your role in 'Mark of the Goddess'.’

‘Sure, but first, where did you get the idea for this story?’

‘I’ve always been drawn to mythology, and this call for submissions screamed for the Mayan jaguar goddess. Writing a story with no canines was a challenge. I’m a dog person and a major wolf fanatic.’

‘Is that why you made my jungle so dangerous?’

‘Realism is important, especially for fantasy stories. I did a lot of research to create the right kinds of wildlife.’

‘Yeah. Thanks a lot for all the carnivorous plants and animals.’

‘No apologies there. Changing subjects, I love the bright colors in your dress.’

‘My mom is a wiz with dyes. She did all the beadwork with colored seeds. We can’t afford stone beads.’

‘Well, it’s lovely.  Speaking of dyes, what’s with the brown stain in your eyes? Be proud of who you are.’

‘Are you trying to get me killed? No one can know my true eye color. Why are authors so cruel to their characters? I don’t know how I’m going to survive this story.’

‘You’ll have to read it and find out if you do.’"

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Two September Writing Adventures

(aboard the ferry, passing the Portsmouth Harbor lighthouse)
This has been an amazing, adventurous 2016! As of this morning, I've completed 52 individual fiction projects (one novel, a dozen novellas among them), and have traveled far and wide (including to Hollywood, where I attended and received Honorable Mention for my short story "Mandered" in The Roswell Awards). In September -- in addition to getting married -- I enjoyed not one but two productive writing retreats. Both featured returns to destinations I've visited and loved before.

The first took me across the Atlantic to the Isles of Shoals. I enjoyed Dale Finley Slongwhite's wonderful Writelines conference to Star Island once before, in 2012. This time around, Hurricane Hermine had different plans for us, and made the sea so choppy that the Coast Guard grounded ferry service for the first two days of our visit. Hermine be damned, Dale had us gather in a hotel nearby the ferry's launch, and, while we labored over daily updates, we kicked off the workshop in the hotel's meeting room. I loved my last time in Dale's classroom, which was and is filled with fantastic writing exercises designed to challenge and inspire (they did!). I completed a short Viking-themed speculative story our second morning in the hotel and began work on a mystery feature film screenplay (by the end of the island adventure, I had the first full third down). We dined at local restaurants and waited. Early Wednesday morning, we got the news that, long last, we'd be on our way to the island. The voyage across the ocean was exhilarating, inspiring. At one point, the islands surfaced from the endless expanse of gray, and we were there. My room this time around was in the actual hotel and not the outbuildings, and came with the rarest of rare: two plugs. They'd added WiFi since my previous visit and, while checking emails during breaks from the writing workshop, I learned I'd been invited to submit a mystery and a western to two different editors.

The food was great, the company stellar. I dig Dale's boot camp-style approach and left the island two days later with plenty of fresh material -- and two new stories, the first of which I penned the very next morning following my return home to Xanadu.

Two autumns ago, our writers' group attended a long weekend retreat to the Waterfall House, a beautiful antique mansard colonial perched atop roaring falls in Stark, New Hampshire. We returned at the end of this September to the house, which was as charming as I recalled. Our first night there, five of us enjoyed an incredible feast of homemade dips, sauces, and jams with cheese and crackers, coconut macaroons, and bakery brownies. For our second night, I slow-roasted a ten and a half pound prime rib from the local butcher shop, and it was incredible! On our third night at the Waterfall House, we enjoyed homemade spinach lasagna and meatballs, salad, and a variety of desserts.

From the moment we landed, I uncapped my pen, poured hazelnut coffee or raspberry seltzer, and wrote. My intention for the weekend was to return home with a briefcase filled with completed manuscripts, and I did -- some 15,000 words between four projects, along with busy work on others. I penned my oldest incomplete project, the novella "Destiny", to THE END, along with two shorts and a longer mystery story, "The Eleven O'Clock Ice Kill." Our weather, though mostly overcast, didn't stop retreaters from taking walks or working outside on the deck overlooking the falls, and, though I left creatively depleted, I accomplished all I hoped for.

In three days I depart for my sixth and final road trip adventure of 2016 -- to When Words Count in Vermont for four days and three nights. I'm bringing a novel, the mystery screenplay, and a handful of short stories to work on. It's been a fantastic year! And 2017 seems poised to begin on a similar high note: while luxuriating last weekend at the Waterfall House, I was approached to pen a novelization of a made-for-TV movie from its screenplay. I've said yes!