So said my erstwhile herbal teacher. Susun Weed’s prodigious talents include writing and publishing her Wise Women Series. Her new baby is named ABUNDANTLY WELL, and is now available. My own copies of her books are well-worn, scribbled in and often consulted. Pay her a visit. Be enchanted and beguiled. Make friends with The Seven Medicines.
Last Monday at the local library, I had the pleasure of doing a book talk, reading and signing for my new baby, THE RIVEN COUNTRY OF SENGA MUNRO. We contemplated rescheduling, as roads were icy and it was wicked cold, to borrow the Yankee phrase. My daughter called it a “soft opening,” apt–for the small number in attendance, hearty souls, they, but it afforded me a chance dress rehearsal. My friend Candace (whose art work graces the novel cover) coached me after at home on delivering a more dramatic reading, and for future readings we chose a different excerpt.
All good feedback.
Several copies made their way into the hands of intrigued listeners, and I couldn’t be more grateful for the turn-out and warm reception.
Amazon.com is holding a 4-day EBOOK PROMOTION for my novel, to begin Tuesday, December 17, at 8:00 a.m. Purchase price will be discounted to $2.99 and rise daily over the period. I hope you’ll take advantage of the sale. See below. Part of “push after birth” wisdom. Thanks, Susun.
What inspired you to write The Riven Country of Senga Munro?
The short answer is Life, but other authors inspire me; in particular, Gretel Ehrlich, Chris Cleave, Diana Gabaldon and Louise Penny, and my father’s mythic life as an early aviator—who happened to write very well. But ideas for the main character and the Cheyenne scout came to me about thirty years ago—an impossibly long gestation—and I scribbled down some notes and scenes, actually, one similar to Senga’s, where she “sees” the hunter on the hillside. I once saw (imagined, conjured) a beautiful man squatting down behind our house, checking out our family’s goings-on, bow in hand. I don’t know if he was Cheyenne however. . .
After passing the entire year of 2014 mostly reading (my husband thought I’d checked out on him), I recognized and honored a more-than-insistent nudge to finally “be about it,” how a friend once chided another would-be writer to just get on with it. I began to work mornings in a tiny cabin below our home, treating it as my “work.” For Christmas, my husband presented me a small propane heater so I wouldn’t be interrupted by a hungry woodstove. I’ve been about it for five-and-a-half years now, and have completed three novels in the series, and have begun a non-fiction project.
Can you tell me about the book?
Distilling it is difficult, but it’s about love, in the end. And loss. And restoration. Now those are themes, and not what most readers look for at first, so here are the story’s main points: Senga Munro—named Agnes at birth—is raised by grandparents and her unstable mother on a mountain in North Carolina. Tragedies and triumphs swing in a wide arc. At seventeen and pregnant, Senga goes on the road with her musician boyfriend, to wind up in rural Wyoming. Nine years later, she blames herself when her young daughter dies—the defining tragedy of her life.
In the aftermath, she learns what it means to be “other” in the rural West. Senga can see what others can’t, in the novel’s thread of magical realism. An arrow shot through time by a 19th century Cheyenne scout jolts her awake from her sleepwalk of a life, but then she is provoked by a modern-day outlaw. In waking from her grief, she re-inhabits the world, warts and all, as they say. Does she risk quiet routine and come to terms with something approaching purpose? That answers itself, of course.
What did you learn when writing the book?
Well, that’s The Thing, isn’t it? I believe writing engenders the next day’s writing and the next, this momentum of imagination; this stimulus of “knock-knock, who’s there?” Everyone. I have learned it’s magical—the process. And besides the required research in several areas, I learned I do have imagination. (Else I’m simply tapping into the collective unconscious. But that’s another essay.) I have learned that every event, confrontation, relationship, kindness and desire has purpose in a storyteller’s life.
What surprised you the most?
The joy and satisfaction in the doing of it.
What does the title mean?
Senga’s lover coins the title after seeing her backbone rising like a miniature mountain range. Riven is an unusual word, but not entirely archaic. Her lover knows her brokenness at losing her child. Senga is a country to him, and he names it “riven.”
As a first novel, is it autobiographical?
I suspect all novels are, and this one has elements drawn from my own life, but I won’t say which. The characters are delicious composites. My tired old joke is, we have too many chairs in our home . . . they must have been waiting for the denizens of Senga’s country.
Who is your favorite author, and why?
Well, that’s an unfair question, but I’ll confess an influence. Diana Gabaldon, who created the Outlander Series. She is generous—if fierce—in her encouragement, and she has expressed her process in such a way as to make the steps seem less daunting—though they must be. Her treatise on writing sex scenes is invaluable.
What book is currently on your bedside table?
When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chödrön. I just finished Louise Penny’s latest Gamache mystery, A Better Man, and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising Trilogy, a gift from my son. What world builders they are!
Who is the author you most admire in your genre?
I loved Rosamunde Pilcher, for her unforgettable characters and tone. But, as I enjoy a touch of magical realism, I’d add Barbara Kingsolver; also, for her social justice consciousness.
What was the first book to make you cry?
I believe it was Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë. I was about fourteen. And impressionable. Still am. I have sobbed while working on my novels several times. With all the re-reading, you’d think you’d become inured, but I haven’t, which is oddly gratifying. Some nerves must remain vulnerable.
THE RIVEN COUNTRY OF SENGA MUNRO, my debut novel, is available on Amazon, and soon by IngramSpark distribution (if all goes well). The e-book is also available on Amazon. I am by turns thrilled, exhausted, grateful and incredibly sorrowful, as the timing corresponds with a sister’s cancer and multiple strokes. We are all reeling. I have this sister to thank for my finally being about the storytelling these past 5 ½ years, after taking a year “off” to immerse myself in reading–including my sister’s favorite series, Outlander.
Friend and artist Candace Christofferson
graciously provided the perfect cover image.
The novel’s back cover reads:
adjective, literary; alternate past participle of to rive. 1. torn apart 2. broken into pieces, split asunder.
daughter would have been 29 years old this year,” begins this
inter-generational story. Senga Munro still blames herself two decades after
her daughter’s death. A literary novel, THE RIVEN COUNTRY OF SENGA MUNRO
explores the aftermath of unspeakable tragedy and what it means to be “other”
in rural Wyoming: Senga sees what others can’t, via the novel’s thread of
arrow shot through time by a 19th century Indian scout jolts her awake at last.
Will Senga risk the relative safety of routine and finally come to terms with
her purpose and life, even as she provokes the ire of a modern-day outlaw?
Senga Munro, the not-so-simple herbal simpler is earning a PhD in life’s
Senga’s friends: Gabe Belizaire, a bull rider from Louisiana with an M.F.A in
Creative Writing, who chooses to live in a state where his skin color is rare;
Rufus and Caroline Strickland, a sympathetic, if irascible, elderly ranching
couple; Francesca Albinoni, Gabe’s Italian muse; Joe Rafaela, the hardy Franciscan;
and the old Berry place folks—outlaws and proverbial snakes in the garden, of
the poisonous variety.
learn that resilience and grit triumph as the most useful antidotes in the bag
as they journey through THE RIVEN COUNTRY OF SENGA MUNRO, Book One in THE RIVEN
The next few months will be necessarily fraught with travel, family visits, phone calls, deep breathing and the need for hugs. Regarding the book, I’ll be letting it flow, as the saying goes. Find updates via this blog, Goodreads, the Amazon Author page and Twitter@reneecarrier12. Many opportunities for rereading this first novel and the two that follow (you always find something to correct) have served to illustrate how a long story develops. As in life, I suspect. The second novel, STARWALLOW, and third (working title: EARTHBOUND) are linked by Senga, her friends and foes. Also, by differing geographies. They will be made available in 2020.
If you acquire a copy and find something of merit, please leave a review on Amazon, Goodreads or Twitter. As a friend in Scotland once told me, “Senga lives!” Thank you, Charles. And thank you to Jeff, our children and grandchildren; friends and wonderful editor Sarah Pridgeon; the Wyoming Arts Council, for the Frank Nelson Doubleday Writing Award in 2018—so encouraging, and, for their grant assistance. The novels are set mostly in Wyoming, my home for lo, these last four decades. Yes, a love letter to place and belonging.
On a Sunday morning news program, I watched a teen-age
girl from Sweden shame her elders, and this is anyone of legal age in the
industrial nations. We are the parties responsible for bringing the world to
the precipice. One might ask which precipice? Does it matter? But her concern
is environmental catastrophe on account of climate change, largely caused by
cavalier attitudes and refusal to engage by entire groups of persons.
A Scottish friend recently told me the world needs a
Joan of Arc. World, meet Greta Thunberg. The standard she flies is her
eloquence; her armor is science and bravery; her white steed is the media; her inspiring
voices are those of her not-yet-born children and grandchildren. Her trial will
be the nay-sayers and mocking multitudes that deny and ridicule her premise and
Greta, trading the stake, has pledged to stop being
a consumer; she has given up meat and dairy, and has turned away from air travel—all
plainly stated, without defending her choices. It seems the world is past the
argument. All three of her personal solutions and, I might add, proposals, are
grounded in scientific studies and have been hashed out since Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson, in
1962. Our penchant for continual gratification (read: consuming and acquiring
more and more) contributes to green-house gasses. Certain beef raising
practices queer the balance of sustainable agriculture, and air travel accounts for “four to nine percent of the total climate change
impact of human activity,” according to the David Suzuki Foundation.
I stand in awe of this child. We all
should, but more important, we must begin to begin. Now. Eleven years, 2030, is
the projected point of no return, we are warned. It is still possible to effect
a change. If we begin. Now. We know
what to do.
A few months ago I was figuratively balancing on the edge of a writer’s deep cauldron. Dramatic, I know, but it serves. The reason centered on my work, and whether I was paying due diligence regarding drafts, revisions, et cetera, after having received several dozens rejections to queries for my first novel, The Riven Country of Senga Munro. Yes, yes, the question answered itself, but not before I considered drowning myself in said cauldron.
Diagon Alley metal art hangs by my writing cabin door, of a pointy-hatted witch stirring her pot–a useful metaphor for the creative impulse; writing as magical endeavor, except, it’s not. Still, I always touch the cauldron before entering my space to work. Ritual as necessary ingredient.
A writing friend asked me one day last winter how the revision was going. I mumbled something vague, or likely incoherent, but her pointed question (like the hat) niggled, and I set about finally getting down to it, seriously (read scraping the bottom of the cauldron for baked-on, or half-baked phrasing), and, in the end, cut 16,000 words from the first novel. I swear I hear heavy sighing from the overwrought file. Failure, in the form of declines (my preferred word), together with my friend’s gentle nudge, serve as feedback.
Coming up for air (clinging to our working image of a cauldron/caldera) and seeing what’s out there can be helpful, even refreshing. (Ah, a breeze! Gentle rainfall! The sounds of birds and children’s laughter!) And I took some writerly advice (from Poets and Writers Magazine) to engage with a social media platform, hitherto ignored, except for this outlet. I have now a Twitter presence, to help keep up with literary and musical worlds. @reneecarrier12
I wanted to invite you into my writing cabin. Now go; I have to get back to work.
“You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese.”~Anthony Bourdain
I found the above quote by intrepid traveler, Anthony Bourdain, who probably tasted much stronger fare than my cheese on his journeys. Here’s to his courage~
The following is an excerpt from a work in progress. I’ll post now an then from it (working title, Braeburn Croft, A Wyoming Homestead Manual and Radical Memoir, Rooted in Place.) Meanwhile, I’m still sending out submissions for THE RIVEN COUNTRY OF SENGA MUNRO.
Making Chèvre, or Goat Cheese.
I learned a neighbor raised dairy goats, and by neighbor, I mean someone within a ten-mile radius. Bonnie Jo and her husband Zack, a boot maker and rancher, keep herds of goats, sheep and horses, dogs and probably cats—though I never see any when I enter their yard. They’re raising their children to care for the animals and to carry on The Life. Bonnie Jo was a classmate of our son and married into one of the ranching families north of us.
She is duly proud of her milking goats, their creamy white milk and, as entrepreneur of all things goat-y, her business card reads Goat Gone Wild. Jeff and I drove up one day last fall to meet her ladies. Apart from a billy’s own promiscuous proclivities, I had read that one in too-close proximity can cause nannies to exude a hormone that will taint their milk. But the old goat (who probably wasn’t all that old) was penned at a distance, while dozens of nannies and their babies freely roamed.
Young kids coax a smile and bring joy. They are that funny. The true comedians of the barnyard.
Bonnie Jo showed us the shed where she milked. She apparently doesn’t need a stanchion, but merely ties the goat and goes a-milkin’ while seated on a stool and it occurred to me that each of us has our passions and preferences. My mind boggled at the prospect of having to milk so many animals twice a day. (That I can sit for hours on end, tapping on a keyboard, would likely draw a similar response by some.) I was thankful we could simply drive up and buy a gallon or a half, though a couple of times the muddy ruts in the twisting dirt road, descending into a back-country valley, had us wide-eyed.
For a nominal fee, she offered to do a demonstration of her favorite cheese-making method and we agreed. We were the luckier ones who took home samples of goat lotion, soap and lip balm. Bonnie Jo uses apple cider vinegar instead of rennet to culture a ricotta-like soft cheese.
I hoped to make something similar to the chèvre, sold in short logs that I’ve bought at the grocer.
After watching a You Tube video on the process, on Food Farmer Earth (How to Make Soft Goat’s Milk Cheese), I ordered liquid rennet and a packet of chèvre culture, a powder that must be kept in the freezer, and something called “butter cloth,”—its weave tighter than cheesecloth. Bonnie Jo had lent me a book on the art of cheese making, and there I found my working recipe. It’s remarkably simple, though all rests on temperature, humidity and attention, three factors that can prove tricky. The goat farmer in the video cautioned her viewers to stir in the culture delicately and, later, to separate the curds with great care when placing them in the butter-cloth-lined strainer.
Last week, I was awarded with four, three-inch logs that had formed well and smelled divine. (Always a good sign.) I wind up with a quart of whey, more or less, for each half gallon of milk. Goat milk has more protein content than cow milk. I mix whey with my muesli overnight.
After stirring in a bit of salt (for both flavor and as a preservative) the new cheese is then ready to age and placed in a container for the purpose, on a slotted tray, to hold the cheese above any whey that may still drip out. At approximately 52 degrees, our root cellar is perfect for this. The cheese should be turned daily, but if you miss a day, no worries. After a week (or longer, if you’re patient), the logs may be rolled in herbs or chopped nuts, or mixed with sweetened, chopped dried cranberries—a treat—or left au naturel, how we enjoy it. It is mouth-watering on French bread with a half-teaspoon of fig preserves.
So far, I’ve only had to return two batches to the Earth for being too strong, gamey or tainted—take your pick. Once, I suspected the milk had been stored long in the fridge and its acid content prevented the culture from working properly. Another time, the smell interfered with our sensibilities. (This is not understated.) Bonnie Jo explained that, occasionally, in the spring, the nannies’ milk can taste strong.
I take the good with the bad. It is a satisfying venture and, one day, I may keep a couple nannies, but for now, owing to travel, I’ll more than appreciate and make do with an intrepid neighbor whose nannies can furnish the amazing liquid.
An excerpt from The Riven Country of Senga Munro, the first novel in my Black Hills series, was awarded the Frank Nelson Doubleday writing award by the Wyoming Arts Council. Twice in as many years, I am indebted and grateful for their support; this year especially to Neltje for her generous spirit. Visit http://www.wyoarts.state.wy.us for other news of our state’s brave efforts to enhance and enrich rural living.
I’ll be attending the Jackson Hole Writers Conference July 28-30 for a two-fold purpose (probably more, but these remain to be seen). To see the Tetons is actually a primary cause. It’s been too long between visits and dramatic mountains figure prominently in my memory palace. When I was five or six and visiting Grindelwald in Switzerland with my family, my father bade me look through binoculars at the Eiger’s peak , where a man dangled from his ropes, unfortunately deceased. For some reason, I don’t feel accompanying dread with this memory, and can only believe it was due to my father’s tone and explanation. That being said–I hold rocky mountains anywhere in great respect, and long for their sight.
I have heard we may be drawn to either mountains or the ocean. While I love the ocean–with some trepidation, for its depth, I love mountains more, for their heights. The thing about continuing a story after the first novel is concluded, is the possibility of sounding the depths and scaling the heights. A facile comparison, surely.
I look forward to being in high mountains again. Here is the text (I think) for the reading I’ll do in Jackson Hole on Saturday night, June 30.
The crow dipped and cawed as it approached the coming chasm, having followed the silver snake of moving water from far above the tree tops. The unusual conifer near the lip of the falls caught its eye, for its colorful ribbons, and the crow marked the place to later return for nesting material. Falling water gave way to thundering spray and the black bird swooped with the earth, into the wide, red-to-violet rainbow, sparkling in the mist. Humidity dampened the bright resin fragrance of the forest.
The crow was sharply made aware of a figure below. Upon closer inspection, a man sat hunched over a child, folded in his arms. Both seemed carved of stone—one with the slab whereon they sat. Coltish blue legs skirted the muddy ground, unmoving, and the bird sensed death. The man stared into the shallow, rock-strewn pool before him, to occasionally glance up, as though expecting someone.
Movement at the base of the cliff startled the bird. A woman appeared. Black, greasy mud stained her clothing, hands and jaw, her face mostly hidden beneath a green hat, the color of ponderosa pine needles. A long, roping braid, like woven, autumn grass, piqued the crow’s interest, then, with another caw, it pumped its wings to climb higher.
PART ONE, CHAPTER 1—IN THESE HILLS
Western North Carolina, 1960
The boy led the healer along a hidden path only a rabbit could follow, or make, the woman decided, as she meandered back and forth behind her young guide. Kit bag swinging across her body, her eyes ranged between the rough ground and the swift feet ahead. She would not demand why on earth they’d had to struggle through the knotted rhododendrons, when far easier routes existed. She knew. After a sharp turn north and several more minutes west, below the ridgeline, past the old mine, some of whose timber had been repurposed, a light, gurgling noise alerted her to the creek, flowing their way. Grannie Cowry heard the still before setting eyes on it—the aptly named thump barrel—and when the thumping stopped she knew the whiskey would come.
“Leman.” One of the men quietly greeted her guide when they entered the grove of evergreens. The man gestured for her to follow.
“What’s he done?” Grannie asked.
“Broke a leg.”
She’d learn soon enough how seriously. The injured person was the man’s little brother, who’d only been working a couple months as sentry, he told her. He led her toward the shade. The flies were thick and grasshoppers thicker, drawn to the smell of blood, but mostly, to the sweet mash. Early September, even in the higher hills, brought sticky air; it seemed the insects stuck to it.
It appears I’ve taken a hiatus. . . No excuses. I have been working. Finished the third novel in the series that has expanded to quartet length. Maybe a quintet. There’s a reason I have too many chairs in my home; my characters have made themselves at home. The revision is coming along, and Senga continues to surprise me. My revised title to the first novel is The Riven Country of Senga Munro.
Winter clings, with colder than normal temperatures for this time of year and a good snow blanket. Weather discussion can sound tedious, but in Wyoming, where too dry is a matter of fire or life, I make no apologies. Below, please find an excerpt, the setting based on Ballyfin images in Ireland.
They stood before the great house, awake with it alone, save for another single, faint light gleaming from a far window on the opposite wing. Senga had left a similar one for their return; “A candle in the window,” she reminded him.
“Which way?” he asked, as he surveyed the shadowy directions.
“Toward the lake?”
“As you wish,” and they set off.
He was glad for the torch—called flashlight by Senga. She carried the blanket while he lit their way. A well-marked path led to a boat house, where two flat-bottomed boats waited, moored to a dock. He grinned at the sight, remembering summers with his brother. How long had it been since he’d been on the water? If you have to think about it, old son, it has been too long.
“Let’s take one out, shall we?”
“In this darkness? Really?”
“Our eyes are adjusting. Haven’t yours? Oh, Senga, let’s,” and he proceeded to inspect the placement of the oars—not paddles, he noticed. Yes, it was exactly ordained, he thought, and as he shone the light into the boat, he heard Senga sigh and toss the blanket in.
“I suppose they have life jackets somewhere, um, in case the lake has its own Loch Ness monster or something,” she suggested, “. . . as if those would save you,” she mumbled.
He chuckled and illuminated the wall beside the door through which they had entered. Several life jackets hung from hooks and Senga stepped over to take two. “Okay. You up for this?” she asked as she held one out for him, then shrugged into hers.
“I am. Climb in and get settled. There is nothing like being on water to put things in perspective, my dear.” Hoping he was correct and not simply offering empty platitudes and false courage, he fastened his jacket. His heart still ached. For Senga, for Danica and her mother.
When Senga was seated, he shone light on the ropes, set down the torch and quickly untied the boat. He grabbed the torch and handed it to Senga as he climbed in, then, he pushed against the dock and they drifted out of the shed.
They were soon floating beneath a dark sky, made brilliant with stars, as soft lapping of water lulled and night noises intrigued from the nearby wood. The near-invisible silhouette of the stately house stood by, steady as a guardian presence, and Sebastian guessed the night manager had followed their objective—by their jouncing light—to note they were on the water. He took comfort in this. For the moment, his over-wrought nerves welcomed the task at hand, to simply, if not easily, use all his strength to move oars through dark water, with no particular destination in mind; only the moving through would do for now, with Senga, facing him; a rough, dark beauty.
If I were asked to describe, in a word—two at the most—my recent travel to France and Ireland, magical would compete with wonder-filled. Wonderful hasn’t the capacity. I was away for seventeen days, and not until I returned did a single mishap threaten the absolute perfection of this trip. But it was only a threat; the piece of luggage was located and had not been left between here and Dublin after all. Glitch-free travel! Alright—one bellyache from downing a Guinness too quickly, when it was time to load up and get back on the road to the next attraction. . . (Try black current syrup with it the next time you have a pint. . .) Continue reading →