Sheltering in place is less of a hardship for some than for others. For writers, it can mean a tacit permission to do what they do, a tragic circumstance notwithstanding. Covid-19 has brought the world to its knees, forgive the cliché; and has brought some lower. As of today, March 20, 2020, the first full day of Spring in the northern hemisphere, 259,684 cases have been reported worldwide, with 10,549 deaths. These numbers are fluid and, sadly, are expected to rise exponentially in the coming weeks. In Wyoming, 19 cases are confirmed as of today.
My husband bought provisions to last a while, and I’ve had three months of medications mailed to me. A compromised immune system and heart condition precludes socializing, but I’m experiencing a renewed inclination to be in telephone or email touch with friends and family, those I would neglect while in the throes of formatting my novels for publication, or completing my WIP, or “work in progress.” A paradox, I suppose. I wouldn’t call it a silver lining.
We are being tested, and sorely so, I fear. When I watch a news segment, showing cavalier college kids gathering during Spring Break, flouting the danger that surrounds them, I want to shake my head and sigh. And then, I want to weep. When I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish, goes the saying. With half the country minimizing the outbreak and the other half entering solitary confinement of a sort, and, in some states, all being restricted to quarters, there is little room for middle ground. We downplay the virus at our peril.
All this said, my husband and I attended a gathering just seven days ago, when we were still feeling flush, and Wyoming’s lone Covid-19 case was being managed. No get-togethers since then. Given the speed of spread, we will soon know if we, and/or anyone present, already had contracted the virus and were not yet presenting symptoms. Just now, I heard there’s a five-day incubation period. Not long at all. So, we take our temperatures daily, practice social distancing and cancel trips to see our children who live out-of-state.
I like “Work in Progress” as a title—a mantra during fraught times. Progress is positive, or it can be, but disease can “progress” too. I’ve always thought the phrase, “progressively worse,” an oxymoron. There must be a more correct phrase . . .
The notion of musical themes for Senga and her literary cohorts came to me several months ago, so I’ve created a playlist on Spotify for them. Under “ren”–see Senga’s playlist. It won’t be difficult. It’s the only playlist I’ve posted. If you don’t have the app, you could look them up on itunes and play the sample. The pieces on Spotify aren’t identified as to whom they represent (in my mind), so here’s a hint: In order of play (though I think they shuffle them–)~1. for Caroline: The Main Theme to The Cider House Rules (composers below) 2. Rufus: In the Middle of This Nowhere, on Oblivion 3. Senga: Nuvole Bianche 4. The Lover (no spoilers here): The Cello’s Song off A Childhood Remembered 5. Gabe: The Mission~Gabriel’s Oboe 6. Aunt Karen: The Emigration Tunes
When I hear these, I’m immediately pitched into the story. That magnificent film theme to John Irving’s Cider House Rules also lends itself to sunrise on a North Carolina tobacco barn. See what I did there? It’s Caroline’s tune, but Papa and Grannie’s too~Music is so very amenable . . .
I’ll be curious as to your own impressions and whether you can hear/feel the characters . . . perhaps it’s too personal a notion. Let me know. Now, the Hammock was chosen when I was working on the third book. (Thank you, Johno.) You may be familiar with the piece. John sent me a link and told me he was listening to it as he was piloting his jet over water at night. Its expansive dimension fits well where I wrote it into the story, along with several others, with thanks and apologies to the composers–whom I credit). I’m a musician; I can’t help it. Rhythm in writing is musical, and integral, I think. How we phrase and lengthen a narration can sound musical. Word choice, definitely. The affective, or emotional, in story doesn’t mind background music. If I had my druthers, I’d include a CD in the back of the novels. That’s a whole other exercise in organization. Besides, you may choose your own, or none. The gap sings between notes.
Thanks for allowing me go on about it, and I hope you’ll give a listen. Deepest bows to the composers, in order of play: Rachel Portman, Hammock, Ludovico Einaudi, Kostia and David Arkenstone, Ennio Morricone, and Loreena McKennitt. All Native American flute music reminds me of High Wolf. No surprise there. And yes, he plays the flute. The end of Book 3 evokes a piece, but I’m not ready to disclose it.
I’m working on the second novel’s formatting for release this summer. It will answer questions from the first you may have. Thank you for reading Senga and I hope you’re wintering well. All this said, I do want to recommend a memoir I just read. The Unwinding of the Miracle, by Julie Yip Williams. Absolutely stunning (thank you, Linda); the author may rearrange your thinking on life and death, the caveat. For now, to life!
A new decade. Looking back a hundred years ago, I shudder. Earth had just endured a world war and a flu epidemic, only to fall back into conflict less than two decades later. We stand on some brink today. Jackson Browne’s lyrics haunt me: “Oh people, look around you, the signs are everywhere, you’ve left it for somebody other than you, to be the one to care . . .” Look up the rest. I’ve turned to my singing, having put it aside in the throes of this book launch. Browne’s was the sheet music poised, and waiting, on my stand.
I’ve a friend who, in her seventh decade, has taken up singing lessons. I applaud her courage. And not for reasons one might suppose. To make a concerted effort to raise one’s voice in song, in these strange times, beats burying one’s head in the sand of despondency. Which would be easy. Candace Christofferson is an artist, just so, and she will succeed, given her voice is a willing instrument tuned to her will. It has a “whisky” timbre to it, and I envision her before a microphone and stand in a darkened club, blue light beaming down on her, giving it her all. She’s that kind of performer. An artistic one. While I, on the other hand am more timid, and lean into my guitar as shield. At readings, I suppose I could pretend my open book is my guitar and take comfort there. And courage.
Candace is responsible for my novel’s striking cover art. Generous to a fault, she allowed the use of the image. Here it is sans mark-up. And right-side up. Crows are a motif through my series, and attracted to bright, shiny objects. They are Watchers of Great Penetration; just what an artist must be. Poets, too.
Patricia Frolander, Poet Laureate Emeritus of Wyoming, penetrates her environs and its secrets in her newest collection, Between the West Pasture and Home. The titular poem, about faded blood on a saddlebag, whispers its evidence from a fading decade. Pat, my elder—like Candace—shows me doorways and possibilities.
We count time in decades as we age. Minute eras. Miniature eons. We have a decade, the scientists predict, to rearrange our response to climate needs, or catastrophe ensues. See the red ball to the left? Could be a blood moon. I see it now as Earth. And I shudder anew. The crow is a harbinger, yes, Senga Munro’s spirit animal along with Bear, Totem of Healers. Crow balances on Time. But lo! Surrounded by a consciousness apart.
I liked the image for its serendipitous interpretation of my novel’s themes. But like everything else, it speaks to more than personal notions.
Let us continue to “live liberty,” as philosopher of wholeness Patricia Sun entreats. May we make art, sing, write novels and poems and histories and memoirs. May we live as though Peace were a matter of living it. On this 4th day of a new decade, may Peace Prevail.
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.
“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.