Jean Stringam today

Hi everyone,

Today I’m pleased to introduce my Featured Guest, Jean Stringam. I’m always happy when I can present someone who lives in my own community. Springfield’s population is slightly over 150,000 and the city serves a surrounding area of more than 200,000. It stands to reason that we have a number of talented writers in our midst and you are about to meet one of them. (http://jeanstringamauthor.wordpress.com )

Hello, Jean, and welcome to my blog. My first question:

What originally attracted you to writing and what keeps you writing now?

Thanks, David. I’m attracted to writing because I can be anybody anywhere at any time in any world just by thinking it. I’ve written all my life and put my stories in a drawer, told myself I’d think about publishing them later when I was truly wise. The world was full of things to learn and I needed to learn them all!

That changed for me a few years ago when I experienced a sudden health event—the kind that gave me 20% survival odds. In a few moments invincibility had dissolved and life had become an uncertain matter. I knew I wanted to leave something good behind me when I left this world. Whether or not I was wise enough to publish yet, I couldn’t say, but I knew I couldn’t afford to wait any longer to try. Everything I had to say needed to be said NOW.

At age fourteen I confessed to my best friend that I wanted to be a writer and marry a photographer who worked for National Geographic Magazine so we could travel all over the world together and be this amazing wise couple together. Didn’t marry the photographer. Maybe he’s still out there somewhere . . . but did I get to the other part? The question sometimes runs across the ceiling before I sleep at night.

How would you describe your approach to creating strong stories?

Conflict. When I was younger I was so desperate to avoid conflict in all parts of my life that it nearly broke my heart to put my characters through anything really difficult. Now I say, Bring it on! Well, at least for my characters’ sake. I don’t know who they are until something miserable happens to them and I see how they handle it.

Who is reading over your shoulder as you write?

I used to have a strong image of the wonderful woman I wanted to be, and she hovered around in a most distracting way. But in the muddle of living I seem to have lost sight of that idealized person. She’s not invited to return.

Do you maintain a regular writing schedule? How do you protect your writing time?

My bliss is to wake up at 6 AM and write until noon. Then I like to trundle off to the university where I’m a professor and spend the afternoon meeting with really interested students for all kinds of fascinating discussions about children’s and young adult literature.

The actuality is something less than that! There’s the matter of grading and discussion prep and committee work and the most time consuming thing of all – social networking.

Where do you hope to see your career take you in the future?

• The Cousin Cycle is contemporary realism, and the first two books are published now: The Hoarders (June 2010, for readers 9-12) and Balance (April 2011, for readers 10-14). The Regrets Tree (YA) and Tell Me (YA) are yet to be published.

All four books were written before I sent the first one to a publisher—and that first publisher sent me a contract. So I was very lucky.

• I’ve also written several picture books that seem to delight the children I’ve tried them out on.

• Right now I’m finishing the third book in a fantasy trilogy about the Calgary Stampede.

• I love writing songs. Lyrics are a fascinating kind of poetry to explore and I love catching the melodies that swirl around in the ether. So far I’ve given my compositions piano accompaniment. BTW, a few days ago I put a little lullaby on my blog for visitors to download. I’ve also written some Christmas readers theatre with music, and songs for various characters in my stories.

Would you like to share a sample of your work and explain how you set it up?

The Cousin Cycle involves one year in the lives of an extended family of cousins and each novel is a stand-alone text. Many events are singular to the protagonist of the particular book, but a number of family events connect the characters to the year and to each other. This raises the matter of the unreliable narrator, since one person can only see a narrow slice of the totality of an event. It’s fun for a reader to piece together the clues as to who got it right.

The third book in the Cousin Cycle, The Regrets Tree, has sixteen-year-old Bill for a protagonist and will appeal to the YA reader. He has to deal with sex and violence, but more than that, it’s a story of what he loves, who he loves, and why he loves. I’ll give you a sneak-peak preview of a few pages from the first chapter!

I told my dad no. That’s not how I said it, to begin with at least. I try to be diplomatic where I can. But I did say, no. For two months I said no every time he brought it up. I said no when he was driving me up here. And if he calls tonight to find out how my summer job is turning out, I’ll say “It’s fine, Dad. Thanks.” And if he asks me for the hundredth time if I wouldn’t rather be working at a job with a future, getting to know how a law office works—his—I’ll say, “Thanks for the offer, Dad. No. No, I don’t want to work in your law office this summer.” If he insists and puts on his scare-ya-ta-hell lawyer voice, I’ll even say, “The guys on the road crew are great. Yeah, I’m having fun. Good food. Nice sturdy bunks. It’s the job I was meant for—at least for three months of a long, hot summer, Dad,” and he’ll say goodnight with a little respect, maybe, tell Mom not to fidget and go to sleep.

So how much of all that is a lie and how much is the truth? That’s a question that takes more time to sort out than it used to. Other years I could answer “Is your bed made?” with either yes or no. “Have you finished your homework?” Yes/No. “Are Howie and Devon staying for supper?” Yes/No. Simple. Now I have to decide if making my bed means pulling the sheets and blanket back to air the mattress out or if it means tucking them smooth and tight around the edges for a generic look. Does my homework include learning the chapter we’re going to study the next day or just the work we’ve been assigned? Howie and Devon are always on my mind, so if I stay for supper, does it de facto mean they’re also with me? Nothing’s simple anymore.

I guess I’m having fun, depending on the definition of fun you choose. The guys on this road crew might be okay, I can’t really tell yet. It’s been strictly business with them. Since my friend Devon came to work up here with me this summer, I haven’t really pursued other friendship possibilities. I guess the bunk house food is good compared to what I’d cook if I were on my own. The bunks? Well, it’s true they’re sturdy.

I’ll give my dad this. When he finally got it through his head that I didn’t want his office job, that I wanted to do out-of-doors physical work this summer, he called a few friends to find out who was hiring for a road construction crew. He let me know in time to apply for an opening as a flag-man, well, flag-person (the crew over at Mudd Flats hired several girls). This crew—my crew—on Mudd Mountain is all male. That’s good for me this summer. Three women in my life last year wrenched things around so bad for me it’s like I want to take some time off from life. I’d disappear if I could, but I’ve made the decision I’ll never take that route.

If I’m telling no lies here, three women is a partial count, because I had to think through everything I know about the three most important men in my life, too: My dad and my two best friends, Howie and Devon. I’ll never be the same, that’s for sure. People say, “You have to grow up some time.” That’s true, as far as it goes. But I think it was pretty harsh to learn what you need to know about being an adult in a few months of one disaster after the next.

If I could have chosen how to have my head sliced into slivers, my psyche stirred into a mash, and my heart splintered into fragments, maybe a year per event would have been reasonable. First big disaster: age 16—fallibility of the parental units. Second big disaster: age 17—care-giver tragedy. Third big disaster: age 18—loved and lost. Fourth big disaster: age 19—best friends . . . how should I put this . . . best friends spin off . . .? Give me four years to do all that and I’d be twenty years old and ready to hit the adult world, tough and calculated.

I’ve got five minutes to hit the road, tough and traffic-savvy. Grab my sign. I actually like my steel-toed shoes. It’s plain satisfying to lace them up all the way. Dad’s never owned a pair in his life. And I like my hard hat. I plan to wear a red bandana hanging down from it that I keep wet against dust and insects. Maybe a beard would help. Wonder if I’d have enough growth to look good. I shave all the time, but still, I’m not really sure what to count on.

If dad comes driving up in the traffic—not that he has much business driving up Mudd Mountain—would he recognize me as his working-class son? I’m the same height as my dad, I have the same cheekbones as his (but my mom’s eyes), same dark curly hair as him, same shirt size, same . . . well . . . for all that, I don’t think like him, and he’ll have to get used to it.

To be honest, it still surprises me I don’t. I never planned on disagreeing with him on so much. I always figured he was dead-on when it came to people, moral obligations, right/wrong, seeing things through, getting to the bottom of an issue—all that kind of thing. He was my North Star, my beacon light in the murky world of middle school. Not that I’m saying he’s any kind of a fallen angel, it’s just that you can get to the same right places from different directions. And I’ve got a different direction to take.

Jean, it has been a pleasure. Comments anyone? They are always appreciated.

David