Q&A with Tamara Linse
How do you pronounce your name?
tuh-MARE-uh LIN-zee. Don’t worry—hardly anyone gets it right the first time.
What does the name of your blog, “writer, cogitator, recovering ranch girl,” mean?
The real reason I tagged myself “writer, cogitator, recovering ranch girl” was that I needed a tagline for my blog, something that helped me to stand out. “Writer” was obvious. I love old-timey words, and I had been finishing up a historical novel at the time, and so “cogitator” popped into my mind. I have friends who are “recovering alcoholics” (and “recovering Catholics”) and I thought that that fit me well—the idea that my childhood was something I needed to recover from. As Maile Meloy wrote in her story “Ranch Girl,” you can’t have much worse luck than being born a girl on a ranch.
Why is it bad luck to be born a girl on a ranch?
Western culture is a very male culture. A lot of women I know, myself included, saw that phenomenon growing up and the only way they could see to have self-worth is to be a man, hence the title of my collection How to Be a Man. A lot of women in the West wear men’s clothing and drink beer and hunt and watch football and generally be as masculine as they can be. They shun everything feminine, and they have no women friends—heaven forbid. They think of themselves as this third thing, this third gender. Not a woman definitely, and they can’t be men, so they think of themselves as genderless almost. It’s very destructive to the psyche.
Who did you read as a child?
I loved all things British—Pooh and The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden. I also loved Joan Aiken and Frank L. Baum. I was glad to go from grade school to middle school because I’d exhausted the library. In middle school, I discovered the Newberry Award books. Later, I read a lot of westerns and loved them, particularly Louis L’Amour. He doesn’t stand the test of time well, though. I went through a scifi/specfic phase as a teenager and still have a fondness for it. I haven’t read much romance or mystery, and I’m not quite sure why. Literary fiction is and always has been my greatest love.
Who are your favorite writers?
My favorite writers. Well, it often feels like the writer of the last book I read because I fall in love almost every time. I fall in love with minds. But I’ll take a run at it.
My all-time favorites are Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf.
For novels, Douglas Adams, Julian Barnes, Michael Cunningham, E. L. Doctorow, William Faulkner, Charles Frasier, James Galvin, Kent Haruf, John Irving, Stephen King, Barbara Kingsolver, Cormac McCarthy, Ann Patchett, Jodi Picoult, Terry Pratchett, Anne Rice, J. K. Rowling, Anita Shreve, and Alexander McCall Smith.
For short stories, Sherman Alexie, T. C. Boyle, Raymond Carver, Charles D’Ambrosio, Anthony Doerr, Aryn Kyle, Dennis Lehane, Maile Meloy, Alice Munro, Antonia Nelson, Tim O’Brien, Benjamin Percy, Donald Ray Pollock, Annie Proulx, Karen Russell, Jim Shepard, and Tobias Wolff.
For nonfiction, Steve Almond, Judy Blunt, Augusten Burroughs, John D’Agata, James Herriot, and Mary Roach.
There are lots of writers that I really want to like and I have their books but I haven’t gotten around to reading them.
See what I mean? And this isn’t all of them by a long stretch.
What’s the earliest memory you have of writing a story? When did you first call yourself a writer?
I’ve always written. The first story I wrote a beginning, middle, and end to was called “The Silver Locket” and was the story of a girl who goes back in time to become her own great grandmother. It was inspired by a friend named Cami who was into a British YA mystery writer named Joan Aiken. Together we read everything of hers. Cami wrote a story that ended with a head rolling in a gutter. Prior to that, I had read all the time, but I hadn’t realized that a person could actually BE a writer. When I actually called myself a writer is a different story. I think I was 30. I wrote all of my life, but no one I knew was a writer, and I thought of writers as someone who published a novel, and so when I began to imagine I might just be published is when I tentatively played around with the idea of calling myself one.
Why do you write?
That’s a complicated question. Because it’s my passion. Because as a child I felt I had no voice. Because I love to read, and writing is like reading only better. Because I have to to stay sane—just ask my husband. Because I’m fascinated by people, and writing and reading is the closest you can get to another person’s consciousness. But a deeper reason is that writing is all about desire. All people everywhere live in a constant state of desire. It is truly a human condition. Whether it’s something as small as a snack or something materialistic or something as large as a mate for life, people want. People need. One reason that we are such good consumers and why advertising works so well is because we by our very nature have this endless hole within us that needs to be filled. Every religion is built on this. So, this is my deeper answer to why I write: Because I’m human. Because I desire. It’s a way to take the world into myself and to make it part of me. It’s a way to place myself into the world. It’s a way to connect with the world and with other people and to imagine for one small moment that we are not alone and that we have the capacity to be full and content and meaningful.
Where do you get your ideas?
That’s the wrong question. It should be: How do you recognize an idea when you see one? Ideas are all around you. Everything and anything can spark a story. Say, someone told you to write about walls. Thomas King, who’s Native American, was given 24 hours’ notice to write about walls, and he came up with a humdinger. (Sorry—I don’t remember the name of it!) It’s about a man wanting his walls painted white but the history of walls bleeds through, and then finally, when he has them torn out and new walls put in, the stark white walls makes him look brown. Virginia Woolf wrote a story about a blob on her bedroom wall, which turns out to be a snail or a slug, I think, but it’s a great story. I’m sure there are more stories about walls. It’s about what you put into the idea, what lights you up and interests you, and it can be as specific as something that happened to you as a child or as general as wanting to write about the color green. I also find that when my head is in my writing—in other words, I’m not blocked and avoiding—ideas come so fast and thick I can’t keep up. Everything sparks an idea for a story. Then it’s a problem of way too many ideas and feeling guilty about lost opportunity.
What is your writing process? What is your least favorite part? Your most favorite part?
I avoid. I feel awful. I inevitably read things and feel inspired, but still I avoid. Then I make myself sit at the computer and start. It’s hard, really really hard. But then something magical happens. The real world goes away and the world I’m creating becomes more real than the real world. It’s like the real world is in black and white, and the world I’m creating is in technicolor. Sure, sometimes it still comes slowly and painfully, but sometimes it comes like lightning from my brain. And then I’m in love. When I finish a story, revised and all, I’m in love with it. I can’t see its flaws. I want to take it to dinner and then make out with it in the back seat. Then, like all affairs, after a while I start to see the story’s strengths and weaknesses. Then I either revise some more or I write a new story or both. My least favorite part is the avoiding stage, and my most favorite part is when the writing is going well and the world I’m writing is more real than the real world.
Deep Down Things doesn’t easily fit into a category. Why is that?
I think it has to do with my interests as a reader and a writer. I don’t read much genre, and I haven’t written it. There’s nothing wrong with genre ~ it’s just a different animal. Genre seeks to affirm preconceived notions. It takes a received form and plays with it, but the arc must remain essentially the same. There’s value and entertainment in that. However, what I love to read and write is the complicated messy parts of life, the genre of literary. I want my fiction to challenge and expand what I know, and I want to challenge my readers to do a little more of the work. Above all else, I want fiction that tries to express the subtleties and nuances of lived experience, yet be in some way satisfying. So that’s why Deep Down Things doesn’t fit into a category.
Why four points of view?
Because I’m a masochist? Seriously, the book was initially conceived as having a structure similar to the movie Love Actually. I was exploring the question: how can you have a bunch of different story lines going yet make them come together as a unified whole? I initially conceived more story lines than just the four ~ for example, there was going to be a high school student who tried to seduce Tibs. The thing about point of view, though, is that whenever you give someone the narrative spotlight, they have to have an arc. It has to be their story and they have to change, or refuse to change, in their own arc. And therefore if you have four stories you have four arcs, and then it all has to hold together into an arc of its own. Another initial model for Deep Down Things is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. That novel is not only my favorite Faulkner but one of my all-time favorite books. Kent Haruf’s Plainsong was a model late in the process, but I actually didn’t read the book till after I had written the first draft of Deep Down Things.
Maggie and Jes’s medical journey is harrowing. Does this reflect something in your life?
Their story reflects many things in my life. First and most directly, when I was a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm, I worked with a wonderful woman who had two boys. She is my same age and is one of those ideal mothers. If I were able to choose my mother, she’d be at the top of the list. But then she had her third child and he had severe spina bifida, just like Jes. He died when he was 6 years old, and he would have been 18 this year. I hope this book in some small way honors what they went through. There are a few other things that contribute to the story. My husband and I lost five babies to miscarriage, the first at six months. In past times, we would have been childless, but with the miracle of modern science we were able to have our twin boy and girl. They are our genetic material carried by a saint of a woman who acted as our gestational carrier. She is amazing and I would trust her almost more than I trust myself. A third thing that contributes is that our son was born with a severe cleft lip and palate. He’s perfectly fine, but he’s had to have a number of surgeries throughout his life. I am so thankful to all the medical professionals who have made so many things possible.
Deep Down Things is a tragedy. Why don’t you write happy endings?
My mom asks me that all the time, as do a couple of my sisters. I fear I was born with a broken funny bone. I find things funny, but they’re usually English geek kinds-of-things—Monty Python, Terry Pratchett. The things that most people find funny, I usually find incredibly sad or incredibly angry. One of the reasons why, I think, is because the basis of a lot of humor is stereotyping, reducing someone to one dimension, and my goal in writing is to find the complexity of life, to express lived reality. That’s why I’m drawn to the genre of literary. (Not at all to insinuate that the other genres are anything less!) I don’t think of my endings as dark—what I often try for is closure without resolution, which is the way life is. There’s always a tension when I write between the messiness and meaninglessness of life and the creation of a satisfying piece of art.
Deep Down Things is self-published. Why did you choose that route?
I have to admit that I crave the legitimization that comes from traditional publishing, and that’s why I resisted self-publishing for so long. It took me 11 years and almost 200 queries to get an agent. (Read more about my journey to get an agent here.) I’ve written and rewritten two novels that have gone out to publishers ~ one of which is Deep Down Things. Though I’ve gotten some very nice notes from editors, neither was picked up. Some might call me a slow study ~ I call myself pig-headed, and that’s a good thing. I don’t know if you’ve been reading much about this, but the squeeze that is being put on traditional publishing by disintermediation has brought about the rise of a new type of author: the hybrid author. (The great Chuck Wendig has been talking a lot about this.) There’s no longer just two tracks ~ traditional publishing and self-publishing. The tracks are becoming melded and diversified, and much more of the power is back in the hands of the author. Also much more of the responsibility for getting a book out and connecting with readers. That’s where the hybrid author comes in. She or he is someone who, with the help of her agent, chooses the best route for the work at hand and then has to make it so. This is wonderful and terrifying ~ for everyone involved. Also, traditional publishers now consider the success of a self-published title in their decision to take book on. In other words, they will take on a book that’s doing well under self-publishing (and I suspect that this will become the norm, rather than the exception). I’m also made for it. It’s like all my various backgrounds come together in this one endeavor. Of course the writing part ~ I’ve been writing and improving my craft my whole life. But then also editing ~ I’ve been an editor in all different capacities. I’ve also been an artist and taken art classes for years, not to mention jobs as a document designer. I took classes in electrical engineering and computers for a number of years, and all that experience goes into making a website and working with digital publishing. And I’m in marketing and have done freelance marketing for years, which prepares me to be a promo-sapiens. And I love social media and tend to be a bit of an early adopter. Not to mention I’m a bit obsessive.
CJ discovers new facets of her sexuality in Deep Down Things. Are you gay?
No, I’m not lesbian. I am a happily married heterosexual. However, like so many things, sexuality rests on a spectrum. People’s real sexuality, not simply what they profess to be. On the spectrum of homosexual to heterosexual, I’d say I’m not out on the end. I’m attracted to minds, and that’s why I fall in love with books and authors, no matter who they are. Haven’t you had that experience? The one where you read a book and you become obsessed with the author and read everything you can about them and fantasize about running into them somewhere and you make this deep connection and are friends for life? Very stalkerish? I write gay characters for the same reason that I write characters of all different stripes. I’m trying to figure out and portray the human condition, and sexuality is all wrapped up in gender, which is something I’m very interested in too.
Are you Christian?
I am not. I would say I’m spiritual without a particular affiliation. My family didn’t go to church when I was growing up, though I visited with friends, and I’m deeply ambivalent about the institution. As a feminist and humanist, I strongly object to all the horrible things that have
been done in the name of religion, and since I was not raised immersed in its metaphors and traditions I find them hollow and constructed. However, I whole-heartedly believe in the function that religion plays in our society: community, the ten commandments, do unto others, be a good person. You do not have to be part of an organized institution, however, to be a good person and know right from wrong and try your best to make the world a better place. All that said, the stories of the bible are timeless and have had an immense impact on our culture, and I often have an underlying story or metaphor that I’m riffing on when I write something. Having that structure to reference prompts my creativity. And so the story of Jes is the story of Jesus in a ways large and small. Can you spot them?
The characters in Deep Down Things are all white. Do you see that as a problem?
Yes, I do. I thought a lot about this. Because three of my point of view characters are siblings, they needed to be of the same race, which of course would be my race. I thought about making either Jackdaw or Bo African American or Hispanic, but I couldn’t make Jackdaw because he was the bad guy. How could I make my bad a guy a different race than I? Unless I was specifically exploring the racial aspect of it, that seemed lazy and unethical and so many things. A veritable mine field. I seriously considered making Bo part African American, but then she seemed to play into the stereotype of the good-but-sharp-tongued black person who’s motherly and a nurse. Also, what would be the ramifications of having my lesbian character be black? That’s exoticizing the other. Maybe it was a lack of courage on my part, but with so many things going on already, I didn’t want to throw that into the mix. In general, just know that I think a lot about this, and I’m always trying to have a more diverse cast of characters.
What are you reading?
Boy, you ask difficult questions. The thing is, I could honestly say that I’m reading hundreds of books at one time. That’s because I tend to “taste” books before I read them from beginning to end. I’ll buy a new book and then read it for a half hour or hour before bed. Then I’ll put the book aside and not pick it up again for years. Lately, I’ve been reading the books of my fellow Wyoming writers who are also great friends. Nina McConigley is out with a fabulous book of short stories called Cowboys and East Indians. Pembroke Sinclair is out with a YA horror novel called The Appeal of Evil. Mary Beth Baptiste is out with a great memoir about coming West called Altitude Adjustment. You should check them out.
Do you have an MFA?
No—my master’s is in literary studies and my thesis was on 1852–54 pioneer diaries. I’ve taken a lot of workshops, however, in the classroom and online and at writers conferences. I highly recommend them. Be it an MFA or a local writers group, any time you can get others to look at your work and give you solid feedback is helpful. Solid feedback does not mean only “oh, you are so wonderful”—but you do need some of this for your ego or you won’t have the strength to go on. Neither does it mean brutal comments like “This isn’t working” with no further explanation or direction. It means detailed criticism of one reader’s reaction to what’s
working and what’s not working—the more detailed and specific and articulate, the better. Still more important, volunteer to read your writer friends’ work. You’ll learn more from commenting on theirs than you will reading comments on your own. I am thinking about getting a low residency MFA, however, as I’m always trying to improve my writing.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Read a lot. Write a lot. Write in the style of what you like to read. The best writing often comes from what obsesses you and makes you uncomfortable. Be brave. Persevere. Make a lot of writer friends.
What’s next for you?
Oh, so many things! First, I imagine there’ll be a lot of procrastination and a few times in the depths of despair, but then there’ll be those moments of glory when the writing is flowing and characters are running across the page. That’s not what you meant? Seriously, thank you for asking. I’ll be coming out with a historical novel in January 2015, the first book in a trilogy tentatively called the Round Earth Series. Set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas City, Earth’s Imagined Corners is about Sara, whose father tries to force her to marry his younger partner. Instead, she elopes to Kansas City with a kind man who she just met named James. Little does she know, he has a troubled past. Finally, I’m also working on a young adult series called the Wyoming Chronicles, which are re-imaginings of classics set in contemporary Wyoming. The first, called Pride, is Austen’s Pride and Prejudice set in present-day Jackson Hole.