Welcome to the Author of the Week Page, where I set up a project to support Indie Authors by interviewing them and helping get their name and books out there! This weeks Author of the Week is Caroline Ailanthus.
Hello Caroline! Let's start with what books you have released.
Can you tell me more about your published works?
To Give a Rose explores connections between a community of proto-human, apelike hominids (3.5 million years ago!) and a modern-day human artist who seeks inspiration from their bones. Ecological Memory is the story of a young woman who can’t remember her past, and her teacher, who sometimes wishes he could forget his. Set twenty years after the end of civilization (and the beginning of another one), it explores what happens after you lose everything.
The Climate in Emergency is a weekly blog exploring the crisis of climate change through science, politics, personal experience, and occasionally creative writing. It is politically neutral on all other topics. The School With No Name is a first-draft serialized novel about a non-denominational pagan seminary and the people who live and work there. It explores the intersection between science and magic, a spirituality grounded in the living Earth, and the proposition that it really is possible to create a community based in human decency. Someday, the piece will be re-worked into a series of traditional novels. Right now it is a blog. I’m also a free-lance writer, so my work pops up here and there in all sorts of odd places. Sometimes I get a byline, sometimes I don’t. Keep an eye out; you might spot me.
So let's learn a little about you!
I live in Maryland with my husband and assorted cats and dogs. I have various other family, too—they’re awesome, but I protect their privacy by not gushing about their awesomeness too much in public. I don’t really think of anything I do as a hobby. I just do stuff. Sometimes I get paid, other times not. Besides writing, I enjoy cooking, hiking, paddling, botanical drawing, and daydreaming. Do those count?
Yup, those count, what got you into writing?
I’ve always liked making up stories and I’ve always liked explaining things. I’ve also always loved learning about and talking about language. Pretty early I figured out that the way to make those activities socially acceptable after I grew up would be to become a writer.
So tell me, what’s the main thing you love and hate about writing?
The main thing I love about writing is writing….I’m not sure how to subdivide it. Two things that I love that aren’t writing but are closely related to it are:
I love having a legitimate excuse to talk to public figures. I’ve sent research questions to the Jane Goodall Institute (I did not talk to Dr. Goodall, but did talk to one of her colleagues) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, asked for copyright permission from Gary Snyder (he asked for a copy of the book! Woohoo!), and I’m in the process of setting up an interview with Dan Satterfield (he’s our weather-man, and an interesting blogger). “Hi, I’m a writer, and I’m working on….” opens some wonderful doors!
I also love having a reason to learn things. I’m not just a novelist and a blogger, I’m also a free-lancer, and my clients often have me writing about things well outside of my typical wheelhouse, things I normally wouldn’t learn about, but that end up being interesting. I’ve gotten to read up on brake pads, bicycle seats, various towns along the Nanticoke river, the birds of Madagascar, edible mushroom cultivation, the legal status of medical cannabis, and on and on. It’s great!
As to hatred, I don’t hate anything about writing. I get frustrated at times, but I don’t hate anything.
Wow, Caroline someone who didn't say they hate editing, Caroline! Who is the worst villain you’ve ever written, and why?
I don’t write villains. My plots are usually driven by difficult circumstances, not by antagonists. Where conflict between characters occurs, it is usually difficult to determine which one is the “bad guy.” There are exceptions—the bandits who attack my protagonist in Memory have no apparent redeeming value, but they aren’t well-developed characters, either. They are not classic villains, only secondary characters who appear briefly in one scene. There are some violent bullies in Rose who are pretty awful, too, but they aren’t evil. Anyway, I developed those bullies almost twenty years ago, and they come closer to villainy than I’d be likely to write today.
The issue is that there are no villains in real life. There are people who do terrible things, but they justify themselves in their own minds, and often they do good things also. It can even be hard to judge whether an action is good or bad. It’s not that everybody is sympathetic, or possessed of redeeming qualities—they aren’t. It’s that villains, even sympathetic or partially redeemed villains, represent a moral over-simplification that I frankly find boring as a writer. And I worry that the concept of villainy may actually encourage moral sloppiness and complacency in the real world. How many people think of themselves as the protagonists of their own stories and therefore assume that since they clearly aren’t villains, their actions can’t be all that bad?
The most intentionally stark example of this principle I’ve written yet occurs in my first book, To Give a Rose. I won’t tell you the name of the character or the circumstances of the scene—I want it to be a shock to readers—but there is a scene in which one of the book’s several protagonists kills a child. He brains her against a tree. The act isn’t excused or rendered sympathetic, but it makes sense given his personality, a personality that is otherwise likeable and even admirable. Having no villains also means having no heroes.
What's next on your list to write/publish?
Well, there’s a blog post due out today….
In terms of large projects, Ecological Memory is the first of a series of interrelated novels. I’m more or less working on all of them simultaneously, but I hope to get the second of the series out in a year or two. It picks up fifteen years after the first one leaves off. The two protagonists from the first story are now in very different stages of their lives, and there is also a new, third protagonist, an attractive craftsman (he produces custom-made small boats) with a family secret even he doesn’t know about at first. But just like Memory, there will be lots of natural history, and a very detailed—and quite real—setting in New England.
They sound interesting, who is your favourite author, and why?
Lots of them! My most perennial favourite is the late Ursula K. LeGuin. Not only do I enjoy her books tremendously, but her skill is (was?) off the charts. Not that she never made a mistake in her craft (though even her mistakes are instructive), but she did so very many things so very well. I like to read and re-read her work to try to figure out how she did certain things, so maybe I can learn to do them, too.
Who encouraged you the most to write?
Oh, lots of people. It’s hard to narrow it down to a “most.” My parents are both writers (my Dad is a poet, essayist, and novelist, though he’s published relatively little of his work. My Mom is a mostly-retired technical writer) and excellent story-tellers besides, so it’s always been obvious to me that writing is something one can do. They are both consistently encouraging and helpful, each in their own way. Their literary friends were, and remain, supportive as well. But then there have been many important teachers along the way—most of whom were not “writing teachers” as such, and few were mentors in the classic sense, but important none-the-less.
A few stand out:
Ann Brown, who, when I was eight, assigned simple, formulaic poetry exercises to the class. When I responded by writing actual poems with only tangential connections to the assignments, she didn’t bat an eye. I was allowed, without question and without drama, to ignore the assignments and write whatever I liked because she recognized that I was good and thought it important that I write. Only in retrospect did I recognize how extraordinary, how rare, and how important that was.
Elizabeth Curtis, who, when I was eleven through thirteen, put a lot of time into not only marking up my writing but also explaining her corrections and questions to me, walking me through the kind of thought process that goes into editing and revision. Later, of course, I was able to internalize what she showed me and self-edit. I credit her with teaching me not only the basics of English composition and grammar, but also, and maybe more importantly, teaching me how to edit, how to revise, and how to work with an editor in a spirit of professionalism and collaboration.
Charles Curtin, my thesis advisor in grad school, who, when I submitted my thesis, told me “I have no doubt you can graduate with this thesis this autumn—or, you can take some extra time and become a better writer.” We took a whole year. To this day he remains surprised he had the impact he had, especially since that was academic science writing and I now mostly write novels, but it really was pivotal. He was not only very helpful, but very encouraging. There’s a point in an artist’s development where “you’re not good enough yet” is more encouraging than all the praise in the world—because it means someone you admire sees your potential and knows that your best is worth working for, that you can do something important.
Rowland Russel kept me afloat in grad school by consistently recognizing me as a creative writer and a colleague in writing even during the years I had no time or mental energy for anything other than science. He’s provided a lot of both moral and practical support over the years. Ironically, there aren’t words enough to explain his impact.
It's wonderful you remember those people who encouraged you, are you as avid a reader as a writer?
No, but almost. And there have been times in the past that I read more than I do now.
What’s your favourite genre?
I don’t have one.
I love having music on when I write, do you listen to music or have background noise?
I don’t listen when I write, but I often listen when I compose. That is, ideas come to me when I listen to music, and then I write those ideas down later. It’s not that I can’t stand background noise—I’m pretty good at tuning
stuff out, actually—it’s that background noise doesn’t help. When music helps, it’s foreground, and it helps a stage of the creative process that is separate from the typing part.
If you could interview any famous author who would it be and why?
Ha! Your wording implies that I can’t interview famous authors. Actually, authors are pretty easy to interview, I’ve found. See? You’re interviewing me right now! Though I do have some questions for LeGuin, and she’s dead….
Aside from LeGuin, there isn’t really anyone whom I want to interview at the moment and can’t. There are a few writers I’m friends with I’d like to talk more with….Tom Wessels is another favourite author of mine (check out his work, you will not regret it!), and I actually did first meet him by interviewing him, but we’ve since become friends. We normally go hiking together a few times every summer, but can’t this year because COVID-19 has scrapped my travel plans. Sigh. So as long as we’re using the power of daydream to get me face-time with an author I can’t otherwise talk to, I pick Tom.
What is a secret that none of your fans know!
I type with only three fingers of one hand. I don’t know why. I mean, I HAVE all ten fingers, and they all work, I just only use three of them to type (thumb, index, and pinkie on my right hand). I started writing that way as a teenager, and it’s just how I do things.
We all have our quirks! Tell me what your main character would say about you!
I have multiple main characters across multiple projects. They would say different things. My protagonists in Memory...taking me just as a person, not as their author (I don’t think either would be comfortable thinking of themselves as a character of mine)--Andy would recognize me as a kindred spirit, though as he seldom socializes outside of work we wouldn’t talk very often. Elzy would probably see me as pretty irrelevant. She can be quite Machiavellian, and since I would neither cause her a problem nor offer her anything she needs, she would mostly ignore me.
Finally, any words of advice?
The problem with answers is they don’t make sense without questions. Drop me a line and ask my advice on something specific and I might be able to provide something.
Thank you Caroline for taking the time to sit down and interview. To keep up to date with Caroline please find her at,
Author Website: newsfromcaroline.wordpress.com
Facebook: https:// www.facebook.com/carolineailanthus.16
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