Between 2000 and 2004, I belonged to a writer's group, the Rogues, that had a dramatically positive influence on my writing. So it delights me to announce that this year, three of the writers from this group have books coming out. I am so proud of my fellow writers, knowing the work that has gone into their novels and the struggles everyone has faced to get their work published. Congratulations all!!
The first of these novels, Laura Bentley's The Silver Tattoo, has just been released. It's a literary thriller. Dark and brooding, its poetry forms vast, gorgeous and harrowing themes. It tells the story of Leah Howland, who is visiting Ireland to escape being caregiver to a comatose husband. She's been doing the martyred wife thing for too long, and she wants to start fresh. But the fog-bound, homey comforts of Dublin soon turn nasty when a stalker starts leaving his calling cards, and Leah finds she can't separate her own guilt and fears from the increasingly dangerous reality around her. With a magic realist edge, psychological suspense, and a true poet's eye for detail, this book delivers its frightening world in toto.
This is Laura's first novel. She is also a poet with an impressive list of accomplishments, including some serious recognition from Oprah, and a published book of poetry, Lake Effect. She's accomplished enough for Ray Bradbury to exclaim: "Laura Bentley, I dub thee poet supreme."
I think that poetry and thrillers are secretly kissing cousins, and this is deeply true about Laura's work. For this post, I asked her to answer some questions about the book, the writing, and what it was like making the leap from poetry to novels.
A poem or a story often begins with a particular image for me. In the case of The Silver Tattoo, I had taken a magical photo of a busker on Grafton Street in Dublin, Ireland, back in 2000, and it lingered in my mind, kept pulling me back to that enchantment. It eventually became the genesis for the opening chapter. The scene had some foreboding to it, so I started thinking in terms of a mystery or thriller and discovered what the “rules” were for those genres.
I always take many photos when I go to Ireland and keep detailed journals, so I was doing research without really realizing that one day I would create a novel. Another image that was powerful and breathtaking was The Cliffs of Moher. I was writer in residence for a month on the West Coast and stayed near The Cliffs, often walking there every day. The majestic cliffs, the surging ocean below, and the stunning beauty and intensity of this Eighth Wonder of the World got into my blood. So some key scenes from my novel take place at The Cliffs.
It’s back to the idea of image again, and I think a literary thriller suits me. It values character-driven stories and plot-driven ones---a literary page-turner. Since poetry is literary and I’m a poet by nature, this genre combines my love of vivid scenes and compelling plots. I want to enter the landscape of a book, mine or others, and feel like I’m there. I also like to include “short focused scenes” in my work to change the pace or slow down a scene into a tableau of image before moving back into the stream of action.
I’ve recently come to the realization that many of my favorite books are written by triple-threat authors. That is, they write poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Margaret Atwood, Truman Capote, Jill Bialosky, William Golding, Stephen Dobyns, and Sylvia Plath, among many others, are all remarkable triple threats. And, of course, Ray Bradbury was a quadruple threat: poetry, short stories, novels, plays, and more!
Do you approach your writing in the same way as your poetry? (i.e. Do you follow the same writing habits?) And what are those habits?
My poetry is often created from a journal entry where I have rapidly sketched a moment or a feeling. I can spend days, weeks, months, or years on one poem and the same holds true for fiction. My writing habits are different when I write fiction, though, because it becomes much more expansive.
How long did it take you to finish The Silver Tattoo?
I had a very rough draft after a year or so in 2003 or 2004, and then I was lucky to have some early interest from agents. I’d revised for one and then another. Each time the story got stronger, and I was hungry for feedback and acted on the insightful comments and critique. It was a long rugged journey of hope, despair, joy, and depression. I’d stay up late at night sometimes for weeks revising and polishing. Finally in 2008 I had two agents interested in representing my novel, and I decided to sign with Foundry Literary & Media. I revised once more for a little over a year before it went out on submission. My wonderful former agent Kendra Jenkins worked intensely with me and championed my novel.
Ray Bradbury, who has been such an amazing supporter and mentor?
My friendship with Ray began in 1993 when I sent him a heartfelt fan letter, and he wrote back. That began our long correspondence, sharing books we liked, poems, cartoons, good times and bad. The first time I sent him one of my poems, he wrote "Send it somewhere (The New Yorker? The American Scholar?) to be printed!" His enthusiasm was contagious. He used exclamation marks more than me, and I loved that about him. His letters were always signed with an exclamation mark: "Love! Ray," and I've kept all of our correspondence, emails, and Christmas poems that he wrote each year and shared with his friends.
He introduced me to Eureka Literary Magazine and its editor, Loren Logsdon, who published a number of my poems. And, to Redbud Magazine, which published my longest poem on record which is a wild tribute to Ray. It’s called “Rendezvous with Ray Bradbury.” I got the idea after reading Margaret Atwood’s great tribute poem to Raymond Chandler.
In 2003, we did a wondrous poetry reading in Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. He suggested that the four readers, including Ray and I, read their poetry Round Robin. Ray Bradbury’s support and encouragement affected every aspect of my life as a writer. He was a mentor. An inspiration. A life force. He made me feel that what I wrote was important. His zest for life was contagious, and he always let me know that he believed in me. I couldn’t have asked for more.