Because I no longer write blurbs, but still very much want to help other authors, I've launched a blog series called Better Than Blurbs. The authors and I have in-depth discussions about their books, which I hope will help readers identify whether they'd enjoy reading them. This is the fourth post of the series. The author is Katy Pye, and the book is Elizabeth’s Landing.
Me: Katy, please tell us, in your own words, as much as you care to about Elizabeth’s Landing.
Katy: Short answer:
“A classic girl-meets-turtle story, well told.” Christie Olsen Day, Gallery Bookshop
Long, “beware of asking the artist for meaning” answer:
I started Elizabeth’s Landing knowing zilch about writing a novel. I’m prone to map and think things out, but everything I read warned against setting up themes to define characters or tell the story. Just write. I did. And didn’t need to look back until you asked the question. It turned into a voyage of rediscovery.
Bits from Gary Snyder’s essays in The Practice of the Wild kept popping up as I rooted around for a way to talk here about “meaning” instead of plot. His insights inspired my early thinking, but thankfully disappeared during the long writing process. Re-reading the collection last week I found that rather than having forgotten, I had internalized these Snyder touchstones.
- nature (the wild “in us” and “out there” are not truly separate)
- home and family (the “hearth” we leave in order to learn, returning to sing as “elders”)
- community (the local, but also larger “cosmic family”)
- grace (living and acting out of our true place in the whole)
These frames both hold and expand the story. They drive the action, deepen the stakes, and cement character roles and reactions. Elizabeth instinctively gets it. She’s grown up in nature around Picketts Pond, been warmed by family and community fires. The move to Texas blows this world apart, forcing her to travel uncharted lands. Once loose, her need to restore but also widen her definition of place ignites every impulse. She has no choice but to challenge the story bullies—Grandpa, Pete, Larry Wilkes—and draw from strong allies—Grandma, Maria, Tom, even Becca. But this is no hero conquering evil scenario. Elizabeth engenders the widest opportunity for redemption—the antidote to loss.
All the main characters, including the environment, have been undone by design, circumstance, or accident. Through Snyder’s prism, the story asks what happens when we lose or abandon our individual and collective center? Do we reach out to connect or lash out to divide? Do we run, or stay put to battle things through? Some characters, like Grandma climb back from despair, others, like Elizabeth’s father and Grandpa deny and struggle to stay afloat, a few, like Larry Wilkes, drown. Elizabeth sings at the campfire, beckoning us home.
“Nature is not a place to visit, it is home…” -Gary Snyder, “The Etiquette of Freedom”
Me: Still glad I asked. I was surprised when I began reading the materials surrounding the book, for example the info on your Amazon author page. It never occurred to me that you researched for the book. I assumed you had a background in marine life, shrimping, the Gulf. (That’s a compliment.) If it’s not from your own experience, what made you choose these elements?
Katy: Thanks. The core story elements pull from my experience, especially the activism parts. But I figured a novel around gravel mining (see next question) lacked an audience, and pairing kids with animals is a natural portal to exploring environmental and social issues. Sea turtles are such engaging, iconic creatures and, like their ocean habitats, face life-threatening challenges. As an information junkie, research ranks second only to my chocolate addiction.
Me: I know you have a strong environmental background, but will you tell my readers a little bit about it?
Katy: Summers in the redwoods were an antidote to anxieties I felt as a kid. My relationship with nature was strictly personal and a refuge until my early 30s.
In the 1980s, that view shifted. A friend convinced me to join the fight to stop gravel mining on a neighborhood stream. Water levels in a critical aquifer were dropping. Stream bank erosion was peeling off expensive farmland. Suddenly, my “nature” wasn’t out there, taking care of itself; it was under attack in my backyard. Deeply entrenched factions killed productive discussion.
Our group hired a geographer, a respected mining consultant from the University of Ontario to discuss options, mainly to prove us right. Instead, he blew apart the narrow frameworks dominating all sides in the debate. He agreed, get mining out of the creek, but added, mining won’t stop. The off-channel floodplain held most of the remaining premium-quality gravel in northern California. Society runs on—demands—resources, he said, but consumers and the mining companies should pay the true price. Including all environmental and social costs. Instead of the two cents a ton county fee, a dollar would be more equitable. Mining companies should resurface roads damaged by their trucks, plus and devise reclamation plans that restored, even added value to the land and for wildlife.
Ten years of draining, yet inspiring work on the mining issue set my environmental passion. The geographer’s big-picture concepts “re-channeled” my future. I wanted to learn how to help people talk about environmental issues, to better articulate the problems and solutions. My next chapter included returning to U.C. Davis and graduating at 42 with a major in natural resources and communication.
Hired by the Yolo County Resource Conservation District, I completed my move from combatant to facilitator. For decades agricultural practices on individual farms and ranches degraded soil and water supplies throughout our model watershed. Our innovative grant proposals funded integrated fixes on demonstration farms and ranches. Farmers built sediment ponds, returning soil to the land instead of sending it downstream. Native plant hedgerows and grassed irrigation canals and roadsides gave new homes to wildlife and beneficial insects. They also reduced or eliminated erosion and pesticide use. In the hills, ranchers planted native grasses with many times the soil-holding capacity of annual weed species. Herd management systems controlled gully erosion. We won awards and the practices were copied within the state and beyond.
My environmental background began in meeting an emotional need, then moved to feeling powerless against the odds. The more involved I became, the bigger the issues and stakes, but the more I grew. I learned to be a team player. And when I had to tackle the narrative structure and the issues in Elizabeth’s Landing, I was ready.
Me: Your book touched on two issues close to my heart. One is the environment, and the way all of life is interconnected. And the foolishness of thinking we can do damage to the earth—drive a species to extinction, for example—and it won’t come back to bite us. The other is the way the political process works. And in my experience it’s definitely true at the local as well as national level. Money interests are served, the environment is sacrificed, individual constituents are kept in the dark as much as possible. It’s nice to see a fictional triumph, but in real life, do you think there’s a way out of this bind? Are you optimistic?
Katy: Ah, finally the novelist controls the world.
Sadly, your experience is widespread. Big money has nullified political judgment, gutting financial and environmental laws and crippling enforcement agencies. We know the nature of that beast, the real rub is (back to the gravel mining issue) we’re part of it. My life expectations of what I “deserve” stress the big E environment. They either contribute to the conflicts, ensure the status quo, or make things worse. Corporate and political greed and short-sightedness are rampant, but I think we hold many more cards to the future than we realize. It’s a complex responsibility, but we’re here to help each other. Business can’t stay in business without customers and I’m trying, in my own ways, to act on that power. I’m also starting to shift a key aspect of how I think about and interpret the “bad news.”
The media lavishes attention on the bad actors. That’s good because we need and should demand to know. Bad news without balance ramps up despair. Yet every day untold numbers of quiet, dedicated people worldwide walk the line, do the science, share tasks, spread the word, stand up for animals, plants, air and water, and support others in astounding ways. Some receive death threats, some are shouted down or ignored, others are hauled off to jail for peaceful protests. Their stories and example are powerful. The kids heroically working to bring about change completely blow me away. When I get down-spirited over what’s happening, I re-read their stories or write them into my blog (or into a novel). If we greatly intensify our focus on what’s working as we move forward, I believe the ranks for change will swell. Previously uninvolved, even uninformed people, will feel empowered to act.
Scientific evidence commanding change is expanding. The public is waking up, thanks to publicity on issues like climate change, Fukushima, ocean health, the BP (et al) catastrophe, plastic pollution, and now fracking disasters. Education is critical and the Internet is a powerful tool for mobilizing and unifying constituents. We’re not close to a package of solutions, but despite, perhaps because of industry and political blow-back, our collective voice is amplifying. Will our overloaded ship turn around in time? No one knows. The life we’ve known is changing. It’s in our nature to survive and more and more oars are hitting the water.
Me: I liked the fact that there was a lot more going on than just the turtles. Family backstory, a new friend with a disability, tough characters like the grandfather who became many-faceted as the tale went on. So, this was your first novel. How did you pull this off? Did you have intricate outlines? Keep your research in special ways? Or did you find you were able to do all of the layers of the story “by feel”? Or is this the first novel you’ve published, but you’ve written many?
Katy: This is my first work of fiction over fifteen pages. I wrote “by feel” until I hit the oatmeal of the middle chapters. An early critic kept saying, “where’s the conflict, where’s the tension?” Drove me nuts! I had to get off my ego and figure it out. Robert McKee’s book, Story, was an invaluable resource for that. Paraphrasing, “People say it all the time, ‘I like to write, love stories, vacation’s coming up, I think I’ll write a novel.’ No one would ever say, “I love music, I think I’ll write a symphony.” Oh, silly me. The writing shifted to studying how to write a novel, what makes good story-telling. That included reading lots of kids novels, mapping storylines, figuring out what I liked and didn’t in others’ books, and why. Re-write, rinse and repeat.
I worked in critique groups (invaluable) and yes, I used complicated charts. Everything was at the mercy of the sea turtles’ hatching schedule—all logged on a calendar and chapter action outline. A sea turtle vet helped verify wounds, illnesses, and procedures. I was fortunate to have technical support and a few story ideas from several of the world’s top turtle conservationists. A renowned Texas shrimper-turned-environmental and social activist corrected my fishing techniques. My second draft was almost finished when the oil spill hit in April 2010. It had to go in the story. I went to Texas that summer to ground truth parts of the story and see the first Kemp’s ridley hatchling release from Padre Island National Seashore, the most important nesting beach for the species in the U.S. It was bitter-sweet.
I had wonderful teacher/editors along the way, all gifted writers who helped me push the story wider and deeper. “By feel” came back after I’d created the world, asked “what if,” and listened to “it gets worse,” over and over. I knew enough about my characters to finally leave them alone and hear their voices over mine. They polished it up.
Me: When you decided to tell this story, what made you choose a young adult protagonist/audience?
Katy: Kids, especially around Elizabeth’s age, are stretching out, looking for measures of who they are and want to be. It’s a challenging ride, the road between innocence and adulthood. Thirteen to sixteen remain my most difficult years.
The world is a much more complex and conflicted place than when I was a teen.
From the genres and stories young adults gravitate to, it seems many are at war with their futures. Perhaps we all are. I wanted a story that says it’s okay to reach out (what I couldn’t imagine at fourteen). Maybe some of the struggle will ease, and maybe not just for you. What you do follows you. Bit-by-bit you’ll find your way. Turns out, adults are connecting with the story, too.
Me: Since this is a debut, please tell us what you have planned for the future.
Katy: I have story ideas mulling about, but no concrete plans. As an indie author and publisher, I’m trying to get a grip on how to sail Elizabeth’s story out as far as possible. The most fun, and an invigorating break from writing, is connecting with readers and booksellers, getting feedback, support, and hearing others’ stories. A double chocolate hit.
Me: Please ask your own question, and answer it.
Katy: Have you said enough?
More than. Maybe needed more jokes.
Okay, no wait, a plea: For holidays, anniversaries, or anytime consider “adopting” a sea-turtle through one of the world’s fabulous turtle rescue and conservation organizations. Give, if you can, to your favorite wildlife fund or to groups supporting education and activism toward a healthier world.
And don’t celebrate with balloons or sky lanterns. Visit Balloonsblow.org to find out why. Main character, us. Story problem: environmental trash, dead animals, and a rare and disappearing noble gas.
A portion of Elizabeth’s Landing’s book sale profits supports sea turtle conservation.
Thank you, Catherine.
Me: Thank you. I want to mention to my readers that the paperback is 40% off at CreateSpace until December 15th. Use code: B9GBX97Y at checkout. E-books are also discounted at Kindle, Kobo, and Nook. That should make it extra tempting for you to give this one a try. And don't forget the turtles benefit from each sale.
Hope you'll give this one a try.