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 eleventh post in the series. The author is E.J. Runyon, and the book is A House of Light and Stone.
Me: Eve, will you please tell my readers about the book in your own words?
Eve: Strangers. It’s about all the ways a world can be filled with strangers. How we can be strangers within even the closest family. Strangers to our immediate environment, like Duffy’s Mother is in the new neighborhood she’s moved everyone into. How old, good friends— like she and Mrs. Bettencourt, ‘Lise are, how they end up treating each other when they reconnect. How being a stranger even to your own self, as Duffy is, can affect whom and what you let yourself be. So, that’s the biggest thing it’s about.
On a literal level, it’s about a 10 year-old’s quest to try and be what she feels a ‘real girl’ should be. Duffy’s a kid from a world, back in 1966 & ‘67 East Los Angeles, where what she sees on TV is a world of white folks. And she’s, as she puts it, “just Duffy, with the brownest eyes and as jet-black hair as you could get.“ Even though all her four brothers and sisters are half white-half Mexican, she feels she’s different. So there again, we’ve got a stranger within her own tribe. A stranger, she feels, to her own people.
There’s the whole world of folks around Duffy who treat her like she’s family. And family members who she thinks have problems treating her that way. There’s the second thing this book’s probably about: disconnects that life can seem to be made up of. Mama and “Lise take forever getting on the same wavelength, no matter how attracted they are to each other. Duffy feels she’s always a step behind those who like her and want to help. Her actions turn from well-meaning to failure at nearly every turn, because she’s not had any way of seeing life done well.
Hopefully, by the end of the novel, we’ll see it’s about an inimitable quest for what self-knowledge can bring to one single soul. Duffy becomes a much stronger person. A butterfly out of a chrysalis, a wholly new girl. One she can be proud to be. Mama finds that being her true self is not the end of the world. And though some family members are lost to the city around them, some are gained, and a family’s balance is restored.
Me: Talk to us about the word “literary.” Because I feel this book is a great example of literary fiction, using the term in the most flattering possible way. But most people, at least in the publishing industry, don’t use it as a compliment. Literary fiction is a hard sell to publishers, and often another hard sell to readers. Any thoughts on where we slipped off track with this?
Eve: I think you and I spoke about this many years in the past. How I wanted my work to not be categorized. How I wanted it to stand as Literary, over genre. I haven’t changed. And I will argue, we don’t need to if our literary fiction works are, at the same time, accessible as genre work is to the reader. Sure there are themes here in Duffy’s story of Childhood - Growing up - Abusive relationships - Innocence - Love and friendship.
But I wrote this as a single little girl’s story, using my finest storytelling abilities I could bring to this. And perhaps those themes are only list-able, now in retrospection of what I’ve created. Not because I planned or built them in there. Perhaps my novel won’t be another hard sell to readers, because of that storytelling tact.
Me: You told me once, many years ago, of a time when your whole very large group of siblings was gathered together one morning and sent into foster care. If you don’t mind doing so, will you talk a little bit about that experience? Did it inform Duffy’s story in a significant way? If so, how?
Eve: Actually, even though I have my memories of that time. It involves others and their realities are their own. I hesitate to give too much weight to this book vis a vie my own background, as I didn’t write this as a roman a clef. There were times of great joy because I was with my brother and sisters, and some awfully hard times also when we’d get split up. I basically felt motherless in my early youth. Unlike Duffy who has a very present mother in this novel, I was 6 months old going into foster homes and nearly six coming out. We lived in more than one home.
Beyond that, I tried to write here a story about a girl who knew the type of life I did, but who was her own little soul. Not me. Like you mentioned once, to the question about ‘if your characters are based of folks in your life’, you said something like, you tried making them busy enough being themselves, that they didn’t need to be based on anyone you knew, yes? No matter who you may think you know I am, this is Duffy’s tale—not mine. [Me, note: I never doubted that. I know how it feels to give a character one tiny aspect of your history and still have her be 100% her own person.]
Me: Duffy worries at one point during the book (on her way to creative writing class) “What if they say I’m stupid? Or too Mexican? Or that this neighborhood isn’t the one I should’ve come to”? I’d be surprised if there wasn’t a trace autobiography there, simply because how could you grow up in this culture and not feel those pressures? Is it ever a temptation simply not to mention it—not to give people what might feel like ammo for them to use against you? And, if so, what are the associated burdens?
Eve: I like to think I write for three reasons. And those reasons have informed my whole body of work, fiction, poetry, short stories, or plays. I find myself speaking for those who’ve gone though the harsher things— so, through my attempted empathy on the page, others will know what’s happened in the quieter lives. Not my personal life, but any small life out there. Then, doing that, I also speak to a reader who really may have no idea that some lives roll the way they do, with so many valleys and peaks. I have to mention things aloud to them there on the page. And lastly, I write about folks who do their worst, SO that folks will see that yes, that type of behavior is out there; being done to us smaller souls. And they can't hide any longer. Folks are writing about their lives as well.
I’d definitely allow Duffy to voice all those truths she feels; facing them is how we are able to hold ourselves upright and walk right past those inner fears and outer abuses. And if anything, I wanted Duffy to be that deeper thinking little soul. Speaking her own truth to the powers she sees surrounding her.
Me: Duffy has a very positive influence in her life in Mr. St. John, the social worker. And this is somewhat unusual. The foster care and child welfare systems are full of good people, certainly, but also rife with abuse, and we tend to hear more about the abuse, both in real-life news stories and in fiction. What made you decide to show that system in a positive light?
Eve: That dynamic between those two just came to me. I didn’t write ‘A House of Light & Stone’ as a condemnation of a system. So there was no need to go the other way with their interactions. As you mentioned before our time here, you felt this novel was one that was ‘pure character-driven literary fiction, rather than having an obvious theme or issue to discus’. So we aren’t going to find sensationalism here.
I think it was less a decision to show that system in a positive light, and more of a light touch with what it was I did show about the man as a positive, hopeful guy faced with a very tough nut to crack in our little Duffy. And this is set in 1967 Los Angeles, there were more idealistic folks in the system at that time, I think.
Me: Authors tend to be people who love creative writing (well, duh) and books. But it’s fairly unusual for those loves to bleed over into their main characters. Will you talk a bit about why Duffy shares those passions with her author?
Eve: Okay, _smiles_ I’m going to give away a huge secret here. I came up with the last lines of the book first, where Duffy paraphrases the prayer. That was the first inkling this novel was built on. From that ending scene I built backwards. So seeing her say that, I then had to have scenes after scenes about why this little kid would have said that in the first place. It wasn’t planned, her wanting to be a writer; it grew from her uttering that phrase on my pages. I had to follow her path from there.
And then of course, there’s the adjusted adage I teach my coaching clients, it’s less a case of writing what you know, as it is using what you know in your writing. I knew I’d be a writer from a very small age. Before I could write in handwriting even. And that came through here, me using some sense memory of what I know.
Me: Will you tell my readers a little about the coaching and other services you offer to aspiring writers? There maybe be someone within the sound of our virtual voices who would be interested.
Eve: The next logical step to my 1-on-1 coaching that I’d been doing since 1997, was to expand into an online business. I quit my Software career, sold my house to go back to school, got a BA in Creative Writing, and did graduate work in Online Teaching and Learning. Then, my 2008 National Novel Writing Month effort ended up getting published as my writers guide, ‘Tell Me (How to Write) a Story’.
That came out last year from my UK Publisher, Inspired Quill. But between 2008 and 2013, in 2010, I built a writing website called ‘Bridge to Story’. That entailed creating 52 free lessons. I’m all about the service of midwifing creativity. I’m glad to give all that to folks without charge. One client revamped the whole site for mobile users, he liked what I did for him, coaching-wise, so much. So that social enterprise vibe is strong in my work.
With my 1-on-1 private clients, I spend 1.5 hour sessions with them on Skype, sharing their screen, working about the same stretch of time I run my Community Ed courses. They get my undivided attention and we work, literally, right on their own pages, as I coach them in stronger ways to do what they have in mind.
Folks give the most surprising feedback on my method. And several have their books out to agents and publishers; others have already published what we’ve worked on too. Some are getting some glowing reviews. One client calls me a Bodhisattva, and another was so happy with the level his work was brought to, he sent me a MacBook Pro as a thank you. I guess you could say, I enjoy my twin-calling as a coach and author, it’s going well. I’m on Facebook, and welcome anyone who wants to speak to any of my clients about what I do and how it’s done.
Me: Please write your own question, and answer it.
Eve: Do you feel this novel would make a good, ‘little film’ for some Indy filmmaker?
Do you remember the small film quite a while back called 'Echo Park'? With Tom Hulce? It came out in the late 80s I think. It was set in a L.A. neighborhood. And it told a sweet story about people’s lives. Like 'Laurel Canyon', or the one called 'Quinceañera', that’s another one. If I remember, that came out about a dozen years ago, that film, too, was also called 'Echo Park' in it’s L.A. release. (That’s weird! Hah.) Well, that was another one set in L.A. and telling a tale of real lives intersecting and making ripples.
No gratuitous shoot outs. Just the damage of living in our worlds. Especially in the Los Angles area. I think this book is in that vein. Close, small lives. But very watchable. I could see it being translated well, by some ardent new director. Someone who can see the potential of telling the quieter lives on film, so yes. If the fates allow. I could see that.