Julie Carpenter is the author of one of my favorite books of short stories, Things Get Weird in Whistlestop, as well as the creative force behind the Sacred Chickens website. You can find all kinds of strange and wonderful tidbits there. Julie is pictured here with Uncle Morty. She’s an excellent writer, a passionate gardener, and an all-around quality human being. My questions for Julie are in bold font below.
Let’s set the scene a little. Where is your favorite place to write? Next to Uncle Morty, perhaps?
On a typical day, I write from a desk in my office overlooking the back garden. I have several walls of bookcases – Morty has a chair next to fiction. Sometimes I read aloud to him and he helps by “editing” as he calls it, although I call it nitpicking. My cat, Crow, the one on the cover of Things Get Weird in Whistlestop, is typically either in my lap or on my shoulder. While this is the norm, and a lovely place to write, my absolute favorite place to write is outdoors.
I like to sit in the garden next to the hummingbird feeder with an iced tea on a warm afternoon. Is it partly to get away from Morty? Ok. Yes. But also, there’s something about the fertile atmosphere of the garden that lends itself to creativity, the quiet sense that life is growing around you, the wood bees nipping past your head while lazily getting it on, the butterflies lifting and landing from the flowers. The fact that every day there’s a new blossom, a new color, a new bug crawling up your arm. My garden is magic, and you can practically snatch ideas off the breeze. Sometime, I might invite you all!
I think your sense of humor is one of the defining traits of your writing; however, there is a more serious tone below the humor as well. Can you describe what you consider to be the major themes of your work?
I think one theme is that just because something seems ordinary or normal, you can’t assume that it’s righteous or just. St. Bartholomew’s church in Whistlestop is a good example. Of course, everyone assumes that the church is a safe and spiritual place, but what’s behind that door in the choir room? Why did it choose the church and not the basement of the Pop-a-Top Bar? Other than the fact that I’m not sure the Pop-a-Top has a basement. The fact that you’ve always done something a certain way doesn’t mean that it’s the right way. The fact that you’ve always trusted some person, or institution doesn’t mean that they are, in fact, trustworthy.
More than that, I think the book delves into what characters hide from themselves. I surprised myself as I wrote because I discovered that a lot of the creatures in the story, ones we might think of as having bad intentions, like the snake or the imps, turned out to be neutral. They simply provided a conduit for hidden sins to become apparent.
I think another theme is the idea that we’re not as rational as we pretend to be and that a mob mentality is always bubbling uncomfortably close to the surface. There are a lot of reasons we “believe” things and facts are pretty far down that list. Having said that, I think there aren’t too many complete villains in the collection. Most of the characters have reasons for what they do, just like the rest of us. Some of them get the chance to move forward, or learn what the universe is really like, or experience some sort of repentance. It was very interesting for me to see which characters developed insight into themselves and moved forward and which of them could not.
Also, there’s always the idea that you probably need a cat and if you do have one, you should listen to it.
Let’s talk about your book, Things Get Weird in Whistlestop. This is a series of short stories, but there’s also an arc across the entire work. Can you talk a little about how this book came together? Did you know how these stories would fit together before you began writing them? Which story did you write first? What was the inspiration for it?
The first story I wrote, which is not the first story in the book, is also probably one of the funniest – if you have a fairly dark sense of humor. A Cautionary Tale is the story of how an entire town becomes caught up in one man’s madness and the results thereof. After writing this story, I knew I wanted to continue exploring this strange small town. Like most of my stories, this one began with an image – an image of a man standing on a rock dressed in a home-made cape haranguing a crowd. I needed to know how he got there and what happened next.
As I started observing the stories in Whistlestop, I discovered the relationships between characters and generations. I followed characters around, and then followed their friends and relatives, and some of them had stories that I wanted to include in the book. As I wrote, I discovered some of the horrors that lay under the town at the same time as the characters. From my viewpoint, I could see perhaps a little more than most of the individual characters. I knew this town was deeply screwed up.
Ultimately, individual characters discover that something is wrong with Whistlestop and in the last few stories, they begin to share these discoveries with each other. My feeling is that the next book of Whistlestop stories will see at least a few characters coming together to deal with the evil that’s been unleashed on Knobb Mountain.
I’m sure my inspiration comes from my upbringing in a small southern town, the time I spent in church, and of course, my cats, particularly Crow, who may have fed me some of the stories through my subconscious.
The path to publication varies for each writer and is one of the most commonly discussed topics among literary circles, as it can be such a challenging experience. Can you describe this book’s path to publication for you? Do you have any advice for writers seeking publication for their work?
Because this was my first full-length book and it was a book of short stories, I had a difficult time finding an agent. However, a friend of mine who had read it recommended it to his small publisher. By the way, most independent publishers have submissions pages and guidelines. You don’t need a friend with a publishing company to submit! The publisher loved it and I decided to move ahead with a full-length novel I was working on and go indie on this book. I think that my advice around this choice is that you need to be realistic. I felt that as a first-time author with a book of quirky short stories, a small publisher was a better bet for me.
The other bit of advice I have is that writing is not just about what’s selling at national bookstores. I know a lot of writers go into writing with the idea that they want to pen something that will sell. They research carefully before they begin writing and write for the market. That simply isn’t the way I write. I suggest writing the story you want to write, that story that’s trying to worm its way out of your brain and into the daylight, then work hard to find a home for it.
Who are a couple of your favorite contemporary writers? What do you enjoy about them? (or, alternatively – What book (s) are you reading and enjoying right now?)
Right now, I’m reading David Wong’s This Book Is Full of Spiders, hard on the heels of John Dies at the End. These books are really weird, fast-paced and laugh-out-loud funny. I’m intrigued by the waterfall of information that has to be explained to the reader for the story to make sense, and yet somehow the action never really stops while the narrator explains it. I get the feeling these books were harder to write than they feel.
I’ve also been reading a lot of Jeffrey Ford. The last book of his I’ve read is a collection of short stories called Crackpot Palace. Ford has a deep-dark sense of humor and his stories are immensely fun and deceptively easy to read. I say deceptive because they go down fast, you can’t stop turning pages, but there’s a lot to digest once they start bouncing around your brain. I heard someone refer to him as an unsung genius, and I’ll buy that.
As always, there’s a thick gardening book stuffed with insights and photos on my nightstand. Right now, it’s Monty Don’s The Complete Gardener. I’m pretty sure that anyone who reads Things Get Weird in Whistlestop will not be surprised that I’m a bit of a garden freak and I’m always reading up on how to do things better and salivating over which plants to buy or start next.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a novel called, The Last Train out of Hell. It’s a love story set in Hell and I think it’s kind of fun. No seriously!
It’s about a woman named Liz who finds herself in Hell after being hit by a bus. She’s a little confused about why she was sent to Hell, but ends up falling for Brian, the manager of Hell. Unfortunately, just as she’s formed the greatest relationship of her life, she and Brian realize that Hell is crumbling due to Satan’s neglect. I’ll definitely keep you posted on my progress!
I also have a few short stories cooking, and I’m still writing stories about Whistlestop and Knobb Mountain.
Your site, Sacred Chickens, gives space for new writers to showcase their work, offers book and music reviews, as well as your own blog posts. Why did you choose to start up the site?
I initially started the site as a place for my own work, which consisted at the time of random thoughts and ramblings. (Uncle Morty is asking if anything has changed. Sigh.) At some point, I realized that I had some friends who were terrific writers as well and, since I like to read their work, I asked them to write for me. Sometimes one of our readers submits something and I find even more writers!
Besides that, I don’t just want to read the books that the publishing world chooses for me. Don’t get me wrong, I love some bestsellers, but I also like hearing from writers that might otherwise not be heard or who need a start. I have a feeling there are some great writers out there who never get read because they aren’t exactly like fill in the blank. I like connecting readers with new writers through the blog and I’m always willing to take recommendations for reviews. I publish reader reviews as well, so if there’s an indie book you think everyone should be reading, please let us know!
You also work full-time outside of the literary field. How do you balance your work, your website, and your own writing?
I balance my work, website, and writing like a novice juggler on a drunken binge, which is to say, ummm, not very well. I also have a garden, two cats, and chickens who need my attention every day. And family. So, my system is simple triage. I stamp out whichever fire is burning hottest at any given time, frequently going up in flames in the process.
I’m sort of kidding, but because so many things need my attention, and I constantly must choose between them, I have created Carpenter’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the top of my list is caring for any living creature, family members, chickens, cats – yes including Morty, who isn’t quite living, although you’d never know given how much he complains. Plants also get a top spot. Many a late spring evening will find me outside, covering old-fashioned hydrangeas against a frost, or pricking out and repotting seed sprouts.
Then the writing. Writing feels like me. When I’m not working on a story or a review or even just jotting down some odd rambling thought, I don’t feel like myself. It’s something I need to do. All the things that haunt me go down on the page where I can wrestle with them more productively, whether it’s novels, short stories, or odd ramblings for the blog.
Don’t tell my boss, but the least needy member of Carpenter’s Hierarchy of Needs is the day job. This doesn’t mean I don’t do the work, but since my job is flexible, I sometimes put off rote work to do at times that I don’t need full mental focus. So, I may work through some video processing at night or do research when I have insomnia.
The key difficulty for me is compartmentalizing. I need to leave the anxiety of work behind so I can let my mind wander down the pathways of weirdness for writing – a whole different kind of angst. One thing I’ve found helpful is to make a list at the end of my workday, write down issues (writing is my go-to for problem solving) and even anxious thoughts about what I need to do the next day. I find that physically writing out lists of work tasks helps me more than writing them down on the computer. Then I can close the notebook like I’m trapping an evil genie and have some control over when I let it back out by opening the cover. I know it’s strange, but it seems to work for me.
I wish I had more words of wisdom here, but I guess I’m just puttering along trying to keep things from getting broken at the best of times. If anyone wants to write a blog post on how to cope with life, the universe, everything, and writing, I’m here for it. Hit me up!
What is one piece of advice you would offer newer writers? Any recommendations for resources for writers to help find a community?
I think the first piece of advice is to write. Just write. Write what’s important to you. Write the way you write and not how someone else writes. Write some drivel. The mere mortals among us go through a lot of drivel before we find our voice or figure out exactly how a story needs to be told.
Allow yourself to see writing as important. That’s a very hard one, especially when you’re starting out. It is important. You need to do it! This is your therapy, even if you have a therapist. If you’re a writer, this is something that will bang around in your brain and screw with you until you sit down and do it! You’ll be anxious and fretful, stressed, and unhappy until you sit down and write. If you think of it that way, you’re really doing everyone else a favor by sitting down and writing. There’s your angle. You’re welcome!
Once you have written something, you need to find a group of readers/writers to help you polish it. I know a lot of writers who go through MFA programs and they find the structure and deadlines useful. I was a little older when I started writing more seriously, and I knew what I wanted to write. MFA programs can be very difficult and there’s a good deal of criticism of not only the works at hand, but the writing style itself. And they take quite a long time. This is a good thing for a lot of people and might have been for me as well, but I’m not exactly a spring chicken. I decided that I would plow ahead by going to writers’ groups and workshops.
I’ve been to several workshops, but I’ve been to The Writer’s Hotel three times and that’s where I found a community of writers, (including you, Naomi!) that I stay in touch with. For me, finding this small group of people I trust with my work has been key. There are plenty of local writers’ groups out there and also some websites like mine or this one that you can follow. I’ve met a few writers online who have helped me as well. If one writer’s group doesn’t work for you, keep going until you find your team. Eventually you will.
The real message is that you can do this! There are readers out there who match up with what you want to say, but there’s real work involved in crafting it.