Author Interview – Valerie Nieman

Valerie Nieman, awardwinning author

Valerie is an award winning writer, most recently for Blood Clay (2012 Eric Hoffer Award winner for excellence in independent publishing; finalist for the 2012 John Gardner Prize in Fiction; short-listed for 2012 Montaigne Medal honoring thought-provoking books, and long-listed for the SIBA awards. She is a writer, poet, teacher and editor whose work emerges from her Appalachian roots. Her work has garnered critical praise and reader raves. Fidelities is a collection of short stories, Wake Wake Wake is a poetry collection. She is the poetry editor for Prime Number magazine.

Do you remember the last time you said to someone: you really must read this book now? and that book was?  The Lord of Misrule, by Jaimy Gordon, whom I got to know many, many years ago when she visited the Kestrel conference in West Virginia. The book still resides beside my bed. But someday soon. Another was Hustle by Jason Skipper, a fellow Press 53 author. It was a great, gritty coming-of-age book.

Are you part of a book club?  I am not a member of a book club, although I love visiting with them! It was very exciting to join your book club via Skype, and I later did a conference call with one in South Carolina. I’ve met with book clubs in office parks and libraries and in an elegant old home in Greensboro, where I tried my best to handle the delicate gold-rimmed china without incident.

What is your favorite line from a book? These are very difficult questions, you know!

‘As you love me, Buck, as you love me, was what he whispered.’ The Call of the Wild.

A recent book you bought just for the cover?  I haven’t done that recently, though among my favorite covers on recent reads: a black-and-white photograph of a stunned and muddy boy on Miracle Boy by Pinckney Benedict, and the embossed dust jacket on Journal of a UFO Investigator by David Halperin – it looks and feels just like the heavy ball-point-pen doodles a high school student would carve into the cover of his notebook.

Have you heard any good books lately? Driving? in an airplane? Did you choose the reader of your book? Did you like the audio version of your book? (I assume you have an audio book here – I haven’t looked this us and depend on my library for most of the audio!) I haven’t listened to audio books, as I tend to be the one driving or walking, and I must pay attention or there will be disaster. I did not have an audio version for Blood Clay. It would be wonderful to have an audio version of my new novel, which has a first-person female narrator who is 16 years old. Maggie would have a strong, alto voice, not one that has been shaped to coaxing boys.

Do you have a genre to beach read? (we held a discussion on beach reads, and nearly everyone brought mysteries)  I enjoy historical fiction and science fiction: both transport me to other places and times, nourishing my mind as the water and sun do my body. And I like to read books about the place itself, either history or natural history.

Do you have a favorite literary adaptation on TV or film? Is there something coming out you can’t wait to see?  I like to read the book first, because if I see the film first, those images are so strong.  I’ve been impressed again and again by Clint Eastwood’s adaptations.  I’m excited about a movie version of The Martian Chronicles.

What book is on your nightstand? on your coffeetable? On my nightstand: House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III. Beside the nightstand, which is a tiny folding table: Waxwings by Daniel Nathan Terry, The Cove by Ron Rash, Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, Coal Black Horse by Robert Olmstead, Carry Each His Burden by James Goertel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady by Elizabeth Stuckey-French, Goliath by Susan Woodring. I’m woefully behind in my reading and just bought three more books yesterday. On the coffee table ? Sailing and Our State magazines, a hand-bound book of poems by Nhat Hanh with Zen paintings by Vo-Dinh, and Because the Cat Purrs: How We Relate to Other Species and Why It Mattersby Janet Lembke.

Paper or electronic? Do you take notes? I have a few e-books on my phone but do not have a dedicated e-reader. I still prefer paper, because I like the feel and smell and heft of a book in hand.

Do you read plays or poetry for pleasure? I read a lot of poetry as poetry editor for Prime Number magazine, so I am always seeing new work. That’s exciting. I also read poetry every day, through daily e-poetry services and by visiting magazine websites, or just picking up one of the many books of poetry I have around my home and office.

Have you memorized any poems? I may have the world’s worst memory. The poem that comes most fully to mind is Acquainted with the Night by Robert Frost, one of his elegant dark poems.

Is music important to your writing? (do you listen to music when you write? when you read? do you incorporate songs into your work that have ‘hidden’ meaning? or help set the tone?) I don’t listen to music while I write or read. I think I may have some brain disorder, because I really don’t multitask well. If I have music on, I get caught up in the music and can’t write. I already noted that I don’t listen to audio books because I would be a hazard to myself and others. The only book where music has been important was Survivors, where the main character writes songs and rewrites the words to popular tunes.

What were your most cherished books as a child? Do you have a favorite character or hero / heroine from one of those books? Black Beauty, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Huck Finn, Tales from Shakespeare, Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, stories by Poe and Jack London, A Girl of the Limberlost.  A book called Ocelot that I chose as my reward for working in the elementary school library. I read a lot of natural history and science, Silent Spring, and then became caught up in Lord of the Ringsand science fiction: Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula LeGuin.

Favorite characters? I always treasured girls and women who refused to play by the rules of gender, often somewhat secondary characters. Eowyn LOTR, for example, who is strong and devoted and passionate and brave.

Is there one book you wish all children would read? Whatever book they choose, as long as they read!

Is there one book you would like adults to read? Perhaps the same answer…as I teach college now, I see with depressing regularity that students do not read, and that includes creative writing students. When I am trying to illustrate a point about plot or character, I generally use examples from films and television shows as they have become the canon of our time.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be? Past presidents?  I’d hope that every president has a well-worn and much-annotated volume of the Riverside Shakespeare, like the one on my shelf. All the lessons are there: pride, compassion, ambition, folly, self-sacrifice, arrogance, love, honor, deceit, bravery.

And The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. DON’T PANIC!

If you could meet any writer dead or alive, who would it be? what would you want to know? (ok, you can make it two or a dinner table!) I sure would have loved an evening with Ray Bradbury, recently departed. His vibrant, graceful stories expanded my universe. Among the living, Margaret Atwood. I have loved her work: A Handmaid’s Tale, her short story The Bog Man to a poem about eating lima beans with her fingers!

Is there one book you wish someone else would write?  Whatever book is the one that demands to be written, and that the writer creates without regard to what the market says.

Do you tend to keep books, lend them out or give them away?  I tend to keep books. I seldom will sell a book, though I give books to students when I think they should have them. I say that I am ‘lending’ them but seldom get them back. I hope that Rumi and the Breece Pancake stories and others have remained important in the lives of those students.

Do you have a favourite question that you are often asked about your writing? a favourite question that was only asked once.  I do like your question about recommended reading for the president.  I’m generally asked about what I read as a child, and sometimes I expand on that quite a bit. I grew up in the country and read what was at hand, a bookcase full of old books that included classic poetry, the complete Mark Twain (and I’ve read every word, sometimes many times over), and the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. I still have both full sets, carried from place to place in New York State, West Virginia, and North Carolina. I suppose that if I ever do move onto a boat in my old age, those volumes will have to find a home ashore.

Any guilty reading pleasures? I will read nearly anything. I can read a guidebook to birds or insects or rocks or whatever until it comes apart.

Thanks Helen for these wonderful questions, and the opportunity to be part of your blog and library presence. My next novel is all but done. I am finishing the last chapter, and then will do a read-through and mark it up for revision. The working title Backwater, which is not good at all, but I hope to find a title somewhere in the text. Then it’s off to find an agent and publisher. Press 53, a wonderful small press that published Blood Clay and my poetry collection, Wake Wake Wake, has decided to focus on short story and poetry collections only.