Monday, November 17, 2008

Interview with J.L. Miles, author of Cold Rock River

Cold Rock River ranks among the best books I've read this year, and it also made the short list of books I'd read again. (You can read my review here.)

As part of the Pump Up Your Book Promotion tour for Cold Rock River, I had the pleasure of interviewing the author, J.L. Miles. I hadn't heard of her before reading Cold Rock River, but you can bet I'll be reading more of her writing in the future.

What inspired you to write Cold Rock River?

Cold Rock River was inspired by an incident in my own life. Like Adie's sister Annie, my baby sister Vick choked on a jellybean when she was twenty months old. It was the week following Easter and we three older girls had our little baskets squirreled away. Our mother insisted we weren't to drag them around the house, but she was gone for the evening and our daddy let us roam about, baskets in hand, to our hearts' content. I don't recall that any of us actually gave Vicki a jelly bean. More likely she picked one up off the floor. I do remember I panicked when I saw her put one in her mouth, and I tried to grab her. She started giggling and running as fast as her little legs would allow. The next thing I knew, she was choking and her face was blue. She survived, but as I grew older I was very much aware of how our lives would have changed had she not. One evening, lying in bed, something made me think of it; how fifty years had passed and yet the memory of that night was still as raw as fresh-skinned knees. I closed my eyes, ready to drift off, when I "heard" the opening line of what became Cold Rock River. I got up to write it down, so I wouldn’t forget a single word. I was still at it the next morning. I had forty, maybe fifty pages. I realized then that this young, beautiful, delightful creature, who I chose to call Adie, might have something to tell me worth hearing. And if I was quiet and listened closely, maybe her ghosts would help me purge mine.

Did you do any research before writing Tempe's journal?

Initially Cold Rock River was to be the story of Adie Jenkins, seventeen, pregnant, and unmarried during the early 1960s. I know today if you're in her condition, they throw you a shower. During the 1960s, the Vietnam War was a major factor in our daily lives, so it naturally came to play a role in the book. As Adie's story began I decided she would do some chicken farming to feed them when it became apparent Buck wasn't going to be one she could count on. I went to the library to research Georgia chicken farming and stumbled onto the Slave Narratives. The complete collection—which contains more than two thousand first-person accounts—is housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. They were commissioned by President Roosevelt during the depression years, in order to record the journey of those freed slaves still alive. Writers were sent across the nation to search for them. Their accounts are as fascinating as they are poignant. Over the years, there's been a good deal of controversy as to their accuracy, based on the fact that some of the freed slaves were fearful or perhaps suspicious of the government—brings to mind "forty acres and a mule"—and hesitant to speak candidly regarding the treatment they may or may not have received at the hands of their sometimes still powerful former masters. The collective consensus is that somewhere amidst the vast amount of material lies the truth. After months of reading, reviewing, and re-examining all of the narratives I could locate, Tempe's portion of Cold Rock River emerged. Her story, based on what I found, is remarkable. Everything that Tempe experiences was lifted from the lives of actual people who wore the chains and bore the scars of slavery. I won't ever forget her; nor am I able to forget those I "met" through the narratives, who bravely shared their life stories so that Tempe could tell me hers. Since Tempe's story begins as the Civil War was well under way, it seemed to be a good parallel to the Vietnam War of Adie's journey.

What was your inspiration for the characters, particularly Adie, Willa Mae, and Tempe?

Before I develop a character I "hear" their voice. After that it's a matter of listening to them to see what they have to say. From what they say I can flesh them out and find out just who they are. It's an ongoing process as a novel progresses. I guess you're asking if my characters are real people. All I can say is that they are real to me, but I'm not writing memoirs—not yet anyway! But I do try to tap into my experiences with people in a way that portrays what I call truths of the human condition. If, in that process, I create characters my readers identify with, I'm very happy. I've done my job.

What do you want readers to take away from Cold Rock River?

For me it's not acceptable to simply write good stories. I feel compelled to include a gift with the writing, something the readers can take with them that may make a difference in their life or the lives of those they love. It's not enough to be entertaining; I need a reason or a purpose for the entertainment. It can be subtle, I much prefer that is, but it needs to be there. Basically, I want to write good stories that warm the hearts and question the brains of my readers, and then I like to add something a little extra. I once wrote about what it was that I wanted to do with my life. It ended with, "Share truths, touch hearts, bring joy." That's what I'd like my writing to do.

Are the many recipes at the end of the book your own? If I could make only one, what would you suggest?

The recipes are not mine. They come from a variety of sources. When I included them I diligently listed the source and the ISBN number for any that I used from cookbooks. I found out from my publishers recipes are not covered under a copyright, so they did not require permission to print them. If I had one recipe to suggest it would be the Macaroni and Cheese. It's to die for.

How long did it take you to write Cold Rock River? Do you have a particular writing routine or a space dedicated to writing?

It was a five year journey without a paycheck. There were many times when I was on the verge of dropping the story altogether, but something kept prodding me on. Now that it's finished I'm glad I persevered.

I have a small home office I write in and I try to write for a minimum for four hours daily. I find if I don't it's easy to get lazy. Writing is difficult and requires dedication to the written word, even when the words are not flowing so easily.

Who are your favorite authors?

Golly, there are so many. It started with John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath. That book triggered a lifelong passion for reading at a young age. Hmmm—favorite authors—I love anything by Elizabeth Berg, ditto for Connie May Fowler, Robert Morgan, Jacquelyn Mitchard, Judson Mitham, Kay Gibbons, Earnest Gaines, Virginia Holman, Mark Haddon, Mary Lawson, Elisabeth Robinson, Ann-Marie MacDonald; the list goes on. I add new ones every time I walk into a bookstore or browse online. Sandra Kring is my latest discovery. She wrote Carry Me Home, The Book of Bright of Ideas, and her latest Thank You For All Things. There are so many gifted word-painters out there; such incredible talent. It keeps me very humble.

Do you have any advice for aspiring novelists?

Read, read, read! And write, write, write! And I was told to always remember that those talented authors who we think were born to write, well maybe so, but they were never born published. Also, I always remind myself that there are only three simple steps to writing a good book:

1. Put a tiger under a tree.
2. Get you protagonist up that tree.
3. Get your protagonist out of that tree.

Best to you in all your endeavors and bless your reading and writing hearts.

Thanks, Ms. Miles! I appreciate you taking the time to answer all of my questions. I wish you much success!


Amy said...

This is a great interview. I want to read those slave narratives now!

Happy birthday Anna!

Marie Cloutier said...

Great interview! One of the best books all year is a great endorsement :-)

Cheryl said...

Wonderful interview and great advice.

This books sounds fascinating!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interview, Anna and J. L.!

I agree with Marie's comment, your "one of the best books all year" is quite an endorsement, Anna.

I love J.L.'s advice to writers, and that Mac 'n Cheese sounds great right about now :)

Anonymous said...

hey.. there's an award waiting for you in my blog. come by to pick it up:) shall come back later to read this interview.. have it "starred":)

Anonymous said...

Wonderful interview. I'm with J.L. on "the Grapes of Wrath," that was one of the first books that instilled a love of reading in me. And I loved this succinct bit of advice to novelists:

1. Put a tiger under a tree.
2. Get you protagonist up that tree.
3. Get your protagonist out of that tree.


The Bookworm said...

wonderful interview, the book does sound very good.
I like her writing advice.

Teddy Rose said...

Thanks for the wonderful interview! It made me want to read this book even more. Darn I wish I would have won the giveaway! LOL!

Shana said...

I love hearing the story behind the story!

And I'm glad you didn't table this book - it's FANTASTIC!


Anna said...

Amy: Thanks for the birthday wishes! I'd like to read them as well!

Marie: It's true, though! I really did love this book.

Cheryl: Thanks so much!

Dawn: I could use some Mac and Cheese, too. Or just cheese, because you know that's the best part! I agree that advice to writers is great...and entertaining!

Ramya: Thanks a bunch! I'm a bit behind in blog reading, but I will get to it!

Marvin: I must admit I've never read The Grapes of Wrath! Glad you enjoyed her writing advice!

Naida: Thanks!

Teddy Rose: You're welcome! If you get a chance to read the book, please come back and let me know what you thought of it!

Shana: That's my favorite part of these interviews, finding out why the author wrote the story. It makes for a richer experience, at least it does for me.

Serena said...

This is fantastic advice. I really love this interview. Great work...and this is a good book, though I am not through with it yet.

Jeannie said...

What a nice interview! The answer to "What do you want readers to take away" was very touching.

I see that this book is offered on Kindle. I'll ask for it for Christmas. :D

Anna said...

Serena: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed the interview. Please read faster so we can discuss this book!!! ;)

Jeannie: I hope you get a chance to read this book!! Hope you're enjoying your Kindle!

Wendi said...

Wonderful interview Anna - isn't it interesting what we can learn when we ask the author questions? What a story . . . and I had no idea of the free slave naratives!

Your interview has been added to
About the Author - An Author Interview Index

:) Wendi

Anna said...

Wendi: Thanks! I really love getting a chance to learn more about the authors. Those slave narratives sure sound interesting.

April said...

Great interview, Anna! I completely agree - this book has made my all time favorite list as well as a favorite of the year! I can't wait to read Divorcing Dwayne! It sounds very different to this one, so I will be anxious to see how I enjoy it!

Anna said...

April: Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it, too! I've heard of Divorcing Dwayne. Looking forward to reading what you think of it.