Interview in Inner Circle Writers Magazine
Where are you from? Tell us a bit about your life and background.
I was born in Houston, Texas, and the family moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, when I was two, where my earliest memories are of snow. Then we moved to Maracaibo, Venezuela where I started school. My father was a petroleum engineer who designed oil platforms in the lake.
We moved back to Houston for a few years, and he designed air conditioning systems for large buildings, including the Astrodome. In high school, we relocated to Arkansas so my parents could start a pressure vessels company. I never knew what those were.
I moved three times for three university degrees: B.A., M.A., and Ph.D., finally settling in Memphis, Tennessee where I earned the last one. After twenty years, I decided I’d had enough in-my-face racism toward people of color and moved to Stockton, California, where I’ve been for twenty-three years, the longest stable period of my life.
I'm a writer!
The Ph.D. is in clinical psychology. I worked in outpatient clinics most of my career. After moving to California, I became interested in psychopharmacology and earned a Master of Science in Clinical Psychopharmacology from Alliant University in a nearby city. My knowledge and practice in both fields have informed my writing. Usually, my protagonists deal with emotional difficulties and find resolution through psychological means. Drugs and their effect on brain chemistry are featured prominently in my current trilogy.
What's your earliest memory of fiction?
My mother read me American comic books when we were in Venezuela. Superman, Green Lantern, and Wonder Woman. At three years old, I pestered her to read to me all the time so she taught me to read the comic books myself.
I was six when we moved back to Houston, and my mother took me to the library. The librarian foisted children’s books on me. After a few weeks, I spoke to her rather impertinently. “These books are stupid. Don’t you have anything with fewer pictures?”
The librarian directed me to the fiction section and told me to have at it. I ended up with H.G. Wells, Edgar Allen Poe, and Arthur Conan Doyle. These writers told the kinds of stories I wanted to read! I didn’t know all the words, but with my dictionary handy, I expanded my vocabulary.
Did you want to be a writer from an early age? Tell us about your first attempts.
The only writing I did for the first sixty-four years of my life was for professional purposes. The demands of journal articles and progress notes are quite different than those of fiction. I didn’t think of writing fiction until I noticed a book that needed to be written and realized I had to write it myself. Then I couldn’t stop.
What kept you hooked on fiction as you grew older?
As long as people tell stories that are creative and different, my voracious reading will continue. Books are portals to worlds beyond our day-to-day reality.
What do you consider to be a ‘good book’ and why?
Keeping the reader engaged is the foremost task of the fiction writer. Unless the story, characters, and arrangement of words fire the imagination, the book isn’t good. A good book makes you look forward to the next time you pick it up, and you’re a little sorry when it ends.
World culture has produced “good books” and “great books.” Truly great books not only fire the imagination but motivate us to think deeply about our lives, our world, and our relationships to other people. Books like The Lord of the Rings and 1984 return to mind again and again at significant times in our lives to inform us and guide us. Great books help us live better and understand the people around us at a deeper level.
Was there ever a point where you said to yourself 'I'm a writer'? Tell us about that.
I said “I’m a writer” out loud the first time I held a paperback copy of my novel, Midnight on the Water. It’s a transformative experience. My head spun a little.
I couldn’t wait to take a selfie of me holding my book and post it to Facebook. The caption was “My first published book!”
Tell us about your adventures on your way to being published, and what it was like seeing your name in a proper print book.
Seeking a traditional publisher never crossed my mind. Being well into my sixties, and knowing how long it took others to find an agent and a publisher, I had no desire to start down that road. Kindle Direct Publishing and a couple of other platforms seemed to have the widest distribution and to be the most accessible to my target audience, rock music fans, so I went straight to self-publishing.
I found a cover designer, editor, and proofreader, and scraped together enough money to pay them. I did the formatting and uploading myself, although it was pretty rough for the first book. The books I format now are much prettier.
For short stories, I found the Inner Circle Writers Group, Grant Hudson, and his Clarendon House on Facebook. Grant’s teaching and encouragement was so helpful in constructing short fiction, and he accepted my early efforts as well as my later, better submissions.
Has being published changed what you do as a writer? i.e. habits, types of thing you write, expectations etc.
I don’t think being published has changed what I do as a writer. Writing has changed what I do as a writer. The old adage of “The more you write, the better you write” is true, although I had to do more than just write to get better. I joined a critique group, studied writing, and learned editing.
What's a really profound thing that has happened to you (related to writing or not)?
The most profound thing seems mundane when I recount it, but at the time, it was life or death. A friend and I were driving on the Pacific Coast Highway near Mendocino, California. It’s very twisty in that area, and there’s a rapid drop-off into the ocean. The speed limit is 35 miles per hour, but on that particular day, although it was sunny and clear, 35 seemed a little fast to me. I came to a tight hairpin curve and slowed to ten miles an hour. As I rounded the curve, a cow stood in the middle of the lane! A car approached from the other direction and showed no signs of slowing.
If I’d been going any faster, my car would have smacked that cow and the all of us would have been spread over the road and possibly in the ocean.
I think that’s profound because what in the world told me to slow down?
Who or what has helped you the most as a writer?
Taking editing courses from the Editorial Freelancers Association and becoming an editor myself was the best thing I did for my writing career. Now that I am able to analyze the structure of a story on several levels, revisions are so much easier. Whether I am working on improving my own story or editing a client’s story, the words arrange themselves much more painlessly on the page than they once did.
Click image for link to EFA
Describe your writing space and routines.
My new laptop is equipped with a touch screen, and a wireless mouse and keyboard. The big monitor was a necessary indulgence so I could see what I was writing. In the autumn of my life, I have learned to touch type!
I’m not a neat freak, so papers are stacked willy-nilly. My work investment this year was a nice velvet, rolling chair that swivels and tips back.
Tell us about the books you’ve written so far. How did they evolve, what did you enjoy/not enjoy, etc.?
After I retired in late 2014, the prospect of reading the books I had accumulated was exciting. Yours Truly, 2095, by Brian Paone, was a novelization of one of my favorite albums, Time by Electric Light Orchestra. The concept album tells the story of a man who is thrown forward in time and tries to return to 1981, when he is from.
ELO have another concept album, Eldorado: A Symphony by the Electric Light Orchestra. For months, I searched for a novelization of this album, but couldn’t find one. Randall Blazak, a sociologist at Portland State University, had written a book based on the ELO album A New World Record. So, there were not one, but two novels about ELO albums.
I decided the novel for Eldorado had to be written, and I could write it as well as anyone. The music blasted in my living room for the next eight months as I studied the patterns of the chords integrated with the classical instruments. The lyrics told the tale of a loser who couldn’t win a girlfriend and lost himself in dreams. I wanted the poor loser to find redemption in my telling. I have a background in esoterica and Buddhism, and I included wisdom from those traditions in the book. In the end, the dreamer becomes a Buddhist monk who follows dream yoga. The legend is that those who master dream yoga can dwell on the spiritual plane forever in their dreams while their body remains on the brink of death.
My second book, Five Legends Five Guitars, was also ELO-related, in that Jeff Lynne became a Traveling Wilbury after he disbanded ELO. The Traveling Wilburys was a rock supergroup at the end of the 1980s formed by Jeff, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, and Roy Orbison. My novel is a magical realism retelling of the recording of their first album, except as it played out in an alternative reality. The members of the group have superpowers—get it? supergroup—but they have the same personal histories as the people we know in our reality.
Remember Brian Paone who wrote Yours Truly, 2095 that inspired me to write in the first place? He edited both my books.
What are you working on? What are your plans?
I’m writing a trilogy based on a double album by some rock group you’ve never heard of. Okay, okay, it’s ELO. In 1983, the Secret Messages album was planned as a double album, but the record company only issued a single album. At long last, in 2017, the full double album, minus one song that Jeff Lynne doesn’t like, was re-issued.
When I heard the album in all its glory, I was inspired to make a story out of it, despite the fact that it wasn’t intended to be a concept album.
Do you have favourite characters of your own? A favourite story that you've written? Anything you'd love to see made into a movie/Netflix series?
Of all the characters to choose from, I’d have to say Tolkien’s Gandalf is my favorite of all. Grant Hudson calls him “the old man with a stick” who imparts hidden wisdom and moves the story forward. When I read Tolkien’s trilogy at sixteen, Gandalf stirred my imagination more than any other fictional character, and has continued to hold me spellbound to this day. I could say the same for the characters who play the same role as Gandalf in other fiction, like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Dumbledore, all my favorite from their respective fictional works. I don’t have a thing for old men. My fascination is for hidden power.
Out of characters who I’ve written, I’m pretty fond of Bargitta, the daughter of immigrants from India who was born in Birmingham in the U.K. She’s in the current series I’m writing. The book is set in the 1980s, so Bargitta has both racism and sexism to contend with. She’s the love interest of the main character, the crown prince of the planet Midnight.
I think this series I’m writing would be a pretty good television series. Netflix, are you listening?
Describe your ideal life from your point of view.
I’m thrilled beyond words to say that I am living my ideal life. I have a lovely, one-story home with a garden and a swimming pool. I keep my own hours. My editing business has taken off, and exactly the right number of referrals are coming in. All the hard work of being single and working to support myself alone throughout my career has paid off, and my retirement income is comfortable. I’m grateful for my additional income from writing and editing, but thankfully, I don’t need it to get by.
I can’t say I’m lucky because looking back, it was work and judicious saving that brought me to a happy retirement. Moving to California brought many rewards as well as some hardships. It’s expensive here, and working for an enormous healthcare corporation took its toll. But the juggernaut had better retirement benefits than the small clinics where I’d been working in Memphis, so it’s another lesson in taking the bitter with the sweet.
Now the only bitterness is the absence of youth, but everyone knows that’s coming, right?
Pam Van Allen