Monday, September 2, 2019

#76 Inside The Emotion of Fiction's MONARCHS OF THE NORTHEAST KINGDOM by Chera Hammons Miller

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****Chera Hammons Miller’s MONARCHS OF THE NORTHEAST KINGDOM  is #76 in the never-ending series called INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific excerpt from a fiction genre and how that fiction writer wrote that specific excerpt.  All INSIDE THE EMOTION OF FICTION links are at the end of this piece. 

Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? The novel is titled Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom. I’m a Texan, but I fell in love with the state of Vermont while attending college there. I knew early on that I wanted the story to take place somewhere in Vermont not far from Canada. I set it in the Northeast Kingdom in particular because it’s the coldest region in the state, and it’s isolated. I started writing under a title of just The Northeast Kingdom, but I knew that it needed something more specific, more in line with the themes. The full title appeared rather quickly when I got a little way into the work.

Fiction genre? Ex science fiction, short story, fantasy novella, romance, drama, crime, plays, flash fiction, historical, comedy, movie script, screenplay, etc. And how many pages long? Monarchs is generally what I would consider to be literary fiction with elements of suspense. It also has a significant concern for / awareness of wilderness, animals, and land management, which is why I submitted it to Torrey House Press. Before I submitted it, I read interviews with the Torrey House editors and felt like we’d be friends in real life. It’s about 76,000 words, or 244 pages as my word processor displays it. (Above Left:  Photo taken in December 2017)

Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no. If yes, what publisher and what publication date? Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom
is currently set to be released by Torrey House Press (https://www.
torrey May of 2020. They’ve been downright wonderful to work with. I’m so happy the book found a home there!

What is the date you began writing this piece of fiction and the date when you completely finished the piece of fiction? I have neurological Lyme disease and was homebound for a couple of years; I wrote this book during that time. I was having a lot of cardiac-type issues and felt very immediately like any day could be my last for a long time, and writing a novel was something that was really important to me. I think I started it in the summer of 2017 and finished it around Christmas 2017, but I had been thinking about it for quite a while before I started writing. After working on it for a couple of months, I set a goal of writing 700 words per day. If I went over that goal, I didn’t count it toward the next day’s word count. I started over new every day. I sent the weekly word count to a friend on Facebook so that I had some accountability because I had started many novels before that I never finished. But I did not ever go to bed without having written 700 words.

Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail. And can you please include a photo? I did all of the writing in my messy home office surrounded by my three large cats: Butter, Biscuit, and Kevin. (Right) There’s a decent-sized window opposite the door, and on the two parallel walls, my husband Daniel and I each have a desk (they face away from each other). He writes novels, too, though none have been picked up yet (but it’s only a matter of time). So a typical weekend morning sees us in our shared office both typing away on something while the cats go back and forth between us begging for scratches. My preferred method of procrastination or relaxation is to watch horse training videos online, so Daniel bought me headphones so I could do that without distracting him. (I find it mind boggling he doesn’t want to learn all he can about different horse training methods, too!) 

          The office window looks out on a rosebush and a big yucca. Mockingbirds like to sit on the yucca stalks and sing as loud as they can, which is really nice. Once I thought there was a bobwhite outside because I kept hearing it whistle, but when I looked out, I discovered it was actually a mockingbird’s imitation of a bobwhite. I often leave my computer to look out the window at the birds and the grazing horses in order to clear my head.

What were your writing habits while writing this work- did you drink something as you wrote, listen to music, write in pen and paper, directly on laptop; specific time of day? I started out on my desktop computer every morning with organic coffee in hand. It can take me a long time to fully wake up because of neurological and physical issues caused by the Lyme disease. My brain works best before noon, so I tried to get the writing done between about 10 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. every day. I can write later than that, but it’s difficult to concentrate and takes much more time to get the word count. No music, because I would end up just singing along and not working, but sometimes I kept the TV on in the background so the space behind me felt smaller. I can’t write if there’s too much space behind me. Weird, I know!
What is the summary of this specific fiction work? When Anna's husband John is murdered in the woods near their Vermont home, she can no longer hide from the secrets they'd been keeping. But she decides to add more of her own. In a landscape where poachers lurk, coyotes roam in packs, bears threaten the livestock, winter starves the wild animals, debilitating sickness is barely kept at bay, and any relationship is a risk, Anna hides John's death in a desperate effort to ensure her own survival. (Left:  Mount Mansfield in Stowe, Vermont)

What scene/excerpt of the book was the most emotional for you to write? I wanted the writing in the book to be beautiful and stark, but relatable. Sometimes this meant putting my emotions into it; sometimes I had to be careful to maintain a distance from Anna and her actions. The scene hardest for me to write was the one in which Anna is wrenched from her comfortable, safe life with John, when she starts to grasp that she is truly alone.

Why is this scene/excerpt so emotional for you to write?  And can you describe your own emotional experience of writing this specific excerpt? Anna’s emotions—her shock, her distress, and her feelings of disconnection and unreality after realizing that she has been left to fend for herself in a dangerous landscape—are based on my own in a similar situation. To write the scene and make it believable, I had to revisit what I went through myself. My first marriage ended when my spouse at the time abandoned me in our home in New Mexico, 35 miles from town, after witnessing a murder at work. 

Though he had always been an alcoholic with a temper, the PTSD resulting from that event caused him to spiral out of control. Finally he left, suddenly and indefinitely. I was stranded without money or a usable car, and I was also suffering from the neurological symptoms of my illness, which had not yet been diagnosed. 

          I didn’t tell anyone he’d left for two weeks because I was in such shock, nothing felt real. I spent a lot of my time just waiting to wake up from what felt like a bad dream. The house had no heat because the propane tank was empty, and it was in late fall, so it was cold; my houseplants all froze to death, my shampoo froze. There was no food. My cat and I would just sit on the couch under a blanket and I’d watch the light that fell onto the floors through the windows change and then disappear every day. By the time my parents found out and drove from Texas to pick me up, I’d lost 15 pounds.

It’s still difficult for me to read that scene in the book, because though Anna is strong and pulls herself together much more quickly than I did, it reminds me of those bad days. I hope any readers who have been through something similar will feel less alone when reading that scene, and know they are much more powerful and valuable than they might feel. Anna goes on to do things she never would have believed herself capable of. So have I.

Other works you have published? I’ve spent far more of my life as a poet than a novelist, so I’ve published individual poems in many journals, and I’ve also had several poetry books published. The first was a chapbook, Amaranthine Hour, which won the 2012 Jacar Press Chapbook Competition. It took nearly ten years to find a publisher for that one, and I had just about given up. I feel like winning that contest changed my life. More recently (2017) was The Traveler’s Guide to Bomb City, a book of poems set in my hometown of Amarillo, Texas. I have a poetry book, Maps of Injury, centered around my journey with chronic illness, forthcoming through a beautiful press, Sundress Publications, in 2020, as well. I’m very grateful for all the support my work has found, and I feel like I’ve been truly lucky to experience such generosity.

Anything you would like to add? I wrote Monarchs of the Northeast Kingdom in part to subvert expectations, especially for a suspenseful or dark sort of novel. Women aren’t likely to be found murdered in the book, for one. The protagonist is an older, chronically ill woman living alone. When I was researching comps, it was difficult to find other books featuring a chronically ill character, and I wanted to help change that. I didn’t want her to be too conventional nor too well-behaved, either; she sometimes makes bad decisions because of her isolation and inward view of the world, but she is completely herself. And she is far stronger than she thinks. I don’t want to give too much away. But I think readers will be surprised by the book.  (Left:  Painting, "Anne From Monarches of the Northeast Kingdom" attributed to Emily Hinds, a student of Chera Hammons Miller.)

     It’s also very much an animal story, especially a horse story. Horses have been a lifelong passion, and I’ve spent most of my life around them. Particularly horses with little training or with problems, since I’ve never been able to afford to buy the really gentle, well broke ones. (Sometimes I think my idea of heaven, especially on my bad illness days, would be a really well-broke, hard-to-spook horse I could just get on and ride! But I wouldn’t trade my current herd for anything, of course.) It was important to me to portray the animals as characters, also—they aren’t fillers—they have an important place in the book’s plot, they have unique personalities, and the main character, Anna, adjusts her interactions with them according to their individual traits, as I do with my own animals. I hope the real value inherent in these lovely beasts comes through.

Chera Hammons is the Writer-in-Residence at West Texas A&M University. Her work has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Foundry, Rattle, Ruminate, Tar River, THRUSH, Tupelo Quarterly, Valparaiso Poetry Review, and elsewhere. She is a winner of the 2017 PEN Southwest Book Award for Poetry and nominee for 2018 Best of the Net. Forthcoming books include a volume of poetry through Sundress Publications and a novel through Torrey House Press. She lives in Amarillo, TX, with her husband, five horses, three cats, a dog, a rabbit, and three chickens.


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