Interview Transcripts

Valerie Harms is  the author of 9 books (nonfiction in the genres of wildlife, psychology, biography, women’s lit), 2 fiction books for children, and numerous articles. She is also a Long Ridge instructor.  Currently she is in the end stages of a novel.  She’s been to 6 writers’ residencies and landscape is one of her inspirations

Mary Rosenblum:  Valerie, it's so nice to have you with us this week!  You're the author of 9 books (nonfiction in the genres of wildlife, psychology, biography, women’s lit), 2 fiction books for children, and numerous articles. And you're currently finishing an adult novel, right?  That's an impressive resume, dear!  So tell us a bit about yourself and of course, your books.   How did you get started writing?    And what brought you to Long Ridge as an instructor? 


Valerie Harms: Thanks for the welcome, Mary, and hello to all readers and posters.  I began writing as a kid and took every writing course in college and afterward that I could.  I wrote stories and novels but my first published book, Unmasking: Ten Women in Metamorphosis, was nonfiction.  After that my published work consisted of nonfiction books and many articles.  I have written about Anais Nin as well as Elvis Presley.  For the National Audubon Society I wrote an Almanac, called The Ecology of Everyday Life.  Working on it got me very concerned with endangered and threatened species.  With a longterm interest in psychology, I then wrote a book about how we think and dream about animals.  My biggest selling book has The Inner Lover, how love empowers creativity, no matter what is going on in the relationship.    I also had two books for children published.  See my Web site at
My early novels were thinly veiled autobiography, a tactic which I think drains a novel of drama.  The novel I have currently finished is based on wholly invented characters and is strong on plot.
I am one of the longest serving instructors at Long Ridge at 20+ years.  I began with the course on Writing for Juveniles and then continued with the Break Into Print.  I think the courses are excellent in the way they are designed, provide supplementary materials, and are aimed at helping you write stories and articles that will be published.


Mary Rosenblum:  Valerie, I am so interested to hear you say that your early 'veiled autobiographical' novels lacked energy.  I've always felt that using too much of your own real life in fiction was limiting, that it has more energy as straight-forward nonfiction.  I was intrigued by your interest in landscape in fiction. I have always made my settings as important to my fiction as my characters and the basic plot.  I'm so pleased to hear that I am not alone!  So what role does landscape take in your writing?


Valerie Harms: Some writers may take the location of their stories or articles for granted, forgetting that in order for the reader to visualize or participate, he or she must be given details.  Details, such as the landscape, whether urban or countryside, and the environment of sounds, smells, colors, foods if appropriate, textures of air, soil, water.
Think of how when you see a play or a movie, the first thing shown is the setting.  The setting sets the tone.  It also should include the time--past or present.
What is the mood and atmosphere of the location?
Another thing to get across is how your main character(s) relate to the setting.  Are they uneasy on Main St. or at home in their Starbucks, do they long for the mountains or seaside or are they lonely?
Here are a couple of exercises.  One: show two people eating.  What kind of restaurant, what implements, what foods, what is the decor, architecture.
Another is to recall a dream and write down the landscape in it.  Memories will come to you.  Show the places where these memories took place.
Landscape details can also serve as metaphors for emotion and action.  For instance, standing down a twister can be a metaphor for a character's facing a big challenge.  How does a person's home reflect their personality?  Is there a particular object that means a lot to them?
Now, you might protest, but I just skip over large blocks of description.  That's why you have to show the aspects of place subtly.  You need to show your article or story's place and time right at the outset.  Once you've introduced characters and problems, then feed in other details.  Discomfort can be shown as the characters react to the setting, whether it's in a Starbucks or space capsule.


Mary Rosenblum:  I think setting gets overlooked in many genres.  If your story could be moved to Cincinnati and it still works fine, you're not making use of what setting can offer you. At least that's my take.  So what steps can a novice writer take to make setting more of an important component to a narrative piece or fiction story?


Pam Out West:  Just for fun, what is a favorite setting you have used in your writing, and what is the title of the work it can be found in? Why is this a favorite?


Valerie Harms: Re my favorite setting used so far, I'd say it was in my book, Tryin' To Get to You, the story of Elvis Presley.  I lived in a small west Texas town when Elvis came through and sang in our high school auditorium.  I wanted to show what this town was like.  I described eating at Son's City Pig, Elvis' pink Cadillac, the tumbleweed blowing about flat ranch land.

Re making setting more of a component in narrative, place yourself in the setting and look around you to the left, right, above, below. Show the reader what the smells are, the sounds, the colors--in other words put all the sensory details on the page.  Let's say you are having a couple's car get a flat tire.  Show the temperature of the air, the winds, the surrounding area, the texture of the road that they kneel on to change the tire.  Show their efforts and conversation as they change the tire.  Now you have this couple in the setting, show  their emotional reaction to each other, the incident (e.g. maybe their child is performing and they're late).  You can use the details of the setting to draw out the tension of the situation.


Gail:  In the novel I'm writing, the setting plays a major role, and is almost another "character" of the story.  My question is, how do you find a good balance between those "large blocks of description" you mentioned earlier?  It seems a fine line between coloring the scenes effectively, and information overload.  How do you "show the aspects of place subtly"?  Do you add "setting" references to dialogue, or the action tags that go with it?  How do you weave setting details into your work so they become harmonious with the whole?


Valerie Harms: I'm glad setting is such an integral part of your novel.  I think you understand the concept well.  The thing is to avoid those large blocks by adding setting details to actions.  You need to open a piece showing the place and time.  Doing so also probably establishes the mood.  Then you should have your people doing something.  As they move about, sound, smell, texture, color, and taste will play a role.  Take this example by Barry Lopez: "One summer evening in a remote village in the Brooks Range of Alaska, I sat among a group of men listening to hunting stories about the trapping of animals."  This sets the season and location.  He then moves into some information about wolverines and then retells in specific detail one man's story.  You can edit out large blocks in your drafts. 
Sometimes if you discover you have too many big blocks in which you are just "telling" information, you might need to invent a new scene to show what you want to get across.


Gail:  Quote from: Valerie Harms: 

Sometimes if you discover you have too many big blocks in which you are just "telling" information, you might need to invent a new scene to show what you want to get across.
Yes, you've just confirmed my instinct.  Two scenes in one chapter will definitely need reworking. I appreciate the example, too.  It's an excellent choice to illustrate the subtle injection of setting.  Thank you.


Mary Rosenblum:  Valerie, I am so looking forward to your wisdom about writers residencies. I have of course run across listings for writers residencies in various writers magazines.  But I've never really pursued them.  You've been to six!  Wow!  Is it really accessible to new writers  or do you have to have a Magic Password?


Valerie Harms: Residencies can be very useful.  They provide you with a room (bed, desk, chair, lamp -- what else do you need?) for 4 weeks, more or less.
I have often said that I accomplished more in 4 weeks in such a place as I did eking out writing time at home in a year.  What could be more wonderful?!
The ones I have gone to have been free; some make small charges, some have you do your own cooking.  All residencies require an application.  Women, take note: women under-apply, thinking they have no chances.  Don't hesitate. You will have to show that you are working on a substantial project.
A good resource book is Artists and Writers Colonies compiled by Gail Hellund Bowler, Blue Heron Publishing.
I felt compelled to get away to a residency especially when I had a family and had all those responsibilities and distractions.  My family was cooperative. 
I also applied to two overseas just to get a chance to experience a different culture.


Claryce: What constitutes a "substantial project".  I have a few nonfiction books with intro a short chapter or three.  Would I qualify?


Valerie Harms: Definitely, your work would qualify.  You'd want to tell the place what you hoped to work on.


Claryce: That would be a dream come true.  Don't know how I could get enough leave from my day job, but at least I have time to look into openings.  Thanks for the encouragement, Valerie!


Valerie Harms: Don't hesitate to create your own "retreat."  Even if it is for a day or a weekend, maybe you can get away to a friend's home if they're on vacation or go to a cabin by the sea or in the woods.  I once went to a monastery for a weekend.  I was provided free room and board and total silence!!  No one questioned what I did--it was wonderful and peaceful.  I wrote in longhand there.


Dani:  Taking a month off from work to relax and write sounds good, but not possible for me.  I have the vacation time, but just can't do it.  I love the idea of taking some down time on your own though.  I'd like to go to Hawaii and write!  I could even write about the scenery while I'm there and use it in my fiction.


Claryce: I actually have access to my in-laws cabin in the mountains and I have always dreamed of taking time to go there by myself to write.  Thanks for the suggestion.  It would be a dream come true!


Valerie Harms: Claryce, That sounds like a wonderful place.  Even if it takes you a day to just settle down in your creative well, you'll be nourished by the time there.


Mary Rosenblum:  Valerie, let's hear about how to write good narrative nonfiction!  It is so powerful when done well, but is so often done poorly. I feel that it's one of the toughest aspects of writing for novices. 


Valerie Harms: First, let me say I agree with you that autobiographical material works better as nonfiction than disguised as fiction.  Which leads me to memoirs:  they can be powerful if you have a fresh angle, e.g. such as an extreme adventure, living in a different culture, an unusual healing experience.  A recent memoir I read is The Glass House about a family living on the edge of homelessness.
Narrative nonfiction is much desired by publishers these days.  It means the art of telling a story about real people and events.  The book the course supplies, called Writing for Story by Joe Franklin, provides excellent advice.
This genre was once called "faction" when Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood or Norman Mailer wrote Armies of the Night.  More recently a best-selling example of blending story with commentary is Reading Lolita in Tehran.  Another example is about the famous horse, Seabiscuit.  You'd think it would be hard to make Seabiscuit's life into a story but the author (with a severe illness at the time) wrote one paragraph a day and ended up with a hugely successful book.
These are books, but think of articles as miniature examples.  If you'll notice when you read a newspaper or magazine article, they often will start off with a person going through some experience that relates to the theme of the piece.  Often the article will end up with how the person progressed.  These articles use dialogue and characterization of other people and drama, the same elements as you find in fiction, to get across their point.

Even a how-to article can be told in narrative form.  Begin with a person who does something or tries to.  What are the steps he or she wants to get done?  Quote others who have different slants on the subject.  What are the difficulties or rewards?  Then sum up.
I like to think of an article as the writer taking the reader on a journey, showing off the aspects, and then summing up the results of the trip.  What "journeys" are you working on?


Pam Out West: Thanks for joining us! What strategies do you use to avoid your manuscript sounding too much like a running journal when writing in narrative nonfiction. Also, can the conversation be "created" as long as it is correct context of the actual autobiographical material? I have a vague memory of "A Million Pieces" getting into trouble along that line.

When submitting a book proposal what terminology to you currently find most helpful to describe narrative nonfiction? "Memoir" has some negative connotations and "autobiography" sounds limiting to readership (unless you are famous). I've also heard 'literary nonfiction" used.
A current powerful example of this style is "Left to Tell" by Immaculee Ilibagiza. The story is outstanding, while the writing is ordinary. How can one enhance their writing in this style and remain an accurate historian?
Do you recommend using a pen name?


Valerie Harms: Here is to your first post:  To avoid sounding like a running journal, you construct the article carefully.  You begin with an intriguing scene about a person that illustrates the theme.  You then outline and build paragraphs so that each one relates to and adds to the previous one.
Re conversation, this is a toughie.  James Frey of A Million Pieces got into a lot of trouble basically for inventing most of his "memoir."  For memoirs it's best not to invent dialogue.  You can say "the president said that"...The addition of "that" makes it an indirect statement rather than a direct quote.  On the other hand, plenty of well-recognized authors do invent dialogue.  The biographer of Ronald Reagan did.  Others say they do in the service of "truth."  So I just can't say exactly.
Here's to your second post: "Memoir" does not have negative connotations in my view.  It just needs to have an unusual angle.  "Literary nonfiction" generally concerns essays where the writing is tops.  I don't know "Left to Tell" but it sounds like "narrative nonfiction".  As my introductory post said, narrative nonfiction can be about horses or presidential elections or the Katrina flood and all sorts of other topics.  It's an approach that tells a true story.
I'd suggest reading more narrative nonfiction.  In Voices, Part Two, for instance, see the pieces "Dog Day Afternoon" and "Commuter Marriage: Does it Work?"  These combine characters, dialogue, and drama in making their points.
You don't need to use a pen name unless you want to hide your identity.  Many memoirists are scared at first but then they work things out with their family.  One thing to avoid is writing with a suppressor sitting on your shoulder.  Write out your draft in full, then see what you want to do.  Some writers don't want to upset family members.  Some ask permission.  I'm not sure where you are coming from with your question.


Pam Out West: Thank you Valerie! Your insights are helpful.


Dani:  When you submit a personal essay, could you change the names of the people? Would it be fiction instead of nonfiction if I changed the names of the people?  I have one that I did for an assignment and will revise it according to my instructor's comments.  It's personal for me and the person I wrote about, who is no longer with us.


Valerie Harms: Dani, Yes, in a personal essay, feel free to change the names without the piece becoming "fiction."  Just footnote it that names have been changed to protect the identities of people.  That's what is done all the time.


Dani:  Thanks Valerie!    I've seen that done, but didn't know if I was reading fiction or nonfiction at the time.



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