Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Wind Out of Canaan, by Sally Gwylan, an author interview

I first met Sally Gwylan when I joined the Critical Mass writers group in northern New Mexico, a group I was with for a decade (and will likely rejoin again when we move back home again). Few people write as evocatively as Gwylan, and her research of historical eras is always top notch. Her current novel is A Wind Out of Canaan, available from Amazon, is free on Kindle today and tomorrow.

Below is an interview she was kind enough to give me about this book, her writing (including some links to her short stories), her life in an off the grid green home, and more! At the bottom of this post is a giveaway for a SIGNED paperback of her novel.

Tell me about your book, it's got several unique and evocative settings.

A Wind Out of Canaan begins the story of Philippa, who adopts the road moniker of Arlie, and of the other homeless kids who become her companions riding the rails of the Depression-era Midwest in search of a way to another world she's been told of, a veritable Promised Land. Trials along the way force her to develop the small talent she has for sensing weather into something much stranger and more risky. It's also the story of Simon, a young emissary of this other world, lost and bewildered in unfamiliar surroundings, and trying to find his way home.

Though I'm not sure I'd call the settings in this first book unique. After all, I stole the first setting, the ice house, from Thomas Minehan, may blessings be upon his head (see the next question for more on him). I do hope you're right that they're evocative of that time and place.

What was the original genesis for the idea of Canaan?

The novel or the place? (Canaan is my main character's name for the world the strangers come from.)

The original seed of the novel was a book I came across in a thrift store, one with a title I couldn't pass up: Boy and Girl Tramps of America, by Thomas Minehan, originally published in 1934. It's a cross between a sociological study of youths riding the rails and his personal stories of his travels with them while he did his research. It's chock-full of details of how they lived. Great material. I knew I wanted to do something with it, but my story didn't start taking shape until I learned the song “Sweet Prospect”, a shape note hymn with a rocking rhythm that reminded me of the sway of a train in motion. I think I understand how the song and Minehan's book meshed in my mind—the very American notion of a longed-for home, one that lies just out of reach—but the synthesis was on an emotional level that's hard to express. Which is of course why it takes a story to tell it.

How do you approach the research for a period piece like this?

With gusto. I love historical research! Luckily for me there's a great deal of primary material available on the era of the Great Depression—photos, maps, the WPA State Guide series. The trick is to pick out only what the story needs, and not just throw in all the other good stuff you come across.

The research involved in building the other world and its societies (which don't appear much in this first book) was a bit more difficult, involving a fair amount of climate science, plus a bit of Chinese and Central American history and language for background material. A good dose of Maxfield Parrish paintings as well, more for his color scheme than his subject matter. This process was somewhat more taxing but also fun.

You're currently working on the sequel. Care to give me a teaser of what Arlie's in for next?

I don't think it's giving away too much to say she makes it to Simon's world. It is indeed a wondrous, bountiful place, but still not quite what she'd been expecting. And then there's the matter of her unresolved promise to the other road kids that she'll find a way across to this paradise for any of them that want to go.

Meanwhile back on earth, Chick and the others are being pursued by an untrustworthy fellow named Patrick, who is determine to shanghai them to the other world whether they want to go or not.

What short stories do you have out, and do you have any current links to them?

Two of my stories are available online. The first, “Salt”, is very short. Eileen Gunn bought it for the late lamented site Infinite Matrix (along with other stories that came out of Walter Jon Williams's Rio Hondo workshop). It's the tale of how a desire for salt changed the world. The link is:

The other, “Rapture”, is long enough that Strange Horizons published it in two parts:

Another historically based story, this one set in the 1890s amid the revolutionary struggles taking place in Chicago at the time. A young working woman, Anna Kenney, determines to find out what's happening to her comrades, who have unaccountably changed personalities overnight.

You've been to a couple of very high powered workshops. What's it been like, learning from other writers? Anyone you've especially learned from? Any anecdotes to share?

They've been a heck of a lot more useful than the couple of creative writing classes I tried in college, that's for sure. The most important thing is getting honest feedback from others who've struggled with the same sort of problems you face every time you sit down to the computer. There's also a creative fizz to putting a lot of writers together for an extended period of time. Story ideas spark, but other things as well. At Clarion, which lasted six weeks, some of our excess energy ended up in a mad teddy-bear kidnapping plot, rides in the dorm dryer, and water-gun battles (the latter at Damon Knight's instigation; he was notorious well-known for this). But we also learned about the practicalities of a writer's life, which given that most of us were unpublished at the time, was really valuable.

Rio Hondo doesn't have instructors, just a bunch of smart, great writers who'll put your story through a gentle but thorough wringer. And competitive cooking!

I can't pick one writer who taught me more than all the others. It's like a kaleidoscope, with many many bright lessons going together to help make me who I am as a writer.

Your lifestyle is almost science fiction to some people. You live off the grid, literally. How does this differ from living in conventional housing? If someone who'd never seen an off the grid home came to your house, how would you explain it to them?

Living in this house is something like wearing a set of clothes, including shoes and hat, that you designed and made yourself, compared to clothes bought off the rack. Maybe you aren't particularly good at sewing or cobbling, but there's an ongoing pleasure and pride in it that you never get tired of, even when something goes wrong and you have to fix it.

It's also a bit like perennially camping out.

The off-the-grid* part—at least on the minimalist scale I'm doing it—requires compromises most people probably wouldn't want to make, not long term. No plumbing, to start with. My water comes from roof catchments (although as we're in the middle of a hundred-year drought, I'm having to haul water for my trees). The stove and refrigerator are propane. I've got enough electricity from my solar panels for lights, a laptop, a phone, and a CD player, and not a whole lot more.

On the other hand I have to admit to a shocking amount of glee when the electricity goes off in the area, and I'm the only house with lights. Not having monthly bills for power, gas, and water is nice as well.

*Just to be clear, I'm not completely off the grid at this point—my phone and computer are connected via a landline. That may change, however, if I can figure out how to manage both via cell phone.

What originally inspired you to live this way?

I guess I never grew out of being a mad scientist/carpenter. I love reinventing wheels just to see how to get them to work like they're supposed. I'd wanted to build my own house for most of my life, though my vision of what it would look like kept changing.

And then there's the wide streak of independent cheapskate in my character.

What led up to your decision to indie publish Canaan? Many people stereotype indie authors as amateurs, but you're a clear example of someone with strong contacts in traditional publishing. What influenced your choice?

Being who I am, the notion of carrying out the whole process of creating a book, not just the writing, sounds like fun to me. I'd make the physical books too if I had the room and time for it. (Yes! You too can create your own paperback books with not much more than a copier, a paper cutter, and some glue! Cool, no?) I'd wanted to do this for years. Now, with print-on-demand and e-books, it's even a reasonable way to go.

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk! Anything else you'd like to share?

I think I've probably gone on quite long enough at this point. My thanks to you for your patience and interest!

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