Thursday, March 4, 2010

Author Spotlight: Smoky Trudeau

Good morning, everyone! Today's Author Spotlight is the incomparable Smoky Trudeau!

Welcome, Smoky! And please help yourself to all the virtual cookies, coffee or tea you like! As I told Chelle, I am quite inept in the kitchen, so they're store bought, but I was able to boil the water for the coffee and tea without burning the house down! :)

First off, I think it's important that our readers know a little about your work. You're a multi-published author. You write and non-fiction alike. You also have an anthology that was released recently. As a writer, which do you find to be more enjoyable: fiction, non-fiction or something like Observation of an Earth Mage, which is a compilation of poems and essays?

My writing really is all over the board, isn’t it? I think that’s because I started my writing career as a freelance features writer. I wrote about everything from baton-twirling champions to endangered ecosystems to turbine engines. I had to be versatile to be good at my job, and that versatility has carried over into my books.

If you’d asked me this question a year ago, I would have said unquestionably, fiction writing is my first love. I not only get emotionally involved with my characters—they become like family to me—I am emotionally involved in my settings.

The setting of Redeeming Grace is Windy Hill Orchard on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. That was the name of my beloved aunt and uncle’s peach orchard when I was a child, so the setting is a real place (although the orchard is long gone).

The setting of The Cabin is the mountains and Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, where my roots run deep through my father’s side of the family.

But Observations of an Earth Mage is me truly writing from my soul. My connection with our Mother Earth is profound and spiritual, and I’m told that really comes through in the book. I’ve had readers write me emails or contact me through Xanga or Facebook and tell me I’ve inspired them to go camping, or take a hike, or take up gardening. I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment knowing I’ve helped others get attuned to the wonders of nature.

Speaking of Observations of an Earth Mage, could you tell us more about it? I'm very curious as to what inspired you to create this incredible anthology. Did you write these poems and essays with the intention of creating this book, or are these writings from over time that you put together to create Observations of an Earth Mage?

They are both. I had my first earth mage experience when I was a three-year-old child, while sitting in an apple tree in my family’s back yard. (I define earth mage not as one who does magic—I’ll leave that job to Mother Nature—but rather as one who sees the natural world as a magical place.) I had an epiphany about my place in the natural world, that I was no better than the bees and the birds and the bears, I wasn’t above the snakes and the snails and the swallows. I am Nature; Nature is me.

So, I’ve been writing about my experiences in the natural world all my career, and had essays and poems published in a variety of magazines and newspapers. After floundering around for a year or so on my Xanga blog, searching for what the right niche was for me, I took a camping trip to Yosemite and wrote about it. My readers responded with such enthusiasm I started blogging regularly on my meanderings. My publisher took note, and invited me to put together a book about my experiences. She didn’t have to ask me twice! After that, my husband and I took to the trails at least a couple of times a week to gather more story material, and volume one of Observations of an Earth Mage was born.

Another passion of yours is teaching writing. You have Front-Word, Back-word, Insight Out,

Left Brained, Write Brained,

you also have “Write Well with Smoky Trudeau” as well as regular blog talk radio shows where you give listeners information on how to improve their writing skills. Did you always have a passion for teaching and assisting other writers?

Yes! I taught writing and creativity workshops at Parkland Community College in Champaign, Illinois, for many years before moving to Southern California, and was a frequent keynote speaker at writing conferences throughout the Midwest. I loved teaching. I get a profound satisfaction of watching aspiring writers grow, and when I find out a former student of mine has published something, I feel like a grandauthor (like a grandparent, only of writing, not kids!). One of my students, Robert Hays, has published three books since taking my class, all from Vanilla Heart Publishing. I’m very, very proud of him!

I personally LOVE your “Write Well with Smoky Trudeau” exercises. You really push people to be creative and to push themselves as writers. What do you think is the most important thing for aspiring writers to learn or remember?

To have fun with it. Yes, writing is hard work, but if you take it—and yourself—too seriously, you’ll end up frustrated and your writing will be weak. Writing is supposed to be fun! That’s why a lot of my writing exercises involve silliness and cartoon characters. They seem fun, non-threatening, so how hard can they be? Yet even the silliest of exercises get the writer to stretch their creative imagination, and that’s what writing exercises are all about.

Another aspect of your writing that I highly admire is your range of storylines. Not only do you write in various genres, but you also explore different eras and lifestyles. There is such diversity in your writing. Is there anything in particular that inspires you to learn about these different time periods?

Well, Redeeming Grace was supposed to be a love story. My aunt and uncle were nineteen and forty when they met and married back in the 1920s, and were the most devoted couple I have ever known. I inherited their love letters, and I set out to write about that. But the book took on a life of its own, which as you know, manuscripts often do, and the story doesn’t bear the foggiest resemblance to their story. The Cabin, on the other hand, stemmed from an incident in my own family’s history. My triple-great Granddaddy Benjamin’s cabin, built in the late 1700s, still stands in Virginia. Benjamin had fourteen children. The youngest, Elizabeth, had a child out of wedlock in the 1860s, then disappeared completely from our family tree. No one has the foggiest idea what happened to her. The Cabin is this fiction writer’s wild fantasy of what may have become of her ancestor.

As an open history nerd, I absolutely LOVE the fact that you have Redeeming Grace, which occurs in the late 1920s, and The Cabin, which throws James-Cyrus Hoffmann, your main character, into the era of the Civil War. What was the most fun or interesting part of writing historical fiction?

Doing the research. For Redeeming Grace I had to research what sort of lingerie women wore in the 1920s, and that was quite an education! Really fun. Because The Cabin is a time travel novel, I had to research when a lot of things we take for granted were created, like Coca-Cola, indoor plumbing, and refrigerators. That was fun. I love trivia, and doing this sort of research for a book is a trivia-lover’s Nirvana.

As you know, I love giving authors the opportunity to talk about their books! :) Would you mind sharing the synopses or premises of each of your books as well as some quotes?

Here’s the synopsis for Redeeming Grace:

The tragic deaths of her mother and two younger siblings have left Grace Harmon responsible for raising her sister Miriam and protecting her from their abusive father, Luther, a zealot preacher with a penchant for speaking in Biblical verse who is on a downward spiral toward insanity.

Otto Singer charms Grace with his gentle courtship and devotion to his brother, Henry. But after their marriage, Otto is unable to share with Grace the terrible secret he has kept more than twenty years. Otto believes he is responsible for a tragic accident that claimed the life of a young woman and left Henry severely brain damaged.

Luther's insane ravings and increasingly violent behavior force Grace to question and reassess the patriarchal religious beliefs of her childhood. Then tragedy strikes just when Otto's secret is uncovered, unleashing demons that threaten to destroy the entire family. Can Grace find the strength to save them, and in the process find her own redemption? Redeeming Grace is set on Maryland's eastern shore in the late 1920's. The book will appeal to lovers of literary fiction who enjoy theological debate and who understand happy endings, in novels as in life, sometimes come at a heavy price.

And for The Cabin:

James-Cyrus Hoffmann has just inherited his grandfather’s farm, and with it a mysterious cabin deep in the woods on Hoffmann mountain; a cabin he has dreamed about since childhood. When James-Cyrus enters the cabin, he is vaulted back through time to the Civil War era, where he meets Elizabeth, the brave young woman who lives in the cabin, and Malachi, a runaway slave. James-Cyrus realizes his dreams of the cabin were visions of the past, and that Elizabeth is his great-great aunt—a woman who vanished without a trace from the family tree. He also learns of his ancestors’ pivotal role in the lives of dozens of runaway slaves who were offered a safe haven at the cabin, a station on the underground railroad.
Cora Spellmacher, James-Cyrus’s elderly friend and neighbor, begins to unravel the secret of how he is able to make his fantastic leaps back and forth through time. In doing so, Cora begins to hope a tragic wrong from her own past can be righted, and that she can regain something precious that was lost to her many years earlier.
The dreams continue, and James-Cyrus realizes Elizabeth and Malachi are in terrible danger. With Cora’s help, James-Cyrus undertakes a daring plan of rescue that promises to rewrite his family history and change all of their lives forever.

I've often been asked how much of myself is in my characters or vice versa. Since you use familial locations and stories, how much of yourself do you give to your characters/how much of a personal reflection are they of you?

I haven't intentionally modeled any of my characters after myself, and hadn't even thought about it until you asked. But, thinking about it, James-Cyrus in The Cabin does have a lot of my personality traits. He loves the wild animals that inhabit Hoffmann Mountain, and is nonplussed when he ticks off a mother bear by inadvertently getting too close to her cubs (actually, it was the cubs that wandered too close to James-Cyrus!). He handled that encounter well; I've had a lot of close encounters with black bears, so I knew how to write that scene based on my own experiences. James-Cyrus is also very curious and has a strong sense of what I call wonderlust--that constant urge to answer the question, 'I wonder what's over there/up that mountain/under that rock/etc." That's me to a T. During the book, he begins to really connect with the magic of Nature. He learns to be an earth mage, although that's not the central plot of the story. That's really interesting and a good question, Lauren. I hadn't realized how much of myself I'd put in James-Cyrus.

Thank you so much for joining us today, Smoky! It was a real pleasure having you here! :)

Smoky is the author of two novels, Redeeming Grace and The Cabin; two books for writers, Front-Word, Back-Word, Insight Out: Lessons on Writing the Novel Lurking Inside You From Start to Finish and Left Brained, Write Brained: 366 Writing Prompts and Exercises. Her new photo/essay collection, Observations of an Earth Mage, is now available as well.

She is working on her third novel, The Storyteller's Bracelet.

Visit Smoky at


Sun Singer said...

Hi Smoky and Lauren,

Very enjoyable conversation even if the cookies were store bought.


Chelle Cordero said...

What a wonderful journey into Smoky's world! Thanks.

charmainegordon said...

Charmaine Gordon said....
An insightful interview, Lauren and Smoky. I felt as though I were sitting on the couch drinking tea in the same room with you.