Local Author Releases Second Novel
Jun 01, 2018 12:08AM
By Richard Melella
Fresno was always going to be my choice. Some people may not understand this- but I love Fresno! This is my home. I have a strong sense of community and connection and ownership in this town. All too often it’s cast as a joke…you know, its remembered mostly as “FRESNO” the Carol Burnett miniseries – so let’s make fun of it or “Addicted to Fresno” that new movie where Fresno seems like it’s basically a big meth lab and we only see tumble weeds and chain linked fences. Where is the story of a real Fresno? Steve Yarbrough, every once and awhile, writes about Fresno in his stories and there are the wonderful stories of Saroyan and plenty of poets have written beautifully about our city. I just wanted to set a contemporary novel, in this real place, that isn’t making fun of Fresno.
Excerpt from The Circle Game:
“A Whisper of clouds stretched across a fading lavender sky and a light breeze offered a bit of hope from a relentless summer that had stretched into October. Fresno was famous for summers that burned like hell itself and dreary winters of dense fog that shrouded the valley in a blind mist. This was one of those rare in-between days, the type of day that must have lured those first settlers to stop and begin planting crops and building homes.
Courthouse park was a scattered patchwork of cool shade and deep shadows where grey squirrels darted across the grass and up the mottled branches up the meandering magnolias, Chinese elms, and tall pines. A constant parade of deputies in and around the courthouse made it a safe playground for the kids whose parents fought inside, battling over couches and televisions, weekend visitations and child support. Bernie quickly strolled through the park, ignoring the napping winos stretched out on the grass, past benches filled with bored civil servants and frightened jurors munching on bagels and muffins from the coffee cart that stood in the breezeway, all under a perfect sky above.”
It is refreshing to see Fresno as the setting of a compelling work of fiction. What research did you conduct around the city to accurately capture the places that many of our readers will undoubtedly recognize?
For the courthouse park detail in the novel, I actually had jury duty and was sitting out on a bench, as always, with a notebook in hand capturing the day. As far as the street and the house where I have the character Bernie working at- I worked at that office for a wonderful attorney- Peggy Leggett.
The Gordon Home?
I call it the Gordon Home in the novel, but it was originally the Bean Home on the corner of L and San Joaquin.
Let’s talk about your journey to become a published author. Do you think it was inevitable? Was the writing DNA always in you - seeking a way out?
Yes, you know- I think the writing DNA was always in me, but there was a time in my life when I lost it- I forgot it. I have an older brother- who was a teacher, then a principal, then an administrator- he was and still is a strong believer in higher education – and he told me I had to go back to college- not to settle, he started me on this path.
Your brother encouraged you to go back to school to get a degree?
Yes- When I came back to Fresno, I got a job as a legal secretary, and he encouraged me to pursue a college degree. I was a single mom, so I only signed up for one course at Fresno City College- a creative writing class with Dwayne Rail, whom I still am friends. I remember Dwayne at one point saying, “Were you always a writer? You’re pretty good.” Looking back, he probably said that to everybody (laughs). I said, “No, this is the first creative thing I’ve ever written.” I really believed at that time- that this had been my first attempt at writing, I was 28 years old.
Did you journal before that? Often writers journal a bit in the beginning.
Yes- I did, I did journal. But one day, about 15 years ago, I got a call from my sister in Idaho; my mother was suffering from Alzheimer’s and she was her caregiver at the time. It was during Summer break and she asked me come up to Idaho and help organize the garage, you know- figure out what kid is getting what and so I spent that summer between taking classes and spending time at my mom’s house cleaning out her garage. One day I come across this box, it was one of those blue- you know- Tupperware tubs or Rubbermaid tubs- and it was full of my stuff. I was surprised because I always had a very contentious relationship with my mother and yet- it was there- all me. And in that blue tub was a composition notebook, I opened it and it was cover to cover full of my stories and poems and songs.
Songs you had written?
Yes- That I had written – because I play music- I just forgot about it all.
How old were you when you originally composed the things you discovered?
I was in 9th grade- and full of 9th grade angst (laughs) and I remember finding a note from my teacher that said, “I hope you publish these poems- I think you might be one of our next Fresno Poets!” and at that time- that meant nothing to me.
It means a lot now.
(Smiles) Yes. It means a lot now!
Especially with the proud tradition of what it means to be formally labeled a “Fresno Poet.”
Yes- and suddenly it was like- now wait a minute- I do remember, I was a writer- I was writing all the time back then. How did I forget that part of me? And then it hit me- oh yeah life. I had some big worries going on during that period before I went back to school and I forgot that I wrote creatively when I was a child.
The muse was always there.
It really was. It was always there. And I have one more story- I think it’s interesting about memory and how it sometimes hides from us. On that same trip to Idaho- I remember walking into my sister’s guest room and on the shelf she had these reader’s digest condensed books and my brain almost exploded because suddenly I started to remember. I remembered my mother decorating with those books. I was in 3rd grade and I assumed that since they were on a shelf- they were like magic or something and I remember stealing them, one at a time, wrapping each one in a blanket and running out far from the house and I would try to read them- the content was way over my head- I was 8 or 9 at the time, but I remember one day trying to figure out what a scarlet pimpernel was because I didn’t know that word.
But it sounded cool-
It sounded very cool- I remember looking up at the sky, I was under this mulberry tree looking through the branches- and I thought – books are soooo amazing but there really is just 26 letters and if I could take those 26 letters and throw them into the air- and then do some kind of magic – you know- like Samantha on Bewitched (the tv show) and they could fall down into the right order- I could write a book. I think that was my earliest fantasy about being a writer.
Looking back, you realized that the dream of becoming a writer was always there?
Yes. It was.
So now you’re in this successful career as a legal secretary- then you become a respected paralegal. When did you have that ah-ha moment? I am going to pursue my bliss and become a published writer! Was there a specific time? Or was it a process?
It was a process. I remember when I started seriously pursuing my education- it started with that one creative writing class, and you get on a roll and before you know it, you’re taking all kinds of classes and I remember thinking – I just want a college degree, so that my opinions matter more because one of the things I felt at the law firm I was working at- was this rather misogynistic attitude that you’re a woman, you’re a secretary- it’s very patriarchal.
How did your work as a paralegal prepare your for becoming a novelist?
It prepared me for the arduous work of writing. The process is certainly similar; you must do the research, you must do the revision, as a writer you are aware of your reader, and as a paralegal you must be keenly aware of your audience. You don’t want to do the other sides work for them. Working as a paralegal also gave me a lot of stories and a lot of knowledge about the legal world that came in handy when writing The Circle Game.
In a sense, the paralegal work was a blessing?
Yes, it was. It gave me an experience outside of academia that I can draw upon. Sadly, a lot of people only know the world of academia. They are a student. They teach. They write. They don’t ever have a career outside of academia.
When you applied for the MFA program at CSUF, were you confident that your writing would be accepted? That it was good enough?
Yes- by that time I was confident. The more writing classes I took; the more confident I became. I took a lot of creative writing courses. I took them at FCC and at State- I simply enjoyed it. My bachelor’s degree is in English.
At Fresno State?
Yes, at State- I’m completely home grown. I had taken English 163 with Liza Weiland a couple of times; Liza and I became very good friends and she played a huge role in supporting me to become a writer. She gave me that. So, I applied for the MFA program, and I remember having a conversation with Steve Yarbrough (Former CSUF English Professor) and I said to him, “Well Steve, I just maybe the most educated paralegal at my law firm – but I’m going to get this MFA” and he replied, in that southern drawl of his. “Wellll Tan-ya, something’ tells me you’re not going to be a paralegal for long!”
Nice Steve Yarbrough impression (laughing).
Yes- and he was so right because the minute I taught my first class. It was like, alright, this is what I’m supposing to be doing. So, I quit the paralegal job while I was still in the MFA program. I gave my notice and worked as a TA. I did some free-lance work but I quit the fulltime paralegal work while I was a grad student. It interfered with my ability to write creatively. I mean having to write legal summaries all day…and then switch to creative writing. No Thanks.
It certainly is a different type of writing- and it creeps into your fiction.
Yes, it does creep into your fiction. So, I needed to let it go and be poor for a while.
Your first published novel- The Barber’s Wife- was set in the early 30’s, there are historical figures like Pretty Boy Floyd in the novel – and the central character is a benevolent tough nurse who provides medical care for essentially gangsters- correct?
Right- because everyone deserves medical care. The focus is not on the gangsters in the story rather the woman in the story. The Barber’s Wife is historically based and historically accurate. It based on my grandmother who was a nurse in Oklahoma during the 30’s and she did indeed path-up wounded law men – though not Pretty Boy Floyd- I made that up. But my grandfather was a barber and he did cut Pretty Boys hair – they were friends and he always said very nice things about him. He loved Charlie Floyd. I thought, that was always an interesting story and I then I thought of blending those two-family story lines together.
Did you travel back to Oklahoma?
That was the first step. I flew out to Oklahoma and spent time there during the summer- mostly doing the research that was needed to be accurate– I spoke to a lot of local people. I spent days at the university library in the archive room- the archivist and I became friendly.
Did you have your story arc already developed at that point?
No- not at all- I was just feeling it out. And didn’t know what I was going to do or where I was going to go with it. But I went to a senior citizens home and talked to people who had lived during that time, I mean it was interesting, hot and muggy, and some of it was weird, but one of the last things I did was a road trip to the cemetery where Charlie “Pretty Boy” Floyd is buried. And I walked all around there looking for his grave. It was sticky and hot and the grass was over grown and the cicadas were screaming and I’m thinking, a snake is going to jump out at any minute and I’m going to die- and I’m going to die here- looking for Pretty Boy’s grave- and I turned around and there was this headstone covered with money- like coins and dollars and five-dollar bills and that was Charlie Floyds grave.
Wow. Great story.
And I thought, this is where the story ends. And then I came home, read some biographies on Charlie Floyd and figured out where I would begin, and I made sure to include in the story some landmark events – like famous gun battles that weren’t about him – but were accurate to the time – so, if I said there was a shoot-out in Bragg Mountain, there was.
Photo courtesy of Donna Mott
And The Circle Game- What about your new novel?
Purely imaginative. No historical basis. Some 30 years ago, a friend told me her story – a sad story, she was adopted at 12 years old, and her adopted father shot her mom and then shot himself, and for the second time she had experienced terrible loss. That was the catalyst for the story of The Circle Game. That is the only thing that is real. Her story plagued me for a long time- not just the initial loss of your birth parents, but then your adopted parents too and she never really knew why it happened, - but unlike the characters in the story, she did not live with her grandmother, or become an attorney, these are things I added to the story arc.
What was the more enjoyable of the two novels to write?
I really loved the research involved with the Barber’s Wife, but The Circle Game was more free-wheeling’ like anything could happen, I could go anywhere in the story, and there was more of a surprise element to The Circle Game because I didn’t know where it would end. I just keep writing the story until it got there naturally. And then one day I woke up and said, “You know what? I know where this will end! I know where I’m going with this- it just had to come to me.”
How nice to have that revelation- where the ending of your story comes to you organically?
One of the best feelings in the world! Like it was a gift.
Do you personally identify with any of the characters in The Circle Game?
A friend, who read the novel recently told me that she saw a lot of me in Bernie- her sense of social justice and all that. One of the things I wanted to include in (the story), is this unconscious bias that exists in the judicial system, and so I have Bernie playing off Chrystal who says things that are straight out abrasive and Bernie getting upset; but then Bernie also has some bias when she goes to see Angelica; and at the end – Bernie realizes that her perceptions were all wrong. None of us are perfect – it keeps her well-rounded as a character- and all of us should be constantly evolving right?
When thinking about telling the story of the two women in The Circle Game, did you know that you wanted to tell the story from the voice of the two perspectives?
Yes. I always knew that. And I always knew that I didn’t want this to be an Oprah story. It’s not- oh mommy! There’s a bitterness there. And a reluctance to meet this woman. There is a lot of tension and manipulation.
Was it particularly challenging to move between the two voices of the two characters?
I didn’t struggle with that. I certainly enjoyed writing Julie’s story more than I did writing Bernie’s.
Did you? Why is that?
I don’t know (laughs) Because its much darker. It’s more of a mystery to me. It is a life that I really wouldn’t know.
Did you always want to start the novel with Bernie’s story first?
The Circle Game started as a short story when I was in the MFA program. It was always a story about a woman who resolves the grief and trauma of her childhood by clipping out stories from the newspaper- “See it happens to everybody!” So, she was always clipping out newspaper stories and putting them in this box- it was a short story. The character was always named Bernie and I remember thinking even back then, that this was going to be part of a novel. The idea of the story never left me.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
There seems to be a theme of the strong woman character in each of the two books I’ve written, this just seems to naturally come out on its own. My next project I’m working on is called “Stinger,” and I co-wrote it with Bill McEwen. It is an interesting process co-writing a novel. It is both challenging and difficult but also…fun. To have somebody who is invested in the story with you. There is a lot of back in forth as to what you like and don’t like, and as time went on, one of the characters kind of became my character. Once again, I find myself insisting on a strong woman character in this story that I don’t own completely. I don’t know how to not have that. It is just such an innate part of who I am.
If you could tell your younger writing self-anything, what would it be?
Don’t forget who you are. Keep writing. Keep doing it.
What does literary success look like to you?
Well when I started out it was to see one short story published. I guess literary success now is when I can get to a point that I feel proud of a body of work.
How enjoyable is it for you to teach the art of fiction to aspiring writers?
Yes! I love watching students get excited about what they are doing. Even in my Children’s Literature class where I incorporate a lot of creative writing assignments – I have my students do this one project where we study ancient fairy tales, and then I tell them they must manipulate the fairy tale until it is their own story. And then they must analyze it. They get so excited- I mean creatively. I think if we taught more creative writing in the lower grades – like K-12- and even in college – if students were to pursue more of those courses – they wouldn’t hate writing so much. What I love is watching students use their imagination- I love the stories they come up with and how they support one another in a workshop.
So, tell our readers how they can get a hold of The Barber's Wife, and your newest novel, The Circle Game.
The novels are available at the Clovis Book Barn, Kennel Book Store and the Santa Cruz Book Shop. You can also buy them directly online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble websites.
Do you have any book readings scheduled that our readers can attend?
On June 13, I will be reading from The Circle Game at the Respite by the River- the San Joaquin River Parkway. My Band, Old Blue is playing music before the reading. So, it’s a double header for me. There will also be books there for purchase and signing.
That sounds like a fun event! Wednesday, June 13 from 6:00 to 8:00 pm at Respite by the River. Any parting advice for aspiring young writers?
Keep writing. Keep writing down your stories – even if its journaling. Write down what you see and what you hear.
Thank You Tanya.
My pleasure and thank you Richard.
An excerpt from The Circle Game:
“The Fulton Mall, a six-block walking mall, was an outdoor museum of art and flowing fountains. For years it brought cars and busloads of folks to town for shopping, lunch at Woolworth’s and a matinee at the Crest Theater, but the flight of businesses and newer shops out north had turned it into a string of empty storefronts or sandwich shops, the beautiful sculptures and fountains left to collect dust and graffiti. The rumor is that it would be ripped out and cars would once again roll down the avenue. She’d been drawn to this area since she was a kid; she had fond memories of shopping with her grandmother for school clothes at JC Penny and chocolate malts and the Newberry’s lunch counter. Ripping up the mall would be like ripping up those wistful days, but those days are gone.”
Lecturer Tanya Nichols received her MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from Fresno State, where she now teaches writing and literature courses. She serves as the coordinator of the English Department's annual Young Writers’ Conference and as faculty adviser and editor-in-chief of the San Joaquin Review journal. Tanya is the author of the novel The Barber’s Wife, published in 2014 and The Circle Game (2018) both by Alternative Book Press. Her work has appeared in the North Carolina Literary Review, the Sycamore Review, In the Grove, and the San Joaquin Review.