Write that Story! Fall Fiction Class at UNC-A

I’ll be teaching a fiction-writing class (hopefully in person, live!) for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UNC-Asheville this fall. Write That Story! Elements of Short Fiction runs for eight weeks on Mondays from 2 to 4 pm, beginning September 20, 2021 in the Reuter Center.

The course is designed for beginning to intermediate fiction writers, published or not, who are actively writing fiction, would like to sharpen their writing skills, and are ready to share drafts of their writing with peers in a workshop setting. Come prepared to write, share your work, and give thoughtful feedback about the work of others. Enrollment is capped at 10.

The fall course schedule and enrollment information will be available soon at https://olliasheville.unca.edu/

May 3: “Writer Talks!” Interview

Here’s a link to my Writer Talks interview on May third by Elizabeth Ann Atkins at Two Sisters Writing and Publishing. We talked about the craft of writing, the challenges, and the inspiration for the story “Fathering,” published on the Two Sisters website at ttps://www.twosisterswriting.com/winners-1/fathering-by-sarah-blanchard

YouTube link to the interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uvzSYygKLs4

I also read a few paragraphs from my novella, Lizzy Baby.

“Rift Zone” on PenDust Radio

“June sits in half-lotus on the edge of the mattress and narrows her eyes against the volcanic glow. She finger-combs her short, dirty hair off her forehead and watches him load the gun, sliding a single shell into the chamber.”

Rift Zone

When Kilauea volcano erupts in May 2018, back-to-the-land farmers June and Lani must decide whether to evacuate, or stay and protect their Big Island homestead against everyday threats like feral pigs and potential looters, or flee the dangers they cannot control. In the process, they learn where the fault lines are in their own relationship, and whether they can survive a disaster that may be immediate and cataclysmic.

“Rift Zone” is live on PenDust radio’s podcast! Narrator Rebekah Nemethy does a wonderful job of capturing the voices and the story of my fictional characters.

You can listen here at https://pendustradio.com/fiction/rift-zone/

It’s a 45 minute podcast from a 5,000 word story, so pour a favorite beverage, put your feet up, and enjoy.

Lizzy Baby – a novella

Lizzy Baby has received a five-star review from Readers’ Favorite.

“A somber coming-of-age novella…a gripping story that made my blood run cold in one chapter and made my blood boil in the next. The eponymous character, Liz, is easy to sympathize with [and] the narrative build-up was perfect. … I truly wanted to reach inside the book and bring her to a safer place…. Lizzy Baby had me brewing tea to calm me down. Now, excuse me while I look for more Sarah P Blanchard novellas.” –5 stars, Trix Lee, Readers’ Favorite

See https://read.amazon.com/kp/embed?asin=B08NGYSBVY&preview=newtab&linkCode=kpe&ref_=cm_sw_r_kb_dp_9YDVRGQGYR39EYFHC7R4

Fathering

She leaves the ice cream shop early and drives to the school at the designated time, with her white shirt and black jeans still reeking of sugar and cream. Picking up their son isn’t usually her job, but right now all the jobs are hers.

She speeds, just a little, on the empty straightaway past the hillside pasture where red cows graze behind a tumbled-down stone wall, topped with rusted barbed wire strung haphazardly from crooked posts. Calves, she thinks. He will want to see the babies.

She won’t arrive early but she won’t be late, either. She must be on time.

Their boy sits alone on a gray wooden bench outside the brick-faced primary wing, his battered red backpack next to him. For just a moment, she watches him swinging his feet and eyeing the other second-graders who swirl in bright clusters behind the schoolyard’s chain-link fence.

She angles the car into a space and steps out to open the curbside rear door. He runs to her, bumping his pack against her hip as he slings it into the back seat. He scrambles in and sits in the middle. When she climbs behind the wheel, their eyes connect in the rear-view mirror and she smiles…

Read the rest of the story at:

https://www.twosisterswriting.com/winners-1/fathering-by-sarah-blanchard

Unfinished Business

“Now he would never write the things that he had saved to write until he knew enough to write them well.”

Ernest Hemingway uses these words to describe the writer Harry, the main character in The Snows of Kilimanjaro. As Harry lies dying, stranded in the remote African bush, he remembers many incidents from his life, good stories that he felt he should have written. Like many of Hemingway’s stories, this one explores what it means to be a human being, as well as a writer—and how tempting it is, when life is easy and secure, to let the great intentions and grand goals slide away. To procrastinate. To never quite get around to what you feel you should do, or could be doing. Harry rationalizes his failure to “write the good stories” by not knowing enough “to write them well.”

Waiting to “know enough” before you start writing means that you likely won’t write, or do much of anything else. Harry has lived through war, travel, hardship, and conflict on several continents, in precarious times and places, but his death comes from something small and simple: a scratch from a thorn that, left untreated, becomes infected. He dies alone, on a failed safari with a group of paid attendants and a wealthy wife he doesn’t love.

We will never “know enough” to begin telling the good stories. We simply have to begin from where we are, and put in the hard work to make the writing (or whatever) as good as we can.

Tempis fugit, carpe diem.

Community Book Merchants

Where would we be without our independent booksellers?

When I lived in Raleigh, my second-favorite happy place (after our back yard and the woods) was Quail Ridge Books in North Hills. It’s a magnificent space, upstairs and down, that since 1984 has offered fascinating selections of best-sellers, local works, and more obscure titles. Over the years, they’ve featured discussions, events, children’s hours, town hall meetings, and local author readings. I took a wonderful fiction writing class there in 2019, through the Redbud Project, which gave me the courage to write more, write better, and gain the confidence to find my voice and send my work out into the world. And I found other, smaller shops: Pauper’s Books (recycled favorites, comics, a great children’s section with terrific prices) in Clayton, NC, and the tiny, eclectic space occupied by So and So Books on Person Street in Raleigh.

By the time we moved to the mountains and settled in Weaverville, NC, in May of 2020, I’d become a regular visitor to Malaprop’s Bookstore and Café in Asheville.

The pandemic, of course, has brought drastic changes. I can’t just stroll in off the street or stop in for a cappucino at Malaprop’s. To shop in person, I now need to make a “browsing appointment,” so the staff can control traffic and hygiene. Book clubs and children’s hours are Zoomed, and so are author readings. Miss Malaprop’s weekly Storytime (ages 3 to 9) is now livestreamed on Instagram.

Housebound by the virus, we are reading more. And many people automatically turn to the behemoth, the Amazon machine, to deliver all their needs right to the doorstep. (I was a very early adopter of Amazon—I still have the travel mugs, back from when they needed to convince people to buy books on this new-fangled sales platform called the Internet, so every purchase came with a free coffee mug.) And Kindle is even easier, no delivery truck involved! Just a click or two and shazam! instant gratification.

But our relationships with a book is more than just a click and a download, or two clicks and a scuffed brown box (often dented or damp) dropped on the (sometimes wrong) doorstep. By whose recommendation do we choose our next intimate reading experience? Whom can we ask about the best books to talk about on a date? What’s the top choice for turning a reluctant pre-teen into a voracious, lifelong reader?

See, Malaprop’s actually has a browsing category called Quaranteen Reading. And Blind Date Books. No, the Blind Date Books aren’t for you to bring on an actual blind date (though maybe you should, just in case it doesn’t go well). Instead, you select a category based on the kind of books you like to read, and the staff picks your next book for you, often at a discount. A very popular program!

And there is truly nothing better than walking into a bookstore, smelling actual books (paper, cover boards, bindings, glue), feeling their weight and heft. Knowing that these solid repositories of WORDS will live on, beyond the battery life of your Kindle and even beyond your lifetime. A treasured book—the real thing, perhaps with an inscription and an autograph—can be a gift, a legacy, an inheritance.

And once the virus loosens its hold on everyone, you can ask Malaprop’s to host a pop-up wedding. Just try that on Amazon.

Storytelling

Stories are vehicles for witnessing truth, for creating histories, revealing secrets and solving mysteries. People in my family have always been storytellers, but not always reliable ones. (Is this narrator reliable? Is this my truth, his truth, wishful thinking, or somewhere on the edge of plausibility?) And the stories tended to be only pretty ones. Darker topics got glossed over, painted with roses, or quietly ignored.

Only one person, my mother, would speak of anything negative, or difficult, or tragic. She was the self-described pessimist of the family.

All families have secrets, but most people born into most families get to know at least some of the past and some of the secrets. If you’re adopted, of course, you may not know much at all.

I have always felt adopted, though I was born into a family with two parents and four siblings. I am more than two decades younger than my nearest sibling; my brothers and sisters had all left home by the time I was born; and my father died when I was 13. So I’m the product of a single-parent home, too, because in my teenage years, it was just Mom and me, living on her small earnings as a housecleaner and babysitter, and the Social Security check that arrive on the third of each month.

Between the two world wars, my parents raised a complete, close-knit family—two boys, two girls. My father worked as the dairy-herd manager and my mother kept house, on the farm where they raised their children. They survived the Great Depression. Both boys served in the Second World War and came home mostly intact. In 1949, my parents celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

All this, before I was born, in 1950.

Nearly all of the family histories, and therefore nearly all of the family secrets, were never disclosed to me (except my own). When I asked my much-older sisters about war or poverty or other hard times, I was flatly told, no, they couldn’t recall much of that. They only wanted to remember the good things, they said, and I was asking about troubles that did not need attention.

Apparently I was always too young (even after I married, graduated college, bore a son) to hear anything negative, except from my mother, who only hinted at certain difficulties. “Everyone says your father was a saint,” she told me after he died. “He wasn’t a saint, you know.” No, I didn’t know. I thought he walked on water, so what did that mean?? She wouldn’t say.

Left with not much except the repeated banalities, “Life was so good on the farm.” “What a wonderful place to grow up.” “Our parents loved us all so much!” I’m left to re-construct, or invent outright, the lives that influenced me, brought me into being, and then told me little or nothing that I actually wanted to know.

So my stories are my own now, reconstructed to be as close as I can, to what I know is true.

From the Bear’s Point of View

On our neighborhood blog, someone posted a picture of her SUV, after a black bear spent an hour or three working on the passenger side door to find what might food have been left inside. The newly redesigned vehicle sported a ripped-out gasket along the door frame, a bent sideview mirror, and several scrapes and gouges and dents on the door and its handle. Yes, bears know where the handles are, and they know how the handles work. This SUV was locked, so the bear didn’t get in, but—

No, the neighbor wasn’t dumb enough to leave food or food wrappers in the car overnight. But: she’d gone out for take-out the previous evening, and the lingering scent of burgers and fries was enough to convince a bear or two, or more, that the SUV was a food locker that needed breaking into. And she doesn’t have a garage, so her vehicle sits in the yard all night, next to the front porch.

It’s November, so bears and other hibernating critters are hell-bent on stocking up on carbs and proteins and fats before heading into their dens for that long, cold sleep. Honeycomb in the beehives, sunflower seeds in the bird feeders, cat kibble left on the deck for the outdoor kitties—it’s all food for bears.

And there’s the hook for a new story, I think. Seeing things from the bear’s perspective. POV (point of view) in a story can be tricky. By writing in first person, the writer restricts herself to seeing only through that character’s eyes, showing the readers only what that person sees. Write in third-person omniscient, and the reader may end up knowing far more than the protagonist, and then the writer risks losing that reader-character empathy that we all (most of us) generally strive for. (Writing in second-person, “You,” is very tricky! I avoid it, because it sounds like preaching. Heaven forbid I sound like a preacher.)

So what’s left? Third-person “close” POV works well for me. In this, I can get inside one character’s head to channel thoughts and emotions, yet still remaining a (hopefully) astute observer.

Now for the bears. Without heading into Pooh-territory, without falling down the sentimental anthropomorphism rabbit-hole, how can we write of the perceptions, motivations, and actions of a black bear approaching an SUV that smells of hamburgers and french fries, here in western North Carolina in November?

Food for thought, no pun intended.

The Bull Pen

I don’t remember the bull’s name, but I know he liked red clover.

He was huge, thick through the neck and shoulders. The bull lived in a pen that was built “horse high and bull strong,” enclosed by heavy oak planks bolted to posts of re-purposed railroad ties, creosoted to a thick sheen and sunk three feet into the rocky ground.

Whenever he could smell a cow in estrus, which was most days, the bull attacked the fence, hurling himself against the thick planks with his heavy shoulders. The wood was gouged and splintered where he’d dug into it with his blunt horns that curved outward from a massive, granite-hard skull.

He was a Guernsey, because my father, the dairy farm manager, had convinced Dr. Wood, the dairy farm owner, that even though every other commercial farm in southern New England had switched over to high-production, low-butterfat Holsteins, our farm should be promoting the Golden Guernsey brand.

I don’t know why. This was in the early 1950s, and there are many questions from that time that I cannot answer.

I do know that my father tended to hang on to the past, that older method of farming that kept a bull, instead of employing the veterinarian to arrive with his flexible thin hose and bulb syringe and arm-length rubber sleeve to perform A.I. procedures. (That’s artificial insemination, not artificial intelligence, though farms these days have plenty of both.)

The bull wore a heavy metal ring that pierced the cartilage of his sensitive nose, nostril to nostril. He was not easy to handle, and moving him around often involved several men, some wielding pitchforks. To restrain the bull for veterinary attention or the occasional bath, a farmhand reached through the fence and clipped a bull pole—a long wooden stick with a snap on one end—to the ring, pulled the bull to the fieldstone foundation of the barn, and chained the ring to a heavier iron ring set in the concrete.

“Don’t ever go in the bull pen,” I was instructed before I could even walk. I never went in there, until much later when the bullpen was empty, after he was sold or slaughtered—another unknown thing—but I often fed him clover and fresh grass, poking the stems and leaves through narrow spaces between the planks. Nearly every day, the summer I turned five, I watched his amazing pink tongue, strongly muscled and long and pointy on the end, so very adept at curling around the stems of red clover. His breath and shoulders and horns were just inches away, on the other side of the fence boards. Sometimes he would rub against the fence, scratching a giant shoulder or his hard bony forehead against the oak-planked fence, making it shudder.

The bull stood by the fence each morning and looked for me, of course, because I was the bringer of what must have been the second most interesting thing in his life, right up there after a beautiful Guernsey heifer in full squatting estrus.

Even at five, a farm child knows things that other children do not. We understand, for example, that all the milk, meat, fruits and vegetables—all the food that must be raised and ripened and harvested and sent to market—all of it depends on fecundity and nurturing and, later, harvest. Which, in the case of animal flesh, means death.

Five or six years later, a different bull was part of my farm-based sex education curriculum, when it was suggested by my parents that I attend the insemination of my hand-raised dairy heifer, a pretty Brown Swiss-Jersey cross named Swiss Belle. (That incident is recounted in the story Lizzy Baby, though the girl in that story is a year or two younger than I was, and there was no creepy cousin in attendance.)

Some farm children are made callous and cynical by these experiences. Others flee as soon as they can. Some—most, I hope, or we wouldn’t have many farmers—learn to embrace the cycle of birth, growth, sex, birth, more sex, sowing, reaping, and death.

In the midst of all that, however, there are still opportunities to simply feed some clover to the bull.