A special treat today! Tracy Seeley, author of My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas, answers my questions on reliving her childhood, positioning a new memoir and creating a writing community. Plus! A chance to win a copy of her book! See details at end of the interview…
Watch the book trailer now >> The My Ruby Slippers book trailer
About the Author: A bout with breast cancer and a betrayal by a loved one encouraged Tracy Seeley to search for her past in what she had believed to be a long forgotten childhood in Kansas. A plan for just one trip back to the past evolved into several trips to the Midwest that revealed her hidden feelings about the meaning of family.
What inspired the idea to write My Ruby Slippers: The Road Back to Kansas?
My first inspiration came from a list of 13 addresses my mother had written in my baby book—all the places I’d lived by the time I was 9. I was curious. I didn’t remember the first 7 places, and had long thought I’d go back and follow my family’s wanderings and just see what turned up. It took me a long time to finally make that trip. When I did, my parents had recently died, I’d been diagnosed with breast cancer, and the man I’d lived with for a long time had left me for someone else. So inspiration also came from those events. The childhood moving and the more recent dramatic changes in my life all uprooted me in different ways. In my books, I wanted to explore rootlessness and change and my own desire for a deep-rooted sense of place. I’d never had one before.
With all the memoirs out there, especially from big-name rock stars, how did you angle your memoir to get it picked up by an agent/publisher?
I actually couldn’t find an agent—and I think you’ve put your finger on the challenge there. I had a signing event at a Barnes & Noble recently, and while I sat at my little signing table chatting quietly with customers and signing a few books, across the lobby from me was a huge rack filled with Steve Tyler’s new memoir, Does the Noise in My Head Bother You? It cracked me up. Me and Steve Tyler at the bookstore together.
But it also reminded me of how tough it is to get an agent or big publishing house interested in a memoir if you’re not already well-known or your memoir doesn’t touch on a controversial, dramatic or currently newsworthy subject. It’s very, very tough out there.
So after the agent search didn’t work, I started looking for small presses that supported literary nonfiction. I knew about the University of Nebraska Press and their trade list, which includes a lot of strong, literary nonfiction, including their ‘American Lives’ series. They also publish books with Midwestern connections. All of that made them a good fit for my particular book.
So I pitched My Ruby Slippers to them as a memoir of place, a genre with a long and revered tradition. Writers I admire, like Wallace Stegner, Joan Didion, Gretel Erhlich, Kathleen Norris and Terry Tempest Williams have all published memoirs about place. At the same time, as I’m sure you know, the trick is to fit a genre with a track record, and yet add a new and different voice. So my pitch focused on what was old and familiar as well as new and different about My Ruby Slippers.
Ultimately, the writing had to be good, too. But getting the pitch in the door was my first victory.
What was the most interesting discovery you made on your trip back to your childhood “homes?”
My most interesting discovery was how much I didn’t know! I learned so many interesting things about Kansas that I’d never learned growing up—like the story of Nicodemus, the farming town that was settled by African-Americans after the Civil War. It’s a dying small town now, like so many in rural America. But I visited there during their annual Homecoming celebration, talked to people who’d grown up there, and really loved the deep loyalty so many people felt for the town. A lot of them have moved away but still come back every year for Homecoming. There’s a nice little museum there—so if you’re anywhere near Nicodemus, go!
I also discovered the story of Sadie, a Pawnee girl whose parents died in the 19th century. It really resonated with me because it’s a story of family loss and having to leave a place you love—so I tell her story alongside mine in My Ruby Slippers.
Did the research conjure up any strong emotions, good or bad, and how did you decide what to include and what to exclude during the drafting phase?
Writing about my childhood and family stirred up a lot of feelings—both good and bad. The many times we moved created a lot of emotional havoc, and coming to terms with what that rootlessness and family chaos had cost us all was hard. At the same time, writing is an art. It’s about taking raw material and raw emotion and creating something new. It helps give a meaning and shape to experience, which finally helped me let a lot of the past go.
Deciding what to include and what to exclude was always a balancing act. What memories and stories had the strongest pull on me? What parts of the story really fit the book and its preoccupations as it took shape? Those are two different kinds of questions. One is emotional or psychological, the other is aesthetic. So I began writing about the material that just wouldn’t let me go. I knew it was important for some reason. The more I wrote, the more I understood what fit the book’s shape and focus would be. And then decisions became more about the art of the book.
A lot of pages ended up in a drawer. Not because I didn’t feel strongly about them, but because in the end, they didn’t really fit the book. But as you know, those excluded bits are never lost. Some will emerge in other forms, others will be valuable because they got me where I wanted to go.
It seems your childhood relocating inspired many more travels throughout your life. Are you thinking of writing another travel memoir? If not, what else is in your writing well?
I’ve just started in on a new long-term project, and it’s not a travel memoir. I don’t think. It will do some of the same things that My Ruby Slippers does, like interweave personal stories with other, bigger stories. This one’s rooted in 1918, so it entails earlier generations of my family, but also includes stories from around the world. That’s all I want to say for now. It’s just beginning to take shape and I want it to build up some steam before I say more. Though I know the general subject, I’m not sure what kind of book it will be. So we’ll all be surprised when the time comes.
I hear you teach writing courses to faculty as well as encourage more writing in the community. Tell us more about your teaching projects! (I also teach creative writing workshops independently in my community and always welcome new ideas to grow!)
I actually don’t teach writing to faculty, though that would be fun! And several have asked. Instead, I started a college Faculty Writing Initiative program. The aim is to build a writing community that supports faculty writing, including mine. The great thing is, what we do there would work for any kind of writing.
Our first activity is a once-a-month salon where we socialize, have wine and cheese, and hear other faculty talk about and read from their newly-published work. We also have monthly all-day writing retreats, which give us a big block of time to make real progress on whatever projects we’ve got going.
But the centerpiece of the Faculty Writing Initiative is writing groups, and I’d encourage everyone out there to create one. We don’t share and critique work, because everyone’s working in a different discipline. But writers sign up for a block of hours at the same time and day every week. We have a beautiful writing room with a long, antique writing table in the middle and work stations around the edges. When it’s someone’s scheduled time, they join their group in the writing room—and away they go.
During the writing blocks, we write for 45 minutes then take a 15 minute break. That seems like a lot of break time, but it really works. No one enters or leaves the room during that 45 minutes, so it’s focused, concentrated time. During the breaks, we relax, talk about our work, and get to know each other. And because of the breaks, we’re actually more productive. People get enormous amounts of writing done, even if they can only come to a group two hours a week.
The process creates real community—and because we feel obligated to show up at our appointed time to support other writers, we show up for ourselves, too.
As all writers know, it’s hard to make writing time when you have a full-time job doing other things. Teaching and service work at my university can crowd out everything else. Any job can. As head cheerleader for the Writing Initiative, I encourage everyone to put their writing time into their calendars just as they would a dentist appointment. Then if some possible conflict comes up, they can say, “Oh, I have something else at that time—and I can’t miss it.”
We have groups meeting during all work hours, five days a week. Depending on the day and time, groups range from two writers to twelve. Fridays are jammed. As many as 25 people come then, and many spend the entire day. Fridays are exciting!
I wrote most of My Ruby Slippers in my Friday writing group, so I know that writing in groups works for me. It’s also given me some close friends and relationships with colleagues I wouldn’t know otherwise. I really encourage writers of all kinds to create a work group. It’s the best combination of carrot and stick I know. And it’s fun.
To learn more about Tracy and My Ruby Slippers, visit:
website : www.tracyseeley.com
Facebook page: My Ruby Slippers: the Road Back to Kansas
OK, interested in getting your own FREE! copy of My Ruby Slippers? Just leave a comment and/or question for our guest author by midnight tonight, July 19, and be entered in a random drawing. US residents, only, please! Winner will be announced Wed., July 20