Linda Barnett-Johnson had a cyberspace chat with author Ann Hite. Here's what she had to say.
ANN HITE SAYS: "My formative years were spent in Atlanta, Georgia during the sixties with my extended family, who believed the south was a country of its own. From this lethal combination was born a writer, who to this day finds the characters from her family's past creeping into her prose. It's the stuff that makes writing interesting.
My short story, Gabriel's Horn, appeared in the January issue of The Dead Mule, a small southern literary magazine in business since 1995; Appaloosa Wind appeared on December 24, 2003 as the featured story in The Fiction Warehouse, a small literary magazine out of California; Shelter Belt will appear in the March/April issue of Skyline Magazine, an up and coming literary magazine-it's an actual glossy that makes money-out of New York; Perfect Christmas appeared in the December 20, 2003 issue of Saucyvox, a small Canadian literary magazine. Borrowed Time will be published in February issue of Poor MoJo Almanac, a small literary magazine out of California. Mister Snake Gets Religion will appear in the April issue of Cold Glass. I am the Fiction Editor for Quintessence, a new literary magazine. I studied creative writing under Jane Hill, author and former Senior Editor of Longstreet Press and Atlanta author, Emily Ellison. My writing has appeared in case history form with BP Oil, where I am a technical writer."
Q. Hi Ann. Thanks for taking your time to talk with us. Let's start at the beginning. Could you tell us a little about yourself?
The odds said I would never realize my dream as a writer. I beat the odds. My formative years were spent in Atlanta, Georgia during the sixties with a very southern family, who believed the south was a country of its own and wrote the book on dysfunction. From this lethal combination the writer in me emerged. To this day, characters from my family’s past creep into my prose.
I work in technical marketing for a large oil company by day and by night I am a fiction/essay writer. My chosen location after years of moving to different states and countries is Atlanta, Georgia. Who said you can never go home? I have a large family, over 500 books, a garden, and my computer.
My formal education never really aided me in my dream of writing, but did give me some unique writing material. Last summer I finished the third and final draft on my first novel, Sleeping Above Chaos. You guessed it! A very southern novel. I write short stories, essays, and a poem now and then. I even edited a magazine for a while.
Two months ago I began work on a new novel, Where the Souls Go. This novel will be dedicated to my mother, who suffered from mental illness all of her life. I’ve always had a special interest in women’s issues and this novel will reflect some of those concerns.
In general, I’m just like any other mom, wife, or employee. Of course, one has to watch the stories they tell or what they say when in my company. You never know when I might use it as material for my next piece of prose.
Visit The Painted Door: http://home.bellsouth.net/p/pwp-painteddoor
Q. How long have you been writing? What made you put that first story down on paper?
I told long elaborate stories as a child long before I could write with pencil and paper. But, I began to take writing seriously in 1990 when I joined a women’s literary book club. This group was comprised of women who lived in the same small North Georgia town where over 95% of the citizens were related and acted like a cliquish high school group of students. We banded together to battle loneliness and quiche our thirst for knowledge. In this group, I met a woman who worked for the small local newspaper. I read some of her work and thought: I’m better than that. She challenged me to write a short story.
I went home that night and wrote a story that had been brewing in my head for years, Borrowed Time. I wrote it on a yellow legal pad with a blue pen while I sat on my porch swing. I wrote it as if in a dream. When I finished, I read it and threw it on the kitchen counter. Who did I think I was? A writer? That moment began my writing career, as I know it now.
Q. Do you write in a particular genre? If so, what genre is it?
I write mainstream/literary fiction and nonfiction for adults. My stories and essays often times deal with harsh emotionally packed subjects. But, I have been known to write a happy story or two.
Q. Have you been published? What was the first story? Where was it published? How long did it take? What was the process?
Before I began my novel in 1995 I wrote a series of short stories and submitted to numerous high paying markets with no luck. I put these stories away and spent eight years writing Sleeping Above Chaos, my first novel. Last summer when I finally released this child (my novel) to agents, I felt lost. One month later my mother died. I locked myself away for two weeks, pulled out the old stories, rewrote them, and wrote six more. When I emerged after my two-week retreat, I knew I was both a different person and a different writer.
I began to submit my stories. The first story to be published, accepted by The Dead Mule, was Gabriel’s Horn. This story was near and dear to my heart because it showcased characters from Sleeping Above Chaos. I did my research and found The Dead Mule to be very receptive to stories set in the Deep South.
As of this writing, I’ve published all nine of those stories and a few extra. I guess you could say it took me twelve years from the day I took my writing serious until the day Gabriel’s Horn was accepted. That’s not to say I attempted publication all those years. Many of those years were spent writing only.
Q. Who’s your favorite author and why?
As a reader with a large library, I find it hard to pick one author.
I love Ellen Gilchrist because her characters are so dysfunctional and southern—kind of reminds me of my childhood. Anne Lamott is another favorite of mine for both fiction and nonfiction. My favorite nonfiction and motivational writer is Maya Angelo. I’ve attended a couple of her speaking engagements and always leave feeling good about myself.
Q. How did you deal with rejection letters, if you received any?
The first rejection letter I received was a form letter from the New Yorker. I cried. Gosh, I really believed I had a shot. Ha, ha. As I became tough and began receiving handwritten notes on the rejection letters, I became excited. I read somewhere this meant a writer was just a step away from publishing. I’d like to say rejection letters don’t affect me, but I’d be a liar.
Q. What in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
A well-written piece must take the reader into the setting where they witness the scene unfolding. It is essential that the reader care about the character; even the meanest of characters need love. Show the reader the story.
Q. How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula?
I don’t develop the characters; they develop me, and from this emerges the plot. Most of my characters show up unannounced. Each time I finish a short story, I think I will never find new material, and then a character will enter my life. Once when I was walking—I’m an avid walker—Katie, a character from my short story Appaloosa Wind, spoke to me of a new bike. She described how the cold wind felt on her face as she pedaled through the night air. I stopped, pulled my small notebook out of my pocket—I take it everywhere—and wrote down this description.
My new novel began when I took a trip to the Smoky Mountains. As my husband and I drove by beautiful rolling foothills, I noticed a graveyard perched on a green slope. AzLeigh, one of my characters, uttered the first line of the novel: “When I died, my sight returned in an instant. I could see the mountains in the distance—the mist lingering over them like a beautiful blanket—and when I turned to the east, I saw the old home place sitting on the hill overlooking my hometown like a queen on her throne.”
As you can see, my characters boss me around, and I enjoy every minute.
Q. What do you do to unwind and relax?
My husband and I are avid hikers. I have a four-year-old daughter who is just a lesson in life. I read all the time, and I garden.
Q. What does your family feel about your writing? Are they supportive?
My husband is an artist so he understands the drive to be creative. He’s as quirky as me when it comes to inspiration. I have three grown daughters, all very creative, who sometimes thinks their mother is odd especially when she talks about characters speaking to her, but they believe in me.
I consider myself fortunate to have this kind of support. But one way or another I’m a writer and always will be.
Q. What inspires you? Who inspires you?
This is going to sound corny to many, but my faith is one of the biggest inspirations in my work. It drives me forward on the days when I feel at a loss. Beautiful words move me. My garden when in full bloom will move me to write.
Writers who capture my thoughts and emotions on paper inspire me.
Q. Are you working on any projects right now?
I am writing a short story about a mountain woman—her name is Nellie—and how she kills her abusive husband. It is full of mountain folklore and again brings me full circle with my past. By the way, Nellie gave me the first sentence of the story: I should have listened to mama when she warned me against Hobbs. Mama saw the warning in her tealeaves, an omen of bad trouble brewing, loss of life.
My novel, Where the Souls Go, is a work in-progress. It is about three generations of women, daughter, mother, and grandmother, and how they deal with a deadly legacy. It begins in the present and works its way backwards.
I have several essays in the works. One close to my heart is, I Hate The Details, which deals with a daughter and her wedding.
I’ve just joined a wonderful group called, My Writing Friends. This writer’s forum is one of the best I’ve enjoyed. They inspire me to do my best and keep me on my toes.
Q. How do you handle Writer’s Block?
I don’t. I believe if you give this problem a name, you give it power, I refuse to give power where it’s not deserved. This has been successful for me so far.
Q. What is most frustrating about writing? Most rewarding?
My husband put my writing frustrations into perspective when he complained concerning a just completed painting. “The picture looked so much better in my head.”
My short stories and essays always somehow miss the mark if compared with my expectations.
Of course the reward is writing, sinking into that place where my thoughts come to live.
Q. Do you have any kind of writing schedule?
You better believe it! My life is so hectic I live on schedules. I rise at 5:45 in the morning to work on workshop material and email correspondence. I use my lunch hour at work for writing. Co-workers know better than to approach me at this time. After my four-year-old daughter is in bed, I write until midnight. I use vacations, weekends, sick days to my writing advantage. If you want to write, you can find the time. I’m a living testament to this.
Q. What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given as a writer? What’s the worse?
When I first began writing, a professor told me to write. Don’t talk about it just write. Don’t wait on inspiration just write. It took many years to heed this advice, but it is by far the best advice I received. I write everyday even if it is only a sentence or two.
The worst advice I received was early in my career. A mentor told me to write with publishing in mind. When I did this, my creative mind closed down. I could see this imaginary audience sitting in the peanut gallery doing a thumb down. Once I learned to write because I love to write, I became successful.
Q. If I were sitting down to write my very first story, what would your advice be?
Write the first draft. DO NOT EDIT. This is easier said than done. The editor’s voice can spoil the best of stories. I’ve learned each time the editor starts rattling in my head this is an indication that I’m about to hit gold. For me some stories flow easy, almost write themselves. I treasure these experiences and store them for the hard stories I want to give up on, but haunt me until I’m finished.
Short and simple: Write.
Q. What advice would you give to writers just starting out?
Write to the bone. I found this to be the hardest advice to follow. Three years ago I lost a brother-in-law suddenly. Around dinner time he left a message on our answering machine and within two hours while walking into the kitchen with his dinner plate, he died of a massive heart attack at the young age of forty-seven.
The next day my husband and sister in-law asked me to write something about Joe to be read at his funeral. I opened my mouth to say no, but a voice went off in my head: If you can’t write this for the people you love most in this world, how will you be the writer you want to be? I wrote my first poem and I was never the same writer again.
Taking your prose to the bone can be a harrowing experience, and it’s only human nature to shy away from painful subjects. I can guarantee if you write past that voice screaming in your head to cease all writing while it’s still safe, your prose will reflect the results.
Writing is a journey we choose to take for our own reasons, but it’s a journey I wouldn’t miss for the world.