About the Author
Joan began her career in communications just out of U.C. Berkeley as one of the founding staff of Ten Speed Press. From there, it was a twenty-year career as an award-winning copywriter and marketing strategist for top retail corporations and start-ups in Los Angeles and San Francisco. A seasoned world explorer who has walked mountain ranges on three continents, Joan was a member of the first international team to discover dozens of galleries of aboriginal rock art on Australia’s Cape York Peninsula, and was the first American woman to solo navigate the perilous Cairns-Burketown track across Australia’s top end. Today, when not writing, Joan can be found taking photos or noodling Blues riffs on her Strat.
In the 1990′s Joan suddenly found herself living every writer’s dream: her own roomy garret and plenty of time to write. But life threw a few curve balls her way, and for eight years she wrestled with writer’s block. Then came the fateful afternoon when her newly acquired rescue dog went one direction on a leash, while Sargent went another. Sargent’s head slammed full force into the edge of a door, she saw stars, and was diagnosed with a concussion. Then, slowly, as if she had received a Zen wake-up call, her creativity returned. Here, excerpts from a discussion with journalist Alton Hawkes.
Q: It is often said that a writer’s first novel is autobiographical. Do you feel this is true of Turkoise?
A: In a very physical way, yes. The Southern California locations were all ones I know well, except for certain structures, which were invented. And of course, the famous Santa Ana winds and their attendant fires, I’ve certainly experienced those.
Q: Turkoise is a highly original work which seems to touch several genres: historical fiction, mystery, romance. Which category did you see it in?
A: When I started writing it, I had been suffering writer’s block for eight years and all I could think was ‘I’m working again!’ It could have been a book of nursery rhymes, because after all those years I was grateful to be able to get words—any words—down on a page.
Q: What caused your creative blockage?
A: A perfect storm of high-stress events in the nineties—loss of revenue in my advertising business, a new marriage, a move to a house suddenly needing serious repairs in a part of the world where I had no connections, and a botched surgery and bad hospital experience to boot. I think my coping devices just broke down. I couldn’t even write ad copy—something I had been doing quite proficiently for years.
Q: And yet you were eventually able to complete an award-winning novel.
A: Thanks to what I call my Extreme Zen Moment!
Q: What was that?
A: One fine summer afternoon I was trying to herd my Rhodesian Ridgeback outside. She went one way and I went another and I ending up slamming my head into the edge of a heavy wooden door. The door didn’t give way and the impact threw me to the floor. I saw not just stars but entire constellations. The next day I was diagnosed with a moderate concussion and was told not to drive for two weeks. And when a doctor in California tells you not to drive—
Q: So it was bad! You were able to write then?
A: No, my creativity didn’t return right away. But not too many weeks after the concussion I started having the most amazing dreams, unlike any I’d ever had before.
Q: In what way?
A: Their detail and vitality. In the first one, a young, classical looking man was handing me a geode. “But it’s so light for a rock!”I said, to which he replied, “That’s because it is made of tuff.” Tuff, I discovered, is a rock formed of volcanic ash and water subjected to eons of pressure underground.
Q: Or possibly meaning “tough”?
A: That could be, too. In the next dream, I stood at the summit of a volcano made of sandstone. Its crater was a caldera of water so clear I could see all the way to the bottom, smooth and clean, like the bottom of a swimming pool. I tossed the rock into the water and watched the waves ripple outward. Then the narrative leaped forward, as dreams will do, and I saw a little submarine boat giving “tours of the bottom” of the same caldera, where I now saw an indentation in the lake bed—maybe the rock I threw, maybe my concussion.
Q: An interesting interpretation.
A: A week or so after that, I dreamed I was in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean on a moonless night. I looked down and saw a brightly lighted grid on the ocean floor. I dove from the boat and swam down to it. There, I discovered an eternal city, a dynamo of the mind. I knew, on waking, that this “eternal city” could be the motherboard of my psyche, now perfectly functioning.
Q: Sounds like an Oliver Sacks case history!
A: Exactly, the head-butt led to the dreams, and they in turn opened a door to my creative unconscious. A few weeks after the dreams I began to have what I can only call “visions” of a pair of lovers. The young man seemed Greek to me and had blue-green eyes and the young woman was dark, petite, romantically precocious. At any rate, they were calling to me from very far away, time-wise and place-wise. I tried to ignore them, but they wouldn’t go away and finally, they seemed like squatters in my mind. The only thing to do, I thought, was get their story down on paper.
Q: Theion and Acasia, the lovers in the first story.
A: Yes, that’s who they became, on Minoan Santorini, a volcano which, local myth has it, was formed when a man threw a rock into the sea, just like my dream! And after I’d sketched that story out—in a journal from a bookstore, with a fountain pen, the only tools I thought I could write with—the same lovers came back, in Spanish California. At that point I realized they were lost in time, and needed a place to live their love.
Q: You’ve said before that a number of synchronous events attended the writing of Turkoise. Can you talk about those?
A: Wow, yeah, some very interesting occurrences.
A: I remember writing, in the medieval French story, “a bird hit the window” when, within seconds of the last word appearing on the monitor, I heard a smack against the window next to me. I ran outside to find a little nuthatch lying on the deck, so I did as falconers of the middle ages did and sprayed him with a mist of cool water. That revived him, I placed him on the railing and he flew away a few minutes later.
Q: Any others?
A: For another, just as I was revising the bull leaping scene in the Minoan story my dogs set off barking and I looked out the window to see a black angus bull on the acreage below. He’d come over, all alone, from the cattle property down the street. It took us two weeks to get rid of him!
A: Actually my favorite was the time I was doing the last chapter and got a phone call. It was a wrong number, a doctor, asking for a woman named Clare.
Q: Why do you think such things happened?
A: Well, Jung called synchronicity like that “an acausal connecting principle.” To me, they were signposts that I was on the right track in what I was doing, that I was fulfilling my sacred contract.
Q: The stories seem quite detailed. Did you do much research?
A: At first, yes, I really worried about having enough historical background. But then I realized had a bigger problem to solve: what was the back-story for the stories, the hardwood under them? Then one summer evening, I remember perfectly, as I was walking up the road with my husband, I grabbed his arm and said “I’ve got it! These are stories told to a psychotherapist who does past life regressions!” Now, at this point, I had no idea any therapists did such a thing, but that’s when I invented Nick. Emily, his bride, followed. Then the rest of the story fell into place.
Q: So you had more research to do!
A: Actually, no, this back-story relieved me of much of that work, because I felt it was so important that the stories Clare tells not be completely factually reliable—that there be a question: are these “healing fictions” or are they actual recollections of the character Clare? They contain elements of fact and fantasy, leaving the reader to enjoy the mystery of memory and love and decide for her or himself how seemingly “magical” outcomes, the like one in the concluding scenes of the book, happen. In the end, I’d say about two-thirds of my resource materials were second-hand accounts; stories about stories. Plus, my imagination!
Q: And, since the book is written in first person, are you anything like its narrator?
A: As far as Emily’s approach to life? Well, for one thing, I’ve never considered suicide. Plus, I’m rather free-form in my thinking–more like Nick! By the way, I only write in first person because, as John Fowles once pointed out, it seems the more natural expression.
Q: You’ve said often that one of your inspirations is the novels of Fowles. Do you sense some of his creative viewpoint in your work?
A: Well, obviously, in the story of Theion and Acasia, its setting, so near to that, geographically, of The Magus. But also, as a whole piece, I hope Turkoise shares some of what I see as Fowles’ fascination with fate and the power of Nature, or what we might call God or magic.
Q: Or Visionary Fiction, the category chosen for Turkoise’s IPPY medal.
A: Yes—as it turns out, considering its source—a concussion, dreams, visions, the perfect fit.
Q: Any advice for new writers?
A: If you feel in your bones you have a great idea, pursue it. Even if you get only one paragraph written a day, you’ve added another step on your journey to completion. Read your draft aloud—we “hear” the words we read silently—then fix it again. When it’s the best it can be, send it to an editor. This will cost money, but it is something you MUST do to come out with a viable manuscript. After that, it’s up to you: self-publish under your own imprint, POD with an online service, e-publish, or try to find an agent.
Q: Sounds like a time-consuming process.
A: Most writers hurry too much, believing they have a finished work before they actually do. Get the advice of experts. And do what they tell you. It does take time, and a lot of thought. You’re creating a whole world, you know. And every word counts.
Q: Any conclusions about the writing/editing/publishing process?
A: “Festina Lente”, as the Roman emperor Augustus would say: Make haste slowly. This is your vision, the creative work you’ll be remembered for. Isn’t that worth all the work it takes to make it pitch-perfect?