Inky Inspiration – Salem West

As an author, inspiration can come from all things.  It could be the line in a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation on the bus, a dream at night but one of the most important sources of inspiration are other authors. Just like a budding sports star in the academy has that legend they look up to, I think it’s equally relevant to anyone who writes that they have heroes to look up to and learn from. In this segment, I am going to interview fellow authors who have inspired me, those I have learned from and those who have helped me on my writing journey so far.

 

Salem West
Salem West

Salem West spent 25 years in Washington, D.C. doing things other people didn’t want or know how to do. In 2011, sanity prevailed and she retired from these murky pursuits to found her breakout blog, The Rainbow Reader, which combines homespun essays with queer-centric perspectives in book reviews that cover a wide swath of mostly lesbian literature. Her first novel, Hoosier Daddy, was a 2014 Lambda Literary Award finalist. Hoosier Daddy: A Heartland Romance is her first novel. At this writing, there are no pending, open, or outstanding warrants against Ms. West—a great relief to her wife, Ann McMan (Famous Author.)

 

”It feels great to know that all of the hard work and sleepless nights resulted in something that someone reads and declares ‘worthy.’ But more than that, in the still of the night, it quietly reminds you how very much more work you have to do to become the writer you know you can be.” — Salem West, about being a Lambda Award Finalist

 

 

Hi Salem, it’s really great to have you stop by. I want to start by asking just how you went from Washington and process safety to The Rainbow Reader? Have you always been an avid reader?

Hiya, Jody! Thanks for letting me stop by and chat with you. First off, I spent my entire professional career in Washington D.C.. I’m not a political junkie, just someone who always managed to find something that needed to be done—usually fast, with little information, no budget, and huge consequences. Over the years I worked in a number of fields, from nuclear energy to environmental restoration and waste management, vaccine development, facility and computer security, and chemical process safety—mostly in terms of management and operations. Quite frankly, I had the good sense to walk away before I got burned (metaphorically speaking) to an unrecognizable crisp. I’ve always been an avid reader, and with a lot of time on my hands, I began to investigate the burgeoning world of lesbian literature. I found some really great books, and some that were an affront to the cheap paper they were printed on. That’s when and why TRR was conceived—I believe that women need to be able to make better buying choices with their hard-earned money. And, to be honest, it gave me something constructive to do.

 

I found some really great books, and some that were an affront to the cheap paper they were printed on. That’s when and why TRR was conceived—I believe that women need to be able to make better buying choices with their hard-earned money
 
 

Who were your favourite authors growing up and have your tastes changed since becoming a reviewer?

Growing up, I lived smack dab in the middle of nowhere, so books were my best friends. When I was really young, I loved the old Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, especially when I read them with my dad. From there I moved on to J.R.R. Tolkien, then Kurt Vonnegut, Leon Uris, and Tom Robbins. I read so much more than those authors, but they are the ones that really stick out in my memory. As for my tastes changing, I have to say that they probably haven’t—I still prefer smart, original, and well-written stories dotted with eclectic bits of history, philosophy, humour, and poetry. Sometimes I want to be challenged, and sometimes I just want to laugh my butt off. Every now and then I want to get mad, and on rare occasions, I want to be comforted.

 

TRR banner_Lucy

 

On The Rainbow Reader, you say that “I discuss writing styles and approaches of various authors, talk about publishing companies versus indie writers, and focus on various issues, trials, and triumphs facing those brave souls with the guts, grit, and stamina to take on this niche market.” Do you feel your ethos is still the same today as it was when you began the blog?

 Oh, heck yeah—maybe even more so. Back in early 2011, Bold Strokes and Bella really ruled the market, with Regal Crest and P.D. Publishing hot on their heels. Companies like Bywater Books, Blue Feather, Bedazzled Ink, and L-Book were working hard to carve out their individual pieces of the pie, and several even smaller firms like Sapphire and Affinity were trying to gain some bit of traction. The world of lesbian fiction also saw a handful of authors begin to navigate the murky waters of self-publishing. Now, in mid-2014, lesbian fiction is in a very different place. Bold Strokes, Bella, Regal Crest, Bywater Books, Bedazzled Ink, Affinity, and Sapphire are going toe-to-toe in terms of quality and sales, but L-Book, P.D. Publishing, and now Blue Feather have shuttered their doors.  Everyday, new and previously published authors are choosing to go the self-publishing route. What has changed is that the push to get new content out to readers as quickly as possible to drive higher sales has led to the compromise in quality—storytelling, structure, character development, plausible themes and metaphors, and editing. What hasn’t changed is that the women who populate this industry still work incredibly hard, take huge risks, and lay themselves bare to the readers and reviewers. As a reader with a limited budget, I’m only going to be burned so many times before I take my buying power somewhere else—that isn’t good for the lesbian fiction industry, it isn’t good for the authors, and it sure as hell isn’t good for the women who want and need to read these stories.

 

Has becoming a reviewer changed you as a person? What are the highs and lows that you’ve experienced?

I’ve always been a bit of a philosophical reader, and I tend to spend a lot of time processing stories and their myriad nooks and crannies. So, I can’t say that part has changed. However, my process for reading as a reviewer is very different than my process for reading for pleasure. As a reviewer, I read a book multiple times, take notes, do research on the author, the storyline, the themes, and the metaphors. I often sit back for a while and really consider the structure, the plot, the characters, and the pace. What results from this consideration and research is usually a point that is well done, clever, or intriguing…or not. That is where the review begins. As a reader, I consider many of the same elements, but not to the degree or with such scrutiny.

 

Being asked to write pre-release reviews for John Irving and Carol Anshaw qualify as definite highs, but pale in comparison to writing a review for a little book called Jericho, which was written by the women who would eventually become my best friend, the love of my life, and my long-suffering wife—for the record, that would be Ann McMan, Famous Author.

 As for lows, I once wrote a tough review that was not taken well by an adoring fan, who suggested I place my head in an anatomically impossible location…repeatedly. Ooh! Ooh! And having to read the word “turgid” more than thirty times in one 200 page book—that really left me in a low, dark place.

 

My philosophy is that regardless of whether I love, like, tolerate, or despise a book, my review will be fair, honest, and respectful.

 

When you review a book and you hate it, do you still publish the review and warn the author or do you omit the book?

My philosophy is that regardless of whether I love, like, tolerate, or despise a book, my review will be fair, honest, and respectful. I have written some tough reviews, and every one of them feels awful, because I know how hard the author worked to get their story written and published. I only warn the author if they have specifically asked for that heads up, which is rare. On one occasion I choose not to publish a review—not because the story wasn’t well written, but because the .mobi version provided to me (and available for sale on Amazon) was of such poor quality that it was virtually unreadable, and I could not risk readers wasting their money. I did tell the author, and never heard from her again—but them’s the breaks, I guess.

 

On the more happy side, do you let the author know if it’s going to be a good review? Is that one of the pluses sides to your role when you see an author that you’ve championed on the blog go on to success?

Much like warning authors of a lacklustre review, I only contact authors or publishers about a good review if they have specially asked for a pre-release heads-up. Sometimes I get nods of appreciation for my reviews, but the very best part is when an author contacts me to say that I really understood what they were trying to say or “got” some point they were trying to get across. Those moments are rare, but they make it all worthwhile. I have been fortunate to get my hands on a few books by debut authors who have gone on to success, and that just makes me feel all warm and happy inside.

 

Will you walk us through the reviewing process, from being contacted by the author or publishing company to getting the review up on the site.

As tempted as I am to answer this question in a cross-functional process map, I’ll spare you.

 Step 1: Sometimes an author or publisher contacts me; and sometimes I pick a book that I want to review—right now I have a list of over 40 titles that I have been contacted about reviewing. I would love to do them all, but there isn’t enough time. I generally go in priority order, but will skip around in order to give equal space to all genres within lesbian fiction.

Step 2: I read the book, multiple times, taking notes in regard to the storyline, the themes, and metaphors, the structure, the plot, the characters, and the pace. I often do research, and spend several days contemplating not just the story as a whole, but also all the elements that form it. This is where I develop a theme for my review.

Step 3: I sit down to write the review—usually between 900 and 1,500 words. My reviews are broken down into three distinct sections. Section 1 is where I introduce the theme of my review in what is usually an original essay or analytical discourse. In Section 2, I give a brief description of the story, trying very hard to not give away spoilers. And, in Section 3, I discuss what did and didn’t work in the story, tying it back to the original theme from Section 1.

Step 4: Ann McMan, Famous Author edits it from her desk at her Regrettable Day Job™, usually during lunch. Mostly she tells me to write shorter sentences, and to use “who” instead of “that.” I grumble. She reminds me in no uncertain terms that I asked for her help. We go back and forth a few times, but it always ends up better and tighter than when I handed it to her.

Step 5: I format the review, insert pictures, do a final edit, post, and hope my audience will read it.

 It’s not exactly glamorous or scientific, but it works for me…

 

For me, the debut writing experience was pretty smooth because Ann and I have complementary styles, and she brought in the experience of having three published novels and a published short story collection. There were a few minor disagreements, but we worked through those with little harsh language and minimum damage to the furniture.
 

Onto Hosier Daddy, had you had the desire to write before you collaborated with Ann McMan? How was the debut writing experience for you?

Well, I guess I already considered myself a writer, just more of an essayist than a novelist. I had messed around a little bit, but never really thought too seriously about fiction. But, one day Ann and I started talking about a storyline that we believed would be radically different from anything currently in the Lesbiverse. I mean, who writes a romance about factory workers, union organizers, Southern Indiana, morbidly obese Jack Russell Terriers, and bone-in pork chops? In first person?

 For me, the debut writing experience was pretty smooth because Ann and I have complementary styles, and she brought in the experience of having three published novels and a published short story collection. There were a few minor disagreements, but we worked through those with little harsh language and minimum damage to the furniture.

 

With the background in reviewing, how much was that at the forefront of your mind? Were you able to focus on the story without thinking of the target audience or do you think both are important?

 Well, we didn’t think so much about what reviewers or readers would or wouldn’t say—we wanted to write a book that had a sound structure, a strong plot, a plausible theme and supporting metaphors, and fully developed lead and secondary characters. We did think about the target audience, and made careful decisions with them in mind. For instance, few authors write about the lower Midwest of America, and for the women who live there, they’ve never really run across trust-fund investment bankers who look like super models. We wanted to write a story that honoured these real Midwestern women, with real jobs, and real lives. We did get plenty of feedback from readers who, frankly, prefer to read about those super hot fantasy women, but we also got amazing feedback from women who said they knew these people, had worked these jobs, and lived in a community like the one in the book. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, so the most you can do is write the best damn story you can.

 

What did you learn from working with Ann? Did it open your eyes to any facets of writing that had been hidden to you before?

I wish every first time author could sit down with Ann for a while because she’s truly talented and works incredibly hard. And that’s the key to it—she doesn’t write, she works. She believes that every sentence needs a verb, that less is often more, and that a good metaphor doesn’t happen by mistake. She is vigilant about research, pays attention to the world around her, and isn’t afraid to tell the truth to herself, her characters, or her readers. Before she introduces a character, she asks what that characters wants, and whether or not she will get it, because in life there are no guarantees. And, in the end, she creates striking moments where the sacred and the profane clash for ultimate bragging rights. So, yeah, even though I’ve been married to Ann for almost three years now, every day she manages to open my eyes to new and amazing facets of living and writing.

 

A Lambda finalist isn’t a bad start to a writing career, (cheers loudly for you both.) How was that experience for you and did it make the difference that you were not alone?

 Well, thank you very much—it certainly was an unexpected surprise. Without question, it was a huge honour, and one made all the more special because it happened with the book that Ann and I wrote together.

 

Will you be building on that success with more collaborations or solo projects?

Later this fall Ann and I will be working together on a series of pulp fiction stories with our good friend, Jeanne Barrett Magill. With any luck, we’ll be able to turn the first book loose by the end of this calendar year. In the mean time, I’m working on a quirky book that explores love, friendship, and identity—from the eyes of a spirited eleven-year old baby dyke.

 For authors: Read. Pay attention. Take the time to understand the technical elements of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, and a story.
 For reviewers: Read. Pay attention. Take the time to understand the technical elements of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, and a story.

 

What advice would you give to authors that are unpublished/inexperienced? And for anyone who wishes to become a reviewer?

For authors: Read. Pay attention. Take the time to understand the technical elements of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, and a story.

 For reviewers: Read. Pay attention. Take the time to understand the technical elements of a sentence, a paragraph, a scene, a chapter, and a story.

 

 

Quick fire round

  1. What is your strength as a writer/reviewer? My brain is that little spit of real estate halfway between colloquial and analytical.
  2. What is your ‘typical’ writing/reviewing day? Research. Write. Repeat. And then drink wine.
  3. When readers pick up your books (or click onto your site), what would you most like to hear them say? “Holy %^#*!”
  4. What would you least like them to do/say? “Oh, give me a break!”
  5. Who is your literary idol? why? Tom Robbins—for the love of all that is holy, the man wrote a book that took place inside a pack of Camel cigarettes.
  6. If you could have written any book, which one would it have been? To Kill a Mockingbird—perhaps the most perfect story ever written.
  7. What is your ‘tic’ (repeated word) word when writing? “Espadrille,” and for the life of me I can’t figure out why.
  8. Favourite word? “Apropos,” because it’s both smart AND sexy.
  9. Least favourite word? “Pus,” because, well, eww.
  10. What would you most like to develop in your writing/or on the site?  The skill to be relevant, prophetic, logical, and controversial—while still getting readers think about things in ways that nothing else ever has.

 

Thank you very much for agreeing to be grilled, Salem! You can find her here:

On her website: http://rainbowreader.blogspot.co.uk/

On Twitter: @salemwest

On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/SalemWest.411

 

Hoosie Daddy
Hoosie Daddy

 

 

Hoosier Daddy: A Heartland Romance

Jill Fryman (Friday to her friends) is a line supervisor at a truck manufacturing plant in a small southern Indiana town. Life on the assembly line is almost as predictable as her love life. When it comes to matters of the heart, Friday always seems to be making the wrong choices.

Things go from bad to worse when El, a sultry labor organizer from the UAW, sweeps into town to unionize the plant right after it’s been bought out by a Japanese firm. Sparks fly on and off the line as Jill and El fight their growing attraction for each other against a backdrop of monster trucks, catfish dinners, Pork Day USA, and a bar called Hoosier Daddy.

5 Comments

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  1. Excellent interview. But then, I expected that from you two. Well done.

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  2. Wonderful interview. I was happy to read that Salem and (Famous Author) Ann McMan, along with their friend Jeanne Barrett Magill, are collaborating on something. That should be a hoot to read. I’m looking forward to it already.

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  3. I wish more authors (and reviewers) were as knowledgeable and as picky as Salem and Ann about the technical parts of writing. I’d have to wade through less crap in my reading for pleasure!

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