Welcome to The Writing Life blog and to the Tuesday Author Interview series. I will be showcasing authors well into May 2017, so please check back in.
This week, I’m very pleased to chat with wildlife photographer, memoirist, and author, S. J. Brown.
Prior to pursuing wildlife photography, S. J. Brown describes living an average life in New Jersey. She discovered her love of writing in high school, and her love of photography began on a whim with an inexpensive 35mm camera, a few rolls of film, and an appreciation for the natural world. For over 15 years, she has traveled extensively throughout the eastern United States in pursuit of wildlife encounters. Much to the dismay of her spotter, this often involves trekking through thick brush, muddy trails, and secluded locations, and on rocky seas. S. J. says the interaction with wildlife makes it all worth the effort.
S. J. Brown’s books include, Close ups & Close Encounters: A View From Behind The Lens and Adults Gone Wild Coloring Book, and for little ones, All The Birds I See, Clancy’s Catnap, and Wild Animals Coloring Book. I am a fan of this creative lady’s beautiful, sensitive photographs.
Welcome, S. J. Brown.
What is your book’s genre(s)?
Close Ups & Close Encounters: A View From Behind The Lens is a mix of nonfiction, memoir, and photography.
Please describe what Close Ups & Close Encounters is about.
The reader goes into the field with me to see what photographing wildlife is really like. There is more to photography than just clicking the shutter button.
That’s a unique approach and very true about photography. How did you come up with the title?
I played with several titles, which I sent to friends and family for their opinion. Most of them loved Close Ups & Close Encounters. They felt it accurately captured the feel of the book.
What inspired you to write this book?
A fellow author overheard my conversation about one of my photographs. He later said, “Girl, you have to write this shit down.” I went home that evening, put aside the project I was working on, and began Close Ups. Everyone has heard the saying every picture tells a story. Well, there is a story behind getting every wildlife image.
Within the pages of my book, I share the learning experiences in the field, my close calls, and my failures and successes.
I love that your book combines photography with memoir, which helps the reader to learn about and connect with you, the person behind the camera.
I’m still smiling about your friend’s comment. So true about the importance of getting it all down. What are your favorite parts of writing and photography?
I love sharing my love of wildlife and ultimately, sharing my images and experiences with readers. The time I spend with students and adults presenting and discussing my photographs hopefully inspires others to explore their creative side. Whether it is through photography, painting, sculpting, or sketching, I believe there is a little bit of artist in everyone that often just needs to be nurtured a bit to bring it to the surface.
I wholeheartedly agree with you. What do you find is the most challenging aspect of writing?
Punctuation, I really suck at punctuation. As the book evolved, many pages were put aside, which at first was hard. However, the book slowly took on another feel and showed things from a different perspective, which I liked better.
What was the last book you read? What did you think of it?
I Have MS. What’s Your Superpower. It is a very informative book for people with MS and for their loved ones. I am fortunate to not have MS, and now I have a better understanding of how the disease affects people.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Most of my favorite authors are people most people may not have heard of. They are authors I have met, hung out with, and consider friends. Sally Brinkman, Victor Banis, Kirk Judd, Lisa Combs, R. G. Redding, Tracy Ball, Eleanor Parker Sapia, Cheryl Grogg, Diana Pishner Walker, and M. Lynn Squires. Of course, there are many more, these are just the top 10 that came to mind. They are not only good authors; they are good people, as well.
Thank you kindly, SJ, for including me in your list. What authors or person(s) have influenced you as a writer and as a photographer?
That list is long. Every time I read a book that captivates me, I want to write better to capture my audience.
My family has played a big part in encouraging me to continue both my writing and photography careers.
Do you have a favorite place to write? To read?
I write at my desk in my newly-completed office. I write mostly at night when the house is quiet and there are no distractions; however, I tend to get lots of ideas and will take notes almost anywhere.
As for where I read, that varies; it might be in my car, in an office, on the couch, just about anywhere I can find a few minutes of quiet.
Tell us something personal about you people may be surprised to know?
A couple of things: I don’t like water, but I will get into a canoe or a boat if it means there is a chance to get a few critter photos. I’ve owned a small business and have explored sketching and working with stained glass and ceramics. And lastly, when I first began submitting my photography to publishers, most of the submissions were returned unopened. I knew I was choosing publishers that would be interested in my work, but they weren’t looking at the images. Once I began using my initials, publishers began opening the submissions. No, they didn’t all buy my work, but they were looking and some were buying. It turns out that most publishers I approached assumed a woman couldn’t get the kind of wildlife images they were looking for, so they just returned them unopened.
I can imagine you do enjoy enlightening them after you receive your check! Did the writing process uncover surprises or learning experiences for you? What about the publishing process?
The final version of Close Ups & Close Encounters is nothing like the original draft. Along the way and as the book evolved, I spent a lot of time with fellow authors. The evolution included adding entire chapters, while deleting others. Writing a book is a process and the end result can be surprising.
As for the publishing process, I still have a lot to learn. However, I now know that I need to consider each submission carefully, and if I have doubts, that might not be the right place for my work.
I absolutely agree with trusting our gut. What do you hope readers will gain from your book?
A love and appreciation for nature along with a better understanding of just what it takes to get that perfect shot. I also hope this book encourages people to follow their passion wherever it leads them.
That’s awesome. I’m also a big fan of encouraging others and following our passions in life. Looking back, what did you do right that helped you write and market this book?
Getting input from fellow authors is invaluable. I was fortunate to have a varied mix of authors weigh in on my work. A lawyer is going to offer a different perspective than a children’s book author or someone who writes sci-fi.
As for marketing, I am still learning and I have a lot more to learn.
What didn’t work?
Marketing. Publishing with a small publisher was a mistake for me. A larger publisher could have guided me through the marketing process and helped me to find the right market for Close Ups & Close Encounters.
I always say I write full-time along with a part-time job in marketing. Marketing isn’t easy. Any advice or tips for writers looking to get published?
Don’t rush things. It is better to publish one good book than to publish several so-so books. Take your time. A book is your baby, nurture it. When you are ready to let it go, make sure you find the right home for your book.
Website and social media links?
Where can we find your book?
Create Space https://www.createspace.com/4228022
Autographed Copies available at www.sjbrown.50megs.com
What’s next for you, SJ?
I just completed a memoir that I co-authored with my sister. Now it is time to find a publisher for it.
While that hunt proceeds, I am working on a project I have wanted to do for a while. Time after time, readers have commented on the images in Close Ups & Close Encounters. Many admitted they never actually read the book, only looked at the photographs, so I am ready to tackle a coffee table book of just images. The real challenge with this project will be finding a publisher that is willing to handle a project with so many images.
Thanks for a fun interview, SJ. Best of luck with Close Ups, your new memoir, and the coffee table book. I look forward to catching up with you soon.
About Eleanor Parker Sapia
Eleanor Parker Sapia is the Puerto Rican-born author of the award-winning historical novel, A DECENT WOMAN, published by Scarlet River Press. Her debut novel, which garnered an Honorable Mention in Historical Fiction, English at the 2016 International Latino Book Awards with Latino Literacy Now, was Book of the Month with Las Comadres and Friends National Latino Book Club in 2015. Eleanor is proud to be featured in the award-winning anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani. Well-traveled Eleanor is a writer, artist, photographer, and blogger who is never without a pen and a notebook, her passport, and a camera. Her awesome adult children are out in the world doing amazing things. Eleanor currently lives and writes in Berkeley County, West Virginia.
Eleanor’s book: http://amzn.to/1X0qFvK
Please visit Eleanor at her website: http://www.eleanorparkersapia.com
Three of My Favorite Holiday Reads and A Fireplace
By Eleanor Parker Sapia
My quirky, old house in West Virginia is the perfect house for me with one glaring exception: it doesn’t have a fireplace. When I first walked through this 1907 Federal-style house, it had everything on my house hunting check list and the remnants of where a fireplace had once stood. Even without a fireplace, the house had enough charm for me, so I quickly bought it.
Although I prefer a wood burning fireplace, I would be more than content with a gas one, but as a full time writer, that’s probably not happening any time soon. If I had the money, there would be wood burning fireplaces in every room, especially in the living room and in my bed room. Luxurious, cozy, sensual, and glorious! My house would then be the perfect house for me. I’d never leave my home, which as it happens, I don’t leave much now; that’s how much I love my cozy home. The period features throughout the house more than make up for only having three miniscule closets, one bathroom with a claw foot tub that drains when it feels like it, and no dishwasher…except for me, of course.
I’ve thought about my obsession with fireplaces, and this is what I came up with. Imagine you’re 100% ready for the holidays and the family is out buying last minute Christmas gifts. You are sunk into the world’s most comfortable, cushy, reading chair with good lighting and you’re covered by an incredibly soft, warm blanket. A sleepy cat warms your lap and your dog lies on the ottoman at your toasty feet. On the table next to you sits a pot of steaming tea, a frothy cappuccino, or a glass of your favorite wine or sherry. As the roaring fire warms your cheeks, you tuck your feet under the blanket and begin reading from your favorite book. The view outside your window is all about glistening, crystalline, snow-covered trees and mountains against a wintery sunset, and somewhere in the distance you hear the faint sound of church bells. The smells around you fill your nose: orange, cranberry, a light whiff of frankincense, and the incredible smell of a freshly-cut Christmas tree–it just doesn’t get any better than that. A heavenly scene in my book, and speaking of books, I’d like to share three of my favorite holiday books to gift and read during the Holiday season, especially on Christmas Eve.
A VISIT FROM ST. NICHOLAS, more commonly known as THE NIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS, by Clement Clark Moore
When my children were young, I read this holiday classic to them every Christmas Eve and they read the book aloud on Christmas Eve when they were older with just as much anticipation and joy as when they were little ones. My adult children now have their own homes and I live alone, but I still place this beloved book on the coffee table and read it on Christmas Eve. And every year, I wish for a fireplace!
I hope to share this time-honored classic with my future grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There is still something comforting about the illustrations and descriptions of cozy home life when the world was simpler. Yes, I get nostalgic! My Christmas memories take me back, way back to when I used to kiss my sleeping children’s warm cheeks with red lipstick (a kiss from Santa), and sprinkle powdered sugar inside the fireplace and then step in the sugar with my husband’s heavy boots, recreating Santa’s steps to the Christmas tree with his sack full of gifts, much to my young children’s delight in the morning. Beautiful and peaceful days of Christmas past.
THE HAUNTED TEA-COSY: A DISPIRITED AND DISTASTEFUL DIVERSION FOR CHRISTMAS by Edward Gorey.
“In the preface to ‘A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens wrote that he tried “to raise the Ghost of an Idea” with readers and trusted that it would “haunt their houses pleasantly.” In December 1997, 154 Christmases later, the New York Times Magazine asked our Edward Gorey, ‘the iconoclastic artist and author’, to refurbish this enduring morality tale. What is Gorey’s moral? Don’t eat fruitcake? Don’t look for morals? Don’t mess with the classics? Whatever. You decide. But don’t think too hard, and have a Merry Christmas.”
I added this gem of a book to my Christmas Eve reads a few years back while searching the Internet for obscure, weird, or little known books written about the holidays. I don’t remember which website I gleaned it from, but the blogger described the book perfectly. If you’re like me and you love Christmas, and weird and interesting reads, this is the book for you. I love it. Let me know what you think after you read it!
Noche Buena: Hispanic American Christmas Stories, Oxford University Press.
“A family seated round the fireplace singing and making merry; a sprightly waltz played with grace, Noche Buena brings us all the magic of the Christmas season as seen through the eyes of the Hispanic Americans who celebrate it. Christmas is at times a universal story, and many of the images here are recognizable across cultures. We hear and see proud, joyful singing; the adoration of the Infant Jesus; and the peaceful strains of Adeste Fidelis. But here as well are the rich traditions and legends specific to the Hispanic culture, such as the celebration of the posadas for nine nights leading up to Christmas, with candy raining down from colorful swinging piñatas, egg shells filled with confetti, and beautiful paper lanterns crafted to illuminate the town on Christmas Eve. There is the “Legend of the Poinsettia” where a poor child embarrassed by the modesty of his gift for the Christ Child sheds tears on the dull green leaves of the familiar plant, thereby miraculously transforming them to a brilliant red. And here too are hopeful children singing “If You Give Me Meat Pies,” asking for the reward of warm meat pies and rice pudding in return for their sweet caroling. Thirty-six inspiring literary selections comprise this enchanting collection of works from Mexican, Colombian, Cuban, and Puerto Rican writers–writers who represent the range of Hispanic minority groups in the United States. Through these stories, traditional tales, songs, and poetry, readers gain a true understanding of the importance of the Christmas holiday within the Hispanic community, and begin to grasp the issues that inform the Hispanic American creative process–issues such as communal identity, patriotism, poverty, assimilation, and religion. With vivid illustrations and original Spanish text for all poetry, this fascinating anthology will inform readers of all cultural backgrounds, and give them the opportunity to celebrate this cherished time with a newly extended family.”
Not much to add to the book’s summary on Amazon; it’s a great book to share with your children and family over the Holiday season.
So, what is to be done about my missing fireplace situation?
Well, it turns out that I found a very old, beautifully-carved fireplace mantel for under $100 at my local ‘antique’ shop. For now, it lays against the dining wall room wall until I can figure out how to build it out and attach it the wall…like it has always been there. I might even figure out how to build a hearth, too. Then I’ll place white candles of every size inside the opening to read and eat by candlight. Romance is good!
And next Christmas Eve, my children’s old Christmas stockings will hang from the mantle, just like when they were young. I will recreate Christmas past from my well-stocked memory bank, and again, I will remember that Christmas is in my heart and mind, not with the material things around me. But hey, I have a vivid imagination and I truly believe that what we visualize will materialize. Let’s see what I come up with.
Happy Holidays to you and all my best wishes for a wonderful 2016!
Puerto Rican novelist, Eleanor Parker Sapia, was raised in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Europe. Eleanor’s careers as an artist, counselor, alternative health practitioner, Spanish language family support worker, and a refugee case worker, inspire her stories. She is a member of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, PEN America, and the Historical Novel Society, and she is a contributing writer for Organic Coffee, Haphazardly Literary Society. When Eleanor is not writing, she facilitates creativity groups, reads, and tells herself she is making plans to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela a second time.
A Decent Woman, Eleanor’s debut novel, set in turn of the nineteenth century Puerto Rico, was selected as 2015 July Book of the Month for Las Comadres & Friends National Latino Book Club, and is listed in Centro Voices, The Center of Puerto Rican Studies, ‘Essential Boricua Reading for the 2015 Holiday Season’. Book clubs across the United States have enjoyed A Decent Woman. Eleanor is featured in the newly published anthology, Latina Authors and Their Muses, edited by Mayra Calvani. Eleanor is the mother of two wonderful adult children and currently lives in West Virginia, where she is writing her second novel and a short story collection.