Wednesday, August 24, 2011
FEATURED AUTHOR: Naseem Rakha
Naseem is an award-winning author and journalist whose stories have been heard on NPR’s All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Marketplace Radio, Christian Science Monitor, and Living on Earth. She lives in Oregon with her husband, son, and many animals. When Naseem isn’t writing, she’s reading, knitting, hiking, gardening, or just watching the seasons roll in and out.
The capacity to forgive the unforgivable has long intrigued Rakha. She has witnessed it in her work as a teacher and consultant for Native American tribes, as a mediator in the clean up of the nuclear site that created the Nagasaki bomb, and as a reporter covering state run executions. It was this later experience that led her to write her groundbreaking novel The Crying Tree. Set in southern Illinois and central Oregon, Rakha tells a story of a mother who must overcome the hate, grief, and secrets that surround the murder of her 15-year-old son, and defy church and family as she attempts to stop the execution of the man who killed her boy.
With the heart of a storyteller, Naseem explores the death penalty and forgiveness with her audience through the lens of our justice system, her experiences as a reporter for public radio, as well as subsequent interviews with crime victims, inmates, corrections officials and exonerated death row prisoners. In composing her work, Naseem relies on the backdrop of the land and the landscape of human lives to build drama, emotion and depth. Naseem finds that within these very human stories lie a multitude of lessons about duty, honor, grief, pain, hatred and the degree to which forgiveness can not only extend but also heal. For writers searching for their own voice, Naseem has much to offer with her methods of reaching readers through characters and place.
How did you start out your writing career?
My life did not lead in a direct route to a writing career. I have had at least two dozen different “jobs,” from cocktail waitress to geologist. I have always known, however, that of all things I do, writing was my greatest passion.
Some of my first memories are of writing: poems, stories, diaries, articles about what was happening at school or in my neighborhood - a housing project on the south side of Chicago, anything. Then, at age nine, I discovered Louise Fitzhugh’s novel, Harriet the Spy, and my life changed. From that moment on, I was not just a writer, I was a spy. I watched my world like a hawk watches a field, and then I wrote about it. The patterns of speech, the color of carpets, the smells of cars, the feel of bodies compressing into elevators, the sound of birds, and music and my neighbors fighting and sirens as they ricocheted up to our 22nd floor apartment. It was not a hobby, not just “something to do,” it was the way I related to my world. The way I could see it, and then see it again. A way to live twice, as author Natalie Goldberg says in her beautiful book Writing Down to the Bones.
My thought is that writers are created in utero. That somewhere in the fetus’s development that part of the brain that will one day understand language, and put that language into meaning is supersaturated with whatever juice is needed so that when the time comes and words begin to flow, they feel like keys - each one of them - with the potential to unlock the most exquisite of emotions and compelling of ideas.
My first official job which entitled me to use my writing skills full time was as a journalist for public radio. I was thirty-five, traveling the world as a consultant on environmental issues, when I heard a story on NPR that made me think - I want to do that!
So, I took myself to a local public radio station, where I learned to cut and splice tape, hold a microphone, and ask questions. I would spend my time at the Oregon State Capitol, writing and producing stories on topics of interest to me. Soon, I was hired on as a capitol reporter for a consortium of NW public radio stations, and soon after that I was asked to cover Oregon’s first execution in over 34 years. The story was played on local and National Public Radio and won an Associated Press award. From my perspective, the story I told for that venue felt like only a slim slice of the full story that I wanted to tell. Thereafter I went into our prisons, talked with staff and inmates, as well as crime victims and attorneys. The result was my novel The Crying Tree. The novel was sold at auction to Broadway Books, from Random House, and is now an international best seller published in eleven languages.
What did you learn while writing this book?
I learned I had the focus, creativity, mailability, patience and determination to write a book. If one of these things were missing, I would not have written a book. Writing a book is HARD work. In a sense a writer is a puny god -- creating characters and their worlds, a setting, lifestyle, belief system and conflicts that are not only believable but ring true to the readers. This is essential. I am a very picky reader, and will often get the urge to throw a book across the room if a writer side steps the critical step of really getting to know their characters. Shallow characters make for a shallow reading experience, and I simply don’t have enough time in my life to spend with superficial engagements.
I learned that writers are in essence in a contract with a reader. We are asking the reader to give up a part of their life to spend with you and your world. In exchange, we will give you something authentic. Something that will, hopefully, make you think and feel, hopefully swoon, and cry and ideally, reframe your world view to include ideas and thoughts they had not had before.
To do this a writer must have a strong sense of what they are working on and why. There are far too many naysayers out there willing and able to knock writers off track with superfluous questions such as: do you have an agent? Who buys books now anyway? And do you have any idea how hard it is to sell a book? I learned to walk away from these people, and get back to work.
What did you hope to accomplish with this book?
I hoped to write a book that people would move people and get them to think, and feel compelled to lean over to a complete stranger and say - read this. I wanted people to talk about the book. To debate it and carry it around and mark it up and weep over it and shout for joy and look up from time to time and say, ‘I get that. I understand.’ I wanted to write a book which felt absolutely real to readers. And I wanted people to come away feeling a little more open to the idea that we all make mistakes. We all fail, but we all have a choice about what we do next.
Which character did you have the most fun writing about?
All the characters ended up surprising me in various ways, and it was always a delight to see where we would end up. It all felt very organic. My favorite character, though, was Tab Mason, the Superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary. I liked the pacing of Tab’s chapters, I liked the way he thought, and I (because I imagined him quite attractive,) enjoyed moving around in his body.
What aspect of writing do you love the best, and which do you hate the most?
I love the creative aspect of writing the most. When writers are “creating” (versus editing) the words feel as if they emerge of their own accord. They feel driven by some lucid internal flame, always dancing and converging in unpredictable ways. This is the dream space writing. It is a place all creatives - from painters and potters to writers like me - fall into. Studies have shown that when people are in that space, they are literally producing the same brain waves they use while dreaming - that lovely chaotic universe where memories, feelings and thoughts are juxtaposed in ways our literal, judgmental and practical conscious mind would never bother to come up with. When I emerge from this space, and look at what I have written I am generally surprised, happy and a little bit in awe of the whole experience.
What I hate is inserting edits. It takes for ever, is boring and a pain. I guess it is something I could hire someone to do, but invariably doing it myself helps me deconstruct my writing and then re-build it into something richer.
What are three things you wish you’d known before you reached where you are now?
I wish I knew John Grisham, because I really think he would like The Crying Tree. I appreciate what he does with his work, the topics he addresses in an attempt to get people to be conscious of the inequities in our justice system.
I wish I knew Denzel Washington, because I think he would make a great Tab Mason.
And I wish I knew a way to get this book to every inmate and victims rights group I could.
Can you give us some dos and one don’ts for those aspiring to be a writer?
Do write every single day. Don’t say ‘one day.’
Do read widely. Any genre. Any topic. Don’t say ‘why bother?’
Do mark up your books. Write notes. What makes you laugh, what makes you cry, what makes you board, what makes you aroused. And then figure out how the author did it. Don’t read blindly, find the tricks, learn them.
Do find a group of people that you can share your writing with. Don’t listen to everything they say.
Do tell yourself this is important. Don’t tell yourself it doesn’t matter.
What one thing about writing do you wish other non-writers would understand?
That we need time to be alone.
If you could be a character from any book you've read, who would you be?
JK Rowling’s Hermione Granger (though I think I would have gone for Harry, not Ron.)
When you're not writing, what do you like to do in your spare time?
Play with my son, read, garden, think about writing, sleep, knit, think about writing, cook, clean, think about writing. Road trips.
What do you do to interact with your readers?
I keep people up to date on my activities through a letter I send out from time to time - they can sign up for it on my web page: http://www.naseemrakha.com/
I keep a blog on my Red Room page: http://www.redroom.com/author/naseem-rakha
I attend book groups in person, through conference calls and even skype.
I speak at writers conferences and teach.
I speak and teach at prisons.
And I answer each and every one of my emails and letters.
Our theme for this month is NON-FICTION. Have you ever written non-fiction? If so what did you write?
The Crying Tree was inspired by stories I did for public radio while covering the first executions held in the state of Oregon in more than 34 years. I have written loads of non-fiction, and continue to do so for papers such as the Guardian and Washington Post. Links to some of that work can be found on my web site.
Oprah always asks, What do you know for sure?
About my book? I knew for sure that I wanted to write a book about forgiving the unforgivable, and I knew for sure that I did not want to write a polemic. And I knew for sure that I believed in the power of words. And I knew for sure that if I were to ask people to take time to read my book, I had better make it as good as I possibly could.
Can you give us a sneak peek of your next book?
I am deep into book two: another family drama - looking at the issue of death and dying set in rural Oregon. A family comes together after their mother has had a catastrophic stroke and struggles with what the best and most kind course of medical action would be. It is a love story and a story of family obligation versus medical ethics.
How can readers get in contact with you? (mail, email, website)
My web site is http://www.naseemrakha.com/
My email: email@example.com
My mail: PO Box 694 Silverton, Oregon 97381
The Crying Tree
Irene and Nate Stanley are living a quiet and contented life with their two children, Bliss and Shep, on their family farm in southern Illinois when Nate suddenly announces he’s been offered a job as a deputy sheriff in Oregon. Irene fights her husband. She does not want to uproot her family and has deep misgivings about the move. Nevertheless, the family leaves, and they are just settling into their life in Oregon’s high desert when the unthinkable happens. Fifteen-year-old Shep is shot and killed during an apparent robbery in their home. The murderer, a young mechanic with a history of assault, robbery, and drug-related offenses, is caught and sentenced to death.
Shep’s murder sends the Stanley family into a tailspin, with each member attempting to cope with the tragedy in his or her own way. Irene’s approach is to live, week after week, waiting for Daniel Robbin’s execution and the justice she feels she and her family deserve. Those weeks turn into months and then years. Ultimately, faced with a growing sense that Robbin’s death will not stop her pain, Irene takes the extraordinary and clandestine step of reaching out to her son’s killer. The two forge an unlikely connection that remains a secret from her family and friends.
Years later, Irene receives the notice that she had craved for so long—Daniel Robbin has stopped his appeals and will be executed within a month. This announcement shakes the very core of the Stanley family. Irene, it turns out, isn’t the only one with a shocking secret to hide. As the execution date nears, the Stanleys must face difficult truths and find a way to come to terms with the past.
Dramatic, wrenching, and ultimately uplifting, The Crying Tree is an unforgettable story of love and redemption, the unbreakable bonds of family, and the transformative power of forgiveness.
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