Back in the old days, when all books were still printed on paper, I was fortunate enough to be a member of a writers’ workshop in Berkeley run by the infamous Jim Frey, who pulled zero punches when it came to manuscript critique. I, along with others, got ‘Freyed’ on more than one occasion and although it was painful and traumatic and I still wake up weeping from time to time, if I am a better writer today, much of it is due to Jim’s workshop and the enthusiasm of the other members who not only took their writing seriously and wrote well, but also gave excellent feedback.
One of those members is this month’s guest on Behind the Page.
While the rest of us were struggling to put in paragraph breaks and trying to cut the nine pages of description we thought essential to the beginning of every scene, Tess Collins was already publishing mysteries, writing plays and managing a theater in San Francisco. Plus she looked fabulous so you might have thought we all hated her. But she was just too nice and her feedback was top notch and thoughtful to boot.
Her latest novel – NOTOWN – has just won the ‘Crime Fiction and Regional’ categories in the Beverly Hills Book Awards.
Tess Collins, welcome to our humble forum.
- Middlesboro, Kentucky … all the way to the People’s Republic of San Francisco?
I stopped in San Francisco thinking that a boyfriend would be following me out here, and we’d have a fantastical and charmed life living in the city by the bay. He never showed up, and for a while, I shivered, broken-hearted, on a street corner. His not showing up was the best thing that ever happened to me. I put all that angst to work in novels and such. The rest is history—or should I say her-story.
- A little bit country or a little bit Rock’n’Roll? I know you had a thing at one time for Davy Jones of the Monkees.
OMG, I am out-ed! I not only thought I was going to marry Davy Jones, but also Mark Lindsay, Sajid Kahn, Bobby Sherman—the list goes on. Not sure how I would marry all of them, but somehow it was going to work out. Today, I am still single. Music—anything ballad, from Madonna to Garth Brooks. I think because ballads tell a story. Started with Billie Joe McAllister. What’d they throw off that that darn bridge anyway? And why’d he jump? Had my butt swaying in that southern fried kind of way. But the story questions nagged in my mind, maybe encouraged a storyteller’s perception.
- The Slanted Door restaurant or Drive-Thru?
I’m big on popcorn and watching a movie. The trick is coconut oil and lots of pink salt. I’ve become a better cook as I’ve gotten older, and my perfect date is to make dinner together at home and watch the MMA fights.
- You work, write AND run BearCat Press, an Indie publishing company you founded. Are you just showing off?
Showing off—pfffff. If I want to show off, I put on a tight pair of jeans and sashay through a lobby of my hated enemies. I have a nice ass in my old age. But on to the stuff you really want to know about—I’d always thought I might like to start a small press when I retired. Something to keep the ole brain cells from deteriorating. I knew so many people that had good books molding on their computers, including me, and one day I woke up and said to meself, “What in piss’s name are you waiting for?” So, even though I’m overworked, I added ‘starting a small press’ to the list of things to do that day. I try to keep it manageable by only doing a couple books now and then, but probably will grow the company once I retire from my day job.
- What made you realize you were a writer? When?
Can’t say that I really think of myself as a writer as much as I do a storyteller. I come from a long line of kin who could sit out on the front porch and tell you the life story of every ancestor they ever had—the rousers, the lovers, the misunderstood, and the ambitious. No boring people in my ancestry! My mother tells me that when I was a toddler, I’d make up stories about being a fairy princess and that I had to protect my brother from an evil witch—a part she kindly played. When I was cornered, I put a magical circle around us so she couldn’t get us. I’ve always had an imagination.
- Author(s) who inspire you? One who doesn’t?
Grimm’s fairytales, anything by Thomas Hardy, who inspired me as a young author; I think John Irving spins a good tale; Dennis Lehane gives his stories depth beyond the typical crime drama. The BearCat authors are fantastic—Yves Fey, Richard Anderson, Beth Tashery Shannon; AND I was able to twist James N. Frey’s arm to give me a book of short stories that he did with his mentor Lester Gorn called ‘The Art of the Traditional Short Story’. I was so thrilled to be able to publish that book that I nearly fainted. While I don’t think it’s helpful to dish writers who you don’t get because let’s face it, writing is subjective and even the worse written novel in the world took a lot of work, I tend to put down any book that bores me in the first five chapters.
- What makes it worth eleven and a half US dollars to sit in a movie theater behind someone who is texting?
Geesh, you got me admitting all this stuff I’d never say out loud. I’ve watched the Harry Potter movies so many times I’ve got certain scenes memorized. Now, I’d never write anything like Harry Potter, maybe that’s why I like watching the movies. I don’t like to think too much when I watch a movie, maybe because I live so dangerously inside my head. So movies for me tend to be the ones that take me out of the mundane world and throw me in with hobbits and wizards and witches and all manner of magical creatures. I can stand some time in history too. I’m obsessed with the Tudors, the Rivers/Woodville family (that might have included a few witches on the mother’s side), and any time period that changed the tempo of the world.
- The hardest part of writing a novel is … ?
The middle. Let’s face it, the middle sucks. I know A. I know Z. I just have to make sure getting to Z makes sense. Sometimes when the middle changes Z, the only thing you can do is bang your head against the nearest wall. Head bruises, that’s the hardest part of writing—the head bruises.
- ‘Writing is a mental disorder’ says one of my (and your) writing mentors (Jim Frey). What say you?
I don’t know who said, “if you don’t have to write, then don’t,” but no truer words have ever been spoken. So many people have come up to me with their idea for a novel and they’ve never taken a writing class, but they’re really sure they can write a novel. Well, we all know the ending to that story. I spent eight years in James N. Frey’s workshops before my first novel was published, not to mention the mentorship with Kentucky Poets laureate, James Baker Hall and Gurney Norman; and classes with novelist and essayist, Ed McClanahan while in college. You have to more than want to be a writer, you have to know that storytelling is in your soul, and to not give expression to those tales will send you to hell faster than a newbie on the Hogwarts Express. Then, once you know that, you have to learn the craft of making a story work: how to plot a scene, raise a conflict, exploit an objective correlative.
- Have you jumped to anything more than a conclusion?
If I’m stressed I like floating in an isolation tank. It takes away the sense of responsibility for that one hour. I keep trying to think of what I do for fun, and nothing is popping into my head. Mostly I feel like I’m just behind in writing all the books that are piling up on my ‘to do’ list. Finishing off my growing list of books is a responsibility I take seriously, even if it is pisses me off that I’m so far behind.
- Your brush with greatness?
I got my photo taken once with Hugh Jackman—take that femme-enemies. See his arm around my shoulder? Jealous much?
- You’re a busy person. How do you find time to write? How much do you write?
I’m an organized alpha female. Need I say more. Sigh. Get out of my way.
- ‘Notown’? Like, why? Latest work in progress?
I grew up in a neighborhood called Noetown. It was known as the rough part of town. My granny, whom I lived with, slept with a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson under her pillow. Now growing up in a place like that, you know there were stories to tell. I knew I had to give voice to that place, and once the decision was made, Noetown spoke to me like a goddess telling her tale of the heroic and the tragic. NOTOWN is the first of a quartet of books that take place in Midnight Valley. I’m working on the second one now that I think will come out in 2015.
- William Morris just bought BearCat Press for one million dollars. Now what?
Dude, I’m gonna sleep. Have to say the administrative work is more than I like to do, so a great company buying me out whom I know will support the BCP books the way they should be supported—that would be great! Gives me more time to write. Here’s the thing—I often hear best-selling writers say they’d be destitute if they didn’t write because it’s the only thing they know how to do. I always think—losers. I’m good at a lot of stuff, including operating businesses, adding numbers, keeping track of things. Not gonna scare me with a P&L. Hey, where’s my list of things to do?
- Sorry, William Morris changed their mind but they did send you a ten dollar gift certificate because they felt bad. What happens next?
I call up Mr. Morris and say ‘thank you’ because my mother taught me to be polite when plotting vengeance.
- The rest of us got old and married. Not you. Care to comment on that, even though it’s really none of our business?
I guess if I really wanted to get married, I would have found a way to do it. I think at some point in my youth, I decided that I’d rather have a lot of lovers then one husband. As for “Old”—I prefer “Wise”. Women in my family don’t wrinkle, so as I age, I plan to be the wise crone whose magic you wished you had a piece of back in the day.
- Ever wanted to just quit and watch TV and eat bonbons?
Quit, no, but I do watch TV between writing chapters. My current favorites are: Revenge, Once Upon a Time, The Good Wife, Justified, The Walking Dead and I’ve watched The Young and Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful for over thirty years. I watch a lot of TV between chapters. It’s a weakness, I know, but there are worse addictions.
- If you could only do one thing, what would it be?
Live with snow leopards.
Tess, I and my many readers want to thank you for taking this time to let us get to know you better when you could have been accepting another book award, or opening a film studio or an orphanage.
Visit Tess Collins’ website.
¡viven los escritores!
-Check out last month’s guest: Indie Author Anne-Rae Vasquez