A Writer’s Mentor/Interview with Author and Professor Dr. Virginia Carney

In 1992, when I was a welfare mom trying to finish my degree before my girls were old enough to feel the stigma of poverty, I met a professor who immediately felt like family. Later, it made sense. Not only was Professor Ginny Carney an inspiring and nurturing person,  her roots from Southern Appalachia were close to mine from Eastern Kentucky.

Before she moved  to Kentucky from Alaska to live near Berea College,while she attended graduate school, Dr. Carney became Ginny to me, a treasured friend and confidante who helped me believe that anything was possible.

Though I’ve not seen her in person in more than two decades, Ginny Carney remains a mentor and a dear friend.

January in National Mentoring Month, and I’m so pleased to have one of my favorites here today.  Thank you, Ginny!


Who mentored you and fostered a love of stories and literature?

Neither of my parents was a high school graduate, and they were probably never aware of what a strategic role they played in cultivating a love for words in their children; both my mother and father, however, were avid readers and would often tell stories, sing ballads, or recite long poems from memory. Although we were very poor, they always subscribed to a newspaper and a couple of magazines, and when I was about three, they found a way to “buy on time” a set of the Book of Knowledge Encyclopedia. I loved those books, and somehow, I learned to read from them by the time I was four years old. Since our family had no car and no electricity, reading introduced me to worlds far beyond Southern Appalachia, and I developed an insatiable appetite for books.

When did you know you wanted to mentor others? How did it begin? Was it through foster parenting or parenting?

I’ve never really thought of myself as a mentor, but for as long as I can remember, I have had a passion for learning—and I have always wanted to share that passion with others. By the time I was four years old, I already had three younger siblings, and playing “school” with them was excellent preparation for my years ahead as a mother/grandmother/great-grandmother.

 You enjoyed a second career after nursing. How did that come about? Was there a pivotal moment when you knew you wanted to be a professor?

My childhood dream was to become either a medical doctor or a registered nurse. Due to lack of financial resources, however, completing college was a much greater challenge than I had anticipated. After getting married in 1963, I did begin applying to nursing schools, but was stunned to discover that none of these programs accepted married women (a story in itself!).

I did eventually complete nursing and work for several years as a pediatric/NICU nurse, but adopting a sibling group of four (ages 2-6) in the late 1980s, eventually compelled me to think about a profession that would allow more time with my family. Subsequently, I enrolled at UAA, where Dr. Arlene Kuhner (Professor of English) became an incredible mentor/friend, encouraging me to be proud of my Cherokee/Appalachian heritage, and to incorporate that into my writing.  I completed an M.A. degree in English in 1990, was privileged to teach at UAA for three years prior to my acceptance into a PhD program, and I continued working in higher education until my retirement in 2016 at age 75.

 Do you have any advice on how emerging writers can find a mentor? Are there secrets you have learned in being a mentor?

Of course, it would be wonderful if every emerging writer had a trusted mentor of his/her own. Often, however, mentors are individuals who don’t necessarily think of themselves as mentors, but who, as a result of life’s experiences, have gained a wisdom, compassion for others, and encouraging spirit that they instinctively share with others—especially with those who may be going through similar experiences. Therefore, emerging writers (of all ages) often find that their greatest support comes from authors like you, Liz—writers whose stories they may have only read, but whose words light an inextinguishable flame of creativity and hope within them.

 Is there a story or two you would like to share that you’re most proud of?

Of the hundreds of narratives that I could share, this story of an elderly Ojibwe woman in Minnesota is one of my favorites:

After outliving three husbands and retiring as a Licensed Practical Nurse, 85-year-old Miss Lois said, “I’m bored! Maybe I’ll take a moccasin-making class at the tribal college!” So, she enrolled in that one class, and she so enjoyed being with young college students that she decided to enroll as a full-time student.

One of the classes she took was my American Indian Literature course—a course in which we read about and discussed a number of emotional topics, including the Indian boarding school era, which has resulted in PTSD for thousands of American Indian/Alaska Native students and their families. At first, Miss Lois only alluded to the sexual abuse she and other young children had experienced at the hands of their “teachers,” but one day, she began joking about a group of girls “ganging up on a priest and tying him up.” Her young classmates (who had never attended boarding schools themselves) did not laugh.  Instead, they voiced indignation that their elders had “put up with” the physical and sexual abuse inflicted on them in many American and Canadian boarding schools. At that point, Miss Lois, who always seemed full of laughter and fun, shocked her classmates by breaking down in tears, and she began pouring out things she had kept inside for almost 80 years.  During the next several classes, other students began openly sharing their stories of incest/sexual abuse, and Miss Lois became their trusted (and highly esteemed) confidante/mentor. She went on to graduate from college, touching untold numbers of lives with her stories in newspaper and television interviews, as a participant in numerous panel discussions, and in her handwritten memoirs.

Miss Lois died in 2013 at the age of 95.


A Sense of My Ending/How Will I Later Recall Writing and Promoting Pieces of Me?

I saw the movie The Sense of An Ending recently, and this quote jumped out at me.

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts?

And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around us to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but–mainly–to ourselves.”– Julian Barnes, The Sense of An Ending.

The last sentence. –Told to others, but–mainly to ourselves,” really sticks. As I wind my way through different towns and states promoting my memoir, talking to many wonderful others, I think about how I’ll remember this process in my final memoir.  I suspect it will be published in my seventies if I’m fortunate enough to last that long, covering the process of healing where the last book left off, following getting to know my extended family, and the publishing my first book. What will I think then about this process of storytelling when it’s a memory?

I borrowed heavily from old journals, newspaper articles, and ingrained memories of awful events to write Pieces of Me. What comes later will be different, a more normal life.

What I hope old Liz will remember to tell about the one in her fifties is that both writing and promoting her book was a complicated process. Not glamorous as imagined in years past. Filled with extreme solitude and then extreme socializing. Many sleepless nights, worried about the feelings of those included in the book and those who weren’t,  and hoping I did due diligence at each event to make it worthwhile, gnawing concerns about money, thank you cards needing sent, and emails needing care. And I hope the old gal will remember that in the midst of all that, there was an outpouring of love and support from family, friends, and strangers, and that people were empowered to tell their own stories,  because a sacred atmosphere of vulnerability is created in writing memoir, and an understanding that everyone has a story, and every one of our stories is indeed important.

On this current trip, I’m so grateful to the University of Washington Bookstore and their staff, to friends and family and strangers who came out to show support, to my new friends I made at the Seattle hostel,  and to King5 News for covering my book and the event. I loved seeing my  dear friend Ira, who found my father for me so long ago.

At the University of Toledo’s Catharine S. Eberly Center for Women, I’m grateful to the passionate staff for including me in their mission to empower women, and for creating an elegant event that was covered by WGTV13abc and filmed for university students for later video streaming. I adore my friend Billijo for driving from Minnesota to Ohio to join the event and spend time with me before and after. And great thanks to my friend Jennifer Jarrett for coordinating this, and for tonight’s Meet the Author event at Luna Pier in Michigan and for being my host family. I’m indebted to my youngest daughter for caring for my home and cats and for her work to stop the flooding in my kitchen after a pipe broke.

If you’re interested in telling your story, I’ve long enjoyed the National Association for Memoir Writers. There are free coaching sessions run by Linda Joy Meyers, a therapist and author. It’s a gentle way to get your feet wet.

Thank you for stopping by.

Remembering the Magic of When a Community Unites

March used to be one of those months for me that held dreadful anniversary dates.

We all have those dates. Whether it’s the dreaded anniversary of a death, or a divorce anniversary, or maybe even a natural disaster like a hurricane, there are the dates that split our lives in two. There was life before the traumatic event, and life after the traumatic event.

I left my husband on March 5, 1990. He abducted our daughters on March 13, 1994.

There was life before the abduction. There was life after the abduction.

This March, I’ve been busy with book events related to my memoir. The events have given me time to think not just about those anniversary dates, but the phenomenal amount of kindness my family was gifted that helped put trauma back in our rear-view mirror.

My coworkers at the battered women’s shelter donated their leave. Friends threw every kind of fundraiser imaginable to help with expenses. My Alaskan lawyers donated their time and resources, and then my Greek friends donated their time and opened their homes to me. People of diverse backgrounds, cultures, beliefs, sexual orientations, and ages worked along one another to help us achieve the impossible. When I look back on that awful period in my life, I am filled with gratitude.

What is it about a disaster that brings out the best in people? And would I have the same experience today, in this age of social media where too often we camp up and talk about each other rather than to each other?

Often, people do show up when help is needed. Think of a car accident with people inside a smoldering vehicle.  A human is in peril. In that moment, it’s all that matters.

Alaskans have long had a rich history of helping one another, especially in the 90’s when my daughters were kidnapped. The weather, the location, the physical isolation serve as reminders that we need each other to survive.

After the girls and I returned from Greece in 1996, we resumed living small, quiet lives. And then two decades later, as I began promoting Pieces of Me: Rescuing My Kidnapped Daughters, all the memories came back. Not just the bad memories, but the beautiful memories of all the grace and love we’ve received.

I wish we didn’t need to go through hard times or traumatic events for people to unite for a common goal. But I’m so fortunate to have once been witness to the miracle of unity inside my community, both in the states and overseas. And to have commemorated that period in my book makes me both humbled and proud.

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of my daughters’ kidnapping. A reminder that I am one of the lucky parents whose kids returned.

Thank you for being a part of my story.




The Journey of Turning my Manuscript into a Book, part 1

I’ve wondered if it would be hard to be self-promote(y) before my memoir is published.

It turns out– and this may be a sad fact for you to hear– it’s astonishingly easy! Because lately, my book is all I think about. I fall asleep thinking of details, and I wake up making lists of those same ones. And there are lots of details to mind.

I’ll list just a few.

The title. My book had to be renamed since two recent books were published with nearly the same title. How hard can that be? What’s in a name?

Pretty much everything, I’ve learned.  I looked up How to Pick a Title for your Book on Indiebooklauncher. The title’s length can determine how the book cover looks. It’s title can promote Google-ability.  It can enhance or kill sales. And since I’m not working alone, I need to convince the editor, publisher, and team who frankly know much more than I do.  I couldn’t do it. In the end, I chose from a list the editor provided after we went back and forth, and finally, it’s titled.

2015-12-02 (3) 0003GreeceDrumroll, please!
Pieces of Me. There will be a subtitle, of course, but Pieces of Me sounds just right. My book is about finding my kidnapped daughters. Finding my missing family. Finding me along the way. I think it works. I’m thinking of this picture to be on the cover, just after the girls and I were reunited in Greece in May of 1996.

What do you think?

Then there’s the stuff  to include inside the book. The Thank you to this person and to that. Not easy, because there is limited room and the thank you’s are meant mostly for those who’ve helped directly with the book, but I want to thank people who helped me find my daughters, and people who stayed in their lives while we continued to move forward, post-1996.

Lindexet’s not forget the author photo. This picture also can enhance sales or detract. Any article on the topic will confirm it. I know. I read many before I felt comfortable proceeding. My favorite was by Tucker Max in Book Publishing.  So I hired a photographer I adore. I picked good colors. I even read a helpful blog post online about the importance of taking selfies in advance to find your good side, your best colors, etc. And I tried to get my curls unwound so the picture would look good. But nothing worked.

I went for a look of friendly and approachable. A team of three photographers helped me with lighting, positioning, and calming my unruly hair. “Stop slouching! Shoulders back! Stick  your neck out and look up and then over! Relax!”

I ended up looking like a linebacker.  A friendly and approachable linebacker. It was my choice of clothes. Too big and boxy. It’ll have to do, and I think the pictures are starting to grow on me.
Next on the list is obtaining licensing rights to reprint newspaper snippets and such, finding the right venue for a book launch, and getting blurbs from authors I admire.

Sometimes it feels like this is an impossible feat. I know my book is a developing fetus, but my initial manuscript is nearly of drinking age. Still, it’s finally happening. My book within nine months of it’s birth!

Thanks for joining me during the process.

My Favorite Distractions/Memoirs I Love

I cannot tell a lie.

I’ve been a slug lately in regards to writing. Ever since I committed to publishing my memoir, I feel frozen. While I should be working on getting updated pictures for my book cover, or writing the information that will appear on the back of my book, I’ve been reading and watching TV and indulging in any number of distractions after work.

imageSo before I leave for a few days of work in mystical Barrow, Alaska, I will at least share with you some of my favorite memoirs I’ve read this year while avoiding my own writing:


FINDING BETHANY by Glen Klinkhart


COMING CLEAN by Kimberly Ray Miller


and my favorite find during my trip to Australia–THE ANTI-COOL GIRL  by Rosie Waterland

The first two cover sibling tragedies, the third is about growing up with hoarders, the fourth covers the healing power a pet’s love provides, and the last is an Aussie woman’s meteoric rise from neglected and abused child in foster care to talented writer with a strong sense of purpose.

What memoirs have you enjoyed recently?

Am I Too Old for Literary Success? A Few Reasons 50 -plus is Just Alright With Me

Some of the literary greats didn’t start publishing until well after 50 years old.    —She Writes Press

I read this post a couple of weeks ago and felt relieved. I’m well in to my fiftieth year now.

photo(5)And I’m well in to the process of getting something major published, not just a simple content article or essay, but a real-life manuscript.

I cannot tell a lie; it’s been anything but quick and easy.

I remember finishing the first draft of my memoir in 2003 when I was thirty-nine. I was so sure it was ready to publish. Whew! I got it in just under the wire, I thought, confident that forty was the cut-off point that if I hadn’t gotten a book deal, all efforts were doomed.
“What’s your rush?” one of the agents I shopped my book to asked me after showing interest but ultimately rejecting it –“as it is currently written”– a phrase I would come to despise.

It was a good question that I could not answer. I still can’t.

I’m not sure I can articulate in so many words why I think it’s important either. But every time I read someone’s story, I’m so grateful that the author, and that I, have persevered.

Last night, I finished The Craggy Hole in my Heart and the Cat Who Fixed It by Geneen Roth, an oldie but goody I picked up at a garage sale.

It was transformational.

Now I’m reading Publishing: A Writer’s Memoir by Gail Godwin, who has been publishing books for 45 years.


But perhaps it was reading to my adult daughter punctuated the point best.

Eleven days ago, I let her pick out a book I would read to her from my library before bed. I rarely get to read aloud anymore, but she indulges me once a year. She selected Carole Radziwill’s What Remains.

I read her the opening scene which begins with the date July 16, 1999.

“Honey, what’s the date today?” I asked my daughter after reading it. She looked on her iPhone.

“July 16th.”

A few lines down, as I’m reading about a fatal plane crash, it gave the time also: 9:44 p.m.

“What time is it right now?” I asked my daughter.

Again she looked at her phone screen. “It’s 9:43p.m.”

Suddenly, the engine of an airplane close by drowned out my reading. We don’t live near any airport. My daughter and I looked at each other, wondering if this was to be our last memory before the plane crashed in to our tiny home.

It is this that I love. The fact that we can be transported in to someone’s story that happened sixteen years ago, and it’s real and it’s relevant and for a moment, we were a part of it.

I don’t really mind that I’ve spent more than sixteen years working on my own story to share, so long as many years later, or even after I die, someone might still relate to it.

What I do mind (only a teeny bit) is that my kids’ former teen-aged babysitter posted a story on VOX at her young age that knocked my socks off a few days ago and is now expected to turn in to a memoir very quickly. Perhaps you’ve read the story. I Spent Two Years Cleaning Houses. What I saw Makes Me Never Want to be Rich.

Sure, I felt an ugly twinge of envy when I saw it pop up on MSN’s feed, but it’s such a great story that I’ve nearly forgiven her for being so young and so dynamic. (Watch out for Stephanie Land’s upcoming book. I can’t wait!)

And thanks for not giving up on mine. You can e-mail me at Liza8m@gmail.com if you want to be on a waaay early pre-order list.

Thanks always for stopping by.

SWIMMING WITH MAYA: Interview with Author Eleanor Vincent

I have mentioned before that Swimming with Maya is one of my favorite memoirs ever, so I was ecstatic when Eleanor Vincent agreed to be interviewed. Thank you, Ms. Vincent!

http://www.amazon.com/Swimming-Maya-A-Mothers-Story/dp/0988439042/ref=sr_1_cc_2?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1359922098&sr=1-2-catcorr&keywords=swimming+with+mayaAs I lift May’s still warm and pliable fingers in mine, the instinctive mother’s recognition of her child’s body takes over. I slide my right hand under her shoulder and gaze down at her serene young face.

Reverend Margaret leans over her. “Maya, this is your graduation from life on earth. You are going on to a school far greater than U.C.L.A. We release you with all of our love and blessings.” She looks at me from across the white mound of sheets covering Maya’s body. “Can you let her go, Mom?”

-excerpt from Swimming with Maya, Published by Dream of Things.

Swimming with Maya is a beautiful account of the loss of your daughter, as well as the long path towards healing which was aided by meeting the recipients of her donated organs. How did you know when the right time was for you to begin writing this story?

In this instance, I had no choice. I had to begin immediately. Maya’s death was such a shock that I needed to write about it to make it real, and begin to process the loss. What I wrote in the two to three years after her death became the foundation for the book, but I used very little of the actual writing. It took me 10 years to create a story that would be a compelling read.
How did you come up with the title Swimming with Maya?

It only came to me at the very end when I was writing the dream about swimming with Maya – it seemed like a perfect metaphor for how we continue to weave into each other’s lives in a very fluid way. I think Maya’s message to me in the dream was that what we think of as “the other side” is actually very close to us, and that those we love can communicate with us even when they are no longer in physical bodies. So water had special meaning and is a thematic element throughout the book.

Writing a memoir can become an unfortunate info dump. Not everyone can survive what you have and detach enough to write scenes as though they were occurring in real-time. Do you have tips for writers who don’t share your gift?

Writing memoir is a learned skill, and one that requires you to detach enough to be a character in your own story, as well as a narrator. It is essential that the narrator knows and understands more than the character. I learned a lot from Vivian Gornick’s book The Situation and The Story. After I read it during the final years of drafting the book, I was able to go back and revise accordingly. As the author, it’s vital to no longer be shocked or astonished by your own story. It took me many years to reach that point. I guess my advice to others would be patience and studying the craft of writing.

What was the greatest help while writing this story? Did you have a critiquing group or editor or another source of support and inspiration that was key in your success?

I was working on an MFA in creative writing at the time Maya died, so that program at Mills College was very instrumental in giving me the support and the craft knowledge (and practice) I needed to succeed. I also had a wonderful writing group in the last years of the writing, and reader critique was essential to the process. In addition, I had a writing partner, Sarah Scott Davis to whom the book is dedicated. I emailed Sarah chapters as I completed them and every Saturday morning we’d talk by phone and she’d give me her feedback and offer support. As I was completing the final revisions, Sarah spent a few afternoons with me and we spread the manuscript out on the floor, chapter by chapter, and worked on the final polishing.

Was there ever a time when you were writing this book that the writing stalled, or did it flow pretty easily once you were able to begin the process?

I stalled out countless times. I had to stop and grieve. I was raising my younger daughter Meghan at the time, and working at a full-time corporate editing job, so my time was very limited. Once Meghan left for college, I was able to focus more, and buckle down and get it done – but it still took several more years to complete.

Swimming with Maya has been a New York Times e-book bestseller twice! Congratulations! What has been the most effective way that you’ve found to market your memoir?

My publisher Mike O’Mary at Dream of Things is very savvy about using newsletters targeted to e-reader users. So Mike placed ads with those publications and I supported his efforts with a Facebook author page, my website, and a blog tour. Most of our sales have been in the e-book format.

I heard in a podcast that you finally got your book published, and the publisher went belly up. Please tell us a bit about that, and how you proceeded to keep your story alive.

Capital Books, the original publisher, brought out a beautiful hardback edition of the book in 2004. They kept the book in print until they went out of business early in 2011. At that point, I looked at several options. The Author’s Guild has a “back in print” program but formatting is very limited. I considered self-publishing but felt I’d rather focus my energies on writing and that I needed technical and marketing support. A dear friend, Madeline Sharples, had recently published her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, with Dream of Things. She introduced me to Mike and he was very enthusiastic about Swimming with Maya. We brought out an updated edition in paperback and e-book early in 2013. I was very lucky to find a publisher with Mike’s level of commitment and skill to reissue the book.

What are you working on currently?

I’m currently working on a treatment for a screenplay of Swimming with Maya. I’d like to see the book adapted and made into a movie. Writing for film is very different from narrative nonfiction writing, so I’ve taken several classes and am now working with a screenwriting consultant to polish the draft. I also have a completed draft of a book about my time living in a co-housing community – a hilarious and poignant disaster – that I’m currently working on turning into a novel. Fictionalizing it will give me more freedom to amp up the drama. So I’m in a learning curve with that project, too. I like to learn new things and challenge myself to expand my skills. I’ve been writing professionally for four decades and I feel like there is so much more to learn.

Swimming with Maya can be purchased on Amazon or at Dream of Things.