When I teach fiction writing at the college level, one of the lessons I often plan is this: I ask students to read some articles from the news and to choose one that interests them. I then ask them to take some aspect of that true-life story and transform it into a creative piece. Their new, fictional story should include characters and a plot inspired by the real-life event. The results are interesting, and sometimes quite funny (especially when students do the exercise in groups).
In the interview below with writer Linda K. Sienkiewicz, it was interesting to learn that the process we have practiced in class actually led to Sienkiewicz’s first published novel, In the Context of Love (Buddhapuss Ink, 2015).
I met Sienkiewicz after her book was published by the independent press that published my own debut book, Message From a Blue Jay. Still, it wasn’t until we worked together on this interview that I learned more about her life and writing career.
Sienkiewicz grew up south of Cleveland, Ohio. She was a creative child who painted, made jewelry, wrote, and sewed. After studying art, she worked in graphics before starting a family. Years later she began writing seriously, and her short stories, poetry, essays and art have now been published in many literary journals. Sienkiewicz has also published four poetry chapbooks and earned a Pushcart Prize Nomination for her poetry.
In the Context of Love is an Eric Hoffer Award Finalist, a Sarton Women’s Fiction Award Finalist, Readers Choice Book Award Finalist, and a USA Book News “Best Books” Award Finalist. It has also earned a New Apple Official Selection Award for Excellence and an Honorable Mention from the Great Midwest Book Festival.
Let’s hear more from this interesting, creative writer and artist.
FRD: First, tell us a bit about yourself and your writing journey. How did you find yourself writing and publishing your work at this stage — or at other stages — of your life?
LKS: My educational background is in art, but I’ve always loved reading and writing. Always. I think my writing evolved from my love of stories. As poet/essayist Thomas Lynch said, “Writers are just readers who have gone karaoke.” I worked in the art field for a while, but in the mid-nineties I developed a keen interest in writing. I learned that the creative process for the written word and visual art overlap more than I had ever imagined. I attended every conference and workshop possible, wrote every day, and eventually my work started getting published in literary magazines and getting awards.
FRD: When did you move from poetry to writing fiction, and how did you make the switch?
LKS: I began playing around with short stories around 2003. I shared a published piece with my poetry editor and he suggested I write a novel based on the characters. I thought he was crazy. I didn’t know how to write a book. Yet, I couldn’t help wonder why not give it a try? I never viewed just trying something as a waste of time, but I knew I had a lot to learn. So, in 2007, I entered the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. I immersed myself in fiction writing, and I finished a draft of a novel. A few excerpts were published as short pieces and won awards, so that gave me confidence to keep working on the manuscript.My background in crafting poetry has been indispensable in editing fiction. For me, the process is similar, except you’re editing paragraphs instead of stanzas. I apply what I do in poetry to fiction by avoiding sentimentality and cliché. It isn’t always easy, especially when it comes to writing about sex or love. I like using metaphor and simile to evoke a mood or emotion. I often read passages aloud, testing the rhythm, so the pace fits the scene. If characters are in a heated argument, for example, I wouldn’t write flowing sentences with lots of metaphor.
FRD: In the Context of Love is a 2017 New Apple Book Award Selection for Excellence in Publishing and a was finalist in several 2016 fiction contests. It is a coming-of-age story that touches on themes
of sexual violence, and the book has been described as a “powerful and richly detailed debut novel…at once a love story, a cautionary tale, and an inspirational journey.” How did the characters and the story come to you?
LKS: In the mid-nineties, I read a magazine article titled “My Father Was a Rapist” about several women who learned this horrifying truth about their conception. Their courage and resilience impressed me; I carried their stories with me for years. For the novel, I created a character named Angelica, born to a single mother in the mid-fifties, when claims of rape were met with suspicion and an unwed mother was a scandal. This created a big family secret, since the grandparents had to create a lie to explain the baby. I didn’t know how Angelica would find out about her birth father, or what would happen when she did, but that’s the joy and challenge of writing.
FRD: Did you find it difficult to write the more disturbing scenes?
LKS: Sexual violence is more of a subtext in the story, like a simmering awareness. Readers don’t witness it firsthand. The two most difficult scenes to write were when Angelica first finds out from her mother that she was conceived in a rape, and years later when she asks her mother what she knows about her birth father. They are both emotionally packed conversations. Writing dialogue, especially when people aren’t being totally honest, is fascinating.
For example, in the first scene, Angelica’s mother has never talked to anyone what had happened so many years ago; her own parents didn’t believe her when she said she’d been raped. So her mother has buried her hurt and anger for years, as many women do. When Angelica is seventeen, she accidentally learns her parents (mother and adoptive father) were married two years after she was born. She starts asking questions. At first, her mother lies, then tries to deflect, but her lie collapses. Yet, her emotional pain causes her to talk in fragmented circles, so Angelica doesn’t quite understand what she’s being told. When she finally grasps what her mother is trying to tell her, Angelica initially rejects the truth because it’s too distressing. Her adoptive father never knew the real story either, so the shock upends the entire family.
FRD: What message do you hope readers will come away with after reading the novel?
LKS: The empowering message of In the Context of Love is that by telling our stories, we are able to embrace and accept who we are. Martha Beck says, “The heart is imprisoned not by being broken, but by being silenced.” Angelica’s story and her mother’s story are universal, and they need to be shared. I hope the book supports other women who are on personal journeys of acceptance and strength.
FRD: What a timely message, for so many reasons.
On a far lighter topic, your essay “My Horrible Celebrity Crush” was recently published in the anthology Idol Talk: Women Writers on the Teenage Infatuations that Changed Their Lives. If you can tell us without giving away too much about the essay, who was your celebrity crush and why was it so horrible?
LKS: In 1968, when I was fourteen, most girls idolized the boys featured in Tiger Beat magazine, like Davy Jones, Paul McCartney, or Bobby Sherman. I had a major crush on the hard-living, hard-drinking surly British actor Oliver Reed, who played the villainous Bill Sikes in the musical Oliver! I was too young to understand this bad-boy infatuation, and I was too embarrassed to talk about it with my friends.
Celebrity crushes are fascinating. I once asked a friend’s 80-year-old mother about her first idol, and she got goose bumps because she was thinking about Rhett Butler! At 80! Such is the power of girlhood infatuations.
FRD: I can still sum up the feelings from my first celebrity crushes. I find it interesting to look them up now and see what happened to them later in life. So, back to your writing life — where can readers learn more about you and find your published work?
LKS: I blog weekly about life, writing, and all things creative at lindaksienkiewicz.com/blog. My poetry books, my novel and the anthology are on Amazon and can also be ordered from bookstores: https://www.amazon.com/Linda-K-Sienkiewicz/e/B00JNEX4T8/.
Thank you so much, Faye, for having me on your blog!