The Crows of Beara
Enjoy this delightful visit with author Julie Christine Johnson as we chat about Ireland, The Crows of Beara, musicality, and – um – muddy boots.
Great to see you here, Julie! I brewed coffee and tea. I wasn’t sure which you preferred. Cream and sugar?
Julie: Annie, it’s such an honor to be here. I love your site- the reviews, interviews, guest authors. Thank you for being such an advocate for the literary arts! And since it’s so early, I’ll take coffee—gut-searing, black, piping hot coffee.
Help yourself to the cookies too. Say, is that a gift you brought for me?
Julie: Well, they are rather encrusted with mud, and that lump there may be some sheep dung, but I’m sure you’ll find a special place for the bootlaces from the last pair of hiking boots I wore‑—and left behind in—Ireland. I’ve been saving them for a special occasion, and this is it!
You are so sweet! I, um, love them. Yes, it’s – well, so thoughtful! So with your story set in Ireland, there must be a lot of musicality in your dialogue. Accents, pauses, tempo. How do you separate out the characters so we hear their distinct voices? What technique did you use to bring about the rhythm of your characters’ voices?
Julie: How wonderful that you mention musicality. Music and language are kissing cousins, and I’ve always had an affinity for both. I pick up accents easily, but more than that, I love getting beneath the skin of a language, to learn its rhythms and cadence and how speakers inhabit their native tongues- their gestures, the ways their mouths move, the sounds of their voices. I can’t claim any particular technique on conveying my characters’ distinct voices. I simply write what I hear, that particular music that gets under my skin.
Ah, the scones are finally ready from the oven. Please choose your favorite. I have pumpkin, blueberry, cinnamon, and cranberry.
Julie: Ermagerd . . . (spraying crumbs from her full mouth) Pumpkin with maple frosting? How did you know . . .?
It’s been a very pumpkin month. Tell me, (surreptitiously wiping off crumbs from her side of the table) which of Aristotle’s six elements-plot, character, thought, language, melody, spectacle- do you feel is your strongest and why?
Julie: I’m inclined to think that language is my strongest suit. Words–the magical immensity and precision and possibility and poetry of them–just blow my mind. But I believe all story begins and ends with character and this is where I invest most of my writing energy. I begin each novel working through character sketches for my protagonist and main characters, and it is from these characters that a story problem and the themes take shape. And from these, the plot. As I dip cautiously into reviews of my novels, the most gratifying comments are those that center on the relatability and resonance of my characters.
If your Annie and Daniel were dropped off at the cinema, what movie would they choose?
Julie: To Have and Have Not. Bogart and Bacall. Character and Conflict. Boom.
What is your favorite aspect of your main character –strongest trait, etc. (adds fresh coffee to Julie’s cup)
Julie: (reaching for another pumpkin scone) Annie’s vulnerability, all the raw and ridiculous moments of self-awareness that make her cringe and yet stiffen her resolve to heal and move forward.
Who is your favorite writer and why? What aspect of that writer do you try to incorporate into your own craft?
Julie: I have far too many favorites to name just one, but there is a writer whose work and philosophy have informed my own: Colm Tóibín. He once stated that he writes the silence between the words. I feel this. I feel the power of the unspoken, the unstated, the silences. It’s what I seek to do—to give the reader space, to give my characters space, to respect and write the silence.
Oh you know Harold Pinter the playwright was famous for those silences and pauses that spoke volumes. What was the most difficult part of the writing stage?
Julie: For this particular novel, letting go of several POVs that I’d incorporated into the narrative. I had chapters written in the POVs of the women Annie met, the women who embodied the legend of An Cailleach Bheara- the Hag of Beara. My editors convinced me to narrow the POVs to Annie and Daniel. I had a few hair-flip, foot-stamp moments over that, but of course they were right.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to other authors as they settle in for a second draft.
Julie: Accept that it is only the second draft. You likely have dozens more ahead of you. Read like a reader. Use this draft to begin pulling the story together, slowly, word by word.
What other fun things or words of wisdom would you like to share?
Julie: I don’t have the best track record of book dedications. I dedicated my first novel, IN ANOTHER LIFE, to my husband: we divorced six months after that book’s publication. My second, THE CROWS OF BEARA, I dedicated to my boyfriend, who broke up with me two months before publication. I briefly considered dedicating my third novel, now on submission, to my cat, but I can’t even imagine what tragedy would result from that gesture. My heavens. You have to be able to laugh at all this, right? Even if it means crying at the same time . . .
You know, there really is no need to add me to your book’s dedication. Really. You’ve brought me a present. But you know what they say about three times is a charm, right? You have been such a delightful guest. I hope you come back and chat when you have a new book out or just to stop by with some words of wisdom. Thank you so much for visiting ePen! Please take this extra scone with you!
Julie: Thank you. It’s an honor to be featured! (tucks the scone into her purse, waves, and heads out the door)
Read on for an excerpt of The Crows of Beara and where to contact Julie.
The Crows of Beara
By Julie Christine Johnson
Genre: Fiction, Climate Fiction, Eco-Lit, Women’s Fiction
Along the windswept coast of Ireland, a woman discovers the landscape of her own heart
When Annie Crowe travels from Seattle to a small Irish village to promote a new copper mine, her public relations career is hanging in the balance. Struggling to overcome her troubled past and a failing marriage, Annie is eager for a chance to rebuild her life.
Yet when she arrives on the remote Beara Peninsula, Annie learns that the mine would encroach on the nesting ground of an endangered bird, the Red-billed Chough, and many in the community are fiercely protective of this wild place. Among them is Daniel Savage, a local artist battling demons of his own, who has been recruited to help block the mine.
Despite their differences, Annie and Daniel find themselves drawn toward each other, and, inexplicably, they begin to hear the same voice–a strange, distant whisper of Gaelic, like sorrow blowing in the wind.
Guided by ancient mythology and challenged by modern problems, Annie must confront the half-truths she has been sent to spread and the lies she has been telling herself. Most of all, she must open her heart to the healing power of this rugged land and its people.
Beautifully crafted with environmental themes, a lyrical Irish setting, and a touch of magical realism, The Crows of Beara is a breathtaking novel of how the nature of place encompasses everything that we are.
Julie’s short stories and essays have appeared in several journals, including Emerge Literary Journal; Mud Season Review; Cirque: A Literary Journal of the North Pacific Rim; Cobalt; River Poets Journal, in the print anthologies Stories for Sendai; Up, Do: Flash Fiction by Women Writers; and Three Minus One: Stories of Love and Loss; and featured on the flash fiction podcast No Extra Words. She holds undergraduate degrees in French and Psychology and a Master’s in International Affairs. Julie leads writing workshops and seminars and offers story/developmental editing and writer coaching services.
Named a “standout debut” by the Library Journal, “Very highly recommended” by Historical Novels Review and declared “Delicate and haunting, romantic and mystical” by bestselling author Greer Macallister, Julie’s debut novel In Another Life went into a second printing three days after its February 2, 2016 release. A finalist for The Siskiyou Prize for New Environmental Literature, judged by PEN/Faulkner author and Man Booker Award nominee Karen Joy Fowler, Julie’s second novel The Crows of Beara was acquired by Ashland Creek Press and will take flight on September 15, 2017. A hiker, yogi, and wine geek, Julie makes her home on the Olympic Peninsula of northwest Washington state.
On Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/juliechristinejohnson/
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/JulieChristineJ
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On Powell’s: http://bit.ly/2grs41i
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It took him longer than he anticipated to find a space near the gallery’s back loading door and to bring the last of his pieces inside, but when Daniel walked into the gallery, Annie was standing transfixed in front of the sculpture he’d titled Grian/Gealach—Sunrise/Sunset—her hand reaching for the delicate spheres of metal. She withdrew her hand before touching the piece, though her body leaned in still.
“Go on. It’s all right,” he said over her shoulder, removing a pair of stained and torn leather work gloves.
She seemed not to register him. Then she turned and nodded at the gloves he clutched in one hand. “Do you work here?”
“I’m delivering pieces for the installation.” He waved around the exhibit space. “We’ve set up just a few so far, but they give you an idea.”
“Is the artist a friend of yours?”
“Some days, yes. Some days I really can’t stand the sight of the bastard. But mostly we get along.” He winked and motioned her toward the sculpture. “Really, it’s meant for all the senses, not just visual. Go on.”
She drew the tip of her finger down one large round of metal. It blazed like firelight, catching the dipping sun, but the metal was cool. “It’s beautiful.”
“I like for people to handle these pieces—I want them to feel the texture and temperature of the materials.” Annie turned in surprise, but Daniel pretended not to notice. “Fingerprints leave marks and oil—that’s a good thing, at least for my work. People change my art as much as I hope it changes them.”
“I didn’t know you were an artist.”
“I do the guiding to keep a steady income coming in, but this is meant to be my day job.”
Giant parcels wrapped in quilted moving blankets leaned against the walls; only one other piece had been unwrapped, a protective cover draped over the corners. It was a tall, narrow triptych of patinated metal with a background of aquamarine. Gracing the foreground was a long hawthorn stem of leaves and berries that shimmered and waved in a silhouette of red and gold.
“This is copper,” she said in wonder. “You work with copper.”
“Copper mostly. Some bronze, chrome. I’m just starting in with glass—studying with an artist out of a cooperative here in Kenmare.”
“But, Daniel. Copper.”
“Recycled copper. I use discarded materials, from building sites mostly. Ironic, right? I don’t want the mine in my backyard, but I’m willing to exploit it nonetheless—is that what you’re thinking? I’m not so naive as to think we shouldn’t have mining.”
He pulled the cover away from the sculpture’s sharp edges and let it drop to the floor. The hawthorn was in a cow pasture where he often sat, watching for the Red-billed Chough that foraged for seeds in the manure. “But in my own way, maybe I can show that the earth’s resources aren’t ours for the taking wherever, whenever we want. Art is a way to connect people with their environment without polarizing, without politicizing. It can be used to that purpose, but it belongs to everyone. I want my art to show nature as a cultural artifact. I made a very deliberate decision to use what’s already been taken from the earth—what had been stripped from Beara’s earth more than a century ago. Maybe that is my political statement.”
At that moment, hearing the words in his own voice, speaking his heart out loud, Daniel made his decision. But it was something he needed to sit with, to form more fully on his own. And he couldn’t forget, no matter how enchanting this woman was, who she was, why their paths had crossed.