My guest this week is Rae Ellen Lee, Pacific Northwest author of one novel The Bluebird House, two memoir adventures, I Only Cuss When I’m Sailing and My Next Husband Will be Normal – A St. John Adventure, and the editor and publisher of anecdotes told by Post Hole Augerson, her father, titled Powder Monkey Tales — A Portrait in Stories.
Thanks for joining me, Rae Ellen. I just finished reading The Bluebird House and I fell in love with its quirky small Montana mining town characters. This tale of a haunted brothel was a readers’ choice selection of the Salt Lake City public library system. Rae Ellen likes to describe this book as a paranormal-historical-romance-adventure novel with a mystery and some mountain man recipes. It’s a multi-genre feast.
I understand this is partly based on your own adventure of living in and renovating a former brothel. Tell us how that came about.
I just finished a fun blog post about this — how an innocent (some called it “bad”) choice I made one Montana spring day in 1992 came to haunt me for three years. For the price of a used car, I bought a collection of old buildings up in the mountains near Helena. You see, I’m somewhat addicted to novelty, and this gets me into trouble sometimes. What an adventure it was, living in a dilapidated old brothel during its renovation. Did I mention it had no running water or indoor plumbing? This is the setting for the novel – that and the mining camp town. But most of the other events in the novel, like Molly getting stepped on by a moose and having a near-death accident while cross-country skiing, didn’t happen to me. The characters are authentic Montana, however, and some of them were inspired by real people I’ve known. I loved writing that book. It was like the story insisted on being told.
What got you started on your writing journey?
In the 1980s I lived in West Yellowstone while working for the U.S. Forest Service. One weekend, when it was nearly sixty below zero, a friend and I were wondering what to do. She read a lot and said, “You’re good at writing Environmental Assessments, why don’t you try your hand at writing fiction?” I began by writing an essay about living in West Yellowstone, and branched out to produce a travel sketchbook to the area, now out of print. Years later when I took a fiction-writing class at the Univ. of Montana, the instructor told me, “Do us all a favor and don’t write any more fiction.” But I went ahead and did it anyway. My then-husband, Tom, and I started writing a novel together. We set the story in the Caribbean, where neither of us had ever been. We flew there on a book research trip, and that set into play a total change in our lifestyle. We moved from Montana to a sailboat in Bellingham so we could fix up the boat, learn to sail, and sail it back to the Virgin Islands. This sailing life was so astonishing to me that I wrote extensively about events as they happened, so I could make sense of it all. It was during this time that I read Anne Lamott’s wonderful book, Bird By Bird, which gave me courage to turn my writings into a memoir, If The Shoe Fits, published by Sheridan House in 2001.
You have a wonderful writing style that puts me right in the skin of your character and drops me into the mountain setting of this story. Have you studied writing?
Heidi, thanks for your kind statement! I believe that writing in first person, present tense immerses the reader into the action. I also enjoy reading books written in this style. It’s so immediate. And I’m an outdoor girl and have studied the details of landscape, so the setting is a key character in all my books. I’m writing a novel now that is mostly set inside a sawmill, so I’m working to capture the sensory details, like the smell of sawdust and pitch, the noise of saws and other machinery, and what it’s like to work wearing a hard hat and safety glasses. For me, this setting is much more difficult to write about than a landscape. Fortunately, I have friends and family members in northern Idaho who have worked in mills and I consult with them to get the details right.
I have taken numerous creative writing classes and workshops, and read dozens of how-to books on writing. There is so much to learn, and always room for improvement. I studied journalism and fiction writing at the Univ. of Montana; participated in a six-week fiction workshop at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C.; enjoyed a memoir writing workshop with Laura Kalpakian; and attended various writing conferences. I’m in an excellent writing group, and I’m telling you, they’re a tough bunch. It’s impossible to sneak an adverb or a trite saying past them.
I constantly strive to write better, with renewed efforts at the sentence level. For instance, I manipulate each sentence many times to make certain the emphasis is in the right place. Next I work to link the sentences. Then I play with specific word choices, studying my thesaurus. And all of that has to result in a certain musicality when I read the piece aloud, or I start over. It usually takes a year to write a solid first draft, and two or three years after that to revise and polish the manuscript. I think it is essential that we put only our best work out into the world.
Your writing is infused with humor. Is that something you’ve had to develop or do you come by it naturally?
Humor is my drug of choice. I strongly believe the world needs more humor, and that my purpose in life is to take the truth, turn it on its ear, have fun with it, and help others do the same. Also, I’m allergic to alcohol, so I can’t drink to soften my troubles. I’ve had to learn to laugh at things. While some difficulties are simply not funny, like the loss of a loved one, there are so many other problems that can be made fun of. For instance, when my last husband realized at the age of sixty that he was really a she. So many astonishing events took place during that time, and we both have a sense of humor, so we laughed a lot. Not that we didn’t cry a lot, too. It was a period of “high relationship drama.”
My father had a terrific sense of humor. His alias was Post Hole Augerson. Throughout my childhood he told stories about his life on an Illinois farm, and later about how he headed west with a friend and when they saw someone catch a fish in northern Idaho, they slammed on the brakes and settled there. His stories captured the history, hardships and especially the humor of his life. I believe I got some good “humor” genes from him.
I love the titles of your books, especially My Next Husband Will Be Normal—that’s a real attention-grabber. Did you come up with the titles yourself?
One reason I became an “indie” author is to maintain control over my titles. A brash statement, I realize. But my working title for If The Shoe Fits was I Only Cuss When I’m Sailing. However, my conservative publisher refused to publish a book with the word cuss in the title. I like my title so much better, and now that all rights have reverted to me I’ve e-published the book with its original title. The working title of my first novel, The Bluebird House, was What Darwin Said About Music, from the title of an article I found in the walls of my old brothel. The agent and publisher both said it was too obscure, and they’re possibly right.
Finding a title for my second memoir was difficult. I wanted to use The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful, but that phrase is more or less owned by Jimmy Buffet. Another one was Objects in Mirror Are Better Looking Than They Appear. Too long. I did not invent the title, My Next Husband Will Be Normal. My husband bought me a shirt with that saying on it as a joke. When I researched it, I learned the saying is not trademarked. I could use it as a title. Women love it. The joke, of course, is that men are so different from women that to many of us they don’t seem “normal,” even the ones who don’t change gender on us. I wanted the title to show the humorous slant of the book, and I wanted to be able to add – A St. John Adventure so the title would show up when someone searches for info on St. John.
The title of my next novel, the one set in a sawmill, is Cheating the Hog. While some people might mistake this for a diet book, the title is the name of an actual job in the mill.
What authors or books have influenced your writing?
Anne Lamott, of course. I love Bird By Bird about writing and life. I also love her book, Operating Instructions, about her son’s first year of life. She writes with honesty and truth, and a huge dose of self-deprecating humor. Another important book that helped me is On Writing Well by William Zinsser. The Weekend Novelist by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris helped me structure The Bluebird House. His idea of establishing plot points at key locations throughout the novel, and then writing from one plot point to the next, worked well for me.
For inspiration I read anything by Mark Twain. I sometimes reread parts of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. Pam Houston’s essays and short stories are unabashedly personal and compelling. To name only a few.
What accomplishment are you the proudest of in your life?
In 1986 I recorded my dad’s stories, edited them for chronology, and published Powder Monkey Tales – A Portrait in Stories. In doing this project, I asked him lots of questions and learned details about his life I never would have known. He appreciated being asked. One of his stories, The Osprey and the Fishing License, was selected to be performed by an actor in the Idaho Centennial Play, Idaho Tales, Tall and True.
Which of your own books is your favorite? Which was the easiest or hardest to write?
The Bluebird House was easiest to write, not that it was so easy. I worked hard on it. My favorite book at the moment is, My Next Husband Will Be Normal – A St. John Adventure. The book documents a specific time on St. John (2001–2006). I’ve been back to the island, and certain developments have changed the island experience a lot. The book also captures what it was like to move to paradise and discover the difference between living there and being a tourist. That was a shocker. And then, too, my brilliant and funny (and difficult) husband realized he was transgendered. This book was also the hardest to write. It’s very personal, but we both hoped by my writing the funny side of the experience that others (including spouses and family members of other transgendered people) might relax a bit and allow a more compassionate view of the situation. Not that it’s an easy experience to go through. One reader said, “I laughed. I cried. What a ride. What a story.” And that’s what it was like for me to live the experience, as well as relive the events as I wrote and revised the manuscript. As I wrote, I also felt like I was walking a fence. Some women thought my acceptance of my husband’s realization would contribute to “depravity,” while a few transgendered individuals, sensitive to disapproval, were insulted by my title. But now that the book’s been published, it’s being met with cheers from both sides.
What would you say to someone who tells you, “I want to write a book”?
I would ask them lots of questions to see how serious they are. I’d ask if they’d considered learning to play the ukulele instead. If they really are determined, I’d find out if they want to write fiction or non-fiction and ask if they have a unique story to tell. I’d offer some books that have been helpful to me, and answer any specific questions they might have. Other than that, I’d say, “Go for it.”
Synopsis of The Bluebird House: The place: Montana. The time: the present.
After a nearly fatal encounter with a moose and a terrifyingly close brush with middle age, Molly reassesses her life. The result: she ends her stale marriage and moves to a small mining town where she purchases The Bluebird House, an old bordello. A madam. A diary. A murder. And romance, too. The Bluebird House has it all.