"A Chance to Have My Say"— Get to Know Playwright/Poet Judith Offer

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Judith Offer playwright poet
poet & playwright Judith Offer

Member Judith Offer will be our featured reader at our first meeting of the year on Sunday, January 19th.  Judith is celebrating her one-year anniversary of being in the California Writers Club! She is an Oakland poet and playwright. 18 of her plays have been professionally produced, most in community theatres in the Bay Area. Her themes are women’s issues, American history, and the various cultural groups that populate Oakland.

Judith has five books of poetry. Recently, she self-published a chapbook called The Grating of America, Poems For a Democracy Ground Down, about the current political situation. 

Pictures of plays, copies of some of her poems, and reviews are available at her web site, JudithOffer.com.

How did you become a writer?

In one sense my career is amazing: I had every possible disadvantage to ever writing anything. I was the oldest girl in a family of nine kids, born to parents who didn’t really want a huge family and were angry and resentful. We moved a lot, so I attended seven grammar schools and ended up with a sketchy, confused basic education, no permanent friends, and no long-term other adult support. My high school probably saved me. It was big, well-organized, and had a good teaching staff. And I got to be there for four years. I managed a few close friends and in spite of many home responsibilities, participation in a drama club. My intelligence was recognized to the extent that I made it into the top “track”. And though the teachers of the day mostly tried to ignore the girls, there were two who showed that they thought I had…something special. I made it through college by working as an au pair for room and board and with a state scholarship for tuition. I graduated with no single teacher telling me my writing was good, or suggesting a writing career, in spite of many essays and term papers with good grades. I went off to teach after school, not sure I wanted to; left to work in urban renewal, mostly because I got to work in downtown DC, still wondering what I was “becoming”. All this time, I was writing a few poems every year, which I kept in a small black notebook. In my late twenties I married, and two years later my husband, Stuart Offer, the only person who had seen my notebook, gave me a typewriter for Christmas, “so you can send your poems out.” So in my case, I really was rescued by Prince Charming. When I did send them, a number were quickly taken, and I suddenly knew what I was becoming. There has been a long road since then, and I am far from rich or famous from my writing. But I have been able to develop my gift, and I have seen many of my plays performed and poems published. I have had some killer fun times, directing plays, teaching kids drama, reading in cool places, and meeting all sorts of interesting and wonderful people. I feel like I have become part of the American story…a small part, but a part. I would like to see my plays on bigger, better-known stages, and I would like to get paid real money some day for them. But even if I never do, I feel that I have had at least some chance to “have my say” and to add to the list of women who, thanks to American feminists–such as the suffragists we’re celebrating this year—have made openings for people like me. 

Meet Judith and Prioritize Your Writing this Sunday January 19th

Join us with Judith Offer this Sunday

An Interview with our November Guest, Author Joan Gelfand

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Our featured guest this November 17th is Joan Gelfand. Her reviews, stories, essays and poetry have appeared in over 100 national and international literary journals and magazines including the Los Angeles Review of Books, Rattle, Prairie Schooner, PANK! Kalliope, The Toronto Review, Levure Litteraire and Chicken Soup for the Soul.  The author of three well-reviewed poetry collections and an award-winning chapbook of short fiction, Joan’s novel Fear to Shred will be published by Mastadon Press in 2020. Past President of the Women’s National Book Association, Joan is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and a juror for the Northern California Book Awards.  Her poetry was featured at the 4th Annual Video Poetry Festival in Athens, Greece and won Certificate of Merit in a juried art show at the International Association for the Study of Dreams. A film based on her poem, The Ferlinghetti School of Poetics, has since showed at nine international film festivals and won Best Poetry Film at the World Film Festival. 

Four Questions for Joan Gelfand

What are some common misconceptions people have about what it takes to be a real writer, and what’s true instead?

One common misconception is that real writers have literary agents. 
Many writers work with small presses directly, or university presses that do not require an agent. Also—and I feel strongly about this—poets are real writers and only a handful of poets have agents.  IMHO, the distinguishing feature of a ‘real writer’ is a writer who has at least one traditionally published book.

How did you harness Confidence, Commitment, Craft, and Community to help you write your latest novel Fear to Shred?

Let’s talk about Community first: 
I met my publisher at a Women’s National Book Association event. 
I had been very involved with the WNBA for 14 years as a volunteer.  I served as National President and chapter president of the SF chapter for two years. 
I also spent many years building up a platform, or fan base. I started a national writing contest that brought in a lot of writers and funds to the WNBA.
The other topics, Commitment, Craft and Confidence—I’d prefer to discuss in person with the group.

Who should be in a writer’s community? Are you talking about critique groups, or going to conferences to meet agents and editors, or both? Or something else entirely?

Again, in my humble opinion, every writer NEEDS to be in some sort of community.  If they are able, they should be serving as volunteers in any number of active writing communities in the Bay Area.
I don’t consider critique groups , or going to conferences, part of community. Conferences would be part of networking and critique groups I would put under craft.
 I am talking about building up your platform and fan base.  One writer said you build your fan base one fan at a time. That means you need to meet people, you need to show up at other people’s events, support other writers, etc.  Building community is a long term commitment. That said, many writers have built strong, successful communities on line. 
Facebook, Twitter and Instagram all provide the tools to build community.

What are some good places to go in the Bay Area to meet some other writers and build community?

Beside the CWC there is the Women’s National Book Association, Left Coast Writers, San Francisco Creative Writing Institute, the Writing Salon, just to name a few.

Meet Joan Gelfald November 17th when she speaks on the topic “You Can Be a Winning Writer”


“We’re All in Freefall” — Interview with 11/17 featured author Lily Iona MacKenzie

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In Freefall: A Divine Comedy, Lily Iona MacKenzie zeroes in on a fundamental truth: We’re all in freefall, and that’s the real divine comedy. No matter how old we are, we’re still trying to “find ourselves” and discover what we want out of life.

Meet Lily Iona MacKenzie, a new member this season, at the November 17th meeting, opening for Joan Gelfland.

Lily writes:

I don’t have hayseed clinging to my trousers, but growing up on a Canadian farm gave me a unique foundation as a writer. I sprouted under cumulous clouds that bloomed everywhere in Alberta’s big sky. They were my first creative writing instructors, scudding across the heavenly blue, constantly changing shape: one minute an elephant, bruised and brooding. The next morphing into a rabbit or a castle. These billowing masses gave me a unique view of life on earth.

I continue to seek instruction from clouds. Just as they provide the earth with much-needed water, I believe that stories have a similar function, preparing the mind to receive new ideas. Also, conditions inside a cloud are not static—water droplets are constantly forming and re-evaporating. Stories, too, change, depending on who is reading them, each one giving life to its readers.

A high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in my early years, I supported myself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored me into the States). I also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco; briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (I was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got my legs broken); founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County; co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin; and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in Creative writing and one in the Humanities). I have published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 160 American and Canadian venues. Fling!, one of my novels, was published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Curva Peligrosa, another novel, was published in September 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy was released in January 2019. Tillie: Portrait of a Canadian Girl in Training, featuring the same main character as in Freefall, will come out in 2020. My poetry collection All This was published in 2011. I also taught writing at the University of San Francisco (USF) for over 30 years and was vice-president of USF’s part-time faculty union. I currently teach creative writing at USF’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning. When not writing, I paint and travel with my husband.

Find Lily at https://lilyionamackenzie.com.

Lily answers a few questions about her writing, and then gives advice to writers!

An enchanting story about old friends reuniting as they struggle with thoughts on aging, religion, motherhood, men, art, and death, with plenty of surprises and laughs along the way. A Divine Comedy, indeed!

Freefall’s subtitle is A Divine Comedy. Dante’s epic poem of that same name also involves lots of travelling, and lots of soul-searching. Dante’s poem, however, has three parts: The Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Did you see the four women in your novel as going through a similar time sequence, reaching a kind of paradise at the end of a hellish journey? Or did you mean to suggest a different process? 

I actually wasn’t thinking about Dante’s poem when I wrote this novel. The title came to me much later, and then I realized the narrative was a kind of divine comedy, though I wasn’t trying to imitate Dante’s excellent work. To me it’s Divine because I believe that all life on earth is divine, and the comedy part Isn’t comic in the slapstick sense but in the humor thats implicit in being human. We all face different challenges in our lives. If we’re lucky, we can see through the darkness to the wry aspect of how little control we have over anything. 

But the characters in Freefall, as those in Dante’s work, do travel, and they also do a fair amount of soul searching. And while they don’t reach a kind of paradise at the novel’s end, they have come to a new understanding of themselves and each other.  

“Tillie Bloom,” the main character’s name, is similar to Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Was that intentional? Tillie certainly “blooms” in other ways throughout the novel. Did you choose this striking name purposely?

Yes, I deliberately chose Bloom as Tillie’s last name. Tillie renames herself “Bloom” after reading Ulysses. She didn’t want her previous husband’s name, and she doesn’t have a father. So, she chose Bloom because he lives so much in his senses. And just as Bloom is searching for a son, Tillie is searching for a father. 

Freefall has more than a touch of magical realism in it. Is this a style you use in your other books? What attracts you to this style of writing? 

Reality is both magical and “real,” if by real we mean something that isn’t imagined. Language by its very nature is magical, transforming our everyday reality in multiple ways, carrying us aloft on the wings of thought. When I call on magical realism in my fiction, I do it because it opens me up to a fuller understanding of our world, both internally and externally. I believe it captures a fuller view of what’s going on in our lives than realism can do. 

You describe writing as “your addiction” and “compulsion,” but your website also features several of your watercolor paintings. Then, too, Tillie herself is an artist. Is visual art also a passion of yours? What does painting allow you to do that writing doesn’t, and vice versa? 

If I could reincarnate, it would be BOTH as a visual and literary artist. What I produce when I’m playing with water color or acrylics or oils is not unlike what happens when I write poetry or prose. I start out with no expectations, no plan, and I follow wherever the unconscious leads me. I never know where I’ll end up, and that’s much of the pleasure for me in creating, whether as a visual artist or as a writer. In each case, I’m open to what I’ll discover and what will discover me. I’m passionate about art, and museums are my temples.  

In addition to writing yourself, you also teach and coach writing. What are the advantages of working with a private teacher/editor versus taking a class or joining a critique group?

In a class, at least how I teach it, students receive responses from multiple viewpoints (other class members), though they usually aren’t professional/trained writers. Therefore, the feedback can be uneven, and the writer needs to weigh each comment and decide for herself which ones seem to offer an opening into her work. 

With a private teacher, you hope that s/he will be able to accommodate many different approaches to writing poetry/prose so s/he can offer a wide range of possibilities in his/her critiques. Otherwise, there’s a danger that the teacher/editor will abort whatever in the person as a writer is trying to bloom. 

You have another novel about Tillie in the works. Will we be hearing more about Tillie and her re-found friends as they reach their seventies and beyond? Or just more about Tillie?

The follow up to Freefall that I’m currently working on and will be published in 2010 doesn’t involve an older Tillie but a much younger one. Yet your question makes me wonder if I need to consider writing a novel that follows these women into their seventies and beyond!

Tillie: Portraits of a Canadian Girl in Training is a Bildungsroman that takes the reader back to the ‘50s, to a world that flashes green and red lights at women. This novel starts with three-year-old Tillie and follows her until she’s seventeen and struggling to find her place in the world 


Lily Talks to Fellow Writers:

Where are you in your writing career? Aspiring? Published? 

I’ve published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, and essays in over 160 American and Canadian venues. All This, a poetry collection, was published in 2011, and a poetry chapbook (No More Kings) will come out later this year. My novel Fling! was released in July 2015. Curva Peligrosa, another novel, was brought out in 2017. A third novel, Freefall: A Divine Comedy, was published on January 1, 2019. 

How long have you been part of CWC, and what does membership mean to you?

I just joined this past spring, and I’m looking forward to sharing the writing journey with other committed writers. We need to help each other find the appropriate paths that will connect us with our best readers!

What other things would you like people to know about you – writings, passions, etc?

I grew up on a Canadian farm that taught me how dependent the natural world and the animals that inhabit it are on we humans, and vice versa. While I’m not a backpacker or even a camper, I do have a passion for nature. I also love art in all of its forms: music, visual, etc. I’m always uplifted by great art! And I enjoy eating well!

How do you manage your writing life?

I think it’s the reverse! It manages me, since it’s as important to me as eating. Over the years, I’ve had to find ways to fit writing into my days. I’ve discovered that if I only commit to an hour a day religiously, I can produce a tremendous amount of material, as my publications indicate.

Please send a link to something people can read of yours!

My blog is a gateway to lots of samples: https://lilyionamackenzie.com


Full Schedule of Events


12:00 pm Setup
12:30 Doors open & member services
1:00 Raffle & Announcements
1:30 Featured Member: Lily Iona McKenzie
1:45 Keynote Speaker: Joan Gelfland
2:30 Book Sales & Networking
3:00 Marketing Group*
4:00 Craft Group*
5:00 The End

$5 for members, $10 for non-members*

  • Coffee is provided, bring cookies and treats to share!
  • Admission includes 1 free raffle ticket

PLEASE PLAN TO PURCHASE A RAFFLE TICKET! Only $1 each or 6 for $5, every ticket supports the club’s equity program. You can win a book written by our club authors!

* Support groups are members-only but guests may audit
Empty pockets? Ask about our sponsored guest program at the door. We are writers helping writers, a welcoming community.

1204 Preservation Park Way, Oakland, CA 94612

Our meetings are right off 980 in downtown Oakland, at beautiful Preservation Park. Just off 12th Street, naturally you can get there from the 12th St. BART station. Those with limited ability can use the parking lot off of MLK Way; otherwise there should be plenty of FREE parking within the park and on surrounding streets.

Say you’re coming on Facebook!

Our Forthcoming Events:

  • December 15th – Winter Social
  • January 19th – TBA
  • February 16th – Jan Steckel
  • March 15th – Panel TBA
  • April 21st – Tanya Egan Gibson
  • May 17th – Andy Ross
  • June 16th – Member Book Launch

Check for support groups and more member events on our Calendar.

Interview with featured author Tim Jollymore (meet him this Sunday)

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In this interview, this Sunday’s featured member Tim Jollymore draws on experience and insight to share his take on what writing and “the writing boom” is about. What steps to take and reflections to make are needed before one can understand what path to follow?

Tim Jollymore is author of five books. Listener in the Snow is an adventure set in snowy Northern Minnesota. He’s written two mysteries Observation Hill, a novel of class and murder and The Advent of Elizabeth. Lake Stories and Other Tales is a story and essay collection, while People You’ve Been Before is a novel exploring “adventures in sobriety.” He has published book of poems titled Christmas in the Winter Garden. He is presently at work on a sixth: The Second Confession of Saint Augustine, a historical novel set in North Africa at the 5th Century end of the Roman empire.

For this work, Jollymore has received four independent publishing awards. He was a two-time finalist in the North Eastern Minnesota Book Awards and he’s garnered high praise from Publishers’ Weekly and repeatedly from the Saint Paul Pioneer Press.

Jollymore was born in Duluth, Minnesota and took his English degrees at the university there. He relocated, mid-life, to the San Francisco Bay Area, pursuing business, architecture, and teaching. Learn more about Tim Jollymore’s books at finnswaybooks.com

Getting to Know Tim Jollymore

What is the most important piece of writing advice that you could give to other writers?

Don’t take advice. Listen to YOUR muse. Strive for art.

Tim Jollymore

I tell you; don’t take advice. If you must, scrutinize each bit. Listen to YOUR muse. That is why you take walks in the morning. Check to see that your “advisors” don’t have their hands too deeply in your pockets, for some only see the currently swelling ranks of writers as a financial opportunity for them. Strive for art. Be unafraid to liberally use adverbs.

What are your writing habits?

I write from 9:00 to noon and then do whatever I want! Henry Miller, though, in his 11 commandments of writing, says, “Don’t be a dray horse. Live life . . . drink if you want to.” So, I can tell you (and Henry) I do not write every day. I travel, “I laze and loaf and invite my soul,” but when I am working it is nine to noon, five days a week.

What writers inspire you?

It is not the writer but his/her writing that inspires me. Living writers whose writing interests me are Pers Petterson, Richard Flannigan, John Krakauer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, Paul Auster, and Sigrid Nunez.

 I find CWC membership a great place to land in a storm, or, really, during a calm.

Tim Jollymore

My “Dead Novelists’ Society” includes William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Henry James, Charlotte Bronte, and Mark Twain.

Where are you in your writing career?

Of five books published since 2014 (one in its third printing and one in its second) the most successful is Listener in the Snow, my debut novel. So be it.

My plans extend a couple of years with The Second Confession of Saint Augustine, and, continuing in a different vein of historical fiction and returning to my Minnesota topics, is Missabe Miss, a World War Two, home-front novel.

Much of my writing shares a devotion to characters of a common sort, everyday people, who are shown through their interior lives. I adhere to the practice of stylistic crafting experimentation with points of view, and the condensation of storytelling into three or four days.

How long have you been a part of CWC-BB, and what does membership mean to you?

I’ve been with CWC for five years, a dual member for two. I find CWC membership a great place to land in a storm, or, really, during a calm. It is also a distraction from writing. I avoid becoming simply a denizen of an organization. I want to write!

How do you manage your writing life?

Min Kamp (my struggle), to use Knausgaard’s title, is a battle between publication activities and promotion of my work which incorporates traveling, and actual hours spent writing. Min Frelse (my salvation) is that the great pile of ideas, characters, and themes continues to grow and to wait for my attention.

To read a sample of his work, go to http://www.jollymore.wordpress.com for excerpts of novels, short stories, and reviews.

Meet Tim Jollymore this Sunday at our next meeting

For full details, such as schedule, directions, raffle info and more, please see the post announcing this Sunday’s event. In addition to getting to know featured member Tim Jollymore, this meeting will offer legal advice for literary contracts, as well as assistance with craft and marketing.

Full Scheule of Events for THIS SUNDAY’S MEETING

12:00 pm Setup
12:30 Doors open & member services
1:00 Featured Member: Tim Jollymore
1:15 Keynote Speaker: literary lawyer Nick Jollymore (yes, they’re related!)
2:00 Announcements & Networking
3:00 Marketing Group*
4:00 Craft Group*
5:00 The End

Say you’re coming on Facebook!

Our Forthcoming Events:

Check for support groups and more member events on our Calendar.

Interview with September Feature September Williams

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Today we have an in-depth interview with the first speaker in the launch of our speaker series: physician-writer, bioethicist, and filmmaker September Williams, M.D. She seeks a better understanding of and between ourselves and her work offers resilience for those who are suffering. She’s the author of The Elephant in the Room: Bioethical Issues in Human Milk Banking, which is representative of her nonfiction works covering health disparities, bioethics, and film, and a fiction writer as well. Chasing Mercury is a romance-suspense-memoir about families committed to human and environmental rights, and the first book of the “Chasing Mercury Toxic Trilogy.” The upcoming sequels are Weighing Lead and Mining Gold

September is also a member of the National Writers Union (AFL-CIO/UAW 1981), the International Federation of Journalists, and the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities. All of these organizations maximize the breadth of her work by informing, provoking thoughtful action, frequent tears and the greatest tool of all, laughter.         

For more information see: http://www.septemberwilliams.com

 Interview with Author September Williams

How do you stay intelligible to average readers without ‘dumbing down’ science or medicine? 

I think of complex  information in scenes of a novel as film script. You can’t just have a white screen showing with words — there has to be something pictured. That  something has to be understood by others than myself — an actor, cameraman, special effects person, reader. I have to make the reader a participant in the scene. I establish a line that serves as a slug line in my head— Where they are and time of day.  Then only the dialog drives the visuals after that. Then I write the science information, and I usually allow the reader to be touched emotionally by laughter, sadness or love — so the scene and the science stick with them. 

The issue is that the details have to become visual for the reader just as they would for a patient or a medical student — and the “teacher” in the exchange get’s feed back from the learner and vice versa.  I also make sure there is more than one purpose for the exchange of didactic information — so if science really bores you then you stick with it to hear the end of the part of the scene that interest you. In the example in the shot  here the interlocutors are clearly flirting. But the scene is here as an explanation of the Seldinger technique—which is used to draw water samples to test for mercury. The purpose of the scene is for Sicily to understand how arduous and monotonous is. 

Do you ever take liberties with facts to tell a better story? If so, how and where do you draw the line and make those decisions?

I do take liberties but I have rules.

  1. I never take liberties with scientific facts.
  2. I do take liberties with historic details that are not scientific because that would defeat the purpose of incorporating science into fiction.
  3. I never take liberties with facts around real people who are depicted in a scene who were really in that situation in that place even if their names. 

In the novel Chasing Mercury the lovers meet in the Montreal Airport en route to a World Youth Festival in 1973 Berlin. I changed the dates of the festival. I did that because though based in fact the story is fiction. I wanted anyone who had been there to know that the story was fiction. I also did it because the timeline was set so that the main character would be 18 years old before the festival ended because she began having sex with a 26 year old man before the end of the  festival. I needed her to do that on her 18th Birthday because of key things elsewhere in the story. Anyone who was in Berlin would know the dates were wrong. 

All of the material related to The Queens Ballet in the book is accurate except for the name of the principal male dancer —this is because I couldn’t reach his estate and he has died. So I changed his name. However, I kept Rudy’s name because I know he would have wanted me to. 

The farm the main characters visit in Grunwald was actually modeled after one in Karlmarkstad. But you can’t see the Berlin Wall from there—so the Horse couldn’t take Sicily to the water and it would be too cumbersome to explain the journey to Karlmarkstad. Fictional story based in fact but a work of fiction. But anyone who was there would also know many things happened in the city about which they were unaware. 

Though I will own that the female protagonist Sicily is modeled after me, the male protagonist is modeled after many First Nation Brothers I was close to at the festival but with whom I did not perform. Though I did perform with a Canadian who was studying in Berlin before 30,000 people it was a reading of poetry and he translated and played the guitar for me. 

I never took liberties with facts about people who have popular exposure and  are real. For instance Angela Davis, or the sole survivor of the Massacre of Mali. Who were both at the  World Youth Festival and the events surrounding them happened as reported not with a fictitious person but in fact with me—so the content was accurate.

Does the research you do ever end up inspiring new stories, or new plot points?

Constantly— I love the research and I still don’t understand how it makes me do what I do with it.  I don’t write by outline but plot points which I recognize when I write them. In Chasing Mercury the Character Sicily has epilepsy not because I have epilepsy ( I do) but  because seizures or Cat Dance disease was the key symptom in recognizing Minamata disease in Japan. I wanted one of the characters to have a visceral affinity with a diagnosed child or children in the story.  Neurological damage to the body that looks more like cerebral palsy could have been a more visually recognizable option but I needed to link one of the main characters directly to the affliction that was being described. I did want to also have a child with a lesser manifestation of mercury poisoning to illustrate the subtlety sometimes as happens with lead poisoning.

Learning that  private citizens contacted the Minamata Disease researchers in Japan for help in 1972 inspired me to write the story because it showed the same unity that resulted in the Minamata Convention on Mercury being signed into Law began 30 years before.

In fact while writing Chasing Mercury I also  was a writer-bioethics consultant on a children’s book called Toxic Water Minamata Japan.  One of the photos I chose for the book was of a woman who is one of the longest survivors of Minamata disease. In Geneva she told me that I had a selected a photo of he, in her first demonstration as a child. She inspired the character Sophie in Chasing Mercury just based on the photo. 

How do you incorporate background information on a topic for your readers without taking them out of the story? Are you usually able to present all the knowledge readers need to understand a story within the narrative? 

I definitely can’t provide all of the information. I try to figure out  two things: 1) an over arching paradigm that connects the dots and 2) things in the near past that foreshadow things in the near future. 

The over arching paradigm in Chasing Mercury’s themes are the attributes of the god himself. This created the characters in the book. Greed and commerce, medicine, moving around the world, duplicity.

Writing about things in the near past—I know what’s important because I’ve been following the science for 30 years and if I’m writing about something that was toxic 30 years ago I can bring the readers up to speed by bringing them back to the past. In Chasing Mercury the epilogue explains why the book exists. But the epilog is about events that happened the year I started writing it. The story starts in 1973—but it was stimulated by the events of both 1956 and 2017.

Don’t get me wrong I lived and breathed mercury for three years. I made friends with people all over the world dealing with mercury from artisanal gold miners to UN diplomats. That’s how I picked the time period of the main story. Picking the time period is important for how much information you have to deliver in the book. Weighing Lead required that I go back to a point when the first water-borne lead toxicity was being dismissed.

Does it require any sort of mind-shift for you to get out of ‘facts mode’ into ‘storytelling, imagination mode?’ How do you make the transition? 

Definitely it is hard to get out of the fact-spewing mode. The facts are easy. They are in the literature and in my history in science and medicine. I read and research a lot because the science has to be accurate for the time period. I am kicking myself for not having kept 30 year old textbooks. So in a week I may absorb 100 pages of new data on a heavy metal. I’ve absorbed it but I have not massaged and learned it enough to condense it. That’s why it is good to have characters of different temperaments. I  channel them. I let them tell me when to shift gears. I use those characters to get me out of didactics. The frictions in their relationships can shut down a boring diatribe in a heart beat. The Whistleblower Journalist protagonist is really more tied to facts than to his emotions—that is—he masks his emotions with lame humor. The ballerina drags him back to feelings forcibly.

In fact there is a scene in Zurich where the powwow dancer is going on and on about Algae growth in the Limmat River and the guy who discovered the cause. The ballerina takes a break by retreating into her own thoughts which are pretty funny including jealousy directed at the river.  But I needed the water connection in the scene. I set the scene in Zurich to make that ecological concern the Powwow dancer expresses.

As for fiction inspired by science, what do you think are emerging new areas of science that will, or could inspire stories? 

Of course the next direct hit on fiction and science is going to be CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats)  a family of DNA sequences found derived from DNA fragments of viruses used to detect and destroy DNA from similar viruses.

I think we will see stories first about therapeutic uses and then cosmetic uses of CRISPR. We will see stories of CRISPR insertions to black babies from getting sickle cell anemia, and removing hereditary diseases like muscular dystrophy. The bioethics will be a large sub theme because the risk is to further marginalize those who are “different” by assuming that they should be  genetically altered. But beyond science fiction the stories and possible stories related to this technology will be told in espionage, in love, in heist tales etc. But if I write it it will start with Linus Pauling determining the genetic sequence of Sickle Cell Anemia Hb and working forward. Or the irradiation of malaria—and the bioethical battle related to doing that by erasing female mosquitoes from the earth without know what else they do beyond malaria. Yep it gonna be the new genetic fiction. 

Next will be the environmental fiction—as a version of post apocalypse stories. 

Any of these will be open for romance-suspense, espionage corporate and international, and mysteries. 

I think we will also see bioethical stories about loss of speciation and it’s side effects but not in a science ficiton model but a domestic model. 

Meet September Williams at our next meeting THIS SUNDAY Sept 15th

Don’t miss our speaker series kick-off!

Full Schedule of Events


12:00 pm Setup
12:30 Doors open & member services
1:00 Introducing Featured Member
1:15 Keynote Speaker: September Williams
2:00 Announcements & Networking
3:00 Marketing Group*
4:00 Craft Group*
5:00 The End

$5 for members, $10 for non-members*

  • Coffee is provided, bring cookies and treats to share!
  • Admission includes 1 free raffle ticket

PLEASE PLAN TO PURCHASE A RAFFLE TICKET! Only $1 each or 6 for $5, every ticket supports the club’s equity program. You can win a book written by our club authors!

* Support groups are members-only but guests may audit
* Empty pockets? Ask about our sponsored guest program at the door. We are writers helping writers, a welcoming community.

1204 Preservation Park Way, Oakland, CA 94612

Our meetings are right off 980 in downtown Oakland, at beautiful Preservation Park. Just off 12th Street, naturally you can get there from the 12th St. BART station. Those with limited ability can use the parking lot off of MLK Way; otherwise there should be plenty of FREE parking within the park and on surrounding streets.

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Our Forthcoming Events:

Check for support groups and more member events on our Calendar.

Setting That Works: an Interview with John Byrne Barry

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John Byrne Barry, presenter of our Setting that Works workshop

John Byrne Barry, presenter of our Setting that Works workshop

Tonight at six we welcome novelist John Byrne Barry to lead us in a workshop, “Setting that Works,” at WeWork in Oakland. Today Cristina Deptula of Authors Large & Small asked us a few questions about setting in anticipation of his workshop. 

John Byrne Barry writes novels, designs websites and book covers, and leads bicycle tours in San Francisco. He is author of two “page-turners with a conscience”Wasted: Murder in the Recycle Berkeley Yard, and Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, which won the 2015 Best Book award from the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association (BAIPA). His third novel, coming in 2019, is an assisted-suicide family thriller, tentatively titled Why I Killed My Father. 

Last chance to get discount tickets for the Setting That Works workshop TONIGHT 

Interview with John Byrne Barry

How do you know how much setting to include? What does it mean for setting to ‘work?’

There’s no one answer to how much setting to include, but my leaning is to use as little as possible. Only what’s necessary. Even the most elegantly written setting can slow the story down. As for what I mean by “setting that works,” the best and most memorable setting is not just a pretty, or gritty description, it’s also doing other “jobs,” like advancing the story, setting mood, echoing theme, and more. Its primary role, of course, is helping the reader visualize the scene. Smell it and feel it, too. But if that’s all it’s doing, it’s a missed opportunity. At the workshop, we’ll be going over eight of the jobs setting can do. Defining or revealing character is one of the more common, and useful, jobs that setting does.

In most novels, there’s one or more point-of-view characters, and the camera usually sits on that character’s shoulder. The reader sees what the character sees. If I were a character walking in my neighborhood in Tam Valley, I might notice how happy the trees are, with all this rain, how many flowers and blossoms and weeds are everywhere. Another character might notice all the Teslas and BMWs and Mercedes. What the character notices tells the reader who he or she is. I might note the expensive cars too, not because I care about cars, but it reminds me that I’m living in a community where most people have more money than I do. That’s revealing as well.

What books, and which authors, would you say provide good examples of setting done well?

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day comes to mind because the setting there is so much about describing a culture, a tradition, more than a place. It’s a brilliant book, and the setting is only one of its many strengths. The story follows Stevens, a middle-aged butler in the 1950s. Most of the novel is his reminiscence of the time between the wars, when he presided over a large staff at Darlington Hall, a Downton Abbey–like estate. The setting is not so much Darlington Hall or the West Country as much as the devotion to “dignity” that limits Stevens’ life. It’s sad and somber.

Then there’s Prodigal Summer, by Barbara Kingsolver, which is set in the fecund forests of Appalachia, and follows Deanna, a wildlife biologist who is studying a den of coyotes that have recently migrated into the region, and who falls in love with a young man who had come to the mountains to hunt the coyotes. The setting here is the opposite of The Remains of the Day — it’s humid and lush and bursting with procreating plants and animals. It’s messy and rowdy nature at its sexiest, and it rubs off on Deanna and her complicated relationship with the hunter. I read it a long time ago, and I still remember the feeling of the natural environment and the way it seeped into everyone’s story. It was the birds and bees writ large.

I also want to mention my “green noir” mystery, Wasted, set in the recycling world of Berkeley. Two decades ago, I had done a lot of reporting and had written a long cover story for the East Bay Express called “The End of Garbage.” I had visited landfills and transfer stations and recycling centers, even the harbor in Oakland where bales of aluminum were loaded onto ships. I was intrigued with the idea of setting a mystery in this garbage and recycling universe, which is rich with themes of reinvention and discarding that which no longer serves us. The setting wasn’t just the recycling world, but Berkeley, where I lived for more than 25 years. I saw it as a colorful, creative place that also was ripe for ridicule. Like, for example, what I call “Berkeley-itis,” which is the idea that anyone on the street knows as much about anything as educated experts. I was very happy that one review of Wasted said I nailed the “vibe” of Berkeley. I think that’s what the best setting does. It’s not like painting a backdrop for a play. It’s more about capturing a feeling, a zeitgeist.

How important is setting to a story? What do you think of books, such as Wuthering Heights and Faulkner’s novels, where critics say that the ‘setting has become a character?’ Is it possible for that to be literally true? Can setting go through a character arc of its own?

Not sure setting can go through a character arc, though consider The Perfect Storm, a true story about the crew of a fishing boat caught in one of the most vicious Atlantic storms ever. The storm escalated in the same way a character might, and the storm was often described using some of the same adjectives as people — angry, fierce, relentless. Severe weather, because it changes, can be like a character. There are plenty of books where the cities they’re set in are characters of sorts. Think 1980s New York City in Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities, with its go-go greed-is-good bond traders and its polarizing racial tensions. But character arc for a setting is a bit of a stretch. Not that cities don’t have their own character and don’t change. Just look at what’s happening with San Francisco now with the tech boom. But that arc happens over generations. It’s hard to depict in a book, unless you’re writing an epic saga that unfolds over decades or centuries.

How integral should the setting be to the story? Should a story be grounded in a place or able to happen anywhere? (or does it depend on the book?)

I don’t know that it matters if the story takes place in some recognizable place, but most stories play out in a variety of settings, some of which are enclosed spaces, like bars or kitchens or prison cells. You may not need more than a sentence or two to capture those settings. Again, it’s more about the feeling than the colors of the walls. I’m in several writing critique groups and I also read a lot of novels, from literary to trash, and I find that many books, even ones that have won prizes and sold millions, have too much setting for my taste. One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from Elmore Leonard, who said something like, “You know those parts in books that you skip over? Leave them out.” Often, it’s setting that readers skip over.

How should you research (or imagine!) the setting of your book before you begin to write? How familiar should you be with a place before you start to write a draft?

I wouldn’t say should because everyone has their own way, but for me, what has come first was finding the right setting for my story. As I just said, Wasted started with the setting, and I then I built the characters and story on top of it. The same was true of my other novel. In 2004, I knocked on doors for John Kerry in Milwaukee. It was tedious work, phone banking even more so, but I got excited about the idea of setting a story against the backdrop of a presidential campaign. There’s the ticking clock, there’s the high stakes, there’s the adrenaline and dirty tricks and moral gray areas. But I grew up in Chicago and Milwaukee did not seem like a colorful enough place, for me, to set a book. (Sorry, Milwaukee. It’s not you, it’s me.) So in 2008 I got myself to another swing state, colorful and quirky New Mexico, where I set my novel, Bones in the Wash. The novel unfolds during the presidential race, as my two protagonists, campaign operatives for Obama and McCain respectively, fight for the state’s five electoral votes.

As I knocked on doors in Albuquerque, I kept my eyes open. I had been asked by a colleague to post a blog every night. As with Wasted, the setting came first. I attended a panel on setting at the San Francisco Writers Conference a few years ago, and the first two panelists insisted that you had to be physically present to research setting, but the third presenter, who ran a writers conference in Santa Barbara, said not any more. You want to find out what it’s like to ride in the canals of Venice? You can find that on YouTube, he said. Certainly, it is more possible than ever to see what places look like without being there. But that zeitgeist I talked about, you’re not likely to find that in a video.

See you at our Setting that Works workshop TONIGHT

Join us for Barry’s Barry’s hands-on workshop, where we’ll review the different ways setting can strengthen your narrative, and lead a writing exercise putting what we learn into action.

The best setting is more than a pretty, or gritty description. It’s lean and strong, because it’s working two or more jobs—pushing your story along, helping us get to know your protagonist better. Whether you write fiction, memoir, or nonfiction, join us for “Setting That Works” on June 5th at WeWork in Oakland. Price goes up at the door so get your tickets now

Topics Covered at Tonight’s Workshop

  • Studying the different ways setting can strengthen your story.
  • Do writing exercises putting what we learned into action.
  • Capturing the essence of a place in a few short sentences—a strategic snapshot, not a Wikipedia entry.
  • Drip-feeding description into your story so it doesn’t slow the momentum.




Ticket Info for this Workshop

Advance tickets $30; $40 at door.

CWC Members (50% discount): Advance tickets $15; $20 at door

There will be a member list at the door. Information about membership benefits and costs can be found at cwc-berkeley.org/about/join-us. 

On Being a Working Writer: an Interview with Peggy Dougherty

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Peggy Dougherty

Peggy Dougherty, one of three panelists this Sunday speaking on THE WORKING WRITER

This Sunday, we’re hosting a panel on the working writer, to engage our members in conversation about finding balance and inspiration with our writing careers. In celebration of our final event in this year’s speaker series, we have asked some questions of panelist Peggy Dougherty.

Peggy is an award-winning playwright whose plays have had had thirty-eight productions. Her plays (all comedies) have been performed in New York City, San Diego, Los Angeles, Boca Raton, Houston, San Francisco, Great Britain, Toronto, and elsewhere. Peggy is a member of The Dramatists Guild of America, Inc., and The Drama Association of Rossmoor. She published her first novel, Age Matters, in 2018.

But she also had a day job for many years as a clinical psychologist In 2013 Peggy published a self-help book, The Ten Minute Cognitive Workout: Manage Your Mood and Change Your Life in Ten Minutes a Day (authored by Peggy Dougherty Snyder, Ph.D.). The book won the 2013 San Diego Book Award for Best Self-Help.

At our Sunday meeting, Peggy will share how she juggled her professional career as a clinical psychologist with her passion for writing. She will discuss how her profession informed her writing and how being self-employed helped her carve out a viable writing schedule. She’ll also share the boundaries she established between her psychology practice and her devotion to her writing passion.Age Matters book cover Peggy Dougherty

1. How do you balance the different ‘hats’ that you wear, as a writer, salesperson, employee, etc? What helps you to get back into the writing headspace after you’ve shifted out of it?

One way I balanced them when I was working is I used different surnames. Peggy Snyder is a psychologist. Peggy Dougherty is a playwright/author. My first play, From Bed to Worse, was a comedy about a psychologist. I didn’t want my clients to hear about the play and think I was poking fun at psychotherapy. (I was poking fun at the psychologist.) So I authored the play and all my subsequent fiction writing as Peggy Dougherty. I had writing days and psychology days (because I didn’t see clients every weekday.) On writing days I introduced myself as Peggy Dougherty. On workdays, I was Peggy Snyder.

Peggy Dougherty's nonfiction book

Peggy Dougherty’s nonfiction book

2. What avenues do you suggest for writers who need more income?

Free-lance writing and/or copywriting. I tried my hand at both with little success, but when I wasn’t working I wanted to work on my current playwriting project–which I started longer ago than I care to admit. Another idea is to get a gig writing a newslettter for an organization.

3. Do you personally prefer day-jobs that involve writing, or that let you do something completely different and take a break from writing?

I prefer a day job that does not involve writing. I have spoken with several writers whose jobs involved several hours each day on the computer. They all said it was difficult to sit down at the computer when they returned home in the evening.

4. What are some tips for time management that have worked for you?

Where do you sneak away downtime to write? I am pretty good about sticking to a writing schedule. At least I was before moving to Rossmoor in August of 2017. In Rossmoor there is a revolving calendar of interesting and exciting events all day/every day. It is like living on a cruise ship without the non-stop buffets or sea sickness. (I especially like my Zumba class, taught by a CWC author!) However, currently I try to devote the mid portion of my day from 11:00 to 5:00-6:00 to writing. This has been a difficult adjustment because I write best in the morning. On writing days in San Diego, where fitness classes started at 7:30 a.m., I was usually at my computer by 9:00- 9:30 and wrote until 5:00. Prior to retirement I seldom tried to write on a psychology day. It was too heart-rending. I really kept a strong boundary between work and writing.

Meet Peggy Dougherty and Discuss Matters Important to Working Writers THIS SUNDAY

Peggy will be joined by fellow professional writers “the Answer Man” Thaddeus Howze and Paul Corman-Roberts, co-founder of the Beast Crawl festival. Watch for an interview with our other two panelists, and plan to attend this exciting panel on May 19th. This will be the final installment in the 2018-2019 speaker program!

Working Writer Panel May 19th



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