Pat Bertram And Lazarus Barnhill Discuss Writing as Destiny

Lazarus: The other day I was marveling at the uncanny string of events—starting with a writing contest on—that brought me many wonderful new friends, saw the publication of my first two novels and empowered me to express my artistic vision in ways that I never imagined. When I read Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way, I began to wonder if in fact what I saw as a lucky string of chance events was really a matter of listening to a still, small voice that has always intended better for me than I could have imagined for myself.

In a nutshell, Julia Cameron says that, whether you call it destiny, the hand of God, or just the creative direction of the universe itself, our purpose is to create and we allow ourselves and others to stymie our creativity.

Bertram: Are we really fulfilling our destiny, though, or does it just feel like it? The solar system seems to be designed perfectly, with the planets constantly moving, yet staying out of the way of the other planets. But it wasn’t always so. At one time they were banging and crashing into all sorts of space debris, and over billions of years they annihilated everything in their path to end up the ordered system we know. So, is our writing destiny the same? Something we see only in retrospect, perhaps, with our brains trying to make sense of chaotic events?

Lazarus: Do you think when you write that you are fulfilling an essential aspect of your truest purpose for existing?

Bertram: I do think the universe itself is a creative power that we tap into, and that we are creative by nature. But . . . if we are all fulfilling our natures as writers, who is fulfilling their natures as our readers? Writers need readers, and now that there are (supposedly) more writers than readers, how can writing really be our destiny? Except personally, perhaps.

Lazarus: Cameron teaches two “sacred acts” in The Artist’s Way. The morning pages (3 pages you write when you first get up in which you allow your inner self to freely express itself) and the artist’s date (essentially, you have to have 2 hours a week in which you go off by yourself and do exactly what you want).

When I first started doing the morning pages, I was correcting my spelling and changing my word choices. All of that was stymieing the child inside me; and if I don’t let that child have a say, he disrupts whatever the grown up Laz wants to do

Bertram: Three pages when you first get up in the morning, just to express yourself? I never could understand how people can dash off the pages like that. It takes me an hour or two to write a single page. I try to be more spontaneous in my blogs, just to let the words and feelings flow, but it still takes me more than an hour to write 300+ words.

Lazarus: Whoa, Pat, sounds as if you’re a “blocked creative”

Bertram: Blocked creative? Maybe I just don’t have any ideas. Or maybe my inner child likes to play with words and sentence structure.

Lazarus: Well, seriously, what would happen if you just started describing how you were feeling at the given moment?

Bertram: Usually when I sit down to write I don’t feel anything but peace. Not a whole lot to say about that. And when I do let the words roll out, I usually end up with a silly character interview or something equally worthless except as a blog post. I really don’t have a lot to overcome. I figure my inner child is my outer child. Pat Bertram was two years old on May 17th. That’s when I started from scratch to create myself as an author rather than just a writer.

Most of my inner demons I let out while writing my first book. I don’t usually acknowledge it as my first book — it was too much me and not enough creativity. To say nothing of terrible writing. Still, it did help me work through the past and allow me to re-emerge as . . . still don’t know, actually. I’m still emerging.

Lazarus: How many stories do you currently have swirling around in your cerebellum?

Bertram: None. I know you don’t believe it, but it’s true. If I had any stories there, I’d be writing them.

Lazarus: How do you know when you’ve heard a worthy idea for a new novel?

Bertram: I don’t know. Mostly I have to put several ideas together. And I don’t have any ideas right now.

Lazarus: Do you often suffer from long “dry spells” in which you don’t have anything to write or you don’t know how to get started?

Bertram: Is it a dry spell if you don’t feel like writing? Or if you’re doing something else instead, such as promoting? Even when I’m writing, I have more non-writing time than writing time. I need to let things percolate.

Lazarus: Yes, I call it “marinating.” How long does it usually take for your stories to percolate. Do they progress in stages?

Bertram: Definitely stages. Even when I know where I am going with a story, I seldom know the details.

Lazarus: But I have the sense that you’re implying you can’t promote and really write creatively. Is that right?

Bertram: I have a one-track mind

Lazarus: But not obsessive?

Bertram: No, not obsessive. I just can’t commit to two projects at once.

Lazarus: Have you ever had the experience of being so hooked, engaged in a story that you turned your back on other pursuits just so you could write?

Bertram: No, not really.

Lazarus: You’ve completed four novels, though you told me Light Bringer is going through a final polish. How long do each of these projects take and usually how much time elapses between them?

Bertram: Light Bringer has been ongoing for eight years. Or thirty-eight if you include the research. It won’t be completely finished until it’s published later this year.

Lazarus: Thirty-eight years of research? So you’re bringing your entire life’s experience to bear on this piece.

Bertram: Yes. Everything I ever learned. And studied. Daughter Am I was the quickest — outlined in one day, written in a year. A couple of months usually elapse between books, mostly so I can type them up. I write long hand.

Lazarus: Pat, does the average reader perceive the deeper messages you conceal in your stories?

Bertram: I don’t know. The books are written so that even if they don’t see anything beyond the basic story, they should still like them. At least that’s the plan.

Lazarus: Had to back up and start over when you said that. So you acknowledge then that your books function at differing levels of depth; that there are meanings to be fathomed that someone reading just for enjoyment might miss?

Bertram: It’s possible that there are meanings people will miss. Heck, I missed some of it! When I proofed A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I saw themes that I didn’t put in there.

Lazarus: You didn’t put there? Is it fair to say that a really well written book will plumb emotional, human themes beyond the writer’s intention? And that’s what’s happened with your books?

Bertram: When a story flows, when everything is motivated, it makes sense that some ideas, emotions and themes show up that aren’t planned. If the characters are true, it has to happen. I am not saying that the characters do things that I don’t plan. Their actions are completely planned. But some underlying truths could emerge.

Lazarus: This is the contradiction in you that is so mysterious: you talk about being methodical, plodding, taking years to write a single piece; and yet at the same time you admit that the story flows from a place deep within you and parts of it emerge unannounced.

Bertram: I have a dual nature: half mystic, half logician.

Lazarus: Did you ever think that you are really “discovering” the story: that some mystical intentionality has dropped the clues of the story in your consciousness, in your experience and intended you to find them and fashion them together?

Bertram: Of course.

Lazarus: Then writing these stories is your destiny?

Bertram: So this is what you were leading up to.

Lazarus: It’s not like you didn’t see it coming.

Bertram: I don’t know if the stories are my destiny, but I do think they wanted to be written.

Lazarus: Yes! Wanted to be written. They wanted to be written by you. And I like the notion of “half way.” They came to you in pieces and only half conceived. They were waiting for you to complete them.

Bertram: But it’s also possible that mystical intentionality is myself.

Lazarus: Okay, that’s a realistic point of view.

Bertram: One thing that’s always puzzled me is that when I sit down to write, my mind goes blank. Other people can write a book a month. They can let the words flow. I have to dredge each word out of my mind. Yet, when my books are finished, there is an inevitability about them as if they were inspired, not perspired (at least it seems that way to me). But I don’t believe that they are “destined.” It’s all the little choices I make along the way that creates the inevitability. When you start writing, you have the entire world to choose from, but as you make choices — genre, setting, characters, plot, etc, etc, it narrows the story world and keeps narrowing it until it seems inevitable. Yet it all comes from the thousands of choices that we made.

Lazarus: I have one other question about the way you create these stories: is it possible it takes so long to write them because it is mentally strenuous for you to overcome your own internal resistance to writing?

Bertram: It’s possible. Yet when I started writing, I had nothing to overcome. I wanted to do it. It was only when I had four unsalable books that the logician in me decided it was silly to keep writing.

Lazarus: So now that you’re published (and selling! Unsalable my eye) can you tell the logician to take the back seat? Though Julia Cameron wouldn’t call it your logician. She would call it your Censor.

Bertram: Right now, the logician really doesn’t have anything to do with it. My problem is I don’t write books I know how to write. I have to learn how to write each book. And the one I’m doing now has me totally flummoxed. It’s truly a ridiculous project. Three distinct parts with distinct themes.

Lazarus: What? I thought you said you didn’t have a story rolling around in your head.

Bertram: It’s not in my head. If it were, I’d be writing to get it out of my head. It’s an incredibly silly/mystical/apocalyptical story. I started it when I thought I couldn’t get published — decided that I would write something totally unpublishable.

Lazarus: “Totally unpublishable.” (translated) “I’m writing this just for myself and the beauty of writing”?

Bertram: For something to do.

Lazarus: Oh, you are so perverse!

Bertram: After I started writing it, I got a computer and had to learn that. Then I got the internet and had to learn that. Then some idealistic publisher (Second Wind Publishing) decided to publish my books, so I had to learn how to promote.

Lazarus: Something else I want to explore. First let me ask if you saw Spielberg’s “Minority Report”?

Bertram: No.

Lazarus: Spielberg is to filmmakers what you are to novelists: intentionally convoluted. He makes these incredibly compelling movies and critics totally don’t even get them.

Bertram: I am not intentionally convoluted!!!

Lazarus: Okay, if you were an intentionally convoluted person and someone called you on it, wouldn’t you say you weren’t?

Bertram: You’re right, an intentionally convoluted person would not say they were convoluted, unless of course it would make them seem doubly convoluted by agreeing that they were.

Lazarus: But we need to tie this back in to your particular talent we’re talking about tonight. In the same way as “Minority Report,” More Deaths Than One is incredibly full of irony. It’s a very gratifying novel, even as it surprises the hell out of you.

Bertram: I’ve been wanting to ask you for months. When we talked that time, I asked if you were disappointed in More Deaths Than One, and you laughed and said no. Why the laugh?

Lazarus: . . . So I’m wrestling. Shall I let you off the hook by letting you ask me a question? Okay, but I won’t stay distracted for long. I laughed because the book was totally unexpected. I knew when I first read the initial chapter during the TruTV Search For the Next Great Crime Writer contest on Gather that it was written lights out. Where you took it in terms of 1) character development; 2) plot twists (I love plot twists); 3) ironic subthemes; and 4) emotional gratification was truly gripping and surprising. I laughed because anyone who knows anything about writing would know how good it is.

Bertram: Tell that to the 200+ people who rejected me.

Lazarus: Steinbeck submitted 40 novels (different novels) before he had one accepted. This says more about the publishing industry than you. Now back to the task at hand: “The devil in Ms. Bertram.”: Your romance vignettes that were published in Love Is On the Wind are the most ironic, humorous and biting pieces I think I’d ever read — but undeniably focused on romance. Beneath them one sensed an incredible bittersweetness. So my question is, why did you write like that? I guess what I mean is, you are a true romantic at heart — but I don’t think you believe in romance.

Bertram: I thought I was just trying to put a twist on a story.

Lazarus: So, what, you think I’m falling for that?

Bertram: Well, you silence me. I have no idea how to respond to that.

Lazarus: Either that or I got a little too close to home.

Bertram: Could be. But I never thought of myself as either romantic or unromantic.

Lazarus: Let me ask it in a more friendly way, . . . thinking . . . How about this: in your heart, there are things you want to say to romance readers, but you don’t really think they’ll hear them. Yes or no.

Bertram: I don’t know, but I don’t think so. I don’t like category romance. I think the stories are generally too trivial to be truly romantic.

Lazarus: Ah — there it is. If what you had written had been logical, dispassionate, then the answer would’ve been “no.” The answer is “yes.”

Bertram: Huh?

Lazarus: What you want to say is, “don’t trivialize love; go deeper.” Right?

Bertram: I guess. I read many books that are well written, but they leave me cold because in the end the stories are trivial. Love shouldn’t be trivial, but they make it so.

Lazarus: Okay. In your two published novels, you manage to take the subject of romance and examine it in a plethora of meaningful ways: pure attraction; devotion in the face of great hardship; true love lost and then recognized for its falseness; rescuing disguised as love. Yet despite the quality of the loving relationships you examine in your stories and the romantic element that is clearly present (and there is nothing trivial about them), you haven’t really give us a romantic story yet.

Bertram: The very first book I ever wrote was supposed to be a romantic story of love that transcended time and physical bonds, told with sensitivity and great wisdom. I quit a job when I was young to write that book, discovered I had no talent for writing and no wisdom, so twenty-five years went by before I tried writing that book again. That’s the one that I don’t acknowledge as a book. Someday I’ll get back to it. I know the basic story, but don’t know how to say what I want.

Lazarus: Have you read my novel Lacey Took a Holiday? It’s an intentional convolution of romance. As we would say in classical literature, “romance turned back upon itself.” The characters are both extremely flawed: the girl is a drunken prostitute; the guy is a bitter, widowed war veteran. They begin their relationship when he kidnaps her out of a brothel.

Bertram: I read it. It’s profoundly moving. The theme that I mentioned earlier that I saw in A Spark of Heavenly Fire was the theme of love in all its guises. You use that theme in your books, too. It’s especially apparent in The Medicine People, though the book is being sold as a mystery, like mine.

Lazarus: Yes, love in all its guises: you make Pippi an incredibly sympathetic character when it would have been so easy to turn her into someone we intensely dislike.

Bertram: Pippi was supposed to be the character I hated. It was supposed to be a silly sub-story about the unattractive woman getting what the attractive one didn’t. A childish theme, really.

Lazarus: Pippi embodies the woman searching for love. She ends up discovering that the only love she can trust is self-love. Suppose you wrote a sequel about Pippi. What would happen to her?

Bertram: I don’t know what will happen to Pippi. Haven’t thought about it.

Lazarus: I never realized it until now, but there is a tremendous comparison between the two women in A Spark of Heavenly Fire. It cannot be characterized simply the way you did: beauty loses out to plain. That’s what the unaware reader will get out of it. It’s much deeper than that. The women drive the story. It’s their strength that carries the day in the face of the plague, the atrocities and the recovery.

Bertram: Yes, the women drive the story. I wrote the book to prove a quote by Washington Irving: There is in every true woman’s heart a spark of heavenly fire, which lies dormant in the broad daylight of prosperity, but which kindles up, and beams and blazes in the dark hour of adversity.

Lazarus: I would like to share another thought about your writing — both your ability and what you’ve achieved. Let me preface it by saying that I’m no critic — which is to say that I really do understand literature as opposed to formulae. I feel what authors are saying in addition to recognizing the beauty in the way they say it.

Thus I feel the need to point out what you might not even acknowledge: you have a marvelous ability to write the longest parables in all of literature. A parable unglues the world as it is perceived and rebuilds it in a wiser and more beautiful way. That’s particularly true in A Spark of Heavenly Fire and even more so in the ironic, visceral More Deaths Than One.

Bertram: Again, you’ve silenced me.

Lazarus: You know, some writers will tell you that they treat their stories/books like children. You don’t do that. It’s something more than that with you. It’s metaphysical. A mystic statement.

Bertram: No, they’re not my children. One thing I have to believe: that these books will find a readership. That they have enough substance for people to talk about them. Do you think that’s possible?

Lazarus: I think your books are really mainstream books. The real difference between a mainstream book and a genre book is that a mainstream book intends to have something of merit to say. I think, with your books, there are several important realities: 1) They’d make damn good movies — which is to say they have great popular appeal and people will read them; 2) They could be studied in literature classes, and in that respect people will talk about them and discuss and learn; 3) I think to really, really get the lessons at the heart of your books you have to be a worldly, mature person. So if I say that people will have a lot to talk about in your work, I’m really implying all three of these things.

Bertram: This has been the most unlikely discussion.

Lazarus: Thank you, Pat, for the conversation. I look forward to being a writing colleague of yours. In the years to come, I anticipate reading many new works that evolve from that place where you have no new ideas, works that really do lurk in your inward being.

See also: The Most Unexpected Truth About Writing