by Pavan Atwal
On April 18, 2014 I was given the honor of interviewing the brilliant Carrie Gordon Watson, who will be leading the “I Know Vampires, And You, Sir, Are No Vampire” workshop at this year’s Wordfire Conference on April 26th at Butte College. Watson has many accomplishments under her belt, with many more to come. She does great work with teens, performs music, and also writes novels. Her latest novel is The Ascent of Tosh (Simon Pulse, 2016), which examines the life of a teen when traumatized or forced into grief.
Pavan Atwal (PA): Which workshop will you be hosting at the Wordfire conference this year and why?
Carrie Gordon Watson (CGW): I will be hosting a workshop called “I Know Vampires, And You, Sir, Are No Vampire.” It’s about using elements of magical realism in literature for Young Adults. I chose this theme because the book I have in publication, as well as several others I’m currently writing, all use elements of magical realism. It’s a writing style that’s dear to my heart.
PA: I see that you have performed one song and you are currently practicing music for the agency house-band you co-founded called Erin Murphy’s Dog. What inspired you to want to venture into music?
CGW: I actually started out as a performing songwriter. While I’ve been a story writer and poet all my life, music WAS my life from the time I was twelve until my early 30s. I wrote songs and performed them in cafes, bars, and other songwriter performance venues. The agency house band started out as a late night joke on Facebook a couple of years ago, but it’s the real deal now. We’ve performed at our annual agency retreat two years in a row, with another performance scheduled next month. I’m grateful because the band has rekindled my interested in writing music.
PA: Both music and stories can convey very strong messages, however, they do so in different ways. What do you find to be the major difference when it comes to your work with music rather than your work with books? Which one do you feel as if you enjoy more?
CGW: The main difference these days is that I’m really feeling comfortable with my fiction-writing, whereas the ability to song-write –which used to come so intuitively to me- is supremely rusty and challenged. It turns out, I LOVE words, and when I’m writing a book I can (in theory) use as many as I want. By contrast, in songwriting, economy of words is key, and it becomes critical to pick the exact-right ones.
PA: How did you come to the realization that writing and literature was for you?
CGW: My first few attempts were, in retrospect, embarrassing disasters. But when I wrote what later became my debut novel and brought it to a writers’ retreat, it sparked a massive debate around our readers’ circle, and that’s when I knew. And I knew I could never write soft, happy stories. I want to write stories that engage or enrage, either way, as long as the reader wants to think and talk about it long after turning the last page.
PA: Inspiration is a major part of writing. Your latest book The Ascent of Tosh really connects to teens and allows the readers to understand them in a more profound way. Where did you get your inspiration for this book?
CGW: This book has taken a pretty meandering path in the three years it took me to write it. But once I got down to the core of the story, I realized that it’s really about the very human experience of dealing with loss. Everyone experiences loss on some level, and young people often feel their losses more acutely. I just imbued that grieving process into a young man named Caleb Tosh and wrote about his wish to ascend to some kind of higher understanding about the confusing tragedies of his life.
PA: It seems as if many of your accomplishments and work now has to do with helping teens. It is a wonder what great things you will be doing in the future. What motivated you to help teens and how do you connect so well with them?
CGW: I’ve been a high school teacher for nearly 30 years, and have seen over that period of time that as societal and interpersonal dynamics get more and more complicated, kids have fewer tools to cope with the pressure. In the early 90s I brought a program called Challenge Day to my school and coordinated that program for 5 years. It was powerful work, helping teens understand their relationship to social oppression and giving them tools to counter it. I also ran a conflict resolution program at my school because we realized that kids needed healthier ways to deal with their interpersonal frustrations. That work is among my proudest achievements. It’s easy to connect with someone, regardless of their age, if you are willing to listen without judgment and create a safe space for them to have healthy emotional expression.
PA: Do you feel as if literature opened a gate way for your career in music and do the amazing work that you do with teens?
CGW: The thing about literature is that it’s a brilliant form of escape, which is also what my music was for me when I was young. We live in a fast-paced, pressure-filled world. In many ways, it’s more challenging than ever to be an adolescent. But by its very nature adolescence is hard because the way we experience the world around us challenges our safe existence. I definitely understand and relate to this, so I write in a way that offers healthy escapism to kids who desperately need a safe place to go, even if it’s inside their imagination.
To read up on the other workshops and presenters at this year’s WordFire conference, or to register, please visit: buttewordfire.org.
Don’t forget to revisit The Haberdasher in the days leading up to the conference, as we profile more of this year’s presenters.