Writers, writing

Summer writers series: interview with TJ Berry

This is the first in a series of Guest Posts where I’ve posed some deeply serious questions to some awesome writers. My questions are in bold.

Who are you and what have you done with the Real TJ?

I had to laugh, because I have actually gotten rid of the real TJ… or at least tucked her away out of sight. I used to work in national politics, so I crafted a pen name to keep my fiction separate from my work. (You never want your coffee shop AUs to besmirch your candidate’s good name. Granted, this was back when appropriate behavior in politics was an actual concern. ahem)

Over time, my political work waned and writing became my day job, so TJ eclipsed my original identity. Even my family has started calling me TJ. Even though… and this is a secret… there is no “J” in my real name. Every once in a while, someone from my old life finds me and is like, “You do what now?!”

If you had to describe yourself in terms of a soft drink, which would you be and why?

I am a Pepsi 1893. No one knows I exist, but when they discover me, they’re
delightfully surprised by my nuanced complexity and smoky sweetness.

Harry Potter world: what house are you? And what animal would be your patronus?

I am so Ravenclaw that even non-Harry Potter fans have rolled their eyes at me and said, “Ugh, you’re so Ravenclaw.” My favorite phrase is, “Let me google that.” I’m currently taking five different classes and learning seven languages. I’m utterly ridiculous, but I will get that A+ if it kills me. I think, in 2019, I’m working on developing my gentler Hufflepuff side a little bit.
My patronus would be a hedgehog. Prickly at first, but cuddly and friendly if you know how to approach the right way.

Are you a Thing Everything Through Before Acting person or a Great Idea Let’s Try It! Person?

Oh, I’m totally a think everything through before taking action person. I can never stop my brain from going a thousand miles an hour in a dozen different directions.

My only hope is to corral that energy into productive and not destructive channels. I’m also working on saying “yes” to more things. I tried it last year, and ended up in some wonderful situations that I would have declined in the past. Everyone ask me to coffee–I will show up!

What got you into writing?

I started writing when I was about ten. I read Five Go Off in a Caravan by Enid Blyton and was completely in love with the descriptions of four kids camping together alone. They would just randomly approach farmhouses and buy slabs of meat and baskets of eggs. The farmer’s wife made them cakes. It was darling. I immediately wrote Famous Five fanfiction, though back in the eighties, we didn’t call it fanfiction. I think we just called it plagarism. Anyway, I haven’t stopped writing since.

Why do you write now?

Ideas just keep showing up and I’m compelled to write them down. Whether I’m reading a nonfiction book, watching mindless televison, or grocery shopping, I keep discovering stories that tug on the edges of my consciousness. I love writing about people and the complex relationships they have. I also love writing about bizarre occurrances. In science fiction and horror, I get to do both.

What’s the earliest story you can remember reading and loving?
Socks for Supper! It’s a children’s book about an old man and his wife who have only turnips to eat. The wife begins knitting socks and trading them to a neighbor for milk and cheese. She runs out of yarn and begins unraveling her husband’s sweater to get them more cheese. Eventually, she makes a new sweater for the neighbor. It’s too big for him, but he gives her the cheese anyway and hands her back the sweater, which perfectly fits her now-chilly husband. It’s so cute and warm-hearted that I bought it for my own kids to read. And as a big fan of cheese, this book spoke to me
on a visceral level.

What’s a book you remember reading as a teenager and absolutely loving?

I inexplicably fell in love with Jane Eyre as a teenager when it was assigned in class. I wanted nothing more than to marry a wealthy man with a mentally ill wife hidden in his attic. Now that I’m an adult, there’s just a heater in my attic and if anyone knows how to change an HVAC filter, please DM me.

What are you reading right now?

I just finished Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple. I’m taking a class with Maria and not only is she an excellent teacher, her writing is fantastic. Something about that book just resonated with me–despite the fact that the protagonist is intentionally unlikeable. I just sailed through the story and even teared up at the end, which is unusual for me.

What’s a book that you have on your shelf that you think might surprise people?

I just finished the A-Z Guide to Black Oppression by Elexus Jionde. The cover is both shocking and beatiful–a nude black woman lying in a pool of blood and covered with hundred dollar bills. The book goes through aspects of racism and systemic oppression with both historical notes and anecdotal illustrations. It’s a rough and important read. Pay black women for their labor and buy this book.

Are you a stop reading at the end of the chapter, mid chapter, or just whenever reader?

I have a goal of reading 25% of my current book each night. Now it doesn’t always happen, but when I reach that mark, I stop unless the chapter is really intriguing. If I finish a book in less than four sittings, I know it hooked me.

What book would you like everyone to read?

The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur was a surprising read for me. I’m not usually into poetry (sorry, poet friends!) but this book just grabbed me. Her poems are visceral and affecting. As a collection, they tell a story about womanhood that many of us understand.

Can you name some formative books for your own writing?

I read a lot of Stephen King as a teenager and I think that’s where my love of clean, stark prose comes from. The elegance of his stories is in the images he evokes, not the elaborateness of the word choices. I also loved Asimov and Hubbard as a kid. Oh and Piers Anthony. In some ways, what I write is in direct conversation with what those guys were doing. I see their flaws and low points and aim to riff off their work in a way that doesn’t have the same pitfalls. I can’t wait until thirty years from now when some kid is saying the same thing about me.

How do you organise your personal library? (alphabetical, dewey decimal, what’s your system?)

I moved cross-country a few years ago, so I had to get rid of most of my books. (I know, but movers charge by the pound!) I mostly read on my Kindle, but I buy physical copies of friends’ books so I can have them signed. I put them on my shelves in the order in which I buy them. Looking back through the spines, it’s a timeline of the signings I’ve been to and the friendships I’ve made.

Creative writing in primary school, what did you write about? Can you remember any stories?

I was such a secondary-world fantasy writer back then! Which is funny, because I don’t go near that genre now. I think because I associate it with my own childish writing. I still have some of those manuscripts tucked away around here. I had whole series’ written. I was quite prolific as a kid, but rarely showed anyone.

What do you do/where do you go for inspiration?

Inspiration filters through everything I do as I go about my day. I’ll hear a phrase that sticks in my head or see a name that would make an intriguing city name. I have a huge file in which I capture these ideas. Some get made into stories and others wait for the future. I will say that having my file was incredibly helpful when I attended the six-week Clarion West writing workshop. About week five, when inspiration had deserted me and exhaustion had set in, I was able to open my ideas file and find a couple of things to cobble together into a story.

Is there anything you’ve seen passed around as writing advice that you really disagree with?

I’m at odds with the hardline “write every day” crowd. I tend to write on weekdays, because this is my full time job, but I’m at my best when I’m binge-writing. The longer I write for, the more I get into a state of flow and the work is better. Thirty minutes a day wouldn’t have the same effect. I aim to write 3-4 days a week for at least six hours at a time. You really have to experiment and find the process that helps you produce your best work.

Do you believe in a divine muse, and if so, what’s yours like?

I do belive the muse arrives, but only after you’ve put in the work. I tend to be hit with divine inspiration around two hours into a hard writing slog. Some tidbit zings me, the clouds open, and the words pour out as fast as I can get them down. But I have to be doing the work first in order to get that lightning bolt.

What does your physical writing space look like?

I’m lucky enough to have my own office at home. One wall is covered with a huge 10′ x 10′ felt pinboard where I put up story ideas, enamel pins, and memorabilia like convention badges. I have a window that looks out on a very active hummingbird feeder and the entire neighborhood. But that means when a car pulls in, I have to duck so no one sees me. I do not answer my door during work hours.

When I need a change of scenery, I head to a building in Seattle that has a hidden- but-public lobby with tables, private offices, a café, and couches. I grab breakfast, work at a table or office for a while, people-watch out the windows, then settle into the couches to read. It’s like having a free co-working space. No, I’m not telling you where it is.

Are you more a ‘write drunk, edit sober’ Ernest Hemingway, or a ‘shut the door, eliminate all distractions and write for a set amount of hours’ Stephen King?

I definitely take more of the Stephen King approach. I sit down at a set time and pound out words until quitting time. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, sometimes it sails along. This is akin to the Ditch Diggers philosophy of writing (if you haven’t listened to that podcast, you should). Writing is a job like digging ditches. Ditch diggers don’t wait around for inspiration. They do the work.

Open up your skeleton closet: can you tell me about an abandoned project of yours which seemed awesome when you started but you’ll likely never return to?

I wrote an allegorical story meant to talk about the state of US politics and how it affects the most vulnerable people in society. It wasn’t until I got feedback from a few sensitivity readers that I realized some of the scenes evoked the pain of marginalized people to further the story. I debated whether this was my story to tell and decided to trunk it.

Any advice for anyone looking to start writing?

You only get better by practicing, so just start writing. It’ll be terrible at first, but you’ll eventually understand how to arrange words in the way that sounds right to you. Get in the chair!

Star Wars or Star Trek?
Star Trek!

Hogwarts or Narnia?
Hogwarts. The Turkish Delight is a lie.

Ideal holiday, price and time no concern, where would you go?

I’d live on a ship for a year. There’s a cruise liner called The World which never stops sailing. You just get on and off wherever you want. It’s my dream to live there.

If you could plan perfect meals for a day, what would each be, and would you snack?

Okay, if perfect means how I shoud be eating, here’s what I would do: Meal planning is a task I enjoy. It’s the Ravenclaw in me. We have a diabetic in our household, so we tend to avoid sugar, starches, and grains. Most days, I eat an avocado, bell peppers and vegetable dip for breakfast. I’m not hungry for lunch, so I tend to grab nuts or pepperoni as a snack. Dinner is usually some kind of protein with roasted veggies and a salad.
If the question refers to how I would like to eat, it would be hot, fresh Jersey Shore pizza sices as big as your head and cupcakes all day.

Imagine you won one of those ‘grab a cart and spend five mins in a store’ competitions. Which store would you want to win it for, and what goods would you be shoving in the cart first?

There is a local jewelry maker who has a shop called Angelwear Creations and I absolutely love all of her items. In five minutes, I could have one of everything.

Planet necklaces, beehive earrings, spiral galaxy jewelry… I’m flushed just thinking about it.

Imagine you’ve had your best ever year, what photos would you have from that year?

Lots of travel with family, photos of us having fun in new places. Trying new foods, meeting old and new friends. And castles.

Desert island castaway time: you get three albums, three books and a luxury item, what do you choose?

For albums I’ll pick the Pacific Rim Soundtrack, Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Levi Patel’s Affinity. Books I’ll take Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, and Great Expectations. For a luxury item I’ll take tweezers because nothing will be more annoying than getting a splinter on a desert island without tweezers.

What’s your favourite quote?

It’s just one of those random insiprational memes, but it speaks to me: “Sometimes the fear won’t go away, so you’ll just have to do it afraid.”

Pokemon: if you were a trainer, what pokemon would be in your team? (you get 6)

Iron Man, Magneto, Frozone, Deadpool, Storm, and The Ancient One

Weirdest hobby you have, other than writing?

I take random glassblowing classes all the time. I don’t even want the glass thing you get at the end, I just want to play with the honey-like melted glass. I really want to touch it. But I won’t. Probably.

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TJ Berry grew up between Repulse Bay, Hong Kong and the Jersey shore. She has been a political blogger, bakery owner, and spent a disastrous two weeks working in a razor blade factory. She now writes science fiction from Seattle with considerably fewer on-the-job injuries.

She’s the author of Space Unicorn Blues. Her second novel Five Unicorn Flush arrives in May from Angry Robot Books. Find her on Twitter @TJaneBerry.
Space Unicorn Blues
Five Unicorn Flush