Interview with author Beth W. Patterson

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing Beth W. Patterson, whose stories I have purchased for a number of anthologies I’ve edited. 

Beth W. Patterson was a full-time musician for over two decades before diving into the world of writing, a process she describes as “fleeing the circus to join the zoo”. She is the author of the books MONGRELS AND MISFITS, THE WILD HARMONIC, and a contributor to over thirty anthologies.

Patterson has performed in nineteen countries across five continents. Her playing appears on over a hundred and eighty albums, soundtracks, videos, commercials, and voice-overs (including seven solo albums of her own). More than a hundred of her compositions and co-writes have been released. She studied ethnomusicology at University College, Cork in Ireland and holds a Bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy from Loyola University New Orleans.

Beth has occasionally worn other hats as a body paint model, film extra, minor role actor, recording studio partner, record label owner, producer, and visual artist. She is a lover of exquisitely stupid movies and a shameless fangirl of the band Rush. She lives in New Orleans with her husband Josh Paxton, jazz pianist extraordinaire. You can find her at www.bethpattersonmusic.com

You’re a trained musician who makes a living performing and selling your CDs. How did you decide to start writing?

BETH W. PATTERSON: I’ve had the urge to write ever since I was little. My parents read to me quite a bit in my first few years and then I taught myself to read when I was still in nursery school, so writing some one-page stories (before I even fully had the grasp of which way some of the letters faced) was the next step. At age six or so, I wrote what I guess now would be considered fanfiction of THE LITTLE PRINCE, except with a healthy dose of subterfuge that I found to be much more satisfying. I wrote my first “book” in the sixth grade. It was a five-subject notebook in which I handwrote cover to cover. Like any aspiring author, I imitated whatever authors I was reading at the time, which were Judy Blume, Walter Farley, and Stephen King. The end result was basically a mashup of ARE YOU THERE, GOD? IT’S ME, MARGARET, THE BLACK STALLION, and PET SEMATARY. I recently revisited the concept as a tongue in cheek piss-take of myself, and the end result was “Are You There, Cthulhu? It’s Me, Judy,” which was included in RELEASE THE VIRGINS.

It wasn’t until I was almost forty that I felt the urge to revisit writing more seriously. I’d won a few awards for writing in high school and hadn’t done anything since, but suddenly felt the burning desire to have a book the way some people suddenly need to have a baby or change careers. I had befriended Robert Asprin a few years before he passed away, and inherited from him friendships with his contemporaries Jody Lynn Nye and Bill Fawcett. They were among the first people who gave me their invaluable mentorship.

VENTRELLA: How has your music training influenced your stories?

PATTERSON: It’s the discipline that affects me the most. Because living gig-to-gig is still my day job, what I currently do is actually like working four jobs: contacting venues for gigs, promoting the gigs, learning music for other people when I’m hired to be a sideman or session musician, and then playing the gigs. If I were a full-time writer, I’d have to commit myself to that same level of focus in a different way: researching, staying in front of my computer and not letting myself get distracted, and probably having roughly four projects going at any given time.

On a creative level, it’s given me me a wider range of perspectives than most vocations would have. The closet ethnomusicologist in me has a curiosity about customs and traditions of the places I visit, which always makes for a wealth of writing prompts. Taking it upon myself to learn the languages of whatever foreign countries I play also opens up my mind to how other people think. Performing with other people is another way in which I’ve expanded my perspective—across race, orientation, and especially age. Whether I have a musical bond with someone twenty years my junior or thirty years my senior, learning music of his or her era gives me a deeper understanding of that zeitgeist. And I’ve witnessed so many unbelievable incidents on my gigs that I don’t suppose I’ll run out of things to write about on that level.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the video you did to promote “Release the Virgins.”

PATTERSON: Like many of my endeavors, it started out as a joke. I process a lot of things through song, and got the idea from a comment I made on one of your Facebook posts (“To the tune of Beast of Burden: I’ll never read ‘Release the Virgins!’”). You wisely suggested that if I put a more positive spin on that sentiment, it would be a great marketing tool, so I got to work on writing a promotional song based on the ARC and made tiny references to every story.

For the video I enlisted the help of my good friend Lewis D’Aubin, with whom I’ve worked for years. He’s been doing music comedy with The Consortium of Genius for as long as I’ve known him and is a major sci-fi/fantasy aficionado. So he was truly was the perfect person to work with for both the audio and visual. Part of his studio is a blue screen wall for the video skits his band frequently makes, so filming was as easy as it needed to be. Lewis was already a fan of some of the authors, so making the video was truly a labor of love for us both.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about the recent ACROSS THE UNIVERSE anthology, which I co-edited. It features stories about the Beatles in various alternative universes. Tell us about your story.

PATTERSON: My story “Cayenne,” named for a pre-Beatles Quarrymen song, reimagines the Fab Four as Cajuns. I wanted it to parallel Yellow Submarine, so instead of them saving fictional Pepperland, the band Les Écrevisses (“The Crawfish”) have to save Avery Island, which is home to the Tabasco pepper plantation. (The peppers are being farmed in other places now, but they’re still grown there too.) The film’s 1968 premier was a glorious coincidence of so many things going on in Louisiana that year. There was the founding of CODOFIL (the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, and the state’s first effort to preserve the Cajun French language). The New Orleans Saints played their first game. Some local musicians I know played on the TV show Happening ’68. Louisiana’s poet laureate Zachary Richard began writing. And it was the birth year of Tiffany, the dog of artist George Rodrigue, who went on to create his iconic Blue Dog paintings inspired by her.

The Yellow Submarine counterparts practically wrote themselves. I think I’d been to the Tabasco factory at least five times before the age of fifteen, either from school field trips, Girl Scout trips, or my parents showing friends around. So using that as Pepperland was a no-brainer. The Blue Meanies became the Blue Dog. I’d spent many a hot, buggy day in assorted fishing boats, so a yellow pirogue (the quintessential Cajun boat) seemed plausible to me, even if I had to take liberties and make it big enough to hold up to five people. And since cayenne pepper is an essential ingredient in Cajun cuisine, I found the title of the Quarrymen song to be as close to a divine sign as I’ll ever get.

The biggest challenge for me was writing a story that could be appreciated by people who might not know anything of Louisiana culture, and making it easy to digest while still remaining authentic. I had to remove a lot of French idioms in the dialogue because even though I had assumed that the human brain would fill in the gaps by context, it was just slowing things down for my beta readers. I also added a layer of humor that hoped my fellow Louisianians would enjoy that would otherwise go unnoticed. For example, like the Sven and Olie jokes of Minnesota, I grew up hearing Boudreaux and Thibodeaux jokes, so assigning those surnames to John and Paul was one such inside reference.

VENTRELLA: How did you decide on the concept for your story?

PATTERSON: I had toyed with several concepts, but had a feeling that depicting the Beatles as Cajuns would be a spin that few others could do. My home state often drives me crazy, but I was born in the heart of Cajun country (Lafayette, Louisiana) and I’m very proud of the culture in which I was raised. When I was in high school, I would sometimes skip classes with a friend and instead of smoking weed or drag racing like normal teenagers, we’d drive out to some of the more rural places where old Cajun musicians, storytellers, and luthiers lived. We’d record them with our little hand-held cassette recorders as they told jokes and stories or played tunes. I moved to New Orleans in 1991 to go to college, but I found a strange subcommunity with everyone else there who hailed from Acadiana. My background became something I carried in the forefront of my experiences ever since. Even now when I catch up with childhood friends, our conversations are often interspersed with southwest Louisiana idioms that make no sense anywhere else (or have drastically different meanings in the rest of the Francophone world). So my story idea came pretty naturally.

VENTRELLA: Are you a big Beatles fan?  How did that affect your writing?

PATTERSON: I’m not the raging Beatles aficionado that some of my family and friends are, but they were certainly an essential part of my musical background. Because I was born in 1973, there was never a time that their music didn’t exist for me. So when I was young I sort of took them for granted, including how uncannily protean they were. But never having had the chance to see them live also added an extra layer of magical mystery for me. Once I stared to play bass with my friends at age fourteen or so, we began to appreciate their depth and wide range of influences. The lyrical crypticness was a source of fascination for us all (this predated the internet, so most of the interpretations were hearsay), and that was perhaps when I first realized that you didn’t have to write something that made sense at face value for people to appreciate it.

Playing in far-off places helped me to understand on an even deeper level what an impact The Beatles made globally. When I toured in Japan, I would sometimes find myself in charge of leading a jam session (which is typically a waking anxiety dream for me), and even though I’d tried to teach myself as much Japanese as I could, I wasn’t always able to communicate, “Guys? I’m not a cover musician. I might not be able to play something everyone knows.” But my tour manager had assured me that everyone knew The Beatles, and he was absolutely right. Some of these folks spoke very little English, but everyone could join in on “Let it Be.” I experienced something similar in Ecuador a couple of months ago. I’d befriended a musician named Juan Jurado Peñafiel playing Andean folk instruments like the quena, zampoña, and antara. (The latter of the two fall into a family of instruments we gringos would call “pan flutes”.) I used to play bass with an Andean folk band called Ancestro, so we had a fantastic time revisiting those songs I knew. But he was eager to launch into some Beatles songs with me, and he was over the moon about getting to play them. At one point he pulled his jacket open to show me how hard his heart was beating, and I could see it pulsing under his t-shirt.

VENTRELLA: Do you have any favorite fiction books about music?

PATTERSON: The first fantasy book about music that I absolutely ate up was GOSSAMER AXE by Gael Baudino. I was still in my teens and playing bass in a heavy metal band, but had just discovered Irish music, so I felt like it had been written for me! I also read a lot of Anne McCaffery’s Harper Hall and Crystal Singer novels. Charles DeLint was another favorite for his blending of urban fantasy and Celtic musicians. Later in life my brother turned me on to Spider Robinson, so I’m thrilled to share an anthology with a musical writer of his caliber. (Spider, if you’re reading this, let’s jam sometime.) I’m currently reading THE BLUES AIN’T NOTHING by my friend Tina L. Jens, which about the Chicago blues scene and its ghosts, and it’s rich and fast-paced.

Novels that aren’t speculative include ESPEDAIR STREET by Iain Banks about a Scottish rock band from a notoriously rough town. THE ACCORDION CRIMES by Annie Proulx is another novel that really stuck with me. It’s not what I’d call warm and fuzzy, but it’s rich in music lore, folklore, and culture.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever read a story that features music but they get it all wrong and you just want to throw the book across the room?

PATTERSON: Anything that glamorizes musical life makes me want to stomp on a duckling. (Note to animal rights activists: this is metaphorical.) Characters who become stars overnight, people who have never had to haul their own equipment…ugh!

VENTRELLA:  Tell us how you got your first book published.  

PATTERSON: My first book, technically, was a collection of six albums’ worth of lyrics and some previously unpublished poetry. It was entitled MONGRELS AND MISFITS, and to fatten it up I wrote my very first short story in my adult life, entitled “Tracking.” I had no editor, just a handful of beta readers, and I don’t know what I would have done without those fine folks. Even still, there a lot of clams that make me cringe, but as the kids may or may not still say, “I did a thing.” The book never went to print, and thus was more or less a flop because who buys electronic songbooks? But the eBook comes in really handy when someone requests an original song that I haven’t played in years and I can’t remember the lyrics.

I eventually rewrote and expanded “Tracking” to become THE WILD HARMONIC.  I’d figured that all musicians had to be shape-shifters in some way in order to survive (or just stay gainfully employed). If you ask most people, “If you could be any animal, what would you be?” most of them can give you an immediate answer, so I decided to expand on the shapeshifting myths in this way. Like Philip Pullman’s daemons, I figure there was no reason why the shifter world couldn’t be just as diverse.

Bill and Jody introduced me to a friend of theirs, Kevin Dockery, who writes military fiction and is your go-to guy if you need to know anything at all about weapons or the military over the course of history (or ferrets). He was partnering with someone from the now-defunct Cleveland Writers Press. Through no fault of his own, the publishing company went under. But in the process Kevin and I became great friends and I retained the rights to my book.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever considered writing nonfiction books?  Maybe about music?

PATTERSON: I started to write an instructional book about the bouzouki, but hit a wall when I realized that I’m really not that great of a teacher. There are plenty of instructional books out there, but I had started sort of an anti-tutorial on how to find your own personal sound. My few students know that my ways of imparting knowledge aren’t for everyone, and my philosophy is “I don’t want you to play like me. I want you to play like you.”  If I ever get somewhere in this crazy music world, maybe I’ll publish my memoirs someday, although my adventures are still far from over.

VENTRELLA: How did you get started when writing short stories?  How did you find editors? 

PATTERSON: A Facebook friend, Larry Atchley Jr. (who didn’t actually know me in real life at the time) had liked so many of my snarky, nihilistic comments on social media that he added me to a group of writers. (We met in person not long after that and hit it off immediately.) From there I met a number of other writers with open call anthologies (you being one of them), and then I started cranking out the stories.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have for starting writers who want to find the right magazine or anthology for their stories?

PATTERSON: Try as many genres as you can. It’s a great way to find your voice and see what works for you (or not). I’ve published high fantasy, urban fantasy, mystery, steampunk, space opera, horror, poetry, and erotica. The last of these made me cringe…I love telling a good sick joke, but if you take the humor out of it, it’s like “Noooo! Don’t make me write this!” But that’s really the best way a person can learn what genre works for him or her and what doesn’t.

VENTRELLA: Have you ever surprised yourself when writing?

PATTERSON: The first time I killed a character was very profound for me. I’d created a very despicable character that was basically a composite of several real-life stalkers/obsessive people I’d had to deal with. My main character killed him in a showdown and I felt really weird for about twenty-four hours afterward. I felt like I’d really killed someone. (Epilogue: any number of these nut jobs will still occasionally show up at one of my gigs, and that also messes with my head. It’s like, “Wait, aren’t you supposed to be dead? Oh, yeah…”)

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

PATTERSON: I think lots of people have great potential for storytelling and writing, but like any talent, they have to cultivate it. The musical prodigies I read about (and kind of want to smack) still have to learn structure, group social skills, and other tricks of trade. I would imagine it’s not far removed from writing. It probably helps to have an innate sense of curiosity and imagination, but there are tons of books and courses available to the aspiring writer to help get things rolling that way as well.

VENTRELLA: How important is a professional editor?

PATTERSON: I can’t stress the importance enough. For one thing, the objectivity of another person well-seasoned in any endeavor is invaluable. My husband and I have begun to set up a little studio in the music room of our home. But for professional project, I record with Lewis because I need a second pair of ears, especially when I’m either making mistakes or becoming such a perfectionist that I’m sapping a solo of its character. Likewise, a professional editor can really be a book’s saving grace. I have a tendency to leave giant holes in my plots because my mind fills the details in. Sometimes I also run the risk of creating dramatic scenes that aren’t realistically feasible. A good editor will catch things like this, as well as grammatical flaws like split infinitives and the overuse of the same words.

Even if you think it’s beyond your means, sometimes the barter system works. I’m playing a private party next month in exchange for some beta reading and copyediting services. I’ve also done some housesitting for friends in the industry who gave me invaluable advice that really saved my first novel.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best advice you would give to a starting writer that they probably haven’t already heard?

PATTERSON: You’re never going to remember an idea in the morning. Get out of bed and write it down before you fall asleep. This has always been the case for songwriting, and it’s also true for story ideas. And save everything, even if you think it’s terrible. You’ll never know when you might need to cannibalize an old concept.

VENTRELLA: What are your pet peeves when you read?  What plot clichés or other problems really bug you? 

PATTERSON: Superfluous tangents that don’t serve the plot confuse me. Some people write in the same way that others love to hear themselves talk. I’ve had to break a lot of these habits myself, and a lot of my early work makes me want to throw up, so I like it even less from other people.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

PATTERSON: I think everyone needs a little bit of both, in the same way that we need a superhero mythos as much as we need the girl next door who can always lend you an egg or make a voodoo doll for you.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst piece of advice you’ve heard people give?

PATTERSON: “Writing about New Orleans is too cliché.” It’s like, I’ve lived in New Orleans off and on for over twenty-five years, cupcake. I try to keep as much variety as I can in my settings, but I’m not going to shrug off something that’s a part of my life just because it happens to be popular.

VENTRELLA: What writing projects are you working on now?

PATTERSON: I started a sequel to THE WILD HARMONIC that I really need to resume. For a while I was trying to get it going under some third-party circumstances that made me feel absolutely sick about continuing, but that’s ceased to be a problem, so I have no excuses now.

I also decided to take the NaNoWriMo challenge, which is a great exercise in both discipline and focus—neither of which is my forte. The extra level of discipline that’s highly advantageous is having to wait until a certain date to begin. It forced me to turn certain concepts over in my mind and realize that different approaches to some of them would make for a stronger story. The end result is the framework of a novel I would describe as dystopian circuspunk. It’s going to be alternately dark and wacky if it survives the rewrites.

Lastly, I’m drafting an outline for a more overtly absurd story in hopes of getting into an ongoing humor anthology. Someone gave me a little inside scoop that it leans more toward sci-fi than fantasy, so the working title is “Robots for Ronnie.” The competition is fierce, but if nothing else, I’ll probably crack myself up!

VENTRELLA: I caught that.

 

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