Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sylvia Ross, Poet, Author, Artist

Today I’m interviewing Sylvia Ross, another of the contributors to Leaves from the Valley Oak.  Sylvia not only contributed several of her poems and a memoir to the anthology, but she also helped with the production. She did the graphics on the cover and made all the interior pictures better. She’s a longtime member of Exeter Writers.
Sylvia, not only have you authored children’s books, you’re a poet and artist too. Tell us about yourself.
My husband and I chose a country life, but I was raised in Los Angeles. My mother was one quarter Native American, and my own number on the state’s Indian Roll was 30326. After high school, I worked for Walt Disney as a cell painter until my first child was born. Subsequently, I earned a B.A., and as our four sons grew older, their need for clothes, shoes, and music lessons drove me into a teaching career. I taught at Vandalia in Porterville, CA, where the kids from the Tule Indian Reservation were enrolled. I enjoyed finding connections with my own origins through the Indian kids and their admirable families. I was a good fit for the school and it for me.
How long have you been writing? 
Oh, since I first found out that my fingers could make marks in mud. I was an inarticulate child, but once I learned to use the ABCs to make phonetically correct words, I felt that I had a voice. That led me to being a girl too shy to give an oral book report but who earned the English award at 8th grade graduation, and to being a woman who struggled desperately through college speech class, but had the blue book proficiency to easily graduate with honors.
How many books have you written?
I’ve written four books: two cultural works for children, Lion Singer (2005) and Blue Jay Girl (2008 ) published by Heyday; a collection of poems and drawings for adults published this year and titled Acorns and Abalone; and a novel titled Acts of Kindness, Acts of Contrition.
I’ve also given many readings during the past ten years. My work was included in a cultural arts exhibit called Sing Me Your Story, Dance Me Home which toured museums and other venues, 2009 through 2010. With three other writers, I was invited to read at the Modern Language Association’s International Conference in San Diego in 2003, and I read at U.C. Irvine’s California Indian Conference in 2010.  I’ve written for an award winning quarterly magazine, “News from NATIVE CALIFORNIA,” for many years. I have poetry and short stories in the anthologies: The Dirt Is Red Here (2002); Spring Salmon, Hurry To Me (2008); The Illuminated Landscape, A Sierra Nevada Anthology (2010); Leaves from the Valley Oak (2011). An minor abstract from an article I wrote is included in the book: Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider (2008).
How did your upbringing color your writing?
My mother’s people were storytellers; my early teachers were Irish nuns, fond of literature and grand storytellers all.  Parochial school exposed me to the rhythms and eloquent vocabulary of the Bible. I listened to the Latin mass weekly as a child and was also exposed to the sounds of other languages I didn’t speak or understand. I understood early on how sound could nuance content.
How do you develop your characters? 
 I don’t know. My characters are greatly altered but naturally are modeled on people I’ve known. I put them into fictitious situations and let them react as they might.
What books and authors influenced you?
The author Frances Hodgson Burnett, who wrote A Little Princess, brought me through a complicated childhood. My copy of her book was an old edition (1937) with illustrations by Ethel Franklin Betts. (Burnett’s book is still being printed but in an updated version - which is more politically correct and not quite the same.)
Later, all the great writers: Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Flaubert, William Butler Yeats, Robert Frost and James Joyce impressed me.  California’s John Steinbeck, England’s D.H. Lawrence and Paul Scott were influences. At the present time, Charles Frazier, David Gregory Roberts, Barbara Kingsolver, Neal Stephenson, Allan Furst, Elizabeth George, Gil Adamson, and Kazuo Ishiguro are still influencing me.  I am fond of books in translation and films with subtitles.
In college, I studied with the poet, Robert Mezey, and the novelist, John Stewart. They both went on to other campuses and greater honors. I was lucky to have been taught by them.
What is your latest project?
After completing the novel this past month?  I plan to give the house a good cleaning, lie on the sofa and read.
Where can your books be found?
They can be ordered through The Book Garden on Pine St. in Exeter, and at The books published by Heyday can also be purchased at I can be contacted at or by regular mail at P.O. Box 44040, Lemon Cove, CA 93244

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Meet Mary Benton, author of Dulsey and Winds of Time

Today I’m interviewing Mary Benton, one the contributors to Leaves from the Valley Oak. She’s a longtime member of Visalia-Exeter Writers.
Question: Tell us about yourself.
I was born and raised in Visalia, California, the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.  My entire life has been spent on a farm. As a kid, my parents had a dairy. I had a horse and started riding when I was five. As a teenager, I rode with the Visalia Rockettes when they first started.
Through the years, my husband and I raised cotton, alfalfa, vegetables, fruit and nut trees. At one time we had a fruit stand on our ranch. We did a thriving business selling sweet corn, melons and fruit. I helped start our local Farmers’ Market and managed it for twenty-two years. Our small acreage is now all in walnuts. My husband has passed on, but I still love it here in the country. We were blessed with three wonderful children, who in turn gave us caring and loving grandchildren.
When I get up in the mornings, I take a walk to admire the trees and plan out my day. My walk is twofold. It gives me my daily exercise, while enjoying the comradeship of my two dogs and one eleven-year-old cat who thinks he’s still a teenager. Wouldn’t it be great to still be able to climb a tree, play jungle cat by hiding in a ditch and waiting for the unwary to stroll by and then pounce, scaring the bejeebers out of the hand that feeds you.  
Question: How long have you been writing?
I've written off and on since I was a teenager. I didn't write seriously until I started taking writing classes at the College of the Sequoias in 1997.
Question: How many books have you written?
I’ve written two novels. Dulsey, a Western Adventure, and Winds of Time, a Traditional Western. I’ve completed my third novel, Plain Molly, which is being considered by Oak Tree Press. I also have two short stories included in the Visalia/Exeter Writers’ Anthology.

Question: What books and authors influenced you?
Tony Hillerman has always intrigued me with his ability to describe not only the sight, but the smell surrounding the scene he has created. Larry McMurtry is also good at getting into his character’s head. Also, Mark Twain, with his ability to capture his character’s dialect.
Question: How have you done your research?
Primary research is done on the computer. The library, personal research books, and physically going to the location that is the background to my story. If the location is out of State, I research the real estate ads to get a sense of the terrain, trees, grasses, and general feel of the area. Old newspapers is a good source for timely events. Maps are a great help to pinpoint travel distance. 
Question: How do you develop your characters?
I get an idea for a story or plot, decide who will be telling the story, then sit down and start writing. I let the character tell me the story. As he or she rambles on, they reveal their personalities, just as someone would if you were to meet them for the first time and engaged them in conversation. I might add some background to flesh them out, but I really find it’s easier to let them have free rein. Side characters seem to leap in, insisting they’re part of the story, and lo behold, they sometimes become such a big part of the story that they almost overpower my main character.
Question: Why did you choose a particular setting and time period?
I’m interested in history and I often wonder how the world looked when the pioneers and trappers moved west. Great characters can be created from these men and women who faced the unknown, the hardships, and sometimes overwhelming grief to establish new homes, farms or businesses.
Question: How did your upbringing color your writing?
When I was small, children were seen, not heard. My favorite past time back then was to eavesdrop on the adults’ conversations. I developed an ear for dialect and can “hear a person speak in my head,” whose accent or speech pattern is a bit different.
Question: What is your latest project?
I’m currently working on my latest novel, Cantu Crossing, a Western, set in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1870’s. It involves a gold shipment stolen by the notorious Vasquez gang from the Visalia Stage near Elkhorn Station. To research this project, I took a drive through the area where the old stage route ran. I also poured over books in the library and have found references in some of my personal files. As I write, my characters are stepping out of the shadows and telling me how it was. I can’t wait to hear more.
Question: What inspired you to write The Headgate featured in Leaves from the Valley Oak?
This story is based on a true near-drowning I experienced when I was about eight years old. While my parents were picking tomatoes some of us kids went swimming in a nearby canal. Only one  problem, I couldn’t swim. My older brother pulled me out by my hair. He was thoroughly embarrassed by the whole incident, as there were some really cool girls swimming and his idiot sister had to mess up the whole afternoon by nearly drowning. The rest of the story is pure fiction.
Question: Where can your books be found?
Winds of Time can be purchased through Avalon Books, or Dulsey can be purchased through iUniverse as a soft cover, and is also available through Kindle. Leaves from the Valley Oak can be purchased through  All books can be purchased through me at You may also read excerpts from my books at my website.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Serial Killers

I went to Alliant University in Fresno today with the San Joaquin Sister in Crime to hear Dr. Eric Hickey tell us about serial killers. Some facts I learned: In the last 7 years there have been 147 serial killers, defined as 2 or more killings with a pattern. There are 40 thousand people missing in this country.
Some of the cold cases are now being solved with the new DNA technology. One case recently was 50 years old, a man caught because evidence had been stored that contained DNA.
I don’t think you want me to describe some of the scene he told us about.
Most serial killings are sexual motivated and are perpetrated on weak women. So I guess the take away for us is, don’t be weak.
If you’re interested in more information about serial killers, Dr. Hickey has a book that can be found on Amazon. He is often asked to consult on major cases.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Our Leaves have finally sprouted

   It's finally published! After eight long months of work collecting, editing, and getting the art work just right, the Visalia-Exeter Writers anthology is launched! Mary and I learned so much in the process. I learned more about using Word for desk top publishing than I knew existed. When you have mulitple authors, the formatting becomes tricky, especially when you want the book title on one page and the author's name on the opposite page. Now that it's done, I can say it was worthwhile.
   The pictures turned out better than I expected. The graphics work my Sylvia Ross is splendid. And the stories and poetry are fun to read. It's going to be great for Christmas gifts.