Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Joe Wallace

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author answers three questions about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.


Sshhh…today we’re sneaking into the creative noggin of Joe Wallace, brilliant author of the highly acclaimed novel Diamond Ruby. So we don’t startle him, I did let Joe know we’d be looking around, and he was generous enough to open the window a crack so we could get a better view. Here…take a look.

The Scoop About Diamond Ruby

“New York City in the 1920s was like a vast ocean swirling with treacherous currents: It was far easier to drown than to stay afloat. But young Ruby Thomas, newly responsible for her two nieces after a devastating tragedy, is determined to keep her family safe. She’s got street smarts, boundless determination, and one great skill: the ability to throw a ball as hard as the greatest pitchers in baseball-mad city.

“Vividly portraying everything from Coney Island sideshows to the brand-new Yankee Stadium, Diamond Ruby chronicles the life and times of a girl who rises from utter poverty to the kind of renown only the Roaring Twenties can bring. But fame comes with a price, and Ruby must protect her family from Prohibition rum-runners, the Ku Klux Klan, and the gangster underworld. A sweeping epic whose breathtaking climax features a showdown with the great Babe Ruth, Diamond Ruby is filled with adventure, suspense, and characters you will never forget.” (from www.josephwallace.com)

The Buzz

“Wallace’s lively and entertaining first novel…includes all sorts of colorful characters and fascinating social history….At its heart, Diamond Ruby is the story of an unassuming, courageous young woman who uses the national pastime to become a pioneering heroine in a man’s world.” ~ Howard Frank Mosher, The Washington Post

“Ruby is a keeper—a believable heroine living in a fully re-created New York world of baseball and Prohibition. There are echoes of Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, but this story holds its own, allowing Diamond Ruby her place as a literary gem.” ~ Library Journal (starred review)

“Using a gem of history as inspiration, Wallace invents a tale thick with the atmosphere of 1920s Prohibition-era New York City.” ~ Billy Heller, New York Post (“Required Reading”)

First Sentence

“Ruby Thomas had never seen anything as beautiful as Ebbets Field, with its brick exterior and half-moon windows that reminded her of slices of jelly candy.”

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And now, Joe’s writerhead

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

For me, writerhead—those impossible-to-predict, precious, fleeting moments of creativity—usually occurs at the least expected (and, often, least convenient) times. While I’m driving. In the middle of a long movie. During a heart-to-heart with my wife.

I remember once going to a local commuter parking lot on an empty Sunday to teach my son to ride his bike without training wheels. As soon as I stepped out of the car with him, I entered writerhead. The entire remainder of the novel I’d been struggling with unfolded before me like a vast quilt. Plot problems solved. Character motivations understood. I had an ending!

But no pen and paper.

For the next hour, in a state of blind panic, I kept my son safe, offering words of encouragement and guidance as I desperately attempted to remember everything that writerhead had delivered to me. It felt like a challenge akin to juggling flaming torches, and I’ve never been happier to get my hands on a piece of paper and a pencil in my life.

Sometimes writerhead strikes when I’m actually sitting at my keyboard. Then I feel as if the words are flowing directly through my body onto the page. I don’t feel like I’m stringing words together; I feel like I’m just the conduit for what writerhead is giving me.

These are the best moments of my writing life.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

This is a real challenge for me. When writerhead arrives, I want to do nothing else but write. It’s so precious and rare!

I know that’s not how life works, that sometimes other things get in the way. My problem is that I don’t hide the onset of writerhead well…or at all. My family can always tell: My eyes widen, go out of focus, grow vague. I stop answering direct questions, or even hearing them. My body is there, but my mind appears to have been exchanged with that of a pod person.

I don’t snap or snarl when someone gets in the way of writerhead. What I do is worse: I absent myself from the scene. I plunge into the world of my book, and leave the physical world behind.

I’m probably really lucky that my family and friends are as patient as they are. I’m not sure I’d be so willing to put up with me.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Writerhead is like time travel. The only way I could write Diamond Ruby was “live” in the Roaring Twenties world along with Ruby, surrounded by gangsters and rum-runners and Coney Island sideshows and the KKK.

To prepare, I read books, journals, memoirs, and half a dozen newspapers of the time, every day’s edition, day by day, one after another. By the end, I felt as if I had actually journeyed to that era. All I had to do was place Ruby—who felt just as real to me as the people I’d been reading about—there. Then I simply let this vivid world spin around her and wrote down what happened.

This is the essence of writerhead for me: To be able to travel to another time, another place, to live within it, and to write what I see.

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In Joe Wallace’s 30-year writing career, he has specialized in…not specializing. Magazine articles on science and health. Books on dinosaurs and baseball. Short stories in a noir vein. And a novel, Diamond Ruby, featuring a tough, strong teenage girl in the tumultuous world of New York City in the 1920s. Joe lives north of New York City, where he inflicts writerhead on his wife, two teenage children, cheerful dog, and unforgiving cat.

You can connect with Joe at his web site (www.josephwallace.com) and on Facebook. You can even follow him on Twitter (@joe_wallace).

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Q4U: Readers / Writers / Looky-Loos: Ever have one of those writerhead but “no pen and paper” moments? How do you manage? Write it out in the dirt with a stick? Create a mnemonic for each sentence (ROYGBIV)? Chant? Do the “oh-my-god-please-don’t-let-me-forget-this dance”?

 

10 Responses to Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Joe Wallace

  1. I love the idea of reading the newspapers of the time day by day to give you the feel of the era! It clearly worked in Diamond Ruby, which I adored. And now that I’m working on my first non-contemporary novel, I may just pinch that…

      • Out of curiosity, how does one get access to “newspapers of the time” nowadays? Are they online, or do you have to go physically to libraries and look at them on microfiche? (It’s been a while since I’ve done that kind of research, clearly…)

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  3. Thank so much, Jael!

    ML: I’m lucky enough to live outside New York City. The main branch of the NYPL has a massive collection of newspapers on microfilm, including several New York City newspapers dating back to the 19th century. That’s where I spent a lot of my time, in the microfilm room, methodically reeling my way through the weeks and months of 1918 and 1923.

    Yes, some newspapers have online archives (I’ve subscribed to the L.A. Times one). The problem with these is that you only get the articles/subjects you’re looking for. Diamond Ruby is filled with details I discovered by chance, only by seeing the whole page of newspapers, not just targeted articles. So I still recommend library collections, if you can find one.

    Hope this helps!

    Joe

  4. @Joe @Kristin
    Thanks — I remember microfiche from about a million years ago when I was pursuing a PhD thesis in the UK. I was looking at what Shakespeare could tell us about women, politics and power. My method was to show that there were modern-day analogues for several of Shakespeare’s powerful women characters — and it sometimes entailed taking a look at what the newspapers had to say about them.

    I’ve never attempted a work of historical fiction — but who knows? For now, I’m simply relieved to hear I’m glad to hear that microfiche/film hasn’t gone the way of the dinosaur(!).

  5. Thanks, Joe. My topic is usually a bit of a conversation stopper, so I rarely bring it up. But my focus was on what people were saying about certain powerful women (Nancy Astor, Eva Peron, Rosalyn Carter, Rose Kennedy, etc.) — not what they thought about Shakespeare. I discovered some surprising resonances between Shakespeare’s female characters (Queen Margaret, Lady Macbeth, Volumnia, etc.) and these modern-world women. Both had opened themselves to contumely for their feat of exercising power over and through men.

    I sense your eyes are shutting, and you are stifling a yawn…so I’ll leave it there.

    I agree, though, it would be fascinating to go back and look at what people said about Shakespeare. Hmmm… Maybe that’s my next project?!

  6. ML–I just saw your latest reply, and I think your subject is fascinating. My novel is about a woman who is out of her “place” in history, and I think the angle you took to explore important themes was a brilliant, off-beat one. That’s a thesis I’d read! –Joe