An Evening with Elizabeth Marro and T. Jefferson Parker

A First-Time Novelist and a Seasoned Veteran Share Their Insights
Pen on Fire Speaker Series

On March 8th, Barbara DeMarco-Barrett welcomed Elizabeth Marro and T. Jefferson Parker to her enduring Pen on Fire Speaker Series in Corona Del Mar.

Marro is a first-time novelist, while Parker published his 22nd novel the day of the event.

“[Casualties] started in 2004,” Marro said. “A story is the result of opportunity, time, and the story finding you; this is the story that found me.”

She moved to San Diego, where “the military was much more visible,” after living in the Northeast.

With regard to war, having raised a son on her own, Marro asked herself, What if it was my son? What if it was me?

“That’s how the story found me,” she said. “I was a mother in a certain environment. I was interested in consequences. The story is about a mother who raises her son on her own. She works in defense. He joins the Marines. She has ideas about how he should spend his life. He doesn’t agree.”

Casualties is a good novel,” Parker said. “It does what any good novel should do: It starts in one place and ends in another,” with surprises along the way.

Crazy Blood is a hyper-focused story on extended family,” Parker said about his latest novel. “It’s about two half-brothers in their 20s. They have the same father and different mothers. They are competing against each other for the Olympic ski cross team. There is enmity between them.”

Setting inspires his novels, and this one was no exception.

“I’ve spent a lot of time fishing in Mammoth,” he said, but Parker never put on a pair of skis until he was in his 50s.

He did try, however, to get his two sons into skiing and snowboarding.

“In the 2014 Olympics, there was only one ski cross racer from the US. I got to know him well,” he said.

Parker is fascinated with nature vs. nurture and “how half-brothers can be such different people. It’s about forging our own fate” or “how we handle what we’re given.”

Crazy Blood is also about “going down the mountain on skis and falling in love.”

One of the brothers in the novel suffers from depression and doesn’t believe in medication.

“He calls it ‘the black not.’”

When he’s depressed, he heads to a cabin off highway 395 where there’s no electricity, Parker said. He brings his girlfriend’s dog for a few days at a time.

DeMarco-Barrett said both novels are focused so much on landscape.

“Geography was the fun part of the book,” Marro said. “Thank God for Google. There were routes [the characters] took that I’ve been to. I weaved places I knew and loved with brand new places.”

“I have written with some fondness for Newport Beach, Fallbrook—where I live now, and Tustin,” Parker said. “If you want a challenge, write a mystery set in Irvine.”

Everyone laughed.

“As a reader, I’m a real sucker for a grounded, real place. Mammoth inspired a lot of this.”

“Let’s talk about the P word,” DeMarco-Barrett said.

“The guiding light for all plots is what I want a reader to feel at the end of the book; that’s my beacon,” Parker said. “[Crazy Blood] is High Noon on skis. The plot is your basic Western. It’s a densely packed story about family. There are four points of view,” which “can get complicated.”

“As I read [Crazy Blood],” Marro said, “I was caught up in family. I grew up in a Cuisinart family. I read it just to find out what happens to these people.”

“I wrote the book for you!” Parker joked.

With regard to her own process, Marro said, “The characters are going to drive it for me.” The action emerges from answering the question, “How do people solve internal dilemmas they have just by waking up every day?”

The son’s point of view in Casualties “was a surprise” for Marro. “For fun, I wrote the Robbie chapters.”

That wasn’t her original plan, but her dad—one of her best readers—said he was missing the Robbie point of view.

“It was a mistake because I loved those chapters,” she said.

“Thank Dad,” Parker said. “Robbie popped off the page.”

He continued, “I purposely followed a recipe.”

Parker knew he wanted the point of view of the “old guy,” the grandpa. Also, “the hero of the book is the bastard son. Mom is the only person who speaks directly to [the reader]; she sets the story in motion” because “she has lot of explaining to do,” he said.

“How do you deal with characters dying? Doesn’t that make you sad?” DeMarco-Barrett asked.

“If you’re writing a novel, someone has to die,” Parker said. “I truly don’t know who will be left standing at the end until I write it. You have to vet the various endings and pick the best one. The story doesn’t mean anything unless someone dies.”

“Something life-changing has to happen or you don’t have a story,” Marro added. “I wanted to exorcise my worst nightmares.”

“What about theme?” asked DeMarco-Barrett. “Casualties is such an anti-war novel.”

Marro is surprised by the themes her readers latch onto; whatever she believes the story is about isn’t necessarily what others perceive.

For her, one of the themes of Casualties is actions have consequences, fallout.

“Themes are secondary to characters,” Parker said. “I figure out the themes by writing through the book. I stay true to the characters. It has to be believable and entertaining.”

He said the characters’ strong desires create themes that “weren’t necessarily in your head” when you first started writing. “Emotions have to be strong enough” because “themes are contained in emotions.

“I don’t really think about [theme] very much,” Parker said. He leaves the themes to his “smart friends.”

And he “always flubs up on page 250.” By page 250, he wants “to throw all the pages away.”

Instead, he sits and waits. And waits.

At this late stage in the writing process, “I have a failure to comprehend the logical consequences of what’s gone before,” Parker said. “The only way to get past page 250 is to sit on my butt at my computer, banging my face against the monitor. It doesn’t work to go fishing or take a walk.”

“I like the walk,” Marro said. “It gets me out of my head.”

“Novels proceed logically,” Parker said. “It takes three months of thinking about a story until I write the first sentence.”

Then the second sentence is the only sentence that can follow the first sentence, he believes.

“My first book took five years to write,” he said. “The more you write, the better you get at your craft. You make fewer mistakes. I published my first book at 30-years-old.”

He attributes his early and often success to being “single-mindedly myopically insanely ambitious.”

“Why did it take me so long?” Marro joked. “I was a mother at 18.

“I did a lot of life research,” she said about her 20s. “I wrote for every job I had. I knew how to write nonfiction, but fiction was always my first love.”

When she was young, she didn’t surround herself with writers. “I was always ‘the dreamer’ in the group.”

Then she took writing workshops and participated in writing groups, where she started to write her novel, which took 10 years.

“I hope my next project zooms along a little faster,” she said.

Marro and Parker discussed how they react to having their work-in-progress critiqued by others.

“Coming up through journalism, you lose sensitivity really quickly,” Marro said. “I was hungry for help, but “there are times when it’s too soon; I don’t want comments until I have a full draft.”

“It is important to hear yourself read,” Parker said. “You develop a muscle to tell the difference between good advice and bad advice. There’s no end to what people will tell you.”

The writers were asked about their writing schedules.

“I’m the opposite of casual. I’m up early,” Parker said. “I write from 7:00 to 4:00, Monday through Friday.”

He admits not all of that time is dedicated to writing, but he shoots for five pages daily; he’s happy with four. He’s not, however, content with three-page days—or days when he “loses four pages” that he wrote previously.

“I’m happiest when I have a routine,” Marro said. “My body requires stand-up breaks.”

Her ideal writing day starts with an hour of work early in the morning. Then she comes back to the page after a break and finishes the day by 3:00.

“I shoot for 1,000 words a day, but that doesn’t always happen,” she said.

“There are enough joyful days to keep you coming back,” Parker said.

For a dedicated 22-time novelist, there would have to be.

3 thoughts on “An Evening with Elizabeth Marro and T. Jefferson Parker

  1. Deidre Reed

    Hey Chelsey – Well done! I didn’t make it to this event, but now I feel like I did!

    Best,

    Deidre (from Shawna’s class)

  2. Lee Rhodes

    I live a thousand miles away and the synopsis is so helpful because I can’t attend these events. I got a lot of great pointers and made good notes for myself. Thanks for a complete look!

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