Marcy Luikart: Painting Stories With Words

By | 7:42 PM
Marcy Luikart of Santa Barbara, California is primarily a writer, however, she also exercises her creativity by painting and playing the fiddle. She approached me with the idea of discussing in her interview how the different art forms infuse the writing. For example how does a writer "paint" a picture with words; is it similar to the process of putting color on canvas?  

Luikart's current novel is River Braids which tells us stories spanning 100 years.  In this interview she will be talking about the novel in terms of the visual process involved in addition to sharing from her personal experiences as a writer. Her short stories have appeared in The Iconoclast, Bellowing Ark, Pangolin Papers, Beginnings, QWF, and the Connecticut Review.

river braids cover photo for book
How long have you been writing in your current genre?

I've been writing my whole life.  This is my first historical fiction novel, but in reality writing historical fiction was more of an accident for me.  I started out writing a short story and while researching my story I found myself back at the 1904 World’s Fair. And then I found myself with a big “what if?” And the next thing I knew I was writing a novel.  Prior to this I was primarily a short story writer.  And I've got a couple of unfinished mysteries floating around on my hard drive.  I don’t have a genre. Each story is a new story and it tells me where it wants to go. What genre it wants to be. I know that’s not the trend. Writers are supposed to fit into a neat marketing box, but for me it’s all about the story.  I read all kinds of stories, mysteries, sci-fi, fantasy, literary. I love all stories, and I like to write all stories.

What inspires and motivates you to write?

People motivate me.  I write to discover people.  And ultimately I discover myself.  There is something very exciting about putting people in imaginary circumstances and watching where they go. Sometimes it begins with a place and I imagine the people who live in that place.  Sometimes it’s a picture and I find myself wanting to know the story hidden in the picture.

Tell us about the visual process in writing River Braids

River Braids had some challenges for me.  Because I was writing about a large event in history (the 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics) I had to understand the physical space. And there was action. There was a Wild West show and two rowing races as well as practices on the river. I found that I had to be able to picture the events very clearly and then try to get the setting of the scene in a few words and then put my characters into action. I had a writing teacher who would always ask us, how would they film the scene. He wanted us to get our characters out of the monologues in their heads into action that could be seen.  So that is what I tend to do, create a visual scene that elicits character.  I talk about that process in the next answer.

You have mentioned that writing is similar to painting a picture only - with words. Would you elaborate on this process?

I am often amazed at how similar the processes of painting and writing are. There is the obvious connection that as a writer it is my job to paint a scene with words.  That is a little simplistic but I have to see a scene in order to write it. I have to place my characters in space and then I literally watch them move.  The trick for me is to slow myself down enough so that I can see what is happening. I’m sure for many people who come to your site, this is going to be painting 101, but for me this was all new. I didn't start painting until I was in my 40’s.  And then I was an exuberant expressionist.  Color lots of color applied with enthusiasm was my hallmark. And then I took a class and I learned about values.  I learned to see not what I think I see but what I actually see. If I pay attention it becomes obvious that there is no line that divides the point where objects meet.  There is no clear demarcation. I realize instead that there is only value and light and shadow. There is a world of context in the meeting of things that I can see if I let myself.

Beyond all this, beyond the seeing there is choosing, because unless one is a super-realist, the art is in the choosing. Each scene, each object, landscape or still life requires choice. Where is the visual focus of the painting?  It is the same in storytelling.  Instead of a visual focus I have to find the emotional focus of the scene. And then there is the palette itself.  When painting I lean towards a limited palette.  I use maybe five or six colors and white, not even black. I like to mix my colors to create the depth of black, to push the shadows from the palette itself, and from there I build my scene.  It is the same with my storytelling. I am a bit of a minimalist. I tend to use short simple sentences, quick descriptions and I let the sounds roll around on my tongue as they fall onto the page as I find the values and the truth of my characters.

Painting, writing, the approach is the same.  Slow down, look, choose.  Slow down, look, choose. Slow down, look, choose - at every step of the process - slow down, look, choose.

What’s your typical writing session and environment like?

I like to write in public places.  I am a restless writer and if I’m in a room that is quiet and isolated I never get anything done, so I go to where the people are.  I crave the visual stimulation and some of my future characters end up drinking latte at the next table.  What can I say, research!

What are your favorite writing tools?

I use a little book called “The Book of Questions.” I think it was originally meant as a way for people to get to know each other; a game of sorts.  I use it to discover my characters. I’ll pick a random question out of the book, something like; describe your best birthday party. And then I’ll describe it from all my main characters point of view.  The answers might end up as part of the book, but most likely they are just my discovery of who my character is, where they came from, where they are hoping to go.
What plans do you have for future work?

I feel a new story brewing inside of me. This is that awkward time, when I vaguely see a place, and I see a shadow of someone in the space, but they are not in focus yet. It’s scary and exciting.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

I think the best advice I can give to any aspiring author is to take the critiques.  Don’t be so attached to your writing that you aren't willing to take a look at it and see if it really works as a story. Read it out loud. See where you find yourself wanting to skip over sentences or even whole scenes. Chances are that is where the readers will fall out of the story as well. 

How do you promote your work both on and off the internet?

Promotion is the most difficult part of this whole process for me.  There are so many wonderful books out there and how does someone choose?  I've got my website and I write a blog.  I've done several local book store signings and some radio interviews.  There is also a video interview I did on a show called Literary Gumbo.  That interview is posted on my website.

californian author Marcy Luikart, signing books
all images © Marcy Luikart
But what I've found that I really love is meeting with book clubs. I've been at several book clubs and I have a few more scheduled. There is something very intimate about meeting with a group of women (as of now it has mostly been women) who have read my book and gossip about the characters like old friends.  I also like talking about the writing process itself. And I like talking about how the novel River Braids came out of a rafting trip I took with my husband and his brother on the Mississippi River. So shorter answer, I promote a bit haphazardly. I put myself and my book out there and hope that the people who read it and enjoy it recommend it to their friends. 

How should people find you online…?

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