Patty Dickson Pieczka

Interview With Patty Dickson Pieczka, Author of Finding The Raven

an interesting session with Patty which explores her writing and the book – Finding The Raven
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Patty Dickson Pieczka’s main focus of writing has been poetry, but with Finding the Raven, she’s branched out into fiction using the skills learned studying poetic imagery. Her second book of poetry, Painting the Egret’s Echo, won the Library of Poetry Book Award for 2012 from the Bitter Oleander Press, and she was the featured poet in their Spring 2014 issue. Other awards include the Maria W. Faust Sonnet Contest in the Best Sonnet category, the ISPS poetry contest for 2012, Frances Locke Memorial Poetry Award for 2010, and a nomination for an Illinois Arts Council Award. Other poetry books are Lacing Through Time (Bellowing Ark Press, 2011), and a chapbook, Word Paintings, (Snark Publishing, 2002). Patty graduated from the Creative Writing Program at Southern Illinois University.

Alok Mishra: First of all, congratulations and thanks to you, dear Patty! Finding the Raven was a very pleasant read after so many days so many variations I have read recently! How many novels have you written before this one? Published and unpublished, both.

Patty Dickson Pieczka: Thanks, Alok. I’m so happy you offered to interview me about finding the Raven. This is my only novel, my other published works being collections of poetry. I wrote the first draft of this manuscript 20 years ago, and it waited in a drawer for most of that time.

But I’ll start at the beginning of the writing process. About a month after my best friend died of cancer, I began dreaming in the form of poems. My father had been a poet and I grew up reading poetry, so this didn’t seem too unusual to me, but rather a natural outlet for conversations my friend and I used to have every day. The first two poems came in complete form, and I wrote them down in the morning when I woke up. On the third night, I expected another poem, but nothing came. I knew that if I wanted another poem I’d have to write it myself, so I did. By this time, I was hooked and realized I wanted to write, so I went to John A. Logan College to sign up for a poetry class. When I arrived there, the only class available was fiction, so I took it. It was so interesting and so fun that when the class was over, I started writing this book, considering each chapter a short story.

Since the book was one of my first efforts and not ready to be published, it waited in a drawer while I returned to poetry. Eventually, my second book won the Library of Poetry Book Award for 2012 from The Bitter Oleander Press. At that point, I decided I might be ready to go back and breathe some life into that old novel. I removed all the dialogue, which sounded too stiff and formal, restructured the plot, and added a magic crystal, which gave me a reason to weave poetic imagery throughout the story. And this book is the result. It’s based loosely on that first draft, but is completely different, with the exception of the setting and many of the characters.

Alok Mishra: Honestly, reading your book reminded me of those syllabus readings — names, events, narrative, and a sense of “class!” Have you modeled your book on any particular style of certain author or is it entirely your own setup?

Patty Dickson Pieczka: There are many writers, both poets and novelists, who I admire. They’ve touched and moved me and have certainly influenced my writing, but this idea to combine poetic imagery with fiction seemed like a natural process. In truth, after working on fiction, I began to miss poetry and found ways to incorporate it into the plot. What Julia saw in the Raven was extraordinary and seemed to beg for unusual wording, so this was my opening to combine poetry and fiction, but poetic imagery also seemed to work well in the more emotional scenes, such as when Eric was in jail. The first draft described how miserable conditions were, but it began to sound tedious to me, so I substituted several lines with, “Nighttime never slept. It gnawed on the day’s bones with hungry teeth.” That summed up the way Eric felt with an economy of words and in a far more vivid way. My goals for this project were to have realistic characters, accurate historical research and imaginative writing with an interesting plot, to bring poetry to the mainstream reader.

Alok Mishra: I am very curious to know this, Patty, how did you first think about this book? How and from where did the idea come to write Finding the Raven?

Patty Dickson Pieczka: My grandfather’s brother was a hobo who traveled across the United States to live with Native Americans, and he wrote about his experiences. He went to Michigan to pick blueberries with Native Americans and joined their baseball team. I found it interesting that in a time when there was still so much fear and mistrust between whites and Native Americans, that he formed such a close bond with them.

Then in 1904 he went through St. Louis and stopped at the World’s Fair, though he didn’t write much about it since he was on his way out West to visit some reservations. I wondered what he might have seen in St. Louis and who he might have met. I went to the SIU library to find microfilmed versions of St. Louis Post-Dispatch archives. So when Julia answers ads in the paper, it’s the actual newspaper from April 2, 1904 that she reads.

Alok Mishra: You have subsumed historical events, love, baseless revenge, Victorian realism, magic, pathos and also a touch of humor in your novel. How did you handle this amazing work and manage to give a flow to the narrative? At any time, did you say “Oh! How did Eric remain aloof from the scene for so long? I should bring him on the line now!”? It’s on a lighter note only. I mean did you find it any trouble in compiling the narrative to a successful and beautiful novel?

Patty Dickson Pieczka: I didn’t follow an outline but instead allowed the story to set its own pace. One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Frost, who said, “No surprise to the writer, no surprise to the reader.” This book continually surprised me. It seems that our job as writers is to get out of the way of the characters and let them create their own story. This may sound odd to anyone who doesn’t write fiction, but those who do have most likely noticed the phenomenon of characters taking on their own personalities and actions to do things the writer hasn’t authorized. It’s an enthralling process. Still, at times, the characters would get themselves into a corner, and I had to step in and guide them. Each time I finished a chapter, I’d read it aloud to my husband. Sometimes he and I would discuss plot ideas, some of them very far-fetched, but others which worked well. I truly loved every minute of writing this book and being transported back to 1904 with none of the hardships.

Alok Mishra: If I am honest, you have made some categories in the novel — Mr. Pilmers, Mr. Morrises, Hermans, Roses, Julias, and many others. How did you get the idea for your characters who are so lively?

Patty Dickson Pieczka: Contrary to the disclaimer, nearly all of the characters are real people or combinations of the character traits of several people I know.. Mr. Fletcher, for example, had qualities of both my father and the broker/owner of the realty company where I used to work. Captain Victor was my first husband, who is now deceased but truly did have a photographic mind. Mister Morris was a conglomeration of several men I met while working at the Board of Trade in Chicago.

Alok Mishra: In Chapter 5 of the book Finding the Raven, you have used a phrase Colonial-style mansion. Moreover, there are numerous instances in your book where the critical reader can decipher that the perception of class-difference reins the minds of the characters. For instance, “she looked at him [Charles] as though a bug crawled up next to her…” Do these only hint at realistic images of those days or something else, Patty?

Patty Dickson Pieczka: The snobbery of the aristocratic class was a constant obstacle for Rose to overcome, and one of her main life lessons. Mrs. Hillman had spent much effort becoming one of the social elite, but her daughter found that the best friends weren’t the ones with the most money. They were the people who would be there for her when she was in trouble and needed help. Julia was not a person Rose’s family would have approved of, but still, they became best friends. These class distinctions seem to be borderless and timeless, unfortunately, and with the middle class statistically shrinking, class extremes are becoming greater than ever in this country.

Alok Mishra: If critics ask you, why Raven as a metaphor in this book, what would be your answer?

Patty Dickson Pieczka: The title of the first draft was A Long Way Home, which had to do with an extensive kidnapping plot. (As I mentioned, the two versions are very different). When I began the second writing, the thought kept entering my mind that the title is Finding the Raven. This made no sense to the plot at that time, but as I continued, and the idea of the crystal materialized, I knew it had to be black, and I knew it would be called the Raven. It works also in that the Raven allows Julia’s mind to fly to places she would not otherwise know.

Alok Mishra: Julia, who throughout helps people, supports Rose, makes things good around her, gets almost an intriguing scene for her life at the end of the novel. Why did you think it that way, Patty? My reading also suggested that Monroe was in love with Julia and I almost shared Julia’s feelings. Your comments about the ending of the novel?

Patty Dickson Pieczka: *Spoiler Alert* I tried to keep the characters realistic, and it didn’t ring true for me that both Rose and Julia would have the same happy and romantic ending. Monroe was a “love the one you’re with” type. When he was with Julia, I believe he truly did love her, but as soon as he left, he was in love with life, with traveling, with any woman who crossed his path, with Darla. Maybe he was planning to give Julia the emerald necklace but changed his mind at the last minute. We’ll never know. In some ways, Julia did have a happy ending, but she had to learn a few difficult lessons.

Alok Mishra: The crystal that Julia fortunately finds hidden in the Buddha “bought from a secondhand shop” is black. However, it shows everything bright and true. What are your views about visions in real life and also, your views about the Clarices of real life? Might I compare her to Eliot’s Madame Sosostris?

Patty Dickson Pieczka: I believe we all have a certain amount of psychic ability, but some of us choose to listen to our inner voice, our intuition, and others don’t. Once I had a dream that my roommate’s boyfriend lost his shoe. In the morning, my roommate told me, “You know, Robert’s lost so much, and he only has one boot.” This was not an important fact for me to know, but for some reason my dream told me about his shoe. I wondered why I didn’t dream something worthwhile, such as the lottery number or a future stock market report.

Unlike Eliot’s Madame Sosostris, who had a “bad cold” and used “a pack of wicked cards,” a blank card and cards that wouldn’t exist in a real Tarot deck, such as the drowned Phoenician sailor, Clarice was the real thing. In Chapter 10 she says:

            “I send my shadow into the night, and it brings back secrets. The wind whispers in my ear, and spirits visit my dreams. All these herbs and roots are helpful, but do you know what the real magic is? The truth. The little voice in our hearts——God’s own voice, telling us what we need to know. Most people aren’t open enough or trusting enough to listen to it, so they pay me to tell them what they already know. All I have to do is hold a mirror up to them, and they’re shocked by what they see. Truth is the brightest light, and sometimes it blinds us to look at it.”

Still, Clarice had some frustration that she didn’t always see the full picture. For example, she saw someone drop the heavy weight on Julia’s father but couldn’t see that person’s face.

Alok Mishra: Thanks for your time, dear Patty! It was really wonderful reading your book and then talking to you about Finding the Raven! I wish you all the success for this book and all your ventures in the future!

Patty Dickson Pieczka: Thanks so much, Alok. I’ve really enjoyed our interview!