Interview by Catharine Bramkamp
Julia Park Tracey, Poet Laureate for the city of Alameda, California, has a lot on her plate. Her Great-Aunt Doris’s diaries are winning awards: I’ve Got Some Lovin’ to Do (Honorable Mention at Great Northwestern, SoCal and San Francisco Book festivals, and a Finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Awards, 2013), Reaching for the Moon (Grand Prize Winner all categories, plus top Regional, 2014 Great Northwestern Book Festival).
Her work as a freelance journalist, editor and ghostwriter keeps her busy yet she still finds time to play with words for fun, including poetry, literary fiction and creative non-fiction. She is currently writing the Veronika Layne mysteries “because they are fun to read, fun to write, and are popular; they also help support my poetry and women’s history research. It’s all a juggling act, and I work very long hours. But I’m very, very happy.”
The diaries are not what we would expect, publishing them on behalf of her aunt was a labor of love.
“I edited the diaries for spelling and context only. I wanted the diaries to be a legitimate first-person source for other writers and historians, about what life was like in early 20th century Portland, Oregon. I added a ton of footnotes and appendices to give context, and wrote a comprehensive introduction — but Doris’s words stand on their own in both books. Her life was exciting enough on its own!
“Doris was someone I knew my entire life and loved dearly. She encouraged me with almost her last words to write and never stop, to take on difficult subjects, to chase my dreams. She willed her diaries to me on purpose. I published only the earliest years, when she was a teenager in the 1920s, not her last years, when she was a grieving widow.
In an era where we live through our smartphones, a look back at the technology of the 1920s — when American women were cutting their hair for the first time, showing their knees and arms, talking on the telephone and learning to drive, her leap into freedom tells us a lot about how far we’ve come, and how little has really changed (the ERA still hasn’t passed, and we are still fighting to govern our own bodies, thanks to the GOP). The published diaries met with enough acclaim that would have gratified Doris and she would have loved the attention.
“Veronika Layne on the other hand was an experiment in trying to write a genre novel, after writing a book of poetry, literary fiction, and two women’s history editions. I used the format of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) to write a fast draft in 30 days, then revise. I used a version of my 20-something daughters combined for the physical character and her likes/dislikes and heartaches; I used my journalism background to give her a career and a storyline. Many of the incidents in the Veronika stories (there are two now) are actual events I covered as a reporter. She is as “real” as anything I have ever written. I think of her as my fifth daughter (I already have four).”
So many books, so little time. As a freelancer Tracey is good at managing long-term projects. But even she has moments when the well runs dry.
“I refill it — usually manual labor does the trick. Try pulling weeds, stacking firewood, painting a room, moving a pile of rocks. Get sweaty, get very tired, do something repetitive and monotonous and your mind flows. I miss having a garden in our current apartment (we used to have chickens and a huge year-round garden). It helped me get through many a writing crisis. Now I go for long walks, I clean house or I go visit people (my parents) who need help doing physical labor.”
Once you’ve stacked some firewood and moved around some rocks, Tracey recommends getting back to your writing. Even if you aren’t blessed with an exciting Great-Aunt, “tell your stories. Don’t censor yourself. Don’t be afraid to write the scary stuff. Press what hurts (I think Adrienne Rich said that, but I can’t find the original quote. But I heard it from Kim Addonizio.)”
Julia is a WNBA-SF Chapter board member and its social media manager.