Monday, April 20, 2015

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Taya Okerlund, Author

Taya Okerlund, Author
Taya Okerlund likes to “crash differences” in her writing, and is getting ready to release HURRICANE COLTRANE, a new novel set in Hurricane, Utah, a real town with characters whose traits she pulled from real people. She integrates several themes, including music, family, friendship, polygamy, and the search for an unknown father. She has written the book to be entertaining but hopes young readers “come away more comfortable with themselves and more willing to let other people be different.”

Okerlund currently lives on the San Francisco peninsula, although she has lived throughout the United States, studied in Asia, and has “roots” in Utah. She is working on her next novel—a comic thriller. She likes to spend time with her husband and daughter, and enjoys visiting fabric stores.

Don't miss the excerpt following the interview, and the opportunity to pre-order the e-book version at a discount.

Q: Your novel HURRICANE COLTRANE integrates several themes, including, music, family, friendship, polygamy, the search for an unknown father. What inspired you to integrate these into one story?

Taya Okerlund: I love Chaim Potok’s The Chosen. The most crashing differences are often couched between the closest neighbors. HURRICANE COLTRANE is not a re-telling, but I took a minority American religion and crossed it with its red-headed, oft-despised fundamentalist splinter group.

For Robbie, I pitted a culturally impossible aspiration (music) against immovable family loyalty. 

I have special sympathy for my narrating character, however. Merrill Hinton is emotionally wounded by his mother’s secrecy and embattled by his peers’ judgment. His intrepid mind leads him into a world well beyond his depth and into very deep water.

Q: Your title cites Coltrane, a saxophonist, but your cover shows a photo of a trombone. Is there a reason that you connected the two? How did you come up with the title?

Taya Okerlund: Merrill plays the trombone. Robbie plays sax, though it’s when Robbie has “borrowed” Merrill’s trombone that the two first meet. My publisher wanted to keep some ambiguity as to the identity of the boy on the cover, because it is a dual story arc.

Hurricane is a real town. None of the setting is fictionalized. Since Robbie loves to play jazz sax, I made him Hurricane’s own Coltrane. It felt kind of snappy and my publisher likes it.

Q: How do you help readers engage with your characters? Why do we care what happens to them? Have you based them on real people? Are they heroes?

Taya Okerlund: They are types of real people…portions of people. If you’d asked me whether this story was autobiographical two months ago, I would have denied it flat. But then I was thinking about this very question, and I realized Merrill’s cantankerousness is pulled straight from a difficult period of my childhood. His intelligence more closely resembles my husband. I had no idea I had drawn heavily from an awkward period of my youth until just recently. So my narrating character is a composite of me, and my husband.

I care about my characters. They are the memes of my youth, and they stand for many of my fondest hopes—real friendship, self-acceptance, and self-actualization. I think other readers may care about the same things.

Q: How helpful is the setting to tell your story? How important, for example, is the polygamy community? Could you have told this story in another location, e.g., San Francisco, or would it have been a different story?

Taya Okerlund: The Utah desert was settled at a time inhospitable to life. Without a canal system on par with the ancient Egyptians (no exaggeration) the community that eventually thrived there could never have existed.

Those were my people. They were great survivors, but often hard-bitten and cynical. They were living on the rough fringe of the social fabric…a community of exiles, and I’m not talking about polygamy. The polygamists still are, in fact, exiles, but in a self-imposed way.

Southern Utah is inhospitable, but its landscape is glorious. (If you’ve ever visited, then you know what I mean.) I believe my characters are an outgrowth of that landscape, both rough and yet rich at the same time.

This piece of the country and the people who settled it are important to the story. There are polygamist compounds in Texas and Canada, but this story is unique to southern Utah.

Q: Did your upbringing influence your writing? How?

Taya Okerlund: I don’t know if it was my upbringing per se, but I was a solitary child, and not very clever extemporaneously. I spent a lot of time in my head, often creating dialogues where I could finally respond to people in ways I thought smart. It was excellent author practice.

Q: Did you write HURRICANE COLTRANE to deliver a message, educate, or just to entertain? What do you expect a young reader to take away from it?

Taya Okerlund: Entertainment was paramount. This isn’t a soap-box story. I wrote it to be a fun read and I think I succeeded. But I didn’t disguise who I am. That can’t be helped and shouldn’t be. I hope young readers come away more comfortable with themselves and more willing to let other people be different. I hope they will be a little easier on each other…that they give a pass to the really annoying boy or girl who asks for trouble, and possibly deserves whatever she gets. This because we all have rough edges, and the thing is to keep them exposed so we can wear them down gradually.

Q: Does the concept of “villain vs hero” apply to your story?

Taya Okerlund: Not especially. There are no real villains here. None but misguided, sometimes horribly, humanity.

Q: What was the most difficult part about writing your story? How did you overcome the difficulty?

Taya Okerlund: I had a crisis of confidence at one point during revisions. I pushed through it and pulled the trigger with a smaller press. I do think it all came out well, but I’m still going on faith.

Q: What’s next?

Taya Okerlund: I’m working on a comic thriller. It's untitled, but is about the daughter of a fallen Chinese Communist Party leader arrested for corruption (hint: not really). The Chinese security service is chasing my heroine now and she's got to outrun the service and survive on limited funds until she turns eighteen and can claim the family fortune stashed in Swiss vaults. 

Q: Tell us about Taya Okerlund. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Taya Okerlund: I like to spend time with my husband and daughter, going to beautiful places in nature, relaxing and be quiet.

I like creative work…fabric stores--you should definitely go in after me if I get lost in one. I used to like to travel, but I’m too tired now. I like short weekend trips to Monterey, and food, if I could still eat it.

About Taya Okerlund

I grew up all over the United States, and studied in East Asia, though my roots reach deep into the southern Utah desert where most of my members still live. I currently keep house on the San Francisco Peninsula with my story-adoring husband and daughter who keep me busy and inspired.”

·      Merrill Hinton is a lightning rod in a town named for bad weather. He's an ace in math, but not smart enough to put together the pieces of his puzzling life, especially where finding his unknown father is concerned.
·      Musical genius Robbie Stubbs was born in nearby polygamist compound Colorado City. He has the chops to become another John Coltrane, but that will take running away from home, and into a firestorm of controversy--the kind his friend Merrill knows best.
·      Merrill sets Robbie onto a course that could rocket them both onto center stage, but being the focus of wide public attention will create serious issues. Robbie's mother is not well, and the shock of her son breaking the family rules like this may put her over the edge.

Hurricane, Utah, is the sticks. Not the deep sticks, like Virgin, a few miles up the mesa—and believe me, we take it personally if you can’t tell the difference—but it’s still the sticks. Hurricane will never be like Park City or other small towns movie stars put on the map.

The good thing about Hurricane is it’s on the road to somewhere. One of the seven natural wonders of the world, in fact. If you’re visiting the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, at some point you have to find yourself in Hurricane—not because it’s your destination, but because your path lies through it.

For me, Hurricane is a starting point, not a destination . . . hopefully. But for Robbie Stubbs, Hurricane’s a mere pit stop. He is meant for the sticks even less than I am. He is going somewhere, and I’m not talking about the Grand Canyon. By the time I met him, he was already in trouble. But the road between the sticks and somewhere is never easy-going.

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