Poetry is a driving force for author Joanne Bodin, but when a prose story calls, she follows. Heeding this call has resulted in two novels: the award-winning Walking Fish (2010), and her newest, Orchid of the Night (Mercury HeartLink, 2017), a psychological thriller. You’ll find Joanne on Facebook and her website JoanneBodin.com.
What is your elevator pitch for Orchid of the Night?
Trapped in a world of shadows, secrets and lies, Kyle O’Sullivan must flee for his life. Finding solace in the gay community of Ixtlan, even his new identity as Tom Tanner cannot protect him from his tragic fate.
What came first for you: a character, a scene, the story idea?
Orchid of the Night was inspired by true events that took place in Albuquerque with the New Mexico Orchid Guild about ten years ago when I was their vice president. Our then president died mysteriously, and we later discovered he was a pathological liar who was not who he said he was. No one ever found out his real name. He was a brilliant man who knew everything about orchids. We held a memorial service for him since there was no next of kin, but we also realized we had been dealing with an imposter. So the main character came first based on the Orchid Guild president.
Tell us about your main characters.
There are two protagonists. Part one of the novel is about Kyle O’Sullivan who grows up in Maui. He is teased by his classmates early on because of his red hair which stands out against the mostly black hair of the Hawaiian kids. Kyle befriends Danny Leavenworth, who is also a misfit. Both Kyle and Danny are highly intelligent and find ways to escape the doldrums of school by becoming best friends as well as sexual partners. As the story unfolds, (with no spoiler alerts) the two become entangled in a complex relationship which forces Kyle to flee for his life. He relocates to the mainland and ends up in Tempe, Arizona with a new identity as Tom Tanner. Part two of the novel deals with the second protagonist, Officer Andy Gomez, a Yaqui Indian sent to Tom’s home for a wellness check in Tempe after Tom doesn’t show up for work. What he finds when he arrives forever changes the officer’s life. The prologue of the novel is taken from the actual description given by the detective in Albuquerque who called me after he was sent on a wellness check regarding our guild president. The second half of the novel deals with how Officer Gomez becomes obsessed with the case as he sinks deeper into the life of Tom Tanner and finds connections to his own life.
Why did you use the particular settings you chose?
I chose Maui because our guild president talked about having an aunt in Maui who raised him after his parents died. It turned out to be a lie, but at least I had a place to start. I chose Tempe because there is a Native American Yaqui population there, and I wanted the book to take place in the Southwest. The Yaqui connection is important to the story because I needed a place for Kyle/Tom to go for safety. He goes to Ixtlan, a gay sanctuary modeled on one in New Mexico, one of the first founded in the early 70s. During the time of the Gay Liberation Movement, gays were often sent for conversion therapy to “turn them straight,” or they were kicked out of their homes by their parents, or killed. Sanctuaries saved many lives and offered a safe place to be a gay person. Also, these early sanctuaries modeled themselves on Native American values like sustainable living and spirituality. They grew their own food and lived off the land. Over time, some of them were accepted by the locals, like the fictional sanctuary of Ixtlan.
How did the book came together?
Only a few Orchid Guild board members knew the details surrounding the death of our president. When I knew I wanted to write the novel, I held a meeting at my house and discussed this project with them to see how they felt. Once I began the story, it basically wrote itself. In my dreams I heard the characters tell me what they wanted. In fact, much of the backstory, which is represented in the book with italics, came from dreams. I used those vignettes throughout the book because the backstory is what drives the characters, and I used a different style of writing called poetic narrative. This book is considered a psychological thriller, but is written as a work of literary fiction. The book took about three years to write, most of it taken up with research. After hiring the professional editor who edited my first novel, Walking Fish, I sent query letters to agents and presses for over a year, and received about 25 rejections. In 2016, I got a contract with an Australian press that had relocated to northern California. They were bought out by a press in Madison, Wisconsin. All went smoothly until about five months ago. The book was ready to be published, but I hadn’t heard from the publisher. I decided to get the rights back to my book, which took some legal help, but in the end everyone was happy. I found a publisher in Silver City, and they did a fantastic job. It all turned out for the best.
What is the significance of the flower on the book cover?
The orchid on the cover is called a Dracula vampira. For those knowledgeable about orchids, it is in the Pleurothallid Alliance, and is called the orchid of the night, or the Dracula orchid because of its bat-like shape and because it hangs upside down from trees in the wild (and from moss-filled baskets in greenhouses). I decided to use this orchid as a metaphor for the self-loathing of the protagonist Kyle O’Sullivan because of the dark and seedy life that Kyle descends into when he lives on Maui. The orchid is also used as a writing convention that appears throughout the story as the plot unfolds.
Share some results of your research for Orchid of the Night.
I discovered there was a POW camp in Papago, Arizona near Tempe, used during World War II for German prisoners. I turned it into a gay sanctuary, Ixtlan. The Dracula vampira orchid that Kyle takes with him when he leaves Maui for Tempe cannot be grown in a desert climate, so I enlisted the help of an expert. Together we came up with the correct environment Tom Tanner could use to grow the orchids in the desert. The journal entries of Kyle/Tom’s uncle were actually written by my Dracula vampira expert from real expeditions to collect plants for his greenhouse in San Francisco. The founder of the Ixtlan gay sanctuary is based on research into the actual people who were involved in the early 70s in the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement.
What do you want to be known for as a writer?
I have been writing poetry since I was seven. I prefer writing poetry, but when inspiration hits, I can’t ignore it. Both Walking Fish, my first novel, and now Orchid of the Night, wouldn’t leave me alone until I started to write them. Then I was hooked and couldn’t stop. I am glad I did tell their stories because both novels focus on flawed individuals who face almost insurmountable obstacles, and who must find ways to survive. I also like to write character-driven stories that are research-based and that deal with marginalized populations.
What has writing taught you about yourself?
Writing for me is like breathing. I need to write throughout the day. In some ways, writing is an extension of my emotional life. When I can’t write because of daily interruptions, or family problems, or illness, etc., I get anxious. Writing is the calm I need to maintain physical and emotional balance.
What do you love outside of writing and reading?
I find that taking watercolor painting classes at the New Mexico Art League gives me the perfect balance when I am working on writing projects. Writing uses a certain part of the brain that needs to rest, to take breaks before the muse emerges again. By painting in watercolor, my brain feels renewed, almost like meditation. I also play classical and jazz piano to relax and replenish.
After publishing three books, what have you learned about marketing?
The process of writing a novel is one thing, but once it is out in the world it becomes like your child. You need to nurture it, make sure you do it justice. I see myself as a conduit for telling stories. Both novels, Walking Fish and Orchid of the Night, began to have an energy of their own once they were finished. Marketing your work is like raising your child. You want to make sure you find the best situation so the story gets out there. With social media it is much easier than it used to be when authors had to appear in person at book signings. Now you can market from your desk if you want. But, marketing is a full-time job. I approach it as a real job, and each day I check off something on my marketing list so that over a few months I have actually accomplished quite a bit. Also, entering the book into contests is part of marketing. In New Mexico we are fortunate to have the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards. There is also the IPPY (Independent Publisher Awards), and depending on your genre, many other award venues to enter. These contests do cost money, but nothing feels as good as placing as finalist, or winner, and receiving stickers to put on your book. Then your book becomes even more marketable, and it rises to a higher level of readership. So, if you are in the writing business and take the time to follow through with marketing your product, you will reap the benefits of what can be a lonely, labor-intensive, competitive, and frustrating profession. But, most writers have no choice. If they don’t write, they don’t thrive.
Your book of poetry, Piggybacked (Mercury Heartlink, 2011), was a finalist in the New Mexico-Arizona Book Awards, and you’re a past vice president of the New Mexico State Poetry Society. What can writers learn from studying poetry?
Writing poetry is very different from writing narrative. Poetry often relies on imagery and metaphor, whereas narrative is more linear and plot-driven. Poetry is something that came naturally for me when I was in grade school. It seemed to allow me to delve into my imagination as a child and to come up with images that expressed my inner feelings; things that I couldn’t put into sentences or conceptualize at that age. The study of poetry takes a certain kind of dedication. It either calls out to you or not. Poetry can be a bit esoteric and, frankly, I only have patience for certain types of poems that speak to me personally. However, poetry is the language of the people. Even today, the success of poetic forms such as the spoken word, slam poetry, and even hip-hop, aligns with the poetry of the early bards, who went from town to town reading or speaking about the politics of the day.
Any advice for beginning or discouraged writers?
Passion, Patience, and Perseverance. Without those three things an emerging writer will not have the stamina to pursue their dream of writing.
What are you working on now?
I am working on a type of hybrid memoir that includes poems, narrative, archival material, and research. It deals with my experiences growing up in post-war Burbank, California in the 50s; with my experiences during the 60s at UC Berkeley during the Free Speech Movement; and with my life in West Hollywood during the New Age Movement.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. She has a new speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.