Rhenna St. Clair is an author, artist, and poet who practices Chinese medicine and acupuncture in northern New Mexico. She began writing her debut novel, Getting New Mexico, in 2016 and published it through Pace Press three years later. Anne Hillerman calls the book “part love story and part comedic hero’s journey…filled with quirky and diverse characters and unlikely situations right out of real life.” You’ll find Rhenna on her website at RhennaStClair.com and on Facebook.
What is your elevator pitch for Getting New Mexico?
Getting New Mexico is a universal story about bad life choices, poor judgment, mean deeds one later regrets, and the desperate hope that we are still lovable despite those times when we are a tarnished version of our higher self. I love what is ridiculous, odd, and unpredictable about life and the characters we encounter while living it.
What unique challenges did this work pose for you?
Blending my experience of life in New Mexico and what I knew of Pueblo people, with what I knew about East Indian culture and customs, was challenging but, at the same time, fun. I appreciate the mix of cultures in New Mexico and have never had more fun than when writing Getting New Mexico.
Who are your main characters, and why will readers connect with them?
The main character is a transplanted New Yorker, Aaron Schuyler. The love of his life, Anita Chatterjee, is a close second as a main character. I think readers will see something of themselves in those two (and the other characters) and will appreciate Schuyler’s interactions with all of them, as well as his moments of comic mistake or pathos.
Why did you choose New Mexico as the setting for the book?
I have lived mostly in New Mexico for twenty-eight years. I can’t imagine living anywhere else! The house Aaron Schuyler moves into in Getting New Mexico is the home I lived in north of Santa Fe, in Nambe. The old house has a unique feeling, and I tried to bring that out. I shop all the time at Sam’s Club, so that seemed the obvious place for Schuyler to land a job.
Tell us how the book came together.
Getting New Mexico began with a prompt in 2016 in an ongoing writers’ workshop here in Farmington. I thought about the prompt — Where’s the fun in a funeral? — and came up with a guy in New York City who is down on his luck through his own fault. To get a free meal and some booze, he crashes funerals. It was great fun, and the fun continued as Aaron Schuyler learned some lessons in life. I finished writing and editing around the end of 2017 (I should mention that I am a licensed acupuncturist and have limited writing time). I did several edits myself, not counting what I was asked to do by Pace Press. I signed my contract with them in summer 2018, and our published date was November 5, 2019.
When did you know you had taken the manuscript as far as it could go?
I knew we were done when Aaron Schuyler had learned the hardest lesson of his life: if you aren’t there for your kids, they won’t be there for you. It was time to bring his saga to a logical but sad conclusion, and the chapters following that episode were some of the most fun to write. It was time to “put it in the can” as they used to do with old movie reels.
What was your favorite part of putting this project together?
I had two favorite parts. The first one was writing the scene where Schuyler visits his deceased uncle’s bookstore. I enjoyed developing the bookstore atmosphere. Secondly, I very much enjoyed developing personalities for the secondary characters so that what they did in the story made sense and contributed to the main action.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
My list of favorite authors is endless, beginning with Charles Dickens—there is nothing funnier than The Pickwick Papers. Other authors include Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Teilhard de Chardin, Edward Abbey, Anne Hillerman, John Kennedy Toole, Louise Penney, Michael McGarrity, Daniel Tammet, and Dostoevsky. These are just the beginning!
Do you have a message or a theme that recurs in your writing?
I would like to think there is a theme of strong women dealing with the challenges of daily life. Many of my stories take place in my old Nambe home which is the setting for Getting New Mexico.
What are the hardest kinds of scenes for you to write?
Death scenes. The finality is hard enough to grasp in life, let alone on paper.
What writing projects are you working on now?
I have just finished a crime manuscript titled West Coast that is set in Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, and I am starting a manuscript about a librarian in Farmington, New Mexico.
Is there anything else you would like readers to know?
I love to cook. I do oil painting. I can’t get enough of the beauty of New Mexico.
KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. Kathy posts to a speculative fiction blog at klwagoner.com and writes about memoir at ThisNewMountain.com.