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Louis L’Amour Saved My Life

by Olive Balla

Olive Balla245Just to dispel any misunderstanding up front, I never actually met Louis L’Amour. He never reached out his hand to pluck my struggling body from a rain swollen river. He never yanked me out of the path of a careering city bus. But what he did do was just as vital to my survival—he wrote fiction.

When I was twenty-one, married with three children and trying to survive a spiritual, emotional, mental, and financial train wreck, I discovered Louis L’Amour’s Sitka. That phenomenal piece of literature bore me on a magic carpet of woven words, away from the turmoil that was my life, and into flights of escape. The harsh expanse of Alaska, the tough men and often tougher women, the struggle to not only survive, but thrive against overwhelming odds, those all spoke to my depressed, lonely, fearful spirit.

After that, I haunted the local public library in search of more L’Amour titles. I grew to crave the sensation of being ferried into the past while watching from the safe distance of the present. I thrilled in the knowledge that everything would turn out okay for the men and women with whom I found myself identifying. I read everything Louis L’Amour wrote, and his words comforted me. They gave me hope.

Over the next few years I branched out into other areas of fiction. I reveled in the excitement of spy novels written by Helen MacInnes, feasted on the haunted offerings of Stephen King, and devoured the cerebral musings of Isaac Asimov.

My world changed and expanded. Eventually, the idea that I myself could change took root. At the age of twenty-nine I went to college, where I learned how to teach others to read and write.

Thirty years later, I still look forward to those quiet times when I can burrow into my pile of pillows, a cup of hot tea at my elbow and a compelling story in my hands. I still thrill at being escorted into other realms, other dimensions, other realities.

Some people believe that every person has a unique niche in this world, a slot molded in her image and into which she alone will fit. I don’t know if that’s so. But I do know that writers hold a special place in the human experience, some even to the point of sparking world change.

So, thanks to those of you who answer the call to write in whatever genre beckons. Thanks for meeting deadlines, for struggling with agents, for doing hours of research, for rewriting innumerable times and not giving up. Thanks for following the tugging of your muse. And thank you Louis L’Amour, for saving my life.

AnArmAndALeg72Olive Balla, author of suspense novel An Arm and a Leg, is mother of 3, grandmother to 13, great-grandmother of 4, a retired educator, and part-time professional musician. Having been everything from secretary at a used car dealership, a university student, and a high school Spanish teacher, Balla states her characters are, in part, amalgamations of people she’s met. Living with her husband Victor in the Albuquerque area, she spends her spare time in a small woodworking shop designing and building everything from breadboxes and wine racks, to a porch bench. Visit her website at

This article was originally published in the October 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

An Interview with Poet Katrina K. Guarascio

by KL Wagoner

The Fall of a SparrowKatrina K. Guarascio lives in New Mexico where she teaches Literature, Language Arts, and Creative Writing. She produces a monthly poetry performance, The Smokin’ Slam, which is the only monthly open mic, feature, and slam venue in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Katrina has authored several poetry collections including September (2013), my verse (2014), and The Fall of a Sparrow (2014), and is an author/editor of the poetry anthology Light as a Feather: An Anthology of Survival (2014). Visit her website or explore her Amazon author page.

I met Katrina K. Guarascio at a local publisher’s meet-and-greet where she introduced me to performance poetry. That encounter led to the following interview.

Is there something in your poetry or writing journey that you struggle with?

Sometimes I struggle with the vulnerability of poetry. After all, poetry can be very personal and is often inspired by specific events and experiences. The trick is to be honest and still be effective. Virginia Wolff once wrote about how, in order for a female writer to be truly effective, she must “kill the angel in the house.” Basically that little voice in all our heads (I’m sure men have it, too) that says “don’t write about this” or “you can’t say that word” or “what will people think.” You have to kill her good and dead, and then you can develop into an honest writer with a voice which truly reflects yourself. I struggle with my instinct to self-censor.

What is performance poetry?

Basically, performance poetry is any type of poetry performed in front of an audience. However, it can take on many guises. Some people enjoy the simplicity of the Open Mic, where all forms are generally accepted, while others prefer something more theatrical, such as performing alongside musicians (even busking on street corners) or One Man Shows that might incorporate poetry, prose and music. The competitive form of performance poetry, Slam Poetry, incorporates rules, judges, and expectations: poems are judged by five randomly chosen audience members on a 0-10 scale, Olympic style; props or musical instruments cannot be used; poems must not exceed three minutes and ten seconds or penalties will ensue. There is a winner of the slam, although usually there is no grand prize.

What is the difference between “regular” poetry and performance poetry?

That depends mostly on the poet and the poetic intention. Any poem, regardless of length, theme, or form can be read aloud and therefore can be performed. However, at least in the arena of Slam poetry, poets may prefer certain themes over others—personal identity (like race or gender), political unrest, and traumatic experiences tend to be more effective to a Slam audience. Also, the use of comedy can be very effective toward an audience of mixed interests.

Is there a difference between writing “regular” poetry and writing performance poetry? Do you write with performance in mind?

There is much controversy on this topic among performance poets. I believe there is a difference when it comes to a performance feature or a poetry competition. Some poems are better suited for an audience because they will have a stronger effect on the crowd and elicit a stronger reaction. Some poems, playfully referred to as Page Poems, are more effective left on the page for the reader to interpret. I have crafted and practiced several poems to be read in such competitions and performances, while others which I love just as dearly remain in the pages of my books.

Do you think education makes a person a better poet?

Yes, education makes a person a better poet, an education in literature, but not exclusive to literature. The more read, the more written, the more listened, all these things will contribute to the development of the skill of writing. I am a far better writer now than I was fifteen years ago not only because I write continuously (sometimes obsessively) but also because I read, I witness, and I absorb the world around me.

What can a prose writer learn from a poet?

The benefits of reading, hearing and writing poetry are unique to the individual, but worthy of everyone. The more you experience, the more chances you have of awakening that inner muse. Even someone who is not a poet may find inspiration, emotion or catharsis in a poem, just as someone driving down the road listening to the radio may break into tears because the lyrics of a song hit them at just the right time and in the right way. Also, poets do write in a slightly different manner than prose writers or lyricists. The ability to be concise and economical with words and images is a special talent.

When did you start on your writing journey?

Reading and education were valued in my home, but no one read classical literature. No one read poetry. I remember specifically requesting a copy of Hamlet when I was eleven years old, but I don’t recall the specific moment when I decided to be a writer. I just started writing and haven’t stopped yet.

Why do you write?

I don’t write because I want to or even because it gives me great joy (at times it can be very frustrating). I write because I have to. It feeds my soul and gives me a form of peace. I enjoy sharing it with others but I also have some written works I will never share with anyone. I love expressing myself, my ideas, my beliefs, but it’s more than that. It’s my trade. I am not a painter, a photographer, a cook; I am a writer. That is my art form. That is who I am.

KLWagoner150_2KL Wagoner (writing as Cate Macabe) is the author of This New Mountain: a memoir of AJ Jackson, private investigator, repossessor, and grandmother. KL has a new speculative fiction blog at and writes about memoir at

This interview was originally published in the April 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage.

Why I Write for Teens

by Carolee Dean

Forget_Me_NotI started writing stories for young people before Harry Potter and Twilight made it fashionable to do so, before there was the dystopian world of Hunger Games, before adults were scouring the young adult shelves and writing blogs focused exclusively on teen titles. Before there were blogs. Now teen fiction is hot, but back when I envisioned my first stories, there was no Printz Award to honor books in that murky world just beyond the Newbery but not yet in the realm of adult literature. One friend asked, “Why are you writing for teenagers? You could be putting your work out to a larger audience.” Now, ironically, young adult fiction is that “larger audience.” With popular teen sales skyrocketing, it is often the children’s section of publishing houses that carry them through recessions and economic down turns. More and more adults are reading stories with children and teens as protagonists. This phenomenon became popular with Harry Potter when the British publisher marketed one cover for adults and another cover for children. They wisely realized that adults love books with young heroes, but are not always so crazy about the covers. Now with the invention of the Kindle, the adult audience for children’s books is expanding. Take_Me_ThereNote the cover of my book, Take Me There. The cover was designed for teens and focuses on the romance in the story, but this novel is also a coming-of-age tale of a boy who goes on a journey to reunite with his estranged father who is in prison in Texas. Many segments are written from the father’s point of view, a man convicted of murder, who taught himself to read and write in prison. Kindle sales, which still largely reflect an adult audience, are soaring. The fascination of adult readers with child and teen protagonists became apparent with Harry Potter and Twilight, but it is actually a long-standing phenomenon. Charles Dickens wrote several stories with young people as central characters including Oliver Twist and David Copperfield. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped. Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women and the companion books that followed. Consider all the classics written from a young point of view. Try to imagine To Kill a Mockingbird told from an adult perspective. Many contemporary books written for adults include one or more key teen characters. Consider the steamy teen romance that forms the back story of The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks or the many great books by Jodi Picoult that juxtapose teen and adult viewpoints within the same family. ComfortThere are many reasons why these stories are so compelling. The teenage years are a time of angst and discovery. Teen perspectives are fresh and new and contain all the wonder and heartache of first love and first encounters—the beautiful budding of lifetime friendships as well as the bitter agony of betrayal. They explore the growing realization of the wonders and disappointments of the adult world. Teen stories are compelling because teens stand at a crossroads where childhood intersects with paths of infinite possibility, yet, as we all know, once you start down one of those paths, its not so easy to change your course. The stakes are high in these stories. That’s what makes them so fun to read…and so fun to write.

Carolee_DeanCarolee Dean is a board certified speech-language pathologist and the author of three young adult novels: Comfort (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), Take Me There (Simon Pulse, 2010) and the paranormal verse novel Forget Me Not (Simon Pulse, 2012). She holds a bachelor’s degree in music therapy and a master’s degree in communicative disorders. She has spent over a decade working in the public schools and has also worked with teens in a psychiatric hospital and a head trauma rehabilitation unit. Carolee currently serves as the Vice President of the Southwest Branch of the International Dyslexia Association. Visit her at

This article was originally published in the July 2012 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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