Q&A With Peggy Townsend

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Q&A With Peggy Townsend

Today’s Q&A is with award winning journalist and author Peggy Townsend. Loren Jaggers, the assistant director of publicity at Random House, connected us. Peggy’s work has appeared in many publications, some of which are Santa Cruz Noir, The Boston Globe Magazine & The San Francisco Chronicle. Peggy’s books are See Her Run, The Thin Edge & The Beautiful And The Wild coming out on November 7th of this year. 

Q: Peggy, would you like to talk about your upcoming novel The Beautiful And The Wild, and how you came up with the concept for the book?

A: I’d love to tell you the story. We have a tiny cabin in the forest near Lake Tahoe and I was stacking firewood for winter and listening to podcasts when I heard the story of Billy Sipple. 

Sipple was a closeted gay man and former Marine who stopped the attempted assassination of President Gerald Ford in 1975. Outed by the media and politicians, Sipple became estranged from his family, his life spiraling into alcoholism and bitterness and I couldn’t help but think of how hard it is to keep secrets and how they can wound us in so many ways. 

I’d spent my career as a newspaper journalist dealing with secrets, both revealed and concealed, and my mind began to run. I thought of how far people had gone to keep their secrets from me and how sometimes a twist of fate would reveal what someone wanted hidden. I thought: What if it was spouses who each had secrets from the other? Where would someone go if their secrets were found out and they needed to hide?  

As it turned out, stacking a cord of firewood gives you a lot of time to think. I wrote the first line in my head and The Beautiful and The Wild was born.

It’s a cross between domestic suspense and survival thriller: the story of a woman who, through a cryptic text, discovers that her dead husband might actually be alive and living in the Alaskan wilderness. Heading north with her own secrets and her developmentally delayed young son, she discovers that the most dangerous thing in the wild isn’t starvation or cold or grizzly bears but the person you love. 

And, while I can’t recommend wood-stacking as a creative endeavor, it worked for me.

Q: Would you say your time as a journalist has helped you in some way with writing fiction?

A: Most definitely. As a journalist, I had the privilege of listening to people’s stories. I heard the crack in the voice of an Auschwitz survivor when she talked, not about what she had suffered, but of a little boy at the camp who gave up his life to be with his parents. I panhandled with a street-tough runaway who told me how there wasn’t a single person in the world who loved him. I watched strangers rally to help a grandmother take her dying three-year-old grandson back to Mexico so he could be with his cousins and relatives when he passed.

All of those stories left their mark on me. They opened me to the goodness and to the evil in humanity, to the strength and weakness of individuals, to beauty and sadness which lie next to each other. I think those experiences helped me create characters and stories that, I hope, are real and messy and also inspiring. Just like life.

Q: When did you know that being a journalist and author were what you were called to do in life?  Who were your biggest supporters of your writing talent and goals?

A: I think I always wanted to be a writer, although there was a brief period in second grade where—not knowing everything it entailed—I wanted to be a nun. 

It was my freshman year in high school, however, that I decided to become a journalist. My family was struggling financially and when, after reading “The Tell-Tale Heart,” my English teacher described Edgar Allan Poe’s life of poverty, I decided there was no way I wanted to be a starving artist. I thought that if I were a journalist, I could make money and still write. Looking back, it may not have been the most sound financial thinking but I never regretted a moment of my reporting career.  

The switch to novelist came after a week-long session at the Poynter Institute in Florida with the author James McBride (Heaven & Earth Grocery Store). He and the faculty there opened my eyes to richer storytelling, pacing and style. It was a revelation and gave me the confidence to use what I’d learned as a journalist to begin to craft a novel. As it turns out, writing isn’t about money but is about the passion to create. 

Q: What is your advice to anyone wanting to pursue journalism and writing as you did? 

A: The first thing I would tell an aspiring journalist is that you will never be bored by what you do. You might be hated by some but you’ll also be lifted up by exposing corruption, giving voice to the voiceless, and telling the stories of life. You’ll have to learn to be tough but also empathetic. You’ll have to be tenacious but also willing to go where the story leads you. You’ll have to stand behind what you write and be brave and seek the truth. Most of all, you must learn how to really listen and, if you want to become a novelist, you must read, read, read.

Q: If you are writing something now, can you reveal any details or is it too early? 

A: Thanks for asking. I’m working on a second suspense novel which is also set in the wilderness. It’s about a female hermit and a young runaway who are both fleeing from something and trying to find their way as their pursuers close in. 

Q: Where is your favorite spot or spots to sit down and plot, write and edit your work?

A: My favorite spot to write is definitely at my little cabin in the forest. There’s no wi-fi, a wood stove for heat, and lots of room to let my imagination roam. 

The place where I do much of my writing, however, is at a desk I found beside the road, which resides in a corner of my garage. I live on the
Central Coast between ocean and mountains so surfboards hang over my head and bikes line the walls. Sometimes, there’s a load of washing going while I write. I think Stephen King summed it up when he said a writer should put their desk in a corner of the room instead of the center of it to remind themselves that life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.

I am reminded of that every day.

Q: Where do your ideas for your books come from?

A: I have so many ideas that it’s actually hard to choose which one to pursue sometimes. The ideas come from real life, from newspaper and magazine articles I’ve written, even from overheard conversations. (Yes, I’m that kind of person.) 

I think if you go out into the world, remain incurably curious and open your life to experiences, you’ll find stories all around you. I think it’s also important to write stories that you would want to read. Trying to pen the next bestseller is a sure-fire way to kill creativity.