This time I talk with an author who shoots first and writes stories later (mostly) – S J Brown.
Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?
I am S J Brown, a writer, wildlife photographer, grandma, wife, mother, spouse, and tree hugger. My home base is in West Virginia, but I tend to cross the state line constantly. I write about life, about me, and about critters.
Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.
I am currently in the finishing stages of a project my sister and I embarked on together. It is a memoir that covers 12 years of our lives. The working title is Sisters. It has been quite a journey that we can’t wait to share it.
How did you come to write a book with your sister? Were there any major squabbles you had along the way?
Our Mother wrote a book for family. It accented the difference between her childhood and mine. So that got me thinking about writing a memoir. Then at a Writers Conference I took a workshop on collaborative writing. When I returned home I called my sister and learned that she had been thinking the same thing.
There weren’t any squabbles while we worked on the book. We did most of our squabbling when we were younger. I admit from time to time I got impatient waiting for her to respond to my emails. We live about 250 miles apart so much of the writing was done through e mail and over the phone. We also spent a few weekends together just focusing on the book. There were times when we laughed until we cried. There were serious discussions and agonizing about how much to share, where to end the book and if there would be another book to follow this one.
In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?
I primarily write memoirs. Early in my writing career a trusted soul told me to write what I know and I took that to heart.
I was at an exhibit talking to a patron about the story behind getting one of my photos. After our conversation a fellow writer tapped me on the shoulder and whispered in my ear, “girl you have to write this shit down.” I went home that evening and put aside the manuscript I was working on and began Close Ups & Close Encounters, my first full length published manuscript.
So what, in brief, was the story behind that picture (and do you have a digital one you could share)?
As you can see it is a pretty close shot. I was using a 300 mm lens. I stood behind some bushes and snapped a picture of the bear. Normally I would take a shot and then take a step closer to the critter I am photographing. However each time I clicked the shutter button this bear moved closer to me. We did this several times before my spotter got nervous and whispered that we needed to back out of there. Of course I took a few more shots including this one before I backed out of the area. I used film when photographing wildlife. I think the bear could hear the camera advancing the film and he was curious about the sound.
Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.
My writing process is a bit different than most writers. I begin with a photograph. My goal is to take the reader to that time and place. My first draft generally is just notes to myself. The second draft is actually sentences and paragraphs. The third draft I tweak the descriptions and emotions a bit. Then I set it aside for a few weeks before giving it one more read through before I place it into someone else’s hands. I always want a fresh set of eyes on the work. A fresh set of eyes will spot typos, and places where the story skips or lags a bit.
Since you start, generally, with a photograph, does that mean when you’re looking for good shots you try to get something that might make for good writing afterwards? Or do you just get lucky sometimes?
When I am in the field I’m not thinking about stories to write, I am concentrating on the critter in front of me. In the field the encounter is as important as the resulting photograph. It is important to pay attention to the animal’s behavior so that I don’t get in trouble. Wildlife photography involves skill, research, and a bit of luck every time I go out in the field. To get the shot that I eventually used for the cover of “Close Ups and Close Encounters” I had to climb a tree and wait. Sometimes I lay on the ground, other times I need to climb, or get into a boat to get a good shot. Since every picture tells a story the writing comes later.
Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?
I can’t really give you an answer to this question since I don’t create characters. I write about real people. Life truly can be stranger than fiction.
What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?
I haven’t really researched anything weird or strange for my writing. I do most of my research before photo trips. It helps to know as much as possible about my wild subjects before I encounter them in the field.
Before my first trip to Florida to photograph critters I researched alligators, manatees and a few other wild creatures. However when I was on the ground face to face with an alligator all that knowledge just disappeared when I knew I was too close to him.. I couldn’t remember how far he could lunge, how he would warn me to back off, or how fast he could move. So I took a few photos and began talking to him as I backed away.
Okay so I have gotten off topic here but your next question is probably what do you say to an alligator when you are close enough to hear him breathe. It doesn’t really matter he can’t understand what you are saying. You just have to keep your voice calm and pleasant so he knows you aren’t a threat.
How do you select the subjects you photograph?
My spotter often says I will photograph anything that moves. What critters I photograph depends on where I am. I have traveled from Maine to Florida and as far west as Colorado to capture critters on film. The extreme northern United States have Moose, and Puffins can be found at certain times of the year. The extreme south eastern states have alligators. When I head west I can find Big Horn Sheep, and Prairie Dogs. Then there are white tailed deer, wild horses, raccoons, and a huge variety of birds, so I guess he is right I will photograph almost anything that moves.
Photographing wildlife has led to doing things I never dreamed I would do. I have flipped horseshoe crabs, tagged Monarch Butterflies, and banned ducks. I have met some fascinating people and been to incredible places. Every time I return home I am ready to go out and do it again.
What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?
Don’t let life get in the way. There is always something else you need to be doing, or somewhere you need to be. Make the time to write, write often, and get your thoughts down. I began writing in High School, had my first piece published when I was 18 and then life got in the way, my writing was put aside and it was decades before I got back to writing.
If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?
I would get a laptop and write from the road.
What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. This book grabbed me from the first sentence and didn’t let me go. To me that is the true meaning of a great book. The words should put the reader in the scene and compel them to turn the page.
What do you think you’re next project will be?
My next project is already in progress. I am writing a follow up to Sisters. The working title is The Little Middle Sister. The select few that have read Sisters asked how I got from there to where I am now. It has definitely been a journey I wouldn’t want to repeat, but I am happy to share the details.
This was fun. Thanks for having me here.