The Writerly Life

A young widow meets a man in a coffee shop and invites him home for the night.

But when a terrorist attack puts their city on lockdown, the near-strangers are trapped together.

As the tense day passes, the woman starts to wonder if her partner was involved in the attack — even as her attraction to him grows.

Olivay, available in July 2015, is something of a fusion of identities for Deborah Reed, a 2012 graduate of the Pacific University Master of Fine Arts in Writing Program.

Reed has published the literary novels Carry Yourself Back to Me and Things We Set On Fire under her own name, as well as two thrillers, A Small Fortune and its sequel Fortune’s Deadly Descent, under the pen name Audrey Braun.

“The difference is that the thrillers are heavier on plot. The stakes are higher, it’s more action packed,” Reed said. “On the other side, Deborah Reed is more character driven. The stakes are more internal than external, dealing with topics of grief and loss.

“This new novel is more a mixture of both, a melding of two worlds. It’s literary … but there’s also a psychological thriller element to it.”

“The other writers I met through the program became my network of writer friends … Pacific gave them to me.”

Reed has always been a storyteller, but it wasn’t an obvious career choice.

Growing up in working-class Detroit, she always loved reading but found little connection to formal schooling. She remembers one teacher giving her an A-plus on a short story and suggesting she could be a writer.

“I thought, ‘That’s weird.’ He might as well have said, ‘You could be an astronaut.’ It was flattering, but it didn’t really register until years later.”

She traveled, lived in New York and Europe, and worked odd jobs.

“I’ve waited a lot of tables. It was a patchwork life. I had a million different kinds of jobs, but I was always still writing,” she said. “I was filling up journals with poems, sketches of scenes, short stories.”

She eventually earned a degree in anthropology with a minor in German, and she attended writing workshops and classes. She had actually completed — though not yet sold — two novels and had an agent shopping her work to publishers, but she said she still felt a need to study more.

“I was a student of writing myself for many years … but I always felt there were some gaps in my understanding of creative writing, because I never studied it,” she said.

The Pacific University MFA in Writing Program helped fill some of those gaps, she said.

Living in Portland with her husband and two children, she had heard about the program but hadn’t decided to apply until she saw a poem by Ellen Bass in the New Yorker.

“I liked the poem so much I went online to find more of her work. I saw that she taught at Pacific, and I said, ‘That’s it, I’m just going to apply.’ It was a sign for me. What a great decision that was.”

Pacific’s low-residency program involves four semesters of guided study at a distance paired with five intensive residencies. Students work with faculty mentors who critique and support their writing, and the engage in workshops, lectures and classes with other up and coming writers, honing their craft along the way.

“The other writers I met through the program became my network of writer friends. Here we are years later, and a small group of us continues to share our writing … Pacific gave them to me,” Reed said.

“And I think the faculty is outstanding. They are great, great mentors and teachers. Jack Driscoll was my thesis advisor, and I dedicated Things We Set On Fire to him. He has been a major influence in my experience of writing and the writerly life.”

The program, she said, not only helped her sharpen her writing — Things We Set On Fire was her thesis, and it’s her most successful novel to date — it also helped her gain skills to help others.

Teaching has become almost as much of a passion as writing for Reed, who is co-director of the Black Forest Writing Seminar at the University of Freiburg in Germany, where she teaches for two weeks each summer. She also teaches in the UCLA Extension Writing Program and in workshops and conferences in the U.S. and Europe.

“One of the most rewarding things of my entire life is to work with students over the course of a year or more and then see them succeed,” she said.

“I never felt like I had the skill set and know-how to tackle this thing before.”

Reed has spent the last few years living in Los Angeles and, though she says she doesn’t intentionally write about personal experience, she says the tone of the place and time has infused her work.

“This is my LA novel,” she said of her forthcoming novel. “It’s full of terror and angst, both symbolic and literal.”

It was inspired, she said, by the real story of a man who was stuck in a woman’s apartment during the lockdown following the Boston Marathon bombing and live-tweeted the experience.

“I thought that was so interesting,” she said. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind.”

Olivay starts with the same premise, though in LA, “then it turned very dark,” she said.

“There are all these different levels of terror: the tiny terrors of a couple in a relationship, and how they eat at each other, to the onslaught of the media and the 24-hour news cycle accosting us, to the LA celebrity culture and YouTube culture, and, of course, terrorism and wars,” she said.

“I wanted to write a novel that includes all of the ways human beings terrorize each other, and then how do we find peace and harmony, how can we find each other, in the midst of that?”

If Olivay marks a melding of her literary and genre personas, though, her next project might mark a new evolution.

Reed assures fans of Audrey Braun that she does, eventually, plan to finish the Fortune trilogy — but that’s not what she’s working on right now.

Her next project is a more ambitious novel exploring the character of an FBI agent in the Hoover era who is forced to live out his career as a woman. Requiring more research than her previous works, Reed said she hopes to explore the shifting gender roles of the 1940s to 1960s, as well as the psychology of being forced to live a life as someone else.

“It’s a novel I’ve wanted to write for a long time,” she said. “But it’s a bigger novel, a more complicated novel … and I never felt like I had the skill set and know-how to tackle this thing before.”

Read More

A Q&A with Deborah Reed appears in the Summer 2015 issue of Pacific magazine.

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