Saturday, March 27, 2021

Left-Handed with a Pencil - Interview with Vonn McKee


The final post for March's National Women's History Month is with Vonn McKee. Not only is she a wonderful writer, but she is also an amazing musician and so much more. I've enjoyed learning so much about and from the talented women in this series. Each of us has something we can share and I have appreciated the response from everyone from the authors to those who comment and share their stories and insights. So, without further ado, here is more wisdom to glean from the woman who is, as her tagline says, " Writing the Range". 


When did you realize you wanted to be a storyteller as a writer and musician?


Honestly, I was far down the writer/musician path before I realized what was happening. I was a scrawny asthmatic kid with a big strong singing voice. Go figure. I sang in church by age seven. Beginning at ten years old, I was a circuit funeral singer in Louisiana. I mean, probably hundreds of funerals! In that environment, I saw people at their most emotional and vulnerable, and I learned to observe it without reacting myself. They told me my songs brought them comfort, and that’s something I’ve never forgotten as a singer and a writer … that all of us are given gifts to be used to touch others in some way. At thirteen I joined a contemporary Christian band called the Jesus Christ Power & Light Company and, by fifteen, I was the headliner for Shreveport’s “Louisiana Hayride,” which was like a farm team for the Grand Ole Opry. I was privileged to record for MCA and tour nationally for several years, including two Opry guest appearances. Can you say, “no dating life?” That’s when I started writing my own songs, something I still do.

Entwined with all this was poetry and essay writing. During elementary school I wrote poems, one of which was published in the school newspaper. It was a clever piece, I thought, on dropping a marble during class and getting busted by the teacher. I made up whimsical Ogden Nash sorts of words. Would you believe the editor “corrected” those words, completely destroying the rhyme scheme? Sheesh. That wasn’t my last tangle with an editor, by the way.

My seventh-grade English teacher was the first to suggest I should consider writing as a career. Sometimes it only takes one person to encourage you to do the thing you’re meant for.



Did you chose the genre you write in or did it choose you?


I grew up in the Deep South, surrounded by stories and porch singings and plenty of Tennessee-Williams-type relatives. (Gee, I hope none of them read this.) My dad, however, was born in North Dakota and he and his Oklahoma-born father broke and sold horses. They were cowboys at heart and I got to spend summers on the family farm in northwestern Minnesota soaking up what I considered to be the Western life. In the kitchen, my grandmother told me stories from her childhood that rivaled those of Laura Ingalls Wilder.

I had a complete set of Zane Grey novels by the time I was eighteen and was writing a few cowboy songs. Fast forward to about 2012: I started going to writing conferences and eventually met Troy D. Smith, who asked me for some Western material. And off I went.


What was the nudge that gave you faith that you could and wanted to be published?


Songwriter Don Schlitz accepted his first CMA award for the Kenny Rogers recording of “The Gambler” by saying, “This is the first song of mine that anybody ever recorded, and I find all this very encouraging.” Although I didn’t kick off my literary writing career with a smash hit, my first short story published on Troy Smith’s Trailblazer imprint, “The Songbird of Seville,” was a WWA Spur finalist (2015). The same year, my second story, “The Gunfighter’s Gift” was a Western Fictioneers Peacemaker finalist. And I naively thought, “Hey, there ain’t nothin’ to this!”

I have since learned that no one has a Midas touch. It’s a little bit about talent and a lot about working hard to perfect your craft and also getting out and networking.


Is there a writing routine you follow or do you write when the muse strikes?


I’m a high-ADHD multitasker and discipline is a constant challenge. Also, I have many writing irons in the fire. I just finished judging for the Spurs (historical fiction) and am about to judge a short story contest. I’m a contributor and proofreader for Roundup magazine. Requests for short stories pop in, and I’m working on a novel. I belong to a writers critique group and I’m writing songs for a Western recording project. So I just try to spend time every day working on one or more of those. Just keep moving forward.


Is there a process where you find your next idea or does it just hit you?


Ideas are never a problem. It’s the getting them written that’s tough. Right now, I have four or five book ideas queued up in my head and, unfortunately, I’m a slow writer. The ideas spring up from research or sometimes from meeting someone. No kidding, people “bring” me stories all the time. My WIP was inspired by reading about artists like Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin and A.D.M. Cooper, who beautifully documented the 1800s Western landscape and people on canvas.


My anthology, Comanche Winter, was released on Wolfpack last year. Those stories are all over the place. A schoolboy has to defend his classmates against a Comanche attack. A circus troupe is caught behind enemy lines during the Civil War. An outlaw unwittingly steals a preacher’s identity.

Book Link

Do you ‘interview’ your characters before or at any time while telling their story?


Most characters show up with at least the essence of who they are and the story they wish me to tell. But I don’t like to start writing until I know them down to their bones. This is especially crucial when writing short stories. My goal is to make the reader feel very intimate with the character(s), as soon into the story as possible.

It’s all about believability and emotion with me. I work hard to stay accurate with historical and other details, but every story or song has to leave the reader or listener with an emotion. I’ve been told I write “with an ache,” and I do tend to write characters who carry both sweetness and pain inside them.


Is there anything you feel people would like to know or would be surprised to learn about you?


Gosh, I don’t assume anyone is interested. But, let’s see. I’m left-handed with a pencil but ambidextrous with most other things. I play baseball equally bad with either hand.


I have an engineering degree and worked in commercial construction as a precast project manager for several years at a time when there were virtually no women in the industry, so I have building babies across the Southeast. I’ve been a volunteer naturalist at a park and I’m a botany/zoology/astronomy nerd.


Do you consider music poetry and does the rhythm translate into your other writing?


Oh, I like this question. When people comment that I have a background in wildly different fields, I explain that I see countless parallels in music, math, architecture, and stories. Good design incorporates rhythm or pacing (visual or audible), color (even words have this!) and climaxes or highs and lows. And things have to add up at the end!


You’ve planned WF Conventions. What prompted you to take that on?


Well, when WF members first mentioned wanting to have a convention, I threw out a few suggestions. Next thing I knew, I was named convention chairman! (You know who you are, Cheryl Pierson.)


I’ve often said that every single thing you learn will be used later, eventually. I enjoy throwing big gatherings and have cooked for 50 people all by myself a number of times. Laying out a spread and making sure rooms and tables look good may or may not be a Southern thing. Also, my years working as a project manager taught me to break down a project into schedules, logistics and inventory needs.


That said, I nominate Cheryl Pierson to be chairman of the next WF convention.


Book Link

What advice would you give to those who dream of writing, or what advice would you give your younger self?


To aspiring writers … first, read your arse off. See what good, and bad, writing looks like. See which genre lights you up. Romance? (I leave that to the professionals.) Historical fiction? Nonfiction? Juvenile/YA? Mystery? Straight-up Western?


Read a few (but not too many) books on writing. Some of my favorites are How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster and On Writing by Stephen King. I loved Alexandra Sokoloff’s Screenwriting Tricks for Authors because it taught me about storyline pacing and to conjure up mental pictures of every scene as I write it.


Go to where other writers are. You’ll meet someone at every conference who will help you on your path. Might even be your next publisher. At the very least, you’ll spend time among your tribe.


Then, start typing. Yes, the page will be blank. And, no, you won’t have any idea what you’re doing. None of us did when we started. And some of us still don’t but we write anyway.


And to my younger self, I would say, “Have faith. It’s going to work out okay. But PLEASE don’t marry that curly-haired guy from California.”

For more, check out the following links: 

Facebook

Amazon 


Thank you to everyone who has been so gracious to take part in these interviews. I have enjoyed and appreciated every one of you.

See you all in April for more from our Western Fictioneers Members. Be safe, stay well, and keep those fingers moving.



29 comments:

  1. Wonderful interview. I knew you were multi-talented but had no idea to what extent. A true Southern Renaissance woman!

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    1. Vicky, I'm just occupationally confused! Hey, you've got plenty of writer irons in the fire yourself. Thanks for stopping by.

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  2. Micki Furhman Milom,

    Terrific inteview! AKA Vonn McKee, definitely has the flair. Many life situations, as varied as they can be, absolutely give the experience a writer needs.

    I have watched many video’s of Vonn singing, and she is quite a song writer and has a great voice. This is an added asset for any writer, especially in a presentation and when selling books.

    Yes, faith! All writers must have faith in themselves and in others.

    Thanks for this interview Vonn and Doris McCraw

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Charlie! You know, someday I'll get to meet you in person. Maybe at that next WF convention that Cheryl is hosting!

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  3. HA!!!!!! VONN MCKEE, I'LL GET YOU FOR THAT!!! LOLLOL Well, in true Southern style I must say, "I couldn't BEGIN to ever do the job you did on that convention so I wouldn't TRY to come close!" (It really was perfection, and though I am joking, I am being honest when I say you did do a fantastic job on getting that all together, and I really don't know if anyone COULD come close to what you accomplished! AND you got RJR to get on stage with you and SING! Now who else could do that????)

    I remember when we first met, before you really were writing that much--you had contacted me from reading one of my blogs on Petticoats and Pistols--MG, that seems like forever ago! I'm so glad you DID e-mail me and we became such good friends through the years. You are so talented and just one of the "good people" that I'm so glad to have in my life.

    I love these interviews because I always learn something new about my writer friends. I did not know about the circuit funeral singer stint at such a young age. That must have been hard, but it sure did prepare you for a lot to come in life, didn't it?

    I really enjoyed this interview, and I will spread the word that you are HERE and everyone needs to come over and read this and comment! Very interesting--and I'm sleeping with one eye open...the thought of trying to wrangle a convention like you managed to do has got me nervous, even in the daylight! LOL

    Hugs, Micki--love you always, girl!

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  4. Cheryl, we connected from the start. That's no lie. You are a respected and cherished friend.

    The inaugural convention in St. Louis was just wonderful for me, since I got to spend time with you all IN PERSON.

    By the way, there's not much to throwing a gathering. I'll loan yo my notes.

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  5. Great post. Loved equating Louisiana Hayride as being a farm team for the Grand Ole Opry. Never thought about it but you’re right! And God bless encouraging teachers. I was fortunate to have a couple very encouraging English teachers. Also agree that ideas aren’t a problem. All I have to do is do some research into a particular time or place and usually always come away with an idea (too many!).

    Question: What would you say to someone who wants to write a song but is musically clueless?

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  6. Thanks for you comments. Yeah, thinking up ideas is so much easier than writing them. That's why I respect anyone who's ever finished a novel.

    Well, I'd say write the LYRIC for the song and find yourself a musician to set it to music. Or you could work together and write words and music at the same time. Good luck and HAVE FUN!

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  7. Another great interview, Doris.

    Well, what a varied career, Micki! I knew you were an engineer and a singer-songwriter, but I didn't know you had started so young as a funeral singer.

    Time certainly flies and I am surprised that it is five, going on six years since The Songbird of Seville, which I thought was a superb story and a delight to read.

    I certainly admired your organisational skills with the first convention in St Louis, which you topped off with the cabaret at the end of the dinner. It was a great fun event.

    I hope Hunter isn't causing too much trouble, or eating you out of house and home.

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    Replies
    1. Oh, Keith. You were the life of the WF convention party! I hope you'll "swing" by the States again someday.

      I'm looking at Hunter this very moment. He's monitoring my writing progress today, making sure I hit my word count. He is in fine shape, although we both struggle with an addiction to Southern biscuits. I can't seem to attach a pic here but will try to post a Hunter photo to the WF Facebook page.

      Nice to hear from you!

      Delete
  8. I enjoyed the interview, Doris. It is really fascinating to learn how talented our members are.
    Micki, I agree, I can come up with an idea for a novel, however, in order to turn those thoughts into a believable tale it requires, for me anyway, much research and many rewrites before I am satisfied with the ending.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you, Jerry! As Dorothy Parker famously said, "I hate writing. I love having written."

      Best to you!

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  9. Another fascinating story from our talented troop of writers! I'm not surprised by your varied careers -- anyone can tell you're excellent at whatever you decide to pursue. I spent 3 summers working at a state park in the Lowcountry, so I understand why you'd volunteer as a naturalist. I believe that the more you've done over your life, the more interesting your books (and songs) will be ...

    Thanks to Doris for a great interview series, too!

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  10. JES, I think writers have a natural curiosity. EVERYTHING is research.

    I've enjoyed all of Doris's blog interviews. Great series.

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  11. Loved the interview Doris and Micki! It’s always interesting to learn more about some of my favorite people. I loved the two WF conventions and are very happy I was allowed to attend! I do hope there are more in the future. Here’s to left-handlers everywhere Micki and I’m looking forward to more stories.

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    1. Diane, you were indispensable at both conventions! Considering I'd had a concussion only three weeks before the OKC convention, I don't know what I'd have done without help from you and others.

      It's funny ... even after a lick on the head, I STILL want to write Westerns!

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  12. Great Interview Doris. I've been a fan of Micki since the OKC conference. Thanks for posting this.

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    1. Frank, it was wonderful getting to know you and Liz. I loved that our gathering was small enough so that we could all visit. See you next time!

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