R.M. Doyon, author of Upcountry

What is your book about?

Upcountry is the story of Jane Schumacher, a strong and sassy woman who is working to get her boss elected president.  Shortly before Thanksgiving, she learns that she has a serious illness and, abruptly, decides to return to her upstate New York home only to discover her sister is the victim of serious spousal abuse.

How long had the idea of your book been developing before you began to write the story?

Upcountry was inspired by a true story, and one that has been brewing for almost a decade.  It began first as a screenplay called The Last Carousel, which I co-authored with my wife, Shelley Anthony.  From the beginning, however, I felt this story would make a decent novel and began writing it in the summer of 2009.  With my wife’s help, it took me 13 months to complete it.

What inspired you to write this particular story?

Upcountry is the result of a conversation I had in 2002 with a close friend who told me about how her oldest sister was being abused by her husband, with the emotional and physical pain that that created.  She also told me that another sister, who was afflicted with a deadly illness, seriously considered solving her sibling’s problem once and for all.

Tell us a little about your main characters. Who was your favorite? Why?

The principal characters in Upcountry are a pair of fraternal twin sisters named Jane and Joanne.  Their story is one of estrangement, reconnection, redemption and rebirth.  Joanne, who stayed behind in their mostly forgotten hamlet of Morgantown, has led an unhappy, almost irrelevant life with few friends and married to a vulgar and violent husband.  She’s spent 15 years as a cashier in a hardware store, and is liked by her boss and her customers.  But it’s clear that her existence has been one of drudgery.  Though her father lives next door, she seems very alone in her world.  Her sister Jane, on the other hand, escaped the vice-grips of their small, upstate town when she was eighteen, put herself through college, began a career in journalism, and is now one of the principal advisors to the front-running candidate for the presidency.  She has walked the halls of power, and she is obsessed with moving to the White House. 

To your second question, though I’m not sure I have a true favorite, I am partial to Jane Schumacher since she is a former journalist who became a savvy political operator.  She holds strong, shrewd opinions on the state of her world, and is thoroughly honest in her dealings with just about everyone she encounters.  Yet, as we learn very quickly, Jane is a vulnerable, troubled woman with a haunted past whose life has been sent into shock.  It is her journey, juxtaposed with her sister’s plight, that pushes the story forward.

Who is your most unusual/most likeable character?

Perhaps you should ask my readers that question, but the most likeable character might be Jane’s Argentinean immigrant, lawyer and lover, Roberto Alvarez.  He is a man of integrity and perseverance and affection—and seems to be willing to do the right thing, whether it’s for his girlfriend, or for his girlfriend’s family. 

My most unusual character might also be a candidate for most likeable, and his name is Matt Booker.  Booker, who is modeled after a number of people in my life, past and present, is a kind and considerate bar-owner and stage singer.  He first enters the girls’ lives by fixing a flat tire on the side of a deserted, upcountry road, and then re-emerges a short time later at his motel and roadhouse.  Instinctively, he senses they are in a heap of trouble, but doesn’t care about why; he just feels the urge to help them out in any way he can.  Matt also discovers Joanne’s hidden talents, and encourages her to think she can do better in life.

There are other characters that might meet a reader’s fancy as well, including my sheriff, Brian Boychuk, who was Jane’s first love, and a man who really wants to help his friends, Jane and Joanne, through their toughest times.  I liked how Boychuk—like Alvarez, he exhibited a great deal of integrity and devotion—handled the situation.  I feel the need to bring him back in another novel.

Then there’s Hubie, the girls’ father.  Though he is a grizzled Vietnam veteran, Hubie was a beaten man himself.  But he finally finds the courage to change.

How long did it take you to write your book?

This story has been on the burners for nearly a decade, but really didn’t reach fruition until the late fall of 2008, and early winter of 2009.  That was when my wife, Shelley, and I, began story-boarding a screenplay called The Last Carousel.  It was from the screenplay that Upcountry evolved, but in a much more in-depth story.  A novel gives a writer much more room to bring every character alive.  So, I began writing Upcountry in August, 2009, and completed it in September, 2010.

Did you do any research for the book? If so, how did you do it? (searching Internet, magazines, other books, etc.)

Yes, I think I was researching this book right up to the time it was published.  The Internet is wonderful resource for every writer; it allowed me to verify every facet of the story that I had introduced.  Let me give you an example.  My lead character, Jane Schumacher, is the press secretary to the governor of New York, who is running for president.  She is also a former television reporter who was tapped by the governor to run her media office.  Well, there’s a scene in which she is describing her journalism career, and how she was always on the lookout for a big break in TV (which never came).  Lamenting the fact that nothing of consequence ever happened in Albany, Jane relates how Dan Rather got his big break in the early ‘60s after CBS liked his coverage of a Gulf coast hurricane, which catapulted him to Dallas, in 1963.  Well, the details of Rather’s career were critical to her point; sometimes you have to be in the right place at the right time, and that luck often plays a role in your life.  (It mirrored my own career; I was in the right place at the right time, and took advantage of the situations I faced). 

But I used a multitude of sources for my novel, Wikipedia being one of the primary ones.  It is excellent in providing fast facts that needed to be corroborated through other sources.  Since my story revolves around a road trip through the Adirondacks and other points in upstate New York, I don’t know how many times I poured over maps as I planned the sisters’ emotional (and geographical) journey following that fateful Thanksgiving night.

How do you develop and differentiate your characters?

Like most novelists, my characters are based on many real people.  I liked to take one quirk here, one detail there from many different individuals and create a new person.   Once you build a character, particularly a principal player, the most important questions I had to ask myself were: would he or she DO something like this?  Would he or she SAY something like this?  Are they true to themselves?  You must give them a personality, but at the same time a very human element.  Humans are not perfect.  They make mistakes in judgment, and so it was important to keep them true to themselves.  That’s where Shelley was so helpful to me; she’d read a passage and say, “I don’t think a woman would do something like that, but here’s how I’d do it.”   I couldn’t have written Upcountry without Shelley.  It’s as much her story as mine.

Most of my reviewers have said my characters are rich and real, and that they loved getting to know these people.  Which is very flattering.  That’s the ultimate test of a novelist, in my opinion.  If I can create ‘real’ people who readers can love and hate, then I’ve done my job.  One of the first questions out of the mouths of most of my readers is:  when are we going to get the sequel?  That says they not only liked the story, they loved the people in it!

Do you have specific techniques you use to develop the plot and stay on track?

My number one goal in writing a dramatic suspense story like Upcountry is to move the story forward.  I’ve never been a fan of tangential writing where novelists move sideways—for tens of pages or more—in the pursuit of their story.  Every reader can name an author who does that.  But I’m not one of those writers, or at least I hope I’m not.  In one or two instances, I’ve been criticized for a bit of repetition (I repeat: I’ve been criticized for repeating myself J) 

Seriously, I do think the writer’s one and only responsibility is to be read, and if I head off in a tangent too often, with one or more sub-plots that aren’t necessary, then I haven’t done my job.  A good movie writer knows that you need to keep the story moving forward, and in this way, keep the reader’s attention. 

How (or when) do you decide that you are finished writing a story?

When my wife says, ‘Enough…let it go!’  Seriously, no writer likes to sign off on a script if he or she is thinking, ‘can I do it better?’  ‘Can I make it more intelligent and interesting?’  But as an agent friend said to me, ‘Remember, Rick, most readers will read that one page you’re laboring on only once and will never return to it again.’  But that’s not entirely true.  If a number of reviewers zero in on a page or a particular passage as evidence of poor writing, then it’s clear that I should have spent more time on that part of my story.  For example, I recently read Franzen’s ‘Freedom’, the big book of 2010 and today.  To be honest, and I don’t think I’m alone given all the one-star reviews the book has received on Amazon, I found Freedom very difficult to read; the characters are insipid, the dialogue was amateurish, and the story uninteresting.   There were so many passages in Freedom that caused me to cringe.  (But what do I know?  He’s sold millions of copies.  I just wish Obama had my book in his hands when photographers caught him on vacation in Martha’s Vineyard last summer)!  It just goes to show you that many writers, who have achieved critical and financial success, can rest on their laurels and reputations, and their subsequent products can often be lame, uninspiring and even boring.  I can name a good number of rich and famous authors who are in this camp!  I’ll leave you with a quote that I live by:  as the great crime writer Elmore Leonard once said, ‘if it looks like writing, re-write it!’

Is there a message in your writing you want readers to grasp?

The message in my novel revolves around abuse, both spousal and parental.  Very serious stuff, and although I didn’t set out to deliver such a message, per se, that’s how it evolved.  My initial goal was to tell the story of a woman facing a life-altering choice; a woman who up till now thought she had life figured out, only to discover that life can throw you one hell of a curve, and she was forced to react.

In essence, I tried to ask and answer the ultimate ‘what if?’ question and go from there.  In Upcountry, I wanted to find out what Jane would do if she discovered her sister was being beaten to a pulp, and she had nothing to lose?’  I’m strong believer that real drama is the result of real conflict, and how they manage to overcome the problems in their lives.  That’s what I set out to do with Upcountry. 

What was the most difficult part about writing the book?

Well, my gender played a part.  Upcountry is about how two sisters come together after many, many years of estrangement.  Thus, how does a man get inside the brains of two women?  How can a man ever believe he has captured the voice of a woman?  Is this how a woman thinks?  Is this what a woman would do?   Would a woman say something like this?  It was a big challenge for me. 

Do you think writing this book changed your life? How so?

Great question, Pat!  Yes, this book has changed my life enormously.  This book has been a wonderful experience.  I’ve been a journalist, speechwriter, and public relations executive for more than three decades.  But since high school, when I enjoyed writing short stories and dramas, I’ve always thought I had a novel or two in me.  That is not to say that I had not harbored doubts; every writer, at least those who tell the truth, surely questions whether he or she possesses the discipline, creativity and powers of observation to put pen to page.  While Upcountry has become a literary (if not financial) success, to date, it has been hugely satisfying to me, and has inspired me to continue in my craft.

How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?

I grew up in a small town in northern Ontario and can recall so many colorful characters.  But for the past six years, my wife and I have owned a summer place in upstate New York, where I came to meet even more people and experience some interesting things.  In addition, I have always been enormously interested in the US presidency, and American politics as well.  That is why I made my main character, Jane Schumacher, an important political figure with an interesting job.  Her life is hectic and challenging but I liked developing the contrast from her position on the world stage and the story that develops in ‘upcountry’ New York.

What’s your writing schedule like? Do you strive for a certain amount of words each day?

Once I’ve finalized the outline for a project, and begin writing, I start work at dawn, or sometimes before if I feel energized, and work till around noon.  I don’t set goals, in terms of words produced daily, but I usually can produce anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 a day, seven days a week.  But the real work is not in the first draft; it’s the fifty to sixty drafts that follow!

What are you working on right now?

As a result of the characters and story we created in Upcountry, I’ve discovered that I like these people, and am interested in what happens to some of them.  So, while I’m not developing a sequel, per se, I am putting together an outline for what I’d call a follow-up to Upcountry.  I want to bring back a number of characters, in their current roles, and new roles as well.  The story will be set in my fictional town of Morgantown, in the shadows of the Adirondack Mountains.  If Upcountry’s theme was spousal and parental abuse, my new work will center on prejudice and bigotry, and how my characters work to overcome these unfortunate aspects of everyday life.  

Does writing come easy for you?

If any writer answers this question in the positive, then I don’t think he or she is telling the truth, or is very good at it.  I consider myself to be a prolific writer, and can put together ideas and thoughts reasonably easy, and a first draft usually comes on schedule.  But the essence of good writing is constant self-reflection.  Is it good enough?  Can it be better?  Those are the questions I try to ask myself daily.

What writer influenced you the most?

A pair of great writers, in fact.  John Updike, who was a master of the human condition, and one who could make very ordinary characters become so interesting and compelling, was a hero to me.  And John Irving, who is likely one of the quirkiest writers on the planet today, is a superb storyteller.  Now, not all of their novels worked for me, but Updike’s five novels about Rabbit Angstrom and his seemingly pathetic life in southwestern Pennsylvania were exercises in fine fiction.  He won a Pulitzer, but should have won a Nobel.  Irving’s novels, from his first big book, The World According to Garp, to his latest, Last Night in Twisted River, are at once hilarious and tragic—and his work is magnificent.  I’m never going to be compared to those men, and my work is not at all like theirs, but I do admire them.

What advice you would give to an aspiring author?

Every time I’m asked that question, I’m reminded of my son’s high school graduation ceremony.  It’s a good little story.  As all of the kids trooped on stage for their diplomas, the master of ceremonies had something personal to say about each recipient.   When it came to one young man’s turn, the MC said, “And Chris…would like to write a book one day.”  A not uncommon but very laudable goal for some smart, aspiring writers.  But in this kid’s case, it was altogether unbelievable, since a parent behind me quipped, “Well, he’s gonna have to READ one first!”  All of this to say to writers young and old, the best advice I can give is to READ and read a lot.  Not only good fiction and non-fiction, but some of the better manuals on the art of writing.  And I’d add a caveat to that.  With texting, Twitter and assorted other media out there, it’s all too easy to dumb down the English language.  So, my advice to all writers: read quality.

Where can people learn more about your books?

My website contains a great deal of information on my book and my career.  www.upcountry-the-novel.com  or check out Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords.com, indiereader.com and many others. 

Thank you.

See also:
Interview with Jane Schumacher, Hero of Upcountry by R. M. Doyon
Excerpt from Upcountry by R. M. Doyon 

Jane Schumacher, Hero of Upcountry by R.M. Doyon

Who are you and what is your story?

My name is Jane Schumacher and I’m the press secretary to the governor of New York, who is also the front runner for the US presidency.  I’m 39 years old, and my life is frenetic.  If you take a quick glance at the back cover of Upcountry, you’ll discover that my writer has described me as smart and spirited, but that is only his euphemisms for sarcastic and often profane.  My clear mission is to elect Gov. Wendell Foley the next president of the United States.  Not much will stand in my way, apparently, until, of course I get some news…

Where do you live?

I have a condo in Albany, New York but my life has been one continuous road trip for the past couple of years.  Me and my suitcase are good friends.  I do get to spend a good deal of time in New York City, because my boss has an office there.  New York is also a handy place to hang my hat since I know an Argentine immigrant who happens to be a Wall Street lawyer, who also happens to be my lover.

Are you the hero of your own story?

If that’s what you can call it, since my story begins early on Thanksgiving morning.   That is when I awake with a bitchin’ hangover as a result of some pretty crappy news that I received the night before.  That is when I decide to change my Thanksgiving plans with Roberto, my Latin lover, and return to Morgantown, a forgotten little hamlet in the shadows of the Adirondacks, where I grew up.  I haven’t spoken to any of my so-called family, and figure it’s time.

What is your problem in the story?

Where do I start?  Well, to begin with, as I say, I learn that I have a very serious illness and one that has sidetracked my career ambitions.  As you will learn, I also had a very troubled upbringing in Morgantown, and one that caused me to abandon my life there when I was eighteen—to live on my own and fend for myself.

How does the author see you?

From what I’ve read, he (and it is a ‘he’, surprisingly) sees me as a strong woman with a singular goal in mind.  He considers me a tough woman in a man’s world, and that is not only flattering but true.  But he has also figured me out.  My haunted past.  My inability to commit to any one man, and indeed a woman who feels the need to hold the power in a relationship.  Doyon is certainly correct in describing my overwhelming desire for a career instead of a personal life.

Do you think the author portrayed you accurately?

Absolutely.  No one gets inside my head better than Doyon, whoever the hell he is!

What do you think of yourself?

Oh, I think pretty highly of myself, judging from the sarcasm that regularly comes tumbling from my mouth.  But I do think I’m smart, perhaps even shrewd in the political job I hold.  So far, I’ve been able to shepherd Foley towards the presidency.  But I don’t hold back any contempt I might have for many different people or groups of people, such as politicians, reporters, hypocrites, and assorted other lowlifes.  As a political operative, it’s a continuous game between myself and those who might stop me in pursuing my dream of electing Foley president.  Of course, all that seems to go to hell when I decide, abruptly, to return to Morgantown on an icy, frozen Thanksgiving Day.  That is when it becomes evident that I am also vulnerable, impulsive, and quick to action.  Readers soon begin to believe that I might, just might, have a very large chip on my shoulder.  They might also discover that I might not have much to lose, particularly when I’m faced with my past—and a very violent present.

Do you have a goal?

If you had asked me that on the day before Thanksgiving, my answer would have been clear; it was to ensure Wendell wins the Democratic nomination and then the general election.  But all that changed, and now my goals—plural—have changed abruptly.  In short order, I come to believe that I have to make amends with my totally dysfunctional family, and set out on another critical mission, one that has troubled me all my life.

What was your childhood like?

My fraternal twin sister, Joanne and I, grew up in a small, upstate New York town under the guidance of a mother, who was a shrew, and a father who never demonstrated any backbone.  Donna—she was my mother, I can’t remember calling her ‘mom’ much—was a dominating, controlling and unhappy woman who got herself pregnant with twins at the age of 20, and was forced to abandon her dreams of becoming a doctor.  She always seemed to take her anger out on me, because I was always a pain in the ass, and with my father for ostensibly ruining her life.  Though she’s my twin, Joanne is my polar opposite.  As a kid, she never rocked the boat and was never the object of my mother’s scorn.  I don’t know why Donna never launched tirades against Jo, however.  Yes, I had made my share of mistakes, and was a rebellious teenager.  But my sister was not immune to bad decisions either—the biggest goddamn one being her choice of Denny, her husband!

What do you remember most of your childhood?

I try not to remember most of the shitty details, except the day of the last big fight I had with Donna.  I was 18 and she said some things about me that I would never forgive.  That was when I packed up my old Datsun, and all of my tip money from a summer job on the golf course, and departed Morgantown.  That I turned left instead of right that day determined what I later became, since I landed in Lake Placid and found a job that decided the course of the rest of my life.

Who was your first love?

My first love was a fleet running back for the Morgantown Marauders named Brian Boychuk.  He was the guy in the hall at high school who kept eying me up and down—for weeks—before summoning up the courage to come over to my locker.  After quarterback Josh Callaghan, ‘Chucky’ was the best looking guy in school.  We had a good thing going right up to, and shortly after, graduation from high school.  That was until…well, I really don’t want to talk about what happened that summer.  But suffice it to say that I’d had enough of Morgantown and all the assholes that inhabited the place.  When poor old Chuck announced that he was staying in Morgantown to become a cop—man, he was a good-lookin’ rook!—well, that wasn’t in the cards for me.   Brian always thought his decision was the deal-breaker between us, but it wasn’t.  But I’m not in the mood to talk about why I broke up with him and why I got the hell outta Dodge…

Sounds like you have something in your past that you’d like to forget.  What was it?

I’m not falling for that!  Besides, everyone has secrets, don’t they?  But I guess I can say that I spent my entire adult life trying to forget about Donna, and how she treated me.  I didn’t need family.  I was quite happy on my own for twenty years, or at least I thought I was.

What changed your mind about your family?  What made you go home after so many years?

Well, let’s say that one particular event changed everything in my life.  It was Thanksgiving, the most over-rated holiday of holidays in my opinion, and I woke up that morning in Albany with a horrific hangover.  I couldn’t remember what the hell happened the night before, even though the evidence was right in front of me.  A half-empty bottle of scotch.  My briefcase was on the floor and all its contents spewed all over.  That was when I began rifling through my mail and found yet another card from my father, wishing me a happy holiday.  No other message.  Just ‘Dad’, it read.  He never forgot a holiday.  Well, he was a retired postmaster and liked to send letters.  But right then and there I decided to change my plans and head back to Morgantown.  Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe to make up for lost time, make amends with a family I really didn’t know?  Who knows?  I just packed up my car and headed north.  A gunmetal gray Mercedes, by the way.

What happened when you arrived in Morgantown?

Jesus Christ, where do I start?   When I arrived in town only to suffer a flashback about my fight with Donna, some twenty years before?  Or when the first person I run into is Chucky, outside my father’s garage?  Or my reunion with the dad who never really was a dad?  How about my first glimpse of Denny, Joanne’s asshole husband?  All of the above?  Okay, so I invited myself to Thanksgiving dinner at Jo’s house, which was a nerve-wracking and uneasy affair.  But all that served was to jar a memory in my head about just how bad a choice in husband Denny was for my sister.  Denny was her high-school sweetheart—fuck, I hate that phrase!—but I guess that’s an accurate way of putting it.   Like Brian, he was a great football player in high school, but an injury prevented him from pursuing a sports career.  Of course, he resented this all his life, since he ended up owning a septic tank cleaning business.  Which was appropriate, I suppose, because Denny was always a total shit-head!  Well, our Thanksgiving dinner went from bad to awful as Denny hurled one insult after another at me, and at my boyfriend, Roberto, the Argentinean lawyer I told you about in New York.  “Just what the city needs,” Denny said.  “Another spic lawyer!”  I decided that enough was enough, and stormed out.  But on the way out the door, Joanne caught up with me.  That was when I noticed a few bruises on her neck.  Instantly, I knew what was going on, and I confronted her about it…and, well, you can figure out the rest of our conversation.

Was this a defining moment of your life?

It certainly set the stage for a defining moment, because an hour or so later, as I was contemplating my departure from Morgantown, I heard a commotion coming from Jo’s house.  And sure enough, it was Denny beating the hell out of my sister.  That was when I decided to put a stop to it, and I guess that was when all hell broke loose, and the next thing I knew I was packing up my stuff and heading to my car.  I was about to leave when Joanne pulled up in her SUV and declared she was coming too.  Of course, I had no idea where the hell I was going, and tried to talk her out of it, but she was determined to join me.  And so off we went.

What, if anything, haunts you?

How much time do you have?  I mean, really, that is a loaded question, and I’d have to warn you that I have a number of loaded answers!

I have all the time in the world.  How do you answer that question?

Well, you remember me saying that I had one helluva brawl with Donna when I was about eighteen?  Well, that fight was the result of her blaming me for everything that went wrong in her life, and really never being a mother to me—when I needed her the most.  That’s the first haunting I’ve had.  I could hear her damning voice all my life, blaming me for my bad decisions—even after she died of cancer at the age of fifty, some eight years ago.   Of course, over the years, I had attempted to hide my anger at her by staying away.  But the events of that summer have haunted me ever since, and that’s perhaps why I’ve treated some people very badly, including Roberto, who is probably the best man I’ve known in my life.  He’s always wanted more from me than I’ve been prepared to give.  I liked having him in my life—he’s the hottest Republican I know!—but my single goal has always been to elect Wendell Foley president, and nothing was going to stand in my way.  That, of course, was until Thanksgiving, and the news I received the night before from my doctor.  Everything changed after that…

Are you healthy?

No, and that’s the reason I decided to go home.  But after that disastrous dinner at my sister’s house, and after we hit the road, my health almost became irrelevant.  Immediately, I had a new mission in my life, and that was to…well, you’ll have to read Upcountry to get the full story.   But the events surrounding Thanksgiving enabled my sister and I to venture out on a journey together that defined us as siblings.  No longer were we estranged from each other.  Yes, we argued and fought.  But we smiled and loved.

Is there anything else about your story that you’d like to tell?

If I had one message to convey, it is one of redemption and rebirth.  That family is ultimately what keeps all of us altogether. 

How do you envision your future?

That’s a tough one.  For a good part of Upcountry, I guess I only envisioned myself in the present tense.  But if I have a future, it is in the minds of a few people whom I’ve loved, and who love me.  That’s what my story is all about.

Click here to find out more about: Upcountry

Read an excerpt here:  Upcountry by R. M. Doyon