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This blog was featured on 11/27/2019
An Exclusive Interview with Deborah Tobola
Written by
She Writes
June 2019
Written by
She Writes
June 2019

She writes got the chance to sit down with Deborah Tobola, author of Hummingbird in Underworld: Teaching in a Men’s Prison, A Memoir. Get to know her style, her routine and the way she supports other women writers.

Share your writing routine.

I really don’t have a routine. I tend to write in intense bursts. When I was working on my book, I’d set aside two days with as few interruptions as possible to draft a chapter. That said, I write every day (but not necessarily creative writing).

What’s the first/worst job you ever had?

First job: tutor in an elementary summer school program. I was 15 and I loved it. I got hired again the next summer and would have kept going but federal funding was cut. Worst job: selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in Fresno (not really my job—I was just trying to help my father).

Describe your writing style in three words.

Poetic. Direct. Spare.

What is the first thing you can remember writing?

A Mother’s Day poem. I think I was seven. It went: “I’ve loved you since/I was a moppet/Now that I’m older/I find I just can’t stop it.”

When did you start to feel like a writer?

I always wanted to be a writer but didn’t realize I could be a writer until I read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. That decided me, in elementary school.

Was there something about the publishing experience that surprised you?

It is very complex. I’m grateful to be with She Writes Press, just named the 2019 Indie Publisher of the Year! Brooke Warner and her team at She Writes are changing the world of publishing.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Read the best literature you can find. Create a sacred writing space. Share your work with others. Don’t be afraid to revise: the art of writing is the art of rewriting.

What do you do to help develop your craft?

I read the best authors I can find. I teach, which involves listening deeply, always a good practice for writers. I’m not afraid to try something new in my writing—I’m not afraid of failure (because the art of writing is the art of rewriting!).

Why is it important for women to share their stories?

For so long we have been largely missing the stories of half of humanity. It is painful to think about it. Bill Wolfe, who hosts the “Read Her Like An Open Book” blog, explains why the site exclusively examines work by women: “I have always been more interested in realistic fiction that addresses the human condition and relationships than in the genre fiction most men read (thrillers, mysteries, military strategy, sci-fi, fantasy, etc.) . . . They’re missing a wealth of great fiction.” I agree with him—but would add non-fiction too!

What’s your favorite way to support other women writers?

Buy their books. Attend readings and book signings. Recommend them to others. I’m one of those people who sends really good books to friends and relatives who I think will connect. In fact, I recently sent my cousin Dee a book for her birthday and the vendor forgot to attach the gift card. She emailed to ask if it was from me, adding, “I am sure it must have been . . . the stories have won awards and acclaim.” That book, by the way, is A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin.

Deborah Tobola is a poet, playwright, and coauthor of a children’s book. Her work has earned four Pushcart Prize nominations, three Academy of American Poets awards, and a Children’s Choice Book Award. She earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Arizona in 1990 and has worked as a journalist, legislative aide, and adjunct English faculty member. After teaching creative writing in California prisons, she became the Institution Artist Facilitator at the California Men’s Colony. Her students won writing awards, published their work, and appeared on local and national radio. Tobola retired at the end of 2008 to begin Poetic Justice Project, the country’s first theatre company for formerly incarcerated actors. She teaches creative writing and theatre at the California Men’s Colony and serves as artistic director of Poetic Justice Project. She likes reading, gardening, traveling and spending time with her family and friends.

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