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Julia Lauer-Chéenne

Julia Lauer-Chéenne was born in Kansas and grew up in Iowa.cheenne_photo_web.jpg In 1974 she graduated from the University of Iowa with a B.A. in French, joined the Peace Corps and headed off to the Ivory Coast, Africa for two years. Her life was never the same. One journey led to another and before she knew it that "worthless" degree in foreign language had opened many magical doors including a job in France and a French husband to go with it. Her life has taken many twists and turns but the main threads may be summarized as a series of degrees and work experience: a paralegal degree in l976, a Masters followed by a Ph.D. in Modern Languages and Literature from the University of Nebraska in 1991, over thirty years of teaching English as a second language in colleges in Chicago and Lincoln, Nebraska as well as over 20 years of artistic endeavors as a professional photographer and mixed media artist. She loves language, literature, reading, and writing; "I love traveling, adventure, and exploration. Art pulls these passions together, allowing my imagination to reinvent, revisit, and reestablish my role and my vision as teacher and artist." Visit her online at http://jlauer-cheenne.com and http://www.communitypresshome.com/julia_lauer_cheenne.html



"SOUVENIRS is well developed and elegantly written. Memorable characters, setting, culture and history make this book one of the most unique of the year.A very good read." AuthorsPressReleases.com


PAGEONELIT.COM Where did you grow up? Were reading and writing a part of your life?  Who were your earliest influences and why?

Julia Lauer-Cheenne: I grew up in the l960’s in Tipton, Iowa, a small county seat near Iowa City. I come from a large family and reading was entertainment in our home. We read stories to each other and to ourselves. We didn’t watch much television. In addition, there was a grand public library in Tipton, a beautiful historical building sedately located in a landscaped square. This was a refuge, a haven on Saturday afternoons. I would leaf through teen glamour magazines (forbidden at home), browse the book shelves, and spend several hours in peace before checking out some books and walking home.

I was the only girl in a family of boys and had my own room filled with dolls and toys where I spent hours creating fantasy worlds. In school I excelled in English classes and was recognized for my ability to write stories and poems. 

I remember reading “David Copperfield” when I was in 6th grade, for the challenge of plowing through a big volume. In my earlier years I read popular books such as Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, the Donna Parker series, and American Girl magazines. Fairy tales were my favorites for a long time, initially because of their magic, and mystery, but as I grew older because of their symbolism, imagery, and complexity. I have always enjoyed good love stories and Gone with the Wind enthralled me as a teen. Much later I discovered The Lover  by Marguerite Duras which was a turning point in my studies and became the focus of my doctorial dissertation. This book was of great inspiration to me as I revised Souvenirs because of Duras’s use of tropical imagery and a fragmented point of view to tell a story of forbidden love.



PAGEONELIT.COM Why do you write? 

Julia Lauer-Cheenne: I write for different reasons, depending on circumstances. Most often it is because I feel compelled to tell a story. This is certainly the case with Souvenirs. My goal is to create a world so vivid that the reader becomes immersed and forgets all else. I also write because it is a pleasure and a therapy for working out other problems. Writing is also a habit, an activity that has become part of my daily routine, similar to working out at the gym.



PAGEONELIT.COM Your new book, Souvenirs, takes place in Africa and is a look into Kwassi’s culture. How did you research for this story?

Julia Lauer-Cheenne:  I’ve been working on Souvenirs for about twenty-five years. The book began with journal entries of my experiences in the Ivory Coast during the mid seventies. I wrote scenes, descriptions, and characters but there was no plot. As I continued my graduate studies, I examined how authors used imagery to advance a storyline. I went back to information collected from my Peace Corps days and read about different tribal cultures, ceremonies, and belief systems in the Ivory Coast. I began to think about how this could help me describe the environment of Souvenirs in a more significant way. I also took several screen writing classes at Columbia College in Chicago and  actually rewrote Souvenirs as a screen play. At  that point I created the subplot concerning the conflict between the two tribes, using some of the information I had found in my earlier research.  After the classes were over, I converted the play back into a novel and Souvenirs became a much tighter narrative that closely resembles the present text.



PAGEONELIT.COM What is the game of  Mankala? How do you play? Have you ever played mankala?

Julia Lauer-Cheenne: Mankala (also spelled “mancala”) is an African stone game of strategy that was played in Egypt over 3,000 years ago. The board is composed of two rows of six holes each. Three stones are placed in each of the twelve holes and each player has a “mankala” or “store” to the right side of the board. The objective is to accumulate as many stones as possible before one of the players clears his side of all stones. The game begins with one player picking up all of the stones in any one of the holes on his side and moving counter clockwise depositing one of the stones in each hole until the stones run out. If a player places his last stone in his own mankala he gets another turn.  If the last stone is placed in an empty hole on his side of the board he captures all of the stones in his opponent’s hole directly across.  All captured stones plus the capturing stone are placed in his mankala. Once a player touches the stones he must play them. Players cannot touch stones to count them. The game ends when one of the players depletes the stones in his small holes. When this occurs, the other player who still has stones on his side of the board captures all of those pieces. The player with the most captured stones wins.

I have played mankala, but I’m not good at it, nor any other board game for that matter. The only game I consistently win is dominoes.



PAGEONELIT.COM I understand you were in the Peace Corps like your main character Ruth in Souvenirs.  How much of the author can we see in Ruth?

Julia Lauer-Cheenne: That’s a tough one to answer! I’m not sure how much we share in terms of personality. I used to jog so that aspect of Ruth I can relate to and I love water. Some of my teaching experiences in Africa were used to create Ruth’s reactions in the classroom and my memories of heat, fatigue, boredom, and frustration also become part of Ruth’s life in Souvenirs. I think Ruth reacts to African life in a different way than I did, however.  I see her as a more innocent, trusting, and carefree person than I. She is willing to take chances and is not materialistic in any real sense, although she guards her privacy. She’s rather timid yet clever, and when she decides to act she gets results. I love music and dancing so certainly I am like Ruth in this way, although I was not a music major.  I visualize Ruth as a woman who is willing to embrace a new life without looking back, swept away by emotion with little thought of what the future may hold. After the Peace Corps in l976 I returned to my family in Nebraska. A year later I decided to go to France to join a man with whom I had fallen in love. We didn’t know each other very well, and neither one of us had a steady job or income, nor did we have a  plan for our life together. We got married, made ends meet, overcame cultural differences, and are still together. Perhaps Ruth would have done the same.



PAGEONELIT.COM Please explain your title Souvenirs as it relates to the plot and development of the book.

Julia Lauer-Cheenne:  The word “souvenirs” means memories in French, and “souvenir” is the verb “to remember”.  From the book’s first inception Souvenirs was the title. I chose it because as I mentioned earlier the book began as a recollection of different people, incidents, and dreams from my Peace Corps service in the Ivory Coast. The structure of the book was originally fragmented similar to an album of snapshot memories. These short paragraphs were like the souvenirs, mementos, and trinkets I had acquired in the Ivory Coast because they were evidence of that special time in my life. As author I struggled to bring these words to life as a story, just as Ruth acquires experiences that will become memories more precious than the physical souvenirs she buys. The book plays with the ideas of remembering and forgetting, acquiring and losing possessions. The structure has retained some of the fragmented quality of recollection as indicated by the blank spaces between paragraph and chapter breaks. Although it is a work of fiction, the narrative has largely replaced what happened to me “in real life”, becoming the most authentic expression and “souvenir” of my days as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Ivory Coast.



PAGEONELIT.COM What do you feel the two main characters Ruth and Kwassi learned about each others’ culture that is significant to the book’s plot and theme?

Julia Lauer-Cheenne: Perhaps more than anything they learn that love can’t always bridge cultural differences. As the book progresses, Ruth becomes more familiar with the fundamentals of social etiquette in her new world. She also catches on to the role of small bribes and the value of knowing the right people in the right places. She learns not to be so judgmental and accepts the fact that life has a different logic in the Ivory Coast. But she remains an outsider, clearly in the minority and recognizes that she will never understand much of Ivorian life because of its tribal nature, secret to foreigners. Kwassi’s eyes are more open than Ruth’s from the beginning because he knows his tribal heritage imposes restrictions upon him. He has traveled and studied in Europe and is more knowledgeable about Ruth’s culture than she is with his. He wants to share what he can with her, even though he knows their love is doomed. Kwassi discovers that it is possible to love Ruth, even though he doesn’t accept many Western cultural norms. Ruth appreciates the music, stories, and beliefs that Kwassi introduces to her. She is genuinely touched and wishes she could find out more. But in the end, there are too many obstacles due to cultural differences and misconceptions that prevent their love from becoming a permanent relationship.



PAGEONELIT.COM What do you hope readers will learn and take with them after reading Souvenirs?

Julia Lauer-Cheenne: Souvenirs is about traveling to unknown territory and I hope readers will experience an unforgettable journey of discovery. I hope this adventure is outward as represented by the Ivorian environment and inward, as the story invites readers to explore how it feels to be a stranger, break taboos, and take risks when nothing is predictable.




Julia Lauer-Cheenne: I’ve been working on a number of writing projects. One of them, A Fashion Diary, is a journal about living in Paris and interviewing young fashion designers. This is a mix of haute couture  research and personal anecdotes that eventually become  interwoven stories. Another project, Space Wars, is a story about remodeling and renovating homes, moving into new environments, and what happens when living space is threatened by neighbors, incompetent contractors and builders, and bad luck..



PAGEONELIT.COM What was the last book you read?

Julia Lauer-Cheenne: I usually read several books at once. I’ve just finished Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald  and Casino Royale by Ian Fleming as well as excerpts from In Praise of Flattery by Willis Regier.



 PAGEONELIT.COM Do you have any hobbies?  What are they?  How do they enhance your writing?

Julia Lauer-Cheenne:  As a visual artist I am concerned with color and composition. I do some photography but consider myself primarily a mixed media artist with emphasis on collage. I spend hours in my studio painting, cutting and gluing which reminds me of the hours I spent playing in my room as a child.  This type of activity enters my writing most obviously through my descriptions. I begin my writing projects through the setting. Once I get a good sense of place, my characters are born and begin to move in that space. But I never know what will happen to them and plotting a narrative has never been an easy task for me. I think I have a fine sense of visual detail although I prefer to concentrate on  a few pertinent traits rather than write lengthy descriptions. Above all, I think imagery is highly suggestive and an effective means of communicating mood and emotion.

I am also a musical person. I studied piano for a number of years and grew up singing in choral groups in church and school. These days I spend more time listening to music instead of singing or playing it, although I do my share of dancing whenever I can. I think good writing has a musical quality to it, a rhythm that flows from one sentence to the next. I strive to develop a cadence that lures the reader into the story.

I love fashion design, textiles, clothes!  I am interested in how identity and clothing interact, and the role of adornment in women’s lives. I’m working on a project that includes this theme.

I practice a number of sports such as skiing, swimming, hiking, yoga, and biking. I enjoy gardening, bird watching, and nature in all its variety.  I use these activities throughout the day as a way to clear my mind and keep my outlook fresh. I also love traveling and visiting the world gives me great inspiration.  My favorite cities are Amsterdam, Paris, Barcelona, New York City, and Honolulu, potential settings for future stories.



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