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Inkblots and Introspection: An Interview with Deborah Partington, author of Telling Shadows

Partington 1

A museum art school registrar, a technical writer and editor, and a professional calligrapher and lettering-arts instructor, I am now a writer and clinical psychologist in Phoenix, Arizona, my home for the past thirty-two years. I moved from New England to Arizona to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. I then went on to earn a PsyD in Clinical Psychology from the Arizona School of Professional Psychology. I also have an MA from Goddard College, where I explored calligraphy and literature, culminating in a calligraphic exploration of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. Telling Stories, published in 2016, is my first novel-length book. Telling Shadows, my second novel, was published by Atmosphere Press in 2022. I am currently working on the third novel in the series, Telling Secrets, as well as a series of personal essays. When I am not writing or managing my private practice, I’m likely to be traveling to some distant land or enjoying the Phoenix Zoo and the Desert Botanical Gardens. Of course, my current BFF, Sam, a rescue cat, demands much attention.

My other publications include several art exhibit reviews in Art New England in the 1980s. More recently I have written several articles on psychology for the Az Psychologist. Fiction, however, is my passion. Many years ago, I had a short story, Thumbprint, published in Lullwater Review. While a graduate student at ASU, I was fiction editor and subsequently contributing editor for Hayden’s Ferry, ASU’s literary journal.

You can buy Telling Shadows here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

Tell us the story of your book’s title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

Titles, to me, reflect the theme of the novel. I arrive at a title only after I am thoroughly familiar with the book, usually not before the third draft and after I have arrived at the format of the novel. Each of my books relies on a different format. Telling Stories is a collection of interconnected short stories that are told to a therapist by his patient as she explores her inner life. Telling Shadows is a woman’s personal journal as she explores her struggles with what is real and what is shadow. I played around with titles such as “Jacki’s Journal.” Such titles struck me as bland.

Because both books share characters, I could not let go of the feeling that “Telling” should be in the title. “Telling Ink Blots” simply did not capture the flavor; the ink blots were not the focus of the writing. The focus was the narrator’s encounter with the ink blots. At some point, the title Telling Shadows clicked. “Telling” works as it suggests both expressing and revealing. “Shadows” resonated because light is necessary for shadows. Jacki, the narrator, drifts in and out of light and shadow.

How did it feel when you first saw your book cover? Or when you first held your book in your hands?

Holding a book in one’s hands evokes an array of mixed feelings, at least for me.

First, there is the delight that something I have written and rewritten, a project I nurtured from conception (how to write a book incorporating the Rorschach ink blots) to completion (the published novel), a task occupying my time for nearly half a decade, is now on its own. The cover completes the project. It is out of my hands. No more fussing over punctuation and word choice.

Hot on the heels of delight and satisfaction, something akin to a mild depression sets in, accompanied by the thoughts that just maybe had I spent more time, I could have improved the book, maybe changed a turn of phrase, added a detail of setting. Nervously I flipped through the pages hoping that no glaring typos taunted me from the printed page.

I expect these feelings are true for many writers. I embrace this part of the process. They urge me to get back to the next book already in progress.

In each published novel I see ways to improve the next.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

A complex question! Why does one want to write anyway given the myriad of activities one could be doing? Teams of editors, family members, and friends offer encouragement—however, writing itself is typically a very solitary undertaking. It seems to be the general answer that one writes because one has something to say. For a writer, writing is the best—if not only—way to express oneself. Painters paint. Sculptors sculpt. Writers write.

Writing mentors have suggested that my short stories were connected. During my doctoral program in psychology, I became acquainted with the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT) based on the “projective hypothesis”: when confronted with ambiguous stimuli, one will project onto it his or her own thoughts, needs, feelings, etc., all of which may be unconscious. When a psychologist administers the TAT, she shows the patient a series of pictures to which the patient must create a story. This notion clicked for me as someone whose writing involved individuals confronting themselves. Hence, I adopted the TAT as the basis for Telling Stories.

I had in my mind to use three separate forms of stimuli for a set of works. The Rorschach inkblot test (also studied during my doctoral program) provided the basis for the second book, Telling Shadows, published by Atmosphere Press. In this book, the narrator, Jacki, comes across her husband’s (a psychologist) Rorschach notes of a patient. As the story unfolds, Jacki projects on the patient’s projections her own needs, feelings, etc.

Both of these influences provided me with different ways of exploring the psyche. Telling Stories replies on a multitude of perspectives and the complexity. Telling Shadows is in essence only one person’s confrontation with herself as she reacts to events.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

In addition to jobs listed in my bio, I have also been a model for studio art classes.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

Italo Calvino states in Invisible Cities (translated by William Weaver) that “It is not the voice that commands the story. It is the ear.” Each reader will take away from the writing what resonates most with them. Writers create narratives through words that form sentences, paragraphs, and chapters to shape a finished product, a novel. Readers bring to the novel their own feelings, thoughts, and experiences that will influence how they understand the writing. Thus, reading is an intersubjective experience between reader and writer, which is the takeaway in Telling Shadows.

What new writing projects are you currently working on? Or, other projects that are not writing?

I am currently working on two separate projects. First, I am completing the third book in the Telling series. This projected title is Telling Secrets. It is an epistolary novel of letters and emails using the Tarot deck as its basis. Readers will see many characters from the two previous books. The other project I am working on is a series of personal essays that address the issue of why I entered a doctoral program in clinical psychology in my mid-forties.

How was working with Atmosphere Press? What would you tell other writers who want to publish?

I heard of Atmosphere Press through a friend, who also used the press to publish her novel. After talking with Kyle McCord, I felt that my book would be handled with respect. When I entered my MFA program in 1991, the publishing world looked very different than it does today. There were more traditional publishers who were willing to take risks with unknown authors and writers whose work may not appeal to a mass market. Not so much today. My experience with Atmosphere Press is that it fills that niche for writers of literary fiction who may not be well known or have mass market appeal. Atmosphere Press takes literature seriously. For this reason, I recommend Atmosphere Press to writers who are seeking a publishing team that respects the effort and love that goes into completing a manuscript. I felt that the entire staff worked with me to produce a finished product. I have enjoyed being connected with other writers who have published with Atmosphere Press.

You can buy Telling Shadows here.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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