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An Interview with Rayshell Clapper, author of The Prices We Pay

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Rayshell E. Clapper lives and loves in Martinez, CA, where she spends her time with words as a writer and a Professor of English at Diablo Valley College. She began her teaching career in 2002 and has found her dream job at DVC. She’s deeply involved with the literary community of her campus bringing authors to read, hosting the biannual Literature Week, and planning mini-workshops for creative writers. She loves teaching about the power of words, helping students tap into that power, and spreading her enthusiasm for writing and reading.

At the tender age of four she wrote her first story about a duck and an elephant, which her mother still has. She was hooked and has written since then. She earned her Master of Arts from the University of Oklahoma concentrating in Creative Writing (theory and craft) and American Literature. She then earned a Master of Education from East Central University in English Education. In 2019, she completed her Master of Fine Arts from the Red Earth MFA program at Oklahoma City University. Her manuscript of short stories includes fables, fairy tales, fantasy, and mainstream literature. But truly, all her work has a little bit of mythology and the faerie, even that which is based in reality. She’s been published in several virtual journals including Dragon Poet Review, CyberSole, Sugar Mule, redOrbit, and Steam Register. She’s most honored to have Finishing Line Press publish her chapbook collection of fables.

Mythology and fairy tales are her passion. When not reading for her job, she spends most of her time in these worlds, reading classical myths and fairy tales as well as modern re-envisionings. These are her favorites. She is a folklorist.

Beyond words, she draws inspiration from spending her time outdoors: hiking, camping, gardening, and exploring. She grounds herself in Nature and the earth. She credits this to her Virgo sun. Nothing will calm her more than walking in nature or digging in the dirt. And her plants bring her such peace and joy.

She’s blessed with two dogs—Leeli and Corsi—and one humongous cat—Big Ben. Together they provide each other much love and therapy. She’s also blessed with a partner who loves her (and puts up with her fussiness) and provides support and space for her to grow.

The most important thing in the world to Rayshell is love. She loves deep and eternal. Her partner, her friends, her family, and her plants and pets inspire her to grow and be her best self to love and support them.

When not loving words, Nature, pets, or her people, Rayshell can be found learning something new. Everything is an opportunity, and she grabs onto those as often as she can.

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

Oh, this is so easy albeit cliche. My parents were my first inspiration, and my continual one. It all started with them. They read to me all the time when I was a kidlet. I say every day, because that’s how I remember it, but I’m sure life did its life thing, and they missed days. But my most vivid memories as a child, and some of my first memories, are of reading with them. And then it blossomed into them sharing books with me to read on my own, and we’d talk about them, analyzing and interpreting and understanding them together. It was heaven.

When I was five, my dad started reading The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings with me. I was transfixed with the magic. I felt like I was Bilbo and Frodo. Gandalf was my dad. I wanted to sit and drink tea with Treebeard. And Sméagol is one of my all-time favorite characters. But I most powerfully connected with Arwen and Eowyn. I so badly wanted to be an elf (still do, but I’m a full-grown adult now so know that’s not a thing) like Arwen: delicate and graceful but powerful. However, Eowyn’s strength and resolve inspired me. I loved that her protection and love saved all. It was through this that she was able to defeat the King of Angmar, the king of the ring-wraiths. And that allowed Frodo and everyone else to do what needed to be done. She’s the heroine. I remember how my dad would get lost with me in the story and how afterwards we’d talk and digest it. And this became our thing. We’d read and talk and share. It was the most important experience. And such a gift. From there, I knew that writing fantasy was something I wanted to do. This also started a lifelong journey of rereading these books. I can safely say that I’ve read them (either in print or audio book) hundreds of times, and each time I notice something new and feel the connection to my dad. What a treasure.

I wrote my first story about a duck and an elephant as a gift for my mom. I don’t actually remember the story (though I know she still has it). But I remember the feeling of creating a world and characters and the calm that came over my tiny hands. I was only four, so it was a basic story, but I remember the buzz I got from making art with words. I wanted to always feel that. And, so far, I have. My mom took my gift and never stopped supporting me. As I wrote, she’d always cheer me on, tell me that it was my gift to the world. And she had to read some awful, angsty poetry and silly short stories over the years. But once I started finding my voice and writing more and more, she never stopped supporting me. She’s my biggest fan.

Because of my parents, I love words. Because of my parents, I keep writing. Because of my parents, I feel safe to experiment. Because of my parents, I feel loved in who and what I am. And though it’s cliche, I know, it’s also true. I never stopped writing because of them.

But there’s also the folklore. My parents read and told me fairy tales, fables, and myths basically from the womb. They wanted me to learn the lessons that folklore shares, sure, but they also wanted me to see magic all around me. They wanted me to love and honor animals, so we read fables and learned from their lessons (pivotal for my book, The Prices We Pay, and precisely why I wrote these stories). They wanted me to feel belief, so we jumped into myths from around the world, both traditionally like Greek and Roman myths, through sacred texts, and through stories like The Lord of the Rings where my dad and I would talk about the lore that Tolkien used. And they wanted me to see that miraculous things could happen, so we delved into fairy tales. This started me down the path of folklore, and all through my education and career, I have walked that labyrinth. I’m rooted as a folklorist today because my parents planted those seeds.

Today, I’m most struck by writers who re-envision folklore, whether by taking classic myths, fables, and fairy tales and rewriting them with a modern lens, or those who take the elements of folklore and create new myths, fairy tales, and fables. That’s what I am doing, or at least trying to do. The Prices We Pay is my kiss to fables, a collection that readers of any age can enjoy but also that has layers. I love that about folklore, the layers.

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

Almost my entire adult life, my career has been two pronged: writer and professor. I’m a tenured professor of English at Diablo Valley College in Pleasant Hill, California. It’s my dream job in an absolutely dreamy place. Before that, I was a tenured professor of English at Seminole State College in Seminole, Oklahoma. And before that I was an adjunct professor for the University of Oklahoma and East Central University. Basically, I graduated and began teaching. I didn’t originally know I wanted to teach. I wanted to write, and knew that I would find ways to do that, and I wanted to work with words and literature, but it was simply the Universe guiding me to becoming a professor. Though my nature is introverted, as soon as I taught my first class, I felt a settling in my bones. I could talk about words and help other people find their own power and magic with words as a career. I was hooked.

Teaching college English has been such a gift. To help others learn how to communicate their thoughts, feelings, and intellect with words and to show them how to critically think about what they read and then apply that to their lives is inspiring. Students teach me so much through these processes. I’m their guide, but they are the leaders. I love those moments when students just get something, whether it’s from something we’ve read or something they’ve written. I love when they bring in their own perspectives and experiences, and gift me with their lessons. I love the connection. Teaching college is the sweet spot, the best job in the world.

Through this, I also found leading literary and writing workshops for the community. Right now, I do these workshops at public libraries in my local communities. But I’ve done them at schools and events as well. Sometimes, they are writing groups, sometimes open mics, sometimes classes on how to write, and even workshops on publishing. These are my contribution to the literary community, ones that fill me with the buzz of creation and artistry and allow me to pay forward all I’ve learned and experienced. They are like an infinity symbol, both allowing me to share with others (and hopefully filling them with the good juju) and filling myself up with creative vibes.

As to something that readers wouldn’t know about me, well, at my core, all I really want to do is live in a hobbit hole and tend to my garden. Plants and the Earth are my life-forces. Tending to my house plants—caring for them and talking to them and watching them grow—brings me great joy and calm. It’s amazing to see life, like actually biological life, in action. And growing flowers and herbs in my garden is just the berries. The flowers feed my soul and the herbs my body. Most important, though, along with this comes the time in the Earth, connecting with Nature, basking in Her beauty and power and majesty. I feel most myself, most centered, when I’m tending to my plants or my garden. Part of this is because my pets—two dogs and a cat—help me, so to speak. Inside, they follow me around as I water and prune and tend to the house plants, sniffing and watching the plants. They view them as part of their pack, too. Adorable. When I’m outside working in the garden or weeding or whatever, they lie in the sun and watch me. It’s the trifecta of peace and joy: me, Nature, and my fur family.

The other thing that readers may not know is that I love deeply, fiercely, completely. My people, my plants, my fur loves, my job, my writing are all a part of me. Once I love them, I love them eternally. It never goes away. This, I think, inspired The Prices We Pay, a tribute to my love.

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

We all have a person, that someone in our lives who is special and precious and eternal. Throughout our lives, we may have several persons who fill us up like this in different ways. But there’s that one, the most. For me, the most was my dad. He died when I was 24. I was broken and lost and fading. I couldn’t imagine life without him. I didn’t want to. The grief was all-consuming, and if I’m honest, it still is today at times. His absence is palpable. I don’t think that all losses have this effect, but throughout our lives, we have at least one, and if we’re lucky more because that means we felt such love and connection that the loss takes a bit of us with them. It’s beautiful and devastating. Very human. But we will at least have one that follows us. Perhaps that’s what ghosts are.

Though I’d lost loved ones before this, his death devastated me and my family. He was the sun. When his light shined on you, you unfurled and blossomed. His love was deep and fierce. And a life without that seemed futile. But I carried on, as we do, and got therapy, and found myself again. It wasn’t easy. But it also made me realize that the grief I felt came from the love I have for him and his love for me. Grief is the shadow side of love, after all. And sometimes we have to walk through the shadows to find the light.

Then, years later, when the waves of grief that still wash over me sometimes, even to this day, cascaded upon me, my dear friend Jess saw me crying. When I told her that I was missing my dad, that the grief of his loss was heavy that day, she told me, “Grief is the price we pay for love. And it’s worth it.” As I was writing this collection, I noticed a theme of paying a price for love, be that love of life, love of self, love of duty, or love of family. And the memories of my own ghost of grief in my dad as well as my friend’s words popped into my head, and I knew that the title must be The Prices We Pay, because those prices are hefty, but they are so worth it. And I will pay those prices every single time for even a glimpse of love because love is worth it. The Beatles were right; love is all we need. And it’s worth all the prices we pay because it’s really the only thing that matters in our brief existence in this world. What a precious gift.

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

In June of 2022, my partner was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. A month later, he started his treatment plan: radiation, then months of intense chemo, ending with two major surgeries. It was terrifying. And a lot. I was his sole caretaker, which was my greatest honor in life to date. I loved caring for him in all the ways. I kept track of his appointments, took notes and asked questions, monitored his medications and diet, and just loved on him. Such a privilege. I did this all while also teaching full time and writing in the brief moments I could. I didn’t have a lot of time for self-care. And though it was such a privilege, it also was very hard, a time of lots of waiting: waiting for appointments, waiting for radiation, waiting during chemo, waiting for hours and hours during surgery, waiting to see if the treatment work (it did, miraculously). And it was all very scary. We walked in the shadows.

I set this stage because during all of this, in November 2022, my book released. My focus was on caring for him and helping him heal. But when my box of copies arrived, I wept. It was the one thing that year that was mine. When you take care of someone so sick, you have to put yourself second, or maybe even last. He needed so much attention and tending. And I’m so glad I did that because he was able to focus on healing, and that lead to a complete pathological recovery. However, seeing my sweet baby in print with the beautiful cover and knowing that I’d done that, that I’d created art, saved me in that shadowy time.

When I picked up my first copy, the cover so smooth but strong, well, it had good mouth feel in my hands. 🙂 Holding my book, my stories of love and grief and discovery, sent a jolt of strength throughout me. It gave me a much-needed moment of self in a time when I couldn’t focus on myself. And it reminded me that there is beauty in even the hardest, darkest moments.

It was sacred.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

“Hard to Love” by blackpink

“Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd

“Oh, Maker” by Janelle Monáe

“Good Love 2.0” by Priya Ragu

“Running Up that Hill (A Deal With God)” by Kate Bush

“The Dreaming Tree” by Dave Matthews Band

“All You Need is Love” by The Beatles

Each of these deals with the themes of love and grief and bliss and trauma and rebirth in some way. “Hard to Love” focuses on the self and how we can know we’re hard to love and also still try to love harder. “Wish You Were Here” is the ultimate grief song, a song that always makes me reflect and feel connected to my dad and to the beauty of love and grief. On top of that, I listened to this song so often as I wrote this collection. The melody, the instruments and sounds, bound me to the stories and characters. “Oh, Maker” deals with the complexities of love and loss and all the shadows that follow us. “Good Love 2.0” expresses those feelings of first falling in love, and while it deals with the love of partners, I think when we fall in love with friends or family or pets or ourselves, that same magic sparks in us, and The Prices We Pay includes stories of that good love. “Running Up that Hill (A Deal With God)” has the heartbeat sounds in the melody that feel right as part of the sound track. Stranger Things used it in a recent season, so it’s all popular now, but this song is one I have absolutely adored since childhood. It’s on many of my writing playlists for just these heartbeat sounds. “The Dreaming Tree” feels like a fable, and so it just is right for this collection. And, of course, a soundtrack for The Prices We Pay absolutely must have “All You Need Is Love” as the central theme of the entire collection is that we all need love in a surfeit of ways and experiences because it’s what matters most in this world.

There are other songs I feel would be a part of it, but I wanted to have the brevity of the chapbook reflected in the playlist. There are six stories in the collection, so I narrowed it to six songs and then ended with “All You Need is Love” as the song for the entire collection.

This was a really fun exercise. To think about other art forms in connection to my own sweet baby was really enlightening. I love this about creation!

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

This is also an easy one; I hope that the one thing they take away from my book is that the prices we pay for love are so worth it. If we pay nothing else in this world, paying for loving and being loved is right and good and kind. I wanted to show this in myriad ways. Sometimes the price we pay is our loved ones. They grow and take their own paths or they die, but we can still find strength in ourselves and our memories and connections even if they aren’t present in our lives. The love we felt with them can fill us up when we’re most empty. They don’t have to be physically a part of lives. They are in our souls, our heart, our minds. And that price is invaluable.

Sometimes, the price we pay is sacrifice. But we sacrifice because of our love. We let people go. We give parts of ourselves but then find a rebirth. Or we give so that others can survive. I hope that through my stories, we can all remember the layers of sacrifice—when to sacrifice, when to not. And that paying that price for love—the love we give and the love we take—is most worthy.

As I mentioned before, grief is the shadow side of love, the price we pay for love. Grief manifests in so many ways over so many experiences. And in America, we view grief negatively. But grief to me is precious and beautiful. It means that something or someone touched our souls, connected with us, and that love rooted in us. Grief is hard and devastating, but that’s because the love was real and deep. We must feel both to have balance, to be human. And we must honor both in their beauty and despair.

To the second part of this question, for me, the perfect reader is one who brings their own experiences and perspectives to the stories they read, which then allow the story to live on eternally and evolve. That’s the magic of the art of a writer. As a writer, I certainly have goals. I have themes I’m trying to impart, motifs I want readers to notice, lessons I want people to reflect upon, but once I release my stories into the world, I have to let go of those and let the readers bring themselves into the stories. The stories become more than just mine. They are a collective. What beauty. What magic. I love when someone reads my works and comes back with their interpretations, analyses, and reflections that breathe a new life into my stories. I love how my goals become secondary. What becomes important is what the reader takes from the stories. And this is precisely what I love as a reader myself. I love seeing these themes and motifs and lessons that the writer wants, but also braiding in my own experiences and perspectives so that what I’m reading becomes mine, too.

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

Currently, I’m on sabbatical. My project has two paths. The first is to research and decolonize folktales by collecting (via an annotated bibliography and lessons to share with fellow professors) folktales from cultures of color, Queer folktales, and folktales by women. The idea is to gather options for readers beyond just the Grimms Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, Charles Perrault, Greek and Roman Myths, Norse Myths, Aesop, and others of the folklore canon. In other words, I want to highlight voices that were silenced, forgotten, or ignored by the patriarchy. The canonical voices and stories are important, of course, (and I love them despite the problems with them) but they aren’t the only folktales. I want to provide resources for readers (my students and colleagues, of course, but all readers) of folktales from cultures including Indigenous, Asian, African, Central and South American, North American, lesser known European, the cultures less read in the canon. I want to highlight Queer and female writers. But I also want to show how folklore is multimedia, so I researched podcasts, movies, and art as well. My goal was to collect folklore in various mediums, from voices less heard. I have discovered such wonderful short stories, poems, and novels, listened to enlightening podcasts, watched movies and shows that embrace folklore and play with it. I have so many suggestions, so please reach out.

The second path was to then write my own decolonized folklore. So, I’ve been writing folklore that has elements of fairy tales, myths, legends, and fables, but that does something different. I have fairy tales with queer characters, myths where the female has power, fables that show lessons in different lights. And as I’ve been working on these (as well as through my research in folklore mentioned above), I had a novel idea. So, I’m working on a novel about a female protagonist who rewrites classic folklore (namely stories by the Grimms Brothers and Charles Perrault) by using magic to go into the stories and help the characters find agency and strength beyond the misogyny and bigotry. I love the Grimms Brothers and Charles Perrault. These stories are important. But they socialize readers in very traumatizing and dangerous ways if not guided otherwise (and big thanks to my parents for talking to me after reading these stories and helping me see beyond the basic sexism, heteronormativity, and bigotry). So I’m hoping to do some damage control, if you will, on them to honor the stories—their themes, motifs, and lessons—while also burning down the damage of the damsel in distress or the white knight or the heteronormative pressure or whatever. It’s very fun to rethink these stories with a contemporary eye, with what we better understand today.

Of course, as I’m working on the short stories and now the novel, I keep getting more glimmers of ideas, so I have a document for future writing. Oh, the life of an artist. Everything is inspiration.

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