Terri Clifton was surprised when she learned from the Delaware Division of the Arts that she was being awarded a grant and fellowship as an “emerging professional for literary fiction.” Few others who know Clifton were surprised.
She had, at the last minute, submitted 30 draft pages from the beginning of her new book with the working title “The Red Balloon.” Winning the award solved a dilemma. She would have a year in which she was paid to focus all her efforts on completing and finding a publisher for “The Red Balloon.”
This meant that her dear-to-the-heart, almost-completed second manuscript, “Ambora,” would have to be set aside a while longer. “Ambora” will be the first in a series of four books in the fantasy juvenile fiction genre. Already, she had been authoritatively informed that “Ambora” “is as good as Harry Potter and better written.”
“I’m so proud of my lovely, talented wife,” said Richard Clifton as he introduced her to a room full of bibliophiles at an Evening of Words to celebrate her award.
Maribeth Fischer, executive director of the Rehoboth Beach Writers Guild and mentor of many local writers followed up by saying, “I love the fact Terri got the grant. We all knew she had it in spades — the writing process, the discipline, the imagination. But the grant validated in Terri’s mind that she is a real writer.”
Terri Clifton then read extracts from both “The Red Balloon” and “Ambora,” holding her audience in rapt attention.
“The Red Balloon” is set in 1982, the year Clifton was seventeen.
“It was a period of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll, and it was during the time of the Cold War,” said Clifton. The title refers to the song “99 Red Balloons,” an anti-nuclear protest song, originally written and recorded by the German band Nena.
Clifton described herself as “ADD” and said she works in a kinetic and auditory way, including listening to music from the era about which she is writing. Joan Jett’s album “Bad Reputation” with its signature song “I Love Rock N Roll” is an example.
At first, Clifton said, she identified with the 17-year-old female protagonist, Liz, who grew up around the swampy land of southern Delaware and worked in a tackle shop, decorated with years of photographs of fishermen standing next to the scales with their biggest catches.
This tale of mystery and intrigue takes the reader to Wilmington, London and, finally, Amsterdam. By then, Clifton said, she found herself relating instead to Michael, Liz’s lover, a man of the world, a man in his 40s, like Clifton herself.
The Evening of Words event took place in the family’s home studio, where Richard Clifton, a wildlife artist and multiple Duck Stamp award winner, displays his art. But, for this occasion, the paintings were removed and replaced by typewritten pages and relevant album covers and photographs of Amsterdam for “The Red Balloon,” and eerie illustrations, by Richard Clifton, for “Ambora.” One picture in particular, a pencil-drawn owl with only its piercing blue eyes colored, captured attendees’ attention.
Paula Sangleer, morning host on Eagle 97.7, said she felt proud to have previously had the opportunity to read a section of “The Red Balloon.”
“It’s so smart,” she said. “I loved it. I kept wondering, what’s next? I love the timeframe. I related to the music and was taken in by its foreboding darkness.”
The Cliftons’ younger son, Ryan, was in attendance. He hasn’t read either manuscript yet but isn’t surprised by the acclaim his mother is receiving.
“As a family, we all work independently on our own projects at a high level. Dad with his art, mom with her writing, me with my programming. When she started writing, there was never any question that she would be good.”
Ryan also provided an inside scoop about the evolution of “Ambora.”
“When Chad, my elder brother, and me were little, and a storm was coming off the bay, Mom used to hurry us into Dad’s walk-in closet and close the door. She made up stories on the fly to entertain us, and Ambora was always in them. She would start a thought, and Chad and I would fill in the blanks…”
Terri Clifton later explained that the move to the closet was based on her own fear of storms and her desire for her sons not to pick up on her phobia. She was pleased to say her ploy worked, although she herself still fears the advent of windy weather… and she crafts scary stuff in her story of secret places and supernatural beings.
“The Red Balloon” and “Ambora” will be Clifton’s first works of fiction, but she is already a published author. In 2007, Clifton published “A Random Soldier: The Words He Left Behind.” Interwoven with her son Chad’s words, it is a moving account of his life, his decision to become a Marine and his death in Ramadi, Iraq.
There is no doubt Terri Clifton is a real writer. As a Delaware taxpayer, it is reassuring to know that the Division of the Arts appreciates artists in such fields as dance, music and poetry, of the caliber of Clifton, to award grant money and promote professional recognition.