Saturday, June 27, 2015

For Fiesta: A Spicy Scene from Depraved Heart!

In honor of Fiesta I am posting a selection from my novel Depraved Heart. Art curator Tempest Hobbs has been hired by convicted killer and former NFL star Syd Jupiter to catalog the art collection his daughter has inherited from her great-grandfather. Tempest knows about Syd's past but is still mesmerized by him. During Gloucester's annual Fiesta they are watching the Greasy Pole competition when things heat up between them.

He slowed the boat as we passed the point of land known in Gloucester as The Fort, where stacks of wire lobster traps were piled like a wall of green and yellow building blocks above the sea wall. As we passed a big white building with the words Cape Pond Ice painted on it, I could see the top of an illuminated Ferris wheel rotating slowly in the summer sunlight. Red, green and gold tinsel decorations strung between telephone poles glittered and the air was filled with singing and loud male voices chanting the Fiesta mantra.

Me chi samiou duté muté?

Viva San Pietro!

You and Dad should come to the carnival. Have you ever been to Fiesta?” Anjelica asked.

Lots of times years ago,” I told her. “When I was a little kid my parents always took me to the carnival, and when I was in high school my friends came every year. But I’ve never watched the Greasy Pole walk before. It’s kind of famous now.”

Syd was guiding the boat up to a float at St. Peter’s Marina. Two girls stood at the top of the ramp, and when they saw Anjelica, they began waving.

Do you need money?” Syd asked as Anjelica’s friends came running down the ramp.

No, I have enough left from yesterday.”

Okay, call me when you want me to come and I’ll meet you right here,” Syd said putting his arms around her.

I will. Love you, Dad,” she said and gave him an enthusiastic hug. He lifted her over the side onto the float. “Have fun,” she yelled to me.

I will.”

Wow.” I heard one of her friends say as they ran back up the ramp. “Your Dad is really big.”

He used to play professional football,” Anjelica said. With no small amount of pride, I thought.

Okay,” Syd said steering the boat back out into the harbor. “Let’s find a place for us.”

He guided the boat into a space close enough to see the fun but far enough away to be comfortable. We unpacked bottles of water and some of the still-warm hush puppies and settled down in the sunlight to watch.

Two hundred yards from the shore a wooden platform rose twenty-five feet in the air. What looked like a telephone pole was mounted at the top sticking straight parallel to the water. At the end of it was a vertical stick festooned with an American flag fluttering above three triangular flags in red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag. The forty foot pole between the flags and the men crowding the platform was covered half a foot deep in a slimy, slippery concoction.

A police boat hovered below the end of the pole to keep the hundreds of boaters around the area at a safe distance. The entire harbor was packed with everything from large whale watching vessels to solitary sailors in brightly colored kayaks. All of them honking horns, screaming and cheering as each contestant waited for his turn to traverse the distance from the platform to the flag through greasy muck that fell off in clumps as the men ran, walked, slid or slithered along the pole. Most of them were dressed in flamboyant costumes from hula skirts to diapers, which was made all the more hilarious by the fact that the participants tended to be burly men with hairy chests and beards. The object of the walk through the slime was to capture the flags at the end of the pole but, despite an endless variety of techniques, they all ended up in the water, often bouncing off the pole to a chorus of “ouch!” from the crowd.

I’m trying to figure out if it would be better to go fast or slow,” Syd said as he unscrewed the lid on a water bottle and handed it to me. “I’ve seen guys try both methods but it’s hard to say which is better.”

Would you ever do that?”

He laughed. “Not a chance.”

Not even when you were younger?”

I don’t think so. My center of gravity is too high, I think being built low to the ground would be an advantage in that sport.” He leaned back in his seat and stretched his legs. He wore a pair of battered leather moccasins and his legs were well-tanned and muscular. I caught my breath.

Did you always want to play football? I mean when you were a little kid.”

Oh, sure, of course I did. What kid doesn’t? I also wanted to be a priest.”

I couldn’t help laughing. “Really? A priest?”

Well, I was an altar boy at the time at St. Louis Cathedral, and I was so in love with that church I wanted any excuse to be there all the time. Plus...” He looked sideways at me. “...I thought it would be a lot of fun to hear Confessions. I kept imagining all the terrible things I’d hear.”

I giggled. “That’s very funny.”

Yeah, well, I was a little kid. Then for a long time I wanted to be a fisherman like my Dad. He was a good athlete when he was young. He played baseball on a minor league team but never made the majors. I think that was tough on him. He got to see me play football at A&M but he died before I was drafted into the NFL. I’ve always been sorry about that.”

Loud cheering erupted from the crowd. We both looked up but the flags still fluttered at the end of the pole. Whatever happened, we missed it. I turned back to Syd and saw that he was looking at me, not at the festivities on the platform.

Do you mind it if I tell you that I think you’re very pretty?” he said in a low voice.

No.” I looked down at his hands holding the water bottle in his lap. I had admired the size of his hands before but now I noticed how brown and calloused they were. Between Miles’ boat and the gardens around Hathor he had been working hard and his hands showed it.

He kept his eyes on me. “You’re pretty but you also have a lot of warmth. That’s something that I’ve found to be surprisingly rare in young women.”

Well,” I said, “I guess you haven’t been around too many women lately.”

He gave a short laugh. “Good point.”

I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to sound dismissive.”

You didn’t. You sounded like someone who has a hard time accepting compliments.”

I nodded. “That’s... well... yes, that’s true.”

I don’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

You’re not... well... no more than I ever am.” I looked up at him and wished he wasn’t wearing the sunglasses. I wanted to see his eyes. “I haven’t had very good luck with men in my life.”


I shrugged. “It’s this crazy way I am with people. The way I sense what they’re thinking...”

He smiled. “A woman wouldn’t have to be psychic to know what I’m thinking right now.”

No...” Another roar went up from the crowd and I turned in time to see a young man in a
Batman costume crashing into the water clutching his groin.

Ouch,” Syd said. “That had to hurt.”

What happened?”

He fell straight down straddling the pole. It looked really painful.”

Oh.” I glanced down at his hands again and, as though he knew my thoughts, he lifted one and touched a strand of my hair letting it curl around his finger tip. “So, were you surprised when you got drafted by a football team? That’s the word, isn’t it, drafted?”

He nodded, smiling. “Yes and no. Sure I was as surprised as anyone would be, but there was a part of me that sort of knew it was destined to happen. I’d always wanted to be a Steeler.”

His body was almost unbearably close. I found myself straining forward almost against my own will, just wanting to connect. “Not the Saints? You didn’t want to be drafted by the Saints?”

He was watching me and smiling slightly. “No, I wanted to be a Steeler... Actually,” he said. He put his water bottle aside and moved his other hand to pick up one of mine. He held it, caressing the back of it with his thumb. “Actually, what I wanted to be was Franco Harris.”

I looked up at him. Chills were running up and down my back and I was having a hard time staying still. “I don’t know who that is.”

He was their fullback, great big guy. Really, really powerful and really, really fast but so graceful. When he had the ball it was amazing to see how a guy that big could weave in and out without getting knocked down. But the thing I secretly loved most about him was he was mixed race, African-American and Italian.” He was lacing his fingers through mine and I was shivering.

He was mixed race...”

Mm-hmm. Back then there was a lot of racism in this country. I was lucky to grow up in New Orleans where being mixed wasn’t that big a deal, but when I was in Texas with my Dad I was always aware that I was different. So I wanted to be like Franco, a big, tough, good-looking, mixed-race football player.” He grinned. “At least I got to be big, mixed-race, and a football player.”

I think you’re pretty tough. How would you have gotten through everything you have if you weren’t?” I lifted my head and tried to see through his sunglasses. “And I also think you’re good-looking.”

He cupped my chin in his hand. “It doesn’t bother you that I’ve been in prison for fifteen years?”

It bothers me but not in the way you think. It bothers me that you had to go through that.”

Another huge cry arose from the crowd, boat horns began to blow. The cheering was deafening. I turned to look and the flags at the end of the pole were gone.

Somebody won,” I said.

And we missed it.”

He slipped one arm around my waist and lifted me closer to him..... Depraved Heart

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Reading-the-World: Ethiopia, Lebanon, Iraq

Continuing with my Reading-the-World challenge--a challenge I have set for myself based on Ann Morgan's A Year of Reading The World web site, here are three more books.


Cutting for Stone 
by Abraham Verghese
A few years ago it seemed everyone I knew was reading Cutting for Stone and telling me that I needed to read it. I bought it but then never got around to it until now. It is a novel well-worth reading. Set, mainly in a small Mission Hospital (called “Missing Hospital” by the locals outside of Addis Ababa, it is the story of twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone. Born to a beautiful Indian nun, Sister Mary Joseph Praise, whose relationship with the brilliant American surgeon, Thomas Stone, has left her pregnant with the twins who are born conjoined. Sister Mary Joseph Praise does not survive the birth and Stone, in terrible grief, disappears. The boys are delivered by another Indian physician, Hema, and raised by her and her husband and fellow doctor, Ghosh.

I have to confess that I skimmed quite a few parts of the book simply because I have a weak stomach for descriptions of medical procedures and the author, who is himself a surgeon, goes into great detail. That doesn't mean others will not appreciate his powers of description. But there are some truly great characters in this story. Shiva, is the polar opposite of his faithful, earnest, devout brother, but fascinating in his quick, impetuous, and, yet, endlessly protective of those he loves. Hema and Ghosh are wonderful characters—strong and loving. And, Genet, the daughter of their Eritrean maid, who was raised as the sister of the two boys becomes both a tragic and a frustrating figure in the story.

The writing is beautiful. The historical details of the Eritrean rebellion and the coup by Haile Selassie's bodyguard General Mebratu are faithfully rendered and intriguing. An extraordinary book.


The Madman
by Kahlil Gibran
Back when I was in college, Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet was one of the most popular books on campus and everyone I knew read it. I read it and, while I cannot say I understood most of it, over the years I have revisited passages and found inspiration in them that I was not capable of comprehending when I was young. When I saw that Gibran was on Ann Morgan's list for Lebanon, I found a copy of The Madman and read it. Like The Prophet, it is mysterious and yet much of it resonates. There is a quality of mysticism in Gibran's writing that one rarely finds—especially in the west.

This is a collection of short parables—some only a few sentences long. But I found myself stopping as I read to let things sink in. In the first parable, the title story, there is a line that I especially loved. I have found both freedom and safety in my madness; the freedom of loneliness and the safety from being understood, for those who understand us enslave something in us. But let me not be too proud of my safety. Even a thief in a jail is safe from another thief. Though many of us say we long to be understood, there is all too often an element of freedom that is lost when we are—and that is hard to overcome.


Closing His Eyes: Iraqi Short Stories
by Luay Hamza Abbas
I was not sure how I would react to these seventeen short stories set mostly in Iraq. Because Iraq is a country in which terrorism and violence have been constants over the past decade and a half, I was afraid I was not prepared to be very open minded. These stories changed my mind. Abbas's writing has a dreamy, mystical quality. Most of his characters do not have names. The stories are more like vignettes but they are vignettes of normal people who are just trying to live their lives in a world where violence, fear, disillusionment are everyday occurrences. There is no talk of ideology or of politics, there are just ordinary people trying to do the best they can.
  • A man decides to walk down to the market to pick up some fava beans for his dinner. He loves them fixed with chili peppers and olive oil. When he returns he gets a frantic call from a friend asking about his neighbor. He goes to his neighbor's apartment and finds the door broken down, the furniture damaged, and his neighbor gone. 
  • Another man loves his garden—his whole family lives his garden. He takes pride in it and every day he strolls through it on his way to the bakery just to enjoy its beauties. Until one morning he sees something horrible in his garden—the vestiges of a horror inflicted during the night. His heart is broken. 
  • An ordinary working man rides his bicycle back and forth to work everyday. He tries to do his job well and enjoy what small pleasures he can. One day as he pedals back to work from a lunch break he witnesses three men being dragged out into the street and executed.

This is a powerful, gripping collection evoking images it is hard to forget and it certainly made my heart ache for the people who have done nothing to deserve this violence and yet who have no respite from it.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Reading-The-World: Peru, Yemen, and Pakistan

I've written on another blog about my interest in Ann Morgan's Reading-the-World Challenge in which readers are invited to try to read one novel or collection of short stories from each of the 196 countries in the world. I think this is a fascinating and worthwhile endeavor. I know as I am working at my list my view of the world and its people is altering considerably. That is the triumph of great art. I've set up a separate page on this blog to chart my progress and I hope to cross-link any blog posts I make about it.

So, since I started this two weeks ago, I've finished three books (and dipped into four or five more.) Today I am happy to have spent time in Peru, Yemen, and Pakistan. I have a feeling I may be spending a lot of time in Pakistan.

This is a simply beautiful novel that pays homage to that most ancient and, to me, beloved, art formstory-telling. Saul Zurastas is a Peruvian Jew born with a terrible birthmark over his face but he has managed to stay oblivious to that. Saul becomes obsessed with the Machiguengas, a tiny, indigenous tribe dwelling in the Amazon rain forest where they wander in small bands, connected by their ancient tradition of story-telling. Eventually, by living among them and learning their culture, Saul becomes a habladore—a storyteller. It is a story filled with mysteries—from the mythic nature of the Machigungas trying to survive in a modern world, to that of a Jewish outsider who longs to keep their traditions alive. It is beautifully written as all of Llosa's books are and won my heart because story-telling is a sacred art for me.

This is a little bit of a cheat because it is not a novel but non-fiction. I had already purchased it before I began working on this list and, because the author is Yemeni and writes beautifully about her people and her country, I decided to include it. I loved her description of the tiny village in which she grew up, the groves of eucalyptus trees, and the people of the village. At the age of ten she is married, against her will, to a man who is 3 times her age. We learn that her father so feared the “disgrace” that had befallen his older daughters he thought it best to marry off Nujood as quickly as possible. Her husband promises not to have sexual relations with her until a year after she begins menstruating but, of course, as soon as they are married and she has been taken to his village, he betrays that. Eventually, little Nujood makes it to the city of Sana'a where she pleads for a divorce which is granted. This was not an easy story to read but it is well-written and gives insight into a people that, even this world today, seem completely out of time.

I did not know what to expect when I began this book but it grabbed my attention from the first page and didn't let up until the last--and what a last page it was. I can honestly say, NOTHING was what I expected. The main character, Changez, is a young Pakistani from a family that was once affluent but is now in decline. He receives a scholarship to Princeton where he graduates with all A's at the top of his class. He is promptly recruited by a top corporate valuations company, and in no time, is living a life he could not have imagined. He has a great job, a beautiful American girlfriend, and a non-stop social life. He is tall, handsome, well-dressed and well-liked. His boss takes him under his wing and it seems his future will be a brilliant one. And then the World Trade Center is attacked and Changez world view shifts.

I was quite startled by the author's naked openness about his feelings in this story. Changez is in the Philippines on business when the Towers are attacked and his first reaction is one of happiness. He is ashamed of himself for feeling that way and immediately regrets the loss of life but, at the same time, cannot help but approve of the symbolism. Yet, he is well-aware that America has given him so much--why would he feel the way he did?

Slowly Changez slips into decline--a decline that even he does not understand. He is deeply conflicted and divided inside between his gratitude to a country that has given him so much and the land of his birth that he feels loyal to. During a business trip to Chile he begins to fall apart and, while visiting the home of poet Pablo Neruda, he makes a terrible decision.

This was not an easy book to read at times but the deep conflict and confusion Changez experiences is gripping. The author takes no shortcuts and avoids the trite and expected. The end was shattering. I am very glad to have read this book but believe it is not for everyone.

I have now moved on to Ethiopia with Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone but also have books for Syria and the United Arab Emirates that I am dying to get into. I must say I am very much enjoying this journey.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

The Canvas for Painting Dreams

I've been thinking, and writing, a lot lately about the nature of characters and how powerful they can be in the lives of ordinary humans. In fiction, whether in books or in film, really good characters can not only fascinate and entertain us, but also serve as an impetus for things we decide to create in our lives. For me, and most likely for other writers, this is often other characters—characters of our own. I do not know how artists and musicians, etc., use this sort of inspiration although I suspect that they do, but regular, normal people sometimes find qualities in a character so appealing that it becomes something they find desirable in those around them.

Rudolph Valentino

The actor Rudolph Valentino once said, Women are not in love with me but the picture of me on the screen. I am merely the canvas on which women paint their dreams. For Valentino this became such a burden that he felt he had no control over his own life and that, as he grew older he was becoming a caricature of himself. Years ago, I used to say that I loved the actor Harrison Ford. Then I realized that, though I think he is a fine actor and a handsome man, it was really Indiana Jones that I had a crush on. When I realized that, I realized it is important to understand the difference. As my friend Clare says, “Characters don't leave the seat up.”

These days I hear the term “Book Boyfriend” used frequently. It's a cute term and I certainly understand it. My first Book Boyfriend was Laurie Laurence in Little Women followed closely by Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre. I know a lot of women who have had a life-long love for Sherlock Holmes. In fact Dorothy L. Sayer is alleged to have been so in love with Lord Peter Wimsey that he eclipsed all other relationships for her.
Christian Bale as Laurie Laurence

I know that men must surely have Book Girlfriends but I don't know as much about that. What makes a character so fascinating, so appealing, so alluring that a reader can “paint their dreams” on them? If I had an absolute answer to that, I'd have it made as a writer. But there are a few things that I think contribute to it. Physical strength and presence is part of it, intelligence is another, and the capacity to be both violent and tender—those things draw women in.

Toby Stephens as Mr. Rochester
Among the characters that I've found myself being mesmerized by is Henry Winter in Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Judging from what I've read in reader reviews, I am not alone in that. Henry is tall and aloof, utterly brilliant, emotionally distant and yet devoted to his friends, and a cold-blooded killer. I don't know about other readers, but that tender core always gets to me. It's why I fell under the spell, as I've mentioned before, of Sayid Jarrah, the Iraqi interrogator on the television show, Lost. Judging by the number of tribute videos for him posted on YouTube, I am far from alone there either.

Once, when I was younger and thought myself too mature for such foolishness, I resisted my infatuations with characters but these days I love them. I love falling for a character and then letting them grow and develop and transform in my imagination until they take on a life of their own and become someone I can write about. And, having said that, I think I'll go re-read Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist. I love her hero Talmudge and I think I need to spend more time with him. Who knows what might happen?

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Naive and Sentimental Reader

Like most writers I read a lot and, like most people, I don't have nearly as much time to read as I would like. Much of my reading is research—I've recently read a number of books on different aspects of the Civil War, all as research for The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk. But finding time to read for the sheer pleasure of reading often eludes me. I invariably have several books going at the same time—an audio book to listen to while cooking, sewing and knitting; a DTB book for the car and/or the back porch; Kindle books—fiction and non-fiction—in bed at night. I get a little covetous about my reading time.

Orhan Pamuk
Last night I was reading in bed—the story was a contemporary thriller by a writer whose work I have read before. It was reasonably interesting—a murder was committed and a group of people were conspiring to keep it covered up; a burned-out detective, still lusting after the wife who left him because she wasn't getting enough attention, etc. etc. The writing was good, the characters were semi-interesting. I don't want to blame the book because I think it was just me. I wasn't getting anything out of it and I couldn't figure out why. Finally, I decided to try something else and I switched over to Orhan Pamuk's The Naive and Sentimental Novelist: Understanding What Happens When We Read And Write Novels.

First, let me say, though I have not read all of Pamuk's work, I have loved everything I've read. Like Salman Rushdie and Isabelle Allende, he has the ability to paint landscapes that draw you in and stay in one's memory so visceraly it is almost possible to believe you have once visited there. This book is a collection of essays about the experience of reading and I have been savoring the essays one at a time—giving myself time to think about them between each. As I was reading I was, again, struck by the distinction Pamuk makes between the “naive” novelists who are unaware of the novel's artificiality, and the “sentimental” novelist who build the story around self-reflection and a relationship to the story. And, as naturally follows, the reader of naive work and the reader of sentimental work will experience the work accordingly.

I had this idea that maybe that was the problem with the thriller I was trying to read. On the surface there was nothing wrong with it except that I just didn't feel any sense of engagement. It was just a well-written story of some artificial characters in an artificial setting doing artificial things. It was all about what happens next. There was nothing wrong with it—it just wasn't holding my interest.

Luay Hamza Abbas
Another book among those that I am juggling is Luay Hamza Abbas's Closing His Eyes: Iraqi Short Stories. I picked it up after reading an article about someone who decided to read a book by an author from every country on the planet. Also, it only cost a dollar. The stories are short—some only a few paragraphs. In many the main character does not have a name. Like Pamuk's essays, it would be a mistake to read these all at once because each story is so filled with imagery and so evocative that they must be digested slowly. Because Iraq is a country that has been torn apart by violence both from within and without, violence is often the theme, but in such a subtly beautiful way. There are no politics in these stories. No judgements or ideologies. They are just stories about people who have to live in this place and go about their lives and do the best they can in the face of horrors.

In one story a person just wants to go to work and do his job, another just wants to tend his garden, another, another wants to make tea for her family, or roast fava beans. They are going about their days like any average person anywhere in the world goes about a day. But then a shot rings out and someone drops dead. Men drag someone into the street and an execution takes place. They are just stories—stories from a place where if you happen to glance into a ditch as you walk home from market, you just might see a pair of white-coated, lifeless eyes staring at the heavens. The reflection they produce is unavoidable.

Sometimes a naive story is just what we need to slip out of the world and let our minds take a break. But other times we need that sentiment—we crave it, because in it we learn more about ourselves and the world in which we dream.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Things We Find Doing Research, Memories of Ibrahim Farrah

Bobby Dancing
I blogged this week about a novel I am doing research for and today that research resulted in a picture from long ago and a trove of memories from way back in time. One of the characters in this book is named Astarte Safiya and she is a Ghawazi dancer descended from the Nawar people of Egypt. Back in the 1980s, when I was studying danse Oriental and taking classes and workshops, one of the most revered teachers of that time was a man named Ibrahim Farrah. Everyone called him “Bobby” and he was a magnificent dancer.

Today, as I was watching YouTube videos of various Middle Eastern dances, I came across a video of Amoura Latif dancing Bobby's choreography for a Cafe Dance. I hadn't thought of Bobby in years and, with a little bit of research, I discovered he died in 1998—such a loss to the world of Middle Eastern Dance.

It's a funny thing how I even got into dancing in the first place. A friend and I had decided to take an evening watercolor class for six weeks, but when we went to sign up, the class was full. We looked at the list of available classes and one was Intro to Belly Dance. Out of sheer silliness we signed up. My friend quit after two classes. I kept dancing for five years. In fact when I decided to leave Houston and move to Maine, my going-away party was held in the belly dance studio and dozens of dancers came to dance with and for me in farewell.

Penn State's The Corner Room
I was not a particularly accomplished dancer but I loved it. As a big, blond, American woman of German heritage I often thought I had no business doing this sort of dance. But every time I danced in public it was the Middle Eastern men who would praise and encourage me. These beautiful, copper-skinned, dreamy-eyed men would scream and clap and go crazy when I danced. They'd call “you're beautiful, I love you!” It was heady, addictive stuff. Bobby was like that. He could make you feel like you were the most desirable creation ever.

The first time I met him something sort of wonderful happened. He was coming to Houston to teach a workshop and needed a ride from the airport to the dance studio. His plane was arriving late at night and I offered to go pick him up. I only knew him by reputation so I was excited. He came off the plane, a handsome, but very normal looking guy in jeans and a white dress shirt—no elaborate costumes for something as ordinary as a plane ride.

My dancing days
As we headed back to Houston I asked if there was anything he needed. He said that, actually, he was starving and would love to stop at a restaurant. So I took him to a favorite place of mine in River Oaks. It was a cozy, charming place with high-backed wooden booths and a good variety of dishes. We ordered and he proved to be a delightful dinner companion. When we were about to leave he leaned back, looked around, and said, “I love this place. It reminds me of a place I hung out at when I was in college.” Really? I said. Where was that? “It was called The Corner Room. It was right across the street from campus,” he said.

I stared at him. Penn State? I managed at last. “Yes.” He grinned. “Have you been there?” I graduated from Penn State and spent a lot of time at The Corner Room. We were instant buddies—two Penn State alums in the far-off land of Texas.

For the rest of the weekend, at any given moment Bobby would begin singing “Fight On, State” just to make me laugh. I danced in the final show of that weekend and I drove him back to the airport. It was such a wonderful experience.

So now my dancing days are over. Bobby is gone from this earth. But I have Astarte Safiya to create and I look forward to the experience.

Bobby performing with Dahlena at Club Cleopatra, Sacramento California, 1964.
Thanks for reading.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Moving Right Along: My Next Project

It is always bittersweet when a writing project I have been working on for a long time is coming to an end. The first Volume of The BucktailCap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt is now available for Kindle and the next 2 volumes are nearly ready. A paperback will be coming out with all thirteen stories as well. I still have polishing to do on them but I'm also thinking about what comes next.

For a long time now I have had a story in the back of my mind that has been nagging at me and I think it may be my next project. It is a full-length novel set mostly in the back country of the Adirondacks—a setting I love.

The story starts with a young woman named Lydia Morningstar who grows up in a traditional suburban home with nice, middle-class parents and lots of promise and possibilities but Lydia is a different kind of kid. She wants to be a farmer and it sort of drives her parents crazy. She starts by planting carrots and lettuce around her mother's rose bushes and growing watermelons and peppers behind her father's garage. Her gardens grow and expand and soon take over the entire yard, much to the annoyance of many of the neighbors. Her parents aren't exactly pleased by this but they are modern parents who want their child to develop into her full potential.

By the time Lydia is in college, she is consumed with sustainable living and spends a year in Europe working on various farms. Back in New York she hears about a farm that was started by a couple of hippies that is a model of sustainable living. It is in a remote, wooded area and for many years people visited it just to marvel at how creative and productive it was. But now there are problems. The husband has died and the wife is looking for someone to come, live with her, learn to run the farm, and, ultimately, inherit it. Lydia and her boyfriend decide to give it a try.

Now available for Kindle
A few years go by and Lydia is now the sole owner of the farm. Her boyfriend didn't last long—it was too much work for him. She loves the farm but it is a tremendous amount of work for one person. Then a strange thing happens—she becomes aware that there is a boy living in the woods behind her farm. Slowly she coaxes him into trusting her. At first she thinks he is a feral child who was abandoned or lost. He is a dark, strange, homely child, who is very guarded and fearful but, once he begins to trust her, she realizes he is much more than he seems. He tells her his name is Asher and he is twelve, but he does not want to talk about his past. He is very willing, eager even, to work on the farm in exchange for room and board, but he doesn't want anyone to know where he is. She knows he will take off if she pressures him about anything.

Slowly, Lydia discovers that, while he has some education, there is much he is totally unaware of. He reads well and is very good at math, but has no idea that there are other countries in the world, or that people in them speak other languages. He has never seen television or been to a movie. But he has strange, mysterious powers that may or may not be natural.

Well, that's as far as I've gotten but I think Lydia and Asher are going to be good companions for the next few months as I gradually get to know them. I'll keep you posted.

Thanks for reading.    

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Crafting Story from Tall Tales

William Hoehn from my hometown, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, told me a great story about "Roaring" Jack Dent--an old-time log drover. So, naturally, I just HAD to work into my current work-in-progress. This is from Peeper's Treasure Hunt which will be part of The Bucktail Cap in the Trunk: More Secrets of Marienstadt. Take a look:

In the pantheon of Marienstadt’s “colorful characters” Blaise Hanes was a star. No one ever knew for sure if any actual Native American blood ran through his veins but his appreciation for and knowledge of the Seneca tribes of north central Pennsylvania was vast. He was a solidly built man with warm, dark eyes surrounded by laugh lines, and hair that was more gray than black now that he was in his fifties, hanging in a single, thick braid down to the middle of his back. His taxidermy shop behind the modest house in which he and his wife, Sara, had raised twelve children, was a wonderland for the school children and Cub Scout dens that regularly visited it. Not only were there dozens of stuffed animals but all manner of Seneca artifacts displayed in cases. For over three decades children were welcomed there and had been dazzled as Blaise told them stories and legends about the early days of The Great Buffalo Swamp and The Wildcat District, as their environs had once been known.

His latest carving, commissioned by Boone for the tavern, was a tribute to “Roaring” Jack Dent and his band of log drovers who once opened splash dams and floated logs of chestnut and white oak down the Sinnemahoning Creek to the Susquehanna River. Blaise’s carving showed the men in corked boots laced to the knee and carrying cant hooks, as some of them waded waist-deep into the freshet of melting snow at the end of winter, dodging rattlesnakes as they worked.
“That’s a beauty,” Boone said when Blaise carried it into the tavern and propped it up on a pool table. “You outdid yourself on this one.”
“Thank you.” Blaise stood back, smiling, his thick arms folded across his chest. “I think it turned out okay.”
“I’d say it’s a lot more than okay. When Lucius comes in I’ll have him help me hang it. Come on over to the bar and let me buy you a drink. Or a cup of coffee.” Boone corrected himself. It was well-known that Blaise didn’t drink alcohol.
“Coffee would be great.” Blaise sat down at the bar and studied his carving of elk behind it. “I sure appreciate your business.”
“I sure appreciate your talent.” Boone poured coffee and placed it on the counter. “Peeper,
you ready for another one?”
Peeper Baumgratz sat two stools down nursing a draft as he did most weekday afternoons.
“Sure.” He drained the last few drops from the glass and pushed it toward Boone.
“I’ve been thinking about another one,” Boone said to Blaise as he drew Peeper’s beer. “A guy was in here a couple weeks ago and he told me about the forty thousand dollars from a hold-up that’s supposed to be buried over in Mount Jewett under the Kinzua Viaduct.”
“I’ve heard that story,” Blaise said.
“I think it would be great if you could show the Viaduct before it blew down, what do you think?”
“Forty-thousand dollars?” Peeper’s ears perked up. “Up to the Kinzua Bridge, is that where you’re talking about?”
“Yeah.” Blaise turned toward him. “That story has been around for years. They say a guy held up a bank in Emporium and got clean away but on his death bed he confessed and said he buried the gold under the bridge.”
“And ain’t nobody ever found it?” Peeper’s eyes were enormous.
“Nope. If you believe tall tales there’s treasure buried all over these hills. Back in the sixteen nineties the French warrior Louis de Buade de Frontenac was supposed to have brought barrels of gold coins up from New Orleans to finance his endless wars against the English and the Indians. But something happened and they say the gold was buried up around Coudersport somewhere.”
“No shit?” Peeper was enthralled. 
“No shit.” Blaise appeared to be enjoying himself. “But the real mother lode of lost treasure is the gold that was lost during the Civil War down in Dent’s Run. Did you ever hear about that?”
“Oh, crap.” Boone covered his face with both hands. “I forgot all about that. Me and my brother Kit and Lucius and Jim Loeffler went hunting for it one summer when we were in high school. We spent five days camping down there and all we came home with were sunburns and ten thousand mosquito bites.”
Blaise laughed a deep, hearty laugh.
To be continued...

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Allure of the Deeply Flawed Character

As a writer I am continually amazed by the reactions readers have to certain characters. I can never quite predict which character my readers will take a fancy to and am often delighted, although surprised, at their choices. I like this though because it is easier to write about characters filled with flaws than the unnaturally good ones. I suppose there is something in us that relates to these people and their search for redemption.

When I created Vivienne Lang in the second crazy old lady book I wasn't sure if people would like her or not. I wasn't sure if I liked her. She was raised by her grandparents who were wonderful but then at the age of twelve her mother forced her to move to California and used her as bait to attract lovers for herself. Out of both grief and desperation, Viv turned into a careless, promiscuous young woman. She also turned to martial arts as a defense against being used against her will. Eventually, this gave her the skills to be a force to be reckoned with but a force that was fragile and broken inside.

As I wrote about her I fell more and more under her spell and by the time I wrote the fourth book, The Crazy Old Lady's Secret, in which she is now married and a mother, I wanted nothing but good things for her. I'm not quite sure how that happened.

Last week I wrote about dangerous characters and I mentioned my fascination with Sayid Jarrah, the Iraqi soldier and former torturer, on the old television show, Lost. Since then I've read a few articles in which his character was discussed and one of the writers for the show said they originally had intended him to be an irredeemable character that the audience would love to hate, but that isn't what happened. The audience loved him—they saw him as a romantic, tragic, and even heroic character. The writers had to do a lot of rewriting and by the time the last season came around, even though he had continued to be a relentless killing machine, he died the most heroic death they could give him. I got a lot of comments about that blog post and most of them said that they loved him.

Something similar happened with my first novel, The Old Mermaid's Tale. The main character, Clair, has romances with two men in the book—Pio, a delicious, sexy, Italian fisherman, and Baptiste, a man 20 years her senior who ran away from home at 16 to go to sea and, following an accident in which he lost his leg, became a vagabond and a drunk until he straightened himself out—sort of. I have always been both pleased and a little bit astonished at how many women tell me they love Baptiste. How sexy and desirable they find him. Of course, to me both Baptiste and Pio were very alluring but I suspect Baptiste's many flaws make him somehow more delicious.

I think about these things and I wonder what we see in these characters. Do we romanticize their broken places? Do we identify with them? Do we think we could redeem them? I've mentioned before how I am dumbfounded by the women who love Christian Grey in the 50 Shades books. To me he is a twisted, manipulative stalker but a lot of women—millions of them—find him delicious.

As a writer I doubt I'll ever understand this but I continue to pursue my fascination with characters who are both a mess and mesmerizing. I seek them out, I want to read about them and I want to create them. This is all very mysterious—a mystery that borders on obsession and I love it.

Thanks for reading.  

Friday, May 01, 2015

Guest Post by Christian Galacar: Writing Advice: Or (How One Writer Writes)

My young friend, Christian Galacar, is a very talented writer. You can read more about him on Amazon and Goodreads and follow him on Twitter. His blog is The Honest Scrivener. I am very pleased to have him as a guest on my blog.

My girlfriend and I just signed a lease on a new apartment. That is exciting news in and of itself, but something equally exciting happened to me this weekend while I was cleaning out my bookshelf and boxing things up: I found my copy of Strunk's The Elements of Style. Immediately I recalled how fun and terrifying those first baby steps into the perilous world of writing were. The feeling was a strange combination of fear and longing that made me thirsty for a cold beer with old friends. I missed those earlier times.

Ahhh nostalgia, what a fantastic and powerful drug. *Long thoughtful sigh*

Moving on now. 

Even better than the book discovery, was when I cracked it open and leafed through the pages and the receipt for it fell out (Spirit of '76 Bookstore, which, coincidently, is now carrying my first novel, Cicada Spring). The receipt was faded and creased in all kids of strange ways that seemed impossible, especially when you considered that it had spent nearly three years pressed flatly between pages. But there it was in all its magnificent glory—proof of a beginning. For all intents and purposes, it was my birth certificate, a reminder of when I decided writing was what I wanted to do.
According to the tiny piece of paper, May 20th, 2012, was when Christian the Writer was born. I'm still a lot of other things: Christian the Banker, Christian the Over-Confident Golfer, Christian the Hungry, Christian the Habitual Line-Crosser. But Christian the Writer is certainly my favorite of all these identities. He is the one who feels most at home in his awkward and often sunburned skin. Christian the Writer doesn't tan well.

It's funny to think about how three years can feel so short yet so long at the same time. From my current standpoint, it flew by (a tad cliché, I know), but when I try to place myself in my younger self's writing shoes, I can only remember time passing in a grim slog of impatience.

When I was first starting, pumping out short story after short story, all I wanted to do was get better. I wrote hard and fast, with little regard for the rules. I was aware I was making mistakes, but I didn't care. Damn it, I wanted to be good NOW! Get out of my way punctuation and grammar! However, deep down, I knew there was work to be done. Very. Hard. Work. Talent, in my opinion, is less about the 'genius' you think you have inside you, the gift you believe you were given, and much more about how hard you are willing to work to coax it out of you and shine a light on it. It'll be an ugly bastard at first--squinty eyes, no teeth, opaque pink skin (picture a baby rat)--but eventually you can pretty it up some and maybe even find someone who'd be happy to date it.

What I'm getting at is this: I knew that if I kept at it, if I promised myself that no matter what happened, if at the end of the day I never gave up, then inevitably I would get better. And sure enough, I did. At least I think so. The progress was slow. The results, I was certain, would never come. But bit by bit, word by word, then sentence by sentence, things started to get better and easier. I have no delusions of being a genius writer, but I do, however, think that the talent I felt simmering inside me is finally a little easier to transition from my head to the blank page. In short, it's gotten easier to say what I want to say the way I want to say it. And in writing, that's pretty darn important. It is your voice.

So, while I know 'writing advice' is an over-touched-upon subject, and one I'm not even sure I am qualified to discuss, I would still like to talk a little bit about what I picked up along the way. Bits and scraps from here and there. Things that worked for me. Some might be helpful. Some might be better suited as dog food. But if you, dear reader, should glean even the tiniest morsel of inspiration or insight from it, I will be satisfied. Think of this less as advice and more of me telling you what has worked for me. There is no one size-fits-all with writing, so read this and interpret it widely. These things are simply the things I've noticed I was doing when I felt most in control of my craft.
Let's begin.

1) Write Honestly
This is something of a staple in almost any book on writing you will ever read. My favorite, of course, is Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and he discusses the topic the way only Stephen King can. I doubt he would claim to have invented the notion; it is simply something any writer worth his or her salt learns along the way—that the words are best and have the greatest impact when they aren't dumbed down out of fear of what people might think or who might get offended.
Many writers, I have found, are the sort who were often thought of as weird in their adolescence. Not because they were actually weird necessarily, but because they would say things with little care of what others would think of them. Little did we know we were preparing ourselves at such a young age to say what we wanted to say the way we wanted to say it.

So what exactly does 'write honestly' mean? It can mean many things to many people, but to me it means don't hold back. For example: If you want to make a character convincing, say a character who is supposed to be devious and evil (serial killers are a good blank canvas for the dark inclined mind), then I hate to tell you this but you're going to have to conjure up some dark thoughts that disturb you. And when you finally go to put them down on the page, cringing as you type the words, second guessing yourself as to whether or not it's too much and you've crossed a line, you need to know that that's when you should keep going. If you aren't feeling it as a writer when you're writing it, then you better believe the reader won't feel it when they read it. That goes for any emotion—fear, love, lust, anger, humor, sadness.

To write honestly you need to know your characters inside and out. They have to think and behave the way they were meant to, and often times the way that they want to; they can easily take on a life of their own and say things that catch you off guard. So if they decide to speak up, for the love of God do not censor them. It's an unforgivable sin, if you ask me, and you should be nibbled to death by a duck.

2) Surprise Yourself
When it comes to twists and surprises you need to avoid doing the first thing that comes to mind. You are the writer, but you are also the first reader. If you get to a point in your story where you can see the setup/opportunity for a plot-twist coming, take a break for a moment. During that break, think of the first two or three scenarios that would best fit that twist... then throw them away. If you thought of them that fast, then chances are a reader will too. Sometimes the cleverest twists are the ones that seem more obvious (sounds counterintuitive, I know), but people automatically look for the obscure when they start to realize things aren't what they seem. Hiding in plain sight isn't always bad if it suits your story. Points for clever twists are always good, but not the ultimate currency in storytelling. Stories are so much bigger than gimmicks.

In a roundabout way, I think I am trying to say to be real as often as possible. Root your lies in grains of truth to lend them believability and ground them in reality.

3) Find What Works For You and Do It
Writers are creatures of habit, if nothing else. We have our routines and our environmental requirements in order for the words to flow freely. Some writers like to drink or smoke a cigarette or wear aluminum foil on their feet. Find what works for you, your comfort zone, and stay there for the duration of your writing session, whatever it may be. Me? I need to be warm. Scratch that—I need to be blazing hot. I bundle up and turn the heat to 78 degrees. It's the only way I can relax enough to get things moving along. By the time I've managed to get down a thousand or so words, I'm usually a sweaty medium-rare and ready for consuming.

4) Write, Damn it!
This one should go without saying, yet I cannot tell you how many "writers" I have met who tell me they want to write something. It's usually at this moment that I am overtaken with ungovernable rage and want to grab them by the lapels and shake them, all the while screaming "Well then write it, damn you! Don't tell me you want to write... WRITE!!" 

What I am getting at in a not-so-subtle way is that if you want to write, you need to write. Even if it is only a hundred words a day, you have to write. It is the only way to get better, and it is the only way to be a writer. Hence the old chestnut: A writer writes. It's old and it's a chestnut because it is true. I have a minimum goal of five hundred words per day, and I always hit that no matter what, even if the words are crap. If I don't, I honestly have a hard time sleeping. Writing, as with so many other hobbies, can quickly become a compulsion and an obsession that demands things from you. It is not unlike an unruly child without manners. It wants what it wants when it wants it. So feed it and you'll be happy.

5) Read Everything
That's all I have to say about that.

6) Dialogue
Dialogue can be tricky. I have always been jealous of those to whom it comes easy. My brother, for instance, can write clever and witty dialogue as if he has been doing it for his entire life. I should mention he is not a writer and the dialogue he does put down on the page is usually just part of some funny email he has decided to send me when the hours of our day jobs are ticking by slowly. But still, he is damn good at it. The trick is, I have found, to remove the boring parts (Elmore Leonard says the same about all writing, in fact). Dialogue should always move the story along or build a character's depth and reveal subtle motivations. It's a great way to show instead of tell.

If you want to try an exercise that can help you improve your skills, try this: listen to conversations on a train and transcribe them, then after you've creepily jotted down everything the couple next to has said, take out all the parts that didn't lend a person character (mannerisms and stall words etc) and take out all the stuff that didn't advance the conversation. What you are left with is the good meat.

7) Finish Something
One of the biggest confidence boosts I got when I was first beginning to write was when I finished my first story. I had a wicked habit of starting things and putting them down, never to be finished. The problem is that when you first come up with an idea to write, there is this initial euphoric blast of adrenalin and excitement. You are like a child with a new toy. But after a few thousand words the excitement wears off and you are left with a bill for the hard work required to finish it. This is where the men are separated from the boys, the women from the girls. This is where it's time to show that story who the hell's boss. So do it. Come to the page every day and finish that story. Even when it gets hard, even when the idea seems stupid at second thought, even when the characters don't resonate, finish it. I promise you when you sit there at the end of it all, finished first draft in hand, it will all be worth it. One cruddy but finished story is far better than a dozen brilliant first paragraphs. And besides, first drafts almost always stink anyway. It's okay. Rewriting and editing is an equally important craft to hone, and you will do just that, grasshopper... you will. It just takes time and practice.

For now I think I have said enough. There is more kicking around in my noggin I am sure, but much of it is probably nothing more than opinions on what you should eat for breakfast and what brand of tea to drink while writing (Earl Grey). So I shall depart posthaste, before I lose your attention, dear reader. But first I would like to thank Kathleen Valentine for the opportunity to write this piece for her blog. The advice she has given me over the past few years has been invaluable.
Thank You.

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