Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Yet Another Bright Idea...

I’ve been reading a lot about marketing on the internet and by other means to because, now that I have a few books to push for myself and others, I want to learn how to do this. One thing I’ve discovered about myself is that it is much easier for me to push things that others have done than it is to push my own work. I don’t think that is unusual. Even marketing my design business, Valentine Design, is easier for me than the books. Sad but true.

One of the ideas I came across was the “value-added” bonus that some authors give in order to encourage people to buy their books over the internet. These are cool things like lists of helpful URLs, periodic newsletters with updates, ebooks that provide additional or supplementary information — stuff like that. It’s a good idea and people love a bargain — I know I do.

Now, this is fine if you wrote a technical book or something educational or informational but when it comes to fiction, I can’t imagine what you could include. Then I had a bright idea — yeah, another one. As I was working on the editing and final clean up of The Old Mermaid’s Tale I realized that food is a an omnipresent theme in the book. It is not an intentional theme. The intentional theme is Great Lakes shipwrecks, maritime legends and the importance of “story” in our lives. But, as with Marcel Proust who wrote a 900 page novel all based on the memories provoked by the scent of some cookies, memory for is integrally tied to foods.

I worked in a diner not far from the docks in Erie, Pa. I’ve written about that before. One of the first things that I think of, when I try to conjure memories of that place, is the smell — the food and the omnipresent underscore of coffee brewing. There were certain things that were so popular that they were prepared daily in massive pans in massive onions — meatloaf and stuffed green peppers, fried chicken and something known as “hamloaf”. And, because it was a diner a few blocks from the docks, fried perch and smelt.

One of the most popular dishes in the diner, one that I served hundreds of plates of while I was there, was Hot Roast Beef Sandwich with Fries. Three slices of white bread were toasted and generously spread with butter. Thin, hot slices of well-marbled roast beef, was piled between the slices that were cut to form three triangles. A mountain of french fries was piled on top of that and the whole thing was drenched in thick, dark brown gravy. A few pickles were added and it was served. Heart attack on a plate. We also had a “blond” version of it that involved slices of roast chicken and creamy, yellow chicken gravy but that was not as popular.

So, as I wrote the most recent draft of the book, I built in the memories of food that accompanied the scenes from my life that inspired a particular setting. Now, polishing the book up, I am surprised — and delighted — at how much of this there is. And I got a bright idea: what about an Old Mermaid Inn and Canal St. Diner Cookbook? Giovanna teaches Clair to make gnocci, Clair’s mother fries chicken, Tessie — the mysterious and problematic Tessie — makes puttanesca, Baptiste teaches Clair to make a perfect omelette and introduces her to cassoulet, one of the most succulent dishes in the world in my opinion.

So I think I have found my next project. A a cute little cookbook full of recipes from my memory — and my mother’s recipe box. Talk about “value added”!!!

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Four Days At the Page

I decided to take the long Thanksgiving weekend as a writer’s retreat — a retreat from the world. I wanted to spend the whole time working at editing and polishing The Old Mermaid’s Tale because it is my hope to have it to press by the end of the year and released by Valentine’s Day. I think that is a good release date for such a deliciously romantic story by someone whose name is Valentine anyway. It was four days of mixed emotions.

The bottomline on this book is that I love it. I live the story, I love the characters, I love the settings, I love everything about it. But I am also getting tired of it. I have been working on it in some form or another for close to fifteen years.

I wrote the original draft when I was still living in Marblehead— living in a big, glass house on a rise overlooking the ocean. The room I worked in had sliding glass doors from which I could see all the way from Salem Harbor up to Gloucester Harbor and out to sea past Baker’s Island. There were three real lighthouses within view and one fake one. The three real ones — Salem Lighthouse on Winter Island, the Baker’s Island Lighthouse and Gloucester’s beautiful Eastern Point Light flashed as I worked. The fake one was directly across the water in Manchester-by-the-Sea and was built during the second World War as a lookout for German submarines. I don’t know if they ever saw any or not.

That first draft — which was actually a long short story — got a lot of criticism from a couple of people and caused a major rift between a friend and I. Well, to be honest, the rift was long overdue, the story just set it off. But I put it away and didn’t do much writing for the next 5-6 years other than technical stuff.

After I moved to Gloucester I got involved with a small writers group, the one that eventually turned into the Hovey House Writer’s Group and, I finally dug that manuscript back out and went back to work on it. The next incarnation was successful enough to get me the attention of a New York literary agent who praised it to the skies, offered me a contract and then never did much with it. Thus began three years of getting overly experienced with New York literary agents and all their flattery and lies. Maybe not “lies” but misrepresentations for sure.

Anyway, after several years of that and a few years of gaining experience in publishing, I decided I would do this through my own press if only to get it out in the world so I can move on to other projects. In many ways I wish it had worked out with one of the publishers the novel was (I am told) pitched to but in other ways I like having control of it. Whether it will sell is quite another matter.

But spending four days alone with these characters was intense. They are all integral to my life in many ways and I find that I think about them and dream about them as if they were friends I actually spend time with. In the midst of this I received an email from my friend Ray, complete with photos, of his first trip ever to Niagara falls. I found this particularly delightful because possibly the most romantic scene in the whole novel takes place in Niagara Falls when Baptiste and Clair have a brief reunion there. I had just been looking at the Falls web cams and thinking about the weekend I spent there with a lover that inspired me to write that particular scene.

So it was a good and productive four days. I have a bit to go but I feel now that I have made enough progress that I can finish up in a couple more weekends. Then it is time for a final review by editorially-savvy friends and ready for press. I can’t wait.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Rupert Murdoch Does the Right Thing

I wasn’t going to blog about abominable book deal that OJ Simpson had with Harper Collins simply because I didn’t want to waste bandwidth on such a disgusting thing but now that Rupert Murdoch has pulled the plug and apologized for the deal I have to give him credit for that. I’m glad he did it and I’m glad he apologized to the families of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman but there is one question that I’d still like to have answered: What in the HELL were they thinking when they planned it?

Actually, I know what they were thinking — big ratings and big bucks. The book was number 39 on Amazon a month before it was even published. Which says two things to me, 1.) Harper-Collins knew full well what they were doing and 2.) the public appetite for depravity is bottomless. I hope everyone who ordered it is ashamed of themselves but I know enough to know they won’t be. But how in heaven’s name could anyone with any kind of moral core at all think of publishing such an atrocity while the families of the murdered are still alive and still in pain? I just don’t get it.

I’m not going to go into detail about Simpson’s role in all of this. He got off due to some legal shenanigans that are a disgrace but, nonetheless, he’s a free man. Let him sink into obscurity where he belongs. But the publishing industry is another matter.

There’s a big question to be considered here — are Americans really depraved, sensation-seeking dullards who simply cannot get enough of scandal because that is who we are, or is this a monster that the media has created with its bottomless ability to sniff out and sensationalize anything that falls outside the most rigid of values. I don’t know. I grew up Catholic and had 12 years of Catholic education so it’s not like I haven’t been exposed to plenty of moral judgement. But what I learned in all of that is that, while it is our responsibility to avoid bad behavior and to discourage it in others, judgement, ultimately, belongs to a Higher Authority. That’s not really what the issue is though. The issue is the pornographic sensationalizing of bad behavior.

On the one hand I think it is a good thing that the abuse of children, women, employees — especially illegal employees — has been made public but the flip side is the chronic lust to expose behavior that is not appropriate but is between consenting adults and none of our business. Particularly in the case of unmarried adults involved in affairs of whatever nature. People have been copulating outside of marriage since marriage was invented — who doesn’t know that? When did it become our business? I’d be sick of all the Hollywood celeb couples if I paid attention to them but since I don’t know who’s mating with whom and who is making babies with whom I really don’t care. But apparently a lot of people do. What is all this fascination with scandal? Somebody please tell me.

See, I suspect there is a dark side. I love a good conspiracy theory as much as the next blogger and I think we’ve got one here. The media wants us to be fascinated by the mating habits of Hollywood nincompoops and the glorification of sensational crime so we don’t pay attention to what is going on in our government and in the world. We are in trouble folks! The coffers are being depleted in an unjust war, the environment is in big trouble, the Constitution is being undermined and eroded, our children and grandchildren are going to inherit a country deeply in debt with many, many enemies. These are not good things. We don’t want to think about them. So we divert ourselves with trash.

Who knows — maybe now OJ will have a shot at Dancing With the Stars...

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Going Back

This is the time of the year when people start thinking about “home” — whatever that may mean to them. Going home for the holidays, it’s a common archetypal thought that may or may not have a measure of happiness attached to it. It’s been a few years since I’ve been “home” — back to St. Marys, Pennsylvania the town where I grew up — and I won’t be going back this year either. For a lot of reasons not the least of which is that the long Thanksgiving weekend, Thursday through Sunday, is going to be spent in a writer’s retreat, cloistered away from everyone so I can make some progress on the book I want to have ready by the end of the year.

But there is a certain sentimental quality about going back to places we have lived at one time or another. I had a little taste of it on Saturday. I had to drive down to Marblehead, where I lived for seven years, and do some business. I don’t go to Marblehead much. It’s a pretty town and I liked it when I lived there but I just don’t seem to find any reason to be there now. Most of the friends I had then have moved away. Trudi lives in Ilwaco, Washington. Lynn lives in Coco Beach, Florida. I don’t know where Mary is now.

Marblehead is pretty. Like Gloucester, it is close to being an island, on a little “thumb” of land that sticks out into the ocean. The streets are narrow and the houses tucked close together. There is one house in the oldest part of town that has a chunk cut out of it. The story is that General Lafayette came to Marblehead in a carriage that was so wide that it could not fit through the streets and a hunk had to be cut out of that house so his carriage could fit through. There are also a couple of “castles” which are not as grand in scale as the two castles built by the Hammond family here in Gloucester but are interesting. One, called Carcassone after the town in France, sits on the edge of the island called Marblehead Neck overlooking the water and a huge rock with a thunder hole. The other is the creation of a wealthy eccentric who decided to build a reproduction of a castle belonging to the Viking Eric the Red. This area has a good bit of strange color thanks to the whims of wealthy eccentrics.

As I drove through Marblehead the memories came back as they always do — especially in places that don’t change much. Here is where so-and-so lived. There is where we did this or that. For a few years I had a love affair with a man who lived in an apartment that overlooked the harbor. He was a nice, quiet man from England who was here taking some classes at Harvard. At the time I was living out on Peaches Point and working in Peabody. I would get up early and go to a French bakery to buy fresh, hot brioce and coffee and take it to his house before going to work. Those were wonderful mornings with him watching the sunrise out over the ocean. Sometimes we had breakfast on the deck even though it was winter just to sit wrapped in a quilt, sip hot coffee, and watch the sun come up.

I don’t have a lot of nostalgia about most of my life — it happened and then things changed and I moved on. But there are moments when I remember little pockets of sweetness and that is something to be grateful for.

So Saturday I finished my business and spent a little time downtown and then decided to head back to Gloucester. On the way out of town I wanted to go to Trader Joe’s like I always did and got lost on my way there. I couldn’t remember which street to turn onto. That was humbling. I found it eventually, stocked up on Trader Joe goodies — spiced coffee, mesquite honey, black currant and pomegranate preserves, Thai spice and lime peanuts for Mark. Then I headed back up the coast.

As always, it was good to get back to Gloucester.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Seasmoke: Crime Stories by New England Writers

Four years ago Kate Flora, Susan Oleksiw and Skye Alexander had a great idea. All three of them being mystery writers and Susan having experience as the editor of Larcom Review, the prestigious little literary magazine, they decided to start their own publishing house and to publish an annual crime anthology. Thus Level Best Books was formed.

I got involved when they called me about being their web designer. I had already desigend Skye's and subsequently did Susan's and a dedicated web site for Kate for her collaboration, Finding Amy. Their first anthology, Undertow was a success and they went on to a second, Riptide. While we were working on Riptide Skye asked why I didn't submit something. I told her I didn't write crime but I'd look around and see if I had anything. I submitted "Asa" which they purchased.

Last year when they were working on their third anthology, Windchill, I wrote a story that was specifically a crime story for the first time for that book which they also purchased, "Home-made Pie and Sausage". Thus my life in "crime" began.

My third attempt as crime writing is called "Killing Julie Morris". it is a story of revenge about an unfaithful wife who sets her sights on the wrong man and sets herself up for disaster. I'm a bad judge of the success or failure of my stories but the Level Best ladies liked it well enbough to include it in their fourth anthology which is out this week. Seasmoke: Crime Stories by New England Writers is now available through their web site and will soon be available in local bookstores and through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Below are all the details. If you are looking for a bit of fun on these dreary November days, please give it a try!

Seasmoke: Crime Stories by New England Writers
Edited by Kate Flora, Ruth McCarty, and Susan Oleksiw

Published by Level Best Books
ISBN: 0-9700984-3-x
Pub. Date: November 2006
Category: Fiction/Mystery
Binding: Trade Paperback, 5.5 X 8.5
Pages: 263 Price: $15.00
Contact: Kate Flora, 978-369-5430

The Perfect Addition to a Mystery Lover’s Collection

Crimes, capers, and mayhem abound when twenty-three New England writers turn their talents to the art of the short story. Along with traditional mystery shorts, this intriguing collection by notable and new authors includes comic misadventures, suspense-filled dramas, psychological thrillers, tales of danger and rescue, gritty detective stories, and stories of revenge and redemption––something for everyone. This colorful anthology, the fourth release from the independent publishing cooperative Level Best Books, presents new work by well-known New England mystery writers Roberta Isleib, Kate Flora, Leslie Wheeler, and Susan Oleksiw, as well as some exciting newcomers.

Seasmoke introduces an eclectic cast of characters––a young lawyer losing an important case, a gambler joining a high-stakes game, a lonely woman spending winter escapes on Nantucket, a fanciful young woman with Mrs. Wallis Simpson as her ideal, a detective who uses Feng Shui to catch a killer, and a woman stalked by a crazy pilot.

Level Best Books is the cooperative venture of writers Kate Flora, Ruth McCarty, and Susan Oleksiw. The co-op’s goal is to publish quality literature with voice and vision that might be overlooked by large publishing houses.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Men with Guitars (and a Piano)

Ever since I discovered You.Tube.com I've been a bit of a YouTube junkie. I find myself thinking about a piece of music that was meaningful to me at some point in my life and then I go to YouTube and, amazingly, I seem to find it. Music is evocative for me anyway and a piece of music has often been the beginning of some of my favorite, if not my best, writing. My short story "Danse Avec Moi" came from watching a couple dancing in a Cajun club in Lafayette, Louisiana one night. So here are a few memories and links to videos of the musicians who created them.

I knew this guy who wanted to be a musician more than anything in the world. He saved his money and bought a Yamaha steel guitar because all the really great steel guitar men use them. But it just didn't "work" --- he never learned to play it and he complained to me saying, I thought these things were supposed to be so damn special. Sigh. There is an important lesson in that. Here is Carlos Santana playing my very favorite of his songs on a Yamaha: Samba Pa Ti. Is this perfect or what?

It was a couple years ago this week. I was in love with a guy who turned out to be no good. But I didn't know that then. I was way deep in love. One beautiful November night we had dinner at The King's Rook in Marblehead, one of those sweet, intimate little places just made for lovers. Then we walked up the street, kicking through the leaves, to the me and thee coffeehouse. We had tickets to see Garnet Rogers there. I have seen Garnet Rogers many times and have always thought of his voice as Baptiste's voice in The Old Mermaid's Tale. We were early and thought we would just walk around but there, sitting on the tailgate of his station wagon tuning his guitar, was Garnet Rogers himself. We walked over and said hello. He was so, so nice. It was a wonderful time talking to him and, even though I somewhat regret that affair, I still love the memory of that night. Later, when my brother died I went to see Rogers again and I got to talk to him again. I said, I needed to hear you because my brother died, too. He hugged me. This is the song he wrote about his brother, Stan:
Night Drive

I've been thinking about Gordon Lightfoot a lot lately because of the anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald wreck. He was probably the first singer-songwriter, as they are now called, that I fell in love with. I only saw him once many years ago but it was a good evening in a small auditorium somewhere around Buffalo. I can't even remember where now. But he was such a beautiful man and he wrote such evocative words. He was very ill a few years back and is closing in on seventy now. Hard to believe. But he still is one of the most beautiful of the beautiful men with guitars that I love. And this is the song he wrote that he played the night I saw him and still love all these years later: If You Could Read My Mind

It was sometime in the late seventies that I was in Chicago for a wedding. It was an awful, stormy night and there was a guy playing in a club near where we were staying so we went to see him. The place was only half full but he played the piano and sang and, damn. His voice was like an ashcan full of cigarette butts and broken beer bottles but his singing was magnificent. My friends wanted to leave --- I wanted to stay for the rest of my life. I saw him a few years later in a nightclub called Rockefellers in Houston and he was even better than he had been in Chicago that night. A voice of pure grit but a soul that is bottomless. This is Tom Waits singing Tom Traubert's Blues

Hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading --- and watching.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Our Dark Places

I had a bad dream night before last. It was one of those dreams that is particularly annoying because I was terrified in the dream but then, when I tried to tell someone about it, it sounded totally stupid. In the dream my mouth was full of terrible things — broken things and pieces of metal and I kept taking them out of my mouth and more came in. Lots of metal and in it was a lot of jewelry that I have lost over the years, earrings and bracelets and pins that I didn’t even know I still remembered. And, in the dream, there was a part of my mind that kept thinking, I hope I’m dreaming, I hope this is just a dream, it’s so awful, please make it be a dream. And then I woke up scared and shaking.

I never know what causes dreams — usually my own make no sense to me. But one thing was that I had stayed up much too late the night before reading a book that was a 400+ page chronicle of a living nightmare. I am not the sort of person who likes books about brutal lives and devastating childhoods and all that addiction and recovery stuff but this one is different because it is written by a man whose work I know and respect.

The first James Ellroy book I read was The Black Dahlia. Ellroy is a powerful writer with a noir-hip street talk way of writing that sounds like Mickey Spillane and Dashiell Hammett with contemporary sensibilities. He wrote LA Confidential and a number of other pow-pow, tough-guy crime novels but his memoir My Dark Places is a work of genius. It is genius because it is brutally honest about his own interior landscape and how that has driven his life.

At the age of 10 Ellroy was a mixed up kid living a life divided between his divorced parents. His mother was a quiet, secretive but educated loner. His father was a big-talking, gregarious bullshit artist whom his son was deeply influenced by. That year, while he was spending the weekend with his father, his mother got dolled up on a Saturday night and went out for a few drinks. The next morning her raped and strangled body was found in some bushes. The killer was never found.

Ellroy had a tough life. His father died when he was seventeen and he spent over a decade abusing any substance that came his way, living in parks and garages and alleys. Then he wrote a book. And another book. And another book. By the age of forty-five he was living in Connecticut and was a successful author with a couple book sales to the movies — but he was still haunted by the death of the mother he never really knew much about. He went back to California to see what he could find.

This is a tough book to read but is made worthwhile by the fact that Ellroy is such a strong writer and because his writing is completely devoid of self-pity. Rather it is a journey of endless revelation including the brutally honest and somewhat shocking recounting of his sexual obsession with his pre-adolescent fantasies about the mother who died a brutal, sexually-charged death that left her son powerless to outgrow a boy’s normal oedipal-phase. His lifetime obsession with “the redhead”, his fantasy name for his mother, is told honestly and without apology. I think it is one of the most honest books I have ever read — and that is both remarkable and frightening.

It takes a lot of courage to be a writer. You have to keep challenging yourself to be real, and more real, and even more real. Even if you write fiction ---- especially if you write fiction. Ellroy writes great fiction. Once you read My Dark Places, you know why.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Granny Squares? She's making granny squares?

My friend Lois in Pennsylvania loves granny squares. She is an avid crocheter and has made many, many things out of granny squares. I, on the other hand, being an avid knitter, have always been a tad smug about NOT making them --- until now. I much prefer knitting to crocheting but lately I have had this crocheting itch and then I got this bright idea.
It all began as I sat contemplating a bag of silk fiber that I didn't know what to do with. Over the past few years as my love of knitting with silk has grown, I have acquired a ridiculous stash of sll sorts of silk and in the particlar bag I was contemplating the silks were of different types but all fairly fine and in soft, earthy colors. I knitted up a few swatches but nothing was making me happy.

Then I saw a bed jacket at some online yarn site made of granny squares and the idea came to me. What about a bed jacket in 100% silk made of granny squares. Somehow I found the idea of this terrifically appealing. The colors are soft, the fiber is just beautiful and the simplicity of granny squares would just add to the overall beauty. What I had forgotten when I set out was just how many types of granny squares there are and, I have to admit, this is a lot more fun than I could have imagined. The first couple squares I made were traditional granny squares like the one in the upper right of the photo. I varied the colors but not much else. After four of those I had to try something different so I started playing around and eventually came up with the other three variations in the photo.

Then I went online and discovered something wonderful --- there are tons of granny square styles and many of them are stunning. So I have been printing out patterns and giving them a try. It's fun. In some ways the simplicity of it is rather like the mandala making we used to do in one of my women's groups back in the New Age heydey --- thank God I outgrew that! But this is nice. It is quiet and meditative as needlework always is. But, because the projects are so small, they are highly satisfying. I can finish one in an hour if I don't fuss too much with the design. I'm getting faster.

There are three kinds of silk in the samples above and at right. The raw silk, or silk noil, is a nice weight and has a slightly rougher texture to it than a finished silk. The tussah silk has the characteristic flecks and "slubbiness" that distinguishes it. The taupe colored silk on the far right is recycled from a Banana Republic sweater found in a thrift store. I find that I have to double the tussah silk to make it work with the other two although the recycle silk is composed of about ten strands of thread-fine silk. I also have a small amount of the tussah silk in a dusty blue that I've been using.

My objective is a jacket with crocheted lace between squares and around the cuffs, front and neck. Naturally I can't do it without a little more silk (I probably have enough but any excuse to shop!) so I ordered two more cones of 100% silk from that wonderful guy at ColourMartUK. He's so accommodating! He will wind the skeins with as many strands as you prefer for a project so I'm having these two triple wound --- I think that will do it. I ordered a soft blue and a soft blue-violet. I think it will be perfect with the colors I am using now.

So that' it for my newly discovered love of granny squares. I wear my Bed of Roses bed jacket every day and get compliments on it everywhere. I was coming out of my favorite little Italian restaurant here in Gloucester, La Trattoria, and a very handsome Italian man complimented me on it. He said, it looks so soft and such a feminine color. Oooo baby! Made my day!

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Thirty-One Years Ago Today on Lake Superior

I wrote a couple weeks ago about the sinking of the Gloucester fishing boat the Andrea Gail on October 31, 1991. Today is another day with such an anniversary, it was on Lake Superior that a great storm came up and a 729 foot Great Lakes freighter loaded down with taconite pellets headed for the Soo Locks sank. A lot of ships have sunk that way on the Great Lakes and this one might have gone unnoticed had it not been for the song written by Canadian folksinger Gordon Lightfoot. The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald captured the imaginations of thousands of people around the world.

What is it about shipwrecks? I suppose it is just the whole mystery of the sea itself. Something is here and then it is gone and no one can see the wreckage. If a train wrecks, well, it is equally terrible but there is all this mess, people take pictures and the wreckage is combed through. Same thing if a building burns or is blown up. But with a shipwreck it’s just gone, and the sea returns to its calm, serene surface and people swim and fish and waterski over the area where once a great vessel made passage and then was gone taking the lives of those aboard with it.

I’ve been reading a couple books about the Edmund Fitzgerald, most notably Mighty Fitz by Michael Schumacher and Gales of November by Robert J. Hemming. I don’t know why I find it necessary to read more than one book on the subject — the truth is I’ve read several more but each one gets increasingly fascinating. And too I can attribute this all to research for The Old Mermaid’s Tale which has its own share of information on Great Lakes shipwrecks.

For one thing in her day the Edmund Fitzgerald was a marvel. Launched in 1958 she was 729 feet, the biggest laker ever — at the time. An odd irony is that a man died at her launching. A fifty-eight year old man from Toledo drove to Detroit to witness the launch. When the ropes were cut and the Edmund Fitzgerald slid down the greased ramps into the water it hit the surface at such an awkward angle that it rolled, then righted itself and slammed into the dock opposite the slip which terrified a good many in the crowd — one to the point that he suffered a heart attack and died on the spot. Not an auspicious beginning.

Still for eighteen years the Might Fitz, brilliant in red and white, was one of the hardest working freighters on the Great Lakes. She broke every record for carrying tonnage through the Soo Locks and from port to port. All the lakemen wanted to serve on her. In her eighteen year history she only had four captains, another kind of record. By all accounts the quarters on the Edmund Fitzgerald were considered outstanding. Her kitchen was huge and coveted by the best maritime cooks. Everything about the ship was remarkable.

And then there was that storm. It began blowing on November 9th and by the next day it was bad. The Edmund
Fitzgerald had passed Caribou Island and was headed into Whitefish Bay. She had been in steady radio contact with the Arthur M. Anderson, another huge freighter on the same course, when it happened. It took less than fifteen seconds they estimate. The ship — a 729 foot iron freighter with a 75 foot beam – snapped in half like a matchstick and plummeted to the bottom. And that was it.

Expeditions have dived on the wreck, one lead by Jean-Michele Cousteau. In 1995 the bell was recovered and engraved with the name of the crew. It is now on exhibit in the Maritime Museum in Whitefish Bay. And the Edmund Fitzgerald and “all her shrieking crew”, as Melville put it, lies below Lake Superior. But she is remembered. For a beautiful tribute, watch this video on YouTube.com.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

More Thoughts on Independent Publishing

I am an independent publisher and, as such, have to find ways to distinguish my books from the literally thousands of other books out there that are published every year. One of my hopes is that the books I independently publish will be of a higher quality both in content and presentation than th others. This is a significant goal in this era of do-it-yourself publishing.

The first book that Parlez-Moi Press published was Lila Monell’s beautiful little book of poetry Split-Image Focus. We knew going into the project that poetry doesn’t sell all that well and the fact that we sold over 500 books in a matter of weeks was encouraging. The book was easy to produce because the poems were lovely and I had the advantage of Lila’s line drawings and her photography to enhance it with. I have no regrets at all about Split-Image Focus.

When Mark Williams approached me about his book I was reluctant at first just because I knew very little about the fishing industry and wasn’t sure about working with someone who was a complete stranger. But I was drawn into the project by his gift for words and his narrative ability. It was a struggle at times and it took us two full years to battle out parts of it but Mark surprised me by being much more open to criticism and making changes than I thought he would be. He would listen to my opinion on a section and then either say, no, it stays as it is, or okay, you know more about this than I do. I was impressed. Not a lot of writers can do that. I think the book is 95% where I would want it to be. There are a few parts I would change but it is, after all, his book.

People ask me to read for them a lot and it is difficult. I want to like everything I read but, of course, I don’t. I’ve had to learn to make some fine distinctions. Some people aren’t the greatest writers in the world but they are good storytellers and I’ve learned to make allowances for that. After all, look at Dan Brown. I can only envy his storytelling despite his dreadful writing style.

There are certain things I look for when I read critically: Does the story hold my interest? Does the writing get in the way of my enjoyment of reading? Does dialogue flow or sound stilted? And, of course, the most important rule for any writer: SHOW, DON’T TELL. That should be printed out in huge letters and pasted over every writer’s desk. Show me how this happened, show me how you were attracted to him, show me how this situation developed. Don’t tell me, let me participate, draw me in. Show me.

I’m also particularly picky about the use of analogies. Analogies are beautiful when done well and glaring when done badly. I would rather read a trite analogy than a bizarre one. I can forgive a writer who says her smile was like sunshine — some smiles are — and I can fall in love with a writer who says her smile was like an invitation to all my boyhood dreams. But when a writer says her smile was like opening a carton of eggs only her teeth were square instead of round, that’s it — I’m done. Good luck with your book.

I think those of us who independently publish have an obligation to work harder than ever to produce works of quality. Books are being pumped out off of presses at an alarming rate and, according to what I have read, most authors sell less than a hundred copies of their book. Mark and Lila have broken that record many times over but most do not. Quality is all. It would be a very good thing if professional editors were kept as busy as professional book manufacturers are.

So, back to work, I have too many projects going right now and more in the works. I’m busier than a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs — or whatever the heck that analogy is.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

A Spring Tide

I learned something new yesterday. Even though it is November the tide was a Spring Tide. I am told by my friend Damon who knows all things that a Spring Tide is one that happens at the time of the full moon whenever the moon and the sun line up on the same or opposite sides of earth so they are both pulling together. That is in general twice a month, approximately new moon and full moon. Other factors contribute such as apogee or perigee of the moon and earth orbits.. This means that the high tide is higher and the low tide lower than on other days of the month. Some Spring Tides have more “spring” in them if you will.

Normally the difference between the low tide and the high tide is nine feet in our harbor but yesterday it was fourteen feet, an impressive tide when you are measuring it off a pier where the marks are straight up and down but even more so along the beaches. I went out to Good Harbor Beach a little before 11:09 when high tide was due and there was water everywhere. Not just covering the beach but deep into the marshes that surround the dunes. Mark’s house looked like it was on the tip of a small peninsula extending deep into the sea. He always refers to the marsh behind his house as a tidal marsh. That was beautifully obvious yesterday.

I love living in awareness of tidal variations and the phases of the moon and of the seasons. The changes of season is an important part of life for me. It serves as a reminder that change is both unavoidable and predictable and there is no point in arguing with it because you will lose.

When I lived in Houston I lived in the city where there was less nature to observe. Still there were those skies. The sky is very big in Texas and the clouds look like mountains towering up higher than I had previously known there was room for in the sky. So, for all the lack of flora and fauna, there were clouds and magnificent ones at that.

The Native Americans called the moons by poetic names that reminded them of what the month ahead meant for them. This full moon was called a Beaver Moon and was a reminder to start gathering furs to provide warmth in the months ahead. Last night’s Beaver Moon rose huge and brilliantly orange out of the ocean. I have seen these mammoth autumn moons before but they are still a wonder.

I love the light of autumn. It is a light for showing off the subtle variations in color that does justice to the rocks and wild grasses and tree barks that are overwhelmed by the more brilliant light of summer. That is a good thing to think about, too. Brilliant light can overwhelm subtle beauties. It takes a soft light to show their true richness. That’s a worthwhile life lesson.

I went to the top of the hill overlooking Good Harbor Beach and took a few photos looking down onto the beach and the tidal marshes behind them. The bridge in the left center of the photos is usually well above the water but yesterday it barely cleared it for a little while. The tide moved fast. In an hour the wet sand that showed where the high tide mark had been was a good fifteen feet beyond the surf. By evening the water was past the rocks at the base of the hill.

I don’t know what I’m going on about except that it was a wonderful thing to take an hour out of my work day and drive out to the beach and just watch the water sweep in and cover the land. The bittersweet bushes full of bright orange berries seemed to glow against the clear autumnal blue of the waves and the beach roses are gone now and plump, tangerine-colored beach plums have taken their place. It is November. Life is changing and it is all good.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Commonplace without Judgement

A reader said to me recently that she had read My Last Romance and other passions and loved it. Then she added, every single one of those stories could be a book of its own. At first I wasn’t sure how to take that. The point of a short story is to provide the reader with a complete experience, however fleeting. To leave them satisfied and feeling that they have shared in something so, I thought, if she thinks each story could be a book on its own she didn’t feel satisfied. I said that to her.

No, she said, I loved the stories. I just felt like all those people were so interesting that you could have written a whole book about them. Ahhhh... that’s another matter entirely. That’s a very nice compliment.

When I was selecting the stories for that book from the tons of pages of stories and parts of stories that fill my drawers, I tried to choose stories that had this in common — that they all focused on a moment when something happened and the character’s perception of his/her own life was altered and altered who they are as people. Those kinds of moments are, in my opinion, what the best short stories are often about.

One of my favorite short stories is Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants”. The thing about Hemingway is that, given the kind of man he was, he had an amazing ability to look inside of people and see what was going on. This is a thing you understand more completely once you have read his A Moveable Feast but if you have read Hemingway and not read that book you can’t help but be flabbergasted by his insight. Wallace Stevens said Hemingway was the “greatest living poet writing in the realm of extraordinary reality”.

In “Hills Like White Elephants” there is just a couple talking. They are on their way to Madrid and the girl is pregnant. The man wants her to have an abortion when they get to Madrid and they are talking about it in that oblique way that people have of talking about things they don’t want to talk about. And, in the few short pages of the story, the girl realizes that their relationship is over. No matter what happens, this is the end. If she does what he wants, she will never be able to love him again and if she doesn’t have the abortion he will never forgive her. It is a hard story but a situation that most readers can easily understand.

Writing about life without judgement is both hard and essential. One of the many geniuses of Shakespeare was that he could tell the most ordinary of stories in the most extraordinary of ways without judgement. That’s what makes his stories so universal even all these centuries later. We might not know kings and queens in our daily lives but we all know Lears and Othellos and Desdemonas and Shylocks. The greatest stories are always the ones that leave you a little haunted by those people mostly out of a sense of vestigial familiarity — there but for the grace of God....

I read another sad, depressing story in The New Yorker recently. It was about two very young girls who leave home and wind up on the street hooking and accepting that as a perfectly valid way to live and it depressed me as it always does. Is prostitution now such a commonplace option that it has become ordinary? I don’t know. I wonder, a hundred years from now, how many of these sad stories of abuse and sordid lives will survive as great short stories.

In the meantime I try to write as quietly as I can about the kinds of people I know. Try not to judge but just reveal because in revelation I hope understanding can happen. It’s a worthwhile goal.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Stan’s Cam

One of the delightful things about living out here on this semi-island is that there are all kinds of great little things that occur that deserve to be turned into stories. I think that’s why there are so many writers here. I don’t know how you can live here and not be a writer.

One of the members of our Hovey House Writer’s Group is Stan Stone. He and his wife Sandy live in a wonderful old house overlooking Lane’s Cove, one of the most picturesque corners of our little world. The house itself was often the subject of paintings. Lane’s Cove itself has been a popular subject for painters since they have been coming here. Stan started a blog, On the Cove, in which he has been chronicling life in Lane’s Cove and telling stories about the artists who live there. He also started a web cam that I have on my own list of web cams posted in the sidebar here.

Wonderful things happen with that web cam. One sunny, snowy day last winter Stan noticed a woman down on the pier dancing around and waving at the cam. He posted a comment about it on a local message board and a little while later another guy posted and said that was probably his wife. He said that his grandchildren live in Chicago and every day at noon they check out the web cam and his wife walks down to the cove to wave to wave at them. It is their daily opportunity to see Nana on the web cam. I LOVED that story. The sweetness of it has stayed with me all these months.

Lane’s Cove is famous for its 4th of July bonfire. This year Stan set his cam up so it could transmit the progress of the bonfire for people all over the world. Lanes Cover’s living elsewhere and people who love Lane’s Cove could access the web cam and watch the progress of the bonfire. I was working hard on a deadline at the time and enjoyed checking in on it throughout the evening to watch the progress of the fire.

Yesterday, when I checked the cam as I usually do in the morning, I saw something unique. A pile of lobster pots was decorated with balloons and a sign that said, “Happy Birthday, Emily. We love you. We miss you.” It was very sweet. I checked Stan’s blog and, sure enough, there was a story. A family in the Cove has a daughter studying in Spain for a year. She checks the cam all the time just to see how things are at home. They decided to surprise her with a sign wishing her a Happy Birthday and, when Stan saw it, he zoomed in on it. I know Emily was thrilled. So, Emily, wherever you are in Spain, “Happy Birthday.”

Those are the kinds of stories that make my day wonderful. I love the goofy little things that people do to stay connected and to reach out to one another. I know that the internet has its flaws but I think, as we mature as individuals, we understand that the internet, like any other tool, helps us to become more of what we already are — for good of for ill. Scott, and his enabler Eric, still play their nasty games online and I’ve accepted that they will never change. Their latest stunt is sharing screen names and switching off posting in the hopes that no one will notice it is both of them sharing one name. Oh well. Hating me is their hobby and they seem to enjoy it. Everyone else seems to find it somewhere between annoying and amusing and, overall, pathetic. But there have been so many blessings to counterbalance it. Not the least of which are the people who have taken a stand against them on my behalf. It’s almost worth it for that alone.

And then there are people like Stan and the folks around Lane’s Cove — good people with a sense of humor and a lot of love. The world needs more Stans and more places like Lane’s Cove.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

All Soul’s Day

These three days, October 31, Nov. 1 & 2 have always seemed strange, beautiful and mysterious to me. Particularly today, All Soul’s Day, the day when the living remember the dead, particularly the dead who may have been forgotten and who have no prayers said for them. Catholics believe that if a person dies in a state of sin — not grievous sin but just ordinary sin — they cannot go straight to heaven. They have to spend some time in purgatory where they rely on the prayers of the living to purge their sins and prepare them for heaven. However, if a person doesn’t have living loved ones who will perform this function for them, they can be stuck in purgatory for a long time. Thus the Feast of All Souls evolved.

Among the ancient Celts this time was known as Samhain, when the walls between the worlds grow thin and it is possible to be in communication with those on the other side. For Wiccans this is a deeply significant time when many believe they cross over into other worlds. I have no problem with that. I know a thing or two about moving back and forth among worlds.

In Mexico and much of South America this is called El Dia de los Muertes, the day of the dead. The festivities that surround it are colorful, bizarre and yet beautiful in their own, unique way. Altars are constructed in family homes to the dead of each family and it is a time for prayer and also for celebration for those who have passed over into a better world. I was once in a Mexican border town for this particular festival and there is something cathartic in seeing people parade through the streets dressed as skeletons and carrying pictures of their own dead in order to honor them.

New Orleans is a city famous for its dead. Last night I was reading one of Andrei Codrescu’s essays about taking his visitors to Lafayette Cemetery for coffee in the morning, sitting on tombstones and chatting aware that all around them were little cement houses filled with the remains of people who had once filled New Orleans’ streets. The Victorians in this country had quite a deep fascination with cemeteries. Some of the most beautiful public places in our country were built during the Victorian era. Here in Gloucester Oak Grove Cemetery, just a few blocks up the street, was designed by Frederick Law Olmstead. And then there is my own cemetery sitting right outside my window. I love this cemetery - the oldest Unitarian cemetery in America.

Some years back thanks to an article in Sculpture Review I got interested in cemetery art, particularly the statues of beautiful young women wracked with grief that are often found in old cemeteries. For an entire year I carried a camera with me as I drove around New England to photograph funerary statues. I still have those photos somewhere but others have done it much better than I. David Robinson has a beautiful book of photographs called Saving Graces filled with black and white photos of weeping beauties.

I thought a lot about why it was always beautiful young women who wept for the dead in these cemeteries and finally realized that young women — exquisitely beautiful and ripe with the potential for motherhood — are the antithesis of death, they are the symbol of new life. Plus, well, they are beautiful.

Death is inescapable. People have been trying to figure out ways to avoid it since the beginning of time. So far none that I know of have succeeded. So today we celebrate the Day of the Dead, a time to remember that life is beautiful and fleeting. If this day reminds us of anything it is to enjoy, savor, relish the now. Momento mori...

Thanks for reading.