Monthly Archives: February 2015

Even the Cat Was Listening

sleeping cat

…in its own way

About a week ago, as I stood up to walk out of my office, I got a phone call from a woman telling me she was calling from the Bound to be Read bookstore. I didn’t remember the name of the store, though I had been there once to leave a copy of The Illusion of Being Here for the store owner. At that time I had been going around to book stores to leave copies, but in the end, nothing seemed to come of those visits. Now, however, here was a call telling me they were organizing an event on a Sunday afternoon for local authors to come in and present their books. Was I interested in taking part?

Hell yeah, of course I was interested. A book store was asking me, ASKING me to come in and talk about my book? Really? After the call, it occurred to me that I had also visited bookstores in Charleston, South Carolina, and I wondered whether it might be one of them calling. If so, I couldn’t go, as it would be too far away. I felt relieved when I found that it was an Atlanta bookstore.

It never occurred to me that a call like this could happen, so when I came home to see how many copies of the book I had on hand, I was down to five. Gosh, what if a lot of people wanted to buy the book? What if I had to turn away anxious fans? What if a movie producer happened to come into this little book store just at that time and, and, and… I rushed onto the Ingram Spark website (the people who print the book) to order more copies, and because I now had so little time, I paid extra for fast printing and shipping. Thus it’s ironic that (1) the books were delivered to my office by Friday, in time for Sunday’s reading, but I didn’t realize they had arrived, so I didn’t pick them up, and (2) no one bought a book anyway.

But the laws of chance said that even someone such as I would not do everything wrong. I had been to other events to hear writers talk and seen large posters of the cover of the book the writer was talking about, and I wondered whether I could get a poster like that. I called FedEx, because I thought I had seen one time that they would make posters. I emailed them a digital copy of the book cover, and in a few days the poster was ready to pick up. It was slightly pricey at $48, but it does look great, two feet tall, a perfect rendition of the cover. When I went to the book store on Sunday, I was the only person with a poster.

The store Bound to be Read is in the south of the city, an area of town called East Atlanta. The building is a shotgun style of architecture, maybe 15 feet wide, and a straight shot back from the front door. If you had a good arm, you could probably stand at the front door and throw a book all the way to the back, but you wouldn’t want to, because as a proper independent bookstore, they also have a long-haired orange cat, and you might hit the cat.

Both sides of the store are lined with shelves of books, with other shelves in the middle, including smallish metal shelves at the back. Those smaller shelves were moved to the side to clear space for the reading, a small table was set up and covered with a red table cloth, and eleven folding chairs were set out.

I arrived somewhat early, possibly the second of the writers to get there. I recognized another writer, a man who I had seen multiple times at poetry readings at Java Monkey in Decatur. He said he remembered my name when I greeted him, but he didn’t recognize me, which he said was due to my remarkably stylish hat. He didn’t say “remarkably stylish”, but I’m sure he meant to. He just said “hat”.

I also talked a bit with two of the store employees, including the woman who called me, and I learned that they hope to do more local author events in the future, as there are many writers in Atlanta. We began at 2:30, and most of those eleven chairs were filled, so I started wondering if we were going to need security to handle the crowd. There were eight writers taking part, and I’m pretty sure that all the seats were filled with the invited writers and our road crews. My crew had the day off, so I was there alone.

I was the second writer to speak, and we had more or less 15 minutes to convey the heartbreaking wonder of our books. I’m very comfortable talking in front of people, after spending oh so many years as a college professor, and actually I think I’m fairly good at speaking to a group, as I’ve learned to speak loudly enough and enunciate clearly, and I tend to use humor. I had my marvelous poster on a stand up on the red-cloth table, and at the suggestion of a friend from work, I wore a tie (my lucky tie, that I bought in Italy).

For several days before this event, I had been wondering, “What will I do? What am I supposed to say?” What I decided was to read a page from the novel of the first time Luke meets the witch in Moscow, and then another page of Paul and Luke in a boat near Charleston, stopping to look at a boat with red sails. I thought these selections would illustrate the two basic settings of the book. When I finished reading the first part, in Moscow, the people listening applauded. In fact, they stood, they cheered, they threw roses and cried… OK, they just clapped a little, and I wasn’t sure how to understand that. Did it mean they actually liked it? Or did it mean that, like me, they were new and not sure what to do, and applauding seemed polite?

There was a real variety in the types of books represented: poetry (I think that was poetry), inspirational, novels (literary, fantasy), a children’s book, an Alzheimer’s memoir. I stayed until 4:30, though the event went long and one writer was still presenting when I left. (I wanted to go home before I went back out again for my drumming class that evening.)

We were all new, all learning how to do this, and one writer very honestly expressed how it feels when she said, “It’s an overwhelming industry.” It really is, truly. But once in a while something good might happen, like a completely unexpected phone call.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living


surprised baby monkey

It’s your birthday!

I was hoping to surprise you, but a predictable guy like me, who am I fooling other than my mama? Although I don’t think I’ve mentioned that at the moment there is a decorative skeleton in my office at work. I don’t mean my own, as I’m still using it. Somehow the medical journal I work for has inherited a skeleton, and we move it from time to time to different offices, with costume changes along the way. The skeleton made it into my office on Tuesday to help celebrate my birthday, wearing a black beret (the skeleton, not me—I wear a brown fedora).

But I want to talk about something else, if I could stop being distrac— oh, hey, a cloud that looks like a bunny. Hope it’s not a snow cloud. Anyway, I’m currently reading a book about two teenage girls, and the book has repeatedly dropped hints that one of the girls is having some serious trouble. So of course I began to think that at some point the author will bring this into the open. Then it occurred to me that since the writer has been slipping in little things to make us think something, that’s probably not what is happening. I’m guessing that a good writer, which this author is, would try to surprise our expectations.

In connection with this, not long ago I did a review of the novel Someone Else’s Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson, a book I enjoyed, and one of the things that most struck me about it was Jackson’s almost mystical ability to come up with one surprise after another. Maybe you’re a smarter reader than I am, but I kept thinking, “Wow, I never saw that coming.” I genuflect before such a wizard of wonderment.

These two books got me to pondering the element of surprise in a book. Are books better when they have surprises? Given the effort that writers go to to come up with surprises, the answer is surely yes. There is even a large genre—murder mysteries—in which the basic premise is to try to surprise the reader. If you can figure out whodunnit ahead of time, the mystery isn’t as good.

People like surprises, probably love them, in fact. I can think of a few quick examples from life in general: birthday or Christmas presents (which are wrapped up so we won’t know what they are), surprise parties, the child toy jack-in-the-box (which is an odd one, because you know it’s coming).

Within fiction, there are several kinds of surprise that might be used, beginning with the obvious thing, elements of plot, as I alluded to above. I’m thinking that maybe, at least in literature, the intensity of surprise might be on one end of a continuum that involves novelty in general. So even if something doesn’t make us think that we were surprised, we still feel pleased by the unexpected newness. From that point of view we can include settings that feel exotic (that little hotel in the south of France decorated with Johnny Cash memorabilia), or unusual characters (the detective who tracks down killers but who likes to bake cakes to relax), or interesting style (such as will be found in the novel I’m currently writing).

Maybe a love of surprises comes from the same psychological space that leads us to fast cars, bungee jumping, tequila shots, line dancing, lines of coke, and gun-running with leaky boats on moonless nights. OK, no, I got a little carried away there. Forget the bungee jumping. But the point is, we’re bored, damn it, we want something to enliven life. And if we can feel a pleasant surge of surprise that a character did not die after all, or that someone is actually the daughter of the gardener, then maybe we don’t need the coke and leaky boats.

But before I forget, I didn’t say that the skeleton in my office is also wearing a shirt and pants, along with a colorful banner that says “It’s your birthday”. Since I’ve been working there for almost eight months, I wasn’t surprised to find it in my office. What surprised me was when it began to speak, saying things that I could write down and use as a blog entry.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

Hmm, Imagine That

young girl imaginingLast week I picked up the first volume of War and Peace, figuring to entertain myself for a couple of days while waiting for a book to come in the mail. War and Peace opens in tsarist Russia in 1805, at a gathering of members of the upper class. A fascinating thing about this most famous Russian novel is that it begins in French, and for much of the first few chapters the conversations are in French, with Russian narrative, so that only people able read both languages can read the book as Tolstoy wrote it. That rarified upperclass world was one that Count Tolstoy knew. He was not a guy who had to worry if there would be enough beans and rice for dinner.

When I read the opening chapters of that novel I find myself standing in fancy rooms, with elegantly dressed men and women who know how to follow the subtle rules of amazingly privileged people. I don’t know people like that. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in the same room with such people (and if I was, they probably didn’t know I was there).

The book I was waiting for in the mail is one I’m supposed to write a review on, so when it came I switched to it, and that book also takes place in the past, on the island of Jamaica in 1520. Talk about your alien culture—half civilized Spanish sailors brutally encountering native American tribes. Reading that book I could sit in the shade of a tree, regretting the heat, feeling forlorn from the bedraggled outpost of Spanish “civilization” that was the only town.

With both of these books, while my body sat here in my humble but tastefully decorated apartment, in my mind I was in St. Petersburg, Russia, or in a Jamaican forest. Later I was thinking about the four most common ways we can convey stories: (1) telling stories orally, a method that must go back tens of thousands of years, (2) writing, which has been used to tell stories for maybe four or five thousand years, (3) acting in a play, which has been done for more than two thousand years, (4) or with movies, which are about one hundred years old.

These methods can all convey an imaginative story, but here is one huge difference—both stage acting and movies make enormous use of visuals in telling stories, whereas oral story telling and writing are language based. Of the four techniques, however, only writing is purely language.

Through choosing words and putting them in a particular order (and all right, we’ll throw in some punctuation), a writer should be able to take us anywhere with any kind of people. By using words we can walk down the streets of distant planets with giant red suns or walk on gravel paths having conversations with courtiers of King Henry VIII. Amazingly, the imagination will let us picture things that don’t even exist in the real world. What does it say about human beings, by the way, that we can mentally see things that can’t physically exist?

Of the four methods above for telling stories, writing makes the most demands on the imagination, as even oral story telling, when well done, uses variations in sound with gestures and expressions. Or rather than saying that writing “makes the most demands”, I might frame that differently, and say that writing “provides the greatest room” for the playfulness of the reader’s own imagination.

Do some kinds writing make more use of the imagination than others? No doubt yes, but it probably varies by reader. Some readers love to fill in a scene for themselves and will feel a little suffocated by too much detail from a writer, whereas other readers feel their imagination catch fire when a writer offers a richly detailed scene right down to the dust on the lace doilies.

There are other reasons for reading besides applying the imagination, but one of the joys of being human is creating something that didn’t exist before. It’s an amazing capacity, and it’s just fun. Children know it, writers know it. And in practice, readers know it, so that they sit and focus, move their eyes across the letters and lines, letting them turn into words, and as the words begin to speak they turn into images, and then airplanes start to fly, Spanish ships set sail, and detectives think about the clues for who could have committed the crime. Or people in expensive clothes walk into a room speaking French.

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Filed under How We Create Magic, Language

Summer Earth and Fire

djembe drum

Small but adorable

Let’s pause in the headlong rush through all these fabulous blog entries to touch on some of the wondrous glories of the writing life. But before we do, let’s pause in the pausing, to admire my djembe drum, a type of drum from west Africa. This past Sunday evening I went to a house that was filled with drums, and with about ten other people, I had the first of four drum lessons.

I learned a number of things, such as how to make the three different sounds common to a djembe or how to strike the drum. I also learned that the djembe I bought is just a little one, that I should have a larger drum. I have a little drum? Now I have drum envy. I feel djilted.

With that percussionary pause behind us, I’ll talk about writing. Lately my enthusiam for working on the latest novel is high. I think about it frequently and often wish I was sitting doing it. After two, or maybe three, years of thrashing around in the swamp of trial and error, I feel like I’ve found the voice for the book. I’ve finally forced myself to focus on the two characters I most care about, a 45-year-old woman (Carmen) now in a wheelchair and her 16-year-old niece (Leola).

For Carmen, I’m writing in third person, with a style that is inspired by various other writers, beginning (consciously, at least) with Isabelle Allende, but then others along the way since I was reading her. I’m trying to use a very literary style, consciously using the language in a creative way. Here’s an example: “Smoked peppers was the secret, in Carmen’s view, to salsa that sang like a choir of spices. She opened a jar she had made a month before, with Leola helping cut up the tomatoes, then she held the open jar before her nose, eyes closed, and breathed in. A slight moaning sigh hummed through her throat. The jar carried the smell of summer earth and fire, transformed by autumn air and water.” OK, it’s a first draft. Stop judging me.

For Leola, I’m using first person, which has turned out to be a perfect decision, as it allows me to vary the style radically (making the book more fun to write) and it also gives me a chance to develop Leola’s voice. I love that. This idea also came from another novel I read. Here’s Leola speaking: “Aunt Carmen talked to Mom about whether she should temporarily rent out our house in Rockville, but I just went out in the hall while they were talking about that. I didn’t want to know how much I was permanently stuck there forever like somebody had dug a giant pit and put everything dull they they could find down at the bottom and then threw me in on top of it.”

As much as I love the writing, the ironic thing is that I almost never get to it until late at night, like 10:00 even. You know how it is when you first get home, all the crap you have to do. Take a nap, exercise, cook dinner, iron a shirt, whatever. So it turns out that just as I’m thinking ahead to bedtime, I’m finally into the novel, my mind engages, and for the first time all day, I’m doing the one thing I most want to do, life feels bright, it has meaning… And then it’s time to go brush teeth blah blah blah damn it to hell, bedtime.

So that’s writing. I could try to describe the magical feeling that comes when it’s really working, like a feeling that I know why I’m on the earth. But maybe you have to have that feeling for yourself to know how it is.

In addition to slowly creating future world literature, I’m occasionally doing the things I can think of to push the business part of this along, networking and so on. I’ve been writing book reviews for the website Arts Atlanta, and it’s not like I just decided to do that. The editor had to approve me, so it took some doing to get to this point. Writing the reviews is general networking, slowly doing the little things that may (or may not) someday add up. I’ve done two reviews, I’m finishing a third, and I’ve started reading a fourth book the editor asked me to review. An extra good thing about it is that she pays $100 for each review.

I’ve also submitted my own novel The Illusion of Being Here to a literary festival in a town nearby for 2016. Somehow I think they’ll say yes, but that’s just me. And I’ve had a literary agent request the full manuscript of the second novel I want to publish. She has the book now, reading (one assumes), increasingly astonished and delighted (one hopes), preparing to offer to represent the book (one prays). Then again, who knows?

So I fill my days with medical editing, considering whether oligoarticular juvenile idiopathic arthritis is spelled correctly, and evenings (from 10:00 on) trying to use words to capture on a page how it feels to be human.

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Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living