As a writer, I am most noted for historical works–though as I and the world get older, history becomes more “wait–I was there” memory. My next novel, for example, is set in 1985, making it the first book I’ve written set in an era in which I actually lived.
The thing is, “history” is as recent as yesterday. And like yesterday, it has memory and feeling and life beyond that of a date or time or place recorded in a record or newspaper. It lives, somewhere, in someone’s memories … and if those memories were written down or spoken aloud–or commemorated in some way or shape or form–we who were NOT there, who did NOT share that particular bit of history-as-memory–can kinda sorta participate in it, too.
I’ve always been fascinated with history because I am fascinated with people. I want to know what someone thought and felt, what they experienced, how they enjoyed and how they endured. I try reach a point where I feel as though I recognize and understand that human truth, whenever it took place, and then write it so that my readers understand it, too.
One of the major tools I use to “channel” the past is by examining what it left behind–a sort of latter-day archaeology. Archaeology was a focus of mine while earning a Master’s Degree in Classics, and I’m one of those academics who support archaeology as an overall more trustworthy record than the written one. Writers have always embellished and propagandized … but pottery fragments rarely lie because they were not purposely placed or arranged. “Time capsules” buried fifty years ago don’t reveal the past–they reveal how the people in control of those capsuled wanted people in the future to remember the past.
So, starting today, I’ve decided to document some of the ephemera that I use for inspiration. This is stuff, mostly inexpensive originally, that survived the ravages of time without any certain purpose or agenda. I have traveled with some of these pieces and used them in talks, lectures and book signings, as I believe in the power of physical touch, of interaction with an object, to better understand and literally feel the connection we all have to what has come before us, whether it was a century, a decade or a week ago. Each piece invites us to use our imagination, our sense of empathy, our sense of communication. Each piece causes us to reevaluate our view of the past and our position in the system that created it. Each piece captivates us, challenges us and ultimately enriches our understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. The “junk drawer” says more about human psychology than a metric ton of self-help books. Pouring through it can also be fun as hell.
So are you ready?
Up today is Gay Bobbie Pins from Gay Products in Atlanta. That’s a giant flip off to you, Chick-Fil-A …
I’d date these from the 1950s-early 1960s, based on the line drawing and the two-color printing. Plus, a dime for bobby pins was not that cheap, considering you could buy a burger for a quarter in the late ’50s. I can’t remember where I found them–probably at a flea market or estate sale. They’re also not used but, very importantly, they were KEPT. No one threw them away despite the fact that whoever originally owned them did not find them useful.
The answer as to why may be on the back. [NOTE TO TREASURE HUNTERS: ALWAYS EXAMINE THE BACK OF ANY “JUNK” YOU FIND]. In pencil at the top: “Cheer up — Do your hair! David”
Now things really start to get interesting. Did David write this contemporaneously? Or did he find an odd survivor of the past and write it at a later date? My view is that this is a contemporaneous note for a few reasons–one, he probably bought these because of the “gay” label as an effort to cheer up someone, and two, bobby pins haven’t been used to “do hair” in a very long time, and three, the idea that “doing hair” is undoubtedly a method of cheering up someone–presumably a woman–speaks to the era.
Still, I find David fascinating. He bought this for someone he cared about … who was it? He doesn’t address the person by name. That casual lack of address makes me think a wife or girlfriend. Why was she in need of cheering up? Why did he think “doing her hair” would fix whatever the problem was? My imagination runs amok with these bobby pins … I can see David as gay or straight, involved personally or not, a co-worker or a husband. I don’t see him as a brother, though that’s still possible, of course.
And then we are left with the indisputable fact that these bobby pins were kept, unused, for at least fifty years. Was it because they were a gift from David? I’m presuming he gave them to a young woman–who was she? What was their relationship? Why did she not use them–were they a treasure because they were a gift from him? Or was it all just an accident of time? What do you think?
Novels have been created around much less … such is the power of the junk drawer time capsule.
Continuing with “Nasty Women Month”, I decided to choose a decidedly Romantic literary figure whom I greatly admired as a teenager … Thomas Hardy’s Eustacia Vye.
In case you’re unfamiliar with The Return of the Native, it is, in my opinion, Hardy’s most evocative book in terms of setting. Edgon Heath in his Wessex is described with the sensuality of a lover and depicted as a raging, passionate character itself … the epitome of nature, if you will. The novel fits more squarely into the Romantic tradition than Hardy’s other masterpieces (I’ve read everything he’s written—he’s been my favorite writer for most of my life), and much of the tension and conflict stems from Eustacia’s struggle against what she feels is the “prison” of Egdon Heath.
Hardy also experiments with his “Destiny” themes in The Return of the Native, as he does most profoundly in Jude the Obscure and most movingly in Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Eustacia not only yearns to escape, but she yearns to be loved—and not only loved, but to be “loved to madness.”
As a young girl growing up in a remote, rural community—one in which physical hardship was part of survival—I resonated with Eustacia. She was urban and urbane and wild and passionate, and yearned to escape the confines of the admittedly beautiful, rugged and equally passionate environment in which she found herself trapped. She spoke to me. And what teenager doesn’t wish to be “loved to madness”?
Eustacia is also described—a theme in other Hardy works—as more quixotic deity than mortal female. But for me, she’ll always be a top-notch literary “nasty woman” … one who could have benefited from a “creative resistance” in her own time and place. And who better to play her than Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the actress did in 1994?
I’m heading to Thrillerfest and New York City this week, and the prospect of traveling to the Big Apple again made me think about a few of the reasons why I love it.
So, from a West Coast perspective, mind you … New York, New York.
1. It’s the ultimate, fabled, legendary City of Cities. Sure, the Mama Rose line in Gypsy is true: “New York is the center of New York”—but it’s also the most urban, dense, entertainment-rich and storied city in the world. It’s an artistic treasure and an artistic treasure house, an inspiration for everything from Gotham City to a Miracle on 34th Street, and a focus of literary gold for Fitzgerald and countless other greats. My ancestors on my mom’s side arrived here, like millions of others, cleared through at Ellis Island and made a wish on the Statue of Liberty. History abounds at every corner, noise, hurry and bustle is 24/7, and the city’s profoundly global diversity makes it, at the same time, profoundly American.
2. Neighborhoods. They can be a block or a borough in size, but they are real and they are fabulous (to paraphrase Teri Hatcher). Small, unexpected touches, like baskets of flowers hanging from light posts and mom-and-pop stores in place of large chains can make New York feel like a very, very, very busy small town (on caffeine). Everyone has their favorite take-out place, their own dry cleaner, their own deli. New York is big … but it’s also personal.
3. The Food. Hungry at 2 am? No problem. You can find a tasty chicken kebab right outside on 42nd. Late night at a show? No problem. Pizza places are full through 2 am and beyond. Craving an egg soda and maybe “real” pastrami? No problem. Diners still abound and every neighborhood has a good one. For real bagels, real pizza, real anything, New York is the ultimate food capital of the world. Well, except for salads and sourdough (my San Francisco) or hot dogs and Polish food (Chicago).
4. Looking up. I love Art Deco, unsurprisingly. I can’t get enough of Streamlined Moderne, and San Francisco, while the Jewel of the Pacific coast, boasts plenty of Victorians and far fewer Deco masterpieces. The Chrysler Building is my personal favorite, but no skyscraper, however tall, can ever top the Empire State Building, the most magnificent, proud, and dignified tower in the world.
5. The people. I love New Yorkers. They are direct and to the point and don’t waste time. I’ve never understood the “rude New Yorker” cliche. What I find rude are people who do something thoughtless or dangerous that hampers your own activity, whatever it is, and then try to dismiss your aggravation as not being “laid back” enough. Hey, I was born on the West Coast, and I’ve got a very New York gesture for passive-aggressive “laid back” offenders.
There are a million reasons to love New York, which is why there are a million stories, songs, paintings, photos, films and celebrations of it. But here’s the one I’ll leave you with, one most of the world has recognized since 2001: New York is resilient. New York is heroic.
You know, I really had ambitions to write a long, thoughtful blog. When you’re a writer, you’re always writing—even when you’re not at a keyboard. The blog was starting to take shape in my head, and then …
You know what they say about best laid plans. Actually, it was Robert Burns, not “they”, and what he wrote was:
The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men Gang aft agley,
He wrote “To a Mouse” in 1785. One of my favorite poems, actually. But I digress …
So what is keeping me from writing my planned opus, you ask? The fact that I’m getting ready for a trip to the American Library Association national conference and in the midst of booking signings for the upcoming CITY OF GHOSTS launch. Oh yeah, there’s also the small fact of needing to get a whole lot of writing done on CITY OF SHARKS (tentative title for the next Miranda Corbie).
So … until I get back from the ALA in Las Vegas, I’m relying on Mulligan Stew this week. Which means I dig up any ol’ bit of miscellany that might prove interesting enough to share.
What I found was a sonnet I wrote twenty years ago (when I had time to write sonnets). I wrote a number of them; always loved the challenge of the rigorous meter and rhyme scheme and resolving couplet at the end.
Here ’tis. I’ll be back next week after a sojourn in Sin City, and though I don’t expect the trip to inspire any sonnet-writing, you never know …
Sonnet on Reaching the Age of Thirty
By Kelli Stanley
Time’s sickle swings; his arcs draw ever near
While careless Laughter yields to wistful sighs,
Each pass of Phoebus’ chariot gleaming fear.
Persephone-like, the Earth we bid goodbye;
No more to smell the meadows blessed with green,
To reap the harvest bounty of God’s grace,
No more foam-flecked, blue-gray horses, Sea god scene;
Unkindest cut, no more to touch thy face.
And in such thoughts sinking, now graven heart stands still
Too ready, forsaking Fortune’s destiny;
In fear, dread drowning pulse of tree and hill
Frozen; cheating Death by dying free.
Then heart remembers, wise and old with strife—
While yet Love lingers, eternal is thy life.
This means I’m certifiably middle-aged and that means I’m much, much more dangerous.
When you get older, I find, you tell the truth, consequences be damned. You have more tolerance and less tolerance, simultaneously. You don’t put up with the slings and arrows in the name of “learning” or “experience” or bear fardels with any blind, youthful enthusiasm.
So I thought it was time I tackled the five fears that are usually uppermost in the mind of a writer … and the responses you need to send them skittering back to the shadows where they belong. I hope these help fight the dark days, both for published authors and those who are striving to be.
I’m sure I will be re-reading my own advice often … because, even at 50, it’s a lot easier to dish out than to follow.
1. I can’t write/have lost my ability to write.
This is the fear most common for first-time writers, but it hits everyone, no matter how many books you’ve actually written. If you’ve managed to complete a novel or non-fiction work and you’ve gone through the agent/editing process and you’ve managed to get it published, I’m sorry—the pain doesn’t end there.
Every subsequent piece of writing will seem like the first time in terms of self-doubt, self-sabotage and torture. Sure, that first book was pretty good—you just re-read the first few chapters and what stank like cow piss to you when you were writing it now smells like Chanel—but now … now, it’s all over. Now, you’ve forgotten how. You’ve developed amnesia, Alzheimer’s, too much self-consciousness, too much awareness, yada yada yada …
Here’s the response: if you’re suffering self-doubt, you’re normal. It takes an enormous amount of energy, compulsion, and ego to create in the void of a blank page, and sensitive, creative people (you know the type) don’t often have the unbridled egos necessary to handle it 24/7, especially with a publishing deadline. The good news is that if you’re wondering whether or not it’s good, your work is already better than 98% of books that are self-published on the internet, many of which suffer from an arrogance that crosses into delusion.
Thank your demons for proving that you’re not delusional … and keep writing.
2. No one will read it.
This fear is more the province of a published writer, as new authors are mainly concerned with finishing the book. But if you’re lucky enough to see your work made available, this, too, will be one of the fears that keeps you up at night.
I call this one “launch sickness.” It tends to manifest itself when a new book hits the racks and magnifies with how much money you or a publisher is staking on the book, because—believe it or not—that adds significantly to the pressure. Do not envy those people with billboards advertising their books … their sales have to pay for them.
Hollywood is strewn with the sun-bleached bones of failed epics (Lone Ranger, anyone?) massively bloated projects that failed. While six figure advances in publishing are very, very rare these days, the more success your books have, the more pressure there is for you to achieve more, particularly if the publisher is staking any money on huge print runs or an ad campaign.
Still, even for a modest book with modest expectations, this insidious fear will creep into your bones and whisper that your book is going to get buried. The publisher isn’t putting up much money—no one will read it. The publisher puts money in it—not enough people will read it. It’s got you where it wants you.
Here’s the response: Ignore the whispering. You have no control over your book once it is available to the public. Do what you can to call attention to the fact that you’ve written a good one, but honestly—everything else is up to the universe, and the universe is rarely thought of as a just and balanced place. So try—very, very hard—not to worry too much about readership. The accepted wisdom is that with enough material in the marketplace, they will find you.
Hope and faith come into play … hope that they will find you, and faith that there are enough of your kind of readers out there to begin with.
3. Those who do read it will hate it.
Except, of course, for our families and friends. In fact, all good reviews come from people who like us, right? That’s the only possible reason for a good review, or so says this particular little demon. So we ignore the good ones and remember the bad ones, unless we have the discipline to not read them at all.
OK. So the truth is, we need as many readers as possible to stay in the business of being authors. But good books, let alone great books, rarely appeal to masses, especially when said masses have been given free reign to exercise opinions … some of which, more rightly, should be exorcised.
I’ve always felt that readers help create a book, and I still hold to that belief. A book truly comes to life when a discerning reader brings his or her own imagination and vision to what you’ve created. I love to meet them, I travel to conferences and bookstores and events in order to do so, and they never fail to amaze me. I’m incredibly, enormously grateful to them and, indeed, would not be able to continue writing without their support. Journalists and bloggers and writers and librarians, true reviewers, literate people of all stripes … the business of writing itself would not function without them.
Note, however, I said “discerning” reader. That does not mean “every” reader—in fact, quite the opposite.
What if someone hates your book? What if a whole bunch of people hate your book? And what if (gasp!) they leave a “review” about it on a website? How do you react?
It depends on who wrote the review. Solid, well-thought out criticism is always worth seeking out, even if it’s painful to swallow. But a vitriol filled diatribe or a comment that could only be called stupid? Not so much.
Here’s the response: If you think it’s a good idea to pluck a random person off the street and give that person control over your happiness, then by all means listen to grammar-challenged opinions excoriating your work.
Do you stop writing? Do you stop writing YOUR way, change who YOU are, because a comprehension-challenged nitwit doesn’t like the kind of books you write and decided to read yours to get his or her hate on?
You can clearly label your book in one genre and have people who hate that genre attack it for exactly what makes it the genre that it is. You can be read by people who have no problem with graphic serial murders but who get very worked up about honest conversation using Anglo-Saxon profanity. You can have people try to correct things that aren’t mistakes and get mad at you for telling them they’re wrong. People can bully you, lie about you, lie about your work, and broadcast it to audiences as intellectually and socially limited as they are.
As an author you can be be attacked and pilloried and subjected to personal insults, be envied and therefore hated by people who desperately want to be published, in short be treated to all the indignities and injustices of celebrity without (at least for 99.9% of authors) being rewarded with the money that celebrity usually brings.
So ask yourself: do you really give a damn if someone whose taste, intelligence, social conscience or mental or emotional health makes them a person you a) wouldn’t respect or b) should avoid decides they loathe you, loathe your book, or leaves an insulting review?
Is that why you write, why you continue to work and sacrifice and labor through the course of a year and sometimes more?
Remember: being hated by some people is a compliment.
4. If I don’t achieve X, I’m a failure.
This is probably the most deceptive of all writing fears, because it changes in scale with circumstances.
To a first-timer, this could mean “If I don’t get published.” To a NY Times Bestseller, it could mean “If I don’t get to #1 on the list.” To a critically-acclaimed author, it could mean “If I don’t get a good review from the NY Times.” To someone who has been writing for many years, it could mean “If I don’t finally win an Edgar (or Pulitzer, or LA Times Book Award, etc.).
Down this path lies madness. The perfect self-sabotage is a never-ending series of qualifications for success.
Here’s the response: Do not let outside forces define what success means for you. This means you have to define it, which is damn hard to do (see #1). Nevertheless, defining your purpose in writing, your attainable goals (not your dreams, which are dependent on other people and other circumstances beyond your control), and your own success is very important to your well-being.
Come up with something you can live with. Something like, “I want this to be my best book —my best book according to me, that is.” Hold to it, and hold it fast—and don’t get sidetracked by any other definitions of success. If they happen, they happen. You’re a winner, no matter what.
5. I’ll be forgotten.
This is the one you get after you’ve been published. It’s also known as “I’m gonna lose whatever small success I’ve had and die unknown and unread, my books pulped into recycled paper and my e-books wiped by a virus.”
That title is a little long, so let’s keep it simple.
This is actually another (in a way) beneficial fear, because (like #1) it proves that you are humble and have a sense of the big picture.
I revisit this fear quite a bit. Maybe it’s because I’m a classicist by training, and I’ve translated fragments of authors who were noteworthy in the ancient world and who are now mostly lost, whose work was not transcribed by monks or was destroyed at Alexandria. Despite their contemporary glory, they are doomed to be known as footnotes in obscure passages from Plutarch.
This could also be termed the “What does it matter, anyway?” fear. Basically, it’s what comes up when you’ve successfully fought all the others.
Here’s the response: Millions of years from now, our sun will explode. Should we stop writing and worry about how our books are going to be saved or should we just write the best damn books we can, following the response to #4 about defining our own success?
Sure, we can pull back in time like a giant cosmic camera, imagining the future, imagining the fate of our work, our cultures, our species and our planet. And after all that, take a stiff drink and bring our worries a little closer to home and do something to combat global warming.
What matters is the here and now: finishing your book, working to make it the best it can be, and trying your best to get it noticed.
Nominally vacation—but actually research—the trip was phenomenal. Monterey, made famous by Steinbeck and Stevenson and a magnate for artists and dreamers for more than a century; both rural and urban, town and city, land and water. Smaller and slower than San Francisco, not as unforgiving, dominated by a sky that mirrors the sea and easily one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Travel is always educational—anything that plucks you out of your ubiquitous environment, your quotidian habits will, perforce, teach you something, if it’s only to take your sea sick pills one hour before boarding an ocean-going vessel. In fact, it’s the learning—that fantastic popping of brain synapses, the inspiration, the understanding, the wisdom gained—that, for me, makes travel as crucial as air and water and food.
So, without further ado, and with tongue only partially in cheek, here are five things I learned in Monterey. To be fair, some of the list I’d already learned, on other days and in other ways, but retaining knowledge requires repetition … if not a few days spent in Monterey.
1. Patronize people, places and businesses that strive to be better than they must. Our hotel, the Portola Hotel and Spa, is one of the few conference hotels in town. The location is ideal: just steps away from Fisherman’s Wharf and the State Historic Plaza of buildings, including the Custom House. And yet … the Portola is an icon of customer service, beautifully and thoughtfully designed rooms, and delicious food prepared according to the Monterey Aquarium’s Seafood guide. The hotel is better than it needs to be—and will always earn my patronage because of it. As a writer, I try my damnedest to follow the same rule: don’t crest at the minimum of excellence. Exceed your own expectations, and you will exceed everyone else’s.
2. The Earth likes balance. Balancing checkbooks, careers, family life, personal relationships, giving and taking and eating and sleeping and … yes. As 21st century adults, as global citizens, as human beings, we are pushed and prodded by the struggle for survival in an ocean full of predators. We act out that struggle on a daily basis, whether it’s managing a hostile work environment, trying to conquer feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem, or facing the dilemma of work demands vs. family needs. And through it all, we seek balance. Not too much of this, not too little of that.
The magnificent undersea kelp forests thrive on maintaining a balance, too. Like the redwood or saguaro cactus forests on land, they play host to a dynamic, intense and complex eco-system. Abalone and sea urchins eat kelp. Sea otters—a critically endangered species because they were once hunted to the very edge of extinction—eat abalone and sea urchins. Without the otters, the kelp forests will disappear. And with the kelp forests … oceanic life.
Balance. Yin and Yang. The secret to survival for us all.
3. You have choices. Make them count. The only unpleasantness I experienced on the trip was from a business that takes out whale watching cruises. Specifically, one man at that business. Their website lists “partners”, one of which was the glass bottom boat ride on Monterey Bay. My question was innocuous: because it was windy and the glass bottom boat booth was empty, I asked if they knew whether or not the boat was going out (their kiosk is within 50 feet of the glass bottom boat’s). His response was “Does this look like the glass bottom boat ride? Does this look like the same building?” etc. etc. Berating, abusive, bullying … because I was a tourist? Because I am a woman? As in all criminal behavior, the brain tries to find a rational reason for such ugliness, but, in truth, there is none. Criminality is all about the self—a profoundly anti-social attitude. When I told this man his behavior and attitude were unconscionably rude and that furthermore, his website suggested the businesses were connected, he demanded “Show me on the website where it says so.” Finally, he refused to give my anything but his first name.
I wanted to report him to his supervisor. And then I discovered that he owns the business … and that a close relative owns the glass bottom boat ride. Their family has been in Monterey for about fifty years, and apparently “give back” to the community. My response: So does Donald Sterling.
So, guess what? No patronizing his whale watching tour. No patronizing his family’s restaurants, which are in prominent locations on the Wharf and on Cannery Row. I exercised my right of choice and fervently hope others do, too.
4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Nature, the ocean, other people. Exercising that choice above, we set off on an amazing adventure through the Monterey Bay Whale Watch. The sea was windy and dark blue and the swells were not small, but, oh, what magnificence. We encountered a krill bed, so dense with these small creatures that they turned the water pink. Everything seems to eat krill, from whales to salmon to penguins. Thankfully, they populate quickly. And as a bonus, they look like sea monkeys. 😉
If you’ve never experienced seeing a whale spout—or watching a blue whale, the world’s largest creature, execute a dive, its gray, massive body gliding effortlessly through the waters, about twice as long as your 70 foot long boat—then take a trip to Monterey. These massive, gentle animals eating and playing (we saw mother and calf humpback whales rolling over in the water in between dives) is what the word awe was made to define. And did you know that the Orca (Killer Whale) is a member of the dolphin family?
5. Truth lingers. Cannery Row was once Ocean View Avenue. When overfishing killed the sardine and canning industries that gave the street its nickname, Steinbeck his title and a raison d’etre to Monterey, tourism moved in, and the city changed the name officially in 1958.
Cannery Row today—especially on a warm weekend in May—is overflowing with tourists who wander aimlessly into shoddy amusement halls, chasing something they couldn’t put into words. Most of the time, they are there to buy: food, souvenirs, shells, stuffed animals. They are surrounded by a wonder of the world, with sea spray and roar and nesting cormorants and barking sea lions and the occasional back-swimming otter within easy view, but most of them stalk wide-eyed through the streets, the history and beauty of the place serving as window dressing for a snack, a t-shirt, a drink.
Many of them, fortunately, wander into the Aquarium, which does an amazing and near-miraculous job of balancing education with entertainment and amusement with protection. In order to engage the average tourist, the amusement must be there, make no mistake; but they serve up lessons with the show, not lectures, and in so doing they are playing an instrumental role in saving the world’s oceans.
Also in so doing, they are continuing the work of Steinbeck’s friend and pioneer ecologist Ed Ricketts, whose unassuming business and home stands at 800 Cannery Row, unnoticed by many of the snackers and shoppers, just as it stood in the middle of the giant canning factories and apron-wearing workers, whistles shrieking a call to can the latest catch.
Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was already gone when he wrote the book, but even it lingers in the morning and late afternoon, the shacks of the workers still preserved off the main street, the vacant lot, home to his idealized bums, still vacant. The book is not the best of Steinbeck, because he was trying to resuscitate something already gone and so he romanticized it, the Great Depression through the ash-covered windows of Hiroshima, the lost past of youth always more attractive than the presence of middle age. But here and there you still see it, the noise and the stink, both as it was and how Steinbeck portrayed it.
Truth lingers in places like San Francisco and Monterey, the truth of personal experience and even the emotional truth of memory.
Most writers hoard what is survival gear for most of us … words.
Bits and bobs, flotsam and jetsam, beginnings and endings, random jots of thoughts and perceptions and well-intentioned stabs at craftsmanship.
You never know when a scrap might be useful, when that discarded sentence, slightly retooled, will fit perfectly into a problematic paragraph. And, because you never truly know whether or not your beleaguered brain will ever be able to replicate something reasonably engaging, you hold on to those scraps as life-preservers, wards against the terrors of the empty page.
Likewise, many authors file first completed attempts away, storing first drafts under the literal or metaphorical bed only to emerge with them later, held aloft triumphantly, after said authors have already been published and their early attempts are suddenly notable.
I wish I could report that I’ve saved up a few incomplete manuscripts, but my first book was published and every subsequent book has been, too. However—because I wrote all kinds of things, from translations to original poetry to sonnets to screenplays, long before I decided to cast caution to the winds and actually become a working writer—I can offer a few oddities from time to time, particularly when I’m hitting deadlines on a Monday and scrambling in the dark. 😉
Today, it’s Hemingway. Or, rather, a Hemingway parody/pastiche, a single page of prose based on both subject and style of Papa himself. I wrote this many years ago for a “Bad Hemingway” contest, but, as fate would have it, missed the deadline. To have and have not, eh?
At least in writing Hemingway satire, I am in good company … Raymond Chandler did, too. Those of you familiar with The Sun Also Rises and Papa’s short stories should recognize the title and a number of lines. So, without further ado …
Big, Two-Hearted Harry (Part I)
It was late and the room at Harry’s Bar and Grill was already smoky with the regular crowd when Jock walked in. He sat across from the rummy and pretended not to notice him as the rummy was always hard up and wanting Jock to spot him.
Jock nodded and watched Harry make the drinks. Harry ran a good place, a tight place, a place where a rummy could come and have a clean corner, a well-lit haven. A clean, well-lighted place where a rummy could forget his cojones had gotten blown off in the war.
“Your drink. Lady Breck’s been waiting for you.”
Jock liked Harry. He liked the way Harry poured the absinthe. He liked it the way Harry ran a tight place. He liked it how Harry understood about the rummy and could talk about the important things. He liked it about the scar on Harry’s arm. He liked it how Harry’s tattoo danced when his muscles twitched. He liked it when Harry bent over. Liking that made him feel funny.
“Hello old chap.”
It was Breck. Lady Breck was damned attractive. Her short hair fell boyishly off a chiseled face. Her tight sweater did nothing to hide the curves of a body built like a sleek-hulled yacht.
“I thought you were waiting for me.”
“Oh darling, I’ve been so miserable. I have been waiting, but I couldn’t help tromper-ing you with that white hunter. It’s the way I’m made.”
“That damned red-faced Williams? You didn’t have to do that.”
“Oh darling, don’t be difficult. I’m all yours now. My one true love. But oh darling, I’m so miserable.”
“Don’t talk like a fool.”
“You’re right. You know I feel rather good. I feel rather good not tromper-ing you with the bull fighter. I could have, you know. You chaps left me alone for an hour. I had everyone except Manuel and the rummy. Poor old rummy.”
“You should feel good. Let’s go upstairs.”
They kissed. Breck pulled away. “Oh darling, I’m so miserable. That rummy and I could have had such a damned good time together.”
Jock took her arm. “Yes”, he said, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
“A 12 year-old girl whose cousin wants to kiss her does not normally threaten him with a knife; she laughs and kisses him, he’s her cousin. Or if she’s shy or doesn’t like him she just escapes, and the incident is not important enough to mention.”
[Rose Wilder Lane to her mother, Laura Ingalls Wilder, in a letter about the editing of the upcoming By the Shores of Silver Lake, part of the “Little House” series]
Last week, I wrote about A Wrinkle in Time, the children’s book that, in retrospect, probably had the greatest impact on the adult I was to become. Today, I stumbled upon a brief Slate article that reminded me of another series that I read and adored as a youngster: the “Little House” books.
No, I don’t intend to blog about YA books every week, but the synergy was inescapable. Especially since the Slate article interested me less in the editorial collaboration between mother and daughter and more in Ms. Lane’s efforts to stifle and censor the truth of her mother’s stories.
As a writer of historical crime fiction, I face a formidable obstacle: the nostalgic reimaging and reimagining of our historical truth by later generations—generations that want to “remember” the past through a rose-colored looking glass of wishful thinking.
World War II? The greatest generation. Never mind the corporations that backed Germany, the black market dealers, draft evaders, Japanese-American internment camps and the rampant anti-Semitism and institutionalized racism that characterized much of American life.
As I’ve often mentioned in panels and in interviews, the past was life, warts and all. For every beautiful Art Deco building or green, undeveloped pasture, for every Glenn Miller tune and I. Magnin hat, for every “please” and “thank you”, there was ugliness and brutality and inequality and unfairness and injustice. And much of it was not only tolerated and accepted, but perfectly legal.
If we write only half the story, we add to the injustice by either romanticizing or demonizing the human experience. Even “escapist” entertainment—to me, at any rate—should be plausible and truthful about life and the endless capacity for good and evil of which human beings are capable.
After all, isn’t that our reference point?
So I read the editorial letter by Ms. Lane with disappointment, if not surprise. I’d known of her extremist political ideology. If she were around today, she’d probably be an Ann Coulter acolyte.
“Here you have a young girl, a girl 12 years old, who’s led rather an isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you cannot suddenly have her acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight.”
In seeking to minimize (and she does this in two separate sections of the letter) her mother’s brave attempt to prevent child molestation—and note how she implies that such things would be expected for a “slum child”, such a casual and crass example of economic elitism—Rose Wilder Lane not only silences the historical truth of her mother’s experience, but both admits to and silences a truth women have always faced: once they hit adolescence, they are targets. And in cultures that encourage it or turn a blind eye toward pedophilia (particularly in “slums”, according to Ms. Lane), such targeting can occur very, very early.
Ms. Lane also seeks to censor some of the economic and labor woes that her mother witnessed. The idea of crooked businessmen—and getting revenge on such—is not something for a children’s book, she insists. It doesn’t matter if it happened. Instead, Ms. Lane often underscores nature as the enemy throughout the series: the drought, the grasshoppers, the winter so long that the family nearly starves. In her defense—and in the passage that stuck with me more than any other in any volume—she allows a moving description of the disappearing birds and wolves and wildlife of Silver Lake as the little town on the prairie is built, when even that minuscule development by today’s standards is shown to have a dramatic effect on nature.
Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote about the disappearing expanse of prairie with a profound sense of loss, and I’m grateful that her daughter let that come through.
No, I don’t fault Ms. Lane for staying on target with her audience, for manipulating facts, for conflating characters and events and all the other things one has to do to present a salable narrative. What worries me is what she chose to omit. She omits the story about Laura’s cousin. And she omits the warning that Laura’s Pa gave her concerning the men who worked on the railroad. And I’m afraid there Ms. Lane reveals her own prejudices as well as those of her time period, the rose-colored editorial glasses of a 1938 conservative.
“But Pa’s warning to stay far away from all those workmen because they’re dangerous seems to me far-fetched. There’s no motive for the men to do them any harm, except a degenerate one, and there was not enough sexual degeneracy on the frontier to make it typical at all.”
Laura Ingalls Wilder was a pioneer, a strong woman and a determined one. And I wish we could have heard her full story.
It’s a foggy April day in San Francisco. Fog puts me in the mood to write (luckily) or, on a rare occasion when I’m not working, it’s the perfect weather for curling up with a book, with our without a cup of tea and a cat. (Those of us who like to indulge in both cats and tea know that the cat will often try to occupy the same space as a cup of tea, and the end result is scalding water in your lap or on your keyboard).
So thinking about reading made me think about books that influenced me as a child. I was an insatiably omnivorous reader, devouring novels and stories of all kinds—those written for my age group and those intended for much older audiences. Along the mystery path, I began, as so many do, with Nancy Drew when I was seven. By the time I was ten, I’d graduated to Sherlock Holmes (whilst still retaining a love for Nancy. Remind me to blog about The Nancy Drew Cookbook at some point. But I digress …)
A second grade school teacher put my first Nancy Drew in my hands (a vintage hardback of The Ghost of Blackwood Hall). A fourth grade teacher recommended A Wrinkle in Time.
Wrinkle didn’t fuel a life-long passion for science-fiction in the way that Nancy did for mysteries … though I was always a nut for Star Trek (original series, natch) and read everything by Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov I could find. What Madeleine L’Engle did with Wrinkle was nothing less than help shape my spiritual, ethical and moral world view.
I was initially drawn to the book because I was always a science geek—one of my favorite Christmas presents was a deluxe chemistry set my parents got for me when I was eight years old. I owned a microscope, a telescope and a gyroscope. I loved the idea of science (if not math), and even when I graduated from high school and had become a young adult, I seriously considered becoming a Cosmochemist (just the title alone is almost worth it). In fact, I was accepted to U.C. San Diego as a Chemistry major.
A Wrinkle in Time is essentially science fiction. But it uses questions about science to delve into metaphysics, spirituality, and the human condition. It tops the list of all the books written for children/young adults that I read as a child (including stalwarts like The Hobbit). It is the first book I’d place in the hands of a curious, sensitive and intelligent child today.
I don’t want to reveal any spoilers if you haven’t read it—and if you haven’t, please do! Instead, here are my top five lessons learned from A Wrinkle in Time:
Love is the most powerful energy/entity in the universe.
Don’t hide or be ashamed of your uniqueness; be proud of who you are.
Conformity is the ultimate bogeyman.
Intelligence without empathy or compassion is the ultimate evil.
Your faults can be virtues under the right circumstances.
I wonder what lessons kids are taking home from today’s crop of more-popular-than-ever YA books … and what your life-lessons from your favorite childhood book might be? Please share below!