There “we” are, The Angry Woman Suite and me, right above Bill O’Reilly. October, 2013. Lovely.
An unsolved celebrity double murder in the early 1900’s, and the fallout on three generations of one fragile family, as told by three very different narrators: a young girl in search of autonomy; a young man in search of an identity, and an older man in search of justice. Read On »
The Angry Woman Suite was published March 10, 2012.
What’s the book’s first line?
“It is said that love is comfort, and that comfort comes from recognition of the beloved.”
What’s the book about? Give us the “pitch.”
The elevator pitch is it’s about an unsolved celebrity double murder in Pennsylvania, in the early 1900’s, and the fallout on three generations of one fragile family, as told by three very different narrators: a young girl in search of autonomy; a young man in search of an identity, and an older man in search of justice.
What inspired you to write the book?
The autonomy slant was the inspiration. I was visiting Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, site of a Revolutionary War battle, exploring George Washington’s headquarters and the battleground. It was a warm, quiet day, and I considered how different it must’ve been the day of the battle; the noise and bloodshed—and that’s when it hit me: the idea of another story about a battle for freedom, but within family. I even knew, on that day, that my lead narrator would be a woman looking back on her life, and that I would include the Battle of Brandywine as background and as a metaphor for a story about family.
What’s the most distinctive thing about the main character?
There are three narrators and they pretty much share equal billing. But the character who starts off the book, Elyse Grayson, is the novel’s glue—and she’s an understated rebel. As for who she reminds me of, she looks like a girl on my street, but other than appearance, Elyse is, for me, an original.
What’s the main reason someone would read this book?
The Angry Woman Suite can be an immersion and an adventure; a book to get lost in. And I think that’s why many of us read novels. To become lost and then found again.
There are now many (thankfully, excellent) reviews coming in for The Angry Woman Suite (one follows here), a recently released novel about the effects of a celebrity murder on three generations of one family. And there are just as many comments about the neglect suffered by a character who subsequently perpetuates the cycle of abuse in his own family (note: The Angry Woman Suite is non-graphic).
It’s been asked how this particular character could’ve become an abuser considering his own history of victimization. The answer is that abuse of any kind—whether it’s physical, emotional, or psychological—is a rampant—and it’s been documented (first by Lenore Walker in the 1970s)—cyclic fact of life. Here are some stats:
A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds in this country (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families).
More than 90% of juvenile abusees know their perpetrator in some way.
And a full 30% of abused kids grow up to be abusers.
Unfortunately, children who grow up in abusive families, or women in relationship with abusers, often can’t acknowledge the severity of their own abuse. How can a child, especially?
And how many of us know that a sustained pattern of abuse can result in “learned helplessness”?
Do I think we need to talk about our walking wounded? You bet. Not only talk, but also learn to recognize the signs of abuse—and I’m referring to psychological abuse just as much as any other. We need to learn and confront not just for the neglected children’s sake, but also for the neglected and abused children’s children-to-be.
A well society doesn’t hide from abuse. Awareness and openness are the stepping stones to breaking its cycles.
A Review of Lee Fullbright’s The Angry Woman Suite
Lee Fullbright’s The Angry Woman Suite is a heartbreaking tale, a mixture of historical fiction and soap opera spanning six decades. There are three storytellers: Elyse, Aidan, and Francis, each offering a different perspective of a murder and its effect on one family over three generations. The real lesson, though, is that people are complicated, not all bad or all good, though perhaps more one than the other. It’s worth reading.
I found many aspects of Fullbright’s novel intriguing, including her portrayal of the public perception of divorce, marriage, and disabilities and the cyclical nature of child abuse. Diana Grayson declares in 1955, “divorce is unacceptable,” telling her daughter to stop talking about her “real daddy,” who had passed away, because “where we’re going, people might [mistakenly] think I’ve been divorced.” Fear of divorce and/or marriage motivate several characters to remain in unhappy, unhealthy unions or to shy away from the institution of marriage, adding to the drama of the novel.
This story takes place in a time period when divorces were difficult to obtain, when sparring couples had to assign fault in order to legally sever their union. That changed with evolving attitudes about women and sex in the 1960s and 70s. California became the first state to provide residents with no-fault divorce in 1969. Pennsylvania was one of the later states, amending its laws in 1980 to provide for no-fault divorce when a marriage was “irretrievably broken.” 23 Pa.C.S. § 3301(c) & (d). The ability to divorce without legally assigning blame has made divorce more accessible to individuals in unhappy marriages and has reduced the stigma associated with it. The dysfunction between the characters in The Angry Woman Suite may have played out differently in a post-1960s world, though I imagine it wouldn’t have been any less dramatic. Matters of the heart are always dramatic.
I was also struck by Stella, a woman with a cleft lip and palate, who repulses some of her family and is fiercely loved by others. Her own parents saw her as a monster who should remain hidden. She became the perpetual scapegoat, a role she accepted in light of her situation and loyalty to a family that was not loyal to her. While I imagine there are still some people who view individuals with disabilities harshly, the United States is a different place after the disability rights movement’s major legislative achievements, including the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, laws that send a message of inclusion.
Another compelling theme in this novel is the cyclical nature of abuse. Some members of this family are abused as children and then grow up to abuse others. As a mother, I find it especially difficult to read novels about child abuse, and I found myself judging the mothers in this novel for not protecting their children, momentarily forgetting that there are many reasons parents may turn a blind eye, including fear for their own safety or their concern that ineffective intervention could exacerbate the abuse.
Overall, The Angry Woman Suite is an intriguing novel about complicated people, at times perplexing and confusing, but always interesting. It would appeal to readers who enjoy historical fiction with elements of suspense and drama. Also, if you’re interested in early American history or are from the Philadelphia region, the book has additional appeal. We take Revolutionary War history seriously in Philadelphia, the home of Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, which may or may not have been rung when the Declaration of Independence was read in 1776. Much of the story takes place in areas surrounding Philadelphia, such as Chadds Ford, where the major Battle of the Brandywine took place. It’s a beautiful part of Pennsylvania with a rich history, of which Fullbright makes great use.
Image credit: wihtgod / 123RF Stock Photo
When I was in my 20’s, a friend—I’ll call him Anthony—gave me a book called Be Here Now, by the Western-born spiritual teacher, Ram Dass. I was eager to dive into it because Anthony was totally gaga over the “amazing” concepts contained therein . . . um, none of which I’d been able to put a finger on, because I hadn’t been able to pin Anthony down to my satisfaction.
So the book would be my way into Anthony’s head was what I thought, because the title meant nothing—it held no mystery or cachet for me (although Anthony did)—because where else could or would I be except where I was?
So in I went, leafing through the book before actually reading, what I always do with new books—and my heart sank looking at a drawing I didn’t get, which mirrored a man I didn’t get (Anthony, who, in the end, I shouldn’t have gotten).
But now here I am, many, many years later, with my own book out—a novel entitled The Angry Woman Suite—and I get “be here now.” I get it big-time, because “be here now” got me from “back then,” when I was a mess, to, well . . . here and now, where I like who I am.
Yet, why, someone recently asked, has it just come up again? Why are you talking about it so much now?
First, it didn’t just. But I haven’t written about “be here now” much until now, because, for me, it feels a little like talking or writing about breathing—which could make me sound a little too much like Anthony lecturing on the right way to breathe.
But the truth is, “be here now” never actually went away, because big truths never do.
After Anthony, life eventually took me from being a scatterbrained, impulsive, unhappy, immature and romantic compulsive idealist (and those were my good traits) with a big ol’ stirring spoon in a drama cauldron the size of New Jersey to a relatively centered—and, according to others and I’m not going to quibble—calm, and mostly content (the three C’s) woman who learned to “be still.” To listen to the quiet (yes, that does mean turning off the cell, the music, the car radio, and the TV).
And that, as it turned out, became my path: quiet. Not Anthony.
But I didn’t even know I loved quiet so much until I forced myself to finish my first book after Anthony broke my heart (and I say forced, because as any novelist will tell you, it is extremely easy to turn away from finishing a book). But, come to find out, writing is a lot like meditation.
In fact, writing is meditation.
Just as it takes practice and focus and quiet to meditate, it takes focus and quiet to write. But here’s the B-I-G clincher:
Creating something from nothing, becoming fully absorbed in its creation, even separating from time and place during, causes us to secrete dopamine, a lovely fulfilling hormone that stills the “hysterical” hormones, cortisol and adrenaline.
According to Martha Beck, author of Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press), “. . . research indicates that we’re most creative when we’re happy and relaxed, and, conversely, that we can steer our brains into this state by undertaking a creative task.”
“Steer our brains”? Oh, boy. Who knew? Why isn’t this stuff being packaged and marketed?
And who needs a drama cauldron that invariably leaves its stirrer exhausted, unfulfilled, and unhappy, when real joyfulness is creativity—“be here now”—or, put another way, “mindfulness”—and why couldn’t Anthony just have said that?
Mindfulness is engrossing, beautiful, and ever-changing—and it’s habit-forming, so that after a while we even notice that the desire for creating becomes stronger (and the books and blog posts get finished).
And another plus is that with practice, quiet, and continual creating, we become able to tune into the “here and now” even when not actively creating.
On the other side (the dark side *smile*), my just-released novel, The Angry Woman Suite, a Kirkus Critics’ Pick, with enough drama in it to fill ten cauldrons, is available from Amazon.com in quality softcover, or from the Kindle store, and also via the Barnes and Noble website.
The Angry Woman Suite, about a celebrity double murder in Pennsylvania, in the early 1900s, and the effects on three generations of two families, has also been nominated for a Global Ebook Award.
Thanks for stopping by, and here’s to peace and quiet in a compulsive, noisy world. How do you “be here now”?
Just. One. More. Time. (promise) . . . so here goes:
My soon-to-be available novel, The Angry Woman Suite, about a Pennsylvania murder and its effects on two subsequent generations, was named a “New Release Critics’ Pick” by Kirkus Reviews last week (google Kirkus online newsletter of 1/4/12).
I did have champagne for dinner that night . . . and that’s all, just champagne.
Second, while I’m so obviously aboard the “all about me” train tonight, I’d like to talk more about The Angry Woman Suite, starting with the lovely cover design by artist Laurie Fuller, which several people have asked about, as in who is this beautiful woman?
Still others have asked if The Angry Woman Suite is biographical or partly autobiographical (no, it’s not; it’s fiction, although it incorporates many historical elements); and others have asked about the title, if it means what it sounds like; i.e., a bunch of pissed women off their meds.
The novel’s title refers to a famous suite of (ten) portraits that figure predominantly in the novel’s plot. This collection of paintings is called The Angry Woman Suite.
The woman on The Angry Woman Suite cover is Magdalene Grayson, the model for this suite of portraits.
The novel—mystery and love story and coming-of-age (three intersecting stories)—is told by three narrators in different time zones (between the early 1900s and 1968), in Pennsylvania.
Magdalene Grayson is not a narrator, but she is pivotal to the lives of all three narrators.
She is the love interest of one narrator, Aidan, and the mother of a second (more about him later). The third (and lead) narrator is her step-granddaughter, Elyse, who is the glue of the novel (and we know everything about Elyse, every thought in her head, from page one, on). But Magdalene remains a bit elusive, which is why I chose not to make her a narrator: I wanted her elusive. She is a beautiful cipher wrapped up in a riddle—and I think the book’s cover art captures her mystery.
So moving forward with what I love best about writing fiction, creating characters, two excerpts from The Angry Woman Suite follow. Both concern Magdalene Grayson from Aidan’s point of view. But the second excerpt, which shows Aidan’s new, wavering perception of Magdalene, reveals as much about Aidan as it does Magdalene.
We meet Magdalene briefly when she is in her early thirties—but then, moving back in time, we get another, different picture of her through Aidan’s eyes, when she is sixteen—and it is not love between them. It is not even like.
What it is, is disdain on both sides.
Because Magdalene is one of those people born observant and curious, and so she questions everything. She will listen, but all the while she’s likely to be thinking, “I wonder when the bullshit ends and your real story begins?” The much older Aidan finds this threatening to his walled-off existence.
This is what Aidan says about Magdalene when she is sixteen, in 1916:
“And from the back of Magdalene, I could tell nothing. I saw only a fall of long blond hair, the way she straightened her broad shoulders, and the dirt on her skirt where she’d been sitting . . . when she turned back around, her pale eyes were anguished. Other than that, she looked fine, same as always: large and awkward for a sixteen-year-old. What I didn’t see was that Magdalene Grayson’s bigness was smooth and symmetrical, even classical. I didn’t see it because, primarily, Magdalene did not impress me, never had. And I had my reasons (and it’s a long list). Let me condense it for you: Magdalene was difficult. She was damn difficult. Even as a first-grader she’d been difficult, restless and moody, regularly declining participation in the schoolyard, not wanting to be in my band, looking at me with disdain, as if she knew more than I.”
But a year later, on the eve of America’s entry into WWI, at Magdalene’s wedding reception—and Aidan has not seen Magdalene during this year—this is what he has to say about the woman destined for imminent widowhood, who will subsequently and unintentionally start a war on their own rural home front while having to choose between two men, and shield her disfigured sister from murder charges. . . .
Again, this is a year later, at Magdalene’s wedding reception through Aidan’s eyes:
“. . . But then, when they were almost on us, Magdalene turned her head. Our eyes locked, as did the breath in my chest.
“I’ll close my mouth,” Jamie whispered in my ear, “if you close yours.”
Her beauty was more spectacular than even Lothian’s. Whereas Lothian’s face was soft and oval-shaped, Magdalene’s had become chiseled angularity, fine and even—yet she wasn’t just beautiful. She had mystique, something rarely seen; it was something in her eyes. Tendrils of pale hair escaped the white snood she wore, making a halo around her damp forehead and flushed cheeks, and I sensed rather than heard Matthew’s own soft exclamation when she laughingly brushed Frederick’s cheek with her lips, lips that were wide and red and ripe, parted slightly, teasing, yet weirdly circumspect . . .
She was real, the dream existed, and of course she was not a good woman, this lovely dream of mine. How could she be? She’d been a challenging child to put it mildly, so she couldn’t be long-suffering like my mother, or generous like Sahar. No, Magdalene Grayson was interesting. She was inquisitive, fractious, self-absorbed and judgmental. And to top it off she was totally out of reach, and the absolute worst thing in the world for me.
Of course I wanted her.
Exhilarated, I looked closer and saw those pale eyes weren’t actually unkind; how could I have ever thought that? It was question I now saw in those eyes, and suddenly I also saw the rub . . .”
Okay, so what’s the rub? Well, The Angry Woman Suite will be available at the end of February, so stay tuned.
Not nice, huh? *smile*
However, what the rub is not, in this story, is truth. And the truth is that sometimes when we fall in like/love/lust—as Aidan’s apparently beginning to do—we are compelled to square that decision with a previous assessment. I mean, who’s going to say to him or herself, “I’m attracted to so-and-so because no one sets buildings on fire the way s/he does?”
No sane person. So the first assessment has to be modified. Also, this last bit of narrative suggests our walled-off Aidan possesses at least a modicum of vulnerability.
Thanks for coming by, and more on The Angry Woman Suite characters later—and, oh, my “metaphor,” the wooden ship! More on it, too. I’ll walk down to the bay and get new photos (see my post of 1/4/12), and be back with you in a week or so.
Happy Thanksgiving week! A lot of us are on holiday break right now, or will be (and I’m one), so I’m writing just the one post this week—and then I’m off to cook like mad, eat like mad, and hang with those I love.
I’ve been thinking a lot about my mother lately, who died too young—and not just because of Thanksgiving, although that is part of it . . . but I think it’s also my crazy life: sick husband, FT job, house, writing, what’s going on with my book right now. . . .
No booze in Norden.
Her name was Donna, and she had an isolated start as an only child living in the Sierras, in a place called Norden (close to where the Donner party perished), in a small railroad cabin. In the winters she couldn’t even see out the windows for all the snow—and there were no other children around; no playmates. It was a lonely existence.
Donna’s father worked for the railroad, which was the first reason they’d moved to remote Norden, to tend trains crossing the mountains. Donna’s neurotic, alcohol-loving mother was the second reason. There was no booze in Norden, so her sobriety was guaranteed—there was nothing but a railroad platform, work station, and the railroad cabin.
Donna’s father was a loving man, but her suddenly sober, 40-year-old mother was not. She was sullen, thirsty, and ignored the little girl. But Donna’s father had to work long, hard hours, so Donna, for all intents and purposes, alone, learned to nurture herself. She made an extended family: her dog Laddie, the chickens, and her doll. She was a self-reliant dreamer who imagined herself one day living in a city surrounded by lots of friends. She dreamed she’d be loved. Immensely loved. And she’d have children. Happy children. In the meantime, she loved on Laddie and her doll—and the few books the family brought with them to Norden.
And, as it would turn out, books were to be Donna’s ticket out of Norden. Her father realized that Donna’s mother couldn’t home school Donna, so the family eventually moved to Sacramento. Finally, the city!
But there was booze in Sacramento. . . .
And Donna’s mother found it. Drunk, she often beat Donna and locked her in a dark closet for hours on end. Blaming herself for the abuse, a shamed Donna didn’t tell her father. She covered her bruises and took refuge in books instead. But when Donna was twelve, a neighbor told Donna’s father what she’d seen and heard while he was at work. Donna’s mother was committed, which often happened to alcoholics in those days.
Her father eventually remarried, to a woman with children, and Donna became part of a real family. It was a bit of a John Irving-type family, but after what Donna had been through, she thought she’d died and gone to heaven. She started making friends, and doing well in school. Very well in school. Donna was a sharp cookie who could not only read and write circles around everyone else, but she was also an accomplished musician.
Donna fell in love and married—and I was her first-born. A lot happened to Donna after she married—life changed many times over, which is the nature of life, change—but I remember the laughter, music, and the books, those things my mother loved most, after her three kids
The books and music nurtured my mother’s spirit, as did quiet time. I think she must’ve been leery of her childhood wounds, afraid she’d reopen them, of becoming anything like her mother. Though she didn’t dwell on her childhood trauma, she was vigilant against its aftermath of depression and migraines, and she avoided conflict, and even, sometimes, too much intimacy. She was careful how much she let others see.
She wanted happiness and she kept her eye on that ball, having learned young that if she didn’t nurture herself, she’d lose her semblance of balance.
So books were everywhere in my mother’s house—but not strewn. Nothing but nothing in her house was strewn. But books were part of our backdrop, like the lamps. And we all read. We read like mad. And my mother’s taste and mine meshed. We talked of the Brontes and Alcott, Dickens and Mitchell, and many other authors and stories, as well as the stories playing out on the block we lived on. She told me the story of her isolated early life (though she didn’t tell me of the abuse until I was an adult). She talked, I listened. And I began writing, and she began typing up my little stories and poems and sending them to magazines.
But then something happened: full-blown adolescence. My writing became private, sacrosanct. I didn’t appreciate my mother’s overtures–the magic was gone. She could no longer do anything right. All her decisions had ruined my life.
I think this often happens with mothers and daughters, that mothers don’t get the credit they deserve, because we daughters are somewhat wired to, at some point, pull away in order to become our own women.
Well, my wiring was pretty good.
My adolescence (and young adulthood) was one giant pull-away. For many reasons. But then I came back. And after a pretty big, disapproving, “Well, you took your time,” my mother never said another word about my crappy behavior or about not living up to my potential. Not once—and I eventually got life and discipline on track, and the best years with my mother began: we were grownups together, talking stories–the magic was back.
When my mother passed, my niece read a journal entry of mine at Mother’s memorial service. I’d written of my mother’s connection with each of her children. With my sister, it was cooking, and with my brother, music. I did write of the pride Mother took in my writing, but what I felt when I wrote that entry was nothing like what I feel today, because this story/reading-writing connection I had with my mother was so natural, so intrinsic, like having two arms, that not having her in my life anymore couldn’t be wholly absorbed. It was like I was missing parts of me, my other pair of arms, and it didn’t feel real.
Until, actually, right now, when our shared love of stories has morphed again, this time into my novel, The Angry Woman Suite—
—and I’m missing her. Really, really missing her. And, finally, fully, appreciating her.
I actually imagine my mother and me sitting at the kitchen table, where we always sat and talked, and she wants to know everything, every last detail about The Angry Woman Suite, and the whole publishing process, and then who said what, where, when, how, and why.
And I’m thanking her. I’m thanking her profusely. Not only for giving me books, for instilling the love of words and sharing the magic of storytelling, but for showing me how to self-nurture. For teaching me that nurturing is not only okay, but required when shit hits the fan or responsibilities mount and time’s not getting any longer.
First she gave me the life, and then she gave me purpose, and then she showed me how to keep my balance—all pretty cool things to give someone, and I’m grateful.
And her dream did become reality: she was immensely loved, and she knew it.
I’m thankful for that, too.
Gratitude does feel good. Happy Thanksgiving one and all. I hope your day is wonderful (and the oh-dawn-hundred wake-up call on Black Friday doesn’t kill you). *smile* I’ll be back next Monday . . . or maybe Tuesday.
New business: This photograph is under consideration for the cover of The Angry Woman Suite. Like it/don’t like it? Don’t be shy . . . first thing off the top of your head—good? bad? Do you feel the “wistfulness”? Feedback appreciated!
Penquin’s online community Book Country has launched a plethora of tools for authors to digitally publish, with distribution to all major outlets that Penquin distributes to. . . .
Barnes & Noble’s Nook Tablet is making its appearance sooner than initially announced (sharing the love with Amazon’s new Fire).
Old business: Some time back, a non-writer friend, an avid reader, was looking over a very rough first draft of The Angry Woman Suite for me, a story with a double murder at its core (emphasis here for a reason), told by three narrators in different time zones.
One of these narrators is Elyse Grayson, a young girl at the start of The Angry Woman Suite, and eighteen at its conclusion. The other two narrators are males. Now, as I’ve written before, Elyse Grayson had me from the beginning of the story. She is the glue of this book, and the character I relate to. I didn’t want to leave her when the novel ended.
Is that because Elyse is female and has understandable issues? (rhetorical question)
Francis Grayson, on the other hand, her stepfather, was the most difficult character to move forward from a first-person point of view. First off, it was über difficult being male when I’m not, and, second, having to stay in Francis’ head for any length of time made me a little nutty—is that because he’s male (redundant) and has issues?
So this friend (the one who’d read the first draft of The Angry Woman Suite) and I were at lunch one day, menus still in hand, when she leaned over and asked almost conspiratorially, “Lee, did all those things really happen to you when you were a child?”
I was speechless—seriously speechless. “But this isn’t a memoir—”
“But what about Francis? Isn’t he—?”
Since then, as The Angry Woman Suite has grown, and been read by more people and critiqued and commented on, I’ve heard again and again, “How much of this story is you; is any part of it true?”
Okay, so here’s the deal: other than writing these blog posts, I write fiction. Stories. I make things up.
There is no double murder in my background.
Are you kidding? If there were, I would write a memoir—and a sequel.
As for creating characters with foibles and neuroses, well, ever since I can remember, I have watched and listened to people and wondered, “Really, is what you just said truth or bullshit? And if it’s bullshit—and you are looking like you’re believing your own shit —then which hat did you just pull that one out of?
And this, seriously, is the genesis of my storytelling. I make up stories to explain the otherwise (to me) unexplainable.
So, yes, there are people in my stories who are reminiscent of many real-life people I’ve either appreciated or puzzled over. We all work with the tools we have, what we can lay our hands on, what is familiar; what we know. And, like everyone else, I’ve had good and bad influences in my life—those influences are my tools.
But, again, excepting the historical references to the American Revolution, The Angry Woman Suite is fiction.
And fiction is an art form I’ve loved from the very first Louisa Mae Alcott “big girl” novel (Rose in Bloom) my mother gave me when I was eight, to the novel we talked of as she lay dying (The Last of the Mohicans).
Thanks for coming by—oh, and one other thing, and yes, it is about me *smile*: I met my Telemachus editor today. Her name is Karen, and she’s brilliant. She turned 40 pages back around to me thisfast—so there’s much to do (but it’s fun). Except I haven’t quite figured out the sleeping thing, as in where it fits in. I’ll be back on Monday—comments appreciated!
Happy Halloween! And thanks so much to all of you who sent encouraging emails and/or left comments at my Oct. 27th post.
For those checking in with me for the first time, my back story is that I’ve written a historical-commercial novel called The Angry Woman Suite (about a double murder in the early 1900’s, in Pennsylvania, and subsequent fallout on two generations). The novel, both mystery and love story, garnered very good reviews, and a literary agent.
But back stories, like life, never have straight trajectories, and this one is no exception. In my case, my agent left the publishing business (I’d nothing to do with it, I swear! I’m not that powerful!) . . .
. . . though e-readers are. . . .
And so my new paradigm became a sudden and succinct bottom line of no agent = no contract. The Angry Woman Suite went from promising, front and center, to Nowhere Land, out in the cold—and took me with it.
What to do next? Well, after some impressive dithering and waffling on my part, I met two men whom I’ve introduced via previous posts: potty-mouthed Josh, who looks a little like Ashton Kutcher on a bad day, with glasses (which is still an excellent look). Josh is a successful non-fiction writer who told me to get off the dime (and with the program, with digital publishing and a blog).
The other man is Tim, who’s a much shorter, much younger version of Obama (though I’d bet Baby Rae’s next chicken treat Tim’s never seen the inside of a business suit). Tim’s a rumpled genius. A kind, rumpled genius who put my blog together (and never once laughed or snickered, at least so I could hear, at my lack of computer skills).
And now here I am—and if someone had told me a year ago I’d be a blogger, I’d have sniggered and said odds are I’ll strip to my skivvies and run half-naked through Balboa Park first—and we all know that’s never going to happen.
Put another way, never say never.
My last post ended with Parts 1 and 2 of scary things to try before I die, so coming up next, naturally, would be Part 3 of what I now call The Angry Woman Suite Project—as in Manhattan minus the bomb stuff.
I pretty much thought I’d get at least ten blog posts out of the arts of dithering, waffling, whining and attendant nuances before moving forward with Part 3, which was to name who will format my baby (The Angry Woman Suite) and put it out there—but here’s what’s happened: another never.
I met a third man. Actually, I met two more men. One I can’t talk about—yet. Mystery man.
(Hint: I knew him a long time ago, in school, and could never have predicted what he’s become since, or how it could affect the “project.”)
The other is Steve Jackson (aka Mr. Wonderful, and he is). Steve is the voice for Telemachus Press. I’ll be writing more about Steve and Telemachus as we go along, but for now my headline in the sky reads:
The Angry Woman Suite is coming in from the cold.
So, Part 3 of the “project” has been implemented—already! I have a publisher, and I’m very excited at the prospect of working with Telemachus.
Know what’s odd? My entire writing life has been mostly shadowed (in a good way) by women; i.e., my mother, teachers, my critique group, my agent, my editor. But have you noticed that all the new people in my “project” story are men? Four—count ’em—four. And I’m just getting started.
Poor me. *smile*
Thought for the day, courtesy of Kristin Lamb:
“Learn to have a healthy relationship with failure . . . if we aren’t failing, we’re not doing anything interesting.”
Next post will be more on digital publishing and coming in from the cold; mystery men, and Telemachus Press.
Have fun tonight!
Is anything scarier for a writer than total blankness?
As in his or her mind? And the blank screen in front of same?
In a word: no. Though rejection runs a close second.
“Going into the unknown is invariably frightening, but we learn what is significantly new only through adventures.” M. Scott Peck, MD (psychiatrist and best-selling author)
I sort of love that quote. So I’ve reframed writer’s block—the dreaded blankness—as Peck’s unknown. And Peck’s interesting use of the word adventures, as in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is infinitely more seductive than the word discipline (what is actually required for trudging through the darkness of blankness). And, see, I can’t help translating adventure as fun: a night on the town, an exotic vacation, and/or white water rafting. Now we’re talking.
We’re talking a method of making writers block palatable, even … adventurous. Because writing can be hard, people.
So why do it?
Excellent question—but it’s like asking why climb Everest, or build outrageously tall buildings, or do Sudoko. (I get the first two, but Suduko?)
Samuel Clemens aka Mark Twain, author of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is generally regarded as the first Great American Novel, is my conception of the complete man. He was smart, brave, a little dark—okay, a lot dark—funny, and hot, and a first-class adventurer.
So hot that I initially (and unconsciously) fashioned Aidan Madsen, the romantic lead of my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, after Mark Twain—er, till someone told me rather derisively that George Clooney might actually be hotter than Twain (and way less dead). An apt observation–and so, yes, Aidan Madsen is now Clooney-hot . . . he also has layers. And secrets. He is, in a word, complicated–maybe even dangerous. But more about Aidan later.
Mark Twain put the manuscript for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn away for months, even years, before finally finishing it. Maybe because he was drawing blanks all over the place. Or maybe it was the fear of confronting the realities of slavery—but in the end, Twain the adventurer followed through on the theme of his novel, doing what he had Huck do: the hard thing.
Despite the occasional “blank-out” or boredom, rising to a challenge, along with tenacity, are the primary characteristics of writers (and mountain climbers and builders-in-the-sky).
Okay, and Sudoko savants, too. The act of writing is not an unknown. Neither are the acts of scaling mountains and building skyscrapers. The mind itself is the unknown. Whether blank (asleep), or awake, it’s the uncharted.
So, going into the mind—what all adventurers do—is the ultimate game. The kind of work that’s fun. It’s why writers confront the dark blankness of fear, and keep going back to it again and again, meeting self-imposed challenges and repeatedly raising their bars. Simply put, writers are competitors who write to best themselves.
Sometimes it’s in the act of saving something else that we save ourselves.
Which I was newly reminded of this morning when Baby Rae nuzzled me awake. Baby Rae—or just plain Baby—is the Australian cattle dog I rescued when she was a sick, battered puppy—oh, and bald except for a dark Mohawk that started strong at the top of her little head and ran out of gas just before segueing into a tail that had been too crudely and recently halved.
Her skin, where it wasn’t an open wound, was tough to the touch but wrinkled like crumpled paper. Her eyelids were matted shut, blinding her: she was a study in absolute misery—and was being kicked around the Tecate, Mexico plaza by a federale when, without thinking, I’d taken off my sweater, intercepted a kick, and hustled the dog away, all eight pounds of puppy-misery swaddled in wool.
But then I couldn’t hold onto what I’d just saved; she was too covered with bleeding sores and cuts. I couldn’t reassure her with my hands. She was too damaged. We couldn’t bond.
To complicate matters . . .
I picked the puppy up from the emergency animal clinic, which had been my first stop back on the US side of the border, and my two other dogs disliked her at first sniff (sick dogs are instinctively shunned by a pack, so my sick one would have to be carefully watched), and my husband, and my veterinarian, had looked at me as if I’d just sprouted a second head, for bringing home this thing.
I am not naturally impulsive. I had no non-emotional explanation for sneaking Baby Rae across the border.
Heart sinking, I gazed at the tiny, wrinkled, wounded creature sleeping in the basket I’d made up for her and thought, Well, I can’t love her, she’s unlovable, but I can’t take her back, there’s no return policy. Second thought was, I’m just gonna have to suck this one up. Third thought was, this is what I get. . . .
BC, or before crises, the shape of my life was determined by a craft—writing—and my discipline, exercise, and the joy of family, friends, and dogs. I’d say I felt a semblance of inner harmony back then—but, oh, how easy it is to be at peace when nothing is asked, nothing is tested.
But then the “tests” rolled into town: cancer hit my family, then deaths, and I lost friends, even certainty. I couldn’t wrap my head around it all.
At the time I found Baby (or she found me), my family was still recovering from a terrible fissure caused by my parents’ long illnesses. I was sad; a to-the-bone kind of sad. I’d stopped exercising, and begun eating and drinking junk, and as a result was tired all the time and not the least bit hopeful. I rarely wrote. I wasn’t as social. I was adrift on an island of misery—and the island was mine, all mine. An “investment” in carefully nurtured hopelessness, so of course I didn’t care to give it up.
And then came Baby Rae. A horribly beat-up, wrinkled mess rocking my island, causing me to stretch awake and step outside myself. Dang—how utterly inconvenient.
Surprisingly, life took on a certain, steady rhythm.
Though, for the longest time, I only picked Baby up in a towel or wore gloves. Her Mohawk began to grow, and she graduated from the basket at the foot of my bed to a bassinet at the side of it. She followed me everywhere. I so much as lifted an eyebrow and she was front and center, studying me for clues, for expectations (how could she have known I had none?). If I closed a door behind me, she was there waiting and smiling when I opened it again (and, yes, cattle dogs not only dance–see my Sept. 20th post–but they smile too).
Her wrinkles filled in, and her sores smoothed into thin white lines. She began coaxing me to play, bowing and nipping at my heels. Actually, being a natural-born herder, she was trying to herd me, and that’s what got quickly nipped. One day it occurred to me that she was actually happy, and that she’d not only begun a real healing, but was well into it, miles ahead of me—and that’s when something stirred in me, finally: a humongous admiration for Baby, for where she’d come from and where she was now, and pride, and even a small, warm burst of hope, because if Baby Rae could survive immense cruelty and pain and still be so dang happy, there had to be hope for me, too. For the first time in a long while, if even just a second, I felt a smidge of the old inner harmony, and I couldn’t help thinking of the adage, “When you give another being joy, there is the peace.”
Eddie Murphy eyes—and a blue coat is black hairs distributed fairly evenly through white . . .
On a morning shortly after this, I bent over and touched Baby. Really touched her. I caressed her and crooned love words. I’d finally fallen for her. At almost 35 pounds, she was nearly an adult. Her coat had grown in, masking her scarred flesh. Who could’ve known she’d be blue? I marveled, thinking of the miserable bald puppy she’d been not so long ago. A beautiful midnight-blue. I ran my gloveless hands along her well-muscled body, relishing the thickness of her glossy blue fur. She turned just her head and looked back at me—and her eyes are huge and dark, ringed by thick hoops of white sclera. I call them Eddie Murphy eyes—and they are soft. It was a pure, overwhelming, uncomplicated love they conveyed.
I heard my own soft intake of breath.
Because it was at the precise moment of this truth, of understanding that Baby’s healing had begun the very second I’d picked her up in Mexico, that something inside me loosened further, quite literally working its way free of me—and then, like that, the heaviness was gone. Gone. I stood up, shoulders and back straight, feeling strong again, and my breathing felt easy, each breath satin-smooth.
I looked back down at Baby and smiled, and her skewed tail thumped the floor a million miles a minute, because–and I could read her by then–she knew I’d finally gotten the message that was at the core of her being, the sole reason for her sudden appearance in my life that day in Mexico: It’s the second that counts, stupid. Stay with the seconds.
And then there was that grin again.
I take another giant step outside myself and I see us:
I see Baby pass her contagious joy off to my strong, reinvigorated self and I see myself running with it, like I ran when I first grabbed her in Mexico, but this time it’s a sweet run, made sweeter by what came before it—the pain, the sadness, the giving up—before our sudden, unexpected save.
Then the win: the realization that in the process of saving Baby, she’d saved me by taking me out of my pain and into hers—and then she’d taught me how to live well again, joyfully, in the now, by example.
It’s eleven years later. I’m still structured, which is my basic nature, but nowhere near as wary of spontaneity. I’ve been back to writing for some time. My novel, The Angry Woman Suite, will soon see light of day (it got a great review from Kirkus Reviews, “World’s Toughest Book Critics,” which is a link on this blog).
Baby Rae—resting at my feet while I wrote this—is just up and at my side, rubbing her forehead against my arm. It is time for bed, she is telling me; for closing another day of writing with a blue dog who dances and smiles, and still, despite aches and pains, those inevitable harbingers of advancing age, finds joy in every second of our life together.
And I’m reminded yet again: every being has purpose and everything is connected. I feel Baby’s peace—it is mine, too.
Kirkus Review September, 2011
THE ANGRY WOMAN SUITE
Secrets and lies suffuse generations of one Pennsylvania family, creating a vicious cycle of cruelty in this historical novel that spans the early 1900s to the 1960s.
Raised in a crumbling New England mansion by four women with personalities as split as a cracked mirror, young Francis Grayson has an obsessive need to fix them all. There’s his mother, distant and beautiful Magdalene; his disfigured, suffocating Aunt Stella; his odious grandmother; and the bane of his existence, his abusive and delusional Aunt Lothian. For years, Francis plays a tricky game of duck and cover with the women, turning to music to stay sane. He finds a friend and mentor in Aidan Madsen, schoolmaster, local Revolutionary War historian, musician and keeper of the Grayson women’s darkest secrets. In a skillful move by Fullbright, those secrets are revealed through the viewpoints of three different people—Aidan, Francis and Francis’ stepdaughter, Elyse—adding layers of eloquent complexity to a story as powerful as it is troubling. While Francis realizes his dream of forming his own big band in the 1940s, his success is tempered by the inner monster of his childhood, one that roars to life when he marries Elyse’s mother. Elyse becomes her stepfather’s favorite target, and her bitterness becomes entwined with a desire to know the real Francis Grayson. For Aidan’s part, his involvement with the Grayson family only deepens, and secrets carried for a lifetime begin to coalesce as he seeks to enlighten Francis—and subsequently Elyse—of why the events of so many years ago matter now. The ugliness of deceit, betrayal and resentment permeates the narrative, yet there are shining moments of hope, especially in the relationship between Elyse and her grandfather. Ultimately, as more of the past filters into the present, the question becomes: What is the truth, and whose version of the truth is correct? Fullbright never untangles this conundrum, and it only adds to the richness of this exemplary novel.
A superb debut that exposes the consequences of the choices we make and legacy’s sometimes excruciating embrace.
Kirkus Media LLC, 6411 Burleson Rd., Austin, TX 78744
I’ve been asked to post a piece I actually wrote some time back, about querying literary agents, so here we go:
Welcome to Hell (and producing a drop-dead query truly is). . . .
First, don’t go all neurotic over dropping into hell. It’s not uncharted territory. Second, get to work familiarizing yourself with AgentQuery and the AAR database—there’re a million other Internet resources, but AQ is my favorite (see link opposite column). It’s chock-full of info about the pub business, the agents, and it’s easy to navigate. Please follow the agents’ submission preferences! To think they’re irrevelant, or your work so dang brilliant you can enclose fifty pages when an agent clearly specifies five, is a little like flipping someone the bird on a LA freeway: it’s just not going to go well for you.
On the other hand, breathe deeply and believe. Living in hell is, well, hell, but some over-anxious mindsets make the stay harder than need be—and who’s looking for a harder way to do anything, unless of course you’re a committed neurotic? Remember you’ve already completed a whole manuscript of fiction, or, if non-fiction, manufactured an exciting, with-a-twist! proposal on the invention of the ball bearing—meaning you are already so not a slacker, my friend. So there.
That scary query . . .
A whole industry has been built on the back of the query letter (whole books! too numerous to count!!) about how to write one (and how scary the statistics are: only 1% of queries get a positive response). People have made a whole lot of money off this puppy. Now, though, all the how-to, plus examples of successful queries, can be found on the internet—again, check out AgentQuery.
Simply put, the query letter is your calling card with a pitch. Its anatomy is one page, three basic paragraphs; four if you must. Don’t forget to include genre, word count, and title!—and if you’ve done your homework, you know a bit about the agent you’re querying, so tell her or him why s/he’s the the Chosen One (because s/he repped a book you love; because you love her/his blog, etc.).
Resist making your opening a rhetorical question, as in “Ever wonder why everyone’s so surprised when their obviously insane next door neighbor turns out to be a serial killer?” Consider a “When” opening instead. Maybe like, “When the charred bodies of America’s premier artist Matthew Waterston and his wife were recovered from their burned-out mill house, all eyes turned to the reclusive Stella Grayson, and for one shameful reason only: Stella Grayson was physically repellant.”
Or, “I’ve read of your interest in representing fiction, especially commercial with a literary bent, and would like to introduce The Angry Woman Suite, a 105,000-word story about two unsolved celebrity murders in Pennsylvania, and the fallout from those murders on two generations.”
Yes, both mine–and I know, I’m shameless (but I did get an agent).
Paragraph #2 describes the basic plot, with resolution (though resolution can be “soft”). This is the hardest paragraph. Squeezing a whole book into one teensy, fascinating, lyrical, literate paragraph is the very definition of hell for writers (who, of course, love words).
Paragraph #3 is all about you. Finally! BUT–if you actually think there’s nothing particularly worth the retelling; i.e., you’re not an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum and you’re currently unpublished, then share what inspired you to write your masterpiece. In two very awesome sentences, period.
Show your query drafts to friends and your critique group; ideally, until eyes glaze over and they plead for you to stop already.
Now, when you’ve finally got IT—a polished, irresistible query—resist the temptation to blanket the country with your little beauty. Send to no more than eight agents at a time. This is all-important, because if you don’t get one positive response (the aforementioned 1%), or any comments, you’ll want to tweak the query and make it even more irresistible (you may have to do this several times). See what I mean? If you’ve already done a mass submission, you’ve somewhat kissed that strategy goodbye.
Now put on your suit of armor and get ready for the rejections. They come in all shapes and sizes: form letters, pre-printed postcards (so the entire world can know your business), or even just a scribble across the top of your returned query letter.
On the other hand, a personal rejection letter, or phone call, is almost as feel-good as an acceptance (almost, and try explaining that to a non-writer). It means you at least made someone sit up and notice. But don’t take rejection (as opposed to constructive criticism) too seriously. Yeah, right. No, really. Agents don’t know you. Remember this. Make it your mantra. And not every agent will give a flying fig about the history of the ball bearing, no matter how brilliantly presented. So, after sending your first round of queries on their way, vow not to do the whole neurotic thing over the whole rejection thing. Instead. step out of hell and into your zen place. Go philosophical, not theatrical.
So much better for the soul.
Some time back I was invited to contribute some pieces for another blog. I immediately outlined my first piece (“Dateline: Query Hell,” so titled for obvious reasons), and my second (“Dateline: Unsold Novel Hell”), about what it’s like to sit hoping for a call from my agent saying my debut novel, The Angry Woman Suite, has sold.
But turns out I didn’t submit those particular pieces after all, primarily due to a sudden line that moved into my head having zip to do with queries or agents, and everything to do with dumping outlines that can immobilize us as writers. That line is:
Tell the one about getting so mired in your own brilliant notes that you couldn’t move forward, backward, anywhere, until a big bad headwind knocked you flat, and then and only then did two simple “saving” words pop into your nimrod brain.
Those two simple words were meant to transition a relationship between a protagonist of The Angry Woman Suite, Elyse Grayson, and her controlling father. It’s a scene I’d actually written several gadzillion times, because this scene—Elyse’s scene—had been a monster, impossible to nail. Yet, armed with my outline to keep me on point, I’d kept going back into the scene, feeling my way through a valley of words, searching for those phrases meant to convey game, set, match for Elyse Grayson—and, oh, to be delivered in an above-the-fray manner, too. Sounds easy-peasy, right?
Oh. So. Wrong. I struggled.
And then I heard a simple “Goodbye, Daddy” on the night wind, like a prompting. I typed the words, glanced at the time: 8:42 p.m. Though they didn’t interface with my outline at all, they were monster-smashing perfect—yet, I felt strangely depleted, not elated. Not only because “Goodbye, Daddy,” had just opened a window onto the resolution of my novel, putting me thisclose to ending my daily visits with Elyse Grayson, but because it felt as if something else was also pulling away from me—but what?
Almost everyone who’s read The Angry Woman Suite has asked if I’m Elyse Grayson.
The answer is I’m not.
And I am. We’re connected—everything’s connected.
At exactly 8:50 p.m. that same night my phone rang, and I had a premonition: I suddenly knew why I felt so gut-emptying awful when I should’ve been feeling celebratory.
Hello?” Heart thumping, I looked again at the time. 8:51 p.m.
Someone from my father’s new life told me rather coldly that he’d just died.
Damn—no, double damn . . . and oh, geez, the irony . . . how often does something like that happen? Writing an actual hard goodbye heard on the wind mere moments before a real goodbye? A whole life kind of goodbye. And that voice I’d heard on that wind? It wasn’t unfamiliar. . . .
My relationship with my father had been a neurotic mess. He’d been the neurotic, and I’d been the mess, and eventually we’d fallen away from each other, never speaking of why in detail, never actually speaking, never “officially” finishing us.
I looked up at my screen, at Elyse Grayson’s words, “Goodbye, Daddy,” and I wept, finally. For my father. For me. For never being able to play on the same field, for now being finished, and for my novel being almost finished too—they are linked. Big caterwauling vessels of tears I’d kept stored inside for eons, and was always tending, always checking for cracks, hyper-vigilant against leaks.
Later, I filed away what had become a totally non-helpful outline of The Angry Woman Suite, and invited my inside voices to line up again for closer examination. And that’s when those final chapters of The Angry Woman Suite also fell into place, not as initially planned, but as inspired by Elyse Grayson’s “Goodbye, Daddy,” on the night my father died.
To anyone who’s asked me how in the world one ever finally finishes a novel, I’ve laughed and answered, “Don’t be afraid.”
Because these stories, Elyse’s and mine, are both about letting go. Not just of outlines, and stubborn positions, and control, but fear of failing, and fear of rejection, and fear of the unknowable. It’s entirely possible I might never have known this (the way I think I know it now) had I not been emptied enough to hear a prompting delivered by a long-missed voice on a night wind.
So consider setting aside The Plan—go ahead, try it—and letting your voices free to soar above what you’ve spent countless hours planning (whatever it is—doesn’t have to be a book). And then look at what you’ve got on the screen in front of you. The words left there might just be the freest, most monster-smashing ever.
And, yes (because someone just asked me), freest is a word (best kind, too).
Baby Rae and I began a recent morning dancing to “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” by The Beatles: “You make me dizzy Miss Lizzy, the way you rock and roll. . . .” How can anyone not dance to that? We ended up in a heap on the kitchen floor, a tangle of legs (six—count ‘em).
That same evening, after a quiet day of writing sad things, drama things, we slow danced to Gregory Page in my kitchen office while dinner cooked.
To non-dog people, it must sound odd, a dog dancing (not to mention a woman dancing with a dog), but, oh, they can. An Australian cattle dog is not otherwise known as a blue heeler for nothing.
But the point of this little story is that of course I know Baby Rae and I are occasionally silly. But why not? The act of writing is solitary, and so it follows that most writers are happily inward by nature, but we often overthink—I think. A good free-for-all dance in the am loosens the cogs, but an improbable dance with a blue dog slowly and inexplicably brings the real world back into focus after a day lost to the world, writing.
I’ve often wondered how others, writers and non, bring their worlds back into focus after hours spent in their heads? How do you?
I’m cleaning and purging. Out with the old.
When I was a kid, one of my ambitions was to create my very own library, complete with card catalog. So I collected books I loved, novels and non-fiction; books I’d read someday, reference books on everything in the entire universe … and eventually the inevitable happened: books took over my life. I became the bibliophile version of the crazy salt and pepper shaker lady who lived on the same street I did as a kid, whose sole high in life was adding more salt and pepper shakers to an already mind-boggling collection.
This “gotta-have-it” nuttiness was no more attractive on me than it had been on her. Books were everywhere in my first apartment, first condo, and then my house (more room for books in a house), wresting counter spaces from doo-dads, and artfully arranged on “tables” that were actually rounds of glass perched on top of book stack-bases, which is so obviously just this side of pathologically pathetic.
Thus, the purging. Big-time, baby, and it’s taken years. Learning to let go of stuff is not easy. But here’s the thing I’ve discovered: too much stuff can get heavy. Real Heavy. It can actually get in the way of relationships, goals, and even thinking about the stuff that really matters. Plus, if we get to thinking our stuff (like our real estate, bank accounts, cars, and wardrobes) is who we actually are, we’re going to need way more than the recognition that we’re pathologically pathetic. Long-term therapy isn’t cheap.
And now, today, finally, I’ve arrived at my shelves of books about writing. Okay, now this part of letting go really hurts. Hoo-boy. All these gems I so lovingly, carefully collected over the years, and read over and over, as if they were scripture. And then one small book–a paperback, actually–caught my eye. Worn, tattered, like the Velveteen Rabbit but way more than just regular-real, it had been my bible when I’d started writing bigger projects–and this book I will keep. Forever.
It is Stephen King’s On Writing, an awe-inspiring combination of memoir, instruction manual, and encouragement.
The copyright date is 2000, so it’s been around awhile. Most writers and readers know of it, but if you don’t have a copy, get thee to Amazon now. Read it. Then read it again. And then keep this little book forever. It’s that good.