A Magic Place

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.

Being and Doing

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

Before I pick up where I left off (about my mystery man, Lazarus, and publishing my book), I just have to share something that’s struck me funny. Publishers Lunch Deluxe is a weekly (or whenever they feel like it) report on all things happening in traditional publishing (like what publisher bought what book, and for how much, and which pubs and/or literary agencies are merging or quitting (aka running for their lives).

Okay, so here’s a direct quote from their November 9th bulletin: Amazon announced three more authors who have each sold a million Kindle ebooks or more, but we’re really not going to report on these releases any more.”

Serious? You’re really not going to report on “these releases” anymore? Here’s what I hear: “You Amazon people and this so-called new age of publishing (read: indie, who are over-populating the Kindle play list) are major pissing us off, so we’re not going to play with you again, ever. So there.”

Moving on . . . the three newest authors to join the Kindle Million Club are David Baldacci, Amanda Hocking (indie–you go, girl), and Stephanie Meyer. 

And now back to me. *smile* And Lazarus Bening (his spy name). But, first, a question:

How many of us, do you think, are doing/being what we pictured ourselves doing/being when we were, say, 17? Or 21?

I knew Lazarus Bening while I was still in high school. He was four years older, in college. He wanted to become a commercial pilot—he didn’t. He became a teacher instead (what I’d believed I’d end up doing, though I was never excited at the prospect). Because I was so unmotivated by the career choice picked by my parents, I became more of a “fritterer” than a serious college student, trying on all sorts of mindsets and people, and having way more fun than was legal. Along the way, Lazarus and I parted.   

Come to find out, Lazarus began writing. Essays and short stories at first, in-between teaching classes. He published a novel. He published two more. Fiction for men. He gained a following (while I was still frittering), all unbeknownst to me.

And then we met again after an embarrassingly long time, at a signing for his latest novel that my writer cohort-friend, Josh, dragged me to. And the first stupid thing I said to Lazarus was:

“I didn’t know you were a writer.”

He laughed a little (very little).

And the second stupid thing I said was (because this event was about his book, not mine, duh): “I have a book too!”

I explained about my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, and how my agent had left the book business for a new career in finance, and how I was now thisclose to going indie.

Lazarus’ expression had turned—quizzical, maybe? I couldn’t read him. He said, “I have two words for you.”

Uh-oh. Was he still that ticked over what had happened between us a thousand years ago?

I swallowed hard. I was a “grownup” now—I could take what was coming (and what, truth be told, I probably deserved). But I moved in a little closer to Josh anyway.  

“Telemachus Press,” Lazarus said.

“Excuse me?”

“Telemachus Press. Best there is.”

And then, “Steve Jackson’s the guy you want to talk to—a good guy; he’ll steer you straight. He’ll get your novel out there, and it’ll be done right; a class act.”

And that, my friends, between my writer friend Josh, and my computer guy, and old flame Lazarus is the more or less true story of how I came to know Steve Jackson at Telemachus Press. Steve Jackson is truly Mr. Wonderful. Every phone call and email is responded to quickly and thoroughly—and Steve makes me laugh. A BIG plus-plus.

Two big thumbs-up for Telemachus Press.    

The Angry Woman Suite will be out in a couple of months—I think. Maybe longer. Depends on how the editing goes—I think. And how the cover goes. (I’m picturing a black and white cover, because The Angry Woman Suite is largely a period piece, taking place between 1915 and 1968.) An amazing review of The Angry Woman Suite goes public on the Kirkus Reviews website 12/15/11, but you can read it here— it’s a link in the right column. 

And Lazarus?

Well, like it or not, first loves leave lasting marks on us. Maybe not big fat scars; maybe only scratches—but, whichever, we’re changed forever.    

But this is what grownups do when assessing our scars and scratches: we notice the parts we played, or didn’t, in all our relationships. We forgive others and ourselves, and we heal. We keep evolving—otherwise, the point would be??–and we stay open.

We make the positives a part of us, and store the negatives for future reference.

Reference for—what, you ask?     

Whatever comes along next—and, well, in this case, you’ve got to know that every player in my life story, and every take-away, is going to end up in a book someday (or a post)—or maybe already has. *smile*

Thanks for coming by! More later in the week. . . .     

 

“Legacy’s Excruciating Embrace”

So picking up from where I left off (which was my post of Oct. 24th), what does a girl (that would be me) with a historical/commercial novel titled The Angry Woman Suite, a brilliant Kirkus review re same, and a missing literary agent do next?

Note: Not that my agent making a career switch was a bad thing—for her. It actually made perfect sense, considering the sucky precariousness of traditional publishing these days. The better question might’ve been, “What? Are you still here?”

Um, before she wasn’t, that is.

To keep the record straight, my agent was a nice person who totally went to bat for The Angry Woman Suite—and I wish her every success in her new career choice.

Okay, now back to me. *smile*

I left off (my last post) talking about “Josh,” the potty-mouthed non-fiction writer who told me in so many unprintable words to get my butt in gear and go digital and promote my novel via social media (at which point I went cold with fear; it’s that word promote). 

But I’d bought myself some time, I thought (so I wouldn’t have to make decisions/take a plunge/move ahead/whatever; all that hard stuff), by taking The Angry Woman Suite to Kirkus Reviews. I told Josh that if my review came in even halfway positive, I’d proudly go digital and start a blog and buy our next lunch together.  

Seemed a safe enough thing to say.

Oh, but there’s this thing about “safe” I’m not too crazy about. 

Safe is boring. 

More than that, safe is probably not what life’s supposed to be about (and I’m not talking the kind of safe from something truly dangerous). I’m talking the comfort zone kind of “safe,” where we hide, get lazy, or give up. Where we don’t apply ourselves, or test ourselves, and we make excuses for why we didn’t follow through on something we’ve told ourselves and the world we really want. “No time” is the #1 excuse, followed by “I don’t know where to start.”

I often wonder: Is that what we want to be thinking at the end of life; that we had no time? Serious? Or that we didn’t know where to start living? Really?

But if we’re still here, we have time. 

So, it’s not about “no time.” It’s about choices–about choosing priorities. 

Enough said. I’m nobody’s life coach. Are you kidding? A shy girl?  

But I do know I feel pretty ick about myself when I don’t do something just because I’ve doubted my ability. Which is when I make myself so busy that I get to tell myself I don’t have time to do the thing I’m afraid I might fail at, or that I might look foolish doing. And, no, of course I don’t know I’m rationalizing at the time. I’m very good at justifying myself—until I’m not.

And then it’s a clear call to arms.

So, looking back and moving on: 

Step #1 of The Plan: I’d sent The Angry Woman Suite to Kirkus—and then happily compartmentalized that move, because it was a 4-6 week turnaround. There was nothing more to add to Step #1: it was out of my hands. Next.     

(For those who don’t know, Kirkus Reviews has been around since the 1930’s. As a big-time reader, I’ve always looked for books with a good Kirkus one-liner across the top of a cover, assured I’d get an excellent read—they’ve never let me down.)

Step #2 of The Plan: I started a blog while “forgetting” about the Kirkus review outcome. 

Yep—because of the call to arms thing.

I’d been a blog reader for some time, of writers mostly, and agents, and anything to do with publishing—so blogs weren’t unknown to me. Making one was.  

I met a man I’ll call Tim, who came up with a design for the multi-contributor format I had in mind, for a blog to be titled Rooms of Our Own (inspired by the famous Virginia Woolf quote). The “rooms”—actually, the way Tim put the site together, they are separate blogs within a “web,” so to speak—are occupied by photographer Geri Wilson, and writer Shelley Marquez, and me.        

And what I’d been afraid might be a drag or a flop or a timewaste . . .

. . . has morphed into amazing fun. Yes, it does take time to write blog posts, and sometimes I wonder where I’ll find the time to write anything, in-between a fulltime job and taking care of a very ill husband and a house and writing another book—but when something is challenging in a fun way, how hard is it, really, to make it (instead of, say, dusting) a priority?

Plus, how cool is it to disregard a million and one excuses?  

Very cool (and I hired someone for the dusting, because it’s not fulfilling to me—this is only about me—best money spent, ever) . . . now the surprise:

I’d had a horrible day. (A horrible day for me is when my sick husband has not had a good day.) It was a Sunday, 9 pm, and I was almost too tired to check my email (that’s tired).

But the next day was a work day—I work in the medical field—and I wanted to make sure there were no weekend emergencies to follow up on first thing Monday morning.

There weren’t—but there was an email from Kirkus, with attachment. Oh, crap. No, double crap. I was so not ready; it could wait till tomorrow–it didn’t feel safe.    

That word again. (I’ve come to realize that “not safe” means anything out of my control.)       

Kirkus reviews are always structured the same way: three paragraphs, and the last paragraph is the zinger: the one that says it all. The “summer-upper.” The maker or the breaker.

How much worse could my day get? I thought. Plus, if I opened the attachment, I wouldn’t feel like such a dipwad, being afraid to open my own mail—it would be over and done. I’d start the next day with a clean slate.   

I opened the attachment.

I went straight for the third paragraph.

It read:      

“A superb debut that exposes the consequences of the choices we make and legacy’s sometimes excruciating embrace.”

Yowsa—and, geez, How Very Ironically Appropriate.  

To be continued . . . .

Next up, Part 3 of The Plan: the search for a digital publisher, what all is entailed (a lot)—and a decision.

Thank you so much for coming by; please come back, and comments are very appreciated. I post on Mondays and Thursdays or thereabouts; and sometimes more, but sometimes less.

A Million Good Words

Finishing my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, was bittersweet (the sweetness was crossing a finish line—and the bitter was actually about finishing too, as in now what?), but solidifying an agreement with a literary agent was a total woo-hoo. Big-time woo-hoo. Huge. I’d made it. Parteeee. . . .

But—and there’re a hundred but’s in any story—subsequently learning my agent was about to change career paths entirely, just as we were revving our engines and doing well, was the anti woo-hoo.

A big timewaste hiccup on the road to traditional publication. It was back to now what?

Dang. See, I really like The Angry Woman Suite. And not just because I wrote it. I’ve written plenty of crap, so trust me: I recognize crap.

A million good words . . .

If losing an agent is the anti woo-hoo, The Angry Woman Suite is the anti-crap (now that sounds a little Eddie Haskell-ish, ugh)—but (I know, another but) as a story about family and misplaced trust, and losing and winning freedom, The Angry Woman Suite has my heart because it’s the kind of meaty novel I’m always looking to read, like The Great Santini, A Prayer for Owen Meany, or A Thousand Acres—my favorites. Plus it got a million good words from Kirkus Reviews (and they’re tough), who deemed it “exemplary” and “a superb debut.”

It’s a story that spans the early 1900s to the 1960s, in Pennsylvania, and I want it out there—but not just because it’s mine. You know how it is when you meet a new person, and this new person is so interesting you can’t wait to introduce him or her to your inner circle?

It’s like that.

I love this novel’s characters—I love the young Elyse Grayson. She is strong and complex, but resentful (she has good reason, but anger could be her undoing). Her inner journey has been shaped by three men: a wise immigrant grandfather; a troubled stepfather, Francis—and, yes, I love Francis, too. Even when I wanted to bean him, I loved him, because there’s a reason Francis can be so dang weird. And the third is commitment-phobe Aidan Madsen, who knows everybody’s secrets, including the ones about murder.        

They’re all interesting people. So I want to share them. I want to talk about them.

I thought about Query Hell; of again shopping myself and The Angry Woman Suite to agents —oh, don’t make me, my inner put-upon self wailed. Ever see a movie about dancers/singers/actors hitting the pavement (who hasn’t?), going to audition after audition, putting it out there, and often “it” is very good, only to be told, “We’ll let you know”—though maybe no one even made eye contact, and maybe everyone talked during the audition, or worse (I imagine), took phone calls? Oooh, ouch.

It’s not the same in the book world, but it feels like it.     

Writers don’t have to get up on a stage and sing and dance—yet. But debut novelists do face daunting hurdles. Plus, as everyone knows, the publishing industry has changed. Like the weakening of our once healthy newspaper industry, the weakening of traditional book publishing didn’t happen overnight either (and for those who already know where I’m heading with this: Yes, Amazon is actually the leader of the free world). *smile*

I know what I don’t want to know. . . .    

When I was writing The Angry Woman Suite, I didn’t want to know about changes in book publishing, not really. I just wanted to write. So that’s what I did: I wrote and revised for eight years. And when I finished The Angry Woman Suite, a whole different pulled-together world of publishing was looking at me—and I turned away from it. The indie publishing world wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted my original goal: traditional publishing.

I wanted the stamp of approval that going “trad” meant to me. I wanted to be wanted, accepted, and told my work is good. Who doesn’t?

So, when my agent left the business, I dinked around wondering which direction to go next—the old way (wasted time) versus a new way (but I’d no clue where the road to a new way actually started, let alone how to navigate it if I found it).

Then something happened. A friend—probably sick of my whining—recommended I have lunch with a writer he knew, and even set up the blind lunch date for us.  

I’ll call this writer Josh—

Josh is a can’t-sit-still, potty-mouthed traditionally published (and successful) non-fiction writer. 

Over Mexican, Josh told me point blank that the publishing industry’s glory days had ended. As in ENDED.

“You know it’s true,” he said, wiggling all over the place. “You can believe what you want to believe, but fact is that agents—like yours did—are looking for greener pastures. Oh, there’re still those banging the drum of trad is the right way, the only way, and that if you don’t do the so-called right, the only, your finished product will reflect badly and you’ll end up in some ditch with a big ol’ stupid loser tattooed on your forehead. No—wait, make that f’ing stupid loser. But, look, there are always diehards in anything—like what happened in the music industry when that whole world shifted—diehards right and left there too, even after all was said and done.”

Established authors, Josh reminded me, have stuck their feet in indie waters as well. Stephen King’s done it; also Steig Larsson, James Patterson, Nora Roberts, and Michael Connelly.

And everybody knows what indie writer Amanda Hocking did, and then indie author John Locke, selling one million books through Kindle, Amazon’s ebook distributor.

Can every author do that? Whoa—can everybody do everything?

Uh, I don’t think so. The point is, the Internet and the indie mega sellers made the trads sit up and take a look back at their rear flanks, at the indies closing in.    

“And why wouldn’t authors want to call their own shots?” Josh went on. “I’d do indie, except I write for a company that’s not interested in rocking our publisher. See, going indie, authors get the lion’s share, instead of the smallest share of profit, for their work—makes sense.”    

I hadn’t said a word, my mind’s eye too busy watching a lifelong dream flushing itself down the john.

“So,” Josh summed it up, making it sound easy-peasy, “you need to be part of the indie world, Lee—it’s now, and it’s the future. And then you promote your book via social media—start a blog, for one.”

Really, do I hafta?

That lunch was probably the time to tell Josh he was scaring the shit out of me, and that one of my most humiliating childhood memories was of being afraid to sell Girl Scout cookies—too agonizingly shy. So how’s a shy kid supposed to promote anything when it just feels so ick?

Oh, grow up.

But I wanted to go home and pull the covers over my head and commence bemoaning the apparent fact I’d been born in changing times (as if there’s ever been anything else).  

Besides, I’d no idea how to go indie—is it like going native?   

And then I remembered Kirkus Reviews.

“Okay,” I said to Josh, feeling my way through my brain clutter—actually, what I was about to say, “I hear you, and here’s what I’m thinking,” was a stalling tactic.

I’d read that Kirkus Reviews—the premier book critiquing company since the 1930’s—was now making reviews available to indie authors (I’ve recently read that Publishers Weekly also is, or will shortly).

“I’m going to Kirkus,” I told Josh. “I’m going to send The Angry Woman Suite to them. And if there’s even just one teensy positive word in their review, just anything at all, something I can use on a cover, I’ll consider it a sign. . . . ”

To be continued . . .

Okay, this is getting way too long, and it’s late, so I’ll wrap things for now—but please stay tuned. I have so much I want to say about this journey I’m embarking on (as in, help!), but I’m just getting started (and the story’s going to take longer than one post anyway). More than that, I really, really want company on this trip.

Next post I’ll tell you about the surprise, and building the blog, and the search for the best “author service” company out there—but in the meantime I’d love any feedback—thank you!  

I post on Mondays and Thursdays or thereabouts; and sometimes more, but sometimes less.

Back To The Beauty

How can a story be heartbreakingly terrible and transcendently beautiful at the same time?

How can life?

The other morning while getting ready for work and listening to the news, I heard a man interviewed about rescuing a dog in New York (my precious Baby Rae is also a rescuee, an abused puppy smuggled across the Mexican border eleven years ago—that’s her in Tecate, above, on the day I found her. See my 10/3/11 post titled Writing With A Blue Dog– also see Baby Rae at the end of this post).

But back to the man being interviewed. He was a professional rescuer, and he spoke of a call he’d received about an injured dog in the street. When he arrived at the address and bent to examine a small dog, he found it so badly beaten it couldn’t move (it had sustained a broken back).

As the man whispered comfort words to the dog, he was rushed by a gang of thugs (they were the ones who’d beaten the dog–and were taking bets as to how long it would take to die; thus, their ugly rationale for attacking the dog rescuer as well, for intruding on their sick party).

The thugs beat the dog rescuer unconscious, and then, scared, ran off.

But this is where the transcendently beautiful occurred:

This small half-dead dog with the broken back army-crawled to the unconscious man’s side and began licking her rescuer’s face. She literally licked her rescuer back to consciousness, until he was able to call for help.

Of course I cried listening to this story—I’m an easy crier when it comes to brutality, or the beauty of certain hearts, human or otherwise.  

All day long I carried this story around with me, sharing it with anyone who’d listen, and as I and others spoke of this dichotomy of life—the ugly and the beautiful—I considered other stories that have touched me, even changed my life.     

Starting with an old children’s book called Old Yeller.

Old Yeller is about a rescued yellow dog called Yeller (I’m seeing a commonality here, especially considering that the last novel I cried—buckets!—over was The Art Of Racing In The Rain, also dog-centered).

In Yeller’s story, he brings joy to the family he’s adopted, but then is bitten by a rabid wolf while protecting his primary human, a boy named Travis. Knowing Yeller will also get sick with rabies, Travis is called upon to shoot the beloved friend who not only saved his life, but also introduced him to the incredible exhilaration of just being. This story is still so heartbreaking to me, I’m having trouble typing dry-eyed, thinking, And this is a children’s story?

But once again, transcendent beauty:

Yeller’s lookalike puppy subsequently helps Travis recover from Yeller’s death. And of course Yeller’s little puppy is also a teacher, illustrating for Travis—and sobbing readers—the strength that can come from rebirth.

Another story with marked elements of terribleness and beauty within it is Atonement.

The terribleness is a young girl’s lie (Briony is her name), and what happens to Briony’s sister, Cecilia, and Cecilia’s lover, Robbie, as a result of something that is tragically understandable given Briony’s tender age at the time.     

And then poignant beauty:

Years down the road, a 77-year-old Briony, now a successful novelist, tells of her stab at atonement by way of writing about Cecilia and Robbie’s reunion and happiness—neither of which is actually true, come to find out—and so the tears flow again with the elderly Briony’s bittersweet words at the ending of her story about Cee and Robbie: “I gave them happiness but I was not so self-serving as to let them forgive me.”

The piercing sadness of the win . . .

Near the ending of my own novel, The Angry Woman Suite (available in 2012), Elyse claims a hard-fought autonomy from her—to put it mildly—neurotic family, and she then speaks of “the piercing sadness of the win.”

The terribleness and the beauty co-exist within one phrase.          

Certain stories resonate. They move us, and even have the power to change us, because they emotionally connect us to truth and paradox. 

And to the flip side of terribleness, even if we can’t always see it right away. That flip side is the beautiful soul of a small, battered dog rescuing her rescuer, and the nobility of another dog sacrificing his own life to save his human; and the character of a guilt-ridden old woman attempting to square a wrong she committed as a young girl, and the tenacity of another girl—Elyse, worn out in body and spirit—winning the fight against her father’s inner monster.

It’s mystery, dichotomy and paradox. It’s yin and yang, and balance, and balance always means hope—and hope never fails to move. 

Baby Rae today, in her San Diego garden. Look at that smile.

Tell me a story that changed you.

In The Glow

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I write in light. I should say, profuse light.    

Sunlight dances through the windows of my home office, my favorite room, furnished shabby chic-ish for me, and “dog-ish” for my cattle dog, Baby Rae (“dog-ish” being a bed of colorful patchwork quilts). A large stained glass window, in blues, green and silver, is enhanced by the abundant light; it depicts a Classical Greek woman holding a crystal orb, and the title “Sphera Imagination” is inscribed over her blond head—perfect for my writer’s lair. Baby Rae is at my feet—and this glowing window, together with Baby Rae and quilts, and the computer=bliss.  

So, sitting here in my almost completely blissed-out state, I’m thinking about the influence of surroundings, how they can take us places, blissful or otherwise. In many cases a sense of place is so powerful that it’s what brings a novel to life in a reader’s mind, too. “Place” can often be a story’s soul, literally shaping its characters’ choices. What would Gone With The Wind be without Tara? Or—

The Help without Jackson, MS?

Harry Potter-anything without Hogwarts?

War And Peace without Moscow?

The DaVinci Code without the Louvre?

The Pillars Of The Earth without Kingsbridge?

The Grapes Of Wrath without Oklahoma?

The Kite Runner without Afghanistan?

Reading Lolita In Tehran without, um—Tehran?

Wuthering Heights without the moors?

Rebecca without Manderley?

How does a writer fabricate a completely developed sense of place? For my novel, The Angry Woman Suite, I dug into history books, the better to depict historical Chadds Ford and West Chester, PA, real places. And then I imagined an almost Gothic mausoleum of a house– Grayson House–and after that I made up a whole town for The Angry Woman Suite, with East Chester, observing the town in my head first, before even making notes. It was after the entire novel was laid out, almost like a pattern on fabric, and carefully smoothed free of wrinkles, that I could see the extra material—the excess of the spaces that my characters inhabited—and the cutting began. 

Here, though, no cutting required. My little office space is a glowing cocoon filled with almost all my favorite things, right down to the wet nose nuzzling my bare feet. Baby Rae and I are in an exceptional place; my perfect place for imagining. . . . And yours? Where is your exceptional place?