Author: kevinformal

Short, dark and than some

My short story “Taming the Tiger” will be published in the collection, The Beat of Black Wings: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Joni Mitchell, later this spring by Untreed Reads. I wrote the story more than a year ago, so it was a little jarring to look back through it as it’s being prepared for publication and realize how dark it is. There is a sinister love triangle, a twisted power struggle, and a Talented Mr. Ripley-style murder. This isn’t the first time I’ve written dark short fiction. In fact, when I started thinking about it, all of my short stories, both published and unpublished, explore disquieting themes and paint bleak pictures of humans and their motivations.

All of this got me wondering: just what kind of monster am I?!

It’s probably common for people to assume that writers match their writing. Ernest Hemingway, whose books center on dashing, macho men battling their inner demons, was a dashing, macho man, battling inner demons. F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Gatsby-like party boy. When asked where his dark inspirations stemmed from, Stephen King had this answer: “People think I must be a strange person. This is not correct. I have the heart of a small boy. It’s in a jar on my desk.” (For the record, King isn’t quite the sicko his books would make him appear, but he was a raging alcoholic for decades, and even now he’s known for being quirky and elusive).

In my case, though, the darkness of my imaginary worlds doesn’t match up with my personality. I’m generally jolly and usually upbeat. I like wiener dog races and the color yellow and pictures of newborn babies wearing giant hair bows. My childhood had the usual share of minor traumas, but I grew up surrounded by loving family members. So why, when I sit down at a computer, does blood and fire pour out of my fingertips?

My fellow mystery writer and good friend, Tracee DeHahn, and I were talking about this phenomenon recently. She, too, is a uniformly upbeat person who comes from a stable background. We’re both relatively new to the world of mystery writing and have been wowed by the kindness and affability of the mystery authors we meet. Seriously, Malice Domestic, the annual gathering of writers who spend their days mentally murdering people, is filled with folks who are, on the whole, kinder than your average church bake sale committee (though, it has to be said, much, much raunchier).

My theory is that for many writers, the page is a safe place to process negative emotions. For me at least, fiction is like an external hard drive to store my darkness. Even cheerful people like me have heaps and heaps of bad thoughts that need to find expression.

Maybe I particularly like to visit those dark places in short fiction because it seems to allow me just enough time to explore those themes without absorbing them. Short fiction is a long weekend in the Land of Id — the raw, exposed, and sometimes downright yucky swamp in my emotional landscape. Visiting Id-Land allows me to appreciate life back at my emotional dwelling place: Giant Baby Bow Town.

 

Underneath it all

I’ve been tinkering with a new story lately and I was reminded of a phrase that’s always driven me batty: s/he is “a good person underneath it all.”

The story I’m writing is written from first person point of view, a perspective I haven’t used in awhile. Being inside your character’s head can allow a little more scope for introspection and give space for your character to explain his or her actions to the reader. As I was creating my protagonist, it struck me just how unlike real life that is. What a luxury to be able to do something crappy and then be able to spend a few paragraphs explaining your underlying motivations, limitations, and experiences!

As a society, we rarely afford one another this luxury. Say some NASCAR wannabe cuts me off on the highway and causes me to swerve. Perhaps I’m feeling generous enough to sketch out an appropriate justification and backstory for her — maybe she was rushing to her child’s school because she got a call from the nurse? maybe she’s a doctor who’s just been called in to consult on a critical patient?

But nine times out of ten, I’m going to flip that crazy driver the bird, mentally or verbally. (Sorry, kids in the backseat. Don’t repeat what Mommy just said at daycare.) Maybe then the cycle of judgement continues. Another driver who missed seeing the near-accident happens to drive past my car a moment later. They’ll see me swerve, and then pass me as I’m red-faced and screaming, with my wide-eyed kiddos in the backseat, trying to process the colorful vocabulary they just learned.  Neither crazy NASCAR driver nor I will have a chance to hand out explanatory pamphlets to justify our actions.

What I’m getting at is that life is basically one big series of stories written in third-person limited point of view. For the most part, your character (Let’s call her You) is essentially the sum of You’s actions.

The phrase “good person underneath it all” is often rolled out as a sad platitude by kindly former neighbors or classmates after someone does something heinous. It’s like an atomic “bless your heart” — a way of reminding ourselves that even villains have backstories. The underneath it all idea represents a perennial strain of moral philosophy. Just think of the schism between Catholics and Protestants over whether a soul can get to Heaven by faith alone, or whether good works are also needed. Even though I was raised Baptist, I always found myself on #TeamCatholic for this one. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that some absolute stinker who repented in his very last breath would have access to the same harp-strumming, blissful afterlife as, say, Mister Rogers.

Even though I have some definite ideas about this, even I have to admit that my Actions = Character argument has some limitations. Most of the time, bad actions are made more likely by circumstances. It’s easier to be generous if you’re not starving. It’s pretty damn hard to give love if you’ve never received it. I also have to find a moral space for things like mental and physical illness. If a bipolar friend flakes on me because she’s going through a manic episode, that doesn’t make me think she’s a fundamentally bad person.

Still, I maintain that the best path is to recognize that our interior lives are, a majority of the time, inaccessible to our fellow humans. So even if we have Darth Vader-worthy origin stories to explain how we went over to the Dark Side, as much as this dumb old world will allow, let’s try to stay on the sunny side. Smile. Give a compliment. Give a hug. Unless you carry around a stack of explanatory pamphlets, you’re stuck as a third person kind of person.

Competing Narratives

Yesterday, when a journalist described the “competing narratives” surrounding President Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, I was struck for the first time by the word narrative.  As a fiction writer, the idea of narrative obviously isn’t new to me, but that news report suddenly made me think of the foundational importance of storytelling in very different way. Narratives are stories, accounts of people/characters and events connected in such a way that they form a coherent whole. I wasn’t only surprised that the transcript of one fairly short phone call could pitch an entire nation into spin doctoring frenzy. I was surprised that I hadn’t ever realized that “narrative” describes what we all do, all the time, about everything.

When constructing a narrative, a storyteller has to make judgments about which facts are important, and which can be set aside. I mean, Hercule Poirot is a fascinating character, but nobody wants to read 50 irrelevant pages about him waiting for a taxi. Context is also crucial in building a coherent story. The genius of The Girl on the Train is how the slow build-up of context continually reframes the disappearance that lies at the heart of the novel’s action.

There’s a great section in Sarah Blake’s novel The Guest Book where one of the main characters, a history professor, shows her class a picture of a grave. The tombstone is inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates of birth and death. After the death date, July 1863, are the words “At Gettysburg, Far From Home.” She asks the class, “What is the history here?” The obvious answers are thrown out (Civil War battles, soldiers), but then the less obvious ones start to emerge (the home front, post-war memorial tributes). From there, even more obscure histories become possible (How do we even know this person was a soldier? Could he have been a slave brought to Gettysburg with his master? Do we know if this grave is even located in America?).

History is not discovering facts; it’s crafting narrative. And the task of a responsible historian is to gather the tools at her disposal–dates, voices, documents, material culture, artifacts, etc.–and tell the most convincing story that can be told about a chosen topic. Inevitably, that narrative will be shaped both by the storyteller and by the audience.

When looked at this way, it’s not just novels or history or politics that rely on creating narratives, it’s every single thing we as humans do. If I tell my husband about my day, I’m creating a narrative. Maybe I include the part where I went to Pilates class and walked the dog, but omit the part where I gorged on Halloween candy while watching the wedding episode of Outlander.

I’ve written before about the work of Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain. In her memoir, On Living, Egan explains that an important step in helping ease the final transition of a dying person can be to help them craft a life story, an autobiographical narrative, for themselves. In most cases, this isn’t a matter of literally writing anything or trying to remember everything that happened in a person’s life. For some people, crafting a life story may mean reframing a trauma as an experience that made them stronger. For others, it may mean accepting (or not) that some wishes will never be granted. In all cases, though, people are making decisions about inclusion/exclusion of facts (or beliefs) and giving them context. They are creating narrative.

Humans have developed this wonderful tool — narrative — to parse and make sense of our very complicated world. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Drop a rock and see if it floats. Sometimes facts and context are clear enough that even the most skillful spin doctor would have a hard time creating a competing narrative.

Facebook, Undead Russians, and the Tying of Loose Threads

Terrance Winter, a writer for The Sopranos, has a ready answer when asked about the most frequent fan question he fields — hands down, it’s about the episode with the missing Russian. What happened to the Russian?!

If you’ve seen the series, you know what I’m talking about. The episode, called Pine Barrens, features a botched execution of a Russian thug and his subsequent mysterious disappearance into the frozen wilderness of New Jersey. Neither the Russian nor his would-be corpse makes any other appearance in the series, and the mystery surrounding his whereabouts is never solved. It drives people bananas. Series creator David Chase had this to say about the episode:

This is what Hollywood has done to America. Do you have to have closure on every little thing? Isn’t there any mystery in the world? It’s a murky world out there. It’s a murky life these guys lead. [1]

Part of me loves this mystery. But that part is infinitesimally tiny compared to the part of me that feels that the NOT KNOWING is an unscratchable itch that will preoccupy my psyche until kingdom come.

I had reason to revisit my hatred for loose threads recently because I experienced the unparalleled joy of tying off a thread that has been dangling for the better part of thirty years. When I was in fifth grade, my best friend moved away. This was back when long distance phone calls were expensive and when the internet was still only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye. My friend and I exchanged letters for a few months, but quickly lost touch. I’ve often wondered about her over the years, but web stalking never turned up any clues to her whereabouts. Recently, though, I happened upon her mother’s Facebook page, which led me back to her. Thanks, Evil, Personal-Data-Stealing Corporation! My childhood friend is happily married, owns a powerboat, and seemed only mildly disturbed by my decades-long obsession with finding her.

As a writer, I am torn by the same impulse that led Chase and Winter to craft a messy ending for the Pine Barrens episode. I’ve written before about the unanswered questions in the Lindsay Harding series. My latest book will (I hope) be the start of a new middle-grade adventure series set in Scotland, and my initial draft left many questions unanswered. Life, after all, is a tangled ball of loose threads that dwarfs the biggest twine balls in Kansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Missouri. You hear that, Midwestern states? Your balls are not as big as you think.

I’m also a reader, though. With the help of a kindly literary agent, I realized that the initial ending I wrote was unsatisfactory, especially for a middle-grade audience. Readers needed more answers than I had given. As I polish this new draft, I’m trying to strike the right balance of resolution and continuing mystery. It turns out that resolution is as easy as killing a Russian in the Pine Barrens, which is to say not very easy at all. Wish me luck!

Virtual Tour of a Virtual Book

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This month, I’m going on an actual trip with my actual family of squishy little humans, the first proper vacation we’ve had in several years. I will bring a real book made of paper, and read it with my eyeballs while sipping a tropical cocktail and raking sand with my newly-pedicured toes.

I’m also going on a trip next month, but not really. There will be people there, but not really. And there will be books, but not really.

Allow me to explain.

Next month’s trip is a virtual audiobook blog tour kindly organized by Jess the Magnificent at Audiobookworm. The way it works is, Jess sends virtual copies of my audiobooks to reviewers and bloggers who agree to post reviews, interviews, excerpts, and other content on their blogs on certain dates. As the author, I make the rounds on social media and online, commenting and interacting with each blogger on the assigned day. No actual anything changes hands at any point. None of us ever meet in person. The reviewers never hold a copy of my book in their hands. We are living in the future, people.

For both kinds of trips, prep is key. On the blog tour, all the content has to be requested, created, and shared on a strict timetable for the tour to run smoothly. So while I’m frantically trying to make sure that we’ve packed swim diapers, sunscreen, and a bunch of those little pouches of pureed fruit that are like baby crack for the actual trip, I’m also trying to prepare Top Ten lists, photos, and publicity blurbs for the blog tour. Even with Jess as my virtual travel agent, creating a two-week digital trip is almost as exhausting as planning a family holiday that will please both my toddler and my teenager. (Both kids like sleep and melted cheese, so I’m building our itinerary around those things).

I’m SUPER excited about both trips, and I hope you will come along. On the virtual one, that is. You are totally not invited to the beach.

Word architects

After a long hiatus, I finally started working on a novel again this month. With apologies to all the very patient Lindsay Harding fans, I haven’t started working on the next chaplain mystery. Instead, I’ve begun revising the manuscript for the middle-grade adventure novel I wrote a few years back in the hopes that I can submit it to agents in the fall. It feels good to be back in the saddle!

During this fallow period in which the sum total of my finished writing projects consisted of a single 1,500 word short story, something surprising happened. I’ve been offered two really cool opportunities to put on my Author Hat© and do Cool Author Things©. In my experience, that doesn’t usually happen. I’ve found that if I don’t promote the heck out of my books, attend conferences, and crank out new material, my sales dwindle to a trickle and my Author Hat© gathers dust in its metaphorical closet. Luck was on my side the past few months, though!

jeriandmindy
Celebrating with Jeri Rogers, Literary Editor of Artemis Journal at LitFest Pasadena.

Cool thing No. 1: I got to go to LA and be fancy in a room full of extraordinarily talented people. That 1,500 word short story I mentioned above won the Artemis-Lightbringer “Women hold up half the sky” competition for science fiction with feminist themes and a strong female protagonist. My story received dual publication in Artemis Journal and on the Hollywood NOW website in addition to a cash prize from Hollywood NOW. You can check out my story in the 2018 edition of Artemis or hear it performed by actor and filmmaker Kamala Lopez, recorded live at LitFest Pasadena a few weeks ago. My story starts around minute 57. There’s also a little awards ceremony at the end where I give an impromptu, margarita-fueled speech.

Cool thing No. 2: I’ve been invited to go to one of my favorite places in the world, the Outer Banks, and give a book talk on Saturday, September 29th. Here’s how that whole thing came about. My friend Pam is an innkeeper. Kind of an 18th-century throwback job, huh? She keeps inn (inn-keeps?) at the White Doe Inn in Manteo on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. She recently started up a series of evening arts events and, knowing that A Death in Duck is set near there, she invited me to come give a book talk as part of the series. I said yes before she even finished inviting me.

Both of these unexpected wonderful opportunities reminded me of something. When you publish something or otherwise put your writing out into the world, you lose control of where that writing goes or how it will impact people. Being a writer is kind of like building a house. You may build that house for a specific client or with a clear vision for who will inhabit it. But years, decades, or, if you’re incredibly lucky, centuries later, that house could be roughly the same. Or maybe it will have undergone a complete renovation or maybe it’ll be a crack den. Once you hand it over to the world, you can’t control who lives there or what they do.

The same is true of writing. People’s reactions can be scary or disappointing, like when a series of negative reviews from homophobes blights your book’s Amazon page (the literary equivalent of a crack house?). But they can also be thrilling and encouraging, like when you get to travel to both coasts within the space of a few months to share your work. Not bad for an unproductive year.