Indie Monday

This week’s guest: Doris Rubenstein

This week I’m pleased to host award-winning author Doris Rubenstein. Doris is a native of Detroit and graduate of the University of Michigan. After two years in Peace Corps/Ecuador, she started a long career with non-profit organizations and in the field of philanthropy. She is the author of five books besides her newest one. You’re Always Welcome at the Temple of Aaron won the 2009 USCJ Schechter Award, and The Journey of a Dollar was a Silver Franklin Award winner from the IBPA. Doris has lived in Minnesota since 1984 and received her M.A. from Augsburg University there in 1993; her thesis won a Kenneth Clark Award for Research in Leadership from the Center for Creative Leadership (N.C.).  She has been a regular contributor to numerous local and national publications on the subjects of Philanthropy and the Arts.

This week Doris will talk about her newest book, The Boy with Four Names (iUniverse, 2021).

DL: Congratulations on your new book! What is it about?

DR: The book is an historical novel about a Jewish family, and especially their son, who fled Nazi Germany and landed in Ecuador. There are three points of view in the story: the father, the mother, and the Boy with Four Names himself. Each of them has a different path, but they come together through dangers and difficulties to find a new home that is safe, free, and welcoming.  

The book is aimed at teenagers, but—like War Horse and the Harry Potter books—adults can enjoy it, too. The boy has a really difficult time defining his identity, as do many teens wherever they may be. This makes it especially appealing to that audience. But then again, who didn’t struggle with their identity in high school?  I was amazed when I talked with many of my classmates while preparing for my class reunion four years ago; how many of them identified themselves entirely differently than I would have identified them at that time: the “cool” kids, the shy kids, etc. From what I could tell, it wasn’t until we broke away from our neighborhood roots and families that we created our own identities. That’s sort of what happens to the “hero” of this book, only he manages to do it when he’s younger than most.

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

DR: There is a real boy with four names, only he’s about 84 now: Enrique Cohen. His family fled Europe when he was a toddler and he was brought up in Ecuador. Along the way, he attended the University of Michigan, where he met my cousin and they married a couple of years after graduation. I’m a lot younger than he is, and the difference seemed even greater when the two of them got married and headed off for a life in Ecuador. But, as fate would have it, when I was accepted into the Peace Corps in 1971, I was assigned to Ecuador. When I worked on the coast and in the Amazonian areas of the country, when I’d come into Quito for R&R (or training or whatever), I’d stay with the Cohens—either my cousin and Enrique or Enrique’s parents, who treated me like a niece. I lived in Quito for eight months during Peace Corps and saw them at least weekly during that time. I’ve been back for visits five or six times over the past 48 years. I was always curious about their story, but they really didn’t talk about it much. I got snippets here and there, but nothing close to a narrative. 

I got the idea for the book while on a visit in 2013. We were invited to an event at the synagogue there. I knew some of the other Jews in Ecuador, but didn’t know their stories, either. My Jewish (and non-Jewish) friends in the States were amazed to learn that there are Jews living in Ecuador, some for four generations now. Their exposure to Holocaust stories pointed toward those who fled to the U.S. or Canada, or Israel. Maybe some of our generation knew that Jews had gone to Argentina because of the Eichmann trial. But Ecuador? As for teens, the only “teen” story they seem know of is Anne Frank’s, and that’s got a pretty sad ending. I thought that a different story directed at them—like Enrique’s life—would shed new light on the lives of Holocaust survivors. And his true search for a unified identity certainly should resonate with many teens, too.

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

DR: The writing process started with research. I visited Ecuador in 2019 and did an in-depth interview with Enrique. His wife sat in on it and after it was over, she said that she’d never heard most of the stories he told—and they’d been married over 50 years at that time! I’d written a “novelized” history of my father’s family about six years earlier (printed just enough copies for my relatives and a couple copies for Historical Societies), so I felt comfortable with the genre of historical fiction. In reality, I’m a non-fiction writer—mostly histories and newspaper and magazine articles. I surprised myself that writing this book was not all that difficult: inventing dialogs, etc. seemed to flow fairly easily.

Aside from the interview with Enrique in Quito, he and I exchanged many more emails when I had questions or needed clarification. But there were numerous questions he couldn’t answer because he’d been too young to remember things, or his parents and grandparents never discussed them in his presence. So I had to invent a lot of things that seemed plausible and were historically accurate. For example, I wrote that the family got forged identification papers from the Olivetti family, of typewriter fame. They probably didn’t, but it’s a documented fact that the Olivettis (who were Jews) forged hundreds of documents for Jewish refugees from across Europe.

Even with this, I still had places in the story that could be filled in only by other Jewish refugees to Ecuador. I can’t remember how I found it, but I found a Facebook group called “Jews of Ecuador” (the JOEs, as they refer to themselves). It is a closed group for Jews who were born in Ecuador, or who grew up in Ecuador, or whose parents fit those parameters. I asked for permission to join the group, explaining my purpose. They were terrific!  The JOEs supplied me with numerous stories from their families’ experiences that were slipped into The Boy with Four Names when Enrique’s memory was deficient.

I also read two books by JOEs: one was a memoir written in English; the other is a history of the Ecuadorian Jewish community. It’s written in Spanish and is very academic, but full of good stuff! My Spanish sure got a workout with that book!

The hardest part for me was to make the language “teen friendly.” I didn’t want to write at too high a level, but I didn’t want to talk down to them. I ran a fairly late draft past two friends who taught high school and both assured me that I was right on target.

The pandemic didn’t really help or hurt me while writing. I’m retired, so my time is my own. I also was working on another project at the same time, a history of Jewish theatre in the Upper Midwest (I live in Minnesota). That came out last fall. I wrote it for the Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest. So when I needed a break from one project, I would concentrate on the other.

DL: What was the best part of writing this book?

DR: Actually, I loved the research. Connecting with Enrique in an entirely different way, though I’ve known him since I was twelve. Meeting the JOEs on Facebook, reading their stories, and being so completely accepted into their world.

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

DR: The hardest parts were making sure that the events of the Cohen family coincided accurately with the actual historical events that drove them out of Europe to Ecuador. I wanted to be sure that this book could be used as a teaching tool about the Holocaust as much as a pleasure-read without making it like a textbook or, on the other hand, a totally fictional book.

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?

DR: As I’m writing this, I’m waiting for the publisher’s rep to call so that I can order copies of books to be delivered to me for autographing and direct sales.  I’ve set up a Facebook page for The Boy with Four Names that has a link to my email address. The best way to buy it is from the publisher: www.iUniverse.com/Bookstore. Then insert my name or the book’s title in the search box.

DL: Any final reflections you would like to share?

DR: I ran a PDF of this book past the Executive Director of the Association of Holocaust Organizations. She exclaimed, “There’s NOTHING like this for teens on the market right now and this story has to be told and read!” Wow. What an endorsement! But this book is not only a Holocaust story. It tells a LOT about Ecuadorian geography and culture during the 1940s: what it’s like to have lived in a Third World country back then. And, of course, it’s appealing for the psychological profile of a teen, trying to figure out who he truly is as his own person.

DL: Thank you for joining us this week, Doris. Much luck with the new book!  

Indie Monday

This week’s guest: Nancy Owen Nelson

This week I’m pleased to host author and educator Nancy Owen Nelson. While still teaching college English classes, she has turned to memoir and poetry writing over recent years, publishing two memoirs, including the award-winning Searching for Nannie B: Connecting Three Generations of Southern Women (2015); a poetry chapbook, My Heart Wears No Colors (2018); and a poetry book, Portals: A Memoir in Verse (2019). She lives in Dearborn, Michigan, with her husband Roger and cat Fortuna (Tuna). In future, she hopes to revise a novel, Four Women, giving it more literary “verve.”

Nancy will talk about her brand-new release, Divine Aphasia: A Woman’s Search for Her Father (Ardent Writer Press, 2021).

DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

NON: Thanks, Don. It’s a pleasure and honor to be featured on your blog!

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

NON: Divine Aphasia: A Woman’s Search for Her Father has been in process for decades. Sadly, the suicide of someone close to me pushed me toward writing creative nonfiction. I had recently broken my fibula and was on crutches for several weeks. This gave me more opportunity to sit with my laptop and write. The suicide also brought me back to the importance of living in the moment, doing what I wanted to do, speaking, and writing my story.  

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch? 

NON: Unlike many authors, I don’t journal. I wish I did because I know how much it helps authors to track and remember key points of their writing. I just have a concept and decide to start in small pieces. For instance, I have an unpublished novel which began with a character coming home from school in the late 1940s. From there, the novel birthed four women characters, each with her point of view. 

When I began Divine Aphasia, which went through several titles and phrases (including different foci and story arches), I decided to construct a memoir around the months after falling and breaking my leg. Though it seems an ordinary and common injury, I took the opportunity to write chapters around aspect of my life—parents, sisters, marriages (more on that later), my son, etc. These chapters progressed with my healing process, and I wrote of surgery, of walking on crutches, and eventually, walking again in my neighborhood. Ironically, I ended up with eight chapters; then I met my current husband, Roger, and I was able to write the ninth, which ended up being read at our wedding luncheon. The nine chapters felt like a gestation and birth.

The original titles for this version were The Fortunate Fall (an allusion to Adam and Eve), and later Reductio Absurdus (my Latin may not be so great 😊) around the idea of the absurdity of the human situation. I’m a huge fan of Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot. In fact, I’ve been impacted deeply by it since reading it in a college French class. You’ll find references to it throughout this memoir, including the title.  

Readers reviewed the manuscript in various versions, and the common response was that I was trying to cover too much material, that all the parts of my life need not be in one memoir. As it turned out, I’ve published a few of the chapters and individual pieces. Some poetry grew out of them as well.

Finally, I settled on focusing on the impact of relationship with my career-military father and my last husband, the one who died by his own hand. My question was “Why did I marry so many times?” The memoir is an answer to this question. An earlier title, In the Army Now, eventually became Divine Aphasia, an allusion from Beckett’s play.

The pandemic? As mentioned, this memoir was mostly written before COVID-19. Most of what I did was to tweak and edit. I gave a lot of time and care to the cover, which was created after many Zoom hours with photographer Joel Geffen (with Cathy Dutertre). Since I teach online and work otherwise from home, being inside the house wasn’t a huge adjustment. Nonetheless, like many others I’ve talked with, I felt the need to write about the pandemic—silent and invisible, but frightening. It became a metaphor in some poetry I wrote.  

DL: What was the best part of/most fun about writing this book?

NON: After what I’ve already said, you’ll understand that “fun” isn’t the first word I’d associate with this book. However, as painful and challenging as it has been, I am gratified about having survived the process of self-examination and come to some terms with my question.

Probably the most satisfying part of the book was the almost-last chapter, “Beginnings,” in which I catch my dad up on my life and challenges since he died at 62 in 1968. I’m able to describe my journey and to bring forward what I’ve learned from it. Joyfully, I tell him about my current husband, my son, who is named after him, and my granddaughter, his great granddaughter.

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

NON: I probably answered this under #3 above. I will add that, as the date of release on June 30 comes closer, I’ve needed to reexamine the manuscript to make sure this is what I want to say.  

In fact, I added this addendum to my Acknowledgments:  

Most names are changed. To readers who may recognize themselves or others in this book, I intend no harm to anyone. Please take me at my word, as I say in the Preface: “Now I know that these marriages were a pilgrimage to find, to fully understand my father, . . . . [and] why I married so many times.”

Those who attempt memoir know the tug-of-war that can happen between telling one’s truthful story and NOT deliberately hurting anyone. It’s a tough balance and it’s risky. However, writers will find that the impulse to move forward is compelling. This helps them, I believe, to know that their stories need to be told. 

 DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy? 

NON: Divine Aphasia can be purchased here on Amazon. Readers may also purchase a signed copy from me at this link. The payment includes a slightly adjusted book cost + media mail shipping + a small fee from Paypal.

DL: Any final reflections about the book (what you learned from writing it, for example) or things you want people to know about it? 

NON: Readers can follow my occasional blog, “Ruminations,” on my web page: http://www.nancyowennelson.com/. Contact information is there as well. Thanks again, Don, for this opportunity!

DL: Thank you for joining us this week, Nancy. Much luck with the book!  

Indie Monday

This week’s guest: Jean Davis

This week I’m pleased to host author Jean Davis. Jean lives in West Michigan with her musical husband, two attention-craving terriers, and a small flock of chickens and ducks. When not ruining fictional lives from the comfort of her writing chair, she plays in her flower garden, visits local breweries, and eats gluttonous amounts of sushi. She is the author of nine books, including a space opera series, The Narvan, two short story collections, and four standalone novels. 

This week, Jean will talk about her new release, Not Another Bard’s Tale (StreamlineDesign.com, 2021).

DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

JD: Not Another Bard’s Tale is humorous fantasy. Bruce Gawain has been between knightly quests for longer than he’d like to admit. In the town of Holden, he meets a seer who tells him where he can finally find his destiny. All he has to do is travel to the distant Wall of Nok in Gambreland. With only three coins to his name, Bruce isn’t getting much further than a barstool at the town’s inn.

As luck would have it, the innkeeper’s beautiful daughter Svetlana and her flock of troublesome god-gifted sheep need an escort to Gambreland. With a paying job, everything seems to fall into place for Bruce’s quest…except for Svetlana’s killjoy bodyguard sister, an evil overlord with looming prophecy issues, and a dragon threatening to eat the townspeople until its stolen treasure is returned. 

Bruce sets out with his pan-wielding companion Mydeara and the negligibly talented bard, Harold to seek out the Wall of Nok. Will they find Bruce’s destiny, return Svetlana safely home, and save the people of Holden from the vengeful dragon?

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

JD: Not Another Bard’s Tale was brought to life in 2008. I’d been on a humorous fantasy reading binge and happened across John Moore’s Heroics For Beginners. Between that book and my love for Monty Python’s Holy Grail, I decided to set out to write my own funny fantasy novel. 

While some of my books do have bits of snarky humor, this one went all in. 

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

JD: The vast majority of my novel writing takes place during NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November. I’ve been churning out rough drafts every November for fourteen years. One of those novels was published in 2015 and I’ve been working my way through my backlog of drafts ever since, slowly rewriting and editing until they are ready for publication. Each year my drafts get a little cleaner and the writing more polished on the first draft. A couple of the novels aren’t worth wading through but were good learning experiences. Not Another Bard’s Tale is my sixth NaNoWriMo project to be published. 

As far as process is concerned, I’m a tried and true pantser. I like to discover the story as I write. That used to mean a lot of rewriting and editing, but my drafts are much cleaner and clearer these days, usually taking one or two big editing passes to tighten the plot and character development and then just the usual line edits and proofing.

Because Not Another Bard’s Tale is intended to be funny and most of my other books are not, this one did take several rounds of reader feedback over many years to find a good balance of what different readers find funny. Humor is vastly subjective. I went for a mix of campy, dark, and bawdy to hopefully please a wider range of readers. When my proofreader told me fantasy wasn’t really her thing but “this was a hoot to read,” I felt pretty confident that I’d achieved my goal.

Book launches during the pandemic . . . ugh. It’s been rough. I like to do in-person events and that just hasn’t been possible on the scale we were used to. This is the fourth book I’ve released in the pandemic vacuum. Honestly, having nearly all events canceled for the past year has freed up a lot of time I hadn’t planned on having to not only write but work through my backlog of drafts. Not Another Bard’s Tale wasn’t originally on my publishing radar for another year. I guess that’s one little bright side to the pandemic? I’m hoping with things opening back up again, we’ll be able to get back out and meet readers in person, sign books, and attempt to make all this writing time we’ve had profitable.  

DL: What was the best part of writing this book?

JD: The best part was allowing myself to frolic through lighthearted plotlines. Most of my books are fairly dark and heavy on the character arcs. Not Another Bard’s Tale follows eight main characters on their adventures, allowing me to play in each of their heads for a couple of chapters without having to delve in too deeply, focusing instead on the humor each of them offers.

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

JD: Several parts were challenging. The original draft in 2008 didn’t have an end other than a general idea and the middle was bogged down in a humorless bog. After the initial round of disheartening feedback from my critique group that did make it to the middle, I put the book to rest for years. The amount of work it needed was too overwhelming.  A couple of years ago, having published several books and learned a lot, I pulled the file out again and wrote the ending, made some notes on what needed to be fixed, and slowly plugged away at it. I ran it through another critique group over another year and made more changes and then finally last year, having time to implement all the feedback, the story elements fell into place.

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?

JD: Not Another Bard’s Tale is available on the following sites:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/1734570180

https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1079264

https://store.kobobooks.com/en-us/Search?Query=9781734570199

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/not-another-bards-tale-jean-davis/1139208219

https://bookshop.org/books/not-another-bard-s-tale/9781734570182

And if you’d like a signed copy, you can find my in-person event list on my blog:

http://jeanddavis.blogspot.com/

DL: Any final reflections you’d like to leave us with?

JD: For you writers out there, don’t give up on your drafts. Just because it isn’t good right now, doesn’t mean it will never be. It took me roughly ten novels to get my process down, to figure out how to write a draft that can go from a three-sentence synopsis to a finished book in a year. We’re always learning and fine-tuning our process. Revisit those projects you put aside every now and then, you never know when the creative gears will suddenly crank out the inspiration you were looking for.

DL: Thank you for joining us this week, Jean. Much luck with the book!  

Indie Monday

This week’s guest: E. Raye Turonek

 

This week on Indie Monday, I’m delighted to host multifaceted author, blogger, newsletter writer, screenwriter, YouTube broadcaster, and astrologer E. Raye Turonek. She resides with her husband and family in a small rural town in mid-Michigan. Since releasing her debut literary work, Compelled To Murder, in 2016, she has released two additional novels, Compelled To Murder – Full Length and Compelled To Murder II – Steven’s Lineage, under her company Mental Chatter Musings. Her astrology videos upload every month on her YouTube channel, Enchantress Press Astrology. Her newest novel, Deadliest Intuition, under Kensington Publishing is set to release July 2021. 

This week, Ebony will talk about her upcoming release, Deadliest Intuition (Kensington Publishing, 2021).

DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

ERT: Thank you! I’m eager for Kensington to release it on July 27th, 2021. It’s a psychological thriller about a man by the name of Ronald Doolally. As the synopsis reads, Ronald Doolally has one gray eye, the other as dark as the deepest parts of any ocean. The often-misunderstood Ronald lives his life as a single man with few attachments. After the death of his father, he hasn’t a person left in the world–until he meets Gertrude Liberal, who immediately shows interest in the odd stranger. The outspoken, natural beauty sees his distant demeanor as endearing.

Eventually wearing down his defenses, Gertrude finds a place in his heart against what Ronald would call his better judgment. He once thought of himself as being steered through life by a keen intuition, but that now manifests into something much more sinister.

As Gertrude unearths the Doolally family’s secrets, she begins to question the man she’s found herself entangled with. Who is Ronald, and how does he always seem to read people’s minds? Will Gertrude’s curiosity be her demise, or will Ronald be able to control his innermost thoughts once his secrets are unearthed?

DL: What inspired the creation of the book? 

ERT: Truthfully, the inspiration was sparked by the need for more content from African-American writers within the realm of psychological thrillers. I’m already within that genre of writing and it was what the publisher was in need of. As you know, traditional publishers always have their preferred market they’re targeting. Honestly, the story came to me effortlessly. The setting is in Michigan and it takes place in the neighborhood I grew up in throughout my adolescence, so I really enjoyed writing this book. Although it is a psychological thriller, it brought back a wealth of fond memories of my childhood. 

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch? 

ERT: I’d be happy to! It definitely differed from my normal writing process. Normally, I just jump right in and write, as I had done with the Compelled to Murder series. But because this book would be under a traditional publisher, my agent, N’Tyse, has guidelines she likes to use for every book written. We use character bibles before we begin to write the story. A character bible details the characters’ characteristics, attributes, quirks, build . . . I mean, we literally go through their entire make-up, even what makes them tick, before starting the manuscript. That way, the characters are well developed. 

The pandemic has actually provided me the time to write more than I would have, had we not had the down time. I have an extraordinary agent, so the timeline worked perfectly. She is great at getting things done. 

DL: What was the best part of/most fun about writing this book? 

ERT: The most fun was the trip down memory lane I was afforded while writing the book. Of course, the scenes include places I’ve traveled to as a child. Since Ronald lives in the house I grew up in, as I said before it awarded me a wealth of fond memories. 

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

ERT: I can’t say the book was really challenging. It was truly effortless to write. I’ve only written six novels and two anthologies, so I still have a wealth of stories on file. If I had to choose something, it would be the fact that the character bibles had to be completed before starting the story. In hindsight, that helped because I was equipped with all the knowledge needed to really make these characters jump off the page. 

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?

ERT: Deadliest Intuition will be available for purchase through Random House, Kensington, Amazon, Target, Barnes & Nobles, basically wherever books are sold. Signed copies can be purchased through me. If you message me on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/ebony.turonek) or even email me at author@mentalchattermusings.com, I can get that signed copy to you. But of course, it doesn’t release until the end of July. 

DL: Any final reflections about the book (what you learned from writing it, for example) or things you want people to know about it? 

ERT: Deadliest Intuition is my first traditionally-published book and the one that pushed me the most because of the editing process. I am extremely proud of the work I put into it and can’t wait for the readers to check it out and let me know what they think. I am just so proud and honored to be a hybrid author. It’s been a wonderful experience, so far. Now that I am back to writing screenplays again, I would love to switch this into a screenwork, so that the readers have an opportunity to really see the work play out in front of them on the big screen. 

DL: Thank you for joining us this week. Much luck with the book!

Brutal Reviews of Classic Books

A version of this week’s post appeared here a few years ago. Enjoy!

As part of my efforts at getting my name out in the world, I’ve often asked (begged? cajoled? pleaded with?) my readers to write reviews of my books after they’ve read them. Most of us have done that at one time or another, right?

While generally things work out for the best, occasionally we do get a review that shows a reader was, shall we say, singularly unimpressed with our creative initiatives.

The blogs are filled with advice on how to deal with bad reviews . . . some say don’t read them, some say read but disregard them, some say imagine the reviewers in their underwear, and so.

My own way of dealing with the problem is to remind myself that even the best got lousy reviews, and it didn’t stop them.

Here’s a selective listing of scathing reviews of fifteen books that are now considered classics of literature. Most reviews were published contemporaneously with the books they review. They range from the snarky to the morally outraged, and they’re a good reminder that not every book is to every reader’s taste . . . and reviewers, like everybody else, are sometimes not very good at what they do.

Enjoy, have a laugh—and then get back to work!

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“Whitman is as unacquainted with art as a hog is with mathematics.” —The London Critic, 1855, on Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

“It is no discredit to Walt Whitman that he wrote Leaves of Grass, only that he did not burn it afterwards.” — Thomas Wentworth Higginson

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“The final blow-up of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent. . . . This is a penny dreadful tricked up in fancy language and given a specious depth by the expert manipulation of a series of eccentric technical tricks. The characters have no magnitude and no meaning because they have no more reality than a mince-pie nightmare.” —The New Yorker on Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

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“It was not necessary for a writer of so great refinement and poetic grace to enter the overworked field of sex fiction.” —Chicago Times Herald, 1899, on The Awakening by Kate Chopin

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“Miss Willa S. Cather in O Pioneers (O title!!) is neither a skilled storyteller nor the least bit of an artist.” —Dress and Vanity Fair Magazine

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The Great Gatsby is an absurd story, whether considered as romance, melodrama, or plain record of New York high life.” —L.P Hartley, The Saturday Review, 1925, on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

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“Here all the faults of Jane Eyre (by Charlotte Brontë) are magnified a thousand fold, and the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read.” —James Lorimer, North British Review, 1847, on Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë

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“That a book like this could be written—published here—sold, presumably over the counters, leaves one questioning the ethical and moral standards…there is a place for the exploration of abnormalities that does not lie in the public domain. Any librarian surely will question this for anything but the closed shelves. Any bookseller should be very sure that he knows in advance that he is selling very literate pornography.”  —Kirkus Reviews, 1958, on Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

“There are two equally serious reasons why it isn’t worth any adult reader’s attention. The first is that it is dull, dull, dull in a pretentious, florid and archly fatuous fashion. The second is that it is repulsive.” —New York Times on Lolita

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“A gloomy tale. The author tries to lighten it with humor, but unfortunately her idea of humor is almost exclusively variations on the pratfall. . . .Neither satire nor humor is achieved.” ⎯Saturday Review of Literature, 1952, on Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor

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“Monsieur Flaubert is not a writer.” —Le Figaro, 1857, on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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“Never have I read such tosh. As for the first two chapters, we will let them pass, but the third, the fourth the fifth the sixth – merely the scratchings of pimples on the body of the boot-boy at Claridges.” —Virginia Woolf on Ulysses by James Joyce

“The average intelligent reader will glean little or nothing from it … save bewilderment and a sense of disgust.” —New York Times on Ulysses

“[Ulysses] appears to have been written by a perverted lunatic who has made a speciality of the literature of the latrine… I have no stomach for Ulysses.“—The Sporting Times, 1922

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“This is easily one of the worst books I’ve ever read. And bear in mind that I’ve read John Grisham.” Susan Cohen on Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With That Dragon Tattoo in the Charleston City Paper

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“I have two recommenda­tions. First, don’t buy this book. Second, if you buy this book, don’t drop it on your foot.” The New Yorker on Chesapeake by James Michener

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“Occasional overwriting, stretches of fuzzy thinking, and a tendency to waver, confusingly, between realism and surrealism.” —Atlantic Monthly on Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

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“[Kerouac] can slip from magniloquent hysteria into sentimental bathos, and at his worst he merely slobbers words.” —Chicago Tribune on On the Road by Jack Kerouac

“That’s not writing. That’s typing.” —Truman Capote on On the Road

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“Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ I want to dig her up and  hit her over the skull with her own shinbone!” —Mark Twain on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Indie Monday

This week’s guest: Rick Bailey

This week on Indie Monday, I’m proud to host Rick Bailey, author, educator, essayist, and world traveler. Rick grew up in Freeland, Michigan, on the banks of the Tittabawassee River. He taught writing for 38 years at Henry Ford College in the Detroit area. While writing textbooks for McGraw-Hill, he also wrote with classes he taught, a work habit that eventually led to Tittabawassee Road, a blog of essays on family, food, travel, and currrent events. His blog became the basis for American English, Italian Chocolate: Small Subjects of Great Importance (University of Nebraska Press, 2017). A Midwesterner long married to an Italian immigrant, in retirement he and his wife divide their time between Michigan and the Republic of San Marino. His second book is the memoir/travelogue The Enjoy Agenda at Home and Abroad (University of Nebraska Press, 2019).

This week, Rick will talk about his brand-new release, Get Thee to a Bakery: Essays (University of Nebraska Press, 2021).

DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

RB: Thanks for the opportunity to talk it. And major congratulations to you. I can’t wait to get into the next Martin Preuss book.  

Get Thee to a Bakery is my third collection of essays, part memoir, part creative nonfiction. Think David Sedaris. In this collection there are 42 new pieces. That’s a lot. So they’re on the short side. You can read them on the beach, or waiting in the doctor’s office, or on a flight (when we start to fly agains, that is). Try them lying in bed at night. Readers of my first two books tell me they go to sleep with a smile on their face. 

Among the important topics I explore are: family and friends, food and wine, technology and the environment, the general weirdness and surprise in contemporary life. My wife and I live in Italy three months of the year, or we did until Covid, so there’s some Italy in the book. And there’s some China in the book. And travel around the US West. One of my current favorites is an essay about the American smile. Americans smile more than other people. I mean in public, presenting this congenial disposition. Europeans think Americans are kind of crazy like that. Another current favorite in this collection is about earworm, a condition I’m afflicted with too often. Why is that Captain and Tenille song stuck in my head this morning? How do I get rid of it?

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

RB: I write a blog (rick-bailey.com), which sort of keeps me in a constant state of alert. The blog is my compost pile. It’s a place where I “write my life.” The books grow there. This particular book came sooner than I thought it would. By Spring of 2019 I had accumulated a lot of stuff on my blog, when I came down with a detached retina. That will slow you down, let me tell you. I had to sit for a week, to avoid jiggling my repaired retina. And I thought: what the hell, let me see if there’s enough accumulated material on my blog to make a book. And there was.

Initially I was kind of surprised, even a little embarrassed about, you know, the use of the term “memoir.” I always thought of memoir as something old famous people wrote. Well, I satisfied one of those conditions. (I’m 68 years old.) Back in the 90’s and 00’s, I started reading reviews of memoirs in the New York Times. Regular people were writing memoirs. People who were, like, 35 years old. In my mind, the genre started to morph. I began to see it as what I said above, “writing my life.” I saw that I didn’t have to have this big overarching narrative. I wasn’t writing the story of my life. I was writing stories from my life.

I usually choose one of the essays to become the title piece of the book. American English, Italian Chocolate, my first book, is named for an essay about pride in regional language and regional foods in the US and Italy. The Enjoy Agenda, my second book, is named for an essay about getting older, the perils of international travel, and being able to manage your life to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. I think that’s called hedonism. That’s my agenda. 

Get Thee to a Bakery, my new book, is named after an essay about cleaning the gutters on my house in the fall, the delightful season of pumpkin pie and my reflections on falling from a ladder into a bed of dying hastas, where I pictured myself like the drowned Ophelia in that Pre-Raphaelite painting. As long as I was full of pumpkin pie, that would be an okay way to go. Again, maximize pleasure, take rational steps to minimize risk and pain.  I’d say that’s Get Thee to a Bakery. I guess it’s all three books. 

I’m working on a fourth collection of essays right now that focuses more on growing up years. I remember the first time I heard Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” going to see “Bonnie and Clyde” the weekend Martin Luther King was assassinated, how we worked through our agonizing differences on the Vietnam war in our family. A lot of that formative stuff. We’ll see where that goes. 

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

RB: I’m a morning person. I taught online for 20 years and formed the habit of writing a few hours every day with and for my students, usually beginning at about 5:00 a.m. In retirement, you’d think I’d be sleeping in. In fact, I get up even earlier, usually sitting down to my laptop and coffee around 4:00 a.m. There’s nothing much happening at night that interests me. I go to bed thinking about what I’m writing and I wake up thinking about it. 

I’m also a quota guy. I aim for 750-1000 words a day. When you hit that number by 7:00 a.m., you have the rest of the day to ruminate, to open your imagination, to pay attention to your receptors and be alert to new ideas. If my wife and I are walking and I think of something related to the writing, I don’t trust myself to remember it. I take out my phone and capture it with the Notes app in a sentence or two. I write first drafts on Google Docs. Sometimes I sit in the grocery store parking lot. I’m there to buy a cauliflower. But the car is a quiet place. I take out my phone, open Google Docs, and read what I wrote that morning, editing by voice or by thumb. I have a little portable keyboard I can open and use with my iPhone. When we’re in Italy I spend quite a lot of time waiting for my wife. She’s in a shop, I’m in a coffee bar. I take out my two devices, keyboard and phone, and write up what we had to eat at that restaurant, Il Passatore, the night before. With color photos. I can blog while having a glass of wine in a bar in Italy. That’s the indescribable beauty and utility of modern technology.

The pandemic? It’s been good for my writing. Isolation and I get along pretty well.  

DL: What was the best part of/most fun about writing this book?

RB: The best part is the capture—of memories old and new. I always wonder why some memories are so vivid, from my childhood, I mean. I want to capture some of those moments. If I remember them, they must mean something. And I want to capture funny or interesting stuff that happened yesterday or last week. 

The fun part is making connections. I take my son to have his wisdom teeth out and I hear on the radio that Encyclopedia Britannica will cease publication. Two unrelated subjects that I bring together in an essay. We have a power outage in the middle of summer, I write about that—two days sleeping in the basement, but also a brief history of air conditioning technology. In The Enjoy Agenda, there’s an essay about having a toothache in Italy. I tell that story. But I also did some research for the essay, stumbled onto what art historians say about smiling and teeth and portraiture conventions in Renaissance painting (only peasants and dead people show their teeth). I also looked at the history of dentistry (the first of important book was written, in Latin, by a Venetian in the 16thcentury), at gruesome primitive dental practices in the 18th and 19th century, at-home remedies for dealing with toothache. This discovery process is fun. And making connections involves an act of imagination that’s always kind of a rush.  

The capture is the thing, putting memories in context—sometimes, as in the case of toothache, in a really broad context. I like thinking that my grandkids might read one or more of my books one day, that they might laugh and wonder at what happened to me and at what I thought about, that they might appreciate the sound of my voice. I guess I think that about readers in general.

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

RB: Any book, it’s a long-term project. In that week with a detached retina, I assembled a manuscript. Then came rewriting, revising, adding and subtracting content, moving stuff around. Five months later I had something that felt like a book. The work doesn’t do itself. You have to stay with it, move it along. That’s a challenge. I had the good fortune of writing a doctoral dissertation in the 80’s. The experience was awful, the work was of no great value, but I learned how to manage a long-term project and see it through to completion. It made doctoral suffering worth it. I’ve written a lot since that doctorate, a bunch of textbooks and now these books, which have been really fun. 

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?

RB: It doesn’t look like I will have a face-to-face launch or any signing events for this book. I’m hoping to do a few Zoom launches. I’ll announce those on Facebook and Twitter. If a reader wanted a sample of my writing, I’ve recorded a bunch of podcasts and posted them on my website, and I’m working on screencasts now, too. They’re under 5 minutes in length. You can hear how my voice sounds and sample the content. And of course, my blog gives readers a sample of my work. “The Summer of 1964,” which I posted on February 15, will probably be an essay in my fourth collection.  

To purchase Get Thee to a Bakery, I recommend your local bookstore. We need those stores. I mean communities need those stores. And I’d be happy to get a signed copy to anyone interested in that. Contact me by email—baileyrv@gmail.com.

DL: Thank you for joining us this week, Rick. Much luck with the book!

Sestina: The Cleaners

Back when I was writing poetry more or less full-time, I loved to experiment with poetic form, both organic and received. As a boy I once wanted to be an architect (until I realized you had to learn, you know, math). I’ve never lost that interest in structure.

As visual artists are fascinated by the structural intricacies of, say, fractals, I’ve long been fascinated by the ways in which language works; how letters represent sounds and join to form words, then larger syntactic elements, then even larger structural constituents until lines, sentences, paragraphs, stanzas, and so on create the massive architectural units of a poem and a novel.

As a poet, I found great joy in writing in (and ringing changes on) forms as disparate as sonnets and their minimalist siblings, word sonnets, and their maximalist cousins, sonnet crowns; gloses; ghazals; villanelles; pantuns; and so on.

One of the forms I found especially compelling was the sestina, a form dating from the twelfth century. It’s a poem of six stanzas of six lines each, followed by a three-line envoi. The words that end each line of the first stanza are used as line endings in each of the following stanzas, rotating in a set pattern. The envoi contains the six line-ending words, often in a proscribed order.

There have been some great sestinas written by poems such as Elizabeth Bishop, W.H. Auden, and Seamus Heaney, to name just three.

Besides its elegant complexity, one of the things that fascinated me about the sestina was the almost hypnotic repetition of line-ending words that gave the poem a sense of obsession, even of being trapped.

When I sat down to write my own sestina, I drew on my experience as the manager of a movie theatre in Birmingham, Michigan, many years ago. (The theatre was the Bloomfield, if anybody remembers that; it has sadly morphed into a parking garage underneath a gym.)

Bloomfield Theatre, Birmingham, MI.

Every night, a young married couple came in to clean the place after each day’s showings. It was not a pleasant job, and the young man–Ricky, his name was–seemed perpetually angry; his wife was mostly silent.

I decided to write a sestina in the form of a dramatic monologue spoken by the wife. It seemed to me that she was trapped in a bad marriage with a volatile man who didn’t appreciate her, and the sestina with its restricted order of repetition of words would be a good correspondence.

As I started to work with the poem, I quickly saw that the woman was trapped in more than just a bad marriage. I tried to reflect that.

I was chuffed that this poem won the Grand Prize for poetry in a literary contest put on by the Metro Times in 2005. It also appeared in my chapbook, New Year’s Tangerine (Pudding House Press, 2007).

Sestina: The Cleaners

Every midnight when we leave our small room
in the boarding house basement where we stay
beside the lumberyard in Hazel Park
we drive to Birmingham, to finish
the night inside an empty theatre. We clean.
We pick up what the rich leave behind. 

Stuffing the car’s back seat, behind
Rickie and me, our supplies leave no room
for a passenger. Mops, gallons of Mr. Clean,
Windex, boxes of urinal cakes that stay
in my nose all night, polish for the brass finish
on the front doors — these fill our life. We park 

under the marquee, in the “Do Not Park”
zone, while my Rickie leaves me behind
to unload the car alone. When we finish
our work in the morning, every rest room
will be spotless, the long lobby will stay
as we leave it, sweet smelling and clean 

until those who hire others to clean
their own homes come and treat this like a park
where they can throw trash anywhere and it will stay
where it is until Rickie and me follow behind
to pick up after them. There is no room
to even walk in the auditorium after they finish 

dumping the tubs of popcorn they never finish
while they lounge at the movies. The greasy floor is clean
when Rickie stops mopping, while in the Ladies Room
on my hands and knees I carefully park
the stiff brush against the toilet that some behind
sat on like a throne and hope my dinner can stay 

in my belly, my canned macaroni and cheese will stay
where it is till the tile is scrubbed when I finish.
Now is when I want to scream, now crawl behind
the stall partitions on the floor that is spotlessly clean
and rage against Birmingham and Hazel Park
and curse my life that has so little room, 

curse this narrow stinking room that will finish
my dreams, make me stay on my knees and clean
in an endless “Do Not Park” zone, forever left behind.

©️ Donald Levin 2007

Indie Monday

This week’s guest: Brenda Hasse

This week on Indie Monday I’m delighted to host Brenda Hasse, a multi-award-winning author and freelance writer. Brenda has written and published award-winning young adult historical romance, pre-teen historical mystery, and adult metaphysical/visionary novels. She is also the author of several picture books for children. Brenda volunteers her time researching and writing scripts for the Fenton Village Players to perform during the Ghost Walk and Historical Cemetery Walk. She resides in Fenton, Michigan, with her husband and cats.

This week, Brenda will talk about her forthcoming release, A Victim of Desperation.

DL: Congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

BH: Thank you, Don. A Victim Of Desperation is a novel based on a woman’s experience in human trafficking, her perseverance to escape, and her determination to move forward afterward.  

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

BH: I was at a two-day book signing. I sat at my table on the first day and a woman, who was selling her products across the way, walked over to my table and introduced herself. We talked for a few minutes before she returned to her booth. The next day I went to her booth to see what she was selling. We started chatting. Our conversation led from one subject to another, and before long the topic of human trafficking came up. She started telling me about the time she was human trafficked. After revealing her experience, she confessed she had never told anyone else about her experience. Even her children didn’t know about it.

We parted ways that day, but her personal story haunted my mind for months. I was able to make contact with her through Facebook and asked for her permission to write a story based on her experience with the hope of preventing others from falling into the entrapment of human trafficking. 

DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

BH: To write this novel, I worked closely with the “victim,” who is known as “Jessica” in the book. She was forthcoming with her experience. Many conversations and emails between us helped to make the story come together. I usually outline my novels because I like to know where I am writing to, but this novel told itself through Jessica, who is a very strong, determined character.

I believe the overall theme is perseverance. The novel differed from the way I normally write because it is based on a true event. I usually write fiction: picture books for children, pre-teen, young adult historical romance, and metaphysical/visionary. With the confinement of the pandemic, I was able to focus on the book to complete it on a timely basis. However, I have delayed the publication with the hope of holding the launch of the book at a bookstore in May.

DL: What was the best part of/most fun about writing this book?

BH: I truly enjoyed working with Jessica. We laughed a lot and, as our topic of conversation would often stray, we found a common ground for many of today’s issues. I am thankful for the day our paths crossed and she allowed me to share her story with everyone. She is an amazing person.   

DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

BH: The most challenging part of writing this book was trying to make it as accurate as possible. I want the reader to feel the emotions she experienced and the environment she endured. I’m certain Jessica grew tired of the detailed question I posed. However, I think she enjoyed sharing her story.

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?

BH: My books are always in stock at Fenton’s Open Book in Fenton, MI, and R&B Used Books in Grand Blanc, MI. They may also be ordered through any independent bookstore and online (Bookshop.org, Amazon.com). I will be holding a book launch signing at R&B Used Books on Saturday, May 15, 2021, from noon to 3:00 (COVID restrictions apply).  

Readers interested in this or other of my works can visit my website: http://www.BrendaHasseBooks.com

DL: Sounds great. Thanks for much for joining us this week, Brenda. Any final thoughts you would like to share?

BH: The first and last chapter of A Victim Of Desperation conveys a technique used by human traffickers today. I hope with the publication of this book, many will recognize the devious scheme and avoid becoming their victim. I have a friend whose son was a Michigan State Police officer, who worked with the FBI, to bust the first two big human trafficking cases in our state. He said the hot spots are Genessee County in Swartz Creek, Davison, and Grand Blanc. He confirmed the technique I described in the first and last chapters.

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Ingar Rudholm

This week on Indie Monday I’m happy to host Ingar Rudholm. Ingar is the author of two books, the Traveling Circus (Argon Press, 2017), and the brand-new prequel, Traveling Circus and the Secret Talent Scroll (Argon Press, 2020). Both books are aimed at readers aged ten to thirteen. A talented artist as well as an author, Ingar wrote and illustrated both of these books. Based in western Michigan, Ingar is well-known across the entire Michigan writer community for his creative marketing and publicity ideas, as well as for his great generosity in sharing his knowledge and insights with other writers as he helps them to achieve their goals.

This week Ingar will talk about his most recent release, Traveling Circus and the Secret Talent Scroll.

DL: Welcome and congratulations on your new book! We’re anxious to hear what it’s about.

IR: I just published Traveling Circus and the Secret Talent. The book is a young adult fantasy story for 10 to 13 year-olds. 

Here’s the description:

Buried in the wreckage of a sunken ship, Cordelia finds a skeleton clutching an ammo box. Inside, she discovers a magic scroll that turns any natural talent into a superpower. Transforming an ordinary girl like Cordelia into something extraordinary—a mermaid.

When a tragic car accident shatters Cordelia’s dreams of becoming an Olympic swimmer, her father, Salvatore, is determined to harness the scroll’s magical powers to heal his daughter. But his tampering with the scroll comes at a steep price.

Will Cordelia achieve her Olympic dreams or remain forever cursed as a mermaid in a circus sideshow?

Currently, I’m working on Book 3 in the trilogy, Traveling Circus and the Skeleton Key.

DL: What inspired the creation of the latest book?

IR: You raised a tough question! Technically, I wrote Traveling Circus as a stand-alone book and I had no outline for a trilogy. Since I never know when an idea will pop into my head, I keep a notepad on my nightstand next to my bed. My inspiration for stories comes from my subconscious mind during the few quiet moments before awake and dreams.

Here’s the breakdown for the trilogy. In Book 1, I wrote in my journal an idea of a ringmaster in a surrealistic circus. The ringmaster was loosely based on Salvador Dali with a magic pocket watch. In my imagination, I saw a circus act where a rabbit turns into a lion (which is metaphor for the boy in the story finding his courage.) In Book 2 (a prequel), I let my subconscious mind run free with a burning question, “How did the ringmaster become the bad guy in the story?” Thus, I came up with a back story where the ringmaster’s wife, Gala, dies in a tragic car accident and he uses the magic pocket watch to erase his sadness. If you lose your ability to feel sadness, you can’t feel empathy for other people. Therefore the ringmaster turns into the bad guy in the trilogy. For Book 3, which I’m working on now, I had a daydream about a mermaid swimming to the bottom of ocean (into the abyss) to face her fears and rescue her father, the ringmaster, from the belly of a monster (metaphorically speaking the dark side of human nature.) The inspiration for Book 3 was loosely based on Pinocchio, Geppetto, and Monstro the whale.
 
DL: Could you talk about your writing process? Did it differ from the way you’ve written your other works? 

IR: For Book 3, I decided to co-write the book with Michigan author Jean Davis. Working with another author was both fun and rewarding. I learned so much about my own style and I learned by studying someone else’s writing process. For me, one of my shortcomings is telling vs. showing. I definitely improved on my shortcomings when working with a writing partner.

DL: Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

IR: A fellow Michigan author asked me: How are you marketing a new book during a pandemic? Unfortunately most of my book events have been cancelled for 2020.

Since I can’t go to book events, here are some things I’ve been doing to market my book during the “stay at home” order:

1. For the past few years I’ve been collecting emails at all my book events. When I finally released Book 2, I contacted everyone on my list.

2. I ran a free giveaway for Book 2 in exchange for a book review on Amazon.

3. I’ve been running Amazon Ads.

4. I created a Book 2 trailer for my YouTube channel. (All you need is an Ipad, microphone, and video editing software to create your own trailer.) I also read chapters from my book and put it on video.

5. I ran a Facebook Ads targeting everyone that “liked” my author page. The ads announced Book 2. I also ran ads targeting a certain age group and their book interests. I also sent Facebook messages to parents who bought Book 2 for their kids.

6. I promoted my book on Instagram using pictures and hashtags. I also sent Instagram messages to all the readers who have “liked” my book, notifying them about Book 2.
 
DL: What was the best part of/most fun about writing this book?

IR: After writing and illustrating a trilogy, I’ve come to conclusion that I want to spend more time drawing and less time writing. I figure 40% writing and 60% drawing would be a good fit for me. For my next series, I will create a graphic novel.
 
DL: What was the most challenging part of writing this book?

IR: Even though co-writing with a critique partner was fun, it did come with some challenges. For example: who writes which sections of the story, deciding what creative idea to keep and what elements should be removed, and accidentally writing two versions of the same scene. Communication is the key to working with a co-writer.

DL: How can readers purchase it or get a signed copy?
 
IR: You can find the #Traveling Circus Trilogy on Amazon. Here’s a link to the books:

Traveling Circus: Young Adult Fantasy (Traveling Circus Series Book 2) – Kindle edition by Rudholm, Ingar, Ingersoll, Donald, Rudholm, Ingar, Turek, Kelsey. Children Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.

The F-Word

 

Last week I had lunch with a friend who had just turned 71, my own age. We talked about the absolute bizarreness of being 71, and shared thoughts about what future might be left for us. Afterwards, we went into his music studio (he’s a piano teacher and gifted and accomplished pianist), and I noticed a book by Kinky Friedman on his bookshelves.

71e4pSXoaDL._AC_UL640_QL65_If you don’t know Kinky Friedman as an author, you might have heard of him as a country singer. He named his band Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys; one of his big hits was a parody of “Proud to be an Okie from Muskogee” called “Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso.”

As you can tell, Kinky is not a serious, straight-laced kind of guy.

But he has a series of terrific, hysterical mystery novels that I read and loved. His detective is a former country music singer named “Kinky Friedman,” who lives in Greenwich Village and hangs around with a group of friends whose names are the same as the real Kinky’s real group of friends (Ratso, Rambam, and so on). The books are rife with Kinky’s brand of wry, post-modern, satiric humor.

I remarked on this book on my friend’s bookshelves, and we started talking about his library. When I took a closer look at his shelves, I noticed they looked a lot like my bookshelves—albeit his were a lot neater than mine. We shared the exact same taste in authors . . . there was Last Exit to Brooklyn, there was Nabokov, Joseph Conrad, Jerzy Kosinski, Thomas Mann, Tolstoy, Updike, Solzhenitsyn, and many, many more books that I also owned.

On its face, this wasn’t surprising; after all, we were very similar, my friend and I, with similar backgrounds and life experiences.

There was even one of my own novels on my friend’s shelves, along with a book by his brother, who had written some historical mystery novels published in the 1990s by St. Martin’s Press.

My friend described his writer-brother as an alcoholic failed writer, and holding his book in my hands I said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with being a failed writer . . . Half the people in this room are failed writers!”

We both laughed. But like Kinky Friedman’s books, it was funny in part because I was being deadly serious.

Like most creative people, I’m never more than half a step away from the phantoms of failure. Too often I feel their cold breath on my neck, their ghostly arms holding me back.

636348737695712187-2016-Ghost-Medium-3-003.jpg

In my friend’s studio, in view of all these books from authors whom I had once devoured as a young man, and whose works so influenced my own intellectual development, the specters arose again. With our lunchtime discussion of aging fresh in my mind, I told my friend, “This makes me feel nostalgic for the time when I discovered all these writers.”

Thinking about it later, though, I understood that what I was actually nostalgic for wasn’t the young man who had yet to discover these great writers. Rather, it was for the future that young man imagined . . . a future as a writer, a future that lay ahead, open, waiting to be lived, containing a sense of promise that I remember hoping for and in an important way relying on to get me through the difficult times of my youth.

An as-yet unfailed-in future.

gotham-1

On a visit to New York City in the 1970s, when I was in my twenties, I went into the famous Gotham Book Mart and wandered around practically open-mouthed at the literary life that storied store represented for me, with stacks of books by Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Ellison, Flannery O’Connor, Kerouac, Graham Greene, Dos Passos, and other classic works of fiction and philosophy from America and Europe, as well as what was then the cutting edge of the literary life . . .  . Thomas Pynchon, Joan Didion, Saul Bellow, Allen Ginsberg, Susan Sontag, John Barth, John Barthelme, Kurt Vonnegut, and others.

Even now, so many years later, I remember thinking, “This is the life I want to live.”

Except in the end I didn’t.

Today, as I contemplate my gathering senescence, that future I imagined exists only as a nostalgic memory of possibility, not as a remembered past.

I tried. I paid all the dues you’re supposed to pay, including collecting rejections by the score, along with enough acceptances to keep me going. And then, in the early 80s, a hotshot New York agent agreed to represent a novel I’d written. He was the real deal, and I thought it was just a matter of time until I broke through.

Except in the end it wasn’t.

After three years of trying to place it, the agent regretfully sent the manuscript back, saying he couldn’t do anything more with it. Nobody wanted it. He didn’t want it. And he turned down the novel I’d written in the meanwhile.

I was crushed. That final rejection was it for me. I’m not meant for this, I thought. I failed.

I left imaginative writing behind. I became a writer, yes, a professional, earning my living by my pen (or word processor, as the case may be). But what I wrote were speeches, grants, newsletters, annual reports, video scripts, and everything else you can think of for hospitals, government, and businesses as big as IBM and GM and as small as one-man computer start-ups.

A body of accomplishment, to be sure. But not as a writer, with all that had represented for me. I was good at knocking out speeches on the AIDS epidemic in New York City, but not writing novels about the moral life of the universe.

It was impossible not to agonize over why I failed. Lack of talent hit me like a pie in the face, of course. Some have what it takes, some don’t; I was the latter.

Other explanations arose the more I thought—and agonized—about it . . . explanations like bad luck (another agent wanted to represent that early book but she died before anything could happen); ambivalence about the end goal; a prideful unwillingness to do the kind of sucking up I perceived I needed to do, and the concomitant lack of a mentor helping me along; the need to earn a living; a low (and lowering) self-image that wouldn’t let me consider that I actually had what it took to find a place for myself in the world where I wanted to live, along with a pathological shyness that kept me from promoting myself more aggressively, a dangerous combination; perhaps an abiding timidity that kept me from screwing my courage to the sticking place when it most mattered.

Perhaps ultimately a combination of all of those.

Whenever I felt the urge to write imaginatively (which, by the way, was relentless), the memory of having failed so spectacularly stopped me. Nobody wants what you have to say, my inner demon insisted; just stop already.

During that time, I wrestled almost constantly with what success as a writer really meant. I tried to pinpoint what it was that I had failed at.

Eventually, I became a college professor, and, a decade after I stopped creative writing, I realized I needed to start again. The pressure to create grew too insistent to ignore. After all that time, I was still smarting from failing as a fiction writer, so I began writing poetry, which I hadn’t failed at yet.

And then to my surprise, people began to publish my poems. One poem won a prize. Then I wrote and published some short stories and one of them won a prize.

Finally, I tried my hand at another novel, and wrote a series of mystery novels. I just published my seventh. I published two slender collections of poetry.

So am I a success? By some measures, yes. I kept at it; I didn’t quit; I started back writing again, itself an act of both defiance and liberation. I  became an independent author and took the means of production back into my own hands.

By other measures, no. I published all the novels myself, under an imprint I created, which meant no authority has validated me as a writer (Mystery Writers of America doesn’t even consider me a real mystery writer); the poetry is published on the Internet and tiny journals, with the books from two miniscule presses, neither of which even exists anymore. Reviews are few and far between; my work is invisible to prestigious reviewers. Despite my best efforts, each novel I publish sells fewer copies than the one before.

So am I a failure?

That question will never go away. I always tell people it’s the work that matters, not the sales or the reception, but secretly in my heart I know I don’t believe that. I think most creative people don’t. 

Everybody knows Shakespeare’s lines about there being “a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.” What often gets left out is the end of the quotation: “omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

Even now, I’m not sure I ever saw that tide. If it came in, it feels like I never took it.

I won’t say the voyage of my life has been bound in miseries—on the contrary, it’s been extraordinarily fulfilling in a variety of ways. But looking backward, as I was doing in my friend’s music studio, face-to-face with the reminders of a future that was as yet unfailed-in—it’s impossible not to fear that my life as a writer—the life I had wanted to live—has been bound in the shallows. And that I’ve been spent my time splashing around, near the beach, while others are out in deeper waters.

“Our doubts are traitors,” says Shakespeare. Unfortunately, they are often our best friends, too.

Several years ago, I was thinking about Bob Dylan and his own journey. We like to believe that talent will out, and so his fame and fortune were inevitable. But I started to think about what would have happened if, by some combination of misfortunes, he had never made it. I wrote a poem about that, which binds up some of the ideas I’ve touched on here. The poem imagines an alternative history for Dylan. What if he had never made it when he moved to New York, the poem asks.

What if all the breaks had gone against him? 

What if he had failed?

 

At the Red Lobster in Duluth, MN*

He left behind the frozen landscape

and empty mines of his upper Midwest home

to head east, for New York City

where he heard it all was happening.

At every stop on the way to the Port Authority

he jumped out to grab a smoke

and check on the heavy battered Gibson

riding in the luggage compartment

beside his big suitcase. In between

he took in the fields and crossroads

on the freedom highway of the vast country.

 

When he landed in the city

he walked happily down Eighth Avenue

through the smells of pickles and pizza

to locate himself in a railroad flat

on the sixth floor of a walkup

where he shooed away rats on the stairs.

Most nights he made the rounds

of the folk clubs in the Village

singing in his rough raspy voice

the songs he had written on the backs

of invoices from his father’s store.

Nights when he wasn’t singing somewhere

he spent soaking in the tub

in his kitchen and dreaming of the future.

 

But the gigs got shorter and came less often

and he started getting to parties

after the important people had left.

The record company stopped returning his calls

and one day a club owner told him, “Kid,

I’ve seen it all, and you just don’t have it”

just as his money ran out

and rather than ask his father for more

he took the A train back uptown

but not before leaving his guitar at the Salvation Army

on Spring Street at the corner of Lafayette

and twisting his harmonica rig

into the shape of the state of Minnesota

and dropping it in a trash can on the street.

Though his friends begged him to stay

he jumped on a Greyhound back to the north country

where he learned how to cook

or at least defrost and reheat fish

at the Red Lobster in Duluth.

 

He gave up listening to music at all

though occasionally lyrics formed

unbidden in his head

as he stood over the big stove

turning flounders that smelled of butter.

He hummed these secret tunes to himself

growing old behind the cries of the servers

clamoring for their orders.

 

*A version of this poem was published in Shaking Like a Mountain, March 2010.