Brutal Reviews of Classic Books

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 (culled from the Internet) of twenty scathing reviews of 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

 

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Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Emma Palova

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Every Thursday, I’ll be featuring other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves.

Today’s featured guest is Emma Palova. Emma is the author of two books: a new book, Secrets, in the Shifting Sands Short Stories series, which will be released on July 1, 2019, and the first book in the series, Shifting Sands Short Stories, published in 2017.

Recently I posed some questions to Emma. Here’s what she told me.

DL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

EP: I was born in former communist Czechoslovakia and I studied civil engineering, which I hated. I had no choice, that was our punishment for leaving the country illegally. We immigrated to the USA for the first time in 1969 in the aftermath of the Prague Spring, a political movement for socialism with a human face.

We returned back to Czechoslovakia in 1973 for President Husak’s amnesty. My dad, Professor Vaclav Konecny, decided to leave the country illegally again so he could teach math in the States. It took my mom Ella four long years to join dad. I married in the meantime. We left the country for the USA the second time in 1989 with my children. I was naturalized in 1999.

Politics have formed my life, from a civil engineer to a reporter for local newspapers in West Michigan. The trek was long and painful marked by mistakes and victories. I was constantly without money chasing after stories, even though I gathered some awards along the way. I quit journalism for good in 2012 to pursue my author’s dreams during the rise of the Internet with new opportunities.

My only regret is that we returned to the old country in 1973. Otherwise, I am deeply humbed by all the opportunities this country has given to me.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

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EP: My newest book is called Secrets. It is part of the Shifting Sands Short Stories series. It is a collection of fifteen short stories; two of them are historical fiction, while some stories deal with aging. Many of my short stories are based in my journalistic experience. Some of the real-life stories we could never publish because we had no corroboration from the witnesses. Today, the newscasts say whatever without any attribution. We have no way of verifying the truth behind the news. That wasn’t always the case. Plus, if you live in a small town, you have to live by hometown rules. We all know each other. We know who lives where, and who slept with whom. We know it, but we don’t write about it. These are all workable ideas for me: things unsaid, stories untold and people hurting. I like to combine fiction with realism. It’s called magic realism spiked with surrealism.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

41qf6SgXDrL._AC_UL320_EP: I write because I don’t want people to be bored. That’s my tagline: “You deserve to be entertained.” I don’t want us to just be watching politicians arguing. I think we all deserve a little break from the mundane and the ordinary.

I want to accomplish making my historical fiction story, “Silk Nora,” into a movie. I have written a screenplay registered with Writer’s Guild of America, West. I want to write “Silk Nora” as a screenplay, as well.

Just like any other writer, I also want to express myself in a manner that makes other people think long after they’ve read the stories. That is my sincere hope and desire. I also like to write timeless stuff for any generation. If it transforms someone, that is even more important.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

EP: The writing process itself is a lot of small elements that have to fuse together like atoms in a nuclear reaction. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and I have no idea what I am going to write about. Then, comes a small thing like meditation or studying Spanish that fuses it together, or staring into the water at a lake or at sea.

My favorite part is that I don’t know where the writing process is going to lead me or how is going to surprise me with new discoveries.

My least favorite part is the drudgery of it. By that I mean pushing yourself beyond your limits every day. There are times when I envy people like highway workers or the guys in lime green vests who turn the stop sign into go or proceed with caution. I like cashiers at the stores, too. I know they have their worries and troubles. I worked at a Midwest grocery chain store for four years. It inspired stories in my first book like “Orange Nights.” Each experience enriches a writer, and we have to take it to a higher level. Plus our highest mission is to entertain and rescue people from everyday misery.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

EP: Being a writer has transformed me from a naïve person into a person with deeper insights into the lives of other people. Writing has changed my life in different stages like a butterfly. It’s basically something I cannot stop doing, even if sometimes I want to. As any writer can attest, writing is not about money or the quest for it. It’s a calling. If money comes, it’s a bonus, a friend once told me. I would like to talk about the book covers. I designed both covers based on my love for photography. The credit for the cover of Secrets goes fully to the Belrockton Museum. I found the picture of “The Face of Gossip” in the girls’ dormitories. Pictures and art also inspire me, but in a different way, more toward movies.

DL: What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

EP: My blog is EW (Emma’s Writings) at http://emmapalova.com.

My Facebook page is https://www.facebook.com/emmapalovaauthor/.

My Twitter page is Emma Palova (@EmmaPalova) | Twitter.

Here are the links to my books in all formats:

The new book, Secrets, will be released on July 1, 2019. It’s now available on pre-order on Kindle: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07SH9YGQH/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_SUscDbF62RNRR

The first book in the Shifting Sands Short Stories series is available on Kindle: Shifting Sands: Short Stories (First volume Book 1)

And also in print: https://www.amazon.com/Shifting-Sands-Short-Stories-stories/dp/152130226X/ref=pd_rhf_se_p_img_6?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=YJPBRBBEN6J7NB40A2EW

The First Two Chapters of Cold Dark Lies

This week’s blog post is a teaser: the first two chapters of the latest Martin Preuss mystery, Cold Dark Lies.

The ideas for the book go back a long way. As in all the novels, the final version braids together several strands that come from “real” life. The main plot thread comes from an article I read in a Detroit newspaper many years ago about an auto executive from Bloomfield Hills who was found dead in one of the no-tell motels in Ferndale. It was a minor blip in the news day, but it stuck with me all this time. I was intrigued by the dissonance between his privileged, upper-middle class existence and his desire (or need) to take a walk on the wild side at the skeevy motel, with tragic results for himself and the family he must have left behind.

The idea for one of the subplots in the book comes from a student who came to talk to me once about a research study she was undertaking to find out if she was really related to a criminal gang in Detroit in the 1920s, as family lore had insisted.

As always, by the time both of these threads made it to the final version, I had changed much—characters, situations, names, details, circumstances, motivations, and so on. Then I set it all in an imaginary context consistent with a mystery story—so I made up lots of bad actors, bad actions, and events that didn’t happen . . . but that could have. 

At first, I imagined the motel guy as a character in a poem called “The Secret Life,” but I knew there was more to the story than the poem could explore. When I started thinking about the next book in the series after An Uncertain Accomplice, I took the story out of my back pocket where I had kept it all these years and started thinking about using it in a Preuss mystery.

This is pretty typical of how I’ve been working with these books. Only in the first book, Crimes of Love, did I make up the inciting episode; in all the rest, I started out with a situation I knew about either because somebody told me the story or I read about it somewhere. (Henry James’s advice to writers: “Try to be one of those on whom nothing is lost.”) After that, it was a matter of imaginatively transforming the original real inciting situations to make them fit with my own purposes and the demands of the plots.

So here’s the beginning of how that process turned out in Cold Dark Lies. Enjoy!

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Thursday, September 13, 2012

The hammering brought him back. Loud, insistent pounding on the door. And raised voices outside. And the door handle jiggling. Then more pounding.

He opened his eyes in darkness and rolled his head over the rug where he was sprawled. The smell was unpleasant: damp, sour, musty.

From where he lay, limbs outstretched, his eyes focused on the stumpy and scuffed legs of the bed, the tangle of clothes on the floor, the peeling caramel feet and brown cracked leather of the arm chair, turned on its side. The thick wall of the dresser.

The effort exhausted him. He closed his eyes. He was so tired. Why couldn’t he just sink back into that void where he floated before the pounding on the door roused him?

The banging stopped. The voices receded.

Silence outside.

He listened. Silence in the room, too.

Was he alone?

He lifted his head. Intense pain shot through his neck and temple. As through every other part of his body, he now realized.

He didn’t hurt before—he didn’t feel much of anything—but now he was conscious of sharp aches in his head, ribs, face . . .

He licked his lips and tasted the thick, sweet tang of blood.

He raised his right arm and saw the sleeve of his white shirt rolled up to the elbow. The golden red hair that had furred his forearm ever since he turned fourteen. Around his wrist, the sleek black Fitbit, and, on the third finger of his hand, the ring his ex-wife had given him when he graduated Michigan State—the head of a Spartan warrior carved in intaglio carnelian in a gold setting, like a temple.

And flopping lazily from the crook of his elbow, a syringe still stuck into a vein, pulling at the skin.

Oozing a dribble of blood down to the threadbare, colorless weave of the carpet.

How did that get there?

He couldn’t remember how.

Or why.

Or when.

He wanted to make sense of his situation, but thinking was too hard. His mind was too foggy.

He lowered his arm. In the silence of the room, blackness began to close back in on him, slowly, like a cloth fluttering down over his face.

He was relieved when his thoughts, too, began to close down. No more thinking. Not about what he was doing here, or anything else.

He closed his eyes. Gradually his pain eased, and he welcomed the release. There was only silence.

And finally there was nothing.

 

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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

“He was a bad one,” the woman said, and gave her head a sad shake, as though the memory itself hurt.

Martin Preuss waited for her to go on, but she said nothing more. She seemed lost in thought, gazing at the blank wall behind him. He sat with her in what she called the parlor, the front room in her large home in the Boston-Edison Historic District of Detroit. The place smelled of cat pee and old wood, the sweetish-sour odor that reminded Preuss of his childhood home.

All that was missing was the sound of his father raging upstairs while the rest of the family tiptoed around downstairs so they wouldn’t disturb “Daddy’s work.”

Unlike his family’s minimalist home, this one resembled a comfortable museum, with heavy wooden settees and huge armchairs from another age and lush Oriental rugs on the hardwood floors. In the other room, Preuss had noticed a massive Steinway grand piano when the woman, Sarah Posner, invited him in.

She lived here alone with her three cats, so their conversation was interrupted only by her memories. She had lived in this house for decades with her late husband and their three children, who were now grown and scattered across the country.

“You did know him, then,” Preuss prompted, to bring her back from her remembrance.

“Oh, yes,” she said. Her eyes returned from the past to land back on him with a bright intensity. She was small and hunched in the wingback chair where she sat. Her skin was the color and texture of old parchment, and the knuckles of her hands were swollen and stiff as she gripped the arms of her chair. Wisps of white hair peeked from the turban she wore.

“We all knew about him,” she continued. “Izzie was already in prison by the time my Morrie and I were married. But Morrie know him when he was little. Izzie was Morrie’s great-uncle, you see. I didn’t meet Izzie until he got out of prison. He was an old man by then. Old and defeated. And, you know, Morrie’s family used to talk about them. Izzie and his cousin Leon both. Morrie knew Leon, too, but Leon was killed in the thirties, so I never met him.”

She thought for a few moments longer, then said, “They were all bad boys.”

She drew her mouth together in a pinched frown of disapproval.

“They reflected so badly on us,” she said. “It’s one thing to say, all right, they were immigrants, they had to make a place for themselves, it was a bad time, they had no other skills. But it’s another to look at what they did and how they did it. So cruel. And to know people would look at them and think they represented us all. People in this city already had enough reasons to hate us, between the poison they heard from Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.”

She fell into silence as she reflected on her family.

Preuss sketched a fast diagram of the connections in his notebook. When he got back to his office, he would have to draw out a more detailed chart of the family relationships.

“You’ve never met my client?” he asked.

“No,” she said. “Until you called, I’d never heard of her. But now I think I’d quite like to meet her.”

“I’m sure she’d like to meet you, too.”

“Maybe you could set something up,” Sarah said. “She could come for tea.”

“You can probably fill in a lot of family history for her. She seems hungry for it.”

The woman nodded absently, and he wondered if she was off on another reverie.

He had asked her about her family’s connections with members of the Purple Gang, the group of Jewish criminals around Detroit in the 1920s. They began as shakedown artists and petty thieves and wound up controlling the local bootleg liquor trade from Canada during Prohibition, subsequently hiring themselves out as hitmen and enforcers.

Preuss’s client was a college student named Beverly Frankel. She hired Greene and Preuss, Investigations, to track down a rumor in her family that they were related to a few of the Purples. His search led him to this 95-year-old woman and the genteel poverty of her mansion.

According to Sarah Posner, the Frankel family’s stories about their links to the gang were true.

But the family connections were to two cousins who were among the most savage of the crew, so Preuss didn’t know how his client would react to the news. She struck him as someone looking more for colorful, romantic stories of outlaws to tell her friends, but Isadore Adler and Leon Glick’s bombings, assassinations, and brutal enforcement methods weren’t the stuff of romance.

Like many cases he had worked since joining Emmanuel Greene’s detective firm after retiring from the Ferndale Police Department’s Detective Bureau, the lesson here was, don’t ask questions you might not want answered.

Before he could ask the woman any more about her relations, he felt his phone vibrating in his pocket.

“Sorry,” he said.

“Do you have to get that?”

“Let me just check,” he said. “It might be about my son.”

He glanced at the screen. It wasn’t about Toby; the call was from Rhonda Citron, the administrative manager of the detective agency.

“Excuse me,” he said, “it’s my office. I should take this.”

She raised a wan hand in permission and took another sip of her tea. She stared into the air, as though she could see images floating there of the past they had been talking about.

He stood and walked to the parlor’s bay window looking out on the broad, manicured lawns of Edison Boulevard. He connected the call. “Rhonda,” he said.

“Are you still at your appointment in Detroit?”

“I am.”

“For much longer?”

“I think we’re almost done. What’s up?”

“Manny has a one o’clock meeting with a new client and he just called,” Rhonda said. “He’s going to be late. He wanted to know if you could take it for him. He said he doesn’t want the client sitting around waiting.”

He held the phone away from his ear to check the time. Twelve-thirty.

“I can just make it,” he said. “You might have to stall the appointment a little.”

“Great. I’ll let Manny know. Things okay there?”

“I found the link I was looking for. I just need to nail down the next steps. I’ll wrap things up and see you soon.”

He disconnected and returned to the parlor. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to get back,” he said. “Mrs. Posner, could we talk again?”

“Anytime,” she said. “I don’t know how much more I can tell you, but . . . next time, why don’t you bring Miss—what was her name?”

“Frankel.”

“Bring her when you come. I’d like to meet her.”

“Excellent,” said Preuss. “I’ll set it up.”

Sarah Posner said she would look forward to it.

 

[Interested in reading more? Find Cold Dark Lies at Amazon.com or order it through your local bookstore or directly from me at donaldlevin.com.]

 

Promoting Depth in Fiction

In a recent conversation, author, editor, and publicist Diana Kathryn Plopa mentioned how struck she is by what she called all the layers in my books.

I’ve been reflecting on how much I appreciated that comment. We all like to hear nice things about our books, but Diana’s remark about layers particularly resonated with me. I understood her to mean a kind of richness of meaning in the stories and characters that she finds in my work.

Diana’s comment was so interesting because that’s just the term that I use in thinking about my novels: layering.

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Remember those transparencies in old-fashioned biology textbooks? Layered atop an image of the human body, one transparency would have bones, another would show muscles, another would have organs, blood vessels, nerves, and so on. Put them all together and you get a full picture of the fullness and complexity of the human body.

Novels (and not just mine) can have a similar kind of depth. It doesn’t happen accidentally, but results from working the following “overlays” into the books.

1. One layer consists of conventions of the genre or type of writing, including reader expectations.

For example, for a crime novel (my own genre), conventions might include a crime or some violation of the personal, social, or political order; efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator (often this is the focus of the mystery novel; think of the “Law” part of “Law and Order”); the perpetrator is brought to justice (the “Order” part of “Law and Order”); and the world is either set right or order and law are not re-established.

Often a particular kind of crime novel will focus on one or more of those elements. A mystery novel like the Martin Preuss mysteries (to take just one example chosen completely at random) would focus on the efforts to solve the mystery or find the perpetrator of the violation of the order.

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To take another example, in heist novels like Donald Westlake’s (writing as Richard Stark) Parker books, or a movie like Baby Driver, plot conventions include planning the crime, the meeting/gathering of participants, execution of the crime with ensuing complications, and resolution or justice (or not).

Conventions may also include character types, that is, recurring kinds of characters. Many mysteries offer variations on the eccentric, socially maladjusted genius, a type that comes down to us from Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and includes all his modern counterparts, such as Sherlock Holmes in literature and Dr. House and Monk on TV, as well as the solitary counter-authoritarian knight-errant like Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, or Lew Archer, to name just three examples.

Along with these conventions come the expectations the reader brings, such as that she will be challenged, misled, or misdirected along with way, or that the heist will not go well, involving double- or triple-crosses.

On top of this overlay, add:

2. Elements of the setting—the place or places where events happen

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Setting not only supplies the locations for the action (not only names and specific locales, establishments, and so on, but also history, politics, media, etc.). Setting also suggests actions and language arising from places, provides characters particular to certain places, and helps set the tone of the books. Think of how historical mysteries accomplish all of these; think also of what Elmore Leonard’s Detroit setting means for his books. The setting is always crucial.

Finally, on top of these, overlay:

3. An author’s individual concerns: recurring characters and character types, themes, styles

Read enough of any author’s work and you’ll find certain constants. In my mysteries, for example, there’s always a sympathy for marginal characters; a focus on the cascading effects of greed, violence, and misplaced loyalties; issues of social class; and care of a son with cerebral palsy. Here is where an author’s particular point of view and insights turn stock flat characters in round, living people.

I also have another concern that serves as what I think of as the heart of the Preuss series (besides sweet Toby, that is), informing each book. 

As I’ve noted elsewhere in my blog posts, at this moment in history, I believe we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. As Camus said in one of his essays, “In a world whose absurdity appears to be so impenetrable, we simply must reach a greater degree of understanding among men, a greater sincerity. We must achieve this or perish.” This echoes Auden’s line “We must love one another or die,” from his great poem, “September 1, 1939,” and what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote, 

sontag“A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world.”

In my writing, I’m trying to expand our sympathies and sense of the world. Writing mystery fiction allows me to enter into the minds and hearts of characters acting under the stresses and extremities of crime and see the world through their eyes, and help readers see it as well.

(This is the reason I get a little nuts when I hear a writer talk about writing for “self-expression.” I remember hearing poets and their critics/interpreters talking about “the self,” and images of the self, and the poetry of self, and the self’s multiplicity, and so on. I’m not a fan of the kind of solipsistic, cryptic writing that results from this approach.)

I want to tell a good story, sure, but I also want the reading experience to be more than simply a pleasant way to pass a few hours. I’m hoping that when readers finish my novels, they will be transformed somehow—even if it’s a slightly expanded understanding of what it takes to care for a child with handicaps, or acknowledge how the effects of violence cascade down through generations, or even appreciate the way a grief-stricken detective tries to do his best in a world rife with corruption.

Such transformations are my ultimate intention, and I rely on the layering strategy I talked about here to accomplish it. 

Whether or not I succeed, of course, is up to my readers.

Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Wendy Thomson

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Today I’m happy to offer another Indie Thursday entry. Each week, I’ll feature other authors on my blog—authors who produce quality work outside the boundaries and strictures of the traditional mass-produced, mass-marketed commercial publishing world and traditional bookstore shelves. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Wendy Thomson. Wendy is the author of two books, Summon the Tiger, a memoir, and The Third Order, a novel, and as she will discuss, has several other projects in the works.

Recently I had the opportunity to pose some questions to Wendy. Here’s what she told me.

DLWendy, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

WST: I grew up here in Michigan—Birmingham, to be precise—but spent nearly ten years away, living in Florida and Chicago. I got to Florida by jumping ship, literally. My father had purchased an old Dutch freighter and outfitted it for a two-year journey around the world. That adventure didn’t go exactly as planned, so I got off, found a job, got an apartment, and was on my own.

I had dropped out of Michigan State, where I was pursuing a degree in Linguistics, to join the ship. When I did go back to school to finish my undergrad degree, it was at University of Miami, and it was in Business. I moved to Tallahassee for a man . . . that was a bust, but I did end up going back to school at Florida State for a Master’s degree. I was working full time and going to school at night. When my company transferred me to Chicago, I finished that degree at University of Chicago. I moved back to where I grew up forty years ago—again, for a man (again a bust.) I have spent those forty years working full time, raising a couple of sons, and occasionally performing classical music around town, in addition to performing a concert tour in Italy.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. Where did the ideas for those works come from?

WST: My most recent published work is The Third Order, which came out in 2018. The plot was the last thing that fell into place. My first book, Summon the Tiger (2016), was a memoir, a reflection on how my values and determination have taken me to extraordinary destinations, and given me the strength and grit to face any hardships that came my way. I wanted to write a second book, and I felt most comfortable writing about things and places I know. Well, I know Italy fairly well, and I especially fell in love with Assisi. I also know Scotland fairly well, since my father was born there. Those were my two major constraints: I needed a way to tie those two places together. I started looking into St. Francis, and details of his life started shaping the plot. I then looked for a tie to Scotland, which I found in the Third Crusade. The rest started to fall into place. It was a fun romp.

Thomson book 3I currently have two works underway: the first is The Man from Burntisland—a saga of a hard-scrabble Scot born in 1899 who emigrates to the US, enduring both World Wars and the Great Depression. I am very excited about this work, as I feel it demonstrates the strength of determination and tenacity in the face of great odds. Life was comparatively so much more difficult for folks like him. I am basing this historical fiction on snippets of what I know of my grandfather’s life.

The other work underway is Silo Six. It is a sci-fi/dystopia novella about the end of humanity on earth. I was asked to contribute this for an anthology as one of three authors. The other two authors are amazing, and I am honored to have been asked.

DL: Why do you write? What do you hope to accomplish with your writing?

WST: I sometimes ask myself that very question. I write because it is a generally enjoyable activity, especially during long winter evenings. I write because people keep telling me they like to read what I write. What do I hope to accomplish? That varies by book. In Summon the Tiger, my goal was to tell a story of determination and grit. One of my sons suggested I write it. I realized that my sons had no idea of the forces that helped shape who I became. I hope that as they grow older, they will come to appreciate the events detailed in the book more and more.

For The Third Order, my main goal is to entertain my audience. If they learn a little bit about history while doing so, then that is an extra added bonus. Just fun.

My hope for The Man from Burntisland is to both educate readers on life in the early 1900’s and to describe a man of particular tenacity and pragmatism. It’s not all pretty, and he is in no way a saint. I hope that readers will see the complexity of a driven man whose life circumstances caused him to make uncomfortable choices.

DL: Please talk a little about your writing process. What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

WST: I have a rather fluid writing process. Topics seem to bubble up from my sub-conscious—I call that part of my brain my Co-Processor. I never force myself to write on any particular day, but I do set very generalized goals . . . for instance, I would like to get The Man from Burntisland published this year. That might be too lofty a goal, given the work I need to do for Silo Six. I tried to set a daily word goal once, but life has a way of being a great disruptor. I do get antsy to write if I’ve been away from it for a couple of days.

I never outline. The most I have ever done is to jot down notes on character’s back stories and to create cheat sheets on characters and specifics (who they are married to, what jobs they have, etc.) so I don’t need to scroll back and find what I may have said before. My little Co-Processor seems to think about plot lines and required prose all on its own while I am busy doing life. When I pull out my laptop, the words and story direction are developed and only require being committed to paper.

My very favorite part of the process is finding logical solutions to the issues the plot hands me. Case in point is in The Third Order. How in the world can I wrap a story around Assisi and Scotland? So I started researching, and I found one Alan FitzWalter, second Steward of Scotland, who returned from the Third Crusade in 1192. That’s fact. Then I found an old Italian farce of a movie à la Monty Python, and I learned that, many times, soldiers would travel to the boot of Italy and sail for the Holy Land instead of trudging around the Mediterranean. Then I learned that St. Francis became a soldier as a young man. Taking small snippets and crafting them into a woven fabric of logic is my very, very favorite part.

My least favorite part of writing? Trying to make sure I have perfect copy. It is So. Damn. Difficult to publish a flawless work. Even with a professional editor, things get through. And while it’s not difficult to correct the found error in the next printed copy, it irritates me that there are different versions out and about.

DL: Could you reflect a bit on what writing or being a writer has meant for you and your life?

WST: I spent the vast majority of my life in quantitative fields. My highest tested aptitude in school was mechanical engineering. And while I was often told that I developed creative solutions in processes and analyses, I never considered myself particularly creative, and definitely not particularly emotional. And now comes Kirkus, which announces to the world at large that The Third Order “taps into the powerful emotional satisfaction that comes with solving a puzzle,” and that the book is “a satisfying synthesis of mystery, history, and emotion.” “Me” and “emotion” have rarely been seen in close company.

That is probably a long way of saying that writing has brought out a side of me that, apparently, has been quite latent. I am a writer. I can create, and I can imagine.

DL: Many thanks for joining us today. What are links to your books, website, and blog so readers can learn more about you and your work?

WST: The Amazon page for Summon the Tiger is https://www.amazon.com/dp/1537137441/ref=nav_timeline_asin?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1.

The Amazon page for The Third Order is https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07HP9GX59/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1537997744&sr=1-4&keywords=wendy+sura+thomson.

My Goodreads page is https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/15801291.Wendy_Sura_Thomson.

My website is www.quittandquinn.com, which also contains my writing blog.

Readers can connect with me on Facebook as Wendy Thomson.

 

 

Why I Stopped Writing

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged that for most people who want to write, the urge begins early in life.

So it was with me. I can’t remember a time when I was young when I didn’t want to be a writer, even when I didn’t know exactly what that meant. I just knew I loved reading, and the natural partner to that was making up my own stories. I’m not sure where that came from. My parents weren’t readers; the only books we had in our house when I was growing up were the ones in my room. But I was a voracious reader in our library at Bagley Elementary School (my favorite books were the Tom Corbett, Space Cadet series) (yes, I am that old), and lying in bed at night I used to pretend my hands were the characters and I would act out stories with them (most of which ended in finger/thumb fistfights accompanied by much tongue-clucking sound effects). 

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One day my father brought home an old monster manual typewriter from his office. As soon as I started playing with it, I realized from the letters that appeared through its raucous clacking that I had found my instrument, the same way a pianist is moved by the note made by the first touch of cool ivory on a keyboard. At one point, somebody gave me a toy printing press—surely an act of almost psychic precognition—and I started printing up my little stories.

My reading habits were helped along by my painful, almost pathological shyness while growing up. It seriously curtailed my social development, but gave me all the time I wanted to read everything I could get my hands on. While other kids were out playing sports or going on dates, I was the quintessential bookworm, holed up at home discovering new authors and plowing through as much of their work as I could find.

As I grew older and life took shape for me with more clarity, I followed the well-trodden path of young writers everywhere. (I hate the term “aspiring writer” . . . to paraphrase a certain short green Jedi master: write or do not write, there is no aspire.) I wrote my stories and sent them out, got my rejections, revised the stories, and sent them out again. Occasionally I wrote a poem that was also rejected, but for me, fiction was where the heavy lifting of literature took place, so that’s what I concentrated on, with the aim of working my way up to writing novels.

I sent stuff out; I got it back. Once in a blue moon, I placed a story with some small journal or other, and that was enough to keep me going for a while. But for the most part, I sent work out; I got work back. This was pre-internet, so there were no online publication opportunities. There was no online, no internet, no word processing, just a typewriter and the US mail.

I kept at it despite the rejections, which is what people tell you to do. It goes out, it comes back. Sooner or later, I believed, if something was good enough, it would find a home.

Stories went out, they came back.

Then novel drafts went out, and they came back.

Lather, rinse, repeat. 

Finally, one day, when I was in my thirties, I thought all my hard work had paid off. I had written a mystery novel (The Ramp of the Chinese Dog), and after making the rounds of agents, I found one who accepted me. He was the real deal, the guy who sold a pair of books that became the blockbuster movie The Towering Inferno. I thought I was in.

I went to meet him in New York City, taking the bus down from Binghamton, where I was living at the time. He told me he was “cautiously optimistic”; I remember the words to this day, as well as his soothing voice. He believed in the book. He believed in me. My spirits soared. Success was in sight.

Except now he was the one sending the manuscript out and getting it back. Periodically he would send me the pile of rejection notes he got from publishers, and they were not helpful (but were, gallingly, peppered with typos, grammatical errors, and misinformation about the book).

Finally, after three years of this, he returned the manuscript to me. “Sorry,” he said. “I like the book, but I just can’t do anything more with it.”

I sent him another manuscript that I had written in the meantime. He sent that one back, too. “Sorry, no.”

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I was crushed.

After trying to break into publication for all of my twenties and most of my thirties, experiencing virtual nonstop rejection, I was back where I started. Cynthia Ozick writes about the little holy light like a pilot light that keeps a writer going. Mine went out.

This writing life must not be for me, I decided. I’m just not good enough. Don’t have what it takes. So I gave up writing fiction. It was painful, even devastating. I had failed at the one thing I had wanted to do since I was little.

Failure: a terrible word for someone in love with words.

But I still thought I had some chops as a writer, just not a fiction writer; I had already worked several public relations jobs. In what I now understand was despair-fueled self-flagellation in penance for my failure, I joined a small advertising agency as a copywriter. If I can’t publish the stuff I want, I thought, I’ll become a hack. I turned away from literature; I turned away from reading. I turned away from writing about important subjects and instead churned out dreck like copy for rebate ads for Masonite paneling, and news releases for small town jewelry stores.

And yet I did well in that world. Working freelance after getting fired from the ad agency for having a bad attitude (big surprise), I wrote reports and proposals and video scripts for companies like General Electric and IBM. I once wrote a video program promoting military attack helicopters for two wild-eyed crazies at IBM who ranted about the joys of “killing tanks” like a couple of tweakers playing video games.

When my wife and I moved to New York City so she could take a job teaching at Long Island University in Brooklyn, I found more work there. I wrote grant proposals and project summaries and donor appreciation letters for the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center Fund in upper Manhattan. I took a job as speechwriter for the Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and wrote literally hundreds of speeches, articles, testimonies, and newspaper editorials on AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, window falls, pit bulls, child-care centers, and restaurant inspection scandals, among other public health issues. I wrote op-eds on needle-exchange programs for the New York Times and the Journal of the American Medical Association. The commissioner was delivering my speeches in Washington to Congressional committees; the mayor of New York was using my speeches to promote anti-smoking legislation at Sloan-Kettering.

It came to pass that working at such a high level of productivity and visibility, the writing I was doing for others relit that little holy pilot light. I started thinking about returning to fiction, and about writing under my own name. About the importance of stories in our lives.

The other thing that happened around this time was the birth of my grandson Jamie, whom I’ve mentioned before and whose presence had profound effects on me and everyone around him.

Except as soon as I thought, Man, I’d really to like do some imaginative writing again, the equal and opposite thought arose: Why? Do you really want to enter that world of rejection again? Seriously?

The answer, of course, was no. As much as I wanted to write fiction again, I couldn’t bear the thought of sending my work out and getting back into the cycle of rejection, especially after working so hard to wrestle back my confidence. So I resisted the urge, and instead retreated to private journal entries that alternately (1) agonized over my need to write fiction, and (2) scolded myself for even thinking about giving in to it.

But here was the problem: that little pilot light? It was on again. And the pressure to write fiction continued to build, along with my conflicted feelings about what that would mean.

When I started to have angry thoughts about pushing people off of subway platforms, I knew I had to do something.

So I screwed my courage to the sticking point and started another novel. Not a mystery, but a mainstream book about a group of people who lived together in one house in an effort to create a new type of family. I learned to put out of my mind any thoughts about what I would do with the manuscript once I finished it—and once I started, I knew I would finish. I brought to this new project all the disciplined work habits and writing skills that I had honed over the years I spent writing other people’s stuff. It took a few years, but the result was a novel, The House of Grins.

A1325325-BC74-488F-AC22-29C390E02462But what to do with it?

A friend put me in touch with an editor he knew at one of the big NYC publishing houses. When I called the editor, she told me to send her the manuscript, and if she “really loved it” she would recommend publishing it. Her tone of voice dripped with the kind of derisive smarm very few can match outside NYC publishing; it told me the chances of her “loving it” were somewhere between zero and fuhgedaboudit. To spite her, I decided not to send anything (I showed her!).

In the interregnum between my fleeing from imaginative writing and returning to it—a ten-year gap—a new development had begun in publishing. Prompted by advances in technology, the self-publishing movement was just starting to take off in the ‘90s, apart from the dreaded “vanity press” industry. I discovered that I could take back the means of production, like independent filmmakers and almost every other artist. 

But more: in those ten years, I grappled with what success as a writer really meant, and more importantly what it wasn’t. I met editors, and became an editor myself, and realized how capricious and unpredictable the process really is.

I came through that decade of despair by learning that—yes—the writing and the changed qualities of mind and heart that accompany writing really are more important than the faux approval suggested by acceptance by others. As if that insight broke some self-imposed spell, in the years since I fantasized pushing people off subway platforms, I’ve published seven novels (six in the Martin Preuss mystery series), two books of poetry, a handful of stories, and dozens of poems in print and online journals.

That voice shouting in your ear, the voice my friend Jerry van Rossum personifies as “Sid”—Self-Inflicted Doubts—never goes away. But with practice and wisdom, you can silence it long enough to get some good work done.

And in the end, that’s really all that matters.