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.

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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.

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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.

 

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Mark M. Bello

This week on Indie Monday I’m happy to host Mark M. Bello, an attorney and award-winning author of realistic fiction and political-legal thrillers. Retired from handling high profile legal cases, Mark now gives the public a front-row seat watching victims fight for justice in our civil and criminal justice systems. Mark’s award-winning Zachary Blake Legal Thrillers mirror our times and the events that shape our country. In addition to being an author and veteran attorney, Mark is a member of numerous trial lawyer associations and a feature writer for the Legal Examiner and other popular blog sites. He has written articles for numerous publications and made guest appearances on radio and talk shows and multiple podcasts.

This week Mark will talk about his most recent release, Supreme Betrayal.

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

MMB: Supreme Betrayal will be released this Spring. It is currently available for pre-order on Amazon. In the novel, a right-wing president has nominated an extremist for an open seat on the United States Supreme Court. Unknown to the president and his right wing cronies, the nominee has covered up a youthful indiscretion. When he was a young law student, he sexually assaulted an underaged female high school student. Both are now adults. The candidate will resort to anything, and I do mean anything, to secure his place in history. For the young lady, Hayley Larson Schultz, a seat on the Supreme Court for a sexual predator is a bridge too far.  She contacts Zachary Blake and retains him to help her prevent the nominee from being confirmed. And the legal-political battle royal begins.

DL: What inspired the creation of the book?

MMB: The novel was, obviously, inspired by the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, however, with one caveat. In my novel, the candidate, Oliver Wilkinson, is clearly guilty, clearly a predator, and the book establishes his guilt and evil. By contrast, while Christine Blasey Ford laid out a compelling case against Kavanaugh, he denied the charges and was never proven guilty of anything. He was confirmed to the Court and took the oath of office in October 2018.

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

MMB: My writing process has changed a bit since I wrote my first novel, Betrayal of Faith. I was writing a fictional account of a real case I handled in the 1980s. Writing a book about the case of my career was a “bucket list” item for me and it took me years to bring it to fruition. I was certain that I was a “one and done” author. Along came the 2016 election, and it inspired my second novel, Betrayal of Justice, a novel about a bigoted president of the United States and a political/legal conspiracy to frame an innocent Muslim woman for a murder she did not commit. From that point on, national political/legal events have inspired four more novels, including Supreme Betrayal.  

DL: Did the pandemic affect the writing or launch?

MMB: I tend to write in fits and spurts—my subsequent novels were completed in less than a year. The pandemic has been a mixed bag for me as an author— it has created expanded writing time because my other business has slowed down, but it also delayed the launch of Supreme Betrayal.

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

MMB: The best parts of writing these legal thrillers is taking important social justice topics and presenting them to the public in an interesting and though-provoking way. Our individual 7thAmendment rights are being trampled on by large corporations, corporate lobbyists, insurance companies, and politicians and most Americans are not aware of it. I have also enjoyed creating a brash, highly successful, lawyer-protagonist who excels at his craft and can handle the political ramifications as well.

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

MMB: This book was no more or no less challenging than the others I have written. You’re an author. I’ve read your Martin Preuss novels and they are terrific. You know how difficult it is to write a novel (very few have done so), let alone six novels. I would suggest that the overall process is difficult: Formulating an idea, creating an outline, writing that first chapter, writing when you don’t feel inspired, writing when your work is not well known—while, at the same time, you write in a difficult competitive environment, creating plot sequences, compelling characters, the whole nine yards. Writing a novel, as you know, is a complex undertaking. That is also why the end result is so satisfying.

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

MMB: Readers can purchase Supreme Betrayal at Amazon (https://amzn.to/3j1KMbU) or on my website, at www.markmbello.com. Anyone who pre-order purchases the new novel at my website and mentions this interview will receive an autographed copy when the book is released. Sound good?

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

MMB: I would like my Zachary Blake Legal Thriller novels to spur a movement. I’d like people to realize that the issues my novels feature are real—they happen to real people all across America, even the world. Knowledge is power—together we can change things for the better.

 Clergy abuse is still an international scandal almost 50 years after the case that inspired Betrayal of Faith. 

 We have elected a new president, but it took a global pandemic and an insurrection to get people to appreciate how dangerous the rhetoric of his predecessor was. Betrayal of Justice tells the story of a country in turmoil after the election of a narcissistic, bigoted president. I get accused of doing a hit job on our former president, but, if you think about it, he imitated my guy, not the other way around. The book was finished before he became POTUS. 

Betrayal in Blue looks at White Supremacy, criminal law, domestic terrorism, and the blue wall of law enforcement. 

Betrayal in Black does a deep dive into police shootings of innocent black men, the Black Lives Matter movement, and how the civil and criminal justice systems might handle such an event. Betrayal High takes a similar look at a school shooting and examines the national and local political/legal ramifications of these tragic events.

As previously indicated, Supreme Betrayal studies financial/political power and sexual assault.

My recent novella, L’Dor V’Dor—From Generation to Generation (available free on my website, www.markmbello.com) is a Holocaust prison camp escape story told by a maternal grandfather to his 13 year old grandson, Zachary Blake, at the time of his Bar Mitzvah. How many real people were lucky enough to have such a conversation with their loved ones?

I am currently working on a Blake legal thriller about our country’s immigration issues.

All of my novels feature real issues affecting real people. Hopefully, my novels inspire others to act, but, more importantly, prevents citizens from becoming victims of the conduct depicted therein. Now, that would be extremely satisfying.

So Why Mysteries?

[This week’s blog post brings back an oldie but a goodie from a few years ago. Enjoy!]

When I give people my elevator speech for the Martin Preuss mysteries (“This is a series of mysteries etc.”), one of the questions I often get is, “Do you have a background in law enforcement?” After I tell them no, I was an English professor and before that a professional writer, their follow-up question is often, “So why mysteries?”

While I understand the question comes out of genuine curiosity, I also suspect it has to do with the stereotype many people have of an English professor who wants to write the Great American Novel. And mysteries, of course, as “genre fiction,” don’t qualify.

What I typically tell people is a condensed version of the truth: I’ve always been drawn to the mystery form, ever since I was a little boy when I would make up my own episodes of Dragnet. There is a vitality in the mystery that I find more compelling than in “literary” work, which tends toward an interiority, dare I say pretentiousness, that is for me less interesting.

(Sorry, I can’t keep myself from using those quotes around “literary.”)

I say that’s a version of the truth, because the real story is a bit more complicated.

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When I was young, I had my own high-fallutin’ literary pretensions. The authors that I read, the ones who were doing what I thought of as the real heavy lifting of literature, were the novelists . . . Tolstoy and Jane Austen, James Joyce, Saul Bellow and John Updike and Bernard Malamud and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. I wanted to write what they did: serious, important works.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy, and I prepared for that life in the usual way: took an English degree, read widely, and so on. Once I graduated college, however, I found myself at complete loose ends. With little usable life experience to write about (a story for another time) and no concrete plans for the future, I was temporarily stymied.

Added to which, at the time my older brother was having drug problems that were worsening by the day, which caused nonstop chaos in my family. It was not a pleasant time.

During summers while in college, I had a job as a movie theatre assistant manager, and when I graduated, my summer job turned full-time; the miserable, alienated college student became a miserable, alienated theatre manager. I took refuge from the disorder of my life in the seedy darkness of movie theatres at night, and in clean, well-lighted libraries during the day, trying to write but also relearning how to read for enjoyment again.

I found myself going back to reading the kinds of books I used to love: mysteries and detective stories. I discovered a world of new authors. I read through Dashiell Hammett and Rex Stout and Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler and especially Ross Macdonald. Except I wasn’t reading them for the mysteries or the puzzles, which didn’t interest me, but rather for what I needed at the time: some notion of how to live.

To me it felt like the detectives in the books I read were virtuous in the old Elizabethan sense of confronting and controlling experience. They were good men and women struggling to live well in a corrupt world, facing down the turmoil and tumult of that world—much as I was trying to do with my own life . . . except they were succeeding, unlike me (or so I felt).

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When in the 70s I came across the works of two Swedish co-authors, Maj Sjoval and Per Wahloo, I knew I had discovered something else that was important about mysteries. The authors of the Martin Beck series of police procedurals, Sjoval and Wahloo had consciously set out to use the detective novel format to comment on changes in their society. I realized that, far from being fluff, good mysteries could have as much depth to them as the most literary novel—in addition to being enjoyable, energetic reads. (The name of my main character, Martin Preuss, is partly an homage to Sjoval and Wahloo’s detective, Martin Beck.)

The more I read, the more I saw that good mysteries were novels of personality; great mysteries, said Henning Mankell, the Swedish author of the Kurt Wallander series, were novels of society seen through the lens of crime. I saw how mysteries could be a powerful form for personal as well as social transformation.

Many years later, when I again started seriously writing long works of fiction after a long hiatus (yet another story for another time), mysteries were my natural go-to.

At this particularly dreadful moment in history, when corruption seems widespread across our society, most especially at the highest levels of government, and baser instincts seem to reign, we are badly in need of transformation.

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. If we’re going to survive, we need a literature that expands, not contracts, our sympathies.

Writing mysteries is a way for me to do that. It allows me to enter the mind and heart of characters under the stresses of crime and see the world through those eyes, and help others understand that character’s world—and, ultimately, our own.

The great crime writer Don Winslow asks the question in his novels, “How do you live decently in an indecent world?” Mysteries help give me and my readers a way to test the tentative answers to that question that Martin Preuss arrives at throughout the pages of my books.