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. 

The First Two Chapters of the Newest Martin Preuss Mystery

In the House of Night is the newest entry in the Martin Preuss mystery series. Published in October of last year, it’s one of the darker books in the series, due to its subject matter. In the book, Preuss faces off against a group of white supremacists–a subject much in the news in the wake of the domestic terrorist attack on the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, this week.

Without giving away too much of the plot, I’ll just note that the ideas for the book took shape for me in the wake of the violent Charlottesville, VA, neo-Nazi Unite the Right rally. That event was chilling and horrifying, and I knew I needed to incorporate far-right extremism in my next Preuss book in some way.

The book is set in 2013, before the events of Charlottesville. But it traces the most recent beginnings of a movement that has been present in American culture since its beginning.

The members of the group in the novel are fictional, but they’re based on considerable research into not only the reach of far-right extremist groups, but also their connection with Christian nationalism.

Neither of these is apparent in the beginning chapters; Preuss, like the reader, must unfold the connection as he plunges deeper into the investigation.

Here, then, is how the events of In the House of Night begin. The paperback version may be purchased through Amazon or on order from your favorite bookseller; the Kindle version is available through Amazon.

1

Brittany Fortunato was not happy.

“Has anyone seen Charlie?” she asked.

No one had.

Charlie Bright, the recording secretary of the Woodland Park Improvement Association, had not missed a meeting in ten years. Tonight might be the exception.

The Association met on the second Tuesday of every month in the Media Center at the Roosevelt Elementary School in Ferndale, a city that lay beyond Eight Mile Road north of Detroit. Like many neighborhood associations, it had a small number of officers—a president, vice-president, and treasurer, in addition to the secretary—and a dedicated core of a dozen or so residents who attended every meeting. 

Typically, the president would call the meeting to order shortly after seven. They would work through their agenda, and the evening would end with chatting, good-natured ribbing, and the newest gossip over plates of cookies and cups of coffee from the local Biggby Coffee.

Often they invited a guest to speak about issues of interest to the city’s residents. Tonight’s guest was the police chief of Ferndale, Nick Russo. The topic was local crime statistics. 

Ferndale was exceptionally safe, especially considering its proximity to the larger metropolis of Detroit. So Russo saw his primary task tonight as calming nerves and assuring the residents that things were under control. A big, muscular man, he made an impressive sight in his blue full-dress uniform, complete with cap under his arm as he stood talking with attendees. 

He seemed unruffled and relaxed.

Not so Brittany, the Association vice-president. The more people who said they didn’t know Charlie Bright’s whereabouts, the more agitated Brittany became.

“Brittany,” the Association president said at last, “what’s going on?” 

The president’s name was Elspeth Cunningham, and she tried but failed to keep the disapproval out of her voice. Brittany was a troublemaker while trying to appear reasonable and friendly. 

What’s her problem now? Elspeth wondered.

“Charlie isn’t here yet,” Brittany said. “We can’t start without him.”

Elspeth shot a look at the clock on the wall. Quarter after seven. “Odd,” she agreed. “He’s never late.”

 “Right?” Brittany said. “I talked to him this morning, he said he’d see me here. And we have to get started. I promised the chief we’d be done by nine.”

 “I’m yours as long as you need me,” Russo said.

 “But we can’t start without Charlie,” Brittany said again. “Who’s gonna take the minutes?”

“I will,” said a man seated at one of the kid-sized library tables, eager for the meeting to begin so he could get home in time to watch Rachel Maddow.

The Association officers looked at each other and shrugged. “Okay,” Elspeth said. “Let’s get started.” 

She called the meeting to order.

They adjourned at eight-thirty on the dot. Charlie Bright never showed.

“Now I’m really worried,” Brittany said as they stood around the refreshment table. “This is totally unlike him.”

“Maybe an emergency called him away,” Elspeth offered.

“Charlie never misses a meeting,” Brittany said. “Something’s not right. I’m sure of it.”

They all exchanged worried looks—Brittany’s concern was contagious—and everyone’s glance settled on Chief Russo.

“If you want,” he said, “I can get somebody over to his house, make sure he’s okay.”

“Would you?” Brittany asked. The others’ heads bobbed in agreement.

“Not a problem,” said Russo. He pulled out his cell phone and turned away while he called the Ferndale Police Department dispatcher.

“I hope he’s all right,” someone said.

Russo disconnected and turned back to the group. “A unit’ll swing by his house.”

 With the group slightly calmed, Elspeth unwrapped the tray of cookies and invited them all to dig in.

2

Patrol Officer Paul Vollmer stood on Charlie Bright’s front porch in northwest Ferndale and waited.

When nobody answered the doorbell, which Vollmer heard ringing inside the house, he knocked hard on the substantial wooden entrance door. 

Still no response. 

He shone his flashlight through the dark living room windows. Vollmer couldn’t see anyone moving inside.

He came down off the porch and walked around to the back. All the doors and windows were secure. A light shone in the kitchen but he couldn’t see anyone there. Behind the house was a garage, but the door was closed and Vollmer couldn’t see inside.

He walked around to the front again.

“Yoo-hoo!”

Vollmer turned and saw an older woman peeking around the storm door of a house across the street. 

When she saw him looking at her, she waved him over.

He strolled across and she said, “Are you looking for Charlie Bright?”

“I am. Have you seen him?”

“Not today.” She must have been in her late seventies or early eighties but her voice was high, almost girlish. She had silver hair set in plump curls and she held a wool coat bunched at her throat against the night’s chill.

“Is that unusual?” Vollmer asked.

“Oh yes,” the woman said. “I always see him during the day. Usually in the morning before he goes off for his day.”

“But not today?”

She shook her head.

He looked back at the dark house. No car in the driveway or the street.

“Maybe he’s out of town?” Vollmer suggested. 

 “He would have told me if he was going away. I always watch his house for him.”

 She opened her palm and showed a shiny brass key. “I have the key to his house, if you need it.”

Vollmer thought for a moment. 

On any other night he would let something like this go, but it came directly from the chief, so . . . 

Better see it through. 

He opened his notebook and said, “Can I get some information from you first?”

He smelled it as soon as he entered the front hall, a sweet scorched odor, like burning paper. There had been a fire in here. 

Vollmer switched on his flashlight. The house was larger on the inside than it looked from the street. The front hall opened onto a stairway going up; to the left was a sprawling living room, and to the right was a dining room. The table there overflowed with piles of mail, some opened, some not.

“Hello,” he called. “Ferndale Police. Anyone home?”

When there was no reply, he called again. “Ferndale Police. Mr. Bright? Is anybody here?”

Silence.

Vollmer went into the kitchen. No dirty dishes in the sink, the counters clean and tidy, the oven empty and cold. Vegetables in twisted shapes Vollmer had never seen before hung from the ceiling in wire baskets.

 A door off the kitchen led to a stairway down to the basement. The burnt odor seemed to originate there.

 Vollmer proceeded down the stairs into a basement that was as clean and uncluttered as the kitchen. Very different from mine, he thought; his own cellar was filled with boxes and tools and old chairs and end tables piled high from his wife’s antique furniture refinishing sideline. 

This one, in contrast, held orderly rows of bookshelves with hundreds of hardcover books. Behind one of the bookcases a cot had been set up.

The joists overhead were scorched, but had not caught fire. Fortunately for the house, and for the surrounding neighbors.

A light was on in a room in the rear of the basement. The burnt smell was strongest here. 

Vollmer looked into the room, which was set up as an office, with a desk and more bookshelves and file cabinets. On the desk, a laptop computer and printer had been smashed to pieces. 

In the center of the floor was a large pile of ashes. Vollmer bent down; they were cool. They seemed to be the remnants of sheets of paper, curled and blackened but smashed down so the contents were unrecognizable.

Sticking out from a pile of academic journals between the desk and a file cabinet were two running shoes connected to two legs. 

A man’s body.

Vollmer leaned in and looked into the grey face of an older man. 

He felt for a pulse in the man’s neck. 

Nothing.

The man’s skin was cold to the touch. His sweatshirt was dark with blood and seemed to have a dozen slashes through it.

Vollmer knew the detectives and fire inspector would not want him poking around here any longer than he had to. If this was Charlie Bright, he was very dead.

Vollmer called it in and went upstairs to secure the scene and wait for the cavalry.

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: J. Q. Rose

Me in mustang 400 x 300

With so many cancellations of in-person author events due to World War C, I’m devoting my blog to Indie Monday interviews for the coming months to help my fellow authors with promotion. I’ll be featuring indie and small-press 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 I’m happy to host prolific author J. Q. Rose. A resident of Western Michigan, she has written both fiction and nonfiction. Her nonfiction books include Girls Succeed!: Stories Behind the Careers of Successful Women (2014), Romance and Mystery Authors on Writing: Tips on the Writing Process, Publishing and Marketing (2015), Your Words, Your Life Stories: A Guide for Sharing Memories (2019), and Quick Tips on Vegetable Gardening: Starting Your Garden (2015). Her mysteries published by Books We Love Publishing are Terror on Sunshine Boulevard (2nd ed., 2019), Deadly Undertaking (2nd ed., 2019), and Dangerous Sanctuary (2nd ed., 2019).

Jan. 2020 JQ's books

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

DL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JQR: Hello Readers! Thank you, Don, for hosting me on your blog today! The trip from beautiful West Michigan to your place in cyberspace was lovely. I look forward to interacting with your readers.

Whether the story is fiction or non-fiction, I am “focused on story.”  I offer readers chills, giggles, and quirky characters woven within the pages of my mystery books. Using my storytelling skills, I provide entertainment and information in articles featured in books, magazines, newspapers, and online magazines. With my non-fiction book for girls, Girls Succeed! Stories Behind the Careers of Successful Women, I returned to my first love, writing about real people.

I taught elementary school for several years and never lost the love for teaching passed down from my teacher grandmother and mother. I satisfies the teaching aspect of my character by presenting workshops on Creative Writing and Writing Your Life Story.

When I’m not writing, I enjoy photography, playing Pegs and Jokers board games, and traveling with my husband. We spend winters in Florida and summers up north with our four grandsons and granddaughter.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. 

I am a life storytelling evangelist! I believe every person’s story is important and should be shared as a gift to family and friends and/or published to get their message out into the hands of readers.

In November I self-published a journal, Your Words, Your Life Story: A Journal for Sharing Memories.The low content paperback book offers folks who are interested in telling their life story ways to begin what seems like an overwhelming project. I break it down into small bites. For folks who are not writers, I encourage them to use audio or video to tell their stories and suggest programs (apps) to do so.

For those who prefer to read eBooks, Your Words, Your Life Story: A Guide for Sharing Memories is also available with all the information, inspiring quotes and exercises as in the journal. You will have to provide your own journal or notebook. This is available at Amazon and major online booksellers.

At the moment I am writing a memoir, which is just one slice of a person’s entire life story. My husband and I pursued our dream of being entrepreneurs in the floral industry. So the story of the first year is about our move to a small town in Michigan to start our business. We did not have friends or family there, nor did we have any experience in selling flowers or operating a business. The only way to explain our bold move is that we were young. The book, Arranging a Dream: A Memoir,will be released January 2021 by BWL Publishing.

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

JQR: Because I am a wordsmith and love putting words together to make a story. What do you hope to accomplish with your writing? My purpose in writing fiction and non-fiction is to entertain and enlighten readers.

DL: Please talk about your writing process. Where do your ideas come from? What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

JQR: My mysteries are sparked by news stories. Real life can be as unbelievable as fiction, so I tweak and twist the true life story to a fictional story filled with quirky characters and humor. My non-fiction books are about what interests me such as gardening, inspiring young girls to follow their dream and encouraging folks to write life stories.

My favorite part of the process is beginning the story where so many possibilities for characters, settings and twists in the story are available. My least favorite is culling out all the words, paragraphs or chapters that do not add anything to the premise of the book.

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

 JQR: Connections. Writing is a solitary job. I am so glad my crit group talked me into trying to publish my first novel. I almost felt guilty if I didn’t try after all the meetings we’d had together and the suggestions and thoughts they had on that story. If I hadn’t continued to write and publish, I would have missed so much. I made friends through writing that I could never have made. My horizon has widened by meeting folks from all over the world! I have plugged into thoughts from very smart people who share their world view so different from mine. I have connected with readers.

But the best part . . . my granddaughter thinks I’m famous! I took her with me to visit a talented children’s author in our town. My granddaughter chose a picture book and Jane autographed it for her. When we returned to the car, Aubrey said, “Now I know two famous people.”

“Two famous people? Who are they?”

She replied, “Jane and You!”

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

JQR: An up-to-date list of my books with blurbs and buy links is available on the page on my blog: https://www.jqrose.com/p/fiction-sunshine-boulevard-available.html.

Readers can connect online with me at my JQ Rose Blog—Focused on Story https://www.jqrose.com/.

Readers can click here to sign up for the J.Q. Rose Courier, delivered once a month to your inbox to keep up-to-date on news, sneak peaks, giveaways and fun from JQ: https://landing.mailerlite.com/webforms/landing/m7v2z3

Your Words, Your Life Stories: A Journal for Sharing Memories is available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/dp/1702360571. The e-book version is available at Amazon and major online booksellers: https://books2read.com/u/4ExnDY.

My Facebook group to support those who are telling their stories, “Telling Your Life Story and Memoirs Circle” group, is accessible at https://www.facebook.com/groups/telllifestories/.

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Andrew Allen Smith

Andrew Smith - Author 2

With so many cancellations of in-person author events due to World War C, I’m devoting my blog to Indie Monday interviews for the coming months to help my fellow authors with promotion. I’ll be featuring indie and small-press 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 I’m honored to host Andrew Allen Smith, novelist, short story writer, and poet. Originally from Anderson, Indiana, Andrew currently lives in Michigan. After several successful ventures in IT, research, and business, Andrew has become a prolific and creative author. He is the author of four novels in the Masterson Files series, combining action, adventure, and mystery: Vengeful Son (Book 1, 2016), Sinful Father (Book 2, 2018), Deadly Daughter (Book 3, 2018), and Fateful Friend (Book 4, 2019). A fifth entry in the series is in the works, as well as a number of other books, as Andrew describes below. 

Recently I posed some questions to Andrew. Here’s what he told me.

DL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

AAS: My name is Andrew Allen Smith. My quest is to learn, write, and have fun doing everything I do. My favorite color is blue, no red, no blue. Ooops, ahhhhh.

In all seriousness I have always been a storyteller, but as a writer I face something that many writers seem to face, focus. I have a significant number of partially completed books, short stories, novellas, poems, prose pieces, and inspirational items and have to focus to keep from pushing each pebble forward a little and not completing items. I went to college for Computer Science, and do very well with machines. My early goal was to develop AI and work in robotics, but I ended up working in hard core IT, and research. I have written a lot, and I only recently began collating and completing my writings. After huge successes and several business ventures I moved to Michigan in 2015 and was assisted by two friends in finishing my first book, Vengeful Son.

Since then I work, write, and hang out with my wife, two dogs, and cat. My children are all grown up, so it is a relatively peaceful life.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress. 

AAS: My most recent book is the fourth in the Masterson Files series. Fateful Friend is about a series of unpredictable events that accidently get our antihero, Jonathon Michael Masterson, involved in an attempted assassination. The book and my characters continue to grow and though this book was painful, it was another improvement in the series. I have enjoyed having the characters grow and have a lot invested in this work. It was more difficult because the story grew sideways for a while. It does involve some ancillary characters, but I had created a side story about race that I reduced simply because it was far too complex and did not add to the story.

I am currently working on several items. Book 5 of the Masterson files is complete and edited. I need a cover and have found a few people who are willing to work on it with me. Silent Sister is a pure roller coaster ride. My villain was a huge success with my editor and a beta reader, and my hero for this book was truly a semi-side character until now. Michael is still a major part, but my hero takes on more than he should, and there are several substories about family, trust, and how people sometimes need help and need to ask for that help.

I am also working on Burial Ground, a Young Adult story about a young lady who moves to the country next to an Indian reservation, makes some awesome friends, and is slowly possessed by a deceased Indian chief. It is a labor of love and will be out before the Muskegon Art fair in July (if that ends up happening).

Stealth Ride is about a man who lost his wife to a car accident while he stayed home and took care of his car. The story is existential as it questions the meaning of life, possessions, and relationships. I started this years ago and the story has been stuck in my mind to the last line, I just need to get it completed.

As if that is not all, I am working on Adam, a book about a man who find himself in a unique situation. He is immortal and can save a woman if he just acts, but there are consequences. In this first of the series, Adam tells his story. This book is all written in first person from Adam’s point of view, making it a different approach to my normal style of writing.

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

AAS: I write because I enjoy writing. Each night I dream, and usually it is a new story. As you can guess, I am a bit behind in putting them all down. I love the feeling of words flowing onto paper. The goal of each story is to entertain. It is the best feeling in the world to have someone come up and say, “Where is the next book,” or to tell me how engrossed they got in the story.

DL: Please talk about your writing process. Where do your ideas come from? What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

AAS: Oops, I jumped ahead didn’t I. Usually I am inspired by dreams, but sometimes it can be items or a thought or person. I write each day at an inspirational site and those ideas come from everywhere. From people who say a few words to me to the passions of my life, and other people’s lives. To quote “The Seven Faces of Doctor Lao,” “Every time you pick up a grain of sand you hold a universe in the palm of your hand.”For me, every moment is like a grain of sand, and every moment has a story to tell about the universe.

I had a vivid dream once about death, the most vivid I have ever had, and the concepts and ideas were amazing, and my inspiration worked them out even further. Death as a person, an entity. Yes, it has been done in movies and books, but my dream was different, and the resulting “A Conversation with Death” was fairly unique.

I love getting the ideas out, and then shaping them into a cohesive story. My books grow themselves. I am not out to baffle readers with new words they never wanted to know, I am out to tell a story and, in the process, show my readers something fun, exciting, scary, amazing, horrible, passionate, and even uplifting.

I dislike editing and have had bad experiences with editors. A wonderful young lady, Jenny Bynum, reviewed my first book after it was published and loved the book but pointed out the errors. I spent a considerable amount of the books’ earnings on editors. Each has had their own challenges, and I blame myself each time. I can do perfect at work writing a quality document, but do not do as well editing my own books. I also dislike some of the dealings I have had with reviews. I have had dozens of good reviews, but the company that has my books online (Amazon) often removes those for no apparent reason, so it goes up and down a lot.

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

AAS: In my opinion, touching someone with words is making a difference. In the early 90s, I owned a social network and spoke on television about interacting mind-to-mind. Great writers and good writers are not just throwing words on a page, they are sharing their mind through words and painting a picture that can only be seen in the back of someone’s mind. To me that is amazing. Having someone come up to me and say, “I love Alan, who did you base him on?” and me saying he was created from the back of my mind, gives me a sense of satisfaction.

If you consider it, we are all like Doctor Frankenstein and our characters truly come alive. In my second book, Sinful Father, one of the main characters dies. I cried like a baby writing about a character giving a eulogy about a character I created killed by another character I created that broke the heart of yet another. None of the people existed, but in my mind they did, and the feedback I have gotten from people is similar. No, I will not get rich from writing, well, unless someone says “Oh wow! Read this now,” and I go viral, but I will feel with people as my stories progress.

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

AAS: You can see my inspirational blog daily at www.29000sunsets.com, short stories at www.shortstorysite.com, and books at  https://www.amazon.com/Andrew-Allen-Smith/e/B01KTVUFQS%3Fref=dbs_a_mng_rwt_scns_share (New site coming soon!)

 

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: Brenda Hasse

Hasse author photoWith so many cancellations of in-person author events due to World War C, I’m devoting my blog to Indie Monday interviews for the coming months to help my fellow authors with promotion. I’ll be featuring indie and small-press 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 I’m delighted to host Brenda Hasse, a prolific, multi-award-winning author and freelance writer. Brenda has written and published 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 the history of Fenton, Michigan, and writing scripts for the Fenton Village Players to perform during the Ghost Walk and Historical Cemetery Walk. She is a guest teacher at Fenton High School, and resides in Fenton with her husband and cats.

Brenda’s novels include The Moment of Trust (2020), From Beyond the Grave: An Afterlife Journey, Part 2 (2019), A Lady’s Destiny (2018), On the Third Day: An Afterlife Journey (2017), The Freelancer (2014), and Wilkinshire (2010). Her books for children are A Unicorn for my Birthday (2009), My Horsy and Me, What Can We Be? (2006), and Yes, I Am Loved (2005).

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

DL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

BH: It was difficult for me to learn to read as a child and I hated it. I was one of five students who had to be pulled from my class several times a week to work with a paraprofessional to improve my reading skills. Throughout my education, I relied on notes to pass a class. Upon graduation from college, I worked for General Motors as a computer programmer analyst. I didn’t appreciate the written word until my mid-30s (so, like yesterday, lol) I enjoy reading now, though. I think it is quite ironic that I write for others to read.

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress.

BH: My latest book is titled, The Moment Of Trust. It is a young adult historical romance, which was published on April 21, 2020. I am also working on the third book of a trilogy titled, Until We Meet Again: An Afterlife Journey, Part 3, which I have set a goal of publication by the end of June. The trilogy’s genre is metaphysical/visionary with the first book, On The Third Day, soon to be made into an audiobook.

I am also writing a book based on the true experience of human trafficking titled, A Victim Of Desperation, and hope to publish it by the end of September/October.

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

BH: I mostly write young adult historical romance. I have always enjoyed history, especially the medieval time period. Even though it was a dirty and oftentimes brutal era, there is a distinct romance about that time that I like to bring to life.

DL: Please talk about your writing process. Where do your ideas come from? What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

BH: My writing process begins with knowing how the story will end, creating relatable characters for the reader, and a loose outline. Next, I write an extended outline, rewrite adding on the average 10,000 words with each pass-through of the manuscript before passing it onto my beta readers. Once I receive feedback from my betas, I take their comments into consideration, make changes, edit several times, and format the manuscript for printing before passing it onto a professional editor. Once I update the edits, I give the manuscript to another editor to ensure most, if not all of the typos and mistakes are found. Unfortunately, some may still slip through.

While waiting for feedback from beta readers and editors, I am busy writing the synopsis for the back of the cover and designing the front cover. My graphic illustrator helps to layout my design for the print and ebook covers. All of my files must be converted to pdf, jpg, and ebook for submission.

My favorite part of the process is designing the cover and promotional video. The least favorite part is rewriting and editing, which at times is tedious.

My ideas come from my imagination, life experiences, or at times they find me. The book I am writing about human trafficking formulated through the random meeting with the victim. Since she had not told anyone else about her experience, I like to believe I was chosen to tell her story. I also participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for encouragement and goal setting.

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

BH: It is good to create something, whether through sculpture, composing music, or other forms of art. I like to think when I write, I am painting with words. As someone reads my words, pictures form within their mind. Even though the pictures are intangible, they seem real at the moment they are read. Since writing is usually a solitary craft, it is refreshing to participate in signings and share what I have learned about writing with others in writing groups and lecturing.

Even though I have received several awards for my writing, it is nice to overhear someone who has read one of my books boast about its quality to someone else. I volunteer to write scripts for my city’s community actors to perform during the annual ghost walk and cemetery walk.

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

http://www.BrendaHasseBooks.com

I don’t blog often, but there are a few that I have published via my website.

Thanks for spotlighting me on your blog!

Indie Monday

Today’s guest: D. A. Reed

DA Reed Headshot

With so many cancellations of in-person author events due to World War C, I’m devoting my blog to Indie Monday interviews for the coming months to help my fellow authors with promotion. I’ll be featuring indie and small-press 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 I’m proud to host D.A. Reed (Deborah Reed), who writes young adult (YA) novels, as well as novels in the mystery/thriller genre. Deborah’s young adult novels are based on challenges children and adults face every day. Her characters touch the hearts of readers even after the last page has been turned, and Deborah’s hope is that the message her novels contain will help and encourage those who read them.

Deborah’s young adult novels have garnered the attention of children’s author Johnathan Rand, who invited her to be a writing instructor at his Author Quest writing camp for young writers in 2016-2020. She is in demand as a presenter at writers’ retreats, workshops, and conferences, and taught creative writing workshops to children in the United Arab Emirates at the Sharjah International Book Fair in 2019. In addition to her novels, Deborah has had short horror stories published in Share Your Scare: A Lulu Anthology, and The Garfield Lake Review.

 

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

DL: Welcome, Deborah. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

DAR: I am an author of five young adult fiction novels (Daisies in the Rain, Dancing with Shadows, The Rejects of Room 5, Dare Accepted, and Nothin’ but Gutters and Pocket Change) and three mystery/thriller adult novels (Web of Deceit is a stand-alone mystery/thriller; When Darkness Killed Her and When Vengeance Reigned are books 1 and 2 of the Caitlin O’Reilly trilogy). I have also published two volumes of short horror stories under the pseudonym H.G. Evans. I am a wife and a mother of a superhero and a princess. Not only do I love writing, but I love reading, and devour books of all genres. I also enjoy running, and plan many scenes from my novels while my feet pound out miles on the pavement!

DL: Tell us about your latest book and works in progress.

DAR: My latest novel was released April 15th and is titled Nothin’ but Gutters and Pocket Change. It is a young adult novel that portrays the struggles of homeless teens. Here’s the synopsis:

Two separate lives, one goal: survival

 She is afraid for her life…

Summer Jackson and her brother Levi don’t tell anyone about what happens at home, dealing with the fights between their mother and live-in boyfriend Bracken in secret. But when Bracken puts their mom in the hospital, Summer realizes they can’t go back home, even if it means she and Levi end up sleeping in a gutter.

 He is abandoned by his family…

Midas Ramirez may not be rich, but at least he has a place to call home. That is, until he finds out the bank is taking the house, his parents are moving, and Midas isn’t welcome. Abandoned and with nowhere to go, Midas turns to the one thing he knows will get him cash fast – but it could also ruin his life.

 Both are out of options…

When things take a turn for the worse, Summer and Midas realize they have a choice to make – learn to trust others with their secrets…or risk losing everything.

I am currently working on the third and final novel in the Caitlin O’Reilly mystery/thriller trilogy, When Death Whispered Her Name. It will be released in fall of 2020.

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

DAR: I write because I love stories and how they draw me into another world. More often than not, I become so engrossed in the book I am reading and the emotions in brings out in me that someone (my husband…my kids…) can call my name and I won’t hear them. There are several books I have read where the author elicited emotions as if the events were happening to me personally. Words are incredibly powerful, and those books made me want to create that same emotional response in others as well.

While my mystery novels are more purely for entertainment, my young adult novels all deal with real-life issues that kids (and also many adults) struggle with today. I try to incorporate a message in each of my YA novels that will help readers navigate these situations and this crazy thing called life!

DL: Please talk about your writing process. Where do your ideas come from? What is your favorite part of the process? Least favorite?

DAR: I try to write every day, even if it is only for ten minutes. It keeps the writing muscles moving, keeps the story fresh in my mind so when I sit down the next day, I know exactly where to go next.

I am not one to outline my books before beginning them. I tried outlining before and stared at a wall for over two hours before giving up and just going for it. Typically, I know how the novel will start, a few things that happen in the middle, and how it ends. Once I begin, the characters tend to take over and tell me where to go! (They can be rather bossy…) I love when the characters begin to take on a life of their own; they no longer are statistics on a page, they are real with a specific personality, way of talking, etc.

I think my least favorite part of writing is editing. Creating a written work is intensely personal and it can seem like a direct attack against your person when readers and editors critique that work. However, I truly believe that learning and evolving are continual processes–and the only way to improve and grow is to be willing to take a good, honest look at what others have to say. (Even if it hurts!)

My ideas come from everything around me. Conversations I have, things I see, smell…anything can set off a story in my head. One time I was running in downtown Rockford during winter and saw a woman bundled up in a winter coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. She was sitting on a bench and reading a book while holding a coffee cup in her other hand. I thought she was insane! It was only about thirty degrees outside, and the wind made it feel even colder. But she was outside, reading and drinking coffee. That woman stuck with me – and became the main character of a short story I began writing the next day!

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

DAR: Writing has opened up many opportunities for me, for which I am incredibly grateful!

I think the biggest wonder for me is knowing how my writing has touched the lives of others. When I first began writing young adult novels, I was overwhelmed by the response from readers. Many thanked me for writing the stories and for the messages within. A mother contacted me to tell me about how one of my novels not only helped her daughter, but also herself personally. I often hear of my books being passed around to various family members as one person reads it and wants to share it with others. What floored me was also having a high school student approach me and say her friends keep wanting to read my books, but every time they go to the library, they’re already checked out. To know that the messages in my books are helping others is the greatest gift writing has given me.

Through writing I have also been blessed to meet a wonderful community of people who are loving and supportive as we all pour our hearts out through the written word. I have also been able to share my passion for writing with children and adults through writing workshops and presentations, some international.

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

DAR: All of my books are available on www.amazon.com and www.lulu.com.

Readers can follow me on:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AuthorDeborah/

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/dareedauthor/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/dareedauthor

Goodreads: www.goodreads.com (D.A. Reed, Author)

Feel free to sign up for my monthly newsletter at: http://eepurl.com/gtszKT

The Return of Toby

Last week I did an interview with Jeff Milo from the Ferndale Area District Library for his new podcast, “A Little Too Quiet.” We had a relaxed and wide-ranging conversation, including taking about my writing and background. As you might expect, we spent some time talking about my series of mysteries, the Martin Preuss mysteries, set in and around Ferndale.

podcast

As I write this, the show is scheduled for the end of February 2020. You can listen to all the episodes of the podcast here: https://alittletooquiet.podbean.com/. Jeff’s conversations with other local authors (including Josh Malerman, Kathe Koja, and Michael Zadoorian) are thought-provoking and enjoyable.

Jeff and I also talked about my more recent writing. The last pieces I’ve published have been in a different genre from the mystery novels: they are a pair of dystopian novellas. One, “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth,” appears in an anthology, Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Quitt and Quinn Publishers and Whistlebox Press, 2019) along with the works of two other fine writers, Wendy Sura Thomson and Andrew Lark.

My other novella is a stand-alone sequel to “The Bright and Darkened etc.” published separately as The Exile (Poison Toe Press, 2020).

Writing dystopian fiction—or really post-apocalyptic fiction, as my two recent works are—turned out to be more taxing than I thought it would be.

I have to admit, at first it was fun.

I had published six Preuss mystery novels in a row from 2011 to 2019, and I felt like I was getting stale. I thought turning to dystopian fiction last year in response to an invitation from Andrew Lark (who spearheaded the Postcards project) would be a good change. It would let me take a break from mysteries, and indulge one of my long-time pleasures, post-apocalyptic fiction and films.

After I wrote the first novella, I had an experience that I’ve never had before, even with the Preuss series . . . an entire world sprang up in my brain as I thought about the characters, their situations, and their world, and I could see possibilities for continuing to write about them in several more novellas. My plan evolved into writing The Exile and maybe two or three more installments set in that world, and then combine them all into one large work.

I took to thinking about the different pieces as part of The Dry Earth Series—so called because the action takes place in a world devastated by climate catastrophes.

And here’s where it starts to get depressing.

I think of these novellas as “speculative fiction,” to use the term that Margaret Atwood uses: fiction that begins with current conditions, and then engages in a kind of thought experiment to project forward in order to imagine how things might turn out, given where we are starting from. She’s a master of it in works like The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and most recently The Testaments.

Several current trends came together in “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth—not only the climate disasters that we are starting to see already (vide Australia burning), but also emerging global pandemics (vide the coronavirus), the breakdown of our lawful democratic system and the failure of the American experiment (vide your news today), looming failures in agriculture leading to widespread famine (vide Monsanto’s latest annual report) . . . all of these converged to create the nightmarish hellscape of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

And I continued to explore their impacts in The Exile.

And not by simply discussing the problems themselves, of course, but rather by showing their devastating effects on the desperate lives of individual characters.

Without getting into spoilers, it’s not a pretty picture.

The more I wrote about the world of the Dry Earth Series, the more all the problems I was writing about—climate devastation, cultural suicide enacted daily in the political sphere, an uninhabitable earth, mass extinctions of plants and animals, violence released into the air along with lingering radiation—began to seem so possible.

Even, unfortunately, so likely.

As this country seems to be embracing its own apparently inexorable dystopian future, thinking seriously about the kinds of nightmares the future holds became more and more difficult and disheartening for me.

My mental state, already reeling and fragile from the corruption and mean-spirited, willful stupidity spewing nonstop out of Washington, began to decline even further.

I decided I need a break from my break.

The solution was simple: for my next project, I’m going to return to the world of Martin Preuss and his son Toby.

After I finished “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth” and sent it off to the editor, I launched into the seventh Preuss book and finished about 13,000 words on the draft. I stopped when the novella came back from the editor, and then I found one of the characters in the novella to be so compelling that I began another manuscript that turned into The Exile.

Talking to Jeff Milo about the Preuss series made me realize how much I missed the characters of Martin Preuss and most especially Toby.

Toby, who brings so much light into his fictional father’s life, does the same for me. Profoundly handicapped, he is an accurate and loving portrait of my grandson Jamie. Toby is a source of enormous comfort, joy, and wisdom for his father, as Jamie was for those of us who knew and loved him.

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Jamie Kril, the model for Toby Preuss

Regretfully, Jamie is no longer with us. But while we were privileged to have him, Jamie taught us so much about love, patience, the necessity for presence in one’s life, and what is really important in a world that seems crazier and more out-of-control by the day.

Writing about Toby, and showing how sweet and loving he is and how important he is in his father’s life (and, indeed, the lives of everyone he touches), gives me the chance to celebrate his great gifts, and by extension the gifts of all the children and people like Toby and Jamie.

We need that now, more than ever.

So that’s what’s next for me. I’m shelving the harsh, nightmarish, disintegrating world of the Dry Earth Series, and returning to the world of Martin and Toby—which is harsh and nightmarish in its own way, but at least tends toward order and social reintegration. Crimes are solved, mysteries are cleared up, criminals are held accountable.

And at the end of each day, a regenerating visit with his dear Toby always awaits investigator Martin Preuss.

My sabbatical from dystopian fiction might turn into a “Mondical and a Tuesdical,” as folksinger Lee Hayes said about The Weavers’ enforced break from music during the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s. Right now it’s hard to tell.

Regardless, look for the next entry in the Martin Preuss series in the fall of 2020. I can’t give out any details of the plot just yet—except to say that due to overwhelming demand from my readers, Martin Preuss may—just may—finally get a girlfriend.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, when you have a chance, please have a listen to Jeff Milo’s podcast at https://alittletooquiet.podbean.com/.

 

Imagining the End of the World: An Excerpt from POSTCARDS FROM THE FUTURE

About six months ago, my friend Andrew Lark invited me to take part in a project he was then developing. He was in the middle of writing the novella that would become “Pollen,” a work of dystopian fiction imagining the end of humanity, and his idea was to include two other novellas to round out a volume with that theme.

He also invited our mutual friend, author Wendy Thomson. Wendy and I both jumped at the chance. We had read and respected Andrew’s previous novel, Better Boxed and Forgotten, and we all respected each other’s work. This included Wendy’s two books, a memoir, Summon the Tiger, and a novel, The Third Order, as well as my own Martin Preuss mystery series.

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The result of our collaboration was Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, published this month (please see the end of the post for details of our book launch on November 2nd.) Besides Andrew’s “Pollen,” Wendy contributed a novella, “Silo Six,” and I added “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

People who know my work wondered if this project represented a departure from my mystery series. But I didn’t see it as a departure at all. True, dystopian fiction is a different genre than mysteries. But in a way, my contribution to Postcards is a mirror image of a mystery novel.

Mysteries, after all, generally start in a state of disorder (a crime has been committed or the social order has been upset somehow) and proceed to a state of order (the crime is solved, the social order is restored).

A dystopian or post-apocalyptic work, on the other hand, often starts with society in a state of order and then proceeds to disorder through some apocalyptic event or events. Or, as Newton’s second law of thermodynamics predicts, things move into a state of increasing disorder in the world of the work.

There’s also another way this isn’t a departure for me: I’ve long been a fan of post-apocalyptic fiction. It appeals to my cynical sense that “the crust of civilization on which we tread,” as scholar Timothy Garton Ash has written, “is always wafer thin. One tremor and you’ve fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.”

My appreciation for post-apocalyptic fiction culminated in a senior seminar I developed at the college where I used to teach. As the capstone experience for English and Language Arts majors, the course, titled Post-Apocalyptic American Fiction, required students to prepare an extensive paper derived from in-depth critical reading and research on the topic, then make a public presentation of that paper.

Students were expected to draw upon the critical and analytical powers they had honed in their literature, criticism, and writing courses throughout their previous semesters.

To prepare the course, I read widely and deeply in post-apocalyptic literature, from the beginning (the biblical book of Revelation) to the most recent (at that time, The Hunger Games), from the classic (A Canticle for Leibowitz) to the popular (The Walking Dead), from goremeisters to the finest “literary” authors.

I read books about zombies, vampires, nuclear war, electromagnetic pulses, and crumbling societies in the past, present, and future. I read what critics had to say about them.

For my final reading list, I settled on four novels that represented what I thought were among the most fascinating, daring, and thoughtful works of contemporary post-apocalyptic literature, while still offering at least a glimmer of hope: Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (I interpreted “American” to include North American because I wanted her in), Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and Colson Whitehead’s Zone One.

I loved this quartet of novels. I had previously taught senior seminars that were among my most rewarding teaching experiences, so I was tremendously excited about the course. I couldn’t wait to teach it.

Unfortunately, it was, to put it bluntly, a disaster in almost every way.

Most of the students in this particular group didn’t understand the books; they didn’t know how to read the research about the books; they didn’t know how to approach a long, segmented critical paper; though seniors, they didn’t know how to incorporate outside sources gracefully; they didn’t have a handle on critical theories or how to use them; they couldn’t grasp the not-so-subtle rules of plagiarism . . .

Please note I’m not mocking or blaming the students here, but rather commenting on their lack of preparation for the rigors of the experience—which of course was our failure as faculty in the department.

I taught the course twice, in the fall and winter semesters. It didn’t get any better from one semester to the other. To make matters worse, I got pneumonia at the beginning of the first semester and was never at my best during the entire four months of the fall.

Needless to say, it was not my finest hour as a professor. As it happened, these two senior seminars turned out to be the last undergraduate courses I would ever teach; the following summer I was appointed dean of the faculty, and except for a few graduate courses I spent the rest of my time until retirement as an administrator.

(Which was a dystopian nightmare of a whole different order of magnitude, but that’s a story for another day.)

So when Andrew invited me into his project, I was coming from a deep involvement in, and appreciation for, dystopian literature. Naturally, I said yes at once.

Because of that background, I’m particularly proud of the book the three of us produced.

Both Andrew and Wendy’s pieces are splendid, not simply as works of dystopian fiction, but as serious and thought-provoking works of literature. As one reviewer said, the novellas in Postcards are “fascinating,” “powerful,” “inviting,” and “tense, bleak, and entirely human narrative[s].”

For myself, I had such a good time on this project that I’ve begun writing a spin-off from my contribution, and have been envisioning an entire cycle of works set in the world I imagined (which I’m starting to call the Dry Earth Series).

I’d like to share a small section of my novella with you here, in hopes you’ll be interested enough to have a look at the entire book.

And if you’re in the metropolitan Detroit area, I invite you to the party celebrating the official launch of this project on Saturday, November 2nd, from 1 till 4 pm, at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion, 74 Arden Park Boulevard, Detroit. To register, go to www.alarksperch.com and hit the Comment button. It’s free and open to the public, but we suggest a contribution to charity.

I’m happy to present an excerpt from my novella in Postcards from the Future, the first two chapters of “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth.”

 

1

A figure appears in an empty window frame halfway up the ruined wall. Dark glasses in a face wrapped with rags and shaded beneath a hood stare down at her.

The long barrel of a gun points in her direction.

Caught completely out in the open, she has no time to do anything except dive to the ground. She tries to merge with the rubble, disappear into it, though she knows she can’t; she is completely exposed. She holds her breath, waiting for the kill shot. She had thought there were no bullets left anymore, but she doesn’t want to take any chances.

When the kill shot doesn’t come, she dares to lift her head. The window frame is empty.

She scrambles to her feet and turns to flee.

Before going ten feet, she comes face-to-face with the hooded figure holding his rifle.

“Halt!” the figure rasps. The voice is muffled by the layers of rags wrapped around its head beneath the hood. But there is no mistaking the rough, deep sound.

It is a raggedman’s voice.

She falls to her knees and raises trembling hands.

2

Her day started hours earlier, when the wary young woman—whose name is Ash—picked her way through the debris near the entrance to her underground settlement.

With a staff for balance and protection, she stepped over concrete blocks and ragged piles of broken bricks under the heat of the unrelenting sun. Several times she tripped over planks of charred wood from buildings that had been destroyed in the old wars, concealed under the red dust that coats the land.

Her destination was a few clicks away from their settlement. Wreckage like what surrounded the underground opening was everywhere, all along the meandering path she traveled. They were taught to avoid moving in a straight line to present less of a target, and also to increase the chances of scavenging valuables buried away from the common paths.

The woman stumbled over the detritus of what was left of the city. She wore a tattered drab coat wrapped around her despite the heat, and she protected her head with an ancient battered welder’s helmet that was the unit’s only armor against the brilliantly bright, deadly rays of the sun. This was one among a cache of similar helmets that had been scavenged over the years. Nobody knew what they were at first, but when the tribe discovered the helmets’ uses, they became treasured finds.

She walked carefully, alert to every movement around her. No animals or insects survived anymore, so chances were any movement would be hostile. The only sound was the wind soughing against the metal of her helmet. She swiveled her head constantly. The helmet restricted her view, but its protection against the damaging rays of the sun outweighed any limitations to her vision.

Ash walked over the streets, cracked and overgrown with the skeletal remains of trees and bushes. No one could remember the last time it had rained, not even the elders; plant life had turned brown and desiccated in the absence of water, disappearing like the animals.

Her destination rose ahead of her. It was a larger building than most in the area, originally three stories tall. One entire wall had fallen over in the tremor that rolled through the land the day before.

After a collapse was the worst time to be out scavenging. The dangers from old structures were multiplied after one toppled; the ground grows unsteady around them, so the ones nearby are liable to let go and fall, too. The mortar between blocks is dry, the ruined buildings unstable.

Their original purposes have been lost, but their current usefulness sometimes surprises the survivors who venture from their underground settlement to scavenge. While most such buildings, like the one Ash sought, had long been emptied of any water or food, they sometimes yielded tools or pieces of clothing or other prizes that made exploring them worth the danger. Especially after a collapse, which often uncovered treasures previously hidden to the Vengers who searched.

Ash is a Venger. When Vengers found objects that might be of use, they would bring them back to the settlement. If they found potential food sources, they were to return and inform their work unit’s leader, who would let the Vesters know. They, in turn, would go out and harvest the food. The practice had developed to ensure their survival, and so far it was working, if barely; Ash’s settlement was on the verge of starvation.

Slowly the food sources have been dwindling. As they did, so too did the tribe. The Vengers had to travel further and further from their underground settlement to find food, and sometimes they returned empty-handed and sometimes they did not return at all.

Ash paused when she was about a half-click away from the structure she sought. She scanned the sight through the dark glass of her helmet. Then, stepping carefully while still some distance away, she circled the ruin once, twice, three times, all the while keeping watch for anything moving in the wreckage. It wouldn’t take much to overwhelm her; one raggedman alone could do it if he caught her by surprise.

On her third circuit around the building, a sound reached her, penetrating her helmet. It was high and keening. Though she had not heard a baby cry in years, this brought back the sound of an infant’s mewl. Of course that would be impossible; few children have been born in the recent past. And no child would have survived for long in the outside.

She stopped, knelt low, and listened. The crying ceased, but then she heard what she thought was pounding. She raised the faceplate of her helmet, aware as she did that she was allowing the deadly radiation inside the metal. But she needed to find out what the sound was.

She lifted her head, with the helmet guard ajar so she could see into the shadows that surrounded the building. She listened but heard no more wailing.

Then she heard a scratching and scrambling in the rubble. She stood perfectly still, aware that she was unprotected outside the ruins of the building.

And that this might be a trap.

Then she looked up and saw the figure with the long gun in the empty window frame.

###

Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End, by Andrew Charles Lark, Donald Levin, and Wendy Sura Thomson, is available in paperback and Kindle from Amazon.com and on order from your local bookstore.