Three Favors

I’ve been reading a lot of online postings lately about people dealing with their grief over loved ones—brothers, sons, parents, spouses—who have died. I suppose I’m sensitive to the subject at this time because the anniversary of the death of one of my loved ones, my grandson Jamie (the model for Toby in my mystery series), came around a week and a half ago.

Jamie was twenty-five when he died, and we all loved him dearly; his brother Alex used to say Jamie was the glue that held the family together. He was in a year-long vegetative state that preceded his death, and that somewhat prepared us for losing him. But we still weren’t ready for the 2:30 a.m. phone call from his mom telling us he was gone.

Who is ever prepared for that call?

Even now, eight years on, his loss is still hard to manage. I find myself talking to him almost every day, narrating my life, telling him how much I miss him. When I find feathers on my walks, I like to think Jamie left them as reminders that he is still around in some form.

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Wishful thinking, I know; dead is dead.

So when I’ve been reading about how people are trying to come to terms with their grief over loved ones who have died, I empathize with their losses deeply.

But there’s another kind of grief—the grief that comes in the wake of losing someone you should have been close to, but weren’t. Sometimes what you grieve for then is not the loss of the person from your life, but the loss of the possibility that any closeness could ever happen.

While that could describe my entire family of origin, I think of it particularly in terms of my brother Cal.

His name was Charles, but everybody called him Cal because of his initials: Charles Allan Levin. He died in 1984; he was only 41 years old. He was older than I by six years, and for a variety of reasons we weren’t close as brothers. Or even as strangers, for that matter.

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My brother, 1960

Not only were we completely different personalities. Much of the problem in our adult years came from his long-term drug use, which wreaked a seemingly endless havoc on the family, as these things will do.

It’s conventional to say people died after a “long battle” with drug abuse, but that’s not quite true in his case. He didn’t so much fight against the drugs as embrace them like a lover. Yet even as I write it, I know that’s not exactly accurate either.

He died in a YMCA in Honolulu after failing to complete a lavish drug-treatment program in Hawaii that he conned my father into paying for. My father told everyone (including me) that Cal died from emphysema, but on the death certificate I saw the actual cause of death was amphetamine poisoning.

The only surprise was that his usual drugs of choice were barbiturates and pain-killers.

My last contact with him was several years before he died, when he called to ask me for money because our father (his usual touch) was out of town. I refused, and he hung up on me.

As you might expect, my anger at him and what he did to the family was profound and corrosive. It lasted for a long time, both before and after his death. He sucked up all the oxygen in the family for years; he and my parents formed a demented triad of mutually-assured destruction that left me on the outside looking in on my own family.

As I grew older, however, and gained some distance on it all, and began to deal with my own issues created by our family which was, if not broken, then really really bent, my attitude toward my brother began to change.

I started to get some insight into why he turned to drugs, and why he had such a hard time giving them up, or even admitting he couldn’t live without them. I started to see that, far from being the reason for the upset in the family, his drug use was a reaction to existing family problems, which of course only worsened because of his addiction.

I came to realize that the pain affecting me from my family pre-dated his antics, and also affected him. I understood we each tried to deal with that pain in different—albeit equally ineffective—ways.

When I started writing poetry, I found myself writing some about my brother. One in particular helped me come to a sort of accomodation, if not forgiveness, with him, in part through a recognition finally of both what he had lost and of the similarities between us. I think this poem captures those insights.

A version of this poem appeared in the April 2004 issue of Saucyvox.

Three Favors

1

It is 1966 and I’m struggling

to figure out the chords for “Desolation Row”

needle-dropping on my turntable

when my brother calls from next door where

he and the neighbor are watching a movie

and the 16mm projector jammed.

“Can you try to get it going?”

A simple problem to diagnose:

the worn sprockets on the well-watched film

have twisted over one of the feeders.

 

The curl in the plastic needs to be freed

and the film rethreaded. I start

the old machine and in the square of light

thrown on the screen in the neighbor’s bedroom

appear grainy black and white images

of a truly epic blow job

in extreme close-up, a woman’s lips

and sinuous tongue slaver up and down

a monster phallus glistening with spit

for longer than I would have thought possible.

 

My first stag flick makes me gape in wonder

at the animal rawness of it

as though it is a documentary

about an encounter between two apes

and the camera morbidly scientific

instead of pornographic—exactly

the opposite of erotic, with

a sound track filled with soggy sucking

and a man’s hammy moaning

tinny on the project’s tiny speaker.

 

When another actor enters the scene

and begins to take his own clothes off

I judge I have seen enough and leave them

to their whoops and fun. “The world’s longest

blow job,” the neighbor chortles. I return

to the silence of my own room

where I take up my guitar again

and rest an ear on the curve of its shoulder

to let the hard vibrating wood

ring the bones of my head like a bell.

 

2

The second time, 1971,

we stay in the Southfield apartment

where our parents moved when they fled Detroit.

My brother needs a ride to a job

to meet a friend, this contractor,

he tells me, and he can’t drive himself

since he wrapped his Mustang around a tree.

I am in another room, this time reading

(I’m in my hard-boiled mystery phase)

when his spare and stricken figure heaves

 

into the doorway. “Can you give me a ride?”

he asks, his scarred right arm hanging limp

at his side, casualty of a scalding bathtub

he had fallen into once while stoned.

This is the time when he makes phone calls

day and night cadging prescriptions for pills

from shady physicians. He tells them

he is a cancer patient from out of town

grappling with terrible pain. He makes

his voice quake in pretend agony.

 

He directs me to a cracked and potholed street

on the east side of Detroit where we roll

to a stop outside a house with black paint

hiding living room windows and high grass

gone to seed in the lawn. He steps from the car

uncertainly and hobbles stiff-legged

up the walk. Rings the doorbell and waits.

It occurs to me this is not about a job.

No light escapes from the front door

that cracks to allow him entrance.

 

A minute later he is out, walking fast.

“We’re done,” he says, and drops into the car.

“Take off.” I smell his sour sweat and his voice shakes,

this time for real. In his lap he cups

something small, like an animal he shelters

and gives me a sidelong glance that says more

than I want to know about fear and shame.

For the rest of the day he wanders around

the apartment with a spoon in his pocket

and I stay in my room and read about Sam Spade.

 

3

‘Seventy-seven, in another room,

grading essays for my classes at Wayne State

when my brother phones, which he never does.

Our father is away for the weekend. “Can I borrow

fifty bucks?” he asks. “I swear I’ll pay you back.”

I don’t even remember why he said

he wanted the cash, but I thought I knew.

He must have been desperate indeed

to try me. But I am through granting favors.

I blame him for every unhappiness

 

visited on our family, for all the problems of my own.

“Don’t lay that on me,” he spits, and hangs up.

It is the last time I speak with my brother.

Years later he is dead, found in a room

at the Y in downtown Honolulu.

Today, older than he would live to be

I imagine bars of tropical sunlight

peeking through his window blinds, striping

his decomposing body, his mouth twisted

in lines deep as cracks in asphalt, hair wild

 

as stalks of unmown grass as he sprawls,

melting after seven undiscovered days,

across his narrow bed, forlorn as a poor woodsman

in a dismal tale who has squandered his three wishes

and died alone, without family, friends, job,

or money, having lost, along with his

precious time in the sun, his last lucky chance

that some indifferent lips might try,

tirelessly, to coax him, childless and self-

abandoned, back into despondent life.

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Ethics and Killer Copters

In 1985, in the midst of a worklife marked by almost constant professional reinvention, I found myself sitting around a table at an IBM facility near Binghamton, NY, having one of those “What Am I Doing Here?” moments.

I was sitting with two guys from the local branch of IBM’s Federal Systems Division. Their division, as the name suggests, undertook a variety of contracts and projects for the government.

We were talking about a project they wanted me to do. I was then a free-lance writer specializing in, well, anything anybody wanted to hire me for. At the time, I found myself writing a lot of scripts for training and promotional videos, and they wanted me to write one of those.

The project was titled, “The LAMPS MK II Radar Data Processor:  Flight Test Report.”

Briefly, the LAMPS MK II Radar Data Processor was a complicated system of electronics to improve the reliability and effectiveness of radar, data-linking, and other key operations of helicopters.

Despite the bland title, the project wasn’t just a report on the system’s flight test. The real purpose was a script for a training and sales video for the new helicopter system. The script had to sell the system, which meant I had to buy into its value, at least for the duration of the project.

The thing was, this wasn’t just for any kind of helicopters. It was for what are called “destroyer helicopters.”

And as that name suggests, these were weapons of war. Helicopters that blow stuff up and kill people.

This was a few years after the Falkland Islands War (look that up if you never heard of it), and as the two guys from IBM were giving me information I needed to write the script, they were getting more and more excited about the capabilities of their product. In fact, it wasn’t long before they were literally whooping and hollering and flying their hands like helicopters over the table and bouncing up and down in their chairs talking about how GREAT this system was at killing things, and what the Brits could’ve done if they’d had these little babies in the Falklands.

Seriously, it was like something out of “Alice’s Restaurant.”

So here’s the scene: me—a young writer, pacifist, Viet Nam war protester, what my first roommate in college (an engineer) disparaged as an “arty type”—sitting in the room with two suits who were acting like they were crazy.

So what was I doing there, you may ask?

As I said, I was then a free-lance writer. When you’re a free-lancer, you wake up every day and you’re basically unemployed, which means you have to scrounge for work constantly. And therefore, like most free-lancers, I was mostly broke. The IBM job wouldn’t make me rich, but it would help to stabilize my bank account until something else came along.

And anyway, I told myself, it was just a job; my real writing, the writing that mattered, was the fiction I was learning how to write.

I was reminded of this the other day when I saw a quote from Tony Schwartz, the ghost writer of The Art of the Deal, arguably (along with his reality tv show) the thing most responsible for creating the pernicious myth of Donald Trump as a successful businessman.

“Trump is the most purely evil human being I’ve ever met,” Schwartz said.

My first thought was, “And thanks for doing your bit to help him con the country, Tony.”

But then I thought, even if he knew how awful Trump was, Schwartz probably had no idea somebody like Trump could ever become president, and anyway he was doing exactly what I did when I took on a job writing about destroyer helicopters: doing what you have to to get by.

I don’t know how Schwartz felt about his project, but I felt terrible about mine. I knew it was wrong, and I had tried to persuade myself that my financial situation would somehow excuse it.

Except it didn’t.

I wasn’t the same afterwards. I learned, in a way I had known really only theoretically before, that there is no such thing as an ethically neutral action. In particular, for writers, there is no such thing as ethically neutral writing. It all has consequences for which we are responsible, no matter what kind of writing we do.

I have left that life behind, but I’m still writing, and I’m writing in an area that is fraught with ethical conflicts. I’m a mystery writer: I write about crime; I write about violence and its effects. I write about things that bad people do.

In my Martin Preuss mystery series, I’m constantly dealing with the question: Is it possible to portray unethical actions ethically? Don Winslow puts it another way: “Is it possible to live decently in an indecent world?”

I can’t say I’m doing it well, but I think the answer to both questions is yes. The key for me is to write with a consciousness about about how I portray violence, which is a tremendous social problem—not only violence in action, but in language and thought as well.

Those of us who work in a genre that is so associated with violence have a special duty to treat it responsibly, to treat it, that is, ethically.

This means not only not glorifying it, but showing the truly awful cascading consequences of violence on everyone associated with it, perpetrators and victims and bystanders. And, in my case, to make sure the books present a clear ethical alternative to the unethical actions that flood my fictional world.

As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, at this particularly dreadful moment in history, we need a literature that allows us to enter imaginatively and empathetically—and ethically—into the experience of others, individuals as well as the group, and be transformed. We need a literature that expands, not contracts, our sympathies.

I try to do that in my mysteries. The books go beyond simply offering readers a tricky puzzle to pass the time with, and instead help them to enter the minds and hearts of my characters, and see and understand the world through those eyes, too.

For those of you who know my work, you might also recognize that Toby, my main character’s profoundly handicapped son, is (among all the other purposes he serves in the series) an important ethical touchstone for his father. And, I hope, for my readers.

A few years ago I was at a writers’ conference and we were talking about killing off characters. I made some remarks about the rather cavalier way people were talking about doing away with their characters, and one of the other writers called me “the moral compass” for the group.

She was kidding, but I loved that. I welcomed it, in fact. My moral compass might not have started forming with those two guys jumping up and down about the joys of killing helicopters, but that day certainly got me headed in the right direction.

Coming in November: A new dystopian anthology

I’m pleased to announce that I’m joining two distinguished local authors to celebrate the release of our first collaborative project at a book launch party at the historic Arden Park Kresge Mansion in Detroit on Saturday, November 2, 2019, from 1 till 4 p.m.

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Andrew Charles Lark, Wendy Thomson, and I have been working hard on the anthology of original dystopian novellas. Titled Postcards from the Future: A Triptych on Humanity’s End (Quitt and Quinn Publishers/Whistlebox Press), it’s currently in the final stages of production.

At the launch, we’ll read from our sections in the book and sign copies, which will be available for purchase.

The original idea for the book was Andrew’s, and when he invited Wendy and me into the project, we both said yes immediately.

Andrew is the author of Better Boxed and Forgotten, a supernatural thriller set in Detroit’s Indian Village. Wendy is the author of Summon the Tiger, a memoir, and The Third Order, an international tale of suspense.

My previous works include the six novels in the Martin Preuss mystery series (Crimes of Love, The Baker’s Men, Guilt in Hiding, The Forgotten Child, An Uncertain Accomplice, and Cold Dark Lies); two books of poetry, In Praise of Old Photographs and New Year’s Tangerine; and a mainstream novel, The House of Grins.

The three pieces in Postcards from the Future are thoughtful and engaging short novels that embrace the precepts of the dystopian—a subject much in the news lately owing to the recent publication of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Testaments, her sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.

Each of the works in Postcards from the Future offers a dark and imaginative take on the end of humanity:

Andrew’s “Pollen” is a riveting multiple point-of-view account of a strange atmospheric phenomenon that destroys humankind’s ability to reproduce, ushering in the extinction of our species.

Wendy’s “Silo Six” is a suspenseful story of love and survival set far into the future when the sun begins its transformation into a red giant and scorchesthe earth into a virtually uninhabitable cinder.

My “The Bright and Darkened Lands of the Earth” is a gripping tale set in a desperate, post-apocalyptic future where a heroic woman battles ecological and social collapse in an effort to save her tribe—and humanity—from certain annihilation.

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The Arden Park Kresge Mansion is located at 74 Arden Park Boulevard in Detroit. The launch celebration will be quite an event; in addition to our readings, it will feature live music and refreshments along with an open house at the historic mansion. The event is free and open to the public, though a small donation to support Detroit Cristo Rey High School is suggested.

Space is limited, so if you’re interested in attending the launch, please RSVP through the Contact tab at Andrew’s page, www.alarksperch.com.

If you can’t get there, our book will be available in November through Amazon in print and ebook formats, and on order from bookstores.

For me, writing my section was great fun and a wonderful change of pace from my mystery series. I’ve already started to work on a spin-off from my novella, and I’m looking into an entire cycle of works based on what I’m calling the Dry Earth Series. Watch for more information as this develops!

What I Learned from Reading Walter Mosley

Before retiring, I taught at a college in Detroit where the big event of the year was a Contemporary American Authors Lecture Series held each spring. This series brought in a guest African American writer each year to give a free public reading and hold a master class with our own and area high school students.

For nine years, I was chair of the English Department that hosted the event. That meant I was the emcee for the evening; my job was to preside over the gathering and, if necessary, introduce the writer.

One of the guest authors I introduced was Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins and Leonid McGill mystery series, among many other books.

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Rarely had past writers (mostly literary novelists and poets) prompted the kind of passionate public excitement that Mosley did. For months leading up to the reading, phone calls flooded the department from the public as their anticipation mounted.

Among the callers were people wanting not only the usual information—time, place, and so on—but wanting also something more, wanting, if not needing, to talk about Mosley’s works . . . callers who were simply bursting to talk about their favorite characters with the stranger on the other end of the line; callers wanting to know which were my favorite books, and who I liked better, Easy Rawlins or Leonid McGill; callers wanting to know what did I think of that hussy Katrina and why would Leonid ever want to stay with her?

Clearly, his readership idolized him.

To prepare my introduction of him, I gave myself a crash course in Mosley’s works, reading deeply and broadly in all the series as well as the stand-alone books that he had published as of that point.

As a crime writer myself, I read with a double vision: looking for not only what I could use in my introduction of him, but also what I could learn from him for my own writing.

At the end of my reading project, I found much to learn, both in terms of what to do and what to avoid as an author.

I have to say that many aspects of his writing turned me off; the cliched uses of violence and sex, for example, as well as the (to me) annoying similarity of plots and situations from book to book, as when his main characters stop what they’re doing to explain where their next bit of wisdom came from.

Even so, Mosley’s good at what he does, and it was useful for me to understand why and how.

I came to see that Mosley’s work grabs his readers for many reasons. He pulls some in because of the powerhouse prose, the clarity and precision of his eye, the dialogue that crackles with authenticity. Others read him for his way with a story, for plots that hook readers from the first line and don’t let loose till the final page.

Still others loved seeing his strong black characters, male and female, negotiating their way through a complex and often dangerous world. His main characters—Easy, Socrates, Fearless, Leonid, and others—are so engaging because how they work the borderlands between communities serves as a metaphor for the complexities of race in America.

Still others loved the way the quests in his works are always, ultimately, about redemption.

Beyond that, what I learned as a writer had to do with technique: how to set up characters that are vivid and relatable, how to manage multiple plot lines, and how to move the story along quickly and effectively.

One of the things that struck me most about the phone calls that came in while we were preparing for his visit was the almost fanatical devotion his readers have to his characters. Mosley has an incredibly deft touch in populating his fiction with people whom his readers recognize from their own lives, and who fairly leap off the page.

He lets his characters—especially including his first-person narrators—talk in voices that are recognizable and real, and he paints thumbnail portraits of how they look and act, down to the nuanced shades of his characters’ skin tones, in ways that resonate strongly with his readership. He knows his audience and writes to them.

He also adroitly handles three, four, and five interrelated plot lines at a time. My metaphor for what he does is weaving different threads through the fabric of the books. For example, in his Leonid McGill series, main character McGill routinely has to negotiate his family dramas with his wife and children, his love life with his girlfriend, his two or three current cases, and the ever-present past that he struggles in vain to outrun and outfox.

Mosley’s books are busy without seeming overcrowded. I think that, too, partly contributes to the reality of his characters: life is like that.

Finally, for me his work is a master class in how to move those different plot threads along quickly, including the importance of starting scenes at the optimum moment, shaping them for maximum impact, and ending them with enough suspense to get the reader to turn the page; jumping into a chapter or section using a judicious exchange of dialogue or action; and using the transitions of getting the main character from one place to another efficiently.

As I sit down to write the mysteries in my Martin Preuss series, I find myself putting these lessons into practice time and again. It’s another reminder of how much we can glean from critically reading authors who are at the top of their craft.

Are there lessons you’ve learned from your favorite authors? I’d be interested in hearing about them.

Brutal Reviews of Classic Books

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

While generally things work out for the best, occasionally we do get a review that shows a reader was, shall we say, singularly unimpressed with our creative initiatives. The blogs are filled with advice on how to deal with bad reviews . . . some say don’t read them, some say read but disregard them, some say imagine the reviewers in their underwear, and so. My own way of dealing with the problem is to remind myself that even the best got lousy reviews, and it didn’t stop them.

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Emma Palova

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

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

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

DL: Could you tell us a little about yourself?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the links to my books in all formats:

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

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

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

Promoting Depth in Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On top of this overlay, add:

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

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

Finally, on top of these, overlay:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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