Indie Thursday

Today’s guest: Joan H. Young

Joan Young

Periodically 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. Their writing is first-rate, and they’ll take you places you’ve never been before.

Today’s featured guest is Joan H. Young. Joan is the prolific author of essays, nonfiction, and fiction. Her works include the award-winning North Country Cache: Adventures on a National Scenic Trail; the six-book Anastasia Raven cozy mystery series: News from Dead Mule Swamp, The Hollow Tree at Dead Mule Swamp, Paddy Plays in Dead Mule Swamp, Bury the Hatchet in Dead Mule Swamp, Dead Mule Swamp Druggist, and Dead Mule Swamp Mistletoe; and the four-volume Dubois Files series, a series of mysteries for readers aged 6 to 12 years, including The Secret Cellar, The Hitchhiker, The ABZ Affair, and The Bigg Boss.

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

DL: Joan, welcome. Could you tell us a little about yourself?

JHY: I grew up in the Finger Lakes of New York State, but have now lived in Michigan for almost fifty years. I love the outdoors, and have had the privilege of participating in a number of adventures. Some of the highlights are a 10-day canoe trip in high school with the Girl Scouts, riding a bicycle from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean in 1986, and being the first woman to complete hiking the entire 4600-mile North Country National Scenic Trail on foot.

As a result of that hike, I wrote a book about my experiences called North Country Cache. A few years later, I decided I wanted to write fiction and began the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries. There are now six stories in that series, and a mystery series for children spun off from that. This currently includes four books known collectively as The Dubois Files. These books are suitable for grades 3-6, and good readers who are younger.  

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

JHY: North Country Cache was published in 2005, before I finished hiking the North Country Trail. It includes tales from about half the hike. I’m working on the sequel, North Country Quest, which will tell the rest of the story. It will be available this year. (Pre-order discounts available.) 

The general idea for my mysteries was born from a desire to write fiction. I read more mystery/true crime books than any other genre. I read mysteries of all styles from hard-boiled thrillers to light reads, but decided that the style I would be able to write best is the cozy. In these books the violence and sex are kept “off-stage.” The main character is often a woman, and the setting is often a small town. 

Unless you plan to do a significant amount of research, it’s good to write what you know. I know small towns and rural settings. I’ve lived in places like this all my life, and felt I could capture the atmosphere and worldviews of people who live in such places. 

CoverMistletoeEbookMy most recently published book is the sixth Anastasia Raven mystery, Dead Mule Swamp Mistletoe.  This book is an attempt to capture the classic British sub-genre of the closed-suspect-pool mystery. It is certainly a cozy, but will appeal to those who like traditional mysteries. 

The idea for this book came directly from a challenge thrown down in a work about British country-house murder mysteries, in which the author states that there is no successful American counterpart. I’ve managed to incorporate thirteen out of fourteen points that author considered essential. The only one I missed is that it takes place in the mythical Forest County, somewhere in the upper Midwest of the United States, rather than in England. Readers will have to decide if I succeeded in meeting the standard.

The children’s mysteries happened because I was continually being asked if I had books for younger readers. One day, I realized that there was a perfect backstory in the Anastasia Raven mysteries to spin off a series told by Cora, one of Ana’s friends. 

Thus, The Dubois Files are set in the 1950s, in the same location as the Anastasia Raven books. So far, the only character that appears in both series is Cora Dubois Baker Caulfield. However, the grandfather of young Jimmie Mosher, also named Jimmie, is Cora’s best friend as a child.

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

JHY: When I write non-fiction, I sincerely hope to prod readers to see something in a slightly different way, to gain a new perspective on whatever the topic is.

In fiction, I primarily want to entertain. But I try to create a realistic enough setting and story that people can visualize the story without too big a stretch of the imagination. There is humor in my books, but it is subtle.

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

JHY: Well, the process in fiction is, for me, much different from non-fiction. 

For non-fiction, I need to have a pretty solid outline. Books about my hikes need to conform to notes made and journals recorded, maps, guides, and other historical/cultural information. This is a long process to collect and assimilate that information before I write each chapter. Once I have the basics of each segment in my head, then the writing is easy.

With fiction, I try to have a general sense of the plot, the characters and their interactions laid out before I begin. But since it’s all made up, if something seems to move in a different direction part way through, I can change it. In one book, the guilty person changed quite late in the writing process.

I spend a lot of time crafting things in my head for fiction. I’ve been experimenting with recording with speech to text to get the ideas down. Thinking up the stories and the characters is probably the part I like best. Starting and ending the book is also fun— sometimes I think up a couple of alternate endings in case the characters develop minds of their own. The hardest part seems to be from about two-thirds of the way in till the ending begins to play out. Sometimes my great ideas leave gaps of how we get from point B to C, and then I must work hard to make the connections and present them credibly to readers.

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

JHY: I have been writing since I was a child. But I’ve also been doing a score of other things. Lack of focus has always been my nemesis. However, once I began writing the mysteries (I now have over a dozen titles altogether), I decided to try to concentrate on being a writer. A year ago, I quit my job to write and sell books (I’m self-published, so marketing is a big piece of what I do). In some ways, this is nothing like retirement—it’s a big job to bring books to completion and to constantly be trying to make sales. However, I do get to do most of this on my own terms and in my own time frames. Since I like being my own boss and having creative control over my works, this has been a good move for me. 

It’s been rewarding to be recognized as an author. I no longer feel sort of red-faced about attempting to be a writer—isn’t everyone trying to write a book? I AM a writer, and have received several awards for books and articles. One always needs to perfect the skills given, and I’m constantly working at this, but the awards give me a real sense of credibility.

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

JHY: My website is www.booksleavingfootprints.com

I have a personal blog at www.myqualityday.blogspot.com

Writing blog at joanofshark.com

Readers can connect with me on Facebook as Joan H. Young.

 

Imagining the End of the World: A Selection 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.

This particular group of students 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.

 

 

On sonnet chains, mercy, and wisdom

In one of my former lives, I was professor of English and, toward the end of my career, dean of the faculty, at Marygrove College in Detroit. In 2012, a few years before I retired, I was invited to be a speaker at the baccalaureate ceremony for the graduating seniors—a kind of run-up to the Commencement Exercises that would happen in another few days. 

The catch was, my invitation was specific: my contribution would be to offer a reflection on a reading from the Gospel of Luke, which was to be the evening’s reading at the Catholic college’s mass for the graduates.

At first I thought it was a prank. My friends who had invited me couldn’t have picked a more inappropriate faculty member for the job. What could I—non-Christian, confirmed atheist, stubborn pusher-against of the institution’s core (and often more honored in the breach than the observance) religious values—possibly have to say about the Gospel of Luke?

When I realized my friends were serious, I started to take the request more seriously. The more I thought about it—and read and thought about the section of Luke that formed the evening’s reading—the more I warmed to the idea. 

I decided to accept the invitation. I thought it might be a way to invite the students to take a brief look backward at their education, and forward to the rest of their lives. My challenge would be to walk the line between meditating on the spirit of the Gospel to an audience of true believers without violating my personal beliefs—or more properly, lack of beliefs. 

In one of those creative decisions that seemed to come from nowhere, I crafted my reflection in the form of a sonnet chain (a collection of sonnets where the last line of one poem becomes the first line of the next). Today I’m not sure why I picked that form; I’m not even sure I could have said then. Maybe I thought it would be best to write an extended meditative poem in short hops.  

I was reminded of the project when a good friend reminded me last week that the school’s 2019 Commencement had just taken place. I don’t do much with poetry anymore, but I thought posting the poems along with this introduction as this week’s blog would make an interesting entry. And maybe it would help get me back to thinking about poetry again.

Either way, it’s a look into a part of my writing background that was important at one time. Hope you enjoy it.

BTW, please check back this Thursday May 23rd, when I’ll host an interview with Joan H. Young, award-winning Michigan author of the essay collection North Country Cache and two mystery series, the Anastasia Raven cozy mysteries and a series for children.

The Day is Fulfilled: A Meditation on Luke
Dedicated to the 2012 graduating class at Marygrove College, Detroit

Outside the open window
The morning air is all awash with angels.
—Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls us to the Things of This World”

1
On the pavement by the side of the road
a man walks—no, not walks: staggers, stumbles,
does a slack jitter step down the sidewalk,
hops about to preserve his feet beneath him
(assuming there are feet somewhere inside
those laceless tatters that once were spanky brogans)
as rush-hour traffic thickens, occludes
near the corner of 8 Mile and Woodward
on an overcast weekday in May, warm,
windy, threatening rain, the sun a distant hint
behind a scrim of clouds, a promise, really, or
reminder. And as you idle at the stoplight
on your way to somewhere, late, your mind absent,
you see him halt, stand, and fix you in his gaze.

2
He halts, stands, and fixes you in his gaze
if gaze there is in eyes that squint, almost closed,
through the soupy blue haze of exhaust, seasoned
with the sweet scent of gasoline; he could be
blind for all you know, looking not at you
but in your direction, puffy-eyed, bruised,
his head a mass of greasy hair and tangled beard,
lanky frame monkish in a hooded coat
stiff with dirt and britches of a startling
cranberry hue, his shape narrow as a nail;
and don’t think I mistake this ragged man in such an
altered mental state for Jesus, though you may,
but I wouldn’t advise it because now
he’s fastened upon you, and here it comes—

3
He’s fastened upon you and here it comes—
“Yo, chief! Got something for me today?”
At least that’s what you think he says, words gleaned
from the sustained confusion of traffic,
the hiss of tires, the shriek of faulty brakes
behind you, as if you’ve often seen him
before, and maybe you have, and you think
about how much there is in this world,
and how little; how close we are, and how
impossibly far apart. And you think
you hear music, floating in the air, remote,
the roar of city buses, the thunder of trucks
unable to veil the strains of a tune
you can’t quite catch but you’re sure it’s there.

4
You can’t quite catch it but you’re sure it’s there—
and “Yo, chief!” he says again, and this time
you hear him plainly, this cumbersome twitchy
bird-man. And you start to believe that you do
have something for him: because all at once
you recognize that face, that snarled beard, that
in-your-face query; and you intuit
the heartbreak that brought him to this corner;
the despair that keeps him reeling down the sidewalk;
whatever illness it was that stripped the flesh
so fully from his spare lurching frame. Luke,
evangelist, patron saint of healers,
artists, students, tell us how we know him,
teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.

5
Teach us what we owe him, this austere outcast.
Teach us how we know, what we owe each other.
Move the spirit upon us, finally, that
makes us love the least and most among us.
For we must love, we know this in our hearts.
Such is, surely, the central lesson mastered
from your rigorous years of study, which
we assemble here to celebrate today,
paused not at the end of your education,
but its beginning; for now are you primed
to learn to love the world in earnest, and spread
a gospel of your own of mercy and wisdom,
hope and liberation, your truths suffused with
that music whose soft melodies you hear.

6
That music whose soft melodies you hear—
gentle, distant, undulating on the wind—
now swells, crescendos. Listen: It is the air filled
with the rustling wings of angels wheeling
overhead in the dusk; it is the murmur
of departed spirits who swim through the sky
as they watch over us. It is the inspiration
which some call god, or Christ, or whatever
immense mystery we feel that impels us
past the insufficient sight lines of our world.
It is the bright summons of the sparrow
calling us to fulfill our days’ enduring duty
to bless the sacred weighty world beyond
the pavement by the side of the road.

copyright 2012 by Donald Levin

Launching the Newest Martin Preuss Mystery

 

On Saturday, May 11th, 2019, I held the release party to celebrate the publication of Cold Dark Lies, the sixth volume in my Martin Preuss Mystery series. 

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Photo credit: Lisa Allen

Close to forty people came to join me at the Color & Ink Studio in Hazel Park on the cool spring day. I was delighted to see so many friends I’ve known for years (in one case going all the way back to Bagley Elementary School in the 1950s), friends I’ve met as recently as last week, and family members from around the metropolitan area and as far away as Buffalo, New York, and Dripping Springs, Texas!

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Photo credit: Color & Ink Studio

My heartfelt thanks to all who were able to come, and all who might not have been able to make it but were there in spirit. Your support means more to me than you can know.

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Photo credit: Diana Kathryn Plopa

It was a very casual, comfortable afternoon, and my guests and I enjoyed ourselves. I talked about the new book, had a great conversation with the audience about the series (particularly everybody’s favorite character, Toby Preuss), read a few passages, and then, after a short break, played a trio of songs that are either referenced in the books or are similar to songs that the main characters might listen to or, in the case of musician Martin Preuss, might play on his guitar. 

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Photo credit: Lisa Allen

I played guitar and banjo and accompanied my good friend and partner in crime, Tom Galasso, on guitar and vocals.

Tom is himself the author of a wonderful novel, When the Swan Sings on Hastings Street, and as I mentioned at the event, I stole the idea to play live music directly from Tom’s own reading at the Hamtramck library. He joined me to perform last year at the launch party for An Uncertain Accomplice, and we had a terrific time preparing for this one and performing for the crowd on Saturday.

In addition to books and music, there was an excellent spread of food thanks to Suzanne Allen and an art exhibit in the next room (encaustic works from Melissa Rian). A million thanks go to Candace and Eric Law, proprietors of the Color & Ink Studio, for their generosity in allowing me to host my launch party there, and their gracious help in making the day a success.

And it was a great success. Books, music, food, art, good friends—all in all, a perfect day!

Please enjoy these photos of the event. I’ll be adding more photos as they become available.

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Photos credit: Dave Plopa

 

 

Why Mysteries?

When I meet people at book events and give them my elevator speech (“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 people have of an English professor who wants to write the literary Great American Novel.

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 an energy and 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 a version of the truth, because the real story is a bit more complicated.

thumbprint.gifWhen 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, Saul Bellow and John Updike and Vladimir Nabokov, among others. I wanted to write like they did, serious, important works.

I had wanted to be a writer since I was a little boy, and prepared for that life with the usual English degree. Once I graduated college, however, I found myself at complete loose ends. With little usable life experience to write about and almost no concrete plans for the future, I was temporarily stymied.

Added to which, my older brother was having drug problems that were worsening by the day, which caused nonstop chaos in the 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 was no longer 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 original 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.

IMG_0354.JPGWhen I came across the works of two Swedish 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 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.)

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.

At this particularly dreadful moment in history, when corruption seems widespread across our society, most especially at the highest levels of government, we need that kind 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 another character and see the world through those eyes, and help others understand that character’s world.

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 Toby Preuss Mystery Series

Wait, what?

I can almost hear you saying, “I thought it was the MARTIN Preuss mystery series. What gives?”

It’s true, I’ve published six books in what I’ve called the Martin Preuss mystery series, featuring Martin Preuss as the main character. But an important part of his life—indeed, the most important part—is his son Toby.

Toby is his father’s remaining family member, for reasons I won’t go into here (no spoilers!). Toby is profoundly handicapped, born with cerebral palsy and a list of disabilities that fill a whole page of his yearly IEP (Individualized Education Program), including cognitive disabilities, seizures, visual impairment, scoliosis, and paraplegia. 

Though the teen-aged Toby lives in a group home because Preuss can’t take care of all his son’s needs, Preuss loves his son fiercely. They spend as much time together as possible, doing things Preuss knows his son enjoys— going to parties, to the movies, on walks, to the library, and so on.

I tried to make Toby a fully-formed fictional character, with wants and needs that he tries in his own way to make known. He likes to stay up late, he loves music, he relishes social occasions, he doesn’t like to have his face touched or wear hats, and he has infinite patience with the people who care for him.

Some people come away from the books loving Toby as much as his father does. But other readers—not expecting a mystery to be so, well, character-driven—are singularly unimpressed; one reviewer sniffed that there were “too many other characters” impacting the main character’s life and detracting from the story.

Since my first priority as a writer is telling a good story, why do these books spend so much time on Toby? 

Let me list several reasons why. 

First, as a long-time fan of mysteries and crime fiction, as well as what we think of as “literary fiction,” I have rarely seen an accurate, sympathetic portrait of a young man like Toby. I know of only one: the character Lydia in Jennifer Egan’s recent Manhattan Beach, but even that isn’t a mystery. 

This population has been invisible in both popular and literary fiction, as they have long been invisible in the broader society. I wanted to do something to change that.

So I started out having determined that I would include Toby, and I’d make him a rounded, well-developed character. He might have serious cognitive and physical limitations, but he loves his life, loves his father, appreciates his caregivers, and plays an important part in the plots of the books. 

I thought giving him a son like Toby would also deepen and humanize Preuss himself, and thereby give the books an emotional richness they might not otherwise have.

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Jamie Kril, the model for Toby Preuss

Second, Toby is a lovingly drawn portrait of my grandson Jamie, who is no longer with us; he died after I finished the first book but just before it was published. Writing about Toby helps keep Jamie alive. By remembering how he looked and sounded and acted, and endowing a fictional character with all his qualities, I can conjure up the sweet, loving child and keep him close to our hearts for a while longer.

Third, these books allow me to show readers what it means to parent children like Toby. Readers have told me how illuminating it was to discover what’s really involved in being the parent of a child with disabilities . . . the joys, the sorrows, the concerns, and most especially the immense satisfactions.

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

I also wanted to help readers understand what’s involved in Toby’s care, and by extension the care of all of the children who receive it with such strength and dedication by their teachers, aides, nurses, physicians, respiratory and occupational therapists, and the entire village of professionals who work together in this amazing effort. 

And finally, I wanted to show one of the most important lessons Martin Preuss learns from his son, which is also perhaps the hardest for any parent to learn, but particularly parents and caregivers of children as vulnerable as Toby: that he deserves to live his own life. 

At the end of the third book, Guilt in Hiding, Preuss takes Toby for a walk along Birmingham’s Quarton Lake, narrating for his son the variety of life that Toby is not able to see with his visual limitations: dragonflies darting around them, sparrows flying among the vegetation by the water’s edge, ducklings following their mother through the lily pads in a comical straight line. Preuss reflects:

“As much as he adored the child and knew he would protect him and keep him close for the rest of their lives . . . watching his son enjoying the life that teemed around him on his own terms, Preuss realized yet again that Toby possessed a distinct and autonomous individuality that was equivalent to anyone’s.”

Ultimately, the Martin Preuss series recognizes, accepts, and celebrates Toby’s “autonomous individuality.” We gain a special understanding of people like Toby by living inside them as we experience them through books, and that’s what I’ve tried to accomplish with Toby in my mystery series. 

As well as, of course, telling some great stories along the way.

Welcome to my new blog

Welcome to my new, improved blog.

I’ve been threatening to revamp the old blog for, well, years, and I’ve finally done it as a companion to upgrading my web site and the publication of the sixth Martin Preuss Mystery, Cold Dark Lies. Gone is the grunge theme (that seemed like a good idea at the time, but that made me feel sort of itchy the more I looked at it); here is what I hope is a cleaner, more reader-friendly visual style.

In the months to come, I’ll be making more-or-less regular entries about the writing life in general and my own writing in particular, posting reviews of books I’ve read that I think you’ll enjoy, and best of all inviting some of my writer friends to blog about subjects of interest to them.

My website, www.donaldlevin.com, is still live, and will continue to focus on my books. I invite you to follow this new blog for other kinds of materials.