Saturday, April 30, 2011

So this is my Saturday morning. Paul's working, Abby's at a sleepover, Nick's at College (for 6 more days), Buster's sleeping in the laundry basket, and I'm trying to flesh out a teenage psychopath with mother issues for my novel.

10 Questions for Bradford Morrow

ou’ve written books for children, novels, and poetry. What is your favorite genre to write in?

I’ve written quite a few essays and short stories, as well—I have a collection of stories coming out this fall, The Uninnocent—but far and away my favorite form is the novel. The nice thing about writing a short story, children’s book, or an essay (haven’t written a poem in years) is that it can be accomplished in a relatively brief period of time. Novels, at least my novels, take years, and so there’s a marathon element involved. That said, the novel is such a large, inviting, empathetic, generous, embracing art form that I find myself deeply drawn to it as a medium of expression. A writer’s largest and tiniest thoughts fit into its frame. As a reader, also, I’m far more given to reading novels than any other literary form (though I read poetry and nonfiction nearly every day, as well).

Is there a genre that you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to?

I always thought it would be wonderful to write or even direct films. To work in solitude for a period of time and then emerge to collaborate with actors and other artists, and see the vision spring to life has always seemed like a dream job to me. On the other hand, I’m very aware that filmmaking—precisely because it is collaborative—often involves decisions made by committee. As a novelist, for better or worse, I have artistic control over the final text. And that’s one aspect of being a writer, a “solo artist” if you will, that I really like.

All of your novels deal with the importance of family. How has your own family influenced your writing?

Family is so crucial to me as a novelist because it’s central to our lives in the best and worst ways. Family, home, is where our journeys begin, but it is also the place we long to escape. It’s where we find profound love and nurturing, but also at times deep anger and resentment. Home is where we feel safest, but most vulnerable as well. Family and friendships that are as tight as blood family—this is the most complex emotional and spiritual locus of them all. So I naturally gravitate to family as a Pandora’s box that holds every kind of human desire and fear.

Many of your characters are strong, determined women searching for their places in the world. Who are your role models for these women?

I was raised in a family whose women were storytellers. There wasn’t much of a library in my childhood house, some Modern Library titles and a smattering of college chemistry stuff, but I grew up hearing plenty of oral narratives being spun. My grandmother Hoffmann, who was a dirt-poor farm girl when she grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, was the most memorable bard in the family and the epitome of a strong, determined woman. She was a real survivor, and made a great impression on me. (Oddly, the paternal side of my family was made up of taciturn men, quiet and mostly gentle types.) Our matriarch’s stories mostly centered on family history, family agreements, family discord—another possible reason I’m drawn as a writer to focus on families, be they broken, loving, or otherwise. That said, I think that my models for the women in my novels who are searching for a place in the world are finally a composite of any number of women (and men) I’ve met in my life. I rarely if ever model a character on an individual I know, however, and imagine that the characters in my books are all ultimately fragments of myself, and represent my own search for identity.

Your scenes in the outdoors are so fully described that nature is almost a character in the book. Where does that knowledge and respect come from?

Growing up along the front range of the Rockies, I spent a lot of my youth in the mountains and down in New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest, so nature was just a fundamental part of my life. My aunt and uncle had a very isolated ranch near Steamboat Springs, and I spent a lot of summers in the heart of high forests there, camping and fishing. Having lived for the past thirty years in New York City, I still get off into the woods or back out to the Southwest as often as I can. The names and nature, if you will, of trees, flowers, birds, clouds—I can’t explain exactly why these things are so important to me, talismanic really, but they are. Nature is fundamentally magical and metamorphic, and I think you’re right in saying that it invariably becomes so central a player in my narratives that it achieves the status of becoming a character, interactive with human characters, subtle and powerful.

I mention in my review that your writing is so fluid and calm that I often felt sedated while reading it. It made it very easy for me to relate to the confusion and doubt that Cassandra was experiencing. Was your intention to cast something of a spell over your readers, or did it happen by accident?

No, I can’t honestly say that I deliberately set about casting a spell or creating an atmosphere of calm, though I have heard other writers comment on this as being an important part of how The Diviner’s Tale works. I’m very aware that conventional mysteries unfold often with more overt and strenuous action. There is a lot of action in the book, obviously, but her voice enveloped me while I was writing, and I imagine that sensuous skein of voice envelops the willing reader as well.

You are a teacher, an editor and a writer. If you had to choose one of these professions over the other, which one would it be?

They all have a crucial place in my life. I adore my students and editing Conjunctions is honestly one of the best jobs in the world. My first love is writing, though.

Do you plan on writing a sequel to The Diviner’s Tale?

I have to finish my new novel, The Prague Sonata, first and then I’ll think about it. Of all my narrators, Cassandra is certainly one of my favorites and I would love to travel with her again if the right story rose to mind.

The Diviner’s Tale is a literary novel with a murder mystery tucked inside it. Do you have any plans on writing a more traditional detective story?

I wouldn’t know how to write a traditional detective story. It’s too much in my nature to break the rules of genre, stretch it into fresh forms. And whatever it is about my writing that makes it “literary” isn’t something I could suppress or change even if I wanted to.

Who are your favorite authors?

Among those of the past century or so I’d include Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and more recently William Gaddis, John Fowles, Angela Carter, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace. This is a difficult question for me to answer, though, because I’ve published over a thousand writers in Conjunctions and on Web Conjunctions and since I only accept work I feel very strongly about, all those writers could also be considered among my favorites.

Music and Writing - Do or Don't

I grew up in home that was always filled with music. My father, an artist, would work on illustrations in the basement while listening to classical music on WQXR. My brothers would be listening to Jethro Tull in their room, and my mother would have Cole Porter playing in the dining room. As a result, I listen to music all day long, and pride myself on my ability to multi-task without finding the sound of music (my apologies to the Von Trapps) a distraction. I’ve actually sat in my living room, watching a basketball game while the Metropolitan Opera’s live broadcast plays in the background. The Tar Heels hit another 3-pointer, and Angela Gheorghiu just finished the Vissi d’Arte from Tosca.

My day job, or the one my husband refers to as “the grown-up job” often requires me to write. While the writing is primarily geared toward fundraising and doesn’t necessarily require excitement and intrigue, the fact remains that the letters don’t write themselves. If there is such a thing as a fundraising muse, it has not been frightened away by Beethoven. The notes pour out of the radio, and I tap merrily away on my keyboard composing lovely fundraising prose.

Creative writing however, is another story entirely. I cannot listen to music and produce fiction simultaneously. Recently, I needed to do some editing on a project and was unable to summon even the slightest bit of enthusiasm for the task at hand. I needed to write some background material for a character, and in desperation, decided to see if the chore could be dealt with while listening to something other than the sound of the keys on the keyboard. I made the mistake of diving right into the contemporary stuff and popped in a Rolling Stones CD. It was difficult to concentrate with Mick Jagger for company, but I was determined to give it a good try, so I struggled on.

After about 20 minutes of stray thoughts, I managed to type the following “Having grown up in New York, his family connections enabled him to see the girls go by dressed in their summer clothes . . .” Well, it almost worked, but not quite. Ok I thought to myself, contemporary music isn’t going to work. In fact, anything with lyrics would be out of the question. I turned instead to something classical, hoping that it might do the trick. I browsed through my collection of CD’s and settled on Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” This is a massive piece of music that contains a lot of color and strength as well as vulnerability. I’ve always found it to be a great motivator – at least when faced with a room in need of vacuuming or a sink full of dishes. Excitedly, I sat in front of the computer and listened to every note, waiting for the words to flow. Imagine my disappointment when they not only failed to flow, they didn’t even manage a trickle. This proved to be just as well, as I needed to put the writing (or lack of) on hold while I left to pick up one of my kids.

I got into the car, slid a Police CD into the disc drive, and bingo, there it was. I arrived home happy, peppy and ready to write. I sat down, turned off the speakers on the computer, and within 28 minutes managed to flesh out a well respected, beautifully imbalanced psychopath. Music is an inspiration, but like everything else in life, it needs a proper time and place.

Do you write with music? Or is it a distraction?

Review of Marcus Sakey's The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes

A few pages into Marcus Sakey’s latest crime novel The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes and I felt as though I was running blindfolded at full speed through a dark hallway while being pursued by dangerous individuals. This feeling is similar to the one experienced by Daniel Hayes, the novel’s protagonist. The story begins with a man staggering from the surf, alone, naked and freezing on a deserted Maine beach at night. Not exactly the best of circumstances in which to find oneself, but add on the fact that he doesn’t remember who he is or why he’s there, and you have the makings of a fast-paced, nail-biting thriller.

After Daniel struggles from the surf and realizes his predicament, he staggers off the beach and finds a car parked nearby. Inside he finds clothing that fits and which is somewhat familiar to him. He also finds an envelope with cash, a gun, a Rolex and the car’s registration listing the owner as Daniel Hayes of Malibu, California. With no other leads to his identity, Daniel makes his way back to his home on the West Coast. During his weeklong trek, he is pursued by police in other states, and he becomes aware that he is wanted in connection with a crime. Unable to remember the security code to his house, he breaks in and, once inside, searches for clues to his identity. Having tripped the alarm, he is aware that his time is short, and as the police close in, Daniel flees with his laptop. After changing his appearance and checking into a seedy hotel, Daniel heads for the internet in hopes of discovering why he is being sought by the police. He quickly learns that his wife, Laney Thayer, a television actress has been killed in a car crash on the Pacific Coast Highway, and Daniel is wanted for questioning.

Throughout the novel, Marcus Sakey weaves themes of identity, trust, and the lengths one will go to in order to preserve one’s life. As soon as Daniel sneaks into his home, he finds that he has only his instincts to guide him, and must put his trust in people that he believes he knows, yet can’t remember. At one point Daniel accuses an actor, who was his wife Laney’s friend and colleague, of having an affair with her, only to be told by the actor that he is gay.

Sakey’s third person narrative allows the reader insight into the character’s thoughts and motives. Daniel is a likeable character, although you don’t know whether that opinion will change if and when he gets his memory back. Early on the reader is introduced to Bennett, a blackmailer looking for a diamond necklace which Daniel’s wife Laney had promised him. Bennett is portrayed as a smooth, controlled killer, determined to get the payoff that is owed to him. He’s as menacing holding an ice cream cone as he is holding a gun. While Bennett pursues Daniel, he, in turn, is being followed by a young woman named Belinda Nichols. The reader doesn’t know whether Belinda is following Bennett to kill him, or because she hopes he will lead her to Daniel. The most colorful character in the novel is Sophie Ziegler, Daniel’s attorney. Sophie is something of a noir throwback to those women who inhabit the novels of Raymond Chandler. She talks tough, has a heart of gold, and can handle anything thrown her way. You love her, and only wish she appeared more often during the story. Although the detecting in Sakey’s book is done primarily by Daniel, there is a detective assigned to the case. Detective Roger Waters (yes, there is a Pink Floyd reference) has just a small part, and like Sophie Ziegler, I wished he had more time on the pages.

Sakey delivers just what the reader wants in a crime drama – a story that hooks you from the first page, complete with believable characters, a busy, modern-day setting that spans from a beach in Maine to a busy Hollywood movie lot, and enough twists and turns to keep you on the edge of your seat when it ends 387 pages later.

Review of Robert Browne's The Paradise Prophecy

Author Robert Browne has said “I write thrillers with a twist for people who love a good roller coaster ride.” In his latest book, The Paradise Prophecy, he has succeeded in doing just that. The Paradise Prophecy is a fast-paced thriller, based on John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. It is the story of two people sent on a search for a serial killer, who might be an angel.

Sebastian “Batty” LaLaurie is a professor of Religious Studies and Rhetoric at Trinity Baptist College in Harrison, Louisiana. Batty, suffering from nightmares, has turned to drink in the two years since his wife’s death. Having expressed his disillusionment with God during one of his lectures, he is placed on leave from the University. Bernadette Callahan is an agent for The Section (a special branch of the State Department) who is sent to Brazil to investigate the death of Gabriela Zuada, a charismatic Christian singer. Ignoring the local detective’s superstitions that Zuada died at the hand of the devil, Callahan is convinced that she is looking for a serial killer with leanings toward the occult. As Batty is an expert in Religious Studies and the Occult, Callahan is put in contact with him, and quickly learns that Batty is more than just an expert on the “other side,” but a survivor of it. Also present in the story is Michael, the Archangel. Michael’s job has been to patrol the earth, keeping the fallen angels from bringing about complete destruction. Michael is no cherub. In fact, he packs a gun and a knife and uses them effectively when needed. Michael’s biggest foe is the fallen angel Belial, a shape shifter who is determined to deliver Earth to her master.

If you’re familiar with the book of Genesis, or have read Milton’s Paradise Lost, you know that they both refer to the story of Lucifer’s expulsion from heaven and his revenge upon Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Browne’s, The Paradise Prophecy, finds those other angels who were expelled along with Lucifer, living on Earth where for centuries they have been working to create a Hell for Satan. When he is first introduced to Agent Callahan, Batty is naturally curious as to why he has been brought in to assist with the investigation. After being shown a quote from Paradise Lost, and a picture of Zuada (whom he recognizes from his nightmare) Batty is so rattled that he convinces Agent Callahan to take him to the crime scene. Upon entering the room where Zuada died, Batty is shocked, as he has seen another death very similar to this one – namely, his wife’s. And so begins the mystery, as more victims are found and Agent Callahan and Batty are sent to Istanbul `and ultimately Los Angeles for the final showdown between the Archangel Michael and the fallen angels.

Browne lays out the classic themes of good vs. evil, and sin vs. redemption in a taut, nail biter. He keeps the story and character development moving quickly through the words and actions of Batty and Callahan. From the start, Callahan is convinced that the murders are being committed by a human, but as the action develops, she begins to change her views from that of a hardened skeptic to a believer as she witnesses the underworld first hand. Batty also undergoes a transformation as he is forced to sober up and face his demons (literally and figuratively). During the course of the novel, Batty and Callahan develop trust and a comfortable rapport with one another, but continue to create enough opposition to remain interesting. The Paradise Prophecy is a great read for anyone who enjoys suspense and the supernatural.

Copyright and Writers

If you are a writer using the Internet as a platform for your work, it’s a good idea to have some knowledge of copyright law. I recently made my entry into the blogosphere this year on two different blog sites. One site I use mainly for random thoughts, pictures and anything else that ricochets through my mind. The other site is a more creative endeavor where I actually organize my ideas, write them out in an orderly fashion, rearrange them and then put them back the way they were.

Last November, I waded a bit deeper into the blog pool by participating in the annual National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) contest. This is an exercise where one agrees to spend the month of November writing a novel. If you succeed in writing 50,000 words (no, it can’t be the same word written 50,000 times) you win. During the course of the month, I proceeded to hurl out words diligently each day. Finally having sufficiently fretted and edited to exhaustion, I pressed the submit button. Wee! Off went my novel, my baby, my shame, out into that bold frontier known as cyberspace. So relieved was I to have completed the task, that I forgot to scramble the text before I sent it. “Uh-oh” said the little voice inside my head. After a few seconds of panic, I shook it off, secure in the knowledge that if need be, I could provide enough incriminating evidence to prove that I was in fact the perpetrator of the crime.

I returned to dabbling on my little blogs, and all was well until a few weeks ago, when a friend who has a website received a cease and desist email from a publishing company. She had posted pictures on her site that had been published in a magazine, and even though she makes no money from this site, the publisher requested that they be taken down, or face the legal consequences. She immediately complied and advised anyone else who may have re-posted the pictures to please do the same. This incident created some debate amongst the website’s friends and followers, and gave me pause for thought.

I decided to do some research to find out what my rights are regarding intellectual property. I researched many websites including the U.S. copyright office (oddly enough, this seems to be the source that most other sites have copied and pasted into their own blogs). What I discovered is that while our writing is automatically protected the moment we put words to paper, that protection might not be enough. If you are going to post something that you care about, have spent time on, or caused your naturally ash blonde hair to whiten, the first thing you should do is establish ownership of the work by dating it with your name and a warning that it cannot be copied without your permission.

Other sites suggest implementing the “poor man’s copyright.” This involves printing out your work, dating it and mailing it to a lawyer or another trusted party, to hold onto in case it becomes necessary to sue. It should be noted that this method may not hold up in court, however, it will provide your attorney with a hearty chuckle.

If you discover that your work has been copied, (you can do this by using plagiarism detection sites such as Google Alerts) contact the individual who did so and explain to them that they did so without your permission and ask that they take it down. If they don’t comply, the next step is to send them a cease and desist letter, and if that goes unnoticed, you need to contact the website host and inform them of the violation.

So, what it comes down to is that if you think you may have written the next “Gone with the Wind,” go ahead and spend the $35 to have your work copyrighted. If on the other hand you don’t mind sharing your views on important topics such as “Should Tarantino have Directed the Last Installment of the Twilight series?” then by all means hit that post button and hit it often.

Monday, April 11, 2011

A lovely Day in Virginia

Today is going to be FABULOUS! It's going to be 85 degrees here in Northern Virginia tomorrow it will be 65 degrees - I'm so sorry sinuses, I wish I could make it better). My normally blue car is covered with a blanket of sticky, yellow pollen. It sort of resembles a tennis ball except for the fact that it rained a little during the night, so instead of one solid shade of Dunlop yellow, I have little rivers of blue protruding through the yellow muck.

Shall we discuss the state of my hair? Why not! I may have mentioned in an earlier blog that my hair is in a transitional stage, so on a good hair day, it borders somewhere between the style of an awkward 4th grader with static, and Keith Partridge. Today however, it closely resembles that of Tippy Hedren after her unfortunate encounter with . . . well, you know what I mean.

It is 9 am, and my sinuses are already making small noises of complaint. Alright, I have to get to work now. Tune in tomorrow when the temperature drops another 20!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

I Should Write

I got up early this morning, so that I could get a jump on some editing while the house was still quiet. I walked the dog, had my coffee and Cheerios, and read The Washington Post. From there I went on to the paper's inserts ie. checking out the coupons (Reynolds Wrap Aluminum Foil - 75 cents off 2!).

Might as well check my email and facebook - oh and Twitter. That led to checking my phone messages. One from my son who's away at college. "Did you get those Nantucket Red khakis? I want to wear them on Easter." My son has learned that I will buy him almost anything if he claims that he'll wear it to Mass). And no, I had not purchased said trousers for him. Hmm, I thought to myself, I could sneak out of the house now, before my daughter wakes up and wants to come with me.

If I bring her along, it means we will spend most of our time feeling our way through the darkness of Abercrombie, while being simultaneously bombarded with excruciatingly loud music and overwhelmingly strong cologne/perfume/body enhancing aromas DUDE! It's very similar to being in a giant MRI - one where you're permitted to walk around. No, I knew I had to go it alone, and so I did. I sneaked out of the house and went to Pentagon City.

It was a successful trip - Nantucket Red trousers purchased as well as Clinique #4 Pink Blush blush . . . oh, and Slate eye liner - because if I purchased the eyeliner, I would get the free (?) gift which consisted of blush that is the wrong color, three shades of eye shadow (which I don't wear) and yet another cosmetic bag to add to the 16 other ones I have stacked up in my linen closet (honestly, there must be something that can be done with these colorful cosmetic bags - they appear to be waterproof on the inside - perhaps sew them all together and make tents with them? No? O.K., never mind).

I looked at my watch - 11:30. I need to get home and write! So, after arriving home and making my once a month heart attack-inducing grilled cheese, fried egg and bacon sandwich, I headed for the computer. As I sat down, one of the wires from the speakers became wrapped around my chair. My husband, who works for the Container Store had brought home a cable zipper a few weeks ago, and naturally I decided that this was the time to get my cables in order. My daughter who was still sulking around because I had snuck out, was enlisted in this task. She has learned that when I flatter her in to helping with a task that I'm too stupid to execute on my own, eventually she will be left holding the bag. Therefore, she approached with caution. She quickly determined that this was too great a task for her, and begged off. "Besides, someone needs to drive me to work" (she is a lifeguard, it is an important job that requires her to sit in a chair high above the pool, while simultaneously twirling her whistle - it is a job she was born to do). Back to the cable zipper. Eventually my husband, who had seen a video demonstrating how to install the zipper, took care of the unsightly cables. I should write.

This floor is sooooo dusty. I should vacuum. I did vacuum. I made a deal with my husband that if he would dust the bedroom and put all of those non-essential items away, I would write the pool announcement for the community newsletter (in addition to working for the Container Store, my husband is also the Chairman of the Pool Committee - it is a job he was born to do.)

It is now 6:15 pm. I should write.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Review of Bradford Morrow's The Diviner's Tale

Check out my review of Bradford Morrow's latest novel