Reading Scary Stuff

I’ve been thinking about scary stories and my reluctance to read them. My fear relates to seeing years ago the movie What Ever Happened to Baby Jane. I was on a first date and just when the movie got intense, the guy I was with disappeared into the men’s room and left me alone in the dark theater with danger on the screen. First and last date, and I still don’t go to many movies. The last one was, I think, The Hundred Foot Journey in 2014. I’ve tried twice now to read Ken Follett’s World Without End, but the opening chapter involves a little girl in danger and I squirm and slam the tome shut. Sorry, Mr. Follett.

Yet, when I look at the book covers posted on various sites, I know I’m out of touch with what’s hot in fiction–murder, mayhem, betrayal and Armageddon. Not my idea of a good read. And yet–yet–I read scary non-fiction that other people won’t touch. Recently I posted a short list of climate-related books on my author FB page and people ran screaming into the night, I guess. Only one of my readers admitted noticing. We can keep the danger in fiction at a safe remove, but science–which is not fake–hits too hard. Scrapes us raw and we retreat into fairy tales. I do that too, but we have to break this habit. Climate fiction helps, some. But sooner, rather than too late, we have to consider the results of our ignorance and our guilt over what we’ve done to the earth and what it will, in return, do to us.

A Debut Novel Worth Reading

Let me introduce you to a friend of mine and encourage you to read her debut novel. Her name is Anita Halvorssen and the book is a killer thriller.

Originally from Norway, living in Colorado, Anita has taught law and writing on environmental issues, especially climate change. Her first law degree is from the University of Oslo, Norway. She has a Master of Laws and a Doctorate in Law from Columbia Law School, New York. Before pursuing an academic career, she was an Executive Officer at the Norwegian Ministry of Environment. She is a member of the International Law and Sea Level Rise Committee of the International Law Association. Halvorssen is Director of Global Legal Solutions, LLC, an international think tank and consultancy. She is also a member of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, the Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and the International Thriller Writers.

Why fiction when your previous publications have been non-fiction?

Teaching climate change law at the University of Denver, I thought that having some students learn about climate change was fine, but a much broader audience should be enlightened. Few people read the scientific reports (IPCC reports, etc.) and the newspapers had the stories backwards for a long time. I thought plenty of people still read novels, so I decided to write a novel and put climate change into it, being careful to make it a thriller first and foremost, not an info dump on climate change. This thriller belongs to the newly recognized genre of climate fiction (cli-fi).

You chose thriller as your genre. Do you read thrillers? Whose work do you enjoy?

Yes, I read thrillers. I enjoy Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, Liza Marklund, Dan Brown, Daniel Silva, John Le Carre, and many others.

Talk a bit about your writing process.

I used the first draft just to get the plot down. Then I focused on character development and emotions. It takes a lot of work, since I wrote law journal articles for a long time and they don’t have characters or any emotions.

What has changed for you since you began writing fiction?

It’s a whole different world. Discipline is of the utmost importance. Writing every day is the key. Joining workshops to learning the writing craft is crucial.

Who is your ideal reader?

Everyone who’s worried about climate change.

As we should all be. How did you come to feature your main character, Zakia?

Somehow the idea came to me to start in Morocco. I met a woman in a restaurant in New York City who was from Morocco and named my character after her. Then I did a lot of research on the country as it related to Zakia. Since she has a mixed background, British-Syrian on her father’s side, French-Moroccan on her mother’s side, and is also married to an American, I look upon Zakai as multicultural. The idea of Zakia being a journalist was based on journalists having to present facts—in my case, climate change facts. Having met her American husband at Columbia University and ending up in Chicago allows readers in the US to identify more with the characters.

What advice do you have for new novelists?

Keep at it. Don’t give up if you’re passionate about what you’re writing, and you’ll most likely persevere.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a sequel with Zakia again, also addressing climate change.

This sounds wonderful. When will we get to read the book?

The Dirty Network will be launched at Barnes & Noble, Pearl Street, Boulder CO on December 18 at 4:30pm.

Morning Routine

Rereading poet Kim Addonizio’s Ordinary Genius, I was again inspired by her advice to love what you first see. Such prompts don’t always work for me because I’ve found similar advice in other books on writing. But this time it clicked and here’s what poured out:

Purring and head bumping, Haiku leaps onto my bed to announce the time, 6:00 am, “Feed me, feed me, feed me,” although he has cat chow left in his white bowl. Black cat, white bowl yet nothing as clear as black and white, that sleek shadow on my bed mysterious and familiar. He speaks a tongue I cannot quite mimic and if I do come close, I don’t know what I’ve said, his vowel-rich voice varied and vague to me as Latin, though his language is not dead.
The house dogs think him a marvelous toy, until he takes refuge in a nook too small for them. His only work is hunting—a rare house mouse and the spiders, whom I respect as part of our small biome. I top off the food bowl to reassure him that, yes, ours is an opulent life full of Hills Science Diet for Indoor Cats. He eats two bites, bids me goodbye and makes his rounds: from the front window he supervises sunrise over the lake and takes stock of visitors at the bird feeder. He does not read and if I have a book in my hands, he nudges the nuisance  to clear space on my lap, which he thinks, I think, rightfully his alone for the asking.
And you will understand, please, that living with another species can lead to tolerance and peace. Toward those who see only utility—the rodent haters—Haiku is a demonstrator, demanding his rights to regular feeding, a warm spot on a soft bed, a measure of affection, safety and good health (Yes, he has health insurance.) and clean water in his bowl. Surely you see this house cat, once a stray, has a better life than many a refugee.

Stagecraft in Fiction & Memoir

Immersed in writing a fourth novel, I’m thinking about the overlap between live theater and the narrative forms of fiction and memoir. Theater has the advantage of the visual set, no need for description of the place or the characters.There they are, well lighted, voices projected to the upper gallery, free to move in meaningful ways.

However, (You knew there was a turn coming, didn’t you?) the written narrative has the advantage of taking us inside the character. Those internal monologues are useful to the reader who cares about things like motivation and impulse control, etc. No need for squishy dialogue between characters to enlighten us.

I read up about directing in theater, a role somewhat like that of the author, who must create a workable story from the following bits and pieces:

Casting: appearance, attitudes, demographics, fear, love, etc. All named and every single one necessary to the story.

Blocking: entrances, exits, proximity to other characters or to important props. I fret if a character is standing idle while others talk. I tend to send them off stage, go get lunch or use the bathroom. Just don’t hang around while others discuss the murder suspect.

Set: too much is too much; in fiction it leads to description overkill; think interior scene or exterior; lighting; noises off stage.

Props: every item has meaning; Chekov’s famous dictum says a gun that appears in Act One must be fired in Act Three. I’m probably going to ignore this, because there is a gun that must not go off in my story.

Dialogue: concise, meaningful, not an info dump telling the reader by means of cross talk, and the wonderful option of interior monologue: She thought, I should not have gone down those cellar stairs.

Time frames: stage time, aka, elapsed time in the story, vs audience time. How long will theater patrons sit? How many hours will a reader devote to the book?

Action: meaningful (see dialogue, speaking is action), reveals emotion, includes posture, voice modulation, facial expression in addition to the punching, the stabbing, the driving while angry.

Tension: rising action, interaction between characters as well as between text and the reader: often a result of resistance, suffering.

I’ve written exactly one play and vowed never to do it again. Once the script was in the hands of the director and out of my hands, I felt like I had abandoned a child in the train station, and it was going on a long journey without me. But story is story and has its place on stage or between the covers of a book. Think about it.

All About Poets #4

Michael Macklin was a good friend and a fine poet. We both had MFAs from Vermont College and for several years we were both on the editorial board (that sounds far more formal than it was) of the long-lived poetry magazine, The Cafe Review, out of Portland, Maine. We both had chapbooks published by Moon Pie Press.

Thanks to Michael I learned the pleasure of drinking Tullamore Dew, part of our shared Irish-American heritage, straight up, no ice. When I decided to feature Michael on this blog, I thought that I should again read his poems. Having recently culled my collection of poetry books, I confidently went to the M shelf and … what? No copy of Driftland? That made no sense. I would never have discarded that beloved book.

Well, if idiocy was the inevitable diagnosis, I’d work around that. I went online, found Moon Pie Press, ordered a copy, hit PayPal and send. Whew! Waiting for the book would delay the blog post, but I had no choice. However, I’m not the sort to lose a treasured book, so I went again to the shelf and what? There, nestled beside Montale was Macklin, where he belonged.

I’m not often mystically minded, but I swear that I heard Michael’s laugh. Hide the book until I’d bought another, a wee prank, eh? Of course, Michael was a true son of the Emerald Isle despite his birth in Michigan. When I left Maine to relocate to Colorado, he gave me a teddy bear, two bird feathers—one from a flicker and one from a crow—and said that he had commissioned three crows to attend me in my travels. To this day, a decade after we parted, I often see a trio of crows nearby.

Fate generously allowed me to have Michael in my life for years, but fate is also a mean trickster. Michael died in his sleep when he was volunteering at a residency at our alma mater, VCFA. How awful and how appropriate that he would die in that community of poets. People loved him and he loved people. He taught poetry at the private school where he was also the main carpenter. He left behind his wife, his son, his beloved dog—Murph—and his love for the coast of Maine. Yet, in truth, he’s never far away.

 

 

 

You can find Michael’s book on the website for Moon Pie Press and a copy of The Café Review dedicated to him here: www.thecafereview.com.

Persistence & Politics

Regular readers here will recall that from time to time I urge them to READ FOR EQUALITY. In our fractured, limping-along democracy this continues to be a responsibility, although some days I wonder why I bother.

Then I read something like Tracy K. Smith’s new book, Wade in the Water, and I’m reawakened to the power of creative writing. Smith uses as some of her poems verbattem letters written by black soldiers in the War Between the States. (It was anything but civil.) That we have a black female Poet Laureate of the US matters too.

Now I’m reading Zora Neale Hurston’s  Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,”  written in 1927 about Cudjo, an African who entered the US as a slave in 1859. The book was just published in 2018. Why it took so long to have this on my library shelves, I cannot fathom, but thanks to an astute librarian and Alice Walker, it’s finally available.

I remind myself, too, of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin written by “the little woman who started this big war” in President Lincoln’s words, more or less.

And there’s Nellie Bly, who, in Ten Days in A Mad-House, wrote about the  rotten mental health care in this land of the free and helped bring about reforms in that milieu.  And lest we forget, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle brought about change in the meat-packing industry and led to our Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act. Both of these two matter to us all, an issue of equality between the haves and have-nots, the powerful and the powerless.

When you think that what we do as writers doesn’t matter, read these books and others like them and again give your gifts to a sore and tired world. Even if you provide respite from worry, it’s important. Just do it, persist–please.

All About Poets #3

Diane Wakoski has long been one of my favorite poets. Initially, her book titles drew me in: The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems, Dancing on the Grave of a Son of a Bitch, Waiting for the King of Spain, Emerald City of Las Vegas. Who could resist? Certainly not a woman trying to find her own assertive voice in life as in poetry. Her only title that ever disappointed was Diamond Dog, and that one is not on the Wikipedia list. It was, however, on the availability list of the buyer for a local poetry book club, and I had suggested we read something by Wakoski. That book did not go over well, too difficult, too esoteric, too everything that the group rebelled against. Well, so much for their poetic taste. Then again, one book is not sufficient in appreciating a huge oeuvre like hers.

If only the buyer had selected Wakoski’s compilation volume, The Butcher’s Apron: New and Selected Poems [Black Sparrow Press, 2000]. My copy is nicely worn and better yet, signed. One primo reason that I attended the AWP Convention in Denver (2010) was to hear Wakoski read. And I did. What’s more, I had a brief conversation with her on the convention floor, where she signed the book and asked for a signed copy of one of my books. That year The Great Hunger was on display at the convention and I snagged one for her. We emailed a few times after that meeting and when I issued a second edition of Red Goddess Poems, Diane graciously wrote a blurb for the back cover.

In her prose, Towards a New Poetry [University of Michigan, 1980], Wakoski writes that she wanted to be a poet, not a teacher or editor, a poet. When I get snagged by the foolish idea that I should do something besides play with words, I think about her dedication to this art and go back to what I too love for no practical reason. From her first book in 1962, Coins and Coffins, Wakoski has been a star in my poetic firmament. Long may she shine.

All About Poets #2

In the 1980s I taught composition and intro to literature at LSU-Shreveport (Louisiana), and of course, teaching meant the occasional academic conference, often an offshoot of Modern Language Association. The one in question here might have been at Texas Christian University, but the true location is mired deep in my faulty memory.
      What stands out is the poet who was a special guest, Lucille Clifton. Ignoramus that I was, I went to her reading because it was at least poetry after a full craw of collegiate oatmeal. The thing is, and I’m now appropriately embarrassed, I had never heard of Clifton. To my credit, I still remember her reading “homage to my hips.” Well now, here was a woman with no apology about her body. One could learn something about feminism from her, and I was then devouring books by Gloria Steinam, Germaine Greer, and Adrienne Rich. And that one poem did more to awaken me than I can say.
     A call to reality in a world of cosmetics and body shapers is still one of the benefits of poetry, and I’m still cooking it up and swallowing it whole. So thank you, Lucille Clifton, for that pinprick in my angst about body image.
     You know, though, there’s a bit of grit on my tongue here: after the reading Clifton was seated in the front row of the meeting room and in passing I told her that I had liked her poems. (Liked? A watery compliment for a reading that has stayed with me for decades.) And then, I asked if she had a book out. The only excuse I can think of for my ignorance is that the introducer made hash of her remarks and why the hell were there no books in view? There, I blame my faux pas on the host institution, wherever it was.
     Just so you know, Clifton has in her resume the National Book Award, Juniper Prize and a couple of nominations for the Pulitzer. Her first book, Good Times, was one of the ten best books of 1969 according to the New York Times. In 1969 I was chasing a toddler and writing exactly zip, zero, nada.