Monday, November 30, 2009

Black Monday

Now that Thanksgiving is over, it is time to think about Christmas shopping. I know some blogs (like Moonrat's) have already started their gift-giving guides, but I just couldn't bring myself to think about such things pre-Thanksgiving. Obviously, the best gifts you can give someone are not those from fancy department stores or even those you make yourself out of the kindness of your hearts. They are BOOKS!

In case you are at a loss of what to buy, here are some suggestions by genre that I hope will help/influence:

Nonfiction: Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman. Klosterman is best known for his spot-on commentary on pop culture. Last year he ventured into fiction territory with Downtown Owl, but now he's back with a new collection of essays that makes me very excited. If you like debating whether Barack Obama is the best spokesperson this country has ever seen, or how ABBA and AC/DC really aren't all that different, then this book might make you excited too.

Literary Fiction: Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby. In true Hornby style, this book has musical obsessions, mid-life crises, and emotionally stunted characters. I admit I wasn't a huge fan of Hornby's past couple novels, but this book is definitely back in the same league as High Fidelity and About a Boy. I also want to give a shout out to Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead, which has been on my "I know I will love this!" list all year.

Sci-Fi/Fantasy: Wicked Game and Bad to the Bone by Jeri Smith-Ready (for your vampire needs, and for your VAMPIRE DEEJAY needs!) OK, I know. We're all vamped out. But these vamps are not sparkly, nor do these books feature a mousy damsel just waiting for a purpose when suddenly a brooding, sexy vampire walks into her life. Smith-Ready's heroine is a con artist who runs a radio station and her deejays are vampires who only play music that was popular when they "turned." Let's face it: vampires are, and always will be, awesome. And these books are a welcome change in the my-boyfriend-is-a-high-school-[insert something supernatural here] trend that won't go away.

Mystery/Thriller: In the Woods and The Likeness by Tana French, and The Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (yes, more vampires) by Charlaine Harris. French and Harris write mysteries in that their books open with crimes and end with culprits. But what happens in between isn't just a set of clues routinely found by some down-and-out cop or young, handsome detective. They create wonderfully complex and interesting characters, strong female leads, and plots that keep you hooked.

Children/YA: Lips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor. This book for young teens features three fairy tale novellas, each dealing with the simultaneous excitement, pain, beauty, and consequences of a first kiss. For those less fantasy-inclined, Love, Aubrey by Suzanne LaFleur is heartbreakingly real. In it, eleven-year-old, Aubrey, copes with the deaths of her father and sister, and the absence of her mentally unstable mother, in this novel written in a series of letters.

Cookbook: The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones. This book was written for people like me who, when left to my own devices, think nothing of microwaving some popcorn or licking a spoon clean of peanut butter and calling it dinner. I love the title and its subtle empowerment for single people. It could also be a great gift for couples. What's sexier than competing over who prepares their single serving first? Loser does the dishes.

Comics: OK, I'll admit I'm not that into comics or graphic novels (I only support those written by or associated with Joss Whedon), so I may not be the best person to take gift suggestions from. However, one webcomic that I read daily is Dinosaur Comics, which to me is what greatness looks like. Lo and behold, its creator, Ryan North, put out a tangible "best of" collection, appropriately titled, The Best of Dinosaur Comics: 2003-2005 A.D. Amazon's author bio simply reads: "Ryan North is awesome, all the time." So true.

If I've missed any genres, it means I probably don't read them enough to have real suggestions, and therefore don't want to mislead you. However, Publisher's Weekly has a pretty comprehensive list if you're so inclined.

So Happy Shopping everyone! And remember - buying books says you love, but buying books from your local independent bookstore says you care.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


This week's story gives me two reasons to be happy. Not only do I get to show you a well-written, multi-layered narrative, but I also get to promote another very cool area of the author's life. Travis S. Rave is the head of Coast to Coast for Hope, a non-profit that organizes cross country bike trips in order to raise money for cancer research. In addition to running this fantastic organization, Travis works at Nickelodeon as an associate writer and producer. He has ghostwritten two books and his personal work has been published in 400 Words and other online magazines and blogs.

By Travis S. Rave

Masts weren’t supposed to break. Or at least, that’s what Harold’s father had told him all those years ago. “That’s the thing about sailboats,” he’d said. “Ya can’t flip ‘em and ya can’t sink ‘em. Go ahead, Skipper, try. Push that mast, knock her over.” And try Harold had, with all his twelve year old might, and yet the boat held strong, didn’t even creak. “Told ya, Skip. You’d need an ax to take that thing down.” He could still see his father smiling, thick arms patting his boat with pride in the morning sun.

He’d died a year later. Philip Masterson was his name, though that name had never meant much to Harold. To him, it was simply Pop. The funeral was held at a local graveyard. It was nothing fancy, just close friends and family. The total was only around ten or so. Harold was never sure of the exact number. Despite his mother’s urging, he’d refused to leave the car, only glancing briefly through tinted windows. He was mad at her, blamed her for what had happened. If she hadn’t kicked Philip out, he’d not have been living on the boat; he’d not have drunk a bottle of scotch; he’d not have slipped while trying to piss off the side; he’d not have drowned with his pants down.

A fellow boater, Mr. Langhorn, found Philip the next morning hanging upside down off the side of the boat with his pants at his ankles and his foot tangled in the safety lines, his head submerged just past the chin. Langhorn had attempted resuscitation, but Philip had been dead for several hours. According to the coroner’s report, Philip had twisted his knee when the rope caught, tearing several ligaments. Though he had apparently fought viscously, the tears had prevented him from reaching his trapped foot. Strained muscles in his abdomen and scratches on his thighs bore testament to a fierce struggle. Though he never mentioned it to the family, the coroner surmised that the death was likely painful and slow; the physical torment surpassed only by the mental anguish that must have accompanied it. As he saw it, by using his stomach muscles and grabbing at his thighs and pants, Philip had been able to keep his head out of the water for some time. What really killed him was fatigue. There must have been a point at which Philip realized that his strength was fading, that he couldn’t win the battle; a point at which he simply lowered his head into the water and let himself die. The coroner dreamt of this moment for several nights, though it was he who was hanging from the boat, while Philip stood on the dock, genitalia swinging gently, shaking his head and repeating, “It’s not gonna happen, Doc. It’s just not.”

The following year was rough for Harold and his mother, Meredith. She’d never been a particularly cheery woman and Philip’s death certainly didn’t help. She had, after all, kicked Philip out and indirectly caused his death. It was not easy to forget and Harold only made it worse. For the first year after, he brought it up at every opportunity, accusing her in the grocery store, in front of friends and family, calling her a home wrecker and a father killer. She cried a lot that year, lost weight and lost friends. As Harold’s grief dulled, he began to realize what he was doing to her, the pain he was causing her. Though he still blamed her, he lessened his outbursts and made a conscious effort to forgive her. But time moved slowly and healing was tough. Meredith tried on occasion to actually explain things to her son, to make him realize the difficulties or her marriage, of marriage in general, but he would turn away from her, shut down, at the slightest mention of his father. This, too, was painful for her. She needed to convince him, to convince herself, that it wasn’t entirely her fault, that she hadn’t killed him. She wanted to tell Harold that there was a time before he was born when they’d been happy, when they’d danced and drank, when he’d kissed her in a barn and called her Merry. She wanted to tell him that those times had ended long before she’d kicked him out, long before he’d bought that damn boat. But how could she? How could she ever tell her son that his father was impotent, that he’d been cruelly depressed for years, that in his desperation he’d spent a week on his boat with a high class hooker and a case of whiskey? He blew through half their savings in that one week, for Christ’s sake. What choice did she have? He’d come back drunk and even more depressed than before. She couldn’t keep it hidden from her son much longer. People had already begun to talk. So she kicked him out. Let him go back to the boat, let him destroy himself without destroying his son, without destroying what was left of her.

But, of course, Harold did find out about five years later, during the summer before his freshman year at college. While his relationship with his mother had improved somewhat over the years, she had not. As time passed, she grew frail, tired. On the first anniversary of Philip’s death, she toasted to his memory with a bottle of shiraz, the same wine they’d had on their first date, the same wine that he had hoarded and stored in their basement for special occasions. It was a sweet, sad ceremony that she took alone in her room, gazing at pictures and crying as she thought about the time he’d dribbled wine down her neck as she’d laughed and wiggled. But as time passed, annual turned to weekly and her thoughts and moods turned dark. By the time three years had passed, her commemorating rarely included fond memories, centering instead on her embitterment, his betrayal. Who was that bitch who took their savings, who beguiled and deceived a desperate man? Had she done it? Had she managed to do for him what she no longer could? The shiraz soon ran dry, which only saddened her further, distancing her even more from their former happiness. Refusing to buy more, she turned away from wine and began drinking whatever was on hand. Trips to the grocery store now included a stop at the liquor store, where she’d stock up on vodka and tonic water.

Five years after his father’s death, Harold came home to find his mother sitting on the floor in the corner of her bedroom, her wild eyes darting between a smashed picture frame and the half empty bottle of scotch in her hand. Harold had noted his mother’s decline for some time. At first he was impassive, coldly assuming that it was something she had to go through, that she would pull out of it on her own. The fact that it was wine, his father’s wine no less, had somehow comforted him, had made it seem much more harmless. But standing in the doorway now, at age eighteen, watching his mother whimper and moan, he could no longer bring himself to turn away. Perhaps it was that her nightgown had slipped off her shoulder, partially revealing her nipple, or perhaps it was the bottle of scotch, the drink that had defeated his father, or perhaps it was just time, but Harold suddenly felt the need to act. Sighing, he walked to his mother, knelt down, and adjusted her nightgown. She recoiled from his touch, glaring at him, red eyed.

“It’s alright, Mom,” he said, petting her head.
She nodded, breaking free a fresh tear. It held momentarily on the edge of her lashes before sliding down her stained cheek.
“Come on, Mom, he wouldn’t have wanted this. I miss him, too, but this isn’t…”
“Your father? Your FATHER?” She pushed his hand away, face contorted. “You think this is for him? Ha. HA!” Her chin quivered, but her eyes were steady. “No no, Harry, I’ll never cry for that man again. He wasn’t even a man, just a cheating bastard with a limp dick. You want some money for college, huh? Well you’d have better luck with that whore than with what he left me. All I have is that damn boat, that goddamned whore’s nest! And you, godammit, you. And what good is that? What good is that, Harry?”

Harold pulled the bottle from his mother’s hand and stood. He looked down at her crumpled form, fighting anger, fighting tears. Her thin shoulders shook slightly as she cried. The nightgown was slipping again. He shook his head, turned and walked to the door.

“I tried, you know. For you, I tried…I...”
“I know,” he said and began to close the door.
“Don’t let it ruin you.”

He closed the door.

Harold graduated from college four years later and got a frustrating job as an administrative assistant in a nearby city. He and his mother hadn’t spoken since he left that summer years prior. After beginning school, he had emancipated himself from her, refusing to return home for holidays or summers. Through financial aid and student loans, he was able to put himself through school. During the summers, he would stay on campus doing research with various professors and working as a janitor. When he graduated, he’d become so used to the comfortable structure of academia that he felt suddenly lost. Alone now in this new city and without professors to cling to, he began to seriously think about his parents for the first time in four years.

His father and their cherished memories no longer burned so bright, but they were still present, tarnished but not banished. As for his mother, Harold could think only of her nightgown, her bottle, her anger. He’d received a present from her one Christmas. A toaster – four slices, adjustable temperature, shiny. Attached was a brief card with a quiet scene of their hometown painted on the front; a suburban house with a garden in front and a tree lined lake in the background. He took the toaster out of the box, plugged it in, and slipped the card inside. He turned the knob to Crispy and pressed the lever. It clicked and glowed red, the paint melting slightly before the paper went up.

Resentment was foremost in his mind, but as time continued to pass, pity began to take its place. Two years after graduating, he’d gotten drunk after another failed tryst with a coworker and almost called her. He lifted the phone, but didn’t dial. He fell asleep with it clutched to his chest. A year later, she died.

With no real ties to any extended family, Harold heard about it from his mother’s lawyer. Apparently, the funeral had already been held. It was arranged and taken care of by a distant cousin whose name Harold didn’t recognize. The lawyer apologized for not having contacted him earlier and informed him that he been left everything in her will: the house, a modest savings, and a boat named Angelica. Harold felt sick, but managed to thank the lawyer and arrange a meeting. A week later, Harold gained legal custody of all his mother’s possessions and received information on her generous cousin.

He contacted her later that day and flew to meet her on the following. She’d heard of Meredith’s death from a concerned neighbor who had her listed as an emergency number. After apologizing profusely for not having contacted him – the only number she could find was for the university and they had no forwarding address or number to give her – she briefly explained the situation. She’d had his mother cremated and had yet to spread the ashes, but had held a small ceremony at his father’s grave to commemorate her. Few people showed. Harold cringed, but thanked her for her kindness. She gave him the ashes and he returned to his childhood house, heavy and alone.

That night, sleepless and sullen, he wandered through his mother’s house, his house. He ended up in her bedroom, standing in the doorway as he had those seven years ago. But this time it was him crying, it was him walking to the dresser and picking up the half empty bottle of scotch, it was him sitting in the corner.

He drank. He drank and he thought about his mother, about his father. His deceitful father, his embittered mother. What had happened? They’d hidden everything so well. If only he’d known, if only he’d asked. If only he’d talked to her. Don’t let it ruin you, she’d said.

The flames reflected beautifully on the still water. They swirled and mixed with prismatic traces of gasoline, as the water gently lapped against the boat’s now smoking frame. It had gone up in mere minutes. The gasoline had helped, of course, but the fire had grown strong and now spread unassisted, reaching from the cabin, groping its way up the mast. Among the pops and flickers came a sudden crack. The rotting mast shuddered and broke. It crashed onto the deck, ripped through the safety lines and landed half submerged. The water hissed and spat. Silhouetted against the tree filled shore, he stood, watching as it slowly slid from the deck, helplessly releasing its final bursts of steam and fury. He spread his mother’s ashes.

Monday, November 16, 2009

See Any Good Books Lately?

So, apparently this movie Precious is out right now. It's based on the book Push by Sapphire, and since it has gotten the Queen Oprah seal of approval, it was spared the fate of being labeled "the best indie movie you haven't seen." I know I should want to see this movie and the million people I know who have seen it/will see it will tell me, "Oh you must! It was so moving and powerful," but basically I'd rather read the book.

Which brings me to my topic of the day: movie tie-in covers. I don't know about you, but movie tie-in covers actually put me off from buying the books. I've been denying myself Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels because it seems the original paperback cover of Dead After Dark only exists in True Blood form now. It's been over a year that I've been searching for the REAL cover, so I think I might just have to swallow my pride on this one. (Especially since there's that boxed set out now that STILL, unfortunately, includes the True Blood cover.... arrrrgh!)

But I digress.

Other books-to-films coming soon to theaters near you are New Moon and The Road, both books of which have tie-ins (obviously). I can't imagine a disheveled Viggo intriguing more people to buy The Road, but, as much as I hate to admit it, I can see the value in putting the public faces of Edward and Bella on the covers of the Twilight series. The non-tie-in covers seemed to do just fine without them, but now that Robert Pattinson has reached Beatlemania status among tweens with disposable income, why not sell a few more copies of books they already own? Still, I don't remember seeing Daniel Radcliffe's face on a certain YA fantasy series, and I think those books did OK.

What are your thoughts on tie-ins? Does anyone even care about them as much as I do? To me, they seem impure, or as another example of how people don't actually read anymore and that they need Hollywood in order to get noticed.

I will admit to this though: I found a very old copy of Rosemary's Baby at a flea market a couple years ago and it had the little "Now a Major Motion Picture" stamp on it and I thought it was cool. Does that make me a hypocrite? Maybe I can stand Hollywood's infiltration as long as no actors grace my books with their presence... and about forty years have passed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Unlikeable Heroes... and Villains

This week I watched Glee (obviously) and was thoroughly entertained as always until something awful happened. Without getting into specifics in case it is still saved on your Tivo, I will just say this: THEY ARE TRYING TO HUMANIZE SUE SYLVESTER!

If you don't watch Glee (sigh...), then all you need to know is this: Who was once the perfect villain is now developing a "softer" side which makes me want to scream. Whether in literature or on screen, sometimes people are just mean. Jeff Lindsay, author of the Dexter  novels, recently touched on this in Entertainment Weekly, saying "My Dexter pretends to be nice. [TV's] Dexter is trying to become nice." And it's true - TV Dexter now has a family and a conscience - and for what? So people can relate to the serial killer main character? 

Now, I'm all for creating dimensions in your characters. In fact, they need complexity in order for a reader to remain interested in their story. However, if I may turn the conversation back to where it started, with television, let me say that some of the better shows on television right now (other than Glee) are Arrested Development (in our hearts!), The Office, House, and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And they all feature unlikeable characters. We root for Michael Scott despite his insensitivity and cluelessness. We secretly want to be members of the Bluth family. We are Dr. House. 

This trend was perfected, and therefore started, by Seinfeld, whose characters were so selfish and trapped in their inabilities to show common decency, that they were imprisoned for it. And yet. We LOVE them. They are not characters who we want to date in real life, or even have as our close friends, but we love them.  

OK, so why do we love them? For me, it's because in real life, in adulthood anyway, there is rarely "character development" in the day-to-day. If a tragedy befalls you or your circumstances change in ways that you have to keep up with, then it is natural to alter a piece of your personality (if not your whole being). That means that if you write a story in which your character must change by the end, then I'm sorry to tell you that that is what you must do. 

This is actually something the boyfriend and I have discussed recently. One of our favorite jokes at the moment is mocking the new Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side. Specifically, this dialogue:
Woman: "You're changing that boy's life."
Sandra: "No, he's changing mine." 

Not all changes need to be that dramatic (and preferably not so poorly written). In life, changes take time and are not usually so declarative. Be subtle in your writing, but remember that if your story is more character-driven than it is plot-driven, chances are there won't be any huge internal changes by the end anyway. In the way that a Jane Austen wedding scene makes one question the couple's future happiness, characters like Nick Hornby's ever-adolescent men "change" by reluctantly accepting society's expectations.  

While keeping in mind that not everyone needs a Carrie Bradshaw "and suddenly I realized" moment, don't be afraid to create some unlikeable characters either. Sometimes they can be the most interesting characters to read, whether protagonists or, for example, the walking embodiment of evil. Don't feel obligated to "TV Dexter-ize them" unless you think it will better serve your narrative. Or, as the BF put it while we were discussing this, "If a character is a rapist, do we necessarily have to know why he's a rapist?" 

An example of this that comes to mind is Push, the bully, in the Stanley Elkin short story, A Poetics for Bullies. He is by no means a rapist or murderer, but who's to say he won't grow up to be one? Push narrates, opening with: "I'm Push, the bully, and what I hate are new kids and sissies, dumb kids and smart, rich kids, poor kids, kids who wear glasses, talk funny, show off, patrol boys and wise guys, and kids who pass pencils and water the plants - and cripples, especially cripples." 

Elkin gives us glimpses as to why and how Push is the way he is, but he never implies "and this is why you should feel bad for him." He just is what he is, and not to ruin it, but he doesn't exactly become a better person in the end. And yet. We care. And even if he doesn't want us to, we end up loving him.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Depth Perception

Happy Veteran's Day! If you have the day off today, I hope you enjoy it (after you catch up on all of your favorite blogs, that is). My day off is starting out with coffee actually made at home and watching first-season Josh Lyman... I mean, The West Wing, in syndication. So, all in all, a success. And now, it is even more so because this week's story is particularly exciting.

I'm very happy to bring you our first repeat offender on Glass Cases. Due to the positive response from Melissa Mendelson's Session, she has been so kind as to send us a sequel. She's currently working on turning it into a novel or novella.

Session II: Depth Perception
By Melissa Rachel

      She looked at me with those pleading eyes, telling me to stop, but I won’t listen.  All the good that she keeps tucked in her heart cannot melt my hate, my vengeance, and blood pours through my hands.  Her fingers claw at me, but she is nothing but a ghost.  And her life is mine, and it’s my turn to live.
      Black ink bled across fingers.  Newspaper pages met a penetrating stare emanating from a pair of horn-rimmed glasses.  The ticking of the small grandfather clock broke the silence of the room, and eyes moved back and forth, drinking in story after story.  And fear slipped through lips mumbling something in silence, but a thousand words slammed through a racing heart.
      “What have I done?”
      The murders began one month after her visit.  At first, he missed the connection, and then later he reached out to contact her again.  But he found that she had left home shortly after seeing him, and she did not tell anyone where she was going.  All her parents could say was that she was not the same person who left home.
      And then he began to piece together the dots.  The murders focused on people, who had tormented her in the past, and their deaths were brutal.  All the anger, all the rage that had built up inside her was released, and it was all because of him.  And if he didn’t find a way to stop her, nothing would, and he had gone to the police with this information.  But they merely laughed at him, turning him away.
      A detective came to see him a week ago.  The man was very interested in the information that the doctor had originally brought to their attention, but he was almost tempted to let the investigation fail.  But he did this.  People were dying because of him, so he offered his assistance to the case.  And now there was a country-wide manhunt for the girl that had answered that letter, and all she had to do was not come to her appointment.  But she did, and he released her monster.
      “What did I do?”
      Pushing back his chair, the doctor walked over to his office window.  His hands had started to shake shortly after his discovery, and the nights went on now for hours and hours.  And if he were able to sleep, he would see her laughing at him, and something insidious would be waiting for him to turn around.  And when he did, he would wake in a cold sweat, and even his wife was now sleeping in the guest room, unable to handle his nightmares.
      And he fought back the urge to start drinking again, but he was losing the fight to temptation.  If the police did not find her soon and if the murders continued, he would surrender.  He would down glass after glass until he became numb, and then maybe he could sleep.  And maybe somewhere in the depth of his mind, he could find redemption for what he did.
      A cold knife of fear sliced through him.  His heartbeat followed the steps of someone closing the office door behind them.  A scream tried to break through his lips, but a sinister laugh chased it away.  And his eyes finally broke away from the dimly parking lot to the shadow lurking behind him.
      “Long time, no see.”
      Powerful hands grabbed hold of him and threw him into the air.  A sharp kick to the stomach knocked the wind out of him, and another nearly rendered him unconscious.  And he curled up into a fetal position, trying to fend off the onslaught of blows, and then they suddenly stopped.
      “You had that coming.”  A hand wrapped around his throat.  “You destroyed everything, and now I have to deal with the police.”
      “Terry…  I can help you.”  If he didn’t do something fast, he would be choked to death.  “Terry…  Let me help you.”  The hand relaxed around his throat.  “I can stop him.”
      “Stop who?”  Her face leaned closer to his.  “Who do you think I am?”  She smiled at the fear shining in his eyes.  “You did this, doc, and you know it.  You released me.”
      “I know.”  The hand eased more around his throat, and he could finally breathe.  “Where is she?”
      “In here.  Screaming like she always does since that day we left here.”  Terry threw him to the floor.  “I would love nothing more than to be rid of her.  All that good in her heart, all that kindness makes me sick.  She’s weak.”  Terry stepped away from him.  “I want you to kill her.”
      “What?”  Shock now held him instead of fear.  “You want me to kill you?”
      “Don’t put words in my mouth, doctor.  I said her not me.”
      “But you are her.”  He flinched as Terry moved toward him.  “I don’t understand.”
      “Put me back in that room with her, and I’ll spare your life.”  Her cold hand found his throat once more.  “Do anything funny, and I’ll kill your wife.”  She smiled at the anger that crossed his face.  “Do you understand me now?”
      “Then, get up.”  She watched the doctor stand, but his legs nearly gave way underneath him.  “You’re pathetic.”  She watched him struggle to move toward his desk chair.  “You’re weak like her.  Your heart must be pounding a thousand times faster, and that, dear doctor, is how you know you are alive.  If you sit back and watch the world go, then you may as well be dead.”  She slowly moved toward the couch.  “You need to take life into your own hands and do something with it.  If anyone dares to step on you, then you dare to crush them.”
      “You mean kill them.”  He rubbed his throat with his hand.  “You have too much anger, Terry.  Why is that?”
      “I had a rough childhood.”
      “I’m serious.”
      “We’re not having a session, doc.  The only reason why you are still breathing is to help me eliminate her.”
      “And after I do that?”
      “I’ll let you live.”  He did not trust the look on Terry’s face.  “You have my word.”
      “At one time, I would have believed that.”  He pushed himself further into his desk chair.  “Answer one question for me, honestly, and I’ll help you.”
      “I don’t have time for this.”  Terry leaned close to him.  “Don’t push my patience.  It’s very limited.”
      “I can see that, but what do you have to lose?  Just answer one question.”  Terry’s eyes grew darker.  “Please.”
      “Fine.  What is it?”
      “What are you?”  The question caught Terry off guard.  “You’re not a figment of her imagination?  I can see that now, so what are you?”  Terry leaned back against the couch, trying to think of an answer.  “You’re her twin.”  Terry’s dark gaze drove an ice pick through his heart.  “What she isn’t is what you are, and you need her to survive.”
      “I don’t need her.”  Terry shook her head.  “She has kept me locked away from this world for so long, and this is my time to live.  My time!”
      “If this is your time to live, why did you kill all those people?  Did they hurt you?”
      “No, they didn’t hurt you, but they hurt her.”  The doctor leaned a little toward her.  “You were protecting her.”  Terry snorted.  “You don’t hate her.”  Her eyes grew darker.  “You love her.”
      “Say one more word, and I will kill you.”  Terry edged closer to him.  “Now, put me back in that room, so I can see her one more time.  And then I will kill her.”
      The doctor knew he was out of time.  Part of him felt like he had reached Terry, but which half was listening?  He could see death staring back at him through those eyes, so the only thing left to do was to agree to her demand.  But once in that room, which side would fight to survive, and which one would die?
      “Take a deep breath in, and let it out.  Take a deep breath in, and let it out.  Now, I’m going to count back to five, and when I snap my fingers…”
      A few moments later, Terry found herself in a brilliantly lit room.  The door was locked in place, and there was no budging it.  Small, black words decorated the four walls, screaming, “Forgive me” over and over again, but where was she?  And then he felt her.
      Something pulled away from him.  A shadow took shape, turning into an image.  Gentle eyes rose up to meet a dark gaze, and one heart beat while another fluttered.  And they stood inches apart.
      “Forgive me.”  He merely stared at her.  “I’m sorry.”
      “For what?”
      “For hurting you.”  Her words stunned him.  “I was too afraid to deal with my anger, and I just locked it away.  I locked you away, and that wasn’t right.”  He found himself speechless.  “But what you did wasn’t right either.”
      “They had to pay.”
      “Why?  They didn’t hurt you.”
      “No.  They hurt you, and you let them.  You let them because you were weak, and I can’t be weak.”  He pulled a long knife from the back of his pants.  “Without your endless empathy, I won’t be held back anymore.  I’ll be free.”
      “To do what?”  She eyed the knife in his hands.  “To kill more people?”
      “You never took a life, so you have no idea what you would feel, if you did.  But I feel this overpowering feeling in my hands, and their life is mine to end.  And I see their soul fade away, leaving vacant eyes behind, and it’s simply beautiful.”
      “You know what you are?”  He merely grinned at her.  “You’re evil.”
      “And you’re weak.”  He tried to plunge the knife into her, but she barely escaped him.
      He was caught off guard by a right hook, and the knife fell from his hand.  They both reached for it as they struggled with each other.  He tried to throw her to one side, but she was fast on her feet.  And she tried to overpower him, but then the knife struck home.
      “I’m sorry,” he whispered.
      “Forgive me,” she whispered.
      They fell to the ground.  Blood covered her hands, and she struggled to breathe.  He propped himself up on his elbows, and a stream of blood ran across the floor.  And their eyes met, and for a moment, neither one moved.  And their gaze fell on the knife sticking through his chest.
      “I hate you,” she spat at him.
      “And I love you.”
      A moment later, he melted into the floor.  The knife slipped into a pool of blood.  The light overhead started to flicker, and she struggled to stand.  And then everything went black.
      “Terry?”  Her eyes met his.  “Are you okay?”  He summed up all his courage to stand before her.  “Are you okay?”
      “You’re a lousy shrink, do you know that?”  He laughed at the gentle tone in her voice.  “Thank you.”  He helped her stand up from the couch.  “You saved my life.”
      “Is he gone?”  Terry nodded.  “Okay.”  He moved to his desk.  “I have to call the police?”
      “The police!  Why?”  She moved toward him.  “I don’t want to go to jail.”
      “We need to straighten out this mess.”  He moved toward the phone.  “I’ll testify on your behalf, and you won’t go to jail.”
      “Are you kidding?”  She watched him dial 911.  “They’ll lock me up.  They’ll give me the death penalty.”
      “I’ll protect you.”  He waited for the operator to answer.  “Trust me.”
      Something glinted behind her.  She turned toward the couch and reached for it.  Her eyes rested on her hand for a moment, and then she spun around toward the doctor.  She was about to take a step toward him when a gunshot rang out.
      Terry fell back against the couch.  The telephone slipped through the doctor’s hands.  A shadow emerged from the doorway, revealing the detective.  A voice slipped through the phone, asking what the emergency was, but nobody moved or spoke.  And blood poured out across the floor.
      Something glinted in the dark.  It slipped through Terry’s fingers and fell into a pool of blood.  Her eyes followed it as her last breath escaped through her lips, and the two men before her took a step closer.  And resting against her hand was a silver dollar, one side clean and the other coated in blood.

Monday, November 09, 2009

What Do You Know?

Aside from "show, don't tell," the most overused writing maxim is arguably, "write what you know." As a former student of creative nonfiction, I took this advice quite literally. In fiction, however, those words can get a little tricky. I know fiction writers who worry that "writing what they know" might be considered cheating in some way. As if using characters, situations, or settings from one's own life makes the act of "creating" somehow illegitimate. To them I say, pshaw! Some of the greatest novels of all-time came from authors who were just writing about aspects of their own lives. Salinger's Upper West Side, Fitzgerald's Jazz Age, Didion's California... and on and on and on. 

I got to thinking about all of this while reading Twelve by wunderkind Nick McDonell. Since it is a scientific impossibility to mention this book without mentioning that he was seventeen when he wrote it, I must say that this then-child took the oldest rule in the book and turned it into brilliance (granted, I'm only halfway through). Of course, it helps that "what he knows" is the privileged, unsupervised world of rich Upper East Side teens, just as it must have helped Salinger, Fitzgerald, and basically everyone else to use this maxim to their advantages that their worlds were far more glamorous, interesting, or devastating than our own.

Most authors aren't so transparent in their abilities to capture their own experiences. The most otherworldly of science fiction novels are often rooted in truth, or at least truth as the author sees it. Fears stemming from real-life events such as wars abroad or government influence at home are usually the influence of good sci-fi, and fantasies can be as simple as an exaggeration of the real world (the main difference being that in these parallel universes one or more of the characters possess magical abilities).

In "realistic" fiction, authors have the option of using their own lives overtly. But I think, more often, what they know is revealed more subtly. It can be the basis for a setting (Denis Lehane's Boston) or at the heart of an experience (Raymond Carver's gin-soaked problems of middle-class America) or be purely emotional (dare I mention A Million Little Pieces without sparking a fiction vs. memoir debate?).

What are the ways you use your own experiences in your fiction? Or, for nonfiction writers, do you ever find yourselves editing your lives in order to keep certain "things you know" for yourselves? That used to be a concern of mine when I wrote personal essays. Now that I'm entertaining the idea of fiction, I'm thinking about it even more because fiction is... for lack of a better word... frightening. I don't know how anyone does it without incorporating at least a portion of his or her own life.

Further, what are some of your favorite author-inspired novels (as I'll call them, I guess)?

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Wisdom of Time

Happy Post-Election Day! I hope everyone voted in their local elections yesterday and are pleased with at least some of the results.

But enough about politics! Let's get into some storytelling. This week's story is a first chapter to a novel called The Wisdom of Time by Gloria Attar. This excerpt represented the chapter-version of what I think first paragraphs should be. It established the main character and the setting, and turned the seemingly innocent set-up into something darker that made me want to read more.

Gloria Attar declared her intention to live in Italy when she saw the movie Three Coins in the Fountain at the age of ten. As an adult, she was fortunate enough to arrive in Rome and throw her coins into the Trevi Fountain. For the next three years she lived out her dream in Bologna as a writer and founder of the "Mama and Me School of English" for parents and children. Gloria now lives in the Midwest with her daughter, Sasha, and Charlotte, her rabbit. Go visit her blog about her life in Italy at:

The Wisdom of Time
By Gloria Attar

Antonella struggled with her boot laces. She knew if she didn’t hurry that her father would be halfway to the cellars before she even got to her feet. She needed to catch up with him before he passed through the iron gate, or she’d risk being locked out and have only her father’s lackluster technical description of what had happened to the wine. No matter how incredible the reality was, her father had a habit of melting everything down to such a practical level that she was sure the only time he had any fun was when she arrived home from the States. When the housekeeper, Maria, asked for a recap of Antonella and her father’s summer travels, both would stand in the kitchen and take turns recounting their adventures. At the end of their recitation, Maria was never convinced they’d been on the same vacation, as Antonella’s penchant for drama always eclipsed Vittorio’s restraint.

Antonella hoped that whatever had happened, that she’d be the one to tell Maria. She loved hearing Maria’s ‘oh my’s’ and ‘oh Dio’s’ touched with a tinge of the Bolognese accent and the way the woman rolled her ‘r’s’ on every English word. Although Antonella had grown up bi-lingual, she sometimes rolled her ‘r’s’ as well until she’d been back in the States for a couple of weeks and replaced every ‘r’ with a Boston ‘h’. She faced a similar struggle when she returned to the vineyard and Maria couldn’t understand her Italian until Antonella began rolling the ‘r’s’ correctly again and remembered not to pronounce ‘h’s’ at all.

Nothing fun ever seemed to happen at the estate during Antonella’s summer stays. Most of the time, she had only tales of her imaginary playmate to share with Maria. But this morning, when her father answered his phone and three seconds later jumped up from behind his mahogany desk, thereby tipping over his leather chair, Antonella knew something bad, but perhaps exciting had finally happened. She was less concerned with what it was, than how much mileage she could get out of it back at her private school in Boston. When Antonella’s father barked ‘get your boots,’ she knew at least that they were headed to the cellars. The vineyards were so dry in summer, boots weren’t needed. Something was wet.

Her imagination ran forth to casks spewing a claret liquid in tall fountains you could put your mouth under. Although she had only been permitted to drink an occasional watered-down glass of wine, Antonella promised herself that if she saw a fountain of the nectar, that she would taste it in its purest form. It was July and half her summer vacation was over so she hoped the forthcoming sight would be a spectacular display that she could recall every day until she returned to the United States. Antonella would spend the first week of school lunch hours sitting with her best friend Amy; reciting every detail of the summer between bites of turkey and pesto sandwiches. Amy would then elevate her own status in the various cliques by relating all of Antonella’s summer adventures, embellishing where she thought necessary and constantly reminding all those in attendance as she held court, that only she, Amy Abbott of Exeter Street, knew all the details, some of which she had to keep to herself as Antonella had sworn her to secrecy. Antonella didn’t mind Amy’s sensationalizing the details a bit. It kept the boys from taunting her about stomping grapes with her feet, although the cry of ‘no one would ever rescue you from the castle tower’ had remained.

Antonella stood up and grasped the oak railing to steady herself. She pounded her foot on the marble stair until she felt her left boot slip into place. She poised her right foot in the air and jumped to the foyer fearing the time it would take to plant her feet on the last two steps would cause her to miss her father. She flung open the door to the villa and winced as she heard the doorknob slam into the wall with a thud. Her father had told her to stop doing that. Maybe it hadn’t hit hard enough to reopen the large hole she’d made last summer, when she’d run out to see her new horse.

The blinding Umbrian sun halted her steps until her eyes could adjust to the brightness. She squinted to try to make out her father’s figure in the footpath, but it was no use. Her blue eyes were no match for the intense rays. If she didn’t move soon, she knew she’d hear the clank of the gate lock and it would be too late. She wanted to break out into a run, but the rising heat factored that as a non-possibility and as the beads of sweat formed on her forehead, she realized she’d forgotten to bring her water bottle. She’d never catch up with her father unless she ran.

“PapĂ !” she gave all her lungs had and hoped he was close enough to hear her.

“Up here,” he called. “Hurry up.”

She kept her head down and propelled her body forward into a fast walk. She knew he wouldn’t come back for her, but would wait at least until she caught up.

“I’m right here,” she heard as a shadow passed over her.

Antonella reached out her hand, as her eyes searched his long silhouette. If she raised her gaze any higher than the tip of his black boots, her eyes would begin to water.

“Your boots are on the wrong feet,” he laughed as he took her hand.

“I didn’t have time...,” she said, lifting her head only slightly to look at him.

“It’s not important. You’re with me, not your mother.” Her mother always worried about Antonella’s appearance and care whenever she left her daughter in Italy. Antonella never worried. She knew as soon as her mother’s plane left the tarmac, that her father would keep a close eye on her, but not so close that she couldn’t get a little messy now and then. Antonella’s father seldom reproached her for her appearance, unless they were expecting official guests at dinner. Most of her crisp cotton and linen blouses were stuffed at the back of her closet along with her one, more formal, party dress. Summers at the vineyard were the time for dark shorts and t-shirts. Once she had tripped over a clod of dirt and landed in wild boar droppings and apart from being disgusting, the stain had remained in her white shorts.

Antonella’s smaller steps were no match for her father’s longer than normal stride, and every couple of feet he lifted her up with one hand, which mimicked their airport greeting game of judging how much she’d grown since her last visit. Her father always told her that the day he needed two hands to pick her up, would be the day he knew that Antonella was no longer his little girl. Something told Antonella that by the end of this summer, her father would stop thinking of her as little, and she felt certain the something would have everything to do with the vineyard.

When Antonella and her father reached the inside of the old castle, blue spots floated over her eyes as the only illumination in the grand foyer streamed in through the high narrow openings in the stone walls. Her father released her hand and descended the stairs, two at a time. Antonella stood at the top of the staircase with her foot poised over the first step. She shivered. The old corridors below played with sound and already carried the echo of her father’s footsteps through the tombs. Antonella steadied herself against the cold wall and took the steep steps one at a time. As always on the thirteenth step, the light from above faded and for the next eight steps she was plunged into complete darkness. Each time she navigated the cellars’ stairwell, she remembered her first visit to a haunted house in the States and the moment that a blacklit gloved hand had reached out of the shadows and grabbed her wrist. Antonella rubbed her arms to erase the rising goose bumps and the memory of the phantom’s touch. Finally she saw the glow of the catacombs’ overhead lights on the last few stairs. Antonella expelled a long sigh as she emerged from the darkness and the light once again bounced off the shiny vinyl of her red boots.

Antonella couldn’t see evidence of anything amiss until she reached the bottom landing where her father waited for her. Although there were no fountains of wine, and it couldn’t really be called a river, a small claret tributary flowing down the middle of the floor seemed accurate enough.

“Stay there. I don’t want you falling in,” said her father.

Antonella strained her neck forward. Other than the obvious leak, everything looked the same. The oak casks gleamed from the overhead lights and the temperature monitor on the wall read a steady 13°C. The humidity monitor was above the temperature gauge and although she couldn’t see the digital display, she assumed the slight cast of green light on the stone wall meant it read a normal 70%.

She saw Piero, the cellar manager waiting for her father halfway down the catacomb to the right. His sleeves rolled up, he seemed to be inspecting a long narrow stick. The two men walked through the dark liquid, splashing other casks with their steps as they proceeded further into the tombs. Antonella lost sight of them, but knew they’d stopped because the splashing sound had ceased. She heard talking, followed by a knocking sound, then a splintering of wood and a larger gushing sound. More wine filled the floor and the trickling grew louder as the liquid rushed to the drain. They’d lost a red wine, but she didn’t know what kind and she wasn’t adventurous enough to want to taste it from the floor. She wondered for a moment if they’d lost a sparkling white wine, would the oozing liquid fizz? She hadn’t learned the wine-making process yet, though she asked questions and paid attention when her father explained something new.

She looked up at the arched sepia walls. The castle had been restored, but still housed much of the original stone and decor of the medieval period. Many of the iron rings where Antonella assumed prisoners had been chained, still hung from the cellar walls, and a wooden stocks, similar to the ones she’d seen in Salem for punishing people accused of practicing witchcraft, sat at the end of one passageway, covered by a sheet. Antonella didn’t like thinking she may accidentally come across it one day, and asked her father to put it out of view, along with a few of the old chains they’d found. Her father had also put the old helmets and bayonets from World War II that he’d found in the fields, with the rest of the remnants of hateful times.