"What do you plan to do with your one, wild, precious life?" -Mary Oliver

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Blue Moon




As the year comes to a close I must post one final missive in 2009. Tonight there will be a blue moon, an astrological phenomenon. The term "blue moon" generally refers to the second full moon in a month and occurs just once every 2.7 years. But the last blue moon to shine on New Year’s Eve was 19 years ago, in 1990. So, you could say that a blue moon on New Year’s Eve happens only once in a great while. While I’m not one for resolutions, one can’t help but think it a good time for a fresh start, on a personal level and on a national level. “America needs a break,” a friend at work said. And I agree. It’s once in a blue moon, and America deserves a break. Of course, he could have been referring to another invasive, humiliating, random drug test Americans are being increasingly subjected to. So, yes, Americans need a break. And I think we are all looking forward to a better decade ahead.

I already like the sound of 2010. Off years bother me. I like even numbers, colors that match, and straight rows. In the year two thousand and ten, I’m giving away the rest of my cookies and pulling out my yoga mat. I’m going to earn my Superior Scribbler award from Tricia O’Brien (thanks Tricia!) and I will pass it along after serious thought. I will also pass on my Humane Blog award from Andrea Cremer in the coming year. It’s only once in a blue moon one receives such honors. We don’t pass these out like cupcakes . . . do we?

I am thankful for all my new blogger friends. I am thankful for my new Christmas books—A Prayer For Owen Meany, Men Who Stare at Goats, A History of Love, and Gathering Blue, and—from one who knows me well—a vintage copy of early poems from the voice of a generation, The Lords and the New Creatures, by Jim Morrison....

"What sacrifice, at what price can the city be born?"


He was an environmentalist before his time- "What have they done to the earth? What have they done to our fair sister?" And I think it amazing that someone had those thoughts in the sixties with everything else that was going on.

But here we are on the eve of 2010, and I’m thankful for heat and blankets and cranberry daiquiris and people with whom to share them. I’m thankful for a chance at a Blue Moon. May the new year bring peace to the world and reward to all those who work hard and do good things.

So here's to all of you.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Like Phone Tag Only More Fun

There’s this thing going around the blogosphere called Blog Tag and I’m it. Jean Oram tagged me before I could duck, and now I get to tell you a few things about myself. I’ve procrastinated long enough so here we go.

1) What's the last thing you wrote? What's the first thing you wrote that you still have?

The last thing I wrote was a short story which might be the foundation for a novel.

The first thing I wrote was a poem for children about farm animals; somewhat embarrassing now.



2) Write poetry?

Oh, yes, (see above) long before I started writing novels. I love structured poetry and had the most fun writing a villanelle for a college course . . ."She bought a sarong in Venice, where everyone is beautiful"

I like the power of haiku, the challenge of the sestina and the immortal sonnet but sometimes a subject calls for free verse.



3) Angsty poetry?

Oh, yeah. But hopefully it’s tucked away where no one will ever read it.


4) Favorite genre of writing?

I like to write about serious themes that inspire passion, layered with intrigue and sexual tension for emotional impact.

5) Most annoying character you've ever created?

The spoiled city girl who slept around and drove a Smart car.


6) Best plot you've ever created?

How a body is disposed of organically and the murder weapon is entombed under water.


7) Coolest plot twist you've ever created?

When the bad guy surprisingly shows up in a place where a man can just disappear.


8) How often do you get writer's block?

I really don’t get writer's block. Lack of time is my block.


9) Write fan fiction?

No.


10) Do you type or write by hand?

I type everything on my laptop unless I’m not at home, then it’s in a journal or on a bar napkin, or if a flash of inspiration strikes while driving, I write on a notepad or the palm of my hand while I steer with my knees. (I really do that. Don't you?)


11) Do you save everything you write?

Yes, I even have the first draft of my first novel. And early poems that make me cringe now. I’m funny about that. Boxes under my bed . . . in the closet. . .


12) Do you ever go back to an idea after you've abandoned it?

I haven't yet.


13) What's your favorite thing you've ever written?

My #1 novel which is in the final stage of revision.


14) What's everyone else's favorite story you've written?

The same.


15) Ever written romance or angsty teen drama?

I love a good sex scene but I’ve never written a strictly romance novel per se, but my stories always have a hint of romance. Angsty teen stuff? Maybe. I think most great novels have a romantic relationship at the core of the story and many times the climax is the romantic payoff.


16) What's your favorite setting for your characters?

In the bedroom! Seriously, it’s where they are most comfortable. It might be a ship at sea or a cabin in the woods in the north country, or night fishing with friends on the big lake, or skinny dipping in a pond.


17) How many writing projects are you working on right now?

Editing the #1 novel (getting the word count down) and finishing up the first draft on a second novel. And always poetry bubbling beneath the surface of every situation I encounter.


18) Have you ever won an award for your writing?

Yes. I’ve received awards for my poetry.


19) What are your five favorite words?

Cozy. . . because it’s an onomatopoetic word. (The sound of it imitates its meaning.)

Melancholy . . . because it too unites sound with sense, plus it’s a downright beautiful word.

Chocolate . . . no reason necessary.

Comfortable . . . because I like the way if rolls off the tongue.

Frock . . . because it reminds me of my grandmother.



20) What character have you created that is most like yourself?

I suppose the female protagonist in #1 novel shares some personality traits with me. But she is braver and more daring.


21) Where do you get your ideas for your characters?

From my past and from my imagination.


22) Do you ever write based on your dreams?

No.


23) Do you favor happy endings?

Let’s just say I want some modicum of hope at the end. Ambiguity is okay. The Giver is a good example of that. A bad ending is so unsatisfying. As a reader it makes me feel cheated to have a novel end dismally after having invested so much time in it. I personally don't want to do that to my readers, and I try to be generous and empathetic with my characters. I don't want or expect happily-ever-after but one can only take so much Shakespearean tragedy.

24) Are you concerned with spelling and grammar as you write?

Absolutely. To do otherwise is lazy.

25) Does music help you write?

Yes, depending on what I’m writing, music can actually inspire. When I was writing my first novel, I bought every Doors CD I could get my hands on and cranked it up.

26) Quote something you've written. Whatever pops in your head.

“Everyone was afraid of him, but not her father, which made her proud but didn’t give her courage.”


OK, I've bared my soul. Nah, it wasn't that bad (nothing like running naked to the mailbox). Hope I didn’t bore you. I could’ve kept my answers shorter but that felt like cheating. Now it’s my turn to pass along this opportunity and I’m tagging Rebecca Bush. Rebecca has a beautiful blog that I've been following as long as I've been blogging. And one more, C.M. Jackson, another prolific writer who manages a great blog. If you haven't already done so, check them out. I think I'm supposed to tag three people so I might add another victim if I can catch them.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And The Ones That Mother Gives You Don't Do Anything At All. . .


“It was almost December, and Jonas was beginning to be frightened.” Thus begins The Giver, Lois Lowry’s Newberry award novel about a futuristic world of fragile perfection where there is no pain or suffering, no hunger or cold . . . no pleasure, color, or choices to be made.

During Banned Books week I made a commitment to read as many banned and challenged books over the next year as I could. I’ve recently finished The Giver, and I have Jemi Fraser, writer and teacher of the talented and gifted and Jean Oram, writer and chat moderator over at Agent Query here to discuss this complicated, brilliant novel about what it means to be human and how easily we can be molded and conditioned into “sameness”.

All memories of the past are retained for the community in one person, the Giver. He appears very old, but is he really that old, or is it just that the burden of memory has aged him? At the beginning of the book he is about to be rid of some of these burdensome memories. At the age of twelve Jonas is singled out to be the new Receiver. Do you think Jonas’s relationship with the Giver is dangerous after what happened to Rosemary, the prior “receiver”?

JEAN... I kind of wondered about that, too. Has the burden of all that knowledge prematurely aged him? Or is he actually that old?

JEMI...I think the memories have aged him, although he must be middle aged at least. It takes years for him to become the receiver, then years to do it before training Rosemary 10 years before. I don't know if the relationship is dangerous or not - Receivers have been doing this for generations. But because both Jonas & the Giver are questioning the status quo it becomes dangerous for both of them.

JEAN... It is definitely dangerous for Jonas's innocence and naivety. I did get the impression that the Giver had learned his lessons with Rosemary and that he was a lot more careful with Jonas. I didn't fear that the same thing would happen to Jonas, although it did seem that Jonas had fears that he would follow Rosemary.

The death of Rosemary is never really explored but she evidently asked to be “released” and then injected herself. The Giver watched. She was his daughter. But was she his biological daughter? If so, how could that have been possible?

JEAN... I doubted that he was her biological daughter. I think in a way, everyone was family and everyone was biologically connected, but I didn't get the impression that she was a direct descendant. They never did say where they got the males for reproduction though, did they? He didn't take his pills--maybe he's everyone's father. :)

JEMI... I think the eye colour strain is very dominant in the genes. Because they all have similar eyes, they probably are all related, although that's never really explained. We also don't know how the birthmothers are impregnated - I would assume sperm donors because of the pills to eliminate the stirrings. In that case, they could assume Rosemary is his daughter & Jonas is his son.

What was the meaning of the opening flashback when the jet overflew the community? What is this greater power that everyone is afraid of? Something or someone holds sway over the community. Does the community itself have a military? It seems they had the capability to shoot the fighter jet down, but the Giver advised them to wait.

JEMI... I think the opening was a way to set the scene - make it obvious from the beginning how different this society is from ours. My students always look around at each other for reactions when I read that part. They're wondering if it's just them realizing it's different. I think they are afraid because it is against a major rule - and they worry the status quo is being changed -jets would be a rarity. They have advanced technology, but there would be very few trained to build/fix etc. They've eschewed it to go to sameness. I don't believe the community has a military at all - war is too far removed. But there is never a satisfactory explanation for why they have planes at all.

JEAN... I think the community feels vulnerable. There is a primitive fear and awareness--an instinct that is still alive--to protect the ones they care for. I think there is also a natural reaction to lash out at things we don't understand. And things that we don't understand can feel threatening.

The sterile nightly conversations at Jonas’s dinner table and the “sharing of feelings” really irritated me. I wanted to reach across the table and shake them. I suppose this was Lowry’s intent, that we would realize how important it is to the human psyche to have real emotions. To feel real feelings. My impression of the family unit was that the mother is the enforcer…should father ever slip she’d have his head. What do you think? They don’t use the word love. “Do you love me?” asks Jonas at one point. Jonas’s mother corrects him. “It is much better to ask, do you enjoy me. Yes,” she says, “I enjoy you.” Why is it so important for the community to have what they call “precision of language”?

JEAN... I think if people become too real or feel too much, then things have the capacity to get messy. They also are not allowed to touch, something that is a basic human need. It builds connections, too. If they are to create real, deep, meaningful connections, then everything could come down like a house of cards. People might question things. Couples may fight to stay together instead of be separated and placed in the home for the old.

JEMI... There is no reason for love in their society. The parents do what they do to produce capable citizens. They are just following community expectations. Jonas' first experience of love is through the Christmas memory. All real emotions are eliminated because of their desire for sameness. They must have wanted safety in order to choose sameness. Emotions aren't safe, so they've been eliminated. The rituals are to ensure the children grow up and fit in, to ensure their reactions are acceptable.

JEAN... As for language, emotion is difficult to put into precise language. Just look at any little kid. They know happy, sad, angry. But try something more fuzzy like self-conscious, or even embarrassed. I would argue that 'love' is actually, a rather general word in the English language. For example: I loved that movie. I love chai tea. I love it when snowflakes fall on my tongue. I love you. Those are all different contexts for love, and we feel different degrees of emotion in those contexts. It isn't precise. True emotions often aren't. I think that keeping language precise is way to keep the citizens in their numb boxes, to keep them from those confusing emotions that cannot be fully (precisely) expressed.


When the first receiver (Rosemary) died and memories were released into the community, the Giver called it chaos before the memories were assimilated. What I wondered is that if one, say Jonas’s father, received memories, even fleetingly, then how could he not retain some of that knowledge about death and pain and sex and all those things related to the human experience?

JEAN... Good question. I have no idea, because The Giver didn't get them back. You would think they'd have retained some of it.

JEMI... They wouldn't retain them because they didn't want them. They would pretend they didn't exist. They would have been terrified of anything causing them to feel. They would have been desperate to return to sameness. Remember Jonas' memories of colour take a long time before they become permanent. One memory isn't anywhere near enough. I think it would be like understanding a small phrase of an foreign language, but having no context, no way to interpret it. You'd have a very slim chance of remembering it for long at all. These people are cowards. They would push the memories away as quickly as they could. One of their greatest worries is that they won't be like the others. They want to be part of the whole, and you can't if you're unique. Every ritual is geared towards being like everyone else.


Imagine how different we’d be without our memories. “People know facts,” the Giver says, “they know scientific things, but without memories, they know nothing.” Once a memory is given, it is lost to the Giver. Why is that? Like the first time Jonas gives a memory to the child Gabriel to get him to go to sleep, he can barely recall it himself. And why does Gabe have such a hard time sleeping? Could he have been born with memories? Is a child like Gabe, one who can’t or won’t conform to their narrow expectations of behavior, a danger to the community?

JEAN... I was curious about that, myself. Reincarnation? Just a colicky type who needs that connection with others, that attachment, etc? Some babies need a lot of holding to be happy. They need a connection that isn't viable in that community.

JEMI... I think Gabe is of the same genetic strain as Jonas & the Giver. They are all aberrations/throwbacks. There is something "wrong" in them that causes them to ask questions, to wonder. Even before the training, Jonas is questioning sameness. I think memories need to be repeated, built upon in order to be kept. The Giver probably wants to give them away - can you imagine being burdened with generational memories? You wouldn't have room for your own thoughts. We understand blue because we've seen it, heard it called blue and connected the colour/word over and over again for years and years and years. They don't have that advantage.

JEAN... Yes, it breaks their idyllic little scene. They might have to think and feel and try. Despite the sameness, everyone is very individualistic in that they are insular and in some ways, independent. They aren't to depend upon each other emotionally. They are not to lean on each other, ask difficult questions or question things. Someone who is on the fringe threatens their world. Look at a conservative person with rigid attitudes when they face a skinhead. They don't know what to do and feel uncomfortable. It threatens their 'world' views. They might have to question things.

Shortly after this, Jonas stops taking his “pills”. How did you feel about that?

JEAN... Rock on, Jonas!

JEMI... Not taking the pills is one of the reasons Jonas is able to perceive emotions. The pills are emotional suppressants. These people never go through emotional puberty. They never mature. They are stuck at the preteen emotional stage - the importance of rules, the stress on sameness (equal not fair).

Jonas has a gift…the ability to see colors. At first I didn’t realize that that was what it was—I think when he was tossing an apple back and forth to his friend, Asher—then I realized that no one sees colors. How much are our perceptions and feelings formed by colors? At what point does sameness become unbearable? No blue sky….no red apples….

JEAN... If you know nothing else, how can it be unbearable? I think for Jonas, the more he knew, the more unbearable it became. Plus, it isolated him. He couldn't share color or discuss his new world and experiences. People who are colorblind do see shades and tones, so I imagined it would be the same for the people in this community.

JEMI... I love the way the book has no color words until that point. What an awesome concept! Hard to even imagine. My students spend a lot of time discussing how this could happen. Same with the sun - how do they not see it? Are they in a dome - nope, unless it's big - the jet. It's a powerful message about the human capacity to only see/believe what we want. How we can ignore something until it no longer exists. I think the human brain is incapable of staying in this mode for long. We could retreat there for safety, for escape, but our desire to really live would pull us through. It reminds me very much of Hitler's desire for sameness in the world, and I believe Lowry used this as her basis for the story.


With his first memory of pain, Jonas automatically asks for the release-of-pain pill, but it is refused Jonas by the Giver. Is this part of his “lesson”?

JEMI... Definitely - again, these folks want no emotions at all. They don't want to learn from experience, they don't want to experience. Jonas must learn to deal with small pain before he takes on so much more.

JEAN... I think it was. He wanted to numb himself from the truth, but the whole truth is important to being the one holding the memories. How would be become a good consultant for the community if he blocked the true feelings with the memories he was holding?


There is a ban against books in the community. Only the Giver is allowed to have books and if Jonas were to decide to apply for a spouse, they wouldn’t be able to live together because the spouse could not have access to books. The community would collapse into chaos if people read books. So many things in this novel saddened me, but is that what Lowry intended? To make us think about the value of pain and suffering? This ties into the religious idea of suffering for redemption though oddly enough no religiosity is mentioned in this novel.

JEMI... Yes!!! Lowry wants us to fear ignorance. She wants us to embrace diversity and emotional growth. I can't comment on the religious aspect (no knowledge in that department). I think people need to suffer (hopefully in small doses) in order to enjoy the joys as well. We can't block off one part of the spectrum without blocking off its opposite. That's what this society has done - reduced the pain, therefore reduced the joy, until there is no rollercoaster of emotion - just a plain boring highway. No chance for growth or maturity at all.

Jean… I think youth often feel overwhelmed by the world and its sadness, its truths (heck, adults too) and the idea of making everything fair, even, and the same is a tempting thought. I think by showing how different life would be and how things we take for granted would be taken from us can serve as a real eye-opener. If you want sameness, then you have this whole cascade of effects. No books is one of them.


A turning point for Jonas is when he watches his father release a newborn. As father inserts the needle into the soft spot in the head, Jonas realizes that his father is killing it. Why do you suppose they always released one of a set of identical twins when they celebrate sameness?

JEAN... Because people would confuse the two and cause them embarrassment and other feelings.

JEMI... I think they would regard twins as an aberration. They don't want anything outside of the usual pattern.


The Giver and Jonas plan for Jonas’s escape to find the Elsewhere they both are sure exists. He lies to his parents and they lie to him the night before this is to take place, but then the plan goes awry when Jonas finds out that the child, Gabe, is set to be “released” the next morning. He leaves that very night and takes Gabe with him. Herein lies the biggest question for me. As the landscape changes and Jonas starts to see wildlife and birds and then rain for the first time and then snow, does he or does he not really get to a better place where there is love and music and people waiting? With the special knowledge deep inside him he finds the waiting sled he’s dreamed about and starts down the hill to reach those waiting for him. Or does he? Is Jonas only reliving the memory imparted to him by The Giver? Is the sled real or is he simply hallucinating as he falls into unconsciousness?

JEAN... I don't know. That's the beauty of the ending. You can imagine that he has escaped and found a family. Possibly even people he 'knows' or is related to. Maybe there is a higher order at work. Or maybe he passes out. Maybe he freezes. Maybe he's caught and released. It is a bit fishy that this is a memory that he is reliving. Unless The Giver has memories of the future that are to be lived/fulfilled and those to be avoided/unfulfilled.

JEMI... I love this ending - and my students almost always hate it! They want a cut and dried answer. They want to know - and they want to know NOW!!! I love the "what if' aspect of it. If you haven't done so, you must read Gathering Blue, then The Messenger. Although I didn't find the 3rd one as strong and more than a little weird, it's interesting to watch where Lowry takes us.

In the end, what answered this question for me was when the word "baby" is used for the first time...when Jonas becomes aware that the people at the bottom of the hill are waiting, not just for him, but for the baby too.

JEMI... Yes, it's a powerful image. I don't know if most people catch it. Many of Lowry's messages are hidden in nuances of her writing. She is a master!

JEAN... What does it answer for you?

I think it tells me that there is an Elsewhere and Jonas and the baby find it. I think this is what Lowry herself believes.

The book received awards for Best Book for Young Adults and Notable Book for Children, yet as an adult I enjoyed it, so it has a wide range of appeal. I was interested, Jemi, in how your students received it. Wow….there’s an unintended pun.


JEMI... LOL :) My students can't wait for me to read more. We are just past the point where Jonas learns of war. Complete and utter silence in the room when I read that part! Students generally don't like the book right away. Most of them would probably put it down if they were reading it alone. Older, more mature students might continue - they'd have to be strong readers. It entices them slowly with its bizarre society. They can't understand why anyone would want to live like that. They tend to get more interested during the ceremonies. There is limited discussion during the first few days when I read. Now, they groan when I stop, but keep talking about it during lunch and recess. It's very powerful. I think it's great for kids 10 and up - mostly if someone reads to them for the younger kids. Kids of this age are obsessed with fairness. My very first talk of the year is about how equal is not fair, and fair is not equal. By this point in the year, they are beginning to understand it. This book really helps them make connections and grow as people.
I also get caught up and can ramble on when I'm passionate about something. I am passionate about this book and its themes. Hopefully I didn't bore you to tears :)

On the contrary, this discussion has given me a deeper understanding of the book and all its subtleties. I want to thank you both for joining me in this conversation. I love talking about serious books and their hidden meanings, and I look forward to future discussions about other banned and challenged books on your respective blogs.

And to all my readers, thanks for staying with us during this indepth discussion. Now do yourselves a favor and check out Jemi's blog here and Jean's here.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The Well-Lived Life

We woke to a sheet of ice on everything, but the power held. We only seem to lose power in the summertime from the drain of air conditioning on the electric grid. But what a day—trees to cut and trim, cookies to bake, presents to wrap, bales of straw for the manger and some for the well pit so the pump doesn’t freeze, and wood for the furnace to keep Mum’s house toasty and Dad's arthritis at bay. And now an ice storm to set us back.

I moved my manuscript pages to make room for the Dickens Village (a huge inconvenience) and now they're stacked on my windowsill, stacked on my printer, stacked on my writing table, but I don’t want anyone looking at them. It feels raw, like running naked to the mailbox. No, I didn’t do that. I just don’t want unexpected company out for Christmas cheer walking in the back door and eyeing my stacks of manuscript pages in their disheveled state of revision. The curious questions, or worse, the weighted silence. I've just told you a secret. I'm putting it out there. I don’t want to be read. I want to be read.

Fig tree displaced from the Holy Land.
A nativity scene blown into the ditch
Everyone complains about time.
The end, she says, is near.
So bequeath me a blanket,
the one you just took off your bed.
That's all I want.
And the candle with no wick
in the bottom of the box of ornaments,
like a life well lived and now tucking itself in.
The old Christmas ornaments to a thrift shop?
That’s like pictures of other people’s ancestors
stacked in a corner at the local Goodwill.
Nobody wants that stuff.
Who are they without their frames?
It’s slowly dying without the heat of the Holy Land.
I throw a blanket over it at night
when the sun goes down
but this isn’t the Holy Land
and fig trees can't live on an unheated porch.
Here, holy is clean ground
and the No Toxic Spraying signs
we store in the milkhouse
for winter.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Secret Life of Words

I'm thinking of words this morning and their secret meanings and how all writing requires at least to some extent a trancelike state. There is a very good post on this exact subject over at the literary lab

John Gardner's little book, On Becoming a Novelist, has become my new bible. And don't let the size of it fool you. It contains a wealth of information, inspiration, and writing exercises, with help on everything from dealing with the probing questions—“but what do you do?” to writer's block (which he says, theoretically there's no reason one should get.) "If children can build sandcastles without getting sandcastle block the writer who enjoys his work should never be troubled by writer's block." But of course nothing is that simple. "The very qualities that make one a writer in the first place contribute to block."

He says a serious writer is sensitive to language and will find vivid metaphors never before thought of, "not just because he's been taught not to use clichés but because words and their varied meanings fascinate him. For instance how “discover” means “to take the cover off.” "

Are you a born writer? One sign that you may be is if you have a gift for inventing authentically interesting language, a gift for using your own odd words and spying out their secrets.

Monsters

In regards to the bizarre Twilight frenzy, this is an interesting blogpost on Bella and her abusive boyfriends from a feminist viewpoint, of which we see too little of.

Captain's Log - what do you see in him again?
And, yes, I changed the title of this post because...just because.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Fun With Words

I'm always wet
but never rust.
Go on and wag me,
if you must.

What am I?




I just felt like a little fun tonight. Any takers?

One more....

What's greater than God
and worse than the devil,
a starving man eats it
and a healthy man never.

If no one figures it out, I'll post the answers tomorrow.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Interview with R.A. Riekki, Author of U.P.




I’m pleased to have writer, R.A. Riekki, author of the literary novel, U.P. here for an in-depth interview. U.P. is the story of four teenagers desperate to escape the mining towns of Ishpeming and Negaunee but doomed to immersion in the violence simmering just beneath the surface of their Northern Michigan communities.

R.A. Riekki, welcome to the Organic Writer.

I must tell you that I read your novel in one weekend. I couldn’t put it down. It showed me a side to the UP that I didn’t know existed; one beyond the beauty of the peninsula and the prosperous niches of Marquette and Lake Superior, shining a light on the dirty underbelly of mining—what it offers and what it leaves behind.

First, could you tell us a little bit about how your novel came to be published by Ghost Road Press? Did you have an agent at the time, or were you submitting directly to publishers? Were sections published elsewhere as short stories? Did they find you or did you find them?

R.A. Riekki: John Bullock, a friend of mine from UVA, had his book Making Faces accepted by them, so he recommended I send U.P. A chapter from it was accepted in New Ohio Review where he's an editor. So I sent it. No agent. I really need an agent. Realize that more and more each day. Have had a manager and an agent offer, but wasn't a good fit. Want one that's a good fit for what I do, what I like to write, all that. Never in a million years would I have thought I would have passed on an offer from an agent or manager, but after doing this for so long I'm really wanting to make sure that the people I'm working with are a perfect fit for me. Or at least a really good fit. And yes, had sections of U.P. published in Potion Magazine, Arts & Sciences, and nor. I had an acknowledgement page for U.P., but for some reason the publisher didn't include it, but I'm thankful for those publications who published sections of U.P.

Yvonne Osborne: So from your experience would you say it is, indeed, best to get an agent first?

R.A. Riekki: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And yes. And did I mention yes? And this has nothing to do with what you just asked, but I wanna add that Maria Brink of In This Moment's performance of Pantera's "I'm Broken" on Fuse's Talking Metal goes down with one of the best metal performances I've ever seen. My vote for hardest rocking female on the planet.

Yvonne Osborne: OK. I can see I’m gonna have trouble keeping you on track. How many weeks has U.P. been at the top of Ghost Road Press’s best seller list?

R.A. Riekki: 35 weeks as their bestselling novel. And 39 weeks on their top ten bestseller list, and counting. So it's done well for them. I'm hoping that it's success may open some doors in the future. Of course, I'm a large part of its success; I emailed or phoned 1,617 contacts in the U.S., 78 contacts in Canada, and then contacts in 14 other countries to do promotions for the book. So I think once an agent actually notices the amount of work I do in book promotions things will fall in line to go to a larger publisher in the future. But we'll see.

Yvonne Osborne: Wow. I would think your inbox would be full of agent offers. Is it because your novel isn’t about vampires or werewolves, or a paranormal romance or Y.A. fantasy?

R.A. Riekki: Hilarious. I have two horror novels, so I do write in that genre, but they're not vampire, werewolf, paranormal romance, or YA fantasy. But who knows, I could do that. I like to write in every genre. Just like to be prolific. I've had plays produced in seven states, Stephen Geller called me to tell me he loved one of my screenplays, my novels, poems in a bunch of small journals, and short stories in various pubs. And two Illinois Press Awards for journalism. So I kind of do everything, which may be a reason I don't have an agent yet. But I have to admit, I've passed on an agent and a manager offer in the past as I just didn't see us as a good fit. So it's not like I haven't had an offer, it's just that I want to be sure they're a fit for what I'd like to do with my career. But a lot's going on now, so we'll see what comes out of everything that's currently happening for me.

Yvonne Osborne: Part of the attraction for me was the setting. There are very few novels set in the UP. Is this also something that Ghost Road Press liked?

R.A. Riekki: I think so. I mean, growing up, I never got to read one book that was set in the U.P. So when I was getting my MFA, I had this need to represent the place. And not to do so in the way that I'd seen the place written about, which was in sort of corny, or if not corny, goofy Yooper humor that has its place, but I had O.D.ed on it. I wanted to be literary. Or not "literary." I just wanted the place on the page. I'd seen the film Anatomy of a Murder, which people make this big deal about it being set there, but I wanted something more contemporary. What I'd experienced. And I wanted it even deeper in the place, you know, I wanted Third Street on the page and Teal Lake and the caving grounds, all these things that were so central to the place when I was growing up and I wanted people who know that area to appreciate being submerged in it, having these people from that place have their drama unfold instead of reading another story set in New York City.

Yvonne Osborne : Do you think it fair to say that part of the attraction of the U.P. is the solitude, which the people who live there wouldn’t have if not for the winters they rail against? I think the weather is why Lake Superior is still pristine, and if not for mining, there would be little to no pollution on the peninsula. A place like that gets into your bones. Do you live in the U.P. now? Do you like winter?

R.A. Riekki: I hate winter. That's why I live in L.A. Or a big reason. I used to live by the equator at one point in my life and people would complain about the heat, but not me. Never. I'd rather live on the equator than on the North Pole. And yeah, the U.P. is a great place if you want solitude, if you wanna get a cabin in Engadine or Germfask and hole up for the winter. But I like city life. I've lived in Chicago, Boston, Montreal. I like activity and warmth. I'm not built for the U.P. And Teal Lake's not as pristine as it once was, that's for sure. But there's great things about the U.P. and not so great things. In the book when the teenagers complain about where they live, that's what all teenagers do everywhere.

Yvonne Osborne: Enough on the setting. I’d like to congratulate you on writing a cliché-free novel. (Or pretty damn close.) As a writer, I know how hard that is. Did you have to make a conscious effort to steer clear of them?

R.A. Riekki: Yeah, I set out to write a novel I'd never seen before. I'd never read a novel set in the U.P., so I wrote it. I never read a novel with a main character with cerebral palsy, so I wrote U.P. I never read a novel with a main character who was a metalhead, so I wrote U.P. I can't think of another novel with Negaunee, C.P., and Dokken in it, that's for sure. I didn't want to write a novel about a nanny in New York who's spunky and having boy troubles. There's a few thousand people writing that novel right now. I'll let them cover that territory, you know, weddings and Manhattan. (By the way, LCD Soundsystem's "New York, I Love You" is playing in the background.)

Yvonne Osborne: Sigh OK. How long did it take you to write this novel?

R.A. Riekki : I wrote the first draft in a week, then rewrote for two years while in the MFA Program at the University of Virginia. So I got great feedback from Sydney Blair, John Casey, Tara Yellen, Christopher Tilghman, Paula Younger, John Bullock, Thomas Mallon, and a bunch of other talented writers. Really helped me with the rewrites. Got no feedback from the publisher though, published it as is.

Yvonne Osborne: Then you submitted a perfect manuscript. You have a lot of firsts going for you. I wanted to ask you about the cover art. Who designed it?

R.A. Riekki: Oh, that's a great question actually. My sister. She's a really talented artist. We really don't talk much, so as soon as I thought there would be something that we could collaborate on I was excited to see if she'd wanna work on it, so I was glad when she did. Steven Wiig, who did the CD covers for the band that ex-Metallica member Jason Newsted fronts called Papa Wheelie, has shown interest in doing a book cover for me in the future.

Yvonne Osborne: I thought you did a good job of instilling a sense of impending doom in your reader from the opening few pages. Was it hard to maintain that momentum through to the end?

R.A. Riekki: I dunno. I think I struggled with that. John Casey had me rearrange chapters. And editing was key. Keeping the book a quick read. Short chapters, quick lines, the feel that it's always moving. Some agents who looked at it felt I didn't succeed with that momentum. But the reviews I've gotten (Third Coast, Meridian, Foreword Magazine, etc.) have really complimented me on the build of the novel. I dunno . . .

Yvonne Osborne : Let's talk about the characters. I found myself most attracted to the angst-filled Craig. As he reaches sexual maturity and unleashes his insatiable appetite on an unsuspecting female population (which in some way seems to be his undoing), he grows increasingly vulnerable. His list of sexual conquests (and notes on each one) is both funny and heartbreaking. And his method for performing cunnilingus and description of the same was the most provocative I’ve ever read. Did you find one character more personally appealing than the others? One voice easier to write in than another?

R.A. Riekki: I connect to all of them. As I wrote, I tried to tap into parts of me that I felt connected with that character. J, for example, has never been touched by a woman, so I'd search into my own loneliness at the time of writing the book so that I could make his pain believable, his yearning to be touched. Craig, on the other hand, is all lust and so I'd tap into that aspect of myself. So I tried to write truthfully to who I thought they were, their emotions churning inside them. I love voice. I tend not to be a fan of voice-less fiction, which I've found a lot of the top bestsellers in the country are. I like Antony Burgess and Richard Allen and Kathy Acker and Mark Leyner where the voice is thick and complex and original. Love that stuff. And yes, if you want to give good cunnilingus, read Craig's advice, which he steals from Sam Kinison. I haven't heard that comment before!

Yvonne Osborne: You used a unique writing approach with each chapter written in a different character’s voice. As the novel begins and ends with the character, Hollow, I saw him as the main protagonist, and he does turn out to be the most centered, at least compared to the other three. But each of the four main characters has been affected in some way by tragedy. Without giving too much away or getting too personal, do you have any firsthand knowledge of Cerebral Palsy or the devastating loss of a father figure?

R.A. Riekki: Wow, that is a little personal but probably why it's such a good question. I have a cousin with cerebral palsy and my mother has M.S. and they both have said they appreciate me having characters with both C.P. and M.S. in the novel, that they need to be included in literature. I try not to talk about my father. He seems to be a bit private. I try not to write about my family. My sister for example is absent from anything I ever write, because I have a feeling that that's what she wants. I have friends who ask me to include them in my books, you know, "Include my name in your next novel," so I'll sneak their first name in there, but if people don't like for me to talk about them then I try not to. But U.P. is fiction (thank God).

Yvonne Osborne: The F bomb is dropped hundreds of times. Did your editor try to censure you on that or did they recognize the importance of telling the story in an authentic voice? I mean, this is how these kids talk, right?

R.A. Riekki: I didn't get any comments in that regard. I know some people have refused to read the book because of the cursing, but I couldn't imagine never watching any rated R movies. There's so much great art that isn't PG/G. I've had some people read it and love it who I never expected would like it, 60-year-old Christian women in my hometown, you know, but when you think of The Wire and The Sopranos and shows like that, there are definitely fans of the show that are 60-year-old women who believe in Jesus.
Odd transition, but I had a line about condoms in an interview I did with a book blog and the blogger said she was going to cut the line. I was like, "Isn't your audience mainly mystery fans?" She was like yeah. So I said, "You do realize those books are all about murder. I think they can handle me saying the word 'condoms,'" so she kept it in. People are funny about cursing. I'll say this though, it's funny to hear you say that the f-word is in the book "hundreds of times." I have two more novels I'm working on that have no cursing in them. It has to come from the characters. If the characters curse, it's gonna be in the novel. If I write about my old Navy days, there's going to be cursing.
One final note on the cursing, for the screenplay of U.P., a producer told me to put in more f-words. I found that funny.

Yvonne Osborne: Do you think heavy metal and rap can influence behavior, or is that a cheap copout by government and law enforcement entities who try to place the blame for societal violence on the music industry, much like book banning in the literary world?

R.A. Riekki: I think the opposite--behavior influences heavy metal and rap. Heavy metal and rap are mirrors. Don't blame the mirror. Don't break the mirror, you know, that Apocalypse Now moment where you smash the mirror but then the problems are still there, even worse, now your fist bleeding. I'd place a lot of weight on government and law enforcement entities, reverse the conversation. I think sometimes the conversation happens in the opposite order it needs to happen. Confront poverty, not the Ying Yang Twins.

Yvonne Osborne: As I read U.P., I found myself making comparisons to the spirited Holden Caulfield in Catcher and the Rye and the doomed John Grady in Cormac McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain. What authors have most influenced your writing?

R.A. Riekki: I've gotten some comparisons to Cormac McCarthy. I'd never read him, but I kept hearing his name compared with my writing, so I read The Road, which was OK. I read the screenplay version a few months ago before the film came out and I like it better than the novel, so I'll have to see how the film is. What excites me though is that producers have seen my novel writing as suited for cinema the way that McCarthy's writing translates so well, so that's definitely good news. I love film. I also love Catcher in the Rye, but I don't see it as an influence, except maybe subconsciously. I think Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk and cult writers in general were big in what I was trying to do with U.P. I just wanted to write a really original novel, that I felt might not ever get published but I wanted to write it badly. So I was surprised when Chris Tilghman said he could see it getting published when he read my final draft at UVa. Other influences are probably Iceberg Slim, Charles Bukowski, Nick Hornby, Neil LaBute, Kathy Acker, and Hunter S. Thompson. I love authors. I just reread those names. I even like reading their names.

Yvonne Osborne : Have you ever been intentionally hit with a bat? I ask because your description is first-person gut wrenching.

R.A. Riekki: Yes, I was attacked randomly like antony is at the start of the novel and I did have my collarbone shattered. I still have problems with it to this day. But it wasn't by a baseball bat. I think I wrote U.P. to explore that incident, my introduction to just how violent the world can get. I wanted to pretend what it would have been like if I had been obsessed with revenge instead of dealing with it another way (writing a novel about it years later), so antony is me if I had given in to the obsession for revenge.

Yvonne Osborne: Why did you focus on a downtrodden, culturally isolated group of characters for your novel?

R.A. Riekki: I grew up in the U.P. and a lot of the kids I know had families affected by the economic crises of the mines starting to run out of work, the auto industry making its steps towards collapse, so the alcoholism and drug addiction and absent fathers were extensions of the unemployment that was creeping into the cities nearby. I wrote about them because so many other books I read have middle and upper class characters. Any time someone in a novel was dressed up to go to a ball, I couldn't continue reading because it just was a world that I wasn't interested in. I wanted these teenagers to exist in literature just like they exist in life. And what I've been excited about is to hear people who've interviewed me who live in Long Island and Washington and Auburn tell me that they know these characters, even though they haven't been to the U.P. Those downtrodden, culturally isolated characters are throughout the U.S., not just the U.P. But a lot of writers and agents grew up in middle/upper class environments where they don't understand the world I'm writing about. Luckily I'm finding a solid audience who does relate.

Yvonne Osborne : There were plenty of poignant moments throughout the book. What J throws out the window of the car at the end seems to symbolize his own thrown away youth. Do you see this book as giving the typical coming-of-age novel a new spin?

R.A. Riekki: Hmmm. Well, as far as J, yes, when he tosses the most prized possession he owns out the window, he's given up. He's collapsed inside. He's just had his heart shattered. I wanted the novel to open with someone being physically brutalized and then end it with someone being emotionally brutalized. And that's what happens to J. What he loves more than anything, his father, he loses forever. I actually get a bit teary just thinking about how much that hurts him.
As far as a new spin to coming-of-age novels, I just wanted to write an authentic novel about growing up in the U.P., its humor, its losses.

Yvonne Osborne: You seem to have a strong musical background, and your love of music is apparent in the rhythm of the narration; I see music as playing a very central role in this novel. What role, if any, does music play in your writing on a whole? Do you listen to music while you write? OK...that was a a dumb question, but do you find that any particular artist gets the creative juices flowing, puts you in the mood, so to speak?

R.A. Riekki: I almost have to listen to music when I write. Unless I've lost myself into the scene and forget that the youtube video has ended or the CD has finished. Otherwise music is critical. It's so emotion controlling. So if I'm writing a humorous scene, I'll listen to the Dead Milkmen or the Beastie Boys or Tenacious D and if I'm writing a sad scene it'll be Fiona Apple, Au Revoir Simone's "Sad Song," or The Veils' "Lavinia." I like how music affects my whole body to get me in an emotional state that mimics the one I'm writing. I love living in 2009 as far as music is concerned. There's so much great music collectively. Any time people complain about music, I'm like, "You have so much control of what you listen to. Turn off the radio unless it's some cool college radio station and start listening to all the great stuff out there. You know, call up Jennifer Charles singing "We're in Love" on youtube. Lovely. Stars' "The Big Fight" just ended and New Radicals' "I Don't Wanna Die Anymore" just started, two beautiful songs. I love music.

Yvonne Osborne: I know you had a somewhat miserable experience with Boot Camp. Do you think that experience colors your characters and the choices they make or turn from?

R.A. Riekki : You've done your research! . . . Hmmm . . . Not really. Not in U.P. In the short fiction I've done, yes. Matt Schutt, a director who won an Emmy for editing, shot the short film Ease that you can check out on youtube (search under his name and then Ease) and that film definitely shows the influence of the military on my writing. My short story "War" http://www.cameron.edu/okreview/vol5_2fiction/riekki.html in the Oklahoma Review also shows that connection. But in terms of U.P., hmm, I did write it so that each of the characters are going into a doomed future, although my mom had a very positive read for the ending for each of the characters, but I saw Hollow leaving the war that happens in the final pages to go to a much bigger war of Desert Storm that awaits him in his escape by joining the service.

Yvonne Osborne: That’s the neat thing about the ending. Everyone can take something different from it. Brilliant. About War, I found it both funny and sad, which I guess is similar to the “war is a joke” comment that so infuriated the protagonist. Again, you have your own unique voice but the story made me think of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In my opinion, the only good things to come out of both these wars are these amazing narratives.

I found the caving grounds particularly interesting—the underground passages left by the mining company when the ore was depleted—and your description of the bottomless pit in the woods was Poe creepy. Is there really such a dangerous place in the midst of all that stark beauty called the Upper Peninsula?

R.A. Riekki : Oh, I loved to leap those TRESPASSING -- CAVING GROUNDS -- DANGER fences and creep around back there. There was this one spot where it was like the earth collapsed in about six feet and it looked so cool. I remember standing there and just looking at how awesome it looked, to be walking in a meadow and then all of a sudden this area about as big as a swimming pool where the ground had collapsed in. It felt like a spaceship had landed there. It gave me this wonderful eerie feeling, you know, the numinous that Rudolph Otto talks about in his The Idea of the Holy, an awe that comes with the odd. I liked the tingle I felt walking back in those caving grounds.

Yvonne Osborne: Writing without punctuation has been used successfully by very few authors. Did you do it with Antony’s voice to show a lack of education or just to nail his infatuation with Rap? I mean it works, but he was my least favorite character and his point of view the hardest to read, partly because of that. How do you feel about that?

R.A. Riekki: I could almost hear antony say, "If I'm your least favorite character, good! I don't wanna be your ^&*(ing favorite character!" You know what I mean? His defenses and the walls he puts up keep readers from fully feeling for him, but he has his moments of vulnerability as well. He just tends to follow them up with something that will push the reader away. I had a cousin who was drunk and he told me that he loved me and then he punched me in the face, hard. I didn't really care too much for that incident, but I thought it said a lot. I see antony as someone who would do that. But I also see him as someone who hates that about himself, his inability to fully connect. That's why he turns to hip-hop. He sees Slick Rick as a friend of his, an imaginary friend, but a friend. I saw his lack of punctuation as his f- you to English grammar, him hating his English teachers and so doing it precisely because it's what he's been told not to do. And also him wanting to put up a future defensive wall with people. He wants to quote Compton's Most Wanted saying, "ash traces of dub hit a couple corners pulls up at the bud," because he hopes you don't understand. As a matter of fact, when I'd get feedback that I had to rewrite antony's chapters in standard English, I'd ask the person in the workshop, "Why?" And they'd be like, "Because I don't understand him." And I'd say, "Good. I don't want you to. He's speaking to the hip-hop fans out there who know who Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. are and what it means when CMW says, 'throws up a set then he bones out quick.'"

Yvonne Osborne: So it sounds like there is a movie deal in the works. Can you talk about that? Are you secretly working on the soundtrack? Who would you like to see play Craig, Hollow, J and Antony? Any thoughts on that?

R.A. Riekki: To get a movie made, a lot has to fall into place. And that's not easy to do. All it takes is one person to demand too much and things can fall apart quicker than you can imagine. And that person might change their mind, but it can be too late, the moment may have passed. So we'll see. It's a fragile thing. Far as who I'd like to see play those roles, it's so hard to say because I really know older actors and those roles are for actors around 16-24. I mean, I love the acting of Steven Wiig, Larry Joe Campbell, Vincent Gallo, Ewen Bremner, and I could go on and on. We'll see. It's nice that there's interest, but the only way a film can happen is if people are really willing to work together and God is smiling down upon it.

Yvonne Osborne : I understand that the kid who plays Viggo Mortensen’s son in The Road is amazing, an unheard of Australian actor by the name of Kodi Smit-McPhee. It is said that he’s going to blow people’s minds. He’d be about 14 now, so in a couple more years . . . hmm.

R.A. Riekki: That'd be great. May take four years to bring things to fruition anyway, so might work out perfectly in an ideal universe with God smiling down.
By the way, David H. Lawrence who plays the villain Eric Doyle on Heroes also is in the short film Ease that was shot from an adaptation of my short fiction. He's a great actor.

Yvonne Osborne: Is there any advice you would offer the unpublished writer who aspires to join the ranks of the published?

R.A. Riekki : Get an agent, don't listen to people who unnecessarily put you or your writing down, have a thick skin, have a second skill that will help you pay bills, only go to an MFA program if they give you a scholarship (unless you're rich), realize that your fellow students in the program are going to get published in the future too and you're not competing against each other at all--that in fact in the future you can greatly help each other out, don't become a drunk, learn to get a sense of humor into your writing and your life, write and read as much as you can but always always always choose love over writing, and take care of yourself, you don't have to suffer for your writing, suffering will come to you without you trying to have it, instead treat yourself as good as you possibly can, oh, and read my novel U.P.

Yvonne Osborne: When can we expect your next novel to be on the shelves?

R.A. Riekki": Under contract negotiations, so I have to be cryptic, and also I have no clue. A lot is on hold and examining things, so there's some opportunities. Things could collapse or fall together, who knows. I write a lot so there are three novels and a memoir that are sort of up in the air. We'll see. It's a very active time. I tend to go in the direction of who treats me well and tend to go away from who treats me bad, in life and in the world of publishing.
As a final note to you, this is the most thorough written interview I've ever had. Wonderful questions and thank you for reading the novel. I appreciate it very much.

Yvonne Osborne: And thank you for sharing your experience in getting that first book published and for all the tremendous advice. This has been a pleasure and I look forward to reading your next novel and wish you all the best.

You can check out www.ghostroadpress.com or http://www.amazon.com/u-p-R-Riekki/dp/0979625564 for more information, or author Riekki's website rariekki.webs.com/

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Women With Face

She used to wear jeans
on the street
and leave her hair loose.
Then the religious schools
financed by the Saudis took the boys away
and sent back men who throw stones.
They cut off the clitoris in Africa
and heads in Afghanistan
in amphitheaters filled with cheering men
who used to fly kites
and were not afraid of a women
with a face wearing jeans.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Don't Make Me Push You

The choppers circled in from the east to carry them out, stirring up clouds of red dust with a velocity that had all the power of the American war machine behind it. They had been ordered to pack a four-day supply of everything, so it took effort to climb aboard, but it would take the balance of a ballerina to jump back out. The pilots rarely put the skids down. It was too risky. They would hover over the elephant grass as low as they dared, but there would still be a drop of several feet, and anything could be waiting for those whose job it was to jump.

Will found a spot by the open door and sat on his helmet in case Charlie-on-the-ground tried to shoot his balls off. Nobody talked. They were being flown into “Indian country,” the deep bush. Even so, the chopper ride was a reprieve, and the cooler air made it possible to imagine oneself in a different hemisphere. But all too soon they were brought back to the reality of their descent. They flew in low over a field of opium poppies undulating like wheat in the sun. They checked their weapons and the weight on their backs. There were hand signals and radio talk, and the poppies gave way to elephant grass and the pilot was maneuvering the craft as low as he could and it was time to jump and the copilot was signaling: Don’t make me push you.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Cattle Run



This morning the cows got out. There’s nothing like a herd of thousand-pound animals stampeding around the house to rouse you from your bed, heart pounding.

The electric fence is down, no doubt broken by deer. Just as they run blindly into cars, they run right through the electric fence. The young steers were separated from their mothers the night before by my brother and put in the barnyard to feed on silage, along with a cow that is in heat and it isn’t the right time for the bull to impregnate her. So the herd was already in a state of agitation—the bull trying to get at that cow and the mothers all bawling for their young—when one of them discovered the downed fence. And my brother’s off to Indiana for a farm appraisal. So guess who gets the call to help.

First, we dumped feed into the feed wagon in the middle of the field to entice them back into the pasture, and most of them are easily herded through the broken fence back where they belong. Except for the bull. He’s taken a hike down the lane and liking it just fine. My sister-in-law is the queen of the four-wheeler, but she says she’s not getting anywhere near that bull, with or without wheels. So off my husband goes on the four-wheeler to round him up, and there I am….left at the top of the drive to direct him back around the milkhouse and into the field. What? Are you crazy? I ask. Hubby assures me that this particular bull is a wimp, to just stand back and he should go right in. Sure. This bull is huge. He has a neck like the trunk of an oak tree, legs like steel pistons and hooves the size of a smithy’s anvil, and I could never understand why anyone would want to run with one of these. I grab a hoe in one hand and a shovel in the other, arms out like a scarecrow and guard my post.

You know where to hit a bull, don’t you? My dad says. In the nose. It’s their one sensitive spot.

In the nose? Who wants to get close enough to this muscled, testosterone-filled animal to hit him in the nose? I back up.

Here he comes on a trot around the barn, looking left and right. Husband, Dave, is right on his heels with the four-wheeler. I wave my hoe and my shovel. He heads straight for the gap in the fence, an obedient bull, nice bull, maybe sensing a full feed wagon ahead, maybe deciding he wants to join his cows after all.

So the fence is repaired and we have one more reason to anticipate the start of deer firearm season.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Colors of Standard Time

Everyone writes about the sky. But this morning it seems particularly beautiful. Maybe because the sun is up at 7am as it should be. Maybe because there were traces of pink behind the silo on the hill when I first got up, ribbons of amethyst between the granary and the milkhouse and light reflecting off the steel beams connecting the grain bins . . . on the hill. We live on the downward slope and the old farmstead rests on a hill, as it should. When my ancestors walked in from Detroit one hundred and eighty years ago they were clever enough to select the high spots. Our ancestors had enough sense to know you shouldn’t build a house in a floodplain or in a wetland. But see how I wander? About the sunrise. Yes, even as I type the colors fade and the show is over. And now I’m typing through sunspots on the page because I had to check on the sun’s progress. What dummy looks directly at the sun, even in its diminished state? I’ve noticed it doesn’t come up over the barn as it was, even a month ago, shining through my kitchen window and directly across my laptop to blind me. Sure I could move, but I like routine when it comes to writing, and I’m a squinter. (Farmers squint and so do writers.) Now the sun rises towards the south, and now I can type in the early hours without squinting.

I love early morning and if I didn’t have that other tedious job, I could write all day now that the garden is going to sleep. I'd participate in NaNnoWriMo. A 50,000 word novel in one month? Shoot, that ain't nuthin! But one has to “earn” a living. Cathy Essinger, the creative writing teacher who set me on the path to novels, once told me that phrase had always irritated the hell out of her. “Why should we have to earn a living?” she asked in the car when we were coming back from a poetry reading, after I told her I couldn’t enroll for the fall quarter because I had to go back to work fulltime. "As if we weren’t born on this earth to Live." It’s a shame not to use our God given talent and when the rules of society interfere with people doing what they were born to do, that society is in trouble. As Ernest Hemingway said, “I can do many things better than I can write, but when I don’t write, I feel like shit. I’ve got the talent and I feel that I’m wasting it.”

Here's an update on our outdoor wood furnace experiment. It was installed a week ago and looks like a cute little Hansel and Gretel house with a ten foot high smoke stack. The prevailing winds are from the West so we situated it just to the north of the house so the folks won’t get wood smoke in their bedroom window. The boiler automatically maintains a temperature between 180 and 190 degrees. The damper is controlled by a magnet and when the temperature falls to 180 it automatically opens. All we have to do is keep wood in it (no splitting because of the large capacity) and if it’s full, it’ll burn for 36 hours. It heats the old farm house and at 89 years of age, Mom and Dad like heat. It also heats their hot water. It’ll heat our greenhouse if we ever get the plastic on. Oct. was a miserable, rainy, cold month and slowed progress in many areas. We’ve already had more sunshine in November than we had in the last two weeks of October! Cleaning up the garden last week, pulling the last of the beets and cutting the last of the cabbage, I caught an occasional whiff of wood smoke. It warmed me in a way that is hard to explain,as if the smell of buring wood sent signals of perceived warmth to my brain, the way the smell of freshly cut hay triggers a rush of childhood memories. They say that memories are triggered more by the sense of smell than by any other sense. Is there a certain smell that triggers memory for you?

Friday, October 30, 2009

The Teacher


A writer must take infinite pains—if he writes only one great story in his life, that is better than writing a hundred bad ones—and that finally the pains the writer takes must be his own.
—John Gardner

In praise for John Gardner’s book, On Becoming A Novelist, my copy is underlined and annotated and always close at hand. I’ve read it and reread it, all the while wondering: do I have what it takes? And then self-doubt sets in, as it always does, especially when I awake in the middle of the night and all seems lost. Then, in the light of day this self-flagellation retreats like the bogeyman under the bed and off I happily go in search of the perfect word.

He explains better than any teacher I’ve ever had what writing teachers really mean when they say we should show and not tell. “One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways,” he says. “The abstract adjectives mean almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what the writing teacher means by “show,” not “tell". And that is all they mean. You can tell a reader about almost anything in fiction except a character’s feelings. The characters’ feelings must be demonstrated, through an action (or gesture), dialogue or physical reaction to setting.”

If I would share any other thing from this generous book, it is his frequent reference to what he calls the vivid and continuous dream. A good writer, he says, evokes in a reader a vivid and continuous dream. This is the state of mind your reader falls into if you’ve done your job. Absorbed in the dream you’ve artfully weaved, they forget that they are reading printed words on a page. But be wary, for the dream can be abruptly interrupted. One misplaced word will jar them back to reality, one clumsy out-of-character action (why she would never do that!) will make them question the writer’s honesty, one grammatical error will make them page ahead looking for one more reason to stop or, worse, set the whole thing aside.

I think it relates back to the mysterious trancelike state all novelists experience when they’re writing a serious novel. We can’t explain it, even to ourselves, and certainly not to anyone who doesn’t write novels. The writer’s trance evokes the vivid dream in the reader. Good fiction requires it and the serious reader expects it.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Writers on Writing


This is a writer's chair. What? you say, where are the writing tools? Where is the electrical outlet? Don't jump ahead. One must first sit and watch, and much has passed by the front of this chair. Generations of writers have sat in this chair.

This is our old milkhouse which I hope to turn into a produce washing and storing station. The cement block exterior keeps the interior cool. I see a face looking out, eyes wide so as not to miss a thing. If you look at a thing long enough, it becomes something else, just as words can change their meanings right in front of your tired eyes.

Because I'm a sucker for tidbits of brevity and wit, I like quotations. I have compiled a list of my favorite quotes by writers and arranged them in an order that makes sense to me.

It is not wise to violate the rules until you know how to observe them.
T.S. Eliot

A book ought to be an icepick to break up the frozen sea within us.
Franz Kafka

You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.
Saul Bellow

There is only one place to write and that is alone at a typewriter. The writer who has to go into the streets is a writer who does not know the streets….when you leave your typewriter you leave your machine gun and the rats come pouring through.
Charles Bukowski

Loneliness is your companion for life. If you don’t want to be lonely, you get into TV.
William Styron

When you’re writing, that’s when you’re lonely. I suppose that gets into the characters you’re writing about. There are hours and hours of silence.
Dick Francis

Suffering is the main condition of the artistic experience.
Samuel Beckett

When I have one martini, I feel bigger, wiser, taller. When I have a second, I feel superlative. When I have more, there’s no holding me.
William Faulkner

Read all the Faulkner you can get your hands on, and then read all of Hemingway to clean the Faulkner out of your system.
John Gardner

Surprise the reader with the unexpected verb or adjective. Writing that has no surprises is as bland as oatmeal. Use one startling adjective per page.
Anne Bernays

As to the adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.
Mark Twain

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.
Mark Twain

A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.
John Steinbeck

You must avoid giving hostages to fortune, like getting an expensive house, and a style of living that never lets you afford the time to take the chance to write what you wish.
Irwin Shaw

I am profoundly uncertain about how to write. I know what I love or what I like, because it’s a direct, passionate response. But when I write I’m very uncertain whether it’s good enough. That is, of course, the writer’s agony.
Susan Sontag

You can never know enough about your characters.
W. Somerset Maugham

We like that a sentence should read as if its author, had he held a plough instead of a pen, could have drawn a furrow deep and straight to the end.
Henry David Thoreau


In looking over these, I realize that four of my favorites have to do with angst, which is the writer’s lot in life. But I believe there is nothing more worthwhile than writing. And when you get the words right—find the perfect word or an original metaphor—it’s like a mental orgasm. The highs, however infrequent, far outweigh the ever-pounding lows. If you are a writer, you will write, regardless of the clanging gong of the critic and the shattering rejection of the agent.

So, are you a writer? This is my list of ten attributes I believe you must have to be a writer.

1. Perseverance
2. Empathy
3. Affection for alcohol
4. Self-esteem
5. Imagination
6. Drivenness
7. Indifference
8. Willingness to sacrifice the ordinary TV-watching pleasures of society
9. An accurate eye
10. Fondness for daydreaming and eavesdropping.

Numbers 6 and 7 go hand in hand. Drivenness is what allows you to be indifferent to whether or not your novel sells which allows you to plod ahead. It helps you shrug off the well-meaning questions about what you’re doing with yourself and are you still working on that book and why don’t you answer your phone or organize your life and do something worthwhile (meaning something that will make you money). Questions asked with a puzzled look, because if you aren’t a writer you can never understand the trancelike state that writing requires and the sought-after solitude that is our aphrodisiac.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Laying in for Winter


My ferns huddle under a blanket and my last crop of lettuce is covered with a double layer of shade cloth. The eggplant and basil are dead and the peppers are on their last wobbly leg. I threw old flannel shirts over a couple of roses that were still covered with buds as we try to survive this spell of unusual cold, holding unto one last bloom, one last crunch of green, holding out for one more sunny day when I can hang my ferns back up on the porch and watch their fronds sway gently in the breeze. Come Indian Summer.

But this winter we will have a heated greenhouse. My father is getting an outdoor wood stove that will take big logs, tapping into his existing furnace and running a connecting pipe into my greenhouse which will sit beside it. The wood is ready to burn and I have spinach seeds left from summer for my first experiment! Maybe I can set up a little corner for myself to write, a corner where no one can find me, a corner of my own. And about my short story The Echo, while it is fiction, the problem with frogs is very real. Often this summer my husband commented how he never heard them anymore in the creek that runs behind our house. It is very worrisome. One more thing to worry about.

But look! I now have fifteen followers! Thank you all very much for reading.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Banned and the Challenged

The list of banned and challenged books is like a Who's Who of the literary world. Not only should we writers strive to write something with the potential of making somebody uncomfortable, we should make a commitment to read at least five banned/challenged books a year. I have composed my list of personal must-reads and my top five are......

A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY- Irving (cause I'm a sucker for Irving)
AS I LAY DYING- Faulkner (ditto Faulker)
THE SOUND AND THE FURY- Faulker (can't believe I haven't read this one)
THE GIVER - Lowry (cause I just realized it's buried in my bookcase)
FANNY HILL - Cleland (cause I'm a sucker for sex)


Down with fluff!! It isn't going to be enough to just be published....I want to be on the Banned Book list!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Banned Book Week Challenge

In celebration of the freedom to read, I've further researched the banned or challenged books I've read and I'm proud to say I've found eleven more.

HEART OF DARKNESS
A FAREWELL TO ARMS
LOLITA
THE SUN ALSO RISES
LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVER
A SEPARATE PEACE
THE GREAT GATSBY
1984
NATIVE SON
THE CALL OF THE WILD
NAKED LUNCH


So who has read the most BB's? And the other part of my challenge, to write your own story with the potential of being banned/challenged or in some way censored in a prior post must be amended. There is no way I can have mine ready to post by tomorrow. But by the end of the week....okay?

This brings me to a related subject... the problem of self-censorship. Who out there has caught themselves doing it or giving into pressure from a reader or editor or agent to do it?

Banned Books

The last week of Sept. is Banned Books Week, and I'm proud to say I've read many books that were once banned, challenged or censored. The one I most recently read was THE KITE RUNNER, a beautifully written novel which helped me understand the challenges the Afghan people face and the futility of our intervention. Evil exists and is manifested in such groups as the Taliban. I admire THE KITE RUNNER for exposing their hypocrisy. Some people have avoided the book because they think it's about child rape, which is only a very small part of the book and, again, I admire the honesty of the author because that's what the Taliban are about-making women walk around under tents they can neither see out of or breathe through and raping little boys. Whenever I think of Afghanistan I think of the beautiful woman with the startling blue eyes on the cover of the National Geographic thirty years ago.

Some of the other banned books I've read in the order in which I read them.....

OF MICE AND MEN
THE GRAPES OF WRATH
LORD OF THE FLIES
TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD
BRAVE NEW WORLD
CATCH-22
THE HANDMAID'S TALE
THE COLOR PURPLE
BELOVED
THE CATCHER AND THE RYE
SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE

I have my high school teachers to thank for making the first six required reading.

In support of banned books, I suggest we all write a short story (or the beginnings of a novel) with the potential of being banned. Mine will be posted here tomorrow.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Citizens for Discontent

There are dozens of anti-government groups who have organized to oppose everything Obama does. They would oppose Michelle’s organic garden if they could figure out a way to safely do so and label it with an acronym to misrepresent her intentions.

Citizens against unfair Taxes...Citizens for Honest Government...Citizens against Organic Gardens and on and on and on. They can call themselves anything they want. But perhaps a more honest label would be Citizens For Fermentation of Discontent CFFD (sounds like a disease one should be inoculated against) or...how about Citizens for Truthshaping through Promotion of Fear. (The CTPF's.)

If anything, Obama has been a disappointment to date in the fight for health care reform, having seriously underestimated the toxicity of the Right's venom and the power the health insurance industry welds due to the unparalleled accrual of wealth attained through the clever denial of coverage people have paid for. The 40 million uninsured is one problem, but a growing and often unheard of problem is the number of under-insured. And you don’t realize you are until the bills start coming in for treatments you thought you were insured for but which through loopholes and outright fraud, insurance companies and their cubicle monkeys are finding ways to deny.

We MUST have a public option. It is the ONLY thing that will make a difference. The insurance industry is all for reform that forces all Americans to buy insurance (like auto insurance) because they see 40 million new customers they can bleed to death, and they hate the idea of a public option. Why? Because they’re afraid people will choose it and it will be cheaper and it will force down costs and lower profits. Should health care even be a for-profit industry beholden to Wall Street? Your insurance company is more worried about satisfying their stockholders than paying for patient care. Doctors overwhelmingly want insurance buffoons out of their patient files. The majority of them are satisfied with Medicare administration and payments. Yes, our government can and does do a good job. And I’m tired of the far right beating their anti-government drum under the banner of patriotism. And, no, a public option and National Health Insurance is not socialism. Do we call Social Security socialism? Do we think of our public education system as Socialism?

Our country has veered so far to the right Richard Nixon would now be considered liberal. The health care reform he tried to get though back in the seventies was far more progressive then anything now being considered in the Senate.

We’re way past due for National Health Insurance. But that's just the modest opinion of a writing gardener with a family history of arthritis. What do you think?

Monday, August 31, 2009

The High Cost of Cheap Food

The crop dusters are out, billowing clouds of poison over the rich muck fields of the lowlands—the beautiful black soil where carrots and lettuce grow best in Michigan. If you were offered a million dollars to find one weed in one of those carrot fields you wouldn’t be able to collect. Your nails would be black and your back bent but you’d be penniless for your efforts.

My sister is a caseworker at Michigan Works, helping the unemployed and making sure those deserving receive their unemployment checks and have access to online job opportunities. There is one caseworker fluent in Spanish assigned to help a diverse migrant population who come up legally for the summer to do the back-breaking work of weeding and harvesting carrots and lettuce in the low-lying muck (peat) fields in the Imlay City area. There has traditionally been a great deal of summer work here. She (we’ll call her Margaret), recently lamented to my sister how there is no work anymore. All the fields are perfect and weed free. “There are no weeds, Christine!” she says. And more and more harvesting is done by machine. Some would say, well good, maybe they’ll go back home where they belong. Margaret says they work hard and spend money in the local grocery store and the hardware store and are honest and true.

What do we want? The great wall of China on our southern border? Vegetables that have soaked up chemical residue through their root systems to harbor it in the flesh we unwittingly eat? Do we want labor-free vegetable fields? What . . . cheap food? There is no such thing as cheap food. If you factor in the environmental cost and the health cost of our “cheap food” the true expense would far outweigh the cost of certified organic meats and vegetables.

The sun is rising over the treetops, and now the crop dusters are out, spraying the carrots which look beautiful and lush in the distance. The drone of the engines as they swoop over the fields across the road at the back of our farm wafts through my window closed to the 45-degree morning. The land is defenseless, giving back only that which is given.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Who Came Before You


My father lost partial hearing
in the middle of the night.
He woke up deaf in one ear,
shaking his head like a swimmer.
Now he has taken to playing solitaire,
and the cards stay on the table like a chess game.
Mother cooks and cleans and dumps thistle seed into the bird feeder
and replaces the battery in her cow cookie jar,
(the mournful moo) so she can catch the sneak.
But it isn’t Dad.

The only memory I have of my maternal grandfather
is him sitting at the table playing solitaire
with a curious knob in his ear,
while we nabbed cookies out of the cookie jar.
I have no memory of his voice, or his laughter or his work,
his coming in from the field, perspiring and flushed,
although I know he did these things . . . before me.

I don’t like my father’s hearing aid,
the way it amplifies background noise
and takes him out of the mix at the dinner table
where he used to drive the conversation,
the way he buries himself in the newspaper and doesn’t
say hello when you come in the back door.
The way the grandchildren I don’t yet have
won’t know him.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Selling of Deanville Mountain

Can a man own a mountain?
Carve out the center and cart it away
to shopping malls and garden centers?
Can he haul it off to adjacent counties
and bordering states where people
won’t appreciate that their gravel made up a mountain?

This mountain . . . our mountain.
This land . . . our land.
What farceness.
What? I can’t make up a word?
One man can own a mountain and truck it away
in exchange for stuff from malls full of sullen children
who have never climbed a mountain.
One man can disfigure the landscape
and transform the view and there are no words for that.

This mountain was our mountain,
ten o’clock on our compass.
history and barometer and weather maker.
Deanville Mountain and the road that crossed it—
lined with trees tall enough
to support elaborate nests and birds of unblinking eye—
was a place for teenagers to find themselves in the dark.
A place where rumors were invented and secrets uncovered.
Too bad our mountain held such a rich lode.
Too bad about mining and ownership and the rumor
that didn’t travel far enough into the right hands
fast enough. Too bad about the gaping wound and the collapsing side
that I thankfully can’t see from my porch . . . yet
Too bad it was never ours.

My grandfather insisted that the mountain changed our climate.
Storm clouds moved around Deanville Mountain
like storms off the Pacific deflected by rugged coastline.
Rain would fall to the west or skirt the entire bulge
To head out over the lake.
It was a mountain to be reckoned with and perhaps
compensated us beyond our comprehension.
Perhaps we’ll now have more of the rain that a farmer
can never seem to get enough of.
(They’ll tell you all about that in the Central Valley.)
But the mountain isn’t grand anymore.

Humane Blog Award


I was recently nominated to receive the Humane Blog Award by Andrea Cremer over at A Blurred History. Thanks Andrea, for believing me to be worthy of this award.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Clean Ground

I missed it again—that swift setting of the sun. Once it turns crimson and fat and begins its downward slide, one only has a few minutes to capture the scene. If you’re careful and diligent and don’t let yourself get distracted by the commonplace, you can sit with your feet up on my front porch and watch the sun set to the south of Deanville Mountain (the highest point in the Thumb).

The sky is big and beautiful this evening. I missed the sunset but the residual display is still breathtaking. The winds have died down and the flag hangs limp. I can always hear Dad’s whipping in the wind when I’m down at the garden. It sounds like someone walking across the grass and I look up, tricked once again by the commonplace.

I love our dirt road. Today it was groomed and graded and salted by county workers and tonight we have the grandest road in the country. Smooth and pothole free—the kind of road we loved to ride our bikes on when we were kids. The kind of road that connects you to the cedar swamps of the past . . . the footpaths of those who came before us. I can hear traffic on the pavement a mile away, but no sounds here on Clear Lake Road, except for a few evening birds.

I found a poem I wrote when I lived far away and my father had just completed the farm's transition to organic.

The Clean Ground

When I leave the pavement with a jolt
I leave what I have for what I know,
for the gravel roads of home that run past
tangled fencerows where the only gaps
are where elms once stood;
roads that are graded and groomed by men
in trucks with big blades that rumble
up and down the road. They hang out the window
with tanned arms and inspect their progress.

I cross the ditch which becomes a torrent in spring
and drive past gnarled oaks and lilacs that bloom on old wood
and try to remember why I left.

The pond lies at the lowest point on the farm
with banks of waving cattails.
Two months past summer solstice…
it’s only half full. A new dock straddles dry ground
because the drought persists.
Clouds hurry overhead.
They neither darken nor slow though we watch.

Dust coats the Queen Anne’s lace and Ice Age boulders
that lie scattered along the fence, smooth and broad as shoulders.
Bobolinks flirt with each other and the pheasants have returned,
waving mulberry plumage above the grass like a tease behind a veil.
Pesticides had thinned them rare but now the ground is clean.
There are worse things than drought.

I saw an eagle yesterday.
He was young because his head was dark.
Eagles don’t often crowd the hawks, but there he sat
atop the ageless oak, surveying the dryness.
Because this is a better place than some.