Monday, August 10, 2015

The Hunt for the Pyxis Begins!!

I am extremely delighted to announce the publication (finally!) of my new children's book, The Hunt for the Pyxis. This is the first in the Galaxy Pirates trilogy, an adventure story for ages 9 and up. School Library Journal says that it’s “absolutely action packed…this first in a series will keep kids reading!”

I discovered yesterday that one young reader on Amazon wrote "I want to live in this book!" I think this is the highest praise a writer can receive -- thank you, anonymous 12-year-old, you just filled me with indescribable glee! 

The Hunt for the Pyxis is set in an outer space you've never seen before, where big ships ply the intergalactic waterways and the constellations inspire fantastical creatures. It evolved from a fantasy world I first imagined as a child. I think of it as Star Wars meets Patrick O’Brien.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the way books are made, publishing a book generally happens at the speed of Dutch Elm disease. But now, reading that book is just one click away! You can purchase it as hardback or ebook at Amazon and plenty of Indie booksellers. My favorites are Green Apple, Books Inc and Kepler's.

I also want to give a huge thank you to my agent at Inkwell, Charlie Olsen, for doing the impossible and actually SELLING the book. Another massive thanks to my editor at Crown Books, Phoebe Yeh, for actually BUYING it. You guys, this is still a miracle to me. Even more thanks to all the readers, family and friends who were involved in this project - or rather, who read the book countless times and then put up with me wanting to have conversations about things like the shape of a dragon's snout or whether or not Queen Virgo has children. I love you all.
On the night Emma Garton’s supposedly boring parents are kidnapped, she is forced to face the truth: they’ve been lying to her about many things, including the Pyxis, a mysterious amulet that holds the key to saving another world. Worse yet, her parents aren’t even from planet Earth.

To find her parents, Emma and her best friend, Herbie, must leave Earth and enter the Strands—the waterways of space, where huge galleons ply the intergalactic seas. But a journey through the constellations won’t be easy—not with evil Queen Virgo and every scoundrel in the galaxy determined to find them.

In this interstellar adventure, YALSA Alex Award–winning author Zoë Ferraris transports young readers to a vast, magical universe filled with fantastical creatures, merciless villains, and fearless heroes.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

What I'm Reading This Week

In keeping with the new look of my blog, I’m taking a pilgrimage into old territory, going back to subjects and interests that have occupied me for years but which I've been neglecting because I've been writing fantasy for kids.

What I’ve just finished reading and can highly recommend:

Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness (edited by Daniel Pinchbeck and Ken Jordan): An eclectic series of essays handling just what the title says. There are many ways to look at consciousness, but delightfully this book ranges all over the map - including things like lucid dreaming, DMT, jhana states, synchronicity, and even gems like "the proper uses of stage magic." I loved the wide sampling here, just enough on each subject to keep my interest and stir up some unknown and uncomfortable areas in my own consciousness.

Walter B. Gibson and the Shadow (by Thomas Shimeld): A straight-up biography, although Gibson’s life makes for remarkable content. He wrote so much that even he didn’t know how many books he had published, and his primary occupation was the paranormal. He wanted to write it into the Shadow novels, but was forced to take a lot of it out of his fiction under pressure from his publishers. Gibson is my great-great uncle and I don’t profess to have anything like his creative output, but I do share his love of the unexplained, of finding what is truly mysterious in life, and of course of heroes, whether they’re super or not.

Chief Marin (by Betty Goerke): It is pretty rare to find a good book about California Indians -- and by "good" I mean one that wakes you up and makes you feel that for a moment you are back in the past, seeing the world as it was then. "Good" also means transcending the goofy romanticism so many books about Indians have. This story of Chief Marin, the Miwok leader who defied the Spaniards, is obsessively researched and pretty damn good.

The Witches of Eastwick (John Updike): I loved this twenty years ago, and all I can say now is god bless this man, he is still completely awesome. Even if he is not politically correct. Even if he is a bit wordy at times. He can get away with anything. His prose, his characters, his odd little asides serve up some kind of alchemical magic of their own. When he puts a Rhode Island winter on the page, by god you are there, like it or not.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Patron Saint of Ugly

I am delighted to round-off my celebration of three writer friends who have published novels this year with the third of the trifecta, Marie Manilla's The Patron Saint of Ugly.

I may be especially biased by the fact that her main character is named Ferrari, but I feel a deep kinship with Garnet, an outspoken yet intensely private woman who seems to witness a lot of unusual things. However, the similarities end with the fact that Garnet is being judged for a Catholic sainthood. Her story, told to Father Archibald Gormley via recording device, details her remarkable life and her skepticism about the miracles she supposedly performs. As hordes of followers descend on her home, begging for cures, Garnet's story unfolds, giving the reader what Booklist calls "a captivating reminder of the blurred lines between myth and reality."

Marie graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop and her short stories have been published, well, in almost every prestigious literary journal this side of the Atlantic. For a sampler, try her brilliant and eclectic collection Still Life With Plums. You may also want to check out her first novel, Shrapnel, which won the Fred Bonnie Award for Best First Novel.

Here Marie answers my questions about the novel and its delicious blend of Southern gothic and magic realism.

This novel is such a fascinating blend of elements. How did magical realism come together with Southern gothic and the Sicilian malocchio?

I’ve always been a fan of magical realism, particularly the works of Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, and Salman Rushdie. I was fascinated by the way they created worlds grounded in reality, but where magical occurrences were presented in such a way that I believed them entirely. This may harken back to my love of folklore, Aesop’s fables, and Grimms’ fairytales that terrified and delighted me as a child.

When I created the fictional Sweetwater Village in Patron Saint, I drew maps and named streets and created a robber baron who developed the area. Then I added this girl covered in port-wine birthmarks who may be able to perform miracles. Hopefully I’ve painted the world so thoroughly that readers will be able to accept that it’s a typical immigrant village that just happens to contain magical elements.

I’ve also always been a fan of Southern gothic, especially the works of Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, and Carson McCullers. Their prose chronicled a defeated South peopled with rich, colorful, horrible, hilarious, unconventional characters. Much of their work is infused with humor, even in the face of evil.

There are a number of colorful characters in Patron Saint, some quirky, some horrible, not the least of which is Garnet, whose birthmarks are an evolving map of the world. She’s also an irreverent smartass whose voice adds humor, even in the face of tremendous family tragedies.

At times, in both magical realism and Southern gothic, there is the question of malleable truth. Readers get different versions of events depending on who is doing the (tall) telling. Because Patron Saint is delivered as tapes Garnet makes for a Vatican emissary, it’s possible that some of her stories are hyperbolic or outright fiction. This question of truth is heightened when Garnet’s grandmother, Nonna Diamante, steals the tape recorder to set the record straight, as does Garnet’s aunt Betty.

The malocchio slipped in quite naturally, since Sicilian Nonna Diamante not only believes in the evil eye, but she’s trained in the art of warding off the jealousy of jettature. I had such fun infusing the novel with details from Nonna’s hybrid blend of Old Religion and Catholicism.

This book is about Garnet, a would-be saint and reluctant miracle worker who is totally fierce and funny. Can you talk about how you developed her character? Where did she come from? Does she have a real-life double?

I was born with port-wine birthmarks on my left hand that I always thought looked like North and South America, including the Panama Canal. When I was young, kids would screw up their faces and ask: “What’s wrong with your hand?” My answers matured with my age: heat rash, rabies, syphilis. That’s where the seed of the novel sprang from.

I’ve carried Garnet’s voice inside me for years. She’s the smartass I would be if I didn’t have an internal firewall to keep me in check (mostly). She’s also braver than I am. If you stripped away the magical elements of the novel, Garnet is just a girl trying to negotiate a dysfunctional family. All she wants is to be loved by her father, who is so put-off by her port-wine stains that he just can’t give her the love she needs. I think this speaks to many children, male or female, raised by parents of the Greatest Generation, especially the fathers, who were taught to keep their emotions in check. Public displays of affection were a no-no. Even I love yous were rare.

Garnet is also every homely child who has been overlooked or overshadowed. Though Garnet ultimately comes to embraces her “stained” self, what’s more difficult is accepting her “sainted” self—and I think we’re all both sainted and stained. Part of Garnet’s journey—and all of our journeys—is learning to accept that duality.

Garnet does witness miracles, but like a lot of people she isn't sure how to fit the strange and the unexplained into a rational view of the world. In writing this book, did anything strange happen to you? 

Initially, Patron Saint was simply about a girl born with port-wine birthmarks, but they weren’t geographic, nor was Garnet a miracle worker. She was just a child ostracized by some and adored by others who were trying to protect her. I got about halfway in and realized the novel was flat, but I didn’t know how to fix it. I posed the question to my subconscious: How can I give the novel that added oomph? Not long after, I was walking in the park and came upon a recently dead squirrel. There were no marks on its body. It most assuredly was not breathing. I bent down to take a closer look, and suddenly the thing sat up, shook itself off, and scampered away. I looked around to see if anyone else had witnessed this miracle. (Okay. It was probably stunned from a fall). Immediately, a question popped into my mind: What if Garnet could perform miracles? That’s all it took to set the book on a course that would include Nonna Diamante, the evil eye, the sixteenth-century St. Garnet lore, the evolving birthmarks, the miracle-seeking pilgrims, the Vatican, 60 Minutes.

Shortly after I made the decision to infuse the novel with miracles, evil-eye lore, and the myth of the Pining Nereid, I started finding relevant talismans on my daily walks: blue-eyed marbles, seashell buttons, holy medals—confirmation that I was on the right path. I collected those and other Patron Saint totems with the hopes that they would bless the endeavor and get the novel into the right hands. Here’s a photo of the collection on the windowsill in my office. Given that Patron Saint found such a wonderful home with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, I’m inclined to say the charms worked!

The novel is dedicated to your own Sicilian grandmother, and you say she has haunted you for your entire life. Can you talk about her?

Like Garnet, I’m half Italian, and though one of her staunchest allies is her nonna, my Sicilian grandmother, Concetta Ferrara LaPelle Manilla, died sixteen months before I was born. Still, I have always felt a connection to her. Even as a kid I loved working with my hands: planting vegetables, embroidering pillowcases, making mud pies. More than once my mother, Concetta’s daughter-in-law, said: “You’re just like Grandma Manilla. She always had some project in her hands.” I’ve also always been an experimental cook, tossing in spices and random ingredients. Again Mom said: “You’re just like Grandma Manilla. Grandpa always said she could even make shit taste delicious.” These comments made my kid-self wonder if I was her reincarnation.

My paternal family was tight-lipped about their ancestry, particularly about Grandma, who was always a mysterious figure. This red-haired spitfire became a hero to me when I learned that she supposedly escaped an arranged marriage in Sicily by selling some of the family jewels and hopping a ship to America. I adored her bravery, even if it contradicted other family lore, which was that she silently suffered Grandpa Manilla’s bullying. There are various versions about how many husbands she had, and how she wound up in West Virginia. That’s why there are several accounts in Patron Saint of how Nonna Diamante and Grandpa Ferrari came to be man and wife.

What's next for your writing?

My novel-in-progress, Blood Orchard, is also a blend of magical realism and Southern gothic. In it I explore the luck of fate: how one’s life and future, and the future of one’s heirs, can be determined by not only what century one was born in, but what gender and race and particular patch of dirt. I chronicle the rise and fall of the fictional boomtown of Waller’s Ferry, Virginia. The novel calls racism, sexism, and classism into question, since the town-founding Wallers swapped skins and genders and birthrights to survive. Some men are women, some whites are black, and those who should be rich have been stripped of their fortunes, and at times their very lives.

Structurally, I’ve set an ambitious task for myself, in that throughout the eight generations the novel spans, the cast remains virtually the same. In addition to a succession of malevolent aunties, grifters named Asa, fallen preachers, and idiot Jebs, the two central characters are a string of Portias and Doo Flys. Their birthrights were robbed from them in the nineteenth-century, swapping what would have been a cushy Waller lifestyle for one of poverty, prostitution, and addiction. But all those Portias and Doo Flys are drawn to the Waller home and name. They understand on a cellular level that they were meant for something better.

The present-day of the novel, the “over story,” follows the final, twenty-first century Portia whose mother saved her from the cycle of drugs and whoring by putting her on a train where she is rescued by Cherry. Throughout the years, Cherry receives mysterious packages on her doorstep, which contain artifacts that will inform both her and the found child about the truth of her heritage, and who the Wallers really were. The artifacts include a scalp from the French and Indian War, a Civil-War peg leg, a Gilded-Age dragonfly brooch, a 1920s lotus earring, and more. Cherry’s trance-like “interpretations” of these artifacts are how the history of Wallers Ferry is delivered to readers. When the found child is old enough, the artifacts will send her on a journey back to Wallers Ferry (now West Virginia) to claim her birthright for good.

Thank you so much, Marie, and congratulations on all your success! For more about the author, check out her website, or find her on Twitter or Amazon

Friday, November 1, 2013

No Woman, No Drive

Alaa Wardi is at it again, this time funnier than ever!

Monday, October 7, 2013

We Need More Spooky

You know how physicists say ludicrous things? For example: An electron can be in two places at once. Or: With enough gravity, you can bend space. We fiction writers rely on this stuff. (Thanks guys.)

But, do you ever notice how biologists DON’T do this? In 2001, Nobel prize winner Paul Nurse predicted that biology was about to go through a revolution similar to the one experienced in physics a hundred years ago. 

And here we are in the much-vaunted century of biological revolution. So where are the kooks?

Biology has some deep, dark problems at its core: it still has to explain how the complexity of life arose from a chemical goulash. 

It also has to explain how the component parts of a single cell in the body manage to find one another. The currently accepted answer is that enzymes just go bumping into everything until they stumble into the right partner

Gosh, if these were physicists, they'd be talking about twelve dimensions and quantum tunneling. 

A group of enterprising scientists, led by one Dr. Steven Benner, have recently proposed that life may have formed on Mars. Not too shabby. And a team of British scientists seems to have found proof of DNA coming into our atmosphere from outer space. We're getting closer to an alien theory, but seriously, where is all the weirdness in the world of the small?

Will it matter?

One guy, Dr. Fritz Albert Popp, dared to propose that DNA produces photons and that this creates a "dynamic web of light" inside the body. This web of light may be responsible for orchestrating the behavior of cells, tissues, and organs. Essentially, this is saying that DNA is like CENTCOM, a command station that talks to -- and controls -- many far-flung parts.

Einstein was disturbed by quantum mechanics, in particular “the problem of the total renunciation of all minimal standards of realism." Your disturb-o-meter might hit the same mark with biophotons. They are light. And energy. Little packages of stuff. But they are not thinking beings. And they certainly do not have the complexity of mind to run CENTCOM. The idea that they’re not only talking to one another, but sending out precisely the right information to thousands of different receptors, hundreds of thousands time a day… It all starts to sound, well, spooky.

Dr. Popp, you rock! 

But where is he? Why isn't his science all over the news? Wikipedia politely describes his claim as “controversial.” People have speculated that understanding biophoton behavior could help us cure cancer. That biophotons are related to why acupuncture works. That they may even help explain the emergence of consciousness. Wikipedia filed this last one under the stunningly condescending title of “Esoteric Claims”.

What is “esoteric” but an insult? A mainstream way of saying that the poor schlump who proposed this idea is clearly on the fringes. And yet, isn’t that where scientists ought to be? Isn’t that where string theory – now decidedly in the realm of popular physics – dared to tread? And how is it that physicists can claim twelve dimensions, and while people may scoff, they ultimately accept that this is what science does. But when biologists claim that photons may play a role in understanding the emergence of consciousness, they get called “esoteric” by a mainstream website that supposedly has rules against slanted points of view

Schrodinger that!
Dr. Popp's science is fascinating (there's a great article here), but the Wiki page for Dr. Popp is currently under dispute for “neutrality” issues. The dispute seems to have arisen because of comments like this one from the Wiki moderators: “Popp is only known in esoteric circles and new-age.” 

This man has a Ph.D. and was a professor at a major German university. He was also head of numerous research groups, an invited member of the New York Academy of Sciences, as well as founder of an International Institute of Biophysics. He is credited with discovering the presence of photons in the body. It does not seem that this man is “only known in esoteric circles.” But shoot, how dare he prove his own theories, going so far as to create an institute with 19 research groups in 13 countries

Energetic Places

On the other side of the biology spectrum stands the field’s most public thinker: Richard Dawkins. The Wiki page for Dawkins is long, detailed and solidly invested in sharing his philosophies. And to read this quite carefully, it is apparent that all of this Wiki love points to a consistent theme in Dawkins' career: his skepticism. 


“has consistently been sceptical about non-adaptive processes in evolution”
“is particularly sceptical about the practical possibility or importance of group selection as a basis for understanding altruism
“has also been strongly critical of the Gaia hypothesis
“was highly critical of fellow biologist E.O. Wilson's 2012 book The Social Conquest of Earth.”
“is a prominent critic of creationism
“has ardently opposed the inclusion of intelligent design in science education"
“became a prominent critic of religion
“has been a critic of pseudoscience and alternative medicine"
He’s even critical of debate:
“…[Dawkins] refused to participate in formal debates with creationists because "what they seek is the oxygen of respectability""
"Dawkins also regularly comments in newspapers and weblogs on contemporary political questions; his opinions include opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq... the British nuclear deterrent, and the actions of US President George W. Bush"

Is this a list of accomplishments? This looks more like a love poem to an idol of destructiveness, one that manages to tell us everything Dawkins doesn’t believe in. The most famous figure in biology today is someone who appears to have become famous for disputing everything. What’s odd is that when 95 percent of the world believes in some kind of god or another, viewpoints like Dawkins' are by definition “esoteric.” 

Sorry, somebody needs a little Fox. 

Einstein and Bohr: enemies chilling.
Dawkins's first, and arguably most famous work, The Selfish Gene, postulates that evolution occurs through the survival of competing genes. In other words, by applying the “macro” concepts of evolution to the “micro” world of the gene, he seems to have co-opted the entire realm of biology. But what if our cells are not Darwinian monsters? And what if they can do all the weird shit that quantum particles can do?  

Imagine if Einstein had gotten famous for telling priests that they were stupid for believing in God. Imagine the quantum geniuses of his day cast to the fringes of respectable academia, their theories being treated as if they were nonsense. Did this happen to Bohr? To Heisenberg? No. In fact the debates between Einstein and his peers are legendary examples of scientists attempting to solve their problems together, despite their radically different points of view, and their mysteriously contradictory evidence.  

Einstein spent his career searching for a unified theory of physics that would draw all of these contradictions into a sensible picture. He failed. But his openness of mind and his ambition helped set physics on the right path. Physicists have spent decades and billions of dollars attempting to comprehend the dark center of this mystery. And out of this drive comes some remarkable stuff: superstring theory, M-theory, causal sets, and the quest to understand dark matter and dark energy.

It seems that the most public, energetic places in biology today are those places where Dawkins is accusing his fellow scientists of being traitors and "compliant quislings" for agreeing to talk to religious folk. 

So off I go in quest of a little more spooky. First stop: Science Set Free by Rupert Sheldrake - another radical biologist who, in speaking about his book, was banned from TEDx when their "Science Board" deleted his talk from their site. Interestingly, Sheldrake seems also to have done some intellectual heavy lifting with a physicist, David Bohm. 

This quote from Sheldrake's first book, A New Science of Life, encapsulates the kind of Spooky I think more biologists should be exploring:

“Most biologists take it for granted that living organisms are nothing but complex machines, governed only by the known laws of physics and chemistry. I myself used to share this point of view. But over a period of several years I came to see that such an assumption is difficult to justify. For when so little is actually understood, there is an open possibility that at least some of the phenomena of life depend on laws or factors as yet unrecognized by the physical sciences.”

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Song for Chance

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am celebrating a bunch of writer friends who are publishing debut novels this year.

The second of these is the remarkable Song for Chance by John Van Kirk, which garnered a New York Times review this week. It's the gritty tale of rock legend, Jack Voss, who shot to fame in the 70s for his rock opera, The Enchanted Pond. Inspired by a doomed love triangle, the rock opera ended with a triple suicide -- and even inspired fans to mimic the violence.

Decades later, Voss's mellow life is shattered by the news of his daughter's death, which appears to be another Enchanted Pond suicide. How does an aging, self-absorbed rock star face the effects of his own tragic mistakes? With music, naturally (including liner notes, bonus tracks and a discography.) With incredible skill, Van Kirk brings you right into the center of the sex, drugs and rock-n-roll culture, but Voss's story is the most melodic bit of all: unsentimental, thought-provoking and raw.

Van Kirk, an O. Henry Award and Iowa Review fiction prize winner, answers some questions about music, writing and being a navy man:

First of all, can you describe the moment of conception for this book? When did it first appear in your mind (or your ear)? And how?

Years ago I wrote a short short story about a pianist who is suddenly inspired with a new piece of music—the problem is that he is actually in the middle of a public performance of a concerto for piano and orchestra at the time of his inspiration.  Does he keep performing and let the inspiration go, knowing that in all likelihood it won’t come back?  Or does he risk professional disaster and abandon the sheet music before him, ruining the concert, baffling the other musicians and the conductor?  That character is the forerunner of Jack Voss.  (The story, called “Concert(o),” was published in 2011 by The Sonora Review and is available on their website.)

The second thing happened several years later when I was dipping into Ovid and challenged myself to come up with a myth of my own.  I was thinking about love charms, and how they always go wrong—there’s a great John Collier story about that.  Anyway I came up with a magical pond which would confer unending love on partners who bathed in it.  And I asked myself how that could go wrong.  That was the seed of Jack Voss’s rock opera “The Enchanted Pond.”  The rest was writing the novel to see how things turned out.

"Song For Chance" contains song titles and lyrics and even liner notes, and the book's attention to past and present music scenes creates such a vivid and authentic world. What real-life characters inspired the story and the creation of Jack Voss?

I always wondered why people who could make beautiful music together so frequently ended up in acrimonious feuds, mutual denunciations, ugly partings.  Think of Lennon and McCartney, Roger Waters and David Gilmore, Levon Helm and Robbie Robertson.  Not that any of my characters were based on those specific people, but the novel is my way of exploring that dynamic.  As for the music itself, it’s the soundtrack of my generation.

Jack Voss is a rock god, and yet beneath all the sex, drugs and rock and roll, his story is about redemption and loss. I'm curious about how writers create their novels: did anything in particular draw you to these themes, or did you choose your setting and characters first, and let the themes emerge....?

I’m an ex-Catholic, educated by nuns and priests through the 12th grade.  That early training in the cycle of sin, atonement, and redemption sticks with you.  As for loss, isn’t that the theme of all writing in some way?  As Robert Haas puts it in his poem “Meditation at Lagunitas”: “All the new thinking is about loss. In this it resembles all the old thinking.”

What music did you listen to while you were writing the book?

I don’t usually listen to music while I’m writing—it interferes with the music of the prose.  That said, I listened to a lot of music when I wasn’t actually writing, especially pop music from the 70s and 80s, some for enjoyment, some to make sure I remembered it accurately.

Could you give us a playlist - something you think we should listen to while reading "Song for Chance"? 

The book is full of titles, as you know.  I’d probably start with something from Thelonious Monk—“Epistrophy” would be a good choice.  Jack hears Monk on the second page of the novel.  Next would be Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night,” which Jack is trying to record in the second scene.  After those two, I’d turn off the stereo and just read.

Do you compose or play music yourself?

I’d call myself an amateur musician.  Which is more than I could say when I started the novel.  At that time, I was just a listener.  But I had to become at least a bit of a musician to write the book.  I took piano and guitar lessons, and I started playing the harmonica again, which I had played a little in high school and college but hadn’t touched for more than 20 years.  I still take a guitar lesson once a week, and the poet Art Stringer and I have worked up a few tunes together.  I call it “home-made music,” and it’s a little rough around the edges, but we have a lot of fun.

You teach writing, and yet you started a career in the navy - how did you come to writing from that? Did the navy give you any good writing tools?

I was writing before I joined the navy, while I was in the navy, and after I left the navy.  In a sense the navy period of my life was the detour.  I imagined a career for myself as a writer/professor about halfway through college.  I spent a year and a half as a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis.  One of my teachers was William Gass, and when I could I sat in on classes taught by Stanley Elkin and Howard Nemerov.  It looked like a good life, teaching and writing.  But I didn’t yet have the maturity to teach, the experience to write, or the discipline to get through the graduate program.  The navy helped me in all those areas.

A huge congratulations to John! For more on the author or his writing, check him out on Goodreads and Amazon

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Silver Tattoo: an Interview with Laura Bentley

Between 2000 and 2004, I belonged to a writer's group, the Rogues, that had a dramatically positive influence on my writing. So it delights me to announce that this year, three of the writers from this group have books coming out. I am so proud of my fellow writers, knowing the work that has gone into their novels and the struggles everyone has faced to get their work published. Congratulations all!!

The first of these novels, Laura Bentley's The Silver Tattoo, has just been released. It's a literary thriller. Dark and brooding, its poetry forms vast, gorgeous and harrowing themes. It tells the story of Leah Howland, who is visiting Ireland to escape being caregiver to a comatose husband. She's been doing the martyred wife thing for too long, and she wants to start fresh. But the fog-bound, homey comforts of Dublin soon turn nasty when a stalker starts leaving his calling cards, and Leah finds she can't separate her own guilt and fears from the increasingly dangerous reality around her. With a magic realist edge, psychological suspense, and a true poet's eye for detail, this book delivers its frightening world in toto.

This is Laura's first novel. She is also a poet with an impressive list of accomplishments, including some serious recognition from Oprah, and a published book of poetry, Lake Effect. She's accomplished enough for Ray Bradbury to exclaim: "Laura Bentley, I dub thee poet supreme."

I think that poetry and thrillers are secretly kissing cousins, and this is deeply true about Laura's work. For this post, I asked her to answer some questions about the book, the writing, and what it was like making the leap from poetry to novels. 

Tell us about the inspirations for this book. Was it a single moment of experience or a build-up of ideas? 

A poem or a story often begins with a particular image for me. In the case of The Silver Tattoo, I had taken a magical photo of a busker on Grafton Street in Dublin, Ireland, back in 2000, and it lingered in my mind, kept pulling me back to that enchantment. It eventually became the genesis for the opening chapter. The scene had some foreboding to it, so I started thinking in terms of a mystery or thriller and discovered what the “rules” were for those genres.

I always take many photos when I go to Ireland and keep detailed journals, so I was doing research without really realizing that one day I would create a novel. Another image that was powerful and breathtaking was The Cliffs of Moher. I was writer in residence for a month on the West Coast and stayed near The Cliffs, often walking there every day. The majestic cliffs, the surging ocean below, and the stunning beauty and intensity of this Eighth Wonder of the World got into my blood. So some key scenes from my novel take place at The Cliffs.

This is a dark literary thriller, and I can see how the thriller genre might appeal to a poet. There are a lot of short, focused scenes. Plot-wise, you could almost write a thriller as a series of poems. But I'd like to know why you were drawn to this genre? 

It’s back to the idea of image again, and I think a literary thriller suits me. It values character-driven stories and plot-driven ones---a literary page-turner. Since poetry is literary and I’m a poet by nature, this genre combines my love of vivid scenes and compelling plots. I want to enter the landscape of a book, mine or others, and feel like I’m there. I also like to include “short focused scenes” in my work to change the pace or slow down a scene into a tableau of image before moving back into the stream of action.

I’ve recently come to the realization that many of my favorite books are written by triple-threat authors. That is, they write poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Margaret Atwood, Truman Capote, Jill Bialosky, William Golding, Stephen Dobyns, and Sylvia Plath, among many others, are all remarkable triple threats. And, of course, Ray Bradbury was a quadruple threat: poetry, short stories, novels, plays, and more!

Do you approach your writing in the same way as your poetry? (i.e. Do you follow the same writing habits?) And what are those habits? 

My poetry is often created from a journal entry where I have rapidly sketched a moment or a feeling. I can spend days, weeks, months, or years on one poem and the same holds true for fiction. My writing habits are different when I write fiction, though, because it becomes much more expansive.

I discovered that I could write the draft of a novel in a month last November during NanoWrimo (thanks, Chris Baty!). It’s a mess right now and waiting to be revised, but the story came pouring out of me. It was gratifying and scary to set that challenge for myself.

How long did it take you to finish The Silver Tattoo?

I had a very rough draft after a year or so in 2003 or 2004, and then I was lucky to have some early interest from agents. I’d revised for one and then another. Each time the story got stronger, and I was hungry for feedback and acted on the insightful comments and critique. It was a long rugged journey of hope, despair, joy, and depression. I’d stay up late at night sometimes for weeks revising and polishing. Finally in 2008 I had two agents interested in representing my novel, and I decided to sign with Foundry Literary & Media. I revised once more for a little over a year before it went out on submission. My wonderful former agent Kendra Jenkins worked intensely with me and championed my novel.

Can you describe your relationship with Ray Bradbury, who has been such an amazing supporter and mentor?

My friendship with Ray began in 1993 when I sent him a heartfelt fan letter, and he wrote back. That began our long correspondence, sharing books we liked, poems, cartoons, good times and bad. The first time I sent him one of my poems, he wrote "Send it somewhere (The New Yorker? The American Scholar?) to be printed!" His enthusiasm was contagious. He used exclamation marks more than me, and I loved that about him. His letters were always signed with an exclamation mark: "Love! Ray," and I've kept all of our correspondence, emails, and Christmas poems that he wrote each year and shared with his friends.

He introduced me to Eureka Literary Magazine and its editor, Loren Logsdon, who published a number of my poems. And, to Redbud Magazine, which published my longest poem on record which is a wild tribute to Ray. It’s called “Rendezvous with Ray Bradbury.” I got the idea after reading Margaret Atwood’s great tribute poem to Raymond Chandler.

In 2003, we did a wondrous poetry reading in Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. He suggested that the four readers, including Ray and I, read their poetry Round Robin. 
Ray Bradbury’s support and encouragement affected every aspect of my life as a writer. He was a mentor. An inspiration. A life force. He made me feel that what I wrote was important. His zest for life was contagious, and he always let me know that he believed in me. I couldn’t have asked for more.

Thank you, Laura! For more information on the author and her books, check her out on GoodreadsFacebook or Twitter.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Mamma Mia!

This morning I recommended a book on NPR -- "The Fortunate Pilgrim" by Mario Puzo. If you've ever wondered why there are no good women in "The Godfather", it might surprise you to discover who inspired Don Corleone.

I love this book. It sits up there with "The Leopard" as all-time favorite novels that evoke Italian history and culture -- in this case, a hard-bitten look at the Italian ghetto in Hell's Kitchen in the 30s. In fact, it sets the stage for "The Godfather" and somehow surpasses it with passion and brutality. Maybe because it feels more real.

If you have a favorite literary matriarch, go to the comments section of the NPR piece and let me know who it is. We'll get our matriarchs together and see who rules.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Just When You Thought You Were Prolific

A recent conversation I had with myself on Twitter got me thinking about those ultra-prolific writers. Well, two in particular: Patrick O’Brian and Walter Gibson. You know, guys who write like ONE BILLION words and one HUNDRED novels in over SEVENTY years of churning it out – mostly with good old fashioned pen and paper. 

actually, Gibson used a typewriter

At the same time, I stumbled – literally – across this article. (It was on my laptop, which was on the floor. My TOE found this article.) It’s called “You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign!” In it, Jane Friedman argues that “you have to produce a lot of crap…before you can produce anything good.” Therefore, if you hate your writing, you’re “probably” on your way to good.

Risky concept. Because you could so easily be on your way to more crap.

Part of me thinks: Why yes, it’s true. You have to write a lot of crap. But strangely every molecule in my body is gearing up for a revolt. Because then you have guys like O’Brian and Gibson who didn’t agonize for years about their "crap". They just dove right in. Shit, O’Brian got his first positive reviews for a book he published at AGE 12. 

SO I can’t help thinking that these guys just figured out something essential, what other people take years and years to get. What was it? How to tell a decent story? How to make mistakes while you’re being watched?

It’s not to say they didn’t get better over time. I would hope to hell they did, after 70 years, look back and say, yeah, I evolved.

But I think, too, that they found something good and stuck with it, squeezing every last damn little thing out of it. And the things they “found” were things they loved. Gibson was obsessed with the paranormal, and a good half of his hundred books were about that. His big fictional contribution, the Shadow, was deeply influenced by the occult. O’Brian loved the natural world so much that limiting his characters to a single country was always going to be tricky. They would travel the globe! On ships! For twenty books!

Hating your work sounds like a coy tool: a self-policing mechanism to make you strive to be better all the time. To keep you from getting arrogant and thus lame as hell.

But then you have these writers who seem to be dwarfed by their passion for something. They don’t hate their work. It’s not about their work. It’s about their sprawling, obsessive love for something that carries them way beyond self-conscious agony. It reminds me of Virginia Woolf saying of Jane Austen that her “mind had consumed all impediments.” And “for that reason we do not know Jane Austen” - but we know the world she loved.

I think that means that Austen didn’t mope around hating her work, she fell in love with it, and kind of lost herself in it. Not in the bad, domestic-violence way but in the I’m-not-the-center-of-the-universe kind of way. Something else is happening here, not me.

Funny that this came out of a Twitter conversation I had with myself, ye olde ultimate example of self-absorption. But there it is.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Frankly my dear, you don't give a damn.

People are always asking me what my favorite books are, and for some reason I feel like answering that today.

With certain exceptions, I dislike books where the author has ever posed with a cat.

He who resembles Hannibal Lecter


Ye Olde Windbag






Anyway, I don’t usually ask about favorite books unless I’m curious about the individual. Or if someone recommends a book that I fall in love with, then I’ll ask them for recommendations later, but mostly to see if, by some miracle, our tastes match up on more than one title. Tastes are so subjective, it’s crazy to think that someone could like all the same favorite books as me – or even all the same books.

And yet…

Some books just appeal to a high percentage of everyone, even if a lot of them won’t admit it. (“Yes, I read the Da Vinci Code. SUCH bad writing. How on earth did he get published? I mean, the clichés! I almost couldn’t get through it. But it was interesting!”)

Anyway, I’ve also had this discussion a lot lately – what makes a bestseller? I don’t mean paperbacks where the girl gets the dream guy and the CIA nabs another terrorist and two weeks later you can’t remember a single character. I mean books that get HUGE and turn into cultural icons, like Twilight and Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code and George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire – or going further back: Clan of the Cave Bear and Lord of the Rings and the Wizard of Oz. Books that not only sell millions of copies but which also inspire a kind of dogged, even twisted loyalty. People read these books because they’re in vogue, but then they fall in love with them and talk about them for years. It seems like everybody and their mother loves them, has read them, is talking about start to feel that they'll never go away. You know what I'm talking about. What makes that kind of book?

Some random answers from various conversations:

1 - Most of those books are fantasy. They involve the creation of other worlds that readers enjoy inhabiting – worlds you wish were real and that you could be a part of. So it takes a fantasy novel to make people fall in love, kind of like it takes airbrushing to make a Victoria’s Secret model….

2 - Corollary to the above: there’s something hardwired in the human brain that makes people appreciate fantasy. Witness the fact that every culture’s main artifacts are their myths, and we still listen to – and tell - and in some cases believe those stories today.

3 – Another corollary: Someone claimed that this was Tolkien’s answer, but whatever: that there’s something about the modern world that is essentially offensive to people’s souls. We live in the realm of the Lorax and we want grass and trees, so we look to novels or films to provide us with gratifying dramas set in magical landscapes with stories that involve the destruction of worlds and the desperate struggle to preserve those worlds. 

4 – Each of these novels did something unique and fresh. (My personal argument here is that each of these novels did MANY things unique and fresh, as well as many things OLD AS HELL, but they did them with alchemical intelligence. And I'm not sure how much of that was even conscious. If you're following me this far, you'll understand when I say I want to write a book called "Breaking Dawn: or When the Author Accidentally Shows that They Had No Idea What They Were Actually Doing." And one for screenwriters called: "Lost.")

5 – Each of these writers was slightly mad and had a gripping, all-consuming passion for their art. And everybody knows that tortured artists are better. (When they're dead.) Which I think is not even remotely true.

there has to be a key!
6 - Number one answer I hear from anyone in the publishing business: this kind of book is never made, there is just a magic conflux of events that blessed their literary souls: proper timing, cultural readiness, and good storytelling. And if anyone could please figure out the recipe for that magic conflux, please notify my publisher.

7 – Sheer dumb luck

8 – Voodoo

9 – A conspiracy of dumb readers, peasants with disposable income who could never be expected to appreciate the true genius of David Foster Wallace, David Mitchell or ye, any author named David (apologies to Sedaris). You know, those authors who say “screw you!” to basic ideas of, I don’t know, plot and character. If more readers appreciated this kind of butt-crack-of-the-bell-curve fiction then there wouldn’t be enough space left for books like Twilight to infect the planet.

(I think, as punishment for their vanity, all the Butt-Cracks who make this argument should be forced to sign their favorite authors’ books at Walmart in hell for however long it took each dissatisfied reader to grapple their way through the tedious fiction.)

10 – I’m sure I left something out.

I think the whole idea of a mystery series is that it's the long road to this phenomenon. For example: Lee Child, Sue Grafton, Janet Evanovitch. It’s like, if you write enough pages about this guy, or that girl, or this small town, then eventually you will have a full-scale fantasy novel on your hands – an utterly complete world that someone can slip into and stay in for years and know every nook and cranny of. One Lee Child book is fun, twenty is...hell, by then you’ve developed a frickin relationship with Reacher. 

You know how there are 5 or 6 flavor receptors on the tongue? Well, I feel like there 5 or 6 taste receptors in the storytelling brain, and apparently fantasy is a big one. Sometimes you taste the finest thing in the world, but if you have too much of it.... You people who are into zombie romance right now, you're like the Big Gulp gang of the literary world. You need to stop. 

Let’s say some of the above ten commandments are true. Then I want to know: What is it about people that makes them like fantasy so much? What is it about fantasy that appeals to people so much? What about all the great fantasy novels that DON'T get big? What are they failing to do, if anything? What sins have they committed? What vanities? What ignorance? Can someone answer that?

Good lord, this is long. 

And where is sci-fi in all of this? Why, the movies and TV. Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar, the Matrix. 

Anyway, I’ve been sneaky. I’ve just told some favorite books and movies, except my favoritest of all, the answer of which is embedded in here in the most un-subtle way, if you care to notice. (How much do you really want it??? Ahh see, you don’t. More proof of the Zen mantra that I just invented: asking questions is a cheap man’s way of finding answers. Next time someone asks me what my favorite book is, I’m going to say paper.)

i said there were exceptions