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The Fogged-Up Windows of My Town and Country Minivan

Marilyn free sexyI was nineteen the first time a friend of mine – a very alluring and highly sexualized teen – admitted to me how much she hated sex and men. That she did not, in fact, have ten screaming orgasms every time she was with a guy – the way she told everyone, the way she made him believe.

I was genuinely shocked.

She just seemed much better at it all than I was. Fun, flirty, uninhibited. Men of all stripes were in her thrall and she soaked herself in their attention like they were a piping-hot bubble bath. Approaching sex with a voracious appetite and a democratic eye, there wasn’t a party, a bar, an event, where she couldn’t find an eager partner.

Yet all along she had nothing but contempt for the guys, the acts, herself. You would have never known.

As a young woman, I often found myself getting taken aside and told things to. Secrets. Heart of hearts confessions. Maybe this happens to everyone. Or maybe it’s because as a writer type, I take a cold eye to human foibles. I find them fascinating and find myself in almost every scenario.

So, unless someone is overtly cruel, dangerously manipulative, or catastrophically dishonest, I try not to judge.

Marilyn wiki

As an adult, an author, people still tell me things, although I’m not sure if they’re secrets per se. I get a lot of love stories from readers – I do. Some of them so beautiful I can hardly stand it. But not every tale told is a candy and flowers routine, a scented envelope filled with blushingly awkward poetry. Many women and men have written to me about their wasted love, the mistakes they’ve made, how they never learned – often until it was too late – how to care for and be cared for by a lover.

I always try to imagine these people when they were young, and track the course of how they got to such a place of loneliness and despair all these years later.

I remember very well the many roads I could have gone down when I was a budding woman – ones that could have taken me far away from a place where I could intersect with love. As I listen in on my children’s conversations with their peers, I have some idea of how today’s teens could one day find themselves typing up a confessional missive of wistfulness and melancholy for a writer just like me.

Marilyn wiki misfits

As my older kids have entered Middle and High School, I’ve watched some of their friends – girls I’ve known since they were feisty, adorable kindergarteners – defiantly embrace a cheap and communal sexuality. I’ve seen the come-hither photos on their “parent-access” social media platforms, and can only imagine what their “friends-only” accounts have to offer. Those are the ones they don’t share with mom and dad, and are under pseudonyms like “girlfly” and “JuSoLit.”

I don’t look down my nose at them for it; I do understand the seduction of exhibitionism. Young women are especially prone to its charms. It promises instant celebrity and seems downright glamorous, sophisticated. It’s a bam-pow shot of power during a time when a girl is desperate for it and boy is desperate for a girl. And since most of the stigma – perhaps rightly – has been removed from sexuality in our culture, there seems to be no downside. What’s wrong with a girl having a little fun? Dipping her toe into the kind of flagrant sexuality that until recently had only been the domain of boys and really, really bad girls.

Marilyn bed free

But I’m sceptical.

It’s not about the overt reputational hit a girl might experience. That kind of finger-wagging doesn’t really go on much anymore. And when it does, it feels weirdly outdated. Like a visit from the ghost of 19th century schoolmarm. Nobody today wants to be called a slut-shamer, after all. It’s simply not woke.

What it is about are the secrets, the whispers; the deep currents of traditional mores – ones that are perhaps even biologically driven, I don’t know – that run beneath the shimmering surface of cultural trends.

If you’ve never driven around a group of kids for a good length of time, I highly recommend it. They forget you’re there, that you’re even human – and say things that are way out of school. Stories that under normal circumstances they would never want an adult – especially a parent – to hear. My long carpools to this or that game or practice over the years have been a real time-suck, and I love to complain about them. But they’ve also made me privy to a treasure trove of information. And from what I’m hearing, there’s plenty of frustration, disappointment and distaste for the current state of sexual affairs among our young people.

I’ve overheard boys lamenting the fact that they’ve seen the breasts of so many girls in their grade – I’m not kidding here. It takes the mystery away, they say.

Another common topic is the mainstreaming of porn. They observe how their most porn-obsessed friends have all but given up on “real” girls. With a smorgasbord of fetishes and base depictions of sexuality available to them at the touch of a keyboard, sex has taken on a cold and abstract quality that they’re trying to resist. Some of the boys have even sworn off porn altogether, although they do fall off the wagon from time to time.

One young man expressed sympathy for a girl whose compromising photos made the rounds at school. He noted how it didn’t seem to bother her, but wondered how she was going to find a guy who really cared about her. What’s more, all the other boys in the car agreed with his assessment. As far as genuine girlfriend material goes, this young woman was now kryptonite.

Marilyn clash

The girls are equally confused about their role in all of this, and quite aware that there’s a disconnect between the “You go, girl!” sexuality that’s part of the greater culture and the way they actually feel about sex. There seems to be no middle ground for them anymore, where a girl can take things slowly, get to know herself and her potential boyfriends. According to the talk I hear, our young women often feel stuck between stamping a big, fat NO! on their bodies, or giving away intimacy like it’s a free raffle ticket. That’s a really tough place to be for a teen girl with raging hormones, and I have no idea how I would’ve handled what they have to contend with today.

Now, I’ll tell you what I don’t hear.

I have never, not once, heard a girl frame public and/or casual sexuality as being a source of liberation or real empowerment. Or a boy speak admiringly of a girl who has eroticized herself, earning her the latest teen moniker of THOT (That Ho Over There). And I’ve had every kind of kid in my car – liberal and conservative, church-going and atheist. Gay and straight. From the most “popular” to the downright nerdy.

Marilyn in glasses

I hate to see our girls giving their hearts away to the lowest common denominator. And at a time when their self-image is taking shape and their dreams are so tender and ripe. I hate to see boys thinking that’s all a girl has to offer. Yet wanting so much more.

A teenage heart is malleable, fragile. Like an infant’s skull.

I sit behind the wheel of my minivan imagining myself in their place, swimming with a cultural tide that could’ve hardened me as a young woman. Made me less resilient.

I say all of this not out of prudery. I’ve written hot and raunchy poetry, watched really dirty movies with glee, and have rarely found myself cringing when it comes to sexual content on page, screen or in real life.

It’s not about “the act itself,” as my sweet and southern mother-in-law calls it. What it is about is understanding – on a deeply cultural, biological and emotional level – what sex means in the context of love, living and growing up. That it’s exciting, sublime, funny, and critical to a successful relationship. That it can eat away at your soul if you treat it with recklessness too often.

Marilyn wiki diamonds

It’s not that a girl, or boy, for that matter, has to be an angel. Or that making mistakes will taint and haunt a young person forever and ever. Leave them unredeemable in the eyes of a person who’s looking for someone to truly care about.

There’s a lot to be said about screwing up, and learning from it. But there’s also a lot of crap out there.

From the boring, spirit-crushing nature of partisan politics and media culture, to most feature films, to our one-man PR machines on social media, to Tinder hook-ups. All of these can push us further away from any real examination of who we are and what we are doing. Most of these things will be fleeting, and we’ll look back on them years from now and see them as a phase, a growing pain from a time when the ground felt like it was shifting beneath our feet.

What isn’t a phase, and hasn’t changed since the dawn of man is the vital, burning and relentless role that love plays in our very survival as a species. It is how and why we care for each other. The vehicle through which we populate our lives, our regions, the whole damned earth. The reason we would give our lives for our child, our spouse, even a total stranger. We underestimate its power at our peril. We risk everything in taking it for granted.

But you don’t have to believe me. Just listen to the teens who ride in my minivan.

MARILYN MONROE

“Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.”  –Rumi

New Love At First Write! How To Sprinkle Magic Dust Onto Your Story.

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Let’s Just Smash All The Windows!

Jane Facebook Profile

I want to introduce you to a fellow writer this week. Her name is Jane Davis and she’s thoughtful and nuanced. Right up a Cold reader’s alley.

Jane spent her twenties and the first part of her thirties chasing promotions at work, but when she achieved what she’d set out to do, she discovered that it wasn’t what she wanted after all. That’s when she turned to writing.

Her debut, Half-truths & White Lies, won the Daily Mail First Novel Award 2008. Of her subsequent three novels, Compulsion Reads wrote, ‘Davis is a phenomenal writer, whose ability to create well-rounded characters that are easy to relate to feels effortless’. Her 2015 novel, An Unknown Woman, was Writing Magazine’s Self-published Book of the Year 2016 and has been shortlisted for two further awards.

See…told you she’s worth a shout out.

Jane lives in Carshalton, Surrey with her star-gazing, beer-brewing partner, surrounded by growing piles of paperbacks, CDs and general chaos. That’s where I tracked her down to answer THREE BIG QUESTIONS.

Number 1: Why do you write?

John Green says that writing is a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don’t want to make eye contact while doing it. I was always the quiet middle child in a family of seven. It’s not that I don’t want to make eye contact, it was that I could never get a word in edgeways. I think that explains why I always have more going on inside my head than comes out of my mouth. There’s a great deal of satisfaction in writing dialogue for characters who are braver and more outspoken than I am. I’m the kind of introvert who can be very sociable, but also needs to balance that with time alone. I’ve always been very comfortable with my own company.

Fiction provides the unique opportunity to explore one or two points of view. It is never going to provide the whole answer, but it forces both writer and reader to walk in another person’s shoes. And, in many ways, it is the exploration that’s important. The idea of a single truth is flawed. I have a sister who’s less than a year older than me, but our memories of the same events differ substantially. There are many different versions of the truth and many layers of memory.

As my collection of books grows, I’m also beginning to see them as my legacy. As someone who doesn’t have children, they are the mark I will leave on the world. So another reason for writing – one that I didn’t think about in my mid-thirties when I started to write – is to create a legacy that I can be proud of.

jane davis

Number 2: What are the themes that most inspire your work?

It took me some time to identify that the common thread that runs through my novels is the impact of missing persons on our lives, how the hole they leave behind can be so great that it dwarfs the people we’re left with. In I Stopped Time, it was an estranged mother. I addressed the theme head-on in A Funeral for an Owl, with teenage runaways. And in These Fragile Things, a mother is obsessed by the child she lost to a miscarriage, almost to the exclusion of the child she has. In Smash all the Windows, given that we have fifty-nine victims, the presence of the theme is again obvious. It almost certainly comes from both my personal history – and that of my parents.

When I was aged seventeen, I had my first experience of a young person – someone I knew – dying. A school friend was murdered, someone I felt a particular connection with because he shared my birthday. The ripples from that single death are still felt today. In my parents’ generation, death was far more common but was seldom spoken about.

My father’s mother died when he was just eighteen months old. Because men didn’t bring up children on their own in those days, Dad and his two sisters were taken into care. As was the norm, he was separated from his sisters, Marian (aged 6) and Lois (aged 4). Six months later, Marian woke to find Lois dead in the bed beside her. Can you imagine that? Lois’s death certificate says that she died of a broken heart. My father has no memories of his mother or his sister Lois, but he feels their absence keenly.

My mother was the first child of her father’s second marriage. His first wife had died in 1937 at the age of 37. We only came into possession of a family tree last week, which shows that there was another half-brother, Patrick, who died in 1938, just six months after his mother. So having lost their mother and a brother, Mum’s older siblings (two half-brothers and a half-sister) were evacuated at the beginning of the Second World War. They returned five years later to find that their father had remarried and that they had two new sisters, my mother and Alma. Alma was killed in a car crash aged 23 shortly before she was due to be married.

All families have hidden histories. Loss is a universal theme.

I’m also very interested in how people behave under pressure. I meet them at a particular point on their journeys, usually in a highly volatile or unstable situation. And then I throw them to the lions.

grave

Number 3: What would you never write about?

While much of my fiction has its basis in fact, I’m wary of writing about recent history. You have to tread so carefully, especially with cases where the survivors and relatives and partners of the victims are still alive. This was the case with Smash all the Windows. I make no secret of the fact that I took my inspiration from the result of second inquest to the Hillsborough Disaster (The Hillsborough disaster was a human crush at Hillsborough footbal stadium in Sheffield, England on 15 April 1989, during the 1988-89 FA Cup semi-final game between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest.). Twenty-seven years after the disaster, the pain on the families of the victims was still so raw. My gut feeling was that I didn’t want to add to that. If I’d wanted to explore the idea, I would have had to ask myself some hard questions. Firstly, I would have considered what I could add to the material that’s already been produced. A number of documentaries were made by Dr Phil Scraton and the families. Plus there was Jimmy McGovern’s powerful TV dramatisation, which I saw as a call to action, part of the protest. McGovern based his script almost entirely on court transcripts and used eye witness reports. Added to which he had the blessings of the families. You have to ask yourself, would a fictional account be welcomed? Would it be disrespectful to add a fictional character to the storyline? And what right do I have to tell this story? My only connection with Liverpool is that it’s my partner home city. That didn’t seem to me to be a close enough link.

books and time

And now some words on Smash all the Windows


‘A dazzling high wire walk through interwoven strands balanced so carefully you know you’ll never fall.’ Dan Holloway, novelist, poet and spoken word artist

‘Just fricking perfect. An all-round triumph.’ John Hudspith

‘This is an astounding read. I was completely captivated.’ Liz Carr

It has taken conviction to right the wrongs.

It will take courage to learn how to live again.

For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances.

Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unravelled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives.

If only it were that simple.

Tapping into the issues of the day, Davis delivers a highly charged work of metafiction, a compelling testament to the human condition and the healing power of art.

Written with immediacy, style and an overwhelming sense of empathy, Smash all the Windows will be enjoyed by readers of How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall and How to be Both by Ali Smith.

Get Smash All The Windows Right Here!

And if her want to know more about Jane…

Jane’s Website

Jane’s Facebook Page

And yes, there’s a brand-spanking new vlog episode of Love at First Write. It’s on, appropriately enough, The Art of Redemption in a Story – particularly when a pair of lovers are involved. Hope you enjoy it!

 

Getting Damned Serious About Humor

Raymond Chandler smiling

The great Raymond Chandler, smirking

Some months ago, I was talking to my friend, Karen, about this epic romance I’m writing. You know, the one I can’t shut up about because it’s been consuming me for about three years. Karen is a writer, too. A huge talent, in fact, and one of the best readers I’ve ever come across. She also knows me pretty well.

She knows how much I love Raymond Chandler, for instance. The way I’m in awe of his skill at weaving humor into the lives of some gritty characters with pretty depressing outcomes.

“She gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket.”

“He looked about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.”

“Alcohol is like love. The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.” –all by Raymond Chandler

But we were talking about romance, as I said. Not thrillers. And the kind of romance with a lot of history in it. Maybe some fantasy and sci-fi mixed in to make the story more like an Indian chutney than a fancy ketchup. And I was just squeaking towards the finish line of my first draft, complaining that it was about as rough as Richard Nixon’s five o’clock shadow.

“You’ve got to read Diana Gabaldon,” she said. “Not only because your series has a historical component,” she told me. “But you have a strong point of view on humor, and I think you’ll find a like mind and some inspiration in her books.”

She was right, of course. My friend Karen is right about a lot of things: feminism, our Founding Fathers, Emily Dickinson and any kind of editorial advice, just to name a few.

outlander series

There’s a lot to be in awe of when reading the Outlander novels. Their length and subsequent ability to hold our interest, the fact that men and women can both enjoy them (swear!), that she doesn’t shy away from sex or violence, yet doesn’t make either gratuitous. That she writes character-driven books with great atmospherics. And yes, that she writes with a heavy dose of humor.

Humor isn’t just something meant to make us feel good. It is defiant, subversive and smarter than we are. Through humor we can say things we’re too afraid to say. It allows us to speak truths that polite society won’t tolerate and reminds us that no word or circumstance can hold power over us. Humor is such an essential element to getting us through the hard times, to making us more resilient, more compelling.  It brings us together, makes us closer, foments friendships. A sense of humor will make a potential lover want to introduce you to his friends, take you in a twirling, spinning hug, kiss you with joy.

Such is its power. More than beauty, because it outlasts our youth. More than sorrow, because it gives us a reason to keep going.

As a reader, I can’t imagine sticking with a series if it didn’t employ a sense of humor that bonded me to characters and their worlds. As a writer, I find humorless prose exhausting and depleting. Often sanctimonious, or uninspired. It drains me to read such passages, let alone have to conjure them.

The best authors weave humor through the fabric of even the most heart wrenching, serious stories. They may do it subtly, through irony perhaps, but they do it. I think of Orwell’s 1984, anything by Ernest Hemingway, The Great Gatsby, Shakespeare, Twain, whose humor is often wrongly mistaken for racism, and even Herodotus.

herodotus

Herodotus

That’s why, as I was reading the Outlander series, I was especially struck by one part that illustrated to me why it’s crucial to maintain a sense of humor, even when you’re writing about a topic or event that’s downright horrifying.

In this particular segment of the story, one of Gabaldon’s characters is being raped. And potentially by more than one man.

Not. Funny.

However, Gabaldon uses humor in such a graceful way, that she not only keeps from degrading or making light of the severity of the situation, but actually gives it greater meaning. As her heroine is being abused by this group of very bad men, one of these desperados fails miserably in his quest to rape her. The heroine actually quips to herself about his complete sexual incompetence, then remarks upon her own good fortune of this having happened to her in middle age. “Twenty years ago, there would’ve been a much longer line,” she says to herself.

That bit of humor brings humanity and hope to a soul-crushing set of circumstances. As a reader, it lends me a hand in getting through a terrible incident with a character I’ve grown to love. I want to believe that our heroine will prevail, or at least emerge from her ordeal intact somehow; it’s her sense of humor that helps me look what is happening right in the eye.

Because that’s what humor does for us in our own lives.

dark humor 4

By Gary Larson

“Oh, please,” you might say. “No one can have a sense of humor while when they’re about to be raped.”

Allow me to step out of the realm of fiction and back into real life in order to answer that.

“While one of his men held me down, this Russian officer took out a mirror and leaned it against a rock. Removing a brush and cake of soap from his canvas bag, he began to lather, spreading this luxurious foam all over his chin and jaw. He took his time. Then he pulled a razor from his belt and began to shave. Ah, a sophisticated rapist, I thought to myself. Isn’t that the height of cosmic sarcasm?” –Dina Babbit, holocaust survivor, on the prospect of being raped by a Russian officer, only days after her liberation from Auschwitz.

This is why, as I embark on editing my romance – the one filled with war and passion and heartbreak and history and pitiless violence perpetrated by corrupt individuals – my writer’s eye is trained on giving my characters a balls-out sense of the absurd. Bringing a dark bit of crackpot levity into a situation – even when there doesn’t seem to be room for anything but tears and screams.

 

Please have a look at my vlog, Love at First Write. It’s an ongoing series that chronicles my efforts to write an epic romance. I’d love to hear your comments.

Men in Love and War

war photographer 2

Years ago, when I was living in Central Europe, I got to know a group of men who were the kind a girl would notice. Young and charismatic, they came complete with the fascinating and swoon-worthy job of war photographer.

These men were fun, courageous, and wild. They lived hard – drinking, drugging and bird-dogging every pretty female who would have them. On any given night, you could find them “shrooming” in the great outdoors, or at an underground club watching a live sex show. Maybe just hanging out and telling stories. About war zones, scars and executions.

One of these men – let’s call him Eddie – told me about getting shrapnel imbedded in his scrotum when he was photographing an intense battle in the former Yugoslavia. This was during the civil war there, and it was an ugly, bloody time full of weaponized rape and genocide.

After getting hit, Eddie was taken to a field hospital, where they removed one of his testicles without the benefit of anesthesia. Being smack in the middle of a hot war zone, there simply wasn’t any left. Wounded and dying soldiers lay all around Eddie as the doctor leaned over him, brandishing something that looked like a piece of wood.

“Bite down on this,” he said. “This is really going to hurt.”

Eddie passed out during the operation, as you can imagine any man would. When Eddie woke up, at least according to him, he propositioned a very sultry nurse, having sex with her right there in his hospital bed. Slavic boned, with wide sensual lips, and an ass to die for, she was just what the doctor ordered.

There, fresh out of surgery, Eddie proved to himself that he was still functional, still a man.

sexy nurse

Another one of these men – we’ll call him Andy – told me all about a photographer friend of his who had been killed by firing squad somewhere in the Middle East. I was aghast listening to his story. Being only about twenty-four at the time, I’d never met anyone outside of my own war-torn family, who had actually known someone who’d been executed.

This was a person young enough to be my peer, and now, they were dead. No, not just dead, but put up against a wall and shot point-blank by a group of strange men. I wondered if he got a last request – a prayer or cigarette.

“Why did they do it?” I asked Andy.

Andy shrugged, his face a mask of irony. “They didn’t like him.”

Andy was a bit of an anomaly among these guys. He was hugely talented and had spent years globe-trotting from war to war just like the rest of them. And he had a wry and irreverent sense of humor that lurked behind his every word – also like his cohorts. Andy was different from his friends in one crucial way, however: he was married and had two small children.

He’d left the battlefield behind, and was making a nice living snapping portraits of prominent individuals and the like.

This did not go over well with his war photographer friends, let me tell you.

Andy was taunted pretty mercilessly for no longer going off at a moment’s notice and raising hell. For staying home and raising his kids instead, trying to be a faithful husband to his wife. It was hard for Andy, too. I could see it in his eyes and in the way he talked about his past adventures.  He missed the excitement, the danger, the freedom – even if he did love his family.

Not long ago, a mutual friend told me she’d heard Andy had left his wife and was now sailing around the world. I guess I wasn’t surprised, but I was sad for him. Andy had a good soul, he just seemed to struggle when it came to claiming it.

man in boat

Only a few months after I left both my ex-pat life and this motley crew of war photographers behind, I got to know another group of men. I had fallen in love with my husband, and one of his best friends was in the United States Marine Corps. At the time, my husband’s friend – who we’ll call Dave, because it’s his real name – was a colonel and lawyer. In the wake of 9/11, he left his growing law practice in the dust and went back to full-time soldiering. A born leader with the temperment of a philospher, Dave would go on to be commissioned a full-fledged general.

Dave and his Marine buddies were fun, courageous and wild. They told stories about training and camaraderie, with the occassional tale about combat.

I remember Dave confiding to me and my husband about two young men who’d been under his command. They’d been killed during an ambush and Dave was remembering them on one, gloomy Memorial Day a few years ago. He went into some detail about their lives and interests, who they’d loved. And he asked my husband to tell those young men’s stories to our children, so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. Dave told us all of this on the phone, but I could imagine his fierce blue eyes the whole time. Powerful, lived-in eyes that were full of humor, but took everything seriously. The eyes of a man with grave responsibilities.

For his men, for whom he had sacrificed so much, and for his family, who had sacrificed so much for him.

Marine coming home

Not long before leaving on one of his tours, Dave and I found ourselves alone in my kitchen. We were drinking beer, casually, after my husband had washed his hands of us and gone to bed.

We talked about how his wife had put her own concerns aside and taken on the full burden of family life, all the while not knowing whether he would return. The way Dave had to leave the people he loved most and enter a world of danger and few comforts. These weren’t voiced as complaints, but observations. He felt a reverence for the faith his loved ones had in him – the fact that they shared his values despite what they had to endure when he was gone.

Dave, with those same blue eyes boring into mine – in person this time, alive with tenderness and emotion, unflinching – revealed to me how much he loved his wife.

“She’s all that matters,” he told me, going so far as to describe the way she looked when she was sleeping.

The way her hair lay against the pillow. The look of soft determination that marked her face, even at rest.

love soldier

As I’ve been endeavoring to write a truly compelling romantic male character over the past few years – I’ve been thinking back on the war photographers and marines, training my cold writer’s eye on them, a vision sharpened by years of steady surveillance. But I’ve engaged my heart, too – one warmed by half a lifetime of being a wife and mother.

Both teams of men command our attention, making us want to follow their journeys, root for them. I’ve tried to understand what sets them apart and anticipate which man a woman would choose to be her lover and why. How a woman would assess these two groups of alpha males if she found herself having to choose between them.

men arm wresting

Manhood, for Dave and his friends, was defined by meaning, and meaning was attained through the exercise of duty and honor. Being husbands, fathers, friends, and in their case, soldiers was a thing of the highest order. They held within them a deeply personal form of power. A competence that stretched far beyond what they were capable of on a battlefield, or any other professional arena. You didn’t dare underestimated them.

Andy and Eddie were charming, intelligent, funny and untamed. They were curious and had an unquenchable appetite for life. The sort of dangerous but captivating men you could find in any number of movies and novels. Full of bravado, fighting wars within themselves while they sought the wars outside. All of this hinted at an inner depth that might make a girl get out her shovel and dig until she found it…or didn’t. Yes, they were riveting in their own right.

I believe they truly cared about the people and events they were capturing with their cameras, despite their sardonic posturing. And I often wondered if they felt a bit lost in the theater of war – like people once removed. Intermediaries who were putting their lives on the line to bring images of conflict to the rest of us sitting at home. Denied the fight, all the while being exposed to the same perils. Dressed in the blood and grime of war, but not the uniform.

“Sometimes I can’t figure out what the hell we’re doing out there,” one of them once remarked.

Maybe that’s why those war photographers lived so hard, playing up their bad boy romanticism. Occupying that middle ground is complex and befuddling. You might have the courage of a soldier, but not the motive. You’re both up close to and at an arms length from humanity at its most base and most noble. And unlike a soldier, you have no articulated directives that bind your heart and mind – Semper Fidelis, First to Fight, Uncommon Valor, The Few, The Proud.

A man like that might be a bundle of ingredients that can’t seem to come together if he wasn’t careful.

man confused and blue

It occurred to me, as I thought back on how Dave had described his feelings – employing no irony and embracing, boldly, a deep sentimentality worthy of a Carpenters song – that clarity is an aphrodisiac few women can resist. It’s a Holy Grail for men all over, too, and some spend their entire lives in search of it.

Clarity of purpose. That law dictated from the bowels of the conscience, and adhered to. That’s the difficult part. Most can hear the call, but not every one can figure out how to follow it without getting lost.

But it is that very fidelity to intention that distinguishes men and boys. A husband from a boyfriend. The protagonist in any story from the rest. It is what makes a man whole, and a character transcend the story that’s been written for him.

And for even more on men and male characters, click here and visit me on Patreon!

 

 

An Interview with an Author-Entrepreneur: Me

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Hi, Cold readers!

As as bit of a turn this week, Roz Morris (a writer you may recognize from my interview with her last week) is interviewing me! She’s just wonderful and has put together such a thoughtful examination of the new writing life.

As an added bonus – especially for my writer readers, Roz’s blog is one of the 100 best blogs for writers, so do follow. She’s worth it.

Here’s a sample:

Reaching readers if you write in multiple genres – could crowdfunding be the answer? An interview

What do you write? Not so long ago, most authors had to choose a genre and stick to it. But many of us are far more versatile. Our minds and our hearts don’t stand still. Book by book, we push boundaries or leap into genres where we hadn’t previously felt at hom. As life reinvents us, we move on in our work.

No-one worried about that in the Renaissance, but it rarely went down well in traditional publishing, perhaps for sound commercial reasons. But now authors have more tools to reach an audience.

Read the rest of it here, via Reaching readers if you write in multiple genres – could crowdfunding be the answer? An interview

Not Quite Lost…Thoughts on Disappearing in Your Own Backyard

I met Roz Morris where I meet most of my fellow writers…at our virtual watercooler in one of our Facebook writers groups. That may sound strange, but believe me, I’ve met people I consider real friends in the “cloud” world of social media. How else can a homebound worker with her face in a computer screen all day get to know new people?

Roz felt familiar to me from the get-go. Not only do we share “resume” similarities – both of us write personal essays and thrillers, and teach others how to write – but a sensibility. The culture of a close marriage and a struggling family. A desire to watch behaviors and immerse ourselves in the quiet histories that surround us.

In other words, she’s perfect for COLD and I think you’ll really like her. To that end, I wrote up some questions for Roz, so you can get to know her better. And once you do, you’ll want to click on her links below and order her books. Good ones like this don’t come along every day.

Roz Morris 4

This is Roz

ME: You and I talked a bit about the culture of a relationship, which I got a very strong sense of while reading Not Quite Lost (in fact, your culture with your husband felt very similar to my own marriage. We’re both writers, work from home, and love to go on weird little trips. Only difference is the kids part).

ROZ: How lovely that you do that too. Dave and I certainly enjoy our ‘weird little trips’. I think it’s the writer mindset. I was listening to a podcast where Grayson Perry was trying to define what an artist does, and he said ‘artists notice things’. I think that’s true of all artists, not just visual. It’s the details that hold our attention and create verisimilitude as much as the big scale. So if you’re a hard-wired noticer, you’re never far away from being entertained. And it’s brilliant to be married to someone else whose brain works that way.

fishing net

“Fishing Net”

ME: How have your trips evolved as your marriage has matured? Or haven’t they?

ROZ: I can certainly see an evolution. We started big – we married abroad, in a hotel in Mexico City. For our honeymoon, we spent three weeks touring the Maya ruins of Mexico and Guatemala.

Roz n Dave wedding

Roz and Dave’s Wedding

ROZ: Since then, we’ve never been anywhere so exotic. We always intended to do more foreign travel, but as our writing careers gained traction we stopped thinking so far in advance, which you need to do for big expeditions. We also couldn’t afford to go far or for a long time –  freelance life is great for artistic fulfilment but doesn’t leave you much spare cash.  So we went on more last-minute trips, looking for a mop-up booking on line. We get wet a lot because it’s usually raining.

it's usually raining

Raining Again

ROZ: As I say in the book, we might go to the quietest corner of the country, but if it’s new to us, we’ll have adventures.

keepers cottage tea on lawn

Tea on the Lawn

ROZ: So our trips might have got simpler, but we’re just as entertained by them. Which is just as well because we’ve done most of the cities we could go to for short breaks. We do special expeditions on our birthdays and have become quite inventive. If we pass an interesting signpost on our way to somewhere else, we’ll plan a proper expedition there when we next decide to take a day off.

Recently we were looking for a shortcut through Surrey and we passed the Mullard Space Science Laboratory. It was just a sign on a set of gates in the middle of nowhere. We’re both kids of the space age so it went on our list. On Dave’s birthday we drove there to have a proper look. We knew it wasn’t open to the public, but we just enjoyed mooching around the area, walking the footpaths, poking through the villages and finding a nice place to eat cake.

mullard space science lab

Science Lab

ME: Where do you and your husband differ in how you approach your travels? What have you learned about your relationship through your “local” trips?

ROZ: With such a long partnership our differences become rather interesting, especially with ruins. Dave likes castles and Roman remains. I try to take an interest in those, but they don’t excite me nearly as much as more modern dereliction – disused airfields, World War II bunkers and ruined stately homes. I love those particularly – because they seem to have fallen so far.

In Not Quite Lost, we had an amusing mishap on a trip to Suffolk. The first half of the week, we stayed in a cosy, stripy cottage – Dave’s choice. The second half was my idea. We moved to a Martello tower – a Napoleonic gun emplacement on the coast that had been converted as a holiday let. Dave was dubious. He was right. It had a seriously leaky roof and I did a lot of apologising.

Martello tower crop

Martello Tower

ME: One of the things I loved about NQL is that you treat visiting Bath or Shropshire much the way you might approach going to small village in Vietnam. There is the same feeling of wonder and curiosity. Do you feel you learn as much from your own countrymen as you do from distant cultures? Or is this an apples to oranges comparison?

ROZ: Not apples to oranges at all. We all have our own customs, our own peculiar wiring. Keep your eyes open and you’re always rubbing up against them. In NQL, we stayed next door to a retired Prime Minister, and an entire micro-culture had grown up around his security arrangements. There were things you couldn’t do and places you couldn’t go because of it. Different cultures are everywhere, even within your own country.

ME: Compare and contrast traveling abroad with traveling “in-house.”

ROZ: This will probably appal globe-trotters, but I far prefer travelling in-house. I don’t need documents or vaccinations. I can throw everything in the car and take it with me, instead of having to create a capsule kit to fit within a plane’s baggage allowance. I can speak the language and understand the road signs. I can rummage through second-hand bookshops – one of my favourite holiday activities, and quite pointless in a country whose language you don’t speak. Here’s a wonderful bookshop we came across in a disused chapel in Suffolk (you can see more on my Pinterest page).

pinterestbookshop

I love Roz’s Pinterest page

ROZ: But when I have gone abroad, I’ve enjoyed the variations on the everyday. Supermarkets with completely alien sets of staple foods. Flavours that are unobtainable on these shores (the supercharged basil and tomatoes that grow on the Veneto Plain). The curious texture of grass in Singapore; the sidewalks and pavements made of marble and limestone in Verona and Padua. The babble of unfamiliar language, which makes the stuff of routine life sound so vital and uninhibited. Yeah, perhaps I should get out once in a while.

ME: What is the most unusual place you’ve visited within your own country? 

ROZ: I have a place that’s on my wish list, but I don’t know how I’ll ever get there. It’s an underwater billiard room in an ornamental lake in Surrey. It was originally built as part of a stately home, Witley Park. The house was destroyed by fire, but the underwater room is still there – like a glass igloo resting in the silt on the bed of the lake. I put it in my novel Lifeform Three, as the last remnant of a grand country house. It’s never been open to the public, but I live in hope that I’ll one day get the chance to visit. Perhaps if Lifeform Three becomes wildly famous…

underwater ballroom for Vic piece

I wish I could make this picture bigger. It’s amazing.

ME: I feel like you could have written a whole book about visiting the house (now school) that your mother lived in with her childhood sweetheart after your family broke up. You wrote with tremendous reserve about that experience, and what I found particularly powerful about it was how many questions were left unanswered for you. The fact that you weren’t even let inside of the house and had to wander around on the grounds, drawing your own conclusions about your mother’s life there.

ROZ: But isn’t that like life? We get our own story in an uninterrupted stream, but we might only be granted glimpses of somebody else’s. Even your closest relative might have stories that you know little of.

ME: Was that chapter the most difficult to write, or was its very mystery and paucity pretty straightforward, and therefore easier to capture?

ROZ: It was quite easy, exactly for the reasons you say. We weren’t a communicative family and I had very little information about the place or my mother’s time there. I had only those scraps, so I had to fit them together as best I could. indeed I wrote that piece just after the actual event as my way of sorting it out. It was as much for me as it was for the book.

But then, I’ve always been a house detective. I grew up in an Edwardian villa that had hidden fireplaces in the walls and a garden path that went under the bungalow next door. I wrote about that in the book too, when a school friend gave me the news that it had been demolished. I needed to keep its story, as much as I remembered it. Visiting the house my mother then moved to brought the threads together

Sulis Manor

Sulis Manor

Roz Morris is an award-nominated novelist who writes about people who are haunted by buried pasts (My Memories of a Future Life; Lifeform Three). She is a book doctor to award-winning writers (Roald Dahl Funny Prize 2012), has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is her first collection of essays. Find her at her website https://rozmorris.wordpress.com/ and on her blog https://nailyournovel.wordpress.com/ , contact her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/RozMorrisWriter/   and tweet her as @Roz_Morris http://www.twitter.com/roz_morris

Roz’s Links:

Memories of a Future Life

Lifeform Three

Not Quite Lost

NQL ebook cover smlr for websites

Nothing Says “I Like You” More Than A Home Cooked Meal

communist nostalgia art 4I cook a meal for my family from scratch almost every night.

I’m not saying this to brag or anything. I realize a lot of people simply can’t or dammit, don’t want to and I not only respect that, I envy it.

I cook for my family for two simple reasons. The first being that as a Czech, it’s somehow a biological imperative for me that my kids associate certain tastes and smells with their upbringing. Ones, specifically, that involve food. Slavs show their love through food. It’s what we do. We’re not big on the “I love yous.” In fact, the very phrase a head-over-heels, ga-ga in love Czech would use to express his affection is actually “Mam te rad.” This means, “I like you.” To say, “Miluju te,” which literally translates to “I love you,” would be overdoing it by Czech standards. People who say “miluju te” are a bit obsessive. The stalker types. If you’re a Czech and you say you like someone, it’s a big deal.

Just to be clear, I do tell my husband and children that I love them. But I also cook. A lot. When I first got married, I imagined that I would be cooking all sorts of Czech meals, even if I reserved my most ethnic dishes – goose, rabbit in cream sauce, pickled beef – for special occasions. Lo and behold, it turned out that my husband is not a fan of Czech cooking. He’s an Irish guy and has kind of a limited palette. Meat and potatoes and such. And my kids really hated Czech cooking pretty much from the get-go.

yucky face

No biggie. I just cooked other stuff. Anything from Chicken Pot Pie to Kung Pao Tofu.

But what makes me crazy is how – despite having pretty much a gourmet meal put in front their little half-Czech faces every night, my kids would still rather eat plain spaghetti or that processed fare from the frozen foods aisle. They deem foods like grilled salmon and shrimp risotto too flavorful.

That’s when I like to remind them of the sorts of foods I grew up eating. Especially the after school snacks that my surly great-grandmother used to prepare for me. Treats like raw bacon, boiled chicken skin, head cheese and scrambled veal brains on toast. If I had dared turn my nose up at those…well, I don’t know what would have happened exactly, but I can tell you it wouldn’t have been pretty. This was a woman who used to drown kittens in her bathtub whenever her mouser got knocked up. She defended her family so forcefully against a raid from Russian soldiers that they knocked her teeth out with the butts of their guns. Toothless and bleeding, she still managed to cuss them out.

You just didn’t mess with her.

old woman with gun

This is not my great-grandmother, but not too far off from her personality either.

And in honor of my great-grandmother and the foods I grew up eating, I thought I’d share one of her recipes with you. Just in case you’re wondering what to serve for your family this holiday season. Or at least what to threaten them with.

ROASTED BEEF TONGUE WITH ANCHOVY BUTTER

1 fresh beef tongue, boiled and skinned (simmer tongue in salted water for 3 to 4 hours)

1/4 pound butter

6 anchovies, mashed

1 medium onion, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon lemon juice

1 cup beef stock

1 cup bread crumbs

Preheat over to 350 degrees.

Cream half the butter with mashed anchovies and spread over cooked tongue. In a large pot, brown onion in the remaining butter, add meat and brown that a little, too. Pour in 1/2 cup beef stock. Roast in oven for about 1 hour or until tongue is good and brown on both sides. Sprinkle with lemon juice and bread crumbs. Add remaining stock and bake until bread crumbs are golden brown. Serves 6.

And have a wonderful Holiday – whatever you celebrate.

Prague Christmas card (Mark's)

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