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The Mysterious Mr. X

It seems like everybody knows someone who they believe was or is a spy.

Having been living for nearly twenty years within a hundred miles of the cloak and dagger hubs of the USA – Quantico (the FBI and U.S. Marine base) and Langley (CIA) – my husband and I have been privy to no shortage of tales about the sleepers among us. Like this one guy who retired and did a bit of carpentry work on the side. Our local girls’ tennis coach was sure he was definitely a spook. I mean, he’d worked at Langley as an accountant, or so he claimed. Then there was the foreign affairs professor who took a lot of sabbaticals and yet never seemed to write any books. And the new guy down the street who, when pressed about what he did for a living, mentioned that he had a few small business ventures going, but then quickly changed the subject.

Most of these are probably B.S.

The retired accountant turned carpenter-for-hire sure comes off like a bean counter to me and gives pretty good advice in that arena. The foreign affairs professor appears way too compliant to risk stealing sensitive information that could land him in prison, and too socially awkward to pull off cultivating the kinds of relationships that would even get him access to high-level intelligence. As for the small business guy – he might just be living off of a trust fund and didn’t want to admit it in front of a bunch of scrappy self-starters. Or genuinely hated talking shop at the neighborhood barbeque.

But there was one man I not only heard stories about but got to know a little bit, who truly may have been a spy. A man who for our purposes, I’ll call Mr. X.

“Do you remember {Mr. X}?” our family friend Albert asked me, when he came to town for his college reunion a couple of months ago. “He died last summer.”

I told Albert that I did remember him, and very well, although I’d only met him once or twice. There was a weight to him, a soulfulness, loneliness. While my encounters with Mr. X had not been what I’d call dark and inscrutable, he was the quiet type, who didn’t give a whole lot away. To be honest, my impressions of our past interactions…were mostly sad. He was a man who knew regret and didn’t flinch about facing it, never rationalized it the way an unfaithful spouse might, saying something like, “I know it was hard, but in the end the divorce was actually good for the kids.”

Now Mr. X was no longer among us, and I felt a genuine sense of loss.

What lingered like a valley fog from the few times I’d found myself chatting with him was the way he’d talked about his personal life, or lack thereof. How he’d never thought he was ready for love and had watched good women come and go. How he’d tried to start over a couple of times, but realized it was too late. He’d made his bed. There wasn’t any self-pity in these revelations, nor any detail. Most of the time when I found myself in his company, he seemed content just to let other people talk. And to listen. I always got the feeling that he really listened.

“What bothers me is that he died alone,” Albert said.

Our friend disclosed that he’d been thinking about Mr. X a lot. About their history together. The two men had been very close once, having been in the same fraternity at University of Virginia. They’d both studied law and had stayed in touch over the years, even between college reunions. In fact, Albert had called Mr. X on the day his body had been discovered, wondering if he was planning to attend the most recent one. The moment his niece answered the phone, he knew, Albert told us. Nobody else ever answered Mr. X’s phone.

“He was a natural leader, you know,” Albert said. “He never used force to get his ideas across, although he was strong and athletic.”

Albert went on to describe Mr. X’s unwavering moral code and deep sense of honor. How much women liked him and professors held him in high esteem. He also described how Mr. X had fallen off the radar for a while after graduation, and resurfaced intermittently, in between ambiguous consulting jobs or business opportunities in countries like Azerbaijan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Romania, Ukraine.

Then, there were the injuries, which had him coming back to the U.S. to recuperate at times for months on end, before he picked himself up and went abroad again.

“They weren’t the usual broken ankles from a ski trip,” Albert said. “They were strange, like he’d been beaten up. He’d say he fell or was in an accident, but it never seemed right. Like the battered wife who claims she tripped down the stairs one week, then walked into a door the next. There was always something.”

Albert was troubled that hardly anyone had shown up to Mr. X’s funeral, too. “Only six people came, and that included me and my wife and son. He was popular at school, always there to help when you needed him, and this was the turnout. Not even the rah-rah guys from our fraternity came to pay their respects.”

It didn’t surprise me, but then again, I hadn’t known Mr. X when he was a college student. The man I had known – however little and however briefly – had seemed an orphan in this world. I couldn’t imagine him with a mother and father or siblings and was even surprised to hear that he had a niece who was attuned enough to his comings and goings to discover his body.

“He should’ve married and had kids,” Albert said. “You need family in this world.”

Maybe Mr. X really was just an emotional ne’er-do-well, who’d taken on adventurous business consulting opportunities in favor of settling down, and eventually all of that had caught up with him. His curious injuries, I’m sure, could be explained away by a competent physician.

And people change, after all, sometimes becoming estranged from friends and family as they grow older. It’s not a trait that can only be attributed to those who enter the world of espionage. Even an affable frat guy like Mr. X could have had a stranger lurking within him all along. One who only needed permission to surface.

But none of this seemed to be enough to explain how a man who reeked of depth and dignity could have ended up so far from where he’d started – and without help from the usual accelerators of doom: sex, drink, and drugs.

In my estimation, the reason why Mr. X seemed like a plausible spy was more ambiguous than the way he’d lived his life – always on the move, reticent about revealing too much, unable or unwilling to make a commitment to anyone. What stuck in my craw, was that unlike the Langley accountant, Mr. X hadn’t retired and started making furniture. He hadn’t moved on to something else or held on to what he had. Here was a man of intelligence and charisma, good looks and good character. He’d started off his young adult life by going to an excellent school, where he’d joined a prominent fraternity and earned the respect of its members, who all thought a guy like him was going places.

In short, he’d been a man of promise.

Yet, at the end of his life, no one really knew Mr. X. Not even Albert, who’d always been the one to initiate contact, who’d tried to help him meet a woman and relaunch his life, who’d flown his family from their home in San Francisco to Portland, Oregon, for Mr. X’s funeral. Almost everyone but Albert had long since stopped trying to know him, worn down by the unreturned phone calls, the far-flung assignments, the strangeness, otherness of Mr. X’s life choices.

If he really was a secret agent, I’d like to think it had all been worth it for Mr. X – the injuries and clandestine missions. They may have meant a great deal to the young men who fight in our wars, the people who are victims of true oppression, and the world at large. Even if they did ravage the life of the man who undertook them.

But the truth is, the spy is the ultimate unsung hero, so we’ll never know.

If you have a taste for some fictional spies of my making…

The Hungarian in trade paperback is on sale at Amazon:

Go to St. Louis

One of my husband’s old friends from St. Louis visited us last weekend. Matt is razor-sharp and funny. A geographer by trade, and former Catholic school boy who has become deeply immersed in Chinese medicine and Eastern religions. In fact, apart from wanting to visit with his old buddy Jack (my husband), his interest in spiritualism is what brought him to Virginia. There was a Wu Mastery seminar (I hope I got that right) relating to Eastern philosophy at a local yoga retreat, and Matt had been invited.

(This isn’t Matt.)

What was great about the visit wasn’t just that we got to share a meal and reminisce with a great guy that my guy has been hanging around with since the Seventh Grade, but that in welcoming Matt into our house, we got the whole city of St. Louis as a bonus.

Being from St. Louis is a trip. I love the place! I should qualify this by saying that I am not from St. Louis, although I did live there for a number of years around the time my husband and I got married. Because Jack’s from St. Louis, and we’re both from the Midwest, I’m sort of St. Louis-adjacent and have been welcomed into the tribe and let in on all of its secrets and idiosyncrasies – even if they sometimes have to be explained to me like I’m a kindergartener.

What is truly wild about the “Gateway to the West,” as it is called, is that it’s not just a city, it’s a world unto itself. One that’s only vaguely interested in your world, if you live outside St. Louis. Despite the entire metro area boasting some 2.8 million residents, it feels like a small town and everyone who grew up there knows each other through someone, somehow. And I mean everyone.

(Jack (left), me (center), and Matt (right), years ago in St. Louie)

Part of the reason for this is that St. Louis is generally a city that people who aren’t from there don’t move to and people who are from there don’t move away from. It’s a place that’s of St. Louis, by St. Louis, and for St. Louis. That seems rare in this day and age. Especially for a city of its size.

You can grab a random stranger on the street by the arm, and within twenty-two seconds have established that you know at least three of the same people, have family in each other’s neighborhoods, attended the same wedding ten years ago, and got your dog from the same breeder.

The local TV anchors, disc jockeys, and sports announcers are treated by St. Louisans as on par with global celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Prince Harry. St. Louis products and businesses are elevated in a similar manner.

In my humble opinion, that’s the way it should be.

(“Toasted Ravioli” is an institution in St. Louis.)

When we bought a minivan a few years back, my husband slapped a KSHE 95 sticker right and center on its bumper, announcing to the world that we were fans of St. Louis’s oldest classic rock-n-roll radio station. I was confused for a number of reasons. The first being the most obvious – that we lived in Virginia and at that point had for over a decade. Also, my husband has a particular disdain for bumper stickers. We don’t do political slogans, Life’s a Beach vacation magnets, proclamations of how much we “heart” our Boston Terrier, nothing.

“And you hate KSHE,” I said, because he’s also a music snob who favors jazz over classic rock. Who favors jazz over everything, actually.

But KSHE is legendary in St. Louis. Only on KSHE can you hear songs like Missouri’s Movin’ On, and the more obscure tunes from Boston’s Don’t Look Back album on a regular basis. Every Sunday at noon, long-time DJs Mark Klose and John “U-man” Ulett have a one-hour show called “The Vinyl Exam,” where they play songs from their favorite rock-n-roll albums of all time. Since they’re both creeping up on some fifty years at KSHE, their favorites are time-honored selections like Heart’s Dreamboat Annie and REO Speedwagon’s You Can Tune a Piano, but You Can’t Tuna Fish. And they can talk about them with an encyclopedic knowledge.

Truly, no algorithm could come up with KSHE’s particular brand – a format and playlist so committed to maintaining its roots that it actually sounds original to outsiders yet remains beloved by legacy listeners who are just thrilled that it hasn’t changed one bit.​​

And within weeks of driving around with that KSHE pig on the back of our minivan, Jack’s real intentions became clear.

Wherever we traveled, our KSHE bumper sticker attracted notice from past and current St. Louisans, always prompting a conversation and the inevitable, “Oh, my God – you went to Chaminade High School!” and “Yup, my cousin’s parish was St. Ann’s,” and “You knew Dewey? Last time I saw him was at Ted Drewes and son of a bitch had a Cubs cap on. Yeah, his wife’s from Chicago, I guess.”

Even when we moved to Virginia, it turned out our next-door neighbor had deep family connections in St. Louis, and yes, my husband knew her cousin. They’d gone to the same High School for the love of God. Didn’t even need the KSHE bumper sticker for that one.

​But I digress. Sort of.

The point is, St. Louis is more than just a city, it’s a mythology. People from there talk about it the way the classical Greeks talked about their gods. In an up close and personal manner that mixes pride, gossip, mean jabs and hero worship. That assumes St. Louis is the only place in the world really worth talking about.

And from the moment Matt sat down in our living room, he and Jack fell right back into that way St. Louis lifers have of talking. The one that seamlessly mixes personal tales with history and lore.

“Three of my brothers dated four of your dad’s sisters,” Matt told our kids, captivating them with the peculiar dynamics of big families in small neighborhoods. The way everyone dates each other, marries each other, loves and hates each other.

(These are just 6 of the 8 Dougherty siblings at a recent family wedding.)

As the stories continued, the ordinary and the extraordinary jumped and jumbled like a game of double Dutch. Although I knew most of the characters involved, even I had a hard time keeping them straight.

“Yeah, you know my brother was married to Jon Hamm’s sister for like twenty-five years, right?” Matt said.

I didn’t know.

“Yeah. He came in for a wedding a while back and my mom comes up behind him and messes up his hair. Eighty-nine years old and she’s like ‘Hey Jonny!’ You know he went to Burroughs.”

The footnote of where Jon Hamm went to High School – Burroughs – is important information for a St. Louisan. “Where’d you go to High School?” is a stock question in reference to any local you’re talking with or about. A St. Louis native will never ask you where you went to college, because the focus is on the St. Louis experience. It’s why the Harvard grad, who just has to let you know his alma mater within sixty seconds of meeting you, will get absolutely no respect in The Lou. But if he said he went to St. Louis Priory School, that would be saying something.

From a civic perspective, this makes perfect sense. The metro area High Schools all have their very own brands that they’ve spent decades refining. Ones that tell a lot more about a person than just whether they’re smart or rich. They explain what their parents were like, and often what their parent’s parents were like, what their character might be, their talents and interests, even whether they’re attractive or not.

So, the mention of Burroughs telegraphed that Jon Hamm was ok; also, that he was probably progressive, bright, and the rare type of local who was most likely to leave St. Louis.

All of which, at least on the surface, appear to be true.

(J.H. Senior photo, I believe.)

I should also point out that the mention of the famous actor, which could be an epic name-drop in any other context, was treated simply as one feature in a larger, richer collection of St. Louis trivia. My husband had never even mentioned to me that Matt was related to Jon Hamm by marriage during all the years we watched Mad Men together. But he did tell me that Jon was from St. Louis and went to Burroughs. See what I mean?

But the most dramatic and truly sensational tale told last Saturday night was without question the one of the exorcist boy of St. Louis. Yes, the story of the possessed kid made legendary by the 1973 film The Exorcist, starring Linda Blair, was actually based on a boy whose exorcism, in 1949, took place only a few minutes’ walk from where Jack and Matt grew up.

It was at a place technically known as St. Vincent’s, but that locals called the Old Normandy Hospital; an imposing, castle-like structure founded by the Sisters of Charity in the mid 1860s, for the treatment of nervous and mental diseases.

(No, thank you.)

“It’s now a nursing home, but man, we used to sneak in there all the time in High School, back when it was still abandoned,” Matt said.

There’s the version of events you can find in a basic Google search and there’s the one I’m going to tell you, as told to me by Matt. That one is steeped in community lore that I believe tells a more complete story. By complete, I don’t necessarily mean true – although it may be. I mean a story that reveals a lot about the people telling it and spreading it. It shows us their hopes, fears and nightmares; tells us how they feel about who they are, what they think of their friends, neighbors, mentors, and the architecture around them.

“That place is cursed,” Matt said, again referring to the exorcist hospital near their homes. “Remember that time, there was like twenty of us going in there to drink, and man, it was traumatic.”

“Horrible,” my husband concurred.

They were climbing over an eight-foot fence to break into the old hospital when in a freak accident one of their friends, Christine, got her class ring caught on a spire. She lost her footing and fell to the ground, tearing her ring finger right off.

“We took her to the new Normandy hospital, which is like taking her to a butcher shop, but what choice did we have?” Matt continued. “And when we get there, the doctors are like, ‘where’s the finger?’ And we didn’t know we were supposed to bring it. So, they give me and Whitey a box with ice in it, and we’ve got to go back to that creepy place and find it.”

They were successful, plucking the appendage out from under some bushes, and Christine’s finger was ultimately re-attached. Unfortunately, that didn’t take, and it had to be removed again – just more evidence that the place was plain evil.

“Then, when I was a Freshman at St. Louis University, I took a class from Father John Walsh,” Matt said, almost in a whisper. “We got close, he and I, and he was so cool. I mean he used to protest with Jane Fonda and sh*t. Anyway, he was best friends with the priest who did the exorcism and knew all about what really happened and told me the whole story.”

(The house where the kid stayed, and parts of the exorcism took place.)

According to Matt, Fr. John Walsh claimed that the possessed boy’s tongue would stretch three to five feet out from his mouth and slap the priests in the face while they were reading from the Bible in their efforts to cast out the demon.

“That part wasn’t in the movie, but Fr. John said it happened a lot and freaked the sh*t out of everyone there. I mean, he didn’t say ‘freaked the sh*t,’ those are my words. But it was really disturbing.”

Obscenities would appear on the boy’s body, as well as images, like a pitchfork, and they looked to have been scratched into his skin with a knife.

“Blood would appear like he’d been cut, stay there for hours, then just disappear without a trace.”

Like in the movie, furniture would shake and levitate, the boy’s voice would change, sounding low and demonic, and he would cackle wildly and frequently.

“Words in Aramaic or some other old language, I don’t remember which one he said it was, would appear in blood on the walls of the hospital during the exorcism. Even years after, they could never bring the temperature up to normal in that place, no matter how much they cranked up the heat. Sometimes, the walls would just start to sweat for no reason, and the words that used to appear in blood would appear again, but in the damp of the plaster – like if you write with your finger on a foggy window.”

The fact that the building had been sold, remodeled and turned into a nursing home just added more fodder to the urban legends surrounding it. Especially since The Exorcist III was set in a nursing home – and written long before the old Normandy hospital was turned into one. That fact itself seemed prophetic, in the worst sort of way.

“The end of the exorcism wasn’t as dramatic as the film. I think the priests just wore the demon out and it left and never came back. The kid went home to Maryland after that and had a normal life.”

(Ronald Hunkeler, the real exorcist kid.)

The whole Maryland connection threw me for a loop, as we’d just spent the better part of an hour establishing that the story originated down the street from where Matt and Jack had grown up, and not in the Washington DC metro area, where the film had been set.

“I thought the boy was from St. Louis,” I said.

“Well, he had close relatives in St. Louis – grandparents, I think – but the way he got there to be exorcized was really f*cked up. When the kid started having all these problems and acting like a psycho, they took him to Georgetown Hospital at first to be evaluated. They did all of these tests, and while he was there, these welts started to appear on his body, like this really bad rash, all clearly in the form of words. You couldn’t mistake it.”

“What did it say?” I asked.

Matt adjusted his hat and scratched his beard. He leaned forward and looked me right in the eyes.

“Go to St. Louis.”​​​​​

Go Cardinals!

Community: The Other Kind of Love Story

(Team spirit!)

In honor of Valentine’s Day, I decided to shake things up and not write an essay about lovers, like I usually do. Instead, I wanted to expand the circle, make those lovers of essays past tear their eyes away from one another for a little while and look out and around them at their community.

These days, I think a lot of people have a complicated relationship with community. Their own as well as the concept as a whole. I know I do.

Some hold only a few people very close and find interacting in larger groups anything from discombobulating to downright traumatic. Others have more of an abundance mindset when it comes to mixing with people at large. They thrill to meeting new neighbors, joining clubs, playing on sports teams, and attending functions of all sorts, from intimate dinner parties to corporate Christmas shindigs to fancy to-dos.

Wherever we fall on the community spectrum, most of us agree that the absence of connection to a whole isn’t good for us. Doctors caution us that people who do not feel a strong sense of community live shorter lives, are more likely to develop dementia, and are less happy overall. Our common experience shows us that our circles can help keep us from our worst impulses – pessimism, miserliness, inflexibility, melancholy. The people we invite into our lives, apart from enriching us with their interests and making us feel a part of something bigger, can also keep us from making grave personal or financial errors. They help us draw inferences about our behaviors or just outright tell us when we are unfairly picking on our spouse, not giving our children enough room to grow, or falling for someone who does not have our best interests at heart.

All of this sounds rather complicated, doesn’t it? To further muddle this issue, many of us are in the process of a huge shift in how we experience community in almost every facet of our lives.

(I can think of few expressions of community that are greater than the school play)

That is, of course, thanks at least in part to Covid and the new era of work-from-home it has ushered in.

While a Godsend to some, I’m sure it’s been a real stressor to others. A boisterous household can be a challenging place to have a Zoom call with your boss. A marriage built on a lot of personal space can suddenly feel claustrophobic. I’m well aware of the joys and pitfalls of work-from-home life, as my husband and I have been well ahead of the curve on this one. As writers, we’ve been living a post-Covid life for almost twenty years now – working from a home office, although rarely allowing ourselves to do so in our pajamas.

“We’ve got to keep our dignity,” my husband has always insisted.

(I admit I drop the ball sometimes)

That’s why it remains to be seen how this massive change in the way we do business and experience community at large will play out long-term.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not one of those people who wants to keep all the goodies for myself. There are plenty of great things that come from working from home and I don’t begrudge them to anyone. You save a lot of time not having to commute to work, you can be more available to your children, you don’t have to spend quite so much money on office clothes and coffee and babysitters. I’m glad more people get to experience this and at least see if it’s for them.

(My husband singing for his supper in our kitchen)

Nor am I a gloom-and-doomer who is convinced that our social skills will inevitably atrophy, fomenting miscommunication and mistrust on a massive scale now that so many of us are hanging around the house all the time. Or that without the dark mistress of a workplace whipping us into shape, too many of us will lack the discipline to follow through on our commitments.

It’s important to remind ourselves that this working from home thing, after all, is not without historical precedent.

When we were still an agricultural society, I imagine we spent much of our time at home and with our families – working the fields alongside our children, chopping wood, hand-washing laundry, cooking. We might have left for a few hours or days to sell our wares at a regional market or made our way into town to purchase our needs. For purely social interactions, we got dressed up for a gathering at a neighbor’s place, maybe a dance at a nearby barn. We would have definitely experienced community at church on Sundays. But for the most part, our days would have been spent in the company of blood relatives, with a smattering of non-family helpers pitching in. A visitor here and there.

(An Easter egg hunt at our neighbor’s place some years ago)

And this was in the days long before social media, so the only way to see people outside of this intimate circle was to actually go and see them or for them to come see you.

Yet community thrived. In fact, when the siren song of the city began to play, luring young people off their land and into factory jobs or corporate jobs, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how that would affect the family.

Turns out the worrying wasn’t entirely for nought. Fathers did spend a lot more time away from their families, and later, mothers entered he work force and stayed away for much of the day, too. Kids started going to preschool instead of staying at home until kindergarten; they were often watched by an aunt, granny or other minder instead of their moms. Or they went to daycare. Some children, if they were old enough – in my day that meant as young as seven or eight years-old – could come home straight from school, make their own snack, and just fart around alone until mom and dad got home. There was a pretty loose honor system in place, with kids insisting to their parents that yes, of course, they’d done their chores and finished their homework. And no, they hadn’t spent the whole time watching TV.

To this latch-key kid, it was heaven.

This new way of life did create opportunities for other ways of experiencing community, too. Many of us became close to colleagues, finding our people and culture at the office. The watercooler huddles, after work happy hours, and industry conventions took the places of sewing circles, Moose Lodges, and church socials. Marriages were broken and marriages were made. I know so many people who fell in love at work. In fact, since the MeToo movement has prompted many businesses to enforce policies that strongly discourage dating at the office, I’ve often wondered how in the world people were even going to make prospective love connections at all.

You can tell I’m from the days before online dating.

(A rare, totally platonic work event)

But as I watch the wheels turn, and the adaptations commence, I continue to feel optimistic about all of this community stuff. Not because I’m so comfortable with change and handle it oh, so handily. I don’t. I’ve been dragged kicking and screaming into the technological age, to every new city I’ve lived in, to contemporary fashion choices for the love of God.

But if there’s one thing that I’m sure of. Reasonably sure of anyway. It’s that community, like romantic love, is such a deeply ingrained necessity for us humans, that it will survive and thrive no matter how we mix it up. We may very well stumble through this change, and it won’t always be evident that the transformation will be an overall good one, but we’ll get there.

That’s why I want to encourage us all – even the most introverted of introverts – to raise a glass with a friend, hand out chocolates at our book club, or give a rose to a co-worker this Valentine’s Day. Ok, maybe not a co-worker – I wouldn’t want to get anyone fired. How about just this simple directive: Let us give proper attention to the people with whom we interact with more casually, or just less frequently, and imagine ways that we can bring them closer.

Say Anything: Here’s a Conversation You Don’t Want to Miss

Making a true friend is like winning the lottery.

Those of you who have been around here for a while are probably aware that once a year, I have a long, complex, meandering and above all warm and open conversation with my friend Ricardo Lopes (aka The Dissenter) on his wonderful podcast.

“A single conversation across the table with a wise man is better than ten years mere study of books.”

–Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

His is a science-focused podcast – social science, psychology, medicine, physics, environment, a bit of philosophy – he runs the gambit. Ricardo has a breathtaking scope of knowledge, able to ask poignant, informed, and often counterintuitive questions of his guests, regardless of how specialized their area of expertise. A fiction writer like me may seem like a very odd addition to his usual cast of characters.

Ricardo’s esteemed guests probably have more highbrow tastes.

But Ricardo isn’t just a left-brained kind of thinker. He loves literature, art, Manga, poetry and film. I’m sure I’m missing some of his points of interest. And he can talk about them with passion and proficiency. He is that rare individual who has strong opinions yet is able to change his mind. In fact, learning something new, evolving, even admitting he was wrong, is a thrill for him.

“My idea of good company is the company of clever, well-informed people who have a great deal of conversation; that is what I call good company.”

–Jane Austen

At one point we discussed the intersection of science and fiction. How both disciplines are based on making something up – either a plot or hypothesis – and following that to a conclusion that resembles some kind of truth. It was fun to uncover an insight that in retrospect seemed obvious…that creativity has a skeleton that can hold together the guts of an infinite variety of subjects. It gave us an awareness of not only the matter at hand, but of why we became friends in the first place.

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”Anais Nin

I guess all of this can also be said of any meaningful exchange, but in the interest of presenting ours’ to an audience, Ricardo and I always try to approach this yearly talkfest with a raw and delicate jumble of humility, honesty, knowledge and hopefully courage.

I hope we succeeded.

I can say with some confidence, at least from our perspective, that our one hundred seventy-minute-long conversation never lagged or lulled. Every topic we tasted, chewed-up, spat out or swallowed whole, seemed organically to lead to the next. These included, but weren’t limited to psycho killers, human beings merging with A.I., comic book villains, the boring nature of nihilism, the thrilling, complex and literary plots of great Manga stories, trigger warnings, and even the state of free speech. Phew!

“I love people. Everybody. I love them, I think, as a stamp collector loves his collection. Every story, every incident, every bit of conversation is raw material for me.”

Sylvia Plath

As you listen, you may find yourself nodding along in agreement, or slamming your fist into your desk and shouting, “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” Either response is beautiful, perfectly natural, and exactly the sort of reaction a nuanced, good-faith conversation should invoke. I welcome any and all comments, as long as they’re made respectfully.

Without further ado:

Time, Resolve, and the Pursuit of Excellence

yellow fireworks in the sky during nighttime
Happy New Year!

While I’m not one of those people who thinks anything actually changes between 11:59 PM on December 31st and 12:01 AM on January 1st (assuming those people even exist), I definitely believe that the ways in which we mark time impact how we experience its passage.

Every New Year, I am made painfully aware of the fact that I’m at war with time. I fight for more of it, to do more with it, to slow it down, to speed it up, to use it more wisely.

A big fan of resolutions, it is sobering for me to look back and realize that nearly all of my bold intentions for New Years past are somehow related to time.

Take this year.

My New Year’s resolution for 2023 revolves around the pursuit of excellence. I got the idea on Twitter, of all places. A Tweet thread from a Tom Cruise enthusiast detailed the superstar actor’s obsession with getting things just so, making my heart and mind burst in a firework of inspiration. And showing me all the ways in which I have fallen short in my pursuit. Not accomplished what I want in a timely manner.

Here’s the thread:

MI:ROGUE NATION (2015) Cruise clung to the door of a military plane that hit 260mph and flew >1000 feet in the air. He wore a body harness that was roped to an aluminum plate in the plane. You see the rope in the raw footage (bottom). Cruise says he “was scared shitless.”

“Scared shitless” doesn’t even begin.

MI:FALLOUT (2018) Cruise did a HALO (high-altitude, low open) parachute jump out of a C-17 military transport plane. It’s a 25,000 foot jump. Absurdly, Cruise did >100 jumps on a semi-broken ankle and had to get within exactly 3ft of a parachuting camera man to get the shot.

Yup, that’s really him.

MI:2 (2000) In the first MI sequel, Cruise climbed a 2,000 foot Utah cliff with only a safety rope (dude really likes extreme climbs). Director John Woo brought on an expert climber to do the stunts, but Cruise did it all (incl. an insane 15-foot gap jump between 2 cliffs).

Right before the 15-foot jump. Total savage.

A FEW GOOD MEN (1992) Cruise went up against one of the greatest actors ever, Jack Nicholson. After an intense courtroom scene, he worked up the balls to ask Nicholson if he ordered “the Code Red”. Might be the craziest stunt ever.

Apparently, he improvised.

MI:FALLOUT (2018) Cruise piloted a helicopter solo at low altitudes while doing insane stunts (a “360 downward spiral”). All while controlling the camera. To prep, he put in ~500 hours of helicopter training over a one-month period.

All while controlling the camera!

MI: DEAD RECKONING PT. 1 The next MI will come out in July 2023 and the studio just released a featurette of Cruise’s motorbike cliff jump. He did 6x takes of the scene! Cruise is legit running out of wild stunts to do (him and Nolan need to talk about a real A-bomb).

This man is 60 years old!

With a combination of awe and exasperation, I look at people like Cruise, at some of my writer friends who are just killing it, at my own past self for heaven’s sake, and think, “Why aren’t I doing more, faster, better?”

If I’m to be honest with myself, there is a thrill to this kind of self-flagellation that’s not unlike chasing the dragon. It’s a cycle well recognized by the drinker, the gambler, the player, even the pathological liar.

You try, you fall, you get back up, you take on even more, fall again, get back up.

That dragon you’re riding looks back at you and whispers, “What you want is just around the corner, can’t you see? All you need is one more whiskey and you’ll be a fascinating guest, one more roll of the dice and you’ll be a millionaire, one more beautiful woman and you’ll be worthy and loved. One more lie, and you’ll finally be seen as the person you want to be.”

Or in my case, one more possible world. One more story, and you’ll be a real writer.

Frank Cheyne Pape’s most excellent rendering of chasing the dragon.

To a proponent of self-care, any such cycle is deemed unhealthy, self-defeating, and ultimately, destructive and damaging to one’s psyche. We should be slowing down, accepting our imperfections and failures, even embracing them.

Maybe. The problem is…I just can’t accept that.

Despite bruised knees and a bruised ego, the punishing self-criticism that plays as background music to my every thought, I believe in my heart of hearts that the pursuit of excellence is a noble exercise. Especially when we’re able to separate the pursuit from the actual outcome. When we recognize the holiness inherent in doing our best with what we’ve been given; the sanctity of using who we are and what we do not only to better ourselves, but hopefully add something of value to someone else’s life.

That might sound a little too spiritual, for some. But I think it’s right and true.

And it’s further evidenced by another example of excellence that I want to offer, internalize, spread like a virus. Tom Cruise’s cinema god antics make me want to high-five the stranger next to me, for sure. His inspiration by example is a hearty kick in my ass on my best days and kick in the head on my worst. I salute the man.

But the following effort by the writer Kurt Vonnegut is downright divine in the purest, most virtuous sense.

In 2006, a group of students from Xavier High School in New York wrote to their favorite authors, asking them to visit and offer some inspiration.

Kurt Vonnegut was the only one to respond, and here’s what he had to say:

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don’t make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you’re Count Dracula.

Here’s an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don’t do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. Don’t show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what’s inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!

Kurt Vonnegut

When I reread the above Twitter thread and the letter to the Xavier High School students, I understand why I’ll never join with the self-care specialists. The thing about people like Tom Cruise and Kurt Vonnegut is that their joy is infectious. They find genuine meaning in their relentless pursuit, though I’m sure it has vexed them at times.

Cruise will do all of his own stunts, will work the camera, will give his all. Vonnegut will take the time, with gusto, to impart his wisdom to a small High School class that can do nothing with him or for him. He gives them words to live by. Instead of whispering, like that shifty dragon, he shouts, “Jump in that pile of leaves! Do the flip off the diving board! Write the novel! Sing the song! Bake the cake! What are you waiting for?”

He’s a reminder that shooting for the stars can get us to the top of a mountain, after all, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. Time doesn’t have to be a war; it can be a jubilee of passions. A process of revelation that may have its own end in mind.

Time-Sensitive New Year’s Offer!

Today Only (Ok, maybe tomorrow, too)!

I am, quite literally, writing this from the cold, as we have had the coldest winter temperatures here in Virginia that I can remember.

The pipes to our dishwasher even froze on Christmas Eve, making us all wash the dishes by hand before venturing out into the c-c-cold again in order to make midnight mass.

No complaints here. The food was delicious, all three of our children were safe, happy, and under our roof, and dear friends came by to celebrate, making our holiday exactly as we wanted it.

I hope your holiday was every bit as nourishing for your heart and soul.

(These are the sausage rolls my husband made. Delish!)

And now, we head into the New Year.

As we are all scattered around the globe, the only way I can really ring in the New Year with you all is through story. That’s why I’ve decided to put a bunch of my books on sale for TODAY ONLY (I might extend the sale just a little bit, so check the links, even if you’re late).

I’ll start with THE BONE CHURCH, a historical thriller and my debut novel.

In the surreal and paranoid underworld of wartime Prague, two lovers seek redemption…and a way back to each other.

 THE BONE CHURCH on sale for $.99 on Amazon 

 And on Apple, Nook, and other platforms! 

 Kobo, too. 

And if you love stories like “A Time-Traveler’s Wife” and “Life After Life,” hold on to your hat! Both BREATH and SAVAGE ISLAND are part of the BREATH series and will have you up all night turning pages.

An ancient curse sends two lovers on a voyage through history…

 BREATH is on sale for $.99 on Amazon 

 And on Apple, Nook, and other platforms! 

 Kobo, too! 

Niue, 1944

On this remote island in the South Pacific, Angelie is dying of boredom and eager to get involved in the war effort. Then she meets Will…

 SAVAGE ISLAND is on sale for $.99 on Amazon! 

 And on Nook, Apple, Kobo and other platforms, too! 

Happy New Year! I hope you enjoy every word!

And if you do, please consider leaving a review on the platform of your choice. No stressing – just a heartfelt sentence or two. Or leave a starred review with no words at all – those are great, too!

Amazon won’t share a novel in its emails to readers until the book has 50 reviews, and on average, about one in every hundred readers leaves a review, so this is a big hill to climb. Your help means a lot!

Creeps, Eccentrics and Maniacs: Celebrating Art That’s on the Edge

My daughter wearing a snake as a hat.

Aside from posting the odd holiday greeting, I don’t spend much time on my personal Facebook page. I do, however, post on my author page pretty frequently. It’s a place where I can share pictures of locations I’m scouting for various scenes in a novel, poll readers, and reach out in a personal way to fellow writers and story lovers about the creative life…or just life in all its haphazard glory. If you’re not already following me on Facebook, I do recommend it. I try to offer something for everyone every day, and we have a lot of fun there.

Especially on Tuesdays.

Tuesday, on my Facebook author page, has been dubbed “Creepy Tuesday.” Every Tuesday morning, I post at least one creepy, arty photo or image. That may seem a bit odd, since I’m not a horror writer, per se, even if I do have a lot of respect for the genre. I’m not exactly a paranormal writer either, although there are plenty of ghosts and various woo-woo boundary crossings in my work. But I have a huge love of the weird, the outlandish, and yes, the creepy. Honestly, I could seek out and post creepy pictures every day of the week, but it might give readers the wrong idea about the kinds of stories I write. So, proportionally, I give my love of creep the one day a week I feel it deserves.

Artist Omar Rayyan

But here’s where I should be clear about how exactly I define such an esoteric concept – this notion of creep in the art and literature we consume.

To me, creepiness is much broader than it would seem, at least on the surface. It’s not just eerie, ominous, weird or macabre. Creeps and creepy images, concepts, and stories are zoetic and always in motion. I mean that literally. The very nature of a creep is to…creep. To move slowly, stealthily across boundaries. To reveal possibilities thought out of reach or out of bounds.

But buyer beware! Such things, while unquestionably exciting, are wrought with dangers and we are best not to forget that as we enjoy them.

As an idea or an individual, a creep will inevitably gaslight you into normalizing their casually deviant behavior. Because it is in their very interest and character to blur edges, fudge over once hard lines of demarcation, leaving room for interpretation or misinterpretation, often making you doubt yourself.

Exploitation is the darkest side of creepiness, and one we should avoid at all costs.

For an artist, however, creepiness is sublime.

Twisted Trinity by Sadan Vague

When introduced via a creative endeavor, creepiness can expand our understanding of a thought, an impression or an emotion, often turning our preconceptions upside down. It can inspire unpleasant feelings of dread or disgust, but also entice us into wonder, lust, even euphoria. Just as quickly, it can round the corner and invite us into an experience of true psychological terror – not of others, but ourselves. It is the visual equivalent of a psychedelic drug, capable of producing an extraordinary conscious experience, touching the stranger, the strangeness within us all.

Artist Unknown

The creep factor, as I like to call it, has the power to make us feel vulnerable and anxious about our own state of mind, showing us, perhaps, that we are not as predictable as we might think in our appetites and even behaviors. It rings the bell of self-awareness loudly and abruptly, showing us glimpses of circumstances under which we would taste of the wrong fruit, make love to the wrong man, even kill.

Yet creepiness also winks at us, dares us to dream, putting together people, objects, places and emotions that rarely get to play in the same arena. At least not publicly. It is a mix of the indulgent, the candid and the audacious that is worthy of a Russian novel. Or a cacophonous, delirious fever dream that appears inscrutable.

Photography duo SH Sadler

This level of head-fuckery, if you’ll pardon my creepy, out-of-school language, opens the door to seeing ourselves anew: the awkward young woman becomes the temptress, the raw and slimy thing found under a rock becomes a delicacy, the performer, in laying himself bare for his audience, becomes a star.

When put this way, perhaps I was a bit hasty when I estimated that creepiness deserves only one day a week for me to celebrate. That it is but a small piece of the way I view a story, the way I approach building a fictional world.

Maybe creepiness is the core aesthetic that gives birth to all of my thrillers, histories, and romances. Even my essays on family lore. It is the conduit, the elixir, the wrinkle, and the spark. It is the lens through which I see beauty.

Maybe creepiness is everything.

Artist Guillermo Lorca Garcia

And here’s a sample of my own sense of creep and how it plays out…

Of Sand and Bone (excerpt)

By Yours Truly

London, 1902

I do realize that, to the residents of Whitechapel, the Ripper murders are more than a sensational news story. Jack the Ripper preyed on their own, and filled their streets, already pitiable and dangerous, with the specter of horror and evil. I look at the spot on the ground where Annie Chapman fell, her body thumping against the fence and causing a neighbor to call out in concern.

“You must have been very young when it happened.”

“Oh, aye. But you never forget something like that. Especially when you done seen the devil who did it.”

I turn to my guide, as my jaw drops open. He stands staring at the same spot that had mesmerized me. For a moment, I see him as the little boy Lieutenant General Blackwood described. The one he spoke to shortly after poor Annie’s grisly murder.

“That was you?” I ask him. “The boy who saw a man rush away from the scene.”

“Aye, it was,” he tells me. “Only he wasn’t rushing. He walked away from Miss Annie and past me like he was strolling. And when he looked at me, I knew. I knew demons are real and that I’d seen one.”

“Eyes of fire. That’s what you said, isn’t it?”

“Aye. Almost like coal aglow, you know? Except more like the color of a-pricots.”


“Mm. Never ate one, but always wanted to. I seen painted pictures of ‘em though. You know, they was temptin’, too, The Ripper’s eyes. That I’ll tell ya. The way a demon’s eyes would be. Temptin’ and beautiful. I still can’t sleep at night from the nightmares. I just go out wanderin’ from place to place on most nights. Walkin’ the girls home, like I told ya.”

He rubs his bloodshot eyes and sniffs. The smell of him may very well fade from my memory, but the pain and terror in his voice never will. It’s still fresh, as if he saw The Ripper only yesterday.

“Seems like you need some sleep. Why don’t you go home? I can make my way alone.”

“Oh, no, I’ll be walkin’ ya,” he says with a truly sweet smile. “I don’t ever leave no lady alone here. Especially one who don’t belong, and who ain’t no cousin of Annie Chapman neither.”

As we walk, I pepper him with questions about the man he saw, but having been so captivated by the killer’s eyes, it’s all he speaks of. While he does, his voice raspy and aquiver, I start to fade away, feeling like a ghost within my own life. A sense of dread stirs deep in my belly.

All at once, I can see the shadowy moments just before Annie’s murder, as if they’re right before me. The killer, dressed in shabby elegance, is talking to her. He turns, the way he did towards the young Irishman when he was a boy, and I, too, see The Ripper’s eyes. The eyes of a burning sunset, of the ripest apricot. Eyes so deeply familiar that I nearly cry out.

The Ripper’s hand, dark and slender, reaches out to me. I hear his breath. “Help me,” he says.

For All Things Great and Small

Every year in the Cold, right around this time, I like to sit back and take stock of my life. Ponder all the things great and small that inspire within me joy, wistfulness, relief, a belly laugh, and most of all, gratitude.

A life without gratitude invites despair. Even in our most trying times, a mere acknowledgement of a person, circumstance, or event that brought something good into our lives is a seed of hope that can see us through to the other side. Grow into a bounty that can feed our souls for a long time to come.

I usually start my list of thankfulness right around the launch of the school year – that’s early September here in Virginia, USA. When you have school-age kids, the year begins in September, just when the leaves are getting ready to change, and the air begs for a sweater come nightfall. It’s my favorite time of year, so it’s an ideal starting point for me to take stock, Julie Andrews style, of my favorite things. And there is never, ever a time when creating this annual list fails to lift my spirits.

So, here goes.

I’m ever so grateful for my health. My body is strong enough that I can move furniture and nimble enough that I can touch my toes. My walks are long and painless, my breaths deep, and my vision, unless I’m trying to read close-up, crisp. I know very well that health, like weather, can turn on a dime, and I welcome every good day.

Speaking of good days, I love the fact that my home office, in which I spend most of my days, has taken on the popcorny, musty dog smells of my Boston Terrier. It’s become his domain as much as mine, earning him his moniker of “writing dog.” I love you, Barney. You snuggle next to me as I type, you patiently watch me pace up and down my frayed, old Turkish rug as I endeavor to solve plot problems and you chase down the summer wasps that enter our space through some kind of inexplicable devil’s magic. Thanks for keeping me company.

Barney is ready for his close up.

Want to know what puts a toothy smile on my face on even the melancholiest day? These goofy photos my daughters send me. Ones transformed by cheeky filters that superimpose big noses, mustaches, rainbow hairstyles and vampire fangs onto their beautiful faces. They remind me that no matter how busy and independent-minded, my girls still take the time to reach out to their mother from time to time. That is most certainly something to be grateful for.

Old photo albums – aren’t they the best? The edge-curled, yellowed snapshots of yesteryear that show our grandmothers as ingénues, our grandfathers as rogues, and best of all, our siblings in a plethora of haphazard Halloween costumes and weird, frilly holiday get-ups. With the convenience of the delete button, the hilarious, bad family photo has become a rarity and I celebrate the ones we’ve collected along the way.

Then there’s my youngest daughter’s spot-on imitation of Amy Winehouse. It is one for the ages and never fails to make my day (she’s got a killer, bluesy-jazzy voice). Let’s throw in any Amy Winehouse song sung by the mistress of self-effacing calamity herself! RIP, Ms. Winehouse. You left us too soon.

I savor with immense gratitude my romanticized memories of being the mother of young children. The way my son’s silly grin made me want to poke his tummy, how I actually used to get butterflies watching my girls play dress-up, and that all of them used to come in from the backyard covered head to toe in red clay mud – these things and more make me yearn for a time machine. Yet I am delighted by the people they are becoming. Their capacity for growth, even after a stumble is both humbling and deeply gratifying. A big thanks to my husband, Jack, for convincing me to give this motherhood thing a try.

Dinner with our best friends is as restorative as a good night’s sleep, and the crackling fire burning in our 1905 pot belly stove fills me with contentment. For these things I am much obliged, especially when they are combined to create a perfect night. We’ve had many of those and I feel truly blessed.

Not having to look for parking is surely something to feel good about, too, as is authentic Mexican food, the supreme satisfaction of scratching an itch, and really good hair dye. These are definitely in the small category, but who among us has not walked with a spring in our step after landing a primo parking spot?

What goes in the great category, however, is the comfort of being surrounded by a community who cares and knows they can rely on us. It’s truly one of the best things in life. Even better (and this one deserves a category all its own) is the black and white ultrasound image of a prospective new member of the family. In our case, it’s that of our nephew and his wife’s little girl, who will officially be joining the human race in April. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This list would be complete if that were the only thing on it.

My nephew and niece’s marvelous wedding last year!

Getting back to some of the smaller things in life, I am also ever so glad for the existence of a fine egg salad, stand-up comedy, sleeping naked, old Persian rugs, and rope swings. Of the latter, I especially like the kind that swing over a lake or other cool watering hole on a hot and muggy day. The “kerplunk” sound we make as we fall into the water is quite possibly the most refreshing noise in the world, and I’m just thrilled for its existence.

And while we’re on the subject of all things refreshing, I will never tire of floating down rivers in inner tubes, skating on frozen ponds, and jumping into a pile of autumn leaves. It’s the Midwesterner in me, I guess.

My daughter at our local watering hole – just as she lets go of the rope!

Stinky cheese! I, for one, think it’s divine. The faster it clears a room, the more I enjoy every, stinkin’ bite. I won’t hold it against you if you’re not quite as grateful as I am for a food that smells like it should crawl. My own husband and children can’t take it.

Reading a great biography, discovering the work of a new artist, and dreaming up a fresh adventure – preferably all in one day – is simply sublime and even better than the stinkiest cheese, I must say. As are the weekly Sunday dinners that we’ve made standard in our household this year. Even the two who have flown the nest try to make a show, and often bring a college friend or two.

As for aesthetic pleasures, I am simply rapturous over the golden, jewel-like beauty of byzantine art, charmed by the awkward poetry of little girls practicing ballet, and cheered by holding a beautiful, delicate wine glass between my fingers. Sigh-inducing – every single one!

But rediscovering why you love someone is a rush of emotions that is worthy of the gods, as is the pursuit of excellence, which is why I will end this missive here. Because it’s always best to wind things up when you know you’ve done your very best.

Happy Thanksgiving, my friends. Until next time.

Vintage Macy’s parade! Never been. Always wanted to. Either way, I’m grateful for it.

Who Wants to Listen to “Of Sand and Bone” on Audible for FREE?

You Do!

The story of a girl, her lover, and a killer’s quest through time…

To ring in the month of November, which my family and I (try to) celebrate as gratitude month at our house, I’m giving away 10 promo codes for eager listeners to enjoy “Of Sand and Bone” on Audible for FREE! To add a cherry to that sundae, the lucky recipients of the OSAB code can also request promo codes for Breath and Savage Island, in the event that they haven’t listened to or read the first two books in the BREATH series, or just want to partake of the whole listening experience.

Why? Because I’m so very thankful for all of you who read my fiction, follow my blog, subscribe to the Cold newsletter, and listen to the Cold podcast. I love the sense of camaraderie we’ve created in our Cold forums, and that we can talk honestly, with nuance and great mutual understanding about common interests that include, but are not limited to stories, love, art, travel, family matters, faith, war, and humor.

It’s nothing short of magic in this highly polarized age.

I’m also massively grateful about the return of oral storytelling in general and want to share my enthusiasm for the medium. As an author (and former theater producer), it’s supremely gratifying to be able to bring my characters to life in this way. Having the opportunity to choose my own narrators and have real input into the process of creating a performance of my novels is nothing short of a thrill.

As a reader and lover of all things story, audiobooks have increased my book consumption five-fold. I listen in the car on road trips and family vacations, on the beach, while running errands or folding laundry. When a book is well produced, it’s a spectacular experience.

And I’m very happy to share this experience with you.

Especially since the whole OSAB audiobook team pulled out all the stops to make this a first-string, five-star experience. “Of Sand and Bone” is narrated by the incredible Emily Lawrence, who has not only voiced some 450+ bestselling audiobooks but is simply one of the best voice actresses working today. That’s neither an exaggeration, nor merely a subjective assessment of her talent on my part. She’s won a number of awards for her audiobook performances and has been praised effusively by Audiofile Magazine, which singled her out as one of the best narrators out there. In other words, you’re in for a treat!

To qualify for the drawing, all you have to do is email me at and specify whether you are in the US or UK.

You have one week to do so, after which I will place all names in a hat (assuming more than 10 of you are audiobook listeners) and pick them out one by one. I like to be dramatic about these things.

Speaking of drama and contests, I also want to announce the winner of our “Of Sand and Bone” launch contest! Deb H., who has been part of the Cold for some time, and is also a writer herself, will receive signed hardback copies of the BREATH series, some BREATH swag, and an excerpt from “The Record Keeper“, the next installment in the epic. All reviewers will receive the excerpt, even late ones, so once your review is up and running, please send me a link to it and I’ll shoot your story candy straight into your inbox.

In the meantime, I hope you had a wonderful Halloween. Sadly, we no longer have any active trick-or-treaters in our household, and no one ever, and I mean EVER rings our doorbell asking for candy (to find out why, read here), so I have to find creative ways of enjoying the mood. One of those is collecting photos of elaborate Halloween decorations, and here are a couple of my favorites from this year.

I’m wondering what’s in the Igloo.
The dead black cat is a nice touch

Pumpkin with a serious blemish problem. It now sits outside our front door.

Romance: A Love Story

Thoughts on the Wild, Wonderful and Weird Romance Genre

By Yours Truly

Heavy sigh

I want to begin the meat and potatoes – or flowers and candy, if you prefer – of this essay by saying that I’m not an expert on the Romance genre. I don’t write or read romance novels (with some exceptions) and my perspective comes mostly from being an observer. I certainly know several romance authors – gals I adore – but this post is not specifically about their perspectives either. It is, however, informed by a few things they’ve shared with me over the years.

Despite the above disclaimer, there was a time when I very much wanted to write romance. I felt inspired by the overwhelming response I got from readers when I wrote about love on this blog and my heart swelled from the kick-in-the-gut, novel-worthy love stories you all were so open and willing to share with me. It felt like a sign that thrillers and historical fictions were not the only genres I was destined for.

Romance was calling.

When I first started the BREATH series, I was certain that it would be a romance. There was no doubt in my mind. We’re talking Pride and Prejudice meets The Notebook meets any Gena Showalter novel! I even started a video channel on YouTube called Love at First Write, announcing my intentions of writing an epic romance that would have readers up all night biting their lips and clutching their hankies.

But as pages turned into chapters, which turned into finished drafts, my own dogged nature prevailed. Although Breath, Of Sand and Bone, and Savage Island most definitely have heart, true love, and truly romantic themes and scenes, I couldn’t seem to stop myself from adding ghosts, an ancient prophecy or two, swashbuckling adventures, real historical figures and events, even some sci-fi and thriller elements for the love of God.

Both my editor and my book cover designer, after reading the finished manuscript of Breath, the inaugural book in this ambitious new “romance” of mine, cleared their throats delicately and said, “Um, are you sure you’ve got the right genre?”

I was a bit flummoxed.

“What do you mean?” I snipped. “Is it not romantic enough?”

“Oh, it’s romantic alright,” my editor said. “But most genres contain romance. Some of them even have a romance that’s front and center, but that doesn’t mean they’re romances. Look at the Outlander series. I guess the first book can technically be called a romance, but it’s got so much more going on than that. I think Outlander belongs in fantasy. More specifically, historical fantasy, and so does Breath.”

Her observation bothered me. I mean really bothered me. So much so, that while I trusted her expertise on this matter, I simply couldn’t bring myself to call the Breath series a historical fantasy. At least not yet. I agreed that she was right about the fantasy part but decided that I was writing romantic fantasy, dammit. Maybe I wasn’t destined to write Romance with a capital R, but I was still writing in the romance genre!

“What’s the big deal,” you might ask?

I guess the big deal is that I’d fallen in love with the romance genre. I’d committed, invested my time in its chat groups, gotten to know several successful romance authors, and come to appreciate a style of storytelling that appeals to such a broad cohort of people. Think about it this way – the very same romance novel can be and is devoured with equal ardency by a Harvard PhD and a High School dropout, by a Gucci-clad housewife and an apron-clad cleaning woman, by people of every race and creed, on every level of the social hierarchy. Romance is the great equalizer for no other reason than love. Because love is an emotion nearly every human being craves, fantasizes about, would die for.

Takes my breath away.

This original romantic fantasy themed cover was wrong, wrong, wrong!

It took me over a year after Breath debuted, when I was nearly finished with Of Sand and Bone, to finally admit to myself that I wasn’t creating what most readers would consider a romance. This was after I’d entered Savage Island, a Breath companion novel, in just about every romance competition I came across, always getting the same response: that it was lovely and romantic, even beautiful, but not what their typical romance reader was looking for. I should definitely enter it into a contest for a different genre – historical fiction, maybe? Or fantasy.

Bartender, I’ll have another.

Fair enough.

I can accept that now.

Nevertheless, I still want to share with you some of what I learned about this fascinating, contradictory, at times preposterous, and yet marvelous genre. One that part of me still wishes I was better suited for.

I’ll start at the beginning.

My first foray into the world of love and its scribes was when I joined a private romance readers and writers Facebook group a little over five years ago. I arrived as merely a stalker, invited in by an author friend. Then, a few days into my membership, I felt confident enough to introduce myself and announce my plans to write a “love story.”

Almost immediately, a romance author in the group messaged me.

“Are you writing a love story or a romance?” She demanded. “There’s a big difference. A romance always has a happy ending, but a love story not so much. In a love story, one of the lovers can die or break off the relationship for some reason. Whale readers don’t like love stories. Keep that in mind when you’re writing. Love stories are a big no-no in the romance world, and you’ll have your head handed to you if you go down that road.”

Wow. I appreciated her candor. A “love story” was, to me, simply a story about love and lovers and I had no idea that there was so much hairsplitting going on in Romanceland, but it made sense. The “whale readers” she was referring to are basically superfans who burn through romance novels like nobody’s business, often buying whole series upfront. These kinds of readers exist in other genres but are especially powerful in romance because they take the time to write thorough reviews and join multiple powerful reader groups who have a tremendous influence on which books make it to bestseller status. Word from these groups can spread like wildfire and generate a groundswell of excitement about a various author or title. Often both.

I was truly grateful for the advice, as this writer could’ve let me prattle on about my love story, essentially making me box office poison. She nipped my faux pas in the bud, allowing me to edit my introductory post only minutes after I’d penned it. I eliminated the dreaded “love story” element and made it clear that I wasn’t intending to leave readers sobbing into their Chardonnays, or more likely, hurling my book at the wall and writing a scathing review.

After, I made a mental note to investigate all of the other potential no-go storylines and character tags that might send my novels straight into the whale reader garbage bin.

What I found was a bit head-spinning. There are so many sub-genres and strictures in the romance genre, that cataloging them all was like studying for final exams. Sweet romance, small town romance, contemporary romance, historical romance, young adult, new adult, adult, erotic, paranormal, suspense, regency…the list goes on and on and on. In other words, while it’s imperative that a romance has a happy ending, there are infinite ways of arriving at that place.

But, and this is a big but, there’s a very specific way of how you get to ever after within a specific subgenre. For the most part, romance readers want to be delighted, but not surprised, and it’s important to match story content with its corresponding subgenre. Is there kissing, but not passionate kissing? Is there sex, and if so, how is it presented? With the bedroom door wide open, so to speak, or with the lights dimming and the scene fading at just the time when our lovers are about to…um, you know? At which chapter does the first kiss happen (yes, some subgenres are very specific about this)? Is it a “bad boy” romance, and if it is, how bad can the boy actually be before he’s reformed by his true love? Most romances have a deep moral core. In other words, murderers and cheaters are probably not appropriate for redemption, unless you’re in a very specific subgenre.

Darth Vader, for instance, could hang up his black cape and became a Jedi again, but he still couldn’t make the cut outside of certain dark subgenres, most of which trend towards the erotic.

He’s a helluva heavy breather, though.

Being something of a genre-bender by nature, this was my first indication that the world of romance writing was probably one I might have a difficult time inhabiting successfully. I love surprises and find them beguiling. I like pushing the envelope as a writer. As a reader, I want to wonder whether or not the lovers I’ve become so invested in will end up walking down the aisle or running like hell from an interstellar spirit.

Still, I couldn’t help myself. I was drawn like a fan girl to the monstrous success of the genre. Romance, more than any other, made Indie publishing into a dominant force, helping authors make real money after breaking free of the Harlequin stranglehold. It demonstrated that ethnic and interracial romance were powerhouse subgenres that appealed to readers of all races, and it was a huge catalyst in the success of eBooks overall. Kindle owes its life to romance.

And then there was the romance of being a romance writer. It’s like telling people you’re a chocolatier! Everyone gathers around you, genuinely interested in what you do, peppering you with questions, giggling involuntarily, begging for samples.

The reader and writer interactive component is uniquely vibrant, too, and not just among the “whale” types. Not only are romance readers evangelists for their favorite authors but love to chat them up on social media, and have been known to form spontaneous fan clubs, even conferences that center around their favorite authors, characters and series.

The Wild, Wicked Weekend in San Antonio is a romance reader’s paradise!

Romance writers, at least in my experience, don’t disappoint either. They’re fun, naughty, supportive as hell of their colleagues, and completely unlike the cliche presented in movies like “Romancing the Stone.” That of the lonely woman who sits at home with her cat on her lap, all while penning the sorts of stories she only wishes she could inhabit.

Most of the romance novelists I’ve gotten to know have very happy, fulfilling love lives. They gush about their husbands and reflect on how they want to write stories for the lovelorn – to show them what a great relationship can be like. To assure readers that the fairytale love affair isn’t some cynical invention that preys on the hopeful. It’s as real as the scent of perfume, the taste of a pair of lips, the glance that lingers just a moment too long, the ring that gets slipped on a finger.

Will you?

But alas, despite being enthralled by the Wild, Wicked Weekends, the wildly diverse fan base, the dirty jokes in the chat groups, and the unapologetic, gushingly romantic air of it all, I was not meant to be a romance novelist.

I write about love, yes, and with my whole heart. I believe in love as strongly as any romance writer I’ve ever met. I’ve lived my own love story, one that informs how I write about love and that I look forward to telling my grandchildren one day.

My fictional tales of love, however, are something between a love story and happily ever after. They occur within a much larger frame of intrigue that can read like a breathless rush down a battlefield. My murderers and cheaters can be redeemed, given the proper motivation. And I put my lovers through hell. I can’t help myself.

But I won’t lie. I do it all with just a tiny tear of regret for the romance that might have been.

And I love my covers and the stories that inspired them best of all.

The Breath Series

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