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There But for the Grace of God

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The other day my twelve-year-old daughter, Josephine, said to me, “You’re lucky I saved your lives.”

She says a lot of funny things that make us raise an eyebrow, but the truth is she just might have saved our lives.

At the time of Josephine’s birth, our whole family of five was in the midst of planning a move to Mumbai, India. My husband had gotten a job there, and was already installed at the Taj Hotel while he went through the hand-wringing task of trying to find an appropriate place of residence for two adults, two toddlers and a baby. It was slow going. Much slower than he’d anticipated even though his company was fitting the bill for it, allowing us a much bigger budget than our wallets could have otherwise afforded.

Mumbai was (and I’m sure still is) a gloriously crazy place where nothing was as it seemed. The most beautiful, well located apartments had jackhammers firing on the floors above 24/7, or were infested by several families of insidious varmints, or simply fell through at the last minute for no good reason. Six months after his arrival in India, my husband was still living at the Taj and wasn’t even close to signing a lease for us.

Then came Josephine.

She was born terribly ill and put the kibosh on our whole India adventure rather decisively. At first, we were too focused on trying to make sure she stayed alive to really think about the fact that our plans had radically changed. It was a few months after her birth, when we were at last getting a bit of a breather regarding her most acute health scares, that it started to sink in how we’d been forced to pass on what would have been a life-changing experience.

India man on elephant

Photo by C Rayban

Except that the term life-changing can be deceptive. It doesn’t have to be a good thing, after all. Life changing events can mean great jobs, weddings and births, or getting fired, losing an arm to a nasty infection, and falling out a window.

Months after Josephine’s harrowing birth, as we sat watching the Mumbai terrorist attacks on the news, we got a look at just what kind of life-changing event we might have been in for. The attacks were taking place in exactly the same hotel at which my husband had been ensconsed. The same hotel we would have probably, though hopefully not still been living in.

But nevertheless, the Taj Hotel was and remains a hub for ex-pats and internationals. The series of coordinated terrorist attacks we were watching with open-mouthed horror on our TV set took place on American Thanksgiving weekend, and that was in all likelihood a strategic date chosen by the handlers of the ten young Pakistani extremists who walked into the Taj armed to the teeth. As my husband pointed out, there was a very good to great chance that we would have been sitting in the Taj’s famous Blue Bar, or in one of their many restaurants, celebrating the holiday with our children and new friends.

“There but for the grace of God,” my husband said.

India Taj Hotel

The Taj Hotel, Mumbai

That’s why when Hotel Mumbai, a movie about those terrorist attacks came out recently, my husband and I were determined to go see it…even if we really didn’t want to. It’s not just because the depictions of the attacks would be gut-wrenching – one hundred sixty-six people were killed, after all, and mercilessly so. But also because that time in our lives isn’t one we revisit with any enthusiasm. Truth be told, there’s a lot that we’ve blocked from memory and even our most poignant experiences seem to come back to us in vignettes rather than whole pieces.

But Hotel Mumbai, despite the fact that we never made it to India as a family and did not actually live through the terror of that night, sucked us both into a kind of time portal that had us re-living the emotions of that year; the one we spent living on the brink of rational thought. When our house was a mess and we would forget to do things like shop for our older children’s school supplies – sending them into class empty handed on their first day.

Before things got a little bit better and we were able to think with some level of clarity again.

We were reminded of our younger selves, too. Those crazy new-ish adults who were hell-bent on throwing the dice and seeing where our fortunes would fall. Always having the utmost faith that the fates would bring us to a better place, and we would arrive smarter, wiser, ready for the next chapter.

j and v wedding CR

In some ways that did indeed happen, although not how we expected it to. My husband and I had figured we would mature like a fine wine, gaining complexity from the luxurious process of getting to know exotic cultures, and testing our abilities to learn and adapt. Instead, our growth came about from getting to know ourselves…what we were made of and what we valued above all. And it arrived at a rather break-neck speed.

I suppose, depending on how you look at it, we did travel far away from where we started and to places we never could have imagined. We just did it without ever leaving our zipcode. We don’t regret remaining in our quiet, semi-rural home and we did gain wisdom, I think. Our daughter’s illness has certainly been an adventure in and of itself – I can’t deny that.

What became apparent to us as we watched Hotel Mumbai – in the casual loss of life that occurred, visiting the most unsuspecting people who, like us, had never been afraid of shaking things up – is how un-special we are. We saw ourselves in the Australian back-packing tourists, the father and daughter missionaries, the foreign residents and what became glaringly obvious was the randomness of life.

Truth be told, had we gone to Mumbai, we really may have been at the Taj Hotel that ominous night. Either as part of the carnage or witnesses to it. Even if we’d decided to stay in or celebrate Thanksgiving at the home of a friend, we would have never had another day of peace in that city. Each and every morning, we would have felt our hearts flutter as we put our children on a bus to go to the American School – a fortress of a place where incoming cars were routinely searched for bombs even before those horrific attacks occurred.

As I look at how things have turned out, I can’t help but be grateful for the unceremonious and breezy way in which we’ve sent our kids out to their respective school buses on any given day here in central Virginia, year after year.

So, yes, I feel a deep sense of gratitude to our youngest, Josephine. The one who took us on one hell of a ride, and continues to challenge and delight us on any given day. Because she may very well have saved us. If not our lives, then maybe our sanity.

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The Man Who Came Out of the Cold

“Here on Koh Samui, nobody gives a tinker’s cuss whether you’re a writer. They’re more interested in who’s buying the next round –John Dolan

I’ve read every one of John Dolan’s books. If a British noir detective story set in a beachy, glamorous place with a seedy underbelly appeals to you like it does me, then pour yourself a Mai Tai and read on.

Some of you may already know John’s writing, as I’ve featured him here in the Cold before (check out How NOT to write a bestelling thriller here!). Others, especially newbies to Cold, may see him as a shiny new penny. Either way, he’s got a book out in his Time, Blood and Karma series so I invited him to come back on. It’s called Everyone Dies, and as the title suggests, it’s the last in his popular thriller saga.

But that’s not really why I’m featuring him front and center this week. It’s a good excuse, but the truth is John Dolan is quite simply fun to talk to. He’s funny and wry and good natured. He also lives the ultimate writers life. This is a Brit who’s worked all over the world and finally landed on the island of Koh Samui, in Thailand, where he’s penned all of his novels from the comfort of his ocean view bungalow. That’s why, for the sake of our getting to live vicariously through him, at least for the length of this post, I’ve thrown some questions his way.

Thailand free

photo by Paul Morris

 

ME: John, since you live the ultimate writer’s life – tell me about what your days are like. Don’t leave out hookers and cocaine if relevant.

JOHN: It’s hard to imagine a world where hookers and cocaine wouldn’t be relevant, but if I used them I’d never get any writing done. Well, nothing that would be readable anyway. Plus, divorce is really expensive, and my nostrils are quite big enough already without snorting white powder up them. No, for the most part my days are spent working out at the gym, walking the dog, keeping up with distant family and friends on social media, chilling at home or on the beach with my good lady, and eating in one of the many restaurants on the island. Sometimes, I even write stuff.

ME: ​Expat life and writing often go together like a horse and Russian cavalry officer. Would you agree with that statement? By the way, if your answer is no, this could be a very short interview.

JOHN: In that case, yes, I agree. There are probably more expats around than Russian cavalry officers at present, though both categories of persons are relics of a bellicose past. (I like the term ‘relic’ – it’s like ‘antique’, and implies I might be worth something one day.) But, yeah, there’s nothing quite like slobbing around on a tropical island and telling yourself you are writing a masterpiece. Plus, given that nobody on the island is likely to read your scribblings, your ego is not going to get dented. The Western World on the other hand is full of people with opinions, which probably explains why authors there tend to get in more fist-fights with disgruntled readers. Here on Koh Samui, nobody gives a tinker’s cuss whether you’re a writer. They’re more interested in who’s buying the next round.

ME: Your books take us through both the upmarket and downmarket parts of living in paradise. Tell me about the noir elements you see in a resort island like Koh Samui?

JOHN: However much an expat seeks to integrate into the community, there will always be elements of ‘unseen’ local ways. As a Westerner, you only get a sense of the way things really work here: though you do get the feeling that there are closets so stuffed with skeletons that there is barely room for clothes. Tourists, of course, only get a very superficial glimpse of Thai culture, and their attitudes tend to be conditioned by what marketing blurb they’ve read beforehand. And then there is the cannibalism cults which have been growing in popularity since [the rest of this answer has been redacted in the interest of good taste]

ME: Is that what made you want to move to Thailand, specifically? That it’s not just all beaches and fruity drinks with little umbrellas?

JOHN: Actually, the lack of extradition treaties had a lot to do with it. Also, the weather and cheap coconuts.

ME: Cheap coconuts have always driven my international moves. So have cheap thrills. Had you always planned on becoming a thriller writer once you settled there?

JOHN: I never planned on becoming a thriller writer. I once had hopes of doing something useful with my life. I fell into writing while I was working and living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It was one of those sudden rushes of blood to the brain. Some devil with a pitchfork prodded me and said, “Why not write a series of seven novels set in Southeast Asia?” At the time, I couldn’t think of a suitable reason not to, so that’s how it started. Now, of course, I could come up with a gazillion reasons why not. It’s taken eight years of my life to write and publish the seven David Braddock books: eight years I’ll never get back. I could have done two PhDs in that time. Though when I consider it, ‘Dr. Dolan’ sounds pretty crappy, like the name of the baddie in a James Bond movie.

ME: For the record, you’d make an excellent Bond villain – particularly for your taste in hats.

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John Dolan: author and hat-wearer

ME AGAIN: How long had the Time Blood and Karma and Karma’s Children series been gestating in that (hatted) head of yours before you endeavored to write a single word? Do you remember your first inspiration for it?

JOHN: It actually happened pretty fast once the mind demon had poked me. The outlines for each of the seven books, and the overall story arc, all came together over a period of a couple of months. I have no idea where the inspiration came from, actually. Maybe I have a brain tumor. An erudite brain tumor who enjoys bad jokes and stories about death.

MEIn January 2014, you and I had a chat on Cold under the title How NOT to Write a Bestselling Thriller, which was one of my most popular posts ever. Are you following your own advice and, if so, how’s that working out for you?

JOHN: I am and it’s working out just fine. Since your post, I’ve only sold three books, and they were all to relatives. Though that hasn’t stopped me topping the Amazon book charts as the number one writer in the category of Thai Noir. See how easy it is to be a best-selling author? Anyone can do it, and usually does.

ME: The publication of Everyone Dies marks the closing of your seven-book cycle. How do you feel about that? (That’s meant with a menacing, Freudian tone, by the way.)

JOHN: Relieved. And it gives me time to read your books now. Just kidding, I’ve already read them, and I’m not going to read them again. Because I won’t get that time back again either.

ME: I suppose you won’t just be riding around in a rickshaw, stopping only to nurse your beers and your ennui now that your Karma books are all wrapped up. Got anything else cooking?

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Can you see John in this picture? (photo by Adam Sherez)

JOHN: My next book will be a historical novel set in 1950s Malaya during the time of the Malayan Emergency. However, I still have a ton of research to do for it, and don’t expect it to hit the shelves until next year. Hopefully, Vic, it will be right up your street: lots of Cold War stuff, plus bad jokes and death.

ME: So up my street! And now I won’t have to write any more new Cold War thrillers – I can just plagiarize yours! Any final outrageous self-promotion you want to do here before I cut you off?

JOHN: Well, I’ve just re-vamped my website and started a Newsletter with freebies which your readers can subscribe to if they’ve nothing better to do. And, let’s face it, if they did have something better to do, they wouldn’t be here ploughing through this garbage. They can click on johndolanauthor.com if they’re unsure whether life has no meaning, and I’ll do my best to confirm it for them.

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The Sublime Whisper of the Bad Habit

Mae West

“When I’m good, I’m very good. But when I’m bad, I’m better.” Mae West

Bad habits fascinate me. There are few among us who don’t partake in at least one behavior, train of thought, or activity which isn’t precisely in our best interest. Might cause friends and foes alike to narrow their eyes and say, “Oh, no! She didn’t!”

Whether it’s all too frequent binges on junk food, glasses of (good!) wine imbibed for health reasons (of course!), sexual proclivities which might not even be practiced, but researched into a bit too enthusiastically, or ill-advised political posts on social media that find their way into the void at ungodly hours… even the most saintly lot of us have the propensity to dabble in the naughty on occasion.

Why is that?

We don’t have to look too hard to see how the root of a bad habit’s appeal goes well beyond the pleasure of the experience. If it were only about pleasure, I think we could easily curb our excesses. Massages are immensely pleasurable, after all, but they hardly merit scholarship, front-page news stories and treatment centers. How many of us would risk losing our careers and flirt with bankruptcy or divorce or utter disgrace just to feel Darius’s able hands on our tired muscles once more? Here him ask, Where are you holding your tension today? in that soft, soothing voice of his while New Age muzak plays in the background. Never do we see men and women skulking away from spas in a walk of shame. On the contrary, they look relaxed, relieved and self-satisfied. I should do this more often, we hear them crow. No one disagrees.

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“I generally avoid temptation, unless I can’t resist it.” Mae West

The truth is, most of us understand the allure of a bad habit has less to do with an immediate pleasure and is more often fixed around the impression of a pleasure. Of how we have worked our minds to draw it using the most flattering of lines. In that way, bad habits tickle our consciousness like that lover who got away. We see him perpetually through the diabolical lens of a first time. Before he let us down, showed us his true colors. When he was all about a smile and a flutter in our bellies. And his every word was still spoken with an irresistible subtext of promise.

Mae West 3

“A man can be short and dumpy and getting bald, but if he has fire, women will like him.” Mae West

Lots of bad habits start off innocently enough, after all. They might even improve our lives – infusing us with a dash of style, a tinge of danger that makes others look at us anew. I’ll never forget my grandmother telling me the story of how she started smoking. She had a huge crush on my grandfather, an Olympic hockey player with the most dreamy blue eyes, but she felt too tall and bookish in his company. Finally, her friends told her the problem.

“You’re beautiful, Betty,” they said. “But you don’t look like any fun because you don’t smoke.”

After coughing her way through several clumsily rolled cigarettes, my grandmother found her footing. That weekend, she showed up at the hockey rink with a cig in hand. She’d never felt more sophisticated, and stood high and proud in her willowy 5’11” frame. A full inch taller than the handsome hockey player who would become her husband…

Mae West 2

“A hard man is good to find.” Mae West

Bad habits have a way of exploiting how we’d like to see ourselves, rather than showing us how we really are. While that has it’s uses – getting us into an “in” crowd, delivering a hot date, providing a plethora of entertaining stories for years to come – it can also lead us into a wicked hellscape if we’re not careful.

Few know this better than the Alcoholic. Problem drinkers often reminisce about what it was like when they first started on the sauce. How they nearly choked on the sharp and bitter taste as it hit the back of their throat, but felt a peculiar sense of accomplishment when the warm hooch flooded their chest cavity. It was a two-faced reward and they knew it, yet they still came to regard that feeling as the beginning of their transformation, an evolution into a fortified version of themselves. More confident and wry, better looking.  And the better they felt, the easier it went down. There’s a reason, after all, why booze is often referred to as a “glass of courage.” It’s a social elixir that helps tear down inhibitions, not only marshalling our witty thoughts, but giving us the gumption to actually say them.

Those initial halcyon days of a bad habit are heady indeed, and that’s not always a bad thing. A love of wine, the odd toke, a ripe libido – these things alone don’t take you down a ruinous path. In fact, for some they are the key to a happier, more successful life.

That conundrum, too, gives the bad habit its luster.

Mae West 4

“To err is human, but it feels divine.” Mae West

The element of danger in a bad habit is a pleasure all its own. It’s in the kick of tempting fate, of rebelling against a nameless, faceless mob of blue noses. Or a very specific blue nose – a father, a wife, a teacher a bureaucrat. In the moment when we succumb to that drink, that wicked woman, the cigarette, the hot fudge sundae, we feel sublime…until we don’t. But even that seesaw of emotions has its appeal. We tell ourselves that at the very least we’re not boring. We’re not, God forbid, one of…them. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we know damned well that’s not entirely a self-serving lie. People who flirt with the risqué are more interesting, more fun, a thrill to be around.

At least until they’re not.

And when we get sick of our bad habits? When they’ve done so much more harm than good, and we don’t even enjoy them anymore, we can throw down the gauntlet and vow to quit them once and for all! We’ll mean it, too – flushing, deleting, and opening the trash bin, raising our middle fingers high. Feels good – almost as good as the bad habit itself used to feel. And in such moments of clarity, we get to feel smug and reformed, ready to take on the world again.

Except we often find that casting off our bad habits is harder than we anticipated. Much harder. Even if we’ve come to hate every damn thing that came with them. Like the expensive paraphernalia, the wild and crazy memories, the so-called friends. In fact, in the event we do manage to put our bad habits behind us, we know all too well how a mere person or event, a strong emotion, could cause us to relapse in the blink of a bloodshot eye. In the dial of a telephone number that was best forgotten.

Because no matter how often the doctors, the mothers, the priests and politicians tell us that there’s nothing good about a bad habit…we know they’re wrong. Because the habit in and of itself isn’t the problem. We are.

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“When women go wrong, men go right after them.” Mae West

Chance Encounters

IMG_2045Sixth Form Poet (@sixthformpoet on Twitter) told a terrific story this week in the form of a tweet thread on Twitter, and it’s a damned enjoyable short read that got me thinking.

My dad died. Classic start to a funny story. He was buried in a small village in Sussex.

I was really close to my dad so I visited his grave a lot. I still do. [DON’T WORRY, IT GETS FUNNIER.] I always took flowers and my mum visited a lot and she always took flowers and my grandparents were still alive then and they always took flowers. My dad’s grave frequently resembled a solid third place at the Chelsea Flower Show.

Nice, but I felt bad for the guy buried next to my dad. He NEVER had flowers. Died on Christmas Day aged 37, no one left him flowers and now there’s a pop-up florist in the grave next door. So I started buying him flowers. I STARTED BUYING FLOWERS FOR A DECEASED MAN I’D NEVER MET. I did this for quite some time, but I never mentioned it to anyone. It was a little private joke with myself, I was making the world a better place one bunch of flowers at a time.

I know it sounds weird but I came to think of him as a friend. I wondered if there was a hidden connection between us, something secretly drawing me to him. Maybe we went to the same school, played for the same football club or whatever. So I googled his name, and ten seconds later I found him. His wife didn’t leave him flowers BECAUSE HE’D MURDERED HER. ON CHRISTMAS DAY. After he murdered his wife, he murdered her parents too. And after that he jumped in front of the only train going through Balcombe tunnel that Christmas night. THAT was why no one ever left him flowers.

No one except me, of course. I left him flowers. I left him flowers every couple of weeks. Every couple of weeks FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS. I felt terrible for his wife and her parents. Now, I wasn’t going to leave them flowers every couple of weeks for two and a half years but I did feel like I owed them some sort of apology. I found out where they were buried, bought flowers and drove to the cemetery. As I was standing at their graves mumbling apologies, a woman appeared behind me. She wanted to know who I was and why I was leaving flowers for her aunt and grandparents. AWKWARD. I explained and she said, “OK that’s weird but quite sweet.” I said thanks, yes it is a bit weird and oh god I ASKED HER OUT FOR A DRINK. Incredibly, she said yes. Two years later she said yes again when I asked her to marry me because that is how I met my wife. –Sixth Form Poet

It’s an extraordinary story, but I think if we look at our own lives and how we tend to collect the people in them, we’ll find some rather unexpected coincidences, synchronicities and all out oddities. I’ve met pivotal friends and loves in all sorts of unlikely places. Like a 400 year-old building with no electricity, a gruesome photography exhibit that documented sexual depravity, and in the poetry section of a tiny bookstore – when I don’t even read much poetry. I’ve had destiny-altering encounters in exotic foreign locales, and quite literally, in my own backyard.

Case in point, here are two of my nearest and dearest friends. I met Michele (center) only weeks after I’d moved to Prague, when she utterly dismissed the idea of my ever working at the English language newspaper where she was an editor (I didn’t have a journalism degree and she disapproved of the way I’d dressed for my job interview, among other things). And I met Dale (the artsy lady in black) in San Francisco. At that time I was a new arrival to California, having relocated there for my husband’s job. I didn’t know a single soul.

It was a bit intimidating meeting Dale, as I was in an in between place, professionally, and she was a big-time magazine editor. Dale agreed to have coffee with me thanks to an introduction by Michele, who had by this point reformed her first impression of me :). We met around the corner from Dale’s apartment, in a quirky little coffee shop that also served wine, like they do everywhere in northern California. For some reason that establishment had the Czech words for Men and Women (Muži and Ženy) marking their corresponding bathrooms – even if the owners had no connection to Prague or anyone or thing in the Czech Republic. In retrospect, being a superstitious Czech girl and all, I should have seen that as a sign.

To make a long story short (or at least, shorter), Dale and I hit it off instantly. We gabbed for hours about books and storytelling and art. Finally, after graduating from coffee to a fine Napa Valley chardonnay, we revealed to one another our quasi-secret desires to write fiction. I’m not even sure how it came about, given that we had literally just met, but from that day onward, Dale and I became writing buddies. 

It was one of those things that just sort of evolved. Every time we got together, there was so much to say that we felt compelled to make another date. It became pretty clear early on that we might as well make it official between us, so we set up a fixed time and place – Thursdays at Momi Tobi Cafe. We had these weekly fiction dates for years, reading each other’s stuff, and talking in depth about what most moves us in a story and why. Dale gave me excellent criticism that always challenged me to do better, think through my thoughts with more precision and empathy, be an advocate for my reader. 

And we shared deeply personal parts of ourselves as well. About the frustration and heartbreak of a faithless lover, the helplessness of watching a family member struggle with mental illness, the perpetual feeling of “otherness” that had characterized our lives. In one of those incredible, lucky strokes, I gained a lifelong friend, and got one-on-one tutelage from a first rate editor with a sharp, inquisitive mind and a profound love of fiction. If you check the first pages of The Bone Church, my debut novel, you’ll see it’s even dedicated to Dale. She is literally the reason I ever got up the gumption to write that book in the first place. And it’s all because I blew a job interview.

(Here I am at a book signing for The Bone Church at the Virginia Festival of the Book)

There is a beauty and cosmic elegance to our chance encounters. Not all of them, certainly. We meet people nearly every day, coming and going from the store, the post office, the veterinarian. Introduced to us by mutual friends, acquaintances or colleagues. Lightening doesn’t always strike. But when we look at our lives from afar, we can see how everything interconnects…we can chart the way inevitabilities have woven themselves into some of our most banal appointments. The ones that end up changing our lives, reworking our fates, even fulfilling our wildest dreams.

I often wonder in what ways my own encounters with readers will weave their individual destinies? How things I may have written, and stories you may have told me about your lives have changed us both in some seemingly invisible way that will make itself known somewhere down the line.

It’s an awesome and exciting prospect and I thank you all for taking this journey with me. Were it not for you, it would be a lonely a joyless trek.

(That’s me, Michele, and Dale down there on our girl’s weekend in Sea Ranch, CA this past weekend.)

Living Up to Our Inner Hero

2010-07-27 23.55.01 A couple of days ago – on May 1st to be exact – my mother ambled over to me and eased  herself down onto our living room sofa, where I sat reading.

“It’s my anniversary,” she said.

Knowing that she and my late dad had been married in November, not May, it was clear she didn’t mean that anniversary.

“May 1st is when I celebrate going to jail,” she clarified.

In 1958, when my mother was nearly sixteen, she was caught trying to escape Communist Czechoslovakia and imprisoned. My grandfather, who had snuck back into his former homeland to retrieve his daughter, was roughed up, handcuffed and dragged into custody. In fact, he was hauled into the same cinder-block interrogation facility where my mother was locked up.

They’d been separated for ten years already at that point. My grandparents, who were viewed unfavorably by the new Czech regime (not only because they were considered capitalists, but because they had participated in subversive activities during the war, like hiding Jews) fled Czechoslovakia in 1948, after being tipped off about their pending arrest on trumped up charges. But they’d left behind their three young girls – naive in their hope that the Red Cross could negotiate the children’s release.

For my mother, that was ten years of persecution and fear. For her parents, it was a purgatory of anguish and regret.

mom on bike

My mom looks so lonely in this photo

Desperate to get their girls back, my grandparents, who lived in Chicago during the 1950s, had, through a network of political refugees like them, been put into contact with a Czech Catholic priest, the Cold War’s version of Harriet Tubman. From Vienna, this man launched daring rescue operations that sent willing family members like my grandfather, and former military officers, like the men who accompanied him, behind the Iron Curtain in order to retrieve and free people who were being oppressed and held against their will. People like my mother.

Only things had gone terribly wrong, obviously.

But the Czech government was willing to be reasonable, they said. If my mom would only furnish the name of the priest in question, all would be forgiven. My grandfather could then lead Czech agents to the rogue priest so that they, in turn, could kidnap him from his home in Vienna and imprison him in Prague. Perhaps conduct a show trial. My mom, and subsequently her sisters, would be set free and allowed to leave the Soviet Union. My grandparents would have their girls back. Everyone would get what they wanted.

“I said no,” my mom said, curling her hands into tight, white-knuckled fists. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

It was a heroic act. For both her and her parents. But it came with a steep price as most heroics do. It cost my mom another ten years of hardship behind the Iron Curtain and my grandparents another ten of heartache on the other side of it. Yet they chose to spare the life of a man they hardly knew – my mother had actually never even met the priest – over considerable self-interest.

Catholic priest

This is not a photo of the priest in question. His identity remains a secret.

I think about heroism a lot.

My own comfortable American life has presented me with few genuine tests of my convictions. My sense of honor and indelible notion of right and wrong are still largely theoretical, as I’ve never been presented with the quandary of having to choose between my beliefs and my life, for instance. Or even my beliefs and my career for that matter. My reputation and community standing has ever been seriously threatened because of something I’ve said or done, simply because I believed in it.

The closest I have come to wrestling between my moral convictions and my peace of mind, has had to do with my son.

My seventeen year-old son has dreamed of being a Marine Corps officer since he was a child. So focused has he been on this path that there are few Halloweens where he was not dressed up as some sort of soldier. After dressing in the same Marine costume year after year, I actually said to him around sixth grade, “Don’t you want to try something else? Maybe Spiderman?”

“Sure,” he said in his usual affable tone.

That Halloween he came downstairs – candy bag in hand – dressed as a Zombie Marine.

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The infamous zombie Marine costume

Still, all of this seemed very far away. I was proud that he was drawn toward the noble and heroic and have always objected on principal to parents who think the military is just great as long as it’s not their kid who’s signing up for active duty. I certainly never thought of myself as that kind of person.

But I don’t know. Maybe I am.

As my son prepares to apply to military colleges (including the United States Naval Academy – his first choice), I find myself getting anxious and staring up at my ceiling late into the night. Watching “The Battle of Winterfell” on Game of Thrones this week took on a whole new meaning for me.

I saw my son in every character who was fighting those damned White Walkers. In the ones who triumphed – leaving a bloody trail of undead “corpses” in their wake. And in the ones who didn’t.

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Jon Snow kicking some White Walker ass

I’ve never shared my fears with my son. I know his dreams are not about playing war – some live action equivalent of Call of Duty – and that military service offers far, far more than the potential for fighting on a battlefield. Nor are his ambitions to be trifled with. I’ve watched many a parent step between their child and an innate passion and live to regret it.

“I don’t want to go away to school just to party,” my son told me. “I want to do something that matters.”

He wants to lead men and women, serve his country, maybe go into politics one day. I get it.  It’s a helluva lot more than I wanted out of life when I was his age.

“But I’m scared,” I told my husband. It was just after we’d watched Arya Stark kill the Night King with her dagger made of dragon glass.

“We know parents who’ve lost their kids to drugs and suicide,” my husband noted. “Would you rather have him believe in nothing?”

Of course, I wouldn’t. I know we can’t mitigate every risk for our children and that trying to do so is a fool’s errand. I’m glad – for our son’s own emotional well-being – that he wants to do something that feeds both his heart and mind, instilling in him a sense of value and purpose. There are many ways to do that, certainly, but this is the way he’s chosen, or the way that’s chosen him, and I respect it.

And if he changes his mind, I’ll respect and support him in that decision, too. I’ll even put on a look of banal detachment and try not to look happy about it.

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My son and I on our trip to Prague a few years ago. Here we are on a movie set.

In the meantime, I’m going to take a note from my mother’s playbook. While yes, there are a lot of things she and I disagree on (don’t get me started on child-rearing philosophies or the correct way to wash a casserole dish or do a load of laundry, to name a few) I will always defer to her when it comes to innate acts of heroism.

She and my grandparents gave up a lot for faith in a higher ideal. Even after my mom risked everything to escape her native country, and finally arrived on the American soil she’d always of dreamed of, she refused sit back and let herself off the hook. Announce to the world that she was done and it was somebody else’s turn. In fact, my mom actually made my older brother do ROTC to give back to the nation that had taken her in. She’d already lost one son to the flu when he was just a child, and even that didn’t stop her from asking her surviving boy to serve.

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My mom and my son

As a teenager, I thought she was crazy and swore I would never do that to my own kid. My brother was not too keen on the prospect of military service and I thought it was wrong for her to force her convictions on him. And I guess I still do think it was wrong, even if I admire her commitment to civic duty.

That’s why, as my son works toward becoming an Eagle Scout this summer and gets himself in “fighting” shape, works like hell to get all of his ducks in a row for a coveted  spot at the United States’ premier service academy, I’m going to swallow my fears, blot the night sweats off my brow and try to live up to the ideals that seem to come to him and my mother so effortlessly.

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My kid at about age 12 – dressed in his paternal grandfather’s World War II Marine Corps uniform

 

Talking Love and Fiction With a Life Enthusiast

writing in the tubBritt Skribanek is a good soul.
We’re online friends, which is always such a weird thing to say. But over the years we’ve had some wonderful conversations…about love, about writing, about following what is in our hearts. We’ve also bonded over our very own real life love stories. How we didn’t see love coming, but it up and blindsided us anyway…taking us to places we’d only read about and had always hoped were real, but didn’t quite believe.
I’ve been a guest on her blog The Life Enthusiast Chronicles and am thrilled to have her on COLD, as she’s gearing up to rerelease all three of her novels in paperback editions! Nola Fran EvieBeneath the Satin Gloves, and Everything’s Not Bigger.
Her books are fun, well written, and so worth your time. Here’s what Readers’ Favorite has had to say about them:
“Britt Skrabanek has written an entertaining and illuminating historical novel in Nola Fran Evie. From wartime challenges, to racism and sexism, to challenges faced by today’s career women, many historical realities are presented through the life experiences of four women. Both engaging and informative, this story is a true delight!” – Readers’ Favorite
“Beneath the Satin Gloves is a time travel novel set in the dark and terrifying era of WWII Germany that is well researched and incredibly well written. It’s easy to slide into the 1940s and feel as though you are there. A beautiful thriller with a tragic edge to it, this is a read for anyone who loves a strong heroine, who just wants to lose themselves in a story they won’t want to end.” – Readers’ Favorite
“Everything’s Not Bigger is not the stereotypical coming of age novel so often portrayed–it’s quite another thing and it’s absolutely marvelous. A young woman’s life is disastrously turned awry by her relationship with a meth addict. Skrabanek deftly weaves a spell over the reader as they follow Jaye’s seemingly superstar existence and begin to understand that something is indeed wrong…something only she can fix. An enthralling story and a joy to read.” – Readers’ Favorite
And here’s what Britt had to say for herself when she agreed to submit to my advanced interrogation techniques.
SPOILER ALERT! You’re really going to like her.
(FYI, my questions are in bold, her’s are not.)

You know love is a big theme for me…how does your love story intersect with your writing?

Love is always a big theme for me as well. That’s one of the things I really love about your writing, Victoria.

My love story with my husband Mr. H is damn miraculous. We swore we would never get married to anyone. We thought everlasting love was complete and total bullshit. We grew up in very different corners of the country leading somewhat parallel lives. We entertained love, but we didn’t buy into the concept because we intentionally removed ourselves from it.

Then, our lives collided. Everything we thought we knew changed.

We were young, crazy, and in love. We got married in some shitty hotel in Vegas. Our wedding is still remembered by everyone who attended, because it played out like a romantic comedy. (For those who have seen Four Weddings and a Funeral, that was a close depiction of our disastrous wedding…minus the funeral).

Mr. H and I are celebrating 14 years of marriage in a couple of months. I used to say we didn’t know how we made it this long, but now I wouldn’t say that at all. We know that marriage is a partnership and we worked our asses off to hold onto our love. We know that we wouldn’t still be here in this life if we hadn’t found, loved, and saved each other.

Our love drives my fiction forward—and some version of me and Mr. H. are always the main characters. Every tear, every kiss, every fear, every wish comes from our story. All of my books have a recurring theme that explores how “love can save us.” The meaning of love is different for everyone. But, there is no denying love’s power and its ability to save us…if we let love in.

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It’s funny, I’ve met so many women who write about love – mostly romance novelists, actually – and they all contravene the stereotype of the lonely woman writing the love stories she wishes she herself could be living.
These writers – and I would put myself in this category, too – are all happily married and began writing about love precisely because they wanted to share their discovery with readers who might be feeling that true love is elusive, or has at least eluded them. They feel touched by the relationships they’ve developed with readers, writing on such a personal topic so elemental to the human experience.

Do you find that readers reach out to you and want to talk about love? If not, what do you find your readers want to talk to you about after reading your stories?

I suppose that since my novels are not intended to be part of the romance genre, my readers don’t typically talk to me about love.

Since I focus on strong female characters, I have been asked before whether my novels are written specifically for women. But they are not. My dad raised me and I’ve lived with my husband since my early twenties, so I’ve always lived with a man. I try to infuse that male perspective into my writing, which brings balance while appealing to men who do enjoy reading my novels.

Going back to the love conversation for a second though…I will say that my blog and social media followers always go a bit bananas when I write about my marriage or share a sweet image of me and Mr. H. There is a distinct spike in engagement and conversation because people want to hear about real romantic moments. I don’t know if that’s related to my books or if it’s just a coincidence.

I started noticing that “love” spike a few years ago. Even though so many of the people who follow my blog are into thrillers and noir – the most engagement I get is with posts that have to do with love in some variation.

And it’s interesting you bring up men. I think you and I have had a similar experience in this regard. Strong male relationships in our lives = being able to write strong male characters who appeal to both men and women.

How do you go about building a male character?

Building a male character tends to be very natural for me, because my brain is always fixated on my husband. I’m around him ALL the time. We live in a tiny one-bedroom apartment and we’ve been running a business together the past two years. People can’t believe we haven’t gone all The War of the Roses on each other yet, but here we are.

I love all of my husband’s habitual movements, like the way he takes out his phone while waiting for an elevator or to be seated at a restaurant. He only looks at his phone for a second or two—he’s checking the time since his phone is his watch. He rocks back on his heels, sighs, then returns his phone to his front left pocket. I know when he’s about to do it and I suppress a smile as I spy on him.

Whenever I am writing a scene with a male character, I close my eyes and imagine what my husband would say and what he would do. Oftentimes, I stare at him and creep him out when he’s in the same room with me.

Also, my husband and I have collaborated plenty of times on my male characters. I have asked him how he would react to a scenario and he plays make-believe with me to reveal those insights. I read some dialogue from a male character aloud and ask him if it sounds realistic. He’s also named two of my main male characters, Lauren in Nola Fran Evie and Webb in my latest yet-to-be-published novel, Virasana.

My husband is my confidant and I suppose he is my muse. Am I allowed to say he’s my muse? I have no idea. Shit, he’s going to die if he ever reads this.

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What do men, specifically, get out of your work? Is it different than what women get out of it?

Roy McCarthy, a longtime blogger friend—and an amazing author himself—wrote this great, endearing review for Nola Fran Evie a few years back. In one section, he wrote: “I was glad, at the end of Chapter 26 I wasn’t reading in public—I was in floods and had to take a break.”

Another male reader I lost touch with through Facebook left a review that said: “I find Britt’s words to be joyful but at times heart-wrenching.”

So, basically I make grown men cry. I don’t know if I make women cry as they’ve never mentioned it to me. I hope I make women cry too—that means I’m doing my job.

How do you go about building a world in your fiction? What experiences help you in that regard (travel, museums, long walks)? What details help bring the world alive for you, and subsequently your readers?

For instance, since I don’t travel nearly as much as I used to, I use Pinterest to visually build my fictional worlds and go from there.

Travel is crucial for inspiration when I’m building a fictitious world. I tend to avoid writing about places I’ve never been to. I expect that one day someone might rightfully call bullshit if I botched up the name of a street or the location of a building, if I ever attempted to fabricate the whole setting. I’m very careful and respectful in that regard.

I typically travel to places I know I want to write about. I go into the trip knowing that I need to collect even the smallest details and moments so I can feel the pulse of a place and reimagine it later.

What aesthetics are most important to you?

My editor says I talk about smells a lot, for instance. What details help bring the world alive for you, and subsequently your readers?

I am really into the senses, and I wrote a blog post some years ago called How to Amplify Your Writing with the Five Senses, where I completely nerded out on this technique. We just talked about building a world. The senses are how I build an experience.

While writing my latest novel, Virasana—which is a dystopian fantasy novel set in a futuristic Portland, Oregon—I became obsessed with Soundsnap. It’s an incredible online tool where you search and listen to any sound you want.

Take streetcars, for example. I’ve hard them plenty of times here in the city. To refresh that sound in my memory, I would listen to the sound via Soundsnap as I was writing that particular scene…with my headphones on, so I didn’t drive my husband completely crazy, of course.

I take the senses very seriously. I think we owe it to our readers to create an immersive experience. Integrating the five senses is one of the best ways I know to accomplish that, assuming I’m able to convey the mood successfully.

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What are the three elements that are always present in your fiction and why?

For me, it’s some level of spirituality, a heavy dose of atmosphere, and I almost always address this question: How would you behave under the worst possible circumstances (war, etc).
  1. Cities as characters.

I’ve lived in cities all my life and I’ve visited cities all over the world: Havana, Prague, Mexico City, Stockholm, Berlin, etc. I love the energy of a city and how there are always so many conversations, thoughts, and interactions dancing this insane choreography.

In my novels, the city is a character in its own right—one that must survive. Berlin in Beneath the Satin Gloves, Prague in Everything’s Not Bigger, Chicago in Nola Fran Evie, and Portland in Virasana.

2. Golden-age thinking.

I first heard the term in Woody Allen’s incredible film, Midnight in Paris. I’m totally guilty of golden-age thinking and I once had quite the vintage dress collection to prove it. I fall into the habit of thinking the past was more simple and grand.

I love writing historical fiction novels, because I don’t have to write about smartphones and computers. We have so many technological distractions today. When I write, I am escaping too…a historical era provides the ideal setting for modern escapism.

vintage dress

3. A ruthless love story.

I am such a sap for unapologetic love stories. It’s rare when I find them, but Atonement comes to mind. It was so beautifully jarring—I bawled when I read the book and I bawled (like, machine gun sobs) when I was leaving the movie theater.

In my work, love is the driving force. If I decide to sacrifice a main character, their love has a way of living on. When my laptop keyboard is wet with my own tears, I know I’ve captured the raw magic of love in some small way through my heart, through my fingers, and through the page.

See, I told you Britt’s a good soul. An old one, too.
britt skrabanek 2018
And here’s what her books look like!
Nola Fran Evie ebook
Beneath the Satin Gloves
Beneath the Satin Gloves ebook
Everything’s Not Bigger
Everything's Not Bigger ebook
And here are all of Britt’s links:

Repeating History: Why Writing About the Past Matters

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Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash

Historical fiction writers are in a deep funk. Sales are down in this great genre and most agents aren’t even looking to take on hist-fic novelists unless they’re somehow the type who can can get their stories folded into other genres like thriller or fantasy.

The success of novels steeped in history – ones like Outlander – are apparently not having the rub-off effect historical fiction authors have hoped for either. You’d think they would – readers and TV audiences alike have demonstrated that they’re just mad about Scottish guys of yore; ones in skirts with terrible hygiene and hard luck stories to boot. Why not medieval monks, Spanish conquistadors, American frontiersmen or Victorian era adventurers?

And you can’t blame the lull in historical fiction on readers and watchers who might be turned off by complex narratives that require (God forbid) a little work. Historical fiction readers love a good saga and world-building has extended far beyond the usual suspects. Game of Thrones, while not historical per se, has definitely proven that a well-appointed world is all the rage. Not only have audiences gobbled up that labyrinthine narrative, but both the show and the novels have managed to ensnare even the most die-hard fantasy haters who would normally loathe anything involving a flock (?) of dragons, a dwarf, a princess or two, and an army of undead knights.

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Photo by mauRÍCIO santos on Unsplash

Most of the historical fiction authors in my various writers groups are frustrated beyond belief, and many lay the blame not at the foot of market forces or lazy, disinterested readers as much as today’s hyper politically correct culture. They suspect this very restrictive climate is manipulating the market, denying oxygen to what was once a thriving category of fiction.

It’s a point worth exploring.

We can start by looking at what’s been happening in young adult fiction, when recently two authors voluntarily pulled their books from publication after having been attacked, mostly on Twitter, for “not having the right” to tell the fictional narratives portrayed in their novels.  One of the novels explored, through a fantasy-inspired world, human trafficking in Asia and the other was a gay love story that takes place during the genocidal civil war in Yugoslavia back in the 1990s.

These authors were called everything from privileged to disgusting and were excoriated for their alleged insensitivity – racial and otherwise. Blindsided, they quickly issued statements about being “deeply sorry” for having offended anyone, and promising to take time to “reflect upon” any insensitivity on their part and “the pain [they’ve] caused.”

On a purely civic level, language like this causes the hair to stand up on my arms. As the daughter of political refugees from a totalitarian regime, I admit I have a difficult time being on the fence about compelled apologies by anyone – especially artists. It is, after all, through art that we can safely explore our darkest impulses, try to live for a short time in the body and mind of someone who is an utter stranger, in a place that is foreign to us.

Such is the magic of unchained literature; the vast and noble journey of the human imagination.

I’ll be honest, I really don’t know much about the young adult books in question. I haven’t read them, and it looks as if I won’t ever have the opportunity to see for myself what all the fuss is about. What I do know is that their authors – an Asian-American and African-American who also happens to be gay – are themselves members of the very minorities to whom the publishing world has been trying to give a voice.

And now their voices have been silenced. Even worse, these authors have chosen to self-censor.

To add a layer of cosmic sarcasm to this saga, the African-American writer in question, a young man by the name of Kosoko Jackson, was a former “sensitivity reader” who flagged potentially “offensive” content for young adult publishers before snagging his first, and highly anticipated book deal. This implies that not only are stories with “sensitive” characters or plotlines being punted from the slosh pile at major publishers, but the ones that are being accepted into the fold are subjected to a smoothing of rough edges that undoubtedly removes what could be construed as offensive, while also conceivably expunging the very heart and blood of a story. The quirky bits of color which make us ponder, regret, shudder, laugh out loud or grit our teeth in fury. 

And the reason this trend sends a particular chill down the collective spines of historical fiction writers…and, I assume, most agents and acquiring editors, is simply because nothing is more controversial, laden with political bombs, than history itself.

It’s hardly a wonder that few literary professionals are willing to take a chance on a genre that focuses exclusively on times that played out before the woke awakened. Ones involving people and events that actually happened and are hard to sanitize without compromising nuance, context and substance. In other words…artistry.

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Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

An inherent part of this dilemma is that readers of historical fiction tend to be sticklers on historical content, too, and actually want to see the world through the eyes of one of its past inhabitants. Warts and all. They reject a yesteryear that has been dressed up for current mores or is too staunchly condemned. Most true lovers of history have that itch to learn from a character who they might come to see as a good man, despite the fact that he’s conflicted about an unpopular war, his relationship with his wife or daughter in an era long before women’s rights, slavery.

Seems to me we could gain a little bit from that perspective. Maybe if we could learn to love, or at least understand a character who came out on the wrong side of history, we could extend that compassion to someone today. Empathy is the lifeblood of historical fiction, after all. It’s also a vital element of a well-functioning society.

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Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Whatever the objective reasons for the downtrend in historical fiction – and I have no doubt there are multiple variables involved – the fact is, many authors have come to feel the current climate creates a vicious circle in which historical fiction can’t win. The writer can’t write from the historical context the reader craves because the editor won’t accept a shaded representation of the past, because the online mobs – an itty-bitty and increasingly despised fraction of readers I should add – would throw a hissy-fit.

If indeed the historical fiction sales crash is a casualty of this cultural swing, it’s a conundrum to be sure.

Yet, I believe we need only to look at trends from the past to find the answers. If our beloved history does indeed repeat itself as many historians allege, all of this, too, shall pass, rendering these very mobs as merely:

“Dress’d in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d…”

…If I may quote the greatest historical fiction writer ever to grace the Earth – William Shakespeare.

And if I can borrow from science here as well, Newton’s law tells us that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So, maybe, just maybe, a resurgence of historical fiction is just around the corner? But while we wait for this tempest in a teapot to run its course, we can take comfort in the fact that there are some really good indie-published historical fiction authors who will keep the candle aflame. People who don’t care about mobs or trends…just readers.

For your reading pleasure, here’s one. Her name is Octavia Randolph and her bestselling books have charmed readers all over the world.

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About Octavia: I write the kind of book I want to read myself. I write about history as a way to better understand my own times. I write about people who are far better, and (I hope) far worse than myself. And beautiful objects inspire me: the hand-carved combs, skilfully wrought swords, and gemmed goblets of the world of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. Almost everything interests me; I’ve studied Anglo-Saxon and Norse runes, and learnt to spin with a drop spindle. My path has led to extensive on-site research in England, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, and Gotland – some of the most wonderful places on Earth. In addition to the Circle Saga, I am also the author of Light, Descending, a biographical novel of the great 19th century art and social critic John Ruskin: Ride, a retelling of the story of Lady Godiva; and The Tale of Melkorka, taken from the Icelandic Sagas.  I’ve been the fortunate recipient of Artistic Fellowships at the Ingmar Bergman Estate, Fårö; the MacDowell Colony; Ledig House International; and Byrdcliffe.

Check out Octavia here!

And please check out my latest vlog episode of Love at First Write:

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