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Tonight’s Lecture Will Be on the Creative Process (whether you like it or not)

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Last week at the dinner table, my middle daughter (age 15) performed a cheeky, dramatic reading of a sweet love scene I wrote for my upcoming fantasy-romantic novel, Savage Island.

“Will’s kiss is wild,” my daughter cooed. “It’s like the wind Aunt Kitty is so afraid might sweep me off the tops of the arches.”

She stared directly at her 17 year-old brother as she hammed it up. But he would have none of it. He remained fixated on his food, moving his potatoes around with his fork.

“The kind of wind that blows my hair this way and that,” she continued. “Scoops the breath right out of my rib cage. Every stroke of his tongue – ”

“Please stop!” her brother shouted. “Do you have any idea how much this disgusts me?”

I knew that last bit was for my benefit, even before he looked my way. “Mom, I just picture you at your desk…sitting there…biting your lip as you write…and it’s horrible.”

I’m sure just about every parent can related to this admittedly awkward exchange (awkward for my kids, anyway). What child isn’t revolted by the idea of a parent having any kind of sexual awareness? What parent hasn’t heard one or more of their children express icky discomfort at the prospect of good ole mom and dad being real live human beings who brought their little bundles of joy into existence by reproducing the way real live human beings do? I suppose for children of writers, actors and artists who might address the act of falling in love or lust in their work – this type of evidence, one that isn’t merely circumstantial, but chronicled in detail – is mortifying.

Still, I figured this cringey domestic moment could also be an interesting segue into a conversation about the form and function of creativity. I forget how opaque the creative process may seem – even to those who live with artists. Few people outside the realm of painters, writers, musicians and their ilk have anything more than a rudimentary understanding of the way it all really works.

And for good reason. The creative process is complicated and difficult. It also happens largely inside our heads, so the many steps between the spark of an idea and something you can actually hold in your hand and experience remains hidden.

That’s why I thought it might be helpful if I tried to articulate some of those missing steps for my kids – especially my son, who seemed to fear that I sat around all day having sexy fantasies and then scrambled to jot them down before he got home from school.

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Photo by Christal Yuen on Unsplash

“Writing fiction,” I told him, “is not as literal an experience as you seem to think. Storytelling is one part memory and another part alchemy, and while I might start with a personal fragment – of an old acquaintance, an experience or observation, even a fantasy – from there it takes on a life of its own.”

“Great. Thank you for clarifying. Are we done?”

“No, we’re not done,” I scolded. In fact, I proceeded to ramble on and will try to capture some of the things I said by employing a hodge-podge of what I recall from my dinner table lecture, and bits and pieces I’ve written about the creative process in the past. Over all, the gist of this will be informative. I think. And interesting. I hope.

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Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

Here goes.

The weird goulash of anything and everything that’s ever caught my attention might offer some great raw ingredients for a story, but without something to bind it together, give it structure, it’s just a creative goo. For me, that’s where the role of myth comes into play.

Mythology, I believe, connects just about any work of fiction. It’s the bones that hold up each and every discordant part, providing architecture to the stories we endeavor to tell. In the case of Savage Island, it’s in the way my lovers approach one another, in their motivations, and the trials they’re put through in order to earn what is arguably the most sought after objective in the history of mankind – true love.

Seems to me all fiction writers throw a pinch of mythology into their stories, whether they know it or not. My own myth medley draws heavily on the Greeks, Grimm’s Fairytales, Hans Christian Andersen and the Bible. But I see the influence of myth everywhere. Thriller, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, horror, even dragon porn (yes, there is such a thing) borrow from bygone tales first told thousands of years ago. They indulge in narratives that touch on prodigal sons, jealous gods, heroic warriors and fallen angels. On evil witches, wise old shamans, prophecies and destinies.

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Image by Greg Montani from Pixabay

Once this brew of legend and cold eye reminiscence has been cobbled together, something resembling a proper fiction emerges. At this point, I clarified, I’m still not “done.” This is when writers sit down to bless the work with our senses – color, smell, taste, a little music for the ears. Quirks and eccentricities. These are the seasonings, if you will.

Stuff like this:

A bloke about my age starts to thump his palms on his nafa – bum-bu-bum-bu-bum – and the hair on my arms stands up. Son of the friendly woman from the post office, he’s long limbed and built like he should be tall, though he’s a fair bit shorter than me. His sister, can’t remember her name either, stands next to him all plump and pretty. She’s got a shock of curly black hair that hugs her skull like a bathing cap fixed with floppy rubber roses, and starts to sing Haku Motu. Out of tune. –Savage Island

From here, I followed my son into the kitchen, speaking loudly enough so that my daughters, who were clearing the table, could hear.

I stumbled through trying to decode the basics of the editorial process – something that’s still a bit mysterious to me, and involves a fusion of intuition and practice. How a writer reads her first draft with cohesion and natural progression in mind, for instance. What I’ve written has to make sense in order for it to come together; it has to move at a certain pace to have a reader turning pages. Otherwise, I know damned well the work will die. That’s why with very, very few exceptions, if a work of fiction is created by merely the act of transferring fantasy from brain to paper, it’s probably a hot mess.

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Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash

Because fantasies serve only our own desires.

Even when I’m writing one of those precarious love scenes, the ones where I’m taking a deep breath, conjuring every sweet nothing I’ve ever taken seriously – I’m not writing my fantasy. Or literally placing myself into the story. I’m crafting a scene, choosing my words carefully and from a whole host of possibilities. I’m thinking about the light, what scents might be enticing to my characters. Whether a girl from the desert might find the smell of a flowery perfume heavenly or overpowering? These impressions are part of a world built intentionally and meticulously. From the ground up and with a tremendous amount of love and passion. My fiction, I explained to my son (the girls were making Tik Tok videos together by this time), is no more a reflection of my fantasy world than are he or his sisters. And that’s the very reason it means as much to me as it does. It’s real.

At last, my son glanced my way again. “You know you lost me way back at ‘Bill’s wild kiss,’ don’t you?'”

Will’s wild kiss,” I corrected him. “My character’s name is Will.”

“Whatever,” he mumbled from the back hallway, as I heard him heading upstairs.

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Photo by Carli Jeen on Unsplash

Savage Island…coming October 1

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Under the Spell of the Moon on Savage Island

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Glenn Miller was the king of swing until his plane disappeared over the English Channel in 1944. He’d been in London, broadcasting both entertainment and counter-propaganda when he got on a single engine plane to Paris, never to be heard from again.

When I was a little kid, growing up in the late 1970s amongst the schizoid dichotomy of flash and frowzy bad taste, I came across one of Glenn Miller’s albums in my grandparents’ sparse record collection. One that consisted almost entirely of polka. Miller offered me zip and glamour from the get-go. A sense of style that had gusto and a yen for a time that seemed better to me somehow. Clear and dignified, populated by people with a back bone, who dressed up for life. Fixed their hair, tipped their hat. People like my grandparents, but minus the polka.

Even when my hip, older step-sister, the one who had an actual disco dancing outfit complete with purple satin pants and Candies stilleto sandals, mocked me for listening to what she called “La-la music”, I would not be deterred.

“Did you know he scored sixteen number one records and had sixty-nine top ten hits?” I challenged her. I’d scavenged that information from the Encyclopedia Britannica. “That’s more than Elvis and The Beatles.”

“Who cares?” She said. “Nobody listens to them anymore either.”

Glenn Miller’s music was ubiquitous throughout the World War II era, which is also the era in which Savage Island, my new novel debuting at the end of September, takes place. I guess that’s no accident. I return to that time again and again in my fiction. It’s my go-to, the place where all of my ideas are somehow born.

There was one song of Miller’s in particular that I couldn’t get out of my mind as I was writing this fantasy-inspired wartime romance, the first in an epic new series that not only spans the globe, but takes place over a period of some six thousand years. And it wasn’t In the Mood or Chattanooga Choo Choo –both of which blasted out of dance halls coast to coast during that time, urging everyone to tap their toes and forget about the war for awhile. No, for this fan girl of the 1930s and 40s, the song that inspired the deepest nostalgia and had me up late into the night writing love scenes filled with longing and punctuated by first times was Moonlight Serenade. Miller’s most romantic melody, it has a slow groove that compels you to wrap your arms around your lover and sway. There’s a note of sadness and mystery to the tune, too, because like any great wartime love song, it doesn’t just celebrate the moment…it also hints at goodbye.

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And there’s something else that it does, using its advantage almost unfairly. Giving us a thrill and chill that seeps its way into our consciousness like a cool mist on a waterfront.

It offers the moon. Literally, figuratively, transcandentally.

If jazz was the music of an era – fresh and new, dancing tip-toed with the brazen singularity of a dandy, the moon is, was, and ever shall be the poetic figure of eternity. It promises so much, showing us mere mortals the closest thing there is to God’s face. It’s a serene and sublime fixture in a turbulent universe – one that has looked down on us since before the birth of the first man, and will stay with us until the last one takes his final breath.

There’s a reason we make wishes as we stand under her bold, blue light.

Miller had to have had this in mind when he was writing Moonlight Serenade. With his classic ambition, he was aiming at creating something that was for the then and now, but strived to hang around a lot longer than that. It’s a piece of his imagination that he wanted to linger after the war had ended and everyone had gone home. That might haunt subsequent generations the way Miller’s sudden disappearance and presumed death haunted the last months of that long and brutal war.

Every artist understands such an aspiration. The need for our work to cast a shadow, leave an echo and an ache. Even self-admitted commercially minded artists like Glenn Miller, who once said, “By giving the public a rich and full melody, distinctly arranged and well played, all the time creating new tone colors and patterns, I feel we have a better chance of being successful.”

But if it was just success he was after, going for the moon, so to speak, he would have never added an almost mystical, heartsick element to his lunar homage. He might have let the song remain sexy and simple, with the kind of mystery that might leave you wondering what color garter a lady wears under her skirt, but not what sacred marvels make up her soul.gondolier-2018052_1280

Perhaps in part because of Miller’s influence, my childhood memories of sitting on a shag carpet and listening to Moonlight Serenade, I’ve often used the moon as an inspiration in my fiction. Most recently, as the moon follows my lovers through history, through each life they’re born to, helping them find one another time and again. In Savage Island, the specter of our one and only satellite winks at these two unsuspecting hearts, offering glimpses of shadow memories – of all the times they’ve met, loved and lost each other. Of all the times they’ve basked in the lunar glow, standing hand to hand, leaning in for a kiss.

Moonlight Serenade helped me ground my characters in the present of the tale I was allowing to unfold. Illustrating what was at stake in 1944, and articulating the very themes of honor and purpose and struggle and devotion that had woven their destinies together forever.

Yet it was the actual moon that gave them to each other in the first place, in their first life many millennia before Glenn Miller’s music first crooned and crackled out of a ham radio. And it’s that very moon that can rip them away from one another again, just as easily.

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Daniel Lincoln on Unsplash

(Excerpt)

Will walks onto the rock plank and stands on its brink, his silhouette stamped onto the face of the very moon that’s inked onto the back of his neck. His head is turned away from us and facing out towards the sea.

Ah’kwarah’a,” I call out to him. The words just spill out of me and I cup my hands over my mouth, my heart batting away in my chest.

“What’s that gobble-dee-goop?” Ku asks me.

Will cocks his head and I know he understands. Even if he can’t possibly. Even if I’ve never known the words I spoke and can’t imagine where they came from. I only know they were in my dream, and I wrote them down this morning as soon as I opened my eyes.

They mean, I was born for you.

Savage Island, coming soon…

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The island of Niue, 1944.  On this remote island, deep in the South Pacific, about 1,500 miles from its closest neighbor, it hardly feels like a war is on.  Angelie, a 17-year-old Australian girl, is waiting out the war on the island, where warm tropical winds blow through her hair almost as gently as native islander Will Tongahai’s eyes graze her body.

But the arrival of an African archaeologist and his German consort unsettle the inhabitants of this tranquil isle, and Angelie begins to wonder if the war hasn’t finally reached their shores.

As Angelie and Will are drawn to the suspicious pursuits of the new visitors – an ancient statue, a fantastic myth – a series of vivid dreams about deserts and long forgotten prophecies ensnares them. The lovers discover that their destiny, one forged thousands of years earlier, is not only bigger than their prospective future together, but makes a mere world war look like child’s play.

Keeping the Faith

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Photo by Joseph Chan on Unsplash

I’ve been watching the demonstrations in Hong Kong, and to a lesser extent in Moscow with great interest, as readers of this blog might imagine. It’s been incredibly emotional for me to see the citizens of Hong Kong wave the American flag and sing our national anthem in their protests against the mainland communist regime that’s been cracking down on them slowly, but surely, since Britain relinquished their former colony to China nearly twenty years ago.

It’s difficult to describe what this means to someone who comes from a family of political refugees. Whose mother still clenches her fist and talks about what she experienced as a political dissident in a communist country. What escaping and coming to a democratic nation, one with a constitution by and for the people meant to her. It’s become almost passé, hasn’t it – such sentiments?

Yet, the truth of the matter is that the freedoms we take for granted and even deride at times are precious to those who are in acute risk of losing them. It’s good to be reminded of that every once in a while.

“You have no idea what it was like!” My mother still says at our dinner table at least once a week. “Nobody here – they don’t know and they will never know until it happens to them.”

I certainly hope it never happens to us.

And I desperately hope that the people of Hong Kong and the people advocating for more democracy in Russia won’t be squashed by their state, or largely ignored by a world which sympathizes, surely, but simply doesn’t have the political will to do anything but feel really bad about what’s happening over there.

“We have our own problems,” we say. And we do. Only ours over here in the West seem to be self-inflicted right now.

Our political screaming matches, our crisis of confidence – those seem to have shaken us to the core, making us doubt our very foundations, every institution we’ve ever built, each step we’ve ever taken. I pray we can shake off this temporary insanity soon. I long for us to embrace one another again, be grateful for what we have and reach out to those within and without our communities who are struggling. Who might look to us for inspiration and help.

I believe we will, because I believe in the raucous symphony of democracy. What we have is a pain in the ass to be sure. Democracy, by its very nature is flexible and forward moving. It requires a willingness to change, and to take responsibility. Personal responsibility when things go wrong. When our elected leaders disappoint us. When we fall short of our own expectations.

And it requires faith.

The Writing Life

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Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

My youngest babe recently asked me how it was that I started writing about “all this stuff” in the first place. It’s hardly an unusual question, and often comes from folks who genuinely like to write and are even quite good at it, but somehow never find the time or mental space to take it up as more than a here and there kind of thing.

Or are too timid about their prose to ever consider showing it to anyone.

The fact is, a lot of folks think up fantasy scenarios and might even dabble in getting their thoughts down – in a diary, perhaps. But “congenital” writers somehow manage to make writing a complusive habit. Despite the fact that many of us writer types are very interior people, we seem to feel the need to have others actually read our work, too. It’s quite a conundrum.

This girl is always full of questions (and she’s a great writer, too)

“I’m not just asking about the made up stuff,” my daughter clarified. “I mean when you write about Nana and us and all of that. Were you writing about real things, too, when you were little and showing them to your friends and teachers?”

This seemed simultaneously fascinating and mortifying to her. She’s already heard her brother and sister complain about how some of their classmates have read my books and worse – looked up my blog. A girl who had a crush on my son actually poured through everything I’d ever written about him, basically making the poor kid wish he could change his name and move to another state. I didn’t even write anything particularly embarrassing or all that private – at least from my perspective.

But writing personal essays is a bit like inviting someone into your home. Even if you don’t spill your guts to them, or blather on about anything too cringey, they still get to sample your cooking, get a feeling for your aesthetic, and have a long, hard look at the pictures you’ve chosen to frame. They get a glimpse into the family dynamic and note whether you drink one or two glasses of wine with dinner, you know what I mean? It’s all a bit intimate – there’s no doubt about that.

Still, I suppose without even realizing it, I’d set a place for the reader at my table long, long ago.

This really is my table

When I chose to write about family lore, I made a conscious decision to take a very big risk and expose not only my heart, but the hearts of those I love most. I did it in a pretty balls-out way, publishing my very first effort in the New York Times of all places. My Modern Love essay (“The Wrong Kind of Inheritance”) was about how my mom and I had always had a distant and complicated relationship when I was growing up, but became close after my infant daughter (the one in the “two-face” picture who loves asking all the questions) was born with cancer. I really did scrape it up from the depths of my soul.

It was a task that not only left my head spinning during the day, but gave me night sweats.

I’d never written a personal essay before then. Never even considered it. In fact, I didn’t even know much about the Modern Love column until my best girlfriend, a NYT stringer, told me “You have to write one!” after one of our long and winding telephone conversations during that awful time.

To top it off, however daunting it was to make sense of what was happening in my own life during my baby daughter’s fight for her’s, I also had to figure out how all of this fit in with the people in my family and their harrowing life experiences. Ones I’d been hearing about since I was in diapers, but had never felt the right to claim.

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This is an actual Czech secret police surveillance photo

As many of you know by now (at least those of you who have been a part of Cold Readers Club for more than a day or two), my family story is a two-hanky drama that gives Dr. Zhivago a run for its money. An epic adventure, it spans a World War, a Cold War, and a romantic, democratic revolution. There are more conflicting emotions and traumatic memories in my clan than there are mosquitos on a hot summer night. The amount of love and poetry and rapturous rage spewed at our table during an average family dinner takes many broods a lifetime or two of holiday parties, weddings, and funerals to amass.

I mean really, how many people out there have a dad whose own father was shot by a firing squad in his backyard when he was just a teen? A mother who was named an Enemy of the State when she was only twelve? Don’t even get me started on the rest of them.

“Please,” my girlfriend said. “I can feel the magic just talking to you.”

The magic. I think every writer has some idea of magic. It’s what makes us write in the first place, gives us our ideas, and draws us into a profession that’s right up there with movie stardom, pro sports and national politics when it comes to swinging for the fences. It makes us wrestle with our introverted selves, getting us to spill our blood and expose our innermost thoughts and fears to any stranger who happens upon our scribbles.

And I won’t deny it. I did feel the magic. My family had been fueling my fiction – everything from improv comedy skits to Cold War thrillers – for years. In retrospect, it now seems inevitable that I would come to tackle some form of more personal writing instead of always hiding behind the thick, velvet curtain of fiction. Always getting to manipulate exactly how the story will end.

Because that’s really what it’s about, these more personal narratives. What truly seperates them from fiction, apart from the obvious. It’s a level of exposure – when done right – that helps us draw broader themes from deeply personal experiences, paint them with some artistry, but doesn’t really allow us to control the reader’s perceptions or even our own. Because like a real conversation, the close kind that goes to places well beyond small talk, the reader is bringing her own story to the party, too, and catching you, the writer, in a candid moment…almost unawares.

This should have been our Christmas card

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Mae West 1

“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.

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“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.

Mae West 5

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

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