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Truth and Dare: The Dangerous Allure of the Horror Story

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The disco zombie from Studio 54

My middle daughter, who’s fifteen, is pretty crackerjack at horror make-up. Ever since going to theater camp when she was eleven and taking a special FX class, her Halloween costumes have been killer.

But it’s my twelve year-old daughter who really loves horror. She binge-watches anything from Twilight to the Halloween franchise, devours Stephen King, and writes her own stories all the time – often from the point of view of some deranged, but charming psycho. Nothing goes too far or is off limits for her. Not demonic possession or vomit-inducing gore or heinous monsters or wicked cults. And she sleeps like a baby at night. Go figure.

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This girl is fearless.

I watch her with a mix of envy and awe. I’ve always been fascinated by horror. The sneaky way in which it toys with our psyches, revealing even the most oh, so rational of us as frauds. The ones who put ourselves above the supernatural and claim to be too smart for religious magic, sorcery, or any paranormal mystery. Things like ghosts, telekinetic powers, space aliens, witches, and the undead. Some of us brush off the whole phenomenon of scary stories, claiming to be indifferent to the dark charms of a chiller, thriller toni-i-i-ight.

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The infamous Michael Jackson’s Thriller hand from theater camp.

And yet who of us hasn’t at one time or another fallen for the jump scare, or feared the unwholesome, insidious threat of the evil spirit, the hungry creature under our bed? Even the most poker-faced literalist, if pressed, will admit to being afraid to sleep alone for a night or two after being exposed to a particularly eerie yarn.

So, I want to challenge you a little if the reason you don’t like horror is because you find the genre a bit cornball. Horror, second only to Romance, is the most maligned genre in fiction, after all. Rarely taken seriously, and treated more like a carnival sideshow.

But I charge that horror is as integral a theme for our psyches as the love story, and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s presented in the form of schlocky genre fiction or serious literary endeavor. In the end, all horror stories serve the same master: An instinct to solve mysteries, seek out danger for the sake of mastering our fears and our environment, tame the monster within or without. To investigate, adventure, crusade, and when necessary…run like hell. Horror, even at its campiest, shows us the ways in which we can be complicit in our own demise, can fail in the face of a situation that calls for courage, or can rise to the occasion as a hero, yet still end up with an axe in our skulls.

Heady stuff. And not for the faint of heart.

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Don’t worry, folks, she’s a pro

My youngest daughter’s obsession with horror is a daily reminder to me of how much I’d love to write a truly great horror story, yet lack her courage to do so. To write the sort of tale that shifts the ground beneath my feet would put everything I have in peril – emotionally, philosophically.

Perhaps that sounds a bit dramatic, but I wouldn’t be the first to feel this way. Think of Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, and my personal writing heroine, Mary Shelley.

It’s Mary Shelley’s writer’s journey that resonates so strongly with me. Not her private journey, which was a hell of a mess involving an extramarital affair with her future husband, poet Percy Blythe Shelley, and the eventual suicide of his wife. They suffered social ostracization, financial troubles, and the tragic death of their love child. Later, two more of their children died shortly after birth, leaving only one who survived. Percy’s young death by drowning, a final blow, came once their personal storm seemed to have passed.

What I’m seduced by is her audacity as a writer, evidenced in the now famous dare between Shelley and her heavy-weight writer husband and their friends, a group which included Lord Byron, author of Don Juan, John William Polidori, who wrote the first modern vampire story, and Claire Clairmont, Mary’s step-sister.

The story goes that on one rainy afternoon in Geneva, in 1816, Mary and her literary cohorts passed the time by telling ghost stories – scaring one another and nearly frightening poor Claire to death. A sufferer of “the horrors,” Claire frequently fell into fear-induced states of hysteria and was said to have nightly, ghoulish nightmares. Feeling emboldened, they decided on a contest between them to see who could write the most psychicly savage horror tale. One that cuts to the bone and would leave them up at night having cold sweats. Would make them question who and what they are.

Although Polidori’s short story, “The Vampyre” gave an impressive show, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has endured as a classic.

Knowing a bit about Mary’s life as a gifted outlier, I imagine it took guts for her to delve into psychological horror. Here was a young woman born to an anarchist father and a radical feminist mother during a time of strict adherence to propriety. She was fed a steady diet of rebellion and contradiction laced with conflict growing up, and had a great deal to unpack. It’s not hard to see the funhouse mirror reflection of Mary’s life in her Gothic tale: the brilliant scientist who orchestrates the complete destruction of his life by giving life to a being made of corpses. That could be her marriage to Percy Shelley. The price she paid for love and infamy.

Her tall, powerful creature of rare intelligence is rejected by his creator, who regrets his mistake of playing God, and goes about wandering the earth in search of someone, something that could love him, becoming more cruel and destructive with each disappointment. Mary’s own life was riddled with as much rejection as it was acclaim. Rejection by her father, her step-mother, polite society. She paid a dear price for travelling Europe with a married lover, feeding her imagination, her desires, and her intellectual vanity.

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My horror writer, already a monster at age six

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” –the Monster

“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel…” –Frankenstein

I can see Mary as both of them, and feel a rare sense of awe for the depths of her courage. For looking herself in the eye and allowing those words to flow. She tempts me to face the cracks in my own carefully, painfully constructed world.

So, what is my fear you might ask? The cold darkness within that won’t let me go there, to write what is to me a horror above all horrors?

It’s a simple fear, really. Like Mary’s monster, I fear estrangement. That beyond us there is nothing. No other worlds, no soul within, no light, no force of good compelling us to follow the moral law. The black of night without tantalizing mysteries, the golden light of day without a hint of tomorrow. Hopelessness. That’s what I fear most.

But maybe this fear in and of itself is a great, cosmic dare not unlike the one between Mary and her friends. The dare my daughter has taken. One that growls at us, taunts us for our weakness. “Don’t just look it in the eye, girl,” it says. “Stare it down.”

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The Greatest Twenty-Year Hangover

It’s not Valentine’s Day.

In fact, it’s perilously close to Christmas and the New Year. You know, the time when we reflect on what the past 365 days has brought us and what our hopes are for what’s coming ahead.

I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about love an awful lot. Because in 2019, not only did I launch the first novel in an epic new Fantasy Romance series I’m writing, but my husband and I celebrated our twentieth wedding anniversary!

On July 31, 1999, our closest friends and family descended upon Chicago, Illinois and gathered at a quirky little venue that was built to be an exact replica of the famous Maxim’s de Paris restaurant. We had a party to end all parties, and the rest is history! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves quite yet. Like any self-involved respecting ​Bridezilla, I’ve got something to say about my big day!

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Putting the finishing touches on my dress.

I should start by saying that Jack (my husband) and I chose the Chicago version of the famous (and infamous) Paris restaurant because it seemed to channel our love story. For one, it was an intimate space and forced a small guest list consisting of only the people closest to our hearts. Beautifully decorated in an authentic Art Nouveau style, it evoked not only Paris, which we both loved, but another great city that was at the forefront of the Art Nouveau movement – Prague – which also happened to be the city where we met.

Our ambition for our big day was to throw the greatest dinner party any of our guests had ever attended! Great music that would make people want to get up and shake their booties to everything from Sinatra (My Kind of Town, of course) to Prince (Let’s Go Crazy), food that was NOT the usual wedding fare – in other words good and very French, and terrific company. The kind with whom you can cry in your beer, have soul-scraping conversations, let your guard down.

I don’t know how well we succeeded for sure. Nobody’s going to tell you they had a crap time at your wedding, after all. But I can say that we drank the bar dry, my sisters-in-law had a handstand contest in the bathroom, one of our guests went home with the bartender, another guest popped the question to his girlfriend (they’re still together!), and we were up all night long singing, dancing, telling dirty jokes, reminiscing and urging new friendships between people we’d always been dying to introduce to one another.

Some of our friends still talk about that night.

This is the real Maxim’s and this scene looks a helluva lot like our wedding.

​It was crucial to us that our wedding offered the unexpected to the people we most loved. We wanted it to be as much about them and their memories of our nuptials as it was about us and the life we were launching together. We figured, after all, that we were in this together.

Even the photographer we chose was a woman who specialized in candid shots. We didn’t want a bunch of posed photos to look back on. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with those, it’s just that when we flipped through our wedding album…oh, say, twenty years later…we wanted to see pictures of people in mid-conversation or mid-cringey-dance-move. Gesturing wildly, or looking intently at the whoever was holding the floor. In short, we wanted our wedding photos to be prompts that would jog our memories, enabling us to remember that night in detail. Because we expected it to be a night of pure, unadulterated joy. And it was.

I can honestly say I have never had more fun than on the night of my wedding. It was so worth the killer hangover.

wedding 1999But I won’t bore you with any more of my goofy nostagia. There’s a really good chance that like most brides, I’m the only one who truly finds my wedding all that interesting. What I will do is share with you an essay that I wrote a few years ago. It’s about how important story is to a long-lasting love affair like a marriage. It’s one of my most popular posts ever, by the way. The one so many people have responded to with their own love stories. That’s why it means so much to me. The way it was received by men and women alike is quite literally the reason I decided to write a series that put the relationship between two lovers at the heart center of the story.

Love Stories by Yours Truly

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The bride striking a 1940s vintage glam pose

Some years ago, about a week before my wedding, I was at work listening to a radio show on a topic that was understandably on the forefront of my mind: marriage. On this show was a man being touted as the preeminent expert on Holy Matrimony – a guy whose name I can’t remember – but a fellow who’d been studying the institution for decades and could tell with startling accuracy and within minutes of meeting a couple whether they would still be married in five years’ time.

I sat listening with my ears pricked up, as this guy was the real deal. Enough to make him the focus of an entire segment of NPR’s Talk of the Nation for two solid hours.

Obviously, Mr. Marriage (as I’ll call him for the sake of this essay) had a lot to say on the topic. He talked about respect being the cornerstone of a lasting relationship, the importance of morality within the confines of a union, the way couples should fight, and how a pair of lovers must always take up the challenge to evolve together. All very sensible and true on an intuitive level.

But what caught my attention most was his assertion that story is an essential element to a life-long love affair. In other words, what seems to matter in an intrinsic way is not that a couple has gotten together but how a couple has gotten together.

The story of us – of how our love takes flight – appears not only to be the spark that ignites the fire we need in order to sustain passion, but the one that foments friendship and trust, and gets us through some of the dark, dark times that visit us during the course of our lives. Things like illness, child-rearing debacles, job loss, snoring, opposing tastes in television shows, and a mother-in-law moving in.

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This is actually my grandma – I miss her. My mom does live with us now, though.

In my interpretation, Mr. Marriage was explaining how courtship – the process of wooing an amour by gestures large and small (i.e. the candy and flowers routine) – plays a vital role in spinning that magic web we call true love. Courtship, like a good story, tantalizes. It promises so much, but threatens to take it away at any time. At its heart, courtship makes a couple earn each other’s affection and intimacy. It is the inverse of a hook-up.

I was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between love and story very recently when a friend – a new friend who I’m just getting to know and with whom I’ve found a lot in common – asked me to share with her the story of how my husband and I got together. She and I are both writers and we also happen to write about love in various ways. Neither one of us are romance writers, per se, but love in its many forms is definitely a shared theme of ours.

She and I are also both happily married, and have confided in one another about how love took us completely by surprise. It’s not like our previous relationships were all that great, and neither of us came from what popular culture would call happy families. We had to piece together on our own what we thought a blissful union might look like.

But somehow, as if by osmosis or destiny, it happened for us.

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“You may kiss the bride…”

Before I began telling her my love story, I took a deep, meditative breath. It had been a long time since I’d recounted the tale of how my husband, Jack, and I had fallen in love. In all honesty, I’d put that narrative on the back burner while he and I focused on some pretty big things, like having babies and making sure we could feed them.

But damn, we do have one helluva story, and it wasn’t until I told my friend about how we met and went nuts about each other that I realized what a critical subtext our love story has been in getting us through some very challenging episodes. Things I’ve written about on this blog – obvious things like dealing with one of our children being born with a catastrophic illness and surviving the financial train-wreck that hit a lot of folks around 2008. But also the smaller things like moving from city to city, starting a business and deciding how much autonomy to give our children.

So, yes, I will tell our story. But if you’ll forgive me, I’ll give you the condensed version. The fleshed-out, nitty-gritty version makes me blush and withdraw. It’s also too long for a mere blog post.

It involves a chance visit to a foreign city,
A meeting in a four-hundred year old, candlelit pub,
Some dirty poetry,
A Christening,
Several dozen anonymous postcards,
New Year’s Eve,
A jazz club,
Fried chicken and champagne on a cliff side,
The kind of mushy language most people pretend to despise,
And a belief in destiny.

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In color!

Of course, after the swashbuckling part, the early wonders of discovery, the heavy breathing, we pretty much replaced our candy and flowers routine with the meat and potatoes of our relationship. Less poetic perhaps, but warm, comforting, sweet. Our nearly twenty-year love story has been a very different adventure than our courtship.

It has involved believing against all odds,
Not blaming each other for things that have gone awry,
Doing our part,
Mustering every bit of energy in order to conjure romance amidst ruin,
Ignoring bad moods,
Having sex even when we don’t feel like it,
Bragging about each other’s accomplishments,
Dancing close in our kitchen when it all gets to be too much.

We could’ve never gotten through the latter list without the former. And I guess that’s what Mr. Marriage was talking about. Over and over, his research pointed to how the foundation of a relationship requires a sense of transcendence, a belief in the overall good of the love that has bloomed. There is a reason why we call the one we’ve been looking for Mr. or Ms. Right. Right implies virtue, honor, truth. And according to Mr. Marriage’s research, an attraction built on betrayal, for instance, has a hard slog ahead. Such a union has no anchor, and over the long run often devours itself from the inside. After all, what do you say when someone asks you how you met? “Well, my first wife was at Little Gym with our two year-old, and I, uh…well…you know. I guess I just couldn’t help myself.”

Story, it turns out, can sink you as well as save you when it comes to love.

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Five of my seven sisters-in-law

In fact, story is so crucial to the long-term viability of a relationship that it can actually be the determining factor as to whether a troubled marriage can or cannot be salvaged. When asked how he knew when a marriage was definitively over, Mr. Marriage said this, according to my memory: “In my experience, a marriage is beyond repair when you ask the couple how they met, and they cannot conjure any joy, even a smile from recounting that tale. If they can still tell that story with even the tiniest glimmer of fondness for how things transpired, there’s hope.”

That is a powerful truth to behold, and one we might want to consider in the broader context of our lives. As we endeavor to create new stories this coming year – whether it be with spouses, friends, colleagues or acquaintances, we may do well to remember that the promise of love, of what is right, strikes at the core of our very humanity. And the narratives we are spinning today through our actions, words and impulses will have a tremendous influence on our future well-being.

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Dougherty Christmas card, 2019. It’s been a great story so far.

 

 

A Cold Eye for Giving Thanks

FB Cold grey adMy quirky, at times misty-eyed scroll of various people, places, and things I’m grateful for in my life has become something of an annual event here on Cold. It started when I wrote a simple letter of thanks to my writing colleagues a few years back and escalated from there.

I usually write this post over a period of days because I want to make sure that I don’t miss any of the stuff that I’m glad for. Taking my time about it also extends the glow of feeling gratitude over a longer stretch. There is a genuine high in taking an inventory of your life and celebrating its virtues. It’s why I love Thanksgiving, despite its dubious origins. It makes us better people and is worth keeping for that reason alone.

So, my fellow thanks-givers, here goes:

My dog’s breath – I love it. Namely because it’s very sweet (for a dog). This good boy keeps secrets and tells no lies. He’s too good for us, really, and the love he’s brought to our family has been nothing short of a marvel.

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Barney

And I love those cold, rainy Sundays when we decide to skip Sunday School and let the kids sleep in. That’s a wonderful indulgence, even if we feel the tiniest bit guilty about it. Especially given our spotty record at showing up to church.

On second thought, maybe I shouldn’t be quite so grateful for rainy Sundays…

But I’m definitely grateful for snow storms that make our whole family gather around our ancient wood-burning stove to keep warm. The electricity goes out for a few hours, and forces us to huddle together in our living room the way people used to before technology made each man an island.

I’m enchanted by the hot, damp faces of feverish children, and relish great horror movies, too. And isn’t it an otherworldly thrill when the wind howls? I always feel like it’s trying to tell me a long forgotten tale of love and loss. I bet Boris Pasternak was listening to the wind when he got the idea for Dr. Zhivago. The way it made his windows shudder and he could hear the creepy pitter of nuts and twigs as they blew across his roof. Perfect background percussion to Lara’s Theme.

Even though part of me can’t wait to fix up the exterior of our old, weather-worn home, I do have a certain fondness for the peeling paint that makes it look like the Addams Family are our close cousins. Truth is, as much as it would be nice to see the fabulous old crone we live in dressed up like she’s going to the theater, I’m grateful for her every scar and imperfection. It’s evidence of some two-hundred years of providing shelter to rag tag bands of Virginians – soldiers, musicians, spinsters, hobos, railroad engineers and us.

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Josephine Addams Dougherty

I’m ever so grateful when my daughters fight and make up. After the insults have been hurled along with the slaps and scratches, it’s good to see them, still red-faced from an angry cry, sit down to design a house together on Minecraft. Merci beaucoup for that, mon chers.

Planning a Thanksgiving meal is ever so satisfying, too. Much better than actually cooking the meal (although eating it is the best!). Speaking of holidays, I feel a lot of gratitude for the charms of this season. I giggle at my husband’s cranky, bah-humbug attitude towards Christmas, as well as my middle daughter’s iron determination to gussy up our house and fill it with holiday cheer regardless when her dad thinks about it. My mom’s Czech Christmas cookies are little works of art, and our Christmas Eve ritual of going out for a decadent lunch of chili dogs and root beer floats is nothing short of divine. Ho! Ho! Ho!

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Waiting for our junk food extravaganza

Lady GaGa and Rihanna turn my morning commute to and from my kids’ schools into a lollapalooza of car karaoke, every South Park episode is a miracle, and the bumblebee bat (smallest bat in the world and cutest thing on the planet) is proof of a loving God.

Sunflowers, lilacs, busts of America’s founding fathers, the gorgeous and nightmarish paintings of Goya, and the mod fashions of pre-revolutionary Tehran that looked like they were straight out of swingin’ London in the 1960s. All of these things make me wistful, inspired, and beholden to the powers that be for making me human at this particular date and time.

I love and am so thankful for elegance, the belief in things we can’t prove or explain, abandoned spaces, the moss that grows on the red brick walkway leading up to our front door, talking art instead of politics, rising to the occasion – especially when it’s hard, and the Victrola our son gave us last Christmas – it sounds so great in a big room full of books and emboldens us to add a few more nics to our pine wood floors.

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Photo by Krista Paolella

Ah, the sublime first few weeks of a bad habit – those are halcyon days! How about live music on a Friday night? That, and belly dancers. The way their hands move like calligraphy and their hips burr like a drum solo. Oh, and let’s not forget 1970s Playboy magazines. My older brothers inherited our “uncle” Nick’s dirty magazine collection when we were kids and from that day on, Playboy dominated our imaginations! Not only was it a celebration of real breasts and faded jean shorts, but of smart thinking and great writing. Roald Dahl, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood (yes, The Handmaiden’s Tale author), Ursula Le Guin, Vladimir Nabokov, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez all wrote for Playboy. It’s not an exaggeration on my part to say that Playboy was not only responsible for a certain part of my sexual awakening, but for a literary arousal within me as well. How many things can you say that about?

Candelabras are holy, as is visiting family and friends in good ole St. Louis, Missouri. I’m also grateful (or should I say “much obliged”?) at the mere existence of Texans. I’ve never met one I didn’t like. Maybe it’s the fact that – in my humble experience – they’re the type who take the time to offer kind words. A lot of people think nice things and don’t voice them. Some don’t even think them. So, having the grace and manners to tell a middle-aged woman she’s looking fine, or a young woman she’s whip smart and has a helluva sense of humor, is worthy of gratitude.

So, in that spirit, I want to thank all of you – friends and readers. Honorary Texans. For your kind words and generous thoughts. For being a part of my life in ways big and small. You’re the best.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Thanksgiving at our place

 

 

Love, Danger, and “Thought Experiments”: A Conversation with The Dissenter

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A few weeks ago, Portuguese YouTuber Ricardo Lopes asked me to be on his wonderful show, The Dissenter. I was kind of surprised, since a fiction writer like me seemed a bit off the beaten path for him. I’d already watched several of his “Dissenter” episodes and knew he had a particular interest in the sciences; one that included anthropology, neurology, and psychology to name a few disciplines. His roster of interview subjects was impressive, too, at times reading like a who’s who of world-renowned brainiacs – ranging from Gad Saad to Noam Chomsky.

“So, you want to go slumming with a mere fiction writer?” I asked him.

“I love fiction,” he said.

Ricardo and I first met on Twitter of all places, where we got into a conversation about Tolkien, Game of Thrones, and what people actually want from a story. I was so impressed by his unrelenting curiosity, his broad knowledge and infectious open-mindedness. Quite simply, he’s fun to talk to.

On his unconventional, conversational-style program, he conducts long-form, penetrating conversations that aren’t only for other eggheads. They’re for people like us, who simply love to learn and aren’t afraid not to know the answer. Or more to the point, aren’t afraid to get an answer that may not fit comfortably into our worldview.

That’s what’s great about Ricardo. He’s fascinated by the counter-intuitive, will offer an unpopular opinion, or even go off the rails if need be. He wants to know. He wants to understand. He knows two opposing things can be true at once.

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Long story short, when we actually sat down to “do this thing,” I knew it would be a rare treat for me, and, I hoped, for anyone listening. 

We talked about the role fiction plays in helping us create alternative realities that encourage us to understand ourselves and others better, and help us weather difficulties. These “thought experiments” as Ricardo calls them, allow us to safely explore disturbing, even horrific circumstances like war, the mind of a killer, a dangerous attraction, the worst thing that could possibly happen in our lives.

By dallying in these dark places, we may even recognize the folly of our most reckless fantasies, or be empowered to take calculated risks. Far from being a threat to our emotional well-being, “thought experiments” most often encourage personal growth and the development of empathy. We agreed that no writer worth her salt can afford not “to go there,” as they say. It’s why people buy our books for heaven’s sake. And why we write in the first place. 

Ricardo and I also talked about lovers and love stories, how much we both hated the final season of Game of Thrones (although he says anything after season 5 was at best a disappointment and at worst an abomination), why the classic novel, Lolita, which many revile as glorifying pedophilia may actually be a terrific cautionary tale against it, and how agonizing experiences like illnesses or acts of violence, despite their obvious shortcomings, can be powerful instruments. Ones crucial to our evolution as human beings. They can create a master from a hobbyist, a general from a grunt, a saint from a sinner. If they don’t destroy us in the process.

So, please, join us for this conversation. You’re going to love it. And if you don’t, you’re going to love hating it. Either way, you’re not going to be able to get it out of your mind so easily…and that’s the point of a great conversation, isn’t it?

“Dare to know.” –Emmanuel Kant

The Dissenter: What people want from fiction and the art of worldbuilding

And if this gave you something to think about, please consider become of patron of Ricardo’s on Patreon.

The Dissenter on Patreon

Get Marooned on Savage Island!

Savage Island proposalIt’s launch week for Savage Island, the teaser novel for my epic, new fantasy romance series, Breath (coming soon, folks). I’ll bet a pint of my blood you’re going to love it (it is Halloween season, after all).

I want to give all of you Cold followers the heads up on Savage Island’s debut price of $2.99 (ebook) and $11.99 (trade paperback). This price will only be offered until Sunday! After that, it’s all going up to the regular retail price, so do get your discounted download or copy before time runs out.

And just to sweeten the pot, I’ve got a Savage Island Swag Contest for you! Here’s the skinny: Email me with the first sentence in Chapter 9 of Savage Island and I’ll throw your name in a hat (and yes, I do use an actual hat) for a drawing that could win for you some awesome book swag! Things such as this COLD mug:

Well, that was a much bigger picture than I anticipated 🙂

You’ll also recieve signed trade paperback copies of all of my fiction, and a couple of other fun surprises! So do make sure to get your copy or download of Savage Island if you haven’t already – and get your name thrown in that hat!

Click here and get marooned on Savage Island for a while!

Some people fall in love. Others fall through time.

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.

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Boys to Men: Some Thoughts About This Marvelous Transformation

Manhood. It almost feels archaic to write such a word. It’s become a muddled term, seeming to have as many definitions and contradictions as there are coffee beverages offered at Starbucks.

But despite all the opposing interpretations of what manhood should or does mean – from treatises on “toxic masculinity” to the men’s rights movement; from domineering fictional fantasy lovers like Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey franchise, to men who bare their souls the way sweet, sensitive Noah does in the blockbuster novel and film, The Notebook – I don’t think this manhood thing is all that difficult.

It may indeed seem we have a polarized view of what a man should be nowadays. If we’re to trust the media, we might conclude that men are confused and women are angry. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? At our core, I don’t think women’s expectations of men or men’s expectations of themselves have changed all that much, though. Certainly some aspects of the way men and women relate to one another have been reshaped dramatically. The sexual revolution forced us to look at one another anew, struggle through a fresh way of defining courtship and marriage. We’re still not done sorting it all out.

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Photo by Pavel Nekoranec on Unsplash

When it comes to the fundamental tenets of manhood, however, those remain remarkably intact. I see them everywhere – on the left, right and center, in books, movies, news segments. In atheist reasoning and religious dogma. In whatever political football is being punted on whatever given day. Certainly in the way I raise my son, love my husband, and approach constructing both male and female characters in my work.

Classically male virtues are ones of courage, fidelity, industry and duty. These are ancient tenets of manhood that still linger today. The Romans were a bit more specific, placing humor, mercy, frugality, wholesomeness (health), honesty, dignity, and a host of similar traits on the roster of model masculine attributes, but they ultimately concluded that the sum of a real man is one who lives a life of virtue, plain and simple. One who aspires to answer to his better angels. And while today we may have differing ideas of how to arrive at what constitutes a virtuous life, I think the essential elements of what we value remain refreshingly stubborn.

Yet from a purely romantic perspective, all this virtue business is a bit dry, I’ll admit. Cute as they were in their togas and gladiator outfits, the Romans weren’t particularly romantic in nature, and neither are our current pundits and politicians for that matter. If we want to understand what a woman craves from a man, how a man is just dying to be seen by a woman (and the world), we’ll do better to keep our eyes trained on fiction.

Anywhere from the legend of King Arthur to Jane Austen will do, if you want to stick to the less ancient classics. Both the Arthurian legends and their more modern literary cousins are damned good at clearing away the cultural debris and getting to the bones of what a man should be. Mid-twentieth century writers such as Kerouac, Hemingway, Stienbeck, even Salinger and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson have shown us what deep down a man wishes he was like, sometimes at his wildest and most tried and true. More recent scribes – Diana Gabaldon, Maggie Shipstead, Nora Roberts and Amy Harmon – offer a more updated and feminine view of the kind of man a woman goes nuts for, and a man follows around like a good dog. The Tonto to his Kemosabe.

But all of these authors, even the most manly man wordsmiths among them, seem to understand that women’s expectations of men boil down to one crucial element from which all of the other virtues quite naturally flow. A woman wants to be the center of her lover’s universe. No matter what and forever. She wants him to be that immovable force.

That is the key maxim of every work of fiction that trains its eye on a pair of sweethearts, but it’s not only romance novels that draw attention to this fact. Such a sentiment hovers unspoken in almost every genre. Even in high testosterone spy thrillers, players like James Bond – a man who finds a new paramour in every adventure – adheres to this dictum. Is he not prepared to give his life for even the most undeserving damsel in distress? The gangster’s moll, the double agent, the fellow assassin?

As I endeavored to delve into lovers and love stories with gusto in my fiction this time around, I gave a lot of thought to how much a romantic story really does hinge on the creation and evolution of a man worth falling for. After all, if a man is going to make my female protagonist the center of his world, that world better be interesting and worth living in. It better be one of virtue.

As a mother, I’ve been downright obsessive at times about the kind of boy I want to raise to manhood and unleash upon humanity, especially on fellow members of my sex, or even of his same sex if he’s so inclined. I’ve tried to bring that same passion and self-interest to my stories, aiming to cut through the dither and disorientation that surrounds the conversation around men and manhood these days. Build from scratch the kind of man we all want in our lives, and in the lives of our sons and daughters.

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Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

I knew I needed to feature rituals that usher a boy into manhood and then unveil opportunities for my male protagonist to fulfill his promise, earn his place among the adults in the room, and ultimately, even lead them. “When” is a seriously underrated concept in my view, and rituals have historically played an important role in our development, giving us the ready, set, go! signal we’ve been waiting for. The one that dares us to put our virtues into play. Make them more than mere ideals.

From baptism to filling out a draft card, ceremonies and other officialities have let us know that ready or not, it’s time. To step up, to fight, to finish, to make love, to marry, to make a decision. About who we are and what we stand for, what we’re willing to do and risk everything for.

And that is the crux of what makes up a man in the end, is it not? His decisions. His ability to make them and stick to them, accept responsibility for their outcome. A man’s ideals may tell him how he should behave, his rituals may let him know when it’s time to employ those ideals, and fate may offer him an opportunity to take action, but it’s by his decisions that he’ll be judged and remembered.

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Photo by EVREN AYDIN on Unsplash

“The women take care of a boy’s hair until his hifi ulu,” Ku whispers. He’s come up next to me, too, and I’m glad for his company. 

“Of course with Will, that’s been a no go. He hasn’t let a woman touch his hair since well before he left for England. Except for Oliana, of course.”

That just about stabs me through the eye.

“Of course,” I say.

Sure enough, Oliana takes up the scissors and lifts up one of Will’s ribbon-wrapped locks. She takes a first snip right above where the ribbon is tied up top and holds it high for everyone to see. There’s a big cheer and Will meets my eyes, so I swallow hard and give him the best and biggest smile I’m able. This is his day and I’m not about to behave like a jealous harpy.

One by one, each of the women and girls take a turn cutting off a beribboned lock of Will’s hair – something they get to keep for themselves as a memento of the occasion, and symbol of their role in making a man of Will. –Savage Island

The hifi ulu, the Nuiean hair cutting-ceremony that acknowledges the passage of a boy into manhood is real and I chose to feature it in my upcoming novel, Savage Island, precisely because of how important I feel such rites of passage are to young people. On Niue, until a boy’s hifi ulu, the women of his family take care of his long hair – brushing, braiding, doing whatever is necessary to keep it in shape. After his hair is cut, the implication is that the boy must begin behaving like a man, not only caring for his own person, but getting himself mentally and physically prepared for caring for a family and for others who may need him down the line. It’s a lovely ceremony, and crucial to my protagonist Will’s journey, as from that moment on, the responsibilities of manhood will fall on him in a way he never expected or could have ever dreamed of.

 

Savage Island…coming October 1, 2019

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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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