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Living Up to Our Inner Hero

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

“It’s my anniversary,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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My mom looks so lonely in this photo

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

Only things had gone terribly wrong, obviously.

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

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

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

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

I think about heroism a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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The infamous zombie Marine costume

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

But I don’t know. Maybe I am.

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

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

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Jon Snow kicking some White Walker ass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My mom and my son

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

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

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

 

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Talking Love and Fiction With a Life Enthusiast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you go about building a male character?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What aesthetics are most important to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Golden-age thinking.

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

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

vintage dress

3. A ruthless love story.

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

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

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

Repeating History: Why Writing About the Past Matters

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Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash

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

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

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

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Photo by mauRÍCIO santos on Unsplash

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

It’s a point worth exploring.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash

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

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

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Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Check out Octavia here!

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

Why Would Anyone Have Children?

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A few weeks ago, a blue-checked member of the Twitteratti, a man named Duncan Jones, posted this on his Twitter feed.

I have 2 kids. 2 1/2 years & 9 months old respectively. I’ll tell you something I never see anyone admit… they are exhausting, frustrating & life-destabilizing. They are rarely fun. Sure, smiles are great, hugs are lovely, but it’s HARD & not obviously a good choice in life.

The comments to his admission were varied. Many were kind and encouraging, some self-righteous, others angry, and others more whole-heartedly in agreement with him, even sheepishly admitting that they thought having children had been a mistake.

Let’s step back for a moment here. First, what Mr. Jones said is patently true. Having children is “HARD and life-destablizing.” It’s not always “obviously a good choice in life.”

Even the most exultant parents, those successful at growing a close and convivial family life will acknowledge this. They’re the type who laugh boisterously at the dinner table, parley with relish about everything from Roman history to Kim Kardashian, and take madcap vacations that spawn years of stories.

“Remember when dad drove the rental car into a ditch and that motorcycle gang had to give us all a ride to a strip joint? It was the only place that had cell coverage!”

Yes, even that family, those parents, have struggled.

kids and underwear

Road trip! World’s Largest Underwear in St. Louis, MO.

Anyone who has ever pursued a dream knows the pitfalls. Dreams require committment, submission to a purpose, and work towards a goal. Not everyone has it in them to go after and realize a dream from start to finish the way they envisioned it. There are huge bumps along the road, detours, strangers who rattle our cages and destroy our sense of well-being. Some dreamers do indeed find the road much too hard. They try short-cuts, workarounds, and do-overs. Maybe change-up their expectations somewhere along the way. There are those who quit altogether.

As a fiction writer, I know this as well as anyone. The process of writing a novel is not all fantasy and glory. It’s a daily challenge; one that requires faith, marketing know-how, and countless hours of toil for no guarantee of the payout we writers all dream about. The adoring fans, the television series, the second home on Lake Como in the Italian Riviera. Preferably right next door to George Clooney.

Most of the time, we fiction writers have to settle for giving talks at conferences, a solid readership, and the joy of doing what we love and feel we were meant to do.

That’s no small thing.

Raising a child is not a whole lot different. And I’m not saying this as some sort of sanctimonious madonna who’s now going to lecture you about the fulfillment that comes with self-sacrifice blah, blah, blah. Not all functioning adults should or are meant to have kids. Some people want to, but can’t. This is all part of the grand tapestry of humanity.

What I am going to do is tell you about my journey as a mother, and let you decide for yourself if you think creating and nurturing brand new humans is something you have any inclination to take on.

I’m endeavoring to be honest here, and I imagine some of what I say will make your heart swell and other things may make you cringe.

But here goes.

Char telling ya

“One day you will all be my minions!”

I’m the youngest of four children – my brother and I, plus two step-siblings. Until I gave birth to my son, I’d only ever changed one other diaper and that was in a pinch, when my step-sister needed a hand. I was a senior in High School then and literally didn’t touch another diaper until I was almost thirty-three. Mostly, that was by choice. I’d never liked poo, and am not a big fan of it now, even though I’ve wiped it, smeared it, stepped in it and gotten it in my hair at this point. I’m sure I’ve probably even eaten it, although not on purpose.

As I grew into adulthood, I didn’t develop that particular yearning to be a mother. With a shrug of my shoulders, I would say, “maybe some day” whenever the prospect was mentioned. Honestly, I think most people who knew me growing up are not at all surprised that I’ve become a novelist, but are probably scratching their heads a bit about the fact that I’m a happily married mother of three. My own very best friend from High School said to me, “I don’t know if you’ll ever get married, but if you do, you’ll have met him in a cave somewhere in a remote part of the world.”

She wasn’t that far off.

Fact is, I met him in a 400 year-old candlelit pub in Prague. A whiskey-swilling Irish-American boy with an ambition as fierce as mine, you’d think we would have agreed to just live together and put off having a family…maybe indefinitely. We’d make a terrific aunt and uncle team, after all.

But the fact is, my husband wanted to get married and have children. The role of husband and father was an inextricable part of his dream. And he not only wanted kids, but a lot of them. Like five or six. I actually had to sit him down and let him know that just wasn’t going to happen with me as his wife, and that he might plan the lion’s share of his kids with wife number two.

I most definitely still felt that way when our first child, a son, was born. It took a bit of time for me to warm to motherhood and for the first three months or so of his life, I fell into uncontrollable sobs every single day when the sun went down. I can’t quite explain it. My days were good, by and large, and I was getting the hang of this motherhood thing. My son was adorable and nursing him just about made my heart burst. But the moment the sun started to set, it was like there was a full moon outside and I was a werewolf, helpless to stop my wicked transformation from reasonable, competent woman to hot mess.

If I had to don the hat of armchair psychologist, I’d say I was mourning my old self. The one who could go for a walk – alone – any old time. I think the hardest adjustment for me when it came to becoming a parent is the fact that I’m by nature a very interior person who’s quite accustomed to solitude. From the moment my son was born, my alone-time went down a good ninety-five percent. Any parent reading this knows that’s not an exaggeration.

As I muddled through this period of self-mourning, I went out of my way to read to my son, feed him, let him know he was loved – even when I wasn’t feeling it. I knew from my experience as a wife, sister, friend, daughter, and basic human that behavior is a powerful catalyst. Indeed, behaving like a good mother fomented an attachment between me and my son that was downright atomic in power, even if not always obvious to me in my day-to-day slog.

I wasn’t perpetually basking in the savage love I felt for my baby the way it’s portrayed in Hallmark movies, for instance. That realization came in spurts. Like when I almost dropped him down a flight of stairs and felt a fear so primal that it literally took my breath away. I actually sat down and wept. And not just the few, lone tears that well up when you get a bit of shock. I’m talking the kind of keening that had me shaking and gasping for breath. Partly because of the horror of what could have happened, but also because of the sheer awe that visited me; the depth of feeling that I’d only ever heard about. The emotional equivalent of the kind of orgasm that’s chronicled in trashy novels.

Me, Jack and Eamon

Three is a magic number

Parenthood is a journey of intense emotions. And those emotions aren’t always the good kind. Intense joy – yes. But also intense fury, exasperation, dread, and bewilderment. A parent can find herself in a stupor of violent feelings that are at once breathtaking and hair-raising. There simply isn’t anything else like it in the human experience. And it’s not for everyone. And yet anyone can do it.

How many things can you say that about?

Sometimes, against all indications to the contrary, parenthood brings out the best in a person who most people think should have never even considered reproducing in the first place. The drop-out, the juvenile delinquent, that girl with a suicide attempt under her belt who lives on a diet of coffee and anti-depressants, that guy who could never seem to keep his pants zipped, or keep a job.

Other times, becoming a parent drops a two-ton brick of misadventure upon a perfect life that seemed destined for the kinds of Facebook posts that make the more regular of us want to hire a goon to take Mark Zuckerburg out once and for all. Being a mom or dad can be as erratic as Mother Nature herself.

This has certainly been my experience. Utterly different with each child. Equally magnificent and harrowing depending on the day, the hour, the minute.

Char and Eamon

“Stop that right now! I don’t care if she was asking for it!”

When my second baby, a daughter was born, my only moment of mourning was the initial loss of our intimate family of three. The fact that I couldn’t quite imagine how I was going to love a child as much as I had grown to love my son. And it was a struggle at first. For me and my little boy. He wasn’t at all happy about the new addition to the household and asked if he could just stay at preschool indefinitely after it was established that his new sister wasn’t going back to wherever she was from. Preschool was the one place where nothing had changed for him, and his request damn near broke my heart.

Except that I was far too thunderstruck by the kind of bliss we all hear about on morning talk shows to give it too much thought.

The second time around, I savored every minute of motherhood, and not because I loved my daughter even one iota more than my son. It’s because I’d already gone down the rabbit hole of learning to love someone more than I loved myself and there was no going back. Furthermore, I didn’t want to go back.

In fact, when a spot opened up at a day care that we’d put our names in for, I literally sobbed every time I dropped my little girl off. My husband and I had a business together at the time and he needed my help. I couldn’t let us down. And in one of those odd twists in life, I ended up crying every morning, not because I’d become a mother, but because I actually was one. And wanted to be one more than I wanted to go to work – even to a job I loved with a man I adored.

That, in and of itself, blew my mind. My grandmother had worked full-time. My mother had worked full time, too. It never even occurred to me that I would struggle with my decision to do the same.

But I did, and terribly. Maybe there are lots of women who feel a sense of peace and total harmony with either being a working parent or stay at home mom, but I’ve never met one. That unicorn is somewhere out there playing with dragons, eating all she wants and never getting fat.

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“So there!”

Despite the mental schizoidness that motherhood wrought upon me, I ended up settling into being a content mama of two by the time our second child hit her one-year birthday. This meant that some days had me ready to set myself on fire. Others had me walking through the world with a sense of purpose that felt superhuman. I was a mother, dammit! The swell of pride that comes with the awesome responsibility of nurturing two wildly different souls who might grow up to be Nobel Prize winners, musicians, inventors, international spies, porn stars, or serial killers was mind-blowing.

And I’ll be honest, I wasn’t jazzed about bringing a third child into this brew. My heart was full and I was already looking forward to getting a bit of me back now that I my kids were potty trained and all. It was my husband, ever the wishful father, who cajoled me into finally agreeing to another little babe; one he hoped would be the third of four (or five). Out of a combination of love and a gambling heart, I knuckled under to his dream.

When nearly a year later, the little pink line finally revealed to me that I would indeed be having a third child, I was torn. Months of trying for this baby had produced nothing, when getting pregnant before had been easier than catching a cold sore. In the meantime, my husband had accepted a job in India, of all places, and I’d already started making a slew of other plans in my head. I was going to write books and start a radio show. We were going to travel and our school-age kids would learn new languages and make friends from all over the world. Yet now, once again, I was going back to stage one.

But the journey of parenthood offers nothing if not a surprise behind every door.

About half way through my pregnancy, we found out our child had a tumor and her birth was going to be highly precarious. She was, in fact, born seven weeks premature and with the worst case scenario – an aggressively cancerous tumor that would have her fighting for her life, and starting chemo before she was even supposed to have been born.

You may think that at this point I was regretting having ever agreed to a third child. That I mooned about what our lives would have been like if I’d told my husband to go to hell with his big family dreams and we’d boarded a jet plane and set off for exotic Mumbai! The truth is, sometimes I did feel that way.

Our peace of mind had been shattered. We were, all of us, on the brink. From that day on, we would be faced with the prospect of always having to look over our shoulders, and wonder if our daughter’s one in a million illness would revisit her.

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Our daughter’s Baptism and Last Rites outfit. She received both sacraments on the same day.

On the day I was supposed to hold my new infant for the first time, I called my husband at work, pretty much out of my mind. Our daughter was already three weeks old and had endured major surgeries and other life-saving measures. It had taken that long just to stabilize her, get her to the point where she could be held without inflicting more trauma on her. And now she was about to enter a whole other round of travails with her cancer treatments. I was afraid to love her because she might die, and I told my husband that. I didn’t even want to touch her.

“You need to put the phone down right now and go hold her,” he said.

This was no easy feat. And not just because of my own fragile emotional state. Our daughter wasn’t breathing on her own yet and had tubes all over the place. Her torso and back side had been all sliced up and stitched back together and she didn’t appear to appreciate being handled very much. On top of that, she was tiny and looked like something between a raisin and newborn hamster.

As the nurse began lifting her up from the bin, I said stop right there. Our baby had the most frightful look of anguish on her face.

“She doesn’t want this,” I protested.

The nurse told me it was going to be ok. Kangaroo Care, as they called it – having the mother hold the baby as soon as such a move could be tolerated – was hospital procedure.

“But she’s in so much pain,” I said.

“I promise you,” the nurse told me. “The research on this is so clear. No matter how difficult this seems, babies who are held do much, much better than babies who aren’t.”

I took a very deep breath and reached out, taking my daughter from her nurse’s arms. I unbuttoned my shirt and put the baby right up to my skin, letting her hear my steady breath and heart beat. We sat that way for about fifteen minutes, until she started scrunching up her face again. She needed to be put back into her bed and given a dose of morphine to ease her discomfort.

“One thing at a time,” the nurse said. “Don’t look too far into the future, you don’t know what that holds. Just do what you need to do today and you’ll be fine.”

jack sledding

“Dad, are you mad?”

My youngest. The one who was born sick and truly wreaked havoc on all of our future plans, posed a question to me not long after Duncan Jones’s tweet made its way into my Twitter feed. She said, “What would you do if you had only one day left to live?”

“I’d spend it at home with you guys,” I told her.

“You wouldn’t go to an amusement park or sit down to do your writing stuff?”

Clichéd as it is, when such quandaries are presented, you often realize just how fleeting life’s pleasures are – even the ones that deliver awards, diversions and delights, that hit of personal gratification and glory. Because when the rubber hits the road, all you want to do is hold the ones you love. Even the ones who drive you crazy and have proved themselves to be certified life-destablizers. After all, I was one of those, too, once.

Just ask my mom. A political prisoner from communist Czechoslovakia, she set out across a heavily armed border with my seven year-old brother in tow and the dream of a new baby (me). She brought us all to the United States for a much better life. I’m quite sure that was hard. I know it was not obviously a good choice at the time. She could have been shot or found herself in prison again. It would have certainly been much easier to do without us.

And yet, here we are.

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My mom and my kids last Mother’s Day

Which brings us to the conundrum that faces anyone who has ever endeavored to do any heartfelt, pie in the sky thing requiring a gobsmacking, monstrous committment. One that ties us in knots – morally, spiritually, physically, financially. The white-hot ardor we grow to feel for such ventures doesn’t evolve and flourish in spite of our hardships, but because of them.

 

What We Build: How Architecture is Changing My Relationship With My Faith

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St. Francis Xavier Church in La Grange, IL

For my husband and I, finding the right church has always been a struggle. I’m not proud to say that we’re Goldilocks Catholics, who often find this church too hard and another too soft before settling on one that’s just right.

Part of this is because we both spent most of our twenties as lapsed Catholics who had fled the simple church parishes we grew up in. The ones that invited parishioners to eat mostaccioli in the rectory basement at week’s end, pretty much wrecking our every Friday night. And warned us of the ill-health effects of masturbation.

Our lapse in faith was also, in part, influenced by a hang-over of intellectual pomposity from our college years. For a while there, we became those insufferable atheist types who treat their unbelief like its own religion.  Thank God that was a short-lived phase. Even more than being a heathen, I just hate being a bore.

But we had our legitimate, more mature reasons for turning our backs on Catholicism, too.

We’d become enraged by the pedophile sex scandals that began coming to light in the early part of this century. The fact that our very human church leaders displayed some of the worst of human behaviors, leaving children – particularly young boys – vulnerable to sick and fallen clergy who were too embarrassing for the Church to bring to justice. This alone seemed to justify all of our less justifiable gripes about our religion.

Two things brought us back into the bosom of our faith.

One was having our first child. When faced with the prospect of raising our very own human into someone who will be a good citizen and over-all credit to our species, we  thought about what went wrong with us, and which we hoped to rectify. We also thought about what went right. How we turned out not to be that jerk who doesn’t tip, the awful neighbor who’s always ratting people out to the condo board, the parent who will host a birthday party and exclude only the handful of uncool kids in the class, then post pictures of the event all over Facebook.

Reluctantly, we had to admit that most of our admirable characteristics came from our grounding in faith. Even the meanest nuns and most whiskey-pickled priests, by and large did their part – however clumsily – of inculcating in us a deep and abiding sense of right and wrong that has served us well in our lives.

Dammit, we said. Those blue-noses were right!

The second reason we returned to our faith was that for the first time in our lives, we found a church community that we truly felt a part of. Thanks to my accidental meeting with a priest in a bookshop in a chic part of San Francisco of all places – something people of faith might call Divine Providence, and more secular types would say was the height of cosmic sarcasm – my husband and I got talked into attending mass at a local Catholic church. A sweet, unadorned mission-style church with dark wood and a bit of stucco.

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St. Gabriel’s Church, San Francisco

Honestly, we thought it would be a one-time thing, but we got hooked from the start. Out of nowhere, we found ourselves looking forward to going to church every single Sunday, listening with rapt attention to Father John’s sermons. He would talk about what it means – in word and deed – to truly love another being, and tackled sensitive subjects such as racism and sexual abuse with candor, but without the sanctimony that often accompanies such topics. Father John never put himself above sin and his sermons always made us walk out of mass eager to be better people, looking forward to the opportunity to practice what he’d awakened in our hearts.

Making the decision to leave California and move to Virginia would have been simple as boxed cake if it hadn’t been for St. Gabriel’s. We were that sad to leave our church and  felt we were doing our children a disservice in denying them the opportunity to grow up in that wonderful parish.

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“We’ll find a place we love again,” my husband said. “We just have to believe.”

And we did. Soon after arriving in Virginia, we stumbled upon a monastery way out in the countryside, at the end of a road that ambled up into the Blue Ridge Mountains. It had a tiny chapel and offered an intimate, meaningful experience for the odd jumble of Catholics who drove in from all over the county each week. Quickly, we grew close to the Cistercian nuns who made it their home and the soft-spoken South African priest who officiated our services. In that tiny chapel, we sat happily on uncomfortable little wooden chairs and once again looked forward to church every Sunday.

Father Joseph’s sermons were a bit cerebral, unlike Father John’s, which had been delivered with poetic language in an Irish brogue, no less. Yet they were inspiring and thought-provoking, weaving Nietzsche’s perspectivism into his Easter sermon for heaven’s sake, and offering forthright insights about the crises of faith he’d experienced throughout his life.

During the sign of peace, which is the part in Catholic mass when you turn to those around you and offer your hand and a kind word, we would turn to the nuns for more than a handshake. We’d get a hug and a smile, a whispered personal inquiry. “How’s little Josephine?” The sisters had prayed for our daughter when she was born deathly ill. That gave us tremendous comfort and we felt a genuine flow of love between us.

At the end of each Sunday service, when Father Joseph would say, “Mass has ended. Go out into the world and glorify the Lord with your life,” it felt like a directive.

As our sense of community at our new church grew, we attended monastery “work” days, when all of us who went to mass at the tiny chapel would come to garden or help box the cheese the nuns make on premises. They sell it in fancy little gourmet shops to folks who just love the idea of buying cheese from such a pastoral and holy place. You can hardly blame them, and the cheese is really, really good (this is a shameless plug).

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Boxing cheese at Our Lady of the Angel’s Monastery

Even after Father Joseph had been called away to head another monastery, we remained. And we felt it was our privilege to get out our checkbook when the plans for a new church were drawn up – a much bigger one that would accommodate the faithful who had grown so fond of the monestary. No longer would we have to stand, or get out the folding chairs and line them up at the back of the chapel where you can’t see a thing. We’d have actual pews and plenty of them.

When it was finished, the new church certainly was lovely. The stained glass is magnificent and the interior is both simple, in honor of the carpenter we worship, and gorgeous, with a nod to the glory of heaven.

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Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Crozet, VA

But there’s a problem.

The new design, while in the Cistercian tradition and perfectly appropriate, is awful. Built in an L shape, it separates the nuns from the congregation. The altar actually faces away from us, but not in a pre-Vatican II kind of way, where the priest would officiate with his back turned to the faithful, but facing the altar, and presumably, God. In this new design, we see only the side of the priest, who gives his sermon to the nuns, while occasionally glancing our way.

We know this is in the Cistercian tradition and what this monastery was built to be. The little chapel was never supposed to become a parish per se, it just evolved that way. There are several actual parishes around town that are meant to cater to the faithful in the way we long for. So, fifteen years into our journey of renewed belief, we’ve found ourselves adrift again – not adrift of faith exactly, but of a place to practice it with any real enthusiasm.

We still go to the monastery work days and are always happy to see the sisters we feel so close to and we love helping them out. But we don’t go to mass there very often anymore. Not even on the big holy days, like Easter and Christmas. We have a bit of cover since our kids are enrolled in Sunday school at another parish in preparation for receiving their sacraments. Our monestary doesn’t offer Sunday school. But the sisters know and we know the real reason we don’t come to mass.

And yes, we do feel a sense of shame.

See, Father John from St. Gabriel’s in San Francisco – the man who welcomed us back to our great and flawed religion – once told us that faith was our responsibility. It was not incumbant upon a particular parish to provide it and as Catholics we had to nurture and expand upon our own sense of meaning and self-knowledge. To expect anyone to do it for us, whether that be a priest, or good sisters or terrific homilies or a sweet country chapel is simply lazy and doesn’t, in fact, bring us closer to God. That approach is more like shopping for a good TV show.

He’s got a point.

But in these times of secularism, dissolving trust in our institutions and overall light-speed change, it’s hard for people trying to keep the faith. The formality and distance of the newer, bigger and better church we helped build at our beloved monastery is not the same place of warm affection and affinity that it once was.

We can no longer reach out and touch the sisters during the sign of peace, or even see them during mass. A waist-high iron gate now separates us from the altar and from them.

But the sisters always stay and talk to us after the service. They tell us to please come and visit and pinch our kids’ cheeks. When Sister Sophie’s parent’s farm in India was wiped out during a monsoon, everyone banded together to raise money to help them rebuild. We plan to make a big pot of curry for her this Christmas.

For all of its new design “flaws,” our church is still there.

Maybe, that’s what Father John from St. Gabriel’s had in mind. This is the next part of our faith journey. When we hold close what we’ve been given by the various religious folk who have helped shepherd us home, the churches that have invited us in and given us a belief in more than ourselves again. It is perhaps time we stop searching for the right architects and build our own house of faith.

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Some More Original Stuff

I’m writing a new chapter of Savage Island this week, and really shaking things up! To give you a hint…there will be a shark. That and other gushingly romantic and suspenseful scenes. Plus, I’ve got a lot of new stuff up on Patreon, including.

  • More Savage Island!
  • Writing on the Brink: 2 new episodes of my mini-vlog.
  • Snow surfing (don’t ask).
  • New visual inspiration for the epic series I’m storyboarding (that means plotting with words and pictures).
  • This weeks photo of Barney, my dog and writing companion.

Words, photos, videos and dogs right here on Patreon!

Now that’s some crazy spiritual architecture right there!

Savage Thankfulocity

attentionLast year on Cold, in honor of Thanksgiving, I wrote a little note of thanks for all the things I was grateful for. It felt so downright redeeming to sit down and think about the good and great in my life, that I thought I’d make it a yearly event. A twelve month retrospective of the gifts of life and liberty, which not only inspire in the mere pursuit of happiness, but its realization.

So, here goes.

I’m grateful for Barney. He’s the dog I didn’t want. The dog I swore up and down we wouldn’t get. Just the thought of house-training him, feeding him, and walking him made me want to cry. With three kids, a husband, and a mother in my house, I didn’t want to take care of a single other living thing, dammit! And yet, he’s brought such joy to our household. I simply forgot how critical a dog can be for a teenager. He’s the one creature who will never judge you, yell at you, lie to you, break up with you, or call you uncool. The little bugger is always over the moon when you come home – even when you’ve only been gone for fifteen minutes.

Barney’s laying on my lap as I write this, in fact. Snoring his head off. Yes, he’s chewed holes in blankets and barfed in my shoes, but he’s worth it.

Char Bar hair

This about sums it up

I’m thankful that my mom quit smoking and has started, for the first time in her life, going to the gym.  Ok, yes, it took a stroke and a broken hip to get her here, but let’s not quibble about details. It’s easy to lament our hardships and lose sight of the fact that the bad stuff also brings with it a sprinkling of magic dust. I am so grateful for that.

I’m also thankful for the way the Eiffel Tower is lit up every night, for vintage photos of Cairo, my husband’s wicked laugh, my son getting his driver’s license, the novels of Alan Furst, Raymond Chandler, Mark Twain, Diana Gabaldon, Elmore Leonard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milan Kundera and so many others who have brought wonder and empathy into my life.

I’m ever so grateful for the searching souls who read my fiction and missives. I love that you let me into your worlds and am humbled and honored when you tell me that something I’ve written has been of value to you. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

Fall leaves, wood-burning stoves, cinnamon, baby pictures of my children, soccer practice being cancelled, friends who show up and support you even when you didn’t ask them to, anti-itch cream, old cemeteries, ghost stories, the ladies of country music, fairytales, combat boots, old wood floors, and funny notes complete strangers leave in your car. These are all things that put a big smile on my face and have me skipping through the day.

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This was left on my husband’s front seat

I love nights when I don’t have to cook, photo booths, southern accents, miracle cures, and seat warmers.

Wednesdays are great because I get to go out for Chinese dumplings with my middle daughter after school. Weekends offer time spent with our youngest, who still likes her old mom and dad’s company and thankfully doesn’t have better plans most of the time – at least not yet. Visiting colleges gives my husband and I the opportunity to kidnap our oldest child and only son, making him hang out with us under the auspices of helping him launch his life. We take what we can get and are grateful for it.

About a month ago, I read a short news article about how the bones of a Neanderthal child were found in the belly of an ancient predatory bird. I am so grateful that we live in a time when our children are not in danger of being eaten alive, for the most part.

In that vein, I have immense gratitude for toilets and all indoor plumbing, good hygiene, antibiotics, acne medication and hair dye. Then there’s the republic that has given my family safe haven – the United States of America. I’m so grateful my mom risked life and limb to bring my brother and I here. It’s a rare gift to have visibility into what your life could have been like compared to what it is. And how easy it is to forget that living in a functioning democracy is nothing short of winning one of life’s great lottery’s. It’s better than being born with beauty or a big brain. It’s even better than being born rich.

So, let’s pump our fists in the air for a moment and say, yes! to that.

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Bravery and good manners are pretty terrific, too – especially when they come in one package. And I’m so, so thankful that I haven’t felt the burning shame of lost opportunity this year. That one stings.

Finally, and this is the big one.

Several months ago, I saw a homeless man carrying a sign. It wasn’t the usual request for money or work. His sign read simply, “I’m tired of being alone. Please help.” I wanted to, but I didn’t know how. I wish I could have thought of something, anything, in that moment. The fact is, I failed and ended up driving by, feeling completely impotent.

In the days that followed, I wondered if I shouldn’t have brought him a sandwich, or offered just some gesture of kindness, no matter how small. I looked for him – hoping I might encounter him again, but there’s been no trace of him since. Maybe he was an angel – I don’t know.

What I do know is that while I was unable to give that homeless man what he needed, he gave something to me. And the very least I can do is be grateful for it. What I am most thankful for is the love in my life. The fact that I have so little loneliness that there are days I run screaming from my house.

But I always run back.

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Happy Thanksgiving!

Oh, and guess what?

Savage Island is back! I’m grateful I was able to write another chapter this week!

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As a gift to you, my cold friends, I’m posting Chapter Six of Savage Island for free on my Patreon page. This chapter is all about dangerous pursuits and questionable characters, so start reading here, then click to finish!

Chapter Six: The Dreaded Axis!

Savage Island Axis Powers

Near the ledge at the drop off is where it’s least dark, and Ku and I are determined to follow its line all the way back to my village. It really isn’t that far, but a twisted ankle makes it bloody awful. I’m gimping along like a broken toy, and the only bright spot is that my pained expression looks to be about my actual physical pain. Not that Will Tongahai makes me do and say the strangest things. Or the fact that Will and Oliana had a thing going before he went off to school and that everyone on the island appears to fully expect that thing will be a forever thing.

Don’t know why I even care. He can go ahead and marry her if wants. Not like I have any intention of remaining on this rock after the war or anything. I’d die of boredom a thousand times.

“Go ahead,” Ku says, crouching. “Hop on.”

Ku’s back, wide and muscular, ready for me, gleams in the night and I limp over to him. Climbing up, I wrap my arms around his neck and he stands with a feigned groan.

“You eat the whole pig, little A?”

“You’re hardly one to talk,” I say, reaching up and smacking his cheek.

I shouldn’t be so shaken about damned Will, but I am. I mean literally, I am shaking, and I have been since we left the plank. It was just a dream, after all. A dream that feels more real than anything I know, but it’s still a damned dream. Only ever since we got here, I’ve felt my old life slipping away from me, that’s all. Even dad and Jamie being gone. Gone forever. That seems far away now. Not like it happened so long ago – more like it happened to someone else. I haven’t cried once about it since we arrived on Niue. Not even when I hear mum having a good blub like she always does nearly every day at the crack of dawn. When she wakes up and remembers that it’s real. Her men are never coming back.

“I hope you’re not in a crank,” Ku says. “I mean, I was just teasing. And I’ve carried heavier sacks of coconut than you.”

“What on earth are you talking about?”

“You’re just quiet, that’s all,” Ku says. “I haven’t known you long, but I’ve never known you to be quiet.”

I pinch his ear and bring my lips right up to it.

“You want another smack?” I ask him.

“From you? I’ll take it.”

Ku stops. Down below, I can hear the waves shattering at the base of the cliffs, and the sounds of a barn owl and a cuckoo in conversation.

“You tired?” I ask Ku. “I can walk, you know.”

Although I’m none at all happy about that prospect.

“No, I’m fine,” Ku says. “I was just…well, I was just wondering if maybe you’re upset about what I said about Will. And my sister.”

“Why would I be upset about that?” I try to be convincing on that one, really I do.

“Angelie, Will’s a good bloke. He wouldn’t set out to wreck you or anything. He’s an odd bloke, though. Always has been.”

“Yes,” I say. “He is.”

Ku puts me down and turns me towards him. Such a sweet face he’s got. Handsome in the way of the good ones, with the kind of smile that’s not lying to you, charming you into liking him more than he likes you. And just for the sport of it. He takes my hand and I let him. It’s rough and tough-skinned from all the farm work he does, and patterned with cuts from cleaning fish. Some long-healed, some from yesterday. Can’t see those scars now, but I have in the daylight, and I like them. These hard-working hands of his add to Ku’s warmth and good-nature. A girl would be lucky to have a bloke like him weave his fingers through her own. Call her his sweetheart.

A girl who isn’t me.

“You know,” Ku says. “I can’t blame Will for wanting to get to know you better, but…”

A sharp squealing noise cuts into whatever Ku was going to say next – thank God. It’s come on the wind, from just where the Drs. Neville and Vogel were taking their geological samples this morning. Ku’s brow scrunches up, but I know exactly what that sound is.

Click here and keep reading! You know you want to…

Savage Island WW2 Pacific island fightPatreon is a terrific and reasonable way to enjoy the work of your favorite artist (and I hope that’s me). For about the price of a cup of diner coffee, you’ll get access to lots of thoughtful, original artsy stuff that I think you’re going to love.

This week:

  • Chapter 6 of Savage Island, of course
  • A personal retrospective of the Pacific theater in World War II
  • More episodes of Writing on the Brink. This week my new mini-vlog centers on writing love stories, men and visual inspiration!
  • Some gorgeous and moody vintage photographs of Cairo, lovers, and British campaign furniture – all of which are inspiration for the second book in the BREATH series. These are my efforts at visually storyboarding, so you can see how I envision what a novel will look like before I even write a single word!
  • Dog pictures. Don’t laugh. They’re of Barney, our Boston Terrier who keeps me company every day as I write.

There are many really good artists out there doing their best to provide quality, meaning and magic – not fast food. I’m one of them, and I’ll tell you, it ain’t easy. It takes a colossal amount of time – much of which is spent working for free. Any help that allows me to keep bringing you the content you love is appreciated!

A third of my Patreon goal will go to Camp Holiday Trails, a summer camp for kids with special medical needs. My daughter’s a camper and it was an awesome experience for her, where she met great friends and was able to do all the things “regular” kids do at their camps.

Last, but not least! I’ve got a new Love at First Write for you! This one is about using Pinterest not just to market your books and stories, but to help you tell your stories in the first place!

StrangeDreams, Ancient Languages and the Touch of a Long-Lost Love

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Without further ado, here’s that excerpt of Savage Island I promised you last week! It’s from Chapter 5. This scene comes right on the heels of a casual dinner at Will’s father’s plantation, where an ancient legend about Nin’ti was recounted by Dr. Cornelius Kandinsky Neville, archaeologist extraordinaire.

Nin’ti, for those of you who might be scratching your heads, are rather extraordinary souls. My lovers in Savage Island, unbeknownst to them, are Ninti. They share a deep and powerful devotion that puts them both in mortal danger, while propelling them towards a remarkable fate that ensures they will live infinite human lives…and suffer an equal number of deaths. Together they must solve a mystery that spans the ages, or risk losing one another forever.

Here, they agree to meet alone, in order to talk about a series of peculiar dreams they’ve been having….

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I don’t know why I listened to Will Tongahai when he told me to meet him at the plank. Should have ignored him for many reasons, but the most immediate one is that it’s damned dark out here at night, even with a big old moon, and I can’t bloody see well enough where I’m going. I do, however, catch sight of the plank up ahead. A contorted branch of rock that juts off the plateau, it dangles over the sea, illuminated by unfettered moonlight and a heavy dusting of stars. It’s a rather hypnotizing formation and I forget to even try to look where I’m stepping. For the damned second time I twist my ankle and but good.

“Bugger,” I say, bending down to give it a rub.

A shadow looms over me, long and lithesome, a black stain on a turf of dark indigo grasses.

“Your bones were broken and I was holding you.”

Will’s voice comes from behind me. Soft, like a sad melody. He’s close enough that I can feel the heat of his body and I don’t know how it is that I didn’t hear him walking up.

“The sand was blowing all around us, lashing our faces, obscuring the sun and turning the day into night.”

“Was that your dream?”

“Yes,” he says.

Will puts his hand on my shoulder. His touch is like warm water and I shiver.

“My father says that around a full moon, dreams are made up of memories.”

I look out at the man in the moon, suspended high above the water. “Aren’t all dreams made up of memories in one way or another?”

“I suppose so,” he whispers.

His finger trails up my neck inciting a legion of goose pimples and making my skin feel tender all over. I grab a fist full of grass to keep steady.

“Is that where your tattoos come from? Your dreams?”

His finger stops, resting gently at the base of my skull.

“Images of funeral pyres and night skies, like this one. Oceans of sand and flowers I’ve never seen before. They were all I dreamt about after I went away to school. Every time I closed my eyes.”

He places his hands on my shoulders and my breath quails. I know he can hear it. Slowly, his fingers tiptoe under my collarbone, where he lets his palms rest. They’re all hot and damp, like he ran all the way here to find me.

“There you are!”

It’s Ku, and I just about fall over.

“Oliana’s been looking for you, Will.”

I stand up, wobbling on one foot like a jack-in-the-box.

“And you’re here, too.”

“I stumbled,” I say, stupidly. “My ankle.” As if that’s an excuse to be out in the dark, alone with Will.

We all go quiet in one of those awkward silences.

“The moon will do that,” Ku says, finally. “It’s probably a good thing there won’t be a full one at your hair-cutting ceremony, eh, Will?”

Will sticks his hands in his pockets and looks down. His braid of hair overlays his backbone in the way of those spiny beasties in the outback. The ones that are all muscle with brilliant skins of fantastic colors.

“You’re actually going to have one of those?” Part of me hates to think of Will cutting his long hair. It seems a part of him. But on Niue, hair-cutting ceremonies are crucial for a boy’s journey to manhood. It makes a male child a man in the eyes of his Niue elders.

“Will was supposed to do it before he left for school, but he wouldn’t,” Ku tells me. “Told his parents a boy becomes a man when he takes on a man’s responsibilities. Not when he cuts his hair.” Ku slaps Will’s arm. “That what you’re going to do Will? Take on responsibilities? Maybe make an honest woman of my sister?”

My flesh runs absolutely cold and I look up at Will, my mouth gaping like an imbecile’s.

“There’s nothing dishonest about Oliana and I,” Will says. “We were children.”

“She cried her eyes out when your mum and dad shipped you off to England.” Ku shrugs, crossing his arms over his chest. “And now, here you are.”

“And here I go,” I say, just about wanting to vomit. I test out my ankle and thank God it’ll do. I’m not staying here another second.

“Wait,” Ku says. “I’ll walk you back in case you fall again.”

He rushes up to me, but Will Tongahai doesn’t follow. Damn him! Instead, he walks onto the plank and stands at its very edge, 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’kwara patu ve,” I call out to him. The words just spill out of me and I cup my hands over my mouth. My heart bats 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.

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I’m going to be posting some tantalizing weekly snippets of Savage Island. Tasty morsels of adventure and romance that are more than a bite, but less than the whole cake. If you want the whole damned cake – and it’s going to be a good one – the kind of cake with butter and cream frosting, a layer of pudding in the middle, colored sugar crystals and candied violets. Oh, and sparklers. I love a cake with sparklers! Well, if you want that whole cake you can either wait until Savage Island comes out late next Spring, or you can click on over to my Patreon page, where for the price of a cup of diner coffee, you can not only read a new chapter every week, as well as get behind the scenes commentary, history and photos, but enjoy lots and lots of other artsy stuff, too. Things like my mini-vlog, Writing on the Brink, lots of vintage art and photographs, new original essays, and even some pictures of my dog, Barney. It’s a whole world of magic and meaning curated for you.

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Patreon, for you newbies, is a terrific and reasonable way to enjoy the work of your favorite artists. There are so many really good artists out there doing their best to provide quality, meaning and magic – not fast food. I’m one of them, and I’ll tell you, it ain’t easy. It takes a colossal amount of time – much of which is spent working for well under minimum wage. Please think about supporting the artists you love!

And if you want to add a cherry to that cake we talked about, a third of my Patreon goal will go to Camp Holiday Trails, a summer camp for kids with special medical needs. My daughter’s a camper and it was an awesome experience for her, where she met great friends and was able to do all the things “regular” kids do at their camps.

So, check it out and see if you like it – There are some public posts, too, so click here for access:  Patreon is world in and of itself!

 

Love at First Write: You will know my name! A Writer’s Thoughts on Monikers and Aliases.

So what’s in a name, you might ask? Everything. Imagine this: The name’s Bond, Jim Bond. NO! As writers, we struggle to get the names of our characters right. So how do we approach this naming business? Listen here and find out!

 

 

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