Desiderata: Monthly Book Wrap

Desiderata: things desired

This is the first in what I intend to be a monthly review of books recently read. As a new month turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in October that stirred my soul.

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long

It’s not lost on me that I consumed most of this book in the lonely clutches of insomnia, my internal lights on deep into the night. Sometimes I think I embrace this torture, for it offers the opportunity to do the thing I most love in life besides writing: reading.

And this was one worth having insomnia for. One of the year’s most moving (trembling, shaking) reads for me. I gasp in wonder and humbleness that Lights All Night Long is Lydia Fitzpatrick’s debut.

The lights of Fitzpatrick’s novel refer to the harsh and constant glare of the massive oil refineries that light the frozen plains of the small northwestern Russian town where Ilya Alexandrovich Morosov grew up and the steaming bayous of Leffie, Louisiana where he is spending the year as an exchange student.

The two landscapes and cultures couldn’t be more different and the story opens as Ilya arrives at the airport in Baton Rouge, walking deliberately past the smiling, plump, eager host family that awaits him, holding high the sign with his name. He walks past the Masons not once, but several times, only meeting them at last at the car rental kiosk where they have him paged. Fitzpatrick captures the moment they register Ilya’s face as one they had seen walk by, ignoring them, so perfectly —a moment’s mixture of embarrassment, hurt, confusion, and then kindness. No one mentions the gaffe and Ilya is welcomed into the Mason family: Papa Cam, Mama Jamie, two young daughters, and the misplaced, reclusive teenager, Sadie, who becomes his guide to American high school and eases his cultural transition.

Ilya packed very little for his year abroad, but he comes laden with a terrible secret. His beloved older brother, Vladimir, is in prison, having confessed to the murders of three women shortly before Ilya left for America. Vlad is a drug addict, a petty thief, a high school dropout. But a murderer? Ilya knows his brother, knows his optimistic, fun-loving heart. He may have mired his life in terrible choices, but Vlad is not a killer.

The chapters alternate between America and Russia, between the present and the immediate past, the year leading up to Ilya’s departure, when things were going so right in his life, and so terribly wrong in his brother’s. Fitzpatrick crafts a murder mystery with a slowly-tightening circle around the truth as Ilya sets puzzle pieces in place each night in his basement room at the Mason’s, surfing the net after he completes his daily homework. He reveals his secret to Sadie and together they work to prove Vladimir’s innocence.

Lights All Night Long is beautifully written, with characters cast in tenderness and compassion, landscapes that crackle with ice and throb with humidity, and an intricate, carefully woven plot that will leave you gasping at the end. But it is the relationship between the brothers Ilya and Vlad that will burrow into your heart, and break it, over and over.

One of the year’s best. Now, let’s all get some sleep.

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

I need a new category/shelf: Books That Make Me Cry Because I Think The Author Sees Into My Soul.

I’ve been reading this slowly these past few weeks, just a short essay or two in the morning before turning to work on my novel-in-progress. It’s served as a devotional, an inspiration, a kick in the ass, a point of focus, permission, forgiveness, scolding, hope. I think it will remain on the coffee table beside my morning writing spot, and I’ll return to the beginning and keep rereading through to the end, rinse-repeat until McCann’s nuggets of wisdom, tenderness, and no bullshit advice on the writing life are ingrained in my brain. It doesn’t matter how much one has or hasn’t written, published or not published, Colum McCann writes to our deepest fears and hopes, with the solid conviction that we must write on. Rage on.
 

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

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A gorgeously-penned novel that is nominally about real-life composer Erik Satie, but at its core is the story of the death of a possibility. Not of Erik Satie’s, whom Caitlin Horrocks shows to be an occasionally inspired, oft-petulant and paranoid genius, but of his sister Louise’s, whose gender made her own career as a gifted musician a risible intention.

Satie’s rise to fame as a composer in fin-de-siècle Paris occurred within an inner circle of family and fellow artists, and his ambitions reveal both the genuine struggle and the patriarchal privilege artists in all mediums faced or benefited from then, and now.

The Vexations has a multitude of narrators, including Satie; his siblings Conrad and Louise; his companion, painter and artist’s model Suzanne; and collaborator, lyricist and poet, Philippe. I found this literary choice vexing at times, for it distanced me as a reader from Erik, and I felt it distanced the author from the character she most wanted to spend time with: Louise.

The Saties’ mother died when the siblings were young. Their father left Conrad and Erik with their grandmother; Louise was taken to a great-uncle and raised to be a docile, lightly educated Catholic young woman, devoid of any ambition other than to marry well. The boys are eventually reunited with their father in Paris and allowed aspirations. Conrad is drawn into respectable business. Erik’s pursuits land him in bohemian Paris, ascending the steep streets above the Pigalle to the wilds of Montmartre, where the avant-garde and the tawdry rub elbows and raise goats in sprawling, meadowed backyards. Horrocks immerses the reader in this landscape, deliciously evoking the circles of artists, composers, poets, writers, and painters who created the stylized dilettantism of La Belle Epoque Paris.

But this is Louise’s story, as evidenced by the first person perspective given to her character, the only one who is allowed such closeness to the reader and her own agency. Louise takes us from the Satie childhood home in Normandy to post WWII Buenos Aires, where she retreats for safety, privacy, and employment like so many Europeans during and after the war. The reader is left to wonder, had Louise been given the opportunities afforded her brothers, which Satie would we be celebrating and remembering via Spotify playlists and movie soundtracks? There is no denying Erik’s genius, but we must recognize the genius denied in Louise.

A powerful, engrossing novel. Highly recommended.

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

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I entered adolescence at the same time Gary Ridgeway, aka the Green River Killer, murdered his first victim, a teenager he’d abducted from a foster home near Seattle.

Through my teenage and early adult years, Ridgeway killed dozens of women in south King County and in Portland, OR. Nearly all were sex workers and runaways, compromised by poverty, drugs, trauma. They were the most vulnerable among us, forgotten and easily discarded.

Author Rene Denfeld lived homeless in Portland as a teenager at the same time as the Green River Killer was beginning his two-decade killing spree. She may even have narrowly missed becoming one of his victims, as she chronicles in this recent article for Crime Reads: The Green River Killer and MeThe Butterfly Girl is Denfeld’s gift to those abused, forgotten street children. She gives them voice, rage, tenderness, humanity, and in Naomi Cottle — the child finder— she offers them hope.

We were introduced to Naomi in Denfeld’s haunting 2017 novel, The Child Finder. In this second thriller, Naomi puts her external investigations on hold to focus on finding her sister, who was held captive with Naomi after the two were stolen from their families as little girls. Naomi escaped when she was nine, running naked through strawberrry fields into the arms of migrant workers, who delivered her to safety in a distant Oregon town. Young Naomi fled with nothing. She had no memories of her captivity, only that she left behind a baby sister. Rage and guilt propelled her into a career finding the children everyone else has given up on. Even if all she can offer the grieving families is a body, her mission is to bring closure to the devastation of the missing.

The Butterfly Girl of the title is twelve-year-old Celia, a Portland street kid who escaped repeated rape at the hands of her opioid-addicted mother’s boyfriend. Celia sleeps in the bushes and digs through restaurant dumpsters, avoiding roving bands of marauding frat boys and the slimy clutches of preying men. Occasionally she sells her body to make some cash when things are most desperate. It is a terrible existence, but better than the one she left. She finds refuge in the city library, where volumes of books about butterflies capture and release her imagination into a world of flight on beautiful wings.

But a new horror has entered the streets where Celia lives: someone is murdering young homeless women and dumping their bodies into the city’s wide, industrial river. Naomi’s quest to find her sister draws her into Celia’s life and into the hunt for this monster. The two investigations dovetail into one breathless race to catch a killer before he can strike again.

Naomi’s own trauma renders her distant and cold from her husband, from the beloved friend who takes them in, and even from the reader. She seems to serve, uncomfortably at times, as an empty vessel through which all the rage and despair and sadness of the victims pours through.

Bleak and beautiful, The Butterfly Girl offers a moving and distressing portrait of street life, of those who live it and those who seek to provide relief and retreat from it. It’s a heartpounding thriller with a lyrical and humane soul.

A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman

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My ex-husband and I served briefly as Peace Corps volunteers in Chad in the early 90s. We were young newlyweds— 24 & 27 — but we’d lived abroad, we were fluent in one of Chad’s official languages (French), we were trained as educators, he as a K-12 certificated teacher, me as an instructor of ESL. We left Chad after a few months, heartbroken, disillusioned, angry and bewildered.

We quickly realized that as members of a well-intentioned but grinding government bureaucracy we were likely doing more harm than any possible benefit we could offer to a country imploding into civil war. We were essentially taking jobs away from Chadian teachers, who were on rolling strikes to protest not being paid by their own government. Into the vacuum stepped the “education” volunteers to take their place. It was a moral dilemma that we chose not to be a part of.

Misguided, even harmful, development projects are dirty not-so-secret aspects of NGOs and goodwill government organizations everywhere: foreign-funded projects often center on making the foreigners look good by creating physical structures to show donors back home the good things that come from their money. These projects are initiated not by local populations who understand best what is needed in their communities, but by outsiders desperate to spend the monies they’ve been awarded. It’s a tangled mess of convenient compassion, “white savior” mentality, and nefarious politics centered on “winning hearts and minds” that we had the intelligence to recognize and distance ourselves from, even if leaving hurt our potential careers.

Humanitarian superstar Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools is perhaps the most infamous example of development projects gone bad. Mortensen perpetuated his NGO fraud in the post 9-11 bewilderment of the war with Afghanistan to the tune of millions of dollars of donations from compassionate and guilt-laden Americans, two bestselling and nearly completely fabricated memoirs, and a foundation that served as his own money laundering network. He was exposed at last in 2011, several years after the publication of his first book, by writer Jon Krakauer and the team at 60 Minutes. It’s absolutely worth looking up Krakauer’s articles and the 60 Minutes episode to see in real time how far Mortensen led astray not just well-meaning donors, but the American military, for whom he served as a guide and advisor.

Amy Waldman, who spent several years in Afghanistan as a journalist in the fragile and frightening era immediately after 9-11, mines the rich ridiculousness of Mortensen’s rise and crash to create the premise of her latest novel, A Door in the Earth. Set in 2009, the novel tells the story of young Afghan-American woman, Parveen Shamsa, who travels to a mountain village in northern Afghanistan to conduct anthropological research. Like many Americans of the era, Parveen has fallen under the spell of a book entitled Mother Afghanistan, written by an American humanitarian Gideon Crane (our fictional Greg Mortensen) who found himself in Afghanistan after 9-11 and became a superstar philanthropist by building women-only medical clinics. Parveen traces Crane’s footsteps and secures an introduction to members of the village where Crane established the first clinic. Parveen arrives with a vague academic plan and a small grant from UC Berkeley, where she is a student. Her Afghan roots allow her family in distant Kabul and solid knowledge of Dari, the primary language spoken by the villagers.

The story is the awakening of Parveen to her own idealism, the disaster of military intervention to instigate regime change, the faulty logic of many humanitarian assistance programs that try to solve problems first and ask questions later, and the very devastating consequences that can result when outsiders intervene in places they don’t bother to take the time to learn about or understand.

I struggled with the sheep-like plodding of Parveen; her naïveté made a caricature of her character at times, and kept her from developing into a fully-realized being. She was more like a mirror upon which the truth was reflected.

Rather, it was the richness of the Afghan human and physical landscape that held me fast to the page. Waheed, the patriarch of the family which takes in Parveen, plays a central role in the fictional memoir he’s never read; the tragic death of his wife, Fereshta is supposedly what galvanized Crane into humanitarian action. He is written with nuance and compassion, as are his wives, Bina and Shokoh, and their children. I felt the urgency and warmth of the woman doctor, Yasmeen, who makes a perilous drive once a week to the village with her son, Naseer, to treat its women; the fallibility and vulnerability of interpreter Aziz, whose limited knowledge of English and selective translations imperil villagers and American soldiers alike. Most importantly, the many voices given to the Afghan village women are the heart and soul of this complex and nuanced story. The setting, which reads like an Edenic oasis in the midst of chaos, was intoxicating and revelatory.

Waldman uses Parveen’s dawning realization that she has been taken in by a terrible fabrication illustrates the very real tragedy of America’s presence in Afghanistan, and the greater context and consequences of foreign assistance projects everywhere. It is not that foreign aid and humanitarian assistance aren’t needed; they are, desperately. It’s that unless these projects are initiated, led and assessed by local populations, even the best intentions can do irreparable harm.

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Joining the Attention Resistance

Every rare once in awhile a Facebook friend announces their imminent departure from Facebook. Or simply quietly slips away, leaving behind a shadow profile in my friends list. I send up a silent cheer when I realize they have deactivated their account, knowing in my belly they are better off without this ubiquitous social media overlord.

For a long time, I’ve felt a sense of disquiet about social media (here’s a post from 2011: The In-Between Times), but the disturbance has become a growing alarm and a deep sadness in recent months, feeling like we, all of us who are connected, have just lost our way.

Then two things occurred almost simultaneously, one horrific, one glorious. First, The New York Times ran a feature on child pornography, a hideous crime that’s exploded in volume because of social media. The wretched creeps who exploit and abuse children have multiple platforms that make it harder to track their behavior and make it all the easier for children to be preyed upon. The social media companies, like Facebook with its Messenger platform, are complicit in these crimes, just as they were in the travesty that was the 2016 election. They want users, regardless of the consequences.

Second, a friend fulfilled a lifelong dream, which also happens to be one of mine: hiking the Camino de Santiago. She chronicled every day of her trek via photos and anecdotes posted on Insta and Facebook. As much as I treasured joining her journey from afar, I also wanted to plead with her to put down the phone, forget all of us, and be there, in her head and body and heart, and just walk. Walk for the sake of it, not for the Instagrammable moments. Being disconnected from the world is natural, healthy, necessary. I imagine my own Camino and know that I want it to be private, meditative, transformative. Not shared, liked or retweeted. Pure.

Into all this walked Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport, giving me yet more reasons, and now a strategy, to reframe and redo my relationship with social media.

Cal Newport isn’t a Luddite. He’s not against social medial or digital technology. He does throw down the gauntlet, however; challenging his readers to look their use and habits squarely in the screen, to recognize and deeply register the power Silicon Valley has in nearly every aspect of our lives, our time, our children’s brains, our attention, our pocketbooks.

Few want to spend so much time online, but these tools have a way of cultivating behavioral addiction.

Newport demonstrates throughout Digital Minimalism that, while some of these addictive qualities are accidental, many have been exploited by tech and social media companies whose driving purpose is to keep us online as often, and for as long, as possible. Through intermittent, unpredictable social approval (likes, loves, retweets), we become dependent on the feedback that shows someone, somewhere, has noticed us.

I’ve moved around so much as an adult; social media has offered an easy way to keep in touch with friends from whom I’m separated by oceans and lifetimes. Facebook and Twitter brought me into communities of writers crucial to the development of my career. I might never have started writing if it weren’t for Goodreads. Writing thoughtfully about the books I read became a DIY MFA. I learned story structure, narrative depth, character development, and how to construct a beautiful sentence not only by reading great (and not so great) books, but by being a part of a community that discusses them. Instagram brought visual arts into my life. I know nothing about the technology of photography, but I’ve got a great eye, I love taking and sharing my photographs, and being inspired by others.

It’s not that any of these tools is bad. To be fair, they can bring pleasure and satisfaction. It’s just that they are too much. And we, no matter how professional, intelligent, disciplined, have been manipulated to respond like rats to a sugar drip. Our brains are tired. We’re overstimulated, over-connected, over-info’ed. It’s not natural to have hundreds of “friends,” to share not only the minutiae of our daily lives, but its most intimate details, with people we wouldn’t recognize if we passed them on the street, to constantly seek social approval, not to spend time in solitude, not to look up and observe the world around us.

Newport, and his co-frères/sœurs James Clear, Atomic Habits, Jenny Odell How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, among others, are part of the emerging Attention Resistance, a loosely-knit group of educators, researchers, artists, and business professionals who are decrying the outsize role digital technology and social media play in our lives.

‘Sean Parker, the first president of Facebook, has called the platform a “social-validation feedback loop” built around “exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.” Tristan Harris, who worked as a “design ethicist” at Google, has said that smartphones are engineered to be addictive.’

“What It Takes to Put Your Phone Away,” by Jia Tolentino, The New Yorker April 22, 2019.

This just isn’t right. I don’t want to play the game anymore. Or more accurately, I don’t want to be played anymore.

I am accepting, moving toward embracing, that time spent on social media is “low quality” time. No matter how much I appreciate the connections, the sharing of fun moments or commiseration over the bad, I am coming to accept that I will be happier, more focused, productive, and peaceful the less time I spend on social media. I already take periodic breaks, employing various tips and technologies to reclaim my time and attention, but as Newport states, “willpower, tips, and vague resolutions are not sufficient by themselves to tame the ability of new technologies to invade your cognitive landscape.”

Social media isn’t that big a part of my life. I have a full-time + day job and rarely check social media during the day, even though my actual job requires that I post on both Facebook and Instagram. I am finishing the first draft of my fourth novel; I am in the yoga studio, the city pool, the gym, on forest trails; I read copiously. I’m busy, engaged in the real world. But still. I think social media is compromising my—and our society’s at large—mental, intellectual, physical, and communal health. It’s time to start doing things differently. Hey, there’s an app for that! (actually, quite a few: Moment, Forest, Freedom, Focus, and one new to this Mac user: Ulysses, which looks an awful lot like Scrivener).

Seriously, Cal Newport has a plan. Detox for thirty days, And then, once your 30-day detox is over, rebuild your relationship with digital technology from the ground up, with intentionality and minimalism, where technology serves you and what you deeply value.

“The goal is not simply to give yourself a break from technology, but to instead spark a permanent transformation of your digital life.”

Newport recommends that you spend your time away from optional technology by discovering, or rediscovering, what you enjoy. It’s the Marie Kondo approach to a digital life: if it’s not useful or doesn’t bring you joy, it needs to go, as much as is reasonable. Most of us have aspects to our jobs that make some of these technologies, including emails or texting, inevitable.

There are engrossing sections of this book that discuss the beauty of solitude- a beauty we’ve all but lost with the constant presence of our phones in our pockets, by sharing the carefully curated moments of our lives or reading about others’. He argues that we are suffering from Solitude Deprivation – A state in which you spend close to zero time alone with your own thoughts and free from input from other minds. There are also alarming looks at younger generations who’ve never known life without iPads or smartphones: the stunted growth of empathy, focus, motivation, and observation. It’s not just terribly sad and weird, I believe it’s a public health crisis.

So in a couple of weeks, beginning November 1, I will be starting my 30-day digital declutter. For me, that will be Facebook, including Messenger, Twitter, and Instagram.

I’ll journal my detox. I won’t force myself to finish this first draft of my novel by the end of November, but at the rate I’m going even before I begin my detox, I just might! I look forward to all that I will add to my life as I let go of the ubiquity, the artificiality, of “connection.” I want to learn to be better connected to and more present in my real world life.

The Lesson of the Falling Leaves

“the lesson of the falling leaves

the leaves believe
such letting go is love
such love is faith

such faith is grace
such grace is god
i agree with the leaves”

Lucille Clifton

I celebrated my 50th birthday two weeks ago. Well, celebration is a stretch. It happened, I was in attendance by default, but I spent the day and several that followed otherwise occupied in the cardiac unit of a regional hospital. My heart was safe, at least physically, but entwined with that of another’s whose own was at risk of failure.

I’d made vague plans to do something epic to greet this milestone birthday: a hike in Ireland or a week in Paris went as far as bookmarking airlines and clearing my work calendar. But my sweetheart, who paints houses during the spring and summer and canvases during the autumn and winter, was still in full work mode in early September. So we tried on plans for Hawai’i, New York or a Highway 1 road trip in October, instead.

September is a crazy quilt of changes that elicits such emotion. It is the calendrical beginning of so many seasons that ruled my life, from the schoolgirl years through professional careers in higher education and the wine industry, where September is the busiest of times. The month of my birth. Once the month of my marriage. A month of renewal, transformation, anticipation. It’s long felt like the year’s beginning, with such a palpable change in activity and air, temperature and energy, rather than January, winter’s dark, secretive core.

Yet for the past several years, since returning to the Northwest — where summer is a shimmering, spinning carnival of gold and blue, forever days, and dusks that burn out long after I’m in in bed — I’ve mourned the end of sundresses and freckles, resented the sudden descent of dark mornings and the melancholic echo of foghorns, warning of the thick, wet blanket wrapped around the bay. I dread the cold and rain, such a shock after months of dry and gentle warmth. It takes me a few weeks to grieve, accept, and at last embrace the gorgeousness of wood fires and close-toed shoes, of frost and wool.

 

This year, however, as suddenly as the transition from summer to autumn rumbled in on a Saturday night, bundled into a rare thunderstorm, I welcomed the blustery days that followed. My nesting instinct pinged loudly, my internal gears shifted down. Bring On The Night, I thought. I’m ready. 

The eve of my birthday, my sweetheart and I bought a washing machine, and then I drove him to the ER (not related, although I get how purchasing a major appliance could be a trigger for some men). A few hours later, I followed an ambulance through the warm summer’s night an hour south, where a larger hospital had a heart and vascular unit that could provide the acute care he needed.

We checked him out five days later, on his birthday. The next day the skies opened, washing away summer’s dust and lazy heat.

He’s resting, healing, getting his head and soul around all the many changes required to restore his heart. There will be no epic getaway to fete my fiftieth; there is another surgery in the weeks to come. Instead, we settle into a season of rest. Of books and writing, naps and painting, bare feet entwined under quilts as we lounge on opposite ends of the sofa, reading.

A truck just rolled into our driveway, bringing two cords of maple and fir. I can’t wait until it’s chilly enough for the first woodstove fire of the season.

I agree with the leaves.

No Longer Knocking from the Inside: A Writer on Retreat

September 2016. The last time I spent time alone, and away. My divorce would be final in a few weeks, I was starting a new job in early October, my first since becoming full-time writer three years earlier. I was moving forward, on my own, accepting that I could not sustain myself as a writer without the financial support of a steadfast and generous partner.

But first came a long-planned writer’s retreat in the south of France. I knew then how precious the opportunity was, how very long it would be until my situation — financial, emotional, logistical — could support another stretch of time to devote to my work.

Earlier this year I could at last begin thinking about traveling again. I had built up so much vacation (two jobs removed from the one I began in October 2016) that I was in danger of losing the chunk I couldn’t rollover to the next year. I renewed my passport and determined I would be lacing up my hiking boots to tramp on foreign soil while my 50th birthday raced along above me, dissolving like a cirrus cloud high in a late summer sky.

But I just couldn’t seem to hit confirm on the reservations.

At first, the excuses were circumstantial. I perform myriad roles at my job, a non-profit with two and half employees: the thought of two or three weeks away was crushing. My partner and I are saving to buy a house: an extended overseas vacation felt indulgent and short-lived when we are planning a future. And we’d had that month apart last fall, which was so hard. Time apart is vital, and healthy, but weeks simply didn’t feel good to my heart.

 

Yet, I was craving a change of scene. Craving to go for days without talking to anyone more than shop clerk. And when I listened, deeply, to what I really wanted, it was simple: time alone to write.

I booked a week at an AirBnB not all that far as the crow flies from where I live, but a world apart. Immediately, my ambivalence about when and where and how to go disappeared. This. This was the thing.

On Father’s Day I shoved random clothes into a duffel bag, packed my laptop, iPod and a bag of coffee, filled the gas tank, and on a bright, warm Sunday after yoga, soon after his daughters arrived to fête his Hallmark holiday, I kissed my sweetheart farewell and set forth.

And I wrote. After months of dipping in and out of this story, feeling the frustration of moments stolen to devote to its unfolding, I had hours, days, to focus. After five days, I emerged with half again as many words as it had taken me thirteen months to write. I discovered new characters, wrote new opening, jotted down threads of ideas for the next installment, filled a crucial plot hole I’d been circling for months, and regained the momentum I’d given over to mourning the endings of an old life and falling in love with a new present.

Of course, in the weeks since my return, life has pressed in again, with its urgencies: weekends away, or filled with events, houseguests and family dramas, insomnia and fatigue. The new possibilities of my narrative threaten to overwhelm me, but I manage words here and there, a slow moving along.

My new passport is locked away, cover stiff and shiny, pages smooth and blank. It’s there and I’ll come back to it. In the meantime, I look ahead to September, to another week of writing on my own-not far, mind you-just far enough for the words to flow, unencumbered, in the blissful silence of away...

“I have lived on the lip
of insanity, wanting to know reasons,
knocking on a door. It opens.
I’ve been knocking from the inside.”

― RUMI

No Turf of Strangers: Literary Citizenship and the Author Platform

We haven’t quite settled on a name yet, though I love the suggested Guild of Dangerous Writers. We’re a new writers’ group on the Olympic Peninsula penning mystery and crime fiction; some of us cozy, others procedural, one writing YA, another romantic suspense.  A handful are published authors, others entering the fray for the first time. But whatever our experience or category, inside the covers there is Murder & Mayhem.

Deciding that we have other avenues for critiques, this group isn’t exchanging work and feedback. Instead, we’re exchanging resources, advice, and planning genre-related excursions (e.g. touring a jail; visits to the local gun range) and lectures by experts (current police detectives, a former county sheriff), as well as monthly accountability check-ins. It’s the motivational shove this writer needed; since our inaugural meeting, I’ve doubled my novel-in-progress word count. Doubled in two months what took the previous eight to achieve. We shared our premises and trouble spots, and I received suggestions that gave me traction to jolt my work from the mud where it was spinning. It’s the best thing that’s happened to my writing since the Chuckanut Writers’ Conference in June 2012, where I finally took IN ANOTHER LIFE from vague idea to print on a page.

For our next meeting, I volunteered to present on the frightening topic of Building An Author Platform (or, How to Develop A Marketing & Promotion Plan Without Losing Your Mind & Breaking Your Bank). Forget chilling thrillers that have you triple-checking the locks before to bed or clever whodunits that find you second guessing every possible clue, wondering which is the key to unlocking the mystery… the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma that is book marketing and promotion and building a reader base elicits blood-curdling screams from most authors.

I’ve spent weeks poring through the wisdom I’ve collected about author platforms and book promotion since 2015, when I prepared for the launch of IN ANOTHER LIFE, and combing through favorite old and new sources for details on the ever- and rapidly-changing world of book marketing. When I began building my strategy four years ago, Facebook Author Pages were must-haves, writers were expanding their Google+ circles, author newsletters were published faster than you could say “MailChimp”, and #bookstagram was just about to become a thing.

Much has changed in four years (Google+, anyone?). New Facebook algorithms have all but made author pages irrelevant. Twitter use has exploded, thanks to the Twit-in-Chief, but savvy authors know it’s a place for conversations, NOT to announce the $.99 sale of your e-book. Facebook bought Instagram; Amazon bought Goodreads. Tiny Letter folded. Kirkus is now charging $495 for a review. Print publications are cutting back their arts sections, book reviews are getting harder and harder to score, and virtual blog tours seem sooooo 2016.

It’s hella daunting out there. This author knows she didn’t do enough to promote her first two novels. Spend enough, focus, plan, anticipate, enough.

ENOUGH.

Success in publishing—if you define success as bestseller, or even pretty good seller—is largely a matter of luck. If your publisher selects your novel or memoir as that season’s “Big Book”, you are a rare and fortunate bird, indeed. Realize now that you have very little control over the publishing process; even if you choose to self-publish you cannot predict what will happen after your book is pushed into the world. 

What you can control, however, is your visibility and your voice. Your author platform. Building an author platform is not about garnering likes or retweets. It is about broadcasting your voice—and building relationships with those who listen. 

Two elements of a solid author platform remain constant in the constantly changing publishing industry: quality writing and literary citizenship. And what could be more rewarding for a writer than to focus her time and energy on becoming a better writer, and to celebrate the achievements of others? Never has it been easier to join communities of other writers, to reach out a hand in support or to raise one in need. Frankly, literary citizenship is one of the few reasons this writer remains on Facebook and Twitter; my virtual writing communities are endless sources of inspiration, support, and friendship.

You owe it to your books to do all that is reasonable—given your resources of time, money, and emotional energy—to find and engage readers. But this is not a race against the thousands of titles that threaten to push yours aside on the shelf. It’s a long walk shoulder-to-shoulder with other writers. Understanding that a collaborative, open-arms approach to publishing will become the deep inhale that propels you up the steep slopes of publishing.

Suggested Read: Are There Limits to Literary Citizenship? and subscribe to Jane Friedman’s blog while you’re there. 

We can walk into the world of business feeling we are on the turf of strangers, possible enemies. Or we can enter that world in a way that brings our own turf with us, so that we no longer feel defensive but expansive. With the realization of the power our art wields, we can become generous. When we do, we become compelling, enviable, impressive, and we have the ability to change things.

Elizabeth Hyde Steven, from Make Art Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career

Since you’re visiting, let me know how you like the new look here, and at my website: juliechristinejohnson

The Best of My Reading Year

I had no idea that by mid-year I would be working on the first of what I hope will be a series of contemporary literary crime novels featuring a disgraced Seattle Police Department Violent Crimes detective — my reading year took an abrupt and unexpected shift over the summer. I moved from my usual literary fiction/narrative non-fiction/poetry mix into the worlds of thrillers, mysteries, crime fiction, detective and police procedurals.

Although my 2018 reading list ends pretty heavily weighted in favor of the deliciously dark and satisfying world of murder and mayhem, my best of list crosses genre. What is common throughout is intense conflict, and the intractable mystery of the human soul. I think there’s a something for (nearly) everyone here, from bestsellers to the obscure.

In no particular order:

 

FICTION

Happiness by Aminatta Forna
The narrative moves from present to recent to mythical past, tracing the lines of a wolf hunter in Massachusetts in the early nineteenth century, the demise of Jean’s marriage and her quest to save coyotes in New England in the mid-oughts, and Attila’s work as a hostage negotiator and trauma specialist in war zones from Bosnia to Sierra Leone to Iraq. Despite the breadth of its landscapes, Happiness is the story of what happens deep inside the heart after grief and loss, after love has come and gone. And possibly come again. It is also deeply political, delving into human migration, animal conservation, and war. There are so many layers of theme and character and much of the narrative relies on coincidence to move it forward, yet Forna keeps this all spinning in delicate orbit with sublime writing and wonderful characters.

 

The Cottingley Secret by Hazel Gaynor

The Cottingley Secret is a curl-up-and-forget-the-world sort of read, an enchanting and delightful escape. A dash of history mixed with contemporary drama and a touch of romance is just the antidote for these cynical, selfish times. Gaynor’s writing is lovely, moving fluidly between past and present, conveying a sense of wonder and possibility while remaining grounded in history and place. I simply adored this book.

Everland by Rebecca Hunt
Everland by Rebecca Hunt (2015)
Two Antarctic expeditions, set a century apart. The first, which ended in disaster, is the stuff of legends and side-taking amongst a group of modern researchers stationed at Aegeus, a fictitious Antarctic base. In 1913, three men set out in a dinghy from the main ship to explore the island of Everland: hard-bitten, calculating First Mate Napps, straight-talking, fearless Millet-Bass, and tenderfoot Dinners, who is as out of his element as a fish on a bicycle. A storm strands them on the island and only Dinners is found alive, barely, weeks later when the rescue crew is finally able to reach them. Napps’ diaries survive, but the truth they reveal is circumspect. What really happened on the Everland expedition remains frozen in time and lost memory.

 

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

Quick, name all the literary characters you’ve fallen in love with… Lizzy Bennet, Ponyboy Curtis, Atticus Finch, Harriet the Spy, Aragorn, Jo March… those are the first who come to my mind. Add to this list the unsinkably spirited Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov, an erstwhile aristocrat who in 1922 is sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s elegant Hotel Metropol. His crime is being a man of wealth and manners in Bolshevik Russia, where refinement is an affront to the state.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman
Tin Man by Sarah Winman (2017)

Sarah Winman’s (why have I not encountered her before? Tin Man is that dreaded (by the publishing industry), quiet novel, built around characters and the slow burn of years, tragedy, and a copy of a Van Gogh painting. It is the glaring sunlight of the Provençal sun against the glittering needles of the Alpilles. It is the autumn glow of a waning year in majestic Oxford. It is a couple falling in love during the delivery of a Christmas tree and another in a cemetery where the drunks go to find a moment of tenderness.

The Storm by Arif Anwar

The Storm by Arif Anwar (2018)

Inspired by the Bhola Cyclone that devastated what is now Bangladesh in November 1970, Arif Anwar spins the globe and lands the reader in WWII Burma, the Partition of India in 1947, the 1970 Bhola Cyclone, the 1972 Bangladesh independence, and modern-day Washington D.C. His premise—A dozen major and minor characters chronicle of the recent history of Bangladesh— an ambitious premise, yet Anwar weaves eras, nations, events, and characters together with grace and formidable skill.

 

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran (2017)

Lucky Boy captured me in its opening pages and held me for the scant four days it took to read. Released in early 2017, the novel presciently mirrors the headlines du jour: the travesty at the US-Mexican border of children separated from their parents. Lucky Boy challenges us to consider how to balance the justice and compassion for undocumented migrants with the need for fair and reasonable immigration policies; how to embrace the American-born children, those so-called Dreamers, whose parents left their home and risked their lives to escape poverty and violence. In a culture where ethics, compassion, civility and common sense seem to crumble with each Tweet blasted out from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Shanthi Sekaran’s smart and tender novel makes us feel deeply the controversies that newspaper headlines so often sensationalize to the point of rendering us numb.

 

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (2016)

… It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma… Winston Churchill may have been speaking about Russian national interest, but his famous quip perfectly describes the playfully clever Matryoshka doll of a novel written nearly eighty years later. Magpie Murders is an homage to the cozy mystery that British authors and screenwriters have made so irresistible, from Agatha Christie to the author’s own detective series for the small screen, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
 Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (2017)

Like the Greek tragedy that serves as its inspiration, Home Fire is epic, fatalistic, and breathtaking. Shamsie’s story is engrossing, her intelligent and beautiful writing so readable. The political thriller/romance spin serve to make this novel accessible, even while its stylistic and psychological choices push it into deep literary fiction.

The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn
 The Woman In The Window by A.J.Finn (2017)

I LOVE being surprised by a book. I loved this book. Anna’s voice and her vulnerability rang true, even if her obsession with noir film was just so utterly contrived (can anyone say ‘made for the big screen film deal’, which apparently happened before this book even hit the shelves. Now starring the adorable, admirable, and yes, I’m crazy for her, Amy Adams), but also very, very smart.

 

NON-FICTION

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya
The Girl Who Smiled Beads: A Story of War and What Comes After 
by Clemantine Wamariya (2018) This is a memoir of visceral emotions, of a young woman tortured by anger and fear and trying to make sense of all the she endured and how she survived. 
Educated by Tara Westover
Educated by Tara Westover (2018)
Educated isn’t about growing up Mormon. I think you’d probably learn more about the Church of Latter Day Saints watching a performance of The Book of Mormon. Westover’s memoir is about growing up in the shadow of profound mental illness—her father’s—and the Stockholm Syndrome-like effects it had on Westover, his six siblings, and her enabling and imprisoned mother.
The Recovering by Leslie Jamison
The Recovering is an exploration of the mythology of addiction and creativity-that the latter depends on the depth of the former, that the two are inextricably linked. By weaving the narrative of her own addictions with those of famous artists, mostly male authors writing in the booze genre (e.g. Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, John Cheever), Jamison delivers an encyclopedic memoir of a literary alcoholic.
The Water Will Come by Jeff Goodell
Goodell, a longtime editor for Rolling Stone, concentrates much of his narrative in Miami and Miami Beach, exposing the folly and corruption that built these sand castle communities, the naïvete and stupidity and ostrich-head-burying that will eventually wash them away. But Goodell also takes us to Manhattan and the Jersey Shore to view the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (2012), the heartbreaking plunge of Venice, the water ghettos of Lagos, and the immediate peril in the Marshall Islands, Alaska, and Greenland.

Writing as Fast as I Can

We’d been anticipating his journey for months and by mid-summer, we’d set the departure date: the Monday after the Saturday when his youngest daughter would leave the nest for her college freshman year.

 

How long he would be gone was vague. Once, in the late spring, he mentioned Thanksgiving and my heart sank. I would be spending the autumn alone, each day growing darker and colder, the daily phone calls becoming perfunctory. I would grow used to taking up space in the bed again. Folding only my own underwear. Dinners of popcorn and wine.

 

But I knew this journey had to be taken. A man on the cusp of life change, a nest emptied as last as the last child took flight. Before he could look to the future, he needed to reconnect with his past.

 

And so I began sinking into the hammock of alone time. Day job, during this almost-busiest time of the year, would suck up hours. One of the yoga studios I frequent announced a 30-day challenge (okay, 31 days, on account of October being the month). So my morning and early evening would be bookended by intense practice.

 

And I would write. The quiet evenings and weekends held the promise of words. Uninterrupted by conversation or dinner, the setting aside of laptop to curl into his arms, snuggling into that broad chest and the oblivion of Netflix or NFL or one of the books stacked on the nightstand. No, my keyboard would softly click and the counter would tick upwards, filling in the gaps of empty space with words. I set myself a word count goal — not anything like NaNoWriMo’s 50,000 extravaganza, but something momentous for me, at this time.

 

Four years ago, in the dark and tender ten weeks between mid-January and early March, I completed the first draft of THE CROWS OF BEARA, some 110,000 words. The novel poured out of me. I had the time to catch all the words on paper. It was a synchronicity of circumstance—the graciousness of my then-partner that allowed me the time, free from the pressure of a day job, to write—and inspiration that brought the most precious elements of the story to my heart and soul. It is a standard I continue to hold myself against, as ridiculous as that is, for few among us have uninterrupted time to write our stories. We have vocations, ailing parents, second families, our first children, partners with dreams of their own who need our support, financial or otherwise.

 

Still, I have my own past productivity — three novels written in three years — against which I measure the writer I am now.

 

I’m often asked when my next book is coming out. I posted on Facebook a few weeks ago the triumph of having a short story placed in a literary journal. A number of people misread my post and congratulated me on my forthcoming novel. Someone reported having seen my third novel in a bookstore, which thrilled me to no end, except that the novel is still on submission in its quest for a publishing home. Maybe it was a dream. Maybe I’m manifesting my own misguided expectations.

 

During that time alone – a month as it turned out- I realized I’d gotten stuck in my own story. Not the one I’d been trickling into Scrivener, but the one I had stored in my heart. I took the time to do so many things other than write. I sat in silence. I remembered. I mourned. I began to forgive myself.

 

And then I continued to write.

 

This novel will take as long as it takes. If I have one resolution for this year, it is to manifest grace. Grace, and its sister-words mercy, generosity, tenderness, compassion, forgiveness, is my journey, the only way I will make it to the page. 

 

Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. Stop here for a few breaths and think about this because it is the key to making art, and very possibly the key to finding any semblance of happiness in life. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.   Ann Patchett, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage