Writing While Ableist

So I am about to do something I’ve never seen a mainstream author do before, which is to criticize my own work for negative discourse.

You might be wondering, “What the hell does that even mean?” since “discourse” is defined as “the use of words to exchange thoughts and ideas” and I am a writer and it sounds like I’m speaking in gibberish.

 

 

 

 

So, to clarify: when I say “negative discourse” I am talking about how text — in this instance, the text of a novel — can perpetuate ideas in support of racism, sexism, classism, ableism — or pretty much any kind of negative stereotype or slur humanity has ever invented. Not because the author wrote specific slurs into the text, but as a function of the plot of the story, or in the way the characters are described in a story.

The older I get, and the more I study the world around me, it has become apparent to me that the strongest forms of all negative stereotypes are really good at hiding in plain sight. The strongest forms are the most subtle, the most insidious, the most cruel, and a person has to have some very sharp eyesight indeed to notice these things. Because mostly, in combating negative stereotypes, what you’re learning to see is yourself — at least, that’s been my experience. The more clearly I see the world around me, the more clearly what I am really examining is myself — most especially, my own shortcomings, and the ways I constantly perpetuate problematic ideas that I do not agree with, but are readily promoted by society as a whole.

Now, you might think that since many fiction writers are self-identified liberals, progressives, moderates, or non-racist/non-sexist conservatives, then these creative writers would be analyzing their own work for negative discourse all the time. But in my experience (with a big thank you to social media, for allowing me to watch such drama unfold), writers don’t criticize their own books — their readers do — and when readers take books to task for being racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist, classist, or anything else — the authors most often react with a mixture of silence and denial. Sometimes fury. And one of the most frequent defense mechanisms authors use to dismiss criticism of their work is to tell their critics, “It’s just a story.”

Which makes me narrow my eyes, and put down my snooty teacup with a growl. Just like this —

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing the statement “It’s just a story” reminds me of how many times I voiced an opinion as a kid growing up, and was immediately told, “You’re just a girl. What would you know?” Which is considered the polite way of telling a female to shut the f*ck up.

So let me say this: there IS no “just a” in life, especially not when it comes to story. All meaning and judgment are rooted in story. Secular or religious, nonfiction or fiction, nonverbal, spoken, or printed — story is the mechanism by which humanity creates meaning and judgment to order society. Which is also to say that every point in the hierarchy of power is rooted in story. To claim anything is “just a story” is a much bigger feint than to dismiss my voice by telling me I’m “just a girl.” Denying the power of story is to deny lived reality. The statement is thoughtless, cruel in its absurdity — and, to be blunt — a complete lie.

Now, it is true that people who read a lot of books tend to be people who like to seek out new ideas, and think challenging thoughts. Not always, but much of the time, book-readers give society the side-eye, and view the world at large with a healthy amount of suspicion.

And book-readers often turn into writers. Writers who then have to worry about sales, and reputations, and selling their next book. So when readers levy attacks on their work, it is understandable that authors often react with silence, denial, or — (a bit less common) — lash out with anger and attacks of their own.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Over the years, my readers have shared plenty of criticisms with me. Their comments most often stun me into silence a moment, and then I’ll say, “Okay, thanks for sharing that,” or some such acknowledgment of what they have said. I certainly don’t yell at these people and say they are wrong. They’re entitled to their opinions of my books.

As an example, here are some common criticisms readers have shared with me after reading my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves

1. “You wrote a book about wealthy, intelligent college students who attend a fictional Ivy League school, students who participate in gang rape, and that is completely absurd. Wealthy white men do not gang rape women. That is something only poor, uneducated people do. Intelligent men don’t behave like animals.”

2. “The college students in your book drink a LOT, and I don’t think you understand people can’t drink this much alcohol. It would just make people sick, and these college students would all fail out of school. You should have done some more research about the effects of alcohol on the human body, because no one could drink as much as your characters drink and stay in school.”

3. “It’s unrealistic that teenage girls would know as much about sex as the girls in your novel. For instance, you have your main character, Jimmy, taking birth control even though she is only eighteen or nineteen years old. What girl that age would understand how to take birth control to avoid an unwanted pregnancy? When I was that age, I didn’t know anything about having safe sex, and it would have made a lot more sense if Jimmy had just asked Alistair to use a condom, rather than planning ahead to have sex and taking birth control.”

4. “Fraternities are positive places that shape the adolescent characters of boys into upstanding young men. Frats are beneficial to society and all you did in your book was slander them. You don’t think the Greek system has enough people to bash it, you need to add your book to the mix? You should open your eyes to the fact that fraternities are excellent organizations designed to help people make friends, and do great things for society, and stop perpetuating the lie that girls get raped at frat parties. That’s just not true.”

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For anyone who has read The Etiquette of Wolves, you can determine for yourself whether or not you agree or disagree with these criticisms. Each of those statements is an example of negative discourse in action — statements containing stereotypes/generalizations and slurs that exist in society. Each reader is expressing a judgment about men, women, race, class, biology, group think, and/or group behavior. In some cases, it is clear how much personal experience is shaping the reader’s particular criticism of the book. In other cases, you can probably assume the identity of the speaker based upon their opinion. Whether you agree or disagree with their stance might be largely based upon your own identity, and your own experiences in life.

And it’s probably obvious what my own beliefs are, given the statements being made in criticizing my first novel. But for those Thought Candy readers who have not read my first book, I’ll briefly state my positions:

I do believe that “wealthy white men” can choose to “behave like animals.” I do believe that many college students “drink a lot” but don’t fail out of school. I do believe that some teenage girls use birth control to avoid unwanted pregnancies. And I do believe that girls (and sometimes boys, or a person of any gender) are raped at frat parties — not at ALL frat parties, but my novel isn’t describing a rape at every frat party. Nor does the book portray every fraternity brother as a rapist.

But.

And this is a big but.

There was one fraternity brother in The Etiquette of Wolves who was a textbook example of negative discourse — specifically, a textbook example of ableist discourse. One of the most ugly stereotypes any story can perpetuate. Even if most readers never recognize ableism in a story, or ableist discourse in prose, that doesn’t mean it’s not there.

This character’s name is Bridgley Kingson. Of the 62 chapters in The Etiquette of Wolves, Bridgley appears in scene in only two of them — Chapters 43 and 45 — so he is a secondary character, but his role in the story is highly ableist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are seven major disability tropes (which I have typed up below) that Jack A. Nelson cited in his book The Disabled, the Media, and the Information Age — and I know of these seven tropes because I watched a TED talk by Ben Myers, which you can watch here. These seven tropes are all negative stereotypes that able-bodied writers most frequently use for their disabled characters, thereby removing agency from that person in the story. In other words, these stereotypes make the disabled character less of a person, or make them sub-human, or infantilize that character. In many novels, disability is also a shorthand way for indicating a person is “evil” — and if you have ever read about the process of fat-shaming in books, you will recognize a strong similarity between how the words “fat” and “disabled” are frequently chosen by authors to communicate that a character is “evil” or “corrupt.”

Disability Tropes

  1. The disabled person as pitiable and pathetic.
  2. The disabled person as super crip.
  3. The disabled person as sinister, evil, and criminal.
  4. The disabled person as better-off dead.
  5. The disabled person as maladjusted — his own worst enemy.
  6. The disabled person as a burden.
  7. The disabled person as unable to lead a successful life.

The character of Bridgley Kingson falls into six of those seven tropes. Bridgley is portrayed as pitiable and pathetic (#1); he did something evil in the story (participated in a gang rape) and was “punished” for leaving his organization, giving him a trope of being sinister, evil, and criminal (#3); the reader probably assumes he would have been better-off dead (#4); he is portrayed as being maladjusted (#5); he is a burden to his parents (#6); and he is unable to lead a successful life (#7).

While Bridgley is also portrayed as a member of a resistance group in the book, and he does help the able-bodied characters save themselves, I must also say this: characters with disabilities should not exist in stories for the sole purpose of helping the able-bodied characters do things. If the only reason a disabled character is in a book is to serve an able-bodied character, that is ableism. To strip all agency from a disabled character in order to serve the needs of an able-bodied character is the most glaring, and vicious, form of ableism a piece of art can ever contain.

So while it’s nice that Bridgley *does* perform good deeds in this story, he does so for disturbing reasons. Reasons that flow from his own need for redemption, as well as being unable to help himself.

But worst of all — for me — is that Bridgley was placed in this story to scare the (assumed) able-bodied reader by representing what could happen to the able-bodied characters if they are caught and mutilated by their enemies. So let me add a trope of my own to Jack A. Nelson’s list —

8. The disabled person as embodied horror — a projection of what the able-bodied hero might become if he fails.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a criticism of The Etiquette of Wolves that no reader has ever shared with me, but I will phrase as if a reader is criticizing the book, the same way my real-life criticisms were worded above —

1. Your portrayal of Bridgley Kingson in this novel is incredibly ableist, and incredibly insulting. People who have disabilities should not exist in a story to serve the needs of able-bodied characters. You should recognize that people with disabilities shouldn’t be treated like stereotypes. Disability shouldn’t be treated like it’s a punishment, either. Grow up and educate yourself and quit being so ableist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been trying to grow up and educate myself about ableism for the past year, and everything I have learned has come from my friend Amanda, who is also my Little Orange Monster, due to the fact she is small and orange and a monster. In other words, she is an alien from the planet Xenon. (Sorry, Amanda — I have officially outed you.) She answers my questions, she points me in the right direction for research, she has given me books to read and links to TED talks to watch, and she is always down for a discussion about anything. But she has never once taken it upon herself to point out my ableist failures, not in our discussions, and not in my books. Amanda just lets me come to my own reckonings. And that is why I wrote this blog post.

Amanda would point out that if you want to see an amazing character who is NOT a stereotype of disability representation, you should read the novel Mark of the Pterren and take note of Rafael Rennon. Rafael embodies his disability without ever losing his agency — or, as Amanda always says, “Rafael is a character in the round.” Not a two-dimensional stereotype, not a disability trope, not an infantilized sub-human who exists solely to help the able-bodied characters around him. Rafael’s body changes dramatically, but he never becomes less of a person, or less important to the story. In fact, his disabled body makes him even *more* central to the plot, and drives the book toward its conclusion — which is something most stories hardly ever do. (This is all according to Amanda, however. And she is from planet Xenon. But I do trust her a lot, even if she is orange.)

I wrote Mark of the Pterren before I learned about ableism — because it was only after I published Mark of the Pterren that Amanda came into my life. She loved that book, and thus began our friendship. I told Amanda that as a result of this knowledge she’s given me, I now have a new head. She laughs at this. Of course. Only someone so little and orange would laugh at my head. Sheesh.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Goat Named Chorny

A brief warning that there are some racist terms ahead. Readers sensitive to racial slurs might want to skip this post. Thanks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I have been doing some very haphazard research for my current work in progress, which I thought would be a Beauty and the Beast retelling, set in New Russia (in territory that is now the country of Ukraine) in 1790. I kept seeing a main character in my head who I thought was a black eunuch, and the more I tried to research this character, the more apparent it became that this man was not a eunuch, but he had almost become one. I originally thought the antagonist of the story (a powerful sorcerer) had purchased him from the Ottoman Empire — but it turns out she bought him from one of the castration centers in Europe, places that castrated young boys to sell to the Ottomans.

(The Ottoman Empire had white as well as black eunuchs, and gave them different roles to perform as slaves. Many slave boys were castrated in Europe and then sold to the Ottomans, which was a lucrative business for Europeans, even though around 90% of the boys bled to death from the procedure.)

My character-who-is-not-a-eunuch is named Andre. Usually, I can hear a character in my head long before I can see them. In the case of Andre, I could only hear him singing, and then I could see him — and finally, on Easter Sunday, he started talking to me. Even though I’m not working on his story right now, and am not even writing at all, Andre sure has a lot to say. Hearing his speech felt like a major breakthrough, so much that I kept telling my husband, “I feel intense joy right now,” and then said, “I can hear him, he’s really alive now,” while tapping the side of my head. Greg just gave me this worried look and said I should never admit these things to people, ever, because I sound like I need medication.

Since Andre is black, I wondered what kind of racist slurs Russians have for black people, since Americans have negro, n*gger, colored, coon, buck, ape, monkey, tar baby, etc. etc. The antagonist needed a realistic term to call this slave of hers, since I’m writing historical fantasy, and racism is endemic to modern history.

 

 

 

 

I discovered today that a particular Turkish word for black — zenci — is a pretty awful derogatory term for black people. Calling someone a zenci is to say they are ignorant, lazy, lower class — as well as being a term for those with black skin.

In Russia, it turns out people use the terms apes and monkeys for black people — but behind their backs, not to their faces. Which is similar to most of the overt racism I witness in my everyday life, wherein white people who use the word n*gger do so only among other white people, and sometimes they use it in a kind of academic, historical way to voice their protest against “the f*cking P.C. culture that is ruining America.” I’m around a number of white people who hate the thought of being politically correct, and the phrase “P.C. culture” is just kind of everywhere these days. I’ve never been around a person of color who has expressed contempt for “P.C. culture” but I frequently encounter rage against political correctness among white people.

But anyway, back to my research. Here is the word “black” in Russian:

черный

Which is pronounced “chernyy” — at least, according to my google search, it is pronounced that way.

Closely related, the word “chorny” is a Ukrainian or East Slavic term for black. Some Ukrainian Americans use the word “chorn” to refer to someone they think is stupid or lesser, and while the word can be used as a racial slur for people with black skin, anyone can be called a “chorn.” But from what I gleaned about this word online, the fundamental “slur” in this word is racist, rather than ableist.

Chorny was also the name of a black-haired goat I knew once, when I was a child. Chorny was owned by a man I’ll call Lenny, who was an acquaintance of my father’s. Lenny also owned two Rottweilers, some guns, and a wrecked Grand Am that sat in his yard. He lived on the far end of a trailer park with his girlfriend and her three children, who were all around my age at the time, between five and ten.

I remember the last day I ever saw Chorny, which was the day I helped bury her, while two of my younger brothers waited in our dad’s truck. Lenny owed my dad some money, so my dad went to his place to collect. This was in 1987 or 1988, when I was seven or eight. My brothers and I rode in the pickup bed, which was nice, since it was a hot summer day. Lenny lived in a different town, so this journey took at least a half hour, probably more.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we arrived at the trailer home, however, Lenny and his girlfriend were gone. Lit out of town, my dad said, to avoid paying their debts. They had taken the three children with them, but they’d left Lenny’s pets — and they’d left them locked up inside.

The Rottweilers were always chained up, because both dogs were vicious and would bite. Each of Lenny’s girlfriend’s three kids had been bitten before, and I never went close to those animals when we came over. Chorny was a really sweet goat though, and she loved anyone who would pet her. When Lenny left, he chained the two dogs up in different rooms in the trailer, so they wouldn’t attack each other. My dad banged on the front door, even though he’d guessed Lenny had moved, and then he noticed a lot of blood had seeped out from beneath the door, and had pooled on the little wood deck.

So my dad opened the door, looked around, and then called for me to walk over to Lenny’s junk pile and bring him a tarp. I located a filthy piece of frayed plastic, a tarp that had once been blue but had darkened greenish-black with mold, took the rotten thing to my father, and then I saw for myself what had left all that blood in the house.

One of the two Rottweilers had gotten loose and killed Chorny, eviscerated her and severed her head. The blood on the deck was all hers. Both the Rottweilers were dead, too — they had inflicted fatal wounds on each other. One of the dogs was still chained in the back bedroom, and the other had bled to death in the area that had once held the couch.

With the help of a broken snow shovel, my dad and I pushed Chorny and her guts onto the tarp, carried her outside, and buried her. My brothers were told to stay in the truck, and they did. I told them the dogs were dead, and they were glad, because those Rottweilers scared the sh*t out of them. My dad and I washed off our hands with a garden hose, and then we left.

If my dad were still alive, I would ask him if Lenny had Ukrainian or Slavic heritage, and if that was why he had named his black-haired goat Chorny. Or maybe someone else had named the goat Chorny, before she became Lenny’s property.

As to my current work in progress, I doubt I will use any of these specific slurs in my book. None of these terms resonated with my story at all, but they definitely registered with my own memories, and my life.

When I Am Reading a Book and Turn into Satan

On September 10, 2016, after the awards banquet for the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Conference, I bought a pile of books from some of the local authors hosting tables at the book sale that night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today, I officially finished all but *one* of the books in this pile. The task felt like such an accomplishment that I decided to share a list of my book reviews, so my Thought Candy readers can see how I fared with my haul.

Because I need to be honest here: reading self-published books and/or books published by small presses is often torture. And other than the three books on the top of my pile (Transformation, Restoration, and Revelation, by Carol Berg, which all had a traditional publisher), the rest of these titles were either self-published or released by small  presses — what people call “indie books.”

Indie books tend to overwhelmingly fall into my “strongly dislike” category. I’m a literary omnivore, and I often read across genres, but I am a cutting and judgmental reader — which is the polite way of saying that I am an asshole when I read. I can put up with grammar errors, because those exist in every book — but cliche-ridden books with clunky prose, plot holes, factual errors, and poorly drawn characters flip on my Satan switch. And once reader-me lands in Satan mode, I want to smash things and curse and watch the world burn. My inner toddler runs amok, and I become Lucifer’s female twin.

Because few things are as torturous as reading a book I strongly dislike.

The nice thing about my brain is that I can also be really generous with books. I can overcome bad first impressions, and keep reading a book until it “gets good” and becomes enjoyable. I can forgive a lot of plot holes and dull storytelling, as long as the writing is strong and I’ve bonded with the characters. Bad covers don’t scare me away. Neither do bad titles or bad book descriptions. I can forgive a book with sloppy font choices or lazy proofreading, as long as the writing is engaging. I am a literary glutton for words, even if I am rather demonic.

So here are the links to my Goodreads reviews for each of these books, listed in the order in which the book appears in my photograph above. (The highest ranking on Goodreads is five stars.)

1. Transformation, by Carol Berg. Five stars. I LOVED this book!!

2. Restoration, by Carol Berg. This is the final book in the Transformation trilogy. The second book in the trilogy (Revelation) was not nearly as good as the first one, so I decided I will read Restoration in late summer or fall. Based on what my friend Ronni told me after she finished Restoration, I predict that I will give this book three stars.

3. Revelation, by Carol Berg. Three stars. This is the second book in the Transformation trilogy.

4. Legs: A Short Story, by Travis Heermann. Three stars. Reviewed on Amazon only, because there was no listing for this on Goodreads.

5. The Never Prayer, by Aaron Michael Ritchey. Three stars.

6. Antler Dust, by Mark Stevens. Three stars.

7. Beneath Wandering Stars, by Ashlee Cowles. Three stars.

8. The Dragon Waking, by Grayson Towler. Four stars.

9. Christmas Spirit, by Julie Cameron. Three stars.

10. The Rampart Guards, by Wendy Terrien. Three stars.

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For any of my Thought Candy readers who love my third novel, Mark of the Pterren, I highly recommend the first book on this list — Transformation, by Carol Berg. The story reminded me of Terrence Davin and Rafael Rennon. Transformation is a fantasy with a medieval setting, a tale of two men — a prince and a slave — who come to love each other like brothers. One of those men is a winged warrior, though his wings appear later on in the story.

For anyone curious about books that feature really horrible ableist tropes, then please note that Legs: A Short Story, Beneath Wandering Stars, and Christmas Spirit all have particularly egregious ableist story lines, in which the disabled characters are only a plot device and a demeaning stereotype. To say that a character is a plot device is not a good thing — it means that the writer put a disabled character into a story for the sole reason of forwarding the plot for the able-bodied characters. A plot device disabled character has no agency — no authentic feelings or goals. These characters only exist in the story because the writer needed something to happen for the able-bodied characters, and using a person with a disability was a means to an end.

 

 

 

 

 

 

You might wonder why I still gave these novels three stars, if the stories were so horribly ableist. My answer is a bit complicated. First, I must say that I forgive indie authors more than I forgive traditionally published authors. Even though it’s a myth that all publishing houses hire editors for the novels they publish, and many traditionally published authors never receive content editing or even copyediting for their work, I still hold traditionally published titles to a higher standard. It’s unfair, I know. But that’s the truth.

Second, ableism is not something we talk about, or teach writing classes about, in American culture. I made terrible ableist mistakes in my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves, in my portrayal of a character who uses a wheelchair. That character only appears in two chapters, near the end of the book, but my portrayal of that disabled character was no less egregious than what these three authors did in their books. Those writers only made the same mistakes I did, and I messed up not because I had a desire to be malicious — my errors were due to my ignorance. I have the hardest time forgiving myself for what I have done. It’s much easier to forgive these other books.

Third, any piece of art can fail in one way, but succeed in other ways. I cannot reduce my opinion of a book to one subject alone. Even big mistakes in a book do not necessarily mean that the entire book is a mistake.

 

 

 

 

Those are my three biggest reasons to explain why I can still give a book full of ableist tropes a three-star review. I wish I could wave a magic wand and vanish All The Ableism from All The Books. But alas. I have no magic wand.

We can never fix anything unless we first know something is broken. And no one can become a better writer unless we can see what is wrong. Ableism is not something many people recognize or see as a problem — not in our everyday lives, and certainly not in our stories. It’s such an insidious evil because ableism hides in plain sight. Or, even worse — ableism masquerades as The Good, or as Truth, or as The Way Things Should Be.

I’ve finally started to see ableism in life, and in literature — but I still have a long way to go. Taking my time reading this pile of indie books was actually an important part of my journey, an activity I’m really glad I had a chance to engage in. No story I write will ever be perfect. I will never be perfect. But I would like to keep getting better, with the words I write, and with my time on this earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I Went to a Fractious Town Hall, and So Did Princess Sparkles

Friday, April 7 ended up being a day of living my social activist values. I was invited to give a short presentation to a sociology class at Fort Lewis College about my work organizing the Standing on the Side of Love March, which took place in Durango on Saturday, January 21, 2017. Despite receiving more than a foot of snow that Saturday morning, which trapped many people at home (unable to leave their driveways or navigate unplowed roads into town) — over a thousand people still attended that march. The event covered the front page of The Durango Herald the next morning (you can read an online version of the article here) and I delivered a speech to the crowd, which you can find on the Facebook page for the march, following the link here.

The Facebook page for the march features a LOT of beautiful photographs, as well as a video of my speech at Buckley Park. You just need to search around a bit to find the right posts. The event was a smashing success, and after the march, many people built awesome snow sculptures to hold up their signs. Here is one of my favorite photographs from that day —

 

 

 

 

 

 

I also really love this picture —

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had no idea how many procedures and requirements were involved with organizing a project like that, and I’ve shared information with many people since then — but Friday was my first time speaking in front of a class full of college students about those details. My friend Hannah Dzubinski — who designed the march posters, social media pages, and spent hours and HOURS of time with me, working hard to make that march happen — Hannah came to the sociology class with me, because we are a TEAM and the Standing on the Side of Love March was an event we are both extremely proud of.

Right after the class finished, we jumped in my car and drove 2.5 hours to Montrose, Colorado, to attend a 6:00 p.m. Town Hall with our District 3 U.S. Representative, Republican Scott Tipton.

Like many other GOP members of Congress, Representative Tipton is avoiding town halls in counties won by Hillary Clinton, such as the one I live in (La Plata County). For activist progressives, this means a longer drive into a county won by President Trump in order to attend a congressional town hall. All across the country, liberals and progressives have been filling these events, the same way Tea Party members packed town halls in 2009 and 2010. Here is a photograph of the front page of the Montrose Daily Press this morning — Saturday, April 8, 2017 —

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Fractious town hall for Tipton” is the headline beneath a photograph of Representative Tipton speaking in front of a large crowd in the Montrose high school gym. One staff member commented that this was the largest attendance for a town hall in Montrose they’d ever had.

(Also fun to note: Hannah and I are in that photograph right above the headline, because we were seated directly in front of Representative Tipton, in the third row.)

People are fired up with anger and fear about the state of the country right now, and Representative Tipton sure got an earful about climate change and health care last night. He also witnessed lots of feet-stomping, clapping, whistling, yelling, and chanting. Like other recent town halls I’ve seen on TV, this one was full of people who are worried about losing health care, and people who are REALLY worried about climate change ruining all of our lives. Also strongly disliked: the current administration’s ideas about building a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico. At one point during the two hours in which Representative Tipton answered questions, the audience yelled, “No wall! No wall! No wall!” for quite some time.

I think there were maybe six people in that entire gym who were Republicans. The rest were all Democrats, libertarians, independents, and people who ride around on unicorns, like me.

(All special snowflakes ride around on unicorns, of course. My unicorn is named Princess Sparkles. She has pure white hair, and a pink mane and tail. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed.)

My camera does a miserable job taking photographs indoors at night. Here is the one blurry picture I have of Representative Scott Tipton speaking at this town hall —

 

 

 

 

 

 

My sincere apologies that my camera is so non-good with distance photographs taken indoors. Maybe I will get a clue one day and buy a new camera. As long as I don’t have to dismount Princess Sparkles, of course. Because God forbid I do anything without my unicorn, mystical steed of special snowflake magic.

Here is how I felt every time someone asked Representative Tipton to reconsider his denial of climate change last night —

 

 

 

 

 

(As you can probably tell from the rainbow and stars, Princess Sparkles was super happy as well.)

Representative Tipton stated he is against the Paris Accord. He also said he has “core values” that will never change. He did a very nice job facing this large, raucous crowd in the Montrose high school gym. I hope to attend another one of his town halls. He is a good man and I believe his heart is in the right place. But my core values do not match his. I believe that the burning of fossil fuels is creating global warming as well as ocean acidification, and if human society does not change our ways, we are on a path to extinction. Representative Tipton disagrees.

Polyamory, Ableism, and Author Failures: More Thoughts on the Writing Life

I read the international bestselling novel The Little Paris Bookshop for book club in April. By the time I finished, I was really glad a hardback copy of the novel had been gifted to me, and I didn’t spend any money on this read. I posted a review for the book on Goodreads, which you can read here. The novel was full of the kind of gender roles and gender essentialism that upsets me as much as the use of “perfect” bodies as a “hero’s reward” for upright moral behavior. Which was another major theme in this book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A young woman named Manon, who is determined to love two men equally, is killed off before the story even begins. And no other woman in the book ever makes a claim that two men might be better than one. So the most compelling piece of information in the whole novel was never really addressed in the story, other than to say that perhaps Manon’s early demise was meant as a cautionary tale to other polyamorous women. (And Manon certainly blames her cancer, at one point in her diary, on her inability to love only one man. As in, she views her breast cancer as a kind of moral punishment for her inability to remain monogamous.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(In case any Thought Candy reader cannot make out the text in the above meme, it says: Life’s better in 2 player. It’s even better with more.)

Polyamory will play a big role in future Mark of the Pterren books, and it also plays a crucial role in the project I am working on now. The challenge in writing about polyamory, simply from a craft point of view, is that it is easier to focus a character’s desire on a single person, for the purpose of narrative tension, rather than to diffuse a character’s desire between two or more lovers. Setting aside the moral censure against polyamory in popular culture, I think the biggest challenge in polyamorous storytelling is in keeping a character’s burning passion for another character equally high when the focus of that desire is divided.

The writer of polyamory in fiction has to separate love from an “either/or” mindset and shift into a “both/and” mindset. And since I personally don’t inhabit a polyamorous erotic mindset (seek to have sex with more than one partner), this is challenging in multiple ways. In my personal life, I’ve met enough swingers and married folks of both sexes seeking to have an affair (with me, or with others) to know that it would be extremely easy to have a mister or mistress of my own, but I just don’t feel any kind of drive like that. And if I did decide I wanted (or needed) extramarital sex, I would put everything out in the open, the same way Manon did, rather than lie and betray my husband. I think if more people were open with their partners about their sexual needs, the world would be a happier place. Monogamy works for some people, like boring old me, but monogamy clearly does not work for everyone. And I really wish those people didn’t have to sneak around, lie, and betray their spouses in order to be their true selves: a person who forms passionate bonds of romantic/erotic love with more than one person.

I read so many books that try, in some way, to question society’s monogamous norms — and I often feel that these books massively fail the challenge, and that the writer simply wasn’t up to the task. In the case of The Little Paris Bookshop, the novel offered up gender essentialism as profundity, promoted gender roles and monogamy as wisdom and truth, rather than explore the possibility that Manon’s courage to love more than one man was her correct path, and should never have been viewed as the possible cause of her cancer. (She had a lump on her torso removed, leading me to believe she died of breast cancer, though I don’t think her specific cancer was ever named in the book. I skimmed the last 100 pages, and that information might’ve been in a passage I skimmed over.) No one in the book seeks to follow Manon’s example. Instead, her polyamory is something all of the other characters must “heal” from in the wake of her demise.

To be fair to the author, Nina George, she intended the book to focus on the journey of grief her male main character undertakes, not Manon’s sexuality. But there was still a lot of strong moral messaging going on throughout that novel, regardless of what the author intended. As a reader, I cannot ignore what the bigger picture is telling me, which is why I saved this issue of polyamory for a blog post, rather than addressing this particular set of problems I had in the book review.

In my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves, I unwittingly did the same thing Nina George did: presented a lot of moral messaging. I can’t speak for Nina George’s intentions, but I can speak for my own, and state that I didn’t intend for certain moral messages to come across in that novel, but that doesn’t mean I can deny they are there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the case of The Etiquette of Wolves, the problem is not my representation of gender roles, which are abundant in that book, since the story focuses on the relationship between a sorority and fraternity at a fictional Ivy League school. My big writer failure was my moral messaging around ableism — a term defined as “discrimination in favor of able-bodied people.” My ableism in my first novel is quite severe. There were powerful moral messages broadcast in that story, moral messages I never consciously intended. But that is the big danger in writing fiction: so much of creative writing is performed by the unconscious, and the unconscious possesses a lifetime of accumulated cultural bias.

This is certainly what happened to me when I wrote my first book. Which is not an excuse for my ableism, only the explanation for what I have done.

By the time I finished my final drafts of Bloodshade of the Goddess and Kinned to the Sea, I had learned enough about ableism that I could recognize my linguistic ableism in those books, and take steps to remove the linguistic ableism from those novels. I worked really hard, over a period of three months, to remove the worst ableist slurs from those stories.

But ableism exists on a macro as well as a micro level, and linguistic ableism is the micro level of ableist moral messaging.

When I realized what I had done in The Etiquette of Wolves, I almost removed the book from sale. My friend Amanda, who has helped open my eyes and teach me about ableism in popular culture as well as in literature, advocated that I keep the book up for sale. So I decided instead that I would use my blog to confess that I have a lot of ableist blood on my hands, when it comes to my first novel, and I intend to write about my failures. Before the end of 2017, I’ll have something ready to share with my blog readers. But for everyone who witnessed, with silent horror, the ableist discourse in my first book, and didn’t give up on me as a writer, I apologize for what I have done, and I thank you for deciding to stay with me, and keep supporting my work, even though my writing is deeply flawed.

In other writing news: Bloodshade of the Goddess is still winning the free-download competition, with 292 downloads on Smashwords. Kinned to the Sea lags far behind with 158 downloads on Smashwords. I was surprised and delighted to discover that seven people bought either Kinned to the Sea or Bloodshade of the Goddess on Amazon, even though the books are available for free. That means I have earned $15.00 in book sales this year, which is awesome! If four more people buy Kinned to the Sea, it will surpass Mark of the Pterren in overall sales count, which is kind of funny, really — but these are the honest sales figures of a self-publishing author with no marketing platform.

I keep hoping that some of the people who have downloaded these two ebooks for free will take the time to read them. I keep wondering if I should light some candles and pray for people to open the ebook file in their digital library, and check out my work. I hope for this all the time, though I haven’t lit any candles yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the Moon People Save Your Butt from the Patriarchy

 

 

 

 

 

So I finally watched the 2013 animated film The Tale of Princess Kaguya this week. I’ve been wanting to see this movie for so long, I’ve almost bought a copy of the DVD several times over the past few years. Then I discovered I could rent the film from a place called Louisa’s Movie House here in Durango for $1.25 — and this was how I ended my I-need-to-see-this-movie dilemma.

 

 

 

 

 

I expected this movie to be SUPER FANTABULOUS AMAZING.

 

 

 

 

 

I ended up massively disappointed. My sister watched the film with me, and she was so unimpressed that she started cracking jokes at the end, when the Moon People come to earth to take Princess Kaguya back to the Moon. Even though the movie had just featured something awesome — the Princess flying through the air in a mystical dream-sequence/fantasy interlude with her childhood love, who has grown into a man (with a wife and child of his own) — I just laughed and laughed with my sister’s jokes about the Moon People, and told her this film was a “one and done” for me — as in, I don’t want to watch it again.

I actually wanted to fast-forward through the entire second half of this (really long) movie, I grew so bored and tired of the plodding pace. While I can understand WHY the filmmakers focused on nature scenes as much as they did, I just ended up with a strong craving to watch My Neighbor Totoro or Princess Mononoke instead. I also kept saying, “I wish we were watching Howl’s Moving Castle.” A movie with a plot that is all go go go.

The themes of The Tale of Princess Kaguya center on the cyclical nature of life, the turning of the seasons and the rebirth of life each spring. The movie is also a grim reminder that life is pretty much a sh*t-fest of suffering.

 

 

 

 

 

While there were moments of joy in this movie, it is overall a super dark film. And by dark, I mean depressing. This is a grim movie, and I kept thinking I felt the same way watching this movie as I felt watching Grave of the Fireflies. So when the movie ended and I went online looking for pictures to paste in this blog post, I realized both of these films are creations of the same filmmaker: Isao Takahata. Of course. (!!!) How did I not already know that?

(I hope it is apparent how little I know about film. But at least I could recognize how emotionally similar these two movies are, even though it’s been over fifteen years since I watched Grave of the Fireflies.)

I should make clear that The Tale of Princess Kaguya did not make me sob. This movie has nowhere near the level of Death and Despair contained in Grave of the Fireflies. But the grim realities of life are certainly present. Ugliness in the form of f*cked-up societal structures, missed opportunities, human frailty, and the general sh*ttiness of being a woman all lead to the heartbreaking conclusion of this movie, which features the symbolic death of the Princess in the total loss of her memories, an event which immediately precludes her return to the Moon.

The Princess lives, but she will remember nothing of her time spent on earth. Her aging foster parents weep, the only two humans in the story who understand what is happening, which adds another level of poignancy to her loss. Since I’m not a complete troll, my heart did crack a bit at the end of the movie, since symbolic death is still death, and I felt sad that the Princess had to go through so much meaningless pain when she could’ve stayed in the mountains with her true love and been happy. Instead she suffered and suffered and suffered some more, until the abuses of the patriarchy caused her to freak the f*ck out and summon the Moon People to save her. She immediately regretted her fear and this instinctual summoning, but her call for help could not be reversed, and neither could her pending departure.

In the end, I think Princess Kaguya’s return to the Moon was the best choice. Her true love had started a family with another woman, and the problems Princess Kaguya faced involving so many wealthy, unwanted suitors seeking her hand were not going away. With the top ruler of Japan demanding she marry him, sooner or later she was bound to become one of his wives — a life she’d already threatened suicide to avoid. Surely returning to the Moon was a better option than suicide.

Grave of the Fireflies is a film I own on DVD, and I do plan to watch it again one day. I rank that film with The Killing Fields, The Pianist, and Schindler’s List. I can’t even look at a picture of the movie poster without tearing up. Grave of the Fireflies is based on a semi-autobiographical novel, and it’s one of the greatest pieces of art ever made about war.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I really wish I’d enjoyed The Tale of Princess Kaguya a lot more than I did. But I found the movie to be slow, painful, grim, sad, and brutal to watch. While I enjoyed the historical setting, and I always love scenes of nature, I wasn’t invested in the characters enough to feel intrigued by such a predictable story. For those who love All Things Japanese History, I would definitely recommend this movie. The film received a lot of acclaim, and I’m glad I finally got a chance to see for myself what all the fuss was about.

Cardboard Creations, Super Funny New Videos, and Other Important Happenings in My World

My friend Michael Carson, who writes under the author name M.A. Carson, has been updating his website — and the work he has done is AWESOME!! Some of you may remember seeing Michael’s picture in a blog post I wrote about the Durango Literary Festival in 2015, when Michael joined me for a local authors event, and I dressed up as Wonder Woman. We’ve been critique partners for several years, and both of us have self-published books.

Along with writing fiction, Michael has a passion for creating three-dimensional art. A lot of this art is featured on his website, and he’s started creating some super funny videos to showcase his work.

This video is one of his newest, and I think it’s absolutely FANTASTIC —

 

Here is how Michael describes why he started building three-dimensional artistic creations

“I began cardboard sculpting as a way to make gift-giving more unexpected. What if that beautifully decorated Christmas box was in the shape of a toilet, or a robot, or a zombie with presents hidden in each limb?
It was so much fun watching my family tear into different creations that I wanted to explore just what else could be made out of packing material.

Constructing an idea out of recycled cardboard gives it a physical weight, dimension and texture that make no two ideas the same.

I love writing, drawing, and editing silly videos, but there’s nothing like holding a piece of your imagination in two hands, knowing it was a box of frozen waffles a few days ago.”

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Michael wrote and self-published a delightful novel titled Beauty Is for Suckers, the first chapter of which earned first place at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers Colorado Gold Contest in 2014. (To give some perspective on what an accomplishment this is: In 2016, I entered the first chapter of Kinned to the Sea into that same contest, and received such an abysmally low score, I ended up revising the entire opening of the book. Michael’s submission WON FIRST PLACE. His material was polished, engaging, funny, relatable, and compelling, and that same Chapter One remained the novel’s opening when he self-published the book. I think his novel ROCKS.)

Some of my Thought Candy followers read Michael’s humorous vampire book, and even left him Amazon reviews praising his work. ((SO MUCH COOLNESS!!)) There is nothing my little indie-publishing heart loves more than seeing my friends and readers helping to support other indie authors, whenever and however they can.

I would recommend everyone rush out and read Beauty Is for Suckers, if you haven’t read the book yet, but Michael has currently removed the novel from sale. He is sending out query letters again, seeing if he might be able to interest a literary agent to represent the book and find his novel a traditional publisher.

In the meantime, he has plans to continue designing cardboard creations and uploading fun (and super funny!) videos onto his author website. You can follow Michael’s work on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube. You can also subscribe to his website, and receive updates directly from his author page.

If you have a family member or friend who is an indie artist, or who might be an aspiring indie artist, you may want to share Michael’s work with them for inspiration as well as entertainment. Spending hours in solitude working on projects like this can be a lonely activity, and knowing that other people are out there doing the same thing can make the world feel a lot less lonely.

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And here is a quick update on Kinned to the Sea (which I published on March 6 of this year) — the book has been downloaded from Smashwords (where it is available for FREE) a total of 143 times. My urban fantasy, Bloodshade of the Goddess — (which I published on January 26, and is also FREE on Smashwords) — has been downloaded a total of 279 times. I’m curious to see which title ends up with more downloads by May 2, which is the day I turn 37. I have a hunch Bloodshade of the Goddess will be the clear winner, because the book has gained almost 80 additional downloads since Kinned to the Sea was published.

On Goodreads as well as Amazon, The Etiquette of Wolves remains my most popular title, dominating my number of reviews and ratings on both sites. But I keep hoping that the availability of free ebooks will help change that situation, and that my newest two books might be able to catch up.

This Sunday, March 26, I’ll be the guest speaker at my church, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Durango. I’ll be delivering a sermon similar to the speech I delivered at the Standing on the Side of Love March on January 21. I need to actually write this sermon though, so I will go work on that now. I really hope this goes well. I chose some quotes from the Qur’an to go with my sermon, and I plan to talk about the Prophet Muhammad a little, when I deliver the children’s story to the congregation that morning. If any of my Thought Candy readers live in the area, and want to come hear me speak this Sunday, the service starts at 10:00 a.m. and ends by 11:00 a.m. Everyone is more than welcome to come, and I would LOVE to see you there! ^.^

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Toaster Thinks I Am Satan, and Other Important News in My Life

In October 2016, I started a new novel, one I thought would be a standard murder mystery. A contemporary, real-life kind of book. But in the very first chapter, the story morphed out of control, and became a ghost story instead.

I hadn’t planned for that to happen, especially since I don’t read paranormal novels unless they’re passed off as “mainstream” stories, but these ghosts weren’t going away. The novel was definitely some kind of paranormal small-town horror story, and I got pretty mad at myself. In all truth, I’m still pissed at myself. Every time I think of those ghosts, I start fuming, and immediately want to throw a tantrum. I envision flinging my toaster out my dining room window a lot.

I’d been hoping to write a story that could be like my first novel, The Etiquette of Wolves, full of humor and bad guys and maybe a love story, something relatable and NORMAL that could possibly give me a bigger readership, because The Etiquette of Wolves remains my only book that has sold more than ten copies.

And then an annoying, smelly ghost showed up out of nowhere, right on page one, and ruined all of my plans. Ugh. Goddamn it, life.

I made it about a third of the way through that book, and I thought I’d made peace with my rage, but then my frustration got the best of me, and I jumped ship, picked up my original draft of Mark of the Pterren: Book II, and started a full-scale rewrite, which felt like bliss. Who needs a smelly ghost and a main character who summons the dead, when I have winged sociopaths slaughtering children and destroying the world? Of course I chose the sociopaths. One of my favorite pterren characters, the Mirador general named Hlinka, becomes a point of view character in the next installment of that story. How can I resist Hlinka?

But then my brain decided I had something else I wanted to do even more, which was to watch history videos like this one, over and over again, because apparently I need the world to know that the most exciting thing in my life is contemplating the border regions of empires like it’s some kind of job. This one is my favorite —

 

That video isn’t perfect, as the years are a bit off with the map, and certain countries have been simplified, rather than drawing out all their tortured fractures, but this remains my favorite European Timelapse video, mostly because I love the music so much.

For the last fifteen years, I have dreamed about writing a book starring Suleiman the Magnificent. He ruled the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, and I love this sultan in the same way I love King Arthur. A love that runs deep down in my soul. Suleiman was a complicated dude, and a great warrior. The guy was a f*cking badass. He completely fascinates me and sometimes I can’t even understand how the world isn’t as infatuated and breathlessly in love with Suleiman as I am. I love him so much that I don’t even like talking about him with people because folks either look at me like I’m the most pitiful waste of space they’ve ever encountered, or they mock his name, and I honestly don’t know which is worse. People assuming I’m a pitiful ignoramus who possibly sympathizes with “Muslim terrorists” because I love a long-dead Ottoman sultan, or people making fun of this man I love because his name sounds silly to them.

(Ugh. WHY. Why mock his name? Just because it’s foreign, and har har, you can tell right away that he wasn’t born in America? Ugh. His name is his NAME. I wish people would stop with the hating. He is SULEIMAN. He is AWESOME. Where is my toaster to throw out the window?? Epic fangirl tantrum, all up in here. Toaster Smash.)

(I feel like it is important to note that I would never throw my toaster out a window. I cannot afford to buy a new window. But sometimes I do scowl at the wall while I’m washing dishes. Full disclosure.)

Since I obviously now need a distraction, here is a nice Suleiman-esque picture to look at —

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(Yes, I know that is not an Actual Photograph of Suleiman the Magnificent, but there is no denying that Middle Eastern men are quite pretty and their headgear is rather attractive.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(I really like this man’s nose. And that orange collar with the buttons is RAWR. I also love the fringe on his headscarf. That fringe is WIN.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(If any of these men needed to borrow my toaster, I would not throw it out the window at them.)

For many years, I thought I’d write a screenplay about Suleiman. The older I get, and the more novels I write, the more I believe I’ll write a novel about him. Or maybe a series of novels. I seem to be a rather long-winded kind of writer who prefers to go On And On Into Infinity with my stories. This probably explains why I cannot find an agent to save my life.

I always had this big dream that I would move to Turkey, rent an apartment in Istanbul for two years, and travel all over the country, studying Ottoman history and writing this huge, sweeping epic starring this man and the years of his rule and all the startling, compelling, and heartbreaking things that took place in his empire in the 16th century.

So a few weeks ago, when I started compulsively watching these Timelapse videos again — I think I watched my favorite about fifty times one Saturday night — I ended up starting a new project. The story isn’t set in the 16th century, but in the territory that is now Ukraine, in a stretch of land that was called New Russia in 1790. A time period when the Ottoman Empire was still in existence.

I love this project so much. It’s a fantasy, a fairy tale retelling blended with historical fiction. Like Bloodshade of the Goddess and Kinned to the Sea, the characters use magic and the pacing is quick.

My husband is kind of mad at me because all I want to do lately is work on this book. I keep telling him he just has to accept that this story is The Best Thing EVER and Greg says, “You say that about all your books,” and he calls me annoying. Then I ask him to make green chili for dinner, and he does, but he still thinks I am annoying.

As of 10:50 p.m. on Sunday, March 12, Kinned to the Sea has been downloaded from Smashwords 111 times. So in the first seven days that I’ve published the ebook, one hundred eleven people have decided the book sounded good enough to download. For Bloodshade of the Goddess, the ebook has been downloaded from Smashwords 260 times. About 45 of those downloads were the result of Kinned to the Sea being published, after readers on Smashwords decided they wanted my free mer book as well as my free vampire novel.

I’m really glad I have some friends who have shared my webpage link for Kinned to the Sea on their Facebook pages, and I keep hoping I can build up my readership by providing these books free of charge.

Anyone who can leave an honest book review for any of my novels has my sincere thanks. Amazon and Goodreads are both great places to leave reviews, and so are Barnes & Noble and Smashwords. You can leave a review for a book even if you do not purchase the book, though you do need to have a profile on a site in order to post a review.

I’m not sure what I will publish next, but chances are high that it will feature smelly ghosts, sociopaths, or Imperial Russia. Please tell all your friends it will be The Best Thing EVER. Right after you read Kinned to the Sea. Because War Mermaids rock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A House on Fire, Sometimes Life Is Too Too Scary

On Monday, March 6, 2017, I had a book club meeting at 6:00 p.m.

I belong to a book club called Women Reading Women, in which we select books penned by female authors to discuss. For the month of March, I convinced my book club to read H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald, a memoir about her time training a goshawk after the death of her father. It’s a beautiful literary work, written with poetic prose and great subtlety. The author weaves themes of identity, ostracism, war, human nature, animal nature, artistic expression, and grief into paragraphs so exquisitely rendered the effect is quite breathtaking. I reread Chapter One as soon as I finished it.

As a literary memoir, it’s one of those books in which not much takes place on the outside, but entire galaxies burn and flare in each sentence. Not everyone enjoys prose like this. I really love it.

I had meant to read the entire book before my meeting on Monday night. But a number of events prevented that from happening. Late Sunday night, I found myself in the situation of needing to spend all day Monday reading the book in order to finish in time, but on Monday morning, my ebook formatter sent me my final, corrected e-files for Kinned to the Sea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My fifth novel took me much longer to finish than I anticipated. Only one person in my final round of beta-readers read the final draft, and then there were some extra delays in completing the last round of copyedits and formatting. When the corrected files came in Monday morning, I immediately started uploading my new ebook to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords. This took me all morning. Then I rewrote my book description for the sales page, and corrected that information on each platform, which took a large chunk of time from my afternoon.

I didn’t finish H Is for Hawk, but at least I could announce that my newest novel was ready to read. Even so, I felt exhausted and pretty much like a failure. My mood dropped so low that I actually went to the grocery store and bought some caramel ice cream, to give myself a sugar-high to counteract my sucky attitude. The ice cream worked its magic, and I pulled my sh*t together, Reader Fail and all.

I went to my book club meeting at 6:00, and discovered only one person read the entire book. Everyone else DNF’d (Did Not Finish), skimmed the memoir, or didn’t even start this book. Since I only read the first 100 pages, I had to clarify that my Reader Fail wasn’t due to not enjoying the book, but time constraints. I was the only one who loved this memoir, and I do plan to finish H Is for Hawk.

The conversation at book club mostly focused on politics, and we get pretty heated and curse a lot and I generally feel like an asshole but at least I brought cookies. (I also took pasta, but let’s not kid ourselves about the importance of sugar, and that Cookies Are King.) My book club chose The Little Paris Bookshop, by Nina George, for our April read, and lucky me a friend of mine gave me that book back in August, so I have a copy already.

As soon as I left my book club meeting, people started calling me. My mom, my sister-in-law, my friend Blair — my phone rang and rang as I dropped off my friend Mary, and by the time I dug the thing out of my purse, and answered, I discovered the house my sister lives in was on fire, and was “burning to the ground.”

Laura lives in Silverton, Colorado, a one-hour drive north from Durango. The house that had caught fire is owned by our mother, and she lives in what we call “the main house,” which is located right next door. Followers of my blog may recall that “the main house” was mortgaged almost two decades ago, and is now under constant threat of foreclosure. The house my sister lives in used to be full of my mom’s old furniture and miscellaneous boxes of memorabilia up until last May, when I helped my siblings clean the house out to let Laura move in. She gave birth to her first child last May, and needed a place to live, so my family did a bunch of work so that Laura and her then-boyfriend could move into this unused house, along with their infant daughter.

In October, we installed a wood stove in the house because Laura’s then-boyfriend wanted to heat the house with a wood stove, Laura had agreed to this plan, and no one had $5,000.00 for a new propane furnace. The former boyfriend no longer lives there, and baby Serena is now ten months old.

On Monday night, Laura came home from a day out of town, and she started a fire to warm up the house. Her friend Emannuel was with her, as well as Serena. Soon after starting the fire, Laura noticed a strange smell in the house, like burned plastic. There was no smoke in the air, and nothing appeared to be wrong. Emannuel has no sense of smell, so he couldn’t verify that Laura smelled something funky.

Since everyone survived this fire, I asked Laura to type the rest of this story for me — so here is my sister, relating this story in her own words —

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About fifteen minutes into watching our movie and watching Serena play, I caught a whiff of a strange smell — kind of like burning plastic. I was going to ask Eman if he smelled it, but realizing he had no sense of smell, I just started to look toward the fireplace to see if maybe one of Serena’s toys had magically gone over the brick barrier, when we both heard a funny ticking noise. Eman asked, “Can you hear that?”

“Yes,” I said as I finished getting to my feet. I took a step closer to the wood stove. As I looked up to the triple-wall piping that leads out of the house, I realized the wall around the pipe was bright orange and red — not the metal, but INSIDE THE WALL. So I said, “Eman, the wall is on fire. Grab the fire extinguisher from the front door, right there –” I pointed five feet away — “and hit the stove with it.”

“Get Serena out of the house,” Eman said to me. So I picked up Serena, grabbed my coat, pulled out my phone, dialed the dispatch number, and had dispatch on the phone by the time I opened the door to let Sooky [the dog], Serena and I out the front door.

As soon as we were on the front landing, Eman sprayed the wood stove with the extinguisher, then the wall where the pipe meets it, and when the spray hit the fire, the whole house immediately filled with smoke, which came pouring out the front door, hitting me in the back. So I took Serena in her car seat (which Eman had handed to me) over to my mom’s house, to let my mom know what had happened, and tell her that I had called the police.

While I did that, Eman went around the side of the house and sprayed the south-facing wall with the fire extinguisher, the wall where the wood stove pipe goes all the way up the side of the house. Then Eman went back inside to look for my cat, who had not made it out with the rest of us. This was also when the first police officer arrived, and handed Eman another extinguisher, which he took with him upstairs.

Eman went into the big bedroom above the living room (the living room is the room with the wood stove in it) — and inside this bedroom, he saw flames starting to come out of the wall behind a king-sized bed I keep for guests in that room.

Eman called for my cat, sprayed the wall with the fire, and then left the house.

Meanwhile, I had no idea Eman had seen fire in the wall, I still thought the wall was smoldering. I returned to my house, went inside, and walked up the stairs to my smaller bedroom, where I have mine and Serena’s clothes, which is the room next to the one that was now on fire. I didn’t see my cat. F*ck. So I thought, “Well sh*t, the house is full of smoke, I’m going to close this door so the the smoke doesn’t go in there, and open the window in the bathroom so the smoke has somewhere to go.”

Then I went back downstairs, still not realizing the second-floor south-facing wall of my house had become an inferno. I went to the other side of the house to the kitchen, opened the back door and called for the cat — still nothing. So I went back to the wood stove and cleaned up a path to get into the living room, moving Serena’s basket of toys and pillows and stuff that was on the floor so it wouldn’t get trampled on — and that’s when I heard Eman and the police officer screaming at me from the front yard, yelling, “Get the hell out of the house, Laura!”

So I did — and when I came around the corner of the room I had just vacated, I saw the side of the house had flames going all the way to the roof. A few minutes later, when my brother arrived, he told me he could see the orange glow of those flames from downtown, a few blocks away.

Watching the fire department spray water at both sides of my house, struggling to put out the fire for almost two hours, breaking the window into the bedroom to put out the flames in that king-size bed, which was a raging inferno by that point, broke my heart. The fire department really had to fight that fire — it did not die easily.

I am so grateful everyone is okay, and that I have amazing family and friends who make my world go ’round.

**********

A big thank you to Laura for typing that up for me. My sister is an amazing woman. Emannuel is an amazing man. They kept everyone safe and took all the right steps to keep that house from burning down. And thank God the fire happened at 8:00 p.m. and not 3:00 a.m., while Laura and Serena lay upstairs asleep.

As soon as I learned my sister’s house was on fire, I went home, packed an overnight bag, and drove to Silverton. I stayed the night in my mom’s house with Laura, Serena, my mom, my bothers Johnny and Mitchell, Sooky (the dog) and all the many kitties who live there. We returned to Laura’s house around midnight and found Laura’s cat in her kitchen, who was scared but unharmed. Laura brought him to my mom’s house.

Laura’s house didn’t burn to the ground, but the fire destroyed the big upstairs bedroom, and the smoke damage upstairs was bad enough that my brother Lee said the house came close to erupting into a complete structure fire due to the heat from the flames in the bedroom wall. When Laura closed the door to the smaller bedroom, she effectively saved ALL her clothes and precious belongings from being destroyed by smoke damage (permanently stained black or brown). She had little in the large bedroom other than the king-size bed and a few pieces of furniture — everything Laura lost in this fire, she can replace.

The house has **major** water damage now, and some of the second-floor south wall is missing, burned away in the flames.

On Tuesday morning, I went back into the burned house with my sister, and we loaded up six large trash bags with clothing (soaked with icy water and reeking of smoke), which I brought home to Durango to wash. If you have ever been in a burned house, you’ll know that the smoke and the charred debris emits a strong chemical smell, which is the odor of burned drywall, melted plastic, and roasted metal. Depending upon the materials that have gone up in flames, the particular chemical mix changes from house to house, but the smoke has a heavy industrial odor. It’s loaded with a higher concentration of poisonous chemicals, stings the eyes more, and we all know most people who die in fires die from smoke inhalation. It’s deadly stuff.

Laura followed me back to Durango on Tuesday afternoon (yesterday afternoon), to stay with me for a while. She brought Serena with her, and our mom is watching Sooky (the dog) and Laura’s cat, since I don’t have pets at my house. I made us dinner last night, and bought Laura lots of self-care items and new baby soap, and she gave Serena a bath, took a hot shower, rolled around on the floor with the baby and ate ice cream, and we just spent time together, stumbling through shock and washing smoky-bag after smoky-bag of almost-ruined laundry.

I hope my mom’s homeowner’s insurance will cover the cost of the damages. We are in some major financial trouble if the insurance doesn’t come through. But it’s too soon to know what will happen with that.

In the meantime, here is a picture of my sister eating the eggs and bacon I cooked for breakfast this morning —

 

 

 

 

 

 

Serena ate a little eggs and bacon, too.

If not for the fire on Monday night, I’d have shared a blog post about Kinned to the Sea now being available as an ebook. I’m still in shock over everything, but I did check all three sales platforms this morning, and Kinned to the Sea is available on them all. Here is my webpage with all three links where you can find this book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.

If you can afford to spend $2.99 for the ebook, I really appreciate your financial support. If you cannot afford the book, or you are someone who would normally receive the book for free in gratitude for beta-reading or being one of my critique partners, you can download the ebook for free on Smashwords.

Please leave a book review if you can. You do not have to purchase the book in order to leave a customer review on a sales page.

Thank you for reading. I thought March 6, 2017 would go down as the day I launched my fifth ebook, but that house fire changed all my plans. This Sunday, I’ll be lighting a candle of joy at church that no one was hurt, and that the only things my sister lost were pieces of furniture, some electronics, and small household items. We’ll pray the damage done to the house can be repaired soon. Sometimes life is too too scary.

 

Hearts in Jars, and a Lion Named Fluffy

When I was little, I lived in a small house on 700 South Broadway, at the end of a long street of houses, on the edge of a hill overlooking a valley of train tracks.

On the steepest side of this hill, behind all the homes, was a scraggly wood that people used as a local garbage drop. Unwanted stoves, refrigerators, broken toys, found their final resting place here. Poison ivy grew everywhere. Chiggers thrived. So did hornets and bees and dense, thorny plants that cut open skin like a knife in soft butter. I loved this wood. I played there all the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Starving strays also lived on this hillside, and I wanted to rescue them all. My mom allowed me to keep one when I was four or five, a calico cat she named Fluffy. Fluffy’s fur was a rainbow, shades of grey mixed with tans. She was a smallish-sized cat, and I met her as a kitten.

Fluffy immediately became the love of my life. She went everywhere with me, even when I learned to ride a bike and pedaled far from home, Fluffy would come along with me, like a dog.

We played in the woods all the time. She knew all my favorite footpaths, my favorite hiding places, my favorite perches for taking in the view. I was King of this Hill, and Fluffy was my First General.

She brought me presents all the time, mostly black garter snakes. Fluffy would catch them alive and bring them to me, twisting and writhing, snared in her little mouth.

Whenever my mom saw this happen, she would scream and scream. Snakes terrified her. They fascinated me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fluffy’s gifts always slithered away, as soon as she bequeathed them to me. This was because picking up Fluffy excited me more than grabbing hold of a snake, even though I found serpents so interesting. Fluffy’s body would be hot hot hot, her muscles tensed, coiled, ready to spring, desperate to leap for that snake again, watching its long dark body wriggle away. “Damn it,” I could hear her say in my head. “There it goes.”

“Yes,” I would think to her. “There it goes.” Let it go.

Of the objects I liked to collect from the wood, some of my favorites were rusty spoons, which I used as dissection equipment. And my favorite things to dissect, as a child, were the bodies of birds. Armed with my rusty spoons, I opened up corpses in various states of decay, but I loved to find them in the earlier stages of death, when their bodies ballooned with gases and egg hatchlings, squirming and shifting with maggots.

Fluffy watched my work with intensity. She would sit crouched at my side, staring intently, as I cracked into desiccated muscle and ribs. From beneath the dark feathers and the thin, rotted skin, erupted a thick sea of maggots, shivering as they spilled to the ground like a milky rice pudding.

My younger brothers sometimes attended these dissections, and I taught them the wonders of decayed organs and maggots. Fluffy took great pride in this work, because she viewed all these dead birds as her kills. “Yes, I destroyed that,” she said all the time, in the haughty set of her shoulders and the lethal glint in her eyes. “I killed this bird. And that one. And that one. And that dead turtle you found. And that rabbit. I, Fluffy, killed them all just for you.” She saw herself as Death Incarnate, the Great Lion of Paradise, a vigilant shadow always stalking her prey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shortly after I turned nine, my family moved away from 700 South Broadway, to a new town down the road. I no longer lived on a hillside by train tracks, and my new neighbors didn’t like strays. They put out bowls of poison, to kill off unwanted cats, and I didn’t know anything of this danger. Fluffy must have taken a drink from one of these bowls, and she died, and I never found her body, never saw her again.

This was the first time I learned that God can cut open your chest, slice out your heart, and sew you back up again, good as new. The same way I cracked open those maggot-filled birds with my rusty spoons, such a procedure could be done with me.

I called and called and called for Fluffy. I searched for her everywhere, all the time. In the silent hours of night, when I was supposed to be sleeping, I would kneel on the floor in the dark, with my ear pressed to the wall, imagining that the creaks and quiet pops of the house were the sounds Fluffy made, traveling the space between the beams holding drywall.

The Great Lion of Paradise was immortal, you see. My best friend couldn’t die. She roamed with me still, through the walls of the house.

In high school, at age seventeen, I dissected a cat in biology class. Female, and smallish, and thoroughly soaked in formaldehyde, she looked everything and nothing like Fluffy. In the eight years that had passed since I’d lost her, God had harvested my heart several more times, and I meditated over this corpse a great deal, as I wielded my scalpel and ticked off each task on my assignment checklist.

Months prior to enrolling in that biology class, I took a trip to Chicago, and spent a day with college students dissecting human cadavers. I stood without speaking and watched their day’s work, staring intently, and when they finished and zipped up the corpses back into their bags, I walked to the wide metal shelves mounted into the walls. The students filed out, but their professor left a few of the lights on for me.

I studied the glass jars holding various body parts, human fetuses, diseased sections of tissue, and eventually found myself before a large framed portrait of the Elephant Man, Joseph Merrick, who died in 1890. This information was not attached to his picture, but I already knew who he was, from books I had read. I gazed at him for a time.

Not far from this photo, I found a row of human hearts. I picked up each jar, measuring the weight in my hands. The entire room smelled of rot and formaldehyde, and I took comfort in being alone in this cavernous space, this shadowy lab full of bagged cadavers and jars, swathed in silence.

Beneath the cold glass in my fingertips, floating in that dense chemical, I felt those hearts beating. And maybe they were all mine, and this was where God had stored them, waiting for the day I would find them.

If I pressed an ear to the wall, I knew I would hear Fluffy. Scraping through the gap in the beams, beneath the drywall, letting me know she was there.