Monday, April 20, 2015

The Death's Realm Blog Tour: On Death and Dying

When the fine folks at Grey Matter Press asked me to hop on the tour hearse to help promote the spectacular anthology Death's Realm containing my short historical tale set on the Titanic"Drowning", I paid for my ticket and grabbed my seat before realizing all this would entail: the introspection of envisioning and facing my own death.  There's a great chestnut about not pulling too hard on one thread, for fear of the rest of the tapestry unraveling.  But the concepts of death and dying are subjects I've covered in my writing career from the very beginning, and lately they've closely dogged me from over my shoulder, like Edgar Allen Poe's chatty raven. You see, in twenty-one days worth of time, a smattering of hours, a handful of minutes, I will have reached my fiftieth year on Spaceship Earth. Writing has always kept me feeling young, upbeat, and alive, my version of Dorian Gray's portrait or Ponce de Leon's fountain of youth.  But I'll admit it: even my inner child, who picked up the pen one overcast, muggy July night in 1980 and was forever changed by the possibilities contained within a magical potion of ink and imagination, is now grown aware of his mortality.  I am closer to the end of my life than its beginning, despite feeling (and often acting) like a kid.

If I could somehow communicate with the me that used to be, that fifteen-year-old who was lost and miserable, who started living inside himself (like in the great old Gino Vannelli classic from that long lost era), and tell him of the many joys and accomplishments he would know as a result of his writing, it might unleash a paradox -- and cause him to faint dead away of a heart attack.  That he would stand beside the Bridge set of the Starship Voyager (not on it -- signs were posted to keep out when the cameras weren't filming, because the producers didn't want soles tracking in muck across the pristine carpeting), or take to the dance floor in Los Angeles on the all-important night of September the 13th, 1999, with the cast of his beloved Space:1999, the show that first inspired him to take a stab at writing through original fan fiction, those ancient longhand drafts penned on lined school paper still archived in his future self's file cabinets alongside shooting scripts and over 1100 original fiction manuscripts. Not one but two cabinets containing his archives of published work. So many other instances.  All as a result of finding the one thing, the only thing, he ever wanted to do with his life. And doing it. There's no way that version of me could survive the shock of such knowledge, of knowing how happy and fulfilled his life would be.

It's been better than a good life.  It's been great, and I don't want to die.  Despite losing my grandfather, both grandmothers, a friend in high school who was the victim of an automobile accident, my mother from cancer at an age far too young (any age is the wrong number when your mom was as cool as mine), one great dog, five beloved cats, and various celebrity icons from my boyhood over the course of my near-fifty years, I want to live at least for another hundred -- albeit with new teeth and considerably less arthritis, especially in my right hip.  I know it sounds impossibly greedy, especially when you factor in the temporary nature of life and the randomness of living it to potential. There's a reason we age and pass beyond the pale.  But that's no comfort, not when I have so many stories within me left to write, like Scheherazade seeking to keep head attached to shoulder by telling tales in the face of death.

When asked to blog about about this subject nature, I was inspired to opt for a direct, personal approach: how I imagined my own end as playing out.  In my twenties, I joked about choking on a boneless spare rib after stuffing my face full of Chinese food between sweaty adventures with a dozen Major League Baseball jocks (this, long before I settled down with my partner of now-thirteen years, and landed my butt in this very seat in our happy home on the hill).  A decade ago, I remarked after attending a writers' group that I'd likely buy it from a shiv in the parking lot following the meeting, thanks to some disgruntled fellow scribe who didn't approve of what I wrote (today, I moderate one of the most amazing writing groups on the planet, and am more likely to code as a result of an overdose of laughter and enlightenment in the company of my many talented writer friends).  In the final reckoning however -- whether it's a hundred years away or creeping down from the woods in my backyard even as I type these words -- I hope the script reads something like this:



A house on a bluff, illuminated by a lone streetlamp outside and lights inside the house, including a necklace of blue and white Christmas strands strung around the two windows of a home office.  NOTE: Houses can be forlorn or happy places.  This old soul seems happy, judging by its appearance.


A foyer, painted indigo-blue.  To the right is a living room with a pomegranate accent wall.  To the left, the office room glimpsed from outside: painted beach-blue and filled with books, artwork and family photos, a desk.  Seated at the desk is an OLD MAN (THE WRITER) who feverishly runs a fountain pen across a notepad.

                         THE WRITER (VOICE OVER)
                 Ancient hands, so weak and old,
               hasten to the task.  Tell the
               tale that must be told, this is
               all I ask…

The Writer writes with haste.  He tears off a page, fills another, and another after that.  All of the pages form a neat stack on the desk.

The Writer’s pen stills.  We look down to see he has written THE END at the bottom.  Silence as he ponders the finished draft of the manuscript.  Then, he tears the last page from the notepad and assembles the sheets in proper order.  The manuscript goes into a decorative file folder labeled: THE FINAL STORY.

The Writer stands, gives one last bittersweet look around the room, and shuts off the lights.


The blue and white Christmas lights go dark.  As they do, a SHADOWY FIGURE approaches the front door. 


The Writer crosses the foyer and climbs the stairs, which CREAK beneath his steps.  The Shadowy Figure follows him up and around the banister, making no noise, to a bedroom with crimson curtains and a big bed.

The Writer prepares to close the door.  As the door shuts, we see the Shadowy Figure in the room, standing behind him.

The door SHUTS.

                         THE WRITER
                    (through door)
               Now I’m ready.

                                                  FADE OUT.

My dear friend and colleague, Martin Rose, whose brilliant story ‘Mirrorworld’ shares space between the covers in Death’s Realm, was bold enough to also share his thoughts on the moment of his final heartbeat:  “I've had my future predicted for me, which is another story for a dark and stormy night, but I've got reason to believe I'm going to live to be very old, and then I'll probably pass away from the usual ailments of old age. Hardening heart, pneumonia, infection. Not very spectacular, is it? We'll die, and it won't be noteworthy, or excite interest, and we'll be missed for all of five seconds, and then easily forgotten. That's a component of Jude in ‘Mirrorworld,’ to show life can be disappointing, we aren't guaranteed happy endings. Working, getting through life, suffering. Then it's over. There's no bright lights, no manual for the deceased, no great epiphany, no illusion of endless love. All you have is everything within your mind, and if you believe in reincarnation, you can't even take the memories with you. But you'll do it, over and over again. Go into the gentle night angry, you'll come back angry. Go into it a trivial fool, you'll come back out a fool. Letting go of regrets and discrimination is the best advice I can give anyone before they go to meet their final appointment. It is how I will meet mine.”

Monday, April 6, 2015

Meet the Luminous and Talented Dan Szczesny

Many blessings of the very cool variety resulted from my July 2013 appearance on New Hampshire Chronicle, not the least of which being that my writing career was documented by the big lifestyle TV show and broadcast across the entire state and well past its borders. A filmmaker tuning in hired me to write the screenplay to a feature film that now inches ever closer to release, and I made many excellent friends thanks to my brief time in the spotlight. Among those amazing friends is Dan Szczesny, a talented and committed writer from my old home region in the southern part of New Hampshire who saw the episode and then sought me out.  Dan made the effort to join us and writers' group friends for dinner on a blustery, brisk January Sunday two winters past -- and when his car was unable to scale the snowy hill where our house is located, he simply put the considerable hiking skills to use that once led him all the way up to the base camp on Mount Everest.  He's since become a vital, energetic, and welcome figure among our writers' group and its extended family, and one of my favorite authors.

Dan's new collection of short fiction, Sing, and Other Short Stories, was just released by Hobblebush Books.  It was my pleasure to sit down and speak with Dan about his amazing writing career.

Dan, share with us your literary background.
Believe it or not, my first full time job in writing was building obituaries for a local newspaper in Washington, Pennsylvania. I say building because the way it worked was as more of an assembly line. I'd get a sheet of information from the family -- name, age, work, survivors -- and have to put together the obit out of that. And sometimes the information was so horrible, or boring, that I'd try to dress it up with clearly inappropriate adjectives: John Smith was an ‘excruciatingly detailed’ mathematician, that sort of thing. I didn't last long at that job. But before that, my career started in Buffalo with a degree in English Literature. The first short story I ever had published appeared in 1991 in The Buffalo Spree. I'm proud to say that the story, ‘Blue Lady’ has been reprinted in my newest book, Sing and Other Short Stories. Like all writers, I had to pay the bills, so I started off on a career as a reporter, then editor, then publisher. I've written for newspapers and magazines around the country in Buffalo, Philadelphia, New Jersey and all over New England. Some that your readers might be familiar with include Pennsylvania Magazine, The National Catholic Register, Huffington Post, Good Men Project, Yahoo Parenting, and closer to home, the Union Leader where I was a reporter for two years. Since 2001, I've been Associate Publisher of The Hippo, now New Hampshire's largest newspaper. About three years ago I took a six- month sabbatical from The Hippo to write my first book, The Adventures of Buffalo and Tough Cookie. The book details my one-year hiking journey with my foster daughter bonding in the White Mountains. But when the time came to go back, I decided to set off on a life of book writing instead and I haven't looked back!

Please talk about Sing -- share with us the destinations readers will travel to and the people they’ll meet between the story collection’s covers.
I'm so excited about this new book! First, it's my first full-length volume of fiction. My first two books are narrative non-fiction. Second, the ten stories included in the book span my entire career, from 1991 to 2014 so it really gives the reader a peek at the full development of my life and interests as a writer.  Some of the stories were updated slightly for the new collection.  I'm a child of a blue collar family and grew up in a little town just outside Buffalo. My interests then and now have revolved around the choices made by or sometimes for ordinary people and how they respond to what I call their moment of epic choice. If you're affluent or poor, life choices are often givens. But for those of us in the middle, I've been fascinated by the single instance in someone's life where they can excel and better their lives, or fail and destroy it.  Survival after a plane crash. Appearing on national television. Choosing career over relationship. Recommitting to an estranged parent. Taking an incredible risk for love. All these potential outcomes are explored in the ten stories, and the stories themselves take place over time and space -- from 1930s South Dakota to 1980s Manchester to present day Alaska. Readers will meet a rancher desperate to hold back modern life, a plucky teenager given the chance to prove her worth to a national audience, a woman desperate to find her way back to her father's good graces, and a young man so in love with the girl of his dreams that he's willing to risk his life and face his greatest fear.

You not only participate in but also run multiple writing groups. Please talk about that.
What can I say, I'm a glutton for pain and frustration! I've been a member off and on of writing groups my whole life and often times, they can turn into social clubs. Nothing wrong with that, but not for me. I don't care what your ideology is, how old or experienced you are or what you write. All I want out of a writing group is that you produce and that you work hard to publish. Which is why I've been so thrilled by the groups I'm honored to be in now. Or at least in the case of The Berlin Writers’ Group, I love being an honorary member. I'm also a member of an occasional group out of Derry called Spaghetti and Writers. Both groups are filled with prolific creatives that work their butts off to produce, improve and publish and I love that!  I am also the moderator of The Blank Page, the writing group of the Goffstown Public Library. The librarian there asked me to take over after the last couple moderators fell through and I was happy to step in. My role there is basically to keep them focused and writing and set meeting times. But I try to be proactive by setting an example and by being encouraging. And that leads us to the next question!

You were one of my 2014 National Novel Writing Month buddies, and I had the pleasure of joining you for a write-in at our local library. What was that experience like for you, and do you plan to repeat it in November of 2015?
That was my first shot at NaNo and I'm proud to say I won! Haha! I finished a 50,000-word mystery novel called The Ballad of the Lost River Hog. To be honest, I have always dismissed NaNo as little more than a publicity stunt, but I wanted to use the challenge as a way to inspire my Blank Page comrades, to show them that it's possible to write every day. And I surprised myself by getting it done. Further, the challenge jump-started my own writing and pushed me to a new level.  Look, that whole myth about getting up every day and writing that the good people at NaNo push is, to go blue on you for a moment, bullshit. No other industry demands and pushes the idea of working EVERY SINGLE DAY! That's nonsense. Doctors don't perform surgery every day. Garbage men don't collect garbage every day. Where the heck has this idea come from that in order to be successful writers we have to force words out of our brain seven days a week? So screw that. That said, some writers enjoy that sort of schedule. I would go insane. But NaNo showed me that I can produce at a higher level then I had thought possible and that's been so important ever since! And I loved doing the write-in with you. In fact, I was so inspired, I took it to my Blank Page group and we had two write-ins at Goffstown. Then I sat down with my foster daughter for a write-in at our house. I love the idea of just sitting across from another writer and shutting out the world and getting down to the business of writing together. So, you bet I'll give it another go this November!

Can you talk about the course you’ll be teaching in June?
So, this workshop I have in mind is not scheduled yet. I'll let you know when it is. But basically, I want to call it “It's not magic, it's a job.”  Have you ever heard these things about writers; they hear voices in their heads, they are flighty and everything is a story, a muse speaks to them, they wake up in the middle of the night with ideas that must be written down. None of this happens to me. Ever, literally, ever. I don't sit at my computer and wait for my muse to alight on my shoulder and whisper the proper plot twist into my ear. Writing to me is a brutal grind, a sort of deep psychic punishment that involves slow, meticulous effort and practice and dedication. It's a job. It's a job that has been crafted and molded in my brain over the course of two decades. When an idea comes to me, it doesn't arrive via winged messenger. It arrives because I've been doing this all my life and I know what plot structure, and dialogue, and red herrings, and character development actually means. And I don't say that to brag, but rather as an illustration of the fact that writers draw on education and learning and experience, just like any crafts-person would. Listen, I don't mean to crush any romantic images -- oh, heck, yes I do. Wait for the muse at your own peril. Instead, sit down and fucking write.  And another thing, writers as a collective community suffer badly from a problem of image and perception. Stop reading this right now and Google ‘writer.’ Go ahead I'll wait. Now look at the images. Typewriter, ink well, pad of paper, another typewriter, typewriter key, picture of some 16th Century fop day-dreaming with his quill. Now Google ‘doctor.’ Yeah, see the difference? No pictures of 18th Century medicine men about to apply leeches are there?  Our profession is stopped in time, someplace about 1950. In order to be taken seriously, in order for people to understand what we do in terms of a professional industry, we need to break out of the mythology of the romantic writer, holed up in earthy writing room, banging away at a typewriter, drinking bourbon. Because you know what else goes along with those archaic images? Being poor. Do you think any of those doctors you just looked up are going to work for free, or for a positive Tweet? Nope. And either should we. But to do that, we need to at least pretend to stop acting like starving artists. Then maybe the compensation will follow.

(Dan's snapshot that inspired "Little Warrior", the collection's
opening short story)
What adventures in literature and in life are next for you?
So much! First, I've been tapped by Plaidswede Books as the editor of their newest short story collection, Murder in the New England Newsroom. That will be a crime noir collection of fiction revolving around the theme of the newsroom. The deadline for stories is June 1 and anyone looking for more information can email me. Second, I've gotten a couple agent bites to look at Ballad of the Lost River Hog. I'm developing that as a series and I'm currently editing furiously to get it ready for agencies.  Third, I've been given the green light on a new book, tentatively titled Pass the Corn Pudding, which will be a non-fiction narrative history of the Northern New England Pot Luck. Finally, I'm touring all this year in support of all three of my books. You can find a full schedule of where I'll be at my website.   All that said, the greatest adventure, by far, of my life began on December 30, 2014 when my baby girl, Uma, was born. And her presence in my life has driven me to nearly obsessive heights of inspiration and determination in my craft. I write now always with her in my mind. I have found ways to streamline my day-to-day writing process, to be more efficient with time and resources. There are so many books I want to read to her. There are so many books I want to write for her. I won't have time for them all, but I'm going to try!

Friday, March 27, 2015


At the end of summer in 2013, I took a long weekend to nest, write, and recover -- I'd had surgery, uprooted my family after buying a house far from all that was familiar, and we'd lost one of our clan, the famous rescue cat Chicken, whose passing left us all feeling as though our hearts had been ripped out of our chests.  During those Three Days of Heaven in Xanadu, I sipped coffee, took walks, read books, and wrote like a dervish. One of the stories completed during the surge was a modern, creepy retelling of the classic Grimm's fable, "Thumbling".  The gist of that particular tale involves a childless couple who wish themselves into having a baby -- a tiny child that rides around in the ear of their horse, among its other adventures.  I'd always found this fable unnerving, and already had put down a page or so about a woman who is part of a circle of social knitters who finds herself mired in shadows after one of the group announces that she and her husband are expecting a baby. The first draft of "Thumbling" dashed itself off over the course of the weekend, completed on my sun porch, a place that has become my al fresco office during the five months of the year when our new town isn't frozen solid and a vast, white wasteland. This past summer, the story's longhand draft came out of the file cabinet and was edited on my laptop during a spectacular August weekend visit from my good friends, those literary geniuses, the Sisters Dent -- I'd read a call for spooky, modern takes on the classics by the fine folks at Tacitus Publishing. I sent off "Thumbling" and, on its first time out, Editor James S. Austin (who also created the amazing cover and interior art) accepted it into the project, the wonderful It's a Grimm Life.

"As a small publisher looking for the proper start, I felt the need to launch a project that embodies Tacitus Publishing's desire to promote writing and writers.  Anthologies are one of the best opportunities for writers, both practiced and new, to get a piece published.  They give a writer the chance to explore new concepts and experiment with a different voice while not having to feel the pressure of writing a story that must appeal to a broad audience," says Austin.  "I have always been fascinated by the assorted stories from past cultures, especially the Grimms’ collection of fairy tales.  It was during my college studies in anthropology, which included an examination of folklore and oral traditions, when I came to appreciate their influence on the literary world.  Their simple but moralistic plot-threads are still alive in popular film and television today.  It’s a Grimm Life offers the reader a chance to once again enter these past fables but through a new perspective and in a modern setting."

Many of my fellow It's A Grimm Life authors shared the back-stories behind their stories.

E.M. Eastick on "Fiddler's Green":  "My house is full of musical instruments: a piano; a guitar; an accordion and clarinet, neither of which I can play with any elegance; a variety of whistles, and a funny-looking mini-violin made from chunky wood and screechy strings, which I purchased on the streets of Katmandu just to stop the guy from playing it in my ear (an effective marketing strategy, it would seem). It's not surprising, then, that I should choose the Grimms' fairy tale about a singing bone for my modern-day retelling. The character of Stephen and his tragic pursuit of greatness were inspired by my mother: whenever I got to thinking I was the universal champion of [fill in the activity], my mother would gently remind me, 'No matter how good you are at something, there will always be someone in the world who's better.' Tough love, perhaps, but, so far, it's managed to keep me grounded and out of prison."

Jessamy Corob Cook on "The Wicked Stepmother":  "When the Disney film Tangled came out my roommate at the time admitted she didn't know the Grimm's version of ‘Rapunzel.’ Shocking! I set out to do my bit for humanity -- I found the story online and read it aloud to her. As I read I realized that what made this such a dark and unsettling story was not the prince getting his eyes scratched out (though Disney did leave that out of Tangled) but the fact that all the witch's evil deeds have love at their core. She can't bear to see Rapunzel grow up and become a woman, and will do anything to keep that from happening. She wants Rapunzel all to herself -- even though Rapunzel was not her daughter to begin with. Part of why I love fairy tales is because they are able to pierce the darkest depths of human experiences, including the dark side of love, and specifically, in this case, motherly love. For the record I think Tangled is great, but it's only one of infinite possible retellings of this story: as is the Grimm's story; as is mine."

(James Austin's original artwork for my story, "Thumbling")
Richard Tasonmart on "Where the Damned Go":  "I had the pleasure of working in a bookshop once.  It was a nice job, until the man with the French horn started coming along every lunch time and made three hours of every working day a living, brassy hell. He started to gather small crowds, this man. Most of them weren't loving his take on 'Wonderwall' and "She'll Be Coming Round the Mountain' -- they were just amazed by his nerve. Some workers in an office above where French Horn Man liked to play complained to the local press about his music disturbing their work.  A legend was born.  Soon his crowds were huge.  Everyone wanted to come and see this nuisance in the flesh.  I watched from a window of the bookshop.  Being the horror-loving man that I am, I imagined the whole town coming to see him, jeering and telling him to shut up.  Only then he'd turn into a dragon, and incinerate them with his breath, or take them all into his giant jaws and gulp them down before moving on to the next miserable place.  Of course, in this scenario I was immune, and watched the whole thing from inside the bookshop, horrified.  The reason I was immune was because I wouldn't be able to hear the horn for some reason.  This was the first spark of 'Where the Damned Go'.  Afterwards, it was simply a matter of determining where my Hamelin was, and what debt had to be paid.  As a writer who always follows his sparks, I find myself more often than not contemplating my Hamelins and my debts.  Work these out, and I usually have a story."

Adrean Messmer on "Waxwing":  "I’ve always loved the Juniper Tree. It was the first of the Grimm stories to make me realize that fairy tales were not exactly intended for children. From the stepmother trying to pin the death on her daughter, to feeding the murdered child to his own father for dinner, there was some twisted stuff going on. It’s such an overlooked story and super creepy. I’d been playing around with the retelling for a while. I wanted to keep it just as disturbing without rehashing the same plot elements. And I wanted to focus on some of the issues that people face today. Self-mutilation, suicide, child abuse, and zombie birds. You know, just every day kind of stuff."

Zoe McAuley on "Fairy Tale Endings":  "For me, putting things in a modern setting implies facing up to the real consequences of the events in the story, rather than glossing over them. With fairy tales, it's not really necessary to put a dark spin on them -- they're pretty damned dark already if you take a clear look at them. I got thinking about how fairy tales would play out in the real world and quickly concluded that they'd result in some pretty messed-up kids. I wanted to showcase how these kids might end up, the damage done to them -- the trouble was in cutting the number of examples down to a snappy story! But three is always a good fairy tale number. I didn't have the ending when I started; that just clicked partway through writing. It was irresistibly circular."

Victor Hyde on "Kurt & Wolfgang's Final Show":  "I grew up in a small town where people who were nobodies took on quasi-celebrity status: an estate agent, a butcher, a hairdresser that worked in Johannesburg for a month.  One such person was an old man with a hand puppet. He made the rounds at most birthday parties and functions for children with an old hand puppet of a dead-faced boy with wide eyes and a nutcracker’s mouth. Everyone knew of him but nobody really knew him.  His audience was limited to children younger than six. From the faded clothes and rusted car it was clear that these gigs barely paid enough to keep him alive. One day he did not pitch up for a children’s party and a few days later he was found dead in his flat. The flat was home to two hundred hand puppets, some brand new, others ancient, that the old man had surrounded himself with. Yet he only ever used the one puppet. To me there is something of a sad insanity to the story. When It’s a Grimm Life came along, the memory jumped the queue and demanded attention. Kurt and Wolfgang’s Final Show is my answer."

(Tacitus Publisher James. S. Austin)
Carmen Tudor on "Cast Me Adrift on Birdsong and Ash":  "As an Aussie, it can be difficult to sell a non-American setting to an American publisher, and yet those are my favorites; endless Californian or Texan settings don’t really do it for me. My story ‘Cast Me Adrift on Birdsong and Ash’ is set in a small fishing village on the Kent coast. It’s not Dickens’s marshes of Great Expectations, or even anywhere near Australia, but that novel definitely pushed my story in a particular direction. Adding my love of Grimm’s fairytales was an easy addition and the tale of ‘The Fisherman and His Wife’ slotted in alongside the gray skies and smoky chimneys quite nicely. As with most Grimm tales, the endings don’t always inspire happy thoughts. I’m quite fond of letting the reader decide if a story is meant to be as macabre as it seems on first reading, and ‘Cast Me Adrift on Birdsong and Ash’ is no different. Have a read. Let your imagination take you away from California and the American Dream. Bundle up against the cold, salty sea air and take a ride with a talking fish. And if Grimms-style endings don’t work for you, feel free to use your imagination. The fish won’t mind."

Charie D. La Marr on "Snaps":  "‘Snaps’ is a story that is very close to my heart. I started it twenty-eight years ago when I was the new mom of a son named Travis -- on a very boring extended maternity leave. (It was a planned pregnancy!) I had just gotten my first computer, a state-of-the-art Leading Edge and I was using it to write newsletters for my mother’s travel agency. I have been writing stories since I was about six and I decided it was time to learn how to really use the computer to start writing fiction. Somewhere in my former office in the basement in my huge Steelcase desk is the original story on one of those 5-inch floppy discs. Of course I have no way to read that disc so I had to start over. It kind of sat in the back of my head for about twenty-seven years before I finally wrote it again. Yes, I actually counted snaps on more than one occasion. I have a little OCD in me. Okay, a lot. And the numbers in the story were the result of my research. It’s probably a lot different now with onesies and Velcro and stuff like that. But I was a ‘green’ mother who raised my son in cloth diapers and that meant old-fashioned rubber pants. More snaps.  I call this story a dark cyberpunk fairy tale because of the computer connection. Oddly, or maybe not, Travis grew up to be a computer genius before he was seven. When I originally sent the story to James, he suggested I increase the age of the computer genius upstairs. I did, but it gave me a chuckle. Because the original fifth grade genius and hacker actually lives with me. I guess it’s unusual, but in our house it was just normal. Add to that my love of offbeat fairy tales. Growing up, there was only one cartoon show I would watch and that was Rocky and Bullwinkle. And ‘Fractured Fairy Tales’ always cracked me up. I still have a stuffed Fractured Fairy on my bed. The original versions of the Grimm’s tales are just so bad-ass that it is fun to mix them up. And I just loved writing about that little twerp with the bad wardrobe. To me he is pure fairy tale."

Liz Crossland on "Black Rock":  "‘What if’ scenarios can lead to interesting stories. ‘Black Rock’ came out of an MA writing assignment where we were challenged to think of a modern twist on a fairy tale. The character of Rapunzel, hair tumbling down from the highest tower, was worthy of subversion: what if Rapunzel was not so innocent? What if she metaphorically let down her hair?  What if her hair was a weapon, as well as a means of liberation? I set the story in northern England where schoolgirl ‘Rapunzel’ is trapped in a damaging relationship. A strict word limit led to my idea of Rapunzel tweeting for help. So when I heard Tacitus Publishing was commissioning a Grimm anthology, I returned to my manuscript, eager to expand on the plot.  If you’ve ever visited the North Yorkshire moors, you may recognise the isolated setting of the story. Wander the Victorian streets of Whitby and you’ll see shop windows full of jet-black jewellery. The semi-precious stone Whitby Jet is a recurring image in ‘Black Rock’ and, for me, this symbolises the dark heart of the story: the flaws in the disfigured ‘Prince’, the elusive heroine and the obsession she has with her dark motorbike-riding knight."

Monday, March 23, 2015

Scarlet Galleon's Beautiful Monster, DEAD HARVEST

(Bigger than a T-Rex!  Bigger than a Rocket Ship of the XM Variety!)
What's bigger than a breadbasket, as that old saying goes?  Well, okay, Dead Harvest, the gargantuan first-born spawn of Scarlet Galleon Publications, isn't big enough to house a family of four or drive to the supermarket in, but I'd wager you could use it to conk one of the living dead over the head -- though that would require having enough muscle mass to heft it up that high. Dead Harvest weighs in at a quite-monstrous and lovely near-700 pages, and its covers are crammed full of enough amazing stories by many of today's most exciting voices in the Horror genre to last a voracious reader until the next harvest.  My gothic short story, "Uncle Sharlevoix's Epidermis", is one of 50 tales in all, by such horrific household names as James A. Moore, Richard Chizmar, Lori R. Lopez, and Tim Lebbon. Up-and-comers like the brilliant Aaron GudmunsonE. G. Smith, and Patrick Lacey -- writers and friends alike, and some of the most exciting new voices out there -- round out this Who's-who beast of a read.

It was my pleasure to speak with Scarlet Galleon head honcho Mark Parker, the man behind the monster.

Mark, Dead Harvest is a colossus!  Why did you decide to super-size?
A lot of folks have commented on the size of DH, suggesting it could double as a doorstop, free weight, or lethal weapon. In truth, it was never my intention to do such a large anthology. I had the idea for a collection of about two-dozen stories or so. But what came as a surprise to me, was the sheer number of submissions Scarlet Galleon Publications received when the open call went out. I received nearly two hundred stories! Which, of course, made the process of reading them all quite arduous -- but very fulfilling. There was only one story in the bunch I simply would not consider, due to the subject matter. Culling through the stories was somewhat difficult, because I left the anthology un-themed, which is to say, when I titled the book, I was thinking more a harvest of stories, rather than stories with a harvest theme. That being said, it was challenging to put together a nice compliment of stories that would have a true kind of darkness to each of them. But in the end I think we achieved that balance. Readers have embraced the book and have loved the diversity of the stories. In terms of the large number, I found it nearly unbearable to pass on really cool stories simply for the sake of economy. I have learned my lesson, though. I doubt I would ever do such a large anthology in the future. I’m still not rested up from the first one. It was an audaciously daunting task for a first time publisher, to be sure.  

The book contains 50 stories by some pretty big heavy hitters in the modern horror scene.  When you were reading, what were you seeking, and what were some of the pleasant surprises that were accepted from the slush pile?
As a reader, I tend to enjoy stories that are atmospheric in nature. So I suppose that’s what I was looking for when I read through the submissions for DH. Because the book was subtitled, A Collection of Dark Tales, it left the un-themed theme almost too broad. I tend to prefer stories that haunt rather than shock. I’m of the school of Shirley Jackson, who Stephen King himself spoke of as a “woman who never felt the need to raise her voice.” For me that’s what I love in a well-written story. A story-line that sneaks up on you and leaves you with a kind of chill you simply can’t shake. In the stories that were finally selected for the book, I think each one imbues a kind of lingering chill, which was what I was looking for. In terms of what some of the ‘pleasant surprises’ were along the way, what surprised me most I suppose, was the affinity folks felt for the project from the start. The fact that DH attracted some of the biggest names in horror, still causes me to stop and pinch myself from time to time. That the book was graciously featured in the pages of Cemetery Dance magazine -- and is still selling in a limited number of signed copies by Richard Chizmar (Cemetery Dance’s founder) and his son, Billy, who both have stories in the book -- continues to make my head swim with disbelief. I’ve been reading the pages of Cemetery Dance since I was teen. To think that some of the industry’s largest, most well-respected writers are involved in SGP’s inaugural publication, is one of the greatest joys of my life, both personally and professionally. 

(Publisher Mark Parker)
In addition to running Scarlet Galleon Publications, which debuted with an amazing first book in DH, you’re also a writer with a pretty decent resume.  What are you presently writing?
Regarding my own writing, I currently have seven short stories to my credit. Biology of Blood, Lucky You, Way of the Witch, Halloween Night, and Banshee’s Cry. My first professional sale was a story titled The Scarlet Galleon, included in the anthology Wrapped in Red -- Thirteen Tales of Vampiric Horror by Sekhmet Press. And this year I wrote a longish story Killing Christmas that was published in the anthology for charity Return to Deathlehem through Grinning Skull Press. At present I’m finishing up a ‘50’s inspired B-Movie-style alien encounter story titled Eye in the Sky. Then I will dive into writing my full-length horror novel The Glowing. And then perhaps a collection of stories titled Dining with the Devil. I’m also planning to expand and republish some of the earlier stories that readers have all stated they’d wished were longer.  

What’s next for Scarlet Galleon Publications?
The next project planned for SGP will be Fearful Fathoms – Collected Tales of Aquatic Terror. Then the second volume in the Dead Harvest series.  

Friday, March 20, 2015

North Meets South Part II

(With, from left to right, writers Esther M. Leiper-Estabrooks, Karen Dent,
and Dan Szczesny)
Last March, members of my brilliant Berlin Writers' Group, which gathers every Tuesday night in this frozen, remote corner of the planet, traveled down state to meet with members of my equally-brilliant Southern New Hampshire writers' group, which I left when we bought our house 150-plus miles away. The event known as North Meets South was a smashing success, held at a restaurant located at the halfway point between both groups, whose members started to interact and form friendships through the Sunday salons and parties held up here following our big move.  This time around, BWG agreed that it was only fair to honor the effort routinely put forth by the southern gang, who always travel up here to hang out, write, dine, and celebrate the literary life, so we traveled to Milford, New Hampshire, where my small family used to live and where so many gatherings were held in our former apartment. And I knew the exact, perfect place where twenty or more scribes could spend an afternoon dining and sharing pages for the read-aloud portion of the fun.

In early 2012, the Saki House Restaurant opened in Milford.  We received a menu in the mail that winter, right before my adventure to New York City.  I moseyed over the following Tuesday afternoon for the buffet, which is unique in that it's different from your typical set up of steam tables, where you help yourself.  At Saki, you order off the menu -- four selections from an extensive list of offerings, plus soup -- and the food is brought out fresh from the kitchen.  After the first pass, you can order two more selections from the menu, and two more after that, and two more ad infinitum.  My kid sister and I, who made Fridays at Saki House a weekly highlight, never got higher than the 4th Round.

(Writers from North, South, and all points on the map)
I have great memories of Tuesdays at the restaurant, on my own and armed with pen and whatever latest story was presently getting its time front and center, and Fridays with my awesome sister.  I have also commented extensively about the hostile stares cast my way whenever the pen got uncapped and the pages put down -- the food was amazing and ridiculously reasonable, but the waiter always wanted me gone the moment I finished, not lingering around and writing down fresh pages of stories, novellas, and novels.  In my defense, always before I left a very generous tip.  And I never forgot how wonderful it was to have General Tso chicken, dumplings (fried, not steamed), boneless spare ribs, egg rolls, lo mein, hot and sour soup, and other menu choices come out sizzling hot and made to order.

When the notion of repeating last year's fun surfaced in January, I called around to various restaurants.  One famous New Hampshire diner's manager rushed me rudely off the phone, telling me to call back (I didn't).  Another didn't understand what I was inquiring about -- space enough to host a meeting of writers.  One call to Saki House, and the big table at the back of the restaurant was ours.

(With the talented, gorgeous Sisters Dent, Roxanne, l, and Karen, r)
Of course, it had been over two years since I'd set foot in the place, and I only hoped the food was as wonderful as my last visit (it was). Early on Saturday, March 14, a gloomy gray day that threatened to have rotten wintery-mix weather, I rode with three other BWG members down to Milford, through a steady rain.  We drove past our old apartment, source of so many adventures, the real and the imaginary. Curiously, I felt little of the nostalgia I expected -- life at Xanadu is my reality now, and it has been a rich time filled with creativity and joy. From there, it was on to the restaurant where, as soon as we entered, half an hour early, we were joined by Danny Sheehan, one of our poets from up north, and Karen and Roxanne Dent, the brilliant sisters who both write and are widely published (Karen also holds the distinction of appearing on my late, beloved soap, One Life to Live during her acting years in New York City).  Soon, writers began to arrive -- twenty-three party goers total when you add in my friend Doug's daughters.  We ordered meals, and food came out of the kitchen, as luscious and fresh as I recalled.  The hostility from the waitstaff was still there, though meted out in short doses.  And then, one at a time, writers stood up and read from their latest works.  More than once, other diners at tables waved us over, asking who we were and complimenting us on the quality of the unexpected lunchtime entertainment.

North Meets South Part II was another smashing success.  Seventeen of us read. I shared the opening pages of a new short story, "Winterization", which I am writing for consideration in Dan Szczesny's anthology of newsroom noir crime stories, Murder in the Newsroom, and got to enjoy poetry, mysteries, science fiction, gothic horror, a narrative, and work from some of my favorite writers and people.  After saying farewells-for-now, we packed back into the car and drove north, through the rain and into that promised mix of ice and snow.  On the return trip, the going got hairy halfway up the state, near the exit to New Hampshire's lakes region. But once we were in the state's chimney again, the roads were clear, and the adventure concluded. There's been some discussion about doing this again in six months -- up here this time, and down there six months later. And one member was so impressed with the concept and turn out that he's thinking about organizing a statewide day salon for several writing groups, which would be an amazing and fun event, I think. North Meets South II was a delight, and I can't wait for the next opportunity to break bread with members of my two writers' groups:  May 17, at the big birthday bash here at Xanadu to celebrate my 50th year on Spaceship Earth.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Meet the Luminous and Talented Laura J. Bear

2012 was an amazing year, filled with literary adventures and trips to far-flung destinations -- coast to coast, and even beyond the coast to a wonderful writing retreat on the Isles of Shoals. Upon my return from Star Island, I learned that I'd won a free stay at the lux retreat center in Vermont, When Words Count, and had barely landed from one glimpse of heaven before I was packed and headed out the door again to another. The year ended as it began, filled with an up-surge of creativity and promise, and one last adventure: an invitation to return to the retreat center in Vermont for New Year's Eve festivities.  It was there that I met a talented new writer named Laura J. Bear.  I was impressed with Laura's verve from the moment we shook hands at the big breakfast table on the snowy Saturday morning of my arrival (later the very same afternoon, our real estate agent called to inform me that our offer on Xanadu had been accepted, leading to the next of my life's great adventures).  Even more so, after she read the opening pages of her first novel while we gathered that night in the center's cozy Gertrude Stein salon to share from our work. I knew Laura's spark was genuine -- it was only a short matter of time before we'd see her story of love and loss published for others to enjoy, I was convinced.  And I was correct.  The fabulous Ms. Bear's debut novel bows to the world on March 14, and tells the story of a woman at the end of her marriage who finds a magical new beginning at a house in rural Minnesota.  Equal doses heartbreaking and hilarious, Where the Heart Lands is masterfully told by a literary voice whose star is on the rise, and by a woman who is as beautiful as the prose she writes.

It was my pleasure to speak with Laura about her novel, and her plans for what promises to be a very bright future for this talented scribe.

This novel is brilliant -- and it’s your first!  Share with us some of its history.  How long did it take you to write the novel?  Where did the idea originate?
Thank you for the kind words, Gregory. I am honored to receive such praise from a master like you! This novel took me two years to write while working a full-time job, and another year to edit and ready it for publication.

My novel-writing journey began in an unusual way. I had always considered myself a writer, but never really knew which direction to take with it. After giving up on a writing career early on because of a lack of confidence, I embarked on two college degrees and two careers over a span of twenty years or so. I worked as a registered nurse for a decade before going back to school for speech pathology. While working as a speech language pathologist, a co-worker of mine asked me to sit in with a client of hers who had suffered a stroke. This person was a young woman with aphasia. Aphasia is a disorder caused by injury to the language center of the brain that makes it difficult to express and understand language in any form to varying degrees. This woman made her living using her psychic abilities to do card readings, so her livelihood required good communication. It’s fairly typical, as part of speech language therapy, to help a client with aphasia perform learned techniques to improve their verbal expression by providing an “unfamiliar listener” situation to help them bridge from the therapy setting to the real world.

During my session with her, I asked a vague question: “What will happen for me in the next five years?” then I drew my cards and she interpreted them: I had been a writer in my past, I should be writing right now, and in the future I would write a book and have lots of help from editors and others and I would be happy and successful as a writer! This was the second very direct “message” I’d had about circling back to writing, and this time, I paid better attention. I am rather down-to-earth and pessimistic at my core, so I never took much stock in psychic abilities before. Once I entered my fourth decade, though, I decided to be more open about such things. The moment I received the message, I decided to pursue my writing dream, no matter what. No more excuses. I sat down that night and began the kernel of my novel. The rest is history, or rather…present and future!

It was such a pleasure meeting you in Vermont in late 2012 into early 2013, and hearing you read from the novel's first chapters in their earliest drafts.  Tell us about the fabulous author, Laura Bear!
The pleasure was all mine, believe me. I have never met a more evolved soul before I met you. The whole retreat experience was like a dream. I met a wonderful group of writers who continue to be my friends. About me, well, I am neurotic and deeply flawed, but I feel things with passion. I love nature and outdoor activities like bicycling and hiking and paddling (kayak or canoe). I love all animals, but especially cats. I have a little crazy dog who does somersaults of glee every time I come in the door. Every cat member of my family began as a stray who found us. My spouse is also an animal lover. Treman is seventeen-years-old and terminally ill,  but as long as she keeps purring and eating, we’ll nurse her along. She still helps me write by walking across my computer keyboard.

Your novel's Addie and Lucy are unforgettable characters.  I felt like I knew them as real people.  Tell us about your writing process, how you make the magic happen, in other words.
I’m thrilled you think so! I really love Lucy and Addie. I got to know them quite well during the writing of the book. My process is a little haphazard. For this book, I began with a character: Lucy. I didn’t really have a story for her, just ideas of a story. After I started to write about her background, the story began to unfold. Addie was a minor character at first, written to interact with Lucy. Steve Eisner at When Words Count Writer’s Retreat read my notes and really liked the sentence that is now the first sentence of the novel and he wanted to know more about Addie. He was quite intrigued by her, so I wrote Addie’s background and suddenly, there was this strong character with her own story. I just had to figure out how to put the two stories together in one book: a much more laborious task. I’d love to say the writing just flowed from there, but that didn’t happen for me. I had to scrape and peel every word from my brain like ancient dried up wallpaper off the wall. That said, parts of it did almost write themselves: the hobo Horatio; the parts with the caretaker of the inherited house, Tom Anderson; and the story of Lucy’s eccentric great aunt, Jean-Marie. I had great fun with those characters!

I hate sitting for long periods and I love to be outside with my camera or riding my bicycle or walking or paddling my kayak, so I had to learn how to stay still for writing. The writing gets done when I sit on my bum, but I am inspired by nature and movement.

I think your writing is marvelous, and that you’re an exciting new voice.  What other writing projects are you working on at present -- short stories, another novel?
Thank you so much, Gregory. I am quite excited about my second book. This time, the story came to me first and I am developing the characters. I have a sketchy outline. All I will say at this point is that it looks like it wants to be a thriller! I have several short stories started, but have been working on polishing the debut novel and fleshing out the next novel, so I still haven’t finished my short stories. I am in awe of your prolific genius, Greg! Working in a helping field, I do get a little depleted after working my day job, so I have to work in short bursts. I try to write at least something every day, even if it’s a short poem on Twitter!

Describe your writing space.
The third bedroom in our house is small, but duly suited for a writing room. I have a Mission-style oak desk in the middle of the wall, surrounded by two similar desks built by a carpenter friend. This creates a row of writing space with computer and printer along one wall with bookshelves and shelving lining the opposite wall. Double windows look out on the backyard with bird feeders, flower and vegetable gardens, and the stacked wood we use for the wood stove on the covered patio. Inside, the shelves are full of books I love books about writing, plus pottery and photos of family and wildlife. I have a small filing cabinet on the remaining wall and posters of musicians and instruments on the walls. A laptop computer lives on the middle desk. I keep several notebooks on the shelf or stacked on the left-side desk.  I tend to do my “real” writing on the computer. I used to write only in longhand when I was young and then transfer to a typewriter, but I find the computer freeing. My fingers just go and I don’t have time to analyze as much, which for me, is a good thing. I have a love/hate relationship with technology!

What’s Laura Bear’s version of the perfect writing day?
A perfect writing day is sitting in my writing room with a hot cup of tea or some red wine at my computer with the kitty cat lying against the keyboard. There’s a fire in the wood stove and a steady rain on the back porch roof and windowpanes, setting the mood and decreasing the temptation to go outside. All of this seems like a dream to me. I’m so glad I finally dove in. Thank you so much for hosting me on your blog site, Greg. You are a true gem of a person and a fantastic writer. I am truly blessed to be on this journey with such fine company.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

2015: My Literary Vinter Vonderland

This is our family's second full winter here at Xanadu, in a town located in the shadow of Mount Washington. A few days ago, the only place on the entire planet colder than the mountain's summit (some twenty-two miles from my front door) was recorded at the South Pole, in Antarctica. Winters here are beyond brutal.  We've hovered below zero dating back to the last day of last year. Snow has fallen in heaps and buckets.  As clearly visible in the photo at left, icicles have given our house a dragon's mouth expression full of jagged teeth.  Said photograph was taken in early February; today, weeks later, those teeth have grown longer and sharper, and the snow has continued to pile.  On Monday, February 16 the thermometer read - 20 below.  By tomorrow, the 20th, we're expecting to dip even lower.

I'll admit it -- I'm sick of all the cold, the white. I have very fond memories of New Hampshire winters when I was a kid, particularly of playing in the Big Woods that surrounded our tiny cottage home. During a blizzard in the winter of 1975, I reenacted an episode of Space:1999 set on the ice planet Ultima Thule.  A few years later, I drove around with my mother in search of the day's newspaper during the Blizzard of '78 -- while most of New England was paralyzed, we toodled about in her old red Vega, circling Cobbett's Pond for an open mom and pop.  We snagged one snowy copy at a self-serve newspaper vending machine outside our post office.  In my late 20s while working on a novel set during a blizzard, I again developed a love for short, cold New England days. Not so much any more as I enjoy the last two and a half months of my 40s; I've started dreaming again of warm days spent writing on my sun porch, icy iced coffee and snoozing cats at my side.

(XIII from publisher Resurrection House, containing
my short story, "Occupy Maple Street")
Going into this winter, I decided as I always do to accentuate the positive.  With our mortgage ticking down to single digits in terms of payments, numerous releases on the horizon, and fresh hope for the potential contained in this new year, I planned to bundle up, hunker down, nest, and write.  So far, so good on that count. Over January and into early February, I worked on several old projects (one of my mandates for this year was to give THE ENDs to various stories, long and short, that have howled for completed first drafts, some dating back to the years immediately following high school!).  I also planned to write several stories out of season -- ones set in the balmy summer.  When getting lost in Writer's World, we're able to manipulate the laws of time and space enough so that we believe we're living the story, so I planned to cast myself in the roles of characters soaking up sunshine.  As of today, I've completed nine short stories and one novella; have worked on a novel and two other novellas. However, none of them have yet transported me to the toasty realms I set out to explore. One, "Visibility", is set in Iceland and has, at its core, an encounter between a man and a crypid -- Iceland's celebrated Ice Worm Monster, which is purported to inhabit a deep glacial lake. Brrrrrrr!  On the day I finished the manuscript's first draft, I bundled up to help shovel the latest storm's accumulation, eight fluffy inches, while sub-zero wind roared across our neighborhood.

Late last winter, which wasn't any more merciful, I sold a short story to the anthology XIII by the fine folks at Resurrection House.  The projected publication date was Spring 2015, but to my delight a trio of contributor copies showed up last week, a hopeful taste of spring weeks early.  Two days later, airmail from Australia arrived -- my copy of the anthology From Out of the Dark.  Dark contains my gothic short story set in deep space, "The Rats in the Bulkheads".  The story was written during last
September's delightful stay at the Waterfall House, one of several completed during our writers' group's four-day retreat.  On the brisk Saturday previous, I placed a short story in the Cohesion Press anthology, Blurring the Line -- no small feat, as the editor was swamped with submissions.  My short story "1-2-3 Red Light" made it into what promises to be an exclusive club in terms of the Table of Contents.  And, despite my focus on older ideas needing their completion, a plethora of new ones have erupted from my psyche, demanding to be written down on note cards, some jumping to the front of the line.  All this while snow falls and icy winds blow around the walls of the house.  While a major water main in town burst, leaving us without water for two days -- the repair and restoration of water wound up jostling our pipes and causing several plumbing issues that didn't previously exist.  While our small family nests at Xanadu, never traveling too far, sustained by dreams of warm spring days and the return of the lush greenery that wreaths our home from May to September.

And until the weather shifts, I plan to immerse myself in writing adventures, new and old -- some hopefully set in sunnier climes!