An Interview with Rising Literary Star Melissa Falcon Field, Author of WHAT BURNS AWAY

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January 27th marks the publication release of a glorious debut novel, What Burns Away, by Melissa Falcon Field. It just so happens that Melissa is not only a formidable new talent on the literary fiction scene but is also my dear friend of more than twenty years and one of the best all-around human beings you could ever hope to meet. I was thrilled when Melissa generously agreed to answer a few interview questions about our early days, her personal writing process, and the path that What Burns Away took en route to publication and its imminent appearance in a bookstore near you—and in true Melissa Falcon Field fashion, she really gave it her all. Enjoy!

 

JW: You and I first met at the University of Maine at Farmington in the early to mid-1990s, where we were both majoring in Creative Writing. Amusingly, I have a clear memory of my first impression of you. You were this ebullient, energetic, and remarkably focused young woman in jean shorts, and I simultaneously was impressed by your apparent drive and certain that you wouldn’t want to be friends with the likes of me. I thought of Sylvia Plath in her Smith College years– so radiant and ambitious according to everyone who met her, yet deeply complex and blessed (or cursed?) with an enormity of feeling. When I first read your writing in Fiction Workshop, it both confirmed and refuted this impression. Your early writing had such a unique juxtaposition of sharpness and lushness that I still see in your work today. It was through writing, I think, that we formed our friendship– that, and due to your general kind nature. Do you have any particular standout memories or impressions of our early time at UMF and what we learned there?

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MFF: Jan, I love that you remember the jean shorts, stonewashed no doubt, given the era. And yes, there is so much I remember of that time and place where both of our writing lives, and our more than twenty-year friendship, began. If I have it right, you were in black combat boots and a purple shift, a black trench coat over top, walking beneath a black umbrella.  On your shoulder you carried an enormous bag full of books, and with you, the air of something both sophisticated and girlish, both dark and illuminated, and immediately, captivated by you fashion and gothic tilt, I wanted to know you. What I remember most about our initial interaction was that it occurred in the basement of Mallet Hall, the dorm where we both lived, and you were heating up a Hot Pocket (dinner of novelists) in the microwave. While I stood there behind you waiting to warm up my coffee, you offered me bubble gum in a yellow wrapper. With me, I had my own gigantic bag of books, slung over my shoulder, ruining my posture, and you asked me what I was reading. I still remember that the book in my hand was a collection of Stepehen Crane stories, I was reading “Maggie a Girl of the Streets, and then I opened my canvas tote filled with others, Heart Songs by Annie Proulx, The Best American Essay collection that year, 1995, edited by Jane Smiley, and a few others I can’t quite remember. It was then, looking at my library books, that you asked me if I was a writer, a question to which I smiled and covered my mouth, a dream too big to admit to anyone. A few days later, to my great pleasure, I found you seated at the far end of the room, on the first day of my fiction writing workshop that term taught by the talented Pat O’Donnell, a life long mentor and friend to both of us, who lead us into deeper conversations after class ended about craft and character in our fiction. We carried those conversations out the door of the 209 B of Roberts Learning Center, to smoke cigarettes by the amphitheater, mulling over the stories we had read in class and talking about novel ideas of our own. Your plotlines—the one you fancied in those days, the ones you hoped to follow and write, were just as fearless and complex and unshakeable as your novels are today.  I, too, see hints of your early work in both of your books, which I loved, Asta in the Wings, and What Has Become of You, which I stayed up all night to finish the day the galley arrived. In our early years writing together, we were so lucky not only to have found each other for what would become life-ling encouragement, but also to study with such talented professors, the Poet Laureate of Maine, Wes McNair, and our equally beloved professor of literature, Dr. Dan Gunn, who taught Shakespeare, in a classes where you spent some time crushing on a French exchange student, and where I met and fell madly for my college sweetheart. But my most constant memory of our time at the University of Maine at Farmington is of you and I sitting on “the beach” in the old student union, across from the radio station, both of us lost inside the works of the masters we wanted to emulate, for me—Eudora Welty, Raymond Carver, Willa Cather, Andre Dubus, Jane Smiley, Styart Dyebk, Mary Karr, Annie Dillard, and our own, beloved UMF professor, Bill Roorbach, who had just published his first memoir, a dream we could barely imagine for ourselves.

JW: Although many readers will be ‘meeting’ you with your debut What Burns Away, you have actually been a hardworking writer and a talent to contend with for many years now. What can you share about the novel’s journey toward publication and how it found its eventual home with Sourcebooks Landmark?

MFF: It’s true I have been writing ever since my undergraduate studies in at the University of Maine at Farmington, and throughout graduate school, where I earned my MFA at Texas State University. But my journey took a tegmental route, when after my time in Texas, I joined Teach For America to become an inner city schoolteacher and work hard for national school reform. Although I wrote in the stolen hours between teaching and night school, where I worked on a second Master’s Degree in Education, it wasn’t until I went back to teaching college-level classes, after nearly ten years in urban education, that I was able to have enough continuity in my writing life to work on long form narrative, successfully. It was at that time, when I had the luxury of carving out four full days a week to dedicate to reading and writing exclusively, every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturdays and Sunday, that I wrote a full manuscript and the first draft of What Burns Away, was born, a draft I would rework for four years, yes a long time, before I put it away for just over a year after the birth my son and during my husband’s and my decision to move to the Midwest.  Shortly there after, once all our boxes were unpacked and my little boy began to toddle, I pulled out the manuscript and read every book I could that was written in a similar vein— Jillian Medoff’s work was huge influence at that time, and anything else tagged ‘domestic suspense’ by booksellers, and looked in the back to see who the book’s agents were in the acknowledgements. Then, I made a list of those agencies and agents, twenty in total, and sent out fifteen simultaneous, unsolicited query letters to those taking new clients. It took about six months for me to hear back from anyone, but then slowly requests for full manuscripts, and the rejections, came in. I ended up sending out ten full manuscripts of the novel in an earlier form. I got four rejections and six requests for phone calls. In the end, I had four offers for representation and I went with my beloved agent, Jennifer Gates at Zachary Schuster Harmsworth, because not only did she have the most enthusiasm for What Burns Away, but also she offered prescriptive ideas for revision before we sent it out, which was what I needed for my first book. Jen’s wisdom not only helped me make a more beautiful novel, but also led me to publishers who shared her same enthusiasm for What Burns Away. Shana Dhres, my wonderful editor, connected to Claire’s story and offered us a contract right out of the gate, and even before we entertained other phone calls, I knew the book would find its home with her at Sourcebooks, the largest woman-owned trade book publisher in the United States. It was all very exciting and I can’t begin to explain how grateful I am to these women, Jennifer and Shana, who helped make it all happen.

 

JW:  The protagonist in What Burns Away bears a few superficial similarities to you: she is from New England and transplanted to the Midwest, for example, and she has a young son whom she adores. In many ways, however, she is completely unlike you. I was fascinated by your choice to make her a climatologist by profession, and I was additionally impressed by the way the themes and metaphors of climate and elements reverberate through the novel. What made you decide to make Claire a climatologist? Was there extensive research involved in this process, and if so, what was the most fascinating thing you learned?

MFF: My protagonist, Claire, as you have mentioned is both like and unlike me. At the time I was revising What Burns Away, I was a new mother myself, lost to a cross-country move with an ambitious husbanded who had his head buried in work. And in that period of time, I will admit, I had come undone a bit, no longer certain who I was, or who my husband and I were together.  But Claire, as a fictional character, is a far more unhinged version of how I felt in those years and to complete the composite of her character, I did a ton of research.  Some of what I studied was climatology, and astronomy, I also relied a bit on my own upbringing in that year of Halley’s comet, but the most extensive research I did was on fire science, on arson most especially. With the help of librarian Katherine Clark at the Sequoya Branch of the Madison Public Library here in Wisconsin, I retrieved and read all of Michael Faradays’ Lectures from his lecture series at the Royal Academy of London, The Chemical History of a Candle. I also preformed a few experiments of my own, lighting Ping-Pong balls on fire and making homemade flamethrowers out of aerosol cans in my very suburban backyard, to the great distress of my neighbors. I knew I had to study fire to understand Claire’s draw to it, so I could sense how that danger brewing inside of her. Also, as a writer, I needed to rationalize how that danger would manifest itself in woman with a solid grasp on chemistry, physics and weather patterns, the kinds of deliberations made by a climatologist. The who draw of Claire’s profession came from my personal obsessions with both the difference and commonalities between the two settings in the novel, one being Madison, Wisconsin, to where I had just then moved, and the other being the coast of Connecticut, where I grew up. Both settings desolation in winter, and their equally severe weather patterns, led to my choosing atmospheric science as Claire’s career choice, her knowledge of science and weather something that helped me inform her motivations as I further developed the novel’s plotlines.

 

JW:  Without giving too much away, one of my favorite parts of your novel is when the reader gets to see a letter that a very young Claire Spruce had written to ‘Teacher in Space’ Christa McAuliffe. I also loved the epistolary sections of the novel where Claire is exchanging some pretty steamy and poignant messages with a pivotal character. As you were writing the novel– and again, without giving too much away– can you share what part of the process was most fun and delicious for you?

MFF: The sections of What Burns Away in which I write from the vantage point of Claire as a young girl and, in paticular that section in which she has written to ‘Teacher in Space’ Christa McAuliffe, are also among my favorites, Jan. Maybe because I still have all my letters from the students I taught over the years, which I thumbed through, searching out the right voice, for Claire, as a girl she once was—a girl with a very specific dream. And the incorporations of letters and emails within the book throughout are derived for my love for epistolary novels. There are so many I have enjoyed over the years, Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and the 18th century works of Samuel Richardson, Pamela and Clarissa, Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, and a lengthy contemporary list, such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Color Purple, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette. What is exciting about the letters housed inside a novel, that story within the story, is the ways epistolary novels allow the reader access to intimacy through a private, often times secret, confession.  In What Burns Away the acknowledgments Claire makes about the past, and her desires in the present is yes, steamy and poignant, but also serves as a means for readers to access her private truth, even we see her spending her days trying to push that truth, and all that haunts her, away.  And it through those emails and letters that we learn the old, dangerous parts of Claire are still very much intact. For me writing those letters, both in terms of the tension and anticipation they build between Claire and the corresponded, was a wonderful exercise in thinking about the ways characters reveal themselves to each other in this world of social media, forcing me as a write to think the borderlines between the public and private landscape our characters occupy.

 

JW: As a writer, what is your greatest hope in terms of what you want your work to accomplish? If readers are discussing the work of Melissa Flacon Field 100 years from now, how would you like it to be remembered?

MFF: Like you, Jan, I have always loved coming of age novels, and for me, the onset of middle age is a kind of second coming of age. And therefore, I would like the work to be remembered for its work in capturing that moment when a woman realizes her youth is more behind her than it is in front of her, the ways this gives her pause, and all the ways she must decide what to let go of and what to hold close. The story is ultimately about identity; the ways characters in fiction redefine themselves, and in What Burns Away, it is “awakening” I am interested in as subject matter.  There is something about redefining Claire inside her famil dynamicy, later professionally, and in terms of her sexuality throughout that fascinates me. What was once sexy, what once felt like desire, is driven by different external factors. There is also un-shrouding of former definitions of self and personal history that I hope people remember, because Claire coming of age something she can’t stop it, and it is simultaneously happening to every one around her, and so there is a redefinition of beauty, too, finding what is left underneath the obvious youthful pretty. I loved writing a character in this space, acknowledging these things about her. The process of that surrender for Claire is brutal and transformative and why I felt compelled to capture that moment in What Burns Away.

Thanks again, Melissa, for your inspiring thoughts. I hope you savor every second of the  whirlwind that ensues with your book’s debut. 

 

 

 

 

Singing the Introverted Writer Blues: On Being Retiring in the Self-Promotional Age

Once upon a time, I had a dream of what it meant to live life as a Real Writer.  I had a dream that writers were people who jotted things down because they didn’t have the social wherewithal to string together more than a few stilted sentences in regular conversations. Writers, to my thinking, were people like me—those erstwhile kids in the classroom who had known the answers to most questions but never raised their hands because to call attention to oneself felt as unseemly and as uncomfortable as taking a dump in public. Writers were misfits: inept, maladroit, tortured—in short, all the things I was so naturally good at being. (In hindsight, though, I am sure that my view on writers was colored by the novels I read at an early age—stories of girls who wrote poetry in their garrets, glimpsing the moors beyond through a smudge of cleanliness in their otherwise filthy windows.)

But what do you suppose, Faithful Readers? I was wrong! I was wrong about everything! My foray into the land o’ writers  has taught me that many scribes have social skills beyond what I could have imagined. I suppose this should have dawned on me when I was getting my MFA and was surrounded by writing compatriots who were not always humble or reticent in touting their accomplishments. These were the types of people who, unlike me, were unlikely to dodge an acquaintance at Gristedes because they had forgotten to put on deodorant that day and didn’t want to inflict their stink on hapless victims. These were self-assured, charming people, and that alone should have tipped me off to the fact that a writer’s charm can hold him in good stead.

It wasn’t until my first two books were published that I realized my vision of the introverted writer was but a half-truth at best. I learned this swiftly as I participated in joint readings among co-presenters who were masterful and confident, whereas I meekly asked the crowd, “Would you mind if I sit down while I read?” (This, so that the  knocking of my knees would be less apparent.)  I participated in panel talks where my fellow presenters were so dazzlingly glib, witty, and self-possessed that I retreated into my turtle shell, speaking only when asked a direct question, and even then apologetically What I learned is that the writing world is filled with people who are not shy—at least not outwardly. And to be fair to myself (as I am always my worst critic and my worst self-effacer), I must leave room for the possibility that I come off as more poised than I feel. But in my own mind I will always be that little girl who is afraid to raise her hand and speak her mind—the girl who wants her written words to speak for her.

Am I handicapped, in this day and age where bold self-promotion and confidence seems to make or break a writer? I hope not. I still hold out hope that my written words do speak and that my readership might comprise people like myself who understand what it’s like to be on the margins and the fringes—people who are brimming with things to say yet are not saying them aloud, for whatever reason. If you are someone who has ever felt terrified by life, uncomfortable in his or her own skin, or torn between the compulsion to be reckoned with and the keen desire to remain in the shadows, I write for you. I write for you because I know what it is like to have a voice that still, in its own perverse way, wants to be heard.

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Why Endings Matter/Why Endings Don’t Matter

“There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.”—Frank Herbert

 

I’ve been thinking a bit about Frank Herbert’s quote (which I identify with and agree with) versus how the general reader might respond to such an assertion. For many readers, the ending affects the overall impression of a book; an ambiguous or unsatisfying ending can leave an unfavorable impression of a book that might otherwise have gotten a rave review. Is this fair? I’ve learned long ago that readerly impressions have nothing to do with fairness. I can only speak to my own experiences as a reader and as a writer when I talk about the significance of a novel’s end.

 

Frankly speaking, a novel’s ending is almost immaterial to me because I always believe that the characters are going to live on long after the final page is turned. If the narrative was especially vivid and certain characters are still left standing, I like to imagine what might happen to them in ten years, in twenty years; I don’t necessarily like to have their fates sealed up, unless I am reading a Dickensian novel, in which case I expect that sort of treatment and find something comforting in it. There have been times where I have loved a novel so much that I have stopped reading it a few pages before it ends because I knew I couldn’t bear seeing its final words; similarly,  I find it difficult to say goodbye to loved ones and accept closure. (This reveals more about me as a person, I suppose, than it does about the way most readers think.)

 

As a writer, I love the open possibilities offered by the ambiguous ending. I love Thelma and Louise’s car perpetually poised in midair once it launches from the cliff. Does the car plummet, killing them both? Does it somehow make it to a neighboring cliff? Does an element of magical realism creep in, bringing both antiheroines into an entirely different realm? I like thinking that any and all of these—or none of these—could be the answer. As Emily Dickinson once put it,

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –

 

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It’s admittedly  a conundrum, wanting to give readers a satisfactory ending yet also wanting one’s characters to take on new lives in the reader’s minds—the new lives of richly imagined possibilities. With both Asta in the Wings and What Has Become of You, I know I at least aimed for a graceful exit. In regards to where that human need for a satisfactory ending comes from—I suppose it comes from the failure of our real-life goodbyes to sate us, as anyone who has experienced great loss can understand. We want our fictive endings to nourish us in some way. I understand that kind of wanting. But I also believe as Theophile Gautier seemed to believe, as written in one of his stories:

“Nothing, in fact, actually dies; everything goes on existing, always…Every art, every word, every form, every thought, falls into the universal ocean of things, and provides a ripple on the surface that goes on enlarging beyond the furthest bounds of eternity.”

 

When Life and Art Intersect… and When They Don’t

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Being the constant teacher that I am, I enjoy the process of being interviewed because I like answering questions almost as much as I like asking them. One recurrent question that never fails to amuse me is, “How much of your characters are based on you?” In particular, people wonder how much of Vera Lundy from What Has Become of You is drawn from real life.

Doubtless I’ve invited these questions because of a few superficial similarities between myself and the protagonist: these echoes and reverberations are ultimately scant, however. I refer you to a Q and A from a recent interview, where I explore these differences and similarities in more depth:

Q: In your latest Novel, What Has Become of You, Vera Lundy is your main protagonist. She is described as a petite community college instructor who has lived in NYC and now resides in Maine. When imagining Vera Lundy, did you see elements of yourself in her?

JW: When I was first formulating Vera as a character in my mind, I did base some surface elements on myself, as many fiction writers do. In fact, the opening scene finds Vera in a library, being scolded for attempting to re-shelve a book. I wrote this opening scene after this exact same thing happened to me at the Portland Public Library; I remember being so taken aback to be chided as such because I had worked at the Columbia University Library when I was younger and definitely knew how to re-shelve books, but it seemed like one of those moments where it would have been impudent to say anything. Somehow, this became my opening scene in What Has Become of You. Vera is also a teacher—one who is rather inept in the classroom—and I drew a bit from my earliest teaching experiences and anecdotes I’d heard from past colleagues when creating some of the classroom scenes.

Another obvious similarity between Vera and myself is that she is a born-and-raised Mainer who lived in New York City for a while and has found herself back in her home state—but, unlike me, Vera rails against being back in Maine, whereas I have developed a newfound appreciation for my home state and my hardy, funny, resourceful fellow Mainers. She is a more discontented person than I am, less comfortable in her own skin, and while this may make her an odd protagonist to root for, I found myself really caring for Vera and wanting her to make better choices and to take hold of her life as I got deeper into the story.

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In short, Vera’s choices are a critical factor in her overall characterization. At nearly forty years old, Vera is what many people might justifiably call a ‘difficult’ character. The vast majority of critical reviews of the novel have been extremely favorable thus far, and customer reviews on sites like Goodreads tend to be consistently kind as well… but where the criticism sometimes creeps in is in regards to the ‘likability’ of Vera. A few readers have voiced that they are put off by her poor judgment and lack of maturity. From a writing perspective, though, creating an adult character who still has so much to learn was wickedly fun. I certainly know many people forty and over who still don’t have much to show for their years on the planet and are still very much works in progress, but I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing, provided that there is at least some effort toward growth. We’ve all made our mistakes– myself included– and the only unforgivable mistake is the mistake one doesn’t learn from.

Vera is more or less seduced, in an utterly innocent way, by her fifteen-year-old student Jensen Willard. One might view this as an exercise in narcissism, for Jensen reminds Vera a great deal of her younger self, who was ostracized and misunderstood in high school. This over-identification proves to be a fatal flaw, in the literal sense of the term. I loved the idea of writing a teacher character who was so uncomfortable in her own skin, so ill at ease in front of the classroom, that she could be led by the nose by a much younger girl. Does this make Vera ‘pathetic’ or ‘insane,’ as has occasionally been suggested? Pitiable, perhaps, and surely unstable. But ‘pitiable and unstable’ has a wildly different connotation from ‘pathetic and insane,” when you really get down to the brass tacks.

My own teaching experience has been quite different from Vera’s, I’m thankful to say. Though I’ve occasionally had those moments of feeling ill at ease, I take pride in fostering healthy, nurturing, respectful student-teacher relationships that truly make students feel empowered and capable in all that they do. I recently received a Faculty of the Year award from my teaching institution, in fact– something that I am pretty sure Vera would not be eligible for.

The truth of the matter is, I like broken people, at least in the abstract. I like exploring their minds and allowing them to lead me by the nose for a while, at least for the duration of a narrative. When thinking about the issue of whether or not a character is likable (and how much likability matters to readers), I found that there have been a number of online articles written in defense of unlikable characters, and I found myself nodding in agreement with some of them; as someone whose favorite characters include Humbert Humbert, the Underground Man, Miss Havisham, and any of Beckett’s disaffected protagonists, I guess you could say that I lean toward characters who have something patently wrong with them. These are not people whom I would want to call up and ask out on a coffee date in real life, but I do not consider ‘coffee date-ability’ a determining factor in how I respond to any character, be it in fiction, film, or elsewhere. (Hell, I love the high camp of Dennis Hopper’s character in Blue Velvet, bur that doesn’t mean I want to go on a joy ride with Frank Booth.)

When I wrote my first novel Asta in the Wings, I was dismayed to see that there were some readers who thought the story of abused, neglected Asta Hewitt must have been based on real life. In reality, I had (and have) a doting mother who raised me attentively and responsibly. Perhaps it’s a compliment of sorts that people thought the book seemed realistic enough to be veiled autobiography, and it is true that Asta’s psychological makeup bears some resemblance to mine at her age– but the story itself is entirely made up, just as What Has Become of You is. I think many fiction readers take small kernels of truth and then sow an entire garden of realistic falsehoods from that, which is part of what makes the writing process complex, enjoyable, and ultimately very freeing– for isn’t it the license to make things up, to give ourselves permission to go beyond, is what makes a storyteller a storyteller?

 

 

New York Times Review of Books & Other Press Updates

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The last week has been an excellent week for reviews following the launch of What Has Become of You on May 1st. The one I’ve been anticipating most– the one most writers want– appeared in the Sunday New York Times Review of Books supplement, as seen below in pictorial form. “Guilty as Sin” indeed!

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Little old me appears on page 29, in an issue packed with such distinguished writers as Gillian Flynn, Anthony Doerr, and Michael Cunningham. You can read the review in its entirety under my ‘Reviews’ section, but the novel is described, in part, as a ‘shivery thriller’ that is ‘written with subtle skill.’

Also appearing this week was an Associated Press review picked up by such major outlets as the Washington Times and ABC.com, which closed with: “Vera is a tricky character, not entirely likable, but arguably identifiable to many of us, and Watson treads that line with grace and precision. There are several reasons to recommend this book, not the least of which is the intricacy of the plot, which doesn’t twist so much as it winds and loops in ways that even if one may predict where it will go, the how is still surprising.”

Huffington Post also had this to say a few days ago, in part: “Jan Elizabeth Watson latest novel is a lurid, murky book that swallows the reader up in a maze of mystery.”

What Has Become of You was also selected as one of Apple’s 20 Best Books of May (10 fiction titles and 10 nonfiction) on their iBooks page. If Apple likes me, then my nerd cred has risen exponentially, and that’s a good thing.

Pax et lux,

Janny

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Book Launch Day: A Photo Diary

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What Has Become of You hit bookstores on May 1st, and I’ve been a busy bee ever since. Things kicked off on Thursday with a debut reading in Portland, Maine– the visual highlights of which I will post for your amusement.

First things first: I had to hit up some local bookstores to see who had actually put the book on display on pub date. Lo and behold, I found myself at this display table, prominently featured under a biography of Kiss’s Paul Stanley (and wouldn’t Paul Stanley approve of my outfit here?) as well as the new Gone Girl paperback:

 

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Then I moseyed on to a second bookstore and found this on the shelf. Would it have been wrong of me to move the ‘Staff Pick’ sign under What Has Become of You? (I was well behaved. I didn’t do it.)

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All that book-spotting gave me an appetite, so I went to one of my favorite local haunts for a bite to eat. Seated at a prime spot right near the restrooms, I noticed a new bit of decor– a signed photo of the Brady Bunch on the Men’s Room door! If this wasn’t a good omen on pub day, I don’t know what was. I love me some Bradys.

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Under the gentle auspices of Greg, Peter, and Bobby, I moved on to my next venue: the reading site itself.  There was quite a bit of poster action going on here.

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Inside the bookstore, people began to trickle in– some familiar faces, and some not. The seats filled quickly, the books sold in record time, and I read for a good half hour, being sure to select passages that were intriguingly creepy without giving too much plot away.

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Even the bookstore cat listened attentively. (Okay, fine, maybe he was distracted.)

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There was a Q and A section afterwards. I am gathering by my facial expression here that I am responding to the question, “How much are the characters based on yourself?” (The answer: Only superficially!)

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All in all, a wonderful event.  The next day, a friend of mine, Amy, posted a photo of the novel in her bookstore in Ohio. Note how I’m just casually hanging out here with Donna Tartt and Danielle Steele…

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More to come! In particular, stay on the lookout for links to new reviews. We have some good ones coming up…

A Tribute to “Action Jackson,” First-Grade Teacher

Image(The author at age 6.)

 

The story of how and when I knew I wanted to be a writer is one that I often share with students in my College Composition courses.  It is the story not only of my first grade teacher, Mrs. Jackson, but a story that emphasizes the value of student-teacher connectedness and of the far-reaching power that simple acknowledgment and validation in the classroom can have—in short, a story that may have resonance for us all.

I started my first grade year armed with the preconception that Mrs. Jackson was not ‘nice.’ I believed this to be true because it had been whispered among my classmates, and my older brothers had memories of Mrs. Jackson (whom they had dubbed “Action Jackson”) being especially strict and punitive in the classroom.  Though I did not know this at the time, Helen Jackson had been teaching elementary school for decades—an astonishing track record, when you think about it. She was a literal personification of the ‘old-school’ teaching mentality, having taught at a time when desks were still bolted to the floor and when all students quaked under the authority of their teachers. On the very first day of class, in preparation for an exercise in penmanship, Mrs. Jackson marched up and down the rows of desks, barking “Heads up! Backs straight! Bottoms out! Feet flat on the floor! Pencils ready!” (This was her mantra, I soon learned, and I can still here her giving these directives whenever I start to slump at my work desk today.)

I should insert here that I was not exactly your run of the mill kid. Already pegged with a Gifted and Talented label at a time in our pedagogical history when no one really knew what to do with Gifted and Talented kids, I was in my own reading group and had privately begun to write stories that I shared with my mother at home. As you can imagine, my Language Arts reader (entitled Helicopters and Gingerbread and chockablockwith monosyllabic stories of Jill and her brother  Bill) was dull for me, as were our writing assignments, which mostly involved rote spelling and vocabulary lists. For the first week of classes, I went along gamely with Mrs. Jackson’s simplistic exercises, but during our second week I decided to take a gamble and do something different.

The result was an original short story—written on three sides of wide-ruled yellow paper—called “The Fairy and the Lamb.” The gist of the narrative was this: A fairy had lost beloved lamb but never gave up her search for him. At the story’s stunning denouement, the fairy—surprise, surprise!— is finally reunited with her lamb. The last line went more or less as follows: “The lamb was old and fat, and his white coat had turned gray with age. He didn’t look like the lamb she remembered. But the fairy still loved him with all her heart.”

At some point during the day—perhaps during lunch, which Mrs. Jackson always ate at her desk with a stack of papers before her—my teacher must have looked at our vocabulary drill exercises, for when we came in from recess she had an announcement. Addressing the class, she said, “Jan has written a short story, and it is very good. I would like to read it to you.” I felt a great mixture of embarrassment and delight and tried not to squirm in my seat when the other children swiveled around in their chairs to look at me. I kept my eyes glued to my desk as Mrs. Jackson read the story out loud, but when she got to the part where the lamb was old and fat but the fairy still loved him, her voice grew thick, and I looked up to see her wiping away a tear from behind her bifocals. “Isn’t that sweet?” she said, glaring meaningfully at my classmates, who were far too young to understand that they’d just heard a tale about age and change and the vast pull of unconditional love. But I wasn’t worried about what the other students thought. All I could think was: I made Mrs. Jackson cry—not a bad cry, but a good one, like when my mom cries at the end of every episode of Little House on the Prairie! This was a heady, exhilarating feeling, and an addictive one. It was then, in that defining moment, that I knew I always wanted my words to elicit feelings in other people.

Once I knew I had a receptive audience of one, the stories poured out of me, and sharing my writing with Mrs. Jackson seemed to draw us closer. I would not like to say that I was her favorite, but I know that she held me in special regard. Many years later, when I was living in New York City and was enrolled in my Masters of Fine Arts program, my mother spotted Mrs. Jackson at a local supermarket, and my former teacher—now so old that the fact she could shop on her own was impressive—asked, “How is Jan? Does she still write stories?” When my mother told her I was working on my first novel, Mrs. Jackson reportedly beamed and said, “I knew it! I always knew from the very beginning that that girl would become a writer!” A few months later, Mrs. Jackson’s obituary appeared in the Kennebec Journal. Though she did not live to see my first two books published, I am glad to know she had she was able to get this confirmation of her early hunch before she went on to whatever world lies beyond this one.

The story of Mrs. Jackson and my early experience with storytelling reminds me of many things now as an instructor of writing. It reminds me that simple praise can have a profound effect on learners of every age.  It reminds me that the written word can forge connections between people and cement a respect that can last for the better part of a lifetime. It reminds me, most importantly, that one of the greatest gifts you can give to students is to highlight their strengths. The joy of teaching comes from watching them bask in this light and then, with an almost incandescent confidence, to run with it.

 

The New Face of WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU

ImageEverything was going so swimmingly. The cover image for my upcoming novel, WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU, had been locked into place since September; a bounty of blurbs from distinguished authors (eight in all!) had arrived just under the wire. The book jacket for the hardcover was ready to go to press, and then– BAM– the unthinkable happened: My publisher received word that my cover image had been purchased for use by another author’s upcoming book. And not just any author, but a formidable, bestselling one– an industry titan!

 

Let me backpedal a bit to give you more context about how the original cover came to be. My publisher acquired the image of a young, glowering girl and worked their design magic to superimpose the longish title over her face; the mode’s expression was neutral, but her arresting eyes, I imagined, would jump out at the reader from any bookshelf. I admit that I was not initially in love with the cover image, but the girl’s face– presumably a representation, if not a literal one, of my teenaged character Jensen Willard– began to grow on me. And as the image appeared on more and more websites and confronted me from the gleaming galley copies, I began to feel more and more like this was my girl and my image– the novel itself, personified.

 

Now, with no time to make a significant change, I was told that this could no longer be my girl or my image because someone else wanted it. Being relatively naïve still about how publishing and marketing work, I was shaken at first, and a little indignant– but the more I thought about it, the more I gained perspective and realized this is a pretty world-class problem to have, and as someone who does know real problems from minor ones, there was no point getting steamed about something so out of my control. So I took the words of advice of that old sage Ann Landers and “quit my bitching,” waiting instead to see what alternate image we could find in time to save the day.

 

The picture you see here is the new model for WHAT HAS BECOME OF YOU. The wizards at my publishing company worked hard to capture the essence of the original photo, and while the girl is clearly not the same, I am warming up to her just as I did with the first girl. Soon, I think, she will be mine, and I present her here to share with you. Ta-da! For those who have already pre-ordered, you might notice that the image is slightly different from what you have already seen on websites– but chances are, you might not even have noticed had I not pointed it out. I share this little story just to let you know that the publishing world is a funny one and that I truly work with a resourceful team right now.

Coming Out of the True-Crime Closet

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When you are a reader and writer of literary fiction, confessing to a fondness for certain ‘lesser’ writing genres casts one’s tastes and sensibilities into question. But I’m going to admit it here: I am a reader of many, many classics and an avid follower of some of the most brilliant writing minds of our day– and yet I cannot enter a bookstore or library without scouting out its true crime section to see if there are any titles I’ve missed.

If you are a ‘serious’ reader or writer, you might understand why I am hesitant to own up to this secret obsession of mine. True crime books deal with ugly subject matter– so ugly, in fact, that some stores won’t even sell them. I recently had this is experience in a large used bookstore when I asked where I might find the true crime section; the shopkeeper looked at me as though I had laid an egg and icily responded, “We don’t carry true crime. The owner doesn’t like it.” Suddenly, I felt the same shame I used to witness on men’s faces when I walked past them, as a nubile youngster, perusing the dirty magazines at the local book chain (this, before the days of plastic wrappings and easy-access Internet sites).

Why true crime, you might ask? (Or, for that matter, why any crime at all?) The protagonist of my upcoming novel, What Has Become of You, has this to say on the subject of committing crimes and writing original works: “It’s all about creation vs. anti-creation. Building vs. destroying. They both require a lot of energy, don’t they? The difference between the two vocations might as well be arrived at by a coin toss.” I am happy that my vocation falls on the creative side rather than the anti-creative one, but I have always wanted to understand the mind that takes the darker road in hopes that perhaps we can stop the anti-creation folks in their paths. It is because of this that my second novel is partly a crime novel, though to call it a ‘thriller’ or ‘psychological suspense’ seems a little reductive.

There are many crime books that have influenced and affected me over the years; more commonly, I have seen those pulp-ish, quickly churned out true crime tomes that come and go and have bypassed most of them. You know the ones I am talking about– the ones with the slick paperback covers, the tawdry titles, and “22 pages of never-before-seen photos” (usually consisting of a blood spatter snapshot and the exterior of somebody’s death house). In order for a true crime book to speak to me, it has to offer a bit more than a salacious headline. Generally, these are the criteria that help me decide whether a true crime book is worth my while:

-1. Does the book teach me something about human nature that I might not have known before? Or, alternately, does it reinforce a belief I had about human nature– one that seems fairly credible?

I will give you an example of a book that did exactly that. Killing for Company, by Brian Masters, is an account of Scottish killer Dennis Nilsen, who slaughtered and dismembered fifteen men between 1978 and 1983. A pre-Dahmer-esque figure, Nilsen attempted to preserve men’s bodies in hopes that he might be able to keep these people with him always– until, of course, the decomposition process made this impossible. Nilsen’s diaries figure heavily into the text of Killing for Company and add stunning insight into the tormented mind of the serial killer:

“I did it all for me. Purely selfish. I worshipped the art of death… Afterwards it was all sexual confusion, symbolism, honoring the ‘fallen.’ I was honoring myself. I hated the decay and the dessication.”

And later, poignantly, Nilsen stated: “It must be the most wonderful gift to be able to throw your arms around someone and just weep.”

Anyone with a heart and soul cannot help but weep (metaphorically, at least) for those  whose lives were lost at the hands of Dennis Nilsen. But the more we hear his words, the more we understand the fractured psyche that created the monster– and while that may not make us feel compassion for him, it certainly adds to the layers of grief.

  1. Is the book beautifully written?                                                                                                               When I think of beautifully written true crime books, the canonical ones come to mind: The Executioner’s Song; In Cold Blood. But the one that often gets overlooked– the one I would like to mention today– is Emlyn Williams’s Beyond Belief, a novelization of the Moors Murderers.

The so-called Moors Murderers were Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, a young couple who had tortured and slaughtered at least five young persons between 1963 and 1965 and buried the bodies in the moors of Northern England. By all reports, Ian, who was a devotee of Nietzsche and of Mein Kampf, was the brains behind the killings,, while Myra– a pliable young woman who was used to rough ways– became his devoted accomplice, resulting in the perfect folie a deux that is the hallmark of many serial crimes. The fact that Emlyn Williams took on this subject matter is interesting in and of itself; Williams was an extraordinary writer and actor and bon vivant, perhaps best remembered for his plays and film work (The Corn Is Green and the tragically neglected Night Must Fall, starring Rosalind Russell).  For such a distinguished man to easily assume the voice of a working class killer with grandiose aspirations must have been a stretch, and the results are not only colloquially accurate but almost Joycean in its poetry.

  1. Is the writer objective where objectivity is needed and compassionate where compassion is called for?

A book that meets this criteria, to my thinking, is Gitta Sereny’s Cries Unheard: The Story of Mary Bell. This is is a biographical account of a young girl from Newcastle-on-Tyne who was convicted of the strangulation deaths of two young boys (ages 3 and 4) when she herself was only eleven years old. When this conviction went down in 1968, the child killer was an unknown phenomenon, and Mary herself was regarded (rightly or wrongly) as a ‘bad seed.’ Sereny explores Mary’s early childhood and later years in a manner that balances fact with heart and makes a compelling case for the notion that this was a young girl who simply had too many strikes against her from the get-go.

I tend to believe that anyone who reads should not be ashamed of his or her reading choices; after all, in a society where fewer and fewer people take the time for ‘pleasure reading,’ shouldn’t we applaud those who endeavor to read for the sheer joy of it, regardless of subject matter? And in the case of true crime readers, I would say that that they still stand a chance of stumbling upon some human truths, some aesthetic beauty, and an all-embracing compassion that, in the right hands, can equal that found in our finest artistic works.