Heard From Editor

True to her word, I heard from my editor last week after delivering my manuscript of Jane in St Pete in early January. I’ve second and third guessed myself since then, but she said it was a “treat” to read and my characters were “quirky and interesting.” She’s sending it to the senior editor with a recommendation for a contract!!!!

There will be edits but nothing big, nothing like I imagined in my head. I am so relieved and pleased. Another piece of good luck landed last week, too. My Michigan chapter of Sisters in Crime wants me to lead a workshop in June. I’ll be the opening act for our star, Jane Cleland. What an honor. And if the virus still holds us captives in our homes, we will do it online.

My editor says it will take about two weeks to hear from her boss, so in that time I’ve been reading mystery short stories and trying to glean anything I can about writing the mystery short story. I have written a few. My vague plan is to dig out “The Charming Criminal” which formed the base upon which I built my secondary characters, Barb and George.

I am not a plotter, not really. I let the story take me where it wants to go. If I’m floundering in the middle of a long work, I step back and determine what needs to happen. Jane Cleland has a very good piece of instruction about how to deliberately plot a mystery and that helped, but still, my story tends to go its own way. I hardly know what I’ve done until it’s over.

However, my favorite part of teaching has always been planning the lesson. So my plan is to take “The Charming Criminal” apart to figure out how I put it together. Because I can’t find any books on the internet about how to write a mystery short story. Although, as a start, I’m reading the best ones published last year.

(OMG Joyce Carol Oates “The Archivist” from this collection is so good. Chillingly so.)

Some writers sneer when another author says their books write themselves. One guy said to give that answer about how you write is to be disingenuous. Nope. One example is the way I ended the book. My editor really liked it. She said it wasn’t the usual pages of monologue where the murderer tells all about his crime. Well, at the time, I was just going by intuition.

I did have to rewrite that last scene from scratch a few times. I tend to know (not always, but mostly) when things in a narrative don’t work. So I just keep trying until I get something that feels right. No idea my ending was at all unusual until my editor admired it for that very reason.

There will be edits and other writerly stuff to take care of, but for now I’m bursting with pleasure on my own little cloud of happiness.

Where I'm Writing From

This is a new writing spot in the same tiny winter condo I share with my newly retired husband, Al. Well, he retired January 1, 2020. Since then, it’s been a journey. We came almost immediately south to our winter home in St. Petersburg, Florida. Since we bought this place, this is the longest Al has been here. Since we’ve been married, this is the longest time the two of us have been together all day every day.

At first, Al had lots of activities and so I was able to comfortably keep most of my beloved habits and routines. I could write in my notebook every morning, spend a good part of Monday writing a blog post, go to dance class, yoga class and writer’s group. Al golfed, went to the gym, and took up shuffleboard. He was thinking of joining a poker group that meets at the clubhouse. Those were good times.

You know what happened next. COVID-19. Al and I have been mostly at home without much interaction with others for one week. My mother back in Michigan has been isolated for two weeks. It took us a little longer to get the memo that staying home is what we should do. Al stopped golfing. The gym closed. All my activities here on the Bayou closed, as did Al’s shuffleboard. We’ve heard people are still using the pool, but I’ve never been one for pools. I prefer beaches.

All our 35 miles of lovely white sand beaches have closed. Our Michigan family has canceled a trip down. That was wise, the right thing to do. You want to be in your home state where your doctors are when a pandemic hits. Our doctors are in Michigan and we are just moving in the Medicare so we really hope we don’t have to visit any doctor here. Most people who get this evil disease won’t have to see a doctor. We are older, but we’re healthy, so we’re optimistic. Speaking of healthy, I taught Al yoga. I miss my yoga teacher, though. She was really, really good. I just do the basics, like the series of poses called Sun Salutation to “Here Comes the Sun.”

We had a dance party, just the two of us, one night, with the help of Alexa, our non-human helper. Mostly she plays songs for us and tells us the weather in Michigan. We used to feel smug about that…now we just ask so we won’t pack up the car and head north too soon. For one thing, my dad is here. I hope to talk him into coming home with us (not working so far). The other part is our house there is much bigger, although really I finally have Al where I’ve always secretly wanted him, close by my side all day every day. Except when I want to read or write.

We watched the new ZZ Top rock doc on Netflix (I’m not a fan of their music but I love a good story about creative people making their dreams come true and this one was excellent). Also on Netflix, we’re watching The Stranger. It’s good, too. I see that the new Emma is coming to video straight from the mostly-closed movie theaters. I’m torn. $14.95 seems way too much to pay. Maybe for my birthday. Until then, we’ll just go on as we have and hope the sky doesn’t fall.

Things are quiet. We see walkers and people playing tennis, but we prefer to keep our social distance. At first I didn’t even want to take walks, but since Al did yoga, I have to now. Other than walking along the bayou nature trail, we have been to the grocery store, and my dad visited last Tuesday. That’s the extent of our activities outside staying in this little condo together. Which is why I moved my desk into the bedroom. The bedroom has become my refuge for reading and writing as Al pretty much watches CNBC (or as I call it “the money channel”) from opening bell until close of market. It keeps him (mostly) calm and busy, so I’m not complaining.

We live in Pinellas County, where there are currently 38 known cases of coronavirus, the virus that causes the disease of COVID-19. That’s low and we’re lucky. Most people in Florida (70%) are retired and don’t work anymore. We’ve saved all our lives for a little slice of year-round sunshine. Our lives have been upended, sure, but we don’t have many of the problems the rest of the country struggle with. Not yet.

It’s those people here and elsewhere on the globe, who have been on my mind. I’m worried for small businesses, for the service industry, for the paycheck-to-paycheck folks. There’s a great tradition in St Pete for small businesses. Downtown is mostly run by entrepreneurs. We love that. I see I am speaking for Al now. It was bound to happen. I’m surprised at how good we get along in this small space. I’m surprised how little I watch the second television that everyone said was essential when a spouse retires. But then, I am a reader and a writer.

I am also about to turn 65, the magic number for people who want to get into grocery stores early, when everything is freshly sanitized and shelves are fully stocked. You can see how that really won’t matter to us here where almost everyone is 65 and older. It will be a mob scene, but at least a clean one.

I had big plans for my birthday. A new business in St Pete, Book + Bottle was supposed to open last week. They sell books and wine. I love the whole concept. So I was going there, dragging Dad and Al because it’s my birthday and I get to say where we go and what we do. I also planned on visiting Frida’s bakery and cafe, another wonderful local business, for my dinner out, because I never cook on my birthday. Also, they have flourless chocolate cake and great food. I went there with writer friends before the enemy virus hit, and thought Al and Dad would like it there, too.

Just like almost everywhere in America, those two places have mostly closed for business. I hope our local small businesses can keep it together until the crisis is over and we get back to normal. It feels sometimes like things will never be normal again. Or there will be a new normal. Both Book + Bottle and Frida’s have curbside service, so we may just hop in the car and go out to support those businesses from afar. I’ve never ordered a book or a bottle of wine as a carry-out before. Since it’s my birthday, I can insist!

It’s a whole new world out there. I hope you are doing well. Until next week…

What Might Have Been

I wake up by slow inches. My head pounds with a dull sickening weight. A relentless thirst makes it hard to swallow, impossible to sleep. My stomach roils and I pitch myself from the bed and to the toilet. I didn’t eat much yesterday, so I dry heave into the cool and clean porcelain bowl, once, twice, a third time. I rinse my mouth with water from the tap, then, exhausted, lie on the tile floor. Coolness kisses my cheek as I drift away. I like to be away. Away, all memory of last night is vast and blank. Away, I have nothing to regret, no secrets to hide. Away, I don’t wonder where I got the new bruise blooming on my inner thigh. 

“MOM!” I hear my older son yell. He’s outside the bedroom door, but it’s still too loud for this early in the morning. “MOM! Todd will not get up for school. I’m going to miss the bus if I don’t leave now.”

“Okay, honey,” my voice is rusty as I try to project it through the bedroom door. “I’m having a quick shower.” I stagger upright and turn on the water again. Will he know it’s just the sink and not the shower? Probably not. “Have a good day. I love you!”

“Love you,” he says. I know he will have his homework in his backpack and his lunch money in the pocket of his jeans. Mark is a good boy. He’s only ten, he shouldn’t be responsible for his little brother, who would sleep until afternoon if I let him. 

I lift the tank lid of the toilet bowl and pull out a fifth of vodka. Good. Half full. I take a long drink then another. Just enough to stop my hands shaking. Just enough to get everything into alignment. Eventually, I stash the vodka and brush my teeth. I drag a comb through my snarled hair, pull on sweat pants. They don’t match the t-shirt I slept in but I don’t change. I don’t care if the secretary in the main office judges me when I sign Todd in late again. I don’t care if she raises her eyebrows because I’m using the same thin excuse as yesterday. 

I think about the vodka still in the bottle in the bathroom. If I drank it, I’d care even less. But I don’t. Not yet. I need to get Todd to school and I am careful not to drink too much before I drive. I am a good mom. I love my kids. I’d never hurt them. 

I thrust my feet into sneakers. They’re bright pink and hurt my eyes. So don’t look down, I tell myself. Maybe today I won’t drink. Maybe today I’ll call my sponsor. Go to a meeting. I know I will be welcomed back without judgement. But then I think about how I have already had a drink today. My sponsor will know. She doesn’t take any shit off me. I might need a new sponsor. That’s fine. I can stop drinking tomorrow.

This piece of fiction came from the prompt “What Might Have Been.” There was a time in my 20s I felt sure I would become an alcoholic if I didn’t change my life. The first change led to other positive changes and a huge discovery–I’d been drinking to self-medicate in an effort to calm fear, anxiety and panic. I still don’t know how my subconscious knew I needed to make those changes, I’m just happy I listened.

Her Name in Lights

I am writing from Florida where I shall begin my mission to read real books again. I brought a few with me, although I did have one final full priced Kindle book I traveled with, a memoir I really liked.

Cassandra King was married to a preacher and lived the life of a parish wife and mom to two sons when she met famous author Pat Conroy at a literary event. King was a teacher who had just written her first novel, about to published by a small press. Her marriage was falling apart. She lived in the same house with her husband but they had separate quarters.

Conroy’s situation was a bit different. He’d just published The Prince of Tides to great acclaim. He was a friendly guy who loved talking about writing and books. He also told and heard many a tall tale. He drank to excess and ate the same way at fancy restaurants. He’d already divorced two wives. He had a serious lover, but was trying to extricate himself from that relationship.

Then King met Conroy and the rest is literary history. Conroy was a megastar, his books had been turned into movies with top actors, the biggest novel of his already stellar career was taking off. And he asked to read her book and loved Cassandra’s writing. He offered to blurb her debut. And that’s about all I knew of this later in life marriage. (They were in their 50s). At the time, I thought wow good for her. She’ll be fast-tracked up the author ranks. And I never thought of her again. I continued to read Conroy’s novels. But I never picked up any of King’s fiction.

Until this one. A favorite genre is memoir. Memoir by a fiction writer is icing on the cake. Especially a memoir written by the wife of an author I’d long admired. I knew Conroy’s history: his brutal childhood, his drinking, his fame. His novels drew heavily from his tormented early life. Now I’d learn the whole story. And wow.

King and Conroy remained phone friends for a number of years before they started seeing each other IRL. By this time they were both free of the relationships that had been in trouble when they met and the very romantic Conroy proposed. I can’t say more without spoilers except that they had twenty years together, full of drama and fueled by their twin creative spirits. Cassandra met all Pat’s famous writer friends, wrote many more books, went on author tours and became a bestselling novelist herself.

She did well and judging by the blurbs on her book covers, she was a wonderful writer. Certainly in Tell Me a Story: My Life with Pat Conroy (the title puts the word CONROY in extra large letters on the front cover) she tells a good story herself. She brings the writing process alive and includes all the fine trappings of a fortunate writing life from an almost bygone era. The agents, publishers, book parties, contracts, book tours. There’s conflict, too. Conroy had a temper.

I really liked this memoir of the high-style writing life. Pat Conroy was quite a character and he seems to have met his ideal match in Cassandra King.

Top Ten Books of 2019

The Testaments was my favorite book in 2019

Goodreads says I read 158 books on my Kindle in 2019. I also read some print books, two I can think of right now: Sense & Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Testaments by Margaret Atwood, my #1 pick. So I read at least 160 books in 2019. I know, it’s an addiction. Here’s the list, starting with a tie for #10.

~ 10 ~ Daisy Jones & the Six was great fun fiction, but TRAVELING WILBURYS, the biography, was equally endearing, with the added benefit of being true. If you love music, musicians, and Behind the Music type hijinks, these books are asking you to pick them up.

~ 9 ~ Sunset Beach MARY KAY ANDREWS. A fun novel by one of my favorite authors of escapist fiction. Set in a place I know and love well, this humorous caper has a good mix of mystery and romance.

~ 8 ~ This Messy Magnificent Life GENEEN ROTH. Roth’s latest memoir veers away from her “catastrophe and how she handles it” pattern. I really liked those, too. Among other things she has survived the San Francisco earthquake and being taken for every last dime by Bernie Madoff. But those were earlier books. This one sees Roth determined to write a book not of misfortune, but joy. She does it so well.

~ 7 ~ Americanah CHIMANANDA NGOZI ADICHIE. This novel was a book club pick or I never would have tackled it. Which is why I love my book club. I loved the autofiction feel of this novel about an adventurous Nigerian woman who comes to the US for college and discovers she is black. She knew her skin color, of course, but it wasn’t an issue until she encountered the racism around every corner in America. It’s not as simplistic as it sounds. I’m white, and I found myself learning about Nigeria and an America white folks may not detect. Unconscious (as well as deliberate) white prejudices and ignorance about the daily lives of black people were lessons I needed to read. Oh, and the main character is sassy. Also smart and struggling with love.

~ 6 ~ I Remember Nothing NORA EPHRON. This is a book of personal essays that will make you laugh at your old self, boomer. I was worrying about death, googled “books to make me feel better about death” and this popped up first in my search! Fresh air and typical Ephron wit.

~ 5 ~ Witch Elm TANA FRENCH. My favorite crime writer. Every one of her books is superior in every way: language, plot, character. I’ll be rereading all her novels in 2020!

~ 4 ~ Three Women LISA TADDEO. Non-fiction about three very different women and how they handle sexual trauma. Like a husband who is unapologetically without a sex drive! Get used to it, he kind of tells his wife. And she’s got a kid. She feels trapped in this loveless marriage. Whaddaya think happens when high school boyfriend suddenly comes around? Sad and so good. Women break my heart. Especially young women like the girl who has an affair with her teacher. Oh I was so angry with him and I just wanted to hug her after what the trial and her town did to her!!

~ 3 ~ Florida LAUREN GROFF. Well, she’s an amazing writer. I suffer from sincere sentence envy when I read her. These are short stories about the weird and wonderful land I call my second home.

~ 2 ~ Maybe You Should Talk to Someone LORI GOTTLIEB. Author is a psychologist but this is not self-help in the traditional sense. Lori’s long-time boyfriend abruptly leaves her and her son. She’d been thinking wedding and he was thinking…I don’t know. FUCK him. She falls apart but keeps seeing patients and folds their stories into her own. Everybody hurts. But somehow by the end of the book, better moods rise. I’m making it sound trite but it’s not. I cried more than once. And the Hollywood super agent who was so rude and withholding during therapy…well…honestly, you should read this.

~ 1 ~ The Testaments MARGARET ATWOOD. I never saw the Hulu show of the Handmaid’s Tale. I did read the book when published in 1985 and watched the film with Natasha Richardson and heart-stopping handsome Aidan Quinn in 1989. I never thought Atwood would do a sequel but I’m so happy she did. I read all her novels and story collections and poetry. I buy them in hardcover the day they are published. And this did not disappoint. Really, really great. I am going to reread Stone Mattress next. I think that’s the name of the book. It’s the name of one of my favorite stories in that collection anyway. The other one I have read over and over is “Torch the Dusties.” I could rave on but needless to say I love this author. She can do no wrong.