Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Spies Behind the Spies

Long before the planet went gaga over the film ARGO, I was fixated on Tony Mendez…

Antonio J. Mendez, a soft-spoken, nondescript, nice-guy operative — in the world of espionage, known to the head honchos of the CIA, and other world-class agencies, as "the Master of Disguise."

Tony, an undisputed genius, could create an entirely new identity for Anybody! Anywhere! Anytime!

Combining the cunning tricks of a magician with the analytical insight of an expert psychologist, he saved hundreds of men and women from death — or perhaps worse — by his talents.

He earned the CIA's Intelligence Star for planning the escape of The Famous 6 Americans from Tehran in 1980.

On the 50th Anniversary of the CIA, Tony was named one of the 50 all-time stars of the "spy trade" and is known to be one of the highest levels performers EVER in international espionage!

A former plumber and illustrator from Eureka, Nevada, Tony rose to be the Chief of Disguise of the CIA's technical services staff.

An expert in East Asian spycraft, Mendez masterminded much of the Cold War intrigue in Moscow, as a disguise specialist in the CIA Office of Technical Services. He also helped develop and deploy espionage gadgets — including a low-light camera used during the first moon landing and miniature lithium batteries that were the predecessors of batteries used in modern portable electronics.

Appointed Chief of their Graphics and Authoritative Division, he helped transform the identity of CIA field operations, by supplying them with high-level forged documentation for use in field missions.

Tony married his colleague of 27 years, Jonna Goeser, who was a camera expert and who also trained CIA officers in the use of Covert Technologies. They now live in Maryland.

After their retirement, the husband-and-wife team were called by the Agency to enter the lecture circuit and chronicle their undercover careers in places like Germany, India and Thailand, in an effort to "humanize" the secretive Agency.

Their book SPY DUST recounts their intelligence work in the USSR in the 1980s.

If you share my fascination with the spycraft of these two people, I suggest you read The Master of Disguise, by Tony Mendez and Spy Dust, by Antonio and Jonna Mendez.

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

P.S. I wonder if these two experts are doing any undercover work or advisory functions today, in this maelstrom of international spydom!!!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Mike Welch Goes to Rome - Days 2 and 3

Is Italy one of those countries where everyone is late and nobody worries about it? I think it might be. Our bus into town was an hour late on the way into town and then a half hour late coming back.

We wandered around the Vatican, and it was OK. I am not an art kind of guy, but our tour guide, Ellen, gave us the history of Italy in a nutshell as we wandered around. I liked looking at her as much as I enjoyed the paintings. Our fearless leader, Carmella, who runs the nonprofit that sponsored the voice contest and then set up this concert tour for the winners, is forever wearing a jaunty hat, and has a way of putting her fist on her hip which is very Mussolini like. I think she is a little whacky. Hard to say why. Not Mussolini whacky, but maybe arty-whacky, like not too concerned with mundane details like getting us a hotel that isn’t out in the middle of nowhere, or making sure the bus is on time to take us back from Rome when we are standing on the street in the rain at 11 pm. We are dinner at 11 pm, after travelling back on the late bus, and paying twenty euros for a bus that was supposed to be paid for as part of the tour package.

I hung out at a sidewalk cafĂ©, outside a gelateria, or ice cream shoppe, where I had a few draught Spatens, a German beer. It was good. I said slainte (Irish for salud or cheers) and the fellow at the next table pulled down his shirt to show me a tattoo on his shoulder that said the same. He ended up being from New Hampshire, and thought we had some kind of deep connection, the kind you can only have with complete strangers when you are frighteningly drunk. He started to talk about racial mixing, and I couldn’t tell if he was for or against. I was grateful when he wandered off to buttonhole another group at the next table. I wonder what kind of deep connection he felt for them.

I guess Italy is still a pretty Catholic country. I saw a number of handbills on walls protesting attempts to pass a law legalizing gay marriage. I thought Europe was supposed to be more enlightened than we are. No one has called me an ugly American yet. Tomorrow we see the Borghese gallery.

Day 3

Today we are going to take the train into town. Supposed to be 70, and it is absolutely gorgeous right now. My fellow travelers are not exactly extras from a production of the Canterbury Tales. They are opera fans the way some people are Star Trek fans. Fanatics, and able to conduct social intercourse only when they are with other fans. We went to a concert last night, and the performances induced a lot of tears among the fans. I was dry-eyed, but I was impressed with some of those impossible notes they hit.

I could appreciate the love for a discipline, an art, these young acolytes have. They were yelling and bellowing and emoting all over the place, and I could see they had put every bit of nerve and sinew they had into practicing and performing their pieces. One fellow, Galliano (does he have a brother Amaretto and a sister Anisette?) is apparently a real prodigy. The whole thing reminded me of a high school theater production, but like I said, the dedication to an art, to love something that is beautiful, unattainable, and is probably not going to love you back, is something I can appreciate. I could have cried for that, for these young and hopefuls who are willing to give, with the ascetic dedication of monks, all for art.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, November 27, 2015

How to Make Kate's Little Scones

One or two people have asked me for my recipe for scones. I bring these to church for coffee hour, and they go pretty fast. Here it is:


Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Mix together, in a food processor, if you like, or with a whisk:

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt


3/4 stick cold unsalted butter, cut in pieces

Cut in the butter with two knives, a pastry blender, or a few pulses of the food processor, doing that thing you do that coats the fat with flour but doesn't mix it to a paste, just as for biscuits, soda bread, or pie crust, until the largest pieces of butter are the size of peas.

Stir in:

1/2 cup dried currants or raisins

Mix together in another bowl:

1 large egg
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon grated orange rind, if you like

Mix into the dry ingredients just until moistened. Gather into a ball and knead against the bowl 5 times or so, until the dough holds together. Turn onto a floured surface. Roll out until about 3/4 of an inch thick. Slice across and across until you have wedges the size of 2 or 3 bites.

Place on an ungreased cookie sheet. Bake util the tops ares golden brown, 12 to 15 minutes.

And there you have it. Tasty scones. Enjoy with butter or Devonshire cream, strawberry jam, and tea.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Monday, November 23, 2015

Opening Lines Quiz - The Answers

Here are the answers to yesterday's first lines quiz.

1. They threw me off the hay truck about noon—The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain.

2. Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write—A Judgment in Stone, by Ruth Rendell

3. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again—Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.

4. My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky—Dead Over Heels, by Charlaine Harris

5. When I finally caught up with Abraham Traherne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon—The Last Good Kiss, by James Crumley

Stephanie Patterson

Sunday, November 22, 2015

First Lines That Keep You Reading: A Brief Quiz

So below you will find five of my favorite opening lines in mystery novels. What are the books? The answers will appear tomorrow. Feel free to add your own favorites. (No fair looking on Google.)

1. They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

2. Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.

3. Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

4. My bodyguard was mowing the yard wearing her pink bikini when the man fell from the sky.

5. When I finally caught up with Abraham Traherne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.

Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Mike Welch Goes to Rome

I wished, when I was younger, and then as I got older, to be able to travel to Europe and do The Grand Tour. It seemed like a lot of kids did it the year after they graduated college. But it is pretty much rich kids, or poor ones much more adventurous than me, who end up doing such things.

The Grand Tour is a tradition wherein, and, as a way to complete your education before you begin a lifetime of work (or at least of exploiting the working class), you spend a year, and Daddy’s money, wandering Europe in the way the idle rich do, learning about how Western Europe came to dominate everything (and pretty much screw it up). It’s the kind of thing you would do if you were a character in a Henry James novel (along with reading a lot of Henry James novels), or if you were one of those loveable young nitwits like, say, Lady Mary on Downton Abbey.

I will be 53 this Sunday, and I never thought I would get the chance to do such a thing. And yet, as I write this, I am sitting in a 16th Century Roman villa outside Rome, in Pomezia, a kind of suburb Mussolini had hastily erected in the years before WW2. Yes, here I am, and I am going to see Rome, and perhaps Prague, Budapest and Vienna, in the next two weeks.

My friend David loves Opera. Nevertheless, I like him quite a bit. He belongs to this group of opera buffs who go around to all manner of these bellowing fests, and the group organized a trip to Rome and Krakow, of all places. I signed on for the ride, and will be going on some tours with these people (who are a little bit out there, I think I can say without fear of being contradicted, but who seem harmless enough) in the mornings, and then escaping in the afternoons to wander Rome and the above-mentioned cities, learning what I guessed I should have learned a long time ago.

If I was doing this when I was 23, I would be hoping to fall in love, a love which would probably break my young heart, teach me about the ways of the world, and which would remain something I could throw in the face of the woman I eventually married whenever she fell short of the ridiculous expectations I had for her after the love itself was long a bittersweet memory. But I guess I won’t be doing that. Especially with a much older woman, like in those coming of age movies, because women much older than me are pretty much already dead.

There are two candidates I have found so far for the role of tragic lover. One, whose name is Anne, is a tenor, a lovely tenor, as delicate as a flower but who apparently has lungs that could blow your windows out. Unfortunately, she is married to an Israeli fellow (aren’t they all in the military, and they know how to kill you with their bare hands in a depressing number of ways?), and from the way she talks about him, they are copacetic. Oh, well.

The other is named Simonetta. She is apparently a real big deal in opera circles, and is very pretty, in a dark Italian way—olive complexion, big eyes that look always ready to fill with tears or light up with the wonder she seems to still feel for the world even though she must be familiar with the darker side of life, if not in practice, then in theory, for all these operas are filled with passion and deceit and double dealing and tragic and poignant circumstance. Her English is not too good, but then again, neither is mine. Stay tuned.

The trip down to JFK from Albany was uneventful, just the way I like it. I sat all the way in the back corner of the plane in a seat that was made for a kindergartner. The woman next to me was German, and she had a kind face, and would occasionally look at me and say things in German that I think were kind, although most things in German to me seem somehow less than kind. Eight hours, and my butt was hurting after four, and asleep after six. Finally, I fell into a fitful doze, dreaming that my lower legs, completely asleep from the awkward position I sat in, had been amputated in some freak accident in Italy, a place where freak accidents are expected to occur.

Things went relatively smoothly when we got there, although it was raining hard in Rome. I thought of A Farewell to Arms, where the hero, Frederic Henry, is always drinking grappa and a cold rain is always falling and the boredom of his life is punctuated by the violent death of battle. And he falls in love with that nurse. Simonetta is not a nurse and I’m not Frederic Henry.

On the way to the Villa, I am astounded by how so many ancient buildings are preserved here, as well as how much the Roman suburbs look to me like West New York, NJ, a Cuban enclave near the George Washington Bridge known for bodegas, graffiti, and old men sitting outside on the sidewalk playing dominoes, and talking about the extremely macho exploits of their youths. Anne talked for the last ten kilometers about how wonderful her husband and kid are. Blech. Simonetta talks in animated Italian on her cell phone, and I don’t think she notices me beyond noting I am an ugly American (I hope only metaphorically so).

We stop at a bank to get some Euros, and I am surprised to find you must enter a bulletproof tube and be fingerprinted before you can enter. Are these Italians masters of the bank robbery? I know they specialize in homegrown political terrorism on both the extreme right and left, and kidnappings and strikes by the continually disaffected workers, but I didn’t know bank robbery was on the menu too. I have been looking at all kinds of Italian women but have not been struck by the thunderbolt yet. And I don’t seem to have particularly struck anyone myself. The Villa is as beautiful as advertised, but seems awfully remote from everything. The only things nearby are goats and cows. Tomorrow is another day. We visit the Vatican.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, November 20, 2015

I'm Just Wild About Scrivener

First of all, I must mention that the version of Scrivener I'm running is version 2.6, and I'm running it on a Mac, whose operating system is OS X, version 10.9.5. If you have a PC, it may be that some of the features I find so enthralling are not available to you. Or maybe they are. I have no way of knowing.

Scrivener is available for download at the Literature and Latte site. You can try it out for thirty days and see whether you like it. If you do, it can be yours forever (or until your computer is obsolete; make that six months) for only $45.00.

I don't even know three-quarters of the bells and whistles on this product. The tutorial that comes with it is very good, but to tell you the truth I didn't go through it all the way. Instead I jumped on and began to write my historical spy thriller. I found it to be wonderful for that, because you can keep notes on each character—with pictures—in the sidebar that runs down the left hand side, along with notes on all the locations you're using, timelines, and links to anything you might want to link to for quick reference. You can enter a date when you'd like to be finished, and the number of words long you'd like your work to be, and it shows you how many words you have to write every day, with a thermometer that turns green when you're nearly there.

All this is beyond swell. But the feature I just discovered—dictation!—is the swellest of all.

Did you ever see one of those forties movies with a famous writer as a main character? Do you remember how he was not only rich (he was always a man) but how he had a cute young stenographer taking down his deathless prose while he loafed and invited his muse with his feet up on the desk, chewing the end of a pencil for effect? No carpal tunnel syndrome for that boy. He had a servant. And now I do too. I could even put my feet on the dining room table here and balance the laptop on my lap, dictating into the built-in microphone, if I weren't afraid of dropping the laptop, and even more afraid of disgracing myself by putting my feet on the dining room table. My word, what my grandmother would have had to say about that.

For me the practical effect of being able to dictate the work straight into the computer is to double my productivity in terms of word count. I can talk two or three times as fast as I can type. You can say "period" and "comma," too, and it puts in periods and commas. You have to watch the words as they appear on the screen, of course, and make sure they are the words you meant to go there. My bad guy is named "Ratz," for instance, and Scrivener wanted to say "rats" the first couple of times. But the third time Scrivener got it right. So it follows what you do, and the corrections you make, and adjusts to your style.

You do have to remember to turn off the dictation function if you have to answer the phone. Yesterday I got a call from one of my sons. We chatted happily for awhile, and when I returned to work there was a long passage in the middle of the manuscript, which went something like this:

Sure Thursday Ashley well… Give yourself so but will let you today to do some sort of deal was okay Melissa yeah I got that yes okay no that's okay cause she was the mortgage Time is usually easily around dinnertime subclasses and his friends want to do something the middle of the night off I'm sure over here for dinner so I hope you come pick you up and you're out there soon see you tomorrow coming to some extent we have to go to choir practice right at quarter quarter something also six we can eat we will disburse all just you okay okay Wilfong
Tediously noticed right so so chocolate
Great if that's okay anyway I will hurry because they're pretty well trichinosis
Hey Neil would've been very bad okay good night okay okay see them yes yes good good great okey-dokey see you then bye-bye okay

…so you probably don't want to use Scrivener's dictation function to write the minutes of your next meeting, or for much of anything else unless you have your eye on the screen at all times and your fingers on the keyboard ready to make occasional corrections. ("Tediously noticed right so so chocolate?" What was that about?)

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Keeping Time

If you write a mystery series, or if you enjoy reading them, sooner or later the question of “when?” comes up. When is the story set? Assuming it’s not a historical setting, is it current? Like last year? Or a more vague “now”? Or the recent past? And whenever it is, does it ring true? I am finding it is trickier than it sounds.

One way to go is Sue Grafton’s. She has kept Kinsey in 1982, the year the series began. And now it is twenty-four books later! It certainly has the advantage of not dealing with time passing in the plot. The disadvantage is that even if it is a well-remembered period, we do forget details. When did those shoebox size car phones become available? If you want to mention “What’s Love Got to Do With It” playing in the background, was it out in 1982? (Answer: no) Were those Flashdance inspired sweatshirts being worn? (Answer: Not likely. The movie was released in 1983.) So there will be some research and sometimes it will be odd and sometimes you will miss something. (In Mad Men, known for its meticulous depictions of the period, someone pulled on pantyhose when women were still using garters. I remember those.)

Another way is to bring the characters forward in their lives without being too specific about dates. I don’t think Margaret Maron ever pins her Deborah Knott books to a specific news event though they are permeated with a sense of changing North Carolina. That allows for the setting to be a current, but not a defined, now.

(In the recent movie The Intern, Robert DeNiro, playing a seventy year old in current time, is asked his favorite singers, and he mentions a few of the jazz-era greats. Nope. While there is nothing to keep a first year baby boomer from developing a love of jazz—I love it myself—he’d be a lot more likely to name some of the Motown groups, Elvis, the Beach Boys or the Beatles. Or from his college years, the Stones, The Doors, Janis Joplin)

In other words, it is surprisingly easy to fall into that trap of forgetting whose perspective is the one in the story. What happens, I think, is that we start writing story in a certain time, and lose track of how time moves on. And sometimes we might forget that the character’s perspective isn’t necessarily ours!

I started my current series in 2002. I had a mid 30’s grad student heroine with a teen-age daughter. At the time, my own daughters were recently teens and I felt confident I could write that family. It was not as if I had forgotten. (No one forgets those teen years). Events interfered and I did not finish that book until years later. Now my daughters are older than my heroine! And her father is not my parents’ age, the World War II generation, but mine, an early baby boomer. It matters because all of the books have a modern crime but also a historic mystery, not necessarily a crime.

So, I frequently stop and ask myself how old someone is. I regularly cover pages with characters' names and what age I need them to be in the now of the story. If I want them to tell stories of Brooklyn in the 1930’s, when were they born, and what does that mean in terms of their present life? That came up in the new book, Brooklyn Secrets. And in Brooklyn Graves, when I wanted to have a voice from the 1890’s, well, I had to find a box of letters. Ah, I mean, Erica had to find the letters. For the WIP I need a World War 11 voice, and I’m thinking someone needs to have left a diary behind. I have no current plans for using ghosts, but who knows how desperate I might become?

And I am beginning to think Erica’s teen is more like the daughters I raised, talking on the phone to her friends, than teens of this decade who probably text. Or do something I haven't even thought of. I must find an actual parent of an actual, right now teen…

Readers, have you ever been jerked out of a story because you just know the time is all out of joint? Writers, do you have a great technique for juggling that shifty calendar?

© 2015 Triss Stein

Sunday, November 15, 2015

THAT DAY… November, 1963…

You prince and king and everybody's hero,

Idol of the poor,

Friend of intellect and all we knew to be

In our reborn post-war world.

Could any mature man or woman

Not weep

THAT day . . . when

Ignominy raped our youthful joy?

Why . . . oh God . . . why????

The cry of Dallas town

Will echo down the empty alleys of time

As long as there is any wind

To blow empty papers along deserted city streets.

Until the last corn stalk

In western civilization upholds an autumn sky.

Until the last grave is dug

In what we call.

America . . .

Don't tell us, critic man, there are no

Messiahs of politics, no kings in democratic states. . .

Grown men were not ashamed to cry. . .

That day.

Their women kissed the dust with women's tears.

Women have no monopoly on weeping.

We know to live is to weep

Sometimes. . .

That day

Everyone of us knew

A little part of ancient Greece.

Tragedy became large, wide-eyed,

Horribly personal. The terrible events were echoes,

Tapes and files and heart-rending photos

Of a world's pathos and grief we had

Always known, since our Virgilian days, our first touch by Euripedes.

Some part of each of us died

That day. Our own red blood spurted out in Dallas.

The ballads now sing "In Dallas-town…"

The elegies will sing a hundred years from now

And carry on the soft winds

Tragedy's tale…

God will there will be elegies…

In a world not quite all western…

A hundred years from now…

Thelma Jacqueline Straw

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Case Against Memoir

And now, for the sake of balance, I feel I should court doubt and examine the case against memoir.

Writing a memoir requires a cast of mind that can make you more concerned with observing your life than living it. Of course, even fiction writers can become more interested in how their experiences will become part of their work than they are in having the experiences themselves. A kind of double consciousness then develops, and you are less focused on the girl smiling at you across the room than with how, or if, you can fit her into Part 1, and if she should go before or after Chapter 2. Of course, some people (neurotics and those with anxiety disorders come to mind) live life with that kind of painful self-consciousness anyway, and perhaps writing is a reward, or a relief valve, for that continual reflexive reflection.

And what of spending all your time looking back at your life? My Dad used to only scrape the ice of the front windshield on cold days before he went to work, and I would try to reprimand him for it. His invariable response was that he was not going to drive to work in reverse.

Still, the backwards looking tendency smacks of the self-consciousness mentioned above. And shouldn’t you be looking forward in life at least until everything gets boring at 40? My nephew, when he was four or five, used to talk with the world weariness of an old salt about “when I was little.” I tell him this and he laughs, and doesn’t use that phrase around me anymore, although I know that at 17 he looks back at 7 as if across an abyss of history so wide he could never successfully cross it, even in his mind. And I am glad he doesn’t want to. Don’t write your life yet, little guy (OK, 6 foot and 185 pounds now, but still my little guy), live it while you can.

Memoirs can be mere lurid exhibitions, tawdry and obscene pandering. Think of the “CHILD CALLED IT” series, which I tried to read but felt like I was hanging around a particularly gruesome highway accident scene. Such a non-stop depiction of abuse comes off as a celebration of the very abuse it purports to be crusading against, and reading it make me feel like a minister crusading against pornography by collecting all the dirty magazines he was going to shut down.

I also don’t like memoirs that are therapy, rants of rage and shame, attempts at revenge, that come off as shrill, with the authors naked in their pain, animals caught in a trap we never see them escape, becoming objects of pity instead of pathos.
William Gass, in THE ART OF SELF: AUTOBIOGRAPHY IN THE AGE OF NARCISSISM (Harper’s , May ’94), talks about how both fiction and history turned inward and psychological in what he calls the Age of the Novel. We became concerned more than with merely what men did, but what they felt, their motives, their feelings. Gass sees this as a bad thing, although his writing is so elliptical and dense it was hard for me to figure out exactly why. It seemed he is saying that what famous men do is more important than what ordinary men feel. He says: “History became a comic book, and autobiography the confessions of celluloid whores.”

Memoir is all the rage in writing workshops now, and that is fine if you love to write and want to explore your ability to do so. But don’t quit your day job, and don’t expect it to repair your relationships. I don’ t think they have the power to do that. If there was going to be some sticky-sweet scene of reconciliation it probably would have happened already, so don’t launch the book with that as a goal. Mary Karr, in THE ART OF MEMOIR, talks of how she vetted everything she wrote with her mother and sister as she was writing THE LIAR’S CLUB, and the process not only didn’t drive them all apart, it brought them closer together. Still, for the most part, if memoir has any power at all, it is to heal the wounds left by the relationships, but not the relationships themselves.

In terms of therapy, once again, I think it is important to see the difference between reflection and rumination. Going back to the past to understand it, maybe to overcome it, or at least put it away, is different from going back again and again to re-experience shame and fear and anger. When Freud talked of catharsis, he didn’t mean that you were supposed to trigger those feelings over and over again until you had beaten them out of yourself, but to change your perspective, your vantage point, your relationship to what happened. Maybe that is what memoir ideally does for the writer and, vicariously, for the reader.

Gass goes on to say that “an honest autobiography is as amazing a miracle as a doubled sex [a hermaphrodite] and every bit as much a freak of nature.” Even if Gass is right, and true self-knowledge is not possible, the attempt to acquire what knowledge we can is not a wasted effort. More self knowledge is better than less, makes you more able to navigate the social world successfully, keeps you from being an asshole, maybe, even if you can never achieve complete self-awareness. Writing anything is like living itself—doomed to failure and death. That doesn’t mean you don’t take a whack at it while you have the chance.

© Mike Welch 2015

Sunday, November 8, 2015

I Confess

A number of years ago I was trying to get published without much success. I wrote personal essays and short stories. I wrote proposals for nonfiction articles. I got a lot of form rejections and some more personalized rejections (“ I enjoyed reading this, but it’s not for us”) but no one wanted to publish my stuff.

One day I was leafing through a copy of Writer’s Digest and saw a book on how to write confession stories. The book was more than I could afford so I decided to study the market. I lived in Center City Philadelphia near a number of large newsstands but no one seemed to carry these magazines anymore. I called my mom who said she’d check out the local drug store and, sure enough, I got a package with copies of True Confessions and Modern Romance.

One of my aunts read confession magazines as a teen and I remembered thinking they were steamy. They were illustrated with photographs and one story featured a photograph of a man walking a blanket-clutching woman into the woods. But I was 10. What did I know about steam?

The magazines my mother sent me featured young women with a variety of personal problems: unwanted attention from a man at work, not enough attention from a man at work and single moms trying to find romance.

I thought I had an idea of what the editors were looking for so I wrote a story with a disabled protagonist (disability and romance might get someone’s attention). and sent it to Modern Romance. Six weeks later it came sailing back in my self-addressed stamped envelope with a from letter “Thank you for sending us you story, however…”

I had just gotten a new job and didn’t really have much time to think about writing and so consigned the story to the desk drawer that held all my other unpublished stories. I continued to write other things but couldn’t get them published.

Several years later I was going through this desk drawer again and came upon my confession. I read through it. It certainly wasn’t “The Dead,” but for what it was it was OK. I retyped it and sent it off to True Confessions.

A mere 18 months later I got a response from True Confessions. They would publish the story and I would get a check the last week of the month in which the story appeared. Had I been trying to make my living as a writer I would have been homeless and starving. It was another few months before my story appeared, but I had a day job so I was ecstatic.

My mother sent the story to relatives and friends. The magazine was still illustrated with photographs. My mother got a few puzzled responses. “Is that Stephanie in the picture. I don’t remember her being so blonde. Is she coloring her hair now?” and “The girl in the picture looks to be in her twenties. Isn’t Stephanie a bit older than that now?”

I wrote a second story based loosely on how I met my husband. Work was still demanding but I developed something called “benign positional vertigo” and my doctor put me off work. “I don’t want you falling off city buses and it might be a good idea if you weren’t living alone just now.”

Bob moved me (and my computer) to his place. In a few weeks I had the story ready to go. Bob read the story and told me that my protagonist had to do more than read books all day and her favorite dessert couldn’t be creme brulee, which was, at the time, hard to find anywhere.

True Confessions responded quickly.

“They Fed-exed their response,” I said to Bob. “I think this is the kind of thing that happens right before you win The Pulitzer Prize.”

My twenty page story was considered a book length feature and they wanted it in the next edition of the magazine. It appeared. I got paid and life was good.

I had an essay published in a medical journal (long story) and wrote a feature that I hoped would set me up to write articles for what Sylvia Plath called “the slicks.” Alas, I had to settle for what was in essence a kill fee.

So I have become a writer of occasional pieces. If there’s an occasion when I want to write something then I do. I have a novel I tinker with now and again. But I have to be honest. If I have a bad day at work, I want to relax and be entertained. At those times, I am happy to read the words of others.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Memoir, Part 4

Much of what makes good memoir writing is what makes any writing good. A strong and compelling voice, a knack for storytelling, the ability to use metaphor, an instinct for all those rhetorical devices they teach you about in private school (you don’t have to know what synecdoche and antimetabole and antistrophe are to use them effectively), a structure that gives the reader the chance to grab hold of the story and then not lose it, conflict, change, resolution, realism (if that is what you are going for) style, diction, pacing and on and on ad infinitum.

I think you need to be well read in memoir in order to write one. This doesn’t mean you need to read every memoir ever written, but you do need to know what the masters of the genre have done with it, to get a feel for all the possibilities, to see what styles and techniques resonate with you. I loved THIS BOY’S LIFE (Tobias Wolfe) and CLOSING TIME (Joe Queenan) because the narrators of both had a lot of snark and bark to them, and because they weren’t afraid to portray their parents naked, with all the warts and carbuncles and pustules in evidence (not that they cut themselves much slack either, and they were looking more for truth, I think, than revenge), and because they somehow managed to come out of childhood without exploding into a million confused and frustrated pieces, even emerging into adulthood with a certain degree of wisdom and compassion. Even if they are only telling their version of their lives, and we decide to question it, they have revealed themselves to us merely by the writerly choices they have made. This is one of the great ironies of memoir—it tells us more about the writer than those he or she writes about, and it often does so obliquely, through the choice of scene and structure and even at the atomic, or word, level.

Structure is the toughest nut for me to crack. I think of all the ways you might structure any kind of book. Start with the crime novel. Usually, we start after the murder has been committed. The detective works forward in time, but what he discovers is not chronological. He might discover what happened to the victim last first, for example. In this way, the writer keeps the tension ratcheted up; as if the protagonist is putting together a puzzle and we are on waiting on pins and needles trying to force ourselves to see the pattern, the whole, emerge from all those disjointed pieces.

But can you write a memoir that way? Doesn’t the reader already know whether you survived the illness, quit the addiction, etc? Yes, for the most part. And most memoirs are about hope and light, so we don’t expect the writer to, for example, try to reconcile with his parents and not be able to. Who would read a memoir wherein the writer was more messed up and unhappy at the end than at the beginning? Then again, you don’t usually read a crime novel where the crime is not solved.

There can still be narrative suspense in memoir. Try starting at the very beginning, with a child with all the odds stacked against him or her, and then flash forward to the end, wherein that child has become a relatively happy (or at least content, which I think is a more realistic hope) adult. Then the reader asks “how the hell did that kid ever make it?” I was watching an old HBO Series called The Wire last night. In it, some drug gangsters break into a five year-old’s house and kill his parents right in front of him. The cop says to her partner about the little boy—“how do you come back from that?” Good question, and a good memoir, if it can be written well.

I still think plot needs to be present in order for a book to be good. Calvin Trillin jokes about going to memoir writing camp and breaking down and admitting he made it all up, and had a happy childhood. But even a happy life has interesting things and important things that happened in it, and I just don’t think someone who writes with pellucid prose about pretty much nothing can ever be interesting. At least not to me. Proust did write about eating those stupid cookies, but he ended up writing about a lot more.

We, most of us, are not rock stars or movie stars, not rich or politicians (or rich politicians—sometimes it seems like all of the above fall rightly together under the rubric celebrity or public figure). We will read the mundane details of a famous person’s life in an almost superstitious, totemic way, as if we could become them if we shopped at the same stores and went to the same same church and espoused the same philosophies, from trickle-down economics to Scientology.

But the rest of us must do more than merely give an outline of what has happened to us, the old vertebra without the spine I talked about earlier, in order to interest the reader in our story. And it is not just what you tell the reader, but how you tell it. You need suspense, you need to link things in a way that makes it clear what you think the causes and effects of your experiences were (even if you don’t explicitly state them), you must not tell the punch line of the joke first. You must emphasize and de-emphasize things in ways that focuses the reader’s attention in the way you want it to be directed. This is structure.

What are some of the structures of really good memoir? We’ve already talked about how Augustine and Franklin structure their experiences to portray themselves as quintessentially Christian and quintessentially American. Dave Eggers, in A HEARTBREAKING WORK OF STAGGERING GENIUS, puts structure itself on trial by playing on your expectations of what he will do with it. Carolyn Knapp, in DRINKING, A LOVE STORY (great title) structures the book around the idea that her drinking is like a bad boyfriend, one that she knows she needs to leave but can’t. And she keeps this focus throughout, through all her experiences, the experiences any woman would have growing up, always drinking, not able to stop, and those experiences becoming warped because of that-- the bad boyfriend keeping her isolated from friends and family and ultimately even from herself.

This is a structure that works, I think, because the metaphor for the bad boyfriend is a natural one, an organic one, an apt one. Other memoirs suffer from a structure that is more of a gimmick than a mimesis of a life. Think of those books wherein someone sets out to do something outlandish, to read the OED or to walk around the world, or some other nutty thing. These activities are not organic, but are imposed on a life. They are not something the person would otherwise have done if they weren’t planning to write a book. The literary enterprise is not a description of life, but the life itself. These don’t generally work, at least not as memoir. A J Jacobs’s THE KNOW IT ALL—ONE MAN’S HUMBLE QUEST TO BECOME THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE WORLD, for example, in which he tries to read the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, is funny, but not a memoir. And the gimmick, the book being a kind of one trick pony, gets pretty thin by the end.

Then there are authors like David Sedaris and James Thurber. These guys are hilarious, but there characters are so distorted for effect that I don’t think you can call them memoirists. They are humorists. These characters are equivalent to those writing them approximately in the way that Alvy Singer is equivalent to Woody Allen in ANNIE HALL. Calvin Trillin, on the other hand, while self-mocking, creates a much more three dimensional character of himself.

Trillin is interesting in another sense. To me, two of his books, while ostensibly biographies of an old school friend and of his wife, REMEMBERING DENNY, and ABOUT ALICE, are also memoir. In the tradition of the New School, he is a journalist who does put himself in the story. And his reactions to the people he writes about tell us as much about him as they do about them.

Show, don’t tell. This is something that gets said in my class ten times a session. When I think about it, it means two different things. One has to do with the balance between scene and summary, dramatization and documentation. If I tell you my brother and I had an awful fight that ruined our relationship, I am documenting. I need to show the fight and our reactions to it, show the thing in the context of both our lives, for it to have any meaning. And if I explicitly say it ruined our relationship, I condescend to the reader, not letting him of her make up their own minds. But I do have an objection to this dictum, and that is this—when the writer’s conclusion about what the events mean is startling or new, he or she should tell us how he thinks and feels about it all.

And it must be remembered that summary implies scene and vice versa—it is always a mixture of the two we are dealing with. I can say “those ten years were hard, lots of times I was broke, and it was always cold, it seemed, and I was hungry.” This is the barest summary of many scenes, but we still see it as somehow as a scene. On the other end of the spectrum, you can take a moment’s reaction and unpack it for thirty pages. The decision on how to balance the two has to do with pacing, and this is another thing about writing that is both partly teachable and partly instinctive.

© Mike Welch 2015

Friday, November 6, 2015

When is an Historical Novel Like a Movie Adaptation?

Writing an historical novel is much like making a book into a movie. There are three ways to make a book-length piece of fiction into a film.

First way, you can replicate the book as closely as possible, sometimes scene for scene. The Harry Potter films come to mind. Gone With the Wind. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, although even those movies left out large chunks of narrative. The books these movies were made from had a huge and demanding fan base. Watching the movie had better be pretty much like reading the book, or else.

The most spectacular failure in an effort of this kind, to my eye, was Erich von Stroheim's 1924 silent film, Greed. Von Stroheim followed the book it was made from, Frank Norris's McTeague, not only scene for scene but line for line, often putting a paragraph of Norris's text up on the screen to accompany his visual expression of it. No wonder the studio bosses took it away from him and chopped it to pieces. Setting aside the cost overruns, it was just too long for anyone to sit and watch. It's true that there are respected critics out there who believe Greed to be the greatest movie ever made. I don't think it's even a movie.

A book-length work of fiction is a different art form from a movie. The second way to approach making a book into a movie is to be respectful of that difference and also be respectful of the book, of the spirit of the book, that is, not the words, and to express that spirit cinematically. A good short story, like Brokeback Mountain, makes a better movie than a whole book, because there's less stuff in it. Kenneth Roberts' Northwest Passage was a huge book. The Hollywood movie that was made from it took just a segment of it and made a thumping good movie. Same with East of Eden.

The third approach is to take the book title and write whatever you feel like. You hardly even have to read the book to do this. Just make stuff up. Sometimes it's fine. Depends on what you're working with. Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex is a good example.

The problems of writing a historical novel are similar. The material you're working with may be bigger than what you're trying to do.

The first way to approach your historical novel is to put in everything you can find out about the place and time you're working with. All the famous characters, all the historical events, hardly anything truly fictional, like those terrific books from the English writers about the Tudors and the Elizabethans. Or you can write about a big handful of fictional characters experiencing different aspects of the reality of your historical period, like John Dos Passos in USA. You can get lost in this sort of thing, like von Stroheim in Frank Norris's work, and find yourself tracking down the buttons on the underwear your people would have worn when you should be blocking out swaths of dramatic action. But maybe that's okay, if you have what it takes to pull off a huge saga. (Like a loyal fan base, a supportive publisher, and thirty more years of productive life.)

The second way to do it is to respect the period, express the spirit of the period as you understand it, but put your own characters in your book, with their own drama. Get the details right, but find a segment of the universe that you can work with. Then go ahead and shamelessly write fiction.

Or you might use the third approach, which is not respectable but might be fun. Pick a period, pick a historical figure, put her in all the wrong clothes and tell bald-faced lies about her. Only make sure her heirs aren't going to sue you.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Monday, November 2, 2015

Blackout Riots 1977: Revisiting ‘Gone With the Wind’

Broadway is just what its name implies: a wide, two-way boulevard, running from the piers on the East River in Williamsburg in a southeasterly direction for 4.32 miles, ending at its boundary with East New York. It serves to neatly divide Bushwick to the northeast of it from Bedford-Stuyvesant to the southwest. The BMT subway line (the J, M and Z trains) runs overhead its entire length till it makes a sharp right turn into East New York and on into the Borough of Queens. The night of July 13, 1977 and into the early morning hours of July 14, there was a moon but the light it shed on Broadway came through the overhead tracks in weak patches. As we screeched left off Dekalb onto Broadway, we became engulfed in a jungle of black bodies racing helter-skelter, none empty-handed. A wall of metallic noise hit us from storefront gates being torn off by car bumpers with chains, a waterfall of breaking glass; above it all, the exultant screaming of the mob. We abandoned our RMP, locked doors, headlights full-on facing up Broadway that undulated with bodies far as we could see: hundreds, thousands, we couldn’t tell. Then we waded into the crowd, swinging our nightsticks at the moving targets.

Photo: Tyrone Dukes/The New York Times
Police Headquarters, having in the first hours divined the extent of the problem that was enveloping the five boroughs as well as the piddling number of policemen then ready to deal with it, had decreed there be no arrests. An arrest ordinarily required the arresting officer to remove his prisoner to the Precinct to complete the booking paperwork and lodge his prisoner, routinely taking 14 hours. No cop could be spared this night.

During the few hours of darkness left till dawn, our numbers grew as cops in plainclothes spilled from a commandeered City bus, wielding baseball bats. Up and down Broadway, looters beyond counting, smashed into and emptied stores—jewelry, furniture, drugstores, supermarkets the prime targets. They ran loaded down like pack animals—men, women, children. We’d chase and knock the men down; enter the broken stores guns drawn to drive them out. One stunned owner of a used furniture store on Broadway, slumped on a stoop adjacent to his emptied store, asked in anguish: “Where were you? They came across Broadway like a herd of buffalo!” Couldn’t think of an answer, went back to banging heads with renewed fury.

We heard over our radios that Al & Bob’s Sporting Goods store, down Broadway in Lower Williamsburg, was under siege. They must not get their hands on rifles and ammunition; RMPs rushed to that scene. Meanwhile, two cars with a heavy chain stretched between them accelerated up Broadway into the throng; in vain, as the looters ducked under the chain like Limbo dancers or fled to the sidewalks. A pickup truck with four cops on the flatbed appeared, lights on high beams, a cop with a Louisville Slugger leaning out from the running boards on each side cleared obstructions from their path ferociously. The men in the back of the truck tossed boxes of .38-caliber cartridges to us, in anticipation. The radio reported gunfire coming from the rooftops, yet I couldn’t swear to it, the sound of gunfire being indistinguishable in the tsunami of shattering glass, ripping metal, frantic burglar alarms, and the demented bellowing of people as they began to set fire to the emptied stores.

Finally, word came down: Arrest the bastards! Soon the wood structures on both sides of Broadway for blocks lit up the street in an eerie flickering light, then roared skyward in a conflagration, licking at the tracks of the train station overhead. The fires burned out of control till fire trucks took possession of the streets while the mob surged around them. At one dicey moment, cops manned the water canons on a truck, turning them on a threatening crowd, flushing them away. As the night wore on, faces covered in soot from the fires, our bodies leaking sweat from the heat, I remember idly thinking how familiar this scene as I looked heavenward at the towering flames, immediately making the connection: The Burning of Atlanta in the movie “Gone With the Wind.” The only souls on the street being cops, firemen, and looters.

As the new day dawned, there were many more of us engaged in the battle for Broadway. We numbered 142 men at its height, from the two adjacent Precincts, the 83rd and the 81st, according to the official Post-Mortems (weeks later). Looting fever had begun to spend itself and police tactics had devolved to a Game of Hide-and-Seek. We’d knock down and cuff the runners within reach but more often follow the looters into the broken-open stores. In a drug store, we found forty hiding in the basement; to arrest and transport all was beyond impracticable; we gave women and children a free pass. The men we stuffed into the back seats and trunks of the RMPs for a bumpy ride to the Precincts, where they were disgorged like clowns emerging from the Clown Car at the Circus. The Precincts had been ordered to house their prisoners since Brooklyn Central Booking cells were stuffed full already. In the end, my Precinct, the 83rd, had 145 guests for two days. Stuffed standing-room-only into the cells meant to accommodate 14 prisoners, the overflow chained to each other then to radiators, or dumped in a gated open yard that had once housed police horses.

We all made multiple arrests—one cop who’d arrived early, right after he’d observed the City go dark from the rooftop of his apartment in Sunnyside, Queens, arrested thirty; a late arrival, I arrested ten. Arresting officers were not fated to ever see their arrestees again. I no longer remember faces or details except for one slightly-built older fellow emerging from a furniture store carrying a red love seat on his back. I remember it was cherry red and that when I tripped him up with my nightstick as he ran, he let it go and sprang to his feet like a Jack-in-the-Box, declaring in irritation: “I’m not like these people! I have a job!” As the thing wound down by afternoon, the adrenalin replaced by fatigue after ten straight hours, I sat on the curb and watched firemen trying to control the conflagration devouring the structures along two solid blocks on Broadway. I was kept company on the curb by Wilton, the cop from Sunnyside, who’d been at it fifteen hours and was now nodding off, leaning into me.

When it was all over and the tally in: 3,071 looters had been arrested City-wide, 1,088 in Brooklyn alone. Along Broadway, 134 stores had been looted, 45 of them burned to the ground. A mile-and-one-half of commercial Broadway—30 solid blocks—had been destroyed. The fate of the 3,000-plus arrestees— having been held for up to a week in the Chateau d’If conditions of the local jails– was for most a slap on the wrist and release from custody. Few were charged with a felony, and none went to trial. The NYPD claimed that no police fired their weapons during the riot, except for two accidental discharges that hit no one, although two deaths were reported: one prisoner in the Pens at the Manhattan Tombs from heart failure, and one in a looted building from an undetermined cause.

Later, Assistant Chief William Bracey, Commander of Borough Brooklyn North, made the rounds of the Precincts to praise the men under his command. While addressing the cops of the Eight-Three as we stood in uniformed ranks in front of the Precinct Desk, he thanked us for “our bravery and fire discipline.” He was alluding to the Department’s official stance that no cop had fired his weapon in anger during the Battle for Broadway. At that, Officer Wilton, standing at attention in the next rank, said, loud enough to be heard by all: “Where was he? On vacation?’

The 83 Precinct holds a biannual Reunion at the American Legion Hall in Valley Stream, Long Island. A big turnout. I’ve made seven so far. I go to see the cops I worked next to, from 1975 to 1981. Old men, we tell each other stories.

© 2015 Robert Knightly

Sources: ‘The Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City’, by Jonathan Mahler (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2005); ‘Blackout Looting’ by Robert Curvin and Bruce Porter (Gardner Press, 1979); ‘BLACKOUT’, by James Goodman (North Point Press, 2003).

Sunday, November 1, 2015

A Quiet Man…

Again, quite by chance, I turned on my TV to an humongous worship ceremony in Rome, led by that quiet little guy named Francis…

Tons of men of all colors in bright green robes and multi-colored caps, thousands of regular men, women and young ones, every face sober, intent, all praying in concert for the zillions of peoples on this frail plane—and for so many problems that face all peoples, all lands and all seas…

I kept my eyes glued on that not very tall guy in the central role, dressed in his impeccably correct robes and cap of prim white silk and ordinary glasses, far more modestly garbed than the long lines of humans, all male, mostly older men in their tall white hats and green or red robes. Some of the men wore things on their heads that looked like kingly crowns...

The background music and singing was lovely, unearthly, in languages many of us in the USA could not understand...

I could just smell the incense—so vivid through the TV screen… I happen to love that smell…

Watching that ceremony, along with zillions of others on the planet, I grew very quiet inside. I love a good ceremony…

I am a respectful watcher and know when to be quiet, when to be reverent and feel humble…

But what drew my gaze, interest and, yes, concern, was that kinda stooped, old guy, who was the M.C.…

What makes him tick??? my inner voice said out loud…

I was glued to his facial expression… no actor, this little guy… no loud mouth or flashy, toothy grin for the masses…

The 1.2 billion souls he's now in charge of…

What impressed me, more than anything else, was his quietness… his utter lack of playing to the crowd, the utter simplicity and modesty of movement… He was not playing for or to any audience… such as we often see in the Big Men of the Church… who wear splendid robes and gesture magnificently to their humongous followers!

I was moved to tears at his quietness, his aloneness in the crowd, his modesty. His clear lack of trying to make an impression on his colleagues, his followers or the millions of us watching him…

A quiet man, a modest man—whom we know to be very smart and gifted, actually, given his life accomplishments and adult roles… on his life's path to the Vatican…

I'm as religious as the next guy/gal, though at this stage of life I choose to worship at many altars, not just one…

I've known a lot of good church folks, some wonderful leaders, some not so hot… Wearing a robe does not a saint make!

But I've rarely seen a face that so makes me believe in the goodness of humanity… as I've now seen in this little quiet guy…

I'd like to know what YOU think… send me your thoughts here…

Thelma J. Straw