Barbara's picture

Author On the Bookcase: Susan Gregg Gilmore

Author On the Bookcase
Susan Gregg Gilmore

Thrilled to welcome Susan Gregg Gilmore, author of The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove, to On the Bookcase. Susan novel's tells the story of Bezellia Grove, the daughter of Nashville's most prominent families. She is expected to embrace her position in high society. Nobody in Nashville has a bigger name to live up to than. In 1960's Nashville, relationships are complicated, where society remains neatly ordered by class, status and skin color. Bezellia and Samuel, son of her nanny, and the family's handyman, have a clandestine affair. Their romance is met with anger and fear from both families. In a time and place where rebelling against the rules carries a steep price. Bezellia must decide whether it’s her heart or her heritage that define her.

The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove was born at a dinner table. As a Southern girl whose family always valued the preparation of the meal as much as its consumption, this seemed like the perfect birthplace for a Southern story.

Truth be told, I was at a dinner party shortly after moving back to my hometown of Nashville when a woman at the table introduced herself as "Zee," a nickname for Bezellia (although she spells her name another way). I was immediately taken with the name, its rhythm and melody, and I knew at that moment there was a strong girl waiting for me who could propel a story forward on her own.

The Improper Life Of Bezellia GroveAt about the same time, I was touring a home in Nashville that I had often played in as a child.  It was a beautiful house directly across the street from my childhood home, but this was the first time I had ever walked into the basement.  When I got downstairs, I stood still, breathless even.  In front of me were six rooms - cinder-block walls, no windows, double locks on the doors.

It's not that I was unaware of racial inequality growing up in Tennessee. I was. Believe me, I was.  It pained me then as a small child. And it pains me now. But seeing these rooms and realizing that while I was happily playing upstairs a very different world existed literally beneath my feet left me very, very disturbed.

I walked away understanding that I had to come to terms with the South I knew, the South I saw, in my way. And the only way I knew to do that was to tell a story. And thankfully, I had already found a girl with a very big name who was going to help me do what needed to be done.

Just yesterday I received an email from a reader who told me that she had grown up in the South during those final dark hours before the Civil Rights Movement really took hold.

She said reading The Improper Life of Bezellia Grove "had been like a window into the past reliving all these memories through Bezellia."  What more could I have ever hoped for?

In celebration of National Reading Group Month, Susan is talking to book clubs in October. Details on Susan's website. 

Thanks, Susan! Identity, sense of place, race relations -- great fodder for reading groups!

Praise

Nobody knows how to weave a spell better than Susan Gregg Gilmore, as she draws us into the precarious childhood and complicated life of poor little rich girl Bezellia Grove, whose path winds through some of the South’s darkest woods—race, class, insanity—familiar ground for a Southern novel? Not so fast—surprises await. This novel is a pure enchantment.”—Lee Smith, author of Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger and The Last Girls

Susan Gregg Gilmore has written for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. Gilmore currently lives in Chattanooga with her family.

Barbara's picture

Author Squared: Michele Young-Stone and Cara Hoffman

Author Squared

 

 

 

AUTHOR SQUARED
Michele Young-Stone
Cara Hoffman


 

 

Two Authors chat about writing, books, and everything in between

I'm excited to welcome Michele Young-Stone (The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors) and Cara Hoffman (So Much Pretty) to Author Squared.

Take it away, Michele and Cara!

Michele: I have some questions I’m dying to ask you.
Cara: Sure 

Michele Young-StoneMichele: So, So Much Pretty, is seriously one of the best books that I've read in years. I thought the small town was perfectly eerie and amazingly portrayed. The descriptions were active to the point that I didn’t feel like I was reading description!

 Cara: Thank you. I'm really flattered, especially since that's coming from someone who can write the small town with such evocativeness.
Michele: Were you inspired by events/crimes you covered while a journalist?
Cara: Yes. It was a crime that actually happened in a more suburban area.
Michele: Wow! I loved the surprise ending. Did you know how the book would end when you were writing it?
Cara: I knew the ending before I knew anything else.
Michele: Was the ending what "really happened" or no? I ask b/c I NEVER know endings.
Cara Hoffman

Cara: The book was partly based on an abduction/murder. The ending is kind of a logical conclusion to those events given the nature of the characters. Michele, do people ask you constantly about surviving a lightning strike? 

Michele: You bet, but in this case, the fiction is better than the facts. I was "really" struck by lightning, but the "facts" of what happened to me were too boring for my novel.
Cara: God!! I assume you weren't struck twice
So what really happened???
Michele: I was knocked unconscious, age 11, but then regained consciousness at some point. We were in my parents' driveway and I was struck and my mom was there. We were both in such shock, like total real shock, that we actually drove to the mall--which is what we'd intended to do when we went outside that day.
Cara: Wow. Did you get any medical attention?
The Handbook for Lightning Srtike SurvivorsMichele: NO.  Which sounds crazy, but that was the best thing about researching lightning and lightning strike survivors. More than 50% of people struck do not seek medical attention, and that statistic is probably even higher. No one believes the victim, and without physical burns, there's no evidence via xray because the lightning travels through your cardiovascular system.
The National Weather Service has only started taking lightning strikes seriously in the past ten years. Nowadays, golf courses and swimming pools have much stricter rules/guidelines concerning thunder. Because if you hear thunder, you are within range of being struck. You can be up to fifteen miles from a storm and be struck.  Thunder is the sound lightning makes when it comes in contact with the ground. 
Cara: Apart from life experience, what made you want to use lightning strike as the central metaphor for a novel about family and intersecting fates?
Michele: I had a writing professor who said, "There are a million books about dysfunctional families and especially about dysfunctional father/daughter relationships. What is going to separate yours from theirs?” I love magical realism so I thought that the lightning would enable me to do both. Cara, is your second novel also based on a story you covered while a journalist?
Cara: No. It's about the Iraq war and adjusting to coming home and living in a family again.
Michele: Ooh, that sounds fascinating. I guess you are doing a lot of research?
Cara: I'm doing some research--a lot of it not about the war. The book focuses on sibling relationships and trauma. Michele, are you working on a new book?
Michele: I'm working on a third book. Sarah, our editor, and I are going to decide this fall if the second or the third novel is the next to meet the reading world. I think we'll go with the third novel, but since I haven't finished it, we shall see. The third novel has more of an international appeal.
Cara: hmmm. Very curious. Can you talk about it?
Michele: Both the second and third novels explore violence against women. The third novel, The Saints of Los Vientos, tells parallel stories of two girls born with wings: one in Lithuania during WWII, and one in Florida in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Cara: Really interesting.
Michele: The girls are related and connected by more than wings. And the second novel is another "parallel" story about a woman in the 1960s as a teenager and as an adult in the 1970s. It's a love story where the man-woman relationship is the least healthy.
Cara:  Do you work on your manuscripts simultaneously?
Michele: No. I can't look at the second book again until I am done with a complete first draft of the third. Otherwise, I would go seriously bonkers.
Cara: Ha. You must have a rigorous schedule
MIchele: I write every day. How long did it take you to write So Much Pretty?
Cara: A little over a year.
Michele: Did it take you a long time to find an agent and editor?
Cara: I was very lucky. My agent Rebecca Friedman picked up the manuscript immediately. It took about five or six months to sell. Which seemed, at the time, like a long time.
Michele: Did you do a lot of edits with Rebecca?
Cara: Very few. She's an incredible reader and has real insight. I have been so happy working with her.
Michele: That's awesome. And I'm sure, like me, you love working with Sarah at S & S. She was my editor at Shaye Areheart/RH, and I trusted her so implicitly, all I wanted to do was to work with her again. Cara, another thing I was wondering: well, two things: I really related to Claire and Gene, in So Much Pretty. Was there a character from So Much Pretty that you really related to (more than the others), and while writing the darker parts of the story, did you internalize any of the emotions, like was it difficult? Did you feel depressed, etc.?
So Much PrettyCara: I do love working with Sarah. It's a great process. As far as the characters in So Much Pretty are concerned, I guess it's no revelation that I related to Stacy Flynn. The reporter. But you know, you really feel all your characters’ emotions whether you want to or not. There were certainly hard scenes to write, and those scenes and the research I was doing on violence made some days pretty difficult. Michele, the parts of your novel that were so moving to me had to do with Buckley and his mom. They were so sad and also edifying. Was it hard to be with Buckley when you were making his life hard?
Michele: Yes. It was really hard being with Buckley. I love the characters Abigail and Clementine, and when I wrote the lightning scene with Bo, the dog, I sobbed. I didn't want to write it. While working on this third novel, I had the worst nightmare I've ever had. I couldn't wake up and every time I thought I was awake, I was still in the nightmare. It was terrifying, and I couldn't figure out where the dream came from, and then when I sat down at the computer the next day, I reread what I'd written the day before, and OMG, but it was a terrible violent scene where I'd had to imagine myself in this horrid predicament, and I'd been so immersed, it'd sunk into my subconscious.
Cara: Yes. It really gets you! I've had those kinds of nightmares before. A long time ago when I was travelling I had several nightmares in which I “woke” into another dream. The tip off that I was still asleep was that a dog started talking to me.
Michele: That's a riot. Thank goodness for that dog! So, I have to ask: Are you having trouble with the social media stuff like Facebooking and Tweeting and having a website? Or is it hard for you to read and talk in public?
Cara: I guess I'd prefer to be writing novels than using twitter. I think of those things as a distraction mostly, but a pretty innocuous one. How about you?  Are you finding the time?
Michele: I have a six-year old. I don't know. I think that publicity stuff is super hard. I'd always prefer to write. I used to get really nervous reading in public, but I'm much more relaxed now. I really enjoy what I do. I can't believe I actually get paid to tell stories!  It still freaks me out. I was a school teacher for ten years (English teacher). I've had to do a lot of publicity b/c two weeks after my book came out, my publishing house, Shaye Areheart, was dissolved.  It was pretty chaotic for everybody so I knew that I had to do whatever I could to spread the word about my book. I didn't want it to die.
Michele: I CAN'T WAIT to read your next book.  You have such talent! When do you think you'll be ready to show it to your agent? Or is that a "jinx" kind of question?
Cara: Likewise. I'm excited to see your new work. My agent sold the new novel to Sarah at S&S a few months ago. So it's just a matter of getting the time to finish it.
Michele: Kudos! Congrats! I understand how hard it is to find the time. I'm in that same boat.
Cara: I'm very interested to see what these girls with wings do, and how you make your characters lives intersect--which was such a great strength in The Handbook.
Michele: Yeah. I can't seem to write linearly. I like to have a hundred threads and pull them together. And, this is fun: for every novel I finish, I get a tattoo, so my third novel will be a pair of wings. It's incentive to finish the book.
Cara: If you have a prolific career you will be like the illustrated man.
Michele: LAUGHING!!! The tattoo artist said to me, "You need to write faster. You need more tattoos!"
Michele: Bye, Cara. Keep in touch and best of luck to you. I am so glad Sarah gave me your book to read. I really couldn't put it down. Thank you.
Cara: Thank YOU.

And, THANK YOU, Michele and Cara! Family dynamics, faith, and nature in The Hanhbook for Lightning Strike Survivors and murder, small town secrets, and a great sense of place in So Much Pretty make both books excellent book club picks.

Michele Young-Stone earned her MFA in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Once, many years ago, she was struck by lightning in her driveway. She survived. Michele resides in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and son and a community of great friends.

Cara Hoffman has won a New York State Foundation for the Arts Fellowship for her work on violence and adolescents and has worked as an investigative reporter covering New York State's rural and Rust Belt communities, where she reported on environmental politics and crime.

Barbara's picture

Author On the Bookcase: Alan Cheuse

Author On the Bookcase
Alan Cheuse

Alan CheuseI'm so thrilled to welcome Alan Cheuse -- writer, professor, NPR book reviewer -- to On the Bookcase! I met Alan at the 2011 Virginia Festival of the Book, again at the 2011 Gaithersburg Book Festival and then at the St. John's College The Art of the Book. We keep bumping into each other!  

What does the word "browsing" mean to you? A computer term? Alan shares his idea of browsing -- "a form of dreaming."

The Pleasures and Necessity of Browsing 

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a browser. But it didn’t begin for me with books. My maternal grandparents owned a series of cigar and cigarette shops, candy stores, we called them in the family and from an early age I’d find myself standing in front of the candy counter trying to decide among various bars of chocolate and commercial candy bars and malt balls and licorices, the decision especially difficult not because I could buy only one but because I could have any one that I choose without paying.

The same went for the comic books. My grandparents didn’t allow me more than one or two free comics a week, though when it came time for garnering an allowance by doing extra chores around the house or running errands for my parents, both of whom worked a forty hour week and in the case of my father eveb more, I’d save and purchase more and more comics.

Archie, The Heap, Superman--these were some of the books I chose. And when it came upon me, like a slow-mastering fever, that it was books, mainly fiction. that I really cared about, I increased my browsing to an exponential level. In junior high school I found my way to the only book store, little more a narrow hole in the wall, on our Jersey town’s main street, and discovered my true addiction.

My first? A paperback reprint of D.H. Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent, in the old Vintage paperback, one of the first trade paperback series. I treated this, and all subsequent purchases of these new trade reprints I made with cash from an after school job as a stock boy at a womens sportswear shop a few blocks west, as old wine in new bottles. First I held the pages up to my nose, to take in the bouquet of the paper. And then I lavished my attention on the covers, front and back, all this before I even attempted to read a word. And when I finally did begin to read such work as this, alone in my room or sprawled on the front stoop of our row house a block from the Raritan River where it flowed into Raritan Bay, I savored the sentences, even as I rushed forward into the story.

When I saved enough money I bought new fiction, too, particularly horror and science fiction. How did I know what I liked? I browsed the shelves of our local store, reading opening pages, and snippets here and there from the rest of these books. Richard Matheson became one of my favorites, along with Alfred Bester, and Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.

I worked harder and put in for longer hours so I could buy a book a week. I browsed the library shelves as well. That’s how I found, much too early in my life as an unsophisticated reader, a copy of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, a novel that took me a number of false starts to catch up with, though I finally did, and have since reread it a few times for emphasis.

Thus I became a browser, and yes, browsing did it all. Remember the stacks of a university library, the row upon row of unanticipated pleasures you find there if you drift among them, dreamy and a little delirious with browsing? Imagine a world without bookstores, so that you could not find your attention pulled away from one cover by the enticing  design of another wholly unfamiliar work of fiction by a writer about whom you’ve
never heard.

Some of our greatest scientific discoveries occurred by accident. Think of Madame Curie!

A world of only on-line purchases is a world without serendipity, a world without accident, a world without spice and flavor. Think of all the good accidents we know in life, from our parents to our
siblings to our choices and how sorry we are that we can only be one traveler in certain circumstances of friends and lovers and spouses.

Browsing is a form of dreaming.

It’s the way of the old world that will make the world new.

I urge you, browse, browse!

Thanks so much, Alan! I know exactly how browsing is a exciting flight of discovery.

Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's longtime "voice of books," is the author of four novels, three collections of short fiction, and the memoir Fall Out of Heaven. As a book commentator, Cheuse is a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." His short fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, The Idaho Review, and The Southern Review, among other places. He teaches in the Writing Program at George Mason University and the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

Songs of Slaves in the DesertHis new book, Song of Slaves in the Desert, traces the thread of slavery from sixteenth-century Timbuktu to the plantations of South Carolina. Song of Slaves in the Desert explores one man's struggle to understand a world where honor is in short supply yet dignity cannot be sold.

Learn more about Alan.

Barbara's picture

Fourth Installment of Novel-in-Progress from the Sisters of the Traveling Computers

Sisters Of Traveling Computers BookFourth Installment!
Sisters of the Traveling Computers
Novel-in-Progress

 

Eight great writers are going to produce a progressive novel -- like a progressive dinner! Each one will write a couple paragraphs, a chapter, two chapters (whatever strikes her fancy) round robin style without discussing it with each other. This novel-in-progress will continue through the rest of the year. The scribes are Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters), Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From The Sky),  Siobhan Fallon (You Know When The Men Are Gone), Therese Fowler (Exposure), Tanya Egan Gibson (How To Buy A Love Of Reading), Caroline Leavitt (Pictures of You), Sarah Pekkanen (Skipping a Beat), and Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters.) All great books for reading groups!

First installment (May 15)

By midnight, he still wasn’t home. Or he wasn’t picking up the phone, which he knew would make her frantic with worry. She couldn’t leave the Martin’s now. Already, Mrs. Martin had told her that just cleaning up after the party wasn’t enough, that she wanted her to also redust (redust!) the figurines on the mantle because “You didn’t take enough care last time.” Should she tell Mrs. Martin how Mr. Martin groped her as she trying to arrange the baby chocolate éclairs on a plate? Should she tell her how Bobby, Mrs. Martin's son, called her a stupid bitch and kicked her out of his room so she wouldn’t catch him doing Jesus knows what?

She wasn’t supposed to use her phone when she was working, but she dialed again. Maybe he was with Bette, his terrifying girlfriend. Maybe he was walking again, clearing his head about what had happened.

Second Installment (June 22)

Maria wasn’t ready to become a grandmother at 42. And that was what she said first when--with his lips trembling—Mark told her that Bette was pregnant. She should have held him. He looked so scared. How could her teenage son become a father before he had a chance to become a man?

That was just five weeks ago, and now she wouldn’t have to be a young grandmother. She wouldn’t have to watch Mark struggle to take care of a family too young. Why couldn’t Mark see the miracle in this moment?

The phone went to voicemail again.

It was a thirty-minute drive home from the Martin’s. Let him be home by then, she thought. Just please let him be safe.

Third Installment (July 1)

“Dammit!” The most ghoulish figurine, the one with the trio of black-eyed children gaping up as if caught forever in the middle of wailing some god-awful song, skittered across the Pledge-shiny mantle and shattered on the floor below.

Maria dropped to the marble and quickly swept the delicate porcelain into the dust rag.  Her right knee grinded roughly and she winced, maybe she would have been old enough to have been a grandmother after all.

“What have you done?”

Maria looked up at the doorway and saw Mrs. Martin standing there in that blue dress of hers, the one that had the extra padding in the front and made the woman look top heavy enough to fall on her face. What Maria would give to see Mrs. Martin fall on her face. Though it looked like tonight just might be the night as Mrs. Martin tottered over the smooth floor toward her. Maria tried to judge the distance between the door and the mantle—would Mrs. Martin, who clearly looked like she had finished off every wine bottle in her cellar, notice the missing figurine? Should Maria pretend she was just wiping up a speck of dirt on the marble and get herself to the department store tomorrow to find one of these ridiculous chatkas, get it back on the mantle before Mrs. Martin had finished nursing her hangover and got out of bed at noon? Whenever she had broken something in the past, Mrs. Martin docked her pay a good fifty percent more that the true price of the broken item. Maria knew that vase the cat knocked over, the one she got blamed for, had been a Wal-Mart special rather than any Shannon Irish Chrystal from Macy’s, but she had let it slide.

Now she curled those shattered little goth kids into her palm. “How was the party, Mrs. Martin? Did your guests just love those éclairs?”

“I thought I heard something break in here.” Mrs. Martin seemed unsure. Then she slipped, looked like she was about to do a split and quickly righted herself. That’s what she deserved for wearing those three inch hooker heels, Maria thought. Clear heels! No one could get away with clear heels except… well, hookers. Didn’t Mrs. Martin know that a fifty year old woman had a better chance of keeping her man if she let herself age gracefully instead of buying out Victoria Secret push-up bras and over-botoxing her face?

“Did you say something broke in the kitchen? I’ll get right on it.” Maria rose, again feeling that weakness in her knee. For a moment she felt a rush of sympathy for Mrs. Martin and the skin stretched too tightly across her face, the highlighted hair that only seemed to emphasize her grey, the manic way she held her wine glass as if it’s contents was the only thing allowing her to think that she was still young and lovely in the eyes of her husband.

“The kitchen is a disaster,” the woman sneered, and Maria felt her spine straighten, her sympathy evaporate. The kitchen had been pristine ten minutes ago, all the party’s washing up done and put away. The only thing left should be a few coffee cups from the hanger-ons who pretended to sober up before drunk-driving their Hummers and Mercedes home.

“I’ll take a look before I go,” Maria whispered, eyes down. Then she glanced up, rearranging her face as sweetly as possible. “Oh, Mrs. Martin, I think Bobby wanted you to go on in and say goodnight when your guests left, he seemed like he was waiting up for you.”

Maria left the room, shoving the rag deep into her pocket. She hoped Mrs. Martin walked right in on that little pervert and caught him watching whatever sicko pornos only rich tech-savvy kids had the time and money to become addicted too.

She peeked into the kitchen; the gleaming granite was just as clean as she left it. Two dirty coffee cups in the sink. Two dirty coffee cups now constituted a “disaster.” Maria shook her head and quickly put the mugs into the dishwasher. This family didn’t know the disasters that knocked them upside the head every day: Mr. Martin chasing anything that peed sitting down, Bobby talking to topless girls in Thailand through a web-cam, Mrs. Martin with a liver that wouldn’t see the next decade. Oh no, the only disasters the Martins recognized were the fluctuation of stock prices, a new wrinkle on Mrs. Martin’s rigid face, Bobby not getting into Princeton.

Maria set the alarm system in the foyer and shut the front door without further ado. She was reaching for her cell phone before she was at the end of the driveway and felt a sudden stab of pain. She tugged her hand out of her pocket, heard the chime of glass hitting the asphalt. A shard of figurine had sliced into the pad of her thumb and now jutted out of her flesh. Part of a face hung perpendicular from her finger, and one of the black eyes, souless and cold, stared up at her. It made Maria hesitate and stare back, jolted and afraid. That eye looking at her felt like a bad omen. She tugged it out, threw the piece on the drive, stuck her bloody thumb in her mouth. Then she started jogging to her car, her heart tight in her chest.

Mark, she thought, dear God, Mark, please be all right.

Bette answered the door, looking peeved at Maria for trying to get into her own home. Maria would have naturally apologized for waking anyone up, but the glint of Bette’s eyebrow ring, the twist on the girl’s perpetually red-lipsticked mouth, made Maria itch with irritation instead. First of all, Bette was not allowed to be in the house when Maria was not. Call her old-fashioned or absolutely ridiculous, Maria didn’t care. It was her number one rule. Second of all, there were plenty of bolts on that door that the kids could have locked that Maria had a key to open, but they had decided on using the chain, knowing Maria couldn’t get in, which made her think that they had deliberately locked her out so they could do the sorts of things Maria told herself sickos like Bobby Martin got up to. As if getting Bette pregnant once just wasn’t enough for these two. As if a miscarriage, yes, horrible, but in this case it felt like it was the will of God Almighty Himself, as if a miscarriage hadn’t spared them already.

“Mark’s here?” Maria asked immediately. Bette shrugged in that sullen way that made Maria want to wring her neck.

“Bette, is he here or not? And why weren’t either of you answering your cell phones, I was worried sick—“

“He hasn’t called me since ten,” the girl said. “I don’t know where he is.”
Maria blinked at Bette, noticing for the first time that she was wearing a pair of Mark’s boxers. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?”

The girl followed Maria’s eyes. “He told me I could stay here, to make myself comfortable.” She put her hand on her hip. “It’s not like I could go home now that everyone knows Mark knocked me up.”

Maria felt exhausted, the room tipping to the left for a moment. It was too much. “Bette, where is my son?”

Bette sighed forcefully in reply, her thick fringe of bangs lifting off her forehead with the effort, and it reminded Maria that the girl was only a teenager after all. Granted, a seventeen-year old, and she lorded that extra year of experience over sixteen-year old Mark, it was part of her strange power over her son, Maria knew. But she was still a girl, at least in calendar years, and she had been through a lot, had been pregnant and lost a baby and now it seemed as if her parents had kicked her out of her home, all before her senior year of high school. If Maria had been a better person, she would have embraced Bette immediately, asked her how she was feeling, offered to make her an ice cream sundae. But Maria didn’t feel like being a better person tonight, she felt the taint of the Martin’s still on her skin, making her impatient and cruel. “Goddammit, Bette, don’t you sigh at me. If you don’t tell me where Mark is I will call the police and tell them to take you with them.”

Bette’s arms dropped limply to her sides. “He went somewhere with Figgy. He didn’t tell me what they were doing but he said not to worry about them unless they didn’t come home by morning. He told me to make up a lie to tell you but… but I couldn’t.” She glanced at Maria and Maria thought maybe there was something scheming in the girl’s eyes, something that didn’t match the poor-little-worried-me story.

Maria sat down at the small kitchen table.

Figgy. That name rang some vague bell. Was he one of Bette’s cousin’s? Yes, that’s right, he was the eldest Figuera boy, eighteen, the one who had repeated his freshman year of high school twice. Mark had never been friends with any of the Figueroa boys before. Before Bette. Maria should call the police right this minute, tell them her son was missing. Mark, her beautiful boy. She thought she had done things right with him, he never missed a day of school, teachers always telling her how good a kid he was with his ‘yes ma’am’, ‘please’ and ‘no thank you’s, his noble attempts at chess club, his weekend work at the Books and Boogie store downtown. And then this girl, this Bette-- who would give a child a French whore name like that anyway? -- always looking like she was laughing at the adults, like she knew something no one else knew, with her lip gloss and frightening piercings and tight black t-shirts that showed the small star tattoo just above her hip, this girl ruined everything. Maria thought of the first time she met Bette, how she was certain she had smelled alcohol on the girl’s breath, how the girl seemed impaired by something more than youth, and when she asked Mark about it the next day, he claimed Bette had had the stomach flu and the anti-nausea pills weren’t sitting well with her. It was the most preposterous thing Maria had ever heard but her son said it with such certainty, so hurt when Maria laughed at him, that Maria thought Mark himself believed the ridiculous story. Now Maria assessed Bette and wondered if she had even been pregnant. She certainly didn’t seem weak or fragile for someone who had miscarried just two days ago.

Maria put her hands over her face. They were only kids. Surely Bette couldn’t have lied about something like that just to tighten her grip. But Mark, where was he? One o’clock in the morning, off with a dumb-as-mud eighteen year old named Figgy, up to God knows what.

Suddenly Maria thought again of the Martins, of Mrs. Martin thickly snoring in her king sized bed, of Bobby on his computer all night, of Mr. Martin sending suggestive text messages to his secretary, and, for the first time in the eight years that Maria had worked for them, she envied them their minor disasters after all.

 Fourth Installment
(July 22)

The light woke her, curling its fingers gently around the curtains, feeling its way into the room slowly. Squinting against the light, Maria reached out and turned the alarm clock towards her so she could see.

Six-thirty. When had she become unable to sleep in? The night before a day off, she invariably promised herself that she would sleep until some hedonistic hour – eight, maybe – and the next morning, she invariably woke at the same time she did every other morning, feeling, somehow, cheated, but unable to fall back to sleep anyway. Mark, on the other hand, could still keep the nearly-vampirical hours of a teenager, staying up until dawn threatened, and then sleeping happily until the afternoon.

The thought of Mark gave her a vaguely uneasy feeling, and she pushed the clock away. Had he ever come home? She slipped on a bathrobe and padded lightly down the hall, the carpet rough and stiff under her feet, the periodic stains a map of time. In the living room, Bette was sleeping on the sofa, face-down, one hand resting on the floor, the opposite foot hooked over the back, as though she had collapsed in the midst of some athletic event. Her makeup was smudged, her hair messy, and Maria felt a twinge of something maternal as she looked at the girl. Maybe she had been wrong about Bette. Maybe she should trust her more, see the elaborate makeup and aggressive piercings and the tight clothes as what they were: armor against the world, against anyone getting too close.

Mark’s door was closed – still, or again? Maria turned the handle gently, placing her other palm flat against the wood as she pushed. The room was dark, the bed, empty.

She closed the door, the worry in her stomach twisting and growing. Wherever he and the unfortunately-named Figgy had gone last night, they hadn’t come back.  She padded softly into the kitchen and looked at her cell phone and the answering machine. No messages.

With a sigh, Maria ran her hands through her hair and rubbed her eyes. She caught a glimpse of herself in the window above the sink, a tired woman with tired eyes and a worried set to her mouth. She hadn’t always been like this, hadn’t always looked this way. Once upon a time she would have been gentler with the Martins, been gentler with Bette, been gentler with herself. But then things happened…life happened, and here she was, with money problems and parenting problems and job problems and a thousand responsibilities as long as her arm, and the gentleness had faded to an occasional guilt that slipped around the back of her mind like a ghost.

And now she had three new problems: Mark was missing, Bette was not, and she was going to have to call Danny and tell him both of those things.

 

The first eight installments will be anynomous as the writers would like to guess who is writing that passage solely on sytle of writing. How fun!

LIKE us on our Facebook page and be the first to know when the four installment is up!

Please comment -- write some encouraging words for the authors!

Barbara's picture

Author On the Bookcase: Jay Varner, author of Nothing Left To Burn

I'm so excited to welcome Jay Varner, author of Nothing Left to Burn, to On the Bookcase! Jay's memoir eloquently tells the story of a son’s relationship with his father, the fire chief and a local hero, and his grandfather, a serial arsonist. Jay returns home after college and lands a job at the local newspaper writing the police and fire beat. Three men of the same family share a passion or obession with fire. In digging into the past, Jay's story reveals layers of family secrets, lies, and half-truths about fire-fighting and arson. It is only when he finally has the truth in hand that he comes to an understanding of the forces that drove his father, and of the fires that for all his efforts his father could never extinguish.

In this post, Jay shares his high school struggles to get a girl and be accepted. These struggles lead to an enlightment of Jay's ultimate goal to "write a book."

In ninth grade, I was bused an hour away to a high school that mixed camouflaged country boys like my friends and I with Gap-decked city kids. My freshman class had 250 students, the most visible of which came from a wealthy neighborhood of lawyers and doctors. Oceans of them swarmed the halls between classes, talking about things like beer, pot, fights, automobiles, and sex. I watched spaghetti westerns, collected baseball cards, played video games, and stayed home Friday nights to read about the Civil War. I was an anonymous weirdo in a school, like most, defined by social hierarchy. Unless I wanted to end up like Grover Hutchins, the curly-haired senior who sat by himself at lunch and read fantasy dragon novels, I had to distinguish myself.

Nothing would better redefine my identity than a girlfriend. The logic behind my quixotic conquest was hazy. In middle school, as boys with peach-fuzz mustaches and Skoal-breath snagged the prettiest girls, I marveled at the Sport Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and endured taunts of “Gay Jay” from mullet-headed boys. I didn’t chalk off the calendar days until the arrival of deer hunting season or ride four-wheelers and, thus, failed to meet the accepted definition of a real man. But, it seemed real men always had a woman by their side. Looking back, I think I needed to prove to myself that I could find a girlfriend—perhaps it really was the chase that gave me the greatest thrill. Beyond announcing that I had finally captured this long sought-after fantasy girl, I would have had no idea what came next.

You lived and died by lunch in high school. If you spent a month careening like a pinball from girl to girl in the hopes of receiving basic eye contact only to meet constant failure, you might as well consider seppuku. It’s hard to tell how much of what came next could be chalked up to adolescent angst and how much of it really was a black-eyed dog scratching at the door. I was depressed—or, rather, immersed myself in the things I imaged a depressed person would do, such as wearing black and reading the darkest and most cynical pieces of the canon. In a matter of weeks I tore through The Bell Jar, Catch-22, and The Catcher In the Rye. When I was in a bookstore, I saw something called Prozac Nation—how could I resist? This was my nation and the author, Elizabeth Wurtzel, became my first true, painful celebrity crush. I needed my beloved Elizabeth, just like the many girls at school, to finally notice me.

Perhaps this is why, not long after that my bacchanalia of depressive literature, I wrote a story for English class called “The Box.” It was an allegorical mish-mash between Matheson’s “Button, Button” and Stockton’s “The Lady and the Tiger”—someone finds a mysterious box and what’s inside answers questions and fills desires. “But what, dear reader, is inside the box?” Even though the story amounted to petty theft, my classmates loved all of it, especially that final line. I thought they would raise me onto their shoulders and carry me through the halls amidst a blizzard of confetti, celebrating a literary genius that had lay dormant for years. The slightest hint of acclaim was like heroin—I needed more fast.

The great scam of my adolescence started the following Sunday night, when I sat on the La-Z-Boy and tried to write a follow-up. I thumbed through the radio dial and found something called Dr. Demento, a syndicated radio show dedicated to novelty songs in the vein of Weird Al or Stan Freeberg. In the best of cases, they satirized society; in the worst, they featured harmonized burps. After a few minutes, I hit the record button on the tape deck. The first song I remember was called “God Told Me to Rob the 7-11” by Dick Price. Throughout that next day at school, the bouncy piano chords stuck in my head and when I stormed home that night, I rewound the tape and typed up the lyrics because they made me laugh. But—and to me, this was a vital distinction—I didn’t put my name underneath the title. When I handed out copies to my busmates the next morning, they laughed just as I had intended. But after they complimented me for writing the poem, I never exactly said that I didn’t write the words. And this is how it went, more or less, for the next two years. I was a regular Thomas Paine, if rather than extolling the virtues of freedom Paine had instead plagiarized novelty songs for his pamphlets and handed them out to his classmates in the hopes of becoming popular enough to net a girlfriend. Despite my continued defeats on the romantic front, it somehow seemed logical that a girl would fall in love with some lanky zit-faced kid who wore silk-screened sweatshirts and wrote funny poems. They did not and, when the radio station took Dr. Demento off the air, I felt the pressure of my audience—I needed to give them something. There would be no more jokes, I announced. I was going in a new direction and, for the first time, I put my name on the verses.

I should be in the gray clay
Of the frozen terrain.
Instead I keep breathing,
And things keep falling like the rain.

I turned that poem in to my senior-year English teacher, who passed it along to the office. As I made my case to the concerned principal, I told him it was only a poem, that plenty of poets expressed dark emotion in poetry.

“Take Sylvia Plath,” I said. “Her poems are loaded with stuff like this.”

The principal folded his hands, cocked his head. “True, but I remember it not ending well for her. Maybe you should write something else?”

Nothing Left to BurnSo I did. First, there was my version of The Onion which satirized issues common to my school like heroin addiction with such knee-slapping hilarity that the principal threatened to sue if I used the school’s name again. When the late-90s rash of school shootings hit, I wrote a skit about competing school shooters who had all picked the same day for their rampage—eventually, they worked out a passable time-table. My English teacher sent that one over to the principal, who again saw no humor.

“It’s satire,” I said. “And great satire should push the envelope?”

“True, but this is a little scary,” he said. He leaned back in his chair. “You thinking about college?”

I wasn’t. Some of the parents where I grew up didn’t exactly swing for the fences when it came to dreaming about their kids’ futures. Employed, out of jail, and not dead from a bar fight or car accident was usually good enough. It seemed that so long as I was happy, my family would be proud. Problem was, I had no idea just what would make me happy. I had toyed with a few career options—farmer, movie director, police officer, mercenary, helicopter pilot, sniper—but, after losing interest in them all, I more or less assumed that after high school I’d put my name in at the local factories, a perfectly respectable life spent in the echoes of clanging hammers and cracking timber.

“You could major in creative writing,” the principal said. “You’d do pretty well with something like that.”

There was the seed. There was the thing that would define me more than any girlfriend. When we were instructed to pick a quote to include under our photos in the high school yearbook, most people picked something trivial to sum up their high school experience—quips from Meet Joe Black or lyrics to a Matchbox Twenty song. I wanted mine to carry some metaphysical weight so I chose a line by Phillip Larkin—or, as it was erroneously attributed, Phillip Carkin.

I think writing about unhappiness is probably the source of my popularity, if I have any—after all, most people are unhappy, don’t you think?

In my picture, I wore a drab gray shirt and a thin red tie that was not in style in 1999 nor anytime since. The severity on my face matched one of those stiff men in Civil War Daguerreotypes who tucked his hand into his jacket and looked bloated by indigestion.

Underneath Larkin’s quote was my life’s ambition. Many classmates wrote something like “To love Gina forever” or “Keep my truck running real good.”

Mine: “To someday write a book.”

Jay, thanks so much for revealing your trials and tribulations of high school. I'm so glad these issues finally led you to be a writer instead of "farmer, movie director, police officer, mercenary, helicopter pilot, sniper." Nothing Left to Burn has excellent discussion points for reading groups -- family dynamics, coming-of-age, faith.

Praise for Nothing Left to Burn
“Varner traces a scorched circle of memory in this affecting memoir, looking to fire to both destroy and purify the past.”
--Publisher’s Weekly

"At its core, the book is about the way we spend half our lives trying to understand the people who brought us into this world ..."
--Time Out Chicago

Jay Varner is a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he earned his MFA in creative nonfiction. He currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. This is his first book.

Find out more about Jay.

Barbara's picture

Author On the Bookcase: Jael McHenry, author of The Kitchen Daughter

Author On the Bookcase
Jael McHenry

Jael McHenryI'm thrilled to welcome Jael McHenry, author of The Kitchen Daughter, to On the Bookcase. Reading and recipes -- perfect for reading groups! After the unexpected death of her parents, painfully shy and sheltered 26-year-old Ginny Selvaggio seeks comfort in cooking from family recipes. (Midnight Cry Brownies -- yummy!) She learns her cooking will lure family ghosts and these ghosts leave clues to some family secrets. As Ginny deals with her loss, she faces another challenge  -- her sister wants to sell the house Ginny has ever known. Ginny unravels the family secrets from the ghostly revelations while discovering her own identity. A coming-of-age story featuring evocative and mouth-watering descriptions of food!

Jael's reading group picked The Kitchen Daughter as their May book selection. "What would it be like? For them and for me? What if they didn’t like it?" Jael chats with us about the worries she had.

In my many years as a member of different book groups in different cities, I’d always made it a point to read the book, but this month for the very first time I didn’t have to worry about that at all.

I hadn’t just read the book. I’d written it.

My novel The Kitchen Daughter came out in April, and as publication approached, I’d pictured readers of all stripes enjoying it, especially book groups. It’s the story of a shy, sheltered young woman with Asperger’s syndrome who discovers she can invoke ghosts from dead people’s recipes. In a time of grief – the unexpected death of both her parents – Ginny turns to family recipes, cooking to comfort herself. There’s a lot for a book group to discuss – food and memory, grief and reassurance, family dynamics, how the narrator’s autism affects the form and content of the story. I’d hoped that book groups would pick it up and discuss it. I’d imagined them cooking along, making the recipes, and serving the dishes named in the book as their discussions unfolded.

But somehow, I’d never really thought about my book group discussing it.

My book group here in New York City is a group of about 10 women, meeting every month or two, discussing both fiction and nonfiction, as we choose. As many book groups do, we eat and drink along with our conversation. The hostess generally makes a main dish and the rest of us bring appetizers, salad, desserts, and of course, wine. And there’s generally a discussion at the end of each session about what book we’ll read for the next session, but in April, that discussion was very short. “And of course, next, we’re doing Jael’s book,” they said, and I said, “Okay.” (Well, I also said “Are you sure?” and “Don’t feel obligated,” but it came around to “Okay” pretty quickly.)

But I wondered – what would it be like? For them and for me? What if they didn’t like it?

The Kitchen DaughterI was worried both that they’d be too honest and not honest enough. The big night came. I made Midnight Cry Brownies, a recipe from the book, and I knew the hostess was undertaking aji de gallina, a Peruvian chicken recipe – also in the book – that is without a doubt the most complicated and time-consuming dish in there. I arrived, grabbed my glass of Riesling, and braced myself.

And it was fine. Better than fine. As a matter of fact, it was wonderful.

Having the author in the room changes the dynamic, of course, but it doesn’t make the conversation any less lively. It just changes the focus. (Or at least it did in our case.) We drank glasses of wine and Georgia Peaches (once again, a book recipe) and ate our way through a delicious spread of Peruvian chicken, black bean salad, cheese and crackers, those brownies, and much more. And instead of declarative statements, which sometimes dominate the conversation – I didn’t like ABC, or I wish the author would have talked more about XYZ – we expressed ourselves in the give and take of questions – Did you always know the book would end with ABC? Who thought the explanation for XYZ would be something else? 

I got to talk about my research and my revisions, and if I spoke more than I usually would at a meeting, I’m sure next time I’ll talk less. After all, next time I’ll be a reader again.

Thanks, Jael, for being a reader and an author! And, supplying great discussion points and awesome recipes for a book group meeting. Still thinking about the Midnight Cry Brownies . . .

Praise for The Kitchen Daughter

"For Ginny Selvaggio, the protagonist of Jael McHenry's captivating debut novel, food is a kind of glossary and cooking provides its own magic, whether it's summoning the dead or softening the sharp edges of a world she finds neither comfortable nor familiar. The Kitchen Daughter is sweet and bitter-sharp, a lush feast of a novel about the links between flavor and memory, family and identity."  --Carolyn Parkhurst, New York Times bestselling author of Dogs of Babel and The Nobodies Album

Jael McHenry is a talented and enthusiastic amateur cook who blogs about food and cooking at the SIMMER blog. She is a monthly pop culture columnist and Editor-in-Chief of Intrepid Media, online at intrepidmedia.com. Her work has appeared in publications such as the North American Review, Indiana Review, and the Graduate Review at American University, where she earned her MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in New York City.

Barbara's picture

Man Booker Winners Become Reading Groups Picks

2011 Man Booker Prize Longlist Announced

The Man Booker Prize, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2008, aims to reward the best novel of the year writteMan Booker Prizen by a citizen of the Commonwealth or the Republic of Ireland. The Man Booker judges are selected from the country's finest critics, writers and academics to maintain the consistent excellence of the prize.

Some of past winners have become reading groups favorites -- The Finkler Question, Wolf Hall, The White Tiger, The GatheringThe Inheritance of Loss, The Life of Pi 

THe 2011 Longlist

Julian Barnes–The Sense of an Ending
Sebastian Barry–On Canaan's Side
Carol Birch–Jamrach's Menagerie
Patrick deWitt– The Sisters Bothers
Esi Edugyan–Half Blood Blues
Yvvette Edwards–A Cupboard Full of Coats
Alan Hollinghurst–The Stranger's Child
Stephen Kelman–Pigeon English
Patrick McGuinness–The Last Hundred Days
A.D. Miller–Snowdrops
Alison Pick– Far to Go
Jane Rogers–The Testament of Jessie Lamb
D.J. Taylor–Derby Day

The shortlist of six authors will be announced on September 6 and the winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize for Fiction will be announced on October 18.

Which book do you choose?

Barbara's picture

Third Installment of Novel-in-Progress from the Sisters of the Traveling Computers

Third Installment!
Sisters of the Traveling Computers
Novel-in-Progress

Eight great writers are going to produce a progressive novel -- like a progressive dinner! Each one will write a couple paragraphs, a chapter, two chapters (whatever strikes her fancy) round robin style without discussing it with each other. This novel-in-progress will continue through the rest of the year. The scribes are Eleanor Brown (The Weird Sisters), Heidi Durrow (The Girl Who Fell From the Sky), Siobhan Fallon (You Know When The Men are Gone), Therese Fowler (Exposure), Tanya Egan Gibson (How to Buy a Love of Reading), Caroline Leavitt (Pictures of You), Sarah Pekkanen (Skipping a Beat), and Rebecca Rasmussen (The Bird Sisters.) All great books for reading groups!

First installment (May 15)

By midnight, he still wasn’t home. Or he wasn’t picking up the phone, which he knew would make her frantic with worry. She couldn’t leave the Martin’s now. Already, Mrs. Martin had told her that just cleaning up after the party wasn’t enough, that she wanted her to also redust (redust!) the figurines on the mantle because “You didn’t take enough care last time.” Should she tell Mrs. Martin how Mr. Martin groped her as she trying to arrange the baby chocolate éclairs on a plate? Should she tell her how Bobby, Mrs. Martin's son, called her a stupid bitch and kicked her out of his room so she wouldn’t catch him doing Jesus knows what?

She wasn’t supposed to use her phone when she was working, but she dialed again. Maybe he was with Bette, his terrifying girlfriend. Maybe he was walking again, clearing his head about what had happened.

Second Installment (June 22)

Maria wasn’t ready to become a grandmother at 42. And that was what she said first when--with his lips trembling—Mark told her that Bette was pregnant. She should have held him. He looked so scared. How could her teenage son become a father before he had a chance to become a man?

That was just five weeks ago, and now she wouldn’t have to be a young grandmother. She wouldn’t have to watch Mark struggle to take care of a family too young. Why couldn’t Mark see the miracle in this moment?

The phone went to voicemail again.

It was a thirty-minute drive home from the Martin’s. Let him be home by then, she thought. Just please let him be safe.

Third Installment (July 1)

Mystery Novel“Dammit!” The most ghoulish figurine, the one with the trio of black-eyed children gaping up as if caught forever in the middle of wailing some god-awful song, skittered across the Pledge-shiny mantle and shattered on the floor below.

Maria dropped to the marble and quickly swept the delicate porcelain into the dust rag.  Her right knee grinded roughly and she winced, maybe she would have been old enough to have been a grandmother after all.

“What have you done?”

Maria looked up at the doorway and saw Mrs. Martin standing there in that blue dress of hers, the one that had the extra padding in the front and made the woman look top heavy enough to fall on her face. What Maria would give to see Mrs. Martin fall on her face. Though it looked like tonight just might be the night as Mrs. Martin tottered over the smooth floor toward her. Maria tried to judge the distance between the door and the mantle—would Mrs. Martin, who clearly looked like she had finished off every wine bottle in her cellar, notice the missing figurine? Should Maria pretend she was just wiping up a speck of dirt on the marble and get herself to the department store tomorrow to find one of these ridiculous chatkas, get it back on the mantle before Mrs. Martin had finished nursing her hangover and got out of bed at noon? Whenever she had broken something in the past, Mrs. Martin docked her pay a good fifty percent more that the true price of the broken item. Maria knew that vase the cat knocked over, the one she got blamed for, had been a Wal-Mart special rather than any Shannon Irish Chrystal from Macy’s, but she had let it slide.

Now she curled those shattered little goth kids into her palm. “How was the party, Mrs. Martin? Did your guests just love those éclairs?”

“I thought I heard something break in here.” Mrs. Martin seemed unsure. Then she slipped, looked like she was about to do a split and quickly righted herself. That’s what she deserved for wearing those three inch hooker heels, Maria thought. Clear heels! No one could get away with clear heels except… well, hookers. Didn’t Mrs. Martin know that a fifty year old woman had a better chance of keeping her man if she let herself age gracefully instead of buying out Victoria Secret push-up bras and over-botoxing her face?

“Did you say something broke in the kitchen? I’ll get right on it.” Maria rose, again feeling that weakness in her knee. For a moment she felt a rush of sympathy for Mrs. Martin and the skin stretched too tightly across her face, the highlighted hair that only seemed to emphasize her grey, the manic way she held her wine glass as if it’s contents was the only thing allowing her to think that she was still young and lovely in the eyes of her husband.

“The kitchen is a disaster,” the woman sneered, and Maria felt her spine straighten, her sympathy evaporate. The kitchen had been pristine ten minutes ago, all the party’s washing up done and put away. The only thing left should be a few coffee cups from the hanger-ons who pretended to sober up before drunk-driving their Hummers and Mercedes home.

“I’ll take a look before I go,” Maria whispered, eyes down. Then she glanced up, rearranging her face as sweetly as possible. “Oh, Mrs. Martin, I think Bobby wanted you to go on in and say goodnight when your guests left, he seemed like he was waiting up for you.”

Maria left the room, shoving the rag deep into her pocket. She hoped Mrs. Martin walked right in on that little pervert and caught him watching whatever sicko pornos only rich tech-savvy kids had the time and money to become addicted too.

She peeked into the kitchen; the gleaming granite was just as clean as she left it. Two dirty coffee cups in the sink. Two dirty coffee cups now constituted a “disaster.” Maria shook her head and quickly put the mugs into the dishwasher. This family didn’t know the disasters that knocked them upside the head every day: Mr. Martin chasing anything that peed sitting down, Bobby talking to topless girls in Thailand through a web-cam, Mrs. Martin with a liver that wouldn’t see the next decade. Oh no, the only disasters the Martins recognized were the fluctuation of stock prices, a new wrinkle on Mrs. Martin’s rigid face, Bobby not getting into Princeton.

Maria set the alarm system in the foyer and shut the front door without further ado. She was reaching for her cell phone before she was at the end of the driveway and felt a sudden stab of pain. She tugged her hand out of her pocket, heard the chime of glass hitting the asphalt. A shard of figurine had sliced into the pad of her thumb and now jutted out of her flesh. Part of a face hung perpendicular from her finger, and one of the black eyes, souless and cold, stared up at her. It made Maria hesitate and stare back, jolted and afraid. That eye looking at her felt like a bad omen. She tugged it out, threw the piece on the drive, stuck her bloody thumb in her mouth. Then she started jogging to her car, her heart tight in her chest.

Mark, she thought, dear God, Mark, please be all right.

Bette answered the door, looking peeved at Maria for trying to get into her own home. Maria would have naturally apologized for waking anyone up, but the glint of Bette’s eyebrow ring, the twist on the girl’s perpetually red-lipsticked mouth, made Maria itch with irritation instead. First of all, Bette was not allowed to be in the house when Maria was not. Call her old-fashioned or absolutely ridiculous, Maria didn’t care. It was her number one rule. Second of all, there were plenty of bolts on that door that the kids could have locked that Maria had a key to open, but they had decided on using the chain, knowing Maria couldn’t get in, which made her think that they had deliberately locked her out so they could do the sorts of things Maria told herself sickos like Bobby Martin got up to. As if getting Bette pregnant once just wasn’t enough for these two. As if a miscarriage, yes, horrible, but in this case it felt like it was the will of God Almighty Himself, as if a miscarriage hadn’t spared them already.

“Mark’s here?” Maria asked immediately. Bette shrugged in that sullen way that made Maria want to wring her neck.

“Bette, is he here or not? And why weren’t either of you answering your cell phones, I was worried sick—“

“He hasn’t called me since ten,” the girl said. “I don’t know where he is.”
Maria blinked at Bette, noticing for the first time that she was wearing a pair of Mark’s boxers. “What do you mean you don’t know where he is?”

The girl followed Maria’s eyes. “He told me I could stay here, to make myself comfortable.” She put her hand on her hip. “It’s not like I could go home now that everyone knows Mark knocked me up.”

Maria felt exhausted, the room tipping to the left for a moment. It was too much. “Bette, where is my son?”

Bette sighed forcefully in reply, her thick fringe of bangs lifting off her forehead with the effort, and it reminded Maria that the girl was only a teenager after all. Granted, a seventeen-year old, and she lorded that extra year of experience over sixteen-year old Mark, it was part of her strange power over her son, Maria knew. But she was still a girl, at least in calendar years, and she had been through a lot, had been pregnant and lost a baby and now it seemed as if her parents had kicked her out of her home, all before her senior year of high school. If Maria had been a better person, she would have embraced Bette immediately, asked her how she was feeling, offered to make her an ice cream sundae. But Maria didn’t feel like being a better person tonight, she felt the taint of the Martin’s still on her skin, making her impatient and cruel. “Goddammit, Bette, don’t you sigh at me. If you don’t tell me where Mark is I will call the police and tell them to take you with them.”

Bette’s arms dropped limply to her sides. “He went somewhere with Figgy. He didn’t tell me what they were doing but he said not to worry about them unless they didn’t come home by morning. He told me to make up a lie to tell you but… but I couldn’t.” She glanced at Maria and Maria thought maybe there was something scheming in the girl’s eyes, something that didn’t match the poor-little-worried-me story.

Maria sat down at the small kitchen table.

Figgy. That name rang some vague bell. Was he one of Bette’s cousin’s? Yes, that’s right, he was the eldest Figuera boy, eighteen, the one who had repeated his freshman year of high school twice. Mark had never been friends with any of the Figueroa boys before. Before Bette. Maria should call the police right this minute, tell them her son was missing. Mark, her beautiful boy. She thought she had done things right with him, he never missed a day of school, teachers always telling her how good a kid he was with his ‘yes ma’am’, ‘please’ and ‘no thank you’s, his noble attempts at chess club, his weekend work at the Books and Boogie store downtown. And then this girl, this Bette-- who would give a child a French whore name like that anyway? -- always looking like she was laughing at the adults, like she knew something no one else knew, with her lip gloss and frightening piercings and tight black t-shirts that showed the small star tattoo just above her hip, this girl ruined everything. Maria thought of the first time she met Bette, how she was certain she had smelled alcohol on the girl’s breath, how the girl seemed impaired by something more than youth, and when she asked Mark about it the next day, he claimed Bette had had the stomach flu and the anti-nausea pills weren’t sitting well with her. It was the most preposterous thing Maria had ever heard but her son said it with such certainty, so hurt when Maria laughed at him, that Maria thought Mark himself believed the ridiculous story. Now Maria assessed Bette and wondered if she had even been pregnant. She certainly didn’t seem weak or fragile for someone who had miscarried just two days ago.

Maria put her hands over her face. They were only kids. Surely Bette couldn’t have lied about something like that just to tighten her grip. But Mark, where was he? One o’clock in the morning, off with a dumb-as-mud eighteen year old named Figgy, up to God knows what.

Suddenly Maria thought again of the Martins, of Mrs. Martin thickly snoring in her king sized bed, of Bobby on his computer all night, of Mr. Martin sending suggestive text messages to his secretary, and, for the first time in the eight years that Maria had worked for them, she envied them their minor disasters after all.

The first eight installments will be anynomous as the writers would like to guess who is writing that passage solely on sytle of writing. How fun!

LIKE us on our Facebook page and be the first to know when the four installment is up!

Please comment -- write some encouraging words for the authors!

Barbara's picture

Author On the Bookcase: Karen Essex, author of Dracula In Love

Author on the Bookcase
Karen Essex

Karen EssexVampires Fly On the Bookcase! I'm so excited to welcome Karen Essex, author of Dracula In Love. Karen's novel reveals Mina, the muse behind Stoker's Dracula, and brings her to life. Mina Murray Harker recounts the intimate details of what really transpired between her and the Count -— the joys and terrors of a passionate affair. Mina's tale is a visceral journey into Victorian England's dimly lit bedrooms, mist-filled cemeteries, and asylum chambers. Karen has turned the classic Dracula inside out!

Karen chats about her research of the asylums of Victorian England and the symptoms and behaviors deemed a patient insane.

Take us back, Karen, when "it was not a good time to be a woman."

When the Only Safe Sex was with Vampires
When doing book club chats for Dracula in Love, I am inevitably asked about the sequences in the novel that readers find the most chilling and frightening—the scenes in the Victorian insane asylum.  Surely those shocking scenarios, like the fantasy scenes of vampirism, are products of the author’s perverse imagination? Ironically, the answer is no; the asylum sequences are based on painstaking research. Truth, as it turns out, is always is stranger than fiction.

Dracula in Love, which I describe as a romantic Gothic thriller, retells Bram Stoker’s original story from the perspective of the vampire’s muse, Mina Harker, and in the process, turns the story on its ear, freeing Mina from her role as “victim,” and putting her at the center of her own story.  A good deal of Stoker’s book takes place in an asylum.  I wanted to use the Gothic setting, but I also wanted to paint the asylum as it actually would have been at the time—full of women incarcerated for having what we today would consider normal sexual and other desires.

In the course of my research, I quickly discovered that women in the 1890s had a lot more to fear from their own culture than from vampires. I read the psychiatric journals of the period, which prescribed bizarre treatments for ladies who were “hysterical,” which turns out to mean that they were “excitable in the presence of men.” In many instances, the desire to read all day or engage in intellectual studies, were also regarded as symptoms of mental illness. Young women were committed to asylums for doing cartwheels in mixed company, or for staring seductively at a man. Any behavior that showed spunk, spirit, or sexual needs, was pathologized.

All sorts of harrowing and torturous cures were developed to “settle” these women—restraints, forced housework (to help them remember their true natures), repeated plunges in ice water, and force-feeding, to name a few.  As mental illness in females was thought to originate in the womb, doctors also were obsessed with menstrual cycles, figuring that if a patient’s cycle could be made precise, the “illness” of wanting to have sex or read books all day, would disappear. Not coincidentally, an irregular cycle was considered a sign of mental illness and required treatment.

Curious as to whether these practices were actually carried out, I went into the archives of Victorian mental asylums and read physicians’ reports, often in the doctors’ own handwriting. The following short excerpt is taken from these cases. Here, Mina is on a tour of the institution with its director, Dr. John Seward:

Drucula In LoveSeward led me further down the hall to a mezzanine area, where we turned a corner. With a key, he opened a door, and we entered a room. Light streamed in through the single source of a small arched window. The room smelled of chemicals. He must have heard my little sniff. “It’s the ammonia used to clean the leathers. We sterilize them after every use. We are very modern here.”

Leather cuffs and straps of many sizes hung in bundles on hooks on the wall. He opened a closet, taking out a heavy linen garment with long sleeves that ended in mitts and a complex system of tie strings that dangled chaotically.

“Whatever is that used for?” I asked.

“We use the jackets in the more difficult cases to prevent the patients from harming themselves and others. In less severe cases, we use them to pacify.”

I cocked my head. “Pacify?”

“With male patients, we use them to control violent behavior. But with female patients, we have found that confinement of the arms and hands soothes the nerves. So many things cause ladies to become overexcited. You are such sensitive creatures. Prayer, which settles the male conscience and soothes his soul, has the opposite effect on ladies. We do not know why this is. Reading novels can have the same effect. We call these jackets camisoles because they calm a lady’s nerves in the same way that a putting on a lovely garment might.”

Think about that next time you slip into a bustier! The more harrowing excerpts are rife with spoilers, so I will let the reader discover them in the pages of the book. Though the Victorian era had its charms and pleasures—and I do explore those as well—it was not a good time to be a woman.  If I were living in those times, I would surely have been committed. And I’m guessing that if you are reading this, you might have been my cellmate.

Thanks so much, Karen, for sharing some of the background on Dracula in Love. "Truth is always stranger than fiction!" Reading groups can cetainly sink their teeth in the research and themes of Dracula in Love -- Victorian women's lives and identity, feminism, history, sexuality, folklore, mental illness treatment.

Praise
"Like The French Lieutenant's Woman, the novel explores and exposes the stifling confines of Victorian society, especially upon women. But the means of deliverance is altogether different."—Margaret George, bestselling author of The Memoirs of Cleopatra

"If you read only one more vampire novel, let it be this one."—C.W. Gortner, author of The Last Queen and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

Karen Essex is the author of Kleopatra, Pharaoh, and the international bestseller Leonardo's Swans, which won Italy's prestigious 2007 Premio Roma for foreign fiction. An award-winning journalist and a screenwriter, she lives in Los Angeles, California.

Please learn more about Karen.

Barbara's picture

Author On the Bookcase: Gabrielle Burton, author of Impatient With Desire

Author On the Bookcase
Gabrielle Burton

Gabrielle BurtonI'm so excited to welcome Gabrielle Burton, author of Impatient With Desire, to On the Bookcase. Gabrielle's novel tells the story of Tamsen Donner, a real-life pioneer woman. In 1846, after months of research and preparation, she and her husband George, along with their five daughters and eighty other pioneers, headed west on the California-Oregon Trail in eager anticipation of new lives in California. But everything that could go wrong did... and an American legend was born.

The Donner Party. We may think we know their story—a cautionary tale of starving pioneers trapped in the mountains performing an unspeakable act to survive—but Impatient with Desire brings to stunning life a woman—and a love story—behind the myth.

Gabrielle shares with us her "tortoise's handbook to success."

On your mark, get set, go!

The Long and Winding Road 
After writing off and on about Tamsen Donner, the pioneer heroine of the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846, for over 37 years, I won the writer's lottery--publishing TWO books about her in one year, a memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, and a novel, Impatient with Desire.

I started writing in 1971, dreaming of being a literary sensation at any moment. But life and years have a way of sneaking up on you and lobbing a few water balloons.

My publishing history reads like a tortoise's handbook to success.

In 1972, I published my first book, I'm Running Away From Home But I'm Not Allowed To Cross The Street.

For the next six years, a short story that turned into a novel consumed me, until I decided that the raised and dashed hopes were taking too large a toll on me and on my family. (Every rejection, I took to my bed and, like an Irish warrior, bled for a while, then rose to fight again.)

In 1979, I put away that 550 page novel--30 pages of it about Tamsen Donner and her lost journal--and started a new novel. I finished the first draft in two years and thought, Hey, I'm getting good at this stuff.

Well, not that good. It took until 1987 and twenty-eight rejections to get Heartbreak Hotel published.

In 1988, I transcribed my tapes from my family's retracing the CA/Donner Trail ten years before and wrote a non-fiction book. My editor wanted more personal revelations than I was willing to write, so that one went in the attic too.

In the mid 90's, I was in film school in Los Angeles and, after my family badgered me to attend the Donner Party Sesquicentennial in Donner Pass, I wrote a screenplay about the Donner Party. Now there are 87 characters in the Donner Party and, countless drafts and some years later, I realized that I didn't want to write about the Donner Party, but about Tamsen Donner, and not in a historical way, but to be true to her spirit. Easier said than done. I kept at it, and also wrote other screenplays, articles and reviews.

In 2002, my daughters' film production company, Five Sisters Productions, made my screenplay, Manna From Heaven, and I was heavily involved in the filming, editing, and distributing.

In 2006, feeling the pressure of age and time, I got out that nonfiction draft of our family's Donner Trail trip, horrified to see that my editor had given me notes in 1988! I was sick that so much time had passed and felt sorry for myself and quite despairing. Then I talked sternly to myself--you are the only one who can do something about this, G--and made a plan, working like crazy with a laser focus on rewriting that book. After 19 rave rejections by agents--"love it, but who's the niche?"--the part history/part memoir, Searching for Tamsen Donner, was published by U. of Nebraska Press in 2009. While that manuscript had been going through the rigorous screening process of a university press -- outside readers, committees, boards, a rewrite -- Impatient With DesireI wrote the novel, Impatient with Desire: The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner, which Hyperion bought in 2010. So ultimately, my writing about Tamsen Donner went through as many metamorphoses as I did and, of course, they all informed the book. Probably a half dozen women wrote those two books, and I'm glad I'm alive to see them come to fruition.

The long and winding road. I never stopped running, but it turned out I wasn't on the fast track to success.

Of course a lot of life intervened.  I can look back and tick off events, Well, that was the year we lived in Kuala Lumpur, that year was my husband's open heart surgery, those two years I went to film school, my mother, sister, and dog died that year, that year my five daughters, husband, and I traveled from Branson, MO to Juneau, AK with our movie, Manna from Heaven...  I can add it all up, but it doesn't compute in the same way that you can know your age but not recognize that older person in the mirror.

I never intended nor wanted to be the poster child of persistence.  Whenever I got rejections, which was all the time because I constantly sent things out, some cheery soul would invariably chirp, "Remember that woman who published her book at 82."

THAT WAS MY NIGHTMARE!

Great, I'd think.  I'll hand out lemon drops at the home.

Luckily, when success finally came, I was still in my own home and able to hand out champagne instead.  And I was old enough to know that that 82-year-old author was probably drinking champagne too.

Thanks so much, Gabrielle, for chatting about your success. You are the epitome of the classic children's book and female empowerment story, The Little Engine That Could. Impatient With Desire is a great book club pick -- plenty of conversation about marriage, family, Amercian history, parenthood, survival, adventure.

Praise
"Burton's writing tears out the reader's heart as it brings closure to her quest to understand a woman lost to time. Impatient With Desire finally rescues Tamsen Donner from ignominy, bringing her back to us a robust and very alive woman."—Erika Schikel, Los Angeles Times

"Gabrielle Burton brings us
a moving story of human courage and frailty. Tamsen Donner's tale will stay with you long after you've read the last page
." Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank

Gabrielle Burton is the author of the award-winning novels, Impatient with Desire: The Lost Journal of Tamsen Donner, and Heartbreak Hotel. Her nonfiction books are Searching for Tamsen Donner and I'm Running Away From Home But I'm Not Allowed To Cross The Street. Burton's articles, essays, and reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Family Circle, Ms. Magazine. She blogs for the Huffington Post and the Nervous Breakdown. She lives with her husband in Venice, CA.

Learn more about Gabrielle.

Syndicate content