Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac

In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father’s parents are barely mentioned. They live miles away in Iowa, for one thing, and, for another, whatever they do is light years away from his contented life in her mother’s close-knit extended family.

As a purely literary challenge, trying to fit any more characters into a five-generation tale runs the risk of adding confusion for the reader. But then, by my eighth and ninth revisions, I stumbled upon a simple tweak that allowed me to acknowledge his parents more fully — the simple names of Grandpa and Grandma Mac would do. Just how much of a picture do you get from just that much?

For the most part, they’re a sharp contrast to Cassia’s experiences of home. She and her brothers never feel comfortable in their childhood visits to their Iowa grandparents. But somewhere in my later revisions, an episode developed that changes her understanding and then allows a relationship, however tenuous, to develop. Can I admit being rather fond of the insertion? For one thing, it allows me to quickly sketch another kind of American family little known to the general public — one that faced earlier pressures not all that different from Cassia’s Greek-American lineage much later. For another, well, it’s closer to my own roots, even when I look at hers with some envy.

~*~

In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, the voice and direction of the story changed greatly. For one thing, it became much more Cassia’s own.

Continue reading “Getting to know Grandpa and Grandma Mac”

What do we make of a trio of evil great-aunts?

OK, I’ll have to admit they’re cardboard characters. I do little to develop her three great-aunts in my novel What’s Left, the ones Cassia and her brothers and cousins simply refer to as the Erinyes. Unlike the classic Greek marble statues, these have no redeeming qualities from the perspective of the story. They’re out-and-out evil forces, having fled the family rather than staying put where they’re needed. But they have enough influence to wreck everything, given a chance. And, yes, I’m still startled by Sandra’s outburst in my final revision. Let me know what you think when you get to that part.

As an author, I rather like the way they might simply dance across the stage as a trio arm-in-arm. And then back. Like a storm cloud, even.

I also like the way they serve as a foil to Cassia’s father and the others who voluntarily join the family the Erinyes had so readily fled at the earliest opportunity. Should I say abandoned?

Could it be they’re cardboard characters with a marble veneer? Do we even need to name them, individually?

I even delight in the weasel home-breaker who appears in their place further along in the plot — the one who aligns herself with their monetary claims. Oh, but that’s such an insult to weasels.

~*~

Here was one consideration I cut from an earlier draft:

What if the Erinyes had married into Baba’s side — something like it, out in Iowa or Salt Lake City?

And then moved on to Orlando or Orange County? No, they were bound for big cities. Which is where your Baba expected to thrive.

~*~

I dunno, but I’d guess they’d wear globs of makeup and tons of jewelry and loud stretch pants and perhaps even vote for Trump.

As an author, I can’t even forgive them for the way they treated Bella when she began working in the family restaurant, much less their threatening actions in the years when Cassia fights to preserve something for her own generation.

They have me thinking of the phrase “bad eggs.” I’ve seen more than a few in my own time … in my own life, actually.

Have you ever seen someone break up a relationship, a home, or a business? Anywhere else? What was the cause? What did they do? What could others do in response? What was your experience?

~*~

In the family, Cassia may have had food like these beet roots, photographed at Mario Restaurant in Monolithos. (Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Wikimedia Commons.)

~*~

 

Back to gut issues

Once Cassia gets a clearer picture of her father’s past, she can ask her aunt Nita more pointed questions.

Here’s some of what she learned before the final revisions of my novel What’s Left:

He just felt Vietnam was wrong. Said he sensed it in his bones. I think he was beginning to identify some of his bloodlines that support pacifist witness, once he started looking into genealogy just a few years before his passing. These are all part of what he called the hidden histories that Americans need to know.

~*~

In another deleted passage, she hears her uncle Dimitri’s take on the newspaper work her father was doing:

The public doesn’t want to admit there’s corruption or deceit in their neighborhood. They’ll take umbrage at anything that would satisfy your pursuit of honest revelation or artistic perfection. No, why should you prostitute yourself?

~*~

In an early consideration of what Cassia’s father might do if he settled in with her mother’s family, we had this:

Nita interjects, Don’t you know I’ve been asking around? Would you believe there really are some opportunities for a first-class freelance photographer? And not just weddings or anniversaries? Even if you’ve never been to a football or basketball game, don’t forget you can shoot them and make decent bucks? How about a crying need in the performing arts, too, for somebody who knows the ropes?

Well, that seemed a bit unrealistic. Besides, his career — thanks to her family — was enabled to flow in a more fulfilling direction.

~*~

Cassia’s father is essentially struggling to find the right places to deal with the public. In his case, his talent with a camera is part of the equation.

Have you ever been pictured in the newspaper? What was the occasion?

~*~

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this comedic figure from the province of Myrina (circa 330 BCE), based on a play by Menander. Unlike the Old Comedy Period, Meander wrote about everyday people, much in the style of a modern sitcom. It’s possible that this statue represents the character Knemon, from Menander’s play “The Grouch” (Dyskolos/Δύσκολος), Location: Louvre Museum, Paris. (Photo by Rennett Stowe via Wikimedia Commons.)

~*~

 

Remembering radical politics

As Cassia examines her father’s photographs in my novel What’s Left, she sees his generation from a fresh perspective.

Here’s her impression before I greatly condensed it in the final story:

That evening, back in her apartment, we sit down with more of the photos.

What I sense now is an unfathomable well of aimless, restless energy on the verge of erupting. The tattered crowd’s seated on the ground for a rock concert. It mills about, waiting for something to happen or someone to appear. It walks en masse down a city street or country highway. It’s lovers clinging to each other in desperation and escape. It’s an angry look while puffing on a cigarette — or a pipe or roach. It’s shirtless, braless, sunburned, tangled. 

There’s the happy streak too — defiantly so. And the frenetic dance that could become a tarantella. If only it had been channeled! Directed into sustainable communities, given meaningful work, paid livable wages, engaged fully in public service.

Some powerful forces have run hard against us, Nita says grimly. They set out to destroy it before it overran them.

And?

We were scattered. Not that our causes ever ended. You know, the peace movement. Racial and sexual equality. Educational alternatives. Environment and earth-centered economics. Natural and organic foods, even glutten-free. Fitness, spirituality, music, art … it all continues. You just have to pay attention.

~*~

As the passage relates, many vital social concerns remain.

What would you like to see happen to society in the future?

~*~

In the family, Cassia may have had food like this. Fried eggplant (“small crabs”) from Τα καβουράκια restaurant in Agios, Georgios, Santorini. Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

 

I’m owning up to fantasy and the paranormal

Never thought I’d be writing a ghost story, but that’s what happened in a chapter toward the end of What’s Left. Actually, it kinda dictated itself.

In retrospect, it looks pretty natural, considering that Cassia’s trying to recover her deceased father. What happens along the way, though, is that she uncovers a lot about her other ancestors, too, and from there she begins realizing the crucial impact many people, past and present, have in shaping her future.

The ghost story wasn’t all my idea. I was inspired by one in the novel whose structure I was adapting. The two chapters, for what it’s worth, are quite different.

The poet Gary Snyder, quoting an ancient Chinese folk song, has noted that the traditional way of making an ax handle was to take another one and use it as the model in making a copy. Likewise, I wanted something other than the usual 20- to 24-chapter novel and, as it turned out, the structural model for the new story remained intact. It didn’t quite hold for Daffodil Uprising, but it was still useful. The model also had me looking at each chapter as a panel or tile that might be moved around independently, a concept that didn’t entirely remain in what emerged.

As for the ghost story?

Remember, I’m coming from a “just the facts, ma’am,” career in daily journalism. Verifiable facts. Cold, hard facts. As for emotions? In fiction, I might stretch that to reporting what individuals say they’re feeling, but beyond that? Well, as I’m learning, fiction allows me to record how something feels, rather than how it empirically is. A lot of that awareness, by the way, came about for me in my revisions with Cassia.

Still, when it comes to ghosts, remember – little of my writing is conventional. So my ghost story winds up being humorous, rather than scary. Got a problem with that?

I might add that living in New England, I’ve become aware of how many people admit having ghosts in their houses. Even highly educated, otherwise rational folks. As far as I know, mine’s an exception, unless the specters inhabit that room we still haven’t discovered after 19 years here – the one housing all of the things that have gone awol, one by one.

~*~

I’ve previously posted on my aversion to genre, and that includes fantasy, especially of a paranormal sort.

But Cassia had me reconsidering that. I mean, I loved the Hobbit epic back in college. And what do I make of my appreciation for mythology or even Wagner’s Ring Cycle? Where is the line drawn?

So as I ventured on to revise the novels dealing with Cassia’s father (remember, she was nowhere on the horizon of my radar at the time they were written and published), I felt a new liberty. Why not employ elements of fantasy and paranormal, especially, in addressing the ’60s? They really do seem to fit the story.

I’ve long had a fondness for surrealism, which was a central strand of my subway novel. But my new thinking about fantasy now infused the revisions there, too. The second half of Subway Visions is livelier that way. The book is no longer an image in search of a narrative.

My novella With a Passing Freight Train of 119 Cars and Twin Cabooses also was framed on a surrealistic leap. The characters, though drawn from different points in history, were never ghosts, but seeing them from a fantasy perspective certainly made the revision easier as I realized it could fit into the third book of Tender Connections, my series about Jaya.

A related novella, Kokopelli’s Hornpipe, likewise benefitted. Its basis was mythology. What, a flute-playing giant cricket couldn’t also be fantasy?

To pull the two novellas together as a single book, I really needed a third novella, and Miller at the Springs emerged to sit between them. It easily slipped over the limits of hard-and-fast for me and was a delight to write, even when I had no idea where it was headed.

The three now fit neatly, I think, into The Secret Side of Jaya. Let me know what you think.

Gee, I wonder if I’ll ever have a place to include dragons? Or …

~*~

Don’t forget: You better be good to toads!

Sustaining the teaching — and the teacher

Until the next-to-the-last chapter of my novel What’s Left, the resident Tibetan Buddhist master, Rinpoche, stays largely in the background.

He’s a stabilizing influence of Cassia’s family, all the same.

As she realizes, in earlier drafts of the novel:

I am impressed by Baba and Tito’s roles — the entire family’s role, in reality — in establishing the Buddhist institute. Our charitable foundation was established as a vehicle to support Baba’s research time as well as the institute and the new Pan Orthodox church — along with college scholarships for family children as well as those of many who’d worked for us. The foundation, then, was another enterprise from Dimitri’s socialist cognizance as it blended with our growing spirituality.

The family’s financial security was especially important in supporting her own parents through some transformative years:

For my parents, it provided enough income for them to pursue their dreams, even before we kids came along. Manoula’s share of the dividends and, I’m inclined to think, a consulting stipend from the company itself also allow Baba to focus on establishing the Tibetan institute here. For the first year, the Tibetan research operates out of their apartment, along with our publishing setup. And then, with Rinpoche in place, the institute settles into a small house more or less in the middle of Mount Olympus, where the guru can live in proximity to selected students the way Baba had.

But over the years, their individual practice wavered. With Barney, for instance, as Rinpoche explained:

More and more, we argued. Your Baba could still converse with him about these matters, but Barney kept quoting another teacher, far more permissive than me. What he allowed, we wouldn’t. But a few years ago, that guru died of complications of his wild lifestyle. It was scandalous.

As for her aunt Pia?

Rinpoche tells me she attended the weekly sessions with Theos Barney and the rest of the family, but her heart remained with the church.

And then Cassia has more pressing matters:

Pain? You say it’s an illusion, not real.

Oh, I’ve had some long discussions with your priest about that! From a Buddhist point of view, pain’s not real the way material things aren’t real. That doesn’t mean they don’t get in the way. You just have to learn to see through them. You can’t refuse to directly examine an obstacle, though, and expect to be liberated from it. You just have to remember what’s beyond it.

The mountain?

There’s no avoiding it.

~*~

In Cassia’s family her father finds much more than a circle of faith. He gives and receives support in everything he values.

How do you support others? Is there one place you feel is especially important? What causes or organizations do you help?

~*~

Tibetan Buddhist double-dorje emblem. To me, it looks almost Greek Orthodox.

~*~

How Cassia herself evolved in the revisions

No matter how much my novel What’s Left is framed by the ending of my first published novel, most of its characters and action are entirely new.

Well, if you can call going a few more generations “new,” they’re fresh characters in my fiction, filled with color all their own.

Cassia herself and her brothers and cousins and aunts Pia and Yin are certainly original to this story. And yes, a lot has happened in the 50 years since her father joined in with the family.

As one now-deleted line admitted:

Your very presence alters the vibe. There’s the whole nonconformist groove.

This was a description of what her parents’ generation was doing to the restaurant immediately after the fatal car crash, but it could fit much more widely.

In each revision of the novel, Cassia took another step forward. She’s always started her quest at age 11, but most of it was told as a young adult recalling her string of discoveries. Now, however, much of it emerges when she’s 13 and moving up through her teens. For contrast, the final section comes a decade later, after she’s ranged the wider world.

Crucially, in the final revision, she’s speaking directly to her father throughout, rather speaking about him. And, as noted, much of the action has moved forward into her early teen years.

Somewhere along the way, her quest took a flip. It became more about her discovering just who she is and her role in the action. And that’s when she started dictating passages to me, the author.

When I selected her name, Acacia, I didn’t realize how prominent it is in the Bible. In the King James translation, it’s rendered as shittim — what an ugly word! — but Moses was very fond of the extremely hardy wood, and it’s mentioned more than 30 times, often as a required material for holy construction. Americans are most likely to encounter it as the fragrant black locust tree, thorns and all. (OK, officially that’s considered false acacia, but still … close enough for me.) Its flowers are quite fragrant.

~*~

Well, an author can’t include all the details.

What do you think Cassia’s favorite food would be? (Don’t you dare say the Streetcar!)

~*~

Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington, Indiana, a town that inspired much of the novel. Cassia’s family compound and restaurant would have been off to the left.

~*~

Work! A four-letter word

One of the ideas at work — oops! — in my novel What’s Left, is work itself.

Most of us tend to think of it as menial labor, I suppose, but it doesn’t have to be. In the story, for example, Cassia’s aunt Pia has a way of making every task fun and meaningful. And Cassia and her brothers and cousins all put in hours at the family restaurant from an early age on.

~*~

Her aunt Nita also had some insights on work. Here’s one I cut from the final version of the book — we simply had more on our plate than we could manage:

Day by day Nita worked her column like a line cook … a station chef. And she dared tell me journalism’s not like an assembly-line job?

~*~

The poet Donald Hall once broke labor out into three kids: work, jobs, and chores. Maybe you’ll see how they differ.

Tell me about something you do for the pure joy of doing it, even though other people might think of as, uh, tedious work.

For some of you, this could be gardening or cabinetry or decorating cakes or arranging flowers or, well, you get the drift. For others it might be an art or sport or public service.

Is it something you also get paid to do? Or could you?

~*~

 

Maybe this is backwards, but the cover can change the story

This self-publishing field means an author is typically deeply involved in all parts of the project rather than just the writing itself.

In my Smashwords releases, I initially hired a book designer to do the covers, but my current releases have all been created by me. (Someday, I really would like to have an artist design the front, but for now, I’m sticking to photos or existing stock artwork. We’re on a strict budget.)

Still, finding an appropriate image can be a challenge.

Has anyone else had this experience? You come across a picture that clicks and select it – and then you go back into your manuscript to make the visual fit better with the text?

For me, that happened with the portrait I settled on for Promise – the model gave me a clearer vision of my character Jaya. (That novel’s now part of Nearly Canaan.)

More recently, with Yoga Bootcamp, the handstand dog reminded me to keep the story lighthearted and humorous in my final revision. Did my decision to nickname the swami Big Pumpkin and Elvis come after the pooch was on board? I don’t recall now, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

Do tell me about your favorite book cover. Does it influence how you see the story? If you’re a writer, has the art on your book led to revisions?

~*~

By the way, I do hate it when the character on the cover is shown, say, as a blonde but is described in the story as a brunette. That sort of thing.

And don’t forget: You better be good to toads!

Missing from his photographic evidence

As Cassia discovers in my novel What’s Left, her father’s photographic record includes some serious gaps.

One involves a side of the hippie era, especially his experiences going underground in New York City.

As Cassia comments in an earlier draft of the story:

From his photos, I have little to go on regarding the hitchhiking, much less the subways. Not that there aren’t images — they just don’t reveal anything. Maybe it was largely in his mind. Maybe mostly a pipe dream. Entertaining, all the same. And one or the other landed him here.

~*~

Looking back on the era, I wonder how I’d react seeing photos of the people I was with or the experiences we shared. The nude group swimming at the remote lake in the summer? Not nearly as sensuous as I remember? Former lovers? Half of the places I lived have been torn down, as I see from satellite maps. You get the idea.

The time seemed so full of promise.

Tell me about the biggest disappointment you’ve ever had.

~*~

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