Ultimately, the new series is all about Jaya

Cassia is not the only character who’s had me drastically revising my earlier fiction.

Jaya, the central figure in what now stands as Nearly Canaan, has more recently had me doing the same to six other published books.

First, before Cassia became part of my life in What’s Left and the earlier stories now told in my Freakin’ Free Spirits cycle, Jaya emerged in a set of revisions in what became the three novels Promise, Peel (as in apple), and St. Helens in the Mix.

Initially, her part wasn’t even female – and while transforming her wasn’t exactly literary gender reallocation surgery, it certainly changed the dynamic of the story, which became older woman/younger man, with the woman being the tall dark sophisticated stranger being pursued by a hot young guy.

In the early drafts, she wasn’t yet a yogi, either, but rather a Sufi.

The stories themselves were about encountering specific landscapes as much as the individuals themselves.

A few years after their publication, I decided to restore them to my original intent of one volume but realized drastic revision was necessary. First, they needed to be cut significantly to fit into what would still be a “fat” and hopefully juicy book. Second, I needed a clearer understanding of Jaya’s actual career as well as her companion’s character. And, third, a fuller comprehension of her lasting influence was required. That led to the new version, Nearly Canaan.

It still felt incomplete, though. Her earlier spiritual training needed to be told. While she had talked briefly about her ashram experiences, they didn’t align completely with my yoga novel. But they could.

I reopened the manuscript, changed one of the eight students to be Jaya, and then changed the gender of the guru throughout. That led to a slew of drastic alterations and additions, moving the novel from Ashram to Yoga Bootcamp.

That gave me two novels in a series, but a series needs a third or more, I felt.

But wait, there’s more.

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I still have mixed feelings about genre and series

Somewhere along the way, I developed an aversion to “commercial” writing. Maybe it was the “hack” label I encountered, back when I was in college, when I read Samuel Johnson’s dismissal of most of his contemporaries, or maybe just a heightened sensitivity to the low esteem given journalists, which is where I spent my work life. (By the way, I’ll still argue that some reporters are better writers than what I find in many literary circles.)

Have to admit, what I aspired to was critical recognition. Respect. Self-worth.

That’s changed somewhat, especially when I consider so much of what I’ve encountered in that critically acclaimed list over time.

Gee, when it comes to admiration, which would you rather have – adoring readers or a circle of critics and academics?

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What prods a writer to the keyboard day after day?

A statement read long ago, that many novelists set out in their newest writing to discover the book under the one they previously finished, has long resonated with me.

I addressed it head-on in What’s Left, which picked up at the end of my first published novel and the Hippie Trails stories that followed. The nagging questions also prompted the three Jaya novels that followed Promised, which are now all compressed into Nearly Canaan.

In both cases, this effort to finally resolve the question of “what’s it about” – really about – led to my reworking the previous novels rather than writing more. In fact, it would up reducing my list.

~*~

I write to explore and discover. There’s a reason I’ve come to be defined as a Mixmaster.

If you’re a writer, let me ask. How about you? What motivates you to sit down at the keyboard? What’s your approach? How do you define yourself and your work?

~*~

Has me recalling another question. Would you rather produce one big book that delivers it all – a masterpiece? Or a bookshelf of more modest but widely read works?

~*~

Or if you’re a reader, why do you turn to the books you choose?

I’m elated to have my novels now more orderly and interconnected

I’m still surprised by how much literary writing I accomplished in my spare time during all those years I was employed elsewhere. Much of it, admittedly, was in a shotgun fashion, or as I’ve also said, along the lines of graffiti, while hoping for the big break that would give me the space for a more concentrated approach.

Still, it led to a rich stream of material. In that regard, Jack Kerouac was a huge inspiration.

Releasing Hippie Drum as an ebook at Smashwords.com in 2013 was an indispensable defining moment for me. I was no longer bashing my hopes against a brick wall of commercial publishing, which was ever more resistant to experimental fiction. Six more novels followed at Smashwords, plus the fiction available at my own Thistle Finch online imprint.

As I’ve already noted on this blog, my novel What’s Left led me to rethink and rework almost all of those earlier novels. For one thing, as I now see, it was drafted and revised entirely after my retirement from the newsroom.

I’m deeply grateful to an insight from Smashwords founder Mark Coker that one of the advantages of ebook publishing over printed paper is that revised editions are much easier to accomplish, and more economical, too. That – and my own ability now to create my own covers, rather than hire a designer – encouraged me to drastically recast those earlier volumes.

There’ no way to express the elation I feel in now having most of those novels stand in two distinct, orderly cycles – Freakin’ Free Spirits and Living Dharma – each with a continuity of events and central cast of characters.

There’s the relief, too, of having finally been faithful to this material and its inspiration. I can now move on. It belongs to the world, the way a parent feels about grown-up children.

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All under Cassia’s spell

I keep thinking of What’s Left as “my latest novel” or “my newest,” even though other works are appearing after its publication.

I don’t mean to be creating confusion, but here’s my take.

One way or another, my earlier novels addressed the hippie era, which I still believe remains misunderstood and misrepresented. It’s too important for that. And, yes, it’s still hard to define.

What’s Left started out to put those stories in a broader perspective but, revision by revision, the book moved in a much different direction. Quite simply, Cassia and her generation took over.

It became the most difficult writing project I’ve ever undertaken and forced me to completely rethink my approach to fiction. Remember, my career was in “just the facts, ma’am,” journalism topped by Beat-era literature.

Unlike the earlier works, in drafting this one, I had a structural model I wanted to pursue – one that remained intact.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how much the focus would shift.

Many of my favorite parts were created in the final revisions, especially as other members of her generation became fully fleshed out characters, as did the Goth side of her mourning through her adolescent years.

That also meant ripping out a lot of other material, which either became background for my own understanding or was vastly condensed by the final version. The Red Barn’s been quoting heavily from those discards, just to add to your own understanding of the project’s scope.

Whew!

Unanticipated? The paranormal fourteenth chapter is one of my favorites, even though I’d never done a ghost story before. By they way, they wrote it, not me. I simply recorded the dialogue.

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Don’t overlook your guardian angels

In my Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, aunt Nita serves Cassia’s guardian angel.

Earlier, she had played a similar role for Cassia’s future father, from their college years together onward.

In fact, without Nita in the background, the daughter may have never come along at all, as she eventually appreciates in What’s Left.

Reflecting on my own life, I’m now sensing moments when someone stepped in, behind the scenes, to affect a change that opened an opportunity in my life. At the time, I was clueless. One led to a summer job and later part-time employment. Another, to my being able to transfer away to college, rather than continue at a commuter campus.

There were another attempts that were turned away, in my ignorance or incomplete understanding.

But there were also the other, more typical and ethereal guardian angels, the kind that kept me a brush away from death or serious injury, say being hit by a car or bus or finding myself in the deep end of the pool when I could barely swim or maybe even getting sexually involved with the wrong person.

Has someone in your life ever functioned as a guardian angel?

A case of real life intersecting fiction

One of the many things I like about using the DuckDuckGo search engine as an alternative to Google is that its home page includes Pocket, an informative selection of intelligent, substantive articles, many drawn from magazine archives, rather than fluff about celebrities and sports.

This morning’s Pocket, for example, included a 2015 Narratively article by Lilly Dancyger, “Planning My Father-Daughter Dance Without My Dad.”

What especially caught my attention was the ways Lilly’s experience intersected with my novel, What’s Left.

Like Cassia in the book, Lilly lost her father to death when she was 11, and like Cassia, she dressed largely in black for years afterward. (Whew! Confirmation I had that part right.)

Unlike my novel’s character, though, Lilly dropped out of high school, sought relief in alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and embraced a dim future. The homeless were some of her favorite companions.

In contrast, Cassia had a large extended family that stayed with her, even when she kept pushing them away. Yes, she had struggles with her mother much like Lilly’s, and she skirted some of the self-destructive behavior, but each of the three aunts on her mother’s side of the family found ways during her difficult teen years to break through to her, as did several of her first-cousins. In today’s world, few are so fortunate, not with our fractured nuclear households.

Moreover, through her aunt Nita, Cassia also had her father’s trove of his professional photography to sift through, each shot reflecting his thoughts and feelings.

What Lilly presents – and I didn’t – is the workings of guilt within a survivor. As she declares, it merely “isn’t just about feeling unjustly lucky to have lived while someone else died; it’s guilt for going on without them, guilt for changing and growing and becoming a person they never knew. Any milestone is tinged with their absence, any joy feels like a betrayal, like you’ve forgotten them, if only for long enough to laugh at a good joke or enjoy a good meal. But as long as you’re in mourning, your life is still about them, and in that way, they’re still there.”

Lilly’s experience came to a head in planning for her wedding and trying to decide who would walk her down the aisle, if anyone, and who would share that first dance with her at the reception.

That wasn’t the case with Cassia, who instead chose to remain single. But Lilly’s words burn, all the same, as they point to another dimension my novel might have developed.