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.

That feeling when she realizes the scope of her project

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia practically moves into her father’s studio during her teenage years. Her goal is to discover just who he really was before he vanished in that avalanche. More critically, she hopes to see just how important she was in his eyes and his heart.

~*~

Here’s a moment that was cut out of the finished novel. It’s more succinctly presented in the published version:

There, I’ve said it. My Baba, the missing piece of the puzzle I’ve been constructing. Or missing pieces, more accurately, is at once revealed by everything he touches – and everything that touches him. What I’ve been pursing as a negative shape on a visual field instantly turns positive before my eyes. So amid all of our outward chaos, what he more and more perceived in our family was this potential in all of its give-and-take connectivity – and that hopeful impression was his reason for whole-heartedly leaping in with us. Maybe we’re all icons – mandalas and tankas, too – in that holy mountain, which in our small way we rebuild in something we’ve called Olympus.

If this is, as I now presume, the direction to a breakthrough where all of his life’s work is about to converge and proclaim, I’ll need to reassemble the parts I’ve already collected. Reevaluate all of the memories, bits of writing (probably leaving the published volumes for other scholars). The photos, especially – the world seen through his more than his eyes alone.

On the material plane, Baba was never facilely sociable … not like Dimitri, for sure … but he managed.

~*~

I can think of a few daughters who are their talented fathers’ best champions. Cassia would be among them.

Maybe because I’ve done extensive genealogy research, I see some of these influences going much further back than a single generation. Until his youngest sister told me, for example, that my father had once dreamed of being a sportswriter had I connected his father’s collecting all the local newspapers during World War II (“They’ll be important someday”) with Dad’s grandmother’s detailed reading of the daily papers and then linking it to my own career as a daily newspaper editor. Not that anybody ever said a word to me that they were proud of what I’d chosen to do.

I can look to many other similar streams of unseen, even unknown, influence.

If you had a chance to meet one of your ancestors – a little bit of time travel – which one would it be? What would you want to ask? Or would you rather want to tell them off?

 

What’s behind the new cover for ‘What’s Left’

Book cover design, as we’ve previously discussed, is a tricky endeavor. The presentation has to be visually catchy but  also reflect the contents of the book itself.

Ebooks, where my works are appearing, have their own additional challenges. Since these volumes are sold exclusively in online book retailers, their cover images are essentially thumbnails, unlike their print counterparts, which are meant to be displayed in stores or library shelves. Nor do these digital publications have spines, which are a unique design concern in itself – until recently, I hadn’t thought how crucial that narrow impression is in attracting my attention when I’m scanning a row of books for something to read. And ebooks don’t have back covers, where the words of praise appear and author’s portrait faces you. That’s a lot for an editor and artist to work with.

Creating a suitable cover for my novel What’s Left became maddening. The work weaves together a lot of themes and subjects, and hinting at them in a single visual image isn’t easy. Family, food and the restaurant they run, their Greek identity, the protagonist’s broken childhood all come into play. Every time I thought we had something functional, one of the in-house critics would raise a valid objection. I finally went with the egg yoke suspended in space as an attempt to convey a sense of being broken open emotionally as well as her own family’s long hours over the grill in their restaurant.

I still think it’s a striking cover, and I’m quite fond of it. But I’ve also been sensing it misses the mark. The focus in the story is on Cassia and the ways her grief as a child impacts her life’s direction. It’s the emotion, after all, that matters most.

I hope this new cover conveys that message.

What’s Left — Within a daughter’s own living Greek drama

For comparison, here’s the original cover:

This is the cover that’s just been replaced.

What do you think?

Rolling out the Streetcar

In my novel What’s Left, the family’s signature dish is a sandwich sliced down the top, rather than along the side. Maybe with two slices, rather than one.

It started out as a Cubano but took off on its own. As I recalled, the name was suggested in jest by a comment on the Red Barn way back when, but I’m unable to trace it now. Let me say, if I’m overlooking an inspiration, I’ll be happy to give credit where it’s due.

In the novel at least, it’s a collaborative effort.

Cassia’s uncle Dimitri, with his MBA, is big on marketing and creating a niche appeal. So that’s where we start.

Add his grandmother Maria, from Cuba. Along with his brother, Barney, the master chef. And everyone else in the family, plus a few others.

Can this actually work? How would I know? Maybe if Harry Potter waved a magic wand and uttered some incomprehensible syllables?

But whatever they create sounds heavenly. Wouldn’t you agree?

~*~

The flavor was off in this round:

Few customers would realize we really offer five or six different Streetcars, depending on the season or our supplies. They’re all scrumptious, so nobody as far as I know complains.

~*~

That possibility, by the way, stems from an interview I once read for the chief taster for Chock Full o’Nuts coffee, who had to keep blending whatever beans were available into a consistent taste of java. Why not extend it into a sandwich?

Still, I love the image of creating something distinctive for a rural college town.

Look closely and you’ll see different parts of the country do have unique dishes. It’s not just baked beans in Boston, either. (Anyone else enjoy Indian pudding?) Or special spices, like Old Bay in Baltimore.

Think of seafood, if you live near a coast. Or wild game, if you can. Or even variations on pizza.

What’s a distinctive food where you live?

An alternative to suburban sprawl

For a while, she yearns to live in a normal neighborhood, somewhere near the golf course, rather than in their family’s little compound between the courthouse square and the college campus.

In my novel What’s Left, her close-knit extended family revolves around a large pink Victorian house her great-grandparents purchased when the neighborhood was falling into decline. In Greek-American tradition, though, it was perfect for housing more than a nuclear family, plus any number of guests. Not just grandparents or great-grandparents, either, but siblings and their spouses and children. What a circus!

I can’t really imagine this in a typical suburb, though maybe a little further out on a farm. But then, in Cassia’s case, they’d be too far from the restaurant where they work.

I’m so glad they saved this from becoming a funeral parlor or law offices, aren’t you?

~*~

The neighborhood’s one thing. The homes within it, another.

What’s your favorite place in the house?