And then there are Cassia’s two older brothers

In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, her brothers stayed off in the background. But Gyatso and Billy moved far forward in the eighth and ninth revisions, especially when I discovered they didn’t require a lot of narrative development to be present. Sometimes a single short detail now pops their activity into fullness.

One thing about Cassia’s extended close-knit family is that her cousins are practically her siblings, too. Cassia’s cousin Sandra, for instance, could well be her sister, and both Gyatso and Billy line up well with some of their boy cousins.

It’s a fine line to walk, keeping the story moving without bogging down in too much detail, but it’s a rich matrix all the same.

~*~

I once had a coworker who grew up in a family where the way they showed affection for one another was by exchanging truly negative words and phrases. As far as I could tell, physical harm wasn’t part of it. Even so, maybe they understood what it meant and felt affirmed and included, but when he did the same thing with those of us in the office, many of my colleagues felt deeply insulted, even wounded. Maybe you know of writers capable of re-creating the domestic scene, but I’m not one of them. I’m still largely baffled.

The dynamics of siblings can make for endless intrigue. I’d love to know more — much more — of how they work in our lives.

Are you from a large family? Do you have brothers or sisters? Do you ever “borrow” their clothes? (Or anything else?) Does your household make you different from your friends or classmates? How would you describe your siblings — and your feelings for them — in a few words? Go ahead, vent, if you must.

~*~

In my novel, the family restaurant could have been like this. Cornelius Pass Roadhouse, Hillsboro, Oregon, by M.O. Stevens via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

 

Envisioning your reader

One of the basic bits of advice given to a writer is to envision your reader. It’s one that’s always troubled me, though. Could it be because I carry multiple identities as a writer? Poet, novelist, Quaker, retired journalist, with overlapping interests?

As a poet, I can’t describe the audience that shows up for a reading — the individuals seem to represent all types. Picture my readers? They could be anywhere in the subway car I’m riding!

OK, maybe it’s a younger, or at least more hip, crowd, but not entirely.

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Are you sure you’d want your parents to see this?

In What’s Left, Cassia spends hour after hour organizing the chaotic mess of her father’s photo studio after he vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe.

He was something of a hippie, too, as she sees in some of his excesses from the period. Here’s something that popped up for her in a conversation with her aunt Nita. You won’t find it in the final version of the novel, though — some things just got toned down.

And? You ever see the movie he made about the courthouse?

The one with the dome turning into his girlfriend’s breast? Diz’s?

You remember he made that while he was still an undergraduate? Before all the really freaky stuff that followed?

Yes, and that reminds me. We need to have to get that reel converted to digital from Super 16. Before it starts disintegrating or fading. 

You know what a hit that was in some circles? How he was on the verge of notoriety or celebrity?

So why didn’t he continue in that vein?

How would he have paid the bills? The big bills? Where were his introductions? Producers, distributors, even actors? Or his confidence,

~*~

I’ve been trying to think if there’s anything in my past quite that outrageous, but it all seems to be included in my Freakin’ Free Spirits series. My kids would likely be disappointed, but I’m glad my parents never knew the details. I hate to think, though, of some of the things my two girls are hiding from me. My, the times have changed!

What’s something you or your friends are hiding from your parents? What’s most shocked or surprised you about them? What other directions might their lives have taken? What might you hope your own kids never ask you about?

~*~

The vibe lives on, one way or another.

~*~

 

Would the novel work with a Covid-19 twist?

One of the joys of publishing ebooks is that they can be updated easily and quickly.

So I had a flash, maybe while I was in the shower, and wondered what would happen in What’s Left if Cassia’s father died of a coronavirus complication instead of an avalanche.

It was tempting until I started realizing that it would have to be an entirely different story. She couldn’t grow up, for one thing, not unless I wanted to project that into the future, up to 30 years from now. Right now, everything just a year from now’s looking fuzzy.

And it couldn’t work with the premise of her having to go back through photo negatives – we’ve been digital too long now. As for the hippie, Buddhist, or AIDS epidemic dimensions?

The very thought, though, has me looking at some of the daily news reports through fiction-oriented lenses. Who are the villains and who are the heroes? Where do you want to set this – the White House, an intensive-care unit, a multi-generational household? What focus would you take? Would it be romance, young adult, sci-fi, fantasy, children’s?

I don’t see myself getting to this anytime soon, but good luck to any of you who feel free to tackle a Covid-19 big tale. There are certainly plenty of angles to consider.

Lasting impressions from deep in the recesses of childhood

Some of my novel What’s Left, has her revisiting her memories of early childhood.

Later revisions made this passage redundant, and so it’s been scratched out:

By then even Papou Ilias and Yiayia Maria are long gone. Only the wisp of Yiayia Athina remained. But we still had our own little gang — Barney and Pia’s kids, and Tito and Yin’s, plus my brothers. By then we even have Rinpoche and his presence.

~*~

The final version of the novel has many sharp details, including some prompted by the photos she turns up. It is surprising, though, how powerful some of these memories can be, sometimes triggered unexpectedly from deep recesses. When I was 12, I ran into two brothers from my old neighborhood, my pals up to my fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen them in over seven years, and people do change a lot in that time. Still, I recognized them immediately at the Boy Scout event where we were.

Tell me one of your earliest memories from childhood, good or bad.

~*~

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this. Church of St. Pantaleon in the village of Siána on the Greek island of Rhodes. Photo by Karelj via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

 

Yes, some men are from Mars

The kernel of this passage is insightful, but it got reworked and retold in a much more humorous vein in my novel What’s Left.

Well, he had every reason to feel out of place, I suppose. He might as well have been a Tibetan or a man from Mars dropped down in the middle of America. But reincarnation would assume that Iowa was the right place for him to be growing up, that he’d found the right set of parents and right surroundings, and that would mean I’ve been overlooking a lot.

~*~

Well, the alienated individual is one complex issue to take up. Just look at Kafka. Cassia’s having her own struggles, so let’s concentrate on those, especially as she’s becoming aware of surroundings that work in her favor, unlike those of her father’s youth.

Perhaps nobody’s in a perfectly right or wrong place. We usually make do, as best we can, although I’ve lived some places where that could be challenging.

What’s been “right” for you where you are? Or, if you’d rather, what’s felt “wrong”?

~*~

In my novel, the renovated restaurant could have looked like this. The pizza oven at Little Creatures, Fremantle, Western Australia. Photo by Gnangarra via Wikimedia Commons.

~*~

 

Do you ever feel trapped by your family?

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s brothers and cousins — the ones she calls the Squad — are essential for bringing the story fully up to right now. It’s their turn to move forward. What do they want to do with their lives? What does this family mean to them?

Cassia makes her own bold decision for her future — one I sense is enabled by their solid identity.

But there are the other cousins — the ones from the other side of the tracks, the ones who don’t fit in and never will.

So it’s not just about the family restaurant.

~*~

As she noted in an earlier draft, comparing her mother’s side of the family to her father’s:

From everything I’ve seen, his family wasn’t warm or truly close. They did what they were supposed to. Had what they were supposed to. Basically, they followed orders. So what Baba found and embraced with Manoula’s family was more disorderly and conflicting and yet also affirming when it came to his own existence. Privacy here is not taken for granted. Thea Nita, for all of her love of solitude, would spend far more of her working hours surrounded by the public, where the action and people were. Maybe that’s why the Buddhist meditation held such appeal for Nita and her siblings — it was one time they could really focus on themselves alone. 

~*~

There are flip moments when I’d say my family was defined by the TV programs we watched together. Think of the TV dinners we ate on those TV trays we set up between us and the screen (black-and-white, for the most part). Even the pizza we ate on very special nights, scraping off the toppings to eat separately from the dough and its crust. Or the burnt popcorn we ate afterward.

Cassia’s close kinship was more active than that, but working with her father’s photos did give her a place of retreat.

Do you ever feel trapped in your family? Or in your social circle? At moments like that, where would you rather be?

~*~

 

When one road’s blocked, try another

Sometimes details advance a story. And sometimes they raise unnecessary hurdles. In my novel What’s Left, what Cassia discovers about her deceased father (her Baba) is much better than this. So I cut it.

Hey, how many 12-year-olds would even know what a biochemist is? Or, for that matter, 16-year-olds, depending on when she’s making the connection? You still get the drift in the final version.

Under a different system of education, he might have become a biochemist or mathematician. He had leanings that way, which were not supported over time. So instead, he became a photographer — a very adept one who leaves behind what I’m finding to be an astonishing archive of social upheaval and redirection.

~*~

Oh, my, she wouldn’t ever say that last sentence, would she? Of course it had to go!

The point of her observation, though, remains pertinent. Many kids are thwarted at key points in their development, not just educationally, either.

What would you say has been a crucial obstacle in your past? How have you coped? Has it changed the direction of your life?

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my novel What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

~*~

 

High on the trail, the view becomes clearer

In my novel What’s Left, what she discovers about her deceased father (her Baba) is much zestier than this passage. So I cut it. You’ll still get the drift in the final version.

As a kid, your Baba figured out he never quite fit in with his surroundings. He thought about things he couldn’t explain to others, though to be fair about it, he rarely caught their signals, either. Deep within himself, he sensed there was much more to life than what was happening around him. I think he wanted the big picture, which is what he must have felt when he was climbing mountains.

~*~

Too many things are trying to happen there, I’m afraid. We can move along better without having to trip over the added baggage. I do like the image of climbing mountains to feel the big picture, though — something I see as recharging his soul.

Where do you turn to recharge yourself? Anyplace special? Music? Dancing? A deep bubble bath? Meditation? Or is it something else altogether?

~*~

I’m also thinking about typical encounters with professional photographers. There were strange, formal portrait sessions when my sister and I were very little. Do families still do that anymore? Then there were the senior portraits in high school or yearbook group shots, which were akin to elementary class pictures earlier. But weddings are the big event for many, the mother lode of the profession.

Tell me about your parents’ wedding pictures. What do they reveal? What do they mask?

Greek-run restaurants are a staple of the American scene. Cassia’s family ran one. This was another, in Lowell, Massachusetts, where her aunt Pia was from.

~*~

 

Simply building the hole in the doughnut

The application of positive and negative spaces — that is, the contrast of light and dark — is a basic concept in visual art. One of these will appear solid; the other, empty. Think of black versus white, with no shades in between.

In another way, think of a doughnut or bagel, defining an empty hole.

In my novel What’s Left, she applies a similar strategy after her father vanishes in an avalanche when she’s 11. She yearns to know much more about who he was — in fact, intends to recover him in her own way — so she assembles everything she can find to create a positive impression and then dives into the remainder, the negative, to dig up the rest. Maybe you’d see this as trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle.

Since he was a professional photographer, she carefully investigates another kind of negative for answers — the many strips of film stored in his studio. At first what she views is reversed from normal perception, where everything that’s light should be dark and everything that’s dark should be light, but then she learns to transform what’s there into contact sheets and glossy prints. Just like he did.

Photo studio trash in the old day, back before digital took over.

Thanks to digital photography, negatives are ancient history. Maybe that’s somehow appropriate, since Cassia’s life at that point would now be ancient history, too, even as she’s investigating what she would consider ancient history.

Have you ever handled photographic negatives? Is there some other way you’ve looked at things reversed from normal? How about funny mirrors? How did it change your perception?

~*~

Remember, What’s Left is available at Smashwords.