Care to boogie?

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s family turns an old church into a hot music center. It seemed like a natural extension from their restaurant.

Where do you go to hear live music?

~*~

Well, when an old church something like this came up for sale next door to their home, how could Cassia’s family resist? They weren’t about to turn it into a parking lot, either.

Remember, she’s passionate in everything

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s aunt Pia reintroduces the family to its ancient roots and traditions. When she first shows up on the scene, nobody has any reason to suspect to suspect she’ll do that. She’d been the wild hippie chick.

In your circles, who’s most passionate about the Old Ways?

~*~

It doesn’t get more Greek than this. Now get up and start dancing! I should warn you, the lyrics to one song just might go on forever.

More about ‘What’s Left’

No book was more of a struggle for me – or ultimately more transformative. Not that any of them came easily or quickly.

Each of them would have been much simpler if I had only hewed to a specific genre and with a particular reader in mind, but my goal was to explore a theme and see where it led rather than fill in a blueprint and hope that others would be fascinated by the discoveries. That put me in the “pantsers” end of writers, meaning seat-of-the-pants, rather than the “outliner” side, which can be paint-by-numbers rather than “painterly,” layer upon layer added or scraped away for intrigue, depth, and motion.

My earlier novels were grounded in people, places, and events I had experienced directly, which I then abstracted, of course, for a more inclusive understanding. When needed, I could turn to my journals for details and to my correspondence for dialogue or even make a few phone calls.

The paperback cover …

What’s Left, though, took me far beyond that. Yes, I was starting from the finale of my first published novel and trying to advance the scene by as much as a half-century, but I had no experience in a family-owned business. (I had skirted marrying into one, but I didn’t know how it would feel growing up in that situation – this was totally unlike my grandpa’s plumbing outfit, anyway.) Nor had I really worked in a restaurant. As for being part of a tight-knit extended family? Much less Greek-American? The adage, “Write about what you know,” now became, “Write about what you want to know.” More pointedly, that led me more and more into my daughters’ generation and its struggle for survival. As if anyone has answers to the big questions.

I set out thinking the story would take up the ongoing issues of the counterculture movement one by one – peace and non-violence, sexual and racial equality, the environment and ecology, natural foods and fitness, alternative education, spirituality, boho lifestyles, and so on. I had plenty of extended outtakes from the earlier books plus a set of essays that could be woven into the narrative.

But my upbeat, idealistic outlook started ringing hollow. Yes, the issues remain, even thrive, in spite of the entrenched opposition, and they need to be taken up by a younger generation. What hit me was the debris of broken dreams and promises, much of it caused by our own petite shortcomings. Yes, some of them mine as well. Broken families, too – just what is a family, anyway, especially when you examine the evidence closely, as the novel does? Where was the tight community we envisioned, much less that sense of tribe? As I looked around, I saw those who most continued in the hippie image were either bikers or what my kids would call losers. I have to say substance use or abuse has taken a heavy toll.

… and the back cover.

It’s too much to pack into a single novel, though one can touch on them. My focus slowly shifted on trying to pick up from the wreckage. That is, the place where Cassia found herself.

I was still mulling my approach when I chanced upon Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Garden” and was taken by its unique structure of 16 mosaic panels that could be moved about, if one wants, within its developing chronology. Lethem also had me realizing how much I needed to develop Cassia’s family’s past, with its own bohemian streams in coming to America. How many threads could I manage within this?

Voila! I had an organizing point. As poet Gary Snyder says, quoting an ancient Chinese folksong, to make a new ax handle, you use an old one as your pattern.

While I inherited the Greek-American element from an impulsive touch at the end of my first published novel, where this one picks up a generation later, I was only now piecing together how pervasive its presence in my own life without any earlier special awareness. As I’m seeing now, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” very little about Greek-American culture seems to exist in literature. (He nails the largely overlooked Midwest, too, by the way.) And then I started to engage it here where I live, beginning with Greek dancing and then Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so different from my own Quaker and Mennonite grounding – it’s like the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as Snyder once quipped, two ends of a long arc.

The novel itself demanded at least a dozen major revisions, pushing it ever more toward the present, especially once Cassia found her own (snarky) voice and her brothers and cousins became vital characters. My personal genealogical research techniques also came into play as I examined her ancestry, both on her mother’s side and later, to my surprise, Cassia’s father’s.

What I really wasn’t expecting was the way she prompted me to return to my earlier fiction and severely revise it as well. In most cases, adding new characters and new scenes, cutting heavily, and renaming results. The three books about her father’s past gained a unified structure and timeline as well. So, in more ways than one, through Cassia, my novels embody what’s left.

Maybe Barney’s just been simmering

He’s been the loyal, stay-at-home son and brother for all those years, cooking in the family restaurant. I could see Cassia’s uncle Barney in my novel What’s Left plagued by a dark intensity I imagine building up over the years.

Tell us about somebody you’ve seen erupt and run off in strange directions. How did things end?

~*~

Grilled eggplant and peppers. Maybe not a regular feature at Carmichael’s in my novel, but definitely in the family’s home gatherings.

Nita seems to know everyone

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s aunt Nita continues her ongoing role of knowing just about everyone and what they’re up too. It’s a vital social role that a few rare individuals seem naturally inclined to fill, as my novels Daffodil Uprising and Hometown News demonstrate.

Tell us about somebody you know who serves as the “switchboard operator” in your circles.

 

What if there were a sequel?

Let me repeat, What’s Left is my final novel, even though it’s appeared before several earlier ones — or their later revisions. That doesn’t mean I might not rework some more of my earlier books, but I have no intention (at this point, ahem) of undertaking such an ambitious project.

Still, if it’s ever successful, there can be a demand for a sequel. There are many possibilities that point to further development.

One plot twist I considered was this:

A handful of the Erinyes’ grandchildren rebel by returning to attend college across the street from Carmichael’s. Perhaps it’s inevitable that they apply for jobs in the restaurant.

Can they work? We’ll let them decide about becoming cousins.

This could have opened considerations about rebalancing the ownership, for one thing. Or more dimensions to our understanding of what it means to be a family. Or even their own reasons that parallel those of Cassia’s father in moving way back in the early ’70s.

~*~

It’s a big book, admittedly. But it could be a lot bigger.

Where would you take the story of What’s Left from what’s already there? What would you like to have answered?

~*~

I wonder where Cassia’s generation of her extended family or even their children go from here as they face today’s big challenges.

A culminating novel

It’s is not my debut novel. Rather, I have the feeling it’s the opposite — the final one. I could never do this again. What’s Left is a big novel chock full of surprising turns, deep thoughts, and lively details. Unless Cassia starts speaking to me again, there will be no sequels. For me, at least, the story condenses so much into its pages I’m feeling completed.

Unlike my earlier novels, this one was not written on the fly while working full-time as a journalist. Like them, though, it’s undergone extensive revision.

Woven through the book are themes I’d explored in my earlier stories, now seen in a new light, while investigating others I’m tackling for the first time. Family and family enterprise, adolescence and childhood, death and divorce, and Greek-American culture, especially, are new while counterculture, romance, spirituality, community, nature and specific place, livelihood, journalism itself all run through my previous work.

~*~

Think of this bit as going into the compost rather than being served on the plate:

All I’m doing is asking you to apply your new comprehension to the rest of your life.

~*~

Of course, you’ve heard somebody blurt out, “I’m never going to forget this as long as I live!” Or some such. And sometimes it’s true.

Me? I have trouble remembering nearly everything. Could it be one reason I read so widely is to help me remember? Of course, writing gets it down on paper, once again so I don’t forget.

So while I read to help me remember and to gain insight on the world around me, it’s not the only reason by any stretch.

What do you look for most in a novel or poem?

~*~

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. If only this one were pink, like hers.