Too good to last?

Her uncle Dimitri, the oldest of three brothers, has Adonis good looks and style to match. He earns a prestigious Masters of Business Administration degree and possesses sharp financial skills. He also advocates radical values in politics and social justice, has taken up Buddhism, and uses astrology to evaluate potential colleagues – as he does in luring Cassia’s future father actively into the family.

In my new novel, What’s Left, she assumes all of this is the way life should be, right up to the tragedies that send her spiraling.

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When it comes to viewing the world, real photography will always stand out

To call me visually oriented would be an understatement.

For most of my life, I’ve viewed the world through imaginary frames and lenses.

I had four years of art training in high school and when recently reviewing many of those pieces was impressed by their high quality. I seriously considered continuing on into college and a career beyond but realized the struggles of making a living that would follow. And so I veered into journalism, where I applied many of those skills in designing newspaper pages, photo essays, and cropping pictures. Thousands and thousands of them.

It also led to a love of typefaces and calligraphy and book design.

Maybe I haven’t strayed that far.

I’ve also worked with some of the best photojournalists in the field and known a number of outstanding artists. I even married one.

On a more mundane level, I sometimes shift into cartoon mode and begin seeing people as whimsical drawings. Or I ponder how they would photograph. (No, I’m not staring at you the way you think I am, sorry if it’s making you uncomfortable.)

Well, for that matter, I did meet some famous cartoonists when I was working for the newspaper syndicate and selling their work to our clients.

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An aunt unlike the others

In my original draft and early revisions of What’s Left, I tried to keep her aunt Nita relatively equal among Cassia’s aunts and uncles. This was difficult, since Nita had been an important influence on Cassia’s father, from college all the way up to his disappearance in an avalanche, was Cassia was 11.

There was no avoiding the fact that as Cassia wanted to know more about her father, she’d have to turn to her aunt Nita for answers.

In the ninth revision, though, I decided it was time for Nita to out-and-out become Cassia’s guardian angel, a role she’d fulfilled repeatedly for Cassia’s father. I think it was a brilliant flash, allowing much of the action in the new novel to take place during Cassia’s preteen and teenage years.

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Past loves in the mirror of fiction

Reworking the novels that now stand as Daffodil Uprising and Pit-a-Pat High Jinks also had me elbows-deep in some unfinished emotional detritus left in my personal past.

I feel I’ve pretty well examined and released the baggage from my larger intimate relationships – the failed marriage and a subsequent broken engagement, especially.

The novels, though, started churning up unanticipated buried feelings elsewhere.

Anger at my first lover, for one. I had long suffered disappointment, guilt, and depression after we shattered apart, and then let her fade into what I thought was oblivion. But, as I’m told, feelings are what they are – you can’t control them. As I relived my college years, I realized how much of my own leftward change came about because of her. Moreover, in the ensuing decades, I’ve never had another partner who could so sensitively respond to what I was writing at the time and suggest changes. Still, I can now see how she never could have been the wife I’ve needed, no matter how intense our passion or, like Kenzie with his Liz, how shallow my understanding of her or even her self-centeredness or my own.

The anger, though, still hit as a shock. It just wasn’t something I had ever felt permitted to admit. You’re not allowed to feel that toward the one you love, not according to my upbringing or code of conduct. Now, however, I could come up with a list of offenses, as well as moments when I should have confronted her actions or even broken off, if I had only possessed enough backbone.

Another set of emotions swirled up around the character now known as Shoshanna. While Kenzie is quite smitten by her, he’s never able to make much sense of her romantic history, at least as she presents it. Like him, I’ve always tried to put a positive spin on events, and like him, I’ve always been a sucker for the promise of talent. Over the years, though, I’ve also learned about the long-lasting impact of abuse – physical, verbal, or sexual – as well as similar harm from an alcoholic parent. As I revised, I found myself – intuitively, it seems – connecting that dynamic to her past. I started weeping. It didn’t have to be true in regards to the original inspiration for the story, but it certainly advanced the character and her motivations. No, I wept for what such buried damage had done to women I’ve loved, to myself, and to my relationships. Too often, the bruises remained out of sight, out of the possibility of awareness, taboo. But no longer.

Judith, meanwhile, took the reality of violence much further, into kink. I was once dropped by a lover after her ex-boyfriend showed up in town and they went out. She simply vanished for the night, from my perspective. As she said afterward, when she told him about us, he hit her – beat her, actually, in her words – and she felt better. She insisted the manhandling absolved her guilt, as if she had anything to be guilty about. I was appalled and confused. I really knew very little about her, by her own choice. A decade later, another lover had a similar connection to physical aggression, and my non-violent nature doomed any future to our initial attraction. It had been presented as a fault on my end, by the way, a matter of shame or weakness. And she had been so exciting. Shall we say I was left feeling quite conflicted?

Revising my fictional character, though, allowed me to scrutinize this forbidden zone, no matter how troubling. I was also seeing how much further my first lover had wanted to explore than I was ready to venture. She really had no sense of her own vulnerability – or ours. In the end, she had me seeing how not everyone in the hippie world was really Peace & Love oriented or even satisfied with Flower Power romance.

As Kenzie was reminded, not everyone wanted marriage or even a soul mate.

It’s an insight that still jars me, looking back on my zig-zag journey to here and all that I missed out on along the way.

So here we are, all the same.

 

Respectfully looking to the Amish

One of the themes running through my new novel, What’s Left, is an acknowledgement of what I’ve sometimes called “guerrilla economics.”

In one passage in an earlier draft of the story, I argued:

On the other hand, he just might learn along the way that the Amish keep to their ways not because they’re entirely sold on horsepower and kerosene lamps but because of the hedge their style puts around them, enabling them to keep their families and communities intact against the onslaught that’s devouring everything else.

Well, the Amish do provide the Swiss cheese essential to the family’s signature Streetcar sandwich, but there’s more. They’re a model of community, something Cassia’s family is also trying to do beside the college campus.

~*~

You can’t have it all – it’s an essential lesson when it comes to money issues if you want any freedom. Besides, where would you store it all? Who would even dust or polish it?

Again, this subject runs beyond the scope of my new novel, but there is a question of just how much is enough. For Cassia and her parents, they’re comfortable living modestly while successfully working in their world. And, no, they don’t live out by the country club or buy a new car every year, even when Cassia might see that as the way “normal” people might live.

What sacrifice would you be willing to make to pursue your dreams? (Give up your cell phone? Your laptop?) And what would you find’s essential to keep?

~*~

Greek Orthodox icon of the Virgin Mary of Mount Athos (and details) created by Father Vasileios Pavlatos in Kefalonia, Greece using the technique of Pyrography. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this.

Another San Francisco connection

Cassia’s aunt Yin reinforces a San Francisco connection established with Cassia’s uncle Dimitri and his companion, Graham. In time, it’s one Cassia herself comes to experience, so far from her native Indiana, as I relate as early as the third chapter of my new novel, What’s Left.

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A single visit to the Golden Gate city put it high on my scale. I’d return in a flash, given the opportunity. These days, living a hour from Boston, I’m near another great center with many valued connections to the world. And, yes, I still miss Baltimore.

What’s your favorite city? What would you urge people to do when they get there?

~*~

Octopus sun-drying at the Mama Thira restaurant in Firostefani, Santorini. Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis via Wikimedia Commons.

In her family, her great-grandparents would have known scenes like this.

Maria would have to be a firecracker

In the still-in-my-dreaming movie version of my new novel, What’s Left, who would you cast as her great-grandmother Maria?

She’d have to be a firecracker, for starters.

~*~

Maria Pappas serving the “perfect Greek luncheon” in Tarpon Springs, Florida, June 27, 1947. (State Library and Archives of Florida via Wikimedia Commons.)

In Cassia’s family’s past, there may have been scenes food like this.