My novel What’s Left began percolating as I considered the dimensions of the hippie movement and realized it had never really died but continued disguised in many streams of action. Yes, I’d published my Hippie Trails series but so much still felt unfinished.
And, as a consequence of Cassia in the new novel, I went back and transformed the others into Freakin’ Free Spirits.
Looking at the world today, what pressing issues do you consider unfinished?
Having Cassia cast a Buddhist chant as a spell in my novel What’s Left, is a bit of an inside joke. She may be trying to intimidate her middle school classmates, but what she utters, Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa, translates as “Grant me complete satisfaction” or “Grant me complete satisfaction within me.” Not that they have a clue.
Besides, I feel a shade of Harry Potter here, without an ominous wand. These words can simply feel magical.
By the way, Cassia’s chant is one letter off from Su Po Ka Yo Me Wa, “Grow within me” or “Increase the positive within me,” which also fits.
Just in case you’re wondering.
Think of some word or phrases you repeat often.
Do you have your own “mantra,” a word or phrase to raise your spirits?
(My favorite 9-year-old introduced me to “Yay!” So yours doesn’t have to be the least bit exotic.)
In my novel What’s Left the family-owned restaurant is a local institution, one set at the edge of campus even before her grandparents and their siblings took over and made it distinctly their own. Everybody in town seems to know them.
Have you ever been recognized because of something your parents or grandparents did?
Would you agree that a close-knit extended family like the one in my novel What’s Left, is uncommon in today’s American society? Of my own five surviving first-cousins, only one remains in communication — a brief note every Christmas. None grew up in our city; two lived in the other corner of our state; the other four, at the time, in California.
In a passage I cut from the final version:
It wasn’t quite like that when Baba shows up, but only because we kids aren’t yet on the scene. First, we need some marriages, like when Barney and Pia get a new generation rolling, followed by Tito and Yin and then my parents.
And if Cassia’s uncle Dimitri or her aunt Nita had been adding to the gene pool, we’d have an even bigger slate of first-cousins to draw on. When it came to the novel, I had to limit things somewhere.
Have you ever been introduced to family members and found yourself asking yourself: Just who are these strangers? Have you enjoyed some of your kin at one point in your life but not at others? Do you ever feel some have been treated better than the rest?
Just what was I thinking? Was this supposed to be a philosophy class moment? A reflection on time versus space? Or fate versus free will? No wonder the paragraph failed to take root in my novel What’s Left.
History is filled with unique moments when something flashes up and takes hold. Or a singular intersection of trajectories appears in the universe of motion.
The novel, by the way, has many of these situations, just as life itself does. We just didn’t need to get preachy.
I suppose this just might fit a story about baseball. Or think of football. The great play no fan will ever forget.
There are also those accidents, seemingly chance encounters, like the late-night crash that kills Cassia’s grandparents or the avalanche that claims her father. A few moments one way or the other, and her story would be much, much different.
I was more likely reflecting on those seconds where you have to make a decision one way or another. Say something. Do something. Yes or no. The beginning of a romance, for instance, once you’ve introduced yourself. Uttered the joke that could have as easily fallen flat.
Can you recall a significant moment in your life when something had to happen right then — or never at all? One with no second chances? Please share it! Be bold!
In early drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered going into detail on her uncle Dimitri’s practice of micro-lending and startup investing. Here at home we discussed including a whole list of failures and successes — or reasons applications were approved or rejected. Just think of all the once bright options that soon failed, as well as the ones that have since gone mainstream.
One proposal that didn’t survive my second-thoughts was this:
Thus, when friends decide to launch a local winery, we support them.
At the time I first noted this, 45 or so years ago, a local winery would have been cutting edge. Now there seem to be wineries everywhere, and their output can be widely uneven and often overpriced.
My experience as a home brewer, making more than 2,500 bottles of beer, was fascinating. We relied on kits from a local aficionado and never had a bum batch. But we still haven’t tried making our own wine.
Gardening, of course, is another matter. As is composting.
Do you raise any of your own food? Make your own bread or yogurt? How about jams or jellies or artisanal vinegars? Any other hands-on touches?
Think of the names of bands and singers having a food tag. (Will Red Hot Chili Peppers or Smashing Pumpkins get your thoughts bubbling?)
Throughout my novel What’s Left, her uncle Barney has rock playing prominently in the restaurant kitchen. Does this provide a good counterpoint to his thoughts and actions? Do you find it amusing? Annoying? Confusing?
Who would you like to add to the food-themed playlist?
Growing up in a financially secure family like the one in my novel What’s Left could open your educational and career options, I suppose. For Cassia’s mother, I saw events unfolding along these lines — which I then cut from later revisions of the story:
Manoula, on the other hand, possessed some of her sister’s ability to ask those questions, however gently. And she had some of her brother Dimitri’s practical streak. But she also had an underlying spiritual awareness and a sharp intelligence to match. It’s a potent combination — even intimidating to many potential suitors.
Crucially, both Manoula and Baba knew the vitality of artistic practice and expression. Remember, he was more than a photographer — he may have worked on a daily newspaper, but he profoundly appreciated all the fine arts. On top of that, he had a natural ability in writing that had yet to be encouraged and released.
On her part, Manoula loved literature, in particular, and practiced hours a day on her violin. Realizing early on how difficult it is to earn a living in either endeavor, she followed Dimitri’s advice to pursue a double major — English and music — with a minor in business to fall back on. As she told people, she was open to a career in arts management, and in a way, with the publishing, she’s held to it. She spent five years on her bachelor’s degree — including summer courses — but she was in no race to get out into the world, not once my Baba crossed her path. They were both taking a long-range view ahead.
In a way, you could say she was a Yiayia Dida while Nita was a Yiayia Athina in new guise. Oh, I don’t know — maybe it was the other way around. They were all strong, emancipated women with a bohemian streak. Not all bohemians, I should add, are strong — not by a long shot.
In early versions of the novel, when Cassia was piecing together her family history from the perch of a teen or 20-something, she might have seen events something along these lines. But in the later revisions, told as she’s seeing them as a teen, this passage was just too much. Way too much. Besides, through much of high school time, she was a lackadaisical student more interested in managing a live music scene.
Looking at her ancestors, though, I doubt that her great-grandmothers had more than a rudimentary education. Her grandmother, Bella, came to town for a college degree but was thwarted in her plans. Cassia’s mother, her Manoula, raised the educational bar.
Fortunately, Cassia’s aunt Nita provides crucial encouragement that leads to college in time.
So what is essential in releasing talent or dreams you have? What kind of advice have you received regarding continuing education and career? How have your plans taken shape? What’s been especially helpful?