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.

~*~

 

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.

~*~

 

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.

~*~

 

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.

~*~

 

An aside on poetry readings

Catching up on my stack of Harper’s magazine, I came across a remembrance of the poet Etheridge Knight, and it stirred a long buried memory.

Etheridge? I paused, before remembering he was a black inmate of the Indiana State Penientiary when he began writing seriously. Damn good stuff, as I discovered.

My introduction came in the mid ’70s when Roger Pfiingston asked if I wanted to go with him up to Indianapolis, aka Naptown, to a reading and open mic. I was free that night. The trip from Bloomington was a little over an hour, and he was driving.

The event was at a bar in the inner city, not a familiar terrain, and Etheridge was hosting. I should go back to my journals for details, but I recall it as a warm and comforting evening. I think Jared Carter was the featured reader. Another damned good Indiana poet.

I was a bit nervous about one of the pieces I’d brought with me, one that quoted a friend’s father about a lover in the ’30s, but I read it anyway.

The line in question triggered delighted, loud laughter from Etheridge, especially. I was sooooh relieved!

Looking back, I see it as one more confirmation – and welcome – as my identity as a poet.

What a wonderful community!

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.

 

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.

Read More »

THAT VICTORIAN APARTMENT WAS REAL

The once grand dame of an apartment house turned shabby that I describe in my novel Daffodil Uprising was real, though situated in Upstate New York rather than southern Indiana. A little bit more poetic license, if you will, in my relocating the blocky building.

I use the past tense, because satellite searches inform me the structure has been demolished, no doubt because of some of the health and safety issues the story relates. Bringing everything up to code would have cost a fortune.

Well, maybe a fire did it in. That, too, feels quite plausible.

When Kenzie and his two buddies flee their dorm, they have such high expectations. So did I, in what was supposed to be a haven after college. Look, this was what a professional journalist could afford – slum housing.

Still, the moldy manse was memorable and possibly haunted. I certainly heard rumors to that effect.