This wasn’t in the big plan

It retrospect, it seems a cruel irony that the protagonist of my novel Subway Visions would die in an avalanche a quarter-century later in What’s Left – that is, underground. Here he was on the Roof of the World when it happened.

I never intended the parallel, really.

Are you embraced fully into your mate’s family?

It’s a phenomenon I’ve observed repeatedly now, where a man finds his basic family connection through his wife’s siblings and parents, more than his own. He feels especially welcomed and embraced.

That’s the case with Cassia’s Baba in my novel What’s Left, when he becomes an active member of her mother’s extended clan. Well, it can also happen in the other direction, as it does with Cassia’s aunts Pia and Yin, or in Nearly Canaan, where Jaya grows especially close to her in-laws and vice versa.

This came up, too, when a friend and I were discussing our own lives and that of an important American figure we were examining. We realized it’s far more universal than we’d thought.

Can you tell me of a time you’ve seen this?

My newest novel revolves around young adult couples

I’m delighted to announce that my newest novel has just been published.

Nearly Canaan focuses on the lasting impact a single person can have, but its details often erupt from committed young adult couples interacting with each other.

The story takes off once Jaya leaves the ashram in Yoga Bootcamp.

Nearly Canaan

As she ventures forth to resume her career and teach yoga on the side, she becomes enmeshed in erotic passion, despite her best intentions. As she becomes half of twosome, she’s also influenced by two other couples – her lover’s parents and his pastor and wife Wendy.

Soon after, when Jaya and her beloved move on to the Ozarks, they grow close to another young couple, their new neighbors.

And when they arrive at last in their promised land, two more young couples as well as their landlords in the orchard weave into the action.

I didn’t set out with these overlapping circles as my model, but that’s what’s emerged. It’s quite exciting, actually.

The new novel is a thorough reworking of three earlier books – Promise, Peel (as in Apple), and St. Helens in the Mix.

Be among the first to read it!

Reading a dear friend’s memoir

A while back, she asked if I’d read the draft of her memoir. I felt honored. Besides, this is someone who had given a close critique of one of my novels-in-progress decades ago, and I had done the same for a collection of her essays that came a hairline away from book publication.

She had pointed me to a few published volumes I still find myself quoting frequently.

That was back before we could easily exchange things like manuscripts in emails. Had to make printouts and haul off to the post office or drive five hours, things like that.

This time, the copy came as a PDF. I put it aside until I could give it full attention. It was worth it.

As a fact of life, we had largely lost touch. We had never been neighbors. The closest they had lived to me was still an hour away, and then for 19 years they lived five hours off in rural Maine. When her career picked up and I became more enmeshed in my new family and other responsibilities, we had less time to visit, even before she and her husband relocated across the continent a few years ago. We wound up keeping in touch mostly through their daughter, who’s also my goddaughter.

So the memoir was a welcome opportunity to reconnect.

Let me say it’s a remarkable document, wonderfully written, and candid to the point of painfulness. This version is not for public circulation. Parts of it should be, but others are there as evidence of personal work ahead. Well, she has filled the role of a spiritual elder for me through some difficult stretches, and I’ll always be grateful.

I knew bits of the history, but the details deepened my understanding, reconstructed the chronology, and corrected some impressions I had wrong.

I certainly know her – and her husband – much better now.

Over the years, I’ve found that with some friends, when we get together after long stretches apart, we don’t need much time before we’re feeling no gap in our rapport.

This is certainly one of them.

A case of real life intersecting fiction

One of the many things I like about using the DuckDuckGo search engine as an alternative to Google is that its home page includes Pocket, an informative selection of intelligent, substantive articles, many drawn from magazine archives, rather than fluff about celebrities and sports.

This morning’s Pocket, for example, included a 2015 Narratively article by Lilly Dancyger, “Planning My Father-Daughter Dance Without My Dad.”

What especially caught my attention was the ways Lilly’s experience intersected with my novel, What’s Left.

Like Cassia in the book, Lilly lost her father to death when she was 11, and like Cassia, she dressed largely in black for years afterward. (Whew! Confirmation I had that part right.)

Unlike my novel’s character, though, Lilly dropped out of high school, sought relief in alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and embraced a dim future. The homeless were some of her favorite companions.

In contrast, Cassia had a large extended family that stayed with her, even when she kept pushing them away. Yes, she had struggles with her mother much like Lilly’s, and she skirted some of the self-destructive behavior, but each of the three aunts on her mother’s side of the family found ways during her difficult teen years to break through to her, as did several of her first-cousins. In today’s world, few are so fortunate, not with our fractured nuclear households.

Moreover, through her aunt Nita, Cassia also had her father’s trove of his professional photography to sift through, each shot reflecting his thoughts and feelings.

What Lilly presents – and I didn’t – is the workings of guilt within a survivor. As she declares, it merely “isn’t just about feeling unjustly lucky to have lived while someone else died; it’s guilt for going on without them, guilt for changing and growing and becoming a person they never knew. Any milestone is tinged with their absence, any joy feels like a betrayal, like you’ve forgotten them, if only for long enough to laugh at a good joke or enjoy a good meal. But as long as you’re in mourning, your life is still about them, and in that way, they’re still there.”

Lilly’s experience came to a head in planning for her wedding and trying to decide who would walk her down the aisle, if anyone, and who would share that first dance with her at the reception.

That wasn’t the case with Cassia, who instead chose to remain single. But Lilly’s words burn, all the same, as they point to another dimension my novel might have developed.

A lingering insight on marital splits

The Divorce Culture, by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 224 pages, $24) – reviewed by Jean E. Milofsky, The Colorado Review, fall 1997:

“Whatever else divorce is, it is fundamentally a loss. As a writer friend of mine once said, ‘It’s like death except no one says nice things about you.’ In divorce one loses not only the relationship with one’s spouse, but also one’s location in the social fabric. Friends fade away, and families are thrown into turmoil. Then there are the inevitable economic losses, which Barbara Dafoe Whitehead rightly claims fall disproportionately on women. Nowhere in her polemic against divorce, however, does Whitehead conceptualize divorce as a loss. Rather, with increasing insistence as the book goes on, she views it as an expression of individual freedom in a highly libertarian age.” …

“Whitehead’s concept of divorce as an expression of unfettered liberty ignores what every divorcing individual realizes – no choice is without consequence, no decision is without obligation or work, and adult freedom never really comes from throwing off chains.”

~*~

Counter with James Dobson’s insistence that “love at first sight” is really just infatuation and therefore selfish, while love is other-focused.

A different paradigm of family

My novel What’s Left was precipitated by the structure of a book I’d just read – four sections of four chapters each. Somehow, I just knew this was what I needed for the material already floating around in my head, even though at this point I hadn’t been thinking of writing another novel. But this triggered it.

I’d been reflecting on the ending of my newly recast Freakin’ Free Spirits narrative, where the protagonist lands in a circle of bohemian siblings who have inherited a restaurant. At the time, with only a general acquaintance of a few individuals in the tradition, I intuitively identified them as Greek-American, in part, I recall, as an attempt to suggest a bridging of two ancient wisdoms – the Buddhism from the East and ancient Greek teaching in the West – and in part as a vague awareness of the prevalence of this ethnic group’s ownership of restaurants across the country, possibly including the one that provided a foundation for the one in my story.

In revisiting that ending, though, I felt a need for an understanding of how the siblings turned to Tibetan Buddhism in the first place and why they were now actively hippie, which in turn needed a clearer presentation. Viz, as I’ve been arguing, hippies came (and still come) in many varieties, and no one probably ever fit in the mass-media stereotype.

What became clear to me as I considered the issues was that I needed a backstory, one that winds up going back two generations rather than one. This, in turn, presents another challenge: how many named characters can a reader follow? Since my new novel is told by the daughter of the earlier protagonist, this could get very messy. Remember, the restaurant was inherited by a circle of siblings.

I do employ several turns in the plot to keep maintain a focus, but in doing so, I’m reminded of an insight I had my genealogy research when I noted four Hodgin brothers marrying four Ozbun sisters (or some such, it’s the concept that counts here). What I saw here somehow goes beyond our modern isolated, small nuclear family household in which a husband is expected to fulfill all of a set of expectations and the wife, another. Instead, I’ve wondered how much of those expectations could be spread across the siblings. Not that I go quite that far in my newest novel or at least that blatantly. But the daughter is quite aware of how different her extended family is from those of her classmates.