Nearly everyone in town knew Bella

If we were making a movie version of my novel, What’s Left, who would you cast as her grandmother Bella?

This would be a big juicy part, starting with her romance with Nicky in the war years. And don’t overlook her working mom action with five kids in tow. By then, nearly everyone in town knew her.

~*~

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Manchester, New Hampshire.)

Climbing the family tree

When she sets out in the task that’s become my novel, What’s Left, she doesn’t expect to be creating a family genealogy going back through her great-grandparents. But there’s no avoiding it.

As I explained in an earlier draft:

Theirs is a unique odyssey – one where the final homecoming is far from its point of origin. As a tragedy, the suffering comes at unmapped turns in the quest for the American dream. As a comedy, well, there are hot dogs, hippies, Hoosiers, and hope. Take your pick.

She gets insights on her parents’ generation:

Thea Nita notes that children in her generation grew up hearing of the woes of the Great Depression as a staple of conversation at big family dinners. In our case, that included the diner shooting.

A good genealogist doesn’t turn back when the details get disturbing:

By now I’m rather astonished at the events Thea Nita’s uncovered. Every family has things it wants to keep secret, but as a journalist, she’s driven toward disclosure. What did I tell you about listening closely to arguments? The dirt that comes up, even years later? Or even in what might transpire in mother-daughter confabs.

~*~

Does it work for the reader? I certainly hope so.

One reason, I suspect, is because Cassia is part of a family that holds many experiences in common. They live close to one another, work in the restaurant or related enterprises, play and grow up together, worship in one of two streams they’ve blended. Whatever they have flows from a shared source.

~*~

Speaking of family, Cassia’s oldest cousin, Alex, would be quite a catch. Where would you want to dine with him – romantically or just as a friend?

~*~

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 new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers. (Rochester, New Hampshire)

Desire at first sight

My novel, What’s Left, springs from the ending of my first published novel, where our hippie-boy’s troubled journey finally brings him to true love and an embracing community.

Part of his epiphany is brought about by his colleague and guardian angel, Nita, when she hangs two portraits of her younger sister on her wall. Even as a professional photographer, he’s riveted. You could say it was infatuation at first sight. Or something more primordial.

And then, when he visits their family, the romance blossoms.

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Whatever happened to apprenticeships and mentors?

The conversation turned to a current problem many face in finding the right job.

Employers seem to demand college degrees for even the most basic positions, and then expect years of experience as well for what’s lowly paid entry-level work.

How does anyone get that requisite experience in such a setup?

That’s had me thinking of bosses who see something in a candidate and hire them, regardless of the credentials, and then guide them in their development. I’ve certainly had some fine examples as well as some crucial (paid) internships.

It’s also had me reflecting on the great inventor Charles F. Kettering, who once said that if he faced a metallurgy problem and had a metallurgist and a biologist on his staff, he’d hand it to the biologist – because the biologist would be more likely to solve it.

Why? The biologist wouldn’t know all of the things that weren’t supposed to work, unlike the metallurgist.

Of course, this is not just about jobs. I’ve noticed that we need mentors in the many diverse skills of living and in the practice of our own niches within it.

These days, I’m also realizing I’m at an age where I might be expected to be fulfilling the mentoring role, not that I often feel that capable. What I am noticing, however, is the gap in the circles I travel, where individuals in their twenties and thirties are scarce. A wider look finds them scarce in general, and those I know openly admit their puzzlement about connecting in real life with their peers. Where are they, outside of the Internet?

I can name a long list of mentors in my journey to here. Some were teachers or bosses, others poets or Quakers or Mennonites, even fine arts painters or folks a generation younger than me.

Who’s filled a role of mentor in your life?

Chiseling away to release the angel

The novel that now stands as Nearly Canaan is a much, much different book than its original draft.

The landscape itself is no longer a primary character, for one thing – a Garden of Eden for an Adam and Eve. It still provides a vivid background, all the same.

Changing the protagonist into a slightly older, career-driven woman and the suitor a younger man also greatly shifted the dynamic.

The narrative was still an epic, rambling investigation that eventually spanned across three volumes – Promise, Peel (as in Apple), and St. Helens in the Mix – but the momentum and message got lost along the way.

I needed to look at it the way Michelangelo looked at a big rock. And then start chisling to release the angel.

A clearer understanding of Jaya’s work in nonprofits – and of Schuwa himself – helped me cut the text by half or more, driving it along a stronger plot line.

Unlike rock, fortunately, it’s not just a matter of cut-cut-cut with no additions possible.

So the renamed Joshua – or Schuwa, as she fondly calls him – becomes equally central to the story. In fact, in the two middle sections, he’s now the principal figure.

As I’ve asked, in liberating him from his strict upbringing, has Jaya created a monster?

That alone adds more balance to the tale, countered by the rising pressures in her own stellar career.

Even though what was left was still a big book, I felt an additional touch was needed.

That’s when I returned to an earlier desire for a novel based on Wendy, Pastor Bob’s wife back in Prairie Depot. The distilled essence of that now became a fitting coda for the opus.

By the way, I still think Wendy’s an angel – of the living, breathing sort. No wonder she and Jaya so quickly bonded.

 

Would I do a different novel about yoga?

The original novel that’s been recast into Yoga Bootcamp kept the action to a single day – albeit while recalling past events leading up to those 24 hours. The revised version retains that structure.

At the time I drafted the story, I was largely in the dark about what happened to the real ashram after the year-and-a-half I resided there. Nearly all of the teachers or organizations bringing Asian spiritual traditions to America eventually suffered sexual or financial scandals, or so it seemed. While introducing that element would have led to a juicier book, I refrained from the temptation, in large part because I wanted to retain the euphoric innocence we experienced or aspired to.

A few of the former residents I tracked down while drafting that story shared my sense that something powerful and life-changing had happened with us, but much of our teacher and the teaching remained an enigma.

A visit to the site, in fact, confirmed a sense I’d been ostracized and that our teacher had died in the interim.

In the years since the book first appeared, I’ve reconnected with some of the more central figures from the period. We’ve had intense emails and telephone conversations, and not everything was as rosy as my recollections. I hadn’t been ostracized, but the elements of self-destruction were in place.

I could have taken the revised work more in the direction of tragedy – there would be a morbid fascination, I’d assume – but chose instead for a comedy. Bootcamp was a term we accepted gleefully.

Still, there were other big changes.

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