Care to boogie?

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s family turns an old church into a hot music center. It seemed like a natural extension from their restaurant.

Where do you go to hear live music?


Well, when an old church something like this came up for sale next door to their home, how could Cassia’s family resist? They weren’t about to turn it into a parking lot, either.

Moving on in your life, hopefully to something better

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s father is from Davenport, Iowa. Maybe via Tibet, in a way. And later, Cassia makes her own move.

What’s your biggest relocation been from your own hometown?


Gyro with fries. Cassia’s father is a vegetarian when he arrives in the family, but you can be sure he never ate this before then. I prefer my fries on the side, rather than in the wrap, but it is an option.

A sampling of my favorite reporters

This post intended to focus on national, even international stars, but I quickly realized how many masters I’ve seen and even worked with the local level.

Here’s a mix of ten.

  1. Hub Meeker: fine arts reporter at the Dayton Journal Herald. I’ve mentioned editor Glenn Thompson before, and he had an eye for talent. Hub covered everything from architecture to opera to even the zoo with his State of the Arts column and daily reporting. His writing shaped much of my artistic sensibility when I was a teen, and I always wanted to have my own column like his.
  2. The Yakima Quartet: Their names slip away from me at the moment, and besides, I couldn’t pick just one over the others. We had attracted four hotshot young reporters who were aggressive and yet soon admired each other’s work. One was even honored one year as the best arts reporter and the best business reporter in the Northwest, beating out the pros in Seattle and Portland.
  3. Jim Gosney: Also in Yakima, he switched from sports, as I recall, and launched a daily column that profiled regular folks who made the Happy Valley a more interesting place to be. It was a harder assignment than you might assume, and he had a knack for it.
  4. David Broder: The Washington Post’s top political writer, he was deeply informed, clear, and a paragon of objective observation. I remember watching him stride tall and self-composed across our newsroom once, and unlike most of the other celebrity journalists, print and broadcast, who showed up with entourages, he was solo. That alone says tons.
  5. Richard L. Stout: Christian Science Monitor writer and author of the weekly “TRB from Washington” column, he was considered the dean of Washington reporters. His coverage of Watergate had an added twist, since he had earlier covered the Teapot Dome scandal. His strategy for the column was to find something to get mad about and then sit down on Wednesday and pursue it.
  6. Mike Royko: A product of the rough-and-tumble Chicago school of journalism, especially the independent City News Bureau, before becoming a columnist for the Chicago Daily News, the tabloid Sun-Times, and finally the Trib. He knew the streets and could be tough, despite his reputation as a humorist. He was also fiercely independent.
  7. Jimmy Breslin: At his best, as in his days at the Herald-Tribune, he was the epitome of the “new journalism” as a columnist who covered live news rather than reflecting on what others had reported. His career had its ups and downs.
  8. Ted Bingham: The opinion page editor of the Dayton Journal Herald, he also researched and wrote the bulk of its editorials. They were short and to the point. The ones I remember, though, were humorous, usually the bottom one of three or four on the left-hand side of the page. These often commented on news that hadn’t otherwise made it into the paper – say the return of the starlings to downtown or the manhole cover thieves in Karachi.
  9. Roger Talbot: He was a master at the carefully researched in-depth article, not that he couldn’t cover breaking news expertly, either. At the New Hampshire Sunday News, he often tackled a fat state agency or legislative report and dug up enough hot material to play big on the front page and then have the rest of the media chasing the rest of the week. It was kind of the approach that had made I.F. Stone famous on the national level a generation earlier.
  10. Jeanne Morris: Another S’News colleague, she was great at researching and pursuing an offbeat front page report that no one else would have come up with. The most creative, as far as I remember, was the one where she took one car to 20 state inspection stations to see how they compared. Somehow, she had to keep removing the new sticker and replacing it, a feat that still confounds me, before taking it to the next shop. Half passed the vehicle, and half failed it, for varying reasons. And then, for a baseline, she took it to the state police garage, where it was impounded for its numerous defects. Her report wound up saving old-car owners and inspectors a ton of grief.


Well, that’s a sampling. I could keep going on, but it’s your turn.

Who would you hail as a fine reporter?

Remember, she’s passionate in everything

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s aunt Pia reintroduces the family to its ancient roots and traditions. When she first shows up on the scene, nobody has any reason to suspect to suspect she’ll do that. She’d been the wild hippie chick.

In your circles, who’s most passionate about the Old Ways?


It doesn’t get more Greek than this. Now get up and start dancing! I should warn you, the lyrics to one song just might go on forever.

About the practice of intense meditation

Answers to some of the questions about Cassia’s father’s reasons for intensely pursuing Tibetan Buddhism, first encountered in my Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, can be found in Yoga Bootcamp, my story about eight young American yogis living on a former farm in the mountains. While each student is at a different stage of discovery, their widely divergent motivations still lead to common struggles and victories. Nothing is easy, but the lessons are priceless.

Do you practice meditation? How about yoga exercises, chanting, or Zen? Any other spiritual exercises you care to discuss?


The paperback cover …

More about ‘What’s Left’

No book was more of a struggle for me – or ultimately more transformative. Not that any of them came easily or quickly.

Each of them would have been much simpler if I had only hewed to a specific genre and with a particular reader in mind, but my goal was to explore a theme and see where it led rather than fill in a blueprint and hope that others would be fascinated by the discoveries. That put me in the “pantsers” end of writers, meaning seat-of-the-pants, rather than the “outliner” side, which can be paint-by-numbers rather than “painterly,” layer upon layer added or scraped away for intrigue, depth, and motion.

My earlier novels were grounded in people, places, and events I had experienced directly, which I then abstracted, of course, for a more inclusive understanding. When needed, I could turn to my journals for details and to my correspondence for dialogue or even make a few phone calls.

The paperback cover …

What’s Left, though, took me far beyond that. Yes, I was starting from the finale of my first published novel and trying to advance the scene by as much as a half-century, but I had no experience in a family-owned business. (I had skirted marrying into one, but I didn’t know how it would feel growing up in that situation – this was totally unlike my grandpa’s plumbing outfit, anyway.) Nor had I really worked in a restaurant. As for being part of a tight-knit extended family? Much less Greek-American? The adage, “Write about what you know,” now became, “Write about what you want to know.” More pointedly, that led me more and more into my daughters’ generation and its struggle for survival. As if anyone has answers to the big questions.

I set out thinking the story would take up the ongoing issues of the counterculture movement one by one – peace and non-violence, sexual and racial equality, the environment and ecology, natural foods and fitness, alternative education, spirituality, boho lifestyles, and so on. I had plenty of extended outtakes from the earlier books plus a set of essays that could be woven into the narrative.

But my upbeat, idealistic outlook started ringing hollow. Yes, the issues remain, even thrive, in spite of the entrenched opposition, and they need to be taken up by a younger generation. What hit me was the debris of broken dreams and promises, much of it caused by our own petite shortcomings. Yes, some of them mine as well. Broken families, too – just what is a family, anyway, especially when you examine the evidence closely, as the novel does? Where was the tight community we envisioned, much less that sense of tribe? As I looked around, I saw those who most continued in the hippie image were either bikers or what my kids would call losers. I have to say substance use or abuse has taken a heavy toll.

… and the back cover.

It’s too much to pack into a single novel, though one can touch on them. My focus slowly shifted on trying to pick up from the wreckage. That is, the place where Cassia found herself.

I was still mulling my approach when I chanced upon Jonathan Lethem’s “Dissident Garden” and was taken by its unique structure of 16 mosaic panels that could be moved about, if one wants, within its developing chronology. Lethem also had me realizing how much I needed to develop Cassia’s family’s past, with its own bohemian streams in coming to America. How many threads could I manage within this?

Voila! I had an organizing point. As poet Gary Snyder says, quoting an ancient Chinese folksong, to make a new ax handle, you use an old one as your pattern.

While I inherited the Greek-American element from an impulsive touch at the end of my first published novel, where this one picks up a generation later, I was only now piecing together how pervasive its presence in my own life without any earlier special awareness. As I’m seeing now, apart from Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” very little about Greek-American culture seems to exist in literature. (He nails the largely overlooked Midwest, too, by the way.) And then I started to engage it here where I live, beginning with Greek dancing and then Eastern Orthodox Christianity, so different from my own Quaker and Mennonite grounding – it’s like the difference between Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, as Snyder once quipped, two ends of a long arc.

The novel itself demanded at least a dozen major revisions, pushing it ever more toward the present, especially once Cassia found her own (snarky) voice and her brothers and cousins became vital characters. My personal genealogical research techniques also came into play as I examined her ancestry, both on her mother’s side and later, to my surprise, Cassia’s father’s.

What I really wasn’t expecting was the way she prompted me to return to my earlier fiction and severely revise it as well. In most cases, adding new characters and new scenes, cutting heavily, and renaming results. The three books about her father’s past gained a unified structure and timeline as well. So, in more ways than one, through Cassia, my novels embody what’s left.

Maybe Barney’s just been simmering

He’s been the loyal, stay-at-home son and brother for all those years, cooking in the family restaurant. I could see Cassia’s uncle Barney in my novel What’s Left plagued by a dark intensity I imagine building up over the years.

Tell us about somebody you’ve seen erupt and run off in strange directions. How did things end?


Grilled eggplant and peppers. Maybe not a regular feature at Carmichael’s in my novel, but definitely in the family’s home gatherings.