I finished the manuscript of Against the Grain. But it’s never finished. I’m still reading it aloud cover to cover, getting feedback, tightening things up. Here’s my third stab at the dreaded jacket copy. Let me know what you think in the comment section, please. Cover still under construction.
AGAINST THE GRAIN
By the time they reached Logan’s tree, Diana had lost all sense of time and proportion. The sun hovered eight feet off the ground, a tiger’s eye shafting orange light between redwood giants. She was an insect suspended in amber as Logan clipped her into a harness. He was explaining how to climb, but amber suffused her ears, her throat, her mind as if the trees were talking to her.
Later, wrapped in a sleeping bag on a platform two hundred feet off the ground, they surveyed an ocean of luminescent mist pricked by treetops, saplings pushing into a new world. Her privileged world fell away like an empty husk. The only thing that mattered was this palm of earth offered to the sky. People didn’t have to choose between life in square houses and star-pierced infinity. They could have it all, an Eden, right here. All they had to do was choose.
But her father threatened it all.
Atlas Jamison, a Wall Street financier with a mysterious past, staged a hostile takeover of Pacific Lumber and tripled the cutting rate, reducing these ancient beings to lawn furniture.
Diana joins forces with Logan who believes Pacific Lumber killed his father, Zeff, the surfer-dude turned monkey-wrencher, and unstoppable indigenous lawyer for the trees, Jessica Wild, as they risk their lives to save the redwoods, the planet, and themselves.
Based in part on the true story of violent clashes in Northern California between corporate raiders, loggers, and activists during Redwood Summer 1990, Against the Grain is an action-packed Overstory and a mystical Damnation Spring.
Available in bookstores and Amazon by Earth Day.
The Truth Behind the Story
Here are just a few of the resources I relied on when researching the novel.
Red Penguin Books has a regular pod cast called “Between the Covers,” where they interview three Red Penguin authors. This episode featured Debbie De Louise, R.K. Mullins, and me.
Head Penguin Stephanie Larkin interviewed Debbie De Louise first. She introduced her books, Barking Up the Wrong Tree and Meows and Purrs. We talked about cats a little too long, lol, but who can resist? I refer to my third cat as my favorite serial killer and my husband’s catwife.She has recently left him for a younger man.
By minute 16, Stephanie began her interview of R.K. Mullins, so we switched over to America’s other favorite topic, serial killers…the human kind, not the cat kind, with Mullin’s book, A Sniper’s Kiss: Hate Takes a Bullet.
R.K. is a charming autodidact from Kentucky with no tolerance for rudeness. It makes one worry just a bit about why he writes about serial killers. I gathered from our talk and the title of the book that, the “victims” are the bad guys, or at least very rude. Someone mentioned it was like the Netflix series, Dexter, but he doesn’t like that series. We theorized a bit about why serial killers do what they do. My hypothesis: no mystery, just brain damage. We also talked about how responsible the mentally ill are for the hurt and damage they cause.
This lead us to my novel magical realist novel, by minute 32, Blue Woman Burning, about a family trying to recover from narcissistic parents. We also talked about my book of fabulist short stories, Strange Appetites, not to be confused with faboulousness, though if you find them so, I won’t be offended. After that, we talked about the difference between short stories and novels. Enjoy!
When you write about family, publishing your first book isn’t always the happy occasion you think it should be. My first novel Blue Woman Burning will be published by Red Penguin Books on November 23rd. Instead of excitement and joy, I’m riding a see-saw between dread and numbness. It has been SUCH a long and confusing journey with so many stops, starts, revisions, and reinventions. Though excellent work can be written in the thick of emotional turmoil, I had to grow a few decades to write mine. When I began it (34 years ago!), I was too stuck in its emotional backwaters to understand and complete it.
The novel started with a short story I wrote after I had been accepted to a graduate creative writing program at the University at Albany in 1988. It was about an 18-month family stay in Chile during my childhood. I wrote in a charming, humorous voice, which I later figured out was only to protect myself from pain caused by family dynamics. I used magical realism to externalize my perceptions.
I had no idea how to end the story because I was angry with the main character, Eustacia, based loosely on my mother. I didn’t know the main character angered me, though. It was so charming how she didn’t know how many children she had; how she accidentally packed a child into shipping container and blithely congratulated herself for her brilliance when it was discovered; how she named them all after her own body parts. When I discovered my anger, the ending came with an explosion.
Long story short, autobiographical material confused and distracted me. We really did drive from Santiago, Chile to Upstate New York in a Dodge Dart as the novel depicts. We really did get stuck in the altiplano, a high desert plateau. But that wasn’t what the book was about. It took me a long time to realize the novel was about me being trapped in a Bermuda triangle between my mother, my brother and myself. Yet, I wasn’t even the main character in the original version!
Huge revisions later, I cobbled together something presentable in 1999. I found an agent, and she sent it to all the best publishers. Somewhere in my basement lurks a copy of a very complimentary rejection from Grove Press.
She asked me to revise. There was clearly something wrong with it. I and my writing style had changed so much in those twelve years of writing the novel, that it felt like I had jammed two different bodies together. The bones just didn’t match up no matter how much I massaged the skin. I was sick of it, I had just had a baby, and I didn’t know how to fix it.
I needed a few more decades of growth to get past the emotional pain of the autobiographical material. That’s when I was able to ask myself the real question all writer need to ask to complete a novel: “What do my characters need?” Not, “What do I need?” The latter is a great question for therapy and for getting started. But it doesn’t end there.
So, many more revisions later—and I don’t mean mere edits, but rather, throwing out half a book and writing a new half, then throwing out half of that, and reorganizing and trying new points of views— Blue Woman Burning is both my first novel and my tenth novel, all rolled into one lifetime of learning. I also just learned it is the first book in a new imprint for Red Penguin Books. I’m honored.
And now? I want people to read it…and I don’t want people to read it. I want it to be wildly successful…and I also know that the chances of that are slim. I’ve been working hard to promote the hell out of it, but I still have a day job, the task is endless, and I have a secret fear that the publicity gods just don’t like me. Maybe I enjoy the secondary gains of obscurity too much: protection. Will obscurity continue to protect me? Probably.
I have warned my family about the autographical content. I was worried about my mother reading it, as I knew she would recognize herself and also the places where I fictionalized. There’s a death in the novel that I know would wound her. Sadly, at the age of 98, she doesn’t remember much. Yet, it is sadly fortunate that my novel is being released now: I can share my accomplishment with her, AND I know she won’t be able to read it.
Speaking of which, at her insistence and against my better judgement a few weeks ago, I agreed to read the prologue aloud to her. Not surprisingly, cherubic and charming narcissist that she is, she interrupted me twenty times to tell me how it really was, and how I should revise. I explained that the book was finished, and she told me she was trying to help me improve it. I said, for the first time in my life, “It doesn’t need improvement.” Though I had to take a restroom break, I marveled at how little the exchange hurt. Twenty years ago, it would have cut deeply and lastingly. Whew. Growth!
But there’s the rest of my family. I worry about that my two older sisters, who are not in the novel, will feel exposed by having the family in the public eye. I wonder do they feel bad about being left out entirely? Then there’s a fictional version of my younger brother. Will he mind how I characterized some of his surface attributes?
I am most worried about my older brother’s feelings. The character based on him, Ovid, is a major character in the novel. I have spoken with my brother about it, and he has graciously applauded my publication and told me not to worry about how the character is depicted. Still, will friends call and ask, “Did that really happen?”
I told him a writer can never capture a whole of a human being on paper (at least, I can’t). I’m also hugely aware of how unreliable memory is and how biased we all are. That is my defense. He is okay with me noting that he is bi-polar in real life. But I clearly took it to a more dramatic level in the novel. It made a better story. It was not wish fulfillment. A writer says to themselves, “What is the worst possible thing that could happen to this character?” and then they do it. I won’t spoil it for you.
Let me just end by observing that there is a huge danger to having a writer in the family. More books are more autobiographical than most authors let on. They expose family and friends even when cleverly disguised. There is also a huge danger in being the (published) writer in the family The writer dares to shape the family narrative how they see fit. The writer gets the last word. But do I?
So let me be clear, as the acknowledgment of Blue Woman Burning says, “Thanks also to my family of origin for adventures in distant lands, arguments and inspiration, and for your forbearance, as I borrow family stories and likenesses, and change them wildly” to make a better story. There will be some fallout, no doubt, but I will endeavor to embrace the learning that will follow.
Meanwhile, friends and family will be joining me at a launch party on December 9th in Saratoga Springs, NY, and expect I will feel the joy, then.
Here’s another true story that forms the basis of my magical realist novel, Blue Woman Burning, recently picked up by Red Penguin for publication this fall!
Reality was always being tested by my adventurous English professor parents, who couldn’t be accused of abusing us, with the globe-trotting upbringing they provided, but who might be accused of lacking empathy (My father is pictured to the right).
In 1975, our mother put me and my two brothers on a 24-hour plane ride to Santiago, Chile (just three years after a bloody military coup) alone, where my father met us with friends, Maria Ester (far left) and Rene. That’s me and my older brother in the center, and just the head of my younger brother at the door’s edge.
My father brought us that same afternoon to meet the principle of Nido de Aguilas (Nest of the Eagles), Mrs. Grover, (looking somewhat like Mrs. Partridge!), in the hills of Lo Barnechea, where we enrolled in that international School.
Finally, my father brought us to our new home in a modern, concrete development off Las Condes, Golfo De Darien, where Maria Ester taught us how to say, “Stop, please,” in Spanish and how to ride the public bus.
It was a beautiful house, unlike anything I’d ever seen, with a garden and patio at the center, red tiled floors which I later had to learn to wax, and sliding glass doors on every bedroom, opening to the little back yard. It was the first time I had my own room.
The very next morning, I donned my brand new national public school uniform (still creased from the suitcase), posed next to the lemon tree in the backyard, and smiled way more bravely than I felt at age 11…
Our father sent us off (again, alone, are you seeing a theme here?) to the bus stop on Las Condes to catch the public bus to school while he caught the bus in the opposite direction to the Universidad Catolica. Those are the snow-capped Andes in the distance, home to the Incas. This picture is from some time later, when we realized no one wore uniforms at Nido– or maybe we are going off to fly kites with the local kids.
Surviving the usual heckling and name calling that comes with being the perennial new kid, as we so often were, I eventually made friends. Hope to reconnect some day.
Most definitions of magic realism ascribe it solely to South America, and with this kind of daily scenery, it’s easy to see why a worldview might be tinged with magic. However, I think it’s spawned by the culture clash of the Spanish Catholic invaders and the indigenous people and by tyranny and political upheaval. You find similar surrealism in, say Kafka’s Europe.
Chile’s fantastical beauty, which lay casually beyond even the most banal settings, has, as I say about the children in my novel, written itself into my psyche.
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One strong memory I have from childhood is lying on a sprawling branch of an ancient apple tree on my father’s farm in Pennsylvania. This branch was so wide that I could lie on it without falling off. I used to imagine that some loving entity was watching me there, in the shade, like a guardian angel, or a parent, or the tree itself…
See attached video for the rest of the story. On June 23, 2020, three storytellers told at Caffe Lena for the pandemic Stay at Home series.
Barbara Palumbo tells Nathaniel Hawthorn’s story “The Great Stone Face” and Frank Stockton’s story, “The Lady or the Tiger,” at the beginning.
My original story blended with norse creation mythology, “Speaking the Language of Trees,” starts at minute 27:40.
Finally, Mary Murphy rounds out the evening with a great “old haunted house story,” starts at minute 58:00.
Eclectica Magazine published my my story “My Sister’s Labyrinth” today. It’s a companion story to “The Opal Maker” published by The Collagist and which was a finalist for Eckleburg Review’s Franz Kafka prize, and was also listed as one 2015’s top 50 by Wigleaf.I like to imagine that this woman, after leaving her first sister’s house, decided to go in search of her other siblings and came to her other sister’s house.
Eclectica has been publishing online for 21 years and publishes “outstanding writing” that “doesn’t fit” into easy categories.” They pride themselves on being one of the “longest-running and most consistent literary ezines on the web.” I’m honored to be part of this issue. They also published my story, “Death’s Debut” in 2014.
I think I also mentioned somewhere else that my hand bound chapbook Strange Appetites won the Adirondack Center for Writing’s People’s Choice Award for book of the year.
Also, the charming Hillview Free Library at Diamond Point, NY, invited me to present “Two Paths to Writing Your Life: The Magical and the Real” on August 23, 7-9. I’ll read excerpts from two stories that used to be one and are both (very) loosely based on my life, “Hitting the Wall” and “The Gatekeeper’s Mistake,” in order to illuminate the uses of magical realism as well as the writing process. Powerpoint will be included and the lecture is open to the public.
Finally, I’ll be presenting a lecture at SUNY Adirondack’s Continuing Education Lecture and Lunch series for seniors, “Ecuadorian Literature,” on September 19, 2017, 11:30 – 12:45pm at the Scoville Auditorium on the main campus. While there’s a small fee for the day of lectures and the lunch, I believe the lecture itself is open to the public.
I very much enjoyed working with my editor at Big Lucks, An Tran, who gave an excellent critique and good reasons for the critique. Working together, I believe we improved the story. Below are his answers to my questions about the magazine.
Your “about” page says that Big Lucks wants to be like a “nuclear submarine” that helps literary lifeforms that lurk in “the unlit depths of the ocean…breach the repetitive ebb-and-tide…” of, one assumes, the literary surface. What does that mean to you?
Submarines are fascinating in that they are, more or less, wholly self-sufficient communities submerged in the sea. We don’t think about them much, but they are there. And, in isolation, communities develop their own unique cultures. We want to bring up what is often overlooked; we want to take chances and give voice to those that don’t fit into more traditional stylistics found in literature today.
John Campbell, the editor of Astounding Science Fiction was famed for shaping an entire school of science fiction by sounding a call for a particular aesthetic and then selecting those who adhered to his ideas. Other editors try to keep their finger on the pulse of the literary zeitgeist of the times and select works to represent it. Most editors today will say they just pick what moves them and don’t adhere to any particular aesthetic. Which role more closely describes your approach to editing Big Lucks?
Our one rubric is: does this excite us? We aren’t looking for a specific aesthetic; we don’t want to be boxed in that way. If a piece is experimental or avant-garde, great! If it’s traditional, great! What matters is if it’s well-crafted, emotionally resonant, and reveals something about ‘truth’ that we hadn’t considered before, or presents itself in a way we haven’t seen before.
Our editors all have unique tastes and personal biases; one of us might bring something to the group that we’re really excited about, but something falls short for the others. But when we all get really excited about a piece—no matter what style it comes in—we know it’s more than just good, because it transcends personal tastes or one individual’s stylistic preferences. When we agree on a piece, it’s magical, because we’re all excited and all on board.
We know that people do things in patterns even when they think they are not. Looking back on your past issues does the magazine have an aesthetic or a pattern that tends to show up either by unconscious or conscious design?
I think any patterns one might observe are more indicative of cultural shifts in literary aesthetic as a whole and less of any conscious or unconscious factors in the selection process. We choose works that resonate on many different layers, works that accurately reflect the rich complexity of being human and being alive in the early 21st century. If there is a cohesiveness to that resonance, it is because (we hope) there are experiences and modes of expression that speak to this time and this culture with greater relevance and intensity than do others.
In the early 20th century when modernism was budding, the world population was only 2 billion. There were literary stars who were generally recognized, like Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemmingway and William Faulkner. As the world reaches a population of seven and a half billion, with more than 600,000 books being published a year, it gets harder to see the literary movements and stars of this era. Could you speak about the literary patterns or movements budding today in your neck of the woods? How is the literary world different today than it was in the twentieth century?
Prior to the 20th century, most literary artists were sharing their work in smaller communities, with the stylistics appreciated by the aristocracy being vastly different from the stylistics enjoyed by commoners. The 20th century of English literature was an outlier in human history, as far as the consumption of literature is concerned, and even still there were many many contemporary writers of the time that published, gained moderate popularity, and then faded into obscurity as time went on.
It is typically only fiction writers that have any ideas of ‘stardom’ through writing, so this kind of conversation can be alienating to poets, essayists, playwrights, screenwriters, etc. I think, more and more, writers are letting go of the idea of some kind of central celebrity or realm of prominence, are growing more happy with just having their work out there and consumed at any public scale. This is a good thing; it’s the way it was meant to be.
How has Big Lucks changed since its inception?
The masthead has definitely gone through some changes. The presentation too. We moved from a print journal to an online model and have gone through a number of different designs in order to facilitate a deeper reading experience. And we opened up Big Lucks Books to an incredible reception. In many ways, it’s all stayed the same: we are interested in bringing daring, innovative and powerful work to a wider public and we are pursuing all of the ways we can think to most effectively do this. But that central idea has certainly blossomed into something I don’t think Mark and Laura, who founded the journal, could’ve conceived of when it all began; certainly, I couldn’t have conceived of this when I was first brought on board.
How would you describe the relationship between Big Lucks and Big Lucks Books?
Big Lucks Books is the natural culmination of the journal’s original aim. Through it, we can bring incredible works that don’t fit in well with other publishers to a much wider audience. Poetry books, chapbooks of flash fiction, novellas and works like these are often produced as complete visions, but represent tremendous risk to traditional publishers. These works are often too long to be included in a journal and are considered too short to stand alone, but they are often works that must stand alone and something very valuable is lost if the work is padded to a greater length or reduced to a shorter one. We take amazing works of literature and make it public; that is what we do and who we are, whether we do this through the journal or through pressing books.
True confession here. I don’t believe in fairies (sorry Tinkerbell), I don’t really believe in ghosts (sorry Dad), and I think psychics are just very good intuitionists…so why do I love magic realism and fantasy? Why is this literature and movie genre thriving?
Here’s one of many reasons. We know from cognitive and brain science that we have several brains, the more primitive brain at the center – the brain stem and the neocortex. In the central brain stem resides the amygdala which governs our limbic system which governs our emotions (this is explained very well in Roseann Bane’s Around the Writer’s Block.
This part of the brain is geared toward survival. It reacts instantaneously to fuzzy perceptions. It knows only three reactions, fight, flight or freeze. It sees a snakelike object in the grass and prompts you to jump or shoot. You jump and THEN you take a closer look and your cerebral cortex says, “Oh, that’s not a snake. It’s a stick.” Evolutionarily, the cortex developed later and surrounds the primitive brain and is where you do all your rational, creative, sorting, organizing, and planning thinking.
The point is, that part of our brain still sees the world in terms of magic – it sees ghosts in the flickers of peripheral vision, it sees zombies in that unexpected manikins you run into in the attic, it sees a weeping woman in the snow capped sign post in your low-beams at night, it provides the stories and images in your dreams for your thoughts, feelings and ideas.
Science fiction, fantasy, and magic realism also help us explore our deepest fears in safe ways. Bruno Bethlehem, in his book The Uses of Enchantment, famously asserted that the sanitizing of fairytales and folktales left children less equipped to handle the stress of life. Who knew, for example, that in Cinderella, the wicked sisters cut off their toes to fit their feet into the shoe?
Also, these genres feed our need for a spiritual connection to something greater than ourselves and to the inherent interconnectedness of all things.
Before I end, I ned to add a respectful disclaimer, in case I insulted all the ghost hunters and psychics out there. I don’t disbelieve in anything completely. I truly think anything is possible, but not exactly probable, so I look or the rational explanation first. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard sound bounce in unexpected ways to create the illusion of thumping up above when it’s really coming from next door.
I must also say that I see the possible danger of grandiosity, narcissism and avoidance when people start asserting they have special powers. However, to those friends of mine who make such assertions, I believe in radio waves, microwaves and other forms of communication that are undetectable to the human eye and ear, and I think you should keep honing your craft whatever it is, because above all, I believe in the inner wisdom of all things and the magic of the atom.