Showing posts with label family. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family. Show all posts

07 May 2017

Meet the Mendozas: A Family of Cultural Relativists in An Age of Absolutism


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the ninth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Elizabeth Zelvin

Diego Mendoza, a nice Jewish boy from Seville, was born knocking on the inside of my head one night, demanding that I tell his story: he sailed with Columbus on the voyage of discovery on the very day in 1492 that the Jews were expelled from Spain. Why did Columbus take him on? (I have my reasons for not believing the theory that Columbus himself was Jewish.) Diego's dad was shipwrecked with Columbus off the coast of Portugal in their youth (the shipwreck is historical fact), and he'd remained a friend of the family. Young Columbus also had a crush on Diego's mother, though that didn't come out till Journey of Strangers, the second novel, as a piece of ancient family history.

So Diego had a father, did he? Diego escaped to what turned out to be "the Indies." Where did the rest of the family go? In "The Green Cross," the first of two Diego stories about the first voyage that appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, I sent Diego's "parents and sisters" to Italy, where many Spanish Jews fled at the beginning of the Sephardic diaspora. Diego sprang to such vivid life that I decided he deserved a novel, which presented new challenges.

I needed women characters, so I created Diego's sister Rachel, a spirited and endearing girl of 13 who had been sent away to a convent school in Barcelona for safety's sake and left behind due to the ruthless speed of the expulsion. Her only protector was an aunt, Doña Marina Mendes y Torres, a true converso rather than a marrano who secretly practiced Judaism. I intended Doña Marina to be stern and forbidding, but the lady surprised me, eventually becoming a staunch protector to her niece and nephew and putting up with a fair amount of discomfort and shenanigans. The first half of Voyage of Strangers takes place in Spain, where Columbus is received at the court of Ferdinand and Isabella and charged with outfitting a fleet for the second voyage. Rachel is burning to go along, and in the end, Diego and Columbus combined fail to stop her.

In the second half of Voyage of Strangers, Diego and Rachel meet and fall in love with the gentle, generous Taino, the indigenous population of Quisqueya (Hispaniola) and are powerless to prevent its destruction by the Spaniards. We get to know more about their parents and their upbringing via the principles instilled in them, which allow them to embrace a culture very different from their own. As Jews, they have always been outsiders in the Christian mainstream culture of Europe. This has made cultural relativism their natural point of view. For example, the Taino teach Diego and Rachel batey, a game not unlike soccer.
We both became skilled at batey. In such perilous times, one might think that sport would be abandoned. But batey was a religious observance, the game a ceremony like the Christian Mass or, in Judaism, carrying the Torah. In troubled times, spiritual practice is a necessity. My father had told me so, and the Taino understood this as well.
Both Papa and Mama Mendoza are revealed as counselors whose wisdom their children cling to in difficult situations, since they are far from home and have no one to rely on but each other. In one historically accurate scene, Diego and Rachel are forced to listen to the sounds of a young Taino girl being beaten and raped by a childhood friend of Columbus. The man himself wrote an account of it when he returned to Europe. The story survived because historians quoted it as a comical anecdote as late as 1942. That's right: Samuel Eliot Morison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Columbus, thought the rape of an Indian maiden, with a beating to make her compliant, was funny.
“Diego!” Rachel cried. “What is he doing to her?”

I took her hand and pulled her down beside me on a coil of rope.

“Do you know what is meant to happen between a man and a woman?”

“Yes,” she said. “Elvira told me.”

“What did she tell you?” I asked. Our eldest sister loved to hoard information and spring it on us at the moment when it would most devastate or embarrass us, and she did not always pause to verify her facts.

“She said a man and a woman do the same as when a bull is set to a cow, so she will bear a calf and furnish milk. And that is how human folk make a baby.”

“And what do you think of that?” I asked. I expected her to say that she found it hard to believe of our parents, who both had a full measure of dignity.

“I know it is true,” she said, “for I asked Mama. She said there is pleasure in it too, when it is done correctly.”

Papa had said the same. I would not admit to Rachel that I had had no opportunity yet to investigate the matter for myself. So I simply nodded, hoping my little sister thought me wiser than I was.

“Mama told me about rape too,” Rachel said. “That is what Cuneo is doing, is it not?”

“Yes, but—Mama told you?”

“She knew it was a danger, sending me to Barcelona when things were getting worse,” Rachel said, “and none knew what the King and Queen would do about the Jews. She said I must have this knowledge so that if I were taken, at least I would not be taken by surprise.”
For Journey of Strangers, I had to do some serious research on the Sephardic diaspora so I could address the issue of what had become of the rest of the Mendoza family. I quickly found out that the Mendoza family could not have stayed in Firenze (Florence), where I had so blithely put them, under the protection of Lorenzo di Medici. First, Lorenzo died in January 1492. Second, his successor, along with the Jews who had sought refuge there, fled the city in November 1494, when King Charles VIII conquered it. Many of them ended up in Istanbul, where Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them, although the famous one-liner, still quoted– "You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" –was made up by a writer, who else, in 1523. So the Mendozas settled in Istanbul, and I got to develop the characters of Papa and Mama, along with older sisters Elvira and Susanna and their fianćes, later husbands, and in-laws.

The complex rules governing the lives of Jews in Istanbul in the late 1490s; the trauma of their travels; the pressure on the Jewish community to marry their children young and have them reproduce as many Jews as possible--very much like the situation of Jews after the Holocaust--all of these challenge Papa and Mama Mendoza to show what stuff they're made of. Into this situation come their long-lost children, who have befriended naked Taino and helped Moorish slaves escape. Their best friend is Hutia, a lone Taino survivor, and Rachel is determined to marry him. They've been running around the Caribbean half-naked and fighting their way through Europe living by their wits. How are you going to box them into a nice Jewish marriage and a job in Papa's business?

Rachel, with Mama's help, finds herself a job as a personal shopper to the ladies of the Sultan's harem. Diego goes into partnership with a Muslim ship's captain and former pirate. The plot thickens as Hutia must decide whether conversion to Judaism or to Islam is more likely to win him Rachel's hand in marriage. No spoilers. Read the books! Both are available as trade paperbacks and e-books. Instead, I'll give you the final lines of the homecoming scene (the end of Chapter 23 in Journey of Strangers, when Diego, Rachel, and Hutia finally arrive in Istanbul). I confess that I cried not only the first three times I read it over, but also while I was writing it.
Someone must be coming to the door. It swung open. A young man I did not recognize, wearing a tallit, peered out at us, squinting as if nearsighted.

“Yes?”

Then I heard my sister Elvira’s voice call out, “Akiva? Who is it?”

A girl with a mop of hair as unruly as Rachel’s came flying out of an inner room, shrieking, “It’s them! It’s them!”

My sister Susanna flung herself upon me, arms tight around my neck and legs clinging to my waist.

“Mama! Papa! Come quickly! Diego and Rachel have come home!”

And then Rachel was sobbing in Mama’s arms, and Papa was lifting Susanna down so he could hug me himself, his beard wet with tears as it brushed against my cheek, or maybe the tears were mine.

“My boy, my boy!” Papa said. “Baruch Ha’shem! Thank God you’re home!”
After I'd finished writing Journey, I realized that not only did Papa and Mama Mendoza represent an idealized version of my own parents and a blueprint for the aspects of family that I would have liked and hadn't had, but they also reminded me of the March parents in Little Women, who in turn were Louisa May Alcott's idealized portrait of her own parents, the high-minded but impractical philosopher Bronson Alcott and her beloved mother, immortalized as the March sisters' Marmee. Wise, kind, ethical, loving, principled without being the slightest bit dogmatic, fiercely loyal to family, flexible, open-minded on a deeply intelligent level, and utterly reliable. Cultural relativists. Who wouldn't want such parents? My own being long gone, I'd go home with them in a flash.

Elizabeth Zelvin, a once and forever SleuthSayer, is the author of the historical novels Voyage of Strangers and Journey of Strangers, the Bruce Kohler mystery series beginning with Death Will Get You Sober, and numerous short stories. Her stories have been nominated twice for the Derringer Award and three times for the Agatha Award.

Liz is currently editing the fourth Murder New York Style anthology for the New York chapter of Sisters in Crime. You can find her on Amazon's Elizabeth Zelvin page, on her website at elizabethzelvin.com, and on Facebook as Elizabeth Zelvin.

06 May 2017

Two out of Fifteen–So Far


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the eight in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by John M. Floyd

I've enjoyed reading, over the past week, about the families of my fellow SleuthSayers, and especially about the talent (and love of) writing that exists among their family members.

As for my own crew, here's some background. Our immediate family has now grown to 15, not counting my mother, and it's a number that doesn't sound all that big until we all get together (usually every June for a summer outing and every Christmas for a one-to-two-week gathering at our home in Mississippi). Then it's quickly obvious how much larger and younger and louder our group has become.


For anyone who's interested, my wife Carolyn and I have three grown kids and seven blue-eyed grandchildren. Our son Michael is a chemical engineer with DuPont in Parkersburg, West Virginia; he and his wife Jennifer (also a chem. e. and currently a stay-at-home mom) have three children: Lily (11), Anna (9), and Gabriel (6). David, our second son, is a physician at St. Dominic's Hospital in Jackson, Mississippi; he and his wife Jamie (also a doctor, and currently a stay-at-home mother and aerobics instructor) have two kids: Charlie (9) and Susannah (7). Karen, our youngest child, is also a stay-at-home mom, and a former music teacher at a local elementary school; she and her husband Collin Berger (a computer technician) live in Pearl, Mississippi, and have two kiddos: Richard (4) and Julia (1). My wife and I feel extremely fortunate that we have two of our three children and four of our seven grandkids living nearby and that we're able to have all fifteen of our family together at least twice a year. (We're also thankful for FaceTime--as we used to be for Skype.)

I'm always reminded, any time I think of family, of two old sayings. One is "The offspring done sprung higher than them they sprung off of" (which in my case is certainly true) and the other is "By the time the rich man has enough money to afford children, the fool has enough kids to support him." I especially like that second one. Now, if they'll only support me . . .

As for writers and writing--so far, although several of our brood have done some technical and professional writing, only one (besides me) has shown much interest in creating fiction. That's our granddaughter Susannah--on the left in the photo below, taken last Christmas--who'll be eight years old next month. She's an avid reader, especially of series like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, and likes to write fantasy stories and tales that involve animals of any kind. (Her people-doctor parents already suspect that they might be raising a veterinarian.) Currently Susannah is collaborating with a school friend, and together they've written several stories that I think have turned out really well. At that age I was probably still trying to learn how to tie my shoes.


So that's it, for the Floyds. One final point: although not many of us are writers, I'm very pleased to say that all of us--even my mom, who's 90--are readers.

That's the important thing. Right?

05 May 2017

First Signing like a First Kiss


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the seventh in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by O'Neil De Noux


Like a first kiss - there has been nothing as good as my first signing. GRIM REAPER was released in 1988, and a local bookstore (back when local bookstores carried my books) had a signing for me. My publisher, Zebra Books coughed up some money (money I later discovered came out of my royalties) and I brought food and drink. My father brought beer of course.

We hoped to sell 30 books and the bookstore (part of a small chain) had 300 shipped in. The big surprise came quickly. A lot of my friends and my family showed up. I come from a big family - my father was one of 12 and my mother was one of 12. At that time, I had 95 first cousins and most of them had kids.


My brother is the tall one in this picture. The one non-family member is the third from the right. She was a retired nun. She was the principal at my grammar school, Our Lady of The Holy Rosary. She sent a note after reading the book, wondering who taught me to curse like that. I blamed it on the Christian Brothers at Archbishop Rummel (where I went to high school). Gotta love a Catholic education. I spent two years at a Jesuit university.


These are some of my aunts, a cousin and one of my sisters. They got all dressed up for this. My Aunt Earline (in red) lived to be 99. My Aunt Bess (second from the right) got married again when she was 80 years old.


My 2-year old son pitched in.

Well, we ran out of books. Sold 300 paperbacks. Never happened again, although my family continued to come to my signings through the 1990s. They don't come anymore. My books are too hardboiled and they haven't given the historicals a chance. You can only read so many curse words, I guess. Such is life.

But I'll always remember that first kiss.

PS: I did not write the promo on the flyer. Vendetta of blood?

www.ONeilDeNoux.com

04 May 2017

My Husband, the Writer


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the sixth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Robyn Thornton
In honor of the fast-approaching International Family Day, I asked my wife, Robyn, to write something up for this week's blog entry. This is what she came up with. Thanks, Honey! One thing, though: see below–all the way at the bottom of this page–for pictures from our ACTUAL honeymoon, lest you think the ONLY honeymoon my wife got was getting to tag along while I pressed the flesh at B'con!
— Brian
On our first date, Brian brought me a signed copy of his Lincoln biography.  I thought it was one of the coolest gifts I had ever received.  We discovered that we had a lot of other common interests, but our love of all things related to books and the creation of them was certainly one of the first threads in our shared tapestry.  I soon learned how much dedication and headspace was needed to weave together those stories as I spent many weekends both in awe of Brian’s discipline and wrestling with my jealousy over the amount of time that he needed to focus.  It was difficult for me to understand in the beginning of our relationship, but his determination to persevere in chasing his passion for writing was inspiring.

When we knew that our relationship was getting more serious, his writing took a back seat to making sure I felt I was a priority.

For my birthday that year, Brian took me on a trip to Oregon.  As I slept in the hotel, Brian stayed up all night to finish a book deadline. He wanted to make sure I got a good night’s sleep, so he had set up his laptop on the sink in the bathroom.  I remember waking up several times in the night to see the light streaming from under the door.  His kindness and compassionate spirit were more reasons why I was falling in love with him.

So, when Brian and I got married, I thought I knew what to expect.

I was so wrong.

Brian worked hard to finish a book to take me on a mini-honeymoon to San Francisco (We took the
My husband, flashing his "convention smile."
real one in the UK the following Summer).  Bouchercon was in that city the week after we tied the knot, so our trip served a double purpose: both as a mini-honeymoon and for Brian to attend panels and to network.  It was there that I learned that it’s not just about what you write, but how you market. And then there’s the networking: one of the most important tools in a writer’s toolkit.  I’ll admit that the shop talk at the time was not as captivating as I now find it and we had to learn how to balance our leisure time with business objectives.   But I found myself wanting more of his time and it proved to be harder on both of us.

It was one of the first lessons we had to learn as a newlywed couple.  We planned a big wedding, got married, and bought a house, all in the same nine month period.

Brian continued to juggle his book projects with us moving in and getting settled.  I recall one Sunday night in particular that makes us laugh now.  I was assembling a couple of kitchen stools while Brian was frantically reviewing final edits (the “galleys” as he called them) on a book whose deadline was 9 AM the next morning.

I had asked him to take a break and tighten one bolt and when he refused, I said in frustration, “Fine, why don’t you just work on your stupid book!”

Boy, do I regret that now.

What I also now realize more than ever, is that it’s not easy.

It’s not easy juggling two full-time careers, a young son with boundless energy, taking care of the day-to-day responsibilities and finding time and headspace to write every day.  Brian’s been able to do this.  And he’s now inspired me to start writing too.

And I now understand the sacrifices that he made and what it takes to commit and stay on track.  I get how satisfying it is to be able to devise plots and character arcs and stories that just need to be told. And as you continue to work and rework and distill and then rework again, the elation of knowing that someday, there’ll be readers to enjoy and discover what you’ve created.  And there’s nothing like seeing Brian’s face after he’s completed his word count for the day and the joy that this accomplishment gives him.


For that, it makes it all worth it and I wouldn’t trade one moment.

(And now, UK honeymoon pics!)




03 May 2017

The Story Gene


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fifth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

 by Robert Lopresti

This appeared on Criminal Brief in 2009.  Seemed appropriate for our family celebration.

I just got back from a week of visiting family on the east coast. I spent a few days with all three of my siblings for the first time in a decade – although we’ve all seen each other more often than that.

There were nine family members, plus a couple of other special guests who were there part of the time. Almost sixty years of age separated the oldest from the youngest. So, what did we do when we got together?

Well, we ate. Mmm, lasagna! But mostly we told stories.

First we talked about travel. Miserable plane trips. Who we saw before arriving. Where we toured the day before.

Next came news briefs: job changes, school stuff, future plans.

Then came health issues. Plenty there to discuss as most of us travel through (or past) middle age.
But finally we got to what you might call Deep Story: family memories, some of them dating back before my birth. Do you remember the time the tree fell on the house? When did we sell the bungalow down the shore? Did you hear that Grandma worked for Thomas Edison?

Sometimes it turns out we heard the stories differently, or even remember the same events differently. But that just made the discussion more interesting. (The youngest of the clan politely ignored the chatter of her elders, while offering her own salute to story-telling: she was rereading Harry Potter.)

At one point I held the floor for several minutes (probably too long), telling everyone about one of my adventures. And as all eyes were turned in my direction I starting thinking about the narrative urge. The desire to tell and listen to stories, which keeps us writers of fiction in business, seems to be built into the family heritage. And I don’t mean just the Lopresti family.

A very old story

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, two sisters were born. Since language had recently been invented, the proud parents were able to name their children, and they called them Og and Zog. The girls resembled each other in looks and personalities, but there was one tiny difference between them.
Og was fascinated with stories. She liked to hear them and to tell them. Zog, on the other hand, didn’t care for them.

It turned out that Og’s children inherited her fondness for stories. And that’s where things get interesting.

When gatherers came back and reported where they had found the most honey, Og’s children paid close attention. When a hunter came back, frightened and bleeding, and explained why you should never, ever cross a meadow if animals are behaving in a certain way, the sons and daughters of Og took in every word. And when the wild-thinker in the tribe explained that these berries were sacred to the gods and must never be eaten, guess who took this rule to heart.

Which meant Og’s children were slightly more likely than Zog’s to find the honey, avoid the lion, and ignore the poisonous berries. Which gave them a tiny advantage in survival.

And so, while Og and Zog had the same number of children, Og had more grandchildren, and even more great-grandchildren. Give or take a few thousand generations and most of us have some of Og’s blood in our veins. That’s evolution, baby.
 

A love story

I feel like I need to pay this off with a family story, so here’s one I heard the last time I visited my father, a few months before he passed.

Dad told me that his father came to the United States from Sicily early in the twentieth century. John remembered a family from his village who had come to New Jersey earlier. Mostly he remembered a girl named Mamie.

He went to the Garden State and found the family, but alas, Mamie had made up her mind to become a nun. This, of course, was not what John had in mind.

Now it happened that Mamie’s father ran an ice cream parlor in Plainfield, New Jersey. He wasn’t very good at it. The ice cream was fine. The problem was when customers came in he had a habit of telling them “I’m busy. Go away.” Experts in retail tend to frown on this as a sales technique.

It occurred to him that if John married his daughter they could take the shop off his hands. So, with a little paternal persuasion, Mamie agreed to give up her hopes for the nunnery and instead become a wife and eventually the mother of four children.

Her husband John turned the ice cream parlor into a grocery store, which is what you see in the picture above. (Alas, the people in sight are not my relatives.)

“So what happened to Great-grampa?” I asked my father. “Did he find a business where he didn’t have to deal with the public?”

“Not exactly,” said Dad. “He became a bootlegger.”

Final thought

Do you have relatives your own age or older? Have you asked what they remember about your family’s history? Is anyone writing these stories down?

Because if not, they will soon be as lost as the stories Og told her children.

02 May 2017

The Good and Bad of Societal Family Expectations


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the fourth in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Barb Goffman

"So, are you married yet?"

Those five words from an old friend's husband set my teeth on edge more than a decade ago, when I was in my early thirties. They still bother me. Not because they make me feel like a bit of a failure in such an important aspect of life (as they did then), but because they represent what still seems to be a ridiculous societal expectation. You grow up, you get married. And if you don't, you're incomplete; there must be something wrong with you.

Indeed, my own mother had this perspective. To her dying day, she believed I was unhappy. I had to be, she reasoned, because I wasn't married. Nothing I said or did to show I was happy by myself made any difference. To her, a woman couldn't be happy if she doesn't have a husband.

Well, on behalf of all my single friends, I say poppycock. (If you know me at all, you know I actually used an expletive instead of poppycock. But I wrote poppycock because this is a family blog. (Did you see what I did there?))

In fact, I'll wager that not having a husband has been good for me, at least creatively. Imagine how much less writing I would get done if I had a husband and children to care for and spend time with. I can barely manage giving my dog enough attention.

Of course, it's possible that having a husband and children would inspire more stories. Thinking back to old boyfriends, there was the one who liked to interrupt me; the one who spent money like he made it in the basement; the one who liked to blame the victim. Yes, being stuck in close quarters with any of them could have inspired a lot of murder mysteries. Or at least murders. Sure, then I'd go to prison, but think of all the writing time I'd have.

Not that I need a husband to come up with murder stories. I have parents, two brothers, and a sister, so I've got more than enough history to delve for creative inspiration. Indeed I've written a large number of stories involving killing or maiming members of your family. My sister has accused me  several times of creating sister characters with her in mind and has said that she doesn't want to get on my bad side. (Too late! Kidding! Maybe.)

And family can also have a broad definition. I'm sure many people have friends they aren't related to but whom they think of as family. And when you care about someone so much, they can end up inspiring ire (either because of something they did or something done to them). Indeed in my newest short story, "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?," from the anthology 50 Shades of Cabernet, my main character, Myra, thinks of her boss of forty years, Douglas, as her little brother. And when pushed, she decides that it's time she teaches her little brother a lesson in humility. It's the family thing to do, to help make him a better person.

So, am I married yet? Nope. But that doesn't matter. I have more than enough friends and family to inspire my writing. Maybe I'll go kill off another one today. On paper, of course.

29 April 2017

Over-Byters Anonymous


 Family Fortnight +  Leading up to the  International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the first in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!
by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl)
Here's my salute to the wonderful families who put up with us crime-writers! 
I write mystery and suspense fiction.  Lately it's been taking over my life.

I blame this on my new laptop.  Sleek and slim, it accompanies me everywhere: in the car, at the kitchen table, in the loo.

Unfortunately, it has become too convenient.  I have become a victim of the Computer Black Hole of Time.  Take last week, for instance:

"Quick - the laptop! I have an idea and I don't want to lose it."

"Oh no, Mom!  Not the laptop!  Don't do it...don't turn it on...don't"
(Insert theme song from Twilight Zone here.)

Alas, poor Natalie.  She knows what is to come.  Like Jeff Goldblum in that remake of The Fly, I merge with my mini-computer.  We become one.  Conscious only of our own existence.  Oblivious to the sounds of life around us.  Consumed by the story that has to come out of us.

Somewhere, a voice cuts through the fog.

"Mom, I'm hungry."

Normally a staunch advocate of the five food groups, I forget all about artificial flavour, colour dye number 412 and hydrogenated everything.  Lost in the netherworld of word-processing, I utter the dead giveaway:

"There's some Twinkies in the cupboard."

Natalie shakes her head in despair.  "She's gone."

Tap tap tap.  Fingers on the keyboard have a rhythm all their own.  Mesmerizing.  Hours shrink to minutes.  Like a jigsaw puzzle half done, the shreds of my story are piecing themselves together.  If I can only...

"Dad's home, Mom."

"Just a sec."

"It's dinner time, Mom."

"I think there's some Oreo's in the cupboard."

Back to the keyboard.  The laptop is humming our tune.  Words glide across the screen in a seductive dance.  I'm caught in the feverish whirlpool of setting, viewpoint, characterization and climax.

An electric can-opener disturbs my train of thought.

"Earth to Mom.  Want some tuna?"

"Just a sec."

"Honey, are you all right?"

My husband's voice.  What is he doing home so early?

"We're eating now," he says.

"Have a Pop Tart," I blurt.

Natalie shakes her head.  "Give up, Dad."

I'm back to the screen, running with my story character...heart pounding, mind agonizing.  Will he get to the scene before the murderer?  Will he be in time to prevent it?

Somewhere in the house, water is running - pounding on porcelain like thunder.  Hey, that's it!  Add a blinding thunder storm, the hero running through sheets of rain, slipping on wet pavement, unable to read the house numbers....

I PG UP and start revising.

"Night, Mom."

"Night, Mommy"

"Murrmph?"  I don't look up.

Finished.  I save copy and turn off my partner in crime, the laptop.  Draft one, complete.  What a team.  Sitting for hours in one position, I am oddly invigorated.  Ready to run the Boston Marathon, and looking for company.

It's dark outside.  The house is quiet.  I thump upstairs, looking for everyone.

Even my husband is in bed.  I sit on the edge of the mattress, bewildered.

"Why is everyone in bed so early?"

My husband pokes his head up.  "It's 3 a.m."

"It is?"  Astonishing.  Once again, I have been a victim of the Computer Black Hole of Time: entire hours mysteriously devoured by the simple on-switch of a computer.  I contemplate starting a self-help group for chronic users:  Over-Byters Anonymous.  But I don't think I could deal with the separation anxiety.

"Wanna read my story?" I ask eagerly.

There are limits to the devotion of even the most supportive family.

It's 3 a.m.  He declines.

Added note:
Today is Authors for Indies day in Canada.  By Indies, we mean independent bookstores.  All across the True North, authors are appearing at independent bookstores to do signings, and show their appreciation.  I will be at Different Drummer bookstore in Burlington, Ontario, this afternoon.  Many thanks to all our independent bookstore owners!

Melodie Campbell got her start writing standup.  Her books and short stories have won 10 awards, even though they are probably certifiable, poor things.  Read at your own risk. www.melodiecampbell.com

28 December 2016

Laura Lippman's WILDE LAKE


I caught up with Wilde Lake only last month, I blush to admit, since it came out in early May. This is Laura Lippman's 21st novel, and she absolutely crushes it, hits it over the lights and out of the park.
I wouldn't call it a mystery, exactly, although crimes happen in the course of the story, and buried secrets are revealed. It seems to me to be more about the nature of families, and friendships, the elastic quality of time, and what some of us might call accident, some Fate.

Lippman uses a cool device in this book. She flips back and forth between first and third person, with her heroine Lu telling her own story in the past, as a kid, but the present being third-person narrative. Both observed and observing, in other words, and Lu the observer - speaking as her younger self - isn't entirely reliable. This creates a troubling tension, Lu's father and older brother (the mom absent, having died of complications not long after Lu's birth) are seen through different lenses, or at different removes. Their dad is a seeming constant, but even he begins to shift, and the family's received wisdom with him, which gets Lu increasingly uneasy. What she thought was solid ground is instead very thin ice. The reader, trusting both voices, hears an undercurrent, a bass note.

It's hard to know which voice carries the melody and which is the rhythm section. Since the reveals are in the present day, you take that voice for true. But the kid telling the stories, later to be undeceived, has the advantage of innocence, of seeing everything for the first time. Lu as a girl might recall the voice of Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, another story where dramatic ironies are kept off-stage. The child can say, without irony, without self-knowledge, things that her grown-up self would filter out, or second-guess.

Wilde Lake, to a large degree, is about cruelties of omission. These are often arbitrary, but just as often they simply fade from view. All this stuff gets left out, left out of our personal histories. And it comes back. Does it ever. The truth about Lu's mom. The truth about her husband's death. The truth about her own children. Last but not least, the truth about the night her brother broke his arm - at a high school party, where one kid died and another one wound up in a wheelchair for life. Stuff it was easier to leave out, the first time around. Silence is protective, but deception always has a sell-by date.

I don't know whether to call Wilde Lake a departure, in fact, for Laura Lippman, and I get aggravated when somebody says such-and-such transcends or reinvents or deconstructs the genre, as if genre conventions were embarrassingly limited and predictable, but the book is definitely subversive. It keeps reversing itself, and your expectations. It's mischievous without being calculated. In other words, Lippman doesn't part the curtain. She keeps faith. Lu's voice never falters, she never steps aside. You don't feel manipulated. The author isn't gaslighting you. The central trick of the novel, if it's okay to call it a trick, is that you're taken into the narrator's confidence, and when her confidence fails her, you're as marooned as she is. I think this is a remarkable effect. Sleight of hand in plain sight.

Family history can often be practiced self-deception, but not necessarily self-destructive. And buried secrets don't always need to have damaging consequences. We aren't all Oedipus. Too much, though, can be hidden in the name of kindness. We'd be better off not knowing, is the most common alibi, or its second cousin, what you don't know won't hurt you. In this story, silent knowledge poisons trust. Left unspoken, it becomes a spell whose power lies in being named, and given voice. Having taken shape, there is no proof against its magic.


04 January 2016

It Was The Best of Times, It Was The Worst of Times


I claim it was 1998, but it really all started in 1997.  I was lucky.  I'd been around for quite a few years by then, and still had an intact family.  Two parents, still married to each other, a big brother, his wife and two sons, and a little brother and his wife.  I was most fortunate to have a husband to whom I'd been happily  married since 1972 and a beautiful teenaged daughter. As a family we were blessed.
My big brother's name was Frank Rogers.  He was three years my senior and had been my hero as long as I could remember.  He had two webbed toes and eventually grew to be six foot, fix inches.  He saved me from death (or a slight concussion) when I almost fell off the porch into a pile of bricks our dad was saving for a patio he might (or might not) build.  He benignly blackmailed me for multiple decades for an indiscretion when I was seven years old.  He missed me so much when our family went on vacation without him that, upon my return, he took me to downtown Dallas to see a Troy Donahue movie -- and he didn't even like Troy Donahue.  He introduced me to the Kingston Trio, the Smothers Brothers, and Alan Sherman.  He made fun of me for a week when I cried while watching an episode of "Wagon Train."

As adults we became scattered as jobs took us to different parts of the country, but we seemed to manage to all get together at least once a year, and quite often on Thanksgiving.  As the years progressed we started a Thanksgiving tradition:  tequila shots before dinner.  Our parents didn't partake, but the three siblings and our spouses certainly did (and even some of the kids when we weren't watching closely enough).  It was silly, but, hey, it was tradition!

Then in 1997, Frank got sick.  He was in the hospital and I called him as I had been doing on a daily basis since he'd been in there.  But something was wrong.  My big brother was crying.  And I could hear my sister-in-law sobbing in the background.  Never, in all those years, had I ever known my big brother to cry.  The doctor was in his room.  The doctor just told him he had terminal cancer.  The doctor just told him he had a year to live.  To my knowledge, Frank never cried again.  He yelled, got drunk, and laughed a lot, but never cried.

The whole family was staggered by this.  We were blessed.  Things like this didn't happen to us.  Our family members only died when they were in their eighties or nineties.  Not like this.  He was only fifty-four.  One child left in college.  Things like this didn't happen in our family.  We were blessed.

We learned that what Frank had was cancer of the common bile duct -- a very rare cancer that no one was studying.  He could try chemo and radiation, but the results wouldn't amount to much, if anything at all.  He opted not to bother.  He and Rosella, his wife, took leaves of absence from their respective jobs and decided to spend the year he had left doing whatever they wanted and, as he told me, he had no intention "of suffering fools gladly."

In those last months of 1997, my sister-in-law and I conspired to save him.  It was a real reach, but one does what one can.  There was a Mexican bodega my husband and I frequented when we wanted ingredients we were unable to find in the regular grocery store.  But this bodega had more than mere spices and strange fruits; it had talismans and cancer cures.  Frank and Rosella lived in Baltimore, and I lived in Austin, but I found a way to send a talisman and cancer-curing tea to my sister-in-law.  Both of us knowing Frank would laugh at such an attempt, she hid the talisman deep in his wallet (the lady at the bodega said he must always have it on him for it to work - duh), and slipped the tea into Frank's morning coffee.  And then Rosella prayed and I kept my fingers crossed.  One does what one can.

That last Thanksgiving, 1997, before our tequila shots, we had a meeting at my younger brother's house in Dallas and decided we were going to take a vacation together -- something we hadn't done since we were kids.  So we made plans.  It was to be eight days at a rental house on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and I started saving for the trip we'd take in March.  But in February of 1998, I got a call from my agent in New York.  I'd been nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Paperback Novel of 1997.  After telling my husband, who was in the room at the time, the first person I called was Frank.  He was elated, I was elated, everybody was elated.  And I wanted to win it for him.

In March of 1998 we left for St. John.  It was a wonderful eight days of conch fritters, rum, and too much Jimmy Buffett on the CD player.  We saw giant turtles, beautiful white beaches, and pigs walking along the roads.  We learned to drive on the wrong side of the street and found that a pint of Ben and Jerry's cost over eight dollars.  And we discovered my daughter and Frank's youngest son had "found" a bottle of champagne and had taken that and a bottle of orange juice out to the pool late one night and were making "mouth mimosas."  And it was all over way too soon.

In April I left for New York and the Edgar banquet.  My friend Jan Grape had also been nominated that year for Best Non-Fiction and we were able to rent a small apartment on the east side and spent a wonderful week up there.  I had strict orders to call Frank the minute I won.  He never said anything about my not winning.  Needless to say, I didn't win, and it was the hardest phone call of my life.  I called my husband first and he was stoic about it, but then I had to call Frank.  Somehow in my mind I'd confused my winning that Edgar with my brother living.  I'm sure my winning would have worked as well as the talisman in his wallet and the tea in his coffee; i.e., not at all.

In early October I went to Bouchercon in Philadelphia, just a train ride from Baltimore.  Frank was once again a guest at Johns-Hopkins, and I took the train down to see him.  He was excited.  He and his doctor had just seen Carl Ripkin, Jr., in the halls of the oncology ward.  The two of them, on seeing Mr. Ripkin, Jr., going down the stairs, followed him, my brother carrying his IV pole and clutching the back of his hospital gown.  Frank's doctor told me the son was there to see his father, Carl Ripkin, Sr.  I found the mental picture of my brother chasing the baseball star down the stairs amusing and shared this later that evening, back in Philadelphia, with my dinner companions.  I forgot that one of them was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun.  The headline in the next day's paper?  Carl Ripkin, Sr., hospitalized in cancer ward at Johns-Hopkins.  For a short while, my family referred to me as "deep throat."

It was only a few short weeks later that I got a call from Frank.  "I need to tell you something," he said.  His voice was ragged.  "Anything," I said.  "I'm sorry I blackmailed you," he said.  "That's okay," I said.  "It's what brothers do."  And he told me he loved me and I told him I loved him.  Two days later he died.

We buried my brother's ashes on Halloween on a beautiful hill in the Maryland countryside.  My sister-in-law stuck one of Frank's favorite cigars in the hole with his ashes, then we went to her home, got drunk, and all smoked the rest of his cigars.

And our family was no longer blessed.  I lost both my parents in 2001 -- Dad in January, Mom in April.  Five years later my beloved husband, Don Cooper, had his fourth heart attack and was unable to come back from that one.  He was sixty-one.

To this day, my sister-in-law, my daughter and nephews all call each other on Thanksgiving and give a tequila toast to Frank.  After a few years, we added Don's name to the toast.

But I'll always remember the year 1998 as the best and the worst.  An Edgar nomination, a trip to St. John, a week in New York -- and the death of my hero.  My big brother.

20 June 2015

Killing People is what I Do


 
“Why would you ever want to write about murder?” said the horrified relative.  “Why not write a nice little romance?”

Why indeed?

As I quickly added another relative to kill in my next book (you would be shocked how often that happens….) it occurred to me that there were many reasons to write about murder.

1.. It’s the challenge of creating the clever puzzle.  Plotting a mystery is like playing a chess game.  You always have to think several moves ahead.  Your reader is begging you to challenge them, and is working to beat you – meaning to guess the killer before your detective does - to the end.

2.  Plot is paramount.  Murder mysteries start with action – usually a murder.  Yes, characterization is important, and particularly motivation.  But murder is by nature an action, and thus something happens in the book you are writing.  And quite often, it happens again and again.

3.  It’s important.  This is murder, after all.  We’re not talking about a simple threat or theft.  A lot is at stake.  Murder is the final act.  The worst that can happen.  The end of it all.
 
4.  It’s a place to put all your darkest fantasies.  There are a few people I’ve wanted to kill in my life.  They did me wrong.  And while I do have a bit of a reputation for recklessness, I value my freedom more.  So what I can’t do in reality, I relish doing in fiction.

5.  Finally – it’s fun. This is the part I don’t say in mixed company (meaning non-writers and relatives.)  I can’t explain exactly why it’s fun – you’ll have to trust me on this part.  But plotting to do away with characters in highly original ways is a real power trip.  I’m smiling just thinking about it.

Of course, I can understand where some of the relative angst comes from.  In A PURSE TO DIE FOR, a gathering of relatives for a funeral results in the death of one or two. 

In THE GODDAUGHTER’S REVENGE, a cousin of Gina’s does her wrong.  So she does him back, in a particularly crafty and oh-so-satisfying way.

It was entirely accidental, that use of relatives.  Honest.  I wasn’t thinking of anyone in particular.

 Not much I wasn’t.

(You can follow Melodie at www.melodiecampbell.com.  Better still, buy her Goddaughter books.  It's an offer you can't refuse. Especially since her maiden name was 'Offer' - not kidding.)



Available at all the usual retail locations, including Amazon

02 July 2012

What’s Up With a Bunch of Grapes?


As I write this on Friday night I’m trying to finalize some housekeeping chores and getting everything ready to pack  because I’m flying to New Jersey for our Tri-annual Grape Family Reunion. Yep, a whole bunch of Grape get together every three years to see what’s going on in the lives of the seven offspring of the family I married into forty-four years ago.  In 1975, Mom Grape, who lived in Loma Linda CA, passed away and my late husband, Elmer went out for the funeral.  His oldest sister, Ina was in the hospital in VA having just undergone mastectomy surgery and was unable to attend.  Elmer thought it was just too cruel to only get to see his brothers and sisters in the time of tragedy but half lived on the west coast and half on the east coast and he’d settled in Texas.  He was next to the youngest but always seemed to be listened to because of the three boys he was the most outspoken and so his idea was to have a family reunion the next summer, 1976, and have it at our house in Memphis TN where we’d lived since ‘72.

When he got back home and told me, I readily agreed.  I had met all of his brothers and sisters already and knew there was a good chance we’d have a darn good time.  And we did, despite the fact that the last two weeks of August turned out to be one of the worst summers for Memphis because of unusually high humidity.  We’d lived in Houston previously but you never get used to high humidity. All of the brothers and sisters came with spouses except one sister recently widowed and one sis who have never married.  A number of nieces and nephews came, I don’t recall exact number of each but we had 48 people who came during that two week time-frame. We had a small house, (1350 sq. ft. 3 bedroom,1-1/2 bath) but we had a camper and a friend loaned us a trailer and a next-door neighbor who was out of town loaned her house for bathroom privileges.  A couple of people came in a camper of their own and everyone else fought for a space on the floor for a sleeping bag. We had snagged 3-4 army cots for a females only dormitory in the living room. We claimed all step-children and adopted children without any problems and still do. Everyone took turns cooking and everyone helped with clean-up. We took a riverboat ride on the Mississippi, visited the new shopping mall that Elmer had built. He was a superintendent in commercial construction and this was the first two-level mall within a five hundred mile radius. 

It was decided that we’d have these reunions every three years because everyone lived so far away and that long time in between would give folks a chance to save up vacation time and extra money to make the trip to the next location.  In 1979 we went to Fairfax, VA,  to Ina’s house. And our sweet  never married Esther  had just married at age 57. She came but her new hubby couldn’t make it, then in 1982 we went to Cory, PA to Roger’s who is the youngest boy.  In 1985 Elmer & I had moved back to Houston and once again hosted. Oh horrors, heat and humidity once again but we survived. We also had a wedding that year, Easter & Mom Grape had raised & adopted Jeanie and she and Alan had a lovely formal wedding with the reception at our house.  Our house was a little larger, we did have 2 bathrooms yet somehow we managed although we had suitcases lining the hallway and sleeping bags once again littered our floors.

In 1988 we had moved to Austin and our niece Dona lived directly behind us, so guess who agreed to have the reunion.  She had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms and so did we. We had a gate in the back yard fence so people could walk back and forth easily. Plus we also had a Motel 6 just across I-35 which worked out nicely. But that year I said it was time for the younger set, the nieces and nephews, to take over the hosting job. In 1991 we went to Hyde Park, NY, in 1994 Council Bluffs, IA, in 1997 Bergen, NY and in 2000, our daughter Karla hosted the reunion in Nashville, TN.  In 2003, our niece Dona hosted us at her lovely home on Inks Lake, TX (75 miles west of Austin.)  In  2006, Kissimmee FL, I missed  our reunion for my first time. Elmer had passed away only 5 months before and I just wasn’t up to going. In 2009 we went to Sacramento, CA. We had a fantastic time and as usual did a lot of sight-seeing.

This year, a nephew who lives in Little Falls, NJ, which is only 20 min. from NYC is hosting and I’m so excited to be going. I’m leaving from Austin Airport about noon on Sunday, July 1st and will stay until the 7th or 8th.  I’m really looking forward to getting together with everyone.  We try not to dwell on the ones we’ve lost because there are new little ones and new spouses every time you turn around.  As usual we’ll enjoy each other’s company and see some wonderful new sights.  I have no idea who will volunteer to host this awesome family reunion in 2015, but you can bet I’ll be going and having a “GRAPE” time.

Sorry, I didn’t talk about writing this time, but I’ve been recovering from a ear and sinus infection and with this upcoming super family reunion constantly on my mind, it just naturally was the only thing I could think of to write about.  In case anyone is wondering, Knut Grape,  the patriarch of this family (1871-1953) was 100% Swede. In Sweden they have an umlaut over the E but since we don’t use those marks in the USA we’re happy to just say our name is Grape. Elmer and I made two trips to Sweden and met a number of distant cousins. We now have some who come to our reunions and that is way cool.

Next time…I will be back on script.


  

15 May 2012

O' Danny Boy


In my last blog I mentioned that my brother, Danny, and his wife, attended the Edgars banquet with Robin and I.  It has occurred to me since, that Danny deserves better than a mention.  In fact, if there were a category for "Best Supporter For An Edgar Nominee"; I would submit his name and begin to throw plates and glasses if he didn't win.
It's hard to really know me without knowing my big brother.  Firstly, he is big...very big; unlike yours truly.  He is six-two and weighs in at around two-twenty.  I, on the other hand, leave a smaller carbon footprint at an athletic five-eight; one fifty-seven.  He would, and has, described me as scrawny.  So, as you might imagine from this description, I grew up in his shadow...literally and figuratively.  Figuratively because he also cast a long shadow over our neighborhood and beyond.  In his teens he had already gained a reputation as a fearless fighter and doer of daring deeds.  He was also good-looking in a (young) Elvis sort of way.  This look went over particularly well with the girls of that era, as the 'King' was just ascending in popularity during this long-ago time.

I shared a bed with this person for several years of my life and received a number of bruises for the honor.  Even though, at that time, Danny was quite slender, he was long-limbed and slept with a kind of abandon that was, and is (thanks to him), totally foreign to me.  I would lay curled into a tight ball as close to the edge of the bed as I could manage without actually falling out.  Often this was not enough and I would receive a blow to one of my skinny biceps for disturbing the young lion at his rest.  These blows were called 'frogging'.  I don't know why.  I do know that they hurt.  After administering this rough justice, he would splay himself comfortably across his eighty percent of the bed and fall instantly back to sleep, while I sniveled as quietly as possible, and prayed for deliverance.

Danny's youthful exploits were the stuff of legend: He was kidnapped once from the sidewalk in front of Arnold Jr. High School by a carload of older teenage boys and carried away to a remote and unfinished neighborhood.  There he found himself pushed into a ring formed by excited youth who had come to watch his performance against their champion.  Danny was fourteen at the time and the young Achilles he faced a seventeen year old from Jordan High.  It was revealed later that this moment of reckoning had been arranged due to Danny's unwelcome attendance upon the girlfriend of his opponent.

When Danny staggered into the house afterwards, he was covered with blood.  I was laying on the couch reading a comic book (a Classics Illustrated, no doubt) when the front door opened.  I was literally struck speechless.  In his typical fashion, Danny brought an index finger up to his busted lips to indicate that I should remain silent (as a rule, he preferred me this way).  In this case, however, it was to keep from alerting mom before he could clean up.  Of course, she stepped out of the bathroom at just this instance, went white as a sheet and screamed.  Danny shrugged; slid past her into the bathroom, and said something about washing up.  You would have thought he just needed a little freshening before dinner.  Though he most certainly did not prevail in this encounter, it vaulted his reputation--by all accounts he had acquitted himself with courage and honor.  The fact that he was hitting on some older guy's girlfriend only added to his mystique.

In high school, he was arrested for drag-racing in our family car, a '55 Olds.  When the police brought him home, the old man was smoldering.  I was fearful of what dad might do.  Danny, nonplussed, sauntered to the opposite wall, and 'assumed the position'.  The 'position' was the typical frisk position seen in all police movies of the era--feet splayed with hands against the wall to support the leaning figure.  I thought the old man's head would explode at this display of fearless disdain.  He snatched the belt from his waist with such force and alacrity, that I thought his trousers might come off with it like a proto-Chippendale dancer.

That night, as I lay quietly weeping for the damage done my brother, he kept his back to me and was silent.  After what seemed a long time, he rolled over and propped himself on one elbow to take a look at me.  I could see by the streetlamp that shone through our window that there were tears standing in his eyes.  I think I said something like, "I'm sorry, Danny..."  I don't know why, as I had done nothing to bring about his punishment.  He studied me for a few moments more; then casually and with less force than usual, frogged me and said, "Shut up."   Then he rolled over and went to sleep.

Many, many, years later, Danny was one of the first to read one of  my fledgling stories.  He was not a big reader, but made a concession on my account.  He liked it.  "Real good," he gushed.  "Got anything else?"  This was high praise from Caesar!  Of course, it occurred to me that he was just being nice, but then I remembered who I was dealing with--Danny didn't 'do' nice unless he meant it.  So I sent him other stories.  At some point I became aware that he had actually subscribed to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine on my behalf.

The demise of our father, "Wild Bill" to some; "Sweet William" to others, brought us closer together.  The death of this force of nature knocked us both to our knees.  I remember Danny weeping at dad's graveside as if he would never stop; his beautiful daughters and wife clustered around and holding him.  Something inside him cracked that day, I think, and an affectionate nature that had long lay hidden poured forth.  From that time to this he has never ceased to be there for me (and me for him, I like to think). 

In our maturing years, we established the custom of vacationing together after our children had gone away to college, and it was on one of these jaunts that a certain truth began to be revealed.  Danny had recently read a novel that I had written (it has never been published) that featured a character named Bruce.  Danny admired this character immensely, and observed quietly that his middle name was Bruce.  In fact, he went on, warming to his subject, this thoroughly likable, good-looking, and courageous character shared many, many traits with himself.  He gave me his old half-smile over his Jack Daniels when he said this.  I assured him that it was precisely those qualities that ruled him out as a model for the character, and added that he was both self-delusional and pathologically egotistical.  He just continued to smirk at me.

Since that day, he has grown increasingly convinced that any of my male characters that demonstrate a degree of bravery or bravado, good judgement or wisdom, kindness or forbearance, have somehow descended from him to me, and thence onto paper.  I've given up trying to convince him otherwise.  I tried suggesting that, perhaps, he might be more easily recognizable in a few of my villains, but he just gives me that damn smile of his until I shut up.  Did I mention that he is aggravatingly perceptive?

Danny and Wanda journeyed all the way from Georgia, and at great expense I might add, not only for the Edgars banquet this year, but also for the Dell Magazine cocktail party when I received the Readers Award in 2007.  I could not dissuade him either time, he would have none of it--he was coming on behalf of his little brother. 

The bruises he inflicted on me in my tender youth have long since faded, but my love and admiration for this amazing man continues unabated to this day, and will never waver.  As for my literary creations, well, maybe he has exercised some small influence on them; infused a few subtle shadings, perhaps.  The truth is, though we have begun to grow old together, I am still his little brother, and he straddles my world, both the real and imagined, like a mighty colossus and whatever I do is done within the shade of his comforting presence.