Today is Groundhog Day, a holiday which will forever be linked in my mind with Bill Murray.
Maybe I’ve watched the movie too many times. What can I say? It resonates with me.
In case there’s anyone living under a rock, or in a groundhog burrow, who hasn’t seen the film, the plot centers on a flawed character (Murray) who finds himself stuck in a time loop on Groundhog Day, doomed to repeat the same 24-hour period. He goes through the usual stages of grief, denial, anger, etc., before he realizes the silver lining of his predicament — by changing his own behavior he gradually becomes the master of the rewind cycle, and finally gets it right.
It’s a brilliant conceit. In its own weird way, the film Groundhog Day sheds light on the value of second chances. As a writer I appreciate the process of self-editing that Murray’s character undergoes. When I’m writing, characters sometimes arrive in my mind fully-formed. Other times they come with a lot of unnecessary baggage that does nothing to enrich the story. I’m learning to trust my instincts.
When I first began writing, I was reluctant to eliminate a single word from my precious prose. Now, older, and I hope, a bit wiser, I’ve come to enjoy the process of revision. In writing, as in life, less is sometimes more.
With this in mind, at the beginning of 2016 I decided to republish my 2011 urban fantasy The Goddess of Green Lake under my own imprint. This second edition offered me the chance to eliminate clutter and cut to the chase. It remains the story of a musician whose life gets complicated after he falls for a passionate environmental activist and helps her liberate an orphaned baby otter from a public aquarium. There’s also a bit of Green Man magic and a mermaid backstory which ties in with the underlying “save the oceans” theme.
But in a broader sense, the story is about finding the courage to live your own life, to work your way through the dark times without giving up on the things that matter. Nothing worthwhile comes without effort.
I feel for the groundhog. Any creature that hides from its own shadow doesn’t have much of a chance in this life. But maybe it just takes practice. A little shadow boxing can help you hone your skills before you take on more substantial foes. Carpe diem.
Even if you somehow manage to avoid the persistent drizzle of fall, winter and spring, and step out into the flawless sunshine of late July, thinking you’ve got a clear shot, you will fall under the spell of the sparkling lakes and rivers, the magnificent Puget Sound, and the vast Pacific beyond the Olympic Mountains. There’s no escape. Even if you never get in a boat or paddle a board, you’ll find yourself entranced by the magical water that nurtures Seattle.
It’s a wet world full of wonders, and it’s home to the heroine of my new book, The Goddess of Green Lake.
The goddess of the title isn’t an actual deity of mythic lore. She has no special powers that she knows of, beyond the ability to mesmerize every male who catches sight of her. But Callie Linden, a 20-year-old marine biology student at the University of Washington, has little interest in boys. Her passion is the sea, protecting it from the worst excesses of modern culture – pollution, over-fishing, and rising sea temperatures caused by global warming. Callie is determined to be a part of the solution.
But, as so often happens in real life, things happen that take you off course, and before you know it you’re careening past boulders in the churning rapids, holding on for dear life. For Callie, the first small step off her carefully charted course begins with the discovery of an orphaned baby sea otter.
When I moved to Seattle six years ago one of the first places I visited was the Seattle Aquarium, a treasure chest of delights. But the most unexpected delight of them all for me was the discovery of the sea otters. I fell in love. And right then the idea for a book began in my head, though it was a few years before I had all the pieces put together. The aquarium in my book is fictional, but I’m indebted to the Seattle Aquarium for introducing me to the magical charms of sea otters.
The baby sea otter in my story captivates another character as well. Eel MacGregor, a struggling musician who first appeared in Alice and The Green Man, has moved to Seattle, for all the usual reasons young musicians do. But he’s not finding it so easy to stand out in the glutted local music scene.
Well, you can probably guess where this is going. But it might surprise you.
When you mix otters, music and magic with a little bit of Seattle mist, anything can happen. You can read all about it in The Goddess of Green Lake.
For those of us who enjoy spending a large portion of our lives reading fiction, the borderline between the world of the imagination and the so-called real world is sketched in erasable ink. We whose literary passports bear the stamps of dozens of favorite authors have no trouble packing our willingness to suspend disbelief. We welcome the chance to plunge into whole new worlds, to escape from our own daily anxieties while we visit inside the heads of other characters.
But when I first began to publish my writings I learned that all readers see things through the lens of their own imaginations, and what seems clear in my own head leads some readers only as far as a state of confusion. The first time this happened I was working at a newspaper in the small Virginia town where I lived, and I had written a column about my difficulty accepting the fact that one of the first things my oldest daughter did after she went off to college was to shave half her head.
I was upset by this. She has beautiful, thick, chestnut hair, and I felt the new look didn’t accentuate her best qualities. I wanted to be a supportive, easy-going, liberal mom, and I tried to go along with it. But I couldn’t mask the dismay in my eyes, and my daughter noticed. Words were said. For a time, there was a new awkwardness in our relationship.
The column I wrote about it made light of my maternal distress, the wacky things kids do, all those typical reference points that bind together those of us who raise children. A lot of regular readers responded to the column and seemed amused by it. But after reading that my daughter had shaved half her head, one woman who worked in my office took me aside and offered her sympathies and asked in a quiet undertone, “Which side?”
I had to stop and think. I had no idea. Did it matter? Apparently, this woman had been attempting to visualize my daughter’s new look and had been stymied right out of the gate by this all-important detail.
I’ll be honest. I still couldn’t tell you which side had hair and which didn’t. It wasn’t the hair that bothered me. It was the bare skull.
That was the first time I came face to face with the reality that no matter how well a writer sees his characters and their world in his own mind, unless readers can enter into it, they aren’t going to be able to care much about what happens there.
When I was first trying to get an agent or editor to take a chance on Alice and the Green Man, the rejections I got tended to be all the same. They all liked the idea, they thought it was original, they enjoyed my writing, but they balked at the basic concept of a woman fighting for a garden. That notion didn’t grab them. Not enough blockbuster potential. I was told by several agents that the market was hot for hotter stories – more sex, more violence, more dark creepiness. Well, for a thousand reasons I won’t go into, I am so not going to write that kind of stuff. It’s not what I want to read.
Eventually, on the advice of a successful published author I met by chance while waiting for a train, I entered Alice and The Green Man in a bunch of Romance Writers’ contests. Generally they request the first three chapters, and the preliminary judging is done by other aspiring romance writers, some of whom have been published. I got a lot of interesting feedback from those contests, and scored well in several, though none led to a contract. But one curious aspect of the comments made me question whether I should continue trying to pass myself off as a romance writer.
I am, of course, a romantic. I long for a world in which happy endings are the norm. That’s why I write fiction. But many of the women who judged these contests seemed troubled by their inability to see the world of my imagination. Actually, that isn’t entirely true. Some of them seemed to enjoy their visit to my garden. Others thought there was entirely too much floral description and not nearly enough bodily contact.
And there we come to the green heart of the matter. From the first moment he came into my mind, Fergus, the Green Man, was a vivid, sexy, intelligent, fascinating man who cared about plants. Wow! My dream man. But not, it seems, quite so enthralling to a lot of the women who read my contest entries. On one point in particular they were united. They wanted to know the exact shade of green he was. And was it just his thumb? Or, umm, all parts of him?
Well, of course, I thought I had spelled this out in the text – that his skin was a delicious olive tone, that it seemed to get greener after he sat in the sun for a while, that the leaves and vines were drawn to him by his aura of fertility. As is Alice. ‘Nuff said.
But not, apparently, for the judges. In the margins of my entries they wrote their concerns. They seemed to see my Green Man as some sort of amalgam of the Hulk, the Jolly Green Giant and Shrek.
Not even close to my vision.
The idea to take the ancient archetype of the Green Man, a figure so shrouded in mystery that no one knows who first produced an image of a man with leaves sprouting out of his head, and make him a hero in a modern setting appealed to me on many levels. While many of the early depictions of the Green Man carved in stone on medieval cathedrals in Europe show a monstrous untameable creature, these illustrations grew out of the earliest struggles of humankind, when nature itself was a thing to be feared, conquered and placated. Now, as modern civilization has reached the brink of nearly destroying the tree of nature on which our very existence depends, society has a different view of nature as something to be cherished, and a new passion for connecting with the natural world. In my interpretation of the mythic Green Man, I simply took this new passion to its logical extreme.
So, when in the course of time I finally decided to self-publish the book because I was, and still am, hopelessly in love with my Green Man and want to share him with anyone who might appreciate his charms, one of the most important parts of the process for me was making sure that the cover image gave readers an evocative suggestion of how to ‘see’ my Green Man.
Luckily, my artist friend Deborah Harris has been a longtime supporter of my work, and when I asked her if she would be willing to create a portrait of Fergus, she embraced the idea wholeheartedly. Deborah is a marvelous painter, but I wanted a woodcut, because for years I have admired her floral woodcut designs, and I felt sure that she could create an image that would straddle the border between the imaginary and the ordinary.
At first we had some discussions about what Fergus looked like. She sent me a few trial sketches that had elements I wanted – the twining leaves, the sensual eyes. But the cheeks were too cherubic, too innocent. I wrote her back and told her to take a look at some photos of the character of Spike, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. At the time, I was at the height of my obsession with that show, when it was in its witty, genre-breaking prime. A few weeks later Deborah sent me an image and asked, “Will this do?”
“Yes,” I said, “yes, it will, yes.”
Since then, of course, the book has not exactly blazed a trail through the publishing world. But it has been read and enjoyed by a few people, and this brings me great satisfaction. I know I don’t personally have the strength or courage or vision to save the natural world from the forces of destruction bearing down upon it. But if enough men and women unite in not only seeing, but being green, maybe there’s hope for us all.
The fortieth anniversary of Woodstock is coming up this summer. Got your tickets yet? Or planning just to crash it?
I didn’t go to Woodstock. At the time, other diversions claimed my heart. But lots of people I know went. One of them, Gayle Nourse, wrote a short story called “Peace, Man” about her experience there. The story was selected to be included in Woodstock Revisited, 50 Far Out, Groovy, Peace-Loving, Flashback-Inducing Stories From Those Who Were There by Susan Reynolds, which will be released this summer, just in time for all the nostalgic hoopla. Love that hoopla.
While the original spirit of Woodstock may have been corrupted by the corporate takeover that brought us five dollar bottled water, ATMs and eventually fiery rebellion at the thirtieth Woodstock, the current of countercultural idealism still runs deep and strong. But, while many of my generation recall the heady late sixties fondly, few of us wear flowers in our hair anymore, and even if we may don the occasional tie-dyed T-shirt, it’s not easy to recapture the extraordinary shared sense of innocence and optimism that flourished in those years before the internet, the cell phone and the iPod came along, ushering in a strange new world of insulated detachment.
There will most likely be some sort of Woodstock commemoration this summer. But as for peace and love? I wouldn’t count on it.
However, that somewhat unhinged but powerfully positive spirit yet lives in Britain, where since 2003 an alternative music gathering called The Green Man Festival offers those who can manage to get there a chance to revel in music, film, theatre, literature, and comedy for three days in the sequestered pastoral Glanusk Park, Wales. The event has already been blessed by the local Druids, to ensure lovely weather for the campers. With its five stages of indie, psychedelia, folk, and “americana” music, not to mention the all-night bonfires and earnest environmental and social justice agenda, The Green Man Festival appears to offer a glimpse of the starry-eyed dream of Peace on Earth.
Will we ever see it for more than three days at a time? And will it ever feature better portable toilets?