Lighten Up

Winter Light is Short and Sweet

I was a winter baby.

Born on one of the darkest and longest nights of the year, I have always felt drawn to the light: the sun, the moon, fireflies, fireworks – and perhaps most of all, the bright lights of theatre.

When I wrote my first novel, it felt only natural to have the plot revolve around a dramatic production. That first novel marked a significant change in my personal writing, from personal essays to complete fiction. It’s been a bumpy ride, for the most part, but I was lucky with that first book. It found a home at the very first writer’s conference I ever attended.

The magnitude of my lucky start was born in upon me as the years passed and changes in the publishing industry transformed the business so much that all bets are off anymore. As one small part of the wave of change, my initial publisher, Avalon, was bought by Amazon, and now, as a result, my first novel, Tall Order, which came out only in hardback, is due to be released as an e-book and in paperback.

Tall Order is a traditional romantic comedy about a tall woman who is pursued by a much shorter man. When he casts her as one of the leads in production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, unexpected chemistry occurs.

It’s a light tale for a dark winter’s night.

Tall Order will rise and shine again on December 18th, or thereabouts. If you’re looking for something a little sweet for the holidays, it could be just the thing.

A Darker Shade of Green

Into The Woods We Go

I’ve decided to try something new with my latest book.

I’m putting it out for free on the web. This project will be published serially, one or two chapters at a time, starting today.

The Greening is the first volume in a contemporary fantasy trilogy about a young woman who goes on a quest to find her missing father and stumbles onto another world where magic still flourishes, just around the cosmic corner from Earth.

As is often the case in fantasy, there are castles, and dragons and elves. But the story unfolds in a vampire-free zone. Ditto werewolves, zombies, flesh-eating bacteria, etc. The premise of the story is that humanity is its own worst enemy. Our planet is in peril, largely as a result of human actions. Our real life “happy ending” depends on whether or not we can tame ourselves before we wreck the joint. Or will we face eviction?

History proves that humans are capable of monstrous behavior. Yet hope still burns because we are also occasionally capable of heroic action.

The Greening begins…

Avalon, Amazon, Babylon, Con

So, I’ve been traded.

Not me personally. But Avalon Books, the little publishing company which first took a chance on me as a fiction writer, has been absorbed into the Amazon behemoth.

I’m hoping this will turn out to be a good thing. Usually I don’t pay a whole lot of attention to business news, but in this case I have a tiny vested interest in the outcome of this deal.

Founded 62 years ago as a family business by Thomas Bouregy, Avalon made its small but respected mark in the publishing world by limiting its production to wholesome genre works: romance, mystery and westerns.

The accent there is on the wholesome. While some genre publishers concentrate on fiction designed to make the flesh crawl or sweat, or generally heat up, Avalon’s focus since the 1950s was the sort of books you could loan to your grandmother without fear of offending her delicate sensibilities; the kind of books you didn’t have to worry about leaving around where your nine-year-old daughter might happen upon them. Chaste, morally grounded, straight shootin’ yarns.

When they offered to buy my first novel, back in 2003, I was thrilled. I had read their guidelines. I had cleaned up my novel to meet their standards, I thought. Then as the editing process began I got a list of various changes they required in order for the manuscript to meet their expectations. They had no problems with my  grammar, my plot, my characters, or my style. But my use of certain terms, my diction, my innuendos, didn’t sit well with them.

At first I chafed at this. I spent a few hours huffing and puffing before I calmed down and reflected on how lucky I was that anyone was willing to offer me a contract for my modest little romance. And once I accepted the challenge of rewording a few phrases and applying a touch of concealer to the more suggestive portions of the book, we got along fine.

The experience of being published at all was thrilling. But, as with so many thrills, after you come down from the top of the ride, you realize that you’re pretty much right back where you started. Avalon was a small company, with no promotional budget to speak of. At least not for me and my Tall Order. And marketing has never been my strong suit. I couldn’t sell Girl Scout cookies.

However, I have always felt grateful for that first success, because it gave me hope, the stuff of dreams. So I’ve kept dreaming. Five years ago I gave up on trying to interest conventional publishers in my works. The agents and editors I met at conferences and interviews were universally encouraging, but they were all looking for blockbusting, or in some cases bustier busting, works, and that’s not what I’m going for. Some people like books that are electrifying or terrifying. Others  love novels that aim to be heartbreaking, crushingly realistic, dismally honest and dark. Not I, said the duck.

For me, a great book is funny, thoughtful, and sometimes poetic. A touch of romance adds to it, but isn’t required if the humor is smart enough.  That’s the kind of book I’m trying to write.

Tall Order was a good first step for me, so I’m glad that if Avalon must vanish, as Avalons are wont to do,  Amazon will be taking over (as Amazons are wont to do). I’m hopeful that my first book will be digitalized and available on Kindle  and its kin.

The key word there is “available.” Because as a writer, the best reward is to have people read your work and respond to it. Maybe they like it, maybe not, but  if it brings a momentary lift to anyone, I’m thankful.

So roll on Amazon, swallowing everything in your path.  And me, I’ll keep searching for higher ground.

Hungry for Peace

Before I had kids, I remember talking to my mother about how I worried about bringing kids into such a dangerous world, and she told me that she had felt the same way during the years she bore five children. That was back when people actually built bomb shelters in their basements, preparing for the nuclear war many felt was only a matter of time. At Westlawn Elementary where I was in first grade, we had regular air raid drills, during which we had to go out into the hall and crouch away from the windows, waiting for the all-clear signal.

Of course, the attacks didn’t come then. Or for the next forty years. And the lull, rather than making us feel secure, encouraged many of my generation to feel suspicious of government and cynical about “the establishment,” as we called it then. Famously, we didn’t trust anyone over 30.

Now we’re the geezers, worried about our jobs, anxious about global unrest and domestic decay. And a new generation is growing up under the shadow of new plagues, more deadly weapons, and a global economic melt-down. Yet, in the face of these threats, the young adults of today amaze me with their resilience and optimism. Sure, there are always some examples of people who collapse from the tension and pressure of modern life. But that only makes the courage and determination and creativity of the rest more admirable.

To what can we credit this new generation of problem solvers? Their parents, in part, their teachers, their mentors. But I think credit is also due to some of the authors who have been creating Young Adult literature in the past twenty or thirty years. I’ve heard it said that literacy is on the decline in this country, and perhaps in some regards that’s true. But it all depends on how you define literacy. If you consider it as the awareness of great stories, epic narratives which reflect the values of a nation or a culture, then I think that, though there has been a shift in the way these narratives are delivered, the message of courage in the face of overwhelming odds, the recognition of loyalty, faith and compassion as core values for our continuation as a species, is still being carried forward in works of literature and film.

Next month the film version of Suzanne Collins’ brilliant, violent, and riveting dystopian trilogy The Hunger Games will open in theatres across the nation. I just finished reading it, and I don’t care if it’s labeled Young Adult fiction – these books rocked my world with their stunning evocation of a society so corrupted by imbalances of power, wealth and justice that torture and terror have become  government’s go-to tools to maintain the status-quo. Sound familiar?

The heroine of the story is a teenage girl with an independent spirit and an impulsive nature who never gives up fighting. Katniss Everdeen is a heroine for our times. She embodies the anger and frustration felt by the disenfranchised, the homeless, hungry, abandoned and abused people whose suffering is ignored by the ruling elites and the passive citizens who don’t want to have to think about who pays the true cost of their indulgent lifestyles.

In the world of The Hunger Games the control of the ruling class depends on regular televised spectacles of children engaged in combat to the death, which lull the populace into accepting an inherently immoral system. And although Katniss is forced to participate, she eventually fights her way to the realization that “something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children to settle its differences.” I couldn’t agree more.

This is strong material, worthy of the attention of full grown adults. When the film opens in March, no doubt a new crop of readers will be turned on to the books. Suspenseful, mesmerizing and propulsive as a rocket launcher, The Hunger Games delivers an anti-war message with a new edge.

Will it be enough to cut through the miasma of politics and profit that keeps the military-industrial complex in control of our country? Probably not. But it might get a few kids thinking.

Otter Bliss

Mama and child, rockin' in the ripples.

“Look at the baby beaver!” Face pressed up against the glass, the little girl stared wide-eyed at the furry creature nestled on a ledge at the side of the tank.

“Stay behind the line,” cautioned one of the volunteers monitoring the otter exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium.

It had been a little more than two weeks since Aniak, one of the aquarium’s female otters, had given birth to an adorable three pound ball of fur. Crowds have been arriving by busloads to see the baby. You have to act fast when it comes to baby otters – they grow so fast. The new pup has already doubled in size, and soon her baby fur will be replaced by a sleek coat like her mother’s.

Those sleek pelts were what led early explorers in the Pacific Northwest to hunt the once thriving sea otters into local extinction. Fortunately, in the last few decades, with protective laws in place and concerted efforts by environmental agencies, sea otters have been making a comeback in the Great Northwest.

And the Seattle Aquarium has played a significant role in that process, by caring for orphaned sea otters, educating the public about marine life, and in 1979 the aquarium was the first to successfully breed sea otters in captivity.

I had never seen a sea otter before I moved to Seattle. At my first encounter with them at the Seattle Aquarium six years ago I was enchanted, thrilled and completely smitten. The experience inspired my most recent novel, The Goddess of Green Lake, the story of a young woman whose life takes an unexpected turn after she rescues an orphaned baby sea otter.

The other day as I watched Aniak cradling her baby on her chest while she paddled serenely around the small pools at the aquarium I felt that same sense of enchantment. Waves of children and their camera-toting parents came and went, ogling the otters for a while and moving on to other exhibits. The little girl who mistook the baby for a beaver wasn’t alone. Probably beavers are a more familiar animal to most kids. After all, when you think about it, there aren’t that many mammals who make their homes in the water aside from beavers and muskrats, and when was the last time you saw a muskrat?

Certainly few animals seem as at ease in the water as sea otters, who sleep, eat and give birth to their young in the water,  staying afloat in any kind of weather, unperturbed by the frigid water temperatures, coming back from the brink of extinction still buoyant, even when confined to a life in a fishbowl surrounded by gawking humans.

I admire their insouciance. I marvel at the wonders of the sea. I am grateful to the Seattle Aquarium for making it possible for us to witness the magic of sea otters.

A Girl With Waves in Her Hair

Berkeley artist Deborah Harris created the cover image for my new book.

You can’t stay dry for long in Seattle.

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.

Seeing Green

The original woodblock by Deborah Harris of Fergus the Green Man.

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.

‘Tis Autumn

The Blue Ridge mountains make music of their own.

There is a Blue Ridge of the mind, where the shadows beckon, full of secrets and music, especially when autumn comes clad in russet and gold.

It’s a place where people mind their own business, but still look out for one another. Where sharing comes naturally and harmony breeds in the red clay.

This is the world of Duggie Moon, affable slacker entrepreneur, former Latin scholar, and music lover. Duggie gets along with most people, but every now and then even a peaceable stoner like Douglas C. Moon finds himself in a tight spot, because not everyone on the planet is pure of heart.

This year, as another breathtakingly beautiful autumn burnishes the Blue Ridge, Duggie has embarked on a new scheme to get rich, or at least solvent, by managing one of the local up and coming rock bands. Duggie is counting on their success to impress Jenny Carson, the love of his life, who is considering a move to Paris, France.

But the chemistry of rock and roll, as everyone knows, is one part talent to nine parts crazy,  and Duggie’s best-laid plans may blow up in his face. It would be enough to make a lesser man turn to drink. But that’s not the Moon way.

Will Duggie succeed in leading his rock and roll band to  acclaim before they turn on each other and burn out like a sun going nova?

Find out in Moon’s Blues.

New Moon Rising

Deborah Harris created the evocative cover art.

My new book, Moon’s Blues, just went live.

It’s another adventure in the off-the-beaten-path life of Duggie Moon, Latin scholar and slacker extraordinaire. This time out Duggie tries to mend a broken heart in the time honored way, with music, which, as we’ve all been led to believe, can feed the soul, soothe the savage breast, and lull the unwitting into making unwise choices.

At any rate, there’s no question that mountain acoustics lend power to the smallest voice. Ask any yodeler. In the hills and hollows of Rapidan County, Virginia, where the blues and bluegrass weave patterns in the dusky air, homemade music pays tribute to the loved and lost. While many mountain musicians are content to play for family and friends, there are always a few restless visionary types who aspire to stages greater than the front porch. And when these ambitious souls connect, they sometimes play with enough thrust to escape the dense gravitational pull of the mountains and enter into the rarified atmosphere of the big city, where phoenix bands rise and soar before burning up in the intense heat of public expectation.

The dream of riding on the wings of such a band smolders in the heart of many a young man, who may not himself be equal to the task of playing a three chord progression in time, but who knows what he likes when he hears it. Duggie Moon is such a man. And when Duggie decides to manage a motley crew of musical misfits, he’s convinced it won’t be hard to lead them to financial success and popular acclaim.

Even after he discovers that the members of Identity Crisis are one frayed nerve away from implosion, Duggie remains hopeful, knowing that on a good night the band can lift a room to the stars. What he doesn’t know is that lasting success in the music business only comes along once in a blue moon.

Moon’s Blues is available now from and Barnes & Noble.

Swing, batter!

It’s that time when the baseball season has begun, and the first losing streak (seven games) has been snapped, and the diehard fans are still clutching those season tickets with a kind of wistful, albeit delusional, hope that this will be the year the Mariners prove they’ve got what it takes.

Not that anyone really believes this. But it’s the hope that carries us along, as we watch King Felix pitch with consistent conviction only to be undone by the limp bats of the offense. No offense. But really, that’s the problem. Again. At times last year it almost seemed as if the announcers could have phoned in the analysis.

But that’s baseball. Some teams got it. Others . . . not so much.

Still, if you get hooked on the dance to the music of baseball, you have to be there. Good or bad, win or lose, the game remains strangely hypnotic for those of us who give in to it. Since moving to Seattle I have learned to love baseball in a way I never did before. After years of watching soccer and tennis and even football, the game of baseball offers an entirely different kind of narrative. I’m continually intrigued by the variety of skills, and strategies, and personalities, by the slow unfolding of each game’s drama.

And at the heart of the game is the dynamic fulcrum of risk – the cagey battle between pitcher and batter. To swing or not to swing. It would seem a simple question. But when every pitch varies in speed and trajectory, it’s not so simple. And what can be more annoying than watching a perfect strike go by without taking a swing? I imagine it’s hard to judge a ball whizzing past at 97 mph, as they often do in Major League Baseball, so I have a lot of sympathy those guys.

As a writer, I’ve had some experience with pitches. Not the kind you see in the ballpark, but the kind that editors and agents demand before they’ll consider reading your work. A good pitch can open doors in the publishing business. But these days, the sheer volume of pitches being thrown in the publishing industry is so overwhelming that few editors and agents will consent to swing at anything unless the writer has already done some heavy lifting.

At the last writers conference I attended the most popular buzzword in the seminar programs was platform. As in: you have to have a platform if you want to be a successful writer. It’s not enough, apparently, simply to write whatever it is you feel driven to write. You have to build a platform – blog, Tweet, tour, plaster your name in as many places as possible to create buzz about yourself, to reach your target audience, to keep them informed about your books, your life, and enable fans to connect with you.

All of this sounds reasonable, I suppose. But the reality is, if you really want to build a platform, it takes money, time and a lot of effort which might otherwise be put into your writing.

So, as I’m gearing up for the publication of another book, coming soon to a web site near your computer, I’m thinking of pitches and platforms, promotions and pop flies. I’d like to think that I have fewer illusions about my writing career than I do about the Mariners’ chances of making the playoffs.

But, truth be told, I’d love to hit one out of the park.

Will it be “Moon’s Blues,” my up and coming light novel about an affable geek who tries to impress his girlfriend by managing a rock band? Probably not. But you never know. It’s a long season. Anything can happen. That’s my platform.