It Came to Me in a Dream

My fourth novel, The Rocky Orchard, released on May 12!

The following day, I did a virtual launch on Facebook Live.  One of the viewers posted a comment asking me what had been my favorite scene in the book to write.  Please take a look at the following video clip in which I describe how a particular scene — which solved a pivotal writing issue in the book — came to me in a dream.

 

And please check out the book!  I’d love to know what you think!

 

Fine Print

writer

I had always wanted to be a writer; that’s why I had chosen that school.  The college had a special program for people who knew, right from the beginning, that they wanted to major in English literature.  That was the closest you could come to studying writing in those days – you could become an English major and take as many creative writing courses as you could cram in along the way.  No more than ten people were accepted into this program each year; then those ten embarked on a double credit, year-long journey with a single professor.

I got caught up the picture.  Me, hunched over a worn, time-darkened wood desk that generations of eager students had used before me.  I would be accompanied by the gentle hum of my Sears portable electric typewriter, bolstered and enthused by continuous cups of rich, black coffee.  I would dream up characters as iconic as Big Chief and Nurse Ratchett.  I would send the characters on journeys as epic as those of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.  I would devise endings as satisfying as those of Charles Dickens, but with structure and prose as thrillingly avant garde as Virginia Woolf.

I would find my voice.  I would ferret it out from the bricks and the stone and the ivy.  I would find my voice, and I would let it sing.

Turns out, I really should have read the fine print.

dishwasher

 

I came from a place where dreams were small.  Not small because folks lacked the courage, or the vision, to dream bigger, but because small dreams were a great pleasure, a gentle way to approach a life of contentment.  The people across the street from mom and me lived in a tiny little house.  As a family of five, they were crawling all over one another just going about the business of living their lives.   They made giant bowls of popcorn and watched TV together.  They whipped up batches of frosting for no special reason and made them into dessert sandwiches with graham crackers.  They had loud arguments.  They laughed all the time.  When the older two children were already teenagers, they were able to afford their first dishwasher.  They rang our doorbell to tell us the news.  They invited us over to see it and offered us frosting sandwiches.  They walked on air, such was the level of their glee.

When it was time for their oldest boy to go to college, he didn’t look past our home state.  No one did.  There were a million colleges to choose from as well as the state universities, and desiring to reach further than the many options at hand seemed ungrateful somehow, a muddle of priorities.

My high school made a big deal of me being the first student ever to be accepted to this college.  I’m pretty sure that I may have been the first person who had ever applied. In many ways, I embraced – and even idealized – the life of small pleasures and measured dreams.  It was a big stretch for me to think about applying to this college in the first place.  In truth, I couldn’t even begin to picture what it might really be like to be so far away, in so many different ways, from anything I had experienced.

As I said, I should have read the fine print.

 

Four months until the June launch of my novel The Rocky Orchard!. Meantime, onward with my newest novel, tentatively titled The Reading.  I hope you enjoy the excerpt above.

Different Voices

silhouette-children

The Rocky Orchard will be my fourth novel; it will be the third one of those novels where I have re-written a large section by changing the narrative voice from the third person to the first person, or the other way around.  The voice — whether the story is told from the perspective of “I did this,” or whether it’s told from an outside perspective of an onlooker as “they did this,” is pivotal to everything about how the book unfolds and how the story gets told.  I thought it would be interesting to post the same section of The Rocky Orchard in two different voices.  Let me know your thoughts.

First person version:

It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on this porch.  One of my favorite places in the world.  I take two more steps to my left, and I am at the exact spot where I can see the farthest in three different directions.  Two whole sides of the old farmhouse and the wraparound porch that encircles them. On the front section of the porch the black wooden swing hangs from the ceiling, a few of my grandmother’s old throw pillows still strewn across the back.  The creaky single bed with its blue-and-white embroidered cover – both there since my parents bought this place – takes up the far corner, keeping its lookout into the cave created by the copse of towering pines.  The overflow bed, for times when we had more people visiting than would fit in the ten other sleeping places scattered throughout three of the house’s four rooms.  Or when it was so hot, so unbearably killingly humid, that Woo would opt to sleep on the porch.  I never slept well when he did this.  I missed him being in the other twin bed in our upstairs room.  I felt betrayed.

Beyond the porch itself, through the slight warbly dimming of the screen’s grid, a panoramic sweep of the land outside.  Not all the much to see to the left, as the stone pathway leading from the porch door up to the dirt road runs up a steep bank.  I have to stoop down to get a glimpse of the road itself; otherwise the view is of a vertical slope, covered by a motley assortment of ferns, and a couple of tenacious mountain laurel, clinging to the slope and struggling to keep their grip and survive.

The springhouse, off to the right in its own little valley, with its eternal smell – a pungent mixture of creosote and gasoline and a million leftover pieces and parts of a million abandoned projects that have been there forever.  Long before we got here. Useless tools, boxes of screws, cartons of nails, shell cases, gas cans, broken mouse traps, hoses, pipe sections, caulk.  We kept a combination lock on the rusty hasp on the springhouse door.  I used to test myself each spring, after a whole winter of not coming here had gone by, to see if I could still remember the combination.  But mostly, I was testing myself.  The springhouse was one of so many things I was terrified of.  I would open the combination lock, take off the old hasp, and see how many steps I could walk into the springhouse itself.  I would stand there, just breathing the acrid air, looking at the relics that covered most of the floor space anyway.  Sometimes I would touch a couple of things.  But mostly it was about standing there, forcing myself to face my own terror, maybe a few more seconds each year.

writer

Third person version:

“What a strange place to put an orchard,” Mazie thought to herself.  Mazie stood at the exact spot on the wrap-around porch — the one that covered two full sides of the old farm house – where she could see the farthest in three different directions. “I never could figure out why there.”

There was not all that much to see to her left, as the stone path leading from the porch door was steep enough that you had to stoop down just a tad to see the old dirt road at the path’s end.  The steep bank had always been covered with a motley assortment of ferns, with a couple of scrawny mountain laurel struggling to survive on the slope.  To her right sat the old shed, and beyond, the small, spring-fed lake her parents had dredged, and the wide expanse of field that abruptly ended at the edge of the thick woods.  In the spring, if you listened very carefully, you could hear the little creek that lay just beyond the farthest edge of the field, at the very beginning of the trail into the woods.  Full and ripe with the winter’s runoff, the freezing water tumbled over the rocks in rushing abandon.  You could hear it, even from such a distance, before it began its languishing journey from bursting its muddy banks, to flowing in a steady and patient stream, to trickling in ever-shifting paths between the mossy stones, to its eventual disappearance in the flush of summer.

Where Mazie came from, it was a point of contention whether the proper way to say the word was “creek” or “crick.”  Feelings ran strong about this.  Weekend people, people who did not live there full-time – like Mazie’s family – generally said “creek;” locals said “crick.”  But if you tried to say it like they did, to be nice when you were talking to them, they assumed you were making fun and immediately got quiet or mean.  It made Mazie tired to think about.

writing2

Middle painting: Cathleen Rehfeld

Bottom painting: Frederic Belaubre

Bad Apples

levi.apples

Here is a new snippet from my current novel THE ROCKY ORCHARD.

Up until I said that last bit to Lula,  I was right there, right on that boat.  I could see the walls of the cabin heaving up and down; I could smell the faint trace of salty air mixed with baby puke and the strong smell of the thick coats of varnish on the boat’s wood.  But now I feel ashamed, self-conscious, about being such a serious and scared and kind of creepy little kid.  I’m back on the porch.  I take a big drink from my water glass and look through the porch screen to the orchard.  Little green apples have started forming on the trees.

“You know what, Lula?”  I say.  “I don’t remember eating a single apple from that orchard that tasted good.  Ever.  With all the different trees, and all the different varieties of apples – not a single one, not one that you could pick off the tree and take a big bite out of and really like it.”

“You don’t say,” Lula sounds absent-minded.  She rearranges several of the cards in her hand without looking up.

“My mother fed them, sprayed them, pruned them, read books about them and fussed over them. In the end, we made gigantic amounts of applesauce every fall. Even pies made with those apples weren’t so great.”  I feel awkward, and pissed off, for no reason at all.  I say, “Seriously, they tasted like shit.”  And then I feel like shit.  Maybe Lula hates swearing.  Maybe she’s decided I’m a motor-mouthed, foul-mouthed, suspicious-if-not-paranoid creep.  Maybe she won’t come back.  I want her to come back, so I let her win the game.  And the next one, too.

william-rickarby-miller-still-life-with-apples

She pushes her chair back.  She’s getting ready to leave.  I’m scared so I say:  “Lula, here’s the thing.  When we got back from that trip, I had a dream.  I died.  In the dream.  But I thought that I really had.  Died, that is.”  I hate myself for my naked attempt to reel her in, to make her interested enough to come back again tomorrow.

Lula says, “you don’t say,” as if it’s the most mundane thing that she’s ever heard, or pretty near it.  “When I come back tomorrow, I’ll look forward to hearing more.”

You don’t say!”  I know I’m being mean, mocking, and Lula looks at me like I’ve wounded her.  “Those are the exact same words you said when you left the other day.  Exact. Same. That’s a little weird!”

To my surprise, Lula laughs.  “Never said I wasn’t a little weird, Mazie.  Never said.”

Jean-baptiste-simeon-Chardin-_Three-Apples-Two-Chestnuts-Bowl-and-Silver-Goblet-...Silver-Goblet-_

Paintings, top to bottom: Levi Wells Prentice, William Rickarby Miller, Jean-Baptiste Simeon Chardin.

The Hand You’re Dealt

I’m about 11,000 words into my novel THE ROCKY ORCHARD, so have not exactly perfected the elevator speech.  Here’s a stab at a synopsis, following by a new snippet:

A woman retreats to her old family farm and encounters an older woman. The two form a friendship over daily gin rummy games. As the younger woman reflects and remembers her past times at the farm, it becomes increasingly unclear exactly what is happening.

harry.lapow

Mazie and Lula cut the cards to determine who would deal the first hand.  Mazie drew the ten of spades.  Lula drew the nine of clubs, and Mazie began to shuffle. “You know I promised myself I wouldn’t talk you to death again today, but, do you know what?  These cards were here when we bought this farm. The Bishops – the people who owned this place before my family did – just walked out one day, and we walked in.  They left everything.  Everything! Like a neutron bomb had gone off.  Every sign of human life had vanished; every remnant and relic stayed behind.  The kitchen cabinets were filled with their dishes.  The drawers held their silverware, their cooking utensils, their pot holders.  Towels hung on the towel racks.  Freshly washed sheets lay carefully folded in the upstairs bureaus.  Extra ones, because all five of the beds had sheets and blankets and pillows already on them, carefully arranged.  They left their board games, and their decks of cards, even their jigsaw puzzles with a piece or two missing, in an old oak table.  I used to go around each room of the farmhouse, opening every single drawer and looking at the things inside.  It was as if my family had walked right into someone else’s life.  I mean, look at these cards!  At some point in history, somebody went into a store somewhere and looked through all of the decks of playing cards, and they picked these – the ones with the Grecian urns overflowing with fake grapes.  One deck with a watery purple background, the other deck a muted peach.  Someone thought these extremely odd cards were the perfect thing.  And here we are, two people who were complete strangers just a few days ago, who met by chance, now playing a game of gin rummy with those very cards, so many years later.”

“Two people who at some point may play gin rummy,” Lula said.  “Or may not.”

“Point taken. Your turn,” Mazie said.

tandy2

tandy

Top photo: Harry Lapow

Bottom photos of Jessica Tandy, the image I have of Lula.

 

PUSHING THE RIVER

My newest novel, Pushing the River, released yesterday (Amika Press)!!

In honor of its official entrance into the world, here are some additional teaser quotes.

The early reviews have taken my breath away.  Check them out, below!

—————————

“Madeline stood in the street and gaped into the vast cavern of space as if it were a true miracle, as if an outline of the Virgin Mother would undoubtedly appear on a side wall, like Jesus on a piece of toast.”

“That’s my heritage, the stock from whence I come, I will put on my gloves and I will get out there in that garden and I will take no prisoners and I will damn the torpedoes and I will full speed ahead.  My family is in need.”

“Madeline became passionately attached to Jeff’s body.  She scanned its surface for changes to memorize.  She took note of differing thicknesses of the hairs comprising his beard, ran her fingers alone the crevasses of scars from a bad car accident, studied the calluses on each of his fingers from years of playing guitar.”

“My head is gonna explode, she thought. It is going to detach from my body and flay apart into a million, icky-gooey-oozy little pieces.  What’s the movie where that happens?  It’s going to splatter against the walls and slap Savannah upside the face.”

“…they would be swept up in a great salty tide [of tears] and whisked down the corridor, past roomfuls of astonished new mothers cradling infants, while Madeline swooped up Dylan and saved him.”

“By the second week of December, Madeline felt as if she had fast-forwarded through a ten-year marriage in just slightly more than three months.”

“When he shuffled off to the bathroom each night to brush and floss for an absurd amount of time, it set her own teeth on edge to such a degree she felt certain her back molars would shatter into bits.”

“Sometimes it is a smell or the particular angle of the sun’s light or the sound of a door closing – some thing that makes its way through the store of life’s memories and touches something deep, far, previously lost.  In this case, it was the movement, the precise position of her legs.”

“Taking down a Christmas tree was like a death.  The death of another year.  Pack up and put away whatever was special or memorable or lasting.  Throw away the rest.”

“I knew that we were in a race against my grandmother’s remaining time.  I thought about the possibility that she might die while we were up in the clouds, and I wondered if I might be able to see her, making her trip to heaven, if I concentrated very hard on the clouds.”

“The really gory detail is how I turned out to be a hopelessly shallow person who fell for a handsome lunatic.”

https://www.goodreads.com/b…/show/41020153-pushing-the-river

PUSHING THE RIVER teaser quotes

PUSHING THE RIVER releases one week from today!  Here are some teaser quotes from the novel to whet your appetite.

PicsArt_09-17-11.45.29

“I have lived in the company of ghosts. I have known this for a long time – that I rattled around among specters and spirits and wraiths.  But I also knew that they were, indeed, my company.”

“He shook her toe a few more times and then went over and sat down on his own side of the bed. It occurred to him that maybe if he got back under the covers and shut his eyes and then opened them up again, it might all be different.”

“When Jeff first left — fourteen years ago today –  I could read without glasses, even the smallest print on the train boxes.  When my hands reached up to dust those boxes, the craggy blue veins did not stand out starkly against my sallow hands.  The skin did not pucker into fascinating, horrifying patterns.”

“She had a nearly overwhelming desire to lie down in the grass right then, halfway along the trail, right there, in the middle of the sculpture garden, and resolve to stay there, not move, not continue, until something changed.”

“I was a Natural Woman.  I told my mother she had given me her last Toni home permanent, thank you very much, and gathered up my bras for a ritual burning.”

“There was something just a little goofy about him, the stoop of his shoulders, the enormity of his feet in the ultra-white gym shoes she later learned he had bought that day at Costco.  A mortal after all.”

“Something old and very deep within Madeline felt a profound shame.  She tamped down the instinct to apologize over and over, to do anything, to do everything, that might possibly make Dan feel better, want to stay, want to hold her, want her.”

“Alongside the shame and the blind anger, the most profound feeling of all was a wish that something, just one thing, could be simple.  Clear.  Easy.  Known.”

“Even the wildly striped hair did nothing to dilute the impact of seeing a child – a very small, very young, very sad, and very scared child – standing there.  A child who happened to be seven months pregnant.”