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!
THE ROCKY ORCHARD (coming June 2nd) has moved into the cover design and final formatting phase! Take a look at a new section from my next novel, tentatively titled THE READING.I called them the Tommy Twins. They were sprawled on the grass together on one of the endless stream of unbearably hot evenings that festered our entire first week on campus. Most of the freshman class was sprawled across the grass; the need to escape dorm rooms that clutched the day’s heat and would not let it go made the need to lay in the cool grass feel urgent.
Most of the my fellow freshmen lay about, but only one of those freshman called my name as I navigated a diagonal path from one far corner of the massive lawn to the other. I didn’t really know where I was going. Or, more accurately, I wasn’t going anywhere. I was walking. For its own sake.
My third day at college had been one of nonstop meetings, panels, discussions, information sessions, etc., that the college had amassed and assembled for our orientation week. I don’t know, maybe they thought everyone would be consumed with paralyzing homesickness as well as fear and dread of the academic brutalities that lay ahead, but they kept us very busy. I felt like I was at some sort of summer camp where none of the activities made any sense. All of us freshman marched around to the places that our individualized schedules indicated, on time, with our notebooks open and our sharpened pencils in our hands. When the time was up, we gazed down at a solidly white page and were perplexed that there had been nothing whatsoever to record. Unless we doodled; then we had something to show for our time, at least.
Walking – albeit from one far corner of the quadrangle to the other – gave me a weird sense of purpose that had been sorely lacking. Piercing through my overheated, dreamy daze, a voice rang out from a fair distance, “Jo! Hey, Jo from Pennsylvania!” I looked around the general direction that the shout seemed to have come from and saw a guy who shot up from the grass and continually waved a very long, very pale arm in the air as I navigated my way through the bodies of my fellow freshman. There were a number of guys sprawled around him in a haphazard circle, each of whom had their ever-present red cup filled with varying amounts of beer.
“Oh my God,” I said. “Are you seriously sitting here with the freshman directory seeing if you can recognize people from their tiny little pictures and then yelling at them?”
He laughed. His Adam’s apple bounced up and down on his long neck as he did, which I found completely disarmingly charming.
“Well, yeah,” he said. “I guess that’s pretty much exactly what I’m doing. I’m Tom.”
I took a quick glance at the motley group that surrounded him and said, “Did you start out all be yourself tonight and gather this whole group of people already? Pretty impressive work.”
“Yeah, that’s exactly right,” Tom said. “Actually, not really. I’ve met them over the past few days. Hey, Jo, let me introduce you to everyone.” Tom said.
“Oh, right,” I said. “You already know my name from the directory thing. And where I’m from. I feel like I’m at such a massive disadvantage. Having not studied my directory.”
He pointed to a body on the grass, “this is Tom.”
“Tom and Tom?” I said. “Great. Easy to remember. If all of you guys are named Tom, that would be awesome.”
The other Tom stood up, with some effort, put his cigarette in his mouth, rubbed his hands together to shake loose the grass and dirt, and held his hand out for me to shake. “No, just me.” He shook my hand, put the cigarette back in his hand after taking a very big drag, and plopped back down on the lawn.
“Wow,” I said. “A hand shake. Formal, if brief, introduction.”
The first Tom put his hands on his hips and looked up towards the heavens. The second Tom gestured toward him with his cigarette and said, “He hates me. Well, to be fair, we probably hate each other. Equally.”
“Wow,” I said again. “That’s quick work. How long have we all been here – is it three days now?”
“We went to the same high school,” the first Tom said. “We weren’t really friends, but I don’t think anyone actually hates anyone else.”
“OK, well, really glad to hear that,” I said.
“Different crowds. Different friend groups. We didn’t really know each other very well,” first Tom said.
“Then we drove here together.” It was second Tom who said that, and with his words, he shot a highly withering look at first Tom. “Longest eighteen hours of my entire fucking life.”
Tom the first laughed heartily, as if this was genuinely funny and we were all enjoying mirthful, lighthearted banter. The Other Tom sprang up like a shot, jabbed a finger in my direction and said, “Want a beer? I’m gonna get more.”
“Hey thanks,” I said. “I was actually thinking I’d swim way against the tide and demonstrate my radical side by not having any beer this evening.” I shot my fisted arm high above my head and mock-shouted, “Who’s with me, brothers!?”
Tom laughed. Tom the original. A beautiful, genuine, head-thrown-back, open-mouthed laugh. They stood there for a moment, side by side, the two young men named Tom. They both had curly hair, but all similarity ended there. The laughing Tom not only had an infectious and unfettered laugh, but a huge, ready smile as well. He was tall and rangy and slightly uncomfortable in his own body like a growing puppy. It made sense that he was the one person, of everyone I had met thus far, who had called out to me. He was putting himself out there, reaching and stretching his energy outside of himself, seeing if it would land on others.
Cigarette Tom was compact and muscly. Dark brown hair, even darker eyes, deeply tanned skin. He was turned entirely inward, intense energy coiled over and under itself, swirling around and around. It seemed an effort for him to form words, more effort to speak them. And once he had made the effort, the sound of his own voice tormented him.
Lots of news coming soon for the June launch of my novel, The Rocky Orchard. Meanwhile, full speed ahead with the next novel, tentatively titled The Reading. Here is a new snippet:
Tom gestured to a one of the guys who lounged at his feet. “This is my roommate, Dave. He’s a genius. Certified. 148 IQ.”
Dave tilted his chin very slightly, made a nanosecond of eye contact, and uttered a barely audible “Hey” while neither opening his mouth nor moving his lips.
“Hey, Dave,” I said back. Giving him the once-over, I had no trouble believing that he may well be a genius. I just wasn’t sure what that meant, in the real world, I mean. It made me think of one of the college visits that I’d gone on. I don’t know what in the world about me, at least as it had been translated onto a college application, said to the folks in charge, “Let’s put her with the engineers!” After the official meetings and tours were completed, I was supposed to head off to one of the dorms for a slice of authentic college life – in this case, having dinner in the cafeteria and hanging around afterward with a group of freshman engineering students. I don’t even know where to begin. Honestly, it seemed as if they must have been sent by a casting agency, because a more universally pale, socially awkward, tic-laden, mismatched plaid-wearing group of young men (and one virtually silent woman) could not possibly have come together without someone pulling the strings. I loved them. I wished that they could stay on that floor of that dorm for the rest of their lives, because I understood that they would never again, once they left their mutual companionship behind, they would never have a community of people who got them – who accepted their quirks unconditionally and who spoke their language. It made me want to adopt them. But because I knew it was completely unrealistic for a seventeen-year-old to adopt a group of engineering students, I wished for them to stay right where they were. I settled for staying up most of the night playing a highly odd game with the one guy who everyone referred to as the certified genius. We moved little pieces of purple plastic back and forth on a palm-sized triangular playing board. I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but the magnitude of Ken’s delight at having a willing partner – well, it seemed like the very least I could do. You don’t see that kind of unbridled joy every day, even if the bearer of that joy had never worn a pair of matching socks in his life.
Dave had a similar look. He would have fit right in with the engineers, though they had been – within the limits of their own world – loud and gregarious and very friendly to me, though a lot of their friendliness lay in the range of unselfconsciously batting around math jokes at one another. Dave looked as if he had never been comfortable anywhere, at any time. He was doing his best to appear as normal as he could manage.
Also, Dave was wearing a polo shirt. I had literally never seen a kid my own age wearing a polo shirt. Well, except for Danny, the kid who lived across the street diagonally from Mom and me. Every so often, his grandpa would take him out to dinner at the grandpa’s country club. I didn’t have much of an idea what a country club was, but all of us neighborhood kids had a highly unfavorable impression. Danny would have to break off the from the neighborhood scene when his mother called him. A while later, he’d come back out with his strawberry blond hair neatly combed and plastered to his scalp. He’d have on a bright white polo shirt that radiated the pungent smell of bleach. Worst of all, he’d had to trade in his worn and beloved sneakers for a polished pair of penny loafers. We’d all stand around with him while he waited for his grandpa to pick him up and take him to dinner at the club. We kept a respectable distance – bouncing our balls, straddling our bikes, kicking little pebbles – while Danny stood stock still for fear of getting a single speck of dirt on himself. We felt deep solidarity with his misery for being forced to give up a beautiful summer day, but more, for being forced to be someone different than the Danny that we knew.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Rocky Orchard, the novel that I am currently writing, has a multitude of underlying themes. In terms of the tone, however, it is meant to have the feel of a long, rambling, wondrous walk through the woods. I hope the following section engenders that spirit:
“The first trip Eddie and I took together, we went to Rocky Mountain National Park. We’d only been dating a couple of months. Eddie planned it. He wanted to make me happy, and knew that being outside and hiking and immersed in the mountains would be perfect. We found an adorable little inn – equal parts cute and kitsch – with a remote-control fireplace in the room and our own jacuzzi on the private outdoor deck. We arrived at night, popped open the bottle of wine Eddie had arranged to be waiting for us in the room. We couldn’t stop playing with the remote, turning the fireplace on and off, cracking up so much we spilled red wine all over our clothes, so we ripped them off and ran naked out to the hot tub. That was when I learned that Eddie had a thing about water. Hot tub, shower, ocean – whatever – something took hold of him the second he got wet. He had an immediate and overpowering need to make love. So we did. In our own little hot tub on our own little deck of the room in Estes Park.
“The next morning was one of those Colorado days you remember your whole life. The sky so vast and blue that the whole world seems to be in sharper focus. We took this amazing hike – straight up, like pretty much all hikes in the mountains; and when we got to the topmost point, we kicked off our shoes and waded in a stream not so much bigger than this one. I took a picture of Eddie standing in the middle of that creek, right about the time he was saying to me, ‘This may be the purest water we taste in our entire lives, baby. Drink up before we head down.’
“In a heartbeat, that blue sky darkened to a menacing, steely gray. The temperature dropped probably twenty degrees, and hail the size of marbles slammed us with such force it seemed like it must be trying to hurt us. We started running as fast as we could, and since it was a steep downhill, it felt like we must be flying. Flying and freezing and getting pelted. And laughing. Laughing so hard.
“Right about the time we could spot our car in the parking lot at the trail head, the hail stopped and the skies cleared. Poof. The same stunningly beautiful, warm day as before. Like the universe just wanted to play a funny little trick on us. Know what else, Lula? That ‘purest water we ever taste in our entire lives?’ I got a parasite from drinking it. Was sick as a dog for months. That is, I believe, an outstanding example of the concept of irony. Eddie was fine, by the way.”
Mazie couched down at the creek’s edge and submerged both her hands in the cool water. She spread her fingers wide, letting the creek’s slow current flow over and around and between them. She turned her hands palm-side-up, raised them out of the creek, and let the water run between her fingers.
With a great effort, Lula knelt beside Mazie.
Neither woman said a word for quite a while.
“Is Eddie fine now, Lula?” Mazie asked. “Is he all right?”
Let’s start out with a new tidbit from my novel-in-progress, The Rocky Orchard:
I am barefoot. My absolute favorite thing. I reach down with one toe, just my big toe, to give us the barest little push to keep the swing going. I feel tiny grains of dirt on the porch floor as my toe kisses against them. The extra length of the swing’s chain clanks against the section of chain that’s holding the swing from the porch ceiling. How long has this swing been here? We have never once had to fix it, or adjust it, or anything. Not like the old wooden swing outside, with its absurdly long ropes hanging from the giant pine. We have had to fix that swing a million times, it seems; but the porch one, never. I toss my head back and look up at the ceiling bolt that holds the porch swing in place, ancient and rusty and painted over so many times. The thought of its strength, its endurance, amaze me. And makes me tired, exhausted. The strain of years upon years of holding up the weight of human beings. I twirl the extra chain through my fingers, I clunk it against the taut chain that is doing the work of holding us up. I look over at you. My Eddie.
A line of sweat is just beginning to break out in the crease of your neck. I want to capture the expression on your face and put it in a jar. I want to carry the jar around with me like precious fireflies from a summer night. I have never seen you so relaxed, so contented. As if you know what I’m thinking, you reach for my hand and you kiss it. I am staring at you and you know that I am staring at you, and I tear up, and you laugh. You kiss my hand again. You have that shy-but-formidable look, the one you had on our first date, our real first date. The look that makes you one dimple sing out. The look that made me think that maybe, just maybe, we might end up right here someday, swinging on this swing.
Your hand in mine is sweaty. The cool moistness of your palm against mine sends a ripple through my body, a shudder of feeling. I reach across your body to trace the line of sweat on your neck with the index finger of my other hand. I taste it. The salt of you. I cannot get enough of you.
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