VT was an excellent host, and asked some very good and thought-provoking questions, some of which actually took days of thought for me to put answers into words. I hope you’ll have a look. And while you’re there, have a look around the blog; VT writes very good and candid reviews of books (especially Westerns) and movies (not just Westerns), not to mention recommendations of Old Time Radio shows to listen to.
When I saw Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give in my local bookstore, I admit the title made me wary. But when my husband brought it home to read for himself, I glanced inside, and read. And read. And read. I could hardly put it down, and finished it in record time.
I’m pretty new to reviewing books, but the turmoil of our recent times moves me to try to do my best by this remarkable novel. I’m working from memory of when I read this perhaps a year ago. The details may be fuzzy, but the story has stuck with me.
16-year-old Starr is dragged to a party that she doesn’t want to go to. The one good thing is she reconnects with her childhood best friend, Khalil. When Khalil is driving Starr home, they’re pulled over by a policeman for no visible reason – and Khalil, unarmed, is shot and killed.
Starr is grief-stricken, her life and world turned upside down. Her friendships are stretched to breaking. Over time, everyone she cares most about is in danger. And Starr is faced with the dangerous decision of to speak out, or not.
Starr’s story is told with power, with surprising humor, and with love. The people in it are all so very real, flesh and blood human beings. I felt like I got to know Starr and her family, and that was a privilege. I cared deeply about them, and got swept up in what was happening to them, the harrowing choices they had to make.
My husband reads more nonfiction than fiction, but he, too, could barely put this book down. We saw the movie together. It differs from the book in a few significant ways, but author Angie Thomas was an executive producer, and that gives me some assurance that the changes had her permission. The ending may even be more powerful than the book’s.
Both the book and the movie have my highest recommendation. They are excellent in their own rights, and so very important, especially now. I really haven’t begun to do them justice; to do that, read and see them for yourselves.
Black lives matter. Black voices need to be heard. Black stories need to be told.
But as black author Shanna Miles said on twitter, “By all means pick up books about how to talk about racism but then you must pick up books about black kids being kids. If you don’t you teach your children that the natural state of being for black folks is suffering.” She links to some books on that twitter comment, and has made a Goodreads list as well.
Her feelings on this matter are echoed by Christine Taylor-Butler, a black kid lit author who said on twitter, “I’m a parent, author, and a former college interviewer. Please hear me – in this time of stress people want to ‘flood’ their kids with books about racism. Please provide 20 joyful books for every one book on racism. They also need to know POC kids are like every other kid.” She has written a blog about why diversity matters in science fiction and fantasy.
These authors opened my eyes to a new perspective. I’ve added their books to my reading list. I welcome more recommendations on these subjects in the comments.
I’m very pleased to continue my interviews of Running Wild Anthology of Stories 3 colleagues, this time with author and poet Ed Burke. His story, “Maia’s Call,” truly moved me.
Welcome, Ed! Please give us a taste of what your story is about.
Ed: “Maia’s Call” begins with a phone call to the protagonist, Tom from his former lover, Maia, who asks him to come see her because she is dying. Tom travels from San Francisco to Maia’s home in a remote corner of Vermont. There they spend a night sharing the story of their lives over the intervening years and what has brought them to this point.
Gemma: Do you remember when and why you started writing?
Ed: I’ve been creating stories since forever but didn’t start writing until high school as best as I can remember. I’ve always had movies running in my head and I put some of those fictions down on paper. Poetry is a different matter; channeling lyric reality is a gorgeous passion that I am compelled to express.
Gemma: That’s a wonderful description of poetry. And I love the image of movies running in your head! What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?
Ed: It’s hard to say. There is a lot of poetry that I am very proud of that date back a ways. Written fiction was a latecomer. I got a kick out of my school days pieces but barely remember them. When I began the novel Christine, Released I knew immediately I was writing something excellent. That is the first piece of fiction I was and am truly proud of.
Gemma: Tell us a bit of what that novel is about.
Ed: Here’s a short synopsis. Sixteen year old Christine Bancroft is desperate to escape her depressed Vermont hometown. She runs off with a small-time cocaine dealer and quickly descends into a harsh world with punishing consequences. Taken into state custody, Christine is placed at a foster home in a remote corner of Vermont where she searches for answers that may explain her suffering and her need to return to her imperfect mother. Opposing her return to her mother are the state child protection services and her estranged father who is determined to “save” his daughter. It is during the climactic custody hearing that Christine grasps her past which enables her to seize control of her fate.
Gemma: That really sounds like a gripping novel, especially knowing your skill and your voice in “Maia’s Call.” Do you remember what the seed for Christine, Released was?
Ed: I do. I had a case where the state had taken a 16 year old girl into custody because she was “unmanageable”. Her mother was a single, working mother. The girl’s estranged father hired me. In his mind the whole case was about him. I wondered how difficult it must have been for the mother to deal with a narcissist jerk like my client. The novel came into creation with the sound of a cigarette butt being dropped into a near-empty beer can, the resulting hiss. The camera in my mind’s eye drew back, and there was Christine huddled against the cold in a dank living room in a winter morning’s first light.
Gemma: Wow, that’s is an amazing story behind the story.
Gemma: I’d like to hear more about your writing history.
Ed: I’ve written a lot of poetry over the years. Some has been published in journals, most recently Ginosko Literary Journal in 2018. By the way, Ginosko is an amazing publication that I encourage folks to submit to.
Ed: I’ve written a fair number of decent short stories over the past fifteen years. Running Wild Press published my first short story, “Maia’s Call,” in Anthology #3 in September, 2019; my first novel, Christine, Released, in October, 2019, and will be publishing my first novella, Allure, in the novella anthology coming out in the fall of 2020.
Gemma: That’s a very nice run of publications! What are you working on now?
Ed: I am in the throes of writing a novel that is blowing me away, about a remarkable young woman, a nurse, during World War I. And I’m always writing poetry.
Gemma: I must ask you about that photo. Where is that street?
Ed: ee cummings Blvd. is in Old Orchard Beach, ME. I’ve been going there nearly every year for the past 20 years. It makes me smile. I love his poetry!
Gemma: I love ee cummings’ poetry, too! My older sister introduced me to him.
Gemm: I’d like to hear a bit about how your writing has changed over time.
Ed: My fiction now rolls out along a clearer narrative arc now, almost effortlessly. That’s how it happens with anything that is good. My poetry is constantly shifting in theme, temperament, form, lyricism.
Gemma: I admire your ease with narrative arc – mine always seem to have some potholes and blind turns in the first draft. And I admire the poetry of yours that I’ve read, too. What’s the biggest challenge for you to write?
Ed: I have a hard time with memoir, with the demand to get the details properly remembered. When I have allowed details to come forward of their own accord, bearing their own significance, I have written much better memoir.
Gemma: What do you like best to write?
Ed: I love poetry, fiction, memoir for its own reasons. Each is rewarding in very different ways.
Gemma: When you get an idea for a story, what comes to mind first, the plot or the characters? Or does it vary from story to story?
Ed: It always starts with an image, then my minds-eye camera pulls back to reveal a scene, a character, and I follow the camera as the character is depicted in more detail, through his or her actions and the reactions of those s/he encounters, and the set of interactions and reflections coalesce into a plot, subplots and divergences.
Gemma: Just like the movie running in your mind that you described. What authors did you love most growing up? What authors have influenced your writing most?
Ed: Growing up? Fiction, I have madly loved James Joyce (Dubliners! Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man!), Louise Erdrich, Annie Proulx, Edna O’Brien, Ken Kesey, Alice Munro, Arundhati Roy, Baron Wormser (Tom O’Vietnam!), Robin MacArthur. They must have influenced my writing without my intending them to, as I deeply cherish them all (and plenty others).
Gemma: Is there a place that you’ve lived that most influences your writing?
Ed: Vermont, where I have lived, studied, raised a family and practiced law the past forty years.
Gemma: Tell me more about what you’re working on now.
Ed: I am writing the first draft of a novel featuring a nurse during World War I with astounding healing power (a saint?) amidst the carnage. It’s been wild writing this, the reveals.
Gemma: It sounds amazing. What do you plan to work on next?
Ed: Either a crime thriller set in the collapsing world of 2037. Or return to a novel that I broke from to write Christine, about three lives that intersect through one event during the Vietnam War, changing the remainder of each of their lives.
Gemma: Those are very intriguing projects! How can readers connect with you and keep up with your news?
Ed: I have a facebook page Ea/ Ed Burke, focused on literary posts.
Gemma: Thank you so much for joining me on my blog, Ed! I look forward to your future novels.
Several areas are loosening stay-at-home restrictions, but for many of us, staying home is still the safest thing to do. And traveling far away for fun and adventure may seem a long way off. So how about some virtual journeys? This is just a sampling of sites I’ve encountered which caught my eye. Some feature videos, some still photos, some simply ambient sounds.
For some armchair traveling to unusual and little-known places, try Atlas Obscura.
There are a tremendous number of museums and historical sites generously offering virtual tours.
Many of these sites I found through my local library’s amazing efforts to keep our community connected, informed, and inspired during this time. Don’t forget to check what your local library offers online.
It’s my great pleasure to continue my series of Running Wild Anthology of Stories author interviews with VT Dorchester. VT’s story, “Under the Eye of the Crow,” is an unusual and rather haunting Western that left me eager to read more.
Gemma: Welcome, VT! Can you tell us a bit of what your story is about?
VT: “Under the Eye of the Crow” is a historic fiction in part about an outlaw (Gar Weeks) who is robbed and left on the lone prairie to die. He decides he won’t, despite his circumstance and his regrets, and we follow him as he tries to reach…well, I suppose we could call it a kind of salvation.
Gemma: Do you remember what the seed for this story was?
VT: I had written a first draft of a literary western novella in which Gar Weeks plays a significant role a few years before writing this short. When, as part of a local flash fiction group, I was assigned the prompt “torture your character,” I immediately thought of torturing Weeks! Much of his character was already established, including that he had taken part in a disaster of some kind during his service as a Union soldier.
I wrote a first few drafts of what became “Under the Eyes…” with almost the entire focus on this character dying of thirst. The story didn’t feel complete, and it sat rather unsatisfactorily for a while. After a time, I thought to specify the event during the U.S. Civil War which haunted the character and story. Doing a little research, I discovered the tragic historic incident at Ebenezer Creek, Georgia. I encourage anyone interested to search for information about The Abandonment at Ebenezer Creek. I knew immediately that I wanted to refer to that incident in this fiction.
It took several more revisions to get my story “right” enough for sending it out for possible publication, and then, when Running Wild accepted the story, I wrangled a bit, I hope politely, with the editor (Cecile Sarruf) until we finally agreed on the story as it now stands! I am glad it worked out eventually.
Gemma: And it worked out very well. Readers who want to know more about The Abandonment at Ebenezer Creek could start with Wikipedia. How did you find out about this anthology?
VT: I don’t remember. It is quite difficult to find venues which actively seek western stories, and as a result I tend to cast out my western short stories rather wildly. I’ll send them out to pretty much any publication which doesn’t specifically say “no westerns.” (I write and have published other literary and different genre stories under another name.)
Gemma: Westerns have such a long, venerable history I hadn’t thought how hard it might be to find places to publish them. I’m glad you found Running Wild Press! Do you remember when and why you started writing?
VT: The first story I remember writing “seriously” was a story about a stray cat. It was grey. I was in elementary school. I’ve played around a bit with writing ever since, but it is only in the past five years or so that I have become “serious” about writing fiction again. I don’t remember why, exactly, I decided to start writing about a cat, except that I must have felt I had an entertaining story to tell. I still feel that I have entertaining stories to tell, although I understand others may not agree.
Gemma: I most definitely do agree! (And I think one of my first stories featured a cat, too; apparently a good genre for budding writers.) What’s the first piece you wrote that you’re still proud of/happy with?
VT: While I have one other western short story published, “Under the Eye of the Crow” is definitely the one with greater depth. The other also includes (a far more laid back) Gar Weeks in its cast, but focuses on a different character. It’s a Christmas story about a bank robbery. Plus hot cocoa. No one dies.
Gemma: That sounds intriguing! Can you tell me a bit more about it?
VT: The first stories I wrote when I returned to fiction five years ago were pretty rough and I had trouble incorporating ideas or themes. I feel I still struggle to translate what I ‘see’ or ‘hear’ in my mind on to the page, but I’m getting better at it. I feel that my ability to edit my work has also increased greatly, as has my confidence in my work.
Gemma: For what it’s worth, I struggle with those same issues, and I know we’re not alone. But getting more proficient at editing is an excellent thing, as it can overcome a lot of those problems. What’s the biggest challenge for you to write?
VT: The End. I have trouble completing writing projects. My best example is the novella I mentioned earlier. I would like to revise, edit and work towards having it published, but instead it’s been sitting for half a decade now as I work on shorter, easier to finish projects.
Gemma: I sympathize – I have a stack of unfinished projects, too. But working on finishable projects is a very worthwhile thing. Still, I hope you finish that novella, because I really want to read it some day! What do you like best to write?
VT: While it is not evident from “Under the Eye,” I am quite happy when a reader smiles or even laughs at something intentionally funny in my stories. I also like incorporating some science, history, or a sense of location.
Gemma: “Under the Eye” did an admirable job with its sense of place and history. I can still feel the grit and thirst from reading it. When you get an idea for a story, what comes to mind first, setting, plot or character? Or does it vary from story to story?
VT: It’s often a “scene” – a particular image or series of images I can see in my mind, usually with a character present. Other times, I can “hear” a character talking to me or with another character. I have lengthy, animated conversations, sometimes in public, with my characters.
Gemma: Oh, that’s excellent! I’ve had some conversations with characters while out on walks, and been kind of mortified when someone comes up from behind me and I wonder if they’ve overheard. On another subject, what authors have influenced your writing most?
VT: My western genre writing is most influenced by classic Hollywood western films. These were generally less concerned with historical truth and more concerned with characters, place and moral codes. And horses, songs, weird shirts and big hats.
Gemma: So true! I sense “Under the Eye” has more historical truth in it than some of those classic western movies, though it shares with them a strong sense of place.
VT: Thank you. While I do not pretend to have a great deal of historical knowledge, I did conduct more research for this story than I have for many others.
I believe there will always be room for new quasi-mythic western stories in the tradition of classic westerns, but there is also a demand from modern audiences for a greater incorporation of historical truth. Westerns have always, to a greater or lesser degree, reflected the concerns and demands of society contemporary to their creation. Today, a certain degree of “realism” is in demand. It is easier than ever for writers to research, and it’s easier than ever for readers to research, too. In the case of ‘Under the Eye’ I felt a particular need to take care and research due to it’s incorporation of historical tragedy. But first and foremost, when I write, I’m trying to tell a story. A fiction story. If I get some facts right along the way, I’m glad, but the facts aren’t the most important thing to a fiction story, if they were, the story would be creative non-fiction, or a non-fiction essay, instead.
Gemma: Good points and well put, VT. Is there a place that you’ve lived or visited that especially influences your writing?
VT: I live in a small valley town in British Columbia where I am mere minutes away from hiking trails. I am also lucky enough to travel with some regularity. I regularly feel inspired by new scenery or walks in closer-to-natural settings, and my stories often involve weather events and nature.
Gemma: What stories are you working on now?
VT: While I’m not working on writing a western story right now, I am seeking publication for a short story I completed earlier this year, about a modern state trooper in eastern Oregon who has an encounter with super-natural beings during a blizzard.
Gemma: That sounds enticing! I hope that gets published because you’ve hooked me with that description.
VT: I am also looking forward to the publication of a western flavoured re-telling of the stone soup folk tale late this year with Frontier Tales.
Gemma: I can’t wait to read that – I love folk tales, and that’s actually a childhood favorite of mine. How can I and other readers keep up to date on when that comes out, and otherwise connect with you?
*Update for April 23rd, celebrating Shakespeare’s Birthday:
*Stratford, Ontario’s Stratford Festival is starting StratFest at Home, a series of twelve Shakespeare plays to watch at home for free. It starts on the Bard’s Birthday, April 23rd, with King Lear, and continues a week at a time with Coriolanus and Macbeth, with more to follow.
This deeply generous offering is joined by the UK’s National Theater. They have been streaming performances a week at a time starting April 2nd. I watched both Jane Eyre (now over) and Treasure Island which ran until this afternoon (2 pm EDT, if my conversion is right). Both were excellent, with great filming and powerful performances. Jane Eyre was the great drama you would expect; Treasure Island was a wonderful adventure. And I’m particularly looking forward to Twelfth Night, streaming 4/23 til 4/30. More will follow. Do keep in mind the difference between UK time and your local time.
If you’re a fan of Shakespeare like me, see below.
There’s a wealth of more plays highlighted on Playbill. The plays stream on a variety of platforms, some on more than one.
For drama of a different sort, try out some Old Time Radio productions. I have very fond memories of listening to some rebroadcasts as a kid with my family. VT Dorchester has made an excellent post featuring ten golden-age radio shows. Personally, I can’t wait to listen.
For a different sort of audio storytelling, Audible is offering free stories, “for as long as schools are closed.” There are different age levels from very young to adult, fiction and nonfiction, from classic to very modern – e.g. Pooh through Harry Potter to Pride and Prejudice.
A neat thing about both of the above is once you get started, they’re screen-free. But there’s something special about seeing the reader when you’re being read to. Of course, you can read aloud at home. And for youngsters, Barnes & Noble is hosting online storytimes. Also check your local library and even indie bookstores for story times.
Viking TV (not about Vikings, actually) is hosting “Arts and Music Wednesdays,” along with all kinds of cultural offerings on different days.
That’s all for now. Great thanks to all the artists and institutions making these uplifting and mind-expanding opportunities available to all of us, and to the friends who alerted me to these wonderful offerings.
Check back soon for an interview with VT Dorchester.
People have been sending me cool ideas of things to do at home, and I’ve been collecting them to share. Maybe you’ll enjoy some of them, too!
There are so many, I plan to divide them into multiple posts. First up: things to do off-screen.
Here’s one of my favorites: reading.
Have any books you have around the house you’ve been meaning to read? This may be the perfect time. Pull some off the shelf, and start with any that calls to you.
Need a new book? This is the perfect time to buy anything from my publisher, Running Wild Press. They have put all their published catalog on sale for pennies above cost for paperback and 99 cents for eBooks* through May 1, 2020. You can find contemporary and historical fiction, memoir and other nonfiction, and eclectic collections of all kinds of short fiction. Here’s their list and details.
If you want a book — ANY book — paperbound, try your local bookstore — a lot of them can ship from online orders! You can search for an independent bookstore on Indiebound. Or try Barnes & Noble, especially for e-books*. Support real bookstores! (Amazon will probably weather this storm all right; bookstores are struggling.) And support booksellers, authors and publishers – they all need it.
If you don’t want to buy a new book, check out your nearest library’s website. Many libraries have e-books, audio books, and even magazines available online. And yes, checking out e-books from libraries does support authors and publishers! And it supports the libraries, too, by showing the Powers That Be how vital they are to our communities, especially in a time like this.
If you have some spare time, review books you like on Goodreads or Amazon. Help out authors to get through these hard times!
Here’s something that uses a totally different part of the brain: jigsaw puzzles!
Again, you can try your local bookstore to see if they deliver. We stumbled upon a favorite of ours in Wellington Square Bookshop, a wonderful bookstore I look forward to making the journey to when bookstores can open their doors again. Scroll down a bit to see results when you do a search on Wellington’s website.
Have you ever wanted to tour a haunted house? Now’s your chance for a virtual tour, but it won’t last long – it expires tomorrow April 7th!
The Winchester House is a huge, sprawling labyrinth of a place. It was the home and vision of Sarah Winchester, widow and heiress of William Wirt Winchester. Find out more about it here. The place sounds fascinating, and they’d like you to visit in person so much that they’re offering discount vouchers for when they re-open.
Even more importantly, Amelia’s book Legendary is a story where kindness, love, and courage shine light through a time of fear and uncertainty. I loved it, and it’s a good book to read in these uncertain times.
It took a series of unexpected events to bring this novel to life. This is the story of my story.
I love to cruise writing websites to look for contests and calls for submissions, as many of us probably do. I saw a call for submissions for an LGBT romance anthology called Heart of Steel. The submission guidelines requested an LGBT romance featuring knights. As a lover of fantasy and someone who understands the importance of representation, I was ecstatic to write something for the anthology, and read the stories others had written.
I wanted to write something different, something unexpected. How could I include a knight without setting my story in medieval Europe or some kind of Lord of the Rings rip-off fantasy setting? The idea came to me that a character in the story might not be a literal knight, but could have a heart of steel regardless. What if someone in modern times found a suit of armor and put it on?
I thought about the kind of story that I needed to read as a young person. A story with LGBT protagonists who were realistic, not stereotypes. A story with a same-sex romance that ended happily. So happily it was cheesy, like a fairy tale. A legendary ending. Because LGBT characters deserve the chance to have such an ending, and readers need it in their minds and hearts as well, especially those struggling with their sexuality and how their families and society might react.
So, I wrote a story about two outcasts who find each other, and the legendary love that blossoms. James and Arthur are bullied by their peers for different reasons, and this cruelty increases tenfold when they are sent out of London with their classmates to avoid the Nazi Blitz. Arthur, empowered by the legends of King Arthur Pendragon, finds the courage to don the armor and stand up for James.
Authors often love the things they write, their darlings, I suppose — but there was something about this story that gripped me and wouldn’t let go. I rarely cry, but I cried as I wrote the ending, and simply talking about the story would get me emotional. Imagine how I felt when the story was rejected by the anthology.
I continued to submit it, even though it was an awkward length and a niche genre. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Then, I heard about Running Wild Press’santhology of stories. Expecting a rejection, I sent them my story “Idylls of the King.” When it was accepted, I cried again. At last, James and Arthur’s story could reach readers.
I thought my heart would explode right out of my chest when, one day, I got an email from Lisa Kaestner, editor of Running Wild. She said, simply, that she’d like to see a novel based on the characters I created in “Idylls of the King.” I worked closely with her to develop an outline that she felt would produce a book that Running Wild would be interested in publishing. I brought readers forward in time to James and Arthur as young men in 1950s London as they struggled with prejudice and rough patches in their relationship as they travel cross country to solve the mystery of a close friend’s dying words. I included the original short story as a flashback. Three drafts and two beta readers later, I had a manuscript for Running Wild’s Benjamin White to edit. Long story short, my book was published in November of 2019.
I wanted to share my journey for a couple of reasons. First, if you are a writer, don’t give up after a few rejections. Often, you’ll hear stories about famous writers being rejected multiple times until finding success. Yet, there’s always some part of me when I read those stories that doesn’t believe them. But I’m here to tell you as a real person that you shouldn’t give up. Keep submitting! Keep querying!
Secondly, if you truly believe in representation in fiction for a marginalized community, it’s your duty to keep submitting until someone says yes. We need these stories in the hands of readers who come from these groups, especially young readers. Write the book that you needed in the past. You never know what kind of impact you may have on someone’s life.