Today my post will be something different. I leave the familiar terrain of the real life animals that fill my memoir The Animals to join the Writing Process Blog Tour. The tour is designed to gather writers of all sorts, comic or tragic, gentle, or bombastic. There’s only one requirement. Participants must answer four questions to explain how “the writing process” works for them. Then it’s up to each of us to invite three more writers to keep the tour on the road. That way we will eventually cover the world with our exponentially expanding creativity. Writing is a craft practiced by civilized animals, the kind who may occasionally snarl and bite, but who also know how to use well-edited words to howl in protest or in praise. So first let me give a big shout of praise, indeed a howl, for Don Mitchell, anthropologist and creative writer, who invited me to be part of this blog tour. Be sure to look for Don’s blog and his most recent work, a collection of short stories, A Red Woman Was Crying: Stories from Nagovisi. His brilliantly original stories, inspired by his own anthropological work in Bougainville in 1969-70, are told by the men and women from the village of Pomalate. His subtitle, “from Nagovisi,” makes clear his debt to the people he celebrates. Their stories are not “about” the Nagovisi, but literally come out of their complex interactions with each other and with their colonizers. Don’t miss it.
What am I working on?
1) My new novel in progress: “Can We Know that Jesus Saves Us?” begins on an island in Southwest Scotland, at the funeral service of Kathleen (Leeny) Archer. Her art gallery in Hackney, London has set trends in post-modern art over the last fifteen years. Before that she owned a gallery in Chelsea, New York. The novel’s narrator, Veronica (Ronnie) Leighton, age 28, Leeny’s Personal Assistant for the last four years is now in charge of her employer’s funeral. It’s a complicated affair mixing feuding relatives from America, quarrelsome stepchildren from London, and mysterious ex-husbands and lovers. The funeral ceremonies crash to a halt when Ronnie plays a video Leeny made before her death. Leeny informs the quarrelsome members of her many families, as well as Ronnie, that she’s leaving her fortune to her only daughter, born out of wedlock in 1985. The daughter—Veronica Leighton, aka Ronnie. “My dearest friend, my impeccable Personal Assistant, and my own dear lost girl.” Chaos ensues.
The novel traces Ronnie’s search for the truth. What sort of person could Leeny have been all those years ago? How could she have given her daughter up for adoption? Who was Ronnie’s father? Her quest takes her to Chicago, her home town, and to the art galleries of New York and London. She’ll enter deep into the heart of the religious right, at a summer camp nestled in the Colorado foothills of the Collegiate Mountains. Leeny’s favorite stepchild will assist her on her journey. He’s a barrister named Jeremy Atkinson, and he’s witty, intrepid and gay. I want to examine the power of the religious right and the challenges that confront women and men who dare to be different.
2) A novel that needs to be revised: “The Burnt Hills, set in Berkeley in 1969-70, looks at the costs and benefits of political and personal change, and the way the women’s liberation movement transforms—everybody. My text needs to be cut or expanded. This summer I’ll learn which needs to be done.
3) My blog: the-animals.com. You’re reading it. My wonderful publishers at Saddle Road Press, suggested that I write the blog to spread the news about my memoir, The Animals. I’ve had excellent help, especially from Bonnie Burns and Debbie Hemley, women with strong brains and big hearts. They taught me essential tips about blogging. To my surprise, I like the way “the blog,” like “the essay,” can expand and contract while being both provocative and forgiving. I taught Addison and Steele’s Spectator Papers at New York University and Tufts University. In my blog I can be MS. SPECTATOR, observing the ways that animals big and small, wild and domesticated, live and die in our complicated post-modern world.
How does my work differ from others of its genre? Romance and politics don’t often go together unless scandal mixes them up. I an bringing the two genres together in both The Burnt Hills and Can We Know That Jesus Saves Us. The romantic mystery usually ends up with lovers standing alone, finding their place on a blasted landscape. In fact that’s how I ended my first novel, the noir mystery set in 1938, Washed in the Blood. These days I want my lovers to grow in strength and wisdom, ready to reinvent the world and fill it with generous people.
Unlike most memoirs, The Animals uses stories about the animals that my family owned to tell our story. In my first marriage, we raised all sorts of animals, pigs, chickens, goats and ducks, in somewhat reckless attempts bring us closer together. We failed most of the animals, and never could figure out how to make the marriage work. It ended in divorce. I was luckier in my second attempt to find domestic happiness. Like many so families in the seventies, my partner David and I created a new “blended” family. We were two nervous people trying to coax two teenaged boys and two teenaged girls to come together to become part of one sometimes awkward arrangement. In our second time around, full of love and good intentions, we still kept trying and failing to train our cats, our Border collie, and our two Akitas, one too aggressive, and one dear, deaf and epileptic. But our new family endured. You could even say that it has thrived.
The Animals looks at the way that we humans imagine that animals can expand our personal lives. There is nothing sinister about the promises we make, the transactions we extend to bond us with our animals. But too many times we fail to deliver what we promise. The Animals resists telling the often-told story of the heroic animal and the heroic family succeeding against all odds. This is a memoir that owns its failures and celebrates the small and quiet things that love can accomplish. It shows how one family learned how to forgive and how to grow.
Why do I write what I write? I write about things that obsess me: animals, political power structures, and children and their needs. I write about women and their shifting sexual and political identities, and I investigate the changes that families everywhere are experiencing. I can’t stop thinking about these categories. David tells me that I talk in my sleep. I know that I dream about the division of power and the struggles that families endure in this new century. I am obsessed with the recent Supreme Court decisions turning PAC money into a form of “Free Speech. I imagine that soon I will write something about our new problems in a country where political rights seem to be up for sale. I like the phrase “Dark Money.” Maybe I’ll use that.
How does my writing process work? Sometimes writing can take me years to complete. I started working on my Berkeley novel in 1978 when I walked up and down the streets and hills of Berkeley, and mapped everything out. I still have the map I used. I think with my body. I like to know how many steps it takes somebody to walk the hills in Berkeley and in Scotland. I do a lot of research. Often facts I learn can drive the work into a place I didn’t expect to be. Google can be murder then, because it can lead me to make speculations that don’t always fill their promise. But I wouldn’t give search engines up; they’re too helpful. So is the encyclopedia and the old newspapers and the dusty books piled in my attic. Likewise the library.Dusty matter, dark matter: it’s all there if you know where to look.
I write and I dream and I walk and I write some more.Then I revise and restore. Sometimes the process drives me wild. And sometimes it makes me happier than almost anything else can in this world. I tend to hyper focus. Not deliberately, but that’s the way my mind goes. It can be a good mind for fiction, for obsessing over quantities of facts and dreams and desires.
LET THE BLOG TOUR ROLL ON
I am delighted to introduce three exciting writers joining the Blog Tour: Bonnie Burns, Anna Vodicka, and Joel Fishman.
Bonnie Burns published her poetry in Sojourner and Bay Windows during the heyday of the women’s and gay rights’ movements. After receiving her doctorate in English from Tufts University in the 90s, she published several critical articles on queer theory, Victorian literature, and film published by Duke, Indiana and New York University Presses. For many years, she worked as a senior writer for Ellucian before launching her own marketing communications firm in 2013. Bonnie writes fiction in several genres including fantasy, paranormal, historical fiction, and mystery. She’s currently working on two novels: a mystery set at a girls’ boarding school in 1920s Washington, D.C. and a paranormal adventure story set in present-day Boston and the occasional otherworldly realm. You can find out more about her writing process at her thoughtful and hard hitting blog, Creative Thinking. Strategic Writing.
Anna Vodicka’s wonderful essays have appeared in Brevity, Guernica, The IowaReview, Michigan Quarterly Review, Ninth Letter, Shenandoah, and other national literary magazines. In 2013, she won The Missouri Review audio competition for prose, received a Pushcart Prize Honorable Mention and a “Notable” nod in Best American Essays. She currently writes from Palau, in western Micronesia. You must look this location up in your atlas or on the web. Now that I think of it, she doesn’t live that far from Bougainville, where Don Mitchell did his anthropological work. Anna is working on her first book, and blogging when the internet connection allows. Don’t miss reading her thoughtful, perceptive and sometimes hilarious blog, The Coconut Wireless. You can also find her on Twitter @AnnaVodicka.
Joel Fishman aka JE Fishman is author of the critically acclaimed and Amazon bestselling novels Primacy, Cadaver Blues and The Dark Pool. This year he launched the Bomb Squad NYC series of police thrillers with A Danger to Himself and Others, Death March and The Long Black Hand. A former Doubleday editor and literary agent, he also contributes occasionally to the Nervous Breakdown and the Huffington Post. He divides his time between Chadds Ford, PA, and New York City. Learn more about the new series at Bomb Squad NYC. His blog can be found at: http://jefishman.com/blog/ Check out our three writers in a week or so, when they officially join the Blog Tour.