The Last Day
March 19, 2021
I wrote this poem about my mother-in-law Jaye, who died two weeks ago.
The Last Day
a chicken sandwich.
the nursing home
by 1:15 p.m.
In Jaye’s room,
tells us gently:
She passed away
at 1 p.m.
we hadn’t stopped,
we could have been present
for the last minutes
of my dear mother-in-law’s life.
Trying to ease
the staffer says:
She’s been in
for a couple of days.
It’s easy to see
is so, so still.
A seven-year bout
the joy in Jaye’s life –
and some of the joy in mine.
she had loved me
as if I were
even my cooking.
Her love for me
I loved her
the same way.
If only we
we could have
held her hands,
stroked her hair,
helped to ease her
Building a legacy
Jan. 28, 2021
I walked into the Charlotte Observer building for the first time in the spring of 1993. An editor had asked me to apply for an investigative reporting job and the paper had set up a two-day interview. I wasn’t sure I was interested because I had a satisfying job at the Houston Chronicle.
Still, the Observer was a premier Southern newspaper in a state I loved. I was a proud graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill and wanted to locate closer to my family in Virginia. My father had just been diagnosed with cancer and I wanted to spend more time with him.
During my Observer interview, I met with close to a dozen editors, talked about journalism for hours and toured parts of the city I’d never seen.
There was plenty to see, including the lovely uptown with its growing number of skyscrapers, tree-lined streets and flower-filled planters. But what intrigued me the most about the commercial area was the iconic Observer building.
I’ve always been interested in architecture and could tell that the white, rectangular building was built in the Brutalism style. Located at one end of uptown, it was constructed in 1971, when that type of heavy, faux-modern style was popular. The five-story edifice seemed to squat on its plot of land, its high slitted windows giving it a hooded look.
Inside, a central atrium flooded the middle of the building with light. On each side of the atrium were the escalators, where staffers going up and down waved to each other and talked – or nearly shouted – in truncated conversations. I’d never worked in a newspaper building with escalators and the effect was collegial and charming.
Or so I thought. Two months later, I was working at the Observer and discovered that the escalators were the bane of the staffers’ existence. The moving stairs broke down chronically and often required days to repair. Two small elevators took up most of the slack – and too much time.
The newsroom was on the fourth floor and its signature narrow vertical windows cast a mostly gloomy light on the L-shaped newsroom.
The news staff grumbled about the building’s general inefficiency, but everyone knew important things went on there. The stories ranged from Pulitzer prize winners to three-inch weather updates. In between were civic-minded reports on the school board, city council and county commission.
In my 15 years in the newsroom, I saw and generally experienced varieties of every emotion – exhilaration, boredom, happiness, sadness, pity and disgust. As an editor, I comforted people as they cried, hugged excited staffers and helped to pacify angry reporters.
When I left the paper in 2009 and moved to London, it was with a sense of foreboding. The Observer and its relatively new owner, the McClatchy Corp., were being pummeled by a terrible economy, crippling debt and plummeting circulation. Bankruptcy came a few years later. It was just a matter of time before something bad would happen to the building on Tryon Street.
Sure enough, the building and its ten acres were sold for a multi-use development in 2016 and the wrecking ball appeared not long after. Before the old building was demolished, a big party was held to celebrate its storied history. I didn’t have the heart to go, but my name was inscribed on the lobby’s wall, along with the names of a few thousand other people who’d worked there over the years.
The remnants of the depleted Observer staff moved to the NASCAR building a few blocks away, but that didn’t last either. A few months ago, the editor announced that the paper’s newsroom would be shut down and the few dozen staffers left would work at home, partly because of Covid 19 but mostly because the modern quarters had gotten too expensive. A hedge fund now owns the paper and decided it really doesn’t need a newsroom.
The reviled but beloved Observer building is gone, replaced by a sleek, tall bank. But the new building can’t take away the memories.
The world’s best job
Oct. 7, 2017
I never chose my job. Journalism found me.
My father was successively the editor and publisher of two small Virginia newspapers owned by a chain. The first was located in Radford in southwest Virginia and his second one was in Suffolk, near the coast.
My life was inextricably bound to those newspapers. My first real job was proofreading the Radford paper the summers I was 13 and 14. I’d sit in a dingy office in the basement near the printing presses and workers would bring me freshly inked galleys – long columns of print – to read. I’d mark them up with the proofreading symbols I learned. I was proud that I was a good speller and spotted errors easily. The job had long hours but I loved it because I was working with my father. He’d discuss his day during our rides home for lunch and dinner, almost as one adult to another.
The summer I was 19 and a prospective sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, I started working as a reporter at his Suffolk paper, soaking in the art and craft of newspapering. I covered mostly city council and police news. I’d observe the honorable and friendly way my father dealt with employees, customers, advertising prospects and anyone else who came in the door. He even delivered newspapers after hours to customers who’d call us at home to say they hadn’t gotten one. He worked incredible hours to keep the business going, wrote pithy editorials and sometimes shot pictures and wrote high school football stories.
During my sophomore year, I walked into the Daily Tar Heel offices and offered my services to the editor. On my own for the first time, I was put to work immediately. I loved the fraternity of the student newsroom and the daily sense of accomplishment. I was hooked.
My first job after graduation was as a women’s editor for the Daily Progress in Charlottesville, Virginia. During the 38 years I worked for newspapers in Virginia, California, Texas and North Carolina as a reporter and as an assigning editor, I mostly loved it. It was hard, with long days that often stretched into late nights, but I believed that my job was important to society.
In the early 1980s, my father was rewarded for decades of hard work by being laid off by his mercenary chain. He was a few years short of retirement age, but a new generation owned the chain and the ungrateful son wanted to get rid of the old guys. My father negotiated a settlement and eventually wrote columns for the new editor. I treasure those columns. He died in 1995 and I lost the best role model I ever had.
When I think of our president referring to the media as “an enemy of the people,” I’m offended. I wonder if citizens understand how hard journalists work to bring the truth to light. I’ve never met a reporter who didn’t take the work seriously, who didn’t wake up in the middle of the night worrying about misspelling a name or who didn’t put in extra hours to ensure a story was airtight.
I’ve been threatened, cursed at and verbally abused many times, but I still feel that the work of a journalist is a sacred calling.
Secession was just a plot line, until…
Aug. 13, 2016
This article was published Aug. 12 as an op-ed in the News & Observer under the headline “Texit? In US today, a surprising amount of secessionist sentiment.” It was also published Aug. 25 in the Houston Chronicle (paywall).
My obsession with secession began in 2009, when then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry suggested that if the federal government messed with his state, Texas could go its own way.
Typical Texas talk, I thought. Then the light bulb flashed on.
I wanted to write a Texas novel about a reporter’s adventures in Houston, a bigger-than-life city where I’d worked for 15 years. But I needed a hook, something to knit it all together. Secession was the perfect theme.
Seven years and two Texas suspense novels later, I’m amazed at the amount of secessionist activity threading itself across our country. Pro-secession groups are popping up and flourishing far beyond Texas, in states including California, Vermont, Colorado and Alaska.
This month, the South Carolina Secessionist Party was the latest to grab the headlines. Sparked by the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds last year, the nascent party is raising funds to erect the flags on private lands across the state. The leader of the group, which has an active Facebook page, is Tyler Bessenger, a man in his 20s who lives in Charleston. I tried to reach him, but his listed phone had been disconnected.
I did reach Scott Huffmon, a political science professor at Winthrop (S.C.) College. He described the group as “very small but very loud” and organized primarily in response to the flag controversy. But he pointed out that secessionist activity in South Carolina is hardly new. The state was the first among 11 to secede from the union during the Civil War. And before the Civil War, the 13 original colonies unleashed the biggest secessionist movement of our history – the American Revolution. Historians have tracked at least a hundred secessionist groups over the years.
Still, the results of a national Reuters poll in 2014 were startling. The poll found that 23.9 percent – nearly 1 in 4 – Americans support their state breaking away from the United States. It found support for secession strongest among young people, rural people, people who identified themselves as conservatives and those living in the Southwest or Western states.
Huffmon said he hadn’t seen that data, but speculated that the polarization of our politics, especially during this election year, might fuel interest in secession. He said people who are disenchanted with politics or the general direction of the country tend to feel that things are better in their state, or in their region, than they are across the nation.
There are no estimates of how many secessionist groups are active. But several of the more active groups are in regions where residents believe their state governments are out of touch with their needs.
Seven counties in northern California have passed resolutions since 2013 to create the state of Jefferson, named for Thomas Jefferson, a champion of the West. Leaders of those counties also would like to include a few similar counties over the border into Oregon, though no Oregon counties have joined the quest. The mostly rural California counties, which are suffering high unemployment in agricultural and logging industries, contend that California state officials have done little to help their region.
Colorado has a similar situation with an active group that wants to create North Colorado from five counties along the state’s northeast border. Leaders in those oil and gas-producing counties have said they don’t agree with some environmental proposals from the Colorado legislature and don’t believe they get a fair share of services in their region, considering the revenues they produce.
Other large secessionist groups have longer-standing grievances, such as the Alaskan Independence Party. One of its governing beliefs is that the 1958 vote for statehood was illegal because voters should have gotten a range of options – including remaining a territory, becoming an independent country or becoming a U.S. commonwealth. Todd Palin, husband of former Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, formerly was a registered member of the party. The group tried unsuccessfully to get a statewide vote on secession in 2006.
The Texas Nationalist Movement, born in 2004, is the largest secessionist group in the country, claiming 200,000 members and becoming more visible in state affairs. It narrowly failed, at a recent Texas Republican Party convention, to get the Republican Party to vote on whether to call for Texas secession.
After Brexit in June, the movement started using the term Texit as shorthand for its ultimate goal of making Texas an independent republic. Texas secessionists also have history on their side, because after the state won its independence from Mexico (Remember the Alamo!), it was a republic for 10 years before it was admitted to the union. (Then it left for the duration of the Civil War.)
Some of these groups, Huffmon said, espouse unsavory philosophies, “a crossover between white supremacists and the militia movement.” But, ultimately, he said, it’s about how the groups spend their time. Talking about their beliefs over beers with their buddies is harmless enough, he said.
“But are they willing to commit violence?” he asked. “A lot of these homegrown terrorists, like the ones in Oklahoma City, would like to bring down the government.”
Nancy Stancill is a former Charlotte Observer reporter who lives in Charlotte.
Old KGB agent knows what’s best for Texas?
June 1, 2016
I had no idea that Vladimir Putin had an opinion on Texas secession until I saw this editorial comment in Sunday’s London Times. Could I somehow get a copy of Winning Texas to him?
From the Times:
“As we debate Brexit, isit time for Texit? Pravda, once the official organ of the Soviet communist party, has suggested that the US would be better off without Texas.
“Texas has been a particular cancer on the people of the United States,” says the paper, which blames the state for, among other things, unleashing George W. Bush on the White House. Texans should now follow the British example and plunge into weeks and weeks of angry debate followed by a referendum. Nothing quite so bracing, is there?”
Thanks to my London friend Sylvia Wallach Squires for sharing this bit of British commentary.
You write alone, but it’s grand not to feel alone
May 5, 2016
Writing my first book was a lonely struggle, but I got lucky the second time around.
I started writing Winning Texas, my second suspense novel, as I entered the University of Tampa’s master’s program in creative writing in June 2013. When I graduated last summer, I ended up with a working draft of my second book – and so much more.
For two years, I had the privilege and pleasure of being part of a creative community of writers who nurtured my work in a tender, caring way. My mentors were experienced novelists who helped me see the flaws in my writing without crushing my spirit. My fellow students read my chapters carefully, finding plenty to praise in the small critique groups that can quickly turn negative in academia. Or so I’ve heard. My groups never did. I hope that I was as gentle and helpful with my fellow students’ work as they were with my writing.
Today, as Winning Texas, my journalism-and-politics thriller is released by Black Rose Writing, I am grateful to the writers who helped me get there. It doesn’t quite take a village to produce a book, but a few dozen kindred spirits can make a novel so much better.
When I wrote Saving Texas, my first book, I was living in London as an expat while my husband worked for a Charlotte-based bank. Especially at first, when I knew no one, it could get horribly lonely. The weather was cold and dreary and I needed distraction and hope. Starting a novel based on a lifetime of reporter’s adventures was my answer. I’d sit at my kitchen table dressed in layers and write while the wind rattled the windows in our third-floor flat. Eventually I got the job done, but it was pretty much like solitary confinement with a thesaurus.
Grad school was gloriously different. I was still writing alone, but I knew that my fellow students were sweating through first drafts in steamy Miami, or snowy New York or cold Connecticut. Then we’d all come together and talk about our work in Tampa.
I will read from and sign copies of Winning Texas on Wednesday, May 25 at 7 p.m. at Park Road Books, 4139 Park Rd., in Charlotte.
Gie it laldy, D.G.
June 27, 2014
What a nice review of Saving Texas from D.G. Martin, longtime North Carolinian, book reviewer and guest columnist for the Herald-Sun in Durham. Texas may be nearly nine times the size of Scotland, but perhaps they have much in common. Gie it laldy; do something with gusto. D.G.’s review is here or here.
June 2, 2014
Nancy’s blog is on hiatus for the summer.
Happy Memorial Day!
May 26, 2014
Nancy’s blog is on break for Memorial Day.
When ‘Cut back on the detail’ is the wrong advice
May 19, 2014
In a New York Times piece published last week, writer Pamela Erens gleefully recounted cutting stray words, sentences and even bigger chunks out of her novels. In a column entitled The Joys of Trimming, the writer boasted of her crowning achievement: slashing the second half of a book. Her novel went from a fat 105,000 words to a streamlined 60,000 words, more a novella than a novel. She said she barely missed the material she’d cut, though she worked on the book for years.
Her funny but wise column made me reflect on my own writing issues, which usually are just the opposite. As a journalist for thirty-plus years, I had honed my writing to austere sentences, unadorned paragraphs and stories that steadily shrank as papers became smaller and tighter. When I started writing my novel, Saving Texas, in 2010, I had to learn to write a whole new way. Instead of cutting out description and going light on scene setting, as journalists are admonished to do these days, I worked hard to put more color and detail in.
I’m still not good at this, perhaps because I fear that adding detail and length will lose readers. But I understand what my mentors mean when they say my first drafts are thin. It’s as though I’m writing an outline and I always need to go back and fill it in.
Most of the advice you read about revising your work focuses on cutting, not adding. Erens concludes that judicious cutting increases the vitality, precision and the emotional heart of most writing. She’s right. But I need to keep adding the seasoning and spice until I get just the right mix of ingredients for a tasty dish.
Writing deadlines: Don’t they ever get easier”
May 12, 2014
I woke up today with a familiar feeling of dread. My last and most difficult deadline of the spring looms in three days. I’ll have to hand over a significant chunk of work on my new novel to my mentor at a master’s program in creative writing. I’ll be writing, fretting, revising, worrying, staring into space and writing some more.
It’s not that the monthly deadlines in my program at the University of Tampa are impossibly onerous or that my wonderful mentor is a strict taskmaster. Writing is hard and lonely, and deadlines never wait for inspiration. Sometimes you just have to inch forward with clunky sentences, bad paragraphs and indigestible pages. Then you can make them better.
Deadlines shouldn’t be a problem for me after thirty-plus years in the newspaper business. Daily deadlines and weekly deadlines were a way of life and I can’t remember missing one, or at least an important one. But in my stress-filled dreams, I’m always busting deadlines and one of my toughest editors is shaking a finger and publicly shaming me.
This deadline is probably harder because it’s the last of the semester. I’ll get a short break afterwards and treat myself to a movie, or a book that’s not required reading. I’ll meet the deadline somehow and when it’s over, I’ll feel strung out and breathless, like I’ve run a long, hard race.
The call of the novel can’t compete with May
May 5, 2015
I got up Sunday thinking that I’d work on my novel before our niece’s late afternoon wedding. But we were in a nice hotel in downtown Orlando and the day seemed ripe for exploring.
We walked a few blocks to Lake Eola on a glorious sunny day, the kind you treasure before the heat descends. A soft breeze blew over the column of young men walking in step for charity. My sister-in-law’s jeweled sandals clack-clacked over the path as we circled the lake.
Dogs and their humans massed in one patch of grass, enjoying a tail-wagging gabfest. A white swan guarded her nest of five large eggs, her sharp eyes daring anyone to step closer. A black cormorant flapped its wings, drying and posing ironically on a silver sculpture of birds. A claque of turtles gathered on a rock at water’s edge, piling on top of each other in a reptilian conclave. Humans, all sizes, shapes and ages, lingered in a Sunday kind of slowness, seeming as happy as we were.
Bliss. After a long, cold winter, the symphony of nature was tuning up for its best performance of the season – the critically acclaimed month of May. To waste a day like Sunday inside, hunched over a computer, would be wasting life itself. For what is life without taking time to savor its beautiful moments?
Another perspective on the book club
April 28, 2014
I read with interest a column in the Huffington Post about a self-confessed book club dropout. She’d helped form or joined at least three book clubs, but either they collapsed, or she lost interest quickly. The writer concluded that she cherished her reading time and didn’t want the stress of a deadline or reading things that she didn’t select.
I understood her viewpoint, but I’ve always found my book clubs helpful and nourishing. That’s right, book clubs. I’ve been in two for at least ten years, so long that I’ve forgotten exactly when they started. I moved to London for three years in 2009, joined two clubs while I was there, and came back in early 2013 to the two in Charlotte that I’d left. My book club friends had thoughtfully held my spot open.
My two clubs are very different. One, called the Happy Bookers, is a group of women mostly ten to fifteen years older than I am. They dress up nicely for meetings, drink really good wine, and when it’s their turn to host (usually eight to ten members show up at each meeting), serve delicious home-cooked dinners on good china. Books are decided on months in advance
The other club, which doesn’t have a name, is made up of women closer to my age, with membership from two different neighborhoods I’ve lived in over the years. The members usually meet at a restaurant for lunch, spend time catching up at meetings and are more casual in dress and in spirit. They usually choose a book for the next month at the end of the current month’s meeting.
I haven’t always loved the books I’ve read for either club, but usually I learn something during the discussion – about what readers like and don’t like. That’s been really helpful to a novice writer.
And when my own book, Saving Texas, was released last year, my clubs made me feel like I’d produced the next Pulitzer Prize winner. They bought it enthusiastically, showed up at my events, read it closely, and promoted it to others. When I talked about my book at meetings, they listened intently and asked great questions. I couldn’t have asked for more warmth, support and generosity. It’s no wonder that I treasure both of my clubs and the lasting relationships that I’ve enjoyed.
Don’t come to fiction looking for soulmates
April 21, 2014
One of the most startling and original novels I’ve read recently is Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. Its protagonist, Nora Eldridge, a middle-aged, unmarried teacher, is deeply angry as she looks back on an epic betrayal by a friend. When I started researching the book online, I found a thread of controversy that fascinated me as a reader and a writer.
In an interview with Publishers Weekly last year, Messud reacted with incredulity when the reporter said, “I wouldn’t want to be friends with Nora…would you?”
“For Heaven’s sake, what kind of question is that?” the author said, listing many fictional protagonists who are highly unsavory, including the pedophile in Vladimir Nabokov’s critically praised Lolita. She added, “If you’re reading to find friends, you’re in trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities.”
The controversy still bubbles up online and it plays out all the time among readers. I’ve been at many book club meetings when a reader announces in a troubled tone that she didn’t like anyone in the book. I basically agree with Messud. If I read just to discover nice people like my friends, I’d find a steady diet of that fare pretty boring. One author called certain kinds of women’s novels “slumber party fiction.”
As usual, it depends on the book and how it’s written. Messud’s Nora is a deeply unsettling character because of her rage and the way she interacts with others. She sleeps with her friend’s husband and fantasizes about being the mother of her friend’s child. She’s definitely not a model of admirable behavior – nor is the friend she obsesses about. Likable characters? Hardly. But that doesn’t keep me from appreciating and enjoying an excellent book.
April 14, 2014
Nancy’s blog is on Easter break. It will return April 21.
The marketing pitch obscures a few details
April 7, 2014
I went to the San Antonio Book Festival over the weekend to sign books at the booth of my publisher, Black Rose Writing. There were lots of reasons to go – my publisher asked, I have friends in the area, and San Antonio is one of my all-time favorite cities. Despite the cold, damp weather, I had a great time.
Selling books in a booth at a festival requires frenetic activity. You can’t just sit and smile. Like most writers, I’m a bit of an introvert. But when you’re interspersed among dozens of other writers and booksellers, you practically have to grab passersby by the lapels to get their attention.
My colleague, who was pushing his children’s book, got lots of moms and kids leafing through the beautiful illustrations. A novel is a tougher sell – people are much more uncertain if they’ll like it. I offered miniature chocolate bars and lollipops to folks. Since most people are polite, they’d listen to my quick pitch if they took a piece of candy. I described Saving Texas as a mystery featuring a newspaper reporter and a secessionist candidate for governor. I went into more detail if they seemed receptive. Set in Houston, San Antonio and West Texas! A love triangle, sex and killings! Only $16.95!
What you can’t tell buyers is how the book swallowed three years of your life. How you sat in a drafty kitchen on dreary London mornings and tried to write every day. How your characters overloaded your brain even while you swam laps in the local pool. How you wrote 60 e-mails to agents and book publishers who didn’t even bother to answer. How you finally found one perceptive soul who liked it. How solid and silky that first copy felt in your hands. Only $16.95? Priceless!
The ‘big story’ lasts longer than the adrenaline rush
March 31, 2014
Last week, a big story dropped into the laps of Charlotte journalists when Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested on corruption charges. It was the best kind of big story because it wasn’t a catastrophe. Nobody got killed, so there weren’t any sad interviews with grieving relatives. Bad behavior by a top politician even has a certain cachet this year, as evidenced by the popularity of American Hustle. The big story had some former reporters for the Charlotte Observer waxing nostalgic on Facebook about those special days in the newsroom.
I asked myself if I missed the days when a big story broke. The answer: Hell, no! In more than three decades in big newsrooms, I lived through so many big stories as a reporter and later as an editor. They started out exciting, quickly escalated to grueling and reached a zenith of never-ending. A big story that got covered pretty thoroughly on the first and second days in print went on ad nauseum, as the bosses ramped up pressure for bigger and sexier angles. The big story never dies – it never even fades away.
I feel exhausted just reminiscing about it. But I wouldn’t mind being the good fairy of the big story. I’d be in the newsroom, invisible, enjoying the inside details and the late-night pizza. I’d perch on the reporter’s shoulder, hoping that all the sources would return her calls, that she’d get a killer quote for her second paragraph and that she’d make her deadlines for print and online. I’d spray some fairy dust on the copyeditor to catch all of her errors and to come up with the perfect page-one headline. I’d counsel patience for the top editors, to remember that nothing ever reaches perfection and that the staff works really, really hard. Best of all, I wouldn’t have to hang around for days when the story gets old and boring.
Love of reading may take a child down a new path
March 24, 2014
Growing up, I looked forward to having children who would share my love of reading. I pictured myself reading Little Women to three rapt little girls, perhaps wearing smocked dresses in contrasting shades of pink and green.
But as most new parents learn, our offspring make monkeys of us and our rose-colored expectations. I had one boy. No pink smocked dresses would ever beckon, but I looked forward to reading adventures with the kid. I loved reading to Jeff the preschooler and buying classic books for him. At 4, I was thrilled when he began sounding out words in Dr. Seuss’s Hop on Pop. I rejoiced that I had a reader.
But as he started riding bikes and playing sports with the neighborhood kids, I noticed that the physical life was taking over. One rainy day during summer vacation, I remember asking the 8-year-old why he wasn’t reading a book. Jeff looked up at me innocently with his big dark eyes and explained it. “Mom, when you read, nothing moves.”
I still enjoyed reading to him at bedtime and usually picked out books that I’d loved at the same age. I got about halfway through Little Men, Louisa May Alcott’s sequel to Little Women, before he began to rebel. He found the saga of life at a boys’ school far too old-fashioned. Not much moved.
I still tried. When I was 14, I had loved the rebellious spirit of The Catcher in the Rye, so I recommended it to my own teenager. He was unimpressed. But about the same time, something wonderful happened. An older cousin mailed him a bunch of paperback science fiction novels, including Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. Jeff was hooked and started doing with science fiction what I’d done all my life – reading himself to sleep with a good book. I’d gotten the genre wrong, but he found his way to the books that spoke to him. Now he’s a scientist – a microbiologist – and still reading.
What makes a villain we love to hate?
March 17, 2014
I just finished a classic mystery novel that got me thinking about villains we love to hate. The novel, In a Lonely Place, written in 1947 by Dorothy B. Hughes, is a corker. Though it was written before I was born, it feels as contemporary as the latest version of the iPhone, as suspenseful as an episode of True Detective.
In a Lonely Place was one of the first mysteries ever written from the criminal’s point of view, according to ImPress, which reprinted it in a series called “The Best Mysteries of All Time.” Hughes wrote it in a spare, hard-boiled style known as noir, more commonly used by male writers of her time.
Dix Steele, the novel’s antihero, is chilling from the first page. He’s standing on a Southern California cliff, exhilarated by the beauty of the evening fog rolling in. What does he do with this feeling? He looks for a woman to strangle. He follows a would-be victim, but she escapes – this time. We learn that Dix, a young, attractive man who was a pilot in World War II, is restless and damaged, with a Dark Secret.
He runs into a war buddy, who he finds, to his consternation, is now an L.A. detective with a beautiful, discerning wife. Eventually they will play a key role in his unmasking, but not until the reader has been thoroughly gripped by 222 pages of riveting suspense. The book, written tightly inside the serial killer’s point of view, is irresistible.
Why are we so fascinated by a protagonist like Dix? And what makes some villains better than others? My novel, Saving Texas, features three major villains. Two are men who are brought down by their corrupt use of money and power. The third is a bisexual Peruvian woman with a sordid past who loves to kill. She’s a cold assassin who happily wreaks vengeance on men, but feels remorseful after killing a woman. For some reason, my readers generally enjoyed this character more than any other in the book. Like Dix, she’s a killer with outsize appetites, but she somehow remains appealing. As a veteran reader and a novice novelist, I’m still trying to figure this out.
‘Guide to Gardening’ is that and much more
March 10, 2014
Carol Wall, a wonderful childhood friend of mine, has written an extraordinary memoir called Mr. Owita’s Guide to Gardening. When it was released last week by Amy Einhorn Books, I read it right away and it has stayed in my mind and heart ever since.
A little background. We moved to Radford, Va. the summer I turned eight. Carol and her family were our backyard neighbors and she and I immediately hit it off. We both lived through our imaginations. Soon, the ditch in the alley between our houses became the Sacred River Nile, and the abandoned garage foundation next door became the Secret Rock Mine, where we’d pulverize rocks and keep the dust (precious metals) in jars. We happily spent most of our spare time together until my family moved blocks away. I was two years older than Carol and as children do, we drifted apart.
I moved and so did Carol, but we kept in touch through our mothers. Carol married at 20, taught school and wrote occasional articles for Southern Living. I was busy with journalism jobs and later marriage and family. I knew that Carol lived in Roanoke, Va. Her sister Judy found me on Facebook last year and told me that Carol’s first book was coming out, as was mine. Once again, I felt the kinship of storytelling that we had so enjoyed as children.
But our books are quite different. Saving Texas, a suspense novel, is fiction based loosely on my journalism background. Carol’s book is subtitled How I Learned the Unexpected Joy of a Green Thumb and an Open Heart. It’s a clear, insightful memoir that equally broke my heart and lifted my spirit.
Carol’s book explores her friendship with a Kenyan man who became her gardener and great friend. When the book opens, Carol has been successfully treated for breast cancer, but thinks of herself as “damaged goods.” She’s angry, fearful and hurting and her friendship with Mr. Owita over the next few years soothes her soul. She learns from his enjoyment of each day and “gracious acceptance of the handicaps and afflictions life had brought him.”
The book unfolds with the suspense of a good novel. Carol’s cancer recurs, her parents’ health worsens and she gradually learns more about the sadness in Mr. Owita’s life. I don’t want to give away too much, but it’s a beautifully crafted book that will keep you reading, guessing and hoping for the best.
Five years later, Carol is battling Stage Four breast cancer, and the complications from her latest round of chemotherapy will probably make it difficult for her to enjoy the accolades she deserves.
I suspect that “Mister Owita’s Guide to Gardening” will be a huge hit, if the reviews so far are any indication. Buy it – for yourself and for Carol.
A wonderful but weighty thing named Goldfinch
March 3, 2014
I’m reading The Goldfinch, the 771-page behemoth by Donna Tartt, and enjoying it immensely. Reading a great novel makes me think about why I read and what it means to be a writer.
First, I’m gratified that The Goldfinch has hovered at or near the top of most bestseller lists since its release in October 2013. Many books that make it to the top aren’t necessarily the best-written or the most interesting of the zillions published every year. When a finely crafted and compelling novel is also a commercial success, striving writers feel validation – and hope. Tartt’s novel, praised as Dickensian, is the saga of a 13-year-old boy whose mother dies in a terrorist attack at a New York City museum. He escapes, takes a famous painting with him and eventually becomes embroiled in the underworld of stolen art.
I’m fascinated by Tartt, who at 50 has produced three novels roughly the size and weight of doorstops – all great reads. Her stunning The Secret History debuted in 1992, followed by The Little Friend in 2002. According to Wikipedia, The Goldfinch originally was supposed to come out in 2008, but was published five years later.
That means Tartt’s three books were birthed at least ten years apart, which seems to me a very long time to carry such a heavy load. My debut novel, Saving Texas, smaller in scope and much more compact at 262 pages, took me two years to write and revise. It required another year to find a publisher, sign a contract and see it published. Three years is a relatively short time frame in the publishing world, but most writers find that the process occupies most of their waking thoughts and takes over their lives. The prolonged gestation of Tartt’s three books sounds almost unbearable to me.
Did she work on her books every day? Or, did she carve out long swaths of time when she wasn’t working on anything? It’s impossible to know, because she’s a writer who doesn’t talk about her work much. She did tell The New York Times a few months ago, “The odd thing about it is that it’s so long between books for me that the publishing world changes completely while I’m out, so that it’s like I’ve never done it before.”
I greatly admire her perseverance, but carrying a book on my shoulders for ten years would be too long a journey for me.
Got a problem with a little humanity?
Feb. 24, 2014
Is the female protagonist of my crime novel a slut? Did I err by creating for her a messy personal life? I took these questions to a group of fellow writers this week in the wake of some puzzling comments by a book reviewer.
Some background and disclosure: My novel, Saving Texas, like many others released by small publishers, didn’t get an advance review. Its debut captured a gratifying spurt of publicity, but not the full review often posted on distributors’ sites to spur interest. So I commissioned one through a company that provides those services. The reviews are billed as candid and unbiased and if writers don’t like them, they can choose not to post them.
I was pleased with the result, except for some discombobulating comments by the male reviewer about my newspaper reporter-sleuth heroine, Annie Price.
The review says, “While Price evolves into a stronger, more intelligent woman, her initial portrayal as a good reporter who’s a hard-drinking, bed-hopping good girl at heart is dissatisfying. Price seems too smart and sophisticated to be careless and stupid about her personal life.”
That seemed simplistic and unfair. Annie, who’s thirty-six, is a problem drinker who sleeps with someone improbable after a traumatic loss. Her drunken one-night stand reverberates through the book and provides a major plot twist. The only other person she sleeps with in the novel is a state senator who’s separated from his wife. She believes that she loves him. She’s attracted to another leading character, but ends the relationship instead of consummating it.
Bed-hopping? Hardly. And hard-drinking doesn’t satisfactorily describe her drinking behavior. Hard-drinking evokes images of men who belly up to the bar most nights for convivial rounds with their buddies. Annie’s drinking isn’t a fun pastime or sport – it’s mostly solitary and veers close to alcoholism.
The reviewer also criticizes her relationship with the state senator, “a man she seems attracted to solely because of his looks and superficial personality traits.”
Well! Is it wrong or unbelievable that a woman would choose a man for his looks and “superficial personality traits?” Sounds like the kind of thing that men have been doing with impunity for years. People choose their romantic partners for a variety of reasons and women probably make as many mistakes in the realm of love and attraction as men. Aren’t we as writers supposed to create characters who are flawed but human? If our characters didn’t make bad decisions and find themselves in trouble because of them, it wouldn’t be a very interesting novel and our characters would be considered as flimsy as cardboard.
My friends, mostly women writers, agreed with my viewpoint. They liked Annie’s complexity and humanity. And they had a word for those comments from the reviewer – sexist.
What was that blinding whiteness?
Feb. 17, 2014
I was thrilled when it snowed last week – until the second day. That’s when I discovered that I really didn’t know what to do with a snow day anymore.
Growing up in Radford, Va., snow days were frequent and fun. Among my favorite things – sledding on a really steep hill a few blocks from my house, and ice-skating on a big pond two miles away. The coed ice-skating especially was fun when we were flirty teenagers. I was pretty good at it (the ice-skating, not the flirting, alas.) Fast-forward 20 years to Houston, Texas, when a female friend asked me to ice-skate at the Galleria, a fancy mall with a large ice rink in the middle and lots of hoity-toity spectators. Somehow, I’d lost all of my skills – and my balance. I was mortifyingly bad and felt like my pratfalls served as free entertainment for the high-end crowd, even their children. I tried one more time at a place with fewer spectators – to no avail.
The first day it snowed last week I just enjoyed the rare beauty. By the second day, I became a bit anxious. I hate cold weather and didn’t want to go out in it. But I felt like I should do something. I no longer had a child to play in the snow with, and my husband seemed more interested in getting his taxes done. I had plenty of writing to do, but kept getting distracted by the blinding whiteness through the windows. In the end, I just looked at it a lot.
Looking for the satisfaction of having written
Feb. 11, 2014
I’ve always considered myself a reluctant writer. As a young reporter, I could always put off writing my story by having a cigarette – or two or three. But a few years later, when good sense prevailed and I stopped smoking, I lost that handy excuse. I always divided reporters into two groups – those who loved the reporting and those who tolerated the reporting to get to the writing. I loved the reporting and could stretch it out – just one more phone call, I’d tell myself, and I’ll get that piece of information that will lift this story to page one. But adhering to that philosophy often meant that I’d skimp on the time to elevate the writing of the story.
So in some ways, I’m surprised that thirty-some years later, I’m a writer of fiction. I still report, but I’m looking for research that will stretch my imagination and make my story more believable. When I started my novel, Saving Texas, in 2010, I wasn’t sure I would have the patience to finish it. But I had a tale that I wanted to tell and I knew that if I finished, I’d get that wonderful feeling I knew as a journalist – not the thrill of writing, but the satisfaction of having written.
I plan to blog every Monday, or more, if the spirit moves me – about writing, reading and other stuff that interests me. I may come to the table reluctantly, but I’ll leave with the satisfaction – even if it’s just a few paragraphs – of having written.