Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Blog 48 Who is Tony Quarry?

 


With the release of Quarry Steps Between, the fourth in the Tony Quarry / Carolina Mystery crime novel series, someone asked me about the derivation of the Tony Quarry character. Who is he? How was he developed? In retrospect, I believe he’s an amalgam of my son, Tony, and me.

Physically, Quarry is similar to my son in his twenties and thirties. Massive at six feet, two hundred thirty pounds, my son was quite strong, a weight lifter and martial arts practitioner. As important as physical strength is to the character I envisioned, it was ultimately potentiated by moral strength. One without the other, in my mind, equals an incomplete human being.

I’ve also been a weightlifter, have seriously practiced karate, Quarry’s primary method of self-defense. As a convicted felon, Quarry is not legally permitted to carry weapons.

That said, life for me, among other things, is a battle to retain moral strength, to remain dedicated to trying to do what’s right. Hence, Quarry. For me, doing the right thing is not a relative decision; we know what is right. Sometimes, some of us may choose to do otherwise, but we still know. Morality is something that can too easily slip away, succumbing to the never-ending temptation toward moral laziness. It’s about seeing honestly what lies before us. It’s about constantly renewing self-honesty. Without that, how can one ever be honest with others?

Moreover, morality is about having a sense of where you stand on human issues. From a platform of strength, it’s about offering empathy and mercy to the world around you, if nothing else then through small, individual acts as opportunities present themselves to you. It’s about trying to do good. It’s about a never-ending struggle for forgiveness, both giving and accepting. Above all, it’s about a willingness to try, a protection against giving up. All of the above thread through plotlines of the series, providing Quarry compass as he faces his challenges.

Crucial to my fiction, to my protagonist, Quarry, he cannot be a one-dimensional figment of my imagination. Otherwise, he could just be another Marvel Universe super-hero. No, pre-eminently, he must be credible. I’ve got to be able to believe that he can exist, all over the world and in my neighborhood. Maybe, even in my house.

And in the end, perhaps ironically, my protagonist succeeds by just doing what he’s supposed to do – what we’re all supposed to do.

Available on Amazon!

Friday, June 23, 2023

Blog 47 A Return to the Issue of Banned Books

 



With the reader’s indulgence, I’d like to return to the central issue of last month’s blog – book banning. As a resident of Virginia, I believe Governor Glenn Youngkin serendipitously latched onto an issue that carried him to the governorship, i.e. parental involvement in the public education of their children. The upside has been exactly that – parents seeking increased awareness of what their children are being taught. Of a concern (my opinion), a vocal group of parents protesting specific books found in school libraries relative to content of which they disapproved, have pressed to have those books banned. The books in question appear most often to have addressed issues related to sex, race or LGBTQ life. My sense: More often than not, the material objected to has been separated from a more complete contextual understanding.

Am I questioning the sincerity of parental concern in these matters? I am not. Do I fear a good, if misguided, intention gone awry? As I stated in my last blog, I do not believe banning a book is the answer to valid parental concern. Unless a child’s mind has been adulterated by the “adults” in charge of his or her development (all too common, I fear) or unbalanced by a genetic flaw or environmental injury (rare to my knowledge), I believe this recent uptick in concern that a particular book will warp a healthy child’s mind is imbedded in adult fear and its co-rider, ignorance.

As I did in the previous blog, permit me to use myself as an example of a legitimate concern distorted by ignorance. In my professional career, I was a Clinical Psychologist, a believer in knowledge gleaned from, among many things, hundreds of books I devoured. And yet, I fell prey, in a way, to this issue, allowing concern and ignorance lead me to make comments to my son in his early teens regarding his love for and pursuit of science fiction. For years, he’d read voraciously, but narrowly as it appeared to me. I pressed him to broaden his reading experience. In subsequent years, I was humbled to learn what a broad and deep swath of learning he’d extracted solely from sci-fi, including ideas about sex, race and the necessity of living with others different from him.

Coupled with my embarrassing admission that I’d avoided science fiction as a reading interest and therefore had rendered myself ignorant of it, I’d committed the same error in prejudgment I’m writing about here. Concern without knowledge could be a starting point leading to an option to educate oneself. Conversely, concern leading to emotional reaction without knowledge would seem premature at best, subject to diminishing parental effectiveness or worse.

So then, what is one to do when faced with a valid concern regarding the books our children might read? I do not believe the answer is to begin banning books. Beyond ourselves and teachers as sources for discussion about books our children read, one option I’d like to reiterate is to turn to the members of our society we’ve educated and trained to curate the books our children are exposed to for direction – our librarians. They can either appropriately guide us to the reading experiences we seek or to materials that offer in-depth reviews of the books we’re concerned about. When in doubt, let’s put our heads together with them.

           

Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Blog 46 - Banned Books

 

Blog 46

The frustration has ebbed, for now. I can think more calmly, a personal requirement whenever I attempt to address a sensitive issue with political overtones. In this instance, the issue is book banning.

Sometime in the late 1950’s, D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover was published in the United States, although bootleg copies published in newspaper format had been available years before. The sexual content was considered pornographic by American censors, primarily the Catholic Church. My mother, a college-educated progressive (in selective ways) obtained a copy, but asked me not to read it, even as she did. Her rationale, as best as I can recall: She wanted me to be able to discover my own emotionally-satisfying sexual life without having it scripted for me. I’m putting it that way to be kind toward and respectful of her intentions, although in retrospect I question them.

I was fourteen at the time, my thoughts and dreams often sexually driven. In some ways, she was too late. I hungered for anything that might further reveal or clarify this veiled fundament of life, the thing in fact that propelled it. The more knowledge of it was hidden, the more obsessive the impulse to know became.

An irony: My mother was a believer in books. At eight, she’d given me a thin pamphlet describing the biological facts of sex, shorn of any accompanying emotional explication. When it came time to give me “the talk,” she quailed and left me with the book and her faith in it. My father remained in another room during. Another irony: At eight, I had no conscious interest in sex and, therefore, was unable to formulate the questions she avoided. I was able to detect her odd discomfort in discussing the issue. A year later, at nine, my interest in females began, but the opportunity was gone and I wasn’t about to reintroduce it.

From these incidents, I became more aware than ever that, as a whole, it’s the adults who struggle with books, not children. As if banning them could ever erase the curiosity the issues arouse. Want to create a best seller? Ban it. You’ll send it underground to become a “cult” classic. Look at the samizdat industry in Soviet Russia. The communists could never extinguish it. I only wish most adults who seek to ban a book would read it first, in its entirety, the parts they object to in context, prior to.

It appears it’s never enough for some parents to object to a book out of concern for their children, their concerns often framed in religious or moral terms. I could accept it if they would act on their beliefs for their children and leave it at that. When they want to extend the impact of their personal concerns to ban what your children or mine read, then I have a problem.

This is the basis for cultural war. Do it loud enough and you may capture political attention. Politicians are always casting about for an issue that might strike a note among constituents. Once found, they’ll stir it to see if it bubbles up into a potential campaign plank. If it does, they’ll proceed to flog it. For them, it is foremost about getting elected. Whatever works, right? The problem? The rest of us are left with the aftereffects, including the unintended consequences, e.g. the right to decide for our children narrowed, eliminated or criminalized.

Currently, there are those who want to protect our children from anything historical that might make them uncomfortable and from anything that might help them understand their own emerging sexual feelings before we’re ready for them to. Our solution: To start by banning books which make us uncomfortable.

The Nazis took it a step farther and burned books, turning the act into a political spectacle. My mother knew this. In retrospect, I believe she was simultaneously trying to do something and not do it, i.e. trying to protect me from something she could not bring herself to fully explore, much less explain.

I see a parallel with book banning – parents trying to do something they believe will protect their children and not doing it by failing to understand what a book can and cannot do, and ultimately, by failing to trust our teachers and librarians. Beyond embattled teachers, our librarians represent a group educated to curate for us the books time alone will never allow us to read – which is most of them.

To me, the risk that a child will be adversely affected by a book is miniscule when compared to the increasing risk that same child will be slaughtered by a military weapon in a place that values book learning – a school.

Your thoughts?

 

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Percolating

 


Blog 45

Currently, I’m sitting on a story idea while it evolves in my mind. When I say “sitting,” I don’t mean anything akin to idling. Percolating would be more apt. My process for original writing is in motion as several pages of notes would suggest, if not attest.

The development of the idea appears to be emerging slowly, perhaps more so than usual. As such, it has afforded me an opportunity to examine aspects of my writing process. I’ve read of writers who claim to allow their story to come forth “organically.” I interpret this, correctly or not, to start writing and see what transpires. Contrast that to the crime writer I met at a workshop years ago who tightly plotted his efforts down to an anticipated number of chapters and pages per.

If those examples represent the extremes, I’d locate myself somewhere in between. I typically have a plot in mind, nebulous as it might be, with a beginning and an end. Whether I can get there or not, I need to have a sense of destination. While it is not inlaid in stone and is ever subject to alteration, I feel the need for a vision of the story’s conclusion even as I begin.

In my present state, an aspect of my “percolating” relates to an unusual struggle with the decision to narrate from a first-person point of view or my generally more comfortable third person perspective. I’ve found myself pondering what this might be about. Though I have no answer, since I’ve found myself tilting toward first-person this time, I’m wondering if there’s a lurking concern with interjecting too much of myself into the main character.

Feel free to laugh. Of course, there are always pieces of me scattered throughout my fiction. As with any writer, how could there not be? It (all of it) issues from my head. That said, my experience suggests the closer a character approaches me (or I him), the greater the possibility that fiction is edging into autobiography. I’ve also noticed that the nearer my path attenuates toward the protagonist’s, the more my writing slows. Am I now entertaining decisions to withhold in order to maintain privacy? And if so, is honesty being sacrificed for my comfort?

Weird? Silly? Your thoughts or experiences?

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Blog 44 Wee Geordie

 When I was a young boy, I tended to see myself as puny, wished I was larger, stronger, more capable of standing up to the bullying world I inhabited. In retrospect, I wasn’t as diminutive as I imagined, but, correctly or incorrectly, our brains tell us what our eyes see and the malformations of self-perception loom.

In the midst of those formative years, I saw a movie, Wee Geordie, about an undersized Scottish lad who built himself into a behemoth through years of diligent exercise. Geordie went on to win an Olympic gold medal in the hammer throw. The movie, a thunderbolt to my heart, touched my uneasy sensibilities. I loved it. From my late teens through my thirties, I worked dedicatedly to building strength. To this day, at eighty, my exercise regimen includes resistance training.

For reasons unclear to me at the moment, I recently thought of the movie, recalling the joy it brought me at a time of self-doubt, found myself wondering if it was based on a book. It was. A brief online search revealed Geordie, a novel, was written in 1950 by a Scottish writer, David Walker. I knew I wanted to read it. More research revealed several copies were available through Biblio, a British seller of antiquated books. With the help of my considerably more computer savvy son, a copy was procured at a reasonable price. The first edition copy arrived in far better condition than I’d anticipated by Biblio’s description, down to an intact original dust jacket.


All that aside, I read the story (192 pages) in two days, the book even more enjoyable, more moving than my memory of the movie. More than the unidimensional, triumph-of-might tale I recalled, Geordie was (is) an almost magical love story, the love propelled and enabled by Geordie remaining true to himself despite worldly temptation.

Sound like a fairy tale? In some ways it came close. Today, it would probably be viewed as a YA novel, although I would demur in that categorization. I found the author’s deceptively simple writing almost poetically beautiful, his control of the story he wrote masterful.

            The wonder of books! How lucky I am!

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Watch Your Vocabulary

 

Blog 43

I received an unexpected letter earlier today. It was from a former colleague I haven’t seen in forty-five years though we have remained in touch – exchanged cards at Christmas, the decreasingly occasional letter, kept up with extended family developments. Apparently, Sandy had purchased and read my latest publication, the story collection, Uplift: Sunrise Stories. The thrust of her letter was to share the impact of the stories.

Her subsequent critique was sobering, leading me to reflect upon my writing, never a bad idea. As a young writer, feedback – especially unrequested – left me nervous, ill-at-ease, likely defensive and possibly even prickly. This time, I leaned into it, able to digest her feedback with minimal anxiety. An advantage of age? Maybe. Overall, her impressions were positive as she indicated how several of the stories had affected her. Knowing her, I was unsurprised at the stories she was most comfortable with.

What struck me most was the difficulty she reported with my vocabulary. This startled me. As an incipient writer fifty years ago (likely more than), I had a tendency to deaden my creative efforts with turgid vocab. My initial effort at a novel was so over-weighted, so swollen, so wordy, as to be unreadable. It has remained (and will remain) unpublished. Gradually, with dedicated effort, I’d worked assiduously to sand away the weighty words for the sake of the reader’s reading rhythm. Anything that interferes with reading comfort has the potential to flatten a story. Remove the pleasure of reading a story and you are left with what? I thought I’d put that tempo-destructive problem behind me.

It is my belief that chosen language must always be appropriate to the type or genre of writing and the reading audience. Without language sensitivity appropriate to the expectations of one’s readers, exactly who is the writer writing for? At essence, language is what it is all about, the tool for effective communication. And who decides what is appropriate? The reader. The reader decides. Sandy decided.

I plan to write Sandy, to thank her not only for purchasing my book, but for her generous feedback. I will be more closely examining my most recent efforts under the lens of her experience. I also plan to check with a few fellow writers as well as other readers to see how Sandy’s experience compares.

Uplift on Amazon

Monday, January 16, 2023

Review of The Rabbit Hutch

 

Blog 42


Though I still read novels to be educated, at this point in my life, the tilt is toward the element of entertainment. I want, above all, to enjoy the story I’m reading. With that in mind, though I still read literary novels (a personal requirement), I have less patience if the one I’m reading turns into a slog.

I recently completed Tess Gunty’s The Rabbit Hutch, a highly regarded 2022 release. Set in and around an apartment building in a moribund, rust belt Indiana town, time and circumstances (among them, loss of a single industry) have left the town and its occupants behind, adrift and forgotten. The dislocation of the younger adults without educations through which to advance, but still needing to find a path to a life of purpose, now idling, amusing themselves with terraced cruelty stands in contrast to the aloneness (more than loneliness) of the older adults with their peculiarities and proclivities that could slip into madness.

Through it all is Blandine, a preternaturally intelligent, seventeen-year-old, knowledgeable beyond her years, beyond the other characters, yet damaged by institutional failure, i.e. a foster care child now aged out of the system. Her planned escape from her body (from life?) culminates in insulting to rage a shy, emotionally underdeveloped boy to try to kill her – suicide by inviting murder. That she survives offers a (tiny) glimmer of hope.

My sense is that the author is sympathetic toward the plight of these characters abandoned by society and circumstance, to the waste of lost potential and what can befall individuals not part of or connected to a system, toward those institutionally failed, left to disconnected lives of loneliness without clear purpose or a sense of options, particularly the young, thrust into the world unprepared for independence and without support.

I came to this book, as I do all fiction, hopeful for a story that would filter in and linger like the aroma of warm bread. Rather, I closed the book upon completion, thinking, “What was that?” Rather than the lift of just-baked bread, a weight sat upon me like regret.

Perhaps (probably) the problem (fault, failure), if that’s what it is, lies with me. I may lack the analytic skill to appreciate, more fully, the author’s intent. In the end, I did not find myself identifying with or, more importantly, pulling for any of the characters, not even Blandine. But then, maybe that was, at least in part, Gunty’s point – not enough of us do root for the dispossessed, manifesting concern about vitalizing (or revitalizing) their lives.           

If you happen to read The Rabbit Hutch, and respond differently, please guide me to what I missed.

Blog 48 Who is Tony Quarry?

  With the release of Quarry Steps Between , the fourth in the Tony Quarry / Carolina Mystery crime novel series, someone asked me about t...