O.T., Walt, and some Butterflies

Pfew.

It has been a month, or thereabouts, since I’ve posted any content on this blog. I feel bad about that, but I did warn you all…

I haven’t really been in the spirit of self-promotion or blogging lately, and haven’t written much, to be honest. I did manage to win NaNoWriMo this year, rounding out at 50k words somewhere around the 18th of November. And I’ve been steadily plugging along on the novel, doing a tad of editing and revising here and a good bit of writing there. I’m nowhere near done. I’ve written 103 pages and I’m halfway through the novel (and that’s being generous). I do this. I know I shouldn’t, but I do it anyway. I am much too wordy, I write far too much, and then when it’s time to cut, I scream and rail against it.

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Well, I earned it, so I may as well show it, eh?

I do very much enjoy what I’ve got so far, though. It’s drastically different than anything I’ve ever written, so much more so that it makes me incredibly nervous, far more nervous than I was while writing Aroha – which is weird, because that was a work from my heart that was ten years in the making, and due to the subject matter, really should have given me fits. It did, but not like this novel does. I want so desperately to get this one right, to really say something with it. I suppose I want it to mean something. I feel a tad overwhelmed, and out of my element.

My beloved David Bowie, who I will quote every time when given half a chance, always said that when you’re just out of your depth, that’s when you produce your best work. I hope that applies when it comes to me. I’m treading water in the deep end right now, and those words are my floaties.

For the past couple of days I’ve been trying to think of what to write, what sort of post I could do that is relevant to what’s going on in the world right now, how I’m feeling about things, the holidays, etc. But I’ve come up blank. All I’m working on creatively is this, and I’m not much in the headspace to write thinkpieces right now. We’re all just so tired, aren’t we? So I decided instead, as my little holiday gift to you all, to post a tiny snippet from the prologue of my novel. This is likely the only excerpt I will post, as I’m holding this one a lot closer to my chest than my other writing. It is still becoming.

I give you O.T. and Walt, twin brothers from Five Forks, my brain babies, for whom I have very high hopes. And I would love to hear your feedback.

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“Daughter of Farmer who will be Resettled – Wolf Creek, GA 1935” by Arthur Rothstein. I snapped this photo out of an Erskine Caldwell book because I fell head over heels in love with her (it was mainly because of the shoes, but also – her expression slays me).

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Growing Up With You.

Here it is, the end of October in Georgia and it finally feels sort of like Autumn. I’ve got my cup of Earl Grey, a raspberry linzer cookie, and I’m wearing a pair of white chucks that I bought over the weekend – now orange is the only color I lack in my ever-growing collection of Converse All-Stars, because I am a madwoman who collects things. I’ve started my new novel, a week before NaNoWriMo kicks off, because true to form, I always start things early. So far I’m liking what I’ve written. It may be short-lived, but I am breathing deep and just enjoying right now.

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Told ya. #obsessed

I’m in heavy music-listening mode right now, too, which always happens as the seasons change. You can find me driving, music blaring, singing along and dancing badly, on any given day of the week. Music is my life-force…that and reading. When I’m doing both, you know I’m heavy in creative mode and that my brain is working overtime, trying to absorb every little bit of inspiration and sustenance it can. It’s kind of like expecting a child – a weird analogy, I know – but your entire body is involved in this creative process, forming a new life, limbs, heart and eyelashes, and it takes all the nutrition, sustenance and mental stamina you have to produce that perfect thing. So is writing to me. Many writers need the quiet, for everything to be focused solely on their work, but not me. I need background noise, a cacophony of music and books and life tumbling at me from every direction, to singularly focus on my work. It’s a type of mania, and I welcome it, after long years of trying to hide my quirks and double down on a more organized way of thinking. Once I embraced it, I started to bloom.

I’m pretty much exclusively listening to Daniel Johns at the moment. You’ll know him as the blond baby of a frontman for Silverchair, or perhaps the enigmatic and mysterious singer in the Dissociatives. Yeah, I’m showing my age. And when I sat down to write this post, I thought, “Really Lillah, another post about a musician you admire? They all know – you’re obsessive about your music, it influences your writing, blah, blah blah.” After all, I’ve been down this road before – Dwight, David and so on – but the truth of the matter is, music is inexplicably knitted into my writing and vice versa (and so it is with books, with reading, too) and I cannot separate the two. When I’m in creative mode, I’m listening to my tunes. And when I’m listening, I want to sing back in praise, in thanks, to the artists who have helped me along the way.

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If this picture of Johns doesn’t define the mid-to-late 90s, I don’t know what does.

It freaks me out to think that I’ve been a fan of Daniel Johns for the better part of my life (to be fair, they came on the scene when I was just an adolescent, and they weren’t much older themselves). But it’s true and I owe the guy a lot. It sounds stupid, but I honestly do. Just by pure coincidence, or maybe it’s me projecting my experiences onto someone else’s art (likely), but for every major turning point in my life, he has been there. A song always seemed to fit at just the right time. He has got me through some times. And while I haven’t followed his career with the same fervor as I have say, David Bowie, I have looked in on him from time to time with interest, always eagerly consuming his latest work and finding comfort and meaning in it.

I think the reason I love Daniel Johns (and Silverchair/the Dissociatives) so much is because I grew up to it. As he navigated his journey into adulthood, through pain and trauma, illness and wisdom, so did I. He’ll never know me, but he’s a kindred spirit all the same.

As a goofy 14 year old, already showing the beginning signs of anxiety, I listened to “Frogstomp” and wished I could be so profound and in tune with my feelings. When I was a young teenager, subsisting on nothing but diet coke and energy pills, trying not to gain a pound back after a lengthy illness in which I almost died, I found “Ana’s Song”.and discovered I’d like to be healthy again. After my Grandfather died and I thought I’d never climb back out of the grief (it was the first death of a family member I’d experienced, and because I wasn’t able to see him much as a child, I mourned the relationship we’d never have), I found “Miss You Love”, which helped me through. As I found myself in the beginning of an abusive relationship, in my early twenties, just having moved to New Zealand and having no idea what to do next, I listened to the “Neon Ballroom” album and knew I wasn’t the only one feeling the way I did. I recall long nights, holding in tears but letting Daniel’s haunting falsetto cry for me instead. As I began to get up the courage to leave my abusive partner and go back home to a place I wasn’t sure was home anymore, the “Diorama” album gave me some strength.  Home, feeling guilt for leaving and the fear of the unknown life I wasn’t sure I even wanted anymore, Daniel’s new project with the Dissociatives seemed to bolster me with its lyrics about the loss of love but carrying on in a new medium. “Straight Lines” talked of embracing yourself, and the things necessary to make yourself whole. And now, embarking on this journey as a writer, putting my stuff out there even when I’m terrified to, I’m loving listening to Daniel’s solo album, a far cry from anything he’s ever done, laughing at his butt-hurt diehard fans who hate it, and feeling so proud of him for doing the damn thing on his terms. God, I love it when artists push out of their comfort zone and do something wholly unexpected (I think I just found common ground between Dwight, Daniel and David – the three D’s who are not so unalike, eh?). And hey, my 7 year old kid and I have jammed out to the reworked Beatles tunes on Beat Bugs (which Daniel works on ) more than once together, so we’re finding that common ground. And so it goes.

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Growing older gracefully and eyeliner on point – I could use some tips, man. I’ve got the hat part down.

You guys, my eyes often glaze over when people write about music. I don’t read album reviews that much, and I only flip through the pages of Rolling Stone every so often. I don’t kid myself that anyone is interested in my musings on Daniel Johns any more than they are about Dwight Yoakam or Patti Smith or Bowie or Ma Rainey or anyone else I love and hold dear. I don’t write this to preach to the converted (who my age doesn’t like Silverchair? C’mon.) but just to further reiterate that music is so important. And that I’m grateful for it, for the artists who inspire me. It took me way too long to start honing in my skill, and actually start putting words to paper; I found every excuse. And I still do, if given half the chance. But when I listen to a song like “Forever and a Day”, I literally can’t stop myself from sitting down and putting my feelings somewhere, you know? The feelings consume, they overwhelm, and when that happens, I count myself lucky to do what I do. I have the tools to express myself right here, and endless inspiration coming out of my earbuds.

I get nervous talking like this, afraid my obsessive personality will show, that people will know how deeply I feel every little thing, how deeply I love. But it’s about pushing out of that feeling, swimming in the deepest waters, and showing who you really are, that makes the artist.

Thanks, Daniel, and all the rest.

Happy Autumn, and may you find your favorite album again, as beautiful and relevant to your life as you left it.

Lillah

Charlatans, Demagogues and History Repeating

For the past several months I have been submerged in the world of 1930s rural Georgia. My brain is currently residing somewhere between the blue tinged mountains of North Georgia and the shaded, gothic slope of Milledgeville. I have loved every minute of this research, and I am in such a screaming hurry to start on my novel that I can barely stand it.

It has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience, immersing myself in the writers of the day – Flannery O’Connor, Erskine Caldwell, and writers like Alice Walker and Olive Ann Burns, who did not grow up during that time period but still capture it so well. I have to say, though, that after you’ve read a good deal about the time period, about the plight of rural farmers during the Great Depression and the various issues that plagued them (exploitative sharecropping/tenancies, pellagra, strained race relations, extreme poverty, mental illness, to name a few) it can start to wear on you. The bleakness of the literature from this time period is so heavy, so starkly realistic, that it is an ache in your gut. There are no heroes here. No redemption. No hope.

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Five Forks (Colbert) GA, 1922. Photo courtesy Ancestry.com/Rootsweb

The brilliant satire and dark parody of Flannery O’Connor and Erskine Caldwell work so well because of the utter depravity and hopelessness of the time. It seems grotesque to laugh at a scene in which a starving family fights over a stolen bag of turnips, and the chuckle that escapes your mouth does so behind your hand, because you’re ashamed. Both authors, Caldwell especially, were ripped to shreds by the public and often had their works banned, because of the light it shined on the shameful truth that so many wanted buried and forgotten.

One of those shameful truths that we’ve seen whitewashed, spit-shined clean and presented as something else entirely is the legacy of one Eugene Talmadge, the former Governor of Georgia (1932-1946). Most people, even native Georgians, barely know who he was, other than the fact that a road or two was named after him. The history books attempt to paint him as a charismatic and noble figure, or at the very least, a neutral one.

It isn’t the case. Talmadge was at best, a charming demagogue who played on racial and economic tensions of the time to rise into power. At worst, he was a dangerous white supremacist who actively tried to keep his foot on the neck of the African Americans (and poor whites) whom he governed.

During his tenure as Governor, Talmadge stoked fires of racial tension by jailing those who dared to assemble in protest, actively courted the KKK (they sent flowers to his funeral), prevented the University of Georgia from integrating and admitting black students, favored low wages and cheap labor, and went out of his way to denounce anything “socialist”. He was an outspoken opponent of FDR and was adamant against Government programs like Social Security. He spoke often of how poor people should “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”, and was in favor of tenant farming and sharecropping. He also meddled in the affairs of Central State Hospital, one of the locales of my novel, to the detriment of the patients who were already forgotten and abused members of society.

In addition to being racist, he was also ableist, often mocking President Franklin D. Roosevelt for his wheelchair and suggesting that a President with a disability could not competently lead.

“[People cannot] respect a man who can’t walk a two by four.” – Eugene Talmadge, on FDR.

Talmadge was well known for his sweeping, genteel manner of speaking, for his bluntness (“he tells it like it is”), and for his ability to charm even those who he was actively campaigning against. Known as “the Wild Man of Sugar Creek”, he took great pride in his popularity and used it to his full advantage. He Governed for well over a decade with an iron fist.

In reading about the time period and this man in particular (and finding out that members of my own family were avid supporters of his), it isn’t particularly shocking that he would rise so quickly to success. The Great Depression was a time of desperation and madness, with whole families so deep into poverty, literally starving and succumbing to disease, that they eventually became apathetic about their own futures. The future was an abstract concept, a dire possibility if possible at all. Talmadge was wily and smart enough to play on this desperation, to understand that hope wasn’t enough – he had to play on fear, also. Fear of being “licked”. Fear of being the lowest common denominator. He used the deeply-buried hopes of people that their lives still meant something, and convinced them that the only way to get back to “glory” would be by stepping on the backs of blacks and poor whites and taking back what had been stolen from them. It worked.

I see this same sort of thing playing out today, and I shake my head. Watching history repeat itself when we’ve learned these lessons so many times before (after all, Eugene Talmadge is just one small pebble in a bucket full of them) and yet still fall for the same old thing. We let our heads be turned, we fall for the lies, the propaganda, the bunk. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, said the Great Wizard of Oz.

I didn’t set out to write this new novel as allegory, but I guess I’ll go where the tobacco road takes me.

Untitled (Ghost)

Today I’ve decided to share one of my rough short stories, part of a series I’m writing called “About a Girl” (tentatively titled – not sure I’ll be able to keep that working title for obvious reasons). In “About a Girl”, I take songs that I love from talented male musicians that are written about women, and turn them on their head. I interpret them myriad ways, many of them with a feminist spin, some of them funny, some of them dark, but all of them interesting and challenging. I have written eight of these stories so far, and this is by far my most dark to date.

I was inspired by “Untitled (Ghost)” by Neutral Milk Hotel. If you’re a fan of NMH you know that much of that album was inspired by Anne Frank. As a young girl I read her diary so many times I had it memorized. Her legacy and tragic story has stuck with me throughout my life, just as it has with so many others. It’s a very small consolation how she has inspired art throughout the decades since her death.

This story isn’t really about Anne Frank, though. I’ll leave it to your interpretation.

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Playing Catch-Up (and an excerpt)

Good morning, readers, and Happy National Book Lovers Day! I hope your August is going well.

It hasn’t been the greatest month for me so far. My dog passed away last week and I’ve been pretty devastated. Matilda was adorable and devoted and wiggly and goofy, and I just miss her like hell.

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My Matilda Furface.

I’ve been alternating between throwing myself into writing/research and binge-watching Netflix to drown my sorrows. But there’s only so many hours you can sit in the easychair watching House of Cards and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend before your eyes start to cross, so work it is. I am in the heavy research stage of a new novel, one that I’ll likely be writing for NaNoWriMo this year. It’s an idea that has been rolling around in the noggin for a couple of years at least, and it’s finally starting to gel enough that I’m ready to put pen to paper. I’m very excited. It’ll be the most challenging thing I’ve written, at least in terms of research, so I’m a bit nervous, but so far it has been a dream. I thought I hated research, but it turns out that I’m totally in my element. My heart is currently residing somewhere in 1930s rural Georgia among the cotton farmers.

But you’ll all have to wait for that, though, because I’ve got other irons in the fire. On Friday the first Goodreads giveaway for Ka Kite goes live, and I’ll be posting the link here.

A few friends have asked me to post more excerpts of my writing, and I had a short story all at the ready (at one point a couple of months ago, I was researching this new project, in the final editing stages of Ka Kite, and stopped both for several weeks to write eight short stories. Because I am insane.) but then I thought, nah. It can wait. Because it’s all about Ka Kite right now. I’m still coasting on the fact that I’ve finished my sequel and that the world of Aroha is done. I’m proud of it! And I want you all to read it!

So here it is, an excerpt from Ka Kite, just in time for National Book Lovers Day.

Coders, if you can tell me why my “read more” tag isn’t working, I’ll lurve you forever. I’ve messed with it for eons. Ugh.

But back to the excerpt. If you enjoy it, click over to Amazon and score yourself a copy. Or wait until Friday and try your hand at the giveaway. And don’t forget to leave reviews! Whether you do so on Amazon, Goodreads or your own blog, they help indie writers like me more than you can imagine.

Ta, Darlings.

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Art Imitating Life and the Benefits of Self-Publishing

So…

Ka Kite is out, y’all! I’m so excited, you guys. Probably more than I should be. I got my hard copy in the mail from Amazon two days ago, and I promptly sat down, put everything else aside, and read my novel cover to cover in the span of a day. I remember getting such joy of doing that when I published Aroha last year, and this time it was no different. That new book smell, the glossy cover art, seeing your words in print: it never gets old. When you’ve got a tangible copy in your hands, even though you wrote it and edited it and conceived of it all, for a brief, lovely moment, you read it through new eyes, and fall into the story yourself. It’s a wonderful feeling.

Now I’m all done, and the sad realization has hit me that my Aroha-world, the world that Miranda and Hemi and Rae and Georgie and Nick and Dusty have been bumbling around in for the last three years of my life, is all finished. I knew that I’d feel deflated and aimless once it was over, and I do. But I’m also really chuffed.

It has been a fun experience, a stressful experience, a learning experience. I’ve watched myself grow as a writer. I’ve watched myself navigate through things that once caused pain and turn them into fiction that touches others. I’ve learned the ins and outs of the self-publishing business. And after all of it, I can say that I’m the author of two novels.

So I’m sad, but it’s happy-sad.

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A selfie from Instagram with my self-published books because ain’t nobody got time for pretense.

For a long time after I published Aroha, I felt conflicted about it. I was proud, and I loved hearing people’s praise of my book and seeing the reviews, but there was also an underlying current from certain spaces that was judgmental. And the nagging little voice in my head would say, “You aren’t a real writer. You aren’t selling more copies or getting as much positive feedback because you self-published. People who know literature aren’t going to buy your book because it’s not legit.” I told that voice to shut up, but it crept back in more than once. And the thing is, it was more than partly true.

I’ve been at this game a long time.  I’m friends with lit majors and English teachers and professional authors and book critics. I have run across more than one person who would light up when they heard I’d published a book (“Oh!”), only for that light to dim into a look of barely-disguised boredom when they find out that I’m self-published (“Oh…”). It happens everywhere, all the time. People don’t even realize they’re doing it half the time (and then there are the ones that do, the admitted “book snobs” that I have literally zero fucks for – don’t get me started).

I get it. Self-publishing takes this highly sought after thing – getting an agent and/or signing your book with a publishing house – and makes it possible for everybody. It dilutes the pool, and fills it with mediocre, amateur authors, which makes it harder to find the real gems.

Except that it doesn’t.

I’m not in there, milling about with the likes of Stephen King and Diana Gabaldon (I wish!). Self-publishing makes it easier to get your work in print, but that’s it. The rest is up to you. All the marketing, promotion and grunt work is yours, and it is not easy. Self-publishing puts your work into a printed object, but it doesn’t ensure an audience and it definitely doesn’t ensure success (the opposite, in fact, as publishing houses and PR folks use that snobbishness towards “indie authors” to their advantage). For many, self-publishing is the kiss of death. The success stories are few and far between (most of us aren’t going to end up as E.L. James – which I’m okay with).

Why did I self-publish? I didn’t want to at first. In fact, after I finished Aroha, I spent the better part of a year querying it around to agents and publishing houses. I got some really good feedback (see my post from a few weeks ago about niche writing), but no bites. I got a personal, long letter from one agent that really meant a lot to me, because she had clearly read my work and actually took the time to give me some pointers. She told me that my novel would be a “hard sell” because the subject matter was grim and unflinching, but there was also this sweet love story, and most publishers wouldn’t be able to fit it between literary fiction and romance and find an audience. She encouraged me to continue writing, and not to give up, because she felt it was good. But she warned me that it might be hard to find someone willing to take the risk.

After I read her letter, I was surprised to find that I wasn’t upset. I was inspired. Because I had figured out what to do. I had never really considered self-publishing before; I’d always just assumed I’d try to shop the book around. But the entire time I did, I was nervous. Nervous about the things they would edit out of my story. Nervous that they would chop and hack at my words and make them not mine anymore. I was afraid of how they would market it. Afraid they would want me to write under my real name. Afraid they would plaster my picture all over the promotional material. Afraid of critics picking me apart when I still felt very raw and vulnerable. The idea of putting my book, a book that I took ten years to get up the courage to write, in someone else’s hands, filled me with anxiety.

If I self-published, I could control all of that. I could choose my pen name, the look and style of the book, everything down to the cover art and the words on the back. I could promote myself as little or as much as I wanted, and take baby steps out into the world of authorship. I would be in control. And that was something I desperately wanted and needed, even if it took me a while to realize it.

Aroha and its sequel are deeply personal. They are fiction, but so much of it is pulled from my real life, from experiences I’ve had and people I have known. The subject matter is hard, and it is not an easy read. It was even harder to write at times. It is a deep-rooted narrative that I am forever entwined with. For that reason, it is more important to me to simply have it “out there” than it is to sell a hundred or even a dozen copies, to make real money at it, or to have notoriety and “fans”. Just having those books in my hands is enough validation for me. It is my legacy, my tale of survival, as melodramatic as it may sound (I am a writer, after all). Would the rest be nice? Of course. But I’ll tell any book snob to go get stuffed, because for me, the real triumph was writing them and putting them out there on my own terms.

Self-publishing Aroha is the best decision I ever made, because I have been hands-on every step of the way. It is my baby, and this is how it should be. Yes, I get discouraged sometimes when I see the pitiful sales numbers, when friends or colleagues make offhand remarks about “indie authors”, or when the shops in town have book signings for people I know but won’t carry my book because it’s from Amazon. It burns. But I wouldn’t change it. My book has found its niche, and even though it may take twice or even three times as long, it will find the audience it is meant for.

As a teenager, writing angsty love poetry in my little notebook, I never dreamed that I’d grow up to write the complicated and flawed female characters that seem to dominate my work. But I wouldn’t change them. Somewhere along the line I made the decision to thread much of myself into my heroes and heroines, to put the truth into my writing, warts and all. I probably have Margaret Atwood to thank for that. My writing is deeply, deeply personal, no matter how remote it may sometimes seem. So it only makes sense that when writing such a personal narrative, an author might want to control their own narrative, too.

Ka Kite is available for Kindle and paperback, and is now up for reviews on Goodreads.  I’d be overjoyed if you read it.