Avert your eyes

I’ve been sick with bronchitis for the past week. All of the stress I’ve been under made mincemeat of my immune system and I was struck hard last Thursday night with it. I even got some excellent cough syrup with hydrocodone in it.  It helped me sleep and helped me not to cough so much.

But this morning I was still not feeling better so I called the doctor and got a second appointment. And as I was driving over it happened. A mama duck started bustling her brood across the busy four-lane road. The truck in front of me didn’t even stop and mowed over them, killing two of them. I slammed on my brakes in horror as the mama duck ran back into traffic. If my windows had been rolled down I am sure I would have heard her screams of terror.

My own mouth opened wide as well, though no sound came out. My eyes screwed shut and I could not see for the tears that poured forth. The violent death of the ducklings and the anguished horror of their mama triggered a full-blown panic attack in me. Behind the wheel. I could not breathe, nor see, nor, it seemed, able to do anything useful at all. Somehow I managed to pull off the road and sat in the parking lot of a church and remained quite hysterical for at least fifteen minutes.

Obviously I was not crying about the ducks.

If you’re sick of reading about my grief, I’m sorry. But this is a place I am going to sit for a while. Please skip over me if it bothers or annoys you.

I mean this sincerely.

There are some interesting things I have learned about grief and death in America in the past few weeks.

The first is that most people are uncomfortable with it. It is something they don’t understand and something they fear, therefore they avoid it. We are expected to cry at the funeral and then go on with our lives, doing more damage to our psyches than we realize.

When we have had a profound loss in our life it is quite natural to get hysterical from time to time. It is the body’s way of releasing the pressure we build inside ourselves.

The second thing I learned was something a wise man told me. He said that grief is like playing in the surf. If you stand hard against the waves it will knock you down and fill your mouth full of water and sand. But if you let the wave wash over you, you will go down, but you will bob right back up again. Best not to fight it when it comes.

So when it comes I am going to let it consume me. I will cry ugly. I will probably choke on my own snot and cough so hard I pee my pants a little. But I will not stand against the grief. I will embrace it and ride it out to the other side. Because that is the only way I am going to get through this.

And I will understand if you need to avert your eyes.

The Club

I have recently become a member of an exclusive club. So exclusive, even my husband isn’t a member. I have a few friends and relatives who belong though. My friend from high school, Jenny, joined in her twenties. My cousins Michelle, Andrew and Paul have been members since 2006. And most of us, at one time or another will gain membership. It’s easy, you just have to lose a parent.

I don’t mean to be glib. In fact, I don’t want to be at all. Most of you know my mom died last Saturday. She had been sick for a long time. Her last month of life was spent in the ICU of Tampa General Hospital. And in the early hours of the morning, just five days ago, her fragile body gave out. Specifically, her lungs just couldn’t keep up anymore. She was 67 years old.

Grief is an overwhelming thing. Sometimes I am all right, I have moments of calm. But then my brain thinks, “I can’t believe this is happening,” and suddenly I feel like I have been kicked repeatedly in the solar plexus, all breath knocked from my body and the ugly crying commences. And I never know where or when it is going to happen.

The past few days I’ve been sleeping a lot. It is my one escape from reality and a blessing. While I am asleep I do not cry. I do not remember she has gone. I do not think, “I’m never going to see her again in this life.”

My own mother’s mother, Grandma Marcy, died when Mom was in her early 30’s. And Mom had told me on numerous occasions that you never stop grieving for your mother. I believe her. I will get distance and time away from that horrible day, but I will never stop wanting her near me. I’ll never stop wanting her to touch my face with her soft hand, or kiss me, or tell me to “Get home good,” when I’m on my way home.

But the club. They are part of what is keeping me going. You see, they know the hell I am in right now and they see me. I’ve had several members approach me over the past few days to let me know they know how I am feeling. And in a weird way it’s a great comfort. They have been through this and yet they are still actively living their lives. Thank you Andrew, and Julie, and April, and Beth.

Don’t believe, however, that if you aren’t in the club I’m not grateful as hell for your kindness, your sympathy, or your love. Everyone has experienced loss, and I don’t belittle it one bit. Pain is pain and you don’t have to lose your mom to feel that. My husband Kosta, has been my rock. He never gets sick of seeing me melt down. He just holds me and lets me get it out.

For everyone who has lost a mother or father, I see you. I know the grief you carry around with you every day, no matter how much time has passed since they died. I see you.

But we carry on. I am sure I will find ways to deal with my grief, and the day will come when I won’t cry once.

Just not today.

Mom

Next Friday on January 19 my Mom is having high risk surgery. She has a benign tumor in her colon that is growing aggressively fast and it must be removed before it becomes a bowel obstruction. Because of other health issues the doctors say she has a 50% chance of survival.

The surgery will be in Tampa, about two hours north of where we live. Kosta, Dad and I will be staying in a hotel for the duration.

I won’t deny it. I’m scared.

Please send us your prayers, goodwill and energy. Regardless of the outcome this is going to be an extremely difficult time for all of us. I’ll post again after the surgery to keep everyone updated.

Thanks in advance and love to you all.

 

What’s for Dinner?

First to update, Mom is home from the hospital! She is feeling much better, though is rather wiped out. But she is happy to be home and sleeping in her own bed again.

This week was a challenge with going to the hospital every night. But I didn’t have to worry about dinner. Because I signed up for one of those meal kit delivery services, and I am ridiculously excited about it.

Kosta and I have been eating like crap lately. We eat out way too much or we stop at the store on the way home from work to pick up an easy dinner. We’ve gained weight, spent money, and feel pretty much gross.

Cherry Balsamic Pork before cooking.

Without telling him I made an executive decision: I signed up for Hello Fresh. What you do is pick three or four meals a week from the six or so they have to choose from. Then once a week you get a box on your doorstep with everything you need to make dinner! It’s all pre-measured, all you need are butter, oil, salt and pepper. It takes about 30 minutes to cook dinner and you have something healthy, balanced, and so far, delicious.

This week was our first foray, and I cooked our first meal on Tuesday: cherry balsamic pork with roasted potatoes and broccoli. It was just complicated enough to make it interesting and it tasted amazing. Even Kosta, who was unsure of the whole business at first, had to agree that it was outstanding for 30 minutes of work.

The ingredients to make our first supper.

Everything comes in a box, and in each box are three paper bags, the meat separate. Most of it is recyclable and everything is fresh and beautiful. I love all the mini things, like the tiny jar of cherry preserves and the little bottle of balsamic vinegar. It all goes so fast because you don’t have to measure much, you just dump stuff in the pot.

The directions were easy to follow and it reminded me how much I love to cook. In our house Kosta is known as the chef, but I’m no slouch.  I can slice and dice too, and while my knife skills might not be on par with his, I still feel I can measure up.

And it isn’t that expensive and very convenient. I don’t have to buy extra of stuff at the grocery store and there are no leftovers. Whoever initially thought of this is a genius. It saves me time and money and I get the pleasure of cooking three nights a week and enjoying a great meal.

My first effort was sickeningly good.

So we have a deal now. I cook dinner and he cleans up. I can’t tell you how much I have been enjoying this. I even bought a blue tooth speaker for the kitchen so I can listen to music while I cook. Everything about it is fun for me. Especially not having to wash the dishes.

We also had French onion burgers with kale chips and roasted salmon with crispy potato rounds and dill veggies. We get another box on Monday and I’m excited to do it all over again.

It’s nice to have a new routine that is good for us and it gives me something to look forward to. And after three hits, Kosta is convinced this is a good idea.  I can’t say I’ve ever looked forward to a Tuesday quite so much.

Shine a Light

Our doorbell rang last night about 6:30. It was Dad, who had stopped on his way to the emergency room. Mom was sick and he couldn’t get a hold of us. We had just gotten home from dinner out, my phone charging in the bedroom. So we put our shoes right back on and hopped in the car.

My Mom has quite a few health problems, including three auto-immune diseases: Myasthenia Gravis, Fibromyalgia, and another unnamed one that attacked her lungs, leaving them at about 30-40% the size of an average adult female. I don’t talk about it a lot for several reasons. For one, it is her business as it is her health.  But it has been becoming more and more clear to me over the past few months that it is okay to talk to people about it. Support is a good thing to have from your family and friends.

Mom has pneumonia. It isn’t very bad, but for someone with lungs like hers it is bad news nonetheless. The good news is it was caught early and can be treated with antibiotics and she can be in the hospital where she can get the care and watchful eyes of the medical professionals. I have to say everyone at Physician’s Regional has been extremely top notch and helpful. I am relieved to know she is in good hands and being cared for.

Still, I am anxious to hear she is better and can come home. Our next hurdle to jump will be the surgery she will need in the next couple of months. It is extremely risky, considering the shape of her lungs, but it can’t be helped if she wants to survive.

Friday night my parents, my husband and I had a celebratory dinner marking their 48th wedding anniversary. While the men were outside heating up the grill for the steaks Mom and I had a good talk. We were frank and honest about the future. Mom said she wasn’t ready to die. She wanted to celebrate her 50th wedding anniversary. She wanted to go to Disney World again. She wanted to see me become a published author. In other words, she is far from done with this life.

I love my Mom. She is gentle and kind, but there is also a fiery center to her that I admire greatly. She has more strength than anyone I know. And it makes me feel so helpless to see her struggle when there is nothing I can do but hold her hand. But if that’s what I can do, I am there.

The holidays are coming. I am going to shine a light in the darkness for my mom and my family. We will get through this.

 

Five Questions: Catherine Egan

Julia can be unseen. She has the ability to “step back” into a shadowy place that renders her invisible to most people. It comes in handy when one is a spy. And Julia has been sent to Mrs. Och’s house to find out who is locked in the basement and what they are doing there.

Julia and her brother Dek have been on their own since their father disappeared and their mother was drowned for being a witch. Spira City is a cutthroat place where you live and die by your wits, and fortunately Julia is more clever than most.

But when things take a turn for the unusual at Mrs. Och’s house Julia is faced with a conundrum–should she do her job as she has been paid to do, or listen to her conscience?

JULIA VANISHES and JULIA DEFIANT are the first two books in the Witch’s Child trilogy, and I devoured them both. Julia is such a complex and likable heroine–funny, warm, and yet a little more ruthless than is good for her. I loved watching her character develop through the course of these two books, and I am waiting rather impatiently for the third, which Catherine says is slated to be released June of 2018.

I can’t mention all the characters, but I will tell you there is one named Pia, who is frightening, strong, devilishly quick, and rather ruthless herself. Julia finds her repulsive and yet oddly magnetic, like a tragedy from which she can’t look away.

I can’t tell you enough how much I loved these two books. Julia is such a complex character, and I found myself swallowed whole by the story. I aspire to write books as thoroughly good as these.

Here are Catherine’s five questions:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

I don’t think I can pinpoint a single seed – every story is the result of a few seeds that manage to connect. I can identify three main “seeds” that turned into JULIA VANISHES.

The most obvious seed was just the idea – I don’t know from where, really – of a spy who can step out of sight, so she’s there but unseen, though not fully invisible either. Another seed was connecting this vanishing spy to the world-building of a failed book. I’d written close to two hundred pages of a book about witches before giving it up, but when I decided to write a spy story, I returned to that disaster of a half-written book for salvage. I pulled out the entire setting and a number of side characters, like the fanatical, witch-hunting prime minister, Agoston Horthy, the fiercely protective witch Bianka and her magical little boy, and my favorite character, Pia, a villain I knew I had to use somewhere.

The third seed was a kind of daydream-image of a girl in a nightgown creeping through a dark house, picking a lock, and entering a room full of books. That became my first chapter. Julia herself emerged as soon as I began to write, and pulled the whole story along after her.

I always imagine my stories will be fun, rollicking thrillers, and they always come out much darker than I intend. After a friend pointed out that most of my characters have lost either a parent or a child, I had to acknowledge that I plant my story-seeds in the ever-fertile soil of my worst nightmares.

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I’m an outliner through and through. I can’t even start to write until I have a thorough, chapter-by-chapter outline. In the process of drafting, of course, I do diverge from my outline, but whenever that happens I panic and I have to stop and remake the outline to fit with the new direction the book is taking. This happens several times over the course of a couple of drafts, so maybe I’m really part pantser masquerading as an outliner. I do use my outline as kind of a crutch. I envy the faith and courage required to just leap into a story without a plan and see what you emerge with at the end.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

Style is probably the hardest thing to trace back to particular influences, and also the hardest thing to change about one’s writing, I think. I desperately admire a kind of spare and flawless prose – think Kazuo Ishiguro – that I couldn’t dream of emulating.

I’m sure everything I read creeps into my writing one way or another, but when trying to think about influence, it’s easiest to think about late childhood / early teen reads, when I first began to think of writing as a craft. For the first time I wasn’t just absorbed by a good story – I was recognizing good writing.

The two books that leap to mind immediately are Louise Fitzhugh’s THE LONG SECRET, which was a revelation about writing complicated shades-of-grey characters, and how seeing a character from different perspectives changes everything (Harriet from HARRIET THE SPY is a central character, but she is mostly seen from Beth Ellen’s point of view), and Dodie Smith’s I CAPTURE THE CASTLE, also a master class in character, voice, and giving the reader what they need instead of what they want.

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

No! When my children were smaller I wrote with all kinds of noise in the background, but now I prefer silence whenever possible.

5. What are you reading right now?

I just finished THE BOOK OF DUST – for fans of Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS, it doesn’t disappoint – and now I’m reading Carmen Maria Machado’s riveting short stories, HER BODY AND OTHER PARTIES.

 

Catherine Egan is:

My books: JULIA DEFIANT, JULIA VANISHES, Shade & Sorceress, The Unmaking, Bone, Fog, Ash & Star
My blog: bycatherineegan.wordpress.com
My superpowers: high-kicking, list-making, simultaneously holding two opposing opinions
My weaknesses: fear of flying, over-thinking and then making bad decisions, excessive list-making
My allies: my made-for-walking-in black boots, Mick, the English Language
My enemies: decaf, low blood sugar, the passage of time
My mission: the coexistence of ambivalence and joy.

NaNoWriMo and SIWC

Tonight is NaNoWriMo Eve. Tomorrow begins the frenzy of averaging 1667 words written per day, every day for the month of November. I am quasi-ready. I have a bare outline, character sketches, and some research done. I am currently reading a biography on Calamity Jane and enjoying it. I have another on Annie Oakley waiting on standby.

I am nervous, to tell you the truth. I want this book to be a success and not something hack or derivative. I am still searching for that golden key that will turn this story on its head. I can feel it, just out of reach. Perhaps if I just dive in I will stumble across it. I find that’s how my writing process usually works.

And this weekend is the Sanibel Island Writers’ Conference, for which I once again will be volunteering. I am excited to attend a particular workshop on Characterization taught by Steve Almond, among others. Perhaps something this weekend will spark my imagination and solve this problem of my story.

So here is to all of you out there who are participating in NaNoWriMo this month. I wish you great inspiration, and joy in the writing process.

Cowpokes and Bastards

I’ve been reading a fascinating book called “What They Didn’t Teach You About the Wild West” by Mike Wright. It’s anecdotal in nature and chock full of information into the cowboy lifestyle of the Old West.

Some of my favorites quotes so far:

Cowboys often had their own way of speaking. A balding cook “ain’t got any hair ‘tween him and heaven.”  Another cowboy might be so crooked that he “could swallow nails and spit out corkscrews.” And a no-good cowboy “wasn’t worth a barrel of shucks,” referring to corn shucks for which there was little use…

And this gem of a letter written by a cowboy to his ranch owner back East:

Deer sur, We have brand 800 caves this roundup we have made some hay potatoes is a fare crop. That Inglishman yu lef in charge at the other camp got to fresh and we had to kill the son of a bitch. Nothing much has hapened sence yu lef. Yurs trulely, Jim.

I’ve also been watching a PBS documentary series at night called American Wild West. I’ve seen programs on General George Custer (a cocky bastard), Wyatt Earp (a crooked bastard), Jesse James (a mean bastard), and Billy the Kid (a baby bastard.) So far I have come to the conclusion that there wasn’t a decent man in all of the West during the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Still, they were all colorful bastards, no doubt about that. And it makes inspiration for a good yarn. I’m inspired by these dastardly devils.

November first is a week away. I’m excited to get along with these little dogies.

The Muse Wields a Sledgehammer

NaNoWriMo

On November 1st I am going to embark on a writing frenzy. Every day for a month I am going to write an average 1,667 words until I have a grand total of 50,000 by November 30. This is National Novel Writing Month. I’ve participated twice before, once in 2011 and once in 2013, each time I wrote over 50,000 words.

Yes, my book is still on submission, and while I am waiting I have been toying with a book idea. I’ve started writing the thing three times and each time I’ve been dissatisfied with the results. The plot, the characters, all feel derivative, like I’ve seen it before a million times. That is a disaster waiting to happen.

And in the past two days I’ve gotten three passes, which is hard to take. I know it isn’t personal, but each one is another little cut until I’m stinging and bleeding all over the place. Yeah, I suppose that’s dramatic, but I allow myself to wallow in misery for a night and then I suck it up and move on.

So last night after a visit to Royal Scoop ice cream to drown my sorrows, I went to bed. I was idly thinking about a tweet my agent had put out last week about how he would love to see a Western. So I started thinking about how I love Westerns myself, and what I would do if I ever wrote one.

That’s when the muse descended and whacked me in the back of the head with a sledgehammer. I had a hard time falling asleep because my brain was galloping away in a thousand directions, coming up with brilliant ideas and details. I kept having to get up and write them down.

This morning I have two protagonists, a setting, the rough outline of a plot, and even a title. I’m calling it West of Never and on November 1st I am going to start the first draft. The rest of October will be given over to drafting an outline, character sketches, and general noodling. I’m pitching it as True Grit meets Thelma and Louise.

This. This is going to be wicked fun.

And that’s what writing is all about, right? If it isn’t fun, you shouldn’t be doing it.

Five Questions: Katharine McGee

The Thousandth Floor

It’s one hundred years in the future, and New York is still the center of civilization, but with wicked cool new technology. Contact lenses can make calls and show your social media feed, cars are replaced by self-driving machines, and the tallest building in town is now 1000 stories tall: complete with schools, shops, parks, and houses–there is literally no need to go outside. Why would you want to?

Some things never change, however, and the wealthy still live extravagantly on the upper floors, teens still party and experiment with sex and drugs, and the course of true love still doesn’t run straight.

The Thousandth Floor and its sequel The Dazzling Heights follows a group of teens as they try to navigate their way to adulthood. Avery is the golden child, genetically modified to be gorgeous and smart. Her friends Eris, Leda and Cord all go to an exclusive school “Up Tower,” while Rylin and Watt, kids from the lower floors stumble into their orbit of parties, expensive clothes, and killer digs.

The Dazzling Heights

But things aren’t as perfect as they appear on the surface. Many secrets and troubles exist between the different players and someone ends up getting hurt. Will the others keep the secret, perhaps the deadliest secret of all?

Katharine McGee has put together a tale that is at once gleaming with polish and raw and authentic. I would pitch it as Gossip Girl of the 22nd century, and it really is a glossy read filled with lifestyles of the young and rich and the all-too-real troubles of a teen from any age: substance abuse, bullying, sex, and forbidden love. I really enjoyed these both and look forward to the next in the continuing series. Here are Katharine’s five questions:

1. What was the original seed idea for your book? Did it start with a character, a situation, or an idea?

I lived in Manhattan for five years after I graduated from college, working as an editor of young adult fiction. This was back when the dystopian craze was all the rage, series like The Hunger Games and Divergent. I couldn’t stop thinking about those books, wondering what it said about us as a society that we were obsessed with such bleak, dark visions of the future. What would the future look like if, instead of destroying the world, we actually got things right—if each generation left the world better than they found it? I wanted to write a non-dystopian young adult novel set in the future, but hadn’t quite figured out what would look like.

Then I read an article about a concept called “vertical urbanization”: the idea that cities in the future will grow increasingly tall until they become massive skyscrapers. The idea captured my imagination. I mentioned it to my boss at work, who said the phrase “the thousandth floor,” and I knew I had my title right there! 🙂

2. What is your writing process? Are you an outliner or a pantser?

I’m an outliner through and through! I couldn’t survive without an outline, especially since I’m dealing with five different narrators, whose stories all intersect in complicated ways. One of my old writing professors called this the domino effect: if you change one thing that happens to one character, it creates a ripple that extends through all the stories. So before I write I spend a lot of time on my chapter-by-chapter outline. It inevitably changes along the way, but that’s just part of the process.

3. Who are the writers which most influence your writing style?

My favorite series of all time is still Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy—there’s really nothing else like it, and I highly recommend it if you haven’t yet read it. I’m also very into George R.R. Martin lately, in no small part because of the way he so deftly handles his various narrators, killing off characters and then cycling in new ones, all while still maintaining a heart-pounding sense of urgency. I’ve been trying to do something a bit like that with The Thousandth Floor!

4. Do you listen to music when you write?

I’m one of those people who needs silence to write! Somehow my brain has trouble sorting through the prose, especially dialogue, when there’s music on. It’s like my brain can’t process the words of the music and then also come up with new words at the same time! So I’m not very good at getting work done in cafés: I mostly work in my home office, or occasionally in a library. But I do play music between scenes to take my mind off things!

5. What are you reading right now?

I just finished Kendare Blake’s One Dark Throne, which is the second in a fantastic fantasy series set in a world where three princess sisters have to kill each other, and the one who lives will become the queen! I’m also reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, an adult historical fiction/fantasy about the rise of early modern Europe. It’s one of those epic, sprawling stories that builds an incredible and intricate world, so I’ve been savoring it.

Katharine McGee

Katharine McGee is originally from Houston, Texas. She studied English and French literature at Princeton University and has an MBA from Stanford. It was during her years in New York, working as an editor by day and writing by night, that she began a manuscript about life in a futuristic skyscraper. The Thousandth Floor is her first novel. She currently lives in Houston with her husband. Check out her website at katharinemcgee.com.