My eleventh book, The Waiting House: A Novel in Stories, is here. The title is quite appropriate, as I’ve waited a long time to get it out.
Cover art and design by Shykia Bell
Every time I publish a new book, I like to write a blog explaining how it came to be. As a multi-genre author (with leanings toward literary and contemporary fiction), I put a lot of thought (agonizing contemplation) over what to write next.
I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from my themed short-story collection, Hotel Obscure, where the same characters appear in different stories; many readers telling me that the book read to them like a novel. While it’s not a novel, it was my intention to give it that feel. So, when I decided to do a follow-up book, I thought I’d torture myself by raising the bar and this time, write a novel-in-stories / A Novel in Stories.”
In Writer’s Digest (2008), Scott Francis, a former editor and writer at WD Books, explains what a novel-in-stories is:
“A novel-in-stories is a book-length collection of short stories that are interconnected. (One of the very first examples of this genre is The Canterbury Tales; a more recent example is The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, by Melissa Bank.) A novel-in-stories overcomes two key challenges for writers: the challenge of writing a novel-length work, and the challenge of publishing a book-length work of unrelated short stories. (Few publishers are willing to publish a short-story collection from an unknown writer.) So, the novel-in-stories helps you sell a story collection like you would a novel—as long as the interconnected nature of the stories is strong and acts as a compelling hook. Another advantage to novels-in-stories is that they afford you the opportunity to publish pieces of your novel in a variety of literary magazines, which might attract the attention of an editor or agent. (Editors and agents often troll literary publications looking for new talent to publish or represent.)”
When I began writing this, I asked myself at regular intervals if I was crazy. Would I be able to do this? It was tough to come up with unique stories and tie them to an overall story arc. I’ll admit it … I thought about quitting, but not being a quitter, I kept pushing myself, and then … finally … it all began to come together.
I’d written two novels after Hotel Obscure, so I had a lot of time to think about where to set this next collection. As it turns out, I really needed the time because I wanted a setting that I could see and that I felt passionate about. As I began to write, while I didn’t plan on it, The Waiting House took on a different tone than Hotel Obscure, with a decidedly Twilight Zone theme to it … something I never planned on doing, even though one story in HO fits that bill.
Graphic by Kathleen Harryman
Here’s the blurb:
Once an opulent hotel for lovers of the Hollywood lifestyle, today the imposing building survives, somewhere, as an apartment house for those who wait. Not all know what they’re waiting for, but the residents live in flawed concert with those of undetermined existence, among relics of the past, as they wait for answers, for lost loved ones, and for purpose.
While the stories feature different characters, many of whom are recurring, each tale couples with its own unique reality … and is narrated by Conrad, the “grand master.” There is an overall story arc: part literary fiction, part Twilight Zone … both with a healthy dose of dark humor.
If you step inside, you’ll meet Ava Elisabeth, now in her 80s. After 40 years in Paris, she has returned. But why? Darah, the owner, is tormented by the sudden reappearance of her estranged mother, Millicent.
Kenny finds a way to overcome the despair of his missing wife. Fiona lives in the shadow of her once-famous, movie-star mother. Former Santa, Alejandro, punishes himself with solitude and sadness. A disturbed woman, Carolyn, waits for her TV prince to come. And Lee is tortured by random people who slide down walls near his fourth-floor apartment. Under the same roof, each soul has a different story … but all live in The Waiting House.
I’ll leave you with that as I go off to imagine a possible third collection … one that will also take much thought to develop. In the meantime, I’ll be starting a new novel.
As are all of my books, The Waiting House: A Novel in Stories is available in paperback, Kindle, and is free to read on Kindle Unlimited.
The Kindle and paperback editions are available here: (universal link)
I’m happy to announce the publication of my tenth book, a contemporary novel, The Sum of our Sorrows.
People often ask me how I get an idea for a particular book. Sometimes, I’m able to be very precise in my response and at other times, it’s not as easy.
I first got the idea for “this novel” well over a decade ago. I put those words in quotes, because then, it was a very different book, and what swirled about in my brain, I wasn’t ready to put down “on paper.” Not then.
In November of 2019, I finally felt ready to write the story, which has gone through quite a metamorphosis in my head before I wrote the first word. My original idea was to paint an intimate portrait of a relationship between two specific characters.
Years after my initial concept, I decided that the female protagonist would follow the storyline of song lyrics I wrote in another lifetime. My song, “Dear Sweet Melanie” was about a teenager whose mother had died and her entire life was lost because her father forced her to take on the role of mother to her sisters. The song (later recorded by a friend) was only meant to paint a mini portrait, whereas the story in this book is far more expansive and stars a very different person.
Lily Sheppard, the main character in The Sum of our Sorrows, has a similar story, but Lily is stronger than the tragic character of Melanie. Lily’s story is also more modern than my melodramatic song, which was more akin to Bobby Goldsboro’s “Honey” for those of you who can remember that far back.
As I began to write Lily’s story, it became clear that this book would be about the entire Sheppard family, far more complex and nuanced than I had intended. I needed to tell the story of this family, front and center, and that all of the plots and plot twists I’d had for the end of the book had to be gone. They were no longer relevant and no longer mattered. The Sum of our Sorrows had morphed into something very different … good different, and very soon it became a story I was passionate to tell.
In today’s world, where so many of us have lost loved ones and are having trouble moving on, and dragging our grief like heavy chains, The Sum of our Sorrows, as it is now, became a very important one for me to write.
Here’s the blurb:
In an idyllic suburb in Northern California, tragedy strikes the Sheppard family when Abby, the mother of three daughters and wife to Dalton, is killed in a car accident. Charlotte, the middle daughter, is in the car with her mother and survives without physical injury but remains deeply scarred on the inside.
Dalton tells Lily, his eldest daughter, that she must sacrifice long-awaited college plans and put her life on hold to take care of her sisters. Lily is torn between her devotion to family and an increasing need to find her place in the world — but how can she leave, knowing her family may crumble? Will her presence eventually cause more problems than it resolves?
The Sum of our Sorrows reveals how the aftermath of a family tragedy can precipitate sorrows never imagined. It is a tale of grief, hope, healing, coming-of-age, friendship, and survival. It is also a love story of two broken souls living through pain in search of better days and the renewal of one’s spirit.
The Sum of our Sorrows is available in paperback and Kindle editions. It is also free to read in Kindle Unlimited.
I never imagined that I would write a romantic comedy. But in 2009, I published one, Molly Hacker Is Too Picky!, and believe it or not, I didn’t even think of it as a rom-com. Rather, I thought of it as a book that allowed me to flex my comedy-writing muscles. And here I am, having just published my second romantic comedy, Love, Look Away.
Humor has always been part of my work. Even when I’m writing what might be considered dark and heavy, comedy is usually lurking around the corner, waiting to jump in and stir things up. Conversely, when I’m writing comedy, darkness often lurks as well.
Molly Hacker Is Too Picky! features a 32-year-old woman, a newspaper journalist in her home town of Swansea, New York (fictional), who has given herself one year to find Mr. Right.
To introduce Molly to readers, about eight months before the book’s publication, I started an illustrated blog at mollyhacker.com. Molly, the journalist, interviewed many creative people, but she also blogged about her own life, especially her dating life. The blog was tough to write, because I didn’t want to cover any topics that were in the novel or that in any way conflicted with the story.
As it turns out, Molly made lots of friends throughout the years. And the number one question from readers was almost always, “Are you going to write a sequel?” I always answered with a hard no. For one, Molly’s story had an ending and I had no idea where I could possibly take a sequel.
Additionally, while I had written a YA paranormal trilogy, The Desert Series, I didn’t want to write another series. I just wanted to write standalone novels that could be read in any order. Lastly, I didn’t expect I’d even write another rom-com.
But when I went to write my ninth book, after having written two literary fiction books in a row, Barrie Hill Reunion and Hotel Obscure: A Collection of Short Stories, I wasn’t ready to dive into my next idea. With everything going on in the world and my own state of being, it felt too burdensome for me. Like a lover of good food taking a spoonful of sorbet after each course of a gourmet meal, I needed a palate cleanser. And I needed to write more comedy.
So, I thought, while I’m not going to write a sequel about Molly’s life, why not write a new romantic comedy and set in the same town? Wouldn’t it be great to introduce brand-new characters, bring back Molly and a few others as supporting characters, and watch the fun begin? And that’s exactly what I did.
The heroine of Love, Look Away is 29-year-old Sage Gordon. Unlike Molly, a lover of designer clothes and Jimmy Choos, Sage prefers the Bohemian look and runs a metaphysical-themed gift shop, Sage Earth Gifts. Whereas Molly was always on the lookout for Mr. Right, Sage is on the “look away” from them.
As the book opens, Sage, after being burned five months prior by her fiancé, has no interest in meeting anyone. Aside from being hurt by the breakup, she’s never gotten over her childhood love, Jimmy Cole, who disappeared with his parents when Sage and he were both eleven years old. As a child, she always thought she’d marry him someday. As an adult, she knows he’s long gone. Nearly two decades have passed and there’s no trace. She wants to move on; but cannot deny that his disappearance not only haunts her but somehow keeps her from wanting to find someone new. She’s content to run her store, Sage Earth Gifts, and spend time with her dog, Rufus, her two cats, Finlay and Babaloo, and her friends and family. Do things become more complicated? Well of course they do!
Sage’s dog, Rufus
In Love, Look Away, Molly and her co-worker/best friend Randy, are friends of Sage’s. And, as in Molly Hacker Is Too Picky!, the town’s most visible socialite, Naomi Hall Benchley (The “She-Devil”), is still causing all kinds of trouble and sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong. Seriously … some people just have nothing better to do!
Maybe some Molly readers who choose to pick up Love, Look Away will indeed see the book as a sequel, though I’m certainly not calling it that. (For readers who haven’t read Molly, but may wish to, rest assured the ending is not given away in the new book.)
Maybe, if I ever write a third book set in Swansea, I’ll probably give in and call it a series.
Short stories were never my thing. In my youth, with no direction but always a burning passion to write, I wrote one incomplete story after another. One story, however, many decades later, turned into my seventh novel, Barrie Hill Reunion. That anomaly aside, the writing of incomplete stories seemed like little more than a writing exercise for a young, searching mind.
Like many writers, I have folders filled with examples of my youthful angst and confusion: long-winded stream-of-consciousness musings, depressing poetry, and once in a while, a random ray of sunshine. Here’s one such wonder from my teenaged mind:
Wisdom entails years of sleep,
And waking to find the river is deep,
Falling closely, avoiding the rocks,
Knowing the world in a time without clocks.
Waves rush fiercely to salvage the drift,
Creations dancing on a whitened cliff.
Spring of water and honey pie,
Miraculous wonder which never can die.
But most of my poetry read more like this:
Trapped in a cage of gloom,
I wander all over the room.
At every bar, I chance for escape,
Forgetting it’s me in the long black cape.
And sometimes, my poetry was on the artistic side:
At the age of nineteen, I wrote 150 pages of an unfinished novel. As time went on, still without direction, I wrote four screenplays and two plays.
Years later, after a decade-long writer’s block and much introspection, figuring out that I had a simultaneous fear of both rejection and success, I started writing again. By now, I’ve learned that in order to complete something, I need to know what I want to complete. There’s nothing wrong with getting into a car and going for a ride without a destination, but after so long, I need to arrive somewhere.
The realization of what had been holding me back spurred me to write my first novel, Squalor, New Mexico, a 1970s coming-of-age story that takes place in East Coast suburbia.
I went on to become a multi-genre author of seven novels. People had often asked me if I’d ever written short stories. “No,” I had always replied. “My mind doesn’t work that way. My mind only works in long form. I need to write novels.”
And for the most part, maybe that’s true. But in 2015, when I was asked to write two short stories for an anthology called Triptychs: Mind’s Eye Series Book 3, I responded in the affirmative. After completing two short stories, inspired by two photos I was given, I realized the writing of short stories was not beyond my ken. (Insert smart-ass remark here from my brother, Kenneth; I know one is coming.)
While writing for the anthology showed me I could write short stories, it wasn’t enough of an impetus to write more. It was during the writing of my YA paranormal trilogy, The Desert Series, that I became increasingly frustrated by the limitations on language. So, after I finished the first book, while waiting for my edits to be returned, I unleashed my frustration by writing a short story in the literary fiction genre. Ah, what a joy it was to use any words that meandered through my mind. Before too long, I wrote another story.
Writing these stories not only made me feel good, but I found a way to keep on writing during the waiting period. While some authors can easily delve into a new novel, I only like to work on one at a time so I can completely immerse myself in the nuances of my story.
It was around that time that I decided I would slowly start building a themed collection. After three years, Hotel Obscure was finished. My goal had been to have at least fourteen stories, but to my delight, I ended up with seventeen.
Here’s the synopsis for Hotel Obscure:
In a run-down neighborhood in an unnamed city, people live and die in “the Obscure.”
Whether anyone remembers the real name of the derelict establishment is a mystery. In this six-story building, most who occupy the rooms are long-term residents, though some stay for as little as an hour.
The patronage is an eclectic group: musicians, writers, addicts, hookers, lonely people, poor people, rich people, once-well-off people, and those who have reason to hide from their former lives or to escape the demands of a disapproving and punishing society.
As shabby as the Obscure is, as long as its walls keep out the wind and the rain, it remains a shelter, a hideaway, and a home for the many bewildered souls.
Hotel Obscure is a collection of seventeen short stories that all take place in or around the “the Obscure.” While the stories stand alone, they are to be read in order. Some characters appear in multiple stories, and sometimes, a story will continue in an unexpected way.
The Obscure is life. It is death. In the blink of an eye, it may appear supernatural. It is a place we all visit … whether metaphorically or physically, at least once in our time on Earth.
And yes, my ninth book will be a novel. However, I have no doubt that I’ll slowly begin to build another short story collection. Not only do I enjoy literary fiction and having something to do between books, I also find the process of exploring themes and stories without turning them into novels extremely satisfying. But wow, what a trip it’s been to get here.
TweetWhen I was eighteen years old, and a drama student at Pace University in New York City, my grandmother came to visit me for the weekend.
That Sunday, she took me for brunch at the Algonquin Hotel. I had no idea what an impact this outing would have on my writing life.
While we were enjoying our meal, my grandmother told us about the Algonquin Round Table, the celebrated group of literary New Yorkers who met for lunch every day from 1919 to 1929 or thereabouts. I wish I could tell you more about what happened, but my memory of that day is so vague it barely exists. All I can distinctly remember is being fascinated, looking around at the décor, and deciding that I was going to write a story, based on a hotel like this, about the reunion of a college literary group. And I felt very passionate about it. Maybe the ghosts of members past had whispered to me. I wouldn’t be surprised.
I can’t even remember when I actually began writing my short story. I really loved the concept, but I was not the disciplined writer I am today. I do remember the first line, though: “Leah received her invitation on Tuesday.”
In my early twenties, I was living in Queens, NY with my roommate, Gail, who worked in an office. I was working as a bartender at the time. Because I had no access to a copy machine (which everyone called a “Xerox machine” back then), I asked Gail if she could make me a copy of my story. I knew it was special, and I didn’t want to lose it.
It was so special that when Gail forgot to make a copy for me, I completely forgot I had ever asked.
Fast forward several years. I was living in Los Angeles, working at Paramount Studios. One day, I received a piece of mail from Gail. She had been going through her things, purging a lot of stuff she had saved, and found my story. She thought I might want it. Did I ever! I was ecstatic! It was like being reunited with a dear friend whose existence I’d forgotten. That said, I’ve never forgotten the existence of any dear friends. Only this one.
It didn’t take me long to turn my unfinished story into a one-act play. I mailed my nascent creation to theaters all over the country. I did receive some positive feedback, but no luck. The play was not without its fans though, as many of the people who read it had a strong positive reaction.
Years later, back East, my mother (a Journalism professor) introduced me to the director of Temple University’s theater. He read the play and really “got” the characters, but told me that it needed to be a two-act play. I agreed with him, and promptly reworked it as per his suggestion. He had been enthusiastic about reading the new, expanded play, but when I gave it to him, he simply never got around to it. For years, every time my mother would run into him on Temple’s campus, he would lament, “Oh, I never got around to reading your daughter’s play.”
In 1996, I finished writing my first novel, Squalor, New Mexico. I knew then that I wanted to write novels, not plays, and I went on to write five more novels. Finally, something in my brain decided it was time to dust off “Barrie Hill Reunion” and turn it into a novel.
I wanted to stay true to the original characters, which for the most part I did, but there were some major tweaks in a few of them, as I was now writing a much more nuanced and in-depth story. Also, while I had never attributed a specific year to the play, I knew that the novel could not take place in the current year. Nothing about that felt right. It made sense that the characters had gone to college in the 1960s and were meeting again, twenty years after graduation, in 1986. It was important to me that there were no cell phones or personal computers involved. To modernize the story that much, would have destroyed it.
It was a really interesting process to write a novel with characters that had been with me for a lifetime. While I’ve written villains in other stories, I don’t think I’ve ever written a character as cruel as Leah Brent, one of the Barrie Hillers who attends the reunion. While writing her dialogue, I would often look at the computer and curse her out for what she had just said. Yeah, I called her some really bad names. I think my writer friends will understand this; others might think I am a bit nuts.
Some of the original dialogue from the one-act play appears in the book, but that said, I did not force it. In fact, after I while, I stopped following the play altogether. As I do in all of my novels, I create multiple story arcs, something I could only hint at in play form. So it was important to go in some new directions.
I don’t want to say too much more, only that I’m happy to finally bring this story to life. You can read the synopsis below or on Amazon.com.
In the mid-1960s, at an elite college in the quaint town of Barrie Hill, Connecticut, a group of literary-minded students met regularly off-campus at the Vanessa Grand Hotel. Often late into the night, they would discuss the day’s news, analyze literature, philosophize, trade barbs, and socialize.
Twenty years after graduation, in 1986, the group’s founder, Clare Dreyser, organizes a weekend reunion. Seven former Barrie Hillers and one guest get together, eager to re-create an extraordinary time in their lives and reunite with old friends.
From the outset, and baffling the group, Leah Brent displays a brash, condescending attitude for nearly everyone and everything. To the chagrin of actor Bart Younger, Leah immediately lays out the unwelcome mat for his wife, Aimee. No one, not even Leah’s husband, Colin, is immune to her wrath, but Leah is relentless in her bizarre and cruel quest to bring down her primary target: Clare.
As the reunion progresses, the Barrie Hillers strive to enjoy their time together as they become enmeshed in personal dramas, struggle with matters of ethics, and weather escalating uncertainties that threaten to destroy their lives. By Saturday night, the second day of the reunion, karma makes a surprising and shocking visit. As the Barrie Hillers’ time together draws to an end, each is changed forever.
KEEP A TIME CHART: Even if you never mention particular dates in your novels, it’s important that you know the day and date of every scene. You may ask, “Why do I need to know that if it’s not part of my novel?” I’ll tell you why.
When you’re in the thick of writing your book, it’s very easy to lose track of how much time has elapsed between events. In some of my novels, my characters have had such long, complicated days that it’s taken me chapters to describe the action. Conversely, I may skip ahead two weeks, a month, or even years. It all depends on the story.
Every time I begin a novel, I pull out a calendar, and I choose a date. Sometimes it has everything to do with the story and what time of year it is, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s still important. Let’s say your character is an unhappy wife who is keeping tabs on her husband’s whereabouts because she is convinced he’s cheating. In Chapter 7, she’s having lunch with her best friend and telling her everything that she has just found out. Can you accurately have your character tell her friend what happened five days ago, what happened three days ago, and what happened two weeks ago if you don’t have it noted? I sure can’t.
If you keep a dated time chart with a simple synopsis of what happens when, it will save you lots of headaches down the road.
KEEP IT TIGHT: Let’s stay with our story of the woman who thinks her husband is cheating on her. There’s a twist in this story. She finds out that he’s not cheating at all but wants her to think he is because he’s being blackmailed and is actually trying to protect her by letting her assume the lesser of two evils. Ah, the plot is thickening. Let’s say that in Chapter 10, the woman makes a major discovery that changes her perspective on what is going on. Before you create a brand-new character to deliver that information to her, make sure there are no existing characters that can do the job. Don’t introduce your reader to new people if they serve no real purpose and will do nothing more than clutter or dilute your prose. When you use established characters, you may just come up with even better plot twists than you imagined. You may very well need a new character, but take the time to think about it. Keep it tight.
LISTEN TO YOUR NOVEL: Most of us know that it’s very difficult to proof your own work. Your eyes tend to see what is supposed to be there, not what is there. If you have spent an hour reworking a paragraph or speech, you may have become so immersed in getting it right that when you read it back, you don’t notice that you’ve used a particular word three times in two sentences. Unless it’s intentional, it’s not good. Most computers have text-to-speech functions. To review your work, highlight the part you want to hear, place it in a new document, and highlight it again. Then, sit back and listen to your words. If there are words missing, misspelled, or repeated, you will hear them. Listening gives you a different perspective than reading.
You may wonder why I suggested putting your text into a new document. You ask, “Why can’t I just highlight it in the document I’m using?” You can, but as you know, highlighted text can disappear instantly if a wrong button is touched on your keyboard and you can’t quickly hit Control Z (PCs) or Command Z (Macs) to undo. That’s all. It’s just a safety measure to protect what you’ve written.
USE YOUR FIND COMMAND: Do you have pet words or phrases that you tend to overuse? I know that’s always a worry for me. When I’m immersed in telling a story, my brain is focused on the action and sometimes I’m merely serving as a transcriptionist for my characters. Sometimes my editor will catch these repetitions and just as often, I’ll catch them myself. If you’re able to identify words or phrases you might overuse, use the FIND command in Word (or other software). Then, change them or rewrite sentences to avoid them. Just get ’em outta there. And remember, the more unusual the word, the more obvious the repetition.
I’m super excited about the publication of Mystical High, the first novel in my YA paranormal trilogy, The Desert Series. While I’m not exclusively a YA author, my first-written novel, Squalor, New Mexico, is a coming-of-age story, and I’ve been eager to return to the genre again—but in a very different way.
Having a lifelong interest in unexplained phenomena, I wanted to write a novel that deals with many issues that teens face in everyday life, but with a paranormal element being an integral part of the story. As my first three novels are all set in the eastern United States, where I’m originally from, I wanted to write a novel set in California, where I live now. I decided that the Southern California desert would be a great locale.
As in all of my novels, if I write about small towns or specific areas, I fictionalize them, but when I describe big cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles, the descriptions are always from firsthand experience. My descriptions of small towns are usually a hybrid of similar places but are never exact duplications. I’m a fiction writer, after all.
What I never expected to be, however, was the author of a series. I just didn’t see it in the cards. So how did I end up deciding to write a series? Well, I don’t think I did. As I was finishing the writing of Mystical High and falling in love with the characters and the story, the book itself simply told me: “Hey, you’re not quite through with me yet. Not even close. Guess what? You’re going to write a series.”
“Really? I’m going to write a series? But—”
“But nothing. Just get to work.”
And here I am, publishing the first book in a trilogy and happy to say that I’ve already written 25,000 words of number 2 and am over-the-moon excited about it.
Every novel in The Desert Series will be able to be read as a standalone novel. However, the secrets and revelations will be even juicier to those who have read the previous novels.
Now, let me tell you about Mystical High.
In Mystekal, a small, dying town in the Southern California desert, only 75 students attend the old, sometimes creepy high school dubbed “Mystical High,” where strange things have been known to happen. Jessie Dalworth and Jinxsy Patterson are juniors and lifelong best friends. At home, Jessie deals with the pain of an absentee mother who has abandoned the family for the lure of Hollywood; Jinxsy contends with a 17th “birthday present” she never wanted or expected.
Meanwhile, at school, the unexplained activity begins to escalate when Jinxsy keeps seeing a long-haired guy in the hallway checking her out. Jessie can’t see him, but her younger brother, River, can.
Then, in English class, a stapler mysteriously flies off teacher Eve Carrow’s desk, hitting a student in the face who has just mouthed off to her. The beloved teacher is in the unenviable position of having her brute of a father as principal, so she hates sending any student to his office. As Principal Ernest Carrow begins to terrorize Eve and others more openly, something or someone unseen decides that it’s payback time.
School is getting stranger, and Jinxsy and Jessie are faced with mind-boggling changes in their home lives that complicate everything. When a string of shocking events expose explosive secrets, decades-long mysteries are finally revealed.
Great to see you here. Let’s see. Where do I start?
First, I’m really excited to present the new cover for my 1970s coming-of-age novel, Squalor, New Mexico. I’d like to thank the super-talented Lisa McCallum for designing such a perfect cover. (You are the best, Lis!)
To celebrate the new cover, I will be selling the Kindle edition for only .99 on Amazon.comuntil the end of September, 2013. (While this is just the link for the US store, the book is discounted in all Amazon stores all over the world.)
Now, let’s get down to business. Why does my Young Adult novel have such a downright bizarre title, especially since it’s only peripherally about squalor and not at all about New Mexico?
The seed for the title/book began in my childhood. Every time I heard it said that someone lived in squalor, it sounded like a place to me. For years, I had the identical notion every time I heard the word: “Is Squalor a town?” “Is it a city?” “Where is it?” The word “squalor” nagged at me. The universe and the word were trying to tell me something. (“Write a novel! Write a novel!”)
It was then that I decided that I wanted to begin a novel with the sentence: “My aunt lived in Squalor.” I had no idea who the main character would be, who her aunt would be and why said aunt would live in Squalor, but it all began from there. I built a 159,000-word book (445-pages) completely around my desire to use that opening sentence. Though it is not specifically stated, the book is set in the 1970s in an east coast suburb.
The first page of the book explains the unusual title:
My aunt Rebecca lived in Squalor. I first heard my mother and my aunt Didi discussing this one day when I was nine. I was supposed to be in my bedroom doing homework, but I snuck down the back stairs into the kitchen for a McIntosh apple and an Oreo cookie. Mom and Aunt Didi were close by in the dining room, huddled together at the corner of the table, as they often were, and they were talking about Aunt Rebecca. To me, the most curious thing about Aunt Rebecca, whom I had never met, was that Mom and Aunt Didi only brought her up when they thought no one was listening.
“I’m sure she’s still living in squalor,” Aunt Didi told Mom authoritatively. “Unless she’s screwed her way out!”
I had no idea what all that meant, but it seemed like such an odd thing to say that I was willing to take the risk of letting my presence be known and ask.
“What’s squalor, Mom?” I said, walking into the dining room.
“Goodness, Darla!” Mom said putting her hand to her throat. “How long have you been listening?”
“Not long. I just came down for an apple.” (I thought it best not to mention the cookie.) “What’s squalor, Mom?” I repeated.
Aunt Didi, knowing Mom would be loath to answer my question, took hold of the reins for her. “It’s a town in New Mexico, Darla. It’s an Indian name.”
Mom looked at Aunt Didi in amazement. I figured she hadn’t known what it meant, either.
“Oh,” I said. And then I took a bite out of my apple.
“You have a book report due tomorrow,” Mom said.
“I know,” I said, taking another bite.
“Well, you’re not going to get it done standing here, are you?”
“Please dear,” Mom pleaded softly. “Go upstairs and finish your—”
“But Mom, I really want to know what—”
“Darla!” Aunt Didi screamed. “Listen to your mother. Go upstairs, now, and finish your book report!”
“All right. Forget it!” I said indignantly. “How am I supposed to learn stuff if I don’t ask?”
So, friends, now you know. Squalor, New Mexico began as a lie told to a child to quell her curiosity and ended up being the unlikely symbol for all of the lies, secrets and twisted truths that can destroy a family. It is a coming-of-age story shrouded in family mystery, and yes, I’ll admit it: it has a very strange title.
Note: In the not-too-distant future, the paperback edition of Squalor, New Mexico will be republished with a new cover, too.
How many of you remember being read to by your mother or father when you were a child?
When I was a child, I remember my mother reading poetry to my brother and me, and as I grew up, I remember her writing it. During her 20s and 30s, she wrote hundreds of poems. In her late 30s, she went back to work, and her love for writing poetry was set aside.
My mother, Dr. Jean Lisette Brodey, a retired Temple University journalism professor, is now in her 80s. About a year ago, I asked her where her poems were, and she said she feared they were lost. I knew they were not, as I’d seen them in her house. During a visit back to Philadelphia in September 2012, I found the poetry and began making plans to choose 50-some poems for a small collection.
That is how the book My Way to Anywhere began. Most of the poetry, expressed through imagery, abstract concepts, and word portraits, is about people who affected my mother’s life. My favorite poem in the book is called “An Ending.” It is a poem that tells of the death of my mother’s friend’s 27-year-old husband who died of cancer.
Here is an excerpt:
Why do we rend the days with our grief?
He would not have it so
For he respected life
Too much to bewail its passing
And death was too obscure
To have a place in his philosophy.
The thing has been decreed
(he would have said)
So if you have to pause
Let it be to reason
Not to mutter or complain
Then go on to ponder things
That somehow can be explained.
Death is a void, that’s all.
He would not toy with idle questions
For reason was his god and he was twenty-seven.
On a lighter note, there is a section of the book called FOR CHILDREN. Here is one short poem:
A wondrous number is 2.
There’s so much
2 can do!
2’s less than 3
2’s more than 1.
2 is an awful lot of fun!
My Way to Anywhere is not my mother’s first book. In 1983, through Westminster Press, she published Mid-Life Careers.
JAY LENO AND THE CHICKEN WINGS
The heading above is probably the last thing you’d expect in a blog about my mother and her poetry book. Well, let me explain.
When Mid-Life Careers came out, my mother did a great deal of publicity for the book in Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles.
One of her bookings was on an early morning Los Angeles talk show, and Jay Leno was one of the other guests. I have no idea why, but Jay was cooking up chicken wings on the show. My mother had five minutes to talk about her book, and while on the air, Jay came over to her and said he’d like “the doctor” to taste his chicken wings. My mother wasn’t about to give up her five minutes tasting Jay’s chicken wings and promptly declined, whereupon Jay called her a “party pooper” or something like that. After that, she was never a fan of Jay’s. I think she’s gotten over it, though. But I do remember having to rip off the cover of her TV Guide when he was on it. (And yes, it was the very same cover seen below!)
On a New York talk show, my mother was lucky enough to be a guest along with legendary singer Eartha Kitt and after the show enjoyed a wonderful lunch with her.
But the most memorable moment after the publication of Mid-Life Careers was seeing a downtown Philadelphia bookstore filled with copies of her book. What author wouldn’t love that?
Throughout her career as a tenured professor at Temple University teaching public relations, my mother won many prestigious awards, including induction into the Philadelphia Public Relations Association’s Hall of Fame.
PLEASE MEET DR. JEAN LISETTE BRODEY
Well, enough of my reminiscing. I have interviewed my mother for this blog, and I do hope you’ll enjoy meeting her.
When did your love of poetry begin?
When I was about five years old, my mother read Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses to me. It was better than hearing a story. The rhymes delighted me, and I found them to be lots of fun. Because the poems were read to me on a regular basis, they became a part of my young life. I still remember some of the poems by heart, such as “My Shadow” and “The Swing.”
Do you remember when you wrote your first poem?
I don’t remember my first poem. But when I was in the first or second grade, I wrote a poem and showed it to my father. I told him that I had written it, but he didn’t seem to believe me. He asked me again if I had written it and then asked me if I had copied it out of a poetry book. I was pleased that he thought it was that good, but I was also hurt that he didn’t think I had written it.
Did any of your grade school teachers recognize your talent for writing poetry?
I can’t recall which grade it was, but I had a teacher named Mrs. Schulke who liked my poetry so much that she had it illustrated by a talented student named George Logan and put it together in a book for me.
Did your love for poetry continue throughout junior high and high school?
Yes, as a matter of fact, under my photo yearbook in Philadelphia’s General Louis Wagner Junior High School, I stated that I wanted to be a journalist when I grew up. I didn’t really know what journalists did; I just knew that they wrote. And I figured that they wrote poetry.
I remember writing poems for special occasions. A poem I wrote for my aunt Nancy is still in my head. It goes like this:
On Christmas and your birthday,
Any occasion of the year,
You can always depend on stockings,
That come from Nancy dear.
You earned a degree in journalism from Penn State University. What did you hope to do with your degree?
I wanted a job that involved writing, but I had no specific expectations. At a local youth hostel, while attending a meeting for hiking and camping enthusiasts, I met a man who was a job recruiter. Through him, I was hired at the Frank H. Fleer Company in Philadelphia. The company manufactured Double Bubble gum, and I was hired to edit the company’s internal publication and to write facts and fortunes for bubble gum wrappers. During my three years at this company, I got married and then became pregnant with the person interviewing me right now.
When did you seriously begin writing poetry?
Once I stopped working outside the home, my love for writing poetry became more intense.
How did you judge your own work? Did you think you were a good poet? How does one define “good” in terms of poetry?
The answers are complex. For every poem I wrote, I had a general idea of what I wanted to say and how I hoped readers would perceive it. Even though I wrote in abstract terms, it was always my hope that my words would stir the reader. My right to use the label “poet” often changed depending on my own feelings about a poem and other people’s comments. Sometimes how I felt had nothing to do with the poetry and everything to do with what was going on in my life.
You felt very strongly about the widow of poet Edgar Lee Masters, Ellen Coyne Masters. She had a great influence on your work. Please tell us more.
I met Mrs. Masters at Penn State (Ogontz campus), where she was teaching an adult class in reading literature. When I first saw her, I had strong negative feelings. But those feelings changed very quickly into positive ones. She had a strong personality, and I suppose not knowing her at first, I perceived her differently.
Shortly after meeting her, I read her late husband’s masterpiece, Spoon River Anthology, which is a collection of fictional epitaphs about a community called Spoon River. I was inspired by the work of Edgar Lee Masters. I even wrote some fictional epitaphs of my own in the same vein. [Two of them are included in My Way to Anywhere.] I also was inspired to write poems about the poet and his wife.
Mrs. Masters was gracious enough to look at my poetry from time to time and encouraged me to write more. Positive reinforcement from her gave me an incredible joie de vivre.
Do you remember the first time one of your poems was accepted for publication?
Yes! My family and I had been away on vacation, and the post office was holding my mail. When I went to collect the mail, I saw a letter from a national poetry magazine. I opened it up and found out that it was an acceptance. I was overjoyed, thrilled, and, most importantly, felt like a poet.
Who are some of your favorite poets to read?
My favorite poet is Wallace Stevens. I also love Emily Dickinson, Amy Lowell, Walt Whitman, James Joyce, e. e. cummings, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Theodore Roethke, William Wordsworth, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and, of course, Edgar Lee Masters.
Your poetry is now being published some 50 to 60 years after you wrote it. How does that make you feel?
Wonderful. I had stopped writing poetry after I went back to work. Several years later, I earned my master’s and doctorate degrees in education and worked until retirement as a journalism professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, so there was no time in my life to pursue poetry. Having this collection of my poetry published now makes me realize how important poetry has always been to me.
Thanks for a great interview, Mom!
September 14, 2014: It is with a very heavy heart that I must add that my mother died on April 30, 2014. I was blessed to be with her at the very end.