Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Author Interview: Sarah Loudin Thomas

1) How long had Miracle in A Dry Season been simmering in your brain before it took to the page?

Not long at all. I wrote what will likely be the third book in the series first—that’s the one that had been with me a long time. Book #3 is about Perla’s granddaughter and the miracle is walking on water. Once I got it down on paper, the others flowed from it pretty naturally.

2) I thoroughly enjoyed Miracle in a Dry Season; but I also enjoyed Appalachian Serenade. How did the experience of writing a novella differ from writing the novel? Was this something you had plotted in your head while writing Miracle, or something that happened after you signed your contract?

I have a secret. I’ve never had much use for novellas. Then Bethany House asked me to write one as an introduction to Miracle in a Dry Season. So I read several and found out there are some really good novellas out there! Honestly, writing it was easier—certainly quicker. The main trick for me was to catch myself every time a storyline started snowballing. For example, when the railroad shuts down and a lumber company moves into town, I could have loaded so much conflict and drama in. Instead, I just left it alone so I could work out the romance between my characters.

3) Your series has the most amazing hook: Everyday miracles happening in Everyday life. Other than the fact that miracles still do happen every day, what do you most want you readers to take from your stories?

I hope my books are comforting. I want to write the apple pie of Christian fiction. Life is hard and while tough stuff happens to my characters, there’s always hope, always redemption. I want readers to know God will sort it all out in the end—it may take a while, but he will. In the meantime, have another slice of pie.

4.) Appalachia plays a big part in your work and becomes a character itself….how do you capture the inspiration you seem to live in everyday? Do you jot notes, take pictures?

First, I have an incredible childhood to draw upon. Growing up on a 100-acre farm smack in the middle of Appalachia infused me with a deep sense of place. Second, I’m blessed to live in Appalachia now, although a bit further south. I hike in Pisgah National Forest almost every day and I get to interact with the best people in the world. Just the other day I was talking to a 79-year-old woman who grew up in the mountains. A friend asked her if she wanted some flowers planted in her front yard. “I wouldn’t care if you put a few around my angel statue out there.” That’s mountain-speak for, “Yes, please, but don’t feel like you have to.” Just being awake and paying attention supplies all the inspiration I can handle!

5.) What is your favourite memory of your writing journey thus far?

When my husband introduced me at my book launch. The whole day was just amazing. The event was at my church on a Sunday evening. That morning, the pastor filling the pulpit preached about Jesus feeding the five thousand (he had no idea what my book was about). My mom and dad were there as well as other family members. We had a bean supper and square dancing along with the book sale and reading. So many friends came out they filled the sanctuary of our little church. Then my husband got up and introduced me and it was all I could do to keep from ugly crying because he was just pure love talking about how he still felt like he had on our wedding day 18 years ago. He even square danced with me—NOT his favorite thing. Days like that remind me that rankings and sales are not the measure of success.

My Feature Review of Miracle in a Dry Season at Novel Crossing
My review of Appalachian Serenade
Sarah on the web
Sarah on FB

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Author Interview: Elizabeth Camden

Thrilled to have Christy award winner Elizabeth Camden on the blog today. I recently devoured With Every Breath which I think is her strongest to date and features the dishiest hero. (Kudos to my friend Melissa Tagg who was all: Get Thee to a Trevor Posthaste!)

I find that you speak to a generation of strong women whose paths don't necessarily lead down the road to a domestic end.  This is made more potent by the circumstances and social structures of the time period you write about.  Is this a conscious decision? Did you set out with this intention as an underlying thesis when you first started writing?

It wasn’t a conscious decision….I think it is more a reflection of my own life experiences. I was single until I was thirty-five, and I don’t have any children of my own, so I naturally tend to veer toward stories with women on their own.  My career was my whole world until I got married, so this is what I know and feel comfortable writing about. I chose the late 19th century because there were many opportunities for women in various professions. I like giving my heroines some life experience or expertise in a field.  Not only does this take the reader so some new and interesting settings, but it gives the heroines a little more “umph” when they finally meet their man.  

I was once asked to consider shifting my genre to the Regency era. These books tend to sell better, and it was a tempting offer, but I instinctively shied away from it. There were almost no realistic work opportunities for women during this time, so I’d have that avenue closed off to me. I’m not sure I have what it takes to make the regency era seem fresh and original, so I’m sticking to the late 19th and early 20th century.  I love reading the regency era, but I’d be hopeless at writing it.

How has your work as a librarian informed your approach to historical fiction?

Being a research librarian has given me the freedom to feel comfortable exploring a huge diversity of subjects. Research is the one and only thing I am confident that I do quite well, so if something sparks my interest, I know I can learn what is involved and translate it for a general audience.   

I am certain that there were barrels of interesting tidbits on the studies regarding TB in the 19th Century that never made it into your book. For that matter, for each book you write: whether you are presenting the immigrant experience or opium addiction, you have far more than funnels onto the page. How do you choose what stays?

No one wants to read pages of research an author dumps into a story merely to demonstrate they’ve done their homework.  Boring! It is important to seamlessly integrate the research so it injects a fresh angle into the story and raises the stakes for the leading characters.  For example, when researching the Chicago Fire, I learned that thousands of children were separated from their parents during the massive evacuation of the city. I thought this would be a cool detail to include, but I didn’t want merely a “plot moppet” of a precious child for Mollie and Zach to rescue. If I was going to include this angle, I needed to make the child (Sophie) an interesting and vibrant personality that raises the stakes and advances the story. I made Sophie a holy terror they couldn’t wait to unload back to her parents. Trying to figure out how to get Sophie back to her family forced the heroine to explore the wreckage of the city and find a solution. For every “Sophie” I included in the story, there were fascinating and heartbreaking details I omitted.  Here’s one:

In the immediate hours and days after the fire, thousands of telegrams flew in and out of the city. The owner of a mercantile store sent a telegram to his wife, (who was visiting relatives in New York) that they had lost everything. He wrote: “Store and contents, dwelling and everything lost. Insurance worthless. Buy all the coffee you can and ship this afternoon by express. Don’t cry.”

That “don’t cry” get me every time!  Also, the fact that the only thing he asks her to send was coffee is rather whimsical.  I wracked my brains trying to think how I could incorporate that telegram into the story, but I finally gave up. It doesn’t meet the necessary criteria, so it joins the hundreds of other snippets of details on the cutting room floor. But you know what? Uncovering these fascinating details is what makes me love this work.

One of the many reasons With Every Breath stands out for me as one of your strongest novels and one of the strongest historicals I have read this year is the pitch-perfect competitive banter between Trevor and Kate. Indeed, I felt if we stripped away everything but the dialogue and set it on stage, we'd have an engrossing, witty play!  How does dialogue fit into your writing process?

Thanks for the compliment!  Dialog is a great way to reveal personality, humor, and intelligence. Because Kate and Trevor have a long history before the novel even opens, they know each other very well and can go after each other with both barrels blazing. Despite their rivalry, it was important to me that the reader know they have enormous respect for each other. That means instead of boring bickering, I get to inject humor and intelligence, and it was fun to eventually have it evolve into a deeply loving sort of dialog, while still maintaining an irreverent tone.   

I learned a lot about how to write while watching movies or TV that feature crisp, sparkling dialog. Downton Abbey is a classic example. You can grab any few minutes of Downton Abbey at random and the dialog does a great job of revealing character while still advancing the story. Other examples are The Gilmore Girls, Big Bang Theory, and one of my favorite movies, Jerry McGuire.  

Trevor is my favourite hero of yours ( and you've written some dishy, dishy heroes).  Can you tell me about your experience writing him and spending time with him? How did he surprise you most?

Trevor was the easiest character I’ve ever written. I was worried readers would find him too chilly and hard, which was why I tried to include plenty of scenes from his point-of-view where the reader should be able to sense that he is simply shy. Many readers are themselves somewhat shy or introverted, so they can recognize his struggle.  Shy people aren’t cold, they just don’t spontaneously open up and want to chat with everyone standing in the grocery store line like Kate does! So the Kate-Trevor chemistry is really just two people who share common interests and values, but one is an introvert and the other is an extrovert. As soon as Kate cracks the veneer of ice that naturally forms on Trevor, she is able to recognize the deeply caring and compassionate man inside.

Thanks for offering to host me on your site, Rachel….you ask great questions!

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Q and A: Charles Martin "A Life Intercepted"

Thanks to our friends at Faithwords and Hatchette, I am able to feature Charles Martin on my blog today! Chasing Fireflies is my favourite of his incredibly range of works and though I have just begun A Life Intercepted I know it will be as lyrical and moving as his others

What inspired you to write this book?

I stood on the sideline last year watching my son play this game that once meant a lot to me. Watching him play surfaced some things in me that I’d not dealt with for a long time. The depth of those feelings – even after twenty years – surprised me. Pretty soon, I found myself working out those feelings and that bled into this book. Which is true with all my stories – it’s where I work out with my fingers what my heart and mind are dealing with. It’s a story I’ve wanted to write a long, long time.

What experiences or skills from the football field have most influenced your life?

Football is a game with defined boundaries and rules within which you get to play with reckless abandon. Where eleven do what one can’t and never will. It is, quite possibly, the greatest of games. I probably learned more from losing than I did winning (but I liked winning a good bit more). It’s also where I learned to fight through difficulty, pain, and circumstances you can’t control. It’s where I learned that heart, when it counts, trumps talent and skill any day. And it’s where I learned that when things get difficult, and I want to throw up my hands and walk away, I have the choice to quit or not. It’s that simple. As a writer, I’ve endured some major defeats. My first book was rejected 86 times; I’ve seen contracts cancelled, books rejected after I hit the NYT list, and known days on end when the words just don’t come. Now, if you’re beginning to think that I’m some strong stoic, able to pick myself up by my own bootstraps, don't. I’ve been beat down and humbled. And I have known defeat. The great thing about football is that it formed something in me at an early age, creating that gumption to buckle up my chinstrap one more time.

You son is currently a star high school quarterback. What do you hope he takes from the book?

He was one of the first to read it. If it is in his heart to be good at football, I hope he plays it all out. Plays it with his whole heart. I hope he wins and succeeds and knows the fist-pumping jubilation that comes with great achievement. And when someone beats him – because they will – I hope he goes out with his buddies, eats a cheeseburger, drinks a chocolate milkshake, and then wakes up the next morning with a desire to get better. Lastly, I want him to know that he’s free to walk away from it. He doesn’t have to be me, doesn’t have to love it like I love it. I’m not measuring him by his success on that field, and the scoreboard is not the indicator of his value. It’s a game. That’s all. It’s a great game, but it’s still a game.

You're both an athlete and an artist. Do these two roles conflict with one another? Did you ever feel split between the two?

Yes, but that was due to my immaturity. As I’ve grown, and aged, they mesh together pretty well. Both are expressions. This morning, I’m writing. This afternoon, in about three hours, I’ll go for a run. I need both. And I’m not sure I’d be very good at one if I didn’t have the outlet of the other. I’m grateful God allows me both.

What do you hope readers take away from this story?

Love does what hatred cannot – and never will.

I hope readers like my stories. I hope they’re entertained. I hope they pass them around and talk about them. But more than that, when the lights go out and they’re facing a tough tomorrow, I hope that something about my story reaches down inside them where the world has dinged them, in the dark places they don’t talk about, and whispers the words they alone need to hear.

This is your tenth book. How have you grown as a writer since that first book? Is there a novel or character you're most attached to?

I’d say that my writing is “cleaner.” Less filler. As a writer, I’m comfortable in my own skin. Maybe my characters are more developed. Maybe my plot developments leaner, more taut. As for being attached to a specific character – no. They’re all walking around inside my head. I talk to them all the time.

What does the writing process look like for you?

Books don't write themselves. It looks like a lot of time in this chair. I’m very comfortable spending days on end right here and seldom coming up for air. Being able to do that is a gift – God gave it to me. Like Eric Liddle said, “It’s where I feel God’s pleasure.”

What role does faith play in your writing?

Hanging above my desk is a sign that reads, “Imagination is evidence of the divine.” I like that. I also believe it’s absolutely true. God thought me up and shared with me the ability to dream, think, create, and to do so independently of Him. If you let that sink in, that’s an amazing Creator.

I used to give long drawn out answers to this. Let me skip all that and invite you into my prayers. When I pray about my life and specifically my career and writing, I ask the Lord to let my books stand, as C.S. Lewis and others have said, “as road signs to Jerusalem.” I pray they do that. Secondly, Psalm 45. Read it for yourself. I pray that at the end of the day my stories “make His name known to generations.” His glory. Not mine. Lastly, I pray that on that day when I’m there standing before Him, that He knows me, finds me worthy (and because of Him I am), and then leads me by the hand into His personal library. He points to a stack of well-worn books on His desk and says with both a smile and tear, “Look what I’ve been reading to my angels.”

Sunday, September 07, 2014

#amwriting Using a" Perfect Strangers" episode to learn about the infrastructure of a chapter outline

After a Saturday writing and plotting and musing I happened to watch a few late night re-runs of Perfect Strangers: a television show I probably ---honest to God--- have not seen since 1991 when I was super young.

Balki sleeps with a pet sheep named Dmitri
While watching, I  was impressed with the cookie-cutter formula of the writing. Each 22 minute episode (I watched four ) had  a very definitive beginning, middle and end while still taking time to nurture relationships, develop character and work into the world and mythos it had created. I wondered how I could align the story structure of an episode of with  my current efforts to plot a cohesive novel, especially a chapter of a cohesive novel.  Usually I write a novel and then insert the chapter breaks later as they fit into the rhythm of the story: especially as I have a penchant for writing sequences and scenes as they pop into my head, sewing them into the greater patch-work quilt of the novel later on.

But Perfect Strangers taught me something: A careful writer can plot out a chapter in the same way that an episode of this 90s sitcom is structured.

A recap: for those of you who haven't seen this in a billion years like myself.  Larry is a stern and cynical journalist for a fictional Chicago paper. He lives with his roommate and distant cousin Balki from a fictional Greek-like island whose dream of being an American is realized.  It's all very Neil Simon, as Balki who is good-natured and naive in big city life clashes with Larry's hard-edge. Shenanigans ensue.

 I watched an episode where Larry and Balki want to go home for Christmas in Madison, Wisconsin but there is a blizzard and they are stuck in their apartment in Chicago. Let's use this to see how we can implement the same rules in the formation of a chapter:

Intro to Starting Conflict: Super excited Larry and Balki want to go home to Wisconsin on Christmas Eve; but there is a blizzard and all of the planes and buses are cancelled. Simple, but immediate conflict.

Conflict Explored while Character Reactions Developed: Larry has been telling Balki who is spending his first Christmas away from his family in Mypos that traditions change.  However, when he learns that he is unable to get his Christmas wish and spend his Christmas with his family, he turns characteristically mopey and cynical.  Balki is the one who tries to make Christmas happen: complete with Charlie Brown Christmas tree, food secured from the only open store (a Jewish deli ) and Christmas lights, while dressed as Santa Claus.

Resolution:(and, in the propensity of 90s sitcoms of this ilk, a collective awwww from the audience) with a lesson learned and a person or theme or plot-point  redeemed: Larry and Balki exchange meaningful Christmas gifts and Larry's heart is changed when Balki presents him with a home-made quilt. They hug and feel the Christmas spirit, no longer lonely or angry but happy for the family and joy they find in their circumstance.

Easy, right?  Every chapter I write should be the same: intro to conflict of the chapter: whether on a large scale or a small situational scale, the development of this conflict, and the resolution which, in a novel should serve some purpose to either portentously inspire the reader to want to know more, develop character or serve as some finality to a recurring thread.

Beyond Structure, Perfect Strangers did well at keeping the feel for the world it creates in tact.   It may not be rocket science, but it knows its characters and its world pretty well. The confidence was, for me, striking.

What do we learn?

Own your Mythos and work with it: Balki is from a mythical island named Mypos which is chock full of customs singular to the Perfect Strangers world.  He has his own traditions and culture such as a Christmas turtle and roasting radishes on a fire. Absurd, yes;but the show owns this absurdity and is confident enough in its ridiculousness that Balki's sincerity makes it plausible.   If you are confident in the fictional world you create, readers cannot help but fall into the trap you have set for them and, in turn, believe every word you say.

Continual character traits: Most of the action in each episode revolves around how two different people approach a similar conflict due to their opposite personalities, traits and, in this case, cultural barriers.  By the end of the first episode I watched ( and drawing on what I remembered from 20 odd years ago ) I had an inkling of how each character would react to a given conundrum.  Yes, this is 90's sitcom cliche; but it also is confident writing. You want your readers to identify and know your characters well enough that they can at least take a good crack at how they would handle and approach a situation. It leads to ownership of a book and story and its action.  And reader ownership is something that authors should crave. For it is synonymous with investment.

Follow your Chekhov Rule:  I knew that Larry's car didn't break down in the storm affront a Christmas tree lot for no reason. Don't put a gun on a table in the first act if it doesn't go off in the the third.  I knew, as audience, that the Christmas tree would factor into the story.  Your readers want to feel that they are in on the game, to an extent.  They want your words to make them feel smart ---even for a moment---and even if you will turn the game on its ear later.

Capitalize on Popular Tropes  For popular tropes mean longevity.  Larry and Balki are the immediate odd couple archetype. To this, they are surrounded by circles of "Fish Out of Water" "Culture Clash" "Man vs. Capitalism" etc., etc.,  It is a formula done to death; but obviously a formula that resonates with people as it continues to be successful.  We like to see two opposites approach a similar situation and see how they will fight, barter, negotiate and waltz their way around it, peppering conflict, before smoothing to a resolution. We also like to find facets of each character to relate to.  Pepper your characters with different personalities, clashes, passions and pursuits and you are destined to find a reader who taps into these singularities. As a reader, I want to latch on.

Dialogue is only as good as the tapestry it is set against  Perfect Strangers is a show of movement. Of course, as writers, we cannot see physical comedy that we can when we watch two actors on a sound stage; but we can keep our stories moving.   I know few readers who enjoy (with exceptions, such as a tea cozy or closed-room murder) two people standing in the same place and just talking at each other.  Larry and Balki, even in the confines of their snowed-in apartment on Christmas eve, were always moving.  They were talking, yes, and talking to bridge together the traits and tropes aforementioned, but they kept my attention because they moved.  There is a reason, too, that in theatre, blocking is so important. Give your reader something to look at, even if the action is stagnant. Just because the action of a sequence takes place in a room to propel important dialogue that will tweak the cogs of your story's wheels, doesn't mean it has to be dull as tombs.  Dialogue can be snappy and peppy and be used to give important and vital book information; but have your characters doing things, too.  If this fails, have the set do something.  Don't set a scene at a kitchen table inside if it can be explored on a walk through a nature path or a bustling city street. Give the mind's eye something to keep it awake and alive.

To bring this macro micro once more,  I thought of how all of the above can easily be used when considering the outline of a chapter. To this end, I decided to try it.  Instead of my usual "insert chapter headings later" I plotted an entire chapter in Perfect Strangers mode and held up the action therein not only to the skeletal infrastructure; but also the rubrics of colour that make the action and its characters sizzle, spark and colour---- colour as bright as one of Balki's neon 90's vests.

Friday, September 05, 2014

Ultra Condensed: The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

note: I've been reading through Laura Ingalls Wilder. I have been reading them one after another so some stuff is all muddled in my head

Almanzo looks like Paul Walker.

Laura’s Other Sisters

Almanzo “more than a pretty name” Wilder
Royal “pancakes, please” Wilder
Cap Gardner
Guy who is Hiding Wheat

Laura: it is spring now. We have to do chores. The crops were eaten by blackbirds. Let us have some green pumpkin! Everything looks amazing. Oh look, now it is summer! Summer is great! Observe, a muskrat home
Pa: That muskrat home looks hella weird, Half-pint
Sage Indian: It will be long winter. Beware the Ides of March
Pa: Let us move to town
Ma: I hate this life. One minute we live in this stupid claim shanty then we have to up and move to town. Fine, we’ll go to town. Girls, pack. Then you’ll go to school.

In Town:
Laura: So we went to school. It is cold.
Blizzard: I shall come in October BWAHHHHHHHHHH

Ma: Harumph. I wish we could have stayed on the claim.  Girls, come and help me put this red checkered tablecloth on our rustic frontroom table by the glowing stove. Forthwith, we can read a Bible verse as a treat
Mary: *angelically* I like all the Bible verses and the things from the Young Readers.  Especially about being Good. Someone knit me a scarf so I can go to the blind school
Pa: *plays fiddle and tells racist jokes*
Laura: I don’t really know whether to wear my brown calico or my green poke-bonnet or both.
Winter: I shall make your life hell, y’all *GROOOOOOWL*
Pa: Imma gonna go find food over there
Royal and Almanzo: Here, we have eight billion pancakes. Have some. With molasses.
Pa: I shall eat them all. Hey, is that extra wheat?  I could use some because my family is starving. Pass me another pancake. I will eat pancakes for them in proxy.
Almanzo: I am finally clueing in. I think people are starving.
Royal: *mouthful of pancake, so unintellible* staropmmpjkfdd
Ma: It’s a good thing we have potatoes. Here girls, eat your potatoes by the fire while I make more coffee-ground wheat into coarse bread. As a treat, you get codfish drizzle.
Pa: Well, yesterday my fingers froze, today my eyelids are frozen. Let me play one of the old songs on the fiddle. I am nothing if not resourceful*twists hay into sticks*
Laura: I love the old songs on the fiddle.
Almanzo: I shall take Cap and venture to find this rumoured ghost-wheat in the unending storm because HOW ELSE WILL PEOPLE KNOW I AM A HOT HERO WHO LOOKS LIKE PAUL WALKER?
Royal: *eats pancake* You have fun with that
Cap: I’m coming on your suicide mission
Almanzo: more the merrier. Wait. Am I supposed to be able to feel my feet? Guess not, I shall rub snow on them
Guy Whose Cabin they Stumble Across: I haven’t had visitors in many moons. Here, eat of my stew
Almanzo: Sell us wheat for starving people
GWCTSA: NO! I worked hard for that
Cap: Screw you. People are starving. Be as upright as we are.
GWCTSA: fine. But give me a billion dollars a bushel. Inflation!
Cap and Almanzo: Whatevs.*pull wheat back to town in blizzard and almost die*
Laura: So we continued eating codfish drizzle and coffee grinder bread and Ma made candles out of these neat button holes and the frost crawled on the inside of our house and we all froze to death. Hungrily.
Grocer: Look! It’s Almanzo and Cap!
Royal: *looks up uninterestingly from pancake stack* Meh.

Almanzo: We have the wheat and we risked our lives and so everyone just forget that I lied about my age to stake this claim. Kay? Kay.
Cap: Here. Buy the wheat. The townspeople are proud and will pay good money for it.
Grocer: *charges a billion dollars* INFLATION
Almanzo: So unfair, jackass.
Pa: I speak for us all. Let us all have the wheat for a decent price!
Laura: and then it was spring of a sudden; but kinda fake and we thought that the train was coming but then it didn’t; but then it did and we had a turkey dinner
Almanzo: *natch* I look SO good after this book. Wait ‘til the ladies meet my Morgan horses.  Also, spoiler alert, I build a mean pantry.

The End.
(thanks Gina Dalfonzo and Katharine Taylor for the memes)

Thursday, September 04, 2014

ACFW: mix and mingle

I love Laurie Tomlinson. Face it, you do too! So, she is hosting this pre-conference Mix and Mingle before we all head to St Louis in a few weeks and here go I!

This is my second ACFW conference and last year I didn't make it to any sessions because I was too busy socializing. I suspect this will ring true again. See you at Starbies! Or, over a glass of pinot at the bar!
this whole writing thing makes me feel like this turtle wanting to take a bite of this strawberry

Name: Rachel McMillan

Location: Toronto, Canada

What you write/tagline/trademark: Genre: Historical Romance/ Tagline: I solemnly Swear my Heroines Will Never Trip over Milk Pails/ Trademark: sarcasm… now with too many semi-colons.

Place in the book world: Pre-published author represented by William K Jensen Agency. Book on submission so writing another book---because that’s what authors do ( first book was passed on, like, everywhere… revolving door, thy name is Rachel). I intend on pitching both the one on submission so editors can put a face to a name and hear my annoying Canadian accent as well as present the novel-in-embryo for my latest WIP ( a two-parter set during the American Revolutionary wars).

On a scale of hugger to 10-foot-pole, please rate your personal space: I am not the world’s biggest hugger; but that tends not to matter at these things because there is often no choice.

The unique talking point that will get you going for hours:
Sherlock Holmes, hymns, nautical history, the hero of my work-on-submission ( his name is Ray. He is a muckraker. I will not stop talking about him. Honest to Pete. I shall corner you and make you listen.).   Currently, I like talking about Almanzo Wilder.

Loved ones at home you’ll be missing: I live alone, such is the spinsterhood life to which I am accustomed.  I will miss my candles and my slippers and my tea. I will also miss Toronto. I love my city so much that even four days away can seem too long :-)

One or two ways we can help you build your platform? Find me on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram

Monday, September 01, 2014

Commemorating the Start of WWII: with Sigmund Brouwer and "Thief of Glory"

Sigmund Brouwer is back!! Thief of Glory is enjoying exceptional reviews and acclaim and I am so happy to be able to host him again.  For those of you who have yet to read this awesome book (my review for Novel Crossing will be shared here at a later date), I invite you to read the chapter provided here and the backdrop, then pick up the book for yourself!
Question for Scavenger Hunt:
What object did Jeremiah receive from his father while Jeremiah and Pietje were fishing beneath the house?


It’s a pleasure to be back with Rachel, and I definitely owe her a Timmie’s gift card (or three!).
On the day that Germany invaded Poland to start World War II, my novel’s character and narrator, Jeremiah Prins, had just turned school-age. He would have had zero comprehension of world-wide events, of course, but few of the adults around him in the Dutch East Indies would have had any inkling of what was ahead for them because of that invasion. Jeremiah’s father, like my grandfather Simon in real life, was a Dutch headmaster, and I can be fairly certain that the day of invasion in 1939 would have not have been remarkable outside of any minor domestic crisis.

Still, the storms of war had begun, and a few years later its dark clouds would descend on their idyllic life — on my father as a boy, and on Jeremiah, my fictional main character. I’m a father of two daughters, and it breaks my heart to imagine ever facing the need to say good-bye, aware that I might not return because of events beyond my control. I am haunted wondering about that final good-bye from my grandfather to his children, for Simon was taken prisoner-of-war by the Japanese, and died during the building of the Burma Railway.

In this chapter of Thief of Glory, I wrote the good-bye from Jeremiah’s point of view, and as I wrote it, I ache for the father who wants to say so much, but refrains because he wants to protect his sons from what he can foresee. It happens shortly after Jeremiah has schemed a way to get back at one of his older brothers. . .

A few mornings later, my father and stepbrothers returned home early after Japanese soldiers had arrived at school and told everyone to leave. Father further explained that our family was not to leave the house. Since Pietje and I were accustomed to entertaining ourselves, this had little effect on us. We were absorbed in our latest venture, sitting in chairs on the lawn near the foundation of the house.
Our house was built off the ground, supported by crossbeams on pilings. It was skirted by lattice meant to keep out larger animals. Beneath my chair was a machete. I held a fishing rod, and the line from the tip fed through a gap in the lattice into the darkness beneath the house. The tip of the rod was continuously quivering at the slight tugs that came at the end of the line.
Occasionally, Pietje would give me an inquiring glance and I would shake my head to indicate it was not yet time to reel in the fishing line. Matters like this required patience, and I wanted to be a good teacher.
Although he and I were not engaged in conversation, we didn’t sit in silence. As usual, geckos—chichaksscrabbled up and down the walls, making little clicking sounds. I could not have guessed that within a year, I would be desperate to find them because we had resorted to eating them. The small lizards werent limited to the exterior of the house. At night, youd see them near our lamps, waiting for insects attracted to the light. The bigger ones—the tokeks—rarely showed themselves.
Around us, the birds, too, twittered and squawked and added to the din. Tawny-breasted honey eaters, friarbirds, mouse warblers, scrub wrens, butcher-birds, orioles—all oblivious to the signs of a country under siege.
The Japanese had taken our radio, so we no longer heard news about the war. Jeeps and trucks continued along the streets, but now more and more of the soldiers were returning after weeks of battle and enjoying their respite. Troops of them ran around in white loincloths like overgrown toddlers in diapers, and it seemed to our ears that their screaming and chattering was no different than a monkey’s. They would enter houses at will to find food. Many had already been in our own home, inspecting the flushing toilets and opening and closing drawers to search for any objects of value.
That morning, it was less surprising than it should have been to see our father approaching us and carrying a folding chair to match the ones that Pietje and I were using. He set the chair down and sat beside us in companionable silence for a few minutes, watching the movement at the tip of the fishing rod.
“Is there water under the house that Im not aware of?” he finally asked.
“No.” I was cautious in my answer. Usually, my father was direct and impatient. Usually he spoke but didnt listen.
“Aaah,” he said, as if that explained everything. But he didnt spend much time around me and Pietje, so I doubted he understood why I had a fishing rod in hand, with the line running beneath the house.
He waited a few more minutes to see if I would explain. I out waited him. He must have had a purpose for joining us, and I had my fears in this regard. Earlier in the morning, Id heard Simon yell in pain. More than once.
“Niels and Martijn have not slept well the previous nights,” he said. “Apparently they have had rats in their mattresses. Has this happened to you?”
“Yes,” I said. Each of the last three nights since the Governor-General had announced surrender, Id moved the mattress onto the floor and slept on the mattress frame and bedsprings so that the rats could have their privacy and I could have mine.
“Rats in your mattress wasnt something you needed to tell me?” he asked.
“Its best not to complain,” I said. “I know you dont like involvement in what happens among us, as long as the furniture doesnt get broken.
I was quoting his own words back to him and wondered how he would take this.
He remained calm. Very unusual, which made me more nervous. “So this means you suspect one of your brothers was responsible for the presence of the rats?”
“You dont like tattletales,” I said.
“Niels had a hole in his mattress,” he said. “Someone had pushed a few handfuls of peanut butter into the hole. Same with Martijn. Naturally the rats began to explore when it was dark. Is this what happened to you?”
“I cant say whether there was peanut butter in the hole of my own mattress. It seemed best not to put my hands in that deep. I wasnt interested in letting a rat bite my fingers.”
Pietjes head swiveled back and forth as he followed our discussion.
“Simons mattress was untouched,” my father said. “Do you find that significant?”
“If that is true, it would be best if Niels and Martijn didnt know that,” I said. I was running a bluff. Niels and Martijn had been in my room first thing this morning to see if my own mattress had been tampered with as well. Certainly they would have checked Simons too.
“I suspect they already know. I found the three of them fighting a half hour ago. Furniture was broken, which is why I had to get involved. Thats when I learned about the peanut butter in the mattresses.”
And Simon?
“He swears he didnt do anything.”
That answer disappointed me. I had actually been hoping for a medical report. Simon would have put up a good fight, but Niels and Martijn would have been furious at Simon, and I knew the effects of that fury.
“In this case,” my father said. “Im tempted to believe Simon. You would think hed know that if there were peanut butter in every mattress but his, naturally his brothers would suspect him and punish him for it.”
“You would think,” I said as neutrally as possible.
“A suspicious person might actually believe that someone else wanted revenge for the other day when Simon opened a certain envelope that had been addressed to a certain other boy in the family.” My father examined my face, but in this family, you learned early how to remain expressionless. “Tell me, Jeremiah, does peanut butter wash easily off the hands?”
I handed the fishing rod to Pietje and stood. I now knew the direction this was going. I unbuckled my shorts and lowered them to my knees, making sure my two pouches of hidden marbles were safe. I turned away from my father and took a deep lungful of air and held it. Its best not to breathe during the initial few blows of a flat hand across the buttocks. It internalizes the cries of pain.
“Please sit,” my father said, not unkindly. “Our family has far greater things to worry about.”
I pulled up my shorts and buckled. Pietje gave me his inquiring look. I glanced at the tip of the rod. It was still quivering. “Not yet,” I told Pietje.
I resumed my seat in my chair and Pietje returned me the rod. “I haven’t once told you that I am proud of how you can draw,” my father said.
Often, at the end of a school day, while he sat at his desk and graded papers, I would sit at a student’s desk nearby and practice those drawings. It wasn’t art, but symmetry. I sketched buildings. His indulgence of allowing me time at something that wasn’t practical or school oriented told me of his pride. I was startled to hear him state it openly.
“Neither,” he said, “have I told you that I know you are a remarkable boy.”
My chest swelled with this praise, then deflated when my father said, “Im going to miss you.”
“Are you sending me away?” I asked. Pietje must have come to the same conclusion. He clutched at my free hand in fear.
What I’d done by planting peanut butter in all the mattresses but Simon’s did deserve a spanking, but I hadn’t expected to be banished from the household. Of course, I would then be out of reach of Simon, so there was some benefit in it. Eventually, hed figure out what my father had figured out.
“You’ve seen what is happening,” my father said. “The Japanese are taking over. Dutch currency is being replaced by Japanese currency. Ive heard rumors that it will be illegal to speak Dutch on the streets. The Japanese know that to rule this island, they have to control the Dutch.”
I listened.
“Accordingly, sooner or later,” my father continued, “a truck will arrive to take me and your older brothers. All the Dutch men are going into work camps, and Dutch women and children will go together into different camps. Boys over the age of sixteen are considered men, so Simon will be with us.”
I pondered this and had no reason to disbelieve it. It was strange how quickly I had accepted what was happening around us.
“Simon is only fifteen,” I said.
“The Japanese count ages differently than we do. On a day that a baby is born, it is his first year, and the baby is considered to be one. The Japanese will consider you to be eleven years old, not ten. Ive changed your birth certificate so that it looks like you were born a year later. You are not tall, and they will believe you are younger.”
“You want me to be a nine-year-old?”
“A ten-year-old to them,” my father answered. “We dont know how long this war will last. I need you to stay with your mother and Nikki and Aniek and Pietje as long as possible.”
Pietje let go of my hand.
“I know how you are,” my father said. “I dont need to ask you to keep taking care of your younger sisters and brother. But I ask anyway, because it makes me feel better. I am already helpless in protecting my family.”
Now I was afraid. My father, admitting weakness?
“What Ive heard,” he said, “is that when the soldiers order you from the house, you are given one hour to pack and you are only allowed to take what you can carry. Ive already packed a suitcase that you must make sure to take. Its the big brown suitcase with a red ribbon tied around the handle, and Ive put it in your room. Don’t open it until you get to where they are taking you. Don’t let your mother open it either.”
I knew exactly the reason for this. My mother was not a practical woman and wouldn’t know what to pack. My father, on the other hand, was practical to the point of denying the existence of emotion. I was still reeling from his earlier admissions.
“Im also asking you to have patience with your mother,” he said. “The way she is, is not her fault.”
“What do you mean?”
“That you must do everything possible to help her in everything. And when she is cruel or seems uncaring, dont blame her for it. Her illness is no more her fault than catching a fever.
“Illness?” If it was true in some way that my mother was not to blame for the way she was, perhaps it wasnt my fault that she often ignored me.
My father reached into his shirt pocket. He pulled something out that I could not see and left it curled in the center of his closed hand.
“You may think that I dont know you that well,” he said. “But thats not true. Its just that…” He took a breath. “Sometimes a man has to put so much energy into one area of his family that it appears he doesnt care for other areas. When Im gone, it will be your turn to watch over your mother.”
That seemed to satisfy him, for he left it at that.
“Your fishing rod,” he said. “Its stopped moving.”
“Eventually it does,” I answered. “But a mouse can live for a lot longer time than you would expect.”
It was his turn to wait for more explanation, but two can play that game. Besides, I wanted to know what was in his hand.
“When the soldiers come for me and your brothers,” he said and looked back and forth between Pietje and me, “I will not give them the satisfaction of knowing how much it hurts to be taken away from you and how afraid I am for what will happen to you when I am not there to protect you. I don’t want you to cry, for we will not show them any weakness. Nor I will not say good-bye then or how much I love you, and I wont even look back. So Im saying it now.”
“It’s all right,” I said. “You don’t need to—”
Father moved to Pietje and pulled him in close, and to the astonishment of both Pietje and me, Father said, “Dag, lieve jongen.”
Good-bye, my loved little boy.
He released Pietje, then put a hand on each of my shoulders. “I love you. I will miss you.”
He leaned back. “More importantly, I respect you for who you are and what you’ve become. And I dread getting on the truck and leaving you behind.”
He opened his other hand and what I saw made me gasp far louder than the hardest of his spankings ever had.
It was a sulphide marble. Transparent green glass. With a miniature statue of a rearing horse in the center.
“I played marbles when I was boy too,” he said. “This was given to my father by his father, and not once did I ever risk it in a game. It is yours now.”
He didnt add that it would be something I would have to always remember him, but I could hear it unspoken in the tone of his voice. This was as difficult for him as it was for me.
“I expect,” he said, “that you will add it to the pouches you hide in your shorts.”
I was astounded. How did he know about my other marbles?
He stood.
“Good fishing,” he said. He was making a point that I understood. By not asking about why I had a fishing rod with a dead mouse at the end, he could be as stubborn as I was.
“Yes,” I said.
As he walked away, Pietje tugged on my hand, giving me no time to absorb what had just happened. That would come later, when I realized I’d just had my last real conversation with my father.
“Now?” Pietje asked.
“Now,” I said, turning my attention to my little brother. I gave him the fishing rod, and he began to reel in the line. I wasnt worried he would get hurt. A poisonous snake would have killed the mouse within seconds before swallowing it and a bigger one would simply regurgitate the mouse as the line pulled. The fight between our bait and the snake that had taken it had lasted five minutes, so whatever we had on the line hadn’t been able to kill the mouse immediately and was so small that the mouse couldnt make it back out past the inward facing bones of its throat.
To the satisfaction of both of us, we had landed a small python.

I gave the machete to Pietje and let him do the honors of chopping off the snakes head, unaware of how that species would later take revenge for this act.

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