Monday, February 2, 2015

My Mother's Bear

There’s a sun-faded, wallet-size photograph of a bear that hangs on a ribbon from the rear view mirror of my Mom’s Subaru Forrester.  The bear’s name is Melody.  Clipped to the photo is a small package of melba toast crackers, for the bear who isn’t in the picture.

Mom used to be terrified of bears.  She met my dad through the outing club in college, he was her climbing instructor.  When he proposed, he told her that if he married her, moving to Alaska was part of the package.  She was delighted.  She bought a wedding dress and they invited all their friends to a pot-luck at Yosemite, surprising them all with the wedding.  Mom never changed into the dress, and ended up getting married in her hiking boots instead.

 So naturally, my childhood summers were spent hunkered in the jump seat of my dad’s pickup, listening to the rattle of the canoe on the roof, on our way to float the Gulkana, or the Little Susitna.  We’d always try to get a few miles downriver the first night, just to get away from the sound of the road.  We’d find a place to camp a few hours before dark.  Once we’d settled in, Dad would set up the tent, Mom would set up the kitchen, always a good safe distance away from where we would sleep, and I’d head off with the dog to gather firewood.  After dinner and a family assembly-line of dish washing, we’d settle into our standard sleeping arrangement: on the far left, you have a loaded, large-frame, 8-round revolver, next, Dad sleeping soundly, me in the middle, scrunched down two feet to make room for the dog at my head, and on the right, Mom, lying awake until 3 every morning, listening to every rustle and snapped twig.  Because everywhere in Alaska is grizzly country.

When I was little, I couldn’t decide how much of a threat bears were.  I’d try staying awake like my mom, because it seemed responsible, but always fell asleep anyway.  When I got older, watching Mom fumbling, fatigued through the second or third or fourth day of camping, I offered to take watches with her, staying awake so she could catch up on sleep.  “Wouldn’t do any good,” she said.  “It’s not that I don’t want to sleep, it’s that I can’t.” So I gave up, and slept hard, because there was nothing else useful to do.  Summer after summer, I watched my mom worry.  We saw fresh prints, we saw bear scat.  But we never saw bears.   The dog in the tent stayed asleep most nights.  Once or twice she would hop up, barking and growling at the woods beyond the tent, but whatever it was always meandered off, the dog would go back to sleep and our campsite would be undisturbed in the morning.   I became skeptical, growing suspicious that mom’s fear had more to do with a belief that she could control an uncontrollable situation by worrying about it.  And while I saw evidence that our family’s insistence on clean, cautious camping in bear country was enough to keep us safe, Mom saw evidence that her worry was protecting us.

Mom used to say it wasn’t bears that scared her so much, it was what people had done to bears.    Campgrounds were harder for her to sleep in because of “garbage bears”-- the ones that stayed near the campground because they’d learned that dumpsters provided easy meals, and that humans were a stable food source.  Those were the ones she visualized tearing through the tent flap following the smell of an unnoticed gob of peanut butter mashed into your fleece jacket at lunch.

Here’s the cool thing about my mom though.  Her fear becomes her fixation, and she manages it by learning everything she can.  She read and re-read a big stack of books on bears, Scary Alaskan Bear Tales, books on living in the bush, scientific books on bear behavior, feeding habits and population distribution, anything to help her feel prepared.  Then, when I was fourteen, she surprised us all by entering the lottery to go to McNeil River. 

McNeil River Bear Reservation is a 200 square mile preserve, accessible only by float plane, 160 miles away from the nearest town.  Human activity is strictly regulated: you can only camp in specific places, you can only cook or eat with the other visitors inside the fortified cook shed.  The only people allowed guns were the head ranger, the legendary Larry Aumiller, and whatever ranger was lucky enough to be posted with Larry that summer.  This, my mom figured, was about as perfect an arrangement as humans could manage in bear country.  The bears here would be safer, not trained to associate humans with food.  She could to this.  It would be therapeutic.

Her name didn’t get drawn.  She entered the next year and got in.  She got two tickets, and opted to take my dad.  Camping was how they met, after all.  I think it’s possible she might have wanted to show him she could sleep through the night, given the right circumstances.  They had an amazing time.  When they came back, they were full of stories of Larry, who had already spent unwitting years as a Dunn family hero, plus photographers with three-foot lenses in expensive shock-proof cases, like Kiki Mimori, an Italian photographer then in her mid 60s who did frequent work for National Geographic , who made enough to live in Italy and maintain an apartment in Anchorage.   More impressive than all this was the fact Mom slept like a baby every night she was there.

On their second day, Mom and Dad went out with Larry.  It was early in the summer, and the salmon hadn’t started migrating up McNeil River yet.  But they were running at Mikfik Creek, which was, in some ways, better.  It wasn’t as picturesque, with the famous falls you’ve seen in almost every documentary on bears, but you could get a lot closer to the prime fishing spot, and therefore the bears.  This was where Larry, his rifle strapped to his back, led Kiki, my parents, and about six other people.  Any more than that, and Larry said he got more worried about managing the humans than the bears.  They settled in on a flat grassy patch just before a steep bank that led down to the stream.  Any bears who had been there first took off at the sound of the pack of hikers, “But they’re here,” Larry assured.  “They’ll be back soon.”

The first grizzly showed up within twenty minutes.  Then more, sometimes as many as four sharing the same fishing hole.  My parents witnessed a constantly shifting social dynamic on the other side of the creek; blustery competition for the prime fishing spot, male bears trying to push in on the females with cubs and getting rebuffed.  They never saw an all-out fight, but my parents got to see plenty of fake charges, bared teeth and serious swats with thirty-pound, six-inch-clawed paws.  The social scene was made all the more engaging by the fact that at any time, the tensions could boil over from the bear side of the river to the human one.  Larry never had to cock his rifle, but it came down off his shoulder a few times, just in case.

One of the bears who was a regular at that spot that summer was Melody, a female with two yearling cubs.  Twins are more common for bears than humans, but still an exception to the rule.  Larry kept a mental genealogy of bears going decades back.  He never named cubs in their first year, since so few make it into their second.  But Melody had managed to raise twins to a stable age where they could begin to make it on their own.  Larry said it was time to name them.  He wanted names that sounded like their mother’s, so he could remember who came from whom.  Kiki suggested Carmel.  Larry thought that sounded good.  My mom suggested Melba for the other twin.  Larry nodded, saying, “I could remember that.”

My parents came back from their five days at McNeil River with rolls and rolls of film.  Printed up into slides and projected on our silvery screen back in our living room, I was amazed how my parents could tell one bear from another.  Mom never got a chance to take a good picture of Melba, the cub she named, but she got one of Melody.  She had the slide printed up so it could hang from the rear view mirror, a reminder of a great adventure and a fear—if not conquered, at least faced, negotiated with, and left on better terms.

Mom’s not afraid of bears anymore.  She left Alaska to join me down in Washington State not long after Dad died.  The black bears we encounter hiking in Washington’s parks don’t concern her much.  Here, her fear is hobo spiders—Teginaria agrestus—German forest spiders that hitchhiked in shipments of furniture to Washington where they decided they prefer living indoors.  Their necrotic bite will eat out a divot in your flesh the size of a hand.  Mom is dealing with her fear much the same way as she did with bears.  She takes precautions for living in spider country, putting up night lights and screens over the heating vents.  She’s bought books.  She captures Teginaria around her house and sticks them in the freezer so she can take them to a local entomologist she’s made friends with; so he can peer through his microscope and tell her if she’s caught a poisonous agrestus, or one of the nearly identical but harmless gigantea or domesticus species.  So far, they’ve all come back gigantea.  That’s good news.  The gigantea can give you a good scare as three inches of spider goes scuttling across your foot; these are spiders big enough to hear.  But they prey on hobos; so the fact my mom shares her house with a lot of them may be more of a blessing than a curse.  These huge, creepy arachnids are actually keeping her safe.  I can’t tell my mom not to be scared, or, I can; It’s something I’ve done enough to know it doesn’t help either of us.  In the past few years, however, I’ve noticed some of my mom’s night lights have come down, some of the screens have fallen and not been replaced.  Like the bears, she’s finding a way to live with them.


 As a teenager, I was angry that my mom let her fears get in the way so much.  My rejection of her  caution turned me into a bit of a daredevil, diving through city traffic on my bicycle on the way to work, climbing trees way past an age that such a thing is considered appropriate.  I wanted to throw myself into the world and show her it would catch me, so maybe she could finally relax a little. But the older I get, the better I’m able to accept that I’ll never change her caution, not even by offering myself up as an example who remains unmauled, unbitten, and unsquished by angry drivers.  Accepting this about her has allowed me to see and respect my mom’s disciplined approach to encountering and making peace with the things that scare her.  If she can find peace in her house full of monster arachnids, certainly I can accept her in her entirety, with her fears and limitations, and admire her skill at finding her unique, quiet way past them.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Waiting Game

I went to the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference in July with two goals.  I wanted to know if my book was ready; where the quality of structure and writing was in relation to books getting published. My other goal was to find a way forward.  I pitched The Januarium to nine agents and two acquiring editors at the PNWA conference.  It’s been a month and a half since I sent out my last submission.  How’s the manuscript doing?

Januarium Scorecard

No
Maybe, Edit and Resubmit
Yes
No response yet
Agents
4
1
0
4
Editors
1
0
0
1

Is the Story Ready?
Mmmmaybe.  According to feedback I’m getting from agents, probably.  Three rejection letters have mentioned specifically that the writing is good.  One agent even said expected sell, just that she wouldn’t be the one to sell it. I’m not through the gate yet, but the gatekeepers seem friendly enough.  My inner gamer hopes my Charisma is high enough, and wonders what die I should use for an influence roll.  But, seriously, the feedback I’m getting is really encouraging.  Not, revise for pacing, or your characters are flat.  So, while there are always things to improve, I feel like goal one is met.  I’m learning The Januarium stands pretty well against books that are getting picked up for publication. 

The Way Forward
See that 1 in the Maybe column?  One agent sent me back all my copy with extensive notes, and asked to see a revision.  I’m a week out from having it done.  The main assignment was to get a better grip on how good sci-fi opens, specifically where in the story the unique mechanics of the alternative universe are introduced.  Turns out right up front is the best answer, and I’ve added two letters between the main character’s father and uncle as a preface.  I hope it’s enough.  But for now, goal two is met.

One Story the Numbers Don’t Tell
There were three agents in particular that felt like the best matches for The Januarium.  One was the first I submitted to, and the first I heard back from.  She’s the Resubmit.  The other two were the submissions I sent out last, and they wanted the whole manuscript.  So as the responses trickle in and the No numbers stack up, I’m holding out hope for those last two.  As the agent who said she’d be keeping an eye out for my book deal reminded me, all it takes is one yes.

In the meantime, I’m waiting, and flirting with ideas for novel #2.  Anybody have good resources on junk DNA?

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Top 5 Writers Conference Wins

I was lucky enough to go to the Pacific Northwest Writer's Conference this weekend.  Four days of meeting other writers at all stages, pitching my book, The Januarium, to agents and editors, and poorly managing my caffeine addiction.  Here are my top 5 personal highlights:

5. Standing in a long line to pitch to one agent, asking the two nice ladies behind me if they’d mind saving my place while I pitched to an editor with no line, getting to do it, and having both the editor and agent ask to see pages.

4. My roommate, Karen, who may have used my toothbrush accidentally, but was still the best roommate imaginable, talking me through my nerves about pitching, practicing with me, and putting up with me staying up until midnight Friday working on my synopsis.

3. Meeting agent Roseanne Wells at the hotel poolside accidentally, getting to talk to her about my book and agenting and her adorable socks for 20 minutes, (I think I was supposed to keep the socks a secret) and having her request a full manuscript.

2. Meeting a passel of people as enthusiastic about writing as I am, who want to exchange help and critiques and ideas and gush about our love of the semicolon together.


1. Coming home to a mess of things to do ASAP: email new writer friends, blog post, send out requested materials to 9 Agents and 2 Editors, put clips up on my blog, edit my synopsis.  

The #1 worst thing? I really want to curl up with the wife and dog and veg out for the evening.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

About the Book, pt 1

The Blog About the Book, part 1
I’ve tried to write novels before.  There was one I started when I lived in Mexico called Ballet Commandos of Tacoma, which collapsed into plotless mush 20,000 words in.  Then there was Wrestling Zebedee, an epic graphic novel about a young woman cast out of her small-town, Fundamentalist Mormon community for getting raped, who is taken in by a Ute Indian elder, hitchhikes to Seattle with a peyote dealer, and eventually becomes a pirate radio DJ.  Once I did the math and realized that since I was working full time, I’d be illustrating the story for the next five years, I sensibly walked away.  I did, however, paint this awesome cover.   Then I swore to myself if a story ever swept me up again, I would follow it doggedly, not in graphic novel form, until it left me. 

Siglinde, from Wrestling Zebedee
I began writing my new novel, The Januarium, as a phantasmagoria.  I’d just finished Kraken by China Mievelle, who, by the way, I worship in a creepy, I want-to-be-you kind of way, and put the book down thinking ‘I could do that.’  I could layer bizarre, imagination-stretching situation upon absurd character upon known physics-defying plot point until I had something truly new and inimitable.  I started with Alcatraz Island, covered in a glass dome, and converted into a refrigerated arctic research station.  Then there was the main character, and her quest to create a human-propelled flying bicycle, then her teacher’s workshop, with clockwork-timed mirrors that follow the sun like sunflowers to bounce light down the alleyway through the glass window water heater, identical twin old ladies who live together, playing cello and piano.  The wild leaps of imagination mostly stopped there, but those first few images had enough energy, I was able to follow them through into a complete story.

Writing it was like stumbling through a cave system with a weak flashlight.  I had no idea where I was going, only that there was another safe step forward to take, moving constantly towards completeness.  I think I could do it again.  I think it will be easier the second time; processes discovered accidentally collapsing into efficient, organized structures. 

I’ve been reading first novels lately:  Jean Kwok’s stunningly good Girl in Translation, Melanie Rawn’s Dragon Prince, which makes me want to tear my hair out because her main characters are petty, a little cruel, and their emotions leap around nonsensically.  Margaret swears the second book is better.  I’ll probably read it, just to see how.  Then there’s the first two books in a trilogy by A. R. Ivanovitch, Haven, and its sequel Dragoon.  Both were self-published directly through Amazon.  Haven made me want to stab my eyes out.  It was well-plotted, but the whole book manages an awkward word choice or dangling participle with almost every paragraph.  An example from the third page, “My professor Barry Block, had a knack for enthusiasm that was usually wasted on the students.”  First, we’re missing a comma after professor.  Then does he have a knack, or does he have enthusiasm? And if it is wasted on the students, is it really a knack at all?  In the second book, the writing improved enough that I could enjoy the story. 

I can’t help but hold The Januarium up against each of these, and see a different fear.  In Girl in Translation, there’s the fear of unrepeatable goodness.  Jean Kwok’s incandescent coming of age story will be a brutally tough act to follow.  If I had her experience, I’d be completely thrown, terrified to ever write again.  I wonder if that’s why Harper Lee didn't.  Who knows why one book was enough, for her?  Maybe another would just have been superfluous, maybe a lifetime of meaning and love and poignancy condensed itself down into one work of art.  There’s certainly a lifetime of all those things in either Girl in Translation or To Kill a Mockingbird.  Knowing you've put so much of yourself into one book there may not enough left in you for a second is terrifying.  The Januarium felt that way, about three quarters of the way through.  Although I’ll admit my love and poignancy reserves have bounced back a little since then.

The Januarium isn't going to be Girl in Translation.  I’m okay with that.  Jean Kwok earned the right to study writing at Harvard.  I've done the best I know how with help from some awesome people, (foremost Tom Dylan) and I hope I've created something entertaining and full of love and rich, untasted flavor.  But it’s not as smooth and sparkling as I would expect of something coming out of a major publishing house.  Neither is the Dragon Prince. Rawn's books went big, but if I'd reached that big an audience with a book I’d later consider regrettably bad . . .ugh.  I’m sure I’d find a way to live with myself, chalk it up as a lesson,  and go on, but I would be constantly uncomfortable with it.  Hopefully it would gnaw at my ribs late at night until I made that monster a friend who pushed me to write better.  Anyway, what sucks is you can only write as well as you can.  I’m sure Melanie Rawn worked her ass off.  But, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, even with a mirror, there’s always that little spot at the back of your head you’ll never get to see.  And I feel like her agent, renowned for her support and nurturing, as well as the editorial staff who worked with Ms. Rawn, let her down.  That book shouldn’t have made it past the gatekeepers, in my opinion. 

Last in my narcissistic tour of terror is A. R. Ivanovich’s first book of the self-published War of the Princes series, Haven.   Haven makes Rawn's The Dragon Prince look sleek and polished. But unlike Melanie Rawn, Ivanovich‘s entire support and production team comprised her sister.  It has the problems of Dragon Prince—unsympathetic main character with inexplicable mood swings, along with persistent sentence-level problems.  For all I know, I could be doing this, too, and I wouldn't know it.  Hard work does not guarantee good work.

I hold The Januarium up, mentally, against these three books, wondering where on the spectrum it will fall.  Better than two of the three, I hope.  Publishable?  Maybe.  Ideally with help.  I'm probably being naive, but I want an agent and a big publishing house because I want to see how the professionals work, what they do, and, if I’m lucky, to receive the blessing of as many swift kicks in the pants as it takes to become a significantly better writer. 

To this end, I have a goal of querying 100 agents.  I maintain a spreadsheet of names, agencies, predilections, emails, and submission guidelines (they’re different for every agency), plus mostly empty columns for submission and rejection dates.  When I hit 100, I have my own permission to e-publish, just like Ms. Ivanovich.  In the end, that’s not a bad option.  Her first two books review well among readers on Amazon, and if the third book in her trilogy, Monarch, (out this May, haven't read yet) improves as much as the second did, she’ll have something seriously good.  Good enough that an agent or publisher would be stupid to ignore her, plus, she’ll have a ready-built audience of readers waiting for whatever her fourth book will be.  Her first book is free, the second is $3.99, the third is a dollar more, so she's got the double-plus of a small income to show for her efforts.  So pardon me while I put down my gavel of judgement and thank her for the inspiration, and remind myself to keep my head down and get back to work.

Also, should Ms. Ivanovich google herself and find this, I apologize for casting shade.  I hope everyone who reads this blog buys your books just to prove to me what a shade-casting chump I am, and you can laugh and watch your PayPal numbers grow. Or, email me if you want me to make amends as your editing minion. It would be an honest honor.

Post Script!  I just found out Jean Kwok just published her second book, Mambo in Chinatown, last week!  So exciting!  Also, crap!  Now I have to drag myself by the shirt collar through the rest of The Dragon Prince so I can read it!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

One way to down it

I wish I could be old right now.   Rewind me a few months from death, fingers knotted and aching, breath unreliable.  What luck
to steal a few hours of age from myself, or a day or a week—work up my tolerance and understand what will go missing,
then, when my life is all poured out, every drop wrung from the flesh
I could spend that week in an unlined face, laughing, skidding on succulent joints, then throw it all off

like a dress that never belonged to me.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Thin Line from Crazy

Beverly Dove (not her real name) has the most amazing handwriting—the kind they’d given up teaching by the time I rolled through the penmanship grades in the eighties.  It’s all over everything she’s dropped off in her packet: over a map she’s drawn and colored, labeling where each story  in her XanderPuppy series of children’s stories takes place, carefully naming the life-size paper dolls she’s made of her characters, double-layered then neatly stapled shut and stuffed with newspaper, and posed together in photographs, printed in full color, 8 ½ x 11”.  She wants our shop to carry her stories.  She hasn’t published a book, mind you.  I guess she wants to print pages off her computer and sell them.  Her care and effort are enormous, inspiring, and terrifying.   Her thirteen stories, written for ages 6-7, involve two children, their puppy and various other animals having adventures and chatting on various wavelengths of telepathic communication she’s named jabbersonic, subsonic, and puppysonic. 
I can understand why she dropped it off here.  We’re a metaphysical/ herb store.  One co-worker describes it as a temple disguised as a shop.  Most of her displays look like altars you can buy stuff off of.  In an increasingly disposable, meaningless world, all of us who work here are passionate about objects of real-ness and use and meaning.  To the point we don’t see paper towels, we see the forest sacrificed to make them.  We wipe the fingerprints off the glass with homeless birds and two pounds of fresh atmospheric carbon.  That’s a seriously precious paper towel.  This can lead to some packratty behavior.  Vendors send us products in rubber bands—we have drawers full of them.  Ziplock baggies too.  It’s also why Barbara Dove’s manila envelope has stuck around beside the register for over a year; it was honest and full of love, and we don’t want to carry her stories which are saccharine and full of well-behaved children, but we don’t want her bravery and care to be wasted either.
I collect Barbara’s kind of crazy; part because I can’t look away, part because it keeps me honest, critical and real.  When I was living in Mexico, I took these photographs of the garden of a 70-year old man named Richard Cornu.  He’d given vast swaths of flower bed over to elaborate dioramas of battling toys.  He was delighted to catch me taking pictures, and invited me to lunch.  I swallowed everything my mother taught me to keep me safe, and accepted.  I don’t remember what we ate.  He rambled like old people who forget their listeners do; he talked about his life, born in France, moved to Puebla when he was a teenager.  Apparently he was re-enacting battles from WWII in his garden beds, using toy soldiers, hot wheels, some plastic dinosaurs.  He felt guilty about escaping the war, abandoning his country to Nazi occupation, and makes up for it now by using his garden bed to remind everyone who passes of the sacrifices of his generation.

I collect this kind of crazy because I see myself in it.  Every work of art is waving a mad flag of love around and hoping others will recognize it and respond.  My novel is no different.  I just finished my seventh draft, maybe spent half my free time of the past two years making this. Each edit is just another staple in the pigeon doll, the correct stegosaurus to represent General Charles de Gaulle.  The only difference between my novel, XanderPuppy, and Senior Cornu’s garden is I try to stay current, see what people respond to, and hope I’m waving my giant, attention-getting love flag in a more recognizable pattern.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Boneshaker

I'm excited to share the comic I just had published in Boneshaker: A Bicycling Almanac out of Wolverine Farm Publishing in Fort Collins Colorado.  For those of you who can't find a copy, here's the comic.  Domo Arigato to Michael Jones for helping me with the Japanese kanji in the background.