Author, Actor, Playwright, Excellent Parallel Parker

Rules of the Lake and Ashes to Water are now available for Kindle and Nook!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Want Libraries to Acquire Your Book or Invite You to Speak? Here's How to Ask.

In my never-ending quest to find a readership, I decided to contact libraries in Florida (where Ashes to Water and Rules of the Lake are set), and ask them to acquire my books. I also wanted to let them know that I would be excited to participate in a “Meet the Author” or other appropriate adult program they may host.

I wrote to Cathy Camper, a youth service outreach librarian at Multnomah County Library in Portland OR, and asked her the best way to go about this. Her generous response blew me away, and when I asked if I could share it with you, she said yes.

So here it is, folks. Invaluable information from an invaluable source, on how to ask a library to acquire your book(s) and consider you as a guest speaker:

Hi Irene,

Here's my thoughts from when I used to select books for the Minneapolis library.

First, we are inundated by books, mainstream reviews and publishing PR. So that means small press, indie or alternative publications have to battle twice as hard to get a librarian's attention. Since I personally have an interest in those areas, I would try to seek out those kinds of publications, but many librarians (for many reasons) don't. If your book is self-published, it will be even harder.

So, if you want a library to buy your book, you have to tailor your letter to them, and tell them up front what your book will do for them. I'd worry less about telling them its status (ie self-published, small press etc.), and include more about why they need it. Use bullet points, keep the letter to one page. Here's some things you can use for ASHES TO WATER:

-Set in Florida.
-Set in your town.
-Enhances your library’s mystery collection.
-Got good reviews; mention important local and/or national ones.

If you want to speak at the library, you need to hype your content. In other words, even if they don't pay you, why will your talk be a beneficial draw to library patrons?

You need a catchy hook. Here’s an example off the top of my head:
Somebody has been slitting the throats of hairdressers in Florida. It's up to Stella Lane to find the murderer.
Curl Up and Die is a mystery set on the beaches and in the beauty shops of Florida. When a tough divorce forces Stella Lane to set up her own beauty shop, she chooses cosmetology for her second career. Little did she know that between haircuts and lip waxes she'd be tracking down a killer...a man who kills because of a bad haircut!

I'm interested in doing a free presentation about my beauty shop mystery at your library. My hour-long talk includes a 30-minute power point presentation which delves into the historic beauty shop murders, upon which this book is based. These killings occurred in Florida in the 1950's, many of them within 25 miles of your town. I'd also like to include at least 15 minutes for questions and answers. If I could offer my book for sale after the talk, that would be great, though I realize that may depend on your library's regulations.
I've done this talk at 15 other libraries, including Miami-Dade County and Hennepin County. I've had great response from women readers especially. One woman even added to the story...her dad had actually met the real killer! I think my book might also connect readers with other books in your collection including mysteries and books about the recent history of Florida.
I'm flexible and will do my best to work with your schedule. Thanks for your time and attention. I hope to hear from you soon.”

OK this is rough, but see what I'm doing? First thing, hook the librarian...draw them into the book! Next thing, tell them very professionally

-What you'll do for free.
-What the performance is and length.
-What you want out of it (you want to sell your books).
-Tell them your experience. Give them some anecdotal audience reaction.
-Tell them who the audience is (to your best knowledge...women? Gay readers? Kids? History buffs?)
-Make it clear how the library a) will possibly benefit by connecting your book to their books/collections,  and b) making clear how your talk jibes with what they do. Do they have women mystery readers? Do they want something on local history? Can they work with 45mins-hour presentation?

They still may turn you down, but if I got a letter like this, it would spark my interest. It tells me this person is professional (as opposed to a hack or nut case), and it shows me what kind of bang I'll get for my buck. (Even free can cost something in time, preparation etc.)

Also know that sometimes libraries book MANY months ahead...we are booking things in November for presentations in it's very rare that our system books spontaneous talks.

Mainly, remember this is like applying for a job. Rather than send a generic mass-email, personalize the letter as much as you can. It takes longer, but you can tell from how I wrote the letter that tweaking it to each locale may be what makes or breaks it. Or at least personalize as many of the letters as you can, for cities/towns you know, and do a mass mailing for the next tier.

Hope this helps. You’ll still get rejections, but if your hook is good, even a rejection might lead to a purchase, or something else down the line...

Best wishes, Cathy

Cathy Camper is the author of Bugs Before Time; Prehistoric Insects and Their Relatives (Simon and Schuster, 2002). Visit her website at <> .

(Update: I've had six responses from Florida, and have booked three program dates, with more pending. Next week: Libraries in Virginia.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Seminole Heights Library in Tampa, FL

See the woman in the back left corner? In the white shirt? That's Darlene Harris. She's the Adult Programming Coordinator for the Tampa area library system. She's my new best friend. Darlene invited me to visit with patrons at the Seminole Heights Library. (She also hooked me up with New Tampa Regional Library.) At Seminole Heights, I felt compelled to take a picture of the wonderful folks who showed up on a rainy Monday afternoon because they were THAT great.

It's hard to know if your prepared presentation is going to appeal to an audience. You do your best, of course, and hope you touch somebody, or at least give them something to think about. Sometimes the chemistry is right, sometimes it isn't—all part of the book tour experience. These folks braved uncooperative weather to hear me talk about "The Literary Alchemy of Turning Memory to Story." They were attentive, interested and inquisitive, and I learned a lot from them. They love books, are curious about the writing process, and have writing aspirations of their own. I hope they invite me back.

So thank you, Darlene, and all my Tampa/St. Petersburg friends. Best wishes to you and your important work.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Evoking a Sense of Place, or How to Make Setting Come Alive

I have this theory. But first, let me ask you a question. When you dream, where are you?

Well, yeah, in bed, but where are you in your dream? What state?

No, not what emotional state, in which state of the union? Work with me, here.

See, I live in Virginia, but when I dream, Florida is where I go. Here's my theory: if you've lived in a number of places, as I have, the place you go when you dream is your default setting, and your default setting is where you truly belong.

Like I said, just a theory.

I'm just back from visiting my childhood home in DeLand, FL. I visited St. Petersburg, Tampa, and my hometown, DeLand, where ASHES TO WATER is set, and my default setting. That got me thinking about setting in general, and how to evoke a sense of "place" in fiction.

Which leads me to another theory. In order to evoke a strong sense of place, a writer should do two things: goose the iconic, and engage the senses.

What iconic images come to mind when you think of Florida? Maybe palm trees, water, white sand, Spanish moss, bushes shaped like Mickey Mouse ears? To give your readers a specific experience, you have to tweek those cliches. As for engaging the senses, I'm amazed how often some descriptions are all about sight and hearing, as if the other three senses are subordinate. We have five senses, and need to engage all of them.

Let me show you what I mean, one sense at a time.

1. Sight.
Envision the palm tree, but resist the picture of the tall umbrella in the sky. Instead, describe it after it has been through a hurricane. That's what I mean by goosing an iconic image. We've all seen oceans and lakes, but what creatures lurk, unseen, beneath the surface? White sand on the beach is expected, but if we encounter it, not while sun bathing, but while trying to bury a body, its problematic qualities can ratchet the tension and thicken the plot. Spanish moss dripping from oak trees is a common sight and therefore best avoided. Instead, describe it as woven through an abandoned nest. That image is not only unexpected, but emotional. As for Mickey Mouse, I'll never forget the time I wandered off Disney's Main Street, and encountered a costumed character smoking a cigarette behind the scenes. See what I mean? Goose the picture postcard.

2. Hearing.
Weather evokes setting, and is often experienced through hearing. The pitter-patter of rain on a tin roof is ho-hum, but the symphony of rainwater dripping into buckets, bottles, pans and pails adds music to the scene. The duck goes quack, but more interesting is the phonetic recreation of a whipporwhill. We can easily imagine the rattle of a snake in high grass, but the sound of it stiking your thick leather boot is one your reader will not soon forget. Don't let your environment just sit there. Interact with it.

3. Touch.
With touch, you become intimate with your setting. We feel temperature, texture, and movement. We grasp, catch, hold, and break. But don't forget to experience touch with more than hands. Caress the briny coolness of an Apalachacola oyster on the back of your tongue. Work your sunburnt feet into the sand at the water's edge. Swim naked. Engage as much of your tactile real estate as you can .

4. Taste.
How do we evoke a sense of place with taste? Sure, you could describe some regional cuisine, but that seems an obvious choice. Instead, snatch a lanky reed, and stick the stem between your teeth. Open your mouth to a sudden afternoon shower. Taste the salt from your own sweat. When you sample your environment, it literally becomes a part of you, which is organically and emotionally satisfying.

5. Smell.
I've saved my favorite for last. Smell may be the most underutilized and most effective way to evoke a sense of place. Smell is a powerful trigger of memory. A single whiff of oily steam coming off wet pavement slamdunks me into childhood so fast, I get whiplash. The smell of sour lake mud or a fleeting scent of orange blossom brings back a specific place on a specific day, and with it, a specific emotion. Smell anchors you in the now, and grants access to the past.

One of the best ways to honor your default setting is to write about it, and try to make others experience it the same way you do. I hope you enjoyed my sensory tour of Florida. For a longer stay, drop by ASHES TO WATER. I saved a few surprises for you.

Off to bed now, where sweet dreams await.

I'll smell you later.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Hello St. Pete, Tampa and DeLand!

Whew. It seemed like I'd never get to this point. I've been looking forward to Florida since March. Unlike my protagonist, Annie Bartlett, I like going home, and I hope you'll come out to say hello. Take a look at my tour schedule on the left, and drop by for an informal discussion about writing, Florida, and the story behind Ashes to Water. 

Maybe I'll see you there.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Okay, this NEVER happens!

I posted this message on my blog over the weekend, then followed up with a "joke" response that was confusing to some people, so I'm going to try this again. What I MEANT to say was, This NEVER happens, and I am over-the-moon-grateful.

I came across this person on (which is sort of like Facebook for readers, if you aren't familiar with it), and asked him to friend me. This was his response.

Hello, Irene

I got and approved your request to be Goodreads friends, noticed that you're an author (that makes you a hero in my world), checked out your website (fun; full of surprises), read some of the reviews of your first book on Amazon ... and was intrigued enough to slot it in as the next book I read after I finish Lisa Brackmann's "Rock Paper Tiger."

I suspect it's only out in hardback, so looks like I'll be contributing to your early retirement.


I love finding new authors. Can't wait to read your book.

I'll probably review it, both here in Goodreads and in the book section of our newspaper. Hope that's OK?

I'm a city editor in charge of a bunch of deadline-busting, don't-even-think-about-messing-with-my-pristine-copy! reporters (love them all ... but! ... managing them is like trying to herd cats).

I love to read, and although I just recently started writing reviews for our book section in my spare time, I've got a pretty good following based on the many e-mails I receive.

You might like my next review. Comes out tomorrow ... although I scooped myself by putting it in here first several weeks ago.

"The Child Thief." Not for everyone. Just saying.

Anyway, have a great weekend.

PS: ... you might be interested to know that we typically send my reviews out to the other 55 newspapers in our chain. My way of saying the review will almost certainly run in at least several dozen newspapers across the country.
Gawd, I hope you're good!

Boy, I hope I'm good, too. I told him if he didn't like Ashes to Water I would understand if he didn't review it. I would not kill myself, or more to the point, him. (Joke!)

I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. I've already offered to mow this guy's lawn for the rest of his life. He's thinking about it.
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Sunday, August 15, 2010

My Trippy Trip to the Poisoned Pen

I flew to Phoenix last week to stump for Ashes to Water at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. It was trippy. First of all, Phoenix is an oven, and I forgot my five-day deodorant pads. Just as well, because they wouldn't have worked for an hour, much less five days. I remembered to floss, however, so I flashed the pearly whites with confidence. My pretentious fountain pen leaked on my raw silk suit, but that wasn't because of anything I forgot to pack. I'm finished writing about my personal hygiene now, so you can keep reading.

The evening was trippy for more reasons. I had the pleasure of sharing the bill with Diane Noble (in the colorful wrap). I'd been seeing Diane's book, The Sister Wife everywhere, so it was great to meet her and learn about this Avon Inspirational. I also got to meet Will, the events coordinator, who last April finally caved as I forced myself onto his calendar. Thanks again, Will, for taking a chance on an unknown, and to the friendly staff at PP for making me feel at home. I can't speak for Diane, although I'm quite sure you made her feel at home as well. She seemed happy enough, anyway.

Many of the kind people there showed up because of new best friend and journalist Robrt Pela, who contacted his peeps and urged them to attend. How great is that? Robrt, if you're out there, and I know you are, I will never forget this kindness. Thank you for your warm hospitality and support. I think I love you. No, I do. I love you. There, I said it.
This visit was also trippy because I got to meet someone I only know from Twitter. How often do you meet people you follow on Twitter? Okay, maybe it's not so unusual, but I don't get out much. I was pleasantly flipped out to meet Lesa Holstine, book blogger, tweeter and mystery lover, who was kind enough to stop by, and will include our event in an upcoming blogpost at

Trippier still to see longtime friend Michael B. I live in Virginia so we get to see each other like, once in a decade. And he had read Ashes to Water! I think the last thing he read was Catcher in the Rye about forty years ago, so I was honored. In a subsequent email, Michael shared his reaction:
"I had never been to anything like that before.  It was really interesting. Your initial presentation was not at all what I expected. I really liked it--sort of a cross between a synopsis, a statement of literary philosophy, and a sales pitch. Then Diane Noble did her presentation, and it was in the same style. Is there a kind of conventional structure for book signing presentations? Is there a lot of variation between events?  Are some book signings very different from others?"

All good questions, Michael, and I'm sure the dozens of people who read my blog every year would like to know the answers, so here you go:

No, Michael, there is no conventional structure for book signing presentations. One must be ready to adapt to everything from a throng of adoring fans, to a room full of no-shows. I am more experienced with the latter, and have become quite adept at buying rather than selling books at the stores I visit. 

Yes, Michael, there is a lot of variations between events and yes, some book signings are very different from others. In Seattle, I stood on the sidewalk and tried to pull people in from the street. Seriously. In Portland, the bookstore owner interviewed me as patrons walked past. And in Minneapolis, I stood behind a podium and extemporized my way into an incoherent corner and embarrassed myself. That is why I composed a formal presentation. I delivered it only once before, in Richmond, because the bookstore owner specifically asked me not to read from the book, and I figured it would be a good idea to have something to say other than, "Hi, I'm Irene and I wrote this book."

You didn't tell me what you expected of the evening, Michael, but I bet I can guess. You know me primarily as an actor, so I bet you thought I was going to read, didn't you? I would very much like to read from Ashes to Water, but have been asked on three different occasions not to do this. I suspect our hosts are used to seeing authors put people to sleep in this way. It's a shame, really, but you can see how a reading, or in my case, a dramatic presentation would be just plain odd, especially if no one showed up to see it.

What would be ideal? Well, for me, I'd love to do a combination presentation/performance along the lines of my solo performance piece, Rules of the Lake, which is about the role of memory when composing fiction. But the proper venue for that would be a theatre, and it would have to be billed as a theatrical performance, not a book signing. Hmm. I think I'm starting to get an idea, here.

Anyway, thank you for your email, Michael, and thanks again to you good people out there who actually show up to these things. As you've clearly figured out, you don't have to buy a book to attend. We want to hear your ideas, and have the opportunity to convert you to readers. And should you feel compelled to shoot us an email afterward, oh my gosh, that would be just too wonderful to imagine. (Thanks for doing that, Michael and Paul.)

My next stop is my hometown, DeLand, FL, where Ashes to Water is set. Talk about trippy. I'll be hanging out for three hours as part of DeLand's Hot August Nights celebration, so come on out, DeLand, and say hello. I can't wait to see you again. And don't worry. I'll remember my deodorant.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Mildly Threatening but Earnest Invitation to Phoenix Mystery Readers

Dear Phoenix Mystery Readers,

You don’t know me from Eve, so thought I’d introduce myself. I’m Irene Ziegler, author of Ashes to Water.

I live in Virginia. Nobody knows me in Arizona except JD Hayworth, but I’m not allowed to discuss that until the investigation is closed. I’m coming to the Poisoned Pen on August 12 at 7:00 pm because Ashes to Water is a mystery/thriller, and after reading it, Will, the events coordinator decided it didn’t stick up the whole room. They’re taking a chance on an unknown writer, hoping someone will show up. But you know and I know that nobody comes to hear an unknown author unless they have an incentive.

Normally, I don’t threaten people, but these are desperate times, and threatening people is fun. So, If you don’t show up at the Poisoned Pen on the 12th, I’ll be forced to tie owner Barbara Peters to a chair and force-feed her ice cream.

For those of you who prefer positive incentives, there’s this: The first ten people to buy a copy of Ashes to Water will receive a free car. Seriously. For real. I’m not kidding.

Okay, I’m kidding. But if I had ten cars to give away, I would sooo give them away to you. That’s how much you mean to me.

If you come to The Poisoned Pen, you will drink delicious wine in lovely plastic cups. You will rub elbows with people who are only there for the air conditioning. And you will hear the story behind the book, which will have you sneaking glances at your cell phone and wondering if you remembered to program the DVD. As an added bonus, I will pose for pictures and do my Anne Bancroft impersonation. I do not sign undergarments. (Sorry.)

If I haven’t convinced you yet, then it’s probably not going to happen. And I understand. Barbara Peters understands, too. It’s summer, it’s hot, you never learned how to read. That’s cool. Maybe next time.

If you do come by, please say hello, even if you don’t buy a book. I love meeting mystery readers. You’re all so colorful.

Best to you and all who benefit from your paycheck,

Irene Ziegler

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

B&N Promo Code

Save 15% on any one item ONLINE at Barnes & Nobel with promo code U4L9U74. If you buy Ashes to Water, they will accept Monopoly money.

When Is Your Next Book Coming Out?

One of the kindest things you can do for an author is tell her you enjoyed her book. Why don't you do that right now? Lots of authors have websites or author pages, so contact information is pretty easy to find. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Congratulations. That was a very nice thing you just did. Several of my friends have checked in lately, to tell me they enjoyed Ashes to Water. This is wonderfully validating, motivating, and makes my day. I love my friends. Even when their next question is “When’s the next one coming out?” They mean well, but for me, this question is is guilt-inducing, buzz-killing, and makes me want to check into writers rehab.

I recognize the compliment, don’t get me wrong.  And it’s flattering as hell. Someone is actually saying to me, “Hey, if you write another one of these, I’ll read it!” That’s the best thing a writer could hope for: a loyal following. I understand the question, too, because mystery readers are getting used to their favorite writers delivering serial installments as predictably as a Virginia drought.  James Lee Burke publishes a new novel every July, and each year, I anxiously await it. These are not "thin" novels. Lee’s characters are complicated, his storylines involved.  The man is 74 and writing like one of the demons in Dave Robicheaux’s tangled past. It's downright impressive.

It took me eleven years to write Ashes to Water. Its prequel, Rules of the Lake, came out in 1999. That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I’ve published five books for actors in the meantime, and they count. But this one book a year thing? I don’t know how Burke and his ilk do it. 

Harper Lee and Margaret Mitchell wrote one book. One BIG book. I'm pretty sure they got that question all the time: "When is the next one coming out?" Harper Lee is so tired of talking about TKAMockingbird, she won't even discuss it, anymore.  Margaret Mitchell said she wasn't going to write another book, because "look how much trouble the first one caused." So it begs the question: what motivates the one-book-a-year people?

It must be the advance. I have no idea what James Lee Burke gets, or what Lee and Mitchell were offered, but I’m pretty sure a $40,000 dollar advance would keep me glued to my chair. But unless Ashes to Water wins the Edgar, I’m probably not going to find a publisher willing to pay me a lot of money to write another book.

So here’s what I’m gonna do. I’m going to raise my own advance. And that’s where YOU come in!

Send your dimes and nickels via PayPal to the Keep Annie Bartlett Alive Fund. If I receive $40,000 by midnight Sunday, I’ll submit the next installment to my agent in 6 months.

If I don’t  receive $40,000 by midnight Sunday, I’ll…I’ll…

I’ll write another one anyway. 


Thanks for asking.

Friday, August 6, 2010

New Review for RULES OF THE LAKE

Thank you, Sandy Nawrot, for this great review!

Friday, August 6, 2010

Back at the beginning of the summer, I reviewed Irene Ziegler's new release "Ashes to Water", a "mysterature" that was drenched in old Florida atmosphere. I experienced something close to love at first sight with the story's protagonist, Annie Bartlett, a damaged woman with a strong sense of justice. While the book stood on its own, I knew that Ziegler had written a prequel, entitled "Rules of the Lake", that delved into Annie's childhood and the ghosts she acquired as a result. I knew I HAD to read this - I needed insight into Annie's psyche. Before I was able to use my birthday money to buy it though, Ziegler sent me a copy (thank you!). I squirreled it into my bags for my trip to Indiana. I might just miss my southern, humid, bug-infested home, after all!

"Rules of the Lake" is a collection of separate events in Annie's life that define her...her parents' unhappy marriage, her father's abusive personality, her mother's suicide, her fascination with mermaids (we have them in Weeki Wachee, you know), her molestation from a neighbor, her relationship with her troubled older sister, and her love of water and the lake in her backyard.

Again, Ziegler has hit the nail on the head in creating an essence of old Florida, and blends it with the nostalgic, bittersweet childhood of a young girl. (A young girl that comes back as an adult in "Ashes to Water" and kicks a little butt, which is oh so satisfying.) If you can't afford to go plodding around in untouched, backwater Florida, then this is the next best thing.

I am also compelled to take a slight, superficial detour. Guys, this book cover! I've uploaded an extra large version so you can see. I can't stop staring at the blending of the colors, and the mesmerizing representation of the unseen, non-Disney Florida. If I could frame it and hang it on my wall, I would. The signature says "Vige", but I can't seem to find any information on the artist. Any information would be greatly appreciated!

If you want to take a trip to the unspoiled South, without the strife of heat and mosquitoes and tourists, this is your best bet. You will thank me later!

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Can't Find Your Writing Voice? Steal One.

When I was in the creative writing program at the University of Virginia (lo these many moons ago), author Robert Hemenway taught a class that would prove seminal. He required we read selected works of Issac Babel, D.H. Lawrence, Katherine Porter and Ernest Hemingway. The final assignment was to write a story in the style of one of these authors.

I’ve heard writers say that reading-to-imitate rocks their boat. They are afraid of getting another author’s voice in their head. After all, isn’t the whole point to avoid the derivative in search of one’s own voice?

Nah. The whole point is to write.

When undertaking a new creative endeavor, any artist needs first to develop a vocabulary. Imitation need not lead to assimilation. Is an actor afraid of forever speaking in the rat-a-tat cadence of David Mamet? Is a painter afraid his drip creation will be mistaken for Jackson Pollock’s? Was Maria Callas afraid she would sound like Elvira de Hidalgo? Of course not. Style and technique develop over time, and if you learn well, , grasshopper, you may one day surpass the master.

Or step into your own head, which is just as good.

I wrote “My Last Deer” after studying Isaac Babel’s story, “My First Goose.” Babel was a Russian Jew and student of Maxim Gorky. Gorky told him he had no hope of being a great writer until he experienced life beyond his comfort zone, so in 1920, Babel joined the Red Cavalry, whose brutality was in sharp contrast with his gentle nature. He wrote “My First Goose,” during that time. It tells of a young soldier, a gentle intellectual, who is ostracized until he proves his “worthiness” as a soldier. He roughly accosts an elderly woman, brutally kills her goose (“its head cracking beneath my boot”) and orders her to cook it for him. This earns him a respectful place among the other Cossacks even as his heart, "crimson with murder, screeched and bled."

That story got to me in a big way.

“My Last Deer” paralleled “My First Goose” in that it is a story of initiation. Young Annie is pressured into going deer hunting with her father, when she’d rather take pictures with her new Insta-matic camera. When her father kills and guts a deer in the woods, he urges her, to her horror, to take his picture alongside his trophy. Annie, “wretched,” obeys.

Stylistically, I was struck by Babel’s descriptive eccentricities: "The sunset was boiling in the skies, a sunset thick as jam...." "The naked shine of the moon poured over the town with unquenchable strength." "The village street lay before us, and the dying sun in the sky, and yellow as a pumpkin, breathed its last breath." A little much? Not for me. I lapped it up with a spoon, and in “My Last Deer” wrote, “The sun’s yoke cracked and sizzled in the sky.” Pretty eccentric, eh?

Okay, so I’m no Isaac Babel. And I’m not trying to be. But the assignment taught me there is value in emulating an admired writer. From Babel I learned the power of a simply constructed sentence. It was he who said, "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place." 

By the way, Isaac Babel, the gentle, bespectacled writer from Odessa, was arrested, tortured and shot during Stalin’s Great Purge. His story collection, The Red Cavalry, survived.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Prologue from Ashes to Water

November 29, 1962

Damp and heavy-limbed, nine-year-old Annie Bartlett jerked awake beneath her father’s chin.  The scent of pine needles and lake mud snaked through jalousie windows.  Lying still, Annie breathed her father’s expelled air, and thought of mermaids.
They lurked in Widow Lake, she was sure of it. She had only to unlock the mystery of breathing underwater, and her own transformation would be complete. Her mother, who used to be a professional skier at Cypress Gardens, claimed to know the secret to breathing underwater. She spent time with Annie in the lake, whispering words that awed and excited:  “Learning takes time, but if you are truly dedicated, and want to breathe underwater more than anything in the world, you will succeed and become a mermaid.”
            Annie could hardly wait for her next lesson.  Once changed, she would fly unencumbered in that quiet, watery world, free of the restless tensions that permeated the Bartlett household and insinuated Annie’s dreams. Instinctively, she moved her ankles together, as when kicking water behind.
            Her father stirred, and Annie froze. If he woke, he would order her from bed. Annie was too big to be crawling into bed with Daddy, but in her own bed, she dream-twisted. Her older sister, Leigh, drove her out as well, ordered Annie to stay on her own side of the room. Only her mother tolerated Annie’s knees and elbows, but Helen worked nights, didn’t arrive home until first light, now breaking. Annie would scoot when she heard the front door creak.
             Her mother had been strange, lately. During the day, she roamed about the house there-but-not-there, blackout mask pushed to her forehead. When Annie talked, her mother stared as if she didn’t know where Annie had come from.
            Leigh appeared in the doorway. “Get up,” she whispered, and gestured to Annie. “He’ll be mad.”
            “Is Mom home?” Annie whispered back.
            Leigh shook her head. Annie slipped from bed.
            At thirteen, Leigh looked taffy-pulled: arms and legs too long, middle stretched thin. Her musk, both sweet and sour, was new. She was blonde and fair skinned, unlike dark Annie, with alert, suspicious eyes constantly surveying their father.  Leigh had lately taken to calling him Ed.
            “Get ready for school,” said Leigh. She stood flamingo-like before the full-sized mirror, one foot resting high on the other leg.
            “But where’s Mom?” asked Annie.
            “Late, I guess.”
            “She’s never late.”
            “Then I guess she’s dead.”
            Leigh rarely spoke unless in sarcasm. Annie ducked the blow, and dressed for school. In the kitchen, she stood before the sliding glass door and looked at the lake, holding the white rabbit coat she got for her birthday. The newly hatched sun, already stoking, stirred the mist atop the water. November, and not even cold. Annie had been waiting weeks to wear her new coat, but it seemed this Indian summer would never move on. Her father complained, too. When it was warm like this, no one used furnaces, and he didn’t deliver fuel oil in the truck.
“Where’s your mother?”
Annie turned. Her father stood scratching. “I don’t know. She’s not dead.” Annie liked to say shocking things. Her father looked, and for those few seconds, was hers. She smiled.
“You want cereal?” Annie nodded. “Sit down, then.”
 Ed looked at the stove clock. “I guess I’ll have to drive you to school in the oil truck.”
“Leigh hates the oil truck.”
“Leigh hates everything,” Ed muttered. He dialed while opening a milk carton one-handed. “This is Ed Bartlett. I’m looking for my wife. Is she still there?” Annie crunched corn puffs. “Well, if you hear from her, would you tell her to call home?’ He hung up.
Annie put on her rabbit coat.
“You don’t need that coat today, Annie. It’s going to get real hot.”
“But I want to wear it.”
“Not today.”
Leigh glided into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator door. “It’s her coat, “ she said. “Go ahead and wear it if you want to, Annie.”
Ed scowled. “When did you become head of this household?”
A soft light bathed Leigh’s face as she peered into the fridge. Ed pointed his chin at Annie. “Take off the coat. I told you, it’s too hot. Now, take it off, c’mon.”
Leigh slammed the refrigerator door. Annie looked at her.
“Just do it before he has a hissy.”
When Annie removed the coat, Ed seemed to implode. With controlled fury, he asked, “Did you take it off because I told you to take it off, or because Leigh told you to take it off?”
It was a trap. Annie didn’t know in which direction to step.
 “Put it back on,” Ed commanded.
Annie blinked, confused.
Leigh took her sister’s hand. “Come on, Annie.”
“I said, put it back on.” Annie looked at Leigh. “Don’t look at your sister, look at me.” Annie looked at Ed. “Put it back on.” Annie slid her arms into the coat. Ed looked at Leigh, triumphant.
Stepping outside was like entering a closed-up car, and it wasn’t yet eight-thirty.  Ed opened the passenger door of the fuel oil truck, urged the girls inside. Annie’s white rabbit coat dusted the seat as she slid.
Leigh stepped up, then pointed.  “Hey, Ed, there’s mom’s car.”
Sure enough, Helen’s green Falcon sat parked in the front driveway.  Ed blinked at it.  “Get in,” he said, already moving toward the car. 
Leigh called after him. “I don’t want to get in if we’re just going to sit here.”
Ed, head inside the Falcon, didn’t answer. Calling Helen’s name, he moved briskly to the house.  Annie climbed from the truck, looked inside her mother’s car. On the passenger seat, her mother’s nurse’s uniform lay in a white heap, cushion-soled shoes on top.
Annie went into the house, stopped before the sliding glass door. Outside, Leigh crept into her peripheral vision.  Annie followed her point.  Lake fog, like velvet curtains, lifted, and suddenly Ed was running.
“Get back!” he called to Annie, who chased behind. “Get back in the house!”
            Ed barged into the water, then dove. Six minutes later, he pulled his drowned wife onto mud-soaked grass and collapsed beside her.  Leigh howled as if being wrenched into some unholy thing. 
            Annie looked at her wet, naked mother on the grass.  She was not fooled.  Her mother knew how to breathe underwater. She had become a mermaid, that was all.  Annie shed her coat and draped it so that, when she woke, her mother would not be cold.

            In the weeks following the funeral, Helen appeared to Annie in Widow Lake, a luminous cloud in the distance. When Annie swam toward her, Helen retreated. Annie followed until Leigh jumped in with an inner tube, and gave her holy hell for working herself into the middle of the lake.      
            “I was trying to swim to Mom.”
            “We’ve been over this, Annie. Mom’s dead. She’s gone.”
            “No. She breathed underwater, and became a mermaid.”
            “There’s no such things as mermaids. Mom drowned, she did it on purpose, and it’s Dad’s fault.”
            “No! She didn’t do it on purpose! She loves us!” Annie pushed from the inner tube, flailed toward deep water.
            Leigh clamped a wrist and pulled Annie onto the inner tube. “Listen to me!” Leigh’s tone forced Annie’s eyes open. “I am very sorry Mom died. I’m going to miss her, too. But if you don’t stop this craziness, I won't let you sleep in my bed anymore.”
            Annie could imagine nothing worse than being banished from her sister at night, when she most needed her. She stopped talking, but she didn’t stop seeing. There was Helen in white uniform on the school playground, peeking from behind a distant oak; at the end of a grocery isle holding a box of cereal. The appearances relieved Annie’s longing. She trusted her mother, too, knew, for instance, she would not jump out and yell “boo!” or turn into a skeleton hung with bits of rotting flesh. Slowly, Helen came closer. One day, she spoke.
            Annie smiled. Of course it would be their little secret. Of course.
            Helen told Annie she was spending too much time with Ed. If Annie insisted on being friends with her father, Helen would not come to her again. Annie argued, but her mother was firm. Annie must stop riding in the fuel oil truck, stop kissing Ed goodnight. It would be difficult at first, but Annie must understand, as Leigh did, that Ed had made them unhappy, and did not deserve her love. Only her mother deserved such devotion. After all, she had chosen Annie, would talk to no one else. Didn’t Annie want her to stay?
            That night, Ed put his hand on Annie’s head, and she pulled away. He didn’t seem to notice, but Leigh did, and made room for Annie in her bed. Each time her father entered a room, spoke, reached for her, another heartstring broke, until, in time, Annie no longer felt the tug.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Depending on the Kindness of Strangers, or Stumping For Ashes

Last week, while you were sweltering in our new global climate, I was in Seattle and Portland, wearing a light jacket and feeling God in each cool breeze. I’m told September is particularly gorgeous in this part
of the country. For me, that would be a bad thing. I would probably swoon alot in public, and be removed for my own safety.

My first signing event was at the Seattle Mystery Book Shop. I knew my name wasn’t going to pull people into the store, so I assailed unsuspecting tourists (and other readers) on the sidewalk. “Hi, I’m the author of this book,” I said, thrusting a bookmark into their personal space. “I’m signing here this afternoon. I hope you’ll stop in.”
A few people took me up on it, and as others flew past, I had some friendly (if brief) conversations. One lovely woman named Angela stopped and said, “Well, I don’t really buy books, but thank you for the bookmark.” A few seconds later, she came back. “I’m a librarian,” she said. “That’s why I don’t buy books for myself, but I do buy for the library. Do authors like it when libraries buy their books?” I must have started jumping up and down at that point because she took a step back.
“We LOVE librarians,” I said.

“But, if your book is for free, don’t your sales suffer?”

I almost told her my sales couldn’t suffer any more if they were crucified upside-down, but opted to play it cool. “For many authors, libraries represent our largest sales percentage. If it weren’t for libraries, many of us would never find a readership.” 

“Oh, okay. I always wondered that.”

By the time she moved on, I’m pretty sure I had convinced her to buy a copy Ashes to Water for every library in the glorious state of Washington. That’s the way I roll.

JoAnn from the most wonderful store in Seattle bought multiple books from me, and hear me now, if you like contemporary art jewelry, apparel and handwovens, there is no better place than Ragazzi’s Flying Shuttle on 1st Avenue. JoAnn owns the store with her sister. GORGEOUS jackets, scarves and jewelry. It’s my new favorite store and JoAnn is my new best friend.

And JB, Gretchen and Fran at Seattle Mystery Book Shop could not have been nicer. It was very generous of them to host an unknown author and treat me as if I was Stephanie Meyer. Before I left, I signed their stock, their guestbook, and contributed to their blog. I’m honored to be among the illustrious authors they’ve hosted.
From Seattle I drove to Portland, OR, home of Murder By the Book. I was very impressed with the foot traffic in this revitalized neighborhood. At first I thought I’d wandered onto a special city event, but no, it was a normal Saturday on Hawthorne Boulevard. I was prepared to throw myself into the fray, but Barbara, Jean and Jackie made me very comfortable inside. They asked me questions about the book, my journey as a writer, and what it takes to promote a book these days. To my surprise and delight, a dear friend from my Michigan days dropped in with her fiancĂ© and made my day. Thanks Emily and Zack. It was wonderful to see you.
While I don’t have Stephanie Meyer nervously glancing in her rearview, worried I’m going to catch up with her sales numbers, I do have something she doesn’t have. Because I am willing, in search of a readership, to traipse across country on my own dime, visit with independent mystery bookstore owners, and talk to folks on the sidewalk, I get to meet the folks who champion my book. Like Blanche Dubois, unknown authors like me depend on the kindness of strangers, and in Seattle and Portland, we're in good hands.