Tomorrow morning, Saturday July 1st, I’ll wake up early, like I always do. I’ll get online for my blog fix, then go outside and water the plants and watch the birds for a while. Do a little writing if I’m a good boy. Around 10:00am I’ll go take a shower and shave. Put on a clean, ironed shirt. Now, while I have been known on occasion to shower on a Saturday, the shave and the ironed shirt are something of an anomaly.
But tomorrow’s special (and not just because it’s Canada Day, Sandra ;D ). After I’m all dressed and ready my wife and I will head out to meet my daughter for brunch, at which she plans to order a Bloody Mary. She’s hoping to hell that they’ll card her. If they don’t, I’m poised to remind them.
21 years ago tomorrow, a delightful young lady by the name of Jessica came onto the world stage. Technically, she was a wrinkled little bean. But don’t try to tell me that. (Them’s fightin’ words, why you, why I oughta.) It is a simple statement of fact when I say she was the most beautiful baby in the history of the universe. When I held her, just a few minutes after she was born, she looked up at me, and I could also tell she was the most intelligent baby in the history of the universe. (This is not a point open for debate.) If you could only see those eyes as I saw them. Bright as the sun and deep as the stars. She was thinking about very important stuff, let me tell you.
21 years ago, I also happened to be working on my third novel. By third novel, I mean, “third” novel. The second one I never quite finished and the first one had been, um, well,…Moby Dick in Space (working title). Both are now relegated to well-hidden lockboxes. When Jessica arrived, her mother and I decided I would be a stay-at-home dad. We figured I’d be able to keep writing while also handling the care and feeding of a certain utterly perfect wrinkled bean. That third novel, I knew, was going to be The One, if only I could keep up the momentum and get it done. The way I saw it, sure, infants need a lot of attention and they wake up a lot at night, but they also take lots of naps. I could keep the house with her in one of those slings around my neck or in the bouncy chair, hit the typewriter while she cranked out the ZZZs. It seemed like a good arrangement.
And it was. I don’t know how many fathers get the opportunity I had. During Jessica’s first year I got to see it all. Her first smile, the first time she lifted her head, her first projectile vomit. I’m the one who dropped her the first time (she lived). I figured out that when she was really upset, beyond consoling, simply standing with her in a warm shower would calm her. This is not to say her mother wasn’t there too, and a lot. But she worked and kept us in vittles, and that meant she missed things a lot of the little things I got to be a part of that first year.
As it happened, I didn’t get much writing done. Some, but not nearly as much as I’d thought I would. You’re probably shocked to hear that. I found myself dozing when Jessica napped, or folding diapers, running the vacuum, cooking dinner. When she was awake, we had colors and shapes to look at, or bellies that needed a raspberry. These things take time. I was a comfortable little hausfrau, hanging with my baby, doing the chores. I wrote when I could steal a moment, which wasn’t often. Babies, it turns out, are demanding critters. But, omigod, so adorable.
My third novel did eventually get written. Very. Very. Slowly. In addition to the Perfect Child, other things came along. Jobs. Big moves. Another perfect child, Justin (now 11). I kept writing because it’s what I always wanted to do, but my pace was glacial. I finished the final draft about the time Jessica turned eight or nine. It turned out to not be The One (trust me when I say you’re grateful it suffered the same fate as Moby Dick in Space and Nameless Number Two). I just keep writing, stories and poems and eventually another novel, the one that would actually become The One.
Some writers may have finished their novel during that First Year With Baby, typing with one hand while diapering with the other. My focus was a little different, and I wrote when I could. There were times when I wished I could have written more, when I bemoaned the distractions of living that kept me away from the typewriter and, later, the computer. But the time I gave to my little bean that first year is something I’ve never regretted, nor a single moment of the time I’ve given her since. She’s my beautiful little girl, now almost six feet tall, smart and stately and ready to pass that final milestone our society has established between childhood and adulthood. I couldn’t be more proud.
In the Killer Year of 2007, fifteen members of the Class will see debut novels published. We’ve all followed different paths to get to this point, paths that highlight our uniqueness but also what we share in common — we’re writers who’ve persevered and arrived at this exciting milestone. For me, it’s twenty-one years or so after I’d once thought it might happen. But, oh, what a gift those years have been.
Wherever you are in your life, what gifts do you cherish?
Happy Birthday, Jessica!
And don’t forget, come back tomorrow to see members of the Killer Year Class of 2007 blog “Live From ThrillerFest!”
I’ve been having a very hard time trying to figure out what to blog about here at KillerYear. For today’s post, I’ve started four different topics, getting a paragraph into each one and deciding that no, this isn’t right.
I started to explain why I’m most likely going to hell for finding things that shouldn’t be funny uproariously amusing… See, I told you I’m going to hell.
I started into an explanation of why I’m so nervous about attending my first real writer’s conference. Granted, I’m going to spend four days with the people I respect most in this industry. I’m meeting my editor and my publisher for the first time. I have drink dates lined up with amazing writers, and I can’t wait to get to Phoenix and finally become one of the group. Not to mention I get to meet so many of my Classmates in person. We’re going to trot out our newly minted t-shirts, network our asses off, and I’m going to poison every plant at the Biltmore by surreptitiously pouring shots of Jagermeister into their depths. It’s going to be a wonderful time.
I riffed for several sentences about how, strangely, the juices are flowing mightily on the new book, and in the midst of the chaos theory that permeates my life, I’ve been surpassing my designated daily word count goals. And now I’m leaving, interrupting the flow, and I’ll be curious if I can keep on track.
None of these had the steam to go anywhere. I guess some days are just easier than other. What it really boils down to is I want to entertain you, enlighten you, leave you with some nugget of information that will help your further your career or make you smile. In short, I want you to like me. I figure if I take on the aspect of America’s most beloved pork product, who wouldn’t?
But I’m a realist. I’m not as funny as Brett, as insightful as Sandra, as plugged in as Jason. I blog over at Murderati, giving my perspective on the writing life, and that’s easier for me, in many ways. But I use up all my material, and find myself worrying about what to put here, in this glorious spot.
I don’t want to bore you, or waste your time.
I think this neurosis is inherent to the creative community. I’m a pretty confident person, even about my writing. Sometimes. Most of the time. Okay, maybe not so much. But I’d like to think that a year from now, when I have ARCs and book signings lined up, that I’ll be as confident as I can be in my writing abilities.
But when it comes to blogging – HA! The joke’s on me. These weekly columns have been wonderful for my creative side, keeping me disciplined about getting work done, but it stresses me out like you wouldn’t believe. I have a dry sense of humor. Things that are amusing to me may not be to others. I’m always afraid that I’m going to say something that might offend… someone, somewhere. It’s all the training I received growing up, I believe.
The recent blogosphere, ahem, controversy is a prime example of the lack of nuance that appears in blog posting and comments. Absent varied and sundry emoticons, it’s hard to let people know when you’re being sarcastic. Dry wit doesn’t translate. Despite my best efforts, I’m not as talented as I’d like to be when it comes to making a column laugh out loud funny.
I’ve begun to ramble, so I’ll cut this off here. As you read this, I’m deep in the heart of Phoenix, meeting and greeting, trying to put my best foot forward. I leave you with this question. What scares you the most about this industry??? Agents? Editors? Bad reviews? Or boring as hell blog posts???
A quick programming note regarding the Weekend Update – The KillerYear Classmates will be blogging live from ThrillerFest, so tune in to be dazzled and astounded!
Also, from Jan Burke’s wonderful Crime Lab Project…
Two Phone Calls for Forensic Science
Those of you who are Americans can help to improve forensic science services in all 50 states and the U.S. territories by making two phone calls, one to each of your U.S. Senators.
Please ask your senators to increase funding for the Coverdell National Forensic Sciences Act.
To learn your senators’ phone numbers, go to the U.S. Senate Website. In the upper right corner, you’ll see “Find Your Senators” and a pulldown menu for your state. Congressional contact information is also available on the Crime Lab Project Website.
Please make these phone calls today!
I do believe books can inspire violence. A badly written book will make me want to kick walls and pull my hair out, especially if people keep talking about it.
Yesterday, in Flood’s post Offense and Sensibility, she said, I started thinking about work that offended me. My friend reminded me that I felt a story I read recently was completely irresponsible in it’s message. Two children, one very young and one much older, were exploring each other through a sexual game. At the end of this short, it was implied that the youngest enjoyed the ‘abuse’. Great, thought I. Just what NAMBLA needs to further their agenda.
Flood had received an email from someone who was offended by a story Flood had written, which prompted her post. After reading her thoughts I couldn’t let the issue go. Do I have a line? Is what I think is acceptable as a reader different than the line I have for me as a writer?
If I write out a particularly specific, grisly murder and someone later kills someone in just the same way, am I responsible?
This had been on my mind, even before I read Flood’s post, because of
an article referencing police outrage at a street-racing movie they believe will inspire incidents, with youth “trying to emulate their heroes”.
Their fears aren’t completely unfounded. Even a film fan in New Dehli was injured trying to imitate an action hero from a movie.
This debate isn’t new. With increased awareness of bullying, teen murderers and school killing sprees, some people are looking for things to blame. When I interviewed Trench on my blog last month, it sparked a discussion amongst commenters about the media’s responsibility for violence in society. Disturbingly, Trench has received death threats because of the blog, yet The Trenchcoat Chronicles is about debunking myths around violence in entertainment and also giving updates on criminal prosecutions in cases related to school shootings, etc. Trench doesn’t promote violence. Trench promotes awareness and discussion of the issues.
When it comes to violence in art and violence in society, it’s no different than the “chicken or the egg” debate. I write crime because it helps me process some of my issues with the things that happen in our society. It’s my way of making statements, sometimes obvious, strong commentary, other times subtle questions lingering beneath the surface that I hope will bubble up in the reader’s mind after they’ve put the book down.
My intention isn’t to inspire violence. And I’d like to point out that television wasn’t responsible for burning witches at the stake or the invention of medieval torture devices like the rack. (And the intestinal crank referenced on the same page? I broke out in a cold sweat just reading about it.)
As a reader, violence only bothers me if I have the sense that the writer has been explicitly graphic in order to one-up another book by making this one more shocking.
Essentially, I believe individuals are responsible for their own behaviour, but we live in an era where more and more, the blame is being shifted to other things. A former Canadian soldier who served in Bosnia, who did not contest charges that he sexually assaulted a thirteen-year-old girl at knife-point, has been found not guilty, due to post traumatic stress from his SIX MONTH tour of duty, which occurred ten years ago.
Undoubtedly, if our rape victim kills a man, or maybe cuts off someone’s penis or herself sexually assaults someone, she won’t be responsible either. And so begins a cycle of violence that nobody has to answer for.
Is it any wonder with our tendency to blame video games, to blame movies, to blame our upbringing – to blame anyone but ourselves – that authors may come under increased attack for violence in books? I mean, look at the people who would ban Harry Potter for promoting sorcery.
One of the things I’ve been really impressed by, within the Killer Year group, is the level of social consciousness and concern. We’ve even already had a discussion about supporting a charity.
Still, I’m certain there will be those who accuse some of us of glorifying violence for entertainment. I had a rejection letter myself, stating they stopped reading Echoes and Dust when the man murdered the girl because they didn’t want to publish “that kind” of book.
Which, of course, had me flippantly wondering why reference to the preceding rape didn’t bother the reader. In truth, the scene is short, it certainly doesn’t depict everything that happens and leaves more to the reader’s imagination than anything, but the very nature of addressing the violence head-on drew criticism.
Suspicious Circumstances isn’t graphic, so I have some time to revisit the other book and think about lines and consequences before it’s published. My intent was to demonstrate the serious nature of the crimes being committed, and to invest the reader in seeing the guilty brought to justice. The balance of the crimes in the book happen off-camera.
No matter what my intent was, obviously one person didn’t like it. And I don’t think you can write in the crime genre today and not ask yourself these questions.
Which brings me to a wishy-washy conclusion. As a reader, I’m very forgiving, and have rarely had a problem with what I’ve read. Only once have I given up on a book I felt was glorifying violence out of dozens upon dozens of books read.
Although I believe that violence in books is a reflection of society and not the catalyst for crime, as a writer I hold myself to a higher standard than I impose on others.
Yet I’ve certainly never blamed a sitcom for making people laugh in the streets. So why blame movies and books for other behaviour?
Am I a hypocrite? Am I wrong to even consider this in my writing? How about you? Have you ever felt compelled to stop reading a book, watching a movie, or to change a scene you wrote because you felt it was gratuitous and irresponsible?
And it’s Wednesday, which means it’s Cornelia’s day on Naked Authors and it’s also Dar Wednesday at Rants, Raves and Random Thoughts, when writer James Goodman posts a Darwin Award story. If this post has been too heavy for you, a healthy dose of human stupidity should lighten things up!
THIS JUST IN! Killer Year co-founder JASON PINTER has been interviewed by author JB Thompson. Drop by and read the interview for an introduction to his Henry Parker series, and to get the inside scoop on his philosophy of marketing and more.
Quote: *Dick Cavet
Filed under: Brett Battles, Killer Year Founders, Killer Year Members, KillerYear.com
Let me tell you, living here at the Killer Year Clubhouse isn’t always easy. Okay, I’ll grant you we’ve all only been here just over a week, but someone – and I’m not naming names – has been leaving their wet laundry in the washer for hours after the load is done. (Might have to call a group meeting on that one.)
Good thing this is a big place. We’re up on the hill, and there’s this great view from the deck. Added bonus: a huge cooler built into the bench around the rim of the deck, and someone’s been keeping it full of beer and other bottled alcoholic beverages. But let me make this clear, we have a strict NO ZIMA policy.
There are fifteen bedroom, thankfully – the last thing I wanted to do was share a room with a writer…they can be SO neurotic. Among other rooms, we also have a large library, a community room, a dinning room, and a shooting range built into the basement.
We spent the first afternoon hammering out a few rules. After all, if we’re going to be jammed in here together until the end of 2007, it’s best to get a lot of things straight up front. Here’s a sampling of some of the things we’ve come up with:
1. A Red card taped to the outside of a bedroom door means DO NOT DISTRUB under almost any circumstance. This includes, but is not limited to: fires, tornado warnings, earthquakes, visits from friends or relatives. The only exceptions are if the particular person’s agent or editor shows up or if it’s a food delivery guy (pizza, Thai food, Italian, you get the idea.)
2. A Yellow card means the person inside might be writing, but they’re open to being interrupted. In other words, “Please take me away from this painful task.” (And, no Mr. World Cup fan…two yellow cards do not equal a red card.)
3. We worked out a cooking schedule and a cleaning schedule…well, on the cleaning it wasn’t so much working out a schedule as deciding the spouses of those who are married (all immediate family members living in another house just down the street) would take care of it for us. We haven’t told them that yet, though.
4. No two writers can have a crisis in confidence on the same day. To elevate this possibility, we’ve created a sign up calendar, so we could mark which day we want in advance.
5. Every evening at 8 p.m. there will be critique sessions on the patio (weather permitting.) These sessions are voluntary, and are focused on helping each of us create the best work possible. Any unsubstantiated negative comments will be punishable by temporary suspension of Internet privileges.
6. Running through the halls screaming like a lunatic is completely forbidden. Except, of course, for your assigned crisis day.
7. Ditto on running through the halls naked.
8. Toni is NOT allowed to tell how her breasts lead to a career in crime fiction without making sure no liquids are being consumed at the time.
9. To make Sandra – our only Canadian – feel at home, we have decided to shut off the water to the house every third Thursday.
10. Though both CJ and Phil are doctors, they are excused from diagnosising any little pain or rash one of us might develop.
11. Oddly, Jason has offered to act as house doctor if necessary. He says he’s read about doctors in books, plus remembers watching episodes of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman while he was growing up, and feels he can handle it. (Thank you Jason.)
12. No using shooting range after 10 p.m.
13. No shooting at each other.
14. If an accident does occur in the shooting range, anonymous calls can be made to Jason’s room at ext. 12.
15. Cursing is completely permitted, but if words or terms are used incorrectly then the offender is fined $5 for each offense.
16. No one is to ever mention the fact that J.T. once killed a man…subject closed. I’ve already said too much.
17. Marcus is only allowed to impersonate the Hoff on his crisis day.
We tried to come up with a rule about sexual research, but were unable to come to any agreement. It’s still being debated.
The big news this week is that just over half of us (8 if you’re counting) are off to ThrillerFest this week. Rob has rented one of those oversized Winnebago’s and we’re all piling in for the trip. Hopefully the seven staying at the house won’t get too rowdy, but the look in Sandra’s, Gregg’s, Derek’s, Marc’s, Patry’s, Thomas’, and Bill’s eyes when we told them we’d be gone for a few days didn’t leave me with an easy feeling.
Still what the hell. We’ll be riding the party bus to Phoenix…
…I hope Rob picked up a map, too.
The first Jonathan Quinn Thriller coming
A few years ago, I went to my first writers conference. It was before I started working in publishing, while I was putting together the scraps of my first novel (that bears suspicious resemblance to OPAL MEHTA, but that's another story). I decided that if I was going to be serious about writing, it would benefit me to be around other writers, both professional and aspiring. In all fairness, a good deal of the other participants had much more experience than me, publishing work in various literary journals and magazines. One girl even had–sweet Zeus's beard!–a literary agent!
I applied to be in the novel writing class, but by the time I registered it was full. So I ended up in the short story section. I'd written a few short pieces, mainly for classes in college, and they were pretty well received by my college peers who loved reading my stories about "old women who smelled like feet." My short stories weren't what you'd typically expect when reading short stories. They were mainly comedic shorts, pretty slapsticky, and the one I submitted to be critiqued was about a college student on the worst family road trip of all time.
It was pretty funny. But it wasn't very good.
The teacher for the class was a very-well respected author and member of the high-up literati. An older man with a Colonel Sanders beard, let's call him 'CB.' (and yes, the letters 'CB' are his real initials. Let the speculation begin) I didn't expect much applause when it came my time to be critiqued, knowing the story had its issues (one of them being that it didn't really have–what do you call it–an ending). So when it was my time, I expected the worst. And I got it. And then some.
CB tore me and my story apart. His first words were, "When I finished reading this, my first thoughts were it wasn't a short story." I don't think CB liked me very much. Maybe it was my age at the time (22), maybe it was the fact that my story didn't involve lonely misanthropes gazing longingly into the sun, but he basically acted like I was the only dumb kid in a class full of prodigies. And maybe he was right, and I just didn't realize it. But I swallowed my pride and listened to the critique. Many of his points were valid, and I probably became a better writer for it.
When the conference ended, all the participants and authors got together for a farewell banquet. I'd bought books by all the authors, including CB's most recent work. Before I left, I asked CB to sign my copy of his book. He smiled, and took a pen from his jacket. I couldn't wait to see what this intelligent man of letters would write to me, what erudite words of widsom he would offer for a young man looking for literary guidance. He scribbled in the book, handed it back to me, and I opened the cover to see what he'd written. And there, in neat script, were five words:
To Jason: Keep on Truckin'
I stared at it in disbelief. "Keep on Truckin?"
I was outraged. It was obvious CB was completely blowing me off. He might as well have written, "Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out." It was clear CB didn't think I had much to offer the literary profession, and because of that didn't have to offer me much in turn. I left the banquet steaming mad. Mad at CB for his mocking scribbles. Mad at myself for not writing a good enough story to merit something better. And swearing to not stand for what I felt was one of the most insulting moments of my life.
So I remebered that moment every time I sat down to write. My anger fueled my desire to hone my craft. I wanted the day to come where I could show CB my published work. Maybe sign a copy for him with the words, "I Done Trucked."
So anyway, I want to thank CB, wherever he is, for his words of wisdom. They ended up motivating me more than any other platitudes I could have imagined. I don't think that's quite what CB had in mind, but it doesn't matter.
Thanks, man. Don't let that truck grill hit you in the ass.
And to everyone else, I think there's a lesson here. If somebody tells you that you aren't good enough for something, that you don't fit the mold, than you aren't worth their time, don't despair. Don't turn the emotion inward. Turn it outward. Prove them wrong. Harness the despair and turn it into anger. Both you and your work will be better for it.
author of THE MARK
Coming July, 2007 from MIRA books
Filed under: KillerYear.com
Every weekend, for the foreseeable future (or until we figure out something better), the Classmates will answer a question designed to give you some inisght into their world, and introduce you to their main characters.
This week's question is deceptively simple.
If you were a rock band, who would you be, and why?
If your main character was a rock band, who would they be, and why?
Without further ado, I give you the Class of 2007…
Robert Gregory Brown
Thomas Dolby, because he does it all himself.
The Smithereens, simply because they're… cool.
I’d be AC/DC, because I want to shake you all night long.
My main character, Homicide Lieutenant Taylor Jackson, would be Garbage. Shirley Manson’s angst, insightfulness and all out talent fits her perfectly.
For myself, I'd say David Bowie. Because I'm constantly needing to change who I am on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis depending on what I'm doing. (Plus I wish I was as cool as he is!)
For my character, Jonathan Quinn, I'd have to go with U2, because he's his own boss, has a personal code of ethics, and is the best at what he does.
If I was a rock band, it would be Led Zep–something for my every mood from kickass to romantic to angst to party-hearty.
For my main characters, Cassie Hart would be John Lee Hooker (okay, he's not rock, but definitely a forefather) because it was her father's favorite music and was playing when he died. Detective Mickey Drake would be Tantric–for obvious reasons
Me? Taylor Hicks Band because by using his name right now I’ll get a lot of hits on the search engine. Plus, if I had hair, I’d like it to be thick and gray.
For Hannah Griffin, protagonist of A WICKED SNOW, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts because she’s tough as nails and still looks hot in black leather.
I'd be David Hasselhoff. No denying it once you've seen my hair.
For myself, I would like to be Dave Alvin and the Blasters, respecting the past, looking to the future, having a good time.
But in reality I am probably more like Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks, tending to live in the past, making fun of everything, getting thrown out of bars a lot.
My main character, Johnnie LoDuco, narrator of Vinnie's Head, is definitely The Ramones, because he is working inside some serious limitations, is completely unaware of them, and manages to get it done anyway.
Me? Deric Ruttan, because I know where his values lie, and he's a great storyteller. He can co-write really fun stuff that others record – like What Was I Thinkin'? by Dierks Bentley – and does really serious,thought-provoking stuff on his own albums, and he hasn't sold his soul to make it in the business. I have a lot of respect for him.
Detective Tymen Farraday: Bruce Cockburn. Ty will fight for what's right and make a bold statement about it, but he's also got a bit of a poet's soul.
Lara Kelly: Jimmy Rankin. There's one line in Jimmy's song, Handmade, "Have we lost the need and the will to care". Jimmy has a certain tenacity that Lara possesses as well, someone who doesn't close their eyes to the world around them.
Hmm. Well, if I had to be a band, I'd pick a local — the Marc Broussard Band. Particularly for the hit "Home" which is bluesy / rock / funk and fun.
Bobbie Faye is somewhere between Broussard, ZZ Top, Lynard Skynard and Music Mafia's Gretchen Wilson. I can't narrow it down because it kinda depends on what's blowing up around her at the moment.
If I were a rock band, I'd be my little brother's band Besnyo, because I'm quiet, brooding somewhat dark, but also because I'm a fledgling still trying to prove myself. And of course because I'm related to the guitarist.
My main character is actually NOT the police detective (though there is one), but the 15-year-old daughter of the murder victim (that is, the first murder victim). She's the spitting image of Avril Levigne–young, punky, angry–but the real thing, rather than thecommercial product that Avril might be. Then again, Luc (my main character) wears a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt through half the novel, so maybe NIN is a better choice.
For me, I don't know, maybe James Taylor? Looks like normal laid back guy but has a lot of darker stuff going on behind the scenes? (Good grief…)
My plot of my book is actually about a search for a missing member of a popular Orlando-based teen boy band. The band's name is Boyz Klub (clever, huh?). So, I would be remiss in answering this question if I didn't drop that in.
For my protagonist, maybe Bruce Springsteen? He has a real blue-collar doggedness to his pursuit. Possibly Warren Zevon or Bob Marley, for more depressing reasons. My main character suffers from a terminal brain tumor.
For my character, Henry Parker, they represent a little bit of "Fuck the Establishment," a little bit of Dennis the Menace, a little bit of desceptively erudite wisdom, a little bit of "be your own person," and a little bit of biting off more than he can chew. Ok, in THE MARK, he bites of a lot more than he can chew.
So, readers. How about you? If you were a rock band (and the term can be applied loosely to anything resembling a rock band) who would YOU be?
Filed under: Killer Year Members
A former literary professor of mine once asked me why I switched from writing literary fiction (which had been my focus in grad school) to comedic crime fiction. I told him I blamed my breasts. I’m pretty sure he strained off about five years of his life trying to not look at my breasts when he heard that answer.
When I was a newly minted twenty-four-year-old with two sons who were four and four months, I had aspirations of writing a novel and my then-attempts were going in circles. Literary slice-of-life works for some writers (and for some, extremely well), but all I was making was mush. Meanwhile, I was finally back in the swing of writing freelance when one magazine assigned me a feature article on the local coroner. I will call him “Hypolite.” Hypolite was about three-hundred years old at the time, all tanned and loose jointed and skinny and wrinkled, with big black-framed glasses which weighed his face down so much that he hunched over most of the time. In spite of being a coroner and probably having seen the worst that mankind can do to one another, he was a very sweet, funny and gentle soul.
The point of the article was supposed to have been his unusual collection of musical instruments from around the world, but I harbored a secret desire to pump him for information about how a coroner’s office worked, what kinds of crimes he could tell me about which might turn into fodder for my fiction. At the time, my biggest daily dose of “serious” was trying to keep the four-year-old from taking the child-protection caps off of the electrical outlets to see if a fork really could fit in there. (He was a very wily kid; he disassembled his baby bed when he was two… while he was in it. I heard a “thunk” and came running and it was sitting all at a slant, having luckily wedged against itself, and he was trapped inside, laughing, because scaring mom was great fun.) I was hoping Hypolite could open up the door to a more dangerous world, giving me the type of background I needed for my attempts at serious fiction — something which would have gravitas and meaning, pathos and tragedy. Something important.
We’d been talking a while, with Hypolite delicately trying to steer the conversation back to banal subjects more appropriate (he thought) for a “sweet, young mother” and I kept forcing U-turns back to the grisly. His attempts at resisting and my absolute determination meant we’d bantered far longer than I’d realized. In his last effort at wresting back control, he said, “Didn’t you recently have another baby?”
I admitted I had, and it was at that moment I realized it was way past time to be home to nurse the little rug rat (whose baby sitter had supplies). My bigger concern was leakage. But I was safe, I thought, as long as we didn’t discuss the nursing.
“Are you nursing?”
I felt the milk come down, and I knew my time was limited. I could be professional, though. I had on a thick nursing bra (and nursing pads, just for protection), so I had time before there could be any leakage or telltale signs of danger. I had planned ahead. I was perfectly safe.
At which point I looked down and realized that there were two streams of milk hitting Hypolite on his forearm.
He was sitting at a forty-five degree angle from me at a tiny table, and my breasts were shooting milk like they were mini Howitzers. I was soaking the coroner’s sleeve with breast milk.
I slammed my arms across my chest, and it only made it worse. The spray was fitzing around my cupped hands like a barricaded water hose on full blast. The geysers wouldn’t stop. Hell, I could have fed an entire third-world country if they’d been standing at ten paces, mouths open. Milk trickled down my arms. And legs. I was pooling milk on the beautiful hardwood floors, people.
So much for being a professional, serious crime writer.
As mortified as I was in that moment, I realized later it was a gift. (Long after I had escaped his home, wearing one of his old shirts over my dress to stem the humiliation, and after he’d called to check on me the following week to make sure I hadn’t offed myself.) It was a gift because it was funny, and it was real. It’s one of those honest moments in life where there is no spin, there is no façade, baby, it’s just you dealing straight with the world and the world watching. I think really good writing gets to that level of real for the characters, and this was my doorway into understanding that it was not only okay to be honest, but it was necessary. Great writing brings the reader to the squirmy places where you want to protect the character or where you identify and empathize or where you simply want to see them get back out of the fix (humiliating or otherwise) and succeed in their goal. But it was the “funny” part which ended up being the biggest gift of all, because I realized how much I enjoyed making people laugh. (Hell, I told this story here, hoping you’d all chuckle.) Comedy is important; I think we need it for release, especially (at times) when dealing with dark, dangerous subjects.
Life is absurd. Really weird, down to body parts, even. (I mean, can anyone explain the reason why a penis looks like it does? And for anyone who thinks a woman wishes she had one, have you not been paying attention to us? How many times have you heard us ask, “Jeez, do I look fat in this?” Do you really think we want something attached to our body which can inflate all on its own? I rest my case.)
Sorry, I digressed.
Life is weird and funny. Crime is even crazier. Did you hear about the couple who allegedly faked that they had just given birth to septuplets and allegedly went to a town’s council, allegedly telling them the babies were in critical condition… (and I love this part) in a secret location because a member of the family was trying to kill them and they needed cash to help their babies? You know, that’s just damned beautiful in its stupidity. I’m wondering what they intended to do when someone wanted to actually see the kids. Run the visitor past the maternity ward, praying there were enough babies in there at the right time?
It’s bizarre, and if I’d been a member of that community, I’d be annoyed they (allegedly) fleeced a few people and got a little money, but as a writer? That stuff is golden. I love finding ways of turning those stories and finding just the right angle to show the humor, the idiocy, the chaos of it all, and how it affects the character. So thank God for leaky Howitzer breasts and funny little coroners. I probably wouldn’t be here today writing comedy / crime-caper if I hadn’t soaked him thoroughly, but it does make me wonder about the rest of you. I can’t be the only one with a leaky-breast-shooting-someone story.
Okay, well, maybe I am, but I’ll bet you all have witnessed some humiliating moments. Or some freaky crime in your community. C’mon… share.