Life is a Musical

I have a long serrated kitchen knife that gets regular use for one reason. Most likely, its knife destiny was intended to slice bread, but I’ve found it to be the perfect knife to use to slice and dice tomatoes. Whenever tomatoes need to be sliced and or diced, I open the knife drawer and get out the tomato knife. And, it takes about three seconds from me putting my hands on the tomato knife to start singing the tomato knife song, which is to be sung to the tune of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony: “To-Ma-To Knife. To-Ma-To-Knife. To-Ma-To Knife, Knife KNIIIIIIIIIIFE! TOE-MAY-TOE-knife…” and quickly morphs into Bohemian Rhapsody, “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me, he’s just a poor boy, from a poor family….” And then the rocking out really starts.

I admit, busting out into the Tomato Knife Song is slightly less theatrical than performing a Glee-inspired song and dance routine (I’ve yet to add moves to the Tomato Knife Song, which is probably wise since I’d be doing said moves with a knife in my hand) but it is what it is: a spontaneous celebration of something mundane. And frankly, I enjoy the entire process of slicing tomatoes so much more now that the process has its own musical number. Which, of course, leads me to the point of this blog: life as a musical.

Sometimes music breaks the monotony of life. Seriously, who doesn’t feel better after singing along to “Greased Lightning”? And frankly, the Grease 2 song about Reproduction should be part of every high school curriculum. But let’s branch outside of Rydell High for a moment. What about Elvis singing “Yoga Is as Yoga Does” or “So Long, Farewell” from The Sound of Music? It’s a song about saying good night, people. Advertising companies learned long ago that catchy tunes + products = winning formula. Heck, musicians learned it too when advertising companies came knocking on their doors for the rights to their songs. Are you telling me you don’t remember the “Stuck in the Middle With Me” commercials for Hanes Her Way panties?

I say, life isn’t easy. We encounter people who make us angry, obstacles that keep us from achieving  our goals, and ever-shifting timetables that force us to reassess where we are in life. In order to get through the day we have to accept the realities of showering, laundry, cleaning the dishes, pumping gas. Why not turn your entire life into a musical to get you through it?

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A Few Bad Apples Do Not Make A Home

It started out as a blip on my twitter feed.

The link was to a newspaper article in a different state. The article was about how an Anoka, Minn., parent’s group had caused the cancellation of a young adult author’s visit to Minnesota — the state I now live in. Apparently, some parents had objected to Rainbow Rowell’s book, ELEANOR & PARK.

I was outraged. For a few reasons but deep down inside I was ticked off that the state of Minnesota was being portrayed — or represented — by a few idiotic people.

I began tweeting to Rainbow and making a racket on Facebook about the insanity of this group canceling this author’s visit to Minnesota.

“Minnesotans are not all like that.” I tweeted. “Please come to Minnesota.”

For the past eight years Minnesota has been my home. But suddenly, I was loathe to claim it. Not when people who lived here acted like that.

Luckily, I wasn’t the only one ticked off.

I tweeted and posted on Facebook, asking other Minnesotans to express their support for Rowell and the response was overwhelming. I was not alone. There were plenty of like-minded people in my adopted home state. More than I had dreamed.

Not long after, I was thrilled to learn that Rowell had been invited back to Minnesota for a two-night appearance. The second night was a typical author event – reading and signing, but the first was a panel on censorship with the author, two teens and several librarians.

And I learned my own lesson about judging someone’s home — I blamed the narrow-mindedness on a city north of me — Anoka. But I was wrong. It was not the city of Anoka. It was a parent or two. That’s it. In addition, five librarians from Anoka stood up in the audience as they were acknowledged for putting themselves in the firing line to defend Rowell’s book.

It was such a moving night. Rowell cried. Audience members cried. I cried.

And here was the kicker:

It appears that the people who objected to Rowell’s book hadn’t even read it. Yes, you heard that right.

The rub? If they had, they might have backed off. Because ELEANOR & PARK is tame.

Ask the two teenage book reviewers who were on the censorship panel. TAME.

Sure, there are some swear words. But they are used to convey context — Eleanor’s life is not easy. She lives in extreme poverty in an abusive home and is bullied at school.

This is not a young adult book about kids killing kids. It’s not about kid’s doing drugs or having sex.

It’s not about any of these things.

It’s about hope. It’s about young love. It’s about a kid growing up under extremely tough circumstances that would probably lead the average kid to drink and do drugs and have sex. But not Eleanor.

She and Park don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do drugs, and ultimately decide not to have sex.

My ten-year-old said it best. After she heard Rowell speak, she begged me to let her read ELEANOR & PARK. I told her I would once she was a teenager. She was angry. Her response:

“Mom, you obviously weren’t listening. Rainbow said the most explicit scene in the whole book was hand holding!”

I wouldn’t budge: Thirteen at the earliest. But I was secretly thrilled. I, for one, cannot wait for my children to read Rowell’s book when they hit their teen years. The book’s message was so pure and so right and so just that I will rejoice when they are able to read it and we can talk about it afterward.

And yet some Anoka parents didn’t want to let their high school kids read this touching book that shines with hope and love and the human capacity to overcome and survive even under the toughest circumstances.

So, the story of trying to ban Rainbow Rowell has a happy ending. Some people tried to stop her from coming to town. They tried to make the entire state of Minnesota look bad.

They failed.

My faith in my new adopted home was restored along with my faith in the general decency of people to care about others and to want to read a book that gives hope to the downtrodden.

Leaving Home

We’ve talked a lot this month about home and what it means to us and to our favorite characters, whether its a concrete space or a concept, and how important home is, to both people and plots. As the holidays fast approach, I realized its also very difficult to leave home.

Like many of my generation, I’ve moved a number of times. I’ve been married for 13 years and out of high school for…more than 13 years. But, when asked where I’m from, I will often still reply, “Maine.” Or, I’ll mention to my husband that we should fit in a visit home (meaning my parents house, where I grew up)–and he’ll look at me quizzically while he translates. Now, I refer to my own house as home, too. Why is it so hard to give up that place we think of as “home”?

In the same vein, I often struggle when a favored author discontinues a series. S/he takes away that virtual “home,” that place where I know I can go and explore well-loved characters, in a setting that is as familiar to me as my own home (either of them). I find I go through an abbreviated grieving process, as I learn to accept that nothing more will be happening in that virtual home, and tell myself I will love whatever new and interesting place that favored author creates. Hopefully.

So, why is it so difficult, I wonder, to really leave home? I don’t actually have an answer. I suspect it has to do with comfort and predictability, those things that bring stability or provide anchor. We humans do not, as a whole, enjoy change. I think I refer to my parents’ house as “home” because it was such a good, happy place for me. For the same reasons, my current house is also “home.” I love returning to my house each day, or after a vacation. And it’s lovely to return to those favored series, too, that make me feel happy.

Whatever the reason, I’m so glad to have so many “homes!”

Interview: Laurie Stevens

Please welcome Laurie Stevens, author of The Dark Before Dawn and Deep into Dusk.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
The weather is autumn cool, but the sun is out. I wake up and know I have nothing else to do today but write, go for a walk, bdeepintoduskake something, and then write again. Then maybe go out for dinner with the husband and family or with a friend… or maybe not and just curl up with an old black and white movie, preferably something noir or something with Bette Davis in it. Did I mention anything about a spa? Because if I didn’t, that would be Perfect Day #2.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
I don’t wear perfume, unless it’s a special occasion. I like lotions that smell of coconut or vanilla so if you get real close, you’ll probably notice that. I look good in red but for some odd reason, those red clothes get ruined faster and I can’t seem to keep them. I refer to any cute animal (domesticated or wild) as a “Yee” and in regards to meals — I’m an equal opportunity eater.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
Stephen King: I love his use of inner dialogue and have made use of it myself.
Ben Franklin: That guy wore so many hats and yet, he was a human being. Amazing.
Ronald Jacobs: My mentor. Writer/Director/Producer for shows like “That Girl,” “I Spy,” “Mod Squad,” “Dick Van Dyke,” “Andy Griffith.” He helped bolster my confidence and encouraged the inner voice to shine.

Do you listen to music when you write?
No. But those walks I mentioned above? I listen to music in between writing to give me inspiration.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kind would it be and why?
Most definitely dark chocolate with nuts. (Because it’s dark and the characters have “mental issues.”)

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Well, first off, the trauma that the main character suffered is weirdly prevalent in our human society and that drives me crazy.

Secondly, I think people really ought to address their issues rather than run from them, so I decided to write about this very serious journey of the main character. He is solving both a murder and his forgotten past at the same time.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
The fear we have in facing our fear. How every life experience can be looked at as a lesson.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
He’s damaged. A childhood trauma affected him — affected nearly every aspect of his life: work, relationships, etc. But he’s in therapy and he truly wants to better himself. It’s the “bettering” of himself that drives the plots of the books.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
Bradley Cooper with dark hair (Silver Lining Playbook) Bruce Willis’ John McClane, Sherlock Holmes.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise) you’d include?
Stephen King (so I could barrage him with questions), Thomas Harris, Jerzy Kosinski, Anne Rice, Jim Thompson, Joyce Carol Oates

What’s next for you?
I’m currently working on a screenplay, a novella, wrapping up the 3rd book in the series, and wishing Ben Franklin would give me some time-management hints!

***

Laurie Stevens is a novelist, screenwriter, and playwright. Her articles and short fiction have appeared in numerous publications. Her debut novel The Dark Before Dawn, is the first in a psychological suspense series. The novel earned the Kirkus Star and was named to Kirkus Review’s “Best of 2011/Indie.” Deep into Dusk is the second in the series. Laurie lives in the hills near Los Angeles with her husband and two children. To learn more about the author, visit her website at http://www.lauriestevensbooks.com.

Characters Who Live in Bookstores

Two of my favorite mystery writers have characters who live in bookstores. The hero of Steve Berry’s series, Cotton Malone, leaves his post as a Justice Department agent in the Magellan Billet, and buys an antiquarian bookstore in Copenhagen. Located in a four-story building on Højbro Plads, Malone’s apartment takes up the 1,000 square feet of the top floor. He has a bedroom, kitchen, bath and a few closets. The bookstore proper takes up the first floor, with the second and third used as storage, the third for general used books and the second locked and secure for those rare treasures he loves to discover.

Once a spy, always a spy, or so the saying goes. This is true for Cotton Malone, whose shop is torched in one novel. Yet it comes back remodeled and better than ever in the next. Malone has installed wooden risers that announce footsteps in notes “like keys on a piano.” He also keeps a gun nearby.

Malone attends antiquarian book conferences and auctions, but Berry doesn’t go into much detail about the business. Malone also has three employees, something that made me wonder. Is the bookstore business still that good? I hear independent stores are making a comeback.

Dion Fortune presents another antiquarian bookstore in her 1936 metaphysical fantasy The Goat Foot God, this one in London. Hugh Paston, wealthy and non-magical, discovers his wife has been having a long-standing affair when she and her lover die in a car crash. Close to a breakdown, Paston stumbles into a bookshop and buys a book on Pan. Expressing an interest on raising Pan through a Black Mass, proprietor Jelkes takes the poor man under his wing, knowing full well that mischief will come of trying to evoke a Greek god using a Catholic ritual turned on its head. Freud being very much in vogue at the time, his theories and Dion Fortune’s very deep knowledge of Western metaphysics are put to use by Jelkes and an artist friend, Mona Wilton, to cure Paston.

The shop itself is almost enough to cure him, though. Jelkes has a sitting room curtained off in the back of the shop where he can jump up to attend to any customers that might appear. Few do, since this is mostly a postal business. Paston enjoys the casual, shabby comfort of the old leather chairs, their bottoms shored up by stacks of books from the penny bins, the strong tea always available from the hob, and the amazing meals produced by Jelkes on his hotplate.

A cleaning woman comes in once a day to wash yesterday’s dishes that are unceremoniously piled in the sink, dust and sweep, and then do the shopping. Paston sleeps upstairs in an old bed with mismatched curtains hanging from it and washes from a bowl since the tub is broken.

Unlike Berry, Dion Fortune does populate the shelves of this store with real titles of ancient and contemporary magical works and metaphysical novels. One could get quite an alternative education reading the books she mentions.

Home: When You Have To Go There

Robert Frost was my mother’s favorite poet; she quoted him frequently and kept a book of his poems on her bedside stand for nights when sleep wouldn’t come. In “The Death of a Hired Man,” Frost said, “Home is where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”

I am blessed with a large family, although it wasn’t originally designed that way. Technically speaking, my mother gave birth to three children—myself and two older brothers. But she and my dad , much like the couple in Frost’s poem, tended to collect outsiders when the need arose. Better than stamps, I suppose. You can’t watch movies and eat popcorn with stamps.

Mom and Dad started out by taking in relatives of all ages. Several cousins stayed with us, sometimes just for a summer, sometimes for years. My Aunt Nellie, aside from a couple of brief, apparently unsatisfying forays into marital bliss, lived with us for most of her life. And we never thought it was weird, either. She never paid rent, but she footed the bill for a huge, in-ground pool, she cleaned the windows when they got dirty,  and for some reason, she assigned herself the task of purchasing my shoes every September before school started. Each fall, Nellie and I would set off for Sears or Penneys, and then she’d treat me to McDonalds. The yearly jaunt became a strange, autumnal rite of passage.

When they ran out of relatives to harbor, my folks branched out into a new program being instituted by the county social services. A pilot program for long-term, treatment foster care, it was designed to provide care for children and adolescents who had “failed” out of regular foster care and who, for various reasons, were unlikely to return home to their bio-families.

I was nine years old when my folks started taking in kids. It was an exciting time. At one point, we had thirteen people living in. Looking back now, the thought of the mountains of laundry my mom must have had to do gives me the willies. Before assigning a child, a case worker would come out to our house and give us what little background might be available on the child. (Considering the red-tape, heaps of paperwork, and length of time in the system, info on most of the kids’ histories was astonishingly sparse.)

Bit by bit, as they settled in, we learned about their pasts. For me, hearing their stories was a glimpse into a world I’d never, ever imagined. A world where “home” didn’t look like any Hallmark card I’d ever seen. I learned, then, that for every “warm,” “caring,” and “nurturing,” there was a “cold,” “uncaring,” and “abusive.”

I started to understand how lucky I was.

My mom was often asked how she reconciled her “own” children to the idea of bringing others into our home. In fact, several foster parent meetings (held monthly as training and support) dealt with the problem of the “natural” kids—don’t get me started on the labels; I didn’t pick ‘em—resenting and even sabotaging the placement of the foster kids. I don’t know why that was never an issue for me, but it wasn’t. I’m no saint, but I never once felt like my home was being intruded upon or that I was getting cheated of “my” home in some way.

Recognizing how lucky I was certainly helped, but I think part of it was just genetics. I must have inherited my parents’ insatiable curiosity for people, for the desire to learn about others—their motives and lives and thoughts and history. The corollary to those tendencies is the need in me to do something to help. That’s obviously why I’m a psychotherapist. But it also explains my passion for reading (learning about people and their worlds) and writing (reaching out to connect with others).

Whatever the reason, my parents’ decision to open their home was the greatest blessing of my childhood. My parents taught that home isn’t the place where we withdraw from the world, but should instead be used as a base to reach out, welcome, and draw in.

I am a lucky girl.

Home is Where the Character Is

I’m about to confess something here that maybe I shouldn’t: I wrote an entire novel without giving any background information whatsoever about the protagonist.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care; I was simply more focused on crafting a mystery that hung together.  So I kept putting off developing her backstory…eventually I’d finished the whole draft and it still wasn’t in there. (At one point, a detective asks her where she’s originally from and she says, “the east coast.” I didn’t even name a specific state.) It didn’t seem necessary somehow: the action in the text had to do with here and now. She seemed fully realized enough as a character without it.

That’s fine, I told myself.  After all, I teach literature for a living, and there are plenty of texts that don’t tell you diddly jack squat about the main characters other than what they do in the story.  Shrug.

After I revised the manuscript, though, my novel was still too short to submit. So I signed up for a course with a local writing group focused on building strong character arcs.  I thought the class might trigger some ideas for development.

And the first thing we did was write about backstories. Insert gnashing of teeth here.

The teacher claimed that for an effective character arc, I needed to know where my protagonist was from and what she most wanted.

I already understood who she was as a person, and I didn’t want to talk about her childhood.  But what she wanted seemed obvious, given the genre: she wants to solve the mystery.

The teacher said: go further.

She wants to solve the mystery and still be alive at the end?

More.

She wants to solve the mystery, be alive at the end, and keep her job?

Deeper. What internal conflict has she never resolved?

Hmmmm.

I politely noted that many texts didn’t overtly give characters a backstory.  My patient teacher said, yes, but if you know your character’s whole life, you will write her better. Her motivations will become clearer.  Even if you never state anything about her home, as long as you’ve done the work, the effects will find their way into your manuscript by a sort of magical osmosis.

I decided to shut up and do the work. (Mostly to prove her wrong. I knew my character, thank you very much.  I’d just spent two years creating her.  I was clear on her motivations. I mean, you can’t write a mystery without knowing the motivations of all your characters.  Harrumph.)

But exercise by exercise, something happened. Although it was painful and I resisted every second of it, I could see that certain things I’d glossed over — especially her hometown (or lack thereof, as it turns out) — were extraordinarily important to her sense of self, which affects how she makes decisions, which affects the conflicts in the book. And as I incorporated some backstory into the novel, it led to ideas for other characters and future adventures. Bonus.

My teacher was absolutely right.

Sometimes it’s good to be a student again. Which is another kind of returning home.