Finding Home in a Face I Didn’t Know

Today is my son’s fifth birthday.

And from the day he was born, I’ve had a very different definition of “home” in my life.

Up until the moment I saw his blond little head, I would’ve answered that my home was wherever my address said it was.

And in the years before he was born, that “home” was all over the place.

Journalism school grads, my husband and spent those first early years bumping around the East Coast. Places where we had a home but never really felt at home.

The year before the kiddo was born, we moved “home.” Back to Kansas. To the little-big town where we’d gone to college. It was funny, coming back to this place we’d spent four years, living on other people’s money in an environment that was as much a commune as it was a pressure cooker.

But we weren’t kids anymore.

Maybe because of that, we both felt at home back in Lawrence, Kansas—Hey, we know how to get to Target!—and not at all. We both associated this place with a certain period in our lives, and now we were past that.

Heck, we’d been away five years. We’d owned a house. Survived three major hurricanes and those bizarre and bumbling opening years of a career.

The second I finally felt at home back “home”? The morning after Kansas won the 2008 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship.

Our first title in exactly 20 years. Obviously, it was very exciting—a title to go with a come-from-behind overtime victory over Memphis.

But that excitement faded a few minutes after I woke up and a new excitement stormed in: That little pink line on a pregnancy test.

Suddenly, home wasn’t going to be defined by our street number or zip code or whether or not we felt like we fit in a town teeming with college kids and Prius-driving professors. Because now none of that mattered.

From that second on, home would be wherever our child would be with us.

Since that pink line, we’ve changed our address three times. Going from apartment to townhome to a house much different than the one we owned back when home was South Florida.

We could move 20 more times and I wouldn’t care. As long as my son is with me, I’m at home.

Happy birthday, N.

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Interview: Steve Liskow

Please welcome Steve Liskow, author of Blood on the Tracks and five other novels, as well as many short stories.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
I like to drink my coffee and read the paper, then write a little, even if it’s only a few paragraphs. That usually gets my mind out of first gBOTT_web - Copy 2ear. If I can’t think of what to write next, I go to the health club and sweat. The mindless physical activity usually helps me figure out where the scene goes from there. I rewrite constantly, so even a terrible first draft is fine because I can fix it. When I finish writing for the day, I’ll read, play guitar, or listen to music and spend some time with our cats. Preferably all of the above. I don’t have a set word limit for writing, but I have to accomplish something concrete. Maybe I’ll figure out a plot point that’s been bothering me or do more character work. Or maybe I’ll polish something for a writing workshop. I still do fiction and playwriting workshops as much as I can because I was an English teacher for years and loved it. My only solid rule is that I have to complete a scene if I start it that day because rhythm matters.

Do you have a signature accessory, color, fragrance, phrase, or meal?
My wife is an excellent cook, but I know about two recipes, one of which is coffee.

Excluding family, name three people who either inspired you or influenced your creativity.
June Roethke was the sister of Pulitzer Prize winning poet Theodore Roethke, and I’ve never had to think much about grammar since her ninth grade English class. Sharon Hunter, my tenth grade English teacher, helped me find my own voice and process, even though I didn’t know then that I would eventually write. In grad school, John Hawkins (acting) and Bill Francisco (directing) showed me that less is more, especially when you’re trying to make fiction look true.

Do you listen to music when you write?
Not when I’m actually writing, but I listen to all kinds of music a lot. I’ve played rock and blues guitar since the Beatles invaded America, and my parents loved swing. I played violin for a while and wanted to play piano, so I have a basic familiarity with the classics, especially Bach, Vivaldi, Mozart, and Beethoven. Almost all my short stories and novels use song titles because I thought the book that just came out in September (and which I started ten years ago) would be the start of a series about a PI who also plays guitar.

If your latest book were chocolate, what kid would it be and why?
Dark with lots of nuts. My characters are quirky and not always nice.

What made you interested in writing this particular story?
Years ago, I went to my high school reunion and discovered that one of my classmates—whom I didn’t know back then—was now a session musician in Detroit. In fact, her escort that night was Bob Seger’s former drummer. She had played with many Detroit icons, including Meat Loaf and Dick Wagner (who wrote many of Alice Cooper’s hits) and we had time to chat. A few years later, I turned back to writing after a long hiatus and that meeting gave me the idea that eventually developed into Blood On The Tracks. She and I now exchange emails regularly and she gave me technical background about playing in studios and the dynamics of being a woman in a mostly male profession. If I’d met her in high school, I never would have been ready for her. Amazing woman.

What themes do you regularly (re)visit in your writing?
I’ve always been drawn to intelligent, capable women. Female empowerment shows up in my stories a lot. I tend to depict women who finally decide enough is enough, often after fairly graphic abuse. The Whammer Jammers uses roller derby for a context, and I interviewed several skaters who told me they feel much more confident and assertive since taking up the sport. They have a large support group now (there are over 900 roller derby leagues in 38 countries), and it’s helped all aspects of their lives: work, marriage (or romance), parenting, you name it. Another novel concerns teen trafficking, and a major activist in the area helped me with research and actually blurbed the book.

Tell us about your main character’s psyche or personality. What led her (or him) to be the person s/he is today?
Zach Barnes, who stars in the books set in Connecticut, was a cop in a happy marriage until his pregnant wife was killed by a drunk driver. He developed his own drinking problem and was fired from the police force after a shooting incident. He’s now been sober for several years but still has a need to protect women to atone for his failure to protect his wife and child. He met Elizabeth Shepard—who is half of a romance novel writing team—when he was guarding her in the first book. She was raped in college and never told anyone, but they spotted the mutual pain and have been nurturing each other through three books so far.

My new book introduces Elwood Christopher Guthrie (people call him Woody, but he prefers to go by Chris). He has always been competitive, but he was too short to be the starting point guard. He became a Detroit police officer. Six months after he reached the rank of detective, his wife left him to take a job teaching at a more prestigious college. A few days after she filed for divorce, he and his partner got caught in an ambush and his partner was killed. He was badly wounded and was forced to resign with a disability. But he’s always wanted to help people, so he became a PI. He played lots of guitar while he was recuperating from the surgery.

If you could host a mystery-author dinner party, who are the six writers (living or otherwise you’d include?
Elmore Leonard, who passed away in August. I grew up in Michigan and his rhythms and humor are very much like mine. I love how he came up with characters who were both sleazy and sympathetic.

Laura Lippman, who may be one of the most daring crime writers today because she’s willing to teeter on the cusp of literary and constantly take new risks. Her short story collection of a few years ago was amazing. Every story had a different voice and persona, and they all worked.

Robert Crais keeps taking chances, too. His newest book has chapters written in the POV of a German Shepherd, and they work because he stays very basic and doesn’t try to be cute. He has always done everything—character, plot, dialogue, humor, twists—well.

James Crumley was maybe the best hardcore noir writer ever. Great dark humor, too.

S.J. Rozan’s Absent Friends is one of the best semi-literary crime/mystery/suspense novels I’ve read in years, and I’m stealing her structure technique for the book coming out next winter. I love how she takes two people from completely different cultures and backgrounds and makes them work in her series, especially since she alternates the narrator in each book.

The last spot will have to be a duel to the death between Tess Gerritsen, Don Winslow, Carol O’Connell, Tana French, Lynne Heitman, Linda Barnes, Carl Hiaasen, Raymond Chandler and Ed McBain.

Describe your protagonist as a mash-up of three famous people or characters.
When I was first writing the unsold Detroit series (now opening with Blood On The Tracks), I saw John Cusack as the embodiment of the PI now named Chris Guthrie. Zach Barnes has a lot of the same attitude. Barnes is very handsome (that idea started out as a parody and ran away from me) and probably has pieces of both Paul Newman and Robert Redford in The Sting or Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.

What’s next for you?
One good thing about self-pubbing is you can set your own deadlines.I have a stand-alone coming out early in 2014. My cover artist and I have been discussing the images and possible taglines. I’ve just finished the first draft of the fourth Zach Barnes book, too. It needs lots of revision, but I’m happy with what it’s turning into. I originally hoped to have that ready for early next summer, but that’s no longer realistic. It will probably be out about a year from now. If Blood On The Tracks does well, I have substantial notes and ideas for the next two books in that series, too.

When I’m not writing, I’m still doing a little theater and playing guitar in an acoustic group that meets two or three times a month. I find ways to stay busy.

***

Steve Liskow serves as a mentor for Mystery Writers of America and writes the Grammar Guy column for First Draft, the online newsletter for the Guppies chapter of Sisters in Crime. His short stories have won an Edgar Nomination, the Black Orchid Novella Award, and two Honorable Mentions for the Al Blanchard Story Award, sponsored by MWA. A former English teacher, he has also produced, directed, acted, designed, or played guitar for nearly 100 theatrical productions. His first five novels are set in central Connecticut, where he lives with his wife Barbara and two rescued cats. Novel number six, Blood On The Tracks, introduces Detroit PI Chris “Woody” Guthrie, and was inspired by a chance meeting at his high school reunion.

Website: www.steveliskow.com

The Many Faces of Home

Compared to a lot of people, I haven’t had a lot of homes. I’ve actually moved a surprisingly low number of times. And I don’t have any plans to move again. Well, at least not anytime soon.

Some of these homes I don’t remember. I don’t remember the apartment we lived in when I was born. To be fair, we moved when I was a toddler. But my parents say they had a bird, a big white one. I find this a little amusing, as my parents were not bird people. But I’ve seen the pictures. They had a big, white bird.

I don’t really remember the brief time we lived with my grandparents when my family moved back to Buffalo, New York. Oh, I remember hanging out at the house, just not living there.

The apartment we moved to when I was in about first grade, is in a little sharper focus. I remember learning to ride my bike down the street, right in the middle. There weren’t any sidewalks. I remember a lot of cars. But since all of the cars belonged to people who lived in the apartment complex, it wasn’t that dangerous.

I very definitely remember our first house. I mean, I lived there from 1979 to 1996, when I got married. Tiny place, small yard. A big VFW post across the street, with a giant front yard. We used to play there. The VFW hated it, but the old couple who lived in as caretakers liked us, so the turned a blind eye. There was a massive tree with a tire swing in the front yard. And in the back, there were tons of trees, perfect for climbing on a summer day with a book, hiding out from my younger brothers and sister.

I count my college dorm rooms as home, too. All four of them. In fact the entire campus was home. I remember leaving from winter break one year and breaking my mother’s heart—because I referred to college as “home.”

I got married in 1996 and moved to Pittsburgh. Our first apartment was a hole. Really. The lopsided second floor of a slightly dilapidated house. If you dropped a ball in the kitchen, it always rolled to the exact same spot. In the winter, ice formed on the inside of the windows. My husband and I used to wrap ourselves in fleece blankets belted with rope to stay warm.

And finally, there’s the house we live in now. To my amazement, I realized the other day we’ve been here for 15 years, since 1998. It had, um, interesting décor when we moved in. All these years later, we finally have it decorated the way we want, lots of hardwood floors, bookcases, and Tuscan colors. I brought both of my kids home here as babies. We had a dog here. We planted flowers and vegetables. I really can’t imagine leaving.

All of these places have something in common. I left, or have, a piece of my heart there. I still refer to “going home” for the holidays (next week is Thanksgiving, and we’re going to visit my dad and step-mother; remember “there’s no place like home for the holidays”).

And every place, even those tiny dorm rooms and drafty apartment, had books. Piles of books. We talk frequently about needed to weed them out, and stop buying them. But we just can’t. Used book stores, friends’ book launches, we’re book addicts to the nth degree. And we love it.

Because honestly, I just can’t imagine a home without my books. And maybe that’s the thing that always makes a place feel like home to me.

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?

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.