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BETWEEN THE LINES

Speaking of Torture

Speaking of torture

I did not set out to write a novel about torture. But sometimes you create a character and fall in love with her. You put her in a perilous situation that gets her into big trouble. So what can you do? You hang in there with her and try to get her out of that trouble. That’s what happened to Gandalf Cohen and me.

Six years ago I was going through airport security when a character jumped into my brain and made her home there. She arrived complete with a peculiar name and an odd profession. I could see her short graying hair and her no-nonsense persona. I imagined her standing ahead of me in the security line. When she stepped out of the TSA scanner, barefoot, a man in uniform escorted her down a side corridor and out of sight.

I had to know what happened to her, so I wrote a novel.

When Gandalf was kidnapped by federal agents I knew little about torture beyond what I’d read in novels, or seen on TV and in movies. All made-up stuff. So I made up some more to write the first draft of the novel and then I did research to try to correct the worst of my errors of imagination. I read THE DARK SIDE by Jane Mayer, and that led me to the U.S. Air Force Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) manual. I wish the Senate torture report had been available when I was trying to get the ugly details right.

Two things surprised me about writing this novel. First, the content transformed my writing practice. I was used to writing in the evening, a habit developed over years of having a day job. But if I sent my imagination to these dark places in the evening, it kept me up at night. It gave me nightmares. So I started writing first thing in the morning and into the early afternoon; I needed several hours of distance between the events Gandalf and I were living in the novel and any successful attempt to relax into sleep.

The second thing that surprised me was my intense curiosity about the bad guys. The torturers. I wanted to know what was going on in their heads. How did they justify their actions? What were their secrets? How did they sleep at night? I went back and reread Edwidge Danticat’s amazing novel, THE DEW BREAKERS, the Tonton Macoutes who tortured and killed resisters in Duvalier’s Haiti. Then I reread the thought-provoking interview with Danticat in The Writers Chronicle, in which she said, “Even if someone is a torturer, you don’t have the luxury of writing him off, of not ‘listening’ to him... Understanding the complexity of a difficult character’s life is most appealing to me as a writer.” It is appealing, but it’s also disconcerting and uncomfortable.

After doing the research, I returned to my novel. I took a deep breath and crawled back into the brains of my characters who did those bad bad things. Not to forgive them, but to understand them, and render them as well as I could to my readers.

It’s been odd timing for a novel about domestic detention and enhanced interrogation: first the Executive Summary of the Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture. And then newspaper reports about the existence of a secret interrogation facility in a Chicago warehouse operated by the Chicago Police Department.

After reading On Hurricane Island, or hearing me talk about it, people inevitably ask, “But do domestic detention centers exist? Could rendition and torture really happen on U.S. soil? To an American citizen?”

I’m not an expert. I don’t know if domestic detention centers like the one I made up really exist in this country. I do know that there are historical precedents for their existence, such as the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and the targeting and detention of Muslim residents after 9/11. And I know that the scaffolding for detention is firmly in place. Our national narratives about terrorism and the need for extraordinary measures are an accepted part of our culture, normalized by television, repetition, and fear.

As a fiction writer and a citizen, do I think that events like those in On Hurricane Island could happen?

I’m profoundly sad to say that I do.  Read More 
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The calm before the (I hope) storm

In one week, on March 3, my second novel will be published. The books are finished and printed. My book tour plans are healthy and still growing. I’ve selected a few sections to read at events and practiced them. I’ve thought about the questions I’m likely to hear during radio interviews and event Q&A’s. I’ve figured out a couple of as-dressy-as-I-ever-get outfits to wear at readings.

This week, I’ll be working hard to promote the book, submitting essays, sending out emails and postcards about events, and contacting people who might be interested in the book. But as I remember from the last days of pregnancies, many years ago, I will live in a peculiar limbo of anticipation and excitement and worry and hope. Will this baby come easily? Will she thrive? Who will she turn out to be in the world?

Publishing a novel brings as many unknowns as birthing a baby.

In addition, when you publish with a small press you understand that there are likely to be fewer resources - financial and personnel - to promote your book. You know that will be balanced by the passion that small presses bring to the books they publish, by their energy and enthusiasm. You know also that you will rely on the generosity of friends and strangers in your community of writers and readers.

In this odd limbo before pub date, I’m so grateful for that generosity. I’m grateful to Kate and Mark and the staff at Red Hen Press for their amazing dedication. To my publicist Mary Bisbee-Beek, who answers my emails even when I might step just a little over the off-the-wall-with-stress line. To my buddies at the Odyssey Bookshop, for support and helping me launch this baby. And for all those people – you know who you are – who have offered to read advance copies and write blurbs and reviews, to host house parties and invite their friends, to invite me to their book groups and their neighborhood bookstores. Who will buy an extra copy and put it into a friend’s hand, saying, “you’re going to love this book.”

Thank you.
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Never without a notebook

Last week I tackled my writing room – moved furniture, went through files, cleaned and reorganized. I had three reasons for this insanity. First, because my heavy desk was blocking the heat source and with the recent frigid weather, I could hardly type in there. Second, I was running out of file space, even with an embarrassing number of file drawers. Third – and most important – I was trying not to obsess about my upcoming book launch. Not to obsess, not to google the book title repeatedly, not to bother my wonderful publicist (who just might be getting a little annoyed with me).

I’m only half done, but the job is pretty much what I expected. I’m throwing away a lot, recycling a lot, donating a lot (someone might want those three-ring binders, right?) I’m not very sentimental about stuff, but I do have filled a box labeled “Stuff I don’t need, never use, and can’t bear to throw away.”

The most interesting finds are the notebooks. When I started writing fiction fifteen years ago, people told me to always carry a notebook to jot down thoughts and observations and ideas. I rarely write more than a paragraph by hand; I much prefer working on the computer, but still I took that advice to heart. So as part of the clean-up, I gathered those notebooks. There are nineteen of them ranging from big to tiny. Thumbing through them, I found sentences that ended up in a published novel or story, intact, like my friend Irene’s observation years ago – “I didn’t take the interstate for a whole year. I couldn’t merge.” – which a character says in my first novel. I also found terrible sentences, and some interesting advice to myself, like “Too sappy; dark is better.”

I also found twelve new notebooks, mostly presents from friends and family. That is particularly generous, since they know that my always carrying a notebook means it’s even more likely that they’ll end up in a story.  Read More 
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I want to tell you about Winter Institute

I'm just home from Winter Institute, an annual three-day educational, networking, and author-meeting event put on by the American Booksellers Association. I’ve been to other ABA events with co-workers from the Odyssey Bookshop, but this was my first time at Winter Institute, first time as an author, and the first time my publisher, Red Hen Press, attended. This year the venue was the Grove Park Inn, a luxury resort in Asheville, N.C. with amazing views of the Blue Ridge Mountains. (There wasn’t room for the 500 booksellers and other guests at the Inn; I stayed at a hotel in town.)

The first time anywhere is confusing. Neither Red Hen managing editor Kate Gale nor I had much idea beforehand about what to expect. “Meet people and be charming,” people advised me. So I made business cards with the jacket design of my new book, and prepared to be charming.

Several things were spectacular, besides the views. One was the galley rooms, where advance reader copies (ARC’s) and finished books were piled on tables, free to Winter Institute participants. Picture that scene: many books, many passionate readers. It was only marginally more polite than sale day shoppers at Filene’s Basement. Luckily, there was an on-site shipping service to send all these books home.

Publishers, large and small, attend to promote their new books and they bring authors to hang out with booksellers and sign books. Those events are in the evening, and they are crowded and fun. There are keynotes and educational sessions for booksellers, and many small gatherings. There is a lot of partying. Literary partying, of course.

Some of the high points, for me:
• Sitting on a rocking chair in front of one of the massive stone fireplaces, working on my laptop and realizing I’m sitting next to the talented and well-known author of a book I just finished reading.
• Seeing my first novel on the shelf of a wonderful Asheville bookstore.
• Meeting booksellers from around the country (the world, actually; I chatted with a fellow from a bookstore in Australia, and another from New Zealand).
• Hanging out with my lovely editor, Red Hen Press co-founder Kate Gale.
• The helpful and friendly folks from the ABA, especially Mark, and Ann.
• Meeting a friend-of-a-friend and making a new friend, the talented and lovely Ann Bauer.
• Watching Kate at the podium, describing my book so that I wanted to read it.
• Signing many, many books and handing them to booksellers; joyfully sending this baby out into the world.
• Feeling part of this wonderful world of books, and the people who write them, read them, promote them, share them with all of us.  Read More 
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Still out of my comfort zone

This morning I read that Beyond the Margins, the wonderful website dedicated to writing and writers, is closing shop. I've loved reading their articles and essays - funny, smart, helpful, inspiring. In homage to them, I'm reprinting below a guest post I wrote for them three years ago. I'm also reprinting it today because On Hurricane Island, the book I was researching in my travels way out of my comfort zone is just weeks from publication (33 days, but who's counting). So, thank you Beyond the Margins, for publishing this essay and for five years of service to writers.

Out of My Comfort Zone: My Trigger Finger

One night, working on revisions my agent requested on my novel manuscript, I realized that my character had to grab a gun and hit someone with it.

Okay, I could accept that, but I couldn’t write it. I’ve never handled a gun. Never even touched one. Never wanted to. And my imagination was balking at coming up with the necessary physical, sensory, details.

So en route to my optometrist appointment the next morning, I stopped in at a gun shop.

The place was a bit of a cliché: on a potholed street in a seedy neighborhood, heavy grill bars in the door, a warning about videotaping taped in the window. The six men inside had military haircuts and significant body heft.

If only I’d brought someone along. At least I had emailed my friend Liz of my plan. Just in case. Even though no one looked at me, or spoke to me, my skin prickled with their frosty attention. The guy behind the counter, a large fellow with beefy arms, ignored me too.

I admit it; I was intimidated.

I’ve been intimidated before doing research for a novel. For my last book I had to learn about house arrest monitors – how they work, what the systems look and feel like, and how someone might circumvent the technology. I asked a favor of a friend’s husband who made a phone call, and a week later I had a meeting with a probation officer at the federal courthouse.

Like Emily Klein, my main character in HOUSE ARREST, I am not at all comfortable with cops or courts. I was nervous going through the metal detector, even just walking by the courtrooms. I kept thinking that someone would put my name in their computer and my 1968 criminal trespassing conviction would pop up, or the misinformation in my FOIA files, where they had so much wrong – putting me at antiwar demonstrations I never attended and missing the places they should have seen. I worried that they would look at me and announce, “Got you. You’re not getting away this time.”

Way out of my comfort zone. But ultimately I was able to use the details of my discomfort in writing that book. And like most other people I’ve interviewed to get background for fiction, the two probation officers were helpful and gracious. I explained that my character had to get out of her ankle contraption for one night. Not possible, they said, but they explained the system in detail and let me touch everything. And while sitting in their office I had the eureka moment of understanding how the plot would play out.

In the gun store this morning, Mr. Beefy Arms was neither helpful nor gracious. After waiting for thirteen long minutes without being acknowledged, I left. Didn’t want to be late for the eye doctor, did I?

Afterwards, feeling braver knowing that my eyesight hadn’t deteriorated, I returned. This time I was the only customer.

“Can I help you?” His arms were crossed over his white tee.

“I’m a writer,” I said in my sweetest voice. “I’m writing a scene with a handgun and have never held one. May I?”

“What kind of gun?”

“I don’t know. A pistol, or revolver. Something a security guard might use.”

“Which one?” His tone was just this side of insulting. “Pistol or revolver?”

I know nothing about guns. And my character isn’t actually a security guard. But I didn’t want to tell him that she was going to hit an FBI agent. Somehow, I didn’t think Beefy Arms would approve. “A pistol,” I decided.

Shaking his head in obvious disapproval, he unlocked the glass case and removed a gun. He did that clicky-click thing they do on television and removed the clip before handing me the pistol.

It was a Smith and Wesson. I knew that because the company name was engraved on the metal. The gun was heavier than I expected. I held it by the grip, my finger avoiding the trigger like poison ivy. Then I grabbed it by the barrel, in the position I imagined my character would use to slug the bad guy.

“That’s not how you shoot it,” Beefy Arms said.

I smiled. “I know, but she’s going to hit someone, not shoot them.”

“Let me educate you,” he said. “If deadly force isn’t required, a security guard would use a baton to hit someone. If you need to use a gun, you shoot. Just saying.”

At that moment I realized two things: first, Beefy Arms might know guns, but I know my story. And second, I was really terrified in that store and had to leave. I had handled the pistol and now I could write the necessary physical details.

“One more thing,” I said, trying to smile. “May I take a photo of the gun?”

He hesitated before nodding.

I took the photo with my phone and then asked, “How about one of you?”

“That’s not necessary,” he said, turning away.

Hurrying through the rain to my car, I could still feel the tiny bumps of the gun grip, how awkward it felt to hold the barrel, the curve of the engraved Smith and Wesson name. I thought about my fear, and realized I have everything I need.  Read More 
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Favorite books of 2014, part II

I read a lot, mostly fiction. It’s an important part of writing fiction. Plus it’s part of my job at the Odyssey Bookshop, where I serve on the selection committee for the bookstore’s First Edition Club. I read to learn, to be transported, to open my brain and heart to the world. And sometimes I read for the pure pleasure of a well-told story.

In July, I blogged about the books I loved most in the first half of 2014, including
A CONSTELLATION OF VITAL PHENOMENA by Anthony Marra
ACCIDENTS OF MARRIAGE, by Randy Susan Meyers
DESIRE OF THE MOTH, by Champa Bilwakesh
ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr
REMEMBER ME LIKE THIS by Bret Anthony Johnston
MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY by Faye Rapoport DesPres
WHEN THE WAR CAME HOME by Bill Newman

As 2014 ends, it’s time to add more books to my favorites list.

THERE’S SOMETHING I WANT YOU TO DO: STORIES by Charles Baxter. Okay, I’m a fan, but this linked collection is something very special. Ten stories – five titled for virtues and five for vices – follow a cast of ordinary characters whose connections are both tenuous and strong, both arbitrary and plausible. And then there’s Baxter’s language, which is sometimes quietly breathtaking.

MAKE A WISH BUT NOT FOR MONEY by Suzanne Strempek Shea. A “dead” mall and an out-of-work bank teller as palm reader are the core of unpretentious, funny, and totally satisfying novel. Shea’s rendering of a community in decline – the physical place, the historical bonds, the emotional connections – is beautifully done and full of hope.

AN UNTAMED STATE by Roxanne Gay. Previously I knew this author’s essays and she’s smart and politically incisive, so I looked forward to her debut novel with great anticipation. It did not disappoint, but I’ve got to admit that this book isn’t easy to read. It’s about an upper class Haitian-born woman who is kidnapped and sexually assaulted while her father refuses to pay the ransom. Gay is fearless in exploring family dynamics both during and after the event. Fearless.

STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel. This book is on many of the “best of 2014” lists so you’ve probably already read it, or read about it. I’ll just say that I’ve added it to the books I wish I’d written.

ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES by Emma Hooper is an unashamedly charming and quirky journey story with unlikely heroes and unusual demons. In prose that is both simple and lyrical, Hooper’s debut novel offers a tapestry of memory, loss and hope against the backdrop of the Canadian countryside. I loved this book.

WORLD GONE BY is vintage Dennis Lehane. His characters - powerful and broken, brutal and surprisingly tender - embody the 1940's gangster culture, but reveal the layers underneath of race and class and choices not so different from the bankers and high society. As with THE GIVEN DAY and LIVE BY NIGHT, I am both swept into the epic story, and still thinking about the characters and their impossible choices days afterwards.

LAND OF LOVE AND DROWNING by Tiphanie Yanique. The U.S. Virgin Islands seen through the eyes of Yanique’s characters – two sisters who lost everything when their sea captain father’s ship went down – is a place where global history and racism play out in the workplace and the bedroom. Hurricanes and tourism and beaches and war all weave together in this powerful first novel.

And two books coming out in 2015 that I’ve had the pleasure of reading early copies and loved. Look for these in the spring (I’ll remind you!)

VERA’S WILL by Shelley Ettinger. This novel spans the twentieth century and three generations, transporting us from Russian pogroms to immigrant struggles, from family-ravaging homophobia to GLBT resistance. Ettinger's captivating story is rich with social and cultural detail, alive with generously-drawn characters, and unflinching in its political passion.

PLAY FOR ME by Céline Keating. This novel sings! Empty-nester Lily hears a duo perform in concert at her son’s college, she is captivated by the guitarist, the lure of music and the magic of performance. Keating writes about music with the knowledge of a music critic and the soul of a musician; she totally drew me into Lily’s life-changing enchantment with music and those who create it.

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I still hate umbrellas

I hate umbrellas, and that’s what I told my friend Nancy when she offered one yesterday morning. Sure, it was raining steadily when I left her apartment. And yes, the rain was predicted to last all day. And yes, I had twenty blocks to walk to my lunch appointment and many more before the day was done. But I had my trusty turquoise L.L. Bean rain jacket with hood and I like to walk in the rain. Besides, umbrellas blow inside out and they get caught on other umbrellas on crowded Manhattan sidewalks.

Everyone else in the city had an umbrella. I wove in and out, dodging pointy spokes and trying to think deeply between raindrops. I was in the city to participate in a panel discussion on balancing craft and commitment in political fiction, a program sponsored by the New York City chapter of the Women’s National Book Association and Pace University. Maybe it was my smart and thoughtful fellow panelists (Elizabeth Nunez, Tiphanie Yanique, Marnie Mueller and Celine Keating), or perhaps the engaged and lively audience, or maybe the panel topic in combination with an essay on writing across racial and ethnic borders that I’ve been struggling to finish. In any case, my brain was spinning with it all. I dodged umbrellas poking in my unprotected direction and tried to avoid the flooding at every street corner, but those thoughts were getting drenched.

So I gave in and bought a $5 umbrella from a street vendor. It promptly blew inside out in the wind, and while slicing my thumb on the sharp end of one of the twisted wires holding the joints together, I stepped into a deep puddle. Very deep. So I stopped into one of the omnipresent Duane Reade stores (the first time I saw that name, I read it as “d’you wanna read," and I still prefer my literary pronunciation) and bought a pair of dry socks.

Getting to my three appointments yesterday, I walked several sodden miles, from Gramercy Park to Murray Hill to Tribeca and Washington Square, then back to E. 19th Street. I was drenched with each walk, dried out sitting with friends in restaurants and living rooms and coffee shops, then soaked again. By the time I returned to Nancy’s mid-evening, those spinning ideas were nicely marinated by the wet miles and seasoned by the long, intense conversations with friends. And I had lost the umbrella.

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Overnight, the leaves fell

Overnight, this tree in our front yard lost half its leaves. It feels like overnight, autumn colors have come to western Massachusetts. That’s okay; I love fall, but it’s such a busy time. Even an overwhelming time. Every activist and nonprofit group I support has some sort of event or activity. Plus, I’m starting to set up events for my second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, which launches in early March. And then there are all the books – there are so many amazing books on my To-Be-Read pile.

Okay, I admit it that I’ve been contemplating a totally forced metaphor about the books piling up like leaves in the yard, waiting for raking/reading. But since my involvement in our yard is limited to watching it from my writing desk, that comparison wouldn’t be quite honest. Plus having all these books is such a happy problem. So, instead of forcing a metaphor, I think I’ll just share the books on my TBR list, and stare out the window at the turning colors.

The Jaguar’s Children, by John Vaillant – I’m halfway through this one
Make a Wish But Not for Money, by Suzanne Strempek Shea
The Commons, by Susan Dworkin
A Story Larger than My Own, by Janet Burroway
There’s Something I Want You to Do, by Charles Baxter
Kindling, by Aurora Levins Morales
The Hawley Book of the Dead, by Chrysler Szarlan
Teach Us that Peace, by Baron Wormser
The Bloody Tide, by Jane Yolen
A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James
Angels Make Their Hope Here, by Breena Clarke
This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

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Last day of vacation

Today is the last day of my summer vacation.

The first ten days were hectic and very full of activity, with daughters and partners and grandkids and friends joining Robby and me in our beloved rental house in N. Truro. After Labor Day, they all left to return to jobs and school. The house is now much cleaner and less cluttered with sand and toys and food and beach towels and the row of sandals lined up at the front door. It’s quiet.

Our first day alone was melancholy; I missed them all so much. But today, day three of the quiet time, Robby and I have settled into a familiar vacation pattern: coffee on the deck, morning walk, reading and writing with a short lunch break, a mid-afternoon visit to the beach to stare at the waves and talk, and then dinner at one of our favorite seafood restaurants.

One of the highlights of my vacation is that Robby and my daughters each read the current draft of whatever novel manuscript I’m working on, and make comments. Since the work is often very much in progress, their feedback – always smart and insightful – helps me reshape the story. This summer I’m revising a novel I started in 2001, and have rewritten more times than I can count. So much of the narrative has changed, but the kernel of the story (two sisters who respond to a political crisis very differently and must balance their loyalty to each other with their choices and the consequences) is still alive, still pulling at me to get it as “right” as I can. Two weeks in Truro means that my characters vacation with us. They share sandy apples on the blanket, walk with my daughters and me at the water’s edge, even join in a rousing game of Settlers of Catan when the kids are asleep.

Tomorrow, Robby and I go home. We return to a very busy fall and winter, with a second edition of HOUSE ARREST coming out in a few weeks, and my second novel, ON HURRICANE ISLAND, launching in early March. But today, we’ll savor our last cups of coffee on the deck, enjoy every sweaty hill on our walk, relish the almost-stale sandwiches and squirt out the dregs of sunscreen. And we’ll smile at the two pairs of sandals lined up alone at the front door.
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Three reasons why I love World Fellowship

I got home last night from a week at World Fellowship Center, a progressive camp and conference center in New Hampshire dedicated to peace, social justice and nature. Summer camp for grown ups – that’s what I called it the first time I went there. It was 1982, I think, and Robby and our daughters drove up for a Red Diaper Baby conference. Over the decades since then, we keep returning, summer after summer. Here’s why:

1. The people. The folks who work there (Andy and Andrea and Howie and Ekere and the rest of the staff) and those who attend. World Fellowship is the kind of place where you can walk into the dining room alone and sit down at one of the long, family-style tables in the dining room, and within ten minutes you have figured out three or four connections with other guests – people you know in common, neighborhoods you’ve lived in, political groups you’ve worked with, passions you share for books or music or art or activism. A great pleasure, if you return, is rekindling those friendships. I was delighted this week to have a change to hang out with Jessica and Ethan and Holly and Alice and Alex, and to make a wonderful new friend, Aurora.

2. The setting. Over 450 acres in the southeast corner of New Hampshire’s White Mountains, in the metaphorical shadow of Mount Chocorua. There’s amazing hiking and biking. There are loons on Whitton Pond, along with swimming, canoeing, rowing, kayaking, blueberry picking. Every day, Howie (CEO of the recreation department. Actually, the whole recreation department) offers organized outdoor activities or suggestions for the exact level and length of view of the trip you want. Or, there’s my personal favorite way to enjoy the setting – settling in an easy chair on the huge wraparound screened porch to read, talk, work on a communal puzzle, nap, or gaze at Chocorua. Priceless.

3. The programs. Choose from a wide and rich variety of arts offerings and body movement groups, plus intensive programs and evening events and concerts and performances. This year I taught a weeklong fiction workshop (part of the Mount Chocorua Writers Retreat), and Robby and I led an evening program/discussion titled Writing our Hot Planet. The 2014 summer includes programs ranging from early music to mass incarceration, from Feldenkrais to global capitalism in Bangladesh, from Zombies to Clamshell Alliance and Zoning out Fracking to a ukelele festival and Why Fungi Matter and Theatre of the Oppressed. Whew and Wow!

At World Fellowship, I feel so connected to the natural world and to a community of people who care. I think of it as part of the Commons – the precious public places and heritages that communities share for the benefit of all, where we nourish, renew and teach each other, where we inspire each other and ourselves to go out and change the world.

I’m just home, still doing laundry and scratching mosquito bites, but I’m already thinking about next summer… Read More 
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