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Hard questions and harder answers

This past week I’ve been doing a series of book events in Florida and D.C. promoting ON HURRICANE ISLAND, my novel about an ordinary woman who is suspected to have terrorist information, detained and interrogated. On Monday I spoke to 200 people at the annual author luncheon at a condo community in Boynton Beach. A wonderful group – engaged and thoughtful and terrific questions.

At book events, it’s not unusual for someone to ask a particularly hard question and I have to think fast. I know that my immediate answer isn’t the whole story, isn't the best response, and later I chew on what I could have said. That happened Monday, when a woman asked, “Doesn’t the government have the right to protect us from terrorists like ISIS? Even if they make mistakes every once in a while?”

What I said: Yes, the government’s job is to protect its people. But if we acknowledge that terrorist attacks are criminal acts by individuals and groups, not acts of war by nations, then we should use our criminal justice system to charge and try them. We should not respond by shredding the constitution and ignoring the rule of law. I also said that if we stopped invading and bombing other countries and killing their people with drones, there would be fewer terrorist attacks against us.

What I wanted to say: “The U.S. government made one of those “every once in a while mistakes” when it executed my mother-in-law. Ethel Rosenberg was held hostage to try to pressure her husband into confessing. That was NOT okay.

What I could have asked her: “Do you have grandchildren? If the government by mistake detained and interrogated one of your grandchildren, like they treated Gandalf in my novel, would that be okay with you?”

What I could have said: The logical conclusion of what you are saying is that it’s okay to do anything necessary to protect our country, as long as that anything is being done to someone else, someone you don’t know and love.

Or I could have quoted Benjamin Franklin: “They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

Of course, whole books could be written on this topic and I keep thinking about other responses. Do you have suggestions of other things I could have, should have, said?
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Disappeared in America: story and fact

Writing fiction takes you places you never expected to go. My stories and novels have transported me to cults and islands, to interrogation rooms and quarry caves, to Caribbean palace guards and gun stores and courtrooms and sacred dingles. But I thought that once imagination has brought the words to publication, the creative part was done. Turns out that’s not entirely true; there’s also room for invention and exploration in bringing books to readers.

We all know that publishing with an independent press – probably with ANY press in today’s market – requires significant author involvement in promotion. My first novel taught me to look beyond bookstore venues for readings and book-signings. HOUSE ARREST took me to libraries and house parties, to book fairs and reader retreats and conferences and book groups. I took advantage of all those additional venues when ON HURRICANE ISLAND was published. But this novel, because of its topical content, presented an unexpected opportunity: to develop a “platform.”

The idea of “platform” is usually reserved for nonfiction books. It refers to the author’s authority in a subject area and her access to a group of readers already interested in that subject. Novelists may have a fan base and literary credentials, but it’s challenging to identify new readers based on what the book is about, since fiction’s subject matter isn’t so easily identified or defined. It’s also tricky because many readers seem to read EITHER fiction or nonfiction, not both.

The plot line of ON HURRICANE ISLAND is frighteningly topical. Actually that makes me laugh, because when I started writing it seven years ago, even my husband said that the premise was possibly too unbelievable. It’s the story of an older woman, a mathematics professor, who is picked up by federal agents at an airport, hooded and cuffed and taken to a secret detention center for interrogation. Snatched right out of the headlines, isn’t it? Which suggested to me that perhaps I could interest people who don’t usually read fiction but do follow the news.

This train of thought led to the “Disappeared in America” events. In each one, I partner with an attorney and/or a justice-oriented organization to explore the literary and the legal issues brought up by the novel, and the intersection of the two. Usually the event consists of a short reading from ON HURRICANE ISLAND, a response from the attorney and conversation with the audience. So far, event venues include libraries and law schools and churches; sponsoring organizations include the Center for Constitutional Rights and chapters of the National Lawyers Guild and Amnesty International. Upcoming events will be held in Amherst, MA, Springfield, MA and Ft. Lauderdale, FL – and wherever else people are interested in these issues.

I can’t claim that these events sell a lot of books, but I’ve been surprised – amazed, really – at how much I’ve learned. And how rich the conversation can be when it includes different perspectives on story and reality, on imagination and social justice.  Read More 
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Book tour reflections

I figure I’m about halfway through the book tour for ON HURRICANE ISLAND, the active, travel-heavy promotion journey. It started with the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Asheville a month before the novel’s publication; I expect it to begin winding down in the late autumn. Of course, that’s one of the pleasures of a small press like Red Hen, which considers a book “new” for 18 months or so. Actively traveling and promoting a book for such a long time also has its challenges, and this weekend (two days “off” to visit with old friends in the Bay Area), I’ve been reflecting on the experience.

So far, I’ve done more than 30 book events, ranging from readings in indie bookstores and public libraries to book festivals and conferences and house parties and author fairs and book groups. They’ve been organized by Red Hen Press, or by my wonderful publicist Mary Bisbee Beek, or by me, following up with friends, contacts from my first novel, and suggestions from other authors. The range of venues has been wide, from the amazing Annenberg Beach House in Santa Monica to a wine bar in Boston’s Back Bay to a friend’s living room. From San Antonio and Lynchburg and Albany to Oakland and Manhattan and Cambridge and Washington, D.C. Attendance has varied widely too; two people in a bookstore in a city where I knew one person (she brought a friend) to crowded auditoriums at literary festivals and colleges.

What do they all have in common? My gratitude that readers still come to hear authors read, and talk with them, and ask questions, and offer opinions. The connection I feel to readers and writers and booksellers and conference volunteers. The pleasure of meeting people who love story as much as I do, and who get it when I talk about my characters as real people. The inspiration to go home and write the next book.  Read More 
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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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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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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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Life and art

Art and life

The Supreme Court recently declined to hear Hedges v. Obama, a case challenging a section of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). This section permits the U.S. military to kidnap U.S. citizens and hold them indefinitely in military detention centers without access to lawyers or trials or any of the other rights we think of as ours, in a so-called democratic country. In this ruling, attorney Carl Mayer writes, the Supreme Court “has turned its back on precedent dating back to the Civil War era that holds that the military cannot police the streets of America.”

This ruling throws a minor theoretical monkey wrench into my second novel, due to be published early next year. ON HURRICANE ISLAND tells the story of a U.S. citizen kidnapped by the military and taken to a secret detention center for interrogation. A second character, a woman already imprisoned at the facility, is an attorney working on a case very much like Hedges v. Obama.

When I started writing this novel four years ago, I figured that “extraordinary rendition” on U.S. soil was a possibility, but it was still a “what if” in my writer’s brain. After the novel sold, I contacted Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitution Rights and an expert in this area of law, and asked him for a “blurb.” He read the manuscript, and wrote,

“On Hurricane Island is a chilling, Kafkaesque story about what happens when the United States does to citizens at home what it has done to others abroad. Meeropol puts the reader right into the middle of these practices through characters about whom you really care and a story you can’t put down.”

By refusing to consider hear Hedges v. Obama, and to revisit the issue of detention of citizens by the military, the Supreme Court ruling moves my “fictional” nightmare scenario that much closer to reality.

Sure, I can probably “fix” the manuscript. I can tweak the text and maybe add a sentence or two about the recent ruling. That’s not the big problem. The big problem for me, for all of us, is what we can do to take back our country.

(for more information about Hedges v. Obama, click on Truthdig.com link to the left)  Read More 
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