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Back in May, I dropped off the radar everywhere. My new novel Lie Lay Lain had just released, and I was making various plans for what I would do to promote it. I was also considering which project I wanted to work on next: ghost trains that never stop, cougar sex in doomed bed & breakfasts, Romeo & Lolita meet Breaking Bad?

Then my pop* was diagnosed with leukemia. I abandoned every plan and project for the daily drive to the university med center, where I did what one does in such circumstances. I sat in hospital rooms and tried to ask smart questions of the doctors who were pumping my dad full of poison. I cried in bathrooms and cafeterias and elevators and parking garages so that I could put on a brave and hopeful face when I was in my pop’s room.

I don’t imagine I spent even a minute thinking about my writing career in May or June, but apparently someone else was thinking about it. An agent contacted me to ask if I had any new projects I was working on, and would I send her something. I shot off an email with a manuscript attached and put it out of my mind.

The week after I traveled by ambulance to take my pop home from the hospital, I spoke to that agent, who offered to represent me. Four years after I parted ways with my last agent, I had a new agent. Two days later, my pop died. Planning for the funeral and for the rest of my life without him ate up what would otherwise have been cause for celebration.

Now I find myself on the backside of July, about to turn in revisions to my agent. It seems like April was a million years ago, and I don’t even remember what I was supposed to do. Honestly, after four years without an agent, and having sold two books to a small press, I’d given up on traditional publishing.

Most days, I feel like I’m dragging a boat down the beach. In a perfect world, the goal is to put the boat in the water at high tide, but it’s too late for that. I’m putting the boat in at low tide and hoping for the best.

 

*To clarify, and it seems that even in this age of blended families, I must clarify: my pop was legally my stepfather, my mother's second husband. He was a command sergeant major in the Army, a 3-decade employee of the natural gas industry, and the man who managed to raise 5 daughters. My biological father is the former drug dealer and all-around scoundrel. My pop was my father for 36 years, and as such, has earned the right not to be relegated to such halfway titles as "stepfather."

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LieLayLain_Cover.fh11It’s official: my second novel, Lie Lay Lain, is out in the world today. The book is about a special events planner who witnesses a hit-and-run, and makes an impossible promise, a church secretary who turns her life upside down to make a lie true, a paramedic whose whole life is a lie, and a child no one will admit is missing. In short, it’s about so much that I find myself practically rewriting the book every time I try to describe what it’s about.

In honor of its release, I’m giving away a few copies.

First of all, if you drop by Goodreads, you can enter to win one of two copies. You just have to click to enter by April 27th.

If you’re not into Goodreads, you can enter to win right here. All you have to do is leave a comment on this post, and I’ll choose two winners at random on April 8th. If you’re not sure what to comment, I’m taking questions about what it’s really like to be a church secretary.

*I hope that Lie Lay Lain will turn out to be my sophomoric effort from a strictly numerical standpoint, as my second book, and not in the sense of ill-informed or lacking maturity.

 

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I grew up in a small town, one where almost everyone went to church. From the mayor to my eighth grade English teacher to the sad, old, homeless drunk we called Uncle Stanley. In fact, the only person I knew who never went to church was my granddad, who was living proof that there are atheists in foxholes. With the exception of my granddad, my whole family went to church, twice every Sunday, and most Wednesday nights. Whether we wanted to or not. No one in my family was particularly devout, and outside of church we did not pay much lip service to God or the Bible. The only meal we prayed at was Sunday dinner, and then only if eaten at home. In our world view, only “odd birds” prayed in restaurants. In more ways than one, church was less a religious institution and more of a social club.

LieLayLain_Cover.fh11It’s that ethos that informs much of Lie Lay Lain, my second novel, which will be released on April 1. By chance, when I started writing the book, I was working as a church secretary. Not through any great religious zeal, or any notion that working for a church was a higher calling. I needed a job, they needed a secretary, and I was savvy and polite enough to keep my own opinions on religion to myself. There’s no doubt, however, that the book absorbed some of my experiences and observations as a church secretary.

The primary observation that soaked into Lie Lay Lain and its characters is that people who go to church are regular people. I knew that from my childhood, but after 20 years of adulthood, in which I stayed far away from church and religion, I had started to believe the messages about Christians that are so often promoted in the media. The primary message is that Christians are wholesome, inspirational people who obey the Bible and rise above the bad things that happen to them. The message is rarely that Christians are just regular people. When we look at the books and the movies that are promoted as Christian entertainment, so often the product being offered is sanitized. Remove the swear words, the sex, any suggestion at all that Christians are inclined to misbehave just as often as non-Christians. The industries that produce these products sweep the dirt of humanity under the rug and declare their products safe for Christian consumption. Consistent with Christian values.

On the reverse, you can’t help but notice that when a movie or book is proffered as a mainstream entertainment product, spiritual and religious elements are stripped away. Tell me, how often do you read a mainstream book or see a mainstream movie or TV show in which the characters go to church, and it’s not for a wedding or a funeral? If you believe in the mainstream message, average people don’t go to church. They don’t pray. They don’t have crises of faith. Despite this message, we know they do. We know people of all walks of life, who are not puritanical or devout or zealous, yet who value their religion. One of my raunchiest, most irreverently funny friends goes to church every week. She wears a set of rings with Bible verses on them.

As I start to see reactions from readers to Lie Lay Lain, I hear echoes of the responses that I got from agents and editors when I first started looking for a home for the book. People are puzzled to find a book in which mundane life intersects with religious life. More than a few people suggested that I’d find it a lot easier to sell the book if I could strip out either the divine or the profane. If you took out the sex and the swearing, you could sell this as Christian fiction. Or more ominously, If you took out all the church stuff, you’d have a better chance at selling this. A book that has both—sincere prayer and enthusiastic fornication—is an alien concept to many people.

This fact leads me to wonder about how far we’ve gone to segregate things into their “appropriate” niche. If a novel has Christians in it, it must be Christian fiction. You’ll find the same trend repeated throughout your average bookstore. If a novel has a person of color on the cover, it must be African-American fiction. Shelve it over there. If a novel is about gay people, put it over in the LGBTQ section.

The reason behind this pernicious niching is marketing. If we shelve the books in their niche areas, we can help people find the exact kind of books they are most interested in reading, thereby selling more books. It seems to me that in many ways we are walling up certain books and movies into their own entertainment ghettos, and that’s a bad thing. If a reader has to ferret out the tiny African-American section of their local bookstore to even have a chance of stumbling over a novel about people of color, that narrows their view of the world. If all the books you can find about Christians are Christian Fiction, you’re going to develop a skewed perspective about what it means to be Christian.

What I’m saying is, Let’s start seeing other people. Take a chance on something outside your niche. Take a risk with something that doesn’t fit neatly into a box.

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I’m very pleased to announce that I’ve officially signed a contract with Stairway Press to publish my next novel, Lie Lay Lain. Although we haven’t committed to a release date yet, I do expect it to be some time this year.

Considering how slowly publishing tends to move, this book is something of an oddity. My first novel, Last Will, took about three years to write and more than ten to sell. In a turn about, Lie Lay Lain took nine years to write and was sold in less than a year.

I don’t yet have a cover to reveal, but in honor of the signed contract, here’s an excerpt from the book.

***

The church’s Youth Director had an aura of cool that Olivia envied. She knew it influenced her, although she wanted to resist it. Marnie had always been one of the cool kids, Christian or otherwise, and when she tossed her hair back and clasped her hands over her modest cleavage and gold cross necklace, Olivia fell for it all over again.

“I have a huge favor to ask you,” Marnie said. She didn’t say it the way Olivia would have, like a supplicant. She said it with the same inflection she would have used to say, “I have a huge present for you.”

“How huge?” Olivia saved and closed the spreadsheet she’d been working on.

“I need another counselor to go on the Double Cross overnight.”

It was the sort of opportunity Olivia had once been eager for: participating in the youth ministry, making a difference in the kids’ lives, building the future of the church. Once upon a time, she’d been eager to live out all the public relations lingo Marnie used to recruit volunteer chaperones. Then Marnie shut her out, first telling Olivia she was too young to be a counselor and then four years later that she was too old. In short, Marnie didn’t want Olivia to be part of “the gang.” It felt like high school all over again.

Except now, Marnie needed her.

“I can’t. I’ve got plans with a friend.” Olivia reveled in knowing it wasn’t an excuse or a lie. She was supposed to see Rindell that night and she’d already promised Jennifer she’d go with her up to Anastasia State Park on Saturday, to help her find that little girl’s aunt. Olivia had a full weekend that didn’t include work or quilts.

Marnie didn’t even blink. “You could always reschedule with your friend. Double Cross only comes once a year and you can’t reschedule something special like that.”

“I’m sorry. I can’t.” Olivia didn’t care if her bulldog was showing. Marnie’s opportunism was so distasteful now that she could see the underbelly of it.

Two hours later, Marnie sent in the big guns. Pastor Lou poked his head into Olivia’s cubicle, peering at her over the top of his glasses.

“I hate to put you on the spot, Olivia, but I’d like to ask you to do something for me.”

“Double Cross?”

“The difficulty,” Pastor Lou said, in the same voice he used to cajole the deacons board, “is that there’s no time for us to clear someone through the volunteer protocols. You, however, have already been through it, and you’re already on the insurance for the van.”

Olivia didn’t repeat what she’d said to Marnie, that she already had plans. She didn’t mention that she felt pressed into service, taken advantage of, taken for granted.

She said, “Okay, but I have to pack.”

At the hotel in Orlando, the other counselors and youths trundled their luggage down to their rooms. Olivia followed and discovered the full horror of what she’d been strong-armed into. She would be sharing a room with three teenage girls she barely knew. The adjoining suite held three more girls and another chaperone, Amy, one of the cool kids from the Young Couples Bible Study Group.

“We’re in for an adventure,” Amy said chummily, touching up her make-up.

“Yeah.” Olivia wasn’t surprised when they reached the concert venue that she was made to play the adult while Amy went off to chat with Marnie. Olivia was stuck doling out dinner money, corralling teenagers, and being asked, “Will you keep my lip gloss/cell phone/hairbrush/wallet in your purse?”

The music was nothing like the Christian bands of Olivia’s youth, but she preferred the unintelligible lyrics to the MC’s strident voice between bands.

“Give it up for Jesus!” he screeched, encouraging the kids to yell as loudly as they could. “You wanna know who the coolest guy in the world is? It’s Jesus. He’s your best friend, your study partner. He’s the man. Who da man?”

The answer came back in chorus: “Jesus is da man!”

It was all more slickly polished than it had been in Olivia’s day, and she covered her ears to make it bearable. From somewhere in her purse a cell phone vibrated. As she reached into the bag, searching for a phone that was probably not hers, she glanced up and saw two teenagers pressed together against a wall. They were wrapped around each other, kissing feverishly. The boy was a stranger. Or at least Olivia didn’t recognize the back of his floppy blond hair or his sagging jeans, but the girl was one of her own. Erica, in a tiny pink camisole that barely contained her breasts.

“Oh crap,” Olivia said out loud in the din of screaming guitars and teenagers. Her first ever outing as a youth group chaperone and she’d lost a sheep to the wolves.

Her first instinct was to wait for a more experienced counselor to intervene. Her second instinct was to march smartly over to the girl and give her a stern talking to—no, that was more of a fantasy than an instinct. Olivia did in fact take two steps toward the girl, but came up short when the contents of the “stern talking to” failed to materialize.

Her third instinct was to scurry through the crowd and tell Marnie. She found the youth director dancing in the middle of a circle of kids from Church of the Palms. At first Marnie smiled and waved obliviously. Only after Olivia made multiple gestures to her did she approach, frowning.

Leaning close, Olivia shouted into Marnie’s ear, “There’s a problem.”

“What kind of problem?”

“One of the girls is making out with some guy.”

Marnie was all responsible adult then. She followed Olivia back through the crowds, and promptly went into action. With a flurry of gestures and words Olivia couldn’t hear, Marnie separated Erica from the boy and herded her toward the Church of the Palms crowd. She did it without a single glance at Olivia, leaving her alone on the fringe of the crowd with her vibrating purse.

Back at the hotel, Olivia had plenty of time to repent not following her second instinct/fantasy. Marnie and Amy shut all six girls up in one suite with another chaperone and then they rounded on Olivia.

“How long was it going on before you came to get me?” Marnie said.

“I don’t know. I came and got you as soon as I saw it.” Olivia was as stupidly surprised at the contempt in the question as she had been in high school, facing down the random viciousness of cheerleaders.

“Why didn’t you intervene?”

“I didn’t know what to say,” Olivia said.

“How about ‘stop’?”

“We covered this last week,” Amy said. “We talked about abstinence in group last week.”

“I’m not a regular counselor. I don’t go to group.” Olivia hated how plaintive she sounded.

“Well, you can’t let them go off by themselves. You have to stay close to them,” Amy said.

“I can’t believe you didn’t reach out to Selena.” Marnie shook her head in disappointment.

Selena. Not Erica.

“I don’t know her,” Olivia said.

“You should have done something.” Marnie and Amy shook their heads in unison. That robotic self-satisfaction finally roused Olivia to anger.

“You asked me to do this as a favor!”

Marnie was silent for a moment and then in a low, sneaky voice, she said, “I won’t make that mistake again.”

She breezed back through the adjoining suite door and, on the other side, she said, “Everybody gather around. We need to talk about something that happened tonight.”

Olivia and Amy stood in the doorway, watching as Marnie wove her web around a teary-eyed Selena. In a few minutes they were all hugging and crying and saying, “We love you, Selena. We want you to love yourself. We want you to respect yourself.”

In Olivia’s ear, Amy whispered, “Isn’t she amazing? She’s so good with them. It makes me so happy to think she’ll protect them from the mistake I made.”

When Olivia glanced at her, Amy looked away, maybe regretting the confession. She separated herself from Olivia and fell into the arms of the crying, praying monster of teenage girls. Olivia stayed where she was, watching the circle she hadn’t been invited into and never would be.

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Back in my youth, I worked for the international literary magazine, Kansas Quarterly, as an intern. Alas, KQ met an undignified end after more than eighty years of publishing great poetry and short fiction. My former professor and good friend, G.W. Clift, recently decided to resurrect Kansas Quarterly on his blog Twisterish. I’m very happy to be included in the inaugural edition of the reborn Kansas Quarterly, with my short story Middle Spring and After.

***

Tenny had been the sheriff’s deputy for all of two months the first time he noticed Mrs. Gable standing in front of the hardware store, smoking a cigarette at midnight. Six blocks north, Main Street petered out to millions of acres of winter wheat stubble, and there was nothing to stop the wind coming off the Rockies two hundred miles away. Watching Mrs. Gables’ coat and skirt whipping around her legs, Tenny shivered despite the heat the Ford’s big engine put out. He pulled the patrol car over to the curb and leaned across to crank down the passenger window.

“Everything alright?” he called.

“Everything’s just fine, Tenny. Or should I say, ’Deputy Wills?‘”

“Ain’t it a little cold to be out here? Hardware store don’t open for another eight hours.” He smiled, embarrassed by how thin the joke was.

“You know, I live upstairs. Just wanted some fresh air.” Her voice sounded rough, from the cold or the cigarette.

“You sure everything’s alright?”

Her smile faded, settled into deep lines around her mouth. Stamping out her cigarette, she stepped away from the building and leaned down to look in the window of the prowler. Except for her lipstick, she looked sickly pale.

“I suppose you want a freebie like Carlson used to get,” she said. “Only thing, you can’t pull up here like this. Carlson used to park up behind the service station, walk down here. And you can’t–you can’t be takin’ advantage of it. I got bills to pay. I can’t always do it for free.”

Headlights bloomed in the rearview mirror of the patrol car, another vehicle coming up the empty street. Tenny glanced back as the car passed through the intersection at Main and Ninth. Overhead the wind swung the traffic light that went to flashing red after dark. The vehicle slowed as it approached the prowler and passed in the oncoming lane. Newer Chevy pickup, maybe a ’61 or ’62. Mrs. Gable turned her head to follow the taillights up the street and around the corner.

To read the rest of the story, visit Kansas Quarterly… and be sure to check out the other stories in this issue, from Grant Tracey and Darren DeFrain.

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It’s true. I am that writer this year. My second novel, Lie Lay Lain, was due to my publisher back in *mumblemumble* but then it got to be *mumblemumble* and it still wasn’t done. In truth, I’m embarrassed at how long it took me to finish this book, particularly in light of the fact that I originally started it in 2005. I’ve managed to finish six books and start four others in the last seven years, but for some reason this book was taking forever.

Sometimes you can’t provide yourself with the proper motivation on your own. That’s where friends come in. Specifically my friend Clovia, who has many aliases, but who has now assumed the mantle of Crafty One. Bitch is crafty, yo.

While I was wading through the swamps of Lie Lay Lain, the Crafty One began to send me chocolate. At first the chocolate was a bribe. If I wrote, I got chocolate. Eventually, when the writing began to stand up for itself, and no longer had to be cajoled out of me, the chocolate was a reward. At each major milestone, I got more chocolate.

At last, at long last, I finished a draft of the book I wasn’t ashamed to send to my publisher. These things inevitably occasion revisions. (Why can’t a book ever come out right the first time. WHYYYY?) As I settle into revision, however, I received my final package from the Crafty One. What could it be?

Award1

I removed the contents of the package under strict instructions to open the boxes in order.

In box number: a tuxedo and evening gown clad audience of chocolate squares.

In box #1: my admiring audience

In box #1: my admiring audience

In box #2: this evening’s hosts.

In box #2: black tie presenters

In box #2: black tie presenters

In box #3: my major award (it’s FRAGILE!)

In box #3: my award

In box #3: my award

The Crafty One is calling this the Bjorn Bear Award for Best Performance by a Writer Who Didn’t Wanna. And it was true, for many months, I dragged my feet on finishing the book. Often because I didn’t wanna come face to face with possible failure.

Award5

A major award!

Of course, here’s a shot of the ceremony as it unfolded:

The envelope, please.

The envelope, please.

As great as the awards ceremony is, though, everybody knows the real fun takes place at the after-parties.

Award7

Peep!

Even though it may just be you and your laptop or you and your Clairefontaine journal when the heavy lifting gets done, sometimes it takes more than just a writer to finish a book. It takes a whole village. Or at least a whole village worth of chocolate bears.

I post this magnificent project for two reasons:

1.) To make you insanely jealous. Seriously, can you believe she made all of this and sent it to me?

2.) To remind you that friendship is still the most amazing thing that can happen between two people. Thanks, Clovia. Those times when there was just the one set of footprints in the sand, I know it was you pushing my drunk ass in a wheelbarrow.

*Of course, this is only the annual awarding of Most Reluctant Writer. The lifetime achievement awards go to far more reluctant writers than I.

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Less this kind of tabloid

I used to be embarrassed by my tabloid habit. Why did I love reading schlocky sensationalist stories? A part of me absolutely cringes at the rabidity with which people follow some of the top tabloid stories. And think of how eager vast swaths of America is to watch reality shows about people with truly fucked up lives. We’ve entrenched the phrases “train wreck” and “can’t look away” into our language. The part of me that cringes thinks humans must be ghouls to want to read about children raised in dog kennels and young women locked up in dungeons and families that fall apart around their parents myriad indiscretions. Why do we want to misery and misfortune and suffering as entertainment?

The less cringe-inclined part of me has a ready answer: it’s all part of our story.

All the things that humans do to themselves and to each other in the pursuit of their lives, it’s all part of the human experience. Of course, we’re curious about it. There but for the grace of [insert cosmic intermediary of your choice here] go we. We could be the train wreck tomorrow. We could be the victim whose blood stains the sidewalk on the 10 o’clock news. We could be the confused person covering her head with a jacket as she runs from her lawyer’s car to the courthouse. It could be us, and so we want to prepare ourselves for it. We want to look at the train wreck and imagine how we would handle such things.

Some people are inclined to use their vantage point for judgment. Well, that’s what she gets for leaving her toddler alone! Well, that’s what he gets for marrying her. Well, that’s what happens when you live that kind of life.

For me, my interest in these tragedies are all about the question “And what then?” As with any trauma, people have to choose how they deal with the aftermath. That is a thing that never ceases to interest me. And so I find myself reading the Daily Mail, ferreting for details about the young man who was starved and imprisoned in his own home for years, before being put on a bus to California. What becomes of him now? What about the guy in a sham green card marriage who coerced his older, wealthy lover to enter into a sham marriage with his mother to get her a green card? Or the woman in Ohio who learned after her husband’s death that the man she was married to was actually her father, too. Once you get beyond the titillation, you have the opportunity to look right in the face of human experience and wonder, how does a person process this revelation, integrate this knowledge into her psyche, and go on with her life? These are important questions.

More like this kind of tabloid

Not all traumas are as traumatic as that young man’s life. Not all secrets are as shocking as learning you married your father, but when you explore the fallout from that sort of secret, you’re exploring general ways in which people handle these things. (In this case, Ms. Spruill is choosing to go public, to seek out other siblings lost in the turmoil of her mother’s life.)

As a writer, I think that’s why I go on being obsessed with these stories. Possibly I’m just making excuses for my interest, but when I read these stories I believe I’m fueling my understanding of humanity. These things happen to real people and real people must deal with them. So while I have not yet written a story about a woman who marries her father, nor do I particularly plan to, I have definitely written stories about people who uncover secrets they wish they hadn’t.

I don’t think my urge to read tabloids is any different from a writer of murder mysteries researching ways to dispose of a body. It seems morbid and creepifying, but it serves the story. People do commit murder and hide the bodies. People who write about these things need to peer into that dark place. Those of us who write about more tame aspects of human experience, we still need to inquire into the extremity of life’s shocks and surprises.

So I’ll carry on with my tabloid habit, still a little ashamed but convinced it’s research. How about you?

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Today’s teaser is from a work in progress. I’m not yet sure what it’s all about, but at least some of it is about hunger. This is a chapter or so in, but I think you’ll figure fairly quickly who the players are. I used to be troubled by detailed food descriptions in books, but my friend Dana Fredsti has sufficiently brought to her point of view that I’m giving it a go.

***

When Willie finally returned with the bucket, Jing put water on to boil and made what she called soup, but was a nearer relation to tea: boiling water with a sprinkling of dried ginger, a shriveled clove of garlic, and salt. There was no shortage of salt. They were surrounded by it.

Always before there had been something to put into the soup-tea. Some rice or barley or even wheat. A few wilted leaves of greens. Something. Willie stared into his bowl of hot, fragrant water with a new look. An older look. He drank. In a moment, in a mouthful of salty water, he was grown up.

“Tomorrow, before you ask Kwok Menglu for work, I want you to go early to look for coal. Be careful of the trains, but get coal for Zhang Zoek, too. As much coal as you can pick up and bring home. Cold is coming.”

“It’s already cold,” Willie said.

“It’s coming worse. It always does. Do you remember winter before last, when the snow came in the gap of the roof?”

Willie frowned. He didn’t remember. He was still young.

“After you finish your soup, I want you to carry some coal to Zhang Zoek. Take some of ours and light her stove.”

Daydreaming of soup

A few swallows later, he set his bowl on the floor and went to the hearth to gather a handful of coals. While he was gone, Jing opened the battered crate that served as their linen cupboard. Much of what remained were things that had belonged to their mother, that they couldn’t yet bring themselves to sell. None of Jing’s clothes were nice enough to wear to the train depot. She wore the same things to the laundry every day. A plain gray shirt with stains from drops of bluing. A pair of blue trousers with a band of striped mattress ticking sewn on the bottoms to make them long enough. She had grown up but not out in the last four years. A patched wool jacket with the elbows gone threadbare enough to show the cotton wadding inside completed her winter wardrobe. In her own clothes, Jing would look exactly like what she was: desperate.

Among her mother’s clothing she found a plain cotton nightdress, a blue and white embroidered silk jacket that had only three repairs, a heavy quilted wool skirt that could have served as a bed cover on a very large bed, and a pair of her father’s boots. Too large but not by a great deal if she stuffed rags in the toes. The slippers she wore at the laundry would never carry her the distance to the train station.

Jing was trying it all on when Willie returned. His eyes opened wide and he cried out. Not bothering to shut the door, he ran to her and threw his arms around her waist.

“Granny was right! She said you were leaving!”

“No, I’m not leaving.”

“But you’re putting on clothes to go away.”

His fear frightened her, but she made herself push him away. She went to the open door and closed it, before turning back to try to calm him. He stood at the hearth, tears on his cheeks, his raw red hands hanging at his sides. Did Kwok Menglu already have him working in the bleach room?

“In the morning, I am walking to the train station, to ask about a job. A good job. Then I will come back. I’ll bring food,” Jing said. She hoped that was true. Any food would be a good omen.

“You’re not leaving?”

“I’m not leaving, Wei Lian. I’m only going to work the same way I go to work every morning.”

In that way, Jing talked him out of tears and under the quilt on the lone bed. With her mother’s soft voice she made sparkling stories about the food they would eat when she had a new job. Snowy mountain ranges of rice, pocked with carrots and onions, like boulders on a cliff face. Great vats of egg flower soup, the egg tendrils dancing like seaweed on the tide. Dumplings as plump as pillows, full of nose-tickling steam and cabbage like shredded silk scarves studded with jewels of fatty pork.

Her stomach protested the sumptuous but empty meal, but she went on talking until the fire died down and Willie slept.

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It didn’t take long for the initial reports out of Miami to turn into a roar of “Zombie Apocalypse!” People didn’t even wait to hear the details. Give us a man eating another man’s face and we will run with it, even if it requires us to make a joke out of what looks like a tragedy in the cold light of day. Why?

Because we need stories. As zombies love brains, as meat loves salt, people love narrative. We thrive on narrative, because it holds back chaos. It introduces order and meaning and structure. Narrative is at the heart of religion, for example. Humans invented religion to explain things they didn’t understand. Not sure what lightning is? Make a story about a god who uses it to punish people. Voila! Order out of chaos. Not sure what happens after we die? Frightened by the uncertainty? A good story explains away the uncertainty. Don’t worry, you’ll come to a river, where you’ll have to pay a boatmen to ferry you across. If you’ve been good, you’ll go to a beautiful meadow. If you’ve been bad, you’ll go to terrible place of torment.

Without narrative, we have to stare down the chaos of life. Instead of zombie apocalypse and its offer of freedom and survival of the cleverest, we end up with some unfortunate man with a patchy history of bad and desperate behavior who took a drug and did terrible thing, and it means nothing. That’s one of the scariest phrases in the English language–it means nothing. That’s why as crazy as it sounds, we like the idea of “zombie apocalypse” better than we like the sound of “random act of gruesome violence.”

Fear of meaninglessness is why people start charities. To honor a loved one who died of cancer. To protect people from the fate of a loved one killed in a drunk driving accident or a kidnapping or some other horrible, random act. The stunned and wounded people the dead leave behind want death to mean something. They don’t want it to be brutish and random and meaningless.

And so narrative becomes the savior. Random horrible death becomes a story. The cancer victim becomes a valiant hero whose death will encourage others to walk for a cure! (Until bad PR causes problems with that narrative.) The guy with his face eaten off, he’s the start of the long-awaited zombie apocalypse!

This is why I laugh at people who bemoan the encroachments of reality television. As though it were reality.  Other people complain that reality television is scripted. The outrage! You mean the producers are manipulating the show to produce more drama? They’re–dare I say it–crafting a narrative? Kim & Kris weren’t really in love? They were just acting?

Our love of narrative is the reason we will never tire of telling stories. Books aren’t dead. Cinema isn’t dying. Yes, it’s probably going to change, but not so much we won’t be able to recognize it. Sleep for a thousand years and return to civilization and there will still be stories you recognize. In fact, they’re likely to be the same stories told a thousand years ago, even if we use new technologies to tell them. Stories will never end, because we need them to understand our own chaotic lives.

You mean it’s not real?!?! NOOOOOOOO!!!!!

To my mind, one of the more interesting things about “reality tv” is that it’s all about the self-narrative. The characters create themselves as the show goes on. Like deeply imbedded improvisation. I know that as a culture we like to dismiss reality tv stars as narcissists, but imagine what it would be like to have a TV crew filming your life. Think of the ways that your life could be manipulated to tell a cohesive narrative arc. Think of how you would want to create and reveal your own character. For extra credit, consider what kinds of freedom to do and say what you want might be born out that scripted narrative. Show your work.

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Well, here’s the official day … Last Will is out in the wild. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, direct from the publisher, Stairway Press.

I’m feeling a little excited and slightly anxious. After all, the first inevitable bad review must come. I’ll feel better when it’s over. So far the nicest thing is how supportive and helpful people have been. I’ve discussed this with other folks, but I’ll say it again: with very few exceptions, book people are good people.

So far, the funniest part of the process has been my family’s reaction. I’ve been writing most of my life. They know I write. They’ve badgered me for years about when was I going to sell a book and become a millionaire. (No amount of me explaining the publishing industry has disabused them of the notion that publishing is almost as random as the lottery, and my odds of “winning” are about the same.)

Now that I finally have a book coming out, they’ve been on this see-saw of excitement and dread.

My mother, holding the book in her hand and frowning: I’m not going to be shocked, am I?

Well, you’ve know me for forty years. If I can still shock you, I’ll be pleased, but I kinda doubt it.

My sister, calling me immediately after she finished reading: OMG!!! I really really liked it! I was worried that I wouldn’t, because … you know, but I really do!

Because … I’m a weirdo? Who writes weird things? Or because you weren’t sure I was any good at it?

My cousin: I’m not in there, am I?

Only if you’re an alcoholic alien abductee or a beauty queen or an elderly rich woman. Are you?

In summation: the book isn’t all that weird, I think it’s competently written, and I didn’t base the characters off my family.

Alas, the book is out, but I’m not yet a millionaire, so I better quit futzing around here and get back to work. Cheers! And I hope you enjoy it.

PS: the contest winners’ books are going in the mail today!

 

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