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Posts Tagged ‘Jesse Joe Kellen’

This weekend while thrifting, I found this little piece of American history: the moon landing. It made me think, as it always does, about the incredible bravery required to undertake a thing like that. I also laughed a little, remembering how I used to get rid of overly pushy guys at college parties by telling them I thought the moon landing was a hoax. This worked in the 80s. I think now you’d either find yourself in a debate or worse, talking to a true believer. (When the flat earth society is a real thing again, there seem to be more and more folks who truly believe in a lot of oddball conspiracy theories.)

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The Apollo 11 plate also made me think about a question I frequently get from readers of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things: how did I create Wavy? I always wish that I had a simple answer, or even a complex but straightforward answer. The truth is that my characters mainly create themselves out of the random detritus that fills my brain. For example, Wavy’s name is an amalgam of two real people. I had a great-great-aunt whose nickname was Wavy and a babysitter whose name was Wyvonna. Put those two things together in my head for 40 years, and when a strange little girl stepped out of hayfield to watch a man on a motorcycle ride past, her name was Wavy. I didn’t consciously give her the name. That was just her name, from the very first draft of the first scene I wrote. When Kellen wrecked his bike and sent this little girl to call for help, he asked for her name. Before I knew anything about her, her answer was Wavonna. I also knew that Kellen, concussed and bleeding, heard only the first syllable, and so misunderstood her name and subsequently gave her a nickname that stuck. I didn’t plan any of that or make any conscious decisions about it. It just was.

I know absolutely that Wavy’s grandmother had this plate in her house. Lots of people had this plate, but not many of them would have viewed it as magical. For Wavy, six years old, thrust into a new house again, living with another stranger, the discovery of this plate connected her to her old life.

She was born on July 19, 1969, so to find a plate that marked the day after and marked such an important milestone in space exploration, it seemed like a sign to her. Proof that this was going to be her home, that her grandmother was someone she could trust.

What of that old life? Where did Wavy’s original connection to the stars come from? Her neighbor Mr. Arsenikos, who first taught her the constellations. That connection is very much about the seemingly minor detail of Wavy’s birthday as well. That first day she met Mr. Arsenikos, she was a small girl, just four, and afraid to be at home while her parents fought. Imagine knowing it’s your birthday, but having no one in your life act like it’s important, until you stumble across the old man living next door, for whom that day is also special. As Wavy notes, Mr. Arsenikos was a sailor aboard the WWI-era USS San Diego which struck a German mine and sank on July 19, 1918. The day is important to them for different reasons, but all the same, it creates a bond that is the start of Wavy’s love of astronomy.

That connection is at the heart of why she forges a bond with Kellen, a stranger who wrecks his bike right in front of her. It’s another birthday, forgotten by all by Wavy, this time made special by the universe delivering an injured giant in conjunction with the rare planetary alignment that assisted the Voyager 1 and 2 launches that same summer. For someone like Wavy, it’s another sign that she’s supposed to make that great leap of trusting someone new. She doesn’t necessarily know why it’s important, but she feels it.

This is how characters come to life for me, out of bits and pieces that ultimately fit together and mean something to the character. Rarely do I know anything about a character until they’ve walked into a scene and spoken. (Or not spoken, as the case may be.) It’s part of the magic of writing for me.

(July 19th is also Lizzie Borden’s birthday and the day in 1595 when astronomer Johannes Kepler developed a geometrical theory to explain the movement of the planets.)

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I’ve talked publicly about my hate mail, but today I want to talk about something that continues to give me joy, and renders hate mail irrelevant. Fan mail is great. It’s lovely to get letters from folks who connected with the book and wrestled with the issues it tackles.

The letters that get to me, though, aren’t necessarily fan mail. They’re usually longer than my other letters and emails, because these stories require more words. These are from people who didn’t just sympathize with Wavy and Kellen. These are from people who say, “This was me.”

People who know what it’s like to be in a relationship that everybody else looks down on. What it’s like to be in love with someone who is way too young or way too old for you, according to our society’s standards. What it’s like to lie about that relationship for years or sometimes your whole life. What it’s like to lose that relationship. What it’s like to finally make it legitimate.

People who’ve had to listen while others lectured them. Who’ve been told they must be confused, because they were too young to consent or even understand their feelings. Who’ve been told they need counseling. People who’ve been forcibly labeled a victim, and even as adults been refused even the most basic dignity of being believed.

If you’re out there, feeling those things, you’re not the only one.

When I met him, I was ten and he was nineteen, starts one of the letters I’ve received. I knew immediately that he was The One, even though it took us more than fifteen years to be together.

From another letter: We were twelve years apart and we never got to be together, because everyone said I was too young.

And another: On my eighteenth birthday, I went to his house and said, “I’ve been in love with you since I was thirteen years old.” He said, “I know. I’ve been waiting for you.” We got married three years later–it took us that long to bring my parents around. In February, we celebrated his fortieth birthday and our fifth anniversary.

Not all of them go the way you think they will: She was twenty-five and I was fourteen. She moved away because she was ashamed. She thought it was wrong to feel that way about me. Two years ago, I found her and wrote a letter. She had been married and divorced twice. She said she never got over me. If I wasn’t in prison, we would be together now.

Some of them just about break my heart. I felt like a horrible old pervert when I fell in love with her. Like in Lolita. She was only thirteen and I was over thirty. We were fast friends all through her high school years, and I always played the avuncular neighbor. She got married in my backyard. I’m her son’s godfather. When she was thirty-two she was diagnosed with cancer. After her health declined, she moved back home, next door to me. One day I brought by food and flowers from my backyard. Her parents went to the store and left us alone together. She confessed that she had always been in love with me, but her mother had shamed her out of saying so on the eve of her wedding a decade before. You can probably imagine what my answer was. Two weeks later, I lost the only woman I’ve ever loved to cancer. There is still a hole in my heart from everything that was destroyed by doubt and fear. I’m seventy-three now, still a bachelor. She would be fifty-five, and no one would give us so much as a sideways glance if we were married.

These are just a few of the stories people have shared with me (and agreed to have shared), and the reason they shared them with me is simple. My book has let them know that they’re not alone. They’re not the only one who has experienced this kind of relationship. Some of my readers have carried that shame or heartbreak or even joy in secret for years.

This is one more reminder that stories matter, especially stories that we see ourselves in. It’s a reminder, too, that writing is risk. When I wrote All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I didn’t know what people would think. I knew that some people would hate the book and me by extension, but I also know the story was true for me. I told it as honestly as I could, and I knew that alongside the haters, there would also be readers for whom the story was true. I knew I wasn’t the only one.

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One of the questions I get asked a lot is How do you choose which point of view to write a scene from? The answer is complicated, because I almost never write a scene from just one character’s POV. If there are three characters in a scene, odds are good that I’ve written a version of that scene from each of their POVs. This is very true of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. I wrote multiple versions of nearly every scene in the book.

As for how I chose which version ended up in the book, that was influenced by several factors: the way characters’ perspectives affected the plot, the way revelations affect character development, and above all, the reaction I wanted readers to have to a scene. With some scenes, it was easy to decide. For others, I spent weeks wrestling with the decision. Perhaps the hardest choice I made was who was going to narrate the events of Kellen’s 26th birthday, or as it’s sometimes referred to: the infamous handjob scene. For this month’s newsletter, the bonus scene from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is the flip side to that birthday, that night from Wavy’s POV.

That scene is split into two sections–Kellen’s birthday dinner and the aftermath. In the published version, both segments are narrated by him, and I made that decision in order to balance readers on the edge of a knife. I wanted them to see Kellen in a new light. I wanted to reveal certain elements of Wavy’s personality that would echo back to other parts of the book. Most importantly, I wanted readers to feel the emotional impact of that night deeply, but I didn’t want to destroy them. Not yet anyway.

Kellen’s telling of his birthday is extraordinarily painful in a way that Wavy’s version isn’t. On that night, he comes face to face with the nature of his feelings for Wavy and with his own failure to protect her. As he hasn’t until that moment, he understands that this relationship that has expanded to fill so much of his life is not as simple as it should be. I wanted readers to come away from that scene feeling winded and a little scorched, and even doubting Kellen. After all, that’s how he’s feeling when it’s over.

I feared that telling the scene from Wavy’s POV would have too little impact. On that night, she is testing out what it will mean for her to become a woman. She is investigating her own powers of attraction and attempting to change the dynamics of her relationship with Kellen. Honestly, in rereading this scene from her POV, she comes off as pretty flippant about it all. She is unprepared for the damage it’s going to do to Kellen. Told from her POV, the scene is not devastating enough.

Conversely, the aftermath of that ill-fated handjob, told from her perspective, is too devastating. Kellen is already trying to calculate the trajectory of this moment, and looking ahead to the future. He is negotiating with himself how he will mitigate the harm he’s done. There is an element of calm, or at least a veneer of calm over his shame and his rage.

Wavy’s horror-stricken narration, however, reveals the effects of childhood full of shame and self-loathing. Naked and shivering in that bathtub, she is stripped bare emotionally to a little girl whose worst fears have been realized: she’s dirty and unlovable. Every bit of confidence she gained from Kellen’s kindness is gone. It left me as the writer feeling ravaged and hopeless. I feared it would do the same to readers, when I most needed them to have the strength to go on.

Having had a little glimpse behind the scenes of my writing process, I’m curious what readers will make of the choice I made.

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I’ve had a not-so-secret dread of family gatherings ever since I was a child, and the holidays are a special kind of hell. For most of my life, Thanksgiving and Christmas involved herds of people who had some blood claim on me, crowded into a too-small house for hours on end. As a child, I can remember hiding out in a variety of places to avoid being forcibly squeezed in between a burly cousin who liked to tickle me, and an aunt who liked to pick scabs. It’s been my experience that it’s your family who most often feel totally okay about violating your consent with forcible contact.

all-the-cousinsFamily gatherings have always seemed like a recipe for an introvert’s nervous breakdown. Being forced to socialize, make pleasantries, endure hugs and kisses, be quizzed about your life, your love life, your profession, your very existence.

Over the years, my family herd has thinned, as the elderly members died, and my generation failed to reproduce in the numbers necessary to pack a room. As those blood relations died, we replaced them in smaller numbers with friends, until this Thanksgiving, there were more non-relatives than relatives. Someone remarked on this, and on the importance of being able to form your own family from people you’re not related to.

This struck me as wildly funny, since that is the very nature of marriage: forming a family with someone you’re not related to. It’s what we do, so why does it so often strike us as strange or modern to bring outsiders to our family table? After all, we’re building families around strangers, when we marry them. To me, the joy of holidays with non-relatives is that I’m allowed to set boundaries with people who aren’t my family.

I think about this today, sandwiched as it is between Thanksgiving and Christmas, because of the deleted scene from All the Ugly and Wonderful Things that I’m sending out in my December newsletter. It’s about what happens after that awkward Christmas dinner at which Wavy’s ragtag family is reunited. It’s about making truces, setting boundaries, and agreeing on ground rules for all the future gatherings you have to face with people you don’t particularly like, but who are your family.

If you haven’t signed up for my newsletter, you can do so here. Or you can read newsletter content here.

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If you saw me at any of my recent events, you may have heard me admit that the first draft of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things weighed in at a hefty 200,000 words. Nearly 80,000 words more than the final, published version.

So what became of those roughly 300 pages that I whittled off? I’ve been saving them in a file called Lost Scenes. What’s in there? All the stuff I wrote that just never quite had a place in the book. Some of it I was sad to cut. Some of it I knew I wouldn’t be able to use, even as I wrote it.

How can you get your hands on those deleted scenes?

I’m sending them out to my newsletter subscribers, so step one: sign up for my newsletter.

I’ll be sending out deleted scenes as I hit certain review numbers on Goodreads and Amazon. (Darn it! There is a catch.) So step two: leave me a review, please. I’ll send out the first deleted scene when ATUAWT hits 1,000 reviews on Goodreads, another when it hits 200 reviews on Amazon, and another if it hits 50 reviews on Barnes & Noble.

Basically, the more reviews I have, the happier my publisher is, and the happier my publisher is, the more likely they are to want to buy another book from me. I believe that’s a win-win, if you enjoyed ATUAWT.

If you’ve already done steps 1 and 2, and you’re killing time, you can also vote in this poll to help decide which scenes I send out first. You can vote for up to three.

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Fairly early on in All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, Kellen gets arrested while he’s out drag racing with Wavy. The deputy who picks them up tries to make an overture of friendship toward Wavy. It’s clear that he thinks something is wrong with the situation and that she is in need of protection.

deputy sheriff… before we could walk out, the deputy reached across the desk and handed me a piece of paper.

“If you ever need anything, Wavy Quinn, you call me,” he said. That’s what was written on the paper, his name—Deputy Leon Vogel—and his phone number. I stuck it in my pocket and followed Kellen outside to the car.

Later, when Wavy’s parents are doing drugs and fighting, some of my early readers asked me to explain why Wavy wouldn’t call the police. I was startled, because it hadn’t occurred to me that for many people, calling the police would seem like the solution to a problem, rather than a whole other problem. The same people who have sometimes wondered how I could have kept my mouth shut as a kid, knowing my father was manufacturing and selling meth. I realized I needed to include an explanation in Wavy’s narrative, to help people understand.

Deputy Vogel told me to call him if I ever needed something. It’s what they taught in school, too. They said the police were there to help you, but I don’t think they knew what happened when the police came to your house. Cops ruin everything. They kick in the front door, throw people on the floor and handcuff them. They break things and steal things. They lock you in a patrol car, make you spend all night in the police station wearing your nightgown, and then send you home with strangers. That’s why I would never call Deputy Vogel, no matter how much Mama and Liam fought. I’d thrown away the paper with his number as soon as he gave it to me, because I remembered what happened the last time the police came to our house.

There are kids who call the police on their parents. I knew a few when I was younger, and you sometimes read about it in the news, like this 10-year-old boy in Pennsylvania. I hate to see those stories, because I can imagine how bad things must be at home when calling the police seems like the only escape. When taking a chance on strangers seems less dangerous than continuing to trust your parents. I can’t help but think of Victoria Martens from my post last week, and wondering if there was ever a point where she considered calling the police. If she ever had a chance.

Wavy chooses the devil she knows over the uncertainties of going into foster care, and the likely risk of being separated from her brother and from Kellen. As the story progresses, she begins looking for other ways to escape her parents, and so do real kids in these situations. It’s worth remembering that their solutions don’t always make sense to those of us on the outside. That doesn’t mean their solutions are inherently wrong. They’re just outside our understanding.

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Sometimes when I’m talking about All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, I have a hard time trying to get across the point that there are worse things that can happen to a girl raised around drug addicts. For a lot of readers, Wavy’s life seems utterly horrific, as is her relationship with what one person described as a “drug-dealing bike thug with a violent, hair-trigger temper.” Even as I wrote Wavy’s story, though, I was carrying in the back of my mind the knowledge that things could have been so much worse for her. As bad as Wavy’s parents are, there are far worse monsters out there.

Victoria-MartensToday, the morning news contained a visceral reminder of that. Here is the story of Victoria Martens. Drugged, raped, and murdered by her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and the boyfriend’s cousin. This is real life, not fiction, and it illustrates the absolute most horrific thing that can happen to a child when the adults in her life are drug addicts who have lost touch with reality, decency, and respect for human life.

And while the news doesn’t mention it, these people are drug addicts. Casual users of drugs pop pills or snort coke, like they’ve seen in the movies. Casual drug users don’t keep the necessary equipment to inject a 10-year-old girl with meth so that their boyfriends can rape her on her birthday. (I have no interest in parsing the details of who did the injecting, raping, murdering. If her mother was there for it and could have intervened, she as good as did it all herself.)

So while I will be the first person to acknowledge that Wavy’s relationship with Kellen is neither ideal nor desirable for a young girl, I also tend to look at it from the slant of other little girls’ tragedies. I wish every girl in this situation could simply get out of it and go to a safe home to live with responsible, loving adults. Failing that–and as a society, we are failing that–I wish all the girls in this situation had at least one person to provide them with unconditional love and protection. I wish the Wavies of the world could always have a Kellen in some form or another, but so often they don’t.

Love and peace to you, Victoria.

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