Posts Tagged ‘kansas’

Despite some doubts along the way, it turns out that I really wrote this book, my amazing agent really took a chance on it, my incredible editor really bought it, and it’s really for sale today!


It’s for sale pretty much everywhere in North America: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, IndieBound, Books-A-Million, plus maybe even your local bookstore. If they don’t have it, they can order it for you.

Now, obviously, I love this book with all my heart, but you don’t have to take my word on whether it’s worth reading. Here are some of my reviews:

Kirkus Reviews called it a “powerful, provocative debut” and “Intelligent, honest, and unsentimental.”

Publishers Weekly says it’s “a memorable coming-of-age tale about loyalty, defiance, and the power of love under the most improbable circumstances.”

Library Journal said the book is “so freakishly good and dangerous that it should come with a warning label.” I’m pretty sure they mean that in a good way.

The Associated Press calls it “captivating and smartly written from the first page … instantly absorbing.” But they also warn would-be readers that “This book won’t pull at heartstrings but instead yank out the entire organ and shake it about before lodging it back in an unfamiliar position.”

Tonight I’ll be having a book release party at the lovely Lawrence Public Library at 7:30 pm. (Co-hosted by The Raven Book Store.) If you’re in the area, come on out!

Tomorrow night, I’ll be at Rainy Day Books in Kansas City. If you’re long distance and want to purchase a signed copy, you can order one through them.

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First order of business: announcing the winners of my book and book swag giveaway. Congratulations to Sue S. and Evann A.! Check your email for information about claiming your prizes.

Second order of business: quietly freak out that it’s only 5 weeks until All the Ugly and Wonderful Things is loose in the wild. Today, at least, I’m opting to quietly freak out. We’ll see if I can continue that level of calm as the day approaches.

I have finalized four events that I’ll be doing in the two weeks after the release. If you’re in or near Kansas, these are the places you can come to watch this introvert try to pass herself off as a professional writer. Try not to laugh too loudly and I’ll try not to be too drunk.

August 9, 2016

Official release day for All the Ugly and Wonderful Things. Hosted by The Raven Book Store, the event will be held at the Lawrence Public Library in Lawrence, Kansas. August 9, 2016, 7:00 pm.

August 10, 2016

Book signing and discussion at Rainy Day Books in Kansas City. August, 10, 2016, 6:30 pm. For more information, visit Rainy Day’s event page.

August 15, 2016

Book signing and discussion at Bluebird Books in Hutchinson, Kansas. August 15, 2016, 6:00 pm.

August 16, 2016

Book signing and discussion at Watermark Books in Wichita, Kansas. August 16, 2016, 6:00 pm.

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase "suspension of disbelief," if you can believe that.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “suspension of disbelief,” if you can believe that.

It’s strange the things that jar readers out of their willing suspension of disbelief. Character is a werewolf? No problem. Character is an American who stops by his local chip shop in Wichita, Kansas, to order some takeaway? Hold the phone. As readers, we’re willing to believe all kinds of ridiculous things, but it’s often the mundane details that make us doubt an author’s credibility.

The interesting thing is how those things shift as time passes and societies change. I was reminded of this a few nights ago while having dinner with a couple of friends who are about to set off on a new adventure together. We were discussing MFAs and their usefulness or lack thereof, and I was reminded of one of the most important things that happened to me in my MFA 20+ years ago.

I was in a fiction class which was intended to be a sort of introduction to novel writing. For critique, I’d submitted a chapter in which my two main characters (a 16-year-old girl and her 12-year-old brother) had a conversation about the girl’s prom dress. My chapter was savaged. Hey, that’s cool, being savaged is part of the learning process. After class, however, the professor asked me to see him during office hours.

For half an hour, he proceeded to lecture me extensively on how unrealistic my 12-year-old boy was. Boys, he informed me with all his vast personal knowledge on the subject, are not interested in prom dresses. Boys are interested in comics and baseball and other sport things, and possibly insects. Boys do not willingly iron their sisters’ clothes or sit on their sisters’ beds watching them get ready for prom.

“Some boys do,” I said. I had known a few boys who did. “Some gay boys.”

“Gay?” my professor said. Then he delivered his verdict: “12-year-old boys aren’t gay. Your character can’t be gay.”

The lesson of my MFA: just as not every book is for every reader, not every critique is valuable. Since I knew I wasn’t going to rewrite my story to make my character hetero-normative, I did the only thing I could. I dropped the novel class and enrolled in a play writing class with a professor who did not have such intransigent views on the sexuality of prepubescent boys.

I realized this morning that I’d get called out on a completely different element if I submitted it to a critique group today. In 1992, a gay 12-year-old protagonist raised the hackles of my critique group as “unrealistic.” What didn’t cause them to bat an eye was a story in which a teenaged girl and her younger brother spent the whole summer roaming the streets with their ne’er-do-well neighbor, completely unsupervised while their parents were at work.

23 years later, in a society that now calls the police and social services on parent-less children playing in public parks, no one would believe that my characters could wander freely without adult oversight. Conversely, on the heels of such a momentous Supreme Court decision, let no critique group or writing professor say, “Your character can’t be gay.”

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Today’s teaser, in honor of Valentine’s Day, is from a story I’m working on that was inspired by an infamous Kansas family, the Bloody Benders. It’s a bit longer than the teasers I usually post, because it’s hard to get a read on the situation without a bit more set-up.


Ma Bender

The old woman said a long prayer over the food until it was half cold, and then they all began to eat, with the old woman talking the whole while.  The boy with the silver necklace tried twice to take the meager serving of bread off quiet girl’s plate and when she tried to defend herself, the boy struck her hard on the side of the head and took the bread.

Oliver had never been in a house where it was acceptable to hit women and he felt the seconds passing him by between the twinge of indignation and the moment when he caught the boy’s arm and said, “There’s no call for that.”  For a brief moment he thought the boy would strike him, too, but either the old woman’s look of disapproval or Oliver’s size or Oliver’s pistol decided him against it.  He returned the bread to the quiet girl’s plate.

After the meal was done, Oliver managed to bring the talk back around to his brother, asking whether any of the rest of the family had seen him.  He passed the picture around the room.  The quiet girl stared at it a long time, until the old woman took it out of her hand, saying, “I expected the boys home sooner than this, but surely they’ll be in, before too much later.  I’m sure they’ll be able to help you.  You know, they travel a lot, see a lot more of the country. They might be able to find someone who’s seen your brother.”  Oliver looked up to see the quiet girl looking at him.  She didn’t seem embarrassed, but she looked away.

There was a bit more talk about other things, and then the old woman sent several of the boys out to do chores.  She sent one of the younger boys up into the loft after some extra blankets and then turned to the quiet girl.  “Why don’t you take Mister Oliver out to the barn and help him settle down where they’ll sleep for the night.”

The girl nodded, and when she rose, Oliver and James did likewise.  At that moment, however, the strawberry-haired woman put her hand on James’ arm.  Laying a Bible out on the table, the old woman said, “I wonder if you wouldn’t mind reading us a piece out of the Good Book.”  James blushed and looked to Oliver for approval before sitting back down.  The strawberry-haired woman still had her hand on his arm and was smiling at him.

Oliver followed the quiet girl out the door.  She carried several blankets that the boy had thrown down to her from the loft.  He offered to carry them, but that seemed to embarrass her, although she finally gave him the small lantern to carry.  As they neared the barn, he finally got the nerve to ask where the outhouse was.  She pointed a little ways around the corner of the barn and offered to wait for him.  Even with the lantern, it was the worst of its kind that he’d found out west—dank and dark and full of spiders.  Outside, he heard voices, the girl, and one of the older boys.  At first, he couldn’t make out their words, and then the fight grew loud enough for him to understand its meaning.

“Does he still have his gun?” the boy said.

“I’m not helping you with him.”

“You will or she’ll sell you to the Comancheros.  You’ll wish you were dead.”

“I won’t do it.”

Oliver heard a scuffle, the girl’s muffled cry.  He struggled to fasten his belt, wrestled with the plank door, and left the lantern.  When he hurried around the corner, he saw in the pool of light from the barn that the boy with the heavy silver necklace had the quiet girl down on the ground.  He kicked at her as she struggled to get back on her feet, striking at him with her hands.  She pulled him off balance and he fell onto her, punched her hard in the side of her neck, just as Oliver reached them and pulled the boy off her.

The boy staggered,  then came up shouting, “Ahora!”.

His hand went to a small hatchet at his belt, and as Oliver thrust the girl behind him, a burning stripe opened across his shoulder.  The boy was already swinging back for another blow with the hatchet.

“La pistola!” the boy shouted.

Before Oliver could get his hand down to his side, he felt the electricity of the girl’s hand sliding against his waist, felt the weight of the Colt lifted out of its holster.  He staggered back to avoid the hatchet, which made a short stroke against his chest.  He felt a terrible emptiness in his stomach: real, final terror.

He knew it was only a matter of moments before the girl passed the gun to her brother or shot her himself.  For all he knew, he was already bleeding to death, and the boy was readying the hatchet again.  Oliver tried to grab the girl’s arm, said a quick prayer: “God—.” and heard the gunshot.

The boy jerked backwards, fell, and Oliver and the girl also fell back, propelled by Oliver’s retreat from the hatchet and the recoil of the Colt.  The girl leapt up, pointing the pistol down at her brother and fired again.  He jerked and was still.

Oliver sat up, looking around in confusion.  The girl pulled on his arm.

“Now,” she said. “You have to hurry.  They’re killing your friend now.”

Oliver lurched to his feet, his arm and chest numb. “Get his axe,” she commanded, pointing down at the boy’s body.  She jerked up the tail of her skirt, ignoring her bared legs and ran hard across the yard.  Oliver followed with his head swimming.

The old woman sat just where she had throughout the meal.  James had been sitting on the bench across from her, a few candles on the table, reading from the Bible.  Now he wore a noose around his neck, his face gone purple.  The rope was slung up over a rafter and on the other end of it, swung the boy who had gone up into the loft for blankets.

“Help him,” the old woman screamed at the strawberry-haired woman, who was laughing as she scrambled to help the boy pull down on the other end of the hanging rope.  The two of them hoisted James a foot off the floor.  Oliver was paralyzed in the seconds it took for him to understand what was happening.

He stared, trying to comprehend, and in those few moments the girl began to shoot.  She was no marksman and made no effort at severing the rope.  She simply shot the boy who held the rope, and then palmed the hammer back and shot him again in the chest.  He dropped from the rope and the woman let go, screaming.  James hit the floor and began clawing at the noose.  With an ease that belied her age, the old woman turned to the hearth behind her and pulled down a shotgun.

Oliver looked down at the axe in his hand.  Before the old woman could even level the shotgun, the girl crossed to the table and shot her from just a step away.  The old woman fell back, almost into the fire as the girl jerked the shotgun away from her.  She turned back to Oliver.  Her eyes were dead black, unreadable.  There were two hectic spots of color in her cheeks and a splatter of blood on her face.  She held out the shotgun.

“Take it and use it,” she said.  “You’ll be dead if you don’t.”  The old woman groaned and the girl turned back to her and shot her again, just as she had done the boy out by the barn.  She pulled the trigger again and they looked at each other at the sound of the dry click.

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It’s the Eldridge Hotel now, but it stands on the site of what was called the Free State Hotel. On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery Missouri militiamen, riding under a red flag inscribed with the words “Southern Rights” sacked Lawrence.  Using a cannon, kegs of gunpowder, and eventually an incendiary device they finally reduced the Free State Hotel to a pile of smoking rubble.  They also looted the downtown and ransacked the two publishing houses in Lawrence, destroying the presses and throwing the type into the river*.

Technically speaking, the raid was perfectly legal.  At least as legal as the raid on David Koresh’s compound in Waco, TX, in this century.  Federal Marshal J.B. Donaldson issued an order that declared the abolitionist citizens of Lawrence to be engaged in what we would now call an “insurgency” against the pro-slavery state legislature that Washington, D.C., officially recognized as the legal government in the territory.  (Surprise: the government isn’t always on the side of good.)  Donaldson approved the “counter-insurgency measures” that ended in the destruction of the Free State Hotel.

It wasn’t the first or last scuffle Lawrence would be involved in.  The previous November, the Wakarusa War broke out, following a series of tit-for-tat killings between pro- and anti-slavery camps.  The siege on Lawrence that followed ended peacefully, but Lawrence and the most famous participant in the Wakarusa War–abolitionist John Brown–went on to bigger and bloodier things.

Seven years later, William Quantrill would lead more than 300 bushwhackers on a raid into Lawrence.  They killed nearly 200 men and boys, many of them unarmed, and burned almost every building in town to the ground, including the Free State Hotel, now known as the Eldridge Hotel.

As for John Brown, well, he went on to start the Civil War.  He was a radical, a dangerous man, a brave man, a religious man.  An extremist.  A terrorist.  A visionary.  He died just before noon on December 2, 1859, with a noose around his neck.  His last wish–denied–was that his wife be allowed to spend a last night with him.

*Legend has it that this ruined press type was later melted down and turned into shot and cannonballs, which were used to fight the Civil War.

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As elsewhere, here in Kansas we’re locked in debate over how to fuel our decadent* energy-consuming lifestyle. We’ve recently had to step beyond debate into action, though. In October, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment refused to grant a permit for the construction of two new coal-fired power plants. The agency cited environmental and health concerns. Huh, figure that. What a thing for them to be concerned about. The two plants would have provided power to Kansas and Eastern Colorado, and produced more than ten tons of carbon dioxide annually.

It’s an exciting time to be a Kansan. Sometimes I daydream about us starting an energry revolution as big as our push for freedom that started the Civil War. Hopefully not as bloody, but as stunning in the change it proposes: real efforts to use sustainable, alternative fuels. Governor Sebelius’s State of the State Address this year contained this observation: “The question of where we get our energy is . . . no longer just an economic issue, nor solely an issue of national security. Quite simply, we have a moral obligation to be good stewards of this state.”

In a state where we have incredible wind resources and considerable solar exposure, there’s no reason to sink millions of dollars into power plants that are going to perpetuate our dependence on non-renewable resources that pollute the environment. Where from here, though? We have the wind and the sun, but no infrastructure to take advantage of it. We’ve got biomass, for sure, just drive out by Dodge City and breathe in the “biomass” fumes.

Of course, in addition to wind and solar power, there are people pushing for more nuclear power. Clean, safe, dependable, all that. It gives me the willies, as childish as that sounds. The coal-fired plants the KDHE rejected would have been located near their current coal plant, in Holcomb, Kansas. I grew up not two hours from Holcomb, and if I still lived there, I wouldn’t want more coal-fired plants near me. Sure, nobody wants it in their backyard, and that ought to be a hint that it’s a bad idea. The same is true with nuclear power. I wouldn’t mind a wind farm or a solar array in my backyard, but I don’t want a nuclear plant in my neighborhood, again.

Funny story about nuclear power: I used to live in Japan, in Niigata-ken, which is in the north, sandwiched between the Japan Sea and the Honshu mountain range, home of the most expensive high-speed rail line in the world. My little apartment was in a small suburb near a large temple complex and public park. I lived right over a small convenience store, and out my back windows was an incredible stretch of rice paddies–truly I lived in “inaka.” I also lived less than 30 km from the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa reactor. About three months after I moved into that apartment, my doorbell rang, and I opened the door to an older man in a suit. He presented me with a formal envelope of very expensive paper. Bowing down, he rattled off what I think was an elaborately scripted apology, and then he departed. Inside the envelope was a letter and a check, made payable to me, in the amount of about $150 in yen.

My Japanese wasn’t very good, so I took the letter over to my boss’ house. He read it, nodded, and said, “Oh, yes, it’s your reactor money.” It turns out that everyone who lives within 50 km of Kashiwazaki-Kariwa, and perhaps every nuclear reactor in Japan, receives a check to compensate them for the “inherent danger” of living so close to a nuclear reactor. If Kashiwazaki-Kariwa went Chernobyl in the middle of the night, I was as good as dead. My boss intimated that most people used the money to purchase additional life and property insurance. I, uh, bought a stereo and a really gorgeous meal at the only Indian restaurant in Niigata-ken. Live for today.

Since then, there has been a minor incident at the Kashiwazaki-Kariwa plant. An earthquake caused a minuscule amount of radioactive material to be flushed into the Japan Sea. Turns out Kashiwazaki isn’t Japanese for “Chernobyl.” All the same, I think I’ll pass.

The photo is of a mural in the church in Pripyat, Ukraine, within the “kill zone” of the Chernobyl reactor disaster. Formerly a town of 45,000 people, Pripyat is completely abandoned now. A few years back, some intrepid photographer ventured in through the security gates to photograph the truly frightening life-interrupted of a city that is uninhabitable, and will be for hundreds of years to come. The people who evacuated from Pripyat weren’t allowed to take any of their belongings with them, because everything in the city has been rendered lethally radioactive by the fallout from Chernobyl. No baby photos, no wedding china, no heirloom quilts. Nothing. They’re all memento mori now. Just like Jesus, smiling benevolently down from that dome, all the beauty of a silent Armageddon spread out in the streets around him.

More than seven million people are eligible to receive assistance as “Chernobyl victims.” Seven million people who have been victimized on a cellular level, people whose very DNA has been poisoned.

I think I’ll keep walking, turning off the lights, writing to my elected representatives to demand safe alternative fuel sources, and setting my thermostat at 85 in the summer and 65 in the winter. It’s not perfectly comfortable, but at least it’s not leaking roentgens into my body.

*My modest Methodist grandmother would turn over in her grave to hear her habit of leaving every light in the house on described as “decadent.”

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My mother once apologized to me for giving birth to me in Oklahoma.  It was one of those moments when life imitates art, or at least life imitates a King of the Hill episode.  The one in which Hank Hill’s long-suffering mother apologizes to him for having gone into labor while in New York City.  It turns out that Texan of all Texans…not a Texan.  For Hank, the news is devastating.  For me, not so much.

My mother is a Kansan by birth, as is my father, as are their parents and their parents before them.  (With the exception of one streak of Coloradan running in my mother’s veins, courtesy of her great-grandfather, Coyote Monty Cook.)  My sisters are all Kansans.  My cousins are all Kansans.

I am an Okie.

It’s a shameful business, but I suppose her apology was as much about what had taken her to Oklahoma in the first place: my father.  Both things leave me in an awkward position of explaining my origins.  Obviously, not as awkward a position as say, Superman trying to explain the whole thing with Krypton.

All the same, I find myself saying things like, “Well, I’m an Okie, but I’m a Kansan.”  I was born in Oklahoma, spent my first few years in Oklahoma, and was raised almost on the border of Oklahoma, but I still think of myself as a Kansan.  It makes me a little sad on those occasions when I have to put down my place of birth, a reminder I’m not really a Kansan.  My passport is a slap in my face, declaring me to the world’s customs officers as an Okie.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Similarly, my father’s early defection from my life leaves me saying things like, “Well, my biologicial father is the convicted felon.  My dad was a Command Sargeant-Major in the Army.”  It makes for an interesting study in language.  Words that start out as synonyms shift as they acquire more subtle shades of meaning.

My dad, he’s a Kansan, too.

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It was the wind

Some people left Kansas because of the wind.

Many people left Kansas when the wind blew away the soil and the soil blotted out the sun.  When death and misery became more readily available than bread and water.

My people stayed.  I don’t know if that makes them stupid, or fatalistic, or just stubborn. We didn’t leave, even when it was the smart thing to do.  We’re certainly not going to leave now.

I left when I was younger, wandered around the world, and came back to Kansas to write. It was the wind after all.  It carried dust into the house all during my childhood and turned my hair into a rat’s nest.  When I got too far away from it, though, I felt unsteadied.

As though I’d been out walking in the wind and it suddenly stopped.  As though I were going to fall down without something to oppose me.

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