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An author’s resume!

One of the things that has been standard in publishing for years is the author’s resume. Sure, we call it the author’s biography, but so frequently it turns into a list of every random job the author has ever worked. Safecracker! Chicken sexer! Hypnotist! Roller Skate Dancer! Gondolier! Lion Tamer! The weirder the better seems to be the goal when you’re writing copy for the back flap of your book.

When I first had to write an author bio, on the release of my first novel, Last Will, I was stumped. People offered the usual advice: all those weird jobs I had. Sex educator! Topless waitress (for a night)! Receptionist at a nuclear power plant! Architectural slide archivist! Nobody suggested that I should trumpet to the world my two stints as a custodian. (Once at a church. Once at a daycare.) Nor my time toiling in the salt mines of university adjunct teaching or the clerical fields.

My solution was to just skip over the random jobs portion of my bio and fill up space with such witty gems as “Bryn Greenwood lives in Kansas, which is as flat as you imagine but slightly more charming.” I’m a novelist, okay, not a biographer.

When my second novel, Lie Lay Lain, was published, it suddenly mattered that I had worked as a church secretary for three years. It gave me pew cred, so to speak, to be writing a book about a church secretary. Rarely, though, do I see authors celebrating the completely normal, menial jobs that they did before they became somebody who had a bio on the back of a book. That makes me a little sad, especially after what I witnessed this morning.

As I was arriving on campus for my quotidienne office manager job, I saw a young woman using a weedwhacker to trim around a faculty parking lot. She paused at one point and pulled a piece of paper and a pencil out of her pocket. With the weedwhacker still running, she furtively scribbled on her paper. Every few seconds her head bobbed up and she scanned the horizon to be sure her boss on the grounds crew didn’t catch her. As I passed, the paper and pencil went back into the pocket, and she returned to whacking weeds.

I imagined her as a poet, capturing some passing observation on spring, but she might just as likely have been a prose writer or, like my custodian friend who scribbles on the job, a screenwriter. Either way, it made me sad to think of young writers reading authors’ bios and finding them devoid of those boring, plain old jobs. Writers don’t only spring forth from the lucrative careers of lion taming or burlesque dancing or mortuary aesthetics. They also spring forth from secretarial work, child care, burger flipping, and unemployment.

In other news, my publisher is running a sale. The Kindle editions of both my novels are only 99¢ until May 10th! Click on the pic to go buy.

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After allegations of neglect, the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families started monitoring Jeremiah Oliver’s family, with monthly visits to check on the welfare of Jeremiah and his two siblings. Or at any rate, they were supposed to be monthly visits. When Jeremiah was finally reported missing in December, the visits from DCF had been irregular for more than eight months. In fact, in June of 2013, the last case worker to visit with the family was told that Jeremiah had gone to live with his grandmother in Florida.

You might think that such a change in the life of a young child being monitored by the state’s child welfare agency would spark some sort of follow up. It didn’t. No one from DCF investigated the claim that Jeremiah had moved to Florida, and they didn’t return to the Oliver family until November, for what they said would be their last visit. In December, Jeremiah’s 7-year-old sister confided in someone at school that she was being abused at home, and her little brother had been missing for a long time.

Jeremiah, lost and found

Jeremiah, lost and found

He isn’t missing anymore. On Friday, his body was found next to a highway, wrapped in a blanket, stuffed in a duffel bag. The police are proceeding on the assumption that he was murdered, and charges have been filed against his mother and her boyfriend. This would all be horrible enough, but to my way of thinking, it is rendered more monstrous by the failure of a system that should have protected Jeremiah. The DCF was aware that he was at risk of abuse and neglect. They were supposed to be checking on his welfare, but didn’t. They were supposed to be alert to signs of danger, and yet they accepted a threadbare excuse for his absence. As though the fire department had received a report of someone playing with matches and gasoline on the front porch of a house, and then failed to respond appropriately until the house burned to the ground.

This news torments, and I find myself unable to stop imagining the series of events that brought Jeremiah to that strip of grass by a road, the horrible choices of the adults in his life that acquainted him with that duffel bag. They are the same thoughts that tormented me, when I first heard about Rilya Wilson.

Rilya was born to a homeless drug addict who could not care for her. As a result, she was removed from her mother’s care and put into a foster home. In 2002, a newly assigned case worker with Florida’s Department of Children and Families arrived at Rilya’s foster home for a monthly visit. It was the first visit from DCF in fifteen months, because the previous case worker had been falsifying paperwork instead of actually visiting Rilya. Confronted with Rilya’s absence, the foster mother claimed that a different case worker had taken Rilya away for a medical examination, nearly two years before.

Twelve years later, Rilya is still in the wind. I know that many people who read Lie Lay Lain are frustrated by the lack of resolution for Shanti, the little girl missing out of foster care in the novel. I feel for them, because it’s a terrible thing, not knowing. We may never know exactly what became of Rilya, and if nothing else, I wanted to be true to that pain and emptiness in Lie Lay Lain. I wanted to acknowledge that she is lost and may never be found.

The case worker who failed to visit Rilya for those two years was given 5 years of probation. It seems like a slim sort of justice for someone who was supposed to be checking on Rilya’s safety and well-being. The case workers overseeing Jeremiah Oliver’s family have already been fired, and they are likely to face criminal charges. In Florida, Rilya’s disappearance caused a massive shift in how children are monitored by DCF. Case workers now have to document their visits through photographs and using GPS monitors. This is all a good thing for foster children in Florida, but for at-risk children in other states, there has been no great shift.

In Massachusetts, there are possibly hundreds of children missing out of foster care. And that’s just in one state, and it doesn’t take into consideration the children who remain with their families, but are being monitored by child welfare agencies.

As a nation, I marvel that we will expend vast sums of money to imprison non-violent offenders, but the care of children ranks so lowly that we think nothing of overworking and underpaying case workers. We can implement facial recognition software in hopes of catching criminals, but we can’t bring that same technology to bear to help identify and locate children. We can compile and sift through massive quantities of internet traffic and phone records, in the name of the war on terrorism, but we’re willing to let thousands of children slip through the cracks to their deaths, because it’s just too hard to keep track of them.

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Actually, two people have officially already won copies of Lie Lay Lain. Judy and Sharon, check your email for your official notice.

The rest of you, there’s still time to enter to win a copy over on Goodreads. That contest is running until April 27th.

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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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You’ve seen the movie posters that say Based on a True Story. The smallest amount of research often reveals that the movie is only very loosely based on the vague outline of an actual event that occurred. It’s the way of things. Fiction illuminates the human experience in a way that documentary cannot always do, and so even the best fictionalization of a true story has to take certain liberties to craft a meaningful narrative.

Take the tragic story of Steven Stayner. They made a TV movie about his amazing survival and escape from 7 years of abuse at the hands of the pedophile who abducted him. It was a mostly true adaptation with Steven serving as an advisor. The narrative arc is Steven’s bravery and heroism in finally fleeing his captor in order to save another child from the same fate. Nine years later he died in a random traffic accident, and a decade after his death, his older brother was revealed to be a serial killer. That’s how real life refuses to follow good storytelling practices.

On the other hand, books and media are often touted as Based on a True Story, when at most, they’ve brushed shoulders with a true story on a crowded bus. When fiction is so often necessary to craft a satisfactory arc, what is the attraction of claiming a story is true when it’s at most inspired by actual events? That’s where marketing comes into play. Just as reality TV has become an unholy hot property, so has the “true story” imprimatur become a sales tactic for publishers.

No surprise then that writers respond to readers’ lust for true stories by producing books that they claim are memoirs but are in fact mostly fiction. James Frey was famously outed and publicly shamed for selling his novel as a memoir. People sued and had their money refunded, such was the depth of their sense of betrayal on learning that Frey’s book wasn’t absolute truth. Or even partial truth. I wish I knew someone who’d applied to have their book purchase refunded, because I’d love to hear why.

I consider this now as I continue to try to find a publishing home for a novel that borrows a great deal of inspiration from my own life. Several people have suggested that I might be more likely to sell the book if I played up the autobiographical aspects of it. The thinking seems to be that publishers and readers might be too uncomfortable to read fictional accounts of drug-dealing fathers and romantic relationships between little girls and dangerous men. However, under the broad cloak of Based on a True Story, people would be okay with such uneasy subjects.

For example, informal polling suggests that people who might cringe at reading those old incest classics of V.C. Andrews would feel comfortable reading a “true story” of incest. As a result, readers will snap up books that are touted as based on real events instead of being “merely” fiction. If it’s a true story, you’re reading for edification. If it’s fiction, you’re reading for titillation. Do you agree with that? Are you more likely to read a non-fiction book that has the same basic premise as a novel? Why is that?

I’ve recently discovered that readers are even eager to suss out a novel’s minor details that are drawn from a writer’s life. When people learn that I used to work as a church secretary, they want to know if Olivia, a character in Lie Lay Lain, is me. The answer is no, but certainly a number of the details about Olivia’s experience as a church secretary were inspired by things that happened to me. Conversely, many of my true church stories had to be left out, because they were simply too outrageous for a novel.

It’s the same case with the book I’m still trying to sell. Was my father a drug dealer? Yes. Did he look like Bo Duke and end up murdered? No, he’s alive and mostly reformed in Texas. Was I in a romantic relationship with a much older man when I was just a child? Yes. Did we end up married? No. You see, how stories are woven out of true facts and fiction?

So how true is Based on a True Story? It depends, I suppose on what sort of truth you’re looking for. My guess is that nearly every novel contains a certain amount of true story. All of my novels hold snapshots of my life. Images of things I’ve seen. Snippets of conversation. Parts of people I’ve known. Parts of myself even. That is true.

Also, the offer still stands. If you purchase an advance copy of Lie Lay Lain direct from Stairway Press in December, I will personally send you a guaranteed homemade (but not necessarily guaranteed pretty) holiday card and a signed book plate.

Stairway-Press-2013-Holiday-Promo-AD

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I have never sent a holiday card in my life. I don’t celebrate Christmas. Or Chanukah. Or Kwanzaa. As a result of my holiday abstention, I have never sent holiday cards.

But this year, just for you, I am sending holiday cards. My publisher, Stairway Press, is running a promotion during December that allows you to order a book and receive a personal holiday card from certain authors on their list. For whatever crazy reason, I’ve agreed to take part and send my very first holiday cards. The purchase can be for you or for someone else, but I will personally be sending holiday cards to anyone who purchases a copy of Last Will or an advance copy of Lie Lay Lain from my publisher’s website. Other participating authors are shown here.

Stairway-Press-2013-Holiday-Promo-AD

If you’re interested in getting a book and a card for yourself or for some other reader near and dear to you, just pop over to the Stairway Press book store page. And then use care when checking your mail…

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