Cassandra on the Island: Her Gardening

To begin with:
Cassandra had four separate plots of land
where she wanted to plant flowers.
She called them “A, B, C, and D.”
In each plot, she placed two different flowers.

Plot A

She had a talent, her mother would say, for shining brilliant in situations. It was not like walking into a room and capturing the eye of everyone there; It was not like smiling and making everyone smile right along (even though they had no idea what they were smiling about). It went far beyond the dictionary definition of “Charisma.” Cassandra’s mother called it a gift of “radiance” and, when on, it could remind people what a wonder it is to be alive.

Her mother first noticed the talent when taking her daughter to swim at Lake Michigan. It was at the lake that she hated her disability the most. She never knew fear until the first moment she watched her eight-year old run across the beach as she could only sit back in her wheelchair and watch.

But while her mother hated the separation on those moments, Cassandra sought it. It became a reward for her. The kind given after keeping her room clean for five days straight or for helping her mother back in her chair after a fall. Her mother cursed how those incidences seemed to humble her (at least in her mind). The moments when she had to rely on her daughter, her little, tiny daughter, to save her.

If the car accident that crippled the mother taught the two anything, it was the ability to adapt; and adapt is exactly what both of them did. They adapted to losing Cassandra’s father. (Her mother never had the courage to tell her daughter her husband used to beat her. She decided to let her have the delusion of gold around his memory.) They adapted to Cassandra’s mother’s handicap. And Cassandra’s mother adapted to trying to hold her daughter as close as she possibly could, as Cassandra adapted to enjoying the escape from her mother’s suffocating love.

So going to the beach became that for Cassandra, an escape from her mother and the life back home and what she faced every day. (Even though, young Cassandra would have never admitted it, she was quietly embarrassed by her mother’s handicap and would rarely invite her friends over.) The lake was a ritual as rich as entering a church. Like placing holy water on her head, every step for this child was important.

Step 1- Getting mama out of the car.

This step took the longest.

Well, it felt that way for Cassandra. The beach was right there staring at her! How could she not feel the pressure to move faster, faster?

            Step 2- Leaving mama prepared.

Her mother had a full collection of supplies that had to be double-checked. Batteries in her megaphone? Check. First Aid Kit? Check. Binoculars? Check.

Step 3- Make sure mama’s chair is in a good position.

This was very crucial; if her mother couldn’t see her, Cassandra’s time in the water was done. So it was very important to her that she had the best view of every aspect of the beach.

Step 4- The slow walk.

Cassandra’s mother always yelled at Cassandra when she ran. Looking back at her youth, Cassandra believed this was all related to her mother’s inability to run herself. But running on the beach could spell disaster for the day. A simple sprint could call for an end to her cleansing in the waves.

…And yet, Cassandra didn’t mind torturing her mother when she met the water.

Step 5- Going under.

Cassandra always went completely under water first. And she would hold herself under… and under… and under…

She loved the silence. She loved the isolation… She loved the quiet and she hated coming up for that first breath. Her mother hated this game of Cassandra’s. There was many a day that she called her daughter back to the car because of that disappearance. To Cassandra, this was as close to the feeling of immortality she had ever felt. Continue reading

Advertisements

I Want to Tell You a Story … Cassandra on the Island

I want to tell you a story.

Let’s begin like this- I wrote a novel for my thesis when I was working for my Master’s at the University of Southern California and I made the head of the department cry.

I had few interactions with this professor. I like to think he liked me, he personally asked me to take a few advanced courses and met with me now and then to discuss agents and my writing, but we were of different worlds. How else do you explain the meeting of a poet and a novelist? We use the same words, but for a novelist it is about the meaning, where for the poet it is about the music beneath it.

To graduate, I needed people to sign off on my thesis. I had one from a fiction professor (I can’t remember his name now) and the head of the department promised to be the second… and he delayed… and he delayed.

I was working on campus, which was fine for me since I didn’t have to drive anywhere and there was a Carl’s Jr on campus and I was a little addicted to their crispy chicken sandwich (I don’t need to say more about that here). But on this day, instead of waiting in the outrageously long line of students and eating that awesome sandwich, I decided to bother the delaying professor. He was in his office and knew why I was there when I walked in. He didn’t make eye contact with me and promised to start the book that afternoon, shrugging me off.

I had to accept that answer and leave.

That night I received a call after 9 PM. It was him and he was crying. He kept saying the word “beautiful.” He talked to me about the book for over an excited hour, asking about why I did certain things, what they meant. He was figuring out different tricks I did in the writing in between his emotional outbursts.

It is not often a writer gets to speak to a moved reader the second after they finish their book, but I was having that experience here, and it was with someone that surrounds himself with books and writers! This is legit, right?

He wasn’t planning to read the book straight through, he said. He was planning to finish, maybe skim bits. He skims, he said. He skims most books from students, he said… but here he didn’t. And once he started he couldn’t stop.

He told me what he loved, what made him laugh and what made him cry.

He asked if he could share the book with others, and I said that was fine. He said I didn’t have to worry about my thesis, and he couldn’t wait to buy the book in print… and then he was off the line.

Now… let me be clear… I’m not telling you this story about a crying professor to brag. I’m telling you this because it was the first time I truly felt like a novelist. Continue reading

The Ghosts of Writing, Halloween 2017

I’m going through a weird phase right now with my writing  It is affecting my old books, it is affecting my future works, and it is affecting this site. I still get a kick out of reading (from time to time), but there’s a certain sense of pointlessness around the entire endeavor that seems to be growing for me.

Do I write another post trying to inspire you to take on the author mantle? Create a book and get it published? Or do I write another one about the bleak possibilities/reality of the publishing world? Another doom-and-gloom piece about how the publishing world is only about the almighty dollar and self-publishing is no home for literary fiction?

One thing that has been capturing my attention (and I recommend if you have the patience for it) is Alan Moore’s epic novel Jerusalem. It breaks every rule I have known about publishing and literature. It is incredible in its audacity and I am in awe of it and him as an author. It is is long (over 1200 pages in small font long) and it is dense (it assumes that you know what he’s talking about). He does not dumb down anything! I am loving the experience of reading it and strangely it makes me think that it would be fun it to just spent 10 years working on a super crazy long book of my own.

I promise I will do more writing on the site in the future (don’t abandon me yet!), until then I need this break. I need to figure out what I am doing with my current novel and I need to find a way to care more… about everything with writing.

Right now though let’s celebrate some of the work that I think are suitable for Halloween. Here are some great books for a spooky night. These reviews were either done here or on WKAR.

Happy Halloween!

My Writing Resolutions 2017

luke-handIt is really easy to complain about 2016, but with 2017 here now, I can’t help but be more concerned.

If 2016 is the Star Wars of bad years, this could be the sequel. And the sequel was more intense, right? Han got stuck in carbon freeze. Luke lost a hand…

There! Right there, is my image of what 2016 was.

Luke without a hand. The problem is we all have more limbs left to get chopped.

Get your lightsabers out, people! Here comes 2017!

Here are some of my writing resolutions for the next year.

  1. My big hope is to find a path to getting my most recent novel in readers’ hands. I’m really proud of this book and have spoken to agents and smaller publishers about it. Hopefully, something will happen. It’s hard not to write more about it here. I would love to talk about the plot and the characters, but I have to keep it under wraps until a plan is in place. All I can say is that it will be a very unique literary treat and I look forward to sharing more about it.
  1. Last year I began a writing project on my site. Uses of This World is my retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet but set in 1920s Europe. (You can read the completed chapters that make up Act I here.) I’m really proud of it and I plan to work on Act II over this year. One act a year feels about right and keeps it from distracting me too much from other writing and projects. If you haven’t checked it out, you should. If anything it is very different.
  1. I haven’t been on WKAR’s Current State in quite some time. I did like doing the book reviews on the radio show and it was a good 3.5 years. (You can read and listen to my book reviews here.) I also think it was inspiring for me as writer to be reading so many books a year (and sometimes a bad book could be more creatively energizing for me than a good book, if you can believe it). I hope to do the occasional book review on this site until I know what is going to happen with my more professional book reviewing in the future. Does anyone know how to reach Fresh Air with Terry Gross? LOL.
  1. I need to decide what I want to do with this site. Sometimes it is hard to find the inspiration to say something unique here. I blame the last year, life stuff, and the election for drawing this writing “depression” out. And when I was inspired to write, it felt more important to work on my current book and the efforts to get it out there. I need focus and so does this site.

Overall, it’s an odd feeling for me looking forward to this year. Usually, I have a good plan for what I want to do in the next year and where the world is going, and I can’t say for certain about any of that right now. I will say that I have become a monthly contributor to the Natural Resources Defense Council. They are one organization putting up the good fight to protect our planet, for climate change is real. You can sign up here, and I recommend you do too. Or find a different cause you care about and help. There are a lot of great options from Planned Parenthood to Everytown for Gun Safety.

The fight for 2017 and our country’s future is only beginning.

Boy, that was dramatic of me. Hmmmm…. I need something more positive to say to end this post…. Oh, I am seeing Hamilton this year! That is cool. (Sorry, you can’t come.)

Good luck to all of us this year!

Remembering Brent

An Illustration from AustenRecently, I lost one of my heroes.

Dr. Brent Chesley was a professor at Aquinas College and a big influence on the person I became. For a while I even wanted to be Dr. Chesley as I applied and was accepted in a Ph.D. program in Literature at Michigan State University. (In time that didn’t feel like a good match for my skills and I transferred over to the University of Southern California’s writing program where I eventually got my MFA.)

Everyday Dr. Chesley celebrated literature.

Everything was worthy of a discussion and everyone’s opinion mattered. To emphasize this, he would begin each class by welcoming his students as “persons of quality.” If hearing that, even on a stormy Monday, doesn’t bring a smile to your face, I don’t know what will.

After graduation, Dr. Chesley and I stayed in touch. We would meet for lunch once a year or so, where we would discuss writing and maybe Worf on Star Trek. We kept in touch over emails and Facebook messages. Whenever I had a funny or depressing story to share about the world of literature (and my adventures in it), there would be an email out from me followed by a few from him.

The world felt right knowing Dr. Chesley was out there. He was the fan of literature that writers dream of. Someone that will really give your writing a chance (not just skim like someone waiting at an airport) and find the possibility there. For years, he would have me come into his writing courses to speak to his students (you can listen to one of those appearances here) and a part of me always wanted to begin by saying “Do you know how lucky you are to be in this class right now?” We all have those wonders if you can go back and relive certain moments in your life which would you choose. Of course, like most people, I will point to holding my children as babies again or when my wife and I were married, but I would also include being a student at Aquinas College in that list.

When I went off to study writing on the graduate level other students would ask why I went to Aquinas College as compared to a major university. But Aquinas College turned out to be the perfect starting place for me, and the professors that were there then, like Dr. Chesley,  were able to give me the attention and focus I needed. I wasn’t just another student dreaming of publishing stardom. I was unique and special there. And we all like to feel unique and special, don’t we?

Pride and PrejudiceWhen I wrote my novel A Jane Austen Daydream I had to create a series of articles for websites and press releases about the book and Dr. Chesley would always sneak into them. For it was Dr. Chesley, who introduced me to Ms. Austen. As any of his former students will tell you he was obsessed with Pride and Prejudice and considered it one of the greatest works in English Literature. Today, I heartily agree with him, but before his class I would never have considered picking up one of her books. Oh, how wrong I was. It is one of the reasons why I gave him a cameo in the book, acting as the doctor in Jane Austen’s hometown.

It still feels right to me that the doctor in Jane’s hometown is actually a doctor of literature.

A few years after I graduated Dr. Chesley told me I could just call him Brent. It felt weird and then strangely like an honor. How many other students got to call a professor by their first name? It was something I had earned. So when I think of the person that left my life, I don’t simply think of a professor that encouraged and inspired me, I also think of a good friend… and a hero.

Goodbye Brent. Tell Jane I said hi.

Uses of This World: Chapter 8

hamlet-and-ghostDenmark 1926. The world is on a powder keg, the old world is in conflict with the new, still recovering from World War I. Jazz and flappers. Cocktails and parties. In this tumultuous time, the king of Denmark is found dead… but his spirit is not at rest.

Uses of this World is the tale of the people around the events of Hamlet, from the soldiers to the royal family. Each is tied to the outcomes around the crown. And the country, as well as the world, is waiting to see what happens next.

Previous Chapters

Chapter 8: Son

For the first time in Prince Hamlet’s life he felt lost. Truly lost. This was not the garden maze of his youth. The well-worn turns and dead ends were now covered with dark leaves and thorns.

Unearthly. Unholy.

These thorns dripped black blood and stank of time and neglect.

Hamlet remembered chasing after the vision of his father, racing down the stairs of the parapet walls, and into the royal garden maze. Then everything changed. Not just in the environment but in his mind. The fog was everywhere, more than covering the ground, sticking to the very air around him, entering him, becoming part of him.

What time was it? How long had he been in the maze?

“Mark me,” a dead voice echoed around him in the air; like a wind, passing by and then racing away.

Hamlet stopped, he felt out of breath. Was he out of breath or was the air so dead that there was little for the living? “I will.”

A path opened up in the maze in front of him; the thorns turning aside, granting passage, with breaks and splinters in the wood and vine. The leaves on this new path were a dark green but eerie bright. The green reminded the prince of the glow of the kingly specter. A nightmare was in front of Hamlet, welcoming him, and he entered. Continue reading

Uses of This World: Chapter 7

GhostDenmark 1926. The world is on a powder keg, the old world is in conflict with the new, still recovering from World War I. Jazz and flappers. Cocktails and parties. In this tumultuous time, the king of Denmark is found dead… but his spirit is not at rest.

Uses of this World is the tale of the people around the events of Hamlet, from the soldiers to the royal family. Each is tied to the outcomes around the crown. And the country, as well as the world, is waiting to see what happens next.

Previous Chapters

Chapter 7: Father

The night air was stale and cold. It lingered not on the skin, but on the tongue, on the breath and in the lungs.

“The air bites shrewdly. It is very cold,” Hamlet said, a little louder than a whisper. Yet, his voice traveled easily among the group waiting on the parapet walls that dark night.

Horatio replied before the two soldiers. “It is a nipping and an eager air.”

Was that sarcasm? Even here? Hamlet couldn’t help but be impressed by his American friend. Yet, the more he studied Horatio in the shadows of the torches, he was not like his old self. The smiles were forced, the face more pale and wrinkled; like the blood was dripping from him, but to where?

The previous nights of the specter were marked by a fog, an eeriness, as if the world enjoyed taking part in some foreboding. Now, there was nothing. Just nothing. Like the dry air in a tomb.

“What hour now?” Hamlet asked.

“I think it lacks of twelve.”

Hamlet shook his head. “No, it’s struck.”

“Indeed? I heard it not.” Continue reading

Uses of this World: Chapter 6

OpheliaDenmark 1926. The world is on a powder keg, the old world is in conflict with the new, still recovering from World War I. Jazz and flappers. Cocktails and parties. In this tumultuous time, the king of Denmark is found dead… but his spirit is not at rest.

Uses of this World is the tale of the people around the events of Hamlet, from the soldiers to the royal family. Each is tied to the outcomes around the crown. And the country, as well as the world, is waiting to see what happens next.

Previous Chapters

Chapter 6: Watchman to My Heart

Ophelia was always running, because Ophelia was always late.

Through the hall, into the kitchen, past the guards outside the queen’s chambers (no time for a wave, but she did hear the soldiers call after her), a sprint down two hallways, down a flight of stairs, through another kitchen, and she was in the quarters that her family and the other families of the advisors called home.

He didn’t come to the library today. She was not surprised, considering the state he was in at the morning assembly, but she was still hopeful. Forever the optimist. Now she was late. That is where hope got her.

Her shoes were in her hands as she ran barefoot. The shoes were not made for running and the dress wasn’t either. Usually, she would be adorned in something more casual, more comfortable (but still presentable), but her father expected her to wear her best dress because they would be presented before the king and the entire court. He thought with this look she appeared more nobly. She just thought it made her look childish.

When would her dad see her as an adult? Of course, he would have to first see her.

Around a corner and down some stairs, if she was in a different dress she would have been sliding on the banister. This part was home to her. She past two maids, she heard them snicker as she past. She must have looked like in such a state.

Her governess (who should have retired two years prior) put her hair up in the style of a decade ago. It would have been the height of fashion then, now it was just frustrating and kept flopping in front of her face with each step.

Ophelia was unhappy with her entire look. She dreamed of a short haircut like the bobs the Americans were wearing in her magazines and silent movies, but her father would never have approved of that. She was so certain of that, she never bothered to ask.

An entire childhood of “no’s.” Ophelia had no reason to believe that another word was possible from his lips.

Another corner and…

There was her handsome older brother, ready with suitcase in hand, leaving his room. The look he gave her made her blush. He knew why she almost missed his departure.

He knew she was waiting for him. Continue reading

Uses of this World: Chapter 5

Hamlet

Denmark 1926. The world is on a powder keg, the old world is in conflict with the new, still recovering from World War I. Jazz and flappers. Cocktails and parties. In this tumultuous time, the king of Denmark is found dead… but his spirit is not at rest.

Uses of this World is the tale of the people around the events of Hamlet, from the soldiers to the royal family. Each is tied to the outcomes around the crown. And the country, as well as the world, is waiting to see what happens next.

Previous Chapters

Chapter 5: Things Rank

A jerk.

A twitch.

Prince Hamlet was awake again.

How long had he been asleep? And what did he remember?

It took a minute.

He remembered starting to drink the absinthe the night before. When he would drink it with Horatio, it was always in sips, but alone and without companions he took on the entire bottle. When he began he hoped for the madness and visions that others claimed they would receive.  And Hamlet hoped in his visions to see his father, alive, brilliant and with that sense of safety only a loved child would understand.

No visions came, only a headache and some memory loss.

There was the morning assembly. Hamlet peeked an eye open and glanced around. He was in the portrait gallery. He closed his eyes again and searched through the messy remains of his memory. Was there a crowd? His finger traced along the chair arm he was resting against. He knew that too. He was asleep on the throne.

It was all a blur, flickering lights and images, like broken reels of a film spliced together all wrong, little bits of memory returning.

He remembered Ophelia bowing (her dress concealing too much), his uncle (his father now, that is what he called himself this morning) stroking that ridiculous long and thin black mustache of his. Hamlet wasn’t certain, but he might have been named the heir to the throne. Well, he was used to playing that part. Continue reading

Catch up on the new online book- Uses of this World

Hamlet Illustrated ClassicGreetings readers!

Why we all wait for the new Harry Potter book and tickets for Hamilton (seriously, I can’t wait to see that show, I’m addicted to the soundtrack), I’ve been working on a brand new novel online.

As I said in this opening discussion about it (here), it is an incredibly snobby enterprise. Prove it? I’m trying to reimagine my own version of Hamlet.

I know, I know…  Hamlet… Shakespeare… there is a chance there might be some eye rolling going on right now over the internet. But if I do this right, it should be a very engaging and interesting book with no prior knowledge of the Bard needed.

Denmark, 1926. The world is on a powder keg, the old world is in conflict with the new, still recovering from World War I. Jazz and flappers. Cocktails and parties. In this tumultuous time, the king of Denmark is found dead… but his spirit is not at rest.

This new book, Uses of this World, will be created here online, and I will be putting up a new chapter each time they are ready. Just this week I shared Chapter 3, finally getting up to the first scene in my favorite play.

Why not take this moment to catch up?

Here are three links to the first entries in this new writing experiment. I hope you will give it a try. I’m really enjoying the work and the process around it.