Guest Post: Jolina Petersheim

Today we’re joined by a delightful writer I met over on Twitter, whose blog I fell in love with (and I’m sure you will too). Her name is Jolina Petersheim, and I hope you guys will make her feel welcome here!!

“Hope is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all -“
~Emily Dickinson

This week I attended an author luncheon in Nashville. Over the course of my hummus wrap, I quietly listened to the realities of the writing life: backs aching from hunching over a keyboard or toting suitcases and laptops hither and yon; flying into beautiful cities that are never seen beyond a smattering of bookstores; the royalty checks that never come when they’re promised–or, even worse, those that do but aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed; the terrible book reviews; the end of the hardback book; the end of the tangible book, period….

Although the authors interjected a few jokes while discussing the publishing Apocalypse, the weight of their words resonated long after the bills had been paid and everyone had said their goodbyes. After I’d said mine, I drove toward Vanderbilt and parked near the coffee shop where my best friend and I were to meet after her class. Gathering 20 pages of my manuscript and a green Sharpie, I crossed the road and found a bench on the sunny side of the park.

But for a while I couldn’t even edit.

In that moment, with the authors’ words still echoing in my mind, editing that manuscript felt like building a kite when I know there will be no wind to take it up. I could edit and edit until I was blue in the face and my fingers stained green, and if there were no agents to represent my work and no publishing houses to receive it, what was the point?

But when you have time to kill, you do not want to spend it marinating in dramatics; so, I stayed in the park for two hours, doggedly editing. I only stopped when a straggly-haired homeless man came and sat on the bench next to me, took a long draw on his cigarette nub and rasped, “Sorry, you looked comfortable.” Trying to gauge how fast I could run in my boots and prairie skirt should he sidle closer, I decided it’d be best if I left the darkening park, for I was suddenly colder than I knew.

I crossed the street again and walked up to a local bookstore my best friend and I used to frequent that summer Vanderbilt Hospital became our second home. Strolling up and down those aisles, I felt like I should be holding my breath, clasping my hands at my sides like a child told not to touch–treating the interior of that place with the reverence of a shrine. Dust motes sparkled in the fading afternoon light streaming through the front window; the musty scent of books wrapped around the tiny space with a comfort of a grandmother’s quilt. The numerous shelves seemed to bow beneath the intellectual weight of their authors: Dickens, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Lewis, Hemingway, Austen, Chekhov, Steinbeck; newer writers like Ann Panchette, Lee Smith, Joanne Harris, Natalie Babbitt, Edward P. Jones, Frances Mays.

Sometimes I would take a title down and flip through the deckled pages; test the heft of it as a doctor who is convinced their patient is shrinking before their eyes. I stared at the book cover art. At the jewel-like tones of the older books embossed with gold; at the newer titles, all jagged fonts and glowing fluorescence. How can all this change? I wondered. How can we toss all this history, this tangibility, in exchange for a tiny, strolling screen?

Once I’d been up and down every aisle, I rolled my manuscript up like a newspaper, took a deep breath and moved toward the door. But then I paused, looked over at the silver-haired woman reading a book behind the cash register. Both the woman and the cash register looked like they’d seen better days.

“What’re we going to do about the eBook?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything at first, just set her hardback book down, took off her glasses and looked up at me with clear blue eyes that reflected the weariness of her soul.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Take it as it comes, I guess.”

“Has it been very hard on you?”

“The dawn of the eBook, you mean?”

I nodded.

“Well, it’s certainly not helping matters, but we were hit long before that. In this economy, people just aren’t buying books.”

I unfurled the papers in my hand, showed the green stains marring the script. “Before I came to your store, I was in the park revising my novel. But…well, it seems kinda foolish when books are coming to an end.” I shrugged. “At least books as we know them.”

“Hey, maybe these changes won’t all be bad….You remember LPs?” The woman smiled, shook her head. “Never mind, you look too young for LPs. Well, I remember my husband saying that LPs were going out. That these little disks about the size of our hands were going to replace them. I couldn’t believe it, but then — within a couple of weeks — LPs were completely gone, replaced by CDs. Now, CDs are gone, too…replaced by iPods.” The woman sighed, ran short-nailed fingers over the glossy cover of her book. “Change is the way of the world. Always has been, always will be….We just have to learn to change with it.”

A dark-haired woman stepped out of an aisle and looked between the two of us. The curious expression on her face made me think she’d been listening. “Do you all know any good classics?” she asked, pointing to the rows and rows of jewel-toned, gold embossed books. “There’re just so many, and I want–I want one to put on my bookshelf. It’ll look so nice. Especially one like these.”

The silver-haired woman and I shared a secret smile. She then stood, adjusted her dangly, stone earrings and walked over to the classics. I suggested a few titles as well and touched the silver-haired woman on the back.

“It was nice talking with you,” I said.

“You, too,” she replied, looking over her shoulder. “Good luck getting your novel published.”

“Thanks, I think I’m gonna need it.”

I walked out of the door with the bell chiming and crossed the street. I went into a store known for its stationary and unique invitations. How long until they go out of business, too? I thought, staring at the shelves of graduation, birth and engagement announcements; old-fashioned red wax seals and onionskin paper tied with burlap string. Who even sends cards anymore?

Then something in the display window caught my eye. A desk. A towering, scarred wooden desk I couldn’t have sat behind unless boosted by a library of dictionaries. On top of it was a typewriter. An old typewriter. The kind that cherrily ding! whenever you reach the end of a row. The kind used in movies so the aspiring authoress can wrap her arms around it and sob into the button-like keys.

Behind it was a toppled pile of books as ancient as the typewriter. If opened, it seemed the covers would waft the tobacco smoke and brandy used by The Inklings; shimmering silverfish would fall out from between the pages like odd, pressed petals. I must’ve stared at that desk and typewriter for a moment too long, for one of the employees came over and asked, “Can I help you?”

I turned around. “No, no…I’m fine. Love your display here.”

She waved her manicured hand. “Oh, we’re getting ready to change it out.”

“I think it’s beautiful, just beautiful,” I breathed. I wasn’t about to burst into tears, but I did feel like wrapping my arms around that worn typewriter, kissing each of those faded keys like a mother kissing her newborn’s perfect fingers and toes.

I’d probably get thrown out if I did either, and this gum-popping girl didn’t seem like she was trembling at the dawning of the eBook age, so I just smiled and left.

Walking toward the coffee shop where my best friend and I were to meet, I passed the dark-haired woman from the bookstore with her little boy in tow. On her arm was a white sack. I could see the square contents inside it. The books, the classics. I looked over at her and grinned as if she’d just handed me a pot of gold. She smiled and nodded in a I-know-you way.

In that simple exchange, hope fluttered back to perch in my resigned soul, and I almost started skipping and swinging on a lamppost à la Singing in the Rain. But I didn’t. I just kept walking toward that coffee shop, clutched my rolled manuscript a little tighter, and wondered if I could revise a few pages before my best friend’s arrival.

For, regardless if my work will be placed in a jewel-toned hardback embossed in gold or a tiny, scrolling screen, the weight of the medium doesn’t matter as much as the weight of the words. And I must keep editing and editing until I am blue in the face and my fingers stained green, so those words — that story — can bring a smile to someone’s face, put a spring in their step, and a joy in their heart that regardless of the changes of the world, hope in the midst of uncertainty will always, always remain the same.

**Jolina Petersheim’s blog, The Happy Book Blog, at a year old has been featured twice on Southern author River Jordan’s Clearstory Radio. Currently it is featured under author Jessica McCann’s “Stuff for Writers,” award-winning freelance writer Melissa Crytzer-Fry’s Blogroll and numerous other creative writing sites.

A graduate from University of the Cumberlands with degrees in English and Communication Arts, Jolina’s short story, “Security in the Shadows,” and article, “The Support System,” were the university’s 2006 and 2008 Creative Writing Award recipients. Her current publishing credits include Muscadine Lines, Tales of Kindness, Cicada Magazine, Maypop, Waiting Room Magazine, Washington Poets Association, Pensworth, Branchwood Journal, The Patriot, and The Robertson County Times. She lives in the mountains of Tennessee with her Mohican-man husband, their 40 acres of untamed territory, and one unruly but lovable Southern novel-in-progress set on a tobacco plantation in northwest Tennessee that is in the final editing stage.

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A Conversation With Jack Ketchum

“Who is the scariest guy in America? Probably Jack Ketchum.” ~Stephen King.

It’s been a damn good week for me.

Yeah, I know … I just posted. I’ll likely lose a subscriber or two for posting twice in one day, but the good news is … you’ll live. You oughtta be stoked that the reason I’m posting again today is because I’m bringing you a conversation with one of my all-time favorite horror authors, Jack Ketchum.

1. As authors, seeing our novels transformed into movies, where flesh and blood people are acting out scenes we’ve already seen played a hundred times over in our heads, is something few of us will ever experience. What has that been like for you? If I recall correctly, you’ve been able to get a little more hands-on in a couple of the films, what was that like ?

When it’s good it’s a total kick in the head, when it’s not it’s…disappointing.  I’ve had more of the former than the latter, happy to say.  It’s pretty amazing.  You write a book in the privacy of your own room, it comes out of one mind and one mind only — or in the case of THE WOMAN, two —  and then you get this whole group of talented people all bring their own skills and minds to it, their own energy.  I’ve been on the set for at least a day or two with all my films and it’s always amazing.  With THE GIRL NEXT DOOR I probably spent over a week on set in several locations.  And on THE WOMAN was there for nearly the entire shoot.  That was an experience.  Working with Lucky McKee and watching actors the caliber of Pollyanna McIntosh, Angela Bettis and Sean Bridgers bring these people to life.  You want to see a couple of writers smile!

2. What is your greatest fear as an author? As a human being?

As an author?  That crazy sonovabitch will shoot me in the head for writing THE GIRL NEXT DOOR.  As a human being?  Alzheimer’s.  I think in general we mostly fear an old age in progressive lingering pain.  That and the aforementioned crazy sonovabitch.

3. The first novel I read of yours was the uncensored version of Off Season. From the outside, it appears as though you’ve moved into a place in your career where you aren’t at the same kinds of mercies that you once were in terms of censorship and word count, etc. Did you know, or have faith, back then that you would arrive at the place you are now, or was there a fear that you’d always be fighting to keep things as you’d originally penned them?

The only books I really had a censorship problem with were OFF SEASON, because of the sheer degree of violence and SHE WAKES, where I had a secondary but important character who was a male transvestite.  Berkeley Books said “you can’t do that!”  And I was new with them and had already been dumped by Ballantine and Warner so I buckled and changed it.  I think I’ll always have a problem with word count among the major publishers because I tend to write short and tight.  But maybe not.  E-books seem to be changing that, making shorter offerings acceptable.  We’ll see.  And you’re right, I don’t have to fight much these days, and pretty much knew that the day would come when I wouldn’t.

4. I promised not to ask you anything too cliché, but selfishly I have to ask: Do you have a favorite story that you’ve written?

I’m not choosing a favorite daughter.  Sorry.

5. One of my personal fears as an author is that I’ll die before I get all of the stories out of my head that need to come out. This is ridiculous of course, because we never truly run out of stories. In some cases, there are stories that refuse to be written, despite how hard we try to pen them to the page (pun intended). Do you have any stories like this? If so, how long have they been lingering and do you think they’ll ever come to fruition?

A quote I like a lot comes to mind.  “Take your time,” he would say to himself, “if the cat’s in a hurry she has peculiar kittens.”  That’s Louis de Bernieres, from BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS.  Some stories just leap out at you, beg to be written right away.  Others gestate — or in my case, sometimes fester — for quite a while.  You can’t rush them.

6. Horror, Fantasy and Science Fiction have, for too long, been the redheaded stepchildren of the literary world. How have you dealt with criticism from that elitist society, and what kind of advice could you give those of us who are in the midst of, or about to be bombarded with, the same sort of cold reception?

Feggeddaboudit.  Write what you need to write and what you enjoy writing.  It’s important to keep in mind that writing’s just high-level play.  You’re doing the same thing, basically, that you did when you were just a little kid, inventing games for yourself.  They’re your games, and sometimes the other kids will want to play along and sometimes they won’t.  So long as you’re having a good time, so what?

7. I’ve never read a horror novel of yours that didn’t have depth behind it. In fact, I’ve seen more depth in some of your novels than I have in most of the purely literary novels I’ve had to read for professional review sites. I can’t help but to wonder, psychologically, how it is that with seemingly little effort, you get straight to the heart of so many unmentionable issues. You’ve tackled subjects such as rape, incest, drugs and violence, fluidly and without the need for overly ornamental prose. What do you think the differences are between works such as yours, and works that deal with similar subject matter, other than the obvious? Could it have anything to do with the fear of ourselves—the fear of what we’re truly, utterly capable of?

Thank you.  I think the key here might be that I don’t want to waste your time, or mine.  That is, I don’t want to write pure escapism — fancy-dress vampires and such.  I’d like to engage us both in a bit of dialogue about something important while at the same time telling you a good story.  I think all good writing, literary or genre — and both of these should be in quotes, to my mind — should remind you that the world is so much bigger and more diverse than your own, richer than just your experience of it for better or worse, that people are like you and not like you at all.

8. What is your definition of evil?

Lack of empathy and conscience.

9. If you could go back in time, to the days when you were writing merely for your own pleasure—before you were published or even submitting—is there any advice you’d give yourself?

Yeah, don’t try to be so fucking literary.  Don’t try to reinvent writing.  Just write.

10. The darkness of human nature, in my opinion, seems to be a common theme throughout your works. This begs the question: Do you think we are born inherently good or evil? Is it all in how we’re raised? Or a little bit of both?

I’m an optimist about human nature.  There are those among us masquerading as humans — those are the sociopaths, the ones without empathy and conscience — but they’re by far the minority.  We should watch out for them, but not despair because they happen to be there.  Most of us do as the Greeks say, go with the good. Whenever you get too down on human nature, ask yourself what other species on earth tries over and over to protect the existence of other species?  We’re still new, still evolving, and we reinvent ourselves every ten or twenty years or so.  We’re communicating right now via computer!  Good grief!  We’re practically magic!

** A HUGE thanks goes to Jack for taking time out of his seriously hectic schedule to drop by The Asylum! We sincerely appreciate it and of course, as always, thank you for sharing your awesome work. The world of horror simply wouldn’t be the same without you!!

Guest Blogger: James Thayer

A character’s weakness is a story’s strength.

“Your characters are going to make or break your story,’” Stephen Coonts said.  No matter how deftly the plot is put together, not matter how exotic the settings, no matter how vividly written the story is, readers won’t become involved with the story unless they are attracted to a character.  Novelist Sol Stein said, “Readers value and remember extraordinary characters long after tricky plots are forgotten.”

Sometimes creating that magnetic character is difficult.   James Michener said, “I have tried every device I know to breathe life into my character, for there is little in fiction more rewarding than to see real people interact on a page.”

Here’s a proven technique; give the character a weakness.  Nobility, intelligence, determination, wisdom, humor: all of these attributes can work well in fictional hero, but nothing endears readers to a character more than a weakness.  And Simon & Schuster editor Michael Korda said, “Characters’ weaknesses are more interesting than their strengths.”

An example is Sherlock Holmes, who was brilliant, daring, and witty.  But, as Sol Stein points out, Holmes’s “drug addiction worried his friend Dr. Watson.  Watson is critical of Holmes’s habit, but does not condemn him for it.  The reader wishes Holmes would abstain, and knows he can’t.”  Holmes can sometimes be arrogant and waspish, but Stein says the addiction helps the reader feel compassion for the detective.

Even well-crafted superheroes have weaknesses.  James Poniewozik said that we need superheroes “to suffer our heartbreaks, reflect our anxieties, embody our weaknesses,” and notes that Clark Kent’s “sad-sack personality is as essential to fans as Superman’s ability to turn steel girders into pasta ribbons.”  Stan Lee of Marvel Comics listed Spiderman’s weaknesses: “Despite his super powers, he still has money troubles, dandruff, domestic problems, allergy attacks, self-doubts, and unexpected defeats.”

What about more down-to-earth characters?  In Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, Scarlett O’Hara’s weakness is blind love that makes her fail to find true love and happiness. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s weakness is an amoral scientific curiosity.  Macbeth was undone by arrogance, and Othello by misplaced trust.

In Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander novels, Jack Aubrey’s weakness is befuddlement regarding how the world works on land, as opposed to the sea where he is indeed a master.  In John LeCarre’s novels, George Smiley’s weakness is his baffling tolerance for his wife’s affairs.

Anne’s weakness in Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables is a touch of haughtiness.  In I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe, Charlotte’s weakness is naivety,  Same with Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stephenson’s Treasure Island.  In Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, d’Artagnan is plagued by a prickliness to insult stemming from a sense of inferiority.

A weakness endears a character to readers because we aren’t perfect, and so we see ourselves in character’s weaknesses.  We root for people with whom we sympathize, and so we want to accompany the character on her adventures, cheering all the way.

**You can find out more about James, and get more of his sage advice at his website here. I haven’t personally read his book yet (as I just recently had the pleasure of ‘virtually’ meeting him through comments on Best Damn), but if it is anywhere near as excellent as his blog, then it ought to be well worth the money to purchase it!

Guest Blogger: Ien Nivens

“You don’t mind putting in long hours, and you like punching people, so let’s combine the two. I’m going to teach you ‘chanting’. It takes a lot of time, and a lot of precision, and doing a whole lot of steps exactly right, but when it works, you can make some pretty awesome stuff.”

Bone Shop

“Awesome would be a nice change,” Marla said.

–from Bone Shop, by T. A. Pratt

Available at http://www.marlamason.net/boneshop/

Foul Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart
By Ien Nivens

Tim Pratt’s Bone Shop is the foul-rag-to-dubious-riches story of a street urchin’s rise through the ranks of sorcerers in the East Coast city of Felsport.  A prequel to Pratt’s Marla Mason series, the hectic urban eclecticism of this introductory novella is wound in prose as frank as baling wire—tarnished here and burnished there—and bound by the spittle of broken promises, dire prophecies and talking jawbones.  I’m going to say this once, maybe twice:  Download it.  Read it.  It’s as free as a dirty needle, and the odds are better than even that it will infect you, leaving you jittery, addicted, and wondering if you’re sick. It’ll be OK.  There’s more where this came from at http://www.marlamason.net

Pratt has peopled Felsport with a cast as intriguing as the magical artifacts they find, finagle and fiddle with in this tale of jiggered hopes and cracked dreams. Jenny Click deserves a novella of her own (but don’t give her a copy; she’d only set fire to it) while Artie Mann’s ideas about sorcery deserve at least a spread in a dirty magazine.  In the end Bone Shop is, oddly enough, a morality tale.  At least, I think so.  I can’t tell you what the moral is exactly, because that part of my memory has been wiped clean by a tincture of lethe water.  But I’m pretty sure that it has something to do with cobbling one’s ambitions together around a vacant heart.

There are problems with the hodge-podge of narrative fabrics and other magics that Pratt has grabbed off the racks at the thrift shops of myth and imagination. Nothing so threadbare that it can’t be mended, but a little backstitching here and there would keep this dream from always threatening to unravel.  In a few places, where the seams are turned needlessly inside-out, a little clipping is all that’s needed.  Let me show you what I mean.

Bone Shop begins with Marla Mason as a sixteen-year-old dropout.  Literate and homeless, she spends a lot of time at the public library, reading to keep warm.  We never learn why she’s on the streets and not in school, but we do come to understand that it’s a matter of preference.  She is mentally tough and determined to improve her circumstances but certainly not by way of a traditional education.  She is not a stickler for rules.  Except, apparently, grammatical ones.

Marla finds Artie—the man who has taken her in, made her his apprentice, given her a semblance of a home and a family—disemboweled.  She must go in search of his murderer.  Whatever sense of loyalty she may (or may not) feel toward the sorcerer has been augmented in advance by a magically binding oath of vengeance called a geas, which takes the form of Artie’s voice screaming in her head until his killer is dead.  Stalking the killer, Marla “[pushes] open a door marked ‘Employee’s Only’ – that stupid apostrophe [makes] her grit her teeth…”

Mind you, apostrophe abuse annoys me, too.  But an author poking his fingers through the fabric of a story with his pet grammatical peeve, while his protagonist is breathing down the neck of a serial killer is enough to make me wince.   (But I wax as pricklish, surely, as Pratt’s sanctimonious angels, who stumble about in bum’s clothing, accusing everyone of…well, of something not quite proper.)  I reluctantly absolve Pratt of the little crimes he commits and move on to Bone Shop’s bigger sins—of omission.

First is the baffling failure to introduce Somerset—a sorcerer of great historical significance in Felsport, apparently, but who knew?—until Marla needs a new nemesis.  Somerset is brought back from the dead, before we know that he ever lived, to fill in a plot hole in the next to last chapter.  We learn that the democratic structure of the sitting “sorcerer’s council” is a reaction to Somerset’s “reign of terror” while he was alive.  Since this is information that a teacher/sorcerer like Artie Mann might have imparted to his apprentices in memorable detail, its absence from Marla’s early curriculum is regrettable.  It leaves the final levels of the fictional structure top-heavy and out of joint.

While Somerset’s tardy appearance damages Bone Shop’s rickety structure, a lack of sufficient character development with regard to Marla’s one and only love interest, Daniel, saps vitality from the novella’s soul.  The peripheral and superficial treatment of Daniel’s personality prevents two important events from achieving sufficient credibility, or even comprehensibility.  The first of these is what Jenny Click, believing that Daniel must be dead, decides that she must do about it.  (I won’t tell you what that is, because she is one of the most intriguing minor characters I’ve met in recent fiction, and you really should get to know her for yourself.)   Jenny’s action stretches the cables of my suspension-of-disbelief bridge to the snapping point, not because it isn’t possible or likely, but because Daniel has so far been presented as little more than a cute butt with a vague Southernness that we never quite hear, see or feel, and the rare ability to nourish himself on the energies of other people, places and things.  Marla has fallen in love with Daniel, apparently, but how hard and what for?  We just don’t see what she sees in him.  We aren’t given the opportunity.

Pratt is not a prudish writer, but he glides over the intimacies of Marla’s and Daniel’s relationship with an almost juvenile coyness.  Maybe he assumes that telling us about all the wild sex these two teenagers are having is enough to convince us that they mean something to one another.  It’s not.  A little tenderness in these early scenes, an emotional resonance that the reader can tune into, would go a long way toward making the finale as unendurably poignant as it’s meant to be.

Hearts are ripped out of their chests in this story; guts get wrenched, mangled and left steaming.  But not the reader’s heart.  Not the reader’s guts.  And that’s a crying shame.  This improbable structure of bone and magical gewgaw that Pratt has somehow rigged together is surely sturdy enough, complex enough, lifelike enough to support the organ of poignancy he tries, too late, to animate.  We end up surprised by an ending that might have shocked his story to life—and shocked us numb with its bitter beauty.  But owing to a simple lack of preparation early on, that doesn’t happen.  Pratt fumbles for the heartstrings of a strong plot and plucks them hard, only to find that they haven’t been properly tuned.  They could be.  They ought to be.  The independent publishing platform that Pratt employs would allow for it.  Bone Shop has all the claws it needs to rip, wrench and mangle its way to an awesome conclusion. All that’s missing is the tender vitals.

Ien Nivens’ reviews of independently published fiction also appear at http://www.berkshirefinearts.com/

Painting by Cindy Kaplan

Thank you Ien! As always, your presence in and support of The Asylum is always appreciated.  ~J.S.

*If you’d like to write as a guest blogger for Welcome to the Asylum, feel free to email me at batman0762@gmail.com.