I can’t fool myself. Like any writer, I’d like to think at least a few people are reading what I write.
But as a novelist I struggle with a huge disadvantage, one that few writers overcome. I can’t write the same book over and over. I can’t even work in the same genre.
Someone who can write the same book over and over is someone who gets read. Someone who writes in at least the same genre over and over gets read.
But someone who writes what I think is mainstream fiction one day (CHINA BLUES & CHASING WOMEN) , then historical fiction the next (that was one long day: it took seven years to research and compose THE SECRET MAGDALENE and three years to create FLOW DOWN LIKE SILVER, HYPATIA OF ALEXANDRIA) can’t build a readership.
So then what do I do? Instead of building on the interest of a major publisher when Random House bought my Magdalene and encouraged my Hypatia, I have to go off and write HOUDINI HEART. I didn’t know it was horror as it appeared on my screen each day, fully formed in the mind of its nameless lead character. But apparently it is. The Horror Writers of America certainly saw it that way else why ask me to submit it for a Bram Stoker Award for the Best Horror Novel of 2011? It didn’t win but it came horrifyingly close.
And now what do I do? I’ve been taken over by a would-be noir private detective. He’s named himself Sam Russo. He was dragged up in a Home for Kids Nobody Wants. He lives in Stapleton, a town nobody knows, on Staten Island, a place nobody takes seriously. I was born on Staten Island. I haven’t seen it since. But Sam has.
For Sam, it’s the late 1940s, he’s survived the Second World War fighting on the Pacific Front in the last cavalry unit of the US military. Sam loves horses and horse-racing. He likes reading dime crime paperbacks in his one room four story walk-up. He’s crazy for the movies. Jimmy Cagney. Edward G. Robinson. Bogart! He wants to be Bogie. He wants to solve crimes. He wants to be hard-boiled. He wants to swap wisecracks with great lookin’ dames. He doesn’t want a dog.
I’ve written three Sam Russo cases, now available in all the latest formats books appear in these days. SHADOW ROLL is set at the Saratoga racetrack in Saratoga Springs, New York. Three young jockeys are dead. The town would like ’em to stay that way and get on with their lucrative racing season. Sam wants to solve all three cases like Bogie would. GOOD DOG, BAD DOG takes him and his new-found friend, the one he’s brought back from Saratoga, up and down Broadway: “The Great White Way.” They’re in and out of one hit show after another looking for a giant killer. THE GIRL IN THE NEXT ROOM is all about his neighbor Holly. She has the single room next to his. Holly is a girl. Or maybe he isn’t. Whatever Holly is, Sam and his new friend like her. They like her a lot. So when she disappears off her street corner, they take it seriously, very seriously.
Now I’m writing DEAD ON THE ROCKS. Sam is on a huge first class yacht headed for Florida. And so is his friend. Sam hates water.
You see? As a writer, I’m all over the place. What next? A surreal musical film called THE LAST SHOWBOAT?
I’d ask for professional help, but I love writing. Apparently, I’ll write pretty much anything. Well, maybe not a western. But then, but then… there’s all those pretty horses.
Houdini Heart as a title came to me long before I knew what I would do with it. But when I knew, I knew. Unlike anything I’ve ever written, Houdini Heart poured out as hot water from a secret faucet. It ran with heat. I did not know I was writing horror. I was only slightly aware I might be writing magical realism. I damn well knew I was writing to cleanse my blood.
It worked. None of us will ever be done suffering. Suffering is a keystone of life. But some of us one day look our suffering square in the eye. Perhaps not for long, and perhaps not deeply enough to set it aside (do we ever set it aside?), but in my case long enough and deep enough to write Houdini Heart. I am that unnamed woman, or I could be. I suffer because I believe I am not good enough, not wise enough, not clever enough, not even lucky enough, to be a true artist, a real artist. Few artists escape this nonsense. It feeds us. We thrive on it. Sometimes it kills us. Literally. But it keeps us writing. It’s the spine of Houdini Heart. As for its heart, ah, that’s another tale.
Yesterday I learned that Houdini Heart had made the preliminary ballot in the Novel Category for the Horror Association’s Bram Stoker Award. I take this seriously. I take it open-heartedly. This is an honor I’ve now spent over 24 hours absorbing. It still runs along my nerves like the jolt of touching a live wire.
To be read by anyone is honor enough, but to recognized by one’s profession…I still reel.
A long time ago I began a book about Mary Magdalene. I honestly don’t know why. I’d never given her much thought. I am not a Christian. Truthfully, I do not subscribe to any religion. Religion, to me, is not spiritual. It’s a human construct carefully designed to control and direct the human desire for meaning. I long for meaning as much as anyone, but have never sought it from other humans. Dogma is dogma, no matter which religion we speak of. As for the Magdalene…perhaps if I’d known it would absorb seven years of my life, I might have set it aside and written a sequel to The Saggy Baggy Elephant instead. But day after day went by and The Secret Magdalene grew word by word, sentence by sentence. And then, one amazing morning, I honestly believed I had finished.
But something niggled at me, whispering: You are not finished. More would have their say. So back I went to the keyboard and out came Flow Down Like Silver. I wish I could say it “flowed.” But I can’t. To slip under the skin of Hypatia of Alexandria was no easy thing…especially with so little truly known about her. Hopeful speculations, unsupported hopes, dogged assumptions, but facts? So few, so very few. Hypatia and I struggled for three years. Less time than the Magdalene only because in researching Mariamne I’d found so much that applied to Hypatia.
This time I knew I wasn’t finished. I thought the Magdalene had more to say. And back I went to the words, a letter at a time. I finished that book. It’s called The Woman Who Knew the All. But when the last word was typed and I’d lifted my hands from the keyboard, I already knew it wasn’t right. I’d known it as I wrote it. Some of it was. Some of it was very right. But as a whole, no. Something was very wrong. I could not offer it for publication. So I let it rest quietly by itself. Perhaps when I went back?
And while waiting I wrote Houdini Heart, absolutely nothing like I’d spent years of my life writing and feeling and thinking about. Houdini Heart came fast. It did flow. And then it too was finished.
Back I went to the last of my trilogy of the Divine Feminine…simply words allowing me a way to think about what I thought I was doing. I thought The Woman Who Knew the All could be “fixed.” She could be rewritten, re-felt. But something in me said: This is not the voice that would speak. A new voice awaits you. Listen for her. I trust my heart. I trust what it whispers to me. So I left the Magdalene in her file and waited. A month ago, She came, the woman who would speak the last of what needed to be said. By me? Through me? Does it matter? I don’t know her name yet. But I do know the name she would call her book. THE TIME OF THE BEE. And I know when it takes place: in the last moment of the Goddess, almost 12,000 years ago.
Not what I expected at all. But whatever is?
To speak of freedom, one usually means freedom from the physical oppression of one’s fellow man (or woman…once us females get the chance and if we take it). Here I speak of a much more insidious lack of freedom, or slavery to come closer to the truth. To be burdened by something like our new corporate state is bad enough, but to be controlled by a system of belief is crippling. In Flow Down Like Silver, my true-life heroine, Hypatia of Alexandria, struggles against the blind beliefs of her students in the hope she can open their eyes to a broader deeper truth.
You and I, we all of us come dragging behind us as much “belief baggage,” and are weighted down with as many chains of unquestioned assumptions, as Jacob Marley’s ghost. We have to be. We’re human. And no human alive lives without a set of beliefs firmly embedded in their psyche, maybe even encoded in their DNA. Not only were we taught these belief-truths from the moment we opened our brand new eyes on this gorgeous world, we had them hard-wired in as a means to survival. Our assumptions about “truth” are the glue of our personal reality.
Come to Earth as humans, we all share human beliefs about reality–but modified if we are born, say, a Hindu. In other words, if born to Hindus, we should be Hindus. If born to Jews or to Muslims or to Christians or to atheists, we should all almost certainly be as they are. Arriving in a clutch of Born-Agains, we go through hell on earth–and pray for the Rapture to get us the heck out of here. Even born to the once-lovely Hippies, we come into this world trailing yards and yards of gauzy wide-eyed belief.
Unless we learn to ask questions.
Most of us have much to thank our parents for. Quite a few have a lot to complain about. As for me, I have really only this (which is both gift and curse): my parents taught me nothing. I missed out on the usual indoctrination. I can’t recall a single conversation about religion. Or one about social status, ie: racism. Or politics. Come to think, where the hell were my parents when I was growing up? Not parenting, that’s for sure. When they were around, I remember gossip. I recall fights. They weren’t exactly drunks, but the smell of liquor still makes me ill. There was always the television, and they certainly watched that. While they were doing all this, I was reading books. Even so, I had a roof over my head, and food more often than not. I had clothes and toys and whatever else a child needs to stay alive. What I did not have was cherishing. Or instruction.
All this became part of Houdini Heart, a book of supernatural horror heavily based on my youth.
As I said, this is a curse. But it’s also a blessing. I did not have to unlearn what was taught me as “truths.” I did not have to struggle to rid myself of my parent’s beliefs. I did not have to free myself from church or mosque or temple or even nude dancing in the woods. I held fast to no social dictum. I was born free of these things. And that includes the freedom to embrace any of them all by myself should they ever appeal. None of them have.
Which means I was born free to create myself out of nothing but my own thoughts and reactions to the Grand Mass Illusion I’d opened my illusory eyes on.
I paid a heavy price for this, but it was worth every anguish along the way.
Dear you and me,
I want to write mysteries like Raymond Chandler wrote mysteries. Chandler created an LA I look for even now in the shabby streets of Hollywood. Or in the oiled ooze of Long Beach or La Jolla’s shadier sections…not that La Jolla has any. His world isn’t there. It never was. But I see it anyway because Chandler made us all see it that way.
I want to write horror that trails its fingers along the spine as Shirley Jackson’s did. Shirley was not a happy woman. She ate and chain smoked her life away writing her strange and perfect sentences.
I want to write poems as precise as Emily Dickinson’s and as lyrical as a line by Dylan Thomas. Emily wrote like silver bullets shot from a small caliber gun, her words drilling precise holes in the mind and in the holes bulleted worlds of intense meaning. Emily’s subject was “Eternity,” her name for divine reality. Her subject is my subject.
I want to write literature that lasts as Vladimir Nabokov’s will last. I want to write like Flann O’Brien, wee coy disappointed man that he was. I want to leave something of myth in the world. An Oz of my own.
In short, I want to write in any genre as one of the greats. Instead, it has always been my curse to suffer “for my art” as sensationally as Poe ever did and yet never to be Poe. The hell with it. I write anyway. I wrote Houdini Heart. A surprise to me: supernatural horror. It just came and I let it.
I do have this: that I write at all is all my own doing. I am not the spawn of greats or semi-greats or even half a great. My stepfather could barely read much less write. I never saw a book in my mother’s hands. There were no books in my houses. (Imagine what Cicero would have said.) So many Navy houses and Duty Ports when you get dragged around by a pint-sized sailor and a frantic woman who’s just biding her time until she thinks you’re old enough to get along without her. I could always have gotten along without her, and though she was almost there, I did get along without her. And yet I wrote my first book, a fantasy, when I was four. Come to think, I was also a publisher at four. I wrote and illustrated my little book; then, like Emily, made a tidy packet of it and hid it. I don’t recall much before the age of 7 or 8 but I do remember that. I have a strong feeling there’s a good reason I forgot everything else.
I have a stronger feeling that writing, at least for me, is a place to go just to be somewhere I belong.