Monday, December 31, 2012

Misery on the Big Screen

If you’ve been anywhere near a theater or television in the past month, you know that the film adaptation of Les Miserables opened on Christmas day. Yesterday, I survived the three-hour viewing (2 hours, 37 minutes of the film, at least 20 minutes of trailers) and I have to say, it was indeed very good.

Adaptation is a tricky thing, the channels through which stories reach people having different settings, often a myriad of methods for telling. I haven’t seen the Broadway version of Les Miserables, although I’ve seen many others. Musicals parlay story through song and pageantry. Big numbers from strong voices, elaborate sets. And they’ve been adapted for film in a variety of ways (and sometimes, films are adapted to musicals) and back to musicals again. It seems to me there are two main things a film can do that a story set on a Broadway stage cannot, and I believe Les Miserables did both of these very well.

First, expansion of scope. Musicals are limited by the stage. To change scenes, the curtains must be closed and new sets brought in. The stage itself is a finite size. Les Miserables, the movie, includes many sweeping and grand shots that give a sense of Paris of the 1800s. From the opening shot of a tiny Hugh Jackman straining in a prison work crew to the overhead views of the crude barricades positioned throughout the city during the fledging movements of the French Revolution, this is film’s terrain: vastness, scope, perspective. The movie has moments of great beauty and poignancy, in terms of setting scenes.

Second, personalization of character. In a Broadway show, ensemble trumps solo and your impressions of the main characters, even if you’re in the first ten rows, are received through large gestures mostly. Director Tom Hooper gives us, in his Les Miserables, many songs by solo performers filmed at such close range that every crease, every emotion, every imperfection, is visible. In fact, these solos, especially Anne Hathaway’s much-touted performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” and several by Jackman and others, are so personal and anguished they grip you by the throat. Really, you can’t look away. This is also film’s domain—the ability to draw you into another life, another individual, in an immediate and sensual way.

All in all, a very fulfilling way to spend three hours and experience this story. At times, these two aspects are combined in group numbers that pan from face to face then back out again. Such as the number “Do You Hear the People Sing.” This finale from the 25th anniversary concert of the Broadway show actually does a good job with the notion of scope and because it’s filmed, there's personalization too. It's a long clip, but you get an idea of what I mean at around 6:30. But see the film too!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Ways to build a story

Maybe you’ve seen mention of Chris Ware’s Building Stories on some of the Best of 2012 lists circulating. I bought the book as a pre-Christmas treat for myself and just finished reading it the other day. My experience with graphic novels is very limited. I read Marjane Satrapi’s Perseopolis series and I love The Arrival by Shaun Tan. That’s it, actually. I guess I was never drawn to the form because I’ve never understood comics, the ones in the newspaper. Are they supposed to be funny? But when I read about Ware’s book, I was intrigued with the construction of it, because it seemed to relate to a current project I’m working on, a collection of short stories.

Building Stories is a graphic novel; that is, it tells its story through drawings AND words. The “book” arrives in a large box, about the size of a board game. Inside, there are fourteen independent items, ranging in form and size. There are large, folded sheets much like newspapers and small, flip-able books. You can read these items in any way you choose.

We’ve had discussions in my book club about what constitutes a novel and what doesn’t. Are a collection of interrelated stories a novel? What about a shorter work? What’s a novella??? It seems to me that we’re perfectly comfortable with leaving a variety of types under the umbrella of “novel,” but we are less happy to do so with form. What makes a novel a novel? Cohesive themes? A linear story? Deep meanings? Personally, I prefer a very loose definition: If the author calls it a novel, it’s a novel.

I don’t worry so much, actually, about labels but more about building stories. Why did Olive Kitteridge work so well for me but not so much Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad? Regardless of the pieces you choose, how should the story be held together?

A few notes on the tactile aspect of Building Stories. The reading was much more active than reading from a print book or ereader. My daughter and I sat down, opened the box and immediately began touching all of the pieces inside. We moved them around, stacked them and opened them, put them back in the box when finished. Other pieces called out, with a word or a drawing, asking to be next. And it was a communal activity, sitting there with my daughter reading, at least until I figured out that the content was too adult and sent her away.

I was enthralled with the book and dreamt about it that night. Maybe because of the visual aspect. I’m not sure I’ve ever dreamt about a novel before. There were parts that were incredibly touching, like this small booklet about the experience of motherhood. This particular piece has no words, but it encompasses the joys and sorrows of parenthood like few traditionally told stories can.

I have one regret about reading Building Stories, that I will never be able to start again and read the parts in a different order. The order I chose seemed entirely natural and fitting, almost some kind of magic trick. I kept wondering how the experience would have changed if I’d had certain information before the other. But this book, its images and story, will stay with me a long time. It’s made me reconsider so much about reading, about writing, and as any good novel does, it’s made me see life through a fresh lens.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My 2012 Book List

I should qualify this “Best of 2012” list by saying that I’ve read only a few of the books that are circulating on most of the end of year lists. Like most average readers, my reading throughout the year includes old and new, suggested and found, serious and not-so-serious. So, my best of 2012 is basically a best of whatever hodge-podge of books I read this year.

I have to give a shout out to Goodreads, because it has made keeping track of what I’ve read very easy. If you’re not a member already, hop over and take a look. Make sure to send me a friend request here and of course, add my own novel to your list while you’re there.

And because naming a group of favorites is difficult enough for me, I give you these in no particular order. All of them resonated with me; all garnered 5 stars for one reason or another. I’m very pleased, too, that the list has turned out to be very diverse. I credit my book club and my author friends for continually exposing me to books I may not have chosen myself.

An emotional picaresque set in the American West about Monte Becket, a writer who’s lost his will to write. He makes an unlikely friend and the two set out on a mission that will change Monte forever. I had read Enger’s best-selling Peace Like a River and loved it. I liked this one even more. His writing is straightforward but evocative and the story operates on so many levels, it’s incredibly fulfilling. And I cried.


Another story from (Mid)western America, the first novel by one of my favorite writers. Edith Goodnough, an elderly and beloved citizen of a small town, is in the hospital, awaiting trial for murder. The novel unspins from there, examining the characters around her and how and why each is connected to this event. Perhaps not as polished as later novels by Haruf, but great nonetheless.


A 2012 release! The novel opens on Pasquale, a young man trying to build a beach to attract American tourists to his family’s hotel in a sleepy Italian town. When a disturbed Hollywood actress arrives, the chance meeting sets into motion a chain of events that will take decades to resolve. The story moves back and forth in time, from Hollywood of the 1960s and the isolated Italian village where news of movie stars seeps in, to current day, when modern notions of celebrity and success can dilute even the purest of artistic sensibilities. Elegantly written, a beautiful book.


A crazy, passionate novel that is hard to categorize. The story involves another unlikely friendship, between a smart but troubled adolescent, Valentina, and Lucas Giraut, who has recently inherited his family’s company but has to battle his ruthless mother in the process. As Lucas tries to piece together his past from clues and dreams and interactions with his horrible mother, Valentina hides from life by obsessing about Stephen King. Funny and sharp, surprising and fresh, I really could not put it down.


A funny and touching memoir about a boy’s relationship with his eccentric Texan mother. After his father’s abandonment when he was seventeen, he’s forced to leave the encompassing influence of his mother and discover a bit about himself and life on his own. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “laugh-out-loud tale of dysfunction and discovery (that) is a compulsively readable treat.” I can’t do much better than that. A very funny, enjoyable book that I couldn’t read fast enough.


I was lucky enough to get my hands on two novels by my very favorite writer this year. I’ll include both in this entry so my list doesn’t seem biased! This one is about Arvid Jansen, a man weathering three tragedies at once—the end of his marriage, the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and his mother’s fatal cancer. Petterson has an ability, through modest but poetic writing, to pull you into a story, a life, gently but firmly. What can I say? He’s my favorite writer. I also read It’s Fine By Me, which was recently released in English. I loved that one too, but maybe slightly preferred I CURSE THE RIVER OF TIME. I was depressed after finishing both, knowing I’d have to wait a while for another.


Years ago, I chose McGregor’s lauded first novel, If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, for my book club and loved it. I’ve had this book on my shelf for some time and could kick myself for waiting so long to read it. In both books, McGregor distills small events, small happenstances, small objects, until a larger perspective emerges. This novel is about David Carter, curator of a history museum and of his own private collection of memorabilia and the flotsam of a family. When a secret is revealed, David is forced to reexamine the living history he has written for himself.


This classic book was a re-read for me, having been chosen by my book club this year, but I have to mention it because of its stunning effect on me. I remembered liking the book but on this second read, was completely blown away by this story, this writer. The novel centers around Singer, a deaf mute in a small Southern town, and the characters in his orbit. It’s about isolation and loneliness, relationships and estrangement, and the search for beauty and art amidst tragedy and suffering. Heady stuff, perhaps, but really an indescribable book that will stay and stay and stay. If you haven’t read it recently or ever, give it a try. A book that easily makes my top five favorite books of all time.


I’m thrilled to end my list with three self-published titles that should have been picked up by larger publishers (and maybe will be, eventually). Among these, WALK TO PARADISE GARDEN was my favorite, a story that spans the 20th century, amazing in its scope. Above all else, it’s the love story of John and Evie. But it’s also historical fiction, drama, a crime novel of sorts, and at times, a travel narrative. It put me in mind of sweeping sagas from another era, as we follow John and Evie through their lifetimes and from one foreign setting to another. From the Belgian countryside devastated by World War I to France during the Folies Bergere era, to industrial Chicago and its early blues scene—the author’s ability to bring alive all of these places was remarkable. A satisfying read on every level, a story I was sorry to leave. I’ve recommended this book to several readers who have enjoyed it as much as I did, and you can get the Kindle version for an unbelievable price.

CICADA by J. Eric Laing

A bird’s eye panorama of a small Southern town and an intimate study of its inhabitants. The story is full of wonderfully drawn characters but centers on the Sayre family: father John, tormented by a past mistake and about to experience a brief rejuvenation, mother Frances, a loyal wife beginning to have many doubts, and their son Timothy “Buckshot,” an imaginative, honest child. Outside the family, forces press in: the local KKK branch has started up again and the natural world continues its predator/prey order. A touch of Southern Gothic in this exquisitely drawn world, a truly wonderful read. Also a very affordable option for your Kindle.

This novel was a favorite at the site, which is peopled with mostly writers and yet, I can’t imagine anyone not thinking it's funny. Jona Gold is a poet and a dreamer, spending his days conducting imaginary conversations with deceased literary greats and punctuating his mundane existence with uncontrollable outbursts of poetic insight. And he’s one of the funniest characters I’ve ever met. It reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces, and yet, Levin delves in deeper, darker territory. It’s a mediation on art and the burden of creating it, and an exploration of life and death itself, as Jona hones his suicide note and returns in his mind again and again to the sensory experience of a grave of rotting oranges. I raced through this book, one of the funniest things I have ever read. Truly.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Favorite Films in 2012

Faithful blog readers will recall that last year at this time, I could only talk about one movie, The Tree of Life. (Revisit my raving here.) I chose it for my favorite movie in 2011 and didn't do a list at all because others seemed to fade in its presence. This year, several films touched me in one way or another. I was waiting for the release of Life of Pi to choose because, having known the novel and the film's director, I thought it might make my list. It didn't, but it was very, very good. If I had a top ten list, it would make it. As would Looper, which I liked very much. But I don't have a top ten, only a top three.

#3: Moonrise Kingdom

Quirky and funny, boldly visual and immediately human, this film was entertaining and touching from start to finish. For anyone who's ever felt love and its impossibility. Watching the trailer makes me want to see it again with my family.

#2: Safety Not Guaranteed

Another film about the gulf between individuals and the tenuous bridges we build with love. Also quirky and touching. A man advertises in the personals for a time-traveling partner and gets exactly that.

And my favorite of the year was untouchable, in terms of an encompassing theater experience. It rivaled The Tree of Life in that regard, and in the way it touched me on so many levels.

#1: Beasts of the Southern Wild

A young girl named Hushpuppy grows up in an unspecified, swampy wilderness in the southern U.S. Her father, mostly present but unreliable, provides food and not much else, and their small family of two is part of a larger community, all living in the wild and making their own rules. Searing images and at times, breathtaking imagery, wonderful acting and moments of emotional import that pretty much wrecked me. A must see.

Other, non-2012 movies I saw and and loved:

Martha, Marcy, May, Marlene: A woman finds the courage to leave a cult and rejoin her family. I wrote about the film earlier in the year here.

After the Wedding: Nominated for an Academy Award in 2007, a Danish man returns home from India to discover a startling secret from his past.

A Separation: Another Foreign Language nominee I missed the year it came out, about a couple trying to separate in modern Iran. A fatalist love story.

Every Little Step:  A documentary about the 2006 Broadway revival of A Chorus Line, which also delves into the creation of the show in 1974. Fascinating stuff.

Autumn Sonata: Sometimes I fear all my notions of Sweden come from Bergman films, his stark landscapes and starker families. This one is a knockout punch. A renowned pianist visits her daughter after many years, only to unleash a tsunami of past injuries, repressed secrets and excruciating angst. With the suspense of a Hitchcock film at times. Love those crazy Swedes.

A couple of my favorites this year were recommended to me by others, so I'm always happy to hear what others are seeing and loving. Soon, and because we all need more lists (!), a shortlist of my favorite books for the year.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

100th Blog Post: Reading is Still Better Than Sex!

This is my 100th post on the Shimmers in the Darkness blog, which I began in October of 2010. Months ago, I had an idea for the post. I had been looking at the stats and noticed that the most-viewed post was the only one I ever wrote about sex. On April 15, 2011, I referenced a little story from the Dutch Daily News. Researchers found Dutch people would rather read a book in bed than have sex, citing that 22% of those polled opted for reading and only 11% for lovemaking. Small percentages, right? Well, sleeping was voted the most favorite activity in bed, with 63% choosing rest over recreation. The study also polled about where people preferred to read, with “in bed” coming in first place.

A funny, short blog post, which I titled “Reading: Better Than Sex!” Apparently, the inclusion of the S word drew hoards of readers. In fact, this post had at least twice as many readers as the next, most-viewed entry. So my idea was to have sort of a retrospective 100th blog post, where I point out a few of my favorite posts and have a little laugh about the fact that an inconsequential little entry, however saucily named, had attracted the most interest.

But this past summer, I began to read some Southern fiction; namely: Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter (yes, I count her as Southern), and anything else with a Gothic vein because I had decided to write a Gothic novel. In July, I reread The Violent Bear It Away and wrote a post with a brief introduction to O’Connor and my impressions of the book. Right away, this post began to rack in so many readers that in a few short months, it had surpassed my Sex! post and currently has twice as many page views.

Why? I don’t know. Perhaps unwittingly, I've done a fabulous job tagging the post, so that search engines find it easily (can you tell I barely know what I’m talking about here?). Or maybe it’s my insightfulness. Or a fluke. I like to imagine hundreds of high school students and English majors googling “Flannery O’Connor” for research papers and being pointed to my tiny but well-kept corner of the Internet.

In the end, it makes me happy that an entry about reading and writing has surpassed the other. Of course, in a perfect world reading and sex exist harmoniously (not at the exact same time, but you know what I mean).

So here are my most popular posts, one of many top ten lists you’ll see all over the place during the next two months. I'm happy to report that it includes mostly literature-related posts, including two of my own fiction pieces, one author interview and one review, and the post I shared when my own novel was published. (Plug: The Qualities of Wood, perfect choice for holiday reading! Available here!)

1)                  Flannery O’Connor
2)                  Reading: Better Than Sex!
3)                  Q&A with Dawn Finch, author of Brotherhood of Shades
4)                  On Orphans in Literature
5)                  A Turtle By Any Other Name
6)                  Man ex Machina: A Halloween Story
7)                  Sluice-rush
8)                  Book News: Big Announcement
9)                  Overheard Conversation
10)              Daisychains of Silence by Catherine MacLeod

And here are a few of my favorite, perhaps overlooked posts:

Better, stronger, faster (a remembrance of my grandfather on the occasion of Neil Armstrong’s passing)
Collaboration: A Cautionary Tale (a completely fictional anecdote about editing)
Words, words, words (why translation is mostly impossible)
Hotel Thoughts (something about me)
Speed Therapy (a great idea, I still think)
On Reviewing, Part Deux (the difference between building fiction and taking it apart) 

At this time of Thanksgiving, I'd like to thank readers past, present and future, particularly those who take the time to let me know they've read something here. The blog has been a great place for me to share news, explore ideas and scratch some itches fiction can't reach. And schoolkids: keep reading Flannery O'Connor!

Monday, November 12, 2012

Anticipation: A Writer's Tool

One of my favorite books is Kent Haruf’s Plainsong. Sometimes, in conversations when I mention this, I find myself stumbling over my description of the book. “It’s about two elderly ranchers,” I’ll say, “and the small Colorado town they live in.” When the listener’s eyes start to glaze over, I’ll try to add some sensation and plot. “A pregnant girl comes to live with the ranchers,” I’ll say. But the thing about Plainsong, the thing that's almost impossible to explain, is the effect of the book, the way that it grabs and holds with spare prose and everyday wisdom, with steady momentum and quiet revelations.

I also loved the sequel, Eventide, and over the weekend, I read Haruf’s first novel, The Tie That Binds. This book also focuses on the inhabitants of a small town in the American High Plains and the style mimics the simplicity and expansiveness of the land. It is a very good novel, although clunky at times and perhaps not as perfected as his later novels. As it should be, I suppose. But the overall effect is the same. I was pulled in by the prose and held until the last page.

As a writer, I’m continually thinking about style and plot, about things like pacing and structure and the methods other writers employ. We’ve all read “page-turners,” books that fly along at breakneck speed; like a one-night stand, they rush along to the conclusion before you’ve been properly introduced to the characters. They might be fun for a while but they leave me feeling empty afterwards. And we’ve all read books that are all character and description, someone wallowing in their environment and thoughts, trying the patience of even the most patient and introspective reader.

So what’s a good balance? Like all artistic matters, it’s subjective. But in Haruf’s first novel, I noticed and appreciated something he did to strike a very good balance between style and plot, the way he used anticipation.

Chapter Three of the book starts with this:

“It wasn’t enough that their father was Roy Goodnough or that their mother died early; there had to be at least one more thing to clinch matters, to fix them forever, to make Edith and Lyman end up the way they did—two old people, a sister and a brother, living alone out here in a yellow house surrounded by weeds.”

Then, Haruf takes eighteen pages to tell the story of how they were fixed. Eighteen pages, not too many, but a plot-seeking reader might feel the desire to flip through and get to the main event. But there is something delicious about the anticipation, something so engaging about the way the story is told that it actually made me want to turn the pages more slowly to savor it.

Haruf takes this technique even further in the ninth chapter, which begins with a longish paragraph about whether six years is a good stretch of time or not:

“Now I don’t pretend to think that a mere stretch of six years is anywhere near enough time. But I suppose if that’s all you’re given and no more, then six years will have to do. In the end that’s what Edith Goodnough had: she had six years of what you may call fun.”

The implication, of course, is that at the end of six years, the fun ended. After this introduction, Haruf takes thirty-six pages to draw out the story of just how, why and when the fun ended for Edith. Again, there is a primal urge to speed through, to see “what happens,” but there are also goose bumps, a desire to slow down and enjoy the anticipation, the details of it, the feeling of the waiting.

Over two millennia ago, Aristotle listed the six elements of drama and described the necessity of increasing anticipation within the plot. I can’t help but think that when a story moves too quickly, one thing racing after the other, it’s depriving readers of this basic satisfaction. In the hands of a great writer like Kent Haruf, anticipation can be more satisfying than the resolution of any plot point.

Friday, October 26, 2012


I’m currently editing my latest novel, which partly takes place in an office building in downtown Chicago. It’s drawn loosely from my work experience from 1995-2000, when I was the receptionist for a Chicago philanthropist and investor.

I’ve been unemployed for twelve-and-a-half years, since shortly before our first son was born. And sometimes my time in the world of the employed seems like ages ago, another life. That’s not to say being a full-time mother isn’t work. (If you tire of mothers talking about how difficult mothering is, look away). Because motherhood is the strangest, best, always changing, most relentless job ever. It gives you certain freedoms while granting you almost no time to yourself. There are no regular hours; kids feel quite entitled to wake you at any hour, to impose on you any occurring whim.

My parents were self-employed when I was growing up, so I’ve never had the delusions some have about working for yourself. The fact is, self-employed people usually work longer and harder than anyone else, because there is no time clock at the end of the day, no one else to take accountability. Now that I count writing as a career, I can definitely say self-employment has benefits but unique stresses too.

My first job was at the fast food restaurant Carl’s Jr. I was sixteen years old and those who know us know that my husband Jason and I initially met there. Aside from this propitious event, I learned much from my time flipping burgers and dipping baskets of fries into sizzling oil. It was hard and tiring and required teamwork. I learned about customer service and gender inequality in the work place. Our manager often promoted boys before deserving girls. I learned how little a minimum wage, part-time salary would buy.

For a few years, I worked in the hardware department at Sears. This included hand tools, manual and electric, also, paint and paint tools, lawn equipment. Of all my jobs, this one probably had the most practical results for later life. I still know a thing or two about which type of paint to use where, about types of wrenches and hand drills.

I worked at a credit bureau, answering questions about consumer credit reports and resolving disputes; also, we put together mortgage reports for potential home buyers. I learned people will say almost anything when they want a house, and they’ll lie about credit matters if they think they can get away with it. This was reinforced even more when I transferred to the collection side of the bureau and became a bill collector. 
This may surprise you, but people are not always friendly to bill collectors. Many of our accounts came from local hospitals, so I learned a little about insurance and the countless things it will not cover. Of all my jobs, I return to this one most often in dreams. It was my first experience on a computer, with my own cubicle and work load. In my dreams, I’m trying to get through the debtors in my “queue,” desperate to make enough phone calls to keep up with the new accounts pouring in.

During college in Denver, I had a couple part-time gigs. I manned the front desk at a local Radisson hotel. Many college kids worked there, most of them several years younger than I was, so I suppose this was my last foray before college ended and adulthood really stuck. It was a fun job with occasional excitements (police called because a man had barricaded himself in a room, the night shift recounting a celebrity sighting), but it was a job I was happy to quit. For a short time, I had a heavenly job at a used book store. It was housed in a strip mall, books stacked everywhere, rarely a customer. I wondered how they stayed in business. Day after day, I propped my feet up behind the counter and worked my way through a list of “500 Books Everyone Should Read.” Guess which job was my favorite.

By the time I started working at the office in Chicago, I’d had lots of experience with low-paying, barely above menial jobs. But they’ve all taught me something and remembering them makes me thankful for the jobs I have now. They are tough, but I could be doing worse things.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Q&A with Dawn Finch, author of the new Authonomy release, Brotherhood of Shades

This week, a third book was published under HarperCollins' new Authonomy imprint. I am rarely tempted by the fantasy genre, but this one looks fantastic. It’s called Brotherhood of Shades and the author, Dawn Finch, has agreed to field a few questions from a fantasy novice such as myself. The book is also classified as YA but like much YA, it will appeal to adults as well. Here’s the book’s description:

From the chaos of Dissolution rose a secret order, a Brotherhood formed to protect the world of the living from the world of the dead.

Adam, a streetwise homeless boy in modern London, knows nothing of the fantastic and precarious world that exists just beyond his reality until he dies cold and alone on the streets of London, aged 14. But he is important and the Brotherhood needs him. His recruitment to their Order takes him on an adventure that spans the worlds of both the living and the dead, traversing time itself as he and a living girl (14 year old witch Edie Freedom) battle to solve a prophetic riddle and save the world. This thrilling and macabre fantasy is set in London, from Tudor times through the Great Fire of London and up to today.

And Dawn’s bio from her website:

Dawn grew up on a London overspill council estate and spent much of her time in libraries. Books were important in her family and she used them as a means of escape and became an obsessive reader. The careers officer asked her, aged twelve, what future she would like. Dawn she said that she wanted to work as a writer and a librarian. She was told to "stop pointless dreaming or you'll only live to regret it.” A typing course was recommended together with a future in a typing pool.

In an academic publishers in central London, while sorting the unsolicited submissions, Dawn learnt something about how not to prepare a manuscript. Later she worked at St Albans Cathedral as a Research Assistant for the Education Office. This essentially involved taking school children for tours of the Abbey whilst dressed as a Benedictine monk. Dawn later began working in public libraries and helped to establish a large library at her daughter's school...soon the head teacher convinced her to leave public libraries to run the school library. Since 2003 Dawn has been School Librarian for a large and buzzy primary school taking care of 10,000 books and the children who love them. She also works as a library and reader development consultant and is a member of the London and South Eastern committee of the School Libraries Group and the Society of Authors.

Dawn, congratulations on your first published novel! You seem to have worked a variety of jobs, many of them book-related. Have your employment experiences affected your writing? Will writing become your main job now?

Thank you, it's all very exciting and still doesn't feel quite real yet! I suppose when you've dreamt of something for so long it is a bit hard to take it in when it finally happens. My past jobs have indeed affected my writing a lot, especially my time working at St Albans Cathedral. A good proportion of Brotherhood of Shades is set there during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the sixteenth century, and so I have drawn on my personal experience of the building. I always knew that I wanted to be a writer and so have aimed to stay employed in related occupations. One of my first jobs was as an office go-fer in an academic publishers and this taught me a lot about how not to submit a manuscript as I was the one passing them on to readers and editors.

I love working in libraries and have worked in them for almost twenty-four years. Just under a decade ago I moved from public libraries to school and never looked back. I love working with children and it is very rewarding working with an age group that is just finding its feet in the world of books and reading. Spending time with a reluctant or less able reader, and helping them to jump the hurdles to become a happy and enthusiastic reader is the most magical thing.

It would be wonderful to just be a writer and to be able to spend all of my time doing that, but I feel that I would probably miss being around the joyful and enthusiastic kids that I work for.

Who are some of the authors who have influenced you? What are you reading now?

When I was a child I was a huge fan of authors like Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Joan Aiken…and I still am! I read a lot of gothic authors like Poe and Stoker and they have influenced me a great deal as I do love a good spooky story. I am a total fraidy-cat with what most people would call “real” horror and I don’t read (or watch) anything along those lines, but I do love a ghost story with plenty of suspense and jumpy moments. As a children’s librarian I tend to primarily read children’s authors as I’m not comfortable recommending books that I have not read… that and they are generally better (no offence!). My current favourites are Marcus Sedgwick, Chris Priestley and Joseph Delaney, and I do enjoy Rick Riordan too for the historical thrill-ride! I read grown-up books in the holidays and was recently bowled over by Alice Hoffman’s Red Garden (I’ve read all of her books and can’t fault her, she’s just amazing) and Mal Peet’s Life: An Exploded Diagram (which is stunning).

As a writer who deals mostly in “realistic” settings, I’m intrigued with the nuts and bolts of the writing process when you create a completely new world with different rules. What were some of the challenges and benefits of working outside an entirely realistic setting?

Ah, working outside reality, now there’s a question! Well, the main thing is to set rules for your world and keep them. I have a style sheet that tells me exactly what my Shades can and can’t do, and that is my bible. This means that no one suddenly ups and does something that will make the reader say “hold on, in chapter four they couldn’t do that!” The beauty is that they are my rules, I can bend them, never break them, but I did set them in the first place!  For example if I have a good reason why my character can't travel over water, then I’d better not put them on a boat in chapter seven unless I've invented a solution in chapter six.
The benefits are that if I want to conjure something dramatic up that is beyond the bounds of reality, I can, however I also work in an historical setting and so I have to weave this into a realistic fantasy world without actually changing history!

Brotherhood of Shades seems to have a historical fiction aspect to it as well. How did you research the book?

I have a great passion for history and have grown up in an area rich with history stemming all the way back to the Roman occupation of Britain. I was taken to castles and ancient sites right from babyhood and it has stuck with me.

My job title at St Albans Cathedral was research assistant and I helped to write and research educational material for children (as well as running workshops dressed as a Benedictine monk!) and so I honed research skills there. It is part of a successful librarian's job to know how to conduct research and to know how effective research is carried out and to impart that knowledge to others, and so I've had a lot of practice.

What do you think attracts readers to fantasy, to other-worldly scenarios, to super-human elements in stories?

I'm not a huge fan of sword and sorcery type fantasy and so that does baffle me a bit (I always forget who everyone is with all the mad names!). Personally I prefer to read and write about the world out of the corner of your eye - the secret world that might exist without us knowing about it.

I think that younger readers are drawn to these stories because they still believe in a world where anything is possible. Even when they feel quite grown-up they still have a glimmering little part of their mind where something magical could happen. I think a lot of us grown-ups have that too. 

What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

I'm currently working on a dystopian teen book with a co-author, but I can't say much about that at the moment as our agent has us under a strict shush-code! I'm also working on the last bit of the sequel to Brotherhood. It is set on a remote Scottish island and has a distinctly Steampunk feel to it. I have always wanted to write something featuring glorious Victorian engineering but with a macabre twist, and so that is at the core of Brotherhood 2.

I'm hoping to be doing a lot of lovely festivals and school visits in the coming year and am currently in the process of confirming the first of those.

More information about Dawn Finch and her books can be found at Brotherhood of Shades is available for purchase at a low introductory rate from Amazon US, Amazon UK, iTunes, and anywhere else ebooks are sold.

Authonomy has released an eclectic selection thus far, with Dawn's fantasy offering, the farcical comedy More Tea, Jesus? by author James Lark, and of course, my own The Qualities of Wood. Keep your eyes peeled for upcoming releases.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Man ex Machina: A Halloween Story

            As he did each morning at five o’clock, Richard flung an arm over the damp pillow and pressed the button on his alarm clock. The piercing staccato stopped. He let his fingers rest on the cool surface of the nightstand, as he always did, and stretched his legs.
            In the kitchen, the winter seeped in, black and still, until the fluorescent light cut through. The yellow glow seemed to vibrate. He pushed another button for his single cup of French Roast, the dispenser filled with water the night before, the plastic cup of pre-ground beans snug in its receptacle.
            The coffee was ready and still hot when he returned from his shower. Two pieces of toast were browned to level seven on the toaster. He’d eat again later at the store, either a yogurt with granola or instant oatmeal if he still felt cold.
            Stiff-legged, he walked into the living room to get the car keys from their place atop a small table. He glanced at the red-numbered display on the cable box, the only other timekeeper in his one-bedroom apartment. Five-thirty.
            And yet, every morning for twelve years, Richard followed the same routine and left the apartment at five forty-five. It was always the same—coffee, shower, toast at the chrome-rimmed table for two he and his mother found at a garage sale. Nothing was different. So why was he ready so early?
            In the bedroom, he walked around clumps of dirty clothes and newspapers in origami mounds. The alarm clock was digital but shaped like an old-fashioned clock. Round with two non-functioning bells on the top, a rectangle of black instead of a face and hands. He picked it up and pushed the alarm button on the side. The numbers changed to four forty-five. He had set the alarm for five o’clock, he always set the alarm to five o’clock. In fact, he hadn’t changed the alarm time for many years. But it was set to four forty-five.
            He tried to think of any reason he had to be at the convenience store early that day. He was the morning manager; if anything out of the ordinary was scheduled, he’d know about it. Nothing came to mind.
            The next morning, the alarm emitted its high-pitched tones and Richard rolled over and pressed the button. He left his fingers grazing the nightstand and stretched his legs. A memory intruded. Two weeks ago, coming home from a rare evening shift. The night manager was at the urgent care center with a broken toe after dropping a case of Pepsi on his foot. Richard agreed to fill in until another worker could be reached. Around ten p.m. on Route 42, headlights jagging crazily through the night mist, a dented hood jutting into the road. He parked behind the car, which had come to rest on its side like a tired dog. The smell of gasoline and rubber. A crumpled form against the window and as he rounded the car to get his cell phone, one white sock peeking from the brush near the embankment. An open mouth, teeth glistening like mercury. A blue dress. Small hands.
            Richard’s eyes snapped open. He picked up the alarm clock and waited for the red jointed numbers to come into focus. Four thirty. He sat up, searched the corners of the room.
            The night before, he had returned from work, had watched television and ordered a pizza. And, he had definitely changed the alarm clock back to five o’clock. And now the stupid thing had woken him up at four-thirty. He set it down. The bells on top winked in the dark.
            He went through it all—the coffee, the shower, the toast—and he paced around his apartment. He wondered if someone was playing a joke, if a malfunction was to blame. A weight in the room, a feeling of foreboding. He doubted himself.
            When the alarm sounded the next morning, Richard was awake instantly. He ran through the events of the previous day. He most certainly had reset the alarm to five o’clock. Eyes closed, he remembered his last dream, a mobile alarm clock circled with teeth, biting and snapping. He looked. Four fifteen.
            Throwing back the soggy blanket, he stood up. He circled his apartment, forgetting his coffee, his shower, his toast. A voice descended from the rafters: I had to get up at four-fifteen on the days I helped him. A story, crystallizing. His mother, eleven years old, assisting her brother with his newspaper route, until the day he had rheumatic fever and she volunteered to do the job alone.
            She never saw the automobile before it plowed into her bicycle. She didn’t remember being dragged a full block before the man, coming home in the wee hours with whiskey breath, noticed sparks in his side mirror. Three surgeries and months in the hospital. Metal pins in one knee, a ball and joint in her shoulder, lingering pain in cold weather and a mechanical hitch to her step.
            He’d heard the story many times and had often imagined his mother, bed-bound, her small limbs bandaged and vulnerable. He paced and paced. Thirty-seven years old, he told himself. Too young to be senile, too old to be afraid. He went to the kitchen, made the coffee. At five o’clock, he called his mother.
            “What’s happened?” she said instead of hello.
            “Nothing,” he said. “Just checking on you.”
            She blew her nose next to the receiver. “Checking on me, are you?”
            “Well, yeah.”
            “Black as sin outside,” she said. “We’re early birds, aren’t we?”
            He poured liquid creamer into his coffee. “You can’t sleep in?”
            “Never,” she said. “Up at five, rain or shine.”
            “I was thinking about your accident,” he said.
            “Oh, Lord,” she said.
            “Who took over Uncle Roger’s paper route?”
            She snorted. “My father. Got up before work. You’d think they’d give it away, me in the hospital and Roger still fevered up at home. But they wanted him to have it.”
            “I was thinking about that girl, too,” he told her.
            “No, Ma, the other night.” He shook his head. “The car.”
            “Poor Genevieve,” she said. “I can’t imagine what she went through.”
            “I don’t like to—“
            “You would’ve married that girl,” she said.
            Richard touched his hair, recently thinning in the exact way his father’s had, baldness encroaching from both sides, over his temples. “We broke up, Ma.”
            “I remember that day,” she said. “Those pictures of the airplane, all twisted metal. Where was she going?”
            Philadelphia,” he said.
            “That’s right,” she murmured.
            “I gotta go,” he said. “Running late for work now.”
            “Alright, Richie. You go.”
            Richard had a hard time concentrating on anything at work. A display of cracker boxes fell to pieces at his feet; the register was short twelve dollars at the end of his shift. The apartment wasn’t much better. He watched television and flipped through a magazine, all the while stalling his bedtime. He slept in short jags, tossing and getting the sheets twisted around his legs.
            The alarm jabbed with its shrill notes. Richard fought it at first, sinking into the dark comfort of sleep. But it was too strong, too loud. He reached over and pressed the button. And when he opened his eyes, he knew beforehand what he’d see on the black display: four o’clock.
            He thought of the girl, her legs splayed and the blue skirt of the dress with its lacy, scalloped trim. He remembered the quiet of the night, just the white noise of insects and an occasional distant car. The girl, apart from the car as though unconnected from the horrible incident. A coincidence.
            Richard raced to the kitchen and dialed his mother’s number with shaky fingers. It rang five times, six, seven. She always turned her answering machine off when she was home.
            “What?” she answered.
            “Ma,” he said, throat clenched. Suddenly, he felt foolish.
            “Richie. For God’s sake, what’s happened?”
            “I’ve been thinking about that accident, Ma. Her dress.”
            “Let me get my robe,” she said. “It’s a refrigerator in here.”
            He listened as she set the phone down and in a few moments, picked it up again.
            “Why aren’t you sleeping?” she asked. “Did you have coffee after dinner?”
            “No,” he said. “It’s just, the girl. Remember that photo, Ma, when you played Alice in Wonderland?”
            “The school play,” he said, gripping the telephone. “The photo of you in the blue dress.”
            “It was just the one time,” she said. “I’m no actress.”
            “Her dress,” Richie whimpered.
            A long pause. The house, humming.
            “It’s the same every year,” his mother said in a low voice. “The anniversary. You pretend you don’t remember.”
            “Genevieve!” she barked. “We loved her.”
            Richard pressed the receiver against his ear, where it buzzed and seemed to emit tiny charges against his skin. Through the machine’s tiny holes, a sound started and grew, rose and sharpened. A screech, a crash, a foreign, final sound.
            “Sweet Jesus,” his mother said.
            “Ma? What was that?”
            Boards crackling, something mechanical spinning, an insistent ticking.
            “Still here, Richie,” she rasped. “I’m still here. It’s a car. Another car.”
            “A car?”
            “Someone drove into my bedroom. Right up the yard and crashed into the house.”
            “If you hadn’t of called me, Richie—“ she coughed. “The car is in the bedroom.”
            “You’re okay?” he asked.
            “Yes, I’ll call the police. It’s alright.”
            “Get out of the house, Ma.”
            “The neighbors are coming now,” she said. “Thank God I have my robe on.”         
            “I’ll call you back,” she said.
            Richard listened to the dial tone and heard a distant sound over its drone. A staccato, a warning, a call. From its usual position on his nightstand, the alarm clock sounded. Slowly, he went to shut it off.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka