Goodbyes. Hellos.

Warning: Animal death discussed.

About a month ago my Ripley Cat started going off her food. In fairly short order we discovered that she’d been hiding a large bony tumor in the fluffy hair along her jaw. She came home from the vet on pain meds. Last Monday her life ended.

Ripley came to us seventeen years ago as a week old kitten. Abandoned by her feral mother on the side of the road, she fit entirely in the palm of my hand. I fed her with syringes at first, then bottles. I named her Ripley because things were touch and go at first, and I wanted a tough enough name to get her through. What better namesake than Ellen Ripley? She came to work with me in the library, my compassionate library coworkers ignoring the large cardboard box by my desk, and helping us hide when administrators dropped by. As a bigger kitten, she would climb her way up onto the bed, and burrow under the blankets to the foot of the bed, causing us to wake at night terrified that she might have smothered there.

As an adult, she hated strangers, and talked to me in a creaky door stutter of a voice, and greeted me, always, by sniffing my breath. She had a long good life, and we were certain she would outlive us all through sheer determination. She would have, too, were it not for pain. As terrible and hard as it was to say goodbye, there was a moment as I sat there with her when I realized all the pain she would ever feel in her life was already behind her, and that made everything else bearable.

Death has visited us frequently in the past few years. We’ve said so many goodbyes that it’s become hard to remember that the world is made from more than loss, in all its many forms. The truth is that death is only one of the transitions that brings grief. We’ve dabbled in many of the others as well.

The other day a pigeon landed on the roof of our garage. This is noteworthy because we live in the woods, and pigeons are exotic birds here. This pigeon was very handsome, and somewhat bumbling as he hopped in the maple, and then came down to the walkway. My husband went out to look at him, and the bird followed the stone path down to the steps and waited there. My husband picked him up, and my daughter found a box, and we tucked him in it with food and water.

What do you do with a tame pigeon, particularly when you are not prepared to care for it? If you are lucky, you know a child who has recently lost one of her pigeons, and you drive to her house, fingers crossed, hoping against all reason that the bird in your box is hers.

It was not. But the bird in the box was beautiful to her, and she was delighted to see him, to examine his face, his tail feathers, to explain what type of pigeon he was, to admire everything about him. To take him in. And for a few minutes, standing there in the twilight, learning about the world of tame pigeons, I watched her and thought this is what utter joy looks like.

One pigeon goes. A different one returns. Beloved aunts and uncles pass away. Beloved nephews are born. Our paths through the world are always paved with goodbyes and hellos, even when the hellos feel so much rarer.

In keeping with that, we have a new family member. We are her third home in her short life. As a firm believer in the magic of three, I know that this home is the one that will count. She has the body of a little leopard, and the stripes of a tiger, and very little patience with things like typing at the computer rather than adoring her. Those are just the things we know so far. Hopefully we will have another seventeen years or so to learn the rest.

We love you always, Ripley.

We welcome you in, Coco.


Opening the door

Is anyone still here? I’ve been a neglectful host, somewhere along the lines of one who promises a feast and leaves everyone in a cold dusty house with two rusty springs and a one-eyed cat for entertainment, and a cupboard full of dubious canned goods to eat. Possibly without a can opener.

(Give me a moment to ponder that thought. It does kind of beg a full story, doesn’t it? Only it would probably be middle grade, so I’m off the hook. No one would put me in charge of writing for small children, unless they were hoping the children would grow up depressed and prepared for apocalypse at every turn.)

Anyway, I’ve been bad, I am apologetic, and I hope your time has been spent reading fabulous stories and eating carrots fresh from the garden.

I owe a few people thank yous. I’m not going to say your names, mostly because I’m not really sure who likes to have their name, even a user name, splashed over a blog post and who doesn’t. The thank you runs like this: I finished Crossroads! Mostly! It was an incredibly long trek, and I got stuck in Minnesota and thought I’d never make it out, but I did. And those of you who responded to my request for information long, long ago, you were there with me. Not in Minnesota, necessarily, I wouldn’t make you join me there in winter, but I thought of the things you shared with me as I wrote, and I liked to think of you as traveling companions at times. Thank you for the comments, and the emails, and the camaraderie.

Just to confirm, yes, I finished it. Yes, it took a while. It was a bit of a challenge to write. There were a few points this year when writing took a backseat to other things. There were other points where I realized I’d left out crucial pieces and scrapped large sections and rewrote others. The farther I get from writing about the reality of this world, the freer I feel and the faster I go. Crossroads is very much in the here and now. I’m very grateful to Agent Alice for her patience. I was a bit like a magician who kept shaking her sleeve and saying “I could have sworn there was something up it.”

But, done. Happy. A little lost. A touch of the bends from rising out of story world too quickly. Looking at my short story files, thinking about what just needs polishing, what needs finishing, what needs a complete overhaul. Considering the work that The Lost needs to bring it to the place I want it.

Oh, and winter. Thinking about that a lot too. It’s raining today, and the yellow leaves are beginning to fall all across the lawn. Time’s rolling around again.

Tell me how you are. Let me be a better host.

ETA: Step one to being a better host is unlocking the front door. Comments are now allowed.


Testimony

Testimony is a funny story. Not funny funny, no, not much humor to it at all. Funny in that it came into being in a different way than most of my previous stories. I had an idea, and I had things I wanted to try, and it was a little like attempting a crossword puzzle where the clues were given by charades. Which, incidentally, might be fun. I may need to add that to my list of games for imaginary parties I might hold.

Anyway, interesting facts about Testimony. I have, at various points in my life, thought a lot about the space between the data we can collect in medicine and our understanding of it. There is a gap, and it is huge, and you don’t necessarily think about it until you find yourself floundering there, trying to get to one side or the other. In some ways, this story is merely an exploration of an extreme example.

For me, it’s also about being friends, though, and losing friends, and being a child, and about growing up and learning to say goodbye. There are pieces of all of us that are frozen. What does it take to thaw them out?

I’m also indebted to my daughter for her unceasing fascination with frogs, and wood frogs in particular. I promise I’ll never freeze you, dear one, but I will pilfer your research freely.

You can find Testimony here, along with an issue’s worth of flash fiction and the start of a new serial, and fabulous artwork by Galen Dara. Please consider supporting Fireside in their entirely laudable goals of publishing great fiction and paying writers well.


Talking about writing: Kell Andrews

It’s been a while since I’ve had a guest here. Thankfully, Kell Andrews has agreed to take the hot seat and share her thoughts on magic, ecology and, of course, writing. Kell has always wanted to be a writer, but before she rediscovered her love of children’s books, she mostly wrote and edited trade magazines, websites, textbooks, and marketing copy. That was fine except that magic is frowned upon in math textbooks and business press. Today she writes fiction for children and nonfiction for adults.. Her first novel, Deadwood (Spencer Hill Press), was published in 2014, and her short fiction will appear in an upcoming issue of Spider Magazine. A member of SCBWI, Kell holds a humanities degree from Johns Hopkins University and a master of liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she now lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. You can contact Kell here, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Goodreads. Kell is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

You’ve mentioned enjoying reading and writing fantasy set in the here and now. Not urban fantasy so much as the places where magic slips into life. In fact, your recent book contains magic involving a tree, correct? What draws you to that type of story, and how does Deadwood fit in?

Deadwood has magic rooted in a very real world setting of a depressed inner-ring suburban town. A tree has been cursed via carvings on its bark, and it uses those carvings to spell out messages and communicate to two seventh-graders who have to lift the curse before it spreads.

Deadwood is a bit further on the fantasy line than magical realism but the magic is not as pervasive as urban fantasy or contemporary fantasy, where more often fantasy creatures and settings exist within the human world. I’d say it’s about the level of something like Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder or Half Magic by Elizabeth Enright. Maybe half magic is a good descriptor of my subgenre. I keep the magic limited and give it a pseudoscientific spin because I want it to seem to readers as if it could happen to them if they are in the right place at the right time.

You say that you want it to seem to readers that it (magic) could happen to them if they were in the right place at the right time. I’m curious about that idea, mostly because I also like finding that point where the possibility of magic feels abundantly real, some point of seepage between what we know and what we don’t. Where does that come from in your writing–do you think of yourself as someone inclined toward the unknown, or does it come from who you’ve been as a reader, the types of stories that drew you in as a child? Or both?

As a reader, I am willing to suspend disbelief and trust any world a writer can create if they do it well. But when I was a kid, I suspended disbelief in real life too. I wanted to believe in magic. In fourth grade I had a tree that I would talk to and I pretended it could hear me. I tried witchcraft and spells and Bloody Mary in the mirror at midnight. I worked hard at believing in Santa Claus until I was in sixth grade — then my little sister stopped believing, and I couldn’t maintain the fiction any longer. I still have my childhood teddy bear — she’s a mess, but I loved her enough that she became real like the Velveteen Rabbit, and she never became unreal.

Giving up magic is a hard transition. In Deadwood I wanted the magic to be believable for those who still want to believe — or at least want to pretend to believe.

Rationally now I don’t believe in magic or the paranormal of any kind. But I still know my teddy bear loves me.

I like to think that there’s something in that need to believe that has very tangible benefits. Believe in enough cursed trees and you might begin to look at the trees around you, really see them, find reasons to save them, magic or no. It’s not about dogma as much as it is about connection. Are those types of ideas in your head as you write, or is the story the thing?

I have an ecological theme running through this book, but it wasn’t the primary idea. The theme emerged from the story, not the other way around. All living things in an ecosystem are connected, and in my story I augmented the connection so it’s a bit magical.

There’s a moment in the book when a character says of the Spirit Tree, “It’s not like it’s a living thing.” But of course it is! In my book, the tree has a consciousness. In real life, they don’t, but they still strive towards life. Plants don’t “want” anything, and yet they “want” to live and reproduce. I was looking for a kind of magic that might be plausible in the real world, and I thought of the interconnections of plants and animals.

I hope that readers think about how what they do influences other living things, but it wasn’t what drove the plot. The story came first, but it came from my mind and ecology is something I’m concerned about.

I love that sense of connection in an ecosystem as a type of magic! I think I’m drawn to it because I also spent a great deal of time as a child trying to find magic–talking trees, fairies, weather that I could control–and it was all through nature. Yes, I did check out the backs of a few closets to make sure there weren’t portals, but the rest of the time I looked to the woods.

I think writing about that kind of magic, that openness to the world, is much easier to do through children’s fiction. Adults are often too stodgy. What specific things have led you to write for the ages you do–was it a conscious decision, or just where the writing took you?

Like a lot of people, I started writing middle-grade books because of Harry Potter. When I read those books, it was one of the first times I read a novel and thought maybe I could actually write one. Now I realize I had that moment of recognition, not because Harry Potter was for kids, but because it was genre fiction, and more specifically fantasy.

I read children’s fantasy, mysteries, and fairy tales up to seventh or eighth grade, when I started reading books in the Modern Library or on the college-prep reading lists — mostly 19th century novels. Then in high school, college, and post-college, I read literary fiction. I started out majoring in writing in college, but I never could figure out how to write a contemporary literary novel like the ones I read. How would I plot it out if it wasn’t plot-driven? Plus my own limited experiences were not really anything I’d want to read about — I didn’t want to write them either.

So when I decided to write middle grade, it was partly because I wanted to write about magic, but also because I love how plot-driven middle-grade fantasies are. My story was a puzzle to figure out, and my outline gave me something to follow. And I actually got it done.

So far I’ve only written middle-grade novels, but there are stories I want to tell for older readers too. And they’re still fantasies — it turned out that Harry Potter was a gateway drug, not just to middle grade, but to adult fantasy and genre fiction of all kinds. I’ve realized I love beautiful writing and unforgettable characters even more within a gripping plot, and I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

I also struggled with the idea that I should be writing literary novels, that anything else wasn’t important enough, even though I was moved by stories from all sides of the genre lines. I’ve been working with kids and writing in the last year, and I love how they don’t feel any of that stress. They write what feels good to them, and it’s fun to be able to talk magic with them.

So, as a final question, knowing what moved you as a child, what would you most like to provide to your readers? What would your dream piece of fan mail tell you?

This is the hardest question so far! One of the reasons I wrote about magic is because I so often wished it were real, but in this book, wishes don’t — and shouldn’t — come true. Martin and Hannah are seeking to restore balance, and power to grant, receive, or demand wishes throws that off. So my dream fan mail would be from someone who told me they had stopped wishing for something to happen, and started to make it happen. I hope readers get a sense that they themselves can change the world, starting with their own lives and communities.


The light changes

On Tuesday I hiked along the reservoir shore with my children. I lay in the sand while they surrounded me with driftwood, became a sculpture: Mother at Rest. We found the bleached exoskeleton of a crayfish, and watched a snake curl up at the base of a tree. The loons bobbed on the waves in the distance, little more than black marks in the open water. The summer light had already broken, changed in the way that tells us to prepare, prepare, the leaves will fall, the snow will come.

It’s all so short, isn’t it?

On Wednesday I sent my son away with four other boys, two men, for five days of wilderness. Today it’s been raining on and off, and somewhere my boy has made himself a space in the woods, is warming himself by his own fire, preparing for this night, the one he will spend completely alone. Before he left, we looked each other in the eye, me looking up, because my little boy is now inches taller than I am, and what I saw was this, a boy who is less and less a boy, who needed me to see that he is straddling two worlds right now–one of driftwood sculptures and one of tending his own campsite through the night–and to begin to let go.

It is tempting to hold on too tight, to try to keep things unchanged. Stay, I long to say, stay small, stay safe, stay by my side. But we’re made to grow. As much as we seem hellbent on stasis, as much as we put all our energy into refusing change–of bodies, of hearts, of minds–we are made to grow, to learn, to evolve, right up until the end. To deny that is to bring about our own ruin.

The light changes. So do we. So does everything. Instead of stay, I say go, I will be here when you come back, to hear your stories, to help you ready for your next step away. I will try to make this world a better place to go out into, and I will try help you learn to stay open, to hear, to carry compassion with you, to know that laughter doesn’t stay, but neither does tears.

Go. Be bold. Be brave. You are loved.


New stories to come

I haven’t been sending many stories out lately.

Okay, that’s much too vague. Shall I be honest? I’ve only submitted two stories anywhere this year. In my defense, I’ve been writing a lot. It’s my submissions that have been lacking. Let’s go one step further back. I’ve been writing a lot in terms of novel-length fiction. So, I do have short stories that languish, unfinished or unsent, but it’s not as though I have closets full of them.

Not that I’m defensive or anything. I just wouldn’t want anyone to think I’m a slacker.

Anyway, the point of all this is that I’m pleased to announce that both of the aforementioned stories have found homes. On the same day! “Testimony” will be published by Fireside. “There’s Always a Nuclear Bomb in the End” will appear in Daily Science Fiction. Publication dates to be announced.

I’m very excited! About both of them! “There’s Always a Nuclear Bomb…” came from a steady diet of superhero movies, is about as close to flash as I get, and was written and sent out on the same day. “Testimony” had been kicking around in various forms for a year or so before I finally did it justice and pushed it out the door. Writing is like that. No magic formula, just a lot of chaos and occasional magic.

I promise I’ll say more about them once we reach publication. For now, just know they’re on their way.


Late July, 2014

Isn’t summer supposed to be lazy? Slow, relaxing, full of lemonade and good books and camping?

Apparently not.

This summer offers up driving and not sleeping enough and everything breaking–holy carp, everything I lay a hand on or live beneath or even think about breaks this summer. The plus side to it: I secretly enjoy broken things that prevent me from being able to use my computer to connect with the outside world from home. Only that lack of connections puts a damper on things like, oh, blog posts, for example.

How am I managing this post? The library, of course. I’ve been touring local libraries, depending on where life takes me. This one has plugs built in to the tables, which is brilliant if you have a sad little netbook battery that no longer wants to hold a charge (see–everything breaks). It has very high ceilings, and portraits of dour white people, and never as many patrons as I think it should. This morning, it is quiet, and in a moment I’ll be getting back to work.

The other thing about this summer? The wilds have come to call on us. Moose in the pond. Bear trying to strike up a conversation during dog walks. A lone hummingbird diligently milking the flowers outside the bedroom window. I suspect they have meetings in the early morning where they discuss the situation on our road. “Truth is,” the moose might say, “There’s a lot of breakage going on there. I can see it through the windows. I think it’s safe to move in closer.”

Another thing? My thyroid is not trying to kill me. That’s always a good thing.

The last thing? Throughout the spring and summer I agonize over turtles. They cross the highway everywhere around here, and they are killed in catastrophic numbers. I was driving a few weeks ago with too many fast cars behind me, and a very big truck coming toward me, and a turtle making a break for the other side of the road. I couldn’t stop to get it; I never would have made it in front of the truck. I was heartbroken about it, and dreaded turning back and finding the aftermath.

There was none. The turtle made it. The truck must have stopped, and the stopped truck must have made others stop, and this one time the turtle made it. I felt like the Doctor in the episode where he jumps wildly about after managing to save everyone from a medical accident and shouts “Everyone lives! Just this once, everyone lives!”

I hope your summer is going well.


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