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.


Talking about writing: A.M. Bostwick

Today I present A.M. Bostwick. What can be said about her? She loves chocolate and hates writing bios about herself! But seriously, Abigail writes Middle Grade and Young Adult novels in her Northwoods of Wisconsin home. An early draft of her young adult novel, Break the Spell, was a finalist in the 2013 Wisconsin Romance Writers of America Fab 5 contest. Her first novel, The Great Cat Nap, was published in 2013 and recently earned the Tofte/Wright Children’s Literature Award. It also was a first-round finalist in the Chicken House Open Coop contest. She has been a guest author for National Library Week at her local library this year, and is a new volunteer with the Council for Wisconsin Writers. While now dedicated to her life as a neurotic, reclusive writer, Abigail spent most of her career in journalism. She has degrees in art and geography/geology. She loves her husband, Chihuahua, thrill-seeking cat as well as reading and running.

Thank you, Abigail, for accepting my offer of interrogation!

You have a book! A real book, one that even has an award! Perhaps more importantly, you have a children’s book that is both noir AND involves cats. How exactly did that come about?

Thanks for having me! Ah, a loaded question – my favorite! The simple answer is: I wanted to write to amuse myself, and my readers. I wanted it to be fun. As a child, I loved reading about animals (while surrounded by my cats, dogs, hamsters, rabbits and various wildlife rescues…). I also was known for sneaking peaks at my dad’s extensive Raymond Chandler novel collection. Some of my first grade school stories were, ironically (or maybe not), about cats who went on wild adventures. In The Great Cat Nap, I had envisioned a feline detective solving animal and human crimes alike. Yet, there wasn’t quite enough conflict. I decided to put my main character, Ace, in the hands of a newspaper editor. He’s then pulled into the detective world, quite a bit against his better judgment, but draws on his knowledge of playing reporter at the newspaper. I spent about 10 years reporting, so I had fun incorporating that aspect. There’s so much of reporting that’s like detective work – investigating, interviewing, putting all the pieces together, knocking on doors of people who yell at you…. Ace as this noir detective in a dark downtown full of seedy characters was the final product – and I found it fitting that a cat played this role. A cat can be so secretive, so sleek and smooth. Yet they rarely hesitate to take a risk or get their whiskers where they shouldn’t be.

It’s always so hard for me to stay focused when doing these interviews. So many cool ideas, so much interesting personal history.

What drew you to writing for children? I have children, and I wish I would write for them, but my mind insists on going elsewhere. It sounds as though you feel a clear connection with who you were as a child and where you go as a writer now. is that true?

I feel like childhood was/is such a pivotal time. I don’t know who I’d be today if I wasn’t such an avid reader and writer as a child. My parents really fostered my love of reading – they were both big readers, too. And when I handed them story after story after story, they always encouraged me to keep writing (even when I unearthed an ancient typewriter and banged away at the kitchen table so my stories would look more “professional”). I love the notion that my writing may do for a child – even one child – what books did for me at that age. Inspire me. They gave me another world. Childhood is such a time of open doors. There are so many that children can take, and reading is just one of them. I hope that my writing can foster a love of reading among children, because it’s truly a passion that stays with you for a lifetime.

What doors does writing open for you now? Once upon a time, back when I wasn’t writing, I assumed it was all about what happened once someone’s work was in the hands of readers. It wasn’t until I finished my first novel that I realized how much writing changed things for me and how I functioned in the world. It was like having lived in a ancient castle for my whole life, and never having explored anywhere but a few rooms. Writing made me start to look in all of them.

So, given the fact that we don’t start out with any promise of publication, I’m interested in what makes other writers write.

For me, writing and publication are two different things. I think as writers aspiring to be authors, we all start out the same: With nothing but a blank page, and a dream. For many years, I was writing but nothing book-length. I was a bit afraid to even try. I never thought I could do it, more less find my way to publication. At one point, I remember walking into my favorite indie bookstore, and I thought, if they made it, maybe I can, too. I sat down and wrote my first novel. And it was terrible. Poor Ace, his adventure was dreadful. I tried again. And again. I wrote middle grade. I wrote young adult. I knew my books may never get published. I felt, and still do, that if I spend every day of my life writing, and never again see publication, that’s not a bad way to live. Of course, I want to be published again, but that’s not wholly why I write. Like you so eloquently said, writing changes how you function in the world. It’s an entirely different world than what it was before. A writer notices things that were not there before. They eavesdrop. They make poor conversation. They take notes at inappropriate times during family functions. They daydream. They read books differently. I like who I am when I’m writing. I have never been so wholly myself as when I began devoting myself to writing – and there’s still a whole lot for me to discover.

Ah, yes, the poor conversations of writers. My best example of that involves asking my husband at an inopportune moment how long it would take for a body to decay in the woods. It was logically sound to me, but may have left him fearing for his life.

You clearly had the fiction bug from a very early age. How did working in journalism…hmm…relate? Did it satisfy that writing itch in some way, or was it too different? Do you draw from technique learned there in your current work? Tell the truth, are you better at deadlines than the rest of us?

Haha! Yes, I’ve been there. As well as my poor husband. He often just shakes his head at me and comments that I am clearly disturbed or a writer. I can hardly disagree.

It’s funny, when I went into journalism, I thought I’d love it for the writing. But reporting is so much beyond the writing. I was naïve. For a girl as shy as me, it was a real shock. But I liked the challenge of pushing myself. I had to talk to people I didn’t know, I had to show up at places I wouldn’t normally be in, and I had to get used to people not liking me or what I wrote about. (I covered a lot of crime and politics). I think I drove home crying a lot of my first year. It’s a tough thing to get over. Yet, I did. I think I’m better for it. It never really did satisfy that writing itch you mention – I had the chance to be creative, but at the same time, it wasn’t MY story. I was always writing someone else’s story. While fulfilling, it wasn’t what I was seeking, either. When I turned to writing books, it was difficult to break out of the mold of “…only (so many) words in (so many) inches!” In the newspaper world, it’s all about saying as much as you can, in as little space as you can. So broaching a fiction-length novel was intimidating and I found it hard not to edit everything down to a few pages. I will admit, I’m good at deadlines. I’m a bit of a control junkie, and if there’s something hanging over my head, I chase it!

I would think a solid background of covering crime and politics would be ideal training for readings and awards ceremonies. No matter what you do, people are bound to be nicer to you and it will all be a relief. As a fellow shy person, I have to tip my hat to you for being able to stick with it.

So, are there more cats in your future? What are you working on now? What would you work on, if you could work on absolutely anything? (Okay, that’s three things, not one, but they’re kind of related.)

I appreciate that. I had great co-workers, and I worked for great publishers. That helped.

I would like to write more about Ace, a sequel perhaps, and a prequel. Some of my young readers have asked me for a sequel, and I’m encouraged and humbled by that. Currently, I’m revising a young adult/new adult manuscript I wrote last summer. I’ve revised it many times, and I’m finally liking how it’s shaping up. I think. Don’t ask me tomorrow, I’m liable to hate it again by then. I’m not sure what I would write if I could write anything! I cross the line between middle grade to young adult and new adult and it feels like I never really have a say in it. But that’s okay. I tend to write what inspires me the most at the moment, though when I start a project, I always finish it before moving to the next. I know I love writing for children and young people – I hope to always write for these impressionable age sets!

Interested in learning more about The Great Cat Nap? Visit Abigail’s website for an excerpt and info on where to purchase.


The perfect day

The perfect day doesn’t start at dawn. Not even at breakfast. It’s only in our heads that time is regimented so.

No, the perfect day begins much later. You’ve already walked for an hour or so, and the sand has heated up along the water. The sun’s risen high enough that you can feel your skin crisping beneath it. You stopped to eat–peanut butter and jelly–and to drink water, all of you sharing water bottles, no one caring. The tide has turned, and it comes in a foot or so while you sit, the shore so flat that the water travels quickly.

This is the place that you found a alien one year. Probably not, but it looked like one–a leathery oval that pulsed when you set it in the saltwater. This is the place that your brother cut his foot open one year on an oyster shell, and where you come every year. This year, already on the walk, you’ve seen an osprey carrying a fish high above the water.

You finish lunch and continue on. You walk in the water with your daughter, while the others go on ahead. Last night you thought, over and over, like a chant, like a prayer, show me something tomorrow, let the magic be there. As the two of you talk about something else–the feel of the waves on your legs, maybe–you see a horseshoe crab moving with the water. The beach is littered with the shells of them; you’ve seen them every year. This one, though, this one you pause for, and realize it’s not moving with the water, it’s moving on it’s own.

You shout. This is what mothers do, the need to share becoming so constant that you do it even when alone, even with strangers who wonder why you must point out a train to them. You shout, and everyone turns, and you jump up and down in the waves and point, and they come running.

You lift the crab out of the water, because you want to feel it, and its legs scuttle against your fingertips, and it points its long tail straight up from its shell. It’s alive, you say, as if it’s not obvious, as if everything about it doesn’t scream life.

Then, suddenly, there are more. They are scurrying across the sand like carapaced bumper cars, hurrying along, between legs, over feet, up to the water’s edge and back out again. Here and there are mating pairs, the female half buried in sand, more like a rock than a crab.

First full moon in June, your husband says, and he’s right. You hadn’t thought of it, had spent the full moon inside your tent listening to the rain fall. The rain wouldn’t have bother these crabs, these prehistoric remnants intent on survival.

You swim. Not at first. You watch your children go in first, then your husband, and you stand in the water, which seemed so warm when it came to your ankles, and so much colder when it reaches your waist. Come in, they coax, come in. You explain how it is cold, and they promise it really isn’t, and another crab, not a horseshoe, no, one with claws, scrambles on your foot, and you jump in.

It isn’t warm. It’s okay, because you’re swimming, all four of you, and it’s just you and the crabs and a school of little fish, and a few kayakers far down the beach. The water is clear, straight down to the bottom, and it’s coming in fast, chasing after the clothes left on the beach.

When you’ve all finished, and gotten out of wet suits and into dry clothes, suddenly you’re hot again, as if you’d never swum, but it’s time to move on. More horseshoe crabs, some with tags from a research project, and you dutifully call them in in exchange for the promise of data about their lives.

Then you’re off the beach, for a bit, and into the marsh. No one else, just the four of you, and the tide now starting to go out, and everything smelling of salt and mud. You’re walking trails you’ve walked every year, only they are different, because the water changes everything, and you are different, all of you, because time changes you too. How many more times will you walk these trails before your kids move on? How much bigger the footprints they leave, some of them dwarfing your own.

The plovers are nesting on the other side. There are fences and signs with arrows, and you follow them out to another point, another familiar spot. Here, the seals pop up to stare at you, and you all take turns inventing their conversations, as mundane as your own. Look, another just popped up. What do you think they’re thinking. The gulls claim this point as well, and, buried amongst them, a pair of eiders, black and white also, but with their own distinct waddle.

The sun’s finally lower on the horizon, and it’s back through the sand and up among the pine trees, headed home. You stop to show your daughter the ant lions, their terrible jaws leaping up when you dislodge a few grains of sand. Back, back, along the edge where the tide fills an area that was mud when you first came out. Along fiddler crab holes, along the grasses the shorebirds hide within. To a bend in the trail where a diamondback terrapin mama stomps along, hissing as you approach. Her shell is notched and cracked, a battle-scarred veteran of roads and cars. No time to stop, she hisses, I must be on my way.

She is. You are. The tide, the sun, the moon and stars. All hurrying on their way. But for a moment, an afternoon, you believe there is no time, just the change and the not-change, and being alive.


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