Wednesday, November 20, 2013

How far would you go?

Ryan's dad
I’ve followed the Ryan Ferguson case since it became the focus of news shows like Dateline and 48 Hours, and like so many other people around the world, I rejoiced when the justice system in Missouri finally came to its senses and let Ryan go free. If you aren’t familiar, he was arrested nine years ago at the age of nineteen when a friend claimed he’d murdered a man. Never mind that the friend didn’t have the facts regarding the method of the crime correct, or that the friend had mental and emotional issues, or that there wasn’t one shred of physical evidence tying either of these young men to the crime scene. Ryan was convicted and sentenced to forty years anyway, and he spent the entire decade of his twenties behind bars. One of the things he said, I believe more than once, was that it was harder for his parents. Well, who knows, but I’m a parent of two young men so that remark resonated. 

The prison where I once lived with my family was a first-offender unit and housed mainly young men
The Fergusons - who could have imagined the calamity to come?
Ryan’s age. I got to know many of them and often their parents. There were designated days a few times a year when the families of the inmates were invited to visit the prison grounds, sort of like college level parent and student orientation day. The inmates’ families and the prison administrators’ families would mingle on prison grounds in an outdoor area furnished with picnic tables and playground equipment. One of the young men whose parents I met at one of these functions, a good looking kid who had a bright future until one night when he decided to hold up a mini mart with a gun, was a beloved babysitter to my two pre-school age sons. You might wonder how a mother could allow a convicted felon around her kids, but this young man wasn’t bad. He got in with drugs, the wrong crowd, something like that. He went off the deep end like kids do sometimes, the ones who are only temporarily lost. They need a wake up call. He got his. In part, I think the unique setting he was in really helped. It kept him segregated from more hardened criminals. He received counseling, one-on-one and in groups. Rather than a cell, he was confined to a room in a dormitory type building. He had meaningful work. He was given every chance to reform, to atone, and he did.

“We never expected our son would get into this kind of trouble,” his dad said on an orientation day. “He went to school, made his grades. He played basketball, for God’s sake, and he was good at it. He made varsity his sophomore year.”

“The police knocked on our door. We were just sitting down to dinner,” his mother said. “It was the first we knew. The police said they had every right to arrest him, that he was an adult.” She looked at me. “He was seventeen.”

“Even now, if he’s an adult, I’m Tinker Belle,” her husband said.

Sitting at the picnic table, listening to them talk about the calamity that erupted in their lives without warning a year ago, I couldn’t imagine it. These people were parents like any other. They could have lived next door and anyone would have been glad to have them as neighbors.

“I think maybe I wasn’t there enough for him.” The dad’s voice slipped and caught. He looked off, jaw working. “It’ll be different when we get him home again. I’m not giving up on my kid.”

His wife took his hand.

My throat was tight. As it turned out, he didn’t give up on his son. We kept in touch for several years once he was released, and as far as I know, there was never another brush with the law.
It’s a good story, a happy ending story. Like Ryan Ferguson’s story. His family believes in him too. They’ve been there for him, never once wavering in their faith in him. His dad crisscrossed the country in a car painted with a message: Free Ryan. He never let up, not once. He was always so composed, too, like Ryan, himself. I got the sense Ryan’s dad would have done anything to have Ryan free, to have him safe. To get him back.

The situation was heartrending to me as it was to thousands of others. I can say, honestly, I lost sleep over it a couple of times—it seemed so horrifying. And there was that question of how far a dad would go for his son; it was so compelling.

How far would a dad go? Or a mom, or a sister?

How far would you go to save him, if your son or your brother was arrested for murder?

The family in my latest novel, SAFE KEEPING, faces this nightmare. On an evening like any other they’re sitting down at the dinner table when the knock comes on the door and the police take their son. Their lives unravel. Their faith in the justice system falters and is finally lost. Now they have to decide: How far will they go?

Friday, September 20, 2013

SAFE KEEPING: The beautiful face of my new novel

I’m thrilled to share the gorgeous cover art for my new novel, SAFE KEEPING, coming from MIRA in April, 2014.

My son is a murderer….

When I first wrote that opening sentence for this novel, it sent a chill down my spine. I have sons and couldn’t imagine it, ever having to consider that one of them was capable of anything so horrible. I wondered why I even wanted to. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to go on. The first chapter fell out onto the page through Emily Lebay’s, the mother’s, point of view, and it has remained very close to its original expression through multiple rounds of edits.

Here’s the gist of the story from the back flap copy:

Emily Lebay always thought of her family as ordinary. Sure, they’ve endured their share of problems, even a time of great trouble—what family hasn’t? But when a woman’s body turns up in the dense woods near their home, and Emily’s grown son Tucker is accused of murder, Emily is forced to confront the unfathomable, and everything she believed about her life is called into question.

I spent a lot of time with this family, Emily, her husband, Roy, her daughter, Lissa, and son, Tucker, and I grew to love them even though my heart ached for them. I think we must at times cross paths with people like the Lebays, we live on the same street with them, or pass time chatting with them in the grocery store line. They appear very ordinary, but we never really know what they might have endured, the same as they may not know the sorts of calamities we ourselves have somehow managed to survive. I imagine the many, many acts of courage that happen every day across America and around the world that go mostly unremarked and unreported. SAFE KEEPING is about that. It’s about courage and the indomitability of a mother’s and a sister’s love and the resilience of the human spirit.

I’m so eager to share this story with you. It’s available now for pre-order at Amazon, and I know I’ll be sharing more about it as the birthdate for it draws nearer. In fact, very soon, I’ll have some special news to share about EVIDENCE OF LIFE, too. In the meanwhile, I’d love to hear from you!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Dare to Dream: The Key to Passion

Like thousands of others around the world, I was inspired recently by Diana Nyad’s record-breaking Florida Straits swim. Watching her complete the final few strokes, stagger to her feet, unaided, and walk into the arms of one of her support team members brought me to tears. And when she spoke, as whipped as she was, her very first words were focused, unbridled joy, celebratory and inspiring. Paraphrasing, she said to never give up; she said you are never too old to chase your dream, and she said that while swimming looked like a solitary sport, it was a team effort. (She might as easily have meant life, that life is a team effort.) There she was, just out of the water after a grueling journey that lasted 52 hours and 54 minutes, and she was cheering us on! She’s 64. 64! And she did that. At another point, she raised her fist and said, “Boomer power,” I think it was. Something like that. It made me laugh. I fell in love with her. She’s wonderful! She’s an antidote...

Against so much of the conditioned thinking in our society about aging that writes off a person over 60. Heck, you’re 40 and in some people’s minds, you’re done, especially if you’re a woman. (Sorry, guys, it’s true.) It’s easy as you’re getting older to allow that mindset to overcome your imagination. (Does imagination age?) You can lose track of the kid in you, the thing inside that feeds your passion. In fact, Diana did. She quit swimming for thirty-one years. I didn’t know that until I watched her TEDx talk. I’m sharing it here, because I was so lit up by it.

It meant so much to me because I’m embarking on my own version of Diana’s swim, uprooting my life and relocating to another part of the state. And not only that but designing and building my house, a garage + potting shed, and a new garden. I’m going to be helping my son who is in the start-up phase of building his aquaponics farm venture, which I’m thrilled about. I’m working on a new novel, too, and I’m so excited about writing it. And lately another idea for an equally exciting story came to me. Suddenly, I’m on fire with all I can do. I’ve re-ignited my passion. I didn’t have words to describe all that I’ve been feeling just lately, and so much of it has been confusing to me, and a little unnerving, but then Diana Nyad did her incredible swim, and she described her process in this TEDx talk, and she gave me the words. Every time now I think I can’t do this, I’m too old, too tired, only one person, blahblahblah, I think of Diana, and her three things: don’t give up; you’re never too old; it takes a team. Following one’s passion is hard, grueling, beautiful work. It takes grit, so much grit. It’s messy and joyful. I hope I can always live it, and I hope you’ll tune in and watch Diana’s TEDx talk. It’s wonderful! 

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Need relief from the Dog Days? 5 great end of summer reads

When a child is endangered, who’s the first person everyone looks at if not the mother? She’s the first one to take the blame and most of the time, she’s blaming herself more than anyone else could, whether it’s warranted or not. But what if as the mother the harm done isn’t to your own child, but to a friend’s child who was given into your care? And the harm is the direct result of your negligence, because as the result of your overwhelmingly busy, stressed out life, the one with the schedule from hell, you dropped the ball, failed to check up on, to follow through on the whereabouts of this child, and now, she’s missing? That’s the set-up, the trigger that ignites this riveting domestic thriller. It’s a story that begins with ordinary life and ordinary people who within the space of a day, of mere hours, find themselves under scrutiny from the police and the media, their friends and neighbors. This situation could happen so easily to anyone, really. How would you feel? That’s the question. What would you do? In her debut novel, JUST WHAT KIND OF MOTHER ARE YOU, Paula Daly, renders a compelling portrait of a mother whose life takes the darkest detour imaginable. But character is the real strength of this novel. Each one is vividly alive and breathing right off the page, and the suspense builds with perfect rhythm until the last explosive page. And the ending is a shocker.

Almost everyone can relate to the idea that life is a journey, but not everyone is so gifted with the use of language that they can render their journey, or any portion of it, with such eloquence and courage as Cheryl Strayed. This is a memoir that makes the genre worth reading. It is a story that can be life altering in the way that one person’s life, and the experience they’ve had when it is arduous and difficult and fraught with obstacles, not the least of which are one’s own flaws, can go beyond the words written on the page, as beautiful and eloquent as they are, and reach into another person’s soul, there to ignite a similar fire, a similar will to be brave, to persist. The story Cheryl tells is vivid and compelling and raw in its truth, and that is the beauty of it. Throughout her narrative, there are moments that are breathtaking and other moments that are heartbreaking, and some that are simply so comic, you laugh aloud, but throughout, the sense of her will and her determination, her honesty and bravery ring through every syllable just as these very same qualities, despite the missteps, must be the ones that brought her through the difficult times and places in her life. This is a memoir that will stay with you. It is at once a treasure to mine and an inspiration to hold onto.

First, I have to say I read an advance uncorrected proof of THE MOURNING HOURS by Paula Treick DeBoard that was sent to me by my publisher, MIRA, but just to clarify, I wasn’t asked to do a review, and in fact, had I not loved this book, I wouldn’t have bothered. It’s that whole thing—you know, if you can’t say something nice, etc…. But what I can surely say about this novel is that it was a nonstop thrill to read. The situation is calamitous. A high scho
ol kid, an athlete on the fast track to a college scholarship, an all around great guy with a bright future, is implicated when a girl he’s dating disappears on a snowy night in Wisconsin. This isn’t the typical suspense novel, some police procedural, no. It’s a heartrending story about a family that is suddenly, illogically and brutally broken apart by a single tragic event, and the incredible suspicion that explodes in its aftermath, tainting the entire family. Long-held loyalties shatter. Trust is gone. And the future that once seemed solid and sure is, within days, wholly brought into doubt. That this fast-paced, tautly written page-turner is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old narrator, the sister of the accused, only makes it more poignant when she’s forced to make choices and to evaluate circumstances that are beyond her understanding. It’s not until she returns as an adult to her childhood home that she begins to understand the mystery of what really happened on that long ago snowy night. It’s not at all what she thought, and the end, when it comes is shocking and nothing at all like what she might have predicted.

At the heart of this story are two brothers, and the complex nature of their relationship is revealed
through their response to a shocking incident, perpetrated by their teenage nephew, their sister’s kid, the loner who’s so awkward and shy, he barely makes a blip on the radar screen. Now this kid’s in trouble, and the Burgess boys, both lawyers, are summoned by their sister to the rescue. That’s the scaffolding, the ribs so to speak, where this story hangs, but it is so much more and all of it rendered in the inimitable style that Elizabeth Strout is known for. From nothing more than words, she creates a wonderfully gorgeous and accurate cast of characters and sets them into situations that are vividly real and poignant, managing to make them accessible even when you don’t like them or their opinions much. But the really riveting core of this novel, at least for me, was in how she took a fairly ordinary family, albeit one that suffered an enormous and shocking tragedy early on, and a current situation, fraught with racial tension, one that had all the earmarks of becoming a national incident, and reflected though these circumstances the similarities that lie between individuals, whether in families, or political parties, or communities or nations. We are all the same, all human. For my money, having read all of Ms. Strout’s books, I like this one best.

People always seem to speak of our current time in history as the worst the world has seen, but consider 1918. Not only was the world embroiled in a brutal war that was killing thousands, but lives were also being lost to the Spanish flu, an outbreak so huge and widespread it was labeled a pandemic. People wore gauze masks. They chewed cloves of garlic and hung them from their necks, and they died like flies anyway. The fear and grief that was spawned as a result, that must have hung in the air like a shroud, gave rise to a near frenzied interest in spiritualism, in ghosts, in ways to talk to the ones we love who have passed. It must have seemed that Armageddon had come. I felt that it had from the very first page of Cat Winter’s beautifully written, eerily atmospheric debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS. The story is categorized variously as horror and paranormal, and the reading audience is YA. But that seems too limiting for this novel’s sweep. It has an almost “ripped from the headlines” kind of feel to it as if it could be happening now, and all of it were true. It’s a riveting read, and not just for kids, either. There’s so much wisdom in the words, in the story that’s developed on several levels. There’s a lot to ponder. One of the lessons that seems clear, at least to me, is how indomitable the human spirit is. It comes through the wonderfully drawn main character, Mary Shelley. This is a novel that teaches about a long ago time in history, that has lessons for today. And the photographs that are included with the story are compelling and chilling, like iced frosting on an already scrumptious cake.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The view from here

Herman Melville's writing view

 I’m contemplating moving very soon to the Texas hill country. It’s been a long-held dream, and I’m excited about it but also a bit apprehensive. While moving is a big adventure, it also means change, and that’s something I’m not fond of, or I should say the part of me that craves the routine, the ordinary and everyday isn’t fond of confronting something new. On the one hand moving is all about what you leave behind, close friends, critique partners, good and kind neighbors, in my case, but on the other hand, moving means going forward into the unknown and I love the idea of that even as I resist it.

I’ve moved around a lot, more in my early life than recently, but enough to know it’s cathartic. It’s mind shaking and life altering. It’s an experience through which you can grow. I’ve done it enough to know it can be very good for your soul. Maybe because you get rid of a lot of stuff, or I do, when I move. I weigh the things I put into the boxes, their worthiness to be carefully wrapped and transported. And after days of packing, more winds up in the giveaway pile. I’m exhausted by then, but I feel lighter than air. See, cathartic, like I said!

Anyway, recently, I received the monthly newsletter from the Irene Goodman Literary Agency where
My writing view in the morning
my agent Barbara Poelle works, and at the top of the page Irene posted a beautiful photograph she took of the view Herman Melville had of the Berkshire Hills from his home, specifically what he looked out on when he wrote, and I was kind of amazed, because it resembles in a small way what my view will be from my new writing nest in the hill country. You can see the differences from the pictures, that the view from Melville’s home is much more lush, while the photo of my homestead, taken this past December in the dead of winter, shows significant signs of the drought that is persistent here. Still, the hills, in both photos, it is that distant perspective that just takes my imagination to such faraway places, and I am lost to it. The view is, in part, what fires my desire to live there, that and some effervescence in the quality of the air, plus the cool mornings and evenings that provide a respite from the brutal heat of a Texas summer day. And unlike where I am now in south Texas, there will be less humidity, fewer cockroaches and mosquitos, and less worry over damage from a hurricane (and we won’t talk about the scorpions, rattlesnakes and wild hogs that live out there, okay?)

Looking west
But back to the photo of Melville’s view, according to what Irene wrote about it, Melville looked out at the hills and saw his whale. “…but to Melville the configuration of the hills from his study window looked exactly like a whale hunching its back after being struck--a sure sign to a whaler that success was near,” Irene wrote in her remarks about the picture. She goes on the say, “Wherever you choose to write, it has an effect on you. Melville had an environment that greatly enhanced his spirit and his work. Whether you work at a beautiful desk with a glorious view or a windowless basement alcove, you can adjust it to suit your needs.”

She’s right, because you could, in a
windowless alcove, hang a painting that would inspire you. But I am so looking forward to having the real thing, not to mention the peace that radiates from these images to soak up every day. In fact, as much as I will probably be homesick for my nest here, I can’t wait to begin a new adventure out there! Thank you, Irene, for sharing this. I am inspired by the photo and by what you wrote about it. Now all I need are house plans!