The next stone

My husband had a great expression about a difficult working experience he once went through: “Everything is written in stone,” he would say. “But every day there’s a new stone.”

So I’m moving on to the new stone. This may be one of the last Persistent Writer posts for awhile; or maybe ever. I’ve been working on a new sibling for this blog, building a different kind of site which better reflects my current situation and outlook on life. For now I’ll keep both sites up simultaneously, but may eventually retire Persistent Writer for good. I started this blog at a low point in my career, but no longer feel as desperate and frustrated and irritated with publishing and the writing life as I was when I started with this 187 posts ago. Things have gotten better for me, and I’m grateful for that. I’m entering a interesting stage in my career, with two books coming out almost simultaneously this fall, one non-fiction, one fiction; one traditionally published (well, more or less) and one self-published.  To learn more about those…well, go visit my new site, at But don’t go there right now; it won’t be online for a little while yet, maybe Aug. 1st.  Creating a brand new website from scratch has been more taxing and daunting and difficult than I thought it would be, but I decided to err on the side of simplicity, so it’s just really a couple of photos (which I took myself) and a few words about my books. There is a blog page, but it will just be for the occasional essay or snippet from my work.  But comments are allowed, and I’ll even have a contact button, so you all can stay in touch.

To all my followers, all of you who have been kind enough to read and comment and put up with this claptrap over the last four years, I send endless love and gratitude, and invite you to continue the journey with me now,  over on the next stone….

Was Thomas Merton murdered by the CIA?

I confess to being a coward when it comes to wading into controversy; I try not to, as a rule, because it only seems to bring out the trolls, the bane of all who write online. But when this new book came out just a few months ago, The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, by Hugh Turley and David Martin, I thought I should take a look at it. I was alerted to this book by the journalist Patricia Lefevere, who writes for National Catholic Reporter, and is also reading it, so we have been exchanging emails.  I finished it a few days ago and have been thinking about it ever since, so if that was the authors’ intention, it certainly worked with me.

Merton’s death—fifty years ago this December–has always been an odd kind of mystery. How many people—let alone famous spiritual writers and social activists–have been mortally electrocuted by a defective room fan?  In Thailand, of all places, while the Vietnam War was raging next door? Somehow it seems not the way he should have died. Trying to imagine alternative deaths for Merton is an interesting parlor game: Heart attack? Stroke? Having read all eight of his published personal journals, I wouldn’t completely rule out suicide, shocking as that sounds; but he did seem to suffer from depression. And murder is not out of the question—he came into contact with some wacky people who might have killed him in some delusional fit. But the idea of our own government, through the CIA, knocking him off as a threat to national security, seems highly unlikely to me…even after reading this book, which shows you the authors did not convince me of their basic premise.

I will give the authors this: The details surrounding Merton’s actual death certainly are murky. The Thai police report seems lacking in essential detail (they say the official cause was a heart attack), there was no autopsy done, and witness reports are vague as well. I don’t know if that is intentional, or some kind of “cover-up.”  Merton died alone, and there were several people who discovered his body, and their accounts seem to change over time. There’s nothing sinister about this: Memories are imperfect, especially if affected by a person’s perspective and emotional state at the time.  When I was writing my biography of Father Irenaeus, I heard several different versions of his death: He died of a heart attack, but some of the friars were unsure if he had died at the friary, or in an ambulance, or at the hospital, or in someone’s car on the way to the hospital. And his former superior, who died in Albuquerque, NM in 1935, either passed away in a fall, an auto accident, or “took sick late at night”. I think this has something to do with the fact that these men, including Merton, were all clergy, and we’re a little squeamish about how they pass into eternal life. We might think they should do so in a dignified way, and I suspect that Merton died in a faintly undignified, perhaps slightly embarrassing way. It could simply be that he was found naked, and someone hurriedly yanked a pair of shorts on him. Wouldn’t you do that too, if it were your father, your husband, your best  friend?

I realized I might have crossed paths with these authors, in a way. They begin the book carping about an ‘incomplete’ letter they had received from Father John Eudes Bamberger, a Trappist who  was also a trained MD and psychologist, and had been the last person to see and examine Merton’s body when it arrived at the monastery. I was surprised that they did not interview him in person.  When I was doing research for my  own book, I had a very informal interview with Father Eudes, at the Abbey of the Genesee, at about the same time they sent that letter, I think. He was in his nineties, but alert and articulate, and we had a good, long talk. I was pretty sure he had not known Father Irenaeus (he didn’t), and I didn’t have any other questions for him, but I was startled when he suddenly and quite vehemently volunteered the information that he had performed the autopsy on Merton, when the body was shipped home from Thailand. He mentioned some “people” who seemed to think Merton’s death was a conspiracy, something he could not accept or believe. He then described how Merton’s body had looked—“all consistent with accidental electrocution.” So between that conversation and reading this very detailed book, I feel like I know more than I want to know about how Thomas Merton expired, and the state of his corpse.

And that’s the crux of it: This book has no role in the expanding canon of literature by and about Thomas Merton. The net result of it is reducing the great spiritual wanderer and gifted writer to a disfigured corpse. Is it important for us to know how he died? Isn’t his life, his work, his teachings the whole point of his existence? Yes, it would be nice to call him a martyr with a capital M, give him that title, but most martyrs for the faith give up their lives in a more clear-cut way, one that leaves no doubt as the heroism of their sanctity, It is, most of the time, a conscious sacrifice, that the poor martyrs have to face bravely. If the CIA did send an secret assassin to knock Merton off, poor Tom never saw it coming.

I don’t discount the CIA theory entirely, but the authors should have taken more care in crafting and preparing that argument. Though personally, I think that if the CIA were responsible, they would have done it in a more dramatic way, tied it to the Chinese or North Vietnamese, then alerted the media about the “irony” of the peace activist’s death. The chapter on the authors’ discovery of photographs of the death scene—found at Columbia University’s Butler Library–is  fascinating, though the photographs are not included in the book. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting book to read with some valid points—if you can overlook the authors’ bitter, accusing and uncharitable tone to some of the people Merton was closest to. This is a book that needs a little more humanity and compassion, and might be more impressive and persuasive if the authors had not taken such a combative sort of stance. A good editor would have pointed that out to them…

Almost heaven


When I set about writing this new mystery novel of mine, I knew from the start where it would be set: in the majestic mountains of eastern West Virginia. My love affair with this state started with a personal connection: a very, very dear old friend who had partially grown up there, long enough to acquire the distinctive speech patterns and expressions used by folks from that part of the country. I’ve visited the state a number times, but each time has been memorable, not only for the natural beauty, but also the incredible openness and friendliness of its people. However, I wanted this state to be more than just a mere setting, I wanted it to be almost another character in the book and indeed, its flora and fauna and rugged terrain do play a big role in the plot’s resolution. A medieval-style monastery in West Virginia might seem an unusual or unlikely thing, but I didn’t want anyone thinking I was writing a thinly veiled portrait of the real-life Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky, though I admit that place may have been an early inspiration. My fictional monastery is a very unique and very different sort of  place, which deserves to be set in a very unique state.

However, for a relatively small state, its character changes quite dramatically from north to south, and from panhandle to panhandle. So I had to zero in on the part of it I wanted to write about, even though I created a fictional town—also a fictional county, mountain, state park and creek—to complement my make-believe monastery. The general area is what the tour guides call the Potomac Highlands Region, where the Appalachian culture might not be as intense as in the western and southern counties, but it’s an area I’m familiar with, and it has a unique culture and history of its own. You could read more about it in the fiction of Mary Lee Settle and Denise Giardina, who’ve both written about this area and its people. It’s a splendid, ancient, scarred, and often overlooked section of the state, and I’m happy to give it some needed attention.

The mystery novel now is done, and is going off to the printers for a proof copy this week; I’m going to enter it in a competition that should give it some advance publicity and will also be posting an ARC on NetGalley, before it’s eventually published late this summer (sometime in August—late summer reading!) And by happy coincidence, galleys arrived today for Called to Serve: The Untold Story of Father Irenaeus Herscher OFM, so that book may see the light of day soon. The Franciscans did not tamper with it too much, I’m happy to say. And I have a freelance editorial project awaiting my eyeballs, a fantasy novel called Pillars of Atlantis, which I had edited as a rough draft some time ago, but now hope to polish for the author so he can finally publish it. So summer writing/editing so far is going as planned. Wish I could say the same for my garden…

Good angel, bad angel

I like to think my mystery novel is finished, only because I finally figured out the ending, but I still have a long way to go, lots and lots of editing ahead to tighten up the story. I am trying not to worry about literary devices and hidden meanings, but I couldn’t help but notice a strong undercurrent of good versus evil running through it, which I actually want to avoid, because part of the mystery is tied in with ‘good’ people who behave badly and seemingly ‘bad’ people who show some decency and humanity. I want there to be plenty of gray areas (but not fifty shades worth—this is a fairly chaste novel, for me). I’ve come to realize it’s not moralizing on my part, but hearkening back to a legend I heard years ago, as a second-grader in parochial school: that of the Archangel Michael and the formerly ‘good’ archangel Lucifer.  Sister Mary Anthony told the story pretty well, as I recall, jumping up from her desk to show precisely how Michael booted the bad angel out of Heaven and into Hell.

What was Lucifer’s crime? Sister Anthony said it was a case of extreme ego, that he wanted to replace God himself. But in more scholarly works I later read, it seemed he was either envious of Michael, or, oddly, the human race created in the image of God. Wikipedia actually has an entry called “The War in Heaven.” And hence, an instant plot for any number of novels, movies, TV dramas and superhero comic books to follow. In my novel there is both a Michael, and a Lucifer. But I’m working very hard to blur this distinction, trying to tarnish Michael’s crown and polish up Lucifer’s. And I hope to do it to a point where the reader almost needs to question, which is which?  In the end, Michael, who comes dangerously close to completely succumbing to the Lucifer character (both physically and morally), is not able to vanquish him entirely, because this is what actually happens, in real life down here on earth.

Lest you think this novel is veering toward those moody and depressing Scandinavian-style mysteries, a.k.a. Wallander, I can assure you the style is much lighter, with plenty of comic relief. It’s thoroughly contemporary, set right now in 2018 in out post-Obama America. Yet it’s set in a medieval-style monastery that is struggling to survive; indeed the abbey’s very survival hinges on the outcome of the mystery, which involves the death (murder???) of one of its monks. Alas, I can’t seem to get away from the monastery, but you know that it is all informed by my research into Merton, the Trappists and even the Franciscans.  I always loved the Brother Cadfael mysteries, and during my sojourn into non-fiction, it occurred to me that an abbey is a perfect place to set a murder mystery: Everyone is a suspect…and no one is a suspect!  I like to describe my book as a modern Black Narcissus, but with monks in West Virginia instead of nuns in the Himalayas. With humor, I might add, and a more classic, mystery novel format.

And yes, my voracious readers, it will be series! Another difficulty I’m contending with is setting up characters for the long haul, and dropping in hints of things that might be looked into later on. For example, a new monk who arrives at the monastery and plays a fairly crucial role has very little backstory; and it can’t developed much in this book, because he suffers from psychosomatic mutism.  He literally does not talk, and so, can’t really tell anyone about himself. But the next book in this series will devote more time to him.

I’m lucky to now have the luxury of being able to work almost full-time on this book for a while, before taking on any significant freelance editorial assignments. The biography. Called to Serve, will be out sometime this fall or winter, according to my publisher, so I may have to stop and scramble to promote that. Though I was tempted to continue with biography and non-fiction, I’m happy to return to fiction, because making up untrue stories seems to be what I do best.

Down Pensacola way

Pensacola, at the very tip of Florida’s long finger pointing west toward Alabama, is not necessarily a place I choose to visit, but have to, for family reasons. My parents moved here years ago, from cold and snowy Connecticut, and so at least once a year I, along with my brothers and sisters, find myself making the inevitable pilgrimage south. I think my initial antipathy to this place was based on the fact that it was SO different from anything up north, it felt almost foreign. But I find now it’s growing on me. The city certainly has a unique and authentic charm that Miami or some other cities in Florida lack, with live oaks and canopy walks and armadillos darting about the way ground hogs do up north. And though it’s in the northern part of the state, it is the most “southern” city in it, I think—you see it in the architecture, the horticulture, the cuisine and the way people talk. It is truly the Deep South, as deep as you can get before falling into the Gulf of Mexico.

I decided I would use this week helping out my parents, and also as a needed break from my writing. I just need to be a daughter this week, especially since at my advanced age, I’m indeed fortunate to still be playing this role actively. Trying not to think about anything writerly. Yet yesterday I wrote a scene for the next book in mid-air, when the plane was midway between Chicago and the Gulf. And there seems a slight hint of Appalachia about here, too, that keeps reminding me of the setting of my next novel.  So inevitably some writing will get done here; I always seem to do some of my best writing on the road.

I borrowed my father’s car this morning (last time I did that, I was eighteen) and took a ride down to the beach. My parents live in the urban center of Pensacola, and the beach is out on a  barrier island. This involves a short trip across two very long bridges over the big blue bay, one of the bridges rising high like a small mountain into the sky, then down again, not unlike a roller coaster, as pelicans fly by and swoop into the water for fish. The city’s traffic has been very snarly, due to the gradual erection of a new bridge alongside the old one, which has been judged—according to this morning’s Pensacola News-Journal—structurally compromised. Yet I made it to the island and back unscathed.  I stepped out of the air-conditioned car into the steamy, pre-storm heat of tropical Florida, onto PB’s fabled white sand (crafted by ground-down Appalachian quartz, carried by the rivers down to the Gulf), and emerald, balmy water. What really caught my eye was the sky: Deeply blue with complex clouds, hinting of coming storms and thunder. I had just been discussing with my cover artist Will Harmuth how different the sky seems down South—it just seems bigger, and wider and even richer, somehow. There’s too much stuff up north cluttering it up. Today’s sky was worthy of a landscape painter, great white soft puffs rising and dissolving into uncertain shades of lavender-gray, and it seemed to me that there should be some huge old clipper ship sailing beneath it, its sails fully unfurled to catch the sea-wind. I stood there and reflected on today’s NY Times obituary of Philip Roth, which I read last night, when I awoke, sleepless, at 2:30 am; and thinking, too, of the Mary Lee Settle novel I tried to read on the plane, until I got too bogged down in her overly rich description and writing. The old guard is going, I thought, and even though I’ve never been part of the new guard, I figure I have to keep writing, because, well,  someone has to.

It didn’t take long for the heat to drive me back to the car, and I headed back across the bridge and through the city that has existed for at least three centuries on this hurricane-prone spot on the Gulf, and will probably continue on indefinitely into the future. P.S. There is a big blow expected for this weekend, but not a full-fledged hurricane, as I understand it. We may lose power, but I’m ready for it, with my old fashioned notebook and pens.


Artists and Writers, working together

The first time the poet Robert Lax saw his work compiled in a stand-alone format (according to Lax’s biography Pure Act, by Michael McGregor)  was shortly after he met the artist and designer Emil Antonucci. Antonucci had just acquired an old-fashioned hand-press, and together they created an elegant, hand-crafted volume of Lax’s poems on trees. Antonucci says: “I realized there was a relationship between the fine arts and books…it was a dream.”

I’ve often wondered why there isn’t more collaboration between writers and artists these days. It could be—speaking for writers—we get so caught up in our own visions and ideas that it doesn’t occur to us to look for hints of them in someone else’s work. We can’t imagine anyone can capture the magic of our priceless prose! Yet when it works, it’s sublime, an enhanced experience for enlightened readers. But in traditional publishing, this is often impossible: Trad publishers don’t want to deal with the additional costs of acquiring worthy art or working with a talented designer, and/or paying rights fees; and there’s been a dispiriting trend toward text-only covers.

Yet, when you self-publish—which, happily, seems to have become a mainstream thing now–covers are always difficult. How do you make them stand out, without looking weird or amateurish? Many independents turn to professional book-cover designers, but their rates are very steep. And you may not get that much bang for your buck. When I studied hundreds of mystery titles on Amazon, all the covers had a distressing sameness to them: Big dramatic type over a dark-ish altered photo. Or, for the cozy mysteries, cute girly typefaces over bland computer-drawn pictures. Somehow my mystery set in the Appalachian mountains didn’t seem suited to either of those treatments. And as a reader, I was not lured into wanting to read any of them, either.

But browsing Facebook one morning, I saw that a very dear friend, Will Harmuth, a professional, regional artist, had posted a particularly wonderful painting that was just perfect. He had painted it after a trip to the Shenandoah mountains  (close enough!) The thing that drew me in was the sky, the way he had  stretched it over the mountains: Deeply blue, but complex, unsettled with patchy clouds and even a hint of distant storminess. We associate blue skies with ease and happiness, but this sky seemed the perfect metaphor for my mystery, a bit of darkness and uncertainty hidden behind a seemingly pleasant scene.

Though Will has been a close friend for decades, I wasn’t sure how to approach him about using the painting. So I went up to visit him, bringing a tray of brownies, and talked it out. In the end, I ended up buying the painting outright (with an old-friend’s discount), and you will see it when my book appears later this year. I’m just over the moon about it. And since I’m hoping this book will become a series, I’m thinking about approaching other artists for future covers (it’s likely some work by my own artist-husband will turn up eventually: He has designed most of my covers so far, but has yet to do a full-scale painting from scratch).

Collaboration can be a tricky business. And it’s not for everyone. The writer has to have some kind of art sense, and a strong feeling for what will connect with their writing. And in some cases, you may have to convince the artist that your work is worthy of their art.  I think a lot of independent writers will think, Are you crazy, I can’t afford to buy art for my covers! Well, probably not on commission, which not all artists like to do anyway. You might be surprised at how reasonable a piece of art can be. But if you’re willing to spend a few grand on an unknown book packager mentioned in some dubious self-publishing website…I’d say you might save yourself a lot of money and grief by simply going with a good piece of art.

It doesn’t hurt to hit the galleries and weekend art shows, or even go online, and see what appeals, and figure out your own art sense. You don’t have to approach the famous or popular guys, just go with your gut. Look for undiscovered gems. And it never hurts to talk. Talk with the artist and see what you can work out. Offer to let them read the book, to see if they agree with your assessment. Certainly let them know that if your book becomes popular, it’s valuable exposure for them as well. But don’t use this to try and get a lower price: They deserve to get what they feel their art is worth. I guess the key is strong mutual respect for each other’s vision, and that’s what made the Lax-Antonucci venture so successful.

Artists, keep on painting and creating! Writers, search and take notice. Eventually you might make a match made in heaven…

Catholics at the Met

My readers know I’m inclined to write about my faith frequently, and guess what, all of a sudden it’s cool and trendy to be Catholic. I know this, because I watched a clip on last night’s evening news about the celebrity-studded gala at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, celebrating the opening of its show on Catholic influence on fashion.  I understand the Vatican is a willing participant in this, contributing some forty or so treasures to the exhibit. I’ll reserve my opinion on the exhibition until I have a chance to see it. I consider myself on the ‘progressive,’ liberal-leaning end of the spectrum (edging dangerously close to agnosticism), but I have to admit, seeing the glitterati out there on the red carpet mockingly parading about in ecclesiastic-themed fashion made me feel as outraged as any rosary-carrying Latin-loving hard-core traditionalist.

I guess that’s the heart of it: Fashion is an ugly business. And combining it with publicity and self-promotion makes it positively Faustian.  I worked briefly in fashion publishing, down on Sixth Avenue, when I was an editorial coordinator for Vogue/Butterick years and years ago. It was a shallow, nasty, competitive and soulless business then, and it still is now. It did not leave me uncorrupted—I still possess an unfortunate weakness for  professionally designed clothing, elegant tailoring, and tasteful details. However, I feel that in popularizing liturgical garments  and putting them on the red carpet, high-fashion is also mocking us, making fun, and that’s never cool. It ignores the point of Catholicism completely, in that our religion is an abstract, spiritual endeavor which is not defined by its architecture and garments. Also, many of the vestments and artifacts displayed were used only by a very few practitioners, those rich, wealthy powerful members of the upper Church hierarchy, and they’re not the real Church either: The Church is, simply, its people, its community, with love, or charity, at the centerpiece. Everything else is background noise.

Or, culture. My own faith is a woefully complicated thing, equal parts belief, theological education (thanks to attending a Catholic college, though with a strong Franciscan bias), school-of-hard-knocks in trying to realistically practice it, and my own passion for history and esthetic appreciation of  Church culture through the ages. But more to the point, my connection to the church is mostly through family members I cherish and love, the people who raised me, the people who educated me; and also, poignantly, along with my husband of 37 years (this month!), who seems to be at the exact same stage of Catholic life that I am—sometimes skeptical and questioning, other times wholeheartedly believing, but also intrigued and informed by the Church’s 2,000-year history and culture.

I understand that some of my fellow Catholics are just thrilled about this media attention, but really, do we need to worry about our Church being popular and well-liked? It doesn’t need a million ‘likes’ on Facebook. It simply is, and will continue to be. If anything, I hope the attention will help erase some of the anti-Catholic, and anti-spiritual, sentiment that has infected literature, art, book publishing and popular culture in general, much of which, alas, may have been prompted by the dreadful pedophile scandals of the recent past. Obviously I feel the answer is to keep moving the Church forward in a realistic and compassionate way, without dismissing entirely its rich and storied past. But before I write anything else, I suppose I should go and see that show…then I can write Part 2 to this post.