Pull down the stars

The title of this blog isn’t some dreamy, moody metaphor. It is a call to Amazon to take action, and eliminate its idiotic star system ranking for the eight-million-plus books it offers for sale. Sounds heretical, doesn’t it? I admit, the stars come in handy, when you’re ordering a vacuum cleaner or table salt or some other non-sentient product. But when it comes to products of creativity, they need to go: They have become, in this ever-changing literary culture, completely meaningless. In the literary marketplace, a whole black market economy has been created around the illicit creation and posting of those little heavenly symbols. I know, because I’ve received solicitations from “review firms”  (probably due to the extreme paucity of consumer reviews of Hard Cider Abbey) which promise a whole constellation of stars, allegedly from ‘actual’ readers, for just a small payment of several hundred to several thousands of dollars. Amazon, which is onto the star-inflation scam, is scrambling to stem the problem in a ham-footed sort of way, by making consumer reviews harder to post, and forcing reviewers to spend a minimum of $50 on their wares first. The whole situation is just ridiculous.

Take down the stars, but NOT the reviews. On books only. Save those stars for household appliances and beauty products. Make book buyers READ the reviews, wade through the text, to see if a book is worth their while. Just because a writer has a gazillion stars does not mean they’ve written a good book. Doing some market research, I studied a number of (mostly mystery) books and the consumer reviews they had produced. Some really top-notch writers, such as Tara French and Gillian Flynn, have gotten their share of completely  asinine and unfair one-star reviews, while badly-executed work (not naming names here, but unfortunately, most of them fellow self-publishers, which tars us all with the same brush), writing trite books with anemic storylines, milk-toast characters and plenty of grammatical and spelling errors—are crowned with hundreds of five-star reviews. How????!!!  No wonder so many readers don’t want to take a chance on a new writer! And how does an independent novelist become a better novelist, when he pays a few hundred people to tell him how wonderful he, or she, is?

So, dump the stars, Amazon. Luckily, with my latest, you won’t have too many to take away. Thankfully, a lack of stars has had no correlation with steady sales.  And thank goodness for those editorial reviews…

Bits and pieces

Item #1:  “If you stay at table long enough, eventually the chips will come your way.”  Maybe, Henry Winkler (and so glad you finally got your Emmy award), but the Persistent Writer has been at the table longer than any other writer she knows, and never quite seems to break even. The newest book launch confirms this: It started out promisingly enough, but then—for reasons completely beyond my control, i.e. internal turmoil at Amazon, combined with their constant tinkering—everything kind of fell apart. Not that I’m all that concerned about it; I knew this particular book would be a  slowly building thing, but…geez, ‘Zon, get your act together! My paperback edition is of particular concern—apparently it was one of the last books ever to be published by the entity Createspace, which is now no more. Its operations are being absorbed into Amazon’s Kindle publishing, and right now neither Kindle nor the defunct Createspace are properly reporting sales (according to both, I’m selling none), although the paperback has a very respectable sales ranking, which is somewhat reassuring. Have to wait for them to sort it all out, but wish I didn’t have to worry about this crap.

Item #2: In regard to the above item, another difficulty is the advertising scheme ‘Zon has set up  for us independents. They decided to  revamp the whole thing earlier this month, which I admit was an improvement, making it much easier to decipher (It’s all about ‘impressions’ and “clicks”—basically it’s those annoying recommendations you see on any given book’s sale page, but they seem—or once seemed—to work.) The trouble is,  I’ve been working to keep my click-bids as low as possible, at literally pennies, to stay within my promotion budget (which is damned low to begin with), but other authors have no problem pouring in ridiculous sums just to get their own books into choice spots.  The worst are weekends, which used to be quite profitable: It seems you can’t bid enough for a weekend spot, but I’m not stooping to that. So it’s basically impossible to compete this month: First off, everyone and their brother has a new book out in September, which for some reason is considered a prime book-buying month (this has not been my experience though; October and November are better). It’s also hard when there’s a “big” book out: Woodward’s book ‘Fear’ pretty much sucked all the oxygen out of the publishing room: At a whopping $14.99, it was still the number-one best-selling Kindle book this week. Then the advertising is off because it’s so new, and other desperate authors are just throwing stupid money at it. I shrug. If this was easy, we’d all be best-sellers. I’m still a believer in old-fashioned word-of-mouth and gradually building a reputation, even if most other authors don’t, so nothing to do but hang in there for now.

Item #3: Enough shop talk…I am just sick about rotten Hurricane Florence, and the drowning of the Carolinas. I love the Carolinas, both north and south; I have some very dear friends and family down there. And  I know full well what it’s like to climb into a rocking police boat from the top of my front stairs, and sail down what was your former street in the pouring rain.  It’s humiliating and humbling, but to the victims of Florence, let me just say this: Swallow  your pride, and just accept everything that is offered to you: whether it’s clean clothing, shelter, Red Cross meals, help from volunteers with cleaning and scrubbing out your house. Just take it. And keep after FEMA and your insurance company, make them do their job. Don’t worry about taking charity, as I once did, just accept it all as part of the circle and cycle of life; someday you’ll have the opportunity to pay it forward.

Item #4: My last post was about older men and younger women; it got a lot of attention, but I’m a bit surprised no one called me out on Thomas Merton and his infatuation with that student nurse (21 at the time) when he was in his fifties. Yeah, it’s kind of creepy, but having read his side of it, in his journals, I don’t think he was preying on her. A lot of my fellow Mertonites love this episode of his life, and it’s why Volume Six of his journals is so hard to find; but I—usually the romantic—never saw the charm in it, it always seemed a pathetic interlude in what was otherwise a stellar sort of life. Though I guess he wins points for honesty. But his friend Father Irenaeus—who I suppose found out about it from Merton’s biographer, Michael Mott—would likely have been embarrassed, but resignedly accepting of it. He did say once, toward the end of his life that Merton “wrote too much,” and as much as I admire old Tom, I would have to agree. But that seems a failing for most writers, myself included…

Old men, young girls

My husband’s birthday is Sept. 1st, and for exactly three weeks and four days, he’s a year older than me. Which gives me ample opportunity to crack jokes about what an old geezer he is, that he’s too old for me now, and I’m going to find a younger man. Then Sept. 26 rolls around, and we’re on equal footing again. This has been happening now for 38 years now, and it still hasn’t gotten old.

When I was a very young woman, and single, it was considered quite the thing to be involved with a much older, and presumably, wiser, man. It was not only accepted by society in general, it was actually encouraged and celebrated: You’ve seen My Fair Lady and Gigi, I suppose. The old Pygmalion trope.  Some literary scholar would probably point out that its roots lie in Regency novels and maybe even Jane Eyre, but the Swinging Sixties gave it a peculiar and cruel twist. One of my favorite books from that era was The Girl with the Green Eyes, by Edna O’Brien, in which a country Irish girl arrives in Dublin and takes up with an cynical old writer. The idea being that the old guy somehow helps the virginal young girl mature and grow in intelligence and wisdom, while the girl brings a fresh perspective and new lease on life to the old guy. Unfortunately I fell for this  nonsense my first year in New York City, dating a wealthy, well-read but overbearing trial lawyer twice my age (I was twenty two). I could see where it was going from day one, when he started recommending books for me to read, and declared my education was full of “startling and alarming gaps.” Luckily, I met my husband-to-be about six weeks into that relationship, and that was the end of that. I immediately dumped Old Rich Guy in a very callow and immature way (I stopped answering his phone calls), but that’s not usually the way it goes with these things. Usually the man tires of the girl, and discards her. Then everyone piles on and starts slut-shaming her. No #MeToo back in those days. It was considered “life experience.” Buck up and move on.

At least that’s what happened with poor Joyce Maynard, who had the misfortune to get tied up with J.D. Salinger. I admit, I’ve never been a big Salinger fan, having been force-fed Catcher in the Rye by more than one (male) English teacher. I’m thinking about her, because in this week of infamous New York Times articles, she had one making her case as a victim of Salinger’s predation. It’s odd, because she’s about two years older than me, and I remember reading the famous New York Times magazine cover story written by the 18-year-old her—two years after it had been first published, when I was myself 18 years old. I read it, feeling both impressed and darkly envious, little realizing that by that time, she’d already had her relationship with Salinger and had been dumped by him.

I realize that many May-December relationships are not inherently destructive in an emotional way. And in some cases, they satisfy certain emotional needs for both parties involved. But it turns bad when the man—who should know better—uses his wisdom, wealth, position or whatever to manipulate a young woman still struggling to learn about life and love. It’s bad when he’s basically just using her for sex; then suddenly turns on her, and literally throws her away—disgusted, no doubt, by his own base urges. Blaming her, for being so ‘seductive,’  and willing.

And…that brings us to the clerical abuse scandal, which surely has elements of this in it, though its victims are both male and female. Still, it’s particularly sinister—and I feel I have to point this out to the unenlightened few who wonder ‘what the big deal is’—because a priest uses that ultimate power, his connection to faith and God, as a tool for manipulation. You not only wreck someone’s emotional life, but their spiritual life as well. You wreck them at the core of their being.

Why did it take us so many years to come to these conclusions?!We were victims of our times, and culture.  I think some virus or poison seeped in with the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s and just fermented into the rest of the century, some erroneous conclusion that any kind of sex as all good, to be pursued at all costs, no matter who got hurt or victimized. Unfortunately, it still goes on. But at least we’re not romanticizing it anymore.

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 kpcecala.net. 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.