Reflections from the urban desert

So let’s discuss the ‘fish-out-of-water’ theme, always one of my favorites. I literally feel like an ocean fish (a mollusk maybe, from Long Island Sound) in the middle of the desert: flopping about, dried out, exhausted and not inspired to write much of anything yet. It’s all so strange: the dry air, the line of dusty gray mountains (real mountains, not those cute little hills we have back East) on the horizon and the weird greenish sky at dusk. Too weird for a girl raised in the Connecticut River valley and transplanted to lush and humid New Jersey. I’m actually missing that humidity now.

We are staying at one of those ginormous themed resort hotels on the Las Vegas Strip, complete with over-the-top architecture and overbearing grandiosity, with little spiritual dimension. What really moves me is simplicity and nature, so I’m not really impressed. What saves this place for me is the pool area, since I love to be immersed in water whenever possible. That, and the Subway outlet out back, which means we can eat in a fairly healthy way without taking out a third mortgage.

So, not sure what we’re doing here, since we’re not into gambling…although I might try the penny slot machines in the casino. I’ll use the proceeds from the Kindle borrowing scheme which gives me half a cent for every page of my novels that are read. My husband has found ways to amuse himself: he aptly describes this place as a fusion of Disneyworld, a Jersey boardwalk and the ‘old’ 42nd street in NYC (circa 1970). Last night he took a solo walk up the Strip (while I remained in the hotel struggling to stay cool) and returned with a handful of trading cards he had collected along the way. But instead of sports figures, these cards feature naked ladies advertising their physical wares–yes, prostitutes, but fetchingly advertised. He was quite amused by them, and spread them out on the table for me to see. I could only gape at them in a kind of  astonishment, wondering what drives a woman to pursue such an occupation. Obviously it must be quite lucrative. But what can it be like, to be intimate with so many strangers–strangers who know you only from a card they picked up on the street?

What a place: where selling your body and throwing your money away are considered a good things. Tough for a old-fashioned New England girl like me, but novelist’s paradise.




Sin City

Last month I spent a week in a monastery chasing down God and Thomas Merton; this month ends with a trip that will take me in a dramatically different direction. My husband and I celebrated a milestone anniversary this week, so he is taking me on a second honeymoon—to Las Vegas!

Now, this is not necessarily a place I was dying to get to. But I am intrigued by its reputation for sin and debauchery. I don’t plan to indulge in any bad behavior there, though I am looking forward to seeing plenty of it from other people! Great fodder for fiction. As the monastery made its own contribution to the novel I am currently writing, so too, I think, will the city in the desert with the big lights and casinos. We are not going to gamble or drop big bucks for fancy shows or food; we will simply walk the Strip and observe. And good old Tom will follow me here, since I have an assigned article to write about him, with a mid-June deadline. Can I write about his mission of mercy and social justice in the glittering city of winners and losers and materialism on a massive scale?  Maybe poolside, with a good stiff drink—in hollowed-out fruit with a little umbrella. Don’t worry, Tom would approve: he certainly knocked back quite a few at his little hermitage away from Gethsemani.

I’m not even going to try to ferret out any kind of spirituality from my stroll down the Strip, but then I came up with a great idea. We will only be there for three days, but I convinced my husband to rent a car so we could get out into the desert. This seems to be a city surrounded by spectacular Western scenery, and the Desert Fathers must have been on to something. Looking forward to being awed and amazed by whatever natural beauty we stumble across.

My Next Book

Now I can tell you a tantalizing bit about my new novel, which I hope to have out in late fall of this year. It’s an adult contemporary novel, but a little different than Secret Vow and The Novice Master: It’s more of a humorous book, even a bit satirical, though it has a touch of the spiritual. Just a touch. It’s not as serious as my other books, but more fun, and it has been delightful to write. Once I had my characters in place—there are four, along with several minor ones—the book just seemed to write itself. Love when that happens!  I wrote a big chunk of it at Gethsemani Abbey, in the library, under the smiling, mischievous eyes of Thomas Merton, in artwork over the work table there. What began as the roughest of crystals, dredged from my winter brain, is emerging into a kind of gem, I think: It has its shape now, and merely needs to be polished and faceted, in order to really shine.

I won’t reveal the title just yet, because I think it’s unique (no other book in the entire Amazon catalog has it!) and if some other writer were to steal it…Boy, would I be pissed! I even have the cover blocked out in my head. Again, too early to share. But I will tell you this much: It’s a woman’s book. Not to say that men can’t read it—and two of the main characters are male—but I can see my audience is going to be mostly female, and I will likely market it in that direction. In fact, you could call it Older Lady Chick Lit. Sorry Millennials, but let’s face it: You’re headed in that direction anyway, if you’re lucky.  It basically deals with two long-time marriages on the verge of collapse—and two ladies of a certain age (best friends) struggling with post-menopausal identity and, sexual issues… Yes, we still have sex at our advanced ages, with our imperfect, gravity-prone bodies, so deal with it. And note: Plum roles for a pair of aging actresses!  Hollywood, are you listening? Not that I want to sell out, but we might be needing a new roof one of these days…

I’m hoping to have prepublication galleys ready in September, with a possible release set for November. I don’t like releasing a book around the holidays—it tends to get ‘lost’– but it’s just how it’s all playing out this year.

I’m also going to try a little experiment in ‘trad’ publishing: I’m shopping around a little book compiled from this past spring’s ‘bluegrass pilgrimage’ blogs, which presents travel as a spiritual tool. I’m only querying little tiny publishers, and as soon as I get annoyed with the process (i.e., too many rejection letters) I’m going to call it off and maybe just publish them myself. But we’ll see where it ends up.

Now to send this post into the blogosphere, and jump on the commuter train to New York City, where I’ll visit my artist-barista sister at her coffee shop on the High-Line, then head uptown to read some naughty poems by Thomas Merton at the library with the lions out front—if the master of the Rare Books room allows me that privilege. And will try to stay away from the stores on Fifth Avenue and 34th street, which I can’t afford anyway.

The Post Mortem


Well, the Big Marketing Plunge is over now, and whether it makes any significant impact on my career remains to be seen. However, I’m happy to say I met my goal: I wanted to give away 500 to 1000 books, and I gave away 1200; my ‘free’ book ranking was awesome, rising at one point to #5 for Literary Fiction and #124 overall for all free books—and for someone whose books are usually stuck in the 6-figure paid  rankings, it was astonishing to see a ranking in single figures! Even though, essentially….it’s meaningless, unless it translates into more readers and viability. Still fun to look at, though. In addition, I picked up a  dozen or so ‘to-reads’ on Goodreads, plus a bunch of KENP pages (those are books ‘borrowed’ through Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited promotion), lots of attention on the old blog and good will all around. I spent most of the weekend teaching, working in the garden and hammering away on Novel #6, trying not to check my stats like a maniac every minute or so. At a flea market in town, I scored a sterling-silver Baltic-amber bracelet for $2, plus a gluten-free cookie that actually tasted pretty decent, so it would have been a good weekend even without the promotion.

One thing that did really irritate me was the Amazon Top 100 Literary Fiction List that I rose so high on. While it was a real ego trip to see my little monk’s picture wedged in there on the first page,  I would venture that three quarters of the other books on the list did not qualify as literary fiction in the least. In fact, the number-one book appeared to be a romance novel: It was clear that the author, along with many other authors on the list, had switched into a less competitive genre (and how sad that Literary Fiction has to be that one!) in order to get the ranking they’d never be able to achieve in their own genre. Of course, I could be wrong: Maybe these books are literary gems. But somehow I doubt it. And all that makes my own achievement of getting up to #5 seem more dubious. But that’s self-publishing these days: Sheer desperation, and everyone pulling every trick and hustle to get their book out there. Alas, including me, but that’s my last promotion for a while. Summer is coming, and I am just going to relax and enjoy life for awhile. I’ll be teaching through the summer at the learning center, but my student over-load is finally dropping off (phew!) and I’ll be doing what makes me happiest, writing my new novel and keeping the weeds at bay in my backyard garden, supplemented with some serious seashore time. Will have to find some good reads for the beach. But not from the top of the Amazon Literary Fiction list…

Big Insane (Marketing) Plunge

I really do hate promoting my books, but when you publish them yourself, you have to do what you have to do to get that little bit of market share. So bear with me: We have pretty much reached the end of the ‘honeymoon’ stage for The Novice Master, which has been out there a full six months, and I won’t be promoting it anymore, as I prepare for the publication of a new novel this fall. But before I send NM off into the night, we’re going to try one big crazy—indeed, utterly insane—move to get it out there in front of readers’ eyes. This is not a move I would recommend for most books, but then, NM is not most books. My  goal here is not actually big money or sales, but hopefully to spread around my  name as a writer of serious fiction.

So I will be giving away The Novice Master, in its Kindle form, for free this coming weekend, May 13 through the 15th, but in a big-scale way. Now, I did a small-scale version of this with my print edition on Goodreads—and I’m not doing that again! Not only was it expensive, with postage and all, but practically none of the cursed 30 winners reviewed or acknowledged it in any way! Actually one or two gave me a smattering of stars, and I ended up with over 340 ‘to-reads’ and some followers, but it was not enough of a return on my investment of time and money. This new giveaway will cost me absolutely nothing. But it’s not without risks.  And it might turn out to be a big embarrassing flop. But so what? Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

The Big Giveaway is a very controversial marketing move for a book, if you read a lot of author’s forums. The idea is not only to give away your books for free, but to give away as many as you possibly can—we’re talking numbers in the thousands. I’m hoping, modestly, for something between 500 and 1000 copies given away; that will be enough to generate some sales and an improvement in my author ranking. The magic number gets you to the top of the ‘Free’ bestselling list, and supposedly that can translate into very big sales. Not really expecting that. But it certainly puts your name out there. I’ve done limited freebies for The Raven Girl and other books, and they do indeed pull in some fans. But most authors who try this advise against it: They say you are basically giving up all the revenue you’d get if you actually sold those books. But…people who snatch up your book for free probably would not have bought it in the first place. For one thing, they have no idea who you are or where they might find you. They didn’t know they were looking for you, in the first place!

I suspect that the disappointed authors who did poorly with their giveaways did not have an optimum product to offer. Just because something is free does not mean it should be mediocre or hastily written. A book without good reviews will not do well, either. Also, I find that it doesn’t seem to work for  specific genres, because then your audience will be naturally limited. I’m hoping literary fiction will prove the best genre to try this technique with, in terms of gaining greater visibility.

No matter what, I’m taking the plunge. I  carefully chose a weekend, starting with a slow but gradual beginning tomorrow,  on Friday (gulp! The 13th!) culminating in what I hope will be a big surge on Sunday. I’ll post results afterwards, but you can check the Novice Master’s page on Amazon to see how it’s going. And that’s where you download it, too: So  here’s your one and only chance to pick up The Novice Master for free, because I am not doing this again any time soon.  Spread the word!

For mothers and others: Happy…day.

I’m not celebrating Mother’s Day, because my grown daughter and I celebrated last week. Who needs an arbitrarily set annual day to celebrate the miracle and joy of motherhood?  Francesca gives me little mother’s days throughout the year, usually with little or no notice. This past week, she came in from the city, and gave me a most welcome gift: She cleaned out her childhood bedroom, which I have been using as my writing office. I had already grown accustomed to ignoring the pile of stuffed animals and old dance costumes and stacks of CD; and the additional space is breathtaking.

I always feel very ambivalent about celebrating Mother’s Day, because I almost did not become one. In my twenties, just after getting married, I was told by various doctors that I might not be able to conceive. And it seemed they were right.  The years passed by without any sign or hint of a possible pregnancy: First one year, then three, then six, then ten.  At first I tried to convince myself I didn’t care,  that maybe I didn’t need children, that my career as a writer would be enough. But I as I grew older and the bitter reality sank in, I began to feel deeply anguished, even deprived. I had to go through the entire  cycle of grief (with apologies to Elisabeth Kubler-Ross): Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, before I was finally granted the unlikely, ordinary but amazing gift of a child in my own womb, just as my own hair was literally turning gray.  It didn’t happen just like that of course: I had started seeing a well-known specialist, and it took surgery plus a cocktail of potent fertility drugs, but exactly ten months after that surgery—the small scars from it still red and visible on my abdomen—I was back in the hospital, pushing my 8-1/2 pound daughter into the world. My husband was right there beside me, actually holding onto my thigh as she came out, then cutting the messy umbilical cord with the doctor’s shears. It was quite a day for our little family, but one I felt I’d earned, emotionally.

And so on Mother’s Day, I try not to revel in my own good fortune, but feel for all the women who long to be mothers, and can’t; for those who have to endure the painful, humiliating, expensive and seemingly capricious process of infertility, often without positive results. And even for those who don’t want to be mothers, and feel reviled for that; for those mothers who lose children, at any stage in life—my next and last pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, so I understand that pain, too.  I feel too for mothers struggling with children born with unique and challenging issues and conditions; for mothers who find raising children difficult; for the mothers of children who go astray;  mothers struggling with substance abuse problems; for mothers struggling with depression. In another words, all mothers and non-mothers and would-be mothers—you are all my sisters. Not just today, but every day.

View from the riverside

It’s May now, and I want to turn away from the serious blogs of winter, and write of more personal matters. Today I’m writing about the place where I do most of my writing, the little neighborhood in the largish New Jersey town I’ve called home for the last 25 years. It’s magical now to watch it wake up and come back to life after the gloom and chill of winter, the magnolias and dogwoods unfurling their blossoms, and tulips popping up through the mulch. The trees, the woods across the river are still gauzy green with tentative blossoms, because we’re having a particularly capricious spring, with frost warnings still coming every few nights or so.

 I live in a quirky spot in Northern New Jersey, in a neighborhood that should never have been built, on drained cranberry bog in a crook of the Rockaway River, a branch of the Passaic.  When they started building houses here, in the 1920s or so, there was still the prevailing philosophy than Man controls Nature and could bend her to his will—raping her outright, if he felt the need. Well, this neighborhood belies all that, and proves Nature wins every time.

But the river is in a low cycle, so all is well, for now. Eventually it will fill up our yards and pour into our basements, and we’ll deal with it, as we have in the past: Together.  For even though our area is reviled by real-estate agents for its “water problem,” there is something here not often found in suburban New Jersey neighborhoods. A strong sense of community,  and neighborly care, a sense that every one  looks out for everyone else. It’s a special neighborhood, even as it grows smaller: A few years ago, the town and state joined up to purchase a bakers’ dozen of the more flood-prone homes and tore them down, so now an odd little ribbon of natural parkland threads along our street. It has to dodge the homeowners who refused the buyout—which we were not offered, because of the slight incline we sit on, which prevents a great deal of major flood damage. I’m a bit relieved that we were not given the option of moving, because I think we might have taken it, and I know I would miss this place so much. Not so much the land, the terrain of the riverside itself, but my good, good neighbors.

Not that there isn’t drama. I could write several novels about this one block of mine alone. The big drama these past few years has been the house across the street. It was owned for decades by an eccentric old bachelor, a pleasant enough man, but rather troubled, a drinker. I would send food over to him, making soup in double batches, because I knew he wasn’t eating properly. And then one day he collapsed in town, was sent to a nursing home, while the bank holding his reverse mortgage swooped right in and grabbed his house. They let it sit disgracefully empty and unkempt for nearly two years, while they haggled with the town over back taxes. My next-door neighbor and I searched all over Morris County until we found the nursing home where our across-the-street neighbor was, and we found him painfully frail, bedridden, yet feistily determined to move back to his old house. He asked if his lawn was being kept up, and I didn’t have the heart to tell him what was happening to his old home. Or that he had lost it completely. Shortly after he was transferred to yet another home, and we have lost track of him completely, but I think he has probably faded into that good night.

When the house was finally sold, I felt uneasy, worried it go the way most little older houses go in this part of the state, under a wrecking ball to be replaced with an inappropriately grand mega-mansion. But my fears vanished when I looked out one day, and saw two ladies of a certain age, in dungarees and plaid shirts, bravely pulling out weeds and dragging old furniture out to the curb. I made my acquaintance, and learned that they loved gardens and wildlife, and their favorite radio program was “A Prairie Home Companion.” And also, that they planned to keep the house pretty much as it was, except of course for furnishings and the landscape.  They knew about the river and loved it anyway, and were willing to accept whatever might happen with it. And I just know they are  going to be great new neighbors.