Garden dreaming

We are finally getting a decent snowfall here in northern New Jersey, so of course, my thoughts have turned to my garden. My poor, long-neglected backyard garden, which I always start each spring with such high hopes, only to abandon it in August when the weeds and bugs become overwhelming. And let’s face it: The deer and chipmunks and squirrels and birds always get to anything edible before I do. They don’t even wait for anything to fully ripen, but devour it all, raw and green. Only the strongest of the herbs survive now, in particular the Greek oregano, which has proclaimed its dominance by spreading itself across the whole face of the vegetable patch.

So a makeover is definitely in order. And as my interest in Japanese culture grows, it suddenly seemed obvious. Why not a Zen Garden? Simple, minimalistic even, and very spiritual. I might even do some writing it in, and certainly some reading. A neighbor down the street has one, as her front garden, and I’ve been walking past, studying it, envious of its clean lines and simplicity.

Next to the oregano, my wisteria, rampant and twisted over an iron arch,  is the crowning glory of my spring garden (it started as a cutting from my next-door-neighbor, so it has family in the area). So the garden will be essentially a path through that arch, which is the perfect metaphor for life in general, the arch of course being the portal from life into afterlife, except that in real life, you would end up in my neighbor’s driveway. Not sure of the spiritual significance of that. But from a practical point of view, this Zen scheme is a  crazy-easy notion to pull off. All I need is gravel for the bed—Crushed granite, I’m told is the most traditional—and rake-able–but I may have to settle for sacks of pea gravel from Home Depot. I even have a stone bench for reflection, which I fashioned out of our old bluestone front step and two concrete blocks. And we have tons of rocks and small boulders, which my husband and I literally yanked out of the ground when we first tried to plant this garden. I can thank the retreating ice glaciers from eons ago for those.  

Most of the Zen gardens I see just contain beds of moss, which are eminently appropriate for my sodden and shady site. But I will have to ask my Japanese students about traditional and favorite bushes and plants, and maybe pick out one or two to complement my ancient but prolific wisteria. I may leave the oregano, but I’m clamping down:  it’s going to get a very severe haircut.

So that’s the plan right now, as the snow continues to fall: Something to look forward to, if this invincible winter ever decides to finally end.

The Caprices of Fame: J.F. Powers

I’m just now reading a book published in 2013, Suitable Accommodations, edited by Katherine A. Powers, with the subtitle: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J.F. Powers 1942-1963.

J.F. Powers was an interesting writer (“charming” and “thorny,” a blurb on the back cover reads and that seems about right). He’s known primarily for his novels, Morte D’Urban (1963) and one he wrote 25 years later, Wheat that Springeth Green, both of which received a great deal of praise from the critics, back in the day when you had actual book critics who took their jobs seriously.  Morte D’Urban won the National Book Award, beating out work by Nabokov and Katherine Anne Porter. And Powers was, I think, the last of the great Catholic fiction writers—I was going to say from the pre-Vatican II era, but now that I think about it, maybe ever. In the 1950’s and ‘60s, it was hip and cool to be Catholic writer, and one did not get the ice-cold shoulder from agents and publishers and critics just because you chose to explore the mysteries of your faith in a work of fiction. Unlike today…

But back to Mr. Powers. I had read both of his novels, and some of his short stories, but knew very little about him or his life. I bumped up against him in Thomas Merton’s 4th published journal—it turns out they knew each other, and Merton had even visited with him at his home in Minnesota on a rare venture away from Gethsemani. And they liked each other, it seems, which made me happy to hear. What I was really struck by is Power’s early, woefully bad luck in publishing—the poor man could just not catch a break, it seems. If any person needed to be a best-selling author—and if any writer truly deserved it—it was Powers. He was devoted to his writing but had a wife and family of five children to support and the title of the book, Suitable Accommodations, refers to the number of rental houses the family had to keep moving to in order to stay afloat. Morte d’Urban was a stellar novel, but plagued with bad luck from the beginning. His publisher Doubleday kept messing up, first on the formatting of the book, then on the print run, so there were not enough copies available in the bookstores. Then he had the bad luck to win the National Book Award in the midst of a newspaper strike, so there was no  resulting publicity from that.  His first national appearance on The Today Show was cancelled. There were other complications as well, and in the end, the book only sold about 25,000 copies, far fewer than it rightfully should have. Little wonder the second novel didn’t come out until 25 years later. He must have been incredibly discouraged.

The other thing that impressed me in this book was the fact that his wife, Betty Wahl, was a writer, too, and perhaps just as good as he, if not better. But she had to raise five kids, and, I’m sure, look after Mr. Powers! And all that moving… I hunted down her only published novel, Rafferty & Co., and ordered it from one of Amazon’s used booksellers. Can’t wait to read it. But I was truly dismayed by some of Power’s dismissive comments about her in his letters to friends and colleagues. It amazes me that she managed to write at all…and stayed with him, all those years.

Katherine A. Powers has done a masterful job of sorting and editing her father’s letters, and her own commentary on the family situation is enlightening. I felt some kinship with her, as the oldest myself of six children in a family where money was always tight. But this book was helpful to me, and something of a comfort, reinforcing the point that sales and money and fame don’t always naturally flow to the best writers, or artists.

Invincible winter

To mangle a quote from Albert Camus, In the heart of winter, I found there was within me…More winter.  What I want to be carrying around is that “invincible summer,” but it just seems that this January is the longest one on record. Will it ever end? Never mind the gloomy national political situation, for which there seems little immediate remedy; or the depressingly cold and rainy grey weather we’ve been having in the Northeast—I would almost prefer the purity and brightness of a thick cover of snow, and I know my plants would, too. I have this bothersome autoimmune disorder which decided to send up flares of protest, just after the first of the year, in the form of headaches, nausea, deadly fatigue and general malaise. But the endocrinologist can’t see me till the end of February, and ONLY after I get my insurance situation straightened out. Oh yes, we almost lost our health insurance this month, gaining it back only after paying a king’s ransom in new premiums. So this is the kind of month that tests the old faith, and unfortunately we need one of those once and a while: Or else we’d never know what true joy is.

My students and my writing keep me going: my students, with their cheerful determination to learn and endless curiosity about American life; and my current writing project, which blessedly takes me out of myself and puts me into someone else’s narrative for a while. That is going well, but I’ve started sending out book proposals, and am dreading the inevitable rejections that will come from that. I didn’t think I could find a literary agent to support such a small project, so I’m approaching publishers on my own (yes, you can still do that with non-fiction books and small publishers), so I can get those snippy rejections full-force.  But I feel bolstered by a comment on my ‘Art of Biography’ post—I had mentioned the biography of Robert Lax, Pure Act, by Michael McGregor and who should comment but Mr. McGregor himself, so check it out. He included a very helpful link on the art of writing a literary biography, which also addresses difficulties posed by writing about Christianity, specifically Catholicism. Great stuff, and a huge help to me.

As for my dear Wives,  there is wan hope to report on that front. I hate to say it, but I am really impressed with this Amazon keyword advertising scheme, and I’m actually ahead of the game, having spent $1.09  but gaining two sales and some KENP page-reads.  The magic word so far seems to be “marriage;” that word was directly linked to the sales. But here’s the brilliant thing: If you use a famous or best-selling author as a keyword, you end up appearing (briefly) on their Amazon page! I keyed in ‘Elena Ferrante’ and boom! there was my little book being promoted, right under her bestselling blockbuster. It’s probably gone now, but still…wow. I’ve since been adding new authors each day. But only the good ones.

So winter drags on, but January can’t last forever. Maybe in February I’ll find that invincible summer…

Rum Pot Diary

Today’s entry is not about writing or publishing, but it’s another recipe (I like to cook! Have I mentioned that before?), and it allows me to use the concept of keeping a diary as a metaphor. It also produces an extreme sort of comfort food which seems apropos for this particular year.  I decided to start a rum pot (rumtopf in German), which is basically preserving fruit in alcohol. Each month I plan to add a layer of some kind of fruit, but special fruit, something with some kind of significance. Come summer, I’ll have my currants, blackberries and gooseberries from the backyard garden, as well as bounty from the farms around town, but getting started takes some imagination. So January’s fruit is the nectarine—beautiful blushing white nectarines from Chile, purchased from the health-food supermarket which assures me they have not been sprayed with who-knows what kind of chemicals. I picked them because I was remembering a long-ago coworker from Chile, Carmen, who was such fun to work with, and would bring in treats like dulce de leche candies. After returning from a trip home, she brought me back a pair of lovely blue-gold lapis-luzuli earrings (Lapis being a mineral which is found there in the Andes) which I have to this day. I believe she went back there to retire. Hola, Carmen!

So here is the process: You need a ceramic crock, about 2 gallons in capacity, to store it all. With a lid. A pound of fruit, which sounds like a lot but isn’t really: It came out to about 4 nectarines peeled and pitted. Stone fruits are best, as well as cherries and berries, but I’m told you can use apples and pears in the fall. Or dried fruit, if nothing else is available. Then sugar, plain old white cane sugar: It’s two parts fruit to one part sugar, so half a pound of sugar (about a full cup) per pound of fruit. Peel, pit or de-seed the fruit and chop it into chunks, drop it into the crock, add the sugar, stir and then…comes the expensive part.

Cover the whole thing with the cheapest rum or brandy you can find.  It needs to completely cover the fruit, so you may need a standard-sized bottle. Don’t use the good stuff; get over to Buy-Rite or whatever your discount liquor store is and look at the bottom shelf. I decided to use brandy instead of rum because that’s what I prefer, and was delighted to find a bottle of Christian Brothers manufactured in Bardstown, Kentucky…just a stone’s throw from Gethsemani Abbey, where I went on retreat last year. So pour in the liquor and make sure it really covers the fruit. To make sure it didn’t come bobbing up out of the sauce to spoil, I put a small ceramic plate on top of it to weigh it all down. Then the lid of the crock. Now to wait until next month and figure out what February’s “entry” should be.  I’m thinking some kind of Southern Hemisphere cherry, for Valentines Day. And if anyone goes to Hawaii, they must bring me back a pineapple…

I’m going to try and refrain from dipping into it until the holiday season next December. Only then, do I feel, will it be complete, like a book, a year of splendid fruit and memory. But if you can’t wait, it generally takes about six weeks for the fruit to “cook.” So you can have some  for Easter.

Update on my book: Wives of the Saints is a debutante this week, being officially introduced to the world via Publisher’s Weekly’s Jan. 23rd issue—just a listing and photo, not a review which I’m crossing my fingers for (It is being considered, however, just got the confirming email) And Big Daddy Amazon rewarded my return to Select status by bumping up my book’s ebook ranking by an astonishing 900,000 without a single sale. So I’m in six figures instead of seven—Yay!  Am running an interesting ad campaign there which is based on clicks per keyword, which I don’t quite understand but…The most popular keywords seem to be ‘husband,’ ‘wife,’ ‘best friends.’ Making a surprise showing: ‘Catholic fiction.’ Who knew?!

The art of biography

Like most writers, I am inclined to write quite a bit about myself. It’s easy to do, and no wonder we have so many memoirs floating about. But now I am writing a biography of someone, someone who’s dead now and can’t speak for themselves; and I find myself trying to figure out what kind of biography this should be. I’ve read quite a few, since at one time, when I strayed from novels, this was my favorite genre. A well-written and researched bio has always made me marvel at how the writer was able to capture the living person, even if the author had never known or met the person. A good biography is intimate. A badly written bio is easy to ascertain: The person being written about does not emerge at all.

There are many questions I am grappling with, and they don’t have easy answers, so I welcome any feedback from fellow writers. One is, if the person is not terribly well-known or a super-extraordinary, controversial sort of figure, is he worth writing about at all? (okay, so now you know my subject is male. And it’s not Thomas Merton, who I write far too much about.) This is definitely a question a publisher’s going to ask. And so, I suppose I will have to find a smaller publisher with the proper empathy for such a somewhat obscure subject. And that will be no easy task.

My next questions are more literary or philosophical. The one that nags me the most is, how brutally honest or frank must I be? I know I shouldn’t coddle my subject but…I really don’t believe there is anything distressing or wrong in his life. I don’t know that I could find anything of that nature. This biography will be more of a hagiography than anything else—of an uncanonized, unrecognized, most ordinary kind of saint, with a small S. For many writers, that would be okay, even desirable. But for the cynical, doubting, questioning writer I am, that will be hard. For example, I do not think it would be appropriate to question my subject’s sexuality, but of course, you know me and sex…I do believe in handling such matters frankly. But I think Michael McGregor handled it very well in his biography of the poet Robert Lax, Pure Act: Here was a shy, sensitive man who lived alone his whole life, who hinted at attractions to women, yet developed passionate (and chaste) friendships with other men. McGregor makes no conjecture whatsoever, and I think I will have to do that, too. By the way, Lax was good friends with my subject—are you intrigued yet?

The other thing is, what gets put in and what is left out? My research has turned up a lot of stuff on this guy. But how much goes in? I don’t want it to be a bad kind of fruitcake, stuffed with everything that was in the pantry. But certain little details can add humor, color. I guess I will have to figure it out somehow. Hopefully with the help of a good editor…

And the thorniest issue of all for me is, how much of myself goes in it. I personally don’t care for a biographer intruding on his subject’s story. It’s his/her story, not yours, I want to shout.  But I knew this man, even though he’s been dead now over thirty years. I didn’t have a close relationship with him, not by a longshot, but I did meet him and even worked alongside him, as did many other people. Of all the people who knew him, I would probably be the least appropriate person to write a biography of him, although I have the literary tools that his closer friends and acquaintance might lack. So far, I decided I would, in full disclosure, mention my connection to him in the introduction; and then never mention it again. No matter how much I thought of him, I still owe him complete objectivity in describing his life.

Biography is such a change from writing fiction. You cannot build a whole world here; the world exists and you need to be true to it, while still spinning the tale, drawing your readers in. There cannot be any fiction in it, yet I find myself drawing on some fictional techniques to write it. It is essential a story, a true story, and since I’m an established storyteller—the Midwest Book Review said I was, so it must be true!—I guess that gives me the credentials to write this thing. But, begging your indulgence as readers of my blog, I would like to continue  in future posts to examinethis issue of biography, of exploring and immersing oneself in someone else’s life. Maybe at the end I’ll reveal who it is, but chances are you’ve never heard of him. Which is why you need to read my biography…

The lowdown

I promised to be completely transparent about my self-publishing process, so I must truthfully report that my novel, my sixth, Wives of the Saints, which I released a little over a month ago, is tanking, big time. However, I have not done one whit of marketing or promotion for it, so it’s a little miraculous that I’ve managed to sell 10 copies of it—yes, that’s it, one paperback (which my sister bought) and nine Kindle versions. So everyone who’s been telling me that they bought my book…well, some of you are fibbing. And one thing I’ve learned from being involved in a number of writer’s groups, is that other writers will not buy your book, even if you buy theirs. So I’m going to stop doing that. Marketing to other writers is just dumb, anyway.

So I botched my book launch, but partly on purpose, because I was genuinely curious to see what would happen if I did absolutely nothing to promote it  in a meaningful way.  I guess I was hoping the book might miraculously take flight on its own. Ha! But I was also hamstrung by Amazon’s lordly insistence on absolute fealty and fidelity before I could take advantage of their damnably effective advertising and marketing programs.  They are demanding I renounce my alliance with the kingdom of NetGalley. I wanted to run it through NG for at least six weeks because I’ve had good experience with that program, and it always results in quality reviews. And I have been receiving very good reviews, only a small portion of which have been posted publicly on Amazon and Goodreads. But if you were hoping to score a free copy off NetGalley…Too late. I’m already in the process of having it taken down. You win, Amazon.

But regarding those promotions…There will be NO freebie copies of this book available again—ever. I decided to take a stand with this one, and refuse to give it away. This book was art, it was a pleasure to write, but it was also work. Does a serious artist give away his canvases, in order to sell more canvases? Does a streetwalker give out free blow jobs? So if you’re waiting for the giveaway promotion…Not happening, though I will do my usual St. Patrick’s Day giveaway for my Irish history titles,  The Raven Girl, et al. And  I’m not completely inflexible.  I will stoop to doing a few discount promotions for Wives, maybe later this year, as if a four-dollar e-book would break anyone’s budget.  I’m going to start with some full-blown advertising, and am looking forward to experimenting with key words. Next time you turn on your Kindle, my book may be staring you in the face.

So I’m not too broken up about the lack of sales, because it was inevitable and at this point, I realize most of it is beyond my control. Plenty of other authors in the same boat, both traditional and independent.  Did you notice there was no ‘breakout’ novel in 2016? It’s all about seasons and market saturation and reader fatigue, and only so many people willing to read so many books, and no really good way for the cream to rise to the top.  I’ve also learned that having a blog that gets lots of hits and occasionally goes viral doesn’t really seem to help either: Comments and ‘likes’ are nice, but I really want you to check out my books.

So to all you marketing and promotion gurus clogging my electronic  in-box, you smug mediocre ‘NY Times Bestselling List’ authors, when it comes right down to it, there really is very little most independent authors can do to make their book sell. Especially if they did not write the best book they could in the first place. And hence the nonsense about publishing book after book, three, four, five books a year, in an effort to magnify those minuscule sales of five to ten per month into something only slightly more substantial.  All you’re doing is making things worse, clogging up the system. Yeah, I don’t think I want to play this game much longer.

The other reason I’ve been ignoring ‘Wives’ is because I’m so caught up in my current non-fiction writing project. More on that later. This is going to be a completely different type of literary adventure, one with a far satisfying ending, I hope. In any event, I plan not to be flogging it on Amazon…


I was going to write about the new Martin Scorsese movie this week, ‘Silence.” But I haven’t had a chance to see it yet.  It concerns the issue of Catholic missionaries trying to convert the Japanese in the 16th century, and deals with thorny issues of faith and apostasy. It’s based on a novel by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, written in 1966. So I will see it eventually, or read the book, but right now I’m intrigued by not only media response to it—some critics praising it extravagantly, but others seem to be ignoring it completely, displaying the usual mainstream media’s distaste for anything remotely religious–but also the reactions of some Catholic groups. Some  are applauding it,  the opening of that dialogue, but conservative groups see it as a kind of heresy. But it raises all kinds of issues, and hope I’m not introducing any spoilers here: Would you die for your beliefs, even if it meant the death or torture of others? In choosing to be steadfast, do you then become the murderer of others? Is choosing death a kind of suicide, which of course is deeply frowned upon by the Church. In all these discussions, it seems we’re all presuming to know what God wants us to do. And how can we possibly? It’s here where my Merton study comes in handy, since he would advise continuing thought, meditation and honest dialogue–discussion, argument, maybe heated but purely verbal, no violence–and the continual hope of somehow ferreting out the real truth of it all.

It all reminds me of those long-ago religion class discussions involving childbirth, which scared the heck out of me as a fourth-grader—that in a life-or-death situation in which only the mother or the baby could survive, a Catholic woman was expected  to put herself in peril to let her child live. Thank God modern advances in medical technology have made that an exceedingly rare dilemma these days, but I admit the possibility did flit through my mind when I was in the throes of labor, which, like being tortured, is probably the worst time to mull over that kind of moral decision. You aren’t thinking about your child, or another life, you just want it all to be over. And you think you might do anything to make it be over. We could continue this train of thought into the euthanasia debate and choosing a peaceful death over protracted pain, but I think I’ll end it here. This is simply why I think films like this are important, even if they seem pretentious and grandiose extensions of a director’s ego. It’s the thought that counts.

What has been interesting is discussing this new movie with some of my Japanese students, some of whom have brought up the subject. They look a bit fearful and concerned as I describe the plot, but they also seem curious about it, too. I think they’re afraid it will be too much from the “Western” point of view, and I worry about that too, although I usually point out that the author of the novel it was taken from is Japanese, though a Christian. Does that make him ‘Westernized,’ too?  My students are surprisingly eager to discuss the role of religious faith, or lack of it, in modern Japan. Don’t worry, no proselytizing  from this questioning, cynical Catholic. I just listen…and correct their grammar.

 Oddly enough, amid all this talk about a movie called “Silence,” I’m taking up an endeavor that is the opposite of it. I’m starting lessons in the Japanese language. It’s a work thing, mostly, since most of my students are from Japan, and it will help me identify a lot of the problems they have with English. Also, I was very curious to study a non-Indo-European language, though I am not looking forward to trying to learn the alphabet characters. My teacher is very kindly starting me out with conversational Japanese, and suggests I can try the writing and reading when I’m “ready.” It should be interesting to see how much of it I can retain at this age, since some days I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast. But I’m game, and don’t really see a downside to it. It might help me hold onto the remaining brain cells I do have.