Wednesday, January 23, 2013

10 Questions with Novelist Bard Constantine (@BardConstantine)

This Author Spotlight features New Haven-based writer and novelist Bard Constantine, author of THE TROUBLESHOOTER.

Bard Constantine is a writer of gritty futures and far-flung fantasy.

If he were a pinata, stories would explode from his innards upon impact, much to the consternation of little children everywhere.

When not evading the straightjacket confines of his psychiatric 'buddies', he's usually found somewhere pounding a keyboard while trying to keep a tenuous grip on some obscure thing called reality.

His books are available pretty much everywhere, and he'd love it if you'd read one. Or two, if you like the first.

1.  How did you get into writing?

I think writing was an inevitable destination for me. I’ve loved reading ever since I knew how, and I’ve always been interested in creating stories. When I was younger I was mainly interested in storytelling through art, but that eventually evolved into writing. Art depicts scenes, but words have the ability to relate a complete story. That’s what I fell in love with.

2.  What do you like best (or least) about writing?

I love the journey that I get to go on while working through a story. I only have a general idea of what the final result will be when I begin a project, so all the twists and turns and surprise characters are simply amazing to discover along the way.

As for what I like least… a year ago I probably would have said editing. But over the past months I’ve developed a true appreciation for the editing process. It’s like now I can’t wait to finish a story or novel so that I can start to edit it. I’ve found that’s it’s only through the re-writes and edits that the true form of the novel is revealed. As an independent writer I feel there’s an obligation to edit your work until you lose count of how many times you’ve done it, because it’s all on you. So I guess the only thing I dislike about writing is the battle to make time to do it.

3.  What is your writing process? IE do you outline? Do you stick to a daily word or page count, write 7 days a week, etc?

Writing process?

Lol. I wish I had a writing process. Right now it’s ‘write when you get a chance’. I’m not very disciplined with sticking to a rigid schedule, though I’d undoubtedly get more done if I was. With writing it’s always a tug of war with full time work, family time, me time and writing time. Still, I was pleased with my production last year and hope to improve on that this year. As far as outlines, I don’t work with one very often, and when I do it’s very brief. I like to know how the story begins and how it ends. What happens in between is what I enjoy finding out without much forethought.

4.  Who are some other writers you read and admire, regardless of whether they are commercially “successful?”

Wow, that’s a good question. Robert Jordan was the author who first influenced my decision to write seriously, so he’s definitely on the list. In that fantasy genre I also greatly admire George RR Martin, Gene Wolfe and Patrick Rothfuss. A lot of people think that the classic noir writers heavily influence my Troubleshooter series, but Walter Mosley would be the greater inspiration. There’s really too many to name. On the lesser-known but equally outstanding level, I was recently impressed by Hugh Howey’s Wool series, and the poetic works of Victoria Selene Skye Deme are a kaleidoscope of brilliance.

5.  Should the question mark in the above question be inside or outside the quotes?

Inside, definitely. Leaving the question mark outside is quite rude and would no doubt insult the poor fellow.

6.  What’s your stance on the Oxford Comma?

Let the Lord of Chaos rule.

7.  What is your book The Troubleshooter about and how did it come to fruition?

The Troubleshooter started off as a writing exercise to develop my stream of consciousness writing. I posted chapters, or ‘episodes’ regularly, turning some of my online friends into characters of this strange noir-styled city. When I wrapped up, I knew that I couldn’t just let the project go. So I allowed it to simmer while I worked on another project, and when I finished I returned to The Troubleshooter and shaped it into an actual novel. The idea was to take a hardboiled private detective character with all the grit and flavor of that period, but place him in a "Blade Runner" type of environment, this dystopian melting pot of a city called New Haven. The result is a blend of old and new, noir and sci fi. It’s a wild adventure that introduces the character of Mick Trubble, a man with a mysterious past who happens to be quite handy at getting into trouble and shooting his way out of it.

8.  What’s your current writing project?

At the moment I’m wrapping up a short Troubleshooter tale for an upcoming anthology. After that it’s the next installment in the Troubleshooter series, a novel called The Most Dangerous Dame. I also have two unfinished YA manuscripts that I’d like to see published this year. So I definitely have my work cut out for me.

9.  What book(s) are you currently reading?

I’m nearly finished with the last Wheel of Time novel by Robert Jordan. It’s a big deal for me because I’ve been reading this series since high school. To finally have it finished is an event. After that I’ll be reading the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson, who co-wrote the last three WOT novels.

Yes, Brandon Sanderson continued the tale of Robert Jordan's epic, iconic series after Jordan passed away. It's on my TBR list. I almost don't want to read it, because then the series will be over.

10.  Who or what inspires your writing?

I’m compelled to write in order to exorcise all of these characters and stories that boil in my head. Other than that, I find inspiration everywhere, from other books to movies, people I know and things that I see. There are stories everywhere. I just have to get them out.

Finally, is there anything you’d care to add? Please also include where people can read your published stories, buy your book, etc.

I’d like to take the time to thank the buyers of my work and particularly the online network that I’ve developed –people who take the time to post, share, and review. It means a lot to me to know that readers enjoy what I’ve produced so far, and I truly appreciate their response.

My work can be found at 

My website:

You can follow me at:



Thank you, Bard. The Troubleshooter looks fantastic. I like the neo-noir "Bladerunner" concept. Let us know when the next installment is ready!

Be sure to check out The Troubleshooter and like and follow Bard on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

America's Next Author Runner-Up Jen Barton (@FionaThornBook)

This Author Spotlight is slightly different from our usual weekly fare in that it features writer Jen Barton in a follow-up interview in order to discuss her award-winning original short story "Movin' On Up."

"Movin' On Up" was recently declared as a finalist (top 3!) in the America's Next Author contest.

Here is the trailer for the story:

Jen is also the author of Fiona Thorn and the Carapacem Spell.

Jen Barton was born in Williamsport, Pennsylvania in 1971 and spent much of her life on the East Coast. In 2008, at age 36, she and her family moved to California. With two cars, she and her husband moved two dogs, two guinea pigs, a cornsnake and their 10-year old daughter across the country. She counts the five-day road trip, including a near escape by both dogs on Day 3, as one of her best experiences to date.

In 2009, with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy from Millersville University, Barton realized her childhood dream to become a writer. One van full of bored kids, one long day of travel, and Fiona Thorn was born. She’s been writing ever since.

When not taxiing her teenage daughter hither and yon, Barton loves reading (especially fantasy by George R. R. Martin), cooking (anything with pasta is a hit), and writing (magical worlds with obstinate teen girls is always a favorite).

1. Please tell us about ANA, the contest, and your story.

More than 500 authors submitted original short stories, and over a period of 8 weeks people all over the internet had the opportunity to vote for their favorites. "Movin' On Up" made it to the top 3. After that, the judges decided the winner. They chose Kate Baggott, a great Canadian author living in Germany now, and announced Jill Amber Menard and me as the runners up. Jill and I both won $500, and Kate won $5000.

2. What is your story "Movin' On Up" about?

"Movin' On Up" is about an old woman in a nursing home. Her body is going, but her mind is still there, mostly. She wants something in the dresser across the room, but of course, she can't get it for herself or even ask anyone to get it for her. The story is from her POV. Little things that happen in the home trigger memories from her past. We follow her through those, which help with background and context for her life.

3. How did the story come about? What is its origin?

For many years I've been volunteering at a local convalescent home. I read to the residents who are bedridden or unresponsive, or sometimes both. It's been incredible to hear their stories, sometimes first hand, sometimes from visiting family members or the staff. Being there reminds me that everyone has a story, that everyone has a lifetime of memories inside. I've wanted to do something from that perspective for awhile. It didn't take long to start imagining how things could go bad in a place where you can't move or communicate. 

4. How many drafts did the story undergo prior to its submission to America's Next Author?

I wrote the story fairly quickly, due to the deadline of the contest. I'm guessing I worked on it for a week, probably changing it around 3 or 4 times. It was an unusually fast project to write. Of course I would fix a few things, looking back, but overall I'm very proud of it.

5. Is the story available for readers?

Yes! The story can be read in this post (scroll down to read the story), online, or is available for download 100% free via the America's Next Author website through ebook Mall:

Wonderful. Thank you, Jen, for sharing your story. And congratulations on doing so well in the contest. 

Be sure to read or download "Movin' On Up" if you have not yet done so. It is a touching story, one which beautifully and tragically illustrates the reality of aging and the gap between how one appears on the outside and how one feels inside.

And here, in it entirety, is Jen's award-winning and very moving story "Movin' On Up". Enjoy.

Movin' On UpJen Barton
Stay young, or at least have the good sense to die quickly. Because the end, I’m afraid, is not what you think. 

I flash my eyes, hoping to catch the nurse’s attention. If I can make her see me, really see me, she could get it. She’d do it, too. She’s one of the good ones. Susie, I think. No, it’s Sandy, like the beach. That’s what she always says. It’s in the bottom drawer of that cheap particleboard dresser. Comfort. Solace. Salvation. Only a few steps away and it might as well be on the other side of the world. 

I blink furiously, but it’s no use. She’s too busy putting my right arm through the sweatshirt, which I hate because all the twisting and pulling makes me feel like a damned trussed bird. Or is it the left one she’s got? Lefty loosey, righty did that go? Hell, I don’t know. It’s all the same anymore. Two arms that don’t work when you tell them to. No more use than a pair of old rolling pins tied to my sides. Less! At least the rolling pins could still make a pie.

“There now, Mrs. Mercer, you’re all dressed for the day,” Sandy says, fluffing the pillows behind me. “This shirt must be new. Such a pretty shade of blue too, brings out your eyes.” 

This is a lie. The last time I saw my eyes they’d sunken so far into the wrinkles I couldn’t even tell what color they were. But it’s nice of her to say.

She presses a button and the head of my bed begins to rise. “And the bears on the front are adorable. A gift from your family?”

Yes, such as it is. Though how a closet full of Chanel made anyone think I’d want teddy bears embroidered on my chest I’ll never know. But that’s old age for you. Not only do complete strangers now clean my backside, but I’ve become a depository for every craft any relative can make. One slip on an icy step, a few confused days, and you wind up here, in a kennel full of old people, surrounded by latch hook and patchwork. I spend my time staring at mint green cinder block walls, sleeping in an adjustable bed next to a lady with a goiter the size of a small watermelon who blares Judge Judy all day and bathes in Jean’Nate. 

I smile and slowly nod. 

“Is there anything else I can do for you before I go?” Sandy asks, tucking the dead twigs that used to be my legs under the thin covers. Her touch is sure and firm, with an efficiency that makes me think she’s been at this awhile.

Concentrate, I think, taking a breath. You can do it. Make the damn words come out. 

Sandy heads toward the hall, smiling at Gladys, my roommate.

“Annk..aaannnkk,” is all my mutinous mouth can manage. But she’s coming back. Did I say it? Maybe she’ll find it. I know it’s in the dresser. Look! Please! Look at my eyes, I’m looking right at it!

“You’re welcome, dear,” she says, patting my arm. She heads toward the dresser and for a second I think she’s with me, that she’s actually seen past the skin and bones lying in the bed and found me, Anne. 

But no. She keeps going, passing the dresser without so much as a glance, and doesn’t stop until she gets to the tv. She presses the volume button and shakes her head like an indulgent mother. “Let me turn this up a bit, I know how you and Gladys love your Judge Judy.”

Jesus, I think as she leaves, I need a drink. Some Stoli to throw in that dixie cup of cranberry. I roll my head to the side and glance at Gladys. Her eyes are closed, her goiter heaving with her labored breath. I wonder if she remembers vodka, if she remembers good fruit and chocolate and salt. Does she think about the crisp of a spring pea or miss the way a fresh loaf of focaccia could soak up a beautiful, earthy olive oil? I wonder if she’s in there somewhere, like me, locked inside a dead shell, or if she’s one of the lucky ones who’s already gone, like Walter across the hall, content to make macaroni necklaces in a room full of drooling wheelchair zombies.

Dammit! How did this happen?

A wave of anger rolls through me, the flush warm on my tissued cheeks, and I swing one of my rolling pins to the side. It knocks into the table beside the bed. The whole thing wobbles, tipping the juice over. My rage dissipates, gone before I can even enjoy it. I smile though, surprised at my own strength. I really did that. 

The juice has made a pink puddle on the serviceable linoleum floor that I share with Gladys and her goiter. I’m exhausted from the outburst, from the constant drone of Judge Judy and her endless stream of moronic litigants, but for the first time in months I feel good. Alive. My eyes close and I imagine the spill spreading. It’s a pretty pink; the color of that perfume Molly used to have. 

I am in her room, a sea of pinks and purples. She’s struggling with the perfume, her fingers small, barely big enough to wrap around the glass bottle, and it’s hard for her to spray. 

“Not too much,” I say, smiling. 

She is determined and beautiful, her blonde hair hanging in braided pigtails. A tall rainbow feather is tied to the back of her head with a thick strip of red yarn. Complete warrior princess. Fearless. Even then. The yarn has begun to unravel though, and the tiny threads are tickling her face. She scrunches her little nose, trying to ignore it. 

“Hold the bottle away from you a little,” I say, “or it’ll be too strong.” I reach to help, but she pulls away.

“Mom,” she says, “I do it all the time.” I see the white lettering between her fingers: Loves Baby Soft. A present from her uncle last Christmas. Now she can’t get enough of it. A spritz before preschool. A spritz before lunch. A spritz after bath and another before bed. 

“Okay,” I laugh. “Is everything set up?”

“I have pretzels, and some sammies in the fridge.” She sprays herself in the face with the perfume and winces. She steals a glance at me, waiting for the I told you so. When I say nothing she sticks her tongue out and wipes it with her sparkly sleeve. “And pickles. Lots of pickles.”

“Any veggies?” 

Her shoulders slump. “No one wants that but you. Papa even hates carrots. He told me. Can’t we skip it?”

She’s right. No one ever wants vegetables but me, and certainly not for a birthday picnic on the living room floor. “What blanket did you use?”

“The big one I always use for my forts. The white one with the checks.”

I wake to the smell of shit. The strange thing is, it’s not mine. At least I don’t think it’s me. Or Gladys. It’s not even human, if my sense of smell can still be trusted. It’s the pungent, sharp smell of dog poo. And someone has just stepped in it.

I roll my head to the right, excited by the new development in my cage of routine, and see the culprit. Our room is dim, the faded curtains closed for evening, but the door is open, of course, privacy being the thing you lose right after bladder control, and in the glaring brightness of the fluorescent hall light I see the fat male nurse who works nights, Eugene, is in the hallway scraping the bottom of his shoe. And beside him is a dog.

“Therapy dog,” Gladys says, looking at me. Her goiter wobbles with her words. She’s a good roommate, but I try not to get too attached. The turnover rate around here is pretty high.

I smile and nod. 

Eugene hobbles on one foot, loses his balance and falls to the floor with a muffled thud. The dog, a collie I think, barks. Eugene is now sprawled on the floor, tangled in the dog’s leash. It couldn’t happen to a better guy. Unlike Sandy, Eugene isn’t one of the good ones. 

I laugh, or gurgle really. It’s about as close as I can get to a laugh these days. But for the moment, it’s alright. Around here this counts as real entertainment. Not like the rubbish they pass off in The Sunflower Room. As if I’m supposed to be interested in bean bag toss or an awful elementary school choir. I’m a grown woman with eight decades under my belt. Yes, I am living inside a dying husk. And yes, after the last stroke I can hardly even mumble. My skin is so thin and transparent my veins have replaced my breasts as my most prominent feature. 

I’ve been to China and Thailand, to Paris and Milan. I ran a successful restaurant for over thirty years, and when I was nineteen spent a scandalous summer in San Sebastian with a beautiful Spaniard who made my simple name sound like a dirty word. I don’t want to play putt putt golf from my wheelchair into a dingy green beach bucket. A girl has to have standards. 

I want to dance and play bridge and smoke cigarettes! Oh, how I loved to smoke. I could blow rings that would make you weak in the knees.

I watch Eugene the fat nurse stomp off, dragging the dog along on the leash. We had a dog once. When Molly was young. Lolly we called him, because that’s how Molly said her name then. 

She is standing over our bed. It’s the middle of the night, but even in the dark I can see how swollen her eyes are. 

“It’s Lolly,” she says through tears. She wipes her nose with the back of her sleeve, like when she was little. “Come on.”

He has lost control of his bladder in the night and wet all over her bed. He is dying, in earnest, his cancer having finally gotten the better of him. Chris carries him downstairs, wraps him in the white checked blanket and lays him on the couch. 

“Lol..,” Molly chokes. She lays beside him, holding his head in her lap, waiting. His breath is shallow, weak. He is struggling. I rub his smooth head, misshapen from the bulging tumor in his sinus cavity, and think what a good dog he’s been these thirteen years. How he put up with Molly dressing him in doll clothes when she was young, how he suffered though obedience school with her when anyone could see he hated it, how he curled up by my head when he’d found me crying on the bathroom floor the day my father died. 

Chris had wanted to bury the blanket with him, but I’d insisted we keep it. Funny how a thing like that, an ordinary blanket, could become so important.

“Stop it!” Gladys cries, waking me. “Get away! I don’t like that!” Her voice is tight and thin, breaking. She sounds frightened.

Thunder crashes loudly outside. It’s dark and rain is pelting the window by my bed, like it’s blowing sideways. It sounds like one hell of a storm.

I open my eyes and find Eugene standing over Gladys on the far side of her bed. Both his hands are on her goiter. 

“Oh, Mommy,” he says, rubbing lotion into her throat, “don’t make such a fuss.” 

I hate the way he says that. How he calls us all Mommy, like it’s some kind of endearment. 

He smooths the extra lotion into his thick hands then wipes them on the front of his blue scrubs. As he walks around Gladys’ bed, his eyes on me, I see the bulge in his pants. I look at Gladys. Her face is stricken, eyes wide and popping, like a kid’s toy that’s been squeezed too hard.

“Help! Someone! Help!” she cries, the only good voice between us. She looks toward the bright hall, pressing her call button over and over. But I know it’s no use. It’ll be at least ten minutes before anyone comes. Eugene knows it too.

He smiles as he approaches, his piggy eyes locked on me. “Mommy, what’s wrong? Why so upset already?” He pulls a new pair of gloves from the box on my bedside table. I flinch as he snaps them into place.

He lays his hands on me and I stiffen. There’s nothing I can do. There never is. He rolls me onto my side, hard. The sheets twist, catching my thin skin, and I know I’ll have another bruise in the morning. I feel him checking my diaper. His gloved hand brushes my backside, lingers a little too long. When he sees it’s dry he drops me. I roll onto my back, too fast for a broken old woman, and am dizzy for a second.

“Now,” he says, leaning over me, “was that so bad?”

I’m shaking despite all my efforts to stop. Somehow I know it’s part of it for him. I look away, hoping he’ll just leave. I see Gladys watching us, her finger still frantically pressing her call button. She really is a good roommate.

Lightning flashes, lighting up the curtains from behind like a thousand headlights coming right for me. It’s been a long time since I’ve been frightened by a storm, but this one is getting pretty bad. 

Eugene squats down beside my bed, his face level with mine . I feel him there, the warmth from his body close and uncomfortable. His breath is hot on my neck and I want to be anywhere but here, anywhere other than trapped in this body, in this place, in this moment.

When he licks my ear I scream, a guttural rasping sound that’s worthless. I flail, fighting with all I’ve got, rage and desperation taking over. The adrenaline has made me stronger than I thought possible, and I see that one of my rolling pins has bloodied his nose. 

Now it’s Eugene who is calling for help. He backs away, holding his fat, broken face. His voice is angry and unsure, so different than the smarmy one he uses with us. I have enough time to see the shocked smile on Gladys’ face, and then they are descending like a flock of vultures, holding me down, my arms pressed to my sides, my shoulders held to the bed. I feel the sting of the needle as lightning flashes outside and everything goes fuzzy, heavy.

The storm is blowing all around us, shaking leaves from the few trees in the small yard behind Landis Hall. It’s May 9, 1951. A Wednesday. And Chris and I are soaked. 

“See?” he says, laying beside me, “it’s not so scary.” He is propped up on one elbow, watching me. I am hiding, face down in the blanket. It’s new, an early graduation present from my grandmother, and I feel guilty. I should be taking better care of it than this. The checked white pattern will never survive all this mud. 

I hate storms. And this one is raging. The sky is black, despite it being four in the afternoon, with thunder so close at times it feels like it’s shaking me out of my skin. But here we are, right in the thick of it.

“I don’t know how I let you talk me into this!” I scream, my voice muffled by the blanket and the storm. I am shaking, adrenaline pumping through my frightened body, but am starting to realize he’s right. It is thrilling, like being at the top of a roller coaster, waiting for the car to plunge over the top. I love that he made me come out here.

“What are you guys doing?” Julie, my roommate, shouts from the doorway of the dorm. “It’s raining!”

“We know,” Chris says, waving his hand at her. “Are you cold?” he asks me, rubbing the goosebumps on my bare arms. He takes his jacket off and lays it over my shoulders. It’s warm and smells like him; familiar, safe.

“Was it the shivering that gave it away? Because I always do that when I’m about to be struck by lightning.”

He laughs and it soothes me, like the first sip of coffee on a cold morning. I peek over and see how wet he is, how his blonde hair looks dark because of the rain, how his t-shirt clings to his strong chest and arms. He’s smiling and shaking his head at me. 

“We can go in if you want,” he says, laughing.

“No! I’m doing this,” I say, defiantly. I roll over and point at him. “And when I die it’ll be your fault. You can explain it to my mother.”

“I think I’ll risk it,” he says. He grabs his side of the blanket and crawls on top of me, his knees pressing divots into the blanket below. He is serious all of a sudden, thoughtful and determined. He looks as if he’s standing on the edge of a cliff. My stomach begins to twist. I glance at the door, wondering if Julie is still standing there, but it’s just the two of us. I look back at Chris and caution myself, knowing I could be reading this all wrong. 

The rain is falling around him, shining in the flood lights of the dorm across the street, and everything else has gone. No sound, no cold, no fear. Just us. Under the blanket I cross my fingers, on both hands.

He leans forward, pressing my shoulders into the soft ground, and kisses me. He is with me, in this place of ours, I know it now. 

“Annie,” he whispers, “will you marry me?”

The wind howls and the leaves blowing in the trees sound like distant applause.

“Yes, dummy.” 

For once I have read it just right.

“We’re not going to have any trouble,” she says, “I guarantee it.” 

It’s quiet except for feet shuffling around my bed, the squeak of rubber soles offensive as I wake. Gladys must’ve dropped her remote. No Judge Judy yet. The room is bright, even to my closed eyes, and there is commotion, as if a crowd has gathered. I am barely awake and already I’m on display. I snicker to myself. There was a time when I could command a room, when I’d wanted that kind of attention. But that was so long ago. Now I am just exhausted.

“I mean it,” she says confidently. “Go on. We’ll be fine.”

I hear the crowd go, shuffling on out. Well we're movin’ on up, my mind sings, to the east side. To a dee-luxe apartment in the skyyyy. I smile. I haven’t thought of that show in decades. I always liked it.

“Mrs. Mercer?” 

Her voice is familiar and I know I like her. Round face, short bob, kind brown eyes. Susie, Sally, something like that. I open my eyes, shaking the last of the cobwebs loose. Sandy, like the beach. That’s it.

She is smiling, her hands on her full hips. “That was some excitement last night.” She reaches for my hand. “Are you all right?” 

Fish don't fry in the kitchen, Beans don't burn on the grill. Took a whole lotta ta-ryyin', Just to get up that hill.

I nod. I am very tired, like the day after I ran that half marathon with Molly, but I feel okay.

“Good.” She squeezes my hand. “I’m afraid I have some bad news.” She sighs. “Gladys passed away last night. Stroke.”

I look over, and despite what Sandy has said, I expect to see Gladys there, her goiter bobbing below her chin as she searches the covers for her remote. But she is gone. The bed is bare, stripped naked to the thin mattress. One of the support bars is bent, the hinge by the head of the bed broken. Stroke my ass. Eugene’s foolishness has killed her.

“I’m so sorry,” Sandy says. “I know you were friends.” She squeezes my hand and begins to bustle about, folding my clean laundry and tidying my dresser. 

No rest for the weary, I think, watching her work. I feel the warmth of my tears leaking over my wrinkled face and I smile. I’ll miss Gladys, despite her love of inane television. But I am happy for her. And a little jealous. She’s finally free.

“It’s nearly noon,” Sandy says, opening the curtains. It’s a bright, clear day. Last night’s storm has blown out the last of the haze. “Molly will be here in a few hours.”

My beautiful Molly. Seeing her has become bittersweet. The guilt is hard to bear.

“Aaaan..ket,” I say forcefully, nodding toward the dresser. If Sandy comes through now I can be finished with the nonsense. My arm is dead, too tired from last night’s brawl to point, but all of my being is focused on the bottom drawer of that ugly dresser. I want my blanket, and everything it holds.

“Honey, what is it?” She comes close, and for the first time in weeks I think it may work. She is looking right at me.

“ket...aaanket.” I nod furiously toward the dresser, like one of those stupid bobble heads Chris’ brother used to put on his dashboard.

“You want something?” she asks, walking toward the dresser. She points to it, like we’re playing the kids’ game Hot/Cold. “Something in here?” 

I nod. Yes! Yes! You’re getting warm, Sandy, very warm.

“Something in the dresser?”

“Eeeesss!” I stammer.

“This drawer?” she says, opening the top one.

Cold. Cold. Bottom drawer, Sandy! I shake my head.

She closes the top drawer. “This one?” she asks, holding the handle on the second drawer.

I shake my head. No, but you’re getting warmer!

I feel my heart thumping through my little bird chest. This just might work!

“Well,” she says, laughing, “there’s only one left. It must be something in the bottom dresser.”

I nod. I nod. I nod until I think my head will snap off backwards.

Sandy bends over, and I can hear the bottom drawer of the cheap particleboard dresser slide open. Weeks of pointless gestures and mumbling, weeks of trying to catch someone’s attention, and finally she’s realized. Hallelujah!

“Mrs. Mercer,” she says, standing up, her hands on her hips, “honey there’s nothing in there. It’s completely empty.”

The sun is warm and pleasant on my skin, the sensation at odds with my mood. I am distraught, so empty I feel hollow, like you could drop a penny inside and it would never stop falling. All I’d been counting on, all I’d needed to make it through was in that drawer. And now it’s gone. Probably stolen. Things disappear around here all the time. But who the hell would steal an old woman’s blanket?

“Mom!” Molly says, walking through the doorway. She is in jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a large shopping bag at her side. She is beaming, and despite my mood, I smile. Even now, in her fifties, she’s gorgeous. People take better care now though, I suppose. Exercise and healthy eating. We never worried much about that. I press the button on my bed, slowly sitting up, and try to enjoy this bit of sunshine.

“Are you alright?” She drags a folding chair to my bedside and sits. The paper bag she’s carrying rustles pleasantly as she puts it down. It reminds me how much I loved shopping, going out to lunch, having our girl’s days. 

She takes my hand. She is warm and vibrant, her touch soft, but her eyes are full of concern. “They said Gladys passed, and that there was some kind of episode last night.”

Something like that. I have no way to explain. I’m not sure I’d want to even if I could. There are just some things you cannot share with your children, no matter how old they’ve gotten.

I squeeze her hand and smile, reassuring her I’m alright. But I already know she won’t let this go. I can feel it coming.

“We’re getting you out of here,” she says, looking around. Her face twists in disgust, like she smells something bad. 

I shake my head, not wanting to go through it again.

“Mom, I mean it.” She leans forward, resting her elbows on my bed. She looks up at me and she’s twelve, lying on the shag carpet begging to stay up another fifteen minutes.

Not on a school night, Sweetie.

“I’m serious. Selling the house would be enough.” She sits up and shakes her head. “Jeff’s expecting a promotion and the kids can work themselves through school.” She stands up and starts pacing. “Grace doesn’t graduate until next year. She can work and save up. You did! It’ll be good for her.” 

When she steps from in front of Gladys’ bed I am shocked all over again that it’s empty. 

I shake my head, slowly, defiantly. I will not have my granddaughter’s college money be spent on me.

“Dammit, Mom! This place is a...well it’s not the right place for you.”

She’s right. It’s not really the right place for anyone. But it’s all I can afford. Chris’ chemo and radiation and all of the holistic therapies and treatments took every bit we’d saved. And then some. Eighteen years is a long time to be alone, I’ve discovered, without the other half of your heart. And I am weary. But I will not let her do this.

I shake my head, slowly, defiantly.

She smiles, the mischievous one that reminds me so much of Chris, and sits back down. “You know, I could just do it anyway. You’re not the boss of me anymore.”

I squeeze her hand and we laugh. It’s over for now. But I know Molly like the back of my own wrinkled, palsied hand. It’s only a matter of time before she does this on her own.

“Oh!” she says, looking down at her side, “I almost forgot! I brought you something!”

I brace myself for the latest bejeweled glasses case or tissue box. A friend of my great niece has discovered bedazzling. I could join the Rockettes if I wanted.

She reaches into the large paper bag and pulls out the white checked blanket. “I noticed how dirty it was the last time I was here,” she says. “So I washed it.”

My eyes are running again as she gently spreads it on top of me. It smells just right. Like a fresh load of laundry. Like home. She tucks me in, cozy and warm and I feel wrapped in softness, cocooned in love, like an indian baby in a papoose. I am overwhelmed.

She smiles, knowing she’s made me happy. “And I found these,” she says, flopping a small sandwich baggie of little blue pills on the table by my cranberry juice. “Not sure if you need them, but they were inside the blanket.” She gives me the mom face. “They almost went through the wash. Show them to Sandy. She’ll know what they are.”

I know what they are. I hold her hand in mine, and nod, thanking her. This means everything. 

We visit for a while. I listen as she tells me about what schools Grace is considering for college and why Charlie (or is it Chandler?) switched from tuba to trumpet in marching band, about the race she’s training for, and Jeff’s obsession with making homemade wine. I absorb it all. I am so proud of her, of her family and who she’s become. 

Finally she looks at her watch and sighs. “I have to go. It’s an appointment all the way across town. I tried to change it, but you know how it goes. Couldn’t get a Monday opening for another two months.”

I do know how it goes. How eighty-one years goes by in the blink of an eye, how love and gratitude can make your heart swell so it’s hard to breathe, and how some things are worse than letting go.

She hugs me good bye and I hold her, my beautiful warrior princess. I close my eyes and she’s four, wearing her rainbow feather headdress, passing out pickles to her grandparents. 

I smile as she leaves, my face wet with tears, and reach for the baggie.

Well we're movin’ on uuup, my mind whispers, to a dee-luxe apartment in the skyyyy.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

10 Questions with Writer's Writer Marcia Riefer Johnston (@MarciaRJohnston)

Cover art by Brian Hull. Cover design by Vinnie Kinsella.

Holiday mayhem has subsided. A new year has begun. (Though HOW it came to be 2013 is beyond me.) And it's time to get back to work. Back to business. The business of writing. What better way to begin the new year than with an Author Spotlight illuminating a book on writing?

I therefore give you Word Up! by literary luminary and writer's writer Marcia Riefer Johnston.

Photo by Wendy Hood.

When Marcia was 12, American Girl magazine printed her eight-paragraph story, “The Key,” and paid her $15. She has been writing ever since.

She studied under Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff in the Syracuse University creative-writing program. She taught technical writing in the Engineering School at Cornell University. She has done writing of all kinds for organizations of all kinds, from the Fortune 500 to the just plain fortunate.

Marcia has written for the scholarly journal Shakespeare Quarterly, the professional journal Technical Communication, and the weekly newspaper Syracuse New Times. She used to write letters by the boxful. She has contributed posts to her daughter’s Peace Corps blog, texts to her son’s Droid, and answers to her husband’s crossword puzzles. Her words have landed on billboards, blackboards, birthday cakes, boxes of eggs, and the back of her book. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

To share her love of writing, she has collected some one-of-a-kind essays into a book:
Word Up! How to Write Powerful Sentences and Paragraphs (And Everything You Build from Them).

1.    How did you get into writing?

When I was maybe nine years old, my best friend, Shannon Wood, gave me a blank book. I had always loved reading books. Suddenly, I was inspired to write one. I sat down to do just that, only to discover that I had nothing to say. But I clung to the notion of myself as a writer. When you believe long enough that you can do something that you can’t do, lo and behold, you discover that you can.

2.    What do you like best (or least) about writing?

What I like best: The pleasure of getting it right—finding the perfect word, crafting the ring and rhythm of a sentence, discovering the structure that a given piece needs, nailing an ending. And then I love hearing from readers when they experience those pleasures for themselves. For example, fellow tech writer and self-professed grammar geek, Jennifer DeAngelo, writes, “I find myself forcing others to listen while I read ‘this great part’ out loud every few minutes. My dogs will soon be English experts!” That’s what drives me to write—getting to have, and then share, those moments of earned joy.

What I like least: The time required to get it right. Even the best writers have no shortcut to good writing.

3.    What is your writing process? IE do you outline? Do you stick to a daily word or page count, write 7 days a week, etc?

The writing I do for myself fits around my technical-writing contracts. When I’m on a big job, I might not do any of my own writing for months. I have no word-count or page-count goals. Inevitably, something comes along that sparks the urge to write on an age-old topic (all topics on language usage are age-old) in a way that strikes me as unique and fun. Once that flame gets going, I’m a moth who can’t stay away.

Someone asked me recently how many revisions a typical essay goes through. She reported that her husband revises a typical piece five times. Five! I didn’t know what to say. The concept of countable passes brought me up short. I don’t revise in discrete iterations. Writing is editing and vice versa. Each essay evolves continuously, one change after another, over and over. One essay might take the better part of a day; another might take weeks.

When I’m working on an essay, I wake up each day with ideas for additions or deletions. I keep pads of paper everywhere—next to the bed, in the bathrooms, in the car, in the office, in the kitchen. In between bouts of writing, ideas come unbidden. A lot gets worked out for me while I sleep. I don’t mean that in a mystical way. Good writing requires many kinds (and many repetitions) of thinking, critiquing, weighing. It’s a rush unlike any other when your brain is processing processing processing, and the thing you didn’t even know you needed SURFACES. Aha! Quick, get me to a keyboard.

4.    Who are some other writers you read and admire, regardless of whether they are commercially “successful?”

Hemingway was my first inspiration in terms of craft. My book, Word Up! includes my two favorite quotations from him, both classics. Here’s one:

If a writer … knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows … The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.[1]

Here’s the other:

The greatest difficulty, aside from knowing truly what you really felt, rather than what you were supposed to feel … was to put down what really happened in action; what the actual things were which produced the emotion that you experienced. The real thing, the sequence of motion and fact which made the emotion … would be as valid in a year or in ten years or, with luck and if you stated it purely enough, always.[2]

A writer could do a lot of fine work following nothing but those two principles.

I also admire Ray Carver and Toby Wolff. I had the privilege of studying with both of them in the creative writing Masters program at Syracuse University. What an opportunity! Ray and Toby made us, their lucky students, feel that our words mattered. Their affirmation meant as much as any lessons I learned from them. If anyone reading this hasn’t yet discovered Ray Carver’s short stories “A Small, Good Thing” and “Cathedral,” stop right now and go find them. And if you haven’t yet read Toby Wolff’s memoirs This Boy’s Life and Old School, do you ever have a treat waiting for you.

I also love Barbara Kingsolver, especially her essays. Her Small Wonder and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle take my breath away—in terms of both what she says and how she says it.

And Mary Karr … beware. Reading her is enough to put you off considering yourself skilled or entertaining. Her Liar’s Club tops my list of books to recommend.

5.    Should the question mark in the above question be inside or outside the quotes?

It was a setup! Okay, I’ll bite. That question mark goes outside. If you were quoting a question, you’d put the quotation mark inside.

I wish that American usage (like British usage) treated commas and periods with similar logic. When you have a word in quotation marks, like “this,” who on earth decided that the comma belonged inside? If I put a word in italics, like this, how am I supposed to get the comma inside the italics? I mean! Ooooh, Ryan. Do. Not. Get. Me. Started.

6.    What’s your stance on the Oxford Comma?

[Dear reader, Follow this answer to its end before drawing any conclusions.]You are going for, blood aren’t, you Ryan? I, say why bother with that extra, comma in fact why, do writers care so much, about commas anyhow since, they just take, up space and readers, can figure out what we, mean right? Those sticklers who insist, that the Oxford, Comma creates clarity, while taking, up hardly any, space well they are, just a bunch, of curmudgeons! Writers should put, commas wherever they like or not just let their words flow as nature intended straight from the brain and let the natural rhythms emerge organically who needs commas when you get right down to it writers who need to lean on crutches like commas can’t hardly call themselves writers now can they and no in case you’re wondering no I am not serious I figure if you’ve read this far you surely have your own opinion on this question and have heard it discussed enough times to have yawned at any straight answer I might have given.

In case you’re still wondering, and if you haven’t come to terms with this question for yourself, and if you don’t have a style guide forced on you at work making the decision for you, then let me give you a straight answer after all and say yes, I cast my vote adamantly in favor of the Oxford comma (aka serial comma, aka Harvard comma, aka the comma before the last item in a series). I just used one in the previous sentence before the final if clause in the series. Did you notice? Probably not. That’s the beauty of these handy little curved marks of punctuation: they make reading easier. Why leave them out when they’re so darn useful?

I know, I know, newspaper columns, etc. Save that snippet of space if your style guide says you must.

I couldn’t put it better than Bryan Garner, whose big, fat Garner’s Modern American Usage, by the way, every writer needs. On page 676, he puts it like this: “Omitting the final comma may cause ambiguities, whereas including it never will.”

Hear, hear! Or is it Here, here? Now there’s a question for you, Ryan. Two can play at this Q&A game.

It's Hear, hear! As in, "Hear him! Hear him!" It's what proper English dudes say when they agree with what has been said and want to vocalize said agreement.

I knew this. Then I got scared and looked it up. But it is "Hear, hear!" Thank you for educating us, Marcia. See that, everyone? Free learnin' goin' on right here.

7.    What is Word Up! about and how did it come to fruition?

Ah, back to a serious question. Actually, I love all of these questions. Bring them all on!

I’ve had a passion for the English language since I was deprived of it during my year as an exchange student in Austria in high school. I also credit my English teachers for teaching me writing skills that too few people get these days. Lots of people are hungry for better writing skills. And these skills are teachable. I realized that I had something of value to offer and could have a ball doing it.

For a longer answer to your question, see “Tribute to a teacher who put ‘Word Power’ in his students’ hands”:

8.    What’s your current writing project?

As I type this, I’m still putting the final touches on Word Up! I’ve put my heart, mind, soul, stray socks, you know, everything I’ve got into this book—I’m not thinking about any other projects, not even what to have for dinner. Luckily, I’m married to an excellent cook who is almost as excited about this book as I am.

In my dreams, everyone who owns Strunk and White’s Elements of Style (and, if they’re lucky, Art Plotnik’s spunky Spunk & Bite) along with Lynn Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves will add a copy of Word Up! to the same shelf.

In fact, I see this book sitting in the bathrooms of those homes. I see guests (even those who aren't writers) picking it up and, an hour later, emerging with a smile.

9.    What books are you currently reading?

One book sitting (mostly neglected) on my nightstand is The Man Who Loved China by the prolific Simon Winchester. His writing gives me chills, and his subject matter always opens new worlds. I can’t wait to get back to it.

Another book I’m reading is Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King. I look forward to discussing it with my husband; he’s been recommending it for years. I used to consider reading a purely private treat, but I’ve come to relish book conversations. You learn a lot about people from their responses to a book you’ve read in common, especially when their responses differ from your own.

In fact, every reader responds uniquely to every piece of writing. No two people ever read the same book—or the same anything. When the writer in you comes to this realization, you gulp.

10.    Who or what inspires you to write?

Inspiration comes from anywhere language can be found: a hospital-hallway sign, a snippet of song, a Tweet, a book, a bakery cake, a billboard, the back of my brain.

Finally, is there anything you’d care to add?

Yes! I’d like to give you, dear reader, a sense of why I bothered to write yet another book on writing. The world already has too many writing books. If you piled up all the books on writing, you’d have a precarious, weird-looking stack reaching … way up there. But the world can’t have too many writing books of the kind I like to read, the kind I set out to write. This book doesn’t say the same old things in the same old ways. This book follows its own advice. Practices what it preaches. Shows what it tells. This book uses powerful writing to talk about powerful writing.

Powerful writing entertains, heals, motivates, sells, enlightens. It marks the biggest and smallest occasions of human existence. Powerful writing changes things—for a person, a classroom, a country, a planet.

People tell me that this book will appeal to advanced writers, and I hope that's true. I also believe that "advanced" can apply to high schoolers and college students. It's easy to underestimate what teenagers are capable of. This book could be used in the classroom—I’d love for teachers and students to discover it—but it’s not a textbook. It’s not exactly a style guide either, although it does get into grammar and style. I think of Word Up! as an inspiration guide. One reviewer (content strategist Rahel Bailie) says, “You rarely get this kind of knowledge in such an engaging way. Read the book like a collection of short stories.”

That’s the kind of experience I wish for you in reading Word Up!

Where can people find you online and buy your book?

Selected chapters are available, free, under the “Excerpts” tab on my website: “How To Write Everything” (

The book, Word Up!, releases on April 27, 2013, National Tell a Story Day. Please come back to my website for details as that date approaches. If you made it all the way to the end of this interview, I wrote this book for you—and I can’t wait for you to get your hands on it. Mark your calendar … and any others you can get away with.

In the meantime, will you, dear reader who has hung in all the way to the last word, help me get the word out about Word Up? If you're on Twitter, Facebook, or Google+, please follow the Word Up! pages. (You know, click that cute little "Follow" button. Or "Add to circles." Or "Like.") These pages are all listed in one convenient place, here:

Sign up, and then—most helpful of all—let your followers know about Word Up! too. Everybody needs a good word.

Thank you. —Marcia

Thank YOU, Marcia. In my opinion, the world can never have enough books on how to write well. Or even correctly. Or even semi-correctly. Language is a fluid medium and is ever-changing, constantly evolving. That's part of what makes it so much fun. But every pyramid has a solid foundation.

Let's talk again in April, Marcia, once Word Up! is officially available. And once again, thank you!

If you haven't yet done so, visit Marcia online at and follow her on Twitter:
@MarciaRJohnston (author)

[1] Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (New York: Scribner, 1932),153–154; First Scribner e-book edition 2002,
[2] Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon, 11–12.