Wendy Hornsby

Today was my day to post a blog, and I blew it. No good excuse. I could say that the fourth Thursday came early this month, sneaked up on me, which it did. But the better explanation is, I was hardly aware that today was a Thursday.

Bit by bit during the year since my retirement from teaching, I have lost my intimate connection with both calendar and clock. For more years than I care to claim, I always had a Day Planner, or some electronic version of one, within reach. Now, there is no need to, and I don’t. Same with my watch. Before we left for our recent trip where there were multiple flights and various appointments that needed to be met on time, I had to go buy a new watch because I have no idea where the old one is; probably still in one of the unpacked boxes in the garage.

We do manage to maintain a sort of squidgy structure in our daily doings.  Meals occur, early or late, big or small, according to the rhythm of a day. I write just about every day, and am very aware of the deadlines for two currents projects.  For the rest, Tuesdays we go into town for breakfast and the week’s marketing. Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays we swim laps at the community pool. But Tuesday I had a doctor thing, and yesterday, Wednesday, a swim day, some construction equipment broke a water pipe and the pool was closed. If our usual routine went pffht, so what? We skipped the marketing and are making do with what we have in the freezer and the garden.  Yesterday was a beautiful, clear day after three days of drizzle, so we drove up toward Truckee to see what we could see. This morning we had our swim – met the Thursday swimmers – then headed down the mountain to the next town to get our car serviced, a day later than planned. And while we were there….

The really great part of being unchained from the clock and calendar is the freedom to linger and explore. Case in point: We try to arrive at the dealership that services our cars at around lunch time because, among the services offered are either a complimentary sandwich at their little lunch counter while you wait or chauffered delivery to any local restaurant. Today, on the recommendation of our rep, we were driven up to the local airport for lunch at a place called Wings. We’re still new to the area and had no idea that this gem existed. The menu is standard diner fare, but the restaurant sits right next to the tarmac. People fly in and out for lunch, or come just to watch the planes, as we did.  Great fun.

On the way up, we noticed a western art gallery. Paul loves western art and has a small collection of prints, paintings, and sculpture. So, our freshly serviced, newly washed car returned to us, we went back to see what was there. Turns out that this is the gallery, studio, and foundry of monumental artist Douglas Van Howd. We were given a wonderful tour of the work and the studio, and works-in-progress, by one of the artist’s assistants, and had a lovely, long talk with his wife, wildlife photographer Nancy Van Howd. Mr. Van Howd was the artist for the Reagan administration; remember that Reagan liked western artists. Van Howd not only designed and crafted the gifts that Reagan presented to heads of state during official visits, but he and Nancy also accompanied the President on those visits. Great stories, wonderful adventures. Monumental talent. Tucked into a meadow on a back road in a small Sierra foothills town. Quel suprise!

You never know what you’ll find when you have the time to stop and look around. I’m sorry I slipped off my blog posting schedule. But while I wasn’t paying attention I fell into one hell of a lovely day.

Green Gas, Video Games, and Great Writing on The Great War

by Nancy Means Wright

100 years ago this summer, Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off (for complex reasons) one of the cruelest wars in history.  Whole generations of young men were lost on all sides, and I, for one, can’t stop reading and writing about them. I wept through the heartbreaking novel All Quiet on the Western Front when a disillusioned German soldier in the last months of the war stands up out of his trench to gaze at the fall foliage–and is killed.  I thought about that young German a fortnight ago as I heard the Stuttgart Boys’ Choir sing (on tour from Germany). Ah, those pure high voices–one sweet-faced pre-teen with blond hair falling to his shoulders–no soldier there! And now I’m rereading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms in which he recreates his WW1 months in an Italian ambulance unit, the agonies of war, and the role of a deserter.

I think of the poems of British poet Wilfred Owen, who wrote of a soldier in a gas attack “floundering like a man in fire or lime… / Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light / As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.”  The poem ends with the irony of “The old lie: Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori.” (It is sweet and proper to die for one’s country.”) Tragically, Owen was killed just days before the November Armistice–as were the brother and fiance of British nurse Vera Brittain, who wrote in her classic Testament of Youth of tall Americans marching jauntily along “like young gods” to the killing front.

On a happier note, my father-in-law dropped out of Middlebury College in 1918 to “join up” and fly an observation biplane over enemy territory. Luckily for him it was a short war, and he returned to college a student hero, and began barnstorming at country fairs.  He loved to bellow out euphemistic war songs like “It’s a Long Long Way to Tipperary” and “Over There.”  Then there was old Charlie Willson, our octogenarian family carpenter, who was gassed in that war and for the rest of his life had nightmares of “shrieking shells and cries of the wounded.” While he was working on our roof or barn, he would shout down war stories to anyone who’d listen–as though compelled to tell them.

TV productions like Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge  move their characters in and out of The Great War, and we hold our breath, praying our fictional heroes will survive–even if it’s with a missing arm or leg. The characters in my new multi-generational novel, Queens Never Make Bargains, endure the war at home and in the trenches, where in the confusion of shell fire and greenish gas, my protagonist’s soldier-lover stumbles off, his legs taking over his brain–away from the terrible war.

And we all admire Charles and Caroline Todd who write two award-winning mystery series set during and after WW1, featuring the shell-shocked veteran inspector Rutledge (Hunting Shadows); and Bess Crawford, a nurse in France (A Question of Honor). Mother and son make us relive all the passion and panic of the times.

Finally, I was surprised to read about a new, interactive, virtually non-violent French WW1 video game, “Valiant Hearts,” in which a young soldier named Emile must choose  between his officer’s orders to charge to the right, through gas and shells–or run left (to desert)  and onto an officer’s sword. Tough choices! The game depicts four years of war as lived by Emile, by an American volunteer Freddie, a field nurse Anna, and a dog–among others. One discovers the brutality of the trenches but also the human drama. Instead of firing rifles, players dress wounds, dig trenches, duck aircraft fire, and liberate prisoners. They hear the night quiet–or the muttering enemy, and they fear what’s ahead. They run, hide, and solve puzzles, all in real life locations and scenes from the war.

Surely a video I’d want to buy for my grandchildren! To keep the memory alive, yes–although a video game can never wholly emulate the horror of a war the did not, as hoped,  end all wars.


Torch Song for a Trilogy

When I started writing the Jake Samson-Rosie Vicente books I knew I’d be writing a series and thought of it that way. I unrolled their personalities and then let them grow and change through the various stories and settings.

Then the idea for Blackjack came long. I’d always loved dystopian, post-apocalyptic fiction. Anything that took place in the near future (think 1984—hard to believe that date was in the future when I read the book). Rica Marin’s name popped into my head and she became the protagonist—Rica Marin. Rich Marin.  A woman born to the California redwoods, in a country called Redwood, in a world divided into tiny warring states. The U.S. Balkanized. Most of the population gone by way of ecological disaster and germ warfare, and plague.

But also a world struggling to pull itself back together. A heroine working as a spy for anyone who will hire her, while wrestling with her own evolving morality. But more than just a mercenary—a singer of torch songs carrying a torch for a woman who had left her years before. Love, violence, hatred, war, confusion. Healing, too. The planet, the former U.S., and Rica.

I started to write it and found myself constructing an intricate and consistent fictional world that was also an easy extrapolation from the one we live in now. Pages and pages of notes about how people lived. Communications, medicine, weapons, vehicles, social norms. Understanding of their own terrifying history. I worked it all out. That process alone took a couple of years of working on it off and on while I wrote and did other things. Finally, much to my amazement, I considered it finished. Sold it. Saw it in hardcover. Saw some wonderful reviews.

But finishing that one book, then titled Blackjack, I knew the story was not over. This book came to its conclusions, but my outlines and notes didn’t. I worked out a story for a second book and a third. Rica and her friends and enemies just weren’t finished telling their story. I began a second book, but I still had other things to write.

When I moved Blackjack from one e-book publisher to another, it was time to go back to Rica. Blackjack, with some wonderful editing by Julie Smith at BooksBNimble, became Torch Song, first in the Blackjack Trilogy, and I finally began to focus on all of this story, from spy job to diplomacy to war, from alliance to attraction to love. From chaos to some kind of order that might actually work.

It’s such a big challenge, it scares me. But I’m loving it. One book done and out there, two to go.

A Question for Mystery Writers

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.‘ Ernest Hemingway

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.’ Mark Twain

I dare say that we’ve all heard Mark Twain’s quote above. And probably a good many of us have heard what Hemingway had to say. I’m struck by the dichotomy posed by these two statements. As writers, if we are to write the truest sentence that we know, how are we to either accept or pay attention to Twain’s warning? Though Hemingway once said that all American literature begins with Twain, the two thoughts seem to cancel each other out. Don’t they? Or am I taking them out of context? And as mystery writers, is all of this beside the point? I mean, our aim is to write a thumping good tale and let the chips fall where they may, isn’t it? Twain is right in part. I have, as have you all probably, seen situations that nobody would believe if you put them into a book. But does that mean we aren’t servants of truth?

For my part, I always fall on the side of telling the story and not worrying about deeper meaning. It seems like every time that I have ever concerned myself with deeper themes, with finding “truth,” I end up being ham-fisted in my attempt. In graduate school, I studied under the late Dr. Joanne Cockelreas, a graduate, in the early 60s, of the Iowa MFA program. She told me once that I should focus on good, old-fashioned storytelling. “Look at the anthologies,” she said. “You’ll find one or two or three experimental pieces. But, the vast majority are just excellent, straightforward stories.” While she wasn’t speaking directly to Hemingway’s assertion, I think there is an application to be made.

Having said all of this, I’d like to hear what other mystery writers have to say. So, chime in. Let’s talk about truth and fiction for a few minutes.

What’s So Funny?

In May I went to see a thought-provoking drama written and performed by Brian Copeland, a Bay Area writer and comedian.

Copeland is the author of the critically-acclaimed one-man show titled Not a Genuine Black Man. It’s the story of his experiences growing up black in San Leandro in the 1970s, at the time when that East Bay community was considered one of the most segregated towns in the United States.

The May performance was a new play by Copeland, The Scion, which opened in San Francisco earlier this year. This particular evening was a benefit for the San Leandro Historical Society.

The Scion, like Copeland’s earlier work, is based on fact – in this case what came to be known as the sausage factory murders.

On June 21, 2000, Stuart Alexander, self-proclaimed “Sausage King” and owner of San Leandro’s Santos Linguisa factory, shot and killed three meat inspectors.

Two of the victims, Jean Hillery and Thomas Quadros, were from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The third victim was U.S. Food and Drug Administration Inspector William Shaline. With them on this particular day was California State Inspector Earl Willis, who escaped.

After Alexander shot Hillery, Quadros, and Shaline, he chased Willis down the street, firing a gun at him. Willis found refuge in a bank. Alexander then returned to the factory and shot Hillery, Quadros, and Shaline again – each one in the head, at close range.

The inspectors’ visit to the sausage factory that day was prompted by ongoing and unresolved issues between the federal government and Alexander regarding federal food safety regulations. You know, rules like cooking the sausage at the proper temperature, in order to prevent food-borne illness like e.coli. The feds also had concerns about the factory’s cleanliness and outdated equipment. They’d already shut down the factory twice, and Alexander had gotten it reopened.

Alexander viewed these regulations, and the inspectors’ visits, as interference and harassment. As far as he was concerned, the inspectors were trespassers. When the inspectors showed up that day, he led them back to his office, where he kept a number of loaded guns. He started shooting. Everything was caught on the video surveillance tape, which was used by the prosecution at Alexander’s trial.

Alexander pleaded not guilty but was convicted of three counts of first-degree murder and sentenced to death in February 2005. However, he died in prison in December 2005.

Fast forward to The Scion. Okay, I thought. How in the world is Copeland, with his reputation for humor, going to make a play out of this triple homicide?

He succeeded admirably. Taking the stage, he began by saying, “Rules are rules, for everybody.”

Unless they aren’t for everyone, as he demonstrated during the course of his performance. Copeland talked about his own experiences growing up in San Leandro, racially profiled for walking while black, driving while black, riding in a car with a white woman.

Then he contrasted this with Alexander’s upbringing as the privileged scion of a well-known San Leandro businessman. Evidently Alexander did whatever he liked without being called into account for his actions, whether it was speeding a motor scooter the wrong way down a busy local street, constructing a downtown building without getting any permits, or beating the crap out of an elderly neighbor.

Alexander was frequently described as “having a short fuse” or “combative,” a man who “didn’t like the idea of people telling him what to do,” even if it was a group of USDA meat inspectors whose job it was to make sure people who ate that sausage wouldn’t get sick.

Copeland’s theme, as I see it, is that Stuart Alexander went through life feeling entitled to do exactly what he wanted, even if that meant killing three people. Indeed, Copeland said during the play, up until he was sentenced Alexander apparently thought he was going to get away with murder.

So why the title of this blog post? What’s so funny?

On several occasions, as I was describing the play I’d seen, the person I was talking with laughed. Why? What was so amusing?

There were times during the performance of the play that I laughed, too, as Copeland intended for the audience to do. But then he described how he’d watched the surveillance tape, which shows the efforts of mortally-wounded Jean Hillery to reach her cell phone.

That’s not funny. That’s deadly serious, horrific even.

So what it is that made people laugh when I was telling them about the play, and the murders? Was it the term “sausage factory murders”? Was it the way I described it?

I’ve been pondering that, and I’m not sure I have an answer. I just know that I’ve been turning it around in my head for a couple of months.

After all, I’m a mystery writer. I construct fictional tales that revolve around murder. And within the broader mystery genre there are humorous mysteries. So in a way, we mystery writers do laugh at murder. Though fiction is somehow more palatable than real murder.

Brian Copeland will be performing The Scion at the Marsh Theatre in San Francisco from July 19 through August 23.

Go see it.


Note: This essay first appeared in the literary magazine Black Lamb.

When I lived and worked as a country innkeeper at Wilbur Hot Springs, California, from September 1980 to September 1982, I ate well. Mostly vegetarian, with a lot of brown rice, yogurt, tofu and other soy products in all different shapes and consistencies, fruit in season, veggies from the garden, cheese made from our own goats’ milk, lots of granola, and very little alcohol.

At Wilbur Hot Springs I also became a musician, stretching my repertoire from Burl Ives folksongs to the sophistication of Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, Rodgers & Co., as I entertained a lounge full of guests on weekend nights with my guitar and serviceable baritone voice.

And another thing: at Wilbur I learned how to manage a staff and run a business, and I took pride in the success of that business, knowing it was partly my success.

But this essay is not about my two years at Wilbur Hot Springs, during which I ate well, became an entertainer on the rise, and managed a successful business. No, this article is about the following year, September 1982 to September 1983, which I spent in and around Palo Alto, California, during which I managed a small business into the ground, tried and failed to perform American standards to deaf audiences, and ate garbage.

Actually, my Year of Eating Dangerously didn’t start out all that bad. Almost as soon as I arrived in Palo Alto (which had been my stomping grounds before Wilbur), I landed a gig at Savoir Fare, a brand new restaurant, playing dinner music for $50 a night, five nights a week, plus tips and a free dinner. Good dinners, too: steaks, salads, dishes with French names.

I also landed a day job, five days a week, managing a small bookstore called Kepler’s of Los Altos for $500 a month. I had worked there before, when the store was owned by Kepler’s Books and Magazines of Menlo Park, the most successful bookstore on the San Francisco Peninsula. By September 1982, the smaller store had been sold off and was going through rough times, threatened by a predatory Crown Books around the corner on El Camino Real and a predatory Tower Books and Records in the shopping center across El Camino. But Kepler’s of Los Altos still had its name, still served some loyal customers, and still functioned in the same shopping center as before, which also featured a fine deli and a health food store. So I started off the year with a good lunch every day, as well as a good dinner. I had to pay for my lunches, but a sandwich was only $1.50 back then.

Off to such a good start, I decided I needed to buy some clothes, so I went to Value Village, a classy thrift store in Redwood City, where I bought twenty dollars worth of tweeds and dark slacks (for country club gigs, say), jackass pants and loud shirts (for luau parties, say), and casual business wear for my day job.

I also found a home, sharing a condo with a woman named Irene. Irene and I were friends only. Nothing intimate: separate bedrooms, separate bathrooms, separate shelves in the refrigerator. We shared the kitchen but did not share food. I ate my breakfasts there: granola with yogurt and fruit. Good, healthy food, at least at first.

Irene, meanwhile, ate her starchy breakfasts and heat-lamp lunches in the cafeteria of the senior retirement center where she was an administrator. For dinner she browsed the happy hour scene. She knew which bars had the potstickers, which the Swedish meat balls, which the nachos, and which the deep-fat-fried zucchini. If she wanted to splurge and get away from the bar crowd and the fried food, Irene took advantage of the salad bar at The Sizzler. A little roughage never hurts, and you could find a bit of protein there if you really looked for it.

I was scornful of Irene’s diet, at first.

Maybe it was Irene who greased the slippery slope to junk food addiction, her and her happy hour hors d’oeuvres. Of course I would never have cruised the cocktail circuit if the gig at the Savoir Fare had lasted. But, like many a brand new restaurant, the Savoir Fare went broke in a hurry. I hoped my music didn’t contribute to its demise, but it was clear I was expendable. They cut me back to two nights a week, for tips only, and then they shut their doors.

Poor Savoir Fare, and poor me; $50 a night poorer, and no more free dinners. I had two choices, and I alternated between them: cook like a bachelor, which meant frozen pot pies and TV dinners, plus a salad consisting of iceberg lettuce doused in Wishbone Italian dressing; or barhop, which meant a drink or two to wash down whatever I had picked out of the hot serving dishes. I got adept at loading a tiny plate high with munchies, carrying my meal around the room, cocktail napkins under my arm and a drink in my other hand. I felt right at home, mingling and cracking jokes with others whose dreams had not yet come true.

My music career wasn’t technically over yet, even if it had suffered a major setback. I still played gigs around town—or towns, plural, the Mid-Peninsula cities blending along El Camino Real from strip mall to strip mall. At a few of these gigs I was paid real money, although I never again earned $50 for a night’s work. Mostly I got free drinks at bars, or more often free coffee and pastry at coffee shops. That didn’t make for much of a dinner, but that’s what I ate on nights when I was lucky enough to play for tips. By the way, back in the early 1980s there was no rule of etiquette saying tips had to be paper money. I often ended up counting out quarters, dimes, and nickels, then spent them in a bar on the way home from the gig.

My steadiest gig, during this year of eating dangerously, was as the weekend evening entertainer for Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor in downtown Palo Alto, where I competed with an espre-ssssss-o machine and a Ms. Pacman’s doodleoodleooodle as I labored to sell American standards to the deaf generation. Tips from teenagers amounted to zilch-plus. But I got all the free ice cream I wanted, plus coffee, plus cookies. I spent the spare change on a drink on the way home. I parked and schlepped all my music equipment from the car to Irene’s condo, then spent a couple of hours practicing my guitar before bed, to wear off the alcohol, caffeine, and sugar enough to fall asleep.

I still believed I had a future as a semiprofessional musician, if only because I knew the lyrics, melodies, and Sears-Roebuck chord changes to hundreds of songs from the golden age of American popular music, which had to count for something.

Meanwhile, though, my day job at the bookstore was in serious peril. In addition to the Crown Books and the Tower Books and Records, we were at war with the landlord. This landlord (by which I don’t mean a greedy person who wanted to join a country club, but a corporation with no soul whatsoever) decided that Kepler’s Books of Los Altos must die, lease or no lease. The store wasn’t tithing enough, so the landlord hired goons to tear up our parking lot with boistrous jackhammers. The closest places our customers could park were closer to Crown Books or Tower Books and Records than they were to Kepler’s of Los Altos.

Managing a failing bookstore—no customers, all day long—while I was earning shit wages and virtually no spending cash as a musician was a two-pronged assault on my finances and my self-esteem. What does a self-disrespecting musician do when he’s going broke, fed up with his day job? Cut expenses, and eat crap. That’s why, come lunchtime, I quit buying sandwiches from the deli and the health food store and ambled across El Camino, then across San Antonio Road to the Sears shopping center, and saved 50¢ by eating at Burger King. It was comforting food: burger, fries, Coke. And it was lots to eat: “It takes two hands to handle a Whopper, ’cause the burgers are bigger at Burger King.” (I didn’t add that song to my repertoire.) I sometimes wondered why I became suddenly hungry again two hours later, but that was easy to fix with a Snickers bar from the deli. Oops, there went the 50¢.

By the time late summer 1983 arrived, my fancy pants from Value Village no longer fit me.

This decline happened gradually, although looking back on it with time-lapse memory my boredom and bad habits seem to have grown like weeds on steroids. The fact is, it took what at the time seemed like the longest year in my life for me to hit bottom. But come early August, 1983, here it was: bottom:

I wake up at about eight o’clock of a Wednesday morning, shower, dress in whatever is still clean and still fits, and load my amp, speakers, microphone stand, and guitar into the back of my ten-year-old second-hand Volvo, and drive from Irene’s condo to Kepler’s of Los Altos, stopping along the way to pick up a couple of doughnuts and a cup of coffee. I park wherever I can find a spot, on the other side of our shopping center, and walk to the store, open the store, and sit behind the cash register. Another clerk comes in, and we sit. We eat the two doughnuts and sit some more.

Midmorning I take a walk across El Camino to a branch of my bank, where there’s a coffee urn and a stack of miniature styrofoam cups. I wire myself together with more coffee, which tastes like yesterday’s.

About two p.m., I get my lunch break. I use two hands to handle my Whopper. I can’t finish my fries, but I sneak a refill on my Coke.

Late in the afternoon, when one clerk goes home and another comes on, I begin the process of changing the back room into a night club. The store has dwindled, and there are almost no books left in the back room; so the owner has moved in a bunch of lumpy thrift-store furniture, to turn this strip-mall bookstore with no parking lot into a community gathering spot. Nobody gathers, but on Wednesday evenings I try to lure in the world by offering my golden oldies. I put out a bowl of trail mix from the Lucky’s supermarket next to Tower Books and Records, set up my equipment, place a tip jar on a stool, and stand there singing and strumming and entertaining nobody till nine-thirty. By nine-thirty most of the trail mix is gone, thanks to me. Then I start lugging all my equipment back to my used Volvo, which has leaked oil on the parking asphalt but I don’t care, and by the time the car is packed, it’s ten o’clock and time to close the store.

Dinner time. I drive into the heart of Los Altos, park and lock, and walk into Mac’s Tea Room, one of the last piano bars on the Peninsula to hold out against disco and sports bars. I’m well known at Mac’s. I’m a star. Other customers greet me with smiles. Women want to sit next to me. The piano player urges me to the microphone, and I sing. They all applaud, and I’m invited, urged, to sing another. Do I get paid for this? No. In fact I throw dollar bills into the tip bowl, so I’m paying to give my songs away, and it’s worth every penny. Besides, by now Mac’s Tea Room and Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor are my only steady gigs. Only gigs period, lately.

Besides, when I’m singing at Mac’s I get free dinner. Dinner: bowl after bowl of free popcorn, as long as I keep buying drinks.

And I can hear that sweet siren’s song, encouraging me to keep buying drinks until I am flat broke.

I’m pleased to say this story has a happy ending. In mid-August, while I was sitting behind the register at the bookstore with nothing else to do, I read an article in Newsweek about small-press publishers in Santa Barbara. I had spent most of my adult life on the fringes of the publishing industry, I still believed in small businesses, and I had loved Santa Barbara for years. I had a good friend living there, who told me he would house me temporarily and help me find work. And Santa Barbara was populated by wealthy older people who might enjoy my music.

Within a month I was gone from Palo Alto and the Mid-Peninsula happy hours. Gone from Kepler’s of Los Altos, gone from Uncle Gaylord’s Ice Cream Parlor, gone from Mac’s Tea Room, gone from Irene’s condo, and gone from Burger King.

I was off to a new land, a friendly city, where I could make a whole new set of mistakes, perhaps, but a land where I would relearn to eat like a human being instead of a garbage disposal.

And the Winner Is…

by Wendy Hornsby

 A couple of years ago, when asked to chair a book prize nominating committee, I offered a wimpy Maybe next year, instead of just saying No. The next year rolled around and, shazaam, I was tagged, It.

I’m not complaining. I always learn something useful about writing and publishing when I serve on a book or story award nominating committee. It turned out that last year the timing was good for me to take a turn on one. Book submissions would not begin arriving from publishers until after the manuscript for The Color of Light was in Meredith’s hands, and after I had retired from teaching. I thought that maybe that particular immersion in the printed word would be a good first post-retirement project. And immersion it was.

            At first, books arrived in a trickle; one at a time, two at a time in padded envelopes. There was plenty of time to read each one from beginning to end. That does not mean, however, that I actually did make it to the end of every book, or even to the end of the first hundred pages that I had committed to. It doesn’t always take a hundred pages to know that some books are just not award contenders.

Around October, the number of books landing on committee member doorsteps began to surge. That surge grew to a deluge as the December deadline approached. Every day, more cartons, big and small, arrived; I quit counting at about three-hundred. I developed a simple sorting system. As I read, I wrote brief comments. When I was finished with a book, it went into one of three heaps: No, Take another look, Contender.

            For me, one of the more interesting parts of the process was the serious commentary exchanged among committee members: wonderful prose, ingenious structure, snap, plot holes, inconsistent characters, errors. Some books developed cheerleaders who might say, “Yes, this one is good, but is it as good as…?” as a reminder of an earlier submission, being careful that something worthwhile did not get forgotten. It became apparent early on that the five readers on the committee had very different tastes in books, but in the end that didn’t matter very much because everyone appreciated good writing, good structure and story, and that intangible that is author voice. Consensus on who should be nominated was not difficult to achieve.

            Will I consider serving on another writing award committee? Sure, but not this year. Ask me another time.

Who is That Stranger Sitting Next to You?

by Nancy Means Wright

I was stunned by a scene I’ve been reading in Mary Pearce’s historical Apple Tree Saga, when blinded by gas, a wounded British soldier has lost his way during the  WW I battle of La Bouleau,  and blunders into a German trench occupied by a single German infantryman. The latter offers water, bread, a warm (German) overcoat, and a life-saving wound-dressing. Neither speaks the other’s language; nevertheless, they exchange names and slowly become friends. That is, until a contingent of British infantry arrive and when Tom, waking up, asks where his new friend is, a soldier replies: “What, that bloody German? He’s bloody well dead, with 3 or 4 bullets in his rotten carcass.”

I was too devastated to read on. The irony of war!

This is a fictional account, but as everyone knows, Brits and Germans would now and then fraternize across enemy lines in moments of compassionate truce.  I think, too, of what we warn our children: Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t make eye contact. And bad things can happen.  Patricia Highsmith seized on this possibility in her psychological thriller, Strangers on a Train, in which two strangers agree to exchange killings of unwanted family members.

Yet how much do we lose by sitting in a train or airplane, elbows virtually touching, but not a word or smile exchanged? I read in the NY Times a while back that two behavioral scientists approached commuters in a Chicago train station and invited them to try an experiment. One group was asked to open a conversation with a seatmate and the other group to keep to themselves.  By the end of the ride, the commuters who spoke to a seatmate reported a much happier experience than for those who kept quiet. And not one person reported being snubbed.

For myself, I am so aware of the person beside me that I find it difficult, in such proximity, to maintain an un-neighborly silence–unless the seatmate obviously desires solitude by popping on ear buds, or burying himself in a smart phone. Too bad! For myself, I’ve met all manner of interesting people on trains and airplanes, including an African-American artist who showed me photos of his delightful gallery exhibitions, and then an editor who invited me to send a poem to her lit mag–which she ultimately published.  And I always keep flyers of my books in my purse, so if the stranger asks what I do–well, out they come!

Speaking to a stranger is especially helpful for a writer in search of offbeat secondary characters.  Even the woman with the exotic tattoos who bumps into me on a city street and starts a quick conversation can enhance not only my daily well being, but become a bit player in a book. I’ve turned people of all cultures and mindsets into fictional characters for stories and poems–even an eccentric individual I’ve only briefly made eye contact with. And as I walk down a street it’s a deep pleasure to smile and be smiled at by a passerby I don’t know.

For some reason this smile happens more with women than with men–perhaps because the gender taboo rears its foolish head. Does he think I’m coming on to him?  As I grow older, of course, it becomes easier to breach the gap. And what is more depressing than to have someone pass by as if through air–as if one is invisible! The feeling of “disconnect” can be unbearable.

The photographer Richard Renaldi has made a living, in part, by asking strangers on the street to touch or embrace one another. According to a review of his book, Touching Strangers,  Renaldi “creates a moment that wouldn’t otherwise have existed…and we weave narratives around the unlikely tenderness that might exist among strangers.”

So why not reach out to the next stranger you happen to be seated by? And let us know in a story or blog what happens? You don’t have to wait until you’re the only two misfits alive in a war (as described in my opening.)  And who knows–you might gain a wholly unexpected life friend!

Card-Reading, Astrology, Palmistry and Fame

A few decades ago, when such things were fashionable, I studied astrology and read Tarot cards. The cards were a gift in 1970, in Chicago. The Aquarian deck, of course, since I am of that sign and we were barely out of the Sixties, the dawning of etc.

I got into astrology soon after. I moved to the Bay Area and took a class in it from a guy in Marin County, where I was living at the time. Back then, you had to work a chart out mathematically, with the help of an entire library of books. The whole thing seemed like a crock to me. I was doing it because I thought I could prove it was a silly fad. All this time, of course, I was consulting the Tarot cards about every life decision. Not that I had much of a life. Where did I ever find all that time to dabble?

Anyway, the teacher was honorable, a believer, and charged next to nothing, so I studied. Ridiculous, I thought. Then came the day when we looked at our own charts and interpreted them. I felt like I was reading my biography. It was creepy. But I was a lot less skeptical than I’d been.

I drifted away from the class. Drifting was one of the things I did best, then. Kept on reading the cards for reassurance when things got hairy and for reinforcement when things felt okay. Then sometime in the late Seventies, I met a woman who read palms. Well, why not?

She looked at my right hand, did a double take, looked at my left hand and then at my right again.
“You’re going to be famous,” she said. I was kind of hoping for that. I hadn’t written much of anything in the way of fiction at that point but I certainly planned to. Soon.

“When?” I said, remembering that my chart had also said something about that. Something depressing at the time: I would be famous, but not until I’d reached an advanced age.

The palm reader said she couldn’t tell when, but it would happen. Then she turned my hand over, looked at the side, and turned it back again.

“You will have one child,” she said. “And that child will bring sadness. Wrong! I never intended to do such a thing. I scowled at the poor woman. “That’s impossible,” I said. So maybe I wouldn’t be famous after all. She was a fake.
But I’d done my own astrology chart, and that hinted at fame. And I wasn’t a fake, was I?

So far, everything that the cards, and the chart, and the palm reader have said has come true, except for the fame. But that was supposed to be late in life, right?

I’m still waiting. How late can it get?

Women of Mystery

I love history, and I love mysteries. It seems like I’ve been writing either one or the other, or both combined, all my life. And while fictional mysteries are my forte, I can’t resist real historical mysteries. Two of those mysteries continue to nag at me: the true identity and fate of Etta Place, girlfriend of the Sundance Kid, and Loreta Janeta Velazquez, who claimed to have passed herself off as a Confederate officer and led a company into battle at Shiloh.

In the early morning hours of April 6, 1862, a young lieutenant appeared in the camp of Confederate General William J. Hardee, south of Shiloh Church. He introduced himself as Harry T. Buford, an officer without an assignment. Hardee allowed Buford to tag along that morning, when the Confederate assault drove the Union out of their camps. Hardee was pleased with the young lieutenant’s services and allowed him to join a company of Arkansas infantry which Buford had helped to recruit. It was a risk for Buford, since the commanding officer of the company was Buford’s husband. But “he” brazened his way through and led the company in combat the rest of the day. You see Harry Buford was really a young Cuban woman named Loreta Janeta Velazquez, or at least that’s her claim in A Woman in Battle, her postwar memoir.

Loreta Janeta Velazquez

Loreta Janeta Velazquez

Loreta’s story is an amazing one on many levels. She married a young lieutenant in New Orleans when she was still in her late teens. After he was mustered into the Confederate army, she concocted her Harry Buford identity and went to northern Arkansas where she recruited an infantry company, took it to Florida and presented it to her husband. Unfortunately, her husband died of the measles without ever leaving training camp. Returning to her feminine guise, she became engaged to her husband’s second-in-command Thomas Decaulp. After that she again donned her uniform and saw action at Ball’s Bluff, Ft. Donelson, and Shiloh. In melodramatic fashion, she says that Decaulp was mortally wounded, and they married as he lay on his deathbed. Later, she claimed to have served the South as a spy, even meeting President Abraham Lincoln during her espionage career.

Prominent former Confederates, including General Jubal A. Early, denounced her memoir as fiction, but in recent years, there has been a renewal of interest in Loreta. Thanks to the digitizing of millions of records, and continuing research by scholars such as C. Kay Larson and Philip Thomas Tucker, we can get a little clearer view of her story. She was a real person, and though the records are scant, enough documentation exists to essentially prove her story. Part of the problem was that she used a number of aliases. But references have now been found in any number of contemporary newspapers that support her career as a spy. And Larson has found a reference in the history of the Army of the Tennessee, by Bromfield Ridley, the aide-de-camp to General A.P. Stewart, recounting a visit by Loreta as Harry Buford to the general’s tent.

For an excellent summary of the research on Loreta Janeta Velazquez, look at Tucker’s 2002 book, Cubans in the Confederacy.

Etta Place, so memorably portrayed by Katherine Ross in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is a different story. We know virtually nothing about her before 1900 and even less after 1909. She was emblazoned on our collective consciousness because of the Redford/Newman movie, but even in the current digital age, she is as elusive as she was before.

Harry "Sundance" Longabaugh and Etta Place

Harry “Sundance” Longabaugh and Etta Place

Pinkerton Agency reports tell us little but the framework. Etta or Ethel Place was believed to be about 22 years old in 1900. She was a beautiful woman who is thought to have met Harry “Sundance” Longabaugh at Fannie Porter’s bordello in San Antonio, Texas. The Wild Bunch, as Butch and Sundance’s gang was known, used Fannie’s as a hideout. Acquaintances say she had a “refined” accent. Otherwise, it’s all just a bunch of speculation. She may have been a teacher. Or maybe it was her mother. She was killed in Bolivia with Butch and Sundance. She lived until 1966 and died in Ft. Worth, Texas. You get the picture.

What is almost certainly true is that Etta or Ethel Place was not her real name. Longabaugh’s mother was Ann Place. It has been suggested that Longabaugh and Etta were cousins, but that seems highly unlikely. Some people believe that Annie Bassett, girlfriend of another Wild Bunch gang member, was Etta. But their stories don’t match up. When Etta was known to be in South America, Annie was known to be in the United States. In other words, it’s just all one big muddle.

I have my own candidate for Etta Place. In 1900, when Sundance and Etta were said to have met at Fannie Porter’s, one of Fannie’s “boarders” was Madaline Wilson, a 22 year old woman from England. According to the census, Madaline arrived in the US in 1884 when she was six years old. A British accent, tempered by 16 years in the United States, might have been described as refined. And after 1900, Madaline disappears. Of course it’s sheer guesswork, but at least some of the markers match. She is of the right age, in the right place, at the right time. Certainly something to think about.

Loreta Velazquez is just now being accepted as the adventuress she truly was. Perhaps the day will come when Etta Place, whose antics with Butch and Sundance between 1900 and 1908 are part of American legend, will emerge from the fog of time too.


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