Some Thoughts on Charlottesville as the Eclipse Approaches

downloadI don’t have anything particularly profound to say about the tragic events in Charlottesville this weekend except to say that my greatest fear after Trump was elected was that there would be blood in the streets. And so it has proved. Heather Heyer, 32, a Caucasian woman who was there to support the counter-protesters, was killed by a car driven into the crowd by a young white male neo-Nazi from Ohio. But it could have been anyone of any race who died. The point is, they wanted to cause havoc and fear, and they did.

My greatest hope? That decent people will fight back. And they are. Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe gave a news conference on Sunday to declare that the violent Nazi protesters were not welcome in his state. GoDaddy dropped The Daily Stormer–it was news to me that this organ existed–from being hosted on their servers. The president was forced, belatedly, to give an insincere speech condemning racism.

(Perhaps he will also be forced to drop Steve Bannon now. Anthony Scaramucci appears to think so…)

“Blame lies at the top,” I wrote on my Facebook page after Heyer’s death. It is strange to speak out. Pointless, perhaps, and there is always a fear of repercussions. One would think that there was only one “right side,” and Joe Biden tweeted this over the weekend, but in this political climate, it appears that evil has the upper hand. For now.

At any rate, one of the things I enjoy is reading Austin Kleon‘s newsletter. He’s the author of Steal Like an Artist, and an eclectic guy who lives in Austin, TX. This well-written piece by Ross Andersen in The Atlantic inspired by the upcoming solar eclipse on Aug. 21 appealed to me, and I thought I would share it. I am not particularly interested in the eclipse, actually… but I enjoyed reading about the historical implications of such fear-inspiring natural events. Did you know that eclipses often preceded the death of powerful kings? Alexander the Great went so far as to execute a “substitute king” after one such eclipse!

Nowadays we feel more awe than fear at the sun being briefly blotted out, but nature has a way of pointing out our basic insignificance.

I hope that these traumatic times allow the country to come out morally stronger. We are seeing good and bad duking it out in such primary colors right now. There will be more chaos to come, and more people emerging who view, as Littlefinger does in Game of Thrones, chaos as a ladder.

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Another promo!

Time of Grace2My LGBT historical novel Time of Grace is free for two days, Sunday, July 16 and Monday, July 17 on Amazon. Although Time of Grace has been in the Kindle Unlimited program for a while now, I’d like to take it wide by the end of the year so that it will be available once again on Barnes & Noble, Apple, and Google Play. This will probably be the last promotion on Amazon that I do for the book.

The summer slump that many indie writers complain of has been worse than usual! I think people are too exhausted by the political shenanigans in D.C. to read. (I’m personally hoping that the horrendous health-care bill will be stalled indefinitely.)

A reminder that my ADHD memoir, Connecting the Dots, is half price on Smashwords till the end of the month.

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Summer/Winter Sale on Smashwords

SW SW saleIt’s nearly the end of June, so I enrolled a few of my books in the annual Smashwords Summer/Winter sale! Although the “winter” part of the name refers to the Southern Hemisphere, it could also refer to summer in San Francisco, where Karl the Fog has been very active lately. But I digress…

Here’s what Mark Coker of Smashwords says:

The sale represents a massive collaborative marketing event for Smashwords authors and publishers.   Each author and publisher – simply by promoting their own books – helps expose those same readers to the thousands of other participating books.  

For one month only, readers can discover tens of thousands of special deals 25%-off, 50%-off, 75%-off and 100%-off (FREE!). So whether readers are looking for a great beach read or something to keep them cozy on a cold winter’s night in front [of] the fireplace, they’ll find it here.

You’ll find it July 1st through July 31 on the home page. Writers, here’s the link to enroll:

From my catalog, my AD/HD memoir, Connecting the Dots, will be 50% off, and The Pull of Yesterday, book 2 in the Elsie Street series, will be free all month!

I have been working on a new book in the historical fiction/historical romance genre, and I hope to have an announcement about a pre-order soon.


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Memorial Weekend Freebies

Here’s a quick link to an upcoming erotica promo that looks interesting–I know that at least two ebooks feature historical erotica, if that’s your thing (and it kind of is mine!).

Books are a mixture of free and 99 cents.

Also for Memorial Day Weekend, my memoir It’s Not You, It’s Me is back on Amazon and will be free on Sunday and Monday, May 28 and 29. For KU subscribers, it’s always free 🙂

It’s Not You, It’s Me is essentially a lesbian breakup story. As one reviewer said, “It’s Not You, It’s Me” follows the raw, exciting, and painful trajectory of a “wrong” relationship. We’ve all been there. West slowly and deliberately lets us walk with her down this path, knowing things will end poorly but hoping we are mistaken.

As time has gone by, I see this relationship through different lenses. Now it seems to involve a lack of foresight on my own part more than anything else. It has taken me nearly twenty years to come to this insight, though!

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Please Don’t Buy My Book (says David Gaughran)

Happy Spring! Ever thought about Amazon’s also-boughts and how it affects your writing sales? Author David Gaughran shares his experiences.

David Gaughran

I’m just back from The Smarter Artist Summit in Austin, Texas. I won’t try and capture the magic of the event – Kobo Mark does an excellent job – but I would like to talk about the big takeaway: the dangers of Also Bought pollution.

Also Boughts are probably the most important aspect of the entire Amazon recommendation ecostructure. And also the least understood.

They are much more than a little strip under your book’s description – they power a huge chunk of the recommendations that Amazon serves to readers.

The Also Boughts are what tells Amazon that the readers of my non-fiction also like reading Susan Kaye Quinn, Sean Platt and Johnny Truant. Amazon uses this data to decide who to recommend books to – because Amazon is always seeking to show readers the books they are most likely to purchase.

For this reason, it’s important to monitor your…

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Read an Ebook Week 2017

ebookweekorangeTomorrow, March 5, brings the start of Read an Ebook Week on ebook platform Smashwords, which is where I started my own self-publishing journey in 2011. According to the site, “This [their catalog] is the hub of the action, where you find over 70,000 multi-format books regularly priced at free every day, and thousands more that are free or deep-discounted exclusively at Smashwords during Read an Ebook Week only.  Browse the catalog by discount categories of FREE, 75%-off, 50%-off and 25% off.” I will have three books available: My M/M novel Elsie Street will be free, the sequel–my latest book–will be 50% off, and Connecting the Dots, my AD/HD memoir, will be 75% off. Just use the code you find on the book page and enter it at checkout!

I usually pick up something good to read at this sale myself. Browsing the LGBT section is always fun.

This year for the first time I read Mark Coker’s interesting 2010 interview with Rita Toews, the Canadian lady who created Read an Ebook Week. I shouldn’t have waited so long to do so! If the indie ebook movement has a foremother, perhaps it’s Rita.

Other than that, there’s sadly not much to report these days with my writing. I’m still a little too caught up in the political turmoil surrounding Trump’s presidency 😦 I do have some ideas, and perhaps I’ll be able to publish something later in the year. I will certainly report back here when I have something to offer folks… In other news, Kobo has come up with a new subscription service called Kobo Plus, which is only available in Belgium and the Netherlands at the moment. I’ve enrolled two of my books in this and if I see any interest, I’ll enroll more. I was pleased to see that a state of California online library service called Califa picked up a number of my books in December!

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Days of Fear, Glimmers of Hope

Now that we’re into the second month of the new presidency, I find myself feeling a mixture of emotions. Exhausted, first of all, as the pace of everything has speeded up. Enraged at wretched cabinet picks like DeVos–that’s a given.

Women marchingAnd yet energized. The success of the Women’s March was a total surprise to me–I hadn’t been following that particular grassroots movement. On the day after the inauguration, a sea of women gathered in DC and around the country (and in many international cities). I was stuck at home proofreading a dystopian novel about zombies taking over after a global disaster. And yet–I felt cheered and comforted by this mass peaceful gathering, the sea of pink. My spirits were lifted.

I’m linking here to the Pussyhat Project site, which I just discovered.

Even the the Resist movement does not continue on this peaceful route, at least it started out this way. And the only reason it might not continue this way is that the current administration wants chaos.

Humor (like Melissa McCarthy‘s amazing genderbending Saturday Night Live run as press secretary Sean Spicer!) is sustaining me at the moment. And my gut feeling is that this administration will not last very long in its current form. I don’t see it. Because everything’s so speeded up. This is truly the first Internet presidency, with all the destabilization that implies, the first US administration where things happen at the speed of light on Twitter.

The courts are still there, and they have pushed back the powers of the president. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Al Franken are there, outspoken. They are two of my heroes right now.

I’m certain there are more outrages in the works. Yet I remain vaguely hopeful, because I see that few are fooled by what is happening. We don’t quite live in a police state yet.

Women and people of all races are engaged. The media is disgusted. And the sinister truth about what may have happened in the run-up to the election continues to emerge.

Update: Want to go march? Filmmaker Michael Moore has set up a Resistance Calendar. It’s pretty impressive.



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Monkey Business in Publishing

monkey-selfie-thumbnailI’ve posted before about All Romance eBooks, which I’ve always regarded as a nice little niche market for my work, despite eccentricities like taking $1 off my royalties if they paid me through PayPal, and constant “sales,” not to mention a long wait for royalty payments.

Truthfully, nothing seems solid or healthy in the world of indie publishing, and I was struck by the sudden shuttering of Torquere Press recently. Ellora’s Cave was another notorious example of a mismanaged company which ended up badly letting down its authors.

But sadly, All Romance eBooks has joined the ranks of the baddies. In an abrupt and shocking email entitled “All Romance Closure” yesterday, head honcho Lori James told writers that the site would be going dark on December 31, 2016, and that the company would not be able to pay its fourth quarter royalties. She offered 10 cents on the dollar to authors.

Authors and small publishers who made a great deal more than I do on the site must be incredibly pissed at the news. I’m still shocked and saddened that once again a female CEO has shown, let’s say, disregard for the people who publish with her.

I will genuinely miss ARe. For authors who are righteously angry and feel utterly betrayed, this excellent blog post by Celina Summers that I came across on Facebook today will perhaps give some pointers going forward. Them’s fighting words!

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When icicles hang on the wall, etc.

Christmas is here, a time of year when I feel inexplicably content and happy much of the time. As I’ve gotten older Christmas has become less about “getting stuff” and feasting, and more about memories. Somehow it all adds up so that Christmas is a satisfying time even if the joys are very modest and small. My most vivid memories of Christmas as a child are of the tree brought home each year by my stepfather and set in a battered red pail, which my mother filled with rocks to hold it up…then beautifully decorated it. And her banana bread, which she baked every Christmas morning and which we ate while we opened our presents.

I’m linking to an article by Garrison Keillor which is just lovely, and speaks to his memories of his own mother and her love of Christmas, even though her mother died when she was seven and she had no memories of her. Keillor’s grandmother died young of scarlet fever in the early 1920s, and so did my great-grandmother, around the same time, leaving two young children. As Keillor writes, “What you do for children is never wasted: this Christmas will live on and nourish them long after you have faded away.”

I’m grateful that my mother passed her love of Christmas on to us. That was the best gift she could have given.

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The Downhill Slide: Two Literary Biographies

Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin
Manderley Forever: A Biography of Daphne du Maurier by Tatiana de Rosnay

Literary biography can be such a depressing genre, although I read it, I realize, to feel vicariously alive, to really immerse myself in a writer’s life. With a female writer, there is usually an extra piece of identification there.

However, a truthful biography of an artist’s life inevitably encompasses both the joyful and the sad, disturbing parts. Not just that, for every “triumphant” episode or period, there is usually a long “slide” towards the end of the life which can be difficult to read. In Blake Bailey’s biography of Richard Yates, for example, he is unflinching about the way Yates slowly destroyed himself through alcohol, undercutting all his past achievements.

A recent biography of Shirley Jackson and an upcoming book about Daphne du Maurier show interesting resonances between the lives of two women who never met and perhaps were unaware of each other’s existence.

Shirley Jackson bioRuth Franklin’s 2016 biography of Jackson has been lauded as being a sympathetic feminist portrait of the California girl turned Vermont writer. Born in 1916, Jackson came from a family on her mother’s side not of artists, but of wealthy architects in Gold Rush San Francisco. Her father, Lewis, was an oddity, though, an Englishman who remained secretive about his origins. He worked for a printing company, so the family moved east to Rochester, NY, in the early 1930s for his work. Jackson was a tomboy who became a chubby and insecure young woman. Franklin perceptively shows her trying on different “alter egos” in her diary entries as a teenager, and the early chapters of the book are very good, depicting Shirley’s struggles to fit in with the other girls in her freshman year. Poignantly, she was often ostracized, and was even viewed as a lesbian at the University of Rochester due to her intense friendship with a butch-looking French student. While this experience was clearly formative, Jackson turned inward, and for the rest of her life she remained an extremely private person. Continually heckled by her socialite mother about her weight and lifestyle, her lack of trust in other women comes through in her work.

While Franklin does an excellent job throughout the book of showing Jackson at work and exploring her writing career, which took off rather rapidly, the woman herself is veiled and suppressed. Married to her college boyfriend, Stanley Edgar Hyman, the couple hid away in a huge house in North Bennington, Vermont, after a brief period in New York that seems to have been quite happy for them. Although her parents unsurprisingly opposed the marriage to this Brooklyn Jew, Jackson wistfully hoped that they would be “mad bohemians” together. She took on motherhood with the same sort of “well, hell!” attitude, and her two books about her life in Vermont with her children have charmed many readers. She was clearly a good mother who didn’t pass her on problems to her kids, or expect them to become her sounding boards, but the emotional distance between Jackson and her family always seems quite acute. I finished the book thinking that her children probably never understood her—and indeed, she died so young, of a heart attack at 48, that it was unfair to expect them to. Jackson and Hyman were progressive parents, but Franklin makes clear that Jackson’s attitude towards her husband, a professor at Bennington, grew into one of great resentment and disappointment, even rage. She was the breadwinner and he professed sincere admiration for her work. But he continually romanced other women and seems to have expected Jackson to understand his need to do so, even rubbed her nose in it.

The image that I come away with after reading “A Rather Haunted Life” is of a trapped woman in the 1950s, her books celebrated and selling well, eating and drinking and smoking to excess for comfort, taking the heavy barbiturates her doctor prescribed, and drowning in fear. Yet despite her clinical anxiety, Jackson managed to push herself to go and speak at writers’ conferences. People in her own social group accepted her, and she could be a warm hostess. But there is no way not to see her as a tragic figure, especially as her husband married a 22-year-old ex-student of his a year after her death. I was particularly keen to see if that second wife, Phoebe Pettingell, had shared any insights with Franklin, and felt disappointed that there weren’t any. I wanted to know what kind of husband Stanley Hyman was in this second marriage, and whether he expressed to his wife any regrets about the way he’d treated Shirley. But we aren’t told. And I think this biography, well written as it is, doesn’t dig deeply enough into the traumas surrounding Jackson. Hyman is left an ambiguous figure: a bad husband, but not an evil one. There is enough material presented to even question whether he was that bad a husband, given the way most men behaved toward their wives in the 1950s.

All in all, not a happy tale, but Jackson’s work has passed the test of time and I’m curious to read her classics such as The Haunting of Hill House and The Bird’s Nest.

Manderley ForeverFrom wistful hopes to a woman with an iron will. Tatiana de Rosnay’s life of Daphne du Maurier, Manderley Forever (forthcoming April 2017, on Kindle preorder), is an astonishing read. It’s written in the present tense, and it wraps a stylistic spell around the admittedly dashing figure of du Maurier, born in 1907, who grew from a shy girl, the apple of her actor father Gerald’s eye (but not her mother’s!), to a vibrant “bright young thing” of the 1920s, enjoying a lesbian affair with her headmistress and the first fumblings of heterosexual passion in London with Carol Reed, later the director of The Third Man.

The book is translated from the French by Sam Taylor and there are occasional clunkers: a disappointment in Daphne’s life is labeled “a downer,” for example. But for the most part, de Rosnay’s style worms inside Daphne, allowing us to feel deep empathy and understanding. To the outside world, Daphne du Maurier was rather tough and cynical, an early success as a writer who invested an enormous amount of her energy into renovating an ancient house in Cornwall called Menabilly, which became the passion of her life. After a few flings, she married a soldier in the mid-1930s who became decorated during the Second World War, and so she was Lady Browning in her later years. Like Jackson, she had several children, a large house, and a husband from whom she grew apart.

But what a difference there was between the two! In this household, Daphne wore the pants and made most of the decisions. Oddly enough, I never realized till I finished the book that she and her sisters never went to college. They were educated by a governess and Daphne had one year of finishing school in France (where she seduced her headmistress, Fernande). Yet she doesn’t seem to have ever felt much intellectual inferiority. She spoke French fluently and was quite at home in the raffish world of the theatre. Her literary journey seems odd, then, as she got little encouragement from her family to be a writer. But she just did what she wanted to do.

It all started with a house in the Cornish countryside. Her parents bought a home called Ferryside in Fowey in 1927 and Daphne eagerly embraced it as a writing retreat. De Rosnay describes what it was like for Daphne to spend time alone there, aged 20:

The real miracle, though, is that Daphne has been given the green light by her parents to stay at Ferryside alone for a month, after the others leave on May 14. She still can’t quite believe this. Did they give in to her pleas out of weakness? Have they simply accepted her obsession with Fowey? Whatever the reason, it is a demonstration of trust. A woman from the village will come and cook for her and clean the house, but apart from this nice, honest Mrs. Coombs and Biggins the gardener, Daphne will be alone for the first time in her life. The car leaves, with Muriel, Angela, Tod, and Viola inside and the heavy wooden door closes. Daphne jumps for joy, stroking the rough walls at the back of the living room, formed by the cliff face, caressing their cool crevices, singing at the top of her voice, and going outside through the room on the second floor, which has a door that opens on to the garden. She gambols in the grass, turning her face up to the May sun, and thinks how wonderful life is. She turned twenty yesterday and she is alone in her favorite place in all the world. This is the best birthday present her parents could have possibly given her: this freedom, here and now.

Before she does anything else, she must master her new kingdom, get to know every nook and cranny of it. Daphne wakes early to the sound of seagulls and ship horns, eats a quick breakfast, puts on her sea boots and a pair of pants (she can’t stand skirts, which she considers impractical) and a blue-and-white-striped sweater, not forgetting the cap pulled down over her short hair. She looks like a sailor, and this pleases her. She walks, stick in hand, up the slope behind the house, turns right after the ruins of the St. John chapel, climbs the path toward Pont Pill, the peaceful estuary of the River Fowey that winds through the greenness of the ferns. A sign warns that the area is private, but she pays no heed and walks through the copses, intoxicated by the smell of damp earth, crossing through St. Wyllow and heading for Polruan. The sunlight filters through the dense foliage, a stream babbles close by, and behind a bush she discovers a shady, sparkling pond. She passes old quarries, disused lime kilns, barley silos, piles of coal. Down below, on the layers of mud that dry when the tide is low, she spots the framework of a schooner, with a figurehead still fastened to its hull. Fascinated, she rushes down the slope to take a closer look at the remains of this abandoned ship and reads the name still visible on its side; Jane Slade. What was this ship’s story? Where did it go? How dashing it must have been with this black-haired woman on its bow, her face lifted up in a smile, a bouquet of flowers held to her chest.

The prose is so mesmerizing here that only later did I wonder whether these details were coming out of Daphne’s diary. How could the author have so vividly reconstructed them? But de Rosnay, herself a novelist, did visit her subject’s haunts in Cornwall, London, and France, too.

Du Maurier went on to write her first novel, The Loving Spirit, about the Jane Slade character and her descendents. After her marriage, she wrote Rebecca, which became a massive hit. During the war, she had an affair with a farmer with whom she and her children stayed. Much later, she reconnected with a famous actress her father had worked with, Gertrude Lawrence, and the two had a brief affair while Daphne visited her in Florida, an escapade de Rosnay evokes rather vividly. Then came Lawrence’s sudden death, and Daphne was shattered. She embodied an active, positive spirit all her life (as seen in the excerpts above) and yet was constantly haunted by the past. Gertrude had reminded her of her father, whose charm and need for admiration (what we would now call narcissism) had overshadowed her youth.

So, Du Maurier gives up her freedom when she marries and has children, or does she?

“Gone is the time when Daphne could just dash off to France and spend a week with Ferdie in Paris or shut herself away in Ferryside. She no longer has any freedom in her daily life, but she preserves it in her head,” de Rosnay writes perceptively. Indeed, she continued to publish a book every year or two.

Du Maurier’s later years of marriage were difficult as well. Her husband returned from the war a broken man, and finally cracked up in the late 1960s. There were revelations he had been unfaithful. His health collapsed after an operation to amputate his leg. De Rosnay movingly describes his last moments, when Daphne’s blue eyes are the last thing he sees.

Even after that, I kept thinking as I read how lucky Daphne du Maurier was. Surely she would preserve this active, independent spirit right up to the end of her life. Surely she would have a happy old age.

But no… after she was forced to leave Menabilly, the grand house she had lived in for 25 years but never owned, her own health failed rather markedly. She spent most of her seventies as a frail old lady, taking Mogadon, a barbiturate, to sleep (I shuddered), no longer able to write. “Something seems to have died inside her,” de Rosnay writes. “That flame that made her life, that urge which drove her on, it is gone. Forever.”

It is a harrowing portrait of old age. “No matter how rigid the ‘routes’ that structure her days, Daphne is losing her taste for life. if this is what life is, she’s had enough of it. No more appetite, no more urges, no more desire. No more books either.”

She lived to be 81, but had stopped eating the last few months of her life. She basically starved to death.

Daphne du Maurier’s oldest daughter, Tessa, has said that her mother would have loved this biography, just as Shirley Jackson’s daughter Sarah Hyman DeWitt wrote that Ruth Franklin’s book “tells the truth without appearing to push any agenda or prove anything.” These generous statements are important. A daughter is supposed to carry a key to a mother’s life, to understand all the emotional undercurrents in the way a son can’t, quite.

So in the end I don’t feel so sorry for Shirley Jackson, carried off in the middle of her life. Those last ten or so years of du Maurier’s life, as described, seem dreadful. A nightmare. And yet, perhaps this is what the powerful person must always face. Power wanes, control must be given up… it’s a messy business.

These were two women from wealthy, oppressive families who achieved literary fame. Daphne du Maurier funneled her darkness into her books without analyzing it much, yet hated to be called a writer of gothic romances; Shirley Jackson’s work is polished and perfect, while her life was anything but. It amuses me that du Maurier is now published by Virago Press in England. I knew nothing at all about her when I read her as a teenager in the early 1980s, most probably getting her books out of the library near my home in Dublin, where they had been available for many years… The odd thing is that she was still alive then.

I’m glad both of these complex 20th-century writers have been granted literary posterity and (as sometimes happens) greater respect as time goes on.

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