Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Book Review: Stuck by Becky Mushko

Local Penhook author Becky Mushko has published her first middle grade novel, Stuck, a paranormal tale about a sixth-grade girl, Jacie Addison, whose world turns upside down when her mother dies. Jacie's father are sends her to summer horse camp to help her get over her grief, but to Jacie's dismay, her least-favorite school mate, Nichole, turns out to be in her cabin. Still she is excited about learning to ride, even if stuck-up Nicole tries to do everything possible to ruin her summer.

After she returns from camp, Jacie's father springs more unwelcome news: he is going to marry an old sweetheart, Liz, from high school. He has been downsized and will be starting a new job near Liz's old farm house in the country. Jacie feels trapped. She's stuck in grief, stuck with her soon-to-be stepmother, stuck out in the country with no friends, stuck helping plan a wedding she doesn't want to happen, stuck taking care of bratty seven-year-old twins, and stuck with no Internet access.

Liz gives Jacie art supplies and Jacie escapes into the woods to be alone and draw every chance she gets. She meets Callie, a ghost who is stuck on earth. When Callie asks Jacie to help her find her daughter, the young girl finds a purpose in life. She researches local history and tells the ghost what happened the night she died. The knowledge frees the ghost.

As with all good middle grade novels, the ending has Jacie happily caring for her camp horse, her father remarried, and the "evil" stepmother not evil at all.

I am so happy to post this review of my friend's book on the day it officially is launched at the Franklin County Library in Rocky Mount. Here's the disclosure. Becky's my friend and colleague in two writers groups and one writers club.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Interview with Cole Alpaugh

First, two disclaimers. First, Cole and I share an agent who alerts her writers when a new book comes out. Second, I loved the The Bear in a Muddy Tutu, but it's really not for everyone. If you peek into Cole's web site, you'll see what I mean. It's captioned "stories from the other side of normal."

I reached out to Cole and asked if I could interview him. He was gracious and answered the following set of questions.

I saw some similarities with the classic Broadway musical, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. Both Billy Wayne and J. Pierrepont Finch are both opportunistic hustlers. Did you have that musical in mind when you had Billy Wayne find How to Become a Cult Leader in 50 Easy Steps?
Wait, am I giving off a Broadway musical fan vibe again? Jeez, wear your wife's clothes to Pizza Hut once and look what happens? Actually, I've photographed that play a few times at high schools, but never paid attention to the story. I suppose the idea behind Billy Wayne's inspirational book comes from late night television infomercials. Wouldn't it be an awesome world if even a tenth of those advertisements were true? You'd have the laziest men on earth zooming around in Ferrari 250 GTO's, with thick braids of newly grown hair trailing behind...and I'd be one of them.

I like the way you break narrative rules and show us the story from the point of view of different characters. What gave you the idea to have an old, toothless dancing bear tell her story herself?
Thanks, but I think it's pretty easy to slip into the brain of an old dancing bear if you take some things for granted, such as emotions being fleeting things. She might be jealous or angry, but only briefly. Gracie is child-like and innocent, despite the years of beatings. And like a child, she lives in the moment. If she's getting her good spots scratched, the world is wonderful. If she sees seagulls fighting over some stinking carcass, it's even better.

Some of your characters, Flat Man and Lightning Man, seem to have no peers in fiction. How did you come up with their characters?
I spent a lot of time working in Third World countries looking for newspaper and magazine feature stories. You don't need to be terribly creative, only observant and not too squeamish. Ever see what people are willing to pierce then hang things from?

How long did it take from novel concept to finished product?
The first draft took three months, then another six of polish and re-polishing. It was sandwiched between two other manuscripts.

Some of us are 10-draft writers, others 20-draft writers. How many drafts did you write?
I suppose you'd consider it five drafts. I queried after a third draft, then track changes from my agent and editor essentially accounted for two more drafts. I have a writing partner, the lovely and talented Regan Leigh, but we only do limited beta reading for one another. In other words, this MS kind of just fell out of me without a lot of struggle.

Did you have to do much research to enter the magical world of the story?
Ha, yes, by raising two girls who demanded to be told original stories. Creating a world of talking birds was very satisfying with the kind of feedback they gave. But my appreciation of animals began on a much different track. My father was a prolific big game hunter, who tried his best to encourage me to take up arms against anything wild and potentially edible. It seems a little crazy now, but I grew up with a gun rack over my bed, a nightstand drawer filled with Buck knives. Not finding joy in killing things, I was an utter disappointment to my father during the various hunting seasons. Luckily, we had baseball season together. That was a time of truce that I'm grateful for because he's a really good guy and a helluva shot.

I particularly liked Lennon Bagg. Did the confusion in his name (supposed to be Lenin; came out Lennon) help you shape the behavioral traits of this character?
Yes, Lennon Bagg was to be named for the Russian Marxist revolutionary, Vladimir Lenin, by his father. Lennon Bagg grew up in a commune, which shaped his very empathetic view on the world. While Bagg is a passive, non-revolutionary man, his upbringing instilled a somewhat unique view of the human condition. There is a great deal of self-sufficiency for people in traveling circuses and the communes of the 1960s and 70s, although both ways of life were very difficult. Lennon Bagg looked beyond the dirt and smells, the ragged clothing and bad teeth. There's a very dancing bear-like innocence to Lennon Bagg. Instead of a good spot to be scratched, he just needs to hold his daughter to be happy.

Did you ever want seriously to run away and join a circus?
Not the circus specifically, but going to work for photo agencies was similar in many ways. Lousy pay, always traveling, and trying to perform an art. I love the circus, though. Especially the small troupes that travel across Southeast Asia. Talk about magical, they are like mini versions of Cirque du Soleil who perform for pennies or food. Actually, they perform because it's what their families have been doing for six and seven generations. It's who they are.

What are you writing now?
It's a story about a gifted program teacher at a rural high school. It begins on the first day of school, when one of his students has been chased up the wrestling team's climbing rope and falls to his death...a comedy, but not exactly lighthearted.

Last question: What are the last three books you read that you didn't write? And why did you read them?
I recently finished Tim Dorsey's Hurricane Punch, a comic novel about a serial killer caught up in hurricane season. I really liked the energy and frantic pace of the story. Another was Mister Pip, by Lloyd Jones, because I'm attracted to novels set on Pacific islands. I'm not a fan of the last forty pages, but it's a beautiful story and the violence is raw and perfect. And I just reread John Irving's The Water-Method Man, something I do about every two years. Irving has a way of developing characters that's unequaled.

If I haven't asked a question you want answered, please add whatever you would like here.
I was just kidding about wearing a dress to Pizza Hut. Not that there'd be anything wrong with it...

The Bear in a Muddy Tutu is available from Amazon in paperback and on Kindle.

If you read my blog post reviewing Cole's book and liked it, please "Share" it on Facebook. Ditto this interview. All writers have to support each other.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Bear in a Muddy Tutu by Cole Alpaugh

Quirky. That's the first word that comes to mind when you pick up The Bear in a Muddy Tutu. I would have picked this up based on the title alone. (Disclosure: Both Cole Alpaugh and I are represented by the same literary agent, Dawn Dowdle. That does not mean I like every book she represents.)

I was hooked by the first chapter. I couldn't believe any writer could create a character like Billy Wayne Hooduk, a fat loser of a man who was bullied throughout school and who had to take care of his even fatter mother. He's a loser until he finds a book in the library that he uses to map out his life: How to Become a Cult Leader in 50 Easy Steps. With no training, Billy Wayne sets out to change his life by becoming said cult leader.

Through a quirk of fate, one of many, Billy Wayne stops to see a traveling circus in Atlantic City. When the human cannonball falls short of his landing net, and when the circus owners are mauled by a tiger, Billy Wayne shoots the tiger. The circus is run out of town, Billy Wayne leading the trucks to a muddy bit of tidal land he'd discovered the day before. He believes he's found his "flock."

Add to the cult leader a wanna-be bear trainer named Slim Weatherwax (am I the only one who found the similarity between Lassie's trainer Rudd Weatherwax more than a coincidence?) and the title character, a toothless bear named Graceful Gracie. Add to this a misnamed laid-off reporter, Lennon Bagg. Misnamed? Yes, his hippie, commune-living father thought he was naming his son after Vladimir Lenin, but was too stoned to spell Lenin correctly. So Lennon Bagg goes through life named after a Beatle, not a Marxist revolutionary.

The quirks continue, with the reader becoming privy to Graceful Gracie's thoughts. We get inside the head of the bear, who turns out to be a softy and who loves her pink tutu. And yes, she dances.

The cast of characters also includes a man who is terrified of gravity, a man who's been struck by lightning a dozen times, an asthmatic lion, a drunk warden who once had an affair with Billy Wayne's mother. Quirky.

The plot is straight-forward. Billy Wayne searches for a home and thinks he's found it with the circus. Lennon searches for his daughter, snatched after a bitter divorce by an equally bitter ex-wife. Gracie searches for anything good to eat. And Lennon's daughter, who thinks her father is dead, talks to birds in an effort to find him.

I have no idea how to classify this book. It's fiction, unless the writer actually ran away to join the circus. Which I doubt.

I won't give away the ending. It's too quirky not to unfold for every reader. I'll leave the review with this: if you like something offbeat, impossible to classify, filled with characters unlike any you've ever met, and a quirky plot, you'll like The Bear in a Muddy Tutu. If not, skip this book. It's not for you.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Ferrum College Women's Leadership Conference

I had the pleasure of attending and participating in the 14th Annual Ferrum College Women's Leadership Conference on Saint Patrick's Day. This year's theme was Empowering Self and Others: Building Social Networks.

On first blush, you might think this was all about FAcebook and Twitter. It wasn't, although both tools played into the discussions.

Beth Macy, feature writer for Roanoke Times, addressed the value of face-to-face human contact. As a feature writer, she knows she gets her best material sitting in someone's kitchen, asking questions, listening and taking notes. Her social networks are up front and in person.

Carrie Smith Schmidt also addressed the human connection in social networking. Her remarks reiterated the importance of personal networks and mentors. Without people who helped her career through the US Department of Agriculture, she might not have been able to use her degrees in animal science and agriculture. A woman studying science at a time when that "just wasn't done," Schmidt carved a career path that now has her working with farmers for the USDA Rural Development program in Virginia.

Two different looks at social networking were featured in panel discussions in the afternoon. "Intergenerational Impacts of Social Networks" featured a panel of students, a young business woman and two grandparents. All used the standard networking tools, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter all for different reasons, although a couple panelists were still befuddled by the necessity to "tweet."

The last panel on "Art, Literature and Music: Creative Networks in SW Virginia" brought together representatives of the Crooked Trail, the Blue Ridge Institute, the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge, and the Valley Writers chapter of the Virginia Writers Club. The latter would be moi. I emphasized that as a writer your blog, your Facebook entries and your tweets all form part of your resume.

And that brought me to an interesting question: how will today's text-addicted youth interview for a job? Will they be able to make eye contact, shake a hand, ignore the smart phone buzzing in a pocket? Or with they be so numbed by lives of multi-tasking distraction they won't be able to respond to questions that will open or close doors to their future? Sounds like a good essay to me.

Hats off to Nell Frederickson and all of the rest of the staff at Ferrum College for putting on a terrific program. I think faculty, students and the public heard a consistent theme: networking, no matter what the medium, is essential in career and life. Don't blow it.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing About Handling Grief

I find it hard to know how far to go in writing about grief in fiction. Too little, and the rendition is shallow. Too much, and it's maudlin. I struggle with finding the balance, as I think many writers do. I began reading more books, mostly memoirs, by people who have struggled with grieving and moving on. Two I have returned to many times.

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt is his touching, funny and sad story of losing his daughter when she suddenly drops dead on the treadmill of an asymptomatic heart condition. She leaves three young children and a bewildered husband, who finds his life to be impossible. Rosenblatt and his wife move into the in-law apartment in their son-in-law's house to help raise three children. Rosenblatt himself had travelled as a journalist and, as a result, had been away too much to help with the day-to-day rearing of his own children. He masters one task in his new life: making toast every morning to meet the different and exacting demands of the children.

His story provides a guide to managing a new life against the darkness of loss. It is filled with vignettes of how he learns as much about himself as he does about his grandchildren.

Joan Didion was eating dinner one evening when her husband died at the table of a stroke. In The Year of Magical Thinking she discusses her denial of what happened with living a life without her husband. Again Didion's writing honestly of her pain and grief is offset by snippets of humor.

Not to make light of real grief and loss, I too struggled with how much to show when Mad Max loses her daughter in Book 1 of the Mad Max Mystery series. How do I convey the depth of her denial and pain? How do I lighten the mood for the children? I didn't want the book to descend into darkness and stay there, but I wanted the darkness to be just under the surface, ready to re-emerge when needed.

Now as I edit Book 2, the darkness is still there, sometimes discussed, never forgotten. A different kind of darkness enters Book 2. In one episode, Max confronts a memory from her childhood she would rather forget. It forms how she reacts when one of her grandchildren is put in jeopardy.

Last year, one member of my writing group gave me great advice. He told me I had to go to the "dark places within" and return to use the emotions to show what my main character was enduring. I'd rather not do that; however, he is right. I can take inspiration from others who have published guideposts on managing grief, but I can never make it feel real to my readers without returning from my own dark places.

Why didn't I decide to be a humor writer?