41 posts categorized "Hank Phillippi Ryan"

December 24, 2011

Use Cucumbers

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Well, it seems like this the season for goodbyes. But that’s how the universe works, doesn't it? In cycles. My mother certainly knew that. I said goodbye to her, too, a few weeks ago.

She was 84, and gorgeous. I mean—look at her! This is a very recent photo. She had multiple myeloma, and rheumatoid arthritis, and after a while,  nothing was really working very well. Except her brain. Which was, always and always, hilarious, funny sharp—and so self-actualized it’s hard to believe.

 She was in her twenties in the fifties—look at those eyebrows! I think this was her engagement photo. She met my dad in college, and they ran off to Chicago, where he was the music critic at the Chicago Daily News. She told us tales of their wild and cool life in the night club scene--hanging at the Blue Note with Harry Belafonte and Studs Terkel and the like.

Mom cu  She went to the Chicago Institute of Design and had a life-long passion for the arts and fashion and civil rights and politics. Later, she and my stepfather collected contemporary Russian art, and their house was an absolute gallery.

 Mamacita, as I called her, a remnant from all the family vacations we spent in Mexico--well, she was pretty amazing.

When I was a kid, she made sure I had the World Book Encyclopedia, and I read the whole thing (the white leather-like ones with the green trim) from cover to cover. A to Z.  She took us to the library, and hardly ever complained that I--a complete klutz and complete loner--never wanted to play outside.  She didn't rat on me when I sneaked Marjorie Morningstar and On the Beach and Ten North Frederick from their bookshelves. She knew they were too old for me, but it didn't matter, I was reading.  She put up with my addiction to MAD Magazine (what, her worry?) and my insane craziness over the Beatles.

 (Even when I cut my own hair in a Sassoon, up over one ear on one side and long on the other side.  'What do YOU represent?" my aghast step-father said when he saw me.  My mom just smiled. "It'll grow,  she said.)

(The photo below is my--fifth birthday? At our house on Cherry Lane in a Chicago suburb.)

 Her mantra to me, back then? “Go and find out.” ME: Do you think that drug store has Superman comics? MOM: Go and find out.  ME: What does this word mean? MOM:  Go and find out.  ME: How do I…? How do you…? Where do I..?"  She always had the same answer. She’d shrug, then tell me: “Go and find out.”

 Mom birthday party

And now I’m an investigative reporter. Huh.

  And I look back, now, amazed that she put up with all of us. When my sister and I would clean our room by stashing everything under the bed. Whoa, I bet she NEVER caught on to that one. And when we had to clean up the kitchen, I vividly remember one occasion when I asked: "Do I have to wipe the countertop?"

Yes, she said. You do. Do I have to wipe off the stove? Yes, she said. You do.   Do I have to wipe off  the kitchen table? Yes, she said, exasperated. And then she ended the discussion with:  "You have to wipe off EVERY HORIZONTAL SURFACE."  My siblings and I still say that to each other.

She had advice for EVERYTHING. When it came to love, she had LOTS of advice.   “You have to get out there. No boys are going to come knocking at your door asking “any cute girls live here?”   


When considering a beau for marriage, you must first see him drunk, sick, and with their mother, she warned.  “How he treats her,"  she'd remind me, "is how he’ll treat you.” 

She also said to watch how guys treat their friends. Would you like you kids to grow up to be just like him? she'd ask, raising that eyebrow.  If not, just say no.

And always her famous:  "Remember, it's not all about YOU."

There was the episode of the hair spray--we used hers (Adorn)  on our dolls when we weren't supposed to.  Somehow that was a big deal--I still don't understand it.  We were allowed to have one Coke a week. We could watch Perry Mason with my father if we DID NOT TALK.  

There was the year she said we had outgrown Christmas trees, and we were Jewish anyway, she reminded us, so no tree.  We did fool her on that one. (My sister Nina and I sneaked one in, in the middle of the night,  decorated with popcorn we got at a movie theater. It worked perfectly.)

There was the revelation of the Thanksgiving deception, when Mom admitted she'd been stuffing both turkeys with oyster dressing, but telling us kids one was plain.  ("You think I'm going to make two kinds of dressings? You're nuts, kiddo.")

Everyone in the writing seminars I teach hears one bit of her advice. When I was in the midst of writing PRIME TIME,  my first book, I got about halfway through and realized I had no idea what I was doing. Terrified,  I called Mom and said, "You know, I love my book, and I think it'll work. But I'm just not sure I can finish it."  Mom paused, and then said, "Well honey, you will if you want to."

Ah. And so I did.

She' s immortalized in PRIME TIME and the others in the series--now  it can be told--as Charlie McNally's bossy-but-fabulous mother, and she knew it.  (Now you're in on the secret, and might recognize some of her quotes in the books!) 

I never made a major decision without consulting her. She was always right. Just ask her.

She loved THE OTHER WOMAN, and I'm so happy she got to read it. "It's ABOUT something, dear," she told me. 

 A few weeks  ago she decided, as she told us kids, it was time for someone else to take her spot on earth. She had  "wrapped up her life with a big red  ribbon" as she put it, refused all treatment and stopped eating.   She was  absolutely (and I know this is amazing) not sad, not fearful, not
 upset, not sorry.   "I'm happy,"  she told me. "This has all been wonderful."

 So there I was, in the hospital in Indianapolis week before last, tears  streaming down my face. Getting ready to leave, knowing I would  never see her again.  "Don't cry," she said from her bed. "It'll make your eyes  puffy."

I burst out laughing.

Her voice was very soft by then, but she added:  "Use cucumbers."
A moment later, she opened her eyes. And said to me what she's said every time we parted for the last--oh, ever since I can remember.

"Vaya con Dios, honey."

"Vaya con Dios, Mamacita," I whispered.

To you dear Tarts, too, at this season of change. Vaya con Dios.

And use cucumbers.



December 05, 2011

Just on the Tip of my Tongue

by Hank Phillippi RyanName-tag1 

So a pleasant looking young woman pokes her head in the door of my office, obviously just passing by on her way somewhere else.

 "Hi, Hank," she says. Very sprightly.

 I look up from my computer. NO IDEA. "Hi," I say, equally enthusiastic.

 She leaves, thank goodness, because my next gambit, sadly, was going to be the oh-so-lame and incredibly transparent: “what’s new?”  A clear indication, in my estimation at least, that I had no idea who she was, or what she was doing there.

 Now nice it would have been, I thought after she left  if I had looked up and been able to say. Oh, hi, Emma-- or whatever her name is, I still have no idea. That's what people do, right? They know each other’s names.

 Not me, sister.

 Nametag 2
I can be introduced to someone at a party, and two seconds later have no idea. None. Now I know there are tricks, don't think I haven't tried them, after all these years of name struggling. I know that if you want to remember a name, you have to care. And say the name, even a couple of times.

 Hi, Emma, so nice to meet you Emma. 

(I love it when someone actually does that with me. I think-- oh, you read the books and now you're gonna remember my name well, good for you, because i have no idea about yours.)

And the really high level rememberers have figured out how to add another trick. They make a word association.

Like--"Her name is Betty. Like Betty Crocker, and I bet she likes to cook." Somehow, that is supposed to help you. And in fact, I know it does. There's used to be a restaurant in Newton where we live, and the maitre d' there was named Fred.

His name, I remember. Because when I met him, I thought-- I' m going to DO this. So i said to myself:  Fred, you're fed. (See, because it's a restaurant.)Name-Tag-FredII

Problem is, that restaurant is long gone, and Fred along with it, but I still remember his darn name. And what good is that, I ask you? And it, no doubt, is taking up the room in my brain for remembering someone else's name.

 Plus, I always get distracted, trying to think of the clever mnemonic device that'll burn the vict-- I mean, person's name into my weary brain. Will I actually remember Betty by Betty Crocker?

Bettys0330 Why would I remember that? What if she doesn't like to cook? Then the whole thing doesn’t work. And by that time she's gone and it probably won't matter until I see her in the drug store or someplace and it's so out of context I'll call her Julia--because Julia Child likes to cook, right?

Having a husband or partner in crime is helpful, or at least, can be helpful if your partner knows the game. Do you do this?  I say to Jonathan---in preparation for am evening’s name-test: Okay, sweetheart. If I introduce you and don’t say the person’s name, that means—YOU say something to elicit it.

I mean, you do that, right? And you know to say your name when the introducer doesn’t say it? I say my one name ALL the time, I always re-introduce myself. Just in case someone is equally name-challeneged.

Nametag 4

Although that can sometimes backfire, too. “I just met you two minutes ago, Hank,” people say. “Don’t you remember?”

 Sigh. No. And sometimes I worry I'm being rude or hurting people's feelings. (Adding to the confusion, as a reporter, people feel as if they know me. So they come up to me and say--Hank! And I think--oh, no. Do I know this person? And race through my mental Rolodex. The kind ones are already saying: you don't know me , but...   For which I am grateful.)

(And a special no-no message to those who say "Do you remember me?" Like, it's a test? I fail. What can I say. Please don't say that to someone.) 

Once I introduced Jonathan as “Andrew.”  I still shake my head when think of it. It's because I was thinking about someone across the room, trying to think of his name, which I did, and remembered it was Andrew. So of course I said that: “This is my husband, Andrew.” Jonathan still talks about it.

Experts will tell you it's about fear, or holding the attitude that we can;t remeber so we don't, or overwhelmedness at too many names at once, or becuase we don't actually HEAR the name, or because we dont think we'll be called on to remember.  And remebmer, when the person says their name, you always say--oh, right. It's not like it's gone forever. It's about retrieval.

Thing is, once I recover the name, I can tell you everything about the person--long histories, previous encounters with elaborate detail, where their kids are in college, their dogs names, all kinds of stuff. I remember everything about them.  Problem is it's all stored under their name, and that part, I do not know. Well, I know it, I just can't retrieve it. And you can't go through the alphabet while you're standing there.

I'm all about privacy, but what do you think about universal name tags? Just a modest proposal. We slap on a sticky tag on before we leave each morning. If you want to be cool or innovative about it, you could embroider your name on a tote bag or something.

Or, you know everyone has a baseball cap with a logo right? Those are so twenty minutes ago. How about we each get a hat with our name on it?   (Kids would be exempt, I understand the problem.) But over, say, thirty years old? Name hat.

Okay, you're not gonna do that. And I guess it's not that workable. Although, Lance Armstrong (was that his name?) got everyone to wear those yellow bracelets. And my system could already work if your name is Gucci or Burberry.  Or--Coach!



But here's my plea. Can't it just be socially acceptable to say-- oh, yikes, tell me your name again? We all do it. We all have name problems. Ah--don't we? Tell me we do. I mean--I do want to remember.

So are some of you tlc'ers (and you know who you are) really good at this? If so-- how do you do it?

November 13, 2011

What If?

Hank Phillippi Ryan:  So I had decided, once and for all, not to be timid at a convention. I was going to plop myself right down beside a STRANGER, and by gosh, I was going to MINGLE.

It was so difficult for me! But providence intervened, and the stranger--turned out to be someone terrific..someone who's turned out to be a close pal and and a dear friend and an instant bff. Hey, shows you what happens when you conquer your social fears.

So now, you plop down beside her, too. You'll love Rochelle Staab.  I do. (And a copy of her new book to one lucky commenter!) 

WHAT IF.....? Staab Headshot-2

by Rochelle Staab

I pulled out a white blouse and my gray pencil skirt. Nope—back in the closet. Too businesslike. I know—a paisley wrap dress, black boots. No, too Barbarella-shops-at-Ann-Taylor.  Seriously, it’s slacks and a T-shirt because I don’t care.  Who was I kidding?  I did care. 

I settled for a soft black jersey skirt with a gray silk blouse and black teddy, and black silver-clipped pumps.  I set aside a black wrap sweater for warmth.  I dug out my rarely worn, sexy lingerie from the corner of the drawer.  Then I headed for the shower to shave  m y legs.  Not that I wanted or anticipated anything happening. Shaving was simply good grooming .

 In the above scene from WHO DO, VOODOO? my divorced psychologist Liz Cooper dresses for dinner with Nick, an old college friend she feels a new attraction to. The evening isn’t a date. Then again, it’s not really NOT a date. Could go either way. Liz goes upscale and adds her sexy lingerie—you know, the sachet-scented pretties we all have tucked in the back of a drawer waiting for a special occasion? It wasn’t as if Nick would see Liz in the lingerie. But slipping into sexy skivvies adds flair, only-I-know confidence, and a hint of enchantment. And what if?Ro Lipstick-Lingerie

 Why do we save our prettiest things only for special occasions? Why not wear our expensive, knockout designer pumps to the movies with our girlfriends? Throw on the lamé scarf to dash to the market? Slip into our most delicate lace bras and panties every day?

I wonder if Cinderella wore the glass slippers again after she and the prince got home from the honeymoon. And if not, why not? They were killer shoes.

  Ro Lipstick-Cinderella Slipper


 I know when I buy something I love beyond words there’s a hint of fantasy attached to the purchase. Almost as if something magical will happen when I wear the shoes/lingerie/dress or use the dishes/candles/crystal. I’d be prettier, or my cooking would improve, or the air around me would sparkle. So why keep the pretties tucked away for “good”? What if the magic is there but needs airing and won’t fulfill itself until after the third or fourth or tenth use?

Ro Lipstick-Pearls

 For example, my favorite adorable shoes (or used to be) are a pair of pink-and-black plaid Miu Miu pumps I bought in the drop-dead-dazzling shoe department at Saks years ago. Maybe wore them three times. But instead of glancing longingly at those babies in their red box on the top shelf, what if I put them on with my jeans, kicked my heels together, and let the fantasy roll?

  Ro-Lipstick Favorite Shoes
I wish I had this revelation years ago. I realize a few of my knockout outfits won’t work on me outside a banquet or ballroom or ever again. Could be time for the sexy fishnet stockings to bite the layer of dust in the back of my drawer. (The damned things always killed the bottom of my feet in pumps anyway.) My lace see-through blouse, celebrating its tenth year in the closet waiting to be worn, might be daytime adorable on a hot little twenty or thirty-something. On me? With my salt-and-pepper mop? Add smeared lipstick and I’d be a ringer for Betty Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Ro Lipstick-Baby Jane


But there are plenty of former too-nice-to-wear outfits in my closet deserving a chance to escape off their hangers.

 Seriously, what are we waiting for when we save our best “for good”?  I say it’s time to open the drawers and let the pretties play. Light the etched candle, wear the leopard-print lace bra, cut loose and throw on the long strand of pearls over a T-shirt. Like Liz, I’m going for it. Why not?

 What about you? Is there something in your closet you’ve been saving to wear for far too long?

(And remember:  a copy of Who Do, Voodoo to one lucky commenter!)


Staab WhoDoVoodoo (2)WHO DO, VOODOO? features no-nonsense Liz Cooper, a Los Angeles psychologist forced to embrace the occult to clear her best friend of murder. When Liz's friend Robin Bloom finds a tarot card tacked to her front door, Liz writes the card off as a prank. But Robin refuses to ignore the omen—her late husband drew the same card in a reading the night before he was killed.

As more cards and darker threats appear, Liz realizes someone dangerous is upping the ante. She turns to old acquaintance and occult expert Nick Garfield. As Nick guides her into the voodoo community to locate the origin of the tarot deck, their mutual attraction is undeniable. When their search leads to a murder, Robin becomes the prime suspect. Determined to clear her friend, Liz has to suspend her disbelief in the supernatural and join forces with Nick to unravel otherworldly secrets—or risk being outwitted by a scheming killer.


Rochelle Staab, former award-winning radio programmer and music industry marketing executive, blended her fascination with the supernatural and her love for mystery in WHO DO, VOODOO? the first novel in her Mind for Murder Mystery series for Berkley Prime Crime. BRUJA BROUHAHA, the second novel in the series will be released in August 2012.


Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/rochelle.staab

Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/rochellestaab

Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4705211.Rochelle_Staab


November 12, 2011

Holding On

Hank Phillippi Ryan:  Margaret blogged about 'meeting cute' this week....and it reminded me so sweetly about how many new friends I've made in book world.  What I remember about meeting Sharon Potts was not where it was--do you remember, Sharon? I think it was a convention--but  her wonderful smile. Looking at the photo below of Sharon and her mother--now I see where she got that smile.

You'll also see Sharon got a lot more from her mom.


By Sharon Potts

My mom always used to say she couldn’t write. That putting words together on paper was a struggle for her.  Then she would tell me another story about her childhood. Wonderful, vivid stories that still come into my head.  About her doll with the porcelain face that she swung around the tiny kitchen in exuberance until its beautiful face smashed against the old gas stove and broke.

About her soft white cat Matilda who would climb up and down the fire escape stalking the neighbors’ dinners through their open windows.  About the exquisite taste of warm pumpernickel smeared with chicken fat that her mother would throw down to her from their third-floor kitchen window. 


My mom passed away a year ago, on October 23, at the age of ninety-three. She was determinedly independent, living on her own until the end. She was my confidante and dearest friend and I still reach for the phone every night to call her and tell her about my day.  Then I remember.

 Her apartment, a condo just outside of Fort Lauderdale has become my retreat, a place of solace. The thought of dismantling it feels like a violation.   And so, every week I drive an hour to check the mail, water the plants, and make sure the apartment is as tidy as she always had it.  But each week, I notice another plant is brown and shriveled and I realize I can’t go on like this indefinitely, any more than the plants can.  It’s been a year—perhaps it’s time to put certain things to rest.  


And so I’ve begun cleaning out the closets and drawers.  Piled on shelves behind hanging dresses and coats and buried in drawers beneath blouses and sweaters, I find old manuscripts of mine that I’d given her to read—short stories, early drafts of my novels. She’d kept them all.

Then there are the shoeboxes filled with birthday cards, Mother’s Day cards, letters from her grandkids, envelopes addressed to “Grandma Hecht” in clumsy childish print, scribbled letters, neat cursive writing.


Dear Grandma Anna, I’m having a great time at camp. Today I went swimming…

Dear Grandma, Paris is soooo exciting!

Decades of words, expressions of love. She’d kept them all.


The bedroom walls are lined with bookcases, filled with books—novels, biographies, classics, even French and Spanish books from her college years. La Fontaine’s fables in the original French. A tattered copy of The Ancient Mariner.  She’d kept them all.

I’m overwhelmed by all these words, squirreled away by a woman who claimed it was such an effort to write her own.  She loved words, and I realize that although she had trouble putting them down on paper, her gift was in telling them.  Her stories swirl through my head as I pack up the photos of her childhood, her marriage, her own children and grandchildren.

How after losing her dad when she was six, her mother sold eggs from their Brooklyn apartment in order to survive with three young children. Sometimes my mom would answer the door wearing only an undershirt that she held together between her legs for modesty.

Or shortly after her dad died, how sometimes when singing My Country Tis of Thee, my mother’s throat would tighten and her eyes water at the line “land where our fathers died,” thinking it was about her own father.

And the joyous moments. How when she was around nine or ten, filled with good intentions, she decided to wash the sheets. She filled the tub with water, but the sodden sheets were so heavy that with the help of her younger sister Goldie, she dragged one into the kitchen. Then she began wrapping the sheet around her and told Goldie to do the same from its opposite end. The girls twirled toward each other, cocooned in the sheet, and met in a giant puddle in the middle of the kitchen. What a perfect opportunity to wash the floor!

The recollection of how my mother laughed as she told me that story makes me smile and my eyes sting.

I fill another suitcase, another carton.  Bit by bit, the apartment is losing its personality.

Then the obvious hits me.  I don’t need to hold on to her apartment to have my mother.  It’s okay to give away the clothes and furniture and knickknacks that my brothers and I don’t have use for.  It’s okay to sell her apartment and hand a stranger the key.  These are, after all, merely things. Not the important stuff.  My mother taught me what really matters.  The stories. The memories. The words.  She couldn’t write them down, but I can.  And I shall.  Because my mother knew that the words go on forever.  And I find comfort in that.

What about you? Have you had to cope with loss? How do you hold onto memories and those you’ve loved?


Sharon Potts writes novels about people—regular, ordinary people.  Sometimes, when the dark side of her brain can’t sleep, these “people” appear in novels of suspense like IN THEIR BLOOD (which received a starred review from Publishers Weekly) and SOMEONE’S WATCHING (called “shiver rich” by Publishers Weekly.) Other times, when Sharon feels like a good laugh, her “people” visit lighter, happier worlds like in her latest romantic comedy, SOUTH BEACH CINDERELLA.

But whether the genre is mystery or humor, Sharon’s novels are always about feelings—happy, sad and everything in between.  Because, after all, isn’t that what life’s all about?


November 07, 2011

Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?

 Hank Phillippi Ryan

Ah, we made it. I think we made it.  Usually, at the end of daylight savings time (or is it the beginning?) there's  chaos at our house. Because I fall-back the clocks, and then Jonathan does, too. Which makes us twice as early.  Or twice as late.  Don't even ask me about it.

Clock 2When I was anchoring the news in Atlanta,  there was one November show where the weather guy said to me-- "Don't forget, Hank, this is the night the time changes."

I said--this is live TV, remember--"Well,  the TIME doesn't really change. We just change the clocks. But the time is a continuum, and it stays the same no matter what. WE just change how we count it."

Long story, but I got in a bit of trouble.  In fact, I was ordered to "practice my ad libbing"--but that's another  blog for another day.

 Television is all about TIME. Getting breaking news on in time. How much time there is until the next deadline. How much time they’ve allotted for your story.  How much time there is until someone is going to tell you you’re late. There is no late in TV.

 I’ve been a TV reporter for more than 30 years. And as a result, if you want to know what time it is, don’t ask me. I only know what time it is *for me.*

 I see you looking baffled. But here’s what I mean. I don’t know what time it really is—because I’m fooling myself about it. And somehow, it works. How can we fool ourselves? I mean, we should know, right?

  Clock 4For instance. The alarm clock-radio on my nightstand is set nine minutes fast. So when it rings at 7:30, the time I usually have to get up, I creak open my eyes, try to focus on the green numerals, and my brain yells: GET UP! It’s 7:30. 

 Then there’s a pause, while the other half of my brain happily reminds me that it’s really 7:21, and I delightedly hit the snooze.

  Why? Why not just set the clock for the real time? Then set the alarm for, say 7:21, then hit the snooze for nine minutes and get up at the real 7:30?

 Because then I don’t get the precious nine “extra” minutes of sleep.

 There’s a clock in the bathroom where I do my hair and makeup—I set that one about 12 minutes fast. Here I’m fooling myself to get me to hurry up. I look at the clock, mid-mascara: it’s 8 o’clock already! I panic. Hurry! Then I realize it’s actually jusClock 3t twelve minutes until 8 o’clock, and I have plenty of time, and I can relax a bit. I’m no longer behind—I’m ahead.

 Does that make any sense? Do you do that?

 I do it with the clock on my wall at the TV station where I work as a reporter—I set that fast, too, but it makes sense in the world of unmissable deadlines. I suppose. I can’t be late, so if the clock is fast, it’s less likely that’ll happen.

 My husband says: why don’t you just set the clocks to the REAL TIME?  And I see his point. Kind of. But faking myself out works for me.

  CheckbookI also fool myself with money. On payday, I enter the income into my not-so-perfect checkbook register—but I put the deposit amount as less than it really is. So I have a little pad.

 My husband says—why don’t you just write down the real amount? So you know how much money is actually there? Not some theoretical amount? Yeah, I see his point. But that doesn’t work for me.

 I also hide money from myself in my wallet. The other day, I unzipped a little pouch on the side and there was the secret 20 dollars I had tucked there for emergencies. But I had forgotten it was there! So much for the emergency idea. But see—I’ve done that several times. Lots of times. And I always forget it’s there. Smile
Then I’m always delighted to find it.

 Is reality so complicated and unmanageable that we have to fool ourselves into making it all work? My little self-trickery makes me happy, and it makes my life work very nicely.

 Do you face reality? Or do you have your secret ways?

October 15, 2011

It’s not a cozy if you nail a kitten down

HANK: So I'm in the big striped armchair, reading.

My husband says: "What?"

I say:  "What, what?"

And he says--"You're laughing."

I say, "Oh, yeah, this book is wonderful." I go back to reading. 

A few minutes later:

"What?" Jonathan says.

I put my finger on the page, impatient,  marking the place. "What what?"

"You laughed again."

Well, yeah. I had to leave the room, and go read elsewhere, else Jonathan would never have allowed me to finish.

I know it's not hip anymore  to describe a book by saying:  "It's X meets Y."  But if I said: It's Upstairs, Downstairs meets. ..Nora Charles?   Catriona McPherson's  new  Dandy Gilver and the Proper Treatment of Bloodstains  is a little bit Agatha, a little bit--well, maybe a little bit Catriona herself, as I learned when I (as a complete fan girl)  met her at Bouchercon.

SO happy to introduce her to you! I either had to make her photo HUGE or small like this. Catriona (which is pronounced like the hurricane of New Orleans notoriety) is so very demure and to the manner born, I'm sure she'd prefer small.)



by Catriona McPherson

I have a new but dear friend, Eileen Rendahl,  (see below) who introduced herself to me just over a year ago as a writer of romantic suspense, currently moving into urban fantasy.  Boy, was I impressed.  (This is prosaic licence; actually she introduced herself by saying “Hi, I’m Eileen. I’m going to get some kettle corn”).  But the fact remains that this is a woman who knows her genres, sub-genres and the niches therein.  Looks it too, eh?  Quietly assured.


Me?  I know nothing.  A year ago I didn’t even know what steam-punk was.   (To anyone else as ignorant as I was: steam-punk is the other category of popular culture that’s not zombies) 

Okay, maybe it’s not true to say I know nothing.  I know my books were crime novels in UK and are mysteries here, but after that it gets shaky.

 I thought I knew a bit more.  Much as I don’t exactly love the label “cozy” I reckoned, when I moved to California a year ago, that it was the best way to describe my series to my hoped-for new audience. 

A reader at Bouchercon 2010 in San Francisco put me straight.  Apparently . . . it’s not a cozy if you nail a kitten down.   Not even if you just let your heroine detective discover a nailed down kitten, prise it free with a hat-pin and take it home  where they all live happ- 

Oh wait, no they don’t.  No animals were harmed in the writing of this fictional calamity.  Not a one.  In fact, some fiction was probably harmed in honour of animals, when I couldn’t move to check an etymology in the Shorter Oxford or boot up Google-earth to see exactly what some street in Dunkeld looks like, because I didn’t want to disturb the real cat who was sleeping on my knee.

Now, I could say I write traditional mysteries.  In fact, I do say it.  Traditional mysteries are described on the Malice Domestic website as novels containing no explicit sex or excessive gore and violence.  Kind of negative, but hey.

My series doesn’t have either explicit sex or graphic violence, as it happens, but here’s why.  I set out ten years ago to write stories in homage to the British golden age, following humbly in the footsteps of: Dorothy L Sayers, without the casual anti-Semitism; Margery Allingham, with less oblique dialogue, because I couldn’t be sure that my books would be read and re-read until they made sense (or is it just me that needs a few goes at some Allinghams before I get them?); and Agatha Christie, without the eighty published works and the West-end play (being realistic).   It’s because the crime novels published in London in the 1920s and 30s have no sex and little violence that mine don’t.  And no effing and jeffing either.

So when a fan of my 1920s series read a stand-alone set in modern times, she was disgusted.  Hurt and offended and moved to write and tell me.  The language was unbearable.  And not just the profanity, but also the sloppy syntax.  My classically educated 1920s narrator writes beautiful English: properly formed sentences with subordinate clauses and subjunctive mood and scads of whoms and whences.  She’d no more split an infinitive than she’d eat a pie in the street.  My dear!  My 1980s heroine . . . less so.

 And as to what genre my modern novels fall under?  I thought they were stories, maybe yarns, possibly capers.  Told you I know nothing: those aren’t genres.  But because I was a woman, they were packaged and marketed as women’s fiction.  Ironically, the first one was about time-travel and I felt as if I’d time-travelled my way back to the 1950s, clever lady-doctors, male nurses, and fiction that was women’s fiction because a woman wrote it.  Below, Exhibit A.

  GrowingUpAgainI rest my case.  (This isn’t self promotion: it’s out of print.)

 Flash forward five years and see me bellowing at my car radio during NPR’s All Things Considered last week when Jeffrey Eugenides (love ‘im) was interviewed by Neal Conan (love ‘im too but keep reading) about his new book The Marriage Plot.   Conan quoted someone as having said that gender equality had been bad for literature because marriage could no longer be at the centre of a novel in the same way it was for Jane Austen and George Eliot.    But fear not, Conan went on, because Eugenides had managed to pull off the amazing feat of writing a novel about love in which we don’t know, for all of its length, who the heroine will marry.


Screen shotSeriously.  A man has written a romance and thus proved that it’s possible to do so.  It reminds me of that old office-meeting joke: “Good idea,  Miss Jones.  Now, would one of you men like to have it, so we can minute it and move on?”

I’m pretty sure you’re not a cozy writer if you scream obscenities at NPR and blow a stop sign and then scream obscenities at the CHP because he calls you ma’am and makes you feel old and so he arrests you and you spend the night banged up in the tank and so you get your residency revoked by Homeland Security and you have to go back to Scotland and so you don’t need to wonder whether they’re cozies anyway.

I saw the stop sign just in time.  The rest was fiction.  Just don’t ask me what genre, okay?

HANK: I adore Margery Allingham..and confess to a huge crush on Albert Campion. (Leslie Howard, right?) Did you read golden age mysteries? What do you remember--crushes, anyone? (Roderick Alleyn? Peter Wimsey?)


Dandy_Gilver_and_the_ProperCatriona McPherson is a recovering academic and the author of six novels set in Scotland in the 1920s, featuring the gently-born but nevertheless pretty kick-ass private detective, Dandy Gilver.  St Martin's Press have just launched the series in the US with The Proper Treatment of Bloodstains.  A year ago, Catriona left a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in southern Scotland, and now lives on a ramshackle farm in a beautiful valley in northern California.  Cantaloupe instead of rutabaga - otherwise business as usual.




October 03, 2011

Boo! (Did that Scare You?) A pre-Halloween Contemplation


by Hank Phillippi Ryan

When I saw one dead squirrel on the highway, it was sad. Two dead squirrels, it was kind of...odd. But after seeing–and I’m not kidding—dozens and dozens of dead squirrels on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I knew there was something ver-ry weird going on. (This photo is of a plush animal.)

 I tried to take a photo, but it was too difficult. "What’re you doing?" Jonathan said.

 “Trying to take a picture of all the dead squirrels,” I said, window down, leaning out. “Can you maybe stop?”

 “We’re on the highway! Going 70 miles an hour!”  (ed. note: she means 55.)

 “I know. Just thought I’d try it.”   But it didn’t work. I just got blur.

 Anyway, it’s probably for the best that I can’t get photos. I tried to Google photos of dead squirrels, just to –illustrate. But trust me, you don’t wanna start trolling for  “dead animal” photos. I stopped after about two seconds. So, no photos of  real squirrels. (You’re welcome.)

 But I immediately started thinking of reasons why this squirrel carnage would happen.  (Why did the squrrel cross the....er, try to cross the...)

(Other than that the squirrels are daring each other to get across the highway. Boastful squirrel says—“That guy’s an idiot. I bet I can make it!” And on and on.)

 Anyway.  I thought: maybe it means  the plague is coming, or someone is doing experiments with some new psychedelic drugs and trying them out on the poor squirrels. Or a squirrel serial killer is on the loose. At Bouchercon, one author was saying that squirrels are incredibly homicidal—that if one person were killed for every murdered squirrel, the population of Cincinnati would be wiped out. In like, a month, or something.

 I stopped listening to the squirrel-murder stuff.  (Which you are probably now considering doing, too.)

 But the point is—whew, I hear you saying—it was scary. Really really scary. And I immediately started making up all the truly scary stuff that it could mean. If squirrels are throwing themselves like wacked-out lemmings across four lanes of treacherous highway, is this something that could happen to people?

 I mean, unlikely.  But why do we scare ourselves? Life is scary enough anyway, if your brain is wired that way. And I know some people’s aren’t. For instance:

 When Jonathan leaves the house to go do an errand or something, I always say: “Be careful!”

 And he’s always baffled. “Of what?” he says.

 But the world seems threatening to me. (It might be because of working in TV news, when I see every bad thing that happens.)


 I remember the first really scary thing I ever saw: a movie called The Incredible Shrinking Man. I was maybe—ten years old. And I completely freaked. Do you remember that movie? Some sort of radiation (ooh, is that what happened to the squirrels?) washed over this guy, and it started making him smaller. And smaller. At one point, he was fighting a spider with a needle as a sword. SO SCARY.

Twilight  And Twilight Zone, remember? I was riveted. The one with the zoo? Where it turned out the earthling was in a cage?  And wasn’t there one  which ended with the devil (dressed in a tuxedo) laughing evilly, and intoning  “This IS the other place!”  ? I can still hear that voice.

 Wizard of OZ.  Terrified. I assigned myself the duty of sitting in the wayback of the family station wagon (this is when I was, what, younger  than 10, probably)  and watching the sky for tornadoes. I was very very diligent about this, and  never told my parents I was the one protecting my family. I did a great job, apparently, since we did not die in a tornado. (Hey, it was Indiana. It could happen.)

  Dracula In college, we were assigned to read  Dracula by Bram Stoker. “It’s really intense!” The professor said. “ Pish tush,” I said, or something like that. It’s a BOOK. What could be so scary?

 It was college, so I couldn’t go get garlic or anything, and being Jewish, the wearing of a cross wasn't going to fly. But I admit to you. I had to do something because the book said vampires could come in through closed windows as dust motes on moonlight. Are you kidding me? I decided if I slept with my arms in the shape of a cross, that would do it. I guess it worked. (mwa ha ha.)







 In my twenties? Rosemary’s Baby. The book. YIKES! I read it on an airplane, I remember, on the way from DC to New York, and I almost got on the return flight without getting off.  Eating  “the mouse,’? And seeing where the paintings had been taken down from the wall? And the nice  doctor who turned out to be (spoiler alert) in on the  whole thing?  Then using the scrabble tiles to spell out “All Of Them Witches” from “Roman Castevet.”  Wait, that doesn’t work. What was the anagram again?  I’m too scared to remember.  

 Thinking about  this, as I’ve grown older, made up things are much less frightening  (Blair Witch? Showing me nothing..) and real life things take over.  But it’s almost Halloween, the scary season, and once again we bring out our scariest things--since it’s more fun to be scared by fictional scariness than focus on what’s truly terrifying.

 What’s the scariest thing you’ve even seen or read? Fictional, of course, I mean.

I'm sure we'll be talking about  Halloween costumes later. But word to the wise--maybe don't dress as a squirrel this year. You never know.



September 18, 2011

Guest Blogger, Tammy Kaehler -- Mantras

Take Good Advice Wherever You Find It


I’ve had mantras on my mind lately. Not the dreamy, inspirational sayings that make me think of beaches and yoga and striving for greater things (I’m a fan of those too, and I have them littered around my desk on paperweights or torn pieces of notebook pages). I’m talking about the words I sometimes have to chant to myself through clenched teeth to keep my competitive instincts—or maybe my murderous ones? sometimes they feel like the same thing—from kicking in.

You see, I’m an overachiever. I rise to meet challenges. But part of realizing I’m now a mature adult (since I’m the “old lady” at my day job, where the average age skews very young), is realizing I can't do everything. More importantly, I’ve learned to save my skills and energy for what’s most important to me. This isn’t always easy, when I’m aware that those young kids I work with are wallowing in their inefficiencies without my sage advice. Wallowing!


Or something like that.

Here’s the audience participation part of this blog. You can all say my favorite mantra with me … first, pretend to be Chris Rock, assume an attitude (maybe with an incredulous look and some finger shaking), and repeat, “Just because you CAN do something, don’t make it a good idea.”


Well done.


For a couple years now, I’ve been attributing this quote to Chris Rock—which is part of the fun because I’m about as far from Chris Rock as you could get. I’m short, female, and very, very (very) white. I like to think of myself as kind of a badass sometimes, but I, yes, pale in comparison to him. And I’ve been carefully quoting those words verbatim.

But I should have known better, because I don’t remember quotes correctly. Like, ever. (This is part of the reason why I can’t tell jokes.)

Sure enough, I recently looked up the exact wording of my beloved mantra, only to discover it’s not what Chris Rock said at all. Turns out what he said (more colorfully, of course) was this: “Yeah, you could do it … but that don't mean it's to be done! Shit, you can drive a car with your feet if you want to, that don't make it a good f&*%ing idea!” Moreover, he was talking about bad parenting, which has nothing to do with me trying to establish priorities in my life. 

Close enough. Take the good advice, Tammy. Don’t worry about where it comes from.

What this mantra helps me remember is that what’s important is not that I. Can. Win! It’s that I choose to win what I want to win, and I let some battles pass me by. My day job? I really appreciate that it’s there, I’m committed to doing good work, but I don’t need to lose sleep over the problems. My novels? That’s where I want to spend my emotional energy creating good plots, interesting characters, and a realistic picture of the racing world. Anything else that pulls my physical and emotional energy away from writing is just a distraction. 

My husband prefers Stephen Covey’s version of the same message: “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” There’s also the pithy “Pick your battles.” But I find the insouciance—and the simmering potential for profanity, I’ll be honest—of my version of Chris Rock does a better job of stopping my blind rush to Achieve. At. All. Costs!

Dr. Tammy’s prescription? Repeat “Just because you CAN do something, don’t make it a good (f&*%ing) idea.” as many times as it takes to remain sane and correctly focused.

It’s all about figuring out what keeps you on track, isn’t it? So tell me, what’s your mantra?


Before trying her hand at fiction, Tammy Kaehler established a career writing marketing materials, feature articles, executive speeches, and technical documentation. A fateful stint in corporate hospitality introduced her to the racing world, which inspired the first Kate Reilly racing mystery. Tammy works as a technical writer in the Los Angeles area, where she lives with her husband and many cars.

  TKheadshotAug2011-2 Dead Man's Switch final front (426x640)

September 11, 2011

This Day to Remember.

Where were you on September 11th? What do you remember?

From Margaret:

  I was awakened earlier than usual to be told that a close relative was in the hospital with a broken hip, so when I flipped on NPR to catch the morning headlines and heard that a plane had crashed into the Trade Center, I immediately turned on the television and was shocked to watch as that second plane went in.  The first could have been a weird accident; the second was clearly deliberate, but who?  why? The horror continued as I flashed on the few times I'd taken an elevator up to one of the towers' high floors.  How long it took even on the express.  To think of trying to walk down through smoke and fire . . .? Ghastly. In addition to all the people who died that day, there were even more deaths to come.  Of the two close friends who lived in lower Manhattan, I'm convinced that  breathing those contaminants for months caused the death of one and hastened the end of the other even though neither was in the building itself.

From Nancy Martin: 

 I was living on a mountaintop in rural Virgina--alone because my husband had already moved back to Pennsylvania for a job. Between writing the last chapter of my first mystery, I was packing boxes that morning and watching the Today show.  With packing tape in my hand, I heard Katie Couric's incredulous voice saying,  "We don't want to alarm anyone, but it looks as if a small plane may have crashed into the World Trade Center." And while I watched, the second plane hit.  I thought, "My daughter is in New York," and you know that expression "my blood ran cold?"  Well, that's how I felt---as if a terrible block of ice hit my chest and spread through my veins all the way to my fingertips. 

An instant later, the phone rang, and the voice of my great friend (and backblogger!) cried, "Are you seeing this?"  It was just like our mothers telling us about Pearl Harbor.  We couldn't believe it.  The sky was so blue and perfect. For hours, I kept trying my daughter's phone, but of course it was out. Thank God for Ethernet.  When she got back from class, we emailed, and she begged me to phone her boyfriend's mother in DC.  Her boyfriend had been on a plane from New York that morning, but I couldn't make the call. I kept thinking he'd been in the plane that crashed into the Pentagon.  I couldn't call a mother whose son had died.  But he was already on the subway in DC when the plane went down, and he reached my daughter by email within a few hours. 

My mother called from Pennsylvania.  Her voice shook.  "An airliner flew over the golf course.  It was so low, we thought we could reach up and touch it." That was minutes before it crashed. When I phoned my husband--already at his new banking job--he said in amazement that the guys he'd been doing business with the previous day weren't answering their phones.  They worked for Cantor Fitzgerald. My sister, in Brooklyn, said her front steps were covered in burned bits of paper with the Cantor Fitzgerald letterhead.

That night, alone in the house on the mountain, I heard a tremendous roar of powerful engines down in the valley.  It went on for hours, and the concussion rattled the windows of the house.  I was afraid to go outside to listen by myself, so I took the dog, and Dolly and I stood on the lawn, listening in the dark. Dolly leaned against my leg. I remember how warm she felt, and comforting. Turns out, all the east coast railroad companies had sent their locomotives to hide in the old coal yard in the town below. To be safe from terrorists. Terrorists!  What was a terrorist?

I remember how we all felt in the weeks that followed--joined in a common spirit.  Makes the current Congress look so self-absorbed and petty. If nothing else, I'm glad we have so many stories of heroism and patriotism and unity from that terrible day.

From Barbara O'Neal:  

I had been on a very challenging hiking trip in Provence, and made it home on September 11 at 3 am Colorado time.  I awakened to the phone ringing, and it was my grandmother calling to be sure I was home. She said, "Oh, thank God you are not on a plane. I didn't know when you were coming in. They've bombed the Pentagon."  I thought she was being alarmist, but turned on the television to see the towers smoking after the first plane hit.  The calls continued all morning--my family calling to make sure I was actually home and not on one of those planes.  I have a lot of friends in NYC, but my thoughts that morning were for the friend I'd gone hiking with.  She was stranded in Paris, alone, because she'd taken a later flight than I did, and didn't get home for two weeks.  

The story I think about the most is one from an editor I was working with at the time. She lived in the village and couldn't get to her apartment for quite some time. When she finally got back, she said the smell was awful in the neighborhood and she commented to her boyfriend that it smelled like rotten garbage all the time. He said gently, "Honey, that's not garbage."   


From Hank Phillippi Ryan:

It was a beautiful, beautful day on the East Coast, as you remember, too, Nancy.  And chillingly, as it turned out, that's one of the reasons the plot could work--because it was so clear that it allowed the terrorists to see the towers.

I was--crazily--at the hairdresser, getting a hair cut. That night was my station's preview party for the upcoming TV season, and we were all sprucing up.  Someone came running in, saying something incomprehensible, and then the news came flooding in. I had wet hair.

I knew I had to get to work, GET TO WORK as  soon as possible. As a reporter, this was...well, it was work. Separating the journalists from everyone else. I called Jonathan, yelling over the sound of the blowdryer. Yes, he knew.  Are the kids okay, in Park Slope? Our step-son works in the city...yes they're okay. I don't know when I'll be home, I said. (And I will admit, what I really wanted to do was go home.)

I walked to work, maybe 4 blocks, in that beautiful day. The bars were all open on Congress Street, all the glass fronts wide open, all the televisions on. I remember, so clearly, deliberately walking slowly. Thinking, so clearly, so clearly, "this is the moment our lives are all changing. When I get to work, our lives will never be the same."

(Ridiculously: I'm the investigative reporter, you know? And my boss came racing into my office. "How did this happen?" he yelled. "You and Mary (my producer) have to find out how this happened!"  As if we could do that. I think we stayed in the office for the next--three days? And every time we started to   complain, we'd look at each other and say: "We're not dead. Not dead." And then go back to work.)


From Sarah Strohmeyer:

Yes, it was a beautiful September morning and I'd just sent the kids off to school and sat down to write. We'd recently redone our computer system and installed a New York Times news alert. So many ways to procrastinate! Oddly enough, the first message that popped up was from my childhood friend, Connie Jordan, whom I hadn't spoken to in, gosh, ten or more years.

Connie is a smart, beautiful woman, a Swarthmore/Harvard grad and Presbyterian minister whose husband survived a nasty bout of cancer early in their marriage. I've often thought of Connie as being deeply spiritual - though we occasionally butted heads over different interpretations of Christianity. Anyway, I'm still moved by the randomness - or not - of hearing from this woman of God just as my New York Times news ticker started firing bulletins about a plane crashing into the twin towers.

The bulletins were confusing. First it was a small plane. Then it was a jet. Wait, something was going on in D.C.? Was that another plane in New York? Or the same one? I remember thinking that it was probably a joker pilot. About a month before, a single-prop plane had flown precariously close to high rises in Manhattan and in flying from Manchester to New York, our little commuter flight often followed 5th Avenue. You could even see people working in their offices. 

But this was different.

Finally, I wrote Connie this: "Something's going on."

Connie wrote back. "I know. But what?"

"It's bad," I wrote back, getting chills as the bulletins became more alarming. A missing plane in Pennsylvania. Reports of a small plane flying into the Pentagon. More planes missing.

"I have to pray," Connie said. And that was it. I've never heard from her since.

I called Charlie at work and he was just getting the news. I flipped on the TV and there was Peter Jennings, smoke swirling from the twin towers in another frame. I told Charlie to come home immediately, that the towers were on fire. I thought of all my friends in New York, of the husband of my daughter's godmother who worked at Merrill Lynch. Like Connie, I prayed.

And then the unthinkable. The first tower fell, just crumbled like a house of cards. Peter Jennings went dead silent as Charlie came through the door and I looked at him and said, "We'll never be the same."

All those people. Gone.


From Elaine Viets:


That’s what I remember most after 9-11. Don and I lived in a beach condo in Hollywood, Florida. After the attack, the airport was closed for weeks, silencing the constant drone of commercial flights.

Instead, the skies were patrolled by sinister black helicopters. Warships cruised offshore, some with the ominous bulge of nuclear weapons.

Three of the terrorist leaders moved to Florida in 2000, near our home. South Florida is an international community, and they blended in. They used our local library, where the computers are free to all. They made one of their last appearances at Shuckums Oyster Bar in Hollywood, where at least two "holy warriors" drank forbidden alcohol – screwdrivers and rum and Coke. You can make what you want of this: They ate chicken wings.

Twelve hours after the attack on the World Trade Center, the FBI flashed their photos around the bar. The Shuckums’ server remembered them – and their lousy tip.


From Heather Graham:


The very words will, for everyone old enough on the day, be horrible and poignant. And no matter how much time passes, we all know where we were and what we were doing on that date. 

For me, I was mourning, and cleaning out mother's house with my sister; we had lost her just weeks before. And one of the things that kept running through my mind was at least she doesn't have to see this.

But my mom's passing became back-burner; I hadn't seen a TV. I was driving to a store to buy cleaners when a friend called me and frantically told me not to go to downtown Miami. At the time, I never went downtown, and I thought she'd spiked her morning diet coke. Of course, when she told me that two planes had hit the towers, I immediately started trying to reach my third son--he was going to Pratt Institute in Brooklyn at the time, and the kids there were always on the Path train to reach the store where they bought their art supplies. I was frantic, trying to reach him. His cell went straight to a dull tone. 
I rushed back and got on my computer and I was amazed when I got an instant message. He was on the roof at Pratt and miraculously, his Internet was up. He was alright; he was feeling his gut wrench as he and fellow students watched the towers burn. Suddenly he wrote, "OMG! It fell, it fell!" And I didn't know what he was talking about, until he explained, "It went down; the whole damned tower went down. Oh, God, oh God."
The day that travel was allowed again, Dennis and I got on a plane and flew to New York; I had to see him, and friends in the city who had lost loved ones. If I didn't get on a plane, I could never suggest that anyone else ever do so again. I was terrified getting on that plane. It turned out to be Dennis and I, a few scattered people, and about ten pilots heading up to start commercial travel again. I'll never forget flying by the place where the towers had been--and the ground was still smoldering. 
I'd considered myself a student of history, and I had thought I'd known something about terrorism; my mom and her family left Dublin because they were "mixed" and the "troubles" continued. But I had never understood the kind of hatred that could make anyone massacre so many people so blindly. I'd been to Egypt, I had friends who were Muslim. And I had to make myself realize that while their was a culture of hatred--quite possibly the result of poverty and misery as so much hatred was--was not the culture of everyone. 
Today, I know that we often wonder what our men and women in the service are accomplishing because it's true that you can't kill and ideal. But I was with a young serviceman the other day who told me, "You don't get to see the good very often on TV. I was there when we opened a new school, and the parents and the children were grateful and wonderful. Building and giving, yes, we can make a change."
So what do we do in our world today? We defend ourselves. We learn how to do that through intelligence. We suffer, because we can't stop everything. We keep trying to be the country we began to be after the Civil War, seeing all people as equals. It's so easy to hate. And I hate fanatics of any kind who would do harm to others; I pray that I never do so blindly, and I always judge a person for the person they are. And because I really have no control, I pray for our men and women in the service, and I pray for all who are caught in the violence brought upon them by others. Most of all, I pray that we stop being such a party-determined society, and that our law makers can stop following party lines, and work hard to defend and strengthen out country, and show others, through our united front and efforts to benefit all mankind, that we should be emulated, and not alienated, assaulted, and attacked.

From Joshilyn Jackson:

I went downstairs to get coffee and I turned on a little television I had on the kitchen counter. There was the first tower, with the plane going into it.

I immediately called my friend Lydia Netzer and said, Turn on your television, because I didn’t want to be watching alone. They showed it over and over.  It seemed crazy and impossible. We began coming up with explanations for it, back and forth, two fiction writers constructing implausible scenarios, looking for a way it could have happened. We were like children telling each other fairy tales ---- pilots having strokes and electrical instruments going haywire, anything to keep ourselves from understanding.

The second plane came. We saw it happen.

Then we knew. There wasn’t any way to not know. This is on purpose, we said back and forth to each other, but only because there was no other explanation left. We had tried so hard to make it be Fate---God---Accident---Error, anything at all. Anything except a deliberate, human choice.


From Brunonia Barry:

I worked at the World Trade Center for several years in the mid-seventies, soon after it opened. I was in the accounting department of Toyoda America, Inc. on the fiftieth floor of the North Tower. It was one of my first jobs out of college, and I loved the whole experience. But most of all, I loved the WTC. It was like a small community. I was there when Phillippe Petit walked the tightrope between the towers.

Windows on the World had not yet opened, and, for a short while, we were allowed to take our lunches up there and enjoy the view from the top floor. A small group of us representing many different companies lunched there most days, until the construction crews put an end to our visits. After that, we all continued to meet for lunch at the restaurant on the 44th floor.

I was our company’s fire marshall, and used to lead the employees in monthly evacuation drills, things they sometimes participated in and sometimes refused to take seriously. Thankfully, my friends at Toyoda had relocated their company offices a few years before the towers came down, but there were others I knew there who remained, friends who were lost.

Ten years ago on September 11th, I was in the hospital undergoing emergency surgery. I remember the television and everyone huddled around staring. I remember hoping that I was hallucinating from the medication, and then realizing that it was not a dream. In the ten years that have passed, I have not visited the site. It’s still difficult for me to think about, as it is for many of us.   


September 10, 2011

Volunteering: Causes, Passions and the Salem Lit Fest

Volunteering: Causes, Passions and the Salem Lit Fest

By Brunonia Barry

  SLF logo

I don’t know about you, but these days, I seem to be volunteering for more than ever before. This is something I’m happy to do, but I’m finding myself spread far too thin. As a novelist who only made her last deadline by forty-five minutes, I’m now hesitating to take on any new projects.

I am already involved in a variety of passionate causes, one of my favorites being The Women’s Lunch Place in Boston, a daytime shelter that provides refuge and services for Boston’s homeless and poor women and children.

Then there is teaching. I do some writing workshops, and visit local high school English classes to talk to students about writing and literature.  

I have joined boards to preserve historic landmarks, committees that provide scholarships, fund raising efforts to end domestic violence. The list goes on. 

But sometimes (alright many times, if I’m being honest here) I’m just exhausted. I can’t take on one more thing. There aren’t enough hours in the day. It’s a good thing I sleep a lot less than I used to, but, frankly, there aren’t enough hours in the night, either.

So it was a surprise even to me when I said yes to yet another project, one that has required more time from me than all the others combined. This year I agreed to co-chair the planning committee of the Salem Literary Festival.

“Are you insane?” was my husband’s question. “Probably,” I answered. If I had known what would be involved, I might not have continued. But the Salem Literary Festival is one of my all time passions, and I wasn’t about to let it die. And that’s just what would have happened, if it weren’t for a group of dedicated volunteers (one of whom turned out to be my husband).

When Salem’s independent bookstore, Cornerstone, closed last year, one of the less obvious casualties was the three-year-old Salem Literary Festival, which was started and anchored by the bookstore. It was a great festival for both readers and writers.

Salem is the ideal city for a lit fest. It’s small, walk-able, beautiful, and it has some of the best historic architecture in the country. Touted as the birthplace of the great American novel (a legacy left by Nathaniel Hawthorne, our native son), Salem has a rich and enduring literary tradition. Add to that Salem’s other American firsts: first millionaire, first candy store, first brick house, first elephant. (The elephant evidently had a drinking problem, but that’s a story for another day.) Salem’s full of quirky places and creative people, the perfect combination. We were determined to see the festival continue.

First we recruited more volunteers. The Spirit of ’76 bookstore in Marblehead offered to stand in for Cornerstone. We held committee meetings at my dining room table. We secured historic venues including The House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Athenaeum, the Phillips House. Even the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) made room for us.

We were a bit less lucky with hotel rooms. The Lit Fest runs from September 23-25, but we found ourselves blocked by Halloween visitors who seem to come to town earlier every year. There wasn’t a hotel room to be had. Well, actually, there was exactly one. We grabbed it.

When I tell you that our committee meetings have been stormy, I am being literal. Our second meeting was spent huddled around a television set in our kitchen watching the news. A tornado was ripping across Massachusetts. Our founder’s husband and daughter were stuck at home in their basement, waiting out the storm.

We wrote the festival brochure during hurricane Irene with a copywriter who lived near New Hampshire’s Mount Washington and kept losing power and a collaborator who had no electricity for three days. Somehow we managed. We picked up the printed brochures last Wednesday amid renewed rains and flooding.

Besides working on the brochure, my assignment was securing writers and creating events. Erin Morgenstern, writer of The Night Circus (written while she lived in Salem), and Lipstick’s own Joshilyn Jackson will be our keynote speakers. And speaking of The Lipstick Chronicles, we are hosting a panel on Sunday September 25th featuring Hank, Cornelia, Heather, Sarah, Joshilyn and me.  Believe it or not, it will be the first time some of us have met.

All in all, we have over fifty authors and many great events. Check it out at http://www.salemlitfest.com/schedule.

If you’re anywhere near Salem the weekend of September 23rd, please come. We’d love to see you. And for any of you writers out there, we have an open mic session at Gulu Gulu café on Sunday at 4PM. We welcome your participation.

This is one volunteer job that will soon come to an end. I’m sure I will feel simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated. And even though I swore I would never do it again, I will undoubtedly volunteer again next year.  After a short break, we’re planning to have a meeting to discuss next year’s lineup. Knowing New England and our stormy history, I figure it will probably snow.

So what kind of things are you passionate about? What inspires you to volunteer?