Friday, October 31, 2014

In Pain We Write

Happy Halloween.

This post was inspired by a devotion by Charles Swindoll on October 18, 2014, called Writing With Thorns.

We've all known pain, all known grief, to one extent or another. Some of the most enduring art, be it picture or words, is born from sorrow.

C.S. Lewis wrote so poignantly in A Grief Observed regarding the loss of his wife:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning . . . . Her absence is like the sky, spread out over everything.

Ada Campbell Rose, author and editor, wrote:
The mantle of grief falls on every hour of the day and covers me while I sleep. Will it ever go away?

And George Matheson, Scottish minister and hymn writer, wrote:

Show me that my tears have made my rainbow.

Lord, I wish I'd written that.

Lord, I wish I could grasp the truth of it.

But I feel my tears -- so ever present these days -- are nothing more than a release for the pain, regret, dashed hopes, anxiety, sorrow, and all I carry inside. I'm thankful, so thankful. for that release, because, as it is written in The Color of Sorrow Isn't Blue:
". . . there are so many [tears] inside I slosh when I walk."

But do I see them as my rainbow-maker? Never. Not once.

The six of us here have all written from our pain. I know many of you have too. We draw from the well of affliction, and amazingly we throw the light of hope and of humor on situations that seem so hopeless, so humorless. We, like you, do it as therapy for ourselves and encouragement for those who read our words.

So, I don't know, maybe I should reconsider my tears, maybe I should look for the rainbow. I just might see

What? What have you learned, shared, written in that dark night of the soul?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014


I spent the last two days tromping through nature with my daughter and a classroom of children. Their teacher informed me that 3/4 of the children hadn't--ever--been camping before, and most hadn't spent anytime outside of the city.

The teachers and staff at the camp facility lauded the children for their respect of the land, how they were quiet and careful hikers. I, too, was glad for the children's good behaviour. About halfway through our time, though, I realized that at least a portion of it could be chalked up to the newness of it all.

Of course they didn't stray from the groomed paths. They'd never walked on one before. Of course they were quiet when they were told to be. They had no idea what they were listening for and needed minute by minute instruction.

I began to hope they wouldn't always act this way. I don't want them marching over protected species and bulldozing through native prairie, but I hope that the newness wears off for them and they can begin to take joy in the unnatural setting of nature. Not the blasé of I've already seen the muskrat, why are you calling me back to look at it again? But the take-root exuberance of knowing a place so well you can relax enough to enjoy it.

I didn't want the kids to act up, but to act out.

Act out of the expectations of a school system that commends you for parroting back the right answer. Act out of character and be curious about a thin trail that leads to parts unknown. Act out bravery and walk alone in the dark, listening for clues, not about how safe, how close to civilization they are, but for how wild, how still connected they are to a lost eden.

Experience is the only way to learn which rules you can bend, and which should--must--break. Not because you can, but because you know the land intimately and you can hear its heart cry and are powerless to do anything but respond.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Interview with Susan Fish

Susan Fish, author of the new novel Ithaca 

Every once in awhile, Novel Matters will highlight a writer we enjoy. Susan Fish is one of those writers. She's penned a lovely, moving novel called Ithaca that hit shelves in early October. We think you'll want to get your hands on this book. Spend some time today getting to know this writer.

Susan Fish is a writer and editor who lives in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.  She’s a mother of three and wife of one. She also has an energetic dog although she is a cat person. The author of two published novels, she operates Storywell, an editing company that helps clients tell their stories well. She does not like sweating.

Novel Matters: Susan, welcome to Novel Matters! Tell us about your latest novel, Ithaca.

Susan Fish: For 39 years, Daisy Turner has been a professor’s wife, typing his notes and helping out. The centrepiece of her life is a weekly community dinner she hosts—one that always features soup.  The sudden death of her husband leaves her unmoored. Then, suddenly, Daisy finds herself entangled with a man whose wife is disabled, mothering a young activist-farmer, and swept into the controversy about fracking that has begun to concern their small Ivy League town. Ithaca explores what happens when a quiet, almost sedimentary life meets the high-pressure forces of a small town. How do you rebuild after life as you know it is suddenly turned upside down—or is fracked?

NM: Fracking. Uh. . . help us out here.

SF: Fracking or hydraulic fracturing is a new method for drilling for natural gas and oil. Rather than digging a well and getting a gusher (à la Beverly Hillbillies), fracking involves an intense injection of water, sand and chemicals into shale rock in such a way that the rock gets fractured and then all the tiny deposits of natural gas that were trapped between layers of rock are sucked out.

NM: Oh, that sounds simple and clean, and couldn’t possibly have any adverse effects on the environment. I’ve read the novel, Susan, and I know this isn’t an “issues” novel—

SF: Whew. That was obviously my hope, too. I didn’t want this to be an afterschool special type of book.

NM: And it totally isn’t! If I were pressed to classify the story, I’d say it’s a literary novel examining complex relationships between people, roles, and expectations about life. Two thumbs up for avoiding the soapbox! In fact, you don’t serve up easy answers about any of the issues you tackle in Ithaca. Still, the idea came from somewhere, what was the inspiration?

SF: I visited Ithaca, New York in the summer of 2011 and saw all sorts of signs up that said “No Fracking.” I had no idea what fracking was, and it was months later that I looked the word up.

NM: A summer trip to NY, and signs about fracking. How did that meld into story form for you?

SF: When I found out about fracking, I was already in the early stages of a novel about two older women who lived together, creating a sort of family. I knew that one was widowed and the other was recently retired. When I started thinking about fracking, it felt like in many ways fracking paralleled my characters’ experiences—their lives had been suddenly and potentially dangerously been fractured from all that had been settled and good.

NM: I think many people can relate to that. To having something happen in their life that breaks apart the solid foundation.

SF: I think because fracking became a metaphor for sudden loss and change, balancing the story with the issues of fracking came easily.

NM: Oh, please don’t tell me writing for you is easy! Pretty please! Tell me there were hard parts about writing this lovely novel.

SF: Oh, don’t worry. There were hard parts. What I found most challenging with this book was figuring out how my character would respond to the issue in a way that was true to who she was. I spent a lot of time with index cards figuring out the process.

NM: Your main character goes through a kind of growing up—maturing—even though she’s past middle aged. Was she one of those characters that arrive in the writer’s mind fully formed, or did she come at you in bits and pieces?

SF: I knew a lot about Daisy very early on and her voice was really clear to me. I knew that she hosted a weekly soup supper and that her husband had died suddenly. I knew that she had collections. It took me quite a while to settle on a name for her. A lot of this story came to me while walking my dog around our neighbourhood in the early evenings of autumn 2011. People had their lights on but had left their curtains open, and so I could see the stuff of people’s lives, the small domestic dramas being lived out faithfully.

NM: Yes! Novel writing via Peeping Tommery! Awesome!

SF: OK, no need to panic—I didn’t stop and watch, but it was hard not to be drawn to the scenes, as if they were small tableaux. I started imagining a woman whose house was filled with stuff that told her story, but whose life had been fractured. I should also say that I once knew a woman whose professor husband did die of a massive heart attack in a faculty meeting, but I don’t know how her story went, so it was not based on more than the facts.

NM: You and I have talked about this, Susan, and I’m dying to know what you decided: who would you want to play Daisy in the movie version?

SF: Oh, that’s a tough one. At first I thought Annette Bening and then Blythe Danner or Emma Thompson. I’m still not sure. Someone shortish and blonde and middle aged and able to be quiet, but with passion at the core. I’d love to hear who others see as Daisy.

NM: You took some risks: the novel is introspective, the main character is 58 years old, the whole issue/story balancing act. What drove you to create the novel this way?

SF: On September 11, 2001, my eldest child started kindergarten and the world blew up. That afternoon, I took my kids to a local farmers’ market and we bought corn—and then when the kids were asleep, we devoured the news of what was going on, and we shook. My actions were really deliberate because I did not want my kids to be shaped by fear. Someone later told me that this was a political act, as much as anything else I could have done. I believe in small actions making a difference, and I love reading and telling small, intimate, human stories. I really like that Daisy is a bit older and ordinary—because I think it challenges all of us as readers to see ourselves and our lives as stories, and to ask why we make the choices we do, and how we might think differently about our lives.

NM: Thinking about our lives. Let’s talk a bit about your life. How did you get sucked into the writing game?

SF: It got me early! There are two key points that mark the start of my writing history. The first was when I was in grade three and wrote a Christmas themed story about two sisters named Charlotte and Holly. My teacher liked it so much she had me write it out on Gestetner paper and illustrate it (this latter was a bad idea) and made copies for the school library.

NM: I know what Gestetner paper is, and I’m taking a moment to celebrate this fact. Woo Hoo! Okay. I’m good. What was the second point?

SF: Do you remember what the ink smelled like? I do! The second pivotal point came when I was working for Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship and I realized that one of my favourite parts of my job was writing letters to my supporters. No one else liked doing that. It led me to apply for work where my job was to tell stories.

NM: And you like stories that include food! Soup plays an important role in Ithaca. Here at Novel Matters, we love so many novels that include recipes as part of the story. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister, and Jan Karon’s Mitford Series come to mind – though Jan Karon published a complete recipe book with recipes mentioned in the series. Do you plan to include your soup recipes in the novel? Or would you consider a supplemental recipe book to go with Ithaca?

SF: I so enjoyed The School of Essential Ingredients and all Jan Karon’s books! Yum! After I finished writing this book, I decided I really should develop recipes to correspond with the chapter titles (all of which are indeed soup names). My poor family ate a lot of soup last year. I decided not to include the recipes in the book but I am releasing a recipe a week on my blog ( this fall.

NM: Can you share one of your favourite soup recipes with us?

SF: One of my favourites is the soup Daisy serves at Thanksgiving, which is Three Sisters Soup, based on the First Nations practice of growing beans, squash and corn together. Here’s the recipe for this soup:

Three Sisters Soup
In 1 Tbsp olive oil, sauté 1 stalk celery, chopped, 4 cloves garlic 1 onion, chopped, 1 tsp thyme. Add 2 cups cooked pumpkin or winter squash, 2 cups corn (2 cobs), 1 cup black beans, cooked (or other legume), 4 cups vegetable stock. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer. Add a dash of Sriracha sauce (or other hot sauce) and a splash of lime juice, salt and pepper.

NM: Along with homey soup, beekeeping is also part of the storyline of Ithaca. Seriously! Bees and honey. It felt so easy and natural to the story, that it makes me wonder if you knew lots about beekeeping prior to writing the novel, or did that require research?

SF: I spent an afternoon at a retreat talking with a beekeeper about beekeeping a few years ago. Bees are utterly fascinating to me. The small community where we have spent summers (on Quebec’s Gaspe peninsula) is home to an amazing beekeeping family who sell delicious varieties of honey. I think that played an influential role too. Beyond that, I did some Googling of bee facts. My favourite bee fact is that bees only live six weeks and so they never actually consume the honey they participate in making—they eat what others have made, and leave honey behind for those who come afterwards. That seems profound.

NM: Love it. I’ll be thinking about bees all day now. We know you run an editing business, tell us about your writing schedule.

SF: I write every day and a lot but a lot of that is for my editing company or for clients. It’s easy for fiction to get shoved to the side. I decided I was going to prioritize fiction writing on Fridays, which I call Fiction First Friday. I don’t think I have a preferred time to write, or at least, I don’t necessarily have that luxury. I’m no good for anything right after lunch, but other than that, I feel like the show must go on. Planning to write fiction on Fridays, though, means that I’m ready to sit down and write when Friday comes around.

NM: With all that going on, how long did it take you to write Ithaca?

SF: It took me about a year and a half in total to write Ithaca. Toward the end of the writing process, it was winter and my paid work was slow and I wrote and wrote and wrote this book pretty much every day.

NM: After reading Ithaca, readers are going to want a new novel from you as soon as possible. What are you working on now?

SF: I actually have two other unpublished novels so maybe those will be next. I’m about to embark on writing a cookbook about our local farmers’ market. I’m also slowly working on a novel about a fascinating woman who built a castle in the 1920s.

NM: Susan, thanks for stopping by, thanks for sharing, and thanks for writing such a smart, homely, lovely novel. How do we get a copy of Ithaca?

SF: Thanks so much for having me! Ithaca is available in all the usual places—the links are below. It can also be available in your local bookstore: all they need to know is the title and my name, and they can order it in.

Grab a copy of Ithaca online at one of these links:

Friday, October 24, 2014

Jesus In the Details

I play it over and over again, this particular segment of Searching for Sugarman.

For background, it's a true story about a folk-singer, contemporary of Bob Dylan - whose star fell as fast as Dylan's rose.

In this country.

In South Africa, it was a very different story, but for decades, he had no idea. In that country, he was off-the-charts huge. He could have been wealthy, but he didn't know.

Yes, watch the film.

But before you do, for the sake of this post, watch the segment from 49.31 to 50.47, and listen to what he says.

Would his life have been better? He doesn't know. How to respond?

"Nothing beats reality."

I remember a time when I both hoped and feared my life would change, and I found myself clinging for dear life to the ordinary. I took extravagant comfort in the morning ritual of filling the coffee pot with water, pouring it in the reservoir, scooping out three heaping spoons of coffee - and a fourth if they didn't heap tall enough.

The coldness of the water. The smell when I opened the bag.

I can think of moments that have made me think with gratitude of the tedium and even the pain of the past. I once read a book where the main character, in her time of crisis was asked by a wise person, "Where is Jesus right now?" I have read that I can never find Him anywhere but in this moment, in this place - in reality.  My experience seems to bear that out.

Whatever that reality is. "The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven..." Milton was right. It all depends on...

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

That Look

My son is taking a literature class - The Filmed Novel - that sounds like a hoot.  They read an assigned novel, discuss it and watch the movie together.  So far they've read The Maltese Falcon, High Fidelity and True Grit.  It's been interesting to hear his take on how closely the movies follow the books. He has definite opinions about the movies made of some of his favorites.  I have to agree with him on the Harry Potter finale being anticlimactic but I am totally satisfied with the treatment of The Hobbit.  I like to think that Tolkien would be, too.

Why didn't they have classes like that when I was in college?

This may border on heresy for some, but in my opinion the book is not always better than the movie. Here is my list:
  • The African Queen - My edition of this book ends poorly. The odd couple who fought together for something that mattered and found love in the film do not accomplish their goal in the book and simply...separate.  What a downer.  We need heroes and hope.
  • The Painted Veil - Again, the movie ending was more satisfying.
  • The Ghost and Mrs. Muir - the book was a snoozer. The script writers got it right.
  • Remains of the Day 
  • Chocolat
  • The Accidental Tourist
  • Out of Africa
Some of my preferences must be attributed to the great performances of talented actors and actresses who breathed life into two-dimensional characters. Other preferences were in regard to story. 

This is my partial list.  I wonder if you would add

Monday, October 20, 2014

The strengths in Weakness

Malcolm Gladwell recently published a book called David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. In it, he explores the ways that people who might be thought of as underdogs (think the shepherd boy confronting the giant) who succeed not in spite of their perceived weaknesses—but rather because of those weaknesses. In the biblical David’s case, says Gladwell, the younger and smaller young man felled the man as big as a tree precisely because David refused to fight the way Goliath wanted him to.

Later in his book, Gladwell showed how the repeated “rejection slips” received by the impressionists Edgar Degas, Paul Cézanne, Claude Monet, Pierre August-Renoir, and Camille Pissaro. They were constantly excluded from the great marketplace of the art of their time, the Salon.

They, too, decided to pull a surprise attack and rented their own gallery—where they were “discovered” by an adoring public that made their iconoclastic art famous.

Gladwell also relates how some of the most successful people in business, music, and other careers succeed as dyslexics who had to overcome their obstacles and turn them into strengths.

Gladwell, while looking deeply into a biblical story and later into Paul’s thorn in the flesh, sees only the weaknesses and how strong-minded people turned strengths into weaknesses. A Christian, of course, would see human will and persistence as only part of the solution. The sovereignty of God, who delights in using the weak and powerless so that He can demonstrate His power, is the key.

Nonetheless, I’ve been thinking about those Impressionists. What is the novelist’s equivalent of the Salon? What would a group of novelists do today in a correlative situation? And the will of God. . . 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Too Many Showers and Not Enough Writing

While in the shower I realized my hero committed to jogging daily with her friend, and she never breaks a sweat again in the story. Note to self: Revise jogging scene. Maybe the two girls could go to the bar and tip back some tequila shooters. 

Scratch that. 

Readers will kill me on Amazon. 

Better idea: Have hero come back from the run only to throw up on her friend's shoes. Hence, no more jogging invitations. Besides, jogging is so passe. 

Wait! There are Segways! Modern. Intriguing. No sweating. No throwing up. No struggle. No Segways. 


But jogging is a chestnut, no doubt about it. Let's see, the two characters have talked in quite a few situations: over coffee, at a restaurant, while drinking wine, and they've even done some crying in a closet. 

What's left? 

I'm feeling a little sweaty. My heart is bruising my ribs. I have a potassium tablet stuck in my throat. 
Could this be writer's block? 

Is this what happens when one idea is so married to my brain that only a divorce decree can free me?

But I don't believe in writer's block. I'm going to sit here until my characters find something else to do under my brilliant dialogue that represents and precipitates change.

Possible ideas:

1. Dance the polka? (The band is too loud for meaningful dialogue.)

2. Shop for flip flops? (Really? Flip flops are an impulse buy.)

3. Make clover chains in a meadow? (No meadows, sorry.)

4. Trim each other's bangs? (Real friends would never.)

5. Fish from a pier? (Ew.)

6. Paint a room? (The fumes!)

But something has to happen outside of the character's head to bring an outer and inner change. Yes, the dialogue does that, but in the original scene my hero's lack of physicality makes her more open to romance with a man she considers "older."

I'm heading back to the shower. Where else?

Writer's block is a convenient excuse for an art that is incredibly...

Incredibly what? Do you believe in writer's block? How do you combat the beast?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

An Excerpt: The Color of Sorrow Isn't Blue

Here's another excerpt from The Color of Sorrow Isn't Blue, the latest release by Sharon K. Souza.

“Oh. Oh. Look!” Ainsley is on her feet and pointing at the water.
The reflection of the sun on the silvery waves hurts my eyes. I make a visor with my hand and squint until I my eyes adjust to the brilliance. Then I see what she’s pointing at.

“Whales?” Jaclyn, too, is on her feet. But she sees her error at the same instant the rest of us do.

“Dolphins!” Sissy says. “A whole school of them!”

“Pod,” Spinner corrects. “Dolphins are mammals, you know, not fish.”

Sissy turns an indignant face to the plebe who has dared to correct her. “Yes, well, mammals or not, school is certainly interchangeable with pod.”

Of course, Sissy would know.

“Although,” she concedes, “pod is the more common term.”

And Spinner, who must be smarter than he looks, gives a conciliatory nod to the woman who has fed him so well today.

Sissy and Ainsley have joined Jac and me on the starboard side. Or maybe it’s the port side. Who knows? Why don’t they call them right and left and make it simple for idiots like me? But I relinquish such immaterial thoughts in light of the frenetic activity in the water on my side of the boat.

“Six at least.” Ainsley’s voice is rich with excitement. “But it’s hard to count them!”

Their perfectly arced bodies breach the surface over and over, as if some unseen force beneath the sea is juggling dolphins. Their smiling faces come almost near enough to touch at times, as the water dances off the gleaming silver of their hides, and the sound they make is like laughter.

“They’re bottlenose, of course,” Spinner says. Maybe the most surprised among us, he’s as excited as anyone aboard his boat.

Jac digs in her pocket for her phone. “Can you believe this? Can you?” She begins to snap photos with a fury that matches the dolphins’ play.

Spinner holds up a finger as if to say wait a sec, then reaches beneath his dash and pulls out a big white bucket. “Lunch,” he says with a smile. He reaches in and pulls out something disgusting, something with lots of legs. Or tentacles. “Squid. Their favorite. Here you go, ladies, there’s plenty for everyone.” He tosses one overboard, and the frenetic activity in the water increases exponentially. “Don’t anyone be shy.”

Naturally, Sissy leads the way. She tugs up the sleeve of her sweatshirt and reaches in as though she’s mining carrots for a stew. And no surprise. Anyone who can mutilate a clam without so much as a gag, can toss a blob of squid to a hungry pod of dolphins.

Jaclyn goes next, then Ainsley. “Come on, Bree! Your turn.” They both urge me on. My sister touches a hand to the small of my back. “You can do this.”

“They’re waiting,” Jaclyn adds, with a push in her voice and an eyebrow hiked.

“Good Lord! They stink to high heaven!”

“Well, they’re not for you, love.” Sissy reaches past me and grabs another squid out of the bucket. “Let’s see who can throw the farthest.”

The farthest. As if it’s a softball-tossing match. Lord, will I ever get out of the sixth grade in this woman’s eyes?

She nudges me with an elbow. “Come on, love. LATSF.”

I stop half way to the bucket. LATSF. LA ...TSF. Launch a tasty squid, fast? I toss a frown over my shoulder.

“Look at their smiling faces,” she says. “Now, come on.”

I use my thumb and index finger like pinchers, touching as little of the slimy thing as I can and still manage to grip it. Then I reach back, careful not to drip anything on myself. On Sissy’s count of three I hurl the creature as far as I can. Which turns out not to be far at all. Because it splats against one of the aluminum poles that holds our Bimini lid up and bounces back at my feet, even squishier than it was before.

My audience laughs. Even Ainsley. And Spinner. And the dolphins. All of them laughing away. Well fine. I reach down, pick that puppy up, and send it sailing. It makes an arc against the crystal clear sky. Almost before it begins to descend, a sleek, silvery dolphin leaps and catches it midair, then does a cannonball. Right there in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, a cannonball. “You’re welcome,” I say under my breath. I reach over the edge of the boat and pour what’s left of my bottled water over my hand. It’s not enough to rinse the feel of the squid away, but it’ll have to do. And while everyone laughs and claps, all I can think is, Kinsey would love this. The thought weakens my knees. I clutch the pole for support and lower myself to the cushionless pad.

“Mama?” I love how she says this. Not like a monotone baby doll’s ma-ma, but like she’s calling me to task. Come here and explain, that’s what she says in that one, sparkling word. She’s crouched down in jeans and purple-soled sneakers that light up when she walks. She never fails to stomp her feet when she wears them. Or smile. She loves these sneakers. Her bottom nearly touches the brick patio where she squats. “What do you suppose that is?” She points at a snail inching its way up the sliding glass door that stands between the patio and our kitchen. The creature is right at her eye level.

“That,” I say, “is a snail.”

“Snail?” She scrunches her nose when she says it. “Can I touch it?”

She’s fearless, this three-year-old female version of Sam.

“Well, I wouldn’t.” That’s what I start to say, but catch myself. “Sure, baby girl. Go ahead.” I hold my breath and stifle a shiver as she reaches out and presses her little index finger against the amber shell. It has reddish-brown stripes in a pattern that’s surprisingly pretty running the length of its fragile carapace. The snail stops the moment it’s touched, pulls its slimy body into its shell, and hunkers down.

Kinsey presses again. “Why won’t it go?”

Do I tell her it’s because she’s frightened the poor thing? No. Absolutely not. “It’s resting. Like you do in the afternoon.”

“Oh.” She pulls back and watches. Waiting.

Just then, David comes through the doorway. “Hey there, ladies.” He presses his lips against my forehead—as close as he dares to come to my lips these days—and bends down and scoops up Kinsey, who laughs and calls him Daddy, and holds tightly to his neck. “Ah, what’s that?” And before I can stop him, he plucks the snail off the window and tosses it into the shrubs. Kinsey’s eyes follow its path as the smile drops off her face. My heart sinks right along with it.

“Look! Look!” It’s Ainsley again, calling me back from the place I’d much rather be. “What acrobats!”

She’s right. The dolphins’ movements aren’t random, not at all. They’re planned. Designed. I wonder which among them is the choreographer. Probably not my cannonballer. I can just see her instructor, clearing its throat, tapping its wand against a fin, calling back to attention the frolicsome one. The pod prankster.

The sun has broken through the clouds, and now that the boat is still, the blazing star sheds a blanket of warmth on us. Well, the boat is still except for the raucous way it totters on the waves, as if Neptune himself is rocking our cradle. Sissy tugs off her sweatshirt.

“Sissy.” The concern in Ainsley’s voice draws my attention. She reaches a hand toward our stepmother. “What happened?”

Sissy looks to the spot on her underarm that’s garnered Ainsley’s attention, and mine and Jac’s, too, for that matter. “Oh, that?” It’s a bruise the size of a grapefruit, all purple and puffy.

“And that.” Ainsley points to the other arm, for there’s another one just like it in almost the same spot.

“I got it, them, um ...” She’s suddenly one of her students, explaining why her homework isn’t turned in. “I fell. Off my pole.”

Ainsley pulls back, the way she does when she’s surprised. “Your pole? What, what kind of pole?”

“The, um, dancing kind?”

It’s like we’re instantly freeze dried, Ainsley, Jaclyn and me. Spinner too, except for the eyebrow that hikes up his forehead and disappears beneath the bill of his cap. His eyes lose their squint, and he turns them on Sissy.

We’re in a vacuum. No sound, no boat, no dolphins, no sea. Just this crazy vision of Sissy. With a pole made for dancing. It’s a vision I can’t quite wrap my head around. And I wonder, Does Dad know? But the vacuum doesn’t last long. It shatters in the laughter that erupts from Jaclyn. It bubbles up from her toes, this tsunami of mirth, and explodes out of her mouth. “Dancing? You were pole dancing?”

Splotches of red appear on Sissy’s neck. Oddly, that’s where her embarrassment shows. “Well, not dancing dancing. It’s an exercise class.”

“You pole dance for exercise? Whatever happened to Curves? Or Pilates?”

Sissy frowns and does her best to appear once again like the teacher in charge. “It’s quite a workout, really.”

“I bet. So how did you, you know”—Jac breaks into laughter again—“fall off your pole?”

“Oh, honestly, I don’t know. And I wasn’t even wearing high heels.”

High heels?

Spinner’s other eyebrow joins the first one, deep beneath the bill of his soiled Marlins cap. Judging by how wide his eyes spring open, those brows would be up to his hairline if he had one. I can tell by the way his open mouth turns upward that he’s gained a new appreciation for Sissy that goes way beyond her burritos.

“That’s what some of them wear,” Sissy is saying. “That, and their hot pink sports bras and these booty shorts that don’t begin to cover their cheeks, if you know what I mean. They’re all skinny. And focused. I don’t even know why they’re there. The instructor, naturally, wears the highest heels, the tightest bra and the shortest shorts. And she has this rose tattoo on the small of her back that might look cute now, but when that thing begins to sag, she’ll have thorns in places ... well, you get the idea.”

“Oh, yeah,” Jac says. “Ouch. And what do you wear?”

“Yoga pants. Floor length. And my Betty Boop T-shirt.”

Sissy’s a big fan of Betty Boop.

“And Spike? Does he go?”

“Spike?” Spinner can’t seem to help himself.

“Now why on earth would I take Spike?”

Ainsley is laughing now, too, bent over at the waist, hands on knees, not able to suck in a breath. She just hacks out this laugh that takes me back to when we were kids. If, for example, she was about to get caught in tag, she’d just buckle and burst into laughter. So naturally, everyone always went for Ainsley in tag. Now, they just go for her, period. Ainsley, the joyful one. I never understood why she’d give in without a fight, but I loved it about her. Then, because it made life easy. Now, because it’s a tiny strand that anchors me to sanity.

“Okay. Enough said.” Sissy claps her hands in that attention-getting way she has. “Now that you’ve all had your fun, can we get back to feeding the dolphins?”

But they’re gone, without a hint they were ever there. Like so many other things in my life. I sit back, stuff my hands in my pockets. And touch my starfish.

Available at

Monday, October 13, 2014

An Excerpt

“It’s Friday night. Please tell me you have reservations at a West Village hot spot.” Jules searched the ceiling for the name of just such a place. “The Little Owl, or somewhere. You should be off somewhere fabulous.” 
I made the vague tsk noises I’d perfected since my move from Waitsfield, Vermont, to New York City two years ago. A noise that both dismissed the fact that I was working late—again, and, hopefully—relayed my enthusiasm for all this brilliant, vital work to be done. Where could be more fabulous than right here? Puh-lees.
Besides, the only fabulous place I wanted to go was home to my one room apartment on the Lower East side. From the moment I left home at seven fifteen each morning until well after five o’clock every evening, I longed to be back there. That three hundred square foot space held my whole world, my atlases, books, and maps that were strategically scattered all around, and, most importantly, my prized possession, my obsession really, the hand-drawn, original map of New York that I had been working on every day since I first moved to the city. It was my big dream.
But dreams didn’t pay the rent, and if I wanted to have a hope that anyone would, one day, pay attention to any creation of mine, I first needed to make a name for myself as a cartographer. So, even though my map called to me all day, I forced myself to work long hours at Mappers Inc., often coming in on weekends. It was a weird self-punishment thing. Like when you had to go to the bathroom but would see how many things you could accomplish before you had to run for it or you wouldn’t make it. Gross, I know, but that’s what this self-punishment I did to myself was: gross. Intimately gross.
 “Fi?” Jules never called me by my full name. Modern life was so fast paced it necessitated abbreviating everyone’s name to the least number of syllables possible to save time. Mappers Inc. was populated with truncated folks, women called Al, Rob, Mar, and of course Fi. The men responded to Bo, Red, and Al even though their names were Robert, Alfred, and Alfonso. The women? Alison, Roberta, and Marilynn. We were never to call him Mr. Amie. He was obsessed with the whole co-team equality gig. We’re all the same, he’d insist, equals. Except he was the equal who could fire me. He owned Mappers Inc. Owned.
 “I never eat out,” I said. A total lie. I ate nearly every meal while standing under the canopy of a food truck. Feeling guilty for the lie, I flashed Jules the thumbs up sign. Just like a thirteen-year old.
He looked at my thumb for a second. “Whatcha working on?”
More guilt. I had just been working on adding a trap street to our digital map of the area—inventing a street, or geographical area which doesn’t actually exist as a way of protecting our copy right of the map—which, in cartographer terms, was akin to putting my signature on the work. My signature, not Mappers Inc.’s signature. I tried to look importantly busy and not so much like Mappers Inc.’s most junior cartographer. His question was unnecessary given the fact that he knew precisely the work of everyone in the office at any given time. This omnipresent knowledge was thanks to the fact that his workspace housed a wall of screens—twenty of them—from which he worked while simultaneously keeping an eye on everything happening on our floor. So he knew I’d been bug-eyed for weeks over a stretch of northern wilderness that ran along the Canadian border from Michigan to Maine.
He came in and stood behind my chair. Real close. “You’re tense.”
Ummm, yeah, I was. And not just because I’d spent the last ten and a half hours fighting with satellite hookups, cloudy skies, and blurred vision, while staring at screen after screen of hundreds of miles of lakes, forests, logging roads, a resort thrown in here and there, and not much else. Nope. I was tense because Jules Amie was standing so stinking close to me I could smell the soft scent of jasmine tea he must have just finished drinking. I always got muddled up when he was in close proximity. Not because of his hunkiness, though he was nothing to sneeze at. Back home, he’d have been the prized pig without competition. He was a little on the short side, but compensated with that urban casual-yet-chic look created by the fact that everything he wore had been ironed by an underpaid Mexican immigrant earlier that morning. His dark hair was always slicked back like he’d just come from someplace glamorously breezy. His eyes were dark, and a tad too close together, but they pierced you with their empathic sincerity, pinned you to the wall with what appeared to be his very real joy at having encountered you.
He put his hands on my shoulders. I pressed a combination of keys and the five screens on my workspace surface—no desks here—went dark. Truth was that what I was working on could wait until Monday. Or the Monday after that. Or whenever.
It was a light touch, quick enough to not fall into the sexual harassment category but, apparently, it was enough to tell him a great deal. “God, Fi, you’re wound tight.”
I didn’t like being touched. Scratch that. I liked it fine, I just wasn’t used to it. New York City wasn’t the place to live if you wanted lots of meaningful human contact. At least it wasn’t for me. Seriously, when was the last time a man touched me? Really touched, not the freakazoid groping on the subway at rush hour, or the ass pinching from that homeless guy in the alley beside my apartment who looked like a refugee from Armageddon, but somehow always smelled like baked bread. It had been a forever since I’d been touched. Two forevers since someone had held me.
Get a grip, Fiona. The boss touches your shoulder for half a second and you’re immediately thinking he’s looking to star in a porno with you. Stop! Must. Stop. Thinking. Weird. Thoughts. I reached under the desk—workspace surface—for my purse, but when I leaned down Jules bent down too, and when I sat up I cracked the back of my head against his chin.
“Oh God, Jules, I’m sorry.” Kill me. Kill me now. 
He rubbed his chin and grinned at me as if I’d handed him a bouquet of flowers. He wasn’t coming on to me. I’d learned this through trial and error. For my first few months at Mappers Inc., Jules doted on me. I became convinced that all he thought about all day was ever improving ways to seduce me. He’d chat to me while standing in the doorway of my office—workspace—leaning against the jamb like a Calvin Kline underwear model. When I arrived at work windswept, my curly hair flying around my head like a brillo-pad, he’d tell me I looked gorgeous. Once on a cold January day, I stupidly wore the bulky cable-knit sweater my mom had made me for Christmas, and he said I looked earthy. It took several months, but I came to realize he hadn’t been flirting, or singling me out. He was just one of those Harvard extroverts who oozed the kind of hyper-friendliness that made introverts like me cringe. He treated everyone with the same laser-beam affection. After a while, I started to like him, but I’d never learned how to relax around him.
“I’m really sorry,” I said. The back of my head pulsed with pain where it had connected with his chin. And his hand was still on my shoulder. I stood up and performed my subway jerk-and-step move: a quick tip of the shoulder to dislodge the hand, while simultaneously sidestepping out of reach. Since I moved from Vermont to New York, I’d invented a hundred ways to physically distance myself from people.
I grabbed my coat, purse, and hand-knitted mittens—hey, it was October—and headed for the elevators. “Goodnight,” I waved at him. Actually waved. When would I stop being an incurable doffus? When? 
“Fi?” he said in that fake casual way that made my heart pound hard. Something was coming I could feel it. For a hysterical second a line from a song in A Chorus Line blasted in my head, “Oh God, I need this job. Please God I need this job.”
Jules said, “Have you started mapping Vermont?”
Perfectly legitimate question. Mappers Inc. developed animation software, which ran in conjunction with digital map images of geographical locations around the world. So, you’d be able to Google Earth a place, say Paris, zoom in to street level, and the animation software would move objects in the image to create the immersive sensation that you were really standing at the intersection of Boulevard du Montparnasse and Rue de Rennes while traffic flew by, and birds sang from their perches on the roof of the Place Pablo-Picasso. Or, you could click down into Eastern Europe and watch old men with caved in faces lead ox carts through the muddy streets of rural Lithuania and nearly smell the manure left behind. But the software was full of glitches. I knew this because Jules’s workspace was down the hall from mine and I could hear him swearing at his wall of screens. He was like God, staring at the earth, cursing all the glitches. Even the unexciting bits of map that I was working on, rural Vermont, would eventually get the animation treatment. Except Mr. Twenty-Computer-Screens knew exactly which patch of northern Vermont I was working on. So, why would he ask? Had I been working too slowly? Too fast? Perhaps it was only because he was originally from Vermont, like me, and he took special interest in his home state.
Respond, Fiona, I told myself. Say something. But I’d already hesitated and that tiny gap before answering was all the answer he seemed to need.
“Go home,” he said as he strolled toward me. “And don’t come back—”
“Please don’t fire me.” I was begging. Immediately begging. I had a horror of being fired and forced to pack up my closet of an apartment into my junker car and head back to Waitsfield, Vermont, where Mom and Dad would embrace me, their eyes moist with the unspoken phrase, ‘We told you so.’  It was all so inevitable. I lived in horror of it. Failure was my stalker.
“Don’t come back,” Jules went on, “for a week at least.”
“Huh?” Brilliant, Fiona. Keep up that kind of savvy and there would be a Nobel Prize in your future for sure.
“You need a vacation.” His eyes flickered down to my black skirt, black tights, and sensible walking shoes, all of which had traces of golden hair on them. His eyes lingered on my legs, clad in the tights so expensive I had literally heard my mother scream in my head when I bought them. The shoes? I’d slipped off my Louis Vuitton knock-offs in favor of my broken-in twenty-five dollar walking shoes about an hour ago. They made my feet look like matching loaves of bread, but they were So. Comfortable. 
“I have a dog,” I blurted. I meant to explain the stray hairs, but it came out as if I were suffering from Tourette Syndrome. 
Jules, smooth as always, didn’t miss a beat. “Love dogs.”
“Mooch,” I stuttered.
“How’s that?”
I twitched with self-consciousness. “I call him Mooch.” He was a golden lab I’d had since I was a teen. I couldn’t bear to leave him behind in Vermont. Turned out, he’d made the adjustment to New York better than I had. 
“Take a week.” Jules pointed with mock severity. “Don’t show your face around here until the 21st—at the earliest.” He turned and walked away. “And Fi?” He called without looking back. “Enjoy.”
I stood in the lobby in that awkward moment between making a fast getaway and waiting for the impossibly slow elevator. Around me, the office gleamed. White. Chrome. Spotless. Modern. Ultra-modern, the kind you’d see in magazines. I wiggled my toes inside their ugly shoes. I meant for the black clothes to make me look NYC sophisticated, the opposite of the nerdy girl from the sticks who loved maps and dogs and little else.
Must. Try. Harder.
A week off work. In October. Why hadn’t he made me take a week off in July? A week to rethink my wardrobe. A week to rethink Fiona Stuart. Reinvent her—again. Smart, capable, professional Fiona.
When I finally arrived home, I changed into my favorite pair of stretch pants, and grey Mappers Inc. sweatshirt, leashed Mooch, grabbed my map, and went for a long walk.

I could work on polished New York Fiona tomorrow.