Book Review – The Road To Bittersweet

I was lucky enough to score an ARC of Donna Everhart’s The Road to Bittersweet. I absolutely loved her debut book, The Education of Dixie Dupree so I was very excited to get her latest book.

The Road to Bittersweet follows the Stamper family through trials and tribulations as a flood destroys their home in the foothills of South Carolina. Woven into this tale of tragedy and redemption is a lovely story between two sisters, Wallis and Laci. Younger Wallis is a sturdy sort of girl, very near the opposite of her fey older sister, Laci, lithe and lovely but autistic. Laci is a music savant who does not speak, and Wallis has assisted in Laci’s care her entire life.

When a young man, Clayton, appears on the scene and earns Wallis’s regard, the relationship between the sisters is tested and changed as Clayton pays more attention to Laci over Wallis.

The Road to Bittersweet is a lyrically emotional journey and a beautiful coming of age tale of faith and family. Donna Everhart is off to a wonderful start in her literary career, and I look forward too many more wonderful journeys with her work.

The Angel and My First Guitar

More than forty years ago, I rose after sunset on a Christmas Eve, my mother fretting that I would be sick on Christmas and loudly blaming her younger sister, my Aunt Ann, for my illness. We were visiting my grandmother in Florida so no snow, the chill in the air limited and only present due to my breaking fever.

I was nine years old and I wanted a guitar more than anything in the world. My aunt worked with the band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, at the time, this being the mid-1970s. Watching Allen Collins and Gary Rossington play enthralled me to the point that everything else in the world disappeared. What I wouldn’t give to be able to make a bunch of wood and string make such music. A year or so before that Christmas, Ronnie Van Zant asked me if I was going to be a musician so the story goes.

A musician? Oh, no, my mother would never allow it, but in that moment, I wanted it so much, almost as much as I wanted to be a writer. My answer came out quiet with despair.

“Girls don’t play guitar.”

I shuddered to hear myself say such a thing. At the time, girls did not play Little League either. Around the year of this question, I had become the first girl in my neck of the woods to play Little League baseball. Maybe, I could play guitar as well.

From about the age of five until after puberty, I despised being a girl because of all the things I was told girls did not do. I was violent about the whole thing, a bit insane really. Any dress bought for me, I immediately tore into unwearable shreds. Anything pink burned in the fire place. I did not talk to girls or play with them.

All my friends were boys, but I knew just as they did, I was not one of them. I must have cried when I answered Mr. Van Zant. Yes, I wanted to play the guitar. I did, and I could too.

I had long traded yard work for piano lessons from a neighbor woman, and I could already read music. I had checked out books on guitar chords and frets so had in my mind how the thing was managed.

I don’t have my own recollection of this conversation. My aunt told me the tale. Ann told me Ronnie had laughed at my answer. She could not recall what he said to me, only that it challenged my notion about girls not playing guitar. Ronnie charged Ann with my musical education and she took this very seriously. It started with the departed Janis Joplin and continued with the recently emerging Patti Smith and on and on.

So that Christmas I wanted a guitar without much hope of getting one. For me a guitar was much like the Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story. Not that I would shoot my eye out, but it was not a thing for kids, and most certainly not for girls as far as my mother was concerned. However, that year, I asked for nothing else.

I had a back-up plan. The angel I spoke to every night before I went to sleep suggested it, and I filled a piggy bank with coins I earned raking leaves in the fall and pulling weeds in the spring. I was still too young to babysit which would be more lucrative in years to come, but I could work. I had peddled my bike all the way to the local music store that past summer, a good three-mile track from my house.

I had priced out guitars. The amount might as well have been a million dollars for all the good my savings would do. Even for the six-string that the long-haired salesman told me would be a good “learning” guitar for a kid.

I told my angel I needed a miracle. I did not think my parents could afford something so dear, not when it was hard for them to afford our food every week. The angel agreed about the miracle but not about the guitar. The angel is like that.

Aside from the guitar, I often prayed that I could be recreated as a boy. Then I could play football and my parents would love me more. I wouldn’t seem so weird if I was a boy, I told the angel. Boys always seemed to be allowed more accommodation and tolerance for oddity than girls. If I had been a boy, I reasoned, maybe my parents would even want me to have a guitar.

On that Christmas Eve, my mom was losing her shit because we were so late for church. It was Christmas Eve, and I was listless, pale, hair unkempt, and I probably needed a bath. There was no time for our usual grandiose fight to put a dress on me. Clean corduroys and one of those Christmas sweaters no sane person would be caught dead in on any other night than Christmas Eve were shoved onto my body.

Everyone else had already gone to the church, and it was me and my mom. She caught hold of my arm, this tiny woman of incredible strength, as she pulled me out of my grandmother’s house and into that old station wagon. Everyone else had walked to the church, but there was no time and no parking and I had no strength in my legs. I remember being a bit frightened as my mom pulled that old clunker of a station wagon into a space that seemed too small, all the while cursing the disarray of the parking situation and that she had not finished her pecan pies or whatever she was contributing that year for Christmas Eve dinner. I said nothing. My mother carried a lot of weight on her shoulders. As strict as she was with me, she was nothing compared to how my grandmother treated her. I understood exactly how insecure and unsettled she felt before the eyes of a woman who never approved fully of anything my mother did.

My mom was not in the least bit concerned that I might be an incubator of viral plague. Her faith was pretty insane. It was Christmas. Whatever noxious illness I might have would not take out my grandmother’s church congregation even if I was cultivating some zombie apocalypse virus (a real possibility considering how I felt that night).

I remember it was hard getting out of the car because mom parked so close to the car in the next space. The next moment claimed a memory that will echo through my life until its end, one of those rare moments. The music coming up from the church in the twilight of that winter’s eve froze time about me. My angel was singing from the body of some child.

“O Holy Night” rang through the night, and all else became silent. I took my mom’s hand. For the first time, I heard the lyric. I listened to the soul of the musical composition as a whole and felt with certainty that only divinity could inspire such a thing.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining
Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new glorious morn
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels’ voices

My mother and I entered the church behind the choir as the rest of the voices joined the child who had begun the song. It was glorious and I wished it to go on and on. It did not. I fell asleep on the hard pew in the back of the church. All and all, it was the best church service I ever attended.

I kept a jumble of images of the rest of the night, the giant Santa Claus at my Great Aunt Glenn’s house, my dad wearing a Santa hat that matched the one my Uncle Gene and my Uncle Jim had worn,  watching How the Grinch Stole Christmas on a tiny television on the glass sun porch that overlooked the St. John’s River, a quilt that smelled like bourbon and tobacco smoke thrown over me by one of my relatives as I lay on a wicker couch, the sounds of my cousins playing, my little brother almost falling in the river, and his laughing at my mother’s distressed reprimand of him. My brother’s dearest wish at that age was to fall into the river, and I think he finally managed it by the next Christmas.

I slept on a Christmas Eve, maybe for the first time since I had been old enough to understand about presents and magical flying reindeer. My brother tried everything to keep me awake as I was supposed to help him listen for the bells that announced the arrival of Santa and a sleigh carried by aforementioned flying reindeer. I passed that baton onto him that Christmas.

The song “O Holy Night” filled my dreams displacing all the dancing sugar plums and commercial rot that once infested my childish mind. Something spoke to me, too deep, too big, too strong for my spoiled nine-year old mind to comprehend, but the angel assured me it would come to me in time.  It did but not in a way mortal words can express.

The guitar waited for me under my grandmother’s massive tree that Christmas morning.  I could scarce believe it. In the night, I had accepted that my parents could not afford such a present, and that I would be happy with whatever given to me. That made it all the more splendid. I doubt I bothered with my stocking or other presents. I picked up the guitar, half-hearing my aunt tell me the boys from Skynyrd had helped pick it out and tuned it for me. I began to pick out the notes for “O Holy Night”.

The angel smiled at me in his knowing way unobserved by the rest of the family. He was quite smug about it, really, and so I stuck my tongue out him, silly mortal that I am.  I do not think anyone heard the tune I picked out, but my heart filled with the song. My favorite song. Forever.

Draft 53 #amwriting Still

I look at Publisher’s Weekly every freaking week because you know, I got a dream. It’s fun seeing the latest twenty-something year-old signing their first six figure deal. Boy, kids today.

I try to imagine my name in Publisher’s Weekly in some six-figure deal with super cool agent and big publishing company. Only I won’t be twenty-something. That boat sailed by like a rainy spring day followed by heavy hail and damaging winds. Yeah, it shows. It’s been that kind of life.

I am writing the book and not so much this blog. I’m neglecting everything but this damn book. My Keurig gets lots of attention. Black coffee at 5:00 PM after work. Super stupid idea because then I can’t get to sleep. And by the time I get to work at 7 too freaking early in the morning, it’s more caffeine and dragging myself home at 4:00 PM in a daze. I am like some blood-crazed creature only writing is the blood I crave and must have. I’ll die without it. No, seriously.

I’m so close I can taste it. This is the book, finally. After so many half-finished, badly finished, and not-quite what I was going for books, this is the one. Probably.

At draft 53, well doubts begin to settle in. Also, a beta-reader damned me to Hell so that’s fantastic. So, my super-agent and big publisher will have to be cool with a book with the power of damnation. I shudder to think what that beta-reader would make of Cormac McCarthy. I am pretty sure my stuff is not that kind of disturbing. It’ll be fine. So back at it. I will try to do better with the blog, but I doubt my half-dozen blog readers miss me much. Draft 53. Here we go.

 

Discovering New York

I am not a New Yorker. I have visited many times. When I was very young, my grandmother nurtured in me a great love for theater which she encouraged by bringing me to New York when I was in my early teenage years to see various shows on and off Broadway. In the end, my love of theater took me to London. I fell in love with the entire UK in my college years. New York was simply too close, and I wanted to run very far away from my life. That, however, is no longer important.  For my daughter, the experience was something different. She loved New York from her earliest visits and so when she grew up, that is where she moved. Five months ago.

I could not imagine living there- the noise, the fast-pace, the crowding, a jungle of concrete and glass – no it was not for me. I changed my mind when I visited my daughter in Brooklyn. I left my hotel in the upper East side and traveled by subway to Brooklyn. It took a really long time. The F train was not running. Fine, fine. I took the D train. It was crowded, missed my stop. Fine. Back one stop. Back to D train to the C train. Got on C train going the wrong way towards Queens, not Brooklyn. Great. I stink at this.

I never had this trouble with the tubes in London. Finally, with the help of some of the natives, found the C train going the right way. Boarded a car with no air conditioning. It was hot that day. Ugh, and the C train was running local. No idea what that meant. Only it took longer to get to my stop in Brooklyn. I did, after three stops, garner the courage to exit the hot car and change into another car. Much cooler. At long last I arrived in Brooklyn.

What a lovely place. My daughter greeted me with a phalanx of her friends. The girls suggested Kate take me to Brooklyn Heights for dinner and a walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. The afternoon had turned breezy, perfect summer day, not too hot, not too cold. I agreed. I am glad I did.

My first thought of the Brooklyn Bridge came of watching the television on 9/11 – sixteen years ago, and the people watching the towers fall, then the crowds marching across the bridge as it was the only way for them to get home that day.  Sixteen years and that day still seems a moment ago. There are no words for the grief of that terrible day. All alone in our castle burning to death.

Something inside of me healed just a bit when I made the walk across the Brooklyn Bridge with my daughter that August evening at sunset. New York survived. Yes, the world is a mess. It always is. Still, despite the horrors of the world, there is still beauty and some of it is created by the hand of man. How easily I fall in awe of the mountains and sea, but I looked at Manhattan with new eyes that evening. How extraordinary.

New York really is a pentacle of human achievement, people from every possible spot on the planet, gathered in one place where buildings reach up and try to touch the heavens and little parks and ponds are dotted between them. Impossible dreams realized by the hands of thousands upon thousands of squishy, short-lived, sometimes mean and greedy, often cruel, but still amazing and full of hope, people.

Yes, all of our favorite sins twist and interlock in equal measure to the grandeur of the architecture and technology in an endless macabre dance that gives New York its personality, like some fallen god that still holds great power and sway.  Words fail me, but I now understand why my daughter has fallen so in love with New York. For all mankind’s failings, for all the tragedy and noise and dirt and pollution, for all our petty wars and disputes, the world is full of so much wonder limited only by our imaginations. And New York offers its share of all of that.

A Yokel in QOTKU’s Court #WD17

So day 2 in New York is day 1 of the Writer’s Digest Conference 2017. The thing I am most looking forward to at the crack of dawn, after bidding my daughter a good day on set, is meeting my queen, Janet Reid.

I make my entrance to the first real day of the conference with an over-priced cup of coffee. Turns out I could have gotten it for free but who knew? The first session I attended was “Pitch Perfect” because as I mentioned in the last post, even though pitching is a tool of the devil, I was doing it.

I had no idea how to pitch my weird-ass fantasy novel. The best I had that morning was Paradise Lost meets Robin Hobb. I would figure it out later, maybe five minutes before walking in the pitch room. I still have beta readers to meander through so I wasn’t worried. I wanted mostly to avoid any terrible pit falls like “don’t stab agents with sharp objects.” I am a writer and ever so slightly psychotic.  I need to be told this.

Then there was the first page seminar. Great openings are a good way to get agents and editors reading. I knew about 90% of the examples given as great openings to several masterpieces. I felt so well read, but again, I have no idea if my weird book has a fantastic opening. Someone gets punched in the face. That is more or less a stock opening, wouldn’t you say? Maybe, I should change it.

Finally, it is time for “Ask the Agents” panel and my queen approaches. Janet Reid is a force of nature as you would expect a shark to be. She, Abby Zidle, and Barbara Poelle should go on the road as a comedy act. They were hysterical and super informative all at once. What a perfect combo, two agents and one editor.

Yes, Janet Reid is a shark. She is probably a very tough negotiator. Also, she is quite direct. She tells it like it is. She is also the most generous person in publishing. The word has gotten out despite all her bluster.

After the session, a huge gaggle of writers flock around her with their questions. I hang back until I can say hello. I agree to try and see her after her last session. She changed my writing life. I want as many other writers as possible to experience that whatever it is that keeps them writing. Already, the conference feels complete.

There is one more panel I am really looking forward to, the fantasy world-building seminar. Will Jeff Somers wear pants? At this point, we don’t know but Janet assures me that there is bail money in case the pants and Jeff are not properly joined.

Turns out fantasy writers simply don’t wear pants once they are all published and stuff. The conference cleverly put a skirt on the table they sat at, and all was well. What a great panel! I even said hi to Jeff and he bore my nervous chattering surprisingly well. He’s nothing like scary as one might expect.

I felt accomplished and now it was time for drink. It’s a writer’s conference, right? My daughter arrives earlier than expected this evening so we can visit somewhat properly. We try leaving the hotel in search of food close by hotel. We are both tired, her even more so than me, and it starts pouring rain. Of course it does. So back to the hotel for bar food and more drinks. The kid is on the verge of a breakdown, and this is when we spot my queen at one of the two bars in the hotel.

I suppose it was a little crazy what I did next considering my daughter and I both looked rather like drowned rats.  I introduce the kid to my queen. She is, of course, gracious and we bow and take our leave across the lobby to the bar with the food. I am happy. I would call that a successful day.

The next morning, I do the pitch slam thing, 3 minutes per agent to get their interest in my book. Yes, food of the devil. Whatever. I pitch to 4 agents, one who I would love to have represent me (based on his client list and the possibility of getting signed books from those authors) I get 4 requests. Excellent. I know, it doesn’t mean anything. I still must prove I can write.

I leave early. I need to go to Brooklyn to spend the rest of the day with the kid. I feel like I have a very marketable concept based on agent reaction so all is right the world, and it is a perfect sunny Saturday in New York.

I have an email from my queen instructing me on the best way to get to Brooklyn via train from Manhattan. I step out of the hotel. A street market has broken out. I take a right turn toward the train station. What could go wrong? Funny you should ask…

To be continued

Life is All a Prologue #WD17

Where does this story begin? For the second time, I decided to go to the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. The first time changed my life forever so why not give it a second go?

I am always startled by New York. It reminds me of Mos Eisley space station in Star Wars – a meeting place for all the universe. All are welcome but you must adapt quickly or the city will eat you.

People from another galaxy seem as likely as the myriad of people from the other side of the planet. I think Men in Black was serious on that account. I do think I saw a Wookie at 6th and 53rd street where my Uber dropped me off at about 3 PM.  There I stood, just another alien on Broadway attending another writer’s conference with my pocket full of dreams.

My cell phone buzzes.

My daughter, who now lives in New York and is working in the film industry, texts me to say she thinks set will wrap by 6 PM, plenty of time for us to have dinner and a visit before the conference really gets started.

That is perfect. I check into the hotel, drop my bags in my room, and register for the conference. I got a ribbon for being a repeat offender, I mean attender.

I am happily playing with my ribbon when my phone buzzes again. Another text from the kid.

It’s looking like 7 PM for a wrap and she has to go out and buy swim suits for the shoot. Fine. Fine. It’s New York. I can find something to do.

I make like I’m brave and walk out of the hotel. No direction or anything. I find an Irish Pub around the corner and decide my mission has been accomplished. Kate and I love pubs. It’s close to the hotel. Even if she’s a bit late, we can make the walk, have a couple of pints, share a couple of nibbles and laughs, and there will still be time for me to prepare for the morning.

Cell phone again. It’s going to 8 PM on the wrap. Sorry mom.

Not a problem. I am tired anyhow. It has already been a long week. Back to the hotel room. Turn on my laptop and play with my WIP. I paid for a pitch session, and although my queen tells me pitches are the tool of the devil, I’m doing it.  I find I, myself, have always been one of the devil’s favorite tools, and I think a little face time with agents and editors can only help. I can tell if they are worthy if I get a good sniff.

Why did I write such a damn weird book? What was I thinking? I mean I love it, but are there millions of other people out there willing to go full weird? I worry. I order room service.

Cell phone once more. Another text. A long barrage of random curse words from my daughter followed by, maybe 9 PM. Maybe. She’s starving, she says.

I order salad and sweet things. We can crash in the room. She has to be back on set at the crack of dawn the next morning. Paying those dues sucks and honestly, it never ends.

I continue playing with my WIP – it really is just playing at this point. Parts of it are pretty damn good. Parts still need work. I should get it to my beta readers soon. Oh, perhaps I should formalize the whole beta reader thing soon? I make a note of it. Some of you may get pleading emails from me in the next few days. I’ve been at this writing thing for a bit so feel free to reject. I’m used to it.

Maybe the structure needs a tweak or small explosion here and there. Why did I write such an odd book? I must be as insane as my reputation claims. Ah well, what can you do?

Cell phone buzzes in another text a good bit after 9, another barrage of curse words and murderous thoughts. The kid no longer has an ETA.

I caution the kid that homicide of directors is not a career building activity despite the wisdom of that movie, Swimming With Sharks.  What a fantastic film.

The last moments of Thursday are almost gone when my daughter appears at my door. She woofs down the salad, strips off her clothes, gets in the shower (after rifling through my suitcase to borrow some clothes), and then collapses on spare bed. I was marginally prepared for this so she has a clean t-shirt to sleep in.

So I am at the gift shop at dawn, 6 Am on Friday, buying clean underwear and a toothbrush so the kid can be marginally less grimy when she returns to the set. And so this story begins.

To be continued…

Mind the Gap

London 057Last night I dreamed I returned to the United Kingdom. I always meant to go back there, to live there for a time once more as I did when I was at University.  The last time I visited, I took my then fourteen year old daughter. We enjoyed such an adventure. There was no plan. We traipsed around England, mostly staying in London, exploring freely. London had changed a bit since my school days, but not so much as to lose that ambience of long endurance and that incredible air of fable. Time still seemed in long supply, and I believed I would return again. I did not factor in the world going quite so utterly mad.

I dreamed of a withered and dying United Kingdom, a divided and broken land, its culture and people utterly vanquished.  South Kensington, the place I had lived as a student, was lined with crucified bodies, heads on spikes. Masked men wearing  black robes patrolled the streets, heavily armed. In my dream, they turned to carrion birds to feed on the ashes of the land they conquered. It was horrifying. Perhaps, a symptom of watching entirely too much Game of Thrones.

I woke up weeping for its demise more than I think I would for my own country. I rolled out of bed in the night’s darkest hours before dawn and immediately took to my computer to seek plane reservations that I might return there before my visions could come to fruition.  All of this, thinking I was awake as I woke to a bright morning to find my reservations well in place. I packed and gathered my passport and arrived in London. No, I had not awaken from my nightmare. The UK was still there, but it felt dead, like a movie set more than the real place.  I told myself it was the hour of the day, and entered the tube station at Piccadilly Circus.

People packed into the platform and that gave me comfort. Here they all were, citizens of London, waiting for their train. The train came and true to nature, the people queued up to enter as a mechanized and polite voice reminded them.

“Mind the gap.”

No one did. BY the time I boarded the train, all of those people disappeared into the gap which for me was a simple step and for them, an unscalable chasm. Then I awoke to my life once more, and I wrote this blog post. Let this only be a nightmare. Please, world, mind the gap.