It takes two to tango. And it takes at least two to make
a book. Just like a play needs an audience to fully come alive, a book needs a
reader for precisely the same reason.
One thing I have to constantly remind myself as a writer
is that, once I have written the words, ‘the end’ to a story is that I must let go. As much as I labored over the
book, dreamed about it, had conversations with myself about it, agonized over
word choice, character hair color, continuity, repetitive words and phrasing,
the time comes when the book meets the public which signals that it’s time for
me to step aside.
A book is a
conspiracy between a reader and a writer. The reader has to bring it to life
through his or her imagination. The wonderful thing about that whole process is
that my story can become so many different stories when filtered through each
reader’s unique frame of reference. I have no doubt that no matter the care I
take in describing characters and setting, each reader sees them differently
because each of them come to the table with different experiences, biases, and
memories. All of those things have a bearing on the triggers my words pull in a
It’s really quite a lovely process when you think about
it. And maybe the readers out there reading this blog never really considered
the vital work they play in every book’s success or failure. Writers provide a
roadmap, signposts, but it’s really up to the reader to run with it, to make of
it something real, a mind movie for one.
What’s my point? I guess it’s to share with you a little
of what motivates me as a writer and what, for me is both a blessing and a
curse. See, when I am working on a book, which is almost always, I am alone
with those characters, immersed in their little world, consumed by their
passions, their fears, their desires, their comedies of errors. I have never
been one for sharing much of my unfinished work with anyone else. That would
somehow be wrong, at least for me. In order to create, I need to be able to
slip into a world inhabited only by my characters and me. It’s always a
bittersweet moment when I write the words, ‘the end’ and know I am moving on.
Sure, there will be editing, the thrill of seeing the cover design, the agony
of trying to help craft the blurb, but once you type ‘the end’ it means just
that. You’re giving your characters and their world away.
I think it’s very difficult for some writers to realize
that once they’ve ‘given birth’ to a book that it really no longer belongs to
them. It belongs to the readers, the reviewers, the world. If you create with
publishing in mind, it’s a harsh reality to accept—your book no longer belongs
to you alone, but it’s gone off into the world, much like a child finally
moving out of the house. Once you let go, you also must let go of trying to
control what happens (same for books, same for kids).
And that’s hard. You hate to see your book suffer at the
hands of people who don’t understand it, you celebrate it when someone ‘gets’
what you were trying to say.
But you must let go. The book is a piece of the world now
and takes on a life of its own. Remember what I said earlier? A book is a
conspiracy between a writer and a reader and the reader, each in his or her own
way, makes the story his or her own.
I guess what prompted all this was a discussion recently
at one of my publishers’ forums wherein authors were discussing, once again,
how to respond to negative reviews and downright nasty ones, and the prevailing
wisdom, at least to my mind, was with silence. I agree.
It’s harsh but
true: writers must let go. Your stories are no longer your stories. If
you’re very, very lucky, they are many people’s. Take comfort in that.
Visit my Amazon page for a look at ALL the books I've let go of.
With its brand new edition and brand new cover, I wanted to share a sample from my reincarnation love story, Orientation, which won the EPIC eBook Award in 2009 as the Best GLBT Novel of the Year. This excerpt takes place at Christmas, 1983. Get the Kleenex ready....
BLURB Christmas, 1983: A young man, Robert, tends to his soul mate, Keith, who is dying from AIDS. Robert tries valiantly to make this a special Christmas for his lover, but loses the fight late Christmas night. Christmas, 2007: Robert ventures out late Christmas night and finds a young girl about to fling herself into the unforgiving waters of Lake Michigan. He rescues her, and the two form a bond forged from an odd feeling they share of familiarity, and even love. Neither understands it, since Jess is a lesbian and Robert has never been attracted to women. But there's more...Jess begins having strange dreams, reliving key moments she couldn't know about in Keith and Robert's life and courtship. Robert and Jess begin to wonder if their inexplicable feelings might be rooted in something much more mystical than a savior/victim relationship. As the two move toward and pull away from each other, Ethan, Robert's younger lover, plots the unthinkable. His crystal meth-addled mind becomes convinced there's only one way to save himself, and that is through Robert's destruction. Christmas 2007 spirals downward to a shattering climax in which both love and lives hang in the balance. There's a murder attempt...salvation...redemption...and a new love is born...
EXCERPT CHRISTMAS NIGHT WAS memorable for Robert, if only because it was the night the one great love of his young life was taken, stolen away by a disease he could never have imagined just a few years before. The night was also memorable because there was a kind of Christmas miracle, even if it lasted only a few moments. Keith came back to him. His Keith, the one who could make him laugh and make him feel “like a million bucks.” For the briefest of moments, the real Keith returned, smiling and making of his death mask face a hint of what had been there before: a handsome, distinguished man whose cheeks were no longer sunken and hollow, whose green irises were rimmed in yellow no more, and whose smile could light up a room.
Maybe seeing the old Keith, handsome, devilish, strong jawed from his Mediterranean heritage, was just a figment of Robert’s imagination, something he wished for so hard it came true. But the lucidity that came late that Christmas night was not his imagination. Something had clicked in Keith’s fevered brain and for just an instant, he came back.
But it was only to say goodbye.
Robert had spent the long afternoon cooking. He knew it was pointless. Keith, in his best moments, could only keep things like Jell-o and protein drinks down, and Robert had no appetite himself. But in spite of a decided lack of hunger around the Harris/Jafari household, Robert had made quite a testament to culinary expertise in the marble and glass kitchen. The counters were crammed with cutting boards where Robert had used his Wusthof cutlery to prep a garden of fresh herbs, mincing parsley, sage, basil, and thyme into stacks of fine green confetti. He cut garlic into translucent slices. Halved lemons lined up in an orderly row beneath the windowsill, waiting to release their juices. And there, near the sink, a twelve-pound goose waited for Robert’s touch, ready to have its skin loosened and lifted and for him to infuse it with chopped herbs, to stuff its cavity with lemons and whole garlic cloves, and, finally, to be buttered and rubbed lovingly with extra-virgin olive oil and trussed. It would spend the rest of the day basking in the heat of an oven, religiously basted every forty minutes. Robert had made oyster stuffing, rich with fresh-from-the-sea briny juices, sage, and fennel sausage. He had shorn the bottoms off artichokes, trimmed their leaves, and stuffed them with a mixture of bread crumbs, garlic and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. In the sink, a mound of Yukon gold potatoes awaited peeling. Brussels sprouts needed to be cleaned, steamed, and tossed in butter, lemon juice, and garlic.
And when the kitchen windows fogged with steam from bubbling pots and the whole first floor of the penthouse was redolent with roasting bird, Robert went into the little powder room off the kitchen and threw up. He sat there by the toilet afterwards, gasping, and wiping angrily at his mouth and nose with Kleenex that left shreds on his stubbled face. He started to sob, the tears coming easily, hating himself for being such a coward, for spending all this time, all this money, to prepare this glorious yuletide feast no one would ever eat. He slapped his own face, punishing himself for being so stupid, stupid, stupid. Who was he trying to kid? Did making a Christmas goose with all the trimmings wipe out a year of love, passion, and happiness? Did all the cooking, decorating, and wrapping of presents put a different face on Death, who paced the penthouse, features furrowed, waiting to take his own Christmas present, which lay, just inches away from “delivery” on sweat-soaked Egyptian cotton sheets?
Why couldn’t he accept what was happening? It was over. It was only a flame that had flared and then was snuffed out. He forced himself up, gripping the little pedestal sink, and splashed cold water on his face. He looked at himself in the mirror above the sink, hating the vibrant, rosy glow in his cheeks, his fine, small-pored skin, twinkling blue eyes that betrayed not a hint of his exhaustion and despair, and his shining blond hair, in ringlets because of the kitchen humidity.
Why did Keith have to die?
Why did Robert have to live?
He closed his eyes and went into the kitchen, ready to feed the fabulous food to the garbage disposal. The work, just like the preparation of the meal, would take his mind off things.
And then he heard Keith’s voice, watery, weak, a shadow of its former self, call out. If the garbage disposal had been on, he wouldn’t have heard it. But the sound of his own name coming from his lover’s lips filled him with a kind of insane joy and optimism. The irrational part of him wanted to take it as a sign, a U-turn in the road toward death.
His Keith was getting better! Getting better in spite of the fact that all these other men with AIDS were dying quick, painful deaths. Keith would be the exception to the rule. He always had been. A sob caught in Robert’s throat and he hurried toward the stairs.
“Robert?” Keith’s voice sounded again, querulous and weak as a kitten. But it was Keith and he was calling for him.
Robert rushed up the spiral staircase, tripping once, a startled laugh escaping from his lips. Who knew? This AIDS thing was still so new. Who was to say there weren’t people out there who could beat it? People with imagination and fortitude.
People like Keith.
Robert hesitated outside the bedroom door. Inside, it was quiet, and he dreaded going in there and finding Keith on the bed asleep, a sheen of sweat clinging to his sunken cheeks, his breath phlegmy and labored. What if Keith’s call was just a momentary peek through the twin curtains of fever and consciousness? Or worse, the product of his own overly-hopeful imagination?
What would be, would be (hadn’t some virginal blonde even once sung about it?). Robert steeled himself: deep, cleansing breath, let it out slowly. And entered the room.
Keith was awake. His face looked even more drawn and tired—the color of ash. Robert would have said it was impossible for him to look any sicker even this morning, but now he did. In the air, despite the cinnamon and vanilla scented candles in the room, was the smell of sickness and shit.
But oh, Lord! Keith was looking at him. Looking right at Robert. And he was seeing him! For the first time in forever, their gazes met and connected. Robert approached the bed warily, as if a sudden movement would send Keith plummeting back into unconsciousness.
“Honey? Can you hear me?” Robert stood, wringing his hands, heart fluttering, beating against his ribs.
“Of course.” Keith’s voice was a croak. Gone were the bass notes that had made him sound so sexy and assured. Keith reached a bruised hand out over the covers and patted the bed. “Would you sit next to me?”
“Oh, of course!” Robert took two steps and weighed down the bed, reaching out to brush a strand of hair off Keith’s forehead, biting his own lip at the heat radiating off Keith’s flesh. “I’m so happy you’re awake.”
Keith swallowed. The swallow took a long time and looked as if it took all of the sick man’s effort. He let out a weak sigh and turned his head. He looked up at Robert and managed a wan smile. Robert closed his eyes and gently laid his head atop Keith’s.
And then Keith began to talk, his old voice suddenly returned, strong and sure. “I have just a few things to say, Robert. And I need you to shut up and listen. No interruptions. The first thing I want to say is ‘Merry Christmas.’ I’m so sorry I couldn’t be a bigger part of things for this, our first Christmas together, but that decision was taken from me and it doesn’t look like Mr. Claus is seeing fit to give me a chance to make it up to you.
“The second thing I want to say is that I love you with all my heart. I searched forty some odd years for you, for what I’ve always dreamed of, and what I thought I couldn’t have when you dropped, like a gift, like an angel, into my life last winter. You were what I hunted for all my life: a family. You are my family. Don’t ever forget how precious that is.
“The third thing I want to say is that you’re an idiot, running around, burying your head in the sand and trying to make a Christmas that neither of us has the capacity to enjoy. And last, I love you for that. I love you so much for trying…for hoping against all odds that this moment would come and I would let you know how much I appreciate you. For hoping that we might share one final kiss before I have to go. And my love, I do have to go.
But I couldn’t leave without you hearing these four words. You. Are. My. Family.”
Love is the first book I’ve written which I set in a
small-town high school. In fact, my fictional high school is very much like the
one I attended. Writing about the turbulent emotions of adolescence, first
loves, and beginning to come to terms with who you are was a challenging and
thought-provoking trip down memory lane.
I thought I’d share a couple
pictures and memories of my alma mater, East
Liverpool High School in East Liverpool, Ohio (the only high school in
town). Like the characters in Big
Love, my high school years were a time of struggle, sometimes joy,
and often a lot about coming to grips about who that person was looking back at
me from within the mirror.
Here’s the small, pottery town of East Liverpool where I
grew up, taken from the Ohio River. The town rises up from the river’s banks.
And here is the high school that I mentally traveled back to
in order to draw upon the memories and feelings that eventually went into Big
Love. The school sits on one of the hills surrounding the town, so
there was always a good view of everything. As a personal aside, my eldest
niece and her husband still teach at the very same school.
And here are the pictures you may or may not have been waiting
for: me as a much younger version of myself. One is my high school graduation
photo and the other is from a time when I was just entering the confusing and
awkward torture of adolescence. Oh, the innocence of that young man/boy! He had
no idea what was in store for him. I suppose that’s true for all of us, right?
BLURB for Big Love
Teacher Dane Bernard is a gentle giant, loved by all at
Summitville High School. He has a beautiful wife, two kids, and an easy rapport
with staff and students alike. But Dane has a secret, one he expects to keep
hidden for the rest of his life—he’s gay.
But when he loses his wife, Dane finally confronts his
attraction to men. And a new teacher, Seth Wolcott, immediately catches his
eye. Seth himself is starting over, licking his wounds from a breakup. The last
thing Seth wants is another relationship—but when he spies Dane on his first
day at Summitville High, his attraction is immediate and electric.
As the two men enter into a dance of discovery and new love,
they’re called upon to come to the aid of bullied gay student Truman Reid.
Truman is out and proud, which not everyone at his small-town high school
approves of. As the two men work to help Truman ignore the bullies and love
himself without reservation, they all learn life-changing lessons about coming
out, coming to terms, acceptance, heartbreak, and falling in love.