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An Interview with Award-Winning Author Qui Xiaolong

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Qiu Xiaolong was born in Shanghai, China. He is the author of the award-winning Inspector Chen series of mystery novels, Death of a Red Heroine (2000), A Loyal Character Dancer (2002), When Red Is Black (2004), A Case of Two Cities (2006), Red Mandarin Dress (2007), and The Mao Case (2009). He is also the author of two books of poetry translations, Treasury of Chinese Love Poems (2003) and Evoking T'ang (2007), and his own poetry collection, Lines Around China (2003). Qiu's books have sold over a million copies and have been published in twenty languages. He currently lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughter. 

Qui and I are old colleagues and friends. I served as a beta reader for his first novel before that was even a thing, and the two of us worked together teaching English at St. Louis Community College. During me recent trip to St. Louis, he told me about his interesting indie project, a poetry collection written in the voice of Inspector Chen, a character he's developed over the course of a multi-book series. Chen trained in poetry, and it informs his thoughts and is a compelling aspect of the series. But this is the first time the poems have been gathered into a collection.

Lisa: Poetry has been an integral part of your Inspector Chen series since the beginning. Why fuse these seemingly disparate genres—poetry and crime—into one?

Qui: To begin with, I love poetry, and I cannot but have my Inspector Chen love it, too. In an age with few people reading poetry, it's just my way of smuggling poetry into crime fiction. But it's also more than that; in classical Chinese novels, there're more poems than in my Inspector Chen novels, usually with a poem at the beginning of a chapter, and another at the end of it, and more with a new character being introduced. And I think it is justified for varying lyrical intensity in the narration--like the use of blank verse in a Shakespearean play, so it sort of carries on the Chinese tradition. But more importantly, at least so for myself, I want Inspector Chen to observe not only from a cop's perspective, but from a poet's as well. The two sometimes come into conflict, which may also make the character more complicated. 

Lisa: That’s really fascinating; I didn’t realize Chinese novels integrate the poetic form so much. And yes, I enjoy the two sides of Chen’s brain, poet and inspector. Together they lead him to a sort of third way of doing things that seems to be a negotiation between the two. There’s a lush, philosophical quality to his thoughts that make his perspective such a pleasure. I’m curious: What have readers said about this unique poetry/mystery mashup? I know we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. your foreign readers. Are those abroad more receptive to reading poetry with their plots? 

Qui: I believe it’s something worth trying for a writer to write in the genre, but at the same time, to push the limit of it—if that’s what you call the unique poetry/mystery mashup. From what feedback I’ve gotten from my readers, I think they like it. Yes, we’ve talked about the differences between readers in the U.S. vs. readers elsewhere. For instance, Poems of Inspector Chen have been translated and published by my Italian and French publishers, and during my tour in France in October, one of the most rewarding experiences there was the discussion with 300 high school students in Lyon about that poetry collection, which they studied in class. But I want to add, readers here are also so enthusiastic about the poetry. During a recent conference sponsored by the Ahmanson family in L.A., for instance, the host offered the poetry collection to everybody attending the conference. A very large audience indeed. It’s just her way of supporting poetry and Inspector Chen, which I understand and appreciate. 

Lisa: With your background in literary poetry and fiction, what drew you to the detective genre in the first place?

Inspector Chen poems

Qui: I've always loved crime fiction. But the way I started writing in the genre was accidental. In the mid-nineties, I went back to China for a visit after staying in the States for seven or eight years. I was so impressed by the changes taking place there that I wanted to try my hand on a novel about the society in transition, but I had not written fiction before, so I had a hard time putting things together. Then the knowledge of the crime fiction genre came to my rescue, so to speak. I reshuffled the contents, and used the genre as a ready-made framework for what I wanted to say. In fact, when I submitted the manuscript for Death of a Red Heroine to my publisher, I was not even that sure it was a real crime novel. But my publisher liked it and wanted me to expand it into a series. So here I am, with book number ten of the Inspector Chen series coming out in French in September. But because of the accidental entry, you may still notice the sociological traces in all these books. 

Lisa: Wonderful—that explains so much. It’s interesting to hear you say your original plan was to write about society in transition. You weave this into the plots well, or rather, you deftly use plot as a vehicle for immersing your reader in that transitional society fully. It’s one of my favorite aspects of the series. How has that waxed and waned over the course of the series? You say now with ten there are still traces…

Qui: With so much happening in contemporary Chinese society, I’m capable of putting each Inspector Chen investigation in a specific social, political, cultural backdrop, in which the crime and the investigation are directly or indirectly commenting on it, and also commented on by the society in transition. For instances, Death of a Red Heroine against the backdrop of the split personality imposed on individuals living under an authoritarian regime, Red Mandarin Dress against that of the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake against that of China’s ecological crisis, Enigma of China against that of governmental cyber control, and Shanghai Redemption against that of uncontrollable corruption under the one-party system… And with so much still happening there, Inspector Chen has a long way to go with a sociological perspective. After Becoming Inspector Chen, the manuscript I’m working on also has such a background focus on the lack of an independent legal system in China.  

Lisa: Let’s talk about your latest book, a collection of Inspector Chen’s poetry in one volume. It’s a brilliant, yet curious choice. Are there other models for what you’ve done, taking a fictional character and making him the “author” of a book of poetry? What made you decide to do this now?

Qui: For myself, it’s not exactly a curious choice. I don’t think I had any models in mind while compiling the collection, but I benefitted from the “mask” theory elaborated by Yeats. According to him, a poet could speak behind the mask of a character. And I found the experience truly liberating, for I could suddenly write about things familiar, relevant to the inspector, but not necessarily to me. It’s also experimental in exploration of the reversible interrelationship among the creating and the created in the process of fiction writing. 

Lisa: I’m also intrigued by your decision to self-publish this book of poetry. What has been your experience so far, as someone whose work has always been traditionally published—first with SoHo Press and now with St. Martin’s—stepping out into the wilds of publishing on your own?

Qui: The Poems of Inspector Chen was published traditionally in France and Italy. But I’m quite  aware of today’s difficult poetry market. For me, it’s a labor of love, but not necessarily so for every publisher, which I understand. About a year ago, I happened to talk to a friend about it, and he helped the project greatly with his expertise in the field of self-publishing. It’s really to his credit that the poetry collection came out here like that.    

Check out Qui Xiaolong's web site for book links and more.

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The 1944 Movie 'Laura' Reveals Just How Broken Publishing Is - and Maybe the Whole Economy

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Sometimes I like a good film noir classic, as in the 1944 movie "Laura," named one of the 10 best mystery films of all time by the American Film Institute. This one was just right for a Saturday night movie binge because it features a young Vincent Price as a pretty boy gigolo, if you can imagine that, and a victim who's made a life for herself as a successful advertising exec, a rare career woman for her time.

 What I didn't expect in this strange but clever whodunit is that one of the main characters and ongoing suspects is an eccentric writer, a dandy who pens columns while sitting at his bathtub desk. From his posh penthouse apartment in New York, he brags about making fifty cents a word on his writing.

 Hold up, I thought. Fifty cents a word? In 1944? 

 Those of you who've never tried to make a living with your words probably don't know this, but fifty cents a word is considered a good rate today. Yeah, in 2016. I'm part of several online freelancer forums, and there I regularly see rates of $150-300 for a 700-word article, which works out to about 20-40 cents per word. The top echelon magazines reportedly pay their freelancers $1-$2 dollars per word, and there are a rare handful of freelance writers making bank, but the vast majority of words that get written in America today sell for far less. Disturbingly, there are plenty of publishers who expect writers to work for "exposure," or for mere cents per word. 

 Here's what writers today should be making per word, if we take 50 cents in 1944 and adjust it for inflation: $6.82.

 That would be almost $5K for a 700-word piece, which is a far cry from reality. And you wonder why so much of what's out there is written in listicle format and laden with gifs! Even if the 50-cents-per word bit were a dramatic embellishment, and let's say the actual writer pay at the time was half that, at 25 cents per word, or a quarter, at 12 cents per word, which is about what I make today on stories for my local paper, we're still looking at serious stagnation, or even devolution. Depending on whom you ask, the publishing industry is either experiencing a glorious renaissance or is in its death throes. If it's the former, writers on the whole aren't experiencing the golden part of this age, and if it's the latter, then I suppose things will only get worse from here on out. 

 In my overly long, SEO-designed headline above, I promised I'd mention how this relates to the overall brokenness of the economy. This writer wage stagnation/devolution is another example of how we've been shafted in the last generation as productivity has actually gone up but salaries haven't kept pace, pay for CEOs and others at the top soared while most other pay stagnated, and benefits such as pensions and employer-paid health care became a thing of the past. I'm no economist, though, so let me refer you to these nine sobering wage stagnation charts put out by the Economic Policy Institute.

 Sure, EPI is considered by some to skew liberal and/or is tainted by its labor backing. But you know what? It's hard to argue with the data. For example, since 1979, middle-class wages rose only 6% and low-wage workers' salaries actually fell by 5% while those with the highest salaries saw a 41% increase. Here's another: In the 1960s, CEOs typically earned 20 times what a typical worker earned, but today they rake in 296 times what a typical worker makes.

 So writers in this analysis are low-wage workers whose salaries have fallen over time. Our economy is one big film noir movie, but the villain is greed and the policies that support and enable greed. Spoiler alert: The mystery of who killed Laura, the advertising exec, is far more fitting and poignant than anyone in 1944 could have imagined. Yep. You guessed it. The writer did it.*

* Or at least, he thought he did (plot twist!).

  


What It Means to Write with Intention

Intentional_Writer_Interview

I was featured along with six other writers in a blog series about writing with intention. Our host, Alexis Donkin, believes that "fiction can shape the way we think about the world." She asked questions like this one: "If there is one thing you'd want people to do after reading this book, what would it be?" 

For Saadia Faruqi, the answer is for readers to read another book set in a culture different from their own. She wrote a short story collection set in Pakistan in order to "showcase the reality behind Pakistan’s complicated politics and culture," without presenting stereotypes. Author Sharon Angelici, a Midwestern stay-at-home mom, would like for her book about suicide to spark difficult conversations. 

In writing Cat in the Flock, I wanted to offer a warning about the damage of repressive, prejudicial beliefs while approaching the subject of evangelical religion with compassion for all.

You can jump into all seven interviews from here, and if you're looking for mine, here's a direct link.

What are your thoughts about writing with intention? To me this is different than political writing or propaganda because the material must first be in service to story. As I told Alexis, "Stereotypes and omissions on either side of the political spectrum usually weaken the story."

Weigh in on that below, or tell us about a book that changed your thinking--or your life.


Guest Blogger: My Secret Writing Walk, or How Spirituality Guides My Writing Life


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by Alexis Donkin

LB: Writing for the blog today is Alexis Donkin, blogger, speaker, and author of what she describes as "a library of books," from fantasy and sci-fi to memoir and journal guides. I asked her to discuss how she meshes a spiritual path with her development as a fiction writer, or how the two intersect. Here's Alexis.

I think I wrote 10 different posts about this topic only to abandon them. How can I talk about spirituality and my writing? How can I not? How can I talk about my spiritual practice and not freak people out?

I grew up with two ordained ministers as parents, so religion has always been a topic discussed at dinner. Faith was linked to every aspect of our lives. Pastors are like politicians in that everyone has expectations for them, and their families. There were parts of our lives that never saw the light of day...well...until I wrote about them in my memoir.

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Because of my upbringing, I've had an unusual relationship with spirituality. I started out being very Christian. My faith led me to study other traditions as a path to addressing the world's needs (the product of this education is my world religion curriculum and associated interfaith devotional). In that study, I questioned my allegiance. I never identified with those publicly identifying as Christians. Somehow they managed to insert Jesus into every other sentence. They talked about prayer as if it was this transformative experience, and for me, being progressive, I couldn't decide if they were genuine – or lying. It didn't connect with my own experience.

So as I researched other traditions, I questioned my own. In the end, I discovered all faiths have parts I like and parts I hate. It just so happens, I like Christianity best. It speaks my cultural language. I like the story of Jesus.

This seems like a round-about way to talk about spirituality in writing, but it's important to know my perspective to understand why I write what I do – what drives everything in my life.

I am, by all accounts, a very spiritual person. I meditate daily. I go to church every week and even lead the worship band. I pray before meals. I express gratitude for the beauty of every moment – whatever that beauty is. When I submit a piece, I pray the outcome achieves the highest good of all. I meditate before I write my blog posts – checking in with my gut to confirm the topic is right.

Seriously.

I do that even for social media posts.

As I write this out, I wonder if this is an unusual thing. I expect it is rare for people to do these things, but for me, I have to interact in the world this way. Everything I do is centered around my personal purpose – to spread compassion and empathy through my writing and speaking.

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I tried to write commercially. I tried to write solely to entertain. Instead, I wrote about gender dynamics, equality, and climate change. I tried to write freelance articles about tourist things and the like – I can't do it. My head starts to ache and I grow restless. I have the urge to throw my computer. 

My call is too strong to ignore. When I try to avoid it, something always brings me back. So I embraced it. Once I did, things started falling into place for me. I embraced the fact that I am a deeply spiritual human, and became open about it. I found myself supported in this, even from unexpected sources (like staunch Humanists).

My spirituality is generally implicit in my blog posts. It's implicit in my fiction pieces. While I can't separate my faith and practices from my work, I'm not interested in converting people to my particular way of being. That doesn't serve anyone. I just want people to love themselves and love others. I think that makes the world a better place, and ultimately, that's the highest good.

 

AlexisdonkinAlexis Donkin lives in Southern California with her family. She is a classically trained artist, with a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies and an MA in Global and International Studies. Between writing, speaking, and chasing her kid, she paints, sings, and dances. Sometimes Alexis does it all at once.

Connect with her here:     Twitter     Facebook     Pinterest     Blog


Writing Locally

Debbie Rosas at Embody
 I covered a local fitness guru's master class for our local paper.

Over the past year I've really been drawn to unique stories in my newly adopted small-town, rural community. I've published pieces with both LewisTalk and The Chronicle, on topics ranging from a 65-year-old yogi to the story of how two guys took their family inheritance and used it to open... a bong shop.

I found through this process that it's generally good to be friendly and invite conversation, especially if you're a writer, as you never know where a good story is hiding. My thing has always been to ask a lot of questions, no matter where I am or with whom I'm talking. Not many people do this anymore--sometimes I think conversation is a dying art--so when you do, it really stands out. And you uncover stories.

Like this one about a mom-and-pop organic, grass-fed cattle ranch. If my husband and I hadn't asked around about local sources of protein, we'd have missed out on their story--and their beef.

The bong shop story grew out of another one I wrote, about a yarn-and-cheese shop. I noticed a sign that said, "Coming Soon: The Jackal," so I asked the yarn-and-cheese shop owners about it, since they're across-the-street neighbors. They of course had heard the rumors, and in the polite way people have here, they said it would be "interesting" to see how that experiment worked out. I was intrigued. When I interviewed the owners, I kept asking questions in my non-threatening way to get into how they came up with the funds for the bong shop, which turned out to be the story's lede.

Some writers might turn their noses up at this kind of work, but I have nothing to prove. I wrote regularly for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer when it still published a print version (interviewing celebrities, even), and I've been told my bio is impressive. Both outlets paid me for the work, I enjoyed writing the stories, and I'll likely use that experience and material in another way sometime, too.

What stories have you uncovered lately? 


My Stepson, the Rapper

Zar

We thought the kid would turn into a nerd like his parents, but he's following his own path. So I'm the proud but somewhat bewildered stepmother of a rapper.

He goes by the handle Zar, and as you can witness here at his SoundCloud page, he's got chops. I'm thrilled with his clever rhymes and smart poetics, like this:

But these flakes are

hurtin' me

ignorance from certainty

Let's face it

that's racist

fin to cop a bassist

Your girl be like basic

My aggressors are Asics

Get some cash and save it

Take a shot and chase it

--From "See Me"

I also like the way he's referencing and paying tribute to other rappers a few bars down:

My flow is raw though

Close to Diablo

It's like close to Picasso

Layered like tacos

His "flow" is his style, which is made up of his rhyme scheme and intonation. The last two lines reference a band called Nacho Picasso.

By the way, his passion for language and facility for lyrical rhyme gave him a love of Shakespeare, so I'm doubly happy. Zar knows the Bard was the rap star of his time. Rap is a real art form, and if you don't believe me, here's a great breakdown of rap innovations and progression over the past thirty years.

 

But yeah, as you can imagine, his passion for rap has raised some issues. He's (painfully) aware that, unlike many of the rap stars he idolizes, he's a white kid from the Seattle north side, with all the privilege that entails. All of his parents have had ongoing conversations with him about the sexist representations of women and glorification of drug culture and street life that are the genre's tropes, as well as the charges of cultural appropriation he might incur as a white rapper. 

I'm pretty happy to see him highlighting what distinguishes rappers from others in terms of stereotypes:

ZarTwitter

As for the drug stuff, yeah, that's been harder than you can imagine for us to stomach. For the record, the kid's totally clean, so his actual experiences of some of the things he raps about are strictly textbook. We're sort of at the mercy of the legalization of marijuana in Washington state on this one. Our beloved "Zar" will be a senior in high school this fall. Of course all the high school kids are obsessed with the whole phenomenon, even though they are not of legal age to partake, a point Zar's parents and grandparents have practically emblazoned on signs throughout our houses. It doesn't help that in Seattle the almighty weed is everywhere. When I was still working onsite for the company, I once saw a coworker light up a joint right after work, as soon as he got to our bus stop across the street. Dude, you couldn't even wait till you got home?

It's also common with creatives when first starting out that we often adopt the style of those we look up to, as the first stage toward developing our own voice. If you don't believe me, I'll show you my wanna-be Virginia Woolf journals from undergrad, with their stream-of-consciousness musings and overuse of the semicolon. Every male writer I knew back then tried to write his own version of Ulysses. When it wasn't Woolf for me it was Toni Morrison and Jamaica Kincaid. Like Zar looks to today's urban gods, I mimicked my own heroes. I keep telling myself--and my stepson--that his raps will progress into something else, maybe history or social issues! But you never know. Hip hop culture is what it is, and I'm no expert.

We try to give him some leeway. And all that said, it's incredibly exciting to see him grow and develop his talent. If you can get past all of the above, they're quite good. If you're into the music, and even if you think you're not, give Zar's tracks a listen. There are six here, some done in collaboration with others.


‘Granny’ Award Winner No. 3: Cheryl Sesnon, An Expert in Getting You ‘Unstuck’

Sesnon_Cheryl_5x7_cweb_credit-Karissa Carlson,The Evergreen State College

Cheryl Sesnon. Photo by Karissa Carlson, The Evergreen State College.

Everything about Cheryl Sesnon screams success. At 58, she’s currently the executive director of Jubilee Women’s Center, a well-regarded, highly effective non-profit organization that helps women transition out of homelessness. Besides this Amazing Grace Award, she’s received a number of others: Harlequin’s “More Than Words” Award, the Aubrey Davis Award for Progressive Leadership, and Seattle University’s “Lead, Ignite Award,” just to name a few. And she was the leader behind FareStart’s legendary job training program, which boasted an 82% retention rate under her tenure and experienced explosive growth.

So it might seem surprising that Sesnon once thought of herself as doomed to a life of failure.   

At 24, she suffered from chronic depression, low self-esteem, and substance abuse. She was in an abusive relationship. She attempted suicide.

“I realized I needed to either commit to dying, or to living,” she says. “I felt hopeless, I was on a negative, destructive path, and I had no idea how to get out of it.” Sesnon remembers standing on the sidewalk and watching happy people walking by and thinking they were stupid, that they didn’t know how awful the world really was. 

To snap herself out of this bleak world view, she adopted the attitude that everything she assumed about the world was wrong and vowed to watch how happy, successful people lived their lives and learn from them. She got herself into therapy, took classes, and stopped feeding her anger toward the world. “It was coming from a place that was wired up wrong,” she says.

Now she considers herself an expert at how to get people to break out of the limiting patterns of their lives, and she clearly does so with compassion for how difficult change can be. “I understand being stuck in a certain way of thinking,” she explains. “It’s very real. You think it’s the way.” 

Sesnon’s positive rewiring was so complete that it forever altered her career path. Early on, she launched a successful catering business, but ultimately, the work felt unsatisfying. “We were spending money to make money,” she says. “There was a piece missing for me.”

She found her heart’s work in non-profits, but she doesn’t consider herself a “bleeding heart.” Rather, that work feels solid to her, substantive. “Jubilee is my dream-come-true,” she says. Now she works with women whose life circumstances have brought them to a place where they feel stuck and don’t know how to live differently. “To work with women and meet them at that place, it means the world to me.”

At the start of our interview, Sesnon shared with me that she’d recently beat breast cancer after a nearly yearlong process that included a double mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation treatment. She describes this ordeal not in terms of her own struggles but for the remarkable experience of being cared for by others.

“I’m used to being on the service end,” she says. “I’ve never been on the receiving end of being surrounded by compassion and care. I felt so loved. Everyone—staff, residents, donors—were incredibly generous and supportive.”

Congratulations to Cheryl Sesnon for winning a ‘Granny,’ and may she continue to serve the women of Jubilee well with her talents and gifts.

About the Amazing Grace Award

The 'Granny' recognizes the outstanding achievements of women over 40. It’s named after the trailblazing character in my Dreamslippers Series, Amazing Grace, AKA Granny Grace, a seventysomething who solves crimes while pursuing her own spiritual path.

The first recipient of the award was indie writer Karen Nortman, 72, award-winning author of the Frannie Shoemaker mystery series. 

The second was Cherie Althauser, 65-year-old yoga teacher, volunteer, and spiritual devotee.

Winners are profiled at www.catintheflock.com and receive a modest award self-funded by me. 

A Note About My Involvement with Jubilee Women’s Center

I’m a Jubilee donor and have previously written about the organization for Seattle Woman.


What I'm Reading: Shanghai Redemption

Shanghai RedemptionShanghai Redemption by Qiu Xiaolong
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and the author is a former colleague. I've read two other books in the Inspector Chen series and gave a manuscript critique/edit on Xiaolong's debut, Death of a Red Heroine. This is a wonderful continuation of Inspector Chen's career arc, providing a deeper, darker dive into China's Communist Party politics. The plot is subtle, complex, and as always, suffused with lovely, poetic moments. These come when the Inspector and his allies quote actual poetry, and they also occur in the author's gorgeous descriptive prose. I highly recommend this series as a unique and powerful intersection of contemporary Chinese politics, English and Chinese literature, and police procedural.

View all my reviews


Undercover Christians, Part II

BRAG medallion ebook AT IN THE FLOCK

In my last post, I shared the "undercover Christian" experience I drew on to write the Plantation Church scenes in Cat in the Flock

I was also lucky to have--right in my own home--a first-person source for what it's really like inside a fundamentalist megachurch. My husband, Anthony Valterra, went undercover in the Ted Haggard New Life church as part of the research for his Master's thesis in Religious Studies.

(Spoiler Alert: In this piece, I discuss aspects of the book that could take away from the experience of certain plot twists and reveals.)

Hours of conversations about our experiences with evangelicals informed my writing. I was most fascinated by Ted Haggard's struggle with homosexuality, and the scandals that resulted. While I can't stress enough that my character Jim Plantation is definitely not Ted Haggard, I did use him as a model--at least Anthony's impressions of him. I refrained from specific research on Haggard because I didn't want the real image of him to dominate the story. Rather, I wanted to give life to the character I already had in my head.

I kept seeing Jim Plantation in the dream that Cat slips into:

 Cat could feel the heat of a red wall of fire and need inside him raging toward the dolls in the cabinet. There was a strong feeling of ownership and also responsibility. It was up to him to deliver them from evil. It was up to him to make sure they didn't sin. He was their keeper; he would make them obey the will of the Lord. The temptations were so raw. The dark, powerful sins of the flesh could tear a little girl to pieces inside until she let evil overcome her, making her hungry, making her spread her legs and let her juices flow, beckoning men with her ripe, red--

Cat recoiled against the force of the man's roiling emotions, knocking herself back. She hit the door behind her, hard. And there was the man in front of her; she could see his lean back in the muddy suit. She'd done it. She was out of him. He stood there gazing at his angels. He seemed unaware of Cat's presence.

"My pretty little angels," the man said in a voice with a lovely cadence that sounded familiar to her. "So perfect," he intoned, his voice reverent. "So clean." 

There are two kinds of sexual repression in the book, the self-imposed one that Plantation and his brethren visit upon themselves, and the antifeminist strictures they place on women and girls in their church. To me it was important to get inside and understand both of them.

In conversations with Anthony, I was particularly struck by his characterization of the church leaders as true believers and not just charlatans trying to fleece their flocks. On the one hand, this meshed with my own experience with the authentic conservatives in my family and social circles. On the other hand, I'd cynically assumed that those at the helms of such large organizations were out merely to take advantage--of their 501(c)3 status, of the generosity of their congregations, you name it.

This is often the characterization of evangelical leaders in stories today. In the popular "Grimm" TV series, writers depict a wolf in sheep's clothing who seems to have little real belief, and the one villain who got away with that egregious crime in the first season of "True Detective" is a church leader.

But these portrayals are a bit one-dimensional, or at least lacking in complexity, according to Anthony. "Ted Haggard, and many of his followers, are truly answering what they perceive to be the Lord's call, and their struggles to live up to their own standards and beliefs are real."

Certainly he witnessed members of the church reaching for roles that would give them more claim, or power, or prominence within the structure of the church. But it was always done with authenticity and conviction regarding the faith itself. This he witnessed while undercover, with an assumed name, for a whole summer. To this day, his true mission there was unknown.

The feelings of betrayal that Wendy expresses when she finds out Cat is lying, though? That's all fiction. 


Cat in the Flock on Audiobook

Audible screen shot CITF

I'm thrilled to announce the audiobook version of Cat in the Flock, featuring noted radio personality Angel Clark as the narrator. With 100 audiobooks under her belt, Angel's a real pro. She also hosts a talk radio show on the subject of liberty. During auditions, we thought her voice for Cat McCormick was perfect!

And doesn't she kind of look like she could play Cat on TV? 

Angel clark
Photo courtesy of Angel Clark.

You can download the audiobook now from either Amazon or iTunes.

 


What I'm Reading: Yes Please

Yes PleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started reading this for my book club but couldn't finish it. It's a funny look behind-the-scenes at celebrity life, but other than that, it failed to resonate with me. It seemed like everything came relatively easy to Amy Poehler - she knew at a young age she'd be part of the cast of SNL one day, and then she was. There's just not much story in that. The book also seemed heavily "produced." I had the sense I was reading something that a whole team had created. I wish fewer celebrities would write books. :)

View all my reviews


What I'm Reading: Nothing in Reserve

Nothing in Reserve: True Stories, Not War Stories.Nothing in Reserve: True Stories, Not War Stories. by Jack Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was introduced to Jack Lewis' writing when I edited it for Crosscut, and I admired it then as I do now. These essays cover a life before, during, and after service in the Iraq War, and as such, they offer an unblinking honesty about it all: the naive but proud notions of service, the valor and vices of battle, and the vicissitudes of middle age. Lewis is a clever wordsmith, and his playful prose is backed by a wealth of experience fully lived and amply analyzed. Readers should be prepared to be moved to tears, disgust, and laughter by turns in these pages. They may find themselves looking up from their Kindle to quote from the book: "Soldiers my come and soldiers may go, but the bureaucracy of armies is immortal and immutable." "There's no better tool in the world than a switched-on soldier." "Any problems more complicated than eating, sleeping, and mission prep could be saved until you got home. It's a savings plan for personal problems that pays you back with interest, compounded hourly." So while the military and motorcycle jargon might make one feel as if peering into a foreign world, there's so much here to grab any reader that the book shouldn't be relegated to only those looking for a good war story, especially since Lewis challenges our very notions about what that is.

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What I'm Reading: Casting Shadows Everywhere

Casting Shadows EverywhereCasting Shadows Everywhere by L.T. Vargus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You'll be drawn in by the first-person protagonist's quirky voice. It's a fun read, quick and engaging, though the writers could get a pro editor to polish it a bit further, for those of us who are nitpicky and distracted by errors ("effected" when it should have been "affected," for example). At turns philosophical and conversational, the writing here shows real talent.

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What I'm Reading: Weed the People

Weed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in AmericaWeed the People: The Future of Legal Marijuana in America by Bruce Barcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an incredibly important book. Barcott does an exemplary job of outlining the repression and misinformation perpetrated by U.S. authorities on the subject of marijuana's effects and its validity as a medicinal aid. His reporting becomes most poignant over the travesty of justice that has been our criminalization of marijuana users. Well-researched, the book's nonetheless a brilliant, and at times, hilarious page-turner. And make no mistake: Barcott doesn't pull any punches. A reluctant experimenter and skeptic himself, he argues caution for teens, whose developing brains really are not suited to handle the drug, and offers a warning to an industry that could let its cavalier attitudes ruin the grand experiment.

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"Fifty Shades of F****d Up" - Why You Can Take a Pass on This One, and What You Should Read/Watch Instead

First, I tried to read the book, but it was terrible. Of course I couldn't buy the implausibility of a twenty-seven-year old billionaire who doesn't seem to do any actual work. Neither could I buy the implausibility of a twenty-something virgin living in the Pacific Northwest who's made it through enough college to get a degree but has somehow not once ever glimpsed anything pornographic. (Even with that adventurous roommate of hers in the mix!) This is a twentysomething who apparently is incapable of googling "butt plug," by the way. Yet somehow, without ever giving a blow job before in her life, or ever talking about it, or ever watching someone give a blow job onscreen, she's miraculously able to give the Most Earthshattering Blow Job in the History of Blow Jobs.

Yeah, that's when I threw the book across the room.

And the epic blow job is in the first sex scene in the book - for all you who saw the film, it's what happens when they cut away from the two lovers cuddling up in his high-end luxury bathtub. So, probably the smartest cut-away in the history of moviemaking cut-aways. 

Even though I could not read the book, I went to see "Fifty Shades of Grey" because of the zeitgeist factor. For the past four years, I've been trying like everyone else in the world to figure out why this is so freakin' popular. And for the record, I have no problem with kink - people should do whatever turns them on, as long as there's clear, able consent by all parties, which there most certainly is in this case.

The dude's behavior IS kind of stalker-y, but the leading lady character is portrayed as seeming to like being startled in the middle of her work day and kind of... encourages his behavior. Maybe it's supposed to fit in with her love of Victorian romance. Whatevs. I still don't think the movie should be boycotted. Look, I'm a feminist and proud of it, but for one thing, banning works of art just leads to more repression. I'd rather have critics see it and analyze it for its actual flaws. Secondly, there's a mischaracterization at work here in that Steele has every opportunity to refuse consent and walk away, and instead she pursues a sexual relationship with someone she isn't compatible with and immediately sets out to try to change him into the man she really wants. Which I guess is Rochester from Jane Eyre.

Seeing the movie, as awful as the writing is, gave me a new perspective on why the franchise is so popular: It allows mainstream people who are deeply afraid of kink to dip a toe into that world, feel aroused by its allure, and then ultimately reject it, just as the virginal/vanilla protagonist does. It's actually a "safe" movie for the mainstream because it allows people to preserve their judgmental prejudices against the kink world and the presumed "broken" people who inhabit it. In that respect, it strikes me as not much different from stories that depict gay people as simply wayward souls who just need someone hetero to love them and turn them around.

It fails as a literary project because it doesn't challenge its audience in any way.

Not to mention the terrible lines! God, his whole "stay away from me - I'm not the man for you" stuff is unbearable. And this: "I'm 50 shades of fucked up," he utters, broodingly, while staring out at a several-million-dollar view of Seattle from his penthouse in the clouds.

But unless you just really need to satisfy your curiosity, don't see this movie. If you want to know more about kink culture, and you live in Seattle or can get to Seattle, go to Hump Fest instead. This is a sex-positive amateur film collection put out every year, championed and curated by Dan Savage, editorial director of Seattle's Only Newspaper. You'll see a lot of things, and some of it you might not like, but you'll gain a respect for the wide spectrum of sexual expression available to human beings. And the writing will only be painful in the good way.

Tshirt-camel

Here's also a book recommendation that offers a nice gloss on the kink world, from an insider's perspective, plus an engaging mystery to boot! 

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Trust me. You'll be so much the better for these experiences, and you'll be supporting sex positive culture, instead of setting sexual freedom back about fifty years, which seems to be the intent with fifty shades. 

...And that is all I have to say about that. Happy Valentine's Day!

 


Bye-bye, Bartell... And Seattle, Too

Bartell

I don't know why this one hit me so hard. I knew they were going to close my favorite Bartell store - they'd been letting us know in their characteristically customer-service-centered way for months. And it's not like there isn't a replacement Bartell nearby. The new one is in fact a Bartell on steroids, all swankified with New Seattle features like a place to refill your microbrewery growler. Plus, the building isn't special in any way, not Googie architecture like the Denny's they tore down or a beloved, Old Ballard 'third place' to hang, like Sunset Bowl.

But hit me hard it did. I was walking down the street, wondering if I needed to pop in and get something from Bartell, and there it was, already fenced up, a construction backhoe poised to begin ripping into the establishment like an angry beast.

For the past decade, I've popped into this Bartell thousands of times to fill a prescription or fulfill a chocolate craving. I've loaded up on discounted vitamins and bottles of salad dressing. The photos of smiling family members on my walls are framed by the high-quality but reasonably priced picture frames I've purchased here.

And I've been a long fan of the locally owned Bartell chain. I once pitched a story on it to an editor (rejected), and I tried to swing a gig writing the Bartell corporate history (scooped). See also: Making a living as a writer.

Oh, I know that all things must change, that the only constant is change, and that arriving here as a newcomer myself ten years ago, I was part of this change. Bartell had already changed apiece. I've just recently come out of mourning for the retirement of my favorite crew of elder statesmen pharmacists and their assistants, who knew me by name, treated me like a respected neighbor, and delivered on the best customer service I'd experienced at any drug dispensary, anywhere. Their youthful replacements are poster children for the Seattle Freeze, and they wouldn't know customer service from The Postal Service.

So many of the things that drew me to Seattle's Ballard neighborhood - its Scandahoovian fishing culture, the working class set of its jaw, its annexed-small-town vibe, seem to be slipping away. The sky used to be filled with seagulls; now it's construction cranes. A newspaper once listed each Seattle neighborhood by its residents' most likely attire, and Ballard's was something like "the jeans I left on the floor the day before." Now I think it would be "the $200 jeans I bought online." It used to be I couldn't wait on a street corner without having an overly polite driver insist on my pedestrian right-of-way. Now, I fear for my life in crosswalks even though they're brightly painted and marked with flashing lights.

I had a conversation recently with a woman who's moved from Ballard to Everett. "I can't afford to buy a house here," I whined to her, and she replied, "I can't afford to buy the house I just sold here." The house next door to hers had been sold to a developer, who promptly put up a block of four three-story homes, what I refer to as "stacks." The stacks blocked the light to her backyard, and the garden she'd cultivated for years could no longer grow. So she decided it was time to leave, even though she runs a business out of Ballard, for how much longer, I wonder.

For the past four years, I've been weighing the advantages and disadvantages of staying put. In the end, going won out over choosing to stay. My husband and I didn't think we'd be leaving for a couple more years, but opportunity elsewhere knocked at the same time that Seattle seemed to be shouldering us aside. In a couple of weeks, we'll be moving to a city with a population that is one-sixth the size of Ballard's.

I have no illusions about what small-town life will mean for me. So you can spare me the lecture about how isolated I'll feel, how bored I'll get of the handful of restaurants in my new burg, or how much more conservative it will be. 

But what I do have is hope. Hope for a more sustainable lifestyle where a person can afford to purchase a home and save for retirement without over-leveraging herself on a micro condo, its fancy "community room" full of partying techsters.

And maybe a friendly pharmacist who remembers my name.

 


A So-Called 'Slacker' Talks Back

 

Mopirglisa_AV
The author in 1991, when she ran the summer canvass for Missouri Public Interest Research Group (MoPIRG).

Every time a social commentator dusts off the old generational saw and puts forth a new theory about what's happening with Generation X, I groan. After 25 years, it's tiresome to be told over and over that my entire generation is comprised of a bunch of "slackers," that my friends and I have somehow failed at the game of life. That is, when I have time to read the stories. I'm usually too busy working. 

When the movie "Slacker" came out in 1991, I didn't have time to see it in theaters. That year, I was enrolled in college full-time while simultaneously running what was then (in terms of membership) Missouri's largest environmental organization. I was also holding down several part-time jobs and putting myself through school on a mix of scholarships, loans, and my own income, as no one was paying my way.

When I finally saw the movie on VHS, I thought the "Madonna's pap smear" character had a sense of humor that was cannily similar to my high school best friend's, but other than that, the movie didn't resonate with me.

None of my friends seemed to be slacking off, either. That high school best friend went to one of the best journalism schools in the country, was politically active, and had launched her own paper devoted to animal rights issues. Most of the other people I knew were working in "the movement" in some way, knocking on doors in the evenings trying to raise money and grassroots support for bills that would, for example, bring least-cost utility planning to Missouri or raise corporate auto fuel efficiency standards. Not as sexy as a 60s protest, but these are the nuts-and-bolts of real social change.

So whenever Generation X gets unfavorably compared to the baby boomers, I feel defensive, and justifiably so. We've been living under the shadow of the baby boomers all our lives, and enough is enough. It's time to question the authority that taught us to question authority.

As a student activist for all of my undergrad days, I took part in quite a few public demonstrations: to protest the first Iraq War, to fight racist policies, to uphold Roe vs. Wade, to protest the Catholic church's stance on gays. But what I'm most proud of is the measurable change we brought about in the form of community gardens planted, food distributed to those without, and bills passed to protect our rights, our air, and our water. Some of the members of my generation did a fine job of continuing the legacy of the boomers, and the world is better off than it would have been without us. And we did it without burning down any buildings.

But Generation X has always been on the cusp of an empire in decline. And what that means is that a lot of us, despite our practical idealism, find ourselves in adulthood having to shift from savior mode into survival mode.

We've lived through a recession in the 90s followed by a short-lived boom followed by terrorism, wars, and economic collapse. Pensions, the likes of which many of our boomer parents still enjoy, have albeit disappeared for us. The very notion that a person could work for a company throughout her adulthood and then count on being taken care of by that company in her old age seems quaint and unreal to us, like Beaver Cleaver's white picket fence. We've had to do more with less than our parents. As this chart vividly illustrates, the U.S. was recently surpassed by China as the world's number one economy.

Most of us are saddled with student loan debt we might still be paying off in our old age. I don't know a single person who doesn't feel deeply depressed after clicking through her company's online retirement calculator, if she's lucky enough to have a job with a 401(k) plan. We know Social Security likely won't be there for us when we need it. The money taken out of our paychecks now funds the baby boomers' retirements, but it looks like it won't be there by the time we can no longer work. And even if by some miracle it is, it won't be enough to live on, especially since many of us won't own our own homes. Most of us figure we'll just have to keep going till we drop.

Even those Gen Xers who never tried to change the world were working hard at what they were doing: starting businesses, raising children, making art, you know, little things like trying to become writers during the collapse of the newspaper and publishing industries. That high school best friend of mine never got a chance to be a journalist despite her J-school pedigree.

By the time I hit my 30s, I had shifted from politics to non-profit fundraising to education, hoping to effect social change on an individual level with every student I taught. I turned down a university teaching post in favor of working for a community college, reasoning that I could have more of an impact with that student population than I would at an expensive, private university.

But even after earning tenure, I was still making far less than median salary for my region. Because my raise each year would be lower than the rate of inflation, I was staring down the barrel at a lifetime of personal economic struggle, in which I'd be effectively making less every year while the cost of living would continue to rise. 

And not only that - I felt like my impact on students was very limited by the broken educational system in which I tried to function. Washington state had put its funding into community colleges at the expense of four-year universities, and both students and teachers suffer as a result.

I'd expected to teach a traditional community college population of students in transition, some of them underprepared for college due to the challenges of their circumstances. Instead, community college instructors in Washington state are effectively asked to cover the first two years of a four-year education for the majority of students in the state, but for far less money than their university cohorts, with far fewer resources, and with a higher classroom student/teacher ratio. It's essentially McEducation.

On top of that was the pile of student loans I had to pay off. Then I rode the roller coaster real estate market, buying a house, selling it high, buying another, and having to sell it again, coming out on the whole deal with no gain and more debt.

So in my 30s, for the first time in my adulthood, I went to work for Corporate America, eschewing my idealistic mandate in the process. It's taken me a decade, but I'm almost out of student loan debt. Even so, I'm priced out of the housing market where I live, and my retirement calculator still makes me weep.

Perhaps in our shift to survival mode, we have failed to fight the good fight. These days, I'm an armchair activist at best. But some of my Gen X friends stayed in teaching, and they've done a lot of good, even if they haven't been able to change any of the frustrating aspects of the structure in which they must teach.

Cambodiafundraiser
The author with her husband, raising money for their spiritual center's trip to Cambodia.

Have I given up my idealism? I help my family, friends, and community whenever I can, and I donate an annual tithe to worthy causes. I've committed a portion of the sales of my book, Cat in the Flock, to Jubilee Women's Center, a fantastic org that helps women transition out of homelessness. At this point, I've donated more than I've earned on the book, and that's OK.

I'm relying on a lot of anecdotal evidence here to make the argument that my generation has never deserved its "slacker" label. You can mesh that with the statistics that have been flinging around the Internets for years about rising education costs, skyrocketing student loan debts, wage shrinkage for everyone except the topmost earners, the dissolution of the middle class, the real estate debacle, the dismal propects for Social Security, etc., etc.

While this argument is structured as a defense, I hope I don't sound overly defensive. Is it right to generalize any group of people, especially on so arbitrary a foundation as birth? Generational theory is specious at best. It's only meaningful in the event of a short-term, measurable spike in births, making the baby boomers the only true cohort we can examine. While I can look across the experiences of the men and women around my age and defend us in a general sense, I also see a great deal of variance.

 The baby boomers were the last generation that shared a common culture, focused as the nation was on a handful of TV and radio stations and newspapers. There used to be more of a collective gaze, a shared set of role models and celebrities. Everyone paid attention to the Beatles, or what was on top 40 radio. But now entertainment and media are balkanized, broken up into a gazillion cable and YouTube channels, Twitter feeds, and Instagram sensations. These days we gravitate toward tribes and identifications. My stepson, who's 15, has no idea what's happening in Seattle's indie rock hipster culture. But ask him about rap stars, and you get a dissertation. The very notion of a "popular" culture is being replaced by demographic preferences.

Generation X was on the cusp of this shift, and many of us are overly nostalgic about our vanished American childhoods as a result. We go wild when listicles like "You know you were born in the 70s/80s if you recognize these" pop up on social media, and we can't help but scroll through, pining for our lost Garbage Pail Kids. Despite acrimonious divorce and/or real abuse that sent many of us into therapy, our childhoods from this vantage point can seem recklessly idyllic. We picture ourselves back then, drinking from garden hoses with abandon and riding our bikes without helmets, the breeze blowing through our Farah Fawcett wings.

We also saw a shift in the idea of role model. Our parents' generation to this day continues to idealize men like Bobby Kennedy, JFK, and Martin Luther King - men who were rubbed out in the prime of their lives. My cynical Gen X mind wonders what would have happened to these men's legacies if they'd lived to old age. It's Ted Kennedy, after all, whom we link to Chappaquiddick, and the baby of the family hasn't been lionized like his brothers have. JFK may have been involved with Marilyn Monroe, but that just deepens his appeal.

By contrast, many of Gen X's would-be heroes have lived long enough to have flamed out in big, embarrassing ways: Pee-wee Herman's public masturbation, Bill Cosby's string of 13 (and counting) rape allegations, Bill Clinton as the highest office of sexual harrassment in the land. Then there's Michael Jackson, Gary Hart, Dennis Kucinich, Whitney Houston, Pete Rose, Tiger Woods, Mel Gibson, Ted Nugent, the list goes on.

Some of them recover and reinvent, like Bill Clinton and Robert Downey, Jr. But still. 

A line from a Gen X-era song sums it up well: "Who'll be my role model/ now that my role model is gone, gone? He ducked back down the alley/ with some roly-poly litte bat-faced girl." Notably, the songwriter is Paul Simon, beloved baby boomer, adopted by my generation.

Perhaps the last best hope many of us had was Barack Obama. But when he reversed his campaign position on the Iraq War and government overreach in his first term, he kind of broke us. But then again, as much as that hurt, it didn't really surprise us. We've come to expect it. Some of us even voted for him a second time, because you know. Politics.

But just think for a moment about what kind of legacy he would have if god forbid he'd been assassinated during his first year in office.

Of course that couldn't have happened; we're in a different time and place than the baby boomers. Our struggles are not to change the social fabric of society the way the 60s hippies needed to do. While our parents were questioning the very authority that was the Great Empire of the United States, we're too busy trying to survive, or change what is still in our power to change, as that empire slowly but surely declines.

 

 


Protest in the streets of Barcelona!

Protest banner

We were hanging out on our balcony in Barcelona, taking in the nighttime view, when we heard chanting from the streets below, and not the kind that comes from monks. So of course we threw on our shoes and went downstairs to see what was up.

Around the corner, a protest was in full swing. 

Protest crowd

A crowd of students marched the streets and stopped in front of a Barcelona city government building, at which they threw eggs and detonated explosive canisters. The mood was angry at the center of the protest, but social and congenial on the fringes. Many of the protesters walked their bikes as they marched.

 

At nearby street cafes, Catalonians went on with their coffee conversations, affecting blase glances at the commotion in the street. We asked a man sitting on a park bench right next to the protest, "What's going on?" 

He shrugged. "They're students."

"Do you know what they're protesting?" we asked.

He shrugged again. "Who knows? They're students."

La policia was in full force but seemed to be providing protection for the protesters as much as they were making sure they didn't get out of hand.

Protest cops

They were several SWAT-style vans in the troupe.

Protest SWAT van

The next day, we discovered that the students had left graffiti behind. They're written in Catalan, which most certainly is not just a dialect of Spanish, but some of the sentiments should be crystal clear even to the uninitiated.

Protest Foc a la Banka

Protest utopia

This symbol, which we found out later is tied to the anarchist "occupy" movement internationally, was common.

Protest anarchy sign

It turns out the students were protesting policies that make it harder for squatters to occupy vacant buildings and public spaces. You can see by the related articles below that this was a pretty tame protest, compared to the violence that occurred in Barcelona back in May of this year, when a building that had been occupied by leftists for 17 years was cleared out for redevelopment.

So for us, it was a moment of honeymoon adventure. For some Catalonians, it's a matter of liberty.

A few days later, we saw this apartment graffiti in what looks like an activists' flat punctuating the city view at Park Guell. The "okupa" for "occupy" is a strong message across the top of the roof on the lower left:

Okufa