The Witch Elm by Tana French and Do You Really Know Yourself At All

Truth is there’s darkness lurking. The unmeasured capacity for pain and shame, selflessness,  self-preservation, and great voids of unanswerable questions. Or, answers that might be better left alone. People are mysteries, even unto themselves.

I’ve always marveled over that old phrase usually employed with a sheepish or dumbfounded tone: “I lost my temper”. Well, maybe the more truthful thing to say is you found it. Or, the way we tend to justify violent behavior from a person who’s been severely traumatized—cause and effect. Dire inevitable consequences. Or key meets lock? Maybe the violence or some other negative possibility was there all along just beneath the surface of a sunny disposition.

Within the plot and subplots of The Witch Elm Tana French explores this idea of self-knowledge crumbling to bits and the potentially devastating aftermath through Toby. Toby is an educated upper-middle class Caucasian hertero man living in contemporary Ireland who goes from adolescence thru his mid twenties blissfully unaware that being blissfully unaware can cause major damage to those he takes for granted are irrevocably close loved ones. Family matters, family never shakes.

Reviews of the novel in The Guardian and some other prominent magazines  (which I will link below) focus on that white male privilege, the gauzy comfy cocoon through which Toby views the world around him for most of his life. Likely the very thing that lends to the terrible sense of betrayal that Toby feels after being nearly beaten to death by burglars.

Yes, betrayal, because after waking in the hospital with major injuries, life-altering injuries, Toby feels betrayed. For the most part he’s always given even the biggest jerks the benefit of the doubt. Willing and able to withdraw from judgment when someone causes him no personal grief or offense is easy to do because no one has really made an effort to do such a thing. And then, for no reason at all, that changes. Complete strangers have attacked him, robbed him, possibly crippled him for life and the impotent rage tears at him. He wakes knowing that something fundamental, something rightfully his is gone now. Taken violently. And he can never get it back.

Struggling though physical pain, paralyzing fear, and terrifying loss of memory, loss of self-assurance … Toby wants to shake feeling like a victim but he can’t. He wants vengeance, retribution. He just wants to be himself. And regardless of the terrible fumbling doubt and gaps in memory, his inner dialogue gives details that pierce, that are  plausible, revelatory insight to what horror he’s living.

The narration of this story is an injured stream of consciousness to which the author lends her own distinctly lyrical genius of a voice. And trust me when I say it is precisely that breathtaking lovely lyricism that intensifies the eeriness of Toby’s thoughts, his questions, and insights of his mates and relations that eventually help him understand that he never understood himself at all, much less anyone else.

Despite the gorgeous, gorgeous, language Tana French employs throughout The Witch Elm, the last three chapters get a bit windy. I would have liked to see those three condensed into one so that the ending could’ve packed a bigger punch—in that last page, Toby ties in his opening comments to the story’s inescapable conclusion. It’s that question we all have to ask in the aftermath of frightening self-discovery.  The ugly kind, once we’ve bowed down to doubt and anger and loss—without that thing you always believed made you yourself … what are you? Who are you?

Whether the thing was luck or cleverness, optimism, or a flair for the romantic, that one trusted person who brought out your best, inspiration, imagination, athleticism … what if you woke up tomorrow and that thing is gone?  Would you still be you?


The Guardian: Review, The Witch Elm

The Guardian: Book Review, The Witch Elm 

Stephen King Reviews The Witch Elm

Los Angeles Review of Books: The Witch Elm

Reading In My Future Haven

Imagine a room with pine plank floors and inset shelves painted a lush white, nine feet tall, three feet wide, six inches apart, running the length of a room on either side of a broad picture window. On each shelf there are of course well used books from every era of modern literature, spines of faded greens and blues, golds, reds, black, and brown. Each shelf is discreetly lighted from above, and center of the ceiling is a tarnished brass chandelier salvaged from an antebellum house before it was razed to the ground.

Cozied up between some of the books are other treasures. A vintage typewriter, cameras and clocks that lost their innards before being sold at an estate sale or flea market. Carefully framed black and white portraits, dreamy landscapes, doodles that from a distance look like a study of sea life or forgotten birds. Homemade candles, jars of herbs, feathered quills next to an ink pot—not a real antique, but a nice reproduction.

This room carries the scents of yellowed pages and waning herbs, the faintest hint of tobacco and the laundry soap used on the pale yellow curtains flanking that broad picture window, the natural ingredients that give those pine planks a nice healthy sheen. In front of the window is a comfy chair, a free-standing lamp—nothing too frilly—and a round table maybe cut from the same wood as the floors. One chair for one person. One lamp. One table. This room  is mine. It can be admired from the doorway by others, but they don’t have permission to linger, to pick up a book or inspect the treasures, or sit in that comfortable chair.

This is the haven I will build sometime in the future. Decades ago the picture of it was hazy, but it gets clearer every year. The chair will be turquoise, the lamp shade a sleek pale gold drum, and there will be a rug center of the floor. Something hand woven and older than me, something woven with all the colors of all the books. When the morning light slants through my picture window and a mug of coffee sits beneath swirls of aromatic steam and there is a book in my hand, I might look down at that rug and decide to stretch out as the text inside the book of that day becomes a staircase that walks me into a new world, a new home, a new set of friends.

This week I’ve read with that picture growing ever more dimensional and richly painted in my mind’s eye. There will undoubtedly be copies of my latest reads there, someday. My compliments to Celeste Ng for Little Fires Everywhere. The transition from character to character facilitated by her third person omniscient narrator was often seamless and always lovely. The rich tone of the book, the insightful narration, the development of characters … a pleasure. The reference to This Be the Verse , relevant.

In between enjoying that read and almost finishing another, the local library took three days to notify me of a book on hold then removed the hold before I could get there to pick up the books. That was disappointing. Meanwhile I’ve downloaded a copy of Tana French’s The Witch Elm and I’m looking forward to reading this author again. Her style of writing, of piecing together a mystery is fascinating. Last year I read In the Woods , and though I was frustrated that the hints of paranormal activity never proved to solidify beyond the narrator’s imagination, I have to admit true enjoyment overall of a mystery not totally resolved. Oh, her pretty pretty turns of phrase.

For now I carry a journal full of bad penmanship plotting out my next writing project or seven. And a shaft of early morning light pooling on the plank floor of my future home library. For now I’m off to the day job.



A Week of Reading Binges & Good Customer Service

Yesterday I met a man who by way of introduction told me he was born in 1938 and his first job paid fifty cents per day. In customer service this sort of thing happens frequently. Some folks just want to stir up conversation, state their opinion or ask someone else’s to measure the contrast. Sometimes words just fall out that take them by surprise.  It’s not uncommon to pick up a few confessions, learn a new and nifty snide remark, maybe get inspiration for what not to do the next time I’m on the other side of the desk so to speak. Maybe get inspiration for what to do every day to make life better.

On my birthday two years ago I dutifully wore the birthday tiara that is passed around the office for such celebratory occasions and upon noticing the ridiculous plastic rhinestones and my goofy smile a customer says, oh, it’s your birthday! So, what’s the number? The number was 48 and with that information a cobwebby expression of nostalgia took over his face as he sighed and said he remembered his 48th all too well. That’s the year he started drinking tequila. That’s the year he lost the love of his life because she caught him cheating on her. Blew the whole damn thing up, he said, and still don’t have a clue why. In response I looked down at his invoice and muttered that’ll be $39.18 please.

Still wearing that nostalgia and with one last aggrieved sigh he paid the money and told me to behave myself, not to party too hard. Just in case. I promised him tequila had already proven itself as a friend. I’ll be fine, I assured him.  I went home that night and drank bourbon. Just in case. Since then I’ve listened to sibling arguments, marital arguments, been asked advice on everything from car service warranties to what jewelry to wear to a rehearsal dinner of a cousin’s, and how to make a good potato salad. The conversations that get stirred in an instant of customer anxiety or euphoria or rage can be interesting to say the least.

This spry fellow who brought up being born in 1938 did so after my polite instructions on how to navigate the credit card reader while submitting his payment. With the exception of some time in Vietnam he’d farmed most of his life and didn’t have to look very far over his shoulder to relatives who knew what it was like to be pieces of property rather than citizens, but his primary interest in that moment was how much change he’d seen in technology over the years. He was there when TV became a thing, when automatic transmissions and air conditioning became common place. When people out in the rural outskirts were told it was mandatory to have their houses outfitted with electricity because that’s what the county required. Progress.

From a young adulthood of coal oil lamps and milking cows every day to eighty-one years old and carrying a smart phone—a helluva span. He was offended when he was told a few years ago that his social security check wouldn’t be mailed anymore, but soon enjoyed the convenience of direct deposit and online banking. He tried to explain to me that back in the day if something broke on the farm you just figured out how to fix it and that was that. Common sense made a whole lot more sense back then he said, and by the way, the land this building is on used to be a tomato field for as far as the eye could see. My eyes are getting bad these days, he mumbled. I told him that he could download the YouTube app and watch videos on how to fix just about anything if he didn’t want the bother of squinting at instructions.

He said he’d get his grandson to show him how to do that, but he’d have to work up to it because the kids tend to complain when he asks for that kind of tutoring. He appreciated my politeness in navigating the credit card reader because every store seemed to have a different gadget that required different buttons to be pushed. I left work wanting to smell garden soil and craving fresh tomatoes, hoping that when I reach my 81st birthday I’m spry and appreciative, still willing to learn new things, and  still in possession of full-color memories.

Every now and then I meet a talker on the other side of the desk who’s voice can help me see the gloomy night his wife figured out he was a worthless shit of a husband, or, a little kid walking to school past miles of tomato plants after milking the landlord’s cows. Every now and then I get a good look at people around me … and that’s really what I enjoy about life when I take a minute from making magic tricks with the paycheck or worrying over how to make a story from a fragment of a sliver of an idea. People sometimes want to talk out loud right smack in the middle of my day. And it’s always good to listen.

You’d think such an understanding would be well grounded by now. It’s obviously why I like reading, because reading a good story is just like listening to someone bare their soul, speak about a topic no one in their immediate circle ever asked them to explain or explore. A perfect stranger can make the perfect audience. Amen.

This week I’ve read three short pieces: Superman and Me, by Sherman Alexie, Daughter of Invention, by Julia Alvarez, and The Flowers, by Alice Walker. Essays, short stories? Both? Gorgeous in their own right, every one. Quite by accident I followed the advice given by S. Jae Jones and Kelly Van Sant during one of their Publishing Crawl podcasts and read a really bad book while not writing. Apparently this is a good exercise. But I don’t want to do it again, seriously. Shadow Rider by Christine Feehan was painfully bad. I shun the Goodreads rankings from now on. Shun! But I’ll keep listening to the podcast. The hosts are otherwise very informative and generous with their expertise.

Meanwhile I’m finishing up two more novels: Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng, and Shell Shaker, by LeAnne Howe. Little Fires is chock full of some excellent storytelling, well-rounded characters, and a structure that just flows. I found Shell Shaker after my single attempt to follow some other advice given on writer podcasts including the aforementioned Publishing Crawl: if you’re having trouble finding comp titles for your novel, ask a librarian. I did just that. The first librarian didn’t understand at all what I wanted. The librarian in the next desk overheard my request, got very excited about helping out, and suggested Shell Shaker. She definitely pegged a few of the elements of my book, but unfortunately it won’t work as a comp title. The only real comparison that can be made is that my novel features a Native American grandmother. The end. I’m not giving up though. There’s a trip to the library planned for tomorrow.

Howe’s book is essentially a gorgeous history lesson in the strong, fierce magic of Choctaw women and the Choctaw culture. In between the intense shamanic lovely language used by historical figures in this one fictional branch of a Choctaw family, a contemporary murder mystery unfolds that lacks the intensity and loveliness. The effect is like reading two different books and of the two the contemporary parts just don’t jive. The dialogue is choppy and some of the characters seem to be borrowed from one-dimensional Harlequin Romance sidekicks. That’s a shame, because otherwise it’s a great concept and oh my goodness those flashback segments are breathtaking.

Two more books wait to be picked up at the library tomorrow, and after finishing Little Fires Everywhere I’ll check out another that’s only available digitally. Now that’s a fantastic invention I forgot to bring up in the conversation with my new favorite customer yesterday. Whoever came up with the idea to merge Kindle ebooks with local library checkouts … you’re a genius. Salute.






Poetry Relaunch & New Fiction

Thanks to the help of a writerly friend I was able to relaunch my two poetry collections via Draft2Digital which makes the books available on several venues, including Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, Amazon, and Scribd. In all formats the poetry collections view best on tablets/e-readers rather than smaller devices, but I can’t really fuss about the disappointments of this learning process because it’s all been too fun.

In addition to the poetry collections, I’ve added the short story Whiskey-Niner-Kilo and a peek at my upcoming novella, The Reaping. Follow the links below for modestly priced reading! I hope y’all enjoy.

Books available on Amazon, and Barnes & Noble

I Don’t Know What To Call This

Obsessing over weather is beyond ridiculous when you think about it. Yet, here I am. In the past week we’ve traveled through a finicky springtime at breakneck speed to land in some weird version of summertime. Prehistoric moths are fluttering around the swamp that’s supposed to be a backyard, and the backdoor has swollen so badly there’s no shutting it. But the afternoon light is pretty.

Meanwhile, I’ve put together the cover art for a short story that will be uploaded to Kindle this weekend. As for categorizing it, I’ll have to go with speculative fiction. Hopefully people will read and the reading will get them excited about my debut novel, that should be available in June—it also might fall under the spec umbrella.

For the big debut, I’m hoping to convince some very talented friends of mine to let me hire them to dress it up pretty and profesh. The poetry collections and the short story cover art were easy, because it all comes from my own photographs and doodles. The novel will be a bit trickier.

That’s all for updates at the moment. If you find yourself in need of some poetry this weekend, don’t forget I’ve got a free download available thru 5/7, as well as my autobiographical debut poetry collection for a very modest price! Just go here.

May the 4th be with you!

Disconnected Phrases & Haunting Images: What Fills A Writer’s Notebook

The formatting didn’t work out so well on this post, but if you can, please overlook the mess and read the interesting Craft Talk by Anne Valente. What tools do you use for saving and “constellating images” into your writing?

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Throughout the month of February, t.s. wright and I have been enjoying the Southeast Review’s Daily Writer’s Regimen. On Day Twenty-Two, Anne Valente’s Craft Talk, “Constellated Images” was featured. I will now share this with you.


In his recent Writers’ Chronicle article, “The Indelible Image,” author Benjamin Percy writes that film lends itself to pivotal scenes. He cites the shark popping out of the water in Jaws, the rolling boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark. He says creative writing has similar key moments: “Widowed images. Startling images. Haunting images. Iconic images. Whatever you want to call what ends up clogged in our imaginative filter. We don’t always know why they’re important, but for whatever reason, our mind won’t release them.” For his own writing practice, he mentions keeping a corkboard of these images above his desk while writing, images accompanied by bits of trivia…

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Things Are Not What They Seem: A Brief Writing Exercise

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There are thirty-two ways to write a story, and I’ve used every one, but there is only one plot–things are not as they seem.  ~ Jim Thompson

I love this quote. While I can’t say that there are indeed precisely thirty-two ways to write a story, the assessment of plot rings true. Why else would we continue to delve in to a story beyond the first lines if not to discover some revelation or another?

Things are never what they seem at first glance — look deeper and, while you may not find shocking secrets or epiphany, you will find something about a character, a landscape, that is being held secret in those first lines.

While pondering “things are not what they seem” write a minimum of one hundred words (a maximum of 300) to open a story. Your mission is to write the introduction to a character living in…

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… “when I write I’m merely a sensibility.”- Virginia Woolf

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Reading through Woolf’s A Writer’sDiary, published by her husband, Leonard Woolf, can be likened to trying to put a 10,000 piece 3D puzzle together while blindfolded. And then, just when I’m hopelessly lost, her voice comes through with such intense clarity and insight I am left breathless.

I was simultaneously reluctant and desperate to read through this publication. Mr. Woolf supplies a Preface in which he admits to extracting items too personal for sharing … still, there are passages within that are painfully personal — passages that maybe only a writer would recognize as painfully personal.

Often, the author puts into her own words the struggle over THAT question: Whywrite? Why, indeed. Like so many, when she left the question alone and just did the thing, magic happened. When she obsessed over it, picked at it … the thundering silence, the lack of no real answer…

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Proof Of Life: Writing About Writing

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“To defend what you’ve written is a sign that you are alive.” ~ William Zinsser

Today, I invite all hard laboring writers to defend something you’ve written. No matter if it’s old or new, no matter if it has been published or hides out in the bottom drawer of your desk. Tell us about it. Tell us why you wrote it. Inspire us with your dedication to this character, this plot, this form, that demanded you be the one to bring it into the world.


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Collaboration: Fairy Dust & Hard Labor

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Just as RicoChey is suggesting a mob of us writers collaborate, I begin reading a book about creative collaboration. In Big Magic, Liz Gilbert puts forth her experiences with inspiration — that thing of mysterious quality and substance, like fairy dust — and putting herself to work at the vocation of writing every day — hard labor. The magic will come, she says. It’s just OUT THERE, WAITING.

Inspiration, ideas, are just flitting around the universe in search of willing conduits. There’s no predicting when the magic might strike. But according to Gilbert, the creative being, the conduit, must already be at work to be limber enough, and willing enough, to be truly receptive.

Within the pages of this book are some pretty far out stories of her experiences. The lady writer has some pretty far out ideas that have not yet been proven by her experiences; nevertheless, I appreciate her passionate…

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