Listen to the many voices of Dodging and Burning …

I’M A HUGE FAN of podcasts and audiobooks. They’re my constant commuting and traveling companions. So course, I’m thrilled to announce that the audiobook version of Dodging and Burning by BlunderWoman Productions is available on iTunes, Scribd, Downpour, Audiobooks.com, AudiobooksNow, Libro.fm (support your local bookstore!), and other retailers. It’s also available at your public library, and very soon, it will be available on Audible (Amazon).

Producer Tanya Eby cast different actors for my three narrators: Ceola (Elizabeth Wiley, top photo), Bunny (Janet Metzger) and “A Date with Death” (Kyle Los). Each voice-actor brings refreshing texture and nuance to these characters—and they all nailed the regional accent. It’s been a treat to listen!
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What an amazing fall, what an amazing year!

fullsizeoutput_3c74AS WE REACH the end of the year, I’m still a little startled. I did this thing: I wrote a book, and it was published. I’m thankful to everyone who supported me—from my husband Jeff to my agent Annie to the wonderful crew at Pegasus to bookstores and event planners and, of course, to the readers, friends and strangers alike. Love to you all!

This fall has been a whirlwind. I was back at work with my wall of author post-cards glaring at me … Woolf and Poe win our staring contests every time. Those eyes! But Whitman’s a softy, always glancing dreamily over my shoulder, looking for a unified America somewhere in the corner of the cube farm. Good luck, buddy!

I was also on the road doing events. I kicked it off with the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta followed by Bouchercon in St. Pete and Fall for the Book in Fairfax, and then ended in Chicago with events at Centuries & Sleuths Bookstore and Sunday Salon Chicago. I met so many lovely readers and fellow writers. But I was glad for a weekend or two in the mountains to decompress, and yes, do some writing.

HAVE BEEN OVER THE MOON to learn that my novel has been on several “Best of” lists, including Oline Cogdill’s Best Mysteries of 2018, Stop, You’re Killing Me’s Favorite 2018 Debut Novels, and BOLObooks’ Top Reads of 2018. I’m honoredDodging and Burning was included, and Istrongly recommend that mystery lovers check out the other fabulous authors on these lists.

I WAS INTERVIEWED by Jade Salazar onInside Out LGBT Radio. It was a wonderful and in-depth conversation. If you missed it, you can still stream it HERE.

RECENTLY, I guest blogged for Southern Writers Magazine – Suite T about how to make your novel feel both surprising and inevitable. Check it out!

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My First Pop-up Book Group!

I’m so excited to be coming to NYC on June 12th to attend my first pop-up book group hosted by BOOKTHEWRITER. I love giving readings and connecting with readers, but all too often these experiences rush by. There’s nothing wrong with that—no one, NO ONE, likes a reading to drag on! However, the idea of an evening discussing Dodging and Burning in-depth with readers in an intimate setting seems absolutely luxurious and immensely satisfying. I hope those who attend agree!

If you’re in the NYC area and want to attend, there are still tickets available. I’d love to see you there.

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Importance of Historical Fiction from an LGBT Perspective

[from my guest post on Art (202), The official blog of the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities]

When I came out of the closet 10 years ago, I had a lot of explaining to do.  Many family members and friends were surprised by my news, and those who weren’t still needed help in adjusting to the out me.  Although, in a broad sense, it’s unfortunate that LGBT people ever have to be closeted or, once out, have to take on the burden of making themselves known, I felt it was my responsibility to make myself known to the people in my life who cared about me.  So I went about explaining myself, telling my hidden backstory, filling in the gaps, righting all the misperceptions, some of which I had participated in creating.  It was exhausting and, at times, trying, but I was glad I did it.

I write LGBT-themed mysteries set in a historical time period, particularly DC during the 1940s.  I’m fascinated by the way a mystery story, by design, is about uncovering hidden backstory, the occluded past.  Much of LGBT life pre-Stonewall (1969) is murky.  Not a lot has been written about it, and personal narratives are scarce.  So often this is the case with suppressed voices of any sort.

There are a several good histories about LGBT life, but first person accounts are the most inspirational to me.  Books such as Jeb and Dash: A Diary of Gay Life, 1918-1945 and For You, Lili Marlene: A Memoir of World War II have helped me do more than get the facts right; they’ve helped me set a tone and begin to understand voices which were obscured by oppressive social dynamics and nearly lost.

Although recovered first person accounts and detailed histories are incredibly important, they are always limited by historical record, fixed by time and fact.  The imaginative leap of historical fiction allows for a more complete emotional understanding of LGBT people from different time periods.  By creating the atmosphere of a particular historical moment (in my case the 1940s in DC), I’m able to render the internal life of LGBT characters in a way that historical fact and even self-conscious personal accounts lack.

When I came out, I was able to reveal my own hidden backstory, to solve the mystery of my identity for family and friends.  Many LGBT people who lived before me remained silent and hidden out of self-loathing or fear of being persecuted or fear of being physically harmed.  Through an imaginative gesture that fiction allows, I can give flesh to those complex and various voices.  That seems the particular goal of writing historically from a LGBT perspective.

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Introversion: A Legacy Through Poetry

Although this photo doesn't have much to do with my grandmother's poetry, I absolutely love it.  Something tells me she wasn't particularly fond of shooting a gun.  Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

Although this photo doesn’t have much to do with my grandmother’s poetry, I absolutely love it. Something tells me she wasn’t particularly fond of shooting a gun. Perhaps she was humoring Granddad, also pictured.

I grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southwestern Virginia.  My mother’s mother, Lucile Shanklin Hull, was a local poet and published several books of poetry about the region.  In her book, Lyrics of the Hills*, 1980, she celebrated the region and her community in Smyth County, Virginia.  Many of her poems feel designed to promote a warm and romantic version of the community, such as “The Gay Bazaar”:

Hurry, hurry, hurry
To the gay bazaar!
For just around the corner,
Where throngs of people are
All a-hustle and a-bustle,
There will be displayed
Such a carnival of color-
Mingled art and artless wonder
Eager hands have made. (48)

But in other poems, as is true of the region, there are quiet pools of darkness; she makes commentary about strip mining, rural poverty, and war casualties.  From page to page, there’s a rise and fall, mountain peaks warmed by sunlight—“From this tall pinnacle look far” (35)—to shady brooks haunted by loss: “She had come down the rocky path/ Winding along by Shooting Creek,/ And her clear young voice was mingled/ With the long, wild song of the water” (41).  In yet others, my grandmother expresses her grief and struggle with depression: “The things I fear have tentacles/ To reach the very core of me;/ They twine themselves vine-wise about/ My hidden self insistently (“The Things I Fear” 46).

While I was growing up, my family rarely discussed the darkness in her poetry; the mountaintops were emphasized, not the gloomy valleys.  I knew her as a young boy; she died when I was nine, and during years leading up to her death, her failing health had made it difficult for us to communicate.

When I was a sophomore in college, my mother showed me a folder of her unpublished poems.  As she handed it to me, a newspaper clipping fluttered out.  It was my uncle’s obituary.  Younger than my mother and her sister, he had died as an infant in 1938.  It was the first I’d heard of him.

When I asked my mother about it, she couldn’t talk about him—the pain, even after so many years, was still fresh—so I began rummaging through the poems, looking for those dark valleys in her work.  I came across a poem called “Unseen,” in which she writes frankly of her loss: “No patient toy dog keeps watch;/ No rusty soldier, staunch and true,/ Upon a seldom dusted shelf/ Waits endlessly for you.”  In Lyrics, there’s another poem which now I understand to be about my uncle: “When bugles blow/ And from afar/ The sound of war/ Shall echo near,/ He will not hear” (6).  She imagines him never having to go to war, never waking from his peaceful sleep.

I was startled by these poems; it challenged the notion I had of my grandmother as a person and as a poet.  I’d always read her poems as outward looking, whether she was describing life in rural Appalachia or making earnest objections to strip mining.  I’d not noticed the gloomy, tree-muffled streams in her poetry, the dark waters in which she reflected herself.  In her poem, “Introversion,” she writes:

I often come to you
So filled with thoughts of me
That your own finer self
I cannot see.

Perhaps you come to me
So full of you
That my own truer self
Is hidden too!

This poem is about failed communication, the inability for two introverted persons to reveal themselves to one another, how all that inward-looking can thwart connection, how our hidden-selves can distract us seeing others, from seeing the world.  Although short, this poem hits me hard because it has such clarity and because I see myself in it; I’m often captivated by my own internal world, sometimes blocking out the world around me. I am so much like her.

That her poetry, however quiet and moss-covered, tells me that my penchant for darkness, for depression kept at bay, is part of a legacy. If we’d known one another as adults, we would’ve understood each other well.

*Hull, Lucile Shanklin.  Lyrics of the Hills.  Radford: Commonwealth Press.  1980.  Print.

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Teachers must be subversive literary citizens

Photo classes at Flint Hill create posters of teachers with their favorite books.  This image was created by Afshan Bhatia.

Photo classes at Flint Hill create posters of teachers with their favorite books. This image was created by junior Afshan Bhatia.

While we writers often look to other writers for support and (one hopes) are good literary citizens ourselves, we shouldn’t limit the notion of literary citizenship to other writers and our partners in the publishing industry.  We should reach beyond the boundaries of our community and cross-pollinate with other types of communities, rooting out and connecting with anyone who has a passion for the written word, which of course, means expanding our idea of our own citizenship.

Because I chair English for 7-12 grades at Flint Hill, a day school outside of DC, I’ve become aware of what good literary citizenship looks like in secondary education.  Our education system in America isn’t structured to support a love of reading.  The proliferation of standardized testing and the college application process with its emphasis on test scores and APs attempts to quantify, reduce, and box learning, which places great importance on the acquisition of information and the automatization of skills, and de-emphasizes (or altogether ignores) the richness and diversity of aesthetic experience.

The system, you see, is inherently suspicious of emotional response, of intimate connection.  Defining how a story or poem makes you feel and the exploration of why it made you feel that way is a rigorous step toward self-understanding.  It’s the only way literature has a chance of helping us become better people.  Tests, however, can’t quantify that sort of exploration—it’s not compliant enough and much too slippery, too out of the lines—so test preparation doesn’t emphasize or value it.

To build future literary citizens, which I believe is a significant act of literary citizenship, is working against the flow of contemporary education.  I’m happy to be a part of an educational institution that, given the constraints of being a college preparatory school, does understand this, but it’s not true for many schools, even despite the many passionate English teachers out there.

At Flint Hill, we weave living writers into the curriculum (Kazuo Ishiguro, Marilynne Robinson, Chris Cleave, Gene Luen Yang, Khaled Hosseini, Alan Moore, and Cormac McCarthy to name a few), exposing our students to narratives and voices that immediately resonate with them.  We also fund a professional author to visit for a Writers’ Day celebration, during which we honor student writers for their excellence in creative and academic writing, and provide the time for students to interact with the visiting author.  All of this is our way of suggesting to students the idea that literature isn’t primarily a thing of the past, but a thing of the present—and that reading can be about experiencing something, not just acquiring information, all with the hope of building future readers of contemporary writers, perhaps even future literary citizens.

So I encourage writers to pair with teachers whenever they can to fight this trend and find a way (even if it seems mildly subversive) to reach those students blue about being in a box and hungry for aesthetic experience.

This post originally appeared as part of the Gertrude Stein blog series on the Renegade Writers’ Collective website.

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Event: Waterbear Reading Series, Saturday, October 26 at One More Page Books

Art & Literature

One More Page BooksI’m thrilled to be taking part in the October edition of the Waterbear Reading Series at One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia. The series, which began earlier this year, has already featured some terrific writers—including both friends (Jen Michalski, Laura Ellen Scott, Amber Sparks) and family (Tara Laskowski!)—and the October event will be the last reading of 2013, given the holidays ahead, so fingers crossed for a big audience to help round out the year with a bang!

I’ll be reading on Saturday, October 26, at 6 p.m., along with three other very distinguished writers:

John Copenhaver placed as a quarterfinalist in the 2010 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award for Dodging and Burning.  The last two summers he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference as a general contributor in fiction.  In 2011 he was invited to be a fellow in genre fiction at the Lambda Writers Retreat for…

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