Author Interview – Eliot Parker

A few words with mystery writer Eliot Parker, current president of West Virginia Writers, Inc.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m Eliot Parker. I am a West Virginia native. I live in Huntington, West Virginia. I write mystery/thriller novels and short stories.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project

My latest novel is titled Code for Murder. It features Cleveland Homicide Detective Stacy Tavitt who is looking for the killer of Cleveland Browns football player Devon Baker. With little forensic evidence connecting anyone to the case, Stacy sets out to find the killer. When potential suspects in the case are murdered, Stacy realizes Devon Baker’s killer may be more familiar to her than she realizes.

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In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

 I write in the mystery/thriller genre. I got interested in that genre when I was a kid. The first series of books I really enjoyed were the Encyclopedia Brown young adult books. I also loved the Scholastic “Choose Your Mystery” book series where you (as the reader) could choose the decisions and actions that characters made throughout the book. The fun part was going back and reading the book and making different choices to see what happened to the characters. From then, I was hooked as a mystery/thriller reader and those same passions for that genre carry over into my writing.

I’ve asked this question of another writer who works in your genres, so I’ll ask it again to see if you agree – what’s the difference between “mystery” and “thriller”? Aren’t all thrillers about figuring out the mystery of what’s happening?

To me, a thriller can be defined as a story in which the audience is waiting for something significant to happen.  A mystery is a story of revelation, with the action more mental than physical.

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Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

I write a little bit each day, five days a week. I use post-it-notes to help me organize characters, plot, setting, etc. I usually get up early in the mornings and write for 30-45 minutes. On weekends, I write more and holiday and summer breaks from school (I teach at Mountwest Community and Technical College) allow me to write more. It takes me about a year-and-a-half to get the first draft of a novel completed.

How complete is a “first draft” (since it’s a year and a half in the making)? What goes on after you reach that point?

A first draft for me is one that is complete. It has the exposition, the climax, and the resolution written. This doesn’t mean that all of the writing is great. In fact, a good bit of it will end up taken out of the book or revised significantly. However, when those three parts are complete, I know I have a first draft. After that point, I step away from the manuscript for several weeks (sometimes months). This allows my mind to remove itself from the characters, plot, etc. of the book. Then, when I go back and read it again with fresh eyes, I feel like I am approaching the story completely new, much like a new reader might do.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

I love all of my characters. Choosing a favorite character is like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. However, my favorite character is Ronan McCullough. He appeared in my novel Fragile Brilliance. I love him because is tough, reckless, but principled. He is my favorite character because it’s so easy for me to get inside his head and his voice when I start writing. I don’t always have that same strong connection with other characters I have created.

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What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a  that you never would have otherwise?

 In the sequel to Fragile Brilliance, titled A Knife’s Edge, I researched innovative technology being developed that allows law enforcement and hospitals to diagnose a host of illness and physical conditions with just one drop of blood, instead of the vials of blood that are required now. I learned more about blood, blood testing, and the process of analyzing blood through my research. I would never have sought out that information on my own if it wasn’t for the book. Blood freaks me out!

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

 The real part of writing is revision. Writers should know that the first draft is just that, the beginning of the process. Don’t be afraid or surprised to find yourself having to toss out at least 1/3 of what is written and then heavily revise the other 2/3. It’s that process of intense, detailed revision where the novel really finds is core truth and the characters really become what you envision them to be as a writer.

If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

 Absolutely! I would quit my job and be a writer full-time. I am working on that now, anyway, minus the lottery winnings.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

 The last great book I read was Call Me By Your Name by Andre Aciman. It’s a powerful, moving story about love, saying goodbye, and the pain that comes when we cannot be with the one person that we love more than anything else in the world.

What do you think you’re next project will be?

 I finished the third revision of the next Ronan McCullough novel, titled A Knife’s Edge. It will be out in early 2019. I also have an outline finished for the next Stacy Tavitt novel. I am also working on compiling some short stories that have been published in literary magazines (and some that have not) for a short story collection.

Do you approach your short stories different from your novels (in terms of planning, revising, etc.)? If so, how?

I approach my short stories in the same manner that I do my novels. The only difference is that with short stories, the time spent with those characters and that setting is much shorter.

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Weekly Watch: The Shape of Water

The other weekend my wife and I decided to go to the movies. It’s that time of year where all the stuff that was in limited release at the end of last year for Oscar consideration is starting to trickle out to our neck of the woods. We checked the listings and came down to seeing either The Post, the new Spielberg take on the Pentagon Papers, or The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro’s latest. The wife decided on the latter, figuring it was more the kind of movie that should be seen in the theater.

Boy was she ever right (as usual).

Mostly when I think of “see it in the theater” movies I’m thinking of the big, popcorn movies that dominate the box office most of the year – superheroes, big sci-fi/fantasy franchises, or action movies (the wife has a disturbing affection for the Fast and Furious movies). Things that really play into the “bigger is better” idea and make it worth dealing with the public to watch in super wide vision, rather than just on the TV.

The Shape of Water isn’t one of those movies. It looks beautiful, don’t get me wrong, and it has some praise worthy effects, but it’s not interested in them as an end, as so many big movies are. Rather, what makes The Shape of Water the kind of movie you want to see in the theater is that it’s the kind best experienced when you turn the lights off, shut out the real world, and give yourself over to it completely.

That’s because The Shape of Water is, essentially, a fairy tale. Voice overs at the beginning and end of the film make this about as explicitly as they could without just saying “this is a fairy tale.” It’s not a movie for your logical, rational mind; it’s for your heart or spirit or soul or whatever place it is where your feels live. That’s not for everybody – witness the low ratings from some IMDB commenters who ding the movie for not being “realistic.” Problem is, the movie never sets out to be realistic.

I mean, “realistic” isn’t a word that should be anywhere near a story about a mute woman who falls in love with The Creature from the Black Lagoon (or Abe Sapien – take your pick). Just so stories aren’t realistic – or else they wouldn’t be just-so stories – and that’s what this is. A collection of outsiders – mute woman, gay man, African-American woman, a communist – band together to save another odd outsider, battling all the way against forces of conformity.

By turning away from realism del Toro is able to give the film a lyrical, dreamlike quality. When a black and white musical number pops up in the second half of the film, it seems perfectly in place. Another scene, wherein the aquatic containment properties of the common apartment bathroom are pushed beyond all sense, works just as well. Del Toro, aided by an amazing cast, weaves a spell, but it has to be one you’re willing to fall for.

But don’t take it from me. The Shape of Water now had 13 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. You want to see it, and the best place to see it is in a large, dark room where you can let it completely absorb you.

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New Cover, Same Great Stories!

Releasing my first book, The Last Ereph and Other Stories, was a huge learning process for me. One of the things I learned was that I’m not very good when it comes to the visual side of things. I thought I could bang out a good cover all on my own. Others do it, right? How hard can it be.

Really fucking hard, it turns out. As I’ve moved forward and released other books I’ve looked back on The Last Ereph . . . and wanted to give it the suit it really deserved. Now I have:

Ereph Cover 2.0 (KDP) 500 x 800

This one is courtesy of James at GoOnWrite. But rest, assured, the stories inside (ten in all) are the same high quality as before.

Get the new, more stylish, The Last Ereph and Other Stories here:

Kindle
Barnes & Noble
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Author Interview – Cat Pleska

For our first interview of 2018 it’s back to West Virginia to talk with memoirist and editor Cat Pleska.

Who are you? Where are you? What kind of stuff do you write?

I’m a native West Virginian, 7th generation. I have a BA in English, MA in Humanities, and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. I am an educator, author, and storyteller. I teach full time in an online Master of Liberal Studies program at Arizona State University (go Sun Devils!). I’ve taught at the higher Ed level for 18 years and have taught writing workshops in memoir and personal essay for many years. I have been a History Alive! character (photographer Frances B. Johnston), an essayist for West Virginia Public Radio (7 years), a book reviewer for The Charleston Gazette, and am a reviewer for West Virginia University Press. I am the president of a small nonprofit, 40-year-old WV traditional press, Mountain State Press. I am a cat lady (bordering on crazy cat lady with 6 cats currently), married to Dan, mother to Katie, and pup mom to one dog.

Tell us about your most recent book, story, or other project.

My memoir, Riding on Comets, was published by West Virginia University Press in 2015. About 15 years in the writing, it is a tremendous life accomplishment for me. I’ve edited 10 books, several through the Press and for another book company, Woodland Press. Most recently, Mountain State Press published Voices on Unity: Coming Together, Falling Apart, with 35 writers across the country (22 from WV) speaking to the difficulties of unity in these troubling times. I wanted for writers to have a format, a forum in which to practice what they do best when dramatic times present themselves, and they each stepped up to the plate creating poetry, prose, and song to exercise their right to speak out and speak up. I am super excited about my new book project, working title: The I’s Have It, a travel/personal essay collection about my travels in Iceland and Ireland. I hope to have it completed by summer and ready for revision throughout the fall.

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In what genre do you primarily write? Why did you choose that one?

I write primarily in nonfiction—specifically creative nonfiction, as I like personal writing the best. I call myself a memoirist and personal essayist and that is what I’m published in. The occasional fiction piece or poem floats out, but rarely. Because I come from a family of storytellers, and these were tellers of personal stories, not local or regional tales many might know, I was born into the sense of hearing and imagining in my mind the stories of my people first of all. They did not make up stories; rather, they were true stories told on themselves, so to speak, many times to make you laugh or to make you cry. Each time they told a story, which was every time they gathered, the story was the same—the details did not change. So, truth, to me, was always important. When I heard about creative nonfiction back in . . . the early 90s (when I was in college), I was intrigued. I found out creative nonfiction is the truth told with creative techniques (not making it up), but rather the same way one would tell any story: scene, dialog, description. I was blessed with a partial hyperthymesia, which is recall for one’s childhood. Plus, I was lucky enough to simply ask my family for confirmation of details all through my life.

Have you ever had a situation where you were “stuck” in your writing and could see an easy solution if you were writing fictions and could make things up but had trouble sticking to the truth? If so, how did you work around that?

The truth is I was never “stuck” in my writing due to the fact that I was writing nonfiction. The training I had in fictional techniques (this is about using craft, not lying) helped me present what many think are unessential details as essential, because in truth, they are essential. I let the details tell the story of what really happened. So, if I’m writing about going trick or treating, when I was a child, for example, what’s so significant about that event? Well, what’s significant were the costumes I chose: powerful women characters. What else? That I  wandered neighborhoods as a 9 year old alone. What else? That when I returned, I stood by the front door, looking through the storm door glass and saw a massive orange streak of lightning pattern across an absolutely clear sky. Then it streaked again. I end the story with me wondering what that phenomenon was and what it meant. I really did wonder this. After that piece is one in which my dad disappears at Christmas, drunk again. My mom worrying herself into a state of ill health over his drinking jags. What happened to him? Was he all right? What was going to happen when he returned—if he returned? Although it is exactly what happened, you can see how that the event with the foreboding lightning occurred in Oct. and then comes the Christmas story, and the reader might see the strange phenomenon as foreshadowing. That is what we do with our lives: we look for cause and effect. If someone is stuck in a nonfiction story, that’s my go to: this happened (why? which may cause me to back up with a story that explains) or this happened next: are they connected? Once you explore using those questions, it becomes clear you don’t need to alter anything to become unstuck. I just relax and let the real details flow, letting them do the work of revelation, metaphor, symbolism.

Tell us briefly about your writing process, from once you’ve got an idea down to having a finished product ready for publication.

My ideas usually come from reading, especially other memoirs/essays, but also from the two professional magazines I subscribe to: Writers Chronicle and Poets and Writers. I also get ideas from any number of other places I read, from newspapers, to literary magazines, to National Geographic, to Smithsonian, to fiction. I often just hear a word, such as the one I used above, hyperthymesia, and that’ll send me off into thinking about its definition and what it really means to be along that spectrum. I’ll do further research and then think of personal instances that might fit to include as scene and exposition. Sometimes my ideas come from conversations with people who’ll say to me: you should write about that. Sometimes I’ll review prompts from workshops I’ve been in. My ideas come from words, and it just goes from there.

How do you find people you trust to provide the kind of feedback you need during the editing/polishing process?

That’s actually been a long process and it was by trial and error. First of all, I was in college taking creative writing courses and then in workshops across the country, so I learned what effective criticism is and who knows how to do it and who does not. It is as hard to learn to criticize as it is to write in the first place. The skills are different, and not all writers hone how to criticize effectively. Sometimes, they don’t even know they should learn, but learning how to effectively criticize means you learn more about your own writing in ways you hadn’t thought about. I was in writing critique groups early on, too. But I learned over the years that not all groups work well. I have been in a few in the last few years that were very effective, but eventually, I needed to just write and find a handful of people who are skilled readers—for me (and as a general rule, close in development as a writer as you are). In turn, I am often a reader for them, but not always. And there are people I read for who don’t read for me, and that’s fine. I select who I’ll read, based on what they write, how they write, and the skills I’ve learned that would be helpful to them. Not every reader is a good reader for you and you must learn that. Having my work critiqued is never easy for me—to hear. But I’ve learned to shut out the protesting ego and just listen. I wait a couple days before I approach the piece for possible changes, re-read what they’ve written and then decide in a cold, clear light of a new day if the suggestions are valuable for my piece or not.

Who is the favorite character you’ve created? Why?

Since I’m a creative nonfictionist, I don’t make up characters, but I certainly do develop them. You cannot just write about a person and say, well, she’s this or that. You have to show who that person is. For example, when I wrote about my father in my memoir, it would be easy to make him a bad guy since he was an alcoholic. But my dad was also very intelligent, a hard worker, and when sober a really funny, kind man. You have to create the rounded character even though they are not made up. You have to do your homework. I and my family had to come alive on the pages of my memoir and the same goes for any essays I write about anyone. Real people, researched, and fully, roundly viewed. I have no favorites, although I am fond of myself when I was small, say 5. I say that because that was when I became more aware and absorbed the world around me. Things came alive and so did I. My curiosity was profound and my skill as an observer, as an only child in a world of giants, set me off on my life as a writer more than anything else.

What’s the weirdest subject you’ve had to research as a writer that you never would have otherwise?

The current essay I’m writing about is the Penis Museum in Iceland sort of tops that list. I visited there, but I’d read about it before I went to Iceland. After being there and being . . . rather amazed (I mean, a sperm whale penis? Wow!) I’m still doing some research. In fact, I stumbled across a video interview with a guy who’s gifting his penis in his will to the museum. Apparently 9 inches, un-inflated, as it were, is pretty amazing.

What’s the one thing you’ve learned, the hard way, as a writer that you’d share to help others avoid?

 This is crucial to do: edit, edit, edit, revise, revise, revise then let people read it to edit/revise again and again. Do not ever put a book out there that you haven’t gotten professional editing for. Avoid that urge that this is all you can do and it’s good enough. Take out a loan if you have to, but get it professionally polished. Realize that not everyone is going to love your book. Or read it. Do not worry about that. Why should everyone? Not everyone likes Shakespeare, the bible, Fifty Shades of Grey. Don’t expect 7 billion people will like your writing, no matter how excellent it is. Avoid that expectation and realize there are even some good friends who aren’t going to read it. That’s fine. Don’t sweat it. Concentrate on and be grateful for those who do read it. Be kind. Be confident you’ve got a good book/writing, and you will if you’ve done your homework. Mostly, enjoy the writing. The sales will come.

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If you won $1 million (tax free, to keep the numbers round and juicy), how would it change your writing life?

I would travel half the year and write the other half. When I was 16, I wrote a letter to a person in which I said, “What I want to do when I grow up is to travel and to write.” And that dream has not changed. I’ve been to 8 countries, 4 continents (including no continent—that’s in Iceland and it literally is not any continent, but is a small stretch of land between the American continent and European/Asian continent), and it’s not enough. I’ve written all my life, have been published since 1990, and it’s not enough. So, 1 million in my pocket would set me free to do and be even more. It would be a tremendous blessing.

What’s the last great book you read or new author you discovered?

I’m sort of into the Icelandic authors right now, but I have so many books to be read . . . I’m not ashamed nor will I stop as long as a I have a dime in my pocket buying books—lots of them. I do not care one fig they’re all over the place around here. I’ll get to them as long as the eyeballs last.

Why Iceland? Both as a travel destination and as a focus of your reading?

Because I always wanted to travel since I was very young, my heart leaps up when I come upon a chance to do so. In the case of Iceland, it actually hadn’t been on my radar but a conference called NonfictionNow came up and it was taking place in Reykjavik, Iceland, and I both wanted to go to that conference, one that I had never attended, and to Iceland because a little reading about it told me I’d probably love it (I do!). So, I wrote a paper to submit for a round table event and it was accepted. So, off to Iceland I go. The diversity of attendees was quite fascinating and the conversations were enlightening. But it was the land and its people that fascinated me most. What I found there was a land still forming, but which had a history rich and engaging and that Icelandic is a language spoken that the Vikings would still understand from a thousand years ago. It’s a land where the very pragmatic people believe in elves and trolls (about 50%), where the ministry of highways employs “Troll whispers” to help in highway design. Where there are waterfalls that appear to fall to the center of the Earth, geysers flume, and the land is an incredible glowing green (Greenland is ice; Iceland is green—go figure!). These are just some of the elements that attracted me to Iceland, but the possibility of this still forming land and fascinating citizens (they just voted into law that a company cannot pay a women less than a man for an equal job) fire my imagination of what it would be like to live there. So, I write about it, dream about it, consider what it would mean if I lived there. And by the way: Icelanders love literature, have 100% literacy rate, and almost everyone publishes.

What do you think your next project will be?

As I mentioned, it’ll be The I’s Have It, but beyond that is a novel. I once thought I had two novel ideas and for years I’ve danced around with writing them both from time to time, never really getting very far. A few pages on each at best. But in 2016, I was in Shepherdstown at a local diner for breakfast. It was crowded, so my husband and I were sitting at the counter, drinking coffee, waiting for our order. I was watching the wait staff weave around one another behind the counter, as if they were braiding invisible strands of hair. They moved steadily, efficiently and smoothly and suddenly I realized—this came out of nowhere—that I was not writing two novels; they were the same novel and needed to be joined; that is, braided together. Once I realize that, I started writing the book anew. I was happily into my third chapter when a character came forward that I thought was going to be a minor one, and BOOM! She took over. I haven’t been back to it for while, as I’ve got to reconfigure the whole dang thing—in a way. All I’ve written will work but now it has to be meshed in a new way and I have to think about the structure/theme. Hey! It’s what writers do!

What’s different about the mechanics of writing fiction versus nonfiction?

As for the mechanics, there is not much difference. A good story is a good story, and the elements that make for a good story don’t differ, regardless of what genre you’re writing in (exceptions are hard news writing, scholarly writing, some biographies, although the latter two benefit from using the common mechanics of writing story). Having a facility for detail and good memory, in addition to the fact finding and checking, is a good thing for a memoirist and personal essayist, and a fiction writer as well. My early passive training in a family of storytellers caused me to have a facility with language, sensory detail, dialog, description. Just as someone writing fiction, I know I must have an opening sentence in my nonfiction that captures the audience. I know I have to provide details so the reader can “see” in their mind’s eye what’s going on; There has to be a narrative arc, something connecting the main story themes throughout; I have to build in tension; and writers of any genre who wish to tell a story, true or not, need to think about the universality of what they are writing about: why would anyone read it and care? In the end, the only major difference between writing creative nonfiction and fiction is whether or not you’re careful about fact—what really happened. But you have to break down that fact and think: but what does it mean? What do I think about it and know from it? How did it happen and what was the result? Life is story, and if we’re lucky, we get to tell it.

What Do Verdicts Mean?

Recently there was a small kerfuffle in parts of the atheist blogosphere over, of all things, the guilt of innocence of Jerry Sandusky. Sandusky, you’ll recall, is the long-time assistant to legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno who was convicted on dozens of counts of child sexual abuse related to his position there. I’m less interested in the specifics of this case than I am about one particular argument made that raises an interesting question about the criminal justice system.

Things kicked off with a review in Skeptic magazine of a book, The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment, which argues that Sandusky’s trial was tainted by recovered memory therapies and led to a wrongful conviction. The book’s got favorable blurbs from memory expert Elizabeth Loftus and false confessions expert Richard Leo, two names that make my defense lawyer ears prick up. The review was then favorably discussed by some of the atheist heavyweights, including Jerry Coyne and Daniel Dennett.

Others in the atheist blogopshere pushed back, wondering how skeptics could defend Sandusky. While some offered take downs of the review itself, others simply argued that the issue was settled because of Sandusky’s convictions. The leading proponent of that position was PZ Myers who wrote (links removed):

They’ve published a defense of Jerry Sandusky! Look, Jerry Sandusky was found guilty of 45 counts of child sexual abuse. He’s a convicted pedophile. The prosecution brought in a long train of witnesses and evidence of criminal behavior spanning at least 15 years and 10 victims, and this case found him guilty in a community that was full of fanatical Paterno/Sandusky defenders. Anyone remember the riots and protests when the Paterno empire fell? You can’t have a witch hunt when the targets are regarded as holy saints — the evidence was just so overwhelming and undeniable that even angels by repute could be defrocked at last.

Myers may be right about the weight of the evidence, but what I’m more interested in is the idea that because Sandusky was convicted at trial that it’s somehow wrong to examine the evidence against him. After all, the jury has spoken, right?

Except we know that juries get it wrong. Not all the time, certainly (and an overwhelming number of cases never get to a jury anyway), but enough for it to be a concern:

In the past quarter-century, the work of dogged attorneys and advances in forensic science have exonerated more than 2,150 men and women, 161 of those from death row. The Innocence Project, a New York–based nonprofit founded by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld in 1992, has freed more than 200 people and spurred the creation of numerous smaller organizations around the country devoted to the same mission. (From 2012–2015, I was the director of the Loyola Law School Project for the Innocent in Los Angeles.) By some estimates there are tens of thousands more wrongfully convicted prisoners languishing behind bars.

Given that, what kind of deference should the public give to guilty jury verdicts?

A quick aside on non guilty verdicts. It’s hard to read anything at all into those, since there are so many reasons why such a verdict could be returned. Maybe the prosecution completely failed to prove its case, or maybe it couldn’t meet the final hurdle to of reasonable doubt. Or maybe the jury nullified in light of sufficient evidence. With a not guilty verdict it’s hard to say much beyond “that guy hasn’t been convicted of anything.”

Back to guilty verdicts – what kind of weight should the general public give them? I may lose some of my defense attorney cred for this, but I’m going to say a lot. The law likes to use lots of “rebuttable presumptions,” things that are taken as true, but can, with sufficient evidence, be shown to be false. For example, in Federal court if you’re arrested on just about any drug offense there’s a presumption that you should be held without bond. You can argue your way out, but it relieves the Government of the need to argue your way in.

I’d grant guilty verdicts that kind of presumption because it’s the one time when a group of people are given one job only – evaluate the evidence presented and, using the filter of the judge’s instructions, determine whether the defendant did it or not (whatever “it” is). Everybody else in the courtroom – the lawyers, the judge, the spectators, the press – all have other things competing for their time and attention. Only the jurors have the clear job of listening to every word of testimony, looking at every exhibit, and deciding what it means.

It’s not a full proof system, for sure. The jurors only hear the evidence presented in court, so if the defendant has a shitty lawyer or a prosecutor who is pushing the boundaries it could present a skewed view of the case. In addition, the rules of evidence pare down the universe of facts that a jury can consider, leading to situations where the “well informed” are “those outside the courtroom.” And, finally, the case itself might be tangential to whatever the defendant is really accused of doing. That Al Capone was convicted of tax evasion does little to show, one way or the other, that he was a mob boss.

Which is why I think a rebuttable presumption is the way to go. It’s perfectly right to say because he was convicted of dozens of sexual abuse counts against children, Sandusky probably actually molested them. But it’s not an ironclad guarantee, as Myers and others seem to suggest. Those who would rebut the presumption, however, have a lot of heavy lifting to do.

The_Jury_by_John_Morgan

The Jury (1861) by John Morgan, via Wikimedia Commons

Weekly Read: The Road to Jonestown

There’s a passage in Jeffrey Toobin’s book on Patty Hearst where, after the heiress is captured, her kidnappers demand the Hearst family set up a from scratch program to feed the poor. Various groups come out of the woodwork to try and run the program, including Peoples Temple, the cult led by Jim Jones that, a few years later, would mostly die out in the Guyanese jungle. Toobin presents it as a freakish aside, the intersection of two infamous historical figures. After reading Jeff Guinn’s The Road to Jonestown it becomes clear that there wasn’t anything freakish about it – Jones and his followers could have pulled it off.

That is, perhaps, the most interesting thing about Guinn’s book, which takes a deep dive into the founding of Peoples Temple and the founding, if you will, of Jim Jones. Born poor in rural Indiana Jones gravitated toward two things when young – social justice and fire-breathing religion. Neither of his parents were religious, but he had a neighbor who was constantly on the prowl to recruit souls for Christ and she exposed Jones to her church. He took to preaching and honed a miracle-working approach in Indiana that would serve him well for decades. It was also the spark of the dark charisma that would lead to so many more than 900 dead in Guyana.

Fact is, Peoples Temple got things done for people who were too often left behind by society. Jones and his followers helped drive desegregation in Indianapolis. Both there and later in California they ran nursing homes, drug treatment programs, and, yes, food giveaways. All those programs were successful (at least as successful as other similar programs) and properly run.

The problem was that, from the beginning to the end, Peoples Temple was always the fiefdom of Jim Jones. All the good work came at the expense of a staggering cult of personality that merged with Jones’s rising paranoia (aided, no doubt, by a cocktail of drugs he used to work and sleep) to make for one of the more frightening cults in recent history. Jones was Father, at the very least, and perhaps God herself (or some reincarnation of past holy figures, like Buddha or Jesus) and the only one who could save his people from the destructive world around them.

At first the destruction was nuclear war. That was reason Jones moved Peoples Temple from Indianapolis to California, setting up shop in a rural area north of San Francisco that supposedly was far enough away from primary targets that, with favorable winds, residents could survive a nuclear attack. That fear didn’t keep Jones from barnstorming around the country on a fleet of busses doing revival shtick, however.

The threats quickly became more personal. There were defectors from Peoples Temple, people who either saw Jones for the con man he was or simply grew tires of giving everything they made and owned to the organization. To Jones each was a potential villain, providing fodder to the press or authorities about what went on in the increasingly secretive group. Journalists started to close in, too. The final straw was a group of former members who focused on getting other family members, including children, out of the group who, they claimed, were being held against their will.

Although Jonestown itself had been founded earlier, these existential threats are what drove Jones and most of his followers there well before the settlement was ready to support them. Harsh conditions, piled on top of Jones’s paranoia and iron grip over his followers, soon degraded into homicidal/suicidal tendencies. Jones simulated an attack on the compound and later staged a mock suicide, just to make sure everyone reacted in the proper fashion. By the time San Francisco-area Congressman Leo Ryan arrived in November 1978, the keg was set to blow. Ryan and several others were murdered at a nearby airport, while Jones led the mass of his followers in Jonestown to their death via a mix of cyanide and Flavor-Aid (not Kool-Aid, to set the record straight).

More than 900 people died in Jonestown and there’s always been some controversy over what label to apply to it. Jones called it “radical suicide” (?), but given that at least a third of the dead were children it’s easy to say that many of the deaths were flat out murders. Beyond the children there’s evidence that some adults were held down and injected with poison, rather than having drunk it on their own. Still, hundreds of people, at least, appear to have willingly laid down their lives when Jones said so.

The big question, of course, is why? Guinn doesn’t do much evaluation of the aftermath of Jonestown or bring in any kind of experts to attempt to explain it. Instead, he lets the work he’s already done, showing how Peoples Temple developed, do the work. What he shows is that people really believed in Jones. Some believed in his commitment to social justice. Others came at it from a more religious angle, drawn in by the healings and such that Jones performed on the revival circuit. Because once your religion has primed you to believe miracles exist, why would you doubt the con man that actually says he performs them? Regardless, they believed in Jones and the outside world gave them just enough reason to buy into his paranoid rants. More than anything else, they let Jones come to define their world, to the exclusion of any critical thinking or close examination of what he was doing.

It’s hard not to think of Donald Trump while reading The Road to Jonestown. Not because Trump is going to lead us into ritual suicide (with a side of murder) anytime soon (we hope), but because of the freakishly similar way Trump and Jim Jones interacted with the outside world. To Jones’s followers he was the only person who could solve their problems and save them from the injustices of the world. Trump during the campaign repeatedly expressed similar sentiments. Jones never failed – he was only failed by underlings or thwarted by shadowy outside forces. Likewise, Trump never backs a loser and is constantly doing battle with the “deep state” or “fake news.” More than anything else, Jones and Trump share a complete aversion to dealing with reality. That way lies madness, as Jones and others have proven.

Hopefully, we’re not all on the road to Jonestown again, without quite realizing it.

RoadtoJonestown

Our Dogs Are Nudists

Last year was a transitional one when it came to canines in our house. In late summer we lost our one-eyed Chihuahua mix, Maia, when her constellation of medical conditions finally caught up to her. After a few weeks with an empty house, we worked with a rescue organization in Ohio and adopted a pair of fuzzy little people, Kalindi (l) and Zaria (r).

Pups

As you can see, they’re both Chihuahuas and both pretty tiny. To add to thing, Kalindi is short haired. It being winter and everything, the wife pushed almost immediately to get them each a sweater to help keep them warm when they went outside.

Now I should say I’ve never been a big fan of dressing dogs up. The dogs never really seem to like it and they tend to look silly. And, frankly, it makes it more difficult to rub their bellies. I mean, what’s the point in having dogs if there isn’t copious belly rubbing taking place? Still, our old Min Pin, Uzume, had a couple of sweaters that did seem to keep her warm, so I wasn’t completely opposed to the plan. That the vet suggested it might not be a bad idea certainly decreased my chances of successfully opposing it.

So for Christmas both dogs got sweaters (along with treats and toys – we’re not monsters). After they had been successfully deployed, my wife took a picture.

Pups3

As it stands, that will prove to be the only photographic evidence that Kalindi and Zaria once had sweaters. That’s because it’s become clear that they don’t particularly care for them. They didn’t protest initially and didn’t provide any resistance when the wife and I put them on. They even wore them around for a while and seemed to be enjoying the extra warmth.

Then the stripping started.

It wasn’t an immediate thing. Indeed, the little beasts seemed to enjoy their sweaters. Then, things started happening. Kalindi is fond of balling up under a blanket (ironically, purchased in Mexico years before I ever thought I’d have Chihuahuas to snuggled under it) and, lo and behold, when she emerged from her slumbers one day her sweater was about halfway off. She didn’t fight to get it the rest of the way off, but you could tell where she was headed.

I don’t even know where and how Zaria got hers off. It just . . . was, as some point.

Naturally, we put them back on. There was no fuss or protest, but a few hours later, both of them were off again. Even after we went outside without them during our recent frigid spell, neither pup seemed interested, although they’re very passive aggressive about it.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that our dogs are nudists and want nothing to do with civilization’s “clothes.” Fine my me – easier to rub bellies!

Pups4

The Fate of The Messenger

Last month you’ll recall I talked, in rather gushing form, about The Messenger, my project for National Novel Writing Month last year. It was a bold experiment in terms of craft – I was flying by the seat of my pants, rather than working in my more plotted out way – and in terms of style – it was to be a sci-fi romp, something a bit more fun and light than my normal stuff. November was great – I “won” NaNo – and December was all about finishing the thing up.

Well, let me tell you, December sucked. In the words of my perhaps ancestor Robert, things gang aft agley. Hard.

I expected progress to slow down some, without the motivation of NaNo breathing down my neck. For about two weeks I did pretty well, but soon enough my lack of planning caught up with me. Mind you, I didn’t even know how this story would end when I started it, which is startlingly rare for me. Even if the middle bits are squishy I usually start with an idea of the beginning and the end. The more I pushed into The Messenger the more I realized I didn’t know where it was going.

I also started to worry more and more about continuity in the story. Things are always a little out of whack with first drafts, but usually I have copious notes to fall back on. Here I didn’t and it made it easy to get stuck in particular scenes, since I had to dig back through what I’d already written to try and tie things up. More often than not I was finding that I couldn’t tie them up, not in this draft anyway.

So, just as things were getting a little grim, the Christmas break showed up. I was off the entire time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, as was the wife, so plenty of time to finish up The Messenger, right? First I got sick (Merry Xmas, huh?), then the wife took her turn. Any motivation I had for writing dried up quickly. All the doubts I was having about whether I could finish this draft piled on and, as sometimes happens, The Messenger became a smoking crater. It’s dead, at least as a complete first draft.

What does that mean going forward?

Well, for one thing, it means The Messenger is on the back burner for the time being. Hopes of having a solid draft just in need of polishing are out the window. It will take some serious work to get right, work that I’ll be putting in on The Orb of Triska and its sequels for the near future.

For another, it means my experiment with pantsing proved one thing conclusively – I can’t do it. I went out, performed without a net, and fell flat on my face. Oh well, lesson learned.

Another lesson learned is that, maybe, writing big space-based science fiction isn’t for me. I never intended for it to he “hard” sci-fi. In fact, it has a disclaimer at the beginning about how it’s more “Dr. Who than Dr. Asimov” and sticklers looking for strict scientific accuracy should look elsewhere. Nonetheless, when you start flinging characters (of various species) across the galaxy things to worry about pile up. It’s entirely possible that The Messenger may wind up as a fantasy, rather than spacey sci-fi, story.

I still like the basic story of The Messenger. I like some of the things I created to fill in the universe in which it was told. None of that’s going to go to waste, but I can’t say it’ll wind up being what I intended it to be going in. That’s the frustrating joy of writing – almost all the time you wind up with something other than what you intended.

Failure

Writing Resolutions for 2018

Happy New Year, everybody!

Happy-New-Year-Memes

I figured now was as good a time as ever, and this as good a place as any, to set out some goals for the 2018 writing year. I’ve done the same in the past in private and it’s a good way to crystallize my plans, even if they don’t all come off in the end. So, what’s on the agenda for this year?

The Water Road Box Set

Now that The Water Road trilogy is complete, it only makes sense to put together an omnibus version that combines all three books in one convenient package.

2017-525 Front Page Box Set

The plan is to make the box set a Kindle exclusive, thus returning The Water Road trilogy to Kindle Unlimited. The individual books would still be available from Amazon and all other outlets.

Interviews

Last year I decided to try and do some interviews with other writers. I’ve done a few and thought they were fun and interesting and wanted to see if I could repay the favor. I wound up doing 19 interviews with all kinds of writers from all over the world. It was such a rewarding experience that I’m going to do more this year. I’ve already got about a half dozen people lined up.

More Short Stories

I’ve got a couple of finished short stories that need to find homes, so I’ll keep trying to shop those around. I’ve also got a pretty decent backlog of short story ideas, so while I’m polishing longer works I’m planning to knock out a few new short stories. Someday, down the road, there will be enough to make releasing a second collection of short stories a reality. It will include a couple of stories set in the universe of The Water Road.

Speaking of collections, look for The Last Ereph and Other Stories to get a spiffy new cover (done by someone who is not me) sometime this year, too.

Orb of Triska Polishing

Last year, you’ll recall, I finished the first draft of a novel in a new series, The Orb of Triska. My main job for 2018 will be getting that polished up and finished. Once that happens, I’m not quite sure what the next step will be. I may get it ready for publishing, with an eye toward releasing it in 2019. I may sit on it until another book or two (of the planned seven) is done. Or I may shop it around to see if any agents/publishers are interested. A lot will depend on when it’s “done” and how I’m feeling about it then.

Write The Scepter of Maril

Regardless of what becomes of The Orb of Triska one goal for later in the year is to start work on the second book in the Empire Falls series, The Scepter of Maril. If all goes well, it should be my NaNo project for 2018.

I think that about covers it. If you’re wondering about a certain other project I’ve talked about before – I’ll have some info about that in a couple of days.