Friday, November 8, 2019

High Time

November 8th 2019

When I left academia after my post graduate degree, I had read so many academic papers that my brain would just shut down every time I launched into a new one. I would pick up the manuscript, and my eyes just wouldn't track it. It was an overdose of intellectual argument; it was the point of no return for my career of teaching more of those intellectual arguments. I was in the process of applying to colleges for jobs, but something behind my eyes was slamming on the brakes.

I moved countries and had a baby, and then slowly I came back to the written word.  Not C because A and B, not All Men Are Mortal, no syllogisms, but something my eyes could embrace: a dance. I started out writing poetry, because it was as far in the play of words from logic as I could get. And then, after a few years, a friend made the observation that all my poems, though different in form, were essentially saying the same thing, something to do with heart over thought, and since I no longer lived in my own country, longing. He suggested I try weaving those emotions into a longer piece, and I have been writing novels ever since.
So, my first novel was about a girl from a rural Scottish town who won a place at Oxford University, leaving behind her a boy whom she loved but considered beneath her. In my own life I hadn't done  that exactly, though I did trade in my lovely country for the stone walls of a British institution I could never in a million years fit into.

All of this was years ago, of course. In the meantime I have written something like nine novels, always reaching for the one that would run my story forward to the part where I was showered with accolades and enough money to pathe my way back home. I never thought it would take this long. Yesterday it was my birthday. I hung one more year on the line. I am one of those pesky, passionate but annoying Scorpios, but these traits have given me the grit to hang on over the years. Nowadays, I don't think about the accolades so much, but that longing to go home grows stronger.

Time, as Stevie Nicks wrote, makes you bolder, and it also distills things down. The things that matter to me now have to do with fighting for my country to get out from under the colonial hold of Britain. More importantly, it centers around my three children, all purveyors of the heart, dancers all.
Yesterday was the first day of the rest of my life. Perhaps I have learned a thing or two along the way:  the life of the mind is all very well, but not without the counterweight of the heart. Belonging somewhere counts for a whole lot. Any writer has ambition, but it is a mistake to let it direct your story. I am a better person for the twists and turns along the road, because life, as is so often said, is not about the destination. Life, like the dance that imitates it, is about steps, one foot in front of the other. As the French say, "C'est tout."

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Hazel And The Chessmen

3rd October 2019


It's enormously gratifying to take the option of publishing (via my agency Aevitas Creative) straight to Amazon. You have all the say in matters of presentation, cover picture etc. And most of all, you don't have to worry about being given a publishing date in the misty future, one in this case which would be way out of range for such a time-sensitive story.

HAZEL AND THE CHESSEMEN is set between the last Scottish independence referendum and the next. I was in Scotland for the first referendum which took place on a foggy day five years ago on 18 September. The interim has only shorn up support for a free and independent Scotland, while the catastrophe of Brexit has helped things along. Here's me five years ago doing my bit in Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

In the last few years, marches like this have been taking place all over Scotland. At the end of this week, there will be another in Edinburgh that promises to be twice as big as the last. Being an ex-pat (for now) it can feel frustrating to be so far from the action, but while I am away, I can do what I do best and spin a story about it.

In HAZEL AND THE CHESSMEN, Boston artist, Hazel Crichton, is left a croft on the west coast of Scotland by her colourful Scottish grandmother. Hazel has fond memories of a summer she spent in the croft as a teenager, but her life and career are now elsewhere, and so with five year-old son Aengus in tow, she goes off to sell the rural property. What she finds instead of an empty cottage, is Andrew Logan, a radical Scottish poet with a lease and a crazy scheme to steal back Scotland's Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum in London.

I went through the process of putting HAZEL up on Amazon so that it could hit the shelves as soon as possible. I had to laugh when I saw the projected publication date was 18 Sept 2019, the five year anniversary of the first independence referendum. As Hazel in my book discovers, some things are simply out of our control.

Friday, August 16, 2019

This Little Light

15th August 2019

The German  philosopher Immanuel Kant famously wrote, "Two things fill me with wonder: the starry skies above me and the moral law within me."  The combustion engine in Kant's time was still a century off, and reliable telescopes were still being developed by clergymen, so his reaction to the night sky was visceral, unsubstantiated by the kind of knowledge we have today.

I live in Colorado at such a high altitude that every inch of the night sky is shiny with points of light.  It fills me with wonder. So if you take me away to New York City for a month, as recently happened, where street lights fog up the lens of the night skies and the din of human habitation obscures our best impulses towards wonder, I begin to lose perspective. In our times, life is lived at such a  rate, it is hard under any circumstances to keep a sense that each life, each individual scuttling across the floors of Eliot's ancient seas, belongs to anything but the grit and grind of one damn second plastered onto the next.

So, I remind myself and those on the brink of a life-changing moments, those whose life has untangled into meaninglessness, those who cannot take the next step: This little blue globe we live on spins on its own axis at one thousand miles an hour; The solar system in which it spins is itself spinning at sixty-seven thousand miles per hour. And as if that wasn't enough to get your head in a whirl, the Milky Way galaxy as a whole is moving through the universe at 1.3 million miles an hour.  (If you live in the Windy City, all I can say is, you have no idea!) This galaxy, not even a very large galaxy, measures one hundred thousand light years across, which means that any photon that has just reached us here on earth, actually entered our galaxy at a time when Homo Sapiens was just migrating out of Africa.

You would think that all of this daunting perspective might make you want to expunge yourself, that any iota of self simply vanishes in a puff of insignificance, but strangely it doesn't. Oddly enough, and perhaps because this is the truth of our lives on this little blue planet, we only lose a sense of meaning and purpose when we focus on our own little corner. That's when we lose our sense of wonder. Cynicism is the absence of wonder, and we live in cynical times. But go out and look at the starry heavens. Or if you live in a city, stop a moment and ponder the flower pushing up through a crack in the concrete. Shakespeare had it right that life is but a passing shadow, but he had it wrong to infer therefore that it was a poor player on a stage. Life's not a box of chocolates either, but it is a unique opportunity to live for the brief span of a candle as a microcosm of something infinitely greater than this one life and these seemingly unsurmountable problems. It's short. Let it shine.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Publishing: The Road Less Travelled

June 14th 2019

Publishing News!!

It took about two years from the time Simon and Schuster signed me up to get to the point of Veil Of Time showing up on the book shelves, physical and virtual. I am happy to report that Veil Of Time is still selling, but for the next two books in the series, I decided to go a different route from traditional publishing and use the arrangement my agency, Aevitas Creative Management,  has with Amazon. It's called White Glove Publishing, and the really great thing about it is that from start to finish it took about two months! It's not a vanity press - I paid nothing, though Amazon put the book together and worked with me on a (admittedly rather limited) choice of book covers (I actually love the cover for "Iona," and think it very apt, those monks hovering above the standing stones.)
Aevitas put me in touch with an editor (Elizabeth Heijkoop, owner of ARC Editing - check her out!) and then furnished me with a liaison, Maggie Cooper (my protagonist's name is Maggie, a neat serendipity), and we were off to the races.

Now, I did this kind of on impulse, and it is very satisfying to have the books in hand. Of course, I am missing the publicity arm that a major publisher like Simon and Schuster provided, but I figured that since the series was already established, if the link function on Amazon Books works, I will at least get repeat buyers.
The publishing world is changing these days by leaps and bounds.  I hope my own leap will be rewarded. I hope I make it to the finish line.

Friday, May 31, 2019

Scotch and Wry

31st May 2019

Last week Europe held its elections for the European parliament.  Here's what the United Kingdom map looks like after the people voted and the chips were counted.

The yellow indicates the Scottish Nationalist Party stronghold wth its pro-Europe platform. The green represents the Brexit Party led by Trump wannabe Nigel Farage. The next day, the newspapers in Scotland were not ablaze with this SNP victory, but then these are not really Scottish papers. BBC Scotland, again not really Scottish, did not cover the SNP party conference speech by its leader Nicola Sturgeon.  Instead it covered the leader of the not-really-Scottish Conservatives, who command a whopping 12% of the Scottish vote.

England went for ultra right wing Bexit party in a big way and is poised to install either Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson as its next prime minster, or if not them, then some other Eton boy who will look after the interests of the old boy's club.

Here is a delightful little ditty penned by Trump look- alike, Johnson (Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, to be precise - methinks there is a foreigner in our midst!) :

The Scotch - what a verminous race!
Canny, pushy, chippy, they're all over the place
Battening off us with false bonhomie;
Polluting our stock, undermining our economy.
Down with sandy hair and knobbly knees!
Surpress the tartan dwarves and the wee Frees!
Ban the kilt, the Skian Dhu and the Sporran
As provocatively, offensively foreign!
It's time Hadrian's Wall was refortified
To pen them in a ghetto on the other side. 
I would go further. The nation
Deserves not merely isolation
But comprehensive extermination. 

So, no wonder that yellow country of the north prefers to stay within Europe than go the isolationalist route of the great British Empire-that-was. Yes, the ditty is supposed to be a joke, but it wouldn't hit any Scot (Scot, not Scotch, ye dunderheid!) hard, except that this is in essence what we have been taught all our lives. "The noblest prospect which a Scotchman ever sees is the high road to England!"  goes back to another fatuous upper class  Johnson, Samuel this time  circa 1750.   This British narrative persists, trying to convince the "Scotch" that  they owe their existence to the beneficence of the English (despite top economists now declaring that England will not survive its debts without Scottish revenues.)

Scotland, it's time to get off your knees and lift your head. As our ancestors wrote in the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320:   For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches nor honours that we are fighting but for freedom - for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Any Scot still swallowing the empire line and recognising in their race a mere shadow of a people, is but a coof. It's all tinsel show, ribband and star. Ladies and gentlemen of Scotland, you have to believe that you are higher rank than a'that. Because you are. 

Friday, May 17, 2019

Do Not Go Gentle

International Dylan Thomas' Day fell on the 14th of this month. To my mind, he is one of the greatest, if not the greatest, poets of all time. By his own definition, his poems rank as some of history's best: "A good poem is a contribution to reality. The world is never the same once a good poem has been added to it. A good poem helps to extend everyone's knowledge of himself and the world around him."

Like most great artists, however, Thomas was an enigma: Depressive. Alcoholic. Self destructive.

But  words flowed out of him trailing clouds of glory, to quote another poet. If you have lost the joie de vivre, if life hangs limply on a bough, then drink of this golden cup handed to you by the poet Dylan Thomas and be born anew.

"Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means, Time held me green and dying, Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

"In my craft or sullen art, Exercised in the still night When only the moon rages, And the lovers lie abed, With all their griefs in their arms. "

"Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

And yet the bard himself failed his own test. He did go gently into that good night; he went stupidly, wastefully. He did not put up a fight when death kindly stopped for him at the age of thirty-nine. He kept pouring himself another, kept poisoning his liver until it could take no more. It's the Salieri Paradox that Peter Schaeffer points to in Amadeus: There is the imparted wisdom and then there is the imperfect vessel.
Salieri rages against God who has overlooked his piety and given the gift of genius instead to " a boastful, smutty, infantile boy...and give(n) me for reward only the ability to recognise the incarnation."

The heavenly chorus of words sang through Dylan Thomas; he was not the progenitor. He recognised the incarnation that was in him, an imperfect vessel, and that in the end was a fate too difficult to live with. 

Friday, May 3, 2019

One More Shot

3rd May 2019

Over the next week I will be in Israel finishing off some research before I take a final stab at the novel I have been writing this last year. After thinking of first century Israel for so long, it's an odd time-warp to be walking the streets of Jerusalem, or setting my pink toes in the sand along the shores of Galilee.

You need X-ray goggles to see past the the New Israel, the Muslim Israel, the Christian Israel. Never has such a small plot of land been overtaken by so many religious plots. I don't have X-ray vision, though. I have to just join the throngs of mostly scholarly writers trying to peal back  the super structure and delve into what could possibly have been there before.

It seems like it was never very far from conflict. The Israelites under the leadership King David threw out the Jebusites, and then after exile in Egypt and under Joshua, took it from the Canaanites. The Romans moved into Israel in 63 BCE, and set up a puppet government which is what empires always do. And then after about 140 years, we enter into another period of exile for the Jewish people while the Christian era took off. Once Christianity expanded out of the Middle East, the vacuum was filled by the new religion of Islam. And then came the Crusaders, who took it upon themselves to giddy off to the Holy Land and defend it against the Infidels. Israel, past and present, is an unholy mess, made messier by the clumsy tromping around of US president Trump. The last thing Israel needed was the rise of the religious nutcase evangelical right in America.

So it is a lot of noise, a lot of voices from the past, all clamouring for their bully pulpit. All you can do is put your head down,  eat your hummus, ignore the fearful patriarchy that finds a seat there, peal off the layers of lamb on your shwarma. and hope your ear plugs will hold out.

I'm taking another shot at telling the history of this place through the lens of a man who was supposed to be a Messiah, but who got himself crucified instead. In the Jewish mind, dying naked in the most humiliating of Roman executions disqualified the man from being "Mashiach," and the next two thousand years of human history has been Christianity's attempt to prove them wrong. The church that grew up in Europe under the aegis of the Apostle Paul came at it from one angle; the church in Jerusalem, led by this man's brother, had a quite different interpretation. Relatively recently modern scholars have been trying to push back the undergrowth to get a glimpse at what this all could have meant.

Me, I'm a novelist. The swirl of my thoughts falls into patterns like a spider filling in the corner of a doorway. I'm not interested in icons and certainly not in the spread of any religion based on fear and shame.
The historical thread is pretty thin: there was a man once who started a movement around the Sea of Galilee, and he was executed by the Roman authorities for sedition. Historically, that's it. But let me fit this Yeshua Ben Yosef into the web I am weaving. Let's take another shot at this.
My book is called The Second Coming.