Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Ode to My Library: Guest Post

It's been a long day's night of a summer, working on a couple of projects which I'll tell you about in my next post, but today Kate Racculia is here! Kate is a wonderful writer whose new book, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, will be out next month. I can't wait! In the meantime read on to find out about her relationship with her books. Impossible not to relate! You've got me thinking about my shelves and their crazy "organization"....

Here's Kate...

Ah, books and their shelves...

My books and I, we have a problem.
When I say “my books” I mean, of course, the many, many volumes—primarily of fiction, but a smattering of poetry, plays, and nonfiction—I have amassed over my lifetime. The books of my childhood: The Westing Game, The NeverEnding Story, anthologies of Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side. The books of my teen years—a copy of Jurassic Park with SOON TO BE A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE emblazed on a red starburst—and of college (Flannery O’Connor, Shakespeare), graduate school (Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, A Room of One’s Own), and beyond, up through the past decade of my life as a professional novelist. The problem my books and I have now isn’t so much that I have too many of them (I do), or even that I have a problem getting rid of them (I don’t, when I bother to weed), but that I possess enough now to comprehend the flaws in my initial organizational system.
This system, if you want to call it that, is a mishmash of circumstance and affection, maintained by a mix of habit and laziness. Eternal favorites go here. Current reads are here, and travel back and forth between living room and bedroom. Books I was reading when I moved are shelved here, vintage mass market paperbacks are stacked there. Books I’ve borrowed and intend to return but admittedly probably never will are stashed there. Books that I can feel exerting that special kind of gravity, that I’ll end up writing about someday, even if I’m the only person who will ever be able to trace their influence—are stacked, precariously, there. I am both a re-reader and a used bookstore magpie, and go to my own shelves to revisit gems or discover un-read treasures. The result is that my apartment, which is quite big enough for one person and two cats, is full of not only overstuffed bookcases but random stalagmites of books (from my vantage on the couch, I count five) that I admit are trending less “cozy” and more “cluttered.”
But now comes the problem: if I am, as Marie Kondo suggests, to pile all my books into one room, sort through and only keep the ones that give me joy—where and how on earth am I going to put the joy-givers back, and ever hope to find them again? I’ve Kondo-tidied other parts of my life, my kitchen, my closet, so I know the delight and freedom that comes from only surrounding yourself with objects intentionally chosen. And humans better equipped than I have already come up with plenty of useful organizational schema: Melville Dewey gets points for complexity. The alphabet—a classic. I half attempted, several years ago, to make a bookshelf of favorite authors, snuggling my Barbara Pyms up to my Stephen Kings, and plan to return to it (probably around the same time that I read and return those borrowed books). Bookshelves organized by spine color give me hives, though of course this is essentially how my books are organized too: by a design entirely of my own making, based on my recall both of the book’s physicality and when it came into my life. The Scarlet Pimpernel was a gift, is a TV movie tie-in with Jane Seymour on the cover—it’s in the mass market stack. Beloved was a used book sale score, missing its cover: a rough linen spine on the eternal favorites overflow shelf. In order to organize my library in such a way that any human other than me can find anything in it, I need to surrender the very particular ties I have to each of my books as objects. I need to depersonalize it, in other words. Which is probably why the idea feels so uncomfortable, and why I’ll get around to re-organizing as soon as I return those books I’ve borrowed: they’re already organized just so, as the library of my life.
Kate Racculia is a novelist living in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She is the author of the novels This Must Be the Place and Bellweather Rhapsody, winner of the American Library Association’s Alex Award. Her third novel, Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, will be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2019. She teaches online for Grub Street, works at her local public library, and sings in the oldest Bach choir in America.          

Visit Kate at:
Here's information about her latest novel:

Monday, June 17, 2019


I have always loved the idea of literary salons, in which creatives from all disciplines gather to discuss issues, challenges, inspirations, and joys in their work. One of my greatest pleasures in maintaining this blog is the chance to create an online version of the salon with guest posts by people I admire and love.
Today, I'm delighted to welcome my friend, sister writer, Janice Eidus, and her daughter, Alma.
The ways in which Janice and Alma, whose photos illustrate the post, connect through their art inspires me. I hope it will inspire you too!
Take it away, Janice!

            I marvel at the intensity and craft of the photographs in my daughter’s portfolio. Now 16, Alma has wanted to become a professional photographer since she was in middle school.
            I marvel too at the deep connection between her work and mine as a writer. For instance, a while back, Alma took a series of photographs of her close friend Natalie. Tall, thin, and doe-eyed, Natalie is conventionally attractive by society’s standards. But Alma’s intention was to reveal her friend’s inner beauty: her loyalty, generosity, intelligence, and empathy. In one photo, Natalie is surrounded by lights seemingly suspended from the sky. In another she walks dreamily through the rain.

            My intention too is to explore the inner lives of my characters. When the husband in my comic novel Urban Bliss cheats on his wife, I delve into his past so that readers will understand why. In my short story Vito Loves Geraldine I examine what underlies teenaged Geraldine’s unconditional and undying love for Vito, the cutest boy in their Bronx neighborhood.
            One afternoon on impulse Alma took a photo of a young girl alone in a playground. The girl’s back is to the camera. Unmoving, she sits on a swing, appearing disconnected from the world around her. My story Davida’s Own was similarly inspired by my sighting of a girl the same age alone on a beach, staring at the water.
            In her self-portraits, Alma limns her transformation from a shy 13-year-old to a poised high school junior. Her tentative expression and stance at 13 are determined and confident at 16. In my autobiographical essays, I reveal myself as a woman grappling with a difficult past while delighting in current joys. I describe how as a child I scrawled short poems, plays, stories, and “novels” about my life with a charismatic yet violent father and a depressed mother. Like Alma’s friend Natalie I was sometimes surrounded by light and sometimes by storms.
            Recently, Alma shot a black-and-white series of a woman’s hand. The woman appears to be sitting at a table with a copy of The New Yorker, an energy bar, and a cup of tea in front of her. As the photos unfold, the woman’s hand turns the pages of The New Yorker. She takes bites of the energy bar. She sips from the cup of tea. Here, Alma is paying homage to Andy Warhol, an artistic hero of hers and mine. Like Warhol, whose subjects range from sleep to soup cans, Alma brings together seemingly quotidian details while analyzing the texture of contemporary life and art. And by the way, it’s my hand, magazine, and cup of black tea in Alma’s photos, which makes me feel a heightened and profound connection to them.

            Alma’s current subject is shadows. With intricate lighting and meticulously arranged vases, flowers, and everyday items like fabrics, she captures with her camera shadows of various shapes and sizes. These shadows remind me that my writing – even the most comical – contains dark and shadowy truths. In Urban Bliss, the husband’s illicit affair is painful for both himself and his wife. In Vito Loves Geraldine, I look not only at the pleasures of unconditional love but also at its implicit heartaches.
              Many photographers inspire Alma, including Martin Schoeller whose portraits of both celebrities and non-celebrities are un-posed and natural, evoking their genuine personalities. She also loves the work of the young British photographer Juno Calypso whose photographs subvert the meanings of the words “feminine” and “romantic” as she embarks on a solo world tour of honeymoon hotels.
            As for me, I’m influenced by numerous writers. Angela Carter’s stunning, elegant prose and fierce feminist vision show me how fiction can transform readers’ worldviews. Edgar Allan Poe’s unreliable narrators have intrigued me since I was a little girl reading Annabel Lee for the first time.
        Day by day, Alma inspires me as well. I’m confident that she and I will continue on our respective artistic journeys. Along the way, we’ll learn more and more about the power of the imagination, the thrilling and rewarding artistic process, and our own deep – and ever-deepening – connection.
Photo by Alma Kastan

Alma Kastan is a rising high school senior. She studies photography at The International Center of Photography and New York Film Academy, and plans to become a professional photographer.
Janice Eidus is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and a writing coach who works one-on-one and in small groups. She’s twice won 

the O.Henry Prize as well as a Pushcart Prize; her novels include The War Of The Rosens; Urban Bliss; and The Last Jewish Virgin. Her short story collections are Vito Loves Geraldine and The Celibacy Club. Her website is www.janiceeidus.com

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Dark Fascination: Serial Killers and me

What have I been doing the past year-- besides not blogging? If you've seen the photos I've posted, you've probably imagined me wandering through nature appreciating moments of wonder, beauty and peace. And though that is true, I doubt you've imagined me devouring books and movies about serial killers. And if you happened to peek at my browser history, which on a given day might include searches for homicide by strangulation and the decomposition of a body buried in a pit, you'd be forgiven for backing away, carefully.

If you're a writer, you know I'm doing research. The two main characters in my new novel are a female magician and a serial killer. My fascination with murder and mystery is not new. I was a noir kid growing up in suburbia. By night I was a fearless detective who helped Nancy Drew, Sam Spade, and Philip Marlow navigate the dark unknown. Problem was that by day I was a wimp, scared of the dark, horror movies, snakes, and clowns.

My imagination magnified all dangers. A mere glimpse of a scene in a horror film would root in my mind for decades. Here's one I can't forget (I've blocked the title!): the moment a man realizes that his wife has been possessed by evil forces. As he stares in horror, her face shifts from human to leering skeleton and back to human. But from that moment on, no matter what she says or does, he knows that she hides her true self behind the mask of a beautiful woman.

My desire to be a detective led to my desire at age 9 to be a writer, or a detective with a pen. My writing is a search for clues to understand what it means to be human. In the end, isn't that the greatest mystery of all?

Maybe that's the source of my dark fascination with serial killers: how they manage to compartmentalize their various identities and roles. I have seen the face of madness, more than once. Once you've seen it, you never forget the terrifying moment when the mask is removed, and the shadow-self is revealed. Serial killer, Ted Bundy, called his dark force The Entity. Dexter, TV's favorite serial killer, called his shadow, The Dark Passenger, and said, "The only way to kill a Dark Passenger is to take out the Driver." When the Driver is charming, charismatic, and attractive, it is difficult to believe the gruesome brutality of his crimes. Which leads us back to Ted Bundy.

I began reading about him a few years ago, and quickly grew fascinated and dove into the extensive Bundy bibliography. In the early days, I had the naive hope that if I read enough, learned every detail of his life, the secrets he hid to the stories of every woman he murdered, I'd come closer to understanding him and perhaps find the human connection that would help me create my own killer.

I soon realized that would not happen. Psychologists who studied him could come to no conclusions either. But I'm not the only one who is fascinated by Bundy. Though his murderous rampage was conducted in the 70s, you could say that he's the serial killer of the moment. There are two movies about him currently airing on Netflix, both directed by Joe Berlinger. The first is a 4-part documentary, "Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes," during which we hear Bundy analyze himself through a third-person perspective that allows him to distance himself from his "confessions." Even so, the interviewer recalls that when Bundy "really got going," his blue eyes "went absolutely black," echoing Carol DaRonch, who described his "beady, blank, lifeless eyes." DaRonch was the one that got away, and it's because of her testimony that he was first caught and sentenced.

Hoping for a clue to the "why," we listen to Bundy describe his idyllic childhood much the way his mother describes "the best son in the world," but at every point his whitewashing is punctured: he had no idea how to act with people, especially girls; he was arrested twice for suspicion of burglary and car theft, the records expunged when he turned 18; he was a loner who wandered his neighborhood at night, peering into windows to watch women undress. We hear him pontificate on all manner of subjects at mind-numbing length until on Death Row, he finally admits to committing at least 30 murders, and we hear the chilling whisper of a killer confessing in first person to transporting the head of one of his victims for necrophiliac purposes.

How do you reconcile the monster who went on a one night mad rampage of rape, torture, and murder through a sorority house in Tallahassee, and then stole a car and while on the run, stopped to buy socks with a stolen credit card. Lots and lots of socks.

"One of my fondest dreams is to have all the underwear and socks I ever could conceivably use. It’s one of my fantasies. To be able to wear new socks every day!"

Yes, that's Ted. Obsessed with socks. He once said if he'd had enough white socks, he'd have been happy. A sock fetish? A need to be pure, as if by changing into a new pair of white socks every morning, he could erase the crimes of the day before? A wish for enough money to buy dozens and dozens of socks and never have to worry that he couldn't pay for them? Maybe a mix of all the above.

All his life he envied those who had money and felt insecure and outclassed by them. The truth is he was insecure around everyone because they seemed to hold the secret to... simply being human. What did it mean to fall in love with someone? To be one of the popular guys who knew what to say and do, who got girls effortlessly? That insecurity was matched with an arrogance-- he was smarter than everyone else. And for years, it seemed that he was.

The second film, "Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile," is a feature film starring Zac Efron as Bundy, that is based on Elizabeth Kloepfer's memoir, "The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy." Efron is great but the movie wants to have it both ways: to tell the story from Liz Kloepfer's perspective while describing events she had no way of seeing. The book actually reveals the tension of what it meant for her to love and live with Bundy on and off for several years.   

I first read her account a couple of years ago, hoping to find out what she saw and experienced. Were there clues to his secret identity? Did she sense something was wrong? I also wanted to know how it was from his perspective, how he managed to live with a woman and her small daughter for years, day in day out, no escape hatch, no place to hide. It was while he lived with her that he began his killing spree, attacking female students at universities in Washington and Oregon. He killed, and then went home to Liz and her daughter. Were they only his cover, his mask to appear normal, or did he feel something for them? He did have black nights, when he disappeared to his own apartment. Ah, I thought, that's where he went to take off the mask and breathe before returning to the performance of being Ted Bundy, law student, suicide hotline operator, and loving boyfriend.

Ted Bundy and Liz Kloepfer

Liz did grow to suspect him. Turns out that the nights the girls disappeared, he did not stay at her apartment. He had curious objects in his car and apartment--a hatchet, crutches, pantyhose, and a bowl of female underwear. She called the police in Washington and in Utah to report her suspicious boyfriend, but they dismissed her calls. After she reported him, she stayed with him. That's the stumbling block for most of us. You suspect your live-in boyfriend is a killer, but you take him back again and again.

And yet isn't that what we do with handsome, charming men who-- as Ted Bundy put it-- "snow" us? We don't want to believe that evil hides behind a smiling human face. Centuries ago, Shakespeare said it: "That a man may smile and smile and be a villain." Our first instinct is to insist that evil is something foreign and separate from us, as if the killer is out there, an alien monster, non-human, and we are watching safely from behind our curtains. It's a means of self-preservation, a delusion we want to preserve, because the alternative is far more terrifying, maybe the source of the true horror: the Dark Passenger is the guy in VW Beetle next to you at the red light, smiling, and when the light changes, off he goes, leaving a trail of white socks.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

From Mummies to Aliens: The Power of Language

Alien language in the film Arrival

Coffin of the Lady of the House, Weretwahset, circa 1292–1190 B.C.E. Brooklyn Museum)
I recently visited the Brooklyn Museum and was fascinated by the exhibit, "Gender Transformation in Ancient Egypt." The ancient Egyptians believed in rebirth, and therefore, placed great importance on the rituals of death and burial, including mummification, spells carved on tomb walls and coffins, and the prayers in the Book of the Dead that accompanied the body. 

A curious belief they had was that in order to make rebirth possible for a woman, she had to briefly turn into a man. According to Egyptian belief: the man created the fetus and transferred it to the woman during intercourse. So... a woman alone in her tomb could not conceive the fetus of her reborn self. What do you think they did? Deny women the possibility of an afterlife? Or come up with a creative solution? Like magically transforming a woman's mummy into a man long enough to create a fetus? 

That's exactly what they did. Priests turned a female into a male by the strategic use of male color and language. Red was the color used to represent a man's skin so they painted the woman's skin red -- on her coffin. 

And as a writer, here's what I find most interesting: the "you" in their language had both a masculine and feminine form. On the woman's coffin, and in spells recited by the priest, the woman was addressed with the masculine form of the pronoun, as if to fool the gods that the body buried inside the coffin was a man.

Earlier scholars attributed this to mistakes, but recent research reveals the logic behind the transformation, and the magical power of language to not only affect reality, but to change it. Later, the woman will return to her female identity and be reborn as a woman, but for a brief time, the ancient Egyptians believed that through words she could be transformed into a man long enough to give birth to herself. 

Like everything that explores and demonstrates the power of words, this blows my mind. It reminds me of the film, ARRIVAL, in which a human linguist (Amy Adams) decodes the written language of aliens. Their ink blot language is circular, no beginning or end. As the linguist learns their language, her mind expands to accept their vision of time, and she begins to perceive the world as they do, circular rather than linear. The verb tenses, or concepts of "future" and "past" no longer have any meaning, or at least not the meaning we attribute to them. The film's central idea demonstrates the theory of linguistic relativity -- that the structure of language affects its speakers. Past and future events swirled through the movie in no apparent order -- making it a frustrating experience for some viewers and a very exciting one for others. 

The idea that language shapes our world dates back to the mummies, and long before. Whether or not we believe in the power of words to express our thoughts and beliefs, and even more, to actually shape and determine them -- i.e., to transform gender or to see past and future as a flowing circle rather than a horizontal line -- we can, I think, agree that language teaches us a great deal about who we are, what we fear and desire, our potentials and our limitations. And our responsibility to use language with care.

Words can offer passageways into wondrous realities. Or slam the door in our face. 

As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul. 
                                                                                   -- Edmond Jabes

Monday, April 24, 2017

Owning a New Identity, As Writer

My friend and sister writer, Kate Brandes, just published her first novel, The Promise of Pierson Orchard, a powerful, compassionate story that is both relevant and timely. It's my pleasure to turn today's blog post over to her. She has very insightful words to share about what it means to be a "real writer." Take it away, Kate!


If  I had to select one photo of truest self, this would be it.
Working on the very last edits of my novel before it went to press.

A photo of me as a child with the word "thinker " written on the back

At the age of 46, after seven years of working on my novel, it will be published this year :)

I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-thirties. Before that I worked as an environmental scientist and didn’t think of myself as a creative person.

I found after my first son was born that I wanted to try making something that would reflect my view of the world. I’ve always loved reading fiction and understand the world better through stories.  I’ve also kept journals all my life, used mostly for working out problems or making important decisions. So perhaps it was inevitable that I turned to writing as the creative outlet I found myself searching for.

Even though I had two small children, a full time job, and more volunteer commitments than any sane person should have, I crammed in time to learn how to tell a story on paper. I worked hard, whenever I could. And eventually, after years of rewriting and rewriting, I got a publishing contract for my book.

Part of the job when you have a book coming out is to seek out successful novelists and ask if they’ll do you the favor of reading an early copy of your book and, if they like it, write a short “blurb” you might feature on the cover or inside pages of the final novel.

So last fall, this is what I found myself doing and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I had to ask established writers that I admire, all people I didn’t know well, if at all, if they would read my entire novel and say something about it even though I could offer nothing in return and they were busy with a million other important things. Some said no, but to my surprise several said yes and were gracious and generous. I will always be grateful to them.

I confided to one of these writers how hard it was to reach out to her and ask this favor because, I told her, she was a real writer with commercial success, and I was just pretending to know what I was doing.

She quickly emailed back and told me she had two words of advice for me and they were: Own It.

I’ve thought a lot about her response. She’s right. We should own everything we do. I’ve worked more than a decade on my writing. I do have a newly published book and some short stories. And yet... I still struggled to feel like myself in these new writer shoes.

It’s been an interesting journey from environmental scientist to writer. My entire community of people used to know me only as a scientist.  This includes everyone with whom I went to college and graduate school and everyone I’ve worked with over 20+ years.

But lately, some people only know me as writer. In many ways my long-held identity as a scientist is fading to the background as my investment in my writing self grows. It’s dizzying at times.

But what I’ve found is that with each new experience as a writer, which have been many this year with a first book coming out: readings, signings, teaching my first workshop, and more – I am more a writer everyday. I am owning it because I’m having to live it. That’s the way people grow all the time. I don’t hesitate much anymore to call myself a writer.

Working as the science director at the Nurture Nature Center in Easton, Pennsylvania in 2009

With my kids in 2013