The Story behind the Story: The Ghost Lovers Club

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“Dating anywhere is difficult, but dating in a city full of seasonally affected passive-aggressive depressives like yourself is worse, especially when the gloom of the Northwest winter looms long and you are thirty-two and recently unexpectedly single and more comfortable, generally speaking, in a bookstore than you are in a bar.” So begins my latest short story, “The Ghost Lovers Club,” an epistolary romance set at Powell’s City of Books.
In grad school, I remember a teacher I was assisting tell a student that it was a mistake to start a story based on an aesthetic conception (as I recall, he was inspired by the cover of Herb Alpert’s Whipped Cream and Other Delights). She implied that the right way to start a story was with character.
It’s a standard bit of CW in CW (see what I did there?), and instinctively, I felt myself rebel. Surely the vast, various, Baroque enterprise of fiction could not be reduced to so simple a maxim. Years later, I still think so.
Years later, I’ve embraced my own starting points, which are inevitably aesthetic. In outlining my collection-in-progress, Dream Studies, I made a list of things that I like to find in my fiction, and they’re almost all aesthetic elements: games, puzzles, and secret messages. Old theaters, hand-built homes, punk flop houses. Circuses, parades, and secret societies. Mirrors, reflections, and dreams.
Epistolary romances? Definitely. And bookstores, of course.
The process of writing the story, for me, reveals whose story it is. A coherent backstory for the protagonist emerges, and what I discover about character often changes what I’ve conceived of as occurring. But for me, aesthetic comes first. I write first and foremost to inhabit a place of particular possibility, a particular moment in time.
In “The Ghost Lovers Club,” the protagonist, Ella, has recently gone through a breakup. Between the pages of a book at Powell’s, she finds a note. This note was most likely included with the book as a gift, once upon a time, but on a whim, she takes it, writes back, encloses it between the covers of the book, and puts it back on the shelf.
So begins a flirtation that may be real or may be supernatural, or may in fact be a rather odd case of catfishing. =)
I’m releasing this new story to my Patreon subscribers Oct. 31st. Want to read it? Join them!

Free Story! The Gold Bug Tree

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This free original story has been brought to you by my newest top-level sponsor on Patreon, Margaret Weiss. Inspired by Poe’s classic, “The Gold Bug,” this story is set on Sullivan’s Island, SC, where my husband grew up, and where I’m pictured, above, in front of the enormous live oak known locally as the Gold Bug Tree.

Secret writing is as old as writing itself. I remember Craig telling me that when we were kids—that writing itself was a secret from most people for a long time. He was smart like that. Brilliant, really. Knew three languages in third grade. Obsessed with cryptography. Pretty much a total nerd, which was why he’d had nothing better to do at thirteen than to hang out with me, a neighborhood kid three years his junior. I hadn’t seen him since—what? freshman year? He’d gone to a different school after his parents divorced. And now here he was on my folks’ front porch.

“Hey, Craig,” I said, feeling awkward, “long time no see.” I knew he wasn’t back home for Christmas, the way I was. Craig was home because his dad had died.

“Hey, man,” he said, but that was pretty much all I could make out, as what followed was a slurred string of syllables that bore little resemblance to any language at all.  His breath could have dropped flies in midair; apparently, he’d been mourning the old man’s passage the night before at Dunleavy’s.

I cleared my throat. “Sorry to hear about your dad.”

He shook his head. “Thadswhaddagetformeenafuckinshiheadformalife, you know?”

“Yeah,” I said, “totally. So, I hear you’ve been traveling.”

From what my mom had told me, Craig hadn’t been back in North America since his high school graduation, and for the past few years he’d been living on the beach in Costa Rica.

“Ohyear,” he said, and proceeded to launch into an explanation, or anecdote, or a tirade. Really, it could have been anything.

Those golden brown curls my mother had loved had gone frizzy and wild, and male pattern baldness had claimed new territory for his forehead. He was sweating profusely, though it couldn’t have been more than sixty degrees out, and his eyes were bloodshot. I found myself wondering if Craig had been bit by some sort of bug down there in the tropics—wondering if, even as he spoke, some spirochete was making Swiss cheese of his brain.

“Oh yeah?” I said. “You don’t say.”

He shook his head. “Degumbochi,” he said. “Member?”

“Yeah, you always did like my mom’s gumbo,” I said. My friends from New York would have told Craig he wasn’t making any sense, and moreover, he looked like shit. Me, I just smiled, hoping whatever he had was not contagious.

“No,” he said emphatically, “degumbochi.” He rubbed his eyes. “Cheezuschristcomin.”

Hell, I thought, did Craig get religion? It seemed unlikely, considering the way he had delighted in torturing Bethany Baker (“And on the seventh day, God buried fossilized dinosaur bones”). But I knew Craig had done a lot of drugs in high school, and maybe, if he’d been trying to get clean?

“Kay,” he said, apparently trying a different tactic. “Member…” and then shot off a long string of gobbledygook. I leaned closer, trying to find a foothold in this mountain of nonsense, nearly lightheaded from holding my breath.

“Decassacookout,” he said. “Wheredecassacookout?”

I cleared my throat. “Yeah,” I said, “I guess we did go to a cook out that one time, with the fire department.”

“No!” Craig’s eyes were fairly bugging out of his head. “Wheredessaplaceweedacaddacassacookout?”

I studied him. “Where is the place?”

“Caddacassacookout?”

“Called the castle lookout?”

“Year! Cheezuschrist.”

“Oh,” I said, “I think that’s what we used to call the top of Fort Moultrie.”

He slapped his big sweaty forehead and stepped foot down the steps. “Comin,” he said, lifting a hand. And then, from the gate: “Cominman!”

It’s not as if I wanted to follow him, but my old friend was clearly in a bad way. He was only twenty-five, and his dad had just died. Also, it was ten a.m. on a Sunday, and my folks were still at church; it wasn’t like I had anything better to do.

Read the rest of the story at Patreon.

The Story Behind the Story: The Gold Bug Tree

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I was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe in high school, which gave me a taste for dark, twisty stories; my husband grew up on an island outside of Charleston, which has some dark, twisty trees. He grew up, in fact, on Sullivan’s Island, where Poe was briefly stationed as a soldier at Fort Moultrie, and where his famous story “The Gold Bug” is set.

Shortly after my husband and I decided that he’d accept a job offer that will take us to the Southwest, we began to compose our Charleston “bucket list,” which included a pilgrimage to what’s known on Sullivan’s as the Gold Bug Tree.

In Poe’s story, the giant tree under which the treasure is found is a tulip, or magnolia, while the Gold Bug Tree is a live oak–my assumption here is that the tree that bears this name is simply the largest one to be found on Sullivan’s Island at any given time. But what a tree it is!

Inspired by the encounter pictured above–in which I am, without forethought or planning, wearing a shirt that depicts a forest spirit, from Miyazaki’s classic Princess Mononoke–I went back and reread “The Gold Bug.” Immediately, I remembered why I had loved it when I was young.

Pirate treasure! Secret writing! The tricks of the trade of cryptography, revealed! Poe’s “The Gold Bug” is part Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, part Robert Louis Stevenson, and it inspired me to write a version of my own (minus the offensive Black character, who’s prone to such outbursts as, “All dis all cum of the goole-bug! de putty goole-bug!”).

My story takes place on Sullivan’s Island in modern times and draws from some characters I MAY have encountered around these parts (in composite, of course, and through the looking glass). It retains, I hope, the essential characteristics of the original, with a few dark, twisty twists.

“The Gold Bug Tree” goes out to my Patreon subscribers at the end of the month. Want to support my voice and vision in the world? Join them!

The Story behind the Story: Treesitting in Yggdrasil

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Few are the books we read in adulthood that change the way we see the world. The Overstory, by Richard Powers, is such a book for me, and The Overstory is all about trees.

You cannot be a person who enjoys the outdoors without having a sturdy personal affection for trees. But this novel made me feel as if I’d never really seen a tree before, much the way that Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings made me feel as if I’d never really seen a flower.

Employing a rotating POV, The Overstory takes a look at the lives of many characters, each of whom have a connection to a particular tree–all of whom are deeply and intimately connected to each other, whether they know it or not, much the way trees and their symbionts are connected. The novel is set at a time of unprecedented destruction of the natural world–a time when the whole of humanity’s salvation lies with forests, even as we continue clear cutting. Which is to say, now.

Many of the characters in Powers’s novel are based on real-life activists, including those who resisted the clear-cutting of Oregon’s Warner Creek in the 90s, occupying the land there under the banner of Free Cascadia, and those who, frustrated with government inaction (and, in some cases, outright collusion with corporate interests), set fire to nearly $40 million in private property across the West.

Which to say, the same people I wrote about in Hot Season.

In my debut novel, the character Dyson Lathe is based a real person, Bill Rodgers, who was a member of a group of radical environmental activists known as The Family. I knew Bill, and after his death in FBI custody, I knew I had to write about him.

Apparently, upon hearing his story and those of others like him, so did American literary heavyweight Richard Powers, whom Margaret Atwood has likened to Herman Mellville in terms of his scope and ambition; Powers won the 2006 National Book Award for his novel The Echo Maker, which the WaPo calls “a neuro-cosmological adventure.” The Overstory could be called the same, but in a way that foregrounds the natural world–in particular, trees, and our relationship to them.

I purchased a copy of The Overstory in hard cover this summer, never having heard of the book, on the recommendation of a bookseller in Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Moral of the story: Always ask for recommendations from booksellers.) Around the same time, my husband happened upon a copy of A. S. Byatt’s Ragnarok: The End of the Gods in a secondhand store. (I’m a huge fan of Byatt, so I was stoked.)

I wound up reading these two books at the same time–Powers’s epic novel about the mystery, majesty, and central role of trees in the story of life on Earth, and the extreme danger to our kind in continuing to destroy them, and Byatt’s slim retelling of the Norse mythological cycle that spells out how the world will end, the result of disastrous overconfidence on the part of the gods. The two felt connected in more ways than one.

In the latter, I found an extraordinary description of Yggdrasil, the World Tree, upon which all of life depends. Which got me thinking: What if the ancient Norse were right? What if the world as we know it is utterly and completely dependent upon trees? The archetype of the tree in general, and living individuals in particular?

Mashing up these two inspiring works of art, I created my own, a flash fiction piece entitled “Treesitting in Yggdrasil.” In it, a young man experiencing a “so-called mental break” has stumbled upon the World Tree, Yggdrasil–a stunning behemoth of a tree, so immense that fish circulate amongst the pools between its immense limbs and a goat gambols up and down its mossy trunk.

The tree’s location isn’t always clear–there are places where it appears to be a Doug fir, others where it could only be a banyan, still others where it’s clearly a kapok, one of the titans of the Amazon. But in every place where it might be located, it is (you guessed it) in the direct path of a coming clear cut. What choice does our hero have but to take up residence in it, and resist?

This month, I’m sharing this story with my Patreon subscribers. If you’d like to receive a copy in your inbox, become one of them by the end of the month, and support my voice and vision in the world.

“When is the best time to plant a tree? Thirty years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Now.”

–Richard Powers, The Overstory