The Story Behind the Story: The Library of the Lost

adminUncategorizedLeave a Comment

“In the library of ancient books housed within the 16th century Spanish monastery of El Escorial, there exists a book of unknown origin—handmade, like all the rest, exquisite, like all the rest, but which, unlike the rest, is written in an unknown script.”

That’s the opening of my latest short story, “The Library of the Lost,” which was inspired by my recent trip to Spain, and to the library of ancient books housed in an ornate old monastery just outside Madrid. This library (pictured above) contains an astounding 42,000 handwritten books in various languages, representing all human knowledge (as known to the Western world) circa 1775. 

Nearly all of these books are illuminated with artwork, much of it in eye-popping cobalt blue and gilt, though the writing itself is just as astounding. For anyone who loves calligraphy, and for anyone who loves book arts, it’s an unparalleled experience to walk among shelves full of hand-bound, tooled leather books, with their edge-gilted pages turned out on the stacks, to minimize atmospheric damage to their bindings–to see Latin, Arabic, Sanskrit, and ancient Greek (and Spanish, of course) rendered in calligraphy so exquisite it could only have been the product of a lifetime of study and practice.

Here you’ll find the Ottonian Golden Gospels of Henry III (1045–46), and the only known copy of the Kitab al-I’tibar, a 12th-century Syrian autobiography, among 2,700 manuscripts dating from the 5th through the 18th century (including an illuminated 11th-century commentary on the the Book of Revelations, penned in the eighth century by the Spanish monk and theologian Beatus of Liébana).

About the frescoes that grace the ceiling of the library pictured above, the website of the historic site has this to say:

The vault is occupied by personifications of the Liberal Arts and Sciences, painted di sotto in sù and surrounded by giants. In the lunettes are representations of individuals, from antiquity onwards, who had cultivated these disciplines. Scenes on the friezes refer to the trivium [Grammar, Rhetoric, Dialectics] and quadrivium [Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, Astronomy, together representing the seven subjects of the Liberal Arts].  

Source:  https://el-escorial.com/el-escorial-decoration/

My family’s roots extend into South America, and as a fan of the great Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, I could not help but think of his short story “The Library of Babel.” In this story, Borges–who, in addition to writing fiction, served as the director of the National Library in Buenos Aries–posits a library that is vast but not infinite, and which contains books that contain every possible arrangement of twenty-nine characters: the twenty-seven letters of the alphabet, the comma, and the period.

Here at El Escorial, I’d found a library meant to encompass all of human knowledge. And, as my husband pointed out, in the countryside just beyond El Escorial lay the Valle de Caldos, the Valley of the Fallen, which plays a part in Dan Brown’s novel Origin. I thought of my grandmother Priscilla (who was, incidentally, a big fan of The Da Vinci Code), and the family rumor that she’d copied out a banned book by hand when she was a young mother in Guyana. I thought of my cousin–who lives in Madrid, and who’d taken a group of us to see El Escorial–a software architect and Dungeons & Dragons fan, who happened to have a copy of Borges’s Ficciones in his own library at home.

I thought of languages, both natural and machine; I thought of James Gleick’s book Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood, which ties together, in one astounding knot, cryptography, computer programming, and DNA sequencing. I thought of my lifelong fascination with codes, and (if I’m willing to admit it) conspiracies.

I thought too of all the great libraries whose contents have been lost to us–chief among them, the library of the Maya at Chichen Itza, about which Wikipedia has this to say:

There were many books in existence at the time of the Spanish conquest of Yucatán in the 16th century; most were destroyed by the Catholic priests.[4] Many in Yucatán were ordered destroyed by Bishop Diego de Landa in July 1562.[5] In his conviction of the superiority and absolute truth of Christianity, De Landa wrote: 

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which…[the Mayans] regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_codices

To which, as an American, I have this to say: no shit, dude. 

Put all of these wild ideas together in one writer’s head, and what do you get? My fresh new short story, “The Library of the Lost,” which I’m sharing this month with my Patreon subscribers.

My Patreon subscribers are my tribe, the people who have come together to support my voice and vision in the world. Join them and receive “The Library of the Lost” in your inbox on December 31st. =)

The Story behind the Story: The Ghost Lovers Club

adminUncategorizedLeave a Comment

“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

adminUncategorizedLeave a Comment

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

adminThe Story Behind the StoryLeave a Comment

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!