The Killing Heat (pt. 1)

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Image via Walt Anderson:

This week I’ll be posting each day from an essay-in-progress for the Week of Climate Action, in support of a global response to climate change. More info at People’s Climate Movement. 

On June 30th, 2013, I was in Los Angeles with my brother and sister when I heard the news: 19 of the Granite Mountain Hotshots–the elite wildlands firefighting crew based out of Prescott, Arizona–had lost their lives in the Yarnell Hill Fire.

I had lived in Prescott for 14 years (though I’d recently moved to Oregon); my brother and sister both graduated from Prescott High. And all three of us had a connection to one of the fallen, Robert Caldwell.

Caldwell was just 23 years old when he passed. Both my brother and sister had gone to school with him; they remembered the great parties he’d thrown, what a kind and generous person he was.

When my sister turned to me that day and spoke his name—had I known him?—I felt the bottom drop out of my gut.

One of the strangest features of Facebook, to my mind, is the way it allows us to share the personal lives of others at a distance. It had been years since I’d seen Claire, an old friend from Prescott, but I knew the story of her life in the years that had elapsed–as she may, in fact, know mine.

When I first met Claire, she had just rolled in off of some type of tour–say, String Cheese–and was wearing both face paint and fairy wings. I was sitting at a coffee shop with my boyfriend at the time, I remember, and immediately I loved her laugh, her smile, the way she just obviously did not give a flying fuck what anyone thought of her; like me, this girl was a free spirit.

My ex later confided that our friend Joe gotten back together with her–despite some difficulties in the relationship, that boy was crazy about her.

Five or six years later, neither Claire nor I were quite so young and free, having endured both heartbreak and financial hardship. Claire had gone through a divorce and was waiting tables, I understood, to support herself and her son, when at last that wild girl with the infectious laugh caught a break and met the man of her dreams.

His name was Robert Caldwell. They’d been married less than two years.

I’d seen their wedding pictures: Robert in his handlebar moustache, looking like an Arizona lawman of the old school; Claire in her fairytale gown, off the shoulder, her tattoos resplendent alongside her perfect blond curls; and her five-year-old boy in his handsome suit. All three of them looked at each other that day like they couldn’t believe their luck.

I managed to hold it together in L.A. But on my way back home to Oregon, when I saw Claire’s tearful face on the news in the airport, I found myself openly weeping for her. For the loss of her young husband, the step-father of her boy. For the loss of that great true love.

And somehow, this grief opened a door inside me. Beyond statistics, beyond politics, beyond the things I thought I knew, I began to feel the truth.

The truth of the fire to come.

Listen In: In Floating Fields

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The latest story I’ve released to my Patreon subscribers is a retelling of a Russian fairytale I loved as a child, Vasalisa the Brave. Though it’s the heroine whose name appears in the title of the tale, it was always the witch I found fascinating.

Baba Yaga lives in a house that stands on a chicken’s legs, and she herself has none–just an old-fashioned mortar (the better to crush you with, my dear!). As far as witches go, she’s bad, but I wouldn’t necessarily call her evil. More fey, in the sense of true fairies, the kind Susanna Clarke wrote about in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell–which is to say, morally ambiguous.

My retelling of this fairytale takes place on my grandmother’s farm in Northern Michigan, and I had a lot of fun with it. If you enjoy it, consider supporting my work as an emerging author for as little as $1/month.

Hot Season Takes the Gold (IPPY Award)!

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I’m pleased to announce that Hot Season has taken the Gold Independent Publishers Association (IPPY) Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain-West in 2016.

The news of this came to me, oddly enough, via Facebook Messenger. I was at the Independent Book Publishers Association conference here in Portland over the weekend, which also offers an award for independent and small-press books (the Ben Franklin). Here I was, hanging out with all these great authors, many of whom were finalists for this indie award, when I received news of my own.

That news came via Kase Johnstun, a buddy of mine from Pacific University. The Internet connection in that room was not so hot, so all I saw at first was the text: “Congratulations!” Imagine my surprise when .jpeg came through–it was a screen shot of a webpage listing the winners.

How had Kase gotten word of this before I had? (I actually checked the date to make sure this wasn’t some terrible April Fool’s prank.)

As it turned out, that notification email–as well as all of the other communications about the award–had wound up in my Spam folder. Doh!

As an added bonus, the IPPY awards ceremony is scheduled for May 30th in NYC at the Copacabana, so, as you might imagine, I’ve had this stuck in my head ever since.

Newport News

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Last weekend I had the pleasure of presenting a talk on my book, my work, and political fiction more generally at the Newport Public Library in Newport, Oregon.

This was my first author event in a place where I did not already have a fanbase (at this point in my career, that’s a euphemism for family and friends). But three bold souls did indeed brave the sideways rain of the NW coast to see me, so I gave it my best shot.

In the end, two of them bought books and signed up for my mailing list, and the librarian who cut me the check to make the 2.5-hour drive from Portland thanked me for not “phoning it in.” I told her, “Well, I’d prepared,” but what I should have said was this: THANK YOU FOR THIS AMAZING WEEKEND.

That’s because, in addition to cutting me a check, the library had covered my room for the night at the Sylvia Beach Hotel, a cute little literary-themed inn overlooking the Pacific. Each room is styled after a different author; mine was the Lincoln Steffens, named after the father, I read, of investigative journalism, the man who coined the term “muckraker.”

Not as popular as the J.K. Rowling, I’m sure, but a worthy muse in such times.

Did I mention that the entire top floor of this place is a library, with comfy chairs with ocean views? And free hot beverages? Where you are free to read or write all day, even after you’ve checked out?

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I had the good fortune of a great book to read during my stay, one that brought me to tears–a book that, when I finished it, actually made me feel more emotionally capable of dealing with the heartbreak of a civically engaged life.

That, to me, as a fiction geek, is a big deal. Because it’s not like this book is about politics; it’s just the fact that getting that protective casing over my heart cracked wide open made me feel more resilient, more capable, more able to withstand despair. How beautiful is that?

And of course, I noodled around on Facebook a bit.

A friend of mine, Kelly Sundberg, had posted a question, both material and spiritual: “What have you done to feed yourself today?” To which I replied:

“Talked about my book and my work to three dear souls at a small town library–but made $150 and sold two books and received a night’s accommodations at a literary-themed seaside hotel that I am now in love with. Read a Henry James novella I found in the library here and took myself out for oysters. Now drinking pinot noir in my room to the sound of the surf and having my heart blown open by Laura Pritchett’s new novel, The Blue Hour, which I practically handsold to my server. What a day!”

To which one of Kelly’s friends replied to say that she’d actually just bought my book, based on that comment.

The next day, when I returned to good old Puddletown, the article I’d written for LitReactor on political fiction–on which a good part of my talk in Newport was based–was published. And the first commenter noted that based on what I’d “had the balls” to write, he’d just bought my book.

As a debut author, what’s the moral of the story? I’d say it’s to show up, both online and in person, and connect; you never know where your next sale might come from.