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Monday, September 30, 2013

Author Commentary: Baby and Me

This was the first story I published following my fifteen-year creative hiatus. I’ll admit I was very surprised when I finished it. It’s funny, I thought. That seemed strange. I’m not funny; I’ve never been funny. And then Every Day Fiction published it and their readers thought it was funny, too. Well, what do you know?

I’ve been asked if this was based on true events. The answer is, Not really. I’m at an age where I’m surrounded by a lot of marriage and baby talk and that’s what prompted me to write this piece: the horror of watching other people grow up all around me while I’m still struggling with the disbelief that we can possibly be old enough to be creating a new generation already.

Many people, including the editors at EDF, were very surprised by the ending. I thought that was funny because to me, there would have been no story without the ending. Or, rather, it would have been an incredibly dull and formulaic story if it had come to the expected conclusion. I myself was most surprised by how tolerant people were of the anti-offspring stance of this piece; I expected a bit more indignant horror. It’s good to know that readers can be entertained by a story even if they don’t agree with its premise. Just as I can be amused by the new parents and children springing up all around me J  

Monday, September 23, 2013

Author Commentary: Two Fathers

I originally wrote this piece in an effort to create an ultra-short of 150 words or less. I don’t recall what prompted it, but somehow I got to thinking of my biological father and the very few memories I have of him, which, interestingly enough, taken all together, come out to about 150 words!
The second segment is about the father of the best friend I had from the time I was four or five until we moved to a different town when I was twelve. In the hundreds of times I visited my friend’s house – which was just across the street from ours – I don’t believe I actually saw the man more than a dozen times, and never once in all those years did he speak to me. Of course, most of the time he was busy working his butt off to support their five children, and there was no doubt that he loved his family very much. But as a kid all I was cognizant of was the fear.

I wrote another segment of this piece about my “main” stepfather – that’s the one I had the longest – but I didn’t really care for the way it turned out so I omitted it. I’m still not sure if I should have included it after all. It certainly would have put a different spin on the piece as a whole, because it was a fairly flattering portrayal of a man who, without being anyone’s biological father, was nonetheless the best father I ever had. Except that in the end, when the marriage dissolves, the stepdad moves away and is never heard from again, and my intent was to make the story evocative rather than melancholy. And at bottom, I think it makes for a better “vignette” without coming to such a resounding conclusion, and that’s what Vine Leaves does best.     

Sunday, September 15, 2013

That's Life Fast Fiction Quarterly Publication and Author Commentary: Funeral for Charlie

I absolutely love this story. I think it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever written and I’m eternally grateful to Australia’s that’s Life! Fast Fiction Quarterly for publishing it in their Winter 2013 issue. Unfortunately, they had to edit out some of my best lines for length and content, and I didn’t think the published version was quite as good as the original. I did, however, think the picture and blurb they posted with it were hysterical. As the rights have now reverted to me, for the curious, here is the full original story:
Charlie was dead. It was hard to say what had done him in, but given that his roommates Rusty and Redhead had passed away unexpectedly the week before, my husband suspected environmental causes. Not me, though. I suspected Fishy.
The teeniest of all of our goldfish, Fishy had outlived not merely several new fish, but several entire sets of new fish, of a variety of breeds and sizes. We had often remarked on the unquenchable virility which seemed to sustain his minute form while our other fish went belly-up all around him. When poor Charlie got sick, he took to lurking in a corner of the tank, scarcely flapping his large fins, not moving, not eating; barely even breathing. We had watched him anxiously for days before the end. That night I had slept restlessly. Waking up long before dawn and failing to fall back into sleep, I finally got up and went into the kitchen to fix a glass of warm milk. Flicking on the light by the fish tank, I was startled to discover that Fishy had taken up residence in Charlie’s corner, and was, as nearly as a fish can, sitting on Charlie’s head as if trying to smother him. He quickly swam away but it was too late; I had already seen him. And the next morning, Charlie was dead.
I couldn’t prove anything, of course. But I did examine the body pretty carefully when Bob brought it sadly to the surface in the fraying green net, and it seemed to me as if Charlie was missing an awful lot of scales for a domestic goldfish. There were also some detectable gouges on his underside, almost as if he had been fighting. But it was pretty hard to pin anything on Fishy. He swam about as enthusiastically as ever in his empty tank, now entirely bereft of playmates, but not appearing to suffer from either loneliness or a renewed sense of his own mortality. And if he looked with fond or melancholy recollection at the plastic bridge that Charlie used to like to hide behind, or the fake coral that his brothers had favored, it never showed in his face.
“I’ll be right back,” Bob said, holding his hand under the wet mesh to prevent drips from falling all over the floor.
“Wait, where are you taking him?” I asked, alarmed.
“Um, to the toilet?” he replied, as if it were a stupid question.
“Charlie’s not going to fit down the toilet!” I answered indignantly.
“Sure he will!” Bob assured me. “He’s no bigger than a turd.”
“Are you crazy?!! He’s at least twice as big around as a turd!”
“Not my turds!” Bob answered proudly. “And if those will go down the toilet, this goldfish will, too, you’ll see.”
“Okay,” I said, trying hard to comprehend why we were arguing over this, “Okay, let’s just suppose that Charlie really is no bigger than a turd. He’s still not a turd, he’s a fish. A turd breaks up in the water; a dead fish will not. He will get stuck halfway down the pipe and you will be stuck trying to plunge up dead fish.”
“Listen, sweetheart,” Bob said, his tone bearing none of the affection implied by the term, “I’ve fixed plenty of toilets in my day, and I know how big the opening in the pipe is. That fish is going down, mark my words.”
I marked them and followed him into the bathroom. I bowed my head as he plunked our deceased friend respectfully into the deep. I listened quietly as he somberly activated the flusher. And then I watched as the water swirled away, taking Charlie on one final miraculous journey to the home of his ancient ancestors, to the ocean the abrupt end of his short life had precluded him from ever going to see. And then I flushed again for good measure.
It didn’t take. The water backed up into the toilet, causing Bob to flush again, full red in the face this time.
“He didn’t go all the way down,” I observed.
“There’s probably something else stuck in there,” Bob reasoned.
I made hissing noises that can’t be translated into words before finally spluttering, “That fish is stuck in the toilet! Do you hear me?! Stuck in the toilet. There is a dead fish in our toilet!”
“He can’t have gotten stuck; he was too small. And even if he did, I’m sure he’ll break loose and go down eventually.”
“Break loose? Break loose eventually? No way, uh-unh, mister. I am not peeing on that toilet knowing that Charlie’s in it. And we don’t even know where he got stuck. What if a rotten fish comes popping back up into the bowl?”
“That’s unlikely,” Bob assured me.
“Darn right it is,” I answered huffily. “Because you’re going to get that fish out of the toilet no matter what you have to do. And you know why? Because it’s your fault he’s in there.”
I resolutely returned to the kitchen, accompanied by the comforting cadence of Bob’s creative cursing and the gruesome gurgling of the plunger as it sought to resurrect the unfortunate former member of our household from his watery grave. I sidled nonchalantly over to the fish tank. Fishy was still nibbling a leftover bit of his solitary breakfast, flicking his tail-fin contentedly, his conscience apparently as untroubled as the calm unruffled waters which now surrounded him.
“I know it isn’t really Bob’s fault,” I conceded, now that he was out of earshot. “It’s yours. You may have gotten away with it this time, but now I’m on to you. And you know what else? Charlie might not have fit down the toilet, but there’s no question in my mind that you’ll go down quite nicely. One day, one day, Fishy… whoosh!!” I threatened.
Fishy just spat out his chip of orange fish food and swam carelessly away.              

Saturday, September 7, 2013

On Books: Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic

Yolen, Jane, The Devil’s Arithmetic, Scholastic, Inc: New York, 1988.

Author Jane Yolen will always hold a special place in my heart. She was my writing tutor in the sixth grade. Yup, it’s true. I have no idea how my school district finagled that or if this was a regular part of her community service or what, but once a week she came out and worked with me one on one. Apparently this is what happens when you’re the one kid in class whose stories are always over the page limit and not under it; people start to wonder if you might have some talent.

Anyway, I can’t say that I remember much of what she taught me, or even much about the many books of hers that I’d read before I met her, but recently I ran across this young adult novel of hers called The Devil’s Arithmetic. I had never heard of it, but believe me, once you’ve read it, you’ll never forget it.

The premise concerns an adolescent American Jewish girl who, in the midst of a Passover celebration a generation after World War II, mysteriously and magically trades places with a rural European Jew caught up in the midst of the Holocaust. It then traces – in surprising detail for a novel aimed at children – her experience of concentration camp life, with particular focus on the individuals surrounding her, and their methods of coping with their chilling confinement. Indeed, the book’s greatest strength is perhaps its ability to “rehumanize” what are, to most of us, faceless masses of concentration camp victims, by delving into their various personalities. And they are human, very poignantly so. While there is a fair share of heroism among the main characters, there is hopelessness and helplessness as well; selfish and altruistic behavior on both sides. The sufferers are not perfectly good, just as their captors are not perfectly evil.

In addition, by literally walking the reader through the trials of entering and then residing in a concentration camp, the book introduces young readers to the Holocaust in a very accessible manner; by forcing them to live it day by day along with the main character. In some ways it reminded me of John Hersey’s The Wall, in which you follow the daily routines of a small group of Jews clinging to life in the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. Sometimes you forget that Jews and other victims of the Nazis were not merely killed; they lived entire lives between their moments of capture and execution or eventual release, and The Devil’s Arithmetic makes those lives real.

My one complaint about the book is that I had difficulty accepting the premise itself. I can certainly see why the author presented events the way she did – there are solid reasons for it in the story – but when confronted with evidence of the “switch,” I sometimes found myself unable to suspend my disbelief. But this is a very small flaw in an otherwise wonderful work that has the power to truly bring home the experience of the Holocaust to all readers, young and old alike.