I love carnivals. Carnies are my people and always have been. I realize that might sound odd since most carny folk are pretty sketchy, but in my heart, I’m pretty sketchy. I am truly one left turn from a flask in my pocket, a wrench in my hand and a sleeping bag on a blowup mattress in a shitty little camper parked in a field outside Stockton. It’s the low end of my theatre world but, honestly, theatre folk are all carnies at heart. We live outside the lines, we operate according to our own rules and values, we shine up the fake and false until, in the dim pink lights it all looks like gold and glamour, silk and velvet, youth and beauty. Until closing time, until the work lights come on and then it’s broken plastic with flaking paint, stained polyester scarves wrapped around brassy red hair framing a 46 year old face lighting up a Camel. It’s smoke and mirrors, it’s lies and cons, it’s the business of show…oh I love me some carnies, because no matter how hard and cynical, no matter how broken the outfit, when you set it all up and the sun goes down and the lights come on…even we get caught up in the magic of it. We might think we’re the grifters but at the end of the day we’re the ones who keep chasing the dream.
The following is an interview I did with Julia Michelle Dawson, author of Geneva, A Novel of International Intrigue. This interview is from 2013 and originally appeared at a writer’s blog site that I contributed to low those many years ago. I have been chatting with Julia and have updated a couple of the final answers regarding more Novels of International Intrigue. OH…and Geneva…it’s a BRILLIANT book. I highly recommend it.
How did you get from the world of finance/business to writing fiction?
Purely by accident. I was driving down the street with my friend Marjorie when she said she was afraid to stay at home at night if her husband wasn’t there so he gave her a gun…and it was an elephant gun! I laughed and said, “Marjorie, if I ever write a book that’s what I’m going to call it: Marjorie and the Elephant Gun!” The very next night I started writing the story. Soon I knew it was longer than a poem, then longer than a short story, and before I knew it I was drowning in a novel and I didn’t know how to write. That’s when I started attending the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I learned how to write by writing a novel…there must be a better way!
Can you talk a bit about your experiences with workshops/writers groups?
The Santa Barbara Writers Conference was great. That’s where a met Leonard Tourney who was a professor at UCSB. I thought “how can I get into his class without having to enroll in college again”? It turned out that he did a weekly writers workshop practically in my backyard in Santa Ynez. When I moved over the hill to Santa Barbara I joined Leonard Tourney and Shelly Lowenkopf in a work shop at the Montecito Library. We called it the “Lion’s Den” for good reason. Later, I started a workshop at my home which I called that San Ysidro Writers Workshop. We would read one chapter a week out loud and then comment on each other’s work. Occasionally I would hire a visiting instructor and we would all pitch in to cover the costs. It’s a very valuable experience to get feedback from other writers and to have to produce a chapter on deadline.
GENEVA is a pretty complex mystery/thriller. Can you talk a bit about your plotting process, any tips or tricks you use to keep track of it all?
Although I do keep a chapter and scene outline, I usually don’t have a problem keeping track of the plot. In my mind, it plays like a movie and I am just writing down what is there. What I have learned (by mistake of course) is that I need to write down and keep handy the character development details, so I don’t in chapter one write that he has green eyes and then in chapter ten write about his brown eyes!
Can you tell us about your regular writing schedule?
I don’t wait for my muse to show up! I schedule a time to plant my tail in the chair and write! If I sit in the chair and don’t know what to write (which rarely happens because I am always, while driving etc, thinking about what I am going to write) I will do stream of consciousness writing to loosen up my brain. I simply write whatever work pops in my mind; blue wall green glass door free grass light sky etc) for a few minutes. I also follow the advice of Hemingway – to stop while I still have something to write (which is easy because I always run out of time first!)
Starting a publishing company?
I decided to do this when I read the traditional publishing contracts and learned how little the writer actually keeps when they sign away all the rights to their work. Today’s options for printing are remarkable – you don’t need to order thousands of books. Digital publishing allows the writer to keep the lion’s share of the sales dollars. As in any business, you have to spend money to make money. No book will succeed (with a major publisher or self-published) unless there is a marketing budget behind it. When I realized that I have, through my work experience in public speaking, print, and television, all the skills needed to promote a book – I took the jump. I spend all the money I make from writing my column on marketing the fiction.
More in this series?
Nairobi – A Novel of International Intrigue is the second book and is currently in the publishing process.
Vienna – A Novel of International Intrigue, the third book, is currently in the editing phase.
What do you read?
I love reading auto-biographies about really dynamic, powerful, and adventurous women. Needless to say there aren’t many of these around – yet! West with the Wind by Beryl Markham is my favorite book. Beryl was a safari pilot and the first person to fly East to West across the Atlantic. I also loved Daughter of Destiny by Benazir Bhutto, the former Prime Mister of Pakistan and Personal History by Katharine Graham (publisher of the Washington Post.)
If I get stuck, I print out what I have written that day, move to the other side of the room and read out loud. (Usually only to my cat – who yawns) then can more easily see what it needs.
So again, Geneva, a Novel of International Intrigue is available on Amazon and Audible. You can find out about Julia Michelle Dawson’s other creative adventures at her website, juliamichelledawson.com
Tommy carried the fresh bottles of brandy and whisky in from the stock room only to find a young man sitting at the bar. This was both odd and not odd at all. Odd because he’d locked up about an hour ago and not odd because after lock-up was when his real work as The Bartender started. The Jukebox was softly playing “How Can You Sing” by Front Country. Ooookaaaay…so a little crisis of the soul? Considering the young man was wearing a clerical collar coupled with the song, yeah crisis of the soul.
Tommy leaned against the back bar. That’s when the guy finally looked up. Tommy saw the anguish in his eyes.
Tommy held up the two bottles, “Brandy or Whisky?”
One side of the guys mouth kicked up just a tiny bit, “Brandy I guess.”
“Good man. It’s a cold night and brandy helps to warm both the body and the soul.” Tommy placed the brandy glass in front of the guy and poured one for himself.
“I’m not sure brandy will be enough to warm my soul tonight.”
Tommy sighed, “Well some nights are darker than others eh? But then that’s what company is for right? That’s why we talk to each other.”
The guy smiled softly, “I have to admit I love the irony of a Priest coming to a Bartender for…confession if you will.”
Tommy chuckled, “You aren’t the first and I hope you won’t be the last because different than the way your Church’s confession process works, I don’t give absolution because it’s not mine to give, it’s yours to find in the safety of companionship on a dark cold night. So confess if that is what is on order for tonight or we can talk about baseball or music or books until whatever it is that is causing those shadows in your eyes lightens up.”
The young priest’s smile grew, “What do you like to read?”
Tommy lit a smoke and pulled his stool up, “Better to ask what don’t I like to read, it’s a much shorter list.”
Slowly the Jukebox faded up Deb Talan’s “Comfort” and the conversation of books wandered slowly to thoughts and ideas and doubts and despair and finally to the hope that can only be found in compassionate company.
You know what they say about deals with the Devil? Well they’re right. The Devil always wins.
I knew who he was. I can’t claim ignorance or even that he conned me.
I did it anyway.
Maybe I had a choice, maybe not. In the end I couldn’t see any other way. Lu knows everyone’s Achilles heel otherwise he wouldn’t have a single signed contract. Mine was Delia. Sweet, sunny Delia…my little sister. She was standing at a crossroads as so many teens do and that sonuvbitch was about to tip the scales with my sister on the losing side. I also knew this wasn’t about Delia…it was about me. He wanted me either in his pocket or out of the game entirely. I had already told him he could fuck his pocket. So that only left getting me out of the game.
My Granny told me long ago my ego would lead me straight to hell and she was right. But she also said it would give the Devil a black eye if I had the guts to carry the weight.
So I here I sit, staring at the Bullet on the table and the Gun across the room. I can feel the curse twisting towards me, stopping just short of my skin. Gotta have my permission first. That’s the way Lu works. He’ll back your ass into a corner with a knife at someone else’s throat and then smile saying, “It’s all up to you, yes or no?”
I took a deep breath and looked at the beautiful golden-haired man straight in his pale blue icy eyes.
“It’s very simple Michaela, you carry the Bullet, I carry the Gun. I leave your family alone as long as you carry the Bullet and after you ask for the Gun, well, it won’t matter to you what I do by then. If you drop the Bullet you will be in breach of contract and Delia, as well as any others I so choose from your bloodline are forfeit.”
I chuckled as I looked up at him.
“Oh Lu I am looking forward to the day when you have to explain to Him why I am still walking the earth. Because you will have to explain you know? I won’t drop the Bullet and I won’t ask for the Gun. He, and the entire Heavenly Host, will forgive you long before I lose my resolve. I will carry this curse to the end of time and beyond if necessary.”
With that I grabbed the Bullet and gritted my teeth against a scream as the curse burned and twisted its way into my soul. I fell to the floor as the convulsions started. I have no idea how long it went on but Lu was sitting on the bed with a glass of whiskey in his hand when I came out of the seizures. I had vomited and pissed myself and I was pretty sure every tooth in my head was loose, but I still had that damn bullet in my hand.
“Micky, Micky, Micky, let go and I can make everything right again.”
I laid there and worked on remembering how to breathe. Then I slowly stood up, swaying only a little. The weight was…unbelievable. I could feel it pulling on my organs, but worse than that, I could feel it pulling on my mind. The ice in his glass clinked as our eyes met over the rim of the cut crystal. He smirked.
“Heavy isn’t it?’
“Yes.” My voice sounded like rusted chain on concrete.
“No.” I put the bullet in my pocket and staggered to the door.
“It will only get worse Micky.”
I turned my head to look at him over my shoulder, snarling, “I’m counting on it. That way I’ll always have a new level of hatred for you to keep me going.”
I stumbled out into the hallway and down the stairs into the hot, wet New Orleans night. I knew I had to get as far from the Gun as I could. It would ease a bit with distance. A bit was all I needed.
I want to tell you a story.
I don’t know what that story is
But I know what I want it to do.
I want it to snag you out of your every day
I want it to make you pause, and wonder
I want it to transport so thoroughly you forget where you left your coffee
I want it to have characters so true and fascinating and flawed
That you want to hang out with them even once the story is done.
I want it to make your heart pound with fear and excitement
I want it to catch your breath and not give it back
I want it to raise your blood pressure, make your skin itchy and your hair stand on end,
I want it to say something important, but not preachy or pretentious
But I also want it to change the world
By which I mean, I want it to change you and me.
I want to tell you a story.
And I still don’t what that story is,
But I most certainly know what I want it to do.
Back in late 2002 my friend Alana and I were chatting (via ICU instant messenger magic of the early aughts) about writing. I was wanting to do more creative writing but I was struggling to do it. She told me about this new online journaling thing people were doing called Blogging. She suggested that maybe a new format with an audience as big or as small as the growing internet might inspire me. She helped me set up my first blog which was probably on Blogger or some other very generic easy template sort of program. This was the beginning of a very important part of my life. I didn’t know it at the time. That seems to always be the way, right? We only know that a time period is important in retrospect. A whole new world of bloggers opened up to me. It was a pretty small world back then and I was blessed with finding some really amazing people during what we now amusingly call The Golden Age of Blogging. What I was hoping for happened, though not in exactly the way I thought it would, but nonetheless…I started writing. Writing on a regular basis. I met other writer in the blogging world. I made friends in the blogging world. Good friends. People I went on to meet in real life and am blessed to still be friends with to this day. Alana always encouraged me to keep on writing. She was an early participant in my yearly writing adventure every October (Writober). When she was doing stand up we’d sometimes write jokes together either though IM or email. She always had positive suggestions for me when I would get frustrated with myself for my chronic procrastination. If those didn’t help she would make fun of me in the best possible way so that I would laugh and stop taking it all so damn seriously. There were years when she would do tarot readings for me over the phone and I swear every single time I would ask some question about what I should be doing or if it was time to change jobs or how I could solve money problems it would always end up right back at Alana saying, “yeeeeaaahh ya know it seems like you should be writing”. Over the years, Alana and I discussed everything at some point or other. We talked about relationships, sex, politics, staying flexible both physically and emotionally, annoying co-workers, cats, puppy dog noses, and writing.
When Alana got diagnosed with Stage Four Cancer two years ago I felt my heart break. But, as Patrick Rothfuss wrote, “broken isn’t shattered.”
Last Monday it became clear that Alana had fought all she could and was slowly leaving her body. That same day I got a notice from a professional writer that that I am fond of that she was teaching an online novel writing class. I’ve never taken a writing class of any kind. Not even in college, though heaven knows I should have. I clicked over to the website for the class and read about how the whole thing worked, only 8 people in a class, 8 weeks long, must submit writing twice over the 8 weeks for crit and must do crit for other classmates writing. I clicked to her specific class and saw it was starting THAT DAY…and there were two spots open.
I thought about Alana. About how she spent the last two years fighting that fucking disease and doing it with so much humor and grace and creativity. She made a goddamned short film in the last year that is currently showing up in film festivals all over the country, while fighting fucking cancer. I knew if I could ask her about taking the class she would have said, “Yes, you should…right now.” So I paid the money and signed up.
At 7:20 this morning my sweet funny friend Alana left this world.
Her name will be forever carved into my heart.
And I am writing.
Sigh. I apologize, I know I rant about this often. I know I write about it almost every single Writober at some point, if not multiple times. But honestly it’s only because of the amount of bullshit that gets slung at my city. Look I get it. LA/Hollywood is an industry town and that industry involves obscene amounts of money. Money makes people weird. The potential for money makes people weird. Fame makes people weird. The potential for fame makes people weird. But I get really tired of the relentless claims that “Hollywood is SO shallow”, “You know everyone there is SO Hollywood”, “He’s a great guy, not Hollywood at all”, “You can’t even have a conversation with her she’s just WAY too Hollywood”…and on and on. Hollywood is where my friend Sienna grew up. Living in a sweet neighborhood on a street above Franklin Blvd. just a little west of Western. Hollywood is where my friend Stacy grew up. Living on Franklin Blvd. a bit west of Vermont. She went to high school at Immaculate Heart on Los Feliz Blvd. Hollywood is where my friend Alix lives in a sweet two bedroom apartment in what used to be a predominantly Jewish neighborhood. She’s lived there for almost two decades now. She shops at the local supermarket. She has dinner at the restaurants a couple of blocks from her street. She has a great Halloween party every year that we always try to attend. Hollywood is where I lived in my early 20’s and I lovedlovedlovedloved it. I played pool at one of the oldest pool halls in Los Angeles which was just one block down and one block over from my apartment. I walked to the Baskin and Robbins ice cream shop on the corner of my street. On nights at the beginning of spring I would walk along Franklin Blvd. following the scent of pink jasmine floating through the air until I met up with my friend at Birds, a bar that had decent coffee along with the usual bar drinks. Hollywood is a place where people live and work and love and play and fuck up and hate. But it’s just a city, a city that some people grow up in, they go to elementary school there, they are in the PTA, they open their shops in the morning and hope they do enough business to pay their rent, they go to jobs working for the MTA and Ralph’s and law firms and hospitals and Veterinary offices. Yeah some of them work in the entertainment industry, even a lot of them do…but for those of us who have lived in Los Angeles our whole lives it’s such a slap in the face to dismiss all the other people who live and work and make this city such a wonder to live in. Hollywood is so much more than one industry and so much less than most people’s dreams.
Song: Before The Eyes of Storytelling Girls by Anais Mitchell
We are here in the midst of this chaos we did not create, we do not condone and we can’t seem to contain. We have tried, over and over, in all the different ways at our disposal. We teach with fairy tales and metaphors, we show through the example of how we treat others, we comfort and guide and still it never seems to be enough to change the path. We have been gentle, we have been fierce, we have laid down our bodies and our souls, we resisted, we surrendered, we have raged and been serene, we picked up weapons and we have walked as pacifists through the battles and still, over and over, we find ourselves here. I guess no matter what the center will not hold and eventually everything falls, leaving only fragments of our fairy tales, broken pieces of cell phones and a glass bead or two.
So it’s almost time for yet another Writober. I’ve been revisiting some old Writobers and I have to say it’s been quite funny. Over the years there have been, at times, only a couple of us writing and other times quite a few of us from all over the world writing. There are a few of us who have been doing this for many years now. If you don’t know, Writober is a group writing exercise in a way. We agree to write something, anything really, three times a week and send it to everyone on the email list. The goal is to simply write with some regularity in the company of others who are doing the same thing.
I have written complete nonsense. I have written things I had no idea I was going to write. I have surprised myself with what I have written. I have felt irrationally irritated that I have to write something but I try to do it anyway. I have totally forgotten to write. I have been obsessed with an idea and been unable to get it written. I have been just blithering something out because it’s a Monday or Wednesday or Friday and suddenly it turns into something enchanting. No matter what, Writober always does exactly what I hoped it would do when I first started it…it gets me to write words. What happens from there is always surprising.
So I hope that all who join me this Writober get some words written and I wish us all some surprising, irritating, and enchanting writing at the end of it.
So much swirling around in my head today.
My good friend Patricia managed to turn my old blog posts into a Word Doc that isn’t filled with all the coding info which is so damn cool. It’s pretty mind blowing to read what I was thinking and writing 15 years ago. The document is roughly 800 pages long and spans from 2003 to 2014. What is most interesting to me is how regularly I was writing back then. That was the purpose of the blog, so it did its job. Every post wasn’t brilliant but some of them, upon review, I really like. I wrote some funny stuff, some serious stuff and a whole lot of political stuff (no wonder it’s hard for me to write much of that now). Mostly I keep coming across bits of observation that I find amusing such as this, “But anyway, back to the older men at my gym. The ones that are minding their own business are kind of interesting. They are often reading a paper while they are using the cardio equipment. There are a couple of guys that look like they were all made from the same mold. They have gray hair and reading glasses that they sort of perch on the bridge of their noses…not like regular glasses that are firmly in place, these are glasses that seem to only be visiting their face, soon to leave. They seem a little annoyed at the need for physical exercise, so their reading seems to be an attempt to not be wasting valuable time. I assume they are business men, I have noticed that they are often reading The Wall Street Journal, but they could be school teachers or truck drivers or who knows what. I don’t really know why but I find them to be just the teensiest bit mysterious.”
I realize it’s rather meta to post part of a prior blog post inside a current blog post but that is just the crazy kind of world we are living in these days.
Next swirly thought…I started listening to the audiobook version of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, “Born To Run”. Bruce is the narrator which was a very good choice. His voice, both his literal voice and his voice as a writer, is so distinct and specific it would have been jarring to have someone else do the recording. He is a storytelling musician and he is brilliant at connecting his very specific, personal experiences to a wider communal experience so that when you listen to his songs you immediately and easily place yourself inside the narrative of the song. Whether you are the guy racing in the streets or the girl being coaxed out for some illicit fun running around on a summer night…it doesn’t matter that you’ve never been to New Jersey, it doesn’t matter that your name isn’t Rosie, those songs are about you in some way. His gift is in the way he imbues those stories/songs with universal emotions, the specifics give you a way in, the emotions give you a way to make the story/song yours. I’ve only just started the book but he has a muscular relationship with words. There is something demanding about the language he uses, mostly I think it’s because he thinks in poetry, as though he is most comfortable speaking in lyrics. It makes sense, he doesn’t lose the narrative, but you have to listen along a beautiful and winding verbal path sometimes, then, suddenly, he’ll get to the emotional point in three short words.