We’re all going on a Summer Holiday!

Jack gets back into the usual day late mode –

This is weird –

Everyone thinks I’ve just been on holiday/vacation in Scotland, whereas I was actually working most of the time. It was my annual small group tour and the culmination of much planning, checking and double checking. Despite all that I’m always aware that the paying customers expect a trouble free and enjoyable experience and for any particular preferences to be accommodated where possible. Add to that the inevitable unexpected emergencies and it all adds up to a fairly draining two weeks for me.

This year the unexpected hit quickly – one of the group had his case sent to London instead of Edinburgh by Aer Lingus and it took a week to finally get them re-united. Then I discovered I’d wrongly assumed that he and a female customer were a couple, so the hotel rooming lists had to be quickly adjusted. Luckily the agency we use for our hotel bookings were rapidly on the case and got things sorted at very short notice!

When I first started doing this twelve years ago I was very naïve and didn’t really consider that anything could go wrong. But as time has gone on, I have become more and more nervous ahead of each tour, partly because almost every year something does!

Despite all this it’s the weather that really makes the tour and we were very lucky this time, with little rain and increasingly sunny and warm conditions.

hat pic

Everyone except Beth and Brandon celebrated the 4th together!

Now that I’ve been home for a few days and just about over the jet-lag, Wendy and I are finally on a real vacation and staying, along with our friends Barbara and Oliver from Scotland, with other friends David and Susan in NC. Tomorrow we head to the beach in SC to meet up with yet more friends – Beth and Brandon – for a much anticipated week.

Check back next week for more of my real vacation – – –

PS – David drove the bus in Scotland and we visited Barbara and Oliver at their house in Edinburgh just before the group tour started – small world!

 

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The Monday Book: ME MYSELF AND HIM by Chris Tebbetts

Sorry for the missing Monday books, folks. Jack and I have been everywhere but home for May and June. One of the fun places I was brought this next Monday book. I met Betsy Kepes as a fellow workshoper at Kettle Pond Writing Conference in the Adirondacks. She offers this interview with Chris Tebbetts, a writer from Vermont whose book Me Myself and Him is out July 9. Enjoy!

me-myself-and-himI think this is your first YA? How many books have you published before this? And I think this is your first solo book?

This is my second YA. In 2006, I co-authored a book called “M or F?” with Lisa Papademetriou. It’s a contemporary romantic comedy, with a Cyrano-inspired plot line, and two protagonists telling the same story from their own perspectives. We each took one voice and wrote their respective chapters. My protagonist is gay, and his sexuality is not the problem of the novel.

This is my 21st book (not counting the ghostwriting I’ve done), and not my first solo venture. That was a fantasy adventure series called THE VIKING – my first novels, but those were work for hire, after which I fell into co-authoring, and have been only co-authoring since THE VIKING, until now. So technically, this is my YA solo debut, and also the first book I’ve ever published in the usual way (if there is such a thing) – by writing it with no contract, and then selling it through my agent. It’s been an unusual trajectory, compared to other author friends, but one that has suited me well.

The MC is Chris and you’re a Chris–I think some autobiography is here? Ohio too for both the real and imaginary Chris. 

The prologue of the book, where Chris falls and breaks his nose, is essentially autobiographical, written from the memories of when that happened to me at age 19, in Ohio where I grew up.

This character and I have a lot in common, and there are emotional truths throughout that come from my own experience – like being the gay third wheel to my straight friends — but the two story threads that flow from the inciting incident, and most of the plotted events of the story, are fictional inventions.

As you noticed, a lot of the book is about lies, and the nature of truth, and (my personal fascination) the way in which two seemingly conflicting ideas can both stand up against one another. People often assume that writers are their characters, and it was interesting to me to tackle a story where that was closer to being true and untrue at the same time, in a more direct way than usual.

One idea I picked up in my research was the suggestion that the opposite of a profound truth is often another profound truth. For instance: Life is beautiful—and—life is a suffering. Both completely true. Or: We are physical beings./We are spiritual beings. Both completely true. And etc. That notion, of the yin/yang of all things, fascinates me, including the yin/yang symbol itself, which is made up of two pieces that are simultaneously identical and opposite to one another. A lot of the writing of this story flows from that fascination.

Did you have the idea for the two plot book from the begin or did that evolve as you wrote it? 

It evolved as I wrote it. The original story was going to be solely about Chris going to California to live with his dad for the summer, but as I drafted those early chapters, the pages just kept coming and coming, and Chris kept not leaving Ohio, for reasons I couldn’t even understand. It was as though the story itself was reluctant to change locations, and eventually, I decided to listen to that impulse, and respond to it. The parallel realities in my narrative emerged from there.

I’m also a fan of the movie Sliding Doors, which does the same thing. That was an additional inspiration for me, once I realized I might want to explore more than one outcome from the same incident.

Do you think teens are especially interested in “What if…?”s? Certainly Chris is!

“What if?” is a huge interest of mine. I give a lecture about creativity and fear (among other things) where I talk about my own revelation, that “What if?” is great for storytelling, but it’s also fertile ground for personal anxiety. I’m someone who has suffered from panic attacks, and for me, that kind of anxiety always stems from “what if?” questions. What if the elevator stops between floors? What if the house catches on fire? I have to wonder if my tendency to ask “What if?” in a storytelling context has some relationship to my tendency to ask the question in a more worrisome way. So while it’s tempting to wish away some of that tendency toward anxiety in my life, I know that it’s also part of what makes me a storyteller.

I like how the two stories become more and more intertwined as the book goes on. And how what seemed the “bad outcome”– having to leave Ohio as a punishment– generates the best outcome for Chris. The problems of lying are central here and what lies can lead to. It makes the book complex and interesting. I think of the lies most teens make– myself included– and that teen readers will find this fascinating. Did you ever lie as a teen and have the outcome be radically different from what you thought it would be?

I wasn’t a big liar as a kid or teen – not compared to some of my friends. But what this makes me think about is the way in which I was gay at that age, but without being out, even to myself. There was always an element of both conscious and unconscious suppression, as I tried to fit into the (straight) mold I thought I was supposed to fit into, and as I figured out who I was. So in that sense, my teen years were marked by their own kind of lie.

Also, to answer your question, as I did finally grapple directly with my sexuality, there was a lot of fear that my life would be a certain way, that some kinds of happiness would be unavailable to me, that I would lose friends and family — none of which turned out to be true. So again, that was a kind of lie I told myself, even if I didn’t know it was untrue at the time.

A lot of this book is about the relativity of truth. If I believe someone’s lie, and if I’m never corrected in that assumption, then that lie becomes my truth. Or if two people have two different understandings of a given issue, aren’t both of those understandings true, for them? I don’t have hard answers for this kind of thought experiment, but it’s one I particularly like to engage in.

I’m curious why you included Gina, the Born Again character. She has a parallel in Mitch, though we don’t find out much about his religious background. Gina is an enigma for Chris, and a bit for me too.

The original inspiration for this story came from my interest in the intersection of science and religion. At some level, physics, like religion, is about looking for the one truth that rules supreme over everything else. In physics, we have things like the so-called god particle, or the Theory of Everything. In Christianity, we have God himself.

That’s why I gave the physicist father character a secretary who was born again, to let my protagonist Chris be exposed to both sides of that dichotomy. Chris is neither a physicist nor a religious person—for that matter, neither am I—and yet, I’m interested in both.

Gina, my born again Christian character, was also inspired by a co-worker I had at Friendly’s, back in my teen years. At that time, I was very judgmental about religion and religious people. This co-worker really changed some of my thinking about that – not by making me any more or less religious, but simply by showing herself to be a funny, thoughtful person whose life was about more than just that one thing. We joked around at work, played racquetball, went out for food…. Nothing earth shattering, and I’m pretty sure she had no idea of the impact it had on me, but now here she is, showing up in my story. That may reflect some of the enigmatic quality you saw in her. It was important to me that Gina be neither vilified nor celebrated for her religion.

Did you come up with the idea for the charts and boxes and diagrams from the start? It is also a delightful way to create “choices”. 

Thanks! Yes, those charts and boxes were part of this novel from the very beginning. That just happened in a creatively organic way, as a reflection of how my own mind operates, and how I often organize my thoughts. From there, I suppose they “took” in the writing for exactly the reason you mention – it was a great way to explore the various possibilities of any given choice, or fork in the road.

Chris has a very difficult time dealing with his father. I’d say this is quite typical (I’m thinking of my two sons and their father. It wasn’t/isn’t as bad as the Chris/father scenario but there is lots of wariness related to being “judged”.) I find this a very strong part of your book, especially the scene after Chris stays out all night with Swift and then he and his dad have the “breakfast talk”. Do you think all parents and teens live on different planets?

If I had to pick a yes or no answer to that question, I’d have to say yes. It’s so common to detach from one’s parents as we swing into adolescence, and (as was the case for me, starting around fourteen) to want as little to do with them as possible. I’ve certainly never kept nearly so many secrets from my parents as I did in high school.

That said, a lot of teens have great relationships with their parents, and I’d say that was true for me as well. (Can you see a theme here? I’ve never been one to confidently stick to yes/no thinking. I’m a master of shades of grey. ☺).

It was interesting to write a character who was so much like me, in so many ways, but not in every way. Specifically here, I mean, to write a character who detests his father as much as Chris does in the book. For my own part, I adored my father. He was an amazing man and one of the most well-liked people I’ve ever known. I honestly am not sure where that element of the story came from for me, and I’m curious about what readers will make of it, including readers who knew my dad.

What was it like to write the two parallel stories? Did you write one first and then the other, or write them simultaneously?

I wrote the whole thing in chronological order and in the alternating chapters as they appear in the finished book. Part of the fun (but also the challenge) was in fitting together all the puzzle pieces in a way that allowed the reader to learn things from one half of the story that inform their understanding of what’s going on in the other half, even if the characters themselves are limited to what they know within the confines of their own, singular reality.

I love it that this is a book about a gay teen boy but that is not the central part of this book. Yes, a character falls in love for the first time, that is what matters. Did you have access to any books like this when you were a teen? 

Thanks for saying that. It was definitely part of my thinking. I have one other YA book with a gay protagonist, and one of the driving ideas behind that book was to have a young gay character whose problem in the story is not his own sexuality. In ME, MYSELF, AND HIM, you don’t even learn that Chris is gay until maybe page 75, and that was very much on purpose.

Ultimately, I hope there’s room on the bookshelf for books that tackle the difficulties of queer identity for young people in this world, as well as books about what I call incidentally queer characters – where their sexuality isn’t invisible to the reader, but where their stories are about something else altogether. Right now, I’m reading BLACK WINGS BEATING by Alex London. Next up is DARIUS THE GREAT IS NOT OKAY by Adib Khorram. Those are two good examples of the kind of book I’m talking about.

As for my own teen experience, I’m old enough that those kind of societal cues were few and far between when I was a teen. My first exposure to gay characters came more through tv shows and movies than through the books I was reading. The landscape has changed significantly over the years, and I’m glad for the more diverse reputation you see in books these days, even if we still have a ways to go there.

 

 

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Should Auld Acquaintance – – –

Jack is in Scotland and Wendy is – – somewhere – – so Jack sent this by carrier pigeon.

Back more than twenty five years ago I helped my folksinger friend Ed Miller with his then new music tour of Scotland. Ed lives in Austin, Texas and started bringing over thirty five fans, touring them around Scotland and having them joined each day by a local musician with particular knowledge of the local history and culture. I performed that function when they were in Fife each year. That finished when Wendy and I moved to the US, but it gave me the idea for my annual small group tours.

On Ed’s tours he always worked with a tour guide called Charlie Hunter, who dressed in his kilt, herded his charges off and on the coach in a timely manner.

Imagine my surprise when my tour was in Melrose on the second day of our tour and I saw a familiar kilted figure standing beside a large coach parked next to our minivan.

ed charlie

As we exchanged greetings Ed appeared as well!

Thinking that this was a ‘one off’ coincidence we bade them farewell and continued on our way. A few days later we pulled into the parking lot behind the ‘Green Welly’ at Tyndrum and who should be there as well – – -! Much joking and then another farewell. We set off for Glencoe and, as usual pulled into the visitors’ center. An hour later so did Ed and Charlie in their now familiar coach! Once again it was farewell and we headed for Oban and the ferry to Mull.

ed

The following day we headed down through beautiful Mull to the Iona ferry and I waited with our minivan while the rest of our group went across on the foot ferry. I eventually wandered up the line of parked coaches and saw a now very familiar one! It turned that they would be staying in the hotel next to ours in Oban that night, so the following morning we once again bade them farewell – only to meet them again at the Green Welly! With them for a couple of days was another old friend – Margaret Bennett!

margaret B

Our next stop was at Killin at the start of Loch Tay on our way to see Europe’s oldest living tree at Fortingall. As I guarded our minivan at Killin a very familiar coach pulled up – – –

iona

The Iona ferry on a beautiful day!

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The Monday Book: Race to the Pole – Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Jack is the guest reviewer this week –

This is the story of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the south pole in 1912.

Scottgroup

I started reading this and almost immediately thought I wouldn’t like it!

Fiennes is clearly an upper crust member of the British establishment with an inflated sense of his own importance. All through the book he compares himself to Scott and a goodly part of it is about his own travels to the south and north poles.

But despite all that he managed to suck me in!

Fiennes really did do good research and approaches the more contentious issues very fairly. He also goes outside of the central story to get different points of view. This was also where I had some questions, though. Roald Amundsen, a Norwegian, beat Scott by a month to the pole and is presented here as somewhat devious and a bit of a cheat. I see here Fiennes buying into the old story of the ‘above board’ British against those dastardly foreigners.

What is also well explained is the context of Scott’s doomed attempt – British exceptionalism, Government under-funding, class divisions, civilian/service divisions, limited meteorological knowledge etc. What also comes through clearly, though, is Scott’s abilities as a leader. He made difficult decisions, led by example and persuaded his team to incredible feats of endurance!

So my take away from this book is that Scott really was a doomed hero and Fiennes is a bit of a narcissist!

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Unner ablow the Grund

Jack gets comfortably under the wire for a change –

So, here I am working in the front yard regularly as we get into spring and summer and I keep seeing this odd circular grey cover of some kind in the ground. It looks like it might be over a valve or a meter for water or gas or maybe something electrical.

pot1

I look at it from time to time and puzzle over it. It has four small holes that might be for screws holding it down. But they’d be full of dirt so not much chance of unscrewing it. Maybe I could get a lever under the edge to see if it would come up? But what if it really is containing something important that I might break?

It sits right next to one of our inherited ‘Narnia’ style lampposts and I wondered if there was some kind of connection. But the power cable to the lamppost, which had run along the side of a now departed fence, completely bypassed the mysterious cover.

I continued to step gingerly round it over the weeks, puzzling and debating.

As I dug a trench to bury the lamppost cable I kept pondering but couldn’t confidently come to any conclusion.

Examining the object I was able to decipher a manufacturer’s name – time for Dr Google! All I could find was that they were best known for making garden pots, planters and hanging baskets. Now it was time to post pictures on Facebook to see if anyone else could help. The suggestions ranged from a pot stand to a cover for a water quality analyzer!

Still nervous I decided to see if I could gently raise it enough to see if there was anything underneath. Grabbing my trusty spade I set to! Yes – it did extend quite a few inches down into the ground. I was able to finally get a grip under the edge and lever it up and out. What emerged was a shallow dish that what I think must be a water receptacle in which to sit a planter. Why it had been turned upside down and pressed down into the ground I have no idea. There was nothing except the ground under it!

pot2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My takeaway from this?

Google and Facebook sure make life complicated at times –

But congratulations to our friend Annie Jane for getting it right!

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The Monday Book: VINEGAR GIRL by Anne Tyler

This week’s review comes from crowd favorite Paul Garrett –

anne tyler

Dr. Battista, an obscure researcher of autoimmune disorders, has been slaving away in obscurity, almost forgotten by his employer, Johns Hopkins University. Now he feels he is on the verge of the breakthrough he has been searching for all his professional life. There is only one problem: Pyotr, his research assistant and right arm is about to lose his visa and be forced to return to the Eastern European country of his birth. Dr. Battista is terrified that all his work will go down the tubes (pun intended? Maybe, maybe not.) without Pyotr there. He hatches a plan to save his project and his lab assistant. All that has to happen is for Pyotr to marry Dr. Battista’s daughter.

Nobody thought to ask his daughter.

Kate Battista is a tall lanky girl approaching what used to quaintly be called spinsterhood. Almost thirty with no love interest and no prospects, she spends her days gardening, working as a teaching assistant at a preschool and looking after her widowed father and younger sister. She is awkward socially and has a habit of saying exactly what is on her mind, to the detriment of her relationships with just about everybody, especially the parents of the little crumb crunchers who are entrusted to her care.

Anne Tyler’s novel Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, 2016) Is a nod to Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew as the poor and equally awkward Pyotr, along with the help of his boss try to woo the standoffish Kate.

Tyler is one of the few authors (along with Kurt Vonnegut) who can make me laugh out loud.  Her tragicomic style is on full display as the characters careen from one mishap and plot twist to the next.  The rehearsal dinner scene alone makes the book worthwhile.

Unlike in T.C. Boyle’s preachy Tortilla Curtain, Tyler avoids the controversies of the American immigration system, preferring to stick to the Shakespearian template and leave the intellectual heavy lifting to others.

This is a small volume for Tyler, but she manages to pack it full of her normal cadre of oddballs, miscues and mishaps. The story ends with an odd (for today’s audience) soliloquy on the plight of men in society.

The book’s brevity may be the only drawback, as Tyler felt the need to add an extensive epilogue. Brief or not, Tyler fans won’t be disappointed.

 

 

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Money, Money, Money – – –

Jack gets over the line with time to spare – –

caveat

I’m a real curmudgeon right now! Because we moved house we have also changed banks and that meant carefully checking that all automatic payments got changed over. That proved very difficult as some were obvious but many weren’t! Being paranoid about such things I ran both accounts on the overlap and kept checking the old one in case I’d missed anything.

Lo and behold –

We had a problem in the new house with our thermostat so I googled to find advice which took me to a website called ‘Just Answer’. For just five dollars they would fix the problem. They didn’t fix the problem but what they did do was lock me into a monthly twenty-eight-dollar subscription whether I had any other questions or not!

The only reason I discovered Just Answer’s cunning ruse was because I was checking the old account.

Because I was in that mode I asked Wendy about a medical bill we had for six hundred dollars, so she phoned her insurers and found it was a ‘mistake’.

But there’s more – –

Wendy has been selling stuff on E-Bay and was surprised by her latest bill from them. She checked her account and found that if your item doesn’t sell, they automatically re-list it and charge you for both. Worse still they continue re-listing and charging unless you cancel.

I’m still not convinced I’ve caught everything on our old bank account –

Then there’s Verizon, who sent us bills that included third party services we neither needed nor asked for!

There’s some sneaky folk out there that have probably gotten a big bonus for their sneaky ideas, folks. Caveat emptor.

Sometimes, even when you don’t caveat, you still have to emptor!

 

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