Someday my pit will come

The heart wants what the heart wants.

My heart has decided it wants a blue pit bull.

When I searched Google images for a picture of a blue pit, I found one named Isis!

Isis

Courtesy of smphotographyca‘s tumblr

Pretty sure she belongs to someone.

In 2009, when our Isis was still alive, before I had any plans to write a memoir, let alone a dog memoir, I started a novel called Fight Like a Lady, intending it to be entirely unautobiographical. Therefore, the dog in the story was not a female German shepherd named Isis, it was a male pit bull named Apollo.

As I turn my attention back to this novel, which has evolved to feature several pit bull characters in addition to Apollo, my heart seems to think I cannot write another fictional scene until I get my hands on an actual pit bull.

Excepting Apollo, the pits in my novel are rescued fighting dogs. Don’t think I don’t know that I can’t very well go to a shelter and say, “Excuse me, I’d like to adopt a pit bull because I’m writing a book about dog fighting.”

Last week I saw a blue pit on Petfinder and got it into my head that she belonged with us. Perfect timing to bring home a new dog, I thought, since I plan to work from home until the Skagit River bridge is fixed.

Possibly, this was a diversion from actually writing anything… but I told myself it was just the boost I needed to get me back at the keyboard.

This pretty pitty turned out not to be the one for us, but I was torn at first. Neither Rob nor I fell in love with her right away, but I didn’t know for sure about Mia, after all, and what a mistake that would have been if we hadn’t brought her home with us.

There was less risk with this dog, though, because the rescue organization has a trial period, and she’s living in a loving foster home that already turned down some potential adopters. Not the same situation that Mia was in.

Fortunately, the decision wasn’t up to us, it was up to Leo and Mia. We let our dogs, one at a time, into the pit bull’s backyard and after a cursory sniff, they paid very little attention to each other. A few days earlier, Leo romped with a larger, darker male pit bull at the dog park. That’s really what we’re looking for: another playmate for our doggies.

We left, somewhat relieved that we hadn’t brought the wrong dog home.

Later that evening, I got a call that Bark and Lunge is a finalist in the Pacific Northwest Writers Association literary contest. Maybe that’s the boost I needed to get back behind the keyboard!

The Stud Book looks at breeders from all angles

Last week, I had the pleasure of attending an author event like no other.

Monica Drake, author of The Stud Book, was joined by her Portland writer buddies Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain for a night of flashing devil horns, glow-in-the-dark beach balls, and R-rated bedtime stories.

That's me in red and blue, dead center. Photo: Bellingham Herald.

That’s me, dead center, in red and blue. Photo: Bellingham Herald.

Everyone in attendance went home with a signed copy of The Stud Book, which I read over the weekend.

The book jacket had me at “Sarah studies animal behavior at the zoo.”

The Stud Book is a brilliantly written and totally engrossing exploration of breeding, mostly among a group of female friends in Portland, interspersed with fascinating details about animal husbandry.

Dark and absurdist in tone, the things that happen to these characters feel like they could really happen. I love it when an author really goes there. Even scenes I found off-putting (like Georgie’s husband at the bar while she struggles at home with a newborn) paid off in the end.

Generally, I’m weary of books that bounce between narratives about multiple characters. When you like some characters more than others, it’s frustrating to leave them behind for a less interesting storyline. In this book, I got wrapped up in all the characters, eager to see what would happen next.

As a rule, I like novels to have more resolution to their resolution than The Stud Book does. However, I will forgive Drake for this open-endedness because the book was so thought-provoking, I don’t mind filling in the blanks with what I think will happen next.

So smartly written. I look forward to reading more from Drake.

Hey! Free Books!

book box

The idea behind World Book Night is to get books in the hands of people who don’t read much, or at all, or who don’t have the resources to buy books.

When I applied to be a World Book Night giver, I requested books that are appropriate for young people, because frankly, I consider all youth to be at-risk youth. I was delighted to be chosen to give away Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.

I made prior arrangements to give half of my books to a youth program whose members “love to read,” but don’t necessarily have access to new books. The second half, I really wanted to share with kids who didn’t consider themselves readers. I drove down a street block usually crowded with juvenile delinquents. I’m not being bigoted here; I know for a fact that the regulars on these street corners have served time. Sadly, I didn’t see any of them at 6 pm on this Tuesday evening, so I headed for the skate park.

The House on Mango Street is appropriate for both genders, of course, but because the main character is a young girl, I approached three pierced skater girls.

“Do you want a free book?”

Skater Girl 1 shook her head. Why would anyone turn down a free book?

“It’s not religious or anything,” I offered, waving the brightly colored paperback in her face.

She shook her head again. I said, “You really have no interest in reading this book? It’s really good.”

Skater Girl 2 said somewhat snottily, “I don’t think this is the place to try to sell books.”

Exactly why I chose it. “I’m not selling them. They’re free.”

With an “Oh, in that case” shrug, Skater Girls 2 and 3 took books, and I guess peer pressure got the better of Skater Girl 1, because she took one too.

Jackpot, I thought, wondering whether I’d find the books later, lying at the bottom of the ramp with skateboard tracks across their covers. How can I avoid being like the cop who bought that homeless guy a pair of boots only to find the homeless guy barefoot again the next day?

I crossed the skate park, on my way to another group that included young women when a Skater Dude saw my cardboard box. “Is that ice cream?”

“No, it’s better. Free books!”

I gave copies to him and two other nearby dudes and overheard one say, “Since when do you read books?”

Yes, I was definitely in the right place.

Revisiting first novels

books

After a novel has had tremendous success, readers often seek out the author’s first books, which for whatever reason, escaped notice when originally released.

More than a decade before The Art of Racing in the Rain became a New York Times Bestseller, Garth Stein published Raven Stole the Moon. The jacket summary intrigued me: a Seattle woman grieving the loss of her five-year-old son returns to her ancestral hometown in Alaska where she is confronted by Tlingit spirits. In the afterword, Stein confesses that when the book was reprinted in 2010, the only thing he wanted to change was the overuse of swear words.

I wanted to enjoy Raven Stole the Moon more than I did. I didn’t relate to main character Jenna as much as I related to the dog narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain. Sometimes male writers have trouble realistically creating female characters (and vice versa, I’m sure). In some ways, the plot was predictable and both Jenna and her husband’s choices irritated me. The supernatural aspects to the story didn’t quite work for me either.

I expected to be similarly underwhelmed by Sharp Objects, the first novel of Gillian Flynn, whose Gone Girl was the psychological thriller of 2012. Instead, I found Sharp Objects to be the more satisfying of the two. Another very dark thriller, Sharp Objects is about a second-rate newspaper reporter returning to her hometown in Missouri to write about the possible serial murders of two young girls. I didn’t exactly relate to the heroine, Camille Preaker, who has pretty disturbing secrets of her own, but found myself rooting for her even at her batshit craziest.

Both books contained one sentence too many on the jacket summaries, telling me more than I needed to know before beginning the books. This is why I hardly ever read back covers before starting a book anymore. For example, the first nine words of the summary for Sharp Objects give something away that isn’t revealed until page 60 of the book.

Companion piece to Bark and Lunge

Leo reads Mia a story

Leo reads Mia a story about a brave German shepherd named Maggie.

Just finished Suspect, Robert Crais’ best work!

Obviously, I’m biased, because it’s about a German shepherd.

My mom introduced me to Crais’ Elvis Cole detective novels many moons ago. I’ve read them all and the standalones as well. They’re terrific.

This one really spoke to me. Not just because it’s about a dog. I’ve read a loooot of books about dogs the past several years. I have extremely high standards for dog books.

Suspect is the yin to the yang of my memoir about Isis.

bedtime story2

Remember the other day when I said I should be reading stuff that contributes to my growth as a writer? I was all set to read Dora: A Headcase when I got a box of books from my mom in the mail.

Both my mom and my stepmom told me I’d love Suspect, because it’s about a dog, so I thought I’d just whip through it before I got back to my “serious” reading.

Remember the other day when I said that whatever I’m reading is what I’m meant to be reading?

Suspect is about a cop who lost his partner in a shootout, and a military dog who lost her handler to an explosion in Afghanistan.

Some of the chapters are written from the dog’s point of view, but not in a cutesy way. Crais nails the way German shepherds feel about their people. (I know, because Isis told me.) He also depicts so accurately what it is like to live with a German shepherd, what it’s like to drive with one sitting astride the console between the seats, scanning the view out the front windshield.

Elvis Cole and Joe Pike are an extremely entertaining and compelling pair of detectives, but I can’t say that I relate to either of them. Cole is the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Detective,” after all.  He’s a trifle cocky. And as much as I love Pike, he’s kind of a sociopath. So it was refreshing to read about inexperienced K9 Officer Scott James.

I didn’t think this book would have anything to do with my work revising Bark and Lunge, but oh, how it does!

Do you ever read a book and think, “That character is so totally me, if I had superpowers”? Or “if I were a princess” … or “if I were a spy”?

Maggie, the German shepherd in Suspect, is so totally Isis if Isis had gone into the service. All of the things that Isis did that were scary, we see Maggie do as part of her job. I loved reading another author – a  suspense author – describe a German shepherd barking and lunging at a suspicious person, and how it feels to be on the human end of a German shepherd’s leash.

Crais also does a masterful job conveying Maggie’s body language and how she alerts to smells. Early on, I wished there were pictures. I wanted to see Maggie beyond the silhouette on the cover. Turned out, I didn’t need photos, because she is written so well. (Also, I just imagined her looking like a cross between Isis and Mia).

bedtime story3

What a tribute to German shepherds. I hope this is the first in a series of Scott and Maggie books.

What Possesses Me

possession

I was tempted to give up on my Possession read-along, but gave it one last push over the weekend, validating my own belief that whatever I’m doing (and therefore whatever I’m reading) is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing (or reading) at this exact moment. It all pays off in the end.

My friend Matej once relayed some advice he was given. To be a writer, you should read. All the time. And you should write. All the time. I like this advice, but sometimes feel pressured by it to make sure I’m reading things that contribute to my growth as a writer. Nothing strictly for pleasure. (Except it’s all for pleasure.)

At the end of last week, when I was very behind in my read-along, I considered setting Possession aside to read something that has more to do with my current writing life. A memoir. Something about dogs. Nothing on my Reading List felt like what I needed.

Taking this as a sign that I what I needed was to continue re-reading Possession, I threw myself into it, skimming (skipping) the poetry that vexed me.*

In Chapter 10, which consists entirely of letters between Randolph Ash and Christabel LaMotte, Ash confides:

I cannot bear not to know the end of a tale. I will read the most trivial things — once commenced — only out of a feverish greed to be able to swallow the ending — sweet or sour — and to be done with what I need never have embarked on.

The “need never have embarked on” part is what kills me. I’ve written before about whether to quit a book or stick with it. That line was another sign I should press on.

A few pages later, LaMotte writes:

I sent some of my smaller poems — a little sheaf — selected with trembling to a great Poet — who shall be nameless, I cannot write his name — asking — Are These Poems? Have I — a voice?

Poor LaMotte. To doubt her own talent and seek external confirmation. I don’t necessarily believe that To Be a Writer, One Only Need Write, but I will say that a writer ought to believe in her own work. Know what you are without having to ask.

I will follow up Matej’s advice with my own: Do the work. Write your book.

If the muse isn’t speaking to you: Take a nap. Eat a cookie.

And yet, to paraphrase Tom Robbins: Waiting for the muse is for amateurs. I’m a professional writer.

Speaking of muses, Ash confesses that LaMotte is his:

Well, you will say, you are too busy writing the poetry itself, to require employment as a Muse. I had not thought the two were incompatible — indeed they might even be thought to be complementary.

I love this line from both angles. On the one hand, I respect his image of LaMotte being too busy with her own work to be concerned with inspiring his. But he’s right, the two are not incompatible. She can be both his Muse, even knowingly so, and a Poet. It all goes back to my earlier statement. Everything she does is what she is meant to be doing. Time spent as his muse is not time spent away from being a poet. Time spent writing this blog is not time spent away from editing my memoir.

I am not capable of writing anything like Possession, but reading it energizes me as a writer.

*A final thought on poetry: I was on the verge of simply declaring that I don’t get poetry and that doesn’t make me a bad reader. But on Saturday morning, I caught the second half of Romeo + Juliet and was reminded how much I like Shakespeare. That’s poetry written about 250 years before the poetry in Possession is meant to have been written (although it actually was written by Byatt in the late 20th century). How is it that I get Shakespeare, but I don’t get the poetry in Possession? To properly appreciate the fictional poetry of Ash and LaMotte, I think I need to participate in a discussion led by an English professor. I tried reading it aloud to myself, but that did nothing for me. Then I tried reading it in Poet Voice, as heard by the folks at my local open mics. Nothing. I don’t think Victorian poetry is supposed to be read in Poet Voice.

Reading List

Since I joined Kim and Lu in their Possession read-along, I’ve been feeling somewhat overwhelmed with all the other books I want to be reading right now. Interestingly, Kim just posted her own list.

Here are the books on my immediate to-read list:

  • Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions: I am in so love with the cover of this book, I want a signed poster of it to hang on my office wall. I couldn’t wait for the paper version to come out, so I bought it for my Nook and immediately read my friend Pam Helberg‘s brilliant piece, “Body Language.” I’m going to try to read the rest of it in order, but might skip ahead to Cami Ostman‘s “Direct Line to God” and Susan Tive‘s “Tilapia Mikveh.”

beyond-belief

  • Dora: A Headcase: After Tele loaned me Chronology of Water, I was eager to read Lidia Yuknavitch’s novel about mental illness, so I picked up the paper version of this book at Orca Books in December. Sad to say, I haven’t had a chance to crack it open yet, but it’s sitting on my writing desk along with
  • In One Person: John Irving’s The World According to Garp is one of my favorite books, but I’ve fallen behind in reading his more recent works. My mom passed this one along to me in hardcover, no less, and
  • The Crying Tree: My friend Jolene loaned this to me last night, again in hardcover. I need to read this before the Chuckanut Writers Conference, because author Naseem Rakha will be among the faculty. Fortunately, the conference isn’t until June, so I have some time.
  • The New Hunger: I’m more than halfway through this e-novella. I read it when it’s easier to tote my Nook around than my copy of Possession. It’s the prequel to Warm Bodies, the novel on which the zombie rom-com (zom-rom-com?) is based.
  • The Forgotten Garden: This is the April selection for my book club, from which I have been delinquent for an entire year. I only have the preview on my Nook, and my return to book club will be determined by whether I get around to reading the preview and liking it enough to buy the whole book.
  • A Dog’s Purpose: This book has been on my Amazon wishlist for years. I put it there to research for my dog novel, long before I became a dog memoirist. Rob’s folks gave it to me for Christmas, so now it sits on my bedside table, waiting to be read.

As if I needed to add any more books to my list, the other day I came across mention of

  • Bright as the Sun: Creative nonfiction about a dog rescued from dog-fighting, which is the subject of the novel that I backburnered while writing Bark and Lunge.

My long-term to-read list is much more extensive. Have a look at it on Good Reads.

In my next post, I’ll tell you why I’m so happy I decided to give Possession one more push.

(Did ya all notice how I named-dropped some of my awesome writer buddies and provided links to their sites?)

Hedgebrook, where (almost) everyone pronounces my name right on the first try

My writer buddy Pam tipped me off about today’s salon at Hedgebrook. She also drove, which allowed me to indulge freely in the wine at the the poorly described “wine and cheese” reception, which included hummus, deviled eggs, and veggies, plus the wine and at least six kinds of cheese.

People, I can’t overstate the importance of having writer buddies.

That's me in the bottom picture, reading from Bark and Lunge

That’s me in the lower picture, reading from Bark and Lunge

Hedgebrook may well be the best kept secret for women writers in the greater Puget Sound area. On the one hand, I want to sing its praises to make it a less well-kept secret, but on the other, I don’t need any more competition for the residency. A thousand people applied last year for 40 spots. I might have better luck getting published and then getting invited to teach at a Salon, because the teachers get to spend a few nights in one of the hand-crafted cottages with loft sleeping areas, stained glass windows, pottery sinks, and surrounded by evergreens. (Also, maybe by then they’ll have a cottage that allows dogs… then again, it’s just as well. I don’t think Mia could climb the ladder to the bedroom.)

Because my primary genre at this moment is memoir, I signed up for the morning session with Erica Bauermeister, Turning Life into Memoir. In two hours, we worked through several prompts to inspire memoirists at all stages, which gave me fresh perspective I can use as I revise Bark and Lunge. Erica defined good memoirs as being “generous.” Don’t just talk about yourself, but share what you learned. Or at least be really funny. Erica also spoke a lot about working with her own writing group, which made me feel really good about the bond I’ve formed with my own.

Between workshops, we were treated to a sumptuous lunch of mixed greens with blue cheese, pomegranate seeds, and pecans, and choice of soup:  ginger sweet potato coconut curry or beef chili for the carnivores. Followed by an assortment of cookies and brownies, of which I ate too many. (Please don’t tell Bob Harper on me!)

Incidentally, whenever I fill out an evaluation form for anything that asks how they can improve whatever it is, I always write “snacks.” No need for that here.

Naturally the title, Good Metaphors Are Like Puppy Photos on Facebook (Easy to Like), initially attracted me to Laurie Frankel‘s afternoon workshop, and I followed that instinct because me write pretty someday. I knew I was in the right place when Laurie started the discussion with a slide of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, explaining how impressionist paintings themselves are metaphors. We had a lively time coming up with unique descriptions of rain, the taste of beef gristle, and how an old geezer might describe a headphone-wearing, videogame-playing kid.

My main takeaway from the session was the idea that metaphors don’t necessarily have to make something more “visible” to the reader. Sometimes they take you away from the literal meaning, but bring you closer to what the author is trying to express. Favorite example, and not just for the obvious reason: “The rain caressed her, licked her, like a mama dog cleaning her pups.” Laurie pointed out that the metaphor is a lie. That’s not really what the rain is doing. What the metaphor conveys is how the character feels about the rain. As a writer who struggles sometimes to write straight-up what my characters feel, I ought to explore this type of metaphor.

Revved up and inspired, I trotted down to the longhouse for the aforementioned wine reception. Pam and I both signed up to read from our memoirs at the open mic, something that would have terrified me a year ago. I planned to introduce my piece, an excerpt from the second-to-last chapter of Bark and Lunge, by saying that I was looking for critique buddies (fresh eyes), but I didn’t even have to do that, because they passed around a list where people could put their contact info and exactly that sort of request.

Afterward, a few people told me they could relate to my piece, and that they’d like to read the rest. And I was enormously proud of Pam, whose Sperm Runs went over huge.

All in all, a fantastic, energizing day!

Vampires should have fangs

Look, teen vampire romances and me, we go way back. Like all the way back to the original.

The Lost Boys.

(I’m totally, unapologetically Team Kiefer. Then and now.)

I know my horror genres. Hell, I took a class at USC toward my degree about Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy in film. (Best class ever.) I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and I attended lectures discussing the resurgence of the vampire genre to reflect society’s fears about AIDS.

Then there was Buffy. My favorite television show of all time. The best representation of a female superhero I’ve seen. A tortured romance between a human (with superpowers) and a vampire. A romance that could never last. None of this happily ever after because we’re both vampires so now we can live together forever bullshit.

Yeah, I’m talking about Twilight. After the first movie came out, I listened to the first book and a half on audio, and then gave up because they were so badly written, but I stuck with the movies. I just had to see how it ended.

I’ll come right and say it, I thought Breaking Dawn Part 2 was the best film in the series. Finally, Bella gets to do something other than sit around and watch boys fight over her. And you know what? She looked really hot as a vampire. I liked watching her rail against Jacob for imprinting on her daughter, and I liked the epic battle scene, which I’ve since learned is not in the book. Further evidence that the books suck.

Honestly, everything wrong with that movie is a problem created by the source material. Twilight has the worst vampire mythology ever. They don’t burn in sunlight, they have reflections, they don’t have fangs, they barely even struggle with cravings for human blood. Why call them vampires? Just make them some immortal mutant race, or something. Especially if you’re going to give them each distinct X-Men superpowers. This one can read minds. This one can see the future. This one inexplicably has electricity coming out of her hands.

About a year ago, I started watching The Vampire Diaries, and I’ll challenge anyone who calls it a “guilty pleasure.” It’s legitimately an awesome show. It kicks Twilight‘s ass because Elena has a personality. She thinks for herself. She doesn’t want to be a vampire, even though it would mean being with her hunky boyfriend 4-eva. Also, vampire heartthrobs Stefan and Damon actually struggle with what it means to be vampires. Plus they have fangs and cool veiny eyes when they feed.

My first ever vampire Halloween costume. My makeup was a nod to The Vampire Diaries, but now that I think about it, the red velvet hooded dress would be appropriate at a Volturi dinner party.

SPOILER: Elena became a vampire at the end of last season. I was pretty sure the first episode of the season was going to have her sitting around with the Salvatore brothers, doing a lot of talking about what this means, and how she feels and whether she should feed. But no, the episode quickly put all the characters into jeopardy with actual consequences. Fine storytelling, in my opinion.

The Vampire Diaries did find a way to cheat the whole vampire allergy to sun with magical “daylight rings,” which, whatever, I guess if you want to have vampires go to high school, they have to be able to go out during the day. But that just gives me that much more respect for Buffy, which managed to keep vampires reflection-free and in the dark.

So. Final thoughts on Twilight, and let us never speak of it again: I really wanted to see Bella eat that rock climber. Then I was sort of hoping she’d bite her baby.

 

Howloween Horror: Death by Undercoat

The instrument of your death is familiar, always just under the surface. As it spreads, you grow accustomed to its coating your furniture and car upholstery, gathering in tumbleweeds on the floor, and surrounding you like an aura. You feel like Pig Pen from Peanuts, if he owned a German shepherd and instead of dirt, he walked around in a cloud of dog hair.

Golden tufts poke out from beneath her sleek outer coat, coming out easily in your hands, leading to an obsessive-compulsive grooming ritual reminiscent of pulling the spines off a shedding pet iguana.

The undercoat is pervasive. Annoying, but harmless. Comes with the territory of loving your dog. Why not let her lie on his pillow? She fills the void when he gets out of bed.

While sleeping, you open your mouth for an intake of breath and draw in a wispy mass, once part of her. Gasping for air, you suck the undercoat deeper into your lungs. Without breath, your scream is silent and the dog beside you remains unaware that the world grows darker until finally you lay dead beside this precious creature who filled your heart with joy beyond measure, and your last thought before you die is, “No dog should ever outlive her person.”

Happy Halloween from Leo and Mia!

Angry Bird

Attack of the Angry Bird

Circus Bear