Wednesday, April 30, 2014

One-Star Review

Have you ever written to an author and told them you couldn’t make yourself read their book?
I have and, in this instance, it was an enlightening experience.

I read Night Must Wait, by Robin Winter. This is what I had to say about it.

Masterful. Authentic. Gritty. Gripping. Complex characters. Night Must Wait has all the elements to make this novel so much greater than just a war story. Winter's subtleties in depicting the characters, the setting, the basic elements of Africa add depth and dimension much appreciated by this reader.

I lived in Mali at the time and could not visit Nigeria because of the war, but did travel through Niger, Benin (then called Dahomey) and Togo. I saw enough and knew enough about the area to relate to much in Winter's book. I have great admiration for what she has accomplished with Night Must Wait.

Robin responded to that review. We exchanged emails and got to know each other as well as one can, electronically. I like her philosophy and attitude. Her writing is strong. I admire that. She’s a painter too, with some amazing visual art to her credit.

But what most impressed me, was her response to the note I had sent saying I couldn’t read her second book. The novel in question, Future Past, is set in a dystopian future. The first few chapters proved that her writing was as strong as ever, that her characterizations were clear and sharp, that she would handle this topic as well as she handled any other. That said, why couldn’t I read the book, write the review, and get on with my life? The story was simply too dark for me.

Robin did not take offense at my note. In fact she assured me that she understood my position and didn’t want anything to interfere with our fledgling friendship. She asked if I would consider writing a one-star review making my comments as a warning to other readers who might find this departure from her usual style offensive. I told her I couldn’t bring myself to do that as a one-star review would imply an unwarranted negativity to her work that I surely did not intend.
The one-star reviews I have read seem to be little more than blatant attacks on the author. To me, as a writer and a reader, there is a huge difference between slamming an author for the sake of slamming and offering an honest reaction which is what I tried to do.

Still, I’m in awe of her openness to and acceptance of a reader’s thoughts regarding a work that the reader didn’t like. I sit at my computer and wonder if I could be that receptive to similar remarks about one of my books. I would like to think the answer is yes.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Near death experience and writing

Being a pedestrian hit by a car means multiple injuries and critical condition, but it’s not all doom and gloom. Well, okay, 99.9% of it is, but there are a few bright humorous moments.

I know I’m lying on the ground in the middle of the road. “Where are my kids? Where are my kids?” I open my eyes and see my son bending over me.

“It’s okay, Mom. We’re right here.”

“Where’s my purse? Where’s my purse.”

I can’t see my daughter, but I hear her say, “It’s okay, Mom. I have it right here.”

So, you see, I have my priorities in the right order.

In the emergency room, I say, “I wear contacts.”

A nice young intern hovers over me. “It’s okay, we took them out.” He holds a contact lens case a couple of inches from my eyes. “See, I have them right here.” Maybe he’s not so nice after all. Or, maybe I’ve been babbling a little too much?

Weeks later I’m transferred from the trauma unit to the rehabilitation hospital. I lie in bed with casts from the top of my legs to the tips of my toes. My right arm has been so badly dislocated that it’s useless.

A nurse comes in to tell me I’ll be going to physio and occupational therapy. Physio first. I’m taken to a room that looks like something out of the Spanish inquisition. Weird contraptions on the walls, with belts and straps and hooks that menace the helpless patient.

“Mrs. Jones, what are you doing here?” says a bright young thing I recognize as a former junior high student.

“Sandra, what are you doing here?”

“I’m your physiotherapist.”

I look again at the instruments of torture. “Oh, God, I hoped you liked me.” Turns out we get along just fine.

One evening the tall skinny nurse’s aide who is my favorite staff member offers to give me a shower.

“How can we do that?” I ask gesturing to my casts. Not a problem for her. She wraps both my legs in green garbage bags, wheels me on a gurney to the shower room, proceeds with a shampoo, and sprays the top half of my body. Never has a shower felt so good.

She dries me off, combs my hair, and removes the garbage bags. No problem with the first one, but when she pulls the second one off, she’s left holding the bag and my cast. We stare at my leg. She quickly slides the cast back on. We don’t tell a soul, but we hardly dare look at each other after that afraid we’ll burst into laughter.

And one last … what shall I call it…? … incident. I’ve progressed to walking casts, and am sitting on the edge of my bed naked. I’ve given myself a sponge bath and am about to get dressed. I hear a sound behind me. I turn to see a young window washer grinning from ear to ear. There’s not a heck of a lot I can do. I smile and wave. He turns beet red.

And for the 99.9% of bad bits. They do not need to be relived.

What has any of this got to do with my writing? Not a heck of a lot. Or, perhaps, everything. At some point in the emergency room, I saw myself walking back across the street wearing different clothes. My spiritual friend said that I was bringing myself back from the brink of death. I didn’t see lights or tunnels or angels, but I did experience an incredible calm and I am no longer afraid of death.

If you asked me, I’d say I was an atheist, yet my novels are all about deities. If you asked, I’d say I don’t believe in heaven, yet my novels encompass a heaven. If, before I began writing, you’d asked me what I would write, I never would have said novels about gods controlling Earth, gods interacting with humans, gods trying to set things right.

I don’t know if my stories are shaped by cultural conditioning or if somewhere, deep inside, I do truly believe. Perhaps I’ll never know. That’s okay with me. I’ll continue to live my life as I know it should be lived and I’ll continue to write. What new novels might bring will likely, once again, be a surprise to me. 

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Le me introduce you to Uzo

I don’t remember how we met. Uzo reminds me that he was surfing Wordpress looking for authors, found my blog, and read some of the posts about Mali. He made a comment, I responded and a new friendship was born.

Uzo is a young Nigerian with a blog. He lives in Asaba, Delta State (South-South Nigeria), one of the oil producing states in his country. I’m an older Canadian with a blog. I live a world away (in so many respects) on Vancouver Island, Canada.

Uzo writes novels. I write novels. Uzo writes in English, which is not his first language. As he says, “English is quite a vast language. Every day is a learning process for me.”

We begin by talking about books. We both like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I’d read Half a Yellow Sun. He told me about Purple Hibiscus. Here’s what he had to say about that book. “Purple Hibiscus is a wonderful story. Adichie did a marvelous job there from the first person pov. Kambili's account is so real and reflects the life of a rich, caged Igbo child-woman during one of the military regimes in Nigeria.”  We’re both anxious to read Americanah.

Uzo says, “I’m a no-good writer. I'm just a wannabe like you guys call it.” On the contrary, Uzo is a powerful writer. Here’s a sample.

Although the Liberian war is now over, I cannot wish away the memories. There are nights in my sleep when I still find myself dressed in army uniform, AK-47 ready. On these nights I hear the voices of parents calling their children; others joking, shouting: “Where’s your bunker?” The air cracks and I hear the sounds of diving jets and stuttering LMGs. Fire, blood, bullets and bodies everywhere. Things soon simmer to normal as danger passes. People fill the streets, young boys and girls going on various errands. Then he appears in a blood-stained enemy uniform. His oily dark face is teased with abandon. He’s about to aim his rifle at me. In my dreams, he dies in different ways. I’m his killer. Something tells me that he is my son. But I’m too afraid to believe it.

I’m not a professional editor, but I’ve offered to help Uzo with his English as he’d be drained if he had to pay an editor, so files are sent back and forth. I’m careful not to tamper with the uniqueness of his voice.

Only the eyes that moved swiftly would see the legs that desperately sprinted across the farms and pathways. Thereafter thoughts would arise if the runner was after something, or rather, was the prey.

Beautiful, right? And yes, my life, as a person and as a writer, is richer for having met him. That’s the beauty of the Internet. 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Passion in Writing

Heaving bosoms? Throbbing members? Sorry, but that’s not where I’m going with this. I’m talking about the passion that drives us to do the things we do. In my mind passion is a must for authors. We have to have passion for the writing itself and passion for the things we write about.  
I also believe that our writing reflects our passions and they are revealed when we see them on paper. This came as a bit of a shock to me when I looked back at what I had written. My intent was to write an entertaining novel of magic and romance. I didn’t know it would grow to four books before the “happily ever after” ending. Nor did I know, when I began, that my books would touch on a number of serious world issues.
Rereading my novels is an exercise in discovery. I see that teaching and teens play significant roles in each. I was an educator and most of my career was spent working with grades seven to nine, so I guess that’s not so surprising. I criticize anyone who denigrates teaching. Teachers get the whole world started. And I refuse to accept the answer, “I’m just a teacher” to the question, “what do you do?” I believe all children should have a solid education base and I wish I could wave a magic wand to make it so. Yes, I’m passionate about education.
I also rant about war, the media, rich versus poor…. How could I not after having lived in Mali, traveled extensively in Africa, not to mention all the time I spend in Mexico? If I were to make a list of injustices, it would be a long one. The problems are much too grand for any one individual to solve, but we can impact the whole if we make our own little corner of the world a better place.
A recent survey asked people to rank the things they looked for in their fiction reading. I was surprised to see that “learning something” was number one. On reflection, I realize that the books I love best are ones that teach me something. In Domingos Angel I learned about conditions in Spain during Franco’s rule. In The Nine Lives of Charlotte Taylor I learned more about Canadian history. In The Winter Pony (an amazing story told from the horses’ point of view) I learned about the trek to the South Pole. The list could go on and on, but what is most interesting is that the books I learned something from are the ones that remain most vivid in my mind.
I, too, try to get readers thinking while they are being entertained. Perhaps that’s yet another passion. I do hope my stories will be vivid in readers’ minds long after they have finished reading them.