Thursday, April 9, 2020

Pandemic Writing

Southernmost Point, Key West

LUCY BURDETTE: I was interviewed last week about how people are coping with the stay-at-home orders, and at the end the reporter said: “This will all be wonderful fodder for another book in your series!” And I thought, good lord, no, who will want to read about this once we’ve lived through it? I remember there were a spate of books about 9-11 and its aftermath, and I have the impression that most of them sank like stones.

But the reporter persisted a bit, asking how my Key West characters would react to pandemic conditions. So I imagined Hayley Snow buzzing around deserted Key West picking up takeout--though I couldn't picture her reviews getting any traction. And probably her mother, who runs a catering business, would be cooking for people in need. Houseboat Row, I thought, would probably stay much the same. The boats are in close proximity so the neighbors could still sit out on their decks (with masks?) and gab. Hayley would be super-protective of her 80-something roommate, Miss Gloria. But a murder during the epidemic? For what reason? Toilet paper hoarding? Inadequate social distancing? Counterfeit Florida Keys re-entry stickers?

I honestly can’t imagine wanting to write about this situation, nor can I imagine wanting to read about it! What about you Reds, can you picture any of your characters rising to this occasion? 

JENN McKINLAY: This is a very timely question since I’m writing about a character in next summer’s WAIT FOR IT, who is homebound for various reasons. Now that I’m in the thick of the manuscript, I have other characters thinking, Why would you settle for being stuck at home? Didn’t we get enough of that last spring? That is the complete reference I will make to this ver horribilis - to paraphrase Queen Elizabeth’s reference to 1992. I’m hoping it’s just the spring and not the whole year! I most definitely do not want to read about quarantine once we’re done with it. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Such a deeply fascinating question--and I keep envisioning every writer crafting tales of murder mysteries in quarantine, and rom-coms where the people meet cute in masks and then have a big reveal, how facial recognition will be useless, and meetings missed, and people vanishing and no one notices, and and and and all kinds of plot devices ...but hey. if all goes as we all deeply hope, I’ve got to say I do not want to read that. 
I know of authors who are setting their books-in-progress in 2019, and that’s one solution, I suppose. I love Jenn’s one reference idea, because--we can’t ignore it.

But my upcoming book, THE FIRST TO LIE, which comes out in August, just saying, has no references, of course.
Thinking about this a bit more--the books I’m reading now were “before” and they don’t make me think: oh no, don’t shake hands! It’s the world of the book.

HALLIE EPHRON: I don’t know about my characters rising to the occasion when I’m barely able to do it myself. I keep thinking, “when will it be over?” And that’s not what you want a reader to be thinking while reading your book. 

Funny, what Hank said, because right now I’m reading your new Key West food mystery, THE KEY LIME CRIME, Lucy, and Hayley keeps hopping on and off her motorbike and toodling around town and I keep thinking, Wait, wait, she can’t do that… can she? And I love it that she CAN and I can follow her vicariously when in real life our wings are clipped.

RHYS BOWEN: I’ve already tackled this subject in last year’s book THE VICTORY GARDEN that was set in WWI and then the following flu epidemic. I hadn’t realized until I researched that the flu killed up to a hundred million people worldwide. It was harrowing to write about because the chances of surviving were slim. But my story was about rising to the occasion, how women took over tasks and did jobs they never believed they could do. I like to think that both Molly and Lady Georgie would not shirk from playing their part, going what was required. But as to writing about this…. I’m so glad my books are set in the past!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I am thinking about this, too. My books have always floated fairly loosely in time, except for a couple that have concrete time references (which I now pretty much regret.) The WIP is set just six weeks after the end of A BITTER FEAST, so would that be November, 2019, or November, 2020, or some unplaceable autumn? I'm going for the latter, although by the time the book is finished I may have to rethink that. I can't imagine wanting to write about this time, and I rather like the idea of my characters' lives going forward in an alternate virus-free world.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I have the same reaction to Hank - I can see all sorts of plot possibilities to various aspects of the crisis. After all, there's a whole genre of end-of-the-world books. (They never, however, seem to feature protagonists sitting around endlessly binging Netflix - even the apocalypse in this timeline is the worst.)

I also agree with Lucy - it's going to be a while before anyone will be able to get any traction with fiction about the pandemic. It takes time, sometimes a long time, to get enough distance to turn pain into art. But mentions of the pandemic? We'll have to drop them in, at least those of us writing in the present day. The great novel about the 1918 pandemic, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, was published 20 years after the events it covers, but countless novels written before that had men who had been in the war and women who had lost family to the influenza. 

So I can picture Russ recalling having to struggle to get his officers masks and gloves, or Clare telling someone about her church's efforts to keep the food kitchen going, but only if it's all safely in the past, and we can get on with a nice, simple, wholesome murder.

Reds, would you want to read about this pandemic in the future? And do have your copy of Julia's new book yet?

Lucy scores Hid from Our Eyes

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Covid-19: Turning into my Dog by Marty Krasney

LUCY BURDETTE: I belong to an alumni writers email list, and last week one of our members posted a poem about how his dog is handling the Covid 19 crisis. I loved it so much that I asked him if I could share it with you. And he agreed...

Dexter (with Marty) ready for a walk in the rain

"Covid 19 - Turning Into My Dog" by Marty Krasney

Dexter's doing what Dexter always does.
That mostly means napping at one of ten
of his favorite places around the house,
or, if not quite napping, seeking comfort.
Top of the list, the bed in the guest room,
usually the bolster near the headboard,
unless there's a sunlit patch further down.
He likes to lie on his back on the couch
in the booklined den with the Tibetan
rug. Dexter's a Tibetan Terrier;
does he remember from prior lifetimes?
There's a narrow place next to the toilet
which he leaves quickly if I come to pee.
Surprising he likes it on the cold tiles;
that too might be linked to his heritage.
They were temple dogs when not herding yaks.
The old green leather chairs in the kitchen,
especially when someone's visiting,

(though that's now just a memory for us both)
or I'm reading, and there's something to eat.

All night, the chair near the TV upstairs
except when he hears animals outside
and runs back downstairs to investigate.
That's when he barks to say this is my house.
then stops off in the kitchen for a drink.

Moving from place to place, from there to here.
Kind of settled but not really settled.
Paying attention though not clear to what.
Maybe aware that death comes for everyone;

meanwhile, making a life, around and through.
Warmth and connection, blessed solitude.

Today pretty much the same as yesterday.

With luck tomorrow will be like today.
That's been Dexter's response to the virus.
And starting this past week, it's mine now too.

Lucy again: I hope you love that poem as much as I do. Now I'm desperate for a Tibetan terrier. Do you have an animal in your life who's offering survival lessons for these times? Or a poem or book that's helping you through?

Here's another lovely poem John and I saw posted on the lawn of the courthouse in Key West on Sunday:

If you think you could use more poetry in your life, here are a couple of resources. Pome sends you a poem every day--some days they speak to me and I save them to read again, and others wash by.

Also the poetry Foundation publishes a poem a day:

As does

About Marty: Marty Krasney served as an executive, adviser and board member for NGOs In education, social justice, civic engagement and leadership development, starting in 1969 at the Woodrow Wilson foundation in Princeton and mostly ending in 2018 with the transfer to a permanent home at the University of Virginia of Dalai Lama Fellows. He helped found that program and lead it for a decade, identifying and developing young contemplative social justice activist from all over the world and engaging them in a lifelong secular community addressing major global challenges. 

He has had stories published in half a dozen journals, most prominently five in Arete, published at Oxford University. He has devoted significant energy to poetry only in the last five years. He’s had pieces published in Innisfree, and is at work now on two book-length narrative pieces. 

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Stepping Out Into a New World with HID FROM OUR EYES

Virtual Event: Julia Spencer-Fleming and Jenn McKinlay in conversation on Facebook Live, tonight, April 7, at 8pm EST!
Hosted by the Poisoned Pen Bookstore; information here.

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Reader, they've published it.

After the better part of a decade, disease, death, drop outs and dysfunction, HID FROM OUR EYES is finally, finally here.

In the middle of a worldwide pandemic. Yay?

Here's the thing: I've been looking at my novel for the first time since finishing the (ugh) copyedits back in July, and I'm starting to notice an odd pattern. This book has something to say about our present moment.

"But Julia," I hear you say, "Isn't it about three identical murders taking place decades apart, and the three police chiefs working the cases?" Well, yes, that's what the plot is. But a novel is always about a lot more than the plot. Here's what I saw on my reread of HID FROM OUR EYES that I see differently in April, 2020:

1. Penny wise, pound foolish. At the end of the previous Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne book, the leaders of Millers Kill decide to put to the vote the question of whether or not to dissolve the Miller Kill Police Department and replace it with patrols by the State Police, saving thousands and thousands of dollars. But through the eyes of police chiefs Harry McNeal, Jack Liddle, and Russ Van Alstyne, we can see how much care, attention and dedication each man puts into his job.  As Russ points out to a voters group, the local cops on the beat stop annoyances before they become problems. 

Sort of like how stockpiling masks, PPEs and ventilators before they're desperately needed means having them available without paying premium marked-up prices. (To say nothing of toilet paper.)

2. Do we really want those people here? In HID FROM OUR EYES,  we get to see the Millers Kill area summer people up close and personal - folks with gorgeous mountain houses who spend money on local businesses and services - but who may not have the interests of the year round residents at heart. Places like Millers Kill - and Maine, where I live - have a love-hate relationship with seasonal visitors, and these days, the feeling is tipping toward one end of that spectrum, as people with second homes in more bucolic areas flee, not unreasonably, from urban areas that have become hot spots for Covid-19. 

In Maine, we've had incidents of petty vandalism and harassment, as natives fear people "from away" bringing contagion with them. In Millers Kill, the relationship between flatlanders and locals takes a darker turn... which, hopefully, we won't see in real life.

3. Blaming the outsider. The three murders in HID FROM OUR EYES may be decades apart, but they take place at the same time of year. One group that comes up again and again in the investigations are the carnival workers who arrive for the county fair each August - closed off, looking down on the marks, with their own lingo and mores. Each of the police chiefs sets the carnies high on their list of persons of interest. Yes, they might be right. But the first reason the ticket-takers, roustabouts and game tenders fall under suspicion is because they're outsiders - a society emphatically set apart from both the townspeople and the second-home crowd.

I don't think I need to point out the parallels in our country today. Bad things start to happen, and it's the fault of the Chinese, or Asians generally, or Italians, or all those people south of the border. They must be behind the problems. Why? Because they're not us.

4. The heroism of ordinary lives. We've been talking about this at JRW over the past couple of weeks - how the nurse next door, your mailman, the kid delivering take-out and the cleaning crew disinfecting the grocery store have become heroes in many people's eyes. Ordinary folks, just doing their job, and in so doing, enabling the rest of us to stay home, flatten the curve, and save lives. Scared sometimes, and worried, and stressed, but still showing up.

I think of my characters like that. The three police chiefs aren't heroes. They aren't climbing any higher on the career ladder. Their goals are to do the job for their small town, one day after another, until retirement. Reverend Fergusson and the people at her church don't think of themselves as heroes, either - they're focusing on helping others in small ways; fixing a meal, listening to a story, offering shelter. And despite pain and PTSD and problems big and small, they all show up, every day, the very act of doing so making the world a better place.

Honestly, dear readers, I kind of wish I had a funny, light-hearted book to offer you, or a thrilling escape into the past, or adventures in lovely and exotic locales. (Lucky for you, you can get those and more from my blog sisters!) But this is what I write, one small, economically depressed corner of the real world, and so this is what I give you. I hope you take a look, and maybe buy it from your local independent bookstore (they ship!) or check it out of your library (librarians are some of those ordinary heroes, working to put ebooks and audio books in as many hands as possible.)

And may we all enjoy better days in which to read and write.

New York Times bestselling novelist Julia Spencer-Fleming took up writing while still a stay-at-home mother, creating Clare Fergusson, first female priest in the small Adirondack town of Millers Kill. Her series has won or been nominated for every American mystery award available, including the Edgar, the Anthony, and the Agatha. HID FROM OUR EYES is her ninth book. You can follow her on Facebook or Twitter.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Modern Day Heroes

Virtual Event Tonight: Join Red Julia Spencer-Fleming in conversation with Maine author Paul Doiron at 7PM EST! Find out more at the Print Bookstore Facebook or sign up directly here!

LUCY BURDETTE: I’m sorry to be nudging us to talk about more COVID-19 subjects, but it’s hard to think about much else isn’t it? I manage to get away a bit if I get into my manuscript (ha! As if!) or if reading a really good book or watching a good TV show, but then the TV and online news drags me back. So I started thinking about how some people rise to a terrible challenge in a great way and others...don’t. We have a new set of heroes these times and I thought we could chat about that. Here are a few of mine… The first is Governor Andrew Cuomo. I admire how he’s handled the burgeoning crisis in New York-- his calmness, his candor, his caring as he tries to lead through this impossible time with his own state at the epicenter, and sharp politics to navigate.

I absolutely loved this sentence from "What the ‘Cuomo 2020’ Fantasy Says About 2020 Reality: by Matt Flegenheimer: (NYT) because it described me so perfectly:

"His is a new coalition, couch-bound and spooked, finding small comforts where few had sought sustenance before: in the tender embrace of a disaster briefing by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo."

Next is yoga and other exercise teachers. They have flocked online to lead classes that help people manage anxiety and feel strong in a terrible time. I’m taking yoga classes three times a week, and now we’ve discovered that our pilates teacher in CT has a facebook presence. Exercise aside, the classes are such a great way to feel less alone.

My favorite yoga teacher, Ali Beale

Obvious heroes are the medical people on the frontlines. Many of you will have seen this photo of my daughter in her “moon suit.” She’s an ER doc and this is what they wear to intubate a patient, which is a very dangerous point for spreading the virus.  (With gloves on of course!) My nephew is an ER resident and honestly, we are terrified for both of them. And they are scared too--but they do what they are called to do. It’s not only doctors--all the medical professionals and paraprofessionals are in danger, and yet doing their jobs. 

And last, ministers. They aren’t all heroes (don’t get me started on those who are insisting on continuing to meet in person), but we belong to two lovely churches, one in Key West and one in Madison. Neither wasted a nanosecond realizing they needed to move services online. I find watching them to be a huge comfort--more familiarity and love in a horrible time.

Our dear friend Steve Torrence at an Easter sunrise service, with friend Cathy
(And ps if you should wish to try either of those services, both are on Facebook, and

Who are your heroes right now?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Dr. Fauci. I believe every word he says, and he knows what he’s talking about. That’s astonishingly reassuring. Listening to him, we get the facts. If he doesn't know something, he says so. Honesty and intelligence and true science. That’s all I really need.

And the people who work in grocery stores, and  the food delivery people. I almost cry every time they come to the door. How brave of them to take care of us.

My next door neighbors. On one side, Maureen, who emailed me today to see if we wanted a few masks and a box of gloves. She had extra, she said. ::amazing::

And on the other side, neighbor Amy. Who goes to the produce store for us when she goes for her family. We give her our whole milk and potatoes, and she gives us access to lettuce and apples. 

Teachers. My step-daughter teaches kindergarten. She now teaches her littles via zoom, while handling an 11 year old son and a 16 year old son and a husband who works from home in a two-bedroom/living room-dining room/kitchen in crowded Brooklyn. HOW does she do that?

Moms of all kinds, in fact. My editor is home with a 2year old and a 4 year old. SHe takes care of the kids, and home schools, from 6am to 2pm, while her husband uses the bedroom/office. Then she does her editing work from 2pm til 10pm, while her husband handles the kids. AND! They just got a new dog. The dog’s name is Lucky. 

RHYS BOWEN: We have encountered nothing but kindness and consideration. My daughter Clare bakes bread, does shopping and leaves items at our front door 
I have three family members who are teachers and have all had to come up with online methods of teaching and reaching out to students. This has involved a steep learning curve especially for my daughter-in-law who is a special ed coordinator and my daughter who was charged with setting up the online teaching environment for her whole school.

Obviously the medical personnel but the store clerks are my heroes too. Each time we brave the supermarket they have been caring and cheerful, handing us a sanitized cart as we enter. 

My son is a healing specialist whose practice is closed but is putting out wonderful daily chats on how to cope. My daughter Jane is another hero. She owns a swim center that she has had to close but continues to pay her employees and has set up online fitness and yoga classes. It seems most people rise to the occasion except a few of my daughters club members, one of whom wrote, in all caps: why the hell should I pay dues for a club that is closed?

Stay safe everyone!

JENN McKINLAY: My college roommate, Annette, is a hospital nurse. Needless to say, I am in awe of her ability to provide care and support not only to the patients she’s charged with but also to her fellow healthcare workers, who are all working with insufficient equipment. I can’t even fathom the mental toll this is taking on all of them.

Like Hank, I am boggled by the awesome teachers who scrambled to take their curriculums into unfamiliar online forums - my god, they are heroes! I mean if I had to homeschool the Hooligans, they’d be dumb as bricks. 

Next up, the grocery/pharmacy/retail store clerks. Putting themselves at risk by exposure to an invisible enemy just so we can get our Pop Tarts and bottles of Lysol. I will never take my grocers for granted again - never - not ever.

HALLIE EPHRON: Definitely the doctors and nurses and hospital staff that are responding in this crisis. Like Lucy’s Molly, our friend Pat’s daughter who’s a doctor in Austin has volunteered to work an emergency room in NYC. My daughter’s dearest friend, a nurse, who manages emergency medicine at a major hospital in NY and sent her husband and little boy to her parents while she’s working 10 hours a day. She knows it’s only a matter of when, not if she’ll get sick herself.

My children who’ve hammered it into my head that I am not to run errands. 

Dr. David Price of Cornell Weill Medical Center NY whose calming video Rhys shared yesterday. 

My neighbors on one side, he’s a senior State police officer who goes to work every day. His wife, a reading specialist who’s been driving all over the city trying to deliver learning materials to her students. My neighbor on the other side, an electrical worker who’s “on call” 24/7. Our OTHER neighbor’s grandkids who left lovely chalk messages on the sidewalk for us all to feel just a bit more connected.

 The staff at my local Stop n Shop on Newport Ave in Quincy, MA. THANK YOU!

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Some of my heroes are the people who are doing videos and podcasts and radio shows from their living rooms to make me laugh - Noah Trevor at the Daily (Self-Distancing) Show, Peter Sagel on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, Samantha Bee doing BEEing at Home from the woods behind her house - I love knowing that they’re in the same straits we all are, and are carrying on being funny at a time when it can be hard to find anything to laugh about.

One of my heroes is my young friend Jess, who is working 50-60 hours a week at a small local chain of grocery stores and shopping for us and dropping off groceries and special goodies from her store every week. Her help, after long hours on the job, means none of us needs to go out to stores.

Also, going out to the box to fetch the mail has become a highlight of the day, and I’m deeply grateful that the men and women of the US Postal Service are out there every day, picking up and delivering mail. I’m going to leave a thank-you note in my mailbox to let ours know how much I appreciate him!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Yes, definitely on the mail carriers. A thank you note is a good idea, Julia. And our UPS and FedEx drivers, who are working long hours to get things to people. All the health care workers and first responders, and all the grocery store employees and delivery people. My friend’s ER doc son who got drive-through testing and telemed off the ground for his Florida hospital and is spending long hours away from his wife and three-year-old. And I’m with Julia on all the folks that are entertaining the rest of us from their living rooms.

Your turn Reds, who are your heroes right now?

And one more thing, we miss seeing our friends in person so much, but hoped you might like to share our first zoom...thanks for being with us today and every day you can!