Wednesday, March 25, 2020

The Swamp Killers? The Inside Scoop

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  So... today—let me introduce you to some of the most wonderful people on the planet.  One of the things we all treasure so much is the connection we have with dear pals, and fellow authors, and the delight we have in finding new and wonderful things to read.

Do you remember Night of the Flood? (See below for links.) It was—as my blurb said—Spoon River meets Our Town—or something like that—poignant, touching, and absolutely brilliant.
 
Ad now there’s more.

This month, Down & Out Books releases The Swamp Killers: A Novel in Stories—the second such project from co-editors E.A. (Ed) Aymar and Sarah M. Chen. But while their first book together, The Night of the Flood, took a more kaleidoscopic approach—each contributor crafting a standalone story about a community reacting to disaster—the new book The Swamp Killers attempts something else: sixteen contributors working within a more tightly focused plot.

But how do you get 16 writers on the same page? And what do you do when their versions of events differ or even contradict one another?

That question of “What really happened?” prompted a short interview on storytelling, perspective and point of view, and the nature of truth itself—as you’ll see below.

E.A. Aymar’s most recent thriller, The Unrepentant, was published in March of 2019 by Down and Out Books. His other thrillers include I’ll Sleep When You’re Dead and You’re As Good As Dead.

Sarah M. Chen’s short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies, including most recently Murder-A-Go-Go’s and the forthcoming The Faking of the President, and her novella Cleaning Up Finn was an Anthony Award finalist.

Your interview and moderator today is Art Taylor, author most recently of the collection The Boy Detective & The Summer of ’74 and Other Tales of Suspense and a contributor to The Swamp Killers.

Art Taylor: The novel in stories that you two recently co-edited—The Swamp Killers—offers a set of varying perspectives on the central storyline of lovers running away from a crime syndicate: not just multiple perspectives but different versions of events as part of the larger storyline. There are some pretty lofty precursors to stories where points of view collide—Faulkner’s Sound and the Fury or Kurosawa’s Rashomon, for example. What other novels or stories or films do you admire with a similar approach? And how does this novel in stories follow that tradition or twist it in some way?

Ed Aymar: Whenever I think of anthologies revolving around a central theme, I always think of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. Anderson’s collection, revolving around a town and the characters within it (particularly a recurring character named George Willard), and how each defines the other, has always stood out. Anderson was a mentor to both Hemingway and Fitzgerald (although his later novels lacked the momentum and craft of Winesburg, much to the private derision of his mentees in their gossipy letters), and you can see the influence of his work in their writing.

Isn’t that a smart answer? Wow. Sarah, don't steal my response.

Another movie that comes to mind is Four Rooms, a joint effort of four short films all set in the same hotel and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Allison Anders, and Alexandre Rockwell, with Tim Roth playing a bellhop who is the only recurring character in each work. To be honest, the film isn’t that great, although every piece has its moments, and the movie’s theme song is a delight. But the conceit of the film is top shelf, and there’s something to be said for that, even if it falls short.

I highlighted recurring characters in both of those works as an example of connective tissue, but there’s so much more that connects them—theme, similarities of approach, etc. It’s a wonderful process, similar to asking ten different painters to paint a battle on a blank white canvas, and seeing what emerges, how they work together, how their perspectives are represented. It’s beautiful and messy, and the final piece is ultimately unique.

Sarah M. Chen: I haven’t seen Four Rooms but I remember when it was released, I thought what a clever concept. I liked the idea of a recurring character in all four stories. 

The Swamp Killers also has recurring characters throughout: Olivia Duplass, Sheldon Duplass, Melody Duplass, and Timmy Milici. Some stories really dig deep into these characters while others use them more as launching points or inspiration. 

The central narrative thread throughout the collection relies on what the reader knows about these characters and the events that transpired and then twists it by forcing the reader to call everything into question. Did this really happen this way? Who is telling the story?

One book that I think does an excellent job of telling a story through multiple POVs is Alison Gaylin’s Edgar-nominated If I Die Tonight. A tragic car-jacking leaves a high school football star near death and readers try to piece together what happened that night through social media posts and multiple perspectives. What I thought was extremely effective and clever was the omission of the main suspect’s POV. I found it hard not to view him a certain way based on how events unfolded and what other characters said about him.

The Swamp Killers kind of utilizes a similar approach in that the story revolves around the two lovers, Timmy and Melody, yet we’re viewing them from a distance, with the exception of a letter Melody wrote. 

We want to talk about more than just the anthology at hand—but one more question with regard to Swamp Killers. Clearly it’s one thing for Sherwood Anderson or Alison Gaylin to construct different points of view and another thing for four directors to bring their individual styles and sensibilities to an anthology of short films or ten painters to collaborate on a single canvas—yikes! What were the challenges in orchestrating different authors in your anthology? And what were (I hope!) the benefits?

Sarah: The biggest challenge I found was structuring a central storyline around four recurring main characters with sixteen different authors. It had to be cohesive yet we wanted each author to bring something unique to the table. We weren’t sure exactly how it would work (or if it would work at all!) but by having each author construct their “truth” of what happened, we were able to illustrate the theme of the anthology as a whole as well as through each individual story.  

But what was challenging was also a benefit because we had such terrifically talented authors. We entrusted everyone to come up with their story using specific parameters while also adding new elements and surprises that really made the anthology shine. 

Ed: It was a pain in the butt, and a more complicated endeavor than our prior anthology, The Night of the Flood. That anthology took place in a single night and didn’t involve recurring characters. The Swamp Killers took place over a longer period of time, divided up by three sections, and had those four recurring characters. It also had a central narrative that each story advanced. WHY DID WE MAKE THIS SO HARD, SARAH?

But I will say, to build off something Sarah said, that working with talented writers eases a lot of concerns. Not only did the writers happily accept the challenge, but they all added their own spin, particularly (I thought) the stories by Tom Sweterlitsch, Gwen Florio, and yours (Art). I really liked the way the three of you took the concept and played with it.

Thinking about points of view and wrestling with the idea of some central “storyline”: In a bigger way, we’re living in an era where the question of “truth” has become slippery at best. Once upon a time—Faulkner, modernism, etc.—there was a belief that some “truth” existed, even if it might take many points of view to get to it. Then came the idea that maybe there was no core truth—that perspective really was everything. And now we’re… where? Post-truth? Fake news? Everyone living in their own reality? Long lead-up, short question: How might all of that change how fiction writers today write about the world?

Sarah: I’ve been feeling, especially in the past year or so, that fiction writers are more essential than ever. It’s such an exhausting world we’re living in now where we’re bombarded with news and with social media telling us how to feel and what to be afraid of. We find ourselves seeing everything through such a cynical and/or fearful lens. With fiction, we can explore what it’s like to be “the other” and to tell those stories that may otherwise be silenced or ignored. Fiction is essentially, in my view, the best way to reveal our truths and remind readers how we are all connected to one another on some level. 

Ed: We’re definitely in a period of upheaval—socially, politically, and artistically. I don’t think this current period has been identified yet but, like you said, we’re stepping past the trappings of post-modernism and moving into something else, something where authenticity and marginalized voices have an importance they never did, and I do think that will identify this next literary period (as well as this social and cultural moment). Like all movements, there’s a backlash to authority and establishment and narrative, and I think that fosters the “fake news” label. My day job is working for a media company, and I can tell you firsthand that, politically, the distrust for media isn’t exclusive to one party.

Some fiction writers will be cognitive of this, and those that aren’t will still be affected by it. I think the recent cries for authenticity in fiction (which, it should be stated, differs from and doesn’t discount the necessity of imagination and assumption other voices in fiction) will lead to a period of “new truth,” a discovery that some of our classics were shortsighted, and a reluctant widening of the canon.

If people start calling this literary period “new truth,” then I want credit, FYI.

HANK: Oh, Ed. You get credit! And you all get credit for this brilliant idea. Times have changed so much since we did this interview. Where do you all get your truth, Reds and readers? Talk about upheaval.  Do you  think we’re heading toward a new “period” ?   And check in, you wonderfuls! Where are you today, and what are you doing?
 
And a copy of  THE SWAMP KILLERS to one lucky commenter!

(oh, PS: the winner of  Samantha Bailey’s WOMAN ON THE EDGE to lucky winner Cindy C! Email me your address and I will send your book!)

75 comments:

  1. Wow . . . it sounds like creating “The Swamp Killers” was an amazing experience . . . I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Some days, it feels as if truth is in short supply . . . perhaps all that upheaval will lead to something new, but I’m not certain it’s a “new” period. Haven’t writers always reached for truth in their work?

    Today I am home, wishing things were better . . . but there’s still a lot of upheaval, so I’m finishing the book I’m reading and trying out a new cake recipe . . . .

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    1. YEs! Tell us about the cake...YUM!

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    2. Well, I have a whole bag of oranges that I bought for the grandbabies, but now they can’t come visit because we’re all staying home, so I made a Sicilian Whole Orange Bundt Cake with orange glaze . . . .

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    3. How did your cake come out? Recipe?

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    4. It’s an amazing cake, Deana . . . easy to make and so good . . . .

      Spray a ten-cup Bundt pan with Baking Pam [or grease and flour]

      Weigh the orange(s) . . . you need about five and ounces. [I used two Halo oranges]
      Scrub the orange(s); cup into pieces, remove the seeds, and place in food processor. [Yes, the peel, too, just like marmalade.] Process until the oranges look like chunky applesauce.

      Mix until light and fluffy:
      1-1/8 cups sugar
      3 eggs

      Then add and mix well:
      5 tablespoons softened butter

      Mix together:
      1-3/4 cups cake flour [I used Swans Down]
      1 small box instant vanilla pudding
      2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

      Add the flour mixture, one-third at a time, to the sugar/egg/butter mixture, mixing each time until completely blended.

      Stir in until well-blended:
      1/3 cup sour cream
      the processed oranges

      Pour into prepared pan; bake at 350 degrees for about forty minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

      Cool in pan for fifteen minutes, then turn out onto rack to cool.

      For the glaze:
      Simmer together 1/4 cup sugar and the juice of one orange until the mixture thickens.
      Pour thickened glaze over cake; cool completely before cutting.

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  2. I am definitely intrigued by this anthology. Congrats to the two of you for herding the authors and their stories together so you could pull it off.

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  3. First, this interview was outstanding, Art. And, Ed and Sarah, such great and interesting answer. You really classed up the answer part, Sarah. I had to do a dig at Ed because he's so good at digs, all in good humor (as was mine). I am such a fan of Ed's FB page, as he is one of the funniest people on the planet, and he speaks fluent sarcasm, which I also do.

    Both Sarah and Ed are on my radar as writers and editors, but I'm so behind in adding them to my reading schedule. But, when Ed opened by talking about Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, I vowed that my reading schedule would make room for anything he and Sarah do, and anything Ed writes. Winesburg, Ohio is one of the sacred books in my life. Thank you to Art, Sarah, and Ed for a fascinating post today.

    Where I am today is going to sleep finally. I may try to get up early for the old people shopping hour at Kroger tomorrow. I'll be fixing another chicken casserole tomorrow. We may be cluckilng before this lockdown is over.

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    1. Oh Kathy, I hear you! My nephews won't let me out of the house to go grocery shopping because "there's still some chicken in the freezer." I swear I saw feathers on my hands this morning!!

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    2. Old people shopping...who's doing it ? And we are big on chicken, too..trying to be frugal with it, though..

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    3. Thank you, Kathy! Yes, Ed's humor keeps me grounded, especially as we were going through edits. I've been eating a lot of chicken too! I have plenty of it in the freezer so am set for a while.

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  4. This all sounds so...complex! Kudos to you both for attempting a project like this and pulling it off. I can't wait to read it. Excellent interview, Art.

    I'm here polishing a manuscript and wondering if I should go to the post office to mail four books I owe contest winners. Excited to attend a 93rd birthday party for my last (and favorite uncle) in San Francisco this afternoon - via Zoom. With relatives in three countries and bunches of time zones.

    (Also, Hank, I just watched your excellent report on safely dealing with takeout food. "Working remotely" - I realized I've been in that room. Fun.)

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    1. Oh, thank you! Yes, it's been weird working from home--but that's the deal. Thank goodness for technology!

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  5. Great interview, Hank. But then that's what you always do, isn't it. I've ordered this anthology for a couple of reasons. First, it sounds like a thumping good read, something I'm always up for.

    But more important, it feels like a sign of the times. Sixteen views on the same thing, all different, and, I suspect, all real. Can that happen? Watch the news people.
    even the CDC is changing the rules for combatting a pandemic on a daily if not hourly basis.

    "New truth" indeed.

    Uncertainly yours,
    Ann in Rochester

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    1. DOesn't it sound great? NIGHT OF THE FLOOD was amazing.

      And yeah, truth. Sigh.

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    2. Thank you, Ann! Yes, unfortunately, the truth about what's happening right now and what to do isn't always clear.

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  6. What an interesting idea for an anthology and a fascinating interview to tell us about the process to put it together. Thank you.

    Perspective is one thing, and we all have our own. But, surely, truth is another matter. No? We may understand the truth differently, appreciate (or not) the reasons for X being the truth, and maybe even want the truth to be different -- but there is such a thing as truth in this crazy world of ours. Yes, it can be harder and harder to discern it in these times of duplicity and desperation, but I think it's the truly brave ones who stand up and say, 'This is truth.' Consider the scientists, for example. Sure, it's fun to play with notions of truth -- what is it? who knows it? who bends it or denies it? -- but, for today, I'm going to stick with the belief that truth exists.

    And, for today, yet again, I'll commute to my in-home workspace in the living room and feel so very grateful that I have a job that I'm able to do remotely from home.

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    1. Yup. Sign me up for science. xxx And agree about the remotely!

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  7. What a challenging project - kudos to Ed and Sarah for pulling it off.

    Who was it said "Fiction is the lie that gives voice to the truth?" The fact is, the way people act - that truth - hasn't changed in the history of humanity. Some people are kind and charitable, some are mean and selfish. Nothing new under the sun. It's the ways in which these feelings are expressed that have changed.

    So I don't think fiction writers are going to find "new" truths, but we're going to find new ways of portraying them.

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  8. This is so fascinating! And thank you all for being here today… But swamp killer people: how did you actually physically do this? How long did it take, and how much did it change along the way?

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    1. Thank you, Hank! It took us from idea to completion at least 15 or 16 months? That's a ballpark guess. We went back and forth a lot on FB with all the writers to come to a decision on concept and the story premise. A lot of email threads too. I don't think it changed too much along the way. Once we zeroed in on the idea of truth as the central narrative thread then it went fairly smoothly with minimal hiccups. Some writers tweaked the direction of their stories but no major edits.

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  9. THE SWAMP KILLERS sounds very good, and I really enjoyed this thought-provoking interview. But I find myself a touch relieved to see other commenters expressing the same reservations I have about the concept of a post-truth world. I realize there are many valid perspectives on any event, and I acknowledge that some voices have been tragically suppressed. But I still cling to the belief that there is still such a thing as absolute truth, too.

    As for me, I am sitting in front of my laptop preparing to give my employer a solid effort at productive work. I am finding that in this environment, I can't seem to come up with eight solid hours of productivity. So I have given myself permission to accept that about six hours is enough for now. Our pattern is becoming that at the end of that time, Bob and I take our second walk of the day, then I prepare dinner while we watch an old Perry Mason. The time after dinner is really no different than any evening when we both happened to be home -- maybe read a book, maybe watch something on Acorn or Britbox or another streaming service.

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    1. SO hard to stay focused! And six hours at home is the new eight hours at work. There. All good! xx

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    2. Thank you, Susan! And yes, being productive is a challenge lately.

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  10. Congratulations on a compelling project!

    We live with fake news, half-truths, rumor and speculation. We read with the viewpoint of unreliable narrators. We, ourselves, are unreliable narrators, infusing our individual pasts with the main characters. Truth might be a bird count, but how reliable is the counter? Eyewitness testimony isn't reliable. Video evidence can be manipulated. Truth is stranger than fiction, and we're living it every day.

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    1. Excellent point that we, ourselves, are unreliable narrators, Margaret.

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    2. I say the exact same thing!We all have our "truths' --but the true trust is possibly a different thing.

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  11. Oh, gee, I think I'll have to reread the whole interview to pick up all the themes. WOW.
    But, you hit me in a sore spot me a TRUTH.
    I never thought I'd live to see so many Americans loving to be lied to on a daily basis. I am alarmed and I am hiding from the news as much as I can.
    Today, I'll finish Lucy's Deadly Feast, I'll order the rest of Jenn's Hat Shop series for my new Kindle (you had me at "hello"), and I'll order take-out from one of our favorite restaurants in the hopes that it will still be there when the plague ends.
    Sending love to all of you. Stay well.

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    1. Oh, love to you do, dear one. And thank you for getting take out!

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  12. I can’t imagine pulling off what Ed and Sarah have pulled off ! I can barely manage one author and a narrator or two... yes the backbone of the story is so important ... wondering how you guys managed revisions.

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    1. Yes, love to hear about hat. Can you imagine alll of us writing together? HA!

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  13. Excellent interview--and a great opportunity for me to get to know a slew of new uthors in one book! Kudos Sarah, Ed, and Art!

    In this day and age of 'alternative facts' (and boy howdy did that single utterance define an entire presidency!), I try to be aware of my own biases, examine the source of the information I am reading/hearing, etc., think about the logical consistency of said information--and compare the same story from different sources/viewpoints. It's exhausting some days, so thank heavens for books!!

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  14. what a creative endeavor which is a real treasure. Congratulations and best wishes.

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  15. What an ambitious project! Sounds a little like herding cats, but with great writers.

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  17. Exciting endeavor, and I do want a Swamp Killers copy asap. These Jungle Reds never disappoint, do they? I need to hark back a few days and thank Hank (Thank Hank!) for her empathy for new/unpublished writers like me, whose plans to fascinate and land an agent THIS year seem to have gone up in smoke.

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    1. Yeah, it's all on hold a bit. So much for everyone's plans..but one day at a time ,that's my newest mantra. One day at a time. xoxoxoo

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  18. Welcome, everyone to Jungle Reds! I met Art Taylor at Malice Domestic and Bouchercon in Toronto. This anthology sounds wonderful and I learned about new authors like Sarah Chen this morning.

    Hank, thank you for introducing me to new authors!

    The Swamp Killers sound like a movie title.

    What am I doing? Well, I finally got back into the rhythm of reading books. For a while, I could not focus on reading. I have been baking pecan vegan cookies, vegan scones and banana muffins. Today I am going to clean up! Do some organizing! The shelter in place, for me, means that I can sleep in the morning and get some rest. I have been trying to eat in smaller portions.

    Diana

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    1. Yummy food! And we have to eat smaller portions, because of less exercise. But don't deprive yourself, okay?

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    2. Hank, never at risk of depriving myself since there will be more food left in the future. If I ate all at once, then I'll be depriving myself because there is no more left, right?

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  19. What a tough job to pull this book together. I can't wait to read it. Yes, I do think we are entering a new period. There are some exciting works out there and I believe more to come. And thanks to you, Hank, and all the Reds for once again adding a book I might never have found to my TBR stack!

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    1. Isn't it fun around here? And these authors are amazing!

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  20. This sounds fascinating - I've always loved RASHOMON-style stories, and I think they work best in literary form, because writers have so much control over what is, and what is not revealed.

    I'd love to know if Ed and Sarah spent much time working with the contributors on editing stories to make them work better within the narrative, or if they took what they had and ran with it.

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    1. Yes, I will ping them now to let theme know we are curious!

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    2. We essentially let each story be the writer's "truth" of events. There were a few main plot points and absolutes that were consistent through each story. Like the four recurring characters' physical descriptions. The big shootout at the Tooth & Ale bar. The timeframe as the story took place over a three-day span. The swampy setting. There were a couple stories that approached it in a way I never would have thought of, like Tom Sweterlitsch's story "The Movie Version."

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  21. The Swamp Killers sounds good. Right now I'm not feeling well, which is kind of scary these days but I'm staying optimistic.

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  22. What wonderful talent and creativity. This is a great enjoyable and captivating book which I could lose myself within the pages and escape from our ills.

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  23. Wow, Ed and Sarah, what an ambitious project! I'm also interested in how you managed the mechanics and editing.

    As to whether we have entered a post-truth world, I'm glad there are people contemplating things more philosophical than where to place the next grocery order! I actually got some writing done yesterday, and am looking forward to another good session this afternoon. This morning I walked my dogs and waved at all the other dog walkers, and also had a nice ten-feet-distant conversation with a neighbor I hadn't met.

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    1. We can all try to look on the "bright"-- and I use the term loosely--side. It's the only thing we really have a choice about. Except washing hands.

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  24. This task seems Herculean! I am awed by the sheer coordination it took. Looking forward to reading The Swamp Killers (fabulous title)!

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  25. Thank you so much everyone for your comments and to Hank and Jungle Red for hosting us! It's hard to believe we started this project in late 2018. Despite the specific story parameters we kind of boxed ourselves in, the coordination of all the authors and their stories wasn't as overwhelmingly difficult as you would think or could have been. It helps to have talented writers who are willing to take on the challenge and I think having a lot of leeway to play around with the concept brought some refreshing and unique takes on the subject. Hope you enjoy the read! Now back to my virtual yoga class.

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  26. A fabulous idea from a reader standpoint - as a writer - I'm shaking my head and muttering OMG. Looking forward to spending some quality isolation time with The Swamp Killers.

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  27. Wow! This whole process sounds complicated. Is it akin to herding cats? As for “truth” that seems to change daily.
    Happy to say I got a very quick, brief text from my son at Ft Sill yesterday. Just his mailing address.

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    1. So pleased to hear that! Whew.
      And herding cats is probably not the half of it :-)

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  28. Fast note during lunch - I've never read a lot a anthologies, not sure why but this one sounds intriguing with the same base characters in each story. But with so many different authors, did feel like you were herding cats every once in awhile?

    Information - well I'm limiting my news watching, my stomach can only take so much. Because I am an essential employee, there are daily updates for assistance and the changes in treating protection and now the inventory shortages. My big goal is to make to a store early in a day for essential, personal supplies. Being only one person I purposely tried to keep my purchases limited but I may have "cut off my nose despite my face." (I think that is what my mother used to say) Anyway, gotta go back to work, in the office, which is saving some of my anxiety, being in the office even if we are all staying apart from each other.. Stay safe out there.

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    1. Despite your face! Hilarious! Now I will always think of it that way.
      Deana, thank you so much for all you do! You are a total hero.

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    2. Thank you, Deana, and please, stay safe!

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    3. Thanks for the hero status, Hank. All I do is sit in the office, the REAL heroes are the medical staff that have to go into patient's homes, daily.

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    4. LOVE YOU SO MUCH. Ooops, caps lock. But you deserve it.

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