Thursday, September 28, 2023

When Research Makes You Cry

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: There are always a few different ways to introduce a post. And more about these horses in the photo in a minute.

Here’s one  possible introduction for today:

How much passion do you put into your writing? And how would you feel if the very thing that you were passionate about–had to be deleted?
What would you do then?

Here’s another one for today:

Have you ever cried when you talk about your novels? I mean, like, in public? On camera?

Or how about this one:

Do you know what’s going on with the hearts of wild horses in the United States? It’s a powerful and controversial and heart-breaking situation.

Here’s the good news. Today, you get all three introductions.

On Separating Fiction from Reality: For Real

By Linda L. Richards

I’m a little apprehensive right now. My non-fiction book, Wild Horses: Running Free, is coming out in a few weeks and I’m scared I’m going to have to do interviews. And why does that scare me? Because every time I talk about the subject of this book, I cry.

I cry.

I mean, not ugly cry, but still. (For an example of this, see this interview I did a few months ago for the Sisters in Crime podcast. Note tears. Argh.)

When I started writing the book, I did not realize that the wild horse space in North America is violent and political. The more I knew, the less I knew and the more research I did, the more upset I became.

I went into that book thinking it was going to be as joyful as a similar book I did on Northern Elephant Seals in 2020. A feel-good informational non-fiction book for 9-13 year-olds.

But as I started researching the wild horse book, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) — the agency responsible for managing the millions of public acres owned by the United States — was in the process of culling wild horse herds all across the American west. The round ups go on. They say they are doing it because the land can’t support the numbers. BLM detractors say they’re doing it to service the ranchers who own the livestock that graze there almost for free.

It's estimated that there are currently 1.5 million cattle and sheep entitled to graze the 155 million acres the BLM manages. There might be 85,000 head of wild horses left on BLM-managed land in the US, but the number is being cut down fast and, at present, the BLM estimates there are 60,000 American mustangs in holding pens, waiting for an undetermined future. Some of those horses have been in holding pens for years.

The BLM claims they’re doing it for the good of the horses and to keep the herds to manageable numbers. Meanwhile, from the outside, anyway, I’m not alone in thinking it looks like government-sanctioned extermination. It’s heartbreaking stuff and I would set to work each day wondering if, by the time my book came out, there would be any wild mustangs left for kids to learn about.

While I was researching the wild horse book, I was working on the second book in my Endings series, featuring a nameless hitwoman. That book, Exit Strategy, takes place against the backdrop of a Silicon Valley high tech start up, but suddenly I discovered I was writing a subplot that involved wild horses. And, pretty soon that subplot got to be pretty beefy (sorry) and it started taking over the whole book.

After a while, I saw what I was doing and pulled everything related to the horsey subplot. I dropped it into a file and, the next year, with wild horses off my desk, I took the material that had been the subplot and turned it into book three in the series.

That novel, Dead West, came out September 5. Dead West is not about wild horses, but some of the heartbreak and injustices in that space are in there, and I think (hope!) I did a good job of weeding out what would have made you cross your eyes in boredom. That is, it’s not a book about wild horses. It’s about a hit assignment gone wrong and a do-gooder rancher and I honestly think it’s the best book of the series so far.

But what makes it best? Is it because of the passion that got stuffed in there? Or is it because I had to work hard to keep the elements that touched me most deeply out? That, in not wanting to become one of those authors who falls in love with her research, I worked super extra hard to find the story beyond what can be seen on the page?

I’m still working all of this out for myself. Has any of this ever happened to you? Writing something where you had to work doubly hard to make sure you weren’t just repurposing life, but were using what you had been given purely to inspire a story that maybe didn’t even have a lot to do with the thing you’d researched in the first place? And, if you’re not a writer, have you ever read something that made you feel sure that too much non-essential material ended up in the final book?

Hank: So, Reds and readers--shall we talk about research? Or wild horses? Or both?

Linda L. Richards is the award-winning author of over a dozen books. The founder and publisher of January Magazine, a contributing editor to the crime fiction blog The Rap Sheet, and a member of the National board of Sisters in Crime, she is from Vancouver, Canada and currently makes her home in Phoenix, Arizona. Her latest book, DEAD WEST, was published by Oceanview Publishing September 5, 2023. Linda’s 2021 novel, ENDINGS, was recently optioned by a major studio for series production. Richards is an accomplished horsewoman and an avid tennis player.

Wednesday, September 27, 2023

In which Hank has A Very Unusual Week

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: In the Putting It Mildly department, it’s been a Very Unusual Week for me.

First, you may not have known this, but many years ago, literally, 50–and let that sink in– I worked for Rolling Stone magazine.

And in that capacity I worked on a story investigating some actions of the CIA. It’s really too long to tell here, but the brief version is that in the process, I sent a Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA, the response to which was, apparently, the very first time they had used the reply: “We can neither confirm nor deny…” .

Long, long story about that, but fast forwarding in time, a British documentary company decided to do a big feature-length documentary about the whole story…essentially, the CIA’s attempt to secretly retrieve a sunken Russian submarine in the Pacific. The doc was to be called “Neither Confirm Nor Deny.”

They interviewed me for the documentary, maybe, six years ago? And that was that. And then! And very recently, they told me it had been sold to Amazon and Apple TV, and was now available for viewing. WHAT?

I got to see it well in advance, and it is spectacular. Absolutely riveting , and total immersion history. I’ve done several interviews about it so far, on NPR in New York, and here is a newspaper article about it.

Isn’t that headline amazing? I burst out laughing. My role in the whole thing was definitely a supporting player, not a star, but it is incredible to see this.

Here is a link to the trailer, it’s absolutely riveting, as compelling and full of intriguing action as any fictional spy story – – seriously, you will say: you could not make this up! 

And speaking of amazing. Listen to this. 

The other day, I went to the UPS store to send back a too-big fall blazer, and there was a woman standing with what obviously was the Make Way for Ducklings statue—a tiny version, which, I figured, was a cute reproduction that this woman was sending to maybe her grandchildren.

So I told her: “I love this, I love the ducklings, that is absolutely adorable.”

And Tom, the UPS guy, says “Oh, Hank! Meet Nancy. She’s the sculptor!”

I said “What what what? You’re the actual sculptor of the Make Way for Ducklings statues?”

And she was! Can you believe it? So we chatted about the statues, and the ducklings books, and all kinds of upcoming events, and her devotion to public art, and cool things that she has in the works. And wasn’t that just the best day in the UPS store ever?

And yes. I told her about Flo and Eddie, and she has ducks that come to her backyard too. Turns out, she lives just several streets away from us. Wow.

Have you ever seen the ducklings statue in the public garden?

Here's the scene in the UPS!

AND she invited me to lunch at her house, and I went, and well, whoa. I got to see her studio and an upcoming AMAZING PROJECT.

AND we were invited to her 95th (!!) birthday party, a Mozart Concert, and here she is in all her birthday glory.

AND speaking of which--later this week on JRW, you'll hear from Nancy Schön herself, and the author who's written a fantastic children's book about her, and about her ducklings, and her life. It's called BE STRONG. So stay tuned!

Pretty interesting week, huh? SO, reds and readers, what do you think about any of that? 

Ducklings, CIA, submarines, documentaries, public art, surprises?

Tuesday, September 26, 2023

Not All Ghosts Are Bad

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN:  Know what I absolutely love? The days when we have to think–wow, there’s so much we simply don’t know. 

And more about the absolutely wonderfully talented Meredith Lyons below. And about her brand new book GHOST TAMER.

But first…yeah, what can I say. There's so much we simply don’t know.  This is such a heartbreakingly haunting story.

Not All Ghosts Are Bad

   By Meredith R. Lyons

I can’t point to an exact age, but I know I was young. I remember how my bedroom was arranged—and I remember exactly how old I was when I decided to take charge of my own feng shui and shove the furniture into a new position—so I’m going to guess between ten and twelve. 

Often enough that it was unremarkable, I woke up during the night to find a girl pacing near the foot of my bed. Talking. She was always talking. As if I was waking up halfway through her monologue. In full flow, as if she was trying to work out a problem or vent about something irritating. If I ever tried to comment on anything she said, if I tried to enter the conversation at all, she stopped. She stopped walking, stopped talking, looked directly at me, and vanished.

I didn’t ever think much of it. I was tired, I went back to sleep, and forgot about it in the morning. I never remembered these visits, and to this day I can remember nothing that she said.

Except the last thing.

One night I opened my eyes to find she wasn’t talking. She wasn’t walking. And what’s more, she wasn’t by the foot of my bed. She was standing right beside my pillow, gazing down at me with a huge smile on her face. As if something marvelous had happened to her and she was bursting to share the news.

I didn’t feel afraid. 

As soon as I met her eyes she said, “Goodbye!” And slowly faded away.

“Where ya going?” I asked. But she was gone.

The next morning, for the first time, I remembered her. I remembered all the other times, too. But I never saw her again.

At first, I tried to tell people about her, but no one believed me. Adults said I was dreaming. Kids were either skeptical or tried to fabricate their own ghost stories to top mine. Eventually, I just kept it to myself.

One night in my twenties, drunk after a night out in Chicago, I found myself beside my friend Gillian while the rest of our group walked on ahead. I’m not sure why, but I told her the story. 

“Did she look like you?” she asked in her Dublin accent.

“Yeah, I guess she kind of did.” I was ready for her to tell me I was dreaming.

“Did your mum have a miscarriage before you?” 

I was surprised. How would she have guessed that? “She did.” 

“It was your sister checking up on you.”

I can’t describe the feeling that went through me then, but it was a rightness. A joy. Not only had my story not been dismissed as the diaphanous dreams of a sleepy child, but a new possibility had been introduced. 

I still kept this story mostly to myself. It was rare that anyone connected to it in that way and it was a special memory to me. A nice thought that I didn’t care to tarnish with too much outside scoffing.

Years later, I decided to write about a nightmare that I’d had where I was riding the el train and it flew off the rails. “This will be a nice, normal story with normal people,” I thought to myself, having done a lot of writing about aliens and unicorns. But as I was writing it, I thought, “What about a ghost or two?”

And not too far into the writing of it, I remembered my childhood ghost and decided that not all of the ghosts had to be bad.

Maybe some are indifferent. Maybe others actually care about us and want to make sure we’re doing well. Maybe some even protect us from the bad ones.

This story I didn’t hide away. I didn’t keep it quiet or private and it’s turned into a decent book. As I’ve rolled through the different stages of bringing it to life, I’ve thought more about my little ghost visitor than ever before. I hope she’s doing well wherever she ended up. I hope it was as fantastic as she seemed to think it would be. And I thank her for the inspiration.

HANK: I’m so touched that this gives you peace, Meredith. And may it do the same for all of us.

You all, Meredith is an absolute powerhouse, lookit that bio! And her book is terrific–I loved it.

In answer to the question posed by the title, though–I’m not sure I ever thought all ghosts were bad. How about you, Reds and Readers?

Death is one thing, it's what you do afterward that matters. 

Aspiring comedian Raely is the sole survivor of a disastrous train wreck. While faced with the intense grief of losing her best friend, she realizes that someone is following her—and has been following her all her life. Trouble is, no one else can see him. For a ghostly tag-along, Casper’s not so bad. He might even be the partner Raely needs to fight the evil spirit hell-bent on destroying her.

Raely and her friend must learn why this demonic spirit is haunting Raely and how she can stop him before he destroys her life—and her soul. Which, much to her chagrin, means she needs the help of a psychic (although she’s sure they are all charlatans) and must rid herself of the pesky ghost hunter who’s interested in exploiting her new abilities.

Meredith Lyons
grew up in New Orleans, collecting two degrees from Louisiana State University before running away to Chicago to be an actor. In between plays, she got her black belt and made martial arts and yoga her full-time day job. She fought in the Chicago Golden Gloves, ran the Chicago Marathon, and competed for team U.S.A. in the savate world championships in Paris. In spite of doing each of these things twice, she couldn’t stay warm and relocated to Nashville. She owns several swords, but lives a non-violent life, saving all swashbuckling for the page, knitting scarves, gardening, visiting coffee shops, and cuddling with her husband and two panther-sized cats. She’s a member of International Thriller Writers and Sisters in Crime. 
Ghost Tamer is her first novel.