Saturday, August 29, 2020

What We're Writing Week: Threading the Needle on Difficult Subjects

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I knew for a long time that Book No. 10 (working title AT MIDNIGHT COMES THE CRY) would have a conflict between the protagonists of my series – plus a few newcomers – and white supremacists. I follow the news closely, and white supremacists have been the number one domestic terror threat for over a decade. Whether they go by the traditional name, Nazis, or dress themselves up as the “alt-right,” they're a dangerous crew, and as a plot driver, they have two things I look for: the potential for a LOT of conflict, and an issue that's plausible for a rural area in upstate New York.

What I didn't expect was that the issue would be so timely. Every time I do more online research on the various ways white supremacists find each other and organize, or on their malignant beliefs, or on the ways violence against women is intertwined with “white pride”/Christian dominionism/mens rights advocacy, I wonder which FBI agent is adding pages to my file.

I find myself repeatedly running up against two challenges while working on this book. The first is: how much info do I give about the ways the alt-right lures disaffected young (mostly) men (mostly) without creating a road map for someone reading the completed novel? Just as no mystery writer wants to give the exact composition and dose that would enable readers to poison their, ah, loved ones, and no thriller author wants to tell the audience precisely how to construct an explosive out of commonly-available materials, I have no desire to give any potentially curious alt-folks a handy users guide to finding their local chapter of Nazis-R-Us.

Secondly: how to I ensure the “bad guys” are authentic, rounded, three dimensional human beings without apologizing for or glossing over their vile beliefs? It's a different thing from making sure my previous villains are recognizably human. A man who sells drugs might love his kids, and someone who kills to keep his business afloat might do it out of understandable desperation. But it's hard to thread that needle when your talking about, you know, Nazis.

Anyhoo. Here's an excerpt from a little further along in the first chapter/prologue, this beginning of which you can read here. One of the men on the White Supremacy float has unveiled a nasty banner, enraging Ron Tucker, one of the guests at the party. He flings himself at the offending sheet (and the man displaying it,) Russ races out to stop the fist fight, and the whole melee, boxed between floats before and behind, careens down the road at a walking pace.




Clare turned and faced her conscripts. “Okay, you two. Get up to the cab and see if you can stabilize that steering wheel.”

Bill looked at the melee with dismay. “What if the driver tries to hit us?”

Hit him back, she didn't say. “Tell him you're trying to help him.”

He's a Nazi!” Terry protested.

Then tell him Russ is trying to help him! Go! Now!” Whipped by her command voice, they ran toward the tractor. Clare could hear the whoop-whoop of a squad car signalling pedestrians out of its way, but she couldn't make out its light bar in the blaze and glitter of the floats behind her. Should she help Russ? No, another body would just increase the chance of an accident. Terry and Bill were hanging off the sides of the tractor now, reaching inside, hopefully, dear God, about to straighten its trajectory.

In the middle of the carnival of light and dark and movement, her eye was caught by one still figure. A woman with a large white candy bucket had stopped, staring, as her float arced past, riveted in place by the sight of the men tussling on the back of the tractor. Maybe, like Clare, she was concerned for her husband.

Clare ran toward her. The woman, startled, whirled and raised her bucket – whether an offense or a defense, Clare couldn't tell, but she stopped short and spread her open hands. “I'm not here to hurt you.” She gestured up the road, where the siren's sound was more pronounced. “The police are going to be here very soon. If we can stop this fight now, nobody needs to get arrested. Is that your husband?” They both looked at the back of the float. The man in question managed to shove Ron Tucker out of striking distance, but the mechanic wound his fists in the sheet and wrenched it away, flinging it onto the pavement.

“Oh, no!” the woman said. She lurched toward the fallen banner.

“Leave it.” Clare grabbed the woman's coat. “The police are going to confiscate it anyway.”

“They can't do that! We have a right to be heard! We have a first amendment right!”

Look at me.” Clare pointed to her eyes. “Look at me! You don't have a first amendment right to brawl, and the cops aren't going to care who threw the first punch. My husband is trying to stop it.” She pointed to where Russ clawed at Tucker's jacket. The banner carrier, now deprived of his prize, was in it with two hands, trading blow for blow with the mechanic. “We need to stop it.”

“How?”

Clare hadn't realized how keyed up she was until she felt a downbeat of relief at the woman's question. “If your husband jumps off the float, it'll give mine the chance to grab his assailant.” The woman looked blank. “The other guy.”


JULIA: I'm sure you've read many other books that deal with difficult issues, dear readers. Can you think of novels or movies where it's been handled especially well? And - not that we're going to name names - can you think of cases where the writer(s) got it wrong?

80 comments:

  1. Oh, Julia, I can just picture that parade and the guys fighting and Clare trying to stop it . . . .
    And I’m looking forward to reading the whole story.

    It’s a difficult subject, one that I’m glad to see being addressed. I guess, in my opinion, one of the best “got it right” ones was Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Interestingly enough, “Go Set a Watchman” was murkier, but ultimately one of the “got it right” voices . . . .

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    1. Thanks, Joan. It's probably not surprising "To Kill A Mockingbird" got it more right, as it were, than "Go Set a Watchman," since the latter was the starting point for the great novel, rather than a sequel.

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  2. Love the excerpt, Julia. I'm right there with them. Brave of you to tackle it. I have every confidence you can thread that needle of not showing people how to join up but still showing your readers the reality.

    Any good historical novel deals with the difficult issues of its day. Right now books that come to mind are Jess Montgomery's The Widows and The Hollows. She nails mid 1920s issues with miners, unions, bootleg liquor, attitudes toward women, and even the KKK and the women in it. I'm not thinking of any books that got it all wrong, but that might be because I didn't finish reading them!

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    1. Oh, good one, Edith. I've really enjoyed Jess Montgomery's books, and you're right, everyone on all sides comes across as very human.

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  3. It is early and I can't quite think yet. Certainly Harper Lee got it right, both times. I'm with Joan on that. Especially true about the second book, which was far closer to what I remember during those times than the first one was.

    I just finished an amazing book: THE WOLF AND THE WATCHMAN, by Niklas Natt och Dag. Tough read and not for the faint of heart, but did he ever get it right. 18th century Sweden wasn't much different than today except we have indoor plumbing.

    I also think James Lee Burke gets it right. Every time. Besides, I like his politics!

    I need another cup of coffee.

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    1. Replying late, so I trust you had as many cups of coffee as necessary, Ann!

      Yeah, I've come to think the present is still, in many ways, just the past + technology. The Romans believed in augury and we believe in Meyers-Briggs, both with the same level of seriousness and the same lack of any scientific evidence. (As only one of many examples.)

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  4. I am really looking forward to this next book and now even more so -- what I'll be looking for is believable characters and for that I think I need less about white supremacy itself and more about the characters' backstory. I think the plausibility will come from their past (more recent or longer ago) rather than from specifics about their (mistaken) belief system.

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    1. Amanda, that's very insightful, and absolutely the way I'm dealing with it. I've read several accounts by men (and few women) who've come out of the white supremacy movement. Reminiscent of many religious cults, in each case, the movement gave them community, friends and a sense of meaning, filling the holes that existed in their lives.

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  5. Tough topic! I have lived on the edge of alt-right country in Georgia and Ohio, stars and bars all the way. Lee and Burke get it right. Looking forward to reading more!

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  6. Julia, I totally trust you to get the right balance. This is a very difficult topic for me to read about. I cannot begin to tell you how depressing it is to see those banners here and to know that they stand for the extermination of millions of my people in the past, and a plan to do so again in the future. Here. In my country.

    I love your books, Julia. Your characters are lovable and I must continue to read their stories to see where their lives go from here. They represent the good, so they must triumph. Also, Kevin. Save Kevin, please. And a reunion with Hadley would be good, too! LOL

    Lee Child has had villains in all of the despicable enterprises one can imagine. He has had drug traffickers, human traffickers, white supremacists, evil military, pharmaceutical drug traffickers, murdering industrialists and murderers of all stripes and designs. He sends Jack Reacher into the fray mostly alone and ill-equipped but always brilliant and huge. Just as you're wondering how he's going to get out of this one, he is out of it and you are waiting for the next book. It is not likely. It is not realistic. The bad guys are the worst examples of inhumanity. But it is entertaining.

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    1. Judy: I echo what you say in your second paragraph. Save Kevin. And I am hoping, so hoping, for a reunion with Hadley...

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    2. Amanda, how much do we want to SEE that reunion! LOL

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    3. I always pay attention to what my readers want!

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  7. What a great topic! I can only think that if Captain America woke up today, he'd wonder if we lost WWII.

    "The trouble started, as it so often does, behind the manure spreader."

    Julia, how do you always create such great opening lines?

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    1. Thanks, Cathy and Edith! As for first lines, I have no idea. I've certainly had some not-so-memorable ones. But I always try for something that lures the reader to go to the end of the paragraph, and then on to the next paragraph, and then to the end of the chapter...

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  8. You've certainly set yourself a challenge, Julia. But if anyone can make it work, you can.

    I can't think of a novel that deals with something on the same vein. But I look forward to reading your take.

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  9. Julia, I have an opinion and a suggestion. But first, I'm with Edith--I can't think of any books that get it wrong because I'm not likely to pick up or ever read more than a couple of paragraphs of something like that. My opinion is that your readers are probably not in the demographic that would be looking for a roadmap into white supremacy. The titles alone do not signal the genre or subject matter--they could be angsty 'women's lit' for someone not familiar with them. And they're never black and white--the cartoon good guys clobbering the cartoon bad guys. That leads me to my suggestion--for a nuanced view of someone in this movement, may I suggest looking at the interviews/literature from those who were once active members of such hate groups and ultimately renounced those views? These are powerful portraits that provide insight into when/how/why they were part of such groups and what triggered them to leave.

    For me, your books provide powerful characterizations, complex issues, in a totally believable setting. I might not be from upstate New York, but I grew up in small-town America and realize that the simple life so many envision can be much more complicated. Love the bits you are sharing.

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    1. Thank you, Flora. Yes, I have been reading the accounts of people who were once in the movement. You can see the empty spaces in their lives they filled with the community of fellow believers.

      And one of the things that keeps me coming back to Millers Kill is that desire to share the complicated reality of the "simple small town" life.

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    2. Flora stated my opinion beautifully. However, I want to add that knowledge of the white supremacy movement, the alt-right, may perhaps save someone from being seduced by that path in life. If you tell explicitly how it is done, and why many do it, one of your readers may actually help someone from becoming one of them. A Mom seeing the signs after reading your book and directing her attention to a son almost lost to the movement. Therefore, I think you should detail the seduction to alt-right in great detail! Someone seeking a primer for connecting with that movement only needs an internet connection and basic knowledge to find others in the white supremacy movement.

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  10. Having read all the series, I have confidence in your ability to make it right. Looking forward to a new chapter in the life of Clare and Russ .

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  11. I am sure that there are such characters in my part of upstate rural NY but I don't know any of them. I do know of several though who may be wannabees or part-timers. I don't want to get political but I do believe that the political climate today is allowing some people to go further (not in a good way) than they ever dared before. Amd that's all I'll say about that.

    Can't wait to read the book, Julia!

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    1. Judi, one thing I've noticed about rural upstate NY is that there are literally all kinds there. As is true here in Maine - I drove through some remote towns on my way back from taking the kids to university yesterday, and I could see a Blue Lives matter flag and a Black Lives Matter sign on two different farms in the same postal area.

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  12. I have been so disturbed this past month, because a Black Lives Matter/Take Down the Confederate Statue march in the town I called home for 25 years brought out a mass of Confederate sympathizers, white supremacists, and armed militia members at the end of July. It was big enough to make the national news. While many of the armed counter-protesters came into town from as far away as Utah, many of them were homegrown.

    I have no doubt that racism existed while I lived out there although, being white, I wasn't exposed to much of it. But I do know how to make racists like that relatable. They are the everyday folks you know but don't know well. They are the folks you nod to in Wal-Mart on a Saturday morning. The woman you know from work who is a meek but sweet lady with an outspoken husband. They are, apparently, our neighbors.

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    1. Ouch, Gigi, so frighteningly true. And they are, quite literally, some of our neighbors...

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    2. I spent a lot of summers at my grandparent’s home in central Missouri. My Grandmother taught at at the university there. I had no idea the level of racism that existed in Missouri. Raised here in California, I was naive to the endemic racism. The current political environment emboldens many that would have formerly remained quiet.

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    3. I think that's right, Susan. They might have stayed underground for many years, but the current climate allows them to feel safe and come out into the open. I was born in Missouri, and moved to Texas as an adult. It has only been in the past few years that I began to realize so many facets of Confederate philosophy--about government as well as race--never went away at all.

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    4. I think that's the thing that's hard to realize. There are all sorts of people who are perfectly nice - neighbors who would mow your lawn if you were sick or share their zuchinnis and some friendly chat with you - who also harbor the most mind-boggling racist beliefs. For many, I suspect, they're completely unexamined, which is why folks get into such a huff if they're called out. They don't see it as racism, they see it as "the way things are."

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    5. My parents while living in California invested in a real estate development of a banker friend in Jackson county Missouri. It was called Shenandoah and the sales people were dressed in pants and jackets that were very similar to Confederste uniforms. I was a teen-aged at the time and didn’t realize the significance! Now I am rather appalled at the blatant use of Confederate symbols to sell real estate. I do remember my Mom was unhappy when she realized what the name of the development was and the significance of the salesman’s uniforms.

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    6. Yes, that's what I said to myself when I remembered the circumstances of the investment. This was in the country by Lee's Summit, a few miles east of Kansas City.

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  14. Julia, applause to you for tackling this hard, painful, important subject. Can't wait to read the book. I'm originally from upstate NY myself, and I don't doubt the issues are alive and breathing. My general impression is that though there are actually more diverse voices than in my day, the most extreme are even more so. As I write now about ordinary people in urban neighborhoods I've certainly written on the edge of some tough issues. It was hard to get it right, fair, complex. No idea if I did...but pretty sure you will. :-)

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    1. Triss, I think you're absolutely right, and I like the way you phrased it. "...though there are actually more diverse voices than in my day, the most extreme are even more so." And of course, the internet gives every Tom, Dick and Harry a megaphone...

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  15. Wonderful topic, and a very tantalizing tidbit -- what kind of candy is in the bucket? If one were to look at the books that have been challenged in high school or public libraries, one usually can find books that got the subject 'right'. For example, The Confessions of Nat Turner (Styron 1067) got it right. The Turner Diaries (shudder) a how to for the white supremacist movement is just icky.
    Catch 22; a satire yes, impossible funny yes, and talking about military thinking sadly yes. A good read. A bad read: A recent literary darling, who was born after the 1950's, did not research well, I think. This person writes about thinly disguised political wives. Perhaps talking to someone who was alive then would have helped. It was not all about saddle shoes and poodle skirts.

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    1. Coralee, I know of whom you speak and I agree. I've very much enjoyed her non-political fiction. The other stuff... not so much.

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  16. Julia,


    Thomas Mullen's fictional novel Darktown, which dealt with the first black cops hired on the police force in Atlanta, was an amazing read. The racism they dealt with on a daily basis and the restrictions on what they could actually do in their job was deftly laid out. It was a taut and gripping thriller that simultaneously made you want to throw the book across the room every time one of the racist SOBS said or did something in the book.

    As for wondering how to write rounded, fully realized characters while not glossing over their obvious faults, I can see how it is a hard thing to do. In fiction, fully realized characters are a necessity. The problem lies in the fact that real life "people" like these racists a-holes are NOT fully rounded people.

    Quite the sticky wicket for any writer to have to put themselves through especially when you know that no matter what you do, there will be some one-star idiot on Amazon complaining about whatever your end result turns out to be.

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    1. True that, Jay, which is why I never read the Amazon reviews anymore!

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  17. Love the excerpt, Julia, and can't wait for the book!

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  18. There are some novels, whose authors I will not name, where the author seems to have picked a topic, say gun control, or the death penalty, and then created a book to illustrate their beliefs. The result is clunky, and research heavy, and basically a screed.
    The reason your stories always work, Julia, is that you create the story, and populate it with real people with real ideas and individual reasons for believing them.
    This is going to be fabulous, as usual.

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    1. A time-honored tradition, Hank. I could say the same about some of George Bernard Shaw's plays, or Charles Dickens' novels, although the better ones are witty, and not so blatant.

      I just want to say that I sat up until 2 am last night/this morning to finish The First To Lie. I really enjoyed it, and agree with Deb that it's your best yet. Go, YOU!

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    2. It IS good, isn't it, Gigi? Hank, I think your domestic suspense gets more creepy and twisty with every book!

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  19. You just brought back all of my early librarian days in small town Connecticut in a rush. I was what we call a "Baby Librarian", freshly minted from school working my first Adult Services Reference Librarian gig. This was in those glorious days before the WWW when the Internet was also in its infancy. We received a request for a book called The Anarchist's Cookbook. It is exactly what you'd imagine - how to make pipe bombs, etc. out of what you have lying around the house. I have never felt so conflicted in my life. Freedom of Information v. What the Hell Do You Want This For. So much angst. We ordered it through interlibrary loan for the patron, who never showed up to pick it up. (Hallelujah).

    I'm afraid being a lightweight comedy reader, I don't swim in those heavy issue waters enough to recommend any other books. I admire you for shining a light on the slimy underbelly of a truly awful movement. I'm all for Freedom of Speech but hate speech needs to be squashed permanently.

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    1. So glad you opt for "lightweight comedy" Jenn! Your novels are lifesavers in our current dark and choppy waters. They give us something loving and warm to hold onto when we feel lost in a sea of conflict. You inspire me. Keep bringing us the light and the fun!

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    2. I'll echo Gigi, Jenn - I love your fun and funny books! Most of what I'm reading for pleasure these days is VERY escapist, so thank you!

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    3. Jenn, I totally agree. Your books have lifted me up nd brought me through!

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  20. A very timely topic. I am always surprised, then dismayed, when meeting new people or getting reacquainted with people I knew way back that things may go swimmingly until said person utters something racist. It floors me. And almost every time something happened in the past to provoke that active, current day attitude. Generally a crime committed against family or business. That person adopts the mindset that there are no good, trustworthy people of that race. Which astounds me because every race has its bad apples. When this has happened to me I try to get the conversation off that topic onto a safe one. Then I swear I will never socialize again with that person. Which makes it difficult when that person is the husband of a college friend and I introduced them and attended the wedding and didn't see them for 40+ years. And wonder what in the hell happened to the quiet shy man to turn him into such a blowhard?
    As usual, Julia, I am eagerly waiting for the next story from Millers Kill and have joined the Save Kevin movement.

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    1. Pat, years ago, my agent suggested maybe I should knock off Kevin. "It would make a very emotional book," she said. I told her my readers would never forgive me! :-)

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    2. I may have wanted to kick him in the seat of the pants when he resigned and ran off rather than talking to Hadley, but kill him off??? NEVER!!!!

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  21. Julia, this excerpt really grabbed my attention. Very timely!

    While I cannot think of a movie or a writer, I was reminded of a news story about Black Lives Matter protest and a Nazi protest. What happened was that a Nazi or a skinhead was injured and a Black person went to help him. That really struck me because the Black person risked herself to help someone on the opposing side.

    Diana

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    1. I believe that was at a protest in London, Diana.

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    2. Lovely. And a chance to remember that dark times make the light stand out even more powerfully.

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    3. That would be a lovely scene in a novel.

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  22. Julia, you always get it right in your books. Russ and Clare are such wonderful people with problems we can all understand. I’m sure all of us know people whose beliefs make us sick. It is always a struggle to know how to react to them without making the situation worse. My husband is in a football pool with his brother, cousins, and friends. One of his cousins is an alt-right AH. The guys always communicate through texts. This AH would rant on in his texts. My husband would just ignore them, but his brother would try and interacted with him. This year, it just got to be too much and too extreme. The entire football pool have blocked his texts and kicked him out of the pool. Sometimes you do need to shun the offenders.

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    1. I agree, Teri. As the widely spread xkcd cartoon says, "The right to free speech means the government can't arrest you for what you say. It doesn't mean that anyone else has to listen to your bull$&!t, or host you while you share it."

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    2. Sadly, I've had to FB-block two of my nephews in Idaho. I won't tolerate what they post on my page and don't want to hear it.

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  23. Julia, great snippet! As usual. And I hereby officially join the "Save Kevin" club.
    I admire you tackling such a difficult subject but I wouldn't worry too much about providing a how-to manual. Not only are would-be Nazis unlikely to be reading nuanced crime fiction, the fact that you are female is another strike against you. Even my charming Scottish ex-husband loved to brag that he'd never read a book written by a woman...

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    1. Aaaaand...now we see why he's an EX husband!

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    2. Deb, I knew you would join the S.K.C.!

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    3. Charming, indeed. No wonder he's your ex, if I may say so.

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  24. Julia, I love that you are tackling this issue. As fiction writers, now more than ever, we have to wonder what our work can add to the world. What is its purpose. I know that I have been mulling that over for the past six months. I ask myself, what are the things that really matter now? I'm excited that you are confronting an issue that you have been studying for a long time.

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  25. Bravo. And you know, it's not really a 'difficult' subject. We have people marching under Nazi flags in our streets. "We need to stop it." Clare knows. Thanks for this piece.

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  26. Well, if anyone knows Nazis (fictionally, not IRL!) it would be you, James!

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  27. Wow, powerful, Julia. Can't wait for the release.

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  28. I recommend the recent New York Times podcast called Nice White Parents. White supremacists are a problem but more of a problem is human nature particularly when it comes to our children.

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  29. I’m coming in so late, but I hope some of you read my comments because I’m going to recommend another book that gets it right. Jay has already mentioned Darktown, which I second. And, Allen Eskins’ Nothing More Dangerous is fantastic, too.

    Julia, your excerpt sounds like we have some heavy issues coming our way in the next book, but I’m confident you will do a great job with it. You never shy away from the heavy stuff, and you always weave it into the story masterfully. Little upsets me more than white supremacy, but that doesn’t mean I shy away from books dealing with it. We all need to be well informed and well prepared to fight this monstrosity.

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    1. I think you're right, Kathy, and I'm making this comment just so you'll know somebody read what you had to say.

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    2. Thank you, Gigi. I’m sorry I didn’t check back sooner.

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  30. I'm in the West, a Californian now living in rural Oregon. Out here the strain of White Supremacy known as the Sovereign Citizens Movement--which has been designated a significant source of domestic terrorism--has birthed the Constitutionalists. They believe that county sheriffs are the highest law officers in the land, having been elected, and are the only law officers who should be obeyed and who can interpret the law. Within that group, there is a subgroup of law enforcement officers who have been recruited who subscribe to those beliefs, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. "Sovereign citizens" have killed law enforcement officers in the past when their distorted views have been challenged. I hate to think what it would be like to be an officer whose fellow officer subscribed to this subversive ideology.

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  31. I have confidence that you can make this work. You've already made the banner-holder's wife a person, with shared concerns for the safety of husbands. I can hardly wait to read this . . . Do we know when? <3

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