Book Review: “The Awakening of David Rose” by Daryl Rothman

In 2013, I met a friend. His name was Daryl.

We met at a writing conference, and he told me he was (unsurprisingly) writing a book. Several, actually. He was editing one, a young adult fantasy novel, and was pitching that, along with an adult literary fiction novel, at the conference. He seemed cool.

We traded numbers. We got coffee on the pretense of writing together. We wrote together several times, on the pretense of getting coffee. Sometimes we wrote more, sometimes we talked more. Sometimes I insisted that he keep quiet while I write because I really had to finish what I was working on. (Which was my debut novel, The Sowing, and we were on a deadline: it really was important.) Sometimes he didn’t care and kept talking anyway, and I’m very grateful for those moments when he didn’t care that I had work to do, because out of those moments of stubbornness I got one of the best friends I’ve ever had.

I’m sorry. You thought this was going to be a book review, didn’t you? Don’t lose hope. It will be, I promise, but it has a little ways to go yet.

Daryl and I became friends on the pretense of being writers first. He asked me if my mom, who owns a small independent publishing company in St. Louis, might be interested in publishing his YA. I read it, and then politely declined, or he didn’t care to properly submit, or something similar, for reasons I’ve forgotten, so they must have been unimportant.

We drank more coffee.

Coffee, it turns out, is very important to Daryl. But not as important as writing.

Daryl has dreamed of being a writer since he was in high school English class, a dream he nobly and tragically postponed, first for a marriage, and then for kids, and then for the way that life can get in the way. But the dream never died. It was just postponed.

A few months ago, Daryl had his first novel published by Booktrope, which, quite literally one week later, went under.

It seemed an odd stroke of luck for someone who had just achieved something he’d dreamed of for over two decades. That, within the first week of his debut novel being published, his publisher should fold.

Nevertheless, because by this point Daryl was one of my best friends, I bought his book, downloaded it onto my Kindle, and promised that, once I was through with my obligations to other friends and my intermittent attempts at self-improvement through reading self-important works of literature, I would read and review his book.

Here is the promised review.

Daryl’s first novel is excellent.

Not “OH MY GOD I NEARLY SHAT MYSELF WHILE READING THIS IT WAS SO GOOD” excellent.

Not “I’m just saying this because Daryl is also one of my best friends” excellent.

Just, excellent. It’s well-written, a good story with endearing characters, with a quick pace and a steady heartbeat..

I can objectively say this. You might challenge me. I challenge you: read the book. It’s quite good. Excellent, even.

Fine. I will get to the review.

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Daryl’s first novel is called THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE, and it is a story quite similar, in some ways, to one of my childhood favorite books, THE DARK IS RISING series, by Susan Cooper. It also has similarities to the Nickelodeon TV show AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER. (Which, if you haven’t watched it, is quite literally one of the best shows I’ve ever seen in my life. Go watch it. Now.) THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE is about a fifteen-year-old named David Rose, who comes to discover, to his great surprise, that he is the heir to a reincarnation cycle thousands of years old, and with it, a conflict thousands of years in the making.

Beginning with a strange encounter with a nymph a single day before his fifteenth birthday, David is plagued by what might be called a series of unfortunate events that all lead up to him and his family taking a trip to Kane Manor, built close to the famous Tintagel Castle in England, where David reluctantly discovers that he is the heir to the Lancelot side of the ancient Lancelot-Gawain duel for the love of a fair maiden (Guinevere? We’re never told), and a long tradition of good vs. evil style battling for the fate of the world.

In between, David is torn between  his duty to his younger sister Rachel, to whom he has promised to try to find out what really happened to their mother when she disappeared (died? David refuses to believe it) in an explosive car accident a year and a half ago, and his schoolwork, real life, and relationship with his father. Meanwhile, there is Donovan, the son of David’s father’s new love interest. Donovan and David develop a terse rivalry, in which they both pretend to be friends (and actually seem to be genuinely trying to be friends) but keep coming unexpectedly into conflict – primarily over girls. From Rachel, David’s sister, who has an uncanny dislike of Donovan, to David’s high school crush, Amanda. David likes her, but Donovan asks her to the school dance, violating the unspoken ‘bro code’ between guys of all generations – thou shalt not ask a girl to the dance when your friend has already told you he likes her. Duh. Come on, Donovan. Even I know that.

The writing is excellent. Daryl alternates well between a mature, literary style, most clearly exemplified during the moments of reflection and in the scene-setting descriptions, and a more young-adult-ish style, which comes across in the dialogue. The nonchalant teenager repartee is almost perfectly depicted, as is Rachel’s character, whose bright, tenacious innocence makes her a foil for David’s skeptical, stolid nature. I’ve been told Rachel will have a larger role in the books to come, and I look forward to seeing how she grows.

THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE is to be a four-part series, I’m told, with three more books to come. I hope the next ones do not take as long to appear as the first one did, but I trust now that Daryl has launched his first book into the world, the rest will not be so far behind. I will, of course, be following his journey – as a friend first, a fellow writer second, and now, most recently, as a fan.

Highly recommended, for all those who enjoy children’s or young adult fantasy.

Book Review: “H Is For Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

“H is for Hawk” is currently causing an uproar in the British literary world, achieving mountains of acclaim from critics and fellow writers on both sides of the pond. I first found out about it through BrainPickings, a weekly digest of assembled blog posts that thematically explores famous thinkers and works through the use of quotes, relevant artwork, and a lot of cross-posting. I have an on-again off-again relationship with BrainPickings, which I find by turns astonishingly profound and helpful, and by turns trite and repetitive. But Maria Popova’s praise for “H is for Hawk” caught my eye. She writes of the book:

“Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor.”

High praise! Naturally, I set about finding a copy.

The cover features a quote from the Economist, which describes the book as “one part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world, and one part literary meditation.” It’s really impossible to see the book as anything other than a three-fold exploration. Ostensibly, the book’s beginning is the death of Macdonald’s father, a journalist and photographer. Certainly that is where the conflict begins: Macdonald falls into a deep depression, and finds herself inexorably drawn to the wildness and wilderness involved in training a young goshawk.

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But in some sense, the book began long before that. Macdonald writes of her childhood fascination with falconry of all kinds. She obsessed over falconry the way I obsessed over horses: learning everything there was to know about bird anatomy, caring for and training the creatures, hunting with falcons, and the history of falconry as told through myriad British men through the ages.

One such man happened to be T.H. White, famed author of The Once And Future King. He wrote other books, of course, one of which happened to be a narrative about his own retreat into nature via an ill-fated attempt at taming a goshawk. A young Macdonald obsessed over this book. And when her father died and her internal world was abruptly thrown into chaos, she felt some connection with White, and was drawn to his story.

And so the book is a three-part tale: Macdonald’s trauma and her attempt to use the goshawk – Mabel is her name – to heal herself; Macdonald’s insights, both intuitive and laden with scholarly precision, into the world of hawks and falconry, from historical and etymological information to detailed notes on how hawks perceive and relate to the world; and finally, White’s relationship with his own hawk, Gos, and why White’s journey inspired, and ultimately diverged from, Helen’s.

I think in part BrainPickings set me up for failure: the book was excellent, but it was five-star excellent, not seven-star excellent, not once-in-a-lifetime excellent. The book is never boring, but I did not race through it as other reviewers said they did. I walked through, stolidly, enjoying the moments of light and of cheer, the moments when Helen describes playing catch with Mabel, surprised and delighted at her hawk’s playful side, and pausing at the darkness and moments of weight, the passages when she cries herself to sleep on the couch and cannot seem to speak to other human beings. Astonishingly unsentimental for a book that is, essentially, a meditation about life and death, it was an introspective book, not one to be rushed through, not a page turner. And while there are countless moments of quiet beauty, and Macdonald’s descriptions of the English countryside she and her hawk hunt and train in are exquisite, it never quite lifted me into the transcendental, the tactile connection between man and earth that other authors have achieved.

One thing I loved was the author’s impressive command of vocabulary. I admired this in the same distant way I admire Cormac McCarthy for the same ability, and Hemingway for his spare prose. Her use of uncommon words never felt overbearing or verbose for the sake of it. She also uses words in new ways – as descriptions I never would have thought of – and they fit perfectly, never detracting from the flow.

This summer lunch feels deeply unreal. Shadows of damask and silver, a photogravure in an album, something from Agatha Christine, from Evelyn Waugh, from another time. But the wasps are real. They are here, and they are present. So is the hawk, the sun at their centre. And me? I do not know. I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within. (130)

Her scholarly background and childish imagination also gives her an approach to the history of falconry that connects us to a larger tradition, an expanse far greater than just her and Mabel and White and Gos.

I had, as a child, bought into that imagined world of tweed-clad Victorian falconers, where death was visceral and ever-present and hedged with ceremonial formalities. When I watched those men with goshawks put the dead pheasant in the bag all those years ago I saw a kind of ease that bespoke centuries of social privilege and sporting confidence.

I loved these lines of connection, lines Macdonald brings to light effortlessly throughout the book, partly because of the obvious symbolism in falconry: her hawk is literally bound to her by creances, lines like leashes that keep the hawk close at hand in the early stages of training, if I’ve got it right. Lines that Macdonald illustrates by drawing parallels between hawks and war planes in the World Wars, by talking about falconry in America and Kazakhstan and Arabia. Lines she illuminates by noting the etymology of the word game as in game bird, and poaching, and comparing her love of hawks to her father’s love of airplanes. In everything there are lines of connection, if only you remember to look – a theme that runs throughout the book and is perfectly encapsulated in a moment when she and a friend are flying Mabel, and he points out the lines of gossamer threads in the grass at their feet, which Helen has neglected because she is blind to everything but the hawk.

But the connections are always there, even when we ignore them or cannot see them.

This will certainly draw comparisons to Wild, by Cheryl Strayed. Both memoirs by women in a largely male-dominated field, both born out of grief and trauma and depression, both taking place on the knife’s edge of the line drawn between man and animal, man and wild, man and earth. I haven’t read Wild yet, but it’s soon up on my list. I’ll let you know my thoughts.

I am not usually a reader of memoirs, but this one might have turned me to the genre. Usually I find my stories in more vivid, hallucinatory, imaginary worlds, but this one is clearly drawn enough to bring you into England’s ancient forests and dark mythologies, while rooted firmly in this century. The way each personality interweaves through the narrative – Gos, White, Mabel, Helen, and, towards the end, Helen’s father, too – has reminded me of the power of real life stories as well as fictional ones.

Recommended for: anyone who enjoys great writing, anyone who enjoys memoirs, anyone fascinated by the crossroads of wildness and humanness.

Get your copy here:
Amazon Kindle
Amazon UK
Hardback

 

On Fantasy

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…

Just kidding, it was only twenty years and three thousand miles away. Hang on…that’s a suspiciously long way from my current location in the space-time continuum. Let’s try this again.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a young girl named Amira Makansi was taught to read novels by reading The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Her mother read aloud to her and her sister every night, spinning tales of whispering forests, adventuring dwarves, mysterious wizards, and deadly dragons. From goblins to orcs to gollums to elves, the young girl fell in love with this magical realm and by the end of the battle of the Five Armies, she wanted more.

Lord of the Rings Tryptich by Marko Manev

So her mother kept reading. They quickly moved on to The Fellowship Of The Ring. She read to the girl and her sister every night without fail, as the hobbits and their companions wandered through bogs and taverns, marshes and mines, over hill and under stone, battling Nazgul, cave trolls, and Uruk-Hai, making friends with ponies, free men, elves, and large talking trees.

Fantasy was how a young Amira Makansi, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, learned to read. Fantasy was how I learned to LOVE to read.

It’s been a long time since I’ve found a fantasy novel that has captured my imagination as vividly as J. R. R. Tolkien’s classic tale of good vs. evil. I think in some ways, I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing that high. The first book of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, is still on my top ten favorite books of all time.

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I fell in love with Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, and then graduated to R. A. Salvatore’s archetypal antihero Drizzt Do’Urden. I loved almost equally Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising series, although C.S. Lewis’ Narnia never enchanted me the same way it did others. It almost goes without saying that Harry Potter was my bread and butter throughout much of my own coming-of-age story – Harry was the same age as I was, and we went through our teenage years together. In more recent times, I think the closest I’ve come to that sense of epic, fantastical drama has been Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone series, which redefined for me what one could do with the idea of magic. Both Neil Gaiman and Patrick Rothfuss have tried, though neither has quite succeeded, to do for me what The Lord Of The Rings did so long ago.

Science fiction is a close parallel, so much so that the two genres are often lumped together. Both involve immense amounts of speculation and world-building, creating worlds future and past, or at the crossroads where other worlds meet our own. Dystopian fiction fits into that category – one must extrapolate how our world could end up like the one described in the future. Same with urban fantasy, where we are required to imagine how magic or special abilities could be hidden from sight for most while others run in dark underground worlds filled with shadowy demons and strange new forms of magic.
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But none of these have the same peculiar, magical appeal of high fantasy, which spirits us away to foreign lands with rich foods and strong mead and enchanted swords and dangerous evils lurking behind every rock for the valiant adventurer to defeat.

As George R. R. Martin writes, “There is something old and true in fantasy that speaks to something deep within us, to the child who dreamt that one day he would hunt the forests of the night, and feast beneath the hollow hills, and find a love to last forever somewhere south of Oz and north of Shangri-La.” That peculiar call of the wild is true of historical fiction, too, though perhaps to a lesser extent. We are drawn back into the magic of a simpler time, where we lived closer to nature and died more honestly.

Game of Thrones Targaryan

What is it about fantasy that calls to us and haunts us, that drives us to escape in it and wish for it?

What are your favorite fantasy books? I’m eager for recommendations. What will sing to me the same way J. R. R. Tolkien did? What hole will I fall into and never want to return from?

Writer Wednesday: Author Interview with Daryl Rothman

Today for #WriterWednesday I introduce you to Daryl Rothman, a great writer and a better friend. Daryl is the newly published author of THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE, a young adult urban fantasy novel in the style of  Susan Cooper’s THE DARK IS RISING series. My admiration for his writing style and his determination has never waned, which is why I asked him to speak with me about his motivations and inspirations on this blog. . 

Daryl

Anyone who’s gone through the struggle of writing a full-length novel must love literature. How did you discover your love of reading and writing? 

I remember our father reading a variety of stories to us when we were very young, including Edgar Allen Poe and O’Henry. I recall being on a family vacation when I was six and the urge to write a story suddenly swept over me. I was in the far back of the old station wagon, no paper, so I began a story on the back of some big, glossy baseball card type thing. I don’t recall the story, only that it was one of the earliest occurrences of me being imbued something I felt to my bones: namely, hey, this is something I am meant to do. This is something I love.

How did this childhood love of writing translate into your current path as a published author? 

I thought about teaching English but harbored no delusion that the degree would translate automatically into becoming a published author, and so I set about pursuing some other passions that portended a more feasible vocation. But always within me did the writing dream remain, and when the David Rose idea germinated around a decade ago I guess that conferred to me at least something more of a frame and motive for moving forward. It truly was a dream deferred. Four to five years ago I become much more serious, and dug in and got some drafts completed. I know that seems far-flung, a four-decade trajectory linking my incipient passion to where I sit now. But it’s the truth and I reckon whatever your passion, once it takes hold, it’s got you, it IS you, no matter the road or the years upon it.

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Your debut novel THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE, is the culmination of that passion taking hold. Can you describe some of the inspiration for this book?

After seeing one of the Harry Potter films with my eldest child, David, around ten years ago, I was struck by the sense of wonder these films and stories engendered in audiences of all ages. We talked about what he liked about them and I asked him if he’d like me to write a story for him perhaps with some of those magical and fantastical themes and he said yes and I promised that I would. A storyline fell to me one day at work and I would write in fits and starts over the next year, partly because I was working full-time and life, you know, happens. But the main holdup, looking back, was that the story lacked a heartbeat, that certain oomph without which no measure of magic or fantasy or could overcome.

David had always been good to and protective of his baby sister Rachel, but around that time we were at a park for a birthday party and he and I were watching Rachel as she played and what happened next was one of those surreal moments. David was standing closer to Rachel than was I, and I saw him look at me with what later I would realize was a “are you gonna do anything” expression, before springing  forward, scooping Rachel up in his arms and backpedaling quickly away.

An enormous bee had begun dive-bombing her and both she and I were oblivious but not David, who had assiduously avoided bee stings, but in that moment none of that mattered—all that mattered was removing his sister from harm’s way. Protecting his sister was in his DNA, and in that moment was found the heartbeat of my tale. The Awakening of David Rose.

So the relationship between David, your protagonist, and Rachel, his younger sister in the books, is ‘based on a true story’?

Yes, the David and Rachel in the story, and the bond between them, are absolutely based upon the real deal. As time has passed it was Rachel who became my literary soul (she read all Potter books cover to cover years ago), but the book represents a promise to my children and though it will be a series and I hope it is well-received and will help launch my authorial career,  at the end of the day it begins and ends with that promise, a small way to thank them for being not only the heartbeat of my tale, but of my life.

The first David Rose book reads a bit like Harry Potter meets Edgar Allen Poe – a young protagonist surrounded by dark and suspenseful action, all of it heavy with meaning. What are your thoughts about writing dark fiction that appeals to kids? 

My inclination writing for any audience is somewhat toward the dark side. I am far more in my element when mining more angst-filled territory. But life will throw kids curves and yes some pain and I think it’s okay, and sometimes even emboldening for them to take that journey with characters facing great challenge, facing the darkness, and to discover—with the characters and perhaps within themselves—those trusted places where  we can in our darkest moments, make safe harbor and find a little light.

Spoken like someone who knows the value of safe harbor and a little light. What personal experiences, ideas, or themes do you draw on most in your writing?

For David Rose all themes derived ultimately from the primary one, which was the love and protection between David and Rachel. Then, my plot delving into fantasy and a bit of world-building I tried to imbue it with some of the themes you might expect – darkness and light, time, the blurred lines between good and evil, blurred lines between worlds.
But for other works…my literary work-in-progress Cucariva, some short stories, pieces I’ve had on my blog, I’ll call upon that reservoir of experiences which shapes me just as each of ours shapes us in its way. I usually offer some flicker of hope, of light in the darkness, but these reservoirs, even the painful ones, maybe especially the painful ones, help me inhabit my characters more fully.
What was the first thing you started working on after David Rose? 

A literary-suspense turn called Cucariva. My writing voice tends toward the literary. I am about 50K words in and hope(perhaps ambitiously) to have a draft done and to betas by end of July. While they have it, I hope to make inroads on the next David Rose book. I notched 3-4 chapters on that while the first one was in the editorial and publication process, and am pretty excited about the possibilities.

Daryl is the author of THE AWAKENING OF DAVID ROSE, the first in a series of what will eventually be five books. He spends his spare time either in libraries and coffee shops writing with his daughter Rachel, entertaining his youngest son Daniel, or trying to sneakily take photos of his picture-shy oldest son David, who is the primary inspiration for his first published novel. He enjoys barbecue, donuts, cigars, and Seinfeld, all with equal fervor. If you are interested in learning more about him, click over to his website, or follow him on Facebook

Book Review: The California Wife by Kristen Harnisch

In August of 2015 I had the pleasure of meeting novelist Kristen Harnisch at the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. I was introduced to her first novel, The Vintner’s Daughter, a historical fiction novel about a young French woman, Sara Thibault, who grows up making wine with her father, a winemaker in the Loire Valley. Forced to flee to America, she naturally makes her way west to California, where a fledgling wine industry is growing in Napa Valley. Naturally, I loved it. As a female winemaker-cum-writer with a love of history, I was pretty much the ideal audience for The Vintner’s Daughter.

The California Wife is the continuation of Sara’s story, now Sara Lemieux – to no one’s surprise, she has found love in California with a vintner, also French, who coincidentally hails from the same small region that she does. (There is a lot more to this coincidence than I’m letting on.) The California Wife takes place over the course of several years, and depicts in rich detail a number of important historical events, including the 1900 Paris World Fair and the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The California Wife is a continuation of Sara’s story, and it is, at heart, hers to tell, but there are so many new characters at play that at times – particularly towards the end – the story slips away from her. To my surprise, this in no way detracted from the book. If anything, it revitalized a story that was, in some ways, beginning to grow stale.

The California Wife

The book begins in France, as Sara is preparing to marry Philippe Lemieux. They struggle to rebuild relationships – Philippe’s brother was quite a destructive personality – and to rebuild Sara’s ancestral home, which was destroyed in a fire as Sara fled. The first half of the book is mostly about Sara realizing that marriage isn’t always a picnic, as she and Philippe argue over money, children, how to manage the business, and more. The ups and downs of Sara’s marriage and her relationship with Philippe grow tiring at points, as it seems they’re constantly either finding something new to fight over or somehow resolving the fight. While the business aspect of managing an early 20th century winery was interesting to me, I imagine that has a lot to do with my love of winemaking. And even for me, that dragged at times.

Business aside, there were some fascinating moments in Sara and Philippe’s relationship. Their trip to the 1900 Paris World Fair was thrilling. I felt like I was really there, seeing the sights and experiencing the fair alongside them. It was a historical moment brought to life. Later, when Sara learns that Philippe has had a child out of wedlock – and before Sara was ever in the picture – she must decide how to handle the news. The evolution of Sara’s reaction was poignant and very real. And there is a devastating moment in the book that I can’t share for obvious reasons – spoilers! – that cast both characters in a different light.

But interestingly enough, for me, the best part of the book was not about Sara Lemieux, or winemaking at all. It was Marie’s story, who we met briefly in the first book as the midwife who delivers Sara’s sister’s baby boy, Luc, in New York City. Marie is also connected to Philippe’s family, by way of daughter fathered out of wedlock by Philippe’s brother Bastien. In this book, Marie is persuaded by Sara to come out to San Francisco to study to be a surgeon. Marie is the first female student to attend the medical school there, and much of the second half of The California Wife is devoted to Marie’s story. Marie’s studies give us a fascinating bit of insight into medical techniques at the beginning of the 20th century, as doctors were just beginning to perform advanced surgeries, and using anesthetics like chloroform and cocaine. If The Vintner’s Daughter felt firmly lodged in the past, The California Wife, with electricity, phone calls, and cars, feels almost modern. Nothing throws that contrast so sharply into light as Marie’s fledgling career as a surgeon.

Marie is every bit as captivating a heroine as Sara, and personally I’d almost like to see a prequel about her backstory as a midwife in New York. She, too, finds love on the West Coast, a developing romance with a wealthy doctor who also happens to be one of her teachers. (Scandalous!) Her struggles for legitimacy as the only woman in her class, along with her tenacity and love for her daughter, make her every bit as endearing a protagonist as Sara.

The book ends on a devastating – but hopeful – note, which makes me think Kristen Harnisch isn’t done with this cast of characters yet. With talk of the Kaiser raising an army and plenty of rebuilding to be done after the San Francisco earthquake, it seems history will always provide ample material for new stories. About halfway through this book, I was close to thinking the story was tapped out, languishing in marital discord and business trivialities. But now that I’ve finished, and it’s clear the extended Lemieux family has more in store, I’m hoping for a third in the series. (Or better yet, the aforementioned prequel!)

All in all, another vivid work of historical fiction with a compelling cast of characters. Highly recommended!

Writer Wednesday: Author Interview with Tarah Benner

Back in 2014, I started doing a series of author interviews called #WriterWednesday, in which I brought new and innovative authors onto my website in an attempt to connect my readership with the wealth of diverse indie authors out there in the world. Although the interview series fell off, I am pleased to revive it now, beginning with an inaugural interview with Tarah Benner, author of the Fringe series and the Defectors series. Tarah’s obsession with dystopian literature began at the age of thirteen when she first read “Fahrenheit 451,” and she claims she’s been preparing for the apocalypse ever since. Tarah graduated from the University of Missouri with a degree in Journalism and lives in Columbia, Missouri. Her books consistently sell well on Amazon and she writes prolifically. She enjoys reading, running, Krav Maga, kickboxing, and binge-watching on Netflix. You can connect with her on Twitter @TarahBenner.

TarahBenner

Welcome, Tarah! You have written and self-published two book series, The Defectors and The Fringe, both of which are dystopian, post-apocalyptic novels. Why does the dystopian genre fascinate you?

I first started The Defectors because I loved reading dystopian books and wanted to try writing my own. Now that I’ve written several dystopian books, I realize that I love the genre because it allows me to express my fear and outrage at things that are going on in the real world.

On the surface, my books have all the trappings of a dystopian page-turner — a kick-ass heroine, a steamy romance, an evil government, lots of action, etc. — but I’ve worked hard to build the conflicts within the story around looming catastrophes from the real world.

One of the major conflicts in The Defectors is a corporate machine run amok and the domino effect of fuel shortages that would lead to food scarcity. The Fringe takes place after widespread nuclear devastation, but that’s just the beginning. In this new society, corruption, eugenics, and espionage create a host of new problems.

Your publishing journey has so far been brief but prolific: you put your first book (Book 1 of the Defectors series) out into the world just two and a half years ago, in September of 2013. Can you share with us how you’ve managed to put out eight books – soon to be nine – in such a brief time span? 

In a word: focus. I do write pretty fast, but that’s only a tiny part of it. The truth of the matter is that if you want to make a full-time living as an author these days and you don’t have a runaway bestseller, you need to be prolific. I knew that I wanted fiction to be my career, so I used to wake up hours before I had to be at my day job and write like a fiend on the weekends.

To get books out consistently, I also have to take off my sensitive artist hat and put on my business hat. I decided from day one that I wanted to follow startup principles by producing a minimum viable product — i.e., a manuscript that wasn’t ready for prime time yet — and get feedback very early on in the process. Then I would revise ruthlessly to get the book where it needed to be, send it to my editor, and publish. I’m constantly tweaking my process to be better and more efficient, and every book gets easier.

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You chose to write The Fringe series from the perspective of a female and a male lead – Eli and Harper – which is the same thing we did for our Seeds series. What led to that decision? What made you feel that both Eli and Harper needed to tell their own stories? 

Eli and Harper are very different people and represented two polarities in society. In book one, Harper is gunning for an elite job as a computer programmer. She’s smart, but she’s also a little bit entitled. Eli has a very dangerous, low-level job going out into the radiation-soaked desert — sort of like the canary in the coal mine. He’s tough and cynical because he’s experienced so much death and loss. Harper and Eli have had very different life experiences, and part of the fun of book one is seeing the clash of their personalities and worldviews. 

Can you tell us about the themes of environmental devastation in your Fringe series, and what kind of research went into building these themes? 

Nuclear annihilation is one of my biggest fears, so it’s something that’s always been on my radar. I researched extensively to understand what the fallout would be and then imagined what the world would look like years after the bombs dropped.

The real fun was imagining how humans could survive. I first got the idea for the compounds after reading about Biosphere 2— the self-sustaining ecosystem in Arizona. The real-world experiment was a disaster, and it got me thinking about what would be necessary to build something like that on a larger scale. I considered everything from the minimum viable population for the ecosystem to the sort of food they would have to grow.

Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000035_00032]

The final book in the Fringe series, Annihilation, is due out June 20. How does it feel to have wrapped up a five-book series? 

It’s extremely satisfying, but it’s also sad. I’ve lived with these characters for several years now, and they’ve grown so much that they almost feel like real people to me. I’ve had fun wrapping up the book and deciding their fates, but it will be tough to say goodbye.

You’re a successful self-published author who has built a small but legion following in just two and a half years. What wisdom would you offer to an author who is just beginning their journey to publication? 

My small tribe of devoted readers means everything to me. They’re how I survive. Breaking out in publishing is harder than it’s ever been, and getting the whole world to care about your book in our era of entertainment overload is an exercise in futility. But you don’t need the whole world to care about you. If you can find that core group of people who truly love your work, you can make it as an author.

Tarah, thank you so much for doing this. It’s always heartening to hear about other indie authors who are really making a living in this industry. For those of you who would like to learn more about Tarah’s work, check out her website or the Amazon page for Recon, the first book in the Fringe series. 

 

Crystallized: A Poem

Blue lips
Cold bird
Half-buried in snow.

Don’t tell me
You’re gone.

White boughs
Heavy
Limbs
That ache, tired.

When you fell
In
On the twenty-first of December
I knew
Then.

Summer is here now
But you are still
Crystallized.

Don’t tell me –
I know.
Where you’ve gone.

Dormantic-gohmn

Image: “Dormantic” by Gohmn on ello.co

10 Things I’ve Learned In Two Weeks Of Self-Employment

It’s Friday!

A few weeks ago, that would have meant a lot more to me than it does today. (Spoiler alert: one of the things on this list is that the days of the week don’t matter that much anymore.) But Friday means that I’ve officially had two weeks as a full-time member of the No-Pants Club (I am in fact not wearing pants right now) trying to turn writing into a full-time career.

fashion, man, art

In the two weeks that I’ve been working from home, I’ve discovered that, for all I had hopes and dreams my life would be radically different and I would be free – free! – from all the stresses and challenges of modern-day living, instead, things are very much the same as they always were. I still struggle to balance my workload. I still have a tough time getting up in the morning. I still have a hard time forcing myself to work out. Just because I don’t have to do these things on anyone else’s schedule, doesn’t mean I don’t still have to do them. But in two weeks, I’ve already figured out some tactics for preventing inefficiency and allowing myself to sleep at night. So, without further ado, here are ten things I’ve learned in two weeks of self-employment:

10. Life is still stressful. 

In fact, it’s arguably more stressful. The difference is that it’s internal rather than external. Now that I am the sole deciding factor in whether or not I can pay my bills, there’s a lot more pressure to succeed. When you’re working for someone else, the money is steady. That paycheck shows up regularly, and it may not be much, or as much as you’d like, but it’s there. And it’s consistent. Now, that consistency is gone, and I alone am responsible for determining whether or not I’ll be able to pay rent next month. Sound stressful? Yeah. It is.

9. The days of the week cease to matter. 

Drinks on Tuesday? Four-hour writing session on Saturday? Brunch on Monday morning? It all sounds great to me. When you’re self-employed, it doesn’t matter what day or what time of the day you get your work and your fun in – it only matters that you get your work done, and that you block out times to relax and de-stress just as you would at a normal job.

vintage, technology, keyboard

8. “Decision anxiety” is real. 

A few times over the last two weeks I’ve wasted as much as a few hours inefficiently flipping between several different projects I wanted to work on and for some reason couldn’t pick one to focus on. When you’re self-employed, you have to be diligent in blocking out periods of time to work on certain tasks. Otherwise, as I’ve learned, you’ll waste loads of time toggling back and forth between Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram because you want to work on everything at once and can’t decide where to start.

7. Setting small but important goals is critical. 

If you don’t set goals, you don’t have anything to keep you on target, and you won’t have a history of what you’ve done to get where you are now. By setting and tracking goals – for me, these go under different categories of writing, blogging, marketing, and social media – I can account for what I did each day, and what works and what doesn’t. Also, when you set goals, and cross them off your list, you add to your sense of productivity at the end of the day, and feel better about closing your laptop when it’s time to relax.

6. Time management is still hard! 

I thought when I quit my job, I’d have all the time in the world to do whatever the fuck I wanted. I’m not going to lie, I kind of thought that by now I would have watched at least four movies, written several chapters of my book, gotten back into playing the piano, and gotten into the habit of doing at least a small workout every single day. And those weren’t even my stretch goals.

Spoiler alert: Nope.

I’ve definitely been better about working out than I used to be, but only marginally. I’ve watched a few movies, and some TV, but nothing on the order of what I expected given all my free time. I’ve definitely gotten a lot of work done, but not as much as I expected. And I haven’t even touched my keyboard. Guys, let me tell you: time management is always a challenge, whether you’re self-employed, unemployed, or working sixty hours a week.

5. Being self-employed as an author means you have to take the business side seriously. 

I knew this already – I’ve always been passionate about the marketing and publicity side of my author career – but I hadn’t thought about it from the perspective of taxes, accounting, and budgeting. In order to be successful and pay yourself adequately, you have to take a holistic view of your career. This means focusing not just on the artistic side of writing but on the financial as well.

4. It is no easier to get yourself out of bed in the morning when you’re self-employed than when you’re working. 

At least not if you’re me. God, I hate getting out of bed in the morning. If I ever get married, it had better be to someone who doesn’t mind dragging my ass out of bed at 10am every day and making me coffee to ease the grouch.

caffeine, coffee, desk
3.5: Coffee is essential. 

 

3. It’s not paradise… 

Working for yourself still means you have to work. If anything, it means you have to work harder. Everyone knows that being an entrepreneur or a self-starting business requires loads of effort. But despite that, the idyllic image persists (perpetuated by yours truly with my “no-pants club” mantra) of the self-employed businessperson working in their PJs and lounging on the couch every day. And, let’s be honest, some of that is true. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t working. You are. And, as I said above, if anything, you’re probably working harder than you were before, because now there’s so much more riding on you.

2. …but it sure beats working for someone else. 

This is my personal opinion. As a fiercely independent person who intensely dislikes working under or for other people, the freedom that comes from being self-employed is so incredibly liberating it’s almost hard to describe. I despise being told what to do – it’s almost like a part of me never grew out of my petulant teenager phase. (Probably true.) Now that I’m the only person telling me what to do, I finally feel 100% committed to the business in front of me.

1. I love writing. 

Really. I do. I am finally starting to work on Porous again, and taking it out of the outlining stage and into the editing-and-writing stage is delightful. It feels heavenly. It feels like it was meant to be. It feels like home.

Did you enjoy this post? If so, please consider subscribing to my blog for more great – and hopefully entertaining – content. To subscribe, just scroll up and hit the button that says FOLLOW on the right side of the screen. Cheers! 

Win A Free Copy Of THE SOWING!

This week, we’re running an Amazon giveaway of THE SOWING, the first book of the Seeds trilogy. All you have to do to enter is watch a short video of me and my sister Elena introducing ourselves and the characters in the books. It’s funny! (I think.) And fun! (I hope.) And it’s super easy to enter. But hurry – we’re only giving away ten books, so they’ll be gone fast. Click on the book cover below for the link to the giveaway, or read on for a short description of THE SOWING.

Cover with Seal

The Resistance Has Begun.

Remy Alexander wants vengeance. When she and her friends discover a clue that could help reveal the truth behind the massacre that claimed her sister’s life, she may finally get her chance.

Valerian Orlean wants answers. Why the girl he was in love with disappeared three years ago. Why she joined the Resistance – a covert organization sworn to destroy everything he believes in. When he is appointed to lead a government program whose mission is to hunt and destroy the Resistance, he may finally find his answers – and Remy.

In a world where the powerful kill to keep their secrets, and the food you eat can change who you are, Remy and Vale are set on a collision course that could bring everyone together – or tear everything apart.

So, that’s that! Click on over to enter the giveaway – no purchase necessary! – and Join The Resistance!

Book Review: Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

A few months ago I wrote a blog post called “The First And Last Time I’ll Talk About Veganism”. In the post I vaguely promised that I would not be expounding frequently (or ever again) about veganism, at least not on this blog. This book review is a narrow dodge of that promise: I’m not talking about veganism directly. I’m talking about a book. That someone else wrote. That works, right? I haven’t broken my promise.

Passed to me coincidentally when my sister Elena brought home a copy and I had just been introduced to JSF’s work via his debut novel, Everything Is Illuminated, I couldn’t help but think I was fated, in some way, to read this book. I suppose we’re all destined to read the books we read, in a broad sense, but rarely do I feel so drawn to a text as to feel that it was inevitable, that I had no choice but to read this book, that it was going to find its way into my hands one way or another. In this case, it happened to be at the exact right time.

Late in April I began to read it. I finished the book this past Tuesday. Rarely, if ever, do I read nonfiction, and when I do, it tends to take on the order of months for me to finish, not days or weeks. That alone is a testament to the impact this book has made on me.

That, and the fact that I can’t shut up about it.

Eating Animals JSF

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer, is as much a philosophical examination of the way we eat and why that is important, as it is a book about meat-eating. It begins with a personal anecdote about JSF’s grandmother, a survivor of the Holocaust whose reverence for food stems from her close call with starvation as she fled the Nazis. But it is precisely her reverence for the caloric importance of food that introduces us to the idea that even when we are starving, what we eat still matters.

‘The worst it got was near the end. A lot of people died right at the end, and I didn’t know if I could make it another day. A farmer, a Russian, God bless him, he saw my condition, and he went into his house and came out with a piece of meat for me.’

‘He saved your life.’

‘I didn’t eat it…It was pork. I wouldn’t eat pork…’

‘What, because it wasn’t kosher?’

‘Of course.’

‘But not even to save your life?’

‘If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.’

This story, about a starving Jewish woman who refused to eat pork because it wasn’t kosher, even when that decision could have condemned her to death, informs the rest of the book.

“If nothing matters, there’s nothing to save.”

The rest of the book is a philosophical, intellectual, and very physical examination of what really matters in the business of raising and killing animals for food. JSF breaks into a top-security factory farm with an animal rights’ activist to risk giving the turkeys kept there some water. He speaks with several different “ethical” farmers who are trying to do things the old way – the “right” way. He examines, in excruciating detail, the gruesome and horrifying ways animals on factory farms are bred, raised, imprisoned, killed, and eventually, turned into food for our consumption. On the subject of broiler chickens:

Needless to say, jamming deformed, drugged, overstressed birds together in a filthy, waste-coated room is not very healthy. Beyond deformities, eye damage, blindness, bacterial infections of bones, slipped vertebrae, paralysis, internal bleeding, anemia, slipped tendons, twisted lower legs and necks, respiratory diseases, and weakened immune systems are frequent and long-standing problems on factory farms…virtually all chickens become infected with E. coli and between 39 and 75 percent of chickens in retail stores are still infected. Around 8 percent of birds are infected with salmonella…Seventy to 90 percent are infected with another potentially deadly pathogen, campylobacter.

He discusses the pollution and health externalities that, when factored out of the equation, have allowed meat corporations (note I don’t say “farmers”) to cut the cost of meat down to its lowest price per pound in millennia:

The impression the pig industry wishes to give is that fields can absorb the toxins in hog feces, but we know this isn’t true. Runoff creeps into waterways, and poisonous gases like ammonia and hydrogen sulfide evaporate into the air. When the football field-sized cesspools are approaching overflowing, Smithfield, like others in the industry, spray the liquefied manure onto fields. Or sometimes they simply spray it straight up into the air, a geyser of shit wafting fine fecal mists that create swirling gases capable of causing severe neurological damage. Communities living near these factory farms complain about problems with persistent nosebleeds, earaches, chronic diarrhea, and burning lungs.

If you are unconvinced to vegetarianism by virtue of the animal ethics argument, JSF’s detailed and often viscerally revolting depictions of the resulting environmental and human health problems should be enough to send you running to the produce section.

‘Every week,’ [journalist Scott Bronstein] reports, ‘millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.’

Of course, these brutal descriptions comprise only part of his argument. In large part, the facts about the animal agriculture industry are really only there for shock value – and we should be shocked. We should be horrified – but the meat of his argument is in the animals themselves, their capacity to feel pain, our capacity to inflict pain, and the nexus point of mainstream food culture and food justice.

One of the most important aspects of this book is the fact that JSF’s reflections on eating animals are spurred by the realization that he and his wife are going to have a child. A son. His search for the truth is motivated, in large part, by the sudden and important decision he faces about whether or not to feed animals to his son. “If my wife and I raise our son as a vegetarian, he will not eat his great-grandmother’s singular dish, he will never receive that unique and most direct expression of her love…Her primal story, our family’s primal story, will have to change.” If culture factors into our decision to eat – or not to eat – animals, we must be informed about what kind of culture we choose to be a part of.

I encourage everyone to read this book. In fact, I think it should be required reading for everyone who eats meat in America. In a similar way as every high school student must study civics, learn about the importance of the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Civil War, we should know how the industrial revolution has transformed our food. We should where our animal products come from, and what kind of harm is inflicted on the animals, the environment, and ourselves in the process.

I would give it five out of five stars, but that doesn’t seem to do it justice. I might beg you to read it, but I doubt that would work. All I can say is that if you are a an animal lover, if you are a kind and compassionate person, if you care about the world and the people in it, then I recommend you read this book, and consider our new relationship with these animals and the world we have built around them.