Thursday, January 29, 2015

Come Out...Come Out Whoever You Are! It's Mental Health Awareness Week!

A stranger stopped me in a grocery store parking lot the other day in the midst of a snow storm. "I recognize you from that picture they ran in the newspaper,” she said. “I liked what you had to say in the article, so I went right out and bought The Resurrection of Tess Blessing. I just finished it this morning."
Authors are supposed to, but I don’t really it like when this sort of thing happens. These impromptu meetings…anything could happen. And has. I tried to get a feel for her, but the snow coming down in blankets was interfering with my reader radar. People nowadays, seems like they’ll say just about anything and I am not good with either adoration or criticism. But I had to say something. I live in a small town in Wisconsin. If I ran away, that would get around.
I flipped the hood of my Arctic parka up, steeled myself, and said, "How nice. I … um …did you enjoy it?"
She averted her eyes and shivered. "Well, I don't know if enjoy is the right word. I . . . I . . . ." and then she stumbled on a bit more, which is never a good sign. I'd learned long ago that when I sense ambivalence from a reader the best response is to grin, express gratitude that she took the time to read the book, and be on my not-so-merry-any-longer way. This is exactly what I was attempting to do, when this woman cut me off at the pass. She pushed her cart in front of mine and said, "Why did you write it?"
A thorough response would be long and complicated. But since it was cold enough that I didn't have to worry about my peas and fish sticks thawing out in my cart, and she cared enough to ask, I figured, fuck it, because sometimes my fear can turn into anger in a snap. She’d shelled out good money for the book, I told myself. Quit being such a wimp. Yes, I decided, she deserved an answer, albeit an abbreviated version since frost bite is a bitch.
"I wrote the story because I would very much love it if we could all speak more authentically about what we're dealing with instead of feeling the need to "present" ourselves to one another the way Tess Blessing did most of her life. Like we're all competing in some sort of who can be happier, who can be richer, who can parent better, who can be more successful, better-looking, who can be the most normal big fat lie. If we're struggling, be it with breast cancer, eating disorders, parenting, our marriages, and especially mental illness . . . it'd be a relief to come clean."
I was prepared for her to give me a jittery smile and bustle away because I, who have spent most of my life monitoring myself for signs of whacky behavior, was well aware that I’d escalated into ranting in a grocery store parking lot in the midst of a building snow storm and I really couldn't blame her under those conditions.
But the grocery cart wielding middle-aged woman surprised me. She did not purse her lips or flee in terror the way I'd anticipated, which was all the encouragement I needed. "Did you know that one in three of us struggle with panic attacks, depression, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addictions, and other forms of mental illness sometime in our lives? Tess Blessing is a woman dealing with almost unbearable pain that she's kept hidden for most of her life for fear that if she was found out she wouldn't be loved. That she'd be ridiculed or shunned or— " That’s when it occurred to me that when she'd asked me why I'd written the book I'd completely misread the situation. Maybe she, like almost every human who can type, had written a book and wanted to know the name of my agent. That happens all the time.
I knew I should back-pedal, whip out some well-practiced socially correct response, but when I'd paused to catch my breath, snow flakes had landed on my tongue and gave me kid courage. "I think it’d be kinda great if everyone with problems would feel comfortable enough to quit hiding them. If we did, who knows, we might be able to turn mental illness into—" I took my hands off my cart and made air quotes, which, when you are wearing thick wool mittens, makes you look like you've broken into an impromptu puppet show—"the new gay!"
Thanks to Hollywood, same sex love is somewhat more acceptable now, if you live north of the Mason-Dixon line anyway, but mental illness is still very, very Snake Pit scary to most people, so I was pretty sure that would be the end of the conversation because it so often was when I brought up these kinds of taboo topics. But—and this is one of those times that I really love, and why I probably didn't jump off a bridge when I was in my twenties, thirties, and forties, when my symptoms were at their peak—people can be surprisingly graceful when you least expect it. They can rescue you sometimes. I wasn't at all prepared for this woman to answer my question, "The new gay! Yes...yes...yes!" and reach over and give me a bear hug and thaw my frozen left ear when she whispered into it with her warm breath, "I . . . I . . . loved your book. It felt so good not to feel alone." And then I started to well up and she did too and our tears turned into little icicles. She told me her name was Shirley and we exchanged numbers and promised that next week we would have tea together someplace that wasn’t a parking lot and tell each other all about it.
And on the drive home, as I tried to navigate the icy roads, I vowed that I would stop just jawing about being brave, I'd put my mouth where my money was. I'd have words with the pharmacist at Walgreen's tomorrow. I wouldn't back down from the pill counter who has smirked at me every damn time when I had to explain to him, "Yeah, the prescription is correct. I need to have antibiotics in liquid form because I can't swallow pills." And when he elbows one of his co-workers the way he always does before he sing-songs, "Would you like me to add bubble gum flavoring to that?" I will not feel ashamed or laugh along with him. I will tell him, "That'd be great. And when you're done doing that, I'd like you to call your manager over so we can discuss a lawsuit. You're familiar with the American Disabilities Act, right?"
Maybe I'll even call him an asshole on account of my love for swearing and he is. Whatever I decide to come up with, I'm hoping it will feel freeing because if I, and the other millions of people who deal with variations of this belittling bullshit day in and day out on top of our out-of-whack psyches, don't stand up for ourselves, we're gonna end up staying stuck in the same suffocating closet gay folk huddled in for far too many years.

Time to come out.

P.S Alas, courage can be fickle, and right about now I'm thinking of the night Sally Field accepted the Oscar for her role in Places in the Heart. When she stood at the podium and said,    “ . . . I can't deny that, right now, you like me, you like me!" and how her vulnerability was the butt of jokes for many years. I used to see Sally sometimes pumping iron in the gym when I lived in L.A. I always wanted to ask her, "Do you ever regret being so real?" but I never did. I got too worried that she might've said yes.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Tuesday, January 20, 2015


Last night was my launch party at Boswell Books for THE UNDERTAKING OF TESS and THE RESURRECTION OF TESS BLESSING. That my family, friends, readers, and sister authors will travel from far and wide to come and hear me blather on continues to astound me. Thank you to all for taking time out of your busy lives to give me two thumbs up. Really and truly appreciate it.

And if you live in the Madison area, I'll be doing a reading and signing at the fantastic Mystery To Me Books at 1:00 on Saturday the 24th. Love this article from reporter Jeanne Kolker of The Wisconsin State Journal. She did an amazing job condensing our lively and lengthy phone chat. Kudos, Jeanne.

Sunday, January 11, 2015


A few nights ago, I found myself sitting in the home of a complete stranger, surrounded by other complete strangers who, like me, had been invited to discuss my new novel, The Resurrection of Tess Blessing.  I adore book clubs. Really. Who doesn't like to talk about themselves, eat chocolate chip cookies and watch women become slightly sloshed on moderately priced wine? I also love to field the questions. There were the usual: "How did you get started writing?" "What is your process?" "Where do you get your ideas?" But the question that struck me the most that evening was one I'd never been asked. "What does it feel like when you release a new book? It must be so fun!"

I was pretty sure what they wanted to hear, but I offered them the option. "Fantasy or truth?" When they eagerly answered, "The truth!" I asked all of them to close their eyes for a moment and recall a project that they had put their blood, sweat and tears into. "Got it?"  When they nodded in unison, I asked them to further imagine that their heartfelt project would now be posted in a multitude of public forums for the whole world to see." All of them smiled. Thrilled with that idea. "Okay," I said, "now for the plot twist. Imagine that this project that you care so very much about isn't just an expression of your creativity or intelligence, but the thing that will provide you with the funds you need to keep a roof over your head, food on your table, and clothes on your kids backs. It's your job." A few of the women adjusted themselves in their chairs and stopped smiling. "And how much you make at your job will not necessarily be determined by the quality of your work, but by people who view your project on these public forums." (This is beginning to sound a little like what Christians might encounter in the Colosseum in ancient Rome, I thought. Not a terrible comparison.) "I also want you to keep in mind that the people on these forums are usually not qualified in any way to comment on your work, just whether or not they "like" it. Essentially, they're going to "vote" on whether or not your work is worthy enough to be reimbursed, and to what degree. Thumbs up, you get to keep your job, thumbs down...." I couldn't help myself. "Release the lions!"

Whether it was the wine, I do not know, but eight out of the nine women looked like they were about to toss those earlier consumed cookies. The other had begun snoring.

 The following morning I buzzed over to Amazon to check the sales for both THE UNDERTAKING OF TESS and THE RESURRECTION OF TESS BLESSING, my recently released "projects." Both seemed to be doing fairly well, which was nice. It had taken me twelve years off and on to write Tessie, so, of course, I hope that more than a few readers pick it up. I was just about to leave Amazon, when quite by accident, I noticed that two more reviews for each book had been posted by the same book blogger. Three stars, or three thumbs down, for both.

Now, the general wisdom amongst authors is, "For godssakes, don't read the reviews!" Most of the time I heed that advice, but I admit, my curiosity got the better of me. And that's why it killed that cat. The review this blogger had posted for the novella was wildly inaccurate. There was no way this woman could have read the story. Another bit of advice passed amongst authors is, "If you should get a bad review, whatever you do, don't respond!!" While I sat staring at the cruddy review, I knew that I shouldn't, but I felt so outraged that this woman had taken the time out of her life to comment not only negatively, but incorrectly, on my "job." I couldn't stop myself. I pulled up the comment section on Amazon and wrote:

Dear Blogger,

If you wish to review books, I suggest that reading them beforehand might be a good way to go about that. And after you've finished the novella, if you should feel compelled to write a new review, please remember you don't have to like my work, but elevating your game and trying your hardest not to be an asshole about it would be completely wonderful.

As my finger wavered over the POST THIS COMMENT button on Amazon, I tried one last time to talk myself down.Was it worth the time and energy to get this worked up? Was it really such a big deal? Yeah, it is, I told myself as I lowered my finger. Respecting ourselves and our efforts, and expecting at the very minimum that others do the same, might be one of the biggests deals of all. It should be all of our jobs.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Humor is Holy

Sooo...if you have a few's a chat I had about The Resurrection of Tess Blessing with the amazing Dan Harmon of WUWM Radio, Milwaukee's NPR outlet. (Just copy and paste:)

I got my start in radio, so it's always so fun to have the opportunity to be in front of a mic again.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

I love you, Elmer Bernstein

A suggestion for your TO-DO LIST:

1. Wear headphones and listen to movie soundtracks as you move through life.

You will feel like something either epic or scary is about to happen at any moment. Both will get your blood pumping.

Personal favorite: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by The Royal Scottish National Orchestra, the composer conducting.