TNBBC’s The Next Best Book Blog: Where Writers Write: JF Riordan

Exile desk

TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog: Where Writers Write: JF Riordan.

TNBBC is a blog that features small press and indie books and their authors in varying playful question formats. Among these is the request for writers to show where they write. I was pleased to be asked, and was deeply tempted to discuss the drinks of choice for the characters of North of the Tension Line, but in the end I settled on a photo essay on where I write. I recommend heading to TNBBC for the chance to meet some great under-appreciated writers and their books. Believe me when I say we will all be grateful.

Last Day North of the Tension Line

January sunset

Today is my last day on Washington Island. The ferry leaves tomorrow at 8 am and we’ll be on it.

Normally I like to walk the deck and chat with the crew, but the dogs are with me, and there’s something about the ferry ride that scares them. So we sit together in the car, and I talk and sing to them. They like that, and they usually sing along. Pete, who is undoubtedly the coward in the family, is mostly unbothered by the motion, but that is enough for Moses. When we hit the ice fields the noise frightens them both and they tremble. It seems to get worse each trip.

Last night I walked home from a dinner party in the dark with the wind screaming from the lake. Its noise and power were awesome–in the old fashioned sense of the word. The dogs leapt with joy to see me, and we went out again to hear the wind and look at the moon and the clouds. They ran ahead of me through the snow, sniffing at deer tracks. The wild remoteness of the Island is oddly comforting to me, and I feel safer here than anywhere else on earth, even when the wind leaps and howls as if it would tear us off the ground and spin us into space.

I like to say I live in exile from Washington Island, and most people think it’s a joke. But leaving this place tears at me, and even though I will be happy to be home again, a part of myself will be missing.

North of the Tension Line’s Publicity Machine


When people talk to me about North of the Tension Line,, they often mention Rocco, the thoughtful and easy-going German Shepherd who lives with Elisabeth.

When people see Moses-shown above-they assume that Rocco is Moses. But, in fact, the reverse is true: Moses is Rocco. I began writing about Rocco long before Moses came into my life. Opportunism, however, is a new author’s responsibility, and this permits me to bring Moses along to book events.

Children climb on him, people want their pictures taken with him, and, inevitably, when people hesitantly reach out to touch this Big Scary Dog, he rolls over so they can rub his tummy. A dog is a public relations boon.

And also excellent company for the road.

What’s Under My Desk

What's under my desk

There are all kinds of interesting ways for authors to communicate with their readers and with one another, and on one site authors are asked to post photos of where they write and compose a little essay about it. Don’t tell my publicist, but I haven’t done that yet. Still, I couldn’t help feeling as if I should post this edition, not of where I write, but  of what’s under where I write.

At the moment we are in the midst of  post-construction landscaping, and maybe the sound of the bulldozer is scary. For whatever reason, Moses, who is always nearby anyway, is unusually close. I am writing with his head on my feet, and his ears pressed up against my knees. It’s kind of nice, actually.


Love and Grief


My husband likes to say that Moses is a tuning fork. He is our German Shepherd who loves by pure concentration. His every focus is on those he loves, and he trembles when he senses our stress. The night I left to go to my mother in her last crisis, he fought to be with me where he could not come, even as Charlie lovingly urged him to stay at home.  In his distress, gentle Moses put his teeth on Charlie for trying to stop him from getting in my car. It was a protest, not an attack. But my leaving Moses behind was a betrayal to us both.

As a comfort and a way of drawing out my stillborn sorrow, I have been re-reading Madeline L’Engle’s adolescent novels which are explorations of faith and mortality. They will provoke my grief eventually, if not immediately. My own faith, so relatively new and untested, is approximately the same as the novel series’ teenager as she encounters death for the first time: in a friend’s father, in a friend’s illness,  then in her grandfather. At the same time in the story, a dolphin’s baby dies, and the teenage protagonist writes a poem. Maybe it isn’t great poetry, but I like it because it expresses the value of life and love regardless of the boundaries of species. In it the angels weep because every life matters even in the span of the universe.

I am in a place where I am gathering all the love I can find. And the love of Moses, who sleeps now at my feet, is a treasure as deep as any I can claim.

The devotion of dogs is not new. Homer acknowledges the love of Argos, the dog of Odysseus, who, waiting twenty years for the return of his master, is neglected, flea-ridden, and sleeping on a pile of dung. And yet, when Argos at last sees his master–even though no human creature recognizes him–Argos wags his tail in greeting to the one he has always loved, and dies. Odysseus, who has endured the battle of Troy, Sirens, Circe, the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, the deaths of all his companions, and the wrath of Poseidon, nevertheless weeps for the love of his old dog.

Moses is a dog. And his deep love for me is as real and palpable as any other love I know. He grieves when I grieve, and he is filled with joy when I am. What is love, if not this? And what greater comfort in grief than this deep devotion?

His soul reaches out to me and, gratefully, I answer.



Pete Takes a Tumble

Pete is our camera-shy smaller, auxiliary dog. And, I should add, at 9 years old and 68 pounds, he is the boss of 115 pound, 2 year old Moses, our sweet-tempered German Shepherd. Moses generally does what Pete tells him, but for some reason the other day, he didn’t feel like it. When Pete bit him, Moses lunged back, and in the scuffle, poor Pete dislocated his elbow. Now he has a cast, and pain pills, and antibiotics, and the most pathetic cry a dog ever made. So I’m sleeping on the library couch so I can be near him. Pete has many talents: among them a knack for drawing sympathy.

This time he really deserves it.Image

Feeding My Dog

Someone once said to me: ‘Buy a dog, get a tragedy’. It’s true. But it doesn’t change anything.

Erin Matson

My husband kept his last name when we married; only our eldest dog, Auggie, chose to hyphenate. Augusta Matson-Johnson does what she wants.

“It’s a good sign when the dog who knows you best connects with your new wife,” I explained to my husband. He agreed. He and Auggie are the best package deal. Like Auggie, I have imagined so many ways to get through the banalities and indignities of daily life. Until a few years ago, I never could have dreamed of sharing it with a man as good as her owner, and her.

Mornings are exciting. After feeding the baby, I walk the dogs, then feed the dogs, then take a shower, then feed the cat. No one waits patiently for me to do this on my own timetable. Two labrador chins rest on my side of the mattress while I nurse, Auggie wanting her walk and Joon…

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A Word About Pete


People who have been reading my blog (both of them) have asked me about Pete. How is he? Has he adjusted to life with his enormous brother?
And so, lest anyone think that a youthful, high-energy German Shepherd has completely stolen the show, a word about our smaller, auxiliary dog.

Pete is now officially the old man of the family. His white face and love of the couch are in contrast to his youthful self, when he leapt and ran like the coursing hound whose blood is somewhere in his veins. He loved to run, and when he soared over a low-lying bush to give chase to some trespassing creature, he looked exactly like the side of a bus.

He rarely shows this side of himself now, unless there are squirrels involved. He eyes the antics of Moses and his puppy friend with an air of skepticism, occasionally joining in the chase, but only briefly. He is more likely to bark and chase them down, rolling them onto their backs as he shows his teeth, just to show who’s boss. Remarkably, Moses, who outweighs him nearly two to one, rolls over timidly, submitting to Authority.

Pete is a snuggler. When he sleeps with us in the bed, I will frequently wake up to find his face lying delicately against my cheek. He is difficult to budge in the mornings, preferring the warmth of blankets to a brisk excursion in snow and cold. If you are busy and not paying him proper attention, he will nudge your hand with his nose insisting that you pet him, even if your hand has a cup of hot coffee or some good bourbon in a hand-blown glass.

There aren’t many photos of Pete, but this is because he has a horror of cameras. We don’t know much about Pete’s early life, because he came to us at 10 months old, or so. We know it wasn’t entirely happy, and we also know that it involved something bad with cameras. When a camera comes out, Pete slinks away or hides under the table. In the photos we do manage to take, Pete’s expression conveys the idea that he’s in a hostage situation. IPhones seem to have made a difference, but haven’t completely eliminated the problem. I think maybe it’s the high-pitched hum of digital flashes. My husband believes that someone posted an unflattering picture of Pete on Facebook.

In this unusually cold winter, both dogs have been getting less exercise than they should. Our daily walks in the woods after work have been curtailed by sub-zero temperatures and early darkness. I love these walks as much as they do, but the dogs are able to run easily in the deep snow of the woods, while I can only trudge along in big boots. Pete, on the trails, becomes his old self, and Moses sprints behind with his own equine grace, but he is less nimble and with a higher center of gravity.

The other day, they both started at the chuffing snorts of deer nearby, and in a split second they took off to give chase, Pete in the lead, and Moses leaping behind. They were gone for nearly five minutes, and I ignored it, knowing the deer were safe, that the dogs would be doubly tired when they returned. After a reasonable period of time, and before they made it to the next county, I whistled for them, and I heard them charging back long before I could see them.

This is our routine, and in it Pete returns to his younger days, while Moses simply blows off steam. The dogs bounce back to the car, panting, snow-covered, and happy, and then, in my own tribute to lost youth, we go up the road a bit to practice bootleg turns in the snowy parking lot of the golf course.

You have to make your own fun in the winter.

Big Scary Dog: A Moses update

We started out here

and here


and ended up here


and here


Moses is nothing like a golden retriever. He is gentle, yes, and he is loving, yes. But he is not a teddy bear. He is highly sensitive and always alert, like a finely-tuned machine. He loves, not by cuddling–although he loves to have his tummy rubbed, and he gives big kisses–but by watching. His focus is forever on you and with you, and he will wait, and watch, and shepherd faithfully, and with his whole being. The vet told me recently than no one on earth will ever love you the way a German Shepherd does.

I think she was right.