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.

Big Fur Hat

In her last years my mother was always cold, and she complained about it regularly. She always admired ladies she saw with mink hats, and since she rarely asked for anything, a few years ago, I decided to get her one for Christmas.

After some searching I found a company called–Big Fur Hats. I spent a ridiculous amount of money–had she known, my frugal mother would have been horrified–to buy her one. I was pretty pleased with myself when I presented it to her, but I could see instantly that she did not like it. Gamely, she tried it on, and I think she wore it once or twice, but she hated it, I could tell.

The Big Fur Hat (BFH) is mine now, and it is an essential part of my equipment on Washington Island. I don’t care what I look like there–which is part of the fun, I admit–so I wear it when the dogs and I go for our walks. I look ridiculous. Nevertheless, it is a lifesaver, especially when the wind is blowing. Without it, I would be forced to shorten our walks, the source of the dogs’ joy, and my inspiration.

There may be lesson here, but I’m not sure what it is.

Big Fur Hat

A few weeks after blowing all that money on the unloved BFH, I found a vintage mink hat in a consignment store for $12. My mother loved it.

That’s mine now, too.

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.

January Island

January Island

Greetings from North of the Tension Line. Our days are simple here. I get up in the dark, drink coffee and write for a few hours. Then the dogs and I go for a long walk. We come back and I write some more. Sometimes I procrastinate and then I write. I have lunch. Then I write some more. In the afternoons we go for another long walk. Usually at night we just hang out and go to bed ridiculously early.

The dogs are happy. I am happy, if a bit lonely. The good news is that sequel is coming along nicely.

The Nostalgia of Crows

I am a crow lover.

I had never seen a crow until I moved to Wisconsin in my childhood, and I remember being astonished at how big they were. I first noticed them in the spring when their big, clumsy fledglings would fall off their perches onto their beaks, and would make odd, baby caws that were laughably unbeautiful. But their parents were sleek and affectionate, and they seemed to be large families of mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles.

We fed them. My mother would leave them meat scraps and suet. They would gather in the early mornings and winter evenings, circling overhead and calling. It was rare to see one alone. Most often, though, they would travel in pairs. Nordic myth says that they were the messengers of the god, Odin, and they always seem to carry both mystery and omen.

When I grew older my brother gave me a crow call, and I would use it to summon them. They almost always responded, and we would carry on conversations in a language that consisted on my side merely of imitation. I can’t say what was intended on their side.

Crows are very intelligent. I remember reading somewhere that there was a man who somehow rescued a baby crow, and from that day on, the entire flock (technically, I believe, a murder of crows) would greet him in his car every day as he entered his subdivision, and escort him to the main road when he left. They always remembered his heroism, although, perhaps, it was a tribute that not everyone would appreciate.

Somehow, bleak winter days–the days with neither sun nor snow–seem like crow days, and today was one of those days. As I was hurrying in from my car to a meeting, I heard in the distance the rough song of crows, and it flashed me back to my childhood, ambling home from school through the snow, cawing and calling to the birds who seemed to know me.

I realized at once how much I have missed them, and I have resolved to go back to carrying my crow call in my pocket.

Night Crow
When I saw that clumsy crow
Flap from a wasted tree,
A shape in the mind rose up:
Over the gulfs of dream
Flew a tremendous bird
further and further away,
Into a moonless black,
Deep in the brain, far back.

(That great man) Theodore Roethke

Life in the North



Another manifestation of winter in Wisconsin today, with 6 more inches of snow expected. Most people don’t like snow, but it always delights me. This picture from a trip to Washington Island one February captures the beauty of the winter light at dawn on the frozen lake.