Detox

The house we rented in Maine is very old and very large. It has history. Perched on a small hill above the lake, it has sprawling porches, front and back, and lovely views. There’s a spacious kitchen, a laundry room, and five roomy bedrooms with four baths. There’s a massive stone fireplace in the living room. But it does not have wi-fi, and the cell signal is only one elusive bar, which seems to flit from room to room like a butterfly, and then disappear.

It has been a long time since I have left my phone sitting on the night stand, turned off, and walked away for the day. I feel released from electronic bondage. The impulse, in an idle moment, to look down at the phone is gradually being replaced by a willingness to look up, to think, to let my brain idle. That’s how writing happens. 

I had become increasingly aware of the way my phone had taken over my life. I am continually scrolling through my messages. There’s not a scene that passes before my eyes that doesn’t make me reach for the camera. There’s not a drive that isn’t accompanied by a podcast. 
It’s too much. It’s too many voices. It’s too much externality. And none of those things are good for a writer.

This week I wrote in the mornings. I hung around with my family. We did a complicated puzzle. I sat on the dock and dangled my feet, and thought about things. I jumped into the cold lake. I cuddled children. I drank cocktails. I went to bed with a book. 

It was a kind of detox, and it has put me on the path to getting my brain back. 

The temptations to return to my old habits will be strong, and I imagine there will be a gradual regression toward over-use. But I have a plan to keep it in check, and at the moment, it doesn’t even seem appealing to go back to my old ways. 

But addiction is hard. We’ll see.

The Curse of the Immortals

When I’m walking the island, my mind wanders to many things. Sometimes they’re related to the book—I often work through plot ideas while I’m walking—but not always. I have learned through hard experience that if I don’t record the idea it will disappear forever. In fact, if my notes are too cryptic, they will may still be unfathomable. Yesterday I had a thought about the coronavirus and the Greek gods. I don’t know why. They were trapped in quarantine on Olympus and bickering together—it made me laugh. but there was another idea—What was it?

Maybe not so funny: that quarantine’s illusion of immortality—of time stretching on infinitely—took away that sense we ought to have of racing against a waning lifetime. Maybe it was a respite for a while? Maybe it was a relief not to have to keep churning. But that idleness—that missing sense of time passing—is precisely what made the gods so mischievous. They had no real purpose, no goals. They were, in a word, bored. And aimless. Okay, two words.

But for mortals, it was an illusion. Time did pass. As survivors, we are, of course, just as old as we would have been otherwise. Or maybe, had the pandemic not happened, we would have been out in the world and hit by a bus. We can’t know. Even for those of us fortunate enough to have spent the pandemic merely unmoored in time, there was great loss; if not of someone we knew and cared about, then of community, of ourselves, of our precious time on earth. I feel new sympathy for the unjustly imprisoned, who must have some version of this same feeling: the sense of having been robbed of time. But especially, I grieve for those whose lives were so directly affected by the illness itself.

But as with all forms of grief, we must choose to either lie down in it and never look up, or to get up and get on with things, knowing that, whether we choose it or not, some new grief or old will be waiting to pop out at us when we are unwary. But then, so will new joys, and new, unhoped for experiences.

We move onward, with resignation and hope together, and that purpose, which comes from our sense of passing time, is the blessing of mortality.

Electronic Narcissism

I like silence. Perhaps it is a commentary on the state of my nerves, or maybe it’s because I’m a former musician and my brain is aurally focused, but I find unwanted noises distracting. I need silence to think and to write, and when I want sound, I prefer to choose whether it’s words or music. So I find the contemporary taste for household appliances that ping, beep, and play tunes extremely annoying. 

If I seem cranky, it’s probably because I have been trying desperately to write a novel amidst continual interruption from household appliances.

I have a notion that devices should A) make your life easier and B) not require distraction from your thoughts, and, come to think of it, C) achieve their purposes in silence while leaving me alone. 

In my quest to break my writing stalemate, I recently packed up and left home for the seclusion of the Island. The house I rent when I go away to write is a place I know well. I have been going there for years, and it’s like a second home. It’s a charming place: roomy, but cozy, with a wonderful property where I can walk in privacy with the dogs, and a lovely landlady who knows the precise formula of solitude and companionship to feed a writer. I have written parts of all my books there, and there’s something about the atmosphere that inspires productivity. My days there are a perfect pattern of writing and walking, and no one disturbs me unless I want to be disturbed. The house is not old, but my landlady had just replaced the range, the refrigerator, and the washer-dryer, all sparkling new and ready to be used. She is a generous woman, and likes to buy quality things.

Throughout my first day, unfortunately, I spent a great deal of time debating when to tell my host that there were red squirrels nesting in the roof. I knew it would upset her, and I also knew it would mean workmen disrupting my writing. The squirrels’ chirping and scratching was irregular but loud, and I feared they were doing damage. It wasn’t until late in the afternoon that I finally realized that it wasn’t squirrels, but the new refrigerator. I have no idea why a refrigerator should make a noise like red squirrels. Maybe someone thought it was cute. Or maybe no one ever spent any time in a room where it was running. I suppose it was companionable, in its way. I mean, at least the noise resembled living things.


The stove however, was much worse than squirrels. Writing can be both lonely and vaguely excruciating, and it is during these moments that I usually take a break to cook something nice for myself. Sometimes the food in my novels is actually something I’ve just made. Food, for me, is comfort, and when I’m alone, I look forward to meals as a way of permitting myself a break, and as a kind of companionship. In some ways, it’s as much about the cooking as it is about the eating. Cooking is a pleasant diversion, and creative, but as I’m chopping onions or browning beef, my mind is able to continue the intellectual rambling necessary for building a story.

So, having grown accustomed to the refrigerator squirrels, after a few hours of work and a long walk in lovely silence, I turned on the oven, and was jolted out of my plot-related reverie by a jaunty little tune. It wasn’t just a beep, but an actual musical phrase, only with tinky-tonk noises. When I set the timer it produced another tune, and like so many electronic devices, instead of one smooth dialing motion to set the temperature, I had to press it each time I added ten degrees, each time producing another beep. When the oven reached the temperature I had laboriously set, it sang yet another tune. Apparently each melody has a specified meaning, but I’m not interested in providing room in my head for determining which is which. I found myself missing my vintage stove at home, whose only noise is the satisfying “whomp” it makes when you light the oven with a match.                                                                          

Then there was the new washing machine. I pack lightly when I go away to write. I mean to say: the car is full of stuff—much of it dog-related, and some of it bourbon—but I don’t bring a lot of clothes, so I’m happy to have a washer dryer in the house, and I often throw something into the washer while I’m writing. This new machine could be featured in a museum as The Loudest Washing Machine in the World, and it makes what I can only describe as a rhythmic mechanical gagging sound for the entire cycle. It’s some sort of water-saving design, which is, I guess, mandatory, but seems a little silly when you’re only steps away from—literally—a quadrillion gallons of water. I found the gagging somewhat less charming than the nesting squirrels.  As if this were not enough, it beeps. Not once, for each time you choose a cycle, or once when it’s finished, but every 30 seconds after the cycle, until you interrupt the sentence you’re writing to get up and open the lid. I have had the care of less demanding puppies. 

Thankfully, I was able to close the door to drown out the worst of the noises, but the beeping penetrated the walls. Not surprisingly, the matching dryer is also an electronic nag. But the thing is, if they make weird gurgling noises and show signs of nausea, how would you know until you got them home? I have a new washer and dryer at home, and they both have the options to turn off the signals. I made sure of that. Of course, I don’t live in the same room with them, either. So there’s that. 

But still.

It used to be that appliances would sit silently and make themselves useful. Now, for reasons I do not understand, they seem to feel a need to call attention to themselves, as if, like electronic toddlers, they are announcing: Look at me! Look what I’ve done!

It strikes me as an indication of a deeply flawed society. What personal failings have led us to develop narcissistic appliances? Is it a reflection of modern life, the electronic equivalent of so-called influencers, who must announce their doings on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook, or be forced to question the value of their own existences? Have we created appliances like ourselves? Is there anyone who likes this incessant mechanistic signaling? Or is there something about the electronic miasma in which we all exist that assimilates our nerves into a state of noise acquiescence? Is there some consumer movement I need to join to dissuade manufacturers from this evil path?  

The last time I bought a microwave oven I asked the saleswoman which ones beeped only once and stopped. It was clear by her reaction that no one else had ever asked this question, but she dutifully investigated the beeping of each one, no doubt thinking bad words that I am grateful not to have heard. But each time I buy a new appliance, I find that the noise factor has intensified, as if this has become a signal—as it were—of improvement. I believe it is, instead, an instrument of consumer torture.

A few days after I got home and settled into a new appreciation of my quiet appliances, the brand new, very expensive water heater silently burst a valve and unobtrusively leaked water all over the basement floor. 

I felt oddly grateful.

All is Still

It is extreme early morning, and I have risen to sit in my chair by the fire. It is not a place for lounging, but for writing, because I discovered a while ago that I need the fire, and the view, and the companionable lickings and scratchings of the dogs to feel most at ease, and best able to write. But lately, it is not a productive place. My computer glares its ugly light at me, probably contributing to the addled state of my brain.

I am becalmed, unmoored, directionless, my rudder stayed. 
No words come.

Writing for me is normally a joyful process. The words spin a music in my head, and I record them. I know from experience that showing up to this place at this time is the only way to prod myself to create. But now, nothing is working.

I have written advice to other writers. “Just show up,” I wrote. “Write anything,” I wrote. “The muse will appear,” I wrote. But so far, my own advice has been useless.

My usual methods of procrastination are well known to me and to my husband. I paint a room. I organize my office. I cook. But these methods of avoidance are now habits, and a day spent in routine housework seems like a good day. But it’s not.

My brain feels addled, shallow, inadequate, like the gushing rain from the gutter that doesn’t nourish the ground, but spills over, ripping out plants, washing away the soil. Four books I want to write spin annoyingly around on the fringes of my thoughts, skipping away, avoiding my grasp. Is it the usual process? Or has something gone terribly wrong?

I try to pray. I try to meditate. I struggle to read. But always there is this random, unsatisfying, disjointed flutter of thoughts. No ribbon of continuity, just jagged lightning strikes of nothing very much. My brain flickers from thing to thing without any process. 

I am not particularly interested in conversation. What used to be daily calls to friends have sputtered into sporadic text messages, without context, or any continuity. Lightning strikes brought to relationships.

In this pandemic, time is a limitless illusion, and therefore time does not seem precious. Long-term projects I could be doing: exercising, playing the piano, training the dog, painting a room, are all things I can do tomorrow.

I nap. Sometimes they are long, delicious naps, from which I usually awake with anxiety at the waste of a day. 

I plan to read today. Long, engrossed, serious reading. I need to concentrate on something else. I keep hoping that turning away from screens and to words—my own and anybody else’s—will flip the switch.

But then I think of all the unplanned, unsuspected things that feed a writer’s mind: the sudden whisp of fragrance, the overheard snippet of conversation, the glimpse of light, or the flash of bird wing. These are the food for the inner world that comes out later in the scent of a character, her thoughts, or a description of a scene. I never know when something I’ve lived will come out in my books. But what if I’m no longer really living? What feeds the writing, then?

I walked outside in the unusually warm February sunshine this morning, and the dogs, startled by this break in routine, joyfully came along. I heard birdsong, and road sounds, and the slow dripping of melting snow in the eaves. Last night in the dusk, the sky was rose pink from the departed sun, and I heard, for the first time in months, the bells ringing vespers at the seminary nearby, and the soft chirp of flying ducks. The moon, almost full, rose and cast shadows on the snow. These are all markers for me, but they are not experiences of the sort I use most. I realize how much the natural world is my backdrop, the inner voice, but not the experience. Not the story line. And this surprises me, because I always thought it was. 

In this long pandemic sojourn from the world, I have not been unhappy. I have felt calm, somnolent, and wrapped in solitude, almost like a fairy tale character set to sleep while the world passes. Cloistered, but not lonely. But in order to write, I need something more than being hidden behind a fortress wall. I know, beneath the melting snow, the bulbs have put down their roots, the trees are beginning to send their sap from their roots. I can only hope that somewhere my writing heart is stirring, too. But so far, hope is all there is.

Bas Bleu Interviews J.F. Riordan

We’ll hazard a guess that, at least once in your life, you’ve fantasized about packing up your life and moving to (what feels like) a different world—an idyllic small town, a bustling metropolis, a remote windswept isle… In J. F. Riordan’s sparkling North of the Tension line series, a writer does just that, moving from Chicago to a sparsely populated island in Door County, Wisconsin. Her ensuing small-town adventures are presented with enormous heart throughout this delightful series. Today in the Bluestocking Salon, Bas Bleu sat down (virtually, no masks required!) with novelist J. F. Riordan to learn more about why she chose Door County as her setting, how opera helped shape her novelist’s voice, and what effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on her writing. Continue reading →

Unfinished business

I began working on the stone path along side our house last year, but I’d been thinking about it for much longer than that. Our house is in the woods, which, while lovely, makes it difficult to grow grass, particularly since I refuse to use any chemicals that could be unhealthy for the dogs, or our well water, or for the trout stream at the bottom of our hill. Consequently, in an area with splendid green lawns that would put a golf course to shame, we have weeds and mud. We also have three large dogs whose ramblings, scramblings, and various activities discourage thriving plants.

Winter, when the snow has fallen, is a reprieve, but in the transitional periods, when there’s rain and mud, I fight a tedious battle with muddy dogs, floors, bedding, and walls. It’s not my preference, really, but it’s that or squalor, and I want to keep the dogs.

People wonder why I love winter.

In any case, fed up, I finally bestirred myself last year to build a stone path around the house where the worst of the mud is. My decision to start had nothing to do with the approaching deadline for the completion of my novel, or my writer’s block, or the peculiar urges for home projects that come upon me when I should be writing. I watched to see where the dogs had made their path, and went to the quarry to order stone.

My plans were for a rustic path—not a pristine suburban one, but a casual, old fashioned meandering of stone that wrapped around the house and met our patio in back.

The stones were local limestone: large, flat, heavy, and uneven, and cutting out the soil to make them lie flat was painstaking work. 

Drenched in insect repellent, and armed with podcasts about the Constitution and Chapter a Day broadcasts of my own book, I sat on the ground like a child with my triangular digging tool, and hacked away at the clay soil, lifting each stone again and again to make sure the ground underneath accommodated its shape. I found I could lay only about four or five a day before my energy gave out. But gradually the path wound its erratic way down the side of the house from the kitchen patio, and began to curve around to meet the patio at the back. 

I have a personal flaw that kicks in from time to time, which is a compulsion to complete something past exhaustion. I’m not completely sure of the factors that go into creating these personal storms, but when they come together, I am driven by them, occasionally to my detriment. They are more frenzy than conscientiousness.

I was in one of these fevers when I carried and began to maneuver a particularly large and heavy slab of rock. It was almost three feet long and a foot and half wide, and it was heavy. I wrestled it into my grasp and carried it the thirty feet or so to where I was working. I had already created a roughly cut space for it in the soil, and planned to place it, then cut around it to make it fit. I plunked it down, only a few inches from where it was supposed to go, did my work, and then, with all my strength, lifted up the edge to drag it into place. Somehow, when I dropped it, I missed the right spot. It fell onto the stone nearby, with my thumb in between.

That was last July. I still dream of the splendid vanilla frozen custard on a waffle cone I bought myself as consolation on the way home from the emergency room with a broken thumb. This is September. The path is unfinished, the remaining stone is still stacked at the edge of the driveway and beginning to grow moss. Another winter looms, and another muddy spring. I’ve been reluctant to break another finger–or worse–but I realize that I have to get the blasted thing finished. It’s a pandemic. I have time. I tell myself if I put down just one stone a day, I can be finished before the snow falls. But I know that the hassle of getting ready to do the job and of cleaning up afterward means that I will feel compelled to do more than one. I have promised myself that this week I will start. 

Did I mention I’ve begun a new novel?

Hefner’s Frozen Custard is almost worth a trip to the emergency room

Morning in the Dark

It’s hard to get up in the dark. I want to stay under the covers, next to the big dog who comes up on the bed as soon as he hears me stir. The fireplace in the bedroom is lit, and it is tranquil and warm. But I know if I don’t get up and write, I will have missed the fundamental purpose of my days, and so, goaded by some kind of literary jackal nipping at my heels, I drag myself up, lured by the prospect of coffee.

And yet, despite my lack of enthusiasm, once I am there sitting before my keyboard, I find myself racing against the sun. There is some mystical thing that happens when I’m writing in the dark. It’s as if I have a direct line to the muse who hides in my heart somewhere, only bold enough to emerge in the dark. The writing and the dark go together, and I have to get as much done as I can while I can.

With the light, too, comes the household activity: the chores, the dogs needing to go out and to have their feet washed, the dishwasher needing to be emptied, the bed made, the calls to the insurance company, the roofer, the trips to the dry cleaner. These kinds of mundane things scare away whatever inspiration I am fortunate enough to find, and the day slips away in the routines of living.

And so, against my will, I find myself rising earlier and earlier, reluctant and eager at the same time, dragging myself to my desk, hoping to write faster than the earth turns.

This morning it is bitter cold, and the trees are still outlined in the snow from two days ago. A pink line of the sun is showing, and a few brave birds have arrived to feast on the seeds and nuts I’ve left for them. The turkeys still balance on their precarious perches high at the tops of the trees. I am hesitant to stir, because that will signal to the dogs that it’s time to move, and then the brief moment of opportunity will be gone. I look at what I’ve written, and vow that tomorrow will be earlier still.

Upcoming Appearance at Peninsula Bookman

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One of my favorite parts of any book tour is a stop at this wonderful little store, where new and used books are carefully organized in stacks to the ceiling. You can also find vintage maps, prints, and other curiosities. Its proprietor, Peter Sloma, is a thoughtful, passionate reader. Its location is not obvious, in part because of the signage rules, but it is very much worth a stop.

So, I am very much looking forward to spending some time at Peninsula Bookman in Fish Creek, Wisconsin, this coming Saturday, June 16th from 4:00- 6:00 pm.

Please stop by and say hello.

And now a little something from Book Three, Robert’s Rules.

Book Three of the North of the Tension Line Series is now with the publisher, being made beautiful for publication in the Spring.

In response to some enquiries, here is a brief excerpt.

****

After breakfast, Pali, who had the day off, came into the kitchen and kissed his wife on the neck.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

“What about?” she asked, envisioning her mental list of the many things she had to do.

“Let’s just sit down together.”

With an inner sigh, Nika followed him into the next room. She never got as much done when he was home as when he was away. She sat in her favorite chair and looked at him with some impatience.

Pali looked down as he began to talk. “I think it’s time we thought about leaving the Island. I’ve been thinking that it might be a good thing for Ben.”

Her impatience forgotten, she focused all her attention on him as if her life depended on it. She forced herself to sound calm. “But we promised ourselves we’d never do that again. We love it here. It’s our home.”

“Nika, we need to think about this. We need to prepare Ben for his life. He’s growing up, and I can’t say I’m liking the way things are going. He can’t hide away here on the Island forever. There’s no future for him here—“.

Nika started to interrupt, but Pali kept talking “—or if there is, it’s a future he can only choose when he knows what else is out there. Think about his life here. He needs to learn about the world. Ben has no experience with the worst of human character. We can’t just throw him to the winds and expect him to fly.”

“But we did. We left and found our way. We were ok.” Her voice was low.

Pali shook his head. “It’s such a different world now. This culture. The lack of values. The pace. Ben won’t be able to keep up if we don’t help him to acclimate. And isn’t it better for him to encounter these things while we’re there to guide him and protect him?”

Nika was silent. Pali could see the tears welling up.

“We don’t have to decide now. We can think about it.” He got up and went over to her, kneeling next to her chair and taking her hands in his. “It’s our decision, Nika. Ours together. But I’m going to start looking. If something comes along, I won’t say yes if you don’t want me to. Just think about it, ok?”

She sat silent, afraid to speak, her heart and mind in a turmoil. She hated this. When they returned to the Island they had sworn they would never move away again. And now, here he was, threatening to rip her away from everything that mattered.

“Well,” she corrected herself silently, “not everything.”

She felt a flash of her old passion for this man who had been her other self for so long. She had always loved him, from the first day she saw him. He was the best man she had ever known. And, when she looked into her heart, she knew, as much as she fought against admitting it, that he was right.

“Just think about it,” he said again.

She nodded.

****

 

A Small Sneak Preview of Book Three: Robert’s Rules

In June I will be making an appearance at the ALA (American Library Association) 2017 Conference and Exhibition in Chicago. One of the traditions at this event is for authors to provide unedited copies of the first three chapters or so of their upcoming books, flaws and all.
So, with the permission of my editor, I think it is only right that those of you who follow me here should have the first glance.

So watch this space for periodic sneak previews of what’s to come in the third book of the North of the Tension Line series, beginning with this snippet.

PROLOGUE

My earliest memories are of fire.

I was lying in my crib in the dark, and my father woke me, wrapped me in my blankets, and carried me from the house. There were sirens coming closer. I remember the scratchy wool of his jacket on my cheek, its dusty smell in my nostrils, and the feel of the cool night air. Then the smoke was everywhere.

My mother and father and sister and brother were all there, with jackets over their night clothes. My father carried me in his arms as we all moved toward the fire down the street.

“The pig farm,” my mother said.

I knew the pig farm. I knew the comfortable smell of well kept animals; the sight of the red barn on the hill, the pleasures of catching a glimpse of a tractor, or better yet, a family of piglets, on an afternoon ride.

Instead, I could see the silhouettes of men against flames that reached into the sky, the yellow and orange fire that flickered and shot up; the black shadows of men in big coats, and boots, and helmets, carrying hoses and axes.

There was a low rumbling sound from the diesel engines of the fire trucks; the crackling static voices of the radios and walkie talkies.

My father hoisted me up on his shoulders, and I could look down at the tangle of hoses, the gleaming puddles everywhere, with the circling red lights. I could hear more sirens in the distance, more fire companies arriving, the undulating shift of their sound changing as they moved.

“The poor animals,” murmured my mother, watching the flames. There was another smell in the air that was not wood burning.

I was afraid, but I did not cry.

Maybe I slept on my father’s head.

At last the men’s voices changed from shouts to words, the brilliant, intoxicating light in the night was gone, leaving a gray dawn. The red lights of the trucks still turned, reflecting in the puddles of water as the firemen coiled the hoses. The voices on the radios still crackled, but with less frequency, as the fire men, weary, diminished their conversation.

I do not remember being tucked back into bed. But I remember the flames.

I always remember the flames.