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 →
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
God willing, and if I get my work done this week, I leave for the Island on Friday. It will be such a busy week that I will be packing today.
These escapes are not technically vacations, since I usually work twelve to fourteen hours a day. It’s all writing and walking. But this time reconnects the pieces for me so that I can keep going. It’s a renewal.
We’re having an odd fall here in Wisconsin. October 2nd and the trees are still green, and I am a bit disappointed that the full autumn glory will be missing on the Island–that golden light that suffuses and saturates. But we have to go now, before bow season, since I don’t want big dogs crashing through the underbrush with hunters about.
We will bring the essentials ( in no particular order): the computer; the brown paper bag plot map that hangs on my office wall; the particular black spiral notebooks I cannot live without; colored sharpies for plot lines; The World’s Best Thesaurus; several books of poetry; several pairs of glasses; food for the first few days so I don’t have to interrupt my solitude; coffee; wine; dog food; dog equipment; Essential Dog 1 (Pete); Essential Dog 2 (Moses).
We’ll also bring all the accoutrements for long all-weather walking.
I have a few friends on the Island, now, and toward the end of the week, I will hope to see them. But for the first half, it will just be the Island, me, the words, and the essential dogs.
We’re heading north of the tension line.
- Decide to take dogs for walk.
- Look for sunglasses in purse.
- Go outside to see if sunglasses are on porch.
- Talk to neighbors for two hours over fence.
- Look for sunglasses on bedside table.
- Pick up t-shirt on bedroom floor.
- Notice box of new beach towels in guest room.
- Put away new beach towels.
- Look for sunglasses in car.
- Make grocery list.
- Recharge computer.
- Check e-mail. Nothing from anyone.
- Look for sunglasses in tote bag.
- Wonder if sunglasses are still at bookstore from last night.
- Call bookstore.
- Wonder if sunglasses are at restaurant from last night.
- Call restaurant.
- Look for sunglasses in car again, focusing under seats.
- Talk to friend on phone.
- Look at plot map. Notice holes in plot.
- Ponder death.
- Empty purse on floor looking for sunglasses. Find emptied bottle of zinc tablets in bottom.
- Clean out purse. Pick off lint from zinc tablets. Return to bottle.
- Accidentally call book store from last week. Chat with proprietor.
- Decide to write blog post.
- Look for sunglasses in car again, focusing on trunk.
- Stare at blog screen.
- Send irritable e-mail to online company who keep sending surveys that flash at you when you’re trying to think.
- Look for sunglasses in tote bag again.
- Find two day old NY Times in tote bag.
- Do crossword puzzle in NY Times.
- Walk path from car to door, hoping to find sunglasses in grass.
- Rub tummy of Dog One.
- Stare at blog screen.
- Rub tummy of Dog Two.
- Look for sunglasses in different tote bag. Find sunglasses.
- Resolve to carry fewer tote bags.
- Don’t write a single thing all morning.
- Decide it’s too hot to take dogs for walk. Swimming would be better.
- Look for sunglasses.