Fall is late this year. It is already mid-October, but for the first time the woods have a tinge of gold, just beginning, and the sunlight’s yellow is intensified when it shines through the trees. These are the kinds of days I count as finite in my life. All our days are finite, of course, but some seem to belong in a category as different as a gemstone to a handsome pebble.
Life hasn’t seemed, really, to have returned to normal for us. The contagion levels are still high where we live, so although we have tentatively dined outdoors a few times—and enjoyed it thoroughly—the cold weather will end that small bit of normality. The world feels smaller.
In pre-COVID times, I would go now to the Island. It is one of the places where the golden light of fall permeates everything. The long, empty roads mean I can walk for miles without seeing a car, and the dogs, who return to me instantly when I call, can run off-leash. We wander through golden lanes, and my brain, usually obsessedly plotting and exhausted by the extraction of writing, is distracted by the resonating vibrancy of the color. I remember these walks repeatedly, and return to them in my dreams, and in my books. They are, I think, how I would spend eternity, if I could.
But we are mistaken if the wet days, the bleak and dreary ones, are not treasured, too. My dogs, who love to swim, but hate the rain, nevertheless run joyfully through wet weeds and brush, shaking themselves with vigor when they come in, smelling of mud. Dogs have a capacity for appreciation that my ideal self would try to emulate, but I am not a dog, and can’t seem to achieve their purity of mind.
My joy ebbs and flows with the seasons. I have never fully understood spring, with its mud, its dirty snowpiles, its cold rains, and its disappointed hopes. For me, joy comes when fall it is at its peak, and even still later, with the stark, purple cold of winter. Once the leaves and crops are stripped away the sculptural shapes of the trees and the shape of the earth is revealed, and the light pours down, undiffused. The world seems a brighter, clearer, purer place. That cold clarity purifies me.
In our mortality, I wonder whether there is, too, a clarity that comes as we can, at last, see the end. There is no need for the extraneous, just the focus of comfort, where we can; of love, if we are blessed with it; and the firm hope that when the seasons pass, the essence of what we are will always be.
Yesterday was a spring day of transient weather, but during an episode of sunshine (and between chastising Eli for chasing the neighbor’s dog) I took photos of the wild flowers blooming: blood root, violets, bluebells, and trout lilies. Later before bed, I opened up the photos from one year ago, to see if there were any fun reminiscences of 14 month old Eli’s puppy antics, and there were photos of the same flowers, exactly on time, blooming one year ago. When we had a snow storm a week or so ago, I opened my photos to find the storms of years past. Same patterns, to the day.
My mornings are usually the same. I wake in the dark, pour myself coffee, and wander into either my office or our cozy library to write. My writing is usually more productive in my office, but my ability to observe the morning rituals of the woods is better in the library, and this is where I usually end up. As the dogs settle into their customary places, I drink coffee and write. I like seeing how the tilt of the earth changes the location of the sunrise behind the trees, and I gauge the time of year by its place along the long horizon visible from the ridge where our house sits. With the leaves not yet out, the sparkle of the lake down the hill forces me to move my chair so I can see, but in a week or so, the lake will have disappeared behind the foliage.
I can see the turkeys flying down from their roosts, the deer browsing, the plump raccoons waddling up their trees to bed. On a sullen morning like this, there is no burst of sunlight, only a gradual undarkening. On sunny days, the mists rise from the valley in a haze of purple. For the dogs, the scenes of life outside the windows are riveting, too. I like watching the rhythms of life, the interplay of the different creatures who wander in and out of one another’s paths, and the sameness of it—with only small variations to account for the seasons—is reassuring.
At this time of year, in a ritual I now understand, the turkeys are dividing themselves from the large winter flock into smaller family groups. The males parade up and down before the females in full regalia—spectacularly beautiful and with great pomp—making a mechanical thrumming sound like enormous insects—I think by vibrating a set of feathers that skim the ground like a 19th century train’s cow catcher. The females scurry back and forth, cackling, in some kind of hierarchical battle with one another. In the end, it is unclear to me who choses whom, but there will be five or six adults in each final group, and they will pair off to start families. Every morning there will be fewer and fewer remaining from the main flock, until they have melted into the woods for summer. We won’t see much of them again until fall, when they come together again. Finding a nesting hen is extremely difficult, but they nest on the ground, and stay in place from the moment the eggs are laid until they hatch, with no apparent help from the males—although I suspect they keep watch nearby in military readiness to fend off attackers. Turkeys are fierce.
The deer, who do their pairing in the late fall, are already heavily pregnant and browsing hungrily, as are the raccoons, whose cumbersome travels up and down very tall trees make me hold my breath in suspense. I recall one spring watching the antics of a raccoon family, as five or six babies, chirring excitedly, popped out from the hole in their hollow tree, while their mother frantically clung to the tree with her back legs and used her front paws to stuff them back in like someone trying to close a drawer filled with too many socks. No sooner would she get one in, than two or three more siblings would pop out from another hole further down and swarm the tree trunk. They would fall with quite terrifying thumps to the ground, and call wildly for their mother. Then, while she made a laborious trip down to take them by the scruff of the neck to carry back up, more would fall like hail from the den above, while the sound of their frightened and excited calls came from above and below. She would try to carry two at a time: bringing one up a few feet, leaving it to cling to the trunk, returning to the ground to retrieve another, like a relay, while the first one promptly fell past her head with another resonant thunk. The cycle of babies was unceasing as they continued popping out, swarming, and falling with more thunks as is if they were in a cartoon. Mama’s increasingly desperate attempts to gather them up and stuff them back in were as futile as they were comically pathetic. This went on for more than an hour, and I can only imagine how tiring it is to be a mother raccoon. It’s remarkable how much noise a baby raccoon can make when it falls, and even more remarkable that they seem utterly unfazed—which is more than I can say for their mother.
It pleases me to understand these patterns, perhaps because it makes me feel a part of the cycles of the earth. Later, less charming cycles will begin: the annual infestation of deer flies who torment dogs and humans equally with wicked bites, the mosquitoes, the unceasing battle against invasive garlic mustard and buckthorn plants, and one peculiar festival we have come to refer to as “personal fly season”, when a walk down the driveway invariably includes one—and no more—fly to accompany each individual, buzzing and landing on our heads. They don’t bite, but their relentlessness is exasperating, buzzing with a particular emphasis on entangling themselves in hair and crawling on ears. A hat is essential, and preferably a handheld electronic bug zapper, which sizzles satisfactorily when it encounters the enemy. Success makes no difference, since a new assistant ineluctably appears to take the place of its fried colleague.
It is usually at this moment that summer in the woods ceases to charm, and we gather everybody together and decamp to the lake. There, we will inevitably find a different cohort of creatures with their own summer patterns, and we will begin our own. It is a modest place, a rickety cottage with only the water as an amenity, but that is amenity enough. There will be the pleasures of a quiet summer morning on the dock, drinking coffee with a blanket tucked around our toes, of wet dogs and floating, of visits from friends and family, of cocktails at sunset.
There are also the millions of wet towels to drag home to wash, dishes and pans to wash in the tannic water, muddy feet from wet dogs, and the back and forth of various necessities from one household to the other. It’s joyful at the beginning, but by fall I will be tired of the discomfort and upheaval, and ready to settle in at home again. Even as I anticipate the joys of summer, I am already excited at the prospect of the beauties of fall, and its own patterns of renewal.
When we return to the woods, the deer, unmolested by barking dogs, will have browsed the hostas and lilies to the ground, the raccoon babies will have grown and wandered off on their own, the turkeys will be returning to gather their clans together for the winter. And the sun, whose slow track across the horizon will have continued unobserved by me, will be rising far to the south as the days continue to shorten.
My city friends wonder how I can live without the museums, theater, restaurants, and vibrancy of the city. But I wonder how anyone could live without this vibrant scene of the earth, the animals, and their own dramas.
I have lived in the city and felt my soul shriveling among the pressures of a life removed from nature. Here, I breathe, and my soul drifts out among those of the animals and trees, their calls and their battles, and I know I belong, too.
As I write, the horizon brightens, and I hear the last sleepy calls of the great horned owls conversing with one another. The dogs sit up, alert to the presence of the deer in the dark, the turkeys thrum and cackle, the sun hits the water of the lake, and I settle into myself, content, and glad to be alive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 →
It was the most beautiful summer I can remember here. Day after golden day unfolded in rich, scented glory. The sun, the heat, the lushness of the woods and garden, the perfect refreshment of the lake were everything anyone could wish for. But it was an odd summer, too: no picnics with friends, no Memorial Day, no parties at the lake, no baseball in May and June, no Fourth of July, no parade, no fireworks, no farmers market, no family reunion, no Labor Day end of summer celebrations. There were no markers, no points in time. Just the silent turning of the earth, the move toward the sun and then away from it, the days turning, too, from morning to afternoon to evening. The light lengthening, the light retreating. The restless sleep. Then morning again.
It’s difficult to explain the dreamy quality of life these days. I tell myself it should be a time of joy and productivity, but somehow it isn’t. It’s not a happy dreaminess—I don’t know how it could be—but it’s not unhappy, either. It’s a sense of unreality; as if time is over.
While the pandemic rages on in the world, I feel a bit like a medieval monk, having raised the drawbridge and retired from the world to write my scrolls. My husband and I work from home at the best of times, and aside from the busy travel schedule we both had, our lives are essentially unchanged.
I am not ungrateful. But I am puzzled by the peculiar—I won’t say lethargy, exactly—but fatigue we both feel. He, in particular, has been working harder than ever. He has demands on him. My own deadlines are mostly self-imposed. But I have been in a heavy languor, having finished my novel in December, and then almost immediately plunging into grief. For the first three months after Moses died, I was deeply stricken. Then came Eli and the pandemic, which were, I suppose, distractions.
It feels now as if we’re on one long snow day from real life. It’s an illusion, of course. We don’t get to make up the days lost in our lives. They won’t come back. But the sense of being out of time is life-changing, and I sometimes fear I will never have ambition or energy again. I can’t even really say why.
The wheel of days keeps turning, but our lives feel stopped. I am one of the lucky few. I am living in a dream, away from the world, with the capability of tuning it out almost completely if I choose. Maybe I am numb to keep myself from missing things too keenly, from worrying about the world too much, from feeling there’s more than the usual tragedy and suffering. Or maybe it’s a lack of stimulation. There’s nothing but the weather to help discern one day from another.
Last year in August I came down with a severe case of influenza, picked up while cuddling my sick grandson. He had a mild fever and a cough. But it was the sickest I have ever been in my life, with a terrible, painful, racking cough, and high fever. There are two or three days that I don’t remember. I couldn’t eat. I didn’t want to. I could only cough in agony and sleep for almost ten days. It took me months to recover. Looking back, it feels like a warning. If I was that sick with regular flu, I suspect I would not survive this.
So when I do go out, every minor activity requires preparation: the mask, the hand sanitizer, the wipes, the gloves—just in case. The stress of being out in the world feels at the moment like a mere nuisance. It isn’t until I get home that I feel the exhaustion of it. But that’s not the source of my daily fatigue.
We have no reason to be out and contributing to the spread of disease, so we stay at home. Very few, limited family visits, no restaurants, no excursions with friends, no shopping. No hugs. The annual summer month with our daughter and French grandchildren was cancelled. By the time we see them two years will have passed. My sister has a new house in another state I haven’t seen. Our granddaughter on the east coast has started walking. My annual trip to Minnesota for a friend’s birthday is cancelled.
These are very small things in the wake of so many larger sacrifices by so many others. But I am ashamed to admit that it can be hard. For those who have lost their lives, and for those who grieve them, just one more of these slow, languid days would be a prize beyond reach. It is a sin not to be grateful every day for my family’s good fortune. But sometimes even the counting of blessings lies heavily against the heart. Everything seems to require tremendous effort.
The sunrises are coming later and later as autumn approaches. Dawn is marked by the stirrings of the geese, but I realize I haven’t heard a robin in weeks. Auggie lies nearby, waiting impatiently for the signal that I may be ready to take him outside for the first green ball session of the day. Eli snoozes on my foot. He has a softer disposition than Auggie, with less drive and more patience. Pete has already disappeared, without greeting, to lie at my husband’s feet in his office. With limited sight and hearing he moves in an ever decreasing world, but still loved, still happy, still nagging for his dinner.
We all have dreams, and hopes, and longings to color our thoughts, but life consists primarily of how we spend our days. We will go for a walk today, and do some chores, and call my friend for her birthday. I will do a crossword puzzle, with its utterly inexplicable satisfactions. There are pleasures in a clean floor, an orderly room, the first cup of coffee, the scent of clean air, the affection of an animal. We will watch the sunrise, walk in the sunlight, play ball with the dogs, and drink wine in the golden red light of evening, somewhat mitigated by the annoyance of mosquitoes. And then we will go to bed, and to sleep, hoping, in an uneasy world, for the wisdom and grace to appreciate what we have.
It was three decades ago when J.F. Riordan discovered the island that would become her muse for four novels and counting. “I was in Door County,” she told me recently by phone, “just looking for something to do, and decided why not go see what’s on the island?” Washington Island sits some seven miles northeast of the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula and is reachable by ferry. “From the first moment I set foot on that ferry,” Riordan says, “the magic of the place swept over me. And it’s really never gone away.” Riordan appeared at a Mystery to Me virtual author event September 10 at 7 p.m. with A Small Earnest Question, her new novel and the fourth in her North of the Tension Line series, which was also the title of Riordan’s 2014 debut. Click here to watch a replay of the event! The books have earned praise for their mix of mystery, humor, and the inevitable intrusion of small-town politics into daily island life. Riordan herself says, “The beauty of the mundane is really what my novels are about.” She said it while we were discussing her earlier life as a professional opera singer. Riordan was born in New Jersey but moved as a child with her family to Michigan, then Wisconsin. She learned to love music early, from her father, whose mother took him to weekly performances of the famed Metropolitan Opera. Riordan had barely reached her teens when she announced she would be an opera singer. “I was probably about 13,” she says. “I started preparing myself quite seriously. It was completely lucky that it turned out I actually had talent. That wasn’t a given.” At 16, Riordan left high school to enroll at the University of New Mexico, drawn by a particular teacher to study voice. “A mixed bag,” she says now of the decision. “Sixteen is pretty young.” Still, she fulfilled her goal and became a professional, a life less glamorous than perhaps perceived, with its backstage squabbles and constant travel to opera houses in small European cities. “I was lonely,” she says. “Homesick.” The experience produced an epiphany: “Your life is really how you spend your days. It’s your everyday life. It’s not some grandiose dream. I was miserable.” Riordan moved back, eventually earning a college degree in English and teaching three years in the Milwaukee inner city, where she coached a forensics team.
It was after she began another job, working for a foundation doing philanthropic research, that Riordan began to write, squeezing in time early mornings or late at night. She likes the essay form and considered a nonfiction book on her teaching experience. Slowly, however, the fictional story of former Chicago newspaper reporter turned freelance writer Fiona Campbell and her eccentric cast of friends and adversaries on Washington Island took shape. “I think it took seven or eight years to write,” Riordan says. “There’s a lot of self-doubt and questioning when you’re writing a first book because you don’t know if anybody wants it. You don’t know if it’s ever going to be read or published.” Her husband, Charlie, was supportive, laughing in the right places when he read the early chapters, and bluntly counseling her not to think about agents or publishers, when she raised the subject. “None of that is your business right now,” Charlie said. “Go upstairs and write the damn book.” When the manuscript of North of the Tension Line was finished, Riordan sent it to a few agents, scattershot, uncertain of the process. “I submitted my manuscript to someone who specialized in historic railroads,” she says. She also sent it to a few trusted friends, one of whom worked in the same office building as a book publisher. This friend’s wife loved the novel, and that was enough for the friend to talk to the publisher, Eric Kampmann of Beaufort Books, who gave Riordan the contact information of his editor-in-chief. Riordan sent the manuscript that night, a Thursday. Charlie counseled patience. “You know, it will be a month before they look at it. Start another book. It will be a while.” The following Monday, Riordan was at home checking email after a busy day at work. The editor was back in touch: “Loved the book, couldn’t put it down, read it all weekend. Attached is a contract.” Charlie was in another room. Riordan recalls, “He said I made a noise that made him think there was an animal in the house.” A life-changing moment. “That never happens,” Riordan says. “I was very fortunate.” And – clearly – highly-talented. Three more Tension Line novels have followed, and a book of essays, Reflections on a Life in Exile.
Of the new novel, A Small Earnest Question,Riordan says she wrote two endings and didn’t decide which one to put in the book until a week before she submitted the manuscript. The title came out of something her copy editor said in a meeting. “She is not a hesitant or timid person,” Riordan says of the editor, who nevertheless framed a query by saying, “I have a small earnest question.” Riordan recalls, “As soon as she said it, I said, ‘Oh, my God. That’s the title of my next book.’” Riordan’s love of Washington Island – so evident in the novels – is also mirrored in the title of her book of essays. “When I say I live in exile in Mequon, Wisconsin, people think I’m kidding,” Riordan says. “But I’m not. I mean that quite sincerely. I’d love to live on the island. It’s just not practical. Trying to get your whole family to pull up stakes and live on a remote island in the middle of nowhere is kind of a hard sell.” She concludes, “The desire to be on the island is part of my impetus to keep writing. I can pretend I’m there.”
A note from J. F. Riordan:
Mystery to Me in Madison, Wisconsin is one the most charming bookstores anywhere. and one of my favorites to visit. Help keep our neighborhoods filled with lovely stores like this by buying my books from an independent bookseller.
I have a lot on my mind: an unfinished and recalcitrant book, the usual tribulations of book sales—or lack thereof—a family reunion that includes children, grandchildren, five dogs, and one bathroom at our lake cottage, and a baby shower focused on the joy of the occasion, but whose logistics are complex. In case anyone doubts the (self-imposed) complexities of my life, I have three big dogs whose various health needs have led me to commit to giving them homemade dog food, and the coming family visits suggest that preparing 8 days of dog food in advance might be advisable. There’s a full day’s work, including the scramble to find affordable meat for them. It’s a nuisance, but the dogs are healthy, vital, and unappreciative.
I’m not sleeping well.
I defy myself in my wakefulness: I will not do laundry in the middle of the night.
I just poured myself a bourbon at 2 am, which is in violation of my own protocol, but an emergency method of acquiring some sleep before a day with many tasks.
Even in the depths of the night, the sky here is brighter than the trees, and the abstract pattern of their leaves against the pale night surrounds and engulfs the house. I lie on the couch in our library and am consoled by the sky. The dogs breathe; Pete, fast and shallow as if he is racing; Moses, deep and sonorant.. Both follow me in my restless wanderings through the house, and we share our love and our wakefulness. Auggie, in his youth, sleeps through.
I found Pete around midnight, curled up in an odd place on the kitchen floor. Yesterday morning I found him lying among the piles (no, mountains: two houses, visitors, bed linens, beach towels, clothing) of sorted laundry, far from his sleeping family. I wonder whether he seeks solitude, or whether he is actually lost: befuddled by deafness and blindness.
Pete has much joy in life. He eats with gusto, he runs and romps. He protects his interests. He polices his younger brothers. But he is an old dog, and his quiet demeanor means he is easily pushed aside by the exigencies of the moment, and each day I resolve to spend time with Pete that is only his. Each day I fall short.
Whose kid is playing booming bass on his car stereo at 3 am on our sleepy rural road?
I get up to start a load of laundry.
I am awake because my dreams were of my father’s death: explicit; agonizing. I rose from our bed and went to where my stirrings would not disturb my hardworking husband. Moses smells my tears and licks my face. I tell myself that my troubles are small. The world is filled with tragedies and pain, and my life is easy, rich, and full. But still, it is an act of will to find the right messaging for my troubled mind. I have a good life, it’s true. But even so, grief holds hard on a heavy heart.
Robert’s Rulesis Book Three in J.F.Riordan’s North of the Tension LineSeries, and is the recent winner of a Gold Medal from the Independent Publisher’s Book Awards. It is this month’s selection for Wisconsin Public Radio’s popular Chapter a Day program.
You can tune in to WPR every day to hear one of twenty episodes at 12:30 pm and 11:00 pm. It’s also available for download on their site.
It is beautifully read by one of WPR’s regular readers, Jim Fleming. Check it out!
ABOUT THE SERIES:
Wisconsin author J.F. Riordan has been called “a latter-day Jane Austen”. Her mesmerizing literary fiction makes the Great Lakes region one of the characters in this continuing series. The North of the Tension Linebooks (North of the Tension Line; The Audacity of Goats; and Robert’s Rules) represent a sensibility that is distinctively Midwestern, even though the small town politics and gossip will be universally familiar. Riordan celebrates the well-lived life of the ordinary man and woman with meticulously drawn characters and intriguing plots that magnify the beauty and mystery lingering near the surface of everyday life. Book Four in the series, A Small Earnest Question, is due out in 2020
J.F. Riordan’s Mesmerizing ‘Robert’s Rules’
Told in a beautifully crafted literary style, Robert’s Rules is an engaging story filled with deep insights about people and their environment. In the process, Riordan reveals the eccentric and oftentimes unexpected realities behind the bucolic images of modern small-town life.”