Friday, May 23, 2014

"I Can't. I Have to Practice."

This is my childhood piano: A Baldwin spinet that was already seven or eight years old when my parents bought it. I was about nine when it came to live at our house, so we're roughly the same age. It was long both the instrument of my torture and my delight. Maybe I've written here about playing the piano before--if I have, please forgive me. I have a terrible memory. It's selective, and sometimes plays tricks on me. I honestly can't remember if anyone told me as a child if they liked hearing me play on the piano. That doesn't mean they didn't say it. My memories of childhood are often melodramatic, with me as the hard-done-by star. (See? Even then I was making up stuff.)

But there's one thing I do remember. I remember not liking to practice very much. The worst part for me was knowing that other people could hear me make mistakes. In piano practice! Sounds crazy, doesn't it? I was pretty sure at the time that I should be able to sit down and play without mistakes the first time I saw a piece of music. Never mind that no one else in my family played an instrument or read music. We never listened to recorded classical music or went to concerts. (We did see Mac Davis at the Kentucky State Fairgrounds when I was about 11. It rocked my world. Seriously.) If you have a child (not a Mozart-like genius child) or sibling who started playing an instrument at a young age, you know that the first year or so can be a time of utter musical hell. Sure, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star is adorable when it's massacred the first five or six times, but after twenty or thirty times you want to stab a fork in your eye. (This will probably come as a shock to my opera singer of a daughter who has been playing the piano since she was ten. But she rarely reads this blog anyway!) I was hyper-aware of every misplayed note as a child, and still am.

The other thing about practicing that I disliked was having to sit down at the piano on a regular schedule. I never could bear a schedule. I like unpredictability. Whimsy. A certain degree of chaos. (It's part of the ADHD package.) If I expected myself to know the music immediately, I also had to be able to sit down and plat it at any given time. Without warning. Fortunately, I was usually required to play right after school because that was really the only time that was available. Maybe when my mom was fixing dinner, too. But when everyone was home in the evening or on weekends--particularly my dad--I was very self-conscious. I didn't like it much, but in that way the after-school schedule worked for me. It was my accidental safe time, and whatever progress I made, I made then.

I still resist a schedule. I'm excellent at setting schedules for other people. Take this very moment. It's midnight and I'm writing this piece. But an hour and a half ago, my fourteen year-old came into the kitchen all brushed and flushed and ready for bed. He kissed me goodnight at 10:30, his regular summer bedtime. During the school year he's in bed at 9:15. Never misses. Why? Because he has parents who understand the need for schedules.

Me? Sometimes I think I need a parent standing over me, telling me when to go to bed. When to write. When to start dinner. I rebel against the schedule every day. I am my own worst, most neglectful parent.


Sometimes I really, really want something. I want something so badly that I'm willing to take the risk of other people hearing/seeing/reading what I'm doing. I want something so badly that I'm willing to do it for days and days and years and years in a row so I can get better at it. I'm thinking of writing here, of course. For me, at least, decent writing doesn't grow out unregulated chaos. It grows out of a semblance of order: a blank background on a laptop. A quiet house. More than five hours sleep a night. And other people know I'm doing it. They may not hear the words I'm putting on the page, but they know exactly what I'm doing. Maybe making a fool of myself, making lots of mistakes.

Regular practice makes everything better. Although I'm not a swim parent, one of my favorite bumper stickers reads: "I can't. I have swim practice." That says it all, doesn't it? The principles behind those few words are dedication and commitment. A singularity of purpose. I love that!

I wonder if this all makes me sound like a beginner? It think that maybe it does. I feel like a beginner every time I sit down to write even though I've been doing it for nearly 25 years. About six months ago, I took up the piano again, and oh do I feel like a beginner every time I open a music book. But...I love them both. I love the practicing of both. I crave it, even if half of me--the rebellious kid inside me hates to sit down, hates that people can hear me/see me--sometimes gets in my way and tells me there's something else she'd rather be doing or even should be doing.

It means taking baby steps every day. It means making a commitment every day. It feels like a small miracle every day that I get out of my own way and engage in the practice, rebel against my own worst instincts, and take the risk to sit down and do what I love to do.

What do you love to do so much that you're willing to say--every day--"I can't. I have to practice?"

Monday, April 21, 2014


Today was a holiday. Holiday. Holy Day.

Officially, it was a holy day of obligation, which means I should've been at church bright and early, mindful of the children tripping over one another at the Easter egg hunt, and sharing communion with my church family. But for various reasons I didn't make it there this morning.

As a child, a holiday to me meant a mindless disregard for routine. Pleasurable abandonment. New clothes quickly wrinkled and soiled with dabs of chocolate, or even backyard dirt. There were no obligations beyond showing up for dinner, and getting back in the car to go home when the fun was over.

Today was the kind of holiday the grownup me adores. A rare sort of day. The work I did was effortful, but love-ful, too.

It was a meal well-prepared and well-shared. Music played. A garden explored. My mom's laughter. My children's smiles. Sunshine.

Sanctification of my life. Amen.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Interview: Mystery Doyen Carolyn Haines and the Secrets of R.B. Chesterton

Carolyn Haines, wildly prolific author of over 70 (!) books, has been on my radar screen for a long, long time. But I've just gotten to know her a little better, and I want to introduce her to you, too.

Carolyn writes and lives way down in Alabama, and while I think she would laugh heartily at my characterizing her as a plucky southern belle, I think it's safe to say she's a very busy southern belle: She writes at least two books a year, teaches writing at a university, runs the Good Fortune Farm Refuge for animals, travels frequently to meet with fans and friends, and, as if that weren't enough, she organizes Daddy's Girls' Weekend, a reader and writer's conference in Mobile, Alabama. (She's even put together a cookbook to raise funds for the animal refuge. I'll put a link here just as soon as it's available.)

Most readers will recognize Carolyn from her popular Sarah Booth Delaney Mysteries. (BOOTY BONES, #14, will be out in May.) But last year Carolyn took on the pseudonym R. B Chesterton, and steered her imagination to the darker side of mystery and suspense--dare I even say the word horror? Why, yes, I do.

Her first Chesterton novel, THE DARKLING, appealed immediately to my own dark little heart. It's a true Southern gothic, with a storied old house, an abandoned hotel, an energetic young governess, and someone or something lurking out in the nasty old woods. And death. There's plenty of that, too.

THE SEEKER, Carolyn's second horror novel, is just out this month. The setting is far distant from the South: Walden Pond in Massachusetts. When Aine, a young graduate student with a troubled past, finds herself in possession of her great-great-great aunt's diary, she prepares to upset everything the world thinks it knows about Henry David Thoreau. She has proof that Thoreau was not alone at Walden Pond--her ancestor Bonnie was there as his confidante, companion, and lover. But the project is fraught with bizarre, ghostly events. Someone is stalking Aine in truly chilling ways. And when local residents begin to die, she's both a suspect and the ultimate target.

Because I am generally plucky and always want to know more about everything, when I was finished reading THE SEEKER I pestered Carolyn with some questions about it. And because she is a friendly, polite, and tolerant person, she kindly answered them.

Welcome, Carolyn!

I love how The Seeker has firm geographic roots...From Ireland to Rhode Island to Eastern Kentucky to Concord, Massachusetts. There's a sense of the Cahill curse spreading from the old world to the new. Given that the US is such a young country, how is possible, do you think, that we very quickly developed such an incredibly rich tradition of dark tales and legends?

I think a lot of it has to do with the people who settled America--so many were hardship cases. And many were persecuted for religious beliefs, which can often lead to dark places. If you believe in good, then you must believe in evil. Then there's the whole genocide of the Native Americans, which is pretty dark. My heritage is mutt, with a lot of Swedish and Scot and Irish. There's such a love of story and the oral tradition associated with the Irish. And Aine Cahill, my protagonist, is of course, Irish. I also think that most people love spooky tales. There's a real delight in being a little bit scared while in a safe armchair with a fire burning bright. The exercise of the dark imagination is very healthy--or at least I think so.

Just recently I read a list of things writers should avoid writing about, and high on the list was academics. Yet you're able to keep Aine, a graduate student, vibrant and compelling all the way through the book. She does engage in a lot of research. Was it hard not to follow her down research rabbit holes, bringing the reader along?

I've heard this all my writing life. Don't write about academics or writers. And I could have constructed the story so that Aine was a writer, digging into the past. But the character had to have a compelling reason to move to Walden Pond and also to dig and dig and dig into the journal. I grew up in a family where education was the ticket to a better life. And I truly believe that. So Granny Siobhan will save Aine through education. She will move her into a life and world where superstitions and dark possibilities are held at bay with knowledge and logic. But that doesn't work, of course. Analytical skills never trump spiritual concerns. A balanced person uses both.

Like so many real people, most of the characters in The Seeker are ruled by fears, superstitions, and accusations from the past. Only Granny Siobhan (and perhaps the enthusiastic Patrick) seems to be determined to move forward. Aine gives all appearances of having shaken the Kentucky dust from her feet, but in truth she struggles with it with every thought. Why can't she and the other characters--I'm thinking of Joe and perhaps the ghost as well-- let go?

The past informs our present and future. I don't know anyone who truly gets over her past. We cope. We manage. We seek the sunshine. But we are the product of our experiences. I'm working on a new book now, tentatively  called THE CONFOUNDED , about a man who is shot in the head and loses his memory. So he has the opportunity to begin life completely unhindered by anything he's done or experienced or thought. That idea fascinates me. Aine is just the opposite, as you note. Her links to the past, emotional and genetic (as proposed in the book), bind her to the deeds of her forefathers. Belief systems define us, in all ways. If you believe the world is a place of opportunity, then you seek opportunity in even the most trying circumstances. Aine is raised in superstition and fear, and though she struggles to leave it behind, ultimately it is exactly what defines her.

Creepy toys play a roll in both The Darkling and The Seeker. But in The Seeker, its the dolls that are macabre and over-the-top, and you start with Barbie, queen of them all. What's your relationship with dolls like, and why do they make such delicious horror novel fare?

When I was a child growing up in a big house with fireplaces in every room and a hallway so long and dark it terrified me, I would wake up and think my dolls were watching me. Remember the dolls with blue eyes that you would lay down and their eyes would close. Pick them up and the eyes would pop open.Too creepy for words.  I never really played with dolls. I had an older brother, and we played baseball and hide-and-go-seek, and built forts in the woods. I had an outdoors childhood. The dolls creeped me out. I had a few as Christmas gifts from aunts (aho perhaps thought a bit of domestication might be good for me) but I would stuff them under the bed where I couldn't see them--and they couldn't see me! I grew up on Boris Karloff's THRILLER show and others like that. THE TWILIGHT ZONE. My mother and grandmother told scary stories. In THE DARKLING, James Whitcomb Riley's poem, "Little Orphant Annie" plays a role. That poem terrorized me. We'd beg Grandma to tell it and then squeal and hide under the covers with her. Delicious! My house was haunted, too. Every Halloween my mother had big parties for all the kids and we'd tell ghost stories and hunt for the ghost, who allegedly had money hidden in the house. Fun when friends were all around. Not so much fun going down that long hallway (with an attic fan that groaned in the summer) late at night when everyone else was asleep. These are good memories for me. I suppose that says something about my mental health, but I do know that such fare kicked my imagination into high gear. It's the best tool I have as a writer.

The ghost in The Seeker (I won't spill the name!) can appear anywhere, can change its appearance, and even ostensibly manipulate objects and its surroundings. Do you set up rules for your supernatural world and supernatural characters? Are there ever things they aren't allowed to do?

Not in THE SEEKER. I wrote that book in something of a trance (I know that sounds so hokey) but I totally trusted the story and let it lead me. I write a humorous mystery series, The Sarah Booth Delaney Mississippi Delta mysteries, that also has a ghost, Jitty. There are very specific rules for Jitty. She can never, ever help solve the mystery. She is Sarah Booth's subconscious,for the most part. Her role in the story relates to helping Sarah Booth deal with the losses of her past and her relationships with others. (Faulkner said it best. "The past is never dead. It's not even past.") I think Southerns have an acute affinity with the past. Some say because we were a conquered nation. Perhaps. But I tend to think that it's because the South has been an agricultural society for so long. The bond to the land is one that ties a person to seasons and the long stretch of time. Land is something many people cling to and pass down for generations. The current idea of a house as a thing to flip and turn to profit--and then do it again--is so alien to me. To me, a house is a place of memory and experience. But I am old-fashioned that way. And I think the scary books I write are the same--that kind of Gothic chill that is so different from the blood and gore of some contemporary horror. In all of my books, if there is a ghost, it resonates historically and geographically. A ghost is almost the physical manifestation of the past.

Did the historical Thoreau even have a dog to keep him company at Walden Pond? Could you last a couple months there yourself without lots of critters as companions?

I don't think Thoreau had a dog. I'm a long way from being a Thoreau scholar, but I believe he was a solitary and lonely man. He did go home for lunch a lot during his time at Walden Pond, so he had his family and his friend, Emerson. I couldn't live without my animals. They are my family--as aggravating and hairy as they are. It's so funny, though. When writing THE DARKLING and THE SEEKER, I managed to scare myself so badly I had to call my neighbors to come and check the closets in the house and do a walk-around--then have a drink with me until my nerves settled. My imagination is both my greatest asset and worst enemy at times.

Your R. B. Chesterton novels are dark and full of supernatural suspense. What's it like to shift gears between writing them and your lighter mysteries, the Sarah Booth Delaney novels?

I love writing both. They allow me to exercise two different sides of my personality. I love scary things, but I also love to laugh. And I am something of a notorious smart-ass. So I get to indulge that in the Sarah Booth books, and I also get to explore the character quirks and witty (I hope) repartee of the Bones cast. I often write both types of books at once, but I have learned to write the scary stuff in the daytime and leave the evenings for the fun Bones stories.

What are you working on right now, and what's coming out next?

THE DARKLING will be out in trade paperback April 15. I have a short story with the Bones characters, SHORTY BONES, which will go on sale April 9, and BOOTY BONES, the 14th book in that series, will be out May 21. So I'm working on the next dark story, THE CONFOUNDED, and also a synopsis for the next Bones--BONE TO BE WILD. I will be on sabbatical from my teaching job at the university next year, and I intend to write, write, write!

Carolyn Haines was the 2010 recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Distinguished Writing, the 2009 recipient of the Richard Wright Award for Literary Excellence, and the 2011 RT Reviewers' Choice Award for Best Amateur Sleuth. She is the author of more than sixty books in a number of genres. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of South Alabama where she teaches fiction writing.