An evening with Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

Anyone can write a book. Just tell yourself a story a pebble at a time.  Stephen Mack Jones
Stephen Mack Jones: GR Reads

In most circles of friends there’s that One. You know, the one who tells great stories–and acts out all the parts. That friend who is self-effacing, no matter how successful they might be. The one who has a strong moral compass, yet never acts holier-than-thou. The one who is often the butt of the jokes they tell.

The Grand Rapids Public Library recently hosted An Evening with Stephen Mack Jones as part of their summer GR Reads program. Jones is the author of August Snow a crime novel that pairs a rollicking whodunit with insightful social commentary all set against the backdrop of Detroit. (Read my review of the novel here.) And if I had to guess, Jones is that One for his family and friends.

Dressed casually in jeans, a black tee, and sport coat, Jones began the evening by talking about the process of writing the novel. Joking that after he retired (Jones was a copywriter by trade) there was never anything new on Netflix, he set about to tell himself a good story. While mowing the grass one day the words “August Snow” popped into his mind, but it meant little to him at that moment. When he later looked back at some ideas he had jotted down for a story, he realized that August Snow was the hero’s name. Jones said as he wrote, the story moved him, making him laugh … and cry.

Readers of August Snow know August holds dear the memory of his parents and feels their influence daily. Jones said that during an early interview when asked who the story is about, it came to him that August Snow is the story of his father, the hero “that makes the hero yet never asks for any glory.”

After Jones told the story of writing the novel, he took just as long to answer audience questions. This is one author who was not stingy with his time, one who thanked the readers sitting in the audience again and again as being the source of the book’s success. Of course he was asked about a second novel (Lives Laid Away set to be released in January 2019), and of course he was asked about a film version of the novel (and the answer is probably–the novel was recently optioned).

Now to wait six months for that second August Snow novel …

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air
Paul Kalanithi
Random House

when breath becomes airSo much has been written about Paul Kalanithi’s meditation on living and dying When Breath Becomes Air–reviews in every newspaper and magazine, a Super Soul short by Oprah, NPR interviews, a TED talk. What more could I possibly add?

Not much.

Kalanithi does with words what he did as a surgeon–takes two pieces seemingly torn apart and stitches them seamlessly together. As a surgeon he removed brain tumors and fixed broken spines, then sewed muscle to muscle and skin to skin so that the patient was once again all of a piece. As a writer he took an idea that frightens many–death–and connected his past and present, bringing the reader to understand that death does not separate us from our lives, but instead merely moves us along a kind of continuum. In her Ted Talk, Kalanithi’s widow, Lucy, recites the poem “Separation” by W. S. Merwin: Your absence has gone through me/Like thread through a needle/Everything I do is stitched with its color. I can only hope that it may be so for my loved ones.

Strange that I read When Breath Becomes Air only three days into my retirement. Such an event is frought with thoughts of mortality and life’s work and self-worth. I’ve most likely lived, at best, two-thirds of my life already. And I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that some days that remaining slice of the pie seems terribly small.

I could also say that Kalanithi wasn’t so lucky.

Or I could say he was the luckiest man alive–because Paul Kalanithi experienced a marvelous grace that enabled him to live a good death.

Happy Flavia Day!

Did you know …

Alan Bradley started writing after he retired from a career in TV engineering and production.

Bradley never planned on writing more than ten Flavia de Luce novels (*yikes*) because he can’t imagine her as a teenager. He has considered, however, Flavia at 70 looking back at her life.

The author is … Canadian! and never traveled out of North America until the publication of the beloved novels. Now he and his wife plan to live for a time in each of the countries where the novels have been translated–that’s 31 and counting.

Bradley sold film rights to Sam Mendes whose production company also brought us Call the Midwife.

While there is no release date or cast for the BBC series, I found this intriguing trailer for a Flavia film in Norway, of all places!

And last of all, friend (and blogger) Denice at Denice’s Day makes a pretty good case for suggesting Flavia join the ranks of Jo March, Hermione Granger, Scout Finch, and Nancy Drew.  We need to promote images of strong and confident young protagonists for girls to dream about … and grow into.

My Big Magic

big magicA few years ago I was cleaning out my file drawers. I use “file” here loosely because the drawers are an odd collection of miscellaneous ephemera: ticket stubs, campground maps, prayer cards, receipts ($12.97 at Meijer, and I saved this?!), and unopened mortgage offers. I’d just slogged my way through some serious upheaval and organizing is my go-to ritual. If I can’t put my life to rights, I can certainly put my papers in order.

At the bottom of one of the drawers I found a folder with a few stories I had written nearly thirty years ago. In another life I’d have been a writer, but I pursued a more practical path instead. I had kids to feed, a mortgage to pay, and ain’t nobody got time for make believe. Part of the fallout of these last hard years was that I had to put off retirement and pay the bills. I was the breadwinner once again–but a heartsick and weary one.

The stories reminded me of what could have been, I was mired in the misery (self-inflicted, mind you) of the wouldas and the shouldas, and I just wanted to forget the dreams. I flipped through the typed pages. Wondered if they should stay or go. And threw them in the trash.

As I did, I remember having some strange sense that those stories could never really be trashed. “They’re out in the universe somewhere–living on in some other dimension. I only set them free.” Maybe I’d done enough to just write them; maybe keeping them wasn’t the point.

So imagine my surprise when I read Liz Gilbert’s Big Magic last weekend and she confirmed my intuition. Ideas, says Gilbert, are “an energetic life form … ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will.” Ideas will tap us on the shoulder, knock impatiently on our hearts–waiting, waiting for us to give them welcome. Whenever we create (whether it’s story or quilting or painting or dancing) we embody those ideas and they come to make their home with us.

Now am I sorry I tossed those poor stories out? Of course. I think they know that I did so from a very sad place. But I also think they forgive me. Their brothers and sisters–story sprites!–come sit next to me and whisper sweet nothings in my ear.

And we are all of us happy to be alive.

Flash Fiction Friday

I stepped over the warped floorboard on the porch, thinking its crack might wake him. The baby was bundled into her blanket– a yellow one Nana knit after Poppa died. This October night was cold and brittle, but the grass hadn’t yet frosted. It was so quiet I could just make out the horses shuffling and stamping in the barn. The ground around the house was uneven, so I stepped my way carefully until I reached the road.

sears catalog house
Steve Baker@Flickr.com

I should be able to make it to Tammy’s easily, if not quickly. Two miles straight down 14th, a left, then three blocks into town. She wasn’t expecting me, but she’d never turn me away.

“Next time he does it, you just up and leave,” she’d made me promise. But I didn’t the next time or the next.

Tonight I’d flinched before he even straightened up out of his chair and that’s when I knew it was time.

Ceci stirred in her blanket, one little fist popping through, so I folded her in more closely. I couldn’t carry Ceci and a bag, so I’d need to come back for some things. But not tonight. Tonight it was just me and Ceci on our way. Ahead, the asphalt of the road met the dark autumn night–I fixed my eyes to where they met and walked.

[The flash fiction “Leaving”, 2016 draft, appeared first on This Is My Symphony.]