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Sarah Martinez

New Appearance: Whidbey Island Writers Conference

I have been asked to present two workshops at the Whidbey Island Writers Conference on October 24-26, 2014. 

Check out the schedule
here. This year they have assembled a great group of presenters like Renda Dodge of Pink Fish Press, Susan Wingate, Robert Dugoni and my own Katherine Sears of Booktrope who I first met at the 2011 conference!

When I talk to people about conferences, Whidbey is at the top of the list every time. It is small enough to allow everyone a chance to mingle with the speakers and teachers, and it is well focused on craft and artistic purpose. And...what may be most important: the scenery is hard to beat.

The first year I attended I sat in on an intimate workshop with one author who was then on the NYT bestseller list, an editor and local author Terry Persun. The way Terry talked about his work, his vision and why he does what he does has stuck with me. This year we will present a workshop together. 

Jennifer Munro--most excellent author, editor and teacher--will also be presenting and I highly recommend her workshops (one of them is with me!). I watched her engage a large class in Edmonds with a presentation on comic writing that I still talk about whenever I am asked for names to present at conferences.

What a gift it is to be able to work with two people that I admire and appreciate as much as I do these two.

I hope to see you up there!

Author Interview: Jim McNeely



I think art is the only thing that’s spiritual in the world. And I refuse to be forced to believe in other people’s interpretations of God. I don’t think anybody should be. No one person can own the copyright to what God means.

When you're taught to love everyone, to love your enemies, then what value does that place on love?

--Marilyn Manson



Despite my childish longing to reconnect with the Catholic church of my youth (I actually dragged the entire family to mass this past Christmas eve!) my world views are not generally compatible with religion.

So why would I even think of hosting a preacher on my blog?

What many people would call sin is for me a celebration. What I struggled with as I put this interview together was the fact that after all discussions of grace, I cannot agree with Jim on a key point in his discussions of sexuality, but still found his argument and position thoughtful and in one distinct way, encouraging. Among other things, his words remind me that not all “religious people,” think the same, and they are just as aware of the baggage that comes with words like “Christian” and “Preacher” as any other label.

In Sex and Death in the American Novel I likened sex to the intimate and very spiritual exchange between reader and writer. Here comes this preacher who wrote a book where he encourages people to have a romance with Jesus! I had to know more. When I engaged him he introduced this idea of scandalous grace. Short of Joseph Kramer, if I was going to talk to someone who had ever followed the religious path, it would be this guy. He told me that sex was his favorite activity and he wrote this post that I thought was really cool, celebrating his wife and his physical relationship with her. It even has a picture of people kissing on top. Way cool.


 

Jim McNeely lives in Everson Washington, and is a teaching pastor and elder at Dakota Creek Christian Center in Blaine, Washington, where he lives with his wife, Betty, and their four sons. In addition to being the author of Romance of Grace Jim is also a jazz pianist and composer.
 

 

SM: What is “scandalous grace”?

JM: It is forgiveness and release from responsibility that is so complete and so final that no accusation or guilt or inadequacy can overcome it. It is acceptance and favor that really isn't even fair. It is one-way love that is so undeserved and so persistent that it doesn't even make sense. It is love that is so passionate and so outrageous that it is actually scandalous, like a cosmic public display of affection. Grace is karma busting delight coming at you. It makes uptight moralistic people who demand fairness and equality truly angry. For instance we have Jesus telling the story of the vineyard owner who hires people who work all day, people who work half a day, and people who work the last 5 minutes of the day. Then he pays them all the same full day's wage, and the people who worked all day were scandalized! It wasn't fair! The vineyard owner says, I paid you what we agreed to, what is it to you if I was generous to these others? These kinds of stories were the hallmark of Christ's teachings, which is why the prostitutes and "sinners" gathered to Him like moths to a flame, and why the uptight religious assholes wanted to murder Him. He scandalized them with outrageous grace and love for the kinds of people that Brennan Manning calls "ragamuffins".

Paul was more cerebral in his writings, but it is the same exact message. He raises the question - if we have forgiveness and acceptance so strong and so unbreakable, can we just sin and sin and sin and do whatever we want? (Romans 6:1) If whatever you're hearing from someone doesn't end up sounding like scandalous and outrageous love, it may seem obvious, but it just isn't. I'm not in this to become more prissy and moralistic, I'm in it for the scandalous grace. I'm constantly saying that it is scandalous one-way sloppy-agape love that leads us to true virtue.

SM: Why is religion still relevant?

JM: This is such a great question. There are many people that I really love who would say that grace-centered Christianity is the end of religion. I think you can have grace with or without religion, and you can have religious and non-religious "prisons of ought". In fact, one of my favorite writers and an atheist, Allain de Botton, did a TED talk on "atheism 2.0" where he talked about the things that are good about religion - there is community around profound ideas, regular organized messages, and good pressure in some cases to do well. So I think that even non-believing types need some sense of community around something that they would consider important or even somehow sacred.

More importantly, I think that we are seeing a backlash among many intellectuals and artists against the purely materialist view of humanity. There really is free choice and creativity and love which cannot be explained by genetics and biochemistry. I am a real boy, not a meat puppet. What happens to me matters. We are really seeing serious philosophical discussion around this with the likes of atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel's book "Mind and Cosmos", where he posits that you cannot explain the existence of the rational mind's relatively sudden appearance on the evolutionary stage, given that according to the materialistic dogma, rational teleological design (such as governs the human mind) is disallowed. We are very spiritual beings and we really need spiritual answers. God is the ultimate spiritual being, you would think there would be some interest there.

SM: What do you read as a pastor that might enrich the lives of my readers?

JM: I read everything. I read Richard Dawkins. I've been reading Mary Karr, what a writer! I grew up in Texas and although I wasn't an alcoholic, I really had quite a damaging sexual addiction back when, so her story really resonates with me. I read C.S. Lewis; Mere Christianity is such a deliciously reasoned little book. I read Henri Nouwen's beautiful books on being a wounded healer. He wrote a book on his years-long journey in coming to a deep spiritual understanding of Rembrandt's painting of the return of the prodigal; I am crushed to tears every time I read that book. I read Brennan Manning's books, such as "The Ragamuffin Gospel". Manning is a raging alcoholic who never got control of himself but continued in a fruitful career teaching scandalous grace. I read everything on Mockingbird Ministries' web site mbird.com - this is a truly brilliant bunch who embrace pop culture, literature, music, everything and find stories of scandalous grace in everything. They're like the opposite of the "religious right." I spoke at their spring conference in New York City in April 2013, which was a very exciting event! Of course I would recommend my book, The Romance of Grace. I go for the scandal in it, I even actually reference SEX! WOO HOO! I confess, sex is pretty much my favorite thing on earth. My wife puts the oomph in being submissive.

SM: How did you come to be a pastor and how do you feel your experience changes the way you view the world today? Fifty years ago so many things that many religions say are bad; open relationships, homosexual marriages, premarital sex, not attending church etc. would maybe not have been so common.

JM: This is such a great question! I am so grateful for your welcoming tone. Peter Rollins has made the point that in communicating across ideological divides, we are often monsters to one another. In many ways I know I am a monster, and others are monsters to me. We must have the courage and grace to speak kindly and truthfully with genuine respect across these divides, to hold what we hold true as true, and to respect one another's convictions, while also holding out the possibility of learning and persuasion with each other. I recently posted a piece on my blog on the gay marriage debate, which got 10 times the normal traffic. Almost no one actually read it, they just used it to get into a huge ideological war. I want to try to be more clear here with your readers.

The real jewel in the crown is grace, not my opposition to someone's set of morals. The standards by which we judge ourselves and judge others are simply the stones of the prison of obligation. I bet porn stars get irritated and argue with each other on moral grounds! Hedonism and religious moralism both have their standards, and we equally have trouble living up to them. My message is that grace is so much better, and offers so much more freedom. When I enter the universe of grace, I do not need to do anything anymore to prove my relevance and significance and worth. I already start off knowing that I am so loved that I am worth dying for. I don't need to worry about the flavor of your need for grace. I know my own need for grace. What use is it to say, I don't need grace? You don't need one-way love coming at you whether you deserve it or not? Who's going to turn that away? I say stop quibbling over where we each draw the line of deservedness and just take the gift! If someone offered you a million dollars, you wouldn't refuse unless they agreed that it was OK for you to spend it all on bubble gum. WTF? Take the money! I may think I want grace only so I can pursue my sexual agenda, but far beyond this, I am scandalously loved even when I don't deserve. I am allowed to be boring, allowed to be imperfect, allowed to fail. I am allowed to be rich or allowed to be poor. I am already guaranteed to be safe forever. People want to say, but you are against homosexuality. OK, I'm also "against" greed and murder heterosexual sin; but the only "against" I've got is that your failures and my failures lead us to more grace. In fact I am against my own heterosexual sin, which I don't always seem to be able to control at all.

SM: So do you believe that you are sinning when you have heterosexual sex?



JM
: Of course not. I have heterosexual sin when I leer at women I’m not married to. I’m in a monogamous relationship, which means I’m at least in principle against leering.

It is ridiculous to assume that God is expecting perfection all at once, even a perfection of agreement with His moral lines. Jesus said if you even look at a woman you are guilty of hell; this because the religious tight-asses were so scandalized after he said that you only have to be "poor in spirit" to receive the keys to heaven itself. He is saying, "you want to have to deserve heaven? Let's talk about how good you really have to be." If you break your leg, the X-ray shows you clearly what is wrong. The Xray isn't the solution. Orthopedic surgery may be the solution. These strict sayings of Jesus are X-rays, and grace is His solution. I am saying, stop worrying about what I or you or someone else is calling good or bad, and admit you are poor in spirit. That's the real key to the kingdom, just give up; I can't tell you how liberating that is.

I would also say this. In my book I have a whole chapter on the two goods, moral good and aesthetic good. It is an aberrance of humanity that these two are split; we find the forbidden desirable and we deem the moral repellant. Don't think that uptight religious people are immune from this; they find the moral repellant just like the hedonist, they just try to pretend it isn't so until they blow up like Jimmy Swaggart or Ted Haggard or all of these Catholic priests who molest children. When grace strips the world of the sting of moral punishment, the only thing left is the choice of the heart, and in the end the heart will have its way for better or worse. We throw away something very cosmically important when we throw away marriage because of this; it is the ultimate picture of the romantic good and the moral good coming together in the desire. It is a love which says, no matter what, you will never disappoint me or bore me or irritate me enough to leave you; I have one-way love for you. Of course no one really is that good at love, but marriage is a shadow of the one-way scandalous persistent love that the Creator has for each of us. Grace, after all, is the air that love breathes. Grace at the center makes for very beautiful romance.

I refuse to look at people as "homosexual" or "polyamorous" or whatever, any more than I want someone looking at me as heterosexual or adulterous or now, religious. Screw that, screw all of it. Are we really going to define ourselves by what closet we were in or came out of or whatever? You know what, I refuse to put people in a box that way. Does anyone really want to define themselves by what kind of scintillating thing they like to do for only a fraction of their time? You were born a glorious and amazing creature, brilliant and creative and with an immediate grasp of justice and truth! I see someone who says they are gay and they think that is how I am going to define them, by the one thing on which he thinks we disagree. Just like with everyone, I am going to look right past that and love who they really are - a brilliant person, in touch with their desires, willing to confess it when it is scary, and so courageous and honest. Those are good qualities, not bad ones, they are qualities which I celebrate. I'm sorry I can't approve everything you want to do any more than you can approve everything that I want to do. We need love more than we need labels or weird agendas to reform each other. Grace transforms, but grace is far more than an agenda to transform. We are all conscience-ridden love-starved lonely people frightened and looking for genuine acceptance. When relationships end we feel rejected and we feel a little bit like a piece of trash that got used for someone else's gratification. We know in our heart we are meant for something far greater. We're not really looking for these other things. We're looking for scandalous grace. Eternal life means love that really doesn't ever break.

SM: So the definition of grace here seems to mean that what someone is in their bedroom doing is fundamentally wrong and these actions require forgiveness. What if sex in all its forms was a gift from God and unless hate or greed or hurt entered the picture it was something to celebrate. So do you also believe that you are sinning when you have heterosexual sex?*

JM: I find these constant attempts to peg people and compartmentalize them such a problem. For example, if I say I am a Christian, which I am happy to say, I am immediately thrown in with all kinds of prejudices and weirdnesses that I desperately disagree with.

On the sticky gay issue. It is so sticky, and every thoughtful Christian writer from here to Timbuktu has their take on it, from full acceptance to Jerry Falwell fundamentalism. Everyone is trying to find their right twist. You really can't believe how churches are falling all over themselves trying to figure out how to be accepting and loving and wonderful while still being against homosexuality. People are not flippant about this, they are tortured by it. I think the now dominant gay-acceptance culture should have some respect for the struggle this represents.

One thing to remember is that no one on any side of this debate thinks that anything that anyone wants to do is right. The question is where you draw the line. I think everyone would agree that pedophilia is wrong, even if all parties seem to be consenting. I would think that everyone would think that sex with animals is wrong, or perhaps sex with fish. We’re not going to arrive at a place where there is no boundary, but if our aesthetic is to find excitement in things simply because they are at or outside the boundary, one wonders if we are truly finding enjoyment in our intimacy. There is going to be some new boundary of unacceptability no matter where you draw the line. As an orthodox Christian believer, it isn’t mine to draw these lines. It’s not my line. Once I stray, I cease to be orthodox, and I throw away a lot of good with this. I think some people outside of these circles don’t understand what they are asking people to do when they want them to redraw these boundaries.

As for me, I cannot imagine having someone come to me who says, "I'm gay, now what Mr. Churchy Pants?" and then rejecting them outright on that basis! I don't know how many ways I can say this: I am not a single issue person. I would not ask them to as a condition to our friendship or relationship or church membership to change this fundamental thing, which is tied to their sexuality, to their very life, which they have surely sacrificed family relationships and have had great courage in coming out and being true to their real desire and heart. It would be similar to demanding a fat person to lose weight before I would be friends with them. It will not be my focus; living in the light of God's one-way love for them and for the liberty of the Holy Spirit will be my focus for them. What kind of heartless and damned fool would I be? I am not demanding change, I am offering a very strong and enduring kind of love: GRACE based love. Sadly, I have sometimes found that while it is not my focus, it is theirs, and we cannot communicate past this. If they cannot peg me as accepting them in a certain way, then they reject me and everything I have to say.

This is not to say that there are not standards of right and wrong. The message of grace isn't, "lets change the standards."



SM: This word is problematic to me. Whose standards? Bishop Gene Robinson came and talked about how in the Episcopalian faith people who are gay or transgender are able to serve officially in the church. Their standards would likely be different than the standards you talk about.

JM: In fact we have Jesus drawing a higher and more stringent standard, such as "don't even be angry with your brother" and "don't even look at a woman". These sayings are not the solution, they are the diagnosis. It is like getting an X-Ray, finding you have a broken leg, and having people say, "broken legs are not bad. Stop being judgmental." The diagnosis is a good thing, because it makes healing possible. The standards are all heart-level "born-that-way" kinds of things for everyone. I stand equally deficient of the standards on the same wrong side with the same flamingly wrong heart as the gay person. I'm not saying, "be like me, I'm heterosexual. I'm good." I'm saying, acknowledge with me your helplessness to really love what is right. Grace hugely forgives and accepts the broken and failing. Period. But don't ask me to change the definition of right and wrong, of brokenness and success, it isn't my place. It is the wrong direction; we want a more stringent diagnosis, not a looser one. You don't go to the doctor and pretend to be OK. If you are coming to me to change the standards, I don't think it is mine to give. Here is where I am a green monster, with a heart of love, saying something alien.

SM: So still the problem looks to me to be how powerful labels can be: one person’s broken is my enlightened and free. One person’s success is my oppression. Standards that for one person mean right, for me mean wrong.

JM:As Slavoj Zizek has said, there is power in orthodoxy. I'm not trying to destroy orthodoxy. I am making poetry with it. The genius of Stravinsky was that he could take 13 weird instruments and within those limits, make something world-shakingly brilliant with it. As Zizek has said, maybe you can stand on a stage naked covered with chocolate masturbating and call that art, but that has become mundane. Beauty does not lie only with the profane. The real power is in knowing how to take a paintbrush and make something real and moving and amazing. It is far stranger and more powerful now to have a marriage and have sex only within that monogamy. Can you carry on a romance without it being bizarre and forbidden? Can you love the person and not the scintillating raciness? I'm not trying to control anyone else, but I also resent being called a homophobe and a religious bigot and idiot because I have a very thoughtful orthodox position. There is a bit of "orthodoxophobia" going on that way too. G.K. Chesterton notes that we can fall over at a thousand different angles, but we can only stand up at one angle. Orthodoxy is like this. The hallmark of my orthodoxy has nothing to do with homosexuality, it has everything to do with grace and true spirituality. Homosexuality, and other flavors of sexuality, are very intimate and very important parts of us, and not to be dismissed or marginalized. However, the power of grace is that it supersedes all of these things and makes something real and honest that is much larger and truer of us. As in Peter Gabriel's song "Solisbury Hill", we come to say, "You can keep my things, they've come to take me home!" When scandalous grace has dawned on you, you drop everything else from joy over it to grasp this great great beauty. It is this beauty which I am pointing to; I am not pointing at your shame or your wrong sex.

So, there will remain for all of us, regardless of the issue, ways in which all of us will continue to be "little green monsters" to one another. Grace is about persisting in love despite this. I must persist in grace for my own wife, and she for me. This includes respect for our honestly differing ideas about where the lines of morality are drawn, and everyone has those lines. Everyone really does. The community of grace says, we are the forgiven and beloved ones, we see each other in the light of the love which God has for us, not the deficiencies which are so easy to focus on between us. Is it so strange to say that Christianity is supposed to be about love? I don't think so!



SM: What questions do you not get asked very often and would like to speak to?

JM: I think a question that should be asked more is this: why is religion in general so focused on guilt and morals and forgiveness? If God is love, why can't it just be about love love love?

I think that the focus on guilt is weird until you think about it. There was an episode of "Touch", Kieffer Sutherland's new show, where it turned out that this guy had been in Japan during the Tsunami and had survived. You would think that he was flipped out with PTSD from that experience, but his real pain was much more specific. During the tsunami he had been holding on to this woman for some time, and finally he let go of her so he could save himself. His real pain was that one incident, because it involved his personal guilt. The greatest evil is not the evil that comes to us, it is the evil that we choose. This is the thing that our conscience tortures us over. It is a persistent problem too. If someone has committed murdered, he cannot come into the court and say "I'm sorry - I repent! I swear I'll never murder again!" It's too late to make these ridiculous promises. "Repentance" is a crock. We need forgiveness with teeth and muscle in it to free us. So this greater evil is the one that is addressed. Love says, I recognize your greatest trouble, which is your guilt, the evil you chose. I absolve you of that! And that is scandalous grace, real overcoming love. It is about love love love, and that is why the main barrier to love, which is guilt and shame, comes up. It is about removing these barriers to love, not about reinforcing them.

SM: Would you flip if I asked you if you thought Jesus had sex? I just can't imagine him not getting down personally. If he came to earth to be a man, it makes no sense whatsoever to believe he wouldn't. I know as a pastor though you might not want to go on record, I can appreciate that, but if you would engage me on this, that would be lots of fun!

JM: For the question, don't worry, I won't flip, it's just a question. To be frank, I don't think it is true, there is no accepted text that says this. The relationship of Christ with the church is compared to a romantic and even sexual relationship throughout the scriptures. Christianity is the story of a cosmic and passionate love between creature and creator. He didn't need to do that in a salacious way because that's what His life was about anyway.

SM: So is sex salacious?

JM: No, of course not, but trying to read that into Jesus’ life kind of is. Also, for God there is no division between the moral good and the aesthetic good. He always loves completely and wholeheartedly in a way that is not immoral, but moves beyond the measure of mere moral acceptability.

Also, see my prior comments about Zizek's comments about the power of orthodoxy and the mundanity of the shocking.



If you made it this far, I hope you have gotten something from this post. If not, I very much appreciate your indulgence. It took me several months of fiddling with this interview to figure out how to deal with this topic and to include all of Jim’s answers. I worried about how to present this interview without giving the impression that I endorse the premise that sexual preference can be wrong at all and therefore require grace and forgiveness in the first place. I am leaving everything in as a way to say that I appreciate the thoughtful nature of Jim’s position, though I do not support it.

I also think in some way these comments will be useful for those who may find themselves in the unfortunate position of having to deal with people who approach discussions of sexuality from a fundamentalist angle. “Well, what about grace?”

First Anniversary of Sex and Death in the world: Virtual Book Launch Reposted



I am reposting the launch videos in honor of the first anniversary of Sex and Death as a real-live-book-in-the-world-with-pages-and-everything.
 
In honor of this occasion I am going to do it up by hitting the Editor's Guild Pot Luck.

For the rest of you who I am offering this: for each new review that goes up on Amazon, I promise to send you your very own link to the Nelson video of your choice.

To my readers: I love you all, thanks for indulging me.
 
To my editors and mentors, supporters and publishers: I wouldn't be here without you.

To my hubby: I am sorry I forgot to mention you from the podium. It gets hard to remember everything when there are a hundred pairs of eyes on you. How about this instead?



I love you guys. MWAH.

Links to videos are mixed with text below. Scroll down to find the highlighted phrases that will take you to the videos that might interest you. Have fun!

The launch for Sex and Death in the American Novel was held at Benaroya Hall, Saturday September 8, 2012. In addition to the readings and short speeches, Maureen O’Donnell worked up an original tribal belly dance number to “Deformography,” by Marilyn Manson. I also had Michelle Badion, my first dance instructor perform two numbers with her partner Koa Hons.

After the formal program, people continued to mingle, I signed a few more books, then we danced to everything from “Suavemente,” by Elvis Crespo to “Rough Sex,” by Lords of Acid. 
It was glorious. I could not have asked for a more fun bunch to share the evening with.


I want to thank everyone who attended. You brought much appreciated enthusiasm about my book, excitement for the event and an open mind regarding my topics and musical influences. You guys really did make this night for me. Thank you so much.

Through this post, and the video links, I hope to lay out how the evening went so you may pick and choose what you might want to look at.

The lighting for one of the dance numbers was less than ideal for camera, but was wonderful for the live audience. My apologies in advance.

Specifics:  

At 6:30 I signed books outside the Founder’s Room while people mingled inside. Here is a short compilation that also includes bits from Maureen’s dance if you just want something quick. This piece doesn’t include any of the speeches or reading and doesn’t show as much of the tango sections.

At 7:15 Michelle and Koa danced their first number while people gathered for the formal part of the program.  

Next, Maureen performed to “Deformography.” I can’t tell you how incredible it was to watch someone who already represented the spirit of my character Vivianna perform to music that represents so much about what it means to be an artist. The weirdo in me was finally given a visual representation and it was more exciting than I ever imagined.  



Katherine Sears, Booktrope CMO introduced me and I spoke, both are on this clip.

I missed a critical part in my speech where I was supposed to thank my husband for all the things he does that make this writing life possible. Amazing what you forget when you’re up there with all those eyes on you.

Michelle and Koa danced to “Oblivion,” by Astor Piazzolla. 

I read from the first page and then skipped over to the part that takes place at  Benaroya Hall.

Maureen ended the formal portion of the night.
  


After downing a bag of corn nuts*, a small but dedicated group of us left the Hall a little before midnight and headed over to Neighbours, a location that features prominently in the book.



Taking this picture was fun**, but it was also incredibly important to me that on the night of my book launch, both the Ladies and the dancers were out. To pay homage to Vivi's spirit, there was no better way to celebrate. 
        
                                    


Afterward, as in the book, we hit 13 Coins.



It was so much fun to see all the places I featured in the book and show my editor Katie Flanagan exactly where certain events took place.

Two attendees were kind enough to post their thoughts on the launch and the book.

Tamsen Schultz: I especially appreciated her interpretation of my comments on music.

Isla Mcketta: Love the thoughts on the artistic sensibility as well as the more removed interpretation of the event.


*The launch preparation and execution were more work than my wedding! On launch day I didn't eat or drink anything after the lunch the Gene Juarez ladies treated me to in the early afternoon. I signed, spoke, and danced my ass off (hairpins were flying, baby!) until midnight. At 12:30 am when we loaded up the minivan I was ready to chew the leather off the seats. I was not, however, willing to slow down long enough to hit a restaurant. Neighbours is only open until 4. Thank the good lord for Corn Nuts.  


** Do I or do I not have the most understanding and supportive husband in the world? I do. I do. I do.

No



After the twenty-four-year-old in California who wouldn’t stop when I moved his hands and pretended I was asleep, I gave in and justified it because my ass was the only thing I could trade for a place to stay; after I did use that word when he suggested renting me out to the Mexicans—it would be safe, he said, someone would be standing outside the door with a machete; after that thirty-year-old guy in brown polyester pants left my friend on the side of the road because she was throwing up and I did nothing; after running away before his hairy arms dragged me back to the blue El Dorado with the white top; after knowing there were nice guys and still choosing to run around with ones who weren’t; after the night on that smelly boat when they took turns on two girls--one fourteen, one twelve; after the ones who said they loved me but still couldn’t listen; after the nights drinking when I just didn’t care what happened; after the guy from the salsa bar when I was 26, the one my roommate asked me not to bring over because he scared her, the one who said nobody loved him and I knew it would make him angry but I didn’t respond, but I did say that word while I pushed him away--softly, so as not to make it worse--and knew it was my fault when he did it; after several years and a man who said he loved me; after learning that I could speak and be heard…sometimes; after watching The Accused five times in a row; after two kids and eleven years and knowing I am too old for simpish bullshit, I still don’t know how to use this word, and I hate myself for it.



I also read this out loud.

Taos



Art Galleries. Ski Valley. Wal-Mart. Mountains that change color by the minute. Light that feels artificial--unreal. Sage. Prairie dogs. Beer Bottles on the side of the road. Strands of gift ribbon curl amidst the weeds and dirt and make me wonder why. Why is this here, why litter, why in such a hurry? Holes in the earth surrounded by scruffy brush, the tumbleweed would be its babies. Dirty thoughts. This place is contradiction for me. Creative energy. Calm, dense air and washed out sky. Vivid greens and soft greens. Dry earth. Cracks in the earth represent the splinters in my brain. More stories to tell... 



...and the light...it is impossible to capture, though I did try. 

 

Morgasms

I pity the poet or novelist in this age of mass media, but my envy is frank and unconcealed for the musician, who is able to affect the audience with such emotional directness, a pre-rational manipulation of the nerves.
--Camille Paglia, “Sexual Personae: The Cancelled Preface”

“Nessun Dorma” from Turandot, Giaccomo Puccini
“Leper Messiah” Metallica
“O Foruna,” from Carmina Burana, Carl Orff
“The Mission” from The Mission, Ennio Morricone
“Kashmir” Led Zeppelin
“Dream On” Aerosmith
“The Boxer” Simon & Garfunkel
“Broken Crown” Mumford and Sons
“Rex Tremendae” Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“Orion” Metallica
“Wasted Years” Iron Maiden
“Fifth Movement: Dream of a Witches' Sabbath” from Symphonie Fantastique, Hector Berlioz
“Hells Bells” AC/DC
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)” Metallica
“Regnava Nel Silenzio” from Lucia di Lammermoor, Gaetano Donizetti
“Opening” from Glassworks, Philip Glass
“Crystal Voice” Tangerine Dream
“Fragile” Sting
“Stairway to Heaven” Led Zeppelin




This playlist is posted on Spotify!

In Praise of Cooperation

Most of you have seen my book trailer and know how much I love it. For those who have not, check it out here. The images and arrangement were done by the numinous Brian Short.

The music--which is seriously moving and one hundred percent relevant to my topic (grief)--was very generously donated by a musician named Phil Jourdan. When I first encountered this artist he was posting wonderful stuff about sex, writing and Jacques Lacan plus examining authors like Jonathan Franzen and Phillip Roth more officially over at Litreactor.



I also found that he was a musician who had composed albums working music around both The Recognitions by William Gaddis and Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. In my own novel I had worked the themes of music, freedom, and dance pretty intensely, so finding an artist who was doing both felt timely. Cool. Ness.



I then asked him if he would write for Line Zero, the literary magazine I was writing for at the time. He agreed to let us edit and reprint the blog post that got me so excited about his work in the first place. Since then he has been an advocate for both my work, as well as another author I admire: Jessica Karbowiak.

Later, when I was working with Brian to get the trailer together, I came across the song “Disappearing.” The music was absolutely haunting and I could not get it out of my head. This piece of music was important to Phil for personal reasons and not on any official album. Still I had to ask, because it was so perfect. The speed with which this artist agreed to let me use his music--the whole time refusing my offers of payment--made an impression.

There is a spirit of community that exists, especially here in Seattle, where writers, musicians, editors, teachers, all give freely of their time and expertise to those who are just starting out. In this instance, the spirit of camaraderie and generosity has extended all the way to the UK! I am so proud to be a part of a community of artists who are so willing to give of themselves to help each other.

Now it is my turn…



Phil is currently running a campaign with Indiegogo to fund the next album for his band, Paris and the Hiltons. At the moment they are almost halfway to their fundraising goal. I am hoping to boost that number. Stop by and consider all the fun things he is offering for donors.There is even an option where you can donate and he will sing to you in a dress!

Somebody has to take him up on this...







Soul Signal Radio Podcast: Sex, Death and Spirituality

My July appearance on Soul Signal Radio was moved up to last night due to scheduling conflicts. There is an echo on my voice for the first few minutes but then it goes away.

The host, Leta Hamiliton, continued to bring me around to why I am compelled to write about the topics I do and wrangled me back to the topic of spirituality when I got too far off track.

This was a fun show and I hope you enjoy. Listen here.

Author Interview: Jessica Karbowiak—In Praise of the Little Fish

                                          

Jessica Karbowiak is an author I know through working with Pink Fish Press. I am happy for the fact that I had no say in publication decisions or the editorial process, nor do I have any financial stake in whether or not this book does well. I am really really grateful for this because I feel like everything I say about the book is at the same level as what I say about Marco Vassi or Erica Jong. 

In addition to my admiration for the writing and decisions the author made about how to structure these narratives (something I find separates the books I like from the ones I rave about), I loved this book because it did something I have struggled to do for years, and that is to handle—but in a new and novel way—personal topics that as Jessica herself mentions, have been done to death. A couple of days ago I posted a book review on my blog. Now through Saturday April 27th, you can download the e-book for free on Amazon
                                                
                                            

SM: This was a beautiful and unique book. What gave you the idea to mix in real events with stories featuring such different women as Ilse Koch (The Bitch of Buchenwald) and Saartjie Baartman? Did you use any models for the structure?

JK: When I started the collection, it read much like the old-school ‘navel-gazing’ of the Romantic period—that is, the whole first section dealt with my own traumas, my own losses.  When I think of the first section, I think of that part in Catcher when Holden Caulfield is sitting at the bar and gets really drunk.  Salinger writes:

I was the only guy at the bar with a bullet in their guts. I kept putting my hand under my jacket, on my stomach and all, to keep the blood from dripping all over the place.  I didn’t want anybody to know I was even wounded. I was concealing the fact that I was wounded sonuvabitch (195).

I wanted the arc or shape of the whole work to move away from the madness and isolation that trauma often causes.  I wanted to move away from The Concealment, and have the work flow much like the cover illustration flows—from the personal ever-outward into some sort of holistic spiritual place.  Moving beyond myself and my small hurts into the larger world.  This was so important to me, and why I chose to shape the collection the way it is including the creative nonfiction accounts of famous people who have suffered back to my own, hopefully more informed, little life in section three.  No formal models but my own weird movement, in writing and in life.

SM: The reviews on Amazon are all very positive. Two stories in this collection were nominated for the Pushcart Prize. What a great validation before the book ever came out. Since its publication, what type of feedback have you received from readers?

JK: Due to the lack of an agent and advertising know-how, the book has had little critical reception.  This often makes me sad—and let me clarify, not really from a bloated ego—just that I do think it’s a weird, sharp little book.  I wish it could reach more people.  But still, I am grateful to have it out there.  To move on to the next project.  I feel like for me, if Renda Dodge and Pink Fish Press hadn’t published this work, I would be paralyzed and still in that place of trying to write out this overall narrative.  That can happen.

SM: You open These Things I Know with the account of your rape. I appreciated your including the details that you did, especially the ones where you watch yourself from years later, judging the decisions you made. Much of that felt very familiar to me. In my own work I am only able to get events like these down in fiction, removing myself from them in that way, but also being able to see them more clearly for the distance. How long after it happened did you feel you were ready to write about this in any form?

JK: I wrote snippets about the topic of rape for years without any clarity or insight—I believe I was still in the middle of things, so to speak.  It took a long while, years even, to be able to write about trauma in a way I thought spoke to the trauma.  Like sort of trying to marry form and content in my own way.

SM: Had you talked to other women or read many other accounts before you wrote yours down?

JK: I’ve read lots of Survivor Tales over the years.  They never speak to me.  Like that quote from one of Joy Williams’ novels—one of her characters says something that speaks to this: “’I’m a survivor,’ she said.  ‘People dismiss me as a survivor.’”

SM: I completely agree, it seems like once people slap a label on someone; victim, survivor, whatever, it makes it so much easier to discount what they say. These words come with so much baggage already.

JK: I think this is where the danger is writing about The Big Things—people can easily dismiss you as writer. I’ve been told that these topics are so potent that writers can bring little to them that isn’t already done or there.  My favorite eloquent response is Bullshit.  Every writer I have ever admired writes about the big things, maybe through the small things, but yeah, it’s still there.  That’s what writing is.

SM: Exactly. A post I put up a few weeks ago where I reflected on what both Junot Diaz and Chris Abani do with material like this proves your point. It seems that the actual events are not really all that important, but more how they affect us and what we do with them that matters. This is why I was so impressed with what you did in this book. It was so mature, and magical. It made me think I could look at the events of my life and use them to make something that will matter as well.

SM: Who do you admire the most among writers and other artists? 

JK: I’m a Salinger fanatic—mostly his stories and novellas.  I love William Gay’s stories.  Junot Diaz is a more contemporary favorite. 

                                     

SM:
Did I tell you that I got to meet him? This never gets old! I doubt any other experience will top that. He is one of my favorites and I’ve used him as sort of a virtual mentor more times than I can count. He gives incredible talks for young writers and is always reminding me to pay attention to what is going on in the world. I didn’t know we had this in common!

JK: I also love magical realism like in Marquez and Bombal—I can thank a UT-Austin professor, Pete LaSalle, for that.  I love Borges and George Saunders.  I recently got turned onto a Michigan poet, Robert Fanning. I dig his stuff. I don’t have any parameters—anything that tells a narrative in a way I can follow and appreciate.   I love poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction.  Not a real fan of plays, though.

SM: I am a writer and an editor; I know how much gets removed at the editing stage. Were there any topics that did not make it into the book and if so, what were these? 

JK: There was one snippet of an essay about my hearing that got cut out for clarity’s sake; the fact that I was born 60%-80% deaf and had to have an operation as a child which in turn led to Super Sonic Hearing.  It clouded the narrative’s purpose so my editor proposed either elaboration or omission.  Omission made sense.  Also, a narrative I wrote called “Lady of The Waves” got cut—it was about the 1900 Galveston storm in Texas and an orphanage.  It didn’t really fit.

SM: The cover artwork is striking. Can you tell me some about the image?

JK: The image on the cover was illustrated by my brother, Matt Karbowiak.  He is a carpenter by trade, but initially went to school for his BA in Illustration at The University of Hartford.  He did all the illustrations throughout.  He’s wicked good though he forgets to remember this sometimes.  It was a great collaborative experience.  I wanted the cover to show what I spoke about in terms of the shape of the collection itself—the rugged and beautiful terrain of moving outside of oneself.  I definitely think of it as a flowering of some sort, so that’s where he got the idea for a weird cocoon-ish woman.

SM: Your use of language is one reason I will read this book again, hoping to absorb something I can use to make me a better writer. I loved the way you worked so much hope in—especially at the last page. I am eager to know about anything new you are working on and when you will have that out.

JK: Hope is essential for me; I don’t feed off it or live by it desperately.  Most people who know me well think of me as cynical in relation to how people can behave, how we choose to treat one another. 

However, hope becomes, well hopeful and not a crutch through beautiful things in my life like my students, my animals, my teaching and my art.  These are the aspects of my life that never betray me.  So different from lovers, friends, family, myself.  I don’t know.  Then getting beyond heartbreak becomes an experience leading to wisdom and can be eased by these things, rather than the idea of hope erasing pain.  That doesn’t happen.

I’m percolating new ideas this year and moving beyond this first collection.  It is taking longer than I expected it to.  I’m not sure why this is—perhaps because the reception was small and people I thought would champion me chose not to, and some people who I didn’t know well became dear friends and confidantes by receiving my voice and work with loving-kindness.  Weird how that can happen sometimes.

SM:  As I spend more and more time working on essays and my next novel, I find it more difficult to balance promotion work with creative work. It is hard for me to switch from the introspective contemplative space to the outgoing personality I need for be for promotion. Since you are a writer I admire, and you are juggling career, work and promotion, do you have any words of advice?

JK: No advice.  I am horrible at promotion.  In some essential way, I feel like it is bullshit writers of small presses and books have to go through so many hoops to be heard or appreciated.  I have no delusions of grandeur; however, I bristle at the whole carnival atmosphere—like running in circles it feels like sometimes.  I take part when I can—I have a Facebook page (mainly devoted to my dogs), and I’m on Amazon, Goodreads, and a few other places.  I put my book out there for some small awards and hope it gets noticed.  I’m not holding my breath. 

I mostly rely on the kindness of people like you, Sarah (!), my editor and friend Katie Flanagan, and readers who end up claiming me.  I claim them right goddamn back.  Everything else falls away.  I’m not going to give up my day job—I wouldn’t want to—but we don’t live in an atmosphere where I could if I wanted to anyhow.  I’m a small fish.

SM:  Where can we see or hear more from you, I am speaking here mostly about how readers can get in touch with you and learn about your next steps.   

JK: I mostly show up online this year.  Google me if you like me.  Write me on Facebook.  I love hearing from people.  They tell me their own stories.  I value them and honor them in my own small way, I hope.  One awesome aspect of being a small fish is you are relatable to people, not anyone they cannot reach out to speak with or become part of their writing experience.  Because of this, I don’t mind staying a little fish forever.

Book Review: These Things I Know




To prepare you all for my interview with the author and the e-book going free on Amazon Friday and Saturday, I am posting my review to get you good and ready.

Note the front cover...the original and haunting image...note the blurb by Phil Jourdan (LitReactor co-founder who recently spoke at Oxford on memoir writing)...note that the author along with one of the stories in this book was nominated for a Pushcart Prize!                                                       

For all of you who have been discussing writing projects with me, this is one to study for an example of what can be achieved when you do your own thing. You will also find the glorious vision of something that is always near and dear to my heart: a book that doesn't fit. Is this a short story collection or creative non-fiction...is it, could it be...both? For all of you who have recently attended a writing conference populated with agents and editors telling you what sells, this is why you go with a small press.

This is the kind of book I read at least twice. Once for story, a second time to savor the language and as a writer I will go back a third time for study. These words make me want to be a better writer, a stronger woman, and a more compassionate human. The details in this book are so intense, the images, settings and situations are so vivid, they still pop into my head at odd times.

To read this book is to be shown, in a novel and interesting way, what it feels like to be in a fleshy, fragile, finite human body.

The poetic lines stayed with me even after I put the book down. The author's observations were both universal and familiar and for this I am grateful. When I find my own thoughts echoed in the words of another person I know that I am not alone.

Scenes in this book call up images that are either beautiful or terrifying and for the places where they are both, you know you are dealing with an Artist.

Life changingly good books come along so rarely, this is one is a real gift.

Tell your friends, book groups, doctors, veterinarians, local booksellers and libraries then please return for the interview with the author tomorrow.

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