Turning Reality On Its Head

When reality gets unbearably grim during this nonstop horror show of 2020, fiction seems particularly enticing. For me, it’s a perfect time to plunge into some of the alternate universes that the Netflix streaming service provides. One political drama in particular strikes me as pure wishful thinking, given today’s level of discourse.  It features the first woman president of the United States (and hurrah for the imaginary voters who finally got it right!). Madame President has moved up from her previous position as Madame Secretary of State (as a certain real-life figure once seemed poised to do, until the electoral college bollixed up her chances).

Early in the administration of this fantasy president, Elizabeth McCord, she receives credible evidence of Iranian interference in the most recent election. She vows to expose and punish this attack on American democracy … even though that interference appears to have benefited her! Talk about turning reality on its head. In this alternate world, we not only have a president who is willing to risk her office for the sake of principle, but actually listens to her opponents (as proven by her choice of a Republican vice president), tries to advance legislation that has a chance of helping people not in the wealthiest one percent, uses the military judiciously, and faces down irresponsible politicians who make unhinged threats against her and her family. In short, she applies reason and intellect to the pressing issues of the day. Will this ever be the norm again? After three and a half years of nonstop lies, conspiracy theories, tantrums, and plain rank stupidity emanating from the White House, is there any hope for such a reality?

I have also traveled back in time, to an well-honored classic, to examine this reality-tampering process. The most recent remake of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is quite a departure from the countless earlier versions. The 2019 movie directed by Greta Gerwig is more thematic than chronological. The four March sisters, growing up in Civil War-era New England, were based on Alcott’s own family, yet the author herself reportedly referred to her most popular work as “sentimental pap.” It seems that she was forced to betray her own reality in some ways, in the interests of appealing to the popular reading market of the time. Her original intention was to write a story more aligned with the truth. That would have left her heroine unmarried at the end, as she herself was. However, she allowed herself to be persuaded that the book wouldn’t sell unless it featured a  “happily ever after” ending.

How well does the new movie restore Alcott’s less idealized reality? We see Jo, the novice authoress, stand up to the prospective publisher of her first novel, even when he appears to have all the power. He offers her an upfront payment of $500 in exchange for the copyright. That was sorely tempting to Jo, the primary breadwinner of a poor family. But she turns down the offer, having enough faith in her work to realize that the copyright, in time, would be worth much more than $500.

Yet after token resistance, Jo does succumb to her publisher’s “happily ever after” edict,  just as Alcott did. Gerwig’s movie compromises in the same way. It isn’t certain at first, in this retelling, that Jo will fall for the German professor who courts her during a sojourn in New York City.  In fact, when he has the temerity to criticize her writing rather harshly, she lashes out at him, defending her stories for the pulp market. They might not be great literature, but they bring in cash that her family sorely needs. In the end, however, even this somewhat revisionist movie isn’t about to let Jo end up a “spinster.” The professor grows on her, and his writing advice, while unwelcome at first, turns out to be sound. Some time after she returns home, he pays her a brief, unexpected visit. She almost lets him walk away without a commitment, but her sisters know love when they see it. At their urging, she races through a pouring rain to stop him before he gets on a train bound for the west.

Jo’s three sisters have likewise acquired a new complexity. I’ve often wondered if the real Beth, the sister who died at a tragically young age, was as relentlessly sweet as portrayed in the book. A little research into the actual sister (known as Lizzie) suggests otherwise. As the story goes, the girls’ mother is called away to tend to her sick husband at the battlefront. She asks her daughters to  take up her charitable work while she is gone, but Beth is the only one who actually does. One of her charges comes down with scarlet fever, which Beth knows is beyond her nursing capabilities. She asks her older sisters to pitch in, since they had the fever years before and presumably couldn’t catch it again. When they claim to be too tired or busy, Beth’s normally placid face betrays a moment of anger. Can’t one of them relieve her burden just this once?

As a result, she catches the disease. She appeared to recover from the initial phase, but as time passes, it becomes clear that permanent damage has been done. She eventually succumbs to its complications. In Alcott’s story, Beth accepts her fate, and after much suffering and prayer, even embraces it. Other sources report that on a few occasions, the real Lizzie lashed out at her sisters and others, as she had every right to. After all, their neglect at a critical time was at least partly responsible for destroying her life.

As in all versions of the story, Meg, the oldest sister, and Amy, the youngest, prove to be polar opposites when it comes to marital choices. Meg marries for love, not money, but she’s only human, and sometimes she can’t help lamenting her continuing poverty. By contrast, the latest version of Amy has been generally lauded as a proto-feminist. A rather self-centered child, and later something of a gold-digger in her determination to “marry well,” she’s not entirely sympathetic. Yet who can blame her? Along the way, she faces the fact that her skills as an artist aren’t sufficient to afford her a comfortable living … although she believes in her heart that her earning capability would be far greater if she were a man. Given the limitations imposed on ambitious women, her best option is to make a match that will enable her to pursue art as a hobby, and perhaps serve as a benefactor to others.

In the end, all three of the surviving March sisters make peace with their choices. Switching back to modern times, President Elizabeth McCord manages to overcome a bogus impeachment attempt, and actually rises in the polls as a result. It’s all rather cheesy, and perhaps wishful thinking, but reassuring nevertheless. Given the circumstances of 2020, why not? Just now, we need all the happy endings we can get.

My Novels Have Soundtracks

One thing that spurs my writing these days, perhaps more effectively than anything else, is a form of music known as “classic rock.” Luckily for us boomers, there are plenty of online radio stations that provide us with these blasts from our past. They make us feel nostalgic for the old days of antiwar protests, civil rights marches, mini-skirts, bell-bottoms … and maybe even “bummers.” I wasn’t brave or stupid enough back then to embrace the drug culture, apart from a few tokes now and then on a peace pipe or a bong. I was a rather sheltered child, to tell the truth. Still, the era of rock and roll dating roughly from the late 1960s to the early 1980s was my particular magic time.

While often raucous, classic rock, at least to my ear, made greater use of melody and harmony than many of the forms of music that gradually overtook it, such as garage and grunge rock, hip hop, and punk. The “British invasion” bands that reached U.S. shores during the early 1960s, led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, are often credited with having launched the movement simply by growing more sophisticated as they aged. They provided the basics, but I was equally dazzled in my youth by figures such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and the Doors’ Jim Morrison. Hendrix and Joplin died suddenly in rapid succession soon after I started college in 1970, and Morrison followed less than a year later. Although others rose up to replace them, there’s nothing like sudden death to romanticize a rocker’s life.

YouTube makes it particularly easy to get quick jolts of the old music when I need them. These, for better or worse, provide more effective inspiration than my current slide into old age. Many of the old records have been re-mastered, which has made them sound better than new. That’s a great thing, although I sometimes miss the imperfections of my old vinyl records. Complete with scratches and skips, they were truly the soundtrack of my youth.

My first novel, Secretarial Wars (2003) was inspired by the partying and clubbing I did in my twenties, while holding down a fairly boring day job. The contrast between day and night life was a theme of the story. Nowadays I live such a prim and proper life, rarely deviating from my strict schedule unless traveling, that it’s hard to believe I was ever that wild. But I must have been, because the song that brings that era back to me in an instant is Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” which celebrates the shameless joy of a casual hookup.

After Secretarial Wars, I wrote a campus-based novel, The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007). As a freshman at my small-town college, I felt homesick and friendless at first. The taped music that played in the dining hall often matched my mood, especially the haunting Bee Gees tune, “Lonely Days,” with its strings and minor key. My outlook improved when I met my husband-to-be, and our soundtracks became the bands we saw together, including Elton John (pre-fame), Stephen Stills, Jethro Tull, Eric Clapton (twice in one year), the post-Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison, and many less well-known acts. Now, although we’re divorced and living on opposite sides of the country, my partner in music and I still reminisce and text each other tips for good YouTube listening. I can pretty much relive the ups and downs of our relationship by firing up the British group Blind Faith: “Sea of Joy” for the happy times, “Can’t Find My Way Back Home” for the confusion and sadness that overtook us.

Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my second music-centered novel, was inspired by the Beatles’ story. That is the band whose entire oeuvre reflects my life back to me. It’s a tapestry that took them, and me, from puppy love (P.S. I Love You, Happy Just to Dance with You) to cynicism about love (I’m Looking Through You, No Reply), to peace-and-love idealism (All You Need Is Love, The Word), and toward some kind of hard-fought wisdom about the music business (You Never Give Me Your Money, Carry That Weight). And I musn’t overlook their psychedelic period (Within You Without You, Tomorrow Never Knows), although I mainly experienced that vicariously.

The rock band in my novel forms in high school during the late 1960s, kicks out its original drummer (as the Beatles did to that poor schmuck Pete Best), and then takes off on wild adventures around the world, including time in a Scottish religious commune (replicating the Beatles” sojourn with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India). Then my band heads to California, where the big music festivals are, and embroils itself in the antiwar movement.  This somewhat reflects the temporary radicalism of John Lennon, who moved to New York with his second wife, Yoko Ono, after the Beatles broke up. That pair put out an album full of political screeds, “Some Time In New York City,” which only tended to prove that heavy doses of politics don’t do anything for music. Only the closing number of that misbegotten album, an exuberant embrace of Lennon’s new home entitled “New York City,” is still worth a listen.

Handmaidens of Rock, being chicklit of a sort, focuses on the three women (actually girls at the start) who latch onto the band. Candy, Hope, and Theda disdain the groupie label, being ambitious in their own right. My musicians, much like the Beatles, discard their first loves, the ones who met them as kids and nurtured their pre-fame ambitions. Sad to say, that is typical behavior for rock stars once they hit the big time. There must be hundreds of books about the Beatles, and I’ve read quite a few of them, but none moved me as much as the autobiographies of Cynthia Lennon and Pattie Boyd, the first wives of John and George, respectively. Although they got left behind, they found the strength to tell their stories. My “handmaidens,” too, I’m glad to say, landed on their feet.

Dictator In Pantyhose

I’ve never been able to resist inserting politics into my stories. I know I’m not unusual in that respect. Political apocalypses have always been popular in fiction, and the farther out they get, the better. But I sometimes ask myself how far authors can reasonably take their nightmare scenarios. For example, how evil can a leader be and still remain plausible?

Try to imagine a President of the United States who exemplifies everything the founding fathers tried to prevent when they established the emoluments clause to the Constitution and other safeguards. In their eighteenth-century wisdom, they foresaw that a sociopath might someday attain the highest office in the land, and turn it into a private fiefdom for his own political and financial benefit. Such a scenario would only be possible if that person corralled a once-respected political party to elevate him, whitewash his flaws, and do his bidding.

Such a president would treat the rule of law as an inconvenience, resist any efforts by the other branches of government to conduct oversight, and fire anybody who dared to tell him anything he didn’t want to hear. He would sell out allies and coddle dictators according to his whims. He would be a pathological liar, given to childish tantrums. Worst of all, when faced with a genuine emergency, he would continue to lie to cover up his own incompetence and inadequacy, even if his lies endangered the health and safety of the citizenry. Pretty wild, right? Couldn’t possibly happen here, could it?

Oh, wait …

An alarming realization has struck. There are limits to the effectiveness of speculative fiction if the worst has already happened, or is about to happen. What will possibly be left for us amateur politicos to cook up? Luckily, brave people who resist authoritarianism have always made good heroes and heroines. In the present circumstances, things could definitely get worse, and soon. If Trump is re-elected, he’ll anoint himself dictator, if not emperor of the universe. His corruption will become even more unapologetic than it is now. If he’s defeated, he may well scream “false news” and refuse to leave. His implacable base, many of whom have guns and nothing much to lose, will support him no matter what, perhaps even to the point of civil war.

I’m currently trying to draft yet another novel that features corrupt leaders. Tentatively entitled Gilded Prisons, this one is a sequel to Let’s Play Ball (2010). The first story featured a monstrous president, Jeremiah Smith, who facilitates the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer for his own benefit. His actions are covered up by his enablers, enough to maintain plausible deniability, although almost every thinking person knows or suspects that he’s guiltier than sin. He foregoes running for reelection, citing health concerns. He and his supporters are fine with this because his daughter, Deirdre Smith Gordon, is prepared to succeed him.

In Gilded Prisons, Deirdre proves not only as corrupt and venal as her father, but much smarter, which increases the danger. (Think Ivanka in a few years). Deirdre is a lawyer who never practiced law, having chosen to please her father’s conservative base by representing herself as a stay-at-home mom while her children were young. That was always a bit of a ruse, since she has been the driving force behind her husband’s rise to leadership posts in Congress. And now that she has attained the highest office herself, thanks to daddy’s legacy, she plans to change everything about the government that doesn’t directly serve her and her family. As if to prove that no one ever learns from past mistakes or pays for them, the baseball kidnapping caper is repeated. Did she instigate the crime, or merely exploit it after the fact? That has yet to be determined.

I picture Deirdre as a woman with a sweet, flirtatious veneer, who looks especially good in short skirts. This enables her to hoodwink people more efficiently than an equally evil man would. In some ways, she’s Trump in pantyhose. It doesn’t seem so long ago that Trump was an obnoxious but fairly benign reality-show host. Despite his long previous history of business fraud and con-artistry, he didn’t seem that threatening. He lacked a firm ideology when it came to politics, bending whichever way best served his purposes. Had it suited his ego and ambition to come down to the left of Bernie Sanders, he would have done so without a second thought.

My presidential anti-heroine has a similar lack of true convictions apart from her own self-interest. Accordingly, she forms unholy alliances with odd political bedfellows, including right-wing militias at home and Communists abroad, and anyone in between who has the potential to serve her goals. Inevitably, a movement to resist this soulless form of government takes shape. I’m not sure yet whether to plunge my fictional United States into a second civil war, this time perhaps leading to permanent division. Sometimes I feel that the old Confederacy might just as well have won the first Civil War, and saved us all the trouble of trying to build a democracy based at least on the ideals of freedom.

Is this a reasonably original plot, or merely a prediction? What if it really happens, and soon? What’s a writer of political fiction to do?

My Novels Are Comics (Part 2)

With the world so out of whack at the moment, it’s difficult to know what to say to friends, much less strangers, other than “Stay safe.” At a time like this, the normal author-like pursuits of writing and blogging seem irrelevant on one level, although comforting on another. I’ve been trying to draft a new novel, a sequel to a previous one, but conjuring up the comparatively normal world where they unfold feels disorienting, if not a tad self-indulgent.

Accordingly, this could be an ideal time to revisit old stories instead. The problems and traumas we wrote about months and years ago were comparatively normal and recognizable, even if our characters were weeping and moaning over them as if the world had ended. Who doesn’t yearn for the good old overwrought themes of unreliable boyfriends, love triangles, jealousy and revenge, bad bosses and soul-sucking jobs, social awkwardness, and all the rest of it?

I’m also renewing my ongoing effort to envision a few of those old stories as movies. Obviously, there are no production companies or crews available right now to make them spring to life on video, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be envisioned graphically. If my novels aren’t yet movies, at least they can be comics. Trying to encapsulate them in one panel proved to be a challenging exercise, like trying to spit out one of those hyper-streamlined elevator pitches. Of course they don’t look terribly professional, and melding them into social media is a skill I don’t yet have. Enlarging them for better readability tends to make them too humongous. But what does it matter if they’re comical-looking? I guess you could say they are comedies.

 

 

 

 

In The Rock Star’s Homecoming, college senior Imogene has hit on a unique topic for her English honors thesis. Ignoring her advisor’s advice to choose a more traditional subject, she is determined to concoct a theory about the influence of poetry on rock music. Her research will consist of critiquing her favorite band and its lead singer, Jake, who have returned to the campus where they originated for a special Homecoming weekend. She lures the musician to her father’s nearby farm, where the inevitable seduction occurs. Will this help or hurt her academic efforts?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s Play Ball features fraternal twin sisters Miranda and Jessica, always close but competitive. They are pursuing opposite theories about who plotted the kidnapping of Jessica’s fiancé, Major League ballplayer Manny Chavez. The crime took place just prior to Manny’s scheduled Congressional testimony about steroid use in baseball, which would have implicated several teammates of his. Jessica’s main suspect is Petie Jansen, Manny’s fiercest rival on the team, and inconveniently, a close friend of Miranda’s. Miranda is determined to clear Petie, and to pursue her own suspect. Choosing the most public place available, she confronts Madeline, the daughter of the team’s owner, with the incriminating evidence she’s compiled. Incidentally, she also confirms her suspicion that Madeline has been sleeping with her husband, Tommy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Handmaidens of Rock unfolds during the wild early 1970s. Aspiring college journalist Candy has attached herself to a campus rock band. Not caring to be regarded as a mere groupie, she has fulfilled her wildest dream by marrying the flashy guitarist who fronts the group. Then, shortly after discovering she’s pregnant, she catches her roommate in bed with her husband. She vows to take revenge by writing investigative articles that will implicate her former best friend in a plot to fire-bomb the campus theater, and her husband’s band for inciting a riot at a festival.

Such Devoted Sisters

I’ve always been intrigued by catfights. Maybe I don’t have a great opinion of my own sex? My stories seem to be populated with mean girls, their collaborators, and their victims. That has led to a corresponding interest in the dynamics between sisters. My 2010 novel Let’s Play Ball dealt with fraternal twins who were close but competitive. I made some assumptions about sister relationships based on no real world experience, not having a sister of my own. I was guessing that even twin siblings can be very different.

Miranda and Jessica, the fraternal twins in my story, pursue wildly divergent career paths and love lives. While Miranda establishes a relatively sedate career as a budget analyst in the Department of Homeland Security, and marries a young lawyer, Jessica becomes a freelance journalist and starts her own sports magazine. Her endeavor takes off when she publishes a story about a local baseball star, Cuban-born Manny Chavez, who has pulled off a daring rescue of his young son from his unstable ex-wife. Jessica and Manny become engaged, and then he is kidnapped. Miranda, whose own life is not as picture-perfect as it seems, becomes embroiled in the investigation alongside her sister. In the course of the story, Miranda and Jessica fight and make up a lot, criticize each other’s personal choices, and pursue wholly different suspects.

Speaking of sisters, I’ve streamed the first three seasons of the Netflix series “The Crown,” which chronicles the endlessly melodramatic British royal family. Among many other themes, the series has something to say about sibling relationships, particularly between the Windsor sisters, Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. That was a love-hate relationship for the ages. This portrayal of Elizabeth shows her wearing the crown rather uneasily, while Margaret subjects her to frequent jabs about how much better she could have done the job if she’d been the older sister. Since she isn’t, she pursues a rather wild life, giving the sovereign numerous headaches. But that is arguably what Big Sister deserves for all the slights and criticisms she delivers herself, not to mention the constant interference with Margaret’s love life and marriage prospects. Being single longer only keeps Margaret’s dissolute habits going longer, thereby creating even more sovereign headaches. Margaret does take on occasional diplomatic missions for the Crown, although her style of diplomacy is best illustrated by the occasion when she regaled guests at a White House state dinner with dirty jokes. Still, she got the job done.

It’s undeniable that catfights provide some of the best entertainment in the news, as well as in the  history books. Those of us who keep tabs on the current British royal family are aware of a falling out between the princes William and Harry … and few of us doubt that the real source of that tiff is their respective wives. Thankfully, catfights don’t usually lead to murder, but it has been known to happen. The feud between royal cousins Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots ended rather badly. When two such powerful ladies are both determined to have their most dangerous rival silenced, it’s likely that one of them will lose her head.

As I’ve confessed before, I can’t resist the various “Real Housewives” franchises on Bravo TV, even when they make me cringe. The catfights featured on these shows tend to develop between wealthy women over mostly petty differences and first-world issues. The husbands of these “housewives” are a rather henpecked group, often berated by their wives for spending too many hours at work and not enough with them. Once in a while one of these husbands works up the courage to point out that the long hours he puts in earning a living are necessary to sustain his wife’s lifestyle. That usually leads to a full-scale tantrum.

All in all, It’s a little discouraging to realize that no one seems to go broke by underestimating the intelligence of women. Maybe if we started fighting back against the usual female stereotypes, they wouldn’t be so pervasive. In the meantime, we have to face the fact that white woman (largely from the South, admittedly) played a significant role in electing an incompetent moron to the presidency in 2016. Why couldn’t they vote for one of their own, if only because it’s more than time to prove a woman can do the job? Could we really do any worse? Hillary might not have been the most likable candidate ever, but she had intelligence, relevant experience, and competence. I suspect those are the very qualities that seem unwomanly to some women, especially the descendants of southern belles. Is it that they’re jealous?

Back before the 2016 election debacle, I couldn’t help thinking that if only Hillary Clinton, Theresa May, and Angela Merkel could all be heads of state at the same time, it might make for one of the most entertaining catfights ever. But who knows? Maybe if those three had actually put their heads together, something would have clicked. After seeing the depths that masculine leadership can bring us to, it seems to me that government by sisterhood is worth a try.

Reality-Based Characters Too Real?

To be honest … how many of us authors are willing to admit that much of our fiction is thinly disguised autobiography? And are there times when it’s so thinly disguised that it’s barely fiction at all? I suspect this is particularly true of debut novels, and I’ll cop to it myself. My first two, Secretarial Wars (2003) and The Rock Star’s Homecoming (2007) feature, respectively, a working girl version of me and a college student version of me. Later, I tried to branch out from myself a little more, since I don’t find my own life endlessly fascinating and I doubt that many readers would either. I suspect that most authors, if they keep at it, become more skilled and imaginative at altering reality.

This topic occurred to me recently while I was immersing myself, yet again, in the recently published letters of Sylvia Plath. During her lifetime, Plath enjoyed her greatest publication success as a poet. When asked about her poetic process in interviews, she described it as highly personal, derived from physical and emotional experiences she’d had.

The same technique of utilizing true-life situations for fictional purposes seems more problematic. A narrative is much more likely to evoke real people, who are sure to recognize themselves and might react badly. Plath encountered this phenomenon once she completed her only novel, The Bell Jar. Her British publisher expressed concerns about possible lawsuits, and Plath wrote a detailed letter in an attempt to address the issue.

There’s no denying that The Bell Jar is an angry novel. The central event of the story, the nervous breakdown suffered by a bright college girl, was based on her own breakdown in the summer of 1953. As described in the story, many people contributed to the girl’s troubles, or at least failed to give her the help she needed. These characters are easily recognizable to anyone who knows her history, and to deny their connections to real people seems disingenuous.

Still, Plath wrote to her publisher: “I’ve gone through the book with great care and have prepared a list of links of fiction to fact, and a list of minor corrections which should alter most specific factual references.” Accordingly, she changed many names that were in the original manuscript. She went on to explain that the setting for the first half of the book was based on the Mademoiselle College Board Program for Guest Editors, in which she participated during June 1953. She changed the number of participants from 20 to 12, and claimed that all twelve were fictitious. But in later years, researchers were able to locate the prototypes for all of these young women, and they all admitted to recognizing themselves.

Plath also claims that her heroine’s supervisory editor at the magazine is fictitious, and at any rate there were dozens of editors at Mademoiselle that summer. The only unfavorable thing about her in the story, according to Plath, was that one of the girls described her as “ugly as sin.” If I were the editor in question, I would probably consider that insulting enough, even if my professional skills were never called into question. Likewise, Plath insists that the initial psychiatrist whom the girl consulted about her deteriorating mental state, and who failed to adequately supervise a shock treatment, could be based on any psychiatrist in the Boston area. But that appalling instance of malpractice actually happened to Plath, and I would think the real doctor deserved to be exposed.

Some of the portrayals of people closest to her proved most painful. Plath admits in her letter to the publisher that the mother in the book is based on her own mother, and is a “dutiful, hard-working woman whose beastly daughter is ungrateful to her.” True, but that mother also comes off as an uncomprehending, platitude-spouting dimwit. Aurelia Plath didn’t read the book until after Sylvia’s death, since her daughter purposely kept it from her. But the portrayal reportedly struck her to the core. Similarly, Plath transformed the novelist Olive Higgins Prouty, a major financial and emotional benefactor to her during her college years and beyond, into a comically bad romance novelist called Philomena Guinea. This was a rather stunning act of ingratitude, since Prouty was the one who paid for Sylvia’s psychiatric treatment at a high-quality hospital, which effectively saved her life at that time.

There was also the clueless boyfriend, a medical student who denigrates the girl’s poetic interests because they aren’t science, and therefore not as important as what he’s doing. Is he really sufficiently disguised, as Plath insists, because there were many blond, blue-eyed boys who went to Yale and became doctors? And then there was Jane Anderson, a fellow inmate at the hospital where Sylvia spent six months, whose name was changed to “Joan” in the novel. Many years later, she actually sued the Plath estate, because the character based on her committed suicide in place of the heroine. Anderson, who in real life went on to become a psychiatrist, contended that the portrayal harmed her professionally.

It may seem mean-spirited to criticize Plath at this late date, for writing the novel she evidently needed to write. But it can’t be denied that she published it under a pseudonym, and tried to keep it under wraps as best she could. If she admitted to family and friends that it existed at all, she describing it as a “potboiler, and just practice. Nobody should read it!” Clearly, she feared the reactions of real people.

Maybe if Sylvia Plath had lived long enough to write her own autobiography, she would have explored the roots of these characters, much as the late novelist Pat Conroy did in a couple of autobiographies toward the end of his life. For Conroy, the process of making fiction from reality seemed to work in reverse: rather than pummeling those who had failed him, he tried in some ways to make his harrowing childhood more palatable. For example, he used his own father as the inspiration for the tyrannical military father in The Great Santini, but made him nicer than he actually was, giving him credit for acts of kindness that never happened. Donald Conroy apparently chose to embrace the sanitized version of himself. He even accompanied his son on some of the promotional book tours, posing as the original Great Santini.

So it appears that reality-based fiction can address our emotional needs in many ways … to satirize or to humanize or to exaggerate the traits of our friends and enemies and everyone in between. Can any of us claim that our stories are totally made up? If so, they’re fantasies … and I suspect there are some grains of truth to be found even in that genre.

Lady Macbeth As Heroine

My 2010 novel, Let’s Play Ball, features a villainess named Guadalupe. She’s an American-born woman of Cuban descent, who throws away a marriage to a Cuban-born major league ballplayer that could have ensured a prosperous life in the United States. She believes she was meant for greater things on a wider stage. She grabs at that more meaningful life by catching the eye of the heir apparent to the presidency of Cuba during a rare state visit. She follows him back to the island to assume the role of first-lady-in-waiting, taking her young son without his father’s permission.

My villainess is not the type to sit back and watch from afar as her ex-husband, Manny, finds happiness with his second wife, Jessica, a glamorous sportswriter, and maneuvers to get his son back. She suffers international humiliation when the child is snatched from his nanny in a daring raid, and returned to the U.S. In revenge, she plots Manny’s kidnapping, bringing in a wide range of accomplices.

Guadalupe is far from the only evil character in the story, since it takes a rather large conspiracy to pull off the kidnapping of a major league ballplayer from his own ballpark. Is she worse than all the others, being the ultimate instigator of a crime against the man she once professed to love? Is she not only un-womanly but un-maternal, since the revenge factor seems to play a bigger role in her plotting than the custody issue?

Certain critics have pointed out that my other female characters don’t come off so great, either. Jessica and her fraternal twin sister Miranda, a homeland security bureaucrat, are the ostensible heroines as they set out to investigate the kidnapping. Although they make progress, their contentious relationship threatens to derail their efforts. They disagree, argue, and snipe at each other a lot along the way. In fact, catfights are a motif in this story. Certain powerful women come to the twins’ attention as suspects, and they, in turn, are fighting with each other. Come to think of it, catfights pop up fairly often in all of my stories. Don’t I like my own sex?

Guadalupe proves to be the lead villainess, the undeniable catalyst of all the mischief. Now I’m writing a sequel in which she becomes something of a heroine, at least in her own mind. Her evil ways continue as she instigates yet another kidnapping of a ballplayer, with less personal justification than before. Yet she feels driven by a higher purpose, a long-range goal that even she can’t define at first. She may be delusional, but she may be onto something.

Can an unapologetic villain possibly be sympathetic? And can people who seem to entertain grandiose ideas make themselves understood by rational minds? For that matter, is it necessary as authors to root for our viewpoint characters every minute?

While researching the subject of sympathetic villainesses, I came across an alternative take on Lady Macbeth. In Susan Fraser King’s Lady Macbeth: A Novel (2009), Shakespeare’s most wicked woman is given a rich backstory that helps to explain, if not justify, her wickedness. She was widowed while pregnant, and forced to marry the Scottish warlord Macbeth, her husband’s murderer. Although she initially despises this unnatural partner, the brutal world she inhabits forces her to join with him and share his plans. There are threats coming at the uneasy couple from all directions, including Vikings, Saxons, and competing warlords. Her own royal blood has given Lady Macbeth an imperious bearing and an awareness of her special destiny. Her twin goals of advancing her son and forging a united Scotland are not for the weak-hearted.

To find a more modern villain-hero, we can turn to the Star Wars universe. It seems that Kylo Ren, son of the original icons Hans Solo and Leia Organa, somehow turned evil. Given his parentage, he must have felt pressured from childhood to become the very embodiment of Jedi righteousness. Instead, in an extreme case of adolescent rebellion, he ends up leading an army against his heroic parents, even killing his dad. A analysis in Rolling Stone of the final Star Wars installment seems to relate this angst to modern times: “A confused, angry man-boy radicalized by powerful forces whispering in his ear, an heir to generational trauma raised in an era of endless war, is an all-too-believable threat.”

Adam Driver, who portrays Kylo Ren, explains the nuances of his role: “There’s something in having an antagonist who is a little more vulnerable That seems to be more relatable and human than just someone who is a psychopath.” He goes on to explain further that although his character is the villain “in some ways,” his actions can also be seen as heroic. This is one mixed-up universe, where a mass murderer is deemed “vulnerable” because he hesitated a moment, with pain in his eyes, before he wiped out an entire regiment of righteous warriors.

I haven’t seen “The Rise of Skywalker,” but it was widely speculated in advance that Ren must be headed toward some sort of redemption. That would seem to be necessary if the chemistry between him and Rey, his warrior-heroine opponent, is ever to develop. That would be the most predictable plot arc, although writers of sagas have been known to surprise us.

So that brings me back to my own Guadalupe, who will not live “happily ever after,” no matter where she ends up. She has never found contentment, either as a baseball wife in the U.S. or in her “Cuban first lady” pose. Nor will she ever settle for being a mere decoration, when she “knows” she’s destined to make her own unique mark on history. Is she a little bit crazy? No doubt, but she may just prove to be a little bit right.

We Are Un-Cursed

The unthinkable has happened. My town, surely the most beleaguered and unlucky locality on the face of the earth when it comes to my favorite sport, has delivered us a World Series championship. Much like the experts, I didn’t see it coming. During the first 50 games of the 2019 season, the Washington Nationals looked like an epic fail, and their manager’s head was on the block. Digging themselves out of that hole was a slow process. Unable to catch up to the division-leading Atlanta Braves, they had to settle for a “wild card” berth at season’s end. Three weeks before their great triumph, it still appeared that there were too many obstacles in their path, as in too many teams with superior talent contending in the playoffs. Two weeks before, it looked like a “nice try, but not quite enough” situation.  Even a week before, when they had made it to the mountain, it seemed doubtful that they could reach the summit. Going into the World Series, the Houston Astros, champions in 2017, were prohibitive favorites.

History was never on the Nats’ side. They had suffered four previous playoff failures in the first round, when they were the presumed favorites. That “Oh, no, not again” feeling reared its head many times during the 2019 playoffs, since they trailed in so many elimination games. The difference this time, I’m convinced, was that none of the most renowned “experts” expected them to win. They derived a weird magic, a defiant attitude, from that underdog status. It was more a question of chemistry than talent. Winning games you aren’t “supposed” to win must be the strongest tonic available.

I’ve written about baseball often on this blog, usually from a position of frustration and futility. My previous ranting on the subject reeks of heartache and longing. I managed to tap almost all of the metaphors for life situations that the sport seems to provide in abundance. I lectured myself incessantly about taking mere games too seriously. But it was difficult not to feel snake-bit. This is the town of two departed Washington Senators teams within my memory, following the 1960 and 1971 seasons. Then there were the 33 blank years between the departure of the second team and the arrival of the Nationals, a transfer from Montreal, where they’d been “owned” collectively by all the other Major League teams, and consequently allowed to die on the vine.

The new Nats, from 2005 on, toted up a list of failures that in some cases were so bizarre that they seemed to have the makings of a curse. When these things keep repeating, year after year, there doesn’t seem to be any rational explanation. So we resort to blaming those implacable baseball gods, as did Chicago Cubs fans, with their Curse of the Billy Goat, and Boston Red Sox fans, with their Curse of the Bambino. It required a World Series championship to un-jinx those franchises.

Through the years the Nats have had many players who through bad luck, or incompetence at just the wrong time, became associated with a particular brand of failure. They became our special punching bags, despite being talented players. To name only a few: Drew Storen, the closer who couldn’t get the umpire to call that last strike that would have won the 2012 divisional series; Cristian Guzman, a natural shortstop who owing to a personnel shortage one night, was tapped to play out of position in right field, where he famously lost what would have been a final out in the lights; Nook Logan, picked off third base for a final out, the type of boner even a Little League coach wouldn’t tolerate; Matt Wieters, whose brain was rocked by a follow-through swing, causing him to make an errant throw that lost the 2017 divisional series. These players would have been perfectly capable of contributing to a championship team, but they also demonstrated how easy it is to grab defeat from the jaws of victory.

Somehow, our luck changed. Someone on the opposing team had a “Bill Buckner moment” (that is, a ball through the legs in front of a nationwide audience). The weird stuff that had always happened to the Nats started happening to others. Assuming no one in our fan base made a pact with the devil, I suppose we were just overdue for some good luck. Still, this was supposed to be the place where it just couldn’t happen. We’ve been told time and again that our capital city is not a baseball town, and never can be. It’s too transient and bureaucratic. The ballpark on any given afternoon is full of spectators working on their laptops and tablets, who can’t bear to be unplugged from the office for a minute. But my own family history belies that.

My brother and I were raised on baseball. It was part of our parents’ dating life. The little girl still lurking in me associates the sport with warm summer days and nights, and brawny guys in white uniforms. RFK Stadium, where we spent most of our baseball time, was a rickety building by today’s standards, but to me it was a place of magic. Even televised baseball on the local level was fairly rare back then, so seeing it live was special. At World Series time, I used to rush home from school on those crisp October afternoons to see great players on television that I never glimpsed otherwise. Those games were taking place so far away, both in distance and aspiration, since the Senators never had a ghost of a chance. I suppose the futility stimulated my imagination. The Cordovox that played “You Gotta Have Heart” at every Senators home game underlined the dilemma: “heart” was all we had.

Is there a chance that when baseball resumes next season, I’ll be nostalgic for failure? On rereading parts of the baseball novel I published in 2010, Let’s Play Ball, and working on its sequel (Let’s Play Two, maybe), I sense a thread of longing running through the plots, a need to invent a team that enjoys ultimate success. I thought it would always be a mere fantasy. We indie writers know what it’s like to grasp at pipe dreams. If we should catch lightning in a bottle someday, as the Nats seem to have done, how would we deal with that jolt of good fortune? Some writers who break through that way actually handle it rather badly. Likewise, no baseball team is exactly the same season to season. Chemistry can’t be preserved in a jar, to be replicated like an experiment. Players leave via free agency or other means, often because it’s in their personal interest, or the team might let some of its older or more expensive stars go, judging it to be in their long-term interest. Repeating a championship seems to be one of the most difficult challenges in sports.

Ah, the perils of success. What a nice, unexpected problem to have.

My Novels Are Comics

Let’s Play Ball

Has there ever been a novelist, whether traditional, self-published, or in between, who didn’t envision his or her story made into a hit movie? With the avalanche of new books apparently hitting the market daily, that would be the best way to stand out–or ultimately, perhaps, the only way. It’s a worthy goal, but unfortunately, Hollywood is unlikely to come knocking on our doors unless we’re already renowned writers, or famous for something else.

Fortunately, there are mini-Hollywoods sprouting up everywhere these days. We live in an era when independent film-making is becoming a major thing. That means it’s at least possible to contemplate turning our written masterpieces into cinematic ones. But novel-writing and script-writing are distinct skills. Knowing nothing about the latter, I hired professionals to turn my first four novels into presentable scripts. I thought they all did a more than presentable job, and that all four would make decent feature films. The scripts are on display at sites like Inktip and Simplyscripts, and get a fair number of looks, but no producer with deep pockets has been wowed as yet.

If someone with only moderately deep pockets ever showed an interest, crowd sourcing would be one way of obtaining whatever additional funding was necessary. Another option might be to extract a few representative scenes from the feature script and make a short film. That would still require locating or organizing a temporary production company. I have succeeded in doing this once. In 2017, I extracted a short script called “Secretarial Spy” from a feature script called “Secretarial Wars,” based on my 2003 novel of the same name. A local film-making group turned this into a 13-minute piece called “The Investigation.” Although many changes were made to my original script, it was gratifying to see at least a germ of the original story survive. And it gave me an incentive to try to repeat that feat for the other three stories.

The Rock Star’s Homecoming

While waiting for a production company to materialize, another option is story-boarding.  This basically involves making comics, or graphic narratives, out of your proposed movies. I signed up with a website called Storyboard That, and gave it a try. It’s not quite like having real people recite your dialogue and enact your ideas, but it’s a start. To storyboard an entire feature film, which might require 100 or more panels, proved a little beyond the website’s present capability, so I tried to boil the strips down to a more manageable size.

It can be fun to illustrate a story this way, although it has its limitations. The characters that the website offers in similar age groups tend to look alike, although some of the women are more hefty or hip-looking than others (and at least one that I used is obviously pregnant). The men are either bearded or not, or dressed in business attire or not. The expressions, physical stances, and clothing color can be altered. You can also use your own pictures as backdrops or props. Captions are useful to set the scene, as a narrator or voice-over would.

Handmaidens of Rock

Sizing things correctly is probably the greatest challenge, and is part of what makes this style of comics truly comical. The Rock Star’s Homecoming features two college roommates who drive to New York to pick up the rock band that has agreed, despite its expulsion from the school two years before, to appear at the annual Homecoming dance. Placing the two girls inside a moving car was challenging, to say the least, since the steering wheel alone turned out too humongous for any reasonably sized driver to handle. In Let’s Play Ball, a young sportswriter, engaged to a star baseball player, is appointed to throw out the first ball at a championship game. It proved difficult to confine her to the pitcher’s mound, as she dominates the entire field, literally. For Handmaidens of Rock,  I tried to depict a young, nervous girl appearing onstage to sing lyrics she wrote herself, alongside the guitarist she loves. He backs her up admirably, taking up the whole backdrop, in fact.

Well, it’s better than nothing. Until that day when your story excites some hot-shot director or producer, here is a way to force your narratives, kicking and screaming, into life.

Anger Trumps Everything

I wake up most mornings in a decent mood, but things often go downhill within minutes.  Despite having retired from the Federal government over five years ago, I still get my wake-up call from Federal News Radio. Sometimes it’s nice to snuggle in bed and listen to reports of office struggles and piles of work that no longer concern me. That part is nice, although it tends to remind me of the way I used to have loads of stuff piled on me, often while certain pampered prima donnas were off on taxpayer-funded junkets or “retreats” (Retreat from what? I used to ask myself). As if that weren’t perfect for getting me off on the wrong foot, the Federal news is usually followed by the latest presidential twitter outburst, yet another ignorant rant or blatant lie from that twisted mind. Despite the current impeachment talk, I know in my heart that Trump will never be held accountable for anything, because he never has been, despite a lifetime of personal and business sleaze, followed by a corrupt-to-the bones presidency.

Naturally, that leads to a host of other annoyances, until I find myself mad at the entire country. How could the electorate let this happen? It must be a failure of the educational system. I see evidence of that every day. I don’t like to flaunt too much baby boomer superiority, but I gotta ask, when did they stop teaching history and civics in schools? I couldn’t have gotten out of high school without knowing something about the history of my country and the form of government I live under. Are these subjects too controversial these days? Are teachers being instructed to avoid any topics touching on politics for fear of offending somebody?  How, then, is a student ever going to be intellectually challenged? When a large part of the electorate appears to embrace a wannabe dictator, it points to a lack of both critical thinking ability and historical perspective.

This is not strictly the fault of right-wingers, in my opinion. So-called progressives are often guilty of closed-mindedness. For example, there have been battles in local school districts over Huckleberry Finn, arguably the greatest classic of American literature. Some authorities would like to sanitize it, if not ban it entirely, because some of the language is rough on delicate sensibilities. Today’s snowflakes cringe at anything that sounds racist to the modern ear, so they miss the point of the story, which is an eloquent indictment of racism. This inability to put things in context is both startling and alarming.

I also rail against the general loosening of grammatical rules, as if it foretold a barbarian invasion. Not that I’m grammatically perfect myself, but I have particular trouble with the current fad for disguising gender by using a plural pronoun. Something like this often pops up in popular advice columns: “After my partner had tried to find out what was going on with me, I told them how deeply hurt I was.” Unless the writer is actually dealing with multiple partners, this is simply incorrect. I want to shout out: For the love of the English language, people, pick a gender and stick to it. It’s not going to blow your cover. So what if you happen to reveal that your spouse is a man? The world is full of male spouses.

I realize, of course, that there are times when the plural pronoun is being used to make a political point, especially when the subject’s gender is undetermined or in transition. Still, in most instances, that person identifies as either male or female, or closer to one gender than the other. Why not use the preferred gender pronoun, even if a transition is underway and is not yet complete? The Washington Post recently published an intriguing article entitled “A Mother, But Not A Woman.” The subject of the article intended to become male, yet didn’t want to lose the chance to give birth. The sentence “He is a mother” might sound peculiar, but it would underscore that such things are possible in this day and age. And while I’m at it, I’d like to squelch the indiscriminate use of apostrophes when a possessive is not involved, as in “To all artists and writer’s, welcome.” And please, let’s deep-six  “alright” for good.

When anger intrudes on our entertainment, it’s time to chill. For me, baseball has long provided an escape from more serious worries, but sometimes it makes for more aggravation. Sports fans, by definition, are unreasonable, and even those rooting for the same team fight like cats and dogs over every point of strategy. I belong to a Facebook group devoted to my team, the Washington Nationals, that regularly turns into a battle ground. If the team loses, it has to be someone’s fault; it can’t just be that the other team was better or luckier that day.

The group’s primary punching bag is the beleaguered second-year manager, Davey Martinez. This Davey-hatred has abated a little recently, in view of the team’s recent success, but I have no doubt it will rev up again as soon as the Nats fail to win the World Series. Many fans declare that the wins come about in spite of Davey’s stupidity, not because he could possibly have done something right for a change. There is a serious lack of perspective whenever one game goes wrong. In the course of a 162-game regular season, they demand that the manager go for broke and fire all his bullets every time out. That simply isn’t possible, unless it really is an elimination game and there’s no tomorrow to consider.

This strikes me as another form of Trumpism, which boils down to overly simplistic thinking. Second-guessing fans tend to forget that they have the benefit of twenty-twenty hindsight, which the manager didn’t have when he made whatever decision blew up in his face. I’ve given up trying to convince some people that a bad play, or a blown save, or a missed offensive opportunity could be the result of a player’s failure to execute. Maybe it looks like Martinez put the wrong guy in the wrong situation, but it’s not like he had a ton of better options. Since managers and coaches don’t rise to the level of hero worship that players do, it’s easier to call for their heads. We’d all like to think that if the decision-makers could be replaced, every player would instantly find his inner Babe Ruth or Walter Johnson, and joy would reign throughout Nats Land. I don’t claim to be a fount of wisdom all the time, but I do value reason and intellect, even as a fan. It may take me twenty-four hours or so after a painful loss, but at some point I try to develop some perspective, remind myself it’s just a game, and stop cursing the baseball gods.

Another bad trend I’ve noticed lately is that everyday unpleasantness is getting worse. For the most part, I’ve learned to walk away from rude people, rather than to let a situation escalate. Similarly, I scroll through screeds from Facebook “friends” that I know are full of right-wing nonsense and crazy conspiracy conspiracies. I haven’t “un-friended” anybody over that; I simply refuse to engage.

Still, I don’t think it’s advisable to zone out entirely. Anger can certainly motivate a writer. Looking back, I find that my novels are full of scenes plucked from real life, many of which gave me serious heartburn at the time. My stories deal with turbulent marriages, clueless bosses, workplace cliques, snobbish schoolmates, jealousy, desire for revenge, and many bad situations I’ve dealt with at some time or other. I also like to write about politics, and have always been most roused by politicians I find abhorrent. Now I’m being treated to a daily smorgasbord of stupidity, corruption, incompetence, and cruelty, all wrapped up in one person. I say, don’t sanitize it. Use it.