October 1, 2016
I’m a music fan of the baby boomer generation, so how could I possibly resist writing a novel about a rock band? Handmaidens of Rock (2014) centers on a musical outfit that forms at a suburban Maryland high school like the one I graduated from in 1970. Before they can legitimately call themselves a band, the three members—lead guitarist Preston, keyboardist Neal, drummer Brad—must first prove they can hang together long enough to play a gig at a school dance. Once onstage, they must come up with a name on the spot, so they call themselves Homegrown. They amuse their classmates by mocking the local singing star they’re supposed to be backing up, mutilating the cheesy songs he attempts, such as “Love Potion Number Nine” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”
To that point, the story is perfectly recognizable and plausible. No doubt there were bands forming all around me at my high school, but since I wasn’t intimate with any of them, I had to make up one of my own. The late 1960s-early 1970s era was a time of improbable rock dreams. The music we were hearing on the radio provided plenty of inspiration to push the envelope of our placid suburban lives. Musically, at least, we could revel in free love, dream in psychedelic colors, and march the streets to demand an end to the Vietnam War and all forms of civil strife. Those songs became closer to true life as many of us moved on to college, the military, and other real-life experiences.
Startup bands have always been lucky even to get a taste of local fame. To make my imaginary band compelling, I had to portray it as more talented than most, or at least extraordinarily lucky. One way Homegrown distinguishes itself from the musical dregs is to pick up some classy groupies, the “handmaidens” of the title. Candy, Hope, and Theda have more going for them than a strong determination to ride the band’s coattails. They’re “handmaidens,” but with ambitions of their own. They aspire to be a journalist, a fashion designer, and an actress-musician respectively. One of them, conveniently, has a powerful attorney father with connections to the music industry.
Any band that aspires to long-term success must write its own songs. How could I get my musicians to do that realistically, when I’m not enough of a musician myself to hear original songs in my mind? One technique was to keep classic rock stations playing on my computer for inspiration. Listening to songs that were popular back in my day, I’d imagine my band trying to write similar tunes. For example, “Time of the Season,” a seductive tribute to the Summer of Love by the Zombies, turned into a piece by Homegrown called “Grooving under the Desk.” The Status Quo song “Pictures of Matchstick Men” used to pound in my head all the time, since I heard it daily on the cafeteria juke box in high school. My band’s take on this was a psychedelic sex dream called “Hot Teacher in Tights.” I always loved the Doors tune “Tell All the People,” a catchy but vague call to arms with shout-outs to youth that could mean almost anything (Set them free! Follow me down! See the wonder at your feet! Your life’s complete!) My take on that was “Revolution for Amateurs,” which might or might not be an actual call to revolution.
Sad songs were part of the band’s repertoire. My lead guitarist Preston, having lost his mother at an early age, mostly hides his feelings behind a hard exterior but occasionally exposes them in song. His heartbreaking “Signals from the Clouds” bears a resemblance to King Crimson’s “I Talk to the Wind.” Idealism is also part of the musicians’ mindset. In “Peace Conquers All,” they envision a new era of free love in the streets, irresistible to the public and cops alike, as in the Animals’ “Warm San Francisco Night.”
Fresh out of high school, my band makes an amateur mock-detective movie with a witchy theme song called “Hex” (something like a popular Cream song, “Strange Brew”). With that in the can, they start writing songs with feverish speed and come up with an eclectic album inspired by that same band’s classic, “Disraeli Gears.” Further adventures follow, including trips to England, Scotland, and California. Scotland proves the most fruitful in terms of new musical directions. They spend time in a commune run by a defrocked priest known to have harbored draft resisters. Their near-worship of him inspires a spate of religious-themed songs, like the one called “Peace Warrior,” inspired partly by Jethro Tull’s “Hymn 43” (with the same refrain, “Oh, Jesus, save me!”) and partly by the Animals’ “Sky Pilot.”
The band changes its name to AMO, which sounds more grownup, and tries to find itself. While attending UCLA, the musicians become involved in a rock festival that ends tragically. Ironically, this is the event that propels them to national fame. Despite their newfound notoriety, the effects of the violence are devastating enough to send them flying off in different directions. The girls break up with their respective musicians and move on to presumably more adult relationships. Still, the wildly creative and romantic ride they took as “handmaidens of rock” can’t be forgotten. A five-year reunion concert takes place in the same high school gym where they first made a jubilant mess of backing up a semi-famous singer. Preston, emerging from a turbulent and fallow period, experiences enough of a creative resurgence to come up with two new songs: one about his inner turmoil called “The Stranger Within” (a take-off on Traffic’s “Stranger to Himself”), and one that celebrates his new marriage to a free spirit, called “Free Spirit of the Road” (which somewhat resembles the Doors’ “Queen of the Highway”).
Assigning a genre to Handmaidens of Rock has been somewhat challenging. No doubt it can be called “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” but how about “contemporary women’s fiction”? That is one of the more popular classifications these days, yet it doesn’t quite fit an early 1970s story. Some reviewers and advertisers have called the book “historical fiction.” That makes me feel ancient, since I remember the era so well. Still, maybe it’s the best way to describe a story with a classic rock soundtrack.
December 5, 2015
These days I feel an urge to occupy something. As a progressive from the school of aging baby boomers, I find the current political climate and level of discourse in the US increasingly scary. As far back as I can remember, political institutions have never been as dysfunctional as they are now. We baby boomers have a tendency to exaggerate our exploits and insist that we used to be more astute and involved than today’s kids. Back in our day, we stopped the Vietnam War, invented civil rights and women’s liberation, pulled off Woodstock, and accomplished much of this while half-stoned. My Republican parents tried to steer my brother and me toward their brand of conservatism, but it didn’t work. The “Greatest Generation” and its values were just too different.
My parents’ party has now gone off the rails, as they would agree if they were still around. The two front runners for the 2016 presidential nomination as of this date are astoundingly unqualified for high office. The more childish and bizarre their pronouncements, the more their fan base cheers. Worse, they’ve managed to intimidate more mainstream Republican candidates into adopting equally crazy or demagogic positions. Listening to these gentlemen debate, I wait in vain for the rare reasonable statement based on verifiable facts, or a policy proposal that could actually be implemented, or even a message that isn’t hate-filled venom. That is a very low bar for our national politics.
It’s a relief to have a forum where I can state my beliefs plainly, but it’s not a good technique for writing fiction. Since my stories tend to harken back to my youth, politics has a way of sneaking into them. Critics justifiably warn us of the dangers of turning what should be entertaining stories into polemics. Two of my novels feature fictional presidents who are corrupt and bellicose, and are obviously Republicans. Still, they don’t hold a candle to the real-life buffoons of this day and age. You couldn’t make up candidates like Trump and Carson. It’s even getting difficult for comedians to satirize them, as the reality almost matches the caricature. My writing inevitably reflects my beliefs and career experiences from over 40 years in government and quasi-government, but it’s best to keep these things understated while telling a story. I prefer to think I’m standing up not for a particular candidate or platform, but for reason and compassion.
My 2003 novel, Secretarial Wars, was inspired by my first permanent job after college. I spent more than five years during the 1970s at the Fulbright grants program, an international exchange program for scholars. My novel describes an agency called, somewhat ironically, the Peace Council. It’s an organization that awards grants to send professors and researchers overseas to disseminate American values. My heroine, Miriam, is a secretary at the Council and an aspiring investigative journalist on the side. She suspects that the program is serving to mask a corrupt administration’s interference with the political and economic systems of certain vulnerable nations.
Nothing like this ever happened in real life, to my knowledge. But it could have, if an evil deputy director got into bed, literally and politically, with an evil President. Miriam tries to gather enough evidence to write an explosive article for an underground rag, but she is hampered by her conflicting desire to advance in the organization, as well as her unhealthy attraction to the lecherous newspaper editor. One reader who critiqued Secretarial Wars thought the corrupt president was inspired by George W. Bush. It’s true the book was published during W’s term, but it took so long to write that the era it depicts more closely resembles his dad’s.
In Let’s Play Ball (2010), I mixed up sports and politics, to the confusion and disapproval of some critics. The story centers on fraternal twin sisters Jessica and Miranda, baseball fans since childhood, close but competitive in their personal relationship. Jessica is the founder and editor of an innovative sports magazine, while Miranda has a more traditional but important job as a bureaucrat in the Department of Homeland Security. While they share a liberal outlook, Miranda accuses Jessica of taking her beliefs to an extreme, especially when the intense reporter sets out to investigate her suspicions of racism on the local baseball team. Jessica’s Cuban-born fiancé, the right fielder, is soon to be a free agent, and she fears he won’t get the contract offer he deserves from the biased owners. Then her world blows apart when he is kidnapped from his own ballpark after a season-ending game. Now she envisions a vast criminal conspiracy in which the team owner and his daughter are complicit.
My astute critique group accused me of using Jessica to lecture my readers about the insidiousness of racism. I was preaching to the choir in that group anyway, they pointed out. But how can that be, I protested, when Miranda is the viewpoint character, and she rolls her eyes whenever Jessica gets too strident for her? Furthermore, Miranda is friendly with a few of the teammates whom Jessica has pegged as racists, and is having an affair with one of them. Even so, my friendly readers insisted, we can hear your political voice bellowing through.
Politics turned out to be unavoidable in Handmaidens of Rock (2014), my tale of a young musical trio and its groupies. I tried to recreate the turbulent era of my high school and college days, the late 1960s and early 1970s. Wherever their budding careers take them, the musicians can’t escape the threat of a military draft. Scared and confused, they write and perform both peace-and-love and militant songs. The threat of violence follows them, and real bombs go off around them. This was an era when radical leftists co-opted the antiwar movement with their bombings and crime sprees, giving all of us who protested the war a bad name.
I recently finished reading Days of Rage (2015), Bryan Burrough’s fascinating account of the political violence that permeated that era. He quoted at length Joseph Conner, whose father Frank, a 33-year-old banker, was killed in the infamous Fraunces Tavern bombing by Puerto Rican radicals. The younger Conner deplores current efforts to rehabilitate some of the self-styled revolutionaries of that era on the grounds that they’ve lived exemplary lives since then. “To think that America thinks none of this ever happened, that it’s not even remembered, it’s astounding to me. You know, I blame the media. The media was more than happy to let all this go. These were not the kinds of terrorists the liberal media wanted us to remember, because they share a lot of the same values. They were terrorists. They were just the wrong brand. My father was murdered by the wrong politics. By leftists. So they were let off the hook.”
I agree with Joseph Conner up to a point. The bombers and bank robbers of that era were indeed terrorists. But I disagree with his assertion that liberals are incapable of calling these criminals by their right name, when I know many of us do. I’d like to see more right-wingers who are equally capable of condemning the bombers of abortion clinics. Political messages delivered with hate lose any high ground they ever had, and become more pernicious than the wrongs they claim to be fighting.
June 3, 2015
I was amused to find a review on Goodreads of my 2014 novel, Handmaidens of Rock, that complained good-naturedly about my tendency to create bitchy, insecure, backbiting heroines. Do I dislike my own sex that much? The three in my latest story, Candy, Hope, and Theda, start out as high-school girls who attach themselves to an up-and-coming rock and roll band, but aspire to be much more than “groupies.” Sometimes, if they’re in a generous mood, they encourage each other’s aspirations–Candy as a journalist, Hope as a fashion designer, Theda as an actress and budding politician. Just as often, they accuse each other of unrealistic ambitions (who does she think she is?). In their downer moods, they acknowledge how limiting the groupie label can be. The only recognized purpose of such women is to love their respective musicians.
I get some of my inspiration for female bitchiness from real life, sort of. I’m a devoted fan of the Bravo network’s various “real housewife” franchises, including Orange County, Beverly Hills, Atlanta, New York, New Jersey, and Miami. The “real housewives,” needless to say, specialize in catfights. They’re women who have acquired status in their communities, occasionally through their own efforts but more often because their husbands (or in some cases, their sugar daddies) have subsidized their glitzy lifestyles. Many have begun to struggle with changing economic conditions, but all still feel entitled to spend money that they don’t necessarily have. In fact, Teresa Giudice of New Jersey spent so much money she didn’t have, or that her husband gained through various scams, that she’s now in prison. Another attractive profligate is self-described businesswoman and movie producer Sonja Morgan of New York. Sonja has been successfully sued for $7 million by a film company that had contracted with her to raise money for a John Travolta picture that never got made. This result was not unlike many of Sonja’s other business ventures, for which she nevertheless keeps hiring a slew of young, naïve interns.
The housewives’ encounters with each other are supposedly unscripted, but the women usually manage to give the cameras what they’re looking for, such as the overturned table at a dinner party (Teresa again, blaming her Italian temper). The season-ending reunions, which are presumably less scripted than the “unscripted” episodes, are even more entertaining. They take place in ritzy locales, but the seating arrangements often have to be shifted according to which catfight is currently hot. A recent Atlanta reunion led to an actual fight featuring hair-pulling and rolling on the carpet, followed by a real lawsuit.
My handmaidens don’t get physical to that extent, unless absolutely necessary to prevent interlopers from taking their places. They do undermine each other with digs and innuendos (e. g. Hope, the beautiful man magnet, is deemed “shallow,” while Candy’s efforts to be a reporter are ridiculed–she’s too busy describing events, her girlfriends say, to live them). The housewives also have difficulty celebrating each other’s triumphs. Take the way LuAnn de Lesseps of New York (otherwise known as the Countess, even though she’s long divorced from the Count) reacted to her friend Bethenny Frankel’s ecstatic news that she had been chosen for a magazine cover photo. (“Of course, you realize they’ll have to touch it up.”) Years later, Bethenny has yet to get over that insult.
When love relationships inevitably go south for both handmaidens and housewives, they need sympathy, but they usually get schadenfreude. My handmaidens, finding that rock musicians make lousy life partners, wish each other well in finding more compatible mates, but are not above saying “I told you so.” As for the housewives, at least two of them (Ramona in New York and Vicki in Orange County) seemed to have torpedoed their “perfect” marriages by renewing their vows on camera. They were tempting fate, some of their girlfriends say. Bethenny certainly wowed the New York fashion world with her unique wedding dress fitted to accommodate an advanced pregnancy, but as fate would have it, that didn’t lead to a marriage that lasted until the baby was out of diapers.
Sometimes the housewives do bond in adversity. Likewise, in the face of the band’s implosion, the “handmaidens of rock” finally achieve a semblance of sisterhood. Perhaps the lesson in all this is that a woman must fight to be respected for her own gifts, especially when she’s competing with equally ambitious women in a male-dominated culture.
November 2, 2014
Women’s liberation was just getting started in the late 1960s and early 1970s. A great awakening was taking place for those of us who came of age in that era. We could aspire to do almost anything a man could do, from joining the army to joining a rock band. Yet true equality was still elusive. Women didn’t go into combat, and only a few clamored to. Music, however, was opening up. The great all-girl groups like the Supremes and the Ronettes were giving way to mixed lineups like the Jefferson Airplane and Fleetwood Mac. Still, I suspect that even when a woman’s musical gifts were appreciated and utilized, men continued to dominate these bands. They weren’t above treating talented women like glorified groupies.
Handmaidens of Rock, my fourth self-published novel with iUniverse, deals with this theme. My three heroines, high-school girls who hook up with a rock band and go along for the ride, are all ambitious in their own right. Although madly in love with their respective musicians, they are increasingly influenced by cultural trends such as feminism, social protests, drugs, colorful clothing, mysticism, and free love. My heroines are not destined to remain “handmaidens of rock,” however fun and exciting that might seem at first. The rock band proves too combustible to rely on for their own self-worth. When the inevitable explosion occurs, they must rise from the ashes and begin to fulfill their separate destinies, conquering new arenas in journalism, the fashion world, the theater, and politics. Handmaidens of Rock, I hope, strikes a blow for those early stirrings of female power.
May 9, 2013
Fantasy and science fiction are riding high these days in both books and movies. These genres seem to be outselling most others by a fair amount, and leaving mainstream works totally in the dust. Even though escapism is all the rage, I’ve never really gone for it much since outgrowing Grimm’s fairy tales and Disney cartoons. I get how tempting it is to take a break from real-world problems, but if I’m going to immerse myself in an alternate world, I prefer it to be recognizable. I guess my daily habit of perusing The Washington Post keeps me too grounded in reality. Most of the inspiration for my own writing comes from the news and my own experiences in workplaces and social settings.
So how can I embrace the unrealism that seems to give others so much pleasure … and incidentally, sells a lot of books and movies? Unfortunately, vampires and werewolves leave me cold, despite being proven gold mines and the quickest way for self-published authors to get through the traditional gates. I’d like my magic to be light and fun, not ghoulish.
Witness Pictures, the independent film company that has produced three book trailers for me, is currently churning out a fantasy web series called “Freelancers.” It claims to have a little bit of everything in the fantasy line: “a timeless realm full of magic and monsters, wizards, warriors, dungeons and dragons.” Yet it maintains some of the real-world familiarity I prefer by presenting its characters as flawed personalities who may have extraordinary talents but still need to pay their bills and get along in the workaday world.
The heroines that populate my novels don’t have much in common with the character played by young actress Caitlin Geier: “a fiery, rapier-wielding cat burglar, on the run from … well, just about everyone after stealing a mysterious artifact from a powerful sorcerer.” Compare that to my cast of office workers, aspiring journalists, sports groupies, and college students. But who knows: maybe one day I’ll figure out a way to throw a few wizards, sorceresses, and assorted monsters into my mixes. Expanding my horizons could be fun.
January 1, 2013
I’ve been giving my three novels away. They are free in digital form, and as cheap as I can make them in print form. And when I say free, I mean totally and sincerely and forever, not just temporarily free as part of a promotion.
Why do I give away my work? After all, it is hard work, even if it’s fun. I do it because writing is a hobby, a passion, a diversion from real life. I never planned to make spare change from it, much less a living.
It’s not because I don’t believe in these stories, in spite of what certain one-star trolls posing as “reviewers” have suggested. My only purpose is to increase readership (and I do have a few thousand downloads). Believe me, I worked just as hard on these books as if I’d planned on charging $10.
That’s not to say a little money and recognition wouldn’t be nice. It’d be great if my hobby turned into a semi-hobby some day, but it’s not essential. I do have a day job that pays the bills, although retirement looms in the not too distant future, and there are numerous threats to Federal employment and pensions looming on the horizon.
How do other authors feel about charging or not charging for their writing? Are you okay with getting little out of your work other than the joy to be found in the process itself, and the satisfaction of perhaps having entertained a few readers along the way?
August 19, 2012
Since my novels are primarily about women, I sometimes refer to them as chicklit, although that genre really doesn’t cover it. These stories do qualify in some respects, being chock-full of girly issues such as glass ceilings at work, jerky and clueless significant others, work-life balance issues, raging hormones, cliques, catfights, gynecological issues, etc. Like most women, my heroines pursue that one great love that will satisfy them in every way for the rest of their lives. But real life has a way of intruding and bringing out their cynical sides. In the end they’re prepared to settle for intermittent contentment-ever-after. There are no clear-cut resolutions in my made-up worlds. The most my heroines can hope for is a small island of peace and security in between the traumas of their youth and the even greater challenges that are sure to come in the future—assuming there are sequels on the horizon.
My fictional worlds don’t wrap up neatly on the last page. Numerous issues, both personal and political, hang in the air. Some fodder for those sequels might include:
— Miriam of Secretarial Wars has blasted her way out of her ordinary job by landing a White House gig. Will she be able to keep her ideals and her investigative ambitions intact, or will she end up getting corrupted by the job?
— Imogene of The Rock Star’s Homecoming has succeeded by various heroic measures in snaring her sometimes reluctant boyfriend Steve for their final college Homecoming dance. Does it follow that she’ll be able to lure him to the altar after graduation—or will she even want to?
— The fraternal twin sisters of Let’s Play Ball, Miranda and Jessica, have done their part to solve the kidnapping of Jessica’s ballplayer fiancé and welcome him safely home. Will they persevere in solving the riddle of the embittered ex-wife who was ultimately behind the crime—and who still lurks in the distance?
So stay tuned … maybe. And in the meantime, here’s a chicklit-style trailer featuring the feisty secretaries:
March 15, 2011
Apart from sports, the most dominant theme running through my novels is music. Classic rock is the style of music that stirs up my nostalgia. Whenever I turn on my computer, I fire up my Internet radio connection. That usually gives me all the inspiration I need for conjuring up scenes, emotions, and dreams from my past.
For example, a station devoted to the Beatles and tributes to the group from other artists allows me to relive their whole story—the puppy-love songs at the beginning, giving way to increasing sophistication and experimentation, followed by forays into spiritualism, psychedelics, and politics, all of which accelerated their loss of innocence and need for independence. And then, inevitably, the excessive egotism that blasted them apart and never allowed for a genuine reconciliation. Like many other fans, I grew up with them.
I don’t necessarily need to know a band’s story to appreciate their songs. Too many of those stories ended in squalor, addiction, and self-destruction, yet the songs still shouted out that life is good. Boston’s “smokin’, smokin’, we’re cookin’ tonight, just keep on tokin’” gets me high on life; no drugs needed. The next riff “picks you up and takes you away,” just as it promises. Jim Morrison declares “Music is your special friend,” and Jimi Hendrix croons, “Music, sweet music, I wish I could caress, caress, caress.” That must have been a terrific anti-depressant as long as it lasted.
My concert photos don’t show much, since I can never get close enough to the stage to get a sharp image. Yet they capture what I felt … a blur of emotions. I remember when life, when just being young, felt that way. The best part of writing is trying to recapture those moments.