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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Next Big Thing - A Blog Hop Post

As part of 'The Next Big Thing Blog Hop,' I was tagged by  author Q. Kelly in her post last week. The purpose of this hop is to expose you to writers and their work that perhaps you haven't heard of, whether a new release or a Work in Progress (WIP). This is week 20.

According to the rules of the hop, I will be answering some questions (the same ones for every other blog hopper) about either my newest release or my WIP and then at the bottom of the post I've listed authors who will do the same thing in their blogs next Wednesday.

Thanks--here we go!

What is the working title of your book?   The Trees in the Field is my new novel, just published in August.

Where did the idea come from for the book?  For several years I'd been reading news stories about an island in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia, which was occupied by United States forces and has been used for a base ever since. I wondered about the displaced inhabitants of that island. At the same time, I wrote a short story about a tough woman in the world of Washington politics--Raybelle McKeehan. Finally, I'd promised that the next book I wrote would feature a handsome diver--the other main character, Tomas Jefferson. Those different strands of story grew into a novel in my mind.

What genre does your book fall under? I write general fiction--there are love story and thriller elements, but the main theme is always the hero's personal journey.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? I was all set to answer this, then realized the two main actresses I had in mind are approximately the same age. While this proves that I find women in their fifties sexy, it wouldn't work for these characters, who are fifteen years apart. I'm also afraid of what's been called the "Clark Gable effect"--that is, if you've seen the film Gone With the Wind you can only ever read the character of Rhett Butler as Clark Gable, the actor who played him. My characters look the way I've imagined them, and I've given my readers the words to imagine them too.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?  Raybelle McKeehan, one of the only women in the U. S. Senate, must choose between her lifelong political ambitions and fighting for her true ideals.

What is the longer synopsis of your book?

Dr. Tomas Jefferson stays aloof from life and love, but is strangely drawn to a war-ravaged Marine at a Chicago street clinic where she volunteers. When he dies on the streets, she undertakes notification of the next of kin, but it’s clear that Senator Raybelle McKeehan finds the matter inconvenient.

Raybelle McKeehan was ten when she knew that she would be President some day. Now a Republican senator from Tennessee, there is no room in her life for deviations and distractions, but her brother’s death and the compelling Dr. Jefferson both throw her off her carefully charted path.

Horrified by her brother’s circumstances, and that of other veterans, Raybelle must decide if she can go toe-to-toe with powerful men to uncover self-dealing and criminal acts that strike at the heart of the Constitution and the democracy she loves. Tomas agrees to advise and though Raybelle denies it to herself, feelings emerge...and so do rumors that could ruin her career.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
The Trees in the Field is published by Bella Books.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I wrote it over the course of the year 2007, which is when it is set.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
I love, and am fascinated by, people who stand up for what they believe is right, regardless of how unpopular it makes them. I wanted to write a hero--Raybelle--who hasn't forgotten why she went into politics to begin with: to fight for a just cause. She is a human being outraged by injustice, and she won't be talked out of it by cynicism. By creating such heroism, I hoped to show that it is possible.

What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
The timeliness of it. The Trees in the Field was published shortly before the U. S. election and look, a lesbian was just elected to the Senate. The issues of security, liberty, and justice that Raybelle struggles with are urgent issues for political leaders today.

Next Wednesday check out the Next Big Thing from the inimitable Cheri Crystal, who writes my favorite combination--funny and sexy at the same time.

If you're a fellow writer and would like to participate in this Blog Hop, please reach out to Cheri and let her know! The more the merrier :)


Sunday, October 28, 2012

Understanding Without Agreeing

Just before the U. S. election seems a good time to come out and say that I understand why some people are voting differently from how I voted.

“I understand.” That is not to say “I agree.” A distinction that seems often to be lost, especially in the polarized environment of contemporary U. S. A. politics. For many people, it feels impossible to be friends or even talk with people who will be voting differently; it feels like a personal assault.

And I can understand that too. There are aspects of what the national Republican candidates stand for, or say they stand for, that I can neither agree with nor understand. Like taking health care away from children, or denying it to people with pre-existing conditions. To go along with that platform seems really tough.

But I can understand some things without agreeing with them. One of the comments going around the Internet lately, from playwright Doug Wright, has gotten me thinking. “I wish my moderate Republican friends would simply be honest,” this quote begins. “[L]ook me in the eye, speak with a level clear voice, and say, ‘My taxes and take-home pay mean more than your fundamental civil rights.’”

It’s a powerful quote in its entirety. But what it made me think is, is Doug Wright surprised? Do most people, however they identify and/or vote, really care about their neighbors’ civil rights more than their own economic issues?

It sounds horrible the way Wright puts it, but it’s kind of normal. If I’m out of work and struggling to feed my family, or otherwise at an economic loose end, I’m honestly probably not thinking as much about the civil rights, poverty, or health care situation of someone down the road. Maybe I should be, but most people are not prophets. The world is not made up of Martin Luther Kings or whoever your favorite American is.

Now, my understanding this does not mean I think most Americans’ financial situations would, in fact, be made better if Mitt Romney became the next president. Moreover, I’m not convinced either man being elected on the 6th of November would make as big a difference to voters’ pocketbooks as a lot of them, and both candidates, seem to think. The economy is a global monster, and even the president of the United States, whoever he is, does not have that much power to change it.

What the U. S. federal government does have the power to change is whether I could go home to the United States, or whether that country is even going to feel like home to me in the future. As I’ve explained before, the laws that made me leave were the responsibility of Democrats as well as Republicans. I am not optimistic that they would change in a second term for Barack Obama, and there seems to be no chance at all that they would change under a Romney presidency. But, Romney has changed his mind about a great many issues like this before. So who knows.

In the same way that understanding does not equal agreeing, people can be opposed to something without necessarily making it against the law. Again, this concept seems to pass a lot of contemporary Americans by, but it’s part of living in a free society. Many Democrats and liberals might point to social issues as an example of where we should “live and let live”; traditionally, Republicans and conservatives would tend to say that as few things should be against the law as possible.

And I can understand that also, to a point. I think a lot of kinds of speech are offensive and hurtful, but that doesn’t mean I want to take away people’s First Amendment right to say them. Of course, I draw the line of “as few things should be against the law as possible” where I think is a reasonable limit. I would draw the line at poisoning wells and letting E. coli into the food supply. Others would draw their own lines.

The aspect I can most understand—though not agree with—about Republican voters is the desire to throw out an incumbent. When people feel that things are not going well, they are disinclined to give the present government another chance. In general, voters on all sides exaggerate the extent to which an incumbent deserves blame, or credit, for everything that has happened in the past four years. (This was true in 2008 also. Luckily for Republicans, they did not have an incumbent to re-elect, and so everyone got to vote for someone new.)

Rather than leave you with a conclusion that tells you whom to vote for or condemns you to no longer being my friend (perhaps that would be a release?) I just wanted to share this basic thought. That it is possible to understand where someone is coming from without agreeing with him. It seems so obvious, and yet, I don’t believe it’s said enough these days, in the country I was born in and still care about.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Stove-Top Stuffing: What's in a Name?

Today in the U. S. A., the 2nd Circuit Court ruled that the federal statute defining marriage as between one man and one woman is unlawful, because it denies federal benefits to same-sex couples who are married.

DOMA, as it is not so affectionately known among queer types like me, is the Defense of Marriage Act. It was signed into law back when I was still living in the States, by Bill Clinton. No excuses accepted--Democrat or Republican, it's been a long time since a president didn't overreach and do unconstitutional things with his power.

This particular law is unconstitutional, for reasons that have essentially nothing to do with gays or what you think about gay rights. The Constitution (a document often quoted but less often read--see the Bible) makes it pretty clear that part of being the United States involves each state honoring the other states' contracts.

So, if some kooky, Mitt Romney-governed state like Massachusetts wants to start issuing marriage licenses to any old couple--straight or gay--it's all very well for another state not to do so. Say, Virginia. But that doesn't mean Virginia can insist that people married in Massachusetts aren't really married.

And it certainly doesn't mean the federal government can deny equal benefits to one kind of couple married in one of the states. At least, it didn't mean that, until DOMA came along.

"Defense of marriage" is such an odd name for this law. I mean, I left the country back when Bill Clinton was president, because of the denial of equality by the federal government. And I have been waiting ever since for one man and one woman to tell me how, thanks to DOMA, their marriage was saved. Without all those pesky gay American citizens around, trying to legally live with their partners in their country of birth.

Partners. Spouses. What's in a name?

Not everybody, gay or straight, wants to get married. Same-sex marriage may be the last frontier now, but not so many years ago, in Ontario, a province that passed it even earlier than Romney's state--well, it wasn't so popular there. Not among straights. Among gays.

What are we thinking? asked an Xtra! forum of the time. We don't want marriage. We're different. Queer! Queers are supposed to be different. We are supposed to be out and proud, pro-sex, living lives of activism and protest.

Or not. The other big gay argument has been that we are exactly like "everybody else." We raise kids, do laundry, pay taxes, and are too tired to have sex. Please, just let us get married and live our boring lives in peace.

Of course, both are true, and true even of the same people, at different times. Which brings me to Stove-Top Stuffing.

Do I need to get married? No. Do I think homophobia will end if only we can get married? I'm not holding my breath.

I don't oppose DOMA because it's marriage. We don't have marriage in the United Kingdom either, and some people are pretty upset about it. We have civil partnership, though, and--here's the crucial thing--civil partnership conveys all the same rights, legally, in this country that marriage does.

If through some other institution--call it Stove-Top Stuffing--the U. S. government granted equality to same-sex couples under federal law, then that would be fine. The divorce rate for straight couples could continue to go down, saved by the absence of gays from the sacred institution of marriage. Thousands of binational couples, meanwhile--couples where one partner is a U. S. citizen and the other is a $%*! foreigner--could make a free choice where to live, legally, and maybe even contribute to American society.

But immigration is federal (despite Arizona). So are hundreds of other matters, the equality of which is denied to us: veterans' survivor benefits, Sally Ride's pension, and so on. So it doesn't matter what individual states do, as long as DOMA is on the books. All fifty states could pass same-sex marriage--as if--and that wouldn't change anything at the national level. Which, from outside the nation, is what matters most to me.

It would be better for no state to have "marriage," if the country as a whole had Stove-Top Stuffing.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Paralympians and politicians

I’ve been watching the Paralympic Games in London. They’re finally getting some air time in the U. S. A. this week, and it’s about time. In Atlanta 1996, the athletes’ village was being torn down while the Paralympians were still competing.

From an early age, I was interested in stories about people and read lots of biographies. Three of my favorites were children’s biographies of Louis Braille (who invented the alphabet for fellow blind readers when he was barely a teenager), Helen Keller, and Annie Sullivan, the “miracle worker” who herself struggled with visual impairment all her life.

I remember being horrified at children who told “Helen Keller” jokes, but also, that the main thing that impressed me about Braille, Keller, and Sullivan was not their disability, as hard as that was.

It was the fact that they made a difference, even worked miracles, in the lives of other people.

Helen Keller, once she could reach out through language, was one smart woman (she earned a degree cum laude from Radcliffe College, among other things). So she said a lot of smart things. My favorite quote is “I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

You could take that as referring to what, physically, Keller couldn’t do (see or hear). But I don’t usually think of that. I think it is an instruction about how every one of us should live. We can’t do everything or solve all the problems of the world, but that’s what makes it all the more important that we each do what we can.


Which brings me to the Paralympics.

Having left the United States and, therefore, heard of the Paralympics for the first time some years ago, I’m sure I thought how great that athletes with disabilities can compete at this level. But I’d rarely *seen* the competition for myself.

London 2012 has changed the way I see.

Of course, these are by far the most successful Paralympic Games in history. The crowds are as big as those for the Olympics (or bigger; fewer seats for VIPs and media, more for the screaming British public). The venues are selling out. Even athletes from first-time countries like Guinea-Bissau, coming in last in their heats, are setting season’s bests in front of the biggest crowds they will ever know.

I find myself watching wheelchair basketball and just thinking "it's basketball"; I no longer think right away what is the disability we are dealing with here. It truly is transforming the way I perceive people, the things their bodies can and can't do. If these Paralympics leave a legacy, that may be the most important one. Hearts and minds, as the Americans say.

When I hear the packed Olympic stadium cheering a blind sprinter and her guide runner, I know that what NBCSN shows to American audiences will make people unafraid of disability, and they will perceive sports in a whole new way.

At the very least, it’s a distraction from the politics of the moment, because it shows us all that is good and inspiring about human effort. People shout for the athletes because they are accomplishing something great, not just to hear their own noise.

There is a family story that my aunt Karen was once having trouble getting her car started. This caused the driver behind her to get stuck, so, he sat in his car and honked the horn.
After a while, still having no success, Aunt Karen got out, went back to the other guy's car, and spoke through the window. "How about this," she said. "You come help get my car started, and I'll sit back here and honk your horn."
Fortunately, he laughed (rather than shooting her).

The Paralympians are the metaphorical car starters of our world. I don't care if your favorite politician is Paul Ryan or Edward Kennedy (neither, not that you asked), most people can barely imagine what these athletes have to overcome. *And then* they go out and fight for gold medals.
What would the world be like if there were fewer horn honkers out there? If instead of just sitting and shouting, we got up and helped fix things?

The bumper sticker says “Honk if you love” so-and-so.
Well, don’t honk if you love the Paralympics. Get up and help start something!

Thursday, August 16, 2012


We were waiting for our coffee and I said, "I could write a story about this barista." 

"The what?" 

"The girl making the coffee." (Girl, gal, and guy are terms I use indiscriminately and with no disrespect implied.) 

The look I got in return was skeptical. "That's a bloke!" 

"Doesn't matter," I said, because the point was I could still write a story about the barista, and she wasn't a guy in my story. 

She wasn't anyway, as quickly became clear when she called out someone's order in an unmistakably female voice. There is always something to give it away. If you don't hear the voice, you can see the hips, or the chin that doesn't need shaving even when the "bloke" has crow's feet and gray hair. 

My eyes always go to these women, whatever their age; I spot them in any crowd. I always rest my eyes on them, for a moment longer than anybody else. Sometimes they look back, and when they do, it’s a look of recognition. It says, I notice you noticing me. It says, You and I are not alone in this place. 

Understand, I don't know anything about the barista, about how she identifies herself. She might be a dyke, but I can't assume that, any more than she can assume that about me. All I know is that she looks the way she does, and that, even today, takes a certain amount of guts. 

When I see one of these women, wherever I see her, this is what I see. She is not afraid to wear her hair like that, or her piercings. She is not afraid to be thought of, sometimes, as what she’s not--or other times, as what she is. She isn't afraid of walking into a "ladies'" room, or down the street, or of holding her partner’s hand in public. 

Or maybe she is afraid, but she goes through her days anyway. Hopefully, most of the time, she can get through without harassment or even thinking too much about it. Just being who she is.

Maybe she grew up hearing that she’s ugly, or undesirable. That no one wants her. That she’s not woman enough to be a woman, really, and not man enough to be a man. Maybe she’s gotten used to it. 

Or maybe she has a girlfriend—or a boyfriend—who loves her for who she is. Is not intimidated by her sexuality, does not humiliate her for her gender. Maybe she can take off her clothes for her lover without feeling self-conscious that hair isn’t growing in fewer places, or that breasts haven’t grown more. 

Maybe she despaired of anyone ever touching her the way she needed to be touched. Maybe she grew up thinking that she would never meet anybody else like her.
Maybe this is what she sees when she looks at me.

I don't know anything about this woman, but I can write this story. Because, of course, it’s my story.

© 2012 J. E. Knowles

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

One moment in time

I am not sure why the death of Whitney Houston has affected me. I don't really follow celebrities, and I feel their marriages, habits, etc. are none of my business. I never even bought a Whitney Houston album. But with her premature passing, I've realized how very few singers have been blessed with a voice like hers.

The years of Whitney Houston's greatest success were the late 1980s, and her string of #1 singles corresponds with the years I was in high school. So just by turning on the radio in those days, our world was suffused with Houston's singing. We took it for granted, I guess. Even what would have otherwise been a forgettable pop hit, like "So Emotional," still resonates because of that amazing voice.

It reminds me of an Anne Tyler novel in which Barbra Streisand comes on the radio, and is described as "showing off as usual." Like Streisand, Houston could do incredible things with her voice, and regularly did. In fact it was Barbra Streisand who I thought, as it were, struck just the right note at the news of Houston's death. She said how sad it was that Houston's gifts could not bring her the happiness they brought us.

Only listening back, now, am I aware of how rare a talent Houston had, and how seldom we hear such music anymore. In the days when she was breaking ground as a black woman artist, we heard her songs so often they started to sound everyday.

But they weren't. The Preacher's Wife was an OK movie, but Houston's soundtrack was the bestselling gospel album of all time--fitting, given her church roots. And after Houston sang "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl during the first Gulf war, who could follow her? No version of the national anthem since can realistically stand up.

For me, the defining moment of Houston's career was a video that never even showed her lovely face. She sang "One Moment In Time," the theme song of the Summer 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul. The song is by Albert Hammond and John Bettis, who also co-wrote memorable songs for another vocal talent lost too soon, Karen Carpenter.

It's a virtuoso performance, and it captures the moment of the Olympics and the pinnacle of those athletes' lives. It also reminds us of how our lives are made up of moments, and at their best, those moments are enough.

"We have in our lives only a few moments. A moment of joy and wonder with another. Some might say beauty or transcendence. Or all those things. Then you reach an age, Miss Ternan, and you realize that moment, or, if you are very lucky, a handful of those moments, was your life. That those moments are all, and that they are everything. And yet we persist in thinking that such moments will only have worth if we can make them go on forever. We should live for moments, yet we are so fraught with pursuing everything else, with the future, with the anchors that pull us down, so busy that we sometimes don't even see the moments for what they are." --Richard Flanagan, Wanting