Christmas 2022

Friends,

Sometimes a year is too much for one Christmas letter to contain–so it is with this year, but I’ll give it a try. Susan found out she’s pregnant with baby #4! That’s probably the lead. We found out over the summer in between one of our many trips. Susan came up with the tummy name Lilo, because her due date is in April. After she explained to the children that Lilo of Lilo & Stitch is the little girl and not the alien, they immediately jumped on board with the name. 


Also this year: my second book, Rogue the Durum, was accepted for publication back in March and hit bookstores in November. To help promote it, I asked my publisher to place my first book on sale. Book one hit record numbers in September, October, and November, making the top 100 in the Australia kindle store and the top 20 in Canada! Thanks to the run in the charts, HarperCollins asked to print the mass market version through one of their imprints. I considered their offer for most of a millisecond before asking where to sign.


I can tell all this literary ambition has been rubbing off on the kids. The other day, I overheard Bonnie pitching a new children’s book to Charlie. It features two ducklings who are adopted by a goose. The title: Duck, Duck, Goose. The conflict: The daddy goose doesn’t actually want the ducklings. I am trying not to take this as an attack on my own parenting. Charlie too is working things out, but his interests seem to be more in the realm of comedy. Every morning he experiments, crossing back and forth over an imaginary line that separates two kinds of routines: those that make his sisters furiously annoyed and those that make them giggle so hard cereal comes out their noses. He’s developing a terrific sense of comedic timing. I just wish it didn’t involve so many pratfalls.


Speaking of falls, Susan’s prediction came true: Margot is the first Miller child to require stitches. She tumbled down the playhouse stairs during the first snow of the year and earned a trip to the Emergency Room. A few hours later, she was all cleaned up, stitched up, and scaling the side of the hospital bed in search of her next big injury. All the hospital staff working that night fell in love with Margot–who danced and sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” minutes after receiving her last stitch–and they showed their love by lavishing her with praise and Paw Patrol stickers. 


Academically, everyone is doing well. Bonnie and Charlie are both in school full-time at St. Dominic, which means they get to see their mama every morning and every afternoon and whenever they have library or computer class. We are all impossibly blessed. Margot is still doing well at daycare. She assures me she is doing all her calculus homework and will make the Dean’s list this semester. She also may be a compulsive liar. We’re hoping she grows out of that before it leads to a life of crime. 


Thanks to my literary life and our desire to visit all 50 capitals, this year has been chock-full of travel. In March we visited OKC, Baton Rouge, Jackson, and Little Rock. When my first book came out, I reached out to my old high school, New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), and they invited me to give a talk and sign books for the students. Then over the summer, we traveled to ten cities in Kansas as I offered mystery writing workshops at Kansas libraries. Finally, we just spent a long weekend in Overland Park so that I could present at a writing conference sponsored by Johnson County Public Library.


Out of everything, I think Susan’s favorite part of our adventures was Lemuria, a cozy bookstore in Jackson, Mississippi. The kids, on the other hand, enjoyed the food most, constantly bringing up the crawfish we had in New Orleans. Now whenever they hear we’re having shrimp for dinner, one of them will ask if it’s the kind they can take apart. For me, I think I most enjoyed my panel at the Johnson County writing conference. As I answered participant-questions about rejection and critique, I recounted bits and pieces of my early writing days: those writing workshops at NOCCA, my student worker days at The Southern Review, and my own struggles to find what works in my writing. Today, when I write something, I know it will find a home somewhere. How remarkable is that?


It has truly been a momentous year and 2023 looks like it will hold more of the same. Even though our travel plans will be placed on temporary hold, I know Lilo (or whatever we’ll actually name baby #4) will bring us plenty of adventures at home. Wishing you a merry Christmas and an adventurous new year!The MiwwersSteven, Susan, Bonnie, Charlie, Margot and “Lilo” 

Jólabókaflóð Mysteries 2022

Jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, is a literary tradition a number of American readers have been borrowing over the last few years. It centers on buying books for friends and loved ones and giving them on Christmas Eve. In this way, you can share your love of books and spend the evening reading by the Christmas tree, fireplace, or wherever you spend this important day.

If you’d like to know more about the tradition, check out my post in which I speak with the president of the Icelandic Publishers Association, Heiðar Ingi Svansson.

These titles are sure to keep you reading late into the night this Jólabókaflóð!

Ezra James used to be a big deal: Harvard graduate, FBI agent, beautiful wife. After being accused of fabricating evidence in a serial killer trial, he finds himself suspended, on the verge of a divorce, and working security at a posh Catholic school in Chicago. Then something out-of-the-ordinary happens: a young student-teacher is attacked during a Christmas pageant and left for dead in the snow with a noose around her neck and an electrical burn. Plus, she’s pregnant. Ezra, along with up-and-coming police detective, Lucia Vargas, and school chaplain, Fr. Remy Mbombo, must work fast before the culprit returns to finish the job. Get an ebook for only $0.99 on Kindle.

A mystery that starts and ends in the snow, this one is the perfect companion for your Christmas Eve.

Gwyneth Camm has just inherited her great-aunt’s house in Salem, Massachusetts, along with an
extensive collection of gothic romance novels. As a PhD student who prefers “serious” books,
Gwyn has always avoided pulp fiction. Now, in honor of her beloved Aunt Ethel, she gives one
of the gothics a try…and promptly falls asleep.

When she wakes, she finds herself inside the story, thrust by forces unknown into the heroine’s
role. There’s magic afoot, and the only way back to her own life is to play her part and solve the
mystery.

When fiction becomes fact, anything can happen… Read today on Kindle for only $3.99!

After being widowed and surviving the wrath of a serial killer, Jessica believes her misfortunes are over. She’s reunited with her first love, Jon, and together, with her son Bryce, and a baby on the way, they’re living their happily ever after on their ranch in Montana. That is until secrets, lies, and a formidable foe from Jon’s past emerge to shake the foundation of their relationship, forcing them to flee for their lives.

A decade earlier, Jon worked undercover for the FBI. He infiltrated Hugh Jones’ Kansas City Mob, and almost destroyed his empire. Unaware of the breech in his own defenses, Hugh, obsessed with revenge, unleashes every weapon in his arsenal, targeting those Jon loves the most.

Read today! Starting as low at $4.99!

Read it today for only $5.99!

This delightful series focuses on the humorous mystery and romantic adventures of the kind folks who live in the environs of a small village nestled on Lake Superior in northern Wisconsin. Along the way in the series, silkie chickens, a giant prehistoric beaver skeleton, a kidnapped reindeer, and other flora and fauna contribute to the amusing mischief and mayhem.

When her pet reindeer, Rudolph, is stolen from the live animal holiday display, first-grade teacher Crystal Hagan has a big problem on her hands. Her students fear that Christmas will be canceled. Ironically, the prime suspect is a man who lives in a mansion known as the “North Pole”. And to her shock, Peter LeBarron admits to kidnapping Rudolph and he won’t give him back without some romantic “negotiations”.

Read now for just $2.99!

First grade teacher Desiree Tucker is on the brink of winter holidays with her new, romantic boyfriend when danger encroaches on her joy. Ominous, untraceable texts buzz on her cell phone. Terrifying secret Santa gifts show up for her in the classroom. As the stalker moves closer to the prey, Desiree doesn’t know who she can trust. Her charming new man is a prime suspect. Is he a deadly stalker? If not him, who? What can she learn from the legend of the snow kiss cookie? Just when she’s starting to believe in magic again, she finds herself fighting for her life. Cookie recipe included.

Read today for just $2.99!

Humorous cozy mystery Death by Sample Size is set in wintertime Los Angeles, where
the year-round weather is so mild and balmy that one must consult the calendar to confirm which
season it is. Weather plays a big role in the plot as the protagonist is the vice president of sales of
a ladies’ swimwear company. Weather wimp Holly Schlivnik would never survive living in a
cold-weather area. She lives on a houseboat and drives a vintage convertible with the top down
twelve months a year.

Read today for just $0.99!

Till death do us part, with kitchen shears. When a family man kills his wife, the Fog Ladies—spunky senior sleuths in an elegant apartment building in San Francisco—set out to discover the truth. They find a years-old Christmas murder, undertake a Christmas visit to a women’s prison with the best gift ever, and discover a Christmas clue to the true killer. Unfortunately, marriage can be deadly.

Read today for just $4.99!

Oxford, England 1993. An awkward American grad student hits a gorgeous English undergrad with her bicycle. She’s embarrassed. He’s intrigued. They go their separate ways, but neither forgets.

Chicago, Illinois December 2013. Successful novelist Cress Taylor starts receiving anonymous threats that undermine her world. When a figure from her past turns up at a book signing and wants to renew their fleeting acquaintance,  Cress wonders if the timing is coincidental or suspicious? Should she fall into his arms or run like hell?

A former spy now working for a global security company, Max Grant has always steered clear of relationships—until now. When he sees Cress in a TV interview, his curiosity ignites. Will the spark he felt twenty years ago burst into flame? Cress is a magnet he can’t resist. 

      As threats escalate, Max feels driven to protect Cress but she’s not sure she can trust him. Complicating  everything, Max’s big Scottish family will arrive soon in Chicago for Christmas.   

          Can she overcome her fears and is he willing to give up his secrets so they can have a Happy New Year?

Read on Kindle Unlimited for free!

Magic, Mimosas & Mistletoe is the high-spirited third book in the Charmed Cocktail Cozy mystery series. If you like ghost mysteries with holiday slaying, you’ll love M.L. Bonatch’s festive read!

Buy Magic, Mimosas & Mistletoe to cheer your holiday spirit today and all year!

Read today on Kindle Unlimited!

Review: How to Be Perfect

I don’t usually review non-fiction books, least of all books on philosophy, yet when I started the ironically named, How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, I should’ve known that I would be jotting down my thoughts the second I finished it. Michael Schur, writer for The Office, co-creator of both Parks and Rec and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and creator of The Good Place, builds on the moral questions he explores in The Good Place but in a way that doesn’t not produce a migraine.

If you are looking for a dry, serious analysis of the history of philosophy, this is not that thing. If you earned PhD in, I don’t know, epistemology and you’re looking for the newest piece of scholarship to further your specific content area, this is probably not that thing either. If you studied philosophy/anthropology in college, enjoy reading or reading about moral philosophy, and enjoy books with lots of jokes, then this is definitely that thing. One doesn’t help create four of the funniest shows in recent history without being able to write some very smart and very funny stuff, and Schur does not disappoint just because he set his sights on moral dilemmas rather than penguin weddings and sensitivity trainings.

Fans of The Good Place may be familiar with T. M. Scanlon’s philosophical work on contractualism, What We Owe to Each Other. (The book Chidi gives to Eleanor and she then basically ignores until the very end of the series.) While contractualism is present in How to Be Perfect, Schur doesn’t belabor this single theory. Instead, he presents three schools of thought central to Western philosophy, analyzing different moral dilemmas through these lenses. Those basic schools of thought are Aristotelian value ethics (the golden mean); deontology (Kant’s moral imperative); and utilitarianism (the most happiness for the most people). Through these lenses, Schur considers theoretical dilemmas like the Trolley Problem (and a ton of it’s variants), daily problems like tipping 27 cents on a $1.73 coffee, but only when the barista can see it, and gigantic issues like world hunger and global warming and how-in-the-world to pronounce “eudaimonia” or even more how-in-the-world to work it into casual conversation.

When he does come to contractualism, he does so in a logical way, built up from those three schools of thought, so that even a reader relatively new to philosophy has a solid understanding. And in the end, Schur does introduce a new idea (newish idea?), which he calls “moral exhaustion.” Similar to “compassion fatigue,” moral exhaustion is when our good intentions wear us out. Compassion fatigue primarily affects teachers and counselors who take on the problems of their students and patients, offering so much compassion that it negatively affects their own mental health. Moral exhaustion, in contrast, can affect anyone who struggles to make a thousand moral decisions a day–just to throw up their hands and do whatever they want instead.

Much of moral philosophy is written in order to not be misunderstood (at least that is the intention), so jokes and generalization are not the norm. Thankfully in Schur’s book they are. This is both laugh-out-loud funny and thought-provoking–and a must-read for those of us often paralyzed by what to do and why.

Mystery Review: Down a Dark River

From the publisher: London, 1878. One April morning, a small boat bearing a young woman’s corpse floats down the murky waters of the Thames. When the victim is identified as Rose Albert, daughter of a prominent judge, the Scotland Yard director gives the case to Michael Corravan, one of the only Senior Inspectors remaining after a corruption scandal the previous autumn left the division in ruins. Reluctantly, Corravan abandons his ongoing case, a search for the missing wife of a shipping magnate, handing it over to his young colleague, Mr. Stiles.

As an orphan and former bare-knuckle boxer, Corravan would make a great hard-boiled detective, but Odden plays it traditional with this one. In fact, he reminds me much more of the detectives of the Golden Age period of mystery novels than the noirs of the same time–that is if Dickens was writing then instead of Agatha Christie. There is clearly a great deal of period-expertise and research behind this novel, but that doesn’t get in the way of a great mystery.

As a mystery writer myself I am always daunted by the task of coming up with something “new.” I seek out a new method or a new motive and usually settle on a new variation. I was pleased to discover something entirely new in Odden’s novel, though I won’t spoil it for you.

Fans of both traditional mysteries and Dickensian-period dramas will find much to enjoy here. As this is the first in the series, I’m excited to see what Corravan will get into next. Check out the series today: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B091Q7PR8C?binding=hardcover&ref=dbs_dp_awt_sb_pc_thcv

Kansas Library Tour

This June, I had the honor of traveling the state of Kansas to offer a mystery writing workshop. I spent a good deal of time back in September and October setting this up, but I think it was well worth it.

The Libraries!

We visited TEN libraries across the state of Kansas! While I failed to take a picture of the tenth (Salina), I think this photo of Margot inside their children’s section accurately summarizes how we all felt by library #10.

We set out in Leviathan (our minivan) and visited some family along the way. My kids hadn’t seen Aunt Lena and Uncle Tom for far too long–and that goes double for Nana. One huge accomplishment was appearing on the front page of my “hometown” newspaper. Newton, Kansas, is where I attended elementary school and also where I first came across the term “hometown.” As a nine-year-old, I always wondered what my baseball card would say for “hometown.” Even at that age, I’d already lived in three states and six towns, so it could’ve said anything. Luckily, I never made it to the Majors. Or the Minors. Or my high school team. Maybe “luckily” isn’t the right word…

Traveling

“Science” was probably the key term for our travels. Between Dodge City and Newton, we visited the Cosmosphere in Hutch. For our Eureka/Chanute leg of the trip, we stayed at a working farm near Severy, Kansas, giving the kids great exposure to ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep, and even cattle. Throughout, we did several “light experiments” involving Margot’s new telescope and my SLR camera. And in Manhattan, we bought a volcano experiment, which we used with cousins upon our return to Garden.

Attendance

Okay, so not all of the workshops were well attended. The lowest number was one attendee. Thankfully, the librarian sat in, otherwise I would’ve been presenting to one person. (Awkward…) Even then, however, I got to meet a young, aspiring author, and he walked away with several new ideas for fiction and, hopefully, a better understanding of the novel as an art form.

Bottom Line

One thing writers and educators have in common is an obsession with effect rate. How effective is this teaching method? How many sales did this ad service produce? Who took my pen? (At least, these are things I say all the time.)

I visited ten libraries across my home state and they all paid my mileage to make the trip. Win-win. Each library bought a copy of my book and put it into circulation for their patrons. Win-win. I sold a total of 26 books in twelve days, which was less than I brought but more than I would’ve sold otherwise. Also, a number of libraries and individuals purchased the book ahead of time. The biggest win of all, however, was that I met numerous independent and aspiring authors and left them with some helpful tools. Who knows what fruits that will bear? I’m excited to find out!

Review: The Wayward Path

Synopsis

Charity Gray was an intelligent, inquisitive teen who disappeared fifteen years eariler. When her body is discovered, it should be a typical cold case. Before the Detroit police can get started, the FBI commandeers the investigation, with a prime suspect in mind: retired mobster Leo Agonasti. When Agonasti slips through their grasp, he reaches out to Sergeant Jefferson Chene. Their unusual friendship draws Chene into the thick of the case. Burdened with two reluctant FBI agents, Chene is working against the clock and the feds to find the real killer. Chene senses they are getting close to the answers. Will he be able to solve the murder and clear the old mobster of this heinous crime before time runs out?

Review

Cutting back and forth between the perspectives of prime suspect Agonasti and lead investigator Chene, The Wayward Path walks the line between a police procedural and a crime novel, giving us lots of characters to root for. As it becomes clear that Agonasti had nothing to do with the death of Charity and Chene learns about her fierce curiosity, only more questions arise? What did the teenager come across? Who is targeting Chene? And why, after a gunfight in the streets that lands Chene in the hospital, do police find a picture of Chene’s girlfriend in the shooter’s pocket?

Fans of straight police procedurals will find a lot to like in the pages of Mark Love’s newest. Also, those with an interest in seeing both sides. With his attention to Agonasti’s backstory, I was reminded of Dennis Lehane’s Joe Coughlin series.

This is a solid read with interesting characters and a mystery with more than meets the eye.

Pre-order today on Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and Apple Books!

Learning from the Masters: How to Write a Mystery

For the last two years, I’ve had the privilege of being a member of Mystery Writers of America, whose membership includes such heavy-hitters as Stephen King, Walter Mosley, Louise Penny, and Tana French. (When my debut mystery, How Everything Turns Away, came out, it was listed right beside Stephen King’s newest, Billy Summers.)

Last April, MWA put out a book specifically for mystery writers working on their craft. How to Write a Mystery consists of essays by bestselling mystery and thriller writers from its membership. I read it when it first came out, took amble notes as I was plotting out my sequel, and planned to write a review. Then school started, my debut came out, and I got busy marketing it and writing the sequel. Now that school is over and my sequel is with my editor, I thought I’d better review this puppy before I forget all about it!

The collection is edited by Lee Child with help from Laurie R. King. The essays are broken into four sections: The Rules and Genres; Other Mysteries; The Writing; and After the Writing. Rather than give an overview of these, I thought I would just offer some gems I found in each section.

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The Rules and Genres

“The novel is a movie stuntman, about to get pushed off a sixty-story building. The prop guys have a square fire department airbag ready on the sidewalk below. One corner is marked Mystery, one Thriller, one Crime Fiction, and one Suspense. The stuntman is going to land on the bag. (I hope.) But probably not dead-on. Probably somewhere off-center. But biased toward which corner? I don’t know yet. And I really don’t mind. I’m excited to find out.” -Lee Child

“The hard-boiled detective – think Chandler, Hammett, and Ross Macdonald…often has unorthodox methods that suit them well, and is not averse to bending or breaking the law in pursuit of justice…In the cozy, the setting is usually rural or small-town, the violence most often occurs offstage, the sex and profanity are minor to nonexistent, and the investigator is usually an amateur and most often a woman whose interests lie elsewhere – knitting or baking or antiques, say…technothriller novels [feature] international military action and potential conflict of all kinds, suffused with a deep knowledge of hardware, tactics, and the military heart and mind. Tom Clancy is the king here…Other writers have mashed the subgenres up…Carl Hiaasen combines the environmental thriller with comic noir…Andy Weir’s Artemis blends science fiction with the heist novel. Stephen King’s 11/23/63 is a political thriller by way of time travel. Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls does the same for the serial killer novel…Read them all, absorb them, see what works, figure out why it works – and then use everything you’ve read to create your very own style. Surprise yourself. Surprise us all. Make brilliant pretzels.” – Neil Nyren

“In a thriller, the story is about the choices the characters make when facing deadly threats, under increasing pressure, often with time running out. The only real way to find out what characters are made of is to crack their world in half.” – Meg Gardiner

“Twists can involve a discovery, a revelation – say, of a secret – a betrayal, a declaration of love, a mistake, a failure of courage…But no matter how you plant a twist, it should be earned, or the reader will feel burned. Use twists to ramp up the tension, the suspense, the stakes; to reveal and change character.” – Meg Gardiner

“An amateur sleuth is not paid for investigative services, the most daunting challenge for a writer of this subgenre is to justify the involvement of their protagonist in the storyline…Rather than worrying whether readers will like your amateur sleuths, you need to consider whether the characters are compelling and entertaining.” – Naomi Hirahara

“The root of noir is in character – and to fully experience a noir story, you have to see the character go from their norm, whether buttoned-up businessman unhappy with his job or bored housewife, to their rock bottom…while these kinds of characters can exist in a PI novel or procedural, if the series is more evergreen than ‘evolving,’ it’s harder to label the work as noir…The primary challenge in writing noir is the ability to let go – to allow your characters, through their own actions, to dig themselves deeper into the holes they’ve created, and to allow them to fail…In a dangerous world that’s more gray than black or white, noirs reflect our darkness – creating an eerie beauty that can arise only when all hope is gone.” – Alex Segura

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Other Mysteries

“You should write the kind of story that you, yourself, want to read. If you are into crime, skip the feel-good stuff.” – Dag Ohrlund

“Poe believed that the short story was the pinnacle of prose compositions – the one that ‘should best fulfill the demands of high genius’ – in part directly related to the form’s brevity. Short stories, according to Poe, should be capable of being read in a single sitting, with ‘unity of effect’ being both a goal and a challenge.” – Art Taylor

“Writers often (too often?) strive to sneak a plot twist into the final line…But while such reveals can surely offer immediate pleasures, I would argue that character twists are often more effective.” – Art Taylor

“To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, plot is not the most important thing, it’s the only thing. All the pretty prose, marvelous metaphors, and captivating characters in the world will not make up for the lack of a good story.” – Carole Bugge

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The Writing

“Be audacious with your style. Be simple with your sentences, too. Just don’t attempt to do either one constantly.” – Lyndsay Faye

“I outline to what feels like the middle of the book, [then] I jump ahead and actually write the last chapter. By writing the last chapter, I know who did it, why they did it, and how they did it.” – Rae Franklin James

“When all else fails, remember to raise the stakes! Readers don’t read mysteries just for the puzzle. You have to give them emotional engagement.” – Deborah Crombie

“If you are writing a story with a character who is a forensic scientist, you might try to arrange an interview with a real person who works in a crime lab. Similarly, if you’re creating a character who has a background different from your own, you might want to reach out to someone who can tell you if you’re ‘getting it right.’ ” – Frankie Y Bailey

“When is it a good idea to introduce laughs and when should we resist? Can a death scene be funny? A murder? Absolutely. Elmore Leonard wouldn’t write them any other way and Oyinkan Braithwaite has taken up the baton in her biting black comedy My Sister, the Serial Killer. You have to park most, perhaps all, of your empathy to appreciate wit this scabrous – but it’s worth it.” – Catriona McPherson

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After Writing

“Advertising and marketing are for visibility, not for sales. A lot of people get disappointed when they invest in an ad campaign and they don’t see immediate sales results.” – Liliana Hart

“Your mailing list, which you use to send monthly or semiregular newsletters, is one of the foundations of your online presence. Newsletters allow you to reach your biggest fans directly.” – Maddee James

“A veteran writer was talking to someone whose first novel had just come out, and who was having an anxiety attack about the upcoming panel. The debut author admitted he had no idea how to promote his book. ‘I’ll tell you how,’ said the vet. I leaned closer. ‘Don’t promote your book,’ he said. ‘Promote yourself…If they like you, they’ll probably buy your book, and will probably like it…and will probably tell others about it.’ Wait a minute, I thought…if a book’s bad, no amount of liking the writer will change that. And that’s generally true. And yet…” – Louise Penny

Review: Six Memos for the Next Millennium

In 1985, Italian novelist Italo Calvino delivered a series of lectures at Harvard University. His topic? The future of the novel. Six Memos for the Next Millennium explores five topics relevant to the novelist of today—lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, multiplicity—and an unwritten discussion on consistency.

Lightness

For this first essay, Calvino draws inspiration from the story of Perseus and Medusa and the play of heaviness and lightness the story contains. The sight of Medusa induces petrifaction, yet the droplets of blood the drip from her severed head produce the Pegasus, an ultimate symbol of lightness. He then juxtaposes two Roman writers, Lucretius and Ovid, the prior of whom explores the atomic nature of reality, the seemingly solid world “composed of unalterable atoms” (11) while the latter concerns himself with external forms that change at a whim—from woman to lotus tree, from Arachne to spider—because of the mythological common substance inside all things. One author finds lightness through scientific inquiry, the other through the fables of myth. He also juxtaposes two Italian poets, Guido Cavalcanti whose vagueness he prefers over Dante Alighieri’s concreteness, comparing a phrase written by Cavalcanti and then altered by Dante: “e bianca neve scender senza venti” (and white snow falling on a windless day) which becomes in Dante’s Inferno “come di neve in alpe sanza vento” (like snow on mountains on a windless day) (17). The distinction of mountain versus air is minute but important to Calvino. The final image, one Shakespeare returns to again and again, is the moon, that object of light that is ever changing and conceals as much as it reveals. Calvino believes literature shouldn’t accurately represent the weight of the world but should instead serve as a magic carpet, as Kafka’s flying bucket or, to return to the original image, as the Pegasus, taking us up and away into the realm of the imagination.

Quickness

This essay begins with a discussion of an old French legend: Charlemagne falling in love with a German girl and becoming heartbroken after her death. Calvino discusses several versions, but concludes that the most straightforward is the best. It takes us from A to B in the most interesting way, implying what is uninteresting and implying through juxtaposition of scenes additional causation and meaning. This is not to say all writers should just skip to the end. “The story is a horse,” he writes, “a means of transport, with a particular gait—trot or gallop—depending on the route to be traveled” (47). He concludes this talk with another story, this time of Chinese origin. In it, a gifted artist, Zhuang Zhou, is asked by the king to draw a crab. He requests five years for the task, then another five years. He requires space and servants. The king obliges and obliges. At the end of the tenth year, “Zhuang Zhou took his brush and in an instant, with a single flourish, drew a crab, the most perfect crab anyone had ever seen” (65). I sometimes become a slave to the act of writing, to producing pages, when I should be conceptualizing what exactly it should look like.

Exactitude

“Literature—by which I mean literature that responds to these demands—is the Promised Land in which language becomes what it truly ought to be.” (68)

Visibility

More than any of the others, this talk deals with the nature of artistic inspiration, the realm of both the muses and the Holy Spirit, of psychology and ideology, of Apollo and Dionysus. In the way Calvino covers both Christianity and Greek Mythology, Dante and Felix the Cat, in “Visibility” does he most remind me of Nietzsche. This discussion could very easily be read as a response or addendum to The Birth of Tragedy, which juxtaposes two varieties of artistic inspiration—Apollo’s orderly rationality and Dionysus’ passionate irrationality. In the end, he finds both impulses in Honore de Balzac, who mid-career “rejects the literature of the fantastic, which for him has meant art as mystical knowledge of everything, and he undertakes the minute description of the world as it is, still convinced he is expressing the secret of life” (119). The degree to which a novelist leans toward Giordano Bruno’s spiritus phantsticus (fantastic spirit), with its infinite well of imagination, or Balzac’s Comedie humaine (human comedy), with its near infinite reality of details, determines how they will attempt to capture the universe: through possibility or through probability. Either way, the individual author is creating a new novel and offering it to the body of literature, bridging “exteriority and interiority, world and self, experience and imagination.” Calvino finds his ultimate truth not in the novel as isolated construction but The Novel as shared idea, a universal body of novels. “These pages of signs,” he concludes, “as dense as grains of sand, represent the variegated spectacle of the world upon a surface that is always the same and always different, like dunes driven by the desert wind” (121).

Multiplicity

Drawing from two engineers-turned-writers, Carlo Emilio Gadda (Italian) and Robert Musil (German), Calvino demonstrates how two writers with similar backgrounds can develop opposing philosophies and approaches to the novel. Gadda represents a “tension between rational exactitude and frenetic deformation” while Musil’s writing is “fluid, ironic, controlled” (133). Both inhabit the same space, where mathematical rationality meets the roughness of human affairs, but in completely different ways. Here we find perhaps the most literary references to contemporary and near-contemporary authors, from Flaubert and Proust to Borges and Georges Perec. In the tight constraints of Oulipo Calvino finds his answer to the future of literature, quoting Oulipo co-founder Raymond Queneau, “Le classique qui ecrit sa tragedie en observant un certain nombre de regles qu’il connait est plus libre que le poete qui ecrit ce qui lui passe par la tete et qui est l’esclave d’autres regles qu’il ignore.” (The classical author who is writing his tragedy follows a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes down whatever comes into his head and who is a slave to other rules of which he is unaware.) (150-51). Or as Frost put it, “writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net.” While there is certainly freedom in exploration and experimentation with forms, abandonment of all constraints is itself a kind of imprisonment.

Consistency

Above the door in my classroom hangs a sign, one foot by three feet, which says simply “Consistency.” I put it there my second year and have been striving toward that ideal ever since. Ironically, the closer I get to it the more I am repelled from it. Every class, every student, every day poses a different set of variables. If I were truly consistent, I would no doubt miss countless opportunities. So it also seems fitting that instead of ending with the last of the six essays, Calvino leaves that talk unwritten. In a sense, consistency as an ideal would contradict all that he laid out before it. If the novels of Balzac from Le Chef-d’oeuvre Inconnu (The Unknown Masterpiece) to his Comedie Humaine teach us anything it is that an author is not a monolith and shouldn’t strive to be one. Perhaps Calvino left off the final topic because he knew that the natural variety within each of us is far greater than any consistency imposed from without. Or he just forgot.

Mystery Review: The Madness of Crowds

Taking it’s name from Charles Mackay’s classic study of crowd psychology, Extraordinary Popular Delusions & the Madness of Crowds, Louise Penny’s most recent mystery takes us back to Three Pines and Chief Inspector Armand Gamache as he first protects a controversial statistician and then must investigate a murder following her visit.

Abigail Robinson is a visiting Professor of Statistics ready to give a lecture at a nearby university. However, her talk is cut short by gun fire. Why? One reason is certainly the content of Robinson’s lecture: forced euthanasia for the infirm and the elderly. One thing a worldwide pandemic proved, at least in Robinson’s eyes, was that the death of the sick and aged saved the country of Canada a lot of money. What if the nation took the tragedy as a model of public health moving forward? What if unavoidable death became mandatory? The slogan that gave so many hope during the pandemic, ça va bien aller, all shall be well, soon becomes a sinister mantra. If we kill all who aren’t well, then all who remain shall be well.

Inspector Gamache, his second-in-command Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and their team soon uncover an intricate web of deceit, torture, and murder, and it seems that half of Three Pines is involved or at least knows a small piece of the puzzle.

While both engaging and timely (the spurious correlations made by Robinson are some of the very same we’ve heard about the pandemic in general), the plot does tend toward the overly complex at times. I have often wondered if contemporary mysteries have a convolution problem, as if the only way contemporary mystery writers can create an unsolvable crime is to add rope after rope, coil after coil, until they have a proverbial Gordian knot. I won’t give away the resolution of The Madness of Crowds, but suffice it to say, it requires a lot of people to be guilty of a lot of tangentially related things. Rather than an elegant reveal and a motive we should’ve seen from the beginning, we end with Gamache untying a number of threads I wasn’t sure should’ve been tied together in the first place. I had the right suspect fairly early on, but the motive took a lot of uncovering to understand.

That being said, I enjoy Gamache and the folks of Three Pines, and Penny did provide a good meditation on our times. One thing the pandemic has proved, to me at least, is that the pro-life movement continues to struggle toward consistency. With this mystery, Penny offers an interesting take on the concept.

Buy it on Amazon

On Publishing Stories

I received my first print publication of a short story last month—six months after my debut novel came out. Read “The Opening of a New Spy Novel by an Author You Love” online at Calliope on the Web. Fans of post-modernism, especially the work of Italo Calvino, will find much to enjoy.

I was always told to focus on the short form before venturing into writing a novel. However, the short story has frequently eluded me. While novels and feature films feel intuitive, with their large and climactic narrative arcs, their dynamic and wide-open characters, short stories have felt less straight-forward. Where should one start a story? Where should one end it?

I recently read an Oulipo piece, “How to Tell a Story,” by Jacques Bens. In it, a writer character named Matthew fails to teach a class of college students the art of story telling. Afterward, he wanders around Paris contemplating what he should’ve said and as he does so, he concocts an “example” story, featuring a young and beautiful barrel organist. At the end of his wandering, the organist, now flesh and blood, visits him in his office, telling him, the author, that the hero of his story now wants to marry her, which seems a bit fast. Then she adds, “I must be missing an element somewhere.” Matthew responds, “Yes, something is missing, that much is clear. But where? And what?”

I often feel just as Matthew does after finishing writing my own stories, and even more often after reading those of the greats. While some of my favorites wrote primarily short stories—Amy Hempel, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Barthelme among them—I invariably turn to a guide of some sort, be it critics or the authors themselves. Whereas with novels I almost never do. I read it. I comprehend it. I move on. Even when I do turn to a guide for the purposes of teaching a novel, the guide does not suddenly reveal the meaning I missed. Usually, it merely helps me form the right question or locate the proper page number. What is left out of the story is almost always included in the novel. Why is this? I do not know.

Some things I’ve found helpful over the years are the writing exercises in 3AM Epiphany, George Saunders’ wonderful analysis of Russian stories, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, and a recent series of instructional videos from Reedsy, entitled “Short Fiction Deep Dive.” I hope these help you in your own journey and that they save you some of the time I spent puzzling and shaking my head.