Tragedy Transformed: the Writing Life Part 3

B. Aline Blanchard is a writer, sculptor, and visual artist based in Sarasota, Florida. We discussed writing for a presentation to the Kanaya Book Club. This is the conclusion of that Q&A.

Detective stories generally follow a formula. How does being an independent publisher allow you to deviate from that formula?

I don’t follow a formula, but there are general principles that apply to both commercial and independent crime fiction. Start with the end in mind and work toward it. Give your characters challenges but don’t make them insurmountable. Provide subplots that are more personal than professional. And if you raise a question, try to answer it.

The process of setting up an independent publishing company and marketing a book is quite complex. You have now published nearly a dozen books under the imprint of Allusion Books. How does the cover design impact sales?

The goal is to make an independently published book indistinguishable from a commercially published one. That means engaging professionals to edit, proofread, and design the interior and the exterior of the book. As long as the cover looks professional, I don’t know that it affects sales as much as reader reviews.

Your newest book, Distant Early Warning, is based on a flood that took place in 1955. Were you living there at that time?

Yes, but I was too young to know what adults did and why. Unfortunately, I never asked my parents about their experience. I was able to talk to neighbors and share experiences through social media. Memoirs from that period provided more hands-on experience.

Did you interview people to see how it changed their lives?

Every few years, the local newspaper published a special section about the flood. I was assigned to interview a woman whose family had survived by climbing into the attic of their house. The water rose quickly and trapped them. There were no windows, no way to escape. The woman read the Bible and prayed. On the trip back to the office, I passed the creek that had taken so many lives and had the unnerving sensation that the flood could happen again, at that very moment. That story has haunted me for decades.

How much research did you do to write this book?

Path of Hurricane Diane as it hit North Carolina

I spent six months reading books about the DEW Line and the 1950s in general. That included government publications about building a fallout shelter and surviving an atomic attack. I watched the movies and television shows young Wil Andersen would have watched to gain more insight into the culture. I watched and read with an eye toward placing myself in the position of the characters who not only coped with the flood but dealt with the challenges of the culture, from clothing and appliances to geography and weather. That even included charting the position of the stars on one fateful night.

Your descriptions of the flood and its devastation brought goose bumps. How did you put yourself into so many characters’ lives?

I interviewed as many people as I could about their lives during and after the flood. I also read personal accounts posted by several Facebook groups. Their stories inspired me to dig deeper into the experience.

The conflict, man against nature, is particularly potent with all the floods we’ve had recently.

Those of us who live in Florida expect major storms. The idea that back-to-back hurricanes could devastate the Northeast is sobering. It’s an object lesson for all of us.

Research for the crime fiction is ongoing. For Distant Early Warning, I spend a good six months reading about the 1950s and watching dozens of movies and television programs from the era. Research into the Flood of ’55 was especially intense, given that my parents had lived through that natural disaster.

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

The shadow of an aircraft passes over the Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line, which runs 3,600 miles from Alaska across Northern Canada to Greenland.

Living the Story: the Writing Life Part 2

B. Aline Blanchard is a writer, sculptor, and visual artist based in Sarasota, Florida. We discussed writing for a presentation to the Kanaya Book Club. This is part two of that Q&A.

As a reporter/photographer early on in your career, did you come across many female detectives?

I didn’t meet female officers until I got to Florida. As a journalist, I did have several years on the police beat, and the ear of a very helpful state police commander who helped flesh out the character of Walter Bishop in the CW McCoy novels.

What made you choose the case of the scheming investor in Peak Season?

I was reading the saga of Aubrey Lee Price, who boarded a ferry in Key West, stripped, and dove into the water. The disappearance initially was ruled a suicide. He was declared dead, but not before allegedly stealing millions from investors. Reading this I thought, in this day and age of surveillance, how could anyone disappear? And if he knew his actions were wrong—he penned a rambling confession to his family before vanishing—how could he justify his actions? CW discovers the unfortunate answer in the first book.

Why did you change some of the Sarasota landmarks?

When asked the same question about Santa Barbara, Sue Grafton said she wanted the flexibility to move buildings and streets. For people who are not familiar with Sarasota, I wanted to simplify the landscape. I also didn’t want readers to confuse the corrupt officials in the novels with the people who actually occupy those offices, many of whom helped me to research the books.

Besides being a writer, you are also a musician and a photographer. How did these experiences give authenticity to your writing?

Born Under a Bad Sign is the best example of how a profession can bring nuance and authority to a work. Quinn’s knowledge of music and his obsession with playing Woodstock come directly from my work as a guitarist. Elizabeth’s drive to become a photographer arose from my experience and that of the photographers who mentored me.

Did you also live on the farm you depicted in Born Under a Bad Sign?

I grew up next to a farm owned by our bus driver. He used to let the neighborhood kids swim in the cow ponds in summer and ice skate in winter. Much later, when we built our first house, we became friends with the couple who owned it.

Did your work at an advertising agency give you the material to write Mr. Magic?

Yes, a decade in advertising gave me a mixed view of public relations and marketing, just as my years as a journalist provided the material for Mr. Mayhem, the first of the Brinker books.

How much research do you do for each book?

Research for the crime fiction is ongoing. For Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War, I spend a good six months reading about the 1950s and watching dozens of movies and television programs from the era. Research into the Flood of ’55 was especially intense, given that my parents had lived through that natural disaster.

Next: Transforming tragedy

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

Becoming Someone Else: the Writing Life Part 1

B. Aline Blanchard is a writer, sculptor, and visual artist based in Sarasota, Florida. We discussed writing for a presentation to the Kanaya Book Club. This is part one of that Q&A.

How did you get started writing detective stories?

B. Aline Blanchard

I took a class where we had to turn a short story into a news article and an article into a short story. For a journalist, the first part was easy. The second gave me pause. I finally chose an article about Aubrey Lee Price, a Florida Ponzi-schemer hunted by the FBI. He became the inspiration for the character of Bobby Lee Darby in Peak Season, the first novel (of five) in the CW McCoy series of crime novels.

I understand you researched the police work by riding with the police. Which came first , the research or the idea?

The ride-alongs happened about the same time I was writing the first of the McCoy books. As a way of exploring this new place to which we’d just moved, I took a number of classes, including Sarasota County’s Civics 101 to learn about government and a pair of courses to study police procedures—the Sarasota Police Department’s Citizens Academy and the Sarasota Sheriff’s Citizens Law Enforcement Academy (CLEA) program.

How did riding with officers and deputies change your conception of police work?

The ride-along is the final session of the SPD’s Citizens Academy. I saw firsthand the danger and the boredom the officers face. Initially, I wrote a blog post after every class. But after the ride-along, I decided to bundle the posts into a slim volume that tries to encompass some of what lies between those two poles. The result was Riding with the Blues. (Thanks to the SPD for providing the cover art.)

What made you choose a female narrator?

I’d been reading Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series as well as several other novels with wise-cracking, hard-drinking tough-guys at the center. Unfortunately, that kind of character has become a trope of crime fiction. I was fascinated with how women writers—Grafton, Paretsky, Crusie, and Evanovich—transformed that cliché. I wanted to create a well-round character who was both brazen and domestic, someone who took risks but put family first. After talking to a female chief of police about her difficulties in getting recognized and promoted, I realized that in CW McCoy I had a character who could explore that terrain.

Was your detective based on an actual person?

As with many of my characters, CW is not based a single person but a combination of several from whom I’ve borrowed physical attributes, mannerisms, and patterns of speech.

How did you authenticate the female point of view?

For years, I’ve been friends with a pair of real estate agents in Pennsylvania. They were kind enough to let me hang out in their office and observe the nuances of the job. As luck would have it, in buying our house in Sarasota, my wife and I became friends with another pair of agents. They’ve been invaluable in providing operational and personal detail about life as a female agent. For issues that transcend real estate, several women in my writer’s group provide insight and advice. And my wife reads every manuscript for accuracy and consistency.

Next: The mystique of female detectives

Jeff Widmer’s latest book is Distant Early Warning, a novel of the Cold War.

The band with kaleidoscope eyes

Fifty-three years ago, a group of high school kids calling themselves Shagg performed as the warmup band for the bubblegum hit machine The Ohio Express. What a contrast in musical styles, and whiplash for the audience, who’d come to hear the Top 40 classic “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and got Hendrix, Cream, and The Who. (“Yummy” hit No. 4 on the U.S. charts in April 1968. Although we eyed fortune and fame, our band never had a hit, or a recording contract. As Kurt Vonnegut would say, So it goes.)

The date was Saturday, June 22, 1968, the venue the Hullabaloo Club in Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, a pole building off a four-lane highway that looked like a World War II bivouac and felt the size of an aircraft hanger. Concrete floor, metal walls. I doubt anyone heard anything except a wall of noise. It certainly sounded that way from the stage.

Shagg’s original lineup consisted of Chip Decker on bass, Bob Dittman on rhythm guitar, John McAllister on drums, and me on lead guitar. The band expanded with the addition of Joey Raynock on keyboards, Gene Gorse on the Hammond B-3, and Ron Oney and Don Chase on vocals.

I wrote about that and other formative experiences of our generation in FINDING WOODSTOCK, which you can find at Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and other fine retailers.

As for the poster, yes, it is the original, on neon cardboard, with additional styling by Chip, the artist in the band. He added the flowers, the smoke streaming from the locomotive, and a girl with kaleidoscope eyes (it was the Sixties). Oh, yes, and the most important element that was missing from the original: our name.

Defeating ‘the American Plague’

Yellow fever doesn’t have the cachet of the Black Death or the Asian flu, but the mosquito-borne disease nicknamed “the American Plague” has tormented the world for centuries.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the virus causes 200,000 cases and 30,000 deaths each year, and not just in the tropics. The disease first struck New York City in 1668, followed by at least 25 major outbreaks in the Americas, including an 1878 epidemic in the Mississippi River Valley that killed 20,000 people.

There is a vaccine, developed after the opening of the Panama Canal in 1912 by scientists throughout the world. However, historically it needed to be freeze-dried, a process prone to mechanical issues until it was refined in the early 1950s by National Drug in the small hamlet of Swiftwater, Pennsylvania.

You can read the story of this and other vaccine innovations in The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought to revolutionize healthcare in America.

An outbreak of innovation

The Spanish flu outbreak of 1918 wasn’t the first pandemic to sweep America.

In the late 1800s, smallpox ravaged the nation. In New York City, the mid-century death rate from the disease hit 21.9 people per 100,000. In nearby Pennsylvania, by 1900 the disease had killed thousands.

There was a vaccine. And it worked. Some of the time. And there were side-effects.

The solution? A cross-cultural effort that combined French ingenuity with American innovation.

You can read the full story in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater, a chronicle of the pioneers of immunization who fought the odds to revolutionize healthcare in America.

 

 

When history repeats itself

It’s wonderful when readers are touched by something I’ve written. As Carla-Donna has given me permission, I thought I’d share her review of my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater: 100 Years at the Pocono Labs. It chronicles the history of vaccines in the 20th century, through the stories of people who helped to eradicate smallpox, among others diseases. Here’s Carla’s history, and her take on the book.
“I just purchased The Spirit of Swiftwater. The reason being, I was wondering if they were going to start work on a vaccine for the COVID-19 virus. When I looked them up, somehow I was introduced to your book. Long story short, I grew up in Stroudsburg, my home town, and had once applied for a job at Swiftwater during my college years at East Stroudsburg State College. Our friend, Pete Gerard, made it his career working there. It was nice to see his name in the book.
“My name is Carla-Donna (Holmgren) Martin. My father, Donald Holmgren, had a store in Stroudsburg, Donald’s Family Shoes, for many years.
“As it turned out, I became a registered medical technologist and retired from working 40 years in the hospital laboratory at Lancaster General Hospital, Lancaster, PA. My husband and I live in Lititz now and still visit Stroudsburg several times a year.
“Kudos to you for this very informative work on the Swiftwater Lab. Doc Slee was a household name growing up and this book was enlightening on his family and wonderful achievements and the ups and downs of the lab’s growth.
“In light of what we as a nation and the world are going through right now, hopefully a vaccine will be forthcoming from Swiftwater!”

The vaccine-hunters

The novel coronavirus is sweeping the world. How does a vaccine-maker meet that challenge?

More than a hundred years ago, Dr. Richard Slee faced a similar situation with another virulent disease–smallpox. His fight provides a window into that process, and a cause for hope.

First, some background on one of the unsung pioneers of medicine. (His story appears in detail in my first book, The Spirit of Swiftwater.) Slee was born in 1867, a golden age of American expansion. He became a physician and went to work for the surgeon general of the Army, later the United States, a forward thinker who was concerned about the spread of smallpox. Pandemics in sixteenth-century Mexico killed 3.5 million people and accounted for nearly 9% of all deaths in nineteenth-century England. By the late 1800s, similar outbreaks were ravaging major cities in the United States.

The irony was, Americans had access to a vaccine. It just had some serious side effects, and that generated a public backlash. The French, on the other hand, had developed a safer version. The surgeon general wanted to manufacture it in the United States, and sent Slee to France to learn the secret.

Slee returned with a glowing report. Not only was the French formula more efficient, it had fewer side effects. As a bonus, it offered a longer shelf life, essential to any medicine that isn’t immediately used.

The surgeon general was so impressed, he encouraged Slee to build his own facility to manufacture the vaccine.

The rest, as they say, is history.

 

Gardner’s Ghosts

On a warm Tuesday in September of 1982, I received a letter from the novelist John Gardner about a collection of my short stories he’d been gracious enough to critique. That evening, as I sat in the newsroom editing copy, the city editor swiveled his computer monitor and said, “You should read this.”

Gardner had died that day, the 14th, in a motorcycle accident. The description in the story that had moved over the wire read like something from his novels. It didn’t make sense. I’d just seen him, on my first and only visit to his house in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, standing in his makeshift office, touring his home, speaking to his fiancée. He was a living legend among writers, his novel October Light a bestseller, his newest at the time, Mickelsson’s Ghosts, leading the book review section of the New York Times. Unlike many celebrities, he was approachable, hospitable to emerging writers. And now he was gone.

John Champlin Gardner Jr. was born on July 21, 1933. His death 36 years ago came as a blow. The author of 14 novels and numerous others works, he taught at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the State University of New York’s Binghamton University. All notable achievements, but a CV hardly describes his influence.

Over the course of his career, he evolved from ardent critic to mentor who embraced veterans and novitiates alike. Still, his true north was in storytelling. He eschewed labels, focusing on the ancient art, rewriting epic tales like Beowulf from the monster’s point of view and putting people at the heart of great philosophical debates. He strove to create what he called “a vivid and continuous dream” in the mind of the reader, writing novels with an intensity often reserved for short stories and poetry.

His passion overflowed in his nonfiction, too. Gardner seemed obsessed with the collision of philosophy and culture. He constantly argued against nihilism, a doctrine that claims nothing is knowable and rejects all distinctions in moral value. In his work of criticism, On Moral Fiction, he called for books with “just and compassionate behavior,” art that “establishes models of human action.” It’s likely he deeply identified with Grendel, the monster in Beowulf, who finds itself cast from heaven because it is ugly, comes from a bad family and asks too many questions—possibly a comment on the maligned state of humans, as Gardner’s father was a lay preacher.

While his characters were not always models of behavior, Gardner treated students and aspiring writers with a generosity and grace consistent with his values. I first met him in May of 1982 after he spoke, at the invitation of professor and novelist Fred Misurella, at East Stroudsburg State College, in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania. Gardner looked the part of the Great Writer, sporting a shock of white hair overflowing his forehead and small, wrinkled bags under his eyes. His ubiquitous pipe kept winking out as he talked. He also acted the part. After reading aloud the first page of one of my stories, he invited me to his home in Susquehanna for a longer critique.

* * *

Gardner lived across an open metal bridge on the edge of town, in a farmhouse nestled among the hills the locals call the Endless Mountains, purplish gray and draped with mist like the webs of tent caterpillars. The clapboard house resembled an old train station, with curlicues over the porch. Inside sat Gardner’s son, Joel, a photographer, and Susan Thornton. She and John were to be married that Saturday. A colleague of his handed him a few short stories and a novel for Gardner’s comments. They talked about producing plays in Susquehanna and about a literary magazine on which he was working.

Then it was my turn. Gardner retreated to his study, a spare room with big windows, to concentrate on the story I’d brought. His desk consisted of a door resting on two sawhorses, covered with pipes and stacks of papers. He hunched over the work, making quick notes in pencil. Then he and Susan had to leave, Gardner apologizing repeatedly for offering me so little time.

In the living room, I asked Joel how much of his father’s work was autobiographical. Not much, he said, but then opened the door to the dining room. With its thick beams and sparkling new plaster, it resembled something out of Mickelsson’s Ghosts.

There were other similarities. The main character in that novel, Peter Mickelsson, is a professor at SUNY Binghamton who is battling a failing national reputation and the IRS. He lives in Susquehanna and is going through a divorce. That much mirrored Gardner’s life. But Mickelsson is going mad, his mind enflamed with the ghosts of Martin Luther and Nietzsche, as well as his wife, son, two lovers and a murderous couple who used to live in the farmhouse. Joel smiled at this and said his father invented most of the book.

* * *

John Gardner was born in Batavia, in northwestern New York. His father worked as a dairy farmer, his mother as a high school literature teacher. His first novel sold about a thousand copies, but The Sunlight Dialogues became a bestseller in 1972 and October Light won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1976. He was an academic but not an elitist. Playboy paid top dollar for his short stories. (“Julius Caesar and the Werewolf” appeared in September 1984). He raced motorcycles, survived surgery for cancer of the colon and was married several times. He settled in rural Susquehanna on a 30-acre farm and continued to work.

A gifted writer with a marvelous ear for dialogue, he always wrote interesting books. But with Mickelsson’s Ghosts, he had completed his evolution, merging philosophy with a vital narrative, tempered by a humility that bordered on self-doubt. By the time he got to Susquehanna, he’d turned the ferocious critic into a man who wanted to say good things about others. People believed he was trying to find his place.

That day at his house, he seemed subdued. Seated on the couch, he spoke in a smooth and quiet voice about future projects. As an aside, I said I’d had trouble finding his work in the local bookstore. The novels weren’t filed under the category of “Fiction.” I’d asked the clerk if she carried the author and she led me to the back of the store. We found his books filed under “Literature.”

Gardner listened intently, without expression, then threw back his head and laughed.

What’s my (opening) line?

I was sitting next to NPR science correspondent Christopher Joyce when he challenged the group to recall a favorite first line of a book. His was the opening of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. “Many years later, as he faced a firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”

We went round robin. My contribution was the epic opening of John Mortimer’s introduction to his titular character in “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” a line (it stretches half a page) too long to reproduce here, let alone remember in full at the time.

I hadn’t thought about that conversation until last week, when I came across the short story “The State of Nature” by Camille Bordas in The New Yorker. The story opens with the line, “I slept through the burglary.” Now, who could possibly do that? I thought. It’s a provocative lead, one that introduces the unique voice of a singular character. I read the story in one gulp.

There are many well-known openings, from Moby-Dick (“Call me Ishmael”) to the Tale of Two Cities (“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”) to the oft-parodied line from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night.”

I’m sure you have some favorites, maybe Nabokov’s “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins” or Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Just so.

And then there are the lesser-known kickoffs, the ones that brim with promise, that say, if you keep reading, you shall discover new worlds with a companionable guide.

Here, in no particular order, is a collection of my favorites, a mix of contemporary and classic lines from male and female authors alike:

“Woman’s lying in bed and the bed’s on fire.” Don Winslow, California Fire and Life.

“Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.” Anne Tyler, Back When We Were Grownups.

“I have a meanness inside me, real as an organ.” Gillian Flynn, Dark Places.

“It began, as the greatest of storms do begin, as a mere tremor in the air, a thread of sound so distant and faint, yet so ominous, that the ear that was sharp enough to catch it instantly pricked and shut out present sounds to strain after it again, and interpret the warning.” Ellis Peters, The Sanctuary Sparrow.

“On my forty-ninth birthday, I decided that all of life was hopeless, and I would eat myself to death.” Anne Lamott, Plan B.

“It was a put-up job, and we all knew it by then.” Anna Quindlen, Miller’s Valley.

“The night Vincent was shot he saw it coming.” Elmore Leonard, Glitz.

“This really happened, this story.” Laurie Lynn Drummond, Anything You Say Can and Will be Used Against You.

“I was living with a woman who suddenly began to stink.” T.C. Boyle, “Descent of Man.”

 “Her body moved with the frankness that comes from solitary habits.” Barbara Kingsolver, Prodigal Summer.

“Joe lived, but it wasn’t something he was particularly proud of.” C.J. Box, Open Season.

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.” William Gibson, Neuromancer.

“There are some men who enter a woman’s life and screw it up forever.” Janet Evanovich, One for the Money.

And lastly, my all-time favorite, a slight deviation from the pattern we’ve established here in that the quote needs a second sentence to complete the punchline. It’s from Jennifer Crusie’s breakout novel Tell Me Lies. “One hot August Thursday afternoon, Maddie Faraday reached under the front seat of her husband’s Cadillac and pulled out a pair of black lace underpants. They weren’t hers.”

Now that’s a keeper.

What are you favorite opening lines? Leave a comment here, or on your social medium of choice.