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V I and me on New Year’s Eve

Friday, December 31st, 2010

I spent six hours today, New Year’s Eve, writing and rewriting 600 words. One question I’m often asked is my daily writing quota.  I’d love to write 1500 – 2000 words a day, but it’s often not possible.  Feeling my way into the heads of my characters, getting them to speak as they should, takes time.
In the little scene I wrote today, V I is sitting in the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel

Inside Rockefeller Memorial Chapel

One of her old friends, Leydon Ashford, who suffers from bi-polar disorder, has just fallen from a stone parapets; you can make out on the right side of the photo. The police, the paramedics, and Leydon’s angry brother have all come and gone.  Here’s the text:

The police disappeared, along with the tourists.  I didn’t know where Sewall went.  I sat on the chancel steps, too depleted to think about what I’d witnessed.  I found myself singing the alto line of  Stravinsky’s setting for Psalm 39.

I had been in the chapel choir in my student days.  Leydon never came to the service—she despised church services (“Too many Sundays with Jesus after breakfast and ‘by-Jesus, young lady, do as I say,’ after lunch. The outside of the plate polished so you could see your reflection, the inside full of filth and mire, you know how that goes.”)—but she liked to hear me rehearse.

“That’s  Stravinsky, isn’t it?” A man had joined me on the chancel steps without my noticing.  “Let me know my end and the number of my days. I’ve always found that a particularly troubling verse.  Would you want that knowledge? It’s like reading the Iliad: you want to reach into the text and tell Achilles’ mother to stick his whole foot in the river.  You see the danger and want to avert it but there’s nothing you can do.”

If I’d known twenty-five years ago what the end of Leydon’s days might look like—that launch from the parapet—what would I have done? Tried harder, probably, to change the ending, but the day would still have come when I would have walked away because Leydon’s problems were too difficult for me to handle.

“I’m Henry Knaub, by the way, the chapel dean,” my companion said. “The police called to tell me about that unfortunate woman who fell just now.  It’s like talking to Thetis about Achilles: you can’t.  Sometimes events have a tragic momentum that you’re powerless to halt.”

“It’s not my nature to be so passive,” I said.  “I stood by, literally and figuratively. She was up in the balcony in the middle of one of her endless quarrels with her brother.  I don’t know why I didn’t climb up and pull her away, instead of trying to talk her down.  It was my calling to her that made her decide to try to fly down to me.  The wings of a dove, she said.”

The dean nodded.  “A group of German tourists were still with the police when I got here.  One of them is an American Studies scholar and he said she was quoting from a lot of different sources, the psalms, Puritan sermons, even Joyce.”

“Leydon had—has—an elephantine memory.  Which can make her riffs hard to follow and, hard to take.  I was on her side, always, but I didn’t blame her brother for getting wound up.  I didn’t know she was quoting sermons, or Joyce, for that matter.”

“The Germans say she saw someone laid on a catafalque. Portrait of the Artist; they’re talking about the death of Parnell.” His tone was apologetic, as if he thought I’d be embarrassed at having my ignorance exposed.

“One of the differences between Leydon and me.” I smiled painfully.  “We both read the book as undergraduates but the language stuck in her head and not in mine.”

“Was she delusional? Did she see someone laid out on the communion table here?” the dean asked.

I shook my head.  “She thought her brother had sent someone to spy on her.  And then she thought I had killed the spy for her.  It was all getting extremely—Gordian—in her favorite phrase.”

My cellphone buzzed in my hip pocket.  I pulled it out—incoming from Max Loewenthal.

“Oh, my God!” I got to my feet.  “I’m supposed to be meeting the world’s twenty-first richest person.  Another thing that didn’t stick in my head.”

The dean stood with me.  “The twenty-first richest person? How odd that they can be counted that way, from top down.   I wonder if they know the twenty-first poorest person in the world?”

“I looked up the list this afternoon between meetings.  Five of the top fifty are women.  I don’t know if they could figure out the fifty poorest, but a billion dollars says they’re all female.”

The dean walked me to the west door.  “I’ll be praying for your friend.  And in return, if number twenty-one is feeling charitable, the chapel can always use a billion or two.”

He held out a black leather bag. “I think this might belong to your friend.  I put in everything I could find, but if she’s missing something let me know; our cleaning crew is very good about turning in all the oddments people drop in church.”

Yesterday, when I started work on this passage, V I talked about wanting to stick her hand into the Iliad and get Thetis to put Achilles heel into the river.  Actually, when I was a little girl and first heard the story, I was in anguish–it would have been so simple a problem to fix! Yesterday I had V I thinking it, but overnight, it seemed to me more appropriate for the Dean of the Chapel to mention it.  Yet now, late in the evening, having revised this section for hours, I’m thinking it’s too precious a sentiment, that it doesn’t belong in the book at all. By the time the novel is finished, the dean may have disappeared from the story, as Achilles may have done.  It takes time, a great deal of time, to see how a story sets, to see when the prose is pretentious, when it’s awkward.  Even now, after working this over all day, I’ve had to change some of the text because seeing it up on the blog shows me more infelicities.

Now I’m going to stop changing prose and change myself,  into my black Thierry Mugler evening gown, the one I wore to President Clinton’s first inaugural, and go out with my husband and two of our friends to ring in the New Year.  May 2011 be a year of peace, health and joy for you and all who are dear to you.

My frock looks sort of like this but has long bishop sleeves.

Ho, Ho, Ho

Friday, December 24th, 2010

As this year winds down, I am grateful for much.

Thanks to everyone who comes to this site.   BagLady and Bookwitch and other readers have found new friends here, as have I, too.  BagLady is a Dairy Farmer in Canada and Bookwitch is a transplanted Swede living in England, but neither of them has to camp out at Heathrow or St. Pancras to exchange Christmas greetings.  It makes me happy to think that V I and I helped make this happen.

I’m grateful to my webmistress, Lisa Hazen, who created this beautiful site, and helps keep it running, responding to my cluelessness, whining and other problems with speed and skill–despite having two very active little boys to contend with!

The economy has taken its toll on our family as on others, with one son laid off the day before Thanksgiving and his wife unable to work, but I feel fortunate that I am in a position to help them through this bad time.  Our family situation makes me more aware of the dire straits many find themselves in who don’t have resources to help them through, and I’ve cut back on Christmas shopping to provide more Christmas giving to our local shelters and food pantries.

In the year ending, I experienced the highpoint of my professional career, with the event at the PEN International Congress in Tokyo.

Photo by Teruzou Sugiyama of my presentation in Tokyo

My time with Ms Yamamoto, my translator, was very special, as she hosted an exquisite dinner party in the Ginza, and accompanied me to Kyoto, where she allowed me to lecture at her old university, Doishisha.  Through her I met Professor Usui and other interesting women and came home wishing I had some of their energy, their poise and their skills.

The Mystery Writers of America announced that they are awarding me the Grand Master designation at our annual meeting in New York in April, and I feel very honored to stand in the same company as Dorothy Salisbury Davis, Agatha Christie, and Stephen King.

Our beloved dog Callie is suffering from disabling joint problems, but she still has great energy and liveliness of spirit and my happiest hours are spent playing with her.

I’m thankful for the mundane, for delicious coffee, a good espresso machine, hot water, chocolate, fresh running water.

Above all, I am thankful for my friends far and near–Eve, Laura, Joanna, Jo Anne, Kathy, Isabel, Dorothy D, Dorothy G, Laurie, Jean, Henry, Jolynn, Dash, Mike, Ann, Sue, Sally, Margaret, Margot, Miriam, Karl, Andy,  Yayoi, Natalie, Pamela, William, Rachel, Jonathan, Martha, Vince, Maude, Simone, Louis, Dante, Dominick, Kerry, Liza…I hope this is the year when we see more, not less of each other

Change in Comments Coming

Sunday, December 19th, 2010

During the last month, I’ve started getting hit by 200-plus spams a day, so I’m going to have to set up a comment registration policy.  I’m sorry to inconvenience all the people who visit the site and leave interesting comments, but the registration seems to be the least inconvenient of all the ways we’ve explored to minimize spammers–you register once and then you can post any time you visit the site, as opposed to having to copy a security code every time you submit a post.

Sara, Callie and Bark Magazine

Saturday, December 11th, 2010

I think if you click on this link, you will be able to read  a PDF file of Callie’s and my story in Bark Magazine.  If the link doesn’t work, I’ll see what I can do to load content directly.  In the photo, the wood plaque I’m holding was a Christmas present from my woodworking son Phil.  If you want to order one for yourself, I can put you in touch with him!


Making Coffee, Giving Prizes–and a Dog–What could be more perfect?

Wednesday, December 8th, 2010

The Alberta Clipper has hit Chicago a month early–with temperatures of -3 to +9 forcast for December 13.  So I want to think about lighter things, and just a few that have come along in the last few months.

First of all, thanks to everyone who played the “V I’s Lover” contest.  Our completely arbitrary band of judges awarded the prize of a signed copy of Body Work and a pound of V I (and Sara’s) favorite coffee to Mihael Franich.  We’ll be getting the package off to him ASAP.

Mihael Franich understands the poetry deep inside V I

There were other great answers: Kristen McAlear put in a passionate and wonderful tribute to Jake Thibaut:I have to say I think Jake is the one V.I. should be with. He fits what she’s missing the  most in her life, that touch of refinement and music that she carefully guards when not out facing ‘hard knocks’. As much as the dogs and Mr. Contreras, music has kept her grounded, human and sane. Her other lovers have been as equally reckless or involved in as dangerous of situations as she is, making it difficult to find the balance of who needs to support whom when times get tough.

Rachel Benoit was equally eloquent on Morrell’s behalf:Morrell!  Without a question.  

He is V.I.’s moral equal, and that is saying a lot.  V.I. is willing to sacrifice her time, her body, even her relationships on occasion in the name of what is right.  Morrell shares that moral drive.  His career also takes up a lot of his time and takes him around the world, which not only puts him in a position to be tolerant of V.I.’s own case commitments, but gives them both the space they need as fiercely independent individuals.  In addition to this geographical space, there is also a separation between Morrell and V.I.’s fields of work, so that their projects do not often come into direct conflict (as with Conrad, Murray).

Morrell also shares V.I.’s taste for fine dining and wine if I remember correctly, and gets along well with Lotty & her partner.  He can mix with her closest friends, and that is very important in a relationship.

Murray and Morrell both got several votes from other readers.  Terry Utas put in a vote for my choice, Conrad Rawlings, and Pekka Makkonen put in a word for V I’s first lover, Ralph Devereux: I would like Roger Ferrant from Killing Orders make an reappearance. If that would need Ajax to be part of the plot why not bring Robin Bessinger from Burn Marks to be there too and of course Ralph Devereux could come back for third time (lucky?). And of course Conrad Rawlings and Morrell are the most memorable ones but that’s no reason to pick them as lifetime partners for VI. And where’s Murray? Murray would perhaps be too easy choice, but want to see more of him too at least once more. Perhaps a crime plot involving Murray? And the new guy was ok in Hardball.

Ralph got shot in the left shoulder for doubting V I on Indemnity Only; in the right shoulder for doubting her in Total Recall.  The next time he shows up he may be plugged smack in the middle!

I was on tour from August 6 to November 1 and in the middle of that time, my camera, my cellphone and my cappuccino machine all went on the fritz.  I bought new ones, none of which I can figure out (the Blackberry will not sync with my Mac no matter what I or my consultant try.) But priorities are priorities.  I took one of my brief days at home mid-tour to ask Jeff Batchelder from Intelligentsia coffee in Chicago–where VI and I get our beans, to give me an in-home lesson in how to use my new machine.  Here we are in my cappuccino annex:

Jeff oversees Sara's efforts with the new "Brewtus" brute of a machine

Callie Supervises the Whole Process

Finally, Callie the Wonderdog was featured in the November-December issue of Bark Magazine.  The article about her is only available in the newxstand edition, not online–sorry, folks, because it’s a very fun story.


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December 2010