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Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Greek Epics & Bitch-Slaps: The Importance of Mentoring by Lev Butts

In Homer's The Odyssey, Odysseus' son, Telemachus, is kind of a wuss-boy. His mom is beset on all sides by suitors who want to force her to marry since her old man is still MIA from the Trojan War. Literally, everyone else who wasn't killed in the war has long since come home and begun sleeping around on their wives, concubines, and girlfriends with their best friends' wives, concubines, and girlfriends. These suitors aren't exactly putting their best feet forward either. They're all eating up everything in sight, raping the serving wenches (because nothing says, "I love you, Penelope" like a well-raped servant), and even making fun of Telemachus for not doing anything to stop them from this behavior.

    Admittedly, the reason for Telemachus' timidity isn't exactly a mystery.
Things would have continued in this manner until Penelope was forced to marry and Telemachus was either exiled or dead of dehydration from his seemingly never-ending tears (seriously, the kid cries more than Norman Bates in Bates Motel) if not for one of Odysseus' oldest friends (well, Athena disguised as one of Odysseus's oldest friends) who essentially bitch-slaps Telemachus, tells him to get over himself, and sets him on his way to find his dad and put all the kingdom to rights.

So effective is this friend (well, Athena disguised as this friend), that his name, Mentor, has come to stand for any trusted friend who provides guidance, advice, and often a well-deserved bitch-slap in order to spur one on and encourage him/her to do what needs to be done.

If you have been a regular reader of this blog, you probably already know about how I came to meet Richard Monaco, one of the authors I read voraciously as a teenager. If not, here is an abbreviated version:

Monaco is the author of over a dozen books, most famously, the Parsival series (the first and third of which were finalists for their respective years' Pulitzer Prize).

Also, no other New Yorker can rock a cowboy hat
like Monaco rocks a cowboy hat.
I first came to know of him when I stumbled across his first novel, Parsival or a Knight's Tale on the shelves of what was then Atlanta's best used bookstore, Oxford Books.

Look for it only in dead web links,
for it is no more than a dream remembered:
a bookstore gone with the wind.
Being a fan of Arthurian literature, I snatched the book up, flipped through it, found there were two more in the series, and bought them, too.

Who wouldn't buy these beauties?
I read these and immediately began tracking down his other books. Unto the Beast, a novel that combines Hitler and the search for the Spear of Destiny, is probably my next favorite Monaco novel. Years later, I discovered a fourth Parsival novel, and even today, in the age of the internet and ebay, I find myself stumbling over books of his that I haven't yet seen.

When I began working on my Arthurian Western, I decided to re-read the Parsival novels and went online in search of good reading copies since I had first edition hardbacks and didn't relish taking them to work with me. During my search, I kept running across references to a fifth Parsival book but could find nowhere to purchase it.

On a whim, I decided to ask the author personally. I looked for Richard Monaco on Facebook, found three pages, and sent a private message to each of them. One of the Richard Monacos wrote back and informed me that he had indeed written a fifth book, but he had not published it. He sent me a copy of the manuscript to read, and since that day, I have been proud and a little awed to count Richard Monaco as one of my closest and dearest friends.

He has also been one of the best writing mentors a person could ask for.

We don't often think of writers as having mentors. Most people envision the solitary author alone in his garret room plucking away at his typewriter into the wee hours of the night alone and forgotten by all until his masterpiece is published.

"Typewriter my ass! I'd be happy with fresh ink." 
The truth is, though, that writers need mentors as much as anyone. Admittedly, writing is a fairly solitary endeavor; however, there are very clear benefits to both having a mentor and being one.

1. Like any mentor, a writing mentor provides valuable guidance and advice.

Understanding the weaknesses of your manuscript is an all-important aspect of writing, so having readers who can comment on the effectiveness of your writing before publication is all-important. A good reader can often tell you where your story bogs down, where you need to expand on action, and where you go off on seeming tangents with the narrative.

However, a good reader is not always a good writer. A writing mentor will not only show you where your writing is weak, but he or she will be more likely to offer suggestions on how to fix the problems as well.

Me and Monaco
When I was editing the stories for Emily's Stitches: The Confessions of Thomas Calloway and Other Stories, Richard not only showed me where the manuscript had problems, he gave me good advice on fixing them. He suggested, for example, "Misdirection" might work better in present tense. It did.

As I wrote the first volume of Guns of the Waste Land, he suggested the split point-of-view technique he used in the Parsival books might work just as well for mine. It did.

This does not mean, however, that one needs to follow every piece of advice a writing mentor suggests. At the end of the day, your work is yours. If you feel that your mentor's suggestions (or anyone's, for that matter) will either interfere with your future plans for the piece, or will simply not work as well as what you have, you must rely on your own feelings.

2. There is an important relationship between your writing mentor and a good bitch-slap.

Many people believe that a mentor's primary job is to provide the aforementioned feedback and advice. A good mentor does more than this, though. Equally important (if not even a little more) is the mentor's habit of lighting a fire under you to get working.

My mentor can bitch-slap with a kitana, though,
so there's that.
By nature, I am fairly lazy and lack ambition. It is sometimes hard for me to wind myself up to do the job I'm paid for. I will do almost anything to avoid grading papers, for example. Naps are good. When that doesn't work, household chores. Anything to keep from grading the papers.

As much as I like writing, it is often as hard to make myself sit down at the computer as it is to make myself grade. So much so, that I have come to realize that I don't really like writing, but I adore having written.

When I have written well, there is very little that feels as good. I just wish I didn't have to write in order to have written. This is where my mentor comes in.

At least once a week, I get an email or facebook message from Richard in which among all the other pleasantries friends share, he asks me what I've written recently. If there's nothing to report, he reminds me that I should try to write at least something every day. Even if it's crap that needs to be scrapped the next time.

When we talk on the phone about his latest projects (I am in the process of editing a collection of his poetry, and he is working on two new novels, Zulu Samurai, a sequel to Dead Blossoms: The Third Geisha, and the first part of a planned trilogy based on an unfinished novel of his from the 1990's), he always asks about my work again. Therefore, I try to write at least something every week, not because I want to write (I'd much rather watch a movie, read a book, or floss my teeth), but because I don't want to disappoint him.

3. The Mentor relationship is symbiotic.

Ideally your mentor will get just as much out of the relationship as you do. Just as he or she will encourage you, you should be encouraging as well. Ideally, your mentor will also be more productive because of the mentoring act.

In fact, in many ways, you may find yourself in a mentoring capacity for your mentor. Just as Richard has helped me refine my writing, I feel that I have helped him with his own writing endeavors. If not for his encouragement, I know I would not have had the confidence to publish Emily's Stitches. Similarly, if not for my encouragement, I do not think he would have published the fifth Parsival book or Dead Blossoms.

Recently I asked Monaco what he thinks the benefits of mentoring are.

"Anything resembling teaching puts you in danger of being a bit of a fart," he replied. "But then, the reverse holds, too. Mentoring forces you to stay fresh and on topic and to avoid farthood. Every time I think I know something, how it all works, that's just when to start from scratch."

My wife tells me that Richard and I feed off each other, that she can see it when we talk on the phone or during our all-too-infrequent visits to him in Manhattan. She says there's a glint in both our eyes when we talk, and she can tell that no matter what our actual topic of conversation is, we are both using the other's company to generate ideas and mentally draft our next story.

She also says that she sees something else when Richard and I are conspiring: a genuine, heartfelt love for each other. And she is absolutely correct.

Today, April 23, is Richard's birthday. Richard, I'd like to take this forum to thank you for answering my email a few years ago and for the intervening years of encouragement. As a teenager, traveling around with Parsival in my backpack every day, I never would have dreamed that not only would I one day get to meet you, but that you would be such a great friend and play such an instrumental role in publishing my own work.

Happy birthday, Richard. Here's to many, many more!

Richard and I signing our books together at a reading NYC last summer

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Don't Step on the Cracks! Musing on the Mystic by Pauline Chandler

If you’re allergic to astrology, fortune-telling and Tarot cards, look away now, because I'm about to muse on such mystic activities fascinate millions of us.  Who are these people who claim to ‘know’, to be able to 'see what lies beyond’?  Are they all charlatans? Or just needy people who claim ESP to make them stand out in the crowd? 
Part of me wants to believe it's possible to see 'beyond the veil', to foretell the future and find out what's in store. Another part says I'm a gullible fool, with too much imagination for my own good!  Aint that the truth!  Especially on a dark night in an empty house...wooo.hoooo...

Is any of it true? My dear old mum thought so.

Mum was the most superstitious person I’ve ever known. Every day there was something else to beware of.  ‘Never pick up a dropped knife’. You get a present if someone else does it for you. ‘Put your knickers on inside out?’ You’ll get a surprise! And not just with pants but with any garment. ‘Don’t leave knives crossed or scissors open’. You’ll cut a friendship. ‘Never give anyone a purse, without putting a coin inside’. You're handing over bad luck if you don’t.


Bad luck. Good luck. Did you buy a lottery ticket this week? Read your horoscope?  I’m a Sagittarius, which means I’m sporty, cheerful and friendly, but also impulsive,  rash and sometimes tactless, with a tendency to blurt out exactly what I’m thinking. It’s a fair summary, except for the sporty bit!  But I don’t really ‘believe’ it, do I, that the position of the stars at the time of birth of every single individual on earth affects their personality and behaviour?  Whaat? That’s barmy. Ridiculous. 

And yet. 

A writing group I once belonged to, invited a mystic to lead us on a vision quest with the hope of finding our animal spirit guides, which seemed a fun idea at the time. On a chilly Saturday morning, we sat in a circle in the village hall, watching the mystic prepare by first cleansing the room of negative influences. This involved laying crystals here and there, with quite a lot of hand waving and muttering, which was vaguely alarming, but nothing to frighten the horses.

The quest proper started when we closed our eyes and were asked to imagine ourselves standing outside a cave on a distant hillside. To the sound of the mystic’s soft-spoken voice, we entered the cave, then, after meditation in the dark, emerged on the opposite side of the hill, overlooking a beautiful sunlit view. At this point an animal spirit guide would appear. Oh yes, I thought, of course it will. Ha ha. 
from - author Peter Barr

 So there I was, imagining myself on this hill, looking over the beautiful sunlit view of a familiar Derbyshire valley, and I must say, all was quiet and peaceful, and very restful, as I mentally filled in the detail. The Oker oak, shaped like a Roman helmet, sitting on top of its mound. Steam puffing up from the steam railway in the valley bottom. The mystic had stopped speaking and I was wondering if I should start the ‘walking down the hill’ bit, when, out of the blue, there was a stag.

He stood quite near to me, having silently emerged from some young trees to my right. I was shocked. Amazed. Entranced. There was no time to ask questions, as the stag turned to lead me down the hillside, and, dear reader, I followed. And that’s that, really. To my utter astonishment, I’d found my guide.

There was a bit more to the ‘quest’, with a funny bit at the end, where, after our animal guide had left us, we were supposed to meet a man at the end of the path and offer our souls to him, at which point I rather spoilt things by rearing up large and refusing to comply.

Afterwards, over a nice cup of tea, the mystic asked us to recount our experiences. When I mentioned my stag she said I must have strong Celtic leanings, which was tremendous news, as I’d always fancied myself as a Celt.

By Silar (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Did the vision quest help me in any way? I think it did. It’s nice to feel ‘chosen’ and to have a ‘guide’.  But what if the stag was only a figment of my imagination? Does it matter ? I’m not sure that it does. All I can say for sure, it was completely unexpected. Either something came to me from outside, or something bubbled up from my subconscious. Whichever it was, it was reassuring. And, by golly, I’m not complaining. Writers need all the reassurance they can get. It’s a lonely path we tread.

On my desk, next to my computer monitor, is a small wooden cross. I’m a Christian but a non-practising one. I love the message and the liturgy, but not the evangelism and the politics. Next to the cross is a silver stag, representing my Celtic guide. I see no disparity. At the heart of the beliefs they represent is the same thing, something positive and lovely. 

I’m happy not to ’know’. I distrust ‘certainty’ and anyone who claims to ‘know what lies beyond’.  I’ll just carry on travelling hopefully, reading my horoscope for fun,  and, yes, Mum, I’ll try not to step on the cracks.

My fascination with the mystic side of life finds its way into my books.

In ‘Viking Girl’, Beren sees a fox, her father’s spirit guide, which helps her solve the mystery of his death.

In ‘The Mark of Edain’, the heroine, Aoife, is a Celtic princess, daughter of the Druid, Bevan. She has the ability to communicate with animals and can ‘see’ through the eyes of Bala, the emperor’s war elephant, visions which help her to save Bala’s life. 
 Both books are now available as ebooks on Kindle. Good luck with your projects! 

Pauline Chandler


Sunday, 20 April 2014

Wildwood by Jan Needle reviewed by Sandra Horn

Wildwood by Jan Needle

Clearly, it is time to set aside my prejudice against sequels, prequels and add-ons to beloved books, written by someone other than the original author. The one noble exception (so far) was Jean Rhys’s brilliant Wide Sargasso Sea, which I didn’t realize was the prequel to Jane Eyre at first, anyway. I’m still not going to contemplate Death Comes to Pemberley, so there, but  I loved this take on The Wind in the Willows. The clever, good-humoured writing allows the painless re-casting of dear old Ratty, Mole and Badger as privileged idlers, totally unaware of the privations of the oppressed Wildwooders. There are shades of Akenfield here, and the peasants’ revolt, but softened by the sprightly pace of the story and the anthropomorphic setting. I was suddenly chilled at one point by its relevance to here and now, however. 
Kenneth Grahame drew a merciless picture of the thoughtless, obnoxious Toad, and he’s no different in Jan Needle’s account of him, but Grahame’s fearsome stoats, weasels and ferrets of the Wildwood are depicted here with empathy for their struggles to survive in an uncaring world. They mobilise, they are full of revolutionary fervour, they plan the grand coup…but in the end, things are much as they were; albeit slightly better for some.
 There are wonderful touches of laugh-out-loud humour – the rabble-rousing stoat Boddington is ‘peculiarly yellow, a little lacking in body, extremely bitter, but one of the best.’  Toad’s fine wines include Visage de Poisson; Schloss Katzenjammer is a German beer. It is delightful, tongue-in-cheek stuff and the Willie Rushton illustrations complement it perfectly.  If your spirits need lifting, this is the book for you. If you’re already uplifted, read it anyway – it’s a gem.