Friday, August 22, 2014

Entry # 224 - Interview with Sue Collins & Nancy Taylor Robson - Authors of OK - Now What? A Caregiver's Guide to What Matters

Sue Collins, R.N. and Nancy Taylor Robson’s new nonfiction book, OK Now What? A Caregiver’s Guide To What Matters   is dedicated to friends, family, loved ones and caregivers past, present and future. This book asks – What matters most when someone close to you has been diagnosed as terminal? The authors explore ways people can address the all-important time and quality of life issues for the caregiver and the loved ones while coping with the practical and emotional questions of this challenging passage.
Jan:    Sue, what led you to become a hospice nurse and to continue in that role for 29 years?
Sue:    I was working at a Nursing Home when they started one of the first hospice programs in Baltimore in the early 80′s. I did not transfer to hospice initially but I noticed the colleagues who did begin to change. I wanted to know what was happening on the fourth floor. There was something different about them, they seemed very content, happy and enthused. Once I made the decision to work in hospice in 1985 I never looked back. It is very gratifying to help people with the difficulties, the decisions and validate their choices. They may not have a complete understanding about what lies ahead but they have a better understanding which makes this work satisfying knowing I was able to make a difference in their lives
Jan:   Nancy, as the author of three other books on a variety of topics, what led you to become a co-author on this book with Sue Collins?
Nancy:     I’m also a gardener, which gives you annual proof of the cycle of life, the fact that life here is finite. That is one of the things that makes it all so precious. But it’s also what can be so discouraging and begs the question: If it’s all going to be gone sometime, what’s the point?
I get discouraged like everyone else, but also firmly believe that there is something beyond this life. Hospice nurses usually do as well. Sue and I immediately discovered we were on the same page spiritually, so the idea of writing about how to walk that last piece here – difficult though it may be at times — as well and as gracefully as possible clicked between us. We each came to the project with different but complementary skill sets, which also helped.
Jan: And tell readers about the title and the significance of the red bicycle.
Nancy:  A bike implies transition and forward motion, but it doesn’t move on its own. We need to get on and pedal; it’s up to us to use our energies, our intent to keep it (and ourselves) going. The effort builds muscles, both physical and emotional, and takes us out into the world.
Sue:  About half way through writing the book, I became restless about a book cover and title. One night I had a dream about a bike. Excited I called Nancy. I love cool colors so I saw a teal ( my favorite color) bike. Nancy, who enjoys the warm colors, said No it’s red! Immediately I knew she was right, red felt right. I called a hospice friend and colleague, a word smith, and we had fun and got a little silly ( because it helps cope) putting the title together.
Jan: What parts of the book have readers found to be most useful?
Nancy:   I’ve had several people say to me that the explanation of what is ‘normal’ physically as the body is slowly shutting down is very helpful, but that they most appreciated was hearing others’ stories that are interspersed in the book. One reader said it was like having a non-judgmental friend hold her hand through the whole process.
Sue:  The stories. I believe it is easier to read stories then it is to read about death and dying in clinical terms. Stories are real and people can relate.
Jan: OK Now What?  presents a straightforward account of the difficult personal reality for caregivers and families of terminally ill people.   How do you, Sue, as a hospice nurse and you, Nancy as someone who has been a caregiver for a loved one, see attitudes in the medical community changing in both the public and private response to death and dying?
Nancy:    I’m not very much in touch with the medical community, though I do go to doctors, two of whom are friends. In my experience they like many others wrestle with how to approach this topic effectively yet kindly and practically.
Sue:   Some doctors don’t want their patients to feel they have abandoned them with the reality of a disease progression. And the American Society generally wants to make sure every possible treatment has been tried no matter how much things have spread. It often can be a struggle for both the doctor and the patient. The trend I am noticing, people seemed more informed, perhaps because of the internet, which results in honest conversations, and that is a good thing.
Jan: What do you see as critical mistakes families often make initially in addressing a terminally ill person? And how can they avoid these mistakes?
Nancy:   Not getting their paperwork in order in time. It’s crucial. And not that difficult.
Sue:   Not having straight forwarded discussions about what the dying want, what is happening and how to approach care. Some folks still want to avoid ‘talking about it’. I was very fortunate enough to have a colleague teach me early on to use the words, dying and death in my conversations with families. “Don’t sugar coat it! she said” I always encourage families to do the same and they do just fine.
Jan: It seems to me that often people use denial or repression and false hope in dealing with the pending loss of a loved one.
What do you see as the long-term effects of this approach?
Nancy:   You miss the opportunity to sit with the person and kind of recap that life with them. When we could see that my mother-in-law was slowly declining, I stop trying to have discussions with her about politics or books and instead asked her questions about what her childhood had been like, things that she had never talked about, at least with me, that gave me something of an insight into who she was. She was more animated when she talked about some of that stuff. Even if you try to do this and don’t get that kind of response, at least you’ve made the effort, so you don’t end up saying: Gosh, I WISH I had asked how he felt about being the youngest kid in high school or what it was like to lose your mom so early, or whatever.
Sue:    Putting off does not stop what is coming. Unfortunately, I have witnessed the regret felt when the dying person’s decline has brought them to a unresponsive state. It can be painful for the families because any opportunity is lost….except we assume they can hear us even if they can’t respond which is somewhat helpful…..but “it’s not the same.”
Jan: How did writing this book help you both deal with trauma and provide catharsis?
Nancy:    I actually found parts of this book very difficult to write because they were so specific, both the physical and mental decline that you are often witnessing. The pain of losing someone you love and the struggle to do it with grace and without recrimination for whatever slights or mistakes you feel you suffered at their hands, or conversely whatever parts of that relationship you depend on and will sorely miss is a constant spiritual journey. But at the same time, the stories of those who have managed this and the flashes of grace and glimmers of hope that you get kept me writing. And rewriting!
Sue:   It certainly is not something you get use to, each situation is different and each loss is different. Again, the stories help put emotions into perspective. Stories of courage and the generosity of families to stand behind the dying person choices is inspiring. I find myself wanting to share the stories in hopes that the reader may finds some comfort. Meeting weekly to discuss a piece of writing made us laugh, cry, feel frustrated, empathic, sorry but always energized to move forward. I enjoyed this writing process and learned a lot.
Jan: What do you hope readers learn from reading this book?
Nancy:    I hope that foremost that it will act as the friend who is always there to hold your hand even when you can’t get anyone on the phone, or maybe don’t want to confide in someone else what you’re going through at that moment. But I also know that the clinical details that Sue has laid out here are a great help and encouragement – -for example, the chapter on drugs, which was very thoroughly vetted by a geriatric specialist, are really helpful in easing someone’s mind about what a huge help drugs, when properly prescribed and administered, can be to quality of life in these situations.
Sue:    I hope they learn to relax a bit and not walk around acting glum and sad 24/7. I hope they learn to share some laughter and joy, the dying want that too.
Jan: I was pleased to see a resource section in this book that addressed dealing with young children on death and dying issues, but I was also quite surprised to see a section devoted to recipes? Tell readers about these sections.
Nancy:    One of our editors suggested I add them and when I thought it over, it made sense. This was specifically for the harried caregiver, who often neglects him or herself in these situations. I used to write a food column called Sunday Cooking, which is what I did when my children were in school. I cooked several things on Sunday (and included them so they both learned to cook), and we ate well all week. So few people these days either cook, or even know how to cook easy, wholesome meals, yet quality food/nutrition is key to our health, especially when you’re stressed. I wanted to offer some easy, strategies for healthy meals.
Sue:    This was Nancy’s inspiration. The readers have been pleasantly surprised to see the recipes and are grateful.
Jan: What advice about writing have you both found helpful and what advice have you chosen to ignore?
Nancy:    I’ve been writing professionally for a long time. The big thing I learned early on is: Distill, which means hone your work as you would the edge of a knife – carefully, mindfully and with an eye to its ultimate use. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines for years, and it teaches you to get to the point and to write for your audience. You work really hard to convey whatever you’re writing about clearly, gracefully, and as engagingly as possible in the space allotted. No one’s got time or patience to wade through purely self-indulgent prose.
Sue:    Nurses are taught to write in disjointed statements with the threat of a lawyer looking over your shoulder. The first piece I sent Nancy I wrote and re-wrote, woke up in the middle of several nights to change a sentence or paragraph, it was bit daunting. But when Nancy said it was ‘not bad’ I slept great that night. Meeting weekly to discuss a piece of writing made us laugh, cry, feel frustrated, empathetic, sorry yet always energized to move forward. I enjoyed this writing process and learned a lot. And I discovered what is meant by the book wrote itself. When we were struggling with a piece a situation always presented itself and guided us….I loved it.
Jan: In case I’ve missed something essential: What question(s) do you wish I had asked? Ask it here and add your response.
Nancy:   Who is this book for? Anyone who is going to be primary caregiver or in some way associate with someone you care about who is walking that last mile. It will help you understand better what you might see, how you might help and how not to trip over your own emotions and flaws any more than necessary!
Sue: I totally agree with Nancy
Jan: Thanks for the interview, Sue Collins and Nancy Robson. Everyone will face the tough issues addressed by this book. It is not a question of – IF -  RATHER -  it is a question of WHEN. How can readers obtain a copy of this essential book, contact you to speak, or find out more about you both?
Nancy:   Thanks so much for such terrific, thought-provoking questions and for this opportunity, Jan!
Sue:    A BIG thanks to you Jan for this interview. I enjoyed the questions.
To obtain a copy of the book, contact us to speak or find out more about us, visit our website…oknowwhat.net

This entry was posted by Jan Bowman on Friday, August 22, 2014.
Filed under: Book Reviews, DELMARVA Writers
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About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.  Jan's stories have been finalists for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, 2013 finalists in the Phoebe Fiction Contest, 2012 "So To Speak" Fiction Contest.
Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com






Friday, August 1, 2014

Entry # 223 - "Bad-Ass Dudes" in Fiction

Bad-Ass Dude - Iguana - BUT YOU KNOW - He can't read.
Writing fiction requires writers to explore parts of what Charles Baxter in The Art of Subtext, has called, "the problem of the unknowable," especially as we think about characters. Baxter ponders whether "it makes any sense to reason from what we do know to what we don't know?" 

I thought about this recently in the context of story revisions that involve a not very Bad-Ass Dude (BAD) character in one of my stories after a writer friend read one of my almost done (I thought) stories and said something to the effect, "Jan, you need more Bad-Ass Dudes (BADs) in your fiction. Even the bad people are too sympathetically drawn. It's almost like you want to understand what makes them behave badly and forgive them." All of which has led me to think a bit about what I know and don't know about Bad-Ass Dudes (BADs) and the truth is, I really don't know much. So, what is a BAD and what does one look like?

Maybe BAD - Maybe NOT
In fact, I am not sure what characteristics a BAD would have. I would imagine a range of possibility. I have been lucky that I haven't lived a star-crossed life littered with BADs. Even my flawed first (training-wheels) husband at his worst, was more of a SAD than a BAD. I see and recognize people who are flawed and who carry a burden of unresolved emotional and physical pain. I see people who seem driven by ignorance, greed, shame, hatred and fear, yes - especially fear.

Most of the truly terrible, and what appears to be evil in the world, I see from a distance in the media coverage of events. But we survive by developing a filtering system to limit the toxic levels of continuous exposure to the unthinkable and unknowable that bombard our senses and sensitivity 24-7. And if we are going to survive in our world, we have to tune some of it out. The media seems too skewed for me to see the complex layers of what causes people to be unkind, mean, cruel, and careless. But I am left to consider the question of cause and effect, on a more personal level, because the BADs seem to be demonstrating the visible, writhing consequences of pain and ignorance more than anything else.

My early years of academic work in cognitive psychology, and my years teaching, provide the prism through which I view the world, and while I recognize that there are psychopaths and sociopaths roaming the earth, I don't feel skilled at capturing them on the page. I am not sure that I even would want to capture them on the page. It doesn't seem true to the kind of fiction I write, and for me this seems to be the stuff of bad, reoccurring dreams. So I am left with the problem of exploring the unknowable in my fictional BADs.

And yet, while I admire work by skilled and successful writers such as:  Patricia Highsmith, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen King, Lorrie Moore, John Cheever and many others, who demonstrate the subtle ways to present carefully drawn Bad-Ass Dudes, I realize that I do need to know more as I attempt to fully develop my fictional characters.

NOTE:   MONDAY LAUNCH - August 4, 2014 of my newly redesigned website. Thanks to Angela Render for her brilliant assistance. Training Lessons are planned over the next couple of weeks as I learn how to "drive" this new site.
Also - all next week - I'll be California Dreaming - with family time scheduled.
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Not So BAD - Jan - in Scotland - Once Again
About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.

A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest.  Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com  
Facebook:  janbowman.77@facebook.com

 




Friday, July 25, 2014

Entry # 222 - "The Roses"


Sometimes on summer afternoons my thoughts turn to poetry. Although I see myself as a writer of mostly fiction and a bit of nonfiction, reading poems gives me insights into linguistic effects possible in fiction. This morning I reread Mary Oliver's wonderful poetry collection: American Primitive and all afternoon I hear her words as music - almost as a new language - when I look about me at the ordinary things of a summer day. For example, her short poem, The Roses is running though my head as I look at the ravages of summer heat and Japanese beetles on my roses.

Even ruins have a particular beauty. Here is the poem.

The Roses

One day in summer
when everything
has already been more than enough
the wild beds start
exploding open along the berm
of the sea; day after day
the honey keeps on coming
in the red cups and the bees
like amber drops roll
in the petals: there is no end,
believe me! to the inventions of summer,
to the happiness your  body
is willing to bear.

Writing Days often benefit from Reading Days. This seems especially true on days when I must deconstruct and revise a new piece of work in the second or third draft stages.
About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers. 
A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest.  Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com  (note: homepage under revision right now) so visit blog: http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com

Friday, July 18, 2014

Entry # 221 - Interview with Jeanne N. Ketley, Author of Happy Homes: A Consumer's Guide to Maryland Condo and HOA Law & Best Practices for Homeowners and Boards


Background: 
After retiring from the National Institute of Health (NIH), where she worked as a Scientist and Administrator, Jeanne N. Ketley, PhD, joined Maryland Homeowners' Association in August 2004. She served as president of the MHA for the past five years. MHA is a consumer advocacy group dedicated to promoting the rights of unit owners and homeowner associations. She has been chairperson of the MHA Legislative Action Committee and editor of the MHA E-Communicator.

Jan:   What inspired you to write Happy Homes?

Jeanne:   The need for such a book became apparent to me from my volunteer work with the Maryland Homeowners’ Association (MHA.) After I retired from NIH, I joined MHA when I realized that MHA was the only group in Maryland that provided answers to both Condo and HOA owners and board member questions and complaints.  As Vice-President and then President of MHA, I answered telephoned and e-mail questions from both homeowners and boards and I came to realize that many in both groups had no idea of what it means to live in a common ownership community.
 
Jan:   Some of the terms used in the laws of MD and most states are rather daunting to read and understand. For example what is an HOA and a Condo Association?  

Jeanne:   Although both are common ownership communities, your ownership of your home is very different in an HOA (homeowners association) versus a Condo (condominium association). In an HOA you own your lot and home and the HOA association owns common property such as green space or a shared swimming pool. In a Condo, you as a unit owner, own and have use of the space within the walls of your unit, and the condominium association owns the building itself.

Jan:   What percentage of MD residents live in these shared communities?

Jeanne:   Since most HOAs and Condos are not registered with Maryland, it is hard to get an exact answer to this question but it is estimated that approximately 20% of Marylanders live in these communities. Estimates from Community Associations Institute (CAI) data from January 2011 suggested that more than a million Marylanders are owners in Common Ownership Communities. 

Jan:   How did your volunteer work with MHA and your earlier career as an NIH scientist, researcher and administrator prepare you to write this book?

Jeanne:   My work with MHA gave me an idea of the problems that can arise when one doesn’t understand both the nature of shared communities and the laws that regulate these communities. My background as a scientist gave me the patience for doing tedious research into Maryland law.

Jan:   Who would benefit from buying and reading Happy Homes?

Jeanne:   Anyone who owns or rents property in a Maryland HOA or Condo should read Happy Homes. For most of us, our home is our most important investment. We all need to make sure that association managers, lawyers and boards are dealing straight with us. Certainly, since the legal responsibility for the management of an association falls on the Board of Directors, every board member should read and refer to it.

Jan:   How can people in other states benefit from reading Happy Homes?

Jeanne:   Many state laws in this area are the same and certainly the “best practices” for living in a shared ownership community are identical. The topic headings address problems commonly encountered by people living in these communities and most often cause misunderstandings. I believe Happy Homes can help HOA and Condo owners in other states understand how to best navigate their state laws.

Jan:   What did you discover during the process of writing Happy Homes?

Jeanne:   I discovered it’s really hard to write a book. And I learned what writers mean when they talk about writers block.  For example: I must know dozens of examples of each issue mentioned in the book from people writing into MHA, and yet I spent endless hours staring at my computer unable dredge one up. My solution? I would go on to another section and then remember a case that proved a suitable example. Also since I am scientist by training, I tended to approach my writing like a scientist and put the evidence first and then identify problem and solutions, but that gets in the way of writing a readable, user-friendly book.  So I had to rethink my writing approach.  I also arranged for very fine editorial help, secure in the knowledge that while I don't think of myself as a natural writer, my editors would polish the glitches.

Jan:   I would have thought people serving on boards would know all of this. Why do you think there is such a gap between what people know and what they need to know?  

Jeanne:   Board members are volunteers with real lives and they don’t have the time to take courses on how to be a board member. However, because board members are responsible for millions of dollars worth of property, I believe most of them want to help their communities and do a good job. And  I’m hopeful that an easy to read book like Happy Homes will make their job easier.

Jan:   And yet, the laws of most states continue to change. Will regular updates be available and how can people find out about changes in Maryland laws?

Jeanne:   I plan to put yearly legislative updates up on my web site, www.jeanneketley.com as well as update the book every few years. I’m very excited the Kindle version of Happy Homes is now available at a bargain price of $4.99 and is accessible to more people.    ((http://www.amazon.com/Happy-Homes-Consumers-Practices-Homeowners-ebook/dp/B00LR37PZ2/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1405348791&sr=1-1&keywords=Happy+Homes)

The neat thing is that the e-book version has live links in the Contents page to each section, and if you are connected to the Internet, live links to the web sites of the organizations referred to in the Resources section.

Jan:   Thanks for taking the time for this interview.  Full disclosure - you are my spouse.  But I must say, The Resources section, as well as the Best Practices Appendices for Hiring a Management Company and Hiring an Attorney give essential information to Maryland HOA and Condo Boards. Please provide links and information for readers who need to buy a copy of Happy Homes, either for themselves or their boards.


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About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.

A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest.  Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com  (note: homepage under revision right now) so visit blog: http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com







Friday, July 11, 2014

Entry # 220 - Tom Glenn Talks about his New Novel, No-Accounts


Tom Glenn
Tom Glenn has worked as an undercover agent, a musician, a linguist (seven languages), a cryptologist, a government executive, a federal budgeteer, a care-giver for the dying, and, always, a writer. Many of his prize-winning stories came from the thirteen years he spent shuttling between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert assignment. Nearly all his writing is, in one way or another, about fathers and children (he has four) and is haunted by his five years of work with AIDS patients (all gay, all died), two years of helping the homeless, and seven years of caring for the dying in the hospice system. His stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, Potpourri, The Baltimore Review, and Antietam Review among many others. His work has been nominated for a Pushcart Award and a Baltimore ArtScape Literary award and won the Hackney Literary Award. Four of his novels have won Maryland Writers Association awards, including the grand prize in 2004 and first prize for literary/mainstream in 2010. His web site is http://tom-tells-tales.org

Tom Glenn's new novel, No-Accounts published by Apprentice House of Baltimore describes the bonds that develop between a straight man (Martin) who acts as a caregiver, and a gay man (Peter) who is dying from AIDS. Set in the 1980s, before the hope of antiretroviral drugs, the novel explores the complex nature of love and redemption.

Jan:  Although No-Accounts is described as a novel, I wondered why you chose to write it as a novel rather than as a memoir since you experienced, firsthand, the inner world of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s when you worked as a volunteer caregiver, a role that you've cast as Martin?

Tom: First of all, I’m a novelist by trade. That is, I’m an artist rather than a journalist. Second, I chose fiction as the way to convey the story because it allows me the freedom to order events and place them in locales that strict adherence to the facts wouldn’t permit. And I can express what’s going through the minds of the characters—internal monologues—in ways that would be dishonest in straight reporting. I see my job as moving the reader and allowing her to understand rather than to convey information. That said, nothing in No-Accounts is invented. It all really happened. I fictionalized the events to protect real people involved.

Jan:   What led you to volunteer as a caregiver, an AIDS buddy, when so many people were shunning people with AIDS?

Tom: When the AIDS epidemic started in the early 1980s, no one knew how the HIV virus was transmitted. As a result, nearly everyone, including doctors, nurses, and medical technicians, was terrified of being in contact with gay men infected with AIDS. A few men actually died on the street because no one would rent to them or come near them, let alone touch them. I watched what was happening and couldn’t tolerate it. So I told my wife I wanted to volunteer to help people suffering from AIDS. Because we didn’t know how AIDS was transmitted, there was an unknown likelihood that I’d contract the disease. If I did, then she would, too, simply because she lived with me. She agreed to take the risk, and I signed up at Whitman-Walker to be a caregiver to AIDS patients.

Jan:   And tell us about the title.

Tom: “No-accounts” is a southern term for a worthless person. Early in the story, Peter, the young man dying of AIDS, tells his caregiver, Martin, about his mother’s use of the term and says that he, Peter, is worthless and therefore a no-account. He tells Martin that he’s a no-account, too. Otherwise he wouldn’t be wasting his time taking care of “a fag dying of AIDS.” The sub-title, “Dare Mighty Things,” comes from a Teddy Roosevelt quote talking about the need to take on heroic missions, even though checkered by defeat. Peter as a teenager found that quote in his father’s study and concluded that he was a poor spirit incapable of daring mighty things and that his father, consequently, didn’t love him. By the end of the book, Peter has taken on mighty things.

Jan:  No-Accounts presents a straightforward account of the terrible personal reality of the medical and social issues in the public and private response to AIDS. What do you see as critical governmental, medical and social mistakes made initially in addressing the AIDS epidemic?

Tom: Our mistakes came from bias. We as a society were so condemning of homosexuality that we were, frankly, willing to stand by and let gay men die of the “gay plague.” The more religious among us declared that the disease was God’s punishment for unnatural and sinful acts. As it gradually became obvious that AIDS wasn’t a gay disease, that attitude changed. In the beginning, I shared, albeit unconsciously, that bias. But as the only straight volunteer at the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, D.C. caring for men dying of AIDS, I discovered that the gay men working by my side were willing to risk their lives to help others. The only other place I had seen such bravery was in combat. My bias dissolved.

Jan:  Previously you’ve written about the Vietnam War, in particular the long-term impact of traumatic events on the “self.” That is difficult to write about, whether witnessed or experienced. It seems to me that most people manage to survive by denial or repression. How does writing help you deal with trauma and catharsis?

Tom: Soldiers who seek to survive their unbearable memories by denial or repression only make their trauma worse, especially as they grow older. That intensifies nightmares, flashbacks, irrational rage, and panic attacks. We now know that the indelible experiences must be faced, and we must find ways to come to terms with them. Writing down what happened forces me to remember and own my responsibility for the unspeakable things that happened. That allows me to channel my despair into my writing, not into my living.

Jan:   What do you see as some differences and similarities between an individual traumatized by war versus disease?

Tom: The similarities are far greater than the differences. After Vietnam, I used writing and public speaking to make peace with the awful stuff that was in my head. After five years of taking care of AIDS patients and another seven years working with dying people in a hospice, the very same symptoms were coming back. The deaths I faced, particularly in the AIDS epidemic, were sometimes pretty grisly. Those memories, like the ones from combat, never fade or weaken. They must be faced and owned. Fiction helps in a way nonfiction can’t. It has allowed me to tell the stories of what I wanted to do to act out my rages rather than actually doing it.

Jan:   If you could go back in time now, knowing what you know, what do you think Martin would want to say to Peter?

Tom: Nothing he didn’t say in No-Accounts. Two reasons for that: First, I wanted to show how Martin learned and grew, just as I had. I let him make the same mistakes I did. Second, I spent fifteen years writing No-Accounts. It went through three different critique groups and twenty-one drafts. By the time I was finished, I knew I had said what I wanted to say. That hasn’t changed since.

Jan:  What do you hope readers learn and experience from reading No-Accounts?

Tom: Two things really. The first is how gruesome AIDS is. We as a society romanticize. I wanted to put the unvarnished truth before the reader, just as I have done in my writing about war. Second, I wanted to chronicle the profound love that comes when two men face death together. It happens in combat, and it happened during the AIDS crisis. The bond that people form when death is imminent are the strongest love I’ve ever witnessed.

Jan:  Readers have commented on the straightforward and yet lyrical style of your writing. I wondered to what degree do you think your love of opera and musical training has affected your writing style?

Tom: In the broadest sense, the same aesthetic rules apply to music and writing. In music, simplicity, economy, directness, and proportion are the hallmarks of greatness. Put differently, it’s all form and content with a minimum or even an absence of showiness. Writing uses a different medium, but the rules are the same. One way to express that in writerly terms is the old acronym KISS, that is, keep it simple, stupid. Another is show, don’t tell. In both arts, the purpose is to transport the listener or reader so that one forgets that he is listening to music or is so wrapped up in the story that she forgets she’s reading. In Bach and Mozart, there is not a single unnecessary note; in Shakespeare not a single extra word.

Jan:   Finally, what advice about writing have you found helpful and what advice have you chosen to ignore?

Tom: First, only write about what moves you to the core. Second, hone the craft. Both are life-long endeavors. Least useful to me have been admonitions about being disciplined—write every day, set goals for how many pages you’ll write, work from an outline. I have to write, so I don’t need to harness myself. What works best for me is to unleash my subconscious so that it is as if I’m watching a scene and writing down what I see as fast as I can. At the best of times, that means I write for fourteen hours straight. Only later do I bring orderliness to bear. In sum, my sense is that if one is inspired by a subject or story, the discipline will take care of itself. That of course assumes that one has perfected writing craftsmanship to the point that it is second nature and all but unconscious.

Jan:   Thanks for the interview, Tom. How can readers obtain a copy of your book, and contact you to speak?

Tom:  No-Accounts is on sale at Amazon.com, BN.com. and Powell’s Books on line and in many independent bookshops. As for speaking, I do readings from my books, a presentation on fiction craftsmanship, and another on healing through writing. But my most popular presentation by far is “Bitter Memories: The Fall of Saigon.” I was stranded in Saigon doing undercover intelligence when the North Vietnamese captured the city at the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. I escaped by helicopter under fire when the North Vietnamese were in the streets of the city. Since the information about my work was declassified, I’ve given the fall of Saigon presentation more than thirty times. You can email me at tomglenn3@comcast.net. My four web sites are http://tom-tells-tales.org; http://vietnam-tragedy.org; http://friendly-casualties.org; and http://no-accounts.com

Thanks for the interview, Jan. I’m grateful for the opportunity.

Tom Glenn is the author of a new novel, "No-Accounts" (Apprentice House of Baltimore), drawn from his years of caring for AIDS patients and ministering to the dying in the hospice system.He is also the author of a Vietnam novel-in-stories, "Friendly Casualties," and 16 published short stories, many of which came from the 13 years he shuttled between the U.S. and Vietnam on covert intelligence assignments before being evacuated under fire when Saigon fell.These days, Tom writes reviews for The Washington Independent Review of Books, for which he specializes in Vietnam and war books. 

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About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.

A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest.  Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com  (note: homepage under revision right now) so visit blog: http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com



Friday, July 4, 2014

Entry # 219 "The Phoenix Effect in Revision"

Recently I revised a story and the process required the surgical removal of a character I particularly liked, and as a result, I needed to remove three scenes and find another way to get into the heart of the story. Although I hoped to avoid this painful process, the reality of what was needed would not let me rest, until I had altered the focus of the story. I believe the story is stronger as a result.  I still dream about the earlier story, but a Phoenix has risen from the ashes of that earlier story and I am truly humbled by this process.

I often wait - although not as patiently as I should – to revise and to leave room for those acts of the spirit that carry a story into a stronger version of itself.
In Ursula K. Le Guin’s wonderful essay, “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” Le Guin said:    
“Writers have to get used to launching something beautiful and watching it crash and burn. They also have to learn when to let go control, when the work takes off on its own and flies, farther than they had ever planned or imagined, to places they didn’t know they knew. All writers must leave room for acts of the spirit. But they also have to work hard and carefully, and wait patiently, to deserve them.” 
I call this “The Phoenix Effect” because out of the ruins of a story under revision, a newer version rises from the ashes and it grows beyond anything I might have anticipated initially.  But it’s hard – for me as a writer – to let go and trust that something stronger and better will rise from those earlier, well-formed scenes and characters.  Cutting scenes and characters I’ve labored over and come to love is part of the hardest work in my writer’s day. 
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About Jan Bowman
Winner of the 2011 Roanoke Review Fiction Award, Jan's stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes, Best American Short Stories, and a Pen/O’Henry award.  Glimmer Train named a recent story as Honorable Mention in the November 2012 Short Story Awards for New Writers.

A recent story was a finalist for the 2013 Broad River Review RASH Award for Fiction, another story was a 2013 finalist in the Phoebe Fiction Contest; another was a 2012 finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest.  Jan’s fiction has appeared in numerous publications including, Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, The Broadkill Review, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes and others.   She is working on two collections of short stories while shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection, Mermaids & Other Stories.  She has nonfiction publications in Atticus Review, Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at: www.janbowmanwriter.com  (note: homepage under revision right now) so visit blog: http://janbowmanwriter.blogspot.com