On Writing and Books

Even though I’m a writer, I’m a dismal reader. I don’t seem to have a good attention span beyond the first 3 pages. If I’m not lured in by then, the book is returned. Certain books I’ve read up to 10 times – “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “Catch 22”, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”, “The Catcher in the Rye”, and “Generation Kill.” While researching my novel, yet to be finished, I took on a book that is a true story. I was bored, sitting in my hotel room, and to get some exercise, I walked into town to a used bookstore and picked up an autographed copy by Terri Clifton and her son, Chad. Called “A Random Soldier: In His Own Words” I immediately knew that Terri’s son was dead. So, I figured it would be an easy read. However, it wasn’t. The middle of the book was filled with family photographs of Chad at various ages in his life, as well as him in uniform as a Marine boot. A boot is what a new recruit is called before he graduates boot camp. I learned so much reading this book, mainly about the history of the Marines, and military language. But, quick read it wasn’t. It took me a full year to finish, so afraid I was to read about Chad’s time served in Iraq, and his ensuing death. This kid was literally born to die a Marine. Holed up in another hotel room in Scotland, I cried my eyes out at the end because of Chad’s stoicism at how he looked at death, how unafraid he was of dying, and at what a waste, through America losing its war on terror, the some 3,000 young men and women’s deaths seem to have become.

I read “Generation Kill” in two days flat, then bought the DVDs on Amazon for $4.00. Slowly, ideas for a novel written by me came together. A soldier returning home from war. PTSD? Denial of PTSD. I interviewed a 24 year old Marine Lt. who had wanted to become a lifer, had served two 7 month yours of duty in Iraq between 2007-2009, when IEDs were on every road, desert and under bridges, who’d seen his best friend burn to death in a Humvee because new locks installed in the vehicles prevented not only enemies from getting in, but also American soldiers from escaping. Made a sniper because of his excellent marksmanship, this former soldier, having hailed from MT, had been shooting since he was 11. Lured to stay in the Marines with cold hard cash for another four years, this Marine, however, turned down the offer because he didn’t like the new recruits arriving in Afghanistan. He didn’t trust them like he had other members of Charley Company, his unit who’d had his back as he had theirs , the entire time he’d been in combat. These recruits were the bottom of a barrel. Some had jail records. They lacked high school degrees. They were former gang members who wanted to kill kill kill for the fun of it. And yet, once out of the military, this Marine signed up for college to, in the long run, study bomb making. Ironic.

More research. Through the “New Yorker”‘ I began reading articles on PTSD and experimental treatments used on soldiers where conventual medicine no longer helped. Used to going on 7 month long patrols, soldiers bought mixtures of uppers, downers and sleeping meds through the black market, thereby becoming addicts, and once back from patrols, were forced to withdraw all at once, cold turkey, from anxiety meds, anti depressants, Ambien, NyQuil, Dilaudid in order to return to normal society. In Iraq there was no time. Sand for miles around, and suicide bombers who appeared out of nowhere. Other wars were just as bad: mustard gas in WWI, Normandy and Brittany due to erroneous information, where young recruits died by the thousands before the age of 20. But after this war, indoctrination didn’t help. The VA hospital system was a joke. Patients had to wait years for an appointment. Suicide for pain, for headaches, sleeplessness, for fear, for no appetite seemed the easy way out. Kids would be better off without a dad at all, rather than one with no legs. Esctasy, while using private military patients as guinea pigs, worked better than anything prescribed or unprescribed, for desperate, stressed out, suicidal ex soldiers.

Not a big TV fan, I however did get hooked on reality TV, which for a while ruined reading for me. I’m a reality tv junkie. My faves are “House Hunting”, “Below Deck”, all the Housewives shows, ” Don’t Be Tardy”, “The Little Couple”, “Teen Mom” and every single medical trauma show I could find. As far as TV OnDemand goes, movies too are culprits. Dog sitting all summer, I caught up on “Nurse Jackie”, “Shameless”, “Bloodline”, “Peaky Blinders”, and “Girls”.

Have you ever read a book where you felt as close to the characters as though they were your own family? Writers must like their characters in the process of developing them. Even if I wrote about someone like Ted Bundy, in some perverted way he’d have to turn me on to get every nuance about him across to the reader. It’s when you get bored with your characters that your writings are shoved in a drawer. In “We Were Liars”, the main character and I related. She was constantly thinking, her thoughts and actions more descriptive than her lack of conversation with her mom and grandparents. Being a New England vacationer myself, I instantly felt a connection through place – sand and unrelenting sun, fog, sudden cold breezes, pounding thunderstorms, rough seas.

And then there were the headaches. I knew she’d nearly drowned after diving into water and concussing her head on a rock, but how bad were they that her wealthy parents couldn’t find a cure? I squirmed in my seat as agitated as the kids when family meetings turned into “wants”, “needs”, jealousies rearing their ugly heads until static coated the room. I couldn’t understand why the narrator agreed to go to France one summer, the only one of the cousins to do so. Some families are close, finishing sentences for the other, while some are aloof, as though it’s as much a mystery to them how they became related in the first place. I kept delaying the end of the book, putting it down, picking it up, but always aware of the return date so I wouldn’t have to wait in the borrowing que. The ending, or at least how the plot twisted, left me hanging, speechless, instantly mourning for what a minute ago I’d known nothing about. I hadn’t caught on. How I could have missed it, I’m a writer, after all. The last page in the book and re-reading the first chapter didn’t help me figure out how I couldn’t have guessed the ending.

This is my favorite kind of book to read. No straight forward pyramid shaped plot. About dysfunctional families, skeletons in the closets, but not so much a Pat Conroy “my father beat me for his sins” kind of book. I love writing about families, different personalities, how one child can be so different, yet want the same thing as the other. “We Were Liars” is a tongue in cheek title for this book, and like my stories, with their spiking pyramids, true life events interwoven in fiction, and sudden endings, this book resonated for months with me so that I wish I’d written it.

Take “What Alice Forgot” by Liane Moriarity. An Aussie by birth, her books are wildly popular in Australia and England. As a manic tennis player, I could immediately understand Alice’s addiction to sports, to the high that exercise lends one that can last all day. So for me…er, Alice, to take a dive off her spin cycle and end up with not only a concussion but amnesia, I easily pictured myself in the same boat. Amnesia, written about in the correct way, is funny. I can’t blame my forgetfulness on amnesia or dementia, or Alzheimers, but I certainly do forget a lot of things. Lose my keys in my house. Drop an earring at an ATM machine, never to be found again. I use stress as an excuse,but reading on, meeting Alice’s family members, and finally when she discovered she was in the midst of a divorce, she has a more plausible reason for the mess in her life. In this book, we started in the middle of Alice’s present life, moved forward, went backwards, and at the very end, utilized her history to bring the story to a close.

Another book about another Alice, “Still Alice” by Lisa Genovese, is an excellent but sad story about a Harvard professor who is struck by early onset Alzheimers in her early 50s. Lisa’s books are very well researched so that you can quote the plot if you’re ever at an Alzheimer’s convention. Did I wonder if I suffer from Alzheimer’s? Yes. So far, I am legally sane. Except in my dreams, lol.

Another Genovese wonder is her new book called ” Inside the O’Brien’s”. I loved every second of the book, despite the heady tragedy unfolding in each chapter. Joe O’Brien is a steel willed beat cop in Charlestown, Boston by day, and some evenings, but at home, he is a proud dad of five kids. Living life to its fullest with the chaos of family life and the true love he feels for his work partner, strange body movements that befall Joe every so often are easy to ignore. Until his temper spikes and he falls down on the job while directing traffic. From there the book goes quickly as he is diagnosed with Huntington’s Korea, an incurable HEREDITARY disease that destroys muscles and the one by one, family members decide to get tested.

Jodi Picoult, one of my favorite writers of all time, also writes about diseases, incorporating them into plot via characters, young adult age. Although as an adult I am glued to her books, they are catalogued in the YA sections of libraries. She touches on heart disease, cancer, Asperger’s Syndrome, and life support, among a few.

More than 12 books have been written by Elizabeth Berg, who held a career as a cancer nurse before turning to writing full time. My favorite one of her books is “Range of Motion,” where an icicle falls from a city high rise and hits a young husband and father in the head, thereby plunging him into several months’ coma. The possibility of this occurring to anyone is about 100 to 1, and yet it did happen in real life, as Jodi and Elizabeth use real incidents from the news to turn them into “what if” fiction.

I’ve read all the Candice Bushnell series but liked “Lipstick Jungle” the best. It’s a book you can leave and come back to repeatedly, never losing plot or names of characters during your absence. I enjoy pretending I know those wealthy pretentious residents of New York. And their nannies. As well as the nursery admissions directors’ minds from having myself worked at a prestigious private school in Maryland.

I plunged myself into the Civil War with “Never Home” by Laird Hunt. I was disappointed. To me, it was just a story, nothing special. Trick ending, done before. Read the most recent Lolly Winston, “Happiness Sold Separately.” She isn’t a Donna Tartt but Lolly Winston allows tired eyes to absorb her stories simply and refreshingly. Speaking of Donna Tartt, all her books are too long. I wanted to remove the snake charmer from “The Little Friend” because it really wasn’t needed in the story. Most people stopped there and threw the book away. “The Secret History” was the most boring time I’ve read besides Moby Dick. And, “The Goldfinch” was just not plausible. To live with a father in the middle of nowhere and have just one friend, whose drug abuse borders on addiction? Enough, already Donna! Was “The Goldfinch” autobiographical? You can’t help but wonder.

And then there are the books I still want to finish, but haven’t.

“Oogie” about a severely abused Pit Bull who is given a second change at life by being a rescue dog.

“The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” lured me in because of its cover. Lesson to me – don’t judge a book by its cover!

“Wife 22”

“One Good Dog”, similar theme.

“Witness in Our Time, Vol. 2”

“Sparta” about a soldier returned from war – it was like reading my already crafted novel with the same first three chapters. How overwhelmed the young man was, how every surprise sound made him hit the deck, how easy it was to reach for the faucet, how cold water could get. Good God, it had taken me three months of writing every night to create those chapters, and yet it was already in print!

“Primates of Park Avenue”, great title for the haves versus the have nots of NYC.

Oh, so many to list!

But I’m not just sitting around. In July, I won Honorable Mention for the novel I’m writing in the Houston House Writer’s Contest. I’d forgotten I’d entered that competition, so it was a real surprise I’d won. Right now, sitting on my computer are three stories for other contests. But Honorable Mention, to me, is so much better than First Prize. At least now I know that my novel is good, just needs more work. “The Help” was sent out 69 times before Kathryn Stockton got a bite. J.K. Rawlings books were considered too scary for young children. And, one of my closest friend’s brother wrote 3 novels that never got any recognition from anyone other than his own siblings.


5 thoughts on “On Writing and Books”

  1. I couldn’t get through “Catch 22” – even though I sat through a presentation by Joseph Heller at the NYC New School in 1969. Did you ever finish it?


  2. Good one, Merrie! Thanks for the new book list. I’ve read several of these, but you’ve given me lots of fodder for our book clubs.


  3. keep going girl friend. Perhaps observing people would be more to your liking than reading. People are interesting & odd in many ways.


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