Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The End We Start From by Megan Hunter


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


We are told not to panic, the most panic-inducing instruction known to man.

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter


Friday, November 17, 2017

Friday Freebie: Mudbound by Hillary Jordan


Congratulations to Barbara Tricario, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the new Penguin Classics edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay.

This week’s contest is for Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. One lucky reader will win a new paperback movie-tie-in edition of the 2008 novel The Washington Post Book World calls “A compelling family tragedy, a confluence of romantic attraction and racial hatred that eventually falls like an avalanche...The last third of the book is downright breathless.” Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


In Hillary Jordan’s prize-winning debut, prejudice takes many forms, both subtle and brutal. It is 1946, and city-bred Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm—a place she finds foreign and frightening. In the midst of the family’s struggles, two young men return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, is everything her husband is not—charming, handsome, and haunted by his memories of combat. Ronsel Jackson, eldest son of the black sharecroppers who live on the McAllan farm, has come home with the shine of a war hero. But no matter his bravery in defense of his country, he is still considered less than a man in the Jim Crow South. It is the unlikely friendship of these brothers-in-arms that drives this powerful novel to its inexorable conclusion. The men and women of each family relate their versions of events and we are drawn into their lives as they become players in a tragedy on the grandest scale.

If you’d like a chance at winning Mudbound, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 23, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 24. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sunday Sentence: Woodsburner by John Pipkin


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


At every square and intersection in Boston, she heard shouts from vendors hawking oysters and fresh fish and hot corn and raspberries and milk and sweet doughnuts fried in pig fat. Everywhere the air smelled of cooking, as if America were one vast kitchen, and it seemed she need only breathe to fill herself with food.

Woodsburner by John Pipkin


Saturday, November 11, 2017

Chasing Spiders With a Pen: Gary Reilly’s War



by Mark Stevens

I know jackshit about war. In particular, Vietnam.

I had a low draft number but then the draft was cancelled, right when I was thinking about Canada. Or some other escape. Bone spurs? A high school friend had died in Vietnam. It scared the hell out of me.

I’ve seen the movies and I’ve read the books:

Platoon. Saving Private Ryan. Deer Hunter. Full Metal Jacket.

Matterhorn, Tree of Smoke, Dog Soldiers, Going After Cacciato.

But, still, I can only imagine.

I watched the Ken Burns documentary and tried not to throw anything at the television; all those lies.

Goodreads has a list of 280 novels about The Vietnam War. Would that do the trick?

I doubt it. Can art really capture the mental toll of war? I’m sure it comes close, in many cases.

It’s the same with coming home from war. I have no idea what it’s like to come home, to have seen so much death and killing and to have survived. I’m sure surviving is better, right?

The statistics suggest maybe, maybe not.

My friend Gary Reilly knew. He served in Vietnam. He was an MP at an airfield called Qui Nho’n. One year “in country,” not even in combat, and I believe he carried it around with him for the rest of his life.

Gary didn’t talk much about the war when he got home, in 1971. The war was winding down, but war is war. If you’re fighting, you’re fighting. By the end of 1971 “only” 151,000 U.S. soldiers would be in Vietnam; down from a half-million at the war’s peak.

I didn’t meet Gary until 2004, 33 years after he came back from Vietnam.

A couple weeks ago, I emailed Gary’s longtime partner, Sherry, to see if her recollection was the same as mine—that Gary didn’t talk about that year. Sherry agreed. She wrote: “Gary did not like to talk much about being in Vietnam. He would have nightmares sometimes that he associated with Vietnam, but he didn't talk about that much either. Sometimes he would wake up at night, yelling and trying to get the spiders off of him. He would say in his nightmare he was in Vietnam, being attacked by bugs. That was a recurring nightmare. He did talk sometimes about how he never took advantage of an ‘RnR’ that he may have been entitled to because he said once he left Vietnam, he would never be able to return.”

Gary didn’t talk much about those spiders, but he had an outlet: writing fiction. Shortly after returning from Vietnam, Gary took classes at the University of Colorado at Denver. The teachers were impressed with his style. Encouraged, Gary sent one story called “The Biography Man” off to the prestigious Iowa Review. It was published. And re-published the next year in the fourth volume of the Pushcart Prize Anthology. That particular story had nothing to do with Vietnam, but maybe it gave him a boost of confidence to keep writing.

On second thought, I doubt he needed it.

Gary was going to write.

And write.

“The Biography Man” was the first—and only story—that Gary published in his lifetime. (It’s a beauty; I’ve never read anything like it.)

One story—that was it.

When Gary passed away in 2011, however, he left behind 25 full-length novels.

Three of the 25 novels featured a character named Private Palmer, an MP who went to Vietnam and was part of the war. The first, The Enlisted Men’s Club, takes place at The Presidio as Palmer waits for the call up, unsure if it will come. The second book, The Detachment, takes place in Vietnam. And The Discharge finds Palmer at home in Denver trying to find a foothold back in civilization. The books form a seamless trilogy of one man’s journey to war—and back.

I’ve read all three—several times. I still know jackshit about what it’s like to go to war. I don’t have nightmares about spiders.

All three novels feature the war—getting ready, living with it, and dealing with the aftermath. Palmer is jaded. He finds ways to endure, to survive military stupidity and “shit jobs,” as he calls them. Palmer has his avoidance schemes, but in all three books he finds ways to connect with others, to assert or maintain his humanity.

As I write this, there are 1.3 million men and women in active duty in the U.S. armed forces. There are 10,000 stationed in Afghanistan, a war that has been going on since long before I met Gary Reilly for the first time. There are thousands in Bahrain and Kuwait and tens of thousands in South Korea and Japan, which could be a hot spot any moment, and of course now we know they’re in Niger and all over Africa, too.

We ask the soldiers to bear that weight but we really have no idea what toll that takes, thinking daily “what if?” Do they know what they’re getting into? Do they? They’re all okay with dying for the cause, for the country?

Some soldiers look down the barrels of their weapons. They are there to kill. Others are in what’s called “the rear.” During Vietnam, if you served in the rear, you were a REMF.

I didn’t know that acronym, or what it stood for, before a review of The Detachment was published by a book reviewer for the Vietnam Veterans of America: “Reilly gives the reader an immersion in this aspect of the Army throughout this fine novel of service in the rear. I add it to the short list of worthy novels of the REMF in Vietnam. Service in the rear was the majority experience, although it is seldom given respect or space in the Vietnam War canon.”

REMF: Rear-echelon motherfuckers. Support troops.

Gary Reilly didn’t see action. He was pure REMF.

Reilly didn’t see action and, of course, neither did his alter-ego, Palmer. (Even from his close-up vantage point for war, Reilly saw no need to take his fiction beyond what he had seen with his own two eyes; Palmer’s world was no more expansive than Reilly’s own.) Palmer didn’t see direct combat, but he saw the consequences of war all around him. The war came to him.

And took a toll.

We all know about that toll—the mental health, the injuries, the empty holes in families, the lost potential. I won’t go into detail here, only urge—if you’re curious—to read Gary Reilly’s view of Vietnam.

I’m not the only enthusiast of Gary’s work. As mentioned, the book reviewer for The Vietnam Veterans of America wrote a rave. Booklist praised Gary’s work as well. Here’s a note from a review of The Detachment: “Palmer’s mission is so banal most writers would not describe it, but Reilly describes it, and the result is that rarest thing in fiction, originality. His novel is a harsh and startling corrective to those foggy old vets who elevate their undistinguished service into something glorious.”

Ron Carlson raved (“Catch 23 or 24”) as did Stewart O’Nan (“classic.”) Both amazing writers if you don’t know them. O’Nan edited The Vietnam Reader.

Ernest Hemingway said to “write one true sentence” to get rolling. If you wrote one true sentence, you could take it from there. Hemingway was opposed to ornaments in writing.

Reilly left behind tens of thousands of true sentences. Here’s one paragraph from The Detachment:
The building shivers as a soft boom rolls across Qui Nhon, across the evac hospital, across the airfield, and the 109th, and beyond. Palmer sets the paperback down and sits absolutely motionless, waiting for another explosion. The VC must be tossing mortars again. He suddenly wants sky over his head, wants to be able to see everything around him, feels trapped inside this box of a room and wants to get out, to be able to see if there’s somebody he has to shoot at. He’s glad he’s good with the .45. Barely made sharpshooter with the M-14, but then he might be better with the M-16, a crazy spring in its butt to absorb the kick, probably thought up by the genius who designed the briefcase handle. Palmer scoots his chair back and stands up, casually turns and begins strolling down the aisle between the beds where men are sleeping. Nobody but himself seems to have noticed the boom. Maybe it takes more than the gentle shiver of a building to alarm infantrymen. Probably more attuned to real danger than Palmer ever will be.
That was Gary’s writing about war—chasing away the spiders with the work of his pen, one true sentence at a time.



Note: To date, in addition to Gary’s Vietnam novels, Running Meter Press has also published eight novels in The Asphalt Warrior series, comic adventures about a Denver cab driver named Murph. Three of the eight books were finalists for the Colorado Book Award and a reviewer for National Public Radio declared them “huge fun.” More about all of Gary’s work: www.theasphaltwarrior.com

Raised outside Boston, Mark Stevens is the son of two librarians. By law, he was required to grow up loving books. And writing. He was the 2016 Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Writer of the Year. He writes the Allison Coil Mystery Series—Antler Dust, Buried by the Roan, Trapline and Lake of Fire. The last three books were all finalists for the Colorado Book Award. Trapline won (2015). Stevens is president of the Rocky Mountain chapter for Mystery Writers of America and serves on the national board. He also hosts a regular podcast for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Kirkus Reviews called Lake of Fire “irresistible” and Craig Johnson, author of the Walt Longmire novels, said, “Mark Stevens writes like wildfire.”


Friday, November 10, 2017

Friday Freebie: Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay


Congratulations to Jennifer Oleson Boyd, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s debut collection of short stories To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts.

This week’s contest is for the new Penguin Classics edition of Picnic at Hanging Rock, the 1967 novel by Joan Lindsay which inspired the riveting, haunting, and unforgettable 1975 film by Peter Weir. The new Penguin edition includes an introduction by Maile Meloy (author of Do Not Become Alarmed). Keep scrolling for more information about the book...


A 50th-anniversary edition of the landmark novel about three “gone girls” that inspired the acclaimed 1975 film and an upcoming TV series starring Natalie Dormer. It was a cloudless summer day in the year 1900. Everyone at Appleyard College for Young Ladies agreed it was just right for a picnic at Hanging Rock. After lunch, a group of three girls climbed into the blaze of the afternoon sun, pressing on through the scrub into the shadows of the secluded volcanic outcropping. Farther, higher, until at last they disappeared. They never returned.....Mysterious and subtly erotic, Picnic at Hanging Rock inspired the iconic 1975 film of the same name by Peter Weir. A beguiling landmark of Australian literature, it stands with Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, and Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides as a masterpiece of intrigue.

If you’d like a chance at winning Picnic at Hanging Rock, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 16, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 17. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Sunday, November 5, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Smoke of Horses by Charles Rafferty


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Famous people have been dying all week, and the Christmas tree just stopped drinking.

“Forecast” from The Smoke of Horses by Charles Rafferty


Friday, November 3, 2017

Friday Freebie: To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie


Congratulations to Jane Rainey, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: Freebird by Jon Raymond.

This week, I am especially pleased to offer up a copy of Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s debut collection of short stories To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts to one lucky reader. Here’s what Peter Geye, author of Wintering, had to say about the book: “It’s been a long time since I read a collection of stories that amazed me from cover to cover, but that’s what Caitlin Summie’s To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts did. With the grace and elegance of a master, Summie lays bare our vulnerabilities and desires and hopes in equal measure. The result is one stunning story after another, each as lovely and heartfelt as the one before. If you’re a fan of Grace Paley or Ann Beattie or Tobias Wolfe, you’ll surely find something to love in these pages.” Keep scrolling for more information about To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts...


In these ten elegantly written short stories, Caitlin Hamilton Summie takes readers from WWII Kansas City to a poor, drug-ridden neighborhood in New York, and from the quiet of rural Minnesota to its pulsing Twin Cities, each time navigating the geographical boundaries that shape our lives as well as the geography of tender hearts, loss, and family bonds. Deeply moving and memorable, To Lay To Rest Our Ghosts examines the importance of family, the defining nature of place, the need for home, and the hope of reconciliation.

If you’d like a chance at winning To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. This contest is limited to U.S. addresses only. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 9, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 10. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Monday, October 30, 2017

My First Time: Melissa Fraterrigo


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Melissa Fraterrigo, author of the novel Glory Days, now out from the University of Nebraska Press. Melissa also wrote the short story collection The Longest Pregnancy. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in more than forty literary journals and anthologies from Shenandoah and The Massachusetts Review to storySouth, Notre Dame Review, and Prairie Schooner. She has been a finalist for awards from Glimmer Train on multiple occasions, twice nominated for Pushcart Awards, and was the winner of the Sam Adams/Zoetrope: All Story Short Fiction Contest. She is founder and executive director of the Lafayette Writers Studio, in Lafayette, Indiana, where she also teaches classes on the art and craft of writing. To learn more visit melissafraterrigo.com


The First Time I Read to My Dad

I was nervous the first time my dad came to a reading. It was for my first book, the short story collection, The Longest Pregnancy. The reading was held in my hometown library, in one of the meeting rooms with glass doors that I used to walk past on my way to the children’s section with its bright tables and mini stage and bathroom with a toilet that fit my child-sized bum perfectly.

My father brought me to the library most weeks when I was a child. We would enter the building together and he’d walk me to the children’s section, then send me off while he went upstairs to check out thick tomes with images of WWII bombers involved in firefights or a Civil War battlefield, with the close-up of two soldiers in hand-to-hand combat. Guns and flack jackets. Hardtack and government-issued cigarettes. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force.

Despite never serving his country, my dad has a great reverence for this sort of factual writing, as showcased by the books he selected. I, on the other hand, loved the imaginary world of fiction. Stories took me away from our small suburban town with its bland brick bungalows and staid expectations. At home, I had two choices: I could be a nurse like my mom, or a teacher. But inside the pages of a book, I could be a girl on the frontier or own a talking poodle with a scheme for getting rich.

My dad and I both loved books yet had vastly different tastes.

Alas, reading fiction was a fine past time for an eight-year-old, but it was not something to study in college and certainly not something to focus on during graduate school. So while I gave in to my father and earned the steady teaching degree he advised, the gnawing urge to write never left me and I decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Bowing Green State University.

“Fiction is not real,” my dad told me, the day before I left for Bowling Green, Ohio, where I would begin my graduate studies. Fortunately, by then, I had all but stopped listening to him.


So here we were back at the Lansing Public Library nearly a decade after I began graduate school, celebrating the release of my first book of short stories. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. My dad sat beside my mother in the front row. My nerves were frayed. One of my preschool teachers held her hands in her lap and next to her was the neighbor whose kids I used to babysit. One of the librarians introduced me and the reading started off like any other. I began to read “Scar Serum,” a story about a portly girl who becomes enamored with her neighbor, an inventor. Mr. Carpone’s latest invention is a serum that remedies wounds in an instant and in order to test the serum, Mr. Carpone must remove some of the protagonist’s clothes and place her in exceedingly challenging positions.

Now, nothing energizes me more than reading my work and experiencing the immediacy of the audience; only this time, as I read, I felt like I stood inside a sauna rather than the library. Sweat trickled down my armpits and along the backs of my thighs. I felt it pooling in the crevices behind my knees and I began to drift off. I felt otherworldly. I arrived at the place in the story where the protagonist is at her most vulnerable. And so was I, as I read the line “. . . her underpants were white and generous.”

Words still slid from my mouth, but I could not rid myself of the thought that my dad was sitting a few feet away, legs and arms crossed, while I rambled on about a character’s undergarments.

I tried not to look at him or my mom. I reminded myself to stay calm. I was almost finished. I could do this. But these entreaties were not enough. Soon my vision narrowed and grew dotty and someone brought me a chair—or did I simply walk into the audience and sit down? I do remember taking a seat and helping myself to a tissue from the little plastic packet my mother extended to me. I dabbed my face. Breathed. After a few moments, I again stood and finished reading the story and then as my preschool teacher and neighbor and other members of the audience applauded, I glanced at my dad. His grin was wide and unmistakable, the warmth of it so bright that I immediately matched it with my own. And as I stood there dopey faced with glee, I looked away. Later he hugged me and told me he was proud of me. He didn’t need to say it. I knew how he felt, but I thanked him regardless.

I no longer think I have as much to prove to my dad. He knows that I’ve spent much of my professional life writing and teaching others about the craft, and while I know what I create will never be as vivid to him as a battlefield, I’d like to think he respects my work. Regardless, readings can still be a little nerve-wracking for me and with the release of my new novel I don’t want to take any chances. The truth is I need to find a way a nice way to encourage my dad to stay home.


Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Sentence: The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer


Simply put, the best sentence(s) I’ve read this past week, presented out of context and without commentary.


Since their argument, they have addressed one another with the caution of a bare foot avoiding shards of glass.

The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer


Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Freebie: Freebird by Jon Raymond


Congratulations to John Smith, winner of last week’s Friday Freebie: the new novel by Eric Rickstad, The Names of Dead Girls.

This week’s contest is for Freebird, a novel by Jon Raymond which came out earlier this year from Graywolf Press. I have a new hardcover copy of the book to give away to one lucky reader. Here’s what Benjamin Percy (author of The Dark Net) had to say about the novel: “No one writes sentences so graceful and characters so achingly real as Jon Raymond. Sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious, oftentimes at the same moment, Freebird is the gripping story of a dysfunctional family through which we better understand these dysfunctional times.” Keep scrolling for more information about Freebird...

The Singers, an all-American family in the California style, are about to lose everything. Anne is a bureaucrat in the Los Angeles Office of Sustainability whose ideals are compromised by a proposal from a venture capitalist seeking to privatize the city’s wastewater. Her brother, Ben, a former Navy SEAL, returns from Afghanistan disillusioned and struggling with PTSD, and starts down a path toward a radical act of violence. And Anne’s teenage son, Aaron, can’t decide if he should go to college or pitch it all and hit the road. They all live inside the long shadow of the Singer patriarch Grandpa Sam, whose untold experience of the Holocaust shapes his family’s moral character to the core. Jon Raymond, screenwriter of the acclaimed films Meek’s Cutoff and Night Moves, combines these narrative threads into a hard-driving story of one family’s moral crisis. In Freebird, Raymond delivers a brilliant, searching novel about death and politics in America today, revealing how the fates of our families are irrevocably tied to the currents of history.

If you’d like a chance at winning Freebird, simply email your name and mailing address to


Put FRIDAY FREEBIE in the e-mail subject line. Please include your mailing address in the body of the e-mail. One entry per person, please. Despite its name, the Friday Freebie remains open to entries until midnight on Nov. 2, at which time I’ll draw the winning name. I’ll announce the lucky reader on Nov. 3. If you’d like to join the mailing list for the once-a-week newsletter, simply add the words “Sign me up for the newsletter” in the body of your email. Your email address and other personal information will never be sold or given to a third party (except in those instances where the publisher requires a mailing address for sending Friday Freebie winners copies of the book).

Want to double your odds of winning? Get an extra entry in the contest by posting a link to this webpage on your blog, your Facebook wall or by tweeting it on Twitter. Once you’ve done any of those things, send me an additional e-mail saying “I’ve shared” and I’ll put your name in the hat twice.


Monday, October 23, 2017

My First Time: Roz Morris


My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Roz Morris, author of Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Roz is an award-nominated novelist (My Memories of a Future LifeLifeform Three), book doctor to award-winning writers, has sold 4 million books as a ghostwriter and teaches writing masterclasses for The Guardian. Not Quite Lost is her first collection of essays. Visit Roz at her website, her blog, Facebook and Twitter.


My First Distraction

Many creatives don't confine themselves to one field. If you've got inventive urges in one discipline you might well have them in others. And you might easily be led astray.

My first major distraction project came in the 1990s. I was working as a sub-editor on a magazine and was supposed to be guarding my weekends to write The Novel. This was The Novel I could then use to dazzle an agent. I hoped it would start the writing career I’d begun to seriously aim for. But the manuscript was a monstrous mess. On a Saturday morning, I’d sit at the computer, open the files and they would make no sense. Characters, plot and my intentions were like a language whose vocabulary and grammar I’d forgotten.

I was an ideal candidate for distraction.

In my teen years I had been a music dabbler. I’d spend long hours at a piano, writing songs. Later I was in a student band. Afterward, writing fiction became the chief creative obsession, but occasionally I strayed back to music. When I discovered a friend (day job in high finance) was also a recovering teen musician, I couldn’t resist a Saturday making glorious noise. Just one.

Stephane came round with his keyboard. I blew the dust off my upright piano. We hit a hitch immediately. Stephane was classically trained and my hamfisted key-bashing couldn't keep up with his jazzy polish, though he was too polite to say so. What could we play that would be bearable? There, on the sideboard, was inspiration. My husband, an author, was putting together a proposal with an illustrator for a series of books for children. We spread out the artwork on the dining table—enchanting pictures of a green garden with roguish and lovable creatures.

Stephane and I composed a piece of music for one of the pictures. I figured out a melody. He added the professional zing. It was such a buzz that we wrote another.

The composition became a major task. Weekend after weekend, my tough-as-gristle novel sat untouched on my hard drive. Meanwhile Stephane and I wrote signature tunes for all the characters. Something slinky for the fox. A languid musical yawn for a sleepy cat that lived on the garden wall. Upstairs, husband and artist worked on the proposal, and when they needed a break they amused themselves with a cup of tea and a slice of home-made music.

Finally, the itch scratched, I went back to my novel. I’d like to say the musical detour had given my grey cells a refreshing break, but the novel was more opaque than ever.


My second distraction project was much more recent. I had now mastered two novels into published form and was on my third. I came back from holiday, sleeves rolled up for serious revision. I knew my manuscript needed a lot of time and understanding. But when I opened the file, it seemed to be mumbling from a far-off land where nothing made sense. I took the coward’s way out. I spent five days designing, typesetting and printing a personal recipe book, just for me.

It was such fun to use my professional know-how for sheer amusement. Curating the content from scrappy scribblings. Finding a use for the photos of dinner parties. Writing jaunty back-cover copy (If you see this book in use, keep calm and drink more).

Happy explorations; joy in the act of creativity; gratitude for whatever inspiration came on the day. It was so carefree. Writing my novels wasn’t like this, but I realised it had been in the earliest days. Once writing became my vocation, my commitment and even my bid to leave a little significance behind me, there were expectations. It could never again be taken lightly. There was the possibility, always, of failure. The distraction project, on the other hand, was an airy lark. Forgiving of inadequacy. It could never disappoint me.

But when I returned to my novel, some of that new ease remained, like a glow from a good holiday. In making a quick, cheeky book for myself, I’d reminded myself I was naturally creative. I was a person who could make something out of nothing. In using grown-up tools for play, I’d remembered the simple satisfaction of making books. I learned not to take myself so seriously. I also felt more masterful when back in my proper element.

Alas, other work got in the way. Consultancy and teaching derailed my plans again. I struggled to keep connected to the novel. A year on, I returned from another holiday, having cleared some time and....

I wrote a lighthearted travel memoir instead. My biggest distraction project yet.

I blame my husband. He spotted that I had a travel diary. Make it into a book, he said.

Don’t be silly, I said. I write novels. And anyway, those are just doodles.

But I can resist anything except temptation.

Editing the travel diary was more work than I imagined. It took much longer than a week or two. But it became my most rewarding detour yet.


I was used to writing big stories. My fictional characters endure immense turmoil. My real life isn’t like that, for which I must be thankful, but that meant the events in my travel diary were of a light and low-key hue. What’s more, they couldn’t be tweaked to create more drama. All the interest would come from presentation, interpretation, performance. How another person’s eccentricities help you discover your own edges. How a house being demolished is a reckoning with a childhood. The language of the personal essay.

Fast forward a few months, and I am back to the novel with more tools in my belt.

This travel diary was the tune-up I needed. It strengthened my repertoire, like cross-training. I’ve found narrative shapes in surprising places. I’ve let the mystery of a moment or a place speak for itself. I’ve noticed more how small events can shift your comprehension, or a reader’s. And, most thrillingly, I’ve seen that a novel is, in some ways, a personal essay for the characters.

And, for the first time, one of my distraction projects has grown up into an actual, presentable thing—Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. It has reminded me that this process is frustrating and demanding, but so satisfying too. And that it always starts with play.