Southern Festival of Books

Even though I hate crowds, my one exception is the second weekend in October when I get to sit outside all day and talk books with people. Love it. Love it.

Did I show you the afghan I’m working on?

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I also realized that I have to schedule my nine nights for next week. I don’t have nine other nights in a row this month when I don’t have stuff going on.

Every year I’m swamped in the fall and yet, this year, I’m surprised.

The Cubs

I used to love the Cubs, but then they dicked over Andre Dawson and Mark Grace. It bothered me that they were neither good nor loyal. I would have forgiven disloyalty if it would have won us some games and I would have forgiven a bad team that ways loyal to its players, but to be neither? To suck and be disloyal?

I always wondered if I would climb back on the bandwagon if they got their shit together.

And I am surprised to find that, no, I really don’t care. Apparently there are ways you can break a young girl’s heart so thoroughly that the middle-aged woman she grows into remains cold to you.

Chuck Wendig’s New Book

I just finished Chuck Wendig’s new book, Zeroes. It was fine! But more than that, I don’t really feel qualified to say. I read a lot differently when I’m writing than I do when I’m not, so I can’t say whether you, as a reader, might  like it. I, as a writer, really did. One thing he does that I want to think hard about for my next draft, is his specificity. I think that I tend to gloss over the details that I don’t think are that important in a story, because I hate when unimportant things are given too much attention.

I don’t have Wendig’s book in front of me, but let’s say that we’re writing a story about a guy who goes to the store to get some orange juice and, on the way, he gets abducted by aliens. Let’s say that the least important element in the story is the car he takes.

The kind of writing I don’t like might go something like “He gently eased his Levi-encased buttocks onto the leathery seat of the musty old El Camino, the color of sunsets or fresh, coppery menstrual blood, and rested his cracked hands on the ancient wheel. The car smelled of elderberries, freshly picked by young virgins on a cool, Spring morning.”

A lot of my writing goes like this: “He got in his car and he drove toward the store.”

But a Chuck Wendig-ish sentence goes something like “He got into his rusty, old El Camino and headed up the street to the IGA.”

You don’t spend too much time reading about things that aren’t important, but you spend enough time on them to get a taste of something you otherwise wouldn’t get. You can see how “he got into his new Lexus and headed up the street to the Whole Foods” changes the whole flavor of the sentence, implies a hundred different things about this “him” than the other “him,” none of which you can even begin to guess about my “him.”

I’m not terrible at that kind of specificity, but I’ve been hip-deep in this novel long enough to know that I’m not great at it. Watching someone just nail it sentence after sentence after sentence makes my inadequacies really stand out to me.

Flat Lands, Big Sky

I always have really mixed feelings when I go back to Illinois–a mixture of terror and homesickness. Not as bad as the last time I went to Michigan and had to cry in the rest stop to work up the courage to keep driving, but still some feeling of both wanting to be there and fearing that I might see someone who used to know me, who I used to know, and wondering what that would be like.

C.S. Lewis in Your Writing Group

We were briefly talking about what it would be like to have C.S. Lewis in your writing group and how that might explain a lot about why Tolkien had songs and histories of various grasses and chapters devoted to wandering around in circles, because Lewis would be all “Today, I have an essay on why there’s so much suffering and whether children deserve pain” and everyone else in the group would be all “Um, we’re still helping Tolkien get through this tricky part about… um…” They all look at Tolkien.

“This song about trees?” He shrugs.

But I was thinking about it on our walk this morning and, lord, could you imagine Lewis’s elevator pitches?

“Okay, it’s an allegory about Christ and the dangers of modern women set in a magical land with lions.”

“Okay it’s an allegory about Christ and the dangers of modern women set in space.”

“Okay, it’s a book of essays about Christ and the dangers of modern women.”

Can you imagine the time he was all “Okay, it’s a book about bureaucratic devils.”

All the other Inklings chime in “and the dangers of moder–wait, what? Just about bureaucratic devils?”

Tolkien’s all whispering to his neighbor “So, I don’t need this song about a sword to distract him?”

Lewis is confused. “Yes, just bureaucratic devils. Why? Do you think it needs some dangerous modern women in there? I could add some.”

“No, no, no. This is great. Much better than our idea.”

1st Spooky Saturday–Aunt Karen

This one sat in my “almost done” folder for a long time, but, upon rereading it just now, I really like it. I don’t know what I thought wasn’t quite done.

Aunt Karen

By Betsy Phillips

The kids handled the changes better than the adults. We were floundering. Not for answers. We had answers, terrible answers no one wanted to hear. We were floundering for a new set of superstitions that would keep us safe. We got rid of the dogs—not sure if they were carriers—but then we had nothing to alert us except our own eyes and ears. So, we brought dogs back from the verge of extinction.

There were a lot of sleepless nights back then. Every knock and creak woke you. Was it something in the house? Near the house? But if none of the dogs were troubled, you told yourself there’s nothing to worry about. Another superstition. What if the dogs were in league with them? And why wouldn’t they be? That’s what the women at the grocery store asked. What had we done for dogs so great that they wouldn’t have sold us out?

But we didn’t do another extermination. And most of us were glad for the folks who kept their dogs hidden. Glad for the strays that could be coaxed back into town. We put our trust in them once again.

And the kids played with puppies like we never made the grave mistake of trying to get rid of them all. Like we might not have been making a grave mistake keeping them with us now. I guess that, when you’re new to the world, you don’t have any expectations for how things should be. For all they knew, there was nothing strange about learning to handle a silver dagger almost as soon as you were old enough to close your hand.

Like people who got their ears pierced as infants and don’t remember the pain, they didn’t remember how they got the scars from learning how to handle the blade, just that such scars were common.

We adults had no words for what had happened. Not words we were willing to say to each other. We didn’t want to be reminded.

But the kids, well, like I said, they handled it better. When my nephew, Evan, was younger, I found him at the park, talking to one of his little friends about some other little kid who had fallen off his bike. Evan said, “Oh, yeah, and then he wolfed all over” and he demonstrated by shaking and lolling his tongue out to the side.

“He what?” I asked, trying to keep my voice light.

“Aunt Jen, he wolfed all over, bleurgh!” and then he stuck his finger down his throat and wretched.

“That’s how my mom died,” the other kid said, growing more serious. “She got wolfed all over and bam!” The kid mimicked stabbing someone in the chest. My heart leaped into my throat and I reached for Evan, almost without thinking.

“Oh, Karen,” I said, so quietly I almost wasn’t sure I’d said it aloud. If Evan heard, he didn’t seem to notice. He laughed and mimicked the same motion and then the two ran off, playing monster killer.

I remembered how my sister Karen had been with Evan and I tried to be some of that for him. Strong, brave, loving. Tried to at least fake it, for his sake.

After I lost Jimmy and the kids, I was done, you know? I respected the government’s request that no one in my situation kill herself. I understand it makes it too easy for everyone who’s lost so much to just check out, once they see how it is, how peaceful, and calm and over.

So, I kept on breathing. I just quit living. I stayed in my house and let life go on without me.

Until Karen called.

I could barely understand her. It was still mid-afternoon, but her voice was already gravelly and her words sounded like they were coming through the wrong mouth. “Please,” she begged, “Come get Evan. Say he’s been with you.”

When they found someone who changed, they killed everyone who was with that person that day. That’s how I lost my Jimmy and the kids. Little Meg picked it up from someplace and that was the end of them. I was in Ohio helping my mom with my dad. That’s the only thing that spared me. And my dad got found out anyway. And I lost my mom and dad, then, too. Our mom and dad. I guess what spared me then is that they didn’t find my dad until the next month and they didn’t realize it wasn’t his first time.

After that, I kept to myself, half-mad from grief. But when I got that call from Karen, I went to her house and sobbed into her misshapen arms, already prickly with coarse hairs, and I took that boy to my house and I pretended like I babysat him all the time. No one ever questioned me about it.

And then I had to go on living, because he needed me to, because his mom couldn’t be there for him. And so I did my best for him.

When he was fourteen, the Sheriff came to our door.

“You doing all right here by yourself, Jen?” He asked. He looked over the top of his sunglasses at me.

“We’re doing okay, Sheriff,” I said, trying to seem friendly, but making no move to invite him in, even though, judging by the sweat on his brow, he could have used some water or an ice tea.

“Notice anything peculiar?” He asked. He squinted at me, as if he could, if only he adjusted his eyes right, see if I was lying to him. I tilted my head toward the interior of the house, like I didn’t want to talk to him about it in front of Evan. I stepped out onto the porch with him.

“Cooper down the road says your herd is looking smaller,” the Sheriff said. “You know you’re supposed to report any loss of livestock.”

“Sheriff,” I said. “I lost three cows last month and if you call Arlene and ask her, she’ll tell you I called it in. I’ve got a carcass I found a few days ago, yes, and I didn’t call it in, but it’s not my cow.”

“Cooper says you’re way down.”

“Sheriff,” I sighed. “It’s just me and the boy. We can’t handle a herd as big as Jimmy had. I sold half this spring. I can show you the receipts.”

“Well, show me that carcass,” he said.

“I think it’s just coyotes,” I said.

“You can never be too sure,” the Sheriff nodded. “Seems like those things are gone, but you know it’s cows first, then humans. We need to be vigilant.”

That’s a superstition as well. Cattle kills and human attacks have nothing to do with each other. But we want to pretend there’s some way to tell if they’re back. Some forewarning before the bad times.

“DTR,” I said as I smiled. Duty to report.

“That’s right, ma’am,” he said. I showed him the carcass and he looked at the bites. Too small to be our husbands and wives. “Coyotes,” he agreed. After all, how could a child take down a cow?

“Have you seen anything suspicious?” I asked. “I haven’t heard of anyone… you know… no families…”

“Not in years,” the Sheriff said.

“Good,” I said and I meant it. I walked him back to his truck.

“I just always thought this stuff was made up in Hollywood,” he said. I nodded. “Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?”

“What?” I asked.

“If that was true, what else is?”

It wasn’t much after that when we found out. I was asleep, three dogs in bed with me, when Evan shook me awake one black night. I could hear the nervous pacing of his dogs out in the hall.

“Aunt Jen,” he said. “I heard a noise.” I sat up, groggy. Like he did when he was little, he crawled up onto the bed with me.

“What did it sound like?” I whispered. But then I heard it, a loud thump, like something large had landed on the roof. I fumbled for my glasses and Evan worked to keep the dogs calm. When I found my way to the window, I peeked out into the darkness. The moon was not quite full, but it was large enough that, when the clouds parted, I could see by it. And there, in the trees, perched like buzzards, were gaunt, lanky bald men, their red eyes glowing, their sharp teeth long and glistening.

“You have your knife?” I asked Evan.

“Of course.” I could hear the hint of teenage disgust that I’d even thought the question was necessary. “What are they?” He asked.

“Something bad,” I said. “Something really bad.”

First thing in the morning, I called the Sheriff’s department. It took the Sheriff no time to get to my house, because he’d been with the county coroner up at Cooper’s place. Cooper was no more. He’d been torn limb from limb.

“No blood, though,” the Sheriff said. “Not like back then.”

“I saw them,” I said. “They weren’t. These were something else.”

Then the Sheriff got a call. It wasn’t just Cooper. Most the families in this part of the county were gone. Butchered and drained of their blood. Probably not in that order. I had to bring the Sheriff in the house, though I hated to. Poor man was heavy with grief.

“You are about the only ones who are left out this way,” the Sheriff said. “It makes no sense. Why would they leave you be?”

I shuddered. “I don’t know. They were on the house and in the trees. I don’t know.”

But after he left, it was all I could think about. Why were we spared? It’s not like we’d had advanced warning. My dogs hadn’t even woken up, before Evan came in.

Oh, I thought. Oh.

I went down to the basement and moved the far shelves away from the wall. I knocked on the door hidden back there and a soft voice said “Come in.” I undid the padlock and entered the small room.

“Karen?” I asked. “How’d you sleep last night?” She looked rough, so I guessed her answer before she gave it.

“Not well,” she said. “It’s not even the full moon yet, and I wanted to be out. I had a dream of killing. You have to be sure I’m locked in here tight come this weekend.”

But I tell you, I left her door unlocked, from that day on.

Away, Away

I’m off to another con. I have mixed feelings. I’m excited. But what if I miss the dog? What if the dog misses me? How will I finish this afghan?

Maybe the dog could finish up the afghan and send me pictures. All problems solved.

Anyway, check back in here tomorrow at six for…um… a story, the likes of which I forget. I think we’re starting with a tale of revenge and witches. If not, then it’s a tale of revenge and dogs. Or a tale of revenge and another dog. Or a tale of revenge and a parrot. I’m just saying, I basically write the same story over and over again. Ha ha ha.

No, I do think tomorrow night is the one about wandering around Mississippi talking to yourself like a lunatic.

I hope you enjoy it.

Porches

I wrote about writing Ashland. I am genuinely glad to see that it’s an interesting read. It makes me feel better about my writing abilities at the moment. Ha ha ha.

This morning, as I was walking the dog, I had a realization about a later part of the book. It made me wonder if I could somehow figure out a way to walk the dog, have a realization, fix that part, walk the dog again, have another realization, etc. But I don’t suppose you could guarantee the realizations.

For me, writing is a weirdly physical thing. I do feel like I’m somehow squeezing or wringing this thing out of me.

And I had hoped to be farther along in this revision before October, which is in so many ways the busiest month of the year for me. I don’t want to lose track of the things I need to do to the book, you know?