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Marie Wilson

Canadian author Marie Wilson’s first novel entitled “The Gorgeous Girls” has been called “erotica for the thinking woman” by its publisher HarperCollins. In Marie's words, the book - released in April 2013 - examines the lives of three women, “all disciples of the legendary Dorothy Parker, who meet regularly for drinks to dish on their romantic and sexual exploits.”

Marie explained that the novel was based on a series of articles that she’d previously written for Toronto’s NOW Magazine: “The editor and co-owner Alice Klein had contacted me about a new feature she was starting called Love and Sex – which would later become Naked City… I told her I had a rambling draft about three women who hang out and talk about sex – and love. She told me to send it along. From that draft, she extracted three stories for publication. So my Gorgeous Girls - Rose, Wanda and Constance - kicked off the feature…”

Marie’s contributions to NOW Magazine struck a chord with readers in Toronto. Encouraged by the popularity of her articles, Marie took on the challenge of writing a novel based on the amorous adventures of her three feisty protagonists: “Over coffee with a friend I was discussing a novel I’d been working on. I joked that I should put vampires in it if I wanted it to sell. My friend said, “Or sex.” This notion along with my partner Aaron’s idea that I should write a novel full of sex - because my articles had been so popular - gave me the idea to use those articles as the basis for a novel. It was a natural leap to weave it all together, including new material, into a novel. The articles were written over a period of two or three years, but it took me another year to write the additional material and then pull it all together.”


Marie told me that she grew up in an environment in which she had considerable freedom: “I was an imaginative kid who was given a lot of free rein. My parents seemed to trust that process - or, because I was the last of their four kids, they just didn’t have time to interfere with my life. I didn’t like school much; it put blinders on my imagination. I did not like getting up so early in the morning only to be confined to a desk where I had to contain my natural excitement for being alive. This felt like torture to me! I preferred writing and painting and putting on plays in my basement.”

“When I was nine, I created an “office” in this little space beneath our basement stairs. I had a tiny table and a chair and a pen and some paper. And there I worked on my autobiography and a few stories about witches. I loved stories about witches and these conjurers figured in my autobiography as well. I always felt a magical connection to nature, and certain things within that realm spoke to me of mysteries beyond. The wind, the moon, the stars. At night there was a sense of something beyond the work-a-day world where you had to wake up before you were done dreaming…”

“High school offered some exposure to art and also fashion opportunities - creating what I would wear to school was a highlight of my day - and there was drama club. I was a born ham. But for the most part, the best thing I learned in school was to type.”

“I went on to university but I wanted to experience the real world, so I moved from Vancouver to Toronto to pursue a life in theatre. It didn’t pay, though, so I did a lot of different jobs: waitress, flower vendor, ballroom dance instructor, nanny, answering service operator. Later, when I had kids, acting wasn’t a practical profession for me and I started writing more.” Marie explained: “Acting often requires that you be away from home and family and ready to work long hours, sometimes without notice. If it’s a film, there’s money at stake for the production company and everything rides on your being able to stay on and finish the scene. Even in the case of theatre, I preferred to be there for my kids’ bedtimes. This became even more important once I became a single mother.”


Marie told me that she usually takes on more than one project at a time: “I work on all kinds of things at once until one of them takes over. If there’s outside interest in the novel, I go full throttle on that. If I’m contacted to write an article, I’m full throttle on that. Same with if I have a short story competition deadline.” Marie described her creative process as follows: “I take the first idea or image or thought that comes to me and I write. I don’t stop to think about what I’m writing. I let it flow and then later I read it and see what’s interesting or what hangs together as a story. Then I do a lot of rewriting. A lot.”

Marie explained that writing allows her to be creative: “I love creating, and with writing you don’t need much in the way of materials or space. Dancing is another art form that requires few external things. Dancing is like writing with your body. I like dancing too.”


Marie told me that she found her agent in a bar: “Aaron and I knew Peter from our mutual watering hole The Auld Spot. He was often seated at the end of the bar and we chatted with him in passing. And then Peter became the agent to our friend Bev Stone. He found a publisher for her novel ‘No Beautiful Shore.’ When my work was done he seemed a natural to ask about representation.”

Referred to HarperCollins through her agent, Marie described the publishing process as follows: “The editing process was fun, just a back and forth between the editor and me. She rarely balked at my suggestions, while I often balked at hers. But both she and my publisher assured me I had final say on the writing/editing decisions, which was cool. My publisher is a stalwart of Canadian publishing. He’s a great guy - he took a chance on me.”

As a writer, Marie has enlisted the support of her partner to help with the work of promoting her novel: “My publisher has done no promoting. I do some but my partner Aaron Schwartz does the most. He has been tireless in getting my book out there. Aaron is a talented artist in his own right and he’s my hero.”


Marie told me that she is influenced and inspired by the work of Marguerite Duras, William Burroughs, and F. Scott Fitzgerald: “Marguerite Duras because her writing is powerful and mysterious; Bill Burroughs for his innovation and sheer guts; F. Scott Fitzgerald because his writing was both enchanting and real.” Her favorite novels? “Right now it’s a tie between ‘The Ravishing of Lol Stein’ by Marguerite Duras and ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ by Peter Carey. Also ‘The Great Gatsby’ is always at the top of my list. All these books spin stories that convey the mystery and magic of living and loving and dying.”

Despite her work as a novelist, Marie prefers writing screenplays: “Movies are my lifeblood, and while I find writing them much harder than writing stories or novels, the moving picture is where my passion lies… No, I don’t find novel writing to be limiting. In fact, screenplays are more limiting because you’re writing for another medium. You can’t just say what you want to say. You have to paint a picture for the screen. It’s merely my love of cinema that has me preferring to write screenplays. I am working on a screenplay right now. It’s my “monster in a box.” I’ve been at it for a long time!”


Marie describes a typical day as follows: “I wake up, recall my dreams, then have coffee while gazing out the window at my little community: kids playing, gardeners digging. Toast and fruit for breakfast. I do some dishes and maybe the laundry. By early afternoon I’m off to walk our dog Nixie. The dog park is rife with wagging tails and wagging tongues and so I watch the pooches play and catch up on local news. Back at home I sit in my sunroom to write, sometimes with pen, sometimes with laptop, often with an old flick playing in the background. When writing threatens to exasperate or overwhelm me, I look out the window or at the TV screen. There’s always something there to catapult me out of the hole.”

“Late afternoon I head out to get groceries and run other errands. When the groceries get delivered I make something healthy for my teenager to eat; she’s in a band and keeps different hours from me. Then I take a short walk to my community centre where I do some work with the youth group I’ve started: hanging photos, clearing a room to create a recording studio.”

“Back at the apartment, I make a late dinner - or Aaron does - and we eat while watching Jeopardy. Afterwards I like to write while drinking a glass of champagne mixed with a soupcon of Magic Hour’s blackberry/lavender cordial. This is also a time to check Facebook to see what my other two progeny are up to; one’s a visual artist, the other a stand-up comedian. Both bartend to make ends meet. If I have time I watch a movie, if not I do a little reading. When I finally hit the hay, I have my laptop with me for last thoughts.”

“Writing fits in everywhere in my day. If I’m not on the computer or jotting in my notebook then it’s happening in my head or through my senses. Everything I do and see and smell and hear and touch and feel is a potential story or scene or shot.”


Marie is currently working on her second novel – a visual work that integrates both narrative and photography: “It’s called ‘Walter Kist and the Seven Whorls’ and it’s about this private eye whose real passion is photography. Walter Kist is a young man who shoots from the hip and speaks from the heart. It’s a visual novel, which means photos tell part of the story. Ultimately it’s a love story.”

Marie’s advice to writers who are just starting out: “Write all the time. Do not give up.”

For more information about Marie's work, please go to


Image Credit: Aaron Schwartz

Marie Wilson was born to a paint merchant and an Olympic runner in Vancouver. After studying painting and theatre, she moved to Toronto where she appeared on some of the city’s best stages. Her writing has appeared in a variety of magazines and newspapers, including NOW and The Globe and Mail. She’s had handful of good reviews, found love, birthed three geniuses, and has recently written an erotic novel called The Gorgeous Girls, currently ranked #1 by

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by Marie Wilson

When we reach Anarchist Peak, my mother pulls over and stops the car. The view of the Okanagan Valley is magnificent, but that’s not what we’re here for. My mother reaches beneath her seat and pulls out a twenty-sixer of rye and a small bottle of 7 Up. As she pours herself a drink, she asks if I want one. I’m seventeen years old. I have driven her metallic-blue Ford half the way on this eight hour trip. While she drove the other half, I propped my bare feet on the dashboard and belted out the latest Leonard Cohen tunes: Like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free… Although we still have some notorious hairpin curves to negotiate before we reach her farm, I accept a drink. It is my mother’s version of a rite of passage for her daughter. We toast the success of our drive through the winding heights and steep descents of the Crowsnest Highway. My mother downs the last of her highway highball, then starts up the engine for the final stretch. I sip the strong liquor and wonder if they named Anarchist Mountain for my mom. In the Vancouver press she was once known as the Lady in Red and the Speed Queen. But despite the sound of those monikers, she was no shady lady strung out on bennies. Her other newspaper nickname was Queen of the Cinder Track. Yes, my mom was once a track and field star. And she wore red track suits. At sixteen she was deemed Olympic material and sent to Toronto to compete for entry into the games that were to be held in Berlin that year. But when wind of Hitler’s anti-Semitic rule swept the nation, my mom knew she would never get her stab at the gold. Like so many others, her coach boycotted the ‘36 Olympiad. Years later when the story of my mom’s kiboshed shot at international fame had become legend in our household, the only Speed Queen around was the washer on our porch where she did the laundry for her husband and four children. She was still the Lady in Red though: her lipstick, crimson to go with her black-as-night hair, and in winter her red toque. But perhaps more evocative of that sobriquet in the late 50s was her clandestine sexual life. She had an affair. My friend down the road from us had a good Catholic mother who was always in the kitchen. While she was in her apron whipping up strawberry shortcake, my mom was out drinking rye and seven in her high heels and pencil skirts. Not that my mom hadn’t ever made Jell-O or cookies. When I was little she’d baked with the best of them, and I can still remember rushing home after school to sink my teeth into a warm butter tart, fresh out of her oven. But when I (her youngest) was old enough to take care of myself, my mother got her real estate licence and was off travelling Vancouver Island, listing houses and showing properties - and much more, as it turned out, for this is when her cheating began. In one of our home movies my mother smashes a sledgehammer into a wall and laughs. So began our kitchen renovations: new pine cupboards, stainless steel sinks, a garburator. Just months after its completion, my father would discover her infidelity. She may just as well have taken that sledgehammer to his heart. My dad left, never to see my mother again. Nor did he ever mention her to us, except once when out of the blue he noted that “the man who broke up my marriage was named Jeb and the man your mother ended up with is named Seb”. In time I would see that this observation of rhyming names contained all the bewilderment he felt over the loss of his bride. Following the divorce, my mother took my sister and me on a road trip through B.C.’s interior. We stopped in little towns where I bought souvenirs: a pocket knife from Revelstoke, a pennant flag from Golden. The Ookpik purchased in Olalla snuggled with me that same night on a Winnipeg couch in a Keremeos motel. When I search my memory for that defining mother-daughter moment, the one story that describes our relationship, some words of motherly wisdom she left me with, I come up blank. There was no day when she revealed her dreams to me or let me in on her secrets. But I can still hear her voice, deep and soothing, and her laughter. I wonder now about her extraordinarily wacky sense of humour. Was that part of the “drinking problem” I later learned of? Was she impaired half the time? Or half-cut all the time? Was she authentically loopy or just looped? Though I never heard her slur words or saw her tip over, I understood as I grew older that she was fond of tippling. When the Bloody Caesar was invented it instantly became her drink of choice, a taste of saltchuck in a shade to match her lips. The last photo I have of her shows a woman of eighty-three, her hair still dark, her bone structure still chiselled, posing with a bobcat she’d just shot from her kitchen window. He’d been trying to get at her chickens and she took him out at a hundred yards. But the image that stays with me is one of my mother standing at the edge of the creek that ran through her farm. It’s a hot afternoon and we’re there for a dip. She is wearing her blue bathing suit. Her skin is as brown as toasted coconut and her hair is as black as ink, grey strands glinting like silver thaw in the night. She stands as tall and calm as a tree. In that moment I understand everything about her. Note: Marie Wilson has recently published a book entitled The Gorgeous Girls. For more information or to purchase a copy, please click here:

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Morgan Rhodes

by Udoka Gabriella Okafor

Canadian author Morgan Rhodes is the creative and literary mind behind the New York Times bestselling high fantasy series which follows the lives of four teenagers—Princess Cleo, Prince Magnus, Princess Lucia, and the rebellious Jonas—whose lives and fate are bound by political realities in the fictional kingdom of Mytica. Filled with magic, political intrigue, romance, and rebellion, the young adult series addresses complex issues including loss, betrayal, and sacrifice. Having read the first two books in the series, I can say that the “Falling Kingdoms” books are thrilling to read, and that they will compel you to stay up way past your bedtime. Morgan, who also writes paranormal novels under the pen name Michelle Rowen, will be releasing the highly anticipated third book of her series, entitled “Gathering Darkness” in December 2014, as well as a spinoff novel “A Book Of Spirits And Thieves” in the summer of 2015. She is currently working on Book Four. In the following interview, Morgan talks to us about the characters in “Falling Kingdoms,” the inspiration behind her writing, and her creative process, and tells us why she became a writer of high fantasy. ***** Q. When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer? I grew up in southern Ontario, in a smallish town west of Toronto. I knew I wanted to be a writer as a teen when I got really good marks in creative writing, but after a year of English Lit at university, I decided I needed a more dependable profession, so I went to college for Graphic Design, which was my career for over a decade while I worked on my writing. Q. Who were your role models when you were growing up, both within and outside of the writing world, and what inspired you to become a writer? I can’t recall any specific role models. I read lots of books, but I didn’t idolize authors as a kid. As far as I can recall, the moment that made me want to become a writer was the movie “Romancing the Stone”… and not because Kathleen Turner hooked up with Michael Douglas. I just loved the idea of writing books for a living, as portrayed in the movie—which isn’t a super accurate representation, but actually not too-o-o far from the truth. I also tended to rewrite, in my mind, the endings to movies that disappointed me, and did some very early fan fiction to a book series I read as a pre-teen. All signs pointed to WRITER. Q. I really enjoyed reading “Falling Kingdoms” and “Rebel Spring,” and I cannot wait for the third book to come out this December, and for the spinoff series that will be coming out next summer. What inspired the storyline for this book series? Thank you so much! After writing two dozen books as Michelle Rowen, which typically followed a single viewpoint—the heroine’s—and mostly were written in first person POV, I wanted to take on a project that had a bigger canvas to play with. I wanted to get into the heads of both villains and heroes, and I wanted to write about princes and princesses and magic. High fantasy definitely fit the bill. As a kid, I’d been obsessed with movies like “The Princess Bride,” “Legend,” “Willow,” and other fantasies of the eighties, and more recently I’d begun to watch the grittier “Game of Thrones” on HBO, which I adore. “Falling Kingdoms” was the perfect blend of everything I’d seen and loved, and the story and characters evolved from there. Q. My favorite character in “Falling Kingdoms” is Cleo. I absolutely love her and I relate to her a lot, in so many respects and on so many levels. I know that it’s excruciatingly unfair to ask you who your favorite character is—in your own book—but could you tell me which character you relate to the most? Good question! I’d say there’s a little bit of me in every character. I think I can be stubborn like Cleo, both trusting and self-doubting like Lucia, I can definitely hold a grudge like Jonas, and Magnus… Hmm… I don’t have much in common with him, but he happens to be my favorite character to write. Q. It was very difficult for me to read about Cleo’s life falling apart in the “Falling Kingdom” books. What was the hardest scene for you to write in this series? Cleo’s losses were difficult to write, but necessary. Every one of them—especially, arguably, the first one—helped to turn her into the person she was meant to become. The hardest scene for me was probably the battle scene near the end of Book One. I’d never written anything like that before and my first attempt was way too removed, like a camera on a crane pulled far back from the action. In my second attempt, I brought things down to a much more personal character level, since character to me is the most important thing in writing, and really seeing things first hand, and focusing, not on the entire battle, but the moment-to-moment horror of being in a situation like that seemed to work best. But, it didn’t make it any easier to write! Q. Can you tell us what we can expect from “Gathering Darkness?” Plenty! I really want to avoid spoilers, but I’ll say that “Gathering Darkness” picks up almost immediately after the end of “Rebel Spring.” There is plenty of intrigue with the addition of Prince Ashur’s sister, Amara, to the cast and we learn more about the empire of Kraeshia—are they friend or foe? There are some big moments in “Gathering Darkness” that will define the Big Four characters—Cleo, Lucia, Magnus, and Jonas—going forward. And that’s really all I can say! Q. What do you think prospective readers, who are unfamiliar with “Falling Kingdoms,” would enjoy most about your series? I think what sets “Falling Kingdoms” apart from other YA series is that it’s told from multiple viewpoints. I have four main characters and several secondary characters. Some readers have said that they were originally intimidated by my character list, but as they began reading, they found that everything fell nicely into place and they weren’t confused at all. This is very important to me! I know I have a large cast, so I try to keep my “camera” focused where it needs to be. I also feel that my writing style is easy to get into. I’m a character writer, so my first priorities are the interactions and conflict between my characters. It’s got a medieval feel, but I am not a by-the-books historical writer—so this is not a history lesson with lots and lots of description. It’s a fantasy! The magic, the court intrigue, the backstabbing (sometimes literally), the war, the romance, the friendships and family issues... This is the stuff I love to write, and I hope that comes across on the page. Another reader told me that they’d never read high fantasy before because they didn’t think they’d like it, but they tried my book and it’s led them to try other fantasy books. I’ll definitely take that as a compliment! Q. Can you tell us what we can expect from “A Book Of Spirits And Thieves,” the spinoff to the “Falling Kingdoms” series? I’ve been spending a lot of time with this book in first draft and edits, and I can tell you it’s unlike any book I’ve ever written or read before. It brings the best of both worlds—literally—in my writing, and I get to blend contemporary and high fantasy. Like “Falling Kingdoms,” it’s got several points of view—but only three in Book One—that create a tapestry of story and character agendas that begin to weave together in unexpected ways. Two of the characters live in modern day Toronto where there is a secret society fixated on a dangerous new magic that’s been discovered, but the third character lives in Mytica at the “time of the goddesses,” which is a thousand years before the events in “Falling Kingdoms.” There will be lots of Easter eggs for readers of the original series, especially when it comes to the mythology and history hinted at in the “Falling Kingdom” books, but the two series will stand apart from each other without any confusing overlap. Q. Apart from the “Falling Kingdoms” series and its spinoff, do you have any other book ideas that you are currently exploring? My muse is never quiet. She likes to whisper shiny new ideas to me all the time. Currently, with more “Falling Kingdoms” books in the works, and the “A Book Of Spirits And Thieves” trilogy taking up my time, I can’t delve too far into these distracting ideas. There is a book I need to finish and self publish under my other pen name that readers have been waiting for a very long time, which I try to work on in my spare moments. Otherwise, there is nothing else officially planned. Q. I actually just discovered that you write under the name Michelle Rowen. I definitely have to check out some of the books you have written under that name. What made you decide to write under a pen name? Yes, I am a writer of many names. Well, two, presently. The main reason for the pen name is that the feel of my Rhodes books and my Rowen books are very different. Rowen writes very quirky and romancey, while Rhodes writes multi-POV high fantasy—two genres that don’t have a great deal of reader crossover. It felt different enough that two names seemed like the best way to go to avoid confusion and specific expectations. Q. I know that this is probably the most difficult question ever, but who is your favorite author and what is your favorite book of all time? It is a difficult question! I have a lot of favorite authors, but I have to say J.K. Rowling would top them all, and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” was my favorite of that series. Harry Potter is a classic that will last the test of time. Q. Can you tell me a little bit about your writing process? How do your ideas transform into drafts, and then into the final product? I am an outliner. I like to have my plot set before I start writing—kind of like having a map when you’re going on a long road trip. For “Falling Kingdoms,” each chapter is outlined, which helps since each chapter is from a specific character’s POV. The great thing about writing this series is that the characters are all very real in my head, so if I come to a scene that doesn’t work as well as it did in the outline, I will (to a point) allow myself to be taken in a different direction. If it works, it can—and has!—changed the direction of a character’s journey. For example, there’s a new character introduced in “Gathering Darkness” who didn’t behave anything like he was supposed to, according to the outline. He was also supposed to get killed. However, he strongly disagreed, and now he’s a viewpoint character in Book Four, which I’m writing now! Q. Will you continue writing young adult novels, or would you like to try other genres? I have written for both adults and young adults and enjoy each. I don’t find a huge difference in my writing process when it comes to either age group. One thing my books do have in common is that they are all fantasy novels. The question might be: Do I see myself writing something that isn’t fantasy? I’d like to try it someday, but my ideas tend [toward] the fantastical. So far, I’ve been just fine with that! Q. What advice do you have for aspiring writers out there, like myself? My advice would be to enjoy the process of writing itself. So many people get tangled up in the idea of being published and having an online presence and fans and all sorts of other things… that they forget that it’s all about the journey. Writing is hard work, so be sure that you love your idea and your characters, and that you’re telling the story that you want to tell—no matter what it is. Make it your own and put your heart and soul into it without worrying about what the future will bring. That’s when the magic happens! ***** Image Credit: Shanon Fujioka

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The Ease of Access

by Jeff Musillo

American author and poet Jeff Musillo took only nine months to complete his first novel. Entitled “The Ease of Access,” it is available on hardcover, paperback, and in e-book format, and was published by AuthorHouse in December 2013. In a recent interview, Jeff described his novel as follows: “The Ease of Access is a story about a male prostitute who is hired out to service reality TV stars. With this novel, I wanted to play with the idea of filthy philosophy – which for me, can be described as a way to encourage contemplation and mental acquisitiveness by means of an exaggerated and perhaps even dark eroticism. Targeting an in-your-face, sell-everything, nothing-is-sacred way of life or existence, I aimed to go over-the-top with the book’s language, particularly with sexual scenarios, in order to touch on what I consider to be the darker elements of contemporary society: greed, obsession, hypocrisy, and the quest for fifteen minutes of fame.” Jeff told me that the reaction of his readers has been positive so far: “Some have gotten a kick out of the bizarre eroticism throughout the story. Some have enjoyed the book for its social commentary. And there have been those who liked both. But each person has also had something different to say. I received a text message the other day from someone who said they felt the main character was “disturbed and disturbing.” I think that’s a good thing. Even when I first started writing this novel, I never wanted any of the characters to have a trace of admirable qualities, especially the protagonist. In fact, I wanted the protagonist to be the worst person in the novel. Accordingly, since the story goes hand-in-hand with a certain part of society, I can see how the detestable components of The Ease of Access are disturbing for some.” Jeff talked to me about his writing process, explaining that his first step consists of writing spontaneously in a notebook, using only pen and paper: “When it comes to my writing routine, I have a somewhat systematic approach. Firstly, I skip the pre-writing process. I don’t sketch anything out. I don’t make a story map. I just jump right into the first step, which involves writing whatever comes to mind in a black and white composition notebook. The whole story goes in the notebook first. I enjoy doing that because, for starters, it’s very easy to move around with a notebook and a pen. I can go from using my desk, to sitting on the couch, to lying down on the floor, and I can do it all while writing. And I think having your body in motion helps keep the flow of the story moving. Also, when I write in my notebook, I don’t worry about sentence structure, or paragraph breaks, or even spelling. I just write from the heart while trying not to think too much.” He continued: “The second step is where I take the story I wrote in my notebook and transfer it to the computer. If an idea organically pops up, I’ll make small adjustments during that transfer. Then with the third step, with everything on the computer, and with the heart of the story intact, I go back to the beginning and start writing with my head. I fix any confusion, any choppiness, any ugly sentence structures while also fleshing out the characters and scenarios. Accordingly, although it is where the story becomes whole, the third step is where I generally overwrite. So for the fourth step, once I feel I’m completely done fleshing out the story and making it coherent, I print out the manuscript and take the red pen to it. I cross out anything that feels unnecessary or that will cause boredom. And that usually wraps everything up.” Jeff chose to forego the traditional publishing route, opting instead to publish his novel through AuthorHouse, with the help of a private backer: “When it came to publishing The Ease of Access, I had received a couple of offers from independent publishers, but due to budgetary matters, those publishers wouldn’t have been able to release the novel until 2015 or at best, maybe late 2014. So, wanting to get The Ease of Access out sooner rather than later, I reached out to a private financier who fully backed the production of the novel through AuthorHouse.” Jeff described the self-publishing process as an interesting option for writers, as long as the required funding is available: “Working with AuthorHouse definitely depends on a person’s economic situation. Money is the key issue. If writers truly, and I mean truly, believe in their work, don’t want to wait on the budget of other publishers, or simply aren’t clicking with other publishers, and have the capital to support their own projects, I would say go for it. The people at AuthorHouse, from the in-house editors, to the marketing consultants, to the designers are all great professionals. They know their business quite well and they provide the chance for writers to work essentially unchallenged.” “But again, money is the issue. I’m not sure about other self-publishing companies, but AuthorHouse isn’t exactly cheap. I lucked out big time by having The Ease of Access fully backed by a financier. Given that he has asked to remain private, I can’t say much about the financier, but I can say that he put about three grand into my project. Certainly a nice chunk of cash. But with that money came many different perks for the book. The biggest advantage involved distribution through Ingram, which helped get my book into stores.” Jeff has also taken on the job of promoting his own novel: “I took on as much as I could on the promotional end. In order to get the word out about the book, one of the things I was lucky enough to do was kind of mix two of my passions. Back in September 2013, I had the chance to be a part of a group art show at this great place in Manhattan called Bar Catalonia. A week or so after that show, I was picking up my work while telling the bar’s event manager, David Morris, about The Ease of Access. Fortunately, David came up with the idea to host a book release party when the novel was published. I really couldn’t have asked for more with that event. I had the opportunity to sell some copies. I met a bunch of readers and writers. And I was able to celebrate with my friends and family, which is always nice.” Jeff’s work has been influenced and inspired by a long list of incredible writers: “Hunter S. Thompson taught me that writing could and should be fun. Through John Fante, Charles Bukowski, and Mark SaFranko, I learned about the importance of truthfulness and fortitude. By reading Kafka and William S. Burroughs I felt it was fine to be a bit strange. With Dostoyevsky, Camus, and Sartre, I understood the importance of patience and deliberation. And then there’s Sam Pink. He makes me laugh while also making me feel a little doleful. Also, Marquis De Sade has had a big influence on me when it came to The Ease of Access. Along with his writing, the debate about his mindset and style played a role in my novel. There seems to be a constant debate about whether De Sade’s writing was pornographic or philosophical. I think the two can co-exist.” In a few months, Roundfire Books will be publishing a collection of Jeff’s writing in a book entitled “Snapshot Americana”: “The book will include my writing from 2006 and 2008 - which covers the time I spent in East Orange, New Jersey, New Orleans, Louisiana, and Washington D.C. The book is a short non-fiction work that looks at the world from the eyes of the disadvantaged. It's about witnessing the privileged roll up their sleeves to make sure that the less fortunate eat. It's about watching people battle for their values while those who mock them stand no more than five feet away. Most importantly, it's about leaving that zone of comfort and exploring unfamiliar areas and circumstances. It explores issues like gentrification, infestation, police harassment, self-governance, and it includes conversations with those who have suffered, and are still suffering due to the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. I also include a unique discussion with a woman who has been living on the street, across from the White House, since the Reagan Years - concerning the possibilities of global destruction.” Jeff explained why he chose to have his second book published by Roundfire Books: “The move to go with Roundfire Books for Snapshot Americana was an easy decision for me. I really enjoy the work they have published in the past. And I truly respect and trust those in charge at that house. This is a simple way of looking at it, but the people at Roundfire really love literature. A lot of publishers, agents, and consultants love money. But Roundfire loves literature. And, as a writer, those are the only type of people I want to work with.” Jeff has recently completed his second novel entitled “The Charming Swindler”: “I co-developed the story with a friend of mine. Although it took a while, the process with my second novel was pretty straightforward. I would call up my friend, who happens to be an incredibly complex and interesting guy I met while working at FUSE TV. He would tell me stories about his life. Sometimes he would talk for five minutes. Other times he would go on for an hour or so. I took notes as he talked. Once my friend was done with whatever story he felt like telling me, I would work on my notes, mix some of my own experiences with his, and use all of that to create a chapter for the book. Once that chapter was complete, I would call him up and start again with a different part of his life - and so on until the book was complete.” “What we ended up creating was a dark, chaotic tale about a man named Eddie Crisp. In the book, Eddie leaves his hometown of Oakland, California in a quest to become the world's pre-eminent television producer. His wild voyages take him from Oakland to Boston to New York and finally to Las Vegas. In fact, the book opens in Los Angeles with Eddie apprehensively waiting to marry his love, someone he met at Emerson College before his own alcohol and gambling addictions and self-worth started spinning out of control. Above all else, with The Charming Swindler, I wanted to play with the idea of what an “Alpha Male” is supposed to be and represent.” Jeff’s reason for writing: “It’s tough to put into words why I write. But I can say that taking a break at this point seems impossible. If I don’t write, even if I go without it for one day, I feel like something is missing. Like something is wrong. Literature is something I need every day.” ***** Jeff provides the following advice for writers who are starting out: 1. When it comes to editing, it’s always essential for one to do as much work on his or her own project as possible. However, writers are so close and so locked in to their own project that they are bound to miss some, or even a bunch of mistakes. There’s no way around it. In view of that, given that you want the project to be at its best, it is very important to find a professional and trustworthy editor who can not only tighten and clean the manuscript, but also one who can provide some thoughts that may enhance the story. 2. Read. It’s the ultimate literary cliché. But it’s a cliché for a reason. It works. Reading will help writers learn about technique. It will teach them about pacing. And, above all else, it will teach them about themselves. When someone finds a writer they love, they also learn more about their own feelings and desires. They essentially discover the writer they want to ultimately become. So find your favorite writer and read all of their work. And then read your favorite writer’s favorite writer. And so on. I’ve never attended any writing courses. I just never had the desire. Given the competitive nature of most people, perhaps being in a class and being around other writers can push an individual to create a better story than John or Jane. But I’m not totally sure. For the most part, writing is a game that involves isolation. Plus, I think the best literary teachers can be found at a bargain on the bookshelves of any library. 3. Get ready for rejection. The percentage of writers who break through right away is so small that it might as well be zero. Don’t let it force you into submission. However, I think it’s also good to take rejections personally. I think it’s good to get angry about a rejection and then utilize that anger to create motivation. When he was thirty-one years old, Jean-Paul Sartre’s first novel was rejected. In an interview almost four decades later, Sartre had said of the rejection: “I took this hard: I had put all of myself into a book I worked on for many years; it was myself that had been rejected, my experience that had been excluded.” Obviously, he took it personally. But that rejection didn’t stop him. It pushed him forward.” To purchase a copy of “The Ease of Access,” please go to: ***** Image Credit: Used with Jeff Musillo’s permission

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At Face Value

by Jeff Musillo

In the following thought-provoking sketch, American author Jeff Musillo draws attention to issues of race and equality – from the point of view of a young boy who is trying to make sense of his world. ***** I really enjoyed acting when I was younger. Being a character and portraying a different person on camera, or even just in front of friends, meant a lot to me. This was sixteen, maybe seventeen years ago. As of right now, I’m about a year shy of thirty. I didn’t call it acting back then. To me it was simply “playing around.” I was a kid and I liked dressing up in weird outfits and pretending to be someone, or something I wasn’t. One of the characters I liked to play was The Macho Man Randy Savage. Above all else, I really enjoyed performing comedy sketches. A friend of mine liked comedy as well. I lucked out with that. His name was Brad. He had a video camera and to me, that meant endless possibilities. A way to explore in a non-stop fashion. A way to express ourselves without the pressure of having to be serious about it. Brad and I would design and film short sketches at his house. Then we would enthusiastically play back the bits and intently watch our characters. We would laugh and feel like two of the luckiest people on the planet. It was beyond fun. But we also made sure that we remained committed. We respected a steady schedule. We would try to get all the filming done before Brad’s parents arrived home. There was a reason for this. Brad’s parents fought a lot. Tons of adult fighting. The Father would curse and throw dishes around the kitchen. The Mother would bite her fists and kick holes through various walls in the house. This happened a lot. On rare occasions, The Parents tried to negotiate some kind of peace or calm. It sometimes seemed like they wanted to work things out, or at least make things easier for one another. One day, The Father purchased a punching bag for The Mother so she wouldn’t kick holes in the walls anymore. But that plan never took hold. The Parents never hung the bag. It just stayed in the corner of the living room. Collecting dust. In the long run, the punching bag did not help The Mother. It didn’t stop her from using her foot to express her rage. Things happen, I guess. Life happens. People become angry. With all of that going on in the background, I did my best to keep Brad motivated. My goal was to move fast all the time, so we could finish filming before his parentsf got home from work. I didn’t want them to get in the way. I didn’t want them to ruin the fun. Adults can sometimes do that. One day while we were still in middle school, the social studies teacher assigned a project to our class. We had to make a video about historical figures. The students were told to form into groups of three. We were allowed to make our own selections. Once the groups were formed, the students would divvy up the workload amongst themselves. Brad and I were in the same class, so, naturally, we were in the same group. We asked a girl to join us as our third member. Her name was Sarah. She was a good fit. She was shy and nice and, most importantly, she was cool with Brad and I taking command of the project. That was important to us. The historical figure our group decided on was Rosa Parks. There was plenty of accessible information about Ms. Parks, so we figured she would be a great subject. I also thought, strictly in terms of character, that it would be a really entertaining project since we had decided to produce a film, and I had decided that I would be the one to play Rosa Parks. When I revealed this to my group, nobody batted an eye. We were just all so excited to get to work. It didn’t occur to me at the time that Sarah would have been a more natural fit, since she was of Ms. Parks’ gender and race. I was the white guy in the group, but I was the one who loved to act, so me playing Rosa Parks seemed normal to everyone – and both Sarah and Brad were clearly happy with my decision. We decided to film the project at my house since my mother was, and still is, a make-up artist. She was thrilled to have a new way to showcase her skills, and to take part in her son’s school project. My group was more than happy to have her join in, especially since she could make our historical figure look as authentic as possible. My mother wanted to make sure she had time to focus and fine-tune my look if necessary, so on the day of the shoot, she got me out of bed early. She wanted to get a jumpstart on everything. With my eyes a bit crusty and red, she led me to the illuminated kitchen, eager to begin, where she had already set up her make-up and equipment. She sat me down on a wooden stool and wasted no time turning my white skin black. While she did this, I studied the lines of my script. I studied away as the make-up sponge brushed my cheeks and my chin and my forehead and my nose, feeling elated about my transformation. I remember studying those lines over and over again. Despite the fact that it was easy for our group to find information about Rosa Parks, we worked really hard on that script. It took us a full week to write my one page monologue. That was a lot of work back then for us kids. But we didn’t mind. We were ecstatic about it. It meant so much to us to have an opportunity to play around and produce a film. We were willing to push ourselves and do the research because at the end of the day, we would hit the wonderful RECORD button. As my mother finished applying my make-up, Brad and Sarah came through the door. Perfect timing. Not knowing what to expect, and perhaps feeling somewhat surprised by my mother’s good work, Brad and Sarah giggled in an encouraging fashion when they first saw me. We all agreed that the video was going to turn out great. We set up the camera and I took my position. I sat in a leather chair in front of my mother’s fireplace. Brad provided a few pointers regarding my performance and then we were off to the races. I felt transformed. I had the most incredible time pretending to be Rosa Parks. As a group, we understood that we were tackling a serious subject about an incredible woman, and we did not overlook that. We knew the important role Rosa Parks played in American history as a civil rights activist, and we made it our mission to draw attention to her courage and resilience in the face of adversity. We felt honored to have the opportunity to create a film about her life. But even with all of this in mind, we still had the best time playing around. This playing around went on for an hour or so. Every now and then, Brad would suggest an adjustment to one of my lines, or Sarah would change the camera angle, or my mom would reapply some make-up. Everybody was working together. Smiling the whole time. When we felt that enough material had been recorded, we all sat down to go through the footage and pick the take we liked the best. I laughed when I saw myself on camera. My face was a different color. There was a wig on my head. I had raised the tone of my voice so that it was higher in pitch. It was all so cool and captivating. I got to be Rosa Parks! I couldn’t wait to show our class. I was beyond antsy when the day arrived for the screening of our film. Everyone would soon see what we had made! Indeed, I was so excited that it didn’t bother me when I noticed that my teacher wasn’t paying much attention to the students’ presentations. She was multitasking. Grading papers while the segments played. When our time to present our film finally arrived, I put the tape in the VCR so fast I thought I might’ve broken it. But it wasn’t broken. It played. And for almost everyone in class, it seemed to play well. Once the other students got past their initial chuckling and laughter from seeing me dressed as a woman, I watched them become absorbed. One classmate even gave me a high five. It was awesome. I’m pretty certain they would’ve enjoyed it even more if they had had the opportunity to see the whole thing. Sadly, that didn’t happen. Shortly after the halfway mark, I caught a glimpse of my teacher just as she looked up from her papers and, in an alarmed manner, lunged for the VCR. Abruptly, she stopped our tape. With panic in her voice she shouted, “That’s enough!” My teacher stood in front of the blank TV screen for what felt like a long time. She told our group that she wanted to see us in the hallway. We were unsure of what was taking place. With timid steps we followed our teacher into the hallway. She started chewing us out almost immediately, so it didn’t take long before we were hanging our heads in shame. It was a very harsh scolding. The worst part is that it felt like it was coming out of nowhere. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t understand why I was being yelled at. It was all very difficult to take. My teacher was saying things like, “How dare you!” and “You should all know better!” and “If anyone should’ve played Rosa Parks, it should’ve been Sarah!” I didn’t get it. Sarah was too shy. She didn’t want to play Rosa Parks. I was the one who liked acting. I didn’t know what my teacher was talking about, but I was too scared and upset to question her anger. “Do you even know what you’ve done?” my teacher continued in a heated tone, deliberately directing her question at me. “How on earth could you think that playing blackface would be appropriate?” There is a first time for everything. That was the first time I had ever heard the word “blackface.” I remember that it sounded so mean to me. I was confused. I asked, “Wait. What did we do? What’s blackface?” “Don’t give me that. You know better. You were the one with the painted face.” “The painted face?” I asked. “Yes! You painted your face black!” she shouted, her own face turning red in anger. “But that’s because Rosa Parks was black! I don’t get it. How else was I supposed to play her?” “Do you want to go to the Principal’s office, Jason?” “No. Please no,” I answered nervously. “I just really don’t understand what we did wrong. All we wanted to do was show everyone else what Rosa Parks was like. I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to paint my face. I didn’t even know that it was wrong. All I wanted was…” My teacher cut me off. “Sarah should have been in the film, not you!” She glared at me. Then she told us that if we didn’t want to fail, we would have to make another project about a different historical figure. I wanted to cry. We had worked so hard on the Rosa Parks project. But my teacher didn’t care about that. “Redo it or fail.” My teacher informed us that we couldn’t choose our historical figure this time around. “The film will be about…” Her eyes flitted back and forth as she searched her mind for the right name. “George Washington. The film will be about George Washington.” I was exasperated. “George Washington?” I asked. “Why George Washington?” Tears threatened to fall from the corners of my eyes. I thought of all of the work we had done, the hours of practice, the lines I had studied over and over again. “Because George Washington was WHITE!” she nearly screamed in frustration. Now I was really confused. This wasn’t making any sense. I spoke very slowly, to make sure my teacher would understand my question. “So you want Sarah to play George Washington?” “What?” “You just told us that Sarah was the one who should have been in the film! And if she’s playing George Washington, she’ll have to paint her face white! I thought you said we couldn’t paint our faces!” “That’s DIFFERENT,” my teacher spluttered. Her mind appeared to be searching helplessly for an explanation. “Why?” I asked. My teacher clenched her fists and stammered, her lips tight and bloodless: “Because IT JUST IS.” The wind had been knocked out of me. I was more confused now than when my teacher had first started yelling at me. All I knew was that I didn’t want to play around anymore. ***** Image Credit: Istockphoto/Michelinedesgroseillers

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Ivan The Superhero P1

by J.D. Coburn

In the following article, American writer JD Coburn shares the story of Ivan, a transgender man who lived in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth century. Publicly, Ivan was known to the author and to his family as “Great Aunt Ivan,” but according to the author, “he lived his life as a man, a good man, maybe the best man one could know.” To honor his memory and his life, JD has agreed to publish Ivan’s story here. ***** To most people, ‘True Grit’ is a movie. They think grit is something that gets caught in your teeth. Back in the day, before the nightfall of the present, grit was the element a fellow possessed that made it impossible for him NOT to ride toward four or five highwaymen, reins between his teeth, a pistol in each hand, and the love of home and family in his heart. They were people of character who gave America its strength and built everything you see around you today. My Great Aunt Ivan was my maternal grandfather’s sister. She shot from the hip of righteousness with barrels a foot long. Ivan was a true super hero. ***** My great aunt had not been christened Ivan. That was not the name with which she had been baptized. She chose the name, Ivan, after a long succession of trials with other names. Women’s names, names of small towns, dogs, proper nouns, adjectives, seasons, colors, weather features—like Sunny, Cloudy, Stormy, etc.—and finally, men’s names. All took their turns as Ivan’s monikers. Rex and Lumber were both strong contenders for permanence, each lasting years, but once she reached the age of eighteen, she pretty much stuck with Ivan. “I’m not all here,” Ivan complained as a child. The family chuckled and agreed, tongue in cheek, and referred to her complaints as her ‘growin’ pains.’ From the age of four to the day she passed, Ivan’s ‘growin’ pains’ never quite produced the growth for which she pained. Ivan tried many jobs. Being from my family, she worked her first job at age four when she was introduced into ‘the show.’ Vaudeville is the family business, and has been for over one hundred and sixty years. My family is theater, in every sense imaginable. In Ivan’s days, every member of the family worked in the show in some capacity. Ivan would come center stage dressed half in knickers and suspenders, sporting a boy’s shirt, one bare foot, and half a cap. Her other half was in a pink tutu and tights, a slipper, and a bow in a curly blonde pony tail. There she would sing a plaintive ditty about being ‘different’ called “They Always Always Pick on Me.” When I was born My Ma and Pa They looked at me and said, “Oh, pshaw!” The doctor said, “It’s a boy, I think” Then Pa went out And got a drink Then Ma said I looked just like Pa Pa said I took after Ma Aunt Jane said I looked like the Sphinx And I’ve been a stepchild ever since. They always always pick on me They never never let me be I’ve been so lonesome, oh so sad It’s been a long time since I’ve been glad I know what I’ll do by and by I’ll eat some worms and then I’ll die And when I’m gone, you wait and see They’ll all be sorry that they picked on me! Ending with a one-legged tap dance to lively exeunt music, off she’d go, stage left. All six of my great-grandfather’s kids did this bit. All six of my grandfather’s kids did this bit. I did this bit when I was four. How do you think I know the words? Ivan didn’t have a lot of options as a woman in the work force. She was, however, fearless and anxious to best the fellow who could not be bested. Ivan was best at lumberjacking. She looked completely alive and at home in her costume of red suspenders and plaid wool shirts, her cuts, and corks. Her stage was the forests of Wisconsin during the previous turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. Ivan wielded a double bitted axe with aplomb and adroitly handled her end of a buck saw or a peavy. Donning cleats, she could scale a hundred feet of Douglas fir in a matter of seconds, not minutes. She even introduced herself as Doug Fir for a while as she worked in the forests. She loved the animal energy of the wilderness, and put great thought and care into everyone’s safety. The job spoke to both sides of Ivan. The side that really spoke to Ivan was the little freckle-faced boy in her—frog in one pocket and slingshot in the other. With scuffed knees and bruises, she held a rock in one hand and a bouquet of dandelions in the other for her sweetheart, her mom. She never courted, and, well, no fellow ever courted her either. She would readily arm wrestle a fellow but that was about all the physical contact she needed from a man. Ivan pined for no man but herself, resulting in a predictable and omnipresent heartbreak. There is a family story that she once won a bet with a fellow, waging that she could, in fact, pee over a barrel. The ‘how’ of it was sketchy but everyone agreed that she’d done it and that it involved lying down on the ground, making it all the more difficult. If Ivan wore a dress, you could bet that she wore a pair of dungarees under those ruffles—and you’d win. Ivan walked with purpose. She stood tall, and didn’t stand long for those who did not. She didn’t suffer fools. (I’m told I inherited this characteristic from Ivan.) I thought for a long time that I would one day write a play about Ivan. The coincidence of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” (Vanya is Russian for Ivan) kept me from doing it. And Patrick Dennis’ story “Auntie Mame” also treads perilously close on many levels to Ivan’s story. So, I decided I’d try telling her story. This was almost impossible to do since everyone who knew her had died. I knew that Ivan was a transgender man, and that Ivan lived at a time when there was little understanding of what it meant to be “different.” I knew that she loved dogs, that she took on men’s and women’s names, that she worked as a railroad conductor, and in logging and farming. Based on these facts, I began to come up with stories about her life, hoping that other people—like me—who are “different” in any number of ways, who don’t quite fit in, might find grace in her stories. That’s what Ivan did. Ivan was a sparkling, imaginative, elegant and terrifying storyteller. She told stories about life—by living out her life. I only wish that I could write the one happy ending for which she yearned—to be who she really was. Who Ivan really was, was delivered in her values and character. She described values as those things in life which mean nothing to anyone else but everything to you. Ivan said character is making sure that the world knows what you stand for and what you will NOT stand for. My youngest son, Nikita, believes in super heroes. I want him to know one, his Great Aunt Ivan. The following stories are for him. ***** Story 1: Ivan, The Storyteller A jerk-line skinner might hire out and keep a team of eight to twenty horses or mules but Ivan only had tack for two: Archie and Pearl. Archie was a spanking Bay, while Pearl was a Dapple. Warmbloods, each stood at eighteen hands high (about six feet to the withers). Alone they could pull a day’s wage out of the hay fields. But with the brace, Aunt Ivan never needed to look for work. Work looked for her. It wasn’t just her team or her reputation as a first class skinner that brought joy and lightened the load of the buckers. It was the very look of Ivan, reins in hands, a stub of a pipe clenched tightly between her teeth, her broad-brimmed hat worn at a rakish tilt that made the day go smoother, and that alone was worth her fifty and found. Plus, Ivan didn’t seem to bother much about bunking with the men. Her presence tended to make the younger hands jumpy at first but the older fellows knew her. They knew there was no holding back and NO holding at all with Ivan and woe to the fellow who entertained such thoughts. The sunbaked fields gave every man a ruddy flush to his countenance. Ivan’s cheeks were rosy in winter but by harvest, after a long hot season, the rose blushed to ripe red against the brown leather of her face. Now, Ivan was firmly built, tall but not soft by any stretch. “Big boned” they called her, and she swore she could consume her own weight in prime rib. She could certainly drink to capacity and put many a man under the table when the stakes were right. Some nights, Ivan would sing to the stars with a softness and lightness that brought a tear to the eye. Ivan sang for the men, who day dreamed of their homes and the lustful pursuits that had made up their rough pasts. The farm made its own music. Crickets and frogs sang their night songs, the buzzing of mosquitoes and fireflies making up the string section, while the windmill churned rhythmically in the distance. A stand of poplar along the windward horizon silhouetted the dusk sky, like a lace border to heaven. The musk of fertile soil would stay in the nose of a farm hand for months after harvest. Dirt filled pores never seemed to scrub out, and that which found its way beneath the nails of knotted fingers remained for years after a man’s day was done. Ivan’s contentment was one that came directly from earning her way. A day’s wage for a day’s work was all she craved, after, as a matter of course, Archie and Pearl were well groomed, well fed, and well stabled for the night. Ivan got what she gave with those horses. The only male who ever wormed his way into Ivan’s heart was Archie. Pearl, Ivan surrendered, was her equal—and that earned her respect. Each brush stroke across the broad backs, bottoms, manes and legs of those horses was accompanied with a whisper of the horse’s name. The sweetest sounds those horses ever heard was that of their own names being sung by Ivan. So, when she barked “HO, ARCH” or “WHOA, PEARL” they responded with heads held high, nostrils flaring with pride. Devoted stable mates, they tugged or stopped with a unified might. Ivan’s life was that of core virtues, of goodness prevailed, a life of candor with God Almighty. In her heart of hearts, she struggled with her secrets, but knew that hers was a noble use of life—even if she couldn’t have what her heart desired. Dawn cracked and Archie and Pearl burst forth from the barn, rearing and raring to pull. Three wagons in tow, the buckers got to ride to the North 40. In mid morning, they gulped hot breakfast pie and even hotter coffee. Hocks, beans and cob corn came ‘round by five, then a big chuck back at the bunk by sunset. Great black roasts, carved paper-thin were piled high on sourdough with a gravy so thick it spoke with an accent. Fresh from the kitchen garden, the spuds were steamed and mashed and buttered to fattened perfection. Ice-cold buttermilk dripped and drooled from mustachioed lips to the tune of belching and loosened belt buckles. Gas was passed outside by decree of the bunk. As the night slipped into cool, the boots came off and stocking feet met the brass rail that surrounded a sweet little pot-bellied stove in the center of the bunk house. Out came a secret pint of sippin’ whisky, carefully snuffed cigar remains, a deck of cards, the spots near worn off, and the stories and jokes typical of a bunkhouse. All of which made the air thick with smells, smoke, lies and laughter. Given her misspent youth in Vaudeville, Ivan’s stories elevated the air of the room to the rarified. She had actually been in the dressing rooms of the Burlesque dancers and told of the sights she’d seen in tormenting detail. For effect, she would hesitate on words like, “nipples,” “lips,” and “garter belts,” lingering on the adjectives, “tight,” “round,” and “firm,” and in so doing she sent many a stout fellow to the outhouse, a tightly held collection of French paste cards in hand. Ivan’s exclusive platform of delivery was the other fellow’s imagination. Ivan loved women, and knew innately what these men would like. ***** Story 2: Ivan, The Protector Ivan was a conductor on the Coast Starlight, a rail line that travels along the western edge of America, from the Mexican to the Canadian border. She rode the bone rattling cars with grace and purpose, and was a welcome sight as she meandered through the aisles of the rail cars. She shared a bawdy joke with the carpetbaggers, a warm word of assurance with the mail-order brides, and a penny’s worth of rock candy with the distraught young’uns. She looked smart in her conductor’s cap and blazer, the stripes down the long legs of her trousers meeting her old steel-toed corks (hob-nail boots worn in logging) which she wore for extra traction. On sleeper cars in particular, aisle-passing maneuvers, especially when trying to edge by men in the early twentieth century, could sometimes take on an unwelcome measure of intimacy. Ivan had discovered a few moves that seemed natural on a lurching train but always resulted in a painful lesson for any gent who thought too well of himself. No man ever complained that she’d made the transition ‘rough’ on purpose. Ivan knew well that for men, humiliation meant silence. Ivan had feelings like a woman, but she never felt like a woman. She felt like a man. Civil War veterans on both sides complained that they felt pain in legs that had been amputated and were no longer there. Ivan knew that pain, but it humiliated her in the same way that it humiliated the veterans. She never spoke of her humiliation, not once, to a living soul. Still, everyone seemed to know that she suffered. People admired Ivan for her strength. Ivan had the iron will of the soldier—the ability to set aside her fears and stand up. As happens sometimes, big things break. When a thing as big as a train breaks, there is a lot of damage beyond the train itself. Some of that damage can have a human toll. It’s terrifying when a train derails, but even more so in the moments that follow because there is no way to predict what will happen after that first car turns or tips too hard. The cars and trucks weigh many tons each, their payloads of coal, grain, rock, and crude oil, not to mention mail and passengers, all moving at high speeds adding exponentially to the impact. Through the steam, smoke and flame, through the wreckage and chaos, strode Ivan. Emerging from hell’s fires, surefooted and with assurance, she would find the lost parent or child, reunite them, then head straight back into the fray. The children and dogs were easily distracted with a treat. The adults, particularly the wealthy, felt the entitlement of birth and rank, believing they should be helped first. Ivan’s priorities were—as my grandmother would always tell us, “To help the ones who need it the most.” Protecting those who were smaller and weaker was built into Ivan. She was put together with steel in her convictions, a power plant for a heart, and the impermeable malleability of a cloud. She moved through chaos like a breath of life because she intended to do so. Ivan did those things because she said she could, not because anyone else said she couldn’t. ***** Story 3: What Does It Mean To Be A Man? If you want to learn how to be a man you need only look to my Great Aunt Ivan. Even in the schoolyard, she never picked on the smaller, weaker kids. Ivan was the one who stood up to the bullies and faced them down. In doing so, she earned the respect of both the weak and the strong. That’s what a man is supposed to do. Do men fall short of this ideal? Many do. Aunt Ivan did not. Growing up in farming country, Ivan learned very young that what happens to your neighbor can just as easily happen to you. A bumper crop, ruinous draught, a good well dug, even a small fire, and much more can be the impetus for wealth or ruin. A fire at a neighbor’s barn could be seen burning for miles across the tops of the fat grain and corn, day or night. While others ran away, Ivan rode into the fire. Out of the darkness, Ivan faded into the firelight like a glowing red demon. Roman-riding her team, Archie and Pearl, one foot planted firmly on each of the broad backs of her horses, Ivan’s shrill whistle broke the air. Holding the reins in one hand and their ends in the other, snapping side to side, pulling a water wagon, Ivan looked like some fiery ancient war goddess riding into battle! From atop her horses, she could survey what needed doing first and would direct the relay of buckets. The poor fellow who didn’t move fast enough was tossed aside like stale candy so that Ivan could step in and show him how it was done. By example, the others imitating her, Ivan led her neighbors to victory over disaster. After a barn raisin', a celebration would follow, and Ivan would be pointed to as the hero of the day. “Ah, freeze your teeth and give your tongue a sleigh ride,” cried Ivan, as she would have none of it. When it came to foaling, calving, and whelping, people came from miles around to see Ivan. Puppies were her specialty. She would take the pregnant bitch out to the shed or the barn, curling up with her in the clean hay and softly speaking her name. Petting and rubbing, she would help her through the rough spots of labor and delivery. The morning found Ivan with the new mother happily nursing, and eight to twelve happy, healthy pups napping, nuzzling, and sniffing about. Life was precious to Ivan. No pups drowned on her watch. If there were too many for the mother to feed, Ivan would bundle one or two of them up, zip them up inside her jacket, and take them home. She would nurse the pups with good cream and keep them warm in a box by the stove. Once the pups were strong enough, they’d come along on the wagon with her where they got ample love and attention all the day long. One pup stayed with her for many years. Born with only three legs, “Trip” lived up to her name as a puppy—but like Ivan, she never quit and she never gave up. Ivan understood that dog and often spoke of their time together as “the best ten years of my life.” She too was missing a part, but nothing could ever stop or slow her down. ***** To read Story 4 and Story 5, please click here Image Credit: Used with author's permission

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