Typewriters Part 2 — The Gallery

Manual typewriter mania continues at the Durbin household! The fleet has now grown to four, all write-worthy and in good shape. I’ve been typing a lot on all of them, learning their quirks. And I’ve been studying typewriter care and maintenance, consulting with some very helpful experts both near and far. I’m going to say very little in this post. Let the dignity and mystique of these beautiful old machines speak for itself!


1/30/2016: The Underwood, Julie's Christmas present that started it all.

1/30/2016: The Underwood (1951), Julie’s Christmas present that started it all


Second arrival: the Royal

Second arrival: the Royal (1953), whose keys respond to the lightest touch — you’d almost think it was electric!


Down from an attic: a lovingly-kept secretarial Smith-Corona -- a heavy-duty machine that handles like a dream

Down from an attic: a lovingly-kept secretarial Smith-Corona (1964) — a heavy-duty machine that handles like a dream


Last but not least, the Olympia SM9 -- truly a writer's typewriter!

Last but not least, the Olympia SM9 (1971) — truly a writer’s typewriter!


A new used sturdy display table from the local used furniture store

A new used sturdy display table from the local used furniture store


A happy typist

A happy typist


Under the hood -- Olympia SM9

Under the hood — Olympia SM9


The Underwood is the oldest and most temperamental of the four: but though they're all wonderful, I love the Underwood the most -- typewriters don't get any realer than this!

The Underwood is the oldest and most temperamental of the four: but though they’re all wonderful, I love the Underwood the most — typewriters don’t get any realer than this!














I gave the Royal a little brushes-and-vacuum cleaning today and cleaned the striking keys (type heads) on it and the Smith-Corona, so the "n" and the "e" look a lot better.

I gave the Royal a little brushes-and-vacuum cleaning today and cleaned the type (the slugs) on it and the Smith-Corona, so the “n” and the “e” look a lot better.







Typewriters Part 1

Here’s my newly cleaned and organized writing space for the new year:

My writing space: technology new and old.

My writing space: technology new and old

The good dictionaries and style books are close at hand. Ergonomic keyboard, check. I’m on the black keyboard now; in another month or so, I’ll return to the white one. I no longer have six of them like I did in the old days, but I like having two, plus the one that’s built into the laptop. Plus, well, the AlphaSmart Neo. But the newest thing I’ve rediscovered is . . . vintage manual typewriters!



This is the beautiful old Underwood, 1951, that Julie got me as a surprise Christmas present. Her dad heroically got it working in time for Christmas, an endeavor which involved building a new part for it.

The front plate is missing, which I am actually glad of. I love being able to see the insides!

The front plate is missing, which I am actually glad of. I love being able to see the insides!

Some of my writer-friends collect old typewriters. For awhile, I thought that sounded like too bulky a hobby to get into. After all, it’s the 21st century — don’t computers do everything we writers need and more? Oh, I generally understood the appeal of those vintage machines. I remember the old L. C. Smith that lived at our house since before I was born until I was emptying out the house after my parents passed away. I think by then it had developed some minor glitch, something that could have been easily repaired. But the computer had so long been my primary writing tool . . . and I was in full clean-out-the-house mode . . . that I gave that marvelous machine back to my aunt, who had saved up and bought it when she was a teenager. She sold it a few years later, when she was downsizing. Now I kick myself for ever letting that Smith out of my hands!

It's a sight that warms the soul.

It’s a sight that warms the soul.

Well, it’s an obsession I understand now, this need to have a few of these faithful old writing machines back in our lives. They exude a faint perfume of age and oil and ink. Peer closely into their depths with a magnifying lens, and you can see the shadows of the past . . . the ghosts of uncounted words and stories. Yes, I have lovingly dusted with a Q-tip the tireless arms that hold these keys.

New arrival

New arrival

So here is my second new-old typewriter, on the left: a Royal from 1953. It’s a delight to type on, with its setting for touch sensitivity. It takes very little effort to strike the keys. It belonged to another writer before me, a person I never met. Isn’t that another wonder of these machines? Computers almost never get handed down. Quite the contrary — they are as grass. But manual typewriters are more like ancestral swords or houses, more like violins. Each of them has known many of us.

I love the light in my office, too: plenty bright, yet soft and yellowish and old, the light of another era.

This Royal is some twenty years newer, I think, than the one that lived in our old house.

This Royal is some twenty years newer, I think, than the one that lived in our old house. The white letters go all the way through the green plastic keys, so that they will never wear off.

The Mac’s Magic Mouse sits on its pad beside the Royal. They’re different generations of one family.

For me, typewriters aren’t for decoration. They have work to do here, mostly typing envelopes and letters. I will almost certainly find ways to let them participate in some stage of fiction writing, too — not drafts, I’m guessing, but notes — notes on ideas, on what is to come in the chapters ahead. So satisfying these instruments are! No dependence on electricity . . . so simple, so concrete, so tangible and physical. What’s the sound of a typewriter’s hammer striking the paper? — Thatch, like the roof of a cottage? So, thatch, thatch, thatch — crisp black letters go directly onto the page, precisely where we’ve aimed them. Letters become words, words become sentences, sentences become stories, stories become worlds that we share across time and space. It all begins with thatch.

Behold — miracle machines! Right here on our desktops!

Joyous news: a third typewriter is on the way! On Wednesday, a small, portable vintage Remington is due to join these other two. And yes, I’ll stop collecting there . . . for now, anyway. Three of the four great old families of typewriters will be represented: Underwood, Royal, and Remington. Someday, the Grail: a vintage Smith-Corona. But those are quests for the future. Even the best and kindest wives may be cool with three old writing machines coming to stay, but at some point they must take husbands gently by the arm and lead them back to Earth. “Be patient, Honey,” they say. “There will be other Christmases.”

Angel and gargoyle, just because

Angels and gargoyles have much in common with the best wives: beautiful (the angels, anyway), vigilant, strong, posting (as Milton says) o’er land and ocean without rest; guarding the cathedral, ever faithful.

And that’s the truth, and that’s the wisdom to be heeded. Tools are tools, but we must remember what they’re for, after all. It’s about the stories. Back to work on the book!

A scene from the series-in-progress

A scene from the series-in-progress — “Where do ideas come from?” they always ask the writers. “Well,” one answer goes, “if you have the right stuff on your shelves . . .”



Advent 2015

It’s here again, this season in which the world cools and darkens around us. It’s the time of year when we light candles and string up lights, send and receive lots of greetings, and think about presents.

“Remember the Reason for the season,” we’re told. “Yes,” we think, “I’m trying, but first, I’ve got an awful lot to do. The calendar doesn’t wait. If Martha hadn’t been working in the kitchen, there wouldn’t have been food on the table when Jesus came to stay.” Very true. Someone has to do the things, or they don’t get done. People are counting on us.

And I think that’s the key — the way to be both Mary and Martha as we prepare to welcome the newborn King in this journey through Advent.

  1. It’s about people and loving them. Are those busy preparations about loving people? About warming their lives in some way here in the cold and dark of December? Then good! Write those cards! Bake those cakes! Choose those gifts! Hang those ornaments for children to look at and see reflected in them the light shining from beyond all this.
  2. It’s about taking regular moments to consider what’s happening here. Sing the carols — really sing them, and let their words sink in. Read the story in Scripture. My favorite way to enjoy a Christmas tree is this (but it works with any decoration, even if you have no tree — a Nativity set or even a single, simple candle will do): sit near it at night, when the day’s work is done, when rest — however brief — lies ahead. Turn off all the other lights. Listen to whatever Christmas music moves you the most. For me, it’s “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence,” the most eerie and terrifying and awe-inspiring hymn there is, because it’s full of monsters: six-winged seraph, cherubim with sleepless eye . . . it transports us beyond the Earth and tells of a Lord who gives us “His own self for heavenly food.” It’s a hymn that tells me to shut my mortal mouth and listen, because the whole creation is singing, all those beings in Heaven and under the Earth and among the stars. But that’s just me. The point is, do these things together: the still dark of night, the glowing tree (or candle), and the music. Feel the deep magic. Emmanuel is coming here, the immortal God in the form of a baby. For us, because of our brokenness problem — our death problem. He’s coming to take those away.

Back in my college days, I was introduced to many a treasure of the musical and liturgical heritage of the Church. One such is a set of prayers called the Great O Antiphons, the various names of Jesus as heard in the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” — antiphons so named because they all begin with the honorific “O.” They’re here below, playing us out along with pictures of our Christmas tree, which is calling for people to come and sit around it in the dark and keep silent and listen. A star is leading us to Bethlehem. The King of all kings is coming, born to die and rise and give us life. It starts anew this Advent, beneath a tree near you!

In front of the bookshelves is the best place after all.

In front of the bookshelves is the best place after all.

O Wisdom, proceeding from the mouth of the Most High, pervading and permeating all creation, mightily ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.

Advent "wreath"

Advent “wreath”

O Adonai and ruler of the house of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave him the Law on Sinai: Come with an outstretched arm and redeem us.

"It's not a bad little tree, Charlie Brown."

“It’s not a bad little tree, Charlie Brown.”

O Root of Jesse, standing as an ensign before the peoples, before whom all kings are mute, to whom the nations will do homage: Come quickly to deliver us.

It's especially been fun this Advent that, as we're living through this season, I'm also writing about characters going through Advent in the novel-in-progress . . .

It’s especially been fun this Advent that, as we’re living through this season, I’m also writing about characters going through Advent in the novel-in-progress . . .

O Key of David and scepter of the house of Israel, You open and no one can close, You close and no one can open: Come and rescue the prisoners who are in darkness and the shadow of death.

"In the body and the blood, He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food."

“In the body and the blood, He will give to all the faithful His own self for heavenly food.”

O Dayspring, splendor of light everlasting: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.

There are several angels near the top of the tree. I thought this morning that a Christmas tree is a kind of Jacob's ladder, isn't it? Angels ascending and descending. There's a path between Heaven and Earth. Our God provides a way to Himself.

There are several angels near the top of the tree. I thought this morning that a Christmas tree is a kind of Jacob’s ladder, isn’t it? Angels ascending and descending. There’s a path between Heaven and Earth. Our God provides a way to Himself.

O King of the nations, the ruler they long for, the cornerstone uniting all people: Come and save us all, whom You formed out of clay.

"So every night we light the lights: not just for him, but for all of 'em who are still out there. 'Cause there'll come a day when they'll see the distant lights . . . and they'll be comin' home." -- from MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME

“So every night we light the lights: not just for him, but for all of ’em who are still out there. ‘Cause there’ll come a day when they’ll see the distant lights . . . and they’ll be comin’ home.” — from MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME

O Emmanuel, our king and our Lord, the anointed for the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.

"O Lord of light, who made the stars, O Dawn, by whom we see the way, O Christ, redeemer of the world: Come now and listen as we pray!

“O Lord of light, who made the stars, O Dawn, by whom we see the way, O Christ, redeemer of the world: Come now and listen as we pray!”

Advent blessings, and a very Merry Christmas to all!

"And that's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

“And that’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

New Book Cover Revealed

This week, Saga Press unveiled the cover for A Green and Ancient Light! (This is the novel formerly called The Sacred Woods.) The design team have truly outdone themselves, and they were even willing to make some adjustments based on a couple minor requests I made. Great people to work with! Anyway, here’s the cover, followed by a few thoughts from me:

The cover for my new book, due for publication in mid-June 2016 -- just in time for Midsummer's Eve!

The cover for my new book, due for publication in mid-June 2016 — just in time for Midsummer’s Eve!

I can’t imagine a cover more perfectly suited to this book. The title refers to the light that filters through the leaves of the forest — a place of timeless enchantment. I love the dark corners reflecting ever-present danger — and the arched, ancient doorway that seems both a part of the light and a part of the forest. It plays with our perspective: what is in front, and what is behind? Along with the ghostly figure of the deer, the archway invites the reader into a world of magic and mystery.

From the book jacket:

“As planes darken the sky and cities burn in the ravages of war, a boy is sent away to the safety of an idyllic fishing village far from the front, to stay with the grandmother he does not know. But their tranquility is shattered by the crash of a bullet-riddled enemy plane that brings the war — and someone else — to their doorstep. Grandmother’s mysterious friend, Mr. Girandole, who is far more than he seems, has appeared out of the night to ask Grandmother for help in doing the unthinkable.

“In the forest near Grandmother’s cottage lies a long-abandoned garden of fantastic statues, a grove of monsters, where sunlight sets the leaves aglow and the movement at the corner of your eye may just be fairy magic. Hidden within is a riddle that has lain unsolved for centuries — a riddle that contains the only solution to their impossible problem. To solve it will require courage, sacrifice, and friendship with the most unlikely allies.

“In the spirit of Peter S. Beagle and Patricia McKillip comes a gorgeous, bittersweet fantasy that is both achingly familiar and wondrously strange, a foray into the enchanted realm of the remembered past, when dreams were as real as carved stone, a day might last forever, and a summer could shape a life.”


Mammoth Cave (A Journey in the Dark)

It’s officially reconfirmed: Mammoth Cave remains the best place in the world. At the end of July, we spent three nights there in the national park, in a woodland cottage. In two days, we took a total of four tours. And that’s just barely enough to grasp the enormity of the world’s longest known cave. Very little of the four tours overlap. You really are seeing different parts of this astounding subterranean world.

Us at the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave, July 2015

Us at the Historic Entrance to Mammoth Cave, July 2015

The longest tour, these days called the Grand Avenue Tour, is a four-mile hike underground, which takes about four hours.

At the threshold

At the threshold

I had the great joy of getting to introduce Julie to the cave — this was her first visit to Mammoth. She was profoundly impressed. She understands it now: the Setting that lies behind all my fictional settings, the first inspiration for them all — all those underground realms and dim interiors of giant things — buildings, ships, or forests. My parents first took me to Mammoth Cave when I was about 8 or 9, and I’ve never stopped writing about it. This was my fourth visit, but in all the best ways, the experience was brand-new. I’m thankful for the insights Julie had there. There’s nothing like seeing a well-loved place through the eyes of a  well-loved one seeing it for the first time. That’s what I want to write about here.

The deep places of the Earth

The deep places of the Earth

First, Julie was awed by the hugeness of Mammoth Cave. It is the colossal size for which the cave is named, not for the presence of any woolly mammoths. You walk down seemingly endless corridors the size of subway tunnels or bigger, crossing through rooms like cathedrals. If I could go there and set my own pace to look around properly and absorb the scenes, the Half-Day Tour would take more like three days.

The old Snowball Dining Room, where the Half-Day Tour used to stop and eat a boxed lunch purchased at this counter. Today the Snowball Room offers a bathroom break and a rest.

The old Snowball Dining Room, where the Half-Day Tour used to stop and eat a boxed lunch purchased at this counter. Today the Snowball Room offers a bathroom break and a rest.

On the Violet City Lantern tour, visitors have the opportunity to see the cave in much the same way that the early guides and tourists saw it: by flickering lantern light, which allows the shadows to veil the distances and the imagination to awaken. On our Violet City tour, about every fourth person carried a lantern. Yes, I eagerly stepped up to be one of them. From Dragonfly:

“The City of Echoes itself diminished, its dark outlines fading to invisibility. Torches gleamed like fireflies along the great wall. In a matter of seconds, the well behind us looked utterly black, no different from any of the other cracks and gulfs of the deep Earth. I wondered at how frail a thing man is, at how the mere absence of a torch in such a place casts the greatest of his works into obscurity. Where was the wall piled up by the Vin Avarem; where were the houses they had built? . . . Shadows pressed around our wavering circle of light — it was unnerving not to have any idea what lay a few feet beyond.”

"Now we must endure the long dark of Moria . . ."

“Now we must endure the long dark of Moria . . .”

One famous landmark in the cave is Booth’s Amphitheater. The actor Edwin Booth — brother to the infamous John Wilkes Booth — stood on a high rock shelf there beneath a natural half-dome to deliver lines of Shakespeare to an audience below. The true story is told of Edwin Booth that, several years prior to Lincoln’s death, Edwin Booth saw a young boy fall from a train platform into the path of an oncoming train. Quick-thinking dramatist and passionate thespian that he was, Booth leaped down onto the tracks at great personal risk and pulled the boy to safety. The boy was none other than the son of President Lincoln. Edwin Booth received a letter of thanks from the President, which he carried with him in his pocket every day afterward for the rest of his life.

Anyway, at Booth’s Amphitheater, one of our guides ascended to the shelf and delivered us a soliloquy from Shakespeare (wouldn’t that be the sweetest of all jobs, other than being a full-time writer? — getting to be a Mammoth Cave guide who recites Shakespeare?!).

And that brings us to Julie’s second insight: the sciences and the humanities must come together. When they do, the experience is sublime. Here under Kentucky is a miracle of geology, a cave formed by carbonic acid dissolving the soft limestone beneath a wide, hard sandstone cap that protected it from leaks and collapses, allowing it to grow and grow in length while immemorial rivers carved it deeper and deeper. The sciences at work are fascinating and help us understand how all this happened; they allow us to discover more and more of it and teach us to preserve this gift. Combined with the human spirit, with poetry and imagination and story, Mammoth Cave becomes a miracle of experience. It inspires lifetimes of writing. It makes children of us all. It allows slaves to become masters in its embrace.

The first modern guides were black slaves such as the true father of Mammoth Cave exploration, Stephen Bishop. Though he was owned by another man, in the depths of the Earth, Stephen called the shots. He was the one who knew the way in and the way out. The wealthiest aristocrats from around the world came to see Mammoth Cave and asked for Stephen to guide them; they would wait for days until he was available. His life was short but wondrous. I know of no one who owned his surroundings more or took a firmer hold of life with both hands. Stephen taught himself letters by offering to write rich tourists’ names on the cave ceiling with the smoke from his candle. He is buried high on the wooded hillside a stone’s throw from the historic entrance of the cave he loved, and that is something right about the world. I stood as close to his grave marker as the fence would permit and stretched out my hand, thanking him for crossing that Bottomless Pit on a rickety ladder, the water crashing on unseen rocks far below . . . for making his maps and wriggling into forsaken holes, for raising his smoky lamps like the Phial of Galadriel in dark places when all other lights had gone out — for knowing there were wonders to find. At the end of his life, Stephen was as free a man on the surface as he was below.

In the twilight

In the twilight

Mammoth Cave is full of human stories. Millennia ago, the ancient ones came with their burning reeds, chipping gypsum from the walls, questing deep, using the cave in ways that we can only guess at. Some became mummies, interred in the Earth’s grandest tomb. One lay undiscovered until modern times, scant feet to the side of a well-trod tour path. Then came the miners of saltpeter with their picks, shovels, and wooden bins. They provided our country’s gunpowder for the War of 1812. And then there were the pale walking dead, the doomed tuberculosis patients living in canvas shelters, in huts of stone far from the light, seeking a cure in the cave’s even climate; they sat, they wandered, they choked on the greasy smoke of their cook-fires and lights, they fled and died. There came the showmen, the entrepreneurs, the guides, the wondering public from near and far. And then Mammoth Cave took its place as a national park, the great cave of the eastern U.S., protected and open to us all.

A ranger guide leads a tour into Mammoth Cave.

A ranger guide leads a tour into Mammoth Cave.

My wife confessed that she’d always viewed caves as side-trips — something to do with a free hour near the main attraction you’d traveled to see, especially if the weather was rainy. She’d seen the cave experience as the descent of a stairway to look at some lovely formations, then back to the surface. But Mammoth Cave turns that perception on its ear. It blows it a-WAY.

This was Julie’s observation that struck the deepest chord with me: Mammoth Cave is a journey.

According to popular legend, this Natural Entrance of Mammoth Cave was discovered by a Kentucky boy chasing a bear he was trying to shoot.

According to popular legend, this Natural Entrance of Mammoth Cave was discovered by a Kentucky boy chasing a bear he was trying to shoot.

You hike down a trail through a steamy, muggy forest. (It was in the glorious mid-nineties while we were there!) All at once, you feel it: the air has changed. There is an edge, a breath like winter. Natural air-conditioning — the exhalation of the Deep Earth. It has come to you and opened its maw.

The way leads you down. Forest green gives way to rough, gray-black rock, older than the trees, older than anything that now lives on the Earth, even those giant clams in their watery Deep. Water drips and echoes. The cave’s breath is cold, enveloping you. I am changeless, it whispers. Down here in me, life means nothing. Time means nothing. There is only darkness and vast, vast space. You may see a little of it, as long as your light and your short, short breath last. If you lose your way, I do not care. It is not the darkness that will destroy your mind; it is the silence.

But you are with a ranger, an experienced guide — with two, in fact, for a second always comes at the rear, closing gates, turning off lights, herding the stragglers. Between these two, you walk. You look and listen. You think and feel. You hear stories and facts; but most of all, you see what the Earth shows you. You see high vaults, the mystery of side passages winding away. You see cracks and uncounted tons of jumbled rock, slabs like ballroom floors fallen from the ceiling in eons past. You climb mountains. You cross bridges where water roars. You squeeze through Fat Man’s Misery and creep beneath Tall Man’s Agony. You rest, you drink water, and you walk again.

When you come out — far away, at a different entrance, miles from where you went in — you are not the same person that you were, not quite.

“Easy the descent by Avernus;

Night and day, black Death’s door is open wide;

But to retrace your steps and emerge to the fresh air above,

This is an undertaking, this is a labour.”

— the Cumaean Sibyl, speaking to Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid

Is this not at the heart of story? — a journey that leaves us changed?

A guide bringing people out

A guide bringing people out

This is Mammoth Cave. We commend it to you.

Saying goodbye (for now) to Mammoth Cave

Saying goodbye (for now) to Mammoth Cave

P.S. — H. P. Lovecraft wrote a story set in Mammoth Cave. Did you know that? It’s pretty cool!

Woodland Cottage at Mammoth Cave National Park

Woodland Cottage at Mammoth Cave National Park


Jaws: the 40th Anniversary Screenings

In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the summer that Jaws was released, the original film was shown on Sunday and on Wednesday this week at theaters across the U.S. I went to see it tonight, and here are my thoughts.

          If you missed the pagan Midsummer’s Eve, tonight is the Christian one! We’re at the exact opposite end of the year from Christmas Eve now. Tonight is the eve of the commemoration of the birth of John the Baptist. And what a better way to celebrate it than by watching Jaws, huh?!
          A very cool thing: Phil and Kim were watching the very same screening down in Florida. We were texting each other before and right afterward. How amazing it is to consider that! The two boys who grew up on Jaws, who lived and breathed it for years, who encountered it at the magical ages of 9 and 10, who reproduced the entire movie several times on audiotape with a storyboard and sound equipment in a bathroom, were now seeing it 40 years later. 40, one of the Biblical numbers of completeness–the wheel has gone round; the fulness of time has come–same movie, same time, many states away–still together in Jaws. “My husband tells me you’re in sharks.”
          First: no matter how big our TV screens get, the best movie experience is still seeing them on a giant screen in a dark theater. And it’s a communal experience, too–rather like a worship service. Having that audience adds a dimension. We are people experiencing a story together.
          Second: the movie holds up remarkably well. Virtuoso storytelling is virtuoso storytelling. There’s not a wasted moment, not a wasted shot. This remains a textbook for newer generations of filmmakers to study. Almost any technique of storytelling that you want to teach, you can find an example in Jaws.
          Third: it was a string of “accidents,” refusals, etc. that brought these particular three principal actors together. Can that be anything but the hand of God? Can you imagine how much would have been lost without any one of these three guys in their roles? Can you imagine how much would have been lost without the John Williams score?
          Fourth: it was fascinating to study the audience. For the most part, this was an audience of Jaws nerds, people who had come to relive their childhoods or to introduce their kids to the movie on a big screen. For the most part, these were people who knew Jaws well, who easily got all the answers to the trivia questions shown on the screen before the movie, who couldn’t wait to start telling their younger companions reams of Jaws trivia on the way out to the parking lot afterward. So the element of surprise that was there for audiences in 1975 was gone. People knew when the scary moments were coming . . . and even if they didn’t, they may be a bit more desensitized to shocks and gore than audiences were 40 years ago. (The estuary victim’s severed leg still got a reaction, though!)
             HOWEVER, what I enjoyed seeing was the audience’s reactions to all the little things, particularly in the first half of the film, that they’d forgotten or never really noticed before–all those elements of expert tale-telling that they’d absorbed years ago without realizing it. The humor in particular–Spielberg’s humor worked on the audience tonight as if it had been invented yesterday, for people in 2015. It was absolutely fresh and drew the very same laughs that it drew from audiences in 1975.
               No, there weren’t the screams that we heard back then. There weren’t those explosions of released tension in jabbering exclamations that obscured entire scenes following appearances of the shark or Ben Gardner’s head back in the Summer of the Shark.
          But there was awe and wonder, tension, edge-of-the-seat suspense, fear, and immense relief.
          It’s still the best movie ever made. It’s still Jaws.

The Villain Khaos

Our six-part story in Cricket Magazine is complete! (To read the entire story on Cricket‘s site, just click on that highlighted word “story” and scroll down to “Read the Story.”) The amazing artist and illustrator Emily Fiegenschuh has put together a great post on her blog, telling how she set about creating the right look for this nefarious villain. Emily’s post is here.

Writers and Their Probablies

The other day, I was answering a question on-line from a young reader who wanted to know why a certain thing in my story had happened. In my reply, I told her that she had an excellent question, that the story was vague on that point — but, I added, I would tell her my theory, and so I did.

It occurred to me that I’ve been answering questions that way for years, since the time other people began reading stories I’d written. I can remember a colleague twenty-one years ago asking me a what or why question about Dragonfly, and when my answer began with “I think it’s probably because . . .” my friend was intrigued. “Why do you say ‘probably’?” he wanted to know. “You’re the author!” — to which I thought, Yes? So what? What does being the author qualify me for?

For people who have not spent much time around us fiction writers, it may seem startling how we talk about our imaginary worlds and our characters with distance, with a shrug, with a pronounced lack of ownership or even responsibility. Why is the story the way it is? If you’ve given it your attention, your guess may well be as good as ours. We’re happy to guess along with you.

My wife is quite used to fiction writers now, but she found it surprising at first how the members of our local, like-minded group of fantasy writers would talk about our characters not behaving, not doing what we expected — and when the characters showed such willfulness, we gave each other high fives, as if we’d done something right.

Dear Readers, we ask your patience with our theories, our noncommittal but impassioned probablies and our I supposes  when we’re explaining the books and stories with our own names on them. And if you still don’t understand the fiction writer’s relationship to the story, try asking a parent about his or her children, about their choices, their wardrobes, their behavior, the things they keep on their shelves. You may get strikingly similar answers.

For these places and characters are our children. They pass through us very narrow channels on their way into the world. We guide and coax them in their first steps, in their first words. We listen hard to discern their meanings. We may try to trim their language until we learn to know better. They bear some of our features; they benefit or suffer from our experiences. But quickly, if we’re doing even a half-decent job, they prove that they are not us.

God willing, they’ll go on being themselves when we’re gone. God willing, you may meet them out there somewhere.


The Girl Who Writes the Future

Here’s a little interview between (heh, heh!) the blog (B) and Fred (F) about “The Girl Who Writes the Future,” currently running in Cricket Magazine.

B: Part 3 of this story is on bookstore and library shelves now. What about people who missed Parts 1 and 2?

F: They need not despair! With a click here, they can read Parts 1 and 2 on Cricket‘s web site. Cricket is posting the parts about a month behind their published appearances. Don’t forget that Cricket is available for tablets now, too. As I understand it, there are additional features and there’s extra material in the digital version.

B: Readers have been excited to see the reunion of you and artist Emily Fiegenschuh for a Cricket story. Has that been fun?

F: It’s always wonderful to work with Emily! You can (and should) read her blog post about sketching the characters here! It’s been a true collaboration this time, as I’ve seen some of her artwork before writing later parts of the story. I tailored one scene in particular to a picture she’d already painted (the cover of the November/December 2014 issue). She stays quite faithful to the characters as their young creators described them. I try my very best to do that, too. But yes, it’s fun conferring with Emily about what certain things should look like, about what I had in mind with a particular place, etc. And it’s always exciting to see how she depicts things I’ve written. There’s always a surprise or two!

B: Is there anything unique about this Cricket story, or unique for you as the writer?

F: Absolutely! First of all, this was born out of a project called Crowd-Sorcery, which the editors thought up — and it is a brilliant idea! The youthful participants on the magazine’s web site (who most often also read Cricket) created the characters for this story, as well as many fantasy words/objects/concepts that appear. So it’s been a privilege and a delight to work with other people’s ideas, to be faithful to them as I weave them into a coherent story. Some of the combinations have been unexpected. (I don’t want to give any spoilers!)

But also, this is the first time in my history with Cricket that the early parts of the tale have gone into production before the later parts have been written. When I started out in 2000 (wow! That long ago?!), I would write the whole story on speculation and send it in, and sometimes the editors and I would send it back and forth several times, working and re-working it before it was even accepted. And then it would be a year or two until it began to appear in the magazine. This time, Part 1 was published before I’d written Part 4 (of a total of 6). That indicates a high level of trust on the part of the editors. I’m truly honored for their confidence that things will work out. I don’t take that lightly. It’s scary in a way, because the early parts of the story cannot be changed. Till the end, I was gritting my teeth, hoping I hadn’t forgotten some crucial fact that would throw everything off-kilter. I think everything got accounted for; I think we brought the story in to a safe landing — by grace, fear and trembling, sigh of relief!

What’s especially fun about deliberately writing the story in parts like this is that I can give a little arc to each installment and end it with a kind of cliffhanger. Back when I didn’t know where my stories would be divided, of course I couldn’t do that.

B: The prompts for Crowd-Sorcery encouraged the young contributors to build on one another’s ideas. Did some do that?

F: Yes! One of the best instances of that was that one Chatterboxer created a certain magical place and gave it a name. Then another participant came along and used that place in a poem. I worked that poem into the story, so it was a nesting of ideas. I really hope all the kids who posted ideas are still with us, still reading along. It’s fun for me to imagine how they feel when they discover that an item, place, or character they thought up appears in the published story.

B: So only three of all those hundreds of submitted characters are in the finished story?

F: No — actually, I think there are seven. In addition to the main three elected by all the Chatterboxers, some of the runners-up have made cameos. The kids who developed those characters won’t know about that until they read it in the magazine! (The editors put a list at the end of each part honoring the kids who contributed ideas or characters. Because kids use nicknames on the web site, they’re thanked by nickname rather than any form of real name — but I suppose the kids know who they are!)

B: What was the hardest thing about this project for you?

F: There were two. One was having to narrow down all those fantastic character submissions to lists of 10 – 15 finalists in each category. So many of the entries were so creative, fun, clever, and well-written that it was awful having to single out just a few. Emily and I, each in a different part of the world (I was in Ukraine for some of that), pulled some very long days and nights as the deadlines drew near, but we read every single submission. Independently of each other, we made a list of about 20 – 30 “favorites.” Then we compared the lists, and when we were lucky, the overlap in our choices could become the finalist list for the kids to vote on. In some cases, one of us went to bat for a character that the other hadn’t chosen, and sometimes we had the magazine’s editors help us break ties, etc. Those editors were also extremely helpful. If one of us felt strongly about a character, we erred on the side of putting him/her onto the ballot. What added an extra challenge was that Emily and I work in different media: she’s a visual artist, I’m a writer — so she would notice characters that would be fun to draw, and I would favor characters that would be fun to write about. So it should be clear that we knew there was no such thing as finding “the best” characters. With so many good ones, there was a lot of personal preference involved — ours, and that of all the kids who voted. Hopefully we had enough people voting that the characters best-loved-by-most made it into the story. But we want to stress just how much we also admired the ones that didn’t, and we keep urging kids to use those characters in stories of their own. There’s nothing to stop anyone from writing a story!

The other hardest thing was holding down the word-count for each installment. We had so much intriguing material to work with that this could easily, easily have become a very long novel. But we just didn’t have that kind of space at our disposal. I did a lot of weeding and shrinking of my manuscripts before turning them over to the Editor-in-Chief.

B: Well, it’s a terrific idea that Cricket had, and we’re all elated that it’s been going so well. We’re glad there’s talk of doing similar projects in the future, perhaps in other sub-genres of fantasy, with other writers and artists.

F: It’s all about helping kids discover the joy of creating their own stories — and seeing how stories take shape, how accessible the process is. You don’t have to be magical or a professional or an adult to write or draw. Stories change the world. They can make it better. Anyone can be a part of that!

B: I was going to ask you for concluding thoughts. Were those them?

F: No, this is: THANK YOU to everyone involved in Crowd-Sorcery, from the editor(s) who dreamed it up, to those who helped and discussed it along the way, to the web-wranglers and voting system administrators, to Emily, and especially to all those kids out there who joined us. I am on my feet, applauding you!