Sci-fi Icon, Octavia E. Butler (and we’re over Covid)

Book-lover/library-lover Octavia at home. (c) Patti Perret/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Please note: From the bottom of my heart, thank you everyone for your kind wishes for my husband and me while we were sick with Covid. Fortunately we’re well now and hope you and yours are staying safe. For anyone who thinks Covid is a simple flu, this is absolutely not the case. While it may start off mildly, it can quickly take a terrible turn. Please get vaccinated if you have the opportunity. Our doctor advises us to be as careful as ever as no conclusive evidence confirms that having been ill with it has gives us one iota of immunity, especially against the newer versions arising.

Savaged by self-doubt? Dry spells getting between you and your goals, including ones for writing your novel? You and I have brilliant company!

A first edition of Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, 1979. Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
A first edition of Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler, 1979. Huntington Library, (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Octavia E. Butler, the first African-American woman sci-fi writer, wrote herself many pep talks. She suffered through crummy jobs (potato chip quality control, anyone?) and years of crappy pay to attain her writing aspirations.

Octavia cemented her goals inside a notebook cover in 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia cemented her goals inside a notebook cover in 1988. Octavia E. Butler papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Talk about paying off! She was the first science fiction author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship’s “Genius Grant”! And she was a multiple Hugo Award and Nebula Award winner!

One of Octavia's many self-reminders, this note regards forging credible characters and worlds. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
One of Octavia’s many self-reminders, this note regards forging credible characters and worlds. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

All that and still she continued to work hard at bolstering herself. Proof is within her donation to The Huntington Library’s Art Collections in Los Angeles, a collection ranging from extensive drafts, notes, and research materials to more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories, essays, correspondence, ephemera, and assorted books.

Detail from Octavia’s notes for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.
Detail from Octavia’s notes for the Oankali, characters from the Xenogenesis trilogy. (c) Estate of Octavia E. Butler/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

Born in Pasadena, CA, on June 22, 1947, she grew up poor. She watched her single mom endure racism and classism while cleaning homes to raise her daughter. Octavia towered over her classmates and grappled with dyslexia.

Octavia at around 15. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.
Octavia at around 15. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Estate of Octavia E. Butler.

Her peers bullied her for not being more like them. As an only child most comfortable among adults, she spent her time at the public library, reading, and writing. Later she attended writing classes and workshops. Check out this cool interactive link the Los Angeles Times created regarding her stomping grounds.

In a 2000 interview for the New York Times, she said, “When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.”

In 1979, with the publishing of Kindred, she chartered fresh territory for how to relay history. The protagonist is an African American woman who vaporizes from the Los Angeles apartment she shares with her Anglo boyfriend. She careens between the pre-Civil War slave era and back, a harrowing ride to put it mildly. Did Octavia dream of the present, when these days mixed couples are common and now high school teachers assign Kindred to their students?

Photo of Science Fiction novel writer Octavia E. Butler near Mt. Shuksan, in Washington state, 2001. Photographer unknown.
Octavia near Mt. Shuksan, in Washington state, 2001. Photographer unknown.

Octavia was taken from us in 2006, at a far too young 58. She was staving off depression and writer’s block to finish a trilogy that remains incomplete. Her fans continue to grow.

Her advice to writers: Keep writing, no matter how you feel about your work.

Three months before she passed away, here she chatted with investigative journalist Amy Goodman, who heads Democracy Now (a fantastic video and radio news show, by the way) and co-host Juan González.

This fellow blogger’s post features 15 anecdotes about Octavia. Within it, a video link includes an interview with another stellar African-American woman sci-fi and fantasy writer, N. K. Jemisin.

How do you reckon with self-doubt?

The Henna Artist’s bighearted Alka Joshi on saris, plus my wedding henna

“When’s the last time you read something unapologetically pro-choice — & that’s as empowering as it is romantic? Me? Never. Can’t wait for Joshi’s next book! Wish there were more novels that discuss pro-choice issues head-on. Enchanting story set in 1950s India from women’s point of view about the choices we’re given and how much we can make with them. Audiobook narrator Sneha Mathan is marvelous!”

~ My review of The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi for Amazon and Goodreads

I absolutely adore books (after all, I’m writing two)! Whenever I finish reading an exceptional novel, I review it on Goodreads and Amazon. Sure, not all stories resonate with me. As a tender-hearted author, I know too well the blood/sweat/tears that even a crappy book demands, so I don’t review those.

Then I email the novelist to thank them for making my life more thoughtful and maybe even fun. Ditto for any audiobook performer involved. Some thank me back, and on the days my stars are truly aligned, they agree to contribute to Happiness Between Tails.

Anyone who doesn’t read The Henna Artist is missing out. Clearly it’s written by a generous spirit. Just glance through Alka’s website and Youtube channel, where she lauds other authors to the extent that poses with their books! Here she is, holding Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic as she says how grateful she is for it. Btw, I love that book too, so she’s got good taste to her credit as well lol 🙂

Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds Bighearted author Alka Joshi lauds “Big Magic” by Elizabeth Gilbert in a video.

Allow me to digress a moment: Henna, oh, henna, you magical green powder! You enhance my hair, and you make lovely tattoos!…

Photo of da-AL's henna-tattooed hands. The day before I got married, I went to Los Angeles’ Little India for these gorgeous henna tattoos.

They’re far more forgiving than the permanent ink ones, and brides aren’t allowed to do housework until they’ve worn off…

Photo of my henna tattooed hands and feet. I needed just the right sandals to show off my enhanced tootsies!

Dusting off my photos to show you these provided an excuse to reconnect with Chris Miller, the super-talented photographer (check out her Instagram too) who was beyond kind to gift them to my sweetie and me. Back when she shot them, we both worked for the Beach Reporter, a Manhattan Beach community weekly. I reported on Hermosa Beach and, In addition to her work as an event fotog, at the time she was the publication’s photojournalist.

Wedding party photo of Khashayar and da-AL. It seems like yesterday when you’re having fun…

Back to our esteemed guest: Alka was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India. At the age of nine, she moved to the U.S. As a Stanford University grad, she’s worked in advertising and PR, and owned a marketing consultancy. On top of all that, she has a Creative Writing MFA from Cal Arts San Francisco. The Henna Artist is her first book. In way less than a year, it’s a huge success! The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is set for July, plus the third book in the trilogy for 2022. And — she’s an executive producer for the novel’s upcoming Miramax TV series!

Read on for her thoughts on women in India. Note that it’s not just India — unfortunately, I’ve met women architects in the U.S. who encounter discrimination here too…

Alka Joshi, author of Alka Joshi, author of “The Henna Artist” and more!…

“The Sari vs. Modern India” by Alka Joshi

In January 2019, the Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon, just outside New Delhi, received an email from the registrar to attend a convocation.

Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon's news bulletin board. Architecture faculty at Ansal University in Gurgaon’s news bulletin board.

It requested formal dress: “trouser, coat and tie for men” and “saris for women.”

Students wear western clothes. Students wear western clothes.

This sparked a lively, funny, albeit very polite, conversation on WhatsApp among the female faculty, who normally wear trousers, Western blouses/tops, or salwar kameez (long tunics with legging-like bottoms) most days.

“I may not wear a sari…I don’t even own one!”

“I do not even know how to wear a sari.”

“[I’m] not against saris. But at 7:30 in the morning, especially when I’m not used to it is definitely a challenge.”

“Can’t tie one at 7am and drive…and get through the day!”

“No sari. Impossible to wear and report at 7:30 in the morning.”

“Why a sari at all?”

“If the women must wear a sari, wouldn’t a *dhoti be more in sync for the men?”

*(Now mostly worn by village men, a dhoti is a white cloth from five to seven yards in length, wrapped loosely around the legs and tied in a knot at the waist. While dhotis have gone out of fashion, saris are still a mainstay of female couture for weddings, special occasions and family gatherings.)

This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home. This Adjunct Prof of Architecture chose to leave her sari (if she has one) at home.

“We are all sensible enough to know what to wear. Most of us might even have worn saris to the event without being asked. But when you tell us exactly what to wear, we are going to have something to say,” laughs Monisha Sharma, associate professor. “Our Dean, who is female, told us to just look as smart as we do every day, so that’s what we’ll do.”

Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching. Associate Professor Monisha Sharma prefers a salwar kameez over a sari when she’s teaching.

In addition to teaching in the Architecture school, these women are working architects. At construction sites they are often greeted with curious expressions: Can women really be architects? Are these women here to tell us what to do?

One professor told me that she had organized a site visit to a factory for her students. When they got to the site, the founder only responded to the junior male faculty who had accompanied her, choosing not to acknowledge her at all. 

Similarly, a female architect who was managing a project for her father’s structural engineering firm was not being consulted by the construction team until her father ordered them to talk only to her. She was, after all, the project manager and the only one who could answer their questions.

Architecture Professor in India. “At 7:30 in the morning, I don’t have time to gather and pleat a sari. It’s a lot of work!”

To someone like me, who’s been raised in the West since the age of nine, it’s surprising that the women’s reaction is not anger (that would have been my response, along with bewilderment and confusion). 

Instead, the Indian women laugh it off. “We have already made our mark in our profession,” they say. “We don’t need to hit them over the head with it.”

At the convocation, the female faculty wore Western trouser suits. Not a sari in sight.

There’s more than one way to make a statement.

Are dress codes unbiased where you work?…

Mythical Greek Inspo for Writers (Made Easy) by Dionysius

Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louvre’s entrance. By Lyokoï88 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39152792
Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louvre’s entrance. By Lyokoï88 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39152792

Melodrama, romance, intrigue, mystery, mysticism, pragmatism — oh, wait, not the last one… If you’re looking for inspiration for writing or for reading excitement, check out Greek mythology!

Goddesses and gods, mortals, the blending of both — doesn’t that sound like Stan Lee comicbook territory? Surely he sorted through ancient myths to fashion superheroines and superheroes. Star Trek and Star Wars makers must’ve too.

Admittedly the Greek tales of olden times can be challenging. Every poetically written story is jam-packed with enough intrigue to rival a binge-watch of Days of Lives, a still-running daily soap opera that first aired in 1965 and I once upon a time worked as an extra for… but that’s another story.

South Carolina blogger Dionysius has the same monicker as the multi-cultural god/superhero who oversees everything from wine to fertility and ecstasy to madness. Some argue that Dionysus the god is really Jesus. Our guest, Dionysius, created his New Classical blog “to create a new contemporary literature deeply rooted in classic literary traditions… not to repeat old and dead literary traditions, but to rediscover what is living and vibrant in them today.”

Read on for a peek into how Dionysius sees classic literature… 

Bacchus by Charles Lucy (English, 1692 - 1767). Courtesy of Wikipedia. Bacchus by Charles Lucy (English, 1692 – 1767). Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A brief summary and analysis of Euripedes’s “The Bacchae” by Dionysius

Summary

Prior to the events of The Bacchae, Dionysus is born from the love affair of Zeus and the mortal Semele. When he is born, his mortal family denies that he is the son of Zeus and refuses to give him worship. Dionysus then leaves Thebes and journeys to the east, where he gathers his cult of female worshippers, the maenads. The Bacchae opens when he returns to Thebes with his maenads to take vengeance on his family. He starts by luring the Theban women, including his aunts, into the forest around Mt. Cithaeron, where they join the maenads. This angers Pentheus, the king and Agave’s (Semele’s sister) son. After Pentheus fails to arrest and subdue Dionysus and the maenads, he is lured into the forest by Dionysus’s offer to look at them. In order to watch the maenads without being noticed, Dionysus tells him that he must dress as a woman. Pentheus complies and imitates the image and mannerisms of the maenads. When he arrives, his body is torn apart by them and by his own mother. Under the spell of Dionysus, she carries his head through Thebes, parading it, thinking that it is the head of a lion she caught during a hunt. When she is made aware of what she has done and whose head she’s been carrying, she falls into grief. The drama ends with Dionysus casting her and the royal family out of Thebes.

Maenads – The Mystery of Woman

Pentheus being torn by maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii. Courtesy of Wiki: Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7630-2266-X, p. 366 Pentheus being torn by maenads. Roman fresco from the northern wall of the triclinium in the Casa dei Vettii (VI 15,1) in Pompeii. Courtesy of Wiki: Marisa Ranieri Panetta (ed.): Pompeji. Geschichte, Kunst und Leben in der versunkenen Stadt. Belser, Stuttgart 2005, ISBN 3-7630-2266-X, p. 366

The Bacchae revolves around the mystery of difference. Particularly sexual difference and cultural difference. This is seen clearly by the depiction of Dionysus’s maenads. That they are a cult of women and that Dionysus gathered them in the east is of significance here. In The Bacchae, the feminine, or the idea of Woman, takes on the form of the unknown. Like a woman behind a veil, there is mystery, temptation, and fear associated with the maenads. This is portrayed most clearly by the way Pentheus relates to them. At first, it is with fear, responding to the maenads with force and violence. Then, when it proves that the feminine is impossible to control or subdue, when the captured maenads escape his prison and most definingly when Dionysus(posing as a young mortal priest) himself escapes, Pentheus gives in to temptation at Dionysus’s first request to take him to look at the maenads. He goes as far as to dress as a woman and imitate their dances and appearances.

The temptation that is displayed here is twofold. It is the temptation not only to satiate his desires by seeing the bodies of the women, but also and more fundamentally, to be one of the maenads and experience their enjoyment. While the first temptation fits into a traditional male standpoint of desire, what is significant about the second temptation is that he is not merely taking the maenads as an object of desire, rather his desire is to assume the subjective position of the maenads, of “Woman” and their feminine enjoyment. What is revealed here is that his anger at the maenads was all along based in his own envy of their enjoyment.

Pentheus never understood what the condition for this enjoyment was.

The very condition for the sublime bliss that Pentheus sought after is a primordial unity of being. An overflow of life and nature. It is because the maenads abandon their individual identities and place in the Theban social order, that they can participate in this primordial unity. Their individuality is suspended for the tribal enjoyment of dance, ritual, hunt, and fertility. They participate seamlessly with nature and become a part of the overflowing development of life. Beyond the enjoyment that Pentheus sought, the “[…] Sweet streams of honey dripping,” this condition, is also at the same time the condition for an inhuman terror. This is displayed most clearly when he is torn apart by his own mother and the other maenads.

Unseen Essence

Four Caryatids at Erechtheum Acropolis, Athens: Wikimedia Commons Four Caryatids at Erechtheum Acropolis, Athens: Wikimedia Commons

What must be remembered is that what appears as purely negative in tragedy also has a positive dimension. This is the pinnacle of Greek tragic wisdom. Why does Woman present itself as the apocalypse of man in this tragedy? It is because of an original betrayal of the feminine reality committed by the mortal family of Dionysus. By his entire family when they initially rejected him, and by Pentheus when he returned. This is what causes the breakdown of the Theban social order and the revenge of Woman.

In the same way that Woman is a constitutive element of the reality of sex, including the reality of man. The Dionysian rituals that the maenads take part in, that return to a primordial being and oneness, are constitutive of the Theban social order. It is even the root of the Theban social order. The unconscious reality of Thebes exists as the basis for its conscious and institutional realities.

It is precisely because the rituals of Dionysus exist outside of Thebes, in the rituals of the maenads on Mt. Cithaeron, that it is the base of Theban society. It is precisely because the maenads are all women whose rituals are constitutive of the male Theban social order. And it is precisely because the maenads come from the east that they constitute the western social order of Thebes. Dionysus and his cult are the external essences of Theban society. Essence, unlike appearance, is always unseen.

Dionysus of the Night

Bacchus and Ariadne by Carlo Maratta: Wikimedia Commons Bacchus and Ariadne by Carlo Maratta: Wikimedia Commons

The place that Dionysus dwells in is the contradiction between appearance and essence.

Dionysus embodies this contradiction. He is returning from the east, and yet he was born in the west. He leads a cult of women, and yet he is a man. He is divine, and yet his mother is mortal. This contradiction is like the black of night, where one thousand stars shine. The failure of his mortal family to respect it, and to respect their own essence, is what leads to the breakdown of Thebes.

Visit Dionysius at his New Classical blog, his Twitter page, and his Facebook page.

I’ve always wanted to put on a cape, stretch out my arms, take a running jump, and whoosh! — feel the wind in my face, inhale the fragrance of treetops as I soar high into the clouds. Picture me Super-da-AL or Winged Victory of Samothrace ready for liftoff at the top of the Louver’s entrance.

What superpower would you want?

Reading and Writing to Heal: how poet Jenny Irene Gunnarsson does it

Stories let me soar when I have neither wings nor airfare. Made up or personal, and whether I’m reading or novel-writing, words heal my spirit and body. When I think I’m merely seeking amusement, they teach me. They expand my compassion for others and for myself.

Jenny Irene Gunnarson photo of, “A wayward rainbow works its magic, framing the story born from a tiny piece of an ordinary day.”
Jenny Irene Gunnarson photo of, “A wayward rainbow works its magic, framing the story born from a tiny piece of an ordinary day.”

Author/poet Jenny Irene Gunnarsson blogs and tweets and emails from Sweden. There she tends her trees and communes with the gorgeous outdoors. One day she’ll make a living as an author. In the meantime, she’s a teacher who’s done a bit of everything, from working as a guard to caring for all sorts of people. When life overwhelmed her, she self-published Burnout, which she describes as, “a small book about something big, twenty-five poems about burning out and moving on.”

Self-photo of writer/poet/blogger Jenny Irene Gunnarsson.
Self-photo of writer/poet/blogger Jenny Irene Gunnarsson.

Happiness between tales by Jenny Irene Gunnarsson

Picking the sweet fruits

all the morsels of inspiration

all the lush treasures of fallen words.

My garden will be

filled with endless beauty.

Every story known to man

my sky and sparkling fountain.

Endless penmanship

on every emerald leaf.

Your voice

will ring there too.

When I first read this blog, I read the title wrong and thought it said Happiness between tales. Even after I got it right, I couldn’t stop thinking about this. Any person who enjoys reading knows that there is, indeed, such a thing as happiness between tales. This happiness is not only about the enjoyment of having read a good story. Tales open our eyes to details around us and make our imagination bloom like a garden in spring, enhancing the world in the process. Every story that makes any impression on us at all also affects the lives we lead when we are not reading.

For me, the love of tales began before I could even talk properly. As a three-year-old, I was brought along to a house my mother wanted to buy and as she wandered the rooms; I went off to explore on my own. This turned into a panicky situation for her later on, when it was time to go and she could not find me. When she finally thought to check the closets, I was sitting in one of them, in a cardboard box containing fairytale comics, so enthralled that I had not heard her scream my name. Even today, over forty years later, I can still remember how I was caught by the magic of those pages filled with pictures and signs I could not decipher, so different from the books I had previously been shown. It was love, no, obsession, at first sight. My mother had to carry me away from there, kicking and screaming because I could not take my treasure with me.

I spent the next year pestering everyone in my environment to teach me how to read. They all said that I was too young, which only made me pester them more until they finally relented. When I was four, I finally got to crack the mystery of letters and every bookcase I saw became my treasury, quickly looted of its contents by my hungry mind. The world has never been the same after that, especially since I have always had the ability to open any book and fall right into it and, on top of that, have a very vivid imagination. All at once, the world became so much more exciting than it had ever been before and I was its explorer, its Neil Armstrong and its Sherlock Holmes. When I was not reading, I wandered the woods around our house, searching for fairies, trolls and Baba Yaga among pines and blue anemones I was sure hid some vital clues to their whereabouts. I and my friends were Batman, Lucky Luke and Supergirl, taking turns to be fearless heroes and every old man I met was a wizard, either good or evil, depending on how he looked. I also kept opening and closing every door at home, trying to make them let me into other worlds and was equally disappointed every time it didn’t work. Do not get me started on the wardrobes. You all know where those lead.

There was an age-rule at the library, so I had to keep to the children’s section until I was twelve-much to my own and the librarians’ frustration. I came in at least three times per week, asking if there was anything new and they almost always had to tell me no. One time, when I was ten, one of them took pity on me and sent me into the adult section to find something to read. I was in absolute Heaven! There were hundreds of books-and they were thick enough to last me for days. After having wandered around for an hour and almost kissing the shelves, I picked the thickest book I could find and triumphantly returned to the loan desk. The librarian looked at the book, looked at me, looked at the book again and then sent me back to the children’s section in humiliation and close to tears. I borrowed Stephen King’s It from a friend that summer instead. It gave me nightmares for weeks, but it is still my favourite book-my first, thick love.

Cover of Burnout by Jenny Irene Gunnarsson.

When I grew up, there was no Internet and no smartphones and the libraries had a limited selection for my tastes. I have always been a fast reader and my brain was constantly screaming for more, more and more, so after having borrowed every book that interested me at least three times, I went to town on the rest of them-including Classics and English literature. This had the unexpected benefit of my grades suddenly sky-rocketing, which mystified me greatly until I understood the reason for it. Despite my forays into more serious literature, however, I never let go of my love of tales about things belonging to other worlds than my own. My mother told me at fifteen I was too old to read fairytales and comics and fantasy books. I told her those were the reason why I was getting A’s in Spelling, Literature and English and she never mentioned it again after that. Yes, I told a fib. They might have added to my grades, but they were not solely responsible for them. I just loved them so much I could not bear to give them up, even if it meant I had to lie a little to get out of hearing about how they did not ‘suit me’ since I was getting older. Even now, I think they suit me just fine.

As children, we have that golden period of time when magic is real and fairytales can be considered truth. This time is eventually left behind and often mourned, as we feel magic has become a part of the past, never to return. A precious few keep their belief in magic, but growing up, the tales of our childhoods is seen through different eyes. This all sounds kind of depressing, but reading tales is a gift that keeps giving, despite life trading our starry-eyed gazes and scrubbed knees for reading glasses and paying bills and we go on to read a lot of tales that have no happy endings.

Even if we no longer believe in fairies and other realms, there is still magic in every tale we encounter-and this magic is always with us. So, if everything is so magical, why do we not all glow with happiness every time we read a book? I think it is because we have to dig a little deeper and think a little harder.

To a child, the golden nuggets of stories are left out in the open thanks to its willingness to believe the impossible. He or she has only to go out and look around to find that gold and get rich. Adults, on the other hand, have both minds and lives that are more complex and are a lot less likely to believe in things outside of normalcy. They also read more complex stories, often written by complex people who may, or may not, have something they want to say.

If you think this sounds like mumbo-jumbo, try taking a course in literature and poetry.

You would be amazed by how much meaning is to be found in anything from where the story takes place when it is written, what language is used and which objects are most often described. Events described can be metaphors for things happening in society, existential truths, human nature and anything else there is, or ever has been, between Heaven and Earth. This meaning, these metaphors, whether we understand them or not, we bring with us as we look at the world and it changes our understanding of both ourselves and others-no belief in the impossible required.

Nowadays, I behave like the almost middle-aged woman I am.

At forty-four, I cannot run around and look for Russian witches or fight evil minions on my lunch break.

I am oh so calm and adult-but if you took one look into my mind, you would be surprised. It is always, at least partly, up in the sky somewhere, chasing as many witches and other fantasies as it pleases. Other, more serious, parts are constantly debating tales I have read and how they can be applied to my everyday life, hopefully also making me a little wiser. I have never read a story that has not taught me something about humanity or life, whether it is in the story itself or in how it is written, and I do my best to take advantage of what I learn. Then, there is one part; my favourite part, the part making up much of my heart, the part feeding my life much of its meaning-that is spinning tales of its own. Anything can be turned into a story I can tell myself or others, bringing me joy and sharing the magic. My car is an aeroplane, flying me through the sky on a secret mission while Spotify is thundering my personalized soundtrack through its interior-making my heart beat faster and life feel more exciting. As I ride my bicycle, I imagine it to be a noble steed, carrying me in a rush of freedom across open plains to deliver me to an exotic destination I have never visited. The small figurines of Buddha and an elephant on my window sill, beneath an inside rainbow who must have lost its way, are actually a story about friendship and meeting on a mountain to relight the lamp of the sun and bring daylight back. There are thousands of more tales strewn around me. Some, I write down, others I only tell in my head. There are tales never finished and tales forever rewritten. Tales have affected and always will affect my life in many different ways. They have made it so much richer and given it so many more nuances than I believe I would ever have found without them. This would not have been possible if there had not been people there to write the tales in the first place. Writers, myself included, are forever reminding me that the magic and the joy is still there if we only look for it. I firmly believe that there is happiness in and between tales as long as there are tales, no matter the age of the reader.

How do reading and writing help you?

For more about writing and reading and fun at Happiness Between Tails, check out the search box 🙂

Self-Publishing: How David Gittlin Markets His Fiction

David Gittlin, writer.

Do you think I’m crazy for taking heart whenever I see books of fiction — novels, mainly — make it big even when, in my opinion, they stink? That goes ditto for just about anything, but before you call me a nut, let me explain.

Persistence goes a very long way when it comes to success. So does obtuseness about failure and criticism. Throwing heaps of money at an endeavor is another way to lead readers/buyers/voters/whatever to prefer style over content.

For us novelists who want people to purchase our books, there are myriad “experts,” aka “vultures” galore. As I research how to eventually have that happen for the novels I’ll eventually serialize into podcasts and then sell as books, Flamenco & the Sitting Cat and Tango & the Sitting Cat, it’s impossible to avoid avalanches of Youtubers parroting each other’s basic “secrets” about marketing/platforms/etcetera. Each concludes with the same pitch, which is that, in return for our dough, they’ll fulfill our ambitions. Indeed, some may be legit. My jaded ears, however, remind me, “A fool and their money are soon parted.”

That’s why — and here’s what this post is all about, my friend — it’s like finding gold when someone with real experience shares their knowledge without charging us money.

Without further ado, here I present David Gittlin, who blogs from Florida and who is exactly that man. He’s authored three feature-length screenplays, produced two short films, and published three novels, each in a different genre! (Links for them are within his post.) Before that, he worked for over thirty years in all sorts of capacities related to marketing and the internet.

Read on for his hands-on wisdom that he’s kindly letting us in on. Lucky for us too, he’s not charging us a red cent…

How do I Cost-Effectively Market My Book Online? by David Gittlin

Comparatively speaking, writing a novel is the fun, easy, first step of the self-publishing process. The second step, creating an attention-getting book cover, offers its own unique set of challenges. However, the most intimidating and difficult undertaking, to most authors, is the third step—Online Marketing.

These words strike terror in many authors’ sensitive little hearts because they want as little to do with the outside world as possible.

The most intimidating marketing question is: “Where do I begin?” In this blog, I’ll let you in on some of the advertising methods I’ve tried and the results I’ve had. I’ll save you time and money. I’ll guide you through the marketing process from the completion of your manuscript to the final strokes of your marketing plan.

Before we begin, bear in mind that more than a million books are published every year. Therefore, we have to be good at marketing. Damn good!

After completing your final rewrite and the inevitable tweaks that come afterwards, it’s finally time to upload your book to online retailers. Next, you announce it on your blog, your author website, your Facebook page, and your YouTube channel (optional).

Now what? Gulp…

This is the seriously hard part—driving people to these outposts in cyberspace.

Let’s take a look at what has worked for me and what hasn’t.

Book Covers

The first step in marketing your book online or ANYWHERE is to create a relatable, attention-getting cover. We’re taught not to judge a book by its cover.  Ironically, this principle doesn’t apply to actual books.

I’ve read that the cover of a book needs to be genre specific.  By this I mean your reader can quickly identify the subject matter inside, whether it be Romance, Action/Suspense/Adventure/ Thriller, Espionage, Science Fiction, Fantasy, and so on.

The trick is to make your book genre specific without making it look like every other book in the space.  The idea is to stand out from the crowd, not get lost in it.

If you are an accomplished graphic artist, go ahead and do it yourself.  Just be sure that you follow the specifications of your print on demand supplier.  If you are not a great graphic artist, like me, go ahead and shop for an artist who can turn your cover vision into a commercially viable package.

Please choose an artist with a specialization in book cover design.  This person can have other specialties, but they must also be fully versed in the art of book cover design.  If you are creating the book cover, make sure to research the subject.  There are many pitfalls, just as there are with writing a book.

I used three different artists to create the covers for the three novels I published.  Besides the fact that I get bored easily, there may have been a method to my madness.  Each of my novels is in a different genre.  Some artists have genre preferences and do better work in those genres.  There is no set rule.

Some artists are good in any genre.  They may be more talented and expensive than others, but you won’t have to go through the angst of breaking in new ones.  And you may get a better overall result.  Or not.  Choose carefully.

If you have an idea of what you want in your book cover, great.  If you don’t, that’s okay.  Just be sure you choose a capable artist who you can communicate with.  Don’t be guided solely by cost.  Choose someone who knows what they are doing; who inspires your confidence, and “gets you.”

Blogging

Blogging is a great way to get yourself and your work “out there.” It’s not hard to create a blog, even for graphically challenged people like me.  WordPress and Wix are two of the most popular sites now.  You don’t have to be an expert at coding to make a nice looking blog.  You can also choose an upgrade plan that will give you more customizing options.  I believe the upgrade plans are worth it.  WordPress has a premium plan for only $99 per year.

Once your blog is created, don’t let it just sit in Cyberspace. Take a little time each day to read and comment on blogs by folks who write about subjects that interest you. Those people will then read and follow your blog if your content is good.

Take note of how other people promote their work on their blogs.  I’ve found that the subtle approach is the best way to do it.  Keep in mind that content is king.  What you have to say and how you express it will ultimately determine your degree of success.  Andmake sure the template you use to create your blog is Smart Phone Friendly.  I finally woke up to the fact that most people read blogs on their phones. Duh. I dumped my old templates and replaced them with new, easy to read, phone-friendly ones. Now, I’m attracting more followers than ever before, and I’m making many new friends.

Facebook Ads

I’ve experimented with ads on Facebook.  I’ve racked up tons of likes and very few sales.  In my humble opinion, paying for ads on Facebook is a total waste of time and money for self-published authors.  I have an author friend who is running great ads on Facebook, but he’s not selling any books.  I’m not saying ads in general don’t work on Facebook.  They do.  But you are an up-and-coming author struggling to find an audience.  You aren’t Macy’s.  You aren’t selling specialty items currently in demand like face masks.  See what I mean?

Facebook Pages

A Facebook page isn’t essential, but I strongly suggest that you put some time and effort into making a good one.  If nothing else, FB pages add credibility and overall impact to your marketing campaign.  And they are FREE.  You might even sell some books from your page using the SHOP NOW button.  Pick a glowing book review and pin it at the top of your posts column.  This little maneuver has increased views and engagements on all three of my Facebook pages.

Instagram

Upload a JPEG of your book cover with a link to your Facebook page.  If you have lots of friends who spend half of their lives on Instagram, you might get lucky.  I don’t use Instagram.  Don’t ask me why.

Press Releases

I’ve created and distributed press releases on PR Web with a target audience of 30,000 journalists and bloggers. The idea is to drive traffic to your websites and generate publicity on major news sites and search engines.  You can participate at various cost levels starting at $99.  The more you spend, the bigger the audience.  I participated at the second highest level at a cost of $289 per release.  (The highest level currently costs $389).  To add interest to the releases, I created a book trailer video. (A simple book trailer without actors will cost anywhere from $250 to $300 from a reputable company).

Bottom line: I could not relate any book sales to my press release adventures.  So, save your money.

Book Trailers

Book trailers are nice to have but they aren’t essential to your marketing campaign.  When I first started marketing my books twelve years ago, the pundits all said that you were dead in the water if you didn’t have a book trailer.  As it turns out, this is baloney.  Book trailers are a nice addition to your marketing package, but they aren’t powerful generators of sales.  I made trailers for my first novel, Three Days to Darkness, and my second one, Scarlet Ambrosia–Blood is the Nectar of Life.  I had fun making them and they didn’t cost too much. Recently, I used the first trailer I made as the cover photo on my Facebook page. (Note: The video has to be two minutes or less to be uploaded to the cover section). To my amazement it worked. More than a thousand people visited my Three Days to Darkness page in the span of two weeks. I made some book sales at the rate of two percent of the visits. I’m still getting views.  But here’s the thing: if you have a limited budget, use it where it will do the most good.  I’m getting to that.  Stay with me.

Audio Books

If you can swing the cost, make an audio version of your book.  As you are no doubt aware, people don’t read as many books as they used to.  Audio books are getting more popular every day.  I used ACX to make the audio book for my third novel, Micromium: Clean Energy from Mars.  I liked using ACX and they are part of Amazon.  I signed an exclusive agreement with them, which means I get a bigger royalty (70%) on each audio book sale.  With this agreement, your book is automatically uploaded to Amazon, Audible, and iTunes.  The downside is, you don’t get exposure on sites like Hoopla, Overdrive, and Bibliotheca, which serve libraries.  If you don’t go exclusive, ACX offers a non-exclusive agreement wherein you can distribute to any platform and get a 25% royalty.

If you hire a narrator for your audio book, which you can do through ACX, a good one will probably cost you between $100 and $150 per finished hour.  Your narrator does the narration and all of the production work.  You direct them and approve the finished product.  I had a great time making my audio book with an amazing woman who did a fabulous job.  I’ve done reasonably well with my audio book.  I’ve noticed that having an audio version available has increased my overall book sales.

Paid Reviews

When you launch your book, you want to have a sufficient number of positive reader and editorial reviews available on retail sites and Goodreads to convert browsers into buyers.  Unless you have twenty friends and a handful of book critics ready, willing, and able to post glowing reviews, it makes sense to purchase a few of these.

There are a number of sites available for these services.  I have found the best and most reliable site for reader and editorial reviews to be indiereader.com.  Check out their website.  I bought reader reviews and an editorial review from them. I’m 100% satisfied with their service, reliability, and results.  I’ve also used midwestbookreview.com for fair, reliable, and less expensive editorial reviews. Readers Favorite is an excellent site for FREE reviews. Check it out.

Amazon Advertising

Sponsored ads on Amazon.com are the most effective marketing tool I’ve used so far.  If you have a limited budget, this is where to spend it.  The ads are easy to create. You set your daily budget, write your copy, set your campaign dates, and off you go.  If the ad doesn’t work, you can scrap it and try different keywords.  You can see which keywords are working and which are not and adjust accordingly.  Best of all, you can see how many books you’ve sold and how much it has cost you to sell those books.  There’s no baloney and no guesswork.  And, let’s face it, most of the books people buy are sold on Amazon.  To create a campaign, sign in to your KDP account, select the book you want to advertise, click on the three dots to the far right of the book, and select promote and advertise.

I hope you will find these tips helpful.  I wish you all the success in the world, and keep writing.

Do you have first-hand publishing and marketing knowledge to share with us?

Astrology in Novels: Nina Romano’s Inspo

In high school, a classmate who was as passionate about reading as I was sat near me. Best friendship was in our stars!

The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka (mirror image, to have animals in the correct order). Photo By Jakub Hałun - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64844306 The carvings with Chinese Zodiac on the ceiling of the gate to Kushida Shrine in Fukuoka (mirror image, to have animals in the correct order). Photo By Jakub Hałun – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

Her preferred reading was historical fiction, the ancient sort with mythology and astrology mixed in. Thanks to her, I read a bunch by Mary Renault, an English author who lived much of her life in South Africa. Those books depicted lots of buff gay guys from olden days. Ironically, a) in South Africa Renault could live more peacefully than in the U.K. with her life partner who was also a woman, b) she often portrayed women harshly, and c) she criticized the gay rights movement.

My friend also introduced me to “Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs.” (Here’s a rare video interview with Goodman.) For me, Goodman was worthy of extra esteem as she was Aries, the same as me. When it came to Aries, all compliments were correct and unflattering attributes were incorrect. Until, that is, at some point in my so-called maturity when I tossed astrology into the same bundle as my Catholic upbringing. Both harbored too many confounding and disturbing aspects, so best not to fret about either.

Not so much later, though, a new friend entered who was into astrology. Charts, she explained, are how astrology becomes scientific. She introduced me to Angela Louise Gallo, a master at charting the stars. Gallo read and taught from her home in Van Nuys, which is just above Hollywood, hence she garnered a sizable entertainment biz crowd of followers.

Gallo’s monthly talks culminated with “hororary” readings, as in “hour-related” since those forecasts tied her psychic powers to the time of night when she would take questions. From slips of paper handed to her, she’d give quickie predictions. I’d parted ways with my parents as soon as I graduated high school with no plan other than survival. By the time I met Gallo those few years later, I’d collected myself enough to realize that I needed to do better. I asked Gallo whether I should sign up for college. She answered, “Wait a couple of semesters. Soon you’ll be taking a long trip.”

That month my grandmother sent me an airplane-paid invitation to visit her in Argentina! During childhood, my grandmothers and I exchanged many letters. They were fantastic in all the ways that mattered to me: they didn’t sugar-coat life, they wanted the best for me, and they helped foster the writer in me who will eventually publish Flamenco & the Sitting Cat and Tango & the Sitting Cat. I loved them dearly, sight unseen. The one in Spain I first met when I was nine. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I got to hug my Abuela in Buenos Aires.

After that trip, I hired Gallo to do a detailed chart, yet I can’t remember anything about it, including what happened to it. These days, I’d rather not presuppose anyone based on their birthday, and I prefer to bumble along as best I can when it comes to my future.

Yet I still adore stories about astrology!

In this admittedly roundabout way, I present to you, dear reader, today’s poet/novelist guest, Nina Romano, who writes from Florida and Utah. Originally from New York, she’s a world traveler who’s earned degrees and writing awards galore, plus she’s published a slew of books.

Here she generously recounts the way that Chinese astrology figured into her The Secret Language of Women, the first of her Wayfarer Trilogy. Read to the end for an excerpt from it in addition to links for Nina and her writings.

Writer Nina Romano. Writer Nina Romano.

How Chinese Horoscopes Helped Me Develop a Realistic Protagonist by Nina Romano

For The Secret Language of Women, the first book of my Wayfarer Trilogy, I decided my main character Lian’s horoscope would be the Year of the Dog. Knowing her horoscope facilitated my understanding of the protagonist’s psyche for this novel. Since the book is set in China, I used Lian’s Chinese Zodiac sign to learn about her qualities and personality traits intimately so that she appeared genuine yet flawed. She is a warm and caring being, a healer, courageous and intelligent. When a person born under this sign falls in love, they do not ever change.

Loyalty and honesty are two of this horoscope sign’s characteristics. Lian falls in love with Giacomo, an Italian sailor, and remains faithful to that love, despite the fact that she is forced into a loveless marriage. Her quest is a difficult one, but she chooses to follow her path despite menaces, oppositions, troubles, risks, and dangers. She is fierce in her love and faithful to everything she believes concerning it.

Having visited China several times afforded me unique experiences that enabled me to see in person Hong Kong, Beijing, and its fabulous Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, and Lian’s enchanting city of Guilin. I was able to envision Lian’s travels and travails in war-torn China, an era suffused in superstition, intrigue, culture, and history. I incorporated the themes and things I care about, such as love, family, food and recipes, art, dragons and horses. Why? Simply because it’s straightforward to write what I know and have feelings for, and all of these ideas translated well even to a novel set in China during the Boxer Rebellion. My own horoscope is the Year of the Horse, so I made sure I had an important role for a horse in this novel, and I’m positive that my horoscope had an incredible influence on my stars being aligned because I signed a contract for a three-book deal for my Wayfarer Trilogy with Turner Publishing during the Year of the Horse.

While writing this novel, I pictured what happens during the Chinese New Year: careful cleaning of the house, the distributing of red envelopes, Lian cooking on a wok, and serving rice to her beloved.

Since this story takes place in China where live fish, most especially carp, are good Fengshui, which according to Wikipedia, is a “philosophical system of harmonizing everyone with the surrounding environment.” For this reason, I describe a pool with carp in the Summer Palace in Chapter 1, where Lian meets the love of her life. Do I believe in the influence of horoscopes and how they can help round out a character? Of that, there is little doubt.

Cover of

Excerpt from The Secret Language of Women by Nina Romano

The things that test you and are vanquished bring everlasting joy. The differences between traditional written Chinese and Nüshu, the secret language of women, made it difficult for me to learn it. My mother and grandmother could not write Chinese and learned Nüshu when they were young and wanted me to grasp it too. I cannot say they harped on me or were tyrannical, but I will say they were insistent, and for this I am eternally indebted.

My mother said it challenged me because I wrote like a man and didn’t have to rely solely on Nüshu, the way they did to communicate with other women. The ideograms of Chinese correspond to a word or part of one, whereas each of the seven hundred characters of Nüshu represent a syllable— women’s language is phonetic, in Chéngguān dialect 城关土话, adaptable and pliant for singing, poetry and writing with such delicate strokes they appear as lines of feathers.

Though learning was problematical, I mastered it, like I do all things I set my mind to

conquer. At the time, I resented the study of it, yet I knew innately one day I would be grateful to possess the knowledge and skill of this secret language, which would offer me strength and solace for a lifetime. And although I was writing in Nüshu, for some reason, I signed with flourish in Chinese: Wǒ Lián. I am Lian. 

Amazon Author — hardcover, softcover print, and Kindle: The Secret Language of Women & Lemon Blossoms & In America — softcover print and Kindle: The Girl Who Loved Cayo Bradley.

Goodreads & Twitter & @ninsthewriter & Facebook & BookBub

Has astrology helped you with storytelling and anything else?

 

What’s a writer? Plus Kathryn Bashaar’s Thoughts on “Grace”

We novelists are an eclectic bunch, but you already know that. The best ones are avid readers, and they know that rewriting is when writing magic is truly unloosed.

Many authors I’ve encountered have great respect for their kind. Also, writers can be pretty darned modest when it comes to discussing their own work. Goodness knows that I’m not the greatest about discussing my books in progress, Flamenco & the Sitting Cat, and Tango & the Sitting Cat. Some scribes I know will go so far as to refuse to call themselves writers, yet everyone around them knows that they definitely are.

Kathryn Bashaar, a historical fiction author who operates her blog from Pittsburgh, knows she’s a writer. In addition, she’s a retired bank vice-president, a dancer, a traveler, and a grandmother. Her first novel is The Saint’s Mistress and her upcoming novel is tentatively titled Righteous.

Here are her thoughts on a book she really likes. What did I tell you about writers liking writers?…

Historical fiction author Kathryn Bashaar.
Historical fiction author Kathryn Bashaar. Photo by Techniques Photography, Bethel Park, PA.

Kathryn Bashaar’s thoughts on Grace by Paul Lynch

I’m in love with historical fiction. I am a writer of historical fiction and an avid reader of the genre. The lessons of the past speak most clearly to me in the form of fiction. I’d like to recommend to da-AL’s readers the wonderful book Grace by Paul Lynch. It’s about the Irish Potato Famine in the 1840s, but, more deeply, it’s the story of everybody’s life.Cover of Grace, by Paul Lynch.

14-year-old Grace is wakened by her mother in the wee hours one morning. Mam cuts off Grace’s hair, dresses her in boy’s clothes, and sends her out on the road to fend for herself. Mam can no longer manage to feed all of her children, and she doesn’t like the way Grace’s step-father has started looking at her.

The horrors that Grace endures, and her stubborn spirit, make for a story that is hard to put down. Just as the fields have been corrupted by the potato rot, Grace is corrupted by her experiences. The Irish people as a community are also corrupted, as the veneer of civilized behavior is worn away by privation and an every-man-for-himself ethos prevails.

Grace’s salvation comes at the hands of a very flawed group of human beings. Giving a clever double meaning to the book’s title, Grace is the beneficiary of grace, in an unexpected way.

It occurred to me, as I neared the end of the book, that Grace’s basic story is everybody’s life story.

Everyone is ruined in some way. This life is a beautiful miracle, but it can also be brutal–in big, tragic ways or in slow, small ways that accumulate like a weight on your back. Some of us had addicted parents or other traumatic childhood experiences. Your heart is broken by someone you loved. A career setback proves to be unrecoverable. Someone you love dies far too young. You are disabled or stricken with a chronic illness, raped or mugged, or your house burns down. And then there are the everyday injuries of having to make a living: tedious work for 40 years, unreasonable bosses, back-stabbing co-workers, long, miserable commutes, the sheer weariness of getting up at 6 a.m. day after day after day. “Life has a way of breaking everyone,” Hemingway said. We are all broken. Most of us are more tired than we like to admit.

And, like Grace, we are saved by other imperfect human beings. I’m a Christian, so I believe that our salvation is in Jesus–ultimately. But, day by living, breathing day, our salvation is in each other. You are ill or disabled, but your spouse sticks around and takes care of you. Your work is tedious, but your co-workers make you laugh. You are hungry and think you are alone, and a local church group delivers food to your door. A friend betrays you, and the next day a neighbor you barely know shovels your walk, and you invite him in for coffee. That is what happens to my main character, Leona, in my novel The Saint’s Mistress. Leona suffers an unbearable loss and is only healed when an old friend re-enters her life and gives her a glimpse of grace and a reason to go on. In a hard world, we are granted the grace of each other.

Every single person you meet is broken in some way. This week, be the grace in someone’s life.

Do you feel comfortable calling yourself a writer? Do you write?

16 Reasons Pigeons Need Celebrating n Kathleen Rooney’s New Novel!

Doves get loads of love.

Pigeons get nada. Make that less than nothing.

Why?

As an animal lover since birth, the kind who was severely bitten by a dog when I was six yet who still never feared them, pigeon haters have always mystified me.

Hmmm…

Doves: white

Pigeons: colored

Hmmm…

Doves: a little trimmer

Pigeons: a little stouter

Hmmm…

DO NOT TAKE A LOOK AT THIS LINK that elaborates on what I’m getting at if you’re offended by ribald humor with liberal use of the f-word. FOR EVERYONE, THERE’S THIS LINK.

What do a penguin and a pigeon have in common? Sure, they’re both birds, and one might consider what I mentioned about doves vs. pigeons. In their case, however, that’s not what I’m getting to.

Marvelously, Penguin Books is publishing Kathleen Rooney’s most recent novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, about a heroic pigeon!

Kathleen’s Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, sent me into such complete nirvana that I invited her to guest post on Happiness Between Tails—and she did!!—in this prior post.

Today she’s back to tell us about the inspiration behind Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey and 16 reasons pigeons need to be celebrated.

This is a link to buy Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey from your own favorite local bookstore.

Kathleen Rooney and a friend unbox her latest novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.
Kathleen Rooney and a friend unbox her latest novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey.

On the Under-Appreciated Marvelousness of Pigeons by Kathleen Rooney

My novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey—a World War I story narrated in the first-person alternately by a homing pigeon and an American military officer, both of them real-life heroes—has just been released by Penguin. The fact that the publisher for this book is named after a bird delights me because penguins and pigeons seem like an auspicious pairing.

Of course, the story of World War I has been told often but never from the perspective of the courageous messenger pigeon who saved the Lost Battalion and helped to determine the war’s outcome. Cher Ami was so famous in her day that when she died as an indirect result of the injuries she sustained in the conflict, they had her taxidermied and put on display in the Smithsonian. You can still visit her there today in their Price of Freedom exhibit, where she sits in her glass case among other important communication equipment. My hope is that if you love pigeons and decide to give this book a read, then you’re in for a treat, and if you don’t, then you’re about to change your mind.

Cher Ami, WWI heroine, at the Smithsonian.
Cher Ami, WWI heroine, at the Smithsonian.

Penguin understands that not everyone shares my admiration for pigeons, so as part of their marketing campaign, they asked me to come up with a set of pigeon facts designed to endear the birds to other people as much as pigeons have endeared themselves to me. Thinking fondly of the pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon (as my spouse and I named them) who moved in under the eaves while I was writing my book, I set to work compiling those facts.

Pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon.
Pigeon couple, Coo d’Etat and Walter Pigeon.

Coo and Walter and their babies Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald have long since moved on with their lives, but the pigeon facts remain, and I hope they’ll inspire you to look more closely at these remarkable birds and also to give my novel a read.

Coo and Walter's babies, Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald.
Coo and Walter’s babies, Feather Locklear and Molly Wingwald.
  1. The word “pigeon” is a French translation of the English word “dove.” There’s no scientific difference between the two; they’re the same.
  2. The common city pigeon (Columba livia) is a descendant of the rock dove and is one of the first birds ever domesticated by humans, probably dating back to about 4,500 BCE in Mesopotamia.
  3. Humans and pigeons have lived closely together for millennia, thanks in part to the birds’ phenomenal homing skills, which allow them to return to their nests from up to 1,300 miles away.
  4. In addition to being good navigators, pigeons are extremely strong with high endurance and have been known to fly as far as 1,500 miles on a single trip. They can fly as high as 6,000 feet and average a speed of almost 77 miles per hour, with top speeds of almost 93 miles per hour having been attained by some birds.
  5. Because of pigeons’ homing talent, humans have called upon pigeons to carry the news throughout history, ranging from messages on flood levels up and down the Nile in ancient Egypt, to the results of the Olympic Games in Greece in the 8th century. As early as 500 BCE, the emperor of China used pigeons to receive messages in Beijing from outer provinces because a bird could travel in as many hours as it took a horse and rider days. Hannibal used pigeons during his siege of Rome, and Julius Caesar sent them to relay messages from his military campaigns in Gaul. Genghis Khan and his grandson Kublai Khan created a pigeon post that spanned a sixth of the world. Besieged Parisians relied on pigeon post in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, and, of course, pigeons served as messengers in both WWI and WWII.During World War I, over 100,000 pigeons were used on the battlefield.
  6. Pigeons are included in the Animals in War Memorial in Hyde Park London in honor—as the dedication says—of “all the animals that served and died alongside British and allied forces in wars and campaigns throughout time.” It was unveiled in 2004 on the 90th anniversary of the start of World War I.
  7. People didn’t start calling pigeons “rats with wings” until this false idea was popularized in the 1980 movie Stardust Memories; pigeons are actually quite clean and not at all disease-ridden.
  8. Pigeons do not migrate, but rather adapt to one environment and remain there year-round—a lot like humans.
  9. Pigeons are one of a relatively small number of species who pass the mirror test for self-recognition.
  10. Pigeons can distinguish different humans in photographs.
  11. According to a 2016 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pigeons can be trained to recognize dozens of words, with the most accomplished pigeon being able to learn as many as 60.
  12. According to a 1994 study published in The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, pigeons can successfully learn to discriminate between paintings by Monet and Picasso.
  13. When pigeons mate, they mate for life.
  14. Male and female pigeons share equal responsibility in raising their chicks. Both take turns sitting on the eggs and both feed the babies pigeon milk—a secretion that both male and female birds produce in their crops.
  15. Pigeons are still kept as pets, bred, and raced around the world; in 2019, a Belgian racing pigeon named Armando sold for $1.4 million. The auction house said that Armando’s athleticism made him, in soccer terms, the Lionel Messi of the avian world.
  16. The brilliant inventor Nikola Tesla fell in love with a white pigeon who visited him at the window of his room in the Hotel St. Regis in New York City: “I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was purpose to my life,” he wrote.

About Kathleen Rooney: she’s a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a nonprofit publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, as well as a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a collective of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poems on demand. Her most recent books include the novel Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk and The Listening Room: A Novel of Georgette and Loulou Magritte. Her reviews and criticism appear in the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and Chicago magazine, and her World War I novel Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey is available now from Penguin.

Do you like pigeons? (It’s ok if you didn’t before this post.)

How do you define a great novel? plus writer Ian Craine’s 6 picks

Is a great novel the one you had the most fun reading? One that transported you to a whole new situation, a new land, a new time? Or did that story unlock new insights? How about one that allowed you to feel understood and less alone? What about the books of childhood, which stripped away all the anguish of being small and vulnerable? Is your favorite one that’s compelled you to read it more than once?

The desire to read

I was born ready, jumping out of my diapers with eagerness to comprehend how written language worked.

My reading list from the start

All printed words that came my way. Food wrappers, cereal boxes, and street signs were intermingled with picture books.

School days

Fourth-grade outings with my best friend were bike rides to the library. There I would tick off readings from the Newberry Medal list (the highest esteemed American children’s books). Kids’ magazines with fiction, grown-up mags that featured stories, books lying about the house, I was starved for reading no matter how much I learned. That included Playboy Magazines, The Godfather, Marquis de Sade. That last one fascinated eleven-year-old me not for the sex (it went over my head), but for how sadomasochism mirrored the day-to-day I saw. Later in high school, Shakespeare taught me how stories can tap numerous levels beyond surface and deep.

Lately

My idea of “best” has more to do with whatever I’ve recently read that left an impression. Since embarking upon novel-writing, much of my fiction is via audiobooks. Minutes spent sitting is time I could be writing. The books I select are for enjoyment as well as for learning. Since the books I’m writing, “Flamenco & the Sitting Cat” and “Tango & the Sitting Cat,” are epistolary (correspondence or diary), I’m apt to download books of that style. That includes the historically latent “Frankenstein” and “Dracula,” the contemporary “Queenie,” the fizzy “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” and “The Roxy Letters.” Non-epistolary includes anything by authors like Anne Patchett, and Anne Tyler, who’s endings are complex. Elizabeth Gilbert’s recent protagonist encourages us to never regret losing our virginity. Now I’m dizzy with memories of beautiful reads, too many to note here but irresistible to type: “Little,” “A Tale for the Time Being,” “Kindred”… I can’t wait to read Kathleen Rooney’s latest (she was so very kind to be a Happiness Between Tails guest here).

Ian Craine, writer Ian Craine, writer

With that, dear readers, let’s meet Ian Craine — he often blogs on his wife’s site (Roberta Franklin is a writer of romantic fiction). He’s a Brit currently living in London who hopes to move to Wales and has worked as a lawyer, a book indexer, and a writer. He enjoys history, books, writing, walking, travel, horse racing, cinema, and music.

About writing, he notes, “…to write, one first of all, has to be able to read. Our life experiences, as Borges once said, include both the things we have done and the books we have read. Reading needs to be a balance between fiction and non-fiction, both from the reader’s and the writer’s point of view.”

Ian has written screenplays in various genres, novellas, stage plays, articles, short stories, flash and poetry. As for novels, he says, “…I confess I have always signally failed there. Somehow I just cannot write that many words. Perhaps I just haven’t got enough to say. But I admire anybody who can from Miguel Cervantes to my own wife.”

A lover of good novels, here are the ones he regards as the best six…

Six Great Novels: Ian Craine’s picks (in chronological order)

Painting of Don Quixote and Sancho Pansa by Honore DaumierDon Quixote and Sancho Pansa by Honore Daumier
  1. Don Quixote” by Miguel Cervantes: This is where the novel began, this is the template. It may never have been bettered since. It’s wonderfully layered, whose story are we hearing? This is a world that contains all worlds- those of dream, of memory and of imagination, of bawdy and elegy, the fantastical and the prosaic. This satire of romance now bears its own warm romantic glow. It has inspired many of the world’s greatest writers — Diderot, Mark Twain, Borges, Graham Greene, Nabokov, Carlos Fuentes — as it was inspired by Homer’s majestic Odyssey.
  2. The Black Arrow” by Robert Louis Stevenson: Stevenson was a man for all seasons from the early spring of childhood with tales like Treasure Island to winter’s disillusionment of old age in South Seas Island novellas such as Ebb Tide. My choice is in the earlier category, a stirring tale of derring-do from “The Wars of the Roses.” I am sure it was as fun to write as it is to read.
  3. The Alexandrian Quartet” by Laurence Durrell: These are four linked tales, the first three told contemporaneously but from different points of view; the fourth is subsequent to the earlier events. To me, nobody has combined a sense of place with a sense of the human condition as perfectly as Durrell. Alexandria is described on every page as the essential witness to all the characters do — their affairs, relationships, journeys, and desires. Beautiful descriptive writing effortlessly merges with a keen post-Freudian feel for humanity. It’s an object lesson too, in the primacy of the novel in describing human behaviour. This is rich beyond anything Freud himself ever wrote.
  4. Downriver” by Iain Sinclair: As Durrell wrote of a city, so Sinclair wrote of a river. The river is the Thames. The starting point is Thatcher’s London, the “revival” of the dockland with bijou apartments for bracered brokers, and it takes place largely downriver of the City, where such folk “earned” their commissions. The book, told in ten chapters, brings us an incredibly rich mix of deeply eccentric characters and allusions to episodes in London’s history over the centuries. Sinclair was a walker (till age put paid to his excursions) with a sharp eye for the topography and architecture of London, and the effects of crushing change on those left behind by the sudden hysteria orchestrated by “The Widow.”
  5. “The Blind Man’s Garden” by Nadeem Aslam: It’s 2001 and 9/11 has come and gone. But this is not about its effect on the West. This is what happened afterwards in Afghanistan. A beautifully evoked Pakistani family, each with their problems and preoccupations, are torn apart when the son decides to go to Afghanistan as a medic. An adopted “cousin” goes along for the ride. But they are too naive (perhaps a modern version of our old friends, the Quixote and Sancho Panza) and those they think are helping are out for their own cut- they are sold to the Taliban. Now they have to tread with care amidst their new “owners” while the other enemy, the Americans, fill their skies with terror and destruction. But like all serious novels about conflict, this is about trying to find common ground, mutual respect and reconciliation amid the chaos. Only “Sancho” survives because only he would have been equipped to survive. And this tremendous book, beautifully written, a tale of redemption amid horror, is his Odyssey. New ways of telling old tales.
  6. “The Professor and the Bird” by Roberta Franklin: This is a beautiful story, again with a strong sense of place, and like The Quartet set in the Mediterranean by a writer deeply conversant with the rhythms of life of Greeks and Turks and the Levant generally. She tells a lovely tale of May and November. A sparky young Irish girl on a motorbike meets an ageing Greek archaeologist. They would appear to have little in common at first, but a love of history, the sort buried deep beneath the sands and sea of the Med, begins to bring them together. She is friendly and open, he kind but academic and diffident. Their burgeoning relationship is told with warmth and humour, and the supporting crew on the dig all have their own stories to tell.

Vids n Welcome Extraterrestrials! w Guest Blog Post by Alien Resort

Stephen Hawking, in this April 10, 2018 interview for Smithsonian Channel. It was one of the last times he appeared on-camera. His message was that we (Earthlings) need to colonize another planet.
Stephen Hawking, in this April 10, 2018 interview for Smithsonian Channel. It was one of the last times he appeared on-camera. His message was that we (Earthlings) need to colonize another planet.

What do you think about, regarding whether we’ve got roommates on this galaxy other than our fellow Earthlings? Not that I contemplate extraterrestrial folk often, but when I do… I don’t give them much thought…

On the other hand, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking maintains that I should — and so should you! He advised that some might be hostile — and that we need to start our planning sooner than later (and what’s that on his lapel?)…

Some experts argue that that we have no reason to worry that the other inhabitants of the heavens might make slaves, indentured servants, mincemeat, or whatnot of us. This authority says we should double our efforts to contact them…

Never mind all that. Forget about Star Wars (SW fans, see this post)… There’s no need for nonsense such as science, neither astronomy nor guesses and such, any longer! Thanks to the infinite reach of the blogsphere, now we can peer into the day-to-days of the aliens (and why don’t we care if they’re the legal type?) on Alien Resort via their transmitter/cartoonist/blogger, David Davis. The lives (often comical, always humorous and clever) of the immigrants is told in the form of comics. The E.T.’s website, Dans Cartoons to the Rescue, includes a developing story homepage with blog post updates. Moreover, an on-site Alien Resort Museum displays the stranded voyagers when they’re published in local (meaning on Earth) newspapers.

The little (I think) guys of Alien Resort have a now-defunct “GoFundMe forcefield’ to wage against their nemesis, Beacons of the Night.
The little (I think) guys of Alien Resort have a now-defunct “GoFundMe forcefield’ to wage against their nemesis, Beacons of the Night.

Alien Resort by David Davis

A preface from Alien Resort blog-lord David Davis:

I was a character in the early days of the story when, in about 2017, I reached out to Coy and the others through Craigslist for help in making my comics. I was arrested in 2019 for the offense of hiring illegal aliens and imprisoned on the mainland. I am still in jail, awaiting trial. The residents of Alien Resort taught themselves to make the comics on their own, thanks to the organizational capabilities of Captain Plucky and the humor of resident comedians Deadpan and Lmao. And it is true that due to the decline in the newspaper business, they no longer sell as many comics as they used to, but they’re doing okay thanks to the benevolence of their landlord, the king of the archipelago. If anyone’s in charge, it’s Coy.

Alien Nation cartoonist David Davis.
Alien Nation cartoonist David Davis.

Onward to the real story, direct from the mouth(?)(s?) of the residents of Alien Nation:

My name is Coy. I crash-landed my spaceship over three hundred years ago on an island in the North Pacific Ocean. Eventually, Plucky came to rescue me, but she got stranded too. Along with two comedians, also extraterrestrials, we are the residents of Alien Resort.

A picture of Coy, spokes-alien for Alien Nation.
A picture of Coy, spokes-alien for Alien Nation.

We knew nothing about Earth when we first arrived. We didn’t know if Earth was inhabited until we began picking up radio signals. Our next big step was when Plucky built an internet transceiver. We found out that our island was owned by a king; we contacted him, and he’s been very good to us ever since.

The residents of Alien Nation offer an interesting perspective of life on Earth.
The residents of Alien Nation offer an interesting perspective of life on Earth.

A few years ago, we got a job. An Earthling by the name of David Davis writes comics for newspapers. He proposed to send us scripts, which we would rehearse and assemble into the final form to send to editors.

Everything went well until a group called the Beacons of Night protested that we shouldn’t be allowed to make comics for newspapers. They say we’re stealing jobs from Earthlings. Their slogan is Earthlings Unite, and they’re continually trying to figure out ways to undermine us.

Alien Nation's residents are multi-cultural -- they come from a variety of planets!
Alien Nation’s residents are multi-cultural — they come from a variety of planets!

Up until the coronavirus outbreak, we were conducting an Alien Resort Island excursion for a cruise line. I was the guide, which was hard at first because I have issues that make it hard for me to speak in public.

The folks of Alien Resort are colorful, to say the least.
The folks of Alien Resort are colorful, to say the least.

One of the comedians, Deadpan, is in a relationship with Plucky. They both have issues too, which are shared in the blog posts. Readers can participate in the comments section and converse directly with us. Except with Lmao, that is. He’s the other comedian, and he’s usually off climbing a tree or polishing his nails.

Dive in — share your ideas about extraterrestrials…