Angel (novel)

Write While Your Car is Being Towed: The Fishing for Fiction Method


Today The Readdicts, who have been quite generous in featuring my work in the past, ran an interview as part of the Angel Virtual Book Tour.  To read the full interview, follow the link above.  In the interview, I talk about the inspiration for the novel Angel, the character Ian (you can also find a link to a character interview of Ian that I did earlier with Readdicts), my decision not to publish a sequel and my attraction to British literature.  Here is one question and response to whet your appetite:

Can you tell us a little about your writing schedule?

(how often you write, any specifications you follow, a particular writing area you have, etc.)

The folksinger Arlo Guthrie tells this story about inspiration being like fishing.  You sit by the river and you put your rod or your net in the water, but the fish has to come to you.  (The punchline is that he is downstream from Bob Dylan and so he can only catch the ones Dylan throws back.)  

My process is that I simply write a lot.  I don’t let ideas keep swimming downstream.  I keep pens and paper around and I get out of the shower and I write down what came to me in there.  I honor writer’s block as a message that I need to stop working consciously and go away and let my subconscious do its thing for a while.  

Even when I have an assignment for something like a corporate speech, the process is essentially the same.  I write down my initial thoughts and ideas and then I go away and do something else and at some point while I’m taking a nap or driving I’ll have that lightbulb moment.  I think of it like the subconscious oven timer going off.  It delivers up the thing that brings my disconnected ideas together and then I write very quickly after that.  

With a novel, I never write in order, I just write scenes and dialogue and bits as they come to me, and then later when it seems there are enough pieces I put them together.  I guess I learned the technique of writing earlier to the point that it is highly internalized and so the key at this point is just catching the fish.

I am on tour with a ballet project five months of the year and spend a lot of time driving.  A lot of ideas come to me then, and I scrawl them in little notebooks.  Most of Angel was written this way.  Part of it was scrawled in notebooks as my car was being towed, broken down in West Virginia.

I am a full time writer when I am not on tour with the ballet project, so I write pretty much constantly.  Whenever I can.  I never have a problem making myself write.  I have the problem of way more text than I will have enough years of life to develop.

Paul Tobit’s Winter Thoughts

Paul Tobit, a widowed minister now working as a tour guide at Mount Rainier, is the protagonist of the novel Angel.  As part of the Snowy Reading Blog Hop, hosted by Authors Promoting Authors. On each site that participates, a main character answers winter-themed interview questions. This seemed like a great opportunity to speak in Paul’s voice one more time. The interesting thing with a character interview is that you have to make a decision not only about how the character would answer, but where he is in his life and in the world of the story. This is an interview of Paul Tobit at the time of the opening chapter, which is also the time of the closing chapter. We meet him as a tour guide on Mount Rainier. The most of the action of the novel takes place prior to that– it is the story of how he got there.  Before we get to that, a little bit about the novel:

Since the loss of his lively, charming wife to cancer six years ago, minister Paul Tobit has been operating on autopilot, performing his religious duties by rote. Everything changes the day he enters the church lobby and encounters a radiant, luminous being lit from behind, breathtakingly beautiful and glowing with life. An angel. For a moment Paul is so moved by his vision that he is tempted to fall on his knees and pray. Even after he regains his focus and realizes he simply met a flesh-and-blood young man, Paul cannot shake his sense of awe and wonder. He feels an instant and overwhelming attraction for the young man, which puzzles him even as it fills his thoughts and fires his feelings. Paul has no doubt that God has spoken to him through this vision, and Paul must determine what God is calling him to do.

Thus begins a journey that will inspire Paul’s ministry but put him at odds with his church as he is forced to examine his deeply held beliefs and assumptions about himself, his community, and the nature of love.

So without further ado, an interview with Paul Tobit.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself.

A:  My name is Paul.  For the past year, since I burned out on my old job, I’ve been working as a tour guide at Mount Rainier.  I enjoy it. I never get tired of the scenery.  It changes into something more beautiful each season.  I like showing that majesty to new people each tour.  I don’t know if I will do this forever, but I’m content now.  I have a lot of time to look at the mountain and think about things, reflect on life.

Q: Do you enjoy or dislike winter? Tell us why.

A: My favorite season is probably spring, all of that rebirth and renewal, but I am starting to appreciate winter more as I get older. Winter is actually a hopeful time because spring comes next and anything is possible. I’m in a winter period of my life at the moment, taking a pause and just laying low until the next phase of my life is born.  That’s an important part of life too, that time when it just seems as though everything is on hold and nothing is certain.  The truth is, until I came here to the mountain I was such an indoor person that the seasons didn’t affect me much at all. I went from one indoor space to another and I mostly focused on what was going on in my head. So that has been one benefit of this job, I’m more in touch with the nature of the seasons, how things change and how it’s a natural process.

Q: What would you do on a date (or with close friends) on a snowy evening?

A: I don’t go out or socialize much these days. I get just about the right amount of contact with people doing the tours. Like I said, I’m at a moment in my life where I am happy to have time to myself for quiet reflection.  I’ve been doing a lot of reading, the Bible and other books.  I’m trying to do more of that than watching TV.  I’ve been writing meditations, prayers, mostly about nature and beauty, but also about loss, why there is loss in the world and what you can learn about God from that.  I don’t have the answer to that, by the way.  I’m writing about it to figure it out if I can.  When I’m finished I might put the thoughts together in a book and publish it.  It won’t be Thoreau, but it might mean something to someone.  I didn’t mention, but before I came here I was a minister.  I left my old job, but I haven’t lost my religion.  It is interesting actually, I was a minister for a long time, but when I was doing that, I never had the kind of time I do now just to sit and be still with God.  So, the Lord works in mysterious ways!

Q: When it’s cold and dreary outside, what makes you laugh out loud?

A: There was this time that Ian decided to make a snowman. Ian was a young man I was close to.  He lived with me.  He was like a big kid sometimes.  He has this joy for life. We had our first big snow and he got it in his head that he was going to make the world’s largest snowman. He was out there making this giant base. I’m watching through the window, because I hate the cold. He kept coming inside and dripping snow and calling me names for not coming out and helping him, but he was going to make the biggest snow man on earth, damn it, with our without me. Next thing you know he has one of the neighbor kids out there, and then there are four of them. They are pushing this huge snowball around. Really leaning into it, they can hardly push it. Then they made another huge snowball, and by the time they got it done they realized they were both so big that, even with the five of them, they couldn’t possibly lift the second one and get it on top of the other one. So that was it. I made hot chocolate and we sat there with the neighbor kids, drinking the hot chocolate, looking out the window at these immovable mounds of snow and laughing.  The huge snowballs just sat there in the yard for probably a month. They took forever to melt. Every time I looked at them I couldn’t help but picture Ian out there with the kids, pushing these things around. It makes me smile when I think about it. Stuff like that.

Q: If you were sitting around a fire, playing truth or dare, what would you choose and why?

A: I can’t imagine myself doing that. But just to take your premise, if I were… I’m not that adventurous, I’d chose truth. Well, now that I think about it, it would depend on who I was playing with. There are some people who I would be willing to give a bit more truth than others. Ian would take a dare. Truth would be no fun for him because he would tell you anything anyway.

Q: Tell us about a winter memory from your childhood?

A: I grew up in Kansas. I was raised by a single father after my mother died when I was young.  It was just the two of us.  My father never made a big deal out of Christmas. I have fond memories of the Christmas season at the church, though. I remember the mitten tree. Every year we put up a big tree and people put mittens and hats and gloves on it, and we’d donate them to people in need. As soon as I was old enough, I got put in charge of the drive. I liked the responsibility. It felt important. That kind of thing got me thinking about joining the ministry.

Q: What is the most creative gift you would put under the tree?

A: The thing that springs to mind– the last Christmas Sara and I were together– Sara was my wife, she died from cancer fairly young. It was such a hard time. That last Christmas she was very ill and we both knew we wouldn’t have another one together. Christmas that year was a weight hanging over me. I felt so much pressure to make that gift mean something. I couldn’t just go to the mall and get something shrink wrapped. But what do you get someone who doesn’t need any more things? What can she take with her where she is going? Only love, right? I really thought about that one. I had proposed to her at a picnic. It had been kind of a disaster because the weather didn’t cooperate, but she said yes anyway. So for Christmas I got a picnic basket, and I filled it with little things she could look at from her bed, because she was in bed a lot. All these little things that represented good times we’d had together. It cost almost nothing, they were just little knick-knacks. But she loved it. She cried. We both cried. She would run her fingers over these objects. After she died I gave those things away. It was too hard for me to look at them. Now, I sort of wish I’d held onto them.   Anyway, I’m sorry to bring that heaviness into this.  Let’s move on.

Q: Would you start a snowball fight?

A: No. I’m not the snowball fight starter. That would be Sara, or Ian. They would both start a snowball fight. The difference is, if I didn’t play along, Sara would give up and hug me for being boring. Ian would just keep pelting you until you threw back. He was relentless in that way.

Q: Tell us about your favourite winter movie or book?

A: I like “It’s a Wonderful Life.” I also have a fond memory of Ian playing Big Crosby’s “White Christmas” and singing off-key.

Q: How do you celebrate the holidays? Be it Christmas or Hannaukah or the Winter Solstice.

A: This year, I think I will find a church that does a midnight mass. I’ll light a couple of candles.

Want to know more about the characters from Angel?  Today at The Readdicts is an interview with the second main character of the novel, Ian Finnerty.

Interviewing in 140 Characters or Less

In case you missed it, this is a transcript of the “twitterview” I did yesterday.  This visual version was prepared by Novel Publicity.  I did want to point out that a couple of my answers, which were across two tweets, were combined in this transcript and a few of the questions and answers were omitted.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

On the question of whether aspiring writers should look for an agent or try to find a publisher directly I replied:

Initially, I just sent proposals using Writer’s Market. My biggest seller (85,000 copies) sold that way. After that, got an agent

Once you have a track record you can get an agent. Yes, it is a Catch-22.

Upsides and downsides to working with agents. They get you things you won’t on your own, and it is good to have someone in it w/ U. (I ran out of characters on this tweet.)

But if your agent doesn’t like a proposal and you really believe in it, don’t take it as the last word.


Also after the end of the official twitter view I answered a question about whether there will be more from the characters in Angel.  (Short answer: Maybe.)

And I added on the question about the inspiration for the character of Ian:

A bit more on the inspiration for the character Ian, see the third question in this interview:

What Does Writing LGBT Literature Mean to Me?

Blog Hop“You wrote a novel?  That is so exciting.  What is it about?”

It’s an experience that I, as a straight person, hadn’t really faced before but one that has since become familiar. 

It’s that moment when you look at the person making friendly conversation, asking you about your life, and you stop and size her up.  How do you imagine she is going to react?  Do you know her to be a conservative Christian?  Will she think of you differently after you respond?  If you work with her, might her feelings about your response affect how she views you as a client? 

My book is about a Christian minister who falls in love with another man.  It’s about how his faith and relationship with his congregation evolve as a result.

Do I say this directly or do I speak around it?  “It’s a bout a minister and his relationship with his congregation.”  “It was inspired by a trip I took to the mountains.”

Coming out.

No, I can’t claim to know what it is like to have this come up about everything: your weekend plans, your family situation, “Who is that person who brought you lunch?”  But writing LGBT literature, that is to say, writing one book about gay and bisexual characters, has given me a small taste.

Before I wrote the book, I had the luxury of holding but not voicing my opinion when it was not convenient, of keeping quiet and letting people assume I agreed with whatever they believed.  Like most luxuries, it came at a high price: fear and inauthenticity.

I have friends who have reacted with— let’s call it surprise at the topic of my book. They love me anyway.  My worries were unfounded. That realization spills over into many areas of my life.  Trying to avoid offending anyone is a great way to avoid saying anything worth expressing.

I have a theory that social change happens not when the first trail blazers take a stand— as important as they are.  The change really happens when average people stop nodding in agreement to things they don’t believe.  I do think we’ve reached a point in history where a lot of people have stopped nodding.

I read a poem once with the title “Unlearning Not to Speak.”  That is what writing lgbt literature has been for me, a process of unlearning not to speak.

Review of the novel Angel by Laura Lee: Fighting Monkey Press

This is a love story.  Written with the depth and insight of  The Prisoner’s Wife by asha bandele or Written on the Body by Jeannette Winterson, Angel is a surprising piece of literature…

Angel is an exploration of faith, an exploration of the nature of love, and forces the reader to think about the difference between private and public identity.  I have to admit, this one made me cry a number of times.  The raw emotions, the lyrical writing and the unadulterated adoration Paul felt for Ian was overwhelming at times…

Angel is a book that needs to be read a few times.  It should be essential reading for Gender Studies and Seminary in dealing with issues of Sexuality. It’s deep, it’s thoughtful, its beautiful and evocative.  Angel challenges the reader to look at themselves, their lives and re-examine their preconceived notions.

Most of all though Angel is a love story.  And you should read it.

The Purpose of Epigrams and L’Esprit de L’Escalier

A couple of days ago I had the pleasure of attending the Plymouth Book Club in Grand Rapids, Michigan at the Plymouth United Church of Christ.   I met some great people and we had a wonderful discussion of the novel Angel. 

One of the questions that I was asked had to do with the epigrams that begin each of Angel’s chapters.  Some people don’t like them and tend to skip them, which doesn’t bother me, and shouldn’t impact the understanding of the story much.

So why put them there?

I gave an answer to the question, but not a very good one.  Rather than explaining why they were there, I talked about the process of finding them and deciding which illustrations to use.  After the fact, I thought about this question a bit more and I have come up with a better answer.  

This phenomenon is called Treppenwitz in German and l’esprit de l’escalier in French.  Both expressions refer to finding the perfect rejoinder or answer the moment the other person has left the room.  Writers are the masters of Treppenwitz.  In fact, I have a theory that a large portion of literature is made up of the things writers thought of later and wished they had said at the time.  They have their characters say it instead.

(One such Treppenwitz of my own, which found its way into Angel, was Paul’s response to a woman who said that gays shouldn’t advertise their sexual orientation, which Bishop Craig Bergland mentioned in an article on his blog Engaged Spirituality.)

It can be difficult as a writer to articulate why you wrote something the way you did.  This is not because you don’t know why you did it.  Rather it is because finding the right words and style is more a matter of feeling than intellect. 

I put the epigrams there because I felt they belonged there.  That’s the short answer.

The longer answer, now that I have analyzed it, is this:

The novel Angel was inspired by Mount Rainier in Seattle.  The mountain provides the spiritual center of the story.  It was the image that I kept going back to in order to find the right feel for the events of the story.  In the book club meeting we talked about some of the things the mountain represents in Angel

It symbolizes the church and is tied into an internal church debate about whether or not to repair a crumbling steeple.  The steeple is a man made mountain, designed to remind us of our smallness and humility in relation to divine forces.

It is also a symbol of natural forces that are of a scope that does not allow them be controlled through human will (as is the attraction the character Paul feels toward Ian).

The mountain also symbolizes the relationship of the protagonists.  I consciously thought of Ian and Paul as being like the mountain, where heaven and earth meet, so Ian is earthy and Paul has his head a bit in the clouds.  This shaped the characters and what makes them compatible. 

The mountain symbolizes beauty and the fear that sometimes accompanies our experience of beauty.  (Our experience of the mountain is one of of “beauty and terror” as the author Bruce Barcott wrote.)  Thus as Paul discovers his attraction to Ian’s natural beauty, he is forced to face his fears.  And like the dormant volcano that is Mount Rainier, the relationship has the potential to be destructive in the future. 

The cycle of destruction and renewal that a volcano represents also ties into a theme of resurrection that is a subtext of the novel.  It comes into the novel through Paul’s discussion of the mass with Ian, Ian’s participation in communion, and the new life direction that each finds through his relation to the other.  (At the cost of the death of a previous way of existence.)

Finally, a volcano, so seemingly solid, is a reminder that everything beautiful is transitory and therefore we should remember to cherish it.

The mountain informed the story for me from the beginning and infuses every aspect of the story.  It is the breath of the story.  So I wanted it to remain a poetic presence.  In the body of the narrative itself, however, I did not want to constantly refer to the mountain.  Ian and Paul’s story is their story, not a metaphor. 

The epigrams at the beginning of the chapter, however, ask the reader to back up for a moment and view the intimate and personal events of the story in light of universal truths, the types of truths that are difficult to articulate, but which can be discovered and felt by contemplating nature.  It asks the reader to connect the specific to something that is, like Mount Rainier, larger than the story and its characters. 

This is what I would have said at the book club if I’d been able to go off in a corner and write my reply.  That might be a good way to interview authors in general, really.

A Kiss is Just a Kiss?

As a writer, how do you begin to describe a kiss?  This is the topic of my guest post today at Bibrary Book Lust

A kiss, a first kiss especially, is not only a touch, it is an emotion. It is a question, an invitation that can be accepted or denied. “Will you be my lover?”

It is that most vulnerable of moments, full of nervousness and anxiety, and it is also one of the anxieties that is most quickly relieved. It melts away the moment the lips touch and the invitation has been accepted.

“And then they kissed,” was not going to cut it.

For guidance, I ventured onto Google Books and found myself reading an 1873 magazine called The Galaxy. There, in an article called “The Curiosities of Kissing” I discovered this observation by William Conant Church:

“Shakespeare calls kisses holy, lovely, loving, gentle, jealous, soft, sovereign, warm, and righteous. He has over two hundred and fifty allusions to kisses and kissing in his plays, and in the second part of ‘Henry VI.’ he speaks of ‘twenty thousand kisses.’ In the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ he calls lips ‘those kissing treasures.’ But in all his writings we find no full description of a kiss. It was a subject too vast even for Shakespeare’s mighty mind.”

Realizing that I had stumbled onto a problem that had stumped Shakespeare made me feel a little bit better about myself, and so I got back to work.

What was my solution to this conundrum?  Read the rest at Bibrary Book Lust.

In Honor of National Coming Out Day

I support lgbt rights, but National Coming Out Day is a little bit of an odd concept for me.  You can’t really participating by “coming out” if you’re straight or if you’re already “out,” and if you’re not, I’m not sure if you want to begin that talk with “So Mom, you know today is National Coming Out Day, right?” Although, who knows, maybe you do.

In any case, in honor of National Coming Out Day, I’m reposting one of the answers from my interview with Kindle Author:

During the course of writing (Angel) I only had to focus on telling the story the best I knew how, and crafting it as a workable novel.  Once I’d finished it, I found that I had to contend with having written a love story between two men, one of whom is a Christian minister.  I had to figure out how to sell and market it, and how people might react to that or try to present it.  I’m not a person who courts controversy, and I don’t personally feel as though what I wrote is controversial.  I tried to write something beautiful. As a straight person, I’ve taken for granted not having to size up anyone’s views about sexual orientation before I talk about my life.  Now when people ask me about the novel, I find myself trying to gauge how they might react and how to frame it before I speak, and it’s given me a certain empathy.  I won’t say I wasn’t empathetic to lgbt people before (I couldn’t have written Angel if I wasn’t), but I didn’t have any personal taste of what it must be like to have to think about how someone might react to you when you speak about the events of your life.  Sometimes people ask me what the book is about and I tell them and I feel a bit of a silence come over them.  They’re surprised.  I feel their discomfort.  I suppose it is possible that there will be some people who have strong feelings against homosexuals who might put me into a certain category and decide they don’t want to try my other non-fiction books.  I hope that doesn’t happen.  In any case, you can’t live in fear of things like that or you won’t ever say anything worth saying.