MEMBERS REVIEW

INTO THE FIELD

by Tracy Dahlby

Published in 2014 by University of Texas Press.

Into the Field

Reviewed by Retha Lindsey Fielding.

Breaking out of his chenille-curtained cocoon in his parents’ basement, Tracy Dahlby made a decision to become a foreign correspondent.

A few words on the radio had an amazing effect on his future. He doesn’t remember the radio broadcaster’s name, but a few words from the 1967 documentary The Roots of Madness, captured the mood with: “There are 700 million Chinese today, one quarter of the human race, and they are taught to hate. Their growing power is the world’s greatest threat to peace and light.”

Dahlby gives credit to that “high jacking by radio” for the beginning of his dream of becoming a foreign correspondent. His adventure took him to Japan where he lived for 13 years, marrying a Japanese woman, and then to New York City to live and work.

When Dahlby first began this long-distance work that would become his career, he was unsure where his boundaries were. He asked one of his editors how long he would be in the field, the man looked puzzled and said, “Come back when you’re finished reporting.’”

This freedom that Dahlby was handed was a gift that gave him the freedom to write the in-depth stories that he would become known for. Dahlby said, “Released from the rigors of tight news deadlines, I was free to report exactly where my nose led me and without adult supervision of any kind. “

As a foreign correspondent, Dahlby invites the reader to come along on three different trips in Asia where he starts from scratch on his stories for National Geographic, and moves them along to the finish, showing the reader how he got to the text that he wrote. It is here that I began to get confused, and I think the book would have been more exciting and clear if he had focused on one story. However, he meant this book to serve as a field guide and it does that, but it became a bit overwhelming to read.

I would imagine that the awesome quality of the magazine’s photography is quite a challenge for a writer to write copy to support the photographic images. To that end, Dahlby worked with an old screenwriter’s trick in mind: “Inject your story with themes as big and smart as you can muster—and then do your damnedest to hide them inside a human tale lest they take over and club your audience senseless with boredom.”

Dahlby gives a lot of credit to his “local fixer,” whom he calls the unsung hero of long-distance reporting, and for a correspondent there is absolutely nobody on earth more important. He doesn’t explain the process for finding a fixer in a local environment, and I would have like to have known more about that.

I won’t kid you this book is very dense and in some places confusing, but if you are interested in becoming a foreign correspondent anywhere in the world, this is the book for you. Even if you aren’t, this book is a very interesting read. But, give yourself time to take in all that Tracy Dahlby has packed into this one book.

Retha Lindsey Fielding has been a member since March. She is the author of one non-fiction book and is currently seeking representation for it.

MEET THE MEMBERS

Christy Esmahan has been a member of the Writers’ League since November and is attending the 2015 Agents & Editors Conference. She lives in Houston.

Esmahan

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Christy Esmahan: My novels so far are in the genres of literary fiction and contemporary fiction. However, with NaNoWriMo this month, I began writing a science fiction novel and I am thoroughly enjoying the experience. I have also written one children’s book.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

CE: I’d have several pints of beer with Jasper Fforde, who is one of the most entertaining authors I’ve ever read. I admire all of his books, love his sense of humor and I am completely fascinated by the way he thinks. I feel certain that I could learn so much from him. Ah, if only…

I would have several cups of milky rooibos tea with Alexander McCall-Smith in the living room of his house in Scotland. I’ve read nearly every book he’s published, and I love his calm and endearing manner and the way he embraces human nature.

If they were still alive, I’d have:

-A beer with Mark Twain, though I’d probably soon have to switch to water as I imagine I would be laughing so hard, or trying to argue with him so much, that the beer would not do me good.

-A beer with Charles Dickens, or should I say, a pint of ale at the local pub. This man was a genius writer and I’m pretty sure our conversation would turn into a series of lessons about the writing craft.

-A cup of Earl Grey Tea with Jane Austen while she sat daintily by the fire and regaled me with juicy tidbits of gossip about all of the people in her life.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

CE: The very premise, just one book, would be disheartening, but if pressed, I would take The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, in one large volume—or perhaps on a kindle with an endless battery supply so as not to tire my hands from holding up the big, thick book. I am a huge fan of this master who created such a complex and complete world and escaping into the Shire or Rivendell, climbing the trees with Galadriel or even sweating it out in the dead marshes with Sam and Frodo, surrounded by the neekerbreekers, would surely help me to withstand my deserted island plight.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

CE: I’ve only joined recently, but I am looking forward to meeting other writers and partaking in this thriving Texas literary community. It took me six years to write my first three books, and I did so without ever joining a writing group or attending a conference. This past month I had a conversation with a writing coach whom I greatly respect and she encouraged me to come out of my shell and join WLT. I look forward to learning and growing by closer association with my peers and a variety of professionals of the writing craft.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

CE: My goal is to write a book good enough to qualify for a Pulitzer Prize. I’ve not accomplished that yet, but I am writing thoughtful novels that bring meaning to my life.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

CE: I turned 50 this year, and reading has been my passion for many decades. I have an unquenchable thirst for conversations about good books and will often be reading several different ones at once. I’ve published three novels so far, Bueno, Sinco and Brujas, a series written in English and set in Spain, a country where I lived and worked for about 12 years. Next year I plan to publish a science fiction novel (I have a Ph.D. in molecular biology, so the subject matter is right up my alley). I am very much looking forward to the WLT conference in June, 2015.

MEMBERS REVIEW

DR. MUTTER’S MARVELS: A TRUE TALE OF INTRIGUE  AND INNOVATION AT THE DAWN OF MODERN MEDICINE

By Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz

Published in 2014 by Gotham Books.

Dr. Mutter's Marvels

Reviewed by Catherine Musemeche M.D.

As a general class of people, we surgeons are a handful. Impatient, abrupt, and inescapably prone to profanity, we function in an independent solar system where the world orbits around our own self-centered axis. We learn through Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz’s Dr. Mutter’s Marvels, however, of a surgeon who was cut from a different cloth in this panoramic and insightful window into nineteenth century medicine.

In 1841, the Board of Trustees at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia made the highly controversial decision to vacate all the chairs of the medical school and replace them with an entirely new faculty. Some of the city’s best-known physicians were recruited, men who were both accomplished technicians and academicians with numerous publications and textbooks to their credit. And then there was Mutter, a thirty-year-old dandy sporting patterned vests, silk suits and matching silk socks with an undersized curriculum vitae. But, thanks to the sorts of political missteps endemic to institutions of higher learning, the relatively inexperienced Mutter took his seat as the Chairman of Surgery alongside his more vaunted colleagues.

From the first day of class, Mutter bucked the status quo. In the lecture hall he arrived before students and greeted them in his “wonderfully musical voice.” He further veered from tradition by actively engaging with students by posing questions in keeping with the Socratic Method, a first among his colleagues.

Mutter’s maverick streak was writ even larger upon the canvas of patient care where he was known for his methods of preparing patients both mentally and physically for operations. The young surgeon not only explained the planned procedure in detail but he also showed patients the instruments he would use and groomed a body part for surgery by massaging and touching it with instruments. Today’s patients, accustomed to reality TV and YouTube videos expect and indeed, clamor, for such explanations and demonstrations, but, as Aptowicz explains, in the 1800s “professional distance” was the rule and Mutter’s techniques were viewed askance by his fellow faculty members.

Perhaps the most poignant episode Aptowicz recounts is that of the plight of nineteenth century women who were forced to dress in “layer upon layers of cotton, wool and silk and pieces of clothing held snugly to the body with tightly bound ribbons and laces.” This left them uniquely vulnerable to clothing fires from open fireplaces and the resulting catastrophic facial disfigurement. Mutter devised an operation to release the thick webs of burn scar that developed between the chin and the neck by swinging a swath of skin and subcutaneous tissue from the shoulder up to the face. In a matter of hours, he was able to transform the lives of women who were previously deemed “monsters” condemned to a life of shame and seclusion. This same technique, known as the supraclavicular artery island flap, is still in use today.

It is a shame that one so compassionate, so innovative and so technically gifted died at the age of 47 but, as Aptowicz demonstrates, Mutter left a legacy far larger than the collection of oddities to which his name is attached. His good works outlived him in the lives of the patients he saved, his novel techniques and, most importantly, through a generation of physicians he trained who built on his principles and used them to propel the medical world forward.

Catherine Musemeche is a pediatric surgeon and the author of Small: Life and Death on the Front Lines of Pediatric Surgery, published by The University Press of New England.        

Third Thursday Wrap-up

Writing About Loved Ones:
Telling the Truth without Losing Your Place at the Holiday Table

photo (4)

By WLT Intern, Lily Angelle

We’re in the thick of the holiday season, so it seems appropriate that our last Third Thursday of the year dealt with memoir writing, and the personal and familial struggles that come with telling the truth publicly.

Our panelists were: Robert Rummel Hudson, author of Schuyler’s Monster: A Father’s Journey with His Wordless Daughter; Donna M. Johnson, author of Holy Ghost Girl; and Leila Levinson, author of Gated Grief.

These authors toyed with the idea of writing memoirs for years – Leila, who taught Holocaust literature at St. Edward’s Unviersity, delved into a lifetime of research after she found old WWII photographs of her late father that revealed him to be a liberator of a concentration camp. Completely boggled by this news she’d been completely unaware of until then, she began to research transgenerational trauma, or the notion of transferable trauma from one survivor to second and further generations.

Donna was a young child when she was immersed in her part-time stepfather’s Evangelist tent revivals along the Sawdust trail in the 60’s and 70’s. She held these experiences inside for years until college. She found herself writing about her evangelist upbringing in creative writing courses where, she joked, she always received A’s on her pieces.

Robert’s daughter Schuyler was born with a disability called polymicrogyria, a rare neurological disorder. He started blogging when she was very young, and then decided to incorporate his anecdotes, hardships and successes as a father into a book that became a sort of love letter to his daughter.

The panelists all agreed that with memoir writing comes a certain requirement of discretion toward yourself and the people you’re writing about. Donna spoke of her strong reservations when deciding whether or not to write a memoir that would make vulnerable the lies and deception that went on inside the tent revivals as well as her family unit; “What sort of person does this to her family? And I thought, ‘a writer.'” Leila experienced some conflict with her brother through the publishing of her memoir, explaining that it’s no easy feat when your family lives in the silence of the past, and as siblings living in the same household, they came away with two radically different perspectives of traumatic events. Robert’s publisher hired a lawyer to go over each sentence in his book, marking anything that could get him in trouble. Having included a chapter in his book detailing personal marital conflicts with his wife, Robert said that it’s one thing when you’re in your house with the lights dimmed, typing on your laptop, and another when the manuscript is being passed along between in-laws, and up for publication in major magazines. The panelists stressed that in a writer’s unyielding efforts to tell the truth and portray an honest image, remember that you don’t have to include everything.

When asked about the research and process of memoir writing, the panelists offered that memoir writing should be the act of opening yourself up to surprise. Donna said, “Hopefully you’re discovering your story as you go along.” Leila returned to her childhood house to find inspiration; she also took her family with her to the northeast to conduct interviews with survivors.

Donna mustered up the courage to return to a tent revival, wanting to take in the sights and smells and reacquaint herself with the specific drawl of the southern preachers. Robert’s research and subject was right there in his home. He said the real research is watching Schuyler grow up. When he wrote the book she was a toddler, but now, as he works on a follow-up book, she’s fifteen and is a self-actualized human who has more expectations of privacy.

If there was one obvious takeaway from November 20th’s Third Thursday, it was that memoir writing certainly takes courage. While there are clear personal struggles over what to include or exclude, the humility of loved ones hinge on your decisions. Deciding what to reveal may not be so easy, but then, so much can be learned when you just go for it.

Lily Angelle is an intern with The Writers’ League, and writes screenplays and short fiction in her free time. She aspires to have her work published one day in the near to reasonably eventual future. When she’s not writing, Lily is scouring thrift stores for cool old things or jogging around parts of Austin with ample foliage. 

MEET THE MEMBERS

Chris Cervini joined the Writers’ League in September and is registered for the 2015 Agents & Editors Conference. He lives in Austin.

cervini

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Chris Cervini: I try to spread the wealth, and have written everything from coming-of-age romance to thriller/suspense to time travel to space opera. I don’t ever want to be pinned down.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

CC: I would love to have a dark winter ale with Neil Gaiman — but only on a dreary day and only in a cramped and creaky haunted pub.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

CC: Either A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick or the Boy Scout Handbook. The Boy Scout Handbook is probably more useful on a deserted island.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

CC: You get what you put into it. WLT offers an awful lot of programming for working on your craft. I just need to get off my butt and take advantage of it.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

CC: I just like to tell stories and have plenty of them rattling around my head. I’d like to be able to get them all out before my mind falters. If some can get published and enjoyed by more people then that’s the cherry on top.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

CC: I’m very high on the concept and execution of my new book: Tenochtitlan Unbroken: The Adventures of New World Dave. It’s a time-travel yarn and thriller set in an unconquered Aztec Empire. There are brutish Jaguar agents, scheming bureaucratic priests and a hapless hero who doesn’t know he’s living in a world created by an eccentric billionaire. It’s weird. It’s fun. It’s unlike anything I’ve read before — and that’s why I love it so.

MEMBERS REVIEW

A SONG TO DIE FOR

By Mike Blakely

Published in 2014 by Forge Books.

a song to die for

Reviewed by L.S. Miller.

Creed Mason has paid his dues: busted out of his own band by his future superstar girlfriend Dixie, then a tour in Vietnam followed by months of recovery from horrific wounds.

Nashville wanted Dixie but Creed need not have applied. But he’s playing his Stratocaster again in the incipient music scene in Austin, Texas and with a boost from his friend Willie, he gets a shot at a partnership with the living legend, Luster Burnett, coming out of a fifteen year retirement and looking for some backup. Creed finally has some optimism after years of just getting by.

There’s a huge group of players in Austin, the Outlaw Country Music center of the world, and Creed and Luster fit in like smooth worn boots in the old stirrups of their favorite saddles.

But there’s a dangerous group of characters on the periphery too, including Hooley Johnson, a crusty Texas Ranger hot after the Vegas Mafioso; Franco Martini who Dooley is sure killed two University of Texas sorority sisters and is almost certainly still in Austin and still ‘hunting,’ for what or whom, Dooley is not sure.

Creed and Luster work the band into shape and play a few Texas honky tonks where you keep your Army Colt 1911 handy and use it if required from either the stage or at the post performance poker game that inevitably brings the band and the Mob together.

Dixie wants part of Luster’s comeback—she wants it all if she can get it—and she has the clout to pull the strings for her nefarious choreography. Franco is happy to help.

This is a really fun read, very nicely written, full of characters that you’ll love, the Texas settings dead on and the action always entertaining without being frenetic.

I cannot imagine looking over Mr. Blakely’s published to date’ list without ordering more. I already have.

Enjoy this one folks, Blakely’s other works, and hope for many more!

L. S. Miller is a Pennsylvania native and the author of the Pinnacle Award winning novel, A Death in Our Family.  He is a graduate of the University of Delaware and has worked around the United States as a roofer, carpenter, architect, and construction executive. Miller now lives in the Texas Hill Country.

MEET THE MEMBERS

Homer Alvarez has been a member of the Writers’ League of Texas since February of this year. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Homer Alvarez

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Homer Alvarez: In the past, I’ve written short stories, essays, and poems set in the present day regarding real-world issues. Over time, I have become drawn to science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and my writing these days tends to skew toward these genres. Some of my stories take place in completely different worlds filled with magic, demons, or futuristic technology, while others take place in alternate versions of our own present-day world. I tend to focus on themes of love, loss, and the transitions that occur in people from life, death, and everything that lies in between. It’s not just about epic battles of life and death to save the world, but about the people who remain to pick up the pieces when heroes fall, friends turn into enemies, perceptions are challenged, and the world itself changes around them. The novel I’m currently writing takes place in a fantasy setting, but systems of technology and magic exist side by side with each other.

Scribe: What authors would you like to have coffee or a beer with and which beverage?

HA: I would love to have coffee with Stephen King at least twice, once to discuss On Writing, and another time to discuss the craft behind horror and suspense. I’d have some more coffee (yes, I love coffee) with Anne Rice to pick her brain on description, setting, and the subtleties of sensuality. Finally, I’d have a nice, full glass of red wine with Isabel Allende to talk late into the night about life, death, spirits, and the often unexplainable complexities of grief.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

HA: I would have a copy of Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. I grew up playing video games, and they’ve always been an escape of sorts (not unlike reading a book). This book has everything I need: video games, ‘80s nostalgia, entertaining characters, an action-packed story, and a hopeful, triumphant ending. It is one of the few books I’ve read that I felt was written specifically for me.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

HA: I’ve learned that I’m part of one of the most diverse writing communities in the country, and I am not alone. I tend to hole myself up for days and days when I’m writing up a storm, so it’s nice to have a group of people who are in the thick of it with you, who don’t think you’re crazy when you talk about all of the emotional highs and lows that come with the writing process. When I’m feeling great about what I’m writing, they’re there to inspire me and cheer me on. When I’m in a rut and wondering what I’ve gotten myself into, they’re there to support and help me get back on track. There’s a certain comfort I get when I go to a panel or writing class, a feeling of belonging that’s often hard to find in other groups. Even if the topic itself doesn’t necessarily apply to my own writing, I always learn something about the craft from every panel.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

HA: I just want to keep writing and writing. Since I was a child, I’ve had imaginary worlds brewing inside my head, but it never occurred to me to pursue writing as a serious endeavor, let alone a profession. While I kept a journal for most of my adolescent and young adult life, I let writing stories sit on the back burner for years. I was lucky enough to meet a new author at Comic Con a couple of years ago, who inspired me to get back to writing. Now, the floodgates have been opened. I have characters and stories popping up in my head every day, and I have to keep notepads everywhere to get it all down before it disappears from my memory. I’d love to have my first novel published within the next couple of years. And since I’m dreaming big, sure, I’d love to see my books flying off the shelves and people making movies out of them. Until then, though, I’m just going to keep telling stories and hoping others will want to read them.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

HA: Since a lot my work is highly influenced by geek and gaming culture, I often spend time attending and volunteering for geek and gaming conventions in the area. I love the connections I make with the people I meet there who love these genres and media as much as I do. So if you’re into geek culture, gaming, or sci-fi, please come up and say hi if you see me!