LOVE AND THE NOVELIST

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Dear hearts,

Romantic, sexual love–eros– hits whenever it hits; sometimes you are actively looking for it, other times it arrives like a tidal wave out of nowhere, knocking you down and sending you to kingdom come, washed up against an unfamiliar shore.

The novelist knows this, exploits it, dissects it. What is it that makes love such a “must” in most novels, novels of any genre? Its humanity. As humans, we need love, and we need pairing. Some of you will loudly proclaim that you prefer to be alone, master or mistress of your choice of living–that the last thing you want is a “relationship.” But this is now; few of you will admit that you have never, ever sought or relished love, that you were not at one time transported by it, torn apart by the violence of it, turned on your head and consumed by it. It’s in our genes, this mating, this merging. And we all like to read about it, either because the lovers on tablet screen or page make you remember when passion ruled your own mind, body and soul, or because you wish you had it right now, and can live vicariously through the emotions and actions you are reading about.

Love is seldom quiet, no noise, no friction, no highs and lows. A psychiatrist told me once that when you are in love, you are actually physically sick and out of kilter with your natural rhythms. You weep more easily, feel more deeply, act impulsively, sometimes recklessly. You think of your lover at inopportune times, or all the time. You ignore your obligations and your friendships because he, or she, is eating up your equanimity. You are happy, in pain with happiness; you are doubtful and fearful; you see colors more brightly, smell flowers more intensely, hear music all the time in your head, or keep replaying old tunes that brought out sexual fantasies when you first heard them. You watch sexy movies with extra relish; you reread old favorites; you sleep less, and concentrate much of your time daydreaming instead of working.

A writer remembers those times when he or she felt the fullness of passion, and transmits this on the page. At least, I do. I write much better, much more clearly and insightfully, when I’m in love. It hasn’t happened often; I may fancy a man and think of him, but mostly, this has been like grabbing a Big Mac because your stomach is empty. A gourmet meal, carefully prepared by a five-star chef…well, that’s being truly, wholly, capaciously in love.

When we’re in love, we become superstars. Love is a drug. If your lover matches your lust, your dreams, your notions and intellectual pursuits, you are both superstars. One plus one is no longer two, but gets enhanced to three. Philemon and Baucis became one tree, and we become a two-headed demon. Arguments become life-threatening, terrifying. What if he leaves? What if she’ll always be this way, a shrew or a nag or a contrary bitch? The same kind of quarrel with a friend would be resolved at once, laughed over, and forgotten; but we know our friends have their own lives, and we are seldom shattered by their personal desires. Our own lives take precedence. You listen, you care, and you go home. But romantic partners don’t go home; they are creating an entity called “US.” If it isn’t real love, you sigh and shrug and walk away. But if it’s real, it becomes interesting and worth fighting for.

What do our readers want to read? They want friction, trouble, and ultimate resolution of one kind or another. Placid love doesn’t work in a novel (or, for that matter, on screen). I have a friend whose conversation bores the nose off me. She talks about her husband’s stinginess and lack of passion as facts of life, and isn’t bothered when her husband never brings her flowers or makes passionate love to her. She says, “Jerry and I just aren’t that way. We’re comfortable.” And I want to tear all the curls off my head. Because I, the ultimate romantic, the seeker of fireworks, the risk taker, could never live like that with any partner. And no one, even this woman, could read about such placidity without hurling his or her tablet or “real book” at the nearest wall.

We want love to change the course of our protagonist’s life. We want him to crash and burn and then to rise like the Phoenix. We want him to question all his values, to be foolish, to make messes we cringe to read about. We want to identify, but from the safe distance of our own lives. We don’t want Vronsky to discard Anna, or Rhett to go away. But as much as we love these characters, we don’t want to suffer their fates.

As I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, I’m in love. I feel nineteen. I claw the wallpaper off when I can’t see him. I weep with ecstasy just being near him. And the fact that he feels the same way is the greatest aphrodisiac of all. We speak to each other in our heads, or to our cats, all day long.

How does this affect my writing? It clarifies it, makes it sharper and edgier. My characters play out my feelings, fulfill my “what ifs?.” I’m fully alive, and so are they. When I’m not in love, writing is more laborious, and the result duller.

The love story subplot in Irrevocable Trust, my courtroom thriller, came to me much more brightly and irrevocably once I’d met my fiancé. I changed some scenes around. I made the clashes more painful and the exaltation more… exalted. I wept and screamed with my lovers, where before I had been a cerebral writer, not feeling their emotions with true empathy. This book is not a romance, it’s not a love story per se. But love makes this story a sexy read, and I don’t mean that there is graphic sex in it at all. Just human love.

And I think you can tell, certainly in my writing, that I’m in love. Now go reread your favorite novels and figure out whether the authors were in love when they wrote them, even if their affairs of the heart were notoriously ill-handled. It doesn’t matter that Lawrence beat his wife. It matters that he knew how his characters felt in Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Women in Love. Writers aren’t always good people. But did they ever experience the irrevocability of eros and agape, rolled into one? Read Abélard and tell me this wasn’t a man possessed, a man who’d loved. You don’t need to know one thing about his life to know this as a fact; and he wasn’t even a novelist.

 

I’VE BEEN OUTED!!!!!!!!!

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Fantastic news for fans of historical fiction!
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Monique Raphel High is back – much more awesome than ever!

Penner Publishing is proud to bring you Monique Raphel High’s reissued books. We are sure that you will love these updated versions of Monique’s titles. They will be available in eBook for the first time. Print readers, rest assured, paperbacks will be issued as well.

Before giving you the pre-order details below, here is a short note from Monique herself, especially for you.

Please feel free to forward this newsletter to whoever you know is interested in MRH’s books. We will keep you posted on every new release! Meanwhile, the pre-order links are available NOW and hurry to grab your copy!
Dear hearts,

Many of you have asked how you may obtain eBooks and “real” books of my past novels—and not just second-hand. Well… here they are, thanks to the marvelous work of Penner Publishing!

Please read the release schedule for each novel. And then… enjoy!

With gratitude,

Monique Raphel High
Welcome to the new look of the bestselling titles of Monique Raphel High!

THE FOUR WINDS OF HEAVEN
As one prominent Jewish family, the Gunzburgs fight for their principles, the rest of Russia adheres to the malicious and unfaltering laws of the Tsar.

Torn between what is expected of them and what their hearts truly want, the Gunzburgs begin to forge a new path—in search of their own identity and place in a world full of forbidden love, shattering betrayals, and war. Can they find where they truly belong and where their passion lies while the dynasty crumbles around them?

Inspired by the diaries of Monique Raphel High’s grandmother, this epic saga will take readers on a journey through Russian history as witnessed by one woman who lived it.

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Encore

What if you had to choose between your deepest passion and your one true love?

Beautiful and talented, Natalia Oblinova must deny her heart to achieve her dreams of joining the Mariinski Ballet. Becoming the protégée and wife of Count Boris Kussov, an enigmatic, charismatic member of the highest aristocracy is Natalia’s ticket to fame and prestige in a cutthroat world of competition and betrayal. But her heart isn’t his. Her heart belongs to an unruly artist, Pierre Riazhin—an artist she left for her place as a socialite.

Through wars and deception, passion and lust, nothing can keep Pierre from having what he’s always wanted—Natalia. He wants his second chance—his encore.

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The Keeper of the Walls
A family’s entire heritage is threatened by one woman’s lies…

Pious and convent-bred, Lily Bruisson takes Twenties Paris by storm. Courted by two suitors, a Russian prince in exile, and a handsome American reporter, Lily chooses the prince. When disaster strikes Prince Mikhail Brasilov in the Thirties, he abandons his pretty wife and children for America.

As the threat from Germany grows, Lily’s world narrows to a fight for her life. A life that changes dramatically after her mother confesses a secret so deadly, it could ruin them all. Lily vows to hide the truth of her mother’s past.

But secrets aren’t meant to be kept, especially in a world of betrayal, when surviving the Occupation, and freedom from the Nazi Regime is as essential as the air they breathe.

Lily turns to America reporter Mark MacDonald to save herself and her family when everything points to their eminent demise.
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Thy Father’s House

A house of passion and lust.
A house of lies and deceit.
A house to die for…

Handsome and embittered, Charles Levy will do anything to keep what is rightfully his. Torn between his love and loyalty toward his second cousins, Anne de Rochefleur and Amelia von Guttman, Charles finds himself embroiled in a web of deception, passion, and lust that spans the early decades of the Twentieth century, destroying the lives of those around him. But harboring his own resentment, Charles’ past crushes all that he’s ever desired—the house that Napolean built.
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The Eleventh Year

Two best friends.
An artist and a writer.
One rich. One poor.
A lifetime of deception and betrayal.

Upon graduating from Vassar, socialite Lesley Aymes Richardson and brilliant Jamie Lynne Stewart set out to achieve their dreams in pursuit of art and pleasure. As they begin their lives in hedonistic post World War I Paris, both women have incurable urges to live and love, whatever the cost. But after a series of poor decisions and broken hearts, they discover a life far from the perfection they originally envisioned.

Although Lesley finds a life of considerable renown, she harbors secrets that she keeps buried to maintain a certain level of decorum and respect. When a mysterious Russian princess threatens to expose a secret from her past, together she and Jamie must confront the truth, despite the consequences that may be unleashed. On the eve of her eleventh year of marriage, Lesley is forced to look back, to make a decision that will alter all of their lives forever.

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Email Marketing Powered by MailChimpMonique

Tune in January 18, 2016

http://charmstrongbooks.com/2016/01/17/monique-raphel-high-final-countdown-author-takeover-bonus-author/

 

Please join me tomorrow as I help launch my colleague and friend, Cathie Hedrick Armstrong,’s new novel on Facebook at the above link. If you like my work, you will love hers. An upcoming eBook of mine is being offered as a bonus.

My half hour (10 AM Pacific Time; 12 PM Central Time; 1 PM Eastern Time) will be my podium to discuss my own writing too, and to involve you all live. Ask questions tomorrow, make comments: let me hear from you!

EVIL WITH A TWIST, SHAKEN BUT NOT STIRRED

Dearest readers,

Who are my favorite characters, real and fictitious? To a writer, there’s little difference. All vivid characters are flesh and blood.  And the real ones I name have been written about galore.

Here are a few: The Vicomte de Valmont (Liaisons Dangereuses); Isabelle, the She-Wolf of France (the most intriguing “agonist” in The Accursed Kings, by André Maurois); Cesare Borgia (the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince); Julien Sorel of The Red and the Black; Richard III, so well portrayed by Shakespeare; Thomas Cromwell of the Hilary Mantel series; Hannibal Lecter; Lady MacBeth; Scarlett; Anne Boleyn; Carole in Henri Troyat’s Les Eygletière… And Milton’s Satan.

These charmers are marked by high intelligence and sociopathy. Why do I keep rooting for them to win? All are attractive, ruthless, utterly brilliant, manipulative and abusers of the innocent. They take what they want and care nothing about the lives they wreck.  Some, in fact, enjoy their sense of power at wreaking havoc.

What does this say about me? Evil, if clothed in genius, is very sexy.

And yet, in real life, I choose friends who are whole, good, nurturing, generous. I choose them to enrich my life with genuine love and sharing. And if someone is cold or mean, I want no part of congress with him or her at my dinner table. Be rude to someone else. Gossip, plot all you want, but not if it involves my friends or family.

I wouldn’t be friends with Cesare or the Vicomte, but if they chose me as their next lover, I would relinquish all good sense and open wide my arms.

Is 2016 the year that I’ll choose King Arthur over Lancelot, Miss Melanie over Scarlett, the Présidente de Tourvel over the Marquise de Merteuil? I sincerely doubt it.  Years ago, my late husband used to call me his “Miss Melanie.” Far from being touched, I was a bit insulted.  He viewed himself as Lancelot, the flawed knight, and as the roué Nick in The Thin Man.  But I, his Nora?  He saved that compliment for a very naughty female friend whose charms he could never resist.  I would look at this woman and cringe at her wiles, at her dishonesty, at her slinky sexiness, and I was both disgusted and jealous.  There was no honor to her, which made her interesting.  She was more Anne Boleyn than Nora, who, after all, was deeply devoted to Nick.  And though she often ended up with her head on the block, men loved to watch her destroy the Katherines of Aragon who crossed her path.

Not all sociopathy is attractive. Hitler and Pol Pot had no sexiness to them. They used no trickery or subterfuge, clever lies or manipulation.  They used blunt force. Therefore: boh-ring.

No. Sexiness has to be evil clothed in charm, deviousness, and ingenuity. No wonder Lady MacBeth is so much more appealing than Hamlet’s uncle. For that matter, Hamlet isn’t sexy at all. Poor Ophelia just didn’t get it.

A flawed creature with a score to settle is so enticing. John Lackland was so much more rootable than silly, wasteful, self-indulgent Richard, whose heart had nothing whatsoever to do with lions. Ivanhoe chose the wrong horse to bet on.

And my own characters?  Elena is more of a page-turner than Lesley or Jamie, and isn’t Charles a rogue we hate but also stick around for?  Would you pick Kirill or Yakov?  Ask Zica. Lily picked Prince Mikhail, and Natalia picked Boris.

So would you.  And so would I.

And Robert in my novel-in-progress?  We find him much more fascinating when he’s not such a good boy.

In the end, we want the hero redeemed.  We want the sociopath put away.  But at night, whom do we dream of?  The twisted, sexy narcissist, the borderline, the enticer.  We just can’t resist him.  Or her!

Happy New Year, my beloved readers!

“To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence”

My dearest readers,

As most of you already know, I am a Parisian.  When destruction struck my city on November 13, 2015, I stayed numb for three days, then started frantically searching for my cousins.  One could not be located until late last week.  God is good: my family was spared. But other families were less blessed.  Their loved ones had gone out to have a good time–hardly an offense, much less a reason to be murdered.  We asked ourselves why.

On the morning of November 13, before the attacks ever took place, my cousin’s wife, Olesya, forwarded me a video purporting to show the Chinese response to ISIS: the bombing of a mosque.  It was created with special effects, but it threw gasoline on already-fiery minds, who wished it had depicted a real event.  Olesya lives in Shanghai; she is one of the most peaceful human beings I know.  She and her husband, my cousin Danny, are members of the French community there, and they also own an apartment in Paris. Many French people have felt their home turf invaded by Muslims, citing fear that these immigrants are spreading fanaticism; the French government has even banned the wearing of hijabs by girls in public schools.  But only a small percentage of these refugees are members of ISIS.  Do the innocents deserve to be blamed for the actions of a group of terrorists, simply because they share the same religion?  Leopold and Loeb were Jewish.  Does this mean that all Jews are sadists and murderers?  Should we condemn every member of the Catholic clergy for the sins of deranged pedophiles?  All Southerners for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan?

My father and I have very dear Muslim friends, whose sense of outrage at ISIS may even be stronger than ours.  The propagation of the Chinese video horrified me.  I knew that Olesya and Danny were angry, as many Americans here are angry over illegal immigration.  But what has Donald Trump done but to exacerbate our own xenophobia with his continued message of hatred?  I said this to Olesya, and explained that I didn’t think violence could be stopped by more violence.  That only makes the world a more divided place, one in which nothing can ever be resolved.

Later that night, ISIS set bombs off in Paris.  Danny was quick to email me: “Do you still feel that we should try to be diplomatic about this?”  Our city was attacked.  My family is suffering from PTSD, the way my New York friends did after 9/11.  I cannot watch any more news about Paris; I simply break apart.  And yet, I couldn’t answer Danny.  Am I angry? You bet I am.  But I am angry with the ISIS terrorists, not the Muslim faith.

This past week, Penner, the publisher reissuing my historical fiction, asked me to go through my first five novels to pick out favorite scenes for promotion and cover art.  I found myself rereading these books with mixed emotions.  The first was: “How could I have written such turgid prose?”  But the second was a measured pride that I had known enough about human nature to depict real people, to give life on the page to human beings rather than stock characters.

Being nice isn’t a sales point for a protagonist.  We remember Iago more clearly than Desdemona,  Shylock more that Antonio, Fagin than Oliver Twist.  We remember those who wreak evil more than those who do good.  In the same way, if in our daily lives we feel unjustly slighted or demeaned by just one person, we tend to stew about it with such a sense of personal outrage that we forget the ten people who went out of their way to be kind to us.

Writers are aware of this.  Since this was the first time I’d read my first five books consecutively, I was stunned to find common themes linking them together. And my novel-in-progress, IRREVOCABLE TRUST, though much more contemporary and intended for a gender-neutral readership, is another link on that chain.  I’m obsessed with wounded beings who flail out in anger because they have been wronged. Men and women whose sufferings in their youth end up shaping their adulthood. Violence breeds violence; hatred breeds revenge–in fiction as well as in reality. “To me belongeth vengeance, and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that come upon them make haste.”

This Biblical quotation encapsulates the way my most damaged characters feel: Elena in The Eleventh Year and Johanna de Mey in The Four Winds of Heaven; Claude in The Keeper of the Walls; Charles in Thy Father’s House; Pierre in Encore. Hurt me, and I shall destroy anyone in my path. IRREVOCABLE TRUST covers a complex network of unhealed wounds.  As writers, we tend to mirror what takes place in our own world.  We live under a single god, worshipped in many guises, yet neighbors fall upon one another in the haste to prove that their version of the deity is the only valid one–one worth dying for and killing for.  You speak a different birth language, wear different clothes, eat different foods?  Off with your head.

I do not judge the characters I create; they come to me fully fledged.  They come in black and white, gray and all the colors of the rainbow–like flesh-and-blood people.  In reality, none of us is perfect and most of us have been hurt, sometimes very deeply.  But let us, instead of seeking to redress our wrongs by becoming hateful, attempt, instead, to understand those who are different from us.  They have so much to teach us!  And we all need to step back, breathe, and start learning, cloaking ourselves in humility and openness.

As authors, we shall never stop providing our readers with what they most enjoy: stories of thwarted love, betrayal, destroyed ambitions, warped childhoods, families at war, and shattered idealism.  But let’s keep these angry characters between the pages of the novels we read or write.

 

 

 

THE JOYS OF RESEARCH… THEN AND NOW

Dear literary hearts,

The writing process is not so simple.  Years ago, a doctor friend announced to me, “Next year I’m going to write a novel.”  I smiled at her and replied, “And next year, I’m going to perform brain surgery.”  She got the point.  Writing is complex AND complicated.  It begins with research.

In each of my novels, I have tried to focus on a profession that interests me, but isn’t my own: dance, banking, the film world in the Twenties, and now, criminal law and physics. My novels have all been set in history; while I’m moving closer to our time in Irrevocable Trust, it is, nonetheless, placed in Los Angeles in the mid 1980s. Without thorough research, I couldn’t write as seamlessly and accurately as I’d like.

How did people speak at the time?  What did they wear? How was the culture different? Was an expression I like contemporary to the setting?  It’s highly irritating to me, and I know to you, when we read a poorly researched book with dialogue that could only be au courant today, while the book takes place yesterday.  (Imagine, for example, a war correspondent in 1942 saying “user-friendly” in a broadcast!)  Setting a correct scene requires as much time as forming the characters and figuring out the plot.  And what’s even harder is making sure the scene doesn’t obtrude; the background cannot take over–it is, after all, background. A bad writer says, “Look how much research I’ve done! See how clever I am?” A good writer says nothing at all.

In my salad days, all research was done in libraries.  One of my best friends, geologist-turned poet/artist/photographer Dee diSomma, has written an ode to the wonders of the Stacks when we were in college.  Here’s how it used to be when we were in our late teens and early twenties;

The Triggers of Memory (by Dee diSomma, 2015) 

While cleaning up, I came across something that I cherished, now probably obsolete: my UC Berkeley library card from when I worked at Lawrence Berkeley Labs. Nice enough on its own, but it had magic, too, because there was a rubber-stamped addition, “Admit to Stacks.” Yes, I had stack privileges. And, to a word-junkie like me, there is no smell in the world better than the wonderful, bookish smell of library stacks. I pity the younger folks who may never know the geeky lust for that magic rubber stamp on a library card, or the addicting, enchanting aroma of the stacks. And, yes, it was back in the Ordovician period, at least, when we used card catalogs. Take your Proust and his madeleines; give me the stacks!

The stacks were a marvel and a very useful research tool. When riffling through the “Subject” card catalog, you could find other books, etc., that were related to your field of inquiry. Very useful, but once you were in the stacks, at the shelf where your target book was supposed to be, magic was in the air. (All that caution was due to the misbegotten maggot-infested accumulations of slime, also known as “book thieves.” A pox on all of them.) With luck, your book was there. But! you were now in a place where, nearby, all manner of other books, similar in topic, were to be found. And some of those close neighbors were just a bit off your topic, but good enough to warrant a look. And here is where the magic occurred. Those books kindled ideas, thoughts, possibilities, that lifted your mental view point higher, so you could see more of the near-by terrain, with connections undreamed of. That, the wonder of proximity on the shelf in the stacks, brought your scholarship to a new and higher plane.

I do not believe computer searches are quite the same. I use them all the time, and, by dint of rephrasing my search criteria, have found wonderful things. But somehow, that sense of the magic of books, the written word, to be picked up and touched, the serendipity of physical closeness, all that is missing with the computer. For me, the answer is NOT “either/or”, but “both/and.” Praise to the stacks! Arcane though they may seem to the younger scholars, they are worthy of continued use. Go, younger scholars! There is magic afoot in the stacks. It is waiting for you to come and discover!

                                                                   

(Ben and Sebastian with some of our books.)

I too cherished my time in the Stacks.Ben scratches Sebastian's tummy March 4 2010

And then came married life and the novels.  I lived in Pasadena, CA, where we had a splendid public library.  I made friends with a number of its librarians, and they allowed me to take research books out “on a vacation.”  This meant I didn’t have to return them in six weeks, but could go three months or more.  Sometimes I could call them up on the telephone and they would be able to answer a specific question.  When I moved to Beverly Hills, I was already a published author, and established a connection with Michael Cart, the chief librarian, when I was invited to do a reading there.  Michael was kind enough to allow me the same vacation privileges.

When I married my late husband, Ben Pesta, I landed on a gold mine.  He haunted used bookstores as much as I did, and he introduced me to the book catalogues Labyrinth and Daedalus, which feature an enormous quantity of stellar books on sale because they are a few years old.  What did I care  if a book on the Tudors was published today or two years ago?  And so, we acquired a personal library of 5,000 books filled with research material we could update whenever we needed to.

In the Nineties, however, life transformed itself with the advent of easy access to online research.  Once I got the hang of it, I used what I found on the Internet to give me instant answers.  Fashions in 1985?  I could see them immediately.  Nazi war camps?  I could read history and see photographs in cruel detail.  I spend a great deal of time on the Net now, documenting Trust.  But I’ve never stopped reading books that go much more deeply into the subjects that fascinate me.

When I wrote The Four Winds of Heaven,  I was terrified that research would slow me down and bore me.  Instead, I found such joy and pleasure in what I was learning!  I was reminded of the Stacks.  And today, I’m still reminded of them every time I search for a necessary piece of information.

Dee, you were right.

L’UOMO È MOBILE

IMG_4383

 

This is my father, reading my novel-in-progress, IRREVOCABLE TRUST.

The Duke of Mantua, himself an inconstant man, sings the famous aria, La donna è mobile: woman is fickle, in Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. It’s an ironic aria, given the Duke’s own changeability, and I was reminded of it last month, when I attended a two-day seminar given by my honored friend, the poet Judith Searle. Judith is also a well-known expert on the Enneagram, a personality system that breaks down one’s character according to nine prototypes, with “wings,” or supporting types, that enlarge the definition of who we are.

Her topic was the  Enneagram in films and books.  Judith invited me because she thought her illustrations of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and other characters in the canon as Fours or Nines or Twos would open up a new world for me as a creator of characters.  I knew very little about the Enneagram, but as a teacher of novelists, I used to have my writing students give their own characters other psychological tests–the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter, both of which take off from Jung.  They are similar, though focusing on different aspects of the personality.  The Myers Briggs defines cognitive function–how each person chooses to react–according to 16 ways of viewing the world and oneself, while the Keirsey explains human character according to four temperament types: the Artisan, the Guardian, the Idealist, and the Rational.

With my students, I went further. I wrote 100 questions, asking each creator to answer off the cuff as one of his/her book’s characters.  The writers learned a great deal about how their people thought, why they did so, and how these discoveries could affect the plot and the interaction among all the participants of their story.

My friend Katherine attended Judith’s seminar with me, and became frustrated.  “I don’t see myself as a single one of these nine prototypes,” she said.  As for me, I had taken the test twice, and came out with two different results: the first told me I was a Two,  the Lover, with a Three wing, the Achiever.  But the second told me I was a Four, the Aesthete, with a Three wing.  Twos and Fours are quite unlike each other.  The Two is much more involved with others, the Four keeping his/her distance and watching.  I thought, But I’m both.  I’m gregarious, social, extraverted, but I also need to withdraw and be by myself, and as a writer, it’s true I’m an observer.

After the seminar, I tried to test myself for the third time.  The result classified me as a One, the Reformer, a perfectionist, with a Two (Lover) wing.  This too made sense. Those of you who know me know how greatly I’ve always taxed myself to be perfect, and how critical I am of my own imperfections.

Then I gave Robert, the protagonist of IRREVOCABLE TRUST, the test. Once more, I came up confused.  Was he an Eight (the Challenger), or a Five (the Analyst)?

Maybe he was just himself.  Maybe we all are just ourselves.  The fact is, man–the human being–is an evolving creature.  Five years ago, I thought nothing of placing everyone else in the world above myself, wishing to take care of all the wounded friends who came to me.  I gave and gave and gave until there was literally nothing left in my reserves.  But now, I’ve learned that I too have rights, and that it’s okay, even desirable, to say no.  Not, No, I can’t, because…, but No, it’s not possible. Period.  The “New Monique” is a Monique I like.  Is she hard to maintain? Of course. I still find myself sliding into caregiving mode, but I’m fighting it.  Because I prefer the life of the New Monique to that of the old one.

So why can’t our book characters change?  The answer is, not only can they, but they must.  An ethical man may find himself committing an unethical act, and this will transform him.  Of course, as my father points out, our essential self doesn’t change.  I’m never going to stop wanting my shoes to match my purse; I’m never going to not try to help my friends.  But in my case, almost three years of sacrificing my very essence to keep my husband alive and happy has transformed me.  I’m not going to do this again.  It cost too much.  In the process of saving him, I lost myself.  And it’s taken a lot of searching for me to find myself again.

We change because Life is mobile, as the Duke of Mantua might say.  We bump into the unexpected and have to react.  Our reactions cause us to change.  The great anthropologist Ruth Benedict, my author friend Kathryn Berck reminded me, wrote, “The trouble with life isn’t that there is no answer, it’s that there are so many answers.”  So Robert, and Jessica, and Delphine, and Kathy, my characters, are allowed to refuse containment according to any psychological test.  Just as I’m allowed, and you’re allowed.  A writer’s characters should be granted the same dignity as that of flesh-and-blood human beings.  If they aren’t, the book falls flat.

 

 

WHAT “WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW” MEANS TO ME AND MY WORK

Reading my journal
My editor

From 1997 to 2009, I spent a lot of time teaching both fiction and nonfiction.  I never assigned textbooks on writing to my adult students.  The truth is, I have never liked what I refer to as “generic how-to” books.  Take grief.  Some people heal one way, because they are Jane Smith and Susan Doe; but others, because they are Mary Queu and John Blow, are different human beings altogether, with a different set of psychic and emotional baggage, strengths, and aptitudes.  A book on coping with grief written with Jane and Susan in mind will not work for Mary and John.  And when one is talking about writing, this truth stretches around a world of particularities; no two creators think the same way, nor do they imagine the same world, even if it’s relatively true that there are only a number of universal themes to explore.

There are, however, ways for each writer to write more easily.  Yes, there are some rules. Experienced writers don’t just sit down and “create” with no idea in heaven where this is going to lead them.  First of all, our agents require an outline, and a detailed one, in order to sell our work.  The structuring part of a book, fiction or non, is its most difficult.  You are deciding whether to write about a dog or a flower.  Once your ideas have been worked out, you will flesh them out as you progress, and decide whether you’re building a chihuahua or a St. Bernard, an orchid or a blooming cactus.  But, before the Prologue or first chapter begins, you do need to resolve what entity you’re going to be developing.

So many clichés have sprung up about the science and art of writing.  One of them is “Write what you know.”  Now, here’s how I view this “rule.”  It’s true.  I only ever write what I know.  However, what does “what I know” actually mean?

I’ve never written autobiography.  Frankly, I just don’t feel that Monique Raphel High’s life has been that fascinating.  But I’ve lived a life.  In this life, I’ve been blessed with many, many friends and acquaintances, different types of people with a plethora of unusual experiences.  When I want to create a character, I think back on the myriad stories I’ve been told by these friends (some of which are not about themselves, but about people they have known or even merely heard about).  How did my friend Blanca react when her brother was raped by their stepfather?  How did Heloise cope with her mother’s life-threatening illness?  Why did Ellen break her brother’s arm after their father’s funeral?  Their experiences may not have been my own, but I heard them with compassion. “Com” is from “con,” meaning “with.” “Passion” means “suffering” or “feeling.”  I placed myself in their shoes, leaving mine behind.  I asked questions that enabled me to see, to hear, the rape, to smell the medicine’s odor lingering around that sick bed, and I could then feel the mounting anger and total frustration of the disempowered sister. I was ready to transfer these felt emotions into my current characters.

Knowing means feeling that you have thoroughly explored a subject and now feel competent to write about it.  You need to thoroughly understand, to suspend judgment. You need, as a writer, to forget Monique and literally become Blanca, Heloise, and Jason for enough time to encompass what they felt at the time in question.  Writers must never dissociate from the world, for the world provides us with stories and the murky waters above which they float.  We need to become conduits for other people’s stories, for other people’s value systems, for other people’s worlds.  I’m talking about sensual and emotional authenticity.

The other part of “Write what you know,” for me, is about factual authenticity.  In order to write each of my books, I have needed to learn about an aspect of history, culture, art, fashion, politics, and work that lies far outside my own.  I’ve written about Paris in the Twenties, the Holocaust, Imperial Russia, choreography, banking, and the film world in its infancy.  My current book deals with war-torn France in the Forties, and two complex trials in 1985.  Personally, the closest I’ve come to knowing the subject of a novel subjectively (yes, the choice of words is intended) were my years studying and appreciating the ballet.  I was never better than an intermediate ballerina in a dance studio, having fun.

Research has always been both a challenge and a new world of exciting discoveries.  I don’t go easy on myself when I research a field.  I explore it in depth.  And I consult the experts.  For my current novel, I have a physicist and two lawyers with whom to sit down and talk about what I wish to accomplish, and who have taught me about their worlds in such detail that I now feel I “know” what a physicist might be working on, and how a trial is set  up.

Poorly researched books unnerve me.  I’ve thrown some across the room.  The writer didn’t know, and assumed that because her work was fiction (or, if nonfiction, that he knew just enough to bluff his way past not really knowing), it was “okay” to fabricate.  Here’s how to fabricate: know your subject so well that you can combine and mix to form your own truth without losing authenticity.  My current example is how I’m combining three actual refugee voyages from Lisbon to New York on the Serpa Pinto, a wartime ship, into one dramatic voyage.  Did the voyage in IRREVOCABLE TRUST truly take place?  No, but it could have.  It possesses all the actual elements of three real voyages.  Did the Nazi trial of Jared Brenner actually occur?  No; there was no such person.  But the trials of a number of other war criminals did take place, and I know how the Department of Justice handled them.  I can apply these facts to my fiction.

The bottom line is that we writers can never afford to be sloppy.  WE can’t ever take the easy way out.  It doesn’t pay off.  Confidence comes with knowing.  I realized early on that being the widow of a brilliant criminal defense lawyer had shown me the strategies and the broad outlines of my husband’s work; but it had not placed me inside his shoes.  I’ve had to go to two attorneys I trust to ask how it was done in 1985-’86.  But I would never have gone to them without first doing a lot of research myself.  So this past week, I wrote a courtroom scene, and the terror of getting it wrong dissipated.  I knew enough to glide in and write. To glide in and create.  To let my fictitious characters act as lawyers really did in the Eighties.

Taming the fear is accomplished by learning and knowledge.  Once you’ve learned the rules, you can (as I’m doing with the Serpa Pinto) break the rules.  And that is the keystone to my own work.

 

 

IRREVOCABLE TRUST: A Glimpse into my novel-in-progress

For my dear readers, who have been curious about my novel-in-progress, I’m posting the opening of the story:

 

IRREVOCABLE TRUST

 

 

An irrevocable trust is a legal agreement whose terms cannot be changed by the creator, or grantor, who establishes the trust, chooses a trustee, and names the beneficiary or beneficiaries.

 

The trust document names a trustee who is responsible for managing the assets in the best interests of the beneficiary or beneficiaries and carrying out the wishes the creator has expressed.”

(TheFreeDictionary.com)

 

 

Definition of ‘Irrevocable Trust’

 

A trust that can’t be modified or terminated without the permission of the beneficiary. The grantor, having transferred assets into the trust, effectively removes all of his or her rights of ownership to the assets and the trust.” (Investopedia)

 

PROLOGUE

 

Los Angeles, October 1985…

Rachel Edelman leaned toward Robert with all her feral energy, a pulse beating in her long throat like a blue spotlight shining on and off. Her five-foot, nine-inch, 110-pound body reminded him of an Olympic sprinter poised for takeoff. “You can’t ask me to second-chair the Péšek case,” she declared. “I don’t even see how you can think to represent the guy.”

Robert cocked his head, examining her. He saw a young woman with amber eyes outlined in liquid black kohl, cheekbones as sharp as a fox’s canines, carmine lipstick and a pulled-back chignon of coarse ebony hair, her extreme boniness sheathed in an expensive lavender pantsuit. Armani? Delphine could’ve told him right away; he left the finer points of women’s fashion to her. She was the one with the eye. His own went to witness “tells,” barely perceptible gestures, coughs, pauses and ticks, reveals that he stored away in a tickler file for later use. “We’re here to uphold the Constitution, Rachel,” he said mildly. “We don’t have to like our clients and invite them to dinner. We just have to defend the accused. Every citizen is innocent until proven guilty. Even my ten-year-old son knows that.”

She made an angry twist of her stoplight-red lips. “You know he raped that woman.”

He raised both brows. “And how do I ‘know’ this?”

“Because she was in his apartment, and he’d cooked her dinner. Because she ran screaming out of there at two in the morning, and the neighbors heard her and called the cops. Because the ER doc found tears in her vagina and blood on her panties, and there was semen inside her.”

Robert smiled. She was good. “That’s why you’ll make an excellent second chair. You’ll help me find a plausible explanation for an alternate scenario. I never said it would be easy, Rache.”

Tears came unbidden to her eyes. She blinked them away. “Look,” she said, “you’re the one who recommended me for the position on the board of LACAAW. You’re the who said, ‘They need a good legal mind. And it’s a great organization the firm can back as one of our pro bonos.’ Well, now you’re asking me to go against everything LACAAW stands for! We’re the L.A. Commission on Assaults Against Women, Rob! —Do you know what I did last night?”

He almost said, “Went to Harry’s Bar with that cute trainer from the gym?”, but knew that any joke would be inappropriate. Instead he said, his dark eyes unsmiling, “Tell me.”

“I took a Guatemalan woman with two kids in tow to a shelter! But before I did, I took her to the police to file a report. I had them document her eggplant of a body after the son-of-a-bitch punched her all night. And I called the LACAAW doctor away from the hubby to examine and treat her. Not much she could do but prescribe painkillers and icepacks.”

Robert laid his hand briefly on the fist she’d placed, tightly coiled, on his glass-and-steel desk. “I’m sorry. I truly am. I don’t like Marko Péšek anymore than you do. But he maintains his innocence. Yes, he invited his grad student to dinner. They went over the finer points of her dissertation. He did not touch her. His live-in maid saw her leave, intact. The lady was setting him up. God knows, it was wrong of him to cook dinner for a student he was mentoring—foolish, improper, whatever you want to call it. But rape? He’s a good-looking physics professor with a superb reputation at UCLA.” He sighed. “Do I believe him? Fact is, Rachel, it’s never our job to believe or dispute a client’s story. Unless it’s so full of holes that it won’t stand up in court. And if it won’t, we just don’t put him on the stand. This guy I need on the stand. I need his gravitas. So I’d rather not know what really happened, or I wouldn’t be able to have him testify on his own behalf. Okay?”

“So you don’t care?”

“Yes,” he said. “I care. But caring isn’t what we do. We provide the best defense to the accused. Period. And if we can save even one innocent a year—even a decade! —from being falsely imprisoned, I can go to sleep at night and feel I’ve done my bit.” He gazed at his cufflinks, golden scales of justice, and for a split second, his face grew sad. Then he smiled at her. “It’s trust. I trust this country’s legal system. The clients trust us. That’s what defense work is all about.”

 

 

Life Lessons

Dearest hearts,

This year, 2014, is about to end.  Sebastian and I have endured a lot.  I’m glad that a new year is starting.

Every December, I think about what I’ve gained and what I’ve lost in the year that’s closing.  I lost my husband.  I gained the satisfaction of knowing that his was a beautiful death, in my arms, in our home, exactly as he wanted it.  Do I miss him? You bet. But the sharp depression that haunted me (and Sebastian, too) during the summer has tamped down, and both of us have settled into our lives as a twosome.

I lost my daughter, Nathalie.  She and I were close when she was small, but before she turned ten, she had decided that I was not the mother she wanted.  She loved her father and his second wife, and she even, grudgingly, loved Ben, my husband.  But she had stopped loving me.  First, “Maman” turned to “Mom,” while her father, who isn’t French, remained “Papa.”  Then, as she grew older, she ceased calling me anything at all.  I was supposed to respond to “Hey, there.”  And she wasn’t at all proud of me, the way I was of my mother, who was not only a beauty but a successful literary agent in Paris.  My mother wasn’t perfect, and sometimes, she could cause me real problems.  I’m sure I caused her plenty. But, God, how we loved each other!

Nathalie has always blamed me for decisions she took or didn’t take.  When Ben died, she abruptly turned loving and concerned. I was so thrilled.  But two months after his death, she blasted me about the fact that I wasn’t sending her any money, that I was vain and self-centered, and that she didn’t care about anything I was going through, or that my father was suffering, her grandfather.  She wanted money, and I didn’t have it to give.  I had love, but she wasn’t looking for this.

That was the final conversation we had.  About how I was failing her by getting my hair done and my nails manicured. How my dad and I “lived as a married couple,” and beyond our means, depleting the estate so that she wouldn’t receive what she felt was her due.  I was polite, but I did not apologize for my life, nor for my choices.   And my dad and I decided, sadly, to sever all further contact.  It was her choice, not mine.  Lesson learned: Don’t tread in waters that will drown you.  Go for the balmy shore where you have safe footing.

I gained a new daughter.  Melinda was a recent widow when she entered Ben’s and my lives.  She’s Apache, and a novelist.  She’s mom to a grown son, Erik, and a teenaged daughter, Shaelee.  And she never had a mom and dad.  So now, I’m Mom.  And she is a blessing.

I gained a niece.  Her name is Jessica, and she happens to be my webmistress.  We’ve been close for years.  She has a mom, but she adopted Ben and me as her uncle and aunt.  She’s talented in music, art, writing, and the web.  Her husband, Tyson, is a brilliant artist.

I lost a beloved cousin, also named Jessica.  Her mother and I have been close for decades.  She’s always been troubled, amazingly smart, and artistic.  But, when Ben was dying, she interfered in my private life, and while I still love her, I removed myself from any further encroachments.

I regained myself.  I ceased thinking as Monique, Ben’s caregiver, eclipsed by cancer, and started to believe in Monique, the person and the writer.  I began Irrevocable Trust. I cut ties with friends who were no longer friends, and solidified friendships that were.  I started to enjoy myself again, to watch silly movies and read all kinds of books, from the sublime to the ridiculous. To go out, hesitantly, into the wider world.

And I am moving my superb father into my home.  Don’t think that it’s because he’s old!  He’s young, vibrant, runs a film company, is a bridge master, and has a much more impressive social life than I do.  But we are both single, and it makes sense to take care of each other.  And to have Sebastian take care of us.

Just a few days ago, there was an interesting debate on my Facebook page.  Did one have to learn to become a writer?  What, in fact, makes one?  Some said experience.  Others felt classes would help.

I’m going to weigh in on this.  I have never taken a writing class in my life.  Yet I have taught writing for years, and miss doing so now.  My methodology was thorough, and it was new and somewhat different from the tried-and-true.  My students outlined their books on Visio, did superimposed Power Point charts based on how each of their characters reacted to events in their plot, partnered with one another to create dialogue between their characters (so that the character in one novel was interacting with someone in another person’s book), had group therapy with a licensed psychologist… as their protagonists, not their writer-selves.  Did they learn to become better writers?  I’m not sure.  But I did.  I taught them and in so doing, I taught myself.

You can’t teach talent, just as you can’t teach an aptitude for math or sculpture.  The raw talent is something inside us writers, something that can be refined, not created.  But a writer must love language, metaphor, and people.  A writer must be open to the world, but relish being alone to work “in the zone.”  A writer must be an avid reader.  And, yes, a writer must live.  Every word we write comes from our thoughts, opinions, and experience bank.  In this regard, even the most far-fetched fantasy is autobiographical.

A writer is a sponge, and a writer is unrelenting in exploring what comes his or her way.  You meet a new person; the person shares a slice of himself.  You store it away.  Years later, you will draw upon that conversation and use it to amplify a novel or a case history.  No human being is too boring to explore.  I want to know what you’ve done, but I mostly want to know who you are.

I do not need to write about my personal gains and my personal losses.  They belong to my life, and it is this life that furnishes my books with stuffing.  You may not read about Melinda or Jess, but you will read about the sort of love that I share with them.  You will not see Sebastian in one of my books, though you might.  But you will see the soul-bond that the two of us have.  You will not suffer through the loss of Ben, but you will find him all over my books.  And so it is with us authors.  We’re not afraid to plumb the depths of our feelings.  We do it for you, that you may sense how universal humanity is.  Because our gains and losses aren’t so unique.  They’re human.

Reading my journal
Sebastian, reading my journal, where I record my life experiences.