The dark specter of Barbecue Man returns

grill-931878_1280The first time I moved out of my parents’ house I moved in with a couple of equally ill-equipped girls I’d known since elementary school in the dismal trailer they were renting in what I now see was a really lovely (quiet, well-kept) trailer park one zipcode from where we were all raised. None of us could balance a checkbook, cook, or hold a job for more than a few months at time time, so it was a failed experiment from the get-go.

(There’s a whole book in that wild, fun, desperate, grotesque, coming-of-age summer, but there’s half a dozen other projects already in the queue and I might need a lawyer before I can publish it.)

We had contact with only one neighbor in the trailer park because most everyone kept to themselves. (I told you it was a lovely place.) Our neighbor to the north was a large man who barbecued three meals a day. Breakfast: barbecue. Lunch: barbecue. Dinner: barbecue. We didn’t actually talk to the guy so we never knew if he was a barbecue connoisseur or if maybe his stove and/or microwave were broken and this was his sole means of cooking.

Barbecue Man, as we cleverly called him, had a wife, Mrs. Barbecue Man, whose face we never saw because the only times she stepped outside it was to position herself in a plastic lounge chair with one of those folding aluminum sun reflectors hiding her face. (This remains the only time in my life I have seen one of those things IRL.)

Barbecue Man had two means of communicating with us: 1) Screaming “Fucking lesbians!” out his window if we made too much noise during the day and 2) calling the park manager at 10:00 pm exactly if we were still making too much noise at 10:00 pm exactly. (And, of course, we gathered around a clock and ramped up the noise-making until it was at a fever pitch at 9:59 pm, at which point we could see his silhouette lumbering to the phone, and we promptly ceased all audible activity at 10:00 pm precisely – even going so far at one point as to flip our own breaker after a particularly high-energy bout of lightswitch flipping and screaming with three stereo systems pegged to 10.) The second method, too, was followed by a cry of “Fucking lesbians!”

(I hope he knows not a one of us was even a little bit upset by being referred to as a lesbian, and also that he was wrong to assume that three single girls with two cats and a parrot were lesbians just because we never had any boys over.)

That was 16 years ago now.

A few days ago I was listening to the clatter and bang and hiss and cussing of the stepfather of the Horrid Little Girls next door firing up his barbecue for a late breakfast when it dawned on me (after 10 years living next to that asshole) this is the only other person I have ever encountered who barbecues breakfast. While the stepfather of the Horrid Little Girls doesn’t barbecue every meal every day he does barbecue about half of all meals and, again, is the only other person I have ever seen barbecue breakfast when there is not a power outage.

I ran out to where Matt was welding and asked him. What if. WHAT IF?!?!?!

“It’s possible,” said Matt.

I explained about the wife with the reflectors and how she bore no resemblance (based on body shape and pitch of voice) to the wife the stepfather of the Horrid Little Girls had when we moved in next door to him out here ten years ago.

“He’s on his fourth wife,” said Matt.

It’s not impossible. It is in fact, totally possible. What if, guys? WHAT IF. We’re not looking at a whole book here, of course, but this bizarre coincidence could at least make up one short story chapter in a book I have on a back burner.

Though geographically large, this county I have lived in my whole life is not densely populated and is, figuratively, a very small world. Matt and I were friends for years before discovering that our mothers had been friends in their childhood in their tiny hometown, that my mother had dated his uncle in their teens, that our mothers’ first husbands had owned a business together, that his best friend was the guy I complained about from my first job. A friend of ours at the restaurant where we met logged with Matt’s grandfather, machined with my grandfather, and trimmed and tied the crown roasts of beef that my mother used to order for Christmas dinner. I could go on for hours; everyone knows everyone somehow.

It will be a while before we can know, though, if this guy is indeed that guy. There (thankfully) aren’t many unfortunate moments in which the stepfather of the Horrid Little Girls heaves himself over to the fence to attempt to bond with Matt using unchecked negativity and racism (Dude assumes that anyone who looks a little like him must share all his disgusting sentiments and he is perpetually shocked that we don’t want to deport the Mexicans across the street, that we don’t want to evict people who can’t afford to keep up their houses to his standards, that we didn’t want to assassinate Obama, that we don’t regret getting married, and that, no, we really weren’t joking about not being Christian.) and he hasn’t tried to talk to me since that time he jeered at me in a singsongy voice “Does Matt know you’re using his tools?” and I snarled back “They’re my fucking tools.”

But rest assured, readers, the next time I see them engaged in verbal combat I will text Matt urgently to find a way to ask if the asshole ever lived in Marysville next to some obnoxious teenage lesbians.

— Amanda

Write what you didn’t know you knew

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Used with no permission what-so-never! ©Andrews McMeel Universal

This is not an original sentiment, but it has been needling me lately, so I’m going to let it out.

“Write what you know” is misunderstood. People think that means that they can only write literally about their limited sphere of experience: that if they have never left America they can’t write about world-traveling spies. But I don’t think it refers to technical aspects. I think it refers to themes and relationships. I doubt George Lucas had personal experience with telekinetic space knights, but he did seem to know a thing or two about hope. I don’t think J.K. Rowling actually attended a secret wizarding school, but she does seem to have insider information on the importance of friendship and perseverance.

What do you know about? Woodworking? Bureaucracy? Ceramics? That’s nice, but it’s inessential. You can research those things. You can understand them pretty well without experiencing them. And you can freely invent space ships and elves – you don’t have to experience them at all.

So what else do you know know? What have you experienced or witnessed that you can really expound upon, that can be your theme? Poverty? Betrayal? Second chances? I know about being eccentric, about learning to improve oneself the hard way, about making mistakes, about being wracked by anxiety, about surviving depression. These are things I can dig into and live in for a whole book. I can say much more interesting things about these themes than I could by rattling off my technical knowledge of the behind scenes work of building public parks or even the sounds and smells of beekeeping.

What have you done in your life? (Or what has been done to you?) Look at your resume, think back over your life. Maybe you haven’t had a sweeping romance or a brush with crime or a death in the family. Maybe all you’ve had is a job at McDonald’s. Dude, you can still use that. Transform the people around you. The night shift manager that magically motivates everyone to give a damn in the face of the unending onslaught of drunk and otherwise shitty customers? That person can be your Gandalf, your Dumbledore, your Obi-wan. The petty little shit who shifts blame and weasels out of work and thinks they’re too good? That’s your book’s Draco Malfoy. Walter Mitty your life. (I don’t mean you should fall in with spies – I mean your should recast the people around you into fantasies.)

Do the same to your experiences and relationships. Remember that time you were mistaken for a local celebrity or wanted criminal? It’s a funny anecdote now, but really remember it. Remember the thrill? The terror? Remember imagining how cool (or burdensome) it would be to be that weather guy for real? Remember wondering how you were going to get out of going to jail when your phone and wallet were locked in your car so you couldn’t prove you weren’t the robber? That’s at least enough for a short story. Transform your close bond with your dog into a boy and his dragon or a girl and her assassin-bot. Fictionalize that comedy of errors from last year’s drunken thanksgiving into a Medieval farce. Get pretend space revenge on an alien version of that boss who sabotaged you to keep you from getting promoted.

You can research or invent places and technology and worlds and customs and just about everything. But Wikipedia can’t grant you substantive, nuanced insight into the human condition. You have to be like Star Trek’s Data: consult the ship’s computer whenever you can and for the rest of it – the interactions, the feelings, the relationships – you just have to throw yourself in and live.

— Amanda

Just a little update . . .

achievement unlockedI finished the first draft of my second book, Ghost Stories, today. I am on schedule to publish in the spring of 2017.

Ghost Stories is a paranormal buddy comedy featuring a lesbian main character (whose motivation is not to find a girlfriend but to flip a foreclosed house she bought at auction), an agender ghost, a really dumb dog, a bad guy who is “the manifestation of a comments section,” an Afro-Latina medium who hates ghosts, and a whole lot of swearing and pop-culture references.

I am really enjoying writing this book and I hope you will really enjoy reading it.

— Amanda

 

Back to the drawing board

For Camp NaNoWriMo in April this year (which I won, btw, nbd *shines fingernails on lapel*) I took a break from my official project (book-to-be-published number 2) and tried to wring 50,000 words out of an old story idea from which I had subtracted a major character.

Sans that one original character I was left with a roman à clef of my first major(ly disastrous) romantic relationship. Also in April I started rewatching an anime I never got to finish in high school, which led to another series, and another, and, well, I haven’t stopped yet. But the point is that watching all this gorgeous animation made my fingers absolutely itch to draw.

So I did.

doodles

Surprisingly important doodles from just last week.

And I have continued to.

And here’s why that’s a big fucking deal:

I wanted to write books farther back than I can remember. I always wanted to write and be published, and once I started (in grade 1, with “The Camping Treap When I Was Littel”) I didn’t stop, even if all I was doing was defacing 10 pages of a journal per day in my dark times.

But I also wanted to be an artist. A visual artist. Also for as long as I can remember. When I was little this meant that I envisioned writing and illustrating a Serendipity-style series of books for kids. But by the fourth grade I had already begun to despise my fellow children, an opinion which hasn’t changed to this day. (I have let go of a fuckton of baggage and grudges in my life, but I will take my kid-hating to the grave.) After that, the plan was to write for a living (lol), as a freelancer, and to do visual art on the side. I was going to go to Cornish and get a degree in studio art. I drew constantly. I was getting into assemblage and custom book binding in high school. And I was working on concepts and character development for three comic books  when my emotional development ran into the brick wall was that was my (now) ex, herein referred to as Dingus.

I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned Dingus on this blog before, because he has less than zero impact on my current life, but we’re talking about the past here, and, sadly, he’s there.

(Heed well the immortal words of Anne Lamott, my children: “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.”

Dingus disapproved wholeheartedly (though in a passive-aggressive way) of my art because *he* was a *real* *artist*. Probably he felt threatened. I know that sounds pompous, but I was trying something new every week and I enjoyed tackling my weaknesses like they were elderly gazelles and I was a cheetah. When I discovered that I was awkward at drawing feet I forced myself to draw nothing but feet for weeks on end until I could draw feet that would make anatomical illustrators weep and cast aside their sketchbooks. Dingus, on the other hand, was good at drawing two things and two things only, and he never, ever stepped out of his comfort zone. (Ironically, his comfort zone was making other people uncomfortable.) Also, he flat-out sucked at both hands and feet. (And probably still does.) I don’t know who was the better artist, but I now believe that I was the one with more potential.

Dingus wasn’t just negative about my drawing, of course. He was also negative about my personality, my body, my family, and all my interests. But for some reason his harshing on my art was what stuck. After the dumping my self-esteem and interest in my hobbies bounced back – but I didn’t draw again for well over a decade. (With one very notable exception in 2005 when I drew what may well be the greatest holiday card ever created.)

bucky card

Our 2005 holiday card featuring our cross-eyed, one-toothed, codependent flame-point Siamese cat, Bucky.

I am mystified by how this guy managed to give me the Clockwork Orange cure for drawing, as all I can remember him saying, in reference to my work, was: “that’s cartoony.” (Of course it was, numb nuts, I was making comic fucking books.) But my brain’s coping mechanism is to block out what it deems too painful to remember, so now that I’ve purged a lifetime’s worth of journals the world will never know!

I am wholeheartedly enjoying my (agonizingly slow) return to sketching, but I desperately want to hear similar stories. Have you ever rescued something from your past (an interest or hobby or habit) that you used to love but that had become tainted by a bad relationship or situation? Did your approach to it or your feelings toward it change? Was it like reuniting with an old friend? Did it become a part of your life again or did you decide to leave it in the past after all?

Please let me know in the comments!

— Amanda

A quick note home from camp

moonrise kingdom treehouseI’m hard at work at Camp NaNoWriMo. (Or, at least, I’m trying. Dear god, I’m trying.) Since we got the dog, my writing schedule has been disrupted at best, and nonexistent at worst, so I’m using Camp to get back into the swing of writing every day. Also, since burnout is always part of the problem, I am working on an old Silver Peak novel idea (Silver Peak is the fictional Snohomish County small town where most of my novels take place). As soon as April is over I will get back to work on Ghost Story (recently renamed Ghost Stories, actually) and I will start posting again. I have a great post on deck but I just don’t have the time or mental energy to spiff it up and post it (there’s plenty of non-writing goings-on sucking away at my wherewithall, too).

Back soon!

— Amanda

P.S. Send bug spray. I’m getting eaten alive out here.

I can finally call myself a writer

Buy me this shirt, please.

In the first grade I announced that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. I started writing “books” like crazy. For the rest of my life, up to this point, I have constantly wondered at what point I would finally feel like I could call myself a writer.

  • *writes several novels about talking animals which are “borrowed” indefinitely by a teacher, and never seen again* Well, you only have to write to be a writer. Am I a writer yet?
  • *attends Young Authors Conference 4 years in a row* Am I a writer yet?
  • *submits fiction of such poor quality to literary magazines that no response is ever received* Well, rejection is part of the process. Am I a writer yet?
  • *journals religiously for 13 years, stops cold turkey, unceremoniously dumps all journals in trash five years later* Am I a writer yet?
  • *subscribes to The Writer magazine in middle school* Am I a writer yet?
  • *starts literary zine, to publish self* That’s as indie as it gets. Am I a writer yet?
  • *blogs for five years straight* I sure have output. Am I a writer yet?
  • *wins first NaNoWriMo* I finally finished a novel! Am I a writer yet?
  • *buys digital voice recorder because writing on a pad stuck to the steering wheel isn’t working anymore* Am I a writer yet?
  • *revises novel for two years* Am I a writer yet?
  • *critiquer accuses me of aping Salinger* Am I a writer yet?
  • *gets harassed by another author on Goodreads for leaving a two star review* Am I a writer yet?
  • *independently publishes novel*  Am I a writer yet?
  • *sells just five copies of book but now awash in people coming out of the woodwork to “let” me read their unfinished, five year-old, hardcopy-only manuscripts* HO BOY NOW I’M A WRITER!

— Amanda

Interesting facts omitted from my “About the Author” page

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My squeezebox.

I love humorous “About the Author” pages. For example:

“Adams lived partly in Islington, London, partly in Provence, France, but mostly in airport bookshops.” — The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1997 Ballantine Books edition

“Allie Brosh lives as a recluse in her bedroom in Bend, Oregon. In 2009, she thought, ‘I know what would be a good idea! Instead of becoming a scientist, I should write and draw things on the Internet!’ This was a horrible idea for too many reasons to count, but the decision wasn’t really based on logic. (. . .) Brosh has also given herself many awards, including ‘fanciest horse drawing’ and ‘most likely to succeed.'” — Hyperbole and a Half

I considered writing a funny description of myself for Ellipsis, but since the book is not overtly humorous (though there are one or two scenes that make me snigger) I opted for a very short and rather plain listing of my name, where I live, and that this is my first published book. For Camp NaNoWriMo in July I will be making my second attempt to finish a paranormal buddy comedy book. If that one makes it to publication maybe then I will have an excuse for a tongue-in-cheek “About the Author” page.

So here are some completely true, but also amusing, facts that I did not include on the last page of Ellipsis:

  • When I eat an apple I eat the core, too. All that is left is the stem.
  • I was born on a Friday the 13th.
  • When I wrote stories as a kid (longhand) I used a wavy underline under sentences intended to be read in a sarcastic tone of voice.
  • I have a speech impediment so mild it cannot be heard, only seen. And, apparently, only by trained professionals. (You cannot even hear it when I am drunk.) If I find out that you are a speech therapist I will not speak in front of you for love nor money.
  • My digital voice recorder is named Diane. So every time I make a note, I begin with “Diane . . .”*
  • I once had a (semi-legal) pet opossum. He was pretty awesome.
  • I play the toy accordion. Not a “real” accordion, but a little 7-button children’s model. I have tried a variety of stringed and wind instruments and this is the only one for which I have any talent.

And here’s some facts about the book

  • This book was my 2013 NaNoWriMo project.
  • This book is being published now because it is the first book I have finished writing. I currently have three unfinished manuscripts on my hard drive (and backed up in the cloud), some of which predate the creation of Ellipsis by three or four years.
  • The idea for this book was sparked by reading a magnificent piece of fan fiction.
  • The original title was Zen and the Art of Grifting.

— Amanda

*If you found this fact mundane you have not watched Twin Peaks.