Fiction Fragments: Eva Roslin

Last week I spoke with R. B. Wood about his latest novel, Bayou Whispers and what he learned about himself and the society he lives in while researching the book.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes writer and reviewer Eva Roslin.

Eva Roslin writes dark fantasy and horror fiction. She is a recipient of the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship, awarded by the Horror Writers’ Association. She is a Supporting HWA member. Her work has appeared in such publications as Dark Heroes (Pill Hill Press), Murky DepthsGhostlight Magazine and others. Her reviews and articles have appeared in Cemetery Dance and Hellnotes to name a few.

Twitterhttps://twitter.com/EvaRoslin    
Goodreads:https://www.goodreads.com/user/show/3562237-eva 
Website/blog:https://roslineva.wordpress.com/

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Eva. This will be the final Fiction Fragments post before I take a brief hiatus. So, let’s jump right in and start with some serious questions about your writing. And, your experience as a reader, reviewer, and consumer of speculative fiction in general. I know that you read a lot, not just professionally but also for pleasure. What issues have you encountered with how disabled characters are represented in fiction, or disability in general? What do people get right or wrong? How can people who aren’t disabled write disabled characters authentically? Have you written about disability?

ER: Thank you for having me! The biggest issue I’ve encountered with how writers, particularly nondisabled writers, represent disabled characters is lack of research. If a writer has not done their homework, if they’re just guessing or making assumptions of what it “must” be like to live with a particular disability, and they don’t bother to speak to anyone in the disabled community they’re portraying, it leads to things like the ‘disability is a superpower’ trope. I’m a huge fan of Professor Xavier in the X-Men, for instance, but it bothers me that in some people’s minds, he matters and is “allowed” to be a central character only because he is a mutant who has superpowers that “compensate” for his disability. 

I have both physical and intellectual disabilities, and I use a mobility device to help me get around. One of the tropes I despise features a nondisabled character posing as disabled to trick the other characters and then suddenly using a walking aid as a substitute for a sword. There’s also the trope where a character gets up out of a wheelchair and proclaims “Fooled you!” I love many, many things about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but invoking this trope with Spike in Season 2 is not one of them. 

There’s a tendency to make disabled characters one-dimensional or to equate disabilities with being evil and villainous, which I also think is very offensive. 

Nondisabled writers who want to write disabled characters should start by looking into workshops like the fantastic Writing the Other series that Nisi Shawl and K Tempest Bradford operate. I think it’s also important to do as much research as possible. Many writers might assume that a few quick Google searches are adequate (spoiler alert: they’re not). As well, writers should pay attention to conversations within the disabled community online.  

When it comes to my own fiction, I’m still hesitant to write about characters with disabilities because there’s the fear that I will get it wrong, or that my experiences will not resonate with other disabled folks, or that some nondisabled people will comment that the character doesn’t seem disabled enough, or just plain trolling. I’m working on ways to try to overcome that hesitancy.

GMM: Tell me about your writing. When did you begin writing dark fantasy and horror? Who or what were your first influences, and how has writing within these genres pulled on your personal experiences or helped you grow as a person?

ER: I started writing when I was 14. I loved Halloween growing up, and enjoyed shows like Are You Afraid of the Dark, superhero cartoons, as well as reading many of the Goosebumps books and other young adult horror. As well, I started reading Anne Rice at what was probably too early an age and that solidified my interest in genre fiction and began a life-long obsession with vampires. I also loved mob movies and video games thanks to my older brothers, so when I started writing, it was dreadfully bad screenplays based on Goodfellas. Soon after, I bought a video game featuring vampires that I had no idea would become the flame that fueled my desire to write. I still remember watching the opening cinematic and thinking, “This is amazing. I want to write something that makes people feel the same sense of awe as I do now.” The game was Soul Reaver, which is one of the most epic, finely-plotted stories in video game history. 

Shortly after that, the first Underworld film came out, and that also fueled me to keep writing horror. I joined some online critique groups as well as a local in-person one that my mom had to accompany me to because I was still a minor. Although that group was mostly a bunch of old white dudes and a few women, it taught me important lessons on how to take feedback gracefully, how to provide it, and the fundamentals of good storytelling. I kept writing and most of my subject matter extended to fallen angels, demons, and went into a gritty urban fantasy direction. Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim and William Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel were both huge influences. Then, somewhere along the way, my work and interests morphed into something more subtle. I began to write Southern Gothic stories, which I realize is ironic because I’m neither American nor am I from the South. Around the same time, I started researching Haitian vodou, learning about the West African roots of the religion, and discovered the history of these regions. It was important for me to see how all of that transformed into Louisiana voodoo and the pop culture derivations that followed. This inspired my obsession with New Orleans, a setting that features prominently in my work. 

When I was a teenager, I had that horrible phantom pressure inflicted on me to “hurry up because if you don’t publish a novel by the time you’re 25, you will lose your chance forever!” And then 25 became 30 until I worked harder on understanding that these are arbitrary benchmarks that other insecure people set up, and it’s part of the theatre of literary snobbery. My experiences working in the publishing industry doing marketing and PR showed me firsthand which books sell and why, which books don’t, all the work that goes into promotion and working with authors, and how dispiriting it was to get unsold copies back to the warehouse. When reviewers did not have favourable feedback on one of the titles we were pushing that season, that was always tough. It made me more cynical for a long time, but it also helped me see things from the business side, which was educational in many ways.

I don’t experience the same sense of catharsis that some horror writers describe, but I definitely bleed on the page. When I was writing urban fantasy, it was much more a wish fulfillment fantasy of including these kickass female protagonists who didn’t take any guff, but were incredibly self-centred and one-dimensional in many ways. For a long time, I avoided writing from the wounds and scars that have shaped me because I was worried about being dismissed with labels like “semi-autobiographical,” or “B-movie genre pulp.” I fixated on people’s reactions. Gradually, I am learning to break away from that and I’m writing from darker places. This has been more traumatizing in some cases, but I feel that I’m taking bolder strides and I’m less afraid as a writer in some ways.

GMM: You are currently writing a novel. Is this your first novel? What is it about? What has the process been like for you as you draft the manuscript? What have you learned about yourself as a writer, and what have you learned about writing in general?

ER: This is the eighth novel I’ve written. It’s a young adult dark fantasy novel about a group of young women in New Orleans in the 1850s. They learn witchcraft at an Academy that disguises itself as an Ursuline convent and school. A very dangerous witch that they thought they’d sealed away for good has found a way to return, and the main characters need to figure out a way to stop her before she unleashes even more havoc. There are vampires and werewolves who also get tangled into the fray. 

I’ve learned that it’s important to be true to what I want to write and to stop fixating so much on the negative energy some folks insist on spreading. As well, I’m also learning that no matter how much work I have done whether it’s research or incorporating feedback, that we don’t have any control over how readers will respond to our work. Still, it’s important to have a vision of what it is we’re trying to accomplish, and to continue persevering no matter how many times we get kicked down (which I know is easier said than done). 

Thanks so much for having me, Michelle!

(From an unpublished short story, “His Heart Beats in the Fire”)

“Miss Malveaux?”

Charlotte jolted as she realized her mind had drifted whilst talking to this handsome suitor.

Before she could respond, Father’s other daughter, Olivia, bumped into Charlotte.

“Pardon me, Lottie!” Olivia squealed with laughter. She looked like a pink cloud in her dress, her cheeks and lips stained with cerise rouge.

“There you are!” Father pulled Olivia into a hug, and kissed her forehead. He had never once come close to regarding Charlotte with anything resembling affection. In his mind, Olivia would forever be his one true daughter. “You are a stray dog. I adopted you because my first wife wished it,” he had said to Charlotte on more than one occasion.

Elijah stared at Olivia, transfixed. A crack formed in Charlotte’s heart at that moment, as if a knife had slashed her. She knew then that whatever chance she may have had with Private Kemper evaporated like dust.
           
“Olivia was just saying…” Father walked away with Olivia and Elijah, Charlotte forgotten. His words echoed in her mind. Simian blood. She approached the live oak in front of her and brushed her hands over the bark. Memories filled her mind of this spot where her grandmother, Betsy, had been hanged. She had been six at the time. She clutched her locket and breathed, trying to wrench her thoughts from that day. 
           
Images flashed in Charlotte’s mind. The noose that broke Betsy’s neck. The flames that sprang from Charlotte’s hands.

The family told tales that Betsy shed her skin at night, a witch who practiced dark magic. Father blamed the ailing slave woman for failing to cure his first wife of consumption. It would not be until many years later that Charlotte would learn of his deception, that he had Betsy hanged to teach the other slaves a lesson.

Something tapped her on the shoulder a moment later. When she whirled, a man with dark eyes and hair examined her, his cheeks angled and sharp. Beside him stood Ava.
           
“This is Corporal William Rawden, Lottie,” Ava said.
           
She held out her hand. While he brought it to his lips, bowing slightly, he regarded her as though he were reading a journal of the news of the day. He frowned.
           
“How do you do,” she said.
           
“I was just mentioning to the Corporal that we have an elder daughter, and he expressed to me that he wished to be introduced to you.”

Charlotte wanted to scoff, to tell him she was sorry to have disappointed him by not being Olivia. “Charmed.”
           
He smirked. “I hear you are quite a respectable young lady, apart from a certain, shall we say, indiscretion.”
           
“I beg your pardon?” she said.
           
He brought his face a bit closer to her. “Your true race.” His mouth reeked of tobacco and whisky. “Your father told me. Still, since your other sister seems to be preoccupied with other, blonder interests, I thought I would see if you might do just as fine, provided a little extra compensation.” He tapped his right pocket. Instead of telling him to get away from her and burn, she held her tongue and stretched her mouth into another saccharine smile, trying to imagine when the day might end.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. Fiction Fragments will be on a short hiatus. Stay tuned, and see you soon!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: R. B. Wood

Last week I spoke with Salvantonia Clemente about his writing and music and how these two art forms intersect for him.

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes speculative fiction writer R. B. Wood.

R. B. Wood is a recent MFA graduate of Emerson College and a writer of speculative and dark thrillers. Mr. Wood recently has appeared in Crystal Lake Publishing’s Shallow Water’s anthology, as well as online via SickLit Magazine & HorrorAddicts.net, and in the award-winning anthology Offbeat: Nine Spins on Song from Wicked ink Books.  Along with his writing passion, R. B. is the host of The Word Count Podcast—a show of original flash fiction.

R. B. currently lives in Boston with his partner Tina, a multitude of cats, and various other critters that visit from time to time.

Around the web: Website | Twitter | Facebook | Amazon’s R.B. Wood page

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster. Let’s just dive right in and talk about your latest release, Bayou Whispers. Where did the idea for the book come from? Why did you choose New Orleans as the setting? And, why did you choose Voodoo as the primary magic system for the book?

RBW: Bayou Whispers was actually my genre thesis piece for my Emerson MFA. Believe it or not, it started out as a strict Southern Gothic horror story that took place in Georgia (with a different working title, of course)! But as I developed the characters, it became obvious to me that this story was going to be…needed to be… a fast-paced supernatural thriller with horror elements. But beyond genre, the story of my main character, Jeannine LaRue, is one of survival. We all have some sort of survival story to tell—especially after a year of Covid, so what better city to set the story in than a city that optimizes survival: Namely New Orleans? I spent a lot of time in NOLA in the 90’s and aughts…I love speaking with the locals, and then there is, of course, the music, the food and the history of the region. That’s when the voodoo and Haitian elements really came into play.

GMM: How much research went into the writing of the book for setting, characters, themes, etc.? Did you learn anything new while you were doing the research? Did anything surprise you while doing research?

RBW: Research is my Achilles Heel when it comes to “time sucking activities.” Before the pandemic, I traveled to New Orleans and spent a few weeks interviewing people (bars are great for conversations and I’ve been known to enjoy a cocktail or two now and then), researching locations, touring the actual Bayou in an airboat, and listening to some of the crazy stories that are still told about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I also watched Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts which is a brutally honest look at what happened and how we, as a country failed the people of New Orleans.

This experience (both the MFA and writing this novel) is where I truly began to understand my privilege as a white male and how the social changes we are undergoing as a country need to happen to truly create the diverse yet equal country we dream of. The number of discussions I had about race alone in New Orleans was both educational and passionate and who I am has changed—hopefully for the better. At age 56, I’m still a work in progress!

GMM: Is Bayou Whispers the first book in a series or a stand-alone novel? If this novel is part of a series, what can readers expect next? In terms of writing process, how has writing this novel been different from other things you’ve written? If this isn’t part of a series, what are you currently working on, or what’s next?

RBW: While Jeannine’s story is standalone, there are subtle links to my first novel, The Prodigal’s Foole. The book I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Illusionist & The Wizard and it takes place in 1880’s New York. The elevator pitch on this one is “To solve the unnatural murder of Manhattan elites including his Father, journalist Whitelaw Greeley engages with Harry Houdini and Nikola Tesla to uncover the truth.” I like to describe this upcoming work as a historical supernatural thriller. Think Caleb Carr’s Alienist meets Kolchak: The Night Stalker. There will also be some light connective tissue between this new book, Bayou Whispers and The Prodigal’s Foole. This may eventually lead to an “Avengers” like trilogy, but that’s dependent on sales and popularity.

BAYOU WHISPERS brief synopsis

Bayou Whispers is the story of no-nonsense New Orleans native, Jeannine LaRue, the sole survivor of her family after the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the storm, she believed she’d been saved, but soon found herself held hostage and sexually exploited, rescued months later by sheriff’s deputy Curtis Jones.  Twelve years after Katrina, Jeannine is a new attorney who returns to New Orleans to save her old friend Curtis Jones—now a local thief and trafficker of stolen goods—after he is arrested for the murder of Jeannine’s captors, whose bodies have recently been found. But Jeannine discovers more than she bargained for when she uncovers a family history of dark voodoo magic and an unholy alliance with an ancient evil Haitian loa.

Bayou Whispers Prologue 

31 October 2005
Orleans Parish, Louisiana

On Halloween night that year, no little ghosts or goblins wandered the streets in search of candy. No laughter rang out in what was left of the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood. Two months after Katrina had ravaged this place, it still resembled a war zone, covered in debris and stagnant pools of foul-smelling water from the levee breach.

As midnight approached, a young teenager—naked, dirty, covered in mosquito bites, and with a nasty leg wound wrapped in crusted-over grey rags—stumbled from a copse of trees. She was thin, so very thin, weighing barely eighty pounds. 

The muddy and cracked streets before her sat dark and empty; human detritus littered the roads and yards, and the skeletons of ruined homes bore unintelligible spray paint that looked more like the desperate scratching of a fluorescent wild beast than symbols from a nameless insurance company or traumatized recovery workers. 

It was a city of the dead, a city of the damned. 

Right foot, left foot drag. One step at a time. The pain didn’t matter. It can’t matter.

Jeannine had been walking for what felt like forever, almost in a trance, placing one bloody foot in front of the other. Moving forward was the only thing that mattered. 

Keep moving. Those white guys might be following. Keep moving. 

Right foot, left foot drag.

She walked through glass and rusted nails, around junked appliances and damp, moldy couches. A dog barked once in the distance. 

A patrol car sat watch at the end of the street, engine idling. Jeannine approached, fear causing each step to hesitate. The light of a burning cigarette brightened as the occupant of the vehicle, still in shadow, took a long drag.

“Help,” croaked Jeannine. Her voice strained, rough. Insects chirped. Frogs called to their mates. No one heard her.

Right foot, left foot drag.

The person in the car took another pull, a dot of orange light flaring, then fading.

“Help!” she called, louder this time. The insects and the frogs stopped. The patrol car’s dome light winked on as the door opened.

Jeannine screamed.

She screamed as the cop ran toward her. She screamed as the cop took off his own shirt to wrap around her. She screamed as the cop carried her to the car.

“Jesus H. Christ! Randy, call for an ambulance!” yelled the cop.        

The cop’s partner, still inside the car, got on the radio.

Jeannine continued to scream until her vocal cords tore. She tasted blood.

“You’re safe, honey,” said the cop for the seventh time. Jeannine finally heard him.

He stayed with her until the ambulance arrived and then rode with her to the hospital. He spoke to the doctors on her behalf. He sat with her in intensive care while Jeannine, clean for the first time in months, slept. He watched her tossing, turning, and moaning softly.

Randy, the cop’s partner, arrived at the hospital. He’d taken care of the paperwork and had brought a po’ boy and a coffee. The sandwich was left untouched.

For the next hour, the partners sat a silent vigil over Jeannine.

The first cop must have drifted off because he woke with a start when someone placed a hand on his shoulder.

“Officer Jones?” asked a man in scrubs. “I’m Doctor Broussard. Can we talk outside for a minute?”

The cop looked to his partner and he nodded back at him.

“Go,” said Randy. “I’ll be here.”

Jones followed the doctor into the hallway.

“Officer, we can’t find any of…” He glanced at a clipboard. “…Jeannine’s family. I wanted to let you know that in the morning, and assuming she’s still stable…” The doctor let his words drift off as he swallowed hard. 

Jones noticed the man’s youth, how inexperienced he must’ve been before Katrina hit. The doctor looked like some of the baby-faced soldiers Curtis had met during the war—young men, children, really, who grew up quickly in the face of tragedy and death. 

Jones put his hand on the doctor’s shoulder.

“Yes. Sorry,” said Dr. Broussard. “It’s been a long couple of months of giving out bad news.”

“I understand,” said Jones automatically. “Just hit me with it, Doc.”

“She…Jeannine…we are going to have to remove her leg. The infection is too severe and there is gangrene.”

“Do what you have to,” said Jones impassively.

“But without parental…”

“Will the surgery save her life?”

“Yes.”

“Take her leg, then.” Jones’s left eye twitched once.

Doctor Broussard nodded. “I’ll need you to sign.”

A moment later, Jones returned to Jeannine’s room.

“Well?” asked Randy.

Jones slumped into a chair. “They’re going to take it in the morning.”

Suddenly, Jeannine sat up, ice-blue eyes wide, unblinking.

It was those eyes that had thrown him. This young teen—he’d met her once before the storm. He didn’t recognize her at first, as she practically crawled from the bayou, filthy and emaciated. The last time Curtis had seen her—she’d been covered in blood.

She had brown eyes then. He remembered them—unblinking and staring into a nightmare of unimaginable horror.             

“Jane Doe” was Jeannine LaRue. Jones was sure being a child of mixed-race parents was hard enough to grow up with in this town, but this young woman had experienced far more and far worse than her fourteen years had prepared her for.

Jones knew who she was now; she had been returned unlike so many of those in the missing persons reports.

The details of so many lost souls broken down into height, weight, and hair color.

“You all right, Jeannine?” he asked.

She looked at Jones, eyes unfocused from the drugs the doctors had pumped into her.

“Papa Nightmare is here!” she said in a frantic whisper. “Papa Nightmare!”

“Shhh. It’s all right, honey. You are safe now. I’m here and I won’t leave you.”

Jeannine blankly looked at Jones. He gently helped her lie back down.

“Right foot, left foot,” she muttered as her eyes fluttered once before closing.

The drugs took a lasting hold, and Jeannine’s breathing slowed. She spoke occasionally, nonsense words mostly. Jones held her hand for the rest of that night. “You’re safe,” he whispered again. “I promise.”

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Denise N. Tapscott

Last week I talked with Jade Woodridge about the significance of why she writes about children in her dark speculative fiction, and she share an excerpt from her story, “The Sweeper Man.”

This week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes horror writer Denise N. Tapscott.

Denise N. Tapscott was born and raised in California. She left her heart in San Francisco, but somehow managed to leave her soul in New Orleans. When she’s not creating and cultivating her characters, she enjoys dining on spicy tuna rolls, sharing a bottle of red wine with friends and watching the latest flick (especially scary films). From time to time this radiant left-handed pirate will even challenge others to a fencing match or two. But, watch out. This Gemini is determined to win!

As a member of the HWA, one of her greatest joys is publishing her first novel Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes as well as the short story The Price of Salvation.  She’s currently working on a collection of short stories called The Friends and Foes of Grandmother Zenobia as well as a sequel novel, Enlightening of the Damned.

Website:  www.denisetapscott.com
Twitter:  @DeniseNTapscott
Instagram: @pyratesunny
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TheDeniseNTapscott

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Denise. When did you first become interested in Voodoo? What about Voodoo makes you want to include it as a recurring theme in your fiction? What kind of research did you do for your novel, Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes?

DNT: Great questions! Voodoo first caught my attention when I watched the movie Angel Heart. It was awesome and freaked me out! Then a few years later I saw The Skeleton Key and all kinds of story ideas popped in my head. I eventually came up with an idea that it would be neat to read about Voodoo battling Romany magic. I traveled to New Orleans several times to research Voodoo and Marie LaVeau. The more information I came across I realized my perception of Voodoo was way wrong. I was mixing and matching Voodoo with Hoodoo. There’s a lot more to both of these African Traditional religions than dancing to drums and poking dolls. I came across an awesome Rootworker, The Broken Prophet in Atlanta who explained there are several kinds of Voodoo from Africa and Haiti, and New Orleans being the melting pot it is, also has it’s own Voodoo! Hoodoo is a whole different ball game as well. I hope Gypsy Kisses and Voodoo Wishes (as well as my future stories) honors some of the things I learned and show that it’s not the evil religion people think it might be.

GMM: My debut novel, Invisible Chains, is an historical horror novel set in Antebellum New Orleans, told form the POV of a young female slave. What drew you to set your novel and other stories in New Orleans? How does the setting shape the narrative of your novel and other stories? Do you treat the city like a backdrop, or like a character in the story itself?

DNT: There are cities that have a certain flavor, but something about New Orleans feels magical. Considering Louisiana’s dark and lively history, I think it’s the perfect setting for my novels and short stories. One of my main characters, Grandmother Zenobia, is also dark and lively so it’s the perfect place for her to exist. I created a fictional area in New Orleans and named it Carrefour Parish (Carrefour means crossroads in French). I treat it like a living backdrop, similar to the zombies in the earlier episodes of the tv show The Walking Dead. In some episodes, you know the zombies are there, but the characters have other life problems to deal with. I hope the reader is aware of how it feels to be in the south, with hints of magic and how the characters move around in its environment without overshadowing what they go through.

GMM: I grew up in Central Pennsylvania and spent sixteen years of my life living in Pittsburgh. I consider Pittsburgh more of a home than the town I grew up in, but like you, New Orleans is in my soul. Each time I visit, I see something new, learn something about its history, and always have a good time. Tell me your best New Orleans story, or your fondest memory of the Crescent City.

DNT: I love New Orleans so much that people think I’m from there! My favorite memory is visiting a small bar on Bourbon Street for my birthday a few years ago. I went to New Orleans by myself and wanted to listen to some live Jazz. Walking past a place called Maison Bourbon, I noticed they had a small band playing so I found a seat at the bar. The band leader asked if anyone was celebrating something special like an anniversary, wedding, or birthday. No one spoke up, which is odd because there’s always someone celebrating something in New Orleans. So I sheepishly raised my hand and said I was celebrating my birthday. They asked my name and I said Sunny, which is one of my favorite nicknames. The entire bar sang Happy Birthday to me and then played “When the Saints Go Marching In”. It was such a treat. The next night some of my girlfriends flew in and I told them my birthday story. We went back to Maison Bourbon and when I walked through the door, the band recognized me. They said, “Hey, Sunny’s back!” They played “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” and “When the Saints Go Marching In” for me. I will always cherish that moment, the feeling that I belong there and in New Orleans.

Thanks for letting me spend time on Girl Meets Monster.

Excerpt from “Price of Salvation”

I dragged myself through the open doorway and when I entered the humidity vanished.  Cool air caressed my face. I stood up straight and sighed.  When was the last time I took an honest deep breath, without coughing or puking? The aroma of freshly baked cinnamon rolls filled the air. My escape from the southern heat was glorious.

“Settle down,” I heard from the darkness.

“Close the door, and have a seat, Mrs. Jurel.”  

The voice of the Voodoo woman was clear and melodic, only slightly tainted with a New Orleans drawl.  

After blinking a few times, I saw a small metal folding chair. My eyes still hadn’t adjusted to the darkness so I fumbled around until I could sit obediently.  The chair was more comfortable than I expected.  Resting in the darkness was wonderful.  Once I regained my focus, I noticed I sat at a small table covered in soft black velvet. I wanted to brush my fingers across it, but my hands were dirty, accented with ragged nails, so I opted to fold my hands in my lap.

Sitting on a large purple and gold throne across from me was a pleasant-looking-dark skinned woman.  Her hair was covered with a purple turban, matching the royal purple on her front door.  She wore a black gauze tunic blouse.  Around her neck, a shiny copper Ankh glowed against her skin.  She didn’t wear any other jewelry, except a large black and gold fleur-de-lis ring that adorned well-manicured fingers.  Was she wearing a skirt or pants?  Why did I care about her outfit?  She was not the toothless, gray-haired woman I expected.  She looked like she was in her 40s?  My assistant Tasha joked “Black don’t crack”.  I could never say that, but she’s right.  This woman didn’t look old enough to be a grandmother.  She reminded me of that lady with the popular television talk show.  Everyone in her studio audience went home with expensive vacations and new cars.  

Three fresh, tapered candles, one black, one blue and one white, formed a triangle on the table on my right.  A thicker, taller, purple candle sat close to the Voodoo Woman. From my research, I knew the black one warded off negative energies and promoted healing. Royal blue was for seeking wisdom and truth. White was for protection, and purification.  Lastly, the purple one was for spiritual protection.  All the candles on this table represented protection but the purple one supposedly canceled negative effects of bad karma.  The Voodoo woman made interesting choices.

I lifted my head to take in my surroundings.  My neck was sore from my head being tossed back and forth every time I vomited.  There were shelves of books, crosses, various kinds of statues and other religious-looking artifacts.  If I was not mistaken, there was a shrunken head in the corner.  To my left, there was a jade dragon perched on a shiny black surface. Was that a human skull staring down at me?  Heavy red velvet curtains with gold trim covered windows, presumably protecting us from the sun.  In another corner there were large, dusty trunks. Simply being in this spooky room was worth my $500 dollars.

“Mrs. Jurel, you look like you could use some water.”

Grandmother Zenobia handed me a chilled, plastic bottle of water.  I was scared to drink it; when I vomited all over the luxurious black velvet table, I would be mortified.

“Go on, drink.”  

I swirled the cool water in my mouth a few times before swallowing. I braced for the burn.  Instead the liquid was sweet and went down smoothly.  It was an ordinary bottle of water, but it felt like I drank tears from heaven.  I paused, waiting for my stomach to betray me. It rumbled for a moment but then, silence.  Carelessly, I chugged the water as fast as I could.  Panicked, I look around for a trash can, for when my body-double crossed me and the water forced its way back out.  

There was no trash can.  There was no vomit.  There was peace, while sitting in a cool room.  I was so grateful that I cried.

“Do you need a moment to collect yourself?”  She asked, while passing me a soft tissue.  Wiping my tears away, I noticed my eyes didn’t sting when I blinked.  I cried even more.  It would take centuries to stop sobbing and catch my breath.

Attempting to compose myself, I noticed that I sat taller. My fever faded away.

“Thank you, Zenobia.”  

“Feeling better?” she asked.

“Yes,” I can’t believe that I do feel better.  Thank you for seeing me.”

“I prefer to be called Grandmother Zenobia.”

The black candle, the one for healing, flared brighter than the others.  The voodoo woman mumbled to herself; the flame obeyed her muttered commands and returned to its regular state. I re-adjusted in my seat and for the first time in months, I was almost my old self.  I took in another deep breath and appreciated the smell of cinnamon again. Aware I was on the clock, I got down to business.

Do you have a fiction fragment? How about your friends? Would you like to recommend someone to me aside from yourself? Drop me a line at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

When Survival Mode Becomes a Way of Life

It’s easy to recognize when a period of transition begins, but how do you know when it ends? Are there concrete, measurable ways to know you’ve come out on the other side and accomplished what you set out to do? Or is there just a constant sense of unease over never truly recognizing you have simply stepped into a new phase of existence? If you began following a path with no real sense of what you expected to find on the other side, how would you know if you reached your destination?

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Image via Unsplash by Kelly Sikkema

For the past six years, I have been in a seemingly never-ending period of transformation. I have celebrated successes, mourned losses, floated around aimlessly trying to figure out what happens next, and have continued to set personal and professional goals for myself in the face of adversity. I keep expecting things to settle down and become more manageable, but honestly, I think I’m kidding myself. I’m beginning to think this is just my life, and good, bad, or ugly, I’m living it.

2012 was a busy year. In February that year, I celebrated my 40th birthday with three good friends in New Orleans: my cousin Tara, my best friend’s sister, Katie, and my friend Christina, who flew all the way from Amsterdam to celebrate my birthday. The four of us met up in the Crescent City, a magical place I believe to be my birthplace in a past life, and quickly eased into a long weekend of drinking, eating, laughing and dancing. Highlights from that weekend include:

  • Shopping at Trashy Diva
  • Eating beignets past midnight at Café du Monde
  • Getting my photo taken with a demon on Bourbon Street
  • Laughing so hard at inappropriate jokes that my sides hurt
  • Watching a Mardi Gras parade in the Garden District with floats from a Krewe in Lake Pontchartrain who wore creepy old-fashioned Mardi Gras masks
  • Getting a birthday spanking by a stranger in a bar on Decatur Street
  • Watching a man in his 70’s perform kickass R&B for a solid hour straight in a Mardi Gras Indian costume down on Frenchman Street
  • Spending time with women I love and respect

I can’t remember the last time I had so much fun. That was a magical weekend I hope to recreate in the very near future.

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Café du Monde New Orleans

Soon after that trip, several life-changing events happened. Events I had speculated about while on that magical trip. First, I was accepted to the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction Program at Seton Hill University, and I began the three-year MFA in June that year. For years, I had struggled with the notion of taking myself seriously as a writer. I had been writing fiction fairly consistently since I turned 12, and then I completed a BA and MA in English in the hopes of finding a career in writing or teaching, but neither of those things happened. Why? Well, that’s a story for another day. The point is, reading, writing, and writing about writing were some of my favorite things to do and yet somehow I wasn’t making a living doing those things.

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Image via Unsplash by Ali Yahya

A few months before my 40th birthday, I decided it was time to take myself seriously and finally write a novel. And, hey, why not earn another college degree while I was at it? That was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. During my second residency, in January of 2013, I decided to end my marriage. I sat up late one night with my good friend and fellow writer, and she and I brainstormed an exit strategy. After that weekend, I applied for a job at my alma mater, and contacted a lawyer friend about the process of getting divorced. Shortly after telling my husband I was leaving, my brother-in-law died. The key to comedy, and apparently tragedy, is timing. One of these days, I’m going to write about that experience: the sadness, the guilt, and the inexplicably delightful black comedy of the whole thing that still fills me with a sense of awe over how bizarre life can be.

Anyway, by April of 2013 I had a new job and had moved back to my hometown. I left a job that was killing my spirit and a marriage that was making me unbearably unhappy, I started a new job, became a single parent, and faced the realities of my father’s rapidly declining health. My mother had recently put my dad in a nursing home because she couldn’t leave him alone at home while she worked. He had developed dementia after fighting several life-threatening illnesses that honestly, he probably shouldn’t have survived. For years, he had battled diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, and levels of stress I can only imagine. Well, to be fair, my own current levels of stress are probably slowly killing me. By some unbelievable twist of fate, my dad received a heart transplant. I’m not sure that was best thing that could have happened. He really wasn’t healthy enough for the surgery, and after the transplant he slowly went crazy, nearly taking my mother with him in the process.

Not only did he become difficult to talk to–because he developed a pathological need to be right about everything–but he forgot to pay bills and drained my parents’ bank account buying books and online services for an imaginary business he believed he had started. My father had spent his adult life working hard to keep people with mental illness tethered to reality, yet at the end of his own life, there was no one to help him keep madness at bay. One day, my mom got a call at work from the police. They had found my dad wandering around a few blocks from home and he had no idea where her was. His hallucinations, unpredictable mood swings, and strange changes in personality were difficult enough to deal with, but after the police brought him home, she put him in a nearby nursing home to keep him safe.

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Image via Unsplash by rawpixel

After moving back to my hometown in March 2013, my son and I lived with my mom for a few months. She had the space and wanted the company. I wanted to save money and needed a safe space to deal with all the changes I was making. We gave each other support in a challenging time. She helped me look after my son, and I helped her deal with the things she didn’t want to face about my dad. There was paperwork, visits to the nursing home, and just accepting the fact that dad was never coming home. She felt guilty for leaving him there, but neither of us could quit our jobs to look after him.

At the same time, I was dealing with financial struggles that followed me from my marriage, an undiagnosed mental health issue with my then 6-year-old, anxiety over starting a new job, anxiety about starting a new job at my alma mater that I vowed to burn to the ground and salt the earth when I had left it, anxiety about being a single parent, anxiety about being single in my 40s, anxiety about what the hell I was going to do with the rest of my life, anxiety about how to finish writing a novel so I could graduate from my MFA program…well, you get the idea. Most days, I was just amazed I got out of bed and made it to work without driving into oncoming traffic. Somehow, I was still functioning as an adult.

I dealt with my emotional and psychological discord by crying a lot. In fact, crying while driving to work was part of my daily routine for a while. I wrote. I went for walks. I talked to friends. I lost myself in social media. I watched Hannibal religiously. I took short trips on the weekends, sometimes alone and sometimes with my son. I went to work, built good working relationships with my co-workers, and began accomplishing career goals. Oh, and I finished writing a novel and earned my MFA.

I also tried online dating after being “off-the-market” for more than 10 years. Dating in my 40s while dealing with nearly crippling anxiety, and battling a lifetime of poor body image and excruciating self-doubt was no small task. I amazed my friends by going on date after date after date with a laundry list of strangers. Some of the strangers were interesting, some boring, some confusing, some I liked, some I didn’t understand, and one was so psychologically damaging that I had to seek out a therapist to leave him. After my second session with her, she told me I was suffering from a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome, and that I was participating in a very dangerous relationship with a narcissist with borderline personality disorder.

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Image via Unsplash by Nicolas Picard

When she told me that, I actually breathed a sigh of relief because I thought the reason why that relationship wasn’t working was my fault. I have a complete set of steamer trunks full of issues that stem from my inability to trust people. I am no stranger to betrayal, and because I think my earliest betrayals occurred at home at a very impressionable age, as an adult, I have simply come to expect betrayal as a given. In fact, sometimes I think I actually court it. Consciously or unconsciously, I seek out relationships with people I know will eventually disappointment me. I open myself up to people who see me for what I am: a safe, warm place to rest while they put their own pieces back together. Once they figure their own issues out, they move on or continue to abuse my kindness until I say enough is enough.

I’m tired of living like that. I’m tired of building walls to protect myself from the thing I want the most: love. But not just any kind of love. I want respectful, reliable, unconditional love. Love that takes work on the part of both people involved. Love that’s worth fighting for. Love that comforts me and puts my fears to rest, or at least makes them more manageable.

My anxiety has been very active lately. But to be fair, the reasons why are no mystery. I have been consistently underemployed for the past several years. I went from living paycheck to paycheck with the saving grace of health benefits, to living without paychecks and no health insurance, to living from considerably smaller paycheck to paycheck with no health insurance. That’s where I’m at right now. In the midst of a financial crisis, trying to figure out how to get a better job, better pay, dig myself out of debt, and rebuild my credit rating. Those are all valid concerns for a single parent with unpaid bills and a late rent payment hanging over her head.

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Image via Unsplash by John Baker

You would think that would be enough to worry about, right? But, thanks to the magical gift of anxiety, I’m also worried about being a good person. Or rather, being good enough. Am I attractive enough to be appealing to potential sexual partners? Will I ever meet someone I’d like to build a life with? Am I talented enough to keep writing? Will I ever have a job that pays me enough to not only get out of debt, but also buy a house and go on vacations? Will I ever trust myself enough to dismantle the walls I’ve built to keep myself safe?

These are the questions that keep my from falling asleep at night. The fears that drive me to binge eat, skip going to the gym, and stop writing for weeks at a time. My pattern of bad habits often leads me to fantasize about a self-fulfilling prophecy that ends with me dying alone surrounded by empty bourbon bottles, ice cream containers, and the pages of an unfinished novel or memoir.

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Image via Unsplash by David Zawila

I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what happens next. What I do know is that I am in charge of creating my future. Or, at the very least, I am in charge of making better choices so that my future is a bit brighter. All I’m really hoping for is a better job, stable pay, and access to health insurance so that my mental health needs are met through medication and therapy. I’m not asking for a lot. And, I haven’t given up hope yet either. I believe things will get better. They usually do. I’ll be sure to let you know how things turn out, so stay tuned.

My Birthday Wish List

Today is my birthday. Yep, I was born on Valentine’s Day. As is typically the case, I am single. It’s like some weird curse or something. Being single on Valentine’s Day is a fact of life for me that I look forward to with dread and disappointment each year. When I have been dating people on my birthday, I spend the entire day waiting for something terrible to happen, and people have actually broken up with me either on my birthday or right before. Sometimes I wonder if they can smell my fear or lack of trust. Who can say?

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Psychologically and emotionally, I’m kind of a mess around my birthday. There have been years when I’ve had an amazing time with friends, like the time I celebrated my birthday in New Orleans with my cousin Tara and two of my other friends, Katie and Christina. Christina came all the way from Amsterdam to celebrate with us. That made me feel pretty special. We had a blast. My birthday fell, like this year, right after Mardi Gras, so we spent a long weekend hanging out in the Garden District and French Quarter enjoying parades, live music, shopping, and lots of food and booze with the locals before all Hell broke loose with crowds of tourists. I even got a spanking on my birthday from a guy wearing a leather aviator hat with goggles.

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That was probably one of my most memorable birthdays and most cherished trips to New Orleans. We’ll have to repeat that trip one of these days soon. My sides were sore from laughing after that trip and my heart had swelled to epic proportions. Spending my birthday in the company of women who love me was WAY better than any romantic getaway with some chump who was too afraid to stick around as long as many of my friends have.

I don’t have any flashy plans to celebrate my birthday today. In fact, I have a bunch of writing to do and I am trying desperately not to succumb to the siren call of procrastination. But, I have plans to see Black Panther with my son this weekend.

Next weekend, I’m heading out to Pittsburgh to see Swan Lake with my friend Stephanie and I have an appointment to see my favorite tattoo artist. I’m hoping to run into some of my other Pittsburgh friends while I’m in town.

Friends have been wishing me a happy birthday on social media all day, and I’ve received a few cards. I don’t anticipate any flowers or chocolates today since I’m single, but I’ve been thinking about things I’d like to receive for my birthday if I could ask for anything. Some of the things are a little absurd, but hey, it’s my wish list, I can ask for whatever I want, right? So, here’s my birthday wish list for things I’d either like to achieve in the coming year or at least before I turn 50, and a few things that are purely fantasy…in no particular order.

  1. Sell my thesis novel.
  2. Finish writing the two novels I’m working on and start writing their sequels.
  3. Finish the backlog of unfinished short stories and submit, submit, submit.
  4. Eat more fish and veggies.
  5. Visit my friends who live far away.
  6. Become financially stable.
  7. Buy a house.
  8. Student loan forgiveness.
  9. Save for retirement.
  10. Go on vacation.
  11. Write a memoir about my teenage years.
  12. Start running again.
  13. Attend events where I can wear multiple costumes.
  14. Find the courage to start dating again.
  15. Sell the movie rights to a book I write and cast Jason Momoa in the lead role. Hell, he can star in it, produce it, or direct it. I’d just like the opportunity to work with him.
  16. Ditto for Michael Fassbender.
  17. Trump’s impeachment and imprisonment.
  18. Or, I’d settle for a “magic bullet” that takes out Trump, Pence and Ryan.
  19. Learn how to scale a climbing wall.
  20. Take an aerial yoga class.
  21. Go to a music festival devoted to Doom Metal.
  22. See the Black Keys live.
  23. See Bryan Ferry live.
  24. See Duran Duran for a third time live.
  25. See Depeche Mode for a third time live.
  26. Send a sympathy card to the Devil.
  27. Write love letters to someone I truly care about.
  28. Meet Neil Fallon and work with him on finishing the novel I started writing based on Clutch’s eponymous album.
  29. Discover that I belong to a family of witches.
  30. Trust myself enough to fall in love.
  31. Learn to love my own body.
  32. Meet a tall handsome man with a beard, tattoos, a stable job, who is single and ready to meet someone just like me. I wouldn’t be upset to discover that he’s a werewolf.
  33. See the aurora borealis while swimming naked at midnight.
  34. Travel to Hawaii, Spain, France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Egypt, South America…you get the idea.
  35. Visit more museums and art galleries.
  36. Travel in the TARDIS with the Doctor.
  37. Start a monthly movie night for moms to drop by and hang out with wine or other adult beverages.
  38. Attend a costume party with Michael Fassbender dressed as Carl Jung.
  39. Stop engaging in online dialogs with strange men who think they know me within a matter of hours or days. I’d like to think that I’m more complex than that and pride myself in getting to know people over years of face-to-face interaction. You can’t know a person through their Instagram or Facebook or Twitter account. Unless you’re Trump. We all know that guy’s an asshole.
  40. Learn how to paint.
  41. Learn how to speak German and at least one other language while relearning French.
  42. Get more tattoos.
  43. Purge more than half of my belongings and be done with the clutter of my possessions.
  44. Write a will.
  45. Go to more drag shows.
  46. Date a transvestite.
  47. Own more shoes.
  48. Wear more vintage clothing.
  49. Form an female punk band called Vagina Dentata.
  50. Spend more quality time with the people I love.