Category: Uncategorized

The Musical Guide to Summer and July

I am very much a fan of music. I experience the world around me through music, and the songs I know and love come to describe what I see and hear around me, and what I feel.

This is also true of what I see, hear and feel in writing a novel. Most novels I have written come to have soundtracks, playlists that I listen to while writing them. The first was John Coltrane while writing Breakfast At Tuli’s. Train I Ride was inspired by the song MYSTERY TRAIN by Elvis Presley and Junior Parker.

SUMMER AND JULY was inspired by the sense of place of Ocean Park, Santa Monica, when I stayed there in an AirBnB with my wife and daughters Eleri and Harmony in the summer of 2016. It also happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys’ album PET SOUNDS, Brian Wilson’s work of genius, which apparently made the Beatles and Stones wonder what the heck they could follow it with. For the Beatles, it ended up being Sgt. Pepper’s. The Stones didn’t really have their answer until Exile On Main Street in 1972.

I listened to PET SOUNDS endlessly during our week-long stay in a cottage on 4th street, playing it on a portable Bose bluetooth speaker, often while drinking coffee on the porch before the rest of my family woke. I had known some of the songs on the album previously––WOULDN’T IT BE NICE and SLOOP JOHN B––but I had never experienced the whole record before.


Here is a guide to the musical references, stolen lyrics and inspirations appearing in SUMMER AND JULY, which arrives a week from tomorrow on June 9, 2020.

PAGE 1: We plunge right into our rhymin’ and stealin’ (BEASTIE BOYS reference) as our young narrator Juillet says The airplane hasn’t even landed yet, and already this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.

This borrows from the song SLOOP JOHN B from PET SOUNDS, and the line “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”

Juillet’s mom has the Beach Boys playing on bluetooth to try to put her in the spirit of her seaside holiday, and on PAGE 16 she says “I hear a scratching noise, faintly, in the quiet between a song about a wave and a song about a girl.

I was probably thinking of CAROLINE, NO and the earlier CATCH A WAVE, both by the Beach Boys. I like how the line previews exactly what becomes Juillet’s two main concerns during the course of the novel.

PAGE 20: Juillet says, in narration, Mom would kill me if I hung down with a surfer boy who’s practically a surfer man.

“Hung down” is an homage to the song 1979 by SMASHING PUMPKINS, with the line “Justine never knew the rules, hung down with the freaks and ghouls.” I think it is a beautiful alternative to saying “hang out,” when spoken by a gothic girl, which Juillet begins the story as. I had to fight like hell with my editor for this beauty.

PAGE 21: The first appearance of the recurring IGNORE ALIN ORDERS. This is scratched in the sidewalk on 4th street very near the cottage we stayed in. The cottage was built around 1910, but the sidewalks are considerably newer. Googling the phrase, IGNORE ALIEN ORDERS was apparently printed on tee shirts and bumper stickers by a group of hippies in San Francisco after a night on LSD in the 1960s. One of these bumper stickers found it’s way onto the guitar of Joe Strummer, frontman of THE CLASH and a solo artist whose later records are under-appreciated in my opinion. Many of the photos of Joe Strummer show him holding the guitar with this sticker. In the novel, the spot in the sidewalk becomes the meeting place of Summer and Juillet, and also something of a rallying cry.

PAGE 47: GRAVESIDE LOBOTOMY is not a real band, but seemed like a good name for an act that Juillet would be a fan of. If such a band existed I would hope they’d have a song called LET’S SWITCH BRAINS.

PAGE 75: Summer and Juillet encounter a homeless man on the pier, who has a sign that says “MY TALE OF WOE PRINTED ON A GRAIN OF RICE. DONATIONS CHEERFULLY ACCEPTED.” Summer asks him if he can tell his tale of woe to she and Juillet, and asks him his name. He speaks in a gravelly voice, and says his name is Butch. Waits’ song IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD, which describes a beat-up and economically tattered neighborhood has a line that says and Butch joined the army, yeah that’s where he’s been. I don’t really believe that Butch has been in the army. Also I feel like Butch should be an alter ego for Waits. When I have read this chapter aloud to classrooms on social media, doing Butch’s voice often makes me cough.

PAGE 108: Juillet and her mom eat dinner at a surf-themed vegan restaurant called WAVE OF MUTILATION. The restaurant does not exist, but it is the name of a fine song by the PIXIES from their album DOOLITTLE. The Pixies have great lyrics and they often get imbedded in my work.

PAGE 132: I needed to build the presence of The Big Kahuna, one of the characters, without him being seen. So I threw a party at his house which was entirely inspired by the song PARTIES IN THE USA by JONATHAN RICHMAN, formerly of THE MODERN LOVERS, and one of the most under appreciated geniuses of the rock and roll genre, though he goes far beyond that. PARTIES IN THE USA begins with Richman saying, to the riff of HANG ON SLOOPY, Hi everyone, I’m from the 60’s, the time of Louie Louie, and Little Latin Loopy Lou, after which his bandmates chime yeahyeahyeah in beatnik fashion. The song argues that we need more parties, with potato chips sittin’ there, and guitars playin’, a line which I put in Summer’s mouth. The scene also features a guy playing Louie Louie on guitar with a fuzzy amp, and Summer tells Juillet that she left her school after telling all her classmates to kiss off, which was certainly put in my head by THE VIOLENT FEMMES with their song KISS OFF. PAGE 139 features a mention of Huarache sandals, which would not be in my vocabulary if not for the song SURFIN’ SAFARI by the Beach Boys. The scene ends with a mention of crickets (BUDDY HOLLY’s BAND) and a song by Buddy Holly heard from across the street.

PAGE 163: Juillet is alone in a park and observes that it seems like a good day for a daydream, planted in my head by THE LOVIN’ SPOONFUL and their song DAYDREAM. What a day for a daydream.

PAGE 166: One of the most important things that happens in the book came about quite accidentally. The girls meet in the morning, and, because I had been listening to a lot of THE REPLACEMENTS Pandora, Summer says “You be me and I’ll be you!” That was totally put in my head by The Replacements song with the lyric you be me for a while, and I’ll be you. I had no idea that, in wearing Juillet’s Goth regalia, Summer would give herself permission to feel the pain inside her, beneath her sunny exterior. It blew me away to watch it happening, and reaffirmed my belief in the muse.

PAGE 178: I feel it all. Planted in my head by FEIST.

PAGE 181: Sea, swallow me. Put in my head by Cocteau Twins, not the first or last time.

PAGE 186: WOULDN’T IT BE NICE. First song on PET SOUNDS, maybe the last to capture the innocence of youth. Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice if everything was completely different than how it is.

Page 202: This must be the place. Put in Summer’s mouth by TALKING HEADS, and the name of their most beautiful song.

PAGE 204: Boom Shaka-laka. All over rock and roll, but I hear it from Dave Wakeling in GENERAL PUBLIC and their song PUNK. Summer uses it in her prayer to the surf gods. God, I love that girl.

PAGE 216: Betty. Betty is all over the novel, and surf culture, as the word for an attractive surfer girl, and I need to give mention to the female band CUB, and their album BETTY COLA. It is such a lovely record, and carries such a beautiful, youthful aesthetic. They cover The Beach Boys and Daniel Johnston, and their own wonderful songs. Give it a listen.

PAGE 277: the ghost of a smile. I never would have used these words if not for THE POGUES and their song of the same name, from the album HELL’S DITCH. Fun fact––the record was produced by the aforementioned Joe Strummer.

PAGE 287: The predawn is quiet as a postcard. No dogs bark, no crickets chirp, no cars go on the empty streets. Okay, I do think that’s a fairly lovely bit there. The idea of no cars go came from the Arcade Fire song of the same name from Neon Bible.

PAGE 292: “When we ride, we ride together.” Ah, Juillet, you’re killing me. Also because this was put into my head by the DAN ZANES children’s song, “Catch That Train.” It makes me think of my daughters, how I always want to be with them. Dan Zanes makes children’s music that you’ll listen to when they aren’t in the car.

PAGE 295: I don’t want to spoil the scene, but the three words “Neptunes only daughter” come from the Pixies song Mister Grieves. What’s that floatin in the water, old Neptuna’s only daughter. I made something very different of the sequence of words.

PAGE 296: There is a whole vocabulary and a catalog of song for it, for this feeling, for these feelings–– ah, I could go on but I won’t. But she’s right.

PAGE 297: the last line is from the Beach Boys’ song DO IT AGAIN. They claimed to have invented nostalgia with this song, and who could argue?

PAGE 299: Yellow Taxi. All yellow taxis belong to Joni Mitchell, especially this one.

I hope this enhances your enjoyment of Summer and July. I hope you love the book, that it helps you to remember the way that summer might be once again––filled with happiness, ice cream, love, forgiveness, waves, peace and equality.

Thank you.

Thank you.

To the neighborhood, the community who never made us walk through Harmony’s cancer journey alone.

For the meals cooked and delivered.

For the gift cards.

For the cash.

The gifts of love.

For the airline flights for far flung treatment.

For the fundraisers. The artists, musicians, the eateries.

Neighbors, friends, strangers who became friends.

Strangers who paid for breakfast for the family of the girl with no hair.

The doctors who tried their hardest. The nurses who lit up when they came into Harmony’s room.

The lead pediatric oncologist, with whom i sometimes quarreled, who came in and kissed Harmony’s sweet forehead moments after she left her body.

The reiki practitioners. The bringers of love and favors.

The therapy dogs, lifters of spirits.

For Harmony’s young friends, wise and caring souls, who walked with their friend and lit a path of darkness.

Make A Wish, who granted Harmony’s wish, and then made an incredibly meaningful wish come true when the first wish was impossible.

Porcelain, for making the wish happen. You are a big hearted man.

My day job, for being supporting and understanding.

My publisher, and the world of middle grade literature, for being loving and generous.

People on airplanes moving seats so family of the sick girl could sit together.

For the gift of being with you as you took your last breaths, for all of your little family being able to pour our love to you as the end approached.

For raising your eyebrows dramatically to show us you heard our words.

For squeezing our hands.

For being beautiful and brave, even joyful, at the end.

For carrying me during your difficult journey.

For death, the second greatest teacher.

And Harmony, the greatest.

For 9 years and 8 months of your beauty, your silliness, your kindness, your strength, and ultimately your courage as you stepped into the unknown.

Thank you for choosing us to share your life with.

Thank you for shining above us.

Thank you, my beautiful spirit animal.

I love you, Harmony.

Thank you.

I dedicate my days to you.

Summer (2020) and July (7th)

In late July and early August of 2016, I stayed with my wife, Keri, and daughters Eleri (then nearly 13)  and Harmony (7) at a charming Airbnb cottage in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. The cottage was nearly a hundred years old, on a hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, a few blocks away. Outside in the sidewalk, the words IGNORE ALIEN ORDERS had been carved when the cement was still wet, most likely in the 1960’s.

Harmony was in the first remission of her cancer fight of 2 years and three months. It was the fifty year anniversary of the Beach Boys landmark album Pet Sounds, which I played relentlessly on a bluetooth speaker during our stay of eight days. A block away was the charming Ocean Park branch of the Santa Monica Public Library. Down the hill on Main Street were ice cream shops and eateries, and beyond, the beach, where we relaxed, built sand castles, splashed in the cold Pacific, and caught waves on boogie boards.

In this idyllic time and place, I was away from writing entirely. I had recently put to bed the first draft of Echo’s Sister– about a girl whose little sister is fighting cancer– and had begun work on Thirty Parks, about a girl whose father takes her on a tour of all 30 Major League Baseball parks in a desperate attempt to repair their relationship. But while away from writing, I was seduced by the setting, which became the inspiration for a novel. Then the characters walked in, and Summer and July was born.

Ocean Park is an easy place to fall in love with. So naturally my narrator protagonist, Juillet, is a gothic girl who is not the least bit happy to be visiting for a month, and is determined not to have any fun. But why?

On day one of her 31 day visit, she meets local girl Summer. Summer loves skateboarding and surfing, and is so stoked about chasing good times, Juillet finds herself unable to refuse her overtures at a summer friendship. But beneath her sunny exterior, is Summer hurting?

Summer and July was conceived as a crush story. But it is also a story about friends helping each other find their courage in difficult times. Oh, and it’s also about ice cream, guacamole, veggie tacos, and catching waves.

I have not hidden my affection for this story, which is my favorite of the stories I have given birth to thus far. And Summer– seen through the eyes of Juillet– is my favorite character that I’ve come to know through writing. I also will never forget Juillet, Otis, and The Big Kahuna, though he is a man of few words. The novel is, by my reckoning, a love letter to decades of surf culture, to seaside holidays, and to the way a young person can bloom during a short period in a new setting.

SUMMER AND JULY is the sort of novel written by a man living in an intermission between rounds of fear and pain, in love with his family, and with life. It is scheduled for release by HarperCollins on July 7, 2020. I am so looking forward to sharing it with the world.


Shiny Happy Pediatric Cancer

As a novelist, I don’t ordinarily write about things that resemble my own life. I’ve written novels from the point of view of a fish, and adolescent females, but never a man resembling myself. But when my then 7 year old daughter Harmony was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma in February of 2016, I started seeing the lives of my family, responding to the unwelcome guest of cancer, as a story unfolding before me.

The resulting novel, Echo’s Sister, is not my family’s story precisely, but it is very much informed by it. Our cancer story concluded on May 2nd of 2018, when Harmony took her last breath and left her body. But the first draft of Echo’s Sister was finished in June of 2016, when Harmony was very much alive and her prognosis looked good. I think the ambiguous ending stands. We are always somewhere between birth and death, and the important thing is how we live and love in between. That’s the lesson taught me by the little girl on whom the book is based. In truth, this same little girl has led me onto a path of curiosity where the ideas of birth and death no longer mean what they once did to me, but that’s another subject, another story.

The response to the novel so far has been encouraging. There are six critically important reviews for middle grade books, and of the four that have come in for Echo’s Sister thus far, all have been positive, including a starred review from Booklist. But one of these important reviews thought that a flaw in the novel was the overly supportive community represented in Echo’s Sister, which they said bordered on optimistic fantasy or urban fairy tale. I have also seen reviews on Goodreads from individuals which, while positive, thought that somehow the tone was overly sunny.

I set the novel in lower Manhattan to distance it from my own life, which takes place in central Phoenix, in the Coronado Historic District. In actuality, the support my family received is downplayed, understated, grossly minimized versus what we actually experienced. The Coronado Historic District and the greater Coronado neighborhood is an eclectic mix of people, and as we like to say, we aren’t as swanky as Palmcroft, but we lead the city in love. When I read the review characterizing the community support as optimistic fantasy or urban fairy tale I laughed, and could not wait to share it in front of the assembled community at the book launch, where indeed they laughed as I thanked them for being literally unbelievable.

The neighborhood, and the surrounding community of which we are a part, was already special , but Harmony made us all better. She continues to do so. I wish that everyone experiencing something similar can have the sort of support that my family has experienced. I wish that nobody ever went through what we have, but for those who do, I hope they are surrounded by an army of love. I wish that our healthcare system was such that families didn’t have to worry about bankruptcy, and hunger, and homelessness, but as long as our system remains flawed, I wish that everyone could be surrounded by people of the sort my family is surrounded by, and loved by.

Whenever I write, I am guilty of trying to find the beauty in the lives we are suffering through. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to write differently.

Echo’s Sister ends up being two kinds of love letters: one, to a little girl with an incredible lust for life, who never let cancer get in the way of finding whatever enjoyment she could get in whatever moment she was in. If the first draft was finished two years later, we might have seen the character Echo hold open her eye– swollen shut with tumor mass — with one hand, so she could draw with the other. That’s the kind of lust for life displayed by my Harmony, our Harmony, and it will be my teacher as long as I walk this earth. Secondly, it’s a love letter and thank you note to humanity, for showing me how lovely it is capable of being. It’s been the silver lining of this experience for my family, and indeed all of my life, and any and all lives. It’s why the piano player walks the narrator of Echo’s Sister out of the subway station with the tune “Sunny Side of the Street.” In my neighborhood, in my community, that’s apparently both sides of the street.

Our community told us that they were amazed at the strength of my family as we experienced cancer. We told them we were only as strong as they made us, that our strength came from our community. They, in turn, said that they were only as strong as Harmony made them, that she inspired them to be their best selves. It’s been a beautiful, synergistic relationship. I hope that Echo’s Sister will be read widely not as an urban fairy tale, or optimistic fantasy, but as a document of what our best selves look like, and an inspiration to be that. You guys can be so amazing, and I’m never gonna stop trying to see you that way.

Harmony by my side.

Dear Harmony–

It is the evening of Sunday, May twentieth, two thousand eighteen. I am standing in the courtyard of The Hive, where we have had so many good times together, and am surrounded by your family, friends, and neighbors. After a warm day, the evening is fittingly beautiful for a celebration of your life.

But this is stating the obvious, or telling you something you already know. For I feel you are here with me, with all of us.

In the days since you left your body, I have frequently visited your Instagram profile. Harmony Guacamole. It features photos of our dog, Oreo, along with other animals, family, and friends. You describe yourself as a piano player, which has been your persistent ambition, though your lessons with Mr Jay Melberg at Phoenix Center for the Arts were frequently interrupted by treatment and hospital stays. Your wonderful friend Cali also gave you lessons.

You describe yourself as an animal lover, which is certainly true. We have a rich photographic history of you adoring every variety of mammal and reptile, and especially your beloved Oreo. You even persuaded Mommy and Nana to give up eating fish, their last obstacles to becoming complete vegetarians.

On your Instagram profile you proudly call yourself a sis, and nobody has ever loved or looked up to their sister more than you have loved Eleri. And a dedicated guacamole lover, warning guac haters that you’re coming for them. As you are such a headstrong spirit, I would not bet against you making good on your word, so I encourage everyone in attendance to try some of the guacamole here this evening.

The one element of your Instagram bio that has given me pause is your calling yourself a cancer defeater. Frequently one sees obituaries that say so and so lost their battle with cancer. But I don’t know how often this is true, and I certainly don’t think it’s true of you, Harmony. After all, if I were to die of a heart attack tonight, you wouldn’t say Daddy lost his brief battle with a heart attack. All of us have to go sometime, we all must leave these bodies, our rides. But here’s the score: The cancer that attacked your body has been incinerated to ash. But you, Harmony, are very much present here among us.

When you had your first recurrence of cancer 18 months ago, you began visiting with Sangeet, the reiki practitioner who became our friend. The two of you immediately regarded each other as if you had known each other for several lifetimes. After meeting with you for the first time, Sangeet told the friend who introduced us to her that you, Harmony, would be a healer one day. That sounded interesting at the time, but we had no idea how true it would become.

The way you have brought people together, not only tonight but over time, and as a community– inspiring people to be their best, most loving and generous versions of themselves– has been a big part of the strange beauty of your 27 months being tested by cancer.

Why is this? Behind every door on the seventh floor at Phoenix Children’s Hospital is a child fighting for his or her life. But there’s been something special about your spirit, your courage, your lust for life, your endeavoring to find whatever fun could be found in every moment, your continued pursuit of the life you love as long as it was yours to live. You are the girl who in the last two weeks of this life held open your eye,–swollen shut with tumor mass– with one hand, so you could draw with the other.

In a strange way it was rhabdomyosarcoma that elicited this from you, Harmony. In the world we would choose, the world where the unwelcome guest of cancer never appeared at our door, you would be wrapping up your third grade year at Shaw Elementary, looking forward to a summer of adventure, just a funny, smart, talented, beautiful, kind-hearted nine year old. But cancer did come, and it tested you, it proved you, and you made a more beautiful display in 9 years and eight months than many of us will ever make, a firework exploding against a dark sky.

So, cancer defeater? Yes, I think. Nobody is having a party for rhabdomyosarcoma tonight, because celebrations are for those who have triumphed. And the triumph of your spirit is a monument for the rest of us to gaze at with wonder.

I avoid the use of the past tense in referring to you, Harmony. It’s not an instance of me being in denial– it just doesn’t feel accurate. It’s true that your bed is empty, it’s true that your physical form is now a box of ashes which I sometimes pick up and hold against my heart. But–

I’m a science-minded guy, and I’ve described myself that way for a long time. But I also don’t want to be guilty of ignoring evidence because of my inability to understand it.

In the last weeks of the life you shared with us, Mommy would read to you at bedtime from the book you loved so much, called “Goodnight, Rebel Girl,” which features short entries about women who have changed history. It was a heck of a thing for you, a nine year old, to express concern that you had not done enough to make a difference in this world. This tells me that, while you still spoke of your hopes for a future, you had a strong sense of what was happening to your body.

Twelve days before you passed, you said don’t worry, that you’d be fine. I hoped you meant that cancer would retreat and that you would live a long and happy life. But in my deepest, most fearful heart I hoped what you said– that you would be fine– would be true at least in some sense of the word. I decided that I trusted you and your words, whatever they would come to mean.

I still do. I trust that you are fine.

Three days before passing, you awoke and said, “This isn’t real.” This also is a heck of a thing for a nine year old to say, especially a nine year old with no religious, spiritual, philosophical or physics instruction under your belt. You were a blank slate with no spoon-fed expectations.

On the day that you passed, you were Harmony to your last breath. Your last utterance was “Ew!” when I noisily kissed your forehead. As your rate of oxygen absorption fell, Mommy, Eleri and I told you how much we love you, how proud we are of you, and we told you truthfully that you are a rebel girl who has inspired hundreds of people and made the world a better place. I promised that I would love Eleri as much as I love you, since you frequently expressed your worries about that. I told you that you’re so beautiful, that your beauty shone through the mask of cancer. We told you we would honor you on El Dia de los Muertos, and visit with you, and that you would always be with us, and part of us. You raised your beautiful, perfect eyebrows dramatically in response to everything we said, and squeezed our hands tightly to pass to us your abundant strength. You showed not a particle of fear. The last expressions we saw on your face were of joy and love.

We stayed with your body until the warmth had dissipated. Interestingly, and tellingly, the last warmth was located near and behind your right ear, corresponding to the parts of the brain which govern emotional understanding and emotional memory. I like to think that means you were feeling all the love we were pouring out, gathering it up to carry away with you.

I won’t talk about the unexplained phenomena since your passing. But your words, “this isn’t real,” have haunted me.

You speak to me most in the space between awake and asleep, and drifting into a nap one afternoon I was jolted awake by the opening words you wrote in response to a writing prompt: Imagine you are a tree that is about to be cut down. What would you think? Your response began, “I would think about all the things that might and might not happen.” This sounds very much like the quantum physics theory that everything which might happen is happening, that every instance of either/or is answered with “both,” resulting in the universe splitting into two copies where both possibilities occur, that every fork in the road is a quantum event creating new universes. It’s a very relatable idea to our lives, where there is the universe where I went to breakfast with Grandma and Grandpa and met Mommy at the restaurant where she was working as a server– 25 years to the day before the day you passed– and the other universe where instead I slept in. It’s easier to get one’s head around the idea that the universe we are standing in is expanding– and it is– than it is to fathom that the number of universes is functionally limitless, and ever expanding, which is also likely true.

If we back up in this family tree of universes, we arrive at the apparently original quantum event, the big bang. Physicists thinking about quantum physics get excited thinking about the hypothetical quantum computer, where the computing ability of all computers in all of the trillions of trillions of universes can be combined. I have no idea what one would compute with such a thing. But I think more beautiful than that, and more to the point of what you are trying to teach me, Harmony, is that all of our decisions are the quantum events which create new universes, which highlights the importance of how we choose to live our lives. If we dolly back, backing up in the family tree of quantum events, where our own consciousness goes from trillions of our own selves to just one, and further back to where there are not many selves, but just one self, I think it teaches me that we are all collectively the creator, split by countless quantum events into trillions of creation generators. This may seem like a mashup of listening to John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme,” while thinking about Allen Ginsberg’s line “Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul!” while taking a shower with Dr Bronner’s Magic Peppermint Soap and seeing the words “All One!” imprinted on the bar. And really it is all of those things. But it’s only all of those things because those people caught a glimpse of the same thing you have seen.

I believe that as you peered into the beyond and contemplated this building of universes, thinking of all the things that might and might not happen, your pure spirit is exemplified in your response to the writing prompt about the tree who is about to be cut down– your words, “I would want to be remembered as a good person-– I mean, tree” – I believe that what you saw taught you that it matters what we dream. It matters what kind of trees we are, and what sort of branches we grow.

Harmony, please stay by my side, please remain my strength and my teacher. Keep reminding me, and everyone here, to dream beautiful dreams. And together we can create universes with love and Harmony, and trees, and the best guacamole ever.

Playing through the pain.

In February of 2016, a sudden overbite in the mouth of my beautiful 7 year old daughter, Harmony, led to a diagnosis of Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer which strikes 5 children per million. 27 months later, Harmony’s bed is empty.

While Harmony was still in the hospital with her initial diagnosis, I pitched the idea for the second book of my contract with HarperCollins to be a novel informed by Harmony’s experience, and the experience of our family. My editor agreed, so long as the novel was from the point of view of the cancer fighter’s older sister. So I began work on the novel that would become Echo’s Sister. I wrote ahead of our actual experience, and the novel ends six months into Echo’s battle. I hoped I would be done with it– cancer and the book. Writing it was a good way to process what we experienced as a family, a subject I would never have imagined myself touching in a story. Cancer sucks. I never wanted to read about it and I certainly didn’t think I’d want to write about it. But write it I did, turning in the first draft about four months into Harmony’s cancer journey.

In the summer of 2016 I began work on my next middle grade novel, 30 Parks, about a girl whose father takes her on a tour of all 30 Major League Baseball parks in a desperate attempt at repairing their relationship. It progressed well until our family of four went on holiday to an Airbnb in the Ocean Park neighborhood of Santa Monica. It was a beautiful time of good memories. Harmony was in remission, and we had every reason to think we would enjoy a long future with her. The sense of place– seaside town, ice cream shop, boogie boarding– pushed its way into my consciousness, and then two characters appeared– gothic Juillet and prototypical California girl Summer, and the novel Summer and July was born. I thought I could work on both it and 30 Parks at the same time, but I couldn’t really return to 30 Parks until Summer and July was finished. Summer and July came quickly, joyfully, and the first draft was nearly complete when Harmony experienced her first recurrence in November 2016.

Harmony fought hard, and refused to let cancer interfere with her getting as much from life as she could. She taught us, lifted us, and left her physical form fearlessly after telling us she would be fine, that this isn’t real. The bravest person I’ve ever known, and the wisest, is my younger daughter, Harmony. She will forever be 9 years, 7 months and 26 days old, but I’ll never impact the lives of others as much as she did in her short time in this dimension.

In truth I’ve been nearly unable to write for 18 months. My wonderful agent once called me “prolific,” but new words have been a struggle. It isn’t writer’s block– it’s been an inability to turn from the fear and the worry. Harmony kept on living, creating, but I could not.

Harmony created a breathtaking, funny body of artwork. She was also very much a consumer of novels and graphic novels. And so it is time for me to get back to the work of creating novels for the Harmonies of the world. It’s what my Harmony, our Harmony, would expect of me. So tonight I will open my laptop, find the in-progress manuscript of 30 Parks, and give it my best, if only for a few moments. Just to see if I still can.

I expect it will come. Two nights before her passing, sleeping in the chair beside Harmony’s hospital bed, I was awoken by her talking in her sleep. The last two words of the utterance were “Daddy’s book.” Two mornings later, the day she passed, I emailed my editor and found that it wasn’t too late to dedicate Echo’s Sister to Harmony Sea Mosier. Within three hours, we held her as she took her last breath, without a particle of fear. She squeezed my hand, I think to pass her strength to me. I will try to be worthy of hers.

I love you Harmony, and I’m so, so proud of you.

Characters: Gay by nature or choice?

The following is my response to an email from a woman who kindly beta-read the novel I have recently completed– the middle grade “Summer and July.” Her feedback was thoughtful, intelligent and complimentary. To my surprise she said she enjoyed it in spite of her being ethically opposed to the nature of the love presented in the story, and her worry that my story would contribute to the “normalization” of such love. Below is my response to her. I omit my opening remarks.

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Notes on your notes: The “men in gray suits” is actually one of the several colorful terms in surfer lingo for sharks. Another good one is “landlord,” which is their term for great white sharks. Those don’t appear on the beaches of Santa Monica, or they would have been a good inclusion. But since that didn’t come through to you as a reader, perhaps I need to expand on that exchange. “Noah” is another term for sharks, from the Aussie cockney rhyming scheme of “Noah’s Ark” rhyming with “shark.” Similarly Aussie surfers call Americans “seppos” because “Septic tank” rhymes with “yank.” It’s kinda bizarre.

I, too, was happy with Summer’s method of giving herself permission to feel something other than happy, enthusiastic and optimistic– putting on Juillet’s clothing and makeup. I didn’t plan it– I don’t plan anything in writing, really. I don’t think I am capable of doing something as artful or lovely as that, but as a servant of the muse, I think I do a pretty good job of staying out of her way. I don’t feel like I’m the creator of a story so much as I am the first person to experience it.

I feel the same way about characters. I don’t expect that I’ll change your mind about seeing same-sex love as being somehow wrong, but I’ll make my argument anyway. I have never designed a character, and if I did I think they’d be wooden or cliched. I feel like they are introduced to me by the universe, and I disagree with writers who think that I as an author need to know my characters completely. In fact I feel like I only know them as much as they are willing to reveal themselves to me. An interviewer once asked if I ever found myself disappointed when I finished writing a novel and realized that my characters weren’t real, and my reply was “I don’t think I agree that they aren’t real.”

But I didn’t set out to write a same-sex love story. I think that every story is a love story– the only question is what kinds of love. Summer and July was born from the sense of place of a seaside town with an ice cream shop and boogie boarding, then the characters walked into the scene. But I don’t feel like I determined their sexual orientation any more than I designed the bluebird metaphor. Which I did not design. I’m just witness to it. My understanding of Juillet and Summer, watching them act, is that they are not necessarily drawn exclusively to their own gender. It seems like their affection is specific to the individual case– for Juillet, Summer, and for Summer, Juillet. They’re probably both surprised that their first kiss was with another girl. They’re both young and figuring themselves out.

I don’t choose the sexual orientation of my characters, but if I did, I wouldn’t apologize for representing same sex loves as being as legitimate and potentially beautiful as heterosexual loves. And I would suggest that maybe instead of worrying about texts that “normalize” same sex loves, perhaps you should worry about texts that vilify or demonize love between two men or two women, which has always existed. It’s hard for me to even imagine what motivation lies behind such persecution other than some antique need for maximum regeneration of the species to swell the ranks of armies and churches. It is interesting that you use Plato to support your argument about our need to use care in what we teach our young, when Plato said that the only true type of love was that which existed between two men. Of course I disagree with Plato in this respect, as I think that the love between a man and a woman can be pretty profound, too.

I’m sure that– while gay people have appeared in previous novels of mine– Summer and July will open me to a new level of potential criticism and rejection for elements other than my ability to tell a story. I didn’t wish for this, and it doesn’t represent any kind of bravery on my part– that distinction is reserved for those who wrote about the love between members of the same sex in decades past. I’ve got a left-handed female character named Lefty in my work-in-progress, but likewise people in centuries past have fought the stigma of people who find themselves preferring using their left hands, so there is no heroism for me there, either.

Happily, though thinking ill of same sex love still exists in the world I live in, having a contract with a Big Five publisher I have learned that, generally, in the world of children’s books, publishers have moved beyond the argument. Though opposition to same sex love still exists, my editorial group does not wish to dignify such opposition with space on the page. Nobody in a middle grade book written by me and published by my publisher is going to look askance at two girls or two boys falling for each other.

For me It was easy to make the “normal” heterosexual choice. Girls and women have always been attractive and fascinating to me. Though I didn’t set out to write a story featuring a same-sex love, the idea that maybe some kid will fail to kill him or herself because I didn’t resist presenting a story in which affection and romantic love between two members of the same sex is pretty much the most adorable love story ever– I’ve got to say I like the idea of being on that side of the equation, and of history. And all I have to do is let the characters be who they are. Take them as they are, and love them as they came to me. I hope you’ll consider this position.


Author Spotlight

A great interview by my friend Michelle from the Young Adult Authors Rendezvous!

YA Author Rendezvous

An interview with author Paul Mosier

By: Michelle Lynn

  1. What are the titles of your work and can you tell us a bit about them?

Completed novels begin with Breakfast At Tuli’s, which I self-published in I think 2013. paulIt’s for grown-ups, and about a young woman with a compulsion to have relations with men she finds pathetic or repulsive. It’s narrated by her pet fish, who is in love with her and who is grappling with the hopelessness of his own situation while waiting for Tuli to find happiness. It’s very sweet when you get past the premise. My second novel is called Genre, but I haven’t done anything with it. It examines the origin of characters and the author’s ability to control them while poking fun at writers, writer’s groups, agents and genre fiction. The third is the first I wrote for a younger audience, and is called…

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Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews Having written a book called Train I Ride, having found an agent who believes in it, and her subsequently finding a publisher who wanted to pay good money for it, I still wondered…

Source: Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews

Review of Reviews

Having written a book called Train I Ride, having found an agent who believes in it, and her subsequently finding a publisher who wanted to pay good money for it, I still wondered whether it wasn’t all a big mistake, a hoax, a conspiracy of kindness. Maybe my mother had paid some people to pretend to like my writing? I mean, the book features a chain-smoking Chihuahua and an invisible monkey, is named for a song sung by Elvis, and kisses the hand of Alan Ginsberg. And is drenched in sadness but is being marketed to children. How can this work?

Fortunately there are reviewers to sort things out, and when HarperCollins began sending out galleys, or Advance Review Copies, as well as making the novel available to librarians, booksellers and reviewers electronically, I anxiously awaited their reactions.

One of the first reviews was a very kind one from a woman in New Hampshire. On Goodreads, a website that allows users to share their thoughts about books, she gave it five stars and compared it to a book named Dicey’s Song, which I had never heard of but which sounded very nice and like the sort of book I might have read in grade school if I had not been too girl-crazy and basketball-obsessed to do any pleasure reading during my formative years.

Goodreads also allows authors and publishers to do giveaways of galley copies to promote a book in advance of its release. I did a couple of giveaways of galley copies beginning in summer, six months before the release. Each time, as many as 1400 people from around the world entered for a chance to win the four copies I gave away. Unfortunately two of the winners were in China, which, as it turns out, is not a cheap place to send a book. I do hope the recipients enjoyed it. HarperCollins limited eligible entrants to people living in the US and Canada, which may have been wise of them, even though they have deeper pockets than I do, and even though they have a presence in many countries around the world, and acquired the book’s rights for the entire world.

I wonder if the moon would count as part of World territory, too? The moon would probably say no.

One of the recipients of a giveaway galley, a man in Wisconsin, was not a reader but rather a seller who immediately put it for sale on Amazon. Though this was annoying and disappointing, at least he pretended to think it was a nice book when describing it in the sales pitch he used.

Looking at the people who have entered the giveaways is fascinating, as is looking at the people who have added the book on their “to read” list on Goodreads. For the 1045 people who currently have it listed as “to read,” two weeks and two days before the book is released, it appears that my strategy of writing in an attempt to win the favor of women– a pathetic bent of mine since my days as a junior high-schooler, when I didn’t read much myself but did write to try to please girls– is working out well. I have always felt that I was writing to a female audience, and the majority of the people requesting galley copies or indicating interest in reading are women and girls. This may be because I have written several novels without any guns, violent deaths or monster trucks, which is my primitive view of the ingredients for a successful bropus, which is a word I have just now made up, combining the popular “bro” with the heavier and more dignified “opus.”

More surprising are the other assorted beings and objects that have expressed interest in Train I Ride. Looking at the profile pictures on Goodreads, those who are lining up to read the book and then tell me I’m okay include 61% females, 16% menfolk, 7% multiple people sharing one name, 6% buildings or landscapes, 5% dogs of unspecified gender, 4% cats, 3% hamsters or gerbils, 3% birds, 3% mixed-species associations, 3% inanimate objects, 2% sports franchises, 2% cartoon characters,  1% disturbing images of darkness, and 14% other, including one mushroom cloud and two varieties of edible mushrooms. The preceding accounting may not add up to precisely 100 percent, but you get the idea.

Equally surprising is that a gerbil is able to read a novel and then write a review. Though judging by his or her assessment I think it’s clear that he or she is not my intended audience. In my thoughtful response I told him or her that he or she should stick to eating alfalfa pellets and reading the newspaper scraps lining his or her little prison.

Happily, aside from the gerbil the early reviews have been nice, especially the six that matter most. Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, School Library Journal, The Horn Book Review and The Center for Children’s Books have all given Train I Ride positive reviews. The first three of the above gave it a starred review, which caused HarperCollins to decide to spend some money on advertising the book, something that isn’t normally done for an unknown author who has written a sad book for children which includes a chain-smoking Chihuahua, an invisible monkey, and lots of people who were dead before the story started, including a poet and a singer/member of the royalty who sung a song which names the novel.

Now I just need to know what you think of it.

Actually, I don’t really care. I’m asking for the protagnist, Rydr. She’s really insecure.