Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Dream Big and Never Give Up: Guest Post by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

 Debut novel by Debz Hobbs-Wyatt

Hi, I’m Debz Hobbs-Wyatt and I work from home as a literary editor on Canvey Island, which is about forty miles from London, and yes it is a real island – just! And no you don’t get there by boat!
I also have a small publishing company called Paws n Claws which publish charity books for children, and am a partner in a short story publishing house, Bridge House Publishing – but above all of this I am a writer; first and foremost. To misquote Descartes, I write, therefore I am.
I wrote my first novel as a child (nine years old as it happens and no it was never published!) and won my first writing competition aged ten. I think I always knew I would one day be a writer. But writing was more of a hobby for many years; in fact my first degree was in Zoology and my first Masters in Ecology. Sure I did attend some creative writing classes and wrote the odd story, but most of my writing was technical – I worked in the food and later the pharmaceutical industry – that was until the obsession to write fiction took over!
With some fifteen or so short stories published in collections and a few competition short lists (I think even a couple of wins under my belt) in 2010 I finally gave up the job to live the dream. (Some might say foolishly!) But I had to; I could not not write! And yes financially it was difficult – but I have never looked back. Poorer in monetary terms, rich in every other sense of the word! I also finished my MA in Creative Writing in 2010 as well.
More short story successes and three practice novels later, 2013 was the year when it all finally seemed to come together. My novel While No One Was Watching (an American novel as you will find out) was accepted for publication by welsh publisher, Parthian Books (after many really near misses with agents!), I found myself nominated for the US Pushcart Prize with one of my published stories The Theory of Circles, I made the short list of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize with only one other UK writer AND I won the inaugural Bath Short Story Award! It finally felt like I was moving in the right direction – some five years after my first short story was published and ten years since I made serious bid to be a writer! And trust me – even with all my editing work and the workshops I give, working for a number of publishers – I only feel now as if I have reached the start line! It’s a continual learning process. But a very rewarding one. Something for which I am truly thankful, every single day. Not many get to do what they love every day. I wholeheartedly recommend it!
While my heart says it’s all about the novel, it’s the short story writing that taught me the most. As I say to the many clients I critique for, if you spend three years (often more than that) working on a novel before your finally let someone see it-- it’s a very slow way to learn from your mistakes. But short stories allow you to experiment, to play with voice, style, genre and to develop those skills-- get feedback and enjoy the rewards faster. And it helps you to find your own voice. I will add to that, that most of my novels were developed from short stories.
When I looked back at my first attempts at novels and compared the writing to the stories getting accepted or winning competitions, I realised what I had to do to make my novels as good. And it finally seems to have worked! I encourage all writers, especially new ones, to learn your craft with short stories and also this allows you to build your portfolio for when you start approaching agents and publishers with bigger works.
While No One Was Watching is a novel set against the backdrop of John F. Kennedy’s assassination about a little girl, Eleanor Boone, who disappeared from the grassy knoll at the exact moment Kennedy was assassinated and is still missing fifty years on. Narrated by a failing, divorced father, Gary Blanchet, who works for a small newspaper in Dallas, and a larger than life, African-American retired police psychic, Lydia Collins, the two try to find out what happened to Eleanor. (Gary somewhat unwittingly as he does not believe in psychics – until he has to!) The question is did Eleanor see something that day on the grassy knoll? But the assassination is only part of the story and in its contemporary setting deals with relationships, a classroom shooting and so much more. In a nutshell it’s about what happens when you turn your back for a second.
It started life as another short story; worked on while I was studying for my MA, and it seemed to have too big a voice to stay short! In fact it was an American critique group who said this needs to be a novel! I have a lot to thank the La Crosse writers in Wisconsin for!
It came as a vision actually and the idea of a mother standing on the grassy knoll holding her child’s hand, gunshots, she drops her hand and when she turns around she’s gone, seemed like something that would tap into something universal and that’s how it was born. I knew even then it was high concept and needed to be developed.
I did an awful lot of research, as you must, and since I wasn’t born when Kennedy was assassinated, I had to try to capture what that moment was like. I now give talks at literary festivals and actually it was the subject of my MA dissertation-- the blurred lines that exist between fact and fiction. I loved taking a real moment in history and looking for a new angle. In fact a number of short stories since have also (not intentionally) also used real events to create a sense of time, and I am fascinated by the idea of real things happening to real people that get overshadowed by events that stop the world.
Why do my novels tend to be American? Good question. Well, this is where they contrast to most of my short stories – but I have had a love affair with the states for many years, travelled extensively and have some wonderful friends there. So I guess it has become a big part of me. But the reality is I write what excites me. If I wake up with an African-American in my head talking to me that way, I find out about her and I write her. If I wake up with a British man called Billy tending his runner-beans on an allotment in East London who also suffers from bipolar (this is Runner-Bean Billy in my Commonwealth short listed story) then I write him. It’s that simple. But I have to be excited! And as I read this back I realise how much writing is a license to be a little bit schizophrenic. But the voices are okay. Really they are, aren’t they?
While No One Was Watching was out a year ago in time for the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination and so this post is a timely birthday celebration! With a small press no one knows who you are and so we have to keep telling people about it! We have to be marketeers (like Mouseketeers without the ears!) and do a lot of promoting so I must say a huge thank you to Lauren for this opportunity and I hope I can return the compliment. I have a spot on my blog called In the Spotlight where I have showcased well known writers as well as clients, self-publishers and new writers so am always happy to help anyone get their voice heard. Inbox me if you want to be on there, folks!
I digress; let me tell you more about what’s happened since my novel was out. Well, as well as launches in the UK, I also got to launch it in Hollywood this year (yeah really) at a bookshop organised with my publisher and so far the reaction by an American audience has been amazing! Trust me, it took a lot of research to try to capture the American voices as authentically as I could. I hope if you read it, you will agree!
What was almost as magical as launching it in the US, was the day before I set off to LA, a top London literary agent signed me! I cannot tell you how that felt! Any writers out there will know that you can only reach the big presses with an agent and agents receive thousands of manuscripts and accept very, very few new clients a year. I remember holding onto the news until I got home, sitting on the train back to Canvey Island almost falling into my smile. If anyone looked closely enough they would see have seen there was definitely a dance in my step!
So what now? Well my novel, still with a small press in the UK, is available in America, and thanks to my agent it has been optioned out to film companies. And in the meantime there are other novels in various stages of completion. With my agent’s valuable guidance we are deciding which we should develop as the next novel for seeking that large publisher.
There is a temptation to go with whatever is finished, but I agree wholeheartedly with my agent. Develop and work towards making it the right one, even if it takes some time. We want it to be good enough to get the work really noticed, so it’s worth waiting. And for the record I don’t want to be famous – but I want my stories to be! One day I want everyone to know who Eleanor Boone is (egotistical, maybe a little bit!)
And fellow writers-- trust me, the wait is worth it to be the best writer you can be!
So let’s see what happens next. It’s all incredibly exciting!
In the meantime I continue to learn my craft by writing four to five hours every morning and then my afternoons are mostly copy editing and professional critiquing. All of which feeds into honing the craft. It’s true what they say-- don’t run before you can walk.
So if you want to read more about my wonderful writerly life then please follow my blog:
Check out my website-- you might be looking for an editor or critiquer and I would love to help!
Also follow me on Twitter: @DebzHobbsWyatt
And check out my novel on Amazon: most of the reviews are on, so do have a read, and if you are in the US you can get the book from, kindle or paperback.
And if you do, please post a review, drop me a line, let me know what you think (only if it’s good – she says cheekily!)
Thanks so much for listening!
And remember, writers out there: Never Give Up! It might take ten years to reach the start line, but what a journey it is. And will be…

About Debz
Debz Hobbs-Wyatt is an author/editor/publisher who  lives in Essex with her her cats Cagney and Lacey and her crazy cocker spaniel, Rosie. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Bangor University and has had over twenty short stories published in collections. She has also had success in a number of writing competitions, including being nominated for the prestigious US Pushcart Prize 2013 and has made the short list of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2013 and won the Bath Short Story Award 2013.
While No One Was Watching is her debut novel.  
She edits and critiques for publishers and writers and has a daily writing blog.

Thanks for reading!  Please feel free to leave questions/comments for Debz below.  

Sunday, December 28, 2014

My 2014 Reading Retrospective

I got quite a response with my reading retrospective last year, so I thought I’d do it again.  These books were not necessarily published in 2014, but they were the best books I got to experience over the course of the year. 

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black - Just when you think nothing new or good can possibly come out of the vampire genre, along comes a book like Coldest Girl in Coldtown.  It’s so good, I’ve already read it twice.  It’s one of the smartest, most sophisticated YA novels I’ve ever read—not to mention one of the sexiest.  (It features a kiss that melted even my cynical and jaded heart.)  The author, in her acknowledgments, cites influences like Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite.  Black does them proud, combining the best elements from these predecessors, with shades of the zombie apocalypse and Dante’s Inferno for good measure. 

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green - This is a believe-the-hype novel.  So many people describe this book as a tear-jerker, but it’s so much more than that.  As someone who has dealt up-close and personal with long-term illness at a young age, this book hit very close to home for me.  Green really nails the small details:  the best and the worst aspects of healthcare professionals, the family trying to be supportive, the use of humor as a coping strategy, and trying to take whatever modicum of control you can over your own life and health.  And, of course, a touching love story.  

Citrus County by John Brandon - This book reminded me, thematically, of Camus’ The Stranger, which is to say, it’s one of the most fascinatingly nihilistic novels I’ve ever read.  Love and desire end in disaster or emptiness.  Brandon perfectly captures the particular pain of being a bright, sensitive adolescent living in some miserable backwater, and the extreme ways said adolescents might lash out.  Brilliantly written and unsettling. 

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz - You’ll fall in love with the fantastically geeky Oscar and his family, recent immigrants to New Jersey from the Dominican Republic.  Flashbacks of his mother’s life under the vicious regime of Rafael Trujillo intersperse the narrative, along with a thread of magical realism that left me awed and delighted. 

Horns by Joe Hill - Joe Hill is like the rock ‘n roll horror Hemingway of our time.  He’s brash, unapologetically masculine, and unafraid to attenuate a screaming note on the electric guitar.  I’ve read three of his novels this year, and Horns was by far the best—carrying off the rare feat of being both parabolic without being preachy, and a thrillingly original supernatural tale.  

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak - Nazi Germany as narrated by Death.  A daring storytelling device that seriously pays off. 

The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski - This is the bleakest book I have ever read.  Period.  I read it all in one sitting because I was afraid if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to pick it up again.  It tells the story of a Jewish boy hiding out in the Eastern European countryside to evade the Nazis.  Problem is, Eastern European peasants aren't far behind the Nazis in terms of prejudice and cruelty.  I had never heard of this book before, I just happened to stumble across it on some BuzzFeed list.  The book was meant to be published as autobiographical fiction, but apparently, there has been a great deal of controversy surrounding it—Kosinski’s integrity was called into question.  Consequently, it is not one of the well-known Holocaust stories.  There’s no way to know now if the events described in the book are true or not.  Elie Wiesel described it as “one of the best . . . Written with deep sincerity and sensitivity.”  As a novel, it’s brutal, captivating, and absolutely plausible.  If you do happen to read this one, consider yourself warned—it’s not for the faint of heart. 

Primate Behavior by Sarah Lindsay - A cerebral collection of poems about a variety of unlikely subjects: circus performers, Arctic explorers, and Superman.  I have noticed that many readers find Lindsay’s poetry intimidating—too erudite, too intellectual, but I like that she isn’t afraid to tackle obscure subjects that send you scurrying to Wikipedia to find out what the hell she’s on about.  Her work also has a warmth that makes even the most outrĂ© topics immediate and accessible.

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi - I remember picking this book up when I was in middle school, and for some reason, I never got a chance to finish it, though one of the pivotal scenes of the book stuck with me throughout the years—that of 13-year-old Charlotte Doyle, with hands “like bloody cream,” climbing the main mast of a ship to prove to a mutinous crew of hard-bitten sailors that she can be one of them.  Twenty years later, I picked the book up again, and I can’t believe I waited so long.  If you have a daughter, forget soggy Bella Swan.  Introduce her to Charlotte Doyle.  Grrrrrl Power!  

What were YOUR best 2014 reads?  

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Th’iaM: Where gaming ends and storytelling begins

Meet Reiter, a.k.a. G. Russell Gaynor, the mastermind behind the Beyond the Outer Rim series, of which Star Chaser: The Traveler is the prelude. 

1. Why did you write the book?  What inspired you?
One of the reasons I have the pen name Reiter is because that is the name of the persona that is Planner/Recorder of all things Th’iaM.  Th’iaM is a very special place that was created when my friends and I felt that the rules of Dungeons & Dragons needed some adjustment.  They added powerful aspects to the concept and I brought stories that I had composed as a child along with my brothers, Norris and Jerome.  One thing led to another and before you know it, we had our own universe!

Beyond the Outer Rim was the name of a scenario that we had running for a few years, real-time, and though we do not play it today, it isn’t hard to strike up a conversation of the adventures we all came to know and love.  I am a storyteller . . . I decided I wanted to share the concepts behind those adventures. 

2. What does the title mean?  How did you come up with it?
In the culture of the main character, Travelers are to that race what Rangers are to Middle Earth.  They are mysterious people, often sliding in between commonly known definitions, but basically they are the Trackers of the Cosmos! 

Among the Travelers, there is an even more special niche, and that is where Dungias finds himself-- becoming a Star Chaser! While Travelers go about trekking the galaxies, Star Chasers commune with the Stars, becoming something of a questing tracker . . . a Ranger-Knight, if you will.

As for how I came up with it, I was in the throes of telling the tale.  It came to me and it’s been part of the BTOR story since its inception.

3. Tell us about the cover art.
First of all, hats off to Thomas Wievegg for his mastery of the art!  He put this cover together so quickly and smoothly; we never had any communication problems, and I have to say that I cannot wait to work with him again!

The cover is basically a before-and-after picture of Z’Gunok Tel Dungias, the man who becomes the Star Chaser.  Dungias is a Malgovi, a race of people who possess the natural ability to generate various forms of energy . . . at least, MOST of them can.  Dungias is what they call shay-spawn, he is dark in a world where people can generate their own light.  The story of Star Chaser: The Traveler is the story of how Dungias takes the cards he has been dealt and become a something of a gambler!

4. Why did you become a writer?
I would love to say that I became a writer because I was first a reader, but that isn’t the case.  I was a kid who loved his cartoons, and I was a child who believed that there was always a way to get something out of Grandma!  When she was watching her boring black and white movies at a time when Mighty Mouse was on (oh yeah, so dating myself), some impish little kid resembling me piped up and said he could do better than these old and tired stories.  Suddenly, the TV was off and I was walking with my grandmother to the local drug store where she purchased a stack of pads and a box of pencils.  Next thing you know she sets me down in the living room and says, “Prove it!” So . . . I started writing . . . and writing . . . and writing.  I put words to two and a half pads (not that big a deal, my handwritten letters were HUGE back then) and after reading them, my grandmother took me on another trip . . . to the local library.  There I met Athos, Porthos, Aramis and d’Artagnan.  Thank you Alexandre Dumas!!!!  I found something better than cartoons and I’ve been in love with heroes ever since!

5. Who is your favorite character from the book? 
My favorite would have to be Freund.  The German word for ‘friend’ is a peculiar character.  As we tend to use what we know to identify what we do not know, I would say that he is Yoda and Gandalf, mixed in with your local bartender and a loquacious taxi driver.  Some may get caught up in the power the character wields, but I am taken with the way he goes about his duties.  He is the self-assigned protector of humanity in the Rims which is not an easy job.  He does it in a way that inspires me.  A very close second for me is Dungias but he can be so irritating at times!

6. Who is your least favorite?
My least favorite character is Kiaplyx.  An example of why we should be wary of Artificial Intelligence.  His logic might be mathematically sound, but it leaves me feeling cold!

7. If you were to cast your book, what actors would you choose to play your characters?
I believe I would take a page out of the Lucas playbook and cast fresh-faced talent; people who are more than hungry to be identified as capable thespians. I also believe that allows the audience to be more involved with the characters and the story instead of who is playing what role.

8. How important are names in your book?  How do you choose names?
Names are extremely important, but perhaps not in the way the mainstream might presume.  Wyatt Earp and Annie Oakley became great names because of the people, not because people thought their names sounded cool.  I have made it a point to divest myself of the cool-sounding name.  What I want is the name to become cool because people come to love who and what that name defines.

9. What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment?
The four-part series of G. Russell Gaynor when he is better known as Daddy!  I can never say enough of my children: Christopher, Joshua, Leonard and Valacia!  Somewhere after that . . . yeah, being a story-teller is pretty cool too.

10. What are you favorite books/authors?
You never get over your first, so Alexandre Dumas will ALWAYS be there (though The Three Musketeers is not my favorite of his!).  William Faulkner made me look at life differently and I don’t think I’ve gone back.  Alice Walker made me fall in love with the often overlooked beauties of life.  Anne Frank taught me humility on a scale I still cannot measure.  And Isaac Asimov taught me how to think in 360 degrees!

11. What books are you reading right now?
Thanks to Facebook, I’ve stumbled upon another community of authors, and currently I am reading City of Toys by Lindy S. Hudis.  It is the story of four women who are seeking their fame in the often not-so-magical place called Hollywood.  I am also re-reading God Speaks by Meher Baba.  It is a book of spirituality where God is described as “a limitless, shoreless ocean and each soul as a ‘drop soul’ of that ocean.” 

12. Do you have a work in progress that you’d like to tell us about?
The most used file on my computer is the WIP File.  If I could have the Devo song “Whip It” play every time I click on it-- that would be heavenly! 

A group of writers have come together, calling ourselves the Confederacy of the Quill, and we have penned a collection of short stories called The SylverMoon Chronicles.  Currently, we are putting the polishing touches to Volume Four of that series.  In this volume, there will be a short story that plays into the Beyond the Outer Rim storyline, falling in between the end of Star Chaser: The Traveler and the beginning of Starblazer: Through the Black Gate.

Secondly, it was at Dragon*Con where I was asked to sit on a panel discussing dragons, alongside Todd McCaffrey and Naomi Novik,  when I announced a project called “Vassals,” where non-magical dragons were the center point of the story.  There is a teaser of that in SylverMoon Chronicles, and the novel is progressing along quite nicely.

Lastly, Book One of the Beyond the Outer Rim series (Starblazer: Through the Black Gate) will be entering into its reader phase just before Christmas.  Book Two is in the assembly phase.

About Reiter
Born in a common house, in a common land, during a common time, Reiter was issued to the world in the same manner as any other notion of life.  Born of circumstance and perspective, he came to see life from a standpoint most might label askew (but let’s not get him started on labels).  It was through this angle of vision that his mind opened up to the limitless possibilities of thought and existence.

Since our first act is to covet, Reiter’s train of thought was detoured to mythology and how such fantastic stories were used to explain scientific fact.  That is where his abilities were first applied; the battle that rages between Atlas and Hercules continues to this day.  The Moon moves closer to the Earth and then further away, depending on who is winning the contest.  It is a simple beginning, perhaps, but a beginning nonetheless and one that ushered other stories that grew along with the young man, encompassing greater scope and depth.

What some called ‘daydreaming,’ he called a work in progress.  There is a universe out there, full of theory and definition – waiting for its story to be told.  It holds comedy, tragedy, adventure, mystery, horror, action and intrigue.  Reiter is but one of its storytellers!  

About G. Russell Gaynor
The World According to Garp was perhaps the first sign to a troubled young man that his life might very well be okay. It was incredibly reassuring to see that a young man from such a deeply interesting background can find his niche in life. G. Russell Gaynor was not nearly as challenged as T. S. Garp but until the revelation of the character, relatively speaking Russell was the weirdest kid on his block. His father, a career United States Navy man, taught him how to stand up to face the most challenging aspects of life including the unknown. His mother, a nurse and a technician for the U.S Geological Survey, taught him how to love and how to understand. 

Russell was five when he found that people should be responsible for what they say when he had to write a story to back up his claim to his grandmother that he could do better in his sleep than the black and white movie he had watched. He handed two notebook pads to his grandmother who then agreed with his opinion. That was indeed the beginning! 

In the beginning, it was mostly stories about super heroes and the stuff of comic books. Then came the works of Alexandre Dumas and the ideal of romantic heroes. Now there was a need to make women swoon and men weep and poetry was discovered and written. Russell was 12 when he went to his first play, which revealed a love for the stage and was 14 when role-playing games filled his head with the adventures of steel and sorcery. This all concluded with the love of the story and its effect on the audience. 

Although life defies understanding, Russell has set about the challenge of teaching through his stories, in small baby steps, the lessons of love and life he has come to treasure since learning so much through the viewpoints of others. 
It will always be the opinion of those who receive art to measure its worth, but to date Russell has penned four novels, twenty screenplays, two plays, over two score poems and a role-playing game system. This, too, is only a beginning!

Quicksylver Publications:
Beyond the Outer Rim Facebook:  
Quicksylver Publications Facebook:

Thanks for reading!  As always, please feel free to leave questions/comments for the author below.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Short Story: Zombies Anonymous

I'm late posting this week, and I never actually got around to writing the post I meant to write.  I've been crazy-busy, but in a good way-- a way that I hope means I will have big news to share with you soon.  In the meantime, please enjoy this short story, "Zombies Anonymous," which was originally published in D20 Girls Magazine, then in a horror anthology.  I'm posting it here for the first time in its entirety. 
Sort of a gruesome Christmas present, but when I'm able to share my news, it will make sense to you.  Also, there's a reason the song goes, "There'll be scary ghost stories and tales of old glory from Christmases long, long ago . . ."

When I get off work, I stop at the farm before I go home.  The chicken farmer knows me, is expecting me.  He has a beautiful bird set aside, ready to go in a cardboard container.  I pay him, a worn ten dollar bill.  Tell him to keep the change.
The chicken, a red hen, rides in the seat beside me.  The box has ventilation holes in the top, but otherwise, the bird can’t see out, so she is pretty docile for the twenty or so minutes it takes to get her home. 
I take the box out back and leave it on the patio table while I go inside.  I reemerge wearing one of those disposable plastic rain ponchos.  
The box thumps softly as I shift it towards me, open the top flaps.  The bird’s head pops up, gold eyes regarding me beadily.  When I reach in, she squawks and fights.  I hold her carefully, one hand around her neck, the other holding both feet together.  She continues to screech, beating at me with her auburn wings.
It hasn’t been daylight for a half hour yet.  I hold her like that, stretched between my hands for a moment in the watery morning sun.  Then I raise her to my face and bite, tearing into the breast with my blunt canines.  The bird shrieks, her claws digging into my palms.  Feathers fly everywhere.  They cling to my hands, sticky with blood.  In another second, she is still. 
When I’m finished, I hose the blood and feathers off the patio, sluicing them into the grass.  Then I strip off the poncho.  I pack it and the bones into a trash bag and set them out on the curb, next to the recycle bin. 

* * * * *

The meetings are mandatory.  It’s just like from before, with gatherings in church basements and school gyms, a circle of fold-out chairs.  In the back of our meeting area, refreshments are laid out on a pair of folding tables: an assortment of raw meats and a carafe of blood.  Pig’s blood, usually.  I prefer cow. 
We even start with a prayer:

I am grateful that I am here and I am still me. 
I will not let my impulses define me, only my choices.
I ask for strength to weather adversity and change.
May grace and mercy reign over all my interactions
So that I may be an example to others,
Leading to peace and understanding between all mankind.

We all know each other here—most of us went through quarantine together, so there’s no need for anyone to stand up and go, “Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m a cannibal.” 
I look around the circle at the familiar faces, old and young.  There’s Brian and Cara, a young couple who just recently moved in together.  There’s Javier, who speaks in broken English and worked as a grill cook before.  Sweet-faced Marjorie, who takes care of the recovered children, who invariably flock to her like baby ducks.  Jay Doyle, who’d owned a car dealership.  Ira Ramsey, a computer programmer.  Old Barb who talks nonstop about her eight-year-old grandson, who’d been her first kill.   
The meetings I go to are led by a woman named Julie Cavanaugh, who’d been a marriage counselor.  We go around the circle and talk about things.  Acceptance.  Admission of past deeds.  Confronting guilt.  Self-forgiveness.  Working the steps. 
Now we’re trying to focus on our new lives: new friends, new families, our jobs.  We talk especially about all the changes—the changes in our bodies, the changes in the world.  Our new place in society, such as it is. 
And we talk about how hard it is. 
How very hard it all is.

* * * * *

I should go to bed, but I can’t sleep.  Insomnia is common for us.  So I sit in the living room.  No TV or anything—channels are still pretty limited.  But the house is nice.  At least, a part of me still recognizes it’s nice, someplace I would’ve wanted to live before.  Four-bedroom, two-and-a-half-bath.  Granite countertops in a kitchen I don’t really use.  Tankless water heater and efficient heating and A/C when I no longer notice temperature.  More space than I could ever hope to inhabit. 
I keep the blinds drawn.  A lot of us have retained a certain affinity for dark places.  Our night vision remains exceptionally good.  But I just like it.  It’s nice to sit by myself.  Nobody watching, no temptations.  Just me.  In my place.  Alone.  After quarantine, we were required to live in communal housing for a while, so solitude feels like an unqualified luxury. 
Then there’s a pounding at my door. 
Immediately, I tense up.  I’m not expecting any visitors. 
* * * * *

Everybody’s got their share of bad memories.  I bit my neighbor, my wife, my coworker, infected them so they’d be like me.  I ate my mother, my son, my dog.  The illness burned some of the memories out of us, but not all.  We remember the people coming at us with rifles, axes, shovels, baseball bats—whatever lay near to hand.  In some places, there were bombs, tanks, flamethrowers.  We watched our fellow afflicted get bludgeoned, torn apart by bullets and blades, mown down under treads, going up like haystacks.
It happened like in the movies.  Kind of.  Not like the old black-and-whites.  The new ones.  Some of these screenwriters knew what they were talking about: when it hit, it didn’t just happen spontaneously, people leaping out of graves and whatnot.  It wasn’t radiation.  It wasn’t an invasion from another planet. 
It was a virus.  That’s all.  Like the flu.
It wasn’t a yak-fest, I’m pleased to report.  It was a neuro virus.  No one suspected anything at first because it moved so slowly, almost sluggishly, through the system, mutating as it went.  That was one way it differed from the movies—it’s not like somebody coughed on you and boom, you were infected, and then, boom, you were a zombie.  It took anywhere from eight to fifteen days to become symptomatic and another week or so before you turned.
I remember my last day as a regular human.  I’d been to the doctor.  He’d prescribed Motrin, bed rest, fluids.  Dutifully, I’d managed to get myself up and to the kitchen.  Made some dry toast, drank a glass of orange juice.  Then I crawled back into bed.
When I woke up, I wasn’t me anymore.  I’d been replaced by this . . . hunger.  There is simply no other word for it. 
There’s this lady in my ZA group named Nancy.  She’s a real born-again, right-to-life religious freak, even now.  Don’t get me wrong.  I have no beef with the Jesus-and-fetus-lovers.  I love Jesus and fetuses and beef as much as the next guy. 
On rye.
A little cannibal humor there.  Go on and laugh.  You know you want to.
Anyway.  We were talking about it during group one time, the virus.  Nancy said, “I got a headache.  The pain was so bad my husband rushed me to the emergency room.  And all I could think was, ‘This must be what Jacob felt when he wrestled the angel.’”
While I might disagree on some levels, (semantic, spiritual, philosophical), I agree with the sentiment.  Winning or losing doesn’t matter.  Your whole life has just become this pitched battle.  Pain gets you in a headlock and no one can help you.  No one can take the pain for you. 
And then, just when you think it can’t get any worse, you get hungry.  Everything you ever were, anything you ever wanted—it all gets burned away.  Your body just wails for food and more food.  There is no ignoring it.  There is no reasoning with it.  There is no fighting it.  You have no intellect, no personality, no conscience.  You begin to see only what is edible. 
Anything that moves is edible.
I miss toast.

* * * * *

I don’t know how any of us survived those long years, unspeakable years of wandering and feeding, a blur of teeth and working mandibles and blood.  All I know is, I came to in a CDC facility, four years after that glass of OJ.  I had a gunshot wound in my right leg, a mild concussion from where somebody whacked me over the head with something.  I was lucky that’s all I had.  The cure meant we recovered some of our humanity—we could think again.  We could reason again.  We could sleep again, dream again.  We could feel again.  Emotions, I mean.  A lot of us have suffered permanent nerve damage, which is why we don’t feel heat or cold, or physical pain.  
But what they couldn’t cure was the hunger. 

* * * * *

It’s been five years since the virus hit.  There’s a little over a billion people left in the world.  Most died the first year.  The rest died in the ensuing violence: riots, people fighting amongst themselves, fighting against the afflicted.  A lot of people committed suicide. 
Pretty much the only job we’re allowed to have now is clean-up.  We bury bodies, clear debris from roadways, tear down condemned structures.  Doesn’t matter what you did before—doctor, lawyer, butcher, baker, candlestick maker.  You’re road crew now.  Most of us prefer the night shift.
Once we were cured, the new government passed a series of laws.  Recovereds had to be registered.  After quarantine, recovereds had to live in assigned housing.  Recovereds were not allowed to own firearms.  And, of course, acts of cannibalism would not be tolerated.    
We make do with animals.  If any of those PETA people are left, they must really hate us.  After our meetings, sometimes, we stand around the blood cooler and organize hunting parties. 
Right now, we live in the exurbs, in subdivisions surrounded by cement walls topped with razor wire.  The perimeters are patrolled.  Helicopters are a regular sight, gliding by overhead at all hours. 
Working by night, loading up dumpsters and hauling rubble under the moon, I sometimes pause and look around.  I can’t get used to this—any of it.  The roaming searchlights.  The vast areas of uninhabited space.  The ruined buildings, the untraveled highways, the unpaid tolls. 
They call us cannibals, like we’re still the same species.  I’m not sure we are. 

* * * * *

There is one topic of conversation that is never broached in the meetings—never indoors, where we might be overheard.  Only outside, preferably in the fields and wooded areas, as we stalk coyotes and deer.
“The way I see it, we’re the new top of the food chain, right?  So why the fuck we letting them call the shots?”
“Look at us.  Can’t leave the compound unless they give us the okay.  Eating what they say we can eat.  That’s not what we are.”
“There’s more of us than there are of them.”
“We all know what’s going on here.  They rounded us up, trapped us while we were vulnerable.  Now we’re living in ghettos while they decide what to do with us.”
“I’m telling you, it’s just a matter of time before they decide to wipe us out once and for all.  Because they can’t stand it—they can’t stand that we’re better than them now.”
“But we haven’t done anything wrong.”
“Not yet.”

* * * * *

The knocking on my door continues, growing more and more frantic.  I open it to find several of my neighbors.  A lot of them are people from my ZA group.  There’s Ira, there’s Julie.
“Joe,” she says.  “They’re coming.”
In the distance, I hear the helicopters beating the air, the sound of tanks approaching. 
No words pass between us.  Nothing really needs to be said as some of us join hands and walk out to meet them, armed with nothing but our hunger and a serenity prayer.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Excerpt: My Hometown Named Love by Markus Ahonen

My Hometown Named Love is a collection of twenty short stories about love for women seen from the men's point of view. These universal stories could happen anywhere, but the reader can find their way in Ireland, UK, Finland, Italy, France, United States or on a road trip across Europe.

The warmly melancholic stories come alive as we have all yearned for love we were hoping for, or had to let go. 

Excerpt (from the title story)

That warm year, I stopped escaping my life. Settled down. Started getting ready for the rest of my life, with or without anyone. I thought some day I’d find that someone special. I was right. How heart-wrenching it sometimes is to find the meaning of life. It happened sooner than I had ever thought.

After years of searching, I had finally found a suitable place to live, a small village by the water. With lots of small cafes and restaurants. Pretty like a jewel. Idyllic as the utopian village in a fairytale.

In the first couple of years I considered moving away. I didn't really miss any other place. Maybe I just wanted to escape my life, which didn't feel happy anywhere.

Then I divorced and understood that behind that discomfort had only been the huge rock inside my head, the shaking house of a bad marriage, which had felt more like a prison full of power games and manipulation than a warm home full of the scent of freshly baked buns.

I tried to remember when I had been happy the last time. I ended up going back around twelve years before I stopped counting.

After the divorce I stopped considering moving away. Soon I didn't think about it at all anymore. I had met Her. Made her eternal as a picture in my memory, a snapshot of a woman standing in a crowd by the market place in the middle of the village.

She was wearing blue jeans and a black shirt, and she had a child sitting in the stroller in front of her. The expression in her eyes was bright and intense, but warm. The corners of her face were nicely rounded, and her shoulder-length hair was moving in the slight wind.

My heart made a strong bump. Another. That woman wasn't from this world.

In the days after, I saw her every now and then with her child in the park, in the streets of the village, in shops, by the sports pitches and summer events. If I took a walk, I could almost count the probability of how I'd bump into her. Soon I realized I was planning my walking routes hoping to see at least a glimpse of her.

Maybe my luck was that after my divorce, I had made a decision. I had decided to do everything to make my life and my child's life better than it had been. I wouldn't get stuck in the sofa and eternally drown in self pity. I wouldn't dive into substances to forget the past and get by in daily life.
I'd keep up my health and mind by getting fit and doing some socializing. Developing myself. If nothing was going to bring me more possessions to replace the ones I had lost in the divorce, at least I'd have the richness of wisdom, wealth of spirit. If my riches couldn't be measured with the scale Scrooge McDuck uses, at least I could get a good value in my scale. You can get a lot of things with some ten-grands, if you invest them to the right places. And not everything can be bought with money.

Along with all of the miles I was walking and running, I started going to the library more often to find information about cultural events. Some were free and were still (or as a result) of very good quality.

One Thursday I saw a notice on the lobby board for a series of lectures about local history. The first lecture would be on Tuesday, the same week when my child was to be at his mother's. Maybe this was the right way to integrate myself into the local community. To understand the meaning of local history and how it created the idyllic basis for the present local culture.

The small auditorium was only half full. Some elderly gentlemen and ladies interested in history. A group of middle-aged hobbyists and some individual enthusiasts. And suddenly her. With her dark hair and slender appearance. She walked in at the last minute and sat next to the person sitting behind me.

For a moment I thought she had chosen the place on purpose, to see how I was interested in the subject. How I'd react to the occasional dry humor thrown in during the middle of the lecture. Maybe she had attended the lectures of the same old, jovial gentleman before.

The small crowd laughed. She laughed slightly after me, as if she was delighted seeing me enjoying.

One day after the third lecture, I was walking far away from home when I saw a familiar car, a small and comfortable French model. Slowing down, stopping at the bus stop. The window rolled down.

“Would you like a ride?” a familiar female voice said in a friendly way. I saw her leaning over the passenger seat.

“Sure.” I climbed in and sat next to her.

She introduced herself.

“I've seen you in the lectures,” she said.

She told me she was from elsewhere further away and had only moved to the village recently. She was trying to connect to the new hometown through lectures. This was her second series.

I got off by the market square and watched, stunned, as she drove away, waving her hand as she did in the coming times.

The following week I sat in the third row of the lecture auditorium and left one seat empty in the end of the row. She sat there as if I had asked her to.

This time the lecture was boring. I was about to fall asleep but didn't dare leave. I saw her yawning, too.

I had a notebook with graph paper in my hands. I remembered times in school. Dull hours that could be filled with reading. The need to kill time. Suddenly I had a thought and marked a cross in one of the boxes. I gave her the notebook and the pen.

In a fraction of a second she got it and burst out a short laugh. Most of the auditorium turned around to watch her.

“Oops!” She put her finger in front of her mouth.

Her dark eyes wandered side to side, observing the reactions of the crowd. She wasn't embarrassed. Maybe she felt everything as I did, as mutual joy, which doesn't usually show itself often enough.
That moment I fell in love with her, if I hadn't done it before. The worst was that she wasn't available. We saw each other in the lectures. Once we ended up in the same Historical Society coffee event and spent time together openly like if we had been a young couple.

At one point I saw her nearly daily. I felt as if she had learned my routes by heart, and I had learned hers. Still I kept my heart covered. I couldn't do anything about her. I managed to nearly violently lock her in the back part of my brain.

Something happened in the next spring that made the fences in my head collapse and gave her permission to run fully in my mind. I don't know if it was her touch on my shoulder and the questioning look in her eyes. Maybe she wanted me to do something that would've given her permission to go over her border fences.

Around the same time they started another series of lectures in the same place. We realized we had ended up in the other lecture, too, without knowing. We sat in the chairs next to each other. There were now two lectures in the week.

It was painful for me. The days between the lectures I could hardly finish my work when thinking of her. Sometimes I sped up with my work thinking I'd get to see her if I did my work swiftly enough.

I started playing more sports so I would be tired enough to sleep at least a few moments overnight. It didn't help. I lay on the bed night after night just thinking of her. I was afraid I'd died of a heart attack or gone crazy.

My heart was about to run away from my chest when I remembered her eyes, her soft and peaceful voice. Her way of being funny and her understanding of timing, whether it was an appropriate or completely inappropriate time to laugh. Her beauty, which I couldn't keep the eyes of my soul off. I was about to drain myself with my thoughts.

In my head I planned how I would tell her everything I felt about her face to face. When I got closer to her, I backed up. Maybe inside myself I thought I was doing something wrong.

I had seen her a couple of times with her family at local events. She had hardly said hi. Once she came to talk to me, so the people we knew wouldn’t look suspicious, even though we in reality didn't have anything going on.

Often she walked by me in the crowd only one or two yards away without saying anything, but so I'd notice her.

One weekend I had visitors, a couple and their female friend. She saw us in the village together. I thought I saw a roughly hidden gesture of pain on her face. Maybe she had feelings inside her that she couldn't block, yet she couldn't do anything about them because of her situation. She was unavailable, but I could find someone else.

The next few times I saw her, I was alone again. She looked relieved. The pain started wrenching me from inside again. My nightly sleep had dropped to three hours per night. During those hours I had dreams about her.

Between the lectures and occasional times we passed by each other on the street, I tried to medicate myself with even more exercise. I walked and jogged. I made my way far away from the village just to get out of the routes where I usually bumped into her.

One time I saw her far away from home in a strange place, like she had followed me or I had been led there by destiny. A couple of months later I saw her far away from home again. I never bumped into any other acquaintances accidentally far away from home, but I bumped into her again and again.

I started looking for meanings from her words. Once she mentioned a nearby village, a place I hadn't gone to in a couple of years. I wondered if I should've gone there and ended up bumping into her there also. I don't know. I skipped it.

At the end of spring only one lecture was left. After that there was an organized walking tour through the streets of the village. Suddenly her husband had decided to crash the occasion. They didn't come near me.

The tour continued from place to place. We came to a house which had once been inhabited by a famous author. The local guide told us that the author’s major work was written in this house. The novel was about a man and his painful, unconquered love for a beautiful woman. I felt my poker face melting.

At that moment her husband went somewhere. I saw her face. She was digesting her thoughts, as if she was trying to make a decision. Face the storm. Leave the safe beach behind her and go along with the tide. Me. Just as I wanted to tear her from her safe harbor and take her with me. Right there. For a moment in that afternoon wind I thought she was expecting that. Hoping for it.

Instead, I raised my hand to my heart. Maybe she'd get my message. Maybe one day I could tell it to her. How I could express myself to her even in the crowd from further away?

When you see me holding my hand on my heart, you know I'm thinking of you.

I saw her raise her hand to her heart.

The series of lectures ended. Life continued. My walks and jogs were becoming longer and already reached the borders of the county. To make my way further, I bought a bike.

Still I realized I was always coming back. Thinking of her day and night, all those times I didn't have any other woman in my life.

I saw her and her family at different events. Watched through the crowds their happiness. I didn't know if that happiness was real or superficial. Sometimes I felt there was something artificial in her happiness, as if she were going over the top to show me that she really wasn't happy.

I had sometimes imagined a moment of happiness with her. We'd bump into each other in a local bar on a summer night. We'd end up in a local nature spot. To make love.

One warm summer night started as that imagined dream. I saw her further away in a bar. She was out with other girls and in a party mood. I had had several pints. My emotions had surfaced.

I stood maybe seven yards away from her. In a perfectly imperfect mood, I wanted to tell her that I'd loved her from the moment I saw her for the first time.

But because I had decided to be sensible after my divorce, the new me decided to keep the agony inside. I didn't have the right to break up anyone's family life. To cause pressure in a small village. To raise the embarrassment if the history lectures one day started again.

I escaped from the bar, music running heavily to my head out of my headphones. I had left her behind me. But I would find her in front of me again. And again. And again.

I love this town, this village. The cafes, the alleys, the flower pots hanging from the walls of all these colorful buildings. I've found my heart here. But I will never be able to reward it.

And as the years roll by, I'll be in the same situation. Nothing has changed. I'll probably be in my self-constructed prison in this same place, because I can never leave here. Ever.

I see myself living here even when I'm over 80. Still single. I haven't found anyone like her.

One day I'll hear she has moved from here to eternity after having lived a beautiful and meaningful life. I'll sit in her memorial service and look at her picture set on the table next to the lit candle. In the picture she will still be youngish, with sparkling eyes. As I saw her.

I’ll remember her electrifying appearance. Her deep, intense, warm brown eyes that always caught mine if I just happened to look her way. Her beautiful face, her slender body. When she would turn behind the crowd for a split-second to catch my look and tell me, “I've noticed you.” The electricity between us.

In my mind, I hear the priest asking in the memorial service, “Would anyone have any special memories of her? Something really beautiful.”

I would have. But I can never say it. Never tell anyone. Because I never had her.

And I can never leave this place even after she has died. Even when I go from place to place, further away, I will always come back.

The world is elsewhere. The big world with all the possibilities. But my hometown is Love.

Purchase My Hometown Named Love anthology on Smashwords.

About Markus Ahonen

Markus Ahonen was born in 1972 in Helsinki, Finland and grew up in Martinlaakso, a suburb of Vantaa.  After spending a year as en exchange student in upstate New York and studying Communications and Finnish Literature in Turku, he has worked extensively as a newspaper editor/editor-in-chief, as a script writer for Finnish versions of Weakest Link, Never Mind the Buzzcocks and They Think It's All Over, as well as a TV sketch comedy writer.

After moving to Ireland in 2006, Markus has worked as a foreign news correspondent, traveling to nearly forty countries around Europe and the globe.  He is the author of six books, including crime fiction, short story anthologies, and children's books, available in English and Finnish.  
His first crime novel, Medusa, is one of the best selling e-books in Finland.  It ranked third in the 2006 Kouvola Crime Literature Festival, and has been listed in the iTunes Finland Top 100 E-Books.  It was also featured in the Apple iTunes Bookstore Best of 2012 and 2013.  

Markus has been a member of Irish Writers' Union since 2012.  He lives in Malahide, County Dublin, Ireland with his teenage son.

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