Behind the Face of Nicholas Rossis

I asked Nicholas whether he would agree to be interviewed in rather a ‘personal’ and targeted way. I am less interested in the writer than in the life that lies behind writing. As it happened the philosophy he revealed ( and his final summary) made it appropriately hosted on Careless Talk- the blog of things related to Involution-An Odyssey and its universal implications. So here it is.

Interview with Nicholas Rossis.

Nicholas Rossis
Nicholas Rossis

Nicholas, because I do not interview writers on any kind of regular basis, I hope you don’t mind me framing questions that arise from impressions you give me and my fascination with what underpins the individual writer, their past, their passions, their acute dislikes. Feel free to answer ‘Pass’ at any point. You have a charming on-line persona, and make many faithful friends. I would like to introduce the individual alone with yourself.

A Greek who has lived in Edinburgh and writes in English has some explaining to do.

Lol – fair enough. Framing questions from impressions is as valid a way to go as any. After all, what does any of us know about each other – even if said other is standing right next to them?

As part of my military service (compulsory in Greece), I served a year in a navy base. I met there a sailor who turned out to be a serial killer. MPs arrested him on my watch. You can imagine how shocked we all were when we found out – none of us had any idea.

Can you give a sketch of your origins; family, growing up, where? Please include an impression of the atmosphere of your childhood home.

Oh dear, this is going to be a long interview. Hope you have time!

Well, I was born in Athens, Greece. I’m an only child, although I’m told it doesn’t show. I grew up in Dionysus – a mountainous region outside of Athens. My parents moved us there because the land was inexpensive. Then, they slowly built a huge house. We lived on the top floor at first, while the rest of the house was still being built. Took them almost ten years to finish.dionysos-1998

We moved there in 1981. A year to remember, for sure. At first, we had no power,  phone lines or – worst of all – running water. We collected rain water in a giant tank, with a plastic pipe running into the house. Everything was done with buckets filled through that. Showering meant warming water on a gas-powered stove, then pouring it on us. We collected drinking water in gallon-sized jugs from a fresh-water spring (best water I’ve ever tasted outside of Scotland). Very wild west.
Our closest neighbour was half a mile away, which is also the distance I had to walk each day to reach the school bus. I was literally growing up in a forest. A regular Mowgli.

For power, we used a surplus US Army generator that used to be in Korea. My dad somehow found the behemoth in his engineering company and brought it home, so that we could have 2 hours of electricity each day – barely enough to warm the heaters, in a year that had us snowed in no less than 6 times. I studied with normal lamps for a couple of hours, while the generator was running, then used a gas lamp.

That summer, I saw my first forest fire. It reached less than 500 yards from our home. Oh, we had also been hit by an earthquake during that time, so the whole family (an additional 8 people) moved in with us for a week.

After a year, the water pipes finally reached our place. A few months later, power.

Phone lines were next. The road was the last to be built – we only had a dirt track running up to our place until then.

In case you’re wondering, no, the rest of Greece was firmly situated in the 20th century. It was just my crazy parents who did that. Adding insult to injury, they sent me to Greece’s poshest school. I felt like a caveman, patting snow down my fur coat while the rest of classmates gawked at me through their sunglasses (our area is some 20 degrees F colder than downtown Athens). Everyone was dressed in cool, cotton shirts, while I wore military khakis and woollen shirts. Sigh…

I still hate camping. Whenever someone suggests we rough it for a week, I always growl, “Been there, done that, got the tee-shirt, mass produced it in a sweat shop.”

Growing up in Dionysus with no siblings is definitely part of why I write. Or at least, why I love books. Every weekend, I’d borrow a dozen books from the school library and return them on Monday. Not much else to do, with no one around.

Looking back, what would you say were the repeating patterns, or passions that drove you? What or who influenced you to follow or reject?

As I explained, I was a pretty lonely child. And yet, I was reasonably popular at school – I even was class president a couple of times. It’s just that distance didn’t make it easy to hang out with a “gang.” So, loneliness is a sore point for me. I have learnt to be quite all right with it by now, and even enjoy it at times, but it’s still my greatest  fear.

I believe that is why I was so keen to form romantic relationships from a relatively early age. And why we’ve stayed with Electra for so long. It is also why I took to social media and the Internet. I was one of the first people to go online in Greece, back when modems took a minute to download a small image. To me, the computer opened up an amazing way of connecting with people. My blog and my books are an extension of that need to connect; to share my world with others.

Was yours a straight path with clear markers to a manageable climb or a crooked hike through woods with a limited view ahead? Identify the signs you followed, or the boulders you circumnavigated?

I would describe my path as anything but straight. It has more turns, twists and dead ends than a David Lynch movie.

Still, I’ve come to realize lately that things happen in their own time. No matter how much I want something, if it’s meant to happen, it will, no effort needed on my part.  Other times, I might desperately want something, but no matter how much effort I put into it, it just doesn’t happen – and trust me; this has happened a lot.  Then again, something that I completely ignore might just flourish in front of my eyes, unexpectedly and effortlessly.

I studied civil engineering (my dad’s idea of a secure job) and in 1995 I went on to do a PhD in Digital Architecture (the only way for me to link my degree with two of my passions, design and computers).  I had agreed with my supervisor on a subject about symbolism in architecture, then he, poor guy, dropped dead a week prior to my arrival. My new advisor professor not only changed my subject, but also asked me to make a website for the department, from scratch. He gave me three days to do it; days I spent reading a lot, experimented quite a bit and pulling hair, until I did it, and my first website went live at the end of the 3-day period.

I’ve been working as a web developer for almost 20 years now. I still do, partly because I have to earn a living and partly because I’ve worked so hard to create Istomedia, my company, that I feel like it’s kind of a family member.  Then, a couple of years ago, I realized that I had started losing patience: with clients, projects, designs, programming, the constant need for updating and upgrading and the 6-month life cycle of everything technological.  I turned to writing as a relief, and realized, startled, that it was all I wanted to do.

Every now and again, I wonder whether my studies and everything I have worked for is going to waste.  But I think not: my degree has helped me to study and organize my thoughts.  My PhD taught how to properly research topics, question everything, look for new and different ways to achieve a result.  My work has taught me how to market my book, design its cover, create the ebook file.  Indie publishing requires the same skills: presenting myself and my work to potential clients, networking, promoting my creations, finishing a project within a deadline and a budget etc.

So, at 45, life has brought me where I am. All the things I’ve done, have arguably happened because I need them today.  Which is why I try to practice nowadays what Tao Te Ching calls Wei Wu Wei – actionless action: the art of setting your destination and letting life take you there.  It’s a nice concept, isn’t it?

As a boy what did you want or imagine your life would entail?

Oh, wow. I haven’t thought about that in a while. As a kid, all I could think about was becoming an astronaut. Now, I dream and write about the stars and the adventures to be had among them. I guess I’m not so far off my childhood dream, after all.

You obviously make loyal on-line friends easily. What would be the qualities most important to you in close friends (men or women)?

Thanks for that – it’s kind of you to say, and I hope it’s true. I believe that people respond to my openness and honesty. More than anything, I struggle to be honest with myself; to know and accept myself, warts and all.

I also struggle to remain aligned to my nature, turning my disadvantages to advantages. For example, I do enjoy being helpful. One might wonder, “so how does help you sell your books?” The short answer is, it doesn’t. It does help make friends, though, and then they do buy my books more often than not. That’s a fringe benefit, though; not the goal.

Another thing is my belief that one has to give first, before asking for something. It’s my nature to give without expecting something in return. And I think that people respond to that. As being helpful makes me happy, I think I get the better end of the deal.

Most people fight against their nature, one way or another. They go against the grain of their personality, and occasionally end up breaking in pieces because of it. For some reason, I find it easy to pick up when people do that, and I find it tiresome. I have noticed that I am unconsciously drawn to people who are at peace with themselves. Then again, aren’t we all?

Do you ever ‘lose it’? What would occasion you to do so?

Mercifully, I haven’t “lost it” in years. In 23 years of work, I have only yelled at a client once, some five years ago. He didn’t want to pay for a job I believed was well-done, and accused me of being terrible at my work. That hurt my professional pride more than I care to admit, and I told him, in no uncertain terms, that I never want to work with him again.

So, pride. And ingratitude. Not towards me, but towards God. When I hear people who have everything curse God because He doesn’t give them everything they want, it really bugs me.

What took you to Edinburgh? Can you paint a picture of your first impressions of Britain? Have they modified and if so in what ways?

This is a funny story, actually. I met Electra when she was but 16 and I, 23. Three months later, I told my best friend that I’d marry her one day. A few months later, we walked to her parents, who were still struggling to accept me, and told them that, as soon as she finished High School, we would study together in the UK. Naturally, they shrugged it off, and just nodded, trying to hide their amusement. You could practically see them thinking, “sure, whatever.”

When we started sending out applications to various UK universities, her parents were alarmed, but said nothing. Two universities – Cardiff and Edinburgh – accepted us both. Cardiff sounded lovely, but they had accepted me as an engineer – and I preferred architecture as my PhD subject. So, Edinburgh it was.

Electra’s parents couldn’t argue – we had already given them over a year’s warning after all; hadn’t we? So, Edinburgh it was.

We arrived on what the Scots call a dreich night: wet, windy, cold and miserable. That very first night, we walked into a fish & chips to grab something to eat. The girl behind the counter asked us something. I thought I knew English, but couldn’t understand a single word. I asked her to repeat what she had said, and she did. The bulb over my head was still dim. So, I just said, “Yes.” And she poured a dark sludge over my fries, which turned out to be a vinegar-based sauce. Much later, I realized she was merely asking us, “salt and vinegar?”

We spent the first month getting acclimatized and finding a place to stay. The first thing that struck me was how polite everyone was. We were trying to find a flat once, and were walking in circles, map in hand. The number of people who stopped, unprompted, to ask if we needed assistance was jaw-slackening. I just love that kind of politeness, and miss it terribly.

On the other hand, I was shocked by the number of homeless in the streets. We practically had no homeless in the streets of Athens back then, so it was a cultural shock. Related to that is the amount of drinking. Getting drunk was socially unacceptable in Greece at the time, so that, too, was a shock.

And a pleasant surprise was how easy it was to make friends. People were really friendly and accepting, which put to bed any myths about the British (or at least the Scots) being stand-offish. Even now, our best friend is a Scot.

Of course, I’m now much more aware of the social situation in Britain – good and bad. Indeed, I consider it my second home, so I follow events there almost as closely as those in Greece.

I think you have travelled quite a lot. In an ideal situation ( enough money and no specific ties), where, apart from Greece, might you choose to live and why?

It’s so funny that you say that. Until we moved to Edinburgh, I had never been out of Greece. I consoled myself by reminding me of Socrates, who had only ventured out of Athens once – and that was to fight in a war. As a student, I was able to visit most of Europe, Mexico and Cuba. I still haven’t travelled to the Far East, but would love to do so.

I might consider living there for a few years, as I find it terribly fascinating. Plus, I’m convinced I was Chinese in a former life, as I seem to have a lot of Chinese idiosyncrasies.

Such as?

I have a strong preference for cooked rather than raw vegetables. I’ve kept a jar of coins on my desk long before I found out that to the Chinese that brings luck. And according to my Chinese friend I exemplify the characteristics of my sign ( the dog). I don’t have a waving red cat- the one thing that’s missing!

How does the current gloom about Greece, its economy, its political structures impinge on you (if it does)?

I was reading the other day a comment on a business forum. A business owner was saying that in 2014, he had bid for projects worth some 1.5 million euros. He had got almost half of that – some 700,000.In 2015, his company has only bid on projects worth 25,000. They have got 15,000 of that.

We have had a succession of anti-business governments, but this last one really put the last nail in the coffin. So, it has come to the point that I’m exploring other options, including leaving again. Which is a shame, as we have quite the nice life here. Still, I already have a pretty good offer that I’m considering, so I may not be in Greece for long.

As a Greek it must be difficult to forget the glories of ancient Greece with the Acropolis surmounting your city, and its authority being increasingly revived. How omnipresent is it, and how does or did it shape your writing of the Pearseus series?

Well, Pearseus does directly reference ancient Greece. Its concept came to me after reading Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series, followed by Jim Lacey’s The First Clash and Herodotus’ Cyrus the Great and Rise of Persia, which describe the fatal battle on Marathon between Greece and Persia in the 5th century BC.

Marathon Bay is a 20’ drive from my home, and I’d often visited the tomb where the ancient Athenians buried their dead, so I thought at the time, “wouldn’t it be great if someone did what Martin did for medieval England, only with the story of Greece vs. Persia?  And in space?  How cool would that be?”  Then it occurred to me: so, what’s stopping me from writing it?

I had originally chosen the title Perseus for the series, but the Scottish friend I mentioned earlier asked me if I had considered how many other books are titled Perseus on Amazon. A quick search revealed over 10,000 books with that name. Obviously, something had to change, and it occurred to me to make it Pearseus instead, using a pun about the pear-shaped spaceship to justify the change.

To return to your question, Greek history is to Greeks what oil is to some countries: a gift and a curse. It makes some Greeks act in an entitled way that drives me crazy; as if the rest of the world owes us something, just because our ancestors lived here. Like an overdue rent or something. Pure nonsense, of course.

When I stop myself from fretting over that, though, I admit it’s truly amazing to live in a place where history is never too far from the surface. And I mean that literally. During a recent fire close to my place (the price of living at a forest’s edge), a friend was helping the firefighters through the woods when he stumbled into a hole. It turned out to be a classical-age grave, rich with statuettes, pots and offerings.

Turning to your life as a writer, what, above all (apart from readers) do you want your Pearseus books to achieve, or change, or bequeath?

Pearseus 'Rise'. Book One
Pearseus ‘Rise’. Book One

Schism is very political in nature. Rise of the Prince is basically a philosophical/religious essay masquerading as fantasy/science fiction. Mad Water and Vigil are more straight-forward adventure, where Endgame, currently penned, has a religious leader as the antagonist, which allows me to comment on the perils of following one’s religion to the extreme.

I was afraid that people would be put off by all these aspects. Some have, but many more have taken to them, even asking why later books have less introspection.

I would love it if reading Pearseus made people think about their assumptions and become more critical towards populists (Schism) and leaders (Rise). I do believe that good and evil struggle constantly all around and within us, and I wish people realized that every single one of their actions involves a choice. Even non-action is a choice. So, I hope that Pearseus reminds people to make conscious choices.

The rise of populism – both religious and political – scares me. To quote Bertolt Brecht’s prophetic “Parade of the Old New” (1939):

“I stood on the hill, where I saw the Old approaching, but it came as the New. It hobbled on new crutches that no one had ever seen before and stank of the new smell of decay that no one had ever smelled before.”

Watching the news, I find it scary just how well his words describe our current situation.

You have a fluent and extraordinary command of English, and from your posts a delight in its idiosyncrasies. Expand on that. It grabs you, tell us why.

I’m sure that Mrs. Galani, who predicted, (back in fourth grade) that I’d never learn to speak English properly, will be thrilled to hear it 😀

Seriously though, I just love the English language. I speak a bit of German, French, Russian and, of course, Greek, but English has a fluidity and openness that I find refreshing and liberating. I love playing with it in my head and on paper; exploring it; pushing it to its limits. I know that many complain about its ever-changing nature; how there are always new words, expressions and neologisms popping up. To me, that only makes it all even more precious.

I think of English as a teenager that still has years of exciting discoveries about himself ahead of him. Greece is more middle-aged in that respect. Having said that, I do google idioms on occasion, to make sure that I use them properly!

It seems that with Runaway Smile you join a number of famous men who write for children they do not (yet?) have. It has an underlying moral about the world of adults encountered by a child. What prompted it?Runaway_Smile_700

The book started out as a silly poem that I was playing with in my head (you can read the final version of it at the end of the book). One day, back in 2012, I was having my childhood friend, Dimitris Fousekis, over for lunch. Dimitris is a professional children’s books illustrator and liked the poem so much, that he suggested we turn it into a book. This was before I decided to become an author, and Pearseus had not even been conceived, mind you.

As for the moral, Smile has been described as “a humorous book with a serious moral.” Many have made similar comments, and I always wonder which moral they’re talking about. An author sits down and writes, and only later do they analyse what they have written. Or at least that’s the case with me. So, I’d be happy to share my personal take on the story, but that assumes I have got the same thing out of it as everyone else.

What prompted this caveat is a strange call from a psychologist family friend the other day. She said she loved the book, because it said exactly what she had been struggling to convey through her own unfinished book: that all men would turn into criminals if not for the mother’s love.

When I indicated that this was not my personal understanding of the story (indeed, I was rather shocked by her interpretation), she refuted me, explaining that I obviously did not understand what I had written.

For me, it’s the story of how we wake up one morning and realize that we’ve forgotten how to be happy. We seek happiness in our work, in money, in power, in humour, in knowledge… All these can offer us fun, symbolized by the false smiles worn by everyone (I’m not sure that people have noticed this, but everyone except for the boy and the mother are wearing strapped-on smiles). However, true happiness lies with sharing. With love. And sometimes we forget that, and we need someone to reach out to us and help us through this dark time of the soul.

As to what prompted it, I guess that I’ve been struggling with my own version of a mid-life crisis, where I find myself giving up a twenty year-long career to become an author. This is because my previous career no longer made me smile. Sharing my stories, however, has put the smile right back on my face!

If you were to identify the ‘essence’ of your short stories ( if you are able to ‘ see’ them from a distance) what would you say they were reaching towards, or have in common?

What is the nature of reality? Is there more to the world than we can see? Many of my stories deal with Descartes age-old question: how far can we trust our senses? With technology progressing rapidly, the time when it will be practically impossible to tell apart sensory fact from simulation can’t be far off. How will we be able to tell fantasy and reality apart? How do we know something like this hasn’t already happened, and we live in a sort of simulation?

I guess most of my stories stem from a rather Platonic view of the world; that the real world is a world of ideas somewhere out there, and this one is but its long shadow. There are so many alternative explanations to life and to the world, but we’re blind to them. Still, if someone felt the need to lift the veil of reality and take a peek behind the scenes, what would they find?

That’s why I like to start my stories with a fairly common, everyday situation, then turn it on its head. I would really love it if someone started questioning everything around them as a result of reading my stories.

In a nutshell, (or a conch) how would you summarize your personal philosophy; as in what do you believe is the reason or the purpose of the human journey?

Theosis; unification with the divine.

How he Now Lives

Nicholas Rossis lives to write and does so from his cottage on the edge of a magical forest in Athens, Greece. When not composing epic fantasies or short sci-fi stories, he chats with fans and colleagues, writes blog posts, walks his dog, and enjoys the antics of two silly cats, one of whom claims his lap as home. His children’s book, Runaway Smile, earned a finalist slot in the 2015 International Book Awards and in the 2015 IAN Book of the Year Awards. You can read it for free on his blog.

He has also written the epic fantasy series,Pearseus. The final book in the series is currently penned and expected in fall 2015.

Many of his short stories have appeared on various collections and anthologies. He has published The Power of Six, a collection of short sci-fi stories that includes his award-winning short story, I Come in Peace, and Infinite Waters, a collection of short speculative fiction stories.

Nicholas is all around the Internet, but the best place to connect with him would be on his blog, http://nicholasrossis.me/

A Life in Trees

A Life in Trees.

I am working on a new novel, or it may be a novella. This was a story I wrote in a dream. I don’t mean it was inspired by a dream, or derived from dream like events but fully written while asleep. Here is what happened (in the dream),

I am late for an important mathematics examination and on my frantic way I realise I have not even looked through the syllabus. I have missed every lesson and although I meant to get around to opening the textbook I never did. For a year or more it simply slipped my mind, so I wonder whether there is any point attempting what I shall certainly fail. As I get to the examination hall (remarkably like the remembered school hall) everybody is already hard at it, writing away.

Silence reigns.

The exam supervisor takes me to one side and whispers that because I am late everybody has already taken all the questions. Not just the question papers, but the questions themselves. This seems to offer a ray of hope. He says I have a choice between two remaining: They are

One. ‘The history of simultaneous quadratic equations’ or

Two  ‘Title Acer’. But I will have to remember them since he has no ‘papers’ left with them written down.

I choose the second and write a story entitled Acer. I write a detailed, fully fleshed out story; characters,plot, circumstances ( in a place I do not know and have never visited) and I complete the last line as the bell rings to stop.

‘You may now hand in your papers.’.

I hand in my story, leave the hall, and wake up.

The hero of my story
The hero(ine) of my story

I remembered every detail of the story I had written and just to show you the problems it presents I would classify it as a Fantasy- Romance, rose tinted with sci-fi dipped in tragedy, deep fried in fact, with garnish of world redemption. Its chief heroine and hero is a tree. Its anti-hero a master tailor with a hatred of the mess trees make in the Fall. It happens in Vermont.

As you can see I have not avoided the marketing nightmare or my curse of pioneering impossible books.

A while ago I came to a halt on writing this story. What seemed lucid, if not uplifting and amusing, in the dream sounded absurd in the telling. While stuck I examined what might have contributed to this driving story nobody will read? That led me to contemplate my relationships with trees.

Not one has ever been fickle, or betrayed or disappointed me. They have sustained me, guarded my back, fed my soul …( You see the hero given birth don’t you?)

So I thought I would give you the stages of my life with trees because they are individuals, personal lovers with whom I have had secret affairs. All because I was poor, and I mean starving poor for some of them.

The Loquat Tree.

Loquat Eriobotrya_japonica_(Syria)

In the baking blistering-under-a-tin-roof house on the borders of Bechuanaland  (Botswana) there was a single loquat tree, an umbrella of black, still leaves that wept against the ‘stoep’ of my grandparent’s house. A square, unadorned house that concentrated heat as though it was a bank vault securing an investment. I was three, alone for an eternity, and longed for water, a swimming pool, a reservoir, a puddle, anything to relieve the inescapable torpor of heat, heat and evermore relentless heat. Heat as punishment for a crime not yet committed; no parole.

Can we not have a swimming pool?

‘Yes dear, of course we can’ said my grandmother. She summoned the gardener and told him to dig a hole, a deep hole, under the loquat tree, tight against the house, in what could be found of shade. Through the loving arms of the loquat she threaded the hose and ran it into the hole in the ground, so deep I was invisible and there I spent all day, in knickers, making mud pies under the trickle of the hose.

For meals I climbed the tree ( too muddy to be welcome indoors) and with a tray on his head the cook was instructed to follow me, climbing the tree which was my ship, my look-out, my escape, my protector. I would not have known the names but I had my own bosun, and a galley that sent up food on order, and I never needed clothes. It was my first Eden. A single tree.

The Jackaranda

JacarandaTreeIndia

My next lover hung over the tennis courts of a school in Johannesburg. I was now seven and imprisoned in a dormitory with twelve year olds. They were in the secondary school and I was still in a primary and walked the half mile between them after breakfast. My very very best (and only) friend was a daygirl in the primary and she brought packed lunches. I was always starving and waited for her apple core, which she was generous to leave well clothed. Her family was pretty rich and apples were no great treat. I still remember the glory of an apple core. Somehow it was better than a whole apple.

After school closed at three I walked back to the senior school where everybody else was still at lessons, and climbed my second friend with its smooth welcoming arms and ate the core in the last and highest triple fork, two to sit upon and one to lean against. It was ‘my’ place and nobody knew about it. In summer I was hidden in a cloud of blue, and nobody was brave enough to follow because the drop below was probably thirty or forty feet. I left the seeds for the birds in a small hollow and that was my secret too. Everyday.

The Copper Beech

This was probably the love of my life, where the others were my playmates and flirtations. In a deciduous wood on a slope above a river, near a village I was beckoned by a deep shadow bowl. Below the smooth grey trunk a hollowed cave enfolded by roots, offered me a home where a dried-blood coloured rug was protected from the rain, and welcomed me at all hours, and often all night. The sky scarcely penetrated and no human ever trod near.

At that point my life was over and my tree embraced me: It rocked grief, incubated recovery, and turned its cheek if inwardly I railed. It doubted nothing, and offered no suggestions, just waited, and put its root arms round me and shared the philosophy of existence without asking anything in return; just was. Just understood. Just stayed silent and certain. Just.

No hero was ever more heroic, no lover more dependable, constant, enduring. My first book was called ‘Copper Sings the Beech’ and it was about losing everything, and finding freedom in nothing left to lose. Not even hope.

My hidden wood
My hidden wood

My Collection. Current Friends

When a man in a cloth cap gave us the hope of a home, and the possibility of a garden I read a marvellous book. Robin Lane Fox wrote a slim book with an unprepossessing title: Better Gardening. We now had a small field surrounded by a dry stone wall, trampled by cows, devoid of anything but nettles. I knew nothing of trees except why I loved them.

Every recommendation Lane-Fox offered came with a history, and every history gave the character a necessary part in the play of this garden. The romantic dinosaur tree assumed extinct and grown from seed by a Chinese botanist, the Metasequoia? Must have one of those. The fig that hid the asp that killed Cleopatra? You bet. The Liquid Amber that clung to summer longer than anyone? Absolutely.  The coral barked Acer that blazed forth in winter? Of course, but delicate, make that two. The field Maple that one day would make a violin or hang a swing? It could do both now but has to be content with a washing line.

And finally the birch, Betula jackmontii, with arms so white it throws light into every corner, is both prima ballerina and corps de ballet in a wind, and lights up every day from dawn to sunset. At dusk it is a lamp, throwing light across the lawn, and in winter its skeleton talks to the moon.Betula papyrifera

Do I have a garden? Maybe I just have trees.

That is probably why I dreamt a story and the hero is an Acer. Maybe the one on the terrace crept in at night, and entered my bed.  Actually I now realise it is just a Love Story. That’s what I will call it anyway.

Attributions.
Acer By KENPEI (KENPEI’s photo) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.1 jp (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.1/jp/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Loquat By Bangin (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Jackeranda By Pawan Tikku (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Fagus sylvatica forest Rocherath Belgium” by Frank Vassen from Brussels, Belgium
– Beech forest, Rocherath, Eastern Belgium. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Betula https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Brzoza_paierowa_Betula_papyrifera.jpg#/media
/File:Brzoza_paierowa_Betula_papyrifera.jpg_sylvatica_forest_Rocherath_Belgium.jpg

Review of Go Set a Watchman- Harper Lee

An individual ‘take’ on ‘Go Set a Watchman’ and writing as an aid to growing up.

Go Set a Watchman- Harper Lee

Go set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth…

In the midst of the current and tempestuous outcry I intend to dive right in. I do not want to wait until the water grows placid and the angers are expended or turn, as they might, to a consensus of disappointment.

I will try to explain why I found the book mesmerising. For you to understand I need you to know where I come from, so that you can decide whether my opinions have any relevance for you. It may temper your judgement. I grew up in that most reviled racist country, South Africa, where my grandfather seemed a kind of Atticus Finch, only he nursed the ambition to undermine the justification for racism ( the image of Africans still immersed in innocent childhood, unready for the world) with his dogged dedication to African education. He was determined to make them ready. If you are interested I wrote about him earlier HERE.  He started at six in the morning and we never saw him except for meals.

I was at a school where our priest was Trevor Huddleston, the man who was remembered by Mandela for raising his hat to a black woman, cleaning on her knees. So my childhood was spent not unlike that of Scout. My heroes were those brave and determined to defy the prevalent racist attitudes. It did not stop them employing cooks and cleaners ( and getting cross with them) or inviting black Professors to dine. If you are colour-blind then other distinctions determine decisions and the company you keep.

I have lived with Mockingbird all my life, as the perfect novel integrating the personal with the political, the pinnacle of the moral absolute, as well as the most evocative account of my own childhood. My second mother Milly was Calpurnia, and Jem the brother I longed for.  One of my daughters is called Jem for that reason. So why am I not indignant that Watchman strips away that perfect Atticus and renders him mortal, complex, and ambivalent?

It is a different time and the time for me to grow up too. Along with this book. Black and white are no longer the absolutes they were. Once dilution happens grey is the new black, and the new white. I cannot say very much without introducing spoilers for the reader in the context of the book, except in general terms. Scout’s need to confront the shining knight of her now frail, but no less loving, a father is also my need to re-evaluate my own innocence. When you are imprisoned by prejudice and fighting to honour your own ‘Watchman’ things are kept simple; they have to be.

I don’t want to summarize the book, or quote what will distort surprise. It is a journey best not described.

I do not think Watchman as perfect a construction as Mockingbird, it is not an outer story of event, but an inner one towards the messy limits imposed by Scout’s outgrown needs of her father at just the point when what HE needs is her.

It is still rare to read deeply psychological novels that deal with the damage that can be done by children to their parents, or the recognition in a parent that only time will endow the qualities they hoped to impart, while time is running out.

I cannot help feeling that Harper Lee regains her own Watchman by this publication. I refuse to find significant all the conjectures surrounding its publication. Those will be forgotten and do not matter.

It must be difficult to write the most regaled novel of the century, to be richly rewarded financially without expressing your misgivings, your qualifying caveats, and do so by restoring both Atticus and Scout to humanity. ‘ Leave me be wontcha

I truly salute her courage, not to want to die before re-stating her independence and restoring the noble Atticus to pre-eminent and frail humanity by stripping away the image imposed upon him.

If the public is not adult enough to grow up but wants to retain only black and white and the simple lines of easy virtue they have not begun to understand either of the books, or this compassionate author. Yes there are the odd grammatical infelicities, and occasional clumsy constructions that a less respectful editor would have ironed out. Few books flow immaculate from the pen, for me, in this case, I applaud them. It means Harper Lee is still one of us. I feel rejuvenated by her small and unimportant faults.

That brings me to what will provide the next post: an examination of this injunction of what a writer owes their reader. This has become the new conformity. Behave as you are expected to behave, write what we expect to read.

It is  deadly, and it kills the desire to write at all. Books are gifts, not obligations, and words and ideas are dangerous. We must fight to keep them so. We owe readers nothing but the gift of ourselves. I have just remembered that, and Watchman’s influence may see me through, as Mockingbird once did.

My Calpurnia with Windy my dog
My Calpurnia with Windy my dog

Virtual and Sometime Friends ( Really Careless Talk!)

Reflections on the just deserts of the truly talented writer.

Virtual and Sometime Friends ( Really Careless Talk!)

I have taken a long silence in the past weeks. Many loose threads are now waving at me to be woven into some kind of order. Having briefed the court case and found the book judged ‘not guilty’ I was bereft of purpose. Bereft also of much conviction that anything else I could say would have the value that justified saying it.

Some of those threads. Casual Observations, all.

• Blogging.

Unlike cooking which presents the necessity at least once daily, there is no appetite for a blog that is reflective, philosophically reflective, or too argumentative, or too long. Guilty as charged m’lud. I have perhaps twelve faithful friends who read and comment, and some at extravagant length. That is most warming and I can answer at equal length and never write anything else. This might discourage others who prefer to mwah or contrive pithy aphorisms. I have never prompted virtual kisses, probably not cuddly enough. I have my ‘demanding’ books and odd ideas about life, of no compelling relevance to anyone.

I did start a blog in the hope my books would gain readers, and many of my verbal followers have read one or both- perhaps eight altogether, and given the nature of those books they know me rather well, already.

So how to blog without skills to share for no evident appetites?

Yet without those friends life would be lonely indeed. They have come to be important, each one, and I can track them on the ‘like-lineup’ of other blogs and give a brief wave to their familiar avatars.

Another thing ( and I would like to know if others find this). I have ‘used up’ ideas on blogs and it has prompted suggestions like ‘Turn the Court Case into a Stage play’. But the salad wilts. It has languished on the table of my blog and been mostly ignored. I cannot make anything with it but a sort of spinach soup. I would much rather shop anew, but since very few read it, that is tantamount to waste. I might do it in time when it has been rinsed under a cold tap of neglect.

• Virtual Friends

It occurs to me that on line friendship should never be assumed as having much in common with the stop-in-the-street, have-a-coffee sort. Blog posts are like a brief torch that catches a facet of reflection. We face one another like crystals briefly stilled because we catch the same light. Another facet fails, or catches another nodding head.

For me this is the strength of on-line friendship, we relate to what is important that we share and move along. Many feel that this is indicative of superficiality. I disagree. There is a great economy in acknowledgment (or disagreement). I think where ideas are in the mix it is intimate, and real but perhaps being intimate needs no pursuit, or much time. A firefly should be enough to light up the dark.

If one was to meet for coffee it might spoil everything. One would probably find that we shared only ideas but not tastes, or values, or the use of money. If I had to double the tip for the nice waitress,to save face for another’s neglect, even good ideas would no longer retain their sparkle. It would spoil it for me if someone I really valued for ideas turned out mean, or vulgar, or emotionally up-tight.

I am not saying I suspect my friends of any of those qualities ( they are all extraordinarily generous) but I cannot talk about cricket for long..or show much interest in hair colour. Kindness might demand both!

Grander now than then!
Grander now than then!

Finally.

I am half way through ‘Go Set a Watchmen’ and now remember why it is I write (and maybe should stop!) I won’t spoil things before I review it (and won’t then) but what is encountered is Harper Lee, who would never need to blog or talk over coffee. She is in every line and between them. I am not venturing to comment on the book but the revelation of someone who took the context of her childhood world and wove Maycomb so discerningly that Maycomb is my backyard and all those citizens, with their idiosyncrasies the aunts I never had, the bus drivers I know to avoid, and the short cuts through the yards I know to take. Yet she never ventured far afield and still could see them with that Austen eye for minutiae that told the whole story.

That's better!
That’s better!

Oh Lord writing! It’s a bugger, it’s a bitch, and such a come hither seduction. Whatever is the opinion of the moral defenestration of Atticus Finch ( and I sense the way we could be headed, but may be rescued?) it has allayed the belief that Mockingbird was a one horse carriage and a kind of happy-catch-the-current-racial-tension fluke. She is a master of time without even bothering to signal what she assumes her readers will intuit. She flips into the past without even putting on shoes or a comb through her hair, and comes back full tilt through the doorway of the present. Scout always broke the rules, with a finger to her nose and thank God, with the-proper-way-to-write police, she did. She pays all of us the compliment of understanding her deeply and seeing a story through her eyes. All the way. No blog necessary!

Yes, I know what you are going to say.

Courthouse By TheHistoryPirate (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Featured Image By Jeff Reed (Altairisfar) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 us (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/us/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Interview with Jane Davis. Featured Guest on Virtual Book Club

Interview with Jane Davis. Featured Guest on Virtual Book Club.

A really challenging interview to dissect out a life of writing, and what contributed.

An Invitation from the Serpent of Eden (DNA)

While the Jury is ‘out’ I thought to anticipate the next stage of the trial ( inappropriate language) by giving you an introduction to ‘said’ language!

This five minute reading illustrates and invites. Rather than board Tardis ( as previously suggested) this is a short journey on a tall ship. A taster of the journey you might wish to take? This reading might clarify ‘symphonic prose’ and a book more intimate than Magnum Octopus, really a bedside companion with which to go skinny dipping.

Join the Human Odyssey, and welcome the sip to port?
Join the Human Odyssey, and welcome the ship back to port?

Recording kindly provided by Dmitry Selemir and taken at Scriggler Live Event on 17th April.at The Harrison Pub’s underground theatre.

Interview with Alexander Zoltai.

Perception and Redefining Reality in each Individual

This year I intend to write posts on the gulf between Perception and Reality, and how this shapes books, and how we read them, and how we seek to find readers in the melee of false perceptions, pre-conceived , limited, both pre- and proscribed. Almost every writer starts out with an idea of what they want to accomplish. What intervenes, what compromises they make, what barriers they encounter, are the subjects of a blog emphasizing the gulf between perception ( their own or that of others, or the market for ideas) and the reality of a deep sense of identity.

To kick the first high ball into this arena I have asked Alexander M Zoltai to give his responses to some questions that will be related to this theme and its difficulties. Alexander runs a generous blog—exploring Reading, Writing, and Publishing—called Notes from an Alien.  That’s also the title of one of his books—recounting the struggles of three planets to find lasting peace; which, in itself, presupposes he has wrestled with much of this issue.

I shall call these interview posts.

Minding the Gap

Alexander in Focused Conversation
Alexander in Focused Conversation

 Alexander, what is the most important (to you) activity you engage in on this planet?

Well, Philippa, being nearly 69 years old, part of my most important activity is to stop doing certain things that could shorten my time left on earth…

But, my Work or Mission is to help fellow members of the Human Family realize our Oneness—not just some fuzzy, warm brother/sisterhood; but, solid, lived Oneness, which embraces and depends on honoring differences—Unity in Diversity.

How did you arrive at the point which defined that as your priority? (Notes from an Alien would suggest you feel you have something of value to convey. What is it?)

I’ve spent over 26 years studying what I consider the basic principles of Oneness, accompanied by a great load of struggle to live the principles. My source material was the Writings of the Bahá’í Faith.

As far as Notes from An Alien is concerned, that short novel took eleven of those years to be birthed (there were about four false starts) and is my major contribution toward helping folks, by portraying the struggle for Peace, which can only be attained once Unity is firmly established.

Most people have the idea that Peace comes first, then Unity can prevail.

Yet, how can even two people have Peace unless they find some common point of Unity?

What difficulties do you encounter in the exercise of that unique vision/mission and how do you solve those? What survival mechanisms help?

One difficulty has already been mentioned—helping people overcome the false idea that a patch-work peace can somehow lead to unity.

The other difficulty—what might be better called a challenge—is to promote Notes from An Alien so more folks can experience how Unity leads to Peace.

And, that challenge has a supportive challenge—blog five times a week about Writing, Reading, and Publishing and hope folks notice the offer of a free copy of the book in the side-bar (naturally, they can also buy the book, if they must…).

I also have my blogging platform pushing links of my posts out to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google Plus—I long ago gave up trying to “engage” folks in those venues…

And, since Notes from An Alien isn’t a particularly genre-type book, I’m hard at work on another novel in the same universe as Notes—something that will potentially attract more “mainstream” readers and lead them back to Notes

As far as survival mechanisms, I have to say that staying in the work is a great aid—persistence to provide meaningful and helpful blog posts and getting the second book in the series finished.

Beyond that, prayer is very important to me…

What are the rewards of pursuing your Mission?

I don’t focus on rewards, except those experienced while doing the work.

Yet, perhaps one “reward” of pursuing these goals is that I’m constantly cleaning the dust off the mirror of my soul…

Have you distilled what you have learned in some kind of personal philosophy, and if so could you outline its essential qualities?

I didn’t have to distill a philosophy since the Bahá’í Faith has over 300 books that cover every contingency of what it will take for humanity to finally reach it’s Golden Age—an Age of undisturbed Global Peace.

And, lest folks think I’m just a parrot for some religion, I should state that all the years leading to my finding this source material were a constant and multidisciplinary investigation of philosophy, psychology, literature, and what is called the occult.

Also, one of the root principles of my Faith is The Independent Search for Truth—no borrowed tenets, no inherited rules—individual thought and personal responsibility.

I feel I should list a few of the other essential principles that must be put into action for Peace on Earth:

* The abandonment of all forms of prejudice

* Assurance to women of full equality of opportunity with men

* Recognition of the unity and relativity of religious truth

* The elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth

* The realization of universal education

* The establishment of a global commonwealth of nations

* Recognition that true religion is in harmony with reason and the pursuit of scientific knowledge

I’ve shown most of those principles in action in Notes from An Alien and will do it again in my next book…

How easily do you find fellow travellers in sympathy with your philosophy? What draws people to you? Or what do they avoid?

I’ve found many people who can sympathize with some of the principles I attempt to live by; but most people have problems with a few of them, or feel some other plan would work better, or are so battle-fatigued from living in our current culture they don’t care…

And, since I spend most of my time in my small cave-apartment, not many people have a chance to be “drawn to me”—though, many are drawn to my blog…

Avoidance by others? Usually when I bring up the “hard” stuff, like we’re really more alike than we’re different from each other…

Are there things you regret? Or might have done differently? If so what and how?

No regrets are left—my actions before I fully woke up to my Mission were a sort of scortched-earth-policy—regrets burned as bridges were consumed—me walking away into my Valuable Years

To what extent do you see yourself as a product of your upbringing or early life ( either conforming or repudiating?) Did it ‘set the stage’ for what followed, and in what ways?

I was a total and horribly mixed product of my minister-parents and the prevailing society.And, even in my attempts to repudiate my upbringing and its social warping, I was ensnared in both…

Since I feel one of the most dangerous psychological activities is to look back and say, “If only I’d______.”, there is nothing I could have done differently, even the corrective measures I took once I found a rational Plan…

As a writer, what do you hope a reader will get from reading your books?

Perhaps a small glimmer of hope for Humanity—a spark that won’t die and might lead to a blazing determination to help…

What do you look for when you choose a book to read?

These days, it’s what can massage my mind in ways that will help me write the next book.In general, I seek good fiction—one might call it literary—with real characters living-out some form of Mission

If you had limitless influence how would you use it?

I would use it by giving it away…

Is there anything else you would like to add about this topic or yourself?

One thing. I think far too many people haven’t realized the truth about religion—hence, the common, “I’m spiritual, not religious.”. I think the reason for ignorance about religion is that folks take at face value what the believers in various religions tell them it is.

History shows clearly that every Messenger has had their Message distorted by the believers—one reason there have been so many Messengers…

Still, humanity has slowly grown up and is fast approaching its maturity—though, I doubt I’ll live long enough to see it from the perspective of this physical world…

Please provide links to your books ( with brief introductions) and to your website.

My blog is at: http://notesfromanalien.com/
Folks can get a free copy of my books, too.

Poetry: http://notesfromanalien.com/poetry/ — Is Your Soul In Here? A Poet’s Struggle with God.

Fantasy: http://notesfromanalien.com/friday-fantasy/ — 31 Tales of Mystery & Wonder.

Notes from An Alien: http://notesfromanalien.com/about-our-book/ — A Message for Earth — Three Worlds’ Transition from Greed and Superstition to Lasting Tranquility and Peace.

Thank you so much Alexander for agreeing to be interviewed, and also for all you do for authors on the lonely road. I am interested in your belief that humanity is approaching maturity and all this strife maybe the pangs of a new birth, and the resistance to it is fighting its final death rattle. I hope you are right.