Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Interview with novelist Lily Iona MacKenzie

Author Lily Iona MacKenzie joins me today to talk about her new magical realism novel, Curva Peligrosa.

Welcome, Lily. Please share a little bit about yourself.
About me? A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in my early years, I supported myself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long-distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored me into the States). I also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (I was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got my legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, co-created The Story Shoppe, a weekly radio program for children that aired on KTIM in Marin County, CA, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in creative writing and one in the humanities). I have published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 155 American and Canadian venues. My novel Fling! was published in 2015. Curva Peligrosa was published in September 2017. Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released in 2018. My poetry collection All This was published in 2011. I taught rhetoric at the University of San Francisco for over 30 years and currently teach creative writing at USF’s Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning. I also blog at http://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.

Please tell us about your current release.
When Curva Peligrosa arrives in Weed, Alberta, after a twenty-year trek on the Old North Trail from southern Mexico, she stops its residents in their tracks. With a parrot on each shoulder, a glittering gold tooth, and a wicked trigger finger, she is unlike anything they have ever seen before. Curva is ready to settle down, but are the inhabitants of Weed ready for her? Possessed of an insatiable appetite for life and love, Curva’s infectious energy galvanizes the townspeople, turning their staid world upside down with her exotic elixirs and unbridled ways. Toss in an unscrupulous americano developer and a one-eyed Blackfoot chief, stir them all together in a tornado’s tempestuous tumult, and the town of Weed will never be the same again. A lyrical account of one woman’s journey and the unexpected effects it has on the people around her, Curva Peligrosa pulses with the magic at the heart and soul of life.

What inspired you to write this book?
The origin of our stories can be mysterious, as was the case with Curva. The narrative first took hold of me back in 2000. Here is what I wrote in my writer’s journal on 7/16/00, though I didn’t actually start writing the novel until 2003:

“Was taken with the image of the tornado that swept into Pine Lake, a resort near Red Deer, Alberta, yesterday, and has killed several people, flattening trailers etc. It isn’t the destruction that interests me. It’s devastating and unimaginable. It’s the image of the tornado, so innocent in itself, flattening a community, bringing with it so much sorrow. The tornado has a magical, mythical quality, reminding me of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. And it’s an image I can imagine using to start a book/story. There’s something in it for me, the way it gathers up so much in one swoop and then sets everything down in a new place, reconfigured. This is what interests me, and I don’t know quite what to do with it, but it has a compelling quality. It’s gripped my imagination. It’s odd how these things happen. The force they have. Novelists and writers in general are like tornados themselves in how they rearrange lives, facts, and places.”

It comes as no surprise that Curva Peligrosa opens with a tornado that sweeps through the fictional town of Weed, Alberta, and drops a purple outhouse into its center. Drowsing and dreaming inside that structure is its owner, Curva Peligrosa.

Adventurous and amorous, and over six feet tall, she possesses magical powers. She also has the greenest of thumbs, creating a tropical habitat in an arctic clime, and she possesses a wicked trigger finger. She proceeds to turn Weed upside down, like the tornado that opens the novel—upside down morally, spiritually, culturally, and sexually.

The narrative took off from there, giving me a wild ride as I tried to keep up with the irrepressible Curva.

What exciting story are you working on next?
I have another novel coming out on July 15, 2018: Freefall: A Divine Comedy. It features Tillie Bloom, a wacky installation artist, who travels to Venice for an extended reunion with three former friends, women she hung out with in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. The four had reconnected a few weeks earlier during a four-day reunion in Whistler, B.C. A near-death experience with a grizzly on a mountain linked the women at a deeper level. This new intimacy prompts them to celebrate the millennium and their approaching 60th birthdays in Italy, where two thirds of the book take place. During this time, secrets surface, their stories binding them closer together.

Tillie often gets lost in the maze of Venice streets, but she resurfaces sooner or later, intrigued by the various reflective surfaces and how they participate in the city’s love affair with light. These reflections counter the pull of darker forces, causing the four women to reevaluate themselves and their lives. Tillie, in particular, experiences a new understanding of herself that propels her into a new age, not unlike what she had experienced in the early ‘60s.

A humorous yet serious meditation on the relationship between art and mortality, Freefall: a Divine Comedy taps into the rich underground springs that feed all of our lives, suggesting that death is more complex than we normally believe—darkness and death being the source of life and not just the end. It also celebrates the rich tapestry of the imagination.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I don’t think I had a chance to “consider myself a writer.” It chose me and is as necessary to me as eating. If I don’t write each day, I become irritable and unpleasant to live with. Ask my husband!

When I was thirteen, I started keeping a diary that I wrote in a coded language I invented so anyone who read it wouldn’t be able to enter my world. I have no idea what happened to that first attempt to keep a journal, but I’m sure it was my writing self trying to emerge. That part of me was buried though, along with the diary, until my mid-twenties when I experienced a deep depression. At that time, I started keeping a journal again. I also went into therapy, the first step in recovering my writing self.

The journal writing was my attempt to understand what was happening. I wrote daily not only about what I was thinking and feeling, but I also recorded my nightly dreams. I’ve continued this practice ever since, learning much about myself in the process. I feel that keeping in close contact with my dreams has fed my writing and enriched my imagination. At this time, I also started exploring the craft of writing, entering an undergraduate creative writing program.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Over the years, I’ve had to support myself, both before and after I married my current husband in 1994. And since only 5% of writers can live off their writing income, I had to find other work. Luckily, I’ve been able to teach writing and literature part time at local colleges. At the moment I’m teaching creative writing to older adults at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong learning at the University of San Francisco. I’ve also had the privilege of helping my husband raise his two kids, who were 5 and 10 when we married. From so many demands on my time, I have learned to fit my writing needs into each day whenever I could, but I have always made sure that I wrote for at least an hour a day. In a year, that adds up to a lot of pages, and in addition to hundreds of poems, short stories, travel pieces, essays, and memoir, many of which I’ve published, I’ve also completed four+ novels. Of course, since publishing a poetry collection and two novels, I’ve also had to add book marketing to my list of things to do each day! But my life isn’t all work. I read voraciously. Working out daily on my stationary bike and at the gym keeps me trim and gives me energy for all of the other things I do. I love cooking, socializing with friends, and tending our garden. I also get great pleasure from dabbling in the visual arts.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
That I’m able to find humor in unexpected material.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A ballerina, another Annie Oakley, and Wonder Woman!

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I love John Cheevers quote: “I write to make sense of my life.” I feel that’s what I’m doing when I write.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Interview with suspense author Khaled Talib

Welcome, readers. Helping me kick off a new week is author Khaled Talib. We’re chatting about his suspense-thriller Gun Kiss.

Khaled is a former magazine journalist with local and international exposure. His articles have been published and syndicated to newspapers worldwide, and his short stories have appeared in literary journals and magazines. The author, who resides in Singapore, is a member of the International Thriller Writers. His second novel, Incognito, won the Silver award for the AuthorsDB Book Cover Contest 2017. It also received a 5-Star review from Readers’ Favorite.

Welcome, Kahled. Please tell us about your current release.
Gun Kiss begins with the Deringer that shot Abraham Lincoln getting stolen at the Ford's Theatre Museum by a professional thief. Blake Deco, the protagonist, is tasked by the FBI to go to the Balkans to retrieve it from a Russian general who purchased it. When Blake returns to the States later, he learns from a Mexican friend, Chavez, that a Hollywood movie star, Goldie St. Helen, has been kidnapped by a psychotic drug lord. After Blake successfully rescues the actress, the drug lord launches a terror campaign against them in a bid to get her back.

What inspired you to write this book?
I started jogging one morning but I couldn’t sleep that night as my legs ached. I distracted myself by watching an old movie. There was a famous actress, a blonde, in it. The actress was besotting in the movie that it inspired me to write my own story.

Excerpt from Gun Kiss:
The tall buildings around Washington, D.C.’s 10th Street overshadowed the historic Ford’s Theatre. Though the building had undergone refurbishment both inside and out, it still seemed slightly out of place in modern America. However, that didn’t stop the throngs of tourists visiting the building that June morning as wispy clouds threaded through the cerulean sky.
It was a crowded weekend day when Abraham Lincoln, in his overcoat, and two Union soldiers, their faces covered with bandanas, stepped out of the van. They meandered past the theater’s five historic doorways toward the modern glass entrance. Everyone assumed they were part of a promotion taking place at the museum. It was not uncommon to see park rangers and tour guides dressed in period costumes.
The man behind the Lincoln mask was Rick Walker—at least, that was the name he was currently going by. Highly educated, the thirty-six-year-old professional thief had a penchant for the fast life. If the assignment was a success today, he’d promised his girlfriend a nice holiday.
Two female park rangers stepped forward when Rick and his companions reached the front of the line.
“You have to get in line, sir. Also, you need to get tickets. Kindly remove the mask and bandanas before entering,” one of the park rangers said.
“I do apologize, madam, but I’m in a bit of a hurry,” Rick said. “I don’t think I need a ticket, nor do I have to get in line given who I am.”
“That’s the only way you’re going to get in,” the park ranger said.
 “Well, if you insist, madam, and once again, please accept my apologies.” Rick bowed and tipped his hat, then extended a hand to the park ranger, who instinctively took it.
Rick grabbed her wrist tightly and locked it to his own with a steel cuff.
“What are you doing?” the park ranger yelled, trying to jerk her hand away.
“Getting acquainted,” Rick said.
The park ranger reached for the walkie-talkie strapped to her belt, but Rick snatched it away from her. Frantically, she turned to the other park ranger. “Get security!”
One of the two Union soldiers dropped his prop rifle and grabbed the other park ranger’s hand, then cuffed her wrist to his own. He pulled out a real gun tucked under his waistband and aimed it at her.
Rick unbuttoned the jacket of his three-piece suit and brandished the bomb strapped to his chest.
 “Bomb! Bomb!” a young teenager in the line shrieked.
Pandemonium broke out as the screams of panic amplified. People ran in every direction. Those who moved slowly were slammed aside, or knocked over.
 Rick pulled the ranger cuffed to him aside. “We’re going downstairs, and we’re going to take the Deringer. Obey your president,” he said in a hollow voice.
“Yes, sir,” the park ranger said as beads of sweat formed on her forehead.
They descended by elevator and emptied into an interactive museum. The wealth of history in the dimly lit space featured original artifacts in glass showcases, furniture, statues, murals, and narrative devices. The visitors already in the museum scattered wildly at the sight of a man in a Lincoln mask displaying a bomb strapped to his chest, a park ranger cuffed to his wrist.
“Show’s over, folks,” Rick yelled. “Go!”
The park ranger guided her captors to a section in the museum where the Deringer floated in an oblong glass case capped at both ends with wood. A mural behind it depicted John Wilkes Booth firing a single shot at Abraham Lincoln as he sat in the theater box.
The Union soldier not cuffed to a park ranger took out a glasscutter from his coat pocket and began to cut a circle in the glass. When it popped free, he inserted his hand inside and yanked out the Deringer.
“We’re going to take you with us. Don’t give me trouble. If you behave, you’ll be back home in time for dinner with the family,” Rick said, dragging the park ranger closer to him. “Understand?”
The park ranger nodded once, nervously.
 “Excellent,” Rick said.
They exited through the theater’s main door and stepped out into the empty street. The crowd had dispersed. Some had regrouped tensely a few hundred meters away at both ends. “Cheer up—it’s going to be a fun day,” Rick said, walking toward the van.
 The park ranger with Rick raised her voice. “Please, please, let us go. I don’t want to die.”
“Well, behave and everything will be fine.” He opened the side, forced her in and jumped in after her. He shut the door after the accomplice had climbed in with the second park ranger.
The van began to move off.
“Hallelujah!” Rick yelled in excitement behind the mask as he sat at the back of the van. He removed the cuff from his wrist and secured the park ranger onto a railing.
“We’ll be arriving in five,” the driver said after a few blocks. “You know what to do.”
“I sure do,” Rick said as he removed the bomb strapped to his chest. Still wearing the mask, he looked at the hostages. “Don’t worry about the bomb, it’s fake.”
He unhooked a tote bag from the wall and began removing the contents. Facing away from the hostages, he removed the Lincoln mask and slipped into casual attire. He hid his face by putting on a red baseball cap and a pair of dark shades then stuffed the costume into the bag and swung it over his shoulder.
Rick looked again at the park rangers. “Look on the bright side—now you get to tell visitors a different story at the museum.”
The Union soldier in the back with him handed over the Deringer, which Rick slipped into the bag.
The driver slowed down and stopped behind a parked car.
“All good outside?” Rick asked.
“Yeah…all good. I parked a few cars behind us,” the driver replied, looking at the side mirror.
“Okay. Nice doing business with you guys.” Rick pulled open a trapdoor in the center of the floorboard, slid out, and slithered under the parked car in front of the van.
The van pulled away from the curb and sped down the street. After a minute, Rick rolled onto the road, got up, and walked toward the park at Judiciary Square on the Red Line and descended into the Metro.

A day later, Rick sat at a café with his eyes glued to the screen of a laptop, drinking a hot latte with his back against the wall. He scanned the faces of everyone who entered. Though he wasn’t expecting trouble, he remained vigilant.
“Is it in yet?” the tall blonde sitting across from him asked.
He scratched the roughness of his stubble as he continued to stare at the screen. “Not yet.”
Moments later, the figures on his account changed. A new deposit had been registered: ten million dollars.
Rick lifted his eyes. “Darling.”
“Remember, we’re in a public place, so don’t scream.”
She leaned forward. “It’s in?”
Rick wriggled his eyebrows. “Pack your bags. We’re going on a holiday, as I promised.”

What exciting story are you working on next?
I’m currently working on a murder-mystery set in a South Australian vineyard. For more than a decade, I handled the public relations account of the State here in Singapore. I used to visit that part of Australia regularly. It’s different from the rest of the states in terms of landscape, weather, people. I’m injecting everything into it based on my personal experiences.

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I was seven. I never enjoyed school, but I always light up when it came to essay writing. I knew there was something there, but I couldn’t understand what it was. My mind was talking to me. What’s interesting is that I noticed that most people in my class never appreciated stories or writing. They found it to be a chore. Yet I enjoyed creating stories, so I continued doing what I did best while ignoring the situations around me. At the end of the day you live for yourself; you are not beholden to anyone. What do you want to be? Some time back I met a school classmate that I’ve not seen for decades. He made a comment about me in my present to another – not in a bad way – and said that I live in my own world. In other words, I’m more interested in the realm of imagination and fantasy. Let me put it this way: when I look at things, whether it is a place, a spot, a painting or a person or a group of people having a conversation, I visualize it differently. For me, it’s not just now but I want to keep the scene. You know, it’s like what they say about enjoying the journey rather than wait for the destination. I noticed many people don’t appreciate that; they just can’t wait to reach their destination and skip everything in between. I, on the other hand, like to soak up everything.

Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
My background is magazine journalism and public relations. But I write full time these days though I still do some projects in between., the ones that I like. I don’t have a strict writing regime. I write when I feel like writing. However, I’m not the type who can just sit anywhere and write. I can’t write at a café or some unfamiliar place because it’ll make me feel distracted. It’ll take me a long time to settle it before I can even type the first sentence. I write in the morning, day and night. I don’t write when I’m tired, but my mind is always thinking about a scene. Did I miss something? Should I include this or that? It never stops until I write The End.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
You’ve heard of method acting but have you heard of method writing? That’s when I step into my character’s mind and be them. I imagine their mannerisms, body language, tone — everything. Hell! I’m still punctuating my conversation with real people by saying “Amigo” to them because I haven’t debriefed myself.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A fireman, then a detective (thanks to Alfred Hitchcock’s Three Investigators), a scientist and a movie star.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
If you plan to read Gun Kiss, expect the unexpected.


Thanks for being here today, Khaled.