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Let There Be Light

December 10, 2018

Chinese Candle in a temple

This time of year, though the hours of daylight are so few, the world seems filled with extra light. The shops are full of decorations in every shape, color, and configuration imaginable and most of the decorations feature light in some form – and it’s not just the shops. I’m doing my bit with candles in my windows. My neighbor’s window is graced with a menorah–more candles. 

The candles displayed by my neighbor and me are just two examples of the traditions honored at this time of  year as many of us prepare for the celebration of a special day – Christmas–or Hanukkah–or–Kwanzaa–or–Ramadan–or some holiday unknown to me, but precious to someone.  Mid-winter is a time of holidays, each with a distinct set of customs and a unique manner of observance. Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are celebrated with special meals and the giving of gifts. The food served and the gifts given vary according to the tradition being honored, but in each, they are chosen to remind celebrants of a their heritage. 

Ramadan follows the opposite path by observing the special time with fasting instead of feasting. And yet, even in this completely different tradition, there runs a common thread. All of the holidays involve at least some level of introspection. Underlying all the festivities, all the customs, both merry and solemn, there is a call to examine our innermost selves, to find out and declare what it is that makes our tradition unique. Paradoxically, in doing this, we come  face to face with other traditions and the realization that they are important to those who celebrate them and, with that, comes an awareness of the need for understanding.

Many celebrations throughout the year involve light (colored lights, candles, crackling logs, fireworks), but this is especially true of those that come in midwinter when night falls so quickly. Could this be because these holidays are so close to the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year, we feel a need to light the darkness? Are our candles really symbols of the light we find when we seek within and our need to proclaim it to the world? I feel sure that they are and it occurs to me that this need to proclaim is akin to the force that compels writers to write, painters to paint, and composers to compose. It’s the artist’s need to illuminate, to direct a beacon that shines so brightly we cannot fail to see it. But I believe it’s more than that. I believe it’s the need of every human being to have his/her special light recognized and acknowledged, a proclamation  of a common humanity that far outweighs superficial differences. 

So, I salute and thank all of you who light candles–whatever type of candle you choose and for whatever reason. Let there be candles – millions of candles of diverse size and shape and color–to celebrate our commonality. Let us put our candles together and keep the darkness at bay.


What I’m Reading Now

December 1, 2018

Actually, I just finished two books (which I read simultaneously, not my usual habit):

THE PEOPLE by Bernard Malamud – This book had been sitting on my TBR shelf for a number years. I put off reading it because I knew there was no ending. It’s the book Malamud was working on when he died of a heart attack in 1986. I found the book at a library book sale and, being a great admirer of his work, I grabbed it. It wasn’t until I got home that I realized it was an unfinished novel. Would I have bought it if I had known that? Probably. As I said, I’m a great admirer of his writing. He tackles important issues of what it means to be human. As such, he’s often dealing with tragedy, but somehow manages to infuse his writing with humor and, for me at least, to show his fellow humans as flawed, but not beyond hope. This novel is set in the nineteenth century and The People referred to in the title are Native Americans. The hero (he did seem a hero to me) is a Jewish peddler who is adopted as their leader and, as such, takes on the suffering of the tribe and has to deal with the brutalities and lies of the government. A number of short stories round out the volume. I haven’t read all of them yet, but the ones I have read confirm my belief in the genius and humanity of Bernard Malamud.

THE FIFTH SEASON (Part 1 of The Broken Earth trilogy) by N. K. Jemisin – This was a completely serendipitous find for me – a gift from an old friend. It’s science fiction/fantasy/dystopian, not my usual genre. My friend recommended it as well-written and thought-provoking (which it is) and challenged me to step outside my comfort zone (which I did). I’m glad I did. By the way, I had to look up DystopianI had only a vague idea of the meaning of the term. A simple definition is opposite of Utopianan apt description of this book. Maybe that’s why I don’t usually choose this genre. However, as I said, I am glad my friend nudged me into reading THE FIFTH SEASON. I tend to be an optimist (despite the current state of our planet) and seeing just how wrong things can go makes me uncomfortable – not a bad thing for a book to do. I found the landscape described in the story disturbing, but not beyond the stretch of my imagination. I always read a book hoping that, no matter bad things are, they will work out in the end. Since I’ve read only the first of the trilogy, I don’t know the ultimate fate of the characters or the world they inhabit but, frankly, it does not look good at this point. I’m putting off reading the other two volumes until after Christmas.

So much for the books I just finished. What am I reading now? I stepped back into my comfort zone with THE BRUTAL TELLING by Louise Penny. It’s part of a series that I love and I don’t understand why I hadn’t already read this book. As always, I’m enjoying time spent in Three Pines – a place where, despite the incidence of murders that take place there, restores my faith in humanity’s innate goodness.

How about you? Anyone care to share what you’re reading? Any recommendations?

Coming Soon – Author Expo

October 24, 2018

Heads-up of a coming event. This is the second Author Expo the Bucks County Library System has sponsored. I participated last year and had  a fun-filled afternoon. I met some new-to-me authors and connected with some dear friends I hadn’t seen for a while. The library was packed with writers eager to talk about stories – those already written and those still emerging – not just their own, but also those of their fellow writers. The range of conversations in which I participated and overheard was astounding – and inspiring.

I’ve always loved libraries. I’ve watched them change and adapt as the times changed. I’m impressed with how modern libraries bustle with activity and creative energy – very different from the libraries of my childhood. Those were quiet, almost reverent, places. I savored their hushed atmosphere. To me, it was as sacred as any church. Do I regret the changes? No. The really important things haven’t changed. The library is still the place to go if you want to immerse yourself in the thoughts and ideas of the greatest minds, the wildest imaginations, the wackiest senses of humor, past and present, that our planet has produced.

So … I hope those of you who are in the Bucks County, PA area will drop by on November 3. Everyone else, I hope you can find time to visit your local library, wherever it may be. There’s sure to be something interesting going on.


September 23, 2018

After a summer when writing-related activities had to be put aside in deference to some difficult situations that intrude in all our lives from to time,  I’m thrilled to return to Birth of a Novel by welcoming my friend, Fran McNabb, and hearing about her new book, A SOLDIER’S HONOR. 

Fran …

I started this book years ago. If someone were to ask me where I got the idea for this story, I’d have to be honest and say I really don’t remember.  Sometimes I know exactly where a storyline originated. I can pinpoint the exact moment, event, or setting that sparked one of my past stories, but this book’s origin is a mystery to me. I’m sure something in my past made me want to delve into a hero’s plight as he struggles to regain the honor that was unjustly stripped from him. I wish I could remember what it was.

The story begins as my hero Daniel is entering a work-release program to finish the remainder of a prison sentence, a sentence he was serving for defending the woman he thought he loved. His goal is to clear his name and to regain the honor that was stripped away from him. He is hired by a nursing facility through a state program and must work under Lisa Marie Hudson, a nurse supervisor who is shocked to find he is an ex-convict and one with no nursing experience.

Lisa struggles with her own problems. A widow who lost her husband in a pharmacy robbery is involved in a similar incident at the nursing facility, plunging her back into emotional tailspin. Together Daniel and Lisa learn to work together and to find the courage to live and love again. I love writing stories about characters who have lost hope but find a way to regain their spark for living again.

A few years ago my mother had to be put in a nursing facility and as I watched the staff care for her, I realized in my earlier version of the story I had no idea how a nursing home was run. I learned quite a lot during my time spent there with my mother and I gained a great respect for what the nurses and the staff members did for those in residence.

As Lisa and Daniel get to know each other, she calls them “two broken people searching for a little sunshine in their lives.” In the beginning that is true but I loved showing how they helped each other find the will to live and love again.

If you get a chance to read A SOLDIER’S HONOR, I hope you find it is an uplifting and enjoyable romance.  A SOLDIER’S HONOR can be found at Amazon. 

Sandy, thank you so much for having me on BIRTH OF A NOVEL.  I’m excited to talk about my newest book, A SOLDIER’S HONOR. 

Fran, the honor is mine. A SOLDIER’S HONOR is a wonderful story, with complex, very human characters – perfect for those cool fall days and nights that are coming. Thanks for taking time to share a bit about what went into its creation.

Readers, because I’m sure you’re curious, here ‘s a little something about Fran McNabb. She grew up along the beaches, bayous and islands of the Gulf Coast and uses this setting in most of her novels. She received both her BS and ME degrees from the University of Southern Mississippi. She taught high school English and journalism until she took an early retirement and now enjoys presenting writing workshops. She lives on a quiet bayou harbor with her husband. Together they enjoy boating, fishing, and visiting nearby islands. When she’s not writing or reading, she loves to paint. You can visit Fran online at She loves to hear from readers and invites comments about her books at or on Facebook @Fran McNabb, Author

Fran and I have been friends since we both wrote for Avalon Books. I think she’ll agree when I say there’s a special sisterhood among old Avaloners. We may be traveling separate paths in our writing lives, but we continue the friendships that were forged in those early days.




A Perfect Wedding

June 19, 2018

Something a little different this time – in honor of June, the month of brides, I’m posting a short story about a wedding, about plans memories and, most of all, about letting go. Hope you like it.

“A June wedding. Perfect. The garden will be at its best.” That little tuck appeared just above Beth’s left eyebrow, a telltale sign of resistance since she was a little girl. Surprised, I paused for a moment before I added, “Your grandmother would be so pleased.”

It’s not going to be here, Mom. Hank and I plan to be married in the chapel at the Workshop.”

“You can’t serious!”

The tuck settled in deeper.

Before either of us had a chance to say more, we heard the stamp of feet in the back hall and the clunk of pruning shears on the washroom table. Charles’s face had that shining look it always has when he comes in from the garden. He rubbed his cheek against mine and poured a cup of coffee.

I waited until he was seated. “You won’t believe the wedding your daughter is planning.”

One hand held the cup of steaming coffee; the other rested on the table, just touching Beth’s fingers. He winked at her and said, “Try me.”

“The Handicapped Workshop. That’s where she wants to be married.”

“The correct name is Sheltered Workshop. And we plan to be married in the chapel.”

“Instead of your grandmother’s rose garden.”

Charles withdrew his hand from the table and rubbed the back of his neck.

“If it were at least our church.” My voice sounded shrill – even to me.

“They can still have the reception in the garden.” Charles, ever the peacemaker, looked from one of us to the other.

“We’re having a picnic,” Beth said. Her voice was confident, almost breezy, but the rosy spots that appeared in her cheeks gave her away. “In the field by the river. Maybe a volleyball game. Very informal.”

“Like Gypsies.” I hadn’t meant to say that aloud, but it was true, so I let it stand.

Charles stirred sugar into his coffee, his down-turned face hiding his thoughts.

“This must be Hank’s idea.” I said.

Beth said, “No, it’s mine,” and put her cup down hard in the saucer, sending a dissonant jangle into the air around us. She glared into the cup, which was still vibrating from the force of her placement.

“Like a bunch of Gypsies.”

“Caroline, stop it!” Charles actually shouted at me. Shocked (we are not a shouting family), I looked from Beth to him. Over his shoulder, I saw my reflection in the window – brandishing my toast. Now I was shocked. Before I could put the toast down, Charles reached across the table and took it from me. We looked at each other, amazed, and listened to the somber tones of our grandfather clock which had begun to echo through the house. Charles broke the toast in two and handed the larger piece to me.

“Is there some reason?” We both spoke at once, directing the same question to our daughter. This was more like it.

Beth took a deep breath before she spoke. “Handicapped people are always on the fringe.” Another deep breath. “We want them to have a part in the wedding: usher, handle the guest book, help serve.” Her voice expanded as she continued. “They love Hank and me.”

“What about your family, your friends, people who’ve loved you all your life?”

“Oh, Mom. Do you know many weddings those people go to? For them, this’ll just be one more.”

“Friends, family. Don’t be too quick to take all that for granted.” Charles said.

I was glad he was standing up to her.

#  #  #

Later, when we stood at the sink, peeling potatoes, I reminded her, “This house, the garden, they were your grandmother’s.”

“I know, Mom, I know. We all know the story about how our grandfather went overseas and Grandma and Daddy came here to stay with her parents. And Grandma planted the rosebushes to keep busy while she waited for him to come home and then, when he was killed, she and Daddy stayed here. I know Daddy grew up in this house. And I know how thrilled Grandma Hamilton was when you and Daddy were married in the rose garden.” She recited it singsong, like a nursery rhyme.

I ignored the petulance in her tone and tried again, “You don’t remember, of course, but …”

“I know, Mom. I don’t have to remember. I’ve heard the story all my life. When our great-grandparents died, we came to stay with Grandma and we’ve been here ever since.”

“You took your first steps in the paths of the rose garden.” The memory of those proud, halting steps brought tears to my eyes. “You loved the garden when you were a little girl.”

“I still do. That doesn’t mean I have to be married there. Just because you did.”

“And your sister.”

“I’m not Meg.”

“Beth, are you sure?”

“That I’m not Meg?”

“Don’t tease. You know what I mean.”

“I’m sure, Mom.”

“Don’t be so quick to answer. Think about it.”

“I have thought about it,” Beth said. Then she turned and, smiling, touched my cheek with her fingertips. The pleasant, earthy scent of potato on her hands reassured me. She’s weakening. She’ll come round if I don’t push too hard.

#  #  #

I stood for a moment at the screen door, admiring them: my beautiful daughter, and her fiancé, Hank, handsome in his way, not the classic looks of my Charles, but still, a very presentable young man. I looked past them at the view I’ve come to love so: our yard, the town, the streets like a long staircase descending to the river, and the river itself curving around so that it cradles the town on three sides.

Meg and John’s car pulled up. Carrie, our only grandchild, was first out of the car. She bounced up the steps, and landed before us on the porch. She accepted hugs from Charles and me, but it was clear that she was not interested in us.

“Aunt Beth, when are we getting married?” she asked, dancing in excitement. She turned to Hank, “Did you know I’m gonna be your flower girl?” And then to Charles, “Grandpa, I’m finally gonna be a flower girl.”

He looked at Beth. “You going to have a flower girl, Pie?”

The oven buzzer sounded before Beth could answer.

#  #  #

“Grandpa, why did you ask Aunt Beth if she’s gonna have a flower girl?” The words came out of Carrie’s mouth almost as an extension of the grace Charles had just offered.

“Your Aunt Elizabeth has some very unusual plans,” I said.

I saw Hank reach for Beth’s hand under the table.

“Not that unusual,” she said, laughing, trying to get us to join in.

Carrie examined each adult face. She said, “Just so I get to be a flower girl and wear a fancy dress and stand under Grandmother Hamilton’s arbor.”

“This wedding’s not going to be in our garden,” Beth told her.

Hank stared at his plate, apparently intent on keeping the pickled beets from bleeding into the mashed potatoes.

“Well, where?” Carrie asked.

“Remember the Sheltered Workshop where Hank and I work?”


“The little chapel by the river?” Beth prompted.

Carrie wrinkled her nose, “It smells like bug spray.” Her eyes widened. “You can’t have a wedding there. Not a real wedding.”

“Mouths of babes,” I said. I couldn’t help myself.

“It doesn’t always smell like bug spray.” I heard the struggle for control in Beth’s voice. “We’ll put flowers there for the wedding – roses from Grandma’s garden. It’ll be like taking the mountain to Mohammed.” I knew she was still trying to get us to laugh.

“That’s silly,” Carrie said, laying down her fork and sitting up straight.

“Mouths of babes,” I whispered it this time, so softly I’m surprised anyone even heard but they all looked from Carrie to me. I turned to Meg. “Did I mention that they’re planning a picnic instead of a reception?”


“Complete with volleyball.”

Carrie wailed, “I can’t play volleyball in a flower girl dress.” She turned to Beth and said, “You promised me, Aunt Beth. Remember? When I had chicken pox and you brought me bride paperdolls? You said when you got married, I could be your flower girl and wear a white dress with lace.”

“Carrie …”

“And a ribbon for a belt …””I remember …”

“And a matching ribbon in my hair.”

“You can still do that.”

“You said maybe blue ribbon like my eyes. You promised.”

“I didn’t say the arbor.”

“You didn’t say NOT the arbor. So that’s like promising the arbor.”

The blue eyes were too bright now and the little pointed chin trembled as Carrie stared accusingly at Beth. I had to look away from that small brave face – out of the dining room, through the foyer, and beyond. The sun was setting and shadows filled the house. In the living room, I could see only the outlines of the things that were so much a part of our lives: the graceful contour of the sofa back; the tall wingchair; the piano, its outline crowned with the shapes of framed photographs, each so familiar to me that I needed no light to see the faces. I looked long at my mother’s picture, wondering what she would think of this wedding.

Carrie’s voice brought me back to the dining room. “It was a promise. All of it. Arbor and all. I know it was a promise. It’s bad luck to break a promise about a wedding.”

Now Beth’s face held my attention. I saw her glance at Hank, an appeal for help, which he missed.

Her father did not. He said, “I don’t know about anybody else, but I’m ready for dessert.”

“Beth and I’ll get it,” Meg said.

I started to get up.

Meg put her hand on my shoulder. “Mom, you stay put.”

They seemed to disappear instantaneously. There were two empty places at the table where my daughters had been. From my chair nearest the door, I could hear them in the kitchen.

“Look, Sis, don’t let Carrie influence you. If this is what you really want …”

“I wouldn’t hurt her for …”

“Don’t worry about her. We can make her understand.” I heard the knife scrape against the bottom of the pie plate.

And Beth’s voice: “I’ll get the ice cream.”

“You should think about Mom and Dad though.”

I heard the freezer door open and imagined the slap of cold air on Beth’s face.

“And yourself.” That was Meg again. “This house, the garden, Grandma’s roses, the wedding dress we all wore. You turn your back on all that …”

“I’m not turning my back on anything! How can you say that?”

“Just think about those things.”

“I can still wear the dress.”

“Why bother?”

“That’s not fair!”

“Think about it.” Meg’s voice again. So – she’s on my side. With daughters, you never know. Poor Bethy. Well, I’m sure she’ll be glad some day we talked her out of that Gypsy wedding. Probably is already. All she needs is an excuse to save face.

I resolved to help her out. “That chapel’s not very big,” I said after they had served the dessert.

“Ladies.” Charles made a timeout tee with his hands. “I think this pie deserves our undivided attention.”

Beth wouldn’t even look at me.

#  #  #

“Please, just listen,” Beth said later, after Meg and John had carried a sleeping Carrie to the car.

“We’ve been listening,” I said.

“Not really. You don’t understand what we’re trying to do.”

“No, I guess we don’t.”

“If we have the wedding at the Workshop, all of our people can come.”

“They can come here.”

“It’s not the same. They’d just be guests. If it’s at the Workshop, it’ll be like they’re giving the wedding.”

In the quiet that spread around us, I could her words, could almost read them in the air. I knew from Beth’s face that she was reading them too, understanding fully, perhaps for the first time, all that they implied, but she let them stand. Charles and Hank remained silent, studying the swirls in the Oriental carpet. I looked out the window, but it was dark now, and I could not see the garden or the town or the river, just the four of us reflected in the glass.

#  #  #

The night that followed was long and sleepless. I stared into the dark, thinking, remembering, until finally, shafts of daylight penetrated the curtains. I heard light, quick footsteps on the stairs and called out, “Bethy.”

“Yes?” She sounded annoyed, but she waited.

“Going for a jog?”

“Um hmm.”

“Have coffee with me first.”

“You don’t have to get up yet. I’ll cut it short and be back in time for breakfast.”

“Shall I make French toast? You’ve always …”

“I don’t eat that way any more.”

“A little splurge?”

“You don’t have to make breakfast for me.”

“I know I don’t have to.” I brushed some hair off her face. “But wouldn’t it be nice?”

She shook her head, causing her hair to lift and then to fall again in rippling waves, just as it had when she was a little girl.

“I didn’t sleep much last night,” I told her.

“Mom, do we have to talk about this now?”

“Just listen.”

She sighed and sat down.

“I lay there, remembering …”

“I know. The roses. The fragrance. The breeze from the river.” She was using that singsong voice again. “The sounds of the town in the background.”

“No, dear.” Her head was bent so that the sunlight on her hair was almost blinding. “Well, yes, I did think of those things. Mostly, though, I remembered the town I grew up in, the church I didn’t get married in.” She looked into my eyes as I continued. “My mother. I’m not sure she ever understood why I planned the wedding I did. I know I was right, though, to do it my own way. And now it’s your turn. That’s all I wanted to tell you. That and how proud of you I am.”

A Perfect Wedding is one of a trio of short stories –

Road Trip

June 2, 2018

We Americans are not a stay-at-home bunch. Not surprising since, except for Native Americans, we’re the children of people who packed up everything they owned and headed for a new land. We’re also a friendly bunch. That’s one of the reasons my husband and I love road trips. We want to see as many as possible of the wonders our country has to offer, but even more, we want to peer beyond those attractions into the hidden corners of the country and to meet the people who live there. For us, a road trip is a chance to celebrate the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, a matter of balance.

One trip we’ve taken multiple times is almost a thousand miles each way – from a small town just north of Philadelphia to a small town just west of St. Louis. We make this trip about twice a year to see family, to re-visit our roots and, believe it or not, we always drive. As many times as we’ve made this trip, we always get into the car ready to see something new – and we’ve never been disappointed.

We don’t take the most obvious route, which would be the PA Turnpike, then west on I-70 until we hit St. Louis.  Too much traffic, too many huge trucks. I appreciate the contribution truckers make to our way of life, delivering all those goodies we buy on the internet and much of the food we find in our supermarkets, but it’s no fun being in a tiny car barreling along the highway in a box made by huge semis.  I-70 - 2

I laughed when I saw this picture of I-70. I’ve never seen it that empty.

Neither do we take back roads, though the prospect is temping. Maybe some day when we have more time (like that will ever happen). We follow a route that dips south through the mountains of West Virginia, then head west and travel through Kentucky horse country.

It’s a beautiful route and a reminder of just how beautiful this country is, how large and how varied the scenery.

But the best part is always the people we run into when we stop for gas and/or meals. As I said earlier, Americans are a friendly people. We really want to like everyone. Even people wearing T-shirts that proclaim views very different from those I hold are good company when we meet on a person-to-person level and forget about the artificial barriers so prevalent these days. These encounters give me hope for the future of our country and our world.

Finally, there’s that moment when I catch the first glimpse of the St. Louis Arch. It’s my welcome-home symbol. As much as I love new places and new people, seeing the places and people that I grew up with never fails to give my heart a lift. Again, a matter of  balance, the necessity of both roots and wings.


My grandson, Sean, took the above picture of the Arch. He was eight years old at the time. It was a real joy to take a road trip with him – laughing, playing silly car games, seeing new sights, seeing old sights through new eyes. Yes, there were a few “how much longers” and “are we there yets”, but they prompted us to use our imaginations to engage his restless young mind and to call up memories of former trips with his father and uncle. Those always made him laugh. Most of the time Pete drove and I sat in back with Sean, an open atlas between us so he could see exactly where we were. One of our best trips ever.

Enjoy your summer, my friends, no matter where or how you spend it.




Man With Two Faces – Decopunk and Self-Reflection

May 15, 2018

An unexpected perk of writing is meeting other writers and learning what’s behind the tales they tell. One of the perks of this blog is that sometimes I get to share those stories with other readers. This week Don Swaim has very kindly agreed to tell us something about the genesis of his latest book, The Man With Two Faces.

From Don Swaim:

When I was seven, I often came across stuff I liked, little poems and stories, and would ask my mother to type them for me on the portable Remington she’d used during her two years at Lindenwood College in Missouri. As my jejune demands cut into her bridge games, dainty watercress lunches, and extended cocktail hours, she insisted I do my own typing.

So I taught myself to type using two fingers and a thumb, and became so boastfully proficient that by college some omnipotent journalism prof ordered me to display my technique, and promptly dispatched me to a touch-typing class before I could continue as a J-school student. I got an A in typing, and I learned that passing Mickey Mouse courses, like typing, would boost one’s overall grade average a lot more than flunking astrophysics.

Disclaimer: I never took a class in astrophysics. But I still type with two fingers and a thumb.

Which brings me to my book Man With Two Faces. A previous novel The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story took over twenty years to write, and was barely saved from extinction by a prominent scholar within the Bierce orbit. But Man With Two Faces, for better or worse, was put together in record time (for me), less than a year.

I’d always been fascinated by a decorative concept of the twenties and thirties known as Art Deco, and it was serendipity that led to my discovery of a minor literary genre, Decopunk, which combines the artistic sensibility of the period with action and suspense. Art Deco itself is personified by symmetrical and rectilinear lines suggesting movement and speed. In architecture, the famed Chrysler Building in New York is a prime example.

Man With Two Faces began as a short story, which was submitted to my local writers workshop. However, the members failed to appreciate the brilliance of my work to the degree that I did. Shallow, lightweight, unrealistic, and unreal, were some of the criticisms. Undaunted, I wrote a second story with the same characters, and then another and another until I covered the years with seven tales narrated chronologically from 1934 through 1940, the final chapter being placed in Algiers on the eve of World War Two.

By then, most, but not all, in the workshop, appeared to grasp what I was trying to do: fabricate a parody of a pulp thriller in the context of the Great Depression. It was also intended to be funny.

Within ten months, I had “finished” the story sequence — while rejecting an opportunity to publish the first chapter in a magazine because I didn’t want to cut the story by a thousand pages.

Believing the story collection was too short for a conventional publisher, and planning to self-publish it as an ebook, in early January I came across two or three independent publishers amenable to accepting shorter works. Not long after my query, Montag Press, Oakland, offered me a contract.

Montag is an impudent, small publisher that calls itself a collective, and takes its name from the fireman in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, thus Montag’s motto, “Books Worth Burning.”

The following three months, after acceptance, required intensive work to turn a collection of related stories into a legitimate novel, albeit one that remains episodic. My editor at Montag provided helpful advice, and graphic artist Rick Febre designed a gorgeous cover with a period design complementing the story.

The book saw print by April, barely more than a year after I wrote the first two sentences: “The Man With Two Faces had returned to New York. To kill me.”

The story involves, not a superhero, but a flawed protagonist and his blowgun-brandishing girlfriend who escort the reader through the Great Depression’s celluloid glamour and real-life agony. The 1930s were glamorized by Hollywood films in the form of incredible dance routines and romantic stars. But the superficial elegance was undermined by poverty and desperation. Man With Two Faces attempts to exemplify the vivid incongruities of the Depression era while exposing its gritty underside.

In writing the book, I found out a lot about the Great Depression and myself.

What was surprising, even frightening, about the era was the willingness of some Americans to accept the rise of Hitler and Nazi Germany. The sight of Nazis goose stepping and openly flaunting their swastikas on the streets of the United States was a symbol that despotism lurked even in a democracy as it does now.

Particularly now.

What may not be apparent to the reader is that the novel’s hero, an ex-rum runner, diamond thief, and soldier of fortune, so physically unlike the author, is more like him than not, carrying many of author’s prejudices, fears, and inherent cockiness.

While there are too many literary influences for me to cite adequately, one stands out. As a child of science fiction and fantasy, I was led from raw pulp to an appreciation of true literature through the writing of Ray Bradbury. However, Ray also proved that even in pulp exceptional writing can be detected. The quality of Man With Two Faces may be assessed negatively or positively, but it is, without apology, Decopunk.

Ray Bradbury and I met twice and he was all I expected him to be.

One of my early readers, the Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi, describes Man With Two Faces as “gonzo” writing, for which Joshi claims an affection. While gonzo may be interpreted in varying ways, particularly in relation to journalism, the form invariably delves into offbeat subjects and unorthodox writing styles.

How does an author determine if his work makes any contribution to literature? It is a ridiculous question for which the answer is both simple and futile. As one who aspires to write to succeed, my advice is for authors to forget contributing to literature: Do your best, write decently, avoid clichés, and take chances, big chances even if your work is labeled as shallow, lightweight, unrealistic, and unreal.

Man With Two Faces is available from in both print and ebook:

Don Swaim is a novelist, journalist, broadcaster, and a winner of the Pearl S. Buck International short story award. His novel, The Assassination of Ambrose Bierce: A Love Story, was published in April 2016 by Hippocampus Press, New York. Swaim’s literary thriller, The H.L. Mencken Murder Case (St. Martin’s Press), was republished as a trade paperback by the Authors Guild’s Back in Print program. His fiction and articles have been published in small magazines and on the web, as well as his ebooks Steampunk Electroblaster Romance and Bright Sun Extinguished: Ode to Norman Mailer. Swaim is a Kansan by birth, Ohioan by education, Manhattanite by inclination, and Pennsylvanian by preference. His long-running CBS Radio broadcast about books and writers, “Book Beat: The Podcast,” continues on the Internet. He is also the founder of the venerable Bucks County Writers Workshop, and edits the web’s definitive Ambrose Bierce Site: