Old Friends are the Best

Like many people, I made relationships in college that have endured, even nearly fifty years later. There were three of us who were roommates for the 1971-1972 college year, and that one year has led to a lifetime of events where we three supported each other like sisters: marriages, divorces, childbirth, miscarriages, children with special needs, illnesses, the deaths of parents, siblings, and a spouse, and a child coming out as gay. We’ve always been there for each other with absolute, unconditional love.

When my first novel came out, my two friends were some of the first to get a copy of A War of Deception. I appreciated that, of course, but I never expected either to read it. One is a mystery fan, the other more for historical romance.

I spent a few days last week with those friends, and the first thing one said when I arrived was, “I loved your book. I didn’t think I would because I don’t read the spy genre, but once I started it, I couldn’t put it down. Why, I was going to bed at 6 p.m. so I could read it!”

She went on to explain that though she’d proofread my college term papers, she didn’t know I was such a storyteller.

My other friend echoed her comments and told me she was “hooked from the beginning and can’t put it down.”

Now, you say, they’re your friends; of course, they’d say that. Nope, these are the kind of friends who have told and will tell me when I’ve effed up and will mince no words. If they’d hated A War of Deception, they would have told me in no uncertain terms. And I would have accepted it because it would have originated in love.

I can’t describe what it means that friends of long-standing appreciate my literary efforts. That means more to me than any five-star review. It almost makes up for my father and brother not being here to celebrate this accomplishment.

I love all my friends made over the years, but old friends are the best.

Which of your lifelong friends can be brutally honest with you about your writing? Let me know in the comments.

Old School Spies

As a teenager, I read John Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Along with the TV show, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., it intrigued me about the world of espionage, especially Cold War espionage.

I’m a child of the Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis is not mere history to me. I lived it. I was glued to the television news. I had to bring a shoe box to school with a change of underwear, a bar of soap, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and some other odds and ends I don’t remember. We practiced “duck and cover” and trooping to the school’s musty basement, designated a fallout shelter. My father, in the Reserves by then, was told he’d likely be called up and deployed again to Berlin.

At the time I didn’t realize if a nuclear exchange had occurred, he would have died quickly. Not so much us. We lived two hours outside of Washington, D.C. We would have survived the initial blast, but radiation poisoning would have gotten us sooner or later.

I was ten and a half years old, thinking I wouldn’t make it to eleven.

Le Carre – The Master

Born David John Moore Cornwell, Le Carre was a pen name he used for writing spy novels while employed by Britain’s Security Service and Secret Intelligence Services. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, was his third novel, and its success allowed him to leave MI-6 and write full-time. His best-known character is the spy George Smiley, who has appeared in most of his works. He swears none of his work, especially “In From the Cold,” is based on things he experienced. Rather, he says, he was a keen observer of behavior and people.

His novels are dark and gritty, the settings dreary places I’d read about. My father had served in West Berlin and talked a bit about the situation there. I watched news reports about the Berlin Wall and about the daring escapes by people from the east to get to the west section of the city. Le Carre’s books were “real” to me.

And I loved them. They drew me into the world of intrigue and counterintelligence, not enough to want to be a spy, but enough to want to write stories like Le Carre’s and, later, Alan Furst’s.

Back to the Beginning

Le Carre’s newest release is A Legacy of Spies, a sequel of sorts to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. That intrigued me enough to plan on reading A Legacy of Spies, but I decided after almost fifty years, it was time to re-read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.

Oh, the language! The way he describes people and places. He puts you there. In the opening scene, I was at Checkpoint Charlie waiting in the cold and dark for an asset to defect, my tension a direct result of Le Carre’s scene-setting, his subtle revelation of the characters’ emotions. Though you never “see” the main character in that scene, Karl, the defector, when he meets his fate, your heart is pounding.

And it’s a writing lesson, too, on how to engage a reader, how to infuse a scene with tension, and how to deliver the punch to the gut.

It’s old school espionage, not the gadget-ridden, high-action novels and movies of this century. It’s spy vs. spy, it’s pitting wits against other wits, it’s manipulation and extortion, it’s human not tech, and it’s absolutely thrilling.

Do you want to know why I write about spies? Read anything by John Le Carre.

—————

P. A. Duncan’s first novel, A War of Deception, is available now on Amazon. This week only, the Kindle version is 99 cents.

Music Heals

“Musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast.”
The Mourning Bride, Act 1, Scene 1
William Congreve

For the past five weeks, as I’ve recovered from surgery and a nasty case of bronchitis (which hasn’t entirely faded), I’ve been the oft-misquoted being of the above quote–a savage beast. I’ve engaged in numerous online arguments, something I normally don’t do. I’ve snapped at baristas, strangers, family, and friends. I hate being sick, and I hate what being sick does to my mood. I’ve hated every word I’ve managed to write during this time. I’ve decided I’m a hack author who’ll never get more than three reviews.

Yeah, good thing I live alone, because living with me the past month would be a ginormous self-pity party.

Music

My social engagements have been limited in the past month as well. As an extrovert I do better when surrounded by people, but one of my early excursions after feeling halfway human again to a Starbucks for some #coffeeshopwriting resulted in people leaving the tables near me to sit somewhere else because of the coughing.

(No need to suggest home remedies or a visit to the doctor. The former don’t work, and I did the latter. This is a result of my usually well-controlled asthma, and there’s not much to be done but endure until it runs its course in five or six weeks.)

So, I hibernated. I didn’t even join my regular Google Hangout sessions because coughing. But one series of events I’ve always looked forward to since I moved to the Shenandoah Valley is the annual Heifetz Institute Summer Concert Series. (For more information on this incredible series, click here. If you ever needed a reason to visit the Valley, this should be at the top of your list.) How could I go, knowing the urge to cough comes on suddenly and lasts until I’ve coughed a lung up? (That’s called hyperbole used for dramatic effect.)

Music has always been important to me. I sing. I listen to many genres of music, depending on my mood: classical to soft rock to acid rock to opera to rap to… You get it. Music inspires me, calms me, excites me, thrills me, heals me. Music is always at my fingertips when I want it.

I skipped the opening Heifetz events but bought a ticket for “Stars of Tomorrow: PianoPalooza!” Piano performances are one of my favorite concerts. I looked forward to this, but my trepidation was there. Heifetz records all the performances. What if a coughing jag came on in the middle of the performance?

I picked a seat on the aisle so if it did, I could make a conspicuous escape.

Hath Charms

The first performance was a contemporary piece by Petr Wajsar for harpsichord, Harpsycho. The harpsichord is a beautiful instrument which produces amazing sounds, but this piece consisted of a lot of slamming of the keyboard, beating on the sides and bottom of the instrument.

I’m not a fan of contemporary classical aka “experimental” music. Sorry.

Next was a Brahms piece, Romance in F major, Opus 118 No. 5, a piano solo played with technical precision but with little passion.

“Musick” wasn’t soothing anything in me it seemed, and I kept expecting the tickle in my throat to manifest.

And then there was Stravinsky. Three movements from Petrushka: Danse russe (Russian Dance), Chez Petrouchka (Petrushka’s Room), and La semaine grasse (The Shrovetide Fair). Played by a Russian without the sheet music. When he closed his eyes and played with the controlled passion that’s very Russian, my spirit and my mood lifted with every chord.

As if that weren’t enough, next came Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-sharp minor by Liszt, played by four hands and with some wonderfully timed and performed comic mugging by the pianists.

I felt better than I had in weeks.

Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite, M. 60 followed by his La Valse, M. 72 had me floating on air.

I had to clear my throat a couple of times, but no coughing.

To Soothe A Savage Breast

I was so uplifted after this concert, I had trouble getting to sleep, the chords still running through my head. I slept through the night. No coughing, and I’ve yet to cough today.

Music heals.

As I said to a friend at the end of the concert, “I so needed this.”

This morning, my writing looks and feels better to me. I’m not a hack. I’m an author. I’m a novelist working on the next novel. I’m writing, and it’s good because “musick hath charms to soothe a savage breast” of its coughing.

Must be endorphins or something. 🎼😎

Best-Laid Plans

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men,/Gang aft angly*.” –Robert Burns, from “To a Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”

*awry

As you know, I look forward every year to Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia. The week-long workshop is the highlight of my writing year. This year, however, was special; the faculty asked if I’d be an alumnae reader. I was thrilled and honored, and because my first novel, A War of Deception, had just come out, it was also serendipitous.

“Class” Reunion

On Sunday evening after everyone’s arrival, we go to dinner, meet with our workshop instructor, meet our fellow work-shoppers, and go over the plan for the week. Because this was my sixth year at Tinker, this has become like a yearly class reunion. A lot of attendees are repeat “offenders.”

I was excited about my workshop, “A Writer’s Retreat,” led by Dan Mueller from the MFA program at the University of New Mexico. Mueller called this a “generative” workshop, meaning we’d read a short story the night before, receive a prompt, and come back the next with something we’d just written to share. It’s certainly a break from the typical workshop where you submit 20-40 pages ahead of time and come prepared to comment in depth on the work of every other person in the workshop.

I left the after-dinner faculty readings with anticipation.

Day One

Monday turned out to be a typical Monday. Nothing went right. I’d discovered the night before that I’d neglected to bring enough of a post-operation medication. Annoying and totally my fault for not double-checking or bringing the whole bottle with me instead of filling a pillbox for each day of the week.

A quick call to the doctor’s office, and he called in a prescription to a nearby CVS. After the afternoon craft lecture by Fred Leebron (on using and creating writing prompts; fascinating and erudite as usual), I walked back to the dorm parking lot to get my car and go pick up the medication.

On the drive there, I felt extreme fatigue, in that I wanted to take a serious nap. I attributed it to the fact I’d walked three and a quarter miles that day and I was 10 days post-op for heart surgery.

I got the meds and headed back to Hollins.

Tinker Mountain Writers Workshop used to be the only June event at Hollins. Then, they added a similar workshop for potters. In subsequent years they added a youth music camp and a youth dance camp. The quiet cafeteria became full and boisterous. The parking lots for the main dormitory became overflowing.

As I discovered when I returned from CVS. There was no place to park near the dorm, and by now my fatigue had become acute. After driving around a bit and waiting to see if someone freed up a space, I flagged down a campus security guard, explained my fatigue and its likely cause, and asked for some suggestions. The best he could offer was to park in the fitness center parking lot, close to the dorm but an extra distance to walk. It was all I had.

I took a nap but felt no better. I was still so fatigued, I asked someone to drive me to dinner. Again, I figured I’d pushed myself too hard, post-op. I decided a good night’s rest and driving myself to breakfast the next morning would mean less walking and less of a chance of repeating the fatigue.

Day Two

A good night’s sleep, and I was ready to go. As the day went on my energy level stayed steady. The workshop was great. I read a piece of flash fiction I’d written the afternoon before and got good feedback. Pinckney Benedict’s craft lecture on “Logos vs Pathos” was intriguing and thought-provoking, again as usual.

I spent the afternoon doing homework in the cafeteria, rather than doing too much walking, had my one-on-one with Dan, and was looking forward to dinner.

As I ate dinner, I felt the fatigue come on again, not as intense as before, but I decided to forego the student readings that evening to make sure I got plenty of sleep.

This time when I got back to the dorm parking lot, there was a parking spot, but by the time I reached the front door of the dorm, I felt as if I’d run a marathon.

In my room, I drank plenty of water and felt better, and I sat down to do a little novel revising. Around eight-thirty, a tickle began at the back of my throat. More water. The tickle became a runny nose, followed by constant coughing, followed by a sore throat and an earache, and sinus pain.

I’ve had hundreds, maybe thousands, of sinus infections in my life, and I knew what this was. Despite that knowledge, I was awake every couple of hours throughout the night coughing.

Day Three

By morning I knew it was time for Urgent Care, but I also knew I couldn’t drive. One of my writer friends offered to take me. A couple hours later, I was back in my dorm room with new meds and orders to rest.

Rest I was going to do because nothing was going to stop me from that Alumnae Reading on Thursday or so I thought.

And I rested, barely stirring from bed, and thank goodness for Hulu because it’s a dorm room. No television. Friends brought me lunch and dinner, but I only grew worse throughout the day and evening.

Tomorrow I’d be better. I had to be.

Day Four

I wasn’t better. If anything I was worse, and I should have expected that. I know how my sinus infections go. By now my asthma had become aggravated, and I made the decision to come home.

No Alumnae Reading, and I was pissed. At myself for getting sick; at my body for letting me down.

I’ve several, well, many decades of life under my belt, but in the last several years my usually reliable body has sabotaged me: a foot injury that took months to heal; episodic irregular heart rhythms that left me weak and frightened; a bout with shingles.

This past April in the midst of prepping for A War of Deception‘s release, I had a serious episode of irregular heart rhythm, so much so I had to go to hospital and get shocked back into sinus rhythm, followed a month later by the surgery designed to eliminate the problem.

Then, as I was beginning to feel like the old me again, a sinus infection and bronchitis took from me something I stood to gain validation from.

Aftermath

Now, don’t say I should have prayed harder or been a better person or that it’s God’s plan, because I’m a rationalist. Believe me, if prayer worked, I’d have been healed in a day. And I’m not a bad person; that threat of punishment over trivial matters is what pushed me away from religion.

No, I can’t and won’t accept my age, but I understand my anxiety about the surgery, which kept me from sleeping well for a month, depressed my immune system and helped bring this.

And, no, 20/20 hindsight is not useful nor appreciated.

I’m four and a half days into recovering from bronchitis, but since I have asthma, it takes me weeks rather than days to fully recover. Then, I expect the old me to make a command performance.

Oh, and they asked me to read again at next year’s Alumnae Reading. I’ll be there–one way or another.