Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Itsy-Bitsy Spider

They skirted the edge of the pond. Dragonflies flirted with water lilies, while a fountain stippled the surface with silver-dollar memories. College students drowsed on benches, backpacks wedged under their heads, arms draped over hangovers.

The day was summer warm on the couple’s arms, their necks. That pale, surprised flesh behind the knees.

“I’m sorry.”


A helicopter seed rained on her head.  She brushed it away. 

“Do you know how much?”

“I can hear it in your voice.”

“Good.” She swallowed. “Because I don’t know how to explain everything. Not now. The words won't—”

She pulled her sandal heel from a squelchy spot.


He took her elbow, while she lifted a foot to scrape off the mud with a leaf.

“We can talk about it later, then.”

She put her foot on the ground.  And looked at him. 

“So ‘later’ is still a . . . thing?”

He smiled and shook his head.

A duck led her little ones from the pond. The ducklings shook the water from their feathers. Waddling with a tender faith behind the mother, who charted a steady uphill course.

The couple followed.

She stepped over some goose shit. It splotched the flattened grass at regular intervals. Or maybe it was the ducks’ mess. At any rate—

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

At their approach, frogs popped like a chorus line into the murky water. She laughed and twined her fingers through his.

“Like there could be anything to fear on a day like this.”

He squeezed her hand in return.

“No,” he said, lifting his face to the sky. “Not on a day like this.”

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Interview with Author Stephen Parrish

I'm very pleased to welcome Stephen Parrish, author of The Tavernier Stones, as my guinea pig guest today.  It's my first interview on Murmurs!  So just imagine that ticking clock from 60 Minutes and me as Morley Safer (love that guy), and let's get started . . .

A couple of weeks ago now, I finished Steve's remarkable book about a global race to find the lost, legendary Tavernier stones.  Having enjoyed every minute of this intelligent, compelling adventure (completed it in just two days!), I jumped at the chance to ask Steve some questions during his whirlwind blog tour. 

For those of you who don't know him, Steve's worked hard to come by the title of "author."  How hard?  Well, check this out (if you don't click, just imagine The Odyssey and substitute a 16th rewrite in lieu of the six-headed monster).  But now that he is an author, Steve's not satisfied with just putting his book out there, and watching it sink or swim.  Nope, Steve is doing something truly incredible--he's giving away a diamond.  Be the first person to find an image of this diamond hidden on the internet, and you'll win your very own precious stone.  The details of this armchair treasure hunt--including instructions and clues--can be found on his website.  But you need to read the book to have a chance! 

Now onto those questions . . . 

So c'mon, Steve.  How about that first clue?

Have a look:


It's called a rail fence cipher, for reasons that will soon be obvious.  Start with the first letter in the top row.  Then move down to the first letter in the second row.  Then back up to the second letter in the first row.  Then back down again.  And so on.  You'll have to figure out the word breaks yourself.

What you extract is a phrase.  All of the clues, when solved, yield letters, words, phrases, or even substantial blocks of text that, when assembled in the right order, comprise a coherent little essay.  Embedded in the essay, in a way that itself is clearly (if diabolically) illustrated on the website, is the web location of the image of a diamond.  Be the first to find that image, and you win.

Ohhh . . . right.  I had it all along! 

THE TAVERNIER STONES is so successful at drawing together elements of cryptology, gemology, and cartography in a satisfying, compelling way.  Did you have a plan to extend that intrigue into an armchair treasure hunt even while writing the book?

No, the idea to do a treasure hunt based on the book came after the book was written.  In general I'm dissatisfied with, and even suspicious of, conventional book promotion methods and truisms.  I believe in the Ries/Trout Theorem: "History teaches that the only thing that works in marketing is the single, bold stroke."  I sought a single, bold stroke to promote my novel, and it was only natural, given the substance of the story, that it would have something to do with diamonds and codes.  I know that your experience as a jewelry salesman informs the novel, particularly the sections with David Freeman, who's as passionate about gems as he is unscrupulous.  Which of the legendary Tavernier stones would inspire you to risk life and limb to obtain it?    

Let's inventory a few: The Great Mogul Diamond weighed 280 carats when examined and sketched by Tavernier.  The Great Table Diamond weighed 242 carats.  Neither has been seen since.  The Mirror of Portugal was a 30 carat table-cut diamond stolen from the French Crown Jewels during the revolution, and missing since.  The whereabouts of the Pigot, a 49 carat oval-shaped diamond, has been a mystery since the 19th century.  Likewise the Florentine, a 137.25 carat yellow double-rose, first described by Tavernier.  And the Nizam, a dome-shaped stone of 277 carats.  Would I risk life and limb to unearth any of these?  Take your pick: 

1.  Nah, they're just rocks. 

2.  If you happen to be standing between them and me, I hope you like maple syrup, because you're about to become a pancake. 

I happen to love maple syrup.  But not as much as carats.  So, basically . . . you're toast.  (alright, so Morley wouldn't have gone there)

You know what I liked most about your book?  The Amish stuff.  Your protagonist, John Graf, has been kicked out of his Amish family, partly due to his curiosity about the world outside the community, and becomes obsessed with the Tavernier stones. For me, this internal struggle he has between his integrity and his quest is the heart of the novel.  Tell me something interesting you learned about the Amish while researching the book.   

I spent 18 months in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the heart of Amish country.  People there still can direct interested parties to locations for the movie "Witness," starring Harrison Ford.  The setting is very much like the movie depicted it: semi tractor trailers waiting behind horse-drawn buggies stopped at traffic lights.  I was personally drawn to several aspects of Amish culture, especially simplicity (which I consider the underrated virtue), conviction to ideals, and a powerful sense of community.  This last aspect--the Amish don't pay into social security because they don't need it--is one the rest of society would do well to study. 

If there's one stereotype to dispel, it's that Amish people are isolationist.  It's true they don't like tourists wandering into their yards (who does?), but I was never treated with anything but open and frank courtesy. 

You had to cut a lot of this book to please the powers-that-be.  I know you cut characters you really loved.   Which one do you miss the most?  And does he/she haunt your dreams and/or threaten to kick your ass unless resurrected in another book?    
Her name was Lola, she was a showgirl.  Seriously, one prominent agent offered to represent the novel, but told me I'd have to cut a character named Lola, a professor of history at the University of Salamanca, Spain.  For that and similar reasons, I didn't sign with the agent.  Another agent, one who also offered to represent, told me Lola was her favorite character.  You figure it out. 

Ultimately Lola returned to Character Land to await a new role.  And I regret the deportation.  My instincts tell me I made a mistake by listening too trustingly to criticism.  Sometimes you're going to be in the minority, but nevertheless right.  Follow your instincts. 

Well said.  Ultimately, we have to believe in the story we tell.    

Alright, now for the lightning round, in which the questions go from frivolously frothy to shockingly shallow in the blink of an eye: 

Monet or Manet? 

Monet.  He was the best representative of the only truly valuable movement in modern art.  I never could understand Manet. 

Teddy or Franklin Roosevelt? 

No preference.  I have mixed feelings about both.  Oh, hell, Teddy, because of the bear. 

Katharine or Audrey Hepburn?   

These are hard questions!  I'll go with Katharine, because of all the rejections she faced early in her career (her autobio, ME, is very inspiring). 

James Joyce or A Sharp Stick in The Eye? 

A sharp stick in the eye, if you please.  And some rocks to chew.  And while you're at it, I've always wondered what it would feel like to be racked.  When you're done with all that, burn me at the stake, and take your time about it. 

Spin-the-bottle or Two Minutes in the Closet?   

The closet, naturally.  But I thought it was seven minutes.  There's something in Deuteronomy 28 about groping in the dark, but I don't think they had this context in mind. 

God or Being-unto-nothingness (nah, just pulling your leg)? 

What?  You're not going to ask about my tattoo?  

One last question to redeem myself: on your wonderful blog, you bring up your lovely daughter from time to time.  And there is a very touching dedication to her at the front of the book. How has she shared in this journey with you?  And what do you think it means to her to see her dad’s novel in print? 

I think if you'd asked me this question fourteen years ago, when she was born, I'd have predicted there'd be a permanent glow in her eyes and she'd wear the book on her head.  She did take it to school to show everyone, otherwise its publication met with little fanfare.  Because she was there during every stage; inking the pages was just the last step on the journey. 

A journey she's making herself.  It's probably inevitable that she would want to be a writer, having grown up in a house full of books and watching her dad go clickety-clack all day.  We often pitch plots to each other, sometimes just for fun, sometimes because we need help with one.  The pitch always begins with "What if  . . . ?" and the response, or criticism, with "Yeah, but how about if . . . ?" 

That's how you plot.  Work with beta readers you trust, make your story structurally sound before committing too many words, and ask the question "What if . . . ?" over and over, a thousand times if necessary, to pace the scenes and arc the gaps.  And if you're smart, you do it with your children, so they become famous authors, hopefully famouser than you, and support you in your old age.
I'm taking notes.  Thanks, Steve.  This was fun.  

Would it be too annoying if I linked to Amazon again?  Oops. 

In all honesty, Steve is the most supportive and generous of blogging buddies.  The reason so many of us are eager to help him promote his book has less to do with the book itself (though I genuinely loved it), than with the kind of person he is--warm, authentic, and always willing to step up for his friends.  So even if you don't buy his novel, I hope I've helped you make a new connection in our little community here.

Thanks for reading this far.  Now go get that diamond!!