Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Will This Generation's Steinbeck Please Stand Up

Sales are slumping at McDonald's. Those who were regular patrons of the fast food joint find themselves so stretched financially that even the items on the dollar menu are beyond their reach.

Those who are doing well in this current economic climate tend to have nice little stock portfolios, and they also tend to eat higher quality food than that which is to be found at McDonald's. The ones left behind on the lowest rung of the ladder are surviving on local food pantry offerings and food stamps, which McDonald's does not accept.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the poor were readily apparent. They stood in lines at soup kitchens. They crowded freight trains that crossed the country, searching for work of some kind. They fled from Dust Bowl farms in Oklahoma, their caravans visible to any photographer seeking an image of hardship and hard times.

They are not so visible these days, except in the coldness of a statistic. The so-called "long-term unemployed" are just the unemployed of the 1930s, but you won't find a body of literature being produced that documents their struggles. Where is this generation's John Steinbeck?

The blue collar demographic was hit the hardest in the 1930s, and their experiences instilled a near mania for education. It was the uneducated laborer that featured prominently in Steinbeck's works, but who is writing about these people now?

Scan the New York Times bestseller list and you'll find plenty of mysteries and thrillers. A novel about two children during the Second World War. A female protagonist dealing with substance abuse. Not a single novel about children whose parents can't find work and must subsist on wits and government handouts. No stories about a carpenter living in his car with his family, chasing across the country in search of any kind of work.

In this age of beancounters, an acquisitions editor at a major publishing house would turn down such books because there is no perceived appeal. Those who buy books can't relate to those who need every penny they can scrape together to put gas in the car to drive to another state in the hope that a job is at the end of the road. Hence, no sales. No sales, no profit. No thanks.

New York's literary agents are college educated and no doubt studied Steinbeck extensively as English majors, but they only want what sells and literary fiction just isn't moving.

Steinbeck documented a subset of Americana that continues to fascinate. Why else is an adaptation of his novel OF MICE AND MEN currently drawing a crowd on Broadway?

But the modern day Lennys and Georges? Not so much. There's unemployement benefits, aren't there? Government programs to help those sort of people get by?

Monday, July 21, 2014

History Lost In The Loss Of Letters

A letter written to a family member is a personal document, a record of events that are framed within the context of the family's collective memory. Such anecdotes are not to be found in online archives among newspaper articles or old photos scanned to a website.

People don't write letters to each other any more. So one hundred years from now, where will we go to uncover the stories that remind us of our humanity?

Jeremiah Hennessey Sr. was a British naval officer posted to Ireland during a very troubling time. Trade unionism was roiling the island, with the Dublin Lockout of 1913 still very fresh in the nervous minds of the colonial rulers. The natives were restless and forming their own small militias with an intent to topple to the government and break away from the British Empire. Mr. Hennessey was hard at work training sailors for the Royal Navy at the start of the First World War. Tensions at the time were high.

His son Jeremiah Junior was a member of the Irish Volunteers, the very group that was preparing to do battle against British might to win Ireland's freedom.

The Hennessey offspring were aware that their ancestors had a rift and stopped speaking to each other, but if not for a series of handwritten letters between father and son, the reason behind the split would have been lost to history. The letters are a lasting testament of a family divided by politics, far more than a scattering of e-mails that require a password to access and after the writer is gone, so too is the password and so the mail is lost as well.

The case of the Hennessey family is a small part of the history surrounding Ireland's Easter Rising of 1916, but history is told through a gathering of such stories. Historians will describe the actions of the leaders, but what do we know of the mindset of the followers without their words, which were once put down on paper.

The father sat at a table and took up a pen and stated in no uncertain terms to his son that the lad was not to return home after participating in a gun-running operation that was intended to level the field between the Irish Volunteers and the British-supplied loyalists who were determined to maintain their hold on Ireland. Father and son were unquestionably on opposite sides in the conflict, and in this case there was no reconciliation or an attempt by a father to understand his son or a son to ask forgiveness of his father.

The family has donated the items for a display that is part of a lead-up to the centennial of the Easter Rising. A part of history will be available for the public to read and perhaps gain a better understanding of who did the fighting that won them their freedom. It gives the citizens of Ireland a hint at the sacrifice involved, with young lads who tend to feel invincible doing something a bit mad as they chaffed at the restrictions of the Edwardian Era.

Without those letters, however, how would we know now what was actually happening then, and what the ordinary people thought about the tumult around them?

One hundred years from now, will our descendants have a way to be educated about the past so that they do not repeat our mistakes?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Chopped: The Post-Natal Version

Sometimes you have an employee that you want to let go but it isn't in you to give someone the sack. So you hope they leave of their own accord. Maybe decide to become a stay-at-home parent.

What can you do when that person comes back to work after having a baby, despite your most fervent prayers?

The best you can do is build a case for the action you will soon take. Prepare documentary evidence and then announce, "You've been chopped!"

Sheree Young is accused of putting ketchup on a hamburger, in clear violation of the customer's order. For that, she was let go from her job at a takeaway in Letterkenny. It wasn't just that, of course. One small complaint isn't enough to warrant such an extreme reaction. The owner of the restaurant where she worked as a cook also claims that she was on the verge of poisoning half of Letterkenny. The owner, it would appear, has watched numerous episodes of Gordon Ramsay's "Kitchen Nightmares", where you'll hear that very expression repeatedly.

Ms. Young had just returned from maternity leave when Giles McGee began to document her ineptitude. If only she had stayed home to mind the baby, he never would have had to go to such lengths to get her out of his kitchen.

The sad affair began soon after Mr. McGee took over the restaurant. Ms. Young sauced an order that was to be served without the red stuff. The customer assured Mr. McGee that it wasn't the first time, and as the owner, Mr. McGee had to be concerned. If someone doesn't want ketchup, and they keep getting it even though they don't want it, they will simply take their business elsewhere.

So he wrote the complaint down and gave it to the cook, to put her on notice.

Ms. Young went off on maternity leave, had her baby and wanted to come back to work, a most unhappy occasion for Mr. McGee. He didn't want her back, and as far as he was concerned, he didn't have a place for her. But the law is the law, and he had to take her back. It didn't mean, however, that he had to keep her.

The log of errors began in earnest.

There was the case of the undercooked taco mince, with all its raw meatiness threatening disease to the consumer. There was the time Ms. Young heated garlic mayo in the microwave, thereby creating a delightfully warm environment for the various bacteria that are so fond of egg products. The chicken was cooked beyond recognition. All in all, she was proving herself more than incompetent. Indeed, she was a danger to the health and well-being of the greater Letterkenny area.

After two weeks of gathering evidence, Mr. McGee gave his cook the sack. He was ready for the Employment Appeals Tribunal.

The case of unfair dismissal has begun, and Ms. Young's solicitor has duly noted that half of Letterkenny did not fall ill during the previous four years of Ms. Young's employment when she worked for the previous owner of Charley's Cafe. Hence, the claim of Mr. McGee is false. It could also mean that the previous owner of the cafe had lax standards which is why they got out of the restaurant business, but that may all come up later.  Or it could be that Ms. Young was angry at Mr. McGee for not wanting her back, and so she decided to get even by acting the part of incompetent cook. We may never know the truth in a case of he said, she said.

The initial phase of the hearing has concluded and the matter has been continued until later in the year. Perhaps that will give both sides time to find further evidence to prove their case, although it is clear that Mr. McGee has a leg up on that task. He has already written down all the things that his former employee did wrong, and about all she can do is say she didn't do what he says she did.

So what next? Do they have to bring in witnesses to affirm the charges and counter-charges? Or will the tribunal just fine Mr. McGee and let him go without forcing him to take back a cook he doesn't trust with the health and safety of his clients? A little something for everyone, so.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Inclusive But Exclusive

Ireland may not be as Catholic as it once was, but old habits don't disappear as people move away from the traditions of their youth. A person may not go to church every Sunday, or any Sunday for that matter, but they could still feel that the ethos of their nation is Catholic because that's just how it's always been.

For Irish schoolchildren, that has come to be a problem in the eyes of the United Nations.

Most of the schools are under the control of various religious organizations. The Christian Brothers still operate under the guidelines established by Edmund Rice. The Sisters of Mercy are instructing children just as they were instructing children one hundred years ago. Parishes have their schools that are tied to the parish and so heavily influenced by the local priest. Parents send their offspring to the same schools that they attended, and never consider the religious angle.

Not so the United Nations.

Immigration and the influx of foreign workers in the employ of the large multinational corporations that call Ireland home are using the schools for their children as well, and all it takes is one disgruntled parent to complain and the UN is on it. Not all these newcomers are Catholic, of course, and they didn't attend Catholic schools and they can't send their children to the same sort of school that they attended because those are not easily found in Ireland.

To begin with, the average Irish classroom has a crucifix displayed on the wall, and in a prominent location. If your child isn't Catholic, you might fear that the symbol would be enough to instill an urge to convert, to be like all the other kids in the room. Or maybe you just don't like the sense that your precious baby is made to feel different because the cross isn't part of your personal faith, or lack thereof.

Then there is the time alloted for religious instruction. Part of attending Catholic school is learning how to be a Catholic, but if you are a follower of Islam or any Protestant faith, that won't sit well.

So the UN has heard the complaints and is strongly urging Ireland to be more "inclusive" of others in their schools. And the Minister for Education has compiled a report with numerous suggestions on how best to achieve that.

Let those who wish to opt out of religion classes do so. That way, the child can be stared at as he or she leaves the room while everyone else gets to stay. Single out the non-Catholics by making them stand out from the crowd, and won't your child thank you. Grant them a bit of exclusivity in the name of inclusivity, and don't wonder why your son or daughter hates you for it.

And about those religion classes. Instead of daily instruction, make it once or twice a week. And then say that the kids being pulled out of the classroom are heading off for special education. You know, make it look like they need extra help. Learning disabled, that's always a safe label that won't harm the child's psyche when friends ask why the kid is getting hauled out while everyone else stays for lessons.

The crucifix will stay. Minister Ruairi Quinn wouldn't dare suggest otherwise. Practicing Catholic or not, the average Irish voter doesn't want outsiders coming in and changing things that have always been there because the newcomers want to inject their customs into Irish culture. But if some other religion has some symbol that is used for festivals or such, let the school set aside a little exhibit area so the non-Catholics can fee included. As long as other children don't make fun of the items, in which case a new set of instructions will have to be issued by the bureacracy.

We can't have this new inclusivity lead to further alienation. Just because children long to fit in doesn't mean that adults can allow that to happen.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

If Stephen King Were Irish He Would Live Here

Can a house drive its residents to kill? The very notion sounds like the plot of a Stephen King novel, where a normally inanimate object comes to life...or perhaps we should say death.

There is a house in Lixnaw, in the quiet countryside of Kerry, that has seen more than a reasonable amount of death in the short amount of time it has stood on the side of the road. Locals think the place was built in the 1950s, after another house was razed. Right there you've got to wonder what went on in that other house, to perhaps make the ground itself imbued with some sort of horror. Like a miasma, you can imagine the evil penetrating through the floor boards of the replacement structure and infecting the new house.

Most recently, Susan Dunne was murdered in the house by her eighteen-year-old autistic son. She was well known in the area, given her leadership of Kerry Autism Action, and she often spoke out in support of aid to those dealing with autistic family members. What better advocate than one who is dealing with the very issues another is struggling with, but in the end, Ms. Dunne dealt with the most difficult issue of all in the growing physical strength of a young man who was mentally incapable of controlling that strength.

One tragedy is not enough to result in a local demand that a home be knocked, however.

Before Ms. Dunne took up residence, another resident of the house was murdered while in Wales. Before that, a tenant was killed in a road accident. And before that? Tragic deaths struck two other families, for a total of five deaths.

The confluence of tragedy has left local residents with a sense that the house is tainted and should be removed, so that no other unsuspecting resident will suffer. Given the record of deaths associated with the place, no one in the area would ever consider moving in, and you can bet that anyone from outside the area who was looking for a new place on the edge of a bog would be thoroughly warned off by the neighbors. Superstition? Or is merely coincidence?

A motion was floated at the last council meeting, and it is highly likely that action will be taken to demolish the cursed structure and leave the home's history to be told as ghost stories. For now, Ms. Dunne's personal belongings remain in the house until her family can remove them, but they will need time to get over the shock and sorrow. So the house will sit, unoccupied, dark and cold, where children will run up to the front door on Halloween, meeting the challenge of a dare.

There is a story to be told, the skeleton of a plot residing in the timbers and plaster of an unassuming council house in the quiet countryside of County Kerry. What better writing prompt could you ask for, heading into a summer weekend?

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Elder Abuse Next Door

The woman who wrote TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD does not do public appearances. She has not written another book since that first one, and doesn't grant interviews to talk about her book. When she does talk to a reporter, she doesn't have much to say about her personal life. She guards her privacy.

In short, Harper Lee has largely retreated from the world, and the world is that much more fascinated by the author who penned a novel so powerful that it is still read and discussed.

Given that level of fascination, it comes as no surprise that someone would figure out a way to probe that which is hidden behind the curtains of the home where Harper Lee lives with her elderly sister Alice. Go in through the back door if the front door is locked, in a way, and Marja Mills waltzed right in.

THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR is scheduled for release in a few days, and the book is being sold as a cooperative effort between Ms. Mills and the subject of her expose. Early reviewers chirp about the interesting anecdotes and isn't it all true because Ms. Harper Lee was behind Ms. Mills and granted her access and at last the veil is lifted.

Except Ms. Harper Lee begs to differ.

Through her lawyer, Ms. Lee has issued a letter in which she states very clearly that she did not cooperate in any way with Marja Mills. The only access that was granted came from Ms. Mills managing to rent a home next door to the Lee sisters. Isn't that convenient. And then Ms. Mills proceeded to make friends with Alice, who at 100 years of age was exhibiting the sort of neighborliness that you'd expect from someone who was raised in a more trusting time.

Sure if the neighbor stops by for tea you invite her in and have a chat. It would be rude to shut the door in her face, and who would expect that she was setting you up so that she could pump you for information about a famous sister and the childhood that shaped an author.

As far as Harper Lee is concerned, Ms. Mills took advantage of her sister and it wasn't long before Ms. Harper figured out what the new neighbor was about. The author managed to avoid the woman, which sounds like a bit of misery and inconvenience visited upon someone who just wants to be left alone.

There was no cooperation, but there was a purported neighbor being all friendly for nefarious purposes. Marja Mills crafted a statement for her publisher, in which Alice Lee acknowledged that her sister had cooperated with Ms. Mills in the writing of the biography, but there again Ms. Harper Lee sees elder abuse. 100-year-old Alice didn't write the statement, but she was convinced to sign it, and anyone who would move in next door to worm her way into an old woman's confidence wouldn't hesitate to talk that same old woman into signing a statement.

"The Mockingbird Next Door is the story of Mills’s friendship with the Lee sisters. It is a testament to the great intelligence, sharp wit, and tremendous storytelling power of these two women, especially that of Nelle."(Penguin overview)

Penguin is touting the cooperation angle to sell the biography, but Harper Lee the subject of said biography has declared that she didn't cooperate at all and so, the publisher's marketing is false. Caveat emptor, in that case. You may think you're getting the inside story but you're getting nothing but the connivances of a clever manipulator who took advantage of an elderly woman who did not suspect the ulterior motives of her neighbor.

"It was the beginning of a long conversation—and a great friendship" according to Penguin, but when Marja Mills moved in next door, it was the begiinning of a clever bit of manipulation to get a story that is all but guaranteed to sell because the world is fascinated by Harper Lee.

Who did not cooperate in the making of THE MOCKINGBIRD NEXT DOOR, despite what Penguin wants you to think. Could there be a lawsuit in the future?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Based On Fact, Written As Fiction

How much fact do you need in historical fiction?

Some, to be sure. Readers have at least a slight understanding of the time period you're writing about, and they are likely have a sense of what was happening in the world in, say, the Regency period or the First World War or the American revolution.

But isn't history dull and plodding?

Too much of it could be when you're writing a novel. Novels need a story at their core, a narrative arc that takes the reader from exposition through climax to close. Yet you want your novel to follow the facts of history so you don't end up with plot holes that make no sense because what you've written would have been impossible, or a certain character was dead by the time your novel opens. So you need history, but how much?

In today's Irish Times, a group of authors discuss their use of historical research in novel writing. They all have different styles, and make different uses of what they uncover, but the principle they follow is the same. When writing a novel, focus on the story. That is why the reader is with you. If they wanted all the history, they'd pick up some non-fiction and make a thorough study.

Depending on which author is offering an opinion, you would want to either conduct full research before writing, while writing, or after the first draft.

Whatever works for you is the essence of the advice. If you tend to get bogged down in details, you would probably do well to write the story first, to move the characters through your various machinations to create a good yarn, and then verify that what you have could have happened. You'll be asking a reader to suspend disbelief and you can't stretch them too far or they won't buy it and then, well, no one buys it and that's the end of selling through and good luck getting a second book published.

For some, the historical research is where they find their story, somewhere in some obscure incident that makes the author ask "What if?". You might be reading a treatise on the Dublin Lockout and wonder what if one of the women working at the soup kitchen was the daughter of a fierce loyalist and what if that fierce loyalist was really an old Fenian waiting for the right moment to spring a rebellion? A TERRIBLE BEAUTY is born.

There are, then, no hard and fast rules when writing historical fiction in regard to how to do the research. That research must be done is certain, but how it is done and how it is incorporated into the novel depends on the author and how the author works best.

The main requirement for writing historical fiction is the same as that for writing any sort of fiction. There has to be a story that the reader can get lost in, and the world that the writer creates for the reader has to be believable.