Independent Writing from an Independent Mind

Open discussion about writing and reading

Category Archives: Interesting Authors I Have Met

Why it is good for authors to meet up…

I have been involved with an authors’ meet up for some time now.  It is a very off and on thing and as all groups go it has some falling outs with the members, mainly over structure of the group and what we are to do.  Personally, it is very hard for writers to put much structure into any such group unless they are all of the same genre, mindset and caliber.  Our group, the Bangkok Writers Guild, is a very informal group made up of mainly expatriates.  Some of us are very satisfied where we are in our status whereas others want to hit it big – have a blockbuster to make their name, so to speak.  Personally, I don’t feel the need to do this because the books that I have written are unique in their own right.  You won’t find many books debunking the Vatican Islam Conspiracy, nor will you find many books on bawdy Southern humor either.

That being said, if you plan to join such a group as ours I think you will find a great camaraderie with your fellow authors.  There is much to be learned from them and there is much to teach them as well.  For instance, unless you are in a major city full of authors and author wannabes, like New York City, per se, then your group will most likely be a rag tag group like ours.  But this is great!  We have writers in our group who are non-published, self-published, vanity published and traditionally published.  The whole gamut is run in our own membership.  So if one of us wants help with marketing, typesetting, illustrations, cover design, getting an agent, editing, finding a POD publisher, getting blurbs and book reviews – you name it – it is all right here in our group.  For an author there is no better master mind group than a group of other authors.  I have personally found a wealth of experience in our own people.

If you are not in a group already and you are serious about learning the business of being an author, whether you plan to self publish or land a contract with a publishing house, I recommend finding a group to build a nest in.  Participate in the discussions.  Learn what you can and impart your own knowledge as well.  And if there isn’t a group around you then try to put your best foot forward and start one yourself.  Use the leverage of others’ knowledge and experience to make you better at the business of writing.  Open your mind to it and you will see there’s lots of help out there for you.

I would love to hear from other writers’ experiences in writers’ groups. Do you have any experiences you would like to share?

How many authors do you know who are characters in another author’s book?

I don’t know how many of you out there have not only written your own books but have been in a book by other authors as well.  Well, I have actually have been in other books by other authors, both fiction and non-fiction.  But in one of the new works that I have been churning away on I relate the humorous story of how an altercation that I had in Vietnam in 1994 turned into a scene in a Chrisopher G. Moore novel, Comfort Zone, which was released in 1995.  This story I am actually incorporating into an autobiographical humorous book.

How do you find yourself in another person’s book?  Actually, I guess simply by knowing the right people (authors) and I guess being in the right place at the right time.  Read between those lines:

Have an interesting story to tell.

I happen to know a few authors and have known them for a while.  This comes from the work that I have done, the travel that I have done, my interests and the places that I have lived.

I don’t know why this would be an aim of anyone in particular unless, of course, you get some kind of ego boost out of it.  I was just thinking about it today due to the fact that when I was writing the story about going with my friend, Stéphane Bulckaen, by cyclo to eat snails (or not to eat snails in my case) then having an altercation with the cyclo drivers.  It just so happened that after this event happened I went into the Q Bar in Saigon where the novelest Christopher G. Moore was having a drink.  Since I had met him before I relayed the story then some few years later a friend who read Moore’s book recognized me and this particular incident in his book.

I was not identified personally anywhere in the book and that is fine with me.  I think it is neat to be recognized in another author’s book by someone living in another country.  Now, let’s see if who can be the next reader to find me in another book!  Maybe you can get on Twitter and let me know!

Insanity and Fratricide: The String to be Snapped

I recently read about a tragic case of fratricide in Ohio in which the murderer, Larry Evans, Jr., killed his older brother, Brian Evans, a local policeman.  The family, and many in the town, have been in shock over this case.  I recently read and reviewed an excellent book by author Robert Paul Blumenstein, Snapping the String, that centered around a case of a man who’d been trapped in an institution for criminally insane.  I was a bit more than curious to see how Robert would view such a case so I asked him for a short interview.  Here is what he had to say…

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Robert Paul Blumenstein, author of Snapping the String


In Snapping the String your main character was confined, albeit unjustly, for years in an institution as criminally insane.  Larry Evans, Jr., the subject of this article, will also go to such an institution but at the end of the article hope is held out for Evans that he will be freed and not spend anything near a life sentence.  As I have come to learn Snapping the String is a loose metaphor for purgatory.  Would Evans’s sentence be comparable to purgatory and why?

You are correct to identify the “purgatory” metaphor in Snapping the String.  As far as Larry Evans, Jr. experiencing a similar type of purgatory, yes, he will experience that same effect.  Let me give you four examples of similar scenarios that have already passed through the Larry Evans, Jr. sentencing phase and you might see why I feel this way.  However, not all these cases received a “guilty by reason of insanity” verdict and didn’t even necessarily pursue that defense.

First, consider John W. Hinckley, Jr. with his botched attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan.  In the public’s mind, there was very little doubt that Hinckley was mentally ill.  Unlike the Evans trial, no one cursed the defendant or screamed out for justice in the courtroom during Hinckley’s trial.  In fact, the public seemed quite satisfied overall with the outcome.  And recently, even more incredibly, we’ve seen some leniency demonstrated by Hinckley’s mental facility granting weekend visits to Hinckley’s wealthy family.  Imagine that, after shooting a president!

Consider Charles Manson, though he was not deemed insane, hasn’t society decided that he is just that?  Generally, the public breathes a collective sigh of relief every time he’s denied parole.  No one’s complaining about him remaining locked behind bars.

Third, let’s consider Mark David Chapman, John Lennon’s killer.  He certainly played the “troubled” defendant card during his trial.  Yet, when he was sentenced, Yoko Ono asked that he not be sentenced to death.  Here we see sympathy exhibited by the victim’s family.  (Interestingly, it was unlikely that Chapman would have been given the death sentence regardless Yoko’s plea for mercy.)  Chapman is serving a twenty year to life sentence in New York’s Attica Prison.  He’s recently been denied parole after twenty-eight years behind bars.  He told the parole board that he’s sorry and “I’m a changed man.”  Is he trying to tell us that he’s now “well?”

My last example involves a late friend of mine.  He, his wife, and two young daughters were brutally murdered by a crack head.  Ricky Gray (the murderer) claimed he was abused as a child and was “high” at the time of the killings.  Therefore, he couldn’t be held responsible for his actions.  The jury didn’t buy it.  He was sentenced to death for each slaying.  And more than likely this “insane” crack head will die as Virginia has executed more people than any other state in the union with Florida and Texas vying to unseat the Commonwealth from her venerable status.

All these cases have involved people who committed heinous criminal acts.  Hardly anyone would dispute the fact that each one of these criminals exhibited to the world that they were “crazy.”  That’s just public opinion, though.  What about the institution of mental health?  Do they do any better of a job determining that these killers are insane than public opinion?

Larry Evans, Jr. will experience a “pugatorious” wait while incarcerated in the secured forensic unit of Ohio’s mental hospital.  I have a feeling the public will make it a long stay.

This murder case is similar to the one in your book in that the victims were family and the judicial system sent the accused to a mental institution.  But that is where the similarities end.  In the Evans case there were witnesses and the defendant was obviously and admittedly guilty.  Evans’s defense attorneys were not public defenders, but were privately hired.  Do you feel that had your protagonist had this kind of representation that he would have fought and won his battle earlier or conversely if Evans would have had a public defender he would be standing trial rather than getting an insanity ruling?

Before I answer that, I want to say that there is a fundamental difference between the incarceration of Peyton Stephen Costello and Larry Evans, Jr.  Larry Evans may have in fact manipulated the system to escape facing the harshest sentence for his crimes whereas Peyton was manipulated by the system to receive a harsh sentence for something that he did not do.

Also, remember, Gary Dale, less than one-half of one percent of people charged for the crime of murder have received a “guilty by reason of insanity” verdict.  It’s little used with little success by defense attorneys.  Recently, a preacher’s wife in Texas murdered her five children and used that defense successfully.  I think she was a product of the media to show how she had been driven insane by her domestic circumstances.  The public bought it.  But what about the Smith woman in South Carolina who drowned her two children in an abandoned rock quarry and later copped the insanity plea?  The public didn’t buy it.  Ironically, a reporter uncovered the fact that the white woman had a black lover and wanted to get out of her then current domestic situation in order to be with her lover.  No, the public really didn’t buy that one!

And so, Peyton faced a similar situation.  He was a hippie, living in the year 1968, experimenting with LSD in a very conservative Richmond, Virginia.  My point in Snapping the String was that the public wouldn’t have bought Peyton spitting on the sidewalk.

Also, we see Catherine, Peyton’s sister, has already been convinced by the police that Peyton was guilty, and the mental institution convinced her that he was insane.  His situation was hopeless.  I was a hippie in 1968 living in Greenville, South Carolina.  I was considered insane just for getting up in the morning and pulling on a pair of bell bottom pants.  Can you imagine how the world would have viewed Peyton?  Sure, if Peyton would have renounced his peace symbol, cut his hair, and showed up in court with a team of competent lawyers, he might have been found innocent.  It really becomes the reason to leave him there in the institution.

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Robert Paul Blumenstein many years ago at the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention

I know nothing about the competency of public defenders.  The example in Snapping the String is just a dramatic device.  A lot of them stay in the public defender’s office well after they are able to move into private practice.  The folks I’ve known are very dedicated to serving a disadvantaged population.

Can there be atonement for someone who is criminally insane?  Why or why not?  Is keeping these people away from the public enough?

That’s a tough question.  Punishment, in the American justice system, has never really been based on atonement, though recent attempts in the law at “restitution” try to establish this principle.  Punishment in America is based on vengeance.  I believe Chief Messer’s comment drives this point home.  Somehow, in his mind, Evans’ incarceration in the mental institution will be a holiday.  Perhaps Chief Messer ought to read Snapping the String.

I guess, Gary Dale, you’re really asking me if a person can be healed of being a criminal?  Under current methods of treatment, I’d say that is unlikely.  Keeping someone doped up and pacified is hardly atonement, much less healing.  Then, the inmate’s release is just as problematic.  How can you track that person to make sure he keeps it clean?  Perhaps one of my favorite films is A Clockwork Orange. It drives home the frustration of society’s attempt to rehabilitate the criminal.  I think Chief Messer should see this film after he finishes reading Snapping the String.

I think it is absurd to pass a law striking down the “guilty by reason of insanity” plea.  And as far as Messer saying that the victims and the victims’ families were dealt a double-whammy by this verdict solely based on this type of plea is also absurd.  Messer represents the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” mentality.  This man would only be happy to see Evans squirming at the end of rope.

So, what’s the answer?  There really may not be one.  It’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to see real reform in the criminal justice system.  This notion of treating a criminal as a “sick person” seems to be heading in the right direction, yet now, nothing is being held out that indicates that we will abate the problem of criminal rehabilitation during our lifetimes.  Even pedophiles that have been “chemically castrated” have been known to commit more sex offenses against children.

But for now, I favor keeping these people locked up, and in some cases, for good to protect us from them committing such injurious acts against society ever again.  So, Messer has that part of the principle right, it’s the “forget about them” part that doesn’t work.  What about the wrongfully accused?  What about Peyton Stephen Costello in Snapping the String? What if it had worked out that society did forget about him?  Peyton was innocent.  Here in Virginia Ronald Coleman was executed for rape and murder and exonerated posthumously.  An innocent man died at the hands of the state.  What about Ronald Coleman and his family?  Aren’t they victims, too?

It is interesting that the one of the advocates to stay the execution of John Wayne Gacy for the murder of 33 young boys and men was an agent for the FBI.  His reason?  By killing John Wayne Gacy, we lost our opportunity to study the psyche of a serial killer.

Me and Bahaa Taher

A few weeks ago it was announced that Bahaa Taher had won the very first Arabic Language Booker Prize.  I was extremely happy for him as he is not only one of my favorite Arab authors but he is also one authors full stop.Bahaa Taher  After Naguib Mahfouz, Bahaa Taher is one of the highest profile writers of literature in Arabic.  And since Naguib Mafouz is no longer with us on this earth, that pretty well leaves a generation of younger Arab writers striving for the same high profile that Bahaa Taher enjoys today.

In May of 2007 I was in Cairo on some business and doing some personal research on a project of mine.  I wanted to meet Bahaa Taher as I had been an admirer from a distance.  So I contacted a person I knew who works as a journalist at Egypt Today and did the six degrees of separation thing I am generally so good at.  I was on some business in Alexandria when I called on this contact.  Three or four days went by and I heard nothing back.  I had already returned to Cairo where I was staying in the Maadi district at a friend’s house (Thomas Barmettler).  We had just sat down to lunch when I received a phone call from a lady who worked at the well known Diwan Book Store on the 26th of July Street in Zamalek, an island in central Cairo.  She told me that as I was an author Bahaa Taher would be interested to meet me as well.  If I can remember correctly the lady’s name was Marwa.

Thomas volunteered to take me down to Zamalek which saved me from having to get a taxi cab.  I appreciated that.  Thomas also had two other guests from China, Ying Xiao (who goes as “Shine”) and her friend Cathie, who is a real estate investor.  Ying Xiao is a freelance journalist. 

Bahaa Taher freely gave his time and was very open with us.  I honestly think he was a bit upset at some of Ying Xiao’s questioning, which was along the line of asking his opinions regarding her strong feeling that Egypt had lost somehow its “egyptianess” through the years and had simply adopted the cultures of the waves of invadors whereas China had been a shining example of maintaining their basic character – being Chinese. 

Gary Dale with Diwan Book Store ManagerAnyone who has read Bahaa Taher or has read anything about Bahaa Taher knows well that he is and has always been a Pan-Arabist.  I could at times see him squirming in his seat at Ying Xiao’s line of questioning.  I tried to keep my conversation with him quite simple.  I asked about his work.  But Ying Xiao kept coming back to this string of questions that she had about Egypt today not being the Egypt that it started out to be – that the Egyptians of today were not recognizable as the ancient Egyptians.  Ying Xiao even went as far to point out that the culture was not continuous to which Bahaa Taher answered that Egyptian culture is much like an onion:  You can peel layer by layer and each one over the next is different, but each are still part of the onion.  This reminded me oddly of the layers of pudding that James Michner used as a descriptive of South African culture in The Covenant, which I had read so many years ago.With Bahaa Taher

Nonetheless, it was a rather enjoyable afternoon. 

I left that day with a copy of Bahaa’s Love in Exile and read it in Dubai on my way back to Bangkok.  I was quite honestly rather haunted by Bahaa’s voice when I read the book.  I kept hearing him speak when I read the voice of the protagonist.  I would suppose this was a good thing.  Anyway, the book’s main character shared so many of the same politics that Bahaa Taher had spoken about that afternoon I couldn’t help but see the book as somehow authobiographical.  Especially since Bahaa had also been in exile in Switzerland under similar circumstances.

Bahaa Taher was also interested in what I had written in my refutation of the Vatican Islam Conspiracy.  He asked me several questions about my book but kept it mainly to questions, not making too much comment in reply.  He thought the title was provacative enough that I might not get reasonable discussions from people on all sides of the issue – but he wished me luck with it and also encouraged me to keep it up.  I appreciated that coming from a man of his stature and reputation.

Some time later Bahaa Taher stopped back at the bookstore to autographa an Arabic language copy of his latest novel Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery.  Thomas sent this to me by post.  I keep it proudly as a souvenir of that day last May in Zamalek!

I have written Bahaa Taher a time or two.  He doesn’t stay year round in Cairo (he splits the time with his home in Switzerland – with his Greek Swiss wife).  But I do hope he is in Cairo the next time I go there.  I want to congratulate him on the Booker Prize face-to-face.

 

An Interview with Barbara J. Olexer

Barbara J. Olexer

Barbara J. Olexer

Originally an Oregon native, Maryland based Barbara J. Olexer is a talented writer with a flair for history and for righting the wrongs of the past. Through her own company, Joyous Publishing, she has published books on a broad range of historical and other subjects. She is particularly interested in American society’s past negative relationship the native Americans. She doesn’t feel that this past is fully behind us, pointing to the Leonard Peltier case as a prime example. I am happy to have been given the opportunity to speak with Barbara.

Gary Dale Cearley: Thanks for letting me interview you! I can’t help but notice that much of your work shows a very strong interest in historical subjects. You and I have this in common. Where did this interest come from?

Barbara: My home town is on the bed of a lake that was drained to make homesteads for World War I veterans. As I grew up, I learned that my grandparents’ farm had once been a lake and that the Modoc Indians had been forced off their homeland around the lake. The more I learned about the injustice of the war that the settlers and the U.S. Army waged on this tiny tribe, the more fascinated I became with the history of mankind.

Gary Dale Cearley: Did you know from when you were a little girl that you wanted to write or did you wake up one day and find that there was a project in you that you just had to get out and then it flowed on from there

Barbara: I’ve always known I wanted to write. I remember “writing” letters to my favorite uncle when he was in the navy in World War II and I was three years old. In later years, he told me how much my scribbles meant to him at sea in the Pacific Theatre because, although there were no actual words, he could read the love I sent him. From there I drew comic books with my crayons and then started a school newspaper when I was in 6th grade, progressed to essays, then to screenplays, then to nonfiction and novels.

Gary Dale Cearley: How did you get Joyous Publishing involved in writing contests?

Barbara: It seemed a good and inexpensive way to get some name recognition. It has been good for my business and I’m hoping it will continue to grow. Those who enter find it useful, too.

Gary Dale Cearley: Who judges the writing?

Barbara: I do the preliminary judging and when I’ve winnowed out the ones I don’t find publishable, my husband and a couple of day job co-workers read the possibilities and score them. Our tastes are very different so I feel confident that the judging is as objective as such a subjective process can be.

Gary Dale Cearley: Every non-fiction author choses their subject matter in different ways. How do you chose the topics you write on?

Barbara: My writing reflects my passions. For instance, I feel very keenly that we, as a nation, need to address the on-going injustice inflicted on the tribes. We need to look at the treaties we signed with them and live up to the provisions. We need to acknowledge in our history books that the Indians were not the original aggressors. Obviously, Euro-Americans and the other hyphenated Americans are not going to go away and return the land to the tribes. However, we can honor our treaties and we must.

Gary Dale Cearley: How do you go about the research for your projects?

Barbara: I don’t have the resources to do original research, which is expensive and requires travel and time that I simply am unable to manage. Therefore, my research is limited to what I can find in secondary sources — mostly books that I get from the library. Oddly enough, this was much easier when I lived on a farm in Oregon than it is in Maryland. The Northwest has a system of interlibrary lending that allowed me to get rare books from various states and Canadian provinces and even the Library of Congress. Now it’s difficult to get books even from another Maryland county.

Gary Dale Cearley: What in your background has helped your to write about early American history?

Barbara: Truth is important to me. There is so much nonsense written about American history and so many outright lies that it enrages me. This makes me want to set the record straight.

Gary Dale Cearley: I noticed that Joyous Publishing specializes in large print publishing. How did that come about?

Barbara: It seemed to me that my fiction audience is about my age, which is the first wave of “boomers.” Large print is helpful to many folks in this age bracket.

Gary Dale Cearley: You and I have another thing in common which is the diversity of the subjects that we write about. The first book I published as a non-fiction work about a religious hoax, the second was a book about bawdy Southern humor – almost a joke book in and of itself, and my current project is the life story of a libertarian philosopher and abolitionist in the early 19th century in America. I see you range from writing on historical subject, mysteries and astrology. How do you tie this all in together?

Barbara: It all ties together in my search for truth and my curiosity regarding humankind. I like to read mysteries so it is a natural progression to wish to write them. Astrology is generally lumped in with “New Age,” on the fringe of the paranormal, somewhere between comical and idiotic. However, if one examines it with an open mind, there’s a lot of truth in it. I think every major civilization has an astrological system and they are remarkably similar. I just had a brief reading in the Mayan system and found it very accurate as to my character.

Gary Dale Cearley: I want to thank you for taking the time to be interviewed and answering my questions! But before we go, can you tell us what projects are you currently working on and what can we expect to see from you in the near future?

Barbara: Presidential Education: Prelude to Power is my current project. I’m almost finished with the research and I hope to have it ready to publish by fall this year. Our presidents are remarkable men and the way each was educated is fascinating, not only for what they learned but sometimes for what they didn’t learn. I find it astounding that the Founding Fathers didn’t lay down much at all in the way of necessary characteristics for our presidents. There is no qualifying exam.