SIGNS OF LIFE
Two strangers, a man and a woman, become acquainted over drinks in a hotel bar. A tenuous connection is made that ends in a tryst with tragic consequences. So begins SIGNS OF LIFE, a tale of the cost of one’s past and the price one is willing to pay for the future. Harlan Quist, the cashiered ATF agent from JACK OF ALL TRADES, becomes enmeshed in a search for a young woman who was abducted as a child fifteen years ago. What follows is the story of a mother’s willingness to sacrifice everything to recover her bond with a daughter whom she no longer knows. Quist accompanies the mother on a perilous odyssey and a descent into the world of sex trafficking and drug cartel violence, a journey that leads from Fiesta in Santa Fe and the symbolic burning of Old Man Gloom to the underbelly of the tourist mecca of San Miguel de Allende, and finally to Oaxaca during the celebration of the Day of the Dead.
Most of my readers are already aware that my stories evolve from an idea based on true events, real personalities, or some historical incident. I’ve received inspiration from varied sources: an obituary in The Economist, some obscure magazine article, or a trip to a foreign country. From there my imagination takes hold. The idea that germinated into SIGNS OF LIFE presented itself in a casual and serendipitous manner -a conversation with a friend in which she related an incident second hand, the nature of which stuck in my mind. I grappled with the gist of that story for several years, unwilling to toss it aside, but unsure of how to use it in a satisfying manner.
Passion can lead to intense and often unforeseen results. By its very nature, it is often spontaneous, and leads down paths both pleasurable and perilous. Thus, a brief tryst between strangers seemed a suitable jumping off point for my story. As always, I have only the vaguest notion of where my characters and the opening acts might lead. SIGNS OF LIFE was no exception. Introducing the character of Royale occurred to me in a creative burst of spontaneity that allowed me to adventitiously stumble down a wholly unintended path. The story that followed was partially fueled by a recent excursion to Mexico. I also consciously intended to bring back the character of Harlan Quist from JACK OF ALL TRADES. I believe he served me well in providing the necessary dramatic tension between him and the character of Royale.
Latin America has provided the settings for several of my novels…Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala – for reasons not entirely realized. I won’t admit to possessing even a rudimentary linguistic skill at Spanish, but I have traveled to these countries. And something about each of them seemed to spur my imagination. The last third of SIGNS OF LIFE take place in Oaxaca during the celebration of the Day of the Dead. Needless to say, much about that setting provides a feast ripe with possibilities and thematic references. That celebration of the dead, specifically the honoring and welcoming of our dead loved ones, seemed to tie in perfectly with the thread of my story. The Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro, when describing the character of his countrymen, said “No one loves life more than we do, in a way because we are so conscious of death.” The celebrations depicted here, the burning of Old Man Gloom and the Day of the Dead, serve to remind us that we must honor the darkness to truly appreciate the light. The cycle of life and death deserve no less.
And as is the case with pretty much all my stories, this novel is about a search – whether it is a search for an experience or person in one’s past, the truth underlying some past tragedy, a missing child, an old lover, or in the case of my Harper Harris character, the search for a good story. Arguably, the search, the odyssey, is a timeless dramatic vehicle in fiction. Still, I often wonder if it is simply a nod to some subconscious demon of mine. That being said, I hope you enjoy this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Santa Fe, March 2018
THE LANGUAGE OF THE DEAD
Veteran correspondent and photojournalist Harper Harris finds herself back in Sierra Leon during the Ebola epidemic. In the course of twelve hours during her last night in country, she rescues an orphaned child, shares drinks with Nessa Gallagher, an enigmatic Irish woman, and is interrogated by Ron Sumner, a jaded British intelligence officer obsessed with capturing the Gallagher woman. Her journalistic curiosity piqued, Harper accompanies Sumner to Guatemala, where the violent legacy of that country’s civil war and the genocide of hundreds of thousands of its citizens still lingers just below the surface. What follows is a trajectory of retribution, intrigue, and betrayal that entangles all of the actors in a bloody set piece with tragic consequences that will change the course of Harper’s life.
I began writing THE LANGUAGE OF THE DEAD, I knew I wanted the character of Harper Harris to make a return appearance. After completing my previous novel, JACK OF ALL TRADES, I envisioned a trilogy of novels with Harper as the protagonist. I also realized there needed to be an arc to her story, some sense of completion. I leave it to the reader to decide if I accomplished this in a satisfactory manner.
I typically begin my stories without any appreciable plot in mind. There may be a vague concept of a story line but it requires several embryonic chapters before any solid idea gels. In the case of THE LANGUAGE OF THE DEAD, I returned Harper to Sierra Leone in the opening chapter, and then somewhat randomly introduced the enigmatic Nessa in Chapter Two. I realized I wanted a foil to Harper’s character – another strong, interesting female character but someone polar opposite in history and persona.
Like most novelists, my work is a product of the musings of an idle mind, an active imagination, and in my case, but not exclusively, a marriage of fiction and historical events. All of my previous novels deal with history as the weft and the characters the warp, so to speak. With this novel, I found myself returning to familiar ground, in this case, Central America. Something about that region beckons me. I visited Guatemala a couple of years ago and became enthralled by its landscape, cultural heritage and its people. But underlying those obvious attractions was its history of political turmoil and civil war. In the past decade I have also visited Nicaragua and Chile. What these countries have in common are legacies of civil war that are relatively recent – a mere several decades. In our own country, the aftermath of our own civil war, a hundred plus years in the past, still seems to affect our social fabric. In the three countries I mentioned, the scars of their tragedies lie just below the surface, and there exists a palpable tension that belies the progress of reconciliation and any sense of normalcy.
One morning while in Guatemala, my wife and I visited the small town of Santiago on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Our guide brought us to the local cathedral where in 1981, the parish priest, an American from Oklahoma, along with some of parishioners, were assassinated by a paramilitary death squad. Later that same day, while we had lunch at a lakeside restaurant, our guide pointed out a man dining at a nearby table who had been an officer in the kaibile, the notorious Guatemalan Army unit allegedly responsible for the deaths of untold numbers of their fellow citizens during the civil war, most of them indigenous Mayans. Now, the former officer worked as a tourist guide. Daily reminders of the war and the resulting genocide of hundreds of thousands of their countrymen are evident in forms visible and invisible; the ongoing prosecution of politicians and soldiers for war crimes, the bullet holes in buildings, the absence of family members still in hiding years after the war’s end.
The aftermath of that war proved to be a fertile ground for the backdrop for a story of retribution and salvation. It only required that I create the characters to propel a narrative reflecting that tragedy on a scale both personal and collective. The character of Nessa provided her own arc – from IRA foot soldier, to assassin, and finally, avenging angel, an evolution reflective of the times and struggles for independence in locales as varied as Northern Ireland and Central America
As for Harper, it remains to be seen whether she will be resurrected in any future stories. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy her journey.
Santa Fe, New Mexico – Spring 2016
JACK OF ALL TRADES
Set amid the cauldron of the civil wars of the Middle East and Africa, foreign correspondent Harper Harris finds herself risking everything in her quest to find the elusive arms dealer Jack Xantis. As Harper is attempting to flee Syria, she is captured by the Syrian Army only to be rescued by Xantis who persuades her to repay the favor by delivering a message to a Syrian dissident in Beirut. Something goes terribly wrong, and with glaring clarity Harper realizes almost too late that betrayal and murder are a matter of course in the world of geopolitics and war.
When a month later, Xantis is reported killed in a car bombing, she closes the chapter on a man whose death seems a fitting end for a man whose profession was one of chaos and violence. However, ATF agent Harlan Quist, has reason to believe Xantis is still alive and seeks out the one person who wants to find Xantis more than he does. Pursued by Gustav Jungerman, Xantis’ ex-mentor, who has his own score to settle, Harper and Quist follow the trail of the man whose sins have changed so many lives, even at the risk of losing their own.
After recently completing this latest novel, I realized again how the search for someone from my protagonist’s past is the predominant theme. Arguably, the idea of a search is one of the basic and most often used thematic engines in fiction. Obviously, that theme must ignite and feed some subconscious need in my psyche. Be it my age and the tendency to reflect back on a lifetime of people, places and ideas, or simply just a part of my personality, searching for people seems to be forever integral to my stories.
In JACK OF ALL TRADES, I resurrected the character Harper Harris from my previous novel STILL LIFE IN A RED DRESS for several reasons. One, I enjoyed the character and wasn’t quite ready to let her go. Secondly, her occupation and outlook on life lends itself to the stories I like to write. If you haven’t read STILL LIFE IN A RED DRESS, I recommend it as an introduction to her character. It isn’t a requirement though, as JACK OF ALL TRADES stands well enough on its own. I also found it intriguing as a man to write from a female character’s perspective. Whether I was able to achieve that to a satisfactory degree, I leave up to the reader. In many respects, this story is more about the journey and the searchers themselves than it is about the subject of their search.
Unlike my previous two novels in which I had very intimate experience with most of the foreign and domestic settings, the locales in JACK OF ALL TRADES are all drawn from imagination and research in the form of reading and visual imagery (thanks to Google). I hope that my descriptions of these places doesn’t suffer from the lack of firsthand knowledge. I hope you enjoy reading this story as much as I enjoyed writing it.
– Santa Fe, December 2014
THE MORNING OF THE WORLD
A man and a woman estranged by the death of their first child are forced to revisit their tragedy by the unexpected and strange resurrection of the one person who knows the truth. But does he hold the key to their reconciliation or will an ancient evil force them all to face a horrible salvation? Part love story, part psychological thriller, and part examination of the illusory nature of good and evil, their journey takes them from Hawaii to the horrors of the Rwandan Holocaust and finally to Bali, where a bewildering descent into the madness of our times challenges the boundaries of their love, beliefs, and sanity.
In 1990, I happened to be browsing in the book section of the gift shop of the Honolulu Academy of Arts when I came upon a particularly attractive volume, its subject, the rituals and ceremonies of the Pacific Rim. I randomly opened it to a page midway through and encountered an astonishing image, that of a leyak, or at least a ceremonial depiction of the mythical vampire witch of Bali. I wasn’t entirely ignorant of the entity, or the cultural belief system from which it evolved. Several years before, I had visited Bali and became infatuated with the island’s mystical landscape, its people, and their mythology.
It wasn’t until some years later after I had completed my first novel that I returned to Bali to revisit a world that had earlier gripped my imagination. This time, the Hindu concept of duality and a unique outlook on the role of good and evil struck a personal and spiritual chord. It led me to revisit the concept of the leyak, a being that psychically feeds off of the human spirit. This character invited me to wed a particular paradigm with a story line that satisfied my various interests and needs – my background in anthropology, a nod to a certain philosophical viewpoint, and a desire to create a rich, character driven suspense story that immerses the reader into a world both exotic and real, and regrettably all too likely to be lost due to globalization and the homogenization of the human experience.
The evolution of this tale reflects to some extent the cycles of my life – seasons of despair rooted in personal and political crisis, periods of writer’s block, as well as bursts of creative energy. I am sure a close read of my work is undoubtedly reflective of that struggle. I believe the act of writing is by its very nature an uneven and imperfect attempt to explain one’s life experiences and viewpoints.
For me, writing isn’t a career but a creative outlet, and for both myself and my audience, a window into my subconscious. Any creative process, be it painting, song writing or the fabrication of an imagined set of characters and situations involves impulses and insights whose origins may be unrealized by the author at the time they are conceived. Subliminal messages and those bothersome unresolved “issues” keep emerging, whether desired or not. I won’t elaborate on my own thematic demons other than to acknowledge that there are reasons one writes. On a personal level, the outcomes of these efforts are sometimes therapeutic, and often times decidedly unhealthy. Yet for those of us who write, who a love-hate relationship with this loneliest of endeavors, we seem to go on for reasons that are sometimes beyond our understanding. That said, I hope you enjoy the story.
-Santa Fe, 2013
STILL LIFE IN A RED DRESS
Sonny and Ray, their friendship forged during the American involvement in the Nicaraguan civil war of the late 1970’s, struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of that war and their memories of a woman Sonny loved and whose death and Ray’s complicity haunts them both. The discovery of a painting leads the two men on an odyssey to uncover the truth about the woman’s disappearance in the closing days of the war thirty years before. On a journey that begins in a refugee camp in the Sudan, Sonny travels first to New Mexico to reconnect with his friend Ray. Joined by Harper Harris, a photojournalist and correspondent in search of a story, they are lured back to Central America where they confront the legacy of the men’s involvement. The journey draws them deeper into a past filled with choices that cannot be undone and crimes that cannot be forgotten, and ultimately threatens to ruin the futures of those desperate for the peace the war long ago destroyed.
I suspect for many Americans the Nicaraguan Civil War that took place in the late 1970’s is a distant, vague memory. For a generation of younger Americans, that war, along with the subsequent Contra War and the Iran-Contra scandal, most likely fail to even register on the radar. As for me, that particular Central American conflict still manages to resonate in my consciousness. Perhaps it is only my leftist leanings or the fact that I am a junkie for current events that explains my fascination for that time and locale. And it probably explains why an obscure article in a long since misplaced newspaper or magazine caught my attention.
The article in question related a little known incident that took place during that conflict, the subject of which was a woman by the name of Nora Astorga. I suspect the article may have appeared on the anniversary of her death in 1988, but I can’t really be sure of the timing or the circumstance that led me to delve further into her story. I invite the reader to Google her biography for more details of her life.
Her story, a fascinating tale of intrigue and bravery, is worthy of a Hollywood treatment. Subsequently, reading about her stirred my creative juices. But the idea sat on the back burner of my imagination for years waiting to evolve into a story line I might use in a fictional work. When I undertook writing STILL LIFE IN A RED DRESS, I had only the vaguest idea of weaving her story into my novel. The story line finally evolved with its usual false starts and dead ends.
This story is a work of fiction. The characters and circumstances arise from my imagination. Only the basic germ of Ms. Astorga’s experience serves as the central plot device. Instead of an attorney, the Nicaraguan woman in my story is an artist- a painter. Her lover, a young American working for the US Agency for International Development, is also imagined, as is his friend in the CIA. Only the details of the pivotal episode that vaulted Ms. Astorga into the annals of history are borrowed for the dramatic underpinnings of this story.
The heroine of my story, and by extension Nora Astorga, may seem iconic on some level. By that I mean her story serves as a reminder that it is only through great courage and struggle that circumstances change, that worlds move and a different future can be realized. On the other hand, her saga should not be taken as some leftist anthem to an idealistic revolution, for the political and social progress that has been made in Nicaragua is uneven and is a work in progress at the very least. Patriotism has many faces, some that present a countenance we might find unsettling. Still, her story is a universal one of heroism and sacrifice. I hope you enjoy it.
Santa Fe, New Mexico
THE EYE OF GOD
Recently after finishing my third novel, it dawned on me that my novels seem to have a common theme – an obsession with searching – for something, for someone. I might well title them THE SEARCHERS – A Trilogy. This is undoubtedly a common and timeless premise in storytelling. That being said, I can surely connect the dots between events in my life and the underlying thematic issues in my fiction.
THE EYE OF GOD is a story about friendship, obsession, and what I surmise is a common source of refuge, mystery, and regret for people who reach an age that lends itself to contemplation of the past. One finds them self wondering about the fate of someone from their youth. Whatever became of him or her? The ‘what ifs’; the roads not taken. There is also undoubtedly quite a bit of “What the hell was I thinking?” If one is fortunate, these musings will make one appreciate the wonder and reward of the road one did follow. But I suspect for most of us, these musings are a mixed bag.
As a baby boomer, I wrote this novel as an ode to those who came of age in the turbulent late 60’s and early 70’s, a time of recklessness and liberation, optimism and despair, and a fair degree of decadence. THE EYE OF GOD is about looking back and searching for that someone who might hold the key to understanding what happened and why you became who you are.
An integral part of the plot also deals with shamanic plants, both real and imagined, and the unharnessed power and promise of a natural world that is in danger of being lost to our modern world. It was written also in the time that the AIDS epidemic had taken close friends, and therefore touches on that loss.
It also brings to life the character of Jess who is unabashedly based if not entirely on the biography, than at least on the persona, of a dear friend, my first cousin Chuck, born two days before me, and for a good part of my life my tortured soul mate, whose passage through this life intersected my own, marking me indelibly. ‘We were born under the same star twice’, we were fond of saying. And Gemini’s at that.
Needless to say, this story was a very personal one for me. That said, it’s fiction – a story populated by what I feel are some really good characters, with a few surprises for the reader, and reintroduces the thematic demons that lead me to write. I hope you like it.
Santa Fe, New Mexico, 2010