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>Vorpal swords and derivation

>’And his vorpal sword went snicker-snack…’ – we all know where it comes from and the derivation automatically carries us to a certain mental setting for any story it is used in. Sort of instant setting-gel. Now this is a valuable tool (shared associations) for writers – but it is also a very dangerous beast because it is so infectious. Books – particularly when the author has a distinctive style and voice creep in to my own writing like memes-in-the-night. I try to work with this if possible – When I was writing the Karres books I read only Schmitz to try and be influenced by it (and in the last one I slipped and read an Andre Norton – I can SEE the influence). I use combinations of other writers to ‘set’ myself for other kinds of books. CS Lewis, Michael Scott Rohan, Peter Beagle, and McKillip, and a dash of Heyer for Dragon’s Ring for eg. Or for Slow Train to Arcturus, Heinlein, Niven, Hal Clement. For Rats Bats and Vats – Tom Sharpe, Terry Pratchett, Niven.

So: am I alone in this, or do others find themselves writing derivative style and voice? And if so, how do you control it and who do you use?
I have fairly limited access BTW, so commenting is difficult for me right now.

>Weekly Wrap-up and Holiday Madness

>This has been a slow week for almost everyone in the U.S. except sports teams — and their fans – and shoppers. Most businesses closed down for the week on Wednesday and their employees looked forward to a long weekend of food, drink, family, more food and sports. For some, shopping was included. First you had Black Friday. For those of you not familiar with Black Friday, think about the biggest mosh pit you can, add in deals on toys every child wants or electronics the man in your life desires or that particular pair of shoes you’ve been lusting after. It’s usually the most active and profitable retail day in the US. All that’s left is Cyber Monday, the day most employers know their employees will be using company time and computers to shop the internet for the best buys around.

So, what does this have to do with publishing? Well, it means there wasn’t much going on in the publishing world this week. While Harlequin has followed through with its announcement to change the name of Harlequin Horizons, there hasn’t been response from those organizations that had been quick to re-cast Harlequin as a vanity press. According to Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware, instead of HH, we have DellArte Press. There are a few sites referencing this, including SFWA, Dear Author (noting that the new site has the same feel as the HH site but that the Harlequin name is no longer present, something Harlequin had promised), and the Ripoff Report where a call was placed to DellArte and the representative they spoke with claimed that J. K. Rowling started off as a self-published author after having Harry Potter rejected by so many publishers. On Nov. 25th, Publisher’s Weekly posted a short article noting the name change and ending with, “Harlequin did not respond to a request for comment this morning on the name change or if it was back in the good graces of the RWA. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers have called for Harlequin to completely cut ties to the self-pub program.”

The beginning of the holiday season can also signal a slow down in publishing. Some agents close to submissions until after the first of the year. This is to give them time to catch up with their query stack and try to tie up the last of the details for client sales (e.g. Jenny Rappaport). Some magazines close their reading periods as well. So, if you have something ready to send out, be sure to check on-line to confirm whether the agent or publisher is still open for subs. A great place to check for sf/f is Ralan.com.

But the holiday season brings something totally different to writers. We’re observers. We try, or at least I do, to take in the world around us. Think about it. When else do we see people willing to do just about anything to get that one toy their kid is begging for for Christmas. You know the one. The one the manufacturer made only three of. But little Junior just has to have it or he’ll die. Don’t deny it. We’ve all been there, either as frazzled parents becoming ever more panicked as store after store tells us they’re sold out or as the demanding kid who knows Christmas won’t come because that an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle! won’t be under the tree (if you don’t get the reference, check out the movie A Christmas Story).

So, what is the most crazy or touching or just “OMG what were they thinking?” moment you’ve had during holiday shopping and how would you work that into a story? It can be an incident, a person, even a family tradition.

>Saturday Special Open Discussion

>Thanksgiving is over and hopefully those who celebrated are coming out from under their turkey-induced comas. With all the stores, both brick and mortar and cyber, offering Black Friday and Monday Madness deals, I thought I’d throw open the doors today. So the floor is yours. Is there anything you want to ask or discuss? Perhaps there’s something you’re thankful for you want to share. Whatever it is, now’s your chance to let us know.

As always, the only rule is no politics or religion unless it has to do with a story you want to discuss or ask questions about. Even then, remember, we discuss the story and not the politics of it.

>Movember Madness

> Talking of mind-body connections, I have recently been hosting a symbiotic alien on my upper lip in support of men’s health (that’s me in the front pointing off into the distance).

It’s certainly been interesting watching the various reactions of people to being a mustachioed individual. I’ve also discovered that people can’t resist matching you up with famous people who had mustaches. Our HR manager has Inspector Clouseau down pat, while I have it from various reliable sources that I am indeed Zorro. This now explains all those flamboyant Z’s that have been scribed on walls all around the house, and the masks I find in my laptop bag.

The mustachioed experience has been in support of Movember – to raise money for and promote awareness of men’s health, particularly prostate cancer and depression. As many men die from prostrate cancer as women from breast cancer so it is an important issue.Its been fun so far, with a local hamburger chain giving away free burgers to Mo-Men. Its certainly amusing to line up with around twenty to thirty very dodgy looking guys.

One of the guys in our office, from India, had us beat on day three – he already looked like he’d been growing his for a month.I would say I have definitely suffered for my facial art. My wife had been away for the first two weeks I had grown it, and when she came back she couldn’t stop laughing. ‘I can’t look at you!’ It took a little persuasion to get a kiss. ‘Like kissing a bristle brush,’ was her comment. Things have certainly changed since my father’s generation. He was fond of telling me an old saying he got from his father: ‘Kissing a man without a mustache is like having soup without salt.’ Well it certainly must have made sense once.

Here we are enjoying a pint at the local (I’m second from the far right).


Here I am feeding my symbiotic alien Belgian beer in order to neutralize its psychic power. It claims to have the ability to give me Mojo, but I suspect that this power only worked in the 1970s.

If I can raise $200 by the end of the month, then Movember will do the removal operation at no charge! Help save me from this megalomaniac mustache.

If you feel like donating to a worthy cause please use the link below:

http://au.movember.com/mospace/383746

>And now for something completely different

>You can blame Sarah for this: her post this week got me thinking, and that’s always a dangerous thing. It goes to strange places.

The progression is something like this – creative types tend to have something of a disconnect between head and body, and not notice the kind of discomfort that would send others screaming for the good painkillers that make you all loopy. That’s what Sarah talked about.

So I thought, well yeah, I’m a pretty good example of this. I’ve done some pretty dumb stuff because of this. But then, I’ve done some pretty dumb stuff for other reasons, most of them related to being a writer and being off in writer-headspace when I shouldn’t have been.

By the time I’d stopped thinking (you sort of have to focus when you’re following recipes, or the results can be… interesting in all the wrong ways) I’d gotten to this:

Creative types, particularly writers, tend to have issues when it comes to dealing with the real world (for those who wish to argue over which world is real or claim they all are, when I use the term, I mean the world where your physical body resides). It’s more than just forgetting little things like paying bills and so forth – a lot of us have issues with society in general. Which, for people who spend so much of their time being keen observers of humanity is kind of weird, but then, writer and weird go together. The vast majority of the writers I’ve met are just functional enough to avoid the delights of the mental health ward.

Yes, we Mad Geniuses are a bit saner than that, but it’s a matter of degree.

Okay, that’s the long rambling introduction. Now for the meat – the Kate guide to living in the real world when the rest of you wants to be elsewhere, otherwise known as playing the game.

  • Everyone else is not stupid. It is very important to remember this. Everyone believes at some level that everyone else is like them and thinks like them, but writers think at strange, possibly abolished angles to the rest of the world.
  • There are rules. You can’t break them with impunity, but you can use them to your advantage. This is usually called ‘politics’ (in the office politics sense). Do not attempt to ignore the rules.
  • People recognize “not like me”. It’s instinctive. Learn to play chameleon and hide the writer-weird. Excuse slips as brain farts.
  • No matter how brilliant you are – and many of you are legitimately brilliant (no, I am not naming names: the blushes would light up the whole world) – the vast majority of people out there don’t give a damn. With few exceptions we’re not even little fish in the ocean. We’re plankton. Maybe. Unless we bother the wrong person, and then we’re dinner.
  • Whether you like it or not (most of the time I find it something of a relief) creativity, especially the writer-flavor, isn’t compatible with things like business or political success. Those of us who are drawn to positions of power/responsibility tend to get there because we’re sick to death of it being done wrong all the time, and we just want to fix the mess then let someone else keep it all running.
  • There are times when you need to be 100% in the real world. Learn to recognize these or they’ll remind you. Emphatically. Usually in the form of grevious bodily harm or death.
  • Learn the difference between putty and vaseline. Otherwise your windows will fall out.
  • Never, ever play nude leapfrog with a unicorn.

And on that note, I leave it to you to come up with more advice, suggestions or whatever. I’m going to try to cook a turkey and do other Thanksgiving-type stuff.

>Like Onto the Angels

>

Writers are very odd creatures. Not just speaking for myself. I mean, look, I’m quirky enough on my own, unless there is something that explains why today, in between doctor visits and a problem with the installation of the new toilet upstairs, I had an absolute need to gold-leaf the walls of the downstairs bathroom. No, don’t try to explain it. There are things even I don’t want to know.

However, compared to other writers I’m a piker. I know, in my relatively small circle of writerly acquaintance a man who has a morbid fear of bananas, another who has an elaborate routine before he can sit down to write. Being afraid of driving and an avid reader of omens and signs is not even an oddity. Every other writer I know has this issue. Other characteristics that seem way out of proportion among writers but are less alarming are a passion for cooking, working in animal rescue and oh, yes… a relative disconnect between mind and body.

Perhaps all humans to a certain extent have a dichotomy between body and mind. I know this is the theme of several myths – Eros and Psyche, for one – and it seems deeply ingrained. But for writers… well, we take it to extremes. And then we leave it all alone in the extremes with no bus fare home.

Writers, perhaps because we spend so much time inside our own heads, talking to people who don’t exist (not that I discriminate on the basis of non-existence. Some of my best friends are ontologically challenged) tend to forget that the body is there and that it’s important.
I say this as today – after several months of increasing discomfort, I sought help for a skin problem that most normal people would PROBABLY have tried to get treated within a week. You see, I didn’t think it was important compared to the stuff inside the head. Mind you, this skin issue is probably causing my frequent respiratory issues, since the two are tied in. But I just tried to bully my way through the colds and flus and I ignored pain because it wasn’t important.
The thing is that what goes on with the body affects the mind. Time and again, I note something off in someone’s writing and then find out they had a heart attack while writing the book; or they were undergoing chemotherapy, or even they were losing or gaining a lot of weight or something was going on with their sugar chemistry.

Of my own experience, there was the hormonal problem that flattened me for almost a year, in which I couldn’t muster the interest to write and deadlines made a lovely sound as they wizzed past. And there was this swine flu thingy, when I’d find myself crying because no one wanted to watch “Walking with dinosaurs” with me – for the tenth or so time. During this time I wrote an outline I can’t explain. Seemed perfectly logical at the time. Fortunately the editor is giving me a second chance.

Apparently we’re not like unto the angels, all flying-free minds and souls.
So… How do we keep mind and body in balance? Should we watch the mind when the body is slightly off? And other than eat right and exercise – which can be iffy when you’re typing for eight hours a day – what can one do to stay healthy? And more importantly, how can one develop enough self-awareness to know when he/she isn’t.

(And I leafed about an eighth of the wall, thank you so much.)

>Book Trailers, what next?

>Okay, who hasn’t thought, ‘Gee, I’d love a glossy book trailer for my new book!’?

See the Troy Patterson article here. Everyone is doing it, even Stephen King, with varying success. When every second book has a book trailer and the only people who come to look at your book trailer are your mum and friends, unless you’re Stephen King, you have to wonder what having a book trailer achieves.

This is where I have to confess here that I have a book trailer. Yes, I gave in and asked my wonderful husband to make one for the Lost Shimmaron series. You can see it here. I can’t listen to it. We used my voice and I have a slight lisp. Of course every second word began or ended with an ‘S’.

Actually I’ve been dabbling with book trailers for a while now.
Back when the last book of my T’En Trilogy came out, my husband made a book trailer for it. This was in 2002 and my publisher didn’t know what to do with the trailer.
http://www.youtube.com/get_player

There’s even an award for book trailers here, the New Covey Trailer Awards, where you can waste far too much time viewing other people’s book trailers.

And, right now, my long suffering husband is working on a book trailer for my new fantasy series, King Rolen’s Kin. So I am going to come clean, I am a book trailer addict.

Be honest, would a good book trailer intrigue enough to go out and buy a book?

>so tell me if I get it wrong

>read a book by one of my favorite authors last night… and very nearly TBAR-ed the book. She has a wonderful voice, does great characters and superb dialogue. And I got very angry because she misses the final step to immortality because her plots are messy, and full of dead-end red-herrings and well developed characters… who have no function in the plot at all, and then she leaves a slew untied off ends – which are never going to be tied off. The plot relies vastly on repeated co-incidences – which are un-necessary. The story is painfully obviously pantsered 9without backfill, to deadline and deadline length… and yet I read it all, because what she does well, she does very very well. And as one of the grand old dames of the field I am pretty sure no one has ever dared tell her to apply the chekov principal and tie off her ends, and one co-incidence per book.
So: I am nothing like that league and never will be… but I really want people to tell me what they don’t like. Because I can clearly see what she needs to do – even if I can’t do what she already does.

>Your Next Stop: The Twilight Zone

>This past week in publishing has reminded me of the Twilight Zone. I kept expecting to see Rod Serling standing there, telling me I’ve just entered that new dimension “not of sight and sound but of mind.” The only problem is I don’t think a mind was involved in this sudden detour we’ve taken, at least not a sound mind. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, I’m talking about the latest debacle to rock publishing — Harlequin Horizons.

A little background first. Earlier this month, Harlequin announced the formation of Carina Press, a digital only publisher that will not offer advances but will pay royalties. This surprised me — and I wasn’t the only one. Just check some of the other blogs — in that RWA doesn’t recognize publishers that don’t offer advances of at least $1,000 as “eligible publishers”. Because this disqualifies almost all ebook publishers, it has raised the question of whether or not RWA needs to re-examines their criteria. The fact Harlequin was starting an e-book imprint raised more than a few eyebrows and had a number of people wondering if this might force RWA to revisit the issue of whether or not ebook publishers should be considered “eligible” or not.

Then the shoe dropped and boy did it land with a thud. A very big and a very loud thud. Harlequin announced it would be teaming up with Author Solutions to form Harlequin Horizons, their self-publication imprint. According to Publishers Weekly, [t]he imprint will recruit writers in two ways: authors whose manuscripts have been rejected by Harlequin will be made aware of the Harlequin Horizons option and authors who sign with Author Solutions will be given the opportunity to be published under the Harlequin Horizons imprint. According to an Author Solutions spokesperson, the imprint will offer special services aimed at the romance market, including unique marketing and distribution services. All services are on a pay-for-service basis.

The response has been fast and definitive. RWA has, at least for the moment, revoked Harlequin’s “eligible” status. SFWA, calling Harlequin Horizons (now known by the initials of HH which will be on the spine of any book printed by them. Gee, that won’t be confusing will it, since Harlequin Historicals have been nicknamed HHs for quite a while.) a vanity press, said the following: “Under normal circumstances, the addition of a new imprint by a major house would be cause for celebration in the professional writing community. Unfortunately, these are not normal circumstances. . . Until such time as Harlequin changes course, and returns to a model of legitimately working with authors instead of charging authors for publishing services, SFWA has no choice but to be absolutely clear that NO titles from ANY Harlequin imprint will be counted as qualifying for membership in SFWA.”

Publishers Weekly reports that Mystery Writers of America (MWA) also responded to the news with a threat of sanctions. “An e-bulletin prepared by Margery Flax on behalf of Mystery Writers of America’s National Board of Directors said MWA was “deeply concerned about the troubling conflict-of-interest issues created by these ventures, particularly the potentially misleading way they are marketed to aspiring writers.” The MWA was refering to both Harlequin Horizons and the eHarlequin Manuscript Critique service, also aimed at aspiring writers. MWA said it would consider removing Harlequin from its list of approved publishers, declining membership applications from Harlequin authors, and barring Harlequin books from entering the Edgar Awards unless Harlequin agreed to discuss changing these ventures by December 15.”

There are a number of other blogs commenting on HH. I recommend you check out the following for more information:

Read them. Think about them. Then decide for yourself if this latest move by Harlequin is in the best interest of writers and readers or is just another ill-conceived method of raising revenue for the publisher.

Why, you ask, does the creation of HH bother me so much? It comes down to trust. Trust between Harlequin and the authors submitting to it and trust between Harlequin and its readers. The books “published” by HH won’t be edited or proofed the way a mainline Harlequin book will be. Nor will they be distributed the same or marketed. There is no guarantee they will find their way to any bookstore. All that is there is a carrot for any author willing to pay the money — and it isn’t cheap — to be published by HH that their book might be picked up by Harlequin if it sells enough…the same promise they make about the ebooks published by Carina Press. Sorry, but I can put my book up on my website and Amazon and sell it myself, without having to pay the money to Harlequin.

But there’s another breach of trust between Harlequin and its current authors and this, too, has been mentioned in some of the other blogs. It is my understanding that Harlequin requires its authors to do nothing that might dilute the brand. Isn’t that exactly what Harlequin has done with HH? And doesn’t that, in turn, constitute a breach in their agreement with the authors?

As for the readers, they’ve come to expect a certain product from Harlequin. Using the HH logo instead of the Harlequin name isn’t going to keep them from identifying books published by Harlequin Horizons with the Harlequin brand. The same quality isn’t going to be there. I guarantee it. If it were, the book wouldn’t be rejected by Harlequin and referred to HH in the first time. Unless, of course, the whole purpose of this is to make money and screw the authors and reading public.

It is going to be interesting to see where this goes over the next few weeks and months. For those of you out there considering submitting to Harlequin, I recommend you keep you eyes open and your ear to the ground. There is no telling where this might end. I leave you with the introduction to the fourth season of The Twilight Zone: “You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

>Malted

>

Malted

“Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
— Samuel Johnson

London is arguably the centre of the world. It is the largest city in Europe and the only place like it to emerge in recent years is New York. Everything happens in London. It is all civilisation crammed into a single city.

The big human news story in London this week is the ‘outing’ of Belle de Jour, the London escort girl whose blog became best selling books and a TV series starring Billy Piper. An escort girl is a high-end prostitute servicing London’s rich. They charge around £300 an hour, more for specials , and retain two-thirds; the rest going to the agency that markets them.

Belle de Jour had been assumed to be a journalist, or team, and probably male with a vivid imagination. Not a bit of it, Belle is a middle class English scientist working in bioinformatics in an elite research team at Bristol University, which is where the upper classes send their kids. Belle apparently speaks in a Northern English accent with the odd American vowel sound and Westcountry English drawl. She worked as an escort girl to pay off her PhD debts.

This story attracted my attention because Belle and I are first cousins, professional speaking. I am a (semi-retired) maths-trained biologist who worked essentially as a biodiversity data analyst in research teams. I worked with bioinformatics people. I remember my PhD viva. I had a wife and a two-week old baby to support so I worked all hours in the evenings and weekends as a computer game designer as well as building an academic career. So, fascinated, I dug a little into the Belle story.

Things were quite different and much more interesting than the bald facts suggested. Belle is American, not English. She was educated at the private Clearwater Catholic School in Florida, which suggests money in the family but something went wrong. Her mother lives a modest existence in the northern USA and her father is still in Florida where he has struggled with a drug habit and a fascination with prostitutes; he claims to have enjoyed the favours of 150. By her own acknowledgment, Belle was highly sexually active in her teems with multiple partners. She says she stopped counting when she reached twenty two.

She left school in ’92 and read a forensic science subject as a first degree. By the turn of the millennium, she was at Sheffield, an excellent university, research a PhD in bio/chemoinformatics. Belle was unusual in that she was an early web-logger in the states, with a food blog, and, being a geek, she opened new ‘blogs’ in the UK. One was a science blog called cosmas:
http://web.archive.org/web/20040202035753/http://www.methylsalicylate.com/cosmas/

and the other was a diary called methylsalicylate:

http://web.archive.org/web/20011211052546/tfn.net/~brooke/dook.htm

Methylsalicylate is a plant ester related to acetylsalicyclic acid (aspirin) – ok, my first degree is in biochemistry. I told you Belle and I were first cousins, professionally speaking.

Personal blogs were incredibly rare at the time and the British ones were listed by a bloke called Darren, more about him later.

Belle finished her PhD but then had to write it up, submit the thesis and wait and prepare for the viva. This usually takes a year. She had saved some money and went to live in Scotland for some months. She has a weakness for malt whisky. I like a drop of Cardhu malt or Johnny Walker blended myself, a taste that I acquired working in Scotland on my PhD.

She decided to go to London, “where the jobs are”, and was there in 2003. She had not realised the huge difference between living costs in London to Northern Britain and her savings evaporated like the first frost in the autumn sun. Her solution was to work as an escort girl but she blogged about it because that was what she did – and Belle de Jour was born. She did get a stopgap job as a computer programmer but found it boring compared to being Belle.

Then she got her PhD and found professional research work at Newcastle and Bristol, which tells you she is one clever person.

The only mystery was that it took the press so long to out her because the clues were there all along. I suppose Belle is very clever and the British Press is not. Her private life was her downfall. Belle’s life is a chaotic train wreck and one of two squabbling boyfriends boasted to a friend of having had Belle de jour. Said ‘friend’ went to the Daily Mail, our most sanctimonious scandal sheet, who started an espionage operation.

Belle was tipped off by Darren and gave a controlled interview to the Guardian to spike the Mail story. Darren had always known who belle was because he realised that she must be an experienced Blogger which meant she was one of a handful of people.

One of those people was methylsalicylate, real name Brooke Manganti, who wrote stories for a site called Infovore. One was “Malted” . The girl in the story is fifteen or sixteen when it opens and has an affair with a man more than twice her age. She is introduced to malt and, later, goes to live in Scotland. The story ends describing a sex encounter in London, which is described as a ‘date’ but clearly isn’t.

Darren set up a googlewack trap;
http://www.timemachinego.com/linkmachinego/me-and-belle-de-jour-the-googlewack/

and caught the Daily Mail in it. He was able to tip Belle off.

Brooke Manganti is a very bright, very creative person. She also clearly has issues, including, I would say, self hate although I doubt if she would agree. Well, we have discussed this before. Creatives are not uncommonly a few species short of a healthy mental ecosystem. It takes one to know one. I have to take an SSRI to keep the daemons at bay. So when you comment on this article, please remember that real, vulnerable people are involved and treat them gently.

So to Malted, which is a powerful, moving short story. I suspect it is achingly autobiographical. My eldest daughter, the scientist, reads my stories but my wife and youngest daughter don’t. They keep seeing autobiographical flashes in them that they find disturbing. I know a writer who puts nothing of himself in his fiction but that is unusual. For example, if you want to understand David Drake then read “Darkness”. Drake is much more than that one story but that story is him. I could not write without drawing on me and my life. Could you?

Malted is copyright Brooke Magnanti.
You can find her other stories here:
http://www.timemachinego.com/linkmachinego/2009/11/16/me-and-belle-de-jour-could-it-be-brooke/
‘What the dead know’ is also very good.

Malted

October 20, 2003: Brooke likes a nip of the hard stuff.

The first time I met him, he was drinking whisky. A double of something on ice. When the barkeep presented the drink he dipped a finger in it, placing a drop behind each ear as women once did with perfume.
He asked what I was having. “Whatever you’re having,” I bluffed. He asked me how old I was. I told him, and he laughed, and bought me a soda.
Acquired taste worth acquiring? I’d never been with an older man. Soon after we were lovers. Twice my age, twice as big, educated and well-traveled. And he put back whisky like it was mother’s milk.
Well, why not? He was scion of a family where Jack Daniel’s was practically secreted by the womenfolk. Bourbon and whisky: given at every holiday, drunk at every meal, the tawny stuff that kept them going and brought the day to a close. The Johnnie Walker blends, based on Cardhu single malt. The legendary B-21 liquor store on US 19 employed more people than lived in town. An off-license on the border of Florida and Georgia, because the state north of us was dry.
We drove to Panama City to sit on a particular beach, drink a particular drink. I was embarrassed by my unconscious reaction to alcohol: wrinkled nose, curling lips. But I loved the way it warmed from the inside and the way people watched me as I tasted it. I was still five years below the drinking age.
He had the best bar game: pick any three whiskys or bourbons from the bar. Pour a measure of each. Bet you twenty bucks he could tell them apart.
I learned. The shape of the glass matters. The temperature of the glass matters. The measure, the pour, the ritual. Swirling it round, a caramel wave of liquor clinging to the inside of the glass. It retracts slowly like the damp line of the falling tide on sand.
Ice in that? Water? Not for me, thanks. A few years later, sitting on a friend’s sofa. A tumbler of Laphroaig, my first sip of the harsh Islay malts. Like starting all over again. But the feeling afterward – not drunkenness, not lightheaded. The opposite. Grounded, focused, full.
One year I spent more money on whisky than on rent. Two vintage bottles in Scotland, dozens of nights out, hundreds of nights in. A miraculous pub in Flagstaff, Arizona. A neighbour who worked bar at a hotel. No wrinkled nose any more. It tasted of melted butter. Golden syrup. An acquired taste worth acquiring.
I moved to Scotland and swam in the thickly peaty rivers Findhorn and Spey. They tasted like sweet, aged whisky. I drank up honey-colored light. Scared off the cold of the evenings with a glass of malt. Sat up on the longest night of the year with a friend’s father, drinking and playing the mandolin. The sky at midnight was the color of barley.
In London one evening for a date with a woman and her boyfriend. I was early, they were late. Waited at the bar drinking a single malt finished in a rum cask while the underpaid, overcool staff looked me over in pity. Ordered another and the couple whisked in, silver and scented and fabuloso. Later, when I’d made her come twice before dessert, the waiters couldn’t fill my glass fast enough.
But you never forget your first. I never did. Years after we were no longer lovers, a decade after putting a glass in my hand, he was married. At the wedding his family and friends eyed me suspiciously. ‘How grown-up you are now,’ they said. I smiled, pinned a corsage to someone’s lapel. Who ever said heartbreak is a cliche? When he said his vows I felt a spasm in my chest. Afterward I drank long and hard. The taste will always remind me of him.
What does it taste of? Like mother’s milk, I say.