Saturday, July 27, 2013

Luddites and Technophobes

I hear those two words often in these difficult times. They’re often confused, and therefore misused. It’s inaccurate to say “I’m a Luddite; computers scare the daylights out of me.” Well, both statements may be true, but they’re not synonymous, and clumping them together like that makes the non-sequitur button go off. Nor is it redundant to say “I’m a technophobe; I wish I could un-invent the computer.”

A Luddite is someone who despises and would happily destroy (or un-invent) technology that takes jobs away from people. The word comes from a movement in Northern England during the early nineteenth century, just as the Industrial Revolution was getting under way. The Luddites were Industrial Counterrevolutionaries who smashed machinery that was replacing human labor in the textile and other industries.

Modern Luddism might refer to the inventors of computer worms and viruses; but as far as I know those malevolent hackers don’t have a social agenda. They’re just vandals, super-sophisticated versions of teenage boys who smash mailboxes with baseball bats. To be a real Luddite, you must have a social agenda, and it has to do with jobs. (Not Jobs.)

Technopobia is fear of, or aversion to, advanced technology. The word “technophobe” generally refers to someone who feels too dumb to master the techniques of personal computer applications. The word sometimes has ageist overtones, implying that the technophobe is a fuddy-duddy stuck in the era of the Model T. However, some technophobes are proud of their reluctance to modernize their thinking, and they mourn for the passing of such pre-computer niceties as handwritten thank-you notes and the lovely printed volumes of the Encyclop√¶dia Britannica. A true technophobe doesn’t buy anything over the Internet, for fear someone will learn his mother’s maiden name and move all his assets to Nigeria.

I happen to have both Luddite and Technophobic tendencies. Yes, I have a computer, and I use Wikipedia and Word and email. But it took me six difficult months to learn what I know about the Word application, and I don’t want to learn one more thing about it. I joined Facebook, but I don’t want to know how to share photos. Forget Garage Band; I wasted two hours getting furious with myself and with that complex, time-wasting toy. So, yes, I am a technophobe compared to my genius children and grandchildren, whose fingers fly over their keyboards, their iPads, their smart phones. Don’t try to sell me a smart phone, because I’m not smart enough to figure out how it works, okay?

Am I a Luddite? Well, I’ve never intentionally done damage to the Information Highway, nor have I ever socked my monitor (though I’ve been tempted). So I’m a nonviolent Luddite, although I know that’s an oxymoron. What’s my beef with digital technology? It’s very much the same complaint the original Luddites had about the machinery that replaced human labor in the Industrial Revolution. Computer technology destroys jobs. Oh, sure, jobs open up in the field of digital technology, but there are nowhere near as many jobs gained in that field as the jobs lost or rendered obsolete in other parts of our economy, jobs that used to keep the middle class solvent. Telephone receptionists. Secretaries. Number crunchers sitting at desks punching adding machines all day. Travel agents. Librarians. Clerks in record stores, camera stores, and bookstores. Postal employees. And the list continues. Many of these jobs may have been humdrum, but they paid a living wage. Some of these jobs may still exist, but in smaller numbers.

Am I sentimental and nostalgic? Yes. Am I sorry the Information Age came to be? No. Do I use my personal computer? All the time. Can I imagine writing a novel on a typewriter, and then retyping the whole 300-page manuscript over with every revision? (I revise a lot.) No way. Yes, I use email, and sometimes I get impatient when it takes a day to receive a response.

But still. I mourn especially for the independent bookstore. There are only a handful of them left. I worked in eight different indie stores during the 1960s and 1970s, and I miss every one of them.

Sometimes I live in the past. Well, that has come in handy over the past couple of years, while I’ve been writing Hooperman, a novel set in an independent bookstore in the summer of 1972. That was a time before personal computers, before email, before voice mail, before Facebook, before

It’s ironic that Hooperman is set in Palo Alto, the birthplace of the Information Age. It’s also ironic that I’m using my Mac, my blog, Facebook, and email to promote it. And it will be sold by Amazon, as well as (I hope) independent bookstores.

Hooperman: A Bookstore Mystery will be published in November. You’ll be hearing from me again about this…if you have a computer!

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Journey Begins

When I was a child, my Uncle Neil used to tell me (and as many other children as were on hand to gather around him) a fairy tale that he called “The Story of Feet-in-the-Ashes.” It began like this: “The King of Ireland stood out on the terrace in front of his castle, surrounded by his powerful captains and his strong-armed guards.…”

In the story a vicious giant named Shambleshanks, from the Island of the Shadow of the Stars, knocks out the King’s three front teeth and walks away with them. The King promises a reward of half of his kingdom and hand of his daughter in marriage to anyone who will slay the giant Shambleshanks and return to the King his three front teeth. The only one who will take up the challenge is a poor boy named Feet-in-the-Ashes, who, aided by a few magical gifts from his grandmother, sails off to the Island of the Shadow of the Stars, slays the giant, manages to find the King’s three front teeth, brings them back to Ireland, and claims his reward.

I found out years later that the story was originally written by Padraic Colum, under the title “The Stone of Victory,” and was included in Colum’s book of stories The Boy Who Knew What the Birds Said. I have a photocopy of the original story, as well as a tape recording of Uncle Neil telling his version, and Uncle Neil’s version is an almost word-for-word recital of Colum’s.

For some months now I’ve been waiting for a story idea to present itself to me, because I’m been itching to get started on another novel. Whenever I’m not in the process of writing a story, I feel as if I’m not doing what I was meant to do. During this fallow period I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Annals of the Western Shore, a trilogy containing the novels Gifts, Voices, and Powers. I marveled at those books, wishing that I had such a gift for fantasy. But where would I find a plot?

The answer came to me: steal something. Not a whole story but a small handful of schticks to get started with. The first fantasy story of my youth, Uncle Neil’s “The Story of Feet-in-the-Ashes” gave me enough to travel with. I’ve taken only a few artifacts from Uncle Neil’s tale, which he stole from Colum’s story, which Colum probably lifted from Irish folklore. The King of Ireland’s three front teeth are now the crystal eye of High King Rohar of Strawberry Island, the largest of the fourteen Farther Isles. Feet-in-the-Ashes is now Rodney Trapper, the Goatherd’s Son, of the Isle of Goats. Shambleshanks is now the Giant Clobber of the Isle of Wind.

That’s all I need. I’ve cut ties with the original plot, and I’m writing the story as it makes itself up. A fine tale is building itself in my mind, a story that owes a lot to several archetypes in our cultural lore: David and Goliath, the Odyssey, Jack and the Beanstalk, and The Wizard of Oz, for starters. I hope my writing will do the story justice.

But even if it doesn’t, for I know I’m no match for Ursula LeGuin, I’m having a fine time on this voyage. And I’m writing again. 

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Amy Franklin-Willis: A Superb Storyteller

Please welcome Amy Franklin-Willis, a writer I hugely admire, and the author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012), a novel I highly enjoyed and can’t recommend highly enough. I had the pleasure of hearing Amy read chapters of Lost Saints in my late-night workshop at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference while it was still a work-in-progress. I knew right away that the book would one day be published and that this woman had a future.

An eighth-generation Southerner, Amy Franklin-Willis was born in Birmingham, Alabama. She received an Emerging Writer Grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation in 2007 to complete The Lost Saints of Tennessee, which was inspired by her father's childhood in Pocahontas, Tennessee.  She now lives on the West Coast with her family.  The Lost Saints of Tennessee is out in paperback now. 

Find her on-line at:,, and on Twitter @amyfranklinwill.

My review of The Lost Saints of Tennessee appears at the end of this post. Meanwhile, read what Amy Franklin-Willis has to say about “The Joy of Story.”

Joy of Story
Amy Franklin-Willis

We’ve been scribbling stories on cave walls, whispering them around campfires, and painting them across church ceilings since the beginning of time.  In the delightfully creative novel The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, one of the characters says, “You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose.”  This is the power of story.  I tell my writing students that the piece they are working on right now, right this minute, might one day save someone’s life.  The writing of it may even save the writer’s life.
I’ve been writing fiction, making up my own stories, for fifteen years.  But long before that, I was raised on them.  My tribe encompasses eight generations of Southerners, and one of the first stories I can recall was about the time my father almost got his little brother killed by having him climb up on the roof to tie a radio antenna to the chimney so my dad could get better reception. 
I couldn’t hear that story enough.  My dad would act out the parts, raising and lowering his voice for drama, and I sat riveted, letting the words wash over me.  My paternal grandmother held court at her kitchen’s Formica table telling the big and small happenings of all the Willis relatives, shaking her head occasionally and saying, “Amy-girl, who knows why she did it?”
Now with three daughters of my own and never enough time to write down the memorable things they do, I try and tell them.  Over and over again.  How toddler Grace would wake at seven a.m. every day, put her shoes on, and go stand by the door saying “walk” in a tone equal parts questioning and demanding.  How Georgia’s quick thinking and bravery saved the life of a third grade classmate.  How baby Gia offered me unsolicited “thank you”s after diaper changes.  These tales are gifts, artifacts bequeathed to support their exploration of who they are.
No matter the origin of a tale—whether it be fiction or non-fiction, the pleasure of hearing or reading or writing a good one is considerable.  The teller hears her creation out loud or sees it spread across the page, reveling in the sweet music of round vowels and hard consonants.  The listener/reader enters the cell of the story, steps inside another person’s world where love and hate and grief and struggle and mercy unfurl. 
Long-term solitary confinement is considered a form of torture.  Why?  Because it deprives us of story—the ability to connect with others, to be heard, to listen.  To be.  To feel less alone. 
When Oscar Wilde was confined to Pentonville prison, it was standard for the first three months of a Victorian convict’s sentence that he be allowed only one book, the Bible.  And while the Bible brought Wilde some comfort, his physical and mental state deteriorated rapidly under these conditions. 
It wasn’t until an exception to the policy was granted and he garnered access to a wider array of books that he regained a portion of his health, occupying the days by drawing up lists of books to request.  These books journeyed from friends’ hands to prison officials for approval before finally reaching Wilde, providing life-saving nourishment for his mind and soul for the remainder of his two-year imprisonment.

As promised, here is my review of Amy Franklin-Willis’s novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee, which is loaded with story:

The Lost Saints of Tennessee, by Amy Franklin-Willis, is a gem. It is a family novel, and like all good family novels, it's about love and other big, big problems. The Coopers of Clayton, Tennessee are a struggling bunch. They never quite make a good living; they tend to drink a lot of beer, whiskey, and vodka laced iced tea and smoke a lot of Lucky Strikes; sex gets them in trouble and teenage pregnancy seems to run in the family. They get into spats and hold grudges. But this is a novel of family love, and it's in the end about forgiveness and redemption.
At the center of the novel are twin boys, Ezekiel and Carter Cooper, who are not only brothers but also the best of friends. Ezekiel is voted (by Lillian, his ambitious and self-destructive mother) the Cooper most likely to succeed. Carter, however, was damaged by encephalitis as a toddler and has developed slowly, although emotionally he's perhaps the healthiest of the Cooper children. The lifelong devotion between these two brothers is pure and strong. It is also a vulnerable thing, for their paths must eventually part, and out of that parting comes tragedy from which it takes a lifetime to heal.
Mostly, Lost Saints is Ezekiel's story, for it is Ezekiel's lot to forgive and earn forgiveness from his mother, his ex-wife, his daughters, his sisters, and especially the brother who will haunt him forever.
I love this book. It has sentiment in spades, and no sentimentality. It is in a long tradition of Southern family novels, yet it is original, not derivative. It is also funny, sexy, gritty, even at times horsey. Amy Franklin-Willis, with this debut novel, The Lost Saints of Tennessee, is well on the way to joining the pantheon of Southern women writers, an august group including Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Harper Lee, and Flannery O'Connor.

I hope you’ll buy or order this fine novel from your local independent bookseller. If you’d rather shop on line, you can find the book at:

Saturday, July 6, 2013


The theme for this month’s invitational blog post is standing up to authority. It’s appropriate theme for July, the historic month when the American colonies stood firmly united and declared their independence from England.
Here are five stories celebrating the courage it takes to stand up and tell those in power to stuff it.


by Margaret Bermel

Post-surgery, the oncologist recommended ‘precautionary chemotherapy.’ My husband asked what I was going to do.
I replied, “Of course I’ll do it. I’ll do everything I can to beat this.” This is the fearful, knee-jerk reaction the cancer industry counts on. I had been brainwashed over the years, and I was ready to sign on the dotted line. What the cancer industry doesn’t count on is a husband who says what my husband said: “Let’s not be too hasty, let’s research this.”
My research uncovered the truth about the cancer industry, enabling me to “just say no” to chemo.


by June Kosier

She was 91, with cancer, on dialysis and a DNR.
She codes. Stopping dialysis, I notice the machine was set to remove 10 liters of fluid. She had gained only one since her last treatment. We removed too much fluid.
I push the code button and she is resuscitated. I am criticized for calling the code. I tell the head nurse that we killed her and I wasn’t going to let the technician who initiated her treatment live with the knowledge that he pushed an extra zero by mistake and killed her.
 The hospital agreed.


by Phyllis Povell

She entered the room, belly first, wide as she was round. In her mailbox was a note to see her elementary school principal. “What does he want now?” she thought.
“You are obviously in your seventh month and must leave teaching immediately,” he stated.
“I just entered my fifth month,” she answered, “and can get you a note from my doctor.”
“Your doctor would probably write that you aren’t even pregnant.”
Horrified, angry and defiant, she spoke. “I am going to the Board of Education doctors, and if I give birth before October, I will buy you a present.”


by Jerry Giammatteo

I’d heard this garbage before at our annual staff meeting. Ms. Big telling us promotions for New York staff were coming.
We’d been hearing this crap for years. The result was always the same – nothing. Our boss hated rocking the boat and expected us lambs to follow. I’d had enough.
 “When you coming through?” I challenged. “We hear this nonsense every year.”
My boss sat mouth agape. No supportive words came out. However, I did get chewed out back in the office. I had broken his golden rule about not rocking the boat.
At least I’d achieved personal satisfaction.

by Christine Viscuso

 Eighth grade science class was filled with a cacophony of voices. Mr. Gerber (heartthrob to most females— except me) demanded quiet. Not getting his wish, he spoke directly to me.
“Stand up. Go to the principal’s office.”
I couldn’t go there! “Mr. Gerber, I wasn’t talking.” This was true. I had been rereading my homework.
“Yes, you were. You lie too?”
“I’m not going to tell you I never lie, but now I’m telling the truth.” I couldn’t let him see me cry.
He paused. “Stand up and face your class.”
A moment later—“Sit.”
Little me against Goliath.


Coming next month!

For the sweltering month of August, I invite you to send me a story about heat. Heat can be a good thing: it cooks our food, it kindles our love and our desire, it warms us in the winter, and it gives us the passion to create.
But heat can also get us in trouble. It stands for blame, for anger, for lust, hatred, even for war.
I challenge you to write a story about heat, and you get extra credit if you show heat as both a good thing and a bad thing.
Here are the rules:

1. Your story must be 99 words long, exactly.
2. One story per writer, per month.
3. The story must be a story. That means it needs plot, and conflict.
4. The deadline: the first of the month.
5. Email me your story (in the body of your email, or as a Word attachment) to: