During my research of serial killers I snatched up the book The Sociopath Next Door, figuring it was perfect for my purpose. I would learn all about that guy whose neighbors shake their heads in disbelief after he’s arrested for torturing and killing prostitutes. “He was so quiet,” they say. “The last person you would have suspected.”The Sociopath Next Door [Book]

But the author, Martha Stout, isn’t particularly interested in serial killers. Sure, they’re sociopaths, but so are lots of other people. Four percent of America’s population, according to Stout, is congenitally unable to feel any affection for other human beings. This four percent can hurt or even kill others without feeling any guilt. But most aren’t driven by blood lust to become another Ted Bundy. They’re motivated by other emotions — fear, envy, anger, sloth, the desire to win. Really, sociopaths feel the same things as the rest of us with the one exception. They cannot love. Sociopathy is characterized by the absence of conscience. You don’t feel guilty about hurting other beings unless you can empathize with them — feel their pain.

I’ve known people who clearly fit Stout’s definition. Some of the plagiarists in my composition classes felt no shame whatsoever. Sure, they cried. But the tears dried fast when they failed to get results. When I was using drugs in my twenties, some of my fellow druggies had no compunction about taking advantage of their “friends.” Some might argue it was the drugs. But while drugs do have a way of corroding one’s moral fiber, many people use them without becoming cold and ruthless. Even so, I haven’t noticed that anywhere near four percent of the people I’ve known are sociopathic. It seems I’ve missed quite a few. And these days I move in circles less likely to be frequented by sociopaths. Still, I wonder about that statistic. Stout never explains who arrived at the percentage, or how.

And the percentage applies to the United States, not to other parts of the world. Stout notes that the incidence of sociopathic behavior is lower in many Asian countries and theorizes that cultural differences are the reason. In cultures that stress interconnectedness, people born without the capacity for empathy learn how to fake it. American individualism, on the other hand, encourages them to express their true selves. Makes sense. Many un-sociopathic Americans feel entitled to do as they like. They accept the exploitation of one human being by another as natural and hate the constraints of “big guvment.” They break the speed limit all the time without remorse — until a cop pulls them over.

Stout spends a couple of chapters on the evolutionary and personal advantages of sociopathy and its opposite, conscience. She concludes that while sociopaths make great warriors, they are by and large miserable human beings. People of conscience are happier and ultimately more successful. Conscience being a moral concept, the book ends with musings on morality and religion. Stout writes well enough that I kept reading, even though I knew she had nothing to teach me about serial killers.

I’ve been so busy with Occasional Writers: Bringing the Past Forward —an anthology of essays and poems by the Past/Forward memoir group and the latest title from Cantraip Press—that my other creative endeavors have fallen by the wayside. Hopefully I’ll have time for my own writing once Occasional Writers comes out next month.

Or is that in Tuscola?

Douglas County Seat

Meanwhile I offer some photographs taken last year by my husband, Joe Heumann, as he was wandering through Arcola, a small town north of Charleston. Joe was taking photographs when I met him in college, but he hasn’t taken any for a number of years. Now that he’s back, I hope he keeps snapping pictures. I love his way of looking at the world.


Silos in Arcola







Silos in Arcola

Come Closer . . .




At least I think it's a street.

. . . hidden wonders reveal themselves.







A glimpse of Arcola's infrastructure


This summer I was looking around for something to watch after finishing season one of The Killing and found the HBO crime drama The Wire. I generally buy TV shows either on DVD or as a video download. I could save a lot of money by watching them when they aired, but I can’t take the commercials anymore. I just can’t. They wreck havoc with my attention span and sanity. HBO has no commercials, of course, and as a subscriber I could have seen The Wire while it was showing, but despite its popularity and critical acclaim I managed to ignore it.

After a couple of episodes I was engrossed. The Wire follows the lives of a few dozen characters in contemporary Baltimore. At the center of the action is a special investigations unit that gathers evidence through surveillance and wiretaps, and the plot unfolds in ways that are unexpected yet seem fated. Take, for example, the disastrous careers of D’Angelo Barksdale (Lawrence Gilliard Jr.) and Ziggy Sobotka (James Ransone), both hardly out of their teens and, for very different reasons, not cut out for a life of crime.

The wrong kind of smart

D'Angelo Barksdale

D’Angelo Barksdale, known as Dee, is introduced in the very first episode. The nephew of Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris), a drug lord and major character, Dee seems as though he’ll be part of the story for a long time. He does some bad things like selling dope and gunning people down. He gives a chilling account of how he shot one of Avon’s girlfriends who threatened to go to the police. Yet I can’t help liking him anyway. He has an open, intelligent face. He wonders about his place in the world and comes to understand that human beings are trapped by their history and circumstances.

At the end of season one, facing a long prison term, Dee is ready to inform on his uncle. Then his mother, Avon’s sister (Michael Hyatt), pays him a visit in jail and lectures him about family loyalty. Everything they have, she reminds him, they owe to Avon. There she sits – manicured, coifed, expensively dressed – telling her son to do twenty years in prison so she can continue to live in luxury. I loathe her. And sympathize with her more than I want to admit.

Brianna Barksdale


Season two begins with Dee in prison and increasingly alienated from his uncle, who is serving a much shorter sentence at the same facility. A series of incidents stoke his anger and disgust at Avon’s disregard for other people’s lives. This culminates in their passing each other in a hallway. Dee says nothing, but he gives his uncle an angry, defiant look. Stay the fuck away, it says. I’m done with you. Avon’s Machiavellian second in command, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba), hasn’t forgotten that the police almost turned Dee and is disquieted by his growing alienation. He’s also doing Dee’s girlfriend. So he goes behind Avon’s back and orders Dee killed. The death is staged to look like suicide, and nobody bothers to investigate.

Uncle Avon

Shortly before he’s strangled, D’Angelo takes part in a prison literature course and makes an astute comment on The Great Gatsby: “You can say you somebody else. You can give yourself a whole new story, but what came first is who you really are. What happened first is what really happened.” He understands that he’s a prisoner of the past, but he tries to break out anyway.



Smarter than his pet duck, barely


Ziggy Sobotka is the son of a dock worker in season two. In a milieu where men are valued for their physical strength, Ziggy is short and skinny, a little stick cartoon of a guy. Maybe if he had brains, he could have found some kind of place in his world, but he’s hopelessly stupid. The hulking fellows in Teamsterland hold him in utter contempt and delight in playing nasty jokes on him. Maybe with thoughtful parenting Ziggy could have learned to live with his limitations. But his mom, who’s never seen and mentioned only once or twice, is a downer freak who has chosen to sleep through her life. His dad, Frank Sobotka (Chris Bauer), the local union president, is obsessed with getting a canal dredged to bring ships back to Baltimore and employment to the dock workers.

To get the canal dredged, Frank needs money – lots of money – to bribe politicians. Since the dues from the dwindling union membership aren’t enough, he has an arrangement with a gangster called The Greek to facilitate the smuggling of various products (electronics, drugs, prostitutes, etc.). This operation makes him the target of the special investigations unit and eventually leads to his downfall. But Ziggy goes down first.


Ziggy has one friend and protector, his cousin Nick (Pablo Schreiber). When Ziggy starts dealing drugs and of course screws up, Nick comes to the rescue and as a result becomes involved in the drug trade himself. He also does some jobs for The Greek. He shares the profits from these endeavours with his hapless cousin and tries to keep him out of it. To no avail. Ziggy wants to be a player. He makes a deal with one of The Greek’s minions – a deal on the side involving only him and the minion – to deliver some stolen luxury cars from the docks in return for twenty percent of their value.

At this point I expect Ziggy to get busted. But he manages to heist the cars despite his best efforts to botch the job. Driving a car from the yard, he cranks the radio full blast. Honestly, it’s like he desperately needs attention from anyone, even police. Amazingly, he brings the job off and delivers the cars. When he goes to collect his cut, the minion pays him ten percent and tells him to fuck off. Ziggy complains, gets slapped around (something that happens to him depressingly often), and thrown out of the building. For Ziggy it’s the last straw.

Of course he has a gun. A handgun is de rigeur for wannabe gangsters and dealers, like fishnet stockings and four-inch heels on hookers. I shouldn’t be surprised or appalled when Ziggy pulls the weapon, marches inside, and kills the man who dissed him. But I am. “Don’t do it!” I want to yell. “You’re not smart enough or strong enough to survive this.” He shoots another guy too, but cannot bring himself to deliver a coup de grace. He staggers from the building, gun in hand, and promptly surrenders to the police.

Ziggy Confesses

The detective (one of the series regulars) brings him the confession to sign. Crushed by guilt, Ziggy wants to change the wording from “He said, ‘Don’t shoot,'” to “He begged, ‘Don’t shoot.'” Poor Ziggy, he’s hopeless. Fated to spend the rest of his life in prison, constantly beaten and raped, until his existence become one endless, agonized scream.

D”Angelo and Ziggy are relatively minor characters in The Wire, but they have the kind of complexity usually found in novels. So do dozens of other characters in the series, which could be why the story has me hooked and why HBO will suck yet more money out of me. Because, Joe adds sardonically, I was too clueless to watch it while it was on TV.





Back in May, I filled out a form and mailed it along with a check to the Illinois Secretary of State. A few weeks later I received a form letter announcing that I now officially own a corporation, Cantraip Press, Ltd, and wishing me success in my new venture. August has come, and I still can hardly believe it. I never, ever imagined myself going into business, yet here I am.

I conceived of Cantraip Press when I decided to publish my novel Talion myself and couldn’t see why its ISBN should belong to anyone but me. I enjoyed the process so much that I began to think about publishing books by other writers – not right away but sometime in the future, probably after I retired. But then an exciting project came my way. The Past/Forward memoir group of Charleston, Illinois, was putting together an anthology of their work.

Past/Forward began in 2007 when Daiva Markelis, a professor at Eastern Illinois University whose memoir White Field, Black Sheep: A Lithuanian-American Life has garnered critical acclaim, taught a memoir writing class for adults. The course drew older writers, most hoping to record their experiences and family histories for their children and grandchildren.

One of them was Janet Messenger, at that time president of the Coles County Arts Council. “The class was great,” she says. “Members of the class became friends and enjoyed sharing pieces they had written. When it ended, each of us was bound and determined to go home and start writing until we had compiled our family histories. However, without deadlines or a specific date to get things written we soon found out we didn’t write much at all.”

The group realized they needed one another’s help and encouragement to keep writing. So Janet went to the CCAC and convinced them to sponsor the group. They found meeting space in the Charleston Carnegie Public Library and met for the first time in April 2008. They have been meeting regularly ever since.

Open to anyone with a love for writing, the group grew. Members were serious about learning their craft. They gave and received constructive criticism, brought in guest speakers, and participated in focused workshops with Daiva. As their skill and confidence grew, their ambitions broadened. In addition to writing for their families and one another, they wanted to share their work with the community.

To have a public presence they needed a name, so they held a contest and invited submissions. Bill Heyduck came up with the name they chose: Past/Forward.

The group has now given several public readings and has found an appreciative audience for their work. And it’s no wonder. They have fascinating stories to tell. As Daiva says, “Though most are over fifty, there’s nothing stuffy or ‘senior’ about their prose. They write about growing up in small-town America, about love and disappointment, about blackberry picking and baseball and being fat. They write about a father who worked for the FBI and a mother who was an expert Greek cook. They write about having cancer. They write about taking chances.”

"They gathered here to cook, bake, and share their feelings . . . with a strong cup of coffee and a little prayer."

Ladies of the Danville Greek Orthodox church, whose bake sales raised thousands of dollars for their church

The writers of Past/Forward have also collected many wonderful photographs from years past. This photo illustrates Phyllis Bartges Bayles’ remembrance of the ladies of the Danville Greek Orthodox church, including the author’s mother. Their bake sales have been a tradition in Danville, Illinois for many years. As a sweet bonus, the author will share her mother’s recipe for baklava.

I’m proud and excited to bring the work of Past/Forward to the wider audience it deserves. Their anthology, Occasional Writers, will be out this October.



Have Your Hugged Your Driller Today?

My Brother's Trunk

A friend who is an accomplished memoir writer suggested I write about my parents, whose complicated, ambivalent, and sometimes violent relationship went on for decades after they divorced. One might see my brother and me as victims of their parenting. They often became too tied up in their conflict to notice what it was doing to us.

I filed away my friend’s suggestion, telling myself that memoir is unnecessarily constraining. Unlike the fiction writer, the memoirist has to tell the truth – whatever that is. (Some people seem to know. I wish I did.) Instead I would write a novel based on my childhood. That way I could take what I wanted and leave the rest.


My Father Near the End of his Life

A few days ago I stumbled upon a truer reason for not penning a childhood memoir. Remembering parts of the past scares the shit out of me. I was in the garage looking for photos of my brother to send to his son. These were packed away with dozens of letters that our family wrote to one another over the years. Holding those bundles of musty envelopes, I was seized by intense anxiety, as if they contained letters from an IRS auditor, and quickly stuffed them back in the mouse-proof storage container.

Then I came to my brother’s trunk. He used it to carry his belongings when he worked in oil exploration in the 1970s. After his death in 1987 my mother kept it, and after her death in 2003 it came to me. The trunk is covered with stickers he collected during his travels. The largest of these, adorning the front, asks Have You Hugged Your Driller Today? Among the contents of Steve’s trunk I found long underwear for protection against the mountain cold, photos of his children, copies of tax returns for 1982, a dogeared paperback of Carlos Castaneda’s Tales of Power, a tube of lip balm, a book of matches, and more letters, including this one from our father.

Note the part about Dad being unable to help Steve because of his dire financial situation and his hope things will improve in a couple of years once I graduate from college. At that time I was attending an expensive private liberal arts college. Though my tuition and much of my board were covered by a scholarship, Dad had to shell out a fair amount of money. He paid my bill at the college bookstore, and sometimes I added to his burden by charging extra cartons of cigarettes and selling them to friends at a discount so I would have money to buy drugs.

Maybe I should have left the letter and read Tales of Power instead.



I love finding new words. As a Scrabble player I see each one as another way to score. But as a reader and writer I value a word for its sound and texture and nuances of meaning. Certain words amaze and delight me when I first come upon them. This happened more often when I was young, less after I grew up and became a teacher. Task-oriented reading has a way of squashing delight before it is born. One is less likely to pause and savor a word when one has five dozen papers to read (which right now, thank the moon and stars, I do not). Anyhow, here are three words that amazed and delighted me as an adolescent reader.

Apoplectic Chestnuts

Apoplexy is stroke – a blood vessel starts leaking into the brain, causing all kinds of dire symptoms up to and including death. But the adjective apoplectic may be used in a figurative sense to describe someone who seems on the verge of having a stroke, or something that causes a stroke or resembles a stroke. Charles Dickens uses the word a lot. In Nickolas Nickleby there is “an ancient butler of apoplectic appearance” and in A Christmas Carol he describes “great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence.” I love the way the word sounds, the plosives one after another, popping off like a chain of fireworks. I imagine an apoplectic person as red-faced, bad-tempered and chronically frustrated – like a huge pimple on the verge of bursting.

Anger by Thomas Perkins

Apoplectic Man

Never Drop a Mercury Thermometer

Mercurial means volatile, unpredictable, fast-thinking, imaginative. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Originally such qualities were associated with the god or the planet; the sense is now usually understood to allude to the properties of mercury the metal.” As a teenager I loved Greek and Roman mythology, so I associated mercurial with the wing-footed god. Then there came the incident in chemistry class. Mr. Hawks, our teacher, warned us to be careful with the thermometers. A hopeless klutz, I usually let my lab partner handle the equipment while I wrote the report. I was good at the writing reports. But one day I somehow ended up holding the thermometer. And of course I dropped it. The mercury hit the floor and scattered, then drew itself into tense little beads that seemed alive, as though any moment they would slither together and form a pulsating blob that would devour us one by one until it filled the entire classroom. Mr. Hawks confirmed this impression by ordering us to stand back as he vacuumed up the perilous beads.

A Colder Kind of Snotty

A phlegmatic character is the opposite of mercurial. He’s the guy at the party who sits like a lump watching TV and never cracks a joke or laughs at anyone else’s joke. She’s the gal who never dances and falls asleep after one glass of wine. As the OED puts it, being phlegmatic means “having, showing, or characteristic of the temperament formerly believed to result from a predominance of phlegm among the bodily humours; not easily excited to feeling or action; stolidly calm, self-possessed, imperturbable; (with pejorative connotation) sluggish, apathetic, lacking enthusiasm.” There are four bodily humours, or fluids, thought by the ancient Greeks to influence health. One of course is phlegm. The others – blood, yellow bile, and black bile – have words associated with them as well. Sanguine for blood, bilious for bile. But phlegmatic is the most fun of the humourous words. It sounds as though somebody spliced phlegm to automatic to create Phlegm-o-Matic, the amazing new snot-producing machine. I guess that would be just about anybody with a bad cold.

A towheaded little kid came over to me in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. “You have an iPad!” he said, peering down at the screen. “Do you have any games?”

“Just Scrabble,” I said.

“You should have more games,” he said. “I could find one for you. Us kids know all about technology.”

He was so cute that I indulged him by going to the iTunes store to look for games. I had no intention of buying any, but then I noticed one game was free: Angry Birds.

“That’s pretty good,” the kid said.

So I downloaded Angry Birds right there in the waiting room. Before he could show me how to play, though, his mother noticed he was causing trouble and called him back to her.

Angry Birds - The Original

The Angry Bird Triumphs

Apparently Angry Birds is wildly popular, but I’d never heard of it before. Later I gave it a shot – literally, since the game consists of shooting birds at fortified targets with a slingshot. The goal is to break through the fortifications of wood and stone to destroy the green pigs within. If the player manages to eliminate all the pigs, the soundtrack erupts in raucous crows of triumph. If not, the remaining pigs gloat by snorting and grinning.

Angry Bird is an elegant game. Its design is perfect for the touch screen of the iPad, and winning requires logic as well as a steady hand and true aim. The fortifications must be hit in the right spot to bring them crashing down on the pigs.

Angry Birds is also dangerously addicting, as I discovered over the next few weeks. I had essays to read – dozens of essays – yet I wasted hours playing Angry Birds. “One game,” I told myself, knowing better. I could not quit after losing, and I could not quit if my winning score fell short of my best score. Since then I have moved on to Angry Bird Rio, in which the propelled birds bust through cages to free other birds captured by evil smugglers. I like Rio even better. Avian Liberation!

The game got me thinking about the ways I waste time and whether any of them can be justified. I play Scrabble on the iPad for hours, but at least it hones my mental skills. What do I gain from Angry Birds? Relaxation. A way to engage my conscious mind as my unconscious works out some problem that has been vexing me.

I waste time by shopping online. There’s no justification for that, except the pleasure it gives. I waste time rereading books that I’ve already read and watching movies and TV shows that I’ve already seen more than once. Maybe I gain a deeper understanding of the works by going back to them, but my motive isn’t so  high-minded. I’m really just having fun. Nothing wrong with that. Except everyone’s time on earth is limited. I have only so many days left to live. Who knows, maybe only today. Do I really want to spend my last precious hours gazing at pictures of shoes or shooting virtual birds at virtual targets?

Well, no. But I don’t want to spend them listening to a clock tick either. Everything I enjoy doing – from writing fiction to riding my horse to playing Angry Birds – has one thing in common. It makes me forget time. For a little while, anyway, those lost hours feel like forever.

Quack, quack!Sometimes I feel unlucky.  Then something happens to remind me of the good fortune in my life

In the early ’70’s, I attended Knox College, where I earned a B.A. degree with Honors in creative writing. Back then, Knox had one of the few undergraduate creative writing programs in the country. Now you can thumb through any issue of Poets and Writers or The Writer’s Chronicle and see ads for dozens. But Knox’s program continues to stand out.

Earlier this month, I read twenty-four stories by Knox students and chose the winners for two contests, the Proctor Fenn Sherwin short Story Award and the Davenport Literary Prizes in Fiction. I travelled to Knox and met the eight writers whose stories were winners or runners up.I asked these students why they chose Knox College. All eight of them declared they came because of the creative writing program. It has a national reputation. Catch, the student literary magazine, has won four prestigious prizes in the last six years. The stories I read confirm this excellence. All showed talent and craftsmanship. It was extremely difficult to narrow the field and select the winners.

Clearly Ma has better things to do than garden.Two weeks ago I blogged about a reading I would be giving for the Knox Writers’ House. I had no idea what to expect. Here is what I found. With help and guidance from their advisor, Monica Berlin, students travel throughout the region and record writers as they read their own work and that of writers they admire. The students also conduct interviews, asking biographical questions and questions about place – the rewards and challenges of being a writer in a particular place. They asked me about Charleston, Illinois, where I’ve lived for years. (I couldn’t find much to recommend Charleston except that I belong to a great writers group here and the town offers few distractions. And this area has some  engaging quirks as the photographs show.)

Eventually the archives of the Writers’ House will be posted online as a public resource. It’s an ambitious project, but these students have the energy, enthusiasm, and dedication to make it happen. Those were qualities I observed in nearly all the student writers I met. They want to work. They enjoy reading. They love literature and writing.

Free eats!

Their teachers deserve some of the credit for that. The creative writing program has grown to a core faculty of seven, with as many visiting and/or cooperating faculty. Two were teaching when I attended Knox – Robin Metz and Robert Hellenga. It was wonderful to see them again. Others were new to me, but all have the same devotion to writing and teaching. Some writers see teaching as a gig, an easy way to make money. Not the faculty at Knox.

My appreciation for my alma mater has grown through the years as I came to understand the value of what I learned there. Returning has reawakened my love for the place and my dedication to writing. It has reminded me who I am.

I’ve been asked to take part in a project called The Knox Writers’ House.  At this point I don’t know much about the project, only that  it’s associated with my alma mater, Knox College, and that I’ll be interviewed then recorded as I read two selections – something I wrote and something by a writer who inspired me. Choosing my own work was easy. I decided on “What Love Is,” a story about childhood sweethearts whose love ends in disaster. It’s the right length and reads well  out loud. The other choice was harder. So many writers have inspired me at different times in my life.

My first idea was to read the opening of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. The novel shocked some people when it was published in 1955 because its hero is an unapologetic paedophile. But any literate person knows we’re not talking about porno. The tale of Humbert Humbert’s love for thirteen-year-old Lolita is a tragi-comedy written in elegant prose, lyrical and satiric, razor-sharp in its intelligence. It begins, “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.”

Lolita is the greatest novel of the 20th Century, but I also love it for personal reasons. Two courses shy of graduating, I left Knox and moved to Chicago, where I moved in with a friend and looked for a job. I was deeply depressed and drinking a pint of vodka every day. Unsurprisingly, the only job I found was waiting tables at a seedy restaurant, the sort of place where I wouldn’t dream of eating now.  I was fired after a week or two. Not that I cared. Now I had more time to go out drinking. Remembering some of the crazy things that happened then, I feel like I’m channelling someone’s else’s nightmares. During the day I slept and watched TV. Only friendship kept my roommate from kicking my ass out.

One day I got sick of soap operas and picked up a book. It happened to be Lolita. I was awed. I remembered something I’d forgotten – that a writer creates meaning from the chaos of experience, and I knew chaos would swallow me unless I escaped. A few days later I took a train back  to Galesburg and moved in with Joe Heumann, now my husband. I forgot to warn Joe I was coming, but that’s another story.

I owe my life to Lolita, but in the end I decided to read “The Grave” by Katherine Ann Porter instead. For one thing, it’s brief. I can read the whole thing, not just a chapter. For another, it’s an unforgettable story with a kick-ass opening sentence: “The grandfather, dead for more than thirty years, had been twice disturbed in his long repose by the constancy and possessiveness of his widow.” Right away the reader knows that some things don’t stay buried. But most of all, I couldn’t have written “What Love Is” without having read “The Grave.” Porter showed me how a story can span decades in a few pages and that buried memories are the most haunting.

I feel incredibly honored by the invitation to help with this project and look forward to telling you more about The Knox Writers’ House. Meanwhile, you can find “The Grave” in The Virginia Quarterly Review and “What Love Is” in The Scream Online.

The Amazon KindleIf you hang around Amazon’s Kindle store, you probably know that many customers are pissed about the higher prices of Kindle books. They grouse endlessly in various community forums and spit invective at Amazon, at publishers, even at writers. Now their protests have found another outlet. Furious that the Kindle edition of Michael Connelly’s latest thriller cost more than the discounted hardcover on Amazon’s Web site, readers began posting one-star reviews of the Kindle edition. They made no pretense of having read The Fifth Witness. Most conceded they love Connelly’s novels. But they felt something must be done to make Amazon and Connelly’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, take heed.

A couple of years ago, the price of a new release on Kindle was $9.99, far less than half the cost of the hardcover. This price was set not by publishers but by Amazon. The online retailer took a smaller profit (or perhaps even a loss) in order to sell more Kindles. “Look!” Amazon told customers. “Buy a Kindle and never pay more than $9.99 for a book!” Then publishers rebelled. When Apple launched iBooks, they had another venue for their ebooks and threatened to withhold their lists from Amazon unless they determined the price. Amazon capitulated but accompanied the higher prices with the message “This price was set by the publisher.” In other words, don’t blame them for breaking the promise they made when they sold you a Kindle.

By the way, The Fifth Witness now costs $12.99 as a KIndle book, still less than half the full retail price of the hardcover and less than Amazon’s discounted price.

As a writer I have some sympathy for Connelly and other bestselling authors targeted by the protest. Not that they need my sympathy, they’re doing just fine, thank you. Still, the unfairness of those reviews must sting a little. Today I posted a brief review of The Fifth Witness on Amazon, giving it one more star than it deserved to compensate for the many undeserved low ratings.

I have less sympathy for Little, Brown and Company. Commercial publishers style themselves as “gatekeepers” who make sure only quality books are offered to readers; in fact they publish whatever they judge will sell. I once had lunch with an editor at a large publishing house who told me so, bluntly. For a long time traditional publishers have had a monopoly on book publishing, but new technologies are changing things. My dark side is gratified at seeing the arrogant, inbred, weaselly bastards scramble.

Nor do I have much sympathy for Amazon, though the company has always been courteous and fair in its dealings with me. Amazon plays hardball with publishers. They can hardly be surprised when publishers do the same.

In the end, two things determine the price of ebooks: what its costs to produce them and what readers are willing to pay.

Many people argue that ebook prices should be low because unlike hardcovers and paperbacks they cost next to nothing to produce and distribute; only a royalty to the author must be paid. This might be true if you ignore the many expenses of running a business – maintaining office space, paying editors, etc. It seems reasonable to include these expenses when determining what it costs to publish an ebook.

Blow aside their smoke about championing literary quality and nurturing writers and it’s clear publishers are in business to make a profit. Of course they charge what the market will bear. Of course they resist when retailers lower prices to undercut competition and promote sales of other merchandise. And there’s this: the longer readers expect ebooks to cost $9.99, the more difficult it becomes to raise the price. Seeing the long-term stakes, publishers fought hard to wrest control of the pricing from Amazon.

The market for ebooks has created a new economic model, and readers are a major force in shaping what it becomes. When enough readers buy ebooks instead of going to the bookstore, bookstore chains like Borders file for bankruptcy. As bookstores close, Internet retailers acquire a larger share of the market, allowing them to raise prices – up to the point where readers refuse to pay. Those customers protesting the price of The Fifth Witness on Kindle claim that bogus one-star reviews are the only way to voice their outrage. But there’s another way that’s fairer (though less emotionally satisfying). Just don’t buy the book until the price goes down.

By the way, my novel Talion can be downloaded from the Kindle store for only $2.99. (See the link below.)

My Face in the Mirror

Exam week looms. I have more than sixty research essays to read and mark. They must be finished in time to return at final exams. Grading research essays requires additional work because I require photocopies or printouts of written sources, and I check to make sure students are citing correctly. The workload is daunting enough that I thought about skipping this week’s post, but then something happened.

The second essay I read contained plagiarism. This was not a case of the writer forgetting to put quotation marks around language taken from somewhere else. The plagiarized sources were not on her works cited page, nor would they have any place there. Both came from Web sites that sell essays to students. Typically, samples of the proffered essays are shown. My student copied and pasted two of these samples, one for her introduction and one for her conclusion.

Other instructors will understand how I recognized the plagiarism. Every writer has a voice. Part of it consists of the writer’s facility with language, vocabulary, and sentence construction. When a marginal student suddenly uses polysyllabic words, creates complex sentences, and strings together three or four cogent thoughts, I get suspicious.

My student received a zero on the research essay, which counts for twenty percent of her total grade. As a result, it has become impossible for her to pass English 1002. It will cost her considerable time and money to retake the course. No doubt some people think I’m being harsh. Only two passages, after all. Only fifteen percent of the essay. But students take the risk of plagiarizing because they count on leniency if they happen to be caught. Many of us exceed the speed limit on the highway figuring the cop will let us go with a warning, and even if we get a ticket, paying it isn’t a crushing financial hardship. I sometimes drive too fast. I’ll no doubt complain when the cop pulls me over, but I’ll deserve the ticket.

As seasoned criminals put it: If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime.

In this situation I become the cop. I dislike the role – I’m a writer, damn it – but since I have to play the cop, I get to make the call about whether to issue a warning or impose a penalty. A zero for the assignment is actually the mildest penalty and the one I typically impose the first time someone plagiarizes. This student deserves it for stealing other people’s writing – even if it is for sale and therefore an invitation to plagiarism.

Photo by Cheryl Casey

Novel by Kazuo IshiguroThis week I decided to fill in one of the millions of gaps in my education by reading a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro. I couldn’t work up any enthusiasm for Remains of the Day, the one about the butler, but Never Let Me Go is about clones. Surely, I thought, a novel about clones had to be a little exciting.

The thing is, Never Let Me Go is about people who happen to be clones. The narrator, Kathy, tells the story of growing up at a special school with others of her kind. The children vaguely understand they’re destined to be donors, but they don’t comprehend what it means.  The plot centers on the complex relationship between Kathy and her two best friends, Ruth and Tommy.  There is a love triangle, jealousy, and betrayal as well as loyalty and affection. In the usual course of things, the conflict might have resolved as the characters became adults and went their separate ways, but since these three share the same destiny, they remain entangled to the end.

As science fiction, Never Let Me Go is pretty much a bust. In its world, cloning was developed just after World War II, so the story unfolds in the later Twentieth Century. To be convincing, this sort of alternate history needs details and explanations that the author seems to have no interest in providing. Readers learn only what Kathy learns about the process of cloning and organ harvesting, which is next to nothing. Near the end of the novel, Kathy and Tommy visit one of their former teachers and find out a bit about the politics of this world, but it’s nothing the reader hasn’t already inferred. The novel’s world is subjective. It rings true because Kathy’s voice and sensibility ring true.

At times it irked me that she and the others accept their fates so passively. But they’re playing the only role they know. No other possibilities have been shown to them. Their dreams never extend beyond a “deferral,” a few years of grace before their bodies are taken apart. When I discussed the novel with Joe, he pointed out that even sheep struggle as they’re led to slaughter. But sheep can’t be taught and conditioned the way people can. Most of us want to believe in free will, but society makes its demands and exacts its price.

Many years ago, sitting in jail on a drug charge, I had an epiphany. Society sets boundaries. The people who ignore them are eventually relegated to prisons and mental hospitals. You might flout the boundaries and elude punishment, but you better not forget they’re there. If this great discovery seems a bit simpleminded, keep in mind that I was twenty – just a few years younger than Kathy, Ruth, and Tommy when their lives end.

Imagine always being imprisoned. Imagine believing those boundaries to be the end of the world with nothing beyond them. That’s the reality of Kathy and her friends.

The larger boundary, one that imprisons us all, is certainy of death. The clones are killed because their body parts are needed to keep the “normals” alive awhile longer. Yet mortality is absolute. The normals will eventually die too. They justify the killing by believing clones have no souls, but maybe they’re taking their own souls too much for granted.

Never Let Me Go wasn’t a thrill ride, but it was a compelling and haunting story. It enthralled me as much as any suspense novel. And I cried at the end.