Here’s a rerun of  an old essay on use of the second person for new readers who missed it the first time around. I’m kind of proud of this one. 

You don’t see much fiction in second-person point of view. You encounter plenty of characters who tell their own stories and all kinds of third-person narration, but only a few quirky narrators who address you the reader directly. Second person is unconventional and unexpected. Readers can be put off by its strangeness. There is also presumption in addressing readers directly, telling them what they they’re doing and thinking. The second person takes liberties, like a stranger who seizes your arm and tries to steer you where you hadn’t thought to go.

Sometimes it can be downright aggressive.

Point of view defines the relationship between the writer, the character, and the reader. In first person, a character speaks to the reader with the writer as an invisible medium. In the various modes of third person, the writer becomes visible and mediates between reader and character, creating a connection ranging from subjectivity that reveals every thought to the objectivity of a camera that shows only external action.

With second person this triangular relationship becomes complicated. While a third-person narrator is understood to be the author – or rather, a constructed version of the author – a second person narrator might be either the author’s persona or a character in the story, and might be speaking to the reader, to another character, or to itself.

In Albert Camus’ The Fall, the second-person perspective is unobtrusive in the beginning. The novel seems to be written in first person. The narrator, a former lawyer, speaks to an unnamed and silent listener. They meet in a bar in Amsterdam, and the narrator begins the story of his downfall. He continues the tale as they meet several more times over the next few days. It’s a story of lost innocence. Like Adam after the Fall, the narrator sees he is naked and understands that he — like every human being — is guilty. Several events contribute to the awakening. The most crucial happens while he is walking alone at night and sees a woman jump from a bridge. Rather than trying to rescue her or calling for help, he walks away.

The incident changes the narrator. He becomes self-conscious, a divided being: “My reflection was smiling in the mirror, but it seemed to me that my smile was double.” He looks at the world with new eyes. Although he is guilty, he is beyond judgment. No one is capable of judging him since they are equally guilty. Once an earnest believer in law, he rejects morality and the concept of justice. He explains to the listener:

If pimps and thieves were invariably sentenced, all decent people would get to thinking they themselves are constantly innocent . . . That’s what must be avoided above all. Otherwise everything would be just a joke.

At first the listener seems no more than a handy dramatic device. The narrator has to confess to someone. But it slowly becomes clear that the listener is part of the story; he is implicated. The narrator admits to stealing a valuable painting, and the listener could expose him. But he won’t. He sees himself in the narrator, just as readers do. The second person in The Fall includes not only the listener, but everyone. We’re all guilty.

In his short story “Videotape,” Don DeLillo uses second person narration directly. The story has no I, only you. The narrator is watching a video clip on the news. Filmed accidentally by a child, the clip shows a man being shot in his car by someone called the Texas Highway Killer. The narrator is obsessed with the clip and wants to watch it every time it appears on a news show. And he watches himself play out the obsession the way he would watch himself on video. He becomes an image of himself, objectified and placed in a framework for analysis:

You keep on looking because things combine to hold you fast – a sense of the random, the amateurish, the accidental, the impending.

His thoughts stretch beyond his small obsession to reach the understanding that video has radically changed reality for him and everyone else in our culture. Even the killer’s modus operandi is inspired by video.

Second-person point of view is necessary to this story. It models the way video affects how we look at ourselves, shapes our thinking. It implicates readers, whose reality has been shaped by video whether they know it or not. It reveals our collective obsession with recording and replaying. Remember Rodney King’s beating by the police and Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” during a half-time performance at the Super Bowl? Video clips of these events were aired hundreds of times on TV. They have become part of our collective reality, or as DeLillo describes it, “the film that runs through your hotel brain under all the thoughts you know you are thinking.”

From these two examples, second person seems to be a technique for literary masters, but it’s available to any writer who cares to give it a shot. I wrote a section of my thriller Talion in second-person and present tense. A girl is enduring torture at the hands of a sadistic killer. I wanted the narrative to feel intense and immediate. First-person failed to convey the shattered state of a character whose personality is being destroyed along with her body and who struggles to hold onto a fragment of her personality.

I’m presumptuous, talking about my writing along with that of masters like DeLillo and Camus, as if I’m anywhere near their league. I write genre fiction, but I try to learn from the best. What matters is whether the technique works. If second person were wrong for the section, it would be a distraction. Apparently it’s not. Though a few readers have criticized Talion for its occasional shifts into present tense – something they think shouldn’t be done in genre fiction – no one seems to have noticed the second-person narration. Maybe the descriptions of torture are so harrowing that readers don’t notice she and her have become you and your and they’ve joined the victim beneath the killer’s knife.

As with any literary technique, second person works best when it has both a narrative and thematic purpose. Ideally, writers don’t up and decide to write in second person; they have a story that can’t be written any other way.

It would happen as I walked to school alone, or sat in the cafeteria with schoolmates chattering around me, or came home to find my mother had left work early and stopped at the liquor store for a fifth of vodka, now half empty. I suddenly knew this wasn’t my life. I belonged somewhere else, to different parents. Why they’d abandoned me I had no idea. They must have had a good reason, I thought, and someday they would return for me. I imagined my real parents as powerful, unearthly beings who could transport me in an instant to the unknown and hardly imaginable world where I belonged. They might come anytime, I told myself. One more minute and I could be out of there.

The reasons for my make-believe were plain to see. I was an introverted kid with not many friends. My mother was depressed and numbed her misery with alcohol. “I wish I was dead,” she said often. “If I had any courage, I’d find a gun and shoot myself.” My brother, Steve, the only one who shared my experience, had gone to live with our father in another town. But his absence hardly mattered. Something had changed between us since we became adolescents. The onset of adolescence probably had something to do with my feelings of strangeness as well. I hardly recognized my body anymore. Hardly recognized myself. I felt alone and insignificant, and my fantasy allowed me to feel special.

A changeling is a child left by fairies in exchange for a child stolen. An inferior, sickly thing left in place of what is precious, like the fake diamonds a jewel thief might leave to conceal his theft. I wanted to believe I was worth the trade. I wanted to become, like David Copperfield, the hero of my own life. But first I had to accept my life as it was. Once I did, things got better.

I worked harder in school and won encouragement from some of my teachers. I joined high school organizations and made more friends. After losing ten pounds and getting fitted with contact lenses, I found a boyfriend. And if I wanted to enter unknown and hardly imaginable worlds, I picked up a book or wrote a story. Eventually my stories and plays won national contests sponsored by Literary Cavalcade magazine, which led to a scholarship at Knox College, a school famous for its program in creative writing.

Looking back, I know my unhappiness wasn’t that unusual. I’ve met people whose childhoods were far worse than mine and who had the same sense of not belonging, of being an outsider. Now I value the experience. Though it caused me plenty of suffering then — and later — it made me a writer. It helped me imagine Lu, the hero of Talion and Daemon Seer, a teenager trapped in hopeless circumstances until the daemon Talion tells her who she truly is.

I wonder how many others have imagined themselves as changelings of one kind or another. I would like to know their stories.

I wrote another version of this post almost five years ago. Now that I understand my life better, the story has a happier ending.

On February 24 my new novel Daemon Seer will be available in paperback and in the Kindle store. Daemon Seer picks up Lu’s story ten years after the events of Talion. Now twenty-fiveshe and Lisa still suffer from the trauma of being taken by serial killer Rad Sanders. Talion is back, too, but he’s no longer the kind spirit who helped Lu survive the kidnapping . . .

Lu owes her life to the daemon Talion, and now he demands repayment — she must bear him a child.

As a teenager, Lu Darlington attracted national attention when she and her friend Lisa escaped a sadistic killer known as the Professor of Death. She never told anyone about the daemon who saved her life that day.

Ten years later, Lisa shows up at Lu’s door, fleeing another psychopath stalker. But Lisa’s not the only one seeking Lu after all this time. One by one, the daemons descend:

Voracious Chama. Sinister Black Claw. Beautiful Talion.

Chama wants Lu, but Talion claims her. The women of Lu’s family have always belonged to Talion—and they’ve suffered deeply for it.

As the human threat draws closer, Talion demands that Lu bind herself to him in a harrowing ceremony that will destroy an innocent man and change her forever—but might save Lisa’s life.

Can she navigate the violent intrigues of the daemon world without being consumed by its terrible, all-consuming demands?

Now available for preorder in the Kindle store.

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If a writer must mark a character for death, it’s safer to choose one that readers hate. In my novel Talion Norlene Jakes falls victim to the sadistic serial killer Rad Sanders, the Professor of Death. Rad kills her to make an impression on her stepdaughter Lu, for whom he has special plans.

Norlene is hard to love. She boozes and does hard drugs and cheats on her husband. She feels endlessly sorry for herself. Listen to her bemoaning a hangover:

Used to be you could have a few Coke-and-whiskeys without paying for it with this torment. Not anymore. You’re old and worn down by life. Sex is like taking a shit for all the pleasure you feel. Wake up every morning with a truckload of shit piled on your chest. A loser husband and a crazy stepdaughter and just enough money to scrape by. Might as well put a bullet in your brain.

Oh yeah, she has a mouth on her. I blame Norlene for all those readers who complained about the bad language in Talion.

She vents her rage on Lu, abusing the poor kid emotionally and physically. Norlene is not very bright, but her real problem is lack of self-awareness, which isn’t the same thing as intelligence. Self awareness requires the honesty to look within yourself and understand how you came to be who you are. Only once does Norlene have a flash of insight that she abuses Lu because she herself suffered abuse as a child:

Today Lu knew better than to answer, “It’s not a house, it’s a trailer,” or some other backtalk. She needed a smacking now and then to make her behave.

“Look at me when I’m talking to you.”

Lu obeyed with her face showing there was no sass on it. Norlene used to face her own mother in the same humbled way. The recognition stabbed like a needle. Why should the girl be anything to you? You ain’t blood.

Norlene immediately dismisses the parallel because she and Lu aren’t “blood.” It never occurs to her that the biological connection never stopped her own mother from beating on her.

Later in the story, after giving Lu a whipping that will leave scars, Norlene puts on a dress that hides her thick waist and shows off her still-shapely legs, and goes off to turn a trick with Rad. Readers know what’s coming. I doubt many of them care what happens to her, but in case they forget Norlene is a human being, there’s this:

Norlene started walking along the highway’s narrow shoulder. Meeting down the road from the lodge was his idea. “We don’t want to compromise your reputation,” was his excuse, but most likely he was scared of Duane. The high roadside weeds tickled her arm with stalks and pods and shriveled flowers. Grasshoppers jumped up and rasped her legs. The weeds were thick with them. When she was little, Norlene thought grasshoppers grew inside weed pods and hatched out like birds. Kids got some strange ideas.

Poor Norlene. Maybe things could have been different.

MaryMaddox-TalionI was flattered when reviewer Dan Hagen described Talion as “The Silence of the Lambs meets The Turn of the Screw.” Of course Thomas Harris’ famous thriller is quite different from Henry James’ classic ghost story, but my novel owes a debt to both. Talion explores the twisted mind of a serial killer and leaves readers uncertain whether the protagonist sees spirits or only imagines them.

Ironically, these two distinctive features of the story have caused the most complaints from readers.

Some are repulsed by the graphic violence and darkness of Rad Sander’s sadism. “It made my skin crawl,” one reader said. Another reader commented that Talion ought to be classified as a horror story rather than a thriller. I took her advice and began marketing the novel as horror fiction, the niche where it seems to fit better than anywhere else. And I added a warning to the book description.

In The Turn of the Screw the narrator sees malevolent ghosts that might or might not be figments of her imagination. So does Lu Jakes, the fifteen-year-old protagonist of Talion.

Lu is bullied at school and abused at home by her emotionally disturbed stepmother. Her alcoholic father ignores the abuse. Then Talion appears, a beautiful and mysterious spirit who eases her pain and gives her the strength to stand up for herself. Prompted by his sinister companion, Black Claw, Lu almost kills her stepmother.

When Rad begins to stalk Lu and her newfound friend, Lisa, Talion seems to be the teens’ only hope. But are his intentions benign? Does he even exist outside Lu’s head?

Talion only hints at answers, allowing readers to reach their own conclusions. To my surprise, some readers disliked not being told exactly what Talion is and whether he is “real.” They felt cheated. I could justify my use of ambiguity. (“Hey, Henry James did it!”) And no doubt the unhappy readers could justify their dissatisfaction. (“So what? If I wanted a book by Henry James, I would have bought one.”) It doesn’t matter. Writing fiction and reading it are personal experiences.

Other readers enjoyed Talion enough to hope there would be a sequel. There is. Look for Daemon Seer in the first part of next year. It offers more darkness, more violence, and some revelations about Talion.

I’ve been working hard to finish the current revision of Daemon Seer. It’s not  the final revision (is it ever?) , but the novel is complete except for minor changes. My monomaniacal focus on finishing has led me to neglect Ancient Children, so instead of a book review or feature I’m offering the first couple of pages of Daemon Seer. Those who have read Talion will recognize the narrator, Lu—she’s 25 now—and a couple of other characters that she mentions.

Talion will also be back for the sequel—and he’s bringing all his friends.

 Chapter 1: The Co-Star of My Worst Nightmare

“I know who you are.” Ken leaned back in his desk chair and folded his hands. As usual he had on a gaudy jacket and clashing bow tie. His forehead and cheeks shone apple-like in the florescent ceiling light.

I thought of a smart-ass comeback –You ought to know, I’ve been working here for months – but it wouldn’t help matters any. The book was lying right there on the desk, a photograph of college professor Rad Sanders staring up from the cover. Rad looked nondescript, of course. Serial killers always do. Above him the book’s title screamed in lurid yellow: Professor of Death. Beneath his chin crawled the name of the author, Willard Steeples.

“How did you figure it out?” I knew Ken was itching to tell me. Otherwise he wouldn’t have summoned me to his office on work time. He scolded us for using the restroom when we weren’t on break.

“Two things,” he said. “Your name, Luanda. It’s quite unusual. And the town, Deliverance. It’s on your job application you went to high school there. So when I read about Luanda Jakes, one of the girls who escaped from this serial killer here, I thought, wait a minute, there can’t be more than one Luanda in a town that small. It so happens I have a cousin in Deliverance. I called him, and sure enough, he said the folks at Hidden Creek Lodge adopted Lu Jakes. He remembered their name. Darlington, the name you have now.” Ken finished with a smug smile, like I was supposed to gasp at his brilliance in tracking down my past.

“I really don’t like talking about it. I’m trying to get on with my life.”

When Willard Steeples asked to interview me, my foster mother, Debbie, had hired an attorney to threaten him and his publisher if anything about me, apart from facts of the crime that were public record, appeared in his sleazoid book. The publisher had backed off fast. Nobody had tracked me down. Until now. If Ken started blabbing, my coworkers would treat me like a freak and eventually reporters and sickos would come slinking to my door.

Ken lurched from his ergonomic chair, circled the desk, and put his hand on my shoulder. “You poor girl. It must have been terrible, seeing your dad killed right in front of your eyes.”

It had been traumatic — all that blood — but Duane Jakes was no great loss to the world.

Ken was massaging my shoulder. I fought the intense urge to shrug him off. Along with being my boss, he now had this secret to hold over me. So I let silence and passivity send the message. After a minute he got it. He eyed me with that way of his, sullen and kind of pitiful, like a dog driven away from the dinner table. You could say Ken would settle for scraps. He just wanted to cop a feel now and then, and I wouldn’t give him even that. Finally he removed his loathsome hand.

“I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to. But you killed that monster. You’re an honest-to-goodness heroine.”

“Thanks,” I muttered. “Guess I should get back to work now.”

“Yes.” He patted my shoulder one last time. “Good girl.”

I escaped back to my station.

“What did he want?” asked my coworker Alice. Maybe it was her eyeliner, the way it curved beyond the outer corners of her eyes, but she looked gossipy and sly. If she ever found out my secret, she would tell the world.

“What do you think?”

She snickered.

I spent the afternoon watching employees at Granville Imports, a business in Long Beach, California. Cyber Watch was in Salt Lake, but Ken had us spying for companies across the nation. One woman had figured out a system to work her eBay store in between creating shipping manifests. She would finish a batch, start printing them out, and then hop online to her seller’s dashboard. She stayed long enough to scroll through a few listings — Hummels, cut-glass dinner bells, and whatnot — or dash off an answer to a bidder’s question. Never longer than sixty seconds.

At first I couldn’t get a screenshot to prove what she was doing. Every time I checked on her, I caught just a flash of the browser window before it disappeared. This woman had to know she was being spied on. She’d installed a program that closed her browser when my remote eye landed on her, so I set the remote eye to take a screenshot the microsecond after it moved to a new target. I finally nailed a shot of her eBay dashboard and — bonus time! — a shot of the You Porn homepage on her supervisor’s monitor. A week ago I’d turned in the evidence and reported my suspicions.

The supervisor got fired, but someone at Granville gave the woman another chance. She was behaving herself now. She wasn’t using her phone to go online either. No phones except on breaks and for verifiable emergencies, a ban Ken always recommended to his clients. Of course he imposed the same ban on us.


Instead of going straight home after work, I strolled from the building where I worked to the Mormon temple in downtown Salt Lake. The two blocks seemed longer in my three-inch heels and pencil skirt, and my car was parked in the opposite direction. But I needed to calm down, and the temple grounds usually relaxed me. Not that afternoon. I hardly noticed the flowerbeds and tranquil fountains, the smell of roses mingled with traffic fumes, or the tourists gawking at the golden statue of Moroni blowing his horn from the temple’s highest steeple. I didn’t even snicker to myself at the name Moroni or wonder why Joseph Smith couldn’t think of something less ridiculous for his angel of revelation.

Ken’s revelation had me too anxious. He was bound to give up my secret. I imagined him at some backyard shindig casually letting it drop. You won’t believe this, but a girl who works for me was kidnapped by a serial killer . . .

My body remembered that night in the mountains with spells of dizziness and trembling. The fierce cold, even in summer. In nightmares I was falling into Rad’s bottomless gaze. Or I was splayed on the ground, my wrists and ankles scoured with pain. He didn’t torture me, but he staked Lisa to the ground on a tarp, the kind you lay underneath a tent to keep moisture out. Her blood pooled on the plastic.

The spells and nightmares had been going on for years, but lately I was having new symptoms. Moments when color leeched out of the world and bleakness sucked the life from me. Moments when pain seized my belly like a fist and I ached with hunger, not for food but something nameless. Two days ago, a fierce cramp had bent me over. My nose almost touching the keyboard, I could barely hear Alice whispering. Was I okay? Did I need to use the restroom? But the cramp hadn’t been my period, which had ended a week ago. The whole thing baffled me and pissed me off. After ten years I should be healing, not spiraling into some kind of weird post-traumatic syndrome.

Taken March 2013 Charleston, Illinois

Time has not been kind to the once beautiful house.

Thirty years ago Joe and I lived in a beautiful house overlooking a lake. It was his second year of teaching at Eastern Illinois University. Uncertain whether we would settle permanently in Charleston, we leased the place from a professor on sabbatical.

The house had an unpaved driveway that wound steeply downward to a gravel road. Since trucks had to come up the driveway to deliver propane for the furnace, heavy snowstorms made us nervous. But the living room had a glass wall offering a view of a ravine. In early spring when the redbud bloomed, the ravine exploded with color.

The incident

I wrote fiction in an office in the walkout basement. One morning in the spring, I suddenly felt the need to take a walk. My writing was going well just then, so the urge made no sense. Leaving the basement, I descended the winding driveway and turned right on the gravel road. This direction led to a stone quarry about a mile away.

The embankment today

I wondered if I was going to the quarry. It felt strange not having a choice, but I wasn’t frightened. Shortly after passing the ravine, I turned and began to climb an embankment steep enough that I needed both hands and feet to clamber up. It was about fifteen feet high. At the top I found myself in a clearing with a few trees, weeds and sparse grass, and rocks embedded in the hard ground. I wandered the clearing and stopped in front of one particular rock. A voice in my head said, Here.

I knew then the rock marked a grave and I’d been brought there to see it. The possibility of a ghost occurred to me, but I didn’t take it seriously. I was, after all, an inventor of fiction with a lively imagination

Evidence accumulates

Abandoned and broken headstones

Summer came. Shortly before Joe and I moved out of the house, I took a last walk along the gravel road. I loved the place despite the difficulties of living there and was sorry we had to leave. Approaching the embankment, I saw the sign: Kelly Family Cemetery. I climbed up to the clearing and saw it had been cleaned up. The weeds had been pulled, and dirt swept from the rocks. They were old gravestones. I found the one where I’d been taken a few months ago. I tried to read the engraving now visible, but it was too eroded by time.

Look closely. You can almost read the name.

Someone named Kelly wanted me to know that she/he resided nearby.

Several  years  later I heard a story about the house. The professor went on unpaid leave and leased it to a man who moved out after a few months, claiming it was haunted. He sublet the house to a woman who decided she didn’t want to live there either. Before leaving, she tried to sell the furniture. Luckily, one piece was very distinctive—a massive, elaborately hand-carved table the professor’s wife had bought in Mexico. I remember that table well. Dusting it was a tedious job. Someone else remembered it too, and the woman was busted.

Do these stones mark a grave?

Today I revisited the spot. The sign is gone, but I found remnants of the old cemetery in the clearing. Climbing the embankment, I got clawed by a vicious branch. (See photo above.) Maybe something wanted to keep me from going up there to take pictures. Or maybe today was muddier, and I’m not as young as I was then.

Are ghosts real?

I neither nor disbelieve in the paranormal. When a phenomenon seems to exist but cannot be verified empirically, I’m an agnostic. I feel no driving need to hunt down the truth one way or the other. It surprises me how few people can tolerate the uncertainty of agnosticism. They must either devoutly believe or strenuously disbelieve.

Readers of Talion know the novel has paranormal elements but leaves open the possibility that Lu, the girl who sees demons, might just be out of her mind. The novel’s ambiguity reflects my attitude toward the paranormal. It also puts off readers who can’t handle ambiguity.

The sequel to Talion leaves no doubt as to the existence of the demons. Some readers resist the notion of demons invading an otherwise realistic world, but these particular demons refuse to go away. Why should I ignore them any more than I ignored the ghost—or whatever it was that summoned me to a neglected grave?

I get too many ideas for stories, more than I have time to write. How to choose among them? I take the ones that call to both my head and my heart.

An unusual premise might interest me, but unless it comes with a character I care about or moves toward some kind of emotional unfolding, I’ll probably let it go. For instance, I wonder what would happen if an unreasonable customer managed to get a department store clerk fired, and the desperate clerk set out for revenge. A premise like that could be developed into a story humorous or horrifying—maybe both. But neither the customer nor the clerk exists as a character in my imagination. They are little more than vehicles for malevolent motives. With effort I could make them characters, but I don’t feel compelled.

Sometimes I see people whose situation moves or intrigues me, a pair of elderly men sitting on a bench at the local mall, chatting with one another. I wonder what their lives are like. I imagine one man’s modest house and the other man’s dead wife whom he still mourns. But I don’t have a story for them. Again, I could invent a story, but I’m occupied with the stories and characters that command my imagination.

They begin with a spark that illuminates the character and her journey and the emotion that gives them meaning. I experienced a moment like that with my short story “Yubi” about a woman who falls in love with her parakeet. I knew the story would end “[       ] would love [       ] as long as she lived.” Although I had not yet named the woman or the bird or constructed the events that would bring her to the realization. I felt its humor and pathos and love. It was a story I had to write.

The story that became my thriller Talion began with a spark—a moment when two girls make a bond of friendship, when all the distrust and blame and preconceptions that separate them give way to understanding. Despite all the room he occupies in the novel, the serial killer Rad first entered the story as a way of getting Lu and Lisa to that moment. It’s there in the last chapter of Talion, just as I imagined at the start.

I read Sherwin B. Nuland’s How We Die: Reflections on Life’s Final Chapter while doing research for my novel TALION. I’d never seen anyone die—not yet, anyway—and I needed a clinical account of the process. Nuland explains what happens in the body as life ends. In each chapter he covers a different manner of death: heart attack, old age, Alzheimer’s disease, AIDS, cancer, and so on. He also addresses some of the philosophical issues connected to death and dying.

The book delivered what I needed in the chapter “Murder and Serenity.” When someone is bleeding to death, he goes into shock, his heartbeat ceases, and his muscles spasm in what are known as death agonies. For a few minutes he is “clinically dead,” which means his brain is receiving no oxygen, but with medical intervention he might be revived. Doctors can tell by examining the person whether the effort is likely to succeed. One important clue is the eyes.

If open, [the eyes] are at first glassy and unseeing, but if resuscitation does not commence they will in four or five minutes yield up their sheen and become dulled, as the pupils dilate and forever lose their watchful light. It is as though a thin cloud-gray film has been laid down over each eye . . . . [T]he eyeball soon flattens out, just enough to be noticeable. It is a flatness from which there is no rising. (122-123)

Nuland goes on to discuss the serenity and freedom from pain observed in victims of trauma. When the body is damaged, it produces endorphins, pain-killing chemicals like those in narcotics. He provides several examples of when and how this happens, including soldiers wounded during battle and a child who is murdered.

Though I didn’t use any of Nuland’s material directly, it underlay my accounts of what Rad’s victims endure as he tortures and kills them, forming a base on which my imagination could build.

I didn’t need the other chapters for my research but read them anyway, fascinated by the complexity of the dying process. I learned why my father died of kidney failure even though it was heart failure that put him in the hospital the final time. I learned enough about cancer to suspect my mother had it when fluid accumulated around her lung. The doctor’s diagnosis confirmed my fear.

My mother as a young woman

I noticed a copy of How We Die on the bookshelf in the office of my mother’s oncologist. I doubt it was there because the oncologist needed its medical information; he would have learned all that stuff in school. But the book has more to offer doctors. A physician himself, Nuland questions the wisdom of continuing to treat patients whose illnesses are terminal. In such cases, he argues, treatment often purchases a few extra weeks or months of life at the price of additional suffering.

My mother was such a patient. Chemotherapy would slow the process of her lung cancer but could not cure it. She underwent a few treatments and then decided the trade-off wasn’t worth it. For almost a year afterward she continued to live normally. She and I went to Utah where she visited her sisters a final time. Nuland observes that death seldom comes peacefully, that most of us can expect to suffer in the process. Mom did. Learning how we die has made me less happy, but the knowledge I’ve gained is a trade-off I can accept.

I had fun doing the character interview of Talion‘s heroine, Lu, for  Stacy Eaton’s blog at World Literary Cafe, so I came up with another one. Right now I’m in the middle of writing the sequel to Talion, so the characters remain very much alive in my head.

Hank and Debbie Darlington own a small, upscale resort in the mountains of Utah. The hard work of running the business keeps them so busy they can avoid facing the serious problems in their marriage. They also fail to notice as a serial killer closes his net around their niece, Lisa, who is there for a summer visit.

I imagined what might happen if Hank and Debbie went for marriage counseling. This interview with their marriage counselor takes place a few years before the events in Talion.

COUNSELOR:  It says here in your file you were referred by Dr. Messenger at the fertility clinic.

DEBBIE:  Yes. I—we—we’re having some problems talking to one another.

COUNSELOR:  All right. Why don’t we start by having each of you tell the other what you’re feeling? Hank, would you please tell Debbie what you’re feeling right now.

HANK:  I feel like having a beer. Quit giving me that look, Debs. It was a joke.

COUNSELOR:  Sometimes people make jokes to cover up their nervousness. Are you feeling anxious about this session?

HANK:  No. Should I?

COUNSELOR:  Not at all, Hank. We’re here to communicate with each other. Honest communication will help you feel less anxious.

HANK:  I’m not anxious. I just don’t want to be here.

DEBBIE:  Hank, you promised.

HANK:  Why don’t you ask her? This was her idea.

COUNSELOR:  What was her idea? Starting a family?

HANK:  You don’t need kids to be a family.

COUNSELOR: Debbie’s in the middle of treatment for infertility. And you’re saying you don’t want children?

HANK:  I told her that from the start, before we got married. I don’t want kids. I’m not cut out to be a father.

DEBBIE:  That’s not what you told me. You said you weren’t ready for children. We talked about how people change, and you admitted you had no idea what you’d want in twenty years.

HANK:  I knew I didn’t want kids—then, now, or ever. But you kept grinding.

DEBBIE:  That’s not fair. You wouldn’t discuss it at all unless I kept after you. It’s the same with everything. Your tactic is to avoid talking until I just give up.

HANK:  And yours is to keep grinding until I just give in. I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of winning an argument with you.

DEBBIE:  Why did you marry me if that’s how you feel?

HANK:  Same reason you married me, I guess.

COUNSELOR:  I’m sensing some hostility from you, Hank.

HANK:  Big surprise. The two of you have me cornered.

COUNSELOR:  I’m not on anyone’s side. I’m here to work with you both.

HANK:  Oh, come on. The whole point of this little session is to get me on board for the treatments. Isn’t that right? Dr. Messenger didn’t like my attitude, so he set this thing up. There’s no chance in hell Debs is gonna change her mind. I’m the one that’s supposed to change. And you—no offense, ma’am, but you’re on her side whether you mean to be or not.

COUNSELOR:  That’s not true.

HANK:  Debs doesn’t give a shit what I think. She don’t care if we go bankrupt paying for the treatments.  She’s been brainwashed by her parents and the Mormon Church into believing she can’t be happy without kids. Damn it, Debs. Don’t start that. She always does this. She says she wants the truth, but when I tell her, she starts bawling.

COUNSELOR:  Are you all right, Debbie?

DEBBIE:  I’m fine. I just wish—it seems like just once he could. . . .

COUNSELOR:  Could what?

DEBBIE:  At least act like he loves me.

COUNSELOR:  Hank, do you love Debbie?

HANK:  Yeah, of course I do. But that don’t mean I’m giving in.

COUNSELOR:  You agreed to her coming to the fertility clinic. In a way you’ve “given in” already. Now she’s undergoing these painful procedures and turning to you for support, and you’re not there for her. Can you understand why she might feel hurt and confused?

HANK:  What do you want from me? I’m supposed to be honest about my feelings. But look what happens when I am.

COUNSELOR:  Why don’t you tell Debbie you love her? Let her know that no matter how strongly you disagree on this issue, it doesn’t change your love for her.

HANK:  What the hell—okay. I love you, Debs. That’s why I married you. Okay, I said it. Now what?

What do you think? Can this marriage be saved?

Last month, I was immersed in the first draft of the sequel to Talion. The story flowed straight from my head onto the page. Sometimes I had no idea what would come next. It just came. Writers understand what I’m talking about, what a blessed state it is. The last thing I wanted was to stop. But a vacation was coming. A vacation I was looking forward to.

I handled the dilemma in the usual way – with self delusion. I resolved to keep writing during the trip. Nothing big, I told myself. An hour or two on the days I wasn’t travelling. Just to keep the novel alive in my head. I packed my iPad and bluetooth keyboard, a notebook and plenty of pens. I lugged this equipment from place to place for eleven days, but – surprise! – I got nothing written. Oh, I jotted down a few impressions, descriptions of place and the like.

But sustained sessions of writing? No way.

I’ve been fooling myself like this for years, forgetting how impractical it is to wedge an hour of writing into days crammed with activity. But more to the point, I forget that on my last dozen vacations I felt no urge whatsoever to write. Vacations are just too much fun – visiting family and friends, exploring places, and indulging in hedonistic pleasures like eating and shopping. Only when the trip ends and I come home do I feel disappointed in myself.

This time, unpacking my keyboard, I felt the usual guilt and dutifully beat myself up. I wasn’t a serious writer, not really dedicated to my craft, and if I never succeeded it was my own fault for not trying harder. Then I stopped. Why was I doing this? I had a great time. I stayed with my nephew and his family in Salt Lake. We celebrated Frontier Days in Cheyenne, went shopping in Denver, and hiked down a mountain in Deer Valley. I took dozens of photos. I went to the places that are the setting of my sequel. That’s research, right?

Maybe a journey demands commitment. Maybe it’s not something I can undertake while part of me stays home, settled into a writing routine. Or maybe I’m fishing for excuses. Anyway, the neglected first draft hasn’t expired during my absence. I touch the keyboard and it awakens like a lover, sleepy and expectant.


The pivotal moment came during the alumni book signing at my college reunion last fall.

I attended Knox College, a private liberal arts college in Galesburg, Illinois. Knox boasts one of the finest undergraduate creative writing programs in the country, a program just beginning while I was a student there. But graduates from Knox go on to success in many fields. Biologists, historians, political scientists, and educators sat alongside the fiction writers and poets at the tables in the Ford Center for the Fine Arts. The book signing began after Homecoming Convocation as the crowd emerged from the auditorium and filed in front of our tables – so many tables they stretched the entire length of the lobby.

Quite a few people glanced at my paranormal thriller Talion, but few lingered more than a moment or picked up a book. I was selling several copies to old friends and one or two to strangers. Not as many as I’d hoped. Then a woman came over and scrutinized Talion for a few seconds. “I’m not buying your book,” she announced, “because I don’t like the cover. It tells me nothing. I have no idea what the book is about.”

I began my one-sentence pitch, but she was already walking away. Okay, I thought. That was rude.

Well, blunt anyway.

She wasn’t the first critic to pan the cover. Some reviewers disliked it. One even urged readers not to hold the cover against the novel, which was actually quite good. Poor novel, doomed like me during my unhappy teen years: “A pretty girl, really, too bad she has to wear glasses.”

A week or so later, a friend who had just finished Talion mentioned that the text contained a few typos and offered to point them out if I ever issued another edition. Reading his kind email, I realized the decision was in my mind, already made, just waiting for me to notice. There had to be another edition of Talion with a better cover.

The First Cover

Joe's Photo

The image on Talion‘s first cover is a photograph taken by Joe Heumann, the love of my life. It has a brilliant abstract beauty that evokes the beauty my protagonist, Lu, sees in the apparition of Talion. I lacked the skills to make a book cover, so I contracted a graphic artist, Richard Reynolds Taylor, who created a beautiful cover from the photograph I gave him. But as the blunt lady pointed out, it delivers no message. The image has zero connection to the story except in my mind.

The First Cover

I can’t believe I made such a dumb mistake, expecting readers to make a mental leap without sufficient information. A mistake I’ve warned my freshman comp students not to make too many times to count. Worse, I underestimated the importance of having a book cover that would intrigue potential readers and hold their attention for longer than a second. Sure, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but as readers scan books on a shelf or thumbnail images on a screen, they have no basis on which to choose EXCEPT the cover. Jeff Bennington, author of the horror novels Twisted Vengeance and Reunion, puts it concisely: “Your cover needs to grab a reader’s attention, draw them in, or create enough curiosity to earn a ‘click'” If only I’d read Jeff’s book The Indie Author’s Guide to the Universe before publishing in the first place.

The New Cover

I decided to give Talion the cover it deserved, a cover that expressed the drama and atmosphere of the story. Exploring online, I found more than a dozen graphic artists who would create a professional cover for fees ranging from $300 to more than $1000. But I wasn’t shopping for the least expensive option. Not this time. I wanted an artist with a fantastic imagination and distinctive style, and I found him in Duncan Long.

Duncan is a professional who has created cover art for major commercial publishers. And he is prolific. His gallery displays numerous examples of his work in various genres. Looking through them, I was struck by how original his art is. It stands out from all the rest of the covers I viewed in my search. His style and imagery create a world that is distinctively his own. A world where Talion is at home.

Although the cost of the new cover might not be recouped in additional sales, I consider the money well spent. When my next novel is published, I want as many readers as possible to remember Talion.