It’s here! Tomorrow - Tuesday - October 1, 2019, The Bones of Who We Are is out. It’s been an arduous (thought fulfilling) adventure, and I couldn’t be more excited and proud of this story. I can’t wait to hear what you think of Gabe’s journey, so be sure to post a review to Amazon, share it on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. I’m looking forward to it.
There’s a saying - I think it’s by one of those ancient philosophers, but I don’t remember which one - that says something like “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” I think the old white guy was talking about cake or something, not people, because when I look in the mirror, I can’t stop seeing all of the parts. I think that’s something you should know about me.
I don’t even know why I’m writing this letter to you. I don’t know you. I’m not one to share info even with the people I care about. Doc Miller suggests I open up. Trust, he says. It isn’t easy. Truth is, it’s impossible. Hasn’t been a lot of reasons in my life to extend trust. I suppose that’s why I’ve decided to walk into the woods drunk with a gun.
I can hear your question: Why?
Because there’s no other way to save the people I love from the monster inside me.
When I was ten, I was brought to Cantos by a social worker - Maura Dunning. She made a mistake but that mistake was probably the best one that ever happened to me in a series of mistakes that has defined my life up to now. I’m a mistake. I’ve spent the last seven years trying to forget the awful event that precipitated my arrival here. The truth, though, is that you can’t run from who you are. You can’t forget those parts of you. No matter how much you try to forget the pieces, those snapshots of experience that contribute to the whole of you, they get abscessed.
Don’t get me wrong - there’s a lot of good stuff. There’s Martha and Dale, Abby, Doc Miller. It’s hard to see the good clearly though, because the bad is so ugly. What’s that saying? I think Doc Miller told me one time: It’s hard to see the forest through the trees. My whole life has gotten lost among the trees; I’m smart enough to know I’m in a forest, but don’t know how to find my way out anymore. I’m stuck in a loop. And now the infection is finding its way out. The monster.
So, that’s why I’m headed into the forest to the fort Seth and I built with what’s left of a bottle of whiskey and a gun in my pocket.
Can I ask you a favor? I left a letter for Dale and Martha, and one for Abby. Tell them to look in Cardboard Castle. And please tell them all, I love them. And that I’m sorry.
The Bones of Who We Are Releases October 1, 2019
My father - my rock - passed away in October 2017. I miss him everyday. I didn’t think I would ever find the words to write again. When I tried, all that made it to the page were visceral and painful images of where I was stuck: my cave. About six months later, I was sitting at a traffic light and heard Abby say “I need you to write my story.” The pilot light was relit, and I found my way through a new draft of SWIMMING SIDEWAYS.
The summer of 2018, with SWIMMING SIDEWAYS and THE UGLY TRUTH drafted, I went home to Oregon for a month to help my mom and sister go through my father’s things. Most of the month was spent broken-hearted, trudging through necessary spaces. I cleaned the garage breathing in my father’s work space and going through each of his tools. This was something my mother wasn’t going to be able to do. My dad and his workshop were symbiotic; he could fix anything, and his workshop reflected this. So, immersion in his workshop, going through each of his toolboxes and trinkets, the jars of things he saved because they’d come in handy one day, cracked me open. Somehow, in the breaking of my heart and the diligent reorganization of his things, I was able to assemble the broken parts of myself back together. It was during this four weeks in Oregon that I began drafting Gabe’s story, and as I stitched myself back together, Gabe’s began to unravel.
I’ve warned readers that Gabe’s story isn’t an easy story to experience, and that is because THE BONES OF WHO WE ARE deals with heavy topics: bullying, depression, identity, loss, grief. Maybe in a way, the loss of my father is reflected in the pain of Gabe. My pain became his, though Gabe’s story was always this, I just couldn’t write it before. The pivotal scene in the book - the reason Gabe is who he is - was written back in 2009, eight years before I lost my father; nine years before I went through his workshop and faced my own undoing.
Perhaps, I was never going to be equipped to tell Gabe’s story without understanding the complete loss of someone so essential to my own identity. Perhaps, sitting inside my father’s workshop by myself allowed me to grasp loss, life, and grief in a way I never would have without that struggle. As writers our life experiences impact the depth of our knowledge. Virginia Woolf wrote, “Every secret of a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.” So, I suppose by realizing how painful it was to look at my father’s empty steel-toed work boots and be slammed with the awareness of how much I missed him, it forced me to jump into the deep end of loss. When the only thing I could do was climb into bed and bury myself in romance novels because those stories were as much as I could handle to not sink and drown, I found a way to tread water. Perhaps, this trial was the only way I was ever going to be able to empathize with Gabe’s experience.
THE BONES OF WHO WE ARE isn’t an easy story, but then life, love, loss, grief never are. That is the truth of what it means to be human. We hurt, but there is power in the warmth of hope. That - the hope - is what my father would have loved about Gabe’s story.
NEXT WEEK: A Letter from Gabe to readers
When Gabe became a character in my mind, he started as a fallen angel. There was something magical and beautiful about him in those first drafts of the original paranormal story. He was the blameless sacrifice - the Christ figure - idealized in all his beauty and glory. Then in 2009, I was teaching a class on creativity and in our daily pages, I wrote a heartbreaking scene that I couldn’t shake. I knew without a shadow of a doubt that the character was Gabe as a child, and it shattered the paranormal drafts of the work-in-progress at the time. Nothing already drafted could stand if I used the scene. What the heck was I supposed to do with that, I wondered.
So the scene sat in my head as an unresolved issue with Gabe’s character. I put the manuscript - two years and nine drafts completed - away (partially because of this unresolved issue, but mostly because a wave of fallen angel stories broke in 2009 and 2010).
In 2015, Seth - the loudest of the three characters - who’d been dragged into hell at the end of the first paranormal story, began nagging me about having left him there. I pulled the story out again. I was teaching Homer’s Odyssey and the Hero’s Journey to my freshman at the time, and decided to plot Seth’s story using Chris Volgler’s work, and suddenly something clicked. The story was there, but I believed it to be a stand alone novel assuming Abby and Gabe were just secondary characters. So, I finished THE UGLY TRUTH in 2016; I was never happy with its ending. My family and friends enjoyed it (or pretended to), but I couldn’t get the nagging feeling out of my head and heart that the ending was all wrong.
So, it sat for another two years.
Then in March of 2018, I was sitting at a traffic light, waiting, and I heard Abby say in my head, “I need you to finish my story.” In that moment, it dawned on me that all three of them needed their own story. Abby. Seth. Gabe. With Seth’s already done, I went back to the original paranormal manuscript to see if there was anything salvageable for Abby and Gabe. With a ton of cutting, rewriting, and creating new content, Abby’s story, SWIMMING SIDEWAYS, came together, but like Seth’s narrative, I struggled with the ending. I couldn’t figure out how it was supposed to connect until it dawned on me: Abby’s story was first and both she and Seth’s stories were necessary in order to tell Gabe’s. Like finding the last pieces of a puzzle being put into place, I understood the whole story in three parts. The entire series had been moving toward the culmination of Gabe’s narrative all along.
That quiet, painful scene I wrote back in 2009, suddenly made sense, and served as the cornerstone around which Gabe’s entire story is built.