Saturday, April 4, 2015

Extra, Extra: Read All About It!

I discovered that the Knoxville News-Sentinel, the newspaper that formed the model for the fictional Knoxville Times of my novel, Byline, had an alumni page on Facebook. Although I didn’t recognize any of the member names, I asked to join the closed group and was accepted. I posted an image of my American Newspaper Guild card on the site.

Scrolling through the posts, I found dozens of pictures of co-workers from the mid 1950s and early 1960s, pictures of newspaper people whose descriptions and traits I had borrowed for my book. Here was the sweet-natured cartoonist. There was the scary news editor. Here was the smiling face of the morgue—now called the library—manager.

So many of my colleagues stayed on after I left, first for Spokane, Washington, then to Greece, New York, San Francisco.

It was a sobering discovery to learn that almost all of them have died. The one live person I knew was a red-haired photographer who was only a couple of years older than I, and he proved to be the website’s administrator. I remembered his strolling out of the teletype room, waving a piece of paper and saying, irreverently, “Pope’s pooped” when Pius XII expired.

This fellow drove me, in 1963, to get an interview with someone involved in a Congressional inquiry. She was visiting relatives at Christmas, and I faked my way into her house by carrying wrapped gifts, as if I were a family friend. The story was picked up by the wire services, Newsweek and Time magazine, with my name. It was my Brenda Starr moment...such a big deal at the time, and such a forgettable deal 50 years later. The photographer didn’t even remember me.

On the alumni website, I saw pictures of the old copy desk, the newsroom, the composing room, the pressmen with their newspaper hats. I saw pictures of the presses being moved with heavy equipment when they became obsolete. I saw the typewriters go and the computers come in, saw copy boys become writers and editors, marry, have children, retire. Saw the assimilation of the rival newspaper, the move to a new campus, the launching of an on-line edition.

The old News-Sentinel had four editions every day, back in the day. When a big story broke—the death of the Pope and Kennedy’s assassination both happened when I was on the copy desk—an Extra would be put out. The newsboys on the street really would shout “Extra, extra, read all about it,” just like in the movies. The paper’s circulation was huge, among the top one hundred nationally.

I can only assume that the newspaper, like all newspapers, has downsized. One alumnus, responding to a photo of the old pressmen in their newspaper hats, remarked that the broadsheet newspapers are now too narrow to make those hats...but then there are no ink-spattered pressmen either.

When I wrote my novel, I drew a map of the old newsroom and made a list of all the editorial employees, pretty surprised that I remembered those things when I can’t remember what I had for dinner yesterday. I am glad I wrote my novel, trying to describe how it was in the glory days of newspapers. But I found all the information on the alumni page disquieting. I was left with mixed emotions, as if I had experienced some odd sort of time travel, more than fifty years of the road not taken.

(The novel Byline is available on

Thursday, March 5, 2015

No Strings Attached

I’ve always been amazed at how some string players can be both attached and detached from their instruments. They may love their fiddles and bows as if they were family members. Sometimes I think of Nicodemus’s cello as his wooden wife. But on the other hand, the same players will casually hand over a valuable violin or cello or bow to another player, saying “Try it for a while.”

Case in point: N has made about 15 cello bows. Materials are expensive; the pernambuco wood alone costs about $300 a pop, and the hours he spends planing, sanding, polishing and bending are uncountable. He doesn’t do the hair, so he has to pay someone to put that in. He has sold a few of these bows, has kept a couple, and the rest he has just given away.

We had a nice violin on which I had a few lessons before I gave up. Someone had almost ruined it with polyurethane and gave it to N in a fit of pique. He refinished it and sent it up to Carlos to fit it out with bridge, sound post, tail piece and new strings. Then he handed it over to one of the Coastside Community Orchestra scholars, saying “Use this for a while.” So that scholar gave his own violin to a younger player, who returned his loaner.

Another orchestra member had an extra violin. Still another violinist saw it at our house and traded it for his old Sears violin. The Sears violin—intended to be “my” violin if I ever get back to Go Tell Aunt Rhody—sits, partly sanded, in a battered wooden case left over from when N assembled the Frankenfiddle for yet another young player.

This is small-time trading. In the big-time string world, there are few major orchestras which don’t have players using borrowed instruments, instruments often valued in the millions of dollars. Jascha Heifetz’s priceless Guarneri violin has been regularly played by concertmasters of the San Francisco Symphony. In the off-season, you can see the beautiful “David” in its glass case at the Legion of Honor Museum and listen to a recording of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto, which had its premiere on that same violin in the nineteenth century.

I only know of one instance where someone took advantage of the no-strings-attached trust. Eventually, Interpol was called in and the instrument was found and returned to the person who had lent it. The owner was so disgusted by the theft that he said he didn’t even want to look at the violin.

The yogi Subramunya used to urge his students to practice affectionate detachment, and string players, I think, are past masters in detachment of a high order. But I am no string player, and I was attached to that violin N gave away, even if I couldn’t play it.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


After he had told me everything he thought was wrong with my book, he suggested I should withdraw it from publication, rewrite it, and try again.

At first, he had not known what became of one of the characters. I e-mailed him a list of page numbers which described the character’s demise. Then last night, he said he thought I had published BYLINE too soon. The characters were not developed, he said, and there was no suspense in the book, and why didn’t I do more with the villain’s grandmother? He didn’t find anything to like.

I was curiously unmoved. “So what do you think?” he asked.

“I think I’m done with that book. I’m already working on something else,” I said. The whole thing made me glad I had not agreed to do any book signings.

I have had some generous five-star reviews from my friends. And I’ve had suggestions from others. The main character was too ingenuous, one said. She had worked on school newspapers; she should have known more about the big metropolitan newspaper. The story about the centaur was too long, another said. I killed off her parents too soon, someone said. There were too many characters. Who were all those people?

It should have been longer, someone said. A few people read the book in one sitting; others apparently couldn’t finish it.

Oh, well.

It made me think of a college production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni a friend once directed. He made the opera a Gothic horror story, murky, dark, sinister. Nobody understood what he was after, and a lot of people had a lot of criticism to offer. “Nobody once asked me what I was trying to do,” he said.

“What did you learn from this experience?” Last night’s critic wanted to know.

“I learned that everybody reads differently,” I said.

I thought about something my friend Sue said in response to an earlier spate of criticism. “I suppose you didn’t write the book he wanted to read,” she said, kindly.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Girl With Many Names

             I am pushing eighty now and am beginning to think about how many writing projects I’ll be able to finish before I forget how to type. One of these is a kind of autobiography with the working title “The Girl With Many Names.”
            When I divorced my third husband (yes; I learned my modest people skills the hard way) some 25 years ago, I asked the judge to restore my maiden name. I had to ask twice. I still get Christmas cards addressed to various old names, and while I am glad to be remembered, I think 25 years is sufficient to accommodate a name change.
            Partly I wanted to go back to my original name because my father, not realizing that it would hurt my feelings, said something about having only one male descendent to “carry on the name.” Partly it was because I was tired of being married and tired of having my name indicate I was somebody’s property...though it wasn’t as bad as the Greek system of a wife’s having her given name followed by “of” and both the husband’s names.
            When Nicodemus and I got married sixteen or seventeen years ago, Father Anthony of blessed memory put us through weeks of premarital counseling and made us go over and analyze every failed relationship we had ever had.  It took us a long time to get it right, and we don’t plan on marrying anybody else. Although Father Anthony was a traditionalist and didn’t truck with the maiden name business, I persisted in keeping my last name and nobody ever challenged it.
            It is a tribute to Nicodemus that various stores call HIM by my maiden name and that he doesn’t particularly care one way or another.
            My son Ed recently applied for a passport and had to produce the document he has instead of a birth certificate, a statement from the American consulate in Thessaloniki certifying the birth of a child abroad to an American citizen. “It says my middle name is Anthony,” he said. “I always thought it was Antonios.”
            “Well, now you’ve had an Ellis Island moment,” I said, thinking of all the new Americans whose names were too foreign for the clerks at the famous immigration office to pronounce.  The consulate officer had translated “of Antonios” into “Anthony.”
            My just-released novel, BYLINE, has an Ellis Island moment when an editor changes the heroine’s Greek name into something that’s “easier for the people.”
            And I won’t even start on my first name, which I have to explain to someone almost every day. It’s just plain old MY-KUL, I tell them. Like David’s first wife in the Bible. Not Michelle or Mikaela or, as a childhood playmate once essayed, Mackerel.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

BYLINE, Post-Partum

             So Amazon has published my little thriller, BYLINE. My East Coast writing buddy Susan has posted a five-star review, the friends have expressed support and congratulations, and a few copies have been sold.
            After reading and re-reading manuscript, proofs and revised proofs, I am a little tired of my own opus, especially when I find typos and things I could have done better. It’s not as if I thought I was writing about eternal verities or anything, but I thought I’d be more thrilled to have my shout-out living its own life.
            Twice this week I’ve talked with a reporter from our local newspaper, which will be running an interview about the book this week. She is young and pretty, but she has written for the paper 26 years, she said. Both of us have always loved to write and have tried pretty much every way of putting words together.
            She wanted to know how I jumped back and forth between playing the piano and trying to write news stories, poetry and fiction. I had to think about it, because certainly it seems that I flit from one thing to another, halfway between doing paying work and indulging myself.
            In newswriting and music program notes, I thought, you tell about something. In fiction, of course, you try to show rather than tell. In poetry, you play with the musicality of language, and in music you deal with the musicality itself. “But what do they have in common?” she asked, knowing, of course, the answer.
            Sue and I correspond almost daily about our current writing projects, but it was lovely to sit at the table and chat with someone else who thinks wordsmithing is worth while.
            The reporter and I reached a comfortable silence. We looked out the window at Montara Mountain. “It’s great living near the ocean,” she said, “but I have to confess that I’m really a mountain kind of girl.”

Wednesday, June 18, 2014


             Alice hated being alone so much that as a youngster she did her homework on a park bench in order to have people around her. She died this month on her 91st birthday, on Pentecost Sunday. We had the same birthday, but this year for the first time I didn’t send her a birthday card, as if I already knew she had other plans.
            We couldn’t have been more different. She was 13 years older, sociable, cheerful, confident, bossy. But we recognized something in each other the first time we met. She was a family counselor and I was going through the Valley of the Shadow. Alice knew that what I most needed right then was to feel safe and be left alone.
            When I finally began to feel like myself again, I stood up to a neighbor who warned me not to plant anything near the fence which might shade her yard. “You mean like a giant sequoia?” I said. Alice thought that was about the funniest thing she had ever heard and she repeated the story more than once.
            Long after I graduated from therapy (with heart-shaped balloons and a party) Alice would call me up or send  me a card. She once confessed that she prayed for her clients, a surprising admission.
            Alice never got very far from the church. She was a Dominican nun, then a nurse, then an associate of Holy Names, a teaching order. She once asked me to convert a set of tape-recorded religious lectures into compact discs. I could hardly believe anyone could listen to 20 hours of lecturing, but Alice was delighted to have the tapes preserved and sent me two silk scarves as a thank you.
            She gave away almost everything she had when she moved to St. Anne’s home in San Francisco, where she spent the last several years of her life. A friend and I took her to lunch at the Palace of the Legion of Honor one day, wheeling her around in her chair, laughing and joking.
            Someone at St. Anne’s found my telephone number among Alice’s things and called me to tell me about the memorial service. “Alice really liked you,” the caller said. Hearing that was almost as good as getting to say goodbye in person. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

Channeling Theodora

She was the daughter of a bear wrangler. As a child, she was probably a beggar and in her teens was some kind of entertainer, which in Sixth Century Constantinople no doubt meant prostitution. In a caste-defying miracle, she married  the heir Justinian and with him in 527 became the most powerful ruler in the Byzantine empire, which extended from north Africa to Rome to present-day Turkey.

Most people have heard of Cleopatra, who lived some two thousand years ago, but few have heard of Theodora,  500 years nearer us in time. Hagia Sophia, the cathedral in present-day Istanbul whose building Theodora supervised, still stands, a world heritage landmark. Her political and military influence affected the course of history.

Mosaics at the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in northern Italy completed the year before Theodora’s death show a serious dark-eyed woman framed by the extravagant gold and gem-encrusted decor which came to characterize Byzantine art.

Years ago, I read The Female City, a book written about Theodora and the city of Constantinople, written in the 1950s by one Paul I. Wellman, an American journalist.  I  tried for a long time to find another copy of the book  and finally on eBay last month I found and bought a well-worn edition offered by an Australian book store.

Theodora was becoming much better known while I was searching for that book. Unknown to me, Wellman’s book dropped the “City” from the title and was reissued. No fewer than three books about Theodora were published in 2013: Theodora of Constantinople by Elizabeth Elson, The Secret History by Stephanie Thornton, and The Bear Keeper’s Daughter by Gillian Bradshaw.

I have these three on my list to read, but frankly, I am not hopeful.

Historical fiction can be a little like Classic Comics or, in the case of Dan Brown and Nikos Kazantzakis (“The Last Temptation of Christ”), sheer fantasy. On the other hand,  it can be so convincing (as in the case of Mary Renault and Patrick O’Brian) that it seems to make a case for some kind of extra-sensory perception. Mary Renault’s books set in Crete were consulted during restorations of the ancient sites. Readers of O’Brian’s 21 Aubrey-Maturin seagoing novels find it almost impossible to believe that someone with that detailed knowledge of tall-ship sailing never spent any time at sea.

How Theodora came to reign almost single-handedly over all Byzantium is a bit of a mystery.  Wellman paints Justinian as an indecisive recluse who in his later days wore a monk’s habit and spent his time reading the book of Revelations in hopes of understanding why his empire was beginning to self-destruct. He was happy, according to The Female City, to let Theodora make the decisions.

The Female City has all the names and dates right, but it seems old-fashioned and almost voyeuristic in its attention to the lives of Constantinople’s working women. Wellman’s central female characters spend most of their time bathing, dressing up, and plotting their next conquest. Interestingly, all  his other books were  set in the American West. Some were made into cowboy movies.

While it is a wonder that a writer could have researched this material as meticulously as Wellman did decades before Google and the Internet, what he clearly intended as praise of the central character often seems patronizing and trivial: Three cheers for the little lady.

At the end of The Female City, Wellman writes “A man, though he be nothing himself, may be called great through chance fame, or position, not power. But being a woman is far more fateful and important, not only to herself, but to the world. A woman is judged always as a woman, no matter what she does or is, aside from that all-important fact. So this grave injustice has been done by history: though Justinian, far her inferior in mind and spirit, has come down to us as ‘The Great’, the only title given to Theodora is ‘The Notorious’.”

Justinian is indeed known in history books as “The Great”, but far from being called “The Notorious”, the empress Theodora was canonized as a Christian saint.  She was buried in  548 in the Church of the Holy Apostles, one of the edifices built under her direction, and her feast day is November 15.