There is no doubt that authors suffer from mental health issues. It’s complicated…
A while ago I noticed the absence of one of my author friends from social media. A quick check with others made it obvious that they were suffering from a bout of depression and needed some time off. Depression, PTSD, bipolar disorder, anxiety, you name it, there isn’t a mental health challenge that I haven’t encountered among my author friends. Are authors particularly prone to mental health issues? Does writing make you sick? Or do you need to be “crazy” (in the broadest sense of the word) to write in the first place? Authors and mental health, let’s have a closer look.
Mental health is a thing and it ain’t going nowhere…
Mental health is a thing in today’s society. It wasn’t when I grew up. Or at least we dealt with it differently. When my dad’s godfather’s wife jumped in front of a train after having escaped from a mental health facility, it was shushed. Nobody talked about it, yet mental health facilities were infamous. The one nearest where I grew up was in a village called Cazis. As a child, going to “Cazis” was the equivalent of being insane, crazy, a mental case. The village gave the name to the mental health hospital. It was weird when my mother was sent there for two weeks evaluation in the spring of 2013, to evaluate her Alzheimer’s. But back in the seventies and eighties, we didn’t talk about bipolar or “mano depression” as it was referred to back then. We didn’t talk about depression or any other mental disorder. Those affected were simply “crazy”, “nuts”, “insane” and that was it.
But many were never in a hospital or a mental health institution. It seems as if we have more people suffering (in general) from mental health issues today than we did back then. Is there an inflation? We did have something though, back then. Something you don’t see much anymore: originals. Every town had one (or two), “originals”, and I have a hunch they were the ones we might treat differently today.
The drawback of the increase in mental health diagnosis
I think it’s a sign of progress that we can talk (more) openly about mental health. I’m glad that it’s no longer (as stigmatizing) to say that you’re suffering from depression, any more than it should be to talk about cancer or any more “traditional” physical ailment. On the other hand, it’s a shame we still distinguish between mental and physical health. The vast majority of mental health issues are physical, due to malfunctions in the brain, not just “mental”, i.e. how we think/feel. Hormonal imbalances, genetic defects, etc. There are countless things that can go wrong and make an organ as complex as the brain tick differently. What we consider the norm is not very common.
Yet I’m not entirely convinced that every diagnosis is helpful. In one of my first psychology classes, one of my colleagues asked the professor how he would define mental health. The professor didn’t think long before he replied: “Mental health is the absence of a diagnosis.” It’s a sentence I’ve never forgotten. It’s a consolation that in one way or another, we’re all mentally sick. That we simply haven’t been diagnosed yet. On the other hand, I wonder why we need to slap a diagnosis on children just to get them help in school, why so many of society’s social welfare is based on mental disease. No diagnosis? Sorry, we can’t help you, because we don’t have a neat little box to fit you into.
I have no answers here, but I see it as one of our time’s greatest challenges to tackle. If you have a view to contribute with, please feel free to comment.
Chicken or egg question?
Mental health for authors then… When I think about that, I often wonder what comes first? Do you need to be nuts to write or does writing drive you crazy?
English author Britt Michaelsen once said something very profound: “authors need the thickest of skins and the thinnest of skins.” What did she mean by that? To write, authors need to be very thin-skinned in order to be in touch with their characters, their stories. To learn from other people about the human condition, to be empathic. But we also need the thickest of skins to handle criticism and feedback from editors to publishers and publicists, not to mention reviewers and readers.
How do you combine that, without going schizophrenic? No pun… As an empath, I know acutely just how difficult life can be when you easily pick up on other people’s emotional state. To constantly listen in on how other people feel, to be intimately in touch with your characters can be taxing, and it can be depressing. It can also be exhilarating, thrilling. But does it cause depression? Does it make you bipolar?
To read bad reviews, having to suffer from online trolling and all the other misery out there can be challenging, too. When people ask you to go and die, kill yourself when a story you poured your heart’s blood into is being trashed for no other reason than because people get away with it, it can be very depressing. When you win awards, read beautifully crafted reviews and receive fan mail, it makes your heart skip beats. But does it cause depression? Bipolarity?
No easy answers…
I don’t think I have the answer. Not sure I want one. But it’s a fact that many authors suffer from mental health issues. Whether we are overrepresented compared to the general population I can’t say. I’m not sure if it is our thin sanity membrane that enables us to write. Or is it writing and the consequences thereof that wear down our mental health immunity. Maybe a combination of both? What do you think? Whichever it is, mental health is a thing. It’s here to stay, and I’m glad that authors thematize it in their writing, helping others to have characters to identify with, and for all of us to be able to have a more open discussion about mental health, without stigma.
Feel free to contribute! As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.
Cat-phishing: will authors, will readers ever learn? The truth will always come out in the end
I woke up to another story of “cat-phishing”, “fraud”, identity mischief and then some. Not the first and most certainly not the last time. This seems to be a thing in (LGBT) author circles. But why? And why is it so frequent in the LGBT writing circles? I see several reasons: the economy and the stigma still associated with being (associated with) LGBT.
Who is stupid enough to voluntarily put on the LGBT hat?
Right. Right? I mean those of us who are gay, lesbian, bi, trans, queer etc. we can tell countless stories of discrimination, violence, people cutting their ties with us etc. Suicide & homeless rates, psychological ailments etc. are all much higher in the LGBT community than in the straight community. Hardly a surprise when you look at the way we’re being treated at the hands of others. Coming out the first time is life-changing, but we have to keep doing it, every day, for the rest of our lives. You might not believe that, but just telling a stranger about your husband is a coming out. You risk judgment (from a glare to a fist in your face), every time. And for a split second you have to make a decision: lie or be honest, is it worth potentially risking your life?
LGBT people have always written fiction, and some of us did so under a pseudonym or a pen name, maybe because we weren’t out, maybe because our employers didn’t know (reasons vary). When (mostly) straight women decided to start to write love stories about men (M/M romance), they did so under pen names, too. Some even chose male pen names (Some claim that readers prefer male writers; personally I couldn’t care less about the genitals, the gender of a writer. It’s their penmanship I care about.) But they did so because their families didn’t know they were writing “smut” (not my word!), writing about those despicable gays and their anal intercourse.
Many of these women live double lives, with a daytime existence in conservative churches with horribly conservative families, and a writer’s existence where they indulge in butt-fucking stories. Sorry to be blunt. I know that the vast majority of these writers are great human beings who support the LGBT community, some have even come out as LGBT themselves, as bi-, trans or genderqueer. But if your mother in law is a Southern Baptist, or your husband a Mormon, I totally understand why you’d write under a pen name…
It’s the economy, stupid!
Writing has changed, a lot, just in the past ten to fifteen years. With thousands of new novels published every day, readers making statements like “I don’t pay more than ¢99 for anything under 200 pages” etc., making a living as a writer has become virtually impossible. Most of us have day jobs where we work our asses off, dreaming of going home to write. We follow our muse, our passion in our free time, in the wee hours of the night.
Frequently occurring scandals in the LGBT writing community have scared away readers (and some writers), making it even more difficult to make a living. For me, my royalties peaked in 2015. After that, they’ve never recovered, after that first big blow-out on GollumReads. Several publishers have left the industry, too. Many authors are now self-publishing and prices have been slashed even more.
Did I mention that the LGBT community is tiny? Our market share is so small that it hardly registers on the grand scale of the likes of Amazon et al. And as long as our straight allies will say this about my writing (“I can’t read this, it’s not for me. I’m not gay!”), we’ll never be able to really make a difference, financially.
It’s a fine line…
If you don’t make a living with your writing, and if you hide behind a mask (fake or just a pen name), it’s easy to cross a line, accidentally or purposely. These days, you can add a button from PayPal to your website (I’ve removed mine since I never got any donations), or create a Patreon account or a crowdfunding campaign. The latter seem to be particularly popular with authors. I’ve long considered creating a Patreon account myself, to supplement my family income. Right now we live off my husband’s income and a stipend I receive from my father. My annual royalties are less than $500, annually! I say this not because I want anyone to feel sorry for me, but because I have nothing to hide. As a writer of gay fiction, my potential readership is infinitely smaller than those who write M/M.
I’ve felt conflicted about Patreon, simply because the added work that is needed to provide patrons with extra content would be taxing, no matter if you have one or a thousand patrons. And I can see how some might use Patreon or GoFundMe to specifically finance a project. I was thinking about audiobooks. I’ve seen a narrator create a GoFundMe to finance a trip to Europe (he failed miserably), and I’ve seen more than one such campaign to finance everything from laptops to funerals and healthcare. Mind you, these are all American cases, where people generally don’t have healthcare insurance. In desperation, people go to desperate lengths.
Now combine a pen name/alias and a blog post asking about money and a tweet about your health and boom, you’re awfully close to crossing a line. Just saying. The result is nasty. Already I’ve had this huge discussion on Twitter where people were talking about “real gay men” writing… While I’m grateful that some thought my name to be worthy of being on the list, but yeah, I’m not thrilled, because women write as well as men (the irony of this blowing up on March 8?)
Let the witch hunt begin…
After each of these scandals, we lose readers. We lose writers. We all lose. But worse, many among us feel compelled to publicly state who we are, what we are. For me, that’s easy. What you see is pretty much what you get. But what about the wife of the Mormon? What about the daughter in law to that Southern Baptist? They won’t be able to, lest they risk their marriage, their families, their kids! Coming out has real-life implications, even for straight women who voluntarily associate with Dorothy’s friends… Still, to this date, marriage equality notwithstanding.
I for one will never start a Patreon. I was skeptical from the get-go, afraid that the extra work wouldn’t be worth the few dollars a month you get (if any.) But more importantly, I do not wish to become dependent on anyone else, not give anyone (besides my family) the power over me and how I live my life, what I do with my money. Some patrons will always think they can tell you what to do (or not) with their money…
How to support authors…
There used to be a time when authors made a living by selling books. Maybe I’m naïve, but I’d like us to return to that place. If you want to help an author, here’s what you can do:
- buy their books
- if you like a book, tell your friends. Tell strangers, tweet, post on Facebook, upload the cover to Instagram. Review.
- Follow our blogs, subscribe to newsletters, like posts etc. Every little helps.
- Stay away from pirate sites. This is a huge issue for all of us. I pay hundreds of dollars every year just to fight piracy and have been able to get Google to stop showing search results to over 4,000 (!!!) pirate sites. In less than two years.
- Leave us alone. We are human beings and we have a right to privacy. As a reader, you have no right to an author’s personal life, what they do, don’t do etc. So please, don’t pry, don’t stalk. If authors share their personal life, it has to be their choice. (This is, of course, by no means an endorsement of criminal activity by authors, just to make this perfectly clear!)
- Be careful with (or stay away from) crowd-funding campaigns. You will never have a guarantee that money will be used as advertised. Buy an extra book instead, the audio version, or maybe a paperback of your favorite title if you want to support an author a bit extra. Write a nice post about their writing. The more people who buy books, the better, for all of us.
“Fangirling” is fine…
…even for us boys. Of course, it’s okay to idolize someone. I remember meeting my favorite ski star, Ken Read, ages ago when I was just a teen. Had it not been for my Dad who was with me, I’d never been able to get that autograph. I was just too star-struck! And when I stood feet away from one of my great ABBA idols, Benny Andersson, for the first time in my life (aged above 35!), I was completely paralyzed. Ask my husband. He thought it was hilarious.
When you meet us authors, remember that we are human beings, too. We are flawed, imperfect. Authors have mood swings, good days, bad days. We get sick, we fight with our families and friends, and we don’t always weigh every word twice, despite making a living off writing. So give us the benefit of the doubt. Focus your fangirling on our writing, our work, not on us as human beings.
Don’t be disappointed if we don’t reciprocate your love. An author (artist) has tons of fans, and they know us very well, but we can’t keep tabs on our readers. Sure, we’ll get to know some of you better, but it’s impossible to know you all, to be “friends” with you all. And despite what Facebook will have you believe, just because we accept a friend request, we’re still strangers. You don’t know us, we don’t know you.
I’m of course aware that we live in “social media” times, and that there are expectations to be out there. Some of us find that more easily accomplished. Others hide behind avatars, pen names etc. As long as we respect each other, we’ll be fine. Deceit isn’t, ever.
What is your take? Agree, disagree?
These are my personal views, of course. I’m fully aware that taking sides in contentious issues puts the author at risk. Bad reviews, public persecution even. But that is a risk we must take, or so I think. Feel free to contribute! As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
Ethnocentricity is primarily a western affliction, and it stinks to the high heavens
When you travel as much as I do, you get to visit a great many different cultures. If you keep your eyes open and don’t just eat at restaurants serving food from your own cuisine. If you avoid walking through streets blind-folded, you’ll note that there are often subtle, sometimes big, at times in your face, humongous, cultural differences. To be oblivious to that is called ethnocentricity, to put your own culture at the center of all things, and to value your own culture above all else.
Let me state this as clearly as I can: there is no culture that is “better” than any other. We are all just different. Sure, we may dislike aspects of one culture, but when we criticise another culture, or what a culture endorses, we need to be careful to understand what we do. Even more importantly, we need to understand what we do not! Last week, I’ve seen many of my friends on Facebook share an article about Olympian Gus Kenworthy sharing pictures with cute puppies, decrying the Korean tradition of eating dog. Having just written a book about Korea, and after having spent some time in the country, I’m well aware of the practice.
Here’s the thing:
- eating dog (or any animal for that matter) is completely fine and none of your fucking business! So is being a vegetarian or vegan.
- Focus instead on the treatment of the animals while they are being raised
In the reporting of Kenworthy’s visit, a small sentence of his often fell by the wayside:
“Yes, there is an argument to be made that eating dogs is a part of Korean culture. And, while don’t personally agree with it, I do agree that it’s not my place to impose western ideals on the people here.”
I could sign this sentence, too. I would not eat dog. But I could’ve also asked him: then why do you impose your western ideals?
On the other hand, ask a billion something Indian Hindus how they feel about the West eating veal and beef, or ask Jews and Muslims about our practice of eating pork… No, we would never listen, wouldn’t care. Even in the West, some of us eat some pretty ‘weird’ shit: In central Europe, eating horse is still a big thing, some eat cute baby goats, we eat cute little lambs, not to mention bunnies. We eat whale meat, seals, and don’t get me started on eating tongue, brain, penises or testicles. It’s a thing. I’m sure the majority of people on the planet strongly disagree with the practice of any of these. However, I’d never criticise anyone for eating that, as long as the animal is treated well while raised/hunted unless of course it is threatened by extinction (which sadly is the case in some whale cases.)
Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr. Kenworthy used his high profile to shine a light on how we treat our own animals, rather than shaming another culture? This is not to say that I do not agree that dogs aren’t to be treated well, but maybe we should let the Koreans deal with that themselves? Making them lose face in the eyes of the world is hardly going to go down well…
He who cast the first stone…
How do you feel about eating this? Image: PETA
What really had me riled though was this: did Gus ever criticise American poultry? Does he ever eat chicken nuggets or the colonel’s original recipe? Why does he have to travel to Sochi or PyongChang to find a worthy cause when there are thousands of poultry farms right in his own backyard? Farms where male chicklets (worthless to egg farmers) are ground to death alive (!!!) and where chickens are processed for meat in ways that even the Nazis couldn’t have come up with.
I love chicken, eat loads of it, but I make sure to eat organic products from farms where the animals lived a good life before helping me see the next day. If you decide that you want to eat meat, at least make sure the animals are treated well while alive. That’s hardly too much to ask for.
Ethnocentricity in writing
Sadly, ethnocentricity is a thing in writing, as well. We are quick to dismiss other people’s experiences, lives, cultures simply because they don’t conform to what we are comfortable with, what we know. I’ve just used one example, I could have made many others. Even people from others cultures living among “us” in the West are often judged and portrayed using broad brushes and from our own point of view. Not a good way to learn about the diversity in the world. And not a good way to create tolerance and cultural understanding.
Just as the Kenworthy article is propagated through social media, so is our writing, black and white for generations. Books have a long shelf-life, keep that in mind. Reducing people to cultural stereotypes, attributing them a “certain way” of being, doing things etc., without really knowing them is a big danger and pitfall. Worse, to criticise them for their ways is damaging at best. Maybe we better look at our own ways before we judge others?
One of the best ways of dealing with potentially sensitive topics is to avoid them. I would not write about eating dog in my book about Korea. Not because I’m not aware of the practice, but because – to be perfectly honest – it doesn’t add value to my story. It would disgust the majority of my western readers, and it would be an insult to potential Korean readers. It just makes no sense to raise a topic for the sake of a sensation or a thrill. That’s my point of view.
How do you feel? How do you avoid ethnocentricity?
These are my personal views, of course. I’m sure others have different views, diverging ways of looking at things. Feel free to contribute!
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week.
Even as a man, I’ve had plenty to learn from the #MeToo debate
***PLEASE NOTE – THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC PORTRAYALS OF SEXUAL VIOLENCE AND SEXUAL IMAGERY***
The #MeToo debate’s awoken some old memories: I was twenty-four years old when I was raped. I never reported him. What would’ve been the use of it? Who would’ve believed a young faggot? Who would’ve cared? The police would’ve sent me away, laughing at me. AIDS fucker! got what I deserved. It was on Ibiza, and it had been consensual at first. But my nos to certain things were ignored, and in the end, I was tossed on the street like a rag doll that no one wanted to play with anymore. I returned to my hotel, showered, cried myself to sleep and spent the next three months in agony until the test results from my first ever HIV test had come back. Color me lucky, at least with regards to that lethal disease, so many others back then were not.
This was me, back then. Young, naïve, innocent. My heart broke for these innocent kids in a home in Romania. I grew up fast, after that rape.
The gay #MeToo experience
As a gay man, I have many experiences I share with my sisters, women everywhere. Men taking chances, not taking no for an answer, or reinterpreting it into a “maybe, if I just keep going”. In the gay dating scene, sex, in one shape or form, has always been pre-understood in most interactions, be it when you meet people in parks, clubs, public restrooms or in recent years, online. It’s no surprise, shunned by society, reduced to sex monsters, predators, we had no other alternative. It’s all we had, and even the most fleeting touch by a complete stranger was like making love to someone you’d been with for years. Rare moments, cherished. It has always been an extremely tight rope to walk, a fine line. Many men crossed the lines repeatedly over the years, but there was no alternative, there was no other story, nothing really that could’ve shown us there was “another way”.
HIV/AIDS changed things…
HIV changed things, in many ways. I’ve always had this nagging thought that the only reason why we are allowed to get married, or “partnered” is because the powers to be wanted us to live safe, monogamous lives, as boring as the rest of them, not because we were like them. No, but to keep us out of the parks. And things did change, for the better, for many of us. I’ve lived in a very happy and stable relationship for many years now. Alex and I celebrate our seventeenth anniversary this year. We’ve also always kept our relationship open to meeting others. That was never a secret between us, nor to the outside. Many don’t get that. That is fine. I don’t understand cheating.
But when you’re out there, meeting people, as fleetingly (and rarely, I might add) as I do, you also submit to the rules of the game, and for gay men, the rules include sex talk very early on in the conversation. No surprise, it’s why you meet. People are very straightforward with their wishes, their dislikes and what not. They will also ask you for very intimate details as early as the first message you exchange. It’s part of the game. I never thought otherwise, until this year.
#MeToo opened my eyes
I’ve always had a lot of respect for my sisters and the shit they had to endure at the hands of (straight) men, and I’ve often felt sad when I was thrown under the bus as a “man”, even though I’d never even look at a woman “that way”… But while I was an ally, unequivocally so, I never felt I had meat in the game. Until the discussions started last spring about unsolicited dick pics being sent to women by men they barely knew. I talked to some close friends about that and joked, that “dick pics” where the calling card of most gay men, and had been, for as long as online dating was a thing.
I’ve sent them, I’ve received them. However, I never sent them unsolicited, that just was never my cup of tea. But as I began to think about it, and the countless shlongs I had to look at over the years, I began to realize that what I really wanted, was to see a man’s face, his eyes. That is what I’m interested in, not his dick. Why? It’s not what I will talk to, not what I will remember (most likely.)
And I began to feel grossed out, really disgusted when I thought back to the days in the past when that was a common occurrence.
An example: even in business…
The latest dick pic I’ve received, pixellated to keep your eyes safe. I never asked for it, and the man who sent it was obviously already ‘done’. Not sure what he wanted from me. To work with him?
A little over a year ago, I was sitting on a ferry, on my way to town. Suddenly I get an alert on Messenger. I use Facebook for work, a lot, and I had met this person through my writing. “Met” is probably an exaggeration. He had sent a friend request. He works as a supplier to us writers and publishers, so I accepted, just as I accept all friend requests. Could be a reader, right? It was 10:28 am my time, and I was on my way to town when I get his message. I look at it and instantly cringe, because, well, this (see left) is what he sent (pixellated to avoid you the worst). But you get the gist, right?
I have never used Facebook for dating, my profile is very non-sexual in nature, G-rated I’d say, with the exception of a four-letter word every now and then. No idea what gave him the impression that I would be impressed by that photo, or that I’d want it in the first place? It was confusing and I told him as much. There was talk about doing more when we’d meet in person. I’ll grant you that I didn’t tell him to take a hike in strong enough words. I did tell him though that it had been unsuitable given my situation (I had people sitting all around me.)
A realization of sorts…
It wasn’t until later when I compared notes with my friends that I realized that I had been forced into a discussion with a potential supplier (!) that I had no intention of ever having in real life. And that is the very hallmark of sexual harassment, isn’t it? You suddenly find yourself in a situation that you have to deal with, a situation you didn’t ask for, a situation you can’t help and where getting out of it can be a challenge. Impossible even. Much later, I met him in real life. It was a very awkward situation, because he never looked at me, didn’t even acknowledge me. All I kept seeing was the above image. I pity the women who have to do this every day.
What can we do about it all?
Don’t get me wrong, #MeToo is primarily about women’s plight, and that is as it should be. Gay men share similar experiences at the hands of other men, men who can be as powerful or feel as entitled as their straight counterparts. There are even Lesbian women acting that way, emulating the “male” way of doing things, and having gotten away with it for far too long. I’m glad that we have this conversation these days. I’m glad that women in more and more places find the strength to say #NoMore, #NoLonger.
Now that I’ve found the strength to say no more myself, not to acquiesce that sort of behavior anymore, I can more actively help my sisters and speak up about the grave injustice this afflicts on millions and millions of women every day. I intend to keep doing that. I’ve said it, time and time again: there can be no LGBT equality without equality of the sexes. I, too, stand to win from this.
Have I been a saint through all this?
We need to do this for our children, girls, boys, and others, to provide them with a better future, free of unwanted sexual attention or harassments. My son Sascha. Photo: private
Gods no. I wish. Have I made mistakes? Have I misbehaved? Probably. I don’t remember. I am sincere in this. There are no recollections in my memory. Normally, I remember my mistakes more than the good deeds, simply because the pain lingers. Had I fucked up so royally, I have a hunch I’d remember. Should anyone I’ve treated badly read this, here’s my sincere apology: I most certainly didn’t mean to. I shall not even try to explain it or excuse it. First of all, it’s impossible to explain that which you don’t remember, on the other hand, it’s of no use.
Where do we go from here?
We need to keep talking about this. It is a vicious circle, and only the victims can break it. This also means forgiving those who have wronged us. For several reasons. First of all, it strengthens us, it removes the stain of being a victim. There is far greater strength in forgiving than in hatred or revenge. Second of all, even the worst of offenders have been raised by men and women, and many have learned that it’s “okay” to behave that way, from both their fathers and their mothers. Men and women alike keep perpetrating these myths of a weak and a strong sex, of how a “proper man” and a “proper woman” must behave.
Forgive and teach others, help others how to be human, just human. But most importantly, to make sure we do not raise another generation of predators. The cycle must be broken now.
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week and don’t be shy, chime in, share your experiences. Be respectful.
Korea is an interesting place to visit, particularly if you are interested in culture, colonial history, and geopolitical chess games
Having just returned from Korea, I’ve had the unusual opportunity to talk to Koreans, some young, some older, about the current tense situation between the two states on the peninsula. I talked to them about their views of a brighter future, without Donald’s bigger button or Jong-Un’s need for a nuclear arsenal.
As someone who’s been privileged to witness the extremely volatile and unexpectedly rapid German (re-)unification in 1989 and 1990 from up close, it was interesting to spend time to compare notes with my Korean counterparts on how they view the situation on the ground, mere fifty kilometers (thirty miles) from the border, or the DMZ, the demilitarized zone, as this heavily militarized (yeah, odd, right) area is called. Alex and I had traveled there during our last visit in 2012. We were able to visit the North Korean tunnels dug to infiltrate (and invade?) the South. We peeked through binoculars at the now-closed village of Kaesong, where North Korean labor produced goods for the Samsungs and LGs in the south. We also saw and shivered at the tall towers on both sides, proudly flying each country’s national flag. Eerie!
The entire border to North Korea is mined territory, literally. Violent incidents always a possibility.
A few weeks ago, a North Korean soldier fled to the south, bullets from his comrades accompanying him on his rabbit-like run across the border where he collapsed. Marked by malnutrition, riddled with worms and bullet holes, the man is expected to make a full recovery in a hospital in Seoul. We know little about life in the North, and even my friends in Seoul could shed little light, other than that there is a powerful elite who lives a very good life, while the rest… well, starve? We don’t really know.
Satellite images show that there is very little electric light at night in North Korea, almost nothing outside the capital of Pyongyang, and from the few accounts we have seen and read, the people north of the border live an existence that very much resembles that of pre-war Korea. But we can’t know for certain.
Korea is an interesting country. While originally Buddhist, Christianity has been playing a major role for over a century as primarily American missionaries have been very active on the peninsula. They still are, and many in the Korean diaspora are deeply religious evangelicals. In the south, that is still the case, and churches of different denominations from Roman Catholic to Mormon stand side-by-side with beautiful Buddhist temples (see photo.)
Colorfully lit prayer bags hanging from a tree in Seoul’s richest and biggest Buddhist temple.
Understanding the North…
As for the North, religion is frowned upon, as in all communist countries, although the Kim family is staging itself more in the tradition of the old Joseon Empire. God-like rulers, rather than simply chairmen of the ruling party. Jong-Un’s grandfather, Il-Sung, is still president, decades after his death. Only a god could really fill those shoes, right? So what if that all crumbled? What if the gods were killed? Or exiled? Japan, in 1945, might hold a clue to how it might affect a people…
When East Germany opened the wall, it was the wealthiest of the Warsaw pact countries. Despite the paper-maché cars with lawn-mower engines they were driving. They were Germans, after all: industrious, hard-working, with little sense of humor or appetite for “living the good life”. They saved their money in bank accounts for a better day, and the unification treaty sweetened (or at least didn’t sour) their dreams. The differences, after having been sundered and apart for forty years (1949-1989) were staggering, but still manageable. Yet only last year did East-Germans achieve full parity in their pensions, and the “Soli”, the extra tax levied to pay for the build-up of the East is still paid. Based on the discussions of the two major parties for a new government for Germany, that is not to change. Keep that in mind as we look at a unified Korea.
Korea was split in two, like Germany, at the end of the war, in an American controlled (taking over from colonial Japan) South and the Sino-Soviet controlled North. We are seventy plus years into that separation. Relations between the two neighbors, of one people, are as bad as ever, despite the current Olympia induced romance. It won’t last, or so my Korean friends tell me. South Korea, like Germany, is one of the wealthiest nations of the planet, having risen from the ashes of 1953 like Phoenix. Meanwhile, North Korea is worse off than ever before or so we are led to believe.
Seoul, the capital of South Korea is a hyper-modern city with more tall buildings than I could count…
Sentiments in the South…
Official doctrine in Seoul is still the dream of unification. That is portrayed in many museums, from the Korean War Memorial to the National Museum or the City Museum. It’s enshrined in the national curriculum and it is the current minister of unification who is handling negotiations with his North Korean counterpart about their Olympic tête-à-tête. However, word on the street is a different one. Seventy years is a long time. Few people from the era are still alive. Even fewer have living relatives on the other side (despite the South’s insistence on always putting family reunions on the table.) The younger generations of Koreans enjoy the fruit of their parents’ and grandparents’ hard labor. South Korea is a wealthy country with good social services, a new smartphone every season, great K-pop music and in terms of fashion. Seoul is definitely the Milan of the East. Rarely have I seen a people so tastefully dressed! Who would give that up? Risk having to sacrifice the latest Samsung gadget to help complete strangers hundreds of miles away?
Also, and I think this is even more important: the younger generations in Korea suffer from similar problems our young do in the West: difficulties finding jobs, a real-estate market out of control. I’ve been told horror stories of thousands of people applying for ten internships where eventually only eight would be hired permanently, of hiring processes lasting months with up to four different aptitude tests. Employers scorning applicants with mere bachelor degrees. Korea has an excellent educational system, but given the stress of staying on top of the pyramid, it is also driving many students to the brink of exhaustion. Kids studying from six am to eleven pm, and some even commit suicide because of it. Tell me, why would they wish to risk competition from millions of people asking even lower wages?
Seoul, after the Korean War. Large parts destroyed after the initial attacks by North Korea in 1950. Replaced by a modern metropolis. The process was not without pain.
What the future might hold
Having finally rid itself of the Shanti towns of the post-war era, why would Seoul risk the prospect of hundreds of thousands, millions even, migrant workers coming to town to find their fortune in the brightly lit capital of the South? The prospect of it all frightens the younger generations. Few of them will pay more than lip-service to reunification in public, and will flat out rule that prospect out, for the time being, instead referring to “potentially”, in a “distant future”. They are a smart people, and I agree with that assessment, given what little I (and everyone else) knows about the state of things in the North. Besides, I highly doubt that China is as gullible and naïve as Russia was with regards to the GDR. I doubt that China will allow American troops on its borders. They’re quite thankful for that buffer zone that North Korea puts in between American ground troops and mainland China. I think Beijing is humiliated enough by the mere existence of Taiwan and the Japanese alliance with the U.S.
Oddly, as we’ve recently marked the twenty-seventh anniversary of German reunification, we’ve also seen just how Russia still feels about the de-facto abandonment of promises made as part of the unification process, primarily not making Eastern European countries NATO members or stationing U.S. troops there. Today, there are NATO troops stationed both in the Baltics and Poland, right under Putin’s nose. Mind you, I understand the need for those, given Putin’s saber-rattling of late and his war on Ukraine, but all of this would not have happened (or would it?) if the GDR had remained a separate country. We’ll never know, but the Russians feel betrayed. I doubt that China will make the same mistake.
This is what the Korean emperor would see, should he ever leave his palace. The ancient rule that no building shall be taller than his palace, long gone. And as the city has moved on, so have the younger generations of South Korea, no longer desperately clinging to the concept of a unified peninsula, one Korea.
In less than four weeks, the Olympic torch will arrive in Pyeongchang and the Olympic games will begin with the Koreans entering the stadium together, once again marching under a unified Korean flag (a picture of the peninsula on white background, as most recently in 2010.) I doubt Jong-Un will be there, and I doubt the unified ladies’ hockey team will play for very long. Many fear that the current romance is a veil to allow the North Koreans to further/finish their armed nuclear missiles. They’ve played the South and their need for political gains before. They need to be re-elected, Jong-Un doesn’t. I don’t think they’ll be successful this time, not like they were in the nineties, during the last era of “sunshine policy” of President Kim.
Young South Korea is worldly, suave, ironic, and not as gullible as their elders were. I find that hopeful, even if it will make progress on the peninsula slow. Sometimes though, slow is better. It beats a Seoul once again ravaged by artillery batteries from the North. Do you have questions? Comments? My trip to Seoul was primarily to learn about locations and settings from my coming novel, but I couldn’t help but discuss the current political and geopolitical climate with the people I met. To them, my thanks and utmost gratitude for honest and meaningful debates.
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great weekend.
I’ve met up with author M.D. Neu for a chat, about writing, his books and more…
I haven’t done an author interview for a while, but when Marvin and I got to chat about his books, I figured I wanted to learn more, and after having read his brand new novel The Calling, we sat down for a chat. Meet author M.D. Neu:
Author M.D. Neu
Who is M.D. Neu in his own words?
M.D. Neu is a writer, a husband and is driven to get the stories out of his head and into print. He also wants to tell stories about people and characters that he never saw growing up (everyday gay hero’s) and largely still doesn’t.
People like him; regular folks that happen to be gay, experience and feel other worlds and see into the future. When he’s not writing and working his day job he loves to travel and spend time with family and friends.
What is one thing you would like the world to remember you for?
That I told stories that everyone could relate to. That you could sit down and read one of my stories and see yourself in the leading role.
What got you into writing?
I started keeping a journal with I was a foreign exchange student in Germany. When I got back I continued to journal as it helped me process my internal coming out. It was a safe way for me to share my thoughts. From there it morphed into poetry and then into writing stories. It wasn’t something I ever thought I would consider doing for real, not until the last few years where somehow it became part of me and part of what I wanted.
The cover of The Calling
I guess I’ve always been creative, I’ve always been a talker, and I love telling stories so the three sort of pulled together and this is what that less than holy trinity turned into.
Are you a full-time author or do you have a day job as well, and if so, what do you do?
I work full time for a non-profit that works to end poverty and help those in need. It’s an amazing job and I have two incredible bosses. The best part of my day job is that typically when I leave for the day, I’m not carrying any of it with me. So, it frees me up for my writing. I’m very lucky in that regard.
I’ve just read your first novel, and I’ve read one of your shorter stories. Paranormal seems to be your “calling”. Why’s that?
Some of my favorite authors are paranormal and horror authors, Anne Rice and Stephen King top the list. Then I’ve always loved Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg. I loved the idea of things going bump in the night. It’s fun, but not in a “slasher-gasher” sort of way. I like a good jump scare but add in a little humor.
I try and write things that give me the chills but again not in a way that is going to gross people out. I want it to be fun and have humor to it as well. I also want it to feel real.
Some of the best ghost stories I’ve read have been ones that you never find out fully what happened or is happening kind of like Hitchcock’s The Birds or even Spielberg’s Poltergeist and now his Stranger Things.
I’m no expert in paranormal, quite the contrary. I do understand that there’s a lot of world-building going on, and I sense that even at the end of The Calling, you’re not quite done. I for one wonder where all the red wine comes from… Is that the appeal to you in paranormal or just a necessary evil?
It’s definitely part of the appeal. The Calling started off as a stand-alone story, my take on vampires and witches. I wanted to play around with how these mythical creatures could be around in our world today, especially with video cameras everywhere. As I plotted out the story and created the lore I found this rich world. There was a lot there. There was so much I wanted to explore and I knew I couldn’t cram it all into one book. So, assuming people are interested there will be a second book (hopefully). And I may even do some kind of prequel that focuses on Juliet.
You mention the Red wine, or as I simply refer to it, red. There is vampire magic involved, but as Victor mentions in the book, ‘nothing beats fresh.’
I will dive a bit more into the vampire side of things in book two. How they get their blood, how they can keep it fresh and I’ll even dive into more about their Keepers. I think I have some really cool fun stuff to share so I hope to get it all sorted.
You have taken vampires to a new level, displaying them in a new and interesting light. And the end of the book seems to open up for a lot more. Will we see a series or just a sequel?
Honestly, I only have a sequel planned, but as I mention I might do something with Juliet because I love her character and I find her really amazing and interesting. I’ve got pages of notes on her. We’ll just see what happens and how things go.
You have a unique author voice, and your writing is extremely captivating. You literally had me drawn into the story before it really started. Even as someone who doesn’t read a lot of paranormal, I was really wanting to get back to the book, finish it, despite being on vacation with my family… The plot you built is very elaborate, intricate and full of twists. I must assume you’re a plotter. How much planning went into this novel?
Yep, I’m a plotter. Once I have my general idea and I’m introduced to the main couple of characters I start planning out the story. I keep my eye on the end and I have to make sure I can get to that ending in a logical manner. When it came to The Calling outline I found that by chapter sixteen there was no way I was going to get everything I wanted into this book. So I broke the story in half. So, The Calling is technically only the first sixteen chapters of the original outline. Book two will focus on everything that comes after that.
Once I have the outline I start to flesh out each chapter. I love details and description so I find pictures of the places I want to use and do my best to describe what I see. I also use placed I’m familiar with so I can add things like scent and sound to the story. I build all that info into my outline as well.
When it comes to twists I work with the end in mind. I know where I want to end up and then I have to think about the most real way to get there. I try not to wave ‘oh look magic’ or ‘oh look science’ I want the reader to believe that it’s possible so trying to get those details right is also part of the outline.
If I’m doing an action scene or I have a big scene where a ton of characters are I try and map it out so I know where everyone is going. I work out what they are doing in the chapter (during the outline phase) so people aren’t floating around.
The Dark & the Light
The Light and the Dark, tell us about your reasoning behind creating two kinds of vampires. Will we ever see the Dark unleashed?
The Light and the Dark. Honestly, they gave me nothing but headaches. The problem I have with the Dark especially is that if I left them up to their own devices they couldn’t really exist, not now anyway. They would have been discovered and killed off by now. To unleash the Dark would be to put our world into chaos. People would literally be showing up drained of blood on a daily basis all over the world. It would be a mess.
I had to rein them in, which I think works well because we get Victor. He is brilliant. He knows how to play the game and not take any crap.
When it comes to the Dark unleashed, I see parts of that world today, around us.
I mention it a bit when I was talking about the planning. There are parts of the world that are not safe (for whatever reason) and the Dark in those areas use this to their advantage. We may see more of this in book 2.
The gay aspect is very subdued, and you really had me confused there for a while (no spoilers.) In the end, I found it refreshing and gratifying, I have to say. Was that a choice you made on purpose? It seems that way, given Duncan’s own words?
Yes, that was my intent from the start. First and foremost I want to tell stories that anyone can relate to. Duncan could be your brother, cousin, best-friend, the stranger you see every day on the street. That should be who Duncan is and that is what I was going for.
I’m not a big fan of labels. We forget that we are all human first. Nothing else really matters from there on. So, I wanted Duncan to point this out. In fact, I had a little back and forth with the publisher on this fact (not in a bad way, my publisher is amazing and I adore working with them).
One of the reasons why I love to read other people’s books is to marvel at the ingenuity, the creativity we have. “How the hell did they come up with this…” I’ve had quite some moments like that in The Calling, but also in the other story I read, The Reunion. Care to elaborate on your creative muse?
I don’t really know if I have a muse so much as I have this characters floating around in my brain that I listen to. How I write kind of happens this way. I may have a dream or think, ‘what if’ and then if something clicks suddenly I’ll have a character come forward and they will start telling me their story.
For The Calling, I wanted to tell a vampire story that could work in our society today. Vampires that could be real. When I started thinking about the how. This guy Duncan came forward and started telling me about himself and the story grew from there. I want people to read The Calling and think, wow that could actually happen. I kind of also wanted to write a vampire story that Anne Rice would enjoy (I know I know, but it’s true.).
The cover of The Reunion
With The Reunion was a whole different ballgame. Some friends and I were playing this game with this crazy characters and when the game ended I didn’t feel like the story was over so I wrote this 3,600-word ending. It was nothing special, but from that, the idea of The Reunion formed and materialized. I changed the characters around and made them fit the story I wanted to tell. I also wanted to play on what we think we know. One thing that always drives me nuts about movies and stories is we will follow a single character and by the end of the story we someone find out everything. The character either stumbles onto the truth, overhears something, finds the diary, has the big bad tell them everything, etc. I understand why screenwriters do it, they want the audience to feel stratified with the ending. Okay sure that is wonderful, but it’s not real. That is why I like Alfred Hitchcock, he didn’t always answer everything; the characters only knew what they knew and nothing more. So that is what I did with Teddy. We only know and see what he knows and sees.
We often see male main characters described as hunks with six packs and what not. Duncan seems ordinary, at least physically. Was that a choice made on purpose?
If you want to read about beautiful gay men or beautiful gay women I can give you a list of wonderful books to read. If you want to read a story about someone like you who has an amazing adventure then this is that story. Duncan is an average Joe, plain and simple. He’s just average in fact all my characters fall into the average category because I want them to be someone we can all relate to.
Finally, what can we expect and look forward from you in the future? Plug away…
I’m hoping to launch my Sci-Fi Series A New World this year. I have this wonderful short story about a Drag Queen and an angel that I hope will get picked up. I’m going to be working on Book two of The Calling and there are a ton of other ideas I have floating around.
I also post poetry on my website for folks to enjoy. I try and get a few new poems up one a month (or once every other month) depending on how busy I am. So really I’m just starting up, there is a ton of stuff heading out. So I hope people can just sit back and enjoy some good storytelling from me.
Thank you, Marvin, author M.D. Neu, for answering my questions. If you want to connect with him, you can do so here:
His books are available from his publisher Nine Star Press, from Amazon and your other favorite outlets. I’ll talk to you again on Friday when I have another great review for you, a book from another author friend of mine I recently read… See you then.
As always, if you like my blog, my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Hope your start to 2018 was as good as mine… Have a good week, and don’t forget to check back in on Friday for another book review.
PS: A word to blow my own horn. I finally received a Kirkus review for one of my books, Disease, and they’re quite gracious, calling it “a must-read for anyone in the throes of an ordeal involving Alzheimer’s disease” (Kirkus Reviews, 1/3/18) If you haven’t read it yet, there’s no time like now!