Seeing things through a different lens is humbling and makes you grateful for your own life
Having just come back from a convention, I spent a lot of time with people from all walks of life: rich, poor, young, old, various gender and sexualities etc. And I spent time with my friend Tracy, who’s confined to a wheelchair. It taught me a lot. I’m an empath, and I take great pride in understanding where people come from, what they feel and their emotional state of mind. Normally, I can tell someone’s mood before they do (or as they approach me, not having said a word). However, it’s a different animal to understand how someone’s life is, the obstacles they face etc. A couple of years ago I had an eye-opening experience with my friend Claudine and the shocking level of racism in the U.S. when we were on vacation together. It’s one thing to “read” about or intellectually “understand” racism, but it’s another thing entirely when you witness is face-to-face.
Tracy and I at the recent convention.
Last week, with Tracy, I faced the challenges people with disability face in our society, every day. Tracy suffers from cerebral palsy, and usually sits in a wheelchair, as walking on her own has become increasingly difficult. Through her, I experienced just how difficult it is, still, to this day, to get around and be an active part of society when you’re stuck in a chair.
One of the first things I noticed was her outlook or perspective. Literally being at the height of everyone else’s hips, Tracy sees more ass than anyone ever should. To make a conversation in a group possible, the circle needs to widen considerably to allow for a comfortable angle for everyone to see each other. Normally, when chatting in a small group, we tend to stand huddled relatively close together, but for someone in a wheelchair to fit in, that circle needs to widen, which is uncustomary for the “abled” participants. I had never really noticed this before, but as I pushed her chair toward several groups of people (I’ll get back to the reasons why I pushed the chair) I instinctively began to view the world through her eyes, and that was one of the first things I noticed. Needless to say, people also don’t see her coming, not from behind (duh…) but often not even from the front, as their eyes just aren’t focused three feet down.
A hallway from hell… Can you imagine having to push yourself up and down this corridor even once or twice? But several times per day? Yes, it makes for a more quiet environment, but for a wheelchair, this is awful. Why not use to walls to absorb sound instead? Photo: Helen Shaw
The second thing I noticed was how badly we construct things for wheelchairs. Your typical American sidewalks with those creases between concrete blocks make it difficult, almost impossible, for a chair to pass over, the small wheels in the front easily get stuck, and believe me, it’s not easy to push them forward or to do so yourself if you’re alone in the chair. And to lift the chair and push across on the back wheels? Yeah, had it not been for a person actually sitting in it, and the handles of the chair provide no leverage effect to push down, making it virtually impossible. All we could do was for Tracy to stand up, push the chair forward a few inches and try again. Imagine someone who can’t get up at all?
Carpets… Our hotel was full of carpets, everywhere. To push a wheelchair over carpets, or for Tracy to push herself? Not easy and very, very tiring. And when you have to do this ten, fifteen times a day, down long corridors? Wow. We tried to help as much as we could, but why don’t architects consider this shit?
Worst of all though were the non-accessible sidewalks in the parking lot. Yes, the hotel has handicap parking, but what if you are with someone who’s not allowed to park there? Every threshold at that parking lot was 6 inches high, and every time, Tracy had to stand up, take a couple of painful steps to make way for the chair to come up, sit down, start all over at the next threshold, up, down, up, down. All in all, we had to do that about six times. Makes you wonder how this is even possible in 2017.
Having to live like this every day? People bumping into you everywhere because they don’t expect you, don’t see you, all the obstacles, elevator doors crushing into you and what not… I appreciate the patience Tracy and others in her situation have. Yes, they have no choice, but we as a society could make things a little bit easier for them. It’s not rocket science, after all. Have you had any experiences with friends, or yourself?
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The end is the start to something new…
It’s over… I don’t think I’ve quite grasped that fact yet. Yet as much as it may be a cliché, the end is always the beginning of something new, the undiscovered country, the future. And I for one am looking forward to it. I sit here at Denver’s airport, overlooking the Rocky Mountains towering tall in the distant background, colorful planes coming and going. I’m on my way to Tucson for a couple of days, to see my dear sister, having just taken leave from my tribe, my beloved crowd of readers and authors of GRL. Four intensive days, climaxing – as always – last night – with the annual costume party. And yes, that is over, too.
A costume party and a goal
A slow but steady increase in weight around my waist had me look like this in March of 2017. Not what you want to show off in public…
The road to Denver began in early March when we were finally able to register. Just days later I learned of the theme for the costume party, and after my exploit in 2015, the pressure on me to pull another queen out of my hat has been high, from attendees as well as myself. And it’s always a tricky endeavor, as last year proved. My emperor Hadrian, champion of marriage equality, as amazing as the costume was, fell flat after the theme of the party was morphed from “over the rainbow” to a more specific “The Wizard of Oz”. Yeah, no Roman emperors in the emerald city, but I had already invested so much money in the costume design that it was too late to morph it into a munchkin or another twister. Instead, everyone marveled at a naked Tin Man, amazingly performed by vocal artist Joel Leslie Froomkin, with the body paint applied by his equally artistic husband. Hat off…
When the organizers told me that this year’s theme would revolve around the Wild West, I had a flashback to last year and Joel’s costume, and I’ll be honest (as always) and admit that I had felt a tinge of envy at Joel’s beautifully sculpted body. Yes, and my friend Meghan Maslow confirmed as much in a discussion we had, if you want to show skin, you can’t do so in a flabby dad bod. Nobody wants to see that. There is a fine line between being sexy and being embarrassing. I agreed. Yet oddly, the “wild, wild west” had me think of a slutty cowboy (because just going in chaps wasn’t very original). I have never been ashamed of my body, and I had people cat-calling and whistling after me in France way back in 1983 when I dressed up as a prostitute (female, mind you) for a costume party thrown by my language school EF. I was named Miss EF St. Malo for that mini skirt and t-shirt, wearing my madame’s bra underneath it. No shoes, because we couldn’t find any my size. Madame was petite. I was sixteen at the time, and I had the body for it: hairless, slim and no visible muscles. I had never worked out in my life.
My personal trainer, coach and nutrition expert, Markus Jielin from STC Training in Sweden. I got really lucky with him, and his gentle way was exactly what I needed to push myself harder and harder to reach my goal.
So being un-dressed didn’t scare me. What did scare me was my body. I had let myself go over the past twenty-five years, increasing in weight from the 75 kg (165 lbs) at my 6’1” to almost 90 kb (195 lbs), note that my skeleton only weighs 3.7 kg (8.1 lbs). The slope had been gentle and slow, but steadily downward, and while I don’t remember my clothing sizes as a kid, my upper body had always been a medium, but my jeans sizes began to increase from a 31 to a 34 two years ago. And it was a tight fit. At my age, other complications arose: I have a herniated disk in my neck, which had been giving me trouble ever since it ruptured in 2012, and I have a shot disk in my lower back which had my sciatica in turmoil for the past three years. There were many a day when I could barely get out of bed, and when my physical therapists prescribed me exercises to strengthen my core to help steady my spine, I couldn’t do them because of the pain. Or I didn’t do them because I wasn’t in pain that day, the latter a huge mental problem, more than anything else. I was badly out of shape, and mentally nowhere near ready to tackle the lapses of twenty-five years. I started gaining weight shortly after my twenty-fifth birthday. So it’s been a long time building. To be able to show off my naked torso and a six pack was a dream, a crazy, really crazy dream, but somehow it rooted itself in my mind and I decided to try and do something about it. Nothing but a challenge for me to rise to. I contacted a local gym, five tram stops from our port and hired a personal trainer.
Markus from STC probably (no, most certainly) thought I was nuts, out of my mind, when we first met for our first work-out on March 20th this year. I mean who hires a personal trainer just to get undressed at a costume party in the states, right? But I guess he thought “his money to waste…” and we began to work. One of the first things we looked at was my nutrition. I don’t use the word “diet”, because we all know that dieting doesn’t work, because the second you stop, you’ll gain that weight right back, and then some. You have to change your nutrition permanently in order to achieve results. Markus suggested going slow, making tiny changes, one at a time, not to overdo it, in order not to lose faith in the process. He was spot on. I always thought I was eating healthy. No bad fats, no cheap processed food and yada, yada. However, I quickly noticed two things: there was too much fat in my food (still), way too much sugar and, worst of all, we simply ate too much, drank too much, the casual glass of wine pretty much every evening for instance. Empty calories…
“Remember, nutrition is 80% of your success, working out only 20%”
Progress was fast, and by June, my jeans felt super loose. I had already lost two inches around my waist. Now I’m back at my 31” jeans waist.
This is Markus’s mantra, and he (and all scientific research in the area) are of course right. But we did work out, once a week together, him showing me new exercises, pushing me to lift more weight, me alone, twice every week. I remember how frustrated I was, not remembering them, not knowing what to do, how to do it, but I began to spend many hours at the gym, every week, with three hours of weightlifting and two to three hours on the treadmill, walking off calories. Progress was swift. By the end of June, that excess flab I had built up in the past four to five years was mostly gone, my body fat count had dropped from 15.6% (which is pretty average in Sweden for men my age) to 10.7%, but I had also lost muscle tissue, even though I was feeling stronger.
We increased the tempo and made more nutritional changes, which also included to pretty much forego alcohol. We increased my protein intake to help build my muscle strength, and my first real mental challenge was the cruise and vacation this summer: all this amazing food, free drinks on the ship, and I could barely partake, because I realized that every mojito meant less food left to be eaten. I could not, I would not, exceed my daily calorie targets. It paid off. By the end of the summer, my body fat count was down to 9.9% and I began to see muscles in my upper body. As a former runner, I’ve always had muscular strength in my legs, and even though I’ve increased my leg press results from 350 lbs in March to 750 lbs (!) in September, it wasn’t a priority. My arms, chest and shoulders were (re herniated disk). At the beginning, I could barely do a bench press with the 20 kg (44 lbs) empty bar. These days I press 70 kg (154 lbs) and I’m sure I have room for improvement. To do a pull-up was a dream for me, but to lift that chin and the 89 kg of my body over the bar just was not in the cards. These days I can easily do ten, and one with 30 kg (66 lbs) attached to my body, totalling 244 lbs. More than any other of Markus’s clients, and by a fifty year-old? I’m proud of myself…
I don’t care about the costume party any more…
The slutty cowboy or “unique”, as I’ve called him last night… The end of the road, or?
Not entirely true, but as I learned about my body, my nutrition, and when I saw the changes in my physical appearance, I also began noticing the effects of it on my general health: I began to sleep better, my bathroom visits less complicated (no need for details), my mood improved, there was a ‘spring’ in my walk and my mood. It’s really hard to explain, but I began to feel happier, and proud of what I had achieved, the fact that I had achieved it. But I wasn’t quite there yet. Not for Denver, not for GRL, not for that six pack. For many men, body fat first gathers around the belly, and I quickly learned how hard it is to realize that “the first place you gain it will be the last place you lose it…” After the weigh-in in August, I realized that if I really wanted for people (and myself) to see the growing six pack, I needed to push myself even harder and decrease the fat content of my body even further.
Last Monday, the day before I flew to Denver, at my final weigh-in, I had it pushed all the way down to 6.4%, lower than Markus’s own, and he’s been working out regularly for decades, a former elite athlete. Mission accomplished. But that wasn’t important any more, as much as it was a mile stone worth celebrating. I am healthy as a horse, and while my sciatica still hurts regularly, it’s not debilitating. I’m not having trouble getting out of bed, I move freely. I am happy.
And as weird as this may sound, at the age of 50, I look better than I ever have in my entire life, sexy – if I may say so – not embarrassing, beach 2018, where art thou?. The six kilo that I’m heavier than I was when I was sixteen are all muscle, and these days, my t-shirts aren’t tight around the waist, they’re tight around the shoulders. An amazing feeling. I’m healthy (as certified by two doctors), I’m happy, and I’m stronger than ever before.
The statistics behind my physical change. We never did a weigh in at the start so those figures aren’t complete. I guess Markus didn’t really believe I would stick to it in the beginning… I’m surprised myself that I did. Then again not. I tend to rise to a challenge, particularly when people say “you can’t” or “you won’t”…
So when I finally got ready for the party last night, having duped people for over seven months, wearing a fake santa belly for the entire conference, I was ready to show off my new body. Oddly, I wasn’t excited though, or nervous. Had I not spent so much time, I might as well have just attending in jeans and a t-shirt. It was almost anti-climactic, because I had already reached my real goal. The goal that had begun to take over as I began to enjoy the endorphin kick of a good work-out, as I was able to walk and hike again without being out of breath after a half-hour, as I was able to admire myself in the mirror after the shower every morning…
I did dress up (or down), and I did go to the party. I did have a great time, and nobody recognized me, some not even after I’d removed the mask, which had been a sort of sub-goal of the whole process with the little white lies (of not even going to the party) and the santa belly I’d worn all week (which was hellish btw, killing my posture and impeding my mobility, which was an odd reminder of what it meant when I was carrying around the worthless weight of the 8.8 kg (19.4 lbs) fat I’ve lost.
The end of the road?
In order to maximize the “look” of my muscles, Markus set up a brutal body-builder competition regimen, something I don’t care to repeat, but yeah, one of those things you do for maximum results. I wasn’t allowed to work out the last three days before the costume party. I couldn’t abstain entirely, and did walk quite a bit, even sneaking into the gym at the hotel in the middle of the night for a walk on the treadmill. This morning, when I woke up, my body ached to work out and break out a sweat. 45′ in the gym did the trick. Some arms, legs and stomach exercises and a few minutes on the treadmill were exactly what the doctor prescribed. Weird, because I had never had that urge before. I do now, and I can’t wait to see Markus again and discuss new goals, to further strengthen my back, to alleviate my back pain some more, and to continue to work on my upper body strength and particularly my shoulders. But I’ll be honest and I can’t wait to actually drink the champagne on my flight home, not just sip it, and to drink a good glass of wine with a great dinner again, not that I’ve felt the urge to drink alcohol tbh. But to be able to…
I’ve changed my entire life-style to a healthier one, both for me and my family, and the only way to keep this body is to keep working out, because I know what happens when you stop, and I don’t want to lose that amazing feeling of feeling great.
How to read this post and what it isn’t…
This week I’ve also come to accept that I’ll never be able to repeat San Diego. Her Majesty is a GRL legend, and no other costume idea will ever top her accomplishment. What I did this year may be amazing for me on a personal level, but in terms of costume, it was nothing out of the ordinary. That is quite alright.
We talk a lot about fat shaming in my community and amongst my friends, and I do have friends society would consider “obese”, and who are called “fat”. Some even call themselves those words. There are a gazillion reasons why people’s bodies act and react differently to things. And we, as a society, tend to go for the physical look and judge a book by the cover. Trust me, as an author, I know that to be true. I didn’t talk to many people, and particularly avoided friends who feel self-conscious about their bodies. Progress for me, as hard as it was (in terms of labor), was easy. I have a lean physique, genetically, and I had the means, in terms of finance and time, to spend up to eight hours per week at the gym, slaving with weights, treadmills and bikes. Many do not. No blame, no finger pointing. We are all very different, and while it took a silly costume party to finally get my butt out of the house, someone else’s motivation may be different. I don’t want to hand out advice. Medical science knows exactly what can be done and how in order to achieve a healthier life-style. Yes, perseverance and hard-work, alongside lasting, permanent changes to your nutrition are at the core. No free lunch, no quick fixes. I need to remind myself that while I may have lost a lot of fat in my body, the fat cells remain, ever ready to be re-filled.
But as I enjoy my now regular breakfast with eggs, quark, fresh fruit and berries, I also realize and smile at the fact that eating well and healthy can actually mean to eat more, and tastier. I do hope that my journey might show that it’s never too late to aspire to change, that a 50-year old can have a ship-shape body, and if you do want to change, I hope you find the motivation, that first goal, you need to get started, as well as the help of someone like Markus to guide you professionally. I wish you the best of luck on those first baby steps (no leaps!) into your undiscovered country, your future. I see a lot of very old people at the gym, and I’ve met some amazing and strong people, whose much bigger muscles aren’t visible, so just because you have a roundish figure doesn’t mean you can’t be super healthy and strong. The two just aren’t totally correlated. Will I stay as lean as I am now? Probably for a while, but it’s not even healthy in the long run. There is a biological need for fat to e.g. grease joints, so I’ll try to gently increase to a more sustainable level, with Markus’s help. I’m not getting younger and over time, as my skeleton weakens and the clock ticks, my body will change naturally. I’ll need to adapt. And that is fine. The one thing I want to retain though is my happiness, and that spring in my walk. It’s made me a better person.
Denver, October 22nd, 2017
Hans M Hirschi
author and 7 month fitness convert
PS: I know that I’ve been consciously telling a ton of little white lies to a bunch of people over the past seven months, about me never working out, about not knowing what to do for the costume party, not going etc., culminating with the Santa belly this entire past week. If anyone has taken offense, please accept my sincere apologies. I never meant to hurt anyone, and I doubt I did, but these days you never know what people are hurt by, so better sorry and safe, to paraphrase the old saying. I’m not a liar, and it wasn’t easy to keep the charade alive for such a long time, particularly not around some of my closest friends.
One word could summarize how I feel: AAAAAAAAAARGH!
Time, whatever happened to time. That’s certainly true when you prepare for a large convention where you have a major investment while also being eighteen days away from a major book release. Now to be fair, I am doing okay. Maybe it’s reading all those posts in the GRL Facebook group form all those people with (admitted) OCD who have already packed their bags (that’s on my mental – mind you – to do list for next Tuesday, the day I fly out), people who are already on their way to the airport and what not, worrying about spending money, taxi fares or high altitude sickness. I’m not even close, and life just handed our family a major curve ball last week that threw our planning about as out of whack as only life can do.
A trip to my native Switzerland and St. Gallen with its beautiful hinterland beckons this week. Nothing like coming home…
Oh, did I mention that we have another trip planned between now and next week? Yeah! GRL is the last convention of the season for me and as it is the largest one, I’m always looking forward to it. New city, old friends, new acquaintances, and you always have to come up with new ways to please readers, not just with better books, but more exciting swag, crazier costumes and funny or tear-inducing readings.
I DO have a bit of a reputation in a couple of departments. My planning for GRL starts early, along with everyone else, as we sit down on a Saturday evening (my time) and engage in a crazy game of “fastest clicker”… I won again this year and as a sponsor of the event, my nerves were not as tested as some of my friends’. After that, there are discussions with the organizers of what to do with my investment as sponsor, and then spring and early summer settle into a calm rhythm of monthly payments, and waiting. Waiting for the theme of the costume party to be announced, waiting for the Facebook groups to open, waiting for program advertizing, waiting, waiting…
Meanwhile, I was working on my fall release, Disease, to be finished, and this year, my publisher and I are doing a special, to sell Disease exclusively at GRL, a full week before it releases to the public. We’ll see how that works. That also meant that we had to finish the galleys earlier than usual, to make sure the print copies made it to Denver in time. As I am writing this, my publisher just sent me the tracking number for my four parcels on their supposed way to Denver. Given that the hotel threatens to charge $20/day if they packages arrive more than three days before the guest, we’re playing a weird game of target practice with a moving target, as postal services and deadlines are notoriously unreliable, no matter what country you’re talking about. Oddly, my pre-order of ten copies for myself and family has already been delivered to the hotel we’re going to this week, four days ago. Color me puzzled.
This week on Thursday, we fly to Switzerland, for our annual visit of the St. Gallen agricultural state fair, OLMA. It’s an old family tradition and my son loves the rides as much as the animals on display, and we enjoy the culinary delights and seeing relatives and spending time together. Plus, I’ll be stocking up on chocolates for friends stateside and for my surprise cornucopia giveaway for people who sign up for my newsletter. It will be filled with an Amazon gift card as well as Swedish candy and Swiss chocolate. Hopefully it’ll prove to be irresistible to readers attending GRL. We return on Sunday afternoon to do laundry and grocery shopping (you know those pesky weekly tasks of survival in your average family) and next Monday I’ll get my GRL haircut, I’ll write my final pre-GRL blog post and then on Tuesday, I’ll pack my bag(s). I’ll hopefully have bought all the stuff that I need for Denver, but Monday-Tuesday are sort of my final days to sort out any last minute glitches and “shit, I forgot to…” Knowing me, there will be more than one of those.
Tuesday night, my family will drop me off at the airport and I’ll fly to Munich, where I’ll have to spend the night at an airport hotel, as I would not be able to catch the early morning flight on Wednesday, seeing as my first ferry in the morning reaches port fifty minutes before the morning flight leaves… Unless you travel faster than the speed of light, a no can do. Wednesday morning, I’ll take it easy and board my flight to Denver just before lunch, arriving there at two pm. I’ll have my bags with me (hard to get lost on a direct flight), I’ll hopefully be able to breeze through immigration, I have my sales permits in order, I (will have) all my ducks lined up in a row and I’ll be ready. I usually use the flight to prepare for my readings (two this year, allowing me to read slightly longer passages from my two most recent novels) which is great. And I’ll spend some quality days with my tribe of friends, unless life decides to throw us another curve ball…
Yeah, life. It has a tendency to foul most plans and because shit happens, shit tends to happen when you least expect it (or need it). Last week, my mother in law was admitted to the hospital for difficulties breathing, in the middle of the night. Now here comes the odd part: turns out she needs major open heart surgery, and as relatives we obviously wonder how doctors could have missed that, given that she’s been in and out of hospitals on four occasions in the past twelve months. I’ve had more doctors listen to my heart in the two visits I’ve had in this time than she did. I had two, she had one. I’m fine. She’s not. Needless to say, that this is really throwing our lives out of sync, not to mention that my MIL is suffering. My husband is a mess, it’s the second time he has to deal with this, and with a family trip and my GRL-trip ahead, we struggle to make this manageable. Somehow. Coping. Breathing. Speaking of moving targets… This is a developing situation and we don’t really know what is when and how or even if.
Makes no sense? Welcome to mi vida!
This has ben a great way for me to be seen by readers, meet new ones, and just talk. Goes far beyond just selling books. I’ll once again have a table to sell books in Denver. Just two more than last year, plus the beckoning cornucopia as a prize for signing up to my newsletter.
So, GRL. I’m nervous. Nervous, because my new book is miles apart from what the vast majority of the other authors are there with. So much more than any of my previous releases. I’m a gymnast among swimmers, a dodo among flamingos. This is gayROMANCElit after all, not gayFICTIONlit. I feel at home, don’t get me wrong, but Disease is a very different beast. And I’m nervous about the week as such. I fly in late (for different reasons, but maybe it was foresight?), I only stay Wed-Sun before I fly on to Tucson to see family, and I just couldn’t come up with a decent costume idea this year, so rather than failing expectations this year, I decided to skip that night and “Do Denver” on Saturday night.
I mean really, “Wild Wild West” (the second wild added late in the season, once again throwing me a curve ball, alluring to a crap Hollywood movie), just as last year’s “under the rainbow” was suddenly changed to “The Wizard of Oz” making my gay roman emperor look weirdly out of place among emerald cities, tornadoes and munchkins. How can you make a costume pop out among cowboy hats? How could I possible top Her Majesty? It’s all either cowboys or inappropriate “Indians”. Unless you show up as a wagon, full with four drawing horses… I just couldn’t come up with any fun ideas, maybe I was too preoccupied with writing Disease at the time, maybe you’re only afforded one good costume idea in a lifetime… So no costume, no party this year, but maybe pleasures of a different kind? I can be as wild in the wild west as the next person…
This week will also include some minor GRL and book launch activities, mainly blog posts for the time while I’m gone, release interviews etc., but also some time allocated to look after my mother in law. She lives three and a half hours away from us, and we just visited her yesterday. This week we’ll be dealing with doctors and planning for the next steps in her care. As her guardian (after her stroke last year), the buck stops with me. I’l have to make the final decision on a surgery, which – trust me – is not a situation I ever envisaged myself (or hoped) to be in. But with my husband and my sister-in-law, I’m sure we’ll find a way forward that we feel is in her best interest. Ultimately, this proves once again that we may feel that we are in control of our lives, our fate. We may write long to do lists, set goals for this and that, but ultimately, life always sits on the biggest trump card, and we just have to learn to deal with that, as best we can. Maybe something to keep in mind…
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and interesting reading. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. I hope your week turns out to be calmer than mine, and peaceful, and may Prozac and Valium guide the world away from the precipice of another global conflict…
Hans M Hirschi
I’m not sure who profits more from my writing: me or my readers…
We often talk about how a writer’s life affects their writing, and you know that I think this question to be boring, irrelevant even. Alas, we still keep talking about it. But the opposite? The question of how writing affects me or other authors came to my mind (again) this weekend. It is somehow tied to the question of why we write, but not only. Here’s the thing: I know that a great many of my colleagues write because they don’t have a choice (to make a long answer short and simple), the words just keep pouring out and we find ourselves vessels to hold them in our novels, stories, poems and plays. For some of us, writing is deeply therapeutic, a form of cheap psychotherapy. But that’s not what I had in mind today. No, I wanted to talk about something else entirely, based on my trip to Sápmi this past weekend. Care to join along?
The cover for my novel Last Winter’s Snow.
I know an author for whom writing was a form of working through her childhood (sexual) abuse, others (myself included) write about things that have touched us personally in one way or another, from abuse to illness, relationship conundrums and family challenges including the death of loved ones. Stories are woven from our lives’ experiences, so far so good. But what about the opposite? How do our stories affect us? I’ve just returned from a four day trip to Sápmi, to the land where my latest novel, Last Winter’s Snow plays out (in part). I had already traveled to Ammarnäs in January for research, and I had to promise my Sami guide and my hotel manager to return in the summer. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but I try to be a man of my word and I did return last week, as promised. I also took along my own extended family for the trip.
What I found has had as deep an effect on me as my first trip, and I’m not entirely sure (in fact I can’t make up my mind) as to which is better: Sápmi in the summer or in the winter. What I did learn however is that the two places are completely different. It’s like coming to a different world altogether. Here are two pictures to highlight this difference, although I’ll be honest and admit that my phone camera, as good as it may be, doesn’t do reality justice:
There are traces of Sami cultures everywhere, but they’re invisible to most of us. This, for instance, is a trail marker. Photo: Private
Another Sami marked birch, but look at how different the forest looks… Photo: Private
The summer in Sápmi is very short, as there’s still snow in April and well, the first snow can easily fall in late August. Mother Nature is rushed and it seems as if life virtually explodes all around with dozens of different varieties of colorful flowers, grasses etc. Up on the mountain, the birds are nesting, and there is a sweet fragrant smell in the air, mountain flowers needing an extra strong scent to attract pollinators.
I took my husband on a long hike to visit the lake that is prominently featured in my book, and the sight took my breath away. I feel extremely fortunate that my writing has taken me to such a beautiful place, again. And it’s not just Mother Nature putting on a display to leave eternal marks in my memory, the people of Ammarnäs are still as friendly and welcoming as then, and it may not come as a surprise that we are already planning our next trip. The journey hasn’t just affected me, my entire family was taken by the ethereal beauty of Sápmi. My dad, normally not very fond of Sweden and our rigid DIY attitude to service and our cool approach to each other, was almost in a trance state the entire weekend, his emotions deeply affected by the landscape, and it was he who wanted to see this in the winter. Needless to say that it made me happy to see him and my family so content. Even my husband, normally not the emotionally outgoing person (he dreams of achieving a Vulcan Kohlinaar) thanked me profusely on one occasion for having taken him and our son along on the trip. Another ego boost for the author.
I am lucky, and this really isn’t the first time I’ve been to visit a place of my writing to complete my journey with my characters. Here’s a photo my dad took three years ago, as I reached a very important point in Haakon’s journey in The Fallen Angels of Karnataka. You can tell by my self-embrace how emotional the moment was for me (unaware of the picture being taken):
From this jetty, my protagonist travels to his private island, an inheritance of dubious character… Photo: Private
And just last Christmas, while in Cartagena, Colombia, I visited the beach where two of my characters had an important philosophical argument about the limitations of “for better or worse” in a relationship:
On this beach, Jonathan’s grandson and his boyfriend have a very important discussion about what they expected each other to do in case of a severe illness or accident. Jonathan’s Promise. Photo: Private
But that’s not the only thing. I also learn from reading other authors, from having my own views and preconceptions challenged. I’m no perfect being, far from it, and while I read my colleague’s books, I learn a lot, not just professionally about the actual “craft” or “art” of writing, but also philosophically. Reading about other people’s point of view, seeing life lived through someone else’s lens is extremely valuable. Be it the experience of coming from a slightly different culture, or a radically different one. But also what it means to have a completely different human experience. I’m readily admitting to being small-minded and conceited at times, and reading (as well as my own writing research) helps me become a somewhat better person.
Last, not least, I also learn from my readers and my author friends, as well as other people I’ve met through my work. Things I never knew I needed (wanted?) to know, from fat phobia to the impact of living a life caught between gender expectations and your own reality, how to be a better chef, the impact of large breasts on your body, to being sexually or psychologically abused as a child, to risking to lose your child to your own rapist or, to complete this kaleidoscope of lessons, living life in a wheel chair, getting a little worse, day by day. No one mentioned, no one forgotten, but thank you to all for your stories, your experiences. Somehow, they all find their way into my subconscious from where my brain will knit all new stories.
I may not earn money as an author, but writing and being an author has certainly not been a vain exercise. I’ve learned more than I have in many other professions before, not just about other people, but also about our planet. Allow me to finish the post with the usual question about your experiences and a couple of photos to really drive home the point of just how lucky I am to be alive and being able to travel and learn:
Isn’t this gorgeous? Just a simple stream, but absolutely breathtaking. Photo: Private
The mountainous region of Sápmi is breathtaking, with lakes, moors and tundra, and always a slightly sweet scent from all the flowers. Photo: Private
If you like my writing, feel free to subscribe to my monthly newsletter (top right on this page) with competitions and hopefully interesting reading, the next one due next week. Interact with me on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and/or Instagram. Have a great week. If you want to comment, go ahead. I like to see my posts as conversation starters, so let’s talk to each other…
PS: Speaking of “talking to each other”. I saw this commercial for Heineken today. Have a look. You may agree with me, that it is something worth sharing…
Disease is the story of one man’s struggle with Alzheimer’s, and ours, to get the cover done…
This is how we were welcomed home yesterday. Today, the sun is shining.
I normally blog under the #MondayBlogs heading on Mondays, but that hashtag doesn’t approve of self-marketing, so I’ve omitted it today. We came back from vacation yesterday, a sun-filled three weeks around the Italian peninsula so to speak with excursions to Croatia (Split & Dubrovnik), Montenegro (Kotor), and Greece (Olympia & Athens). Upon our arrival back here in Gothenburg we were greeted by a depressing sight of rain and various shades of gray. Fifty? I wouldn’t know. I didn’t count them. Anyway. I wasn’t going to talk to you about my great vacation, even though I will tell you one anecdote further down, but this post is about the Disease cover reveal, my upcoming novel about Alzheimer’s.
One of two of Natasha’s original design ideas. Twelve plus iterations later, we were done.
I won’t hide the truth from you. Disease is a novel that is as much about me as any book. The fear of something being amiss is at the very core of this story, and it begins the day our protagonist learns that he suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s, a particularly vile variety of the disease that affects people as young as fifteen. Life still ahead, yet stamped with a brutal “best before” date. Here’s a “tentative” blurb. As most authors, I abhor writing them. Why write fifty, sixty or more thousand words if you could do it in 100?
But alas, blurbs are a necessary evil:
When journalist Hunter MacIntyre is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, he realizes that his life is about to change, not to mention that he’s been handed a certain death sentence. Alzheimer’s is a disease affecting the patient’s loved ones as much, if not more: Hunter’s partner Ethan and their five-year old daughter Amy. How will they react to, and deal with, Hunter’s changing behavior, his memory lapses, and the consequences on their everyday lives? Disease is the story of Alzheimer’s, seen through the eyes of one affected family.
Working on the cover for Disease wasn’t easy. Just ask my cover designer Natasha. I don’t think we’ve ever gone through so many iterations and design specs to get to the final product. There were even times when Natasha was about to give up, times when I consulted with other designers, but in the end, I liked the original direction we were heading, and we persisted. I think it pays out. You can find some early versions of the cover here, to give you an idea just how difficult this process was. But alas, let me show you the final product, before sharing one more morsel of the story with you, below (remember my vacation?):
The final cover for Disease. We worked on this for a long time, to get the right feel, the right “temperature”, not to mention the fog, the foliage etc.
One of several abandoned design ideas.
How do you like the cover?
I think the tree is a great symbol for our brain, and both the fog and the dead branches stand for the effects of Alzheimer’s. Anyway, I also promised you a tidbit of my vacation and how it relates to the book. We spent a few days down in the south of Italy, in a small town called Praiano, on the beautiful Amalfi coast. On our last day, we ventured into the small town of Amalfi, to wander, explore and have dinner. In the book, there is a wedding scene which takes place in Amalfi. When I wrote it, I knew I’d travel there, but I hadn’t been there myself. In the story, the couple getting married does so at the end of a jetty, on a small elevated platform of sorts. I had no idea whether that would be possible in real life or not, and quite frankly it doesn’t matter because those are the small freedoms we are allowed to take as authors. Imagine my surprise when we were sitting there, at the end of the jetty, taking amazing pictures of Amalfi when suddenly a bride and groom appeared on the jetty to have their pictures taken… You really never know, but it’s always nice to be realistic, even in the smallest details, right?
Amalfi, on the coast bearing its name. Isn’t it a beautiful town? A perfectly romantic backdrop for a wedding? Well, seems I’m not the only one thinking so…
Here they are, the happy couple walking out on the jetty to have their wedding pictures taken. Incidentally, they later dined in the same restaurant we did.
Anyway, I’m glad we finally managed to get our cover done, and this also means that I can focus on other aspects of the marketing of Disease, which btw. is due October 26 from Beaten Track Publishing. I’ll work on the book’s own page here on my website, and get pre-order forms out for my final convention this year. If you are attending GRL, you are lucky, because you’ll be able to buy the book (and read it) before anyone else in the world, as I’ll be selling it exclusively at the convention, two weeks before publication. As a little treat to all those amazing fans out there who spend so much time and money to see us authors once every year. They deserve a little something extra.
If you like 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.
Plot holes, oddities and other (near) misses which could easily have been remedied
I read a lot, at least when I’m not writing, and most of the books I read are amazingly written. But every now and then I come across a book that is, for all intents and purposes, not finished yet. The research is sloppy (if researched at all), there are plot holes etc. Why? I do a lot of research into my novels, recently even traveling to the area that is included. But even when I can’t go to the area, the research conducted is extensive.
It’s easier to see Sacré-Coeur from The Arc the Triomphe than vice versa. But you have beautiful views from the elevated vantage point of the famous basilica. Photo: Aarya through Wikimedia Commons
Let me exemplify. You write a scene taking place in Paris. Your protagonist resides in a hotel up on Montmartre, near the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur, with a beautiful view over Paris, looking southwest. Describe what you see? Landmarks, rivers etc. Well, given that we are in Paris, what would you see from the elevated vantage point that the place provides? Yes? No? Well, allow me to help, since I’ve actually been both in a hotel in that scene and seen the view on many occasions: You see you see the Louvre, Bois de Boulogne, you see the islands in the Seine with the Cathedral Notre Dame (almost due south), the impressive tower of Montparnasse, you can spot Le Trocadéro etc., but most importantly, you see the Eiffel Tower, probably the most important sight in Paris. However, you may not see the Seine, or only a tiny sliver, because of the buildings that are in the line of sight. The same is true for e.g. the Arc de Triomphe, impressive if you stand on the Champs Elysées or any of the other streets approaching it, but from afar? You might not be able to spot it.
Whether your readers have been to Paris themselves, or not, is not essential. If they have, they’ll relive wonderful memories of vacations past, if they haven’t, they most likely will have seen a picture of Paris, either in a newspaper, on TV or in a movie. Now, follow me a bit further: imagine a story where the protagonist is looking over Paris at night, relishing the sights. The author beautifully describes the views but forgets to mention the Eiffel Tower… Would you notice?
Where’s the Eiffel Tower? Didn’t you just say you could see it? I did, but it all depends on the angle and where on Montmartre you stand… It’s around the corner to the right, the people in front can probably see it. Whether you see it, or not, you’ll need to let people know why! The devil is in the details… Image: Neo007 via Wikimedia Commons
Well, would you notice if an author described London without Buckingham Palace? New York without Manhattan? How could something like this happen? I can only assume two things: the author hasn’t been on site, and they haven’t done their research. Because you can’t go to certain places and not notice these things. I once wrote a scene on a Caribbean island involving a jetty and a path leading to that jetty from the airport terminal. However, I hadn’t been on the island myself, and my research online was inconclusive. I couldn’t be 100% sure if the pathway was leading all the way or if there was a fence in the way somewhere. I was lucky. Three months after I published the book, I was on site to walk the walk myself. This was a tiny detail, and nobody would’ve noticed if you hadn’t been on site. Pathways from small airports are not common knowledge, other things are.
See? You can see it, it’s just a matter of vantage point.
Colloquialisms are another pitfall. While English is a global language, there are countless local varieties in its use, and even native speakers don’t always catch the finer details. I’ve made mistakes myself in this area. Color me very embarrassed. But I’ve also seen authors use fairly well-known terms the wrong way, by the wrong people, in a failed effort to sound a certain way. Thing is, the devil is in the detail.
One more example: plot holes. What if your story has a plot hole you are aware of? How likely do you think your readers are going to see it, too? Particularly if you mention it in the book as an inconsistency? Make it a “thing”? Leaving it unresolved is just going to get people confused. Keeping a story “plausible”, “credible”, “believable” is important, even if you write fantasy or science-fiction.
So, how do you avoid such mistakes? The easy way out is to write about that which you know, which is probably the easiest way. I’ve read books from authors that all play out in the same city. Or, you could make up a town, thus making the story more generic. I did that in Jonathan’s Hope. Or, you have to do your research. I got myself into a lot of trouble when I decided to use a street called “fifth avenue” in my most recent book. No, not New York, but the character makes that reference, too. And then you begin to research where, if at all, such a place exists… It affected the rest of the book immensely because that bloody place is in a state that affected my protagonists in many ways.
Do mistakes like that affect your enjoyment of a book? Sadly they do. Particularly when there are many such mistakes in one single story. Does all the blame fall on the author? No. Unless they self-publish. I’ve seen how some publishers are more thorough in their editing, and there are some publishers I avoid these days, simply because they don’t care enough about the quality of the works they publish.
Readers, what is your experience? Is this something that bothers you when you read? Authors, how do you research your stories? Have you made mistakes you’re ashamed of? Let’s hear from you…
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