Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Writing Porch Author Q&A with Jeremy Duns, author of 'Free Agent'

Trade publications and fellow thriller-writers are raving about the debut novel from Jeremy Duns, FREE AGENT (Simon & Schuster UK, Viking Penguin US), with William Boyd, author of Restless, describing it as “a wholly engrossing and sophisticated spy novel… fascinating and compelling,” and Jeff Abbott, author of Panic, raving “Jeremy Duns offers an entirely original and fascinating take on the classic spy novel in this provocative, fast-paced thriller,” calling him a “compelling new voice in suspense fiction.”

Book blurb on 'Free Agent' by Jeremy Duns.

Meet Paul Dark. In 1945, the British agent took part in a top-secret mission to hunt down and execute Nazi war criminals. But all is not as it seems. Almost 25 years later, a KGB officer turns up in Nigeria, where the Biafran war is underway, wanting to defect. His credentials as a defector are good: he has highly suggestive information indicating that there is a double agent within MI6, which would be a crippling blow to an organization still coming to terms with previous betrayals. Dark has been largely above suspicion during MI6’s years of self-recrimination, but this time he’s in the frame. Desperate to save himself, the morally complex and unforgettable Dark heads to Nigeria to confront the KGB officer—with fellow agent Henry Pritchard in hot pursuit. All too quickly it becomes apparent that everything he has believed about the events of 1945—which has formed the basis of his life’s work—has been a lie. This is especially devastating because the bulk of these lies center around a tangled web involving the only woman he has ever loved, and the death of his father.

FREE AGENT is a gripping spy thriller that combines the adrenalin-pumping suspense of a Jason Bourne film with a deeply researched Cold War background. It’s a novel of innumerable cliffhangers, all set within a constantly evolving moral universe, and the twists and turns will keep readers guessing—and sweating—until the last page. It is the first in a trilogy featuring Paul Dark.

Free Agent was published in the UK in May and will be published in the US, Canada, Australia and elsewhere next month.

How did you get your start in writing?

I was a journalist for several years, but this is my first novel. I’ve wanted to be a novelist since my teens, but somehow I could never get around to it. Finally, one day, I decided it was time I should.

What does your writing routine look like?

I get up at 8 o’clock most days, and take the kids to school. After that I settle down and try to work until five, with a break for lunch. I do that five days a week, but I also work in the evenings and on weekends, depending on how fired up I am. In a way, though, I’m always working, because I can be doing something else entirely and thinking about the book.

Tell us some writers whose work you admire and why.

I write spy novels, and am a great fan of the genre: favourites include John le Carre, Len Deighton, Eric Ambler, Graham Greene and Elleston Trevor. I also love Lawrence Durrell’s novels. His style takes some getting used to, but I love the texture of his language and the rich worlds he built. The Alexandria Quartet and The Avignon Quintet are like the greatest BBC costume dramas that haven’t yet been made. I’m also a big fan of the American travel writer Kate Simon, who I think had a brilliant eye for detail – her books have been a great help to me in my research, but they are also beautifully written.

What are you working on next?

I’m just starting work on my third novel, which is the final part of my Cold War spy trilogy featuring British agent Paul Dark.

What made you decide to write this novel?

In my twenties I started reading a lot of spy novels, and something about them struck a chord. I thought if I wrote one it might give me a structure that would stop me from being too self-indulgent. I started researching tentatively, just as a bit of fun, but then got more serious about it and as the ideas started coming together I became pretty obsessed with it.

What challenges did you face with this book?

Free Agent is set in 1969 and I was born in 1973, so getting all the period details right took a lot of work. And it’s also largely set in a war, which was – as wars tend to be – very complex, and I wanted to get that right, of course. Finally, it’s told in the first person by a character who is difficult to empathise with in many ways, but I wanted readers to empathise with him. So the voice took me a while to develop.

What advice would you have for other writers/would-be writers?

Keep going, even if you think what you’ve done isn’t any good. I spent a lot of time on the first few chapters worrying about every word. You will edit it dozens of times anyway, so try not to get bogged down with tiny details and just push on until you’ve got a complete draft. Nobody needs to see the bad drafts but you.
EDITOR'S NOTE: J. Louise Larson, blogmistress for The Writing Porch, interviews published authors. To be considered, email her at jackielarsonwrites (at) gmail (dot) com. Larson's work has been published in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Dallas Morning News and Entrepreneur Magazine. She is the managing editor of the Ennis Journal and a contributor at the Waxahachie Daily Light, and she has received the top award for series writing in Texas, the Texas APME, as well as a silver from the Parenting Publications of America. She co-authored a nonfiction career guide for FabJob Publishing in 2006. Her short story 'Mum in Decline' won third place in the Smoking Poet's annual short fiction contest. Larson is seeking representation for her new novel, 'At High Tide.'

The Writing Porch feature: Waxahachie writer stays friends with mentor, 100

By J. Louise Larson

Friendship spanning a generation and a world of experience has united two writers and their work.

In life’s twilight, multiply published author June Wetherell Frame turned 100 last month.

A generation and then some behind her, writer Pat Pratt is still collaborating with her mentor.

She visits Frame three times a week in the Trinity Mission nursing home in Italy.

The two women published a novel three years ago, the PublishAmerica romance “On With the Dance.” And they’re still working on character sketches. Plot ideas. Short stories.

And that keeps June Frame’s own personal storyline going.

“We talk about what we might write together, what to do about what we’ve got. Otherwise, I don’t know what’s going,” she said Thursday. “I don’t make for stimulating conversation.”

June Wetherell Frame grew up in a newspapering home. Her parents worked in the newspaper business in Washington state, her mother as a reporter and her father as ad manager for the Bellingham Herald, where young June Wetherell got her start writing – although her first appearance in print was in a photo when, as a toddler, she rode a stuffed elk in a parade in her native Bellingham, Wa. (Her father was a leader in the BPOE Elks fraternal order)

“Instead of drawing pictures that they put up on the refrigerator, I wrote stories," she recounted in an earlier interview.

She wrote feature stories for the paper, graduated from the University of Washington and was an editor at Family Circle. She and her late husband had two sons, and she launched her fiction-writing career.

Her first book sold in 1941 to a little-known publisher for the princely sum of $150. She and her husband spent it on a trip to New York.

Her husband helped her with her historical novels. Having taken fencing, he lent some credibility to her swashbuckling scenes.

She was willing to try her hand at anything.

"Science fiction – that was hard," she said. "It came out pretty well, but a reviewer said it was very poor science fiction."

By the time she was 80, it got too hard to find agents because they had doubts about what she could produce and promote.

Clearly, they didn’t know June Wetherell Frame.

Frame’s writer’s mind that cranked out potboiling novels by the dozens in her day is still sharp, still looking for that perfect word. Even now, at the century mark, her blue eyes are still bright but focused, sometimes, on that fading light.

Frail and curled up in her bed, her hours and days tend to blur together, and some days, the dreams win.

“When you come here, at least I know it’s real,” she told Pratt.

“Her body’s just 100 years old, so it’s wearing out. It’s frustrating for her, her mind wants to do things, and her body won’t let her,” Pratt said.

“I help her stay in this world. Otherwise, she can go into her own little world after a while. It’s important to keep her frame of mind in the right place. Some days, neither one of us is a very good conversationalist,” she said with a bit of a smile.

“Some days we’re able to talk about whatever comes up. Anything to keep the conversation going, to keep her in reality. Sometimes we read. Sometimes I come down and have lunch with her.

“It’s nice to be able to visit with her but sad to watch her fade away,” Pratt said. “Her body’s just 100 years old, so it’s wearing out. It’s frustrating for her, her mind wants to do things, and her body won’t let her,” Pratt said.

“I just don’t think I have another novel in me,” Frame told her.

So they work on short stories.

What would June do?

So what would an oft-published writer give a writer just working on getting into print?

Here’s a century of writing advice from a 100-year-old writer, culled from several interviews:
"Selling it is twice as hard as writing it, to me," she said. "Maybe it will sell, maybe it won't sell, but it's done. Don't go into novel writing to make a living. You've got to do it because you love it. It's no way to earn a living.

“Just do it – don’t talk about it so much. For God’s sake, write it.

"Writing comes first – everything else in life has to work around it," she said. "When I had little kids, I wrote when they took naps, and I'd find time to write. When they went to school, then I had time to write.

To generate ideas, she has kept a leather-bound notebook, now tattered with age, filled with thumbnail character sketches – people she meets, people she imagines.

"I make up the people, get a setting and figure out where it is going," Frame said. "I put them in different situations. I've never been able to start with the plot. I'm not strong on plot – my books are character driven. When I'm writing a book, they just come right on through.

"Put your character in a situation and make the reader want to see how it's resolved."

Pat Pratt echoes her mentor’s sentiments.

"Making time to write – that's something June always stresses. ... I've learned to 'write in spite' – of everything and everyone around you. I have learned that although age may diminish our physical abilities, it does not need to diminish our capabilities. Age is not an excuse," Pratt said, borrowing Frame’s catch phrase for her writing philosophy: “Write in spite (of).”


After years of writing and newspaper work, Pat Pratt has found the courage to go out on a limb and self-publish. Her recently released “Finding Peace” (PublishAmerica) is a dramatic novel with elements of the supernatural. It’s based on a character sketch she developed.

“I was inspired by June to write this book. I never would have been able to get through this one … You are, in great part, responsible for me getting this done,” she told Frame.

“I was so excited when June asked me if I’d help her write, and three years later when we saw it in print, that gave me the courage to finish mine.

“I probably would have still been worrying over it had I not been working with her on her other book. She made me believe I was a real writer,” said Pratt, who shepherds the Ellis County writing group, Write On!

Pat Pratt feels, and sometimes sees and hears, her mentor letting go of earthly ties. And that makes her a little sad.

“It’s hard to think of coming to see her three times a week and watch her fade, but it would be harder to not come and see her, knowing she has so few days,” Pratt said.

“She’s been a great inspiration to me – that’s what I want to give back to her. I come to see her to inspire her to keep going, as long as she can.”

For one thing, Pratt made sure Frame’s portable electric typewriter sits at the ready in its sacred spot on a small desk, a tabula rasa – blank slate - waiting for Frame’s arthritic fingers to wreak magic from the QWERTY keys once more.

"That's as modern as I get," Frame said in an earlier interview. "Picture Charles Dickens sitting there with pen in hand. I don't see how he'd have written all those books."

Once in a while, Frame will greet her faithful old typewriting friend as she passes by.

“Hello, old friend,” she’ll say. “Well, it didn’t growl at me, so I guess it’s not too mad at me.”

The invitation is still there, the paper white and fresh and inviting, neatly coiled in the carriage, awaiting her expert hand’s tap of the carriage return. Any time, it seems to say. Any time.

“She’s slowed down a lot, but she’s still got a lot of ideas. If she feels the urge, she can still get up and type,” Pratt said.

The urge to control the written word remains. Curled up, her skin faded nearly to alabaster translucence, June Wetherell Frame is still self-editing at 100, with her trademark wry sense of humor.

“Polish me up a little. I hope you make something of me,” she tells her interviewer.

Blogmistress for The Writing Porch, J. Louise Larson contributes to WNI News papers, and is managing editor of the Ennis Journal. Her novel, At High Tide, is in revisions. Again.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Sam Harrell's no victim - a top HS football coach and father of recordbreaking QB Graham Harrell, he says he's the luckiest man alive

Sam Harrell believes he may be the luckiest man alive.

Even though he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005 – a diagnosis he and wife Kathy shielded from friends and family until recently - the Ennis Lions football coach counts his many blessings.

In 2005, Harrell first noticed the vision in one eye was going blurry, which would get worse with heat and exercise.

An eye specialist referred him to a neurologist, and three tests all pointed to a devastating diagnosis: multiple sclerosis. His immune system was ravaging itself, eating away the myelin sheath surrounding the nerves.

“Heat plays a huge role. If your body gets hot, through weather or exercise, your nerves start firing faster. When you have MS and your nerves start firing faster, then your symptoms start going faster – your symptoms, balance and coordination, walking – all that just escalates,” he said.

Multiple sclerosis is a very individualistic disease; each case is unique and often unpredictable. Since Sam’s symptoms weren’t always apparent, the Harrells kept to business as usual and decided to keep the diagnosis to themselves.

“We chose to keep it quiet for several years. We didn’t even tell our boys, because we didn’t want them worrying about it. They had an idea something was wrong - I didn’t ever go out and shoot baskets with them any more, I didn’t play tennis with them, I can’t mow the yard, I can’t do anything you ought to be doing. They had an idea … we never told them exactly what Dad had,” he said.

“I wasn’t in denial – I knew I had it, but it would kind of come and go. My hope was that it would go more often than it would come,” he said.

This spring, the Harrells decided it was time to tell their sons, and Sam went to the school board and told them.

“I feel like our school board’s a great group of people, but also my bosses, and I didn’t want them hearing about it and not knowing something about it. I told our players and our coaches – all those groups are special to me and close to me and I wanted them to hear it from me,” he said.

While he looks like the same Sam Harrell – and he feels like the same Sam Harrell – the moment he tries to jump rope or jog like he did in the old days, that normal feeling subsides quickly, he said. He’s been on medication since the disease was discovered, and careful management can keep symptoms at bay to some degree.

“The thing that’s kind of disappointing is that the neurologists here have nothing that really gives you much hope. All they can do is say keep on this medication and hope it slows down, hope it doesn’t overtake your whole nervous system before they find a cure,” he said.
Looking ahead, Sam Harrell says he is encouraged by accounts of medical advances being achieved outside of the U.S. strict regulatory environment.

“Outside the U.S. some things are being done that people have had phenomenal results with, and that’s been encouraging. I really think there’s going to be a cure for it. That’s what I’m hoping for. It’s been encouraging to hear those stories and talk with people,” he said.

“I really think I will go outside US and do something. I’ve heard of two different procedures I really think I’ll try,” he said.

One procedure being done in Costa Rica involves the use of adult stem cells by American doctors.

“It’s very expensive, but that’s a hurdle I can try to tackle for hope of a cure,” he said.

“I get excited when I talk to those people who have gone outside the country, because they’ve come back with a story of hope,” he said, recounting the story of a young father who left the country requiring a scooter for mobility, and returned able to walk on his own and play with his young boys once again.

“I’m still hopeful for a cure … I’m serious about that. These people who have tried some of these things, they don’t feel better – they feel cured. That’s what I’m hoping for. Then I can still live in Texas,” he said.

“I just don’t see myself going anywhere but Texas, even though the weather would be a relief and would allow me to do a little more. It’s sure hard to take the Texas out of me,” he said.
Harrell says he’s adamant about one thing he has never asked for: sympathy.

“People don’t die from MS … I don’t want to make is sound like ‘Poor pitiful me’ - .. a lot of people are facing tougher things than that. It takes away the things you do, but it doesn’t take away your life,” he said.

Counting blessings

Sam Harrell’s office is filled with memorabilia of years of coaching success – evidence of back-to-back 4A football state championships – and three state prizes within five years. He was named to the Gordon Wood Hall of Fame, he got to coach his own sons on great teams. He was elected to coach the All Star team in 2002, and last year, he was elected president of the Texas High School Coach Association.

These are the blessings he counts, on a daily basis.

“Kathy and I were talking about that just this weekend. I still feel like one of the luckiest guys in the world. When you think about how blessed we’ve been with families and careers and things that have just happened – the good Lord’s just blessed us. I don’t think I’d trade places with anybody,” he said.

As a father of three sons and a mentor to many young men and other coaches, Sam Harrell sees ahead a golden opportunity to practice what he has always preached.

“That’s just part of life. There’s going to be some good things and there’s going to be some tough things. How we handle the tough things is probably a reflection of how we see the good things. All those good things, family or job, that I’ve been so blessed with – I didn’t do something to deserve those. They were just blessings from God.

“You get those good times come and the tough times. Now, do you give up and start crying, ‘Oh, poor pitiful me?’ No you don’t. You just keep going on trusting, that’s just part of life. And all of us, some time in life, are going to have some tough times,” he said.

“We tell our kids all the time, ‘Hey, don’t give up – you’re going to get some adversity. Never give up. Stay strong.’ You say all those things, but then you get a little adversity and you collapse or you quit? No, we’re not going to do that. I’ve been dealing with this since 2005, and I’m going to keep dealing with it. I get a chance to walk my talk, right there,” he said.

And for now, life goes on, pretty much as usual – with some modifications: the use of a golf cart to get around quicker, focusing on the teaching side of coaching.

“No, I’m not deathly ill, I’m not quitting coaching. Things are not going to be much different. We’re going to keep coaching and keep going,” he said.

The Harrells have settled into their adopted home town.

“Kathy and I feel like years here in Ennis have been so enjoyable and special. We’ve had opportunities to leave, but the people here are good and we like it here,” he said.

He is quick to reiterate that there’s nowhere he’d rather be, no one’s shoes he’d rather walk in, because it’s all about focusing on the blessings.

“You just think about some of those things. I may be the luckiest guy in the world, you know,” he said. “I don’t want sympathy. I don’t know that I’d trade places with anyone.”
This article by J. Louise Larson originally appeared in the Ennis Journal and the Waxahachie Daily Light.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Writer/designer Deborah Gaslin's Fourth of July Picnic Essay and Recipes

Summer time is here and this presents us all with the perfect opportunity to pack up our meals and head outside with friends and family for a picnic. What is the allure of eating outside? Nostalgia for the days of the cave or some civilized triumph over nature that we bring our indoor dining outdoors. Whatever the case, Americans of all backgrounds embrace the idea of the summer family picnic.

And these families are not what we see in those glossy gourmand food & lifestyle magazines. I personally feel out of touch looking at those slick choreographed families. Everyone is so neat and tidy and the children are wearing white! The “homemade” picnic is presented like sculpture as if everyone had a personal chef. Let’s get real. That’s not what family summer picnics are really like.

Family picnics are like hog piles. Everyone arrives en mass to the agreed meeting place bringing their picnic contribution. And so begins a mixing of tables, linens, baskets, and coolers as everyone negotiates a spot. Most everyone has picnic traditions within their family that get passed down and on from older generations to newer generations. These traditions take the form of classic recipes, seasonal beverages, kitschy picnic linens, picnic baskets of all kinds, and favorite summer games. Throw in the odd assortment of lawn chairs, lounge chairs, stadium stools and various blankets spread all over the ground for the young and old to lounge around on while meals are being prepared.

There is no rhyme or reason to this activity and no need for any. Everyone makes their way around and we all know as the day wears on, sated by food and drink, picnickers get mellow and relax. Picnics have no rules. Picnics are where you can let it all hang out. Let your inner goof loose and play tag with the kids or endless rounds of Corn Hole. Or maybe this will be the year you beat your grandpa at cribbage. Picnics allow for people to do the things they do not give themselves the time for during their everyday lives.

The heart of the picnic is the food. When I picnic with family, I look forward to eating lots of bratwurst, beans and weenies, deviled eggs, potato salad, & ambrosia. Mind you, I never eat this fare or feed it to my family at home. But take us to a summer picnic and we are all over these delicacies like white on rice. This is the picnic food of our family’s generations before us– a mix of Norwegian, English, Austrian, Scottish, and Irish palettes. When sharing stories at friends’ picnics, I have learned of food and meals for summer picnics that have passed down from their familys’ generations before them. Mouth-watering offerings of whole-roasted BBQ pigs cooking in oil drums for hours, dolmas on the BBQ, chicken curry salad on saffron rice in large metal camping bowls, and tamales in a Dutch oven over a campfire.

Learning of others’ picnic traditions has inspired me and my family to “borrow” those ideas and bring them into our summer picnic repertoire. We’re sure our children will continue to share our family summer picnic traditions to future generations. America is forever a continuous melting pot of people, ideas, culture, and, best of all, food.

Gaslin Urbane Farm Potato Salad
(This is a make-a-day-ahead salad)

6 medium potatoes, scrubbed and peeled
2 stalks celery, chopped small
4 slices of bacon, cooked and chopped fine
1/3 cup scallions, chopped – just the green parts
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup sour cream
1 TBS apple cider vinegar
2 tsps Dijon style mustard
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste
6 hard cooked eggs, peeled and chopped.

Cook potatoes in boiling water until just tender (20-25 minutes). Drain well. Peel and cube. In a large bowl, combine celery, bacon, scallions, mayonnaise, sour cream, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper. Add potatoes and eggs, (after they have cooled slightly). Toss to mix. Cover and chill for 6-12 hours. Makes 12 (1) cup portion servings.

Stuffed Burgers for the Bar-B (Adapted from Rachel Ray’s Kid Food Cookbook)

1 lb lean ground beef
Onions or scallions to taste Makes 4 burgers
4 shakes of worcestershire sauce
¼ tsp allspice
½ tsp cumin
Pepper to taste
Cheese - choose what you like – the stinkier the better – cut into chunks
1 tomato
Burger buns or Kaiser rolls or ciabatta

Mix beef, onion, Worcestershire sauce, allspice, cumin and pepper in a bowl. Choose a patty-size of beef and form it around the cheese chunk. Patties should be no more than ¾” thick. Repeat for a total of 4 patties.

Cook burgers on medium hot BBQ for 5-6 minutes each side. Meat should be cooked thoroughly and cheese melted. Tell children cheese will be hot! Salt to taste. Put in buns or rolls and top with tomato, lettuce and condiments. Serve with chips, potato salad or green salad.