Novel Update and Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus

In case you've forgotten, I am first and foremost a fiction writer. A fiction writer whose second novel is nearly complete.

The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus is my 'fast' novel, meaning that it has taken only four years (and counting) to get to where I am now. Like I said. Fast. Absolutely screaming.

And where am I?

In the next couple of weeks (I'm planning for the end of the calendar year), the current draft will have exhausted my ability to edit/read/tolerate it any longer, which means that the thing will need to be released in its entirety out into the wilds of actual human readers. 

A few of you--OK maybe one of you--might be interested in what I've been working on, so I'm going to devote some more of my blog posts to novel excerpts. If you have the inclination, please let me know what you think.

Thank you, as always, for checking in.

***

Despite the hauntings and the random trashing of his possessions at his studio apartment, McManus still managed to arrive at the bakery, prepare the flats of bread, muffins and pastries, and hit his delivery times. After work, he found himself staying at the bars later than he wanted because, thanks to Carmella’s ghost, his apartment wasn’t the sanctuary it had once been. So he took to wandering the streets of downtown Portland, chain-smoking cigarettes and waving off the dealers who approached. He spent hours staring at the Willamette River, the same oft-polluted waterway where he had years ago tossed his wedding band when Carmella and he had lived downriver in Eugene. He watched traffic crawl across the Hawthorne or Marquam bridges, feeling as if he existed in some parallel dimension that lay alongside the living world. He simply didn’t know what else to do, or where else to go, so he gave himself over to wandering the night.

It was on one of these nights that he passed the storefront of a psychic reader. He had wandered past the cobalt, neon sign several times before, but on this particular night, after he had gotten home from work, he had discovered his clothes strewn about the bathroom floor, piled inside the tub and even crammed into the toilet. He called Carmella’s ghost ‘a crazy fucking bitch’ and stormed out. Why him? Of all the many people she could have confessed the desired location of her burial to, why had Carmella chosen him? Entrusting him with this information was a curse, and that was probably why she had picked him. In fact, he knew that was why she had picked him. Imparting personal knowledge was Carmella’s ultimate act of aggression, because once you knew a single fact about her, she could hate you for possessing this sliver of knowledge and lash out with no restraint.

Without thinking on the matter further, McManus entered the psychic’s shop.

Candles the width of mailing tubes lit the space, and ornate cloth riddled with paisleys draped along every flat surface. In the center of the room sat a round table surrounded by chairs that had been carved with stars, moons and serpents. A heavy curtain blocked access to the back, and florescent light leeched behind the gap between floor and fabric. He guessed that was the office behind there. He cleared his throat and asked if the business was open. The florescent light switched off.

A woman threw open the curtain. She was taller than McManus, and all skinny angles and bony lines doused in a clingy silk outfit; he guessed she was in her fifties.

“I am Saskia,” she said. “Sit.”

He hoped there might be some negotiation of price so that he could politely back out, but she sat and scrutinized him. An open expression of shock crossed her bony face.

“You are haunted,” she said, her voice rising in both pitch and volume, “a spirit clings to you. Someone who shared time with you…you and she were not close but you were trapped together. Caged.”

McManus settled in and said, “My ex-wife. She’s been at me for over a week now. Haunting me, like you said.”

Saskia studied the space just above his right shoulder.

“She has no peace,” the psychic said as if Carmella were telling the other woman her mind. “She has nowhere else to go. Spirits usually cling to a place. This one has attached herself to your memories. She feeds on them.” Saskia slurped her lips into her mouth to make the accompanying sound effect.

“I need to send her a message. She wanted me to remember something. I have. Now I need to tell her what I’ve remembered so she’ll go away.”

Saskia said, “I trust that you have already told her what it is she wants to know.”

“Fuck yes.”

Saskia quit the table and returned with a green, glass sea ball the size of a volleyball and used to float the nets of Japanese fishing vessels an ocean away. She set the sphere atop a kickstand-like wood perch at the center of the table and slid into her seat.

“Give me your hands.”

“Is that supposed to be a crystal ball?”

Saskia glared at him and said, “I know my trade, and I know the tools of my trade. Sea-forged glass is the most powerful there is. Would you like to communicate with your ex wife now?”

McManus slid his hands to the woman’s. She clenched them and said,

“Look into the green.”

He watched the orb cloud over, not with smoke but with condensation. What had moments ago been transparent was now opaque and impenetrable. Fogged.

“I don’t see anything.”

She squeezed his hands again until they hurt, imploring him to shut up. He continued to study the sea ball.

He half-expected Carmella’s disembodied head to appear, like the crystal balls in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, but what he saw in short order was his apartment. The view was from the ceiling, gazing down on the futon. Records cascaded to the floor, his stereo tipped and fell, and his bedding zipped this way and that as if a giant, invisible, and pissed off toddler had been loosed upon his sheets and pillows.

“Goddammit,” he said.

“Tell her,” Saskia said, “tell her what she wanted to know.”

“Fine,” McManus said. “Carmella, I know where you want to be buried.”

The dervish dance of destruction ceased. Saskia gasped and then convulsed as if by seizure.

He wasn’t sure what was afflicting the woman, but McManus pressed on and said,

“I can contact your new husband. Your current husband, I mean. Let him know the specifics. Everything will be OK.”

Saskia spoke between ragged breaths, “No, no. She says that you must do it.”

“Do what?”

“You must be the one to move her body.”

McManus tallied the reasons such a scheme would not be possible. He picked the most salient from the dozen or more that presented themselves.

“She isn’t my problem anymore. This doesn’t need to involve me.”

The image of his apartment within the sea ball receded, and the condensation cleared, giving way again to transparent, emerald-hued glass. Saskia, who was apparently free now from whatever affliction had seized her, slumped in her chair.

“You are not telling me something,” she said. “This spirit is powerful. Vengeful.”

“She visited me,” McManus pointed in the direction of the bar. “During Happy Hour. She sat down and talked to me. She looked OK, you know, for being dead.”

Saskia sat forward. “That is not good for you.”

McManus told her about how Carmella’s every appearance would result in the loss of one of his memories of her, but hauntings, hauntings were free.

Saskia pushed out her bottom lip.

“She is reckless. Stealing someone’s memories will have unintended consequences for her. And as for you, she has no qualms about putting your sanity in danger. She must truly despise you.”

McManus waited for the woman to say more or perhaps contradict the information he had received from Carmella, but Saskia didn’t.

“I thought you were going to help,” McManus said.

“I have done all I can tonight,” she said, “Fifty dollars, please.”

“Hold up. We can’t, I don’t know, exorcise her or some such shit?”

Saskia studied the empty air to his right again, and said, “She’s already decided what it is you must do for her, and she’s committed that request to a Universe that means to enforce that decision. Neither of you will know any rest until you do this thing for her. You can ignore her request at your own peril. That is all.”

He made for the door.

“Wait.”

McManus turned; Saskia’s expression had gone again to that stoned, constipated pleading.

“A sole offering sacrifices one but saves two.”

“What was that?”

Saskia shook off whatever force had enthralled her and slid behind the curtain. McManus waited a moment longer just to be sure the psychic was done with him, then he walked home to his ruined apartment.

 

NaNo-What Now?

November is NaNoWriMo.

What the hell is that, you ask? (I did.) You can find out more about it here: http://nanowrimo.org/ but the gist is that it's a writing contest where participants strive to write as much of a novel as they can in one month's time. 

Maybe the rest of you aren't as erudite and cultured as I am (ahem), so I'll admit that I was initially skeptical (perhaps even dismissive) of the idea. NaNoWriMo embraces anyone who has a month to throw word count after word count at it, and there's a hint of favoring production over almighty art. It's purposefully democratic. And one could extend its philosophy to the rise of self-publishing and e-books.

I wasn't sure of this at first. I carried with me a very outmoded idea of what the art and craft of writing should be. 

But I was wrong. Wrong about self-publishing and wrong about NaNoWriMo.

The awesome and insanely prolific Beth Shelby introduced me to NaNoWriMo a couple years ago. Along with Stephen King's On Writing, I credit the NaNoWriMo primer  No Plot, No Problem for prompting me to actually complete my novel The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus. This is my mea culpa.

For those of you who aren't writers and who don't care to be, you should know that we writers often have neurotic tics. (Understatement.) Most of us ritualize the act of writing. This is an understandable adaptive behavior when you consider that writers spend much of their time caught within the mystery of their own writing process - be it in their own heads or at a computer or some combination in-between. Sometimes the ideas and words flow with ease, sometimes they flow and we can't stop them, and sometimes the words never come and we beg and we plead for any scrap of an idea.

One of my favorite examples of writing neurosis in action is that of the great TV writer David Milch. In a very excellent New Yorker profile, those of you unfamilair with why writers are such freaks can marvel at Milch's tale of his time in a creative writing program when he would type and re-type the same pages, word for word, over and over again. Sadly, Milch's struggles make perfect sense to me.

One of my tics is that I will endlessly revise. Endlessly. I have revised my first novel, which is still in process, for over ten years. This isn't good. Yes, it's possible that I'm a great writer of the Donna Tartt variety who just takes forever to get a novel complete. But the much more likely scenario is that I'm stuck, and I'm too afraid to make the necessary changes or cuts or, the worst option, admit defeat and move on. 

NaNoWriMo changed me. So, OK, Ten Vanished Memories has so far taken me almost four years, and it's a short novel with a pretty clear narrative through-line, but the beauty and genius of NaNo is that it pushes you to draft without looking back. Just write and keep going. I couldn't have gotten the novel to where it is now without adopting and embracing NaNo's philosophy.

I've mentioned elsewhere that, to me, the art of writing is in the revising. Once the words are on the page, that's when work transcends to art. But getting the words onto the page, getting an entire novel down before you revise, that's a difficult but necessary challenge. I want to go back and tinker. The urge is compulsive and so seductive. And I can tell myself--lie to myself--that I'm writing when all I'm doing is snipping and pruning. Endlessly.

Full disclosure: I don't participate in the NaNoWriMo contest, nor do I limit my drafting to November. Given the constraints on my time, a little every day is the only workable model. (Although I can understand why writers hole themselves up in order to get their drafts down.) But in terms of freeing me from the prison of my own process, NaNoWriMo has been an invaluable asset.

It is for the self-described non-writers that I think NaNoWriMo is the true revelation, though. You will never be the same after you let yourself write hour upon hour, day after day, for an entire month. Give it a try. 

 

Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus Memory 1 - The Sierras

McManus said nothing until nightfall when Carmella wouldn’t turn around. Without breaking stride, she cinched a headlamp about her head so that he was then following his lover’s shadow form and a bobbing circle of light that didn’t prevent him from stumbling on the stones embedded in the trail. He was tired. He was hungry. They had stopped conversing a couple of hours ago when he suggested they turn back for their camp.

“You always take things away from me,” she had said and stormed off, fully prepared to leave him alone in the wilderness. He knew that he had to keep his mouth shut.

Now, however, as the grand expanse of the high Sierras' vast granite and pine tree landscape disappeared behind a darkness so black it felt as if he were drowning within it, he asked her,

“When is this going to end?”

No answer.

This was just like her. Whenever they ventured into the natural world—an activity that was occurring with less frequency as their relationship aged—she was always proving herself to someone inside her head. Any hint of her feminine softness disappeared, and she became more man than him. She would chide him, insult him, tell him that she wished he were more like the other men she had dated who reportedly took her on all manner of thrilling and death-defying expeditions about the West. The trips she loved best, the ones she was always going on about, were the adventures that had ended with her sobbing and broken. If the man she was with had berated her the entire time that was a bonus.

“Find your balls,” she said now over her shoulder.

The path angled with a sharp incline, and his legs burned. A blister had been born, lived and died on his right heel and was now just stinging, raw skin that rubbed against his shoe with every step. His heart rattled not only with the exertion, but also from the familiar rage she reliably lit within him. McManus knew he could never measure against the other men who had tromped through her life nor could he drown out the voice inside her head that was constantly telling her how awful everything was, how much better life was elsewhere and far away. In fact, he was confused about how he even came to be here with her. Yeah, he liked the outdoors just fine, but he saw no reason to kill himself. His appreciation of the natural world was much more aesthetically-driven, and if he could admire the beauty of the West from behind the safety of a large window with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, well, that was perfect.

McManus stumbled and fell to one knee. He cursed the darkness, the trail, her. She didn’t stop. Didn’t even slow down. He was forced to scramble to his feet and trot after her; otherwise, he would have been left to the darkness and to whatever creatures might be hunting within it.

The trail got steeper, somehow. His anger actually helped him catch up to her and push on.

“I’m fine,” he told her, even though she hadn’t inquired.

Then, when it seemed that the trail might never end and that the dark forest might blot them forever from existence, the trail leveled and descended into a small, granite-rimmed valley. The immense pines that had been towering above their ascent, parted now to the full moon, which had been hidden from him in its rising. The moonlight cast a light nearly as bright as day, and everything shone with a miraculous blue-white. When had the moon risen? He had been so focused on keeping up with her, he had missed its brightening presence.

 “My God,” Carmella said with an impatient grunt. She groped him, bit him, yanked at his clothes. Soon they were naked, save for their hiking boots. Oh, and Carmella’s headlamp. She hadn’t bothered to remove that, either.

She did things to him that she had only done rarely before and never since. She wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t kiss or nuzzle. When he spoke her name, seeking some connection amidst the wilderness, she turned away from him, slid him inside her, and showed flexibility he had never seen her exhibit before.

In the midst of their heaving tangle, within the huddle of that slick jousting, she moaned over her shoulder that she could live for all eternity in a place like this. Her bones scattered amidst the cleansed silver forest, these fortresses of granite. This, this was home.

 

Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus - The Ten Memories

Carmella could haunt all right. She demonstrated her ability to do so that same night.

McManus’ studio apartment was completely wrecked upon his return from the bar. Every book, LP, dish and piece of clothing was piled onto his futon in a mound that would take him hours to dismantle.

Once McManus excavated his phone from the mess, he made some calls. Reconnecting with friends and acquaintances he hadn’t spoken to in years, exposing himself to a past he had believed quit and gone, he finally found a friend of Carmella’s who confirmed the story: yes, Carmella, his ex-wife, was dead. She was killed in a car accident two weeks before while driving alone on Highway 1 north of San Francisco. There were two memorial services: one for her family and coworkers in Sacramento and one for her people back in Michigan. After the Michigan memorial, she was interred in a grave at the family’s farm. No one thought to inform McManus, the friend told him, because the family hadn’t wanted to compound an already horrendous situation by involving the embarrassment that was Carmella’s second husband.

At least Carmella’s friend had thought to spare him his feelings.

To his surprise, McManus discovered that the confirmation of his ex-wife’s passing moved him. Although he had doubted the veracity of Carmella’s fate, as told to him by her own ghost, hearing someone else, someone who still walked the earth, someone who wasn’t being haunted by her, report her death either put Carmella’s demise in a different perspective or heightened its potency. Plucked the event outside the frame of his thoughts and plopped it in three glistening dimensions before him where the truth couldn’t be ignored: Someone he had loved, fucked, lived with, married, fought with, divorced, and finally vanquished from his life with a hearty ‘Fuck the fuck off!’ was now dead. Had she not thought to visit him from beyond, he might never have known. McManus blamed her parents for excluding him from the news.

He slid the pile of his belongings onto the floor, breaking a drinking glass and cereal bowl in the process, and then he slumped upon his futon. He found a discarded phone bill and began to write; he evoked everything he could from his time with Carmella. After the divorce, and as reward to himself, he had thrown away all the evidence of their time together; the love notes, the photos, the marriage certificate, even the gold wedding band—which was now rolling at the bottom of the Willamette River—were gone. All that was left behind was a dried, nettled thicket of neglected Carmella-related memories tangled throughout the alcoves of his brain.

He scribbled down what he could recall of their time together and came up with ten memories. Just ten. When he committed them to paper, these ten remembrances were what remained of McManus’ years with Carmella. Sure, he could still recall vague impressions, vibes, smells, colors, and sounds of her but these were too fleeting; no, the authentic memories—the ones to which he had held all these years in spite of himself—were scenes, as if lifted from the films he so loved watching and re-watching, scenes that included context, dialogue, action, sometimes even a soundtrack. Only ten memories had survived the years he had spent away from her. Ten.

If Carmella could be trusted, which was a doubtful proposition even when she had been alive, there had been eleven memories, and he had already lost one to their discussion earlier that night at the bar. That was unfair considering he hadn’t asked or desired or otherwise wanted to ever speak with her again, so taking a possession he cared little about in order for him to do something he didn’t want to do simply reaffirmed his belief in a cosmos conspired to fuck him. And yet one whole memory was seized from his brain by some Contractually Obligated Overseer who had extracted the price and left nothing but a gauzy absence where the memory had been. If he focused, if he really allowed himself to delve into his thoughts of his ex-wife, he could even sense the suture-lines of that missing piece of his past.

Bastards, thought Charles McManus. The goddamned bastards.

Invigorated by righteous fury, and based on Carmella’s ‘clue’ from earlier that night, he attempted to recall which of the ten memories might contain a moment when Carmella had said ‘I love you’ and meant it. Carmella had given him a shitty clue, but even so, only one memory advanced itself as the obvious candidate.

 

Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus - Carmella Returns from the Dead

A dead woman walked into a bar.

As was typical of him, Charles McManus was too busy smoking his Camels and thinking useless, recursive thoughts to have noticed. Slumped into one of the bar’s narrow booths, he drank Manhattans and shrugged free from another day as an assistant baker and sole delivery driver for a small, artisan bakery. McManus found camaraderie with his coworkers, the other refugees from the daylight world like him who preferred to labor under the stillness of early morning. Others like him who could finish their workdays with plenty of time remaining to indulge other interests—which were, in McManus’ case, pot, alcohol, 70s punk, foreign films, comic books, the occasional classic novel or Nietzschean text, and tattoos—while sharing a passion for well-made food, even though Portland wasn’t (yet) known as a foodie paradise.

He had the lifestyle he wanted. Simple work, simple play, simple days. Finally. He only needed to take care of himself, which was, he had come to accept, how he preferred things. So, of course, everything was about to change.

His ex-wife, Carmella Faye Nighthouse, slid into his booth with such familiarity, it was as if their acrimonious split and years living separate existences had never happened. As ever, he was drawn to her eyes. Her best feature, well the best feature on her face, was the enchanting hue that drifted along a unique color spectrum: some days a coffee and cream with dashes of glittering copper, and other days a resplendent amber with notes of emerald, her eyes were always sparkling with a self-sustaining light no matter how dark the surrounding environs might be. He had never seen eyes like hers, and he never would again.

 “I died, Charles,” Carmella told him. “Every time I manifest myself enough to speak with you, you will lose one memory of me.”

“Hold up. You’re dead?”

She did not respond. She did not gesture. Her face betrayed nothing. The complete absence of her meandering, endlessly processing, perennially pondering utterances told him she was in fact dead, because that was the only rational explanation for her not running her mouth in her usual fashion.

“How? Where?” He asked, intrigued by her delusion, and not believing her. “When?”

She ignored his questions and said, “Pay attention. Ghosts burn energy just like everything else, and we must consume memories in order to appear in the present with the living. Now speak, nod or otherwise indicate that you understand my words.”

Ah. There was the familiar brand of Carmella condescension.

McManus said, “By all means take my memories. They’re just annoying me anyway.”

“That is not the sum of it, Charles. You must do something for me,” the dead woman said as if she still had the right.

Figures. Then McManus noticed her hands and forearms, which were stained with either dried mud or blood; he couldn’t tell which in the bar’s low light. This struck him as strange. Drawn into their usual labyrinthine conversations of point/counterpoint, he was already forgetting that she was attempting to make a point. A point about her being dead.

“I’m sure your husband can handle whatever it is.” he said. “You’re his problem now. I’m retired. Or, you could say, I was fired.”

“No one else can help. Only you.”

McManus liked this line of thought not at all and ordered another Manhattan with extra cherries. The waitress did not acknowledge Carmella, and Carmella’s attention was focused solely on him; it was as if she didn’t perceive the bar and the growing crowd, which would soon force McManus back to the solitude of his studio apartment. She was paying the kind of attention to him that she hadn’t surrendered since they fell in love during Carmella’s grad school days. Some part of him, some part of him that he thought he had drowned dead with drink and years, still responded to her in spite of himself.

“What do you need? If I remember correctly, you were convinced I couldn’t do jack shit.”

“My body is buried in the wrong place.”

“Where?”

“The farm. My parents’ farm.”

Odd. McManus swirled his glass, pretending to study his Manhattan in the bar’s semi-darkness as he bought himself a moment to think this through. He knew that Carmella hated her parents. Well, she had hated them when McManus and Carmella were together, when she had been a different person entirely, when she had been one of the many different versions of Carmella that was no longer available. Back when she and McManus shared a bed, Carmella had celebrated her many differences with her parents and siblings by adopting a last name that she created, and she had let her auburn hair grow wild about her shoulders. God, the sex during those years had been unhinged and life-altering as she tapped into a nascent wildness and rebellion. Then, a couple years into their relationship, she found religion, cut her hair short like a man’s, like it was right now in the bar, and she left him. By all accounts, her parents had celebrated when McManus and Carmella split up, and she had soaked in their approval like the overachieving child she had always been, and always yearned to be. Like the prodigal daughter returned home from a voyage across a treacherous sea. Now, Carmella’s parents had her body.

“I am destined to rest elsewhere,” she said. “My spirit demands it.”

McManus drank and then asked, “What the hell am I supposed to do about that? It already sounds like I’m under-qualified.”

“I once told you where I wished to be buried. Unfortunately for me, what I told you was true. I didn’t know that my demands would be taken so literally. I didn’t realize what I was binding myself to. You learn how things really work when you’re dead, Charles, you learn how important words and wishes are. I won’t be free until you, and only you, remember where I want to be buried.”

McManus set down his glass.

“All I have to do is remember a thing you said? That shouldn’t be too hard. I have so many nuggets of your wisdom ground into the back of my skull.”

Carmella turned her attention elsewhere. For all he knew, she was cataloguing the bottles of alcohol organized by type behind the bar. He wondered: Was she solid? Could he touch her?

“My body has to be moved. Moved to the place I told you about years ago. I need to be laid to rest in that place. Then my soul will be free. Then I will leave you alone for good.”

McManus rubbed his whiskers. “And what if no one remembers and no one moves you? More specifically, what if I don’t remember, and I can’t move you. Or, more likely, what if I do remember, and I decide not to do jack shit about it.”

“The funny thing about being dead is that ghosts are allowed to haunt without having to use memories as fuel,” she said, “Haunting is just moving energy around. As long as I don’t manifest myself and speak to you like we’re speaking now, I can haunt you as much as I’d like. That is one of the perks.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“You bet.”

McManus’ mind spun. He liked being the victim until he was actually a victim, then he didn’t like it so much.

“Why me?” He said more to himself than to her.

“You don’t listen. You never did. I already told you. You’re the only one who knows.”

“I’ve spent the better part of a decade forgetting you. How the hell am I supposed to remember a single thing you told me years ago?”

She smiled.

“I will give you a clue,” she said.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

She shook her head, all seriousness. 

“It was where I told you I loved you and actually meant it,” she said. “I have to go. I’ve already used up one of your memories of me. It wasn’t a very good one. I checked.” And go she did, slipping out of the booth and gliding out the door as if neither gravity nor space-time held sway over her.