Honored Ghost: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” by Monica Groth Farrar

One of the most frequent questions asked about this year’s Ghost Story Contest was, “does it have to be scary?” The answer was no–it just had to be under 1000 words and have a ghost in it. As it turns out, our grand prize winner took a very unconventional approach to the genre, deploying wit and lightness instead of gloom and chills (although there is some nudity). It’s a great pleasure to publish this year’s first-place ghost story, “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” — the photograph is also by the author, Monica Groth Farrar.


Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain

I met Willie Nelson’s ghost while sitting on the toilet, reading People. Well, reading
might be wrong. I was looking at the photos of the young ladies—red-carpet champions, all of them—in their fancy dresses. I didn’t recognize any of them except for the one from the Harry Potter movies who went to college out east and good for her for getting an education, although what she ever did with her degree, who knew. They never told you that part, just that she was going. Still, she probably didn’t have any student loans to contend with, so why not? Let the girl explore.

I hated to see her looking so uncomfortable in her dress, an asymmetrical little number
with mesh. She had a frown on her face like she was wondering if she was so smart, how come her feet hurt so bad? Why all the girls had to wear such pointy-toed shoes I couldn’t fathom. Take care of your feet, girls. Take care! Then again the starlets probably had access to the best podiatrists in L.A. so why should I worry? Wear what you want, girls. As long as it was they who wanted and not some stylist wearing Dr. Scholl’s and comfy sweatpants making decisions they had to suffer the consequences for.

“Hermione! You’ve got an Ivy League degree and royalties out the wazoo—why the
long face? You’ll get marionette lines if you don’t watch it,” I was thinking when Willie
Nelson’s ghost stepped out of the shower.

His bandana was dripping and his old man privates were no more than an arm’s length
away from me sitting there on the toilet in my bra with my undies around my ankles. Just my luck! This was how I met a celebrity—sitting on the pot without my teeth even getting brushed yet. Eileen would never believe it.

“I didn’t know you were dead, Willie!” I said. “People’ll probably put you on their next cover. Your fans will enjoy a nice retrospective.”

“What?” my husband hollered from the kitchen. “You say something?”

“No, Len! Can’t I poop in peace?”

That man was always interrupting me in the bathroom even when the door was closed. Very needy, but there were worse problems to have in a marriage. Look at Eileen and her jackass of a husband. Mine didn’t drink. He just followed me around the house asking why I couldn’t stack the Tupperware so the lids didn’t fall out every time you opened the cabinet. A little more space would’ve been nice, but at least he wasn’t a carouser.

Willie Nelson’s ghost looked like he couldn’t speak—like his eyes had to do all his talking. It reminded me of a scene on television when one person was tied up with a gag in his mouth and someone else discovered him, but neither could speak because the kidnapper might hear them so they’re forced to communicate with nods and intense looks while they grappled with knots. That’s what it was like for me and Willie Nelson’s ghost in my bathroom. He had something he desperately needed to tell me, if he could just spit it out.

“What is it, Willie?” I whispered. “You having trouble crossing over? You stuck or something?”

Willie Nelson’s ghost eyes beamed into me hard. I felt an instant connection. I was very good at charades so he was lucky he’d wound up in my bathroom. I was fairly certain I could interpret wherever it was he needed to go.

“Close your eyes while I wipe, will you, Willie?”

I took care of my business on the pot, then grabbed my robe hanging on the back of the door. Thank goodness I’d locked it. Otherwise Len would’ve busted in asking where the decaf was or did I forget to buy some again and ruined my intimate moment assisting Willie Nelson’s ghost. Locked doors were a necessity in a marriage. Why Woman’s Day never mentioned that was a shame. Less crockpot recipes and more honest information would’ve been nice, but I wasn’t an editor, just a loyal subscriber.

As I soaped up at the sink I looked in the mirror. Talk about a horrible sensation! It was Hermione. Her tiny head with its slicked-back boy-cut and sad doe eyes didn’t look so hot on my flabby shoulders. I wanted my head back, my grays notwithstanding.

“You fall in or something?” Len hollered. “Your omelet’s almost set.”

“I’m flossing!” I lied.

Willie Nelson’s ghost looked sick to his stomach, like he really regretted dragging me into his mix-up. I have to say I was a little upset. Not that I minded trying to help a celebrity, especially one who aided farmers.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on between you and Hermione—I’m guessing it’s a shame on you,” I whispered to Willie Nelson’s ghost. “but you have got to get my head back and move on over to the other side. I’ll be married 55 years this October! You think Len’s gonna appreciate having a Hermione-head for a bed partner? No sirree.”

The fridge door slammed and Len must’ve dropped something because I heard, “Oh, shit,” and then what does Willie Nelson’s ghost do, but start mouthing Blue Eyes Crying minus any sound whatsoever! Talk about eerie. There I am, standing face-to-face with a raggedy old country star lip-syncing with his dentures out while his gray braids dripped sticky stuff all over my bathmat. There was no way I’d ever get that stuff out either. That was one bathmat that was getting pitched whether or not we could afford a new one.

I unlocked the door. Len had come around eventually after I wrecked the Oldsmobile. Even though I just about liked to die this time, I’d simply have to trust that he’d forgive me. At least he’d get a younger wife with a terrific college education. Maybe I could convince Len to hang in with me thatta way.

Monica Groth Farrar first encountered the charms of flash fiction at the Washington University Summer Writers Institute. She’s currently at work on her first novel The Big Let Go, an existential comedy about a late bloomer who finds her purpose fulfilling a great aunt’s eccentric bucket list. 


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Honored Ghost: W.F. Gunn’s “Owl Get You”

The STL Scribblers Ghost Story Contest received a lot of strong entries this October, but W.F. Gunn’s mischievous “Owl Get You” proved among the most popular, receiving the second-highest number of votes. It comes from a collection-in-progress entitled Ghostly Tales of Tower Grove East. We are very pleased to present the story here.


Owl Get You

Three times Max faced death, the third time death got lucky . . . and paid the price.

Max grew up working alongside his parents on the family vineyard where he developed a kinship with spirits of all kinds. His slight limp came from a tractor rollover, his first encounter with mortality at age eleven. The second time his uncle Thomas fell over drunk into the pond and nearly drowned Max who dove in to save him then needed saving himself. That was his second run in with the reaper.

City folk came to the rolling foothills of the Ozarks in the fall of every year for harvest. Max enjoyed the city folk, even those that couldn’t hold their wine. With them he could engage in his favorite activity: listening to and talking with just about everybody about everything. When there were no humans he would commence to chatting-up critters in the surrounding hills.

Max could mimic birdcalls to a point of conversation. His favorite and longest relationship was with a Barred Owl that lived in the trees around his home, they grew up together, and Max felt, looked out for each other. Many a nights his Pa would threaten the switch if he didn’t stop their sleep disturbing back and forth of “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for yall? Who?”

When Max reached twenty-one he told his parents he wanted to move to the city. His uncle Thomas had said there would be a place for him if ever he wanted it. His Ma gave him a steel owl lantern to mark the occasion, “To keep you company and remind you to be civil,” she said. His father bequeathed Max his bowler should the occasion arise for one.

His parents were certain Max would thrive anywhere, even in the wilds of the city. His uncle Thomas, faced with a booming post prohibition business, believed his nephew’s decision providential. Before long Max was slinging drinks at the Tick Tock Tavern in the Tower Grove East neighborhood of south St. Louis. He kept that owl his Ma gave him on a shelf across from the bar where he could see it. On afternoons before the regulars arrived and nights after closing he would taunt the mute bird urging it to answer, “WHO?”

First day on the job and every day there after Max wore his father’s bowler and grew a thick, black handlebar mustache over his ever-present, pudgy smile, just like his father. His time at the Tick Tock, among hundreds of friends that flowed in and out like the tide, was, Max thought, as close to heaven as he’d likely get. Max became guardian of the Tick Tock and of the neighbourhood, he was by all accounts a civil man.

It was Tuesday, the slowest night of the week as evidenced by the last customer saying goodnight. Uncle Thomas had gone home and Max figured a quick dispatching of his duties would get him to his room for a radio show and a ham on rye. Max hooted at his steel owl, “Who cooks for you!” Then, just as the clock on the bar struck midnight the door burst open.

In came a breathless woman Max recognized from the neighborhood scared out of her wits running away from the door screaming, “He’s coming! Please! Help, me!” Then the door slammed open again. A stranger came into the Tick Tock. Max looked away from the woman at an enormous dark visage nearly blotting out the room.

Evil came from it in waves. Max still behind the bar turned to the woman now struck silent with terror, pointed and said, “The toilet is that way Miss. Go in and lock it.”

Max was not a tall man by any measure, but he carried his powerful frame like a wrestler as he moved to come around from behind the bar. The monster looked down at him and snarled. Dark embers flared in its eyes. Max kept moving and in a steely voice said, “We are closed Mr.” A deep, menacing growl came from the behemoth. “Rudeness is an act of fear my friend,” Max said in a steady voice, “you are safe here, as long as you’re civil.”

The beast mimicked Max’s movements toward the woman frozen where she stood. Max considered the creature far from civil and on his way to meet his tough customer up close. He reached beneath the bar for the nightstick his uncle Thomas kept there. In a swift maneuver Max moved to the woman, gently pushed her toward the toilet, then turned to do what he must in the name of civility.

The beast focused on him him and was about to pounce when it was startled by the shrill question coming from behind it. “Who cooks for you!” The distraction was enough, without hesitation, much to the monster’s dismay, Max attacked.

The woman, feet braced against the toilet, back against the door, felt the pressure of the battle between good and evil vibrate on her spine, the horror of the struggle punctuated by howling and screeching and the furious flapping of metal wings. Palms pressed hard against her ears her screams became the maelstrom’s chorus.

Max’s uncle Thomas arrived the next morning. Concern swept over him when he went to put the key in the door and found it open. He peered in. Nothing was disturbed except for a few lights left on that should not have been. The faint sound of sobbing drew him to the ladies room where he found the woman.

Max was never found or heard from again. His uncle Thomas, devastated by Max’s disappearance and the incomprehensible story gotten from the woman, keeps Max’s owl on the mantle across from the bar where it sits in silent vigil. Outside, above the door hangs a portrait of Max, a reminder to all who enter dear Tower Grove East to — be civil.

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Honored Ghost: Melissa Logsdon’s “The Shoe”

In October 2015, the STL Scribblers held their first Ghost Story Contest, challenging participants to write a ghost-themed piece of under 1000 words. Three winners were chosen by democratic vote at the group’s November meeting. We are pleased to present the third-place winner, Melissa Logsdon’s “The Shoe,” which unfolds on a classically dark and stormy night and ends with a terrifying discovery.


The Shoe

The trees swayed in the moonlight, darkened by the half moon in the pitch-black sky. Not a single star shone through the thickness. Rain pattered against the window of the living room. Alice, curled up on the couch next to her dog Tilly, stared out the window. She dreaded nights like these. They left her feeling like the only soul in the world. Alice had been living alone in the small trailer in the woods since Todd, her husband, had been electrocuted while swimming in the pond near the trailer six months before. Since his death, she had been haunted by the images the local news station had shared. “Local man dies in freak accident,” read the headline. Underneath, an image of the frothy pond, Todd’s limp body blurry in the distance and a single navy blue loafer with a green sole in the foreground. Alice had begged Todd not to spend $100 on those loafers—just a fad, she thought—on a weekend shopping trip to Burlington the week before the accident. Now a single overpriced loafer with a green sole lay next to Todd’s body, a remnant of their last trip together.

She yawned deeply and glanced at the clock. Almost midnight. “Tilly, let’s go outside.” Tilly reluctantly lifted herself from sleep and jumped off the couch. Alice walked to the door, Tilly following behind, and opened it. Tilly slinked down the stairs and sniffed around a bit. The rain was pelting down in sheets. “Tilly, hurry up!” Alice shouted. Tilly continued to sniff and, finally finding the perfect spot, peed and started back up the stairs.

The sky grumbled with the sound of deafening thunder and, suddenly, a lightning bolt lit up the angry sky. Tilly, halfway up the stairs by this time, turned around and bolted down the stairs into the dark mouth of the woods.

“TILLY!” Alice screamed. Tilly had never run off before and, looking into the vast depth of what lied before her, Alice’s mind raced at the possibilities of where she might have run. Alice stood on the porch panicked for a few minutes, convinced Tilly would return. When she didn’t, she ran inside and put on a raincoat and a pair of ragged tennis shoes before bolting into the dark, dense forest.

The ground was swollen with water. Each footstep filled the bottom of her tattered shoes with water. She looked around hoping for direction but, when she saw nothing, she took off to the east. Todd had once told her there was a small opening in the woods not too far east of the trailer. Maybe Tilly had gone there and found shelter in the openness of the suffocating woods. She darted through the trees, each step becoming heavier with mud. “TILLY!” she screamed. Her voice was normally strong and easily heard but was now dampened by the rain and thunder overhead. The rain picked up so she ran faster, panting for air. “TILLLLLLLLY!” She stopped for a moment and leaned against a tree to catch her breath. The tree canopies dripped ice cold water onto her, amplifying the freeze that had already spread across her body. She had been running through the woods for an hour she guessed and still hadn’t come upon the opening Todd had told her existed.

She closed her eyes, pushed each of her heels against the base of the tree to squish out the mud from her shoes and, suddenly, felt a tap on her left shoulder. Her eyelids shot open but she was careful not to move any other part of her body. Another light tap. She turned her head slowly. “Who’s there?” she whispered over her shoulder. She felt the tap again but this time it was firm and more urgent. “Tell me, is there someone there?” She slowly turned her body to face the frightening silence behind her. “Hello?” she quivered as she peered around the tree trunk. She took a few steps out from behind the tree and shouted, “Who is out there?” Her heart was thrashing inside her chest. Another tap. She spun around to face nothingness. She felt a warm mist on her cheek and the quiet whisper of breath. The mist smelled of rot and mold and caused her to empty her insides next to the tree. She felt the mist again and, this time, the trickle of fingertips on her wet cheek. Her heart fell to her stomach. She could see nothing but she sensed someone, or something, around her. She forgot why she was in the woods, forgot about Tilly and raced as quickly as she could through the woods, pushing thorny branches away from her face as she retreated to the safety of the trailer. When she saw the porch light in the distance, she stopped to catch her breath and screamed, “TILLY!” She waited on the porch for a moment but Tilly did not return. She will be back in the morning, Alice hoped, as she flung open the trailer door. She flipped on the light and, sitting on the couch, was Tilly. “What are you doing here, girl? How did you get back into the trailer?” She rushed to the couch to touch Tilly and ensure she was not dreaming. She placed her hand on Tilly’s head and noticed something in her mouth. She pulled a shredded piece of leather from Tilly’s mouth. It smelled of rot and mold, the same smell that had made her stomach turn in the woods. Alice’s mouth gaped open in horror when she looked down at the floor below and saw the tattered blue loafer with the green heel.

You can read more of Melissa Logsdon’s writing at her blog, Rambling Woman, Plus Dog.

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Scribbler’s Ghost Story Contest

V0040287 A young woman is sitting in a chair reading a story which ha Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A young woman is sitting in a chair reading a story which has made her nervous. Engraving by R. Graves after R.W. Buss. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

It’s autumn, and along with the onset of football, the chafe of new backpacks, and the sweet-sickly aroma of pumpkin spice lattes, you may sense a slight — a very slight — chill in the air. That chill signals the approach of Scribbler’s 2015 Ghost Story Contest. Those who wish to enter have 40 days to plumb the slanting hallways and dank basements of the psyche and return with a submission following the guidelines below. This contest is open to anyone in the St. Louis area: members of the Scribblers group current and former, readers of this blog, and/or misanthropic recluses on the ghostly margins of existence. The full details are below.

  1. The ghosts can be actual or metaphorical. Your story should have some kind of spooky presence in it, whether in the space of the story itself or the mind of one of its characters. Points will be given for original handling of the concept.
  2. Stories should be no longer than 1000 words (approximately 4 pages double-spaced) and should be submitted to elundgren@slpl.org no later than 11:59 pm on Saturday, October 31, 2015.
  3. Please include a title for your story, but do not put your name on it. This will allow us to have a blind and anonymous judging process.
  4. Stories will be democratically judged by the attending members of the writing group at our meeting on Monday, November 2.
  5. The winning story will be published on this blog and the winning writer will receive a $25 gift card to Subterranean Books in the Delmar Loop. Winning writer will retain all rights to the work; Scribbler claims first publication rights only.

(Disclaimer: Scribbler, the blog or the associated writing group, and Central Library — which has its own ghost to deal with–will bear no responsibility for any damage caused by this Ghost Story Contest, whether the damage is physical or psychic. Participants enter at their own risk. Please direct any questions to Eric at elundgren@slpl.org.)

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Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World: Selected Works



Next week, on September 9, Central Library will be hosting the conversation “Racial Justice in a Post-Ferguson World.” To support this important conversation, Scribbler offers an extremely partial, highly subjective selections of books we have read recently that approach the topic from a literary angle. For a much more extensive list, please visit the Black Lives Matter reading list at Left Bank Books (PDF format), or the St. Paul Public Library’s Resources on Race.


Citizen, Claudia Rankine (Graywolf, 2014)

Among the most-acclaimed literary works of 2014, Rankine’s timely exploration into race in America works on both the macro and micro levels, exploring broad historical topics such as Hurricane Katrina and the death of Trayvon Martin as well as a series of unsettling, hurtful encounters or “microaggressions” in the life of an unnamed narrator. Rankine’s work is an experiment in both form and perception, compelling the reader to re-examine her perceptions and language. Rankine will lecture at Graham Chapel as part of Washington University’s Assembly Series on Monday, September 21.


Annotations, John Keene (New Directions, 1995)

One of the most underappreciated short novels about St. Louis, Keene’s reconstruction of a black childhood on the north side of the city and in west county is a poetic, beautifully complex work. Keene ranges from abstract speculation to wondrously specific recall: he remembers “Brick houses uniform as Monopoly props lined the lacework of street for miles.” A book both about the past and the writing of the past, this is not so much a childhood memoir as a series of notes toward that memoir, and much of the book’s richest material is in its footnotes, as Keene elaborates on his allusions to Scott Joplin, Chatillon-Demenil, Carondelet, and others, filling out his portrait of the city he calls “a minefield of myth and memory.”


In the Midst of Loving, Cheeraz Gormon (Alchemy 7, 2014)

Emerging from the St. Louis spoken word scene, Gormon’s collection of love poems, fourteen years in the making, is inspired by “her deep passion for humanity and issues affecting various communities.” She explores topics such as urban violence, gentrification, self-image, and grief, while showing the many different forms that love can take. The final pages of the book, left blank for the reader to include her thoughts, highlights the engaging and collaborative nature of her project. You can watch a video of Gormon reciting her excellent poem “Who Moved My Memories” — based on the disappearance of her grandfather’s house in North St. Louis — at the 2012 TEDx Conference in St. Louis.


How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Kiese Laymon (Bolden, 2013)

“I thought of the essays as tracks,” Laymon writes in the preface to his essay collection, six years in the making. “I thought of some of the pieces in the book as songs with multiple voices and layered musicality. I thought of ways to bring the ad lib, riff, collaboration, and necessary digression to the page. I wanted a book that could be read front to back in one sitting. I wanted to explore the benefits and burdens of being born a black boy in America without the predictable literary rigidity.” Laymon achieves all of these goals in a propulsive, raw, and hugely pleasurable collection, including poignant portraits of relatives, accounts of campus racial politics in Mississippi and Oberlin, Ohio, and hot takes on Kanye West, Michael Jackson, Bernie Mac, among others. The essay “You Are the Second Person,” exploring the author’s struggle to publish a “non-commercial novel” in the absurd world of corporate publishing, and the magnificent title essay, are alone worth the price of admission.


Sula, Toni Morrison (Knopf, 1972)

While Morrison’s work will be familiar to most readers, it’s sometimes easy to forget how strange, hallucinatory, and darkly funny her work can be. Set in a Ohio community called “The Bottom” that is actually at the top of a river valley, above the white community in the town of Medallion below, Morrison’s wonderful novel is a both a reminder of the resilience of black communities throughout American history and an act of protest. Featuring a character who celebrates “National Suicide Day,” a trio of feral children called the Deweys, and a mysterious white man called Tar Baby, Sula is part family chronicle, part horror movie, and a magical account of a community’s tribulations and underlying strength.

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A Bookstore, A Lost Customer, An Open Letter

By now, if you live in the 314 area code at least, you’ve probably already seen this blog post by Left Bank Books co-owner Jarek Steele. With hundreds of shares on Twitter and thousands more on Facebook, it easily surpasses Scribbler’s modest conception of “viral.”

In case you missed it, Jarek’s post is an eloquent response to a customer’s anonymous note informing the store that it has lost his/her business. The customer was offended by a window display at Left Bank commemorating the one-year anniversary of Michael Brown’s shooting in Ferguson. The display is pictured below.

(N.B.: I was in the store last week when a woman came in off the street and asked in a disgusted tone “what those signs are.” I like to think that I was present at the moment that the now-famous anonymous letter was conceived, but I guess we will never really know.)


The nature of white privilege — and the related question of how to be an ally to the growing civil rights movement in America in 2015 — are notoriously thorny and contentious issues to approach. For my money, Jarek Steele (with an assist from his partner in business and life, Kris Kleindienst) does this with insight, thoughtfulness, and humility. It’s hard to select a favorite quote from this excellent post, but here’s a crucial passage:

We are privileged to be able to apply for a job, go to college, drive, shop, run through the park, own a firearm, barbecue, apply for a driver’s license, throw a party, swim and be angry in public without representing all white people when we do it.  We don’t have to be the BEST athlete, the RICHEST musician, the MOST POWERFUL leader in the free world, the SMARTEST student in the class to justify our place in sports, music, politics and school.

We live ordinary lives and occasionally some of us do extraordinary things, and our lives matter and our right to our dignity is hard coded into our social pact. The pedigree of all of those things is present and unspoken.

As my partner, Kris said – White privilege is really permission to be ordinary.

These are privileges might’ve refused if we had been asked, privileges we don’t feel like we have, resent having, or resent having to defend ourselves because of.  But those privileges are still ours.  We’re stuck with them.

What I wish I could convey – white person to white person – is that Black Lives Matter does not mean White People are Bad.  It never did.  Saying someone matters does not mean that nobody else matters.  It just says to someone who feels invisible, “I see you and I value you.”

If you haven’t yet, please take a few minutes to read the whole thing and reflect–wherever that reflection might leave you. I already had many reasons to feel proud of being a Left Bank Books customer, but their courage and integrity in this difficult period for the city (and the nation) is truly inspiring. I may even have to buy a few more books than I usually would this month to show my support. We all have to make sacrifices.

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I Spent Approximately Two Hours at a Romance Writers’ Convention (and Obsessed About It)


2:30 PM — Invocation

It is a scorching and bright July afternoon in St. Louis, and I’ve been released for the afternoon to attend a convention called Penned Con, which is being held nearby at the St. Louis City Center Hotel (which I’m going to call the Sheraton for economy’s sake). I am very familiar with this ten-minute walk because the hotel is right by the Metrolink station. To our right is the Scottrade Center which hosts St. Louis Blues hockey games; in the winter it features a large curbside grate that expels warm air, and there are usually two or three people sleeping or warming themselves on it.

There is no one on the grate today. It would be much nicer to lie down on the frozen hockey rink. There are no trees anywhere and there is something harsh and inquisitorial about the sunlight.

I am out here because the library received four complimentary tickets to Penned Con. Central Library’s director forwarded them to me with the typically witty quip that it sounded like “a convention for prison writers.” No one’s quite sure what Penned Con is at the library. This may be why I’m the only one going. Romance is what I’m thinking, because Penned Con culminates with a masquerade ball, and because of this program description:

Friday 12:15-1

Panel: Husbands of Authors 101 Find out what REALLY happens behind the scenes with the men who know your favorite authors best.

Husbands TBA

By the way, I am a writer of literary fiction. My latest and only novel is ranked #769,114 in Amazon’s Kindle Store.

2:40 PM — Lobby

The Sheraton is a pretty cool place. It was originally built as a J.C. Penney warehouse circa 1929. There’s a trompe l’oeil facade on the building with pointed obelisks and a depiction of Justice and some decorative arches that makes it look like there’s a hotel painted on the hotel.

There are no exterior signs of the convention but I see a group of women in badges getting on the elevator and figure I’m probably on the right track. There’s a concierge in the lobby whose face lights up when I tell him what I’m looking for. “The book convention?” he asks, and he’s either very happy that I’m attending Penned Con, or finds it secretly hilarious, I can’t tell. “Thirteenth floor,” he says. Tridecaphobes beware: not only does the Sheraton have a thirteenth floor, but they host conventions on it.

2:42 PM — On the Red … Coat

I approach the registration desk with trepidation. Having only recently submitted my request for a free librarian ticket, I am not very confident that they will have my name on file. Also, I did not get the chance to shower this morning, which is beginning to seem like a bad decision given the heat. In my scraggly, sweaty state, I’m probably looking indistinguishable from a rando off the street who attacked a librarian and stole his badge.


Somehow I also forgot to bring my new Adult Services Provider business cards. There’s a kind of small guild joke among A.S.P.s about how sleazy our job title sounds. These beauties have been literally months in the making and somehow I left my desk without grabbing some to take to the romance writers’ convention.

They do not have my name on file, but not only does the Penned Con staff quickly furnish me with a conference badge and a tote bag containing the official program, free swag, and a flash drive of free sample e-book downloads; I am quickly taken to meet Rick of Red Coat PR who brings me to meet his wife Amy, a mythological and fantasy romance novelist (Kindle rank #32,429). They are the organizers of this event. We talk briefly but enthusiastically about putting together a librarian panel for next year’s Con.

Red Coat PR is called such because Rick is British — not because Rick is my enemy or that he’s going to betray me, as I think for a paranoid split second. He is in fact very nice and his accent … well it’s mellifluous, everyone agrees. He gives me at least three of his excellent, rounded, pleasingly textured Red Coat PR business cards, and I scribble down my email on a piece of torn notebook paper.

Thus concludes the only conversation I will have in my two hours at Penned Con.


2:55 PM — Against the Grain

I step into a panel called “Against the Grain Open Q & A.” The program describes it as being about “what readers feel about killing favorite characters, happy endings, cliffhangers, bucking trends, smexy* scenes, writing for shock value and more.”

At the moment I walk in the panelists are agreeing that cliffhangers should make readers want to buy the next book in the series. Not an idea that will seriously trouble the Grain, but still a solid insight, and one that illuminates a key fact about Penned Con: pretty much every author here seems to have at least one series going. (One author with both a mystery series and a paranormal romance series is not unusual: it’s actually quite unfair to call Penned Con a romance convention, but romance does seem to be the most common element across the many sub-genres.)

As a marketing/PR novice, this strikes me to be as the closest thing to rock-solid beginner advice in the genre: get started on your series. Even in the literary realm, the multi-volume opuses of Elena Ferrante and Karl Ove Knausgaard have been moving units in translation, a symptom of what has been dubbed the “box set effect.”

There’s a slim Asian woman on the end of the panel (paid Kindle rank unknown, but probably pretty high, I missed the introductions and her name isn’t listed in the program). She has done both romantic series and steamier erotic series. She says that “there’s a market for the more romantic stuff, but not like the steamier ones.” She also has this endearing quality of being unable to swear out loud, even though there seems to be plenty of swearing and much, much else in her books, which I hope are on the flash drive.

(N.B.: this woman is one of two people of color I see at the Con. On the whole there is a really pleasing democratic feel to the proceedings here, but Red Coat PR could work on bringing more diversity to the table and expanding their reach into urban fiction and romance. We move a ton of this stuff at the library: e.g. Joy Deja King’s Female Hustler: All I See is The Money … (#105,353)).


The final question of the “Against the Grain” panel asks about the hardest authorial choices the panelists have made. They all give pretty interesting answers. These authors have a very vital, intimate, complicated bond with their readerships, I realize, so that these choices are not just artistic risks but personal ones — with each new plot twist and character development they’re gambling, in a sense, with their readers’ love. That is a lot to put on the line.

Meanwhile, and I’m not quite sure how this happens, but one of the panelists (name, Kindle rank unknown) launches into a long and tearful monologue about her late grandmother and a lost high school friend. The pain is undoubtedly real but there’s also something treacly and fabricated about the monologue. It’s like trompe l’oeil emotion, laid on too thick. The moderator even looks a bit nonplussed as she leads us in one of those weak rounds of forced applause, because everyone feels awkward and needs to do something with their hands. The lone male panelist, Eric Asher (#5,762), passes his colleague a big stuffed frog that may be raffled off later, and this confirms the overall impression that Asher is a cool guy, a sport. It is undoubtedly a classy move by Asher, who has a trilogy going.

I leave still feeling testy and manipulated. Maybe I am just a dick.

“I didn’t expect it to get so emotional in there,” the woman behind me says. I feel a surge of gratitude toward her. I wonder if she has an escort to tomorrow night’s masquerade ball.


Confessional Interlude — Outside Author Signing Room

There is no way to finesse the fact that I am a book snob. In my younger, even snobbier days, I once said to my brother: “This might sound pretentious, but I don’t like to read bestsellers. I will read a bestseller, but only years after everyone has stopped reading it. When it comes to books, I just don’t want to have the same experience everyone else is having.”

“Um, that definitely sounds pretentious,” my brother replied.

Many, I am tempted to say most, of the featured authors at Penned Con are USA Today and New York Times bestsellers. I expected to see some but not so many. It’s an open secret that the robust sales of romance and other genre fiction titles subsidize other genres, such as literary fiction, that sell far fewer copies. In some sense, I owe my career, such as it is, to writers I’ve never heard of or read, such as A.M. Hargrove (#68,573) and Denise Grover Swank (#170 and Penned Con’s keynote speaker). Actually I should probably read them if they are included on the free flash drive, because they’re clearly onto something.

People love these books. Okay, mostly women love these books, but something like 70-80% of all fiction readers are women, across all genres. Penned Con authors often have like 400-500 customer reviews on Amazon, and very high average star ratings. (I don’t even have the energy to check Goodreads.) This level of reader engagement and support is almost inconceivable to me — I think I would find it almost paralyzing. There is a tangible sense of the closeness of readers and writers at Penned Con, but also the sense that being in this room together is only the physical culmination of an ongoing closeness through books and online. This is, in other words, a real community.

3:30 PM – Author Signing Room

This does not really explain or justify my failure to negotiate the Author Signing Room. This is pretty much just garden-variety social anxiety taking over. The Signing Room is dense and intense. Picking up the trompe l’oeil theme from outside, the wallpaper in this room is covered in very three-dimensional looking arched white ribbons. The overall effect is like being packed inside a towering wedding cake with fifty romance novelists.

I take a quick look around but, aside from admiring the booth designs — I mean there are jewels and little rock quarries and synthetic strewn rose petals among other things, a real step up from your typical booth at AWP — I realize I’m just not going to make it very long in here. I am a little dizzy, and the books all look like they’re underwater somehow, so although I intend to linger and speak to an actual romance novelist about the convention hustle, and get some speculation going about tomorrow night’s masquerade ball, I’m more or less viscerally compelled to get out of there. This is what I do.

I feel like I have failed all four readers of Scribbler, especially my mom.


3:45 PM — The Lesson of Wallbanger

The day’s last session and things are getting a little loopy and impromptu by this point. However, this panel features three of Penned Con’s marquee authors, Alice Clayton (#2,984), Denise Grover Swank (probably #100 by now), and Aleatha Romig (#2,628), so they have it set up in a big ballroom on the thirteenth floor of the Sheraton.

The ballroom is about 1/4 full with the audience clustered close to the raised platform where the three panelists sit at a draped table. Looking to keep a low profile myself, I find a chair about fifteen rows back in the deserted middle-back of the room, only to find that I have inexplicably seated myself in the same row as one of the few other dudes at this conference. He wears a Cardinals cap and a light beard and pokes irritably at his phone. I like to think he is perhaps a stray husband from the earlier panel “Husbands of Authors 101.” What kind of guy attends Penned Con? Including legit authors like Eric Asher, there seem to be about ten men total. There was another older man in a gray blazer lurking around the Author Signing Room — maybe a publisher or an editor. I haven’t seen many publishers at the Con, which seems to be mostly free of middle-men.

The answer to this question would seem to be: “You. You are the kind of guy who attends Penned Con.” And possibly my friend here. We’ve set up at a wary distance from the panelists, but my friend and I have made a miscalculation. Up close to the stage, it is dim and anonymous, but the row where we are sitting, while further back, seems to be directly illuminated. It occurs to me that, from the panelists’ vantage, there are about one hundred obscured female heads and then two male ones, caught like perverts in searchlight. Oh, never mind: when I turn to look for my companion, he has retreated into the shadows.

Alone under the spotlight, I have a stray egotistical fantasy. Someone gets out of their chair and says: “He’s not just a librarian, he is the author of a critically acclaimed literary novel.

Just then, Red Coat PR Rick takes the stage. He is filling in for the scheduled moderator, he explains. The authors all seem to know Rick quite well (possibly from the UK Author Tour Red Coat PR has also organized) and they make mildly flirtatious jokes about his British accent. Rick proceeds to read a list of questions, the source is unclear, but I assume they come from the public, from readers.


Rick’s one substantial aside as moderator is about how busy authors are: they must be “their own CEO, their own CFO,” he says. He basically seems to view writing as a small business venture and this doesn’t seem to raise any hackles among the panelists or the audience. When I think about the fact that this is all taking place in an old J.C. Penney warehouse, it seems kind of appropriate, actually.

Two of the panelists, Alice Clayton and Aleatha Romig, trace the origins of their writing back to the recession. Clayton speaks about how her income was cut in half every year for several years until she had to sell her house. Romig began writing during a period when her husband lost his job; she wrote in the late hours after working full-time as a dental hygienist. “It was the one aspect of my life I could control,” she says. Denise Grover Swank’s ad in the Penned Con program strikes a similar theme: “I keep my sanity by creating characters to talk to and worlds to live in,” it reads.

The day’s best writing advice definitely comes from Alice Clayton, who talks about showing her first book — originating as a Twilight fan fiction called Edward Wallbanger — to a prominent, unnamed romance novelist. The writer told Clayton that she had to introduce the hero in the first chapter; in Clayton’s book, the hero did not even appear until Chapter 4. “But that’s the whole thing that makes my book unique!” she says. “My heroine spends the first three chapters of the book hearing him bang some other chick through the wall!”


Trust your instincts, in other words, and don’t let yourself be penned in by convention. The point has never been so vividly illustrated. There’s a nice payoff too: Wallbanger‘s success has allowed Clayton to buy a new house. When she says this, the whole crowd applauds, no prompting necessary this time.

Denise Grover Swank (surely approaching #50) casually offers a virtuoso dissection of Amazon and Kindle and Kindle Unlimited, the ways she uses them, and the limitations of the site (“Amazon is not your friend, they are doing what’s good for them”) while also being kind and nonjudgmental toward the many Kindle users in the crowd. She is an almost industrial-level producer of series, and casually refers to her free Kindle titles as “loss leaders,” but somehow she doesn’t sound smarmy while saying this, just like a smart woman who makes sound business decisions.

Aleatha Romig adds, at one point: “I’m a writer now. I used to write orthodontic prescriptions. That’s what I wrote.” There is a defiance about her: she tenses up when recounting the slighting remarks of relatives and friends, and you can tell that she’s still fighting these battles in her head, despite all of her success. There is an air of total determination about her. “I just want to become a better writer,” she says. “I want to get better with every book.”

I truly believe that she will.

4:55 PM

There are some raffle prizes being given away, including a Kindle Fire, but a Kindle Fire holds no interest for me. The words have always reminded me too much of Fahrenheit 451. I’m half-tempted to enter the raffle for the big stuffed frog that Eric Asher deployed for comforting purposes at Against the Grain, but my wife says our stuffed-animal menagerie has reached its limits.

I don’t even get a picture, unfortunately. Sorry, mom.

On the way down the elevator with four or five other Con-goers, the doors open to admit a new passenger, and get stuck, continuing to open and re-open. Someone says: “Getting to know you guys way too well.” Everyone is relieved when the doors finally close, and we are once again enclosed.

As we descend, I pretend, for a moment, that I am Denise Grover Swank, watching my Amazon ranking rise toward #1. Then I take heart in the lesson of Wallbanger: just do what you do. Be yourself. There is an inevitable discomfort when your dream is turned into a product: it’s okay. I still don’t know what “smexy”* means, but I’m not sure that I need to know. I head back out into the heat, the sultry heat.


* – These Kindle rankings are highly unscientific and shoddily researched, based on highest easily available ranking of a recent title. They are here to illustrate a larger point. My Kindle rank was #769,114 at the time of this writing, and has begun a steady descent toward #800,000. Literally every single person mentioned in this article is outselling me, often exponentially.

* – Not a typo. “Smexy,” according to the Urban Dictionary, can mean “smart and sexy,” or just “super sexy,” and can be used in a sentence in the following way: Chris is a smexy guy — he’s got straight As and he’s ripped! I am still not 100% clear on what would constitute a “smexy scene,” though. We may have to wait for the editors of the OED to sort this out, or at least until next year’s Penned Con.

For actual, legit, quality reporting from St. Louis Penned Con 2015, and pictures of the real masquerade ball, please visit Eva Pohler and For the Love of Books & Alcohol.

The very kind Rick and Amy Miles of Red Coat PR generously donate part of their earnings from Penned Con to Action for Autism, a St. Louis-based nonprofit which is dedicated to helping children on the autism spectrum find resources to improve their lives.

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