Sunbathing in Cemeteries Book Signing

I loaded up my minivan with my family and boxes of books, the detritus of road trips defying my boxes and tote bags as water bottles, chargers, candy wrappers, and things-we-desperately-need cluttered the floorboards. I was returning to my hometown for a Pies and Poetry event at Mayders and Tayders fruitstand. I get anxious as I cross into Mississippi, like it’s quicksand that I’ll get sucked into and never escape from casseroles, supersaturated sweet teas, and church invitations. That’s not to say that the South doesn’t have its charms. I can’t help but love the magnolias that line the highways at the state line. And I don’t think I can get the red clay out of my soul. The pine trees feel like home to me, even when I desire biodiversity and know there’s not much but pines. The Southern accent slips back into my mouth, whether I mean for it to or not, and my Minnesotan husband catches only about half of my words and less than that from the natives.

And, yes, they did remark, “He ain’t from ’round here, is he?” My pageant smile fell into place. And I forced air that sounded like a laugh out of my lungs. “No,” I joked, “I had to find him on the other end of the Mississippi River.”

I ate key lime pie with my kids, and they sampled the cheesecake, too. Aiden, my eldest, watched me like he’s never really seen me before. I usually exist in the silence and the gray tones of rain clouds. And he was watching me in the colorful walls with people who came out to support a local author and chat with an outlier. I took my anxiety meds before people walked in; PTSD has me watching every move from every person, and it’s a lot to process. I still felt my energy deplete like a cheap battery in a couple of hours. I was happy to catch up with friends and family, but it’s difficult for an introvert with PTSD–a bit like deciding to do a marathon after having knee replacement surgery.

I know the effort is worth it when I hear people with PTSD telling me they feel like someone else understands when they read my words. And I thoroughly enjoyed listening to rich laughter as the tiny town’s only black female minister laughed at my oh-so-real poetry before she bought copies. I, too, felt seen. Female ministers and female atheists are not that different in a small Southern town. We share an otherness and curiosity, a reckless abandon about public perception.

When I walk into book signings, I have a moment before anyone arrives that feels like standing on the ledge of a pit, right before I rappel into an abyss. What if no one shows up? What if they show up and hate my work? What if they show up and heckle me? I breathe and remember an anecdote that Neil Gaiman shared on imposter syndrome. He said:

“Some years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to a gathering of great and good people: artists and scientists, writers and discoverers of things. And I felt that at any moment they would realise that I didn’t qualify to be there, among these people who had really done things.

On my second or third night there, I was standing at the back of the hall, while a musical entertainment happened, and I started talking to a very nice, polite, elderly gentleman about several things, including our shared first name. And then he pointed to the hall of people, and said words to the effect of, “I just look at all these people, and I think, what the heck am I doing here? They’ve made amazing things. I just went where I was sent.”

And I said, “Yes. But you were the first man on the moon. I think that counts for something.”

And I felt a bit better. Because if Neil Armstrong felt like an imposter, maybe everyone did. Maybe there weren’t any grown-ups, only people who had worked hard and also got lucky and were slightly out of their depth, all of us doing the best job we could, which is all we can really hope for.”

And I remember I am in good company with the Neils. And I do my job–talking about books, writing, and the things that inspire me.

Sunbathing in Cemeteries

I did a thing. I finally clicked publish on my latest poetry book, Sunbathing in Cemeteries. It’s been about two years in the making as I have lived through the aftermath of domestic violence and my own PTSD. This book explores those issues and tangential ones–motherhood, the South, and dating after a divorce. (Dating after a divorce with PTSD and a fairly high ghost rate the second I mentioned kids.) I have always woven scientific metaphors into my work, but there were more in this volume than in Hell and High Water. When I chose not to dilute the metaphors, I added footnotes in a few places.

This book is called Sunbathing in Cemeteries because it’s the best way to describe my frame of mind as I published these poems. I woke up and took steps to get me closer to medical school every day, sometimes appalled that the world didn’t stop with me and that the sun kept rising when I felt dead. I kept moving forward, deciding that if I am going to exist in this cemetery of who I used to be, then I can at least sunbathe in it. I adore ironic juxtaposition, and I keep imagining myself with a lounger, a hot pink bikini, floppy sun hat, and cocktail with an umbrella, tanning in an old and deeply Gothic cemetery. Things might get better, they might not, but I am determined to live my best life, wherever I am in the healing process.

On a personal note, I have been mentally meandering this summer as I took time off from my pre-med work to address my own health issues, get some of my art out into the world, and travel with my awesome kids. I don’t know if any of you suffer from PTSD, but I have learned that I definitely cope best with a boring routine. Not having anyone demanding lab reports, papers, or studying for exams has left me aimless for a couple of months. Who would have guessed that the rigors of organic chemistry would provide solace? I never thought I’d long for the drudgery of another chemical mechanism. And if you tell anyone I said such a thing, I’ll deny it vehemently. That said, writing new material and getting it published is occupying the puzzle-sorting part of my mind for now. And I hope you enjoy the latest poetry volume.


Books That Helped After My Attack

So, October is domestic violence awareness month. And I’m a survivor. I want to spend the month telling you what worked for me. Today it’s all about the books.

I had a difficult time focusing after my attack while living with PTSD. Don’t get me wrong–it took a long time for me to get well enough to read anything. But here are the books that made an impact–both fiction and nonfiction.

The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk. This was the first book I read after my attack. And I loved it. It described perfectly what was happening with my body. And the author has decades of experience treating trauma and discussed the nuances of which treatments offered what benefits. It made me feel like I was responding normally to what happened to me, when most of the people I was close to were treating me like I was crazy. It prompted me to seek trauma therapy that really helped me move forward.

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. I am lucky. I am not only an author. I have friends pushing me to succeed in every area of my life, and I have started back on the journey to med school. (Move over, Michael Crichton and Andy Weir.) Gladwell taught me that success is not only effort. It’s opportunity. Not succeeding immediately is normal. Tenacity and shining moments of dumb luck are what creates success. It’s a book that might help you reframe your journey and pick yourself up.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. This one was a beautifully written memoir from a broken woman who dealt with her trauma as I wanted to. She hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and was candid about the moments that get one thinking, “I’d like to walk thousands of miles in the wilderness now. Solo.” I like people who are broken, beautiful, and remade.

The Alpha and Omega series by Patricia Briggs. It might be a trigger for some. The main character, Anna, is a survivor. And Briggs did an amazing job of capturing how trauma stays with us, while also showing Anna growing. I needed this urban fantasy tale of recovery. It gave me hope that someone could love the broken. And I met a man who loves me as I am, who didn’t bat an eyelash at my noise cancelling headphones on our first date. But I had to believe it was possible first.

Karen Marie Moning’s Kingdom of Shadow and Light. This is the end of the Fever series. And I adore Moning’s treatment of traumatized characters and her let’s-be-real author notes. I cried when I read the afterword. Honestly, it did more for me than the book, and I loved the book. Moning had major health issues that she thought might have impacted her ability to write at all. And she fought despair and stubbornly continued until she was able to finish the book. I worried I’d never write again after my attack. So, I know her despair. I’ve published two books in these two years, and I have two novels in the works now and a new poetry book awaiting my editing. I cried with her, and she didn’t know it. If you write (or wrote) and think someone might have beaten your art out of you, I think you should hang on and not let go of what you love without a fight.

I hope the books help you or your friends. As Moning would say, stay to the light.

Words Cover Me Again

One of the major parts of being a writer is being a reader. I know that adoring books inspired me to write a few. But I ignored that part of me after my attack (almost two years ago now). One of the things people don’t tell you about PTSD is that it takes away your ability to focus for a while. I couldn’t believe that after devouring books by the thousands, I didn’t want to read anything. I realized that almost all entertainment is violent; TV, movies, books–they were all out of the question for me. I liked Neil Gaiman and thought I could watch American Gods. What a crazy mistake. I was having a panic attack within five minutes. I used to binge space operas and missed letting myself slide into a good story, but The Expanse was so loud and intense and terrifying.

For a time, I gave up. I threw myself into remodeling my house, knitting, and being the best biochemistry student. I continued to write poetry and other works prolifically, but I didn’t pick up a book. Can one have bibliophile dysfunction? I wondered. And no one could tell me when or if words would wrap themselves around me again.

I kept buying books, like a dragon hoarding gold. It’s ridiculous to know you’re not going to read a book, but to fill a shelf anyway. It was my small, stubborn act of faith. I piled poetry, nonfiction, and my favorites–Patricia Briggs, Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, Ransom Riggs, and Rick Riordan–all onto a shelf. And I moved those boxes, cherishing the To Be Read box above all others. I moved it in my van with the espresso machine, a place of honor. And I told myself, “I’m gonna need these.” And my husband didn’t say a word, and he held me when I cried about books. And he gave me a little smile when I piled more on the shelf.

Then, a wild thing happened–I bought a Patricia Briggs novel, and I read it. I did all of my classwork, got ahead in labs, and I laid in bed reading a book. I read Wild Sign and didn’t live in my world for a bit. I felt so broken like Anna, but along the road to recovery. She resonated with me. And I haven’t really stopped reading since. I haven’t made it through the stack I bought yet, but can you imagine the ink-and-paper feast I’ve had? I just finished reading Jim Butcher’s Peace Talks and Battleground, all in one week because I had them both. I’ve been eyeing Charlaine Harris’s Night Shift and Ransom Riggs’s Map of Days next. What’s on your to-be-read pile? Help me refill the shelf with good choices–anything but horror and westerns.

Where Angels Can’t Follow: Blog Tour Day 2

I did a guest post for TMBA Corbett on my Top 5 Favorite Books. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to narrow that discussion down to only five books, but it was agonizing for me. You can take a look here.

Where Angels Can’t Follow was also featured at Books A-Brewin’. You can check out that page for new YA reading and to see Chapter 1 of Where Angels Can’t Follow if you haven’t gotten to it yet. You can find it here.

And there’s an opportunity to register for the giveaway of Iron Shards at every stop on the tour.

Happy Reading!

Iron Spirits: Silver Linings

I’ve begun writing Iron Spirits, the book following my debut novel, Iron Shards. I’m a little bit exhausted today and not sure I will meet my daily writing goal. (The photo is my half-filled coffee mug from my alma mater. Iced lattes are fueling these pages.) I’ve set a breakneck pace–3,000 words a day–to get the latest book out to you guys this fall. You’ve certainly waited long enough. Thanks for hanging in here with me.

Insomnia has not been kind to me these last ten months, and authors don’t actually live charmed lives. (Even if that’s the picture we’d like to paint.) If you’ve looked at my poetry or my posts regarding PTSD, then you’ll know that my struggle persists. Insomnia is a common PTSD symptom; my body thinks it’s always under attack, and that doesn’t do wonders for sleep. I also need a second surgery because my nasal passages are still partially blocked after my nose was broken. And for quite a few reasons, it’s currently on hold.

The silver lining to all of this is that I write amazing traumatized characters. I know the things people do when they’ve seen death, been attacked, gone through an accident. I know what they’ll do immediately after and a month later. So, I’m penning an authentic moody, traumatized teen. But, at times, I don’t even like him much, even if I am certain he’s behaving exactly like he should be. (Think Harry Potter Book 5.)

But he’s on a journey, too, and I’m looking forward to sharing bits of his story in Iron Spirits soon.

Where Angels Can’t Follow: Chapter 2

“When it comes to art, it’s important not to hide the madness.”—Atticus

The forks clinked against the plates as we ate in silence. When my belly’s full of fried veggies and meat, I have to acknowledge that it’s bratty not to change a few light bulbs without feeling put upon. And my guilt deepened as I realized my attention’s been divided between the spiral I sent Kiah into and the angel girl in my mind, none of it on Marge. My eyes drifted to the New Orleans Daily newspaper lying on the table.

Statue Smashers Strike St Louis Number Three

The angels that once perched atop mausoleums for St. Francis’s Abbey and the Milleneaux Family tombs have been sledged off their bases. According to our source, the statues “weren’t just knocked down; they were beaten into dust!” (See p. C7 for rest of story)

Marge followed my gaze and opined, “Can you imagine what sorta lowlife goes ‘round smashing statues on people’s final resting places?” She clucked. “I just don’t know what’s got into people.”

I nodded my agreement and was looking for words when Marge continued, “I saw the old home director at the store today.”

I nod. What’s there to say? No love had been lost between Team Kiah and Nate and the New Orleans Home for Wayward Children. It actually says that on the sign. Kiah and I didn’t start out there, but when we both were placed there, we raised hell until we found our way out.

“How’s she doin’?”

“She asked about you and Kiah. Said she still thinks taking your GEDs and moving out was a mistake.”

“Dead horses we gotta keep beating.”

“Now, speaking of Kiah, don’t you think it’s about time she started acting like a girl? Made some girl friends?”

I tried not to choke on my food as her abrupt subject change left me reeling. She slapped me on the back, and I finally eked out some words, “Oh, no! You’re not dragging me into this! There’s no way I am getting involved in a Kiah—Grace dispute. There’s no winning that one.”

“Well, of course, it can be won. Don’t be ridiculous. You just have to encourage her to go to a few places where she could actually meet the right kind of girls, you know?”

Little did she know, Kiah would love to meet the right kind of girls. Just not that kind. “Uh-huh. I see. My answer is still no. I’m not gonna be responsible for my business partner getting dragged to places that make her miserable.”

Marge looked like she wanted to grab me by my ear and force my cooperation on Operation Cinderella. But we don’t have any fairy godmothers here, just the Hatters and one opinionated teenage girl.

“Well, if you ain’t gonna help with Kiah, let’s talk about the hunk of rock taking up half my garage space.”

The women in my life really know how to press my buttons. I stalled with bites of food.

“What do you want to discuss?” I finally asked.

“Are you gonna move it somewhere else? Are you gonna carve it? If so, what are you carving?” Clearly, the questions had built up while I was gone. “Oh, and did you figure out who delivered it? And why?”

“Whoa. One at a time. I haven’t planned to move it. Do you really need me to? And, yes, I think I am gonna carve it.”

I thought maybe a few answers would suffice, but Marge sat there waiting for the rest of them. She locked her steely, knowing eyes on mine.

“You know darned well that I can outwait you, Nate. And that pie I made earlier’s gonna wait, too, if you don’t answer my questions.”

I know when I’ve been outmaneuvered. Kiah and the Hatters have been working me into whatever plots they’ve had for a year now. And they know about one of my serious weaknesses—food.

Sighing, I answered, “I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m gonna carve an angel of sorts.”

Her smile carved deeper creases around her eyes and mouth, but the light of her approval warmed me already. “An angel! How wonderful! I can’t wait to tell the girls. Ooooh! Something divine in my garage!” She clapped her hands together, before drawing up short. “I have one concern though—she’s gonna be wearing clothes, right? This ain’t gonna be like that poster in your room, is it?”

Here we go again.

“Now, Marge. I already told you. There’s nothing weird about those posters. If anything, there’s something kinda nerdy about them. That naked statue that so offends you is Michelangelo’s David. The others are his work, too. There’s nothing obscene about it. It’s art!” I waved my arms around for emphasis, punctuating the last word in my exasperation.

I still hadn’t answered the question, and she mulishly crossed her arms, waiting for my answer.

“No, she’s not gonna be naked! Christ!” I ducked as Marge swatted at me with the newspaper for taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Ack! Lay off, Marge. Seriously. She’ll have clothes.”

Still clutching the paper, but the tension gone from her brows, she went to grab the chocolate pie as I wondered what kind of clothes she thought should appear on an angel. She’s happy about the clothing situation now, but she doesn’t know that I’ll basically be carving Sarah Connor with wings. The thought of her shock sweetened the chocolate in my mouth even more, and I savored my pie as I thought about the spiky blades protruding like porcupine quills on my angel’s thighs and arms.

I listened to the nuances of working in a new medium in Sculpture 2. Mrs. Carmichael droned about the benefits of working in clay and the disadvantages. I am more of a doer than a listener though, always have been, and I fidgeted with the ball of clay before me. I can’t let it go, pounding the piece between my palms, and my hands are operate independently of my mind, stroking and shaping the ovoid piece into an unusual teardrop. My fingertips pinched the rounded edges, adding rounded steps to the project, and I barely heard Mrs. Carmichael in the background as the other students began rolling their clay.

I should be worried about my instructions, but I find no space for that in my head. I only saw filaments, fibers, details of the wing. I etched the details into the outline I’ve made, the foundation for my project. I scraped with my scalpel and a tiny pick to get each filament, each feather to match the picture in my mind. I should quit. I should apologize for zoning out and find out what’s going on, but I can’t.  I didn’t want to. I wanted to practice, I wanted to see my angel finished. I needed to bring her into my world. I looked up and saw the rest of the students trying to make a basic bowl shape. I could press my clay into a hollow hemisphere. I could have still gone back, but I didn’t. I etched and fluffed the clay ridges until I have a wing. And I never learned to etch or fluff. I am more than inspired. I am driven, compelled to carve. I would say that I’m possessed of a mad angel-sculpting spirit, but who does that? That’s crazier than needing to sculpt. But I couldn’t break the wing beneath my palm. I already love her.

My reverie broke as a classmate bumped into me. The other students were filing out, and Mrs. Carmichael stared at me and my work. “What are you doing?” she asked, kindly demanding some explanation for my deviation.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled, my pulse racing as I was caught. “I just couldn’t get it out of my head.”

She didn’t give me the you’re-a-psycho look I expected though. Instead, she kindly patted my hand and her eyes filled with sympathy. “I know what you mean. I get things in my head, and I can’t sculpt anything else either. It is weird that you chose wings though.”

There it was. An acknowledgement of my inherent oddity.

She looked at me suggestively. “Would you like to see my studio?”

Curious, and more than a little cautious, I nodded my assent and scooped up my books as I cradled the wing. Is she hitting on me? I haven’t gotten any creepy vibes off of this woman before, but Kiah and I have learned the hard way that not every threat exudes violence. I towered over my petite teacher. I shouldn’t feel threatened, but I can’t shake the ominous feeling, that sense of inevitability as defining moments lurk around a corner we can’t glimpse.

We walked across the campus, in a mostly uncomfortable silence, the tension rising. I could practically hear the violins shrieking in my skull, goosebumps warning me that nothing was normal here.

An old brick building’s first floor housed the instructors’ studio, and I was prepared to see abstract pieces, nudes like David, and huge canvases, scribbles of ideas on scraps of paper. Instead, I was surprised by the number of instructors all working at the same time. Don’t y’all take time off? And then I saw the four artists in this room were shaping, sketching, painting—a room crowded with angels.

“Welcome to the Angel Guild,” she joked.

“The Angel Guild?”

“I’m afraid that you know what I mean. You were approached by the Valkyries about getting justice for someone you love, right? And, all of a sudden, you’re fixated on one project. And not just the image, the inspiration, but on how you should do it. What material, what size. You know it all, don’t you? And it’ll culminate in a marble angel.”

I stood there, dumbfounded as she told me parts of my new life story.

“Kind of.”

“And your marble’s been delivered?”

I grew cold with horror as her confounding knowledge chilled me. “Uh-huh.”

She pushed her chunky hipster glasses up the bridge of her nose. “You’d best stick with us. Not everyone will understand what you’re going through.”

I couldn’t believe that she will either. I wanted to ask if her marble pulses, if it’s alive. But I’ve concealed my obsession so far.

“Is this some kind of joke? I didn’t get a ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ offer from a—did you say, ‘valkyrie’?”

I knew my tone was biting, but I don’t like being pranked.

“It’s not a joke. And I’ve never heard of the Inspiration not coming from Valkyrie class angel, a Fury, or one of the Four. You might want to check the skepticism at the door. We are the only ones who will believe you, no matter what, over the coming weeks and months. You can carve here, or wherever you’d like. I just thought you should know that you’re not alone.”

The other sculptors chipped away at the stone. Clink, clink. But they were watching me, too.

The closest one put her chisel down.

“I’m Anna Kemp.” She introduced herself with a pained smile.

“Nate Jacoby.”

And the greeting continued around the room with Paul Stanton, Grant Miller, and Howard Trent, barely allotting time for nods and registering my name. Whatever this place is, I didn’t want to be there. After the clipped hellos from the men, I backed away from the circle of materials ringing the room. I nearly took out an easel with my backward march, but I didn’t belong. Maybe I’m full of the naivete of youth, but I’m not ready to lie down and give in to divine inspiration.

Do you hear that, Muses? I won’t carve just because you say sculpt. Nathaniel Forrest Jacoby is no one’s lapdog.

And I sprinted through the sultry air burning my lungs. I sprinted clear off of campus and didn’t stop in the neutral ground for the streetcar like I planned. I don’t have time to wait, to pause, to reflect. Because I know things I didn’t before. Whether inspiration is divine or not, it’s real, and my angel didn’t spring from my own mind.

Hell and High Water: Proofs Are In!

It’s been quite a week here with two sets of proofs arriving within three days! I feel spoiled getting to hold the results of years of writing all at once. And this little book is a rollercoaster of love, failure, PTSD, violence, and the South surrounding me.

Hell and High Water will be available on August 25th. You can pre-order ebooks before then, but the print version goes live on publication day.

Continue reading

Hell and High Water

I have been writing poetry for years. I’ve read amazing lines that left me despairing of my ability to match the skill of my favorite poets, awed by the way they bare the truth with only a few words. Mary Oliver, Sylvia Plath, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, and Pablo Neruda, along with so many others, taught me how to gut punch with the truth and a few lines.

I needed distance from my own poems before I was ready to separate and edit them, making cuts and looking for the most precise word. And I still might not have decided to share my poems. But, recently, I have been on a quest for any verses, any songs that capture the way I feel. And so much lacked depth. I began to wonder if maybe no one was in as much pain as I was. Living with PTSD can be isolating. PTSD on top of a pandemic made me feel singularly desolate. I’m especially interested in eradicating the lies we tell ourselves; in this case, it’s “I’m alone and no one can help me. No one else feels like this.”

Hell and High Water Cover 2So, I’ve decided to release the deepest and darkest words I’ve got. They aren’t pretty. They aren’t nice. They are concise. My poetry is a blend of Southern drawls, the fusion of science and art, and a whole lot of pain with a few glimmers of happiness. It’s not for the faint of heart. But I’m sharing it in case anyone else is on my dark path and thinks they are walking alone. If you’re heartbroken, read the whole thing. If you think you’re the poster child for PTSD, try “Fallacies” and “Ripples”. And then notice that “The Inverse” and “Benediction” follow those. I can’t hold everyone’s hand through panic attacks, but I can offer a sense of community and hope.

Hell and High Water will soon be available for pre-order and will be released on August 25, 2020.  (It’s a bit of a pandemic surprise for me, too.)