Category Archives: Writers

She Knew What We Did Those Summers: Remembering Lois Duncan (1934-2016)

I Know What You Did Last SummerKilling Mr. Griffin

My teenage summers were spent poolside at the Valley Club,  sharing secrets with my best friends over orders of French fries blanketed in Cheez-Wiz.  We lounged on beach towels with our Sony Walkmans blasting ’80s pop music loud enough to drown out our immature siblings’ screeches of “Marco! Polo!” in the deep end of the pool. We doused ourselves with enough Hawaiian Tropic oil that made us as bronzed as an Olympic medal.

When we weren’t in the pool or discussing Luke and Laura on “General Hospital,” we were reading anything we could get our hands on.

Maybe it was characteristic of my group of friends at the time or the pre-Internet/pre-smartphone era, but we read A LOT. Like everything and anything.

All the time.

And perhaps it was because of our rather uneventful, vanilla, goody-two-shoes suburban middle-class upbringing (and attending school with peers whose families were in much, much higher economic echelons), but we seemed drawn to darker stories with just enough thrill factor to keep us turning the pages.

Aside from Judy Blume writing about our deepest insecurities and rites of passages and V.C. Andrews’ creepy as all freaking hell Flowers in the Attic series,  young adult author Lois Duncan’s teen suspense novels are the ones that are seared into my memory from those years.

Thrillers about a car accident involving well-off teens that resulted in murder (I Know What You Did Last Summer, 1973); sinister cousins (Summer of Fear, 1976) and a high school prank intended to scare a mean teacher that goes horribly wrong (Killing Mr. Griffin, 1978) were stories as drop-dead real as anything we saw on the evening broadcast of Action News. (These were the years when people still watched the news.  And when the world had to be ending for the news to be considered “breaking.”)

Lois Duncan’s fiction was chilling and terrifying and made those of us who led a relatively sheltered and privileged life wonder if such horrendous things could really happen. Through her groundbreaking writing for teens, Lois Duncan showed us that, at least in fiction, they could. As we got older, real life would have no shortage of atrocities — one only needs to look at the past week for proof of that.

Sadly, Lois Duncan herself experienced personal tragedy in 1989 when her daughter Kaitlyn was murdered — ironically, just a month after the publication of one of Duncan’s novels with a similar plot. For years, she devoted her life to writing about her daughter’s still unsolved murder and supporting others whose loved ones were homicide victims.

Lois Duncan died on Wednesday, June 15 at age 82, leaving a rich literary legacy of children’s books, young adult novels, short stories, magazine articles, and nonfiction. Those of us who grew up in the late ’70s through the mid-80s enjoyed what I believe was a golden age of young adult literature by writers who bravely took chances with their work and were trailblazers for many of today’s equally outspoken and daring young adult authors.

Until I read her obituary in Publisher’s Weekly, I had no idea that Lois Duncan Steinmetz was a Philadelphia native, which endears her to me even more. (Her family moved to Florida when she was young. Still, in my mind she’s a Philly girl like me, making my days of reading her novels while growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs especially nostalgic.)

I think the hallmark of a great writer is someone whose books are remembered decades after reading them. Even if some details of the plots have faded, we can immediately recall how books like Killing Mr. Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer always made us feel.

Deliciously chilled to the bone, even on the hottest of summer days.

99 Days of Summer BloggingThis is post #19 of 99 in my 99 Days of Summer Blogging project. 





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write the hell out of this life

Daffodil in rain

When it came to writing, Ryan Mooney was among the best.

I wrote about my friend Ryan here, a few days ago in the midst of the unknowing. There are some answers now with the finality that his death brings, but the big question of why will linger always in the chasm that remains with this loss.

Maybe if I had paid more attention to what I didn’t see. Maybe if I had somehow known to reach out at precisely the right moment.

I am not the only one haunted by the what-if’s. I am not the only one who will always wonder why.

Since getting the devastating news earlier this week, I’ve tried – to no avail – to find some Facebook conversations Ryan and I shared, probably a year or so ago. The fluidity of time is a bitch to the psyche; in an online world where everything remains for posterity, the messages we exchanged seem to be gone, vanished – yet I remember them and I will treasure the heartfelt connection they held. We’ve all been in that dark place of betrayal by people who we loved and who we thought loved us.  In our emails back then, I wanted Ryan to understand that I knew exactly where he had been at that low point.

I only wish that I knew where he was in this most recent emotional place.

Most of our all-too-few conversations, though, were about writing. Nearly four years ago, I decided to attend a meeting of the Pittsburgh South Writers Group. It was about 45 minutes from my home and I didn’t know anyone there. I could count on one hand the number of people I knew in Pittsburgh (and that included my husband and two kids). I didn’t have anyone here – besides The Husband – who I would characterize as a friend. All I knew was that, in this new town of mine, more than 325 miles away from Philadelphia and everyone and everything that was familiar to me, I needed to connect with people who appreciated good writing and were dedicated to creating it.

There were some very good writers in the Pittsburgh South Writers Group. Still are. But right away, Ryan stood out to me and several of our peers.  I can’t remember the first piece of his that I read, but I knew immediately he was tremendously talented and a unique voice with incredible potential.  I could see that out of some deep pain came some of the funniest, daring, and amazingly real writing I’d ever read. He was serious about his writing and it showed.

Since his passing, I’ve become friendly with one of Ryan’s friends from the online writing community, LitReactor. Holly captured Ryan’s writing so well with this words in her post, “Gone But Never Forgotten”:

Ryan guarded himself with the fortress of his stories. His narrative was gritty and raw—a badge of honor having survived years of addiction and depression. He protected the chasm of his heart with characters that were as complex as he was. Ryan’s unabashed personality and unflinching honesty about his life revealed itself in every story he crafted. But nestled within sentences was a vulnerability, a tenderness that lived in the marrow of the skeleton of his plots. Ryan’s need for acceptance lived within the viscera of immaculate mechanics and tendons of run-on sentences he loved to use, yet his yearning for self-acceptance was an ending that would never reach fruition. Like an eclipse, such self-doubt shadowed Ryan’s limitless potential as a writer and often obscured his ability to see the effect his writing had on those fortunate enough to read his work.

Ryan was among those who I trusted to provide feedback on my current work-in-progress, a story that I’ve described as being one that doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up. Currently a novel, it might become a memoir or a collection of linked stories. Ryan knew how deeply personal this story was to me, how potentially controversial, and he treated it with the utmost respect, providing such helpful critiques.

Like Holly, I’ve been thinking also about what words Ryan and I would have shared if we’d had the chance to have another conversation about writing. Out of nowhere, a phrase came to me the other day. An urgent whisper, perhaps.

Write the hell out of this life.

Maybe it’s original, maybe it’s not. Whatever it is, I’d like to think it is some sort of lesson that can be taken from Ryan’s life and his approach to the written word. Because that’s exactly what he did, in every sense. He wrote the hell out of life by writing hard. He put in the time and did the work. He was committed. And with his passing, I think he would expect – no, demand – that his writer friends do the same. To re-commit to our work. To be as good as we possibly can be. And most importantly, to be that friend that others may not always know they need. Perhaps that’s the takeaway I’m looking for. Perhaps it’s part of the solace I need.

Because like so many others,I am heartbroken that Ryan’s story ended the way it did. I’m angry and devastated that we’ll never learn what the next chapter held. He had so much more to give. Speaking for myself, I had so much more to learn from him and so much more feedback I would have loved to have had from him, one of the best critics I knew.

In the wake of his death, I give you “Hardboiled Hell,” one of Ryan’s short stories. It’s classic Ryan, full of edge and the sly wordplay those of us who were privileged to read his work loved and knew so well, and which delighted and surprised us, again and again and again. I hope you will take a minute to read it and think about it. (It’s not quite what it might seem.)

As I re-read his story again a few nights ago, I was struck by the reference to the song “Meet Me In Heaven” by Johnny Cash and written by Roseanne Cash.I don’t know the song, so of course I turned to Google and found this:

We saw houses falling from the sky
Where the mountains lean down to the sand
We saw blackbirds circling ’round an old castle keep
And I stood on the cliff and held your hand
We walked troubles brooding wind swept hills
And we loved and we laughed the pain away
At the end of the journey, when our last song is sung
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
[Chorus] Can’t be sure of how’s it’s going to be
When we walk into the light across the bar
But I’ll know you and you’ll know me
Out there beyond the stars
We’ve seen the secret things revealed by God
And we heard what the angels had to say
Should you go first, or if you follow me
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
Living in a mansion on the streets of gold
At the corner of Grace and Rapture Way
In sweet ecstasy while the ages roll
Will you meet me in Heaven someday
In sweet ecstasy while the ages roll
Will you meet me in Heaven someday

See you there, my friend.

With heartfelt thanks to Holly Bella Toschi for permission to share her words and to Ryan’s mom for allowing me to share her son with you.

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on birth, sorrow, and the promise of spring

Phipps - Spring Flower Show 2015; photo credit, Melissa Firman

This photo practically screams “Easter,” doesn’t it? Taken 4/4/2015 by me at the Phipps Conservatory, Spring Flower Show 2015, Pittsburgh, PA photo credit: Melissa Firman


On Easter … 
As disloyal as it feels to all my years of Sunday School and church attendance, the youth group activities that shaped me, the formal religious upbringing I’ve had, Easter has in recent years become less of a religious holiday for me and more of a celebration of spring, a renewal of the spirit. I say I’m Unitarian Universalist, which is what I identify with most, but the truth of the matter is that I’m somewhat lapsed in my UU church attendance/involvement.

This tends to happen fairly regularly; I’m the only one in the family with any interest in attending church these days, so while the notion is still ingrained in me from years gone by that this should be/needs to be a family affair, it’s not our reality and making it be a solo effort is more difficult than I imagined.

On Birthdays… 
Perhaps I’m a bit more reflective than usual this Easter morn, given that I’ve just marked another trip around the sun in terms of a birthday.  It has been a low-key birthday weekend. We went out to eat on Friday to The Oven Pizza Company in Wexford – I had been wanting to try it for awhile because I’d heard great things about their gluten-free pizza, which I really liked. The kids liked the wings, too. (Longer review soon but the bottom line is that we’ll be back.)

Phipps - Viola Hip Hop Cranbunny

“Viola Hip Hop Cranbunny” ~ as seen at the Phipps Spring Flower Show 2015, Pittsburgh, PA ~ April 4, 2015 ~ Photo Credit: Melissa Firman

Yesterday, The Girl and I went to the Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens to take in the Spring Flower Show. I always enjoy the Phipps (these photos are all from our visit yesterday) and this year’s Flower Show was most welcome, given the ridiculous winter Pittsburgh was dealt. We also enjoyed a nice brunch at The Porch at Schenley, and some time at the Library. I read and browsed while The Girl participated in a teen anime program.

On Reading …

West of Sunset by Stewart O’Nan piqued my interest in reading more about Zelda and Scott, which is what intrigued me about Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.  I’ve been listening to this in the car for the last two weeks or so. Really liked this one (Jenna Lamia’s narration is, as always, top notch) as it gave me a much more different perspective of Zelda than I’d had with West of Sunset. It’s also quite sad, as clearly Zelda was a woman born before her time. I’d like to think with better pharmacology and more modern psychological supports she would have been known more for more than being F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife and gotten the recognition she deserved.

I’ve abandoned a few novels and an audiobook this week. Doesn’t matter which ones. They’re probably fine, but they just weren’t for me.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs TonightNext week, Alexandra Fuller comes to Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures, so I’m trying to read some of her work before attending that event.  I just started Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, her debut memoir.

This is how it begins:

Mom says, “Don’t come creeping into our room at night.”
They sleep with loaded guns beside them on the bedside rugs.
She says, “Don’t startle us when we’re sleeping.”
“Why not?”
“We might shoot you.”
“By mistake.” 

On Writing … 
My friend Sarah and her husband Jeff have launched Flashbang! Writing Studio, which offers creative writing workshops for high school and middle school students. As Sarah and Jeff put it, they “help our students write stories with wings and teeth, generate poems based on reality TV and their Twitter feeds, and master that delicate alchemy of turning words into worlds—all while engaging them in deep readings of complex texts and refining their mastery of grammar and mechanics.” For National Poetry Month, I’m participating in Flashbang! Writing Studio’s First Annual Poem-A-Thon. I wanted to do some poetry writing this month and NaPoWriMo felt too overwhelming. This is perfect. Poem #1 is … in the works.

I had the chance to hear novelist Steve Berry give a talk on Thursday evening and say a few words to him. His talk emphasized how much research he does for his novels (which, admittedly, I haven’t read) along with the fictional aspects, and it made me more inspired to get back into the research aspect of my own novel in progress.

On Sorrow …
Finally, my heart goes out this Easter to one of the blogging community’s best-known voices. As many know from following her on Facebook, Sheila from Book Journey lost her 24-year-old son Justin in a car accident very early yesterday morning. The love that Sheila has for her sons is evident in her posts about them and religious or not, it is impossible to overlook the symbolism of this tragedy at Easter and springtime.

Sheila, your family is in our thoughts and prayers during these difficult days. I know I echo the sentiments of many in the blogging community in offering our hope that the wonderful memories of Justin brings you and your family comfort, strength, peace and love.

Phipps - Spring Flower Show 2015 - 2

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Book Review: Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer

Frances and Bernard

Frances and Bernard, by Carlene Bauer
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
208 pages 

This, right here, is one of my newest favorite books.

How can it not be, with its nod to my beloved Philadelphia and Flannery O’Connor, one of my favorite authors?

Well, not Flannery exactly. In this novel,  the character of Frances Reardon is considered to have been inspired by the Southern writer; the Bernard in the title is poet Robert Lowell. Both real-life authors met in 1957 at Yaddo, a writers colony, and started corresponding shortly thereafter. Hence, Frances and Bernard is based on that correspondence and the relationship – what was and what could have been – between the two intriguing artists.

To quote the summary on Goodreads, this is a novel about

the kind of fast, deep friendship that can take over—and change the course of—our lives …. It explores the limits of faith, passion, sanity, what it means to be a true friend, and the nature of acceptable sacrifice. In the grandness of the fall, can we love another person so completely that we lose ourselves? How much should we give up for those we love? How do we honor the gifts our loved ones bring and still keep true to our dreams?

I can’t say it any better than that. Some of us have been lucky enough to experience such a fast, deep friendship. If it was a long time ago, Frances and Bernard will transport you right back to those heady, talk-about-anything-while-baring-one’s-soul days.

These are fascinating people. I was already a fan of Flannery O’Connor’s, but I admit I hadn’t read nor known much about this period of her life nor her connection with Robert Lowell, so Frances and Bernard was a treat.

Frances and Bernard is the rare sort of book that allows the reader to transcend reading. You forget you’re reading and instead you delve right into the prose and you become immersed in the beauty of the words because Carlene Bauer’s writing – as Frances and Bernard – is so damn good. Every single line.

Like these:

“Irish girls from North Philadelphia can’t afford to think that they will be fine without the benevolence of the New Yorker, even as they give the New Yorker a Bronx cheer.” (pg. 76)

“Am I from Pittsburgh and just don’t know it? Someone else misidentified my city of birth as Pittsburgh.” (pg. 113)

“She [Frances] does not know anyone who has written and mothered, so she thinks it impossible. (I actually don’t either – all the women writers I know are libertines.) But she needs to be in control, and she has chosen to be in control of the people in her stories.” (pg. 135)

Here’s what I know about Carlene Bauer; she is definitely in control of the people in this, her debut novel.

5 stars out of 5.  Highly recommended.


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Acquired Taste Presents: Holiday Recovery? (Yes, Please. With Visions of Oysters and Crocheted Toilet Paper Roll Holders In My Head.)

I don’t know about you, but I need to do some major recovery from this holiday season.  Like, right now.

(Did I mention that Christmas is still seven days out as of this writing?)

It’s a good thing, then, that author Marissa Landrigan is organizing one of her fantastic Acquired Taste literary reading events for January 10 at the fantastic East End Book Exchange.

Acquired Taste Holiday Recovery

And yes, your eyes aren’t deceiving you: I’m beyond honored to be one of the featured readers at this literary event with incredibly talented Pittsburgh writers Rachel Mennies (The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards (Texas Tech University Press, 2014), No Silence in the Fields (Blue Hour Press, 2012) and Jeff Oaks. I’ll be debuting a new, not-even-published-here-on-the-blog-yet creative nonfiction essay of mine, “When We Were Oysters.”

(There might be mention of my childhood passion for crocheted toilet paper roll holders and, well … oysters.)

Acquired Taste is a curated series of public readings, each featuring 3-4 local or touring authors reading their work around a food-related theme. Marissa’s hope is that this series will showcase the outstanding literary talent in Pittsburgh and to be part of expanding the literary world’s understanding of food writing to something beyond restaurant reviews and cookbooks.

I’m beyond honored and thrilled to be included, and I look forward to sharing my essay “When We Were Oysters”  – about a nostalgic, childhood tradition – with you.

All will be merry and bright. Event is free and all are welcome.

Please join us?


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top ten tuesday: top ten new-to-me authors i read in 2014

Top Ten Tuesday - New

For Top Ten Tuesday, an original weekly feature created by The Broke and the Bookish, we’re asked to share our top 10 new-to-us authors we read this year.  In alphabetical order, here are 10 authors who I read for the first time in 2014, along with what works of theirs I read.

There are another 10 writers who could have just as easily have been on this list.


1. Carlene Bauer (Frances and Bernard)

2. Katie Coyle (“Fear Itself,” from One Story)

3. poet Olena Kalytiak Davis (And Her Soul Out of Nothing)

4. poet Terrance Hayes (Muscular Music, Hip Logic, Wind in a Box, Lighthead)

5. Rachel Joyce (Perfect)

6. Paul Monette (Borrowed Time)

7. Sylvia Plath (The Bell Jar)

8. Dani Shapiro (Devotion, Slow Motion)

9. Megan Stielstra (Once I Was Cool)

10. Niall Williams (History of the Rain)

Each week The Broke and the Bookish post a new Top Ten list and everyone is welcome to join in the fun. Simply link back to The Broke and the Bookish on your own Top Ten Tuesday post AND add your name to the Linky widget so that everyone can check out other bloggers lists!

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hollywood nights

Hollywood.bombThis business of being-a-writer-while-one-has-a-full-time-job and parenting kids is … well, it can be a lot of things.

It can be a strange existence as moments from our nights and weekends are eked out and surrendered to our laptops in this too-solitary pursuit.  (Case in point: I’m writing this blog post at 11:30 p.m. on a weeknight, when I have a fairly busy day tomorrow.)

Still, we do the writing anyway because of … what, and why, exactly?

For the love of it, mostly. And because we believe in our story and want to share it with others.  Otherwise, we might as well just do something else – and get a hell of lot more sleep while we’re at it.

My friend Jason Cole sent me a message a few weeks back, announcing the debut of his first novel, Hollywood.bomb. He is married to my longtime friend Rachel, and together they are two of the most ridiculously generous people I’ve ever known. They also have a lot of wicked smaht thoughts, to imitate their Boston accents and the name of Jason’s blog.

Unbeknownst to me, for the past 10 years Jason had been working on a novel about the crazy world of software development. The adage “write what you know” applies here; Jason has worked in this industry for more than 15 years, so the man knows this terrain “full of intelligent, quirky, and painfully honest people who are more interested in solving problems than making anyone feel good about them.”

I admit, I haven’t had a chance to read Hollywood.bomb yet in order to give it a proper review (a couple of interesting things are happening with my own writing projects) . What I can do is tell you that this satirical look at the software development and entertainment industries is .99 on Amazon for only one more day – and even after that it becomes an affordable $2.99. 

While the writing of the book was a serious venture for Jason, Hollywood.bomb itself doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. It’s meant to be a fun read, says Jason.

“I know that there’s some stigma associated with self-published books, and I’ve read enough of them to know why,” he says. “I don’t know whether my book is good enough to rise above the noise, and in some ways I don’t care.  All I want is for people to read it, to share in a story that has kept me and my close friends and family entertained for years.  I want to share it, with the hope that it will entertain, that readers will laugh a little.”

Just like Hollywood itself.

Congratulations, Jason.

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