Monday, October 26, 2009

The Snow Leopard

I am reading The Snow Leopard, by Peter Matthiessen. Full of Zen thought on the meaning of life and existence, the book is as much a spiritual journey as a physical one, although physical, strenuously physical, it is.

As a review of the book states,"The spiritual lessons of this book aren’t relegated to romantic abstractions or heady epiphanies, but to a gentle reminder that life consists of what each moment brings us; that it’s futile to obsess on the workings of the past and future if you’re missing out on experience of the present moment."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Getting Published: What do publishers really know?

James Lee Burke's work has been awarded an Edgar twice for Best Crime Novel of the Year. He has also been a recipient of a Breadloaf and Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant. Two of his novels, Heaven's Prisoners and Two For Texas, have been made into motion pictures. His short stories have been published in The Atlantic Monthly, New Stories from the South, Best American Short Stories, Antioch Review, Southern Review, and The Kenyon Review.

Burke's novel The Lost Get Back Boogie was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years, and upon publication by Louisiana State University press, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Writing of The Lion and the Sun

I set out to write a spy novel, on the premise that one should write what one knows. I began with a time of great promise and even greater threat – the fall of the Soviet Union and Russia’s anarchic rebirth. The USSR’s vast nuclear arsenal was vulnerable in 1994 – the period in which the story takes place -- neglected by a demoralized military and coveted by a burgeoning band of Islamic extremists bent on destroying the West. With this as a backdrop, I developed a plot involving a missing Russian plutonium pit (the core component of a nuclear weapon), an obscure Iranian terrorist group, and an American CIA agent sent to discover the whereabouts of the pit and the intentions of its prospective new owners. I began writing, and then I discovered Daniel Conte, the protagonist in this twisted tale of intrigue, betrayal, and regret, and Conte took over the story.

I found Conte in the midst of a failed marriage, dealing with a nuclear-armed failed state, working with a Russian agent he couldn’t really trust, having an affair with a British agent he couldn’t afford to compromise, and under suspicion of being a traitor to the country for which he’d sacrificed so much – talk about a mid-life crisis.

The CIA’s Nuclear Proliferation Center believes that the missing Russian plutonium pit is either headed to Iran, or to terrorists sponsored by Iran. In either case, they are prepared to do whatever is necessary to recover the pit, even if it means working with the Russian intelligence service. That’s where Conte comes in. He has a long-standing professional relationship with a Russian agent named Anatoly Balakirev who, the CIA believes, is privy to sensitive information regarding the location of the pit. The Russian intelligence service has managed to place Balakirev in a key position with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the IAEA, in Vienna, and that’s where Conte is headed when we first meet him.

Conte’s contact in Vienna is a British MI6 agent, Kaitlyn Clarke, who is working under cover as Balakirev’s secretary at the IAEA -- a case of spies spying on spies. Kaitlyn is beautiful, brilliant, and single. Conte is divorced, despondent, and lonely. One thing leads to another. The conventional wisdom is that it’s bad practice to carry on an affair with a professional colleague. Conte’s not your most conventional operative, but in this case, he’d have been wise to abide by this homily.

Conte gets mugged in Vienna by a couple of thugs who turn out to be working for a Russian engineering firm for whom Balakirev just happens to be turning nuclear tricks. By the time Conte finds this out, he’s in Istanbul, Turkey, following up on a lead concerning a front company that may have the plutonium pit.

While in Istanbul, Conte and Balakirev, working with Turkish intelligence, learn that the plutonium pit has ended up in the hands of Islamic terrorists. The two agents devise a plan to determine the location of the pit and succeed in arranging a joint Russian-US recovery effort. It’s an unlikely collaboration and things go wrong from the start.

When Conte and Balakirev find themselves fighting the terrorists in Iran’s desolate Baluchestan region, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll be shooting at whom. Conte is seriously wounded during the action and is air evac’d back to the States, while Balakirev returns the plutonium pit to Russia. There are unpleasant surprises awaiting both men on their return home, and revelations going back to the 1979 Iranian Revolution will spell the end of one of the agents’ careers.

From Vienna, to Istanbul, to Tehran, Conte’s mission uncovers repressed memories of past betrayals and leads to new ones that challenge the very core of his beliefs in his mission, his country, and in himself.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Midnight Golf

Jack felt bloated. Mexican food did that to him, to say nothing of the three beers he’d quaffed with dinner. Well, you couldn’t eat jalapeno poppers without beer -- just not possible.
Jack switched off the Golf Channel, slipped on his tennis shoes, and started for the door. “I’m going for a walk, Honey,” he shouted into the kitchen, where his wife, Doris, was finishing with the dishes.
“At this hour?” she shouted back.
Jack checked his watch. “It’s only ten.”
He was out the door before his wife could say anything else, like put out the trash.

Jack lived across the street from the Canyon Meadows golf course and liked to walk along the canal that ran through the course, reliving the good golf shots he’d made that week and going through the rotten luck he’d suffered as a result of the ‘golf gods’ exercising their perverse sense of humor at his expense.

Hmm, it is dark out here, Jack thought, as he picked his way carefully along the canal. As he made his way along the 9th Fairway he heard a kind of ‘click’ that sounded suspiciously like someone hitting a golf ball on the sweet spot. Can’t be, he thought. Too dark. But then he heard voices. Someone said, “Good shot.”
Jack edged closer to the fairway and, squinting into the dark, made out four shapes moving along the fairway. A thin layer of ground fog made them appear to glide.
Jack followed as the players walked to their next shots, all grouped nicely in the middle of the fairway. All the players were carrying their bags. From the players’ size and the timbre of their voices, they appeared to be men.
The players hit their approach shots, which arched high into the air and quickly disappeared from sight. And yet, the men congratulated each other with; “Nice shot!” and “Pin High!” and “Putting for a tweet.”

Jack walked up on the cart path that overlooked the 9th green and watched as the men took turns putting, demonstrating incredible accuracy given the conditions.
“Hey, you guys are something else,” he shouted, walking out of the shadows. The men turned and looked at him.
Jack walked down to the green and stood looking at the golfers. They studied him with undisguised interest.
“You guys always play golf at midnight?”
“It’s not midnight,” one of the men said.
“Hey, how about I join you?” Jack said. “Play the back nine?”
“We have a foursome,” another said.
“So what?” Jack said. “It’s not like there’s anybody out here pressing you.”
“Where are your clubs?” Another of the men asked.
“I’ll borrow from you guys.”
The men looked at each other.
“Come on, be sports. I won’t take too much of your money,” Jack said with the lopsided grin he’d used so successfully with the girls in high school.
“All right then, you can join us.”
“But,” said the guy, “You should know, we play for blood.”
The men smiled.
That’s when Jack noticed the fangs.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Earth Song

Patter of rain
Burble of brook
Rustle of wind
      in the tall Birches
      their sun dappled leaves

Friday, October 2, 2009


She walks, head down, on the flat, wide beach
Close to the water’s edge
Oblivious to the spent waves
Washing weakly over her bare feet

Her eyes are focused
On an indefinite point
Far beneath the featureless, gray sand
The infinite horizon stretches out before her

Her thoughts are fathomless
What brought her here?
What keeps her here?
What will bring her release?

And the waves
Gray, and green, and frothy white
Roll, and roll
And roll