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Sympathetic Characters

I’ve been in, and led, book groups for years, and one of the most difficult criticisms for me, is when a reader doesn’t like a character and decides that’s synonymous with not liking the book, as though one must like the character (or approve of the character) or the story fails.  I’m drawn to characters I have to work to like; they feel more real to me.

I’m thinking of Susan and Maud in “Fingersmith” or Lyra in “The Golden Compass”—they’re complicated, and ambiguous, and dangerous, and they appeal to me for those very reasons.  Is it fair to say that I like darkness—that I’m drawn to bad girls?  Not entirely, but I’m curious about the struggle to be good.  Most of us are neither heroes nor villains, but something in between.  The way we deal with that struggle is the most fascinating thing about us, the thing that literature, in particular, explores so beautifully.

Witness

Storytelling is a perversion. No matter which character is speaking, to some extent, she is expressing my point of view. All my angles still emanate from my own perspective. My narrator is my witness, and not the other way round.

In life we lend so much credibility to our witnesses. My ex was amazing while I was sick: patient and supportive and nurturing. A witness to my illness and my recovery. How often do we mark the periods of our lives by whoever was with us as we went through them? Our witnesses are like music in that way: specific to a time and place in our journey.

I know your struggle because I have seen it. I have watched your growth. I have listened to your story and I am your witness. We share this experience of living, you and I.

gods and girls

Some writers out there must enjoy the godlike power of creating characters and the worlds they inhabit, and revel in the ability to control every aspect of those worlds, characters, plots.  I, on the other hand, am completely undone by my characters’ struggles.

I keep hoping for them to make better choices, to suffer less, to attain a bit more happiness.  My characters, I think, are often just a standin for my own dilemma.  Last night I wrote a scene and cried my way through it, distraught and exhausted and weak, just like my character.  Maybe the pros are better at distancing themselves from their work.  Maybe they remain objective and amused—or so firmly in control of their work that the boundary of self is never breached.  I only know I’m not there.  I am more like the body they inhabit than the creator.

Poems

Jack Gilbert wrote: “What we feel most has no name but cinnamon, amber, archer, horses and birds.” I’ve been feeling that line today. Oh, the failure of language. The inability of words. I think sometimes how much easier if we just sensed one another like predators in the dark.

But I’ve also been thinking that we develop a code for love, words that represent all those concepts for which description is inaccurate. Crocodile of desire, for instance. My heart is a pitcher: tipped to your mouth. Always between us the memory of lemons. 

Is it possible, then, to speak only in pictures? To remove context and futile explanation, to balloon language into metaphor: Your mouth like summer, I run, barefoot now, toward your kiss.

You can almost feel Gilbert wanting to end that line earlier: “What we feel most has no name.” 

What we feel most. And so, poems:

If I were a painter, how would I invent you? What color could ever capture the red red of your hair, or the startling gleam of your eyes? How could I shade the lithe and slender grace of your body? Or your mouth — my god your mouth — a place of forgetting.

So to abandon light and color for language, I find there are no words. Nothing to describe the slide of your skin, or the rest of your body against mine. Your name in my mouth is an incantation. Between us is a crocodile of desire. I am alight when I look at you.

If it is true that we met god in a garden would that account for this notion of fruit trees when I am with you? There is memory in our cells of leaves and lemons. My love, your voice is a tether; bind to me.

Breathe

This is a heady rush like shots of whiskey. And you are working to support the arch of her back, the delicate line of her throat. There is unraveling here, as with all mysteries, and an ache of memory. 

You know in that shuddering instant before she turns, that you are new and old and saved and lost and hers. Certainly hers. Marked, like all of us, flung from the garden.

The girl is a butterfly

You’re studying the girl as though she were a butterfly. Writing down the musculature and wingspan, sketching the antenna and colors, charting the flight pattern and region in your field guide as though you’d discovered a new species. You observe unobtrusively. And the more you watch, the more apparent the patterns become: the proclivity for a certain flower, the skills employed to evade predators, mating.

In fact, you want to believe that the throbbing flicker of this creature in between your thumb and forefinger is your discovery, previously unknown, and unknowable. You want to believe yourself scientific, a researcher. What, after all, is your objective, but the furtherance of knowledge?

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Jill Malone

Jill Malone grew up in a military family, went to German kindergarten, and lived across from a bakery that made gummi bears the size of mice. She has lived on the East Coast and in Hawaii, and for the last seventeen years in Spokane with her son, two dogs, a hedgehog, and a lot of outdoor gear. She looks for any excuse to play guitar. Jill is married to a performance artist and addiction counselor who makes the best risotto on the planet.

Giraffe People is her third novel. Her first novel, Red Audrey and the Roping, was a Lambda finalist and won the third annual Bywater Prize for Fiction. A Field Guide to Deception, her second novel, was a finalist for the Ferro-Grumley, and won the Lambda Literary Award and the Great Northwest Book Festival.

Giraffe People

Giraffe People

Between God and the army, fifteen-year-old Cole Peters has more than enough to rebel against. But this Chaplain’s daughter isn’t resorting to drugs or craziness. Truth to tell, she’s content with her soccer team and her band and her white bread boyfriend.

And then, of course, there’s Meghan.

Meghan is eighteen years old and preparing for entry into West Point. For this she has sponsors: Cole’s parents. They’re delighted their daughter is finally looking up to someone. Someone who can tutor her and be a friend.

But one night that relationship changes and Cole’s world flips.

Giraffe People is a potent reminder of the rites of passage and passion that we all endure on our road to growing up and growing strong. Award-winning author Jill Malone tells a story of coming out and coming of age, giving us a take that is both subtle and fresh.

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A Field Guide to Deception

A Field Guide to Deception

In Jill Malone’s second novel, A Field Guide to Deception, nothing is as simple as it appears: community, notions of motherhood, the nature of goodness, nor even compelling love. Revelations are punctured and then revisited with deeper insight, alliances shift, and heroes turn anti-hero—and vice versa.

With her aunt’s death Claire Bernard loses her best companion, her livelihood, and her son’s co-parent. Malone’s smart, intriguing writing beguiles the reader into this taut, compelling story of a makeshift family and the reawakening of a past they’d hoped to outrun. Claire’s journey is the unifying tension in this book of layered and shifting alliances.

A Field Guide to Deception is a serious novel filled with snappy dialogue, quick-moving and funny incidents, compelling characterizations, mysterious plot twists, and an unexpected climax. It is a rich, complex tale for literary readers.

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Red Audrey and the Roping

Red Audrey and the Roping

Occasionally a debut novel comes along that rocks its readers back on their heels. Red Audrey and the Roping is one of that rare and remarkable breed. With storytelling as accomplished as successful literary novelists like Margaret Atwood and Sarah Waters, Jill Malone takes us on a journey through the heart of Latin professor Jane Elliot.

Set against the dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Hawaii, this is the deeply moving story of a young woman traumatized by her mother’s death. Scarred by guilt, she struggles to find the nerve to let love into her life again. Afraid to love herself or anyone else, Jane falls in love with risk, pitting herself against the world with dogged, destructive courage. But finally she reaches a point where there is only one danger left worth facing. The sole remaining question for Jane is whether she is willing to accept her history, embrace her damage, and take a chance on love.

As well as a gripping and emotional story, Red Audrey and the Roping is a remarkable literary achievement. The breathtaking prose evokes setting, characters, and relationships with equal grace. The dialogue sparks and sparkles. Splintered fragments of narrative come together to form a seamless suspenseful story that flows effortlessly to its dramatic conclusion.

Winner of the Bywater Prize for Fiction, Red Audrey and the Roping is one of the most memorable first novels you will ever read.

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