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At The Moth, We Like to Say Something Changes by the End of the Story

KennedyGuest blogger Dan Kennedy is the author of three books and a regular host of The Moth storytelling series and podcast. His debut novel, American Spirit, takes us on "a full-throttle, white-knuckle adventure into a land of destroyed dreams" (Publishers Weekly, starred review).

The first time I told a story on The Moth mainstage was either 1999 or early 2000. I have no idea how that much time got behind me doing this storytelling stuff; it was this thing to try for one night in hopes of feeling better about how my life was going in my tiny unfurnished downtown New York apartment (girlfriend left and took her couch and table). And it worked, it clicked, something changed for me, and the next thing I know it’s 2013.

Right around the same time, I met the people who started The Moth, I quit drinking and spending all my money on the New York party scene (what I mean by "all my money" is nine thousand dollars, and what I mean by "the New York party scene" is drinking alone in chain restaurants and really bad stripper clubs from about 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.) I’m never quite sure which thing saved my life, stopping drinking or starting to hang out with The Moth, but something changed. Home was a long way away during this time in my life, it still is. I moved to downtown New York 15 years ago and the folks at The Moth instantly felt like family, and I haven’t been alone in the Big Apple since the day they took me in.

I haven’t stopped to count, but I know over the years of hosting and performing from 3rd Street to Australia to Cannes to North Carolina, Portland, and everywhere in between, I’ve heard more amazing true stories from people than I ever thought I would in my lifetime. And somewhere along the line, someone out there invented these podcast things, so now millions of people hear them, not just the folks in the club or theater that night.

So, after spending well over a decade surrounded by beautiful true stories and loving people, why have I gone and written fiction full of sex, drinking, drugs, a secondhand gun, and a protagonist who is fortysomething, almost divorced, suddenly unemployed, and buzzed enough to think it’s a good idea to burn frequent-flier miles traveling all over the country and then to Indonesia on a stumbling, gonzo, personal vision quest? I know, I hear you. But there are beautiful stories in this novel, a whole bunch of them, I’m certain. Sure, they come in the form of a man on an odd, darkly comedic downhill slide. But isn’t that life in America sometimes, and don’t we all end up looking back and laughing eventually? Well, for once it’s the other guy, the character in a novel, so maybe we can laugh a little sooner, maybe we can laugh right away.

The thing about fiction writing is that it oftentimes brings us the truth. Stepping up and unveiling one’s biggest fears, secrets, shame, and missteps and watching people laugh is the secret to healing and getting one’s life back on track. It might be the only way, in fact. I’ve seen it work since the first night I stepped onto a stage and tried it.

Wait, I think I may have just blown my cover. This is a novel. It’s, you know, not my journey; it’s fiction. I’m still the normal well-adjusted calm public radio–ish voice you hear on The Moth podcast. All right, the scene where the character wakes up in a car in front of a stranger’s house in Connecticut, then sneaks up to do that thing with the garden hose, and then the blood and the vomit, that part is true. That’s me. Or at least it was me, but then everything changed.

Dan Kennedy

The Trials of “Van-Dwelling”

WaldenBroke and desperate but determined, 26-year-old Ken Ilgunas decided to buy a cheap van and secretly live in it in a Duke University parking lot to afford grad school. Walden on Wheels, his self-deprecating travel memoir, is a frank, funny, and brutally honest portrait of life in a van.

Though living in a van on a college campus was, in many ways, as ordinary as living in a dorm (albeit a cheaper, tighter, and somewhat smellier dorm), there were instances when the peculiar hardships of “van-dwelling” made me question whether living cheap was worth it. It turned out to be totally worth it—I graduated debt-free—but for your entertainment, I present some of the stranger, unexpected, and more unpleasant aspects of two years in a home on wheels. 

A mouse lived in the van's ceiling for three days. During this period, I got little sleep as I obsessively watched the imprint of its tiny paw prints scurry across the upholstery.

Once a family had a picnic next to my van. For four hours! Living in there was a secret, so I couldn’t make a sound, let alone open the door. For those four hours, I remained fixed in the same sprawled position on my bed for fear it would squeak and I'd be discovered.

During my first rainstorm in the van, I discovered there was a leak in the roof. It dripped down onto the bed and left a pancake-size circle of wetness, making it look like I'd had a terrible accident.

I was so excited and nervous about going on a date with a girl (a rare occurrence, I assure you), I accidentally crashed the van into a concrete cylinder, leaving permanent scars that would ultimately make it unsellable.  

Ants, thousands of ants, invaded my storage container one fall afternoon and carried off my food.

Without the luxury of refrigeration, I scoffed at the supposed need to keep some food items “fresh,” not bothering to chill my month-old bottle of squirtable butter. This resulted in a nightlong food-poisoning extravaganza that culminated in my throat discharging the entirety of my stomach’s contents into my wastebasket in one impressive burst.

When my secret was finally discovered, a student in the adjacent apartment complex told campus administration that my van made her feel “uncomfortable.” I was given a new parking spot next to the campus police station—and a law was created that more or less bans students from living in their vehicles.

Ken Ilgunas

"The Sisterhood" by Helen Bryan

BryanGuest blogger Helen Bryan is the author of the best-selling World War II novel War Brides, as well as two nonfiction books. Her sweeping new historical love story, The Sisterhood, comes out today.

At some point in their writing career, most authors have been asked where the idea for a particular book came from. "What possessed you," readers inquire, "to write about that?" While I have known authors to claim such diverse sources of inspiration as divine light, solitary running, or the creative properties of strong drink, in my experience "possession" gets pretty near the mark. Ideas can take on a force that drags the author along.

The Sisterhood is a case in point. The seed for this book was sown long ago, during a visit to a 16th-century Spanish convent whose orphanage was home to many illegitimate daughters of the aristocracy. These children occupied a peculiar position between privilege and a fate sealed at birth; they were destined to become nuns themselves and never leave the convent. In the low-ceilinged rooms where they lived were cases of odd ecclesiastical "toys" that the little girls played with to prepare them for their future, and somehow the convent was full of the children's presence. I had a vague idea that this would be a good setting for a period novel featuring a beautiful, plucky orphan who escaped to find love in Spanish America.

Then I forgot about nuns and runaway orphans until many years and several books later. I was trying to work on a book set in the United States when I found that the Spanish convent and its orphan girls kept getting in the way of my progress. I put the American story on hold and began researching 16th-century Spain.

Research for historical fiction allows a writer to procrastinate, almost indefinitely, without actually writing anything. So it is easy to begin: Dip a toe in the water, and before you know it, you're up to your neck. I began spending days in the British Library reading about what shaped life in the aftermath of the Christian overthrow of the Muslim Moors, the role of nuns and convents, the Spanish conquest in Latin America, and colonial society.

One orphan became five; parallel plots unfolded, expanded, and connected. The background of political tensions between Jews, Christians, and Muslims loomed larger and larger, and I began to see parallels between the 16th century and the modern world. This introduced a dimension to the novel that I never anticipated but found impossible to ignore.

The Sisterhood was not the book I intended to write but the product of a once vague idea that took on a compelling life of its own—and, in turn, compelled me.

Helen Bryan


"The Power of Why" by C. Richard Weylman

WeylmanC. Richard Weylman is chairman of the Weylman Consulting Group and founder of the Weylman Center for Excellence in Practice Management, an online marketing support center and university. His new book, The Power of Why, came out this week.

The power dynamic in business has shifted. Why? Because what you say about your business is vastly different than what your customers say about your business.

The Power of Why shows readers how to learn and speak from the customer’s perspective to build a business of distinction. I wrote this book because of a fundamental change in 21st-century business: the shift in power from seller to customer. The messaging of today's business owners, sales, and marketing professionals too often focuses on their own perspective—who they are, what they do, and how they do it. But those questions won't provide an answer to the buyer’s fundamental questions: Why should I do business with this company? Will it help me accomplish what I want?

Customers want a business that believes so strongly in what it provides that it’s willing to make a clear, buyer-centric promise of outcome—up front, unconditional, and unqualified. Customers no longer respond to old-school unique selling propositions. Instead, they look for (and respond to) companies and individuals that position and promote their unique value promises. Why? Because customers know the difference between a promise and a proposition. And so do you.

Follow the rules of engagement in The Power of Why to discover the real reasons why people buy from you, and to learn their lexicon. You will be able to craft your unique value promise and speak directly to the emotional and functional reasons why target consumers want to buy.

Examples of promises that work:

  • La-Z-Boy: “Live Life Comfortably”
  • Old Dominion Freight: “Helping You Keep Your Promises”
  • Target: “Expect More, Pay Less”
  • FedEx: “When You Absolutely, Positively Need It There Overnight”

A business that is customer-centric and delivers on a real promise of outcome consistently establishes an emotional bond with its customers. In turn, those customers drive even more customers to businesses through positive word of mouth—think Disney, Whole Foods, Victoria’s Secret, T.J.Maxx, and Ross. Make your promise part of your business and your professional DNA, and you will start operating with clarity of purpose: a marked change of pace from the confusion and chaos caused by working under merchandising pressure to make the bottom line.

C. Richard Weylman

Everything and Nothing

HydeGuest blogger Catherine Ryan Hyde is the author of 20 published and forthcoming books, including the national bestseller Pay It Forward and her latest novel, Walk Me Home.

I write character-driven fiction, so each novel begins with a character in my mind. Once I know the characters, the plot suggests itself.

When I began Walk Me Home, one important character dictated the mood and action, not to mention setting high stakes for all the others. It wasn't Carly. Or Jen. Or their mother. Or even Teddy. It was the American Southwest.

Place can be a character. But for place to be a driving force in my novel, it must be someplace I know firsthand. The first time I saw Navajo and Hopi lands, I was on a drive through the Painted Desert in Arizona in 1989. I was headed to the Grand Canyon for the first time. In my old pickup, with my old dog, I sliced in and out of the rain, the clouds dark, the scenery arresting, Pink Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" blasting on the cassette player. Over and over.

The visit would not be my last. Later I wrote Funerals for Horses, my first published novel, and set much of it in the Navajo Nation. But it wasn't enough. The landscape wouldn't leave me. I had more business with this character.

The Southwest is mostly desert, beautiful but unforgiving. Spaces between towns can be empty and long, shade nonexistent. If two young, recently orphaned sisters try to move through on foot, the conflict is built in: their inexperience against a character who is at once breathtaking and deadly. Compromises must be made if the girls are to survive.

Red Rock, Arizona, never fails to make me feel inspired...and insignificant. It reminds me that I'm tiny but part of the greater whole. One with every other tiny thing.

Jen thinks it's everything. Carly thinks it's nothing. The land changes the opinion of the girl who most needs changing.

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Melinda Leigh on Romance, Snacks, and Men

Guest post by Melinda Leigh author of She Can Run, Midnight Sacrifice and other romantic suspense novels.

Midnight SacrificeWhat snacks do you eat while you write? 

I normally eat (mostly) healthy food, but as a deadline approaches, move over apples. Coffee, ice cream, and peanut butter cups get me through those long hours.

What do you find sexy in a leading man? 

A man with a great sense of humor will get my attention every time.  I’m also a sucker for a guy who’s great with kids and animals.

You teach women's self-defense, what's the best defensive move one of your characters has ever made? 

In Midnight Sacrifice, Mandy is the best marksman in town. Jayne from Midnight Exposure isn’t into guns. She uses a leg sweep to bring her captor down onto the ground with her. Then she drops a heel into his groin.

If you were not writing romantic suspense, what would you be doing?

I have no idea. Other than writing, I love martial arts and animals. I would NOT go back into banking. <shudder>.

Midnight Sacrifice is the second in your Midnight series. How do you choose which characters you will revisit in subsequent titles? Do you know yet who you plan to focus on in your next book in the series?

As I write a book, I keep possible stories for secondary characters in mind. The next book in the Midnight series will be about Conor Sullivan and the museum curator he meets in Midnight Sacrifice. Their conflict is already delicious, and I haven’t even started to plot out their novel.

Is that cat hair on your coat?

It’s probably dog hair, cat hair, and as I visited a ranch for rescue horses last week, a few horse hairs as well. We have a collie that sheds enough fur weekly to make a small animal. Add a spaniel and two cats to the mix and there isn’t a fur free article of clothing in our house.

You, Joe Hill and Stephen King have all found frightening inspiration in Maine. What is it about that place?

It’s desolate, wild, and scary, the perfect background for suspense.

Hillbilly Heart: A Q&A with Billy Ray Cyrus

CyrusAward-winning country musician Billy Ray Cyrus's candid and poignant new memoir, Hillbilly Heart, was published this week.

Q: You've shared many of your life stories in your lyrics. What inspired you to take it to the next level with a book, and how was writing Hillbilly Heart different from writing a song?

Billy Ray Cyrus: You know, for me, writing a book was a whole lot like the songs that I write. It ain’t always pretty, but it was the truth. I sing and write what I am living, and I live singing and writing. And this book is like the little thing the Book of Psalms says in the beginning: His truth shall be your shield and buckler. That’s why I wrote the book—to tell the truth.

Like anyone, I am looking for purpose, trying to find things that matter. It can’t be a coincidence that a kid from Flatwoods, Kentucky, thought he was going to be a baseball player and ended up buying a guitar and starting a band and going on this crazy journey. This is the summation of my life—Billy Ray Cyrus, Hillbilly Heart.

Q: Beyond diehard fans, what kinds of readers are you hoping to reach? What would you like them to take away from the highs and lows of your life?

BRC: If someone can learn from my mistakes and save themselves from making the same mistakes, then there is purpose writing the book. When I set a goal, I write it down and clarify it and visualize it, then take steps toward it. "To every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." And when people "have no vision, they shall perish." "What a man can conceive and believe, he can achieve." It’s about visualization and persistence.

I wrote a chapter on my buddy Robbie Tooley, who committed suicide. I end Robbie’s story with the 1-800 number and website for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in hopes that all these years later, he could help some kid out there. If this book saves one life, then there is the reason I wrote the book.

Q: You write a lot about your determination to make it as a musician. What fueled your persistence, even when Nashville was nonresponsive and your goals seemed like they were a million miles away? How can your audience capture that spirit and apply it to their own lives?

BRC: I think this goes back to purpose. I had a dream and a burning desire that the music and my life could make a difference, make something positive. Something that represented God’s light and God’s love. That somebody could take something away from it and in some way bring about a positive change, whether in their life or to the world.

Q: What's the best advice you've received about music or life? What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

BRC: If I could have read this book and gone back to being a 20-year-old, trust me, I would have skipped everything that hurt. It would have been nothing but yes and bliss and happiness. All the things that hurt or were painful, I would have just skipped those parts. I would eliminate so many mistakes, because I failed way more times than I succeeded. But then, you know, failure is the most important ingredient for success. Every time you fail, you eliminate one way that won’t work, therefore getting one step closer to a way that will.

Watching Waverly Bryson Grow Up

MurnaneGuest blogger Maria Murnane abandoned a successful career in public relations to pursue a more fulfilling life as a novelist and speaker. Since then, she has written four Waverly Bryson novels: The latest, Chocolate for Two, is fresh off the presses this week.

I often hear from fans of my books that they'd love to have Waverly Bryson as a friend. This always makes me smile, because it shows that my readers see Waverly as an actual person. In real life, people evolve over time (or at least they should) but don't change who they are at the core, so the challenge in writing four books with the same protagonist was to preserve her fundamental personality while allowing her to mature. That was a tricky thing to do, because I didn't want anyone to think I'd strayed too far from the Waverly they'd fallen in love with in Perfect on Paper.

I didn't follow a particular strategy to allow Waverly to "grow up," but I did let her speak to me as I wrote the sequels to Perfect on Paper. That may sound a bit nuts, but it's true. For each book, I'd sit at my computer, come up with a general idea for a story, then ask myself a series of questions as I went along. I believe following this approach worked, because allowing Waverly to provide the answers helped shape three more books that stayed true to her.

For example, when Waverly realizes she might be losing Jake because of her own insecurity in It's a Waverly Life, I asked myself, How would this situation make her feel? What would she do about it? In Honey on Your Mind, I decided it would be fun if Waverly were offered a chance to work on a TV show but would have to move to New York to do it. I asked myself, How would she feel about leaving San Francisco? Where would she want to live in New York, and why? Then, in Chocolate for Two, I wanted Jake and Waverly to get married but not without some conflict, so I introduced Jake's frosty mother, whose plans for the wedding differ dramatically from Waverly's. Here I thought, How would Waverly's life experience inform her reaction to this realization? Then later, How would she explain to her friends—and herself—why she's not standing up to Mrs. McIntyre?

For each question, large or small, I would wait for the answer to reveal itself—and when it did, I wrote it down. I rarely forced the creative process, but when I occasionally wound up with a line or section that just didn't sound like something Waverly would say or do, I deleted or changed it.

What I love most about Waverly Bryson is that she's real. And by that I mean sincere. She's flawed, but she tries her best to be a good person, no matter where she is in her personal and professional development. I wanted that quality to shine through in all four books, and I hope it did. And of course, wherever the future takes her, she'll always have those cringe-worthy Waverly moments—some things will never change.

Maria Murnane

Revisiting Edward with Craig Lancaster

LancasterGuest blogger Craig Lancaster is the award-winning author of several books, including 600 Hours of Edward, which introduced readers to the unforgettable Edward Stanton. Lancaster's new novel, Edward Adrift, came out yesterday.

Three novels into my career, I've learned to never say "never." OK, that's not true: I'm reasonably certain I'll never write about wereferrets. This isn't a snobbery thing. This is an I-don't-have-anything-to-add-to-the-conversation-if-in-fact-there-even-is-a-conversation thing. But wereferrets aside, I'll never say never.

When I finished my first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, several years ago, I figured it for a one-off. I'd explored a character, Edward Stanton, and I'd told the story I was compelled to tell. When people asked if I was planning another book about Edward, I'd scoff and say, "No chance."

So. Yeah. Meet Edward Adrift, my third novel and the continuation of Edward's story. Apparently there was a chance after all.

Look, my intentions were good. I think my aversion to second installments can be traced to what happened to one of my favorite childhood movies, Rocky. Yes, it was about a boxer, a palooka of sorts, but it was so much more than that. It was a story of rising above, of finding the best version of ourselves, of not settling. Whether Rocky Balboa won or lost was hardly the point. Then came Rocky II (meh). And III (which I did enjoy). And IV (which I did not). And V (which is best forgotten by everyone). Finally, with Rocky Balboa, the franchise was restored to its original glory, but look at the damage done in between. I didn't want that for Edward.

One thing I didn’t count on was how much Edward would be loved by those who read the first book. I heard from these folks by email, at book club gatherings, at library talks. Inevitably, they'd ask: "What's Edward doing now?" It became impossible for me to ignore that question, and once I started thinking about it, the seedlings for a new story began sprouting. In time, I was compelled back to my writing desk by the same impulses that sent me there in the first place.

So now I'm eagerly awaiting responses to the new book and preparing to answer another inevitable question: "Will there be a third Edward book?"

I have many possible answers at hand. I can tell people that I don't know. That I can't imagine where his story goes from here (and right now, at this short distance, I can't—just as I couldn't after the first book). That I have no plans.

The only thing I can't say is never. I've learned my lesson.

Craig Lancaster

Jenny Davidson Enters "The Magic Circle"

DavidsonGuest blogger Jenny Davidson is the author of four novels and two nonfiction books about 18-century British literature. Her new novel, The Magic Circle, follows three young women at Columbia University as they get involved in an unusual and dangerous game.

One of the strange things about working on a college campus is that you constantly overhear the same snippets of information as you pass by tour groups. I've been teaching at Columbia University since 2000, and I must have seen a tour guide point to Buell Hall a hundred times and identify it as the oldest building on campus, the only vestige of the insane asylum that used to stand where Columbia does now.

I don't believe in ghosts, but I couldn't help thinking about the influence the asylum's history might exert on contemporary characters living on the same site. I wrote The Magic Circle to find out what would happen if three young women—two longtime friends whose relationship has been strained by the arrival of the third in New York—became fired up by the story of the asylum and decided to work out their obsession in the form of a live-action role-playing game, or LARP.

LARPs are relatively new. They have something in common with live theater, but they can accommodate elements of everything from scavenger hunts to urban exploration. The LARP I'd most like to have participated in was a month-long Swedish game called Momentum whose players embraced the roles of dead revolutionaries in an occult battle to save the world. Others that have caught my attention are a massive location-based Japanese game, Mogi, in which players used mobile phones to stalk one another and poach items for virtual collections; and Jane McGonigal's reconceptualization of her recovery from a serious head injury as a kind of game, with tasks and levels to complete at each step.

The games my protagonists play are darker and more violent than any of these. For a long time, I've been fascinated by Euripides' play The Bacchae, which describes a confrontation in which secularism and sanity are completely overwhelmed by the sacred madness the god Dionysus triggers in his followers. What if these three women fed The Bacchae into a game system that already included the history of the mental asylum and the notion that Morningside Heights might have a secret occult history bound up in its architecture and landscaping?

Intellectuals and urban explorers, Ruth, Lucy, and Anna are desperate for stimulation—even when it means risking their own physical and emotional safety. The term "magic circle" refers to any field of play where special rules apply. But when the boundaries of the magic circle become porous, games can have fatal consequences.

Jenny Davidson

June 2013

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