Archive for May, 2011

Jill Bonner

I had to choose a pseudonym.  I write darkish, dense, wry, occasionally acerbic tales that hover perilously close to another genre called magical realism, without ever quite going over the line.  Heretofore, I’d never written a cozy mystery.  But now I can write anything I want, so I thought I’d try a series of cozy mystery short stories for Kindle.  Authors who write in differing genres create pen names for the various series.  I needed a cozy name.  It wasn’t hard.  “Jill Bonner.”  My grandmother’s big fox terrier.

The dog in the pic isn’t Jill and isn’t even a fox terrier (it’s an English white terrier), but imagine her with brown spots and that was Jill.  Jill was the first dog in my life, hers the first canine kisses and muddy footprints on those tiny starched pinafores my mother ironed with precision.  I learned to walk hanging on to her fur, so I’m told.

And Bonner was my grandmother’s maiden name – Ann Lucile Bonner – later Scindy Padgett.  She’d longed to be an actress and insisted on spelling “Scindy” with an S as a sort of stage name she would never have.  The stage was forbidden territory for proper young women in the late 1800’s, the lair of questionable virtue.  So Scindy dutifully subverted her taste for drama and became a primary school teacher.  Until wild, handsome David Padgett came along, and she married him.  Probably, I suspect, because at the time he was the manager of a traveling Chautauqua show, and maybe she got to shed the straitjacket of propriety and show her stuff on limelit stages far from home.  If she did, she never told.  But she never lost her taste for drama.  The sort of drama found in what are now called romance novels.  And cozy mysteries.  Bingo.

By the time I was born the marriage was over and she lived alone, running an antiques shop from her living room in a house across from the cemetery on old Indiana Highway 41 in Vincennes.  That living room was like the set for “Fanny and Alexander,” a wonderland of spinning wheels, Victorian bric-a-brac and a carved table with a tasseled brocade tablecloth beneath which I created imaginary realms.  She never remarried, but much later I heard stories of visits by the legendary local veterinarian, aristocratic “Doc Tade,” whose horse was often seen tied to the hitching post outside.  He always brought flowers, I was told, on his visits to doctor the frequently ailing Jill.  (How many fox terriers enjoy house calls, much less bouquets from their vets?  Those were the days!)  Horses were long gone by my time, but Scindy wouldn’t let my dad tear out that hitching post.  It stayed until she died.

There were no romance novels back then, and no cozy mysteries, but if there had been my grandmother would have read them

Scindy and me

by the truckload.  As it was, she voraciously read the available fiction, itself an earlier version of the endless themes reiterated in contemporary women’s novels.  I still have her books, including her favorites – Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White and everything by Anna Katharine Green.  After Jill, a subsequent, and final, fox terrier was named “Maggie” for the 1893 Stephen Crane novel, Maggie, a Girl of the Streets.  Scindy devoured novels about women imperiled by the crushing social restraints of her time, and about others who managed to fall into “good” relationships with men.  Of course I’d choose her name, and Jill’s, as the author of a cozy mystery series!

And so sleuth “Mandy Dru” (It was originally “Nancy Dru” until lawyer friend muttered about fines for licensing infringements.) is born in the shadow of my grade school mystery favorite, under the pen name of a thwarted actress and her beflowered dog.  Mandy’s struggles are very contemporary, but I know Scindy would absolutely love them.  These are for you, grandma!

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I had no interest in the royal wedding.  Really.  When I read the cover of a tabloid while waiting in a grocery checkout line weeks ago, a tabloid announcing that Kate Middleton was pregnant with a new royal, I smiled.  If true, how nice, how brisk, realistic, happy.  Wedding then baby, no waiting around.  If not true, how actionable.  The lawsuits will fly.  I paid for a canister of oatmeal so huge I can’t hold it in one hand, philosophically ruing the vicissitudes of age while eyeing forbidden mint patties in the candy rack, the royal wedding forgotten.

Then on Wednesday, the day before the event, the wedding crossed my mind briefly, pleasantly.  That’s all.  But by Thursday afternoon some usually dormant autonomic process awoke and began a gear sequence that would be at full bore by midnight.  In 12-step terms, I admit I was powerless to stop it, although I don’t know that for sure because I didn’t try.  I just stopped writing the short story I was working on at midnight, went straight to Google and typed “royal wedding.”  I didn’t know why.

I read everything, knew where Elton John would sit and why Tony Blair was not invited.  (A petty gaffe so beneath the dignity of the occasion, I decided.)  I watched a video of the Archbishop of Canterbury speaking sagely, warmly, a bit simplistically, about marriage in general and this marriage in particular.  I approved the music (lots of Elgar – I like Elgar) and the scripture to be read by Kate’s brother, captured by paparazzi earlier in Italy, wearing a dress to a party.  I spent some time wishing people would stop reading tabloids so the paparazzi would have to get real jobs and stop tormenting celebs.  By 1:30 I’d memorized the order of service, faced the fact that I read the covers of tabloids in checkout lines and realized that I’d be up all night.  I had to watch the wedding.

But why?  What drove me to stay up until 4:45 a.m. gleefully watching a wedding ceremony I already knew by heart, in a building I’ve studied, visited and photographed, between two people I don’t know and will never meet?  As events unfolded (At last, the braid-bedecked princes are in a car, waving!) I analyzed (And there’s the queen in another car in a yellow outfit, waving!) my situation from (Ah, the beautiful bride in a white gown gets in a car, and waves!) two perspectives.

The first is personal.  I don’t know these royal people, but it’s still personal.  The first thing I ever memorized was a nursery rhyme called “Bobby Shafto,” derived from events in the life of a man who died in County Wicklow, Ireland, in 1737.  (Well events in the life of the woman he didn’t marry, who then died of a broken heart, but I didn’t know that at two.)  My first literatures, the verbal images on which I would imprint like a duckling, were English nursery rhymes.  I now know that the “fairy tales” I loved derived from German sources, but I heard them in English and imagined their settings to be like the English settings in my picture books.

Every day at school we sang “God Save the Queen,” only the words were changed to “My country tis of thee, etc.”   For the coronation of Queen Elizabeth we were released from school to watch the pageant in the homes of classmates who had tv’s.  We had a tv and my mother served lemonade in paper cups as we ogled the pageantry on a tiny screen in its huge cabinet.  In language and literature, Americans are English.  Well, okay.

But language and literature cannot account for the other billion people raptly watching the spectacle over subtitles.  No, something deeper than mere culture was afoot, something old-brain, primitive, wired.  And many awkward interviews with Americans watching the event in several countries nailed it.

“Why did you fly thousands of miles at great expense to watch the royal wedding on a giant TV screen in a park?” the reporters asked in England and Germany.

And the responses were all identical.  First, deer-in-headlights panic, then confused monosyllables followed by a single phrase – um, well, you know…“because it’s a fairy tale.”  Everybody interviewed said exactly the same thing.  Entranced, they were hard-put to define their behavior and ultimately just blurted out the truth.  So a significant percentage of (predominantly female) sentient life on the planet (including me) was, if only briefly, mesmerized by a fairy tale.  Deliberately, willingly, happily hypnotized.  Why?

It was history weeks ago, but I keep worrying the question. Yes, the obvious reproductive imagery.  Healthy young alpha female and male, mating ritual, inherent promise of new life.  The planet is so overrun with humans that it can no longer support our numbers, the crucial ozone layer is dissolving under attack by human-produced poisons, thousands of animal and plant species are near extinction or already obliterated by human overpopulation, and yet we still get starry-eyed over a mating ritual?  Yes, we do.  It’s ridiculous, but it’s wired.  Perhaps the hope is that maybe this time we’ll get it right and then we can do something else?

Or maybe the fascination subscends the obvious to go deeper.  “Fairy tales,” a catch-all phrase for the myths that frame our realities, are encoded messages from prehistory.  They wander in dreams; we understand their imagery without words; they are the common allegory of our species.  So of course our species will (mindlessly, if I’m any indication) be drawn to a fairy tale spectacle like this one, conveniently broadcast around the entire planet in full color.  (Ah, the crimson!  Ah, those hats!)  A carnival of imagery, a feast of rampant symbolism, the spectacle nourishes our deepest need – for story.

So good for England and every other culture that acknowledges the need for story by training and maintaining the actors who must shoulder story’s burden.  It’s not easy.  These people are, after all, just people, and the burden is often intolerable.  But like the ancient bards memorizing and reciting the human tale, or the ancient Maya carrying time itself in tumplines that incise their foreheads, these actors carry the whole weight of our story across ages.  They are ludicrous, unreal, an embarrassment to reason.  But reason pales and disintegrates against the power of story, and vanishes like thin smoke at the first herald – “Once upon a time…”

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