Category Archives: Blog

National Poetry Month 2016

A poem a day from my list of favorites.

Apr 30: Trust by Thomas R. Smith
Most things are out of your control. Does that make you nervous?

Apr 29: ‪Mambo Cadillac by Barbara Hamby
This one you have to read aloud at a frenetic pace.

Apr 28: After Psalm 137 by Anne Porter
Every once in a while, you need a thought provoking poem. Ps 137.

Apr 27: Moving Day by Ron Koertge
This is even better than my patented Moving Party (TM) scheme.

Apr 26: Fault by Ron Koertge
It’s not my fault, it’s San Andreas fault.

Apr 25: Advice to Young Poets by Martin Espada
Good advice for anyone, really.

Apr 24: Reverence by Julie Cadwallader-Staub
Do you have a moment from your childhood that is frozen in time?

Apr 23: The Twelfth Year by Mary Jo Salter
Knowledge available only to those with the guts to go the distance.

Apr 22: Green Tea by Dale Ritterbusch
Who can say this much in 55 words?

Apr 21: The Ineffable by George Bilgere
Eventually, it all becomes effable.

Apr 20: In The Alley by Ted Kooser
Happy Valentine’s day, honey.

Apr 19: Temple by Jeffrey Harrison
Is it just me, or is it hot in here?

Apr 18: Late Summer by Carrie Fountain
Sometimes I wonder how it feels for life to be so simple.

Apr 17: Adage by Billy Collins
Totally a sucker for wordplay. That’s no secret.

Apr 16: Rendezvous by Ted McMahon
When I ran across this poem in the archives of the Writer’s Almanac, I knew I had found the perfect poem for the front matter of The Reluctant Saint.

Apr 15: Bridal Shower by George Bilgere
Don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it.

Apr 14: Bottled Water by Kim Dower
If somebody told me to write a poem about bottled water, I wouldn’t know where to start.

Apr 13: 66 by E. E. Cummings
Few can write a love poem like E. E. Cummings

Apr 12: Turtle by Kay Ryan
I ask you, who could resist a poem that starts like this: Who would be a turtle who could help it?

Apr 11: Portmanterrorism by Nick Lantz
I confess that I can’t resist a masterful display of wordplay.

Apr 10: Four Kinds of Lilacs by Leo Dangel
Like I said, let’s go see some lilacs.

Apr 9: Among the Things He Does Not Deserve by Dan Albergotti
My list is a lot longer than his. The Woman is at the top.

Apr 8: Starting a Poem by Robert Bly
This might apply to starting anything at all.

Apr 7: You Should Avoid Young Children by Claire Keyes

Today’s poem is dedicated to Hensley, hero of The Reluctant Saint.

Chapter Six: Hensley had no objection to children in principle. It was the actual incarnation of that principle that elicited in him a desire to reformulate society along the lines of the London gentleman’s club of the nineteenth century, a place of gentility, restraint, and discretion furnished with an implacable doorman to keep out the untoward disruptions that those under twenty-five invariably introduced. Primary among the trials of cohabiting with tadpoles was the necessity of quelling their screams by entertaining them with mind-numbing pastimes involving an endless repetition of elemental memes. Hensley recognized the necessity of such building blocks for the developing mind, but he didn’t have the constitution to endure the accompanying ennui.

Apr 6: San Francisco Remembered by Philip Schultz
Just remember one thing: This isn’t about women.

Apr 5: Hear My Prayer, O Lord… by Barbara Hamby
This is one wacky chick.

April 4: Music at My Mother’s Funeral by Faith Shearin
I have a list of songs for my funeral. Don’t you?

April 3: What She Said by Billy Collins
You may think you don’t like poetry. Before you slam down the gavel, give this one a read. Or hit play to hear Garrison Keillor read it.

April 2: The Sunday Swim, Comanche Trace by Noel Crook
I heard this one as I was driving to my critique group, and a few days later discovered we had a mutual friend, the woman that I dedicated The Reluctant Saint to. You can click Look Inside to see the dedication.

April 1: Umpty Squat by Brad Whittington
The painful account of the woefully short poetry career of the Wunderfool.

The Defenestrated Zombie

How many novels have a signature cocktail? I know of only one.

I selected many of the locations in The Reluctant Saint by using Google Maps to find places near each other for a scene or chapter, which was how I discovered the Lovecraft Bar.

As a rule, I don’t drink cocktails, so when I discovered that Hensley would have a strategy session at the Lovecraft, I reached out to my resident expert in Vegas via FB message at 2 a.m.

DefenestratedZombieThus it was that the Defenestrated Zombie came into being through the auspices of one Jeremy Grigg, the Groover of Perth, who divined the perfect ingredients.

Of course, any zombie must contain light and dark rum. Due to the Defenestration of Prague, we required a Czech liqueur, and Becherovka came to our aid.

However, the drink as conceived by The Griggster and described by Ermen in Chapter Twenty-Nine is impossible to make, due to the largely imaginary nature of Gummidge’s Wort (although the etymology of “wort” is interesting in this context, as is a perusal of the story of Worzel Gummidge) and the inadvisability of ingesting formaldehyde. (For the record, one would have to drink 200 Defenestrated Zombies to get a lethal dose of formaldehyde, whereas the alcohol would get you after 20 drinks or so.)

ChrisZombieWall Consequently, I engaged the services of Chris Wall (aka Wally), gnome-at-large at Cafe Malta in South Austin. (Attendance required at your earliest convenience.) I told him the story and charged him with the task of creating a drink that could legally be assembled and consumed. He discharged his duties admirably. ( I featured Wally in Chapter Twenty-Seven, although I disguised his appearance.)

The complicating factor in this drink is the blood-orange syrup. If you can’t find any, you can make your own by reducing blood-orange soda.

The Defenestrated Zombie

1 1/4 oz light rum
1/2 oz orange juice
1/2 oz cranberry juice
1/4 oz lime juice
1/4 oz Bechorovka

Mix in shaker and decant into glass. Drizzle blood orange syrup into a layer on the bottom. Float dark rum on top.

Behind the Scenes: Postscript

This is a story of four panic attacks that can be traced directly back to a single phone call from an unexpected source. And therein lies a tale.

Here’s the soundtrack for this story. It should last for the whole story.

Germaine to the tale is the minor detail that I have the honor to share a home with The Woman in a rural community that is accessible by a single road that passes over a creek. Keep that in mind. Now let us proceed.

I have a suspicion that I am a creature of connection. Give me a hint of a story, and I’m there. No wonder that I became a fan of Bruce Cockburn at my earliest convenience, if not sooner. The man is made of story with the odd bit of hair and bone thrown in to connect it all together.

And so it was that in the early days of the internet I found Cockburn fans lurking in the fringes under the soubriquet of the Humans, so named because of the founder’s favorite Cockburn album. For over 20 years I’ve interacted with these folks and have met a handful in the real world, always a treat.

At this point in the story, the newcomers may be wondering how this fits in with The Reluctant Saint. The old-timers know that eventually I’ll pull it all together, and their faith shall not be in vain. In fact, it was because one particular Human by the felicitous name of Mike Grace rang my phone out of the blue from Pueblo, CO, in the summer of 2015 that the entire location-scouting trip came into being. You can send him your thanks at your leisure.

Over the decades I have exchanged emails and cassette tapes with Mr. Grace, but never had we met, nor had we shared a phone call. In fact, it had been over a decade since we had made any direct contact, so the call came as a surprise. After suitable preliminaries, Mike laid out the plan behind his call.

“Bruce is playing at the Boulder Theater on Nov 6. If I buy you a ticket, will you come?”

Were I another man, I might have immediately responded with an enthusiastic affirmative, but I am not that other man. I confess that I equivocated. It sounded good. I mean, who wouldn’t want to see Cockburn on a solo tour that was racking up rave reviews from all the diehard fans, but dollar signs sprang into my head. Round trip flight to Boulder. Rental car. Hotel. Meals. This free $40 ticket could cost me $400 dollars or more.

I promised to give it serious consideration and rang off. Of course The Woman immediately endorsed the plan, but she is The Woman after all. She would gladly spend $1000 dollars on those she loves before she would spend $1 on herself. Still I hesitated.

It took me a few weeks to reverse-engineer a rationalization for the trip. I had been toying with a location-scouting trip to Santa Fe and Portland. If I could only nudge myself off the bubble and commit, I could tack Boulder onto the end of the trip with little added expense. Thus we can credit Mr. Grace with the nudge, and so the whole glorious expedition came to be.

Now to the panic attacks. One came courtesy of the airlines. I’d love to find someone to blame the other three on, but I’m afraid they were all self-inflicted.

Panic Attack #1

I flew to PDX on the Thursday before Halloween and did the first two days with The Little Sister before The Woman joined us. Back in Texas, the great Halloween flood of 2015 (not to be confused with the great Halloween flood of 2013) was in full force.

Water rose above the guard rails during the flood.
Water rose above the guard rails during the flood.

Remember that one road into our neighborhood that passes over a creek? The Woman made it out an hour before the bridge over the creek washed out, making passage impossible for 24 hours. She also managed to get out of ATX on the last flight before the control tower was flooded and put the airport out of commission. She’s blessed like that.

After she arrived, we put a bow on the thing in Portland, and on Tuesday we went to the airport together. I was headed to Santa Fe. She was headed back home. Our flights were an hour apart.

You may recall from an earlier installment that I am a veteran international traveler. As such, I have learned to have my ducks in a row and breeze through security with no concerns. All went according to plan, and we stopped for breakfast within sight of my gate for the flight to Santa Fe. Afterwards, we parted ways with a kiss born of four decades of marriage.

Let me take a moment to say a thing about that. The parting kisses of young love are sweet indeed. Everything is turned up to 11, and few things can be more intense. But the kiss of two lovers who have gone the distance for half a lifetime is another thing entirely. On the face of it, such a kiss may not make headlines and cause romantics to swoon and social media mavens to burn down Twitter or Facebook or Instagram, but such considerations don’t enter into the equation.

It is the difference between a forest fire and a furnace that will keep you warm for the rest of your life. The solution is left as an exercise to the reader.

Then we parted ways, The Woman to her gate and me to mine. I strolled up with the air of a man without a care in the world. Although care soon crept into my consciousness. I was arriving at boarding time and the gate area was empty. How could this be?

I approached the gate attendant. “I’m here for the flight to Santa Fe.”

“It just left two minutes ago.”

Abject confusion on my part. My response can best be represented thusly.

?!?!?!

Forensic investigation revealed that I had confused the boarding time with the departure time. Despair ensued. The gate attendant gamely found me a seat on a flight to Denver, from which point I was on my own to fly standby to Santa Fe.

“That’s funny,” the attendant said. “There’s another passenger named Whittington on the flight to Denver.”

Such was my distress that I agreed it was indeed strange without connecting the dots. I gratefully accepted my boarding pass and strolled to the gate, only to find my true love waiting to board the flight to Denver, her connecting flight to Austin. A welcome sight indeed, but there remained the issue of getting from Denver to Santa Fe.

On the Terminal C concourse in Denver, we located The Woman’s gate and the gate of the Santa Fe flight for which I had standby status. With a few hours of layover, I scoped out an establishment suitable for my distress. The Aviator’s Sports Bar on the second level offered the best playlist on the PA. (Steely Dan was playing as I investigated.) I installed myself there with some spinach artichoke dip and a glass of wine to calm my nerves and did a bit of day-job work to center myself while The Woman shopped.

Together we went to the Santa Fe gate. I was first on standby with three open seats, a fortuitous sign, but I watched the three seats disappear on the monitor. As they closed the gate for departure I approached the gate agent to learn how such a thing happened. I offer this information for your instruction.

“I have a question. I was first on standby, but I didn’t get a seat.”

“Someone bought the last seat.”

I started to say that I had paid for a seat to Santa Fe, but stopped myself when I realized I had paid for that seat on a different flight that I had forfeited due to my own incompetence. I thanked the flight attendant and walked The Woman to her gate.

As it turned out, she was having travel difficulties of her own. The Austin airport had re-opened with a temporary tower, but could only handle a fraction of the traffic, so flights into ATX were being cancelled right and left. Including her flight from Denver. We returned to the Aviator’s Sports Bar where I resumed work and she began a telephone campaign to overwhelm the airline industry. After bombarding them with heavy artillery, she found a flight on a different airline that was boarding in 15 minutes.  I saw her off with another kiss and proceeded to the next gate with a flight to Santa Fe.

The attendant was busy, so I waited at a respectful distance. When she was done, she looked to me just as a pilot approached. He gestured for me to go first.

I waved him forward. “I’m not in a hurry.”

“No, go ahead.”

“I insist.”

“No, it’s okay,” he said.

Before the whole exchange could devolve into a Chip and Dale cartoon, I shook my head and explained. “For this entire day I have had no power to influence anything in my world. Please do not deny me this one moment to have power over what happens next. You go first.”

He smiled and settled his business with the gate attendant, doubtlessly to dead head on a seat that could have been mine if he had not shown up. When he left, the attendant looked to me.

I stepped forward. “Through nobody’s fault but my own I find myself on standby to Santa Fe. I am seeking advice.”

She waited.

“I have two options. One, I get a standby seat on the flight to Santa Fe. The other, I get a rental car and drive there.  If I’m going to drive, I’d just as soon start now rather than wait a a few hours hour to find out I won’t get a seat on this flight. What would you recommend?”

She smiled. “Come back at boarding time.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

When the time came, she came from behind the desk and personally handed me a boarding pass. Lesson: There is power in acknowledging that you have no power.

Panic Attack #2

After two days in Santa Fe, I drove to Albuquerque for my flight to the Cockburn concert in Boulder. I arrived at the airport two hours before boarding and ordered a ridiculous breakfast burrito the size of a javelina because evidently they don’t do breakfast tacos out west. It went thusly:

Me: I’ll take a #5 and coffee.
Her: Red or green?
Me: Red.
Her: Do you want something to drink?
Me: Coffee.
Her: Room for cream?
Me: No.
Her: You said green, right?
Me: Sure.
Her: [submits order, grabs a coffee cup, holds it under the spigot] Room for cream?
Me: No.

I ate while keeping an eye on my gate 100 feet away, bused my table, and went directly to the gate. Ten minutes after boarding time they cancelled the flight. Panic attack #2 ensued, in no way attenuated by the fact that this time it wasn’t my fault.

I spent the next hour on the phone with the airline . The best they could do was to get me to Denver after midnight via Chicago. I pulled the plug on that proposal, extracted a refund for my canceled flight, and hoofed it to the rental area. It’s a 500-mile drive from Albuquerque to Boulder. I did 85 mph most of the way, stopping once for gas and a sandwich. I whiled away the time listening to Undaunted Courage on my Kindle. Eight hours later I parked the car in a garage a block from the Boulder Theater with 30 minutes to spare before show time.

Mike Grace turned out to be a standup dude, as one would expect from a Human. (In case you forgot, he was responsible for this whole trip. Sort of.)

I crashed with some friends in Boulder and the next morning headed to the Denver airport to return home to The Woman.

Panic Attack #3

As a veteran traveler, I have a routine.

  1. Return the rental car and board the shuttle.
  2. Use the trip to empty my pockets of glasses, phone, billfold, etc.
  3. Extract my ID for getting through security.

Step 3 tripped me up. My ID wasn’t in my wallet where it should be. In fact, it wasn’t anywhere as far as I could tell.

This wasn’t the first time I had approached an airport with the gut-wrenching realization that I had no ID, but the first time was in 1996, well before the complications that 9/11 introduced to air travel. How I managed to solve that little puzzle is a whole nother story.

I was five minutes from the airport. I searched my entire person and my shoulder bag. In the interest of decorum, I desisted from tossing everything from my carryon.

I racked my brain for the location of the ID. Could be in my jeans in the carryon. Could be in the bedroom where I crashed last night, a 90-minute round-trip drive, by which time my flight would be gone. Could be at the rental counter in Albuquerque, the last place I remembered using it.

I got off the shuttle at the departure level, rushed into the terminal, and searched every article of laundry in my carryon. Nothing. I searched every pocket of my shoulder bag. Nothing.

As far as I could see, I wasn’t going to be home today. It would take lots of hours and dollars to get back to the one place I wanted to be most of all, in the arms of The Woman.

In desperation, I pulled my laptop from its slot and what fell out but my ID. In a flash my mind hailed back to a moment in that frantic 8-hour drive from Albuquerque when I slammed on the brakes and my shoulder bag catapulted from the passenger seat to the floor. Evidently at that moment the ID I had tossed on the passenger seat when leaving the rental lot had chosen to nestle itself thusly.

With inexpressible gratitude I packed everything back up and breezed through security. A few minutes later I was back at the Aviator’s Sports Bar with another glass of wine to calm my nerves. I used the occasion to have lunch, charge my devices for the flight, and chat up the bartender about old times.

Then, as is my custom, I organized my effects for the upcoming flight.

Panic Attack #4

Which was the moment that I discovered that I had once again lost my ID.

To be fair, at this point things weren’t so dire. I could get on the plane. I could return to the waiting arms of The Woman without having to wrestle with TSA or spend days and dollars getting back home. But once back, I would have to venture forth from my bunker without a license to the DMV and go through the hassle of replacing the lost ID.

Once again my mind raced to identify the last place I had seen it. Going through security. Somehow I must have lost it there. I could go back and ask for it, but if I went outside of security, I had no way of getting back in. I called Lost and Found, only to learn it would take a few hours for them to determine if they found it, well past my boarding time.

My only option was to retrace my steps back to security, call from the safe side, and see if I could interest some harried TSA employee in my plight. I closed out my tab, packed up my things, and struck out on my mission

Halfway to the escalator I felt something strange in my left shoe. Then it all came back to me.

My airport routine had been optimized before the era of full-body scanners. Back in those days it was all about metal detectors. One could slip an ID into a shirt pocket and pass through the metal detector with no problem. But as I had approached the scanner, I realized it was a body scanner, and an ID in the shirt pocket would slow me down in security. In that moment I had tossed my ID into the bin with my shoes, braved the scanner, and reassembled my effects on the other side, having forgotten about the ID.

Could it be? I stopped on my trek back to security ten feet short of the escalator, pulled off my shoe, and discovered my ID. I laughed, restored it to its rightful place in my wallet, and returned to the Aviator’s Sports Bar to celebrate. If you’re in Terminal C of the Denver airport, the Aviator’s Sports Bar has the best music and bartenders.

Several hours later, the reunion with The Woman was what anyone would hope for when reuniting with one’s true love of forty years. The solution is left as an exercise for the reader.

The Reluctant Saint

The Reluctant Saint is the story of Hensley’s attempt to reconnect with the woman he thinks could be The Woman to finally anchor his life. He doesn’t lose his ID, but he might have a panic attack or two along the way.

 

Behind the Scenes: Portland Day 3

This final day of location scouting in Portland proved to be the most demanding. Even more so than the tour de force of Hensley’s fateful Friday.

The task that lay before us was to cover in one day what takes Hensley two days to do. The Woman had flown in the night before, and so on Saturday morning I climbed into the back seat of my sister’s beige Honda Accord and relinquished the seats of honor to the women.

The drive out to Mount Hood took the better part of an hour, and I made note of the features along the way. The novel requires Hensley to locate a cabin in the remote reaches of the foothills, and via Google Maps I had identified what appeared to be the perfect spot. But it was imperative that I survey the environs to verify the grade of the slope and the wildness of the terrain.

I had selected a road that wound up a series of switchbacks through dense forest to what appeared to be a meadow that interrupted the slope. I hoped to place my cabin in this clearing, but I had to see it for myself so I could take you there.

Mount Hood, Road 27
Mount Hood, Road 27

The road turned out to be a ragged track of rock with scarcely two feet of clearance on either side of the car. Before we had gone a half mile, we had the wall of the mountain to our right and a precipitous drop to our left. It was a dicey proposition and make no mistake. We had failed to swap drivers at the turn off, so my sister was at the wheel, taking blind hairpin turns at a few miles an hour with an eternity of air just inches from the front fender.

As terrified as she must have been, she bravely inched around the curves while I sat in the back seat, white-knuckled hand grasping the arm rest and wondering if we would find a wide spot to turn around, or if I would have the soul-melting task of backing the car down the mountain.

Mount Hood, Road 27
Mount Hood, Road 27

But nothing would do but for me to lay eyes on the meadow, so we doggedly clawed our way up the mountainside for what seemed like an eternity but was likely only a mile, two at the most. Of course there was no reception so I had no way of checking Google Maps to see how close we were to the meadow. I expected it to open before us after every turn and was consistently disappointed.

We encountered a few wide spots in the road where the women suggested we turn around, but the spots were not near wide enough to do anything less than a twenty-five-point back-and-forth reversal, so I insisted we proceed forward. Eventually we came to a spot that afforded two vehicles to pass, and I proposed that they park while I proceeded forth on foot to see if the meadow was around the next turn or perhaps the next after that.

Mount Hood, Road 27
Mount Hood, Road 27

The temperature was in the mid-forties at best, and there was a light drizzle. I held my fleece windbreaker over my head and proceeded up the mountain on foot. At every corner I saw sky beyond the trees and thought, “At last the meadow.” But it turned out to be yet another switch back and only gaping air beyond.

Mount Hood, Road 27
Mount Hood, Road 27

Multiple times my body told me to turn back, but my mind said, “You will never again travel these 2000 miles to see this place. It would be foolish to turn back without giving it the good old college try.” So I trudged onward and upward.

Finally the grade started to level out as I approached a stand of small deciduous trees, and I thought the meadow must lay just beyond. But as I approached, I saw that the road turned and went through them. I was still far from the meadow, if any such thing existed.

Disappointed but realistic, I turned back. On the way down I counted my steps. As a veteran of high-school marching band, I knew how to strike out in a consistent 30-inch stride. I used my fingers like an abacus to keep an accurate count and registered well over a thousand steps by the time I reached the car. Doing the math, I realized I had gone approximately six-tenths of a mile one way, covering over a mile in the 30 minutes that I had been walking.

  • Mt Hood

I arrived at the car to discover that The Woman was in a state. As we had turned off the highway to the mountain road, she had seen a sign warning about bears. After I had been gone 10 or 15 minutes, she grew concerned, and they yelled and blew the horn, but in the dense, damp foliage and behind multiple switch backs putting who knows how many feet of living rock between us, it would have been impossible for me to hear them.

I was wet, cold, and exhausted at the effort, but I took the wheel and steered us back down the mountain to the Dairy Queen in Rhododendron. There I ordered the Flamethrower burger that Hensley picks up for his stakeout. The teenage cash-register jockey was singularly unimpressed that he was about to become immortalized in my next novel.

Tree In Ghillie Suit
Tree In Ghillie Suit

I would say that I was more demoralized than refreshed by the experience, and the next leg of our journey would be punishing, a 90-minute trek through driving rain to the coast. Because The Woman is without equal, she volunteered to drive, and I gratefully relinquished the keys and took a nap in the back seat as best as I could as we proceeded through the city and over the mountains to Cannon Beach, the location of the final scene of the novel.

In the larger scheme of things, the city of Cannon Beach is little more than an eyelash on a bluff overlooking the cold Pacific of the American west coast. Finding parking near beach access was a considerable chore, and we had to walk a half-a-mile just to climb a hundred feet of stairs to a hotel and another hundred feet down to the beach.

The temperature had dropped to the high thirties, and the wind had picked up, blowing rain into our faces. The women elected to shelter in the hotel, and I braved the trek down the bluff and across a quarter-mile of beach to Haystack Rock.

My only protection against the freezing wind was my sodden fleece windbreaker and a collapsible umbrella, which did just that. The tide was creeping in, covering the vast expanse of beach with an inch or two of water surging back and forth. I threaded a path between rivulets on damp sand, occasionally having to tiptoe through shallow currents, intent on getting as close to the rock as possible.

If you’ve never experienced Haystack Rock, you can see from the photos that it is an imposing and humbling formation. You might have seen it in the closing scene of the Disney movie The Goonies. A few decades ago I had the pleasure to visit it under much more hospitable conditions and with a much better camera, but those photos seem to have evaporated in the course of the dozen moves that I have made since then.

If ever there was a location to bring a mere human to the point of considering the grander scheme of the universe and life as we know it, Haystack Rock is such a place. Here Hensley faces his final battle. There I stood in the punishing wind and rain, umbrella useless, hair plastered to my head, jacket soaked, shoes overwhelmed in the tide. I considered the choice that lay before Hensley.

As a result of his experiences In Mexico, as detailed in Endless Vacation, Hensley comes to reevaluate his chosen lifestyle. At the rock, he faces a decision—whether to sacrifice his personal good for the greater good. Would he stay the course, or would he walk away? Which was the right thing? I could see it going either way.

End Of The Quest with The Little Sister (Haystack Rock in the background)
End Of The Quest with The Little Sister (Haystack Rock in the background)

I trudged back through the tide waters and the driving rain, pondering Hensley’s choices. At the hotel, I joined the women, and we went to Mo’s to warm up over a bowl of chowder.

We discovered that half of the restaurant was closed off as the rains had flooded it earlier in the day. We got a table overlooking the beach. I had traveled more than two-thousand miles to walk in Hensley’s footsteps in the desert, in the mountains, and on the beach. As I took a deep breath over the chowder, I looked out the window at the sunset and wondered what Hensley would decide to do.

Behind the Scenes: Portland Day 2

On Friday I awakened and dressed while contemplating the day that lay ahead, a pivotal day for our hero, who finds himself faced with the unexpected mission of rescuing a teenager from a wealth of bad decisions. To that end, he must assemble a team of modern day knights-errant to join him in battle against nefarious foes.

It was going to be a long day. Hensley takes 12 hours to go through the paces, but I was unwilling to subject my sister to such a grueling schedule. We did it in about half the time.

City State Diner, Portland, OR
City State Diner, Portland, OR

Our first stop—City State Diner, where they serve up a mean breakfast. Net research had drawn me to the Bacon Brie Scramble, but consultation with our server redirected me to the Freddie, which was everything one could hope for and more. If you find yourself in Portland and in need of breakfast, run don’t walk to City State Diner.

The Freddie, City State Diner, Portland, OR
The Freddie, City State Diner, Portland, OR

After an excellent repast, we took the half-hour drive down to what turned out to be the location of the former Pacific Rim Martial Arts Academy, now a bank branch office. Hey, I do write fiction after all so I felt more than capable to fill in the blanks.

Jet Set Coffee, Tigard, OR
Jet Set Coffee, Tigard, OR

From there it was a mere two-mile jaunt to Jet Set Coffee in Tigard, a hip little joint with an impressive mural of the defunct TWA flight center at JFK, now the T5 JetBlue terminal. Thankfully,  there were no surprises, and I got some work done for the day job while my sister got in a good spell of reading.

The Olive and the Grape, Portland, OR
The Olive and the Grape, Portland, OR

Then it was an appetizer at the Olive and the Grape in Lake Oswego, a charming little bistro with and ambitious menu and a welcoming atmosphere. Highly recommended.

Half Pint Coffee, Portland, OR
Half Pint Coffee, Portland, OR

Next Hensley seeks out Sea Tramp Tattoo to recruit his next warrior. Net research revealed that between the time of the story (2013) and the time of the writing (2015), a fire forced Sea Tramp to relocate. We parked near the original location, still vacant, and like Hensley, grabbed a drink at Half Pint Cafe, located in the former freight elevator shaft of a warehouse. Marco serves up a mean brew. Come on down!

Former location of Sea Tramp Tattoo, Portland, OR
Former location of Sea Tramp Tattoo, Portland, OR

Thus fortified, we visited the new location of Sea Tramp. Here’s the thing about walking into a place and informing the denizens that they are the subject of scene in a novel. Some are effusive and honored. Others are curious. And yet still others are indifferent.

Current location of Sea Tramp Tattoo, Portland, OR
Current location of Sea Tramp Tattoo, Portland, OR

The good folks at Sea Tramp were quite friendly, but I must confess they seemed tolerant but less enthusiastic than I might have hoped upon receipt of the news that they were to be featured. But I have a sneaking suspicion that if you’re in Portland and you want a tattoo, Sea Tramp is the place to go.

And this brings us to the most iconic of locations in this memorable day in Hensley’s journey, the Lovecraft Bar. I found the Lovecraft through net research, as it was only two blocks from the former and current locations of Sea Tramp Tattoo. I was immediately captivated.

Lovecraft Bar, Portland OR
Lovecraft Bar, Portland OR

The Lovecraft is not a place that I would frequent, or even enjoy when it is in full swing, but it is true to the vibe of the infamous HP Lovecraft, creator of compelling stories of  existential dread.

As a teenager in Fred, Texas, I went through my requisite morbid stage and consumed everything written by Edgar Allan Poe. The meager stores of the library thus exhausted, I branched out to Lovecraft and could only endure one volume before turning to more congenial and lighthearted material. If you thought Poe could craft terrifying tales, and you would be right about that, then prepare yourself for the next level before opening a book by Lovecraft.

Lovecraft Bar, Portland, OR
Lovecraft Bar, Portland, OR

The place is everything one could want in such a dive. If Mick Jagger could get satisfaction, then he would find it in the Lovecraft,  because everything is painted black. Walls, ceiling, floor, furniture, stage, soul. All black.

As I said, not my vibe, but an incredible setting for a scene in a novel. As I mentioned before, Hensley carefully considers what he eats and drinks to acquire the makings of the quintessential experience. Consequently I pondered what  Hensley would order in this depraved environment, and realized I was not equal to the task for I know nothing of mixed drinks. But I have a wealth of resources at my command.

As I was writing, although it was an advanced hour, I saw that my main man of Oz, recently relocated to Las Vegas for business, was online. I pinged him, and together we constructed a hideous cocktail to match the location. The Defenestrated Zombie. Let us just say that it contains ingredients that are illegal to serve.

I later challenged Chris Wall, the bartender at my favorite lunch, brunch, and dinner spot, Cafe Malta, to create a legal version of this cocktail, and you can find the recipe at the back of the book.

Complimentary pita bread at the Nicholas Lebanese restaurant in Portland, OR
Complimentary pita bread at the Nicholas Lebanese restaurant in Portland, OR

Thus liberated, my sister and I crossed the street to the Nicholas Restaurant where Hensley goes to purge himself of the dreaded cocktail. He orders dinner as he receives devastating news that drives him back into the street. However we did not deprive ourselves of the goodness of the Nicholas and were rewarded with an excellent Lebanese dinner. Don’t miss it if you can.

As Hensley faces his crisis, he stops by two more establishments on Burnside, the B-Side Tavern and the Wurst.

TRS-PortlandBSideLightsThe moment we stepped into the B-Side, I commented that I felt like I had stepped into a Texas roadhouse. The vibe was identical. In an earlier episode, I discussed the cultural and spiritual elements that constitute the roadhouse experience, and the B-Side embodies these very elements.

First, although Portland enjoys the same non-smoking laws that Austin shares, there was the immediate whiff of cigarette smoke, wafting in from the back deck as we later learned. I am not offering a value judgment in regard to the smoking laws. I enjoy a smoke-free environment as much as the next person, but it served as a reference point of frontier defiance that resonated with this Texan.

The next thing that impressed upon my consciousness was that the light boxes above the bar had lenses that consisted of x-rays. Rib cages, pelvic bones, femurs. It was simultaneously startling and charming. Brenda, our bartender, was as friendly as any Texan you could hope to meet. If you can endure the trace aroma of cigarette smoke, it’s a friendly place to hang out.

Our last location to investigate was the Wurst, a more brightly-lit establishment with a horseshoe bar, arcade games, and a selection of bratwurst-based sandwiches. If we had taken the 12 hours that Hensley does in tracing his journey, I would have sampled one, but in our abbreviated schedule, I didn’t have room for that luxury.

 

Behind the Scenes: Portland Day 1

Gentle reader, there is one aspect in which I am luckier than you. I have a sister who lives in Portland, Oregon. Perhaps you are not conscious of a gaping hole in your life in this regard, but once you decide to write a novel set in Portland, you will keenly feel your need. Should such an occasion arise, give me a call. I know a guy.

Portland is considered a sister city of Austin because we share a certain level of weirdness, if of somewhat different flavors. After all, Austin is in Texas, and there’s no cure for that.

After a forced march across the Continental Divide, Hensley rolls into Portland in the afternoon and finds himself in need of a wardrobe adjustment to allow for the difference in climate. As is his custom, he seeks out a Goodwill store. Net research provided the proper location but nothing less than location scouting could have revealed the nature of that store.

Ritzy Goodwill store in downtown Portland
Ritzy Goodwill store in downtown Portland

Oddly enough, it smells like every other Goodwill store I’ve encountered, but there the similarity ended. Upscale knick knacks. A vase with artistically arranged stark branches. Brand new Pendleton shirts priced at $30. It became clear I would have to do a bit of editing on that scene.

Thus provisioned, Hensley sought out one of his old haunts, the Virginia Cafe. This establishment has been in continuous operation since before Prohibition, and so Hensley felt confident as he approached the corner of Park and Morrison. Both he and I were in for a surprise upon arriving at our destination.

Portland HiRise
Portland HiRise

Based on net research, I expected to find a 35-story office building at that location, and I did. However net research did not reveal that it was under construction, and therefore Hensley would not have  been able to inquire inside for the new location of the Virginia Cafe.

Shockingly unfinished 35-story office building in Portland
Shockingly unfinished 35-story office building in Portland

I unexpectedly found myself in Hensley’s shoes, staring in confusion at this location and wondering what had happened. I needed to know what this corner look like in 2013. And in the next few moments the most amazing aspect of location scouting emerged.

Before I could pop into a shop and inquire into the history of the development on this corner and how it looked two years prior, a man in a three-piece suit and a red power tie crossed the street and greeted my sister. As it turned out they went to the same church. When we were introduced, I said “Glen, you might be able to help me out. I have a question about this building.”

He glanced at the building and turned back to me. “This is the most recent acquisition in my property management portfolio. What do you need to know?” Within a few minutes I had everything I needed to complete the scene.

Thus enlightened, we proceeded to the new location of the Virginia Cafe just two doors north of the Goodwill store, but it took me much longer to recover from this amazing chance encounter.

Entrance to the Virginia Cafe, Portland, OR
Entrance to the Virginia Cafe, Portland, OR

The Virginian Cafe is a charming little bistro with a fairly pedestrian menu. Based on web research I had Hensley order the London Broil, but I asked the waitress for the most popular item and she directed me to the club sandwich. I found it typical of the breed, if of somewhat ambitious elevation. I had the spicy tater tots, my sister had the spicy fries. They were spicy. Note the coveted jacket from Goodwill.

The Club Me sandwich at the Virginia Cafe in Portland, OR
The Club Me sandwich at the Virginia Cafe in Portland, OR

Having experienced our limit for fortuitous encounters, we retired the field to prepare ourselves for the daunting Friday that Hensley was to face.

 

Behind the Scenes: Santa Fe Day 3

As you might have gathered, the star of this production is somewhat of a gustatorian, or in the modern parlance, a foodie. As a result, I had to pay particular attention to what he ate and where. This characteristic pops up in the first chapter and continues on, climaxing in the last third of the novel in a memorable Friday in Portland where Hensley hits six or so establishments, all of which I can personally recommend.

It’s kind of a Bloomsday tour de force, if I can be so bold.

But back in Santa Fe, I needed the quintessential breakfast spot for Hensley, and my good friend and fellow writer Chadwick Wall, a frequent habitue of Santa Fe, pointed me in the right direction. I did my online research and was sold.

On site, I found a spot in the parking garage next door to Tia Sophia’s and walked past the infamous Carl taking a smoke break before I realized who he was. I resisted the urge to backtrack and introduce myself as it felt like it could be a bit awkward, so I proceeded on to do a bit of shopping for The Woman, particularly at the Christmas Store where I picked up some ornaments for our new scaled-down Christmas tree. Then I scoped out the Loretto Chapel, of which I spoke earlier, and returned to Tia Sophia’s for a Christmas burrito for lunch, just as Hensley does.

Tia Sophia's Christmas burrito
Tia Sophia’s Christmas burrito

I lacked the good fortune to be seated in Carl’s territory, but did score a table nearby where I could watch him in action. Carl is a force to be reckoned with. I took note of his interaction with his wards and copped some of his best lines for the novel. The Christmas burrito was everything you would expect. As I paid my bill I struck up a conversation with the owner, Nick, who turned out to be fellow writer, and spent the next hour chatting with him at a side table. Just an example of a fortuitous concourse of events that one encounters when one leaves one’s self-imposed hermitage and ventures into the real world.

But back in the world of The Reluctant Saint, our hero must sojourn to Portland, OR, and being techo-reluctant, he lacks the smartphone required to guide him to his destination. So he goes old school. Triple A.

I proceeded to the AAA office on Cerillos and posed my rather unorthodox question to the ever-helpful Brenda. It turned out that the exact map Hensley needed was readily available—a road map of the Northwest US. And thus our hero is on his way to Portland, as are we in the next installment, a wonderful city with much to recommend it.

The AAA map is a minor detail, to be sure, but let us recall the purpose of this exercise—achieving verisimilitude. What John Gardner called the fictive dream, a state of process for the writer, but more importantly, an experience for the reader.

By the way, if you’re a fan of literary fiction and  haven’t read Gardner’s Grendel, rectify that deficit immediately! Short book, large book, head melting book.

-o-

Since this is a short day in the location-scouting department, I’m going to clear off a space and have a fit, as Dr. Davis used to say.

I sit out on my deck in the wee hours of the night/morning and make up crazy stories that have no fact but much truth as I see it. Then you read them in whatever circumstance you choose to consume fiction. If I do my job, it’s like we’re having a conversation.

That’s how I see this thing that we do, you and I. On some level I know that many people will read what I write, but that’s not how I live the story. I write one on one. The rest of the world fades, and it’s just the two of us taking this journey, a voyage of discovery.

I started The Reluctant Saint with a name (Chrystal), a place (Santa Fe), and a structure (the stations of the cross). I also had the notion that after decades of wandering, Hensley would have to face some serious facts. But it wasn’t until the fourth draft and the penultimate chapter that I realized the ultimate root of Hensley’s dilemma.

As Davison says, “How bad do you want it?” For most of us, the answer is, “Not bad enough.”

If I were a sane man, I wouldn’t waste all these hours cranking this stuff out. But history shows I’m not all that sane. I’m reasonable enough on the surface, but bent where it matters. It could be my motto.

The Wunderfool: Reasonable, but marginally sane.

Just ask The Woman. Or the Number One Son. Or the Good Daughter. They know. As the latter-day poet and philosopher Leonard Cohen said, “There’s a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.

After a few decades on this planet, I’m convinced that we’re all broken to some degree. Some of us are just better at hiding it. And the first step to mending the broken place is to quit pretending it’s not broken.

Hensley doesn’t know it on page one, but in all his travels, from Galveston to Santa Fe to D.C. to Philly to Santa Fe to Portland, that is his destination.

Next stop: Oregon.

 

Behind the Scenes: Santa Fe Day 2

This day was one of many that highlighted the value of actually going there. I had three goals: scope out a lunch spot, the offices of the district judge, and the site of an imaginary roadhouse called The Tinker’s Dam.

I visited Santa Fe over four decades back. The only thing I remembered was the miraculous staircase at the Loretto Chapel. It had nothing to do with The Reluctant Saint, but I swung by there anyway, paid the $3, and went in. To the surprise of no one, the staircase looked just like Dad’s slides from that trip in the Sixties. Evidently I was a skeptic even as an elementary school kid, because I just couldn’t buy into the miraculous part of the staircase. After all, a supernatural event is by definition something that defies the laws of nature, and as far as I could see, this staircase looked like it was conforming to all the required natural laws.

My one discovery at the chapel was the fourteen sculptures of the stations of the cross on the walls. As a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid, I knew nothing of the stations of the cross. It’s a Catholic thing, you know.

  • 1. Jesus is condemned to death

Then, seven years ago I was thinking about how to write this novel while listening to U2. Moment of Surrender came on and I heard this clever line:

I was speeding on the subway through the stations of the cross

Out of nowhere I wondered what it would be like to structure a novel around the stations of the cross. This is inside-baseball stuff that a reader doesn’t care about, but it is the kind of thing that those who write novels must contemplate. I did indeed structure the novel around the stations of the cross, but it is highly unlikely that anybody would notice while reading it, not even a Catholic novelist. Just like few people notice the communion scene in Muffin Man. So discovering the sculptures was a nice connection back to that agonizing period of story development.

If you’re the type who likes to dig out this kind of detail when reading a novel, look for telling character names, reversal of goals, and analogs to the passion events.

Back to location scouting, the fortuitous connection was ferreting out a lunch spot for Judge Simon Cox. Through net research, I settled on The Beestro on Marcy Street. The menu sounded like something Hensley would dig, and the photos looked perfect.

On the day in question, I popped out of my bed in the Roy Rogers room of the Silver Saddle Motel, looked out the window, and saw snow covering my rental car.

Silver Saddle Motel: Snowed in
Silver Saddle Motel: Snowed in

A propitious day. After a short drive downtown, I found a parking place, took a short walk through the freezing rain to The Beestro, and discovered it was a deli where you order takeout at the meat counter facing the street and then go elsewhere or jaunt upstairs to a small dining room with no table service.

At that moment I realized two things. I had to rewrite the setting in a couple of chapters, and I had to find an alternative location fast. Like right now before lunch was over.

I dashed through the rain to the car, found parking across from the Federal Courthouse, went into the bank to get change for the meter, and asked the teller for a good lunch spot nearby. And thus I had lunch at Santacafe, the 100+ year old house of Jose Manuel Gallegos, a defrocked priest. What could be more perfect for a story about a reluctant saint?

The fare was excellent, served by the newly-arrived-in-town Michelle. I re-envisioned the scenes in this new location and all was copacetic.

Thus sated, I tackled the courthouse. I survived the metal detector and chatted up the security officer. He hooked me up with a semi-retired judge who gave me a tour of the courtroom and a glimpse of the anteroom to the judge’s chambers. Score!

That left The Tinker’s Dam.

There’s something about a roadhouse that brings a soul down to the common denominator of the human condition. Some of my readers will be familiar with the vibe. Others might view such an establishment with a degree of trepidation and possibly disdain. I refer the second group to the previous installment for a grounding in the concept of the ragamuffin.

I’m not saying everyone should hang out in dimly lit, smoky bars. Everyone has their preferred hangouts, even if it’s a recliner in the comfort of one’s own home, which is my choice most nights of the year. But there are aspects of the roadhouse worthy of consideration, even if one visits such a place only in a novel.

Few places are more egalitarian than a roadhouse.

First off, like a genuine pub in the UK, there is no place for pretension in a roadhouse.  Social status, wealth, these count for nothing. There is no first class seating, no VIP section. No ambitious posers networking, gaming for the most adventitious connection in the room.

Second, you find the most down-home folks in a roadhouse. Sure you might encounter the occasional jerk, but for the most part, if you’re polite and genuine, you’ll find regular folks willing to accept you as you are.

Hensley needed a base of operations in Santa Fe, and I could think of no more likely place for a person of his caliber than a genuine roadhouse. But this isn’t the kind of place you can identify through net research. You have to live in a place to discover the real establishments. Consequently, I had no choice but to create one.

I quickly settled on the name Tinker’s Dam, because in a novel names are important. The phrase “not worth a tinker’s dam” refers to something worthless. Some might think this refers to a cuss word, hence the often-used alternative “tinker’s cuss.” However, it’s tinker’s dam, not tinker’s damn. It refers to a bit of throw-away material used by a tinker to hold solder in place to repair a pot.

The Tinker’s Dam is a roadhouse where those individuals society might deem worthless gather. Based on net research, I decided one would find such an establishment east of town on Old Las Vegas Highway as it parallels I-25. I took a drive out that direction and discovered that a lot of nice developments have sprung out that direction. But I also found the derelict shell of the Bobcat Bite in the perfect location for the Tinker’s Dam.

The former Bobcat Bit as a location for The Tinker's Dam
The former Bobcat Bit as a location for The Tinker’s Dam
The former Bobcat Bit as a location for The Tinker's Dam
The former Bobcat Bit as a location for The Tinker’s Dam

In the novel, a  gentle giant by the name of Scooter Bell owns the place. In his youth, his school buddies graced him with the ironic nickname Tinker Bell. It stuck and he owned it to the degree that he named his place of business, the Tinker’s Dam.

Turns out I wasn’t the first to think of it as the name of a bar. But I just now found that out. 😉

When Hensley returns to Santa Fe on his quest, he turns to his old friend for employment. In the crucible of the Tinker’s Dam, Hensley engages those in need of his counsel and faces his own midnight of the soul.

As I wrote, more than once I thought how interesting it would be to sit down with you, gentle reader, in a place such as the Tinker’s Dam and swap stories, ideas, confabulations. The modern equivalent of the primeval campfire, the marketplace of humanity the crossroads of the human experience.

Give me a call, come on down, and we’ll create our own Tinker’s Dam.

Behind the Scenes: Santa Fe Day 1

“Hensley wondered what Chrystal in Santa Fe was doing these days.” -last sentence of Endless Vacation

In case you were wondering, that sentence was all I had to go on as I set out to write the story of Hensley. That and the U2 song Moment of Surrender. If there is a thinner basis for a novel, I’d like to hear it.

I do not overstate the case when I say that I faced the story of The Reluctant Saint with utmost trepidation and humility. How else could one face the redemption story of a character such as Hensley? A self-serving bohemian. A calculating bon vivant.  The ground zero of the human condition.

The respectable among us can look at Hensley and say, “At least I’m not like him.” But some will immediately recognize the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. If I may be so bold, I would say that this story reveals two things:

  1. Other than an attitude of repentance, there is no difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector, although the Pharisee might not recognize it. Nor the tax collector, when it comes down to it.
  2. The only thing any of us can cling to is the grace offered to both the Pharisee and the tax collector.

We are all Hensley, whether or not we are willing to admit it. (See Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning.) If you look at your life and doubt this truth, see #1. And then read The Ragamuffin Gospel.

That being said, I will now clear off a space and have a talk about Hensley and me and my critique group.

Somehow I managed to get three novels published without a critique group. Actually, I know how I did it. As a son of a preacher growing up in East Texas, I operated on sheer storytelling instinct. However, I can say this without qualification: if I had enjoyed the benefit of my critique group and employed the good sense to listen to their sage advice, the first three Fred books would have been five times better than they are. These people are amazing.

Okay, we got that said and every word true, but here’s the thing. As brilliant as the critique group is, if you are a fan of the Fred books, you know me better than they do. And here’s the proof. They thought Hensley was my alter ego. When this came up in a critique session of The Reluctant Saint, I told them a few stories of my college roommate, and they realized the error of their ways. Compared to Hensley, I have the manipulative skills of an amoeba.

That being said, I had an experience in 2005 that I leveraged as I developed Hensley, both in Endless Vacation and The Reluctant Saint.

Hensley’s proclivity for opportunistic wardrobe expansion is based on a bad decision on my part over ten years ago. When I was living in Hawaii, I traveled to Denver for a week-long conference. Since it was June, I packed shorts and aloha shirts. When I arrived, I discovered the forecast was for highs in the 60s, lows in the 40s. Rookie mistake, even though I was far from a travel rookie.

As you probably know, it’s a 45-minute drive from the Denver airport to downtown, so as soon as I got into my rental car, I called The Woman back in HI and asked for the address of a Goodwill store. The most convenient location turned out to be in Golden, at which I acquired a charcoal grey sports coat for $9.99 that is still my favorite jacket. (You can see it when we get to Portland.) I got some jeans, socks, and shoes at a Target, and I was set for the week.

Which brings us back to Hensley. As demonstrated in Endless Vacation, with Hensley, it’s all about traveling light. If it won’t fit in a duffel, you don’t need it.

When The Reluctant Saint opens in Galveston, Texas, Hensley is traveling as light as they come. All he has is the clothes he’s wearing. Not surprisingly, Hensley soon finds that a hasty exit is the best policy, and within 24 hours he’s in Santa Fe looking for Chrystal.

As is his custom, his first order of business is to acquire a climate-appropriate wardrobe, and so he directs the cabbie to deliver him to the nearest Goodwill store, the one on Cerillos Rd. I found it much like any other Goodwill I’ve encountered. (When I got to Portland, I discovered a horse of a completely different color.)

Hensley gets what he needs at the Goodwill and proceeds via taxi to Chrystal’s house. As I was doing research from my hermit den in Texas, I consulted the forums on city-state.com, talked with friends familiar with Santa Fe, and ended up with three candidates for Chrystal’s neighborhood.

The first neighborhood I tried had gravel roads, but despite that rustic touch, it was slightly too rizty for the story. The second neighborhood, Casa Solana (north of Alameda St, west of St Francis Dr), was just what I was looking for. I felt like I could pull up in any random driveway, knock on the door, and Chrystal would answer. But I resisted the urge. Sometimes discretion truly is the better part of valor. And I am nothing if not discreet, as you know.

The next location in my itinerary was a lonesome patch south of town on Highway 14. Through a combination of circumstances too convoluted for me to relate, Hensley finds himself afoot on this stretch of road, thankful to have lost nothing more than $700 of operating capital.

  • Highway 14 where Hensley is tossed out to fend for himself.

He uses a convenience store to call a cab and equalize his holdings. Then he re-establishes his locale-appropriate wardrobe at his favorite Goodwill and  eventually finds a room for the night at the Silver Saddle Motel.

Due to a travel crisis of my own making (a whole nother  story) I checked into in the Silver Saddle  just a few minutes short of 10 p.m. I installed myself into The Lone Ranger room (#14) and found it entirely to my liking as a place Hensley would find acceptable. Utilitarian but comfortable, and most of all, economical.

  • Silver Saddle Motel: The Code of the West
    Silver Saddle Motel: The Code of the West

The next morning I chatted with the proprietor for half-an-hour or so and learned that the affordability part was a conscious decision to establish a connection with travelers who appreciate authenticity and community. In other words, they are our kind of people. The kind you would gladly sit down with over a cuppa and a pastry and swap stories. Good people. If you find yourself in need of a room in Santa Fe, your first stop should be the Silver Saddle. And tell them I said hello.

Based on what Hensley learns in Santa Fe, he heads to Washington D.C.

Behind the Scenes: Location Scouting

verisimilitude / verəsəˈmiliˌt(y)o͞od / noun / the appearance of being true or real.

It’s the moment when you read a story and think, “That’s exactly how it is.” A feeling, an experience, a place, an idea. When you’re caught up in the story. When you’re interrupted while reading and look up startled to discover you’re not on a beach in the Caribbean or in a jazz club in Chicago.

Verisimilitude is what allows fiction to communicate truth.

Too often people ask, “Is it true?” when what they really mean is, “Is it a fact?” Sometimes truth and fact are buddies, but the reality is that often truth and fact are in opposite corners of the ring duking it out. If you doubt this, take time to read How to Lie With Statistics, a short little book that shows anyone with a basic facility with math how to perpetuate any number of lies using facts. Or, as an alternative, just watch any 24-hour news channel for a few minutes.

At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy touches on this topic when he says

“Archaeology is the search for fact, not truth. If it’s truth you’re looking for, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Jesus used parables (stories that weren’t factual) to communicate truth. Religion aside, a novelist can do the same if he/she has a mind to. It all starts with verisimilitude. A lot of things go into creating verisimilitude. A big component is getting the setting right.

As I sat down to write The Reluctant Saint, I decided to use real places whenever possible. The story ranges across the US, from Galveston to Santa Fe to DC, back to Santa Fe, and then to Portland, OR. I could have created fictional places, as I did in Muffin Man and other novels, but I wanted to ground this particular book in the real world.

Being an amateur hermit (as proclaimed on my Facebook page), I conducted online research to select the perfect locations for my story. I spent a ridiculous number of hours on Google in satellite and street view. I posted questions in online forums. I perused websites of hotels and restaurants and bars and tattoo parlors.

Ultimately I decided to get on a plane and go to these places myself.

Here’s the thing about that. For the last decade I have cultivated my status as an amateur hermit. As a freelance writer working out of my home office and setting my own hours, I have that luxury.

But in the previous decade I traveled all over the world for the day job. When I wrote the first three Fred books, I lived in Hawaii and traveled internationally fifty-percent of the time, writing the novels in planes and hotel rooms and coffee shops all over the US, in Canada, Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, Spain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. My first experience in location scouting was verifying the location and appearance of an office building in Geneva for Hell in a Briefcase.

In 2000, I filed state income tax returns for three states. On September 10, 2001, I took a red-eye to San Jose, CA. A friend in New Jersey woke me up at six a.m. the next morning and told me to turn on the TV. I was stranded in California for almost a week before air travel resumed and I was able to return home.

The travel schedule was both brutal and rewarding. I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything, but I can’t deny that for the past decade I have enjoyed the life of the reclusive writer, rarely leaving the house except for the four-year-old Sunday School class and my writer critique groups.

So why did I choose to get on a plane and spend ten days outside of the comfortable little cave I had created? I asked myself that very question when my flight was canceled and I rented a car and drove seven hours at 85 mph from Albuquerque to Boulder to complete the final leg of my trip.

I had plenty of time to consider the answer, and it came down to Hensley.

If you’ve read Endless Vacation, you know that Hensley is a polarizing figure. People love him or they hate him. I love him, but I admit he is an acquired taste. He is an amalgam of my college roommate, a soulmate I met on a plane from Charlotte to Austin, and Bertie Wooster of Wodehouse fame.

Yes, he is a manipulative schemer, a sweet talker, a bon vivant and citizen of the world.  But he is all these things because he is a survivor. Nobody would blame a guy for showing up for work every day for his 40-hour-week dead-end job, but that guy does so because he is also a survivor. In the end, Hensley did what he had to do.

As I wrote the story, I saw so many things beneath his calculating smoothness that others didn’t. I cut the readers some slack because I didn’t have the space to explore those aspects of Hensley. After all, Endless Vacation is Davison’s story, not Hensley’s.

Of course Hensley is flawed. Who isn’t? Who can know what shapes another person, what forms the quirks that irritate us? Perhaps Evelyn Waugh was onto something when he wrote ,”To understand all is to forgive all.”

Despite Hensley’s pragmatic nature and myopic worldview, he has an ethos that those who see only the surface of his actions would never suspect.

That was the reason I had to write The Reluctant Saint. And that was the reason I had to leave my comfortable hermit cave and travel to the places Hensley went in 2013. To create the verisimilitude his story deserved. To use invented “facts” to tell the truth. The truth of what Waugh said.

If we could only see as God sees, if we could understand all, then perhaps we could forgive even Hensley his excesses.

What follows is my own journey to visit those places Hensley went and the story of the sometimes amazing, sometimes terrifying moments I encountered while location scouting The Reluctant Saint.