Interview

An Interview with Steve Benson

steve small

 

La Venganza, a new novel by Michael Steven Benson, is now available in both kindle and paperback format.

 

Congratulations! Please tell us a little about your book

The book is a crime novel called La Venganza.  I tried to avoid the hard-boiled, tough-as-nails characters that you see in a lot of crime fiction. There are some pretty tough characters, but my goal was to give them some balance in order to make them more real to the reader. In the story, the protagonist has done something stupid that gets him in a lot of trouble but also leads him to the most important thing that he has ever done in his life. It is primarily told from the point of view of Frank Millirons, a ranch hand, as well as the bad guys and several different branches of law enforcement. What I liked about writing it was being able to write several different stories that were related, which all came together by the end.

 

What was the impetus for writing it?

I wrote the first ten pages or so after just seeing it in my head. I had a pretty simple idea of a man on the run stopping in a small town. After some encouragement from friends, I just kept writing.

 

Did the book take any turns from where you thought it was going?

Absolutely. From the outset, I was determined to let the characters write the book. I had no real idea where the story was going until I was almost halfway through writing it. By then, I knew the characters well enough to work out a chapter by chapter outline including the ending. There was actually one character that I realized I needed in order to move the story forward. I wrote her in fairly far into the project, and she just kept pushing herself into more and more of the story. Now she’s one of my favorite characters, and I’ve actually already started another story with her as the main character. The great thing about the writing process is that characters can demand to be more a part of the story.

 

You have published the book as Michael Benson when everyone knows you as Steve Benson. Why is that?

My given name is Michael Steven Benson. I’m not sure why, but I’ve always been called by my middle name. I just thought it would be nice to use my first name for something other than signing mortgage papers and tax forms. It’s also a way to have a pen name that’s not really a pen name.

 

You seem to have an abundance of creativity. You’ve made two movies and produced (as a silent but necessary partner) two plays during your time in Merida. Tell us about these other projects.

The two plays were written and directed by my wife, Jill. They were both a lot of work but very rewarding. It amazes me when I think back on how talented the cast and crew of each play was. The talent pool here in Merida is really incredible.

The first movie we did (The Dead List) was a fun project.  It was a ten minute zombie movie that we managed to talk all of our friends into. It didn’t have a lot of dialogue, but when I look back at it now, it did have some good, scary atmosphere and great acting. Tom Kuhn’s close up was one of my favorite parts, by the way. He and Debi were two of our anchor zombies.  I was also thrilled that we were actually able to license two songs for the movie, one from Lars Frederiksen. Again, we could have never done it without the help of everyone involved.

Our second movie (The Reading) was a little more ambitious.  It was a half hour short with quite a bit of dialogue. Jill came up with the idea for the basic storyline, and we talked about it for a week or so, hammering out the details. I wrote the first five pages one night and then Jill wrote the next five.  We just passed it back and forth until it was finished. This film was much harder to shoot and edit, but we were very happy with the end result.  Also, this time we actually had a premiere of the movie. It was nice to see a crowd of people watching something that we created.

 

Do you think that living in Mexico as a US citizen has influenced your writing? If so, how?

There is something about living in Merida that has given Jill and I permission to be a little creative. I’m not sure we would have done this in the US. The community here, Yucateco and Expat, is very receptive to people expressing themselves in art, writing, acting, music etc.

 

What authors have inspired you along the way?

My all-time favorite is Stephen King.  People often times think of him as just a horror writer, but in my opinion, he has written some of the greatest American novels of the past forty years.

Elmore Leonard is another favorite of mine. He had a simple, no frills style of writing that was very effective. He could paint a picture in five words that would take other authors a paragraph to achieve.

 

Can you describe what a typical day in your life is like?

Sure, but I can guarantee that it will be the most boring thing in this interview. I get up fairly early most mornings to start my online job.  I go workout in the early afternoon.  Try to do some writing in the late afternoon. We throw some tennis balls to the dogs in the evening and then go to bed. I really need to slow down.

 

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I was born in Corpus Christie, Texas into a Navy family. I’m the youngest of four kids. We then moved to Hawaii, then to California where my Dad left the service. From there we moved to Oklahoma, to Iowa and then Missouri. By the time we moved to Missouri, I was the only child still living at home.  I also joined the Navy when I was nineteen, serving four years in the Seabees. I met Jill in Springfield, Missouri, and we eventually moved to Kansas City together and married. Jill was also a military brat, so we lived very similar lives before we met.  Over the years, I’ve worked in printing and computer support. Several years ago, I managed to get a degree in history …better late than never.

 

What would you like to accomplish in your artistic endeavors?

Well, if at least half the people who see or read my work like it, then I would be happy. Seeing a project through from beginning to end and knowing I did my best is very rewarding, regardless of any perceived success or failure.

OK, OK…I’d like to see a book of mine on the NY Times Bestsellers List and then have it adapted into an Oscar winning movie!

 

What’s next? A new movie? A new book? Something else?

Jill and I have started a full-length movie script, but we set it aside while editing my novel. As I mentioned before, I am also four chapters into a second novel.  I’m in no rush with either project, whatever happens will happen. Jill has also started a novel. I would describe it as a police procedural with supernatural overtones.

One more thing I’d like to say. Every creative thing I’ve ever done, or tried to do, is a result of encouragement from my wife, Jill. It’s one thing to share a project together, you kind of encourage each other as you go. This novel though is different. It’s something I’ve done by myself and is much larger in scope than anything I’ve ever attempted to write. Every step of the way, I’ve relied not only on Jill’s encouragement, but her opinion and advice. She’s a pretty cool wife.

 

La Venganza on Amazon.com

tramonto

 

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Art, Interview

art by Jane Gilday

Jane1

Merida Review: How long have you been painting/writing/making music? (Yeah, we’re focusing on the art here, but it all feeds into each other, doesn’t it?)

Jane Gilday: been painting & drawing–“i wanna do coloring!”–as long as i can remember…my next-oldest sister, connie,(7 years older than me) also draws and paints, and from earliest days i wanted to do what she was doing..my mom played piano and i banged around on it, just making noise, but music making really grabbed hold of me at age 13, when the beatles hit the USA…zoom! never looked back…was playing in my first bands, for money even, by age 14.

 

jane9Arbor Birds

Acrylic on Panel

MR: What were some of your early influences?

JG: visual art: albert pinkham ryder….andrew wyeth…fabrics…wallpaper….my sister connie’s drawings & paintings…everything seen just looking at the world around me…the many, many amazing illustrations in a 1920’s edition of ‘my book house’ that mom had found somewhere…my sister still has some of those books and i’ve bought my own–the ‘good ones’ from the 20’s & 30’s–at local flea markets…music: all kinda pop-rock-folk music heard on radio starting in the mid-1950’s..the zillions of 45’s my sisters trudy and connie had…the classical music mom played on piano and listened to on records…later all the beatle-stones-brit explosion bands, then dylan, then holy modal rounders, new lost city ramblers, incredible string band, then tons of rootsy-folk music and jazz etc….then patti smith (whose music-critic writing in creem etc i loved before she started a band, television, tons more….oh THE BLUE NILE i love the blue nile to the nth degree—plus assorted poets for lyrical content & inspiration etc

jane13

Happy Woman on Stoop

Acrylic on panel

MR: Do you know what you’re going to draw/write/etc when you start a project? Or does it just kind of come to you? Or some of both? I guess I mean, how thought out is it, and how much is spontaneous? Does that make sense?

JG: some of both tho what i love best is just starting with no preconception and seeing what happens…i love on-the-spot messy accidents and getting to that totally empty blank-mind state when there’s no words, just visual visual visual…same with music, tho obviously some songs have more deliberate shaping & sculpting to them..but i always try to record new ideas as soon as possible after they’ve occurred to me….i.e. “first thought, best thought”

jane18Laptop Lounge Girls

Acrylic on panel

MR: Can you describe a day in your life? Any day.

JG: i wake up, have a bowl of the thick soups–more like stew–i make in crock pots, then an apple or orange…read while eating…then maybe play guitar some..then go to coffee shop for wi-fi..then do whatever seems like the best thing to do that day…no set pattern.

jane20Belladonna

Acrylic and interference medium on canvas

MR: Do you have a favorite of your own works?

JG: there’s a few, but one is ‘harmonious essence of genesis’, a madonna kinda thing, owned by michael joseph who lives in nyc…michael is the curator of ancient manuscripts at rutgers university library–it’s among my facebook photos…mike is a writer….another is called ‘crucifixion of kathleen’–a triptych, and i think all or part of it is somewhere among my facebook photos…it’s in a private collection in pennsylvania.

jane25

Autumn Moonrise on Rocktown Road

MR: How did you get from punk to banjo???

JG : imo punk IS banjo and banjo is punk is rock is classical etc….long before i went to nyc & played in ‘the the’ i was playing banjo, fiddle, oldtime & roots & folk & jazz etc– from age 15 on…..tho i use such terms for convenience’s sake, i dont really believe in punk or americana or jazz or rock or classical or folk or ANY other such academic-reactionary needless-meaningless ‘definition’..music is just music and there’s only two kinds: good music and bad music…as duke ellington aspired to in his music: “beyond category”..and .as louis armstrong said: “it’s all folk music–i aint never seen no horse play music.”…and as keith richards said: “there’s only one note–you just stretch it this was and then that way”

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jane Gilday is an artist, musician and poet living in Pennsylvania. Her artist statement: “jane gilday is 8 years old and likes to color

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Interview, Photography

Art by Skot Horn, part 1: photography

Scott11

“I am from Fremont, Ohio. Farm country I guess you could say. In two minutes I can be in open country roads that lead off in every direction. Driving puts me in a very meditative and calming state.”

 

Scott16

“I have yet to encounter an artist that I could not find some redeeming quality in. The fact they are an artist interests me and makes us kindred spirits. Discovering the evolution of their ideas through their work is fascinating. The more I know about an artists background the more I appreciate their work. I have yet to meet an artist I didn’t like unless they are too mainstream and commercial. That’s a whole different thing.”

 

Scott9

“I was a graphic designer my whole life but it wasn’t until I designed my dad’s tombstone that I realized all that other stuff wasn’t actually carved in stone. It put it in perspective.”

 

Scott10

 

Scott12

“Photography I do while out and about in the world while painting is a solitary activity done alone in my studio. The two can be very separate or almost one and the same depending on what I’m currently interested in. Right now the idea of painting from photographs seems absurd and no fun at all. I don’t want what I do to become work so the immediacy of painting primarily from my imagination is the most fulfilling.”

 

Scott24

SKOT HORN
ARTIST STATEMENT
“Whether I am drawing or painting I am documenting my daily life experiences. The final work is but the residual effect of how I chose to spend my day and ultimately I suppose, the way I chose to spend my life. My joys, hopes and even sorrows can be mutually experienced and shared. What I do now and what I did when I was five years old really has not changed. Just ask my mom.”
— Skot Horn
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(Stay tuned for part 2!)
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Interview

An Interview with Laureen Vonnegut

by Julie Stewart

 

Laureen’s new book, Twin Lies, is about an identical mirror twin, who accidentally causes the death of her sister and takes over her sister’s identity at the age of seventeen.  Years later she finds she cannot continue to live as her sister and she must break out on her own, even if it means destroying the life she has built, including her own family.

What is the origin of your idea for Twin Lies? Are there twins in your family?

I have some cousins who are twins, but they had nothing to do with piquing my interest in twins. Years ago I worked for a law firm and two of the partners were identical twins. They had so many stories about swapping identities and mistaken identities that I became fascinated with the whole concept.

What was the most challenging part of writing Twin Lies?

Sitting down and actually working on the damn thing every day. I don’t like the novel writing process. It’s daunting to start a project as big as a novel. Short stories are much more my style. That’s why Twin Lies is written from multiple points of view, it allows me to sort of cheat and feel as though I’m writing short stories.  Hmm, maybe it’s an attention span thing.

Oasis, your first book was written from a single point of view, Twin Lies from multiple…

Sort of, it (Oasis) was written in the past and present, in oscillating chapters, a first person and third person narrative.

Is it harder to do good characterization with several characters than w/one strong character?

Yes. Much harder. Because your natural tendency as a writer is to think in a particular voice. When you have to switch voices within the same book and the characters are involved in the exact same story, it can be really difficult.  There are certain tricks you as a writer can use, dialogue tics etc, but they don’t substitute a totally different voice.

How important to the novel were your travels to the various locations in which the Twin Lies story is set?

I never intend to set scenes in exotic locations, but when I travel, the chapters seem to relocate themselves to those unusual locales.

So, when you’re in the gestation/creation period, how does it work for you?

I usually go away somewhere by myself. I can’t be around anyone I know – too distracting.  For example with Twin Lies I went to Zanzibar for two months and basically thought about what I wanted to write and sketched out kind of very simple outline. I hadn’t even thought about including Zanzibar in the book, but of course when I was there, it jumped right in.

As a writer based in Mérida, Mexico, tell us a little about the writing process and working environment in Merida?

What is different about a Mérida lifestyle is the heat of early summer. I’ve learned to plan my day: out early to run errands, back to write, indulge in a siesta (I’ve become a big siesta fan), more afternoon writing, and then out for drinks or dinner. The sultry nights are incredible.

Do you find Mérida in itself inspiring? In addition to Mexico and your home country, USA, you’ve lived in several other countries around the world – Romania, England, Holland, Hungary, Bulgaria – and traveled extensively. Has this international lifestyle affected the way you write and think, and if so, how?

Usually when someone is exposed to cultures outside their own, especially if they live within them, their horizons expand exponentially. One of the most disturbing things I see is foreigners who don’t embrace the country they are in. They dismiss the culture as less advanced or less sophisticated or even frightening, ignoring traditions and influences that make that culture so unique.

The way that I find Mérida inspiring is that it’s a different country. I find that if I’m in a different country, my senses are more alert, whereas if I’m living somewhere that I’ve lived that’s too familiar, my senses are deadened. So, in that sense, yes, but Mérida as a city to write about, in that way inspiring?  Not really.  Or maybe I should say…not yet.

Which writers inspire you?

Barry Unsworth, he’s British and every book he writes is so different, yet equally good. He’s able to switch subjects and keep his style.  The same with Ian McEwan, each book is a little gem, they are just fantastic writers.

Joy Williams, in my opinion, writes like a man, her prose is very sparse. There’s not a lot written about what the characters think, you have to read between the lines to understand what they’re thinking, which I like. I don’t like wordy books and she’s very good at that.

Cormac McCarthy invents words.  He also takes unknown archaic words that you don’t think are words until you look them up and sure enough they are…it all works within his writing, I think he’s a word master and almost a poet, I find a lot of poetry in his writing.

Whose books are currently on your nightstand?

I read four or five books at once. Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, Follow Me Down by Kio Stark, Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules by David Sedaris, and The Man Who Ate the World by Jay Rayner.

Are you currently working on any other projects? Do you have a third novel in the works?

I am concentrating on a series of short stories and will be spending a month in New York to workshop my theater play called, The Porcini Test.

Can you tell us more about the play?

It was a reaction to a play called Hurly Burly by David Rabe.  I liked the play, it was also made in to a movie, but it was quite misogynist and I wanted to write a play with three strong female characters who have known each other for ages.  There’s a lot of cursing and trauma, but it also has a lot of humor.  In New York they are calling it a comedy…not sure I agree.  A black comedy maybe…

I don’t understand the process of producing a play so I’m going to New York to try figure it all out.  I have absolutely no idea how it works.

You made films, right?   Directed?  Wrote?  Everything?

Wrote, directed short films, several. Co-produced. Yeah, just did a lot of things. Theater is a new medium to explore.  I don’t know what’ll happen when I actually hear professional actors in New York read it, you know, I may think Ah! It’s terrible! But from the reading I had here, a relaxed around the table reading, I was really happy with it. So, we’ll see. I’ve always loved theater. It’s an amazing thing for a writer to write something and then actually see it visually like on a screen, or an actor speaking it, it’s incredible. It just blows your mind. Writing is so solitary that if you can mix it with something social – film making or theater or singing songs, it’s always a bonus. Otherwise you just sit in a damn room by yourself.

Do you see the story and the characters a different way because you’ve done it in a different medium?

I think I naturally write filmic books or filmic short stories – people tell me I write visually.  I don’t know.  I love dialog.  Writing a script is like writing a skeleton of a book.  No flesh.  This theater play, I wrote it incredibly fast. I wrote the first half in probably a week and a half and the second maybe in two weeks.

Kind of like the difference between writing poetry and then going out and singing your own songs and having the audience…

Yes, absolutely.  Except that I don’t have to perform.  I’m a mess when I do readings.  Although, I suppose that’s the thing about readings, you do get audience feedback. You feel people are supporting you. Well, I’ve never had anybody boo yet, but you never know…I’m waiting. It’ll happen.

 

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Fiction, Interview

An Interview with Sean Hennessy

 

by Julie Stewart

Sean Hennessy has lived in Merida for five years. Owner of a popular local restaurant, last year he also managed to squeeze in the penning of a 370-page thriller titled The Polo Affair, which has been described as “gripping”  and “entertaining.”

 

You play polo, renovate houses, are a former model, run a successful Irish pub in a colonial Mexican town, scuba dive and snow ski, and now have written a novel. What don’t you do?

I seem to do very little other than work at the moment, but I have always enjoyed variety. I grew up in a big family and there was not the chance to do a lot of the things I do now, so I suppose I have taken every opportunity life has offered and maybe even created a few along the way. I have already lived in many countries and with every country come new possibilities.

 

The novel touches on a few of these aspects of your current life – Mexico and polo. Tell us briefly what it is about and why you decided to write it.

It is the story of a young Irishman in Mexico, who through his new found love of polo and a stormy affair with the niece of a retired polo player finds himself caught up in bad business, dirty politics and a race against the clock to figure things out. On another level it also deals with a person who lacks self belief and only when he is forced into fighting his corner does he learn about himself and others.

I wrote the book because there has never been a book written with polo at the center, and I thought everywhere I go I see the polo brand on shirts, but because of the sometimes exclusive nature of the sport very few people know anything about it. There are also a few twists in the novel that turn polo on its head. One of the biggest challenge was to explain some of the points of the game without the reader feeling he or she is getting a polo lesson. I believe the fast pace of the novel achieves this.

 

Have you ever fallen off your horse?

Too many times; you are only officially welcomed to the club once you have had your first fall.

 

What attracted you to playing polo in the first place?

The very first game I saw, I was totally hooked. I thought this was the most fun you could have while still dressed. The fact that I had no idea how to ride was a bit if challenge and in fact now I feel totally uncomfortable trying to ride with both hands and without a mallet.

 

What’s the best line in your new novel?

I think when the main character makes the observation about his girlfriend who is about to turn thirty ”that men spend time in relationships while women invest time in them.”  I also like the line when a mounted player sees somebody he does not like pass by he suggests that “the dick should be under the horse as nature intended and not on top.” But then maybe that is a little bit crude?

 

Who is the target audience and why should they want to read it?

Anyone who enjoys travel should appreciate it as it is very much set in the Yucatan. It is a great escape novel, it suspends your belief long enough to feel you got lost in another life and a lot of us want that when we read for pleasure.  With my first novel which was never published I wanted to be a literary giant like Joyce or Yeats. Now I take myself a lot less seriously and just want to entertain the reader with maybe a few of life’s truths thrown in.

 

One of my favorite quotes is: Life is too short to drink bad wine. Your favorite quote is: Life is too short to dance with ugly men. What does this say about us?

That we should definitely go out and party together.

 

You are originally from Kilkenny, Ireland.  What do you think folks in Kilkenny would say about your Irish pub in Merida?

I have had a  good few Irish people in through the bar and many have suggested I should move back and open there, the prices are better. What I wanted to create was an international CHEERS, I think we have achieved that, the place where everybody knows your name. We are a pub first and a damn good restaurant second.

 

Where else interesting have you lived and how do those locations compare to Merida?

Many years in Japan, also Bangladesh, Spain, and London. With my different jobs I was sometimes on a plane once or twice a week so travel is in my blood. My mother calls me her gypsy son. Merida was an interesting choice as I did not come here to work as a primary objective, I came here to live and then see what I could do second to support that. Merida has it all for me, wonderful people, great climate, safe, good beaches, good food, a sense of fun and oh did I mention polo.

 

Practicalities: where is the novel to be published and how do I get a copy?

It will be out on January 15th as an e-book with Amazon, Barnes and Noble and i-readers. It will also be available as a soft cover thru Lulu, my website www.thepoloaffair.com and Amazon. I will place it in a few local book shops and my bar, so you can read it with a pint.

 

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Interview, theater

An Interview with Jill Benson

by Julie Stewart

Jill Benson is the driving force behind a creative first in Merida: a murder mystery dinner theatre. Better known for tirelessly volunteering to help street dogs through her association with Sanctuary Evolución in Uman, Jill recently began rehearsals for a four-act play she wrote titled Murder in Mérida:  Love Kills.

 

First off, why are we using the “re” spelling of theatre?

Oh crap…is it supposed to be spelled differently?  That darn spell-check!

 

Can you explain the concept behind a murder mystery dinner theatre in 5 words?

Great show and awesome food!

 

What is your background in playwriting and theatre?

Well, I love to write and I love to act. When I was a kid, I was a big ham. My friends and I would imitate Carol Burnett and other sitcoms we saw on TV. We got together and rewrote and acted out commercials.  I can remember doing ‘Trix are for Kids’ for my classmates one day. The first play I wrote was a comedy sketch for the high school talent show. The synopsis of the sketch was the delivery of a baby in a hospital operating room.  The props person (my best friend) forgot to set the doll (the baby) under the delivery table.  The doctor was to reach under the table for the doll, then pretend he had delivered the baby.  Since we forgot to put it there, during the prime moment of the delivery, my friend – not knowing what else to do – just threw the baby onto the stage. The flying baby hit the doctor in the head.  All of this totally unintentional and one big screw up, but the audience let out a great laugh. So, I deemed it a success.

In my 20s and 30s, I got involved in commercial acting. Corporate training videos, local and regional commercials, and in-store infomercials.  I also got a non-speaking role in a Spike Lee mockumentary called CSA: The Confederate States of America.  If you ever see it, I’m the school teacher at the very end…if you blink, you’ll miss me.  I later joined an improv group called ‘Full Frontal Comedy’ and began doing Murder Mystery Dinner Theatre.  I had the most fun doing the improv and dinner theatre – you just never knew what was going to happen.  During that time, I was also part of a group called Actors for Actors (AFA).  We wrote and performed scripts, sketches and monologues.  I loved that period of my life.  Like all things, life takes you down different paths. My interests changed, I went back to school for environmental studies and worked as a field tech for an environmental consulting company.  Then, well, Mérida called and here I am.

 

What inspired you to write this murder mystery?

White wine…mostly Chardonnay.

 

Murder in Mérida was a work in progress for several months. What processes did you use to write and hone the play?

Well, there is this really cool thing going on in Mérida called Open Mic Night. All of my friends were doing it – and they were all brilliant! Poets, short story writers, comedians.  I thought, I have to get in on this. It’s hard not to be inspired when you are surrounded by so many talented people.  So, I began by writing the script, and bringing it in sections to Open Mic Night.  It was a great way to see what worked and what didn’t.  Writing a murder mystery can be a little tricky because all the pieces have to fit.  I would think I was a genius with something I came up with!!!… then someone would point out how it didn’t make any sense!  After a few rewrites, a couple of readings at friends’ homes, and the next thing I know, we’re talking about doing a show.

 

Are any of the characters in Murder in Mérida fashioned after local personalities? And if so, can you tell us who?

Most people who know me, know that I am an animal lover and that I support a local animal protection group called Evolución. When I first started thinking that I might write a script, I thought it would be fun to fashion the characters after dogs at the shelter. They all have their own unique and sometimes crazy personalities. So…..all of the characters in the show are based in part and named after some of my favorite dogs at Evolución – many of whom have since been adopted. So, for example, our beautiful actress of stage and screen – Vienna -is based on a very proud wiener dog of the same name at Evolución. She has since been adopted. Gustavo, our inspector, is based on a dog named Gustavo at the shelter – he is always full of energy and interested in everything. He is still available for adoption.

 

Which character in the play do you predict will be most memorable?

Hmmmm, that is hard to say. I mean they are all so memorable. And I have to give credit to the cast for that. They are such an amazing and creative group of people. And they are just so funny. It’s like we never know what is going to happen from one rehearsal to the next. There is one actor that comes up with a different line at each rehearsal, he just makes it up, and we never know what he is going to say – it’s all everyone can do not to crack up!!

 

Are you planning to write another play anytime soon?

Si!! Stay tuned for Murder in Mérida:  Love Hacienda Style!

 

Your email sign off is the Ghandi quote: “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” How is Mexico faring using those standards?

Well, every country has its own unique challenges with this, it all comes down to people and the choices we make. But I am an optimist and I believe not just Mexico, but the world as a whole has made and will continue to make great strides. Really, mankind has been on this earth for such a small amount of time, we are still evolving. Just because we have done things a certain way for decades or centuries, does not mean that we have to continue down that same path. The power of choice is a very powerful thing and one not to be underestimated.

How is Mexico faring? As long as there are groups and activists who are working to strengthen animal protection laws, we are seeing improvements. But to really see a change, there needs to be a change in the social consciousness. And that always starts with ourselves and the people we touch. We create social change with our own behavior every day. And it doesn’t have to be huge, just the little things we do can make a difference. For me, I like to show public displays of affection towards my animals, and show compassion for street animals. Children learn by what they see. If they see acts of kindness, they will learn kindness.  If they see acts of violence, well…you see where I’m going with that.

 

One of your hobbies is distance running. You won an award at a 10k race in Merida about a year ago. That’s impressive! Tell us about it.

Hehehehe!  Well, yes, I do enjoy running.  And I try to run on at least a semi-regular basis.  I am not an athlete by any stretch of the imagination, but I find that for me, running helps me not just physically, but mentally as well. It helps me purge the problems of the day. And so, yes…I am proud to say I won third place in a 10k race. Shall I tell you all about it? Well, after the race I sat down in my usual state of dazed exhaustion when one of the organizers came up to tell me I won third place in my category and to come to the stage to accept my medal.  I was surprised, as I am usually pretty slow (la tortuga!), but I very proudly walked up to the stage to accept my award.  Wow! Third place in my category! Females, ages 40-50. Not too bad! My ego goes up a notch!  ….Now for the full story. Ok, I admit it. There were only three people in my category!  And the first place winner could have run the race almost twice and still beat me…but hey, I got the medal…right??

 

What other talents do you have?

Hmmmm, well I know how to make tofu taste like chicken…sort of.  My dogs think I have an excellent singing voice. I can parallel park a Ford E350 passenger van in a parking space the size of a gnat.

 

Who did it?

The butler!

 

You can see the trailer for Murder in Mérida: Love Kills at: www.meridamysterytheatre.com

 

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Interview

The poet Jonathan Harrington, a.k.a. a mystery writer: an interview

by Julia Stewart

American Poet Jonathan Harrington is one of Merida’s most colorful foreign residents. He lives in a ramshackle 18th-century haunted hacienda, walks with a bouncing gate, and removes his thick black-framed spectacles when he recites his favorite poems in a joyous voice on a regular basis on the ‘stage’ of Merida’s Open Mic night.

What Meridanos are less aware of is the rosy-cheeked poet’s success as a mystery writer.

Harrington wrote a series of five murder mysteries: The Death of Cousin Rose, The Second Sorrowful Mystery, A Great Day for Dying, Saint Valentine’s Diamond, and Death on the Southwest Chief that have sold hundreds of thousands of copies in hardback, paperback, and book club editions.

 

Below Julie Stewart chats with Harrington to find out more.

Q: A Great Day for Dying is perhaps the best known of your mystery novels. On the Amazon site, there are six reviews and all gave the book five stars. They loved the book! Are any of these people – Charles Holdefer, Patti Biringer, Austin Layman, Harriet Klausner, Kathleene Thomason, or ‘A Customer’ – your friends or family?

A:  The only name I recognize is my friend Charles Holdefer, a writer who has lived in France since we both graduated from the Iowa Writers´ Workshop in 1983.  The rest are not known to me.  So, no, I´m not bribing people to say nice things about my books.

Q: Your Irish-themed mystery novels were mostly written in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  What motivated you during this period to write these books?

A:  All four of my grandparents were born in Ireland. My mother´s parents were born in County Mayo.  My father´s parents were from County Clare and County Wexford. I grew up in a family with a great deal of pride in our Irish-Catholic roots. When I was an adolescent I traveled with my mother to visit her family in Ireland. Typical of a teenager, I was bored with the whole trip. I found the dreary weather depressing and as a proud Southerner I got tired of people calling me a “Yank.”  Years later, when my mother died, everything changed. Suddenly I became fascinated with my Irish roots. I went back to Ireland to visit both my mother and father´s extended families.  This time, I thought Ireland was one of the most wonderful places I had ever been. I made many trips after that. On one of those trips I did an extensive genealogical search of my father´s mother and her family. As I reviewed the materials I collected I came to the conclusion that genealogical research is like the work of a detective. You are gathering evidence from ship´s records, birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses and wills. All of this detective work is done in an attempt to solve a mystery. The mystery?  Who am I and where did I come from. That’s when it occurred to me that I could use this material to write a mystery novel. Frankly, I had never even read a mystery novel. Coming from a strictly literary background, I looked down my nose at mystery novels. But I began writing, learning the genre along the way (gaining more and more respect for mysteries) and The Death of Cousin Rose was born. I found a supportive hardback publisher, the paperback rights were later sold to Worldwide (a division of Harlequin) and a book club edition was put out by the Detective Book Club. The book was a hit and I followed in the next ten years with four more books in the series all featuring the main character, Danny O´Flaherty.

Q: Which, in your opinion, is the best mystery ever written?

A:   The best mystery ever written (and this is a controversial statement) was written nearly 500 years before the birth of Christ: Oedipus the King by the Greek playwright, Sophocles.  Scholars of both mystery writing and more serious literature will be shocked by this statement but I stick to it.  The plot of Oedipus is this: a crime has been committed—the king of Thebes has been murdered.  Oedipus, the new king, is determined to find out “who done it” so he launches an investigation into the crime. Of course those of you who have read the play know what results. Oedipus discovers in the course of his detective work that he himself murdered the king (his father) and he is now currently married to the queen who (unknown to Oedipus) is his mother.

Q:  Who are your favorite mystery writers?

A:   First let me mention my favorite mystery writer from México: Paco Ignacio Taibo.  He´s probably the best-known writer of mysteries in the Spanish language. He´s a dynamic personality, writes books of history, politics, biography, everything. I had the pleasure of getting to know him in Spain at Semana Negra, a ten day-celebration of mystery writing that was founded, organized and is still run by Paco Ignacio Taibo. We also belonged to the International Crime Writers Association so I would see him occasionally in New York at meetings.

As for other favorites—there are just so many. The mystery (or crime novel as it is now commonly called) has gained a great deal more respect in recent years. For years it was a very poor cousin of the “real” literary novel. But as the writing improved, with complex characters, poetic language, and realistic dialogue and plot it has gained much respect. My list of some of the best writers in the genre would have to include P.D. James (an elegant stylist). I enjoy Donna Leon´s series featuring the Venice, Italy police detective Commissario Brunnetti. An Irish mystery writer I greatly admire is John Brady whose novels are as finely etched as any so-called “literary” novel. Others in the list: James Lee Burke, Elmore Leonard (for a fast, fun read) Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, The Talented Mr. Ripley) Janwillem van der Wetering, Georges Simenon, James Crumley, Barry Gifford…oh, stop me, I could go on forever.

Q: A strange but common perception of writing and writers is that if your books have been published, you are rich. You have published five novels and numerous chapbooks; so are you rich?

A:   Oh, yes, I´m fabulously wealthy. I have a yacht moored off Progreso and a helicopter to take me to my ranch. No, seriously. The perception of published writers making a fortune from their books is largely a result of the fact that the general public only hears of the very high-paid authors like Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, etc. But these types of writers are a miniscule minority of the hundreds of thousands of writers in the world. The truly great writers (that are revered and respected by other writers) are not known to the general public, their books sell modestly and most are not living off their writing. The majority are teaching in universities.

These days I dedicate my energy to poetry; one DOES NOT write poetry for money. You can make more money collecting aluminum cans in Mérida and selling them in Kanasin. I´ll tell you a funny story. Years ago I published a poem in a literary magazine in the USA. Before publication the magazine sent me a contract. It must have been over ten pages long. When I came to the bottom line I was surprised that they actually paid: US $1.00 per poem. I smiled, signed the contract, and mailed it back. (I think it cost 75 pesos or more to mail to the USA). Anyway, months later I had taken out the daily limit of my ATM card to buy an expensive but necessary item and literally did not have a peso until the next morning when I could withdraw more money. I was very, very hungry. With nothing much to do I went to check my mail at the old post office in Mérida (now the Museo de la Ciudad). I had received copies of the magazine in which my poem appeared. I was pleased. At least I could read the magazine to distract me from my hunger. Being an egotistical writer, of course I turned to my poem first. The page where my poem appeared had a bookmark: a crisp, new US $1.00 bill. I was thrilled. I went immediately to the money exchange and went out and got myself something to eat. Yes, you could get a meal for a dollar in those days. So, you see. I´m living off the proceeds from my poetry.

Q:  What, in fact, would you estimate as your hourly pay rate when you write?

A:   I have been writing for many years. The first time I was ever paid for a piece of writing was almost 40 years ago, worked as a columnist, sold magazine pieces to airline magazines, newspapers, etc. I earned a modest amount from the mystery novels. But if you take into account all the time I´ve spent writing I would say seriously that it probably amounts to less than one penny an hour. No kidding. The famous Jack Kerouac made a total of US $600 in his lifetime. Now his heirs are making millions off On The Road and his other novels. Such is the life of a writer.

Q: Do you have any plans to write another novel?

A:   Never say never. But right now my main focus is on poetry and translations. I am finding translating incredibly satisfying at this stage in my career. It allows me to enter the mind of someone else for a change. This might sound a little loco but it seems to me that one can get sick of oneself after awhile. After all, I´ve been Jonathan Harrington for 56 years now. As a writer, living primarily inside one´s own mind—well, I find it a little exhausting. With translation I get out of my own head and enter someone else´s world in a very intimate way. As I was translating the Mayan poet Bricieda Cuevas Cob´s book (From the Hem of my Dress) I was able to enter her mind and live her life in a way that I found extremely refreshing. Translating is very important to me now.

Q:  You are an accomplished and widely-published poet; your work has appeared in everything from the New York Times to the Texas Review. If you had to select one poem most reflective of your inner life, which do you feel is most quintessentially Jonathan Harrington, and why?

A:  Well, that´s one of those impossible questions to answer, you know. Excuse the cliché but it is like asking a mother…now which of your children is your favorite? Having said that…gosh, I hate this question. Usually, my favorite poem is the very latest poem I have written. But let me turn the question around a bit. One poem that seems to have struck a chord with many people—with children, adults, English readers, Spanish readers—people just seem to like it:  “A Rain of Bicycles.”  One of my personal favorites is a somewhat recent one, the title poem of my chapbook, “Aquí.” The poem in English is “Here.” But, to be honest, I think a writer´s opinion of his or her own work really counts for very little. I find it very dangerous to judge my own work because I have often written something that I am ready to throw away. It seems bad and completely useless. But someone will come along and say, “Wow, I read that poem you left on your desk. That is one of the best things you have ever written.” It makes me reluctant to judge myself. It also makes me reluctant to throw too many things away. You never know.

For example, one week the Yucatecan poet Fernando de la Cruz announced that the theme of the following week´s Café Poesía (a reading series in Spanish in Mérida) would be “Protest.” I looked through my work and realized I had never really written a protest poem. I forgot about it until the night of the reading and on the way to the reading I scribbled out a poem that I thought of as kind of a joke. This is what I wrote*:

PROTEST

I’m against plants that don’t bloom,

faulty fireflies

blinking on and off;

I’m against noise and rudeness,

garbage and dead batteries,

motors that won’t start,

wet matches, and slow computers;

I’m against wounds and against tears,

against hunger and thirst, insomnia, envy…

But señor, they say, stopping me:

You’re against all these things.

What political party do you support?

Well, I am a proud one hundred-percent supporter,

and a life-long member, of the party of LOVE.

 

(*as translated from my Spanish into English by Fernando de la Cruz)

 

It was surprisingly well-received that night. Still, I intended to throw it away. But Fernando de la Cruz insisted that the poem be included in my book that he translated into Spanish, “Aquí.” I still don´t understand why but especially among Spanish readers it really seems to strike a chord. I don´t know how many readers have told me it is their favorite poem in the book. In short, the writer may not be the best judge of his or her own work.

Q: What brought you to Merida initially?

A:   When I graduated from the Iowa Writers´ Workshop in 1983, the university made a slight accounting error. A student loan that I had applied for long before graduation finally came through. So, to my surprise, I received a check in the mail after I had already graduated. But the university accounting office soon realized its mistake and demanded the money back. I said, “No,  I signed a contract to borrow this money and I will pay back every cent of it according to the terms of the contract.” What could they do? Nothing, of course. So I decided I wanted to use the money to go abroad and live for a year if I could. My first choice was Ireland but I knew the money would not last a year. Then, both my sister and a Cuban friend in Florida said, “Why don´t you go to Mérida, Mexico. It is really a wonderful city and hardly anyone knows about it.” I had been to northern Mexico before and loved it. To make a long story short, I came to Mérida in 1984: It was a very, very different place then. I fell in love with everything about the Yucatán. After my year was up, I went back to the USA and worked for the publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (and by the way, paid back every cent of my student loan). Over the next 20 years I took every opportunity to return to the Yucatán. In those days you could fly round-trip from Miami direct to Mérida for US $125. Since the flight is a little over an hour, I even used to go on weekends just to savor the atmosphere and see friends. When I taught at the University of Central Florida I used all my breaks and summer vacations to come to the Yucatán. For twenty years I made as many as three trips per year to the Yucatán. It became my spiritual home.

Q:  Before living in Merida, you lived in New York City where you witnessed the World Trade Center attacks of September 11, 2001. Did that affect the course of your life?

A:   It turned my life completely upside down. This is not a subject I like to discuss. I was working near the World Trade Center. I saw things I wish I had never, ever seen. In short, I went into a state of shock. I worked for a very progressive publishing firm who provided psychiatrists, therapists, support groups, etc. for employees who were suffering from the post traumatic stress syndrome.  Still, I decided…I´m out of here. I´m going home—to Yucatán. Just months after September 11, 2001, I bought the Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay. I have lived there full-time ever since. As a footnote to all this, I have just published a new book of poems in the USA entitled, “Yesterday, A Long Time Ago.” It is a collection of poems all dealing with the events of that horrible Tuesday in September. It is published by Finishing Line Press and is available from their website and on Amazon.

Q: People might say that a murder mystery writer sports an active imagination. Do you really believe there is a ghost living at your hacienda, and what more can you tell us about this phantasm?

A:   I first heard about the “Princesa” from the Mayan family who lived on the hacienda with me for five years. The short version of the story is this: (the long version of the story is told in an excellent piece written by Mark Olson and featured on his blog—An Alaskan in Yucatán). Short version: In the mid-eighteen hundreds the owner of Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay came in from the fields at an hour that his wife was not expecting. When he came into the house he entered the bathroom. There he found the encargado (foreman) of the hacienda and his wife in a…pardon me…most compromising position. (Mark goes into detail in his blog). The hacienda owner drew his machete and stabbed his wife to death. The foreman ran away and was never heard from again. The family who lived with me reported regular sightings of the ghost of this woman walking around the hacienda. In the house, inside the casco. What was amazing was the incredible details in which the family could relate how she looked, what she did, etc. Do I believe it? I will only say this. One night I was sleeping when I heard someone walking around inside my house in chanclas (sandals). I called out to my encargado, assuming he was in the house for some reason. I called many times and got no response, yet the sound persisted. Next morning I asked Basilio…”What in the world were you doing in the house at 3 o´clock in the morning?” He looked at me, confused.  “I didn’t go into your house.” I described what I heard. All the family laughed. “But that was the Princesa,” they said. “We saw her last night, too. She seemed more restless than usual.” I will let the story stand alone and not say whether I believe or don’t believe. You never know.

Q: We are only six months away from the much-touted Mayan prophecy regarding the end of the world as we know it. Do you think the world will come to a fiery end or that a new spiritual era will blossom? 

A:  I have lived intimately with Mayan people for over 10 years now. I have witnessed their joys and their sufferings. I can tell you that I have never once met a Mayan who is concerned with the end-of-the world prophecy. What the Maya are concerned about is putting tortillas on the table for their families. They are concerned with problems within the Maya community that are never given any publicity at all. But mostly, the Maya are hoping, like every person in the world, that the lives of their children will be better than their own lives. I don´t want to sound harsh, but I find all this stuff about 21 December 2012 insulting to the Maya. They have real problems and concerns. But few people in the West are interested in that. They want to see the Maya as “exotic.” I don’t consider my friends and neighbors “exotic.” I consider them people like you and me, struggling to live a life of dignity. I will leave the prophecies to thrill-seekers from the developed world who have no knowledge of the living, breathing Maya people. I understand people from all over the world will be at Chichen Itza on December 21. I can assure you that no one from my community will be there even if they could afford it. But I don´t want to end on such a cranky note. It sounds too much like I´m ranting. Perhaps, to play it safe, I should repeat what I said about the Princesa—Do I think the world will come to an end on December 21?

You never know.

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