The paperbacks are in!

I am so madly in love with the paperback design of JACK, I can hardly stand it. And look! It arrived today, all shiny and ruddy and alive. I’m beside myself. I’m a fluttery, swoony mess.


I’m not entirely sure how this all works from here – like when they show up on shelves, for example. I know they’re in the warehouse, so one could order them, should one choose (and by “one”, I of course am referring to my mom). In any case, I’m terribly pleased and I had to share.

Anyone else have good news to share with me?

“That can’t possibly be MY mom!”

We are counting down the hours until school begins. The clocks have become suddenly sluggish and hesitant. Time has thickened and pooled on the ground. By the time a second passes, it’s been sitting around at room temperature for so long that it stinks of mildew and rot.

The kids – my darling whirlwinds of electricity and light and bright wind – are all elbows and teeth and hot tempers. They erupt at the slightest provocation, requiring an epic intervention on my part – typically involving high-level negotiations and arms-reduction deals. I should work for the friggin’ UN. I have, for example, had to intervene in the case of:

  • He’s looking at me funny.
  • She used that voice.
  • She’s on my side.
  • It isn’t his turn.
  • She hit my invisible friend.
  • He’s singing again.
  • She said I look like a cartoon character.
  • His breath smells like cheese.
  • She said my hair looks like cheese.
  • She called me a piece of cheese.
  • He won’t play wolves with me.
  • She won’t run a race with me.
  • He’s breathing my air.
  • She looked at my stuff.
  • He’s thinking too loud.
  • This family is weird. Can I go to boarding school?

Yes, yes, for the love of god yes. I’ll help you pack.

(Author’s note: I did not say that out loud.)

So I took them to the water, and it was magnificent. What is it about spending time at the sun-drenched lake that transforms a bunch of children who, just a few minutes before, were at eachother’s throats, and turns them into a slippery school of happy fish, playing and splashing and spurting sweetness into the air?

I swam with them for about an hour, but that was enough for me. I hauled myself onto the beach blanket and watched them through the slick of sun on the water. They had swum out to the far buoys and were balancing on the chain that connects each bobbing red orb to the other. They stood on the chain, held their balance for a moment or two, and fell, screeching into the water. After repeating this approximately nine million times, they settled themselves in on the chain, balancing on their butts and letting their toes float up to the surface of the water, and gabbing about god knows what.

So I took a picture. On my phone. (I know, the quality is terrible and my phone sucks. What?) Because of the brightness, I couldn’t even see the dang picture I took, so after trying to shade it with my hand and then my hat and then my whole body, I draped a towel over my head and tried to see if any of the shots were any good.

And they saw.

“O. M. G.” my oldest said, her voice pealing over the water and the sand. Over the grass and the road and the hillside and the whole world. “Is that…!  No, it couldn’t be! That isn’t my mother, is it? With a towel over her head?”

“I refuse to believe it,” the ten year old said – astonishingly louder than her sister. “That can’t be our mother – our mother – in public with a towel over her head.”

“In public! I ask you!”

“It must be someone else.”

(it should be noted here how very very loud these children were. The entire beach had stopped what they were doing to watch them. Children stopped playing. Teenaged couples stopped flirting. Mothers stopped slathering their babes with sunblock. Cars swerved to a stop and pedestrians froze in their tracks. I think people in Texas might have heard them.)

“It has to be someone else. I mean, if my mother – my mother –  was in public with a towel over her head, I might have some kind of psychological break.”

“If my mother was in public with a towel over her head, I might stop getting good grades.”

“Oh, forget the grades. You might have to drop out of school. If my mother was in public with a towel over her head, I might get into a fist fight. With fists.”

“If my mother was in public with a towel over her head, I might joyride a car.”

“If my mother was in public with a towel over her head, I might have to start a gang.”

“Only one gang? I’d start four.”

“If my mother was in public with a towel over her head, I’d tattoo ‘I Love Republicans’ on my butt.”

“If my mother was in public with a towel over her head, I’d join the army.”

“If my mother was in public with a towel over her head, I’d join a cult.”

“I’d pierce my eyebrow.”

“I’d destroy a car with a baseball bat.”

“I’d date a tattoo artist.”

“I’d never leave the house again.”

“I’d drop out of school. And then I’d go back, just so I could drop out again.”

“FINE,” I hollered. I threw the towel onto the ground. “HAPPY NOW?”

They sat in the water, hovering just under the surface, their wrinkly toes wiggling in the waves. They were all slicked hair and akimbo limbs and dripping grins.

“Oh,” they said. “What makes you think we were talking about you?”

Seven more days until school, folks. Seven long days. Will I stay sane until then?

Again, with the Zombies. (Also, gratuitous camping cuteness from the BWCA) (and some thoughts about writing too)

My son has, apparently been infected with some kind of zombie virus, which he did not catch after being burned, drowned, struck by lightning, falling into latrines (likely on purpose), boiled in oil, attacked by cougars, or any number of disasters that could – and have – befallen the Barnhills in their excursions into the woods. Still: he has been zombified, and I have proof:

And then it happened to Cordelia as well:

 Zombification aside, it was, in truth, a magnificent trip. Not that the weather was perfect (it wasn’t) or the condition ideal (are they ever?) but still. Here’s the thing about camping: even what it sucks, it’s still pretty awesome. We faced rain and wind and cold. Bee stings. Busted thumbs. Sore backs. But there’s nothing like carrying a canoe on your shoulders for 3/4 of a mile, lowering it back down onto the rocks without a scratch, and then hiking back down the trail to shoulder your 80-pound duluth pack just to do it again. And there’s nothing like filling a bunch of empty bellies with a bunch of fried dough  or curried rice or pesto on shell noodles. And there’s nothing like watching the space station cruise through a star-ridden sky and seeing every constellation you’ve ever heard of, and inventing some new ones of your own.

There’s nothing like it at all.

Also, there’s nothing like the process of letting go, either. The BWCA is utterly off the grid. Even if you got all fancy and had one of those waterproof solar collectors to shove sunlight into your i-phone, it wouldn’t do you a speck of good. No cell towers. No signals. No phone calls. No email. No tweets. Nothing. This is good for me because social media – while incredibly fun for spending hours and hours dorking around on the internets, are kind of the crack of writing: it feels like writing; it looks like writing; it requires the same attention to language and diction and subtlety that writing does. The composition of a tweet, say, uses much of my skills that I’ve honed as a writer – we make deals with our readership, don’t we? We compose tweets that begin like hello and end like goodbye. We play with words and build with words and suck on words like hard candies. And then we are rewarded with retweets and comments and funny reparte, and whatever.

Social media gives us what our manuscripts cannot.

But it’s the manuscript – not the twitters or the books of faces or the things with pins on them or any other one of the nattering pixellated heaps of ones and zeros that clutter our brains and our screens and our limited thinking – that pays the bills. That feeds the soul. That pulls us toward something large, something beautiful, that brief, ephemeral glimpse at truth. The manuscript can be a jerk sometimes. It can be witholding. It can be prickly. But it’s the important bit.

This is why I like to go into the woods. To get back to the important bit. We turn off. We tune out. We slink away from the endless, meaningless noise (recognizing our own part in it), and we recalibrate.

I wrote thirty longhand pages while in the BWCA. Despite the ache in my back in and twinges in my knees and the endless cricks in my neck. I wrote another fifty since coming home.

It was a good trip. Maybe I’ll go back.


(All of these photographs were taken by this guy. Beloved friend, and darling of my heart.)



A giveaway? Why yes, I think that would be a good idea.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I came to the stunning realization today, after writing things in the calendar and fretting about how I would afford the shocking price tags on school supplies and school clothes and school shoes and school programs and school activities and all things related to the well-rounded education of my darling children that it hit me.

I have less than seven weeks until this book comes out.

Dear god. Or gods. Or possibly-devine-entities currently peering through the vapors at my lost, lost soul. Whatever.

In any case, I panicked, of course. And then I whined on Twitter and Facebook for a while and got advice from friends much smarter than I am. And while I sit down and actually hatch a plan, I figured, since I have an ARC or two in my possession, that I should organize a giveaway.

So here it is!

Between now and September 11 (which, by the way, in addition to being a Day of Somber Reflection also happens to be the day upon which my other book, THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF JACK, comes out on paperback. Yippee!) I’m hosting a giveaway of two copies of the ARC of IRON HEARTED VIOLET. Both of these I will sign and will also include another little goodie inside that is SOOPER SEEKRIT, so you’ll just have to enter to find out what it is.

Enter today, enter tomorrow, enter next week. I don’t want to make a big thing about it – it’s your schedule, after all. But don’t wait too long, otherwise, I’ll just have to give these copies away to myself, and that would stink.

For those of you who look at my situation and laugh and laugh and make fun of how unbearably disorganized I am, I’m curious: How do you ramp up to publication day? What should I be doing to make sure I am not doomed to failure forever? And what do you do to keep the pesky anxiety at bay – because it does not do to be ushering a beloved book into the wide world and suddenly come down with a case of the crazies. It doesn’t do at all.


The pilot house of the Edmund Fitzgerald rests 530 feet below the surface of Lake Superior 17 miles from Whitefish Bay. (Copyright 1994 Frederick J. Shannon)

I’m home now, after taking the family up north for some Lake Superior/Gunflint Trail/Arrowhead action. We’ll be back soon, this time with canoes on our shoulders and packs on our backs as we sally forth into the BWCAW, but for now we are relaxing and reading and enjoying a bit of summer on the old sod.

I got back from a run this morning, and my neighbor wanted to know how the trip was. “Fine,” I said. “Wonderful. Lake Superior is the most beautiful thing in the wide world.”

“I agree,” he said, “though I confess I’ve been worried about it lately. Global warming and what have you.”

“You and me both,” I said. “We had a picnic at pebble beach and spent half a day out on Artist’s Point in Grand Marais and in both places I’ve never seen so many people swimming in the water. And for long periods of time.”

“And no shrieking? No obvious, flesh searing cold?”

“Nary a shriek,” I said. “The lake’s at record warm temps. It’s worrisome.”

“If it continues like this,” my neighbor said, “we’ll have to start worrying about the bodies.”

“Bodies?” I asked.

“Well, it’s like the song. Lake Superior it’s said never gives up her dead. Well that’s due to temperature. The dead stay down because the water’s so cold. If it gets too warm, maybe the old lake will start coughing up some of the bodies in those many, many shipwrecks.”

And I laughed and he laughed and I told him to have a wonderful day and I went inside. And then my brain exploded.

I have been obsessed for my whole life with Lake Superior ghost ship stories. My short story “The Leviathan’s Teeth” is about a particularly gruesome (and oft seen) ghost ship called The Erie Board of Trade. And I’m working (slowly) on a new YA book about ghost ships and haunted diaries and Lake Superior lighthouses on craggy islands which I’m kinda excited about.

But this.

Hordes of zombie seamen sklurking out of the abnormally warm (but still gale-tossed) waters to feast on the brains of the living? Men with nine-foot muskies under their partially-decomposed arms? The bones of old ships skittering out of the waves? I personally will not write this story because I scare easily and I can’t do zombies, and I might not even be able to read it. But I will likely buy it if one of you people sits down writes it, and I’ll give it as Christmas presents to everyone I know. Because….Come on!


I insist that one of you writes that durn book INSTANTLY. This is not a request.

I’ll be waiting with my checkbook.

(sidenote: Yes I already know that “sklurking” isn’t a word. But it should be. I shall start a campaign. I shall also pledge to use it every day, and I encourage you all to do the same.)

The Tale of the Young Man With a Golden Screw In His Belly Button (spoiler alert: his butt falls off)

Surely you’ve heard this one. It was a favorite of ours growing up. Here’s the short version:

A couple has a baby with a strange birth defect – a golden screw stuck in his belly button. Doctors assure them there’s nothing to be done about it. So the couple takes him home and raises him right and proper. The boy, alas, grows up ashamed of his difference and blames it on the fact that he has no friends, can’t get a date, has a crummy job, etc. (In truth, his problems are not due to the golden screw, but to the fact that he is, in fact, a total asshole. But perhaps I am editorializing.) Anyway, he goes to experts around the world to remove the screw, and gets nowhere. He’s told to just live with it. He sees scientists and surgeons and witch doctors and gurus and philosophers and sorcerers of all kinds and descriptions. Finally, he goes to a holy man who lives in a tower in the desert somewhere, who says, “I’ll tell you how to get rid of this thing, but you won’t like it. Maybe you should just accept yourself as you are.” But the guy insists, so the holy man gives him a set of instructions to follow during the next full moon. He follows the instructions to the letter, then lays down on a lawn chair under the moon – naked, of course – and waits for something to happen. Finally, a golden dot on the moon gets bigger and bigger and bigger – and closer and closer and closer. After a time, he realizes that a golden screwdriver is flying through the air, directly toward the guy, and he is powerless to escape. The giant golden screwdriver lands delicately on the golden screw, makes a few quick turns, and flies away, bringing the screw with it. The young man lays there for a long time (did I mention he was nude?) and marvels at what he has seen. Finally he yawns, stretches and stands up.

And his butt falls off.

I think my siblings and I have told different versions of this story to each other like nine million times. My dad – a former Boy Scout and camp counselor – had dozens of stories like this that he poisoned our young brains with during our impressionable childhoods, but this one was by far the most popular.

Because his butt falls off. C’mon, it’s funny!

Anyway, the other day, I went for a hike with three of my four siblings, my mom and dad, various sibling-in-laws and children, up to the top of Eagle Mountain, the highest peak in Minnesota. (Sidebar: at a whopping 2,301 feet, can Eagle Mountain really be called a mountain? Isn’t it more of a gentle hump? Does anyone know the rules of these things?)

I’m side-tracking.

It was a beautiful hike, the kids were mad gnarly and made it up and down without complaining, mostly, and a lovely time was had by all. As we went down, the group started to separate – my brother and his new bride out-pacing the lot of us, my eldest daughter and my husband striding behind, and I ended up with two seven year old boys – my son and his cousin, Charlie – and my ten year old daughter. Their pace started to lag, so they asked for stories.

I told them a scary one – about four kids and a haunted cabin (that was secretly a trap) and a pack of wolves that seemed sinister, but were actually only trying to help them (they were too late) and a very crabby and very old dragon who couldn’t decide if he should help the children or gobble them up (“I’ll decide after you unchain me,” the dragon said. Anyway, the story was so scary (the cabin was more like a spiderweb – it was designed to entice and entrap and entangle) that I kinda scared myself, so I asked the kids to tell the next story.

Charlie led the way.

“Once upon a time,” he said, “there was a boy with a golden screw in his belly button.”

Oh! thought I. That story! Three generations telling that same dumb tale. A marvel!

“You’re telling it wrong,” Leo said.

“No, I’m not,” Charlie said.

“Yes you are. It goes like this: Once upon a time, there was a married couple who desperately wanted a child.”

“It’s the same story!” Charlie protested.

“It’s better with desperately,” Leo said.

“Fine,” Charlie said. “Once upon a time, there was a couple that wanted a baby.”

Desperately, Leo said.

“People don’t have to desperately want things,” Charlie said.

“They do in stories,” Leo said. “That’s why they’re stories. Once upon a time there was a couple who desperately wanted a child. You see? It’s better.”



A clapped hand on a forehead.

A great, heaved sigh.

“Once upon a time,” Charlie said slowly. “There was a couple.”






“Who desperately wanted a child.” Charlie closed his eyes and clutched his hands to his heart. He not only said desperately he was desperately. He embodied the mother and father of the ill-fated boy desperately and desperately and desperately wanting him.

Because that is how stories work.

We make an agreement with the listener and an agreement with the story itself. The story is a living, self-replicating thing. It is ever so much like a virus: it inserts itself into our brains and our hearts and our cells and uses us to reproduce it, again and again and again. Even the dumb ones. Like the one about the golden screw in a guy’s belly button and his butt falling off.

“Say it again!” Leo crowed.

“They desperately wanted a child!” Charlie called out to the rocks and the trees and the darkening sky. He threw his arms as wide as the world and leaped onto a fallen log.

“I love this story,” Leo said.

“Me too,” said Charlie.

Cordelia, standing next to me, rolled her eyes and shook her head.

“Am I the only one,” she asked, “in this entire family who isn’t completely weird?”

“Pretty much, babe,” I said. “Pretty much.”