NYC (a review)

Last week, I visited New York City for the first time. Despite living a mere two hours away from NYC as a child, I’d never experienced the Big Apple. I have plenty of memories of Philly (gray, pretzels, gray, more gray) but New York? None.

So when I got onto a plane at 5:30 AM last Tuesday, I had no idea what I was in for. I mean, people try to prepare you. My mother wrote a very careful itinerary including directions for getting a cab. I was warned that the driving could be a little scary.

That cab ride from LaGuardia to Riverdale? Ha…hahahaha. Hahahahaha.

I am so glad to be home where there are proper lane divisions and driving is DRIVING, not furious salmon fighting upstream and/or for dominance. Everything was so much FASTER up there that I felt like a true bumpkin. Luckily I had my sister to lead us from the Met to St. John the Divine to Broadway and the Bronx Zoo. She compacted a true tour in the space of three days–a miraculous feat, honestly, when you consider she also wrangles three young kids.

So here’s the quick and dirty on New York:

Bus rides can take two hours. The subway involves running and confronting the most harrowing ranges of your personal bubble. Never hang out in the road, because a Caterpillar going 50 mph might run you down as soon as a Lexus. The roads are pure Darwinism. Survival of the fittest, whether you’re driving or trying to amble across. Yet somehow, passengers still thank people when they get off the bus and people can be very cheery and polite.

Everything is big and close together, and deep in the city it feels like you’re navigating around some hectic man-made mountain range. The buildings have a way of making you feel like a mere speck amongst thousands. When I followed my sister through the subway and up into Time Square, I wanted to clutch onto the back of her jacket because I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen so many people in one space before in my life. I’d seen it in movies, sure, but the screen doesn’t provide the scent of street carts and the sensory overload of hundreds of flashing screens and people shouting for your attention while you try to follow your long-legged navigator.

I followed my sister through a number of cool places. She took me to the Met, which was overwhelmingly amazing. So many exhibits. After that, she took me to Alice’s Tea Cup. I had a white chocolate strawberry scone that was worth flying up for again at a later date.

Thursday, we took off a few hours early for a show and wandered through Columbia’s campus and St. John the Divine. I’m fairly certain that when Cassandra Clare was imagining the Institute, she was thinking of St. John the Divine. It’s IMMENSE. HUGE. I had a true sense of awe walking around in there. I’ve never been in a cathedral that big, and wow, I wish I could have used it somehow for a book idea. It was a nice pause before we headed into Time Square to go see Aladdin. The stagecraft and the sheer glitz of the performance was unlike anything I’d seen back home. I’m not usually big on musicals, but this one made me realize why people make such a big deal out of it.

11196237_10152737032390740_3348405704266045595_nOur last day was spent almost entirely at the Bronx zoo. We met up with a very old friend who drove four hours just to see me, and we traversed the entire zoo. The butterfly garden was wonderful, I enjoyed the birds probably more than anyone else did, and I got to spend time with a friend I hadn’t seen in five years. We picked up like we’d seen each other the day before, same as always, and had a very nice time giggling and just BEING with each other.

11078076_10152737032555740_5137467876951689451_n

(I also really liked the peacocks everywhere. It’s very clear who actually runs the zoo.)

All in all, it was a good trip. My sister and I got to spend some time together–which is very nice considering how far apart we are. Our family has always been spread between the North and South, and there’s no telling where she’ll live next. However, I did manage to cope with being on not one, but three planes, so hopefully travelling will get easier for me one day. At least I can survive plane flights.

And New York.

For someone as anxious as myself, the fact that I did not experience a SINGLE panic attack in New York is pretty phenomenal. On the planes, yes, but they were easier to control than in the past. It proved to me that if I can survive the subway, terrifying cab rides, planes, Times Square, and nearly getting lost a few times, I can survive anything. It gave me a huge victory over anxiety, which was almost as nice as seeing my sister.

Almost.

So that was the trip! HOLLOW FOREST is still in progress (now sitting at 81k, oy vey). I’m close(r) to finishing it. In the meantime, I’ve been making some decent coin with freelance editing projects, trying to get over a rather nasty tooth extraction, and Early Summer. It’s already 90 degrees here in South Carolina, and spring is gone for another year. My yard projects are about to become downright hellish, but once they’re done…they’ll be DONE.

If they get done. Book first.

See you guys next month!

Bethlehem Steel

For the past week, I’ve been up north visiting family. My great aunt passed away, and we traveled up to Pennsylvania to bury her ashes and scatter my grandfather’s. It’s not often I get to visit with my extended family—they’re scattered between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I live all the way down in South Carolina. It was a rare chance to see old places, and since our trip up to Jonestown, PA was less than two hours from Bethlehem, we carved out time for a side trip so I could go snap some pictures.

Nineteen years ago, Bethlehem was home. We moved in July of 1995, and the last time I visited was fourteen years ago. Bethlehem Steel officially ceased operations in 1995 after 140 years of operation. In August of 2000, I walked with an old friend through downtown Bethlehem at night, carefully herded as she warned me to stay close. It wasn’t the Bethlehem that I remembered, and as I took my old home in, the germ of a story took shape in my mind.

There are a number of towns in the Rust Belt that have crumbled under the weight of a broken economy and never recovered. I imagined a city that continued to spiral, its dark, dead heart ripe for an opportunistic madman and a terrorist cell. It took many years and two drafts for me to really learn about the characters involved and the conflict that drove them, but it was never a story I thought I could publish.

And then I fell in love with YA, and I realized my story had a home.

For almost three years, I’ve been weaving this story about a girl, her truest friend, and the person she loves most, all trapped at the center of an ancient war. There are numerous settings I’m attached to within the story, but the one I love most is Bethlehem Steel. Research brought me to Shaun O’Boyle’s photographic essay, shot in 2006. The images are downright haunting. Here was the city I imagined, an industrial powerhouse that was once a symbol, now crippled, crumbling, and hollow. The more I dug, the more it took shape in my head. Thankfully, there are a number of photographers and hobbyists who have provided enough photographs and information for me to map a place I’d never walked through.

Until this past Sunday.

Bethlehem was still three and a half hours from our last destination in New Jersey, and we’d been on the road since eleven that morning. I had roughly an hour to capture as much of the remaining steel mill as I could. It took a bit of circling around the city to find it, and along the way I captured a couple of photos.

Southside BethlehemSouthside Bethlehem

Founded in 1857, Bethlehem Steel produced steel for New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and steel for ships during World War II. The heart of South Side Bethlehem is Bethlehem Steel, and it was resurrected in 2009 with the introduction of a new casino. Today, the site is now an arts and entertainment district renamed SteelStacks, home to the casino, a performing arts center, and three outdoor concert stages. We followed the buses and a crowd to the stacks, and once I spotted the entrance, I was so excited I leaped out of the car with neither purse nor phone, only my camera. I broke a flipflop, but it couldn’t stop me, because I recognized everything I saw.

Iron foundry

Iron foundry - back

The iron foundry was a bit different from the photos I studied, but from its relative position to the stacks, I had a rough guess of what it was. I continued on, snapping pictures as I went.

IMG_2815

IMG_2814

IMG_2848

Somewhere far past these buildings is the site of the climax of AMoA—not sure if it’s still there. It’ll have to wait for another trip, I suppose…

And then I found the engine house.

IMG_2852

I was so thrilled to find this place! It was blocked off by a partition, so I couldn’t see into it very well, but I could still make out the tops of the engine flywheels.

IMG_2842

There was an exhibit of one, which I photographed from a half dozen angles.

'

IMG_2835

IMG_2836

If you think these are big, the engines are even bigger. They had to be, to help provide power for the stacks!

Engine house - front

The cool thing about the engine house? This is where chapter 1 takes place! I wasn’t able to get to the other side of the engine house or continue down to check out the other end—I was phoneless and at this point had lost my family in my excitement, not a wise idea—but I was able to properly map out in my head which direction Eid had run from and how far he’d had to go. I also discovered a number of new details I couldn’t make out from photographs, like the ridge of the railway line running alongside the stacks. I’d known it was high, but I didn’t understand HOW high until I was standing right next to it. The corridor I’d put together from photographs was no longer there, but I had a rough approximation of what it might have looked like, years ago.

IMG_2811

While I couldn’t explore the mill as thoroughly as I would have liked, it was absolutely thrilling to be in a place I’d pieced together in my head. I felt like I’d entered my story and gotten a chance to walk around inside it. If the mill hadn’t been renovated, I’m not sure I would have been able to. It was a great relief to discover that a once abandoned industrial symbol had found new life.

IMG_2812

Musikfest was vastly different compared to the last time I visited, but you really can’t beat listening to live bands echoing off of enormous steel stacks. If you ever have the opportunity, go. The novelty of the site alone is worth the trip, and I’m immensely glad I made it.

IMG_2868

IMG_2799

IMG_2873

Well, that’s all I’ve got for this trip. It was definitely an eventful one—I got to see my grandfather’s childhood home and visit his favorite creek. Jonestown is strikingly similar to some of my favorite places much further south in the Blue Ridge, and I missed him quite a bit when I saw it. He’d often told me about walking through the woods at night and what it was like growing up on a farm, and it was wonderful to put a place to a name. Perhaps Jonestown will end up in a story or two.

I’ve got some plans for a blog series this upcoming fall, so stay posted! Thanks for reading, and I hoped you enjoyed it. Kris Reisz referred me to the Sloss Furnaces out in Birmingham, and since I also have family out in Louisiana, Birmingham is right along the way. Hopefully I’ll have more steel mill adventures soon. If I do, you’ll know where to look 🙂

On the Dark Side of Human Nature (or, what Hannibal is doing right & why you should be watching)

To those who know me in real life, it’s no secret that I find dark natures absolutely fascinating. There are a multitude of troubling books on my shelves with themes and subjects that touch upon the unsavory, unwholesome truths we hide from ourselves.

Carl Jung referred to our dark self as the archetype of the Shadow–a universal, unconscious symbol, a sort of primordial memory carried forwards through human consciousness. Shadows are a threat, an inverse reflection of our selves. To see our shadows clearly, we have to confront them for what they really are: the dark parts that both belong to us and are completely repugnant at the same time.

And, oh, boy, does Hannibal play with this idea in fascinating ways.

(Consider yourself warned–there are massive spoilers ahead.)

Though even Alana might have a hard time loving a guy who keeps hallucinating this.

When Will first confronts the Nightmare Stag, it has a somewhat recognizable shape. This stag with feathers takes strange dimensions in his nightmares, defining itself more and more with each appearance. As Will gets closer and closer to the truth–that Hannibal is stalking him as well–the stag begins to change.

But a stag is an odd choice for a representation of Hannibal, isn’t it? Deer are typically prey, not predators. Maybe this is a hint from Will’s unconsciousness that the predator is hiding himself among them, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, so to speak. Less cliche, more in line with the image of Garret Jacob Hobbs. After Will kills Hobbs, it makes sense that his shadow would take such an obvious form. As he edges closer and closer to the question of whether he’s a monster, too, the stag abruptly changes into a man.

This man-shaped monster is clearly a predator, something that terrifies Will to have inside his head. His antlers are reminiscent of Cernunnos, a horned god of the hunt in Celtic mythology. Cernunnos is typically associated with fertility and wildness, but this version of Will’s Nightmare Stag is much more of a threat. This version of the stag conjures a repressed primal nature, a need to hunt that cannot be controlled.

This is all perfectly in line with what happens next. Will coughs up a human ear and stares at it in horror, unwilling to believe he’s become the thing he fears most. The ear is undeniable proof, though, irrefutable evidence that he is the Chesapeake Ripper.

But then we see the Stag’s true form.

image

The tricky thing about the use of this particular symbol is that in this shot, Will does not see the Nightmare Stag for what it really is. We see Hannibal in true Wendigo form, antlers and all, and we realize the stag that has been haunting Will was Hannibal, but Will does not.

And that’s what makes the start of Season 2 so brilliant. Will and Hannibal both state that they’re trapped in each other’s heads. One could argue that for these two incredibly self-aware characters, their individual shadows have to take physical form. If Hannibal played as Will’s shadow in season 1, I can’t wait to see what’s ahead for Season 2. I doubt we’ll see a correlating symbol, but who knows?

Some people might argue against using motifs and symbols in stories, that they’re obvious or easy to figure out, but Hannibal makes an excellent argument for why you should. Get inside your characters’ heads. Find out what they fear, what they consider to be their antithesis. How can that be toyed with? What kind of seeds can be planted to keep your reader guessing?

As for me, I’ll be over here, considering a Horned God of my own. I’m only a few chapters into this draft of THE WILD HUNT, but I’ve got some fun, scary ideas for what’s ahead. Stay tuned.