Have You Ever Used The Same Imaginary Place

From one novel to the next? I don’t mean in fantasy, more like magical realism. In my novel Black Rainbow I had a huge imaginary club called Babylon, where the teenage lovers end up in the middle of the night, circa 1968. Now I’m working on a novella set in Brooklyn just after the end of the war in Bosnia. Times have changed, so has the club, now called Babel.

Will this work? Should I focus more on how the very different characters experience it or on its own metamorphosis? I don’t expect readers to have read the earlier book, so it is “explained” (it is rather inexplicable!)

The Porches

I’ve been to about twenty writers’ residencies in the past 40 years. These have been widely varied,from granddaddies Yaddo and MacDowell with spacious studios and three squares a day to a small trailer out in Great Basin at the edge of a bombing range. In Iceland, an active volcano loomed outside the window. In Petrified Forest, I was the only person sleeping in the park, in a WPA style cabin rattled by the spring wind. At the Betsy Hotel, my stay came with beach towels and use of umbrella seating.
Each place has its advantages, its irritants, its adventure. I like to go just to…go. I was glad to discover The Porches in Central Virginia as a way to break our cross-country trip, our visits with friends and family, a bit of a quest to see how others are dealing with community, relationship, retirement (and work), and aging.
One fortunate thing in my life is that my ability to write seems timeless—it takes me out of myself. So I enjoyed that this week.
The Porches is gracious, peaceful, and a great setting for creative endeavor. It costs more than fully funded places like the near-by VCCA (where you are still asked for a donation) but less than the B & B equivalent. It reminded me more of the international residencies than the ones in the U.S.—not super competitive, simple application, and available for a short term stay. Some of these, at least in Scandinavia, tend to be “artists’ houses” funded by the state which you can use as a visitor or as a part of a writer’s union or group.

The musings below are from my ongoing 100 Cups of Coffee project—I’m over a third of the way through. Have been developing it partially on the blog—sometimes taking out the coffee context. Thanks for reading!









The Porches. In my room—a rather fancy cozy B & B style room, a large painting hangs, showing a bend in the road. The blacktop curves away to the left, and it and the shoulder disappear into grassy hills with blue and purple/black mountains behind. Four white trees stand in a grove and the road, with its white dividing line, leads beyond the viewer’s vision.
Yesterday drove just such a winding road with Rich to drop me for three days at this charming house and garden, to write.
Wisteria climbs up the column of the second story porch rail. At 8 am it’s almost too hot out, and I’m glad I already went for a walk. Green hills stretch before me, imperturbable.
I look in the mirror, hoping for wisdom, finding a familiar face.
Dead insects, who writhed towards the light.
I don’t remember what I dreamed.


A garden. As always, it seems, the head of a woman, neoclassical, in stone or clay. Or maybe she is a pot, with a fern growing out of her head to signify…thought…or dream.
Pink geraniums, wicker furniture, the sound of a train cuts through my sense of solitude, intensifying it.
A train going somewhere, indifferent to this hamlet with its locked church, its historical marker, one or two cars passing early on a Sunday morning, the feeling of…being left behind.
The train implies elsewhere, a lot of elsewheres, but since it will not stop, takes no passengers, and will not slow enough—even in my imagination—for me to jump it I stay here with the bees in a bush of soft mauve flowers. With my pills for what ails me in advanced middle age, my modest hand wash, a pile of silky embroidery thread for a too large cross-stitch tablecloth I may never finish. And a novel I appear to have finished the first draft of just this morning, and not exactly on purpose.


Looking for My Novel on the Colorado Plateau

I wanted to take this road trip on the Colorado Plateau…to be here. But I also had another reason. I’ve been working on my futuristic utopian novel (yup, used to be a novella, but it is getting longer). In it, a society loosely based on the ancient cultures of the Plateau, mostly Anasazi, exists in a non-technological future. Hope this isn’t too confusing already, because there a lot of levels of time travel in the book. But as speculative writer Suzy McKee Charnas says: a new story needs new ways of telling it. So, I’m trying.
But I wanted to see the landscape, right now, freshly. It’s only a few thousand years in the future, there is less water in some places but the terrain is close to identical. I’ve been jotting down notes of things to add, and writing chunks of description. Here are things that the landscape has reminded me of that ought to go in to the book.

So far:

dead trees, species die off among pines etc.
a dog bitten by a rattle snake
chalk formations like the White Place
cactus, and a needle in the palm
cap rock
natural bridges
dry stream
abandoned ruins
herds of mule deer
the feminine curves of the earth in canyons and crevasses

I don’t have to add petroglyphs, however, as they are a focal point in the story, and I’ve been studying them for a long tie.
I hope to have a rough draft by summer.
It’s gotten clearer and clear to me. It was funny when I realized I was writing about a community of artists, fairly egalitarian, gossipy, not into organized religion, pro-women, where people love children and dogs, a comparatively secure class in a world where the edges are menaced by war, starvation, and fanaticism…and realized I was actually writing about a social strata in Santa Fe.


I’m Locked in a Nice Motel Room Working On My Novella

It’s called “The Future Tense of Water” and has the confusing locations noted in the last blog post.



There are marks in the landscape. You can see them everywhere. A palm print in ochre. A spiral of dots. Masked dancers etched into the stone of a canyon.
Water has come and gone here, come and gone again. At dusk, there are insects in the long grass, and horsetails growing ancient and segmented in the marshy earth. These are old, much older than flowers and the pollinators they depend on to bring forth fruit. Small frogs are chirping. The great rock walls are red, the fields green, the sky darkening, and a sliver of moon rises above the river. When there is a river. Sometimes the river flows. Sometimes the canyon is dry. A twisted gnarled pine tree adds a small ring each dry year, a wider ring each wet.
The stars mark the sky. Polaris points true north, but it won’t always, not above this canyon, not from this latitude, not from this world. The North Star will no longer be polar, just one star among many.
The morning star rises and sets, as does the evening star. They are the same star, a wanderer. Some call it after the goddess of love. For others, it is a warrior who descends cyclically into the underworld.
The river flows. It runs dry. Two figures are etched in rock, huge queens with headdresses and feathered masks. They seem to be holding hands. Right now, the river flows, but no one knows the future tense of water.
The canyon is vast and silent, except for the sound of wind, and then of a child singing.

Self Hypnosis, Theme Song, and Outfits: Promoting My Novel

I’m so pleased that my novel Black Rainbow is finally out in the world—thanks to Sherman Asher publishing. The launch at Collected Works Bookstore on Friday was great—a wonderful venue and audience. I’ll be reading in Albuquerque (Bookworks 7 pm Wednesday November 4) and Taos (Op Cit, 2 pm, Saturday December 12).
But now comes the slog of promotion. So—how to sell books? I’m using a combo of self-hypnosis, theme song, and co-ordinated outfits, among more conventional means.


1. Self-hypnosis. I have a very creative friend who swears by this as a psych up. I’m not so sure. Last time I used it I told myself “you are an installation artist, you are an installation artist,” and ended up buying a lot of weird stuff at the flea market. But I will try…not “I am a best selling author” which seems ridiculous but maybe “this book sells better than…poetry.”

2. A theme song is important, and I’ve got one. With every passing decade of revision, I listened to “Jersey Girl.” The Springsteen version, even though it is a bit too cleaned up.

3. Co-ordinating outfits. When my book Rag Trade came out, with its Miami Beach circa 1950 tropical cover, I had never been happier. The back of the book was Chinese embroidery. I found a blouse at Chico’s that matched! That blouse never fit over the bust, and the line of buttons was crooked, but I wore it anyway.
For Black Rainbow I have two pairs of tie-dyed leggings bought in Bisbee, Arizona.

Despite all this, I’m also open to more practical suggestions.

If you are a book reviewer, ask me for a review copy. (I’m at msagan1035@aol).

If you are a reader, you will have my ETERNAL GRATITUDE if you post on Amazon.

I’m available for readings, visits to book and writers groups, radio, and tea with your great aunt (although she might not be the novel’s ideal audience.).

Also, for all you published authors out there—any ideas as to what I should be doing? Do you have something you’ve particularly enjoyed doing to promo a book?

Thanks for being there.



Photos of Collected Works reading by Anna Yarrow.


Sherman Asher has just published my new novel. Here is the start: “I had two mothers. Or maybe I had three. There was my real mother who died when I was born. And then there was the woman who claimed to be my mother, my stepmother Grace. Behind them, like a shadowy third, was the crazy lady, the one who had wanted to be my mother most of all. She was both murderer and midwife, my mother’s killer and the one who brought me into the world. Hers were the first pair of human eyes I ever saw.”


Collected Works Bookstore, Santa Fe, October 16, Friday, 6 pm

Bookworks, Albuquerque, November 4, Wednesday, 7 pm

Please come listen to a reading, get a signed book, say hello!


I know I owe a few you copies for commenting on the cover design–remind me if I forget to get you one! Also, a limited number of review copies are available–write me at msagan1035@aol.com for details.

More events are upcoming! I’m also available for readings, signings, and to talk to book groups.

To read an excerpt, search this site for “Novel in a Drawer.”

Kathleen Lee Reads from Her Novel: At Collected Works Book Store

This coming Tuesday, March 31
6 pm
With Rob Wilder, another writer well worth hearing


Miriam’s Well: In the novel ALL THINGS TENDING TOWARDS THE ETERNAL, you talk about “traditionless Buddhism” or your character Bruno does. How do you see that? Can you talk a bit about Buddhism as an influence?
KL: I’m not sure there’s a clear answer or not one that’s clear to me so here are some partial answers:
1. When traveling in China, I always visited whatever Buddhist temple or monastery was in a town or village, in part to have something to do. So I spent a lot of time around Buddhism, in whatever condition it was in.
2. I found the various traditions of Buddhism a distraction and kept trying to view plain buddhism. Buddhism Buddhism, instead of Tibetan Buddhism or Theravadan Buddhism, or Zen, or Soto….
3. I must have made up the term ‘traditionless Buddhism.’
4. Your (Miriam Sagan’s) first husband, Robert Winson, who was a Zen Buddhist monk, died when he and I were 36 years old and it affected me on the one hand in a completely ordinary and comprehensible way, and on the other hand in a way that remained invisible and mysterious to me. That sense of not understanding what had happened was an irritatant, a seed for writing.
5. Extended, uncomfortable solo travel is its own kind of practice in concentration, not unlike a meditation or koan practice.
6. When my characters meet their own inner emptiness, they realize the wisdom of no-escape.

Miriam’s Well: I feel the novel takes an ethical approach, like the 19th century novel, only in a modern non-overt fashion. The two central Chinese characters exemplify some moral conflict–self vs. family, wealth vs. authenticity, etc. but they come from a rigid world (hard on individuals but good for fiction!). Can you address this–and maybe mention how the other characters fit in to a moral framework?

KL: One of the many things I miss about the 19th century is the loss of a sort of grand, cosmic ethical framework against which people, or characters, throw themselves. I’m interested in that kind of pressure or friction and how it affects a person and since this isn’t the 19th century, that pressure or friction takes place mostly, at least in my novel, within each character; each character has a conscience or not, crosses a line, and suffers, or not. The place that ethics seems to exist now is within the self, and within relationships, and so, in a sense, each person is left to police themselves.

Kathleen Lee on Writing Her Novel

Kathleen Lee will be reading excerpts from her new book, “All Things Tending towards the Eternal” in Las Cruces, NM, as part of the Nelson/Boswell Reading Series.

When: 7:30pm, March 6th
Where: New Mexico State University, the Health & Social Services Auditorium, Room 101A.

If you’re in Las Cruces, make sure to drop by!


Q. You started off as a travel writer, essayist, and short story writer before tackling the novel. The novel has multiple points of view–it is essentially a web of interconnected stories that are heading for a shared denouement. What major differences do you find between novel and short story. Obviously one is long, ha ha, but how different are the conceptions, impulses, execution. And is the novel “based” in some way on shorter work?

A. No, the novel is not based on shorter work. And I’ve mostly failed in my attempts to extract some story-like excerpts from it. I don’t know how to describe the difference between a story and a novel. A story is a single cookie and a novel is a whole cake. Both are dessert but the cake is larger, with more layers and more complexity; with more opportunity for making a mess of things, too. I wanted to write a book that captured what it feels like to travel loosely, for long periods of time, and I thought a novel would be the best way to do that (in part because you can have all of those different points of view which seems a necessary feature of the portrayal I was after since I think that travel is about so much more than a single self, even a single self as a lens through which to see the world). It turned out that long, unstructured travel might be pretty much the opposite of what a novel requires: some kind of structure, and the necessity that the action and characters be fully engaged with each other. When you’re traveling, cause & effect exists in small, sometimes amusing, sometimes miraculous, sometimes irritating ways. But in terms of a driving force, cause & effect seems to relinquish its hold on your life, to be replaced by a kind of baffling, luxurious randomness. You buy a ticket somewhere for no reason you can imagine and later on you go someplace else and you do that over and over again and after half a year of this going here and there, the world has somehow become distinct to you, and your self within it. Which feels seamless and inevitable, but it’s not a novel.

Kathleen Lee’s new novel is out!

I’m very pleased to say that Kathleen Lee’s novel, All Things Tending Towards The Eternal, is out at last!

I’ve interviewed Kath and the book, and will be posting responses over the next few weeks. Check out the novel on Facebook!

1. The novel is set in a very specific time and place, China in the late 1980s. Can you say a bit about your own experiences as a traveler during that time that underpin the book? Share an anecdote or two?

Yes, the novel is set in 1989, some months after the events in Tiananmen Square. I was not in China in 1989 – my first trip to China was in 1987. I wanted to go to India but it was cheaper to fly to Hong Kong than to Delhi, and I thought I could travel to India overland: Hong Kong, China, Tibet, Nepal, India. It didn’t quite work out that way (there were riots in Lhasa and China closed Tibet to individual travelers so I went to India via Pakistan), but in any case, China was a surprise to me: unfamiliar and uncomfortable and unlike anyplace I’d ever been. I’m something of a fan of discomfort – it’s like salt in food, it makes a dish more itself. In the China of the late 80s it was not easy to be comfortable as an individual traveler and the varied discomforts made my experiences more intense, more particular.
On that first trip, one of the (many) buses I took broke down in the mountains of Sichuan Province. The driver took off for help (this ‘taking off’ involved a slight altercation with some of the passengers, but that’s another story) and we waited, at first patiently, but as hour after hour passed, as the day came to a close, some of the passengers grew restive. It seemed they thought there was a chance the driver had abandoned us and they were whipping up a froth of resentment. I didn’t know enough to be resentful and passed the day reading, writing and walking up and down the road. There were no other vehicles, the dirt road was surrounded by a dense wall of greenery, the only sounds were of insects, it was humid. The afternoon was long and time passed slowly; an extravagance of waiting. Eventually, at dusk, a second bus arrived, with our driver as the sole passenger. The two drivers hitched the injured bus to the healthy bus and we hurtled off through the unlit, black night (no headlights) towards the nearest town. It was wonderful to be passing through villages in the dark, seeing small clusters of people sitting under a bare bulb, listening to a radio and knitting, or watching a small black and white television set up outdoors. The town we arrived in was, I found out later, Li Bai’s home town. There was some sort of communist party convention going on there, some provincial affair and every guesthouse bed was taken. I walked from one guesthouse to another with a few of the other passengers. We were all tired and nobody had eaten much, so our search for lodging felt like hard work. After much wrangling, we each found beds in one of the guesthouses; I was to sleep in the night clerk’s bed while she was on duty. I protested, to no avail, that I could be given a bench because I had a sleeping bag. At last, near midnight, I crawled beneath the mosquito netting, into the sheets of a stranger’s bed – a young Chinese woman who lived in this town that, I would discover the next day, had not seen a foreigner in many many years, whose life I could not sufficiently imagine. I fell asleep in that stuffy airless room the size of a closet. At dawn, I was awakened by the clerk shaking me and, theoretically as enticement to get up, presenting a bowl of rice soup, featuring, in its watery whiteness, a large brown dollop of pickles.