About This Blog

Hello writers and those of you who love books! Welcome to the Grassroots Writer’s Guild, the blogging home of Connie Kirchberg and Julia Simpson-Urrutia. The two of us have spent the majority of our lives as writers. It’s our goal with this blog to share our experiences, both good and bad, with other writers like you in the hope we might provide a bit of occasional inspiration and solace for your own writing endeavors.

Please feel free to comment on any of our posts.  We do our best to keep them writing-related, but let’s face it, a blog is a place to sound off, and sometimes that’s what we do. Most of the time, however, our posts will relate directly to the business of writing.

So, sit back, relax, and start clicking away on the links to the right. You’ll see that both of us decided to implement a “get to know the writer” approach by including personal experiences and family photos. We discuss the ideas behind our books and share our experiences regarding agents and traditional publishing. You may decide to go with a less intimate approach on your blog. The point is to figure out a marketing strategy that’s right for you and implement it. A personal blog is a great place to start. Remember, the person best equipped to sell your book(s) is the person who knows and cares the most about it. And that would be you.

rebecca WestOver a century ago, one of the great (now little-recognized) English writers of the 20th century was born: Rebecca West. As is so often the case with female writers, her name seems to get shuffled to the bottom of the deck when 20th century “greats” are listed, for at such times the atmosphere clouds with cigar smoke and aftershave scent. Virago Press, dedicated to female authors, is one of the publishers to remember Rebecca West and through them I was introduced to Rebecca West in The Only Poet & Short Stories, two decades ago. That book was significant for offering unfinished or politically sensitive stories that had never been published in the U.K.
Rebecca West was born Isabel Fairfield. She was of Irish and Scottish descent, and at the age of 19 decided to change her name to that of a character in a play by Ibsen. About a year later, she published a provocative review of H.G. Well’s novel Marriage and subsequently met the author. Their affair lasted ten years and from it they had a son, Anthony.
West was a prolific and versatile writer, producing fiction in novel and short story form, critical essays, biography, history and political reports. She was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1959 for her literary achievements and died in 1983.
I admire West’s writing, for she knows how to maintain the interest of the reader, even in her earliest works. Her needling away at her oeuvre makes me feel better about my own literary approach, perhaps because I can sympathize with her obsessing. For instance, West worked on “The Only Poet” from her late 50s until a few years before her death at around 90. It probes the deepest recesses of physical and emotional love. It is an uncompleted novella, and a comparison may be drawn between it and the work of D.H. Lawrence. For me, West went beyond Lawrence by proving there is no body without soul.
A far more spiritual love takes place in “Parthenope,” which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1959. It is the story of the narrator’s Uncle Arthur, who, when hearing the name “Parthenope” one day in the garden of an inn, is stunned by his memory of a woman. Before he dies, he tells the story to his niece, the narrator. It is a profound and platonic love story:
As a boy, Arthur fell in love with the eldest of a group of fairy-like sisters whom he used to watch from his balcony. Years later, when they meet again, one small detail of the way they drink refreshments together evokes the boundless ardor that might have been.
Rebecca West had a gift of many styles. A completely different manner of writing, keen and biting, shows up in “Madame Sara’s Magic Crystal,” a sardonic assessment of events in Yugoslavia and the rise to power of Marshall Tito. It was astonishing to me, at the time I first discovered West, that the story had such relevance to events taking place in the early 90s in the same region. It may well be that was one reason Virago Press felt impelled to release West’s collection at that moment.

51nAButyuSL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_I love it when my husband and I can click over a book. That is what Tarzan Wore Chaps by Woody Barlow did for us. My husband said it was one of the most refreshing books he has read in a long while. I think he has already loaned it out.

At our house, “refreshing” has to mean funny, in good quantity. Barlow’s coming-of-age memoir is about a kid growing up in Kansas. Facing polio and eye surgery at a tender age, the kid needs to develop a hyper imagination in defense.  That imagination sprawls over the pages. His wild and free association had me running to my husband every time I couldn’t breathe for laughing. I don’t know what it must have been like to be Barlow’s mother, but the most challenging kids are the greatest to read about.

“Listen to this,” I told David so many times that he finally said, “Let me read that when you’re through.”

Tarzan Wore Chaps is character driven, not plot driven. I would love to know if Barlow really remembers all these details. I am going to guess it is on the level and that he has a great memory. I loved his explanation, given to a Sunday school teacher, of who John the Baptist is. Too bad kids get punished for such natural innocence!

Joanna, his sister, was someone I could also relate to since she believed her doll was real. Every girl who dressed her dog up and rocked it in a cradle, or who put her doll to bed hoping it would gurgle and thinking she heard it do so, will love this book. Anyone who wants to remember the simple innocent pleasures of childhood growing up in the fifties and sixties, when there were no video games or smart phones, will love this book. It was amazing how much trouble we all could get into anyway!91nE6poXGzL._UX250_

images (1)Today the snarky English teacher got on her bike to take a ride. She wore her straw hat with the brim she can see through. A hat with a brim is like a revolver but less lethal. It is defense. When the snarky English teacher doesn’t want to see someone, she pulls it down. When she doesn’t want comments, alleged flattery or not, she pulls it down. When she wants to think, she pulls it down.

But she has to remember to look through the weave, especially when on a bike.

There is an old guy across the street. He lives alone. Let’s call him Jeb. Jeb likes to run water into the gutter, waiting to see who will come out and talk to him. Sometimes a rather hefty friend on a motorcycle obliges. Often the stalwart postal carrier will take out his or her earphones and oblige. If they don’t oblige, Jeb shouts comments to anyone within earshot because he is lonely. He could join a club and make friends that way, but it is really none of the snarky English teacher’s concern. Too much friendliness invites stupid comments.

Today was a case in point. Normally if she sees him wave, kindness forces her to wave back, although the lady directly across the street is really good at never seeing anyone and never having to wave back. You might call it a gift.

The snarky English teacher is not as gifted as the lady who lives directly across from her.  She launches her bike into the peaceful street. There is a sudden shout:


Was it a good idea to look? He was pointing at the new hose. He could have been pointing to something more vulgar than a hose.

“HAVE GIVEN?” She replies, feeling snarky.

That was hardly the withering comment he deserved. Doubtless he doesn’t get it.

Silence would have been better.

Next time, she resolves to ignore him completely and do like the lady across the street.


Amtrak-trainAnyone who has caught a train in Europe knows why trains are great.

Amtrak customers may be a more ambivalent crowd, for good reason. Despite the presence of trains in the USA since my Scottish train conductor great great grandfather’s time, we haven’t got the whole process down pat yet. Nor may we ever, despite our desire for a bullet train. That will be bedlam at high or no speed.Timetables, passenger disturbances and what’s on the tracks today are the biggest problems faced by Amtrak personnel in respect to daily business.

I am not going to bring up grumpy conductors. Never mind, I just did. I can understand why conductors are grumpy. I would be grumpy too if I had to operate without a backup plan. Unlike airplane stewards and stewardesses, conductors are not allowed to breathe a word about why a train has stopped unless expressly given permission. If they tell the truth, they get the fingers of one hand cut off, and sometimes an ear.That is scary business, so they don’t break the rule.

These poor souls have to battle irritable customers who are sick of sitting on seats going nowhere.They have to battle rude Americans (and there sure are a lot) who won’t move and let families sit together. They have to figure out what to do with roaming lunatics who won’t pay for tickets and who do strange things in public. Worst of all, the poor conductors have to operate without a backup plan.

Here are the kind of problems faced by the Amtrak San Joaquin personnel (truly the loveliest people you could hope to meet except when they have been stressed for 8 to 10 hour stretches):

1. An unscheduled train is coming towards another train on the same track. There seems to be no procedure in the Amtrak bylaws to deal with this. Solution? Stop on the tracks until the danger is over or someone calls the engineer to tell him to go or there is a collision.

2.  A bus has parked on the track. Solution? Stop on the tracks. Wait. Someone has to call the police, who begin a slow and laborious investigation. Meanwhile, conductors may not tell the passengers much. Sometimes they will indicate there is a stopped vehicle. If asked questions, conductors shrug and caress their ears and fingers. They don’t know. This has happened so many times in my family’s experience that I know for sure no procedure has yet been outlined. Everyone is at a loss.

3. A woman in line inside the Amtrak station details, in a concerned voice, that she absolutely has to get on a train to get to an interview. Since she doesn’t have any money, she repeatedly asks the clerk what they should do about this. Since there is no procedure, the line stops moving until the woman wanders away. (I have witnessed this scene.)

4. A vagrant wanders into a car and refuses to pay. Solution? The train stops. After an hour two policemen arrive and the man is handcuffed and led away. If the police are busy, tough luck to the people on the train. I saw this too.

41WUrT58cCL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_We like to read what resonates, what touches our own experience and flies up, up and away like a kite, string entwined in our sweaty, gripped fingers. Personally, I enjoy stories about writing and other writers, especially if I recognize the pain.

Boy, did I, in The Holden Age of Hollywood by Phil Brody. Great blurb. Went for it on Nook. (Have momentarily dropped sentence subjects in honor of this stunning author.)

I’ve seen reviews describing THA-of-H as Hollywood to an “H,” the acting/movie development life rolled into a resplendently gritty regurgitated hairball as wet and slimy as the truth.

Fell into it with the dazed joy of discovering a new substance to abuse, one that’s not yet illegal. I’m happy for the “this-is-Hollywood” readers, but for me, THA-of-H evokes the endless trek of the mind-numbing, hysteria-inducing tedium of reading endless reams of gibberish.

Such pursuits may be more noble than pretty, but that is what a lot of us writers do. I’ll explain.

Sam Bateman, the protagonist, is not a writer. His dad was. Bateman’s dad has died and left a drawer full of scripts, screenplays, and an unfinished novel along with a ton of rejection slips. Sam reads his dad’s creative writing and finds it much better than good.  He grieves for his father’s aspirations as well as his father’s dog, who also dies.

A good son, Sam buries the mortal remains of both, but not the dreams. He sells everything and moves to L.A. with his dad’s scripts and a plan to get even.

This is where all the great characters come in, including Solitude. Sam sets up shop in the wannabe writers biz (which is probably more lucrative than the sale of horror novels to the general public). He advertises a competition and award and starts reading as hundreds of scripts pour in. The masochism involved will thrill the soul of every writer who has had to teach composition, edit or search for the elusive pearl.

Sam is human. He cracks.

When that happens, he calls the author of whatever screenplay he has been reading, usually at 3 a.m.  He introduces himself and says things like, “. . . Now this screenplay of yours.”


“What made you write such a thing?”

“Well I thought it would be great to see the horror genre combined with a buddy action flick.”

“Sounds great. Can you send me that?”

“That’s Dead & Barry. That’s the script you called about.”

“It is? Fuck me if I didn’t get that from what you wrote.”

And much more. It is all brilliant. Loved the legend of Holden. Loved Share. Loved the ending. Loved the middle. Loved the beginning.

Loved The Holden Age of Hollywood if you didn’t get that already.

Caveats, anyone?

Okay, here’s one: if you don’t like the F*** word, don’t read it.

But if you are a writer, you won’t mind that word, because it is part of the living human language. If you are a writer of any ambition or perseverance or skill, this a book is for you.

Happy unwrapping! It’s Christmas, Hanukah or Eid when you least expect.

Phil Brody

Phil Brody

imagesWhile writing and revising my now-finished horror novel, I have looked to other writers to keep me horrified. In that search, I came across Ronald Malfi’s famous horror novel The Floating Staircase.I bought it on my Nook and forgot about it for a couple of months. Then I found it and read it.

Damn if The Floating Staircase isn’t really good. It is creepy. Malfi uses gothic techniques for creating his remotely situated haunted house. He’s a great descriptive writer. His plotting is sometimes a bit unexpected, but overall, he employs classic techniques. I read along trying to gauge them.

Having said that, he did throw me a bit. I have been told, by publishers, that blending genres is taboo. Malfi does it with impunity. The frappé effect didn’t bother me at all. The Floating Staircase is primarily a haunted house book, but it is frequently a mystery and sometimes verges on detective, crime, or just plain old mainstream.

The blended genres are not the main thing I am going to remember about Malfi, although I may surprise myself.  I will remember that he gave me a cozy haunted house feeling. I like that on windy nights. I liked his writer protagonist, Travis, who screws up his life and marriage.  His writing success is a bit off-putting, but  screwing up redeems him. A hugely successful writer protagonist would be difficult to like unless that person had a disease. But I drift from my point.

Ronald Malfi has seduced me with his outlandish metaphors. This wasn’t supposed to work, but I found myself reading for them. I also began texting them to my writer friends, wondering what they would think.

Stephen King writes somewhere that a writer should not describe a man waiting (for a taxi, say) as having the expression of a man waiting for a ham sandwich. Good point. How on earth can we picture that?

How does the expression of someone waiting for a ham sandwich differ from someone waiting for pizza? Or a coke?

Malfi broke the golden rule several times, but since he held me in more ways than one (I am talking about my attention in reading a book) and since his forced metaphors are so memorable, I began to look forward to them.

For instance, I never would have thought of crows perched on wires to resemble a semicolon. Hard as I try, my best shot is conjuring up this image is if one crow has had its tail feathers torn out or burnt off. Maybe that one crow has been struck by lightening and has been burnt right onto the wire while the other crow hasn’t noticed.  It is an intriguing thing to think about, especially when life is stressful.

Another interesting metaphor described a character whose laugh sounded like a cold tractor engine starting up on a frosty morning. I am writing this from memory so the words may not be precise. When I came to that metaphor, I began to wonder if I was the wrong audience. Writers are supposed to have a particular audience in mind. Publishers know which audiences will read horror, young adult, and romance. Romance, if you didn’t know it already, is for females. Men are just not keen on romance. Women may think they want men to read romance, but they might not like it if their boyfriends suddenly became hell bent on it.

There’s a thought to ponder all by itself.

I began to wonder if The Floating Staircase was for farmers. I have no idea what a cold tractor engine sounds like starting up, especially if it is old.

Nonetheless, I began to get a feeling of excitement, like a player exploring his geocache map, or a kid looking for Easter eggs. But me, I was collecting Malfi metaphors. I loved the hamburger as thick as a Bible. I loved texting the curious metaphors to my friends. Soon I was composing my own.

I definitely will buy another Malfi book. He is a good writer and he has proven, yet again, that writers can break rules.

And get away with it.

Robin CanoThere are some extraordinary writers in my life. I particularly love the words and writings of my wonderful friend and adopted family member, Robin Cano, teacher, writer, tennis player and Spanish speaker extraordinaire. The poem that follows is titled “The Huggin’ Granny”:

They call me

     the “Huggin’Granny”

     and there’s truth

     in what they say,

‘Cuz each morning

     I gather

     a bushel of hugs

    and get ready to give them away.

The first thing I see

     as I open my door

     is my neighbor

     strapped down

         in his chair.

He endures every day

     with the patience

     of Job,

     but I know his heart’s

     filled with despair.

I give him a hug

      and sit down

        for a chat–that can last

        for only a while, but

        when I get up to go,

          my reward is complete,

             for he gives me

             a wise little smile.

As I go down the street

     I encounter a friend

     with a smile

     plastered tight

     on her face;

we are glad to exchange

     some warm hugs

     that relieve

     any problems stashed

      “under the rug.”

But not all hugs are

     directed at

     woes of the day,

Special hugs can keep

     memories alive.

So each day I give hugs that

David & Clare & Rafael

& Martin & Caesar still


So if you be inclined

to give it a try

and give hugs

     as you go

     on your way,

you will find

     they’ll return

     and be brimming

     with love

     just as soon as

         you give them


       ~ fin ~

Robin Cano

La Casa de la paz

Mill Valley, Ca.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 98 other followers