Guest Post: Suitcase Secrets by K.J. Steele

Please welcome K.J. Steele, author of The Bird Box, in which she discusses finding inspiration for The Bird Box in unexpected places.

When a dead man speaks people listen. There is just something compelling about a voice that reaches out to us from beyond the grave. I’m not referring to spooks here, but rather to mankind’s phenomenal ability to impress ourselves onto the fabric of this world even long after the physical self has departed.

When I set out to write my novel The Bird Box, I spent some time on the grounds and in the buildings of a former insane asylum. Although the physical location was beautiful it was best described as a melancholy beauty. The memory of the former patients lingered.

I began to wonder about them. Not as patients but as people. Who were they? Before and during their committal’s? I went to the Mental Health Archives in search of answers. I found none. Researching patient files was often heartbreaking. Not so much by what was written there, but by the lack thereof.

After the initial admittance notes there was very little new information. Staff were busy and it was not uncommon to have whole lives –40–50–60– years condensed down to a few brief notes. The brevity of it haunted me. Not that I blamed the staff. Their hands were more than full with practical matters. But still, it felt inhumane to me that whole lives had been pared down to a few paltry lines. I wanted to know who these people were. Above and beyond the narrow label of psychiatric patient.

I was soon to find out. Their voices began a torrent of stories into my mind. They demanded a place on my page. They had stories to tell; lives and loves, laughter and tears. They too had experienced great joys and devastating loss. They had suffered deeply as well and yet none of these things fully defined them.

Synchronistically, as I was writing their stories I was sent a link to Jon Crispin’s stunningly evocative photographs of the Willard Asylum Suitcases. Jon’s photographs visually dovetailed so perfectly with my written efforts to portray the person behind the label of psychiatric patient that I knew immediately I had to travel to the exhibit The Changing Face of What is Normal in San Francisco to further explore his work.

What followed was an astounding opportunity to speak with the dead. Or rather – listen. Displayed alongside some of Jon’s photographs were the original suitcases and their contents. Each suitcase, no matter how carefully or haphazardly it had been packed for that initial trip to the asylum, spoke volumes to me. Each one was a virtual time-capsule illuminating the individuality of its owner. Bibles and poetry books, family pictures, lotions, musical instruments, detailed diaries, loving letters. Objects as seemingly disparate from one another as mending kits and (in one case) a small hand-gun. Items that symbolically spoke of the desperate need to either mend or end the suffering.

Those committed to the care of an asylum were in some ways excommunicated from the rest of humanity. They were held in institutions where their sense of autonomy was met with resistance. Their personal mail was opened and relieved of any unsettling or dissenting content. Their objections were routinely overruled. Not only did they become powerless they became voiceless as well.

Obviously it was far easier to silence people back then in an age before today’s instant and ubiquitous technology. Problematic dissenters were easier to erase; sometimes permanently.

And sometimes not so permanently as evidenced with the Willard suitcases. The contents of the suitcases serve to form an intimate choir of ghostly voices. They speak of each person’s individuality. Of their uniqueness. Some of them give evidence of seemingly competent minds while others show an obviously distorted grip on reality. Mental illness can be frightening. Perhaps to no one more so than to the person caught within its shifting shadows.

I have listened to their stories and endeavored to capture the echo of their hearts and minds in my novel The Bird Box. These were people who contributed to the diversity of life. And their lives mattered.

About the Book:

Broken and abandoned by the world, Jakie lives out his days in the silent desperation of an insane asylum. One night he discovers a young woman chained beneath a tree. The doctor commits her to a cellar room in the over-crowded institution. A fierce, protective love blooming in his heart, Jakie realizes that in order to free the girl he must find a way back into the strength of his truest self. In doing so he will alter both of their worlds profoundly.


About the Author:

KJ Steele is an author who most decidedly does not color between the lines. She is drawn to unusual characters with twisted, dynamic stories that they insist she tell. She has one previously published novel No Story To Tell, and was a contributor to the anthology You Look Too Young To Be A Mom. She is currently writing the sequel to The Bird Box. A mother of three and grandmother of one, she loves nothing more than the laughter of family and long horse rides up the mountain behind her house where the still-chatter of nature enlivens forward many entertaining worlds looking for a page.  Check this Website out.

Born & Bred by Peter Murphy

Source: Story Plant
Paperback, 395 pages
On Amazon, on Kobo

Born & Bred by Peter Murphy set in 1970s Ireland is a Boyle family saga.  Like many families, there are those members who have secrets, those that are well loved, and those who are tolerated because of their connection with someone revered in the family history.  Danny Boyle, a young teen who is growing up at his grandmother’s knee, is caught in the middle of God and religion and his father’s alcoholism and his mother’s mental illness.  He’s found solace in religion, but as he grows up and is pulled into drugs and the seedier side of Ireland, he’s spiraling so fast, that he barely sees everything as it whizzes past his bleary eyes.

“Danny had thought about it for a moment but he couldn’t say no.  He had been at the edge of everything that happened for so long.  Now he was getting a chance to be connected — to be one of those guys that everybody spoke about in whispers.  Sure it was a bit risky but he could use the money and, besides, no one would ever suspect him.  Most people felt sorry for him and the rest thought he was a bit of a spaz.”  (page 3 ARC)

He wishes for his mother’s return, but when he gets his wish, behind-the-scenes events lead to the loss of his one anchor in his life.  While many people in town sympathize and feel sorry for him, they also are not surprised when he gets in trouble.  There are few that believe him incapable of murder after a “pagan-like” dance in church, but there are some who are behind him and pulling for his reformation.  Murphy is an accomplished story-teller shifting between points of view to round out the story that is Danny Boyle’s life in Ireland, though there are moments toward that end that draw out the suspense a little too much.

Born & Bred by Peter Murphy raises questions about whether family genetics, upbringing, or environment can lead us to the actions we take or whether there is free will at all when God has a plan for us all.  Murphy’s setting and characters bring to life 1970s Ireland in a way that is disturbing, realistic, and harsh, but those realities help to shape Danny.  As the first book in a series, Murphy has created a lasting story with great potential in future installments.

About the Author:

Peter Murphy was born in Killarney where he spent his first three years before his family was deported to Dublin, the Strumpet City.

Growing up in the verdant braes of Templeogue, Peter was schooled by the De La Salle brothers in Churchtown where he played rugby for ‘The Wine and Gold’. He also played football (soccer) in secret!

After that, he graduated and studied the Humanities in Grogan’s under the guidance of Scot’s corner and the bar staff; Paddy, Tommy and Sean.

Murphy financed his education by working summers on the buildings sites of London in such places as Cricklewood, Camden Town and Kilburn.

Murphy also tramped the roads of Europe playing music and living without a care in the world. But his move to Canada changed all of that. He only came over for a while – thirty years ago. He took a day job and played music in the bars at night until the demands of family life intervened. Having raised his children and packed them off to University, Murphy answered the long ignored internal voice and began to write.

I’ve also reviewed:

Lagan Love

1st book for the Ireland Reading Challenge.






16th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

Leaves by Michael Baron

Leaves by Michael Baron has the makings of a family saga, with its large Gold family in Oldham, Ct.  Tyler, a budding nature photographer; Corrina, a controlling older sibling; Deborah, the resident foodie; Maxwell, who seems to have it all and leads the town’s Chamber of Commerce; and Maria, a young emptynester, must close a chapter in their lives and begin anew after deciding to sell the family business, the Sugar Maple Inn — a popular destination for “leaf-peepers.”  Baron alternates between characters throughout the novel, but the characters are dynamic enough and varied so they are easy to keep track of, even when the spouses and their individual family units are introduced.  Each of them is struggling with the close together loss of their parents, as well as the decision to sell the inn that is as much a part of the family as they are.  Each chapter signifies a day in their lives as they count down to the last Halloween bash they’ll ever throw for the residents of Oldham.

“The leaves were the reason that people came, whether it was for an overnight diversion or to settle for decades, rising generations of others who would remain nearby.”  (page 15)

Oldham is a place with many faces and facets from the ancestral families to the newcomers looking for a change or new adventure — particularly those that become small business owners.  Tyler and Maria were easy to connect with as their artistic sides have stagnated and need rejuvenation; Maxwell’s ambivalence about his place in town is easy to understand given the young age of his son and the adjustments he and his wife have made.  Meanwhile, Deborah is like many of us, comfortable in her current place and not quite ready to move on, and unsure of what direction to head in when change is inevitable.  Corrina is a tough nut to crack and hard to like with her domineering nature, but it’s easy to see why she wants to be in control — at least of her siblings and the last party at the inn — because her home life is not as picture perfect as it looks.

There are so many layers to Leaves, as the members navigate their new lives without the inn and their parents to anchor them, and the impact those changes have on their own relationships with one another.  Their moods and reactions change quickly, though the distance between them has been as gradual as the changing seasons.  However, while there are many depths to this novel, there also are moments where readers will want more, but the narrative suddenly changes to another sibling or situation.  Baron has established a foundation for a series of novels that are sure to come about the Gold family, and he’s crafted a family with strong bonds.  Even though each member is on the verge of breaking their family bonds for good, there are memories that creep in to pull them back to their roots and each other.  Baron’s novel is one that readers won’t want to end.  There is so much more in store for these characters and their relationships.

About the Author:

Michael Baron grew up in the New York area, has worked in retail and taught high school English.  Although he started writing nonfiction, he’s always loved fiction and love stories.  He has a deep passion for writing about relationships – family relationships, working relationships, friendships, and, of course, romantic relationships.  His wife and kids are the center of his life and his wife is the inspiration for all of his love stories.

Guest Post: Lou Aronica on Running a Small vs. Big Press

You’re in for a real treat today because Story Plant publisher Lou Aronica has worked in big publishing houses and small ones, so he’s got a unique perspective on the whole issue.

Story Plant publishes a number of fiction novels, including those reviewed here on the blog:  When You Went Away and The Journey Home by Michael Baron (click his name to find guest post from the author about his path to publication and his writing space.)

Without further ado, let’s turn over the stage to Lou:

I spent the first twenty years of my career at big New York publishing houses. I was Deputy Publisher at Bantam, then Publisher of Berkley, and finally Publisher of Avon. When I switched my focus to writing, I always had in the back of my mind that I would go back to publishing at some point. However, I didn’t imagine myself ever going back to a large corporate entity. The scale was too big, and I found that the operation of a company was much less interesting to me than the development of writers and publishing programs. This is a reality of any big organization: if you want to have any level of influence, you need to spend a huge percentage of your time simply keeping the organization running.

When I finally did get back into publishing, I decided to do it at a much smaller scale than anything I’d been involved with before. Literary manager Peter Miller and I started The Story Plant, an independent house dedicated to developing commercial novelists. There have been things I’ve missed about having a large publisher behind me – the financial resources, for example, or the collegiality of a big staff, or having an IT department to address my latest computer malfunction. However, a small imprint has allowed me to concentrate on the books. Sure, I’m spending time on the kind of clerical work I haven’t done since my entry-level days, but I’m not spending my time in budget meetings, forty-person planning sessions, or dealing with myriad personnel issues. I see this as a net gain. The majority of the time I spend on The Story Plant is time spent directly affecting the books on our list.

There’s no question that I felt at a competitive disadvantage for the first few years. The big houses were getting all of the display and we had no muscle. However, the considerable digital shifts in the business have made the playing field more level.  I now feel that, if we can provide high editorial quality and do an effective job of drawing attention to our books, we can compete very effectively. Perhaps the biggest advantage of being a small house is that we can stick longer with writers we believe in. Big houses need to walk away quickly from writers that fail to immediately achieve certain sales because those houses need to keep the machine humming. Small houses can seek new ways to introduce good writers to the world if the first approach doesn’t work. This is beginning to bear fruit for us.

I think it’s a good time to be a small publisher. Scale is beginning to matter less in this business, and that hews to the benefit of the little guys. More than it has been in a long time, our business is all about the books. As a small publisher, I can maintain my focus on our titles and worry much, much less about our operation.

Thanks, Lou, for sharing your unique perspective with my readers.  Please check out this interview with Lou.

About the Publisher:

Lou Aronica, Publisher, spent twenty years at publishing houses, serving as Deputy Publisher at Bantam before becoming Publisher at Berkley and Avon. During this time, he edited and published numerous New York Times bestsellers. A New York Times bestselling author himself, Aronica has written two pseudonymous novels and coauthored eight works of nonfiction.

The Journey Home by Michael Baron

Michael Baron’s The Journey Home is a very personal work of fiction based upon the author’s parents’ marriage and love for one another.

Joseph awakens with no memory of who he is and embarks on a road trip to jog his memory with the help of a young teen, Will.  Meanwhile, Antoinette is an elderly woman living in an assisted living facility who is slowly losing her grip on reality and living in her past.

“He recognized some of the cities, not enough to identify with any of them, but enough to know that he’d heard of them before.  He had a feeling that he’d been an avid baseball fan, but at gunpoint, he wouldn’t have been able to name the team that played in Chicago.  It was as though his memory were playing an elaborate game of peek-a-boo with him, revealing part of itself for an instant before hiding away again.”  (Page 44)

Baron’s prose lulls readers into an alternate universe as they watch the struggles of these characters to find their way home.  More than the journey home, this novel deals with the harsh realities of old age and Alzheimer’s disease and the toll that takes on not only caregivers, but also family members.  Another enjoyable aspect of the novel is the detailed cooking descriptions as Warren, Antoinette’s son, tries to discover a new path after losing his wife and his corporate job.

The Journey Home is part love story and part mystery that will leave readers guessing.  Baron creates characters that tease and please and who struggle with discovering themselves and where their true home lies.  The journey home is long and full of bumps in the road, but it is one of self-discovery and the call of one’s soul mate.

Thanks to The Story Plant for sending me a copy for review.