Friday, April 5, 2013

A guest post by Liz Gruder

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When New Orleans went under during Hurricane Katrina, I worked in the media. Martial law had been declared. Driving through the warzone, soldiers poked guns in my face as I held up ID. I saw the Xs painted on houses with a number declaring the dead. I drove to a beloved marina with boats piled up like Tinker Toys. All wildlife was dead and the seagulls had been blown away. Everything had been destroyed. I saw my husband, who had kept his boat there and loved the marina, the wildlife, and the sunsets, fall to his knees and vomit into the lake.

Employees who had lost their homes lived in cars, trailers or were crammed in with countless tense family members. Everyone suffered from PTSD. Daily, someone had a story of a relative dying, dealing with insurance rip offs, thefts, or even of seeing her daughter’s grave washed away… the tidal wave of loss made us numb.

During this aftermath, I nursed my father through his death and arranged a funeral, my husband’s mother died and had a funeral when funerals were hard to come by, my daughter was in a horrible car accident in which the surgeon didn’t know if she’d walk again, my mother had hip replacement surgery, then when finally recuperating, fell and broke her arm. If my life were a novel, I’d conclude that the writer had gone overboard.

I later broke my wrist in which an external fixator was attached to the bones. It was so painful I had to stop--everything. To stave off depression, I began to write a novel in my head (because I couldn’t type).

The result was Starseed, the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who is half human, half extraterrestrial. This may seem as far fetched from real life as possible. But when writing fiction, we incorporate real life events in disguise.

During the grief following Katrina, I changed my father’s diapers while he lay on a stretcher. I fed him morphine with an eyedropper into his cheek, and rested on a nearby couch listening to his snores, for he had at most a few days. I fell into a doze on a nearby couch. Resolute that he’d suffer no more, I had a timer set for every three hours to give him his morphine. As I dozed, my father came to me. I saw his face, looking younger. He was smiling and it felt like the Caribbean sun shone down on me, warm and golden. My father looked radiantly happy. He gazed at me with incredible love. It was so powerful, that I opened my eyes. The house was silent—I didn’t hear his snores. I rushed to his stretcher and called “Mom! Come here!”

Just as my mother appeared, I placed my hand on my dad’s forehead and he exhaled a long sigh.

“Oh my,” my mother gasped. “He just took his last breath.” She began to cry but I told her to hold on. I told my father to go on, to not look back, that we’d be okay. Then the house was still. My mother and I went to the porch and grieved.

I know without a doubt that my father came to me in spirit right before he passed. How else would I know to get up at the exact minute when he took his last breath?

In Starseed, one of the characters die. I used this real life event of seeing my father’s spirit in the book. In addition, the bullying events in high school, are all based on actual events. The characters in the novel are composites of people I’ve known or family members. Even Kaila’s dog, Woofy, who got in a dogfight and had one eye, was based on a real dog. The absolute despair Kaila feels at a certain time in Starseed was easy for me to draw upon. She wasn’t grieving about Katrina, the loss of her city and so many people suffering, but grieving is grieving and the emotion of loss can be transferred.

When writing science fiction or fantasy, it might seem that the stories are fully imagined. But in most stories, the writer draws on people and emotions they’ve experienced.

Certain life experiences make such an impact that they stay with us. It’s these experiences that are best to use in fiction, for when we’re emotionally impacted or mentally intrigued: Why did that happen? it will provide the writer with impetus to remain engaged mentally and emotionally. When I was about nine, I saw a series of UFOs with my best friend while riding bikes. That experience stayed with me.

Thematically, the writer chooses to write about what is important to them. I believe that the human spirit and the power of love is what life is all about and why we’re here. You may disagree, so take what is important to you and write that story. Ultimately, the stories you write are based on real life conflicts, emotions and trials, but those stories should be relative to the reader. People read books for themselves, not you. They want to experience, love, loss, fear, hope-- through you.

In fiction, we can tie things up happily—or not. Real life is a pendulum swinging back and forth. Good times, bad times, boring times, eventful times… For now, I appreciate life when it’s consistent and dull. Yet it would be unrealistic to expect a “happily ever after” forever in real life. There will always be tragedies.

For now, I’ve never been happier. I’m writing and teaching yoga. It’s a beautiful spring day and the azaleas are in full bloom. My daughter and I had lunch and laughed over silly things. She limps, but can walk. Quick. Close the cover. This is how my story ends. Of course my life, as in real life, goes on. But in fiction, we can apply Wordsworth’s sentiment: “"the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility."


Author Liz Gruder

As a youth, Liz Gruder saw a series of UFOs with her best friend while riding bikes. Ever since, she’s held a fascination for the stars. An avid reader, she used to hide under her covers and read with a flashlight. She has degrees in English and Psychology from Tulane University, a nursing license and a yoga certification. After going through Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, Liz realized how short life is and is now slowly fulfilling her bucket list: she’s been to the Egyptian pyramids (totally awesome and thought provoking) and is now teaching yoga and writing speculative fiction. Starseed is her debut novel.



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