The very first novel I wrote was horrible. It was 200 pages too long, lacked anything resembling a structure, and was an overwrought soap opera I didn’t even have fun writing. I finally threw it in the trunk and slammed the lid after 120+ agent rejections. HOWEVER...the entire experience taught me how to write a novel and eventually resulted in my writing and successfully selling Driving Sideways.
I called that first novel The Cool Side of the Pillow...over the last decade, I have gutted and rewritten it so many times I’m not even sure an original sentence from the original manuscript still exists. The main thing I salvaged in the course of those edits was my setting: a medium-security prison like the one in which I worked my senior year in college. The re-revised novel is now called Mandatory Release, and after yet ANOTHER edit this spring, it was just submitted to a few new editors. Here’s what it's about:
Recently paralyzed in a car accident, thirty-year-old Graham Finch spends his days managing a caseload of unruly inmates and his nights attempting to stave off loneliness with one cringe-inducing date after another.
Until his former high school crush Drew Daniels walks through the prison gates one hot summer morning.
On the run from a painful past, Drew is a new teacher at Bone Beach. She’s also moved back in with her parents, returning to old haunts and habits unlikely to give the solace she’s seeking. Graham, smitten all over again, tries to squash his unrequited love with a new relationship. But when the heart wants what it wants, can you really redirect it?
Amidst escalating violence at work, Drew is forced to confront her secrets and find a way to forgive past sins. Graham must also learn to make peace with his own past … and together they realize that if you’re going to save yourself, sometimes the best way to do it is by saving someone else first.
Set in a medium-security men’s prison near the dunes of Lake Michigan (and inspired by the author’s work in such a place), MANDATORY RELEASE is an honest, funny, and gritty love story about broken people who work in a dangerous place, finding hope where they least expect it.
And here’s a scene from Chapter Fifteen…because why not?
Sometimes it feels like my life was scripted to give the guy upstairs a giant laugh. I’ve been in a funk since last week, when I saw Drew and Joe kissing in the parking lot. This is the foundation of my little house of misery, so to speak. Next we have the framing: At my latest doctor appointment this past Tuesday, they discovered I had a bladder infection and put me on antibiotics. Here come the walls: Which gave me a red, raw rash all over my face and body. The insulation and siding: My mother’s over right now, cleaning my kitchen, stocking my fridge with barely edible casseroles and giving helpful dating advice. The plumbing and electrical hook-ups: I’ve been getting too much attitude lately from an inmate named William Delfranklin, a litigious jerk whose favorite pastime is suing the State of Wisconsin for a host of perceived infractions including—but not limited to—the quality of ventilation in the NEXUS program unit, alleged mail tampering, and the (unacceptable) amount of protein in his diet. And finally, the roof that tucks everything in, keeping the rain out and the carpet fumes in: Oh, and have I mentioned I’ll never walk again? Hee-haw!
“Graham, are you listening to a word I’m saying?” My mother is kneeling on my kitchen counter, her head buried deep in one of the higher cupboards. “My god, this macaroni and cheese is nearly ten years old!” Her voice is a muffled echo.
“So throw it away.” I’m on the couch in the living room, flipping around on my Xbox Live main menu. Trevor’s logged-in, playing Max Payne 3. One room away, I hear the ancient box of macaroni hit my garbage can. When I bought that box, I could walk. I tucked it away on that top shelf myself.
“All I’m saying,” my mother continues as she empties my cupboards, “is that you shouldn’t be so hostile to the idea of meeting a nice girl, settling down. I won’t live forever, and who will bring you healthy meals when I’m gone?”
“Oh, stop. You won’t meet a nice girl to take care of you with that kind of attitude, mister.” My mother is from the era where women still lived at home or worked as secretaries until they found a husband. Then they got married, experimented with gelatin molds, and had half a dozen kids.
“Ma, I already tried settling down with a nice girl, remember? That worked out well, didn’t it?”
“How about meeting someone with that nice eHarmony service? They have attractive commercials.” My mother has no idea I’ve been dating girls I’ve met on various online dating sites for the past few months. She is also very susceptible to advertising, and is one of those people who actually do so when the voice in the prescription drug commercial suggests, “Ask your doctor about” whatever magic little pill they’re pushing.
“I know,” I say with false jocularity, “Maybe I could put an ad in the paper. Wanted: subservient girl who enjoys cooking, cleaning, and washing piss-soaked sheets. Lesbians welcome. No nymphos.”
“Graham, I didn’t raise you to have such a filthy mouth.”
“Sorry,” I shout tonelessly, not meaning it. Piss, lesbians, and nymphos are not part of my mother’s lexicon. I shut off my Xbox and channel surf. HBO is airing a Bob Saget stand-up comedy special, and I turn down the volume so my mother doesn’t hear a bad word and fall off the countertop after a massive stroke.
There’s the crisp sound of Contact paper being clipped from a roll. “Oh, did I tell you? Your cousin Samantha wants to organize a family trip to Disney World in Florida. For the whole family!”
As opposed to Disney World in Rhode Island. “I’m not going,” I say flatly.
“I don’t blame you. I’m not so sure your father and I want to go, either. The Walt Disney Company supports the gays, you know.”
“For Christ’s sake, Ma. Walt Disney was a Nazi sympathizer. Isn’t that enough for you?”
“Listen mister, your mother is not a Nazi!”
I can’t help it. I burst out laughing.
At this point she comes out of the kitchen, rubber glove-clad fists on her hips, scowling. “What’s so funny?”
I know I’m lucky. Many people with spinal cord injuries need at least part-time in-home assistance. I can manage fine by myself most of the time, but my mother drops in weekly to vacuum and scrub things down. She usually brings a noodle and hamburger casserole or soup I can freeze for the week. The bad part is that I have to listen to her mounting bewilderment at the assault on traditional family values in today’s cultural cesspool. Violent video games? Evolution? Hilary Clinton’s cleavage? Get behind thee, Satan! But the most offensive new development to her is the fact that “the gays” are not crouched behind a pair of old boots in the closet. I suspect she prays nightly that I’ll denounce my liberal social worker ways and achieve the miraculous leap of moral relativism and mental gymnastics it takes to become both pro-life and pro-death penalty, just like her. I’ve learned long ago to avoid topics like immigration, flag-burning, and stem-cell research at my parents’ house. I just wish they could do the same in mine.
Still, we’re family. And as much as I despise many of my mom’s views (as much as she despises mine), she raised me to respect my elders, treat animals and children kindly, never litter, and revere education—to not attend and successfully graduate from the best college to take me was never an option with her. Which was probably the largest contributing factor to our now-opposing viewpoints, but she’d never concede the point or downplay the value of a solid education, and I’d never bring it up anyway.
I smile at her. “Ma, I appreciate you helping to clean my kitchen. But if you don’t tuck in that bottom lip, a bird’s going to poop on it.”
“I told you that when you were little,” she says complacently, and her frown does indeed turn upside down. “And what’s this about helping? Last I checked, I’m the only one doing all the cleaning!”
“Ma,” I say, trying not to roll my eyes. “You don’t have to do this.”
Her expression grows suddenly somber, and she begins pulling her gloves off, finger by finger, while she walks into the living room. “Graham, I have to tell you something.” She perches hesitantly on the edge of the couch, near my feet.
“Oh Christ. You and Dad are getting divorced.”
She makes a vacant face, as if her brain simply can’t make sense of such an impossible notion. “No, no,” she says. “It’s just … now, don’t get upset, but I broke your shredder.”
I laugh, unexpectedly and so loudly it startles us both. “Wait. What are you doing using my shredder?”
“I was shredding your junk mail.”
“You don’t want anyone to steal your identity, do you?”
“It’s not the worst thing that could happen.”
“It was that darn March of Dimes.”
“What are you talking about?” My bemusement is shifting into irritation.
“They tape nickels in their junk mail so you open it, and I forgot to take it out before I shredded it.”
“Just to be clear, you broke my shredder with a nickel from the March of Dimes.”
“Really, they should rethink that tactic. I bet lots of people break their shredders on those nickels. And then they use the money they might have donated to the March of Dimes to buy a new shredder.” She stands and brushes an invisible speck of dust from the arm of my wheelchair, which is parked nearby. “So do you want to come with me?”
“Where?” I ask, exasperated.
“To buy you a new shredder. I have to run a few other errands, but now we can add it to the list.”
I cross my arms and give her a look. “Are you making left turns yet?”
My mother just scowls at me in reply.
“Then I’m not going with you.” A few years ago she was nearly T-boned while trying to turn left at a busy intersection, so now my mother only makes right turns in the city. As a result, a simple trip for a gallon of milk now takes twice as long and gives you vertigo.
“I don’t want to run errands, and I don’t want you shredding my mail.”
“Fine, but don’t come crying to me when every last cent in your bank account winds up in Nigeria. Now. Should we do a few quick standing exercises?” She extends a hand to me and patiently waits. “You need to keep up with your physical therapy.”
I give her hand a dirty look, willing her to withdraw it. But after a moment, I take it.
Whew! I suddenly feel like I'm having the 'naked in my old high school hallways' dream again. Anyway, I’ll let you know what happens on Facebook. ‘Til then, I’ll be self-medicating with frozen custard and mojitos.