Monday, May 18, 2015

B. B.  in My Life

      Sarah Scott       

          B. B. King's P. O. box number in Las Vegas is in my address file. I might never delete it. That way, his inimitable presence on the planet might seem a little less gone.

         The first and best time I had the good fortune to be in B. B.'s company was 1981. All the reasons his death is mourned around the world now were on display then.
         Three of us with the show PM Magazine on WHBQ-TV in Memphis, drove our white van with its pink and orange logo down the historic blues route of Highway 61. Indianola, Mississippi, B. B.'s childhood town, is smack in the Delta, and we'd come to do a segment on him.
         He came back every year to give his B. B. King Homecoming concert, free. While back, he also would play for the inmates at Parchman Farm, Mississippi's state penitentiary. Under a scorching sun at aptly-named Parchman, he played to inmates who looked forward each long year to those short hours. I remember that when any inmate feeling the music tried to stand up from the benches in that paltry outdoor arena, a warden would come along and order him back down.
         B. B. King never charged a cent for those shows either.
         In back of his generosity stood his astounding talent.
         Listen to this 1956 rendition of Crying Won't Help You  from his first LP. The voice that he could bend as adroitly as he bent the notes on Lucille is younger, but everything that made him famous is already there.
         Our second day in the Delta, he took us to the plantation where he'd worked, starting at age seven.  From the van's back seat, he drank white zinfandel from a cup.
         As our camera framed him in front of those cotton fields, he told us how the bell would ring before dawn to rouse the fieldhands. B. B. and the others chopped cotton "from can 'til cain't," which he said was "from the time you could see until you couldn't." Depending on the cotton's season, that long day might be spent stooped over.
         The blues he heard in those fields came through. 'Cause in my song, every line is for real.
         That's from my favorite of his tunes, I Like to Live the Love I Sing About. It's one he wrote, and this 1974 performance of it in Africa captures the sheer felicity of his voice.
         B. B. King's words, even when spoken rather than sung, flowed with melody and richness. He'd honed that tone as a radio announcer at WDIA in Memphis.
         B. B. had the Southerner's knack for storytelling. He talked to us about mid-century Beale Street, the stretch of Memphis made famous by the blues.
         "The guys would buy pretty nice clothes, and other people thought, you know, when you spend lot of money for a pair of shoes, a lot of money for a suit, that you were just doing that to be well groomed. Not so. You did that so in case you got broke, you could always go to the pawn shop and get something for it."
         Here's what I want to know: Did any other performer ever rack up as many stage hours as B. B.? It wasn't unusual for him to do more than 300 concerts a year, and he did that for decades. We asked him about his habit of almost never cancelling a single one of those concerts.
         "You have people who are doing everything to make this possible," he said, "and then there are people who could've gone someplace else who decided to come. So one me don't show up hurts a lot of people."
         B. B. King grew up singing gospel, and churchgoers disdained blues singers and their devilment. But he noticed one way the blues rose above gospel. After work would stop in the cotton fields at noon on Saturdays, he'd play his guitar on Indianola's street corners. "People wouldn't tip you for a gospel tune," he told us with a chuckle, "but they'd tip you for the blues."
         My two later times with him were briefer. His open-hearted way showed up at both. In the mid-'80s I wrote the script for a couple of years for the Blues Awards, the annual show where the W. C. Handy honors are given out. True to style, B. B. appeared on the Orpheum stage in Memphis without charge to emcee and perform. Willie Nelson joined him as host my first year; Carl Perkins co-emceed the second. My scripts ran long, stuffed with every whit of fascinating but divergent blues minutiae I'd researched. I hadn't figured out that people were there to hear great music, not words about the music. B. B. and his fellow emcees handled my scripts with undeserved grace.
         Our culture's panting after celebrity fails to parse out the talent, doesn't it? To my way of thinking, celebrity doesn't mean squat. It's talent I admire, especially when underscored by devotion to the gift and a beneficence of spirit. That's worth our esteem.
         And that would be why the world bows goodbye now to the undisputed King of the Blues.
         B. B., may your music never, ever leave us.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Rose Is a...Um...Ah....

The other day, in writing a scene in the second Jolie Marston mystery, I had Jolie's bon vivant buddy Martin take a sip of Pinot Gris and describe it with a wink:

He inhaled for several seconds before raising his head. "Gooseberries, but not the fully mature ones. A hint of daffodils, the white ones with the coral centers, not the yellow ones.” He swirled the pale liquid again and took a sip, rolling the wine around every part of his mouth. “Granite from the eastern slope of the Colorado Rockies. Tangelo rind. And um, the tiniest suggestion of cigar ash."

Martin knows his wines and knows how to spoof knowing his wines, because  he knows how easy it is to sound pretentious describing them. Pretentious and inaccurate.

Labels on wines often refer to the presence of berries on the nose or palate. Two wines assigned the same berry descriptors, however, can taste quite different. A wine might hint at chocolate, plum, or peach, but then, what is peach? Try describing the taste of a peach. It's...peach. It might be similar to nectarine, but only similar.

Analogies only go so far. As Kant said back in the 18th century, a thing is ding an sich, the thing-in-itself. Or to use our modern parlance, "It is what it is."

Here's a tough one: Describe a color. What exactly is green? Referring to something that is that color (grass) doesn't count. OK then, green is what happens when you mix blue and yellow, but that doesn't tell us much about what the color looks like, does it? Never mind its infinite shades.

What about music? A bass guitar riff might suggest, say, the low rumble of a Harley in idle, but what exactly is the sound? A flute might remind us of a trilling bird, but neither can replicate the other.

We writers prod ourselves to be precise. Instead of writing that a character has "pretty hair," write what makes it pretty. Is it the color of burnished copper? Does it cascade to her tailbone? Especially in poetry, precision is all. Many of us consider writing a poem to I go distilling. Get rid of any word that doesn't matter, and make sure the ones that stay contribute as much as they can.

As I write this, I am sipping green tea I brewed with fresh ginger slices. Ahh. It tastes...yes, exactly.


Sunday, July 7, 2013

Independence Day Came Early

Independence Day showed up early for me this year. It arrived in June when I published a new version of my mystery Lies at Six. A traditional publishing house brought the book out last year. This time, it is an independent venture.

Lies at Six is the first of a planned series with protagonist Jolie Marston and her erudite pal Martin Everett. It’s great to have them in the world again.

I opted out of a 3-year contract with my traditional publisher when the chance arose subsequent to a policy change. By this time, I’d read and heard enough about self-publishing or indie publishing to know this route was my preferred option, and by far the quickest one, for getting the book back in the hands of readers. I didn’t mind taking on or hiring out the tasks of independent publishing. Autonomy and I get along well.

Author and friend Carolyn J. Rose (Sea of Regret, No Substitute for Money, Hemlock Lake, and several other books) once again proved herself to be an invaluable mentor and way-pointer. (Autonomy and I sometimes enjoy the company of others.) After Carolyn’s more extensive experience with traditional publishing, she now chooses to self-publish exclusively.

The new edition of Lies at Six is a wide-ranging collaboration: based in Arizona created the ebook files; Patty G. Henderson of Boulevard Photografica in Florida formatted the print version; Dorion Rose of Broken Cork Photography in Connecticut produced a dynamite cover. Everyone I worked with was helpful, good-humored, and expert. Catharine Gallagher, friend and graphic artist extraordinaire in Washington state, updated the website she had created for

Lies at Six is available online and in some bricks-and-mortar venues. Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble offer it as an ebook and paperback, and this time, it’s also available as a Kobo ebook. My hearty thanks to the shops, bookstores, and libraries that carry Lies at Six.

Jolie and Martin are having new adventures in Tennessee as I write. Soon, I hope they’ll be ready to let me share them with you. 

Saturday, August 18, 2012

A Little BSP

In today's publishing world, there is a tongue-in-cheek phrase called Blatant Self Promotion or BSP. It's nothing new. When Walt Whitman introduced the first edition of Leaves of Grass, he wrote three fawning and anonymous reviews. He also made sure the world knew about Emerson's praise of it. "The public is a thick-skinned beast," Whitman said, "and you have to keep whacking away at its hide to let it know you're there." 

Now to my own BSP. 

Lies at Six was first written in the late '90's. After that, Major Life Change time began in earnest and, for a while, seemingly without end. The manuscript, then titled The Lies We Live By, was put on a shelf through divorce, a return to full-time work, loss of my agent, cancer, chemo and surgeries. The changes kept on but definitely took a turn as I fell in love with a musical and imaginative treehouse builder, sold my Olympia, WA house, left a comfy if uninspiring job after 16 years, started and developed a business as an eco-lodging proprietor at Mt. Rainier, married, and moved to an off-grid life in a cabin on homesteaded land in a national forest. I swapped my dishwasher for a bucket to haul water from the creek by our house so I could wash my etched crystal goblets. Fortunately, I’ve always loved irony. 

All the while, I felt like a failure for having abandoned something that once had my heart and soul: writing. I had two unpublished manuscripts, what became Lies at Six being the second, and both sat, untouched except for the occasional dusting, for NINE years. It astounds me to think of this. Years back, I felt proud I’d never known a moment of writer’s block. Comeuppance times ten.

One day last autumn, on a whim that interrupted my morning meditation, I picked up the loose 81/2" x 11" pages of my second manuscript. It was only a few feet away, an easy reach across the years. I held the bulk of it between my hands, took a deep breath and flipped over the title page. 

I began reading the prologue, and by about the third line, tears surprised me. I had abandoned something of value. I can never name that value for anyone else; I just knew at that moment that the book had intrinsic value. I called my husband to come up to our bedroom where I sat, and I read him the prologue. Bill, as a musical artist, understood. He urged me to get the book out into the world. Soon after, writer and friend Carolyn Rose opened a door for me with Krill Press, and Ken Lewis at Krill invited me in. I am very grateful to them both. And I am grateful my days now support a writing life far better than my former schedule did.

The process of getting to publication in these rapidly changing days of e-books and e-marketing has been an eye-opener time and again for me. As Carolyn advised: "Forget everything you know about publishing." The axis of the planet Publish took a new tilt in the years of my writing hiatus, and it is tilting still more. 

Thank you for your interest in reading this, my first author’s blog.