Well readers, this is a long one. I've been promising an excerpt from this novel for quite some time, though, so I figured I owed you all a hefty hunk.
Here it is -- a long-ish excerpt from my untitled story set in Ireland. I'm actually loving the writing process for this one, and it's giving me all the feels of my time in the country. Meet Storie, her agent Monica, her mom, and a few locals she meets along her journey.
Taitmeamh a bhaint as! (Enjoy!)
I knew I had messed up when I awoke to my phone ringing.
If anyone other than someone in Ireland was calling me, that meant I’d overslept -- and of course, I didn’t know anyone in Ireland. I looked at my phone and saw “Mommy” on the screen. I was in trouble.
“Good morning,” I answered, my voice thick with sleep.
“Whew, Storie Cartner,” my mom hooted on the other end. “I haven’t whooped your behind in over twenty years, but I was ready to fly out there with my good belt just for the occasion.”
“I’m sorry about last night,” I said. “I fell asleep, then I woke up and stayed up late writing.”
She paused a beat. “Well. At least I know you’re doing your job like you said you would.”
My mom had tried to be supportive when I told her my situation and what I was doing about it -- she had always believed in my dreams, even when I was a child -- but she’d still expressed her skepticism, albeit as delicately as she could. She knew me as well as anyone close to me, knew my tendencies, and knew I was running away. She’d watched me grow up, knew how well I worked under pressure, that I’d gotten through college on last minute cram sessions and all-nighters, not because I was a poor planner, but because I just cranked out my best work that way. I was a spectacular procrastinator. I had a perfectionist tendency that often froze me in inaction until a do-or-die deadline arrived and I had to act or royally screw myself. I couldn’t explain it, but I needed the pressure.
“Ant said you sounded stressed when he talked to you last,” she commented, “Sunday, when you were in Washington D.C. on your layover. He told me he texted you yesterday and you were in different spirits -- not better, just different. Didn’t know what to make of that.” She paused again. “I’ve been real worried about you, baby.”
“I know.” I sat up and threw the duvet off me. I’d crawled into bed as the sun was coming up, vowing to only take a two-hour cat nap, and hadn’t even made it under the sheets. “I know what I need to do, and I think everything is going to be all right. I’m going to get a lot done while I’m here. I can feel it.”
“Have you talked to Monica?”
For a moment, I considered lying, but my mom knew me better than that. “I’ve been so busy trying not to die on these roads or lose any of my luggage between the places I’m staying that I haven’t had a chance to sit and go over our business plan.”
“Mmm.” Her voice had that tone that told me her lips were curled in disbelief, one eyebrow raised, neck pulled back. “Get you some coffee, slap some cold water on your face, and call your agent.”
“It’s the work week, and you have work to do,” she said. “No excuses, and no lying around on the job.”
I sighed. “All right. I’m up.” I stood to prove it, as if she could see me. “Getting caffeine, calling Monica.”
“I won’t bother you much, baby. I want you to focus, but please, keep me updated. Not just for work… in fact, I don’t want to hear anything else about that. I just want to know you’re alive. And okay.”
“I’ll call you,” I promised. “And I’m fine. Really.”
Another pause, using her Mom Sense to feel out my words. “All right. Send me some pictures like you’re sending Ant, and I’ll pass them along to your Grandma Carrie and Grandpa Joe and Grandma Rose. Or post some on that writer Instagram of yours so your dad and your aunties and uncles can see.”
“I’m trying to stay unplugged from social media,” I reminded her, “but I’ll hop on if I do enough work to warrant giving myself a day off.”
“Give yourself one. One tourist day. You’re in a beautiful place you’ve never been to, and even people on business trips get one day off. It’s good for your mental health.”
“Agreed.” I still didn’t know if I deserved it, though.
We hung up and I checked the time: Nearly 1 PM. No wonder my stomach had coiled into an irritated, grumbling knot. I wasn’t going to be able to concentrate on anything until I had some food. Sure, I was recycling the same excuse from yesterday, but it was a true excuse.
As I logged into the Doordash app to order lunch, I told myself to be proud for one damn minute. I’d spent nearly six hours writing last night, and it would have been longer if I hadn’t taken that small but necessary break to do some research and give my brain a break to mindlessly scroll through Twitter and the website for County Kerry, where I was currently located.
The first four chapters of the temporarily titled Before the Fun were complete, albeit in a very rough stage, but I couldn’t edit what wasn’t there. Now I had something. I fought my perfectionist need to edit along the way because I had to get something on the page to work with, and I’d done it. I'd sat down and started to write, and the story had formed itself. A good thing, because I hadn’t known before I stopped being afraid of my laptop and started typing if this next novel would be a sequel, a prequel, or something different entirely. In the end, I’d chosen the prequel.
I’d been so tempted to distance myself from my debut, and its lackluster performance, but I chose not to for a couple reasons.
One: I believed in this story, and the power of my truth coming through Eva. I knew I could make my readers see me and my story, and the expression was so important to me.
Two: I had a wrong to right. My novel had been misunderstood, and I thought, on a practical and business level, providing some background for my character would make her more approachable, less vapid in the eyes of my readers, and give her more substance. Boys Have All the Fun was supposed to be an unapologetic expression of female freedom and sexuality. Sure, there was some trash thrown in, but people liked trash. Plus, it wasn’t an endless romp through men’s and women’s bedrooms -- Eva, my protagonist, meets a guy she can’t keep her mind off of and learns how to take someone else’s heart into consideration, stops running away from her own trauma.
It was billed as Trainwreck with some underlying themes from Shame. Critics thought it didn’t live up to those expectations, didn’t do a good job of being either. I’d read it called “a weak attempt at being the next romantic revelation trope and didn’t balance the raucous good times with the substance.” The "substance" there felt out of place, and I’d apparently mismanaged it.
I was so focused on expressing my own sexual awakening, and I’d thought I’d touched on the substance underneath… but maybe I hadn’t. I could accept that. I could take those critiques. There were just so many of them, though, more than Monica and I had anticipated, and it caused readers across all the platforms to kind of dismiss it as smut.
I had no problem with smut, but others in our puritanical society always would. And anyway, that hadn't been what I was going for. I could write a profound story, and that was the only part of my plan I’d had locked down when I was making plans to come to Ireland. My next novel would have undeniable profundity.
I didn’t have trauma like Eva; thankfully, my life had been lovely, for a person of color living uncomfortably close to the deepest South. My parents had had decent lives, were educated, took care of us and invested in our interests, pushed us to do well in school and life, and never dismissed me over Ant like some parents do to their daughters over their sons. I had a large and great family, we’d grown up in a nice and safe area, and we didn’t struggle in any ways that my brother or I ever had to witness.
There were a few things I was able to draw on while writing, though: while I didn’t have daddy issues (and I hated that term, anyway; it’s not a woman’s fault for growing up with a father who fails her enough to give her said issues), my dad was more often pushing me to choose a slightly more practical career, like he figured Ant had chosen. Because of that, sometimes I felt like he wasn’t as fiercely proud of me as he was my older brother. But my dad had been the one to give me the name Storie, and he’d always loved listening to me talk when I was younger, even when my mom had grown tired of my “Mouth of the South.”
And the final and most important reason I'd chosen to stick by my debut was this: Mama didn’t raise no coward. I’d been proud of my novel before, and enough people had believed in it to get it published. A few of those people still believed in me, and I had to believe in myself, even if critics hadn’t gotten it the way I’d intended.
I sighed and glanced out the window. It was raining again, though not the torrential downpour I’d seen the day before. The sky was actually kind of bright, considering, and I think I detected a sunny afternoon coming. I knew Ireland was a misty, gray wonderland -- it was why the ground and everything that sprang from it were so green, after all. You don’t get a name like the Emerald Isle because of a Sahara-like climate.
This was the perfect time to call Monica. I knew that. My lunch wouldn’t arrive for another ten minutes. I could at least call to tell her I couldn’t talk.
I took a deep breath before dialing her number, trying to stay calm to avoid becoming defensive about my work process like I’d done last week. It would do my mental and emotional state no good arguing with her, especially since I was already here--
“What’s the Storie, morning glory?”
Her voice was way too bright for 8 AM, EST. I loved Monica, really, I did, but that mess was like a glass of orange juice thrown into your face first thing in the morning.
“Hi, Monica,” I said, making the smile in my voice audible, no matter how fake it was.
“Well, I suppose you made it safely and alive across the Atlantic, huh?”
“The trip here was smooth, as far as I know.” I’d taken fifteen milligrams of melatonin with some vodka to knock myself out for the overnight flight, and the plane could have honestly plunged into the ocean without my knowledge. “The trip around... terrifying.”
“I can imagine it’d take some serious getting used to!”
“Correct.” Then, before she could ask, I said, “I’m doing what I came to do. Got six hours of writing done last night. That’s the goal every day I’m here.”
“I’m so glad to hear that, Storie.” I didn’t like the gentleness of her tone. I shrank away from it, hissing petulantly, like I had with my mom. “But I do need to tell you --”
“I was just about to settle in for some work right now, actually,” I interrupted. “You know I’m five hours ahead of you, so it’s lunchtime here. Got to bang out today’s six hours if I want to get in a good night’s rest and get my clock back on track. I don’t want to be staying up all night every day I’m here. Not good for my mental or physical health, and I’m usually a morning writer anyway, you know.”
She paused. She knew what I was doing, and I was getting kind of annoyed at how well she’d started reading me after only working together for eighteen months. Was I that transparent? Did everyone see my tendencies and think, ‘There’s Storie being absolutely predictable again’?
“I’ve got some update from the publisher, and it’s really best we discuss it as soon as possible.”
“Any decision-making involved?”
“Not right now. But it will take a little while to tell you everything. That’s why I’ve been trying to call you as early as I can, your time. Or in the evening, as late as I can.”
“How about we talk tomorrow afternoon, your time?” I asked, begging silently for her to agree. “Right before you leave for the day. I should be done writing for the day by then.”
Another pause. “Yes, that makes sense. Absolutely," she acquiesced. "I don’t want to interfere with your writing, Storie, especially knowing your goals for this next book and the… obvious… lengths you’re willing to go to achieve them.”
“Thanks!” I took another deep breath, imagined her jumping at my too bright enthusiasm, her neat brown bob swinging with the movement, and adjusting her trendy glasses on her nose before pasting that too calm smile she always wore onto her lips. That smile of hers often unnerved me; no one should ever be that self-assured, that sure things in life will turn out exactly as they want them to.
“Would you like me to call you, or would you like to get at me?” I heard her typing then, like she’d pulled up her Google calendar to lock me in, lock me down. She wasn’t letting me get away again. Smart.
“Why don’t you call me. In case I get caught up in being productive and need a stop signal.” All right, now I was laying it on too thick. “Maybe around 3 PM?”
“3 PM, phone meeting, Storie Cartner,” she repeated back to me.
I was in big trouble.
I knew whatever Monica wanted to talk to me about that couldn’t be covered in five minutes and needed a slot on her calendar for would not be the most uplifting news. And the way I demolished my food that arrived at Annie's soon after we hung up told me my mental state was not going to be the best environment for writing.
Or, maybe I told myself that. Either way, it came to fruition, and I spent the rest of the afternoon curled on my bed with my hoodie over my head and my socked feet rubbing against each other so much they were creating static, snapping and crackling and popping like my joints and also that one cereal -- you know the one.
I watched videos on social media, first in a state of relief before it quickly melted into anxious viewing, all the while telling myself it was inspiration for writing. At close to 8 PM, I dragged myself out of bed because my anxiety was getting the better of me, making me feel like I needed to jump up and move.
The stairway and foyer were shrouded in dark gray, evening light, and it was pretty lifeless save the warm glow coming from the office Annie must have operated out of. She saw me wandering around downstairs and got up.
“Hello, Storie,” she greeted me, and it was much less go-getter than Monica, which I appreciated in the moment, seeing as how I hadn’t gone and gotten anything in the past fourteen or so hours.
“Hi. I hate I missed breakfast this morning.”
“Oh, it’s all right, dear. You have plenty more time yet.”
“Right. Speaking of, and I know this is a long shot, but you wouldn’t happen to have a communal coffee pot around here anywhere, would you?”
“Afraid not. We’ve just got the kettles.”
I must have deflated noticeably, because she said, “I can get you a strong black tea from the kitchen. Perk you right up, if that’s what you’re looking for.”
“It is, actually. I need to stay up for a little while again tonight to get some important work done.”
“Be right with you.” She popped into the kitchen, closing the sliding door behind her, and came back out seconds later with two tea bags.
“Thank you so much.”
“No problem.” She eyed me a moment, and I realized for the first time how unkempt I must have looked. Not as bad as yesterday, I wagered, since I had showered in the last twenty-four hours. Still, this woman had never seen me looking anything more than really-been-through-it. What she must have thought of me, I knew she was too sweet to ever let me know.
“I’ll put these to good use,” I said awkwardly, then turned to head back up to my room before she could get into a conversation with me about what I did for a living. Hopefully, with some writing done tonight, I’d feel worthy talking to her about it over breakfast in the morning.
Back in my room, the chair by the window was calling my name. I thought maybe I could write in the chair -- set the mug of tea on the windowsill and curl up there. It could work. Much better than writing in bed, which always ended in me switching over to Netflix or Pinterest to do “character research.”
I sighed and emptied a gas station water bottle into the kettle, then I got it going. I missed the days where I didn’t feel guilty taking a break, where taking a night off didn’t feel like I was ruining my whole life. I missed the days where I didn’t relax anxiously, where I could sit in the chair by the window and read a romance novel that would get my energy going to write, after which I’d sit up all night chasing the high. If I sat by the window and read now, I wouldn’t be able to concentrate for thinking of all the writing I should be doing, and also I’d probably fall asleep because I was older than I was eight years ago and also I was very stressed out. I tended to sleep when I was stressed. It was a piss poor strategy, but I kept doing it.
The kettle began steaming, and I opened my laptop at the desk. Sitting at a desk would help me feel like I was doing a job. My job.
As I poured hot water over the tea bag and steeped it, I realized that was the issue. Turning writing into a job had taken the romanticism out of it, had taken all of the spontaneity and creativity out of it. It hadn’t taken all the fun yet -- all of it -- but it was definitely an obligation now, the way to pay my bills, something to get done.
I had never been a planner, never wrote on a schedule or with an outline. Ninety percent of the time, I started writing with the vaguest germ of an idea and the story wrote itself as I went. It was a longer process, starting and stopping to connect dots I hadn’t seen because they, you know, tended to just pop up, but it was the way I kept my motivation and excitement going, the thrill of discovering what would come next because even I, the author, didn’t know.
Now, with the schedule I was on, the expectations I was under, and the fact I was working with people other than the voices in my head, it was almost necessary for me to plan.
I stood at the desk behind the chair and fiddled around my cobbled-together book outline. It needed a lot of work still, which is probably what I would start with before I got to writing chapter five. I dreaded the thought.
I looked behind me, outside the window by the chair again. The sky was cobalt blue, and the night outside sounded still. The antsy feeling hadn’t left, even as I prepared myself mentally to sit and work, and in fact, the feeling was rearing up even more. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sit, but I was going to force myself to do it anyway.
I’m starting to think that I handle stressful situations by running as far away as I can. It’s what I’d told Ant yesterday. The thought of Monica’s call tomorrow, the conversation with my mom today, the fact I was already behind on my writing timeline I’d set for myself, the doubt, my near-empty wallet -- it all equaled stress.
Closing the laptop, I headed to my chest of drawers and pulled out a knit sweater, tugging it over my head. I checked my face and hair in the bathroom mirror, then pulled on my shoes, scarf, and crossbody bag.
Just an hour. Just an hour away from this room. Then I would come back and get to work. Nothing would get done while I was in this state.
So I ran away. Again.
Tight left, wide right. I repeated the words like a mantra as I got into my rental and got on the road for the first time in two days. I knew I had to have been under a lot of stress, because I was willing to brave the impossibly narrow and winding road between a valley and the icy ocean in the near dark. But at least it wasn’t raining. The sky was clear, in fact, and the stars were plenteous and on full display.
It was gorgeous, really, and I tried to enjoy the view -- what I could see illuminated by my high beams -- and the sounds of the wind and water. I would have to drive out here another time at this hour and get some photos.
Thankfully, no one seemed to be out in this area at this time of night, so this time wasn’t as stressful driving down the wide, winding road into town. The amount of cars picked up once I got into Dingle, as did the brightly lit buildings, and it felt like returning to civilization. Though I had intentionally picked Annie’s at Slea Head for the isolation, every once in a while it was going to benefit me to ground myself.
Dingle after dark could in no way be called “bustling,” but cars rattled by, shops were open, and there were people walking around. I imagined the country opening back up after the winter, people excitedly rushing out to enjoy the longer days and slightly warmer evenings outside.
South Carolina was much different, especially in Charleston where, ironically, a lot of the streets were still cobbled much like Dingle's streets. Yet much of what was here in this region of Ireland, while modernized, still carried the same feel of being back in time. It was all the ancient history here, I decided, the millennia of development this country had on mine.
I parked along the side of the road and decided to walk, mingle with the people. I did not blend in, and I knew I wouldn’t. I hadn’t come here to blend in, despite the conversation I’d had with Ant the night I found out I might be in huge debt with my publisher, the night I’d run to his house crying and panicking, unable to speak clearly for hyperventilating.
“I understand you’re in trouble right now,” he’d told me after reluctantly pouring me another glass of wine. “I’m just reminding you that your publisher is still giving you a chance to get sales. They still believe in you. They’re backing you.”
“And I’m screwing it up as we speak.”
“Calm down, Storie.”
“I’ve got a little over two more months, and that sequel… prequel -- I have no idea, even though I told my publisher I did have an idea -- has yet to be written. I used my first advance quitting my job, I’m going to spend a chunk of my very small second advance on a three-week trip overseas, and if I can’t get over this writer’s block, I’m probably going to be dropped by my publisher, then my agent, and I’ll owe thousands of dollars. I’m beyond screwed.”
“You have a plan,” Ant tried to remind me. “You know what you have to do. You’re doing the work.”
“I’m chilling in Ireland!” I hoped his wife, Jo, wasn’t asleep.
“You went for inspiration. Right?”
“That’s what I told myself. But really I’m planning on becoming a fugitive here and an illegal alien over there.”
“Shut the hell up.” For the first time since I arrived, my brother cracked his signature smile, those big white teeth flashing under his brown lips, his black eyes shining, skin wrinkling just slightly at the corners. “You’re not going anywhere.”
“I’ll disappear into the countryside,” I said, moving theatrically now, unable to moderate my voice’s volume under the wine's influence. “I’ll live and work under an assumed name: Moira O’Connor or something.”
“You? You?” He laughed. “You're going to Ireland? To disappear? A chocolate dot in a sea of cream?”
“Hey, that’s good. You should be a writer too.” I plopped down on the couch beside him. “It probably runs in the family. You probably went against instinct by choosing the banking industry.”
“No. No. Absolutely not,” he said. “That’s all you.”
“If it’s all me, then why am I such a flop?”
“It’s not a flop. It’s a hiccup. The road to success is never a straightaway. It’s always got twists and turns.”
My head slumped to one side. My face was numb, and now I wanted to cry. “That’s good too.”
“No it’s not. It’s a cliché,” he said. “You already know that. I think Dad said it to me once, and you know he stole it. It’s one of those dad things that dads say.”
“You’re such a dad,” I slurred. “Stop being mean to Jo and give her a baby to pop out.”
He'd smiled then, I remembered now, but his eyes hadn’t crinkled that time.
As I strolled down the craggy sidewalk through Dingle, I thought again about the chilliness of the atmosphere in their home I’d barged into that night. I hoped they were doing all right. They had to be. They had been together for so long, they weren’t allowed to be any other way. I would talk to him about it at some point, when the time felt right, and when my life wasn’t ending.
I kept strolling, the chocolate in a sea of cream, and went completely unnoticed. I’d wondered how many black people actually traveled to Ireland, and so far, other than the airport at Dublin, I hadn’t seen a single soul that looked like me. I was fine with it, comfortable with being around all types of people, as I’d told Nae. Everyone here was apparently comfortable with me, too, as no one had stared or marveled or anything remotely insulting. I don’t know if I necessarily expected that, but it was still a pleasant realization. I was so happy to go unnoticed, especially now.
A shop window full of postcards caught my attention, and I stopped for a moment. The hours on the glass door beside me said the shop would be closing in a few minutes, so I made a mental note to come back another day to look around. I wanted to send a postcard to my parents, to a couple friends, to Ant, and to myself. I wanted to remind myself of where I was, where I had been, what I was doing, and this time of my life in general. This hiccup. This season. This valley. I wanted it to be the part of the writing journey I talked about with other aspiring writers down the line, the time where I didn’t give up, the time I did something crazy and it -- fingers crossed -- worked.
The bouncy, swaying notes of a melodic acoustic guitar drifted down the sidewalk and around my ears. I’d been aware of the sound for some time now and assumed it was coming from a shop radio or street speaker. I’d been staring into the shop window so intently -- and probably in a weird way -- that it had become a part of the light chatter and whistling wind around me. Now that I was heading toward it, it got louder, breaking through my mental haze, my memories of my hectic past few days. Soon, voices accompanied it, particularly a woman’s light soprano.
I noticed I was walking through a small crowd, the sidewalk so packed that people were hanging off of it. They were mostly looking at each other and chatting, listening like the music wasn’t live, but some people at the front were watching. I shouldered my way past a few folks who weren’t paying attention so I could see.
A yellow-haired girl -- she had to have been a girl, no older than eighteen -- sat with her backside propped against a wooden stool, not quite sitting. Her hair was long, almost to her waist, and her fair skin glowed in the warm light of the shopfront behind her. Her cheeks were pink, possibly from the chill in the air, possibly from nervousness -- she never once looked up as she sang. She held one hand up by her ear, almost fisted, rubbing her fingers together in what looked like a nervous tick, and she rocked to the beat created by the other instruments.
Her voice was music itself. The people with her weren’t necessary. The notes of the modern, folksy song she sang were clear and airy and honestly perfect. It’s what drew me to my spot and kept me there. When the guitar player beside her joined in, the way his tenor complimented her sound sucked my breath into my gut.
I looked over at him, seated on the stool beside her, his instrument rocking up and down like a seesaw, tapping his worn, brown, Warwick boots against the stool’s rung. He had yellow hair too, darker than his companion’s, curled and thick on top of his head and short on the sides. He played profile facing the crowd, and his jaw was stubbled and square. I thought at first that he was looking down at his fingers, but quickly discovered his eyes were also closed. It’s like the two of them had just started playing for themselves and people just happened to gather around.
His voice was quiet, steady, and quite nice, and he played his guitar so deftly that he didn’t even need to look at what he was doing. He swayed to the music like he was rocking himself to sleep. The other two people behind him and the girl -- two burly men with dark hair, one who kept the beat with a handheld shaker and the other who accompanied by patting a small drum between his legs -- looked around, into the crowd, down the street, unphased by what they were doing and looking a little bored, even. But the two in front… they were musicians, wholly so. They felt it. They were good at it.
The guitar player opened his eyes and looked right at me.
And my whole body kind of just… stopped.
His eyes must have fallen on me so readily because I didn’t look like a usual member of the crowd. I got that -- I definitely stood out. But my reaction, whatever it was, seemed to amuse him, as the right side of his full-lipped smile quirked just slightly before he looked back down and sank into the music once again.
Their song ended, and I exhaled. There was light applause, too light, in my opinion, for what I’d just experienced. The man’s voice, deeper than his soulful tenor, boomed over the crowd.
“Thank you,” he said. “I reckon we won’t be out here much longer, but the night’s so perfect it’s easy to lose track of time, ye?”
A guitar case sat open on the sidewalk in front of them, and plenty of people had already dropped bills and coins into it. So, this was more than just a free concert. I admired any creative’s efforts at making money for their craft. There was no shame in hustling -- I’d done plenty of it.
“Any requests?” he asked, looking about the crowd. No one said anything. His eyes fell on me again, and, unsure of what to do, I gave a small shrug. He winked at me.
“No worries,” he said, “I’ve got a good one.”
When he began strumming, and the men behind them started drumming, and the girl beside him started swaying, a lightness fell over the sidewalk again. And even though half the crowd wasn’t paying attention, you could tell no one wanted to walk away, everyone reveling in the mood of the evening.
I stepped forward, directly between the singers’ voices, and their sounds wrapped around my shoulders, hugging me. I dropped a couple notes in the guitar case -- couldn’t really afford it, but I’d done everything else wrong financially already -- and met the man’s eyes one more time.