Joe and Anna Larson, the cutest couple in the zombie apocalypse

Welcome back to my series of posts introducing you to the characters in my forthcoming zombie apocalypse novel, Sam’s Town! Today I’d like you to meet Joe and Anna Larson, the parents of my main character, Sam. In genre fiction (as opposed to literary fiction), it’s fairly rare to see a relationship between an adult character and his or her parents, and it’s rare in all types of narratives these days to see a positive portrayal of such a relationship. And I’d argue that it’s even less rare, especially in genre fiction, to see a portrayal of a romantic relationship (especially a healthy one) between people over 40–dare I say, even over 30? Well, get ready for this: Joe and Anna are over 50–approaching 60!–and they’re unmistakably in love. Part of the reason their passion is so evident at present is that Anna has recently emerged from a decades-long period of debilitating depression that kept her housebound and unable to fully participate in the relationships that meant so much to her, primarily those with her husband, Joe, and her only child, Sam. If it doesn’t sound too sappy to say it, it’s almost as if she’s falling in love all over again. And even during the bleakest times, Joe has never stopped feeling awe that a woman like Anna would want to be with a guy like him.

Sam is a lot like both of his parents, including in ways that he might not want to admit. His relationships with each of his parents were some of my favorites to explore. They’re not perfect relationships, but they’re kind and well-intentioned and, most of all, loving–and this is something else we don’t see enough of in fiction. I think some writers are called to write about the ugliness of the world around us, including in the way humans treat one another, but I wanted to write an aspirational story. Set in the zombie apocalypse. How’s that for irony? Anyway, I think all my characters have qualities worth emulating, but as the oldest of the bunch, Joe and Anna are perhaps the greatest mentor figures in the story, flawed as they are.

Fun facts about Joe and Anna:

  • Joe is a dentist who ends up as the de facto leader of the apocalypse survivors in Hibbing, Minnesota. I learned of an interesting coincidence after I had already created this storyline: A real-life dentist from Hibbing named Rudy Perpich also took an important leadership role, serving two terms as the governor of Minnesota.
  • It’s said several times in my novel that Sam looks a lot like Joe but has Anna’s eyes. Does this remind you of anyone? It should remind you of Harry Potter. 🙂
  • Frankie, whom you met last week, says Joe Larson is Clemenza’s best customer of all time. Before the zombie apocalypse, he ate there at least once a week.

And here’s a romantic encounter between Joe and Anna:

He turned his head to look her in the face, his eyes searching for hers in the dim light from the bathroom. “Be careful,” he said. “I can’t lose you.”

She reached over and touched his face. “You won’t.”

“I mean it,” he said, and his voice cracked.

“I mean it too,” she said with her eyes locked on his. “You won’t.”

They just looked at each other for what felt like a long time. “I love you so much,” Joe finally broke the silence, “but my neck hurts.” He turned his head back to face the ceiling.

Anna giggled quietly and whispered, “Good night.

Let me know what you think of Hibbing’s “it” couple (okay, maybe not, but they’re my “it” couple) in the comments!

Next week, I’m going to introduce you to the character who is most closely based on me. If you’ve read any of my novel, any guesses who I mean?

writing for joy

My grandfather, John Vernon Stockslager (we called him Pappy), passed away last week. My uncle preached his funeral sermon on Monday, and he mentioned something I had almost forgotten about: Almost 20 years ago, when Pappy first got a computer, he created a series of comic strips about two birds named Tweets and Blu. Technically speaking, they’re simple and even a bit rough–he used the Draw program in Windows to create them–but they’re funny and big-hearted and short, just like Pappy. Also at the funeral, one of my cousins read aloud a poem that Pappy had written not long ago. (We had also read one of his poems at my grandmother’s funeral nine years ago.) At some point during the service, I was struck by the sudden realization that although it had always seemed normal to me that my grandfather, a retired electrician and farmer, drew cartoons and wrote poems for fun, it’s actually not that common for adults to do these things. Kids do these things, and then when they grow up and decide they’re not good enough to get paid to do them, they get embarrassed and stop. Pappy never stopped.

I see this same impulse to write for the pure joy of it in Pappy’s children and grandchildren, particularly in my own immediate family. The examples range from the short-lived family newspaper my sister headed up when we were kids–The Fine Five–to my brother’s songwriting to my dad’s extensive reviews he posts on Goodreads for every book he reads. I see it in my own blogging and fiction writing. None of us are getting paid to do these things. Maybe we could, if we worked harder at marketing ourselves or knew the right people. But while I can’t speak for anyone else in my family, I can say that I’m content with writing for a small audience of family, friends, and Facebook connections–and for the delight it brings me. Sometimes I have to remind myself that I’m content with this, like when I see colleagues’ blogs and YouTube channels going viral or when I watch other people in my Facebook writers’ group (which I feel like a poser even belonging to) finding great success in self-publication through a combination of persistent marketing and real writing skill. I admire those people, and what I’m about to say is not, by any means, meant to fault them. But for me, I think it’s a useful discipline to be able to see the value in sharing my writing with the people who matter most to me, even if it reaches no further than that. That’s what Pappy did. I remember there was some talk of looking for a wider distribution channel for Tweets and Blu, but his family was always his favorite audience, whether for his comic strips, his poems, or his music, which I haven’t even mentioned in this post. (And he did get to play and sing in front of a wide range of audiences throughout his life.)

I’m not trying to make the worn-out, false argument that getting paid for doing something makes you love it less. But I do think there’s something to be said for writing–or drawing, or singing and playing–for nothing but joy. I’m thankful that Pappy taught me that.

celebrate good times

My sister got married on Sunday, so I would like to write a blog post about the profound meaning of celebration. Unfortunately, I am exhausted from the wedding (the early-morning hair appointment, the frequent unbidden weeping throughout the day, the dancing), but also from the drive from western Pennsylvania to my new home in western Michigan the morning after the wedding and the effort since then to carve into the mountain of furniture and boxes that resulted from the condensing of a three-bedroom house into the two-room (plus bathroom) apartment where I am living until my home in Virginia sells and I can buy a new one. And now I’m sure you feel exhausted from reading that grammatically correct but epically long sentence.

So I’m just going to make a couple of observations about celebration and hope they make sense. While I’ll be focusing mainly on the wedding in these remarks, I also want to note that I participated in a celebration of another kind on Friday when one of my online students successfully defended her master’s thesis in a conference call with her committee, of which I was the chair. Witnessing this victory got the weekend off to a celebratory start!

  1. Celebrations can be hard work. Although I was my sister’s maid of honor, I live relatively far away and so did not participate in much of the logistical preparation for the wedding. I know my sister and mom put many hours of work into acquiring decor, putting everything into labeled boxes for the wedding coordinator to set out, and taking care of innumerable other tasks. The result was gorgeous–my sister has great taste, and it showed in both the ceremony and the reception. As I mentioned earlier, the day of the wedding, though joyful, was also hard work–I know the bridesmaids will testify along with me to the difficulty of standing on chunky gravel in thin shoes throughout the ceremony, and I know the groomsmen were sweating in their long sleeves and vests. (I realize that sentence sounds silly, but it’s true! Outdoor weddings are beautiful but no picnic!)
  2. And then there’s the emotional labor. The bride and groom are marking a major life change, so they’re undergoing massive emotional stress (the good kind–eustress) that probably doesn’t really hit them until the honeymoon. But there’s also emotional labor for the others involved. My immediate family members and myself were surprised by how hard we were hit by the realization that Sarah was joining a new family and things would never be quite the same again. That night in the hotel room, which I had shared with Sarah the two previous nights, I kept bursting into tears when I saw something that reminded me of her. It was kind of ridiculous–I had to remind myself that she hadn’t died. There are other sources of emotional stress too: the worry that things aren’t going to go exactly as planned, the sadness of remembering family members who did not live to see the occasion, and the melancholy that many single people experience at weddings, wondering whether they will ever have their own. (I’ll be honest; I felt that a little bit.)

Well, shoot. I didn’t mean for this to be such a depressing post! I guess I was just trying to process why I feel so incredibly drained right now, because I know it’s not just from driving the Ohio Turnpike for hours (although that is rather soul-sucking) and moving boxes around. I am very happy for my sister and her new husband, and for my thesis student, and I’m happy about the new beginnings I’m celebrating in my own life. Celebrations are wonderful; I’m just thankful we don’t have to have them every day!