My interview with author Lily Iona MacKenzie

Many thanks to Lily Iona MacKenzie, who graciously offered to interview me for her blog. You can read the interview here.

Authors who write about strong women: Guest post from Lily Iona MacKenzie**

My novel Bone Songs opens with a tornado that sweeps through Weed, Alberta, and drops a purple outhouse into the center of town. Drowsing and dreaming inside that structure is its owner, Curva Peligrosa—a curiosity and a marvel, a source of light and heat, a magnet. Adventurous, amorous, fecund, and over six feet tall, she possesses magical powers. She also has the greenest of thumbs, creating a tropical habitat in an arctic clime, and she possesses a wicked trigger finger.
When Curva had ridden into Weed on one of her horses two years earlier, she was like a vision from a surrealistic western, with her two parrots, a goat, glittering gold tooth, turquoise rings, serape, flat-brimmed black hat, rifle, and six-shooters. After a twenty-year trek up the Old North Trail from southern Mexico, she was ready to settle down. Her larger-than-life presence challenges the residents of Weed, who have never seen anything like her.
And I must admit, I hadn’t either. I am neither 6-foot tall nor as buxom as Curva. In my external life, I’m pretty conventional. But unlike me, Curva is amoral and not bound by the usual codes that restrict many middleclass women not only in terms of their relationships but also in the daily choices they make. She lives fully in her senses, bedding with multiple men if she desires, enjoying what she refers to as walking marriages where a woman invites a man to spend a sweet night with her, but he must leave by daybreak. She also pursues her dreams, no matter what hardships she encounters in doing so (as in trekking the Old North Trail for twenty years with horses, dogs, a goat, and parrots).
Given that I was a single parent at a very young age, my options were severely limited. I had a son to raise, no childcare, and I needed to support us, which I did from a variety of jobs. So in Bone Songs, I wanted to create a female character that was fully feminine but not as limited as I had been from a variety of restrictions—some self-imposed and some societal. But Curva didn’t fully come alive for me until I discovered her name. Originally, I had called her Lupita, yet I was having trouble getting inside her character.
But then my husband and I visited Cuernavaca, a small town two-hours drive from Mexico City. On our way there, I kept seeing signs along the side of the road with the words curva peligrosa, which means dangerous curve. The name itself released this character. Suddenly, I could hear her speak, I could see her interacting with others, and I knew her. She seemed to emerge full blown as Athena did from Zeus’ head, and Curva also has a mythical quality.
Was Curva based on anyone I know in actual life? No. I wanted to create a character that was not like someone we’re likely to run into. But she does have elements of various goddesses in her make up. Curva’s love of nature and willingness to travel in the wilderness by herself reminds me of Artemis, goddess of the hunt.  She also can be associated with a kind of Eve figure who creates her own Garden of Eden that she would like to establish in Weed. Curva wants the northerners to be able to experience this more idyllic state that her greenhouse represents. Finally, Curva has an earth-mother dimension. She’s a kind of Demeter figure who is associated with animals and the earth and doesn’t do well in chronological time.
I look forward to hearing about other strong female characters. Meanwhile, Curva will be on the prowl when Bone Songs gets released later this summer.

**A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl for the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long-distance operator, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She also was a cocktail waitress at San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel; was the first woman to work on the SF docks and almost got her legs broken; founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County; co-created THE STORY SHOPPE, a weekly radio program in Marin County for children; and eventually earned two Master’s degrees, one in Creative Writing and the other in the Humanities. Her reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir have appeared in over 150 American and Canadian venues. Her novel Fling! was published in 2015. Bone Songs, another novel, launches in 2017.  Freefall: A Divine Comedy will be released in 2018. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011.

You can visit her blog here

Signed a publishing contract!

Great news! I have signed a publishing contract with Bedazzled Ink Publishing

My book will be published in their 2018 catalog.

Revisiting the 2006 Esperanza Fire tragedy

I remember hearing about the tragic Esperanza fire when it occurred in 2006, but avoided reading much about it, mainly because it hit a bit too close to home. The fact that a number of Forest Service firefighters had died in the line of duty was bad enough, but at that point in my life, I felt the return of a growing resentment that my former firefighting career had ended. True, it had ended in 1983 with one of two knee surgeries, and I held onto resentment for a long time after that, but the feelings were back as my current career goals began to suffer in a downhill economy. You see, I wished I’d still been in the action. Did I want to die in a fire? Of course not. But whenever tragedy struck the wildland firefighter community I felt like I was missing out on something.

While I was writing my book, I decided to read a few books on firefighting. A friend loaned me John Maclean’s book “The Esperanza Fire: Arson, Murder and the Agony of Engine 57.” That book upset me so much I couldn’t sleep. Nightmares took over my dreams, and the feeling of loss was overwhelming, both for horrible way the victims died, the friends, family and coworkers of the men, but again for the loss of the career I did not want to leave.

Therefore, when I read this morning about how difficult it was for the screenwriter to complete the script for the upcoming movie “Esperanza” I understood why. The story is a complex one, and to present the events without boring non-firefighters would be challenging. I am not sure I will be able to watch the movie however, which at this writing does not have a release date.

Also, just the other day I read an extensive article about how the Forest Service is looking to change firefighting protocol based on the events of the Esperanza Fire. The reason these men died was because they were protecting an unoccupied home. It amazes me that after 10 years fire officials are still examining that practice. Wildland firefighters are not trained to fight structure fires, nor do I believe they should be risking their lives to protect homes from fire. That is how those men lost their lives. With the urban-wildland interface conflict increasing as more homes are built next to remote areas prone to fire, authorities need to make a firm decision on where wildland firefighters must draw the line before more lives are lost. Why this has not yet been resolved, I don’t understand.

Women firsts: Joy Lofthouse, WWII pilot

Joy Lofthouse and her sister Yvonne, thanks to Pauline Gower, who persisted in questioning Parliament why women weren’t allowed to fly planes, eventually making it possible for the pair to join the Air Transport Auxiliary in 1943. Their job? Ferry Spitfires and Hurricanes from the front lines to the factory for servicing. This in itself was a dangerous job, and back then, for a woman to take on such work, was also unheard of.
What is also amazing is that they actually earned the same pay as the male pilots. Ironic, since that rarely happens even today.

When recently interviewed, Mrs. Lofthouse said she was proud of the work she’d done and did not concern herself with the dangers. It was important to her to be a part of the war effort, and, she said, to have the opportunity to be her own person and earn an income at a time where most women were concerned about getting married and having children. She loved the independence this job gave her. She also reveled in the reactions from people back then when she told them she flew aircraft before she learned to drive.

Then, at the age of 92, Mrs. Lofthouse had the honor to fly a Spitfire once again, 70 years after she’d last flown. This both thrilled and delighted her, if not scared her a bit. But she managed and said she felt young again. Sadly, she passed away just days before her 93rd birthday, but she will always be remembered not only for one of the first to enter man’s flying world, but as a trailblazer for women’s rights in equal pay for equal work.

"Let it burn" versus "put it out."

50,000 acre Hog-Fong Fire. Klamath National Forest 1977
When I worked for the Forest Service back in the 1970’s, we put out ALL fires. Big ones, little ones, ones started by lightning, ones started by humans. Total fire suppression back then was still considered essential. Not only that, but a 50,000 acre fire was considered monumental.

Within ten years however, biologists had a new take on fire ecology. Without fire, forests grew thick and impenetrable. So thick, that when a fire did start, huge conflagrations (hundreds of thousands of acres) engulfed forests leaving nothing but sterile soil and little hope of recovery.

The “let it burn” policy was implemented in the 1980’s. The idea was to let fires burn naturally if they were caused by natural events and if they threatened no people, homes or other structures. This all sounded good on paper. In practice, though, not so good. In fact it’s proven to be nearly impossible to implement. Why? Because we’ve been putting fires out for so long, the idea of “Oh, just let it burn itself out” ends up creating catastrophic fires that can’t be put out at all. Most wildfires now either die out because there’s nothing left to burn, they are rained out, or they meet up with natural firebreaks such as large expanses of rock or pavement.

A prime example is what happened in 1988 to Yellowstone National Park after summer storms sparked multiple blazes. Because these fires were lightning caused, officials chose to monitor them instead of fight them. However, high winds, added to a drought-stressed landscape, in no time caused 150,000 acres to disappear in twenty-four hours. Nearly 10,000 firefighters were dispatched, but even they couldn’t contain the monster. It took months to put the fires completely out, but not until over a million acres were scorched and 120 million dollars were spent.

Fire officials had to admit the “let it burn” plan wasn’t working.

In 2009 a new policy was introduced. Instead of letting fires burn or putting them all out, a more logical approach is in practice. It took that long for officials to figure out that we don’t have that much wilderness left to let fires burn. I’ve been saying that for years! Now they are looking at all of the components affecting the decision to fight the fire or not, including the encroaching of humans on wilderness edges.

Let’s face it, who wouldn’t jump at the chance to build a home with a protected forest in your backyard if you could afford to? What people don’t understand, however, is this comes with a price. Just like those who build in hurricane, flood, tornado or earthquake territory: you have to be prepared for loss. What’s different about building adjacent to wilderness areas is those homeowners expect the Government to protect their homes from a wildfire, when they really have no right to. The tragic part is that although wildland firefighters are not trained in structural firefighting, they want to help, and some have lost their lives trying to save private structures.

Then there is the public outcry over the loss of our precious National Forests and Parks, which I think has validity. Should we really be letting what little we have left go up in smoke? It’s not like there is plenty of scenic lands left to convert into new parks. I’m looking at that scenario right outside my living room window. The 2005 Florida Fire in the Santa Rita Mountains destroyed 75% of this unique “Sky Island” when the Forest Service opted for “let it burn” instead of suppression. I’ve hiked to the burned areas recently, and recovery is spotty, if at all. Certainly I will never see majestic ponderosas and Doug firs in those areas in my lifetime. Was letting it burn a smart move, considering how few acres compose the Santa Rita range?

Because the wildland-urban interface conflict and the ‘let’s save what we’ve got’ stance are a major concern, the new policy is designed to look closer at what dictates managing a fire and when to let the fire manage itself. This is not going to be easy. Will wildland firefighters now be trained to battle structure fires? Will structural firefighters now be called to battle forest fires? Should we put out fires in areas where not putting them out can completely destroy an entire ecosystem?

I am glad a new policy is in effect, but the challenges are still great. You can’t undo 100+ years of firefighting in one fire season or many fire seasons. Fire management practices are changing and will continue to change. The focus now must be on fuel management (thinning and prescribed burns) more than fire suppression, but even that takes years to accomplish. The answers are not cut and dry, and they are not easy. In the meantime, catastrophic wildfires will continue, and millions of acres will be lost. Let’s just hope we get a handle on it all before there’s no forest left for our children’s children to enjoy.

Women firsts: Conquering Mt. Fuji and dispelling myths

It’s interesting to note that years ago, even if a woman wanted to climb Mt. Fuji, she was forbidden to do so. It wasn’t until the Meji Era ended in 1912 that the rule ended. This Era brought about a more accepting and modern culture, permitting women to participate in activities that were considered “for men only.” Despite the rule, however, one woman made it to the top in 1867, but details are sketchy. Lady Fanny Parkes is officially recorded as completing the trek.

As one legend goes, Mt. Fuji was thought to have a woman deep inside the mountain. Should she become jealous, she would erupt. This is why it is thought no Japanese woman climbed Mt. Fuji, even if she could. It took a brave Ms. Parkes to prove that no eruptions would take place if a woman set foot upon the mountain. After she did, other women soon followed suit.