Communion Of Dreams


Thoughts while walking in the rain.

I’ve been in a bit of a funk the last few weeks. Which, on the one hand, is surprising, since I’m about at the top of my natural long (18 months), mildly bipolar cycle. On the other hand …

… we’re in the middle of a global pandemic, one which has been incompetently managed at the federal level to the point where we’re likely to see hundreds of thousands of additional unnecessary deaths here before the end of the year. (Don’t bother to post a political comment disagreeing — I’ll just delete it.)

St Cybi’s Well has failed spectacularly to find an audience as of yet, with fewer than 500 total downloads/sales. Given how long I struggled with the book, and the very positive responses to it by people who have read it, that’s very frustrating.

… I’m having increasing problems with arthritis in my hands, which greatly limits how much book conservation work I can do. Given that I love doing this work, that’s been another source of frustration.

So it’s not terribly surprising that I would have this reaction. Lots of people are struggling with the stress of this current time. I know I am extremely fortunate in most ways, so I’m not asking for sympathy or anything.

But it pays to understand what is happening to me, and why. Only by doing so can I decide on the best way to proceed. And my morning walk helped.

I now walk 3 miles a day, about 5 days a week. Two or three days a week I take a break to allow my joints to recover a bit, or to accommodate appointments, inclement weather, et cetera. This morning I was supposed to have a solid couple hour window between thunderstorms to get my walk in, but I took along an umbrella just in case.

And it was a good thing I did. About 2 miles into my walk the skies were too heavy and unburdened themselves. I decided it was something of a metaphor, and that I should do the same. Hence this blog post.

No brilliant insights from this to share. I know how to deal with the frustrations, and am well equipped to do so. More precautions, in spite of the isolation. More writing, in spite of the failure. More work, in spite of the ache. More reaching out and doing what I can for others, in spite of the funk.

Jim Downey



Cautionary insight.

I’m not an epidemiologist. I’m not a medical professional of any sort.

And yet, I spent a lot of time studying the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, because I used that as the model for what the Fire-flu would be like in St Cybi’s Well. And it largely paid off, as I’ve noted previously, since so many people have seen the eerie similarities in how the Covid-19 pandemic has unfolded to what I depict in the novel.

That’s because a lot of these things happen consistently in all pandemics, as you can see time and again if you look at the history.

And, having studied that history, even though I’m not an epidemiologist, I feel honor-bound to say: be worried about where things are headed here in the US. Currently, the C19 virus is largely uncontrolled in most states, and I’m afraid that it is going to get MUCH worse in the coming months. Place the blame for that where you will, the fact of the matter is that each individual needs to take whatever precautions you can to limit your chances of catching this disease. Follow the advice of the real epidemiologists out there. Don’t listen to the politicians. Or the conspiracy theorists. Or your buddy from high school who barely passed biology class.

St Cybi’s Well actually contains a lot of solid practical advice for how to prepare for a pandemic, if you step back and think about it. I added all that stuff because I wanted the book to ‘feel’ real, and to show what an intelligent, well-educated person might do when faced with the prospect of a pandemic. That it now might add some insight into what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones going forward is just serendipity.

If you think so too, maybe share the book with your friends and family. It’ll be available for free download this coming Saturday, as it is on the first of each month.

Jim Downey



The Waltz Dystopic

Why on Earth would you want to read a novel about a pandemic during a pandemic? Or why would you want to dive into a world where America is a dystopia of racial hatred and theocratic overreach when America is, well, trying to sort out racial hatred and theocratic overreach? There’d have to be something wrong with you to join in such a dance, wouldn’t there?

This was touched on in an interview on NPR I listened to this morning on my daily walk. In it, author Josh Malerman said that reading about a pandemic during a pandemic was somehow comforting; it was a way of saying “we know how to deal with this”.

In writing St Cybi’s Well I used an old literary technique to create some psychic space between the reader and my criticism of our American society, by not placing the story in America, but by having characters in the story reflect on and discuss what a dystopia American had become. This way the reader joins me in a dance, following my lead, but themselves moving through the story I’ve set out. The dystopia is there, but together we have defined it, perhaps tamed it enough that we can see it for what it is.

Of course, our reality is not the reality of St Cybi’s Well. Though it is still very early in the Covid-19 pandemic, I don’t think that it will be quite as devastating as the Fire-flu is in my book. And though we are perhaps at a turning point in the political history of our country, we’re not yet in a constitutional theocracy.

Take the lesson — or the warning — for what it is. That’s why you join the dance.

Jim Downey



“Did we actually go there, or … ?”

One of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well added this note under “TRIVIA”:

Most of the chapters start with information that looks like it came from Internet websites. I typed in some of the URLs, and they are exactly what they seem to be, lending credence to the book.

And several people have commented both on Amazon and on Facebook that the book could function as something of a travelog.

That’s very much by design. The chapter header URLs & info I used in the book are straight from real sites online, though I intentionally used versions which date back to ~ 2012 (the date in the novel) whenever possible. And likewise, each location specified in the book is real. As well as every bit of Welsh history or myth I used.

I did this to lend the book verisimilitude. I really want readers to wonder just how possible the story is, to feel that ‘thinness’ I describe between one reality and another in the book.  I want them to visit the sites mentioned, to feel what I have felt there.

I didn’t start writing the book with this in mind. I figured that I would simply use my own experience in traveling in Wales to ground the book in reality, and use what little I knew of Welsh history & mythology to help add color. But as I wrote, I found myself digging deeper and deeper, spending more time visiting sites virtually, until they became very well known to me.

After a while, I started to lose track of whether I had actually visited some of the sites in person, or had only visited them online. This led to the very surreal experience during a trip we took in 2017 where in going to Craig Rhosyfelin I was absolutely certain that we had visited the site previously … but also absolutely certain that we never had (the latter which was confirmed by my wife). I had spent so much time exploring the site virtually, working through the descriptions and history of it, writing the interaction of characters there, that it really did feel like I had my own personal memories of the place. Bizarre.

The same is true of several other locations in the book, to the point where my wife and I now joke about it. “Did we actually go there, or … ?” has become a standard in our travels.

And of course now, with the limitations imposed by our own real pandemic, such virtual travel is all we have at present. So if you need a vacation, maybe spend a little time in my novel. The links included on the website will help.

Jim Downey

 



An excerpt from Chapter 14

I mentioned the other day that many of the early reviews of St Cybi’s Well talk about how eerily prescient the book seems now.

Well, judge for yourself. This is an excerpt from the book (Chapter 14: Llangelynnin) when news of the pandemic is just really getting started. The main characters are discussing it, and their plans to collect medical supplies since the St Melangell Centre is a designated rural care center. I first wrote this portion of the book about two years ago, did major revisions last fall.

“The government here is asking people to just stay home if they have any indications of illness. They’ve implemented a week-long ‘bank holiday’, so people don’t go in to work or school, and declared that only essential government employees and emergency workers are to report in. All the bus and train lines have been shut down. They’re even talking about closing all the restaurants and pubs. We’ll probably hear more about that later today. And there have been more anti-immigrant riots in London and some other places. And not just the so-called ‘Tommys’.”

“People are frightened.”

“Yeah, no surprise.” Darnell nodded at the stereo again. “There was also some science reporting about VCS itself. Looks like it is caused by a flu strain which is similar to the 1918 virus, the Spanish Flu, but one which is even more virulent.”

Megan paused, her hands lowered. The towel hung limply by her side. “Didn’t that kill millions, world-wide?”

“Yeah, something like fifty million.”

“And this looks to be worse?”

“Yeah,” Darnell repeated. “This seems to spread just as easily, but kills faster. Well, kills healthy adults faster – that cytokine storm thing, which is basically the immune system going crazy, creating high fever and complete exhaustion, leading to the inability to get enough oxygen and general system collapse. Victims often develop cyanosis – a blueish tint to the skin, particularly on the face and hands. Anyone who is very young, or old, or otherwise has a compromised immune system, can still get the flu, but don’t generally have the VCS reaction. But there’s a good chance that they’ll develop pneumonia which can kill them in a week or so without proper treatment.”

“But there are treatments for pneumonia.”

“There are. And even some things that can be done for someone with Cytokine Syndrome, if you get to them soon enough. Or anti-virals, like Theraflu.” He sighed. “But there’s not nearly enough of those stockpiled. And how well do you think the health system here or anywhere will be able to handle such a fast-moving epidemic, particularly if health workers are among the most vulnerable group because of massive exposure? Do you remember how devastating hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola have been in isolated areas, because health workers are often among the first victims of the disease? And those require direct contact with bodily fluids . . . this flu is airborne.”

There was a wild look in her eyes, and for a moment Darnell thought he even saw fear. Then Megan closed her eyes, clasped the small crucifix necklace she wore, and muttered what he assumed to be a prayer. When she opened her eyes again, the wildness was gone, replaced with a cold determination. “We already have basic personal protection gear – surgical masks, gloves, even disposable gowns – and it sounds like we should wear them when we go to Llandudno. I’ll get them and meet you downstairs when you’re done with your shower.”

 

Jim Downey



With apologies to Ursula K. Le Guin

So, since I haven’t been blogging here much in the last couple of years, I haven’t said anything about just how surreal it was working to finish my novel about a global pandemic … while an actual global pandemic was unfolding around us.

Yeah. Seriously. Real Lathe of Heaven stuff, making me wonder about just how much my envisioning a given reality was bleeding into this reality.

To a certain extent this had been an ongoing problem with writing St Cybi’s Well, as I had mentioned previously. I had to keep going back and making the ‘dystopia’ of SCW worse as our own world took a turn for the worse with the election of Trump, elements of Christian fascism seemed to be in ascendancy, et cetera.

But this year, after I had gotten a solid re-start on finishing St Cybi’s Well, watching the Covid-19 virus start to spread, was just … bizarre. And as you’ll see when you read the book, how the virus spread and the efforts that various governments tried to curtail it was pretty much exactly as what happened in real life. Fortunately, of course, C-19 hasn’t proven to be nearly as deadly as the Fire-Flu.

Well, at least not yet.

< shiver >

Jim Downey



“… telling you a tale that just *might* be real.”

So, almost two months ago I ‘officially’ launched the publication of St Cybi’s Well.

No, I didn’t forget to mention it here. Since I have allowed this blog to go quiet, I didn’t see it as an important venue to announce it, and figured that it would make a little more sense to just let the book exist in the wild for a little while, then write about the reactions to it.

Currently, there are 14 reviews on Amazon, with an overall rating of 4.9 stars. Some are from friends. Some are from acquaintances. Some are from complete strangers. Among the reviews I have my favorites, and not necessarily ones which say good things. At this point, after struggling with the book for so long, I have very mixed feelings about it.

But my strongest emotion about the book, and something that keeps coming up in the reviews of it, is just how surreal it is to have finished the book during the middle of a real pandemic, and having our reality seeming to follow the path I had laid out in the book. Here are some excerpts as examples of what I mean.

The first review, by someone who backed my Kickstarter and had an advance copy of St Cybi’s:

With some recent political developments and COVID-19, I found this unsettlingly realistic.

And from other readers:

That he wrote this well before our current pandemic was even a thing is a testament to his spooky prescience

And:

The images are vivid and remain. No one took epidemic plagues too seriously anymore, Polio was long ago. But since Covid and Ebola, there is a realization that the 4 Horsemen of the Apocolypse are alive and kicking.

And:

What I found most compelling is the almost prescient storyline of the Fire Flu and its attendant effects on society. I can’t imagine a more difficult proposition than trying to finish your novel about an apocalyptic disease while having to do so with one currently taking over the news. There are some eerie moments in the book where it feels as though it’s a ‘ripped from the headlines’ story.

And:

Set in 2012, the overlap with current events in 2020 is uncanny.

And:

the story is kind of terrifying considering its striking similarity to current events

Of course, I’m not prescient. I had no real idea that the coronavirus pandemic was coming, though I had long known that we were about due for another pandemic and were likely unprepared for it. And what I put into the book about how the FireFlu virus spread, and how people reacted to it, was just based on history. What we’re seeing now … all the good and bad of it … was entirely predictable, because it is the sort of reaction that human societies have always had to pandemics.

Which, of course, doesn’t give me any comfort. As is said in one of the reviews:

I ended up feeling that the story is part of what science fiction does best – telling you a tale that just *might* be real.

Stay safe. Stay healthy. Download my book, or order a paper copy. If money is a little tight, wait until the first of the month, and download it for free. And please, if you do read it, leave a review.

Thanks.

Jim Downey



My ambivalent year.*

2016 was odd. Just plain odd.

On the one hand, I had the same dumpster-fire of a year that everyone had, in terms of notable deaths, bizarre & unexpected election results here and abroad, and surreal news & social trends.

On the other hand, I’m alive. Which is something of a small (technological) miracle.

I now understand better (thanks to more discussion with my doctors, research, and experience) what happened with my heart, and what it really meant. Turns out that I didn’t have any plaque build-up even in the convoluted artery in question, as I initially thought. No, it was just that badly kinked, and probably had been all my life. I had started to notice it just because of normal aging, meaning that the normal parts of my heart were slowly getting weaker.

In the last six months or so I have finally been able to strengthen the 1/3 of my heart which had never had proper blood supply. Meaning that now I am actually in better cardiac health than I have ever been before. I walk three miles most mornings (5-6 days a week, usually), and don’t feel the slightest bit fatigued from it. The other parts of my 58-year-old body may limit me, but my cardiac condition isn’t a problem at all. Part of me wonders what it would have been like to have had this kind of stamina when I was young and athletic. Another part of me realizes that those limitations helped me develop awareness and self-discipline which I may have missed, otherwise.

Related to that, as mentioned in this post, early last year our financial situation stabilized for the good. We still need to be reasonably prudent about how we go through life, but I no longer feel as if I am hanging on by my fingernails sometimes. Without that change, I may not have felt secure enough to have my heart checked out when I did — meaning that I was very much at risk for the slightest little blood clot to trigger a massive heart attack.

Unrelated to any of that, the election lead-up and results also proved to be both a blessing and a curse for me. I was astonished at the results of both the Brexit and US presidential elections (and no, I’m not going to argue the point in comments — so just refrain from making any on this topic), yet it solved a problem for me with writing St Cybi’s Well. See, in the alternate time-line of Communion of Dreams, prior to the onset of the fire-flu, the US had become an authoritarian, semi-theocratic state. But I was having a really hard time explaining how we had gotten to such a point when actually writing SCW; everything I came up with just seemed too outlandish for the willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.

Well, that’s not a problem any longer. No, I’m not saying that I think that the US is headed for an authoritarian, semi-theocratic state … but because of the rhetoric and rise in power of some groups both in the US and the UK, that is no longer an unimaginable future. As a result, I have been revising the finished chapters of SCW to reflect these new insights, and I think that the book will be *much* stronger for it.

So yeah, I have really mixed feelings about 2016.

Oh well, I suppose that at least I’m around to have them. And that’s a good thing.

Happy New Year. Remember, today (and the first of every month until I say otherwise), both Communion of Dreams and Her Final Year are available for free download.

 

Jim Downey

*You should watch this sometime. Fun movie.



Progress report and excerpt.

As I noted I probably would a little over a week ago, I’ve just wrapped up work on Chapter Fourteen: Llangelynnin of St Cybi’s Well. It’s a long chapter — twice as long as most of the chapters are — and a pivotal one, since it includes the first instance of the faith healing/psychic abilities as referenced in Communion of Dreams. Here’s a critical passage, which will resonate for those who have read CoD already, where Darnell Sidwell’s sister Megan first encounters the healing energy just as the fire-flu is becoming a pandemic:

She stepped into the small room of the well, her arms opening wide, her face lifting to the heavens. It was indeed as though she were drinking in the light he still saw there, or perhaps like she was drinking in rain as it fell. She stood thus for a long minute, perhaps two. Then slowly she knelt before the opening of the well, her hands coming together and plunging into the cold, still water. The light filling the small space seemed to swirl around, coalescing into her cupped hands as she raised them out of Celynin’s Well.

Darnell stepped inside the small roofless room, bending to help Megan stand. As she did, he looked down and saw that she had water in her hands, but not filling them. Rather, it was water as he knew it from his time in space: a slowly pulsing, shimmering sphere. It seemed to float just above the cradle made by her hands.

 

That brings me to a total of approximately 95,000 words. I still have one short transitional ‘interlude’, then three named chapters, then a brief ‘coda’, and the book will be finished. Probably another 25,000 – 30,000 words. Which will put it right at about the total length of Communion of Dreams.

What’s interesting for me is that this chapter has proven to be a pivotal one in another way: it feels now like I really am on the home stretch of this project. Just finishing this chapter has changed the whole creative energy for me. There’s still a lot of work to do, but it no longer feels … daunting.

We’ll see.

 

Jim Downey



Excerpt.

With a little luck, this week I’ll finish up another chapter, one I have been slogging away on for FAR too long. As is plainly clear to anyone who even casually reads this blog, I am not one of those writers who is able to just jump in and dash off page after page of text. I spend days thinking through scenes, how they integrate into the overall story. I’ll spend hours researching stuff which seems just completely tangential to the narrative, because I want everything to actually fit together properly. And I’ll often labor over a couple hundred words of text, trying to capture just the right tone. Whether I accomplish those goals in the end is another matter altogether.

So, for me at least, and for most of the time, writing is just hard work. And as I have noted both here and in personal communications, there are times I fear I have lost my way completely. That I am fooling myself to think that anyone will ever have the slightest interest in plowing through all that text. I’ve felt that way a lot over the last year. Gah.

And then, there are days like yesterday.

When, in about 90 minutes, about 1200 words just flowed out of me and onto the screen. When months of set-up and research all came together. Here’s a bit of that:

The back doors of the van were open, and there, cradled by her mother, was a little girl, about 8 years old. Her rich Indian coloration couldn’t hide the fact that there was already a blueish hue to the skin of her face and hands. With no hesitation, Megan stepped forward, glanced at the mother, and asked “how long has she had this color? The cyanosis?”

“Not long,” she said, in a plain Midwestern American accent. “Maybe 15 minutes.”

Megan looked to Darnell. “They didn’t give us any oxygen. About the only thing we have which might help are A.C.E. inhibitors, and I have no idea where those are in the crates they loaded. And they take too long to really work.”

Darnell studied her face, then turned to Joey. He started to say “I’m not sure …”

“Dar, wait,” said Megan. She looked at the girl, then at her parents. “There may be something else we can do.”

“What?” asked both Darnell and Joey, at the same time.

“Llangelynnin isn’t far,” said Megan.

“We passed through there just half a mile or so back,” said the girl’s mother. “But there’s not much there.”

“Not the town. The old church, up in the hills above. It’s about two kilometers,” replied Megan, looking from face to face. “It was a place of healing. Particularly for healing children.”

 

And the next bit, which I wrote today? It went back and referenced something I had planted in a scene 11 chapters ago. And which ties in to a critical scene in Communion of Dreams that I wrote about a decade ago. Even better, all of that was intentional — pieces of a much larger puzzle, finally falling into place.

Writing a novel is just brutal hard work. At least it is for me, most of the time.

But I no longer feel like I have lost my way.

 

Jim Downey

PS: Communion of Dreams will be available for free download this Tuesday, like it is on the first of each month. Likewise Her Final Year.