Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

I never understood that maxim until I began to research The Argentina Rhodochrosite.  During my reading, I discovered one particularly weird story about the “dirty war” of the nineteen-seventies.


This story featured a woman who’d been captured by Videla’s secret government, tossed into prison, and tortured.  By itself, that’s rather pedestrian, an unfortunate situation that was repeated thirty thousand times during that decade.   The banality of war, as the saying goes.

But the difference is that this woman fell in love with her torturer.

Now, that was interesting.  That was the stuff of good stories.  I grew more interested.

As I read on, I learned that this bizarre duo’s emotional tango went even further.   Upon her release, the happy couple had married and together left Argentina.  They had run off to India or Africa – can’t remember which – and eventually converted to Buddhism.  Presumably they were both trying to heal some psychic scars.  Eventually they had divorced, and the former torturer had become a monk, while the woman had remarried a rich man.  That was all.

And that’s where the story lost me.

It defies all reason.  See, the dark secret about human consciousness is that we can’t tolerate very much reality.  Real life is messy, it doesn’t feature character arcs, it doesn’t have setups and payoffs, it doesn’t offer dependably comedic or tragic endings—it only has bizarre randomness that leaves us scratching our heads.

Yet what most of us want from our stories is internal coherence, a clear lesson.  Because life so often teaches us nothing.

And so, for my own Argentina novel, I cut this woman’s story short.  Falling in love with a torturer is about as much as our limited human imaginations will admit.

Think about the irony for a moment.  To write acceptable fiction—the one discipline that’s supposed to welcome wild flights of fancy—I actually had to rein in reality, tamp it down, make it more palatable for mass consumption.

I’m not the first writer to notice this paradox, of course.  After the movie Scarface opened more than thirty years ago, then-screenwriter Oliver Stone was pilloried for his excessively violent portrayal of a drug-war disemboweling.  The scene involved a chainsaw, a captive, and a hotel bathtub.   It’s ludicrously violent, many said, over the top.

What they didn’t know was that Stone had drawn that scene from a real-life drug-gang murder in South Beach, and that he had actually reduced the level of violence.  (If you’ve seen that movie, you’ll certainly find that hard to believe, but it’s true.  The fictional version still made my stomach churn, and I hope never to see it again.  The Ainsley Walker stories are violence-free for a reason.)

Still, that’s life.  It’s not beautiful, it’s not sensible, it’s not even clear.  It just … is.  If you want sensible endings, read more books, watch more television.

And then, when you tire of the tidiness of fiction, remember that it’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all.

New Release: The Portugal Sapphire (An Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery)


The Portugal Sapphire, the fifth installment of the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series, is officially on sale.

After months of unemployment, her bank account dwindling, Ainsley Walker is starting to wonder if her career as a gemstone detective will ever take off.


Her life changes when she accepts an offer from a handsome importer to travel to the country of Portugal—the gorgeous but overlooked jewel of Western Europe—to search for a sapphire azulejo that has been stolen from an historic chapel.

On her fast-paced adventure, Ainsley explores thieves’ fairs, antique trams, ancient Roman ruins, and the dangerous roads of rural wine valleys. She finds joy, pain, friendship, duplicity, and murder—and, most importantly, a renewed sense of purpose in life.

From an author who worked on the foreign desk of The Washington Post…

…who explored North and South America for nearly twelve months…

…who was a finalist in a prestigious short story contest sponsored by the estate of F. Scott Fitzgerald…

…comes a travel adventure that will change the way you see your life.

Click here to purchase.

Exclusively on Amazon.

Travelling and Happiness

At one time in my life, I was homeless for nearly a half a year.

Not a sleeping-bag-under-an-overpass type of homeless, or a flecks-of-spittle-Tourette’s-syndrome type of homeless.

I was travelling.

Two years out of college, and despite a blooming career at a major newspaper, I wasn’t particularly happy.  This path seemed too safe, too obvious.  There were practical concerns too—the digital world was already beginning to massacre traditional journalism, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to spend the next ten years of my life watching the carnage.  Climbing the career ladder is less attractive when the is ladder is being washed away by the rising tide of democratization of information.

In this midst of this dark night of the soul … it occurred to me that I’d yet to visit the vast majority of our grand country.  And, of course, these fifty states weren’t going to present themselves to me.  The cliffside dwellings of Canyon de Chelly weren’t going to knock on my front door.  I wouldn’t wake up to find Devil’s Tower magically recreated in my backyard.  Even National Geographic photographers have to explore the back roads of Iowa to find the bridges of Madison County.

With some savings, and a dependable but ordinary four-door sedan, I recruited a friend who had a similar yearning.  We shucked everything – which wasn’t much, at that point – and spent the next five months, thirty-nine states, and fifteen thousand miles undertaking the Great American Road Trip.

You’ve seen it in a thousand movies.  A red convertible, a mutual distrust between fellow travelers that grows into a friendship.  A third traveler joins the journey, making the tension explicit.  A juke joint, a room of angry hillbillies, followed by gunshots.  Usually there’s a climax somewhere in California, usually at the ocean, at the blue limit of the unrealistic dream.  An inner conflict is resolved, the girl is won (or lost), and everything is made whole again.

It didn’t quite work out that tidily.  Still, I wouldn’t trade that half-year for anything.  We encountered wild javalinas in a Texas desert, interviewed a roadside preacher in Mississippi, ran out of cash in Amish country (they don’t take plastic, shockingly), and even executde an unbelievable skin-of-the-teeth escape from federal authorities on the Canadian border.  (One piece of advice: Never attempt an international border crossing with a highly self-destructive friend-of-a-friend who secretly hides a firearm in your jumper cable box.)

I would liken the entire experience to running on a moving walkway.  Once you reach the end, your equilibrium has changed, and you feel like life is meant to be lived at that pace, in that way, and the slowness of the concrete under your feet feels oddly irritating.  That’s why I kept going, alone, for another month after my fellow traveler bailed. 

The reason: It made me happy.

The Buddhists call this satori, or peak experience.  If you’ve had this, you know how vitalit is to leave our comfort zones, at least if we want to find happiness.

And now a recent article in Psychology Today supports this. 

It’s a good read.  Among other observations, the author points out that risk-taking, uncertainty, and discomfort are essential ingredients in the search for happiness. 

Consumer culture, you’ve been put on warning.  You can’t pull the wool over our eyes for too much longer.  For one, we aren’t making as much money as we used to.  Two, our needs aren’t solely material.  We have emotional and spiritual desires too.

And sometimes, as you’ve watched Ainsley Walker discover, the only way to fill these needs is through travelling.

It’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all. 

The Portugal Sapphire: Summer 2013


To those of you awaiting the next installment of the Ainsley Walker Gemstone Travel Mystery series…

… the wait is nearly finished.  The Portugal Sapphire will be published in summer 2013.

Pardon my radio silence recently, but I’ve been preoccupied with writing two other books and creating paper versions of all my existing full-length titles.

That’s all finished now.  I’ve plunged back into the world of Ainsley Walker, of missing gemstones and foreign travel and sophisticated mystery.  For those of you hoping to glance behind the curtain, here’s a peek: I have plans for at least four more titles after the Portugal Sapphire, all in various stages of research.  And even more beyond that. 

I’d love to hear your ideas too.

I’m blazing to write; you love to read.  Fact is, we’re a match made in heaven. 

In the meantime, it’s a big world.  Let’s go see it all.

The Two Anthony Bourdains

He’s an astounding writer.  He used to be a good cook.  And he’s been making good television for almost a decade now.

But Anthony Bourdain has an inner struggle.  A cleavage in his soul.

One half of him, the part born and raised in New York City, the place where people’s emotional shields are as high, hard, and glossy as the glass curtain-walls of their skyscrapers, hasn’t changed.

That’s the wisecracking part.  You saw this exhibited best in the Sardinia episode, years ago, the skinny dude in the black Ramones t-shirt, crouched on a rock, unleashing his sarcasm-plated tongue on the local caper farmers — until they reamed him for using utensils.  The former junkie putting his own needs above others.

Dostoevsky called this a state of “laceration”.  It doesn’t translate so well into English, but I think he meant people who have been pierced, and are aching with pain.  In Bourdain’s case, of course, he “pierced” himself, over and over again, with a heroin needle.  And he’s still aching.

But the other half of his soul has been blooming.  You may remember the Brazilian episode, in Sao Paulo, in which — confronted with a really nice woman and her stew — he finally let down his guard, shed the New York tough-guy shell.  It emerges in other episodes too, when his empathy quietly emerges, especially during segments with troubled people.  Those are my favorite moments.

As a fiction writer, I’ve been advised to plate my characters with armor, and then throw them into a pool.  It’s a fascinating metaphor.  The main character is forced to strip herself of her psychic armor—because if she doesn’t, she’ll drown, and the mission won’t get achieved.

Bourdain has been “stripping” in public for years—not of clothing, but of his own psychic armor.  And he’s still got years of television (and lots of psychic armor) to go.  It’ll be exciting to see if him continuing to change, and to explore the world, at CNN.

In the meantime, it’s a big world.  Go see it all.

The Gateway to a New Life

If there’s an easy way to feel reborn, it’s through new food.

Swab a hunk of unfamiliar bread in oil, buy a weird knobby vegetable at a farmer’s market, sample an alluringly odd piece of meat on an hors d’oeuvre plate, sip an unusual cocktail with ingredients you’ve never heard of (what exactly is velvet falernum? or genever?) …  all of these things we can do in our neighborhoods, close to home.

And despite their proximity, all of these things break us out of our ordinary routine and make us feel more exciting, a little unusual, a little more alive.

If you have the means, eating while travelling carries even more resonance.  We may forget quadratic equations, but we don’t easily forget the impressions made upon our sense memories.  We’re programmed to remember the tang of our first bite of Stilton cheese in Bath, the bitterness of our first sip of an amaro in Miilan.

It’s the caveman imperative: That bush has yummy berries.  Return to it, keep eating from it, and you won’t die.

This also explains why people come home from their travels gushing about just how goshdarn amazing everything is in, say, North Dakota, or some other pleasant but—to be honest—noncompelling place.

But eating isn’t always easy when travelling.  Sometimes it isn’t even safe.   But that’s why we travel, isn’t it?  To jerk ourselves out of our webbed safety net?

In the meantime, it’s a big world.  Go see it all.