Freedom’s Hand: Hell Revisited

“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” — Philip Pullman

I’ve long believed that stories can, and do, change the world. The most important ones never leave our hearts or minds, no matter how many we read or how much time passes. Mike Sirota’s latest work, a social thriller entitled Freedom’s Hand, is one of those stories. Set in modern times, Freedom’s Hand is equal parts thrill, terror, heartache and inspiration, bringing necessary light to issues many people mistakenly believe ended with the Holocaust. I posted the following review on Amazon:

Important and compelling! 5.0 out of 5 stars

Mike Sirota has a way of pulling readers into his stories in deeply emotional ways. With FREEDOM’S HAND he goes beyond mere storytelling and
nearly forces the reader to contemplate real evils in the world and, more importantly, the necessity and possibility of escape. Dark, suspenseful and deliciously un-put-downable, FREEDOM’S HAND is one of the best thrillers I’ve read in some time.

I’m honored to have the author here today, sharing thoughts on the story, the hellishness therein and how he managed to step into the dark places writing it required. Thanks so much for joining us, Mike!

Freedom's Hand Ebook Cover

Just like the name of my blog (“Swords, Specters, & Stuff”)—and one of my websites—professes, most people know me as a writer in genres such as sword & sorcery, sword & planet, horror, paranormal, fantasy, and science fiction. That is why my newly released novel, Freedom’s Hand, may come as a surprise, for it is none of the above. But given where a great deal of the story takes place—inside a concentration camp on American soil—it may prove more disturbing than any previous gore-fest I’ve written. Why? Because it HAS happened in the past. For real.

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” ― Elie Wiesel

“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” ― Elie Wiesel

THE STORY

As with many things, the actual creation of Freedom’s Hand has a history—in this case a long one. But before I get into that, let me offer a plot abstract, at least for the early scenes. The story opens in 1943 Poland with a teenager named Nathan Adler inside a crowded cattle car, one of many pulled by a locomotive on its way to oblivion. Nathan’s mother and young sister are with him. Eventually the train pulls into Auschwitz. Nathan, a sturdy young man, is taken aside to join a work detail. His mother, a cripple, is put on a line to the gas chamber. The sister, four years old, staggers about helplessly before being torn apart by guard dogs as Nathan watches.

The majority of the story takes place in 1994. A now elderly Nathan Adler, a widower, is on a summer driving vacation with his family: his daughter, Susan Lowe; her husband, David; and Heather, their eight year old, Nathan’s beloved granddaughter. Nightmares of the past still torment him, but he manages to deal with them.

Then, the nightmares become real once again as the family is kidnapped in Nevada by a white supremacist group called Freedom’s Hand. Thrown into a cramped, stifling compartment in the back of a church bus with other prisoners—mostly blacks and Mexicans—they are transported to a strange compound deep in the searing desert. While the others are incredulous, Nathan seems to know what is happening; he’s been there before.

The compound, enclosed by towering fences topped by barbed wire, is called LAGER—the German word for “camp.” Manned by an army of brown-shirted thugs, Lager is the brainchild of an enigmatic man who, early on, is known only as the Commander. This monster is dedicated to the systematic extermination of all minorities. His “technical advisor” is Unterscharfuhrer Heinz Kell, an old man now but once part of Nazi Germany’s Protection Squad, the SS, and a prison guard at Auschwitz. Kell had been a personal nemesis to the young Nathan, and their meeting now—fifty years later and a world away—is monumental…

Just as I would hate to give away how this confrontation ends up, so am I loath to say much more about the story without revealing too many key plot points. David and Susan Lowe, as the main protagonists, must call upon courage that they would have thought unimaginable if they are to survive this Hell on Earth called Lager and save their family from this camp of swaggering monsters. The odds are seriously stacked against them.

WOMEN AS SEX OBJECTS—WHAT ELSE IS NEW?

To give just a little away: Susan, in order to save the life of her daughter, becomes part of the “entertainment squad.” Incredulous when she begins to suspect what they want of her, she is told by one of her captors, “You’ll do what God in His wisdom meant for all you bitches to do when He put you on this earth!” This degradation mirrors what the Nazis did to many of their female prisoners.

"History is herstory too." — unknown

“History is herstory too.” — unknown

MONSTERS REAL AND IMAGINED

I’ve written about human monsters before—think Bruno Leopold in Fire Dance—but the Commander presented a different kind of challenge and, in retrospect, became the most difficult character that I ever created. What makes a Hitler, or a Stalin, or a Pol Pot, or a Joseph Kony tick? These are heads that the average person doesn’t particularly want to delve into, but as a writer you have no choice—not if you want readers to believe that your characters could be motivated to engage in actions so heinous. So how does one do this?

In Freedom’s Hand I use a series of flashback scenes, spread out over many chapters, to show how a monster evolves. Preceding each flashback the Commander is usually talking to his second in command, a friend who addresses him as “Martin.” Over time we learn that Martin’s mother was the most famous actress of her era, his father one of the world’s richest men. We experience Martin as a boy, a teen, a young man, and so on, not only with tons of emotional baggage but also with incidents occurring at each stage that could spur some racial or religious intolerance and motivate hatred.

But enough motivation to make someone go out and erect a concentration camp in the desert of the American Southwest and dedicate a life to destroying human beings?

STEPPING OUT OF MYSELF

To accomplish this I truly had to separate Myself from Myself—from who and what I am, from all I believe—and become the mind and the voice of a monster. In a chapter titled “Revelation” the flashback scene has Martin as a young man. He has just graduated from a military academy and is staying with a friend in Chicago. The friend takes him to a rally in a suburban park, where a neo-Nazi group has challenged—and won—their right to free speech in court. (This is based on a number of true incidents.) The park is in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, one where many Holocaust survivors live. They are out in force, as are many other Jewish and African American organizations, to protest the speech given by Robert Earle Wesley of the New Socialist Front. Martin is minimally interested, and because he hates crowds he really wishes that he were somewhere else—at first.

I modeled Wesley after George Lincoln Rockwell, an infamous American Nazi of the 1950s and ’60s. His rants against Jews and blacks were poisonous—and so was the one that I put in the mouth of Robert Earle Wesley. To this day I remain stunned that I could have ever written such words, or imagined such thoughts. But to make their stories work, writers sometimes have to step far out of their comfort zones. I mean, does Thomas Harris have his doctor for dinner with some fava beans and a nice Chianti? Does James Patterson enjoy some of the same simple pleasures as his greatest antagonist in the Alex Cross books? I think not; yet Hannibal Lecter and Kyle Craig are two of the most believable and chilling monsters in all of fiction.

I won’t share any of Wesley’s diatribe here; you can read it all and judge for yourself. But as the chapter ends with the police breaking up the demonstration it is evident that Martin has been affected by what he has witnessed:

They had stopped the words, but the young man still heard them and would continue to hear them. He saw them rush Wesley off, in a different direction. He would not reach the man; not today. But he would find him. He had to find him.

Because now, for the first time, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life.

As I said before, the history and evolution of Freedom’s Hand is a story by itself. You’ll find that story at this link: Freedom’s Hand: Behind the Story.

*****

To purchase Freedom’s Hand, visit this link via Amazon.com. You can also connect with Mike on Facebook and Twitter.

Any thoughts or questions to share with Mike? In addition to being a prolific writer, he’s a skilled editor and writing coach. In other words, he’s a WEALTH of information! And friendly, to boot. If you’ve read Freedom’s Hand, I hope you’ll share your thoughts!

Mike Sirota on Writing, Indie Publishing and His New Release!

“The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.” — Gloria Steinem

For Mike Sirota and his readers, that’s a very good thing.

Mike is one of my favorite people, and not merely because he edited In Her Shadow and was wearing a Beatles shirt when I met him (although obviously—perks!). He’s as kind as his tales are terrifying and seems to enjoy writing and helping fellow writers equally—both of which say a lot.

I’m reading his brand new release, Freedom’s Hand, now and have to say—it’s AWESOME. If you enjoy character-driven, suspenseful, heart-wrenching stories (and who doesn’t?!?), I highly recommend that you zip over to Amazon and nab a copy. Read on for more of the ins and outs of his wonderful story and why it came into fruition.

FREEDOM’S HAND, by Mike SirotaMike Sirota books author editor

As a teenager, Nathan Adler barely survived the horrors of the Auschwitz death camp at the hands of the Nazis. Fifty years later he could not have imagined that he would live the nightmare again. This time, however, the concentration camp is not in Poland. Erected by Freedom’s Hand, it exists as a citadel of suffering and death—in the desert of the American Southwest.

Mike Sirota on Writing, Indie Publishing and His Latest Release

AM: You set this story aside for quite some time before moving forward with publishing. Why now?

MS: Actually, I’ve made a few half-hearted attempts at marketing Freedom’s Hand in its nearly three decades of existence. Let me go back to its beginnings to say that, initially, I never planned on completing the manuscript until a publisher had made an offer. My then-agent convinced me that Simon & Schuster would take it on, but I needed to finish it. So I did—and they didn’t. Too controversial, or something like that. Imagine that—ME controversial! Afterward, I just left it “in the drawer” and went on to the more fun things that I enjoyed writing—until my long estrangement from the writing game.

But last year I pulled it out of the drawer and re-read it, as I did with a few other unpublished projects. Aside from some easily reparable crappy writing, I found it a powerful story, and I recalled how much emotion I’d put into it so long ago. I also realized, sadly, that it remained relevant even today. Hatred and intolerance always seem to be in vogue. People are tortured and killed by the hundreds, the thousands, and more in the name of twisted ideologies. For me, this makes Freedom’s Hand somewhat of a statement.

AM: Amen to that. Any advice for writers who are grappling with similar issues—wondering when to set a story aside versus self-publish it or seek representation?

MS: I don’t think that my experience with Freedom’s Hand and what you’re asking is an “apples-and-apples” thing. If I were a new writer and had a finished manuscript, I would want to see it published as soon as possible. But in my experience, most novices cannot be objective enough to judge if their project is ready, or as I call it—professional grade. They’ll need at least one other set of eyes for that, and I don’t mean their spouse or sister-in-law. A professional evaluation by a writing coach or editor will help that writer determine if the project is READY. While that could be costly, it will definitely speed up the process.

AM: As you know, I LOVE thrillers that address social issues. Yours does so beautifully. Why are its central issues so important to you? What compelled you to write about them? 

MS: My parents were Eastern European Jews who immigrated here in the early twentieth century. I was raised in a predominantly Jewish, lower middle class neighborhood in The Bronx, post-WWII. Many of our neighbors were Holocaust survivors, though I didn’t know this, or understand why they had numbers on their arms, for a long time, because no one would talk about it. When I finally did learn about it—and discovered that some of our own family members had perished in the camps—I was enraged. That anger stayed with me for a long time and proved the catalyst for Freedom’s Hand. (Readers might be interested in a story that I wrote about my childhood experience, titled, The Number People.)

AM: That’s horribly sad, and one reason I think stories like Freedom’s Hand are so important. You’re skilled at making the reader empathize with and fight for the protagonists, in Freedom’s Hand included. How do you approach character development? 

MS: My characters are reflective of most human beings: flawed. We’re just ordinary folks trying to get by in a challenging world, hoping to love and be loved. But sometimes, ordinary people are thrust into extraordinary situations—especially in fiction—and it is how they handle these necessary changes that, I believe, appeals to readers. In Freedom’s Hand we have David Lowe, a nerdy schoolteacher from suburban Chicago, suddenly pitted against a host of murdering, racist thugs in order to save his family. In Demon Shadows, successful novelist Paul Fleming has writer’s block because he misses his kids after a contentious divorce. This doesn’t exactly prepare him for the horrors he will soon encounter at an isolated writers’ colony, but somehow he’ll need to rise to the occasion. Bottom line: readers understand my characters because they see some of themselves in them, and they’ll be rooting for them to overcome whatever challenges I choose to throw in their path.

AM: You can have dinner anywhere in the world with any two authors—living or dead (but rejuvenated!). Who would you choose? What and where would you dine?

MS: The first one, easy: Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is my all-time favorite writer, and my muse. Without him I would never have begun writing. I can think of so many for a second choice, but let’s go with Mark Twain. I think that would be a hoot! His quotes are priceless and often make my day. I would invite them for seafood at one of my two favorite places: the Fish Market in Del Mar or Monterey Bay Canners on Oceanside Harbor.

AM: Awesome! I’m coming. 🙂 Seems as though you’ve been published by just about everyone over the years. What do you love most about being an indie author?

MS: Being in control of everything regarding your books. Not having to rely on the whims of a publisher to promote—or not promote—you, or not even matching your own efforts for the small percentage you’ll earn in royalties. Yes, it can be great to have a BNYP (Big New York Publisher), and once in a while even a newbie can become a mega-author.

But so much of that potential success may rely on things over which a writer has no control. Let me share one of my own BNYP stories. I landed Bantam Books for my novel, Demon Shadows, and thought I was on my way. I had a champion there, an executive editor who loved my work. She contracted me for a second book, The Well. Demon Shadows started out fine, about 25,000 copies sold per the initial royalty statement. The Well was about to be published. Then, my editor left Bantam. Losing your champion can be death to a writer. The Well was published but put Out of Print less than two months later. It never had a chance. I never received a royalty statement for it, or any other for Demon Shadows. And people wonder why I got out of the game back then?

AM: What’s next in the pipeline for you?

MS: A historical novel, a real labor of love that has spanned over three decades and is just about ready. It’s a Native American story—what else? Though fictionalized, it is a remarkable true story that deserves to be known by far more people that are presently aware of it. Enough said.

Mike Sirota August McLaughlin

****

Thanks, Mike!  Now it’s y’all’s turn. Have any thoughts or questions to share with this fabulous writer? (He’s also a writing coach and has about 20 zillion additional titles out; he’s a mega resource!) Who would you invite to your author date besides me? What would we you eat? 

You can also connect with Mike Sirota on Facebook, Twitter (he just recently joined!) and his coolio blog, Swords, Specters, and Stuff. His latest post features more juicy bits about Freedom’s Hand! Good stuff.

Beautiful Breakups: What the Revision Process Can Teach Us

The other day two things happened that seemed so connected, I had to share them. Within the same hour, I learned that a close friend is going through a significant breakup and received an ultra-thoughtful card from another friend I adore. Not seeing the link? Hang with me.

When I called the first friend, I was amazed at the calm confidence in her voice. She barely had to utter three sentences for me to know that she was definitely breaking UP, not down. I read the card’s message straight to her: “Bold is beautiful…and so are you.” Now do you see???

When managed properly, I believe that breakups can serve as catalysts for the most empowering, fulfilling, growth-filled and joyous experiences of our lives. Think about it. We don’t say we’re breaking down with someone. Sure, we may experience a breakdown before or during, but the right partings of ways life us up…eventually.

While I haven’t experienced a romantic breakup since I met my husband six years ago, I  have undergone other types. I’ve “broken up” with my acting career, a close girlfriend and, most recently, a sweet elderly woman my agent suggested I ex-nay from my book. None of these breakups were easy, but there was no “dumping” involved. And much like the romantic breakups I’ve endured, I learned and grew from each one.

Yesterday, I finished a major novel revision. With my friend’s bold and beautiful breakup in mind, I’ve been struck by the parallels between revising our personal lives and revising creative work. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from both processes:

What the Revision Process Can Teach Us About Relationships—And Vice Versa

1. Listen to your instincts. If your novel begs to be written in a particular style, genre or tense, do it—regardless of what seems practical marketing wise. If we try to please everyone but ignore our gut feelings, our story is likely to fall flat. Same for relationships. And if after meeting a guy you, say, sleep with mace in your hand? Don’t date him. Not that I’ve done that. Or anything.

2. Consider your motivation. If you feel confused as to who or what to take out, add to or leave in your novel, consider why you wrote it in the first place. Just as motivating factors fuel our characters’ actions, they fuel our composition. Though my draft has changed significantly, the story I wished to tell from day one hasn’t. If you’re unsure whether to stay in a relationship, ask yourself why you joined it in the first place and why you might stay or leave. Love, like, family and happiness are great reasons to work things out. Loneliness, fear and codependency, not so much.

3. If a character or scene doesn’t enhance your story, cut it. Not only does this make sense from a practical standpoint, keeping the train moving in the right direction and preventing reader boredom, it leaves room in the story for characters and scenes that do enhance it. I’ve found the same to be true with relationships. The busier we become, the more difficult it is to nurture plentiful close friendships. Choose wisely and nurture those who mean the most and bring the most to you. For the others, heck. We have Facebook. 😉

4. Become a plantser: plotter + pantser. I am by nature a seat-of-the-pants-er. But the revision process has taught me the value of planning head. With no plan, we run the risk of writing ourselves off the deep end, in way too many directions and into a tangle of confusion. If we don’t allow for wiggle room, however, we may short ourselves of fabulous characters, scenes and plot twists. In regards to relationships, don’t stay in one solely because it was part of your plan or for fear of the unknown that follows. And don’t choose your mate based on your “outline” of criteria. He or she may not look anything like that page your tore out of GQ or Glamour, or have the job, interests or personality you expect.

5. Don’t compromise your non-negotiables. There was an important word in my first chapter I was asked to change. I considered it, pictured it, even tried typing other options. But it hurt. A lot. So my original choice stayed put. From what I’ve seen, most agents, publishers, editors and readers leave the details and final decisions largely up to you. As the talented author and editor Mike Sirota once told me, “You are the goddess of your book.” 😉 We are also the gods/goddesses of our lives. Compromising our personal goals, dreams or values for the sake of another seldom provokes happiness.

For more on romance and revising, check out these fantastic links:
Girls with Pens: The Business of Writing with James Scott Bell 
Bartlette’s Integrated Health Journal: The Healing Power of Love
Mike Sirota: Romantic Horror: An Oxymoron?
Ingrid Shaffenburg: When Someone Shows You Who They Are
Natalie Hartford: A Palooza of Romance: Hubby’s Top 5
Psychology Today: Ten Tips to Survive a Breakup 

What have you learned from breakups—romantic or otherwise? Any of the above lessons resonate with you? I always love hearing from you.

Author Mike Sirota on Writing and His Latest Work

It’s been said that thriller and horror authors are the nicest people on the planet because they get all of their angst out in their fiction. Doubtful? A conversation with renowned horror author Mike Sirota might convince you otherwise.

Not only does Sirota have twenty published novels (including the recently released Fire Dance) and fourteen years as an award-winning magazine feature writer and editor under his belt, he is a kick-butt writing coach, book editor and friend who cares as much about his writers’ success as he does his own. And he took time out of his busy schedule to answer questions on our behalf. (Thanks, Mike! :))



First, here is what others are saying about Sirota and his work:

“Mike Sirota is an absolute pro of a writer and, even for non-aficionados of ghost stories, these pages sing.” John Lescroart, New York Times bestselling author of Treasure Hunt and Damage

“Dear Mike: What can I say? Because of your expert guidance and fine touch I’m now a published author. When we first hooked up and started working together, I worried that the job of writing my novel would be an arduous task, filled with hours of agony and tedious rewrites, but I was wrong. Your lively comments and sense of humor have made the effort truly enjoyable. You keep editing and I’ll keep writing. It’s a pleasure working with you.” Jeff Sherratt, author of Detour to Murder

About Fire Dance:
LEGENDARY AUTHOR MIKE SIROTA RETURNS! The searing wind whistles through the ruins of Concordia Sanitarium in Southern California’s bleak Anza-Borrego Desert. Now, something else stirs: the tormented spirits of the staff and inmates who perished in an all-consuming fire over a century earlier. As one gruesome murder after another plagues the nearby quiet retirement community of Smoke Tree, Tracy Russell and Mark Alderson try desperately to stop the one inmate that should never have been released—either in life or in death.” ZOVA Books

“Sirota returns…with this atmospheric tale of horror in the American Southwest. Horror fans will enjoy this updated take on the western ghost town.” Publishers Weekly

“So great to have a new book from legendary writing coach Mike Sirota. When he writes, you should listen!” Lisa Gardner, New York Times bestselling author of Live to Tell

Here we are at his book signing at Mysterious Galaxy. Good times!

What inspired you to write Fire Dance?
MS: I go hiking in the Anza-Borrego desert, the setting for Fire Dance, at least once a year. On one trip, the old “what if” kicked in. What if, during the 1870s, they put a sanitarium in the desert where no one could run away, given the heat, the terrain, etc.? What if one inmate—Bruno—was a violent mass murderer? What if they all burned to death during a dance? And what if, over a century later, they all came back…

What aspect of Fire Dance are you most pleased with?
MS: While it is a ghost story—some even call it a horror novel—it has a strong romantic element. Tracy and Mark, the main protagonists, are two emotionally wounded people who come together in a small desert town—a retirement community, no less—under some remarkably challenging conditions. As they learn to love and trust again, their future is in doubt as they face the nightmare that is Bruno.

You have a gift for luring readers in from the get-go. How do you do it? Any tips for other writers?
MS: We call the opening of a novel the HOOK. Engage the reader on page one and don’t let go. Just recently I presented a hook workshop at a writers’ conference and I read the first page of Fire Dance to the attendees. It gratified me that they were so taken with the visualization of the desert, and the inmates wandering around the grounds in their white, ghostly shrouds. Scene builds on scene, each one designed to make the reader want to know more. Don’t bore the reader with expository narration, weather reports, the main character describing herself while looking in the mirror, the history of the world, part I, etc.

Of your many accomplishments, what makes you the most proud?
MS: All writers hope to be reviewed in Publishers Weekly, our major trade publication. Even a bad review can be a good thing. Of my first nineteen novels, not one was reviewed in PW. But Fire Dance was, and positively. It made my day.

What do you love most about writing?
MS: Just about everything. I love it when a scene comes out of my head so fast that I can’t input it quickly enough. I love doing research. The book/Internet research is cool enough, but for my final draft I do what I call “living research,” where I travel to the scene of my story to actually experience the setting. Last month I traveled to the Sierra Nevada foothills, the setting for my next novel, THE BURNING GROUND. Fantastic trip that, after I got home, enabled me to bring my pages to life. I do this for every story.

Do you make mistakes?? 😉 Let me rephrase: What aspects of writing do you find most challenging?
MS: I’m a perfectionist, so I probably go overboard in being anal. As an editor, I want no typos or other errors. As a writer I want every detail to be correct. If the woman is wearing a red dress on page 23, she’d better not be wearing a blue dress in the same scene on page 36. I’ve seen it happen—in published novels.

What common mistake(s) do you see new or up-and-coming writers make?
MS: Oh, how much time and space do you have! Weak opening hooks, inability to handle a POV (point of view), poor dialogue—I could go on and on. If you want to write a book you need to READ READ READ, which sounds basic, but you wouldn’t believe how many writers hardly read. Some writers even try to write in a genre of which they have never read a single book—because the genre is selling, they think.

Take writing classes. Go to writers’ conferences. Join a read-critique group. Read books about all aspects of writing. Subscribe to THE WRITER and WRITER’S DIGEST. Learn your craft!

Anything you wish you’d done differently throughout your career?
MS: I always tell writers to keep their day jobs. Had I followed that advice for myself years ago, I might have kept writing and improving my craft, instead of taking a hiatus of about seventeen years.

If you could give one bit of advice to writers, what would you suggest? Write for the love of writing. If you write to become a bestselling author and make a gazillion dollars, you will likely fail.

What’s next in the pipeline? I mentioned THE BURNING GROUND. It’s another ghost story, and also a romance, this time with three emotionally wounded people: a man, a woman, and a ten-year-old boy. It also became a statement book, as it involves a small Sierra foothill Native American tribe, the Maidu (they’re for real), and one particular village where everyone is exterminated by miners during the Gold Rush (true). Their spirits remain trapped here, and in the contemporary story their graves are desecrated by “thieves of time” (also a real problem) for artifacts. Now the spirits are really pissed, and guess what…

CONTEST!!! Order Fire Dance or Demon Shadows (Kindle edition). Send a copy of your purchase confirmation to august@augustmclaughlin.com and I’ll place your name in a drawing for a $20 iTunes gift card. And as always, I welcome your thoughts!