Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Merry Christmas 2010

Most of us have Christmas traditions and I am no exception. Mine is a fairly recent tradition, dating back to the winter of 1992, which was our first Christmas after my successful cancer operation in Australia. At the time, I felt pretty chopped up and scared. I didn't know if I'd get to see Christmas, 1993. 
James Houston Turner's first Christmas star
Broke, in debt, and in need of a roof over our heads, we left Australia (as required by my visa) and headed for my old hometown in Kansas, where my mom lived in a tiny little two-bedroom green house. She agreed to put us up until we could get back on our feet. We stopped by San Diego, loaded all our belongings into a rental truck (with "Old Blue," my 1983 Toyota 4x4 pick-up, on a tow-trailer on the back), and set off for Kansas. We nearly got stuck in a snowstorm in West Texas, but the skies cleared, the Interstate reopened, and we were able to push on.

That first year in Kansas was hard. Wendy and I washed windows to survive. We mowed grass. Washed cars. Cleaned houses. Shoveled snow. And cut hair. But we made it. And we were happy. The hard times bonded us together stronger than ever and made us resilient and close.

That first Christmas, we went out and got a tree. A farmer let us cut one off his property and we put it up in the little pink house where we were now living. (Yes, we actually moved from a green house to a pink house.) Anyway, we decorated the tree with a few ornaments. But we had no star. So I made one out of a coat hanger, wrapped it with tinsel, and stuck it on top.

As the years passed and I continued to defy the odds by living another year, that star came to represent hope and happiness in the midst of hard times. And that star reminds me to this day about the most precious gifts of all: life and love, family and friends. You see, when I was facing the real possibility of dying, none of the other stuff was important. Everything I owned was unimportant. Any success I had achieved meant nothing. I simply wanted to live. I was not afraid of dying, for I had a deep faith in Yeshua and knew my life was in His hands. But I didn't want to die. I wanted to live and keep loving those around me: my family and friends.

I got my wish. I beat the odds. Here I am. And that star still shines each year at Christmas in our home. That bent, cheap, hokey little coat hanger star made out of scraps. It's an ugly little thing by most standards. To me it's beautiful.
The coat hanger star still shines on James Houston Turner's Christmas tree
I guess I can relate to it on another level, too, because I was once refused a job here in Adelaide because I was too ugly ("unpresentable," was the word used, referring to the facial scars from my operation). Did that bother me? Sure, it did. But a lot of people have it worse. A lot worse. So I realized there were always going to be a few jerks out there who judged people by their looks, and I decided to got on with the important aspects of doing something with my life rather than complaining. So I put up that little star each year as a reminder of everything I do have. It's also a reminder that the hard years need not be unhappy years.

So this Christmas, I want to say thanks. For your love and friendship. And for taking the time to participate in the excitement of my new publishing contract by emailing and phoning me with your comments. It has been a long hard road to get here, but here I am. You didn't have to take the time to write, but you did. You took the time. You really didn't get anything out of the deal. It was your gift to me and I know that. And I am grateful. More than you can imagine.

God bless each and every one of you. May your Christmas be filled with love, life, laughter, and good health.

The rest is but tinsel on the tree.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Fine Art of Opening Champagne

All Cool Dude Writers know the fine art of opening Champagne. Whether aste spumante, sparkling cider, or the real stuff -- there is simply no better way to celebrate a book deal.
And celebrating I am, because I've just signed a contract with Comfort Publishing for my "Ludlumesque" espionage novel, Department Thirteen, which chronicles a week in the life of Aleksandr Talanov, a retired KGB informant who is happily married to a woman he does not love. But when a group of assassins from his past narrowly miss killing him and his wife, Talanov discovers he has broken the first rule of survival by unwittingly falling in love with the woman he must now fall out of love with in order to save her. It is the story of a man who is capable and suddenly incapable at the same time: fearless and afraid, ice-cold and yet struggling against the "thaw" that he did not had occurred in his protective insulation, which now makes him vulnerable. Set mainly in Australia, Vanuatu, and Switzerland, the book is based on Department Thirteen, the actual assassination and sabotage unit of the old KGB, as well as my years as a smuggler behind the old Iron Curtain.

Comfort Publishing is a mid-sized general trade book publisher in North Carolina that publishes about 30-50 books per year (similar to what Bloomsbury was for J.K. Rowling!). Department Thirteen is slated for release in mid-2011. Details about its upcoming launch and United States book tour in October will be posted soon on my website.
"What I like most about this book is its twisting, turning, completely unpredictable storyline," says Pam Tolen, Senior Vice President of Comfort Publishing's Book Division. "No wonder The Dallas Morning News called it "Ludlumesque," after the great novelist, Robert Ludlum. Not only that, Jim's novel is extremely timely in light of the Russian spies caught operating in the United States. The time is ripe for a hero like Talanov, who helped the West during the Cold War and whose experience in KGB sabotage and spy tactics makes him a valuable asset. Jim has a series of Talanov thrillers planned, and this one definitely has film potential. Studios call us regularly looking for books like this one."

Soooo, can you see now why I've been into the Champagne? But opening it the right way is a must.
I was instructed in the fine art of opening Champagne (as well as how to dance tango and cook soufflé) by a close friend of Stanley Marcus, of legendary Neiman-Marcus fame. That close friend was none other than my Aunt Hazel. Aunt Hazel was a super cool, world class, jet-setting, socialite ballroom dancer -- the original Auntie Mame -- my mom's fiery, red-headed younger sister. I still have the full-length Neiman-Marcus faux-fur coat that she bought me just after I graduated from Baker University. Eat your heart out, fluffy pink bathrobe...
But back to Champagne.

"Piper Heidsieck, of course, is the only Champagne one should buy and it is to be opened this way," instructed Aunt Hazel in the formal dining room of her luxurious high-rise apartment in Dallas, on the banks of Turtle Creek. She carefully unfastened the wire cage, being careful to keep a hand on top of the cork to prevent it from shooting out unexpectedly. She then tipped the bottle to a forty-five degree angle, grasped the cork firmly and twisted the bottle. "Remember: twist the bottle, not the cork, at forty-five degrees. This is most important. The angle allows the carbon dioxide to escape without foaming the Champagne." She paused, an empty flute in one hand, the bottle of Heidsieck in the other. "Have you got all that?"
"Yeah, yeah," I said. "Forty-five degrees."
"Are you sure? One mustn't waste a drop. This is Heidsieck, you know..."
"I'm sure," I said, nodding toward the empty flute, my implication obvious: get on with it.
She raised a skeptical eyebrow and poured.
Some weeks later, my girlfriend from Kansas City came for a visit and I decided to impress her with my newly-acquired skill. I was in my research-paper-writing-days (a skill that enabled me to wriggle out of many a test), and -- naturally -- I considered myself a Cool Dude Writer of sorts. I mean -- I wrote. I drank the finest Champagne. And none of that cheap stuff with the plastic stopper, either. Heidsieck had a cork!
Ready to impress, I filled a picnic basket with the finest gourmet items, loaded everything into my dune buggy (bright orange, no less), and to the grassy banks of Turtle Creek we went. I snapped a blanket out on the grass, and with a confident smile, spread out our Provincial feast. I then produced my prized bottle of Heidsieck.
"M'lady," I said, allowing her to inspect the label.
She nodded, clearly impressed.
Turtle Creek is actually somewhat of a misnomer. It is not really a "creek" in the traditional sense (where it's often pronounced "crick"). In truth, Turtle Creek was more of a long narrow lake, the energetic stream of bygone years now tamed and lined with thousands of shade trees and flowering azaleas. With several black swans gliding by gracefully offshore, I handed my girlfriend two empty flutes, and with the cavalier flair of the Cool Dude Writer that I was, removed the wire cage from the neck of the bottle and tossed it aside.
An instant later, the cork shot out of the bottle like a bullet, smacking me in the forehead before richocheting out into the middle of the lake. Champagne spewed everywhere as I reeled back, unable to see anything but spinning white spots. By the time my vision had cleared, a large "goose egg" had appeared on my forehead.
It's not easy being a Cool Dude Writer. I mean, Lee Child, David Morrell, Michael Connelly, Rick Castle -- these dudes have got it down pat. Me? I keep practicing all the right moves, but -- alas and *sigh* -- someone always discovers the truth.
Which is not good for a guy who tells lies for a living!