In Total Silence and Usually Alone ~ A View From the Keyboard of Chicago Author Renee James


Today’s View From the Keyboard comes from Chicago author Renee James. I met Renee at the celebratory event for Chicago Writers Association’s 2012 Book of the Year awards. Her debut novel, Coming Out Can be Murder, was named Book of the Year in non-traditionally published fiction. Christine Sneed, author of the newly released and highly praised (think front page, New York Times Book Review, people!) Little Known Facts, was the CWA judge, and her comments on the book will give you some insight of Renee’s well-deserving work: “Coming Out Can Be Murder is a memorable and strong debut novel…In addition to being a thriller set in a vibrant contemporary setting, it is a moving story about sexual identity, loss, and friendship.”

Renee James is a writer to watch, friends. She is funny and smart and absolutely fearless; you’ll see that soon in her work, you’ll discover this if you get the chance to hear her read or speak. (Read her. Listen to her.)

Renee: A little over four years ago I swore off working for large corporations and became a full time free-lance writer. My little office evolved after that decision. I picked up a lot of magazine writing and editing work and filled my spare time working on a novel (Coming Out Can Be Murder, which was released June 12, 2012).   Renee James

In a few months I was developing arthritis-like symptoms in my hands from working on a laptop, so I invested in an ergonomic key board and desktop system to go with it…and had to find a place to park everything.

My little corner in our loft-like second floor landing is the best workspace I’ve ever had. It is quiet and intimate and it has a window with a view. Never mind that the view is of a yuppie suburban subdivision, it has natural light, access to weather, and I get to see neighbors strolling past.

I spend 50 to 60 hours a week in this little nook. Over the four years or so, I’ve written about 50 magazine columns, maybe 20 magazine features (I swore them off in 2011 to spend more time on my book), roughly 140,000 words on my first novel (edited to about 110,000 in several stages as a service to humanity) and about 90,000 on the one currently in progress… not to mention maintaining intimate relationships with 1,000 Facebook friends, trying to understand why anyone finds LinkedIn valuable, and periodically Googling the title of my book to find new reviews of it. I also edit and produce a monthly newsletter for a Chicago transgender organization and occasionally write posts for my blog.

I would not be able to hang out here if my passion was splitting atoms, so I feel lucky.

The photos of this space reveal many truths about me. I am messy—even worse than what you see here because I cleaned off my coffee cup, water bottle and cereal cup before shooting the shot. I’m also lazy—the art behind my computer screen has been waiting to be hanged for months. I love it and I view it often, but I have to stand up to do so. I’m also old—the art above my computer screen is a sunny day/rainbow scene made for me by one of my grandchildren.

Also, I share this space with my wife’s passion—doll houses. Each of them is elaborately assembled and decorated, including lights that work and plumbing that (thankfully) doesn’t. They are almost inhumanly seductive for small children of either gender while my nook is beyond boring for them.

I work here in total silence and I’m usually alone. My dog curls up under the desk when we have thunderstorms and our various guest dogs sometimes lay at my side so as to make sure I remember to take them for a walk in the woods when I get back to earth from my scholarly deliberations. But I’m never lonely here and never aware of the silence because the band is playing in my head.

Excerpt from Quetico, the story of two Vietnam-era lovers who reunite 40 years later on an island deep in Ontario’s Quetico wilderness.

Prologue: February 1, 2009

When his first email popped up in her mail box her jaw dropped in disbelief and her pulse rose. His image projected into her mind, its dazzling colors a blinding contrast to the black mid-winter morning she woke to. She became oblivious to the stillness, to the searing dryness of the air, to the chill that no heating system could remove when winter held the Canadian Shield in the jaws of a thirty-below-zero deep freeze.

She had thought about him many times over the decades, and even more so recently, when the long Ontario winter nights left her restless and feeling empty.

“” She stared at the address line. Then the subject: “Hello from long ago.”

Long ago. Indeed. She could still see his intense schoolboy face, eyes widened, cheeks flushed, as they argued about war and politics, morality, literature. Jesus, they argued about literature.

And as much as she could see his face she could always see him walking away, walking down the sidewalk from her building. After she cast him out. Walking away and not looking back. The crimson of his ratty sweatshirt with cutoff sleeves, the blue of his ratty jeans, the dirty white of his sneakers. Getting in his junk car and not looking back. Rust and yellow on black tires, pulling away from the curb. Driving away and not looking back.

That was 1968. Forty years ago. She blinked in surprise. Where did the time go? Forty years!

She sat back and stared out the window where the opaque blackness of the early morning hid her lake from view.

She was surprised that he remembered her. She no longer thought of herself as a woman a man would remember. Not for years. She thought of him, but that was different. Somewhere along the way when she wondered what he was doing and what life would have been like if she had followed her heart, somewhere in there he became more of a symbol than a person, a way of realizing the disappointments of her life.

Then she smiled. He’s alive. She had always wondered. She had resisted the temptation to find out because it would have been heart-breaking either way. Either he died somewhere in Vietnam, or he made it back, married some bimbo and was now a fat balding insurance salesman.

She almost erased the email unread, just to preserve the fantasy. But in the end, she couldn’t. In the end, she had never loved anyone the way she loved him, young love, so wild, so mindlessly reckless, with such passion. Reading his words now was a prospect far too seductive to ever resist.

Heart pounding, tears welling in her eyes, she clicked on the message, and opened the door to a chapter in her life she could not have imagined five minutes earlier.


Thanks so very much, Renee, for sharing your work and your space with us. Congratulations again on your BoTY Award! … And friends, keep an eye out for Samantha Hoffman‘s (What More Could You Wish For?) View From the Keyboard, coming soon to a blog near you (er, this one, actually.) As always, thanks for reading! -PMc


Today is the Seed Time ~ View From the Keyboard of W. E. B. Du Bois


“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.” -W. E. B. Du Bois (2/23/1868 – 8/27/1963)