Writing From The Heart And Soul — a guest Post by Peter Grant

*I know, I know, I owe you a chapter of Rogue Magic.  I’m actually going to take a two week hiatus.  This week because we have a friend in town and we’re having a party a day, pretty much, next weekend because I’ll be in TX teaching a workshop at the Bedford Library.  After that, Rogue Magic will resume.  No, I’m not doing guest posts for two weeks, though I might do them every day next weekend.  (Not this.) Because I’ll be really busy (the workshop beats the stuffing out of you.)  I had to cancel Fencon due to family stuff that requires I be in town.  (That too is a long story.)  So I’ll be away Wednesday through Monday, next week, and that might be mostly guest posts.  Not right now.  I just am not in the head space to do Rogue Magic.  Part of this is that the book finally TURNED — I figured out what I was doing wrong, so I think I can finish it.  IF I weren’t going to TX next week, I’d say I could finish it by next Friday.  As is it might be the Friday after, but it will be done soon.  Which is good, because we rather need the cash and also because I want to do Darkship Revenge (which broke open at the same time.  They’re linked, though not as closely as DSR and AFGM. ) Okay.  I’ve babbled long enough.  I’ll let Peter have his say, and I’ll go clean the house.*

Writing from the heart and soul




I’d like to thank Sarah very much for inviting me to contribute a guest blog post about my new book, and how writing it affected me.  She’s a good friend and faithful supporter.


One reads a great deal about how, when writing fiction, characters develop wills of their own.  They drag the author off at a tangent from the ‘scripted’ plot, insist on growing into people very different from those originally in the eye of their creator, and interact in ways that can change their planned relationship altogether.  I’ve had some limited experience of this, having published two SF novels so far and being busy with a third.  The latter, in particular, has surprised me – the relationship between my two leading protagonists has developed very differently from what I first envisaged.  Who knows where it – and they – will end up?  (You’ll be able to find out in December!)


However, I don’t experience that sort of writing as involving my heart and soul.  It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s enjoyable – and sometimes very frustrating! – but it’s something I’m basically observing from outside.  One can remain dispassionate if one chooses, allowing one’s characters to dominate the story as far as one wishes, but always ready to reassert control, delete a few thousand words, and take the plot in a different direction.  (Other authors’ experience may be different, of course.)


That hasn’t been the case in my latest book, which is a non-fiction memoir of service as a prison chaplain.  ‘Walls, Wire, Bars and Souls’ was very difficult to write, emotionally, spiritually and intellectually.  Some of my memories of prison work are very amusing – for example, I’ve written previously about Sam The Sex God – while others are soul-searing in their utter evil.  Close encounters with murderers, drug cartel bosses, terrorists, religious and other fanatics, sexual predators and the like are often so difficult that one simply can’t describe them in clinical, dispassionate terms.


I’d deliberately blocked many of those recollections, not wanting them to be a constant burden.  To relive them in writing this book was sometimes very difficult.  I haven’t included all the gory details, because if the memories are nauseating to me, what will they do to readers who’ve never been exposed to the reality of the sewers of life?  Words on paper can’t adequately convey such moral filth… but even so, I’ve had to try to describe some of the truly evil people who are locked away behind bars.


I doubt very much whether most of those so steeped in darkness of soul and character will ever reform.  Nevertheless, if we write them off, aren’t we writing off all humanity with them?  If there’s hope for reformation and renewal in a single soul, isn’t there at least some hope for every soul?  Many will argue that there isn’t, that some people are so far gone that there’s no way back for them:  but if so, doesn’t that deny any possibility for divine grace to move in them?  (Of course, if one denies the divine in the first place, that isn’t a factor for consideration, but I’m not of that opinion – otherwise I wouldn’t have been a chaplain in the first place, would I?)  I provide some examples of how what I consider to be divine grace can, indeed, change souls and lives.


I’ve long been unhappy about the very poor, biased and inaccurate portrayals in books and other media of life behind bars.  Those by current and former inmates tend to dramatize and glorify their side of the story, and demonize prison authorities (mostly unfairly).  Those by former guards or executives go to the opposite extreme, while the entertainment industry debases the truth on both sides in favor of sensationalism and whatever sells best (usually sex and violence).  I haven’t yet found a book that struck me as fully balanced;  so that’s what I tried to write.  It’s as fair, honest and even-handed as I know how to make it.


I wrote the first draft of this book in 2007, three years after a serious on-the-job injury led to my enforced medical retirement from prison chaplaincy.  It was raw then, too much so to be ready for publication.  I put it aside for three years, letting time heal some of the scars in my memories even as I learned anew to walk properly and adjust to the physical limitations imposed by my injury.  In 2010 I rewrote major sections of it, making it more objective, adding facts and figures and statistics;  then I put it aside once more, because (as I’ve mentioned elsewhere) I didn’t think my writing skills were yet ready for publication.  Finally, I took it up again last year and this year, polishing it and getting it ready for prime time.


I hope and pray my book succeeds in getting more people involved with and interested in one of the largest social problems confronting the USA today.  We’re spending as much, if not more, on the criminal justice system as we are on national defense – and much of it is wasted or unnecessary expenditure.  We incarcerate proportionally more of our population than any other nation on earth.  If we don’t reform the system soon, it’s going to grow into an unmanageable, self-perpetuating monstrosity.  Some maintain it already has.


I hope ‘Walls, Wire, Bars and Souls’ will contribute to finding a solution.  I’d be grateful if those of you who read it will join in the discussion on my Amazon.com author forum, or here, or on my blog.  There’s a lot to talk about.



35 thoughts on “Writing From The Heart And Soul — a guest Post by Peter Grant

  1. Yes– the hardest books to write I find are the ones that jerk on me… I have a couple that I am taking a breather and then jumping back to them. Not too long I hope.

  2. Please forgive a selfish side rant: first Larry Niven cancels on FenCon, and now you? Two out of the five reasons I agreed to go have now cancelled!

    Okay, back to reading today’s post…

    1. I’m sorry. I really don’t have a choice. I’m not at liberty to divulge the particulars, but there’s a family health reason and the person affected wants me here. So.

      1. Don’t apologize when I whine. It only encourages me. Family first!

        Martin L. Shoemaker Author and Software Developer

  3. The remark about characters who refuse to develop the way the author wants them to provokes two thoughts:

    1) How often we find this occurring with actual people who refuse to conform to our conception of them.

    2) How does G-D the author reconcile this behaviour by His characters with the plot He is trying to make work?

          1. Having read some of His earlier works it seems evident He enjoys giving His characters lots of rope before pulling the knots tight. He’s been known to really put some of his characters through Hell, and has pulled off some plot twists that defy credibility.

    1. 1) and 2) have their answers in the same thing – our (fortunately) limited perspective.

      I say fortunately because I find that a lot of people benefit from a sort of soft focus around their hard edges and corners, and I include myself in that. We want to see clearly but there’s also something about allowing people enough room to be human.

      And I get the feeling once we see the whole plot from beginning to end, that we will acknowledge how true the title “The Author” is because we will finally see The Whole Story. Which will be followed by a lot of “Oh, THAT’S what that was all about!” moments.

  4. Peter, this sounds like a sensitive, constructive and, I am sorry to say, important book. I am confident it will be read by far too few of the people who ought read it, but pray that it will influence the thinking of some of the people who might eventually be in position to address these issues. Thank-you for writing it.

  5. Peter, I’m so glad you did write this book. I’ve got it, and will read and review in my own little attempt to spread the word about it. Incorporating personal pains and challenges into our writing makes it more alive, I think. I’m looking forward to reading this, despite knowing already some of it will be uncomforatble to read.

    On a slightly related note, I reviewed our hostess’s short story collection, Wings, on my blog today. http://cedarwrites.com/2013/09/20/free-story-and-a-review-of-a-story-collection/

  6. Peter, I’ve added this book to my wish list to buy soon. Read a certain amount of the preview. Thank you for writing this look into a world I hope to never experience.

  7. Can’t imagine life in the slammer.

    There’s also this unpleasant facet of prison life, often joked about, perhaps because we’re afraid of it happening to us. I’d say this is an Eighth Amendment violation.

    Yes, we’re right up there with many of the world’s most despotic regimes when it comes to prisoner torture.

  8. I’ve added your new book to my list, Peter. One of my flying buddies was/is a psychologist who works with the county parole board on occasion, and what little he’s mentioned about various things is . . . educational. That’s assuming you can get him to stop talking airplanes. 🙂

    1. A flying buddy talking airplanes? Who’da thunk it? …. I discovered I can hear my husband’s eyes roll when he’s behind my back and getting into the car at a gas station.

      Okay, so the guy at the next pump was wearing a local lifeflight polo and ballcap, and we’d gotten into a discussion on local thunderstorms and ADSB on the foreflight app on the ipad, and yeah…. I apologized to my husband as I slid into the car, and all he did was smile, shrug, and say “I know, I married a pilot. Comes with the territory.”

  9. Peter I’m in the midst of reading your new book. It’s quite gripping. Have you read any of Theodore Dalrymple’s (Anthony Daniels) work. He’s a retired British prison doctor.

  10. And on a completely different tangent, walked half a mile tonight so we could get a walk in before the storm front sweeps through. I should have a long list of housecleaning accomplishments to list here to sound like I was productive and exercising, but…uh… bureaucrats on a Friday, car issues, and… at least I got most of the laundry done?

    1. I went to the gym, wrote 4000 words, and started confirming the line edits for the next-to-last story in the new collection. And realized what had me hung up and unable to really get going on Novel 2: The Sequel. This AM I walked three miles in forty minutes, thanks to the high-powered cold front that blasted through yesterday (50 degrees at 0500! G-d loves me!)

      1. Walked. Wrote 3k words non fic. CLEANED HOUSE (no, seriously, by the end of cleaning house I’m walking funny, since house (counting basement and attic) has three sets of stairs, and yesterday was a real clean which meant carrying things up and down all those stairs dozens of times. No, it’s not like a stair stepper. Both the attic and the basement have “variable height stairs” tm. So…

        1. I haven’t written anything of consequence in a week, and I’m becoming unlivable. I am back in the gym (still dealing with rotator cuff tendinitis, but I need the exercise), and I’ve been working on learning contracts at a run, because cover art. So not totally unproductive. But. Does anybody have any recommendations on books on normal life in 1960s-70s USSR? I learned a while ago that I need to gut the sequel to Baptism By Fire, and most of what’s there is going to turn into a quasi-prequel. Of sorts.

          1. Um, I’ve got a few possibles. Let me do some hunting and see if they’re what I remember. I assume you only want English-language?

          2. Dave, I looked at my files, and what I’ve got are about Warsaw Pact nations or the 1940s-1955. I’m a few years out of date, so there’s probably some academic stuff out there that I don’t have info on. Sorry I couldn’t find anything useful. 😦

          3. How about East Germany? Here is a London Telegraph review of a memoir (apologies for extended post but the Telegraph is a subscription site and while limited stories are available for non-members I’ve no assurance the Kilted kan access):

            Non-Fiction Book Reviews
            Red Love by Maxim Leo, review
            The Wall may have fallen but life in East Germany is hard to forget, finds Keith Lowe.
            By Keith Lowe
            It is difficult to imagine now, almost 25 years on, that a place like the German Democratic Republic ever really existed. And yet when author and journalist Maxim Leo was growing up in East Berlin in the Seventies and Eighties the GDR was not only real, it was omnipresent. As a totalitarian state it governed how Leo was schooled and what job he was allowed to apply for, and what he was allowed to think and say. Like an overbearing parent it was stifling and terrifying, but also strangely reassuring.

            In this beautiful and supremely touching memoir, Leo tells the story of how his own family coped, or failed to cope, with this bizarre historical anomaly. Each member of the family had a different relationship with the East German state. There were those who defended it with every breath, those who resisted it, and those, like Leo’s mother, who struggled to understand how they felt at all. The only impossible thing was to ignore it altogether. In the words of Leo’s father, Wolf, “The GDR was always there in bed with us.”

            The story begins with Leo’s grandparents who, in their own ways, were both ardent supporters of the East German regime. The two sides of Leo’s family could not have been more different. Gerhard, his maternal grandfather, was a Jew who had been forced to flee Germany before the war to escape the Nazis. Leo’s paternal grandfather, Werner, by contrast, had originally supported the Nazis so enthusiastically that he not only hung his own windows with swastikas, but pestered others to do likewise. While Gerhard joined the French Resistance during the war and had all kinds of astonishing adventures fighting against his former countrymen, Werner joined the Wehrmacht and fought for the Fatherland in the doomed Ardennes Offensive. Gerhard returned to Germany a hero, and became a poster boy for the Resistance; Werner returned a broken man, having spent two years toiling in a French prisoner-of-war camp.

            And yet both of these men embraced East German Communism with a passion.

            For Gerhard it was a matter of loyalty: it was the Communist Resistance which had saved his life, and fought against those who had persecuted his family. For Werner it was a chance to reinvent himself, and start again with a clean slate. Despite his Nazi past, all he ever really wanted was to belong to something bigger than himself, and this is what the GDR offered him.

            The next generation, Leo’s parents, had a much more difficult relationship with Communism. His mother, Anne, found it almost impossible to reject the ideology of the hero father she loved so well. But as she grew up she began to discover that the Communist ideal and the Communist reality were entirely different things. As a journalist she wanted to criticise the regime, and yet because of her devotion to her father every criticism felt like a betrayal. And besides, criticism was not really an option in the GDR.

            Leo’s father, on the other hand, rebelled against his Nazi-cum-Communist background almost from the very beginning. A colourful, defiant artist, Wolf constantly pushed the boundaries of what he was and was not allowed to do. He produced subversive pictures, and made inflammatory speeches at the Artists’ Association. This caused all kinds of family arguments, both between himself and Leo’s mother and between the generations. On one occasion the hero grandfather accused him of the worst crime imaginable: “When it comes to the crunch, you’re on the other side of the barricade.”

            But even Wolf was not entirely against the regime. The secret police themselves quickly realised this: a Stasi report on Wolf noted that his attitude was “critical, but not hostile”, and they even made a couple of attempts to recruit him. In the end neither of Leo’s parents truly wanted to topple the state. They merely wanted it to change, to reflect the real needs of the people more effectively. As a consequence they found themselves in a sort of limbo, “not faithful enough for the faithful, too uncritical for the critical”.

            And what of Leo himself? When he was growing up he had no idea whose side he wanted to be on. He just wanted to live in a normal family, without the “barricade” that his grandfather spoke of. When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 he felt no surge of joy, just a kind of anxiety that he still has trouble identifying. He had no love for the GDR, and yet it was all he had ever known. And now, in a matter of what seemed like a few days, it had simply dissolved.

            Leo’s memoir was the winner of the European Book Prize, and deservedly so. It is a moving saga of people who love one another but are doomed never to get along, and it is also an unbearably poignant description of a world that no longer exists. His family is a microcosm of the GDR itself, struggling with the same opposing sets of ideals that eventually tore the country apart.

            The death of the GDR, when it came, was like the death of a dysfunctional relative, at once liberating and tragic. As Leo’s book makes painfully clear, those who grew up in this dysfunctional family are still living with the consequences today.

            Keith Lowe is the author of Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin, £9.99)

            Red Love: The Story of an East German Family
            Maxim Leo
            Pushkin Press, £16.99, 272pp

Comments are closed.