Title: Solid Ground
Author: Jeff McKown
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: April 24
Heat Level: 2 – Fade to Black Sex
Pairing: No Romance
As Conor McLeish’s fortieth birthday approaches, the life he’s always dreamed of has finally taken shape. He has a steady day job, a debut novel, and Will, his Buddhist boyfriend of nearly a decade. He should be happy. The trouble is, Conor wouldn’t know happy if it smiled, winked, and offered to buy him a drink. With a hard-earned penchant for self-sabotage and an unfortunate Jameson habit, Conor frequently finds a way to disappoint himself and those he loves.
Solid Ground is a story of personal evolution—how we are each sculpted by the past, carved out of childhood, shaped and molded by what we’ve done and by what’s been done to us. For better or worse, who we are is the unavoidable sum of it all. But how we are, how we choose to love, and whether we stand alone in the end, that—at least in part—is up to us.
The Character Who Just Showed Up
Let me start by saying this — I’m a writer who generally balks when other writers say their characters acted on their own or their storylines took twists the writers never could have expected. It’s all in our heads, right? It’s not magic, it’s plotting. Having said that…
Most of the characters in my novel Solid Ground were there from the beginning. My damaged main character, Conor, and his Buddhist boyfriend, Will, both existed from the moment I conceived the story. Conor’s beloved Vegas-loving grandmother and his judgy evangelical Aunt Doris, even his not-so-important and somewhat peripheral boss, Marshall — they all existed in my head when I first put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). But not Harlan, Conor’s smart-ass, sixteen year-old, Florida cracker neighbor. This brash kid from the sticks was nowhere near when I began writing Solid Ground. Still, from the moment he appeared on Conor’s front porch, a cigarette dangling from his lip and a tattered AC/DC concert T-shirt hanging from his scrawny frame, I knew exactly who Harlan was. What I didn’t know was how much work he would do for my story.
Harlan was an interesting kid, so I let him stay awhile. I explored his past and his personality, and I realized he offered a great deal to Solid Ground. I won’t tell you everything about Harlan, but here are just a few of the things this unplanned character does for my story. First, the kid’s overly confident smart-assery provides welcome comic relief to the story and to Conor, whose storyline offers plenty of stress and an abundance of costly wrong turns. Second, descriptions of Harlan’s hometown and his central Florida upbringing give the story a more authentic view of place and setting. Third, Harlan’s willingness to help Conor illustrates a central theme of Solid Ground, which is that we have to learn to be open to the unexpected — the teenager’s support is not something Conor anticipates, or even recognizes. Lastly, through Conor’s interaction with Harlan, a character whose age, experience, and personality are significantly different from anyone else in the story, the reader sees an added dimension of Conor, like watching a coworker whom you’ve never seen outside the office playing with his kids in a park.
I’ll probably never remember the exact genesis of Harlan, but I’m grateful he and his mother left their “backwater shithole in central Florida” and moved next door to my main character. I’m not saying every unplanned guest who shows up in your manuscript needs to stay, but when Conor (and I) needed him, Harlan grew organically from the narrative, sprouting from the story like a weed, or maybe a wildflower.
Jeff McKown © 2017
All Rights Reserved
I was never worth much. Growing up, I wasn’t particularly clever or funny or handsome. I didn’t sing like an angel or say the darnedest things, and I was never the adorable kid in the tiny plaid vest and bow tie. I played Little League for a while, but I was mostly tucked away in right field, which in retrospect didn’t matter much since no one was there to watch me. My mother was too busy drying out my father to have time for shit like that.
Don’t misunderstand, I wasn’t a bad kid. I didn’t light fires or torture cats. I just wasn’t a kid anyone fought for. If it weren’t for my grandmother, I might never have known there was anything decent in me. June was my one true believer, the only one who waved my flag, tattered piece of shit that it was. She was busy with her own life—sipping whiskey at blackjack tables and flirting with strangers—but she found time to pay attention to me, which in the end is all a kid really wants.
Some people learn from their childhood bullshit. They overcome nearly insurmountable obstacles and get invited to appear on Oprah, where they shine like beacons for the rest of the less fortunate. Others just grow up and make one awful mistake after another. I’ve always been somewhere in the middle, half fuck-up and half hidden-heart-of-gold, the kind of guy you love in spite of the horrible shit he’s done.
I heard Will through the screech of grinding metal parts and the clatter of a thousand porcelain dinner plates crashing to the floor. “You have to let it go, Conor.”
“I can’t.” I glanced down at my phone.
“You can, but you won’t.”
“Who even taught her to text?” I took one hand off the wheel and mashed my reply into the small, flat keyboard.
“Pay attention to the road.”
“I’m being careful.”
“Jerking the steering wheel back after you swerve out of your lane isn’t being careful.”
“I’m using the little bumps in the road the way you’re supposed to—to make corrections.”
He shook his head and sighed. “If you have to keep texting, let me drive.”
“Calm down. It’s bumfuck I-10 on a Saturday morning.” I checked the rearview mirror and turned my attention to an incoming text.
“Bitch,” I whispered as I pounded another reply into the phone.
“Nice. She did give birth to you.”
“It’s not my mom. It’s Aunt Doris.” The phone beeped again and my eyes darted back to the screen.
He rested his hand on my thigh. “Try not to get so worked up. It’s not good for your heart.” I was barely middle-aged, but Will was ten years younger than me. It was a difference he liked to play up.
I smiled and rubbed the top of his hand. “You make me feel lucky.”
“Show your gratitude by keeping me alive all the way to your mom’s house.” His voice was soft and earnest, as though by not sending him to his death in a fiery crash I was doing him a solid.
“Is it too late to turn around?”
“Just keep going.”
Driving across Florida isn’t all palm trees and pink flamingos. There’s plenty of that shit down south, but up north there’s plenty of rural nothing. My dad calls this lonely stretch of the Florida panhandle the “Eglin Desert.” Other than the desert’s namesake air force base, there’s just mile after mile of pine tree-lined interstate, and a light sprinkling of highway exits, each of which leads nowhere and offers little more than a depressing, albeit useful, combination Exxon-Burger King-convenience store.
I looked at Will, seeking his permission to check the phone. Two raised eyebrows implored me to stay focused on the road.
I checked the rearview mirror again, turned up the radio, adjusted the air conditioning vents, and then finally snatched at the cell phone in the console, knocking it to the floorboard in the process.
“Fuck.” I fished around blindly on the floor mat.
“Let it go.”
“Not a strength for me.” I hunched low in the driver’s seat, keeping one hand on the wheel as my other hand traced methodical rows across the faux carpet beneath me.
“Jesus Christ!” He thrust his hands onto the dashboard as we veered center and a twenty-ton Peterbilt rocketed toward us. I jammed the brakes and jerked the wheel, steering us out of the overgrown median and back into our lane. A rush of blood raced to my temples, blurring the outside world.
I took a long slow breath and eased the car to the shoulder. “Fine. You drive.”
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Jeff McKown writes fiction. In his work, he is especially fond of exploring tragic flaws, unfortunate circumstances, and the small moments that matter. In life, he obsesses over tennis, politics, and whiskey, not necessarily in that order. He endeavors to be a better Buddhist — which hasn’t always worked out that well. He lives near Monterey, CA with his partner Paul and their best friend, Kyle. Solid Ground is his first novel.
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