Thursday, August 25, 2022

Mermaids' Tears (the story)

In my latest novel, Mermaids' Tears, my twelve-year-old protagonist, Rusty, writes the title story as a way to console his older housemate, Autumn, who has lost her brother to suicide.

Mermaids' Tears

In the month of October, in the terminally charming town of Caramel-by-the-Waters, there was born a cute and sweet girl. Her parents named her October. Almost three years later, in the month of July, there was born a cute and spirited boy. His parents named him January. This would not seem to make sense, but the boy’s big ice-blue eyes reminded his father of winters in Wisconsin.

 It’s not unusual for a first-born child to resent a second, mostly for intruding on her parental monopoly, but this was not true of October. She gazed at her big-eyed brother in his crib and said, “I will always be here to protect you, because you are my dear brother, and we will be the best of friends.”

 October and January were, in fact, the closest siblings that any of their friends had ever met, and they both grew into smart and kind young adults. They did, however, have troubles. January’s problem was his brain, which had an on switch but no off. It was constantly on the prowl, and like an overworked engine it would run hot and drift into redlines of worry and fear. It also prevented him from sleeping. Many was the night that October would rub January’s temples and sing wordless songs into his ear - but sometimes even this wouldn’t help.

 October’s problem was her body, which was a healthy body but large and unwieldy. The girls at school made mean jokes that burned like hot embers.

 Caramel-by-the-Waters had some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and the two siblings spent many an afternoon walking their sands. One June day, they came to the tidepools to discover an albino sea lion sunning herself on the rocks. The sea lion tumbled into the water and barked at them. October heard this sound distinctly as an invitation, and before she knew it she was diving headlong into the cold blue waters. She didn’t see the albino creature anywhere, but discovered, much to her surprise, that she, Autumn, was an exceptional swimmer. Her ungainly body, so awkward on the land, became, in the water, a divine transport. She dove deeper and discovered that she could stay underwater for several minutes at a time, navigating the gold-green curtains of the kelp forest.

 When October finally surfaced, she found January pacing the shoreline in a frenetic state. “Where did you go? I thought you had drowned! We need to get home - it’s almost time for supper.”

 Just then, the albino sea lion appeared fifty feet away and repeated its funny barking.

 “No,” said October. “I can’t go home. I think I will stay here and become a mermaid.”

 October knew that this was preposterous. She wasn’t even certain that mermaids existed, and she had no notion of how to go about becoming one. But somehow, January seemed to understand.

 “I’m going to have a hard time explaining this to Mom and Dad,” he said. “But you do seem happy here. Tell you what. I’ll tell them you found a nice place near the beach, and we’ll fill in the rest later.”

 October let out a high-pitched laugh like a dolphin (which was very odd). “Thank you, brother. When you come to the beach, just call my name and I’ll come up to visit you.”


 October loved her new life. She swam through swirling eddies of silver sardines, their fins tickling her skin. The sea otters taught her how to float on her back and open shellfish on her stomach. The whales taught her their beautiful and eerie songs. The albino sea lion, Snowball, took her to the edge of the Montrez Bay Canyon.

 Every afternoon, January called for her at the beach. He brought green apples, her favorite food, and used a stick to bat them into the surf.

 October waited for signs that she was becoming a genuine mermaid, but none came. And she worried about her brother. Each day, he looked more and more worried, and grew deep bags under his eyes. She asked if she should return to land so she could take care of him, but he wouldn’t have it. January waded into the surf and gave his sister a long, sad embrace.

 “I’m afraid it’s not something that can be fixed,” he said. “I have come to a decision. I cannot bear this torment any longer. I am leaving to a place where the pain can no longer reach me. Sadly, sister, you won’t be able to reach me, either. But I really need to go. I love you, October.”

 October thought of a hundred arguments to make January stay, but she realized that she could not ask him to suffer what he simply could not suffer. Especially when he had been so supportive of her odd mermaid ambitions.

 “I will miss you terribly, brother. But I think I understand.”

 January handed her a silver necklace. “I recorded some music onto this amulet. It sounds to me like whalesong. Hold this to your ear and it will play for you. Maybe you can share it with your whale friends.”

 They held each other for a long, long time, until the sun dipped under the horizon, and then finally October let January go. He gave one last wave from the crest of the white sand, and then he was gone.

 October thought he might change his mind, but after three days of keeping watch over the beach she realized he would not return. She held the amulet to her ear and sang along with its mournful tune, and as she did she could feel a great pain entering her body.

 The next morning, the pain had traveled to her legs. She swam to the tidepools and lifted herself onto a rock to discover that she had no legs. What she had was a gold-green tail with fins instead of feet. What she had not known was that a human could not become a mermaid until she had suffered a great loss. And certainly, the loss of January was greater than any she could imagine.

 This sudden transformation filled October with alternating waves of joy and despair. She began to cry, and her emotions were so strong that her tears crystallized into bits of colored glass. The waves carried her tears to the shoreline, where beachcombers found them among the pebbles and sand dollars. Most of them called these little gems sea glass, thinking them to be fragments of long-ago bottles, tossed and burnished by sand and surf. But the more whimsical called them mermaids’ tears, and they had no idea how right they were.

Mermaids' Tears (the novel) is available at

Tuesday, February 16, 2021



He is a hole in my heart,

a hard breath,

a slump of the shoulders a

smile that Cheshires away

A determined scowl at the plate,

the line of scrimmage,

a song in the digital sea

A breathtaking embrace,

a joke that now

someone else must tell

We are fortunate beings;

the mind keeps us in mind.

We fill up on the daily particles:

errands, assignments, protocols,

our tumblers too full for bitters

But the busiest of lives finds a

sandbar, and the

space fills up with souvenirs,

visitors at a clinic,

dosing our griefs like

intravenous drips

Kyle left us too soon,

long before he was

due at the station,

and now we live in parentheses

(cartoon eyes, bobbing voice a

tear on the page,

memory’s whisper a

poem that demands to be

written, a pen that

runs out of

Friday, December 18, 2020

Review: East of the Cookie Tree


Review of East of the Cookie Tree

by Michael J. Vaughn

Michael J. Vaughn’s EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE, written with jauntiness and immediacy, presents us with a dizzying array of responses. What at first glance appears a carefree road trip in which Daniel Maryland, a professional actor, wending his way from San Francisco down to two weddings, one in Gilroy, California and another in Malibu where he is tasked to serve as the officiant for longtime friends, unfolds to become a multi-faceted odyssey deftly calibrated to ignite and captivate the interest of every reader. We are treated to a beguiling cast of characters, most notably the adorable and intermittently manic 19 year-old runaway/stoway, Gina Candiotti, who harbors a horrifying familial secret, Willie Craig, the charismatic older idol of the silver screen, the saucy young Cherry who demonstrates an uncanny capacity for executing and expeditiously rendering an erogenous maneuver with our lead character, Daniel, Shelby, the gorgeous and accomplished wedding planner with whom the officiant, also nicknamed, the Rev. and Umpqua Man, enjoys an exhausting tryst, and finally, the Larroquette House which in many ways is a character in its own right. In actuality, all of Vaughn’s characters, whether they be the countless members of the hospitality industry who populate the book or those who dominate greater stretches of the novel’s trajectory, prove memorable because of their authentic dialogue or distinctive eccentricities. 

There is outright intoxication felt at the opening festivities of joyous reunions among two separate groups of close friends gathered for intended nuptials all emceed by the main character, Daniel Maryland,  Shakespearean actor, commercial spokesperson for a nationally renowned insurance corporation, musician, burgeoning fine artist, neophyte wedding officiant for friends, and beloved “Uncle Danny” to numerous unofficial nieces. Daniel possesses an irrepressible charm and luxuriating in the witty, erudite exchanges between the main character and his retinue of animated and engaging friends makes for a lengthy montage of heartfelt interconnectedness we all long for during this somber pandemic, despite the fact EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE transpires during pre-COVID 19 days. Daniel Maryland is a pied piper of sorts who acts as a magnet of positivity and Merlin for sparking the innate creativity of all fortunate enough to be drawn into his orbit. Perhaps it is precisely because he casts this transformative spell on his readers that the psychological bombshell that erupts upon young Gina’s arrival at her home in Eugene, Oregon carries with it the unsettling and explosive impact it does.  That said, in retrospect, as readers we can acknowledge the author has consistently introduced a multiplicity of hints, hints seeded at select intervals, that adeptly foreshadow the darker undertones of the narrative. Against the backdrop of the surreal, carefree ambience of the lifestyles of the rich and famous runs the ominous undercurrent of existence in the everyday world plagued by post-apocalyptic West Coast wildfires replete with hellish orange skylines, and inescapable and volatile contemporary social issues, most expressly, systemic racism.

EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE also provides provocative exposure not only to some of the finest Shakespearean dialogue, but compelling references to outstanding musical and cinematic interludes that help enliven the romantic, upbeat and non-formulaic wedding ceremonies and receptions featured in this spirited novel. The author also shares insights into the main character’s newest vocation as a fine artist whose talent is quickly appreciated by the discerning eye of an upscale gallery owner. We can traverse the pages of EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE, part archetypal road-trip, part magical musical mystery tour, and through-the-looking-glass “classic” cinematic romp into the landscape of what esthetic and philosophical perspectives occupy the inner recesses of a 21st century Renaissance Man’s kaleidoscopic mind. 

While Daniel Maryland’s character may have entertained periods of self-deprecation during his lengthy career as a Shakespearean actor, one can only aspire to capture a single ray of the light Vaughn’s memorable character imparts in his incomparable gift for embracing, inhabiting, and surfing the waves of an inspirational and always indomitable life force.

— Calder Lowe, award-winning editor and widely-published author

EAST OF THE COOKIE TREE is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Applauding My Critics, Part 1: Tess Ailshire

It's a shame that the word "critic" is so identified with the word "criticize." It's more accurate to relate it to "critique," an art form in which the writer uses observations both positive and negative to report what they witnessed. As a veteran of thirty-plus years of critiquing in the world of theater, opera and literature, I am more equipped than most to handle whatever reviews come my way.

Still, many of today's reader reviews can be childish and lame, as if the author has failed if they didn't anticipate the exact thing the reader wanted to read. One particular assassin gave me one star out of five and reported, "I didn't read it." For some reason, a lot of this came from the Goodreads site, so I have made a habit of avoiding it. Recently, I went back there for a different reason and stumbled upon a lovely, insightful review for my best-seller, The Popcorn Girl. I then discovered that the reviewer had decided to read several of my books and had given each the same kind of beautifully observed, well-written critiques.

I have been fortunate to enjoy a handful of reviewers, some of them writers themselves, who have followed my career in this fashion, leaving beautifully crafted critiques in their wake. And so, I thought it was time that I expressed my gratitude. That recently discovered reviewer is a Virginia resident named Tess Ailshire, and these are her reviews You can find my books on my Amazon author page.

The Popcorn Girl (five stars)

A joy of a story, but a story that is not joyous. The characters are flawed, complex, multi-faceted, and unexpected. One feels there is so much more to these people and their lives, which makes them very real.

I'm not generally a fan of books where one has to know which character is narrating a chapter, but this works.

It made me want to read other Vaughn books.

Gabriella's Voice (four stars)

I've become a fan of Vaughn since I read Popcorn Girl without knowing the first thing of his writing style, his peccadilloes, or his themes. Vaughn has a knack for description that reflects a love of words and an awareness of the universe -- perfect similes that leave cliches choking on dust and gasping. He then goes on to wrap a silken scarf around most of the most hideous of human traits, revealing it only slowly, making the reader realize life is not all apple pie and ice cream, but not thwocking him over the head with truth either.

That said, Gabriella's Voice was not my favorite.

In this story, I felt I was being hit over the head with the similes. It seemed descriptions were overdone. Do I really need half a page to describe a foggy ferry crossing? What I normally like about Vaughn seemed too much in this novel.

Perhaps I understand enough Italian that I don't need *every* lyric to hold a parenthetic translation; it seemed to interrupt the flow of the paragraph, as if the narrator were stuttering. The sense of the paragraphs could easily have remained using only the English or only the Italian.

The Monkey Tribe (five stars)

This is the fourth Michael J. Vaughn book I've read in the last four to six months (The Popcorn Girl; a Painting Called Sylvia; Gabriella's Voice). Vaughn again shows his mastery of mindfulness - of describing both scenery and emotion vividly and without cliche. He again tackles the character who is different, and slowly reveals to the reader that character's passions and failings.

This novel, like Gabriella's Voice, shows a deep understanding of music as a natural part of the human experience, and explores the theme of giving as a way of receiving. Like A Painting Called Sylvia, it explores chaos in human experience, but in a controlled manner. Like The Popcorn Girl, it shows a character who is so much more than a surface.

Vaughn can keep writing. I'll keep reading as long as he does.

A Painting Called Sylvia (five stars)

I think I'm about to become a huge fan of Michael J. Vaughn. I read "The Popcorn Girl" because "the owner of an atheist bookstore" in the description intrigued me, and found I truly loved the work.

So I picked up this volume when it was available for free on Amazon. This one was even better, I think. I was more able to relate to these people - a couple with a teenage daughter, an artist, a few others - than in "The Popcorn Girl".

Both works I've read seem to me to be paintings of emotions, rather than words on a page. Not too much on the logic or concrete details, but a complex image of the character's thoughts and feelings. I found myself marveling at how complete a seemingly minor observation seemed to render the character.

The Girl in the Flaming Dress (five stars)

Like so many of the Vaughn novels I've read, the style is lighthearted and action-filled, with descriptions so far from cliche that I often stop, consider, and even read them aloud. That is a mark, I believe, of a good writer.

I like the fact that it's often a complete surprise to find out where his novels end up. The characters reveal themselves more and more as the novel goes on, and the endings may or may not be what you expect. I was amused to see the popcorn girl included.

This one hasn't the depth of Gabriella's Voice, nor the complexity of The Popcorn Girl, but is no less an enjoyable read.

Mascot (five stars)

I'm a big fan of Vaughn's writing style. The present-tense prose evokes an importance that might not work in past tense, and Vaughn has a knack for describing scenery and ambiance in a decidedly original and evocative manner. Vaughn's characters are decidedly human and absolutely unique. I find difficulty in predicting the ending of a story, much less the plot line that gets us to that ending.

Mascot does it again. Complex characters whose timelines show them different from what we originally see, with enough left unsaid that the reader has no choice but to be involved and to look beyond the words on the page.

Mascot is another that does not end at all as I expected, nor as I would have wished it to. That makes it no less a picture of life.

Friday, July 3, 2020

Climies: A Handmaid's Tale Meets Climate Change

By Naomi Bolton,

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty-three novels, including the award-winning The Popcorn Girl and his latest, Climies. He is also a professional painter and drummer, the latter with the San Jose rock band ECRB. Vaughn's novels have won prizes in the San Francisco, New England and Hollywood book festivals. He is a regular competitions judge for Writer's Digest. Vaughn is also a widely published poet and opera critic. He graduated from San Jose State with a journalism degree and a classical voice minor. He was born in Brunswick, Maine, and spent much of his childhood shuttling around the country, courtesy of his father Harold's career as a pilot with the US Navy. As our author of the day, Vaughn tells us all about his latest book, Climies.

Please give us a short introduction to what Climies is about.

A young man, mysteriously deprived of his memory, ventures into the world to discover that the sea levels have risen 500 feet. He finds a small mountain community that has adapted exceedingly well to the situation and settles in as a born leader.

What inspired you to write a Handmaid's Tale meets climate change type of story?

I began writing by placing a character (Russell) in a situation (a garden labyrinth) and literally writing my way out. When he came out to a rooftop beach to discover a town underneath the water, I knew that I was going to write a speculative novel about climate change. It was an excellent way to tap into my subconscious and find out what I really wanted to write about.

Tell us more about Russell Peppers. What makes him tick?

Despite his amnesia, he is a very capable young man. One of the running jokes is how he keeps discovering things that his body knows how to do, like playing a guitar, riding a jetski, and playing basketball (and unintentionally hustling his opponents while he's at it).

What inspired you to set this story in the survivor community of Skyline?

It's based on Skyline Drive, a road that follows the tops of the Santa Cruz Mountains from San Jose to San Francisco. It's an area I know well. It was also morbidly fun placing so much of the Bay Area under water. At one point they're sailing past what looks like a long metal fence, and it's actually the top of the Golden Gate Bridge. Many of the survivors are actually tech workers from Silicon Valley; their ingenuity allows them to create a surprising kind of utopia, and also to cope with the weather, which fluctuates between hard snows and 120-degree days.

Give us three "Good to Know" facts about you.

I am also a professional fine arts painter. I play drums and sing in a classic rock band, ECRB. I worked for thirty years as an arts journalist, and have interviewed celebrities including Ray Bradbury, Molly Ringwald and Barry Manilow.

Your novel poses the question "what could happen if we don't pay attention or believe in climate change"? Why did you find this an important topic to explore?

It could be THE topic. I am afraid we're already on the road to some level of sea rise and extreme climates. It was important to me to devise a plausible worst-case scenario, both politically and environmentally. I have always done a lot of reading on the topic, and I have a colleague, Jeff Goodell, who writes amazing books and articles on the subject for Rolling Stone. You have to be careful with issues-oriented novels, however. No one likes to be preached at. You have to stick to the story and be true to the characters. Some of the more surprising characters are Patriots, the extremist climate deniers who call their rivals "climies." A pack of them ride into town, and the results are not always predictable.

Do any of your characters take off on their own tangent and refuse to do what you had planned for them?

Ha! Constantly. Russell's love interest is Shandhra Basu, a beautiful Indian-American (literally the daughter of a rocket scientist) who is always dragging Russell off into one bit of trouble or another. I always say, When you reach a point where you're asking not "What should I have Shandhra do next" but "What would Shandhra do next?" you have created a real live person, right there on the page.

When working on a novel, how do you immerse yourself in the main characters' lives?

I think you have to do it your whole life, really. You have to pursue lots of different experiences so you can apply them to characters later. There is much room, however, for empathy and imagination. This is especially helpful when your timeline is circa 2050!
Additionally, I think it's greatly helpful to read good non-fiction. And also, San Jose is a beautifully diverse place. I am surrounded by so many cultures. The Indian presence here is very strong.

Is there an underlying message you wish to relay about basic human nature in this book?

I think there is a way to be a hard-nosed scientific realist and yet retain some optimism for humanity. Perhaps the key is humor. This book sounds dystopian, but there are many funny scenes and situations.

In this book you’re dealing with so many difficult themes – as a writer, do you feel a sense of responsibility? If so, how do you deal with this?

Venturing into my first speculative book, I did feel a lot of responsibility. And I did back up the searise with a plausible worst-case scenario. But obviously this is only one vision of what could happen. I actually believe we will find our way out of this. But as The Handmaid's Tale served as a warning against theocracy, perhaps a good climate nightmare will provide us with some extra incentive.

When working on a new book, what is the first thing you do?

I have a "brewing period" where I let various ideas drift in. My current book had to wait a little longer as we sat through the early stages of the pandemic.

Do you have any interesting writing habits? What is an average writing day like for you?

I write three drafts, in this thing called a spiral notebook, before it goes into a computer. I write completely at coffeehouses.

What are you working on right now?

In 2018, I served as the officiant at two weddings. It was such a remarkable experience that I'm using the settings as the background for the novel. One of them took place in Malibu, in John Larroquette's old house.

Where can our readers discover more of your work or interact with you?

I post many peripheral works at I have a good author page at (Michael J. Vaughn). And they can check in at my Facebook page, which is also under Michael J. Vaughn.
A final note: an underlying message to Climies is that scientific issues should never be politicized. I never could have dreamed how powerfully that point would be made by our viral situation.
Michael J. Vaughn - A World Where Sea Levels Have Risen 500 Feet
FEATURED AUTHOR - Michael J. Vaughn is the author of twenty-three novels, including the award-winning The Popcorn Girl and his latest, Climies. He is also a professional painter and drummer, the latter with the San Jose rock band ECRB. Vaughn's novels have won prizes in the San Francisco, New England and Hollywood book festivals. He is a regular competitions judge for Writer's Digest. Vaughn is also a widely published poet and opera critic. He graduated from San Jose State with a journalism degree and a… Read more