Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Do The Clothes Make The Woman?

Here is my wish for the coming presidential campaign season: that no matter who the candidates are, we will talk more about substance than appearances. This occurred to me when I read Peggy Noonan’s Wall Street Journal column discussing the recent Benghazi Committee hearings. Noonan mentioned that presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton was beautifully coiffed and made up and wore a "sober, dark high-end pantsuit." In response to young journalists who told her she wasn't allowed to describe how Clinton dressed, Noonan said that journalists should not start out as "word cops." She then went on to describe in parentheses what the (male) Committee Chairman wore. (Whether she would have commented on the Chairman's clothes absent the critique of her mention of Clinton's pantsuit only she knows.)

Tea Leoni as the fictional Madam Secretary Elizabeth McCord
The last time Hillary Clinton ran, my cousin, a woman about 15 years older than me, complained about the pantsuits, saying: “Why doesn’t Hillary feel free to dress like a girl?” This view sees the pantsuits as a way to conform with the male standard for clothing. Perhaps when my cousin started in the business world, women were pushed to dress as much like men as possible. To me, though, this choice by a woman candidate was a welcome signal that I no longer needed to show my legs to be seen as dressing appropriately when I represented a client in court or attended formal meetings. I like both skirt suits and pantsuits, but the latter are far more practical when walking through downtown Chicago in the middle of winter. It always struck me as unfair that men could stride through the snow and slush to the Daley Center, where many civil lawsuits are tried, in sensible shoes and pants and still appear presentable, while I had to make due with skirts and tights and either get ice in my high heels or carry them and change out of boots before walking into the courtroom. (The different standards for a woman's appearance versus a man's also result in a drain on women's time and money, as I noted in The Military, Make Up, and Rereading Katniss.)

In the 2008 campaign season, I suspect Hillary Clinton adopted the pantsuit to try to wear something neutral. So that just like Barack Obama and John McCain and other male candidates, people would pay attention to what she said, not what she wore. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. I can’t remember anything said about McCain’s or Obama’s suits during that campaign, but both Clinton and Sarah Palin were criticized for their wardrobes. I don't believe that reflected intentional bias, but rather that in 2008, there was no neutral business attire for women. Whatever a woman wore--pants, skirts, high neck blouse, scoop neckline, jewelry or not--was and is still today remarkable. A man can wear the same gray pinstriped suit every day of the week, and if he adds a different tie, no one will notice he’s worn the same thing. My most neutral suit is a navy blue skirt suit, but there is no way I could wear it every day without someone noticing. The very sameness would be remarkable.

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In the television show Madam Secretary, fictional Secretary of State Elizabeth McCord used the media obsession with women's clothes and appearance to her advantage. Throughout the first episode, she resisted the President's insistence that she get a hair and clothing makeover after taking office. But when she wanted to deflect attention from a negative substantive issue, she decided to get the makeover, telling the press and so ensuring that the top news story about her office would be her style, not the negative issue she wished to bury. (A male critic reviewed this episode and complained about the script, saying it was ridiculous that Madam Secretary didn't realize she was beautiful and then discovered it at the end, doing an about face on the makeover. Talk about completely missing the point, but that's a whole other post.) The real former Madam Secretary, too, seems this election season to be looking to turn the focus on her appearance to her advantage. She released on Instagram photos of her pantsuits, including ones that are monochrome, alternating red, white, and blue. So she is getting free publicity simply for changing her clothes.

The comments of the younger journalists, as reported by Peggy Noonan, do give me a little hope. I don’t believe any journalist should stop herself from observing what any candidate is wearing. Nor should anyone be prohibited from writing what she or he believes is newsworthy. But maybe, just maybe, we're coming closer to a time when what a woman candidate wears will be considered no more newsworthy than what a man wears.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Entrepreneur Or Ne're Do Well?

A boyfriend I had in my early twenties was a hard worker but did not like his job. He had no interest in going to college, and he was unimpressed by how long it took most people to build businesses from the ground up, so he looked into various get-rich quick-schemes. He purchased a series of books on how to buy a house with no money down, fix it up and rent it out, then use equity in the first house to help buy another, and so on. The idea was not to earn income through rentals but to sell after a few years and reap a profit due to market appreciation. The system the books described supposedly made people into millionaires. Though I earned barely more than minimum wage myself and wasn't a business or finance major, I enjoyed reading personal finance books (a little odd for a college student, I know), but the ones I read were far less sensational and less expensive, as I got them at the local library. (I've been a fan of libraries all my life, as I wrote in a previous entry.) I had serious questions about the scheme. It's hard to imagine now, but mortgage interest rates then averaged around 13%, and reputable lenders required 20% down in cash. But the author, my boyfriend assured me, was a millionaire, so the system must work. When I found out the books cost over $700 and the author also offered seminars all over the country for an additional thousand or two, I suspected I knew how he'd become a millionaire, and it wasn't by selling houses.

My current favorite writing space/office.
That experience is one reason I had mixed feelings when, about a month ago, I considered updating my profession on Linked In and other social media sites to include the word “entrepreneur.” For so long, for me that word called up images either of the boyfriend who preferred not to work or the salesperson hawking pricey no-fail systems for becoming a millionaire. The people I knew who did well in life worked hard at jobs or professions and saved and invested little by little. As I entered my thirties, my view of entrepreneurs didn't change. A good friend married a man who ran various businesses and was always evading bill collectors and always on the verge of the one big deal that would make him rich. Though eventually it meant losing their house, this entrepreneur refused to take any job unless it paid well over a hundred thousand a year. No such job was ever offered to him. I also discovered that if someone described himself in an online dating profile as an entrepreneur, it quite often meant he was a guy who couldn’t or wouldn't hold a job--one my mother would have called a “ne'er-do-well.” Such men were often charming, but could rarely pay their bills.

I'm sure decades ago there were many actual entrepreneurs--as opposed to people who adopted the label as a cover--I simply didn't do the kind of work that brought me into contact with them. Now I do. As an author who independently publishes my own work and an attorney who runs my own law firm, I keep up with the business world and am on email lists of various entrepreneurs. Today, running a business is probably more common than ever. The Internet empowers many people to work anywhere at any time and to sell products and services all over the world. Yet still there are times I wonder. Some Internet businesses remind me of the house parties my mom went to when I was a kid. Everyone “made money” or got free items attending everyone else’s Tupperware/Pampered Chef/Mary Kay parties. But eventually the circle of friends was exhausted, the round robin ended, and no one was any wealthier, though their kitchens were more organized. (Not an entirely bad thing, but not a basis for a business.)
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Also, while some author/entrepreneurs I'm familiar with offer a lot of helpful information for free on blogs or in reasonably priced books (say, $3.99-$9.99, not $700), I also get offers from “entrepreneurs” who seem to be making a lot of money selling books about how to sell books or, worse, by giving expensive seminars on how to sell books. When I try to trace back to some other type of book, product, or service the author successfully created and sold, I find only vague references to business experiences that sound suspiciously like college internships. Not to say a college intern might not know something I don't. I'm just not willing to pay upwards of $500 to find out.

On the other hand, I've been enjoying running my own businesses for years, and I hope never to have a job again. Soon after I started my law firm, heavy layoffs during a recession underscored the risk of working for just one employer. And I love that the Internet makes it possible for many authors to sell to the public, offering their work for less than a traditional publisher would charge, but earning more than a traditional publisher would pay while doing so. Also important to me is that running my own writing business means choosing the strategy and making the decisions. Or, as entrepreneur and author Joanna Penn puts it, never having to ask permission. If I think something is a good idea--say, writing and publishing a religious conspiracy thriller series without adopting a male pen name--I can go ahead and do it without seeking anyone’s approval. Yes, I take the risk it won’t work, but if that happens, I learn from the experience and try something else rather than, as usually occurs as an employee, being discouraged from innovating again. And if things do work out, I gain the reward.

Most of all, it’s fun to wear different hats throughout a day, week, and year. Nearly every job I’ve had, my main reason for leaving was that I got tired of doing the same thing over and over. Now there is always a new book to write, an innovative marketing approach to learn, an emerging creative outlet to explore. So, in the end, I decided to embrace the term entrepreneur.

What are your thoughts on entrepreneurs? What do you associate with the term? Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur? Please share in the comments below. Also, if you’d like to keep up on my creative and business endeavors, you can join my email list. No pitches to buy $700 books, I promise.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Why Write a Thriller Series About A Potential Female Messiah?

People often ask me why, as a non-believer, I'm writing a thriller series that revolves around religion-related concepts. (The Awakening series follows a young woman whose virgin pregnancy might bring the world a female messiah or trigger Armageddon.) First, completely aside from religion, I’ve always been intrigued by world changing or world ending stories. A great example of this type of story is my favorite movie, The Terminator.
The Awakening (Book 1) and The Unbelievers (Book 2).

Second, the role of women in myth and religion fascinates me. I grew up learning about Christianity from the Catholic perspective, and the Catholic religion is filled with contradictions in its view of Mary, believed to be the mother of Jesus. I had friends in other Christian churches who told me Catholicism was wrong or evil because Catholics “worship” Mary. Apparently aware of that critique, the priests at the church my family attended were careful to emphasize that Mary is not a deity in her own right. On the other hand, though it appears nowhere in the Church’s written gospels, Catholics believe that Mary in and of herself is unique among humans. For one, she is believed to be the only human being conceived without Original Sin, which is the actual meaning of the term Immaculate Conception. And for another, she supposedly never died. Instead, her body was “assumed” into heaven. A pretty amazing feat for someone who is not divine. Many Catholics also believe she has special powers to intercede with Jesus/God and see that prayers are answered.
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For all the interest in Mary in the Catholic Church, the Bible coverage of her is limited. If she were real, what was her life like? In her time, far more than now, being unmarried and pregnant did not bode well for a young woman. Yet the Bible says nothing about what she told her parents, relatives, or friends about her situation. The only mention is that Joseph initially intended to reject her, but changed his mind after an angel visited him.

Perhaps because I ultimately found I didn’t believe most of the stories I grew up with, I’m intrigued by the reasoning of those who continue to do so, which is the majority of people in the Chicago area where I live. What I found myself asking is how literal people’s beliefs are. Are they convinced that a little over two thousand years ago a woman named Mary actually one day found herself pregnant despite never having had sex? And, if so, how would they react to a young woman who made that same claim today? It’s one thing to believe that in Biblical times Moses parted the Red Sea or Jesus was born of a virgin, but it’s another to believe anyone who claims to perform miracles today.

Along with that “What if” came my other issue with the major monotheistic religions—that God is represented as male. So when I began putting together my plot idea for The Awakening series, I considered not only what opposition and disbelief a pregnant virgin today would face, but how that might change once she revealed her child would be a girl.

I also wanted to explore many potential causes for such an event, as not all the world is Christian. In fact, my protagonist, Tara Spencer, is not herself religious, though her parents are, which adds to her confusion and makes the issue more complex. The event that starts the story could have been caused by some sort of god, an adversary to god (such as Satan as he is traditionally depicted in our culture), a different supernatural being or force altogether, a scheming scientist, evolution…the possibilities are endless. All these causes remain on the table for most of the series, so the answer to the other question often asked of me, which is whether the series is a Christian one, is no.

I chose to go beyond one thriller and into a four-book series in part due to my original thought that the Biblical character of Mary gets short shrift. In the end, her value is mainly as a Mother with a capital M. (Though Catholicism borrowed a lot of goddess lore in its depiction of her, attempting to draw in believers in goddess culture with some success, thus its contradictory stance on Mary.) Likewise, in stories that flip the narrative and portray a supernatural pregnancy that is a danger to the woman or perhaps to the world, such as Rosemary’s Baby (one of my favorite books), the woman’s role also is primarily as a mother/victim/woman in peril. In contrast, I wanted to explore Tara Spencer, my protagonist, as a protagonist. As a person who is a force in the world who has her own goals, powers, and challenges. Her own friends and enemies. In short, her own life. The Awakening series is primarily about Tara as a person, not as a pregnant woman.

All of the above sometimes leaves me at a loss at cocktail parties or in interviews when I’m asked how I categorize The Awakening series. Books 1 and 2 have spent significant time in Amazon’s Top 100 Occult and Horror best seller lists, though I admit the series has as much in common with The Da Vinci Code as Rosemary’s Baby, as one reviewer pointed out. Religious conspiracy series also seems to fit, though it bothers me because it puts the emphasis on the religious order opposing Tara, the Brotherhood of Andrew, rather than on Tara herself. But the people whose eyes light up when I describe the concept often also love books described as religious conspiracy thrillers, including those of Dan Brown and Joanna Penn. I’ve used the term paranormal thriller, but “paranormal” for the last decade or two seems to call up visions of the Twilight series or paranormal romances. Science fiction/fantasy fans often also like the series, though I don’t usually read the genre. (One exception is that I love Dan Simmons' Hyperion series which, perhaps not coincidentally, includes a female messiah-type character.) Recently Amazon added a category “Supernatural Thriller,” and that may be the best fit of The Awakening, The Unbelievers, and the last two books in the series.

The reality is, of course, most of us read in more than one genre. I love horror, suspense, mystery, occult, thrillers, and supernatural books. Further, all of us also tend to sub-specialize in our genre reading. I like horror but not gore. I like mysteries and particularly detective stories but not cozies. Other people love suspense but won’t read anything with any hint of the supernatural. In the end, I suppose that’s why I love reading and writing fiction so much. There are so many great stories, and so many ways to tell them.

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Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Kind Words From A Stranger

The week of January 22, 2007, I received two phone calls from complete strangers. The first came on a snowy, bitter Monday evening. A chaplain from Loyola Hospital told me my father was in the emergency room. He needed some tests, and he might feel better if I were there. But when I arrived, I was shown into a small, private waiting room. A chaplain, the pastor from my parents' parish in Brookfield, and my cousin Marty, who lived about a mile from my parents, were there. Logic would have told me this could not be good, that more than tests were involved, but the mind protects us at least for an instant or two from what we don't want to face. So I listened without any real sense of what was coming as the chaplain explained that a drunk driver had hit both my parents, who were crossing the street on their way into an evening church service. The driver tried to flee, but was apprehended. My father needed emergency surgery, and I agreed right away I would sign whatever forms were needed. Then I asked about my mother. I'd tried to call her but had gotten no answer at my parents' house.
Francis and Helen Lilly at their 50th Anniversary celebration.

The chaplain told me my mother had not made it. She had died at the scene. In the street, as I later learned. A passerby had run into St. Barbara's church to fetch the pastor, and he'd given my mom what used to be known as last rites.

My father’s injuries required two emergency surgeries that week, one that very night, another two nights later, just before my mother's wake. He awoke and partially recovered after both surgeries, but he died of his injuries six and a half weeks after that. I’m grateful I had the chance to talk and spend time with him after the crash, but still grieve not only my parent’s deaths but the pain, frustration, and loss my dad suffered as he struggled to recover.

The second stranger to phone me that week called on a weekday evening and left me the kindest message I’ve ever received. She said she was an advocate from an organization I’d never heard of, the Alliance Against Intoxicated Motorists, and she had gotten my information from the prosecutor’s office. I could hear the concern in her voice as she said how sorry she was to hear about my parents. She told me that she would be at the court date on Friday—the driver was in jail and had a hearing that day to see if bail would be set. If I could attend, she would meet me there. If not, she would call and tell me what had happened.

My brothers and I spent that week in my father’s hospital room, the operating room waiting areas, and the funeral home and church, so I did not attend court, though I talked with the prosecutor on the phone. The first time I attended a court hearing, Twyla from AAIM introduced herself and explained what was happening. I was grateful. Much of it I didn’t understand although I am an attorney. The benches for observers were far from the judge, so I couldn't hear what the attorneys were saying, plus other lawyers drifted in and out, talking about their own matters. And our case never seemed to be called at the time we'd been told to be at court. (I learned later this is because many criminal defense lawyers drive between courtrooms all over the Chicago area, so they can't always appear at the precise time set. In addition, those defendants who are in prison are brought in by bus as a group for their court hearings, so when their cases are heard depends upon when they arrive at the courthouse.)

Twyla sat with me each time, talking with me if I wanted to talk, offering silent comfort if I did not. Her support helped me handle my grief and anger, as well as the stress of seeing the driver whose reckless actions caused so much harm. He'd had two DUIs before the night he ran into my parents, and he'd been so intoxicated he'd claimed to not even know he'd hit anyone. After each court hearing, Twyla took me to a nearby coffeehouse. The case continued for nearly a year, and she and I watched the trees and plants near the river behind the coffeehouse change with each season. Her steadfast warmth, encouragement, and good humor helped me pull myself together after each hearing so I could return to my office and work.

Because Twyla's help meant so much to me, eventually I joined AAIM and now serve as its Vice President. I learned about the many other services AAIM provides, including assisting victims where possible with one-time expenses such as bus passes to visit a loved one in the hospital, emergency rent assistance where the household's breadwinner was killed or is so devastated by grief she or he is unable to work, and, sadly, gravestones. AAIM also works hard at educating people about the dangers of DUI and preventing deaths and injuries. On and off for years I've spoken on AAIM panels to first-time DUI offenders in the hope that telling my story will make enough impact that they never risk drinking and driving again.

In that awful time after the crash, I felt I’d never have a normal life again and that nothing could ease the loss and pain. And it’s true, nothing could bring my parents back. But that first voicemail from Twyla is, for me, the essence of what AAIM is all about. In a dark time, a stranger’s kind voice on the telephone kept me moving forward, believing in people, and looking for the good in this world. For that, I will be forever grateful to AAIM.

This month, AAIM is celebrating its 25th annual event to raise funds for victims on the evening of Saturday, October 24, 2015. If you'd like to attend, to buy raffle tickets, or to donate to support AAIM, call 847-240-0027 ext. 12, or visit AAIM's website.

Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you'd like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.