Ringing True Excerpt: Expanding the Circle

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Justin and Shelby have by now created The Numbers, the text that contains the beliefs of the new religion (as yet unnamed). After discussing possible methods for getting the word out, they settle on the idea of focus groups but have no idea how to secure a place where these focus groups can meet. They agree that Justin should approach Theo (one of his roommates), because Theo has connections with the Seattle music scene and one of them might know of a suitable venue. Justin accompanies Theo and his girlfriend Emmy (both of whom would qualify as “somewhat nerdy”) to a gig featuring their favorite local band, Acoustic Disturbance. After discussing Emmy’s sick cat on the way to the event, they arrive at Pioneer Square in Seattle.

At the time, Pioneer Square was in one of its frequent periods of slight cultural decline due to a combination of a city clampdown after the 2001 Mardi Gras riots, well-publicized incidents of street crime and the persistent appearance of new sports bars creeping out from the recently constructed stadiums. The music scene, centered in Pioneer Square during the heyday of grunge, had dispersed throughout the city, but there were still a few credible venues in the neighborhood. Justin always felt a combination of comfort and anxiety being there. He felt comfort because Pioneer Square was one of the few places in Seattle dominated by brick; anxiety because he knew that brick was not the architectural material of choice in an earthquake zone. Still, he liked the preservation of the old State Hotel sign advertising rooms for seventy-five cents and the faded paint advertising business establishments that hadn’t done business in decades. The dim lighting from the triple-globed street lamps may have contributed to street crime, but had the virtue of providing the scene with a sense of romance and mystery. As he walked with Theo and Emmy through the tree-lined streets and dark alleys to the Colourbox, kicking up leaves and cigarette butts with his shoes, taking in the shouts and smells of the already-inebriated, Justin felt that old Vancouver feeling coming back. He loved the diversity of a city.

Acoustic Disturbance was second on the bill, which meant that Justin had to endure a lame two-person retro-grunge band with very little in the way of talent. Theo and Emmy, on the other hand, cheered loudly after every number and sang along to the cover songs, gazing into each other’s eyes as if they were a husband-and-wife duet on a 1960’s variety show. The impromptu duets allowed Justin to marvel at their physical differences. While Theo was loose and gangly like a toy soldier with broken springs, Emmy was tight and very well-contained. Theo dressed in baggy t-shirts, baggy pants and floppy shoes; Emmy dressed like the stereotypical librarian, with a sweater buttoned at the top serving as a makeshift shawl to cover her thoroughly buttoned blouse. While Theo’s hair refused to form a recognizable shape, Emmy’s brown hair was pulled back tight into a bun that refused to allow a single strand to escape from its clutches. Justin smiled as they stared wholesomely into each other’s glasses, singing away, oblivious to their dissimilarities.

As the bands swapped equipment, Justin and Theo engaged in raised-voice conversation while Emmy twitched to the filler music.

“So, man, this is terrible, Mega Software and all. If you need any help, you just let me know,” offered Theo.

“Well, I need some help finding a stage,” said Justin offhandedly.

“A stage? Do you—you don’t play—I’ve never seen you play—what do you play?”

“Nothing,” Justin responded.

“Then why do you need a stage?” Theo asked, now quite puzzled.

Justin wasn’t ready to disclose to the world that he was a religious icon in the making, so he just said, “It’s a long story.”

“What kind of stage?”

“Something simple—cheap—something with a curtain—a place that could seat maybe thirty or so.”

Theo thought for a minute and said, “Let me talk to Tommy.”

“Who’s Tommy?”

“Tommy’s the bass player for Acoustic Disturbance. He’s sort of the leader? But don’t let the other guys hear you say that.”

“Why talk to Tommy?”

“Oh, man, they rented this space? Kind of over near First Hill? And they signed a lease and everything, thinking they were going to use it as their practice space? But they played so loud that they got complaints and the landlord told ‘em they couldn’t play with amps anymore. And get this—the landlord still wants them to pay for the place and they can’t even use it. This one’s going to court, man.”

“So how do you know about it?”

“Oh, I work with Tommy—he does the coolest graphics—and sometimes they let me hear them practice.”

“Ah,” said Justin. “So, what’s the place like?”

“Well, that’s why I thought of it. It used to be a space for this theater company that went under? So it’s got a stage and some curtains and they even left some of the lights. That’s what they liked about the space—the stage.”

“Sounds promising.”

“You’re not going to have any drums or amps or anything like that?”

Justin shook his head, “No, no—it’s just—like talking.”

“Okay—let me talk to Tommy. He’s really cool. I bet they’d even let you use their practice sound system if it’s still there.”

“Cool,” said Justin, terminating the conversation. He felt uncomfortable because Theo was being so nice while he was keeping a secret. He looked around the club and pretended to notice people for a while, like he was on the make but rather shy about it. Finally he broke down and leaned over to Theo.

“After the set I’ll tell you what it’s all about.”

Theo broke out into a huge happy smile. “Cool!” he said.

*****

It was easy to forget about inconspicuous little Emmy and Justin had done just that. After Acoustic Disturbance had finished (leaving Justin seriously wondering about Theo’s taste in music), the three of them walked outside and looked for a relatively quiet place between the streams of people moving between clubs and away from the homeless who sometimes wandered into the middle of the throng. It wasn’t until they found a small cranny in the entrance of an old building that Justin remembered that Emmy was with them, and with no graceful way out, Justin resigned himself to doubling the size of the inner circle.

Justin didn’t know where to start. After several false starts, he finally said, “This is going to sound crazy.”

Theo showed a look of patient concern and Emmy followed his cue and did the same. “It’s cool, man—it’s your thing—if you don’t want to tell us, we’ll understand.”

Because Theo meant it, Justin lurched forward.

“Shelby and I have started to—have created what we think is going to be a new—new—new . . .” Justin got hung up on the word “religion” for it sounded so pompous.

“A new world movement . . . we need to kind of test it out with some people,” Justin finally choked out.

Theo’s face was a blank, so Emmy went blank, too.

“You mean like a political movement—against the war or something?”

“No, no, more like a, like a—oh, the hell with it—a religious movement.”

Theo now looked thunderstruck. Emmy did not mimic this, but squeezed his arm in a gesture of concern.

“Religion? Wow, man, I never pegged you as that kind of person,” Theo said quietly.

“Well, it’s not your typical religion—we invented sort of a non-religious religion,” said Justin, groping to explain. “We need a space to try out the message and I figured you might know someone who knows someone.”

“So, you want like some kind of space for like a church?” Theo said, still trying to get his fuzzy head around the fuzzy idea.

“No, man—there’s no church. There’s just a message. No rules, no rituals, no priests. Nothing but a message: to try to stop people from doing mean things to each other.”

“I like that!” came Emmy out of nowhere.

Theo looked at Emmy, who nodded, which in turn removed any lingering doubt Theo had. Suddenly, Justin felt Theo hugging him.

“That is so cool! Yeah! Stop all that bullshit!” he shouted into the night, releasing Justin from his grasp.

“Well, now that the cat is out . . .” started Justin.

“Poor Myrtle,” Emmy interrupted.

Justin paused in memory of Myrtle, then took Theo by the shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “Now, don’t tell anyone about this—especially, and I mean especially, Matthias.”

Theo looked horrified. “Oh, no, man, I don’t tell that dude anything.”

Justin seemed relieved.

“So you’ll talk to Tommy.”

“Yeah, yeah—I’ll go find him right now.” He ran across the street and disappeared into the throngs of clubbers, shouting, “This is so cool!”

Justin turned and looked at Emmy, who was just standing there smiling.

“Theo’s a great guy,” said Justin.

Emmy’s smile brightened up the night. “I know—a great guy.” Justin thought he heard her giggle.

“And I have to tell you—I—” Justin paused in mid-sentence as a little “uh-oh” went off in his mind when he realized he was talking to Emmy.

“What do you want to tell me?”

“Ah, it’s nothing—”

“Oh! Well, I just thought, you know, well, you know.”

Justin looked at Emmy and considered the possibility that she wasn’t an airhead, but simply someone who had a hard time communicating. He decided to throw her a lifeline.

“Would you like to help us?” Justin asked.

Emmy gave Justin another bright smile and said, “Ah! Well! Thank you! I’ll do—I’d love to—well, you know.”

“Yeah, I know. I’ll send you guys our little ‘bible.’”

Emmy stood there gushing, speechless, flabbergasted and then said, “Send the ‘bible.’”

“But like I said to Theo—keep it under your hat. We’re still working things out—and I just think, you know, well, you know.”

Emmy brightened up so much Justin thought the heat would burst her skin. “I know!” she said, with great excitement.

Ringing True: The Characters

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64-Gwendolyn and Shelby No Makeup

Reviewers have said some nice things about the characters in Ringing True.

“The characters are diverse, rich and genuine and the dialogue in the book is truly OUTSTANDING.”

“Multifaceted characters with rich back-stories . . . you will find many places for your empathy to hook on to.”

So, I thought I’d take the opportunity of an open spot on the blog schedule to tell you about these people whom I came to know intimately during the writing of Ringing True.

Justin Raines grew up in the Chicago burbs, the only child of two workaholic parents. At the start of the book, he finds himself living in another burb outside of Seattle interning at the Mega Software Company. Good-looking, ex-barista, living a life according to expectations, naive about the real world and constantly surprised by it, but on the surface, a typical nice guy. But beneath that surface there is a deep and genuine concern about the hatred, violence and greed consuming the human race. This concern exists only in formless, disconnected thoughts that he keeps purely to himself until he meets Shelby Mirabeau, who opens up new possibilities for Justin . . . possibilities he is unsure he wants to face.

Shelby Mirabeau is a free spirit who ignored the chamomile influence of her New Age parents to become an insightful observer of the human species. Open-minded to a fault, improvisational and stunningly non-judgmental, she encourages Justin to open up and share his inner secrets. Through the all-encompassing magic of Shelby-logic, she manages to convince a reluctant Justin to work with her to create a new religion for modern times (a religion they later name Ringing True). As they move through failure and stunning success, Shelby changes in ways she could never have imagined, but without ever compromising her essence.

Matthias Bender: The poster-child for American techno-capitalism, Matthias is a thoroughly selfish, driven and devilishly charming individual. When their maiden attempts at launching their religion fail miserably, Shelby convinces the always-cautious Justin to enlist his help. Matthias takes over the launch and eventually positions himself as President and CEO of Ringing True, Inc, a position he intends to use for a completely different purpose than to spread the world-saving message embedded in the religion.

Theo is the roommate who shares an apartment with Justin and Matthias and seems very much the prototypical Seattle geek. An employee of a video game developer who lives and breathes technology, he is also a devotee of a talent-challenged Seattle band known as Acoustic Disturbance who seem unlikely to break into the charts any time in the near or distant future. It is this sense of loyalty that leads him to unquestionably support Justin and Shelby in their efforts to launch a new religion, and once the decision is made that cyberspace is the key to getting the word out, Theo and his girlfriend Emmy become the gurus of ringingtrue.com. Theo is an unusually nice person, a hopeless slob and a great friend.

Emmy: With her hair in a tight bun and her glasses melted into her face, Emmy could have been cast for walk-on roles in any film needing a librarian. Somewhat rusty when it comes to social skills (much like her partner Theo), her thoughts tend to spill out in tiny, seemingly unconnected snippets, placing a heavy demand on the patience of her listeners. She is in fact an organizational and technical wizard who shares Theo’s sense of loyalty while enhancing that loyalty with a passion for home and hearth. While the others act out from time to time, Emmy always remains Emmy.

Gwendolyn Marks: An enormously talented and successful film actress with two Oscar nominations under her belt, Gwendolyn has reached that point in life where the search for meaning begins. Part of that search involves retreats in faraway places, and part of it involves surfing the Web. Introduced to Ringing True by a film crew, she becomes a serious student of the new religion. A chance appearance on a popular talk show leads to a meeting with Justin and Matthias, leading to a transformation of Ringing True that will either open the door to great possibilities or open a Pandora’s box of power politics and intrigue (or both).

Dwayne Barker: The ultimate empty suit. Business manager for Gwendolyn Marks. Speaks in a monotone with an accent reminiscent of a crisp polo shirt.

Sidney: Matthias’ executive assistant. Sidney was manufactured for a future career as Chief of Staff in the Bush III administration. I hope people get the “Clear it with Sidney” reference.

Tommy:  Tommy is a graphic artist of the fantasy genre and the leader of Acoustic Disturbance.

Although I certainly didn’t think of it when writing the book, I have tried to guess what each character’s Myers-Briggs type would be. It’s difficult with twenty-somethings because they are so changeable and diverse (which is also why they are so fun to work with). My best guesses would be: Matthias, ENTJ; Shelby, ESFP; Theo, ISFP; Emmy, INTJ; and Justin: INFP (with the I oscillating to an E at times).

©2010 Robert Morrow. Ringing True is available in e-book, hardcover and paperback formats on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s and many other booksellers. Go to www.ringingtrue.com for a current listing of online retailers.

Ringing True Excerpt: The Great Idea

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Where Shelby First Proposed a New World Religion to a Flabbergasted Justin

They jumped into the Beetle and sputtered over to Capitol Hill. On the way Justin told Shelby more about life at Mega Software. She laughed in pain with him. “Jesus—that sounds awful. I wonder how those people got so damaged.”

“I don’t know and I really don’t care. Try to imagine living your whole life like that.”

“Sounds like S&M without the fun.”

“Yeah, but you wouldn’t want to see any of those people in leather.”

Shelby found a back-in spot on Tenth Avenue and they stumbled over to Caffé Vita. After waiting in line without complaint for two perfectly-executed cappuccinos, they decided to sit downstairs where their conversation wouldn’t disturb the laptop geeks who always seemed to fill the upstairs seating area.

Shelby picked up where she left off.

“It’s hard to describe—something was definitely going on inside. I knew only one thing for sure—I was finally done with learning mode, at least in the traditional sense. And I think the experience on the plane convinced me that what I’d learned in college had been pretty much a waste anyway, so to hell with learning. I wanted to do something!

“Anyway, I don’t know if I ever told you, but when I’m ready to go through major changes, I get this incredible urge to sleep, like my dreams are pulling me inside, demanding that I pay attention. I had tons of dreams in BA. I don’t remember most of them, but there was one that finally cleared the fog from my head.

“It was you and me. We were out on the deck like we used to be but we were surrounded by a film crew—I don’t know why. We were just talking as always, and they’d move in for close-ups on our faces like what we were saying was like the most monumental pronouncements imaginable. Then somehow it became more of an interview format, and I was interviewing you. At first I didn’t know what I was interviewing you about, but I hung in there, confident and smiling, just like those bimbos on the morning shows.”

“How did I do?” Justin asked.

“You sucked,” Shelby laughed.

“Not surprised,” Justin smiled. “Couldn’t even imagine it in a dream.”

“But the dream got me thinking about seeing myself as someone who right now would be impossible for me or for anyone I know to imagine. I liked that.”

“So . . . you’re going to launch a career in broadcast journalism,” Justin snickered.

Years later he would still remember the look that appeared on her face when she looked up from her coffee. Only one word could describe that look: wicked.

“No. Something much better,” Shelby smiled. A wicked smile.

Justin felt himself getting curiously tense. “What?” he said.

“You’re part of it, too,” she smiled.

Justin was now even more uncomfortable, and said nothing.

“Ready?”

Justin took the plunge. “Okay—what?”

“You and I are going to be the founders of a new world religion.”

–From Ringing True

©2010 Robert Morrow. Ringing True is available in e-book, hardcover and paperback formats on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s and many other booksellers. Go to www.ringingtrue.com for a current listing of online retailers.

Author Q&A with Robert Morrow

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Seattle sunset

Q: Ringing True is both the title of the book and the name of the religion in the book. Was it your hope that the religion might take off and develop a following?

A: Not at all. It’s been interesting that some of the early readers have responded positively to what is called “The Numbers,” the name of the religion’s text. One reader remarked about its essential humanity being something people everywhere could agree on. It’s very validating, but if you read “The Numbers”, the religion isn’t about gaining followers. It’s about encouraging people to accept responsibility without having to follow anyone or anything. Ringing True is essentially an empowering religion, so my intention is to spread empowerment and encourage people to figure things out for themselves.

Q: Even though the religion is described as a “world religion,” most of the institutions and norms that are satirized in the book are American. Ringing True seems to be a very American novel.

A: Yes and no. America is so globally influential it’s hard to have a discussion about many parts of the world without also describing their relationship to America. For good and ill, our power and culture are omnipresent. One of the characters comes back from South America and says, “We are everywhere.” One thing you always hear from natives in other countries is how loud Americans are – and we are, in terms of both volume and in presence. The primary object of the satire is the American media, which is certainly loud enough to be heard around the globe. But, I also take on American corporations, religious zealots, Hollywood and other “American icons” that have a stunningly powerful influence the world over.

Q: You introduce a bisexual character into the mix. What was behind that?

A: The simple answer is that I lived in San Francisco for years and learned that loving relationships can come in many forms. Confronting the things that are uncomfortable is part of what gives satire its power. Many Americans are still uncomfortable with non-traditional relationships and, frankly, they need to get over it. Why worry about the ways adults can love each other when we have millions of them killing each other? That’s an example of seriously skewed priorities. 

Q: A lot of the book deals with fame. What was your purpose behind this theme?

A: Fame has to be the most overrated value in the world. With reality television, competition shows and programming like Jerry Springer, it’s stunning how many people are willing to humiliate themselves to have their faces on the TV screen. And as far as the truly famous are concerned, I think fame can have the debilitating effect of separating a person from the talent that made him or her famous in the first place. Fame is primarily based on the myth of the power of an individual – sort of a superhero characteristic. This is why actors get all the attention despite the fact that film is an incredibly collaborative enterprise.  No actor is going to be remembered for a great performance if the sound is mangled, the lighting wrong, the direction shabby, the make-up applied incorrectly. I think my basic message is similar to that of the religion in the book: let’s stop elevating and worshipping others and realize that we all have something valuable to contribute to each other and to our world.

Q: You certainly take capitalism to task in many ways – lay-offs, waste, politics, jobs without meaning. How would you fix it?

A: Well, you certainly won’t find the answer in more government regulation because all that does is drive the corruption underground and empower the rule-makers. Having been an executive, I can say that too many of my former executive colleagues lack a sense of responsibility to others – one of the three key responsibilities in the book’s religion. They can say they’re responsible to the shareholders, but that’s often a convenient mask for their own self-interests. You can’t legislate all irresponsible behavior out of existence; it is more of an issue of moral teaching and character. Maybe we should send a copy of Ringing True to all the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies – or just a copy of “The Numbers”.