Saturday, February 25, 2017

(Re)Introducing MJ Bennett - My hero for 28 years.

As a writer, you come to love all of your characters, even the bad ones, as your babies. Truth be told, though, there are some that sneak a little farther into your heart than the others. Some have been with you a long time. Some have taken some of your best (or worst) qualities and defeated demons that maybe you haven't quite been able to defeat on your own yet. If you're lucky, some become your heroes.

I've loved once such character since I was nineteen years old. In 1989 I was in a tough spot, probably the toughest I've ever been in. I was homeless in Los Angeles, living out of my car, without anything to hold onto except that I was in love, and I was sure that something better was coming despite all the evidence otherwise.

Ever since I watched Three's Company as a little kid, I always wanted to live in California. I wanted to be near the ocean, smack dab in the middle of the action. I loved entertainment. Movies, TV, music... I wanted to be right in the midst of it all. Even in all my yearbooks, there were promises of reaching those golden shores. It was always my goal.

Of course, it didn't happen like I had hoped it would happen. I had dreamed of going there, living in a cramped beachfront apartment with my bestie, as I worked my way through college - UCLA, of course. Instead, I ended up living in the back of a 1977 Buick LeSabre with my then boyfriend, Dan. We arrived in Los Angeles early 1989 with a few hundred dollars in our pockets and a dream of something better than the dead-end we'd found in Amarillo, Texas.

Unfortunately L.A. didn't work like Amarillo, and a few hundred dollars wasn't even close to enough to covering everything. We were out of money in a minute. When we reached another dead-end with my family in California, we ended up living on the streets for six months. We parked behind a grocery store in Van Nuys, next to a railroad where Amtrak trains would scream past a pretty deserted street no one ever drove down unless they needed to.

That LeSabre became our apartment, thanks to a couple of towels we'd stick in the windows for some privacy. Through the unemployment agency, I started taking some computer classes I could pay for later, after I got a job, while Dan worked day labor to keep gas in the car and food somewhat in our stomach. Some days were more of a challenge than others. I remember distinctly prowling the floorboards of our car just for a few dimes to pay for $0.33 tacos from Taco Bell. That's when you know you're broke.

Sometimes we ended up rooting through the trash of that grocery store, in hopes to find stuff that had expired and been thrown away, even though it was still edible. My baloney's first name in those days? "Expired."

Once a week we'd get a hotel room, for a bed, for a shower, for shelter. TV became a luxury.

There wasn't a whole lot to do to entertain ourselves in the downtime. We started going to parks. Griffith Park, in particular, was a favorite. With my limited diet and extra exercise, I even managed to dip below 200lbs for the first time in years.

Funny thing when you don't belong anywhere. You have no claim to anywhere. I didn't feel right *anywhere* or around anyone. Mostly I'd sit in the car and listen to music, my constant companion (and comfort) since I was nine. And, just like other times in my life, it became a muse. One memorable day I heard "Welcome to the Jungle" by GNR. It had been a favorite since it came out in 1987, but suddenly it had a lot more meaning.

This wasn't just a "song" anymore. It was now playing in heavy rotation on the soundtrack of my personal experience. And it was terrifying. So I dealt with it the way I always dealt with it. I wrote about it.

The idea started like many do. It was sparked by a question. What if? What would happen? What about? What if I had been younger when I landed in Los Angeles? What if I had been alone? What if I had no car, which felt like a mansion in comparison to living out of boxes or tents or under blankets like other, less fortunate, homeless did?

Yes, even in the midst of the most outrageous poverty I'd ever known, I still knew how to recognize what privileges I had. I was raised Southern Baptist, where you were trained to be thankful even for the crap that happened to you - because there was always someone else who had it worse.

So what if I was all those things, and I needed someone else to save me?

For someone like me, the idea of being "saved" wasn't a comfortable one. So this thought, born out of necessity, had me contemplate how a hero for me might take shape. He would have to embody everything I already idolized about Dan, so naturally this meant a rebel. And since conservative rules had never really worked out for me, I didn't mind if this new hero had to live outside the law, or the conventions of society. I decided to make him a biker, because I already knew from Dan they were fearless. They were the cowboys who rode upon steel horses, with a code of honor all their own. Likewise mine would be, riding his Harley in search of the vulnerable to save them, to protect them.

He'd have to appreciate art even in his violence, trading garish gun violence for eloquent, poetic martial arts. There would have to be something deeper about him than a thug or a brute.

As I developed this hero, I had a clear idea of what this person would mean for my vulnerable runaway. It was never romantic, because the hero would be so much older than the person he was trying to save. That was when the most important "what if" occurred to me:

What if it wasn't a man?

Back in those days, action films starred big tough guys and girls were mostly the victims or the shiny decoration. I knew this because this was also back in the good girlfriend (or wannabe girlfriend) days, when I'd watch scores of these kinds of movies just because Dan liked them. I rarely had anyone to identify with, and often got mad at the "good girls" who fell for these atypical men. That Kelly Lynch character in Road House drove me to distraction. I straight up wanted to cut a bitch. I was tired of those goodie goodie wastes of estrogen, who needed the bad boy to come and save them, because they were too damned caught up in being proper. What if my bad-ass biker hero was a chick instead? One who needed no hero for herself, and instead lived her life in such a way she was a hero to everyone else?

Back in 1989 this was a novel idea to me.

Thus MJ Bennett was born.

I poured everything I wanted to be into this character in a time when I felt none of these qualities. I wanted her to be tough. To be fearless. To be strong. She was a tough nut to crack, like me, but inside of her there was this amazing heart that cared more than it should. And she had the scars to prove it.

I wanted her wounded but powerful. Flawed and unapologetic. Beautiful but thorny and forbidding to touch, like a rose. I wanted all the complexities that come with being a woman, because only we are allowed to be soft and hard at the same time. I'm not ashamed to say I fell in love with her precisely because of those contradictions.

She came alive on those notebook pages as I wrote the story down long-hand. My first full-length novel was conceived in the front seat of that LeSabre, where I would go on to labor and deliver it in a Buick parked next to some railroad tracks. In a very real way, she saved me. She gave me hope of things that could be. Things I could be. It pained me for decades that I couldn't write her story as well as it deserved to be told. I loved her too much. I was afraid to hurt her. This is a horrible spot for a writer to be in. I had a lot to learn yet, about writing and about life. I needed time to get into her head, to save myself from several tight spots all on my own.

To become my own hero.

In 2014 I finally gathered the courage it took to rewrite the story. This landed me my first literary manager, which resulted in my first traditional book deal. Not unlike moving to L.A. in 1989 on a wing and a prayer, a lot of this didn't turn out like I had hoped it would. Let's just say I'm still digging for change out of my floorboard. But there were so many lessons I learned from that as well, with unexpected highlights that literally might throw open the door to *all* of my goals, not just the one where I get to see MJ come to life in a book.

For that reason, I brought her home to me, so I can give her once again to you. It's MJ and me against the world, which it always has been for damn near 30 years.

I think we're both ready. More than anything I want you to know her. More than anything I know you will love her.

If you love my romances, there is love to be had in this book. If you love my sagas, there is angst and suspense galore. If you love my heroines, my flawed, imperfect, bad-ass, no fucks given heroines, MJ is and always has been my queen. She will not disappoint you.

If you need a hero... if you need a good guy to win, someone oppressed to fight against the system, to rise up and defeat evil that seeks to do harm on the most vulnerable...

MJ Bennett is that hero.

She is my magnum opus. And I knew that she would be since I was nineteen years old.

This is MJ, who has the knack of showing up right when someone needs her the most.

Haley rounded the corner as quietly as she could. For once, being short and slight worked in her favor. She flattened herself against the brick building as she drew closer. She could see Todd on his knees, his nose already bloodied from a punch.

The hum of electricity from a nearby transformer made her hair stand on end. She watched one of the attackers caress the side of Todd’s beautiful face with the sharp tip of his switchblade. “Maybe we should just pull his teeth out one by one. He doesn’t need them anyway, since he’s nothing more than some fucking little cocksucker.”

She could tell that Todd was scared, but he said nothing. He didn’t even bother to fight back. He endured, just like he endured all the other things he had to do to survive. He stayed submissive on his knees as one of his attackers held him by his long hair. The other shrugged out of his jacket, revealing a muscled torso that bulged against a tight white wife beater tank top. This action revealed a bold sleeve tattoo on his right arm, which featured a goat’s head and a pentagram.

It was exactly like the towering statue in Isbecky’s bedroom.

With a gasp, she turned away—right into the chest of yet another young man wearing the same dark clothes and tennis shoes.

“What do we have here?” he mused, smiling down at her. “Haley, is it? The boss is going to be real happy to see you again.”

Before she could bolt, he twisted her arm behind her back and forced her over to his other companions, where Todd was still down on his knees.

“We found her,” the new aggressor told his friends. “Let’s go.”

“Nuh-uh,” the one in front of Todd said, unzipping his jeans. “I ain’t done yet.”

The one holding her chuckled. “I guess we got some time.” He shoved Haley down to her knees next to Todd. “We can’t touch you, but you can watch. Maybe you’ll learn something.”

She tried to look away as the assailant exposed himself, but her captor turned her head, forcing her to look on. Her scrambled brain struggled to process the noise of the city just feet from where she sat, terrified. Her mind raced, trying to think of what she could say or do to save herself and to save Todd. All hope seemed lost.

And that was when she heard another sound rising in the distance, cutting through the city noise. It was low at first, like the roar of a lion in the distance. The ground vibrated beneath her as the sound grew louder and more distinct, with the chest-rattling rumble of thunder.

But that couldn’t be right. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

Yet a storm was coming, and it arrived on a black Heritage Softail that jumped the corner and skidded right into the alley.

Haley’s elation that they might be saved was short-lived. The rider took off the matching black helmet, revealing a long braid of copper-red hair and piercing green eyes surrounded by heavy dark makeup.

It was a woman.

This sight took everyone in the alley off guard. She took her time dismounting, making sure that her helmet was in place and her leather jacket was slung over the side. She stood at her full height. Though she seemed slight next to the massive bike, she wasn’t dainty by any means. In fact, she was probably the most striking woman that Haley had ever seen. She wore her black T-shirt and jeans like a second skin, and her thick biker boots added another two inches to her height, for a total of five feet and eight inches. There were fingerless leather riding gloves on her hands and a worn American flag bandana secured around one wrist.

The woman spotted the half-naked aggressor in front of Todd. She adopted a smirk and crossed her arms against her chest. “What’s he supposed to do? Pick his teeth with that thing?”

Haley heard the pop of a spring-loaded switchblade near her ear. Her captor tugged her head back by her hair and laid the cool metal against her vulnerable neck.

“He’s gonna get a mouthful of my cock,” the other assailant said. “Get on your knees and I’ll give you some too.”

“I really don’t think you have enough to go around, Junior.” The man’s expression darkened, but she was undaunted. “How about you let these kids go so we can all party together?”

“Naw.” He shook his head. “But maybe we’ll start with you.”

The woman barely moved as he approached her, almost as if she were inviting him to do so. Haley watched breathlessly as the man grabbed the woman by the wrist. In one fluid motion she stepped toward him with her right foot, which he clearly wasn’t expecting. She used his own momentum against him to lift the wrist he thought he had captured and ram her elbow right into his chin.

The action was so graceful and so quick that his head jerked back like a candy dispenser. He didn’t even see it coming. In that split second of confusion, she grabbed his body and rammed her knee right into his solar plexus. He fell backwards onto the ground, gasping for breath.

His two companions released Todd and Haley to advance on this mysterious biker, who was now a larger threat. Though Todd had the good sense to quickly dart out of sight, Haley stayed right where she was, transfixed by the fight unfolding in front of her. The street was just feet away. She could easily have bolted. She could have gone for help.

Instead she found herself compelled to watch as the two thugs tried to circle this odd woman. She stepped backward, keeping her eyes on both assailants as they brandished their weapons and prepared for battle. The one closest to her unraveled the chain he wore around his waist, and they laughed when her eyes widened. Their laughter quickly subsided when she took a step toward the man with the chain. He raised it like a whip, but when it came down, she caught it up near his own hand, her leather gloves taking the brunt of the impact. Like before, she brought her attacker into her body, and right into that knee, until he too was winded by a decisive blow to the solar plexus. He gasped for air. His buddy’s switchblade clattered to the ground, and he took off for the safety of the busy street.

The woman turned her attention towards Haley, who was the only person left standing in the alley. “You okay?” she asked. Haley thought she nodded, but she was too stunned to know for sure.

Who is she? Who isn't she? Find out this April as I re-release CHASING THUNDER under my own imprint. For a limited time, you can one-click now at $0.99. The price will be going up closer to the publication date to it's final $3.99 price, so buy quickly to save more. This will be an Amazon Exclusive for at least 90 days, which will definitely be a treat for all my KU fans.

Take a chance, get to know MJ Bennett. She's always been my hero. Maybe, just maybe, she can be yours, too.

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