Inky Inspiration – Ann McMan

As an author, inspiration can come from all things.  It could be the line in a song on the radio, a snippet of conversation on the bus, a dream at night but one of the most important sources of inspiration are other authors.

 Just like a budding sports star in the academy has that legend they look up to, I think it’s equally relevant to anyone who writes that they have heroes to look up to and learn from.

In this segment, I am going to interview fellow authors who have inspired me, those I have learned from and those who have helped me on my writing journey so far.

Ann McMan - Famous Author
Ann McMan – Famous Author

Ann McMan is the author of four novels, Jericho, Dust, Aftermath, and Hoosier Daddy, and the short story collections Sidecar and Three. In 2011, Ann, along with her novels Jericho and Dust was elected to The Royal Academy of Bards Hall of Fame. In 2012, she was awarded the Alice B. Lavender Certificate for outstanding debut novel. Her story collection Sidecar won the 2012 Rainbow Award for Best Lesbian Contemporary General Fiction, and Jericho won Honourable Mention in the same category. Both Jericho and Dust were finalists for Golden Crown Literary Awards in 2012.

Ann was one of 25 emerging authors invited to write an introductory essay for the Lambda Literary Foundation’s 25 for 25: An Anthology of Works by 25 Outstanding LGBT Authors and Those They Inspired. Her book, Sidecar, won a 2013 Golden Crown Literary Society Award for best short story collection. Her novel Aftermath was a finalist winner for a 2013 Rainbow Award. More recently, her novel Hoosier Daddy was a 2014 Lambda Literary finalist, and her short story collection, Three, won a 2014 Golden Crown Literary Award.

 

 “And I learned something about great writing. It’s great for a reason. It moves you. Challenges you. Changes you. It shakes you up by reaching down inside you to all those places where you think you’re comfortable, and it systematically blows them all to smithereens.” — Ann McMan, about re-visiting the works of William Faulkner.

 

 

Hello Ann, thanks for dropping by. I thought we’d start at the beginning of your writing journey (Perhaps a little further on than ‘free upper Volta’ though.) What authors inspired you growing up and was it always your dream to be a writer?

Jody, you do me a great service by inviting me to participate in this inky endeavor. Thank you for the opportunity to steal some time away from the madding crowd and look back over the rocky terrain that defines my writer’s life.

 Did I always want to be a writer? No. Truthfully, I never I thought I could DO it, so I never tried. Like a handful of others, I did myself the simultaneous service and disservice of actually reading all those great books that were assigned throughout my school years. The combined press of all the erudition, insight, beauty of expression, and just plain chutzpah that filled those volumes was tantamount to the rocks they used to pile atop suspected infidels during ancient witchcraft ordeals. I was crushed beneath the weight of great perfection, and the only thing that withered inside me was any belief I might have had that I could, one day, write a good book, too.

 Oh…the whole witchcraft thing went south, too….

 I don’t mean to be moribund here. I really don’t. I just believe that any daydream I may have had about one day joining the ranks of the great literati was always too tempered by a realistic appreciation for what that actually entailed. Or, to quote Elizabeth Bennet, “Everything nourishes what is strong already. But if it be only a slight, thin sort of inclination, I am convinced that one good sonnet will starve it entirely away.”

 The list of authors who inspired (and humbled me) growing up is probably too long to include here—unless you want to serialize my answer? But I’ll go out on a limb and give you a short list. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Isabel Allende, Doris Lessing, Agatha Christie, Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Doris Betts, Eudora Welty, and, of course, Gene Zion (I really loved all those Harry the Dirty Dog books).

You happen to be a slight Jane Austen fan (like me,) what impact has her work had on your writing?

I bore people at cocktail parties when I explain that my great mentors are (in this order): Joni Mitchell, Woody Allen, Charles Dickens, and Jane Austen. Anyone who’s ever read any of my books probably wouldn’t have any difficulty pointing out their influences. I love to use epic conventions—I do a lot of cataloguing and exhibit an unnatural fondness for excessive statement. But Jane Austen? Oh, my. She taught me everything about how to structure a scene—and about how to show the richness of someone’s internal life. You could allege that nothing really happens in her books, when, in fact, everything happens. The richness and complexity of what appear to be the simplest interactions are carried out with depth and precision. Austen wrote about small things in a very big way. She teaches us volumes about how to observe (and understand) the ways that everyday people navigate their everyday lives. I compare Austen novels to those wonderful see-through frog diagrams that used to be the hallmarks of really good encyclopaedias—the ones that had four, five, or six translucent overlays that showed you how the muscles, organs, and various skeletal, digestive, and circulatory systems all worked together. Coolness personified. Well…her books are exactly like that—without the graphic depiction of small intestines, of course. One of my favorite, guilty pastimes is to cruise the vaults at the Republic of Pemberley (www.pemberley.com) and dip into the “Lady Catherine & Co.” chat room. Here, you may seek advice and counsel—but only if you do so in the guise and style of an Austen character. You never know whom you might end up engaging…I’m told that many famous Janeophiles are serial lurkers.

 

 Xena: Warrior Princess was in its heyday on television then, and I’m sure you already know what an explosion of original, fan fiction followed in its wake. I remember, fondly, all those late nights I spent hunched over my ancient Macintosh with my sometimes-working dial-up modem, reading every story I could find on the “Internets.”

 

Fan fiction, the Academy of Bards, when and how did you come to be involved and how important for you was that exposure?

It was essential. I found the Academy of Bards and The Athenaeum when I was freshly “out,” and desperate for more to read than was, at that time, readily accessible in any of the commercial outlets. I even got a job working part time in a gay bookstore, just so I could have greater access to the commercially published works that were available. Alas, most of what the store carried that was specific to lesbians (apart from all the healing and self-help books—which were legion) was the same set of about forty-eight titles I’d already ploughed through during my first six weeks of being a freshly-minted, baby dyke.

 Xena: Warrior Princess was in its heyday on television then, and I’m sure you already know what an explosion of original, fan fiction followed in its wake. I remember, fondly, all those late nights I spent hunched over my ancient Macintosh with my sometimes-working dial-up modem, reading every story I could find on the “Internets.” Some of our best and most lauded storytellers got their starts writing Xena fanfic—and are proud to proclaim it. Through the Academy, I discovered writers like KG MacGregor and Susan X. Meagher—writers who still inspire me (and all of us) today.

So it was no accident that when I finally did write a novel, the first places I shared it were the Academy and the Athenaeum. I never had any aspirations to publish—all of that came later as a happy side effect of posting the book for free online. I will always be supremely grateful to the readers and followers of those sites—and never lose sight of the debt of gratitude I owe them for granting me such a warm welcome, and providing me with so much kind and useful feedback on my stories. They are, and will, I think, continue to be my dearest and most ardent fans—and I will always strive to be better as a way to honor their trust in me.

Where did you get the inspiration for Jericho, what made you decide on that title?

One of the sage bits of wisdom I recall from the great southern writer Doris Betts is that we should always write what we know.  So when I decided, finally, to try my hand at writing a book, I sat down and thought about the things I knew. There weren’t many. I knew about where I lived: the south. I knew about being a librarian: it was my first job out of college. I knew about what it was like to live in a community full of odd and quirky characters: I was related to most of them. I also knew a little about what it was like to come out at age thirty. So I decided to set my book in a small, Virginia town—modelled after the small, Virginia town where my parents lived. And I thought it might be fun to explore what happened when a straight librarian met a smokin’ hot doctor who was wrestling with some mama angst (something else I knew a bit about).

 What I didn’t know was a whole lot about writing. But it looks like we’ll get to that in the next question.

 Why did I call the book Jericho? I named the town in the story Jericho to parallel the biblical city by the same name. Jericho is a book about the walls we hide behind, and about how love, in all its forms, can topple them. Joni Mitchell’s iconic song, Jericho, was really the catalyst that inspired the name for the town, and the book.

 How has the reaction to the book changed your view on the industry and has life changed for you since its publication?

I owe everything to Jericho. It’s been the gift that keeps on giving—literally and metaphorically. But I will say that the overwhelming response the book got—and continues to get—has really been a mixed blessing. As a serious writer, I want to write the best books I can—and that means I want to grow and branch out into other kinds of storytelling, and explore different styles and themes. That, necessarily, means that the other books I write aren’t little Jericho clones. And that upsets a lot of readers—who can be pretty energetic about expressing their disappointment.  “It’s good, but it’s not Jericho,” is often the most negative sentiment expressed in reviews of my work. Okay. So how do I, as the author, respond to that? Write another Jericho? I don’t think that exercise would respect my readers, who really deserve more from me—and from our entire genre. We have more than one kind of story to tell, and we should encourage each other to work harder to find the best ways to do that.

 Structurally, Jericho is a mess—even though my sainted editor, C.A. Casey, did a yeoman’s job cleaning it up. It’s like a big, meandering, run-on sentence that’s clumsily carved up into chapters that really make no sense. It’s really the story of the love affair I had with a zany cast of characters, and how they blundered around in each other’s lives. Now, don’t misunderstand and think that I’m hating on Jericho. I love this book…with a capital “L.” And I understand and respect that for many, the book is beloved. But I cannot be blind to its flaws. And I think that Jericho, in spite of its sweetly intended, structural weaknesses, taught me how to be a better storyteller…hopefully, one who embeds her work with fewer dangling participles.

Onto Dust, After the success of Jericho, how difficult or easy was it to write another book. What brought Evan Reed into your mind?

 Evan Reed is the parenthetical counterpoint to Jericho’s Maddie Stevenson. Evan Reed is darker, more riddled with angst and self-doubt—and more likely to front-load all of her relationships with the seeds of their own destruction. This takes us back to that whole “write what you know” idea. Evan Reed is a whole lot more like me. So writing Dust was a reflexive, creative reaction to the two years I spent wandering around the loveable, bucolic world of Jericho. I liked Evan’s cranky irreverence. I liked her grudging (and clandestine) faith in God. And I liked writing about her abortive family relationships, because they so nearly paralleled my own (the experiences of Evan Reed’s absentee mother are actually based on my own, late sister’s tragic life, and her similar approach to parenting).

 Was Dust hard to write on the heels of Jericho? No. Oddly enough, it was like a catharsis for me. I wrote most of Dust during the final months of my father’s life—and in the aftermath of my sister’s untimely death. The book was actually published on December 15, the day my father died. I remember driving home that night from the hospice house where my brother and I had been staying with him—distractedly watching from the sidelines, while sadness and elation slugged it out for control of my tired psyche. I think you probably can guess which one won out.

 That also was the month I wrote “Nevermore!” (the first Diz and Clarissa foray). The story was written as my entry in the annual Christmas Bard’s Challenge at The Academy of Bards. The end of the story, when Diz sees a Cardinal in the snow, was written as my private farewell to my father.

When the going gets tough, I look for something to make me smile—or for some ironic twist on misfortune that gives me hope because I realize that I can still laugh at myself.

 And if that fails, I still have twelve-step programs….

 

Aftermath deals with the town recovering from a natural disaster. Was that always the plan to explore the characters in that setting? How difficult (or easy) was it to balance the humour of Syd, Maddie and friends with the seriousness of the storm? 

Aftermath followed Dust, and it seemed natural to me that I would write a book that explored the healing, and lack of healing, that take place after great loss. After all, it’s exactly what I was experiencing in my own life while I worked on it. I’ve already talked about the concerns I had related to the structural flaws of Jericho. Aftermath was also an attempt on my part to address those flaws. It was a laboratory that allowed me to step back into the lives of this small community, and dig around inside the minds and hearts of a broader cast of characters. I used multiple points of view. I went deeper into the lives of players who had been peripheral in the first novel. I developed a rhythm and structure for the chapters and more carefully connected them to each other. I tied up some plot threads, and opened up a few new ones. And all along, I did a balancing act between the sacred and profane. It’s how we live, after all. Comic relief is the thing that keeps us sane—that allows us to inveigh against darkness and hopelessness and keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s always been my survival strategy, at any rate. When the going gets tough, I look for something to make me smile—or for some ironic twist on misfortune that gives me hope because I realize that I can still laugh at myself.

 And if that fails, I still have twelve-step programs….

Which brings us to Sidecar, Three, A Christmas Tree Grows in Baltimore… and Bottle Rocket. How enjoyable was it to write the collections of short stories? Did it take a different approach to the one that you use for full-length novels?

Oh, lord. Short stories are TEN TIMES harder to write than novels. They should each come with a warning label: “don’t try this at home.” Seriously. Think about it. You have to get in, make your point, and get out—all with dispatch. The good ones leave you hanging—and they should, because that’s part of what defines them as an art form. They aren’t just “short books.” They have nothing in common with novels. They have different parts that all work in different ways—and most of them spin in opposite directions. I can’t begin to say that I do them well or understand them as narrative tools, because I honestly understand so very little about what makes them good. I can recognize good ones when I read them, however. Donald Barthelme, Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Eudora Welty…the list goes on and on. Sylvia Plath’s novel, The Bell Jar, is really a collection of ten, perfect short stories. I still don’t know how she pulled that one off.

 But writing them? Or attempting to write them? Yes. It’s different. Very different. Harder. There is an entirely different standard at play. And I’m gratified beyond measure that both of my collections of stories have garnered some critical success—although I’m not really sure why. What is it they say about scientific studies having integrity? The results have to be repeatable. I guess that part remains to be seen.

  Hosier Daddy was written with somebody you know quite well, wasn’t it?

 Um. Yes. That cute little blogger with the great gams and the husky hair (a.k.a. my wife, Salem West)? She gets the co-author credit for Hoosier Daddy. I like to say that she wrote the parts that are most coherent.

 You can read the interview on Barrett’s blog.

As Barrett covered most with her wonderful interview. I thought I would ask what you learned from the process. Do you feel that the collaboration developed an area of your writing?

It did. Learning how to collaborate on a work of fiction—and on anything else in life, really—means learning how to shut up and listen to someone else’s ideas. I blush to confess that this has never really been a strong suit of mine. But Salem is so bright and so quick and so good at crafting and managing a process that the writing of this book was almost seamless. We really did it in almost record time—seven months. And the result was actually pretty darn good.

 It also was named as a Lamda Literary award finalist, can you tell us about the experience and just where you put all the awards?

 We were stunned when the book became a Lammy finalist. And humbled. Gratified. The whole enchilada.  And we never expected it to win, so that made the whole, big city, New York literati, experience a fun outing that we got to enjoy with our pals Lynn Ames, Michelle Brooks, and R.E. Bradshaw. And we even wore GIRL clothes.

 As for awards? Well…I really have my heart set on winning the Pillsbury Bake-Off. Everything else pales in comparison.

 Backcast is out with Bywater books in 2015 – could you tell us a little about the book?

 This book is turning out to be my magnum opus. I overheard a rumor at the recent GCLS conference that there is some suspicion that I’m not really writing this book, because it’s been in the works so long. But I am writing it, and it IS taking a long time. That’s partly because it’s a complex story involving thirteen central characters. It’s also because the central, comic narrative (concerning twelve lesbian authors who enter a tournament bass fishing competition) is punctuated by a series of deadly serious, nonfiction essays. It’s that whole point, counterpoint thing about the pairing of comedy and tragedy that came up in the discussion of the themes in Aftermath.

 What is the plot of the book? I’ll borrow Kelly Smith’s description of it. “Backcast is Fried Green Tomatoes meets The Big Chill by way of A River Runs Through It.”

 And, hey? You’ll get to meet my most memorable character to date: Phoebe, the wisecracking, two-hundred-year-old largemouth bass.

Patriarch, the third instalment in the Jericho series is due out too, right? What can readers expect from the novel?

 I hope they can expect me to deliver the same level of humor and angst I tried so hard to create in the first two installments. Patriarch will be a book that explores the relationships between fathers and daughters—and fathers and sons. This sequel will have a twist, however: there’s a murder in Jericho, and David becomes the top suspect. And I’ll delve again into the whole Henry saga, and its effect on the relationship between Maddie and Syd. We’ll also learn more about Roma Jean and her process of coming to terms with her sexuality—and her attempts to get a multi-axel license…not necessarily in that order.

Do you have any further projects that you are working on?

 I plan to have my nervous breakdown during the summer of 2016. You won’t want to miss it…Netflix has the series option. I think it’s going to go viral….

 Additionally, we’re in negotiations with audible.com about their desire to produce an audio edition of Hoosier Daddy.

 And Salem and I are teaming up with our buddy Barrett to write a series of pulp fiction novellas about a nurse iconoclast named June Magee. These are not to be missed….

 

On the side, when I’m not writing, sleeping, or being the PERFECT spouse, I run my freelance design business, TreeHouse Studio. And I am happy to report that business there is very good, and I’ve created what I hope is spectacular cover art for many authors and publishers from all across our genre. Doing this work is a great honor for me, and I like to think that it’s another way I can give something back to an art form that has enriched my own life in so many wonderful ways.

 

You also have managed to fit in being a graphic designer too. (If you like The Empath cover send Ann a note to let her know!)

 

It’s true. I’m fond of making references to my Regrettable Day Job™—and the reality is that I actually have one. I have worked as a professional graphic designer for more than thirty years—and most of that time has been spent in higher education and other kinds of non-profit work. I am blessed to work for a premier liberal arts college now, and have a sainted boss who allows me to work remotely two days a week. This is a godsend, since I live sixty-five miles away from the campus. But it’s a demanding job that requires a lot of creative energy.

On the side, when I’m not writing, sleeping, or being the PERFECT spouse, I run my freelance design business, TreeHouse Studio. And I am happy to report that business there is very good, and I’ve created what I hope is spectacular cover art for many authors and publishers from all across our genre. Doing this work is a great honor for me, and I like to think that it’s another way I can give something back to an art form that has enriched my own life in so many wonderful ways.

 On your website you state that your work is, “designing marketing and advancement materials that promote, promulgate, and extol the benefits of indifferent liberal arts education.” What grounding has that given you and can you tell us a little about the training/experience that requires?

 The hardest part about being a good and effective graphic designer is the part that you can’t be taught. You just have to have the eye for it—you just have to know intuitively when something works and when it doesn’t. The rest? Learning the software programs and the other tools of the trade—those are all useful things that will make you better at your craft, but they are no substitute for just understanding what makes good design good. I like to think that the skill I bring to the table comes from just being a good reader and writer. My starting point is always the editorial content of the work—and my job is to find ways to highlight and advance that, without getting in the way of it. Working in higher ed has been a great way to hone that skill because so much of what we produce is informational and related to teaching. Teaching is a kind of storytelling—so the skillsets are really interconnected.  

What makes a great book cover that stands out from one that fades into the background?

 To me, the best designs are the simplest—the ones that don’t get in the way or that don’t overload the potential reader with too much information. Covers should be suggestive of general themes or single ideas—not Technicolor productions that try to broadcast every, literal aspect of a story. Simplicity. Directness. Boldness. Clean, clear typography that is appropriate and readable. One compelling image. Or no image at all. These are the building blocks of good design. A great, general rule of thumb is that if you notice the design before you see the title, the design is overdone.

If authors reading this are self-publishing, what advice would you give them on creating a cover that works?

 Don’t micromanage your designer. If you hire a designer—let the designer design. That’s what you pay them to do. Find someone who understands the plot and central theme of your book. Explain the tone and the single idea you want to communicate to potential readers. Then get out of the way, and let the designer work. If you approach a designer and say, “I want a picture of a dog wearing a yellow sweater, walking along a beach at sunset, with a pirate ship on the horizon,” you’re wasting your money—because it’s a paste-up artist you need, not a designer. You won’t be well served, and you won’t end up getting the best cover you could have, either.

 You have even taught a session at the GCLS this year. Is that session something you will offer again? 

 Well, you’ll have to ask Liz Gibson! In truth, I’d love to do the session again. I think folks who attended it got something out of it. I don’t have a video of the presentation, but I can make the PowerPoint file available to anyone who would like to go through it. However, you WILL miss all of my great impressions of famous movie characters….

 

Read everything you can get your hands on about what makes writing good. Read great books…from all genres, not just lesfic. Ask questions. Find good mentors to help you along. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and share what you’ve done. Do your best to be open to honest feedback from other writers you respect. And keep your butt in the chair! I think it was Yogi Berra who said that the dictionary is the only place where success comes before work!

 

 What advice would you give to new and inexperienced authors out there?

 Read everything you can get your hands on about what makes writing good. Read great books…from all genres, not just lesfic. Ask questions. Find good mentors to help you along. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and share what you’ve done. Do your best to be open to honest feedback from other writers you respect. And keep your butt in the chair! I think it was Yogi Berra who said that the dictionary is the only place where success comes before work!

“For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

 

 I’ve benefited from your ethos of ‘paying it forward.’ So where does that come from, what does it mean and why is it so important for us, as authors, to do?

 Because each success we share with others raises all the boats in our tiny harbor. I wouldn’t be anywhere without the time, support, and attention that so many others have generously given to me. As I slowly move along this rocky road and scrape together a bit more knowledge and understanding that might help shorten someone else’s journey, I am honor-bound to share it. That’s true for the hard work, as well as the fun parts. Mr. Bennet said it better. “For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

 

Quick fire round

  1. What is your strength as a writer? I’m clean and fast; my finished manuscripts pretty much resemble the first drafts.
  2. What is your ‘typical’ writing day? I get up at the crack of five, and work until seven-thrity, when I have to get ready for my Regrettable Day Job™.
  3. When readers pick up your books, what would you most like to hear them say? It was well-written. It had three-dimensional characters. It made me laugh. It made me think.
  4. What would you least like them to do/say? I didn’t think it was as good as Jericho.
  5. Who is your literary idol? why? Jane Austen. She just got it. All of it.
  6. If you could have written any book, which one would it have been? One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel García Márquez.
  7. What is your ‘tic’ word when writing? “Well.”
  8. Favourite word? “Well.”
  9. Least favourite word? “Well.”
  10. What would you most like to develop in your writing? A more refined narrative voice.

 

 

Thank you for dropping in Ann! Below are descriptions for her next Jericho instalment Patriarch, work in progress Backcast, and upcoming novella Conference Nurse.

 

BackcastCover_2

Backcast

Backcast takes place at a country inn located in the Hero Islands of northern Vermont. Thirteen authors (who we first met in the novella, “Bottle Rocket”) congregate there to work on companion narratives to an NEA-funded sculpture exhibition called “Transitions.” While they are there, they enter a tournament bass fishing competition. Comic romps and aquatic misadventures are contrasted with the deeply personal and hard-hitting first person narratives the authors craft during their two-week tenure on Lake Champlain. Look for it in the fall of 2015.

 

 

 

 

Conference Nurse

In the interim, look for the first installment in a new series of pulp fiction novellas, all based on a nurse iconoclast named June Magee, R.N. Salem West and Barrett are my co-contributors for this irreverent look at what happens when crepe soled shoes hit the boardwalk during the biggest lesbian event of the season. Conference Nurse will chronicle June’s misadventures when she travels to Rehoboth Beach to address the attendees at Fay Jacob’s legendary Women’s Fest. June and her trusty boi photographer, Roi Rodgers, uncover a dastardly plot to taint the festivities and cruelly afflict the conference goers. To complicate matters, June and Roi wrestle with cramped accommodations, forced intimacy, and their unlikely yet undeniable attraction to each other. Look for June Magee to make her white-stockinged debut sometime before Christmas.

 

 

Patriarch cover

 

 

Patriarch (book three in the Jericho series)

On the afternoon of July 4th, Gerald Watson, the rat-bastard mayor of Jericho, is found dead in the shallow waters of the New River. Was it an accident, murder, or act of self-defense? In the weeks that follow, Maddie, Syd, David, Michael, Roma Jean, Henry, and the other residents of this tiny mountain hamlet wrestle with their own demons, and confront the ghosts of fathers past and present. Filled with humor, pathos, and surprising twists, Patriarch is a taut tale of the unsuspecting alliances, darkly hidden secrets, and shocking intrigues that thrive in a small town where some sins run blood deep. Look for it in 2015.
 

 

 

 

You can find Ann McMan on here website:- http://annmcman.com/

Twitter: @AnnMcMan

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ann.mcman

 

3 Comments

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  1. Fascinating interview, great questions and great answers!!

    Like

  2. This is great! You are inspiring. 🙂 And Phoebe — Oh c’mon baby!

    Like

  3. Clapping wildly! Brava, AMFA! and I thought I knew all those answers. You continue to surprise, amaze, delight, and inspire me!
    I’m very proud to know you and call you friend.

    Like

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