Saturday, April 22, 2017

Your presence is hereby requested at the Gold Rush Writers Conference


Me, Mark Wiederanders and Antoinette May

For the last few years, I've attended the Gold Rush Writers Conference. Registration is now open for this year, and I want to let people know about what a laid-back, welcoming conference this is. Often, conferences can feel competitive or there's a sense of panic about those agent pitch sessions...this conference doesn't include agents, so that stressor is completely off the table. Gold Rush is a weekend of hanging out with sweet people who love to write and want to be with other writers. Period. I don't know how author Antoinette May has managed to create a veritable ambiance of kindness—but she has.

Exterior of the Hotel Leger, showing entrance to its saloon


Last year, I presented on poetry, including doing an "Exquisite Corpse" group-writing exercise and looking at Isabella Gardner's "Summers Ago" and did a separate presentation on historical fiction, I think. I just glanced back at my website events page to double-check, and all the events since 2011 have been deleted somehow. Sighhhhh. This year, I'm going to be talking about social media. The headliners this year are James Ragan and Donna Levin. Last year I was the brunch headliner and Mark Wiederanders was the after-dinner speaker.

One of the sessions in the ballroom


For each timeslot during the weekend, there are four or five options—and as is often the case, I want to attend more than one. For instance, here's Sunday morning's lineup:


The conference is for screenwriters, poets and novelists. I've also run into memoirists and creative nonfiction writers at this conference before.

Mark's speech


 
My speech

My speech: this basically shows how small and intimate the conference is


After 11 years of hosting the conference, Antoinette May has found success in linking people together. The Friday night picnic, hosted around her beautiful grotto pool in a Victorian garden, is always a wonderful evening of people reconnecting and greeting new attendees.

My bedroom at the Hotel Leger

The second story balcony overlooking the main street in Mokelumne Hill


The conference takes place in the Hotel Leger, dating to 1879 (but on the site of an 1851 hotel). The hotel itself is worth the drive to Mokelumne Hill: each bedroom has its own charming Victorian furnishings, and due to its vintage, some rooms have bathrooms while others require you to go down the hall. But that's okay! Everyone's nice and it gives you a taste of what it would've been like a hundred years ago when Mok Hill was a Gold Rush boomtown. The hotel has a wonderful restaurant onsite, the Whitewater Grill, which caters the conference. There's also an authentic old saloon with the long wooden bar and I once had a basil martini here that blew my mind. If all that isn't fantastic enough: the place is reputed to be haunted. Just ask Antoinette: she spent the night here alone once.

Okay, yes, we stayed in Room #13. You get chills just looking at this, I know

I had youngsters in my room with me, nervous about the talk of ghosts. We put a strip
of toilet paper at the door to stop ghosts in their tracks. It worked!


Hope to see you next month! Feel free to email me if you have questions about the conference or tweet me @ErikaMailman.

Silliness in the saloon with, from left, Genevieve Beltran, Kathy Boyd Fellure and me.

We might've had a couple already

Details:
The Gold Rush Writers Conference takes place this year May 5, 6, and 7 in Mokelumne Hill, a few hours easterly-southerly from Sacramento. The cost of $185 includes:

Price Includes:
  • Your selection of four workshops out of sixteen. Several are limited so register early (first-come, first-served).
  • Informal supper in a Victorian garden Friday night
  • Open mic poetry readings
  • Sit-down dinner in an historic Gold Rush hotel with speaker Mark Wiederanders
  • Sit-down pool-side brunch Sunday with speaker Erika Mailman
  • Plus lectures, demonstrations

    To learn more, visit the conference website at www.goldrushwriters.com.



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Monday, March 13, 2017

Kathleen Kent's remarkable ability to turn on a dime




For many years, it's been my honor to track the career successes of someone who has become a friend. Kathleen Kent, who burst onto the scene in 2007 with an incredible historical novel about her ancestor Martha Carrier, hanged at Salem—The Heretic's Daughter—has kept a steady flow of beautiful books coming.




The Wolves of Andover came next, in some ways my favorite of her books. It was a prequel to The Heretic's Daughter, telling about the earlier days of the Carrier family. I loved it and its poetic language against the backdrop of a harsh Colonial setting. It was later retitled The Traitor's Daughter, but I prefer the repeated consonance of the V sound in the previous title.



From left, author Michelle Gagnon, me, Kathleen Kent at the Book Group
Expo in San Jose in 2007.


Michelle, me, Kathleen, and Brunonia Barry: we were all part of a witchcraft panel.


Next came a shift from the Colonial era, but still historical, with her novel The Outcasts.  This featured a shady Texas woman and a policeman pursuing a killer, with wonderful plot twists. It's so cinematic (well, they all are); I could totally see this as a brooding movie along the lines of the True Grit remake.



And once again Kathleen has turned on a dime, reinventing her genre. Her latest is The Dime, a modern police procedural featuring a tough-as-nails, red-headed lesbian cop. The first scene in this book? Heavy duty, pulse-racing, can't-stop-reading drama. And you will love the heroine based on her quick thinking and strategizing in this scene. The Dime is amazing. So few authors can master a genre, but Kathleen easily does it and then turns her focus on yet another one. I guess next she'll tackle a poetry volume or maybe some manga, and totally kill the poetry and manga world.

The Dime is a work of incredible suspense, with threads you thought dropped returning to pay off in the end. It contains some harrowing scenes that had me gasping (literally—my husband on the other pillow asked, "Are you okay?"). It's everything you want out of a book: an escapist ride, a heroine triumphing over almost unspeakable odds, and rooting for the good guys.

Bravo! I think the world of her; she's one of those truly nice people who deserves every success she's had. Can't wait to see what comes next from this talented author.

We found some more witches and banded together at the Historical Novels Society
Conference in 2013. From left, me, Kathleen, Mary Sharatt, Suzy Witten


Our panel

And just for some levity...



At the Book Group Expo, there was a very funny
typo on the room schedule sign...a mash-up of two book titles.



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Monday, February 27, 2017

Lizzie: The Musical

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see Lizzie: The Musical, a rock opera based on Lizzie Borden. I almost didn't go, and I'm so glad I persisted beyond my usual triad of configuring childcare/ticket price/laziness because it was fabulous.

Starting with Lizzie, blond, to left is Emma, above is Alice, to right is Bridget


Upon first googling, I thought the show took place in a Ramada and I haven't had much luck thus far with "hotel theater" ... I have no idea where that came from, because it was held in a perfectly respectable black box theater in the Sacramento Community Center. It was the first production of the Actor's Playpen, and if this is what they're capable of, I better get season tickets.

Here are a few great reviews of the show itself, which has many different productions happening around the country and internationally:

“A gothic rock ritual with a ‘riotgirl’ attitude … an eerie hybrid of rock club and a turn-of-the-century New England parlor.”
“Presented with wall-rattling glee…deliciously watchable”
— The New York Times
“Lush tunes which retch sex, rage, dyke heat, misanthropy, and incest … Surreal glee and gallows humor … Finally, a rock musical you’d wanna mosh to.”
— The Village Voice 


The show features four actors portraying Lizzie, her sister Emma, the maid Bridget, and former next-door friend Alice Russell. They were played respectively by Jennifer Morrison, Joelle Robertson, Sara Logan and Chelsea Fitzsimmons. They were backed by a six-member band and two "swings" (which I guess is an understudy but when I first saw it in the program I thought it might have to do with aerial depictions of the hatchet "swinging" LOL...but they sat in the loft with the band and sang backup). The band was amazing. The singing of the four actors was amazing. I know it can't be easy to unleash total rock and roll mayhem in a small theater (around 60 attending the matinee with me) when at times you can literally reach out and touch an audience member--but they made it happen. The woman playing Lizzie really was amazing, both in voice and bodily command and the facial expressions that (when not being kitschy) really conveyed the agonies experienced by this 1892 woman pushed to (as I believe) commit the ultimate act (twice) of desperation.

Much of the show had this kind of action and vitality: that's Alice on her knees,
Emma in red, Lizzie with back turned and Bridget in blue


Every actor committed to their performance and each had something wonderful to contribute. I was especially fond of Bridget, as my upcoming novel The Murderer's Maid (Yellow Pear Press, releasing in October) is told from her point of view. In fact, I'm regretting not staying afterward to grab a photo with her, but I was able to find a lot of great ones on the Actor's Playpen Facebook page, many of which are courtesy Yuri T. Photography (thanks for permission, Yuri!)

Cool shot of Bridget. The stage had no set so this must've been a promo shoot

This is live, shows the bare set. Courtesy of Yuri T Photography


 After this point, there are going to be some plot spoilers, so I hope you are prepared. Let me include a few ornaments to give you a few moments to depart if necessary.










The play utilizes the incest theory, that Andrew Borden sexually abused Lizzie, motivating her murder of him. During the song  "This Is Not Love," the actress's face was so incredibly expressive of that pain that I almost couldn't look. I missed some of the lyrics, but I think the insinuation was that Emma had also been abused. In my novel, I had to decide whether to use this theory. I decided not to.

Almost certain she's singing "This Is Not Love"


The musical also avails itself of the theory that Lizzie was involved in a lesbian relationship--but in a twist, not with Bridget but instead Alice Russell! The kisses onstage were pretty hot. I really liked how Alice's song of seduction, "Will you lie with me" transforms to Lizzie later singing to her, "Will you lie for me"...clever. Alice and Lizzie were both young in this production: in actuality, Alice was 40 and Lizzie 32 at the time of the murders, but hey that's rock and roll. In the film version coming out this year, it's reputedly Bridget (played by Kristen Stewart) who is Lizzie's lover and aider/abetter of murder. Lizzie will be played by Chloe Sevigny and Emma by Kim Dickens. Not sure who's playing Alice. See this blog post for diptychs of historical persons paired with their current day actor. But I digress...back to the musical...

Lizzie and Alice. Courtesy, Yuri T. Photography


The list of musical numbers in the program made me laugh out loud. The song "Why Are All These Heads Off?" could only be about the pigeons, and "What the Fuck Now, Lizzie" was one of my favorites, with Joelle Robertson ripping a fierce and elegant stripe through her sister's stupidity.

During the pigeons aftermath, Bridget is on the ground floor singing while Lizzie is up in the loft. Attention was focused on Bridget, but I happened to glance up at Lizzie crouched by the empty pigeon cage and the look on her face was such deplorable misery that somehow morphed into resolution: that she could do something about her pain and anger. Major props to this actress.

The production raised a historical thought I hadn't had before. I'd always thought of Lizzie choosing not to accompany Emma to Fairhaven, but in the musical it seems as if Emma abandons Lizzie, leaving her to face Andrew and Abby by herself. Emma, through Bridget, passes off a book about poisons, as if a primer for Lizzie, and the trip to Bence's pharmacy is covered. Click here for my blog post about whether that trip really happened. I always like hearing new approaches to historical questions, and the idea that Emma abandoned the post is a fascinating one. She'd been mothering Lizzie since their mother died, and dropped the ball during this one hot August. Interesting.




The production is well-researched and much of the dialogue comes straight from trial transcripts. The kitsch factor is, well, high, and there were a few moments of discomfort for me because at the heart of this was two elderly people who may or may not have deserved the ends they received. Murder is murder, and sometimes it's hard to want to rock out to that discordant tune.

A stairs promo picture...the musical didn't address Lizzie's being able
to see Abby's body on the stairs, but did mention her laughing.


Overall, though, I was carried by the show and the passionate performances. This show got a standing ovation from its audience. I hope that if you get a chance to see a production in your town, you will. Check the website for show dates: it's in London right now, and in July/August will be in San Jose for my fellow northern Californians (including August 4, which will be the 125th anniversary of the murders). Follow me on Twitter (@ErikaMailman) or follow this blog if you'd like to hear more about Lizzie Borden (check this blog's main page for a link to all my Lizzie posts) and/or my upcoming novel The Murderer's Maid. The dual-chronology novel follows the Borden family maid Bridget Sullivan through the events leading up to the murders, and introduces a modern-day woman whose mother was murdered-- and she fears she's the next victim. Sounds good, right? ;)





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P.S. after uploading, I found this brief video clip from Good Morning Sacramento. It doesn't truly express what it feels like to have audience energy, to truly hear the band filling the space... but it is a chance to hear the incredible vocals. 






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Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Feminine hatchet blows?



In his closing argument in the 1893 trial of Lizzie Borden, attorney Hosea Knowlton had quite a task ahead of him. He had to convince a jury of men that the quiet, church-volunteering woman in front of them had slain her stepmother with a hatchet, laid in wait an hour or two, and then butchered her father the same way.

He told the jurors, “It is hard, it is hard, Mr. Foreman and gentlemen, to conceive that woman can be guilty of crime. But I am obliged to say…while we revere the sex, while we show our courtesies to them, they are human like unto us….If they lack in strength and coarseness and vigor, they make up for it in cunning, in dispatch, in celerity, in ferocity.”

He knew many people didn’t think a woman capable of wielding a hatchet with such power … so he made a funny argument. He claimed that the hatchet blows were feminine in nature.

Rose-water scented as well, perhaps?

Here’s what he said:

What sort of blows were they? Some struck here at an angle, badly aimed; some struck here in the neck, badly directed; some pattered on the top of the head and didn’t go through; some, where the skull would be weaker, went through. A great strong man would have taken a blow of that hatchet and made an end of it. The hand that held that weapon was not the hand of masculine strength. It was the hand of a person strongly only in hate and desire to kill.


He goes on to describe the strikes as “weak, puttering, indecisive, badly aimed, nerveless.”

I’m sure he only wished they might find a pink hatchet with her fingerprints on it.

. . .

Friday, February 17, 2017

Research notebooks

Yep, four notebooks filled to the gills with research and scene outlining and all that jazz.




And here are some pages I discarded. I was lying in bed on a rainy day and throwing them off the end. I've gotten to the point that there's so much information in there that I have to cull out stuff I've already used so it's easier to find the things I want to put my hands on. I use post-it notes on the sides to draw my attention to certain pages, like "Brooke facts"- a page where all the dates and facts on one character are found.



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Monday, January 23, 2017

Dost hear that, yolk devils? My review of The Witch


 
Thomasin and Caleb at the brook

*** quite atrocious spoilers be found in this review ***

My sister was here visiting the week before Christmas, and we decided to do the very Victorian thing of indulging in a ghost story for the holidays. The idea of the movie The Witch appealed greatly to us. We are the descendants of Mary Bliss Parsons, who faced trial for witchcraft in Massachusetts in 1656 and again in 1674, decades before the Salem hysteria. She was found innocent both times. I'm also the author of The Witch's Trinity, a novel about medieval witchcraft—in fact, it was uncannily during the course of writing the novel that my mother learned of our connection to Mary Bliss Parsons.

We settled down to watch while my husband settled the kids to bed. We kept the sound low to not drift up to them, and I'll readily admit we have an elderly television, but even so it was astonishing how much of the movie we could not hear.

As in, we basically could have turned the sound off and gotten roughly the same amount of information.

It is not an exaggeration to say it was as if we watched a silent film with some atmospheric music and a bit of dialogue here and there.

We would periodically pause the movie and confer with each other about what we'd gleaned, like archeologists trying to reconstruct a pot out of potsherds. A typical exchange:

Sister: So, the mom thinks Thomasina stole her silver cup.
Me: Oh! Wow. I totally didn't get that.

We thought her name was Thomasina throughout the whole movie because we just couldn't hear.

Although I'm sure in real life, the actor who plays the father is considered to have a majestic voice, in this setting it registered as Grendel with a head cold.

The visuals were splendid enough to keep us going although I did ask my sister if she wanted to continue and she kind of shrugged. As the movie came to a close and the screen blacked out, I said to her, "If the credits start to roll now, I'm going to give the finger to the screen." The credits rolled, and I flipped the bird.

"That was pretty bad," she said. I felt doubly guilty because the night before, my husband had inflicted The Great Muppet Caper Movie on all of us.

She went to bed disgruntled, and I went to imdb and wikipedia to figure out what the heck we'd missed.

It turned out: a lot. Funnily enough, the dialogue actually was an important conveyor of plot!

I told her in the morning what I'd learned and we both decided we'd like to watch it again sometime with closed captioning turned on.

Part Two

Fast forward a few weeks. I watched the movie again on Friday the 13th (of January) with captions turned on. I watched on my Kindle screen in bed.

The movie vastly improved, but still feels like it didn't accomplish everything it might've. As a person whose creative work is reviewed online, I know how much a review can sting (right now on Amazon, the first review in the queue for one of my novels is one-star and says nothing more than "Awful"). So I apologize in advance, and will add that I feel the acting in this movie was superb. Every single actor was riveting, credible. The cinematography was incredible, the costuming and sets powerful, I'm not sure how to judge directing, but that seemed very well done too! I think the weak link here was the script.

Things the script did right:
  • Authentically conveyed the language of people newly arrived from England to the New World
  • Created timed suspense over secrets family members had been keeping from each other (the precious cup, the idea of placing Thomasin with another family)
  • Authentically conveyed a family working together to create subsistence in a harsh environment

Things the script could've done better:
Created more horror.

When I think about narrative arc, it's about introducing trouble, which builds and builds until some climactic event happens. In this movie, the worst thing that happens takes place in the first eight minutes.

Where do we go from there? There's quite literally nothing worse than that old woman using her child-sized mortar and pestle. Or the way her hands travel over his naked body (disturbing on multiple levels) before the knife glints in the shot.

Worse, we know right away that there are witches. This is not a story the baby comes back and tells the family—we see it as "objective" observers, and thus it must be true and must be happening.

I was thinking, what if the two abductions of the story were reversed? Caleb disappears first, and we can still see the transformed woman beckoning him into her embrace, but we can wonder if he is really seeing what he thinks he is. It would create a helpful ambiguity. Maybe he's eaten ergot bread or is growing into mental imbalance as well as puberty...

Then, if the baby disappeared after Caleb, we would have some sort of reference point for what we feared would happen to him: and then what really does would leave us far more shocked and upset.

And by the way, the shot of the seductive woman embracing Caleb: it was unclear to me whether the crone's arm that grabs him was her arm or that of someone standing behind her. If the former, the angle was a little off somehow.

Mother and twins, Thomasin in the background


Questions the movie didn't answer for me even upon two viewings:
1. Did the family come across an already-existing farm or build one? They first survey an empty field in front of the "evil tree" but when we next see the complex, the viewpoint has changed, so it's unclear whether it was built on the same stretch of land. If the farm was already built, there's some instant backstory about whether this evil property continues a cycle of luring in settlers. But (thinking aloud here), I think the plantation in the beginning that expels them must've been Plimouth, and therefore there probably weren't too many other folks preceding them into the wilderness.

2. What is the thinking with that tree? Source of power? Source of broomsticks? It features menacingly in several shots, but we don't learn why it is a "featured" tree.

3. What happened to the twins? At the end, the shed has been ripped apart and the two goats (other than Black Philip) lie half-eaten. I don't know if the children were abducted like Caleb was (for what purpose, then?) or like the baby was (aren't they too old to be flying ointment material?). I wondered if Thomasin would find them at the witch's cabal but it looked to be only grown women there.

4. Why would Thomasin accept the offer of an entity that killed everyone in her family? I'd need to see some proof of that "living deliciously" because it kind of seemed like the witch (es?) lived in a nasty little hovel.

I liked thinking about what would have happened if the mother had succeeded in strangling Thomasin. Would she then be offered the book to sign and the chance to join the cabal in the woods? I assume, though, that Thomasin was selected because of her beauty and nubility.

Continuity: We never see Thomasin clean her face but when she awakes there is no blood around her mouth, only on her neck and chest.

This movie takes all the ignorant, superstitious things people believed about witches back then and made them true. I'm sure some women and men who faced the noose or the stake are spinning in their graves right now.

I didn't find the movie scary but I found it somewhat haunting; it's a compliment that I wanted to watch it a second time. I loved its promise, and I wish it could've offered a stronger build-up of tension and mounting horror.

The title of my post comes from movie dialogue: I thought it was pretty awesome. That's what the father calls the twins when he suspects they may be witches.


. . . .



Saturday, January 14, 2017

Five Interesting Facts about Lizzie Borden


Lizzie on the left, Chloe Sevigny on the right

1. She was very active in the church.

An avid volunteer at the First Congregational Church, Lizzie served on the Ladies' Fruit & Flower Mission (organized to take fruit and flowers to sick people in hospitals or at home) and the Women's Christian Temperance Union (anti-alcohol). She also taught Sunday School, including to young Chinese boys who were the sons of immigrants. Is it any wonder the jury had a hard time seeing this diligently benevolent woman as a murderer? It must've been a long con.



2. She had a taste of the good life.

Two years before the brutal murders of her father and stepmother, Lizzie took a "Grand Tour" of Europe with some distant cousins. She was gone for a full 19 weeks, from June 21 to November 1 of 1890. Probably a wonderful time in which the household in Fall River took a few, calming deep breaths, while she witnessed the wonders of the Continent and the British/Irish isles. Lizzie's scrapbook of this visit, replete with photographs pasted in and her careful writing beneath, still exists in the archives of the Fall River Historical Society. Of course, it must've been difficult to settle back into her narrow life when she returned: no more of the grandeur of museums and statuary.

April 1912 (22 years after Lizzie was there). Trivia: what big event happened in April 1912?
See below for chance to enter!


3. She was bossy.

Multiple accounts exist of her being proud, haughty, and willing to speak her mind. Once she returned from the Grand Tour, she had so many souvenirs and gew-gaws to display, that she and her older sister Emma swapped bedrooms. It's important to note that one larger bedroom funneled into a smaller one—almost as if the second bedroom were a closet to the first. Lizzie had traditionally slept in the smaller room, but somehow a change was effected after her return. Did Emma offer, or did Lizzie demand? 

Gimme your room! And this chair!


4. She loved animals.

The largest bequest in Lizzie's will was to the Fall River Animal Rescue League ($30,000 in 1927 dollars!). She was known to love and cherish the pets she had after the murders; there is no mention of pets beforehand. Was part of the "problem" that she wasn't allowed to keep a dog in the house? Lizzie ordered expensive, carved tombstones for her dogs. And of course: the pigeons. Lizzie kept pet pigeons in the family barn. Two months before the murders, her father killed them all because neighbor boys had been breaking into the barn to mess with them. Apparently, her father hadn't understood the sentimental value and care she lavished on them (or did he?) Was the pigeon slaughter just one more straw that was put upon the proverbial camel's back?

No...don't...it hurts... [from thriveumc.org]


5. It is possible she tried to poison the family.

Eli Bence, a druggist in Fall River, tried to testify that he had seen Lizzie try to purchase prussic acid (click link for more on this), but his information was suppressed during the trial. When was she trying to buy this poison, more commonly known as cyanide? Oh...just THE DAY BEFORE THE MURDERS. 

In writing The Murderer's Maid (publishing in October 2017, my novel about Lizzie Borden from the maid's point of view), I had to decide how to tackle this sticky issue. Did she really try to purchase poison? Why did the judges (three of them!) decide the jury shouldn't hear Bence's testimony? And isn't it interesting that in the days before the murders, the entire household was vomiting, and Mrs. Borden even told the doctor she thought someone was trying to poison them? 

Typical drugstore of the era


I get tense just typing all this, want to go back in time and throttle the judges! Ha ha. This is when history is at its best, when our emotions get caught up in it. I'll have a cover for The Murderer's Maid to share soon. In the meantime, if you love history like I do, I have several historical novels to share with you:




A medieval German woman is accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law.
"A well-constructed novel and a gripping, well-told story of faith and truth."
           —Khaled Hosseini, international bestselling author of The Kite Runner
“Beautifully written, nary a word out of place, and with a few moments that throw you beyond—the way good books do.”
           —San Francisco Chronicle
A San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book of 2007




A Boston prostitute shows up in San Francisco at the very beginnings of the Gold Rush, and quickly learns she's in dangerous territory with a killer targeting her kind.
"LOVED Woman of Ill Fame! Nora Simms is hilarious, heartbreaking, tough, perceptive...
and one of the most engaging characters I've ever met between the pages of a book." 
                   Diana Gabaldon, author of Outlander, now a Starz miniseries
"Mailman serves up vivid description, sparkling prose and a Gold Rush prostitute as scrappy as Scarlett O’Hara."
                    Oakland Tribune

The giveaway is over. The winner was Chris V.: congratulations!
The big event in April 1912 was the sinking of the Titanic.


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